A man’s screams sounded outside Elijah’s closed door, bringing him out of his reverie. He rose from his chair as his nurse and assistant Betty opened the door and stuck her head in.
Nearly toothless and twice as worn as a woman twenty years her senior, Betty would never be classified as a beauty. A former prisoner in one of the Pyramids, she’d seen too much horror and deprivation to be made attractive from the steady diet and safety she now enjoyed. But her wispy-haired head featuring a pockmarked face was beloved by almost a dozen toddlers whom she’d helped snatch from that very same Pyramid. When she wasn’t working she was surrounded by little faces calling, “Ma! Ma! Ma!” Her skirts were forever tugged on by tiny hands aching to pull her close. No other woman in Freetown was so beloved.
Her gray eyes were rolling as the man’s screams continued. “Some fool has been wandering the desert with no water. He’s crazy from heatstroke and dehydration. Good morning, by the way, Doctor.”
Elijah smiled as he came to the door. He swung it open, giving him the full view of Betty’s scarecrow-thin body. She still looked wretched after her escape from the Pyramid in Washington, D.C. two years ago, an escape he himself had had a hand in. However, he knew she was healthy, because he personally made sure of it. Betty had suffered more than her share, but she gave of herself without hesitation. He could do no less for her.
Elijah gave her a hug, which she returned with a chuckle. “Good morning, Betty. It’s starting early enough.”
He released her, and she jerked her head towards the noise. “I had Newton and Heath take him into Exam One. They brung him in and they’re holding him down now.”
Elijah went back to the cabinet where he kept a few supplies. His stethoscope, coming from its proper storage, went around his neck. “Let’s get to work,” he said and followed his favorite nurse down the hall where the man’s shouts continued.
“Monsters! Alien monsters! All over the town!”
The frenzied words came clear as Elijah neared Exam Room One. He grabbed Betty’s shoulder, stopping her a few feet from the room’s closed door. “Is he violent? I don’t want you in there if you could get hurt.”
“More like desperate,” she answered. “He’s too wrung out to be dangerous, I think. If we could calm him down, he’d probably collapse from exhaustion.”
Elijah nodded. “Keep out until he’s settled anyway. Prepare a room and an I.V. so we can get some liquids in him.”
As she hurried away, Elijah swept into the room. Thanks to Gordon the whole building was well-lit, allowing the doctor the luxury of examining his patients without trouble. Newton and Heath were on either side of a sunburned man rocking in a plastic chair. Both Elijah’s fellow Freetowners looked relieved to see him.
Elijah laid a comforting hand on the stranger’s shoulder. The man shook all over, his brown eyes wide and staring. The scent of sweat-strong body odor rolled off him, overcoming the clean antiseptic smells of the room. The stranger even managed to eclipse the ever-present stench of rendered animal fat.
The man looked as drained of juice as a prune, his skin shriveled on his skinny frame, making his face stark and sharp with the bones of his skull. He looked like a horror movie mummy brought to life.
“Easy, fellow. You’re in Freetown and you’re safe.” Elijah looked up at the stranger’s escorts. “Has he been like this the whole time?”
Newton answered him. The big rawboned man bore a startling resemblance to Abraham Lincoln with shaggier hair that tended to fall forward to his nose. “The moment the west gate opened this morning, he came hauling ass into town, screaming bloody murder.”
As Elijah grabbed a blood pressure monitor, the stranger screeched, “They’ll come here too! They’ll kill you like they did Gander’s Gulch!”
Heath held the man’s arm out so Elijah could wrap the cuff around his skinny bicep. As short as Newton was tall, he possessed plenty of muscle, honed as they all were by hard work.
Elijah asked the stranger, “What’s your name?”
He laughed hysterically, the wild cry ending in a sob. “My name?” Who gives a fuck about my name? Aliens took over Gander’s Gulch!”
Newton said, “At least we know where he came from.”
“I got away. I wanted to help, but there were too many. I don’t know if anyone else escaped.”
Elijah’s stethoscope went into his ears. He hoped the man was just suffering from heat stroke. If Gander’s Gulch had fallen to a large group of marauding Old Ones, that meant a lot of people were dead. Even those who might have escaped the town would be in no better shape than this fellow, should they be lucky enough to make it to Freetown. On foot, the trip between the two towns took two days of unrelenting heat and sun. The nights were as frigid.
Heath was suitably upset over the news. “Shit. You think a bunch of alien renegades have banded together, Doc?”
“It wouldn’t be the first time.” Elijah freed his ears of the stethoscope, then the Gulcher’s arm of the cuff. He went to a drawer in the nearby counter to fetch a light to check the man’s eyes, ears, and throat.
Newton’s deep voice held a world of sorrow. “They got their act together at Gander’s Gulch. Must have been a lot of attackers to have overwhelmed the whole town. No offense fella, but I hope you’re just off your beam.”
The Gulcher only shook his head.
Elijah worked fast to check his patient out. He wanted the poor refugee in a bed soaking up intravenous fluids as soon as possible. “You didn’t get here overnight. How long ago was the attack?”
Now that they were paying attention to his story, the man was calming down. His voice rasped like sandpaper. “Two days ago. They attacked in the middle of the day.”
Elijah sensed Newton and Heath exchange a look over the man’s head. Newton kept his voice even; as if afraid he’d send their visitor raving again. “Couldn’t have, Old Ones can’t survive the daylight.”
The Gulcher wheezed what might have been either laughter or sobbing. “Not regular Old Ones. These were messed up. Instead of siphons, they had big, wide mouths full of fangs. Some were missing arms, some had extra arms and legs. They were worse than Old Ones. They were monsters.”