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WhitecoatsSerene. That’s how the house felt tonight. Calm. Complete. No one coming. No one going. Everyone content to stay.
They were all gathered in the living room, the largest and most comfortable room of the house, soft sounds trickling from the stereo, a stream of nature noises, caught, bottled, and sold to people like his wife who instead of stepping outside to hear the crickets chirrup brought those sounds inside, into the comfortable and clean environment of their home.
Peter Lane, head illustrator for Little Tikes Reading Co., husband, father, and provider for his family, had never liked these “nature tapes” his wife played. He always kept this to himself, however, “no need to step on any toes around here,” and honestly, he thought he did a pretty good job of keeping his feelings about this particular issue “on the down low,” as the kids were saying nowadays. He could ignore it tonight. He didn’t want to break the reverie.
He shifted his weight on the sofa a little, trying to find a position in which to spend the next few minutes before moving again in search of a more comfortable one. Impossible to stay comfortable for long I suppose. He, his small, beautiful, and thoughtful wife (most of the time, anyway), and his son Richard, or Ricky, were passing the time in this small den of peace and restfulness that was their living room, a good end to a good day, full of running, playing, the occasional bout of giggling, and a little too much good food.
Lowering his paper, the sports page of course, Peter adjusted his bifocals, sliding them slowly up the bridge of his nose with one finger until they came to rest in the little groove he got from wearing them too long. “Wearing bifocals at thirty-four,” he muttered to himself. “How sad.”
Little Ricky, prostrate beneath a light blanket, his head resting on a couch pillow and a small stuffed rhino he called Sam, glanced up at Peter disinterestedly, scooped out of his fantasy world by his father’s restless shifting and grumbling.
Peter favored him with a faint smile, little more than a twitch of the lips, and the boy returned it twofold before diving back into the Archie comic he was reading. The father wondered what kind of shenanigans Archie and the crew were up to this time.
From the other end of the sofa, if you could say something so small had two distinct ends, Mary let out a small grunt as she shifted her hips slightly, burrowing ever further into the space between the seat cushions and the padded back of the couch. Curled in fetal position (mostly due to lack of space to stretch out) she pored over a Macy’s catalog, occasionally challenging the “music” for dominance as she turned a crinkly page in search of some new blouse or hat that she had to have.
Peter’s marriage, though not perfect, was far from the worst. Through the long stretch of weeks, no, months, that he hadn’t been making enough to support even his little family, the beginning of his illustrating career, Mary had stuck it out by his side. Taking two jobs to help make ends meet, she had worked as hard, if not harder, than Peter himself, collapsing into their bed as soon as she got home at four in the afternoon, to rest up for her night shift at the twenty-four hour grocery.
Cringing slightly in discomfort due to his bad left knee, a relic of an old football injury in his high-school years, (those ancient times) and made his way to the kitchen. He emerged several minutes later, holding a steaming mug of hot chocolate in each hand, and balancing another precariously atop his forearm, forcing himself not to rush across the room as the skin beneath the hot cup began to twinge. Bending over carefully, as not to spill any of the delicious drinks, he set a mug beside Ricky, one on the end table, and handed the last to his wife.
She smiled gratefully over her reading material, now a flyer from Dillards, and took the drink from Peter, inhaling deeply the rich aroma of cinnamon and nutmeg. Just the way she liked it. Perfect.
With a contented sigh and a faint smile on his lips, Peter returned to his seat, carefully lowering himself onto the sofa to avoid bumping Mary and spilling the cocoa. Making himself comfortable, an easy task in their faithful couch of six years, he returned to his paper.
“We’d better call the Whitecoats to come fix you right up, buddy.” A harmless joke, often told by Peter as he was patching up Little Ricky after one of his numerous falls, which, somehow, never came out to much more that a scrape on the knee or elbow, slight abrasions that weren’t even worthy of the noble title “injury.” Ricky would laugh, Mommy would giggle, and Daddy would let loose one of his signature brays of laughter. Why it was so funny, none of them knew, and how it never got old was even more of a mystery. Why question a good thing?
