Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
“…there’s only one rule, and it’s not a hard one to follow.”
Ellie nodded, smoothing out her scrubs. She looked past Mr. Fletcher, at the dark, filthy grime beyond the portal, at the endless hallway filled with enormous eyes and shivering, gaunt bodies. She swallowed.
“Yes. Yes. I’m listening.”
“Good,” Fletcher said, sniffling once. “Because this is important. You have 10,000 hours of service to complete. It should take you about three years. There’s only one rule you must follow. If you break it, we’ll send you straight back to your cell, where you’ll live out the rest of your sentence. Which, in your case, will be about 48 hours.”
Ellie clenched her jaw. “I know my own sentence. Let’s get this over with.”
She tried to walk past the enormous guard, but he seized her jaw. He leaned over her and frowned. She cringed, hating herself for it.
“No, little girl,” he said. “I don’t think you do understand, so let me explain it to you one more time. We don’t care if you kill anyone; most of them are going to die anyway. But it’s very important that they think you’re a medical professional. If you admit to anyone that you’re not a doctor—if you so much as whisper the words ‘I’m not a doctor’—we’ll know. And it will violate the terms of your parole. They need to believe you’re there to help.”
Ellie slapped his hand away. “You mean it’s important they think our government is helping.”
Fletcher stood back up, unconcerned. He folded his hands behind his back and looked at nothing in particular.
“There’s nothing anyone can do, Miss Williams. As I said, most of them are going to die anyway. Sending actual medical personnel would be a waste of resources and training. All they really need is someone to give out blankets and change IVs.” He smiled. “You can do that, can’t you? Needles shouldn’t be too much of a problem for you?”
“Fuck you, coward,” she said, and immediately regretted saying it. She stepped backwards, but Fletcher just let out a short laugh and turned his shoulder towards the portal. He nodded in its direction.
Ellie gritted her teeth and looked at floor rather than look Fletcher in the eye. She brushed past him, and then walked through a pool of rippling blue into another world entirely.
One Year Later
Ellie leaned against a wall, wishing she were asleep. It was two o’clock in the morning, and the sounds of the hospital were muted. The hallway was filled with beds, IVs dripping into the arms of the sick, a forest of poles reaching towards the ceiling. Ellie folded her arms over her clipboard and stood back up.
Her anklet only counted hours when her full weight was on her feet.
“Please, doctor, there must be something you can do?”
She looked at the broad-shouldered man, tried to remember his name, and failed. She pasted on a professional look of sympathy instead.
“We’re doing everything we can, sir. We’re keeping her comfortable and hydrated. At this point, it’s just a waiting game.”
The man stared down at his thick-knuckled, grimy hands and shook his head. “That’s what you said about my daughter.”
“Sir, I will do everything I can.”
The man lifted his shaggy head. “Yeah?”
The man whispered thank you and turned away, walking over to his son’s bed, just one among many. He said “thank you” again and again as he stood there, as if afraid any kind of silence might change Ellie’s mind. Eventually, she turned and headed towards the on-call room, walking through a sea of quiet coughing.
The people were sick with bacterial meningitis, Earth A strain. For ten years, scientists had known how to travel between parallel universes. At first, it was an exciting discovery for both sides: meeting alternate versions of history, people, and reality. But soon it was discovered that the biology of both Earths was just a little bit different—not much, but enough to turn illnesses from one world into death sentences for the other.
Travel between worlds was immediately restricted, but it was too late. On Earth B, where Ellie was stationed, bacterial meningitis spread like wildfire—95% of the infected died. The WHO of Earth A would likely have responded, but by then they were dealing with an aggressive complex-strain rhinovirus, a common cold from Earth B. It wasn’t nearly as bad as the meningitis nightmare, but it was bad enough to be fatal in almost 20% of all new cases. In only a short time, Earth A cut down medical aid to Earth B to a pittance.
And then, since it didn’t matter who they sent, they just started sending convicts in lab coats. Medical parole, it was called, and all you had to do was pretend to be a doctor. They simply did a few tests first to make sure your biology was close enough to Earth B’s so that you wouldn’t die right away. The tests were shit, of course. Most of her fellow convicts had died already. Sometimes, it seemed everyone in this world was dead.
Ellie entered the on-call room and sat on the lower bunk. She rested her head in her hands and began to quietly cry, saying over and over the same thing she said every day, desperately trying to break whatever rule kept her over here.
“I’m not a doctor,” she sobbed. “Please, I’m not a doctor. Please God, I’m not a doctor. Get me out of here.”
But, like always, nothing happened. And, as always, she remembered back to that sniffle Mr. Fletcher had had when she left her own world, and she wondered if there were any rules left to break anymore.
Matthew Boyle is an adjunct English instructor who has worked at many community colleges, small private colleges, and small writing centers throughout the northeast United States. He writes quick stories in between classes and when traveling to classes at other institutions. It’s a nice way to relax, even when you’re writing about the end of the world(s). Email: matthewboyle1742[at]gmail.com