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Messengers
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by TelegramSam

They were said to carry the souls of the departed to the realm of the dead. He supposed that’s why they gathered here, in the trees near the hospital. Or maybe they just liked the garbage and leftovers from the cafeteria. There were five of the large ravens in total that he knew of; or at least, he’d counted up to five at once, mixed in with the smaller crows and abundant pigeons that comprised the bird population of the immediate area. There was something about them, perhaps their size or their reputed intelligence, that drew his attention. The ravens perched silently in the heat of the summer day, watching the people milling below from their customary tree limbs. They were louder in the evening, their harsh cracking calls filling the air, much louder and deeper than the reedy cawing of their smaller brethren.

 

When he had the opportunity, he would duck out of the hospital and sit down at one of the tables or benches to watch them until his sense of duty forced him back inside. Sometimes he swore that one of them watched him back. It was an older bird, by the look of it. It was thinner than the others, and its feathers were unkempt, giving the general impression of a sloppy aging wizard. He would watch it intently when it appeared, study it. It would tilt its head toward him, turning that fathomless glassy eye on him until he broke contact, a human-bird staring contest. He idly wondered what the bird thought of him, and what, if any, wisdom was contained in its alien mind.

 

He made the mistake of pointing him out to House one morning. His friend immediately dismissed the bird as “creepy” and proceeded to chuck an empty soda can at it before he could stop him. House seemed surprised at the ensuing anger displayed by his normally unflappable companion, but he could offer no satisfying explanation for his unusual affection toward the moth-eaten scavenger. Sighing, he got up and left House to the childish satisfaction received from animal abuse. He didn’t want to return to work, but his lunch hour was up and his bird had left him anyway.

 

He checked in on old Mrs. Stokes again, giving her a friendly smile and a pat on her nearly skeletal hand. There wasn’t much time left for her, he knew it, but there was no harm in giving an old woman a bit of hope. The cancer had metastasized and spread all over her body despite everything he’d done; now there was little left that could be done for her. She’d been his patient on and off for over eight years now, first for colon cancer, now for breast cancer.

 

He didn’t get so close to most of them. It was usually a supremely bad idea for a doctor to make friends with patients, especially in a field as fraught with tragedy as oncology, but after a couple years, he had found himself talking to her about subjects other than medicine more often than was proper. He also often found himself confiding in her his own fears. She knew more about his failing marriage and his best friend’s degenerating physical and emotional health than anyone else besides himself. She would sit quietly and watch him and listen while he poured out his misery, absorbing all of it before speaking and without giving sign of boredom, annoyance or exasperation, as the others in his life were wont to do.

 

He never knew why she had any interest in the tedious details of his personal life was, only that when she asked how he was doing, it wasn’t simply pleasantries – she was genuinely interested in what he was up to. She always had some bit of advice to offer, some reassurance, even if it was a simple “don’t worry, it’ll work out.” Still, it was better than nothing. After all, no matter how much he knew House cared about him, there were some things the older man would never be able to understand, and some things that could never be discussed between them. After all, he was one of the topics on the menu. And when would House ever suggest something like having a bit of patience? Many times the old woman told him, just have a little faith. Things will work out. Coming from anyone else, it would sound trite, but for some reason, when she said it, it held an air of authority that he couldn’t stop himself from believing. Perhaps it was because he knew she’d been through many hard times in her own life, having grown up in the depression and losing her father in the first world war.

 

Most of all, she told him time and again, don’t give up hope, no matter how dark it seemed.

 

Mrs. Stokes was seventy-nine now – she had three children, seven grandchildren, and one great grandchild on the way. At this point, his greatest ambition was to keep her alive long enough to meet the new addition to her family. A pipe dream on his part, really. He would miss her when she was gone.

 

It had been a particularly hard day. He’d lost two other patients that morning and House had taken a bad fall after being tripped up by some careless nurse in the hallway (and proceeded to rant about it, loudly, for nearly an hour despite not being seriously injured). He went outside to look for his raven. The other four were at their usual places and seemed content to ignore him, but for the first time, his bird was nowhere to be found. Frustrated, he went back inside to find his only other true confidante.