It was a joke that Ricky’s favorite person in the world, Granma, would tell whenever she visited, to much the same effect. Ricky absolutely, positively, undeniably loved his Granma. As much as he loved his mommy and daddy. She would visit several times a year, for a few weeks at a time, and the whole family would always be sad to see her go. Most notably, Ricky.
Granma Lane was admitted to the hospital four days after Ricky’s sixth birthday. What a present. Her symptoms: a steady, rasping cough. A cyclical headache, on at breakfast, off in the afternoon, and on again during the evening news. Trouble breathing. A sore throat. It could have been a cold. The flu. Even pneumonia would have been preferable.
It hit them like a stroke. Sudden, unexpected, severe. Daddy cried, and Mommy cried.
Ricky, however, did not cry. He knew his Granma was going to get better. In fact, she was going to be “fixed right up”. Good as new. Why was he so sure? Because little Ricky had actually seen one of them. Just a glimpse, as the lanky, balding doctor hurried through the lobby, head down, poring over a clipboard that was surely his agenda: Who to fix up next and how. All was to be well, because that was the whitecoats’ job, right? To make people better.
Days, then months dragged by, and Ricky began to have doubts. Maybe “The Whitecoats” didn’t have Granma’s best interests at heart. They did not fix grandma “right back up”. They did quite the opposite. Surgeries, Chemotherapy, RADIATION TREATMENT! Wasn’t that the stuff that astronauts were afraid of? Why would they do that to Granma?
Ricky and his parents were constantly at Granma’s bedside, to support her in her time of desperation, and to try to satisfy their hopeless need to do something, anything, to help her. Ricky, with his mother’s freshly baked “get well cake” mounted on the bedside table in his Granma’s bleak hospital room, would do his best to help her enjoy this simple treat, guiding her ever-weakening fingers around the plastic utensil, into the cake, then to her waiting mouth. Seated in the uncomfortable arm-chairs on the opposite side of the bed, Peter and Mary, looking drawn, tired, and extremely upset at the sight of Granma’s struggles, grasped each others hands in something approaching a vice clamp, seeking that comfort that can only come from close human contact. They could only watch tearfully as it became more and more difficult for this woman, who meant so much to every single one of them, to enjoy even the simple pleasures of life; a freshly baked cake, the company of family.
With every visit, she grew weaker, thinner, less responsive, and thinner still. Her face was sallow, dark bags beneath her sunken eyes. The sheets swallowed her bony figure. Her hands were no longer steady. No more writing, no more delicate tasks. No more walking. It was horrible to observe.
After a month, Ricky was no longer looking forward to the visits. Two weeks later, he began to fear them. Why? The man in the white coat. When Ricky first saw him, he was glad. With a whitecoat just for herself, Granma would make a really fast recovery. With time, however, the boy sensed something wrong. Shouldn’t he be doing something? Anything, anything at all, to help Granma? He just paced back and forth in the hallway outside of Granma’s room, intermittently muttering under his breath and writing on his clipboard. He didn’t do anything malevolent; he didn’t do anything particularly benevolent. He was just there, in the background, during all of their visits.
Ricky got the impression that this seemingly useless man was waiting for something. For them to leave, maybe? Why else would he lurk there, never speaking except to hold council with his own mind? The child’s mind whirled with horrible ideas of what inhumane things this man could, and probably would do, if his intuition was anywhere near correct, to his poor sick Granma. After all, wouldn’t he be just a little bit friendlier if he had good intentions? Ricky thought so.
Ruby Anne Lane died on January 5th, 1998, another victim of the big C. The funeral was touching. Friends and relatives, though not surprised by her death, were sorrowful. The headstone was beautiful, chiseled marble inlaid with bronze, bearing her name and lifespan. None of that mattered, Ricky thought, why did she have to die? But he knew. Somehow, he knew for sure. He is absolutely positive that the doctor, the “whitecoat”, finally got the chance it had waited so diligently for.
