Tuesday, February 9, 2016

"In Sheep's Clothing"

Another week, another blog post. So far, so good on my New Year's Resolution.

This week's shorty is another tale of Jillian Nightingale, the protagonist of a few other stories I've written in the last few years. In case you're not familiar, Jillian is a human nurse who makes house calls to cryptohumanoids (a.k.a., monsters, creatures that go bump in the night). You can read her past exploits in, "The Best Medicine," "Sometimes I Feel Like I'm being Watched...", and "Open Enrollment." 


It had been a hell of a day. Almost literally.

My last patient, a warlock who'd contracted some kind of infection from flying on a broomstick that hadn't been properly waxed (and had resulted in a filthy, splintery unsanitary mode of transport) had accidentally summoned three Japanese turtle demons when he'd tried to conjure the two of us a cup of tea as we'd talked.

When your medical professional tells you to finish your antibiotics... FINISH THEM, people.

He'd offered to recant the demons, but I was too afraid of what might happen if he tried, so I'd spend an entire Wand of Sapping trying to banish them. No matter what anyone tells you, turtles can be really fast when they want to be. In the end I'd prescribed him another round of antibiotics and threatened to be back within a week to count the pills to make sure he was taking them.

The visit had lasted forty-five minutes longer than it was supposed to. The sun was hanging on the horizon of the late-November sky by the time I was heading to my last patient. I was supposed to pick up Hope, my four-year-old daughter, half an hour ago. Mrs. Barker, our landlord and the best babysitter money could buy, had been really sweet and told me to take my time, that she'd feed Hope and let her watch cartoons on Cable. Hope and I didn't have Cable, so she'd be in hog heaven.

Still, I was dying to be finished and get home to my daughter as the navigation on my phone announced that I had arrived at my last house.

I didn't even remember the lady's name. I had planned to read her case file on my tablet between visits, but the last one had gone so long that I hadn't had time to read the briefing the Agency for the Betterment of Cryptohumanoid Kind had prepared for me. I had no idea what was wrong with her, much less what kind of situation I was about to walk into.

I hated seeing new patients.

Okay, that came out wrong. I don't really mind new patients. New patients are more visits I get to make, and more visits equates to more rent money and more money for Hope's treatments. But new visits always take for-freaking-ever. And I was itching to get home.

Screw it, I thought, diving from my car and tossing my medical bag over my shoulder. I'll just ask what's wrong with her. This'll take fifteen minutes, tops. 

The sidewalk leading to her house was cracked and broken, and weeds grew ankle-high where the stone was splitting. It seemed to be a theme with the street. Sure, it wasn't the worst neighborhood I'd been forced to visit while working for the Agency. But it was close.

There was a gate on the chain-link fence that surrounded the house, but it had nearly been ripped from its hinges. It dangled in the path of the sidewalk, like some metal-and-rust loiterer. I had to dodge around it to approach the house on a paved path that was, somehow, even more cracked and overgrown than the sidewalk which surrounded it. The house might have been painted thirty years ago (a conservative estimate), and the concrete steps that lead to the front porch were crumbling.

I approached, rang the doorbell, and waited.

Thirty seconds passed with no indication from the inside of the house. I sighed, impatience growing, and knocked loudly on the door with my knuckles. My luck, the woman would be hard of hearing and would never know I was there.

"Hello?" I called. "My name is Jillian Nightingale. I'm with the Agency."

From behind the door there was the sound of shuffling feet. It sounded like someone was approaching the door.

"Who? From the what?" came a sudden voice, startlingly close.

"Jillian Nightingale. From The Agency," I replied, quieter than before. "I'm here for your health visit."

Silence. Then: "I think I'm okay. You can leave."

Yes! Cried a tired, impatient voice in my head. But, as badly as I wanted to listen to it, I knew I couldn't simply leave, especially since I had no idea what was wrong with this woman because I hadn't read her file. If something happened to her because I didn't administer care, The Agency (or worse: me) could be held liable. And even though I was pretty sure that cryptos were not nearly as fond of lawsuits as humans, I couldn't risk it. Especially since I wouldn't get paid for the visit unless I actually evaluated her.

