“Hey,” a voice murmured, so close to her ear that Dr. Kimberly Patterson could feel warm breath tickle the hairs on the back of her neck. “Upsy-daisy. I think you’re going to want to see this one for yourself.”
“Don’t wanna,” Kim mumbled into the drool-dampened spot on the cheap mattress. She was curled up on the lower bunk in the darkened residents’ sleep room of the Jarvis Regional Hospital. “Make the other resident do it.”
“She’s not on call tonight. You are. And I already let you sleep an extra eleven minutes.”
“Just one more minute.” Kim rolled away from the voice so that she was facing the wall that was painted a shade reminiscent of the lunch trays at St. Katherine’s School for Girls, where years ago she had graduated forty-ninth out of a class of fifty.
“Come on, Kim,” the voice said, more firmly this time. It belonged to her boss, Dr. Kyle Berman. “You’re on at three, which is in four minutes. Get up.”
“God, I wish. But between your schedule and mine, our next day off together isn’t until— Hey. Hey, seriously, didn’t we talk about this?”
Kim had managed to sit up in the bed, the thin, scratchy sheets sliding off her bare shoulders. “About what?”
“About having consideration for others in the common sleeping space.”
“But it gets so damn hot in here.”
“And yet, somehow, every other resident manages to keep their clothes on.”
“My clothes are on. My pants, anyway.” Kim blinked the sleep from her eyes as she dug through the sheets and came up with a scrub shirt. The shirt was a much-laundered, faded green one that she had inherited from Ethan Kuhn, along with the apartment he no longer needed when he quit his residency to weave seagrass baskets in Ketchikan. “Besides, I read the whole welcome packet when I started here, and there wasn’t anything in there about sleeping room regulations.”
“Yeah, because most people don’t need it spelled out for them, that you need to keep more on than just your . . .” Kyle pushed his glasses higher on his nose with one hand and gestured at her while looking the other way.
“Bra. You can say ‘bra,’ Kyle. It’s not a dirty word, I promise.”
“Come on, Kim, you know the review board is looking for any reason to come down hard on you. Do you have to bend every single rule in the place?”
“Mmm, you know how I love it when you get all bossy,” Kim said, but the mention of the review board was enough to propel her out of bed. At twenty-nine, she was eager to finish her residency and open her own practice. She yawned as she stepped into her rubber clogs. “Do I have sleep breath? Do you have a mint?”
“Could we hurry, please? Graver called us down to the ER. They have a patient who came in missing a finger. He’s telling them he ate it.”
“You should have opened with that. Now that is interesting,”
Kim said, running her fingers through her long, tangled hair and following him to the door. “Thanks for cutting me in on this.”
“My pleasure,” Kyle muttered sarcastically.
“NICE OF YOU TWO to take time out of your busy day to visit us.” Dr. Miranda Graver, the Jarvis Regional Hospital’s chief of staff, was waiting for Kim and Kyle in the hall outside the nurses’ station, the only place in the ER that afforded even a little privacy. “And I see you took note that the invitation specified ‘creative formal,’ Dr. Patterson. Rest assured that your effort is not lost on me.”
Kim looked down at her shirt and winced. Before decamping downcountry, Ethan had washed some of his clothes along with rags he’d dipped in paint thinner, and the result looked like a cat had thrown up on it. “I’ll try to do better,” she promised.
“I seem to have heard that before.” Dr. Graver’s stare could freeze water. “Okay, here’s what we’re working with: severed fifth digit, clean bilateral cut right below the distal phalanx on both hands. Left side’s an old injury, healed up pretty well. Right side’s infected with significant discharge, swelling, and tissue deterioration. The patient keeps changing his story when asked what happened, but he told Jennings that he cut it off on purpose . . . and ate it.”
“That’s a new one for me,” Kyle admitted.
“Let me talk to him,” Kim suggested. The fact that Graver had been called downstairs for this case made it a perfect opportunity to score some much-needed points with the woman who had the power to make or break Kim’s medical career.
“As far as I’m concerned, he’s all yours,” Graver said, and after a brief hesitation, Berman nodded. “But, please, Dr. Patterson, do keep our little hospital’s policies in mind this time.”
Kim kept her expression neutral as the chief of staff stalked back
toward the elevators in her perfectly tailored and pressed navy suit. Graver sidestepped a patient whose two front teeth were missing—his mouth bleeding profusely. At first, because of his clattering footsteps, Kim thought he was wearing high heels, but then she realized the clicking sound came from the ice skates he wore. Alaskan emergency rooms treated even more hockey-related injuries than you might expect.
But patients who ate their own fingers . . . not so much.
“I’ll come in with you,” Kyle offered when the chief was out of earshot.
“No, let me go in alone,” Kim said. “Teaming up on this kid isn’t going to help.”
“Kim, the review board specifically recommended supervisory oversight for all your patient interactions,” Kyle said. “And since I’m your supervisor—”
“Technically, it was only a recommendation,” Kim pointed out. “Plus, nothing was put in writing.”
