Todd checked over his shoulder both ways so no one would see him at the alleyway entrance. So far, his buddy at work had been correct.
The address appeared to be an apartment building with heavy curtains in all the windows.
He drew a long breath, winced at the shooting pain in his temple, and checked the surroundings once more before heading inside.
The small lobby was empty except for a guy behind a desk at the far end, like in a motel.
Todd swallowed again and crossed the room.
The attendant looked up as he approached, but said nothing.
Todd felt like a fool, but his wife had insisted he come here. He swallowed again and tried to smile.
“Hi, I’d like a – an appointment,” he said.
“Right,” said the attendant, opening a big ledger in a blue three-ring binder. “What’s your pleasure?”
Todd double-checked the little brochure his work-buddy had given him…the one with head-shots of a dozen attractive young ladies.
“I’d like a – uh – blonde? With a…pretty face.”
He felt stupid saying it, but that’s the way it worked – according to the brochure.
“Right,” said the attendant again. “That’s $200 up front.”
Todd pulled out his wallet, and wiped his hands on the front of his shirt so he could pull out the cash.
The attendant took the money and slipped it into a little metal cash-box.
“Down the hall, room 128. Wait there.”
And with that the man pulled out a copy of New England Journal of Medicine and ignored him.
Todd shuffled down the hall. At least it was well-lit. Strange thumps and hums came from behind the closed doors.
At number 128, he hesitated…but he was committed now. Stroking his throbbing temple again, he slipped in and closed the door behind him.
A bright fluorescent white bathed the whole room, where a spotless white table the size of a gurney stood in the middle of the room – in front of an enormous white machine like a giant donut. It looked just like the photos on the internet.
Behind a curtain in the corner, Todd changed into the hospital gown he found in a plastic package on top of the table…then stood watching the machine, rubbing his head and licking his lips.
There was a knock on the door, immediately followed by a young man in a long white lab coat. Todd noted, with a desperate instinct to find humor in the situation, that the young man was blond.
“Head trouble, eh?” said the stranger, making straight to the LCD screen on the side of the machine.
“I got a sudden headache last weekend,” said Todd, tip-toeing up to the table. “My wife thought I should get it checked out, so I went down to our local medical clinic.”
The young man tapped away at the screen, and Todd licked his lips.
“They told me I should get an MRI scan, but the wait time would be –“
“Let me guess,” said the man in the lab coat. “Three months.”
“Five, actually,” said Todd.
“Ha! I’ve heard six months to a year. Colonoscopies are even worse.”
Todd licked his lips again. “Are you a doctor?”
“Nah, I just run the machine.” The stranger gestured at the table. “Take a load off. When we’re done, it’ll take fifteen minutes or so to load your results on a CD…and then you do whatever you want with it. If you want a doc to give his opinion, that’s another 150, and you have to come back in a couple days; we’ll give you the CD with a doctor’s notes.”
Todd lay down on the table. The stranger flicked a switch, and the whole platform started moving, until his head was inside the hole of the donut.
“A-Aren’t you afraid I’ll turn you in?” he asked, just to make conversation.
“Do you want to do that, or do you want an MRI?” asked the technician with a chuckle. “Think about it — you can either get us for practicing private medicine…or you can actually get the benefit of our services.”
“And you have real, registered doctors who work with you, too?” asked Todd.
“Face it: the National Medical System doesn’t pay peanuts. Plenty of qualified, university-trained diagnosticians are happy to make a little extra analyzing test results.”
“And if they’re wrong, the patient can’t complain — we don’t know who the doctor is, and we can’t admit where we got the test.”
The technician peeked into the donut and smiled. “You wanna live dangerously? Or you want to wait a year for an X-ray? By that time, if it’s cancer or an aneurism or something, you might be dead anyway.”
Todd held up his hand, anything to delay the strange machine from making noises. “What do you get out of it?”
The technician shrugged. “A little pocket change – and I get to make a difference in people’s lives. I actually run an ultrasound machine in normal life, but the pay – plus the regulations – are murder.”
He patted the machine. “Right, I’m going to warm up our lovely Blondie here. There’ll be a humming noise, but you won’t feel a thing. Just take it easy –“ He grinned. “Blondie will treat you well.”
Kimia Wood was raised by an aspiring author, so spinning words and weaving plots is in her blood.
She currently lives somewhere in the American Midwest with her family…including the brother people mistake for her boyfriend. She’s bracing for the collapse of society by knitting, baking, writing, hobby-farming, and reading as much Twitter as possible before the web goes dark.
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