io9 is proud to present fiction from LIGHTSPEED MAGAZINE. Once a month, we feature a story from LIGHTSPEED’s current issue. This month’s selection is “Now You See Me” by Justin C. Key. You can read the story below. Enjoy!
Good art changes you. And that was the point, right? That’s what the social media ad that caught my attention wanted me to believe: Our Shoes: You couldn’t understand our struggle . . . Until now. I had read the line over and over again during a rare downtime in the on-call room and was still mesmerized by it when Danny messaged our Allies 4 Life group. I got three tix to that new BLM exhibit in Brooklyn. Who’s rolling?
As the timely one of our little group, I had the privilege of holding our place in a line that almost circled the block. I looked around; I was the only white person. A young obstetrician in East Harlem, I was no stranger to black spaces. My patients were black, my nurses were black, and I had gathered more than a few black friends through college, medical school, and mutual gatherings. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder what they thought of me, the quiet white woman in line for an exhibit about them.
Finally, I saw Pam and Danny at the edge of the parking lot. I rose up on my tiptoes and waved them over as if signaling a lifeboat searching a wreckage. I rocked back on my heels and tried not to cringe at the sight of Danny’s BLM shirt. She’d always been extra with her allyship, especially considering she had come late in the game. I sometimes remembered the things she’d said in high school, the jokes she had made, and wondered if they stayed in the back of her mind or if she had shut out that side of herself completely.
“Wow, this is quite a crowd,” Danny said. She made a point to flash a big grin to the group adjacent to us. “A beautiful day, beautiful people. I can’t wait. It’s going to be fucking awesome.”
“I hear it’s hard to stomach,” Pam said. She rubbed her pregnant belly as we rounded the last corner. The line seemed to move quicker now that I wasn’t alone. We’d likely be on the tail end of the next batch.
“That means it’s powerful,” Danny said. She leaned back into us and took a selfie with the art exhibit sign in the background. “We need something every once and a while to shake us up, you know? Speaking of . . .”
Danny pulled a dark blue newborn shirt from her fanny pack and leaned down to coo at Pam’s belly. “Godmommy got you something special. I can’t wait to meet you, little one.”
Pam unfolded the shirt, laughed, and held it up.
“‘I fuck with godmom?’” I read. “Really, Danny?”
“Damn right. We have to show her love. With Pam as a mom, me as godmother, and you delivering, that’s the dream team right there.”
“Don’t jinx it,” Pam said. “She could come at any time, on any shift.”
“I’ll be there,” I said. I had arranged my month’s schedule to be exclusively labor and delivery for the weeks surrounding Pam’s due date. Even if she did deliver overnight or on one of my mandated off days, as chief resident I could easily make sure I was there without anyone making a fuss about duty hour violations.
“Shit,” Danny said. “‘No food, no drinks’ type scene. I have to finish this. Want some?”
Danny pulled out a half-eaten chocolate bar with tattered wrapping and broke me off a piece. The chocolate had an earthy taste to it that I couldn’t quite place.
“Spread the love,” Pam said.
“Here, have mine.” Danny slapped my offering hand.
“No THC for my godchild. You should know better, doc.”
I spit out the chocolate. Danny was already laughing. “Weed? You gave me weed?”
“Are you fucking kidding me? What if they drug test me?”
“Why in the world would they test you? Little Miss Perfect, Chief Resident no less. Live a little.”
I wiped my tongue with my shirt. I hadn’t swallowed. A little would be absorbed under my tongue. A minuscule amount. Still. “What if I’m working tonight?”
“That’s not the point. You have to tell someone before you give them weed—THC, whatever. What if Pam went into labor and I was stoned?”
“Good point,” Pam said.
“All right, all right,” Danny said. “More for me.”
After a brief check of our bags, we entered a dark, cramped space. In front of me, Danny’s excited light dimmed to a silhouette. My breath whistled as heat rose through my neck and settled around my eyes and ears. I slowed just enough to let Pam lean into me. I could almost feel her vibrate in pace with her racing heart; she sought the same comfort.
“It’s like the underground railroad,” Danny threw back in a whisper.
“Not funny,” Pam said.
“No, she’s right,” I said. Perhaps that was the artist’s intention. A lack of control in the darkness of America. Probably bullshit, but I needed to hang my hat on something to keep me from turning around and pushing through the too-quiet line until I found sunlight. In the hospital, I was in charge. Even when the patients crashed I knew my role and that of everyone else. Here, there was only darkness and a quiet chaos. An uncertainty without form.
The corridor ended. We suddenly had space and room to breathe. My heart eased itself back down my throat but still sat high and loud in my chest. Darkness continued to cling to the air even as pockets of art illuminated the distant walls around the room. I could hear the other visitors milling about but, besides the shadows passing in front of the exhibits, could see no more than an arm’s reach in front of me.
“Pam? Danny?” Where had they gone? I felt silly calling for them. I wandered toward the light of one of the pieces and soon found myself leaning into the art. A vibrant and colorful restaurant, its patrons in the middle of good conversation and good food. Hanging in someone’s home—Danny’s parent’s, perhaps—I wouldn’t have given it another look. Here? Yes; white. All of them. I searched the less-defined features of the waitstaff. Also white. Next, I searched for meaning. I was missing something.
I moved on, unsatisfied. The next were similar. A packed subway train. A board meeting. A garbage truck making its rounds on a residential street with overlapping trees shedding autumn leaves. All white, from the kids running in the grass to the men collecting trash.
Reading the reviews, I’d expected something like the African-American history museum in DC, which I’d been to twice. A walk through the perils of the slave trade, the civil war, and Jim Crow as a reminder of history’s dark side. Here, there was none of that. The paintings were all modern. How they would help me understand “the struggle” was beyond me.
A bit of light caught Pam’s pregnant figure. Her frozen expression blunted any relief I felt as I walked over. She was either on the verge of tears or a scream, paused so perfectly between the two that she could have been part of the exhibit. She cradled her swollen belly. I followed her gaze, felt my mouth part, and just barely stopped myself from collapsing into her.
What the fuck was this?