For a stretch of time, weeks, then months, the family functioned in a primal fashion. Dinner, previously a social event, joking and laughing, was now a solemn function. Intake of sustenance was the first and only priority. Weekends, the time for excursions to the park, the museum, the library, were now spent at home. After early morning service at the First Baptist Church close to home, they would return to their residence, to spend the rest of the day in quiet play for Ricky, and business for his mother and father. Paying bills, balancing the checkbooks, and cleaning. They mourned.
“…to confirm my …appointment…alright…thank you.” Ricky laced up his left sneaker slowly, deliberately, intent on making those bunny ears the same length. Bits of Mommy’s phone conversation could not pierce his sphere of concentration. There, they were tied.
With a nod of approval, Little Ricky stood up, stretched, yawned, and made his way out to the living room where Mommy was just hanging up the phone. “Ready to go, honey?” A somber nod in response. She was in too much of a hurry to notice his solemn response, scooping up a small, messy pile of papers from the counter. The boy knew what had really happened to Granma, but his mother didn’t seem to have any idea. None at all. Neither of his parents appeared to notice how strange, how bad, Granma’s doctor was.
They head out the door, fingers intertwined, little hand in big, off to see the wonderful doctor.
Comfortably nestled in the gentle grip of his booster seat, which in turn, was held snugly by the worn back seat of Mommy’s little Ford Fusion, the first car the family had owned, Ricky rode in silence, unseeing eyes to the window. The boy was thinking hard. Thinking scared. His parents didn’t, or wouldn’t, see the bad doctor at the hospital. What if one of the doctors here was like that? What if he tried to do something to him? That was why Ricky was scared. He would be alone. He would be completely, utterly, and helplessly alone. The doctors here would be nice though. Surely.
Arrival. It was nothing like what the boy had expected. Up a single flight of steps to a set of large glass doors, down a very short hallway, lined with pictures of frolicking animals, and into a small, carpeted room, the floor covered in toys. This visit was off to a good start. Ricky occupied himself with a set of building blocks while his mother conversed with the friendly receptionist, an old woman, who, though she appeared ancient, older than the pyramids, laughed, joked, and generally acted like a teenage girl.
They were the first appointment of the day, she told his mother, if they could just please have a seat there and the doctor would be with them in about fifteen minutes. Pleased with this small grace period before he had to get “checked up”, whatever that meant, the boy played happily with the menagerie of toys laid out just for him. He glanced up at his mother, noticed her across the room leafing through a magazine on a waist high table, and saw something that knotted his stomach in anguish.
Hanging from the wall, not two feet from where his mother was standing, there was a picture of a doctor, tall, lanky and balding, with a fuzz of white hair sprouting from his smooth dome, and a child. The child was screaming. His wide, teary eyes were focused on the doctor’s spidery fingers, which were hovering over the boy’s left shoulder, like a sickly, evil bird waiting to plummet from the sky to rend a small animal to pieces.
A gasp forced itself from between the tightly drawn line of his lips, and the sudden rush of air, a gunshot in the silence of the scarcely populated waiting room, startled him.
He shot a glance at his mother, who seemed not to have heard his outburst, then back to the picture. But it wasn’t the right picture!
Instead of the malevolent doctor and his rightly terrified young patient, the picture hanging by his mother’s stiff standing form was of a young male doctor, average height, average build, with short, professionally styled blond hair, and, from where Ricky was sitting, what appeared to be bright green eyes. To this man’s left was a laughing little girl of about seven years of age, her eyes bright, and her smile even brighter. The only similarity was the doctor’s hand. Instead of a hungry vulture preparing to strike, however, it just looked like the photographer, whoever that may have been, had caught the doctor in the act of giving the young girl a friendly pat on the shoulder.
Ricky shuddered. He was sure that picture had been different the first time…
“Mrs. Lane?” The ancient but young secretary crowed. “The doctor will see you two now.” As the boy and his mother passed through the door to the doctors’ offices, Ricky could see the old crone was leering at him over the counter of her desk, the kind face of earlier gone, a sickly imitation of a smile plastered on her wrinkled face. More like a sneer or grimace than a smile. He turned and buried his face in his mother’s side, hurrying to match his short quick strides with her longer, more graceful canter. He liked this place less every minute.
