Sunday, April 3, 2016

"Human Women"

Another week, another short story.

I'm a week behind, because last weekend my wife and took our two daughters to Disney World for the first time. It was an amazing, exciting, and very tiring trip. We were glad to get back, and I was glad to have a few relaxing days before heading back to school at the end of spring break.

This is another story of Jillian Nightingale, nurse practitioner to supernatural creatures and cryptohumanoids. Her other adventures, while not being necessary to follow this story, can be found in the links below.

"In Sheep's Clothing" 

"Sometimes I Feel Like I'm Being Watched"

"The Best Medicine"  - Jillian's inaugural story

"Open Enrollment"  - this story takes place in Jillian's world, although it doesn't explicitly star her.


"I don't know if I can do this."

Max Bartrom, bartender of The Scabbard, looked up at me. "What? What're you talking about?"

I swallowed hard. A chilly breeze blew through the gravel parking lot behind the bar. Shifting uneasily, I ground gravel beneath my tennis shoes and wrapped my jacket a little tighter around myself. "Look, I... I don't want to put you out any more than I already have. I'll just call the Agency and have them move the patient from my caseload."

Max dropped the large wooden box he'd carried out to the parking lot at his feet. "What's the matter? You're not scared, are you?"

I dropped my jaw and tried to act surprised by his insinuation. "Scared? Are you kidding me? You should see what I've already dealt with this week. I've talked a ghost out of an existential crisis, successfully gotten three vampires on artificial iron supplements, and diagnosed a mermaid with a gill infection. And it's only Tuesday."

Max smiled. "So, you're not at all concerned about seeing Mister Mephiblasheph today?"

"Of course not," I lied. The fact that my voice leapt an octave did nothing to sell the illusion. "It's just that I know you've already done so much for the Agency this week. I hate to trouble you any more than necessary."

Max cracked his knuckles and sifted through the contents of the box. Despite the cold, stiff wind, he wore nothing thicker than his usual jeans and black t-shirt. "The Agency subcontracts out to me: the more jobs I do for them, the more they pay me. By no means are you inconveniencing me for bringing me more work. In fact, I wish you'd see more dangerous patients every week. I might finally be able to afford that boat I've had my eye on."

The non-cowardly way out of seeing this patient was starting to erode under my feet. "No, seriously, its not a big deal. Providers change patients all the time."

Max stood, something from the box in his hands. "Catch."

He tossed something to me in a slow, underhanded arc. On instinct along I caught it. It was a black, porous rock, about the size of a tennis ball.

Confused, I raised my eyes to Max in time to see him aim a thin, wooden rod, tipped with a white pearl, at me.

And then my world was swallowed in a blinding, howling torrent of fire.

"Oh my god! Oh my god! OH MY GOD!" I screamed, even though I couldn't hear myself. I felt the vibrations in my throat, so I knew I was speaking, but all sound was swallowed in the roar of flames all around me.

I stood, silent in the blinding inferno, for what felt like years. Then the flames disappeared as quickly as they had come, and I slowly blinked my eyes open. Purple spots danced in front of my vision, and I rubbed them in an effort to see more clearly.

I could still feel the warmth of the fire clinging to my jacket, like it had just come out of the dryer. The gravel around my feet was blackened like soot. But I was completely unharmed.

"Huh. How about that," Max said, crossing his arms in front of his chest. "Looks like you can do it, after all."

Gagging on a response, I was suddenly aware of heavy warmth in my hands. My eyes traveled down to the black, porous rock that Max had thrown to me. It was smoking slightly.

My eyes shot up to him. "What in the ever-loving crap was THAT all about?" I screamed at him, heaving the rock at him with all my might. He easily caught it with one hand. The smug jerk.

"You seemed like you needed convincing that I could make you fireproof for your visit to Mephiblasheph today. He is a dragon, in case you forgot. And he has the flu. He's the sort of patient for whom you'd want to be fireproof."

I squeezed my fingers together into white-knuckled fists. Anger grew like an inflating balloon in my chest. "Yeah, I got the general idea of what you were doing, thanks!" I hollered. "I really meant, why the ever-loving crap would you do that to me? Do you get your jollies freaking people out or something?"

Max looked hurt by my words. Which was strange, because in the months I had been working with him, I had never seen him looking so vulnerable. "You just seemed like you needed a little convincing. That's all. Dragonfire is pretty horrible, believe me, even when you only get sneezed on."

I jabbed my index finger at Max. "Look. I told you that I didn't want to do it. That I was content to change my schedule. Did that sound like it had any coded messages of, 'please toss me a fireproof rock and then blast me with a magic flamethrower' hidden in it?"

Max seemed taken aback. He opened his mouth to reply, but I cut him off.

