On the corner of Astoria and Sunday on the ridge above Broken Hearts were four Victorian homes. In happier times this was referred to in the town as the Biddies’ Corner, known for the four old women who had lived there and spent much of their lives together in one house or another, playing bunko and drinking gin. Not a one of them had survived, although the word had been Mrs. Rockby had tossed herself down the cellar stairs before the disease could get her. Whether it had been from delirium or her own demented way of cheating The Blues, well, that depended on whose mouth the word was coming from. The houses on Biddies’ Corner now were quiet, and looked just as abandoned as everything else. Given enough warning, the people who lived in those four houses could hide, and a passerby would never know what they’d almost stumbled across.
Wendy Ferguson was sitting at her little desk in the clinic reading up on endocrine disorders (something was going on with Leo Forrester, she just couldn’t pin down what) when she heard the front door of the Doblin Biddy open and close. Barely. People were in and out all the time going from one Biddy to another. She paid it so little mind she’d already forgotten it two seconds later when she heard Nico’s voice from the hall.
“Doc, Birdie’s coming for you.”
Wendy made a face and opened her mouth to say something but Nico had kept on to the kitchen and she was alone. Of course, even if she had managed to say something it wouldn’t have done any good. To the thirty-four people who lived in the four Victorian houses everyone called the Biddies, Wendy was and always would be their doctor. Never mind she hadn’t been one. She’d been a nurse, and to everyone here that was close enough. Wendy had tried explaining a few times why she couldn’t abide by it. Claiming you were something you were not in the medical industry wasn’t just rude, it was setting yourself up for a lawsuit. No one cared. There weren’t medical schools or nursing schools or law schools anymore, so who was she really afraid of? They were right, of course. But old habits die hard.
She closed the book with a bookmark made from a cut up fifty dollar bill and headed for the shelves at the back of the room. The shelves had once been placed in front of each window to block out the sun to make it easier for Elmira Doblin to play video games. Elmira, back when she had been alive and had owned the place, had called it her nest, and when she wasn’t drinking gin with the other biddies she was here, curled up in her oversized lounge chair, headset over her ears, controller in hand, handily beating young men a third her age at games that, by all rights, she shouldn’t have even known existed. Her nephew, Malcolm, had gotten her into them the summer he had spent with her getting back on his feet after his marriage had broken up on the shoals, and even after he moved out he still had come over once a week to make sure her set up was up-to-date and to roll her the joints she needed to loosen up her fingers enough to play.
(Despite playing she had never become very good at understanding technology, and so she had died never knowing that she had become something of a legend on the internet. Entire forums had popped up to discuss the ‘gay gamer granny,’ a nickname she had earned through her favorite insult, “I fucked your grandmother while your granddaddy was in the war.” Malcom knew but had never said anything. He hadn’t wanted the fame to go to her head.)
Then Elmira had died, like most everyone else, and what remained of Broken Hearts had moved in. They had left the room shut, a little as a shrine but mostly because they hadn’t known what to do with it. On the one hand the bookshelves had had everyone fooled and what were they supposed to do with a windowless room in a time of no electricity? On the other hand, Elmira’s television and speakers had been too nice to part with, just in case they ever did figure out how to get the juice back on. It had been shut up for two years by the time Wendy agreed to stay and turn the room into a clinic on account of the size being just right and it was on the northern end of the house and cooler than the rest of the rooms by five degrees. She was just going to figure out a solution to the darkness when she and Leo had moved one of the heavy bookshelves and hey, let there be light.
The supplies had been ransacked from every pharmacy and clinic in a ten mile radius, not to mention the Heart of the Valley hospital, a quaint little thing that hadn’t looked much more than a glorified ER to Wendy. Most of the supplies were locked in the supply room in the basement but she kept the common stuff here. Including an entire shelf of gauze and tape and a drawer of antibiotic cream. There was a sharp bit on the ladder to the firewatch Birdie kept lookout from, and it seemed she cut herself every other month. She’d always say she was going to fix it and then never did. One of these days Wendy was going to pry herself from her room and go out there with a hammer herself.
“Doc,” she heard from behind her.
“Haven’t you fixed that ladder, yet? One of these days, Birdie, I’m…going…Merciful Christ.”
Besides looking flushed and out of breath, Birdie looked fine. The strange man standing next to her did not. Strange man. It had been over a year since Wendy had met anyone new. This alone was short-circuiting her wiring. The fact of it. The truth of it. That she hadn’t noticed. That she was noticing now. And the state he was in. Frostbitten, beaten, burnt, wearing Birdie’s nice, three-size-too-small coat and John’s beaten, three-sizes-too-big boots. Looking like he’d chased the oxy dragon into a wall.
“What…who. How? What.”
“I’m not a doctor,” Wendy said, unaware she was crushing gauze in her hand.
“Well, can you be for a few minutes?”
Wendy shook her head, but only to shake off the shock. She nodded, and helped Birdie get the broken man to the exam table.
Time for a second cup of coffee.