Most of the checkup was routine. The doctor, thankfully a young man, the one in the nice picture, took his weight, blood pressure, listened to his heart, and looked in his ears, eyes, and mouth. Ricky coughed a few times when the young doctor pushed around in his mouth with the tongue depressor, but that was the worst of it. Or so he hoped.
“Time to get blood drawn little guy” the doctor, with a voice much too cheery for the occasion, announced when he got up from his desk. He opened the door, admitting Ricky’s mother to the room, and presented her with a sheaf of paper. “Paperwork for the lab technicians,” he stated. “If you could walk with him down to the laboratory please, they’ll take care of him down there.” So they walked down the hall. Hopefully, almost done. If this was the worst of the visit, Ricky was sure he could handle another one. He may have been misinformed in his opinion on these “whitecoats” of his Granma’s. Maybe the doctor in her room was just a peculiar individual. Maybe.
The doctor in the lab was the lurker from the hospital. Impossible, surely, but there was no point denying what you could clearly see. He was tall, he was balding, and he had those hands. Those sharp, claw like hands. Hands that, if they came anywhere near you, were sure to cut and scrape and do all sorts of unpleasant things to you.
The moment Ricky’s mother was comfortably seated on the other side of the door to the lab, in the small, but posh, waiting room, the whitecoat was on him. Ricky, who had come through the door on his own only after his mother’s harsh whispered descriptions of the spanking he would get if he didn’t behave, cowered away from the man, pressed against the wall behind him, pale, eyes wide, breathing in harsh, tearing gasps.
The doctor pounced, leaping at Ricky (or so it seemed to the child at the time) wrapping his long bony fingers around the boy’s small arm. With his other claw-like hand, he clamped a foul smelling cloth over Ricky’s mouth, and with one breath, a breath that seared his lungs and racked him over in a fit of coughing, the small room, the lab, grayed out. Within a minute or so, the boy was out cold, slumped over in the whitecoat’s bony arms. With a cold smile on his lips, this despicable demon of a doctor carried the boy to a chair on the other side of the lab, strapped him in with canvas ties pulled from one of the large pockets on his coat, then moved aside to the counter to begin setting out his tools.
The boy drifted in and out of conciousness, trying to discern his location. All he could see, through his bleary, teary eyes, was a bright light overhead. He was lying down, on a slightly uncomfortable chair, and he couldn’t move. Of that much, he was very aware. Then, it came back. The doctor, the whitecoat. Did that really happen?
Still groggy, he squinted his eyes, trying simultaneously to block out that unfortunate light source that was hanging in front of his face, obscuring his view of the room, and to clear the blurriness that had attached itself to his vision. He lifted his head and was surprised when it connected, quite painfully, with the light, which was apparently hanging right above his face. He pushed it behind his head and peered around the room. He could see nothing out of the ordinary, but behind him, directly behind him, he heard a rasping sound, the sound of metal being slowly rubbed against a rough cloth. But he couldn’t turn around. That was when he looked down.
The wind was knocked from his chest, not from an impact of any kind, but from surprise, terror, awe, confusion.
His legs were gone, from slightly above the knee. Bloodlessly bandaged in fresh white cloth.
He moved his toes. He could still feel them! But they weren’t there. He drew in a gasp of air, almost unaware of the fact that he hadn’t breathed for more than a minute. Staring transfixed at the sight of his missing members, he almost didn’t see the whitecoat appear to his right, stepping around from behind him. He almost didn’t see the bloody saw, a veritable relic from a civil war exhibit that this thing was wiping off on a dirty rag, splotchy with brown stains presumably from its previous victims.
And he almost didn’t see it’s face, or lack of one. Instead of a nose, a mouth, eyes, or any other feature which might convince you it was human; this thing had a single, pinched hole where the mouth would be, a boney ridge in place of a nose, and blank, unmarred flesh where there should have been eyes. It looked like a botched plastic surgery operation. Fantastically botched.