I’d seen worse in my training. I’d handed a healthy, crying baby to his mother’s arms for the first time a few hours before passing another pale and near lifeless one to the pediatric ICU team on stand-by. Though when documenting later that night I entered the same measurement for both—seven pounds—the perceived weight of life wasn’t lost on me. The dying newborn was simultaneously lighter and harder to bear than anything I’d ever held. I’d rolled a screaming mother from the emergency to the operating room to find that her uterus had slowly necrosed and died after an otherwise routine c-section just a few days before. I’d informed families who had come to celebrate new life that instead they’d now have to plan a funeral. My heart had grown hard enough to do the job.
Still . . . what the fuck was this? I didn’t know. Not at first. The scene was relatively routine. The laboring mother. The monitors. The hospital staff. All familiar. And yet . . . Was it the mother’s distress? Young and black, her mottled hospital gown tipped with sweat and the slightest hint of blood, her belly rose like a stone, indicating the painful contractions of active labor. No, I had seen that face as well, in all shades and colors. I frantically searched the scene for some blatant horror and the source of whatever fingers wrapped around my lungs. If I didn’t find it, it might undo me—
And then, I saw. It wasn’t the mother, or the surgical kit open and ready for an inevitable emergency C-section. It was the response of the medical team. The doctors looked on with something that wasn’t quite amusement, but it wasn’t concern, either. They could have been the waiter taking an order or the trash collector signaling the driver to move to the next block.
“They don’t care,” Pam said. And they didn’t. One watched the fetal heart monitor like one might watch the pump at a gas station. Another leaned against the doorway, drinking a coffee and checking his phone. I blinked; the doctor checking his watch must have been my imagination.
“Come on,” I said. “This is too much.”
“No,” she said. “I need to see this.”
The sisterly thing to do would have been to nod and stand by her. But it was too much. That wasn’t how things were. The hospital was a place of healing, heroics, and miracles. In that painting was a place of indifference and silent contempt. I moved away; Pam didn’t notice me go.
I found Danny with her arms crossed over her chest and shoulders hunched as if taken by a chill. She had a serious, somber look I hadn’t seen on her since her father’s funeral that first year out of college. The piece was of a young slave woman fleeing across a field, her masters in hot pursuit. My eyes drunkenly rolled over the canvas. I focused on the center for stability, where two German shepherds snarled and tugged on their chains. Wait—I’d had a German shepherd growing up; they were relatively modern breeds, only a century or so old. I stepped back. The woman wasn’t a slave at all. How could I have thought so, with her tight-fitting jeans, neatly braided hair, cell phone in hand, and brown hoodie ripped at the sleeves? She was running from two police officers, obvious in their blue uniforms.
“She’s been running for a while,” Danny said. “See?” And I did.
I moved away, and as soon as I did the memory of the painting was hazy and incomplete. Had she been a slave? Were the dogs dated hounds or modern breeds? Whispers from the other people in the display room rose from the quiet ashes. The shuffle of feet, the soft wheeze of someone who likely had untreated asthma, they all told me I wasn’t alone even if I felt as such. Only the art accompanied me.
I wouldn’t say that the painting caught my eye as much that it caught me. There was nothing particularly special or remarkable about it. An empty city street, the cars, and buildings exaggerated in their cartoon appearance. The grit of the city lay in contrast to the golden sunset sky that showed between the gaps in the skyline.
I don’t know how long I stood there, taking it in. My eyes went to every corner, every mark, as if some clue or insight into the creator’s mind lay about, ripe for the taking. It was there, I just couldn’t see it. It gnawed at me like an absent word on the tip of the tongue. Thoughts of being lost and undecided in medical school flitted by. The lack of purpose, the desire of fulfillment. That was before. I’d worked to establish myself now, to be rigid and proud in my profession. If I could . . . just . . .
A hand on my shoulder. I screamed, stifled it with my fist, and turned to find Pam.
“I’m leaving,” she said.
I began to ask “why” but I knew.
“All right, okay. Let’s find Danny and—”
My hand went to my mouth. I’d sent a glance back that was supposed to be a fleeting thing, but . . . there it was. The purpose. There was a woman in the picture. Not hidden. In fact, the picture was of the woman. She was smack in the middle, standing on the sidewalk beside an intricately painted car. Even as I wondered how the hell I had missed her I found it difficult to see her fully now that she was exposed. My gaze rolled around her like a piece of ice slipping through clumsy fingers. I focused; she came to clarity. Spandex pants, a loose-fitting tee. Skin the color of birch and with the shine of obsidian. Everything was defined. Everything was clear.
Except for her face. Of that, she had none.
I found Pam pacing outside the gallery as she spoke into her phone. Her free hand steadily circled her midsection. A natural movement for any expecting mother that I’d come to recognize, in its excess, as a sign of mental distress. But she was okay. A ridiculous thought, but a real one. We’d survived something, even if we wouldn’t be able to say what it was.
“You sure I shouldn’t come in?” Pam said. “It’s been almost two hours and I’ve been moving the whole time.”
“What’s wrong?” I began, but Pam held up a finger and shook her head. I quelled the urge to push further. Despite the ethical and emotional complications, I had essentially become Pam’s ob/gyn. I had counseled and guided her through the initial in vitro fertilization process and had been with her ever since. Her and her baby, they were my responsibility.
“Right, okay. Lots of water. I will, doctor.”
“What’s going on?” I said again once the call was over.
“I haven’t felt her move since before the exhibit,” Pam said. “One of the doctors on call—a man, low voice—said I should drink cold water but I don’t have any water. She’s supposed to be moving, right?”
“She’s probably just a little sleepy,” I said. Behind my smile that I hoped was reassuring, my mind went through all the more serious explanations. “Why didn’t you ask me?”
“I would have. I just couldn’t find you. And you shouldn’t have to work on your day off.” She jumped a little, placed both hands on her belly, and then closed her eyes. “There you are, big girl. You scared momma.”
“I’m never off. Not when it comes to this.”
Pam nodded, though her mind was elsewhere. “Where’s Danny?”
Behind us, the entrance to the exhibit sat cold and bare. The line was gone. No one had emerged after me. Shit. I’d have to go back. Why would Danny do that? Why would she stay in that awful place and make me come after her?
And then my friend walked out of the art exhibit, her face lit in laughter.
“Whoa, what happened?” she said when she saw us. “Baby girl coming?”