"I understand, ma'am," I sighed. "But it may be a few weeks before I'm able to come back. Please, let's have our visit. If you're actually healthy..." I took a deep breath, and forced away my frustration and fatigue. "...then maybe we can simply share some company."

A few more silent seconds ticked past, during which I would have sworn I felt myself getting older. Finally the voice behind the door said, "Okay, okay. Just a moment." More shuffling sounds from behind the door, as if someone had retreated deeper into the house and then returned, and then the click of a lock being undone. The door swung inward, and behind it stood a woman who didn't look much older than me. She was about a head shorter, and her brown hair was a tangled nest around her head. Her face carried its fair share of care lines around her eyes and mouth, which made her seem far older than she probably was. She wore a gray bathrobe, tied tightly around the waist with a cloth belt. She looked irritated, like I had just interrupted something very important, and motioned with her hand for me to enter.

If she wanted the visit to go quickly, all the better. I stepped over the threshold and into her small living room. The furniture looked like it had been in the same place since the 1970's but was well cared for, if a little worn and out of date. A lamp on the low ceiling filled the room with yellow light, making the green shag carpeting look like a field of plush grass. The television against the far wall was turned off.

"I'll try not to keep you very long, Miss... uh..."

"Parker," the woman replied, taking a seat on the couch and crossing her hands defensively across her chest.

"Miss Parker," I replied. From my shoulder I dropped the folding chair The Agency had given me and plopped down onto it. There are things way worse than bedbugs lurking in the homes of some of the cryptos I visited, so I made it a habit never to sit on the furniture when making a visit. I whipped my tablet from my bag and swiped my finger across the screen a few times and began sorting through the day's files. "So, what brings me to your house this evening?"

"I'm not sure," she huffed. "I promise you, I'm fine. I'm not even sure who made the appointment with your Agency. I feel better than I have ever felt in my life."

The internet connection on my tablet was going really slow for some reason. I had been waiting on The Agency's program to load, but raised my eyes to the woman when she said this. "What do you mean?" I asked. "Didn't you make the appointment?"

"No," Miss Parker replied. "I when I walked into the kitchen two days ago to make coffee, I noticed it written on a yellow note pad on the kitchen table. I have no idea who wrote it."

The Agency's program was still not loading, but I was no longer concerned with it. "Could I see that note, please, Miss Parker?" I asked.

She nodded and left the room. A few seconds later she returned with a yellow legal pad, which she handed to me. Written on the front page in big, flowing letters were the works: Agency medical check-up. Thursday, 3:45. 

"You didn't write this?" I asked, still looking at the words on the page.

"No," she replied. "And I don't recognize the handwriting, either. Some relatives visited a few days ago. I thought one of them might have written it; sometimes they worry, and I thought one of them might have scheduled a medical check-up for me, even though I don't need one. But that doesn't explain how the note got on my kitchen table. I would have called to cancel the appointment, but to be honest I wasn't actually sure what 'The Agency' was, and whoever wrote the note didn't leave a phone number."

The program had finally opened on my tablet, but the images and icons were still loading.

After studying the words for a few more seconds, a hypothesis started brewing in my head. "Miss Parker," I began, running with the hunch. "Are you... a cryptohumanoid?"

She tilted her head in confusion. "A what?"

"A... a crypto," I repeated.

She seemed affronted by my statement. Crossing her arms tighter over her chest, she said with a scoff, "I do not have to be spoken to like this. Ma'am, its time you gathered your things and left my house. I may not be the richest person in the world, but I don't have to stand here and be disrespected in my own house."

I couldn't write off the possibility of her being a crypto based solely on the fact that she looked like a completely normal human. Lots of cryptohumanoids looked human, at least on the surface (wizards, nightlings, vampires, and unusually corporeal ghosts, to name a few). But even the most human-looking of all my supernatural patients always had a complete understanding of the Agency for the Betterment of Cryptohumanoid Kind, simply because it was the only source of healthcare for their various species. Not only had Ms. Parker not scheduled her appointment herself, she claimed to have never even heard of The Agency.

