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The Choice

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The old beggar squatted on the corner of the road, eyes darting feverishly, searching for a benefactor.
People rushed past, self-obsessed as ever, , uncaring for the world outside of their small personal bubble.
“Please...please...just a nickel....a dime....” his voice was fluctuating and choked out from a throat congested with phlegm. He remembered a time when his voice had been strong and proud, so long ago that it seemed to have originated from a long forgotten dream...
The beggar was jolted out of his reminiscence by the clatter of a quarter falling into his pan. The beggar looked up, wishing to thank his helper, only to see that the man had quickly brushed by, not caring to grace the old, homeless man with a look.
He once again felt his mind delve into the wanderings of his past, to dream of a future where he had made the right choice; or the choice that had been considered to be right in the eyes of his peers in those days.
He would have been profusely rich, a wealthy man with a beautiful wife and adorable children, had Fate not chosen to meddle with his strings and make him play its game...
To this day, he was proud of his choice. It represented everything that he believed in as a man, and as a human being. Yet on harsh days, when he lay down to rest on the cold pavement at midnight, with little more than five dollars in loose change in his pocket, his stomach growling at its emptiness, he could not help but regret it.


The doctor unlocked the door and stepped inside what he called his 'hospital'. It was a humble office, but every time he stepped in he felt a warm glow of pride and happiness. It might not be much, it may look somewhat like a dump, but it was his dump, and that little fact made it that much more special. Besides that, he had the singular satisfaction of bringing modern medical service to this small out-of-the-way town that had been totally overlooked.
Looking around the small and cozy, yet professional, room, he smiled to himself, noting that everything was perfect and in its place; but that grin froze on his lips as he once again reviewed the single blemish.
“WHITES ONLY,” the sign read, blaring out its message to those entering the building.
The doctor frowned. He had been pressurized to place it there by the city council and even the Mayor himself, but everyday as he glanced at its baleful presence, he felt guilty. It gnawed on his conscience: how many black people were out there, suffering from unspeakable ailments simply because their skin pigment didn't warrant them proper medical care?
Not skin pigment, you fool, his distracted mind told him All they have is some extra melanin.
To ensure the superiority of the whites, the entire cycle had been well orchestrated. The City Council had declared that the African Americans could set up their own hospital and treat their own kind, in a 'humanitarian effort to uplift the race' and to help them learn 'self-reliance, rather than depending on the whites.'
Few had seen through the move to know exactly what it was; while the Council masqueraded itself as radical, the real point was the blacks weren't given access to the high quality education that the whites enjoyed. Because of this, they could never become well-educated enough to become a professional medical specialist. And how could they treat people without having thorough knowledge on the subject?
Each human wants to believe that he is greater than his peers. His race had thrived on that misplaced arrogance and treated any others as far beneath them, not even worthy of warranting attention.
The doctor couldn't see much difference between Hitler's (may he rot in Hell) condemnation of the Jews, which caused great public outcry, and his own country's treatment of black, which was considered natural and socially acceptable.
When he mentioned that to his friend, the man had chuckled and said:
“He was judging them based on the length of their nose. Compared to that, skin colour is much more important.”
The doctor still couldn't see why.
“Not now James,” he said to himself. “Stop acting like a messenger of love and peace and go read up before your next patient.”
Sighing, James walked over to the bookcase, pulled out “Grey's Anatomy”, and plunged himself into reading to prevent any more philosophical thoughts that could get him in more trouble than he could get out of.
It was barely ten minutes before his first visitor arrived. A smiling blonde with her lollipop sucking son walked in.
“Hello, Dr. James,” she said. “He's got a cough, so I just wanted to see what you think about it.”
James groaned inwardly. He would never understand the paranoia that seemed to have gripped the rich regarding diseases. They seemed to believe every small cold would lead to pneumonia, or every cough was a sign of lung cancer. At the same time, there could be a black child dying of a fatal wound-
Stop.
For many years later, he would curse himself for having this thought, as though it were a harbinger of what was to come.
“Of course. Come here, little Tim,” he said, gesturing towards the flat seat.
The little child came skipping over, strangely exuberant about a chance to lie down.
“Open your mouth out wide...”
The boy complied. It was just as James had expected; a regular cough, probably from eating too much cold food.
He looked up. “Its nothing, miss, just a common-”
The latter part of his sentence was cut off abruptly by the sound of sandals slapping against the ground. Three dark skinned individuals burst into view, carrying a limp body.
“Doctor,” said one of the three. “His lung has been punctured.”
The blonde pulled her son close to her, her eyes large and fearful, but not enough to prevent her from making a scalding remark. “Classic of you blacks,” she spat out. “Can't even care for your own children. As I expected, you're illiterate; you can't even read the sign there. For your information, it says-”
“I KNOW what it says, lady,” said the new comer. “I have no time to waste on you and your pathetic squabbling. My son is dying, and he needs help.”
“Your kind,” said the blonde, glaring venomously, “don't deserve the treatment that we whites receive.”
“'All are equal in the eyes of God'”
“Don't you DARE quote the Bible!” said the blonde, shrieking with rage “Get out of here, you can't get the service!”
“Why don't we let the doctor decide?” said the black woman.
Both of them stared at me, both of them thinking that their rights were being denied. Yet I knew only one of them were truly justifiable in their beliefs. But it was a quick choice.
My job or my heart?


Having thought about his past throughout his dinner, the old man found a solitary corner where he could sit. It was obvious from the beginning which choice he would make. He knew that if he didn't save that small boy he would feel empty for the rest of his life. The blonde had rushed out and told everyone she could see about the incident. It wasn't long before the Council came striking down on him and stripped him of his position. A mob of angry whites ran to the neighbourhood of the blacks searching for the boy and his family, but they managed to escape in time.
In a way, he thought, it was all worth it.
Living a life in poverty was a small price compared to the idea of saving someone's life. He was glad that they had escaped; if they hadn't, it would give no meaning to his sacrifice.
And although his learnings as a medical practitioner had rusted away long ago, he knew he was dying. He could feel the aching in his limbs and the struggle when he tried to get up. His only regret was the Civil Rights Movement, which had finally 'cleared' his name, had come too late, when he was already weakened at the age of 65 and in no condition to continue his profession.
That night, before he slept, he thought:
“I took the road less traveled by, and that made all the difference.”
He closed his eyes and never opened them again.


AFTERWORD
The next day, a tall, dark, handsome man came to the neighbourhood. Finding someone who seemed somewhat alert, he asked, “Do you know if there is a man called Dr. James here?”
“Hmm? Oh yeah, there's a James here. Kept blathering something about saving a young black boy's life and losing his job as a doctor, but no one really believed him. Hey,” he said peering up, “You're not telling me that's true, are you?”
“Never mind that. Where does he stay?”
“Over in that corner there. But wait-”
But the man was already off.
Finding the old man lying too still to be sleeping, he sighed. After searching for so long, he had arrived one day too late.
He smiled.
“Hey there, Dr. James. Just wanted to thank you for saving my life that day. We managed to escape to the North, luckily enough. And guess what?” he grinned. “I'm a doctor now. Since I was small I dreamt of becoming like you. And I'm only a quarter of the way there.” He sighed. “They say becoming a doctor is the hard part, but that's not true. It's doing what you think is right, even if it means losing whatever you've worked for, that made you special, Dr. James. And I'm going to make sure the world remembers you for it.”
Dr. James was grown a white, treated a traitor, and buried a hero.




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