Its head turned in his direction. The boy could feel it looking at him, though it had no eyes to see with. His struggles were futile, that blank face seemed to say, and he surely felt that way, as he writhed and jerked on the operating table, struggling to free himself from whatever was holding him down. The creature looked calmly on, unamused, unashamed of its ugliness, and of the ugliness of its previous actions, until, exhausted, he stopped his unsuccessful attempts to escape, and simply lay there, trembling. Slowly, deliberately, with practiced and steady hands, the thing slipped a dirty-looking mask over the lower half of his face, blacking out the room once again as Ricky breathed shallowly, inhaling and exhaling in short puffs of air. The young boy, caught in this nightmare, could only feel relief as he slipped away. Maybe he would wake up, and this would all be over. He drifted slowly down into a world of soft gray and black, peace and quiet, tranquility and safety.
Ricky Allan Lane was buried exactly 23 hours later.
Twenty-three minutes after she had coerced her son into entering the lab to get his finger pricked and a small amount of blood drawn, the boy’s mother began to worry. A soft knock on the door had confirmed that no one would open it for her, but when she herself tried the handle, she found it locked.
Four minutes later, after a nervous power-walk down the hall to the receptionist’s desk, which was empty, the doctors’ offices, which were empty, and finally, to the parking lot, which was also empty, she returned to the waiting room, and, while frantically pounding on the door to the lab, called her husband and the police.
They arrived in record time. One of the officers, last name Ramos, shot the lock. They found the boy, more accurately, what was left of him.
Peter frantically questioned the police, and attempted several times to speak with his wife but received the same amount of information from both sources: None. Zip. Nada. No-one could explain what had happened. How did you take your child in for a checkup and end up with a head that had once been a whole little boy, one you had loved and cared for since his birth, a wife who had lost her mind at the sight of her mutilated son, and no explanation, no theories, and no leads?
Peter Lane sat on the same sofa, in the same house, where, eight years earlier, he had relaxed in comfort with his beautiful family. Now, the floor was empty and cold with no child to warm it, the blankets folded quietly in the corner, the pillows on the couch where they were supposed to be. When this family had been whole, what seemed like so long ago, Peter would have gotten annoyed, even angry at a litter of toys on the floor, or an untidy pile of blankets where they were now so neatly stacked. Now, however, he’d have jumped at the chance to clean up after a child, to fold blankets left on the floor when something interesting came up, and Ricky took off, not bothering to clean up his mess.
The couch, now with enough room to stretch out on, was no longer comfortable. It was sad and lonely.
His wife, admitted into the “loony ward” at the very hospital where his mother had died, was in steadily declining health, physically and mentally, no longer aware of her surroundings, not even recognizing him, her husband of 13 long years.
His son, his death still utterly and completely unexplained, was interred in the little cemetery behind the 1st Baptist Church down the road, where, as a family, they had often attended service.
Though he had exhausted every effort to uncover the reason for his son’s gruesome demise, and, in turn, his wife’s loss of sanity, no progress was made. For the last few years he had gone about his life, as normally as was possible following these tragic events, in a trance-like state, doing what was necessary, and only what was. Suffering in silence, shunning friends, family, and especially, coworkers. What was there to live for?
He stood from the empty sofa, grunting in pain. His knee, until recently just an occasional twinge, was acting up. For the past few weeks, any time he put the faintest pressure on it, it would flare up. Forget trying to walk up the stairs, he could barely step up over the curb without inducing some kind of uncomfortable reaction from his injured joint. He dressed, contemplated then declined breakfast, and headed out the door with a thermos of scalding coffee. He had made an appointment for his annual checkup, not because he liked going to the doctor, but he had to do something about this knee of his. He was uneasy, as usual. Of course, it was at a different establishment than that one, but he was still nervous every time he went, which, unsurprisingly, wasn’t all that often.
He arrived, waited his turn, reading his paper, and entered the office when his name was called.
The first thing he noticed about the doctor was his long, bony, almost claw-like fingers. With a sigh, he shut the door behind him. Oh, how he despised doctors.
As he reached out to shake the doctors outstretched hand, he saw the man’s face. Or, more accurately, lack, thereof.