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fic - grief and a headhunter's rage : 2 [novella] - the turnip patch
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fic - grief and a headhunter's rage : 2 [novella]
Title:  Grief and a Headhunter's Rage
Part:  2

Grief and a Headhunter's Rage
Part 2

As with many cultures, this one has its own set of activities that serves as rite of passage.  Before being fully accepted as a peer of the social circle, a new doctor or nurse is expected to fulfill certain requirements.  Unlike in some cultures, these demands do not take the form of 'hazing'.  Sometimes a joke is incurred at the expense of the 'newbie', but other than that, it is typically quite harmless.  The aim of the department is not to alienate, but to include.

Because of the close-knit structure of the department, many of the chores are shared equally among all of the staff members.  On the second week of the newbie's term, he is expected to bring something with which to fill the candy bowl at the nurse's station.  Mere minutes after the newbie pours his selection into the bowl, the others that are available will immediately congregate around the counter to examine the newbie's offering.  The discussion amongst themselves is quite intense as they thoroughly analyze the newbie's offering and decide whether or not he has pleased them.  This debate is carried on whether or not the newbie is present.  To date, no one has seriously displeased the members of this department.  There are currently no contingency plans to handle this matter, should it occur.

Sometimes, this sharing of duties is taken advantage of.  When Dr. Winner first came to the pediatric ward, the others managed to convince him that he was expected to take his turn scrubbing down the staff bathroom, despite the presence of their regular janitor.  It was quite fortunate for him that the doctors and nurses tend to be rather clean individuals.

Some of the rituals are quite positive ones.  When a new doctor or nurse is allotted one of the lockers in the staff 'closet', a room connected to the staff lounge, a small ceremony is held, complete with sparkling cider and ribbon cutting.

What truly binds this group of people together, however, is their common struggle against sickness and disease.  Regardless of all of the little things that bring these people together as a social group, there is nothing like a triumph over an illness that unites them.  Or sometimes, it is defeat.  Like the duties and chores that are shared throughout the department, these victories and losses are also shared equally among everyone on the staff with a tender understanding and unrivalled compassion.

During the time of my study, there were no new members added to the department.  There was, however, an opening made available four months prior to my visit by the retirement of Dr. Grodinger, or 'G' as he was commonly called.  He was Dr. Maxwell's mentor in the field of pediatric oncology.

-- excerpt from chapter four of the as-yet untitled rough draft

Trowa halted me in the hallway one day about four weeks into my study.  I rarely heard much from the quiet man, although I saw him often enough.  "Do you have a minute?"

"Of course."  When I was in this hospital, all of my minutes belonged to the staff members of this department.

He led me to a short side hallway.  It was normally pretty quiet in that corner since all that was down there were the janitor's closet and a few examination rooms.  Today, however, Quatre, Sally, and Hilde were waiting there for me.

With a wide smile, Sally held out a medium-sized case as I approached, but I declined to take it immediately.  "What's this?" I asked.  If I weren't reasonably sure that I had been accepted into this family, I thought it would have been possible for them to knock me over the head with the box and then stuff my body in the closet, and no one would ever know.

Quatre explained.  "Each of the paintings on the walls of these hallways was painted by one of us, or one of our predecessors.  The garden in front of the elevators was painted by Anne, our head nurse before Sylvia.  The lions in the playroom were painted by Trowa.  The mushroom circle in the opposite corner of the room was painted by Dr. G."

"I added the pixies," Hilde chimed in.  "With his permission, of course."

"And so on and so forth," Sally finished.  "And so, we all got together and eventually decided that it was your turn."

"My turn?"  I blinked, unexpectedly pleased by this recognition.  I had been accepted by people before, but this was being embraced.  Initially, I had considered that perhaps their acceptance of me had been something of a joke to them, with the mild hazing and teasing that they carried on.  This was no joke.