"I am not scared of dragons. Or ghouls. Or vampires. Or any other kind of patient I have to see. And even if I was, I don't need you stepping in to help me be brave. I can be brave on my own." Though my clothes were still warm from the fire, I crossed my arms over my chest and stalked past Max, toward the bar's back door.

"Jillian," came his voice from over my shoulder. I froze with my hand on the door. I didn't want to turn around, because it would certainly ruin the effect of my storming away. But, darn it, my parents raised me better than to be rude. Even to people who had pissed me off. So I turned, and I found Max's face apologetic. "I shouldn't have done that. I'm sorry." He gathered the box from the ground, tossing the wand and rock into it. "And I know you don't need my help being brave. I didn't mean to imply that."

A knot of anger that had developed between my shoulder blades loosened. My spine relaxed slightly. "It's just, that... dammit, Max. I'm the first human provider The Agency has ever hired. I've seen a lot, since taking this job. You know that. Hell, I've been here every day since I started this job, picking up magical equipment without which it would be impossible for me to do my job."

Max knew that. He also knew I was getting to the point. Which I assume is why he stayed silent and simply nodded.

"Yes. I was scared about visiting a dragon today. Okay?" I growled. "And, you know what? I've been scared on many occasions, as a normal human entering the homes of cryptohumaoids. But, see, the thing is, I don't think there's anything wrong with that. There's something to be said for having a healthy amount of fear for things that could literally rip me limb from limb if they chose." I raised my eyes to his. He was still watching me speculatively with the box of magical supplies in his arms. "But one thing I haven't done it let that fear control me. Yes, There were patients I would have rather not seen. But I went anyway. Do you know why?"

"Yes," Max said softly. "For Hope."

Hope was my four-year-old daughter. She was my sole motivation for taking the job with The Agency for the Betterment of Cryptohumanoid Kind. More specifically, it was The Agency's paycheck, which paid for Hope's treatments and kept us out of poverty.

I nodded sharply.

"I'm sorry," Max replied. "It was out of line for me to force-demonstrate the firestone. I should have respected your wishes."

"Thank you. I forgive you," I replied. I then lowered my eyes and held out a hand to Max. "Now give it back, please."

Max looked confused.

I gestured with my outstretched hand. "Come on. Please don't make this harder on me."

"Wait a minute," Max stammered. "You mean you're going? You're actually going to visit the sick dragon? I thought we just had an emotional conversation about how I should respect your wishes and let you make your decisions."

"We did," I replied. "And now I'm deciding to visit Mephiblasheph. So I'll need the firestone."

Max's words seemed trapped in his throat. For a few minutes he simply gestured silently with his mouth open. "Are all human women this confusing, or is it just you?"

"The choice to see Mephiblasheph or not is mine alone. I am an independent woman," I said, ignoring his question. "But, that being said, sometimes an independent woman needs a friend to remind her when she's being a scaredycat, and when she needs to woman up and do what needs to be done." I raised my eyes. "And when to trust that her wizard friend is going to supply her with the tools necessary to do her job, like he always has."

Though he looked like he wanted to say more, Max simply shook his head and handed over the firestone. It was still warm.

"And to answer your question, it's not just me. And it's not just human women. If you dated a little more, you'd realize that."

Max had held the box awkwardly on his hip while digging out the firestone, but he'd repositioned the box in his arms and now approached the back door of the bar. I held it open for him. "Oh, please," he scoffed. "I'm one-hundred and eighty-one years old. And, of all the species I've dated, I've never met a woman as complicated as you."

"Sounds more like a problem with the women you've dated than with me," I said over my shoulder. I crossed back through the bar, nodding to the regulars that sat on their usual stools, even though it was barely past nine in the morning. From the bar I picked up my medical bag where I'd left it, and dropped the firestone inside.

Max stepped behind the bar and set to polishing pint glasses, what he'd been doing before I'd come in for my daily supplies. "Same time tomorrow, then?" He asked, an amused twinkle in his eye.

Slinging my medical bag over my shoulder, I replied, "Same time. As long as you promise to get my permission next time before immolating me."

Max draped his bar rag over his arm like a waiter. "I shall be a perfect gentlemen."

"Don't hurt yourself," Rolf, a regular at the bar, mumbled with a laugh.

Max plucked a lime from the bar caddy and flung it at Rolf's head. It bounced harmlessly off his forehead and onto the floor.

"Be good, boys," I called as I opened the door. "See you both tomorrow."

As the door shut behind me, I heard the wizard bartender tell the werewolf on the bar stool, "I'm telling ya, man... human woman. Watch out."

Now fully equipped, mentally and physically, to see my full caseload of fantastic magic and supernatural patients, I simply smiled.

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