Everything you can imagine is real.
“Christmas Eve/Sarajevo” - Trans-Siberian Orchestra
“Bittersweet” - Big Head Todd and the Monsters
"Hey, Merry Christmas, Doc!"
Doctor Berta Shaw looked up from the laptop in front of her to see the last of the nurses headed out the back door of the office into the swirling snow outside. “Merry Christmas to you too, guys. Have a great weekend."
"Thanks for the treats!" One of the nurses held up the basket of goodies that Berta had put together for each of the support staff in the office containing, amongst the bacon jam, Russian tea, peppermint bark, and butter cookies, Berta's highly sought-after dark chocolate sea salt almond toffee.
"Don't stay too late..."
Berta shook her head. "I've just got a couple more loads to take out to the car and then I'm off." At this the nurses all put down their baskets and charged into her office, each grabbing at least one box. Berta protested that she could do it herself, but the nurses wouldn’t hear of it and gathered up the remaining boxes before Berta could stop them. She held the back door open and remotely opened her Pilot, popping the back hatch for the nurses to each shove their load in on top of the already packed cargo area and then auto closing the back door, hovering near the rear entrance to the office, out of the deep snow, her OR clogs not providing much in the way of traction, holding the door open so the nurses could come back to grab their Christmas baskets. The nurses said their goodbyes again, wishing Berta and each other happy holidays and making the tired joke of “see you next year!" Berta waved them off and then hustled back inside, brushing the snow off her scrub pants and sweatshirt.
She returned to the laptop perched on the nursing station counter, balancing on one foot, slipping her other foot out of her clog, resting it against the inside of her knee, and finished her note from her last patient of the day. The laptop sang its shutdown song as she closed it and added it to the pile of other computer equipment at the nurses’ station. She almost skipped down the hall to her office, realizing that she was, as of this moment, officially on vacation, her chest suffused with a pleasant lightness at the realization that she had no responsibilities for a week. The week leading up to the holiday had been as slow as usual, no one wanting to schedule their elective or semi-elective surgeries just before Christmas, but this week had been positively glacial between the heavy snows and building so many blocks into the office schedule in preparation for moving into the brand-new space behind the hospital. Next week, the company she and her partners had hired would move all the medical equipment and old patient charts and computers to their new digs, a glossy space with lots of blond wood and frosted glass. Her new personal office would have a window looking out over the wetland preserve behind the hospital, but she would still miss this, her little cubby for the last six years. Joining this group had been like a homecoming for her after spending two years feeling like a fish out of water in academics and then six months in Africa where she had been baptized by fire in refugee camps in Liberia. She had spent so many hours in this space, finishing charts, doing continuing medical education on her computer or squeezing in lunch at her desk between patients. This was her home away from home and the detritus of the last six years was now packed up in the back of her car, all her medical books, from a leather-bound copy of Gray's Anatomy, a gift from her college mentor on her acceptance to medical school, to a battered edition of Sabiston's Textbook of Surgery from her residency. She had loaded four boxes of expired medical supplies that she had been donating to her old friends in Medicins Sans Frontieres, several pairs of scrubs that she'd inadvertently stolen from the hospital, a pillow and blanket she used when she napped at the office on call, a few paperbacks she had received from the nurses but never got around to reading, her gym bag and running gear, random office supplies from her desk and entire drawer of cheap trinkets from drug reps. It had all been gathered up and loaded into her car. She figured she could unpack and sort through it all over the weekend.
She looked around her barren office. It seemed much dingier now that it was empty. The sagging couch and sputtering mini fridge were destined for the dumpster. She took one last look through the drawers in her creaking and impossibly heavy wooden desk and a last glance in the closet, catching a view of herself in the little cracked mirror that had been left screwed to the inside of the closet door by the last occupant, an old retired surgeon known as Mac. She had found the mirror funny, imagining her predecessor waxing his mustache in its reflection. She looked at her own face now, chin length ash brown hair, pale green eyes and a face that was plain, but that she couldn’t be bothered to adorn with makeup. She closed the closet door, leaving the mirror and everything it had seen for the wrecking crew.
She donned her scarf, looping it up around her ears, pulling on her floppy black snow hat and her bright red faux fur lined parka. She pulled her keys and fleece gloves out of the pockets. She was tired enough to just trudge through the snow in her patent leather OR clogs, but thoughts of wet socks made her lace into her waterproof Bean boots instead. She turned out the lights and locked the office door for the last time, then hustled out to her car to get out of the cold. She plugged in her cell phone, and started up the music, her special mix of random genres and eras that she liked to listen to in the car and in the OR, provided that the anesthesiologist was amenable. She backed out of her parking space and into the main road, headed south to home. The streets were deserted between the snow and the upcoming holiday.
"Hey Siri, call Santiago, mobile."
"Calling Santiago, mobile," the computerized voice answered back. It rang twice.
"Go for Santiago," came the mildly Spanish accented male voice.
"Hey, Santi." Berta couldn't help but smile. "Ready for sign out?"
"Shoot. Let me guess, a no hitter?"
"Couldn't be further from the truth. It was busy this morning. Lots of ER consults. Sent one kid to Maine Medical for an irreducible intussusception, referred another kid to GI for foreign body retrieval, Christmas tree light bulb, and said we'd follow along on a nursing home transfer for SBO versus ileus. His name is Manigeault. He's got an NG tube and he's on 4G. Took two to the OR. First is an 11-year-old male, last name Gagnon. Totally unremarkable, unruptured appendicitis. I post-oped him at 4 pm and he was tolerating liquids, had bowel sounds and was afebrile. He's on 3 north. Second one was a 68-year-old female, Charbeneau, acute chole. I had to do her open."
