* * *
It had been a long day. There were already three patients waiting outside the door when he unlocked it at 7:00 that morning, and there had been a steady stream all day. It only got worse once the regular working shifts were over. The penalty of being the neighborhood doctor in a poor area like this one was you had to put in more hours than even the sun.
People came when they could. They all called him “Doc.” It had gotten to the point where he could barely remember his actual name. “Doc” it was and “Doc” it would be.
Doc’s last patient was a man who worked a shovel at a coal yard. He had fallen down the week prior and had really done a number on his hip. His son made him come in. A smart youngster, about nine years old, sold newspapers on the corner most nights, and did so without complaint, even though he had to wear a metal brace on one leg. The coal man’s bruise was the size of a flapjack and about three different colors. There was some pus. Doc was worried about him and tried to demand that he take it easy for a while, stay off his feet, but he knew that would never happen. Poverty forces a man to pick up a shovel and then it ensures he can never put it back down.
Now that the work was done, it was just a matter of cleaning up and locking the doors. Doc lived in an apartment at the back of the office. He had a little kitchen and a bed to himself. It wasn’t much, but he needed little else these days. He’d been alone for some time now. His wife had passed, and his daughter married into another life and never looked back. Doc had an old basset for a while, long enough that the two of them truly did start to resemble one another, but the dog passed on, too, and that was about all the death the old man was willing to take in his personal life. Instead he’d focus his energy on keeping as much death out of the community as possible.
He was cleaning the scalpel he had used to lance the coal worker’s wound when the door opened and a frenzied teenager burst inside. The kid was sweaty and in a panic. He had curly red hair and freckles, and he wore a suit that was at least a size too big. He didn’t say anything at first, he just closed the door and locked it, and then looked out the window like he was maybe expecting something to be there.
“Excuse me, but I’m done for the day. Is there something you need?”
The kid turned around. The front of his shirt was stained with blood. It was his own. There was a nasty wound in his right shoulder.
“Yeah, I need you to shut up an’ fix this hole’n me.”
“You in trouble, young man?”
“Whazzit look like, pops? You the doctor or the janitor? What the hell!”
Doc left the scalpel in the sink, just out of sight. He held up his hands. He did his best not to appear threatening. “Let’s calm down,” he said. He motioned toward the exam table. “Take off your coat and shirt, and hop up here. Lemme take a look.”
The kid wasn’t taking any chances. He pulled a revolver out of the back of his pants. “Go ’head an’ look. But I’ll be lookin’, too. Y’got me?”
Their eyes stayed locked as the kid worked off half of his shirt and jacket. Just the right side, the side with the wound. He let the other side hang limp off his body. Either he was a southpaw or he couldn’t really use his right hand anymore, but either way he didn’t want to put the gun down long enough to completely strip. There could have hardly been more distance between these two, the young and the old, yet the young was still scared his elder would get the drop on him.
The kid climbed onto the table. It took considerable strain. He was dripping blood all over the floor. It looked like a particularly sweet syrup--though Doc had been around the stuff enough to know it was anything but. The salt of life ran in a man’s veins, whether child or senior.
As Doc approached, the kid jumped with a sudden thought. “Y’don’t have a phone in here, do ya?”
“I do,” Doc said. He pointed to it on the wall.
The kid shot the device, dead center, destroying it. He brandished the gun in front of Doc’s face. “Just so’s you know it’s loaded.” he said. “And that I know how to use it.”
“Fair enough,” Doc replied. His patient was a southpaw after all. “Now brace yourself, because this won’t feel good.”
He began to probe the area around the wound with his fingers, assessing the damage. The kid groaned despite himself, but Doc could tell he was trying to act tough. Sticking the gun’s muzzle into the old man’s side was also a good indicator of his posturing.
“Easy now. You’ve been tore up pretty good. The man who did this...a policeman?”
“You feelin’ nosy?”
“I just know what a cop’s revolver can do to a body.”
“Who cares? Just get that dirty pig’s lead outta me before I catch some kinda pig disease from it.”
Doc said nothing to this. He moved to his medicine cabinet and removed the rubbing alcohol. He poured the clear liquid into a rag and then returned to the boy, applying the cleanser to the wound. The thug recoiled, but Doc put his other hand behind his shoulder and pressed both together. “Let me work,” he said.
Once the wound was clean, Doc took a better look. “This is messy business,” he said. “The officer catch you by surprise?”
“Maybe he’s just a bad shot,” the kid hissed.
“Anything’s possible. What kind of trouble were you getting up to?”
The gun barrel returned to Doc’s side. “Whazzit to you?”
“I just want to know, in case there’s any ill-gotten gains in my office, anything I can’t see.”
“Don’t worry ’bout it. Even if there were, you wouldn’t get your hands on ’em.”
Doc stepped away from the gun and went to get his tools. He returned brandishing forceps. “The only thing I have any interest in taking from you is that bullet. And since I’m guessing you won’t let me put you under, I must ask that you keep your finger off the trigger. I don’t need you shooting me by accident when you convulse from the pain.”
“You sure assume a lot. I can take whatever you dish out.”
Doc poked the forceps into the gunshot. The kid’s whole body spasmed and he screamed. When the wave passed, he gathered himself, taking a deep breath. “That’s not so bad once you get used to it,” he said.
“Good sign,” Doc said, feeling around for shrapnel. “Means you’ll heal quick. Not everyone’s the same.”
“Yeah, the other folks’re lucky. They ain’t on the run. They can go to a hospital, not a dump like this. They have options.”
“Others? Did you shoot the police officer?”
“Whazzit matter to you?”
“Plenty. I’ve lived in this neighborhood a long time. I’ve seen a lot. The police put more energy into looking for someone when that someone shot one of their own.”
The kid laughed. It was a wicked little giggle. Free of guilt or compassion. Doc had heard similar too many times before.
“Nah, see, everyone knows that,” the kid explained. “I did ’im one better. I saw a newsboy across the street. I shot him instead.”
Doc’s heart sank.
“It was a sucker bet that the flatfoot would go rushin’ over to try’n save the squirt. And boom, I lit out of there.”
It was Doc’s turn to take a deep breath. “This child you shot? Did he have a brace on one leg?”
The kid thought about it--if you were feeling generous and would call what he did thinking. “Yeah, now that ya mention it. You know ’im?”
“I treated his father today.”
The kid clicked his tongue and said, “Mazel tov.” His tone was strangely apologetic.
“I don’t think that means what you think it means.”
“Sure it does. Y’know. Condolences or whatnot.”
Doc corrected him no further. He had finished removing the bullet. He moved on to sewing up the wound.
“Since you’re so good with words, do you know the first rule of medicine?”
“Cash up front?” the kid snorted.
Doc pulled the thread especially hard, and tried not to show pleasure when the kid winced. That would make him a hypocrite given what he was about to say. Which had a connection to something with a different, yet similar, name. Not that the kid would know, even if he’d pretend he did.
“No. It’s ‘First do no harm.’”
He applied a bandage to the shoulder.
“That’s why a punk like you can come in here and get my help, gun or no gun,” Doc said.
The kid started to ease back into his shirt.
“Good t’know. But what about after that? What’s the second rule?”
Doc went to the sink. He picked up the scalpel he had left in it. “There is no second rule,” he said.
* * *
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