“Not today,” Pam said, pocketing her phone. “Let’s get the fuck out of here.”
On the drive back into Brooklyn after leaving Our Shoes, Danny’s need to evoke laughter ran up against our temporary inability to laugh. Her jokes did little to cut through the thick and stifling silence. She even pulled out an old racist one from high school. The irony of her allyship gave it a levity that would have forced guilty laughter any other day. Now, I just felt uneasy.
Thoughts of the faceless woman ate up the last of my reserves. So, when Danny spoke again after a particularly long silence, I took in a sharp breath to yell at her to shut up. But what she said was without humor. Her voice had the same cold quality I had heard back in the exhibit.
“The pictures changed for you guys, too, right?”
Danny’s words sucked all the unclaimed emotion from the car.
Laughter, safer than tears, sparked between the three of us. What we had just witnessed had stirred something we didn’t want to share with ourselves, much less each other. Allies have to laugh every now and then so as not to go crazy.
“That shit was insane,” Danny said. “Damn near thought I’d lost my mind.”
“How do you think they did it?” I said.
“A hologram. Some lighting tricks. Unsettling, huh? My painting, it kept changing. I swore it was a runaway slave at first. And that must be what it was. Then I saw the dogs, and when I looked at her again she wasn’t a slave at all, just a woman running from a mob.”
It wasn’t lost on me that Danny had referred to it as “my painting.”
“I saw one where the woman was invisible, but not invisible, you know?” I said.
“Yes, I know exactly what you mean by that cryptic-ass sentence.”
“It must have been the hologram.” But what about the face?
Danny slapped the steering wheel. “Fucking great. I love great art. My take is it’s supposed to be a metaphor of how things change today? What did you think, Pam?”
I locked eyes with Pam in the rearview. She had laughed, too. The hint of it still lay across her lips. “It was powerful. Just not my cup of tea.”
“What was yours?” When Pam raised her eyebrows, Danny went on. “Come on, I know something spoke to you.”
Whether Pam was going to describe the delivery room scene or tell Danny to “fuck off”, we never knew. Flashing red and blues lit our world and brought back our silence. Danny cursed through the rearview mirror, hit her steering wheel, and cursed again.
“Last thing I need,” she said.
“How fast were you going?” I said.
“The speed limit. They ran my plates at the light.”
“You got expired tags?”
“No! My shit’s up to date.”
The police wouldn’t just run a random person’s plates. There must have been a reason.
Danny put on her blinker and slowly changed lanes, so formally and carefully that it would have been fitting for her to put her arm out, too. Instead of speeding up to pass and apprehend someone more deserving of his energy, the cop fell in line behind us.
Danny continued to curse softly as she pulled the car onto the side of the highway. I touched her shoulder. She started so badly that she hit the horn.
“You got a dead body in the back or something?” I asked. “You look stressed.”
“I’m just . . . my ID, it’s in my purse.” She reached into the back, rummaged through it, and then gripped her license against the wheel. She thrust her cell phone into my hand. “Here, put this away.”
“I’m not taking any chances.”
A dead body in the trunk was a joke, to be sure, but other thoughts began to fill the space. Did she have something worse than weed? I knew she dabbled, maybe even sold. These thoughts led to others. Had I seen this car before? It did look new. Stolen? Wild and frightening notions, not only in their absurdity but also in how they manifested in my mind less as fantasy but more of a call to caution. I pushed them aside.
An unsteady glow approached the driver’s side. Danny rolled down her window. I squinted against the officer’s high-powered flashlight. The beacon fully blocked his features.
“Do you know why I stopped you?”
Danny stared straight ahead, hands gripped to the wheel, mouth set. Her undefined angst bled over and into me. Pam mouthed what the fuck? when I looked back at her. I shrugged in response. Danny had been one to find trouble all throughout high school and college. The number of run-ins she’d had with the police was second only to the times she avoided them. If there was anyone I’d want to talk to the police on my behalf, it would be her.
“What seems to be—” I raised my hand against the light as it shifted to me. “What seems to be the problem, Officer?”
The light continued. The officer said nothing. The flashlight’s circle grew in my vision, dream-like. The cop was leaning in.
“Was I speeding?” Danny finally said. The light immediately left me, bobbed, then clicked off. I could see his face now. Young, soft. There was even the hint of a smile.
He looked at Danny for a while, then behind him as if to check where he was, and finally spoke. “Sobriety checks. Just want to make sure everyone is all right.”
Danny’s grip loosened. Her shoulders fell. “We just came from the most sobering place ever. You need me to get out? Take a breathalizer? I could use the fresh air.”
“No need,” he said. “You all have a safe evening.”
I slept a deep, dreamless sleep that carried me past my morning alarm and didn’t break until the sun through my window was strong across my face. I checked my phone and almost went back to sleep when my day brain took over.
I jumped up, washed my face, and grabbed my phone to summon a rideshare while I got my work bag together. The phone’s facial recognition kept jamming and it had been so long since I used my code that I was almost locked out with my attempts. Finally, I got through, called a nearby car, poured Othelia fresh kitty litter, and double-checked I had everything before stepping out the door.
A red Prius slowed to a crawl halfway up the block. I checked the app; the tags matched. I waved. The driver looked right at me and then away. I groaned and walked forward, already committing to a three-star review. He rolled down the passenger window and leaned over.
I told him my name and gestured with my phone. “Heading to MacArthur Hospital, right?” That and my tone should have been enough to convey that I was in a rush.
The driver frowned and sped away. I stood there, half in the street outside my apartment, and for a moment I didn’t care that I was late. I looked around, suddenly ashamed. Had I done something wrong?
I swiped at my phone to see if there was a glitch on the app or to call another ride, almost threw it into the gutter when it stuttered in recognition error, pocketed it instead and headed down the block to the nearest station. I took the train and used the extra thirty minutes of commuting time to email the clinic and file a complaint to the rideshare company. I was never late.
I entered Building 200 and, as I took the stairs to the fourth floor, went through possible scenarios of what I would say to Dr. Ernst, the hospital’s director of labor and delivery and the attending supervising today’s clinic. In residency there were no excuses, only outcomes. And I was chief because I had some of the best. But my reputation was only as good as the outcome it promised. Being late shouldn’t matter as long as I got the work done.
