Chapter One: Forty Years Ago…
Dr. Evan Engelhart had never seen an old woman before.
Well, that obviously wasn’t entirely true. He had seen plenty of old women. He had two grandmothers when he was a child, and he watched them get older and older as he grew up before they passed. At his graduation for his undergrad degree, Grandma Millie was borderline ancient! She could barely hear, so she mostly sat by herself those days and just watched what was going on around her. And at the graduation dinner, she had asked him where he was going for his honeymoon the next day.
Hell, on the walk from the parking garage, he had probably passed at least one or two old women on the street. But he had no reason to acknowledge them. They were pedestrian.
But this old woman was seated in the waiting room of the Tomkawicz Podiatry Clinic. And Evan had never seen an old woman there before.
He’d actually never seen anyone there before. The rows of connected seats were typically undisturbed; the false leather on the seats had not so much as a scuff on them. But there she was, in the second row, reading an issue of Home Cooking from the end-table with the fake yellow tulips. How old was that magazine, Evan wondered. But it might not matter; recipes probably did not go bad.
He must have been staring, because the woman’s eyes lifted from her reading and caught his own. The fluorescent light from the ceiling tiles reflected off of her ludicrously thick glasses lens. She smiled, and Evan caught a flash of crooked, darkening teeth in her mouth. He forced himself to smile back at her and accompany it with a nod. She blinked softly and returned to her reading, turning her thinning gray scalp slightly toward him.
Evan approached the check-in counter where Aubree sat, on duty as always. As he put his elbows down on her counter, Aubree gave a shrug and then looked from him to the patient and back. She obviously knew this was weird, too.
“She says she has an appointment,” Aubree whispered having anticipated his question.
“Is she sure it is… here?”
“She gave the address and everything!” Aubree retained her whisper, but seemed like she wanted to shout her answer. Her voice raised in pitch as she said the words.
“Does she even know what podiatry is?”
“Yeah, it’s like…,” Evan rolled his eyes upward in thought, “kids’ medicine, right? Doctors doing doctor stuff, but to kids?”
Aubree’s head slipped downward as she laughed, perhaps louder than she had wanted because she put her hand over her mouth after it started. Her short pixie cut hair barely moved with her head. She lightly smacked his hand with hers; the flash of tiny decorative gemstones in her fingernails caught him off-guard.
“That’s definitely not it,” she finally brought herself to answer.
Evan felt himself smile back at her, and he wondered if he was feeling particularly emboldened because she had touched his hand or because the lady in her seat made the whole day feel off. He poked her finger.
“Did you get these because you’re the gem of our office?” He immediately hated himself for that. What did that even mean?
“No, I just think they look nice with this shade of black,” Aubree said. If she was put off by his idiocy, she didn’t show it. “They wanted to charge me a ton to do more than one, but I was like, ‘well, I have some at home I can just glue on myself’, and then I did that. They’re, like, two dollars for a bag of them, and they wanted to charge me ten bucks more if I wanted a bunch of them at the salon. What a scam”.
“You showed them. Couldn’t you have done the whole nail thing yourself for free?”
“Yes, but…,” she seemed to reach inside herself for an explanation, “I didn’t. So who showed who, right?”
Evan made a clicking sound with his tongue and nodded. He had nothing else immediately to say, but Aubree hung there as if he was supposed to.
“How long do you think she will wait for?” was all he could come up with.
“I don’t know!” Aubree leaned forward with another exasperated whisper.
“Well, I guess that is your problem! I’m going into the back”.
He pushed himself up from the counter and looked back at the woman and her cooking magazine. He turned toward Aubree one final time; she shook her head, eyes still wide and clearly not yet having figured out what to do with the would-be patient.
Evan heard Aubree hit the buzzer to the back offices of the Tomakwicz Clinic—which was apparently not for children after all—and let himself in. While the lobby had been full of the decor a doctor’s office would be expected to have—magazines, fake flowers, emergency exit signs–the hallway behind the heavy door was barren. Evan always felt like there should have been something. A poster of the skeletal system, a rack of pamphlets on losing weight, or even a simple scale to measure height and weight. It just made the whole thing feel like a sham.
Which, Evan supposed, it was. But still… it could stand to look like less of one.
Evan imagined Aubree stuck out there dealing with that lost little old lady. Was Aubree offering to help her get a bus? Was she trying to convince her there was no appointment today? Hell, maybe they were making lunch plans together…
His daydream was burst by the sound of binders carelessly thudding against the bottom of a cardboard box.
