This short story is a break from my Fortune Kitty series. I keep having ideas and wanted to try one before going back to that series. If you’ve got any comments, feedback or suggestions feel free to leave a comment.
Jane’s hands shook as she stood at the gate leading to the house. In her hands her iPhone felt solid, providing a focus of reality for her to concentrate on. She grasped the sleek surface more firmly allowing the edges to dig slightly into her palms and the sensation helped distract her from the palpable fear that threatened to overwhelm her. “I’m not the first”, she reminded herself, “hundreds of kids have done this before me”. The knowledge was reassuring and she reached forward to push open the gate.
Before her lay the old house. Shrouded in night’s shadow and over-grown with vines, the weathered boards and dilapidated state of repair emanated a brooding atmosphere. It spoke of neglect and isolation, pronouncing to the world a disinterest in conforming to social norms and confirmation that what happened within its decaying walls was none of anyone’s damn business. Whether by design or symbiosis, the house resonated with and enhanced the image of the man rumored to live within. A man whose real name she could not remember but who was known as ‘The Doctor’. Despite her best efforts, Jane found her thoughts drawn to his legend as she made her way up the path.
He’d once been a paragon of virtue, one of the most respected members of her little town. Opening a practice in the main street, he’d quickly become one of the most sought after GPs around through an unusual combination of an endearing personal manner and sheer medical brilliance. Patients loved him. From those who mainly needed a chat and some placebic advice, to those whose ailments benefited from physiological treatments.
Starting fresh from medical school he’d begun at the town’s small hospital where he worked, as all interns must, as the general dog’s body for the more senior doctors. Doing all those routine, boring and messy tasks unwanted by others. Loaded by endless hours of triviality, almost as if they meant to keep him busy with banality until he learnt enough real world medicine to be trusted. It’s a dangerous business easing a newby into the risky job of healing people. But he’d persevered and flourished, soaking up the pressure and particularly the knowledge with a desert-like thirst.
Having completed his internship and residency, he opened his practice working full time while still picking up shifts at the hospital. It meant he was able to maintain a personal watch on his patients who had the misfortune of requiring admission and they loved him for it. Mothers were forever trying to match him up with their daughters. More than once he’d been forced to apply some of his patented charm at the end of a consultation to extricate himself from being setup on a pre-arranged date.
He never did marry, well not in the traditional sense. His marriage was to medicine. Throughout his life he maintained a laser like focus on his job keeping few close friends, living alone and enjoying an increasing insular existence outside of the clinic. It was a habit that worked against him in later years.
The town itself had primarily existed to support the factory. Long abandoned now, it once produced vast quantities of asbestos sheeting for the country, employing a large percentage of the population in the process. Of course that was all long gone now. With the long-delayed discovery of asbestos’ dark secret, mesothelioma, government legislation had seen the factory shut and most of the land marked as contaminated. The building still stood as an empty skeleton, testifying to the thriving business that had been both the boom and bust of the town.
The asbestos industry had left its mark on the Doctor too. Working in a community with unusually high rates of lung cancer had caused him to focus his career further on oncology and to some extent palliative care. Over the years he spent many an hour keeping vigil beside the beds of his long time patients who, despite his best efforts, invariably passed away into that long night. It was both the blessing and curse of working in a small town. He had time to get to know and love his patients, to give them much of himself, but it also made the parting so much harder to bear. So he plowed on in his study, desperate to discover the cause and cure for the community he so loved.
When the announcement about asbestos had finally been made public, it did not come as a huge surprise to him. He’d suspected it could be a factor and when the community around him started leaving in droves again he wasn’t surprised. But not all left and in a show of solidarity with those he sought to treat, the Doctor refused to sell his house despite being in a risky area. From his back porch he could see the old factory rusting in the background. “The production has ceased,” he would say, “if I were going to breathe in the fibers it has probably happened already. No, I’ll stay right where I am thank-you.”
So he had stayed. Treating his old friends and the occasional new patient until retirement, even then he had stayed. Those who used to know him well would comment, “Where else would he go now anyway?” He grew old, his friends died or left and his practice did not pick up new patients and then closed. Around him his house grew old and neglected too, a magnet to the imagination of those who never knew him but wondered all the same.