"Well, her gallbladder had been hot for a couple of days. It wasn't as friable as I'd thought once I got in there so everything else went fine. I left two drains in, just in case. She's got hypertension and mild COPD but at post op she was resting comfortably, and her pressures were fine. Her temp was 39 but coming down from earlier." She was driving through the small downtown now, looking at the white lights on all the trees along Main Street. All the shops were closed for the holiday.
"So that's all she wrote," she said. "I put the patients on your consult list in Soarian, so you should be all set. Merry Christmas."
"Yeah, Merry fucking Christmas to me." He laughed.
"Hey, I offered to swap with you," she protested.
"No, with the wife and kids in Guate, I'd rather be here. I'll take you up on it if I draw the short straw next year."
Berta smiled. "Ok. May the force be with you, amigo."
"Y con tu tambien, Berta." He hung up.
She drove south past the end of down town and into the edge of the historic district. Old Victorians towered over the street, their rooftops sugar coated with snow and twinkling lights and candles in the windows. She sang along with her music, singing harmony to an old Big Head Todd and the Monster's melody. "It's bittersweet, more sweet than bitter, bitter than sweet..."
She took a deep breath, letting herself relax, thinking about the week ahead. She really needed this vacation. Tonight, she planned on left over Chinese, a glass of wine and a bubble bath. Tomorrow she’d open the small pile of presents that had accumulated under her tree and make herself a nice Christmas dinner for one. The next day she’d unload her car, sort through the boxes and pack. Monday, she was flying out to Grand Cayman to spend the rest of the week sipping exotic drinks on a white sand beach, eating shrimp, getting massages and sleeping as much as she wanted, preferably pool side. If she was feeling really self-indulgent, she might schedule a manicure.
Further south, the main road veered to the right, but she kept going straight, leaving the well plowed road and headed into snow that was untouched except by the wind. The snow had been coming down hard earlier, but the snow plows clearly hadn't passed this way in a while. As she drove along, looking out at the cemetery with its frosted tombstones in the streetlights, there was a deep rumbling that at first, she could barely hear. She looked up through the windshield, seeing a faint flash in the low clouds.
Cool, she thought. Thunder snow.
She drove carefully along the road past the cemetery now looking out over the snow-covered fields of the old farm south of town. There was another crack of lightning and rumbling thunder, closer this time, loud enough to easily hear over the music.
There was a loud bang and a flash of light, shockingly green, in the road in front of her. Berta instinctively slammed on the brakes, the anti-skid mechanism kicking in immediately, jittering but not stopping the car as it slid sideways towards the light, the wheels spinning on the coating of slush under the fresh snow, the car sliding sideways. Berta winced against the brightness, almost closing her eyes as the car skidded into the light. She felt time slow down, the way it does when terrible things happen, the rear tires sliding off the road, pitching backwards and spinning, dropping out of control, her stomach flipping like she was on a roller coaster. Then suddenly the car stopped hard, her seat belt holding her, keeping her from being slammed into the passenger seat. The car rocked back and settled at an angle, the passenger side tilted up to 45 degrees, her shoulder leaning heavily against the driver side door. Her headlights were plunged into the snow, casting a short but eerie glow in front of the car. She took a deep breath, mentally checking over herself to make sure she was alright and blew out, letting her lips make a raspberry.
"Well, fuck." She turned the ignition off and stuck the keys in her pocket, turning the headlights off as well. She squinted into the blowing snow and night surrounding the car. There was a green glow on the snow around her, very faint. The street lights were out. A transformer must have blown with the lightning strike and knocked out the power. She grabbed her phone, turning off the music. Triple A response time was probably not stellar on the Friday before Christmas. No service. She sighed. "Double fuck."
She was close enough to walk home. It was less than a quarter mile and she could call the towing service from there and maybe meet them at the car in the morning. So much for my relaxing evening, she thought. She unbuckled the seat belt, bracing herself against the door, reaching into the passenger seat to grab her work bag. She unlocked the driver door and let it open, falling out into the snow and immediately sinking nearly up to her thighs. She shivered, the snow quickly soaking through the thin fabric of her scrubs. She pulled the strap of her work bag over her head, leaving her hands free to slam the car door shut behind her and lock it. She could see a faint green light coming from the far side of the embankment in the direction of the road. She started slogging through the snow, heading up the embankment, using her gloved hands to help pull herself along. It was a lot steeper than she thought from always looking at it from the road, but she'd never been at the bottom of the ditch before. The wind was rising again, the snow swirling around her as she struggled up the embankment, spinning miniature tornadoes of snowflakes, chasing her up the hill. When she reached the top, she came up short, unable to understand what her eyes were seeing.
Where she thought the road was, there was nothing but a smooth expanse of untouched snow. That was strange enough but even weirder was the twisting column of iridescent green light hovering above the ground, turning slowly, humming and crackling. She took a step closer, stumbling in the snow, her mouth agape, and bright beams of green light shot out of the column, ending in glowing verdant pools on the snow around it, arcing with a crackling sound like electricity. She shielded her eyes, thinking she should get away from whatever this phenomenon was, but unsure of which direction to run and unable to move quickly in the deep snow. There was a snapping, popping sound and where the pools of light had been there was now something alive and moving. Ghosts, she thought, I'm seeing ghosts. I must have head trauma, I'm hallucinating and I'm seeing ghosts. The hooded, floating figure to her left made a screaming noise and swung a bare, pale, rotting arm at her, it's naked, dirty feet hanging out of the gray, tattered robe it wore. She fell backward away from it. Laying in the snow, staring up into where it's face should have been in the dark cowl it wore, she had the detached thought that she was being attacked by Dementors. In the next moment, a bright line of pulsing white shot out of the creature toward her. There was an overwhelming, painful cold, and she was unable to breathe, like her lungs had frozen solid inside her chest, and then nothing.