She ducked around a passing cart and into the examination room before he could answer, praying he wouldn’t follow. As fragile as her situation with the review board was, she couldn’t give her patients the attention they deserved with Kyle breathing down her neck. He was only thirty-three, but sometimes Kyle’s seriousness made him feel much older. She needed to be able to bond with this kid.
Sitting on the side of the bed staring at his phone was a lean, scraggly-haired teenager. Sure enough, he was missing the tip of the pinkie finger on his left hand. Kim could see that the stub had healed well, the skin shiny and pink at the end. His other hand, the fifth digit freshly bandaged, rested beside him on the bed, and an IV line trailed from that arm. A quick glance at the boy’s chart showed that the wound had been drained and cleaned and a course of intravenous antibiotics had been started.
Kim dropped into the chair next to the bed and put her feet up on the bed rail. “Good decision, going for the pinkie finger,” she observed. “You can do without it for like ninety-five percent of everyday tasks. Plus, there’s a whole theory that the human fifth digit is evolving into a vestigial appendage. You know, like a dew claw on a dog?”
The boy looked up from his phone long enough to give her a withering glare. “Fuck off.”
“Ah. Uh-huh. Right. You think I’m patronizing you.”
“Look, Wallace—” Kim said, glancing at the chart for the boy’s name. “You go by Wally? Wall-man? Wall Dog? Okay, Wally, I know it’s not like you dreamed you’d grow up and become a cannibal when you were a little kid. I know you don’t wake up every day and go, like, Hey, what’s it going to be today? Maybe an earlobe? A nice chunk of thigh filet?”
No reaction from the kid. Kim plowed on.
“What you’re dealing with is a compulsion. It feels like you literally can’t stop yourself, right? I get that, I really do. We’ve all got compulsions. Believe me, you do not want to know what I do when I think no one’s watching. And Dr. Berman out there? He’s got both his testicles pierced like twelve times—one of ’em got infected a while back and swelled up like a watermelon, and he had to borrow a knee cart from orthopedics to get around.” She leaned forward and lowered her voice. “I mean, maybe don’t let him know I told you that. All I’m saying is, everybody does weird shit. We just wanna help you figure out how to tone it down a little so you can still type on that thing.”
Wally glared at his phone bleakly. “Whatever.”
“What did you use, anyway?” She made a sawing motion with her hands.
“You know.” He peeked up from under a fringe of long lashes, suddenly looking much younger than his seventeen years.
“Actually, I don’t. And I’m genuinely curious. This is off the record. It’s just me and you chatting here.”
He sighed and let his gaze drift back down to the floor. “Table saw, the first time. But my stepdad freaked and locked up his tools, so I had to use a knife.”
“Ah,” Kim said. “Probably took one out of the kitchen drawer? Same one your mom uses to cut up chicken? That could explain the infection. I’d say first disinfect the knife next time with plain old rubbing alcohol, except I’m kind of hoping there won’t be a next time. Maybe we could try to get you to cut back to just your hangnails or something. What do you think, are you okay with talking to someone about this?”
He shook his head. “I’m not going to that fat Nazi counselor again.”
“School counselor?” Kim asked sympathetically. Judging from his cheap sneakers and the fact that his phone was at least three versions out of date, Wally’s family likely couldn’t afford a private psychiatrist.
“Yeah.” Wally hung his head lower.
Autophagia was an extreme example of an impulse-control disorder. Some people experienced excitement or even arousal at the prospect of consuming their own flesh, and the practice was sometimes associated with psychosis or schizophrenia, but Kim was guessing that for the young man huddled on the bed, looking like he wanted to disappear into the floor, the act offered temporary relief from the stress and anxiety that hounded him. What Wally needed, once the infection was under control, was a complete psychiatric evaluation and treatment for what was almost certainly underlying depression and severe anxiety.
“Tell you what. You let me work out the logistics,” she said. “I’m going to put a special ‘no Nazi’ clause in your paperwork. I’ve got someone in mind. I think you’d like him. Works in a clinic
so far across town that you won’t have time to get back to class after—and it’s guaranteed one hundred percent confidential, so you can tell that school counselor to go suck ass and he won’t be able to do a damn thing about it. The clinic will also help your family figure out all the paperwork so insurance will cover it. What do you say?”
Before Wally could respond, a muffled crash and a series of screams sounded through the exam room doors. “I think that’s for me,” Kim said, smiling wryly. “Gotta run. Listen, I’m going to hook you up with my friend, and I’ll keep tabs on you. Deal?”
Wallace gave a desultory shrug.
“Okay, I’m going to take that as a yes. So, ta-ta for now.” Kim backed out of the exam area, flipping him the bird through the curtain at the last moment. “Just giving you a reason to hold on.”
A ghost of a smile flashed across Wally’s face as he returned the one-finger salute with both hands.