Jane winced at the sound her footstep made on the gravel path. She paused, waiting to see if it caused any movement up in the house. Heart hammering in her ears, she strained to hear any other sound, any signal that she’d been detected. A gentle breeze stirred the trees, causing their slight moon-shadows to flicker across the ground, phantoms dancing in her peripheral vision urging her to turn and run. “Don’t be ridiculous,” she silently urged herself, “no-one could hear that. But try to be quieter just in case.”
Placing her next footstep on the grass, she continued creeping towards the house. She had no idea what the Doctor would do to her if she was caught, but her imagination had plenty of suggestions. The kids here about mainly called him Doctor Death, a nickname that had once been overheard from a parent’s conversation up at the hospital. It had stuck. It seemed to sum him up perfectly. A strange old man living alone in a run-down house. A man no-one really saw much anymore. What did Doctor Death do behind those peeling walls? There were a thousand stories trying to provide the answer.
The first one she ever heard was that at one time, one of his patients was in so much pain that he had begged him to die. The next day the nurses had come in to find the room painted in blood, the patient in a number of pieces with an axe embedded in the torso. Despite their best efforts the cops couldn’t prove it was the Doctor, but everyone knew. Jimmy Tanner said it was rubbish. The patient was dead alright, but there was no axe or blood. But how could he be sure?
Jane shivered involuntarily as she imagined an axe swinging from behind to take her in the spine. She spun around in fright but behind her was nothing but the night. A path, the gate she’d entered through and beyond that the street and safety. Closing her eyes tight she once again summoned her reserves of courage and forced herself to turn around.
As she approached the front porch, the stories in her head grew stronger. The sick kids he kept locked in his cellar. The voodoo dolls he carved using footage from his hidden security cameras. The immunity he gained by eating parts of his dead patients. Last week she’d heard that ‘Silence of the Lambs’ had been based on Doctor Death’s life.
After a seeming eternity, Jane finally reached the front door. Now all that was needed was to put her iPhone through the mail slot. Her hand shook almost uncontrollably as she stretched out her arm and once again she squeezed to feel the cool metal dig into her palm. Inch by inch she got closer. Almost there. She could see the reflection of the phone in the dull surface of the metal surrounding the slot. “Just do it and get out of here,” she screamed inside her head when suddenly all hell broke loose.
The bushes lining the edge of the porch thrashed wildly and out of the corner of her eye something darted towards her. Dropping her iPhone, Jane turned and bolted back up the path screaming hysterically. “An apple a day keeps the doctor away … an apple a day keeps the doctor away …”, she sobbed again and again like a mantra warding off evil as she disappeared down the street.
From the bushes, Justin strolled onto the porch barely covering a chuckle. “Kids these days were so easy to fool”, he thought to himself. Spin them any old story about the Doc and provide a way to placate the demons and they’d jump at the chance. Even something as silly as recycling the old phrase about apples and doctors. It had been his genius to find the right phrase that let him regularly pick up second-hand electronics to finance his pot. Seeing kids piss themselves in fear was an added bonus.
He smirked as he sauntered over to the door and stooped to pick up the dropped iPhone. “Not a scratch, this one should fetch a fair bit plus whatever blackmail material I can get off it first”, he thought to himself just as the door opened. An old leather dress shoe was planted close to his hand, the edge of the worn sole gently grazing his skin as it came to rest on top of the phone stopping him from retrieving it. “So the old coot is still alive”, he thought to himself as he straightened to see a wrinkled old face, weary with age and the weight of the world, but set with piercing intelligent blue eyes.
“So pleased to finally meet you Justin”, the old man rasped, “I’ve heard rumors of your endeavors but it’s finally good to meet you in person.” The wrinkled face smiled, emphasizing the lines that creased his papery skin. “I do believe that you’ve been quite a bad boy. Do come in.” Justin was about to sneer and push the Doc off his prize when something gave him cause to pause. He’d just noticed the gun …