"Well, over the last four weeks, you've put in just about as many hours here as the rest of us.  You practically are one of us.  You're like our staff anthropologist.  So we decided we could make it a little official.  This section of the wall is yours."

"Of course, you won't get your name in the directory," Hilde joked.  "But this is really prime real estate.  You can see it clearly from the main corridor.  So go on, take the paints."

I reached out formally with both hands to accept the case of paints from Sally.  "Thank you," I said, and I really meant it.  Somehow, this went beyond me being happy that I had gotten just that much closer to the core of this group.  These people always exuded this air of warmth and welcome, and now they had extended it around me, in much more than a merely professional sense.  I thought then that I must know how the kids felt when they were cared for by these doctors and nurses.  It was unique.  I didn't recall any other group of people that had made me feel this way.

"They're water-based paints," Quatre said apologetically.  "Oil-based ones would stink up the hall until they dried.  Besides, this way, we can make changes once in a while.  Just be sure not to paint too close to the floor.  That way Alex won't accidentally swipe it with his mop."

"Quatre knows all about that," Hilde laughed.  I guessed his painting had encountered a minor accident.  "So, what are you going to paint?"

"You don't have to keep it to this wall, of course," Sally interjected.  "This was just the best empty space we could find.  But if you have something in mind that would fit in somewhere else, you're certainly welcome to put it there.  We just thought we would point this side out."

"And of course," Quatre put in, "Not that we probably need to mention this, but all images must be suitable for young children, of course."

"Of course," I murmured absently, staring at the wall that had been given to me as a canvas.  Hilde still stared eagerly at me, waiting for an answer to her question.  I didn't have one.  "Are you sure about this?"

I received three nods and assurances.  Apparently, Trowa didn't feel the need to make three into four.  The answer was still greater than zero.  "Do I need to do this now?"

"No, take as long as you like."

"That's even better, actually," Hilde decided.  "Now Duo can find out for himself."

"Hm?"  I had wondered how the trickster figured into this.  Duo had something to do with practically everything.

"He sent me in his place to find out what you were planning."  She grinned.  "Now he can wait around with the rest of us.  No pressure, of course."

No pressure?  Hn.  After they had wandered back to their duties, I spent a few more moments getting a feel for the blank space, but it wasn't telling me anything, so I turned around and roamed the ward, seeking out the other paintings and trying to identify each of them with its author.

I could render a picture decently enough, but finding something to render would be difficult.  I may have been accepted by them, but I was still an anthropologist -- 'their' anthropologist now -- and I still had to maintain a neutral, objective point of view.  From my own personal preferences, I wouldn't want to be too pretentious with anything that I did.  From a professional point of view, I didn't want to insinuate myself too deeply within their culture, and thus risk going native, or affecting them too much with my outside influence.  If outright refusal of their offering had been a possibility, I might have considered it, but a rejection would have meant a rejection of their culture, and that wouldn't have done at all.

There was really a lot more space than one might have suspected that was available for wall painting, although mine was probably the clearest of all that was still located in a reasonable place.  It was the first thing one would see when looking down the hall from the main corridor.

The walls in the playroom were covered with enough paint that there weren't really any decent places left for an independent addition.  It was strange that the combined effect of so many different paintings wasn't dizzying.  Instead, they all seemed to belong, and contribute to the generally 'lived-in' and cozy atmosphere of the place.  Although that could also have been because of the arrangement of the furniture that really spared a person from having to take it all in at once.

Around the doorframe was painted another frame, a simple, yet elegant arch that served as a gateway to the world painted on the back of the door.  On the other side, there was a field of daisies, rippling gently from an unseen wind as it stretched off towards the horizon of a bright, clear day.  I presumed that since the main door to the playroom was seldom shut, there was little opportunity for anyone to get confused by the disguised portal.  Studying the painting, I saw a signature in green in the lower right corner, the loops and swirls of the name cleverly hidden among the stems and leaves of the flowers in the foreground.  The field was Sally's work.