Surely someone had given me the wrong address for this final visit. It could have even been someone from The Agency who'd left the note on her kitchen table (there are any number of Cryptos small enough to sneak into a human house unseen).

It seemed I was at the wrong house.

I quickly stood, lifting my chair from the floor and folding it together. "I'm sorry, ma'am," I said quickly. "It appears there's been some sort of misunderstanding. I didn't mean to offend. I won't waste any more of your evening." I gathered my things and moved for the door, but as I placed my hand on the knob Ms. Parker cried out in pain behind me. I spun and found her nearly doubled over on the couch with her hands around her stomach, her face set into a wicked grimace.

"Ms. Parker!" I cried, dropping my things and rushing to her side. "Ms. Parker, what's wrong? Please, tell me."

"It's nothing," she whispered, though her face told that she was in terrible abdominal pain.

"Just tell me what hurts, Ms. Parker," I said trying to keep my voice calm. "Please, I need you to sit up so I can have a look at you. Whatever you're feeling could be symptoms of a much more serious condition."

"No," she tried to assure me, her voice barely over a whisper. "No, this happens all the time. Most of the time... it just goes away on its own."

"It could be your stomach, your liver, your appendix... a tumor, an infection... please, Ms. Parker, for your own good!"

Her breathing was labored, and she hissed in air between clenched teeth. "No... no, I think it's going away... I'll be fine, just... give me a second." Over the course of the next few seconds, her breathing began to return to normal. Slowly, deliberately, Ms. Parker, straightened her spine, relief slowly spreading over her features. After nearly a minute, she finally unfolded her arms from around her stomach. "There. There, I think it's over. It's normally not so bad."

She finally opened her eyes.

They had turned yellow.

My face must have shown my alarm, because upon reading it Ms. Parker's expression became confused, then terrified. She suddenly dove from the couch and ran through the tiny living room and into an adjoining bathroom. I followed, and found her gripping the grimy sink, white-knuckled, staring at herself in the mirror.

Jaundice (yellow eyes), coupled with her abdominal pain, could have been any number of horrific afflictions. If she didn't let me help her, she could be in seriously dire straits.

"Ms. Parker, I'm a nurse practitioner," I pleaded, trying to keep my voice level. "Please, tell me what hurts, how long this had been going on, and I might be able to help."

"Get out!" She suddenly shrieked. "Get out, if you know what's good for you!"

I do not respond well to threats. Being a healthcare provider for creatures that go bump in the night, I am often surrounded by things that could literally rip me limb from limb, and I make it a habit not to let myself be intimidated by them. I had lived with fear for far too long to let it control my life. But I didn't know this woman, and I was in her home, her familiar ground. I raised my hands and backed slowly out of the bathroom.

Once the path was clear, Ms. Parker ran from the bathroom and through the living room. She took the doorknob in one hand and promptly ripped the door from the hinges with a scream of twisting metal and tearing wood. Discarding the door as if it weighed no more than a box of cereal, she flung herself into the dim evening.

There goes your theory about her not being a crypto, I thought after my stunned brain had processed what I had just seen.

Snatching my things from the floor, I fled the house. Ms. Parker was doubled over on the grass in front of her house, crying in pain again. Frantically I awakened my tablet and found that The Agency's program had finally loaded. I swiped through my daily caseload until I finally found the last entry. Her name was Belinda Parker, and her address was correct (though the theory of the mistaken address was pretty much out the window, at this point).

"Not again!" She wailed, writhing on the grass. "Not again!"

My eyes probed the screen further.

Cryptohumanoid Classification: Werewolf 
Diagnosis: Schizophrenic, psychosis 

"Wonderful," I mumbled. Cramming my tablet beneath one arm, I ripped open my medical bag and hurriedly rummaged through it with the other. I had used every charge in my Wand of Sapping at my last visit, but it wouldn't have done much good against a werewolf, anyhow. Did I have anything to deescalate the situation? I couldn't even administer care with her in that state.

