Orphan City

By Bokerah Brumley

Maybe the position isn’t as hard as the brochures imply. 

I press my nose to the backseat glass as my hand drifts over the paper in my pants pocket. 

Burn out rate could be a problem. The staff might be substandard. My thoughts run in circles.

It’s been twenty minutes since my arrival on the jungle airstrip, but I already wear a thin layer of sweat and dirt. Surrounded by tropical forests, I’m barreling toward ‘Orphan City’ in a taxi sent by Healthcare Without Borders―or HWB. The settlement is filled with orphaned children, a byproduct of Africa’s unending civil wars.

John, my driver, hunches over the steering wheel, his cigarette hanging loosely from his bottom lip. We zip through the makeshift streets of Bangui. He dodges people and potholes with equal fervor, tossing me unceremoniously from one side of the backseat bench to the other. 

I bump against the window as we careen around the final corner out of Bangui and onto an open stretch of road. John floors it, and the car lurches forward, increasing in speed. I’ve never seen so many refuse and tin homes, all pressed together like hard-used books on a library shelf. 

So many lives, so many stories…

“You are kind. Not like other man doctor. Don’t worry, Merry.” His sing-song accent warps my name slightly. “I get you there. Stat.” He glances over his shoulder and smiles before he turns back to the road. 

Dust billows in through John’s open window to mix with acrid smoke and baptizes me in a cloud of something foreign, something that announces that not only am I not in Boston anymore, I might not even be on the same planet. 

We burst through a line of trees and top a small rise. A throng of beige military tents populate the low-lying valley before us, the border of the canvas town marked by a high barbed wire fence. 

Just before the gate, he curses in a dialect that I haven’t been taught to understand, and we screech to a halt for a small herd of lanky goats. The animals look better cared for than the clusters of children observing my arrival from the other side of the fence.  

The smell of manure wafts in. When the last animal bounds away, John’s head swivels all around, sprinkling ash flakes everywhere. Then he waves at the guard and the single arm blockade opens.

Moments later, we skid to a stop in front of a plywood building with the word OFFICE spray-painted across the front in black letters. Next door, another larger structure has a giant red cross painted on it with the word HOSPITAL. Lone bag in hand, I step from the taxi, and as soon as I close the car door, John peels away. 

The paper in my pocket makes a crinkling sound as I spin slowly, taking it all in. This is going to be my world for the next twelve months. 

“Dr. Epstein?”

I turn toward the source of the high-pitched voice in time to see a young woman rushing toward me from the flimsy building. Her hair has been buzzed close to her scalp, and her eye-color matches the sky. I make a note to ask her if the haircut makes life in the improvised village more bearable due to bugs or heat.

“Yes?” 

“I’m Rachel Frank.” 

I don’t respond, uncertain whether this should mean anything to me or not. Fatigue muddies my thinking. “Hello,” I finally venture, drawing the word into a question.

“Of course you don’t know me yet, but I’m your assistant.” She gives me a mock salute. “I’m also your roommate. Just call me Frank.” And then she snorts, and her timing is invaluable. 

Her laughter eases the upset that’s been building in the pit of my stomach. “Nice to meet you, Frank.” 

“Ah, here she is,” a deep voice rumbles. “The beautiful doctor from Boston.” The words are slightly slurred.

Frank bites her bottom lip and steps nearer as a man saunters up. Her body language sets me on edge, and I glance from her to the tall man. 

Leaning close, I whisper, “What’s wrong?” 

“Everything’s fine.” Her lips barely move, but there’s no mistaking the words. Before I know it, the doctor is too close for me to demand an explanation from her. 

Frank moves away.

“Dr. Mary Epstein?” He wedges his hand neatly between us and grasps mine. “My name is Dr. Charles James. I’m the director of this,” he gestures to the surroundings with his other hand, “bivouac, such as it is.”

“Hello,” I say. I turn away to study the layout of the area, but Dr. James doesn’t let go of me. I frown and yank my fingers from his grasp. He stiffens and his cheerful expression falls. 

“I came to let you know that I’m available to service any of your needs.” His inflection emphasizes service and needs

My cheeks heat, and a grimace makes it to my face before I can stop it, but I don’t hide it. The sooner Dr. James understands that my adventure won’t find me in his tent the better. “I’m here to work, Dr. James. That’s all. I won’t be fraternizing with the likes of you.” 

He scoffs. “A cot gets lonely. You won’t be the first to change her mind.” He points to me. “You’re not going to be able to save them all, you know. You’ll fail, and when you need comfort, I’ll be here.” He raises an eyebrow and steps nearer. 

I resist the urge to shrink away from him. “I’ve read the literature, Dr. James. I’m aware of the statistics.” 

Leering, his ugly gaze crawls the length of my body. “I’m your only option for companionship in this place, Dr. Epstein, and I’ll be here when you figure that out.” 

Each word slaps my blushing cheeks, drawing memories from the closets where I’ve locked them. I hate the way my chin quivers in the face of his male chauvinism. 

I take a deep breath, thinking of the paper in my pocket, but I’m already too furious to complete my task with any level of professionalism.