It wasn't difficult to identify Quatre's work.  I simply looked for the painting that appeared to be too low to the ground.  I found it along the northern wall.  It was a sandbox, and the walls that contained it looked a little more shallow than they ought to have been, probably because the bottom half of the wall had been wiped away.

I expected Duo to have something loud and outrageous emblazoned upon the wall, something unmissable and unmistakable, but I found nothing aside from the painting on his locker, which I knew didn't count since it wasn't available for public consumption.  Most of the others had only their nameplate attached to the door of their locker, or perhaps some small thing that personalized it further.  Duo's door was painted black, with delicate sparkles of white scattered across it in a simulation of a night sky.  The inside of his locker was painted similarly.  I wasn't completely certain, but the stars did appear to be arranged in an accurate rendition of the cosmos.

As I searched every last nook and cranny of the rest of the ward, garnering a strange look from a mother that no doubt thought I had escaped from the psych ward, I encountered paintings whose creator I could not identify, but none of them resembled what I would expect from the oncologist.  Mentally, I wrote them off as works of previous staff members.  In the end, I resorted to asking Hilde to resolve my puzzlement.

"He doesn't have one," she explained, saving her database work on the computer before leaning back in her chair to talk with me.  I raised an eloquent eyebrow in incredulity at her, and she continued the rest of her explanation with a sad smile.  "More accurately, he doesn't have one big one, but he has lots of small, little ones."

My mind flashed back over all of the images that I had observed.  Once in a while, there had seemed to be something a little off with a portion of a painting, and I realized that sometimes it was the quality of the work, and other times, it was the freshness of the paint.  "Hm, I think I may have seen some of them, then."

"One of Duo's first cases here was a little girl with an inoperable brain tumor.  He worked with Doc G on that one, but there wasn't anything they could do.  After she died, Duo gave her his painting as a tribute.  Jodie loved the mushrooms and the fairies, and she used to sit in that corner and read fantasy books."

"The dragon," I said, the answer suddenly coming to me.  Dancing among the fairies was a little golden lizard, its wings pulling it through the air in a playful somersault.  I had always thought that the dragon seemed to be painted by a different hand, even though its integration into the scene was flawless.

Hilde nodded.  "Duo and I came here about the same time.  I was more than happy to work with him to add it in.  And since then, every time we've lost someone here, he paints something up to remember them by.  So I guess it's a good thing that there aren't that many of them up there.  The tree that the lions play under, for instance.  That one belongs to William.  And the butterfly hovering over the daisies is Sarah."

There was nothing in the little additions themselves that spoke of Duo, but the fact that he painted them at all was very Duo.  Was it a memorial or sorts?  The children were immortalized in cheerful, bright images that captured their spirit and their innocence.  It was a fitting tribute.  Or perhaps it served as a reminder of those they had lost, and those they might lose in the future.  It could even have been a penance of sorts, a plea for forgiveness, for being unable to save them.  With Duo, one could never tell.  I knew what the study of other cultures told me, but Duo was practically a culture in and of himself.

It was almost universally agreed upon by the doctors here that one of the worst parts of their job is having to tell parents that their child is seriously ill, perhaps even dying.

I was never present during one of these times.  Anthropological nosiness has its limits, and I would not wish to intrude upon what is so obviously an intensely private, personal time.  I have, however, been able to observe these proceedings from afar, and to join with the doctors in the aftermath.

Six weeks into my study, a young girl named Midii came to the ward.  The ten-year-old child had been experiencing flu-like symptoms for several weeks before being brought to the doctors at the hospital.  In a process that was eventually to encompass the entire department and then some, she was first scheduled an appointment with Dr. Trowa Barton.  Dr. Barton examined the girl, found the symptoms suspect, and ordered blood work done via Dr. Quatre Winner, the resident hematologist.  Based upon his findings, Dr. Winner then called in Drs. Duo Maxwell and Sally Po to confirm his suspicions, and further testing was done in coordination with Dr. Wufei Chang, who worked in the hospital's hemopathology lab.