Basilisk teeth. Dried bat's wings. Blood thinners. Otoscope. And then, at the bottom of the bag, I noticed a small, round, shining object.

When the agency had prepared the hazard kit for me, they said any piece of silver would do against werewolves. I had been prepared for them to give me a cross, or maybe a knife. But instead I wrapped my fingers around the simple chain and produced the silver Mercedes-Benz ornament form my bag.

I stood, gripping the silver circle, and found Belinda Parker standing erect on her lawn. She had discarded her gray bathrobe, but it didn't matter, because her entire body was now covered with sleek, brown fur. She had the basic countenance of a wolf, but her hind legs were slightly longer than her forelegs, making it more practical to stand bipedal. Her shoulders and limbs looked powerful, and her paw-like hands ended in curved claws.

"Oh, I don't think you'll have to use that," she said, her voice surprisingly calm, and surprisingly feminine. "I'm better now."

Every nerve in my body was on alert. I had been ready for a fight. "What do you mean?" I asked cautiously.

"Sorry for all the confusion and misunderstanding," she went on. She started toward the porch and I tightened my grip on the silver chain, but nothing about her posture said that she had any intentions of attacking. As she joined me on the porch, I noticed her brown eyes nervously on the Mercedes emblem. Silver caused great pain to werewolves, so it might have been akin to holding her at gunpoint.

As the only human provider the Agency for the Betterment of Cryptohumanoid Kind had ever hired, part of my job was building a relationship of trust with those who had never known anything but fear and loathing from humanity.

So I dropped the Mercedes emblem back into my bag.

"Thank you," Belinda said. "Please, won't you come inside?" She only then, apparently, noticed the door she had viciously ripped apart. "Oh. Darn."

"Ms. Parker," I said, picking up my tablet again and stepping over the broken threshold, into the living room."Your diagnosis says schizophrenia and psychosis."

"Yes," she said, a little sadly. "When I transform into my human form, I forget who I am. I mean, yes, I remember my name is Belinda Parker, and I remember my address and even where I work. But I forget who I really am, and everything I saw and did in my wolf form." Her canine eyebrows fell. "It's like waking up from two different dreams, one after the other, all the time."

A werewolf. A werewolf who, while she's human, forgets she's a werewolf. 

Cryptohumanoids may suffer from different types of afflictions than humans, but their feelings about the afflictions are startlingly human. I had dealt with cases of dementia while working at the V.A., and had seen the devastation it could wreak on someone's life.

Belinda was going through the same thing. Only she didn't have the V.A. She only had me.

"I'm going to write you a prescription for some antipsychotics," I told her, retrieving my prescription pad from my medical bag. "They should help you maintain your memories, no matter which form you're in. I'd like you to take one just as you feel each transformation coming on."

She took the paper from me and smiled, but her face quickly fell. "But what if I transform back before I get the prescription filled? How will I remember to take them?"

I thought about it for a moment, then took the yellow legal pad from the couch and produced a pen from my jacket pocket. On it the pad I wrote, in big, block letters: Don't forget to take blood pressure medicine!  - Nurse Jillian.  

Belinda took the legal pad, which looked tiny in her huge paws, and smiled. "Thank you," she said graciously.

"You're welcome," I replied, stepping back through the doorway and onto the porch. "Oh, and you might want to get this door fixed. It's supposed to be chilly tonight."

She smiled and nodded, and was lifting the door from her couch with surprising ease when I stepped down the porch and back toward my car.

My job is difficult. More difficult than most, I'm sure. After all, I never had to help a troll pull its rotten fangs or prescribe ointment for goblin-pox when I worked at the V.A. But every once in a while, when I was really able to bring a patient some healing they hadn't experienced in a long while, it was really worth it.

But from now on, I would always brief myself on patients beforehand, no matter how many Japanese turtle demons I'd had to fight at my last visit.

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