Why, then, did I feel like an intern that just fucked up on the first day?
I entered MacArthur’s Family Healthcare Clinic through the back and slipped into the resident’s workroom. A second year presented a case to Dr. Ernst on the far side. Neither of them looked up. I hung up my work bag, put on my white coat, and set up at a sleeping computer.
“Pressures are good,” I heard the resident say. I recognized him as a second year. We’d been on labor and delivery a few times together. He emitted a nervous air around the team, like he had something to prove. I got a chance to see his bedside manner, however, and he was surprisingly warm and empathic with his patients. “I put in for a fasting glucose.”
“What’s the main thing you have to watch out for in her, given her age, number of pregnancies, and her last three pressures?” Dr. Ernst said. “This is a ‘read-my-mind’ question, but I want you to read my mind.”
I tapped my finger as the electronic medical health records system loaded. I was used to playing catch-up secondary to a late patient or two. Even if the first three were roomed and waiting already, I could skim their charts for the crucial pieces, order routine labs so the phlebotomist could get started, see them in rapid fashion, and be back on track by lunch.
“Huh,” I said when my schedule loaded. No arrivals yet. What’s more, the day looked thin. I counted; definitely more than a few cancellations. The most I’d ever had, to be sure.
“Lucky me,” I said to myself. I sat back in the soft, borrowed comfort of a salvaged day and stifled a laugh. What a shitshow. I sent a message to Allies 4 Life about it, refreshed the schedule again, and checked who’d be on the floors with me over the next week. The second year’s presentation drifted over. Something about it piqued my interest and tugged with familiarity.
I clicked through a few tabs in the electronic medical records, found the source of my intuition, and sat up fast enough to cause the front of my chair to lift a little.
“That’s my patient,” I said. And it was. I’d delivered her baby three months ago and this was her second postnatal follow-up. I skimmed the notes quickly to see if there was any reason she’d appeared on a schedule other than mine. I didn’t have any missed page alerts. They would have told me she was here, waiting, before shifting her to another resident.
“That’s my patient,” I said again, standing.
The resident slowly stopped; his eyes shifted past our supervisor and onto me.
“Oh,” he said. “Are you sure? I don’t think so.”
“Positive. I delivered her baby right before sign-out and I was there two hours later because I wanted to get everything in. Gestational diabetes, right? G-two, p-one, didn’t want the epidural. Had to observe the baby for hypoglycemia, almost sent him to the PICU.”
The resident frowned. “That’s a lot of our patients.”
I caught myself soon enough to make it look like I was just turning to engage better in the conversation. If the attending wasn’t in the room, I might have said something more. I knew what our patient population was like. Hell, I had taught his “Intro to Harlem” lecture on it more than a year before.
“She’s definitely my patient,” I said instead. I watched the attending out of the corner of my eye without actually shifting my gaze, a skill I’d picked up early in residency. That brief sliver of a second of direct eye contact put all your insecurities out there on the table. “I don’t know how she got off my schedule and onto yours.”
“I’ve already talked to her and put in the orders.”
I nodded and, on my own terms, turned to Dr. Ernst. “I can see her with him. None of my patients are here yet. I’m familiar with her and it can save you some time.”
She waved a hand. “I have to see the patients anyway.”
“If you want to just eyeball her, I can sign the note.”
Dr. Ernst leaned back in her chair to look up at me. Despite our respective roles, I hadn’t the pleasure of seeing firsthand how she gained her infamous reputation amongst the residents in and out of the operating room. I was spared this side of her for the same reason I became chief: I was too good to criticize. She regarded me now as if I was an ever elusive treasure, finally within her reach.
“Are you suggesting I jeopardize my license by committing fraud?”
I hadn’t expected that. Dr. Ernst’s eyes lit in enjoyment; her mouth remained rigid. “Because that’s what it would be, right? Signing something that said I met with and assessed the patient, when I didn’t at all?”
I really had nothing to say. The practice I suggested wasn’t only widespread, it was encouraged. Most of the attendings had private afternoon clinics, wanted to be done as soon as possible, and the autonomy was good for the residents. It was like I’d just gotten a citation for being wet outdoors during a thunderstorm.
“Also, it might be worth considering that the patient requested a different doctor.”
The resident turned his back to me and continued with his report. He recounted a patient history that I had already gathered, the type of history that sticks with you and doesn’t require notes.
I retreated back to my computer and, for the first time since contracting senioritis, hoped for a patient to pop up in my waiting room. I’d never had a patient fire me. I called the front scheduling desk. No one answered. I hung up, tried again, gave up sooner, and went out to the front. Gloria, our long-time patient coordinator, was dealing with a patient’s insurance issue. I stood off to the side, tried to make eye contact, and ended up scrambling in front of her before she could beckon over the next patient in line.
“Name?” she said without looking up.
“Jane Doe.” I quickly saw that someone had already soured Gloria’s day. That wasn’t an easy task. “Has anyone from my schedule showed or cancelled?”
“The app isn’t working?”
“No, or else I wouldn’t be out here.”
Gloria’s key-tapping stopped. She looked at me over her glasses. The other assistant, in the middle of checking in a patient, paused to turn our way as well.
“Sorry,” I said. “Just a bizarre morning. Can you check my schedule? It’s not working in the workroom.” Out of habit, I told her my last name.
“I don’t see any appointments.”
“Is it blocked off? Maybe I made a mistake and today is my vacation or something.”
Gloria frowned, typed. “It doesn’t show up as blocked. Let’s try scheduling a new one. Weird. See?” She turned the screen. “Appointment made, in the system, wait a second, hit refresh and . . . it’s gone.”
“Has that happened—”
The next in line came up beside me; I had to move out of the way. Gloria smiled at her and took down her information. I waited a moment for her to politely pause with the woman and finish with me, saw that she had no intention of this, and doled out a weak “thanks” before returning to the workroom.
Dr. Ernst and the resident were gone, likely out seeing my patient. I dropped behind my computer and woke it from sleep. As it booted, I checked my group messenger. There was a flurry of activity. I scrolled up, thinking it stemmed from my story. But that had gone unnoticed.
Pam: I’m having these strange stomach pains. They’re sharp.
Danny: Sounds like gas.
Pam: Funny. This might be it.
Danny: Isn’t labor supposed to be painful? You can handle it, you’re strong.
“How far along are they?” I typed.
Pam: Thought maybe I should call the hospital.
Danny: How far apart are they?
Pam: Every three minutes or so. But sometimes just a constant pain.
Danny: They’ll just send you home.
Pam: You think so?
Danny: Def. It’s probably just your nerves. Besides, I might need you to come pick me up. Can’t get in my apartment and my neighbor just called security on me. #kiddingnotkidding
I imagined Danny cursing out her landlord or trying to break into the window and began to type What’d you do to make them do that? I stopped myself and instead sent an emoji with its tongue sticking out. Then I typed, Pam, call me.
“There they are,” I said when I looked up at the screen. The day’s schedule, albeit thin, was as I had seen it before. I habitually reloaded the page.
“What the fuck?”
All the patients were gone. Only they hadn’t simply disappeared. They had loaded with the page and then dissolved just slow enough to leave the impression of a spreading disintegration.
I leaned in close enough to feel the screen’s static hum against my nose. Some of the names were still there, faint and likely illegible to anyone not familiar with them. I shifted the screen with the arrow keys. No, not an artifact burned into the LCD monitor. Each letter faded at its own pace, seeming to ripple as its edges blew away into nothing.
And then, only white.
I took the bus home. I dropped my medical bag at the door and called for Othelia. She was usually somewhere close when I arrived. I checked her nook by the couch, the kitty litter, and finally found her dozing on the back windowsill. She opened a feline eye towards me, yawned, and went back to sleep.
“You too, huh?”
I changed out of my clinic clothes, checked to make sure my pager was signed out to the overnight team, and logged into my work email. The last timestamp was from the day before. I checked the internet connection and reloaded. Still nothing. I switched over to social media and began a mindless scroll.
I woke to the vibration of my phone. The day’s emails were finally coming through. This had happened before; some connection problem with the server or my phone. I expected upwards of fifty emails from hospital administrators, program events, and patient inquiries. Except, there was only one. A notification.
I opened it, sat up, and read it over again. Dr. Ernst had filed an incident report against me for poor professionalism and lapse in clinical duties. What’s more, the department requested a drug test. It was my first grievance in my nearly four years of training at MacArthur. And for a chief resident, it was unheard of.
I woke a full thirty minutes before my alarm the next morning and immediately reached for my phone. The residency program director hadn’t yet responded to my acknowledgement of the incident report and request to meet. I refreshed my email a few times, checked the Allies 4 Life chat, and stopped myself from going down the social media hole. Today was a hospital day. Twenty-four hours of labor and delivery, no less. For the first time I’d be walking into the hospital with a scarlet I on my back. Being late—being anything other than perfect—wasn’t an option.
I entered the hospital earlier and more anxious than I had in years and considered it a mercy when the busy, serious nature of the work took over. Still, little things that usually left me unfazed stuck. The patient that forgot my name or thought I was the nurse. The junior resident who didn’t inform me of a significant clinical change in one of our patients. The other junior resident who didn’t come grab me when our patient went into active labor. The night-time attending tapping the other residents for a learning case, when I had been right there. The near constant pushback from my team, as if they had all somehow witnessed my previous day’s failure in clinic.
Thankfully, the work kept the speed.
Things quieted as night turned to dawn. After two deliveries and one emergency C-Section after midnight, the floor was finally calm. My hospital checklist was done. No patients were near fully dilated and I had thirty minutes to spare. I went to the resident lounge, poured some coffee, and set a mental reminder to later check the day’s notifications from Allies 4 Life. I’d gotten one email my whole shift informing me of an important package in my mail. Something that needed immediate attention. I saw the small, square package in my cubby, opened it, and almost laughed. I looked around, read the notice that came with the package, and laughed again. Unfuckingbelievable.
The small workroom where we signed out smelled of coffee and pastries. I thought I’d have to wait a few minutes, but the second year from the previous day’s clinic was already here, set up at the work table. I pulled my list from my back pocket.
“I got seven to sign out,” I said. “I suspect all but two should deliver during your shift.”
“Oh, I already looked them up. Straight forward. You don’t need to signout.”
“A good signout is important. I hope the senior residents are teaching you that.”
He sighed with impatience. I didn’t remind him that he was a second year and I was Chief. I could have. As a junior resident I had been reminded of such things for much less. Instead, I took extra time reviewing my patient list. For his benefit and the sake of patient care. Overconfidence—especially in junior residents—scared the shit out of me.
“Her pressures have been good overnight,” I said about the last. This was her third pregnancy. First two she had preeclampsia, one of which ended badly. “I really hope she delivers before change of shift. She’s been here a minute. A trooper, too.”
“Looks like she was a little hypertensive here,” he said. “I already put in for a diuretic.”
I frowned. “That was one occurrence and she was laying on the cuff. If you look at her other reads, they’re all normal. I had the nurse redo it—see, here. Did fine.”
The resident didn’t say anything, only continued to click through her chart.
“You’ll dry her out and put the baby in distress,” I said. I could have let it go. I’d signed out and it was the end of my shift. What the resident chose to do now was between him and the attending.
“Better than letting her get HELLP,” he said.
“She’s not near that. I just told you—”
But he continued to frown at the page with that vital sign. He picked up the nearest phone and called the patient’s nurse. “Hey, can you check vitals on twenty-three B again?”
I waited for the retort. The nurses had yet to change shifts. She had already rechecked the pressures and waking a sleeping woman during labor was not fun.
But the nurse actually sounded relieved. Her voice drifted over the phone. “I’ll get that right now. Overnight doc wouldn’t let me. You never know with these GD cases, though.”
“You done?” The resident turned to me. I noticed for the first time that he had a lazy eye with an unsettling, off-balance gaze.
“Sure.” I wasn’t. “Here’s my overnight notes. Page me if you need anything.”
The week went on like this, and by the end of it I was looking back at that no-hitter in clinic and thinking of it as the best day in the world. Even if the universe balanced it, a busy clinic day was still better than the floors and I looked forward to my next one on Thursday. However, a resident called in sick and the automated jeopardy system selected me to cover their inpatient shift. This was obviously an error, as the Chief wasn’t usually available for staffing needs, but I was too tired to raise the alarm.
