Only a blur of movement caught her eye as people scurried about.  The rhythmic thump of the huge people-lift echoed through the massive room. It sounded like a heartbeat, steady and strong.

Throughout the day, she felt herself sync up with the machine as it rotated its clamshell pods in the immense steel structure. She watched people step off and rush away to places unknown. Some exited the lift with a bewildered look, seeking familiar faces. Scanning the crowd, they would break into a smile and wave as a friend swooped in with a hug.

It’s been years since the war, but they still want to live down here. What I wouldn’t give for a soft warm breeze.

The petite doctor scanned the area again. Why did they place the clinic here of all places? It’s out in the open with nothing to denote boundaries, nor are there any privacy walls. Just rows of beds and exam tables lined up like graves, half of them full already. Finding the cleanest part of her sleeve, she wiped sweat off her brow. Too much noise and too many people. It’s hard to concentrate.

She took a moment to check out the queue as they lined up against the grimy, yellow-tiled wall. Some leaning, some sitting, but most stood, shoulders slumped in hopelessness with misery lining their faces.

Feeling a presence, she looked down. Standing before her, was a blonde-headed boy maybe 10 or 11 years old, holding a battered paper bag.

“Please ma’am can you help him?”

I know he’s considered non-essential, but I just can’t send him away. His eyes pleaded with her.

Grabbing her clipboard, she asked, “What’s your name?”

“Andrew, ma’am.”

“Well Andrew, I don’t know if I can help until I see him.”

“Yes ma’am, please, he’s all I got.”

The thump of the machine dwindled into the background as he opened the bag and gently lifted out a small, filthy, rag.  The doctor flinched, thinking of all the nasty bugs clinging to it. She shuddered then opened the rag with trepidation. There lay a squirrel with his eyes closed, his chest rising with each breath. It didn’t take long to see the problem. A terrible gash had opened one of his tiny legs from the hip to the knee.

“He needs stitches. Will he bite if I touch him?”

“Don’t know. He hasn’t bit anyone yet, but he’s messed up right now.”

“I’ll give him something so he won’t feel the stitching, but you’ll need to hold him.”

Andrew gently laid his finger on the little squirrel’s chest. With the other hand, he stroked the tiny head.

“Go ahead, ma’am he knows I’m here.”

She took the syringe and pushed the needle into the muscle. The little squirrel shifted, but didn’t open his eyes. The doctor touched his chest and could feel a fast strong heartbeat.

“Andrew how did this happen?”

“We was playing over by that big old dead tree, you know the one by the side of the…”

“Doctor, Doctor over here,” an attendant called out.

She looked up, “I’m in the middle of something. Go ahead and start, I’ll be there in a minute.”

“But Doctor…”

“I said just a minute.” Turning back to Andrew, “We need to be quick about this. I don’t know if he’ll feel it or not. So hold on tight.”

She threaded the needle and pulled the muscle together. The squirrel didn’t move. Good. She quickly stitched it up then moved to the skin.

“Doctor, please,” called the attendant. She didn’t even look up, just kept stitching. When she was done, she wiped her brow again. It’s too hot in here. She glanced up but nothing was out of the ordinary.

Covered in black bar-like cages, the lights barely radiated enough to reduce the shadows in the far corners. The vaulted ceiling, embedded with dirt-encrusted glass, rose high above, but only a small fraction of daylight showed through. Sure would help if they’d clean them occasionally.

She looked again at the stitches. “I don’t know if he’ll be able to use his leg, but that’s the best I can do,” she replied.

“Thank you Doctor. At least he has a chance.”

Wrapping his leg, she said, “I’ll give him some antibiotics to keep it from getting infected but you must keep him clean. Here wrap him in this cloth. When he wakes up use this syringe and feed him some milk every two hours.”

A low rumble rippled beneath their feet. Fear spread across Andrew’s face. The sudden blare of alarms blasting out of old metal discs near the ceiling made him jump. It had been years since they had emitted such a terrible sound. The ground rolled again. Tiles on the wall shattered and showered shards down on the people. The horrendous grinding screech of metal on metal clashed with the alarms as the huge people lift groaned to a halt.

All eyes turned to look upon their lifeline to the surface. Suspended, motionless, and eight feet off the ground, the clamshell gate was only halfway opened.

The sudden stop had thrown the passengers off their feet. Quickly the men crawled to peer over the ledge. One of them began to gesture. The women, holding their crying children, shook their heads.

I don’t think they like his idea.

With shock, the doctor watched as the men two at a time moved closer to the lip and slipped over the edge. They dangled for a second then dropped.

Standing up, they coaxed the women to lower their children. The mothers gently kissed their foreheads, laid down, held the children under their arms, and let go.

However, others in a closed pod weren’t so lucky to escape. The screams were faint next to clangor of the alarm, and fists pounding on the metal walls sounded like dull thuds.

Realization struck those waiting for loved ones to descend. They weren’t getting off. Like a wave, they rushed, pushed and shoved each other out of their way trying to reach the base of the lift.

I wish they’d shut off that alarm. Looking down, she saw Andrew was mesmerized with the scene on the lift.

“Andrew, quick take these,” she shouted.

He turned to look up at her when he heard his name. “What happened?”

“I don’t know, but I feel something bad is coming.” The doctor held out some bandages for him.

“You need to get out of here. Go to the kitchen; there’s a stairwell that heads to the surface.”

Andrew stood looking around in fear and unbelief. Another ripple rolled under them nearly toppling the two over.

“Andrew move it.”

He grabbed the bandages and stuffed them into the paper bag. Gently lifting his squirrel now wrapped in a clean cloth, he took off slipping in and out of the scurrying group of people.

The doctor watched as the slim figure slipped around the corner into the hall that led to the kitchen.

I wonder if I’ll ever see Andrew again.


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