As Evan entered the last doorway on the right, Captain Benjamin was pulling more files off of his bookshelf. His office was one of the few behind after the lobby that was not entirely empty, but the captain seemed in a hurry to change that.
“Are we going somewhere, sir?”
Benjamin acknowledged Evan, sighed, and continued cramming items into the box. He said nothing for far too many seconds for Evan’s liking. He stepped back, surveyed the box, overflowing with folders and binders and leafs of paper, and figured it was good enough; after forcing a lid as closed as he could get it, he addressed Evan.
“It turns out we are. We’re shut down, Engelhart. We’re done here.”
Evan couldn’t possibly have heard that right. “We’re… what?”
Captain Benjamin hastily put together another box and surrounded it in packing tape as if he had no trust that he folded it correctly. Evan noticed several nicks on the captain’s usually immaculate hands. They had to have come from the blades of the dispenser.
“Look, this isn’t the world’s biggest surprise.” Benjamin finally stopped what he was doing long enough to surrender backwards into his office chair. The seat rolled backwards under the force, and Benjamin’s legs extended outward, causing him to sink downward into seat. When he finally faced up to Evan, he could see that the captain had not shaved in a day or two. His face was more rugged than usual. It wasn’t a look that worked for the captain, a man who, much to the bewilderment of those who found out his title and rank, looked like he was born from a fresh milk bath and quit aging before he turned twenty-five.
“We knew the new administration wasn’t likely to want to fund our work here. It seems like they got emboldened by the mid-term results, though, and… well, we’re not on the chopping block anymore. Because we got chopped”.
“But what we’ve been doing…,” Evan raced through his mind searching for the words, as if reminding the captain of their work was all he needed to do. “We’re doing non-denominational stuff here! This isn’t a This Party or That Party thing! We’re working on the safety of the country! There’s got to be—“
“I assume you mean we’re doing non-partisan work, and I hate to tell you, Engelhart, but everything is partisan. There’s always someone who doesn’t like what someone else on the other side came up with. That’s all there is to it. We’re getting bucks that they want to use on something else.”
Evan opened his mouth to argue, but nothing came out. It may not have been a shock to the captain, but to Evan? When measured against the months of tests? The hundreds of hours of conferences? The library’s worth of notes and research? Had it completely divorced him from reality? It sure felt like the world’s biggest surprise to him.
“Look. You’re upset. I’m upset. Hell, I have to tell poor Aubree, too, yet.” He looked at the boxes. “I’ll have to have her help me carry these out, too,” he said in a lower voice, as if he was just thinking aloud. He shook his head. “You did great work. You have a bright future in the private sector, you know? Just… not here.”
The captain stood back up, but whatever he was saying failed against the buzzing in Evan’s own head. Something was wrong; this wasn’t what was supposed to happen. They were doing world-changing work here! They were going to save lives!
Before Evan knew it, he was pushing his way back through the heavy door and into the lobby. The past several… seconds? Minutes? Whatever they were had blurred. Had he said anything to Captain Benjamin before walking out? Was he going to get in trouble for just leaving like that? What kind of trouble, really? Were they going to… fire him?
Evan almost laughed at the thought, but the reaction made him nauseous instead. He steadied himself on the handle to the door out to Third Avenue and made sure everything inside of him was staying put. Aubree said… something behind him, but it was no match for the buzzing, either. He ignored her as he slowly stepped outside.
It was Spring outside, as little as anyone could tell in Arvada, Colorado. Snow still covered the sidewalk from the past weekend’s storm. Evan stepped to the edge of the curb and was splashed by the filthy slush from the road. Gray-black sludge dripped off of his supposedly weather-resistant overcoat. He did not even react.
He looked around, but nothing made sense. The parking garage—the one in which he had parked every weekday for the past half year—he suddenly had no idea where it was.
A hand on his shoulder stirred him, and he turned to see the old woman from the waiting room. She lifted her chin as if in pity.
“A doctor for kids? Really? We’ve let you out too long.”
She snapped her fingers in his face. He winced in response. “Focus! You recognize me, right?”
He studied her again. The glasses. The hair. The floral shirt and light pants she wore that made no sense in the weather. Wait, was she his Grandma Millie? No, she died ages ago. She was old, she had the brain condition thing, with the forgetfulness… Why couldn’t he remember her funeral? “I… do. I do recognize you”.
“Well thank heavens for that, at least. Time’s up, you know. Time to come home”.
“But we got…,” Evan couldn’t figure out why he wanted to explain himself to her, but he did. “We got shut down. It’s over”.
“Not over,” she grinned. She grabbed his arm and patted his hand. “Right where it’s supposed to be”.
And then they vanished.