Cassie strolled into the clinic humming softly. Doc had asked her to cover while he and Rochelle worked on a mysterious project. Cassie was late, but what could they do about it? Fire her? She giggled at the silly notion and allowed her thoughts to drift back to the previous night. She and Jay had filled the penthouse Jacuzzi, tossed in some light sticks and frolicked in the glowing water. Then they tested the merits of the feather bed in the other bedroom and afterwards licked strawberry preserves off silver spoons and each other, requiring a return trip to the Jacuzzi to wash off the sticky mess. She didn’t know what she had done to deserve these stolen moments of decadence, but for the first time since the pandemic she laughed with the same happy abandon that she used to.
Julilla’s scowl as she entered the ward brought her cheerful humming to a stop.
“Where have you been?” Julilla had been taking a boy’s temperature. “I told them I could cover for a few minutes, but I only know sports medicine, not this rash and fever crap.”
Cassie glanced at the boy, who lay covered in a faint bloom of pink. “I’m sorry. They didn’t say I had to be on time. Something came up.”
“Something of Galahad’s, I bet.” She handed over the thermometer and a stethoscope. “Girls in love are all alike. No sense of responsibility.”
Cassie pouted. Why was Julilla ruining her beautiful day? “Well, I’m here now, so what’s the big deal? It’s not like anyone ever knows what time it really is. We just guess. I guessed wrong. Sue me.”
“I might, if there were any lawyers left,” Julilla said as she made her way back to bed. “I’ve probably set my recovery back by days.”
“Anyone as grouchy as you can’t be too bad off.” Cassie scanned the room, wondering how many patients Julilla had examined and where she should begin her rounds. An empty mattress caught her eye. The wounded soldier was gone. No wonder Julilla was in a bad mood. “He didn’t make it, did he?”
“In a manner of speaking.”
Cassie gave her a quizzical look. Julilla’s gesture toward the next room filled her with dread, but she went to the door and opened it just enough to peek inside.
The soldier lay strapped to the improvised operating table, his body pale as new wax and a tube hanging out of a vein, dripping blood into an empty gasoline canister on the floor. Doc stood at his head, his arms red to the elbows and dotted with flecks of white, while May hovered at his shoulder, pointing to things in the sawed-open cranium. “You’ll need to cut the corpus callosum. It’s that thing in the middle like a rubber band.”
At another table, Rochelle was doing something with lab equipment that must have come from May’s shop because the hotel had never had Bunsen burners and test tubes before. When she saw Cassie, she turned almost as white as the dead soldier. “Mundo said it was okay.”
Doc and May looked up. “It’s authorized,” Doc said in a tone that barely carried across the room. “Just mind the patients and try to keep people out of here.”
Cassie shut the door. Lightheaded and weak in the knees, she sat on the edge of Julilla’s mattress. “What the hell? It’s like Frankenstein in there.”
“Not a bad way of describing it.” Julilla motioned Cassie closer and lowered her voice. “They decided that since that kid wouldn’t likely wake up, they would take the gland in his brain and see if the hormone from it will help Zach.”
Cassie shuddered. It was a good idea, but something felt wrong about it, too.
“Damn fucking unethical, if you ask me. That boy wasn’t dead and might’ve even been awake, just unable to communicate. It happens, you know.” Julilla rose on one elbow, beat up her pillow and lay back down. “They killed that boy so Miss China could play mad scientist with his brain.”
“No,” Cassie said, shaking her head. “I’m sure they wouldn’t have done it if they thought he would’ve gotten better. But Zach will die for sure without a cure and if the growth hormone can help…”
“Right. It helps. It doesn’t cure. People talk about these things around me as if I’m just a dumb ex-jock who doesn’t understand anything that doesn’t involve a ball. But they’re wrong. They killed a brave fighter for his brain chemicals.”
“Maybe he would’ve wanted it that way,” Cassie said weakly. “Maybe he was an organ donor or something.”
“Give me a fucking break.” Julilla rolled over and drew the sheet to her chin. “Go away, eco-girl. I thought you had principles, but I guess not.”
Chastened and thoughtful, Cassie began making the rounds, checking charts and vitals. She tried to concentrate, but every time her mind returned to the gory scene in the next room her stomach churned and a wave of doubt washed over her. They were really no better than the Obits if they were going to kill people for their pituitary glands. But was it so wrong to kill someone who wasn’t likely to live, anyway? Because of him Zach might live a little longer, and they would have some of their questions answered.
She spent some extra time with Zach. His breath came in heaving rasps that echoed with rattling mucus, and blue splotches were appearing beneath his skin, spreading like stains as his blood vessels broke. Cassie knew that on the inside, his organs were bleeding, slowly liquefying inside his skin. What compassionate person wouldn’t try to save him, if the only cost was that of a boy who was already dead in every way that mattered?
She was still at his side when May came out of the next room with a syringe in her hand. While she searched for a usable vein, Cassie went to see if she could help Doc clean up. To her relief, she found the soldier’s body already shrouded in an old curtain. She wouldn’t have to look at that poor boy’s brain, at least. But there was an equally repulsive matter to deal with—Rochelle was on her knees puking into a plastic bucket.
“It didn’t seem to bother her until it was all over,” Doc said.
Rochelle gave a final heave that brought up a little clear fluid, then lay on the floor, pale and sweating.
“I felt the same way when I cut into his cranium with the bone saw,” Doc went on.
Rochelle whimpered and her lips turned white.
“Maybe you can tell me about it later,” Cassie said. She squatted beside the girl and took her hand. “Think you can walk, honey? Let’s take you to the ward so you won’t have to lie on the floor.”
Together she and Doc dragged Rochelle into the next room and laid her on a mattress. After a few minutes, May came over. “What happened? Did all the blood and brain matter finally get to her?”
Rochelle rolled over and would’ve vomited into her pillow, had there been anything left in her stomach.
Cassie silently cursed Doc and May for their lack of sensitivity. “Let her rest. She’ll be fine in a few minutes.” She headed back to the operating room, motioning for them to follow. “So you really think the hormone will work?”
“We should know within twenty-four hours,” May said.
May and Doc kept up an excited chatter about the events of the morning as they cleaned up. For her part, Cassie kept her head down, focusing on the work in front of her and trying to ignore their conversation, lest she be as sick as Rochelle.
“Want to put any of this stuff into compost?” Doc asked.
No way was she going to eat a potato composted with blood and brains. “No, thanks.”
They had put everything away and were wiping things down with bleach when Alaina rushed in. “You may want to hide,” she blurted. “Pharms are here.”