 

Mrs. Stokes wasn’t in any condition to have a conversation anymore though. Sometime in the night, she’d taken a turn for the worse, her breathing becoming raspy and labored. She could speak only slowly, and he was not cruel enough to force her, no matter how much he wanted (needed) her advice. Instead, he settled for pulling up a chair next to her bed and taking her hand in his. He sat silently, staring at his feet, saying nothing. She smiled at him, her tissue paper-thin skin looking like it would tear at the movement.

 

His heart sank; he knew she wouldn’t outlast the day. He’d called her children that morning, but they wouldn’t arrive until the next day. He prayed (something he rarely did anymore) that she’d last longer than he predicted; she deserved to have them by her side. Unfortunately, for the moment, he’d have to do. She squeezed his hand; he turned and put on a brave smile for her. He didn’t expect her to speak, but she did, slowly, her voice now harsh and cracking.

 

“Oh… don’t give me… that look. I’m not a fool... I know… I’m dying.”

 

He tried very hard not to cry. He almost succeeded until she let out another round of  harsh coughing.

 

“Stop that… young man. There’s nothing to cry about… I’m an old woman.”

 

He sniffed and wiped his face fiercely, schooling his features. There were plenty of things to cry about, he thought, and you’re only one them. His life was slowly pulling apart at the seams – his marriage was wearing thin, his only real friend was busy destroying himself, his patients were dropping like flies today. Nothing lasted in this world. Time and disease consumed everything. He felt he would soon be left with nothing. Suddenly, she all but smirked at him, as if she’d read his thoughts.

 

“What… did I tell you… before? Don’t do that… We’ll see each other again… I’m sure… of it.”

 

He didn’t presume to be particularly religious. He hadn’t set foot in a synagogue since his bar mitzvah. When Mrs. Stokes said they’d see each other again, though, he desperately wanted to believe it, that there was something he could hold onto.

 

She went into another coughing fit, her heartbeat becoming erratic. He leapt to his feet, intending to do something about it, but her thin hand clamped on his with surprising strength as she haltingly shook her head. The fit passed, and she calmed down again, though her pulse was still weakening.

 

“James…”

 

She seemed to want to say something else, ask something of him, but had no more energy for it. He watched her, she tilted her head toward him, looking him straight in the eye.

 

            “Let… me go…”

 

He cursed himself as more tears slipped out. Her grip on his hand slackened. He turned his head aside, and with great reluctance, he let go of her.

 

“James...”

 

He did nothing when the heart monitor flatlined a moment later. He sat and stared at her still-warm body for a full minute before walking out of the room. There would be paperwork to be filled out, family to notify… but for the moment, it simply wasn’t in him. Let one of the nurses find her. She was beyond his reach or comfort any longer anyway (or was it the other way around?). He walked out of the hospital into the muggy dusk air, heading toward his usual bench, searching the trees for his missing raven.

 

He almost didn’t see it. He almost stepped on it in fact. There was a feathery black mass next to the bench. He fell to his knees beside it, thinking a moment later but not caring how stupid it was to feel this wretched about a dead animal. Half of his mind was protesting, throwing at him the names of they myriad diseases birds carry, of feather mites and dirt, but nevertheless, he picked the still-warm body up, cradling it to his chest. The dam finally burst, the torrent that had been threatening for months finally rearing its bestial head.

 

He didn’t even hear House walk up behind him. He half jumped out of his skin and dropped the bird to the ground when a cane tapped him on the hip. A tall thin silhouette, an almost ghastly spectre with its streetlamp halo, simply tilted its head back toward the hospital. When he hesitated, House bent slightly and offered a hand, something that surprised him even more than being stalked up upon had.

 

He hauled himself to his feet (careful not to pull the not-exactly-steady House over with him), and let his friend take the lead back to the building. He glanced upward, spying four raven-shaped splotches wheeling in the darkening sky, their harsh caws occasionally reaching his ears. Perhaps they were carrying souls tonight, or maybe just looking for scraps.

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Topography

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