“Go to hell.” It slips out, and I don’t regret it. For Frank’s sake, I don’t regret it. 

In a third world country, thousands of miles from home, I’ve discovered the same sorts of arrogance I left behind: ego parading in a white smock.  

“Mary, you’re going to change your tune,” he says.

“It’s Dr. Epstein to you.” I bite out each syllable, biding my time.

Unfazed, he saunters away as though I haven’t spoken at all. 

Too agitated by Dr. James’ earlier behavior to sleep off my jet lag, I’m in the middle of making my first patient rounds instead. 

“Dr. Epstein.” Frank stops at the threshold of the exam room. “There’s a man outside, asking for you. He’s waiting in front of the office.”

“Be right there. Thanks, Frank,” I answer and press the stethoscope diaphragm to a little girl’s chest. I stare at my watch and count her heartbeats. 

Her stomach issues a loud growl. I remove the ear tips and smile, and the corners of the little girl’s mouth twitch. “You’re healthy as a tree, and you might be as big someday,” I say. “Go get some lunch.” My interpreter, a teenager who lives in a room at the back of the hospital, translates.

I poke the girl’s middle and then tickle her. A smile breaks across her face, and she throws her arms around my neck. She says something in my ear and then runs away.

“What did she say?”

“She says you are much nicer than the doctor here―the man one.” He beams at me. “She is correct.”

“I keep hearing that.” Shaking my head, I start for the Office.

John paces in front of the buildings. When he sees me, he smiles. “You are kind, Murry. My son is in car. He hurts for days, but I knew that when you came, you were the one to save him.”

Dr. James appears at the door. “What is this man doing here?”

John flinches, but he grasps my hand, tugging me after him. 

I don’t bother answering, but bolt toward John’s car instead. 

All the windows are down on the parked car, and a young man lies prone on the backseat. He groans and clutches his middle.

“What happened?”

“I came before. Man doctor say it is nothing,” John says, “and he send us home. But my boy is not better.”

I open the rear door and kneel on the floorboard beside the prostrate boy. He’s drenched in sweat, and his teeth chatter. When I press on the right side of his abdomen and gently release the pressure, he cries out. 

I duck out of the car and meet John’s gaze. He’s standing nearby, his hand clutched in front of him, as though he’s praying. “We’ll help your son, John, but we have to get him inside.” 

“Yes, yes,” John says, ducking his head.

Frank meets me at the door. “What’s it, doc?”

“Appendix.”

She lets loose a long string of curses. “I told that asshole.”

I nod. “Let’s get this taken care of, and then we’ll deal with him.”

Frank spins on her heel. “Prep the O.R.,” she bellows and grabs a stretcher. Citizen-nurses and nurse-aids come running from all sides of the hospital.

Two hours later, I’m standing over the boy’s bed as Frank leads John into the ward. The boy is resting peacefully.

With wet cheeks and red-rimmed eyes, John falls over his boy. “My child is better?”

I tilt my head and cross my arms. “We have to watch for residual infection, but he can get better now. The part of him that was making him sick is gone.”

John reaches for me, and I lay my hand in his. He squeezes so hard that I gasp. “I knew you were one to save him.”

You saved him. You got him the help he needed.” I laugh but have to wipe at my eyes. 

God. I’m not in Boston anymore.

Frank waves at me from the hallway, her expression grim.

When I leave the bedside, John is whispering and stroking his son’s face. My heart full, I sigh and then turn to Frank and jerk my head back toward the room. “That’s why I came.”

“I’m sorry to step on your endorphins, but Dr. James is insisting that you performed unnecessary surgery, and he’s threatening to report you to the HWB.” Frank bites her bottom lip. 

At my chuckle, Frank steps back in confusion. “Did you not hear me?”

“Of course I did.” I pull the paper from my pants pocket. “I suppose it’s time I deliver my news.” 

Frank takes the paper and scans it. When she looks up, her eyes are sparkling, and she dances in place. “You’re not just the new doc, you’re the new director?”

Dr. James rounds the corner, warily studying Frank’s reaction. “What does that say?”

She spins toward him, waving the paper, and it’s work to keep my face from mirroring the joy on hers.

He jerks the sheet from her hand, and his eyes widen as he scans it. “You can’t be serious.”

“As serious as appendicitis,” I say. “Next time, don’t get drunk and grope the ambassador’s wife at a fundraiser. It makes international relations a bit sticky for the HWB.”

John steps into the hall and gives Dr. James a dark look. “You could have killed my son.”

Dr. James scowls and his chest inflates. “That’s impossible. I’m the director.”

“Not anymore.” I point to the exit. 

Frank waves the paper around.

John’s face turns cheerful as he moves to the door, opening it for the slack-jawed ex-director. “Dr. James, your taxi is arrived.” 

Bokerah Brumley is a speculative fiction writer, making stuff up on a trampoline in West Texas. She lives on ten permaculture acres with sheep, goats, turkeys, pea-fowl, guineas, geese, ducks, chickens, dogs, cats, five home-educated children, and one husband.

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