In the hall, Kim pushed past Kyle, who been eavesdropping along with Dr. Jennings, the emergency room physician who’d admitted Wallace. The screaming grew more distinct closer to the doors separating the exam rooms from the waiting area, and Kim could make out occasional phrases—all of them variations on a theme involving bitch, crazy, and psycho.
“Really, Kim?” Kyle chided, coming up behind her. “My testicles?”
“What’s up with that one?” she asked, ignoring the question and pointing toward the waiting room. “Sounds like fun.”
“I think we can handle it on our own,” Jennings said. “Guy came in with facial burns. Not really your area of expertise, is it?”
“I don’t know, Arthur, I’m very good at a surprising range of things,” Kim shot back. Like her, Jennings was still a resident, but he was privy to the same hospital gossip as everyone else—and enough of a dick to taunt her with it.
“Yeah, I bet.” Jennings leered, letting his gaze wander down
to her cleavage, which Kim had failed to notice was on display in Ethan’s oversize shirt.
“God, Arthur, grow up. Come on, I’m already here. Let me sit in, okay?”
“I don’t know—not sure we can afford the liability.”
“I heard Gyno kicked you out of their poker game,” Kim retorted. “Caught you drawing a full bush on the STD poster.”
“Enough,” Kyle said, covering his ears. “Jennings, don’t make me pull rank here. If you aren’t man enough to handle Kim for twenty minutes, just say so, and I’ll tell Graver you clocked out early to go home and have a good cry.”
“That’s—that’s just great,” Jennings sputtered as Kyle headed back down the hall. “Does he always let you push him around like that?”
“He’s delicate.” Kim shrugged. “Probably stemming from psychogenic sexual dysfunction. Tell you what, let’s you and me be friends, okay? I feel like our love deserves a second chance.”
Jennings ignored her as she followed him out into the waiting room, where one of the intake clerks was trying to coax the screaming man into a chair, with the help of a girl of around eighteen or nineteen. The girl was murmuring softly and trying to tug at his sleeves, but he kept flinging her hands away. His face was grotesquely burned on one side, a crisscross pattern of seared flesh bubbling and peeling, blackened bits stuck to red, weeping tissue.
“It’s about time, Dr. Jennings,” the clerk snapped. “I’ve called for security, but they’re tied up with a fender bender in the garage.”
“Thank you, Brenda. Sir, I understand that you are in pain, but we need to get some information before we can—”
“Get her away from me!” the man hollered, shrinking away from the girl while trying ineffectually to kick her as she nimbly dodged out of the way. “Crazy bitch tried to kill me!”
“He doesn’t mean it,” the girl said apologetically. “I think he’s just confused from the pain. Come on, Darren, they’re trying to help.”
“They should lock you up!”
The girl gave Kim an imploring look, holding back tears. “It’s just that there was an accident at the restaurant earlier. I don’t remember how it happened, but the— Ow!”
One of the man’s boots had connected with the girl’s shin. “Okay, sir, listen,” Kim said. “We’ll keep her out here, okay? Those doors are locked. If you go inside with Brenda here and finish up your paperwork, there’s no way the crazy bitch will be able to follow you. Sound all right?”
“Tie her up!” the man screamed. “Burn her face off; see how she likes that!”
“Okay, yeah, sure, that sounds like a plan,” Kim said. “I’ll just run upstairs and fetch a few bungee cords and my ethylene torch. But in the meantime, I’d feel a lot better if you’d go in with them. You look like you’re in a lot of pain.”
The man wavered, looking from the girl to Kim to the clerk. His burns were at full thickness and would require painful debridement followed by grafting. Eventually, reconstructive surgery might be an option, but even with the best possible outcome, he was going to end up with some very distinctive scars.
“Don’t let her in there,” he implored.
“We won’t,” Jennings said reassuringly. “Now go on ahead with Brenda, and I’ll meet you in the exam room in a few minutes.”
After the doors shut behind them, Jennings turned to Kim. “Score another one for your famous bedside manner. I don’t know how you do it, Kim. Got the crazies eating out of your hand.”
“Aw, you make me blush,” Kim retorted, already making her way to the sign-in desk to get the intake paperwork for the girl.
“Okay, you had your fun, but now you can leave the real med
icine to the real doctors,” Jennings said coldly, never one to miss a chance to share his disdain for the practice of psychiatric medicine.
“Knock yourself out.” Kim thanked the attending nurse when she retrieved the clipboard for the girl. The somber teenager looked up from where she hunched on the edge of one of the waiting room chairs. Her hair had been obscuring her face and a dog-eared copy of Better Homes and Gardens lay upside down in her lap. “I’m going to shoot the shit with this menacing criminal over here.” She smiled at the girl but got only a blank look in return.
Jennings huffed through the doors into the examining area to treat the burn patient, leaving Kim with the much more interesting mystery to solve: who this girl was and why she couldn’t remember what must have been an exceptional act of violence.