Finally came a two-day break mandatory for the stretch I’d just had. I fingered the package in my locker after signout. I’d considered not doing it at all out of principle.
I went to the restroom, filled the cup, placed it in the sample bag, and put it in one of the collection baskets for clinical labs before leaving.
My legs are swollen. Is that normal?
One foot was still in a dream as I checked my phone. The last two days had gone by in a blur of restless sleep. Even as a senior resident I worked upwards of seventy hours a week with usually just enough rest to give the obligatory morning coffee something to work with. Being on this sudden, forced vacation, I’d crashed. My body rejoiced in the rare opportunity to slow down.
The message was the latest in a days-long string between Danny and Pam in our Allies group. Until now, I had completely forgotten about them.
Another from Danny popped up. They sent you home, you’re good. You know you’re dramatic.
I read through the whole conversation and by the end of it I didn’t need coffee. Me missing Pam’s trip to the emergency room shouldn’t have mattered. Based on what I’d just read she should have still been in the hospital. Headaches, blurry vision, long bouts of little to no movement from her baby. Just one of those warranted an overnight stay to rule out preeclampsia.
I called Pam and almost broke my neck tripping over my scrubs as I pulled them on. No answer. I paced my small apartment for my workbag as I dialed the resident workroom on the Labor & Delivery floor. No answer. Shit. I found my bag under a sleeping Othelia, who was not trying to move. She hissed as I pushed her aside. I’d reflect later how her hairs stood all over her body, how her back arched, and how her teeth bared in a defense usually reserved for the unknown.
Pam lived alone in West Village in a nice two-bedroom that her parents owned. The crosstown bus stopped right in front of her building but the back doors were jammed. I pushed and kicked them to no avail. The bus began to leave and I screamed.
“Back door!” a man yelled from his seat behind me. The bus stopped; the doors opened. The man gave me a half nod as I stepped off. Then he and the bus were gone.
Pam dropped her phone when she saw me. This initial surprise gave me pause. Instead of sisterly recognition there was bemusement and fear. Some of it I’d seen in that rideshare driver before he drove off. I might have left to wander the streets in a lost daze if not for her eyes. Beyond the red streaks of tears and insomnia, her sclera was tinted yellow.
“It’s me,” I said. “Pam, it’s me.”
Her expression softened. She smiled, then gripped my arm hard enough to leave a bruise as a contraction went through her. My experience held a healthy inventory of women in the beginning parts of labor too early to start the epidural but far enough along to solidify my decision to never have children. And those who chose to do the whole thing natural—God bless them. I knew normal labor pains of all intensities. The sharpness of Pam’s grit, the rigidity of her body, and the pungent odor that grazed the air would make me nervous even at a hospital. Outside of one, I was terrified.
And her eyes. Damn it all to hell, her eyes.
I picked up her phone from the floor when her painful episode had passed.
“We’re getting you to the hospital. What’s your password?”
I checked her blood pressure with my cuff on the rideshare ride over. Fuck. I checked it again.
“That bad?” she said. Pam was in-between contractions that thus far proved as irregular as they were concerning.
“It just means they’ll get you roomed quick,” I said. “We should call Danny. She’d want to be here.”
“She’s probably busy. Up to no good. She’s going to get herself killed.”
I nodded. This made sense, even if I couldn’t place why.
“They won’t see you,” Pam said. She laid her head back. Sweat matted her head. Her eyes shone with the sharpness that labor pains brought to the mind. In between the contractions, I’d heard some patients say, was an eerie comfort and clarity. “We shouldn’t have gone to that exhibit.”
The contraction came. I offered my hand to her grinding grip and rode it out. I watched the buildings pass by in a blur as the abnormally long contraction came to an end. We pulled up to the back of the hospital near the emergency bay. I helped Pam out, got her into a wheelchair, and scanned my ID at the physician entrance. The sooner I could get her upstairs to the unit—and probably the operating room—the better.
My card didn’t work. By this point I wasn’t surprised. I rolled Pam to the check-in desk.
“Patient’s name?” the receptionist said.
“Pam Hunter. She’s thirty-five weeks pregnant, is having irregular contractions about three minutes apart, and hypertensive with systolic in the low two hundreds. Jaundiced, fatigued. Classic preeclampsia. She needs an OR.”
The receptionist typed at the same speed she had before. After what felt like another hour she looked up and at Pam. “Hunter, is it? What’s going on?”
“What the fuck?” I said. “I just told you. She needs to go to the OR.”
“You’re scaring me,” Pam said.
“No need to be scared,” the receptionist said. “We’ll get you set up and you can talk to a doctor. How’s that sound?”
A nurse came to roll Pam back past triage and into a single room.
“I’m an ob/gyn resident here,” I said to the nurse. Slow, careful, as if a misstep might cause her to ring the alarm and bar me from coming back with them. “I think she might be in fulminant liver failure. We need to get gyn surgery and liver here as soon as possible.”
“We’re putting you in bed eight,” the nurse said to Pam. “Your doctor will be with you shortly.”
She helped Pam into a hospital gown, set up the baby monitor, and then left us. Alone and waiting. I paced the small room and tried not to go insane with each of Pam’s contractions, which I could do nothing about. Intensity aside, I noticed they grew more frequent, more concrete. I rang the bed alarm for the fourth time and was about to walk out to the nurse’s station when the door opened.
Finally, my favorite second year resident came in.
“Is the OR ready?” I said. “Where’s the attending? Is Ernst on?”
“Hi Pam,” the resident said and walked past me. He sat on the edge of the bed, put on a fresh set of gloves, positioned Pam’s legs, and quickly checked inside her. Pam sucked her teeth from the pain. The resident was slow and deliberate. Still, he had made an awful misstep. I know either myself or someone else senior in the residency had shared the importance of asking the patient every time before doing a vaginal check. Finished, he took off the gloves. “Close. About six millimeters, moderately effaced.”
“She’s got late decels all throughout her read.” I pointed to the baby monitor. “Where’s the attending?”
My co-resident stared at the monitor. He saw the decelerations. Recognizing that pattern was a key part of his training, as unavoidable as learning how to walk. Yet his features did not reflect the horror of it, the urgency. He almost looked . . . uninterested. Nausea poured over me. I’d seen this before. At the exhibit. A doctor looking on as a deadly medical event happened.
This wasn’t going to turn out well. Both Pam and her baby were in serious danger. I knew that. I had been trained for that. From the very first week of medical school where our first patient had been a cadaver, I expected death to be an integral part of my career. But no one had trained me on losing a friend.
One of the emergency technicians came in with the ultrasound. He rubbed gel on Pam’s belly and started projecting to the screen.
“There’s a lot of fluid,” the resident said. “Some outside of the gestational sac.” He touched the screen. “And where is this collection coming from?”
I watched with growing angst. The junior resident was still too green around the ears to recognize what I could. Pam’s liver had burst. I logged into my paging software and paged Dr. Ernst. She came within minutes.
“Thank god,” I said. I began to rattle off the details of her condition. “G1P1, mid-thirties—”
“You can’t be here,” Dr. Ernst said.
“What? Okay, any other time, but now—”
“Your drug test came back positive for cannabis. You are barred from clinical duties, until further notice.” She looked up from me. I felt erased. “Let’s take her to the OR.”
Everything moved fast after that. They gathered Pam’s lines and monitors and began to roll her out of the room. She was just coming down off of a contraction and began to call out for me.
“Pam, I’m here!” I grabbed her hand. Someone else pulled it away. Pam continued to call for me and looked around, frantic and frightened, everywhere I wasn’t. “Pam, I’m right here. I’m not leaving you. You’re going to be okay.”
The medical team piled around the bed, pushing me back. I slipped and fell. My knee cracked against the floor. I scrambled up and followed them out into the hall. Other hospital personnel, technicians, rushing doctors, and even patients walked the halls without notice or regard for my existence. I fell twice more and tasted blood in my mouth.
I ran to the elevator holding Pam and wedged my foot between the closing doors. They didn’t acquiesce like they usually did. I yelled out in pain as the heavy steel pinched my foot. I yanked back; it came out with a pop. I banged on the metal, but it was too late. I could hear the machinery rising.
I took the stairs three flights up. The door was locked. I searched my many pockets for my ID, found it, and used it. The indicator flashed red. Again. The same. I banged on the door. Residents, surgeons, nurses and technicians in blue surgical scrubs passed just inches away from the door’s glass window. None of them turned. None of them saw. None of them heard.
I began to scream.
Hours. I had been in that damn stairwell for hours.
I heard the steady cry of a newborn as I rounded the corner and entered another long hallway of operating rooms. The sound should have brought me joy, but I was too good, too experienced. The sound was singular, cutting, and without any of the comfort that came with the immediate bonding with mom after birth.
Two pediatricians rolled Pam’s newborn down the hall in a hospital bassinet. They chatted with each other as if discussing the weather. The newborn’s initial wail had withered to a pout. I didn’t look at her as they passed. I couldn’t. God, I couldn’t.
I opened one of the double doors to the operating room. Pam’s limp, blood-spotted arm extended from under the sheet and hung off the side of the table. That’s all it took.
I pushed down the public stairs, out of the hospital, shielded my eyes from the golden sunset peeking through a break in the skyline, doubled over, and vomited into the gutter. Passing legs knocked into my side and I stepped forward into the mess of puke, leaves, and the trash of New York. My offender wasn’t blind or oblivious or preoccupied. Only indifferent, as if he had casually kicked a can lying in the middle of the sidewalk.
The roll of tires. I moved just in time to avoid the approaching car claiming the empty parking space. No horn blare. No screech of the brakes. Only the squish of the front tire moving casually into my vomit. I stared at the driver as he got out. He didn’t pause at the woman still doubled over by his car, drool dripping from my mouth. If he even saw me, that is.
I screamed. Hot bile burned my throat. The man briefly looked up from his phone, as if he’d overheard the beckon of someone else with his same name. Distant and faint, more of a cursory glance than a real curiosity.
I straightened myself, leaned against his car for a second as a mild dizziness passed like a warm wind, and went to stand in front of the meter maid. Even in New York, the city where I could stroll the streets naked and not get a second look, I should have been more than remarkable. Spittle dripping down my chin, hair disheveled, a mottled pair of scrubs that looked stolen. What’s more, I was fully blocking the meter, so he’d have to acknowledge me.
He stopped just short of me without looking up. What was he waiting for? Did he even know?
“Excuse me,” I said, soft at first. “Say ‘excuse me’.”
The man’s eyes flickered, but not my way. Whatever crossed his mind had nothing to do with me.
“I’m right here,” I said. “I’m right fucking here! See me!”
My voice climbed to a yell that rattled my throat. The world shook and blurred until I saw not a man but rather the gray representation of everyone shutting me out. The residency, the demotion, that fucking drug test. All the blood and sweat and sinew had done nothing to stop my own friend from dying in front of me.
I’d heard before of the world going red, of the hot blood pulsing behind the eyes in the fit of rage. I thought it was all colorful nonsense. Not anymore. The gray sky turned to blood.
I punched him. I punched everything. My knuckles cracked across the bridge of his nose, which began to spurt blood almost immediately. He yelled out and cradled his assaulted face, looked down at his bloodied hand, and then at me.
“Now you see me. Ha!”
Any triumph fell into a hollow dread. He looked at me, but not in the way I wanted. If he had yelled, or cursed, or hit me back, or fled as if I had meant to kill him, any of those would have been better than this dead stare. I stepped away; my back hit something soft. Another stranger, this one tall and lanky, just standing there, staring at me. I took in more of my surroundings. The hospital’s revolving door had stopped mid-turn; its occupant stared at me from inside the glass. A car stopped in the middle of the street. Its driver leaned across the passenger seat to let me know that he, too, saw. A group of young interns, scurrying back after grabbing a quick lunch to go, paused to stare.
I pushed past the man. His fingernails dug lines into my arm, drawing blood. I swatted him away; someone’s shoulder collided with mine and knocked me to one knee. They were all still staring, closing in but not moving at all. I saw all their grief, their sorrow, their disappointment in life aimed towards me, blaming me.
The worst of it was the silence. All of New York admonished me without words or reason.
I pushed myself up and ran. I lived in the Tribeca neighborhood, well past the south end of Central Park, miles on foot. I ran just the same and didn’t stop. Every conversation paused, every stride slowed, every eye I passed turned toward me. Never at me, not directly. I ran even as my legs wailed and I felt the overworked thrum of my heart in my skull. If I stopped to rest, that dead gaze would be there, and it would eat me alive.
I almost collapsed when I reached my building. I took three big breaths and pulled out my key. It didn’t work. I tried to buzz myself up but the call wouldn’t go through to my phone. One of my neighbors—an older woman with three dogs—appeared on the other side of the door. I quickly rehearsed an explanation for my lost key. The door opened; my neighbor came out and didn’t acknowledge a hint of my soul. I slipped inside.
I yelped. A warm, strong grip on my arm. My neighbor, her body only halfway through the door, held me tight, decisively. She continued to look toward the street; sweat coated her brow.
“You don’t belong here,” she said.
I yanked away, ran upstairs, and kicked up the mat outside my apartment door. I almost laughed as the spare key slipped into the hole and turned. I’d gotten one up on it. Whatever it was.
I slammed open the door hard enough to bounce loudly off the coil. My roommate—usually staying over with her boyfriend—lifted her eyes from her phone for no longer than a second. I screamed frustration and kicked over the trash can. The sound of metal against wood and the tumble of domestic trash was sucked into the walls. My roommate didn’t even flinch. She would find the mess later and imagine she must have bumped into it in the middle of the night or blame Othelia even though she had never done such a thing before. That’s how this worked, I was realizing, the world corrected for my absence.
The inside of the bathroom was darker than usual. My fingers paused on the light switch. What if I saw nothing in the reflection? Would I cease to exist? My hand fell away. I moved close to the mirror, trying to see myself in the darkness. Small bits of light leaking in from the hall played silhouettes in the reflection. I swayed from side to side but couldn’t quite sync up the movement with mine. I lit my phone.
Any angle I tried the glare went right into my retina, blinding me. Where was I? I could just make out what seemed like the outline of my body. Finally, I swept the light in rapid ovals. What I saw in the mirror sent my heart to thrum inside my throat.
Matted hair beat down by a surgical cap. Below that: blushed, featureless skin without shape or nuance. A face blank, like a canvas.
I slammed my phone into the mirror. It shattered into spiderwebs. The slivers caught better what little light there was; a thousand faceless monstrosities stared back at me. I picked up a fallen shard and ran it across my face, sparking fire. I ran another line, then another, and another.
As I left, I briefly saw my roommate, still scrolling through her phone.
I called a car using Pam’s phone. I dialed Danny as we crossed over into Brooklyn. No answer. I called her again, left her a voicemail that I deleted before it could save, and gave up. Tears began to fall.
“Damn you, Danny,” I said. “Pick up.”
The driver turned up the radio. I tried Danny, again and again and again.
“An unarmed woman was shot and killed this morning during a domestic dispute in Chinatown,” the radio said. I scrolled through my texts with Danny and the group to make sure I wasn’t missing any clues to where she could be. “Witness reports say the woman approached the police officers, pulled out what they feared to be a gun, and she was shot eight times in the torso. It was later confirmed that the woman did not have a gun but was holding a cell phone. She was pronounced dead at the scene.”
Pam’s phone dinged to inform me that I was at my destination. I looked out the window. The parking lot was empty. The signs were gone. There was no line, no buzz of anticipation. The entrance was bare and uninviting. I entered, slow. The air was so still and quiet that I wondered if my transformation had been complete. That’s what this was, right? A transformation? Had I passed on to where no one could see me and I could see no one else? I stopped to listen for any joy or laughter coming from some parallel existence, where the exhibit was still running and still attracting a crowd.
Nothing. I went inside because I had nowhere else to go. The same claustrophobia met me as before, only now I had no shoulder to lean into. I stopped at the creeping sound of sobbing, and realized from the sting of tears on my torn face that it was my own. Tears for Danny. Tears for Pam. Tears for myself.
The door to the exhibit yawned open. No one checked for tickets. I paused at the entrance. The dark, narrow corridor was no more. Paintings hung in neat order around the exhibition room. A few people mingled about, passing from one piece of art to the next with stoic expressions. None of the few white people seemed uncomfortable in their whiteness.
I entered. If this was the place that had stolen myself from me, what would I be inside? Invisible? An intolerable monster? A failure for everyone to see?
But no one noticed me. One man frowned at the picture he’d been admiring as I passed behind him, as if the art had suddenly revealed itself as offensive in some visceral way.
I almost passed it: Danny’s picture. There were no dogs. No chains. No fear of imprisonment, mauling, or the whip. Just a black woman talking casually to the police. Beside it was the delivery room, only now it was postpartum. The mother smiled as she cradled her newborn daughter. In the background a nurse rested one hand on the mother’s shoulder while she waited for the blood pressure read to show.
And then, the one of me.
Me? Why did I think that? The one like me. Either way, I’d come prepared to focus, like before. But that wasn’t needed. I could see her immediately. She stood smack in the middle of the street, fully facing the viewer with her hands on her hips and chin high in a stance of confident pride. Her face was clear, detailed, and pleasant.
She smiled, because the world could see her.
Justin C. Key is a speculative fiction writer, psychiatrist, and a graduate of Clarion West 2015. His short stories have appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Strange Horizons, Tor.com, Escape Pod, and Interstellar Flight Magazine. He is currently working on a near-future novel inspired by his medical training. His horror novella, Spider King, is available now from Realm wherever you listen to podcasts. When Justin isn’t writing, seeing patients, or exploring Los Angeles with his wife, he’s chasing after his two young (and energetic!) sons and marveling over his newborn daughter.
Please visit LIGHTSPEED MAGAZINE to read more great science fiction and fantasy. This story first appeared in the May 2021 issue, which also features work by Nelly G. García Rosas, Sheree Renée Thomas, Andrea Chapela, Tobi Ogundiran, Maurice Broaddus, Isabel Cañas, David Anaxagoras, and more. You can wait for this month’s contents to be serialized online, or you can buy the whole issue right now in convenient ebook format for just $3.99, or subscribe to the ebook edition at a via the link below.
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