Together, they confirmed and confronted the unfortunate diagnosis of childhood acute myeloid leukemia.

Because leukemia is a cancer of the blood, responsibility for the case lay primarily within Dr. Maxwell's jurisdiction, with Dr. Winner working closely alongside him.  Because of certain genetic factors, Dr. Po also had a part in this.  Since Dr. Maxwell was to be Midii's primary care physician, however, it fell to his shoulders to bear the bad news to the girl's parents.

Acute myeloid leukemia (AML) is a less common form of leukemia in children.  It has a decent survival rate, and a variety of treatment options, but such dry facts hold little comfort for a family hearing the news for the first time.

I observed Dr. Maxwell as he girded himself for 'the talk'.  He held in his hands the file folder containing all of Midii's test results, as well as a number of informational pamphlets that were appropriate for the family.  As he walked slow circles around the staff lounge, breathing deeply in a meditative manner, the file was carried along, unopened.  Everything contained within had already been etched into his memory when it had first come back from the lab.

He muttered to himself as he continued around the room, coming up with and discarding ways to share the information with the family.  Several times he half-asked me for my impressions of the parents, from those brief times that I had seen them accompanying their daughter, but he turned away from me before I really had a chance to answer.  He was only thinking aloud to himself.

After about five minutes of this, he stopped in his pacing to stand in front of the door, file folder still in hand.  He held the doorknob in his other hand and bounced nervously on his toes for a few moments to get the last jitters out before coming to an almost sudden and surprising cessation of all movement.  One more breath, and he opened the door and stepped out of the room, every inch the calm, confident professional.

Midii's parents were waiting in one of the consultation rooms that were visible from the main waiting area and lobby.  These rooms have windows with blinds for privacy, which are usually left partially open.  It was through this horizontally slatted view that I was able to observe the proceedings inconspicuously from an armchair in the lobby.

John and Marie (last names omitted by request) were solemn as they waited for the diagnosis.  They knew that they wouldn't have been called in like this if it weren't serious, and they clung to each other for support.

They remained silent as Dr. Maxwell entered and took a seat across from them.  He started simply, punching straight through to the matters the parents would be most interested in with simple layman's terms.  Only after laying out the groundwork for hope did he continue with his explanation of the disease, the course of treatment and the tentative prognosis.  His words flowed with a soothing, steady pace, never stopping in hesitation, but only out of concern for the parents, allowing them the opportunity to gather themselves or ask questions.

Or perhaps he needed those times to gather himself.  After the grueling session was over, Midii's parents left the room, visibly distraught, but not despondent.  Only after they had disappeared around the corner to see their child did Dr. Maxwell finally allow his shoulders to droop, his head to hang, to rest tiredly in his hands.  It was all too brief a minute before he recovered and began to methodically gather his papers back together.  Finally trudging out of the room, he deposited the folder at the nurse's station, where he exchanged some words with Sylvia Noventa.

When she patted him comfortingly on the hand, I realized that he seemed as distraught as the parents themselves.  Gone was the image of a doctor in complete control of the situation, leaving only in its place the picture of a man that had seen too much of death.

-- excerpt from the as-yet untitled rough draft

It seemed to be agreed upon without any discussion that they would be going out for drinks tonight.  Sally had other plans for the night, but from the reactions I could tell that if she had been available, she would have went as well.

I checked my wristwatch for confirmation of the time and date, noted the gathering, and then absently jotted down some possible reasons for the outing while they were packing themselves up.  It was the third Thursday of an even month; perhaps that had been the unspoken signal for the trip.  Perhaps it was an anniversary of some sort.  Perhaps there had been little notes and signs that were in a language only the doctors here could understand, and I had simply missed them all.

Or, most likely, it was because there had been a subdued cloud hanging over the department all day since Midii's test results had come in that morning.  Considering the depth of compassion in this family of doctors, I wouldