Tuesday, March 8, 2011

A Breakthrough

It was summer, and it was hot. Brutally hot. The kind of hot that seeps in through the skin and scorches everything from sinew to marrow. The kind of hot that find your core and melts it down to meaninglessness. The kind of hot that evaporates life in smoky tendrils. The citygoers in Altique were weary of the relentless sun beating down on them. They were tired of terrible long days bleeding into miserable nights, of feeling their life force diffuse slowly into the atmosphere, tired of this endless, hellish summer. And they were jaded by the unnamed illness that had crept in with the season. It slinked in through the filthy, labyrinthine streets, striking mercilessly at the defenseless population.

So they sought relief.

They sought relief under precariously old ceiling fans, which swayed mesmerizingly, or else gathered around mildewing swamp coolers. They sought relief in the shade of weary skyscrapers. They sought relief in ragged conversation about the coming autumn, the coming change.

There was no relief.

There is no balm for a crisp, sundried soul. There is no life in a suffocating city. There is no cure for this disease.

The exhausted machines did nothing to dispel the heat. Quiet talk of stifled hope couldn’t banish the prevailing sense of despondency. It hung in the sticky air, tangible as the grime that blanketed the city.

Mike could feel it on him as he marched along the sidewalks toward the city center in the company of three other doctors.

“The problem is that these government clinics aren’t well enough organized. I have three nurses, an orderly, and five doctors who all think they’re in charge. I can’t get anything done! We haven’t heard from the Magistrate in a month,” complained the one with the curly auburn hair.

“And it’s not like the work is evenly distributed. We don’t, I mean I, we don’t have enough space. I’d like to, uh, request a transfer for thirty of our criticals. We need the room for incoming patients,” stammered the shorter, older one, his face contorted into a scowl.

The olive skinned one with the kindly green eyes gritted his teeth and directed the group to turn right around the next corner. Finally, he said “It’s too much. We can’t do anything to help these people. There aren’t enough of us here. I just can’t. I can’t do it.”

Mike watched the sky redden over the tiled rooftops of the low-slung buildings squashed between the glimmering skyscrapers.

“How about you, Mike?” asked the shorter, older one.

Mike, a stocky young man with black hair and a perfect smile, shrugged with one shoulder. “We’re doing okay. We only admitted six more today with early symptoms.” He heaved a deep sigh. “But all twelve of our criticals have progressed to Stage IV.”

Silence fell.

They rounded another corner.

A few minutes later they stood in the lengthening shadow of an old college dorm building. The government had bought it and converted it into housing for its doctors when the illness had become The Epidemic. The shorter, older one swept his greying hair from his sweaty forehead. “Let’s go inside. It’s getting late. I have a letter to write, and uh, I’m on kitchen duty in the, uh, in the morning.” He placed his hand on the super heated handle of the huge wooden front doors, frowned at Mike, and tugged the door open.

Mike filed past his friends wordlessly and began climbing the stairs to his room.

“Hey! Mike!”

He turned. A young blonde office aide waved him over to the reception office in the foyer.

“Mike, come here. I need to talk to you.”

“What’s up?”
“This is for you.” He held a thick manila envelope out through the receiving window. Mike didn’t take it, but looked at the young man quizzically.
“You’re Mike, right? Mike Riley?”
“Uh, yeah.”
“Yeah. This is for you.”He brandished the envelope again. “It came in late this morning. Half of the guys in there got ‘em.” He dropped it onto the window sill. “It’s from the Magistrate’s office. Take it.”

“Thanks.” Mike grabbed the envelope and a granola bar from the bowl on a table under the window. “Thanks.” He unwrapped the granola bar and chewed it thoughtfully as he studied the manila envelope and went up to his room.

Mike had to force his door open with his shoulder- the ancient hinges creaked reluctantly. This room was tiny and efficient. It was about fifteen-by-fifteen, and two small beds with footlockers took up the bulk of the space. Mike switched on the bare overhead bulb and sat on his bed in its weak glow. He opened the envelope, which contained several official documents. He read through them quickly.

“Dear Michael Steven Riley,
“The Magistrate is appreciative of your efforts in our fight against the epidemic. You have helped countless citizens in Altique .” The word was written in a different hand, as if a space had been left and filled in later by another person. “Your skills are admirable and invaluable to the Magistrate.

“Unfortunately, the disease is spreading to more cities and villages more rapidly than predicted. As a result, many of the larger task forces, such as the one in Altique , are being reorganized to allow for some of the most proficient doctors to relocate. Michael Steven Riley, you have been selected for relocation. You are required to bring the supplies listed on the enclosed form from Altique to Rellings . You must report to the Public Order Office in Rellings by 18/8 . Enclosed is a voucher for one train ticket, as well as a small stipend for food and other travel expenses. Please return all excess funds to the Public Order Office upon your arrival in Rellings .
“Thank you for your services.”

Below were 5 signatures and titles and a large government seal, but Mike didn’t pay attention to them. He was stuck on the word “Rellings”. For some reason, the name of the village tickled the back of his memory. He thought hard about it, brow furrowed, attempting to coerce the information out of his tired, overworked brain.

Suddenly his face brightened. “Alex,” he breathed, smiling in spite of himself. Alexis Margaret Wallson, his closest friend from University, lived in Rellings with an aunt or a cousin or something. He remembered her flaming red hair and her equally vibrant optimism. His smile widened as he finished his granola bar and rifled through the rest of the papers in the envelope. The prospect of seeing Alex made it much, much easier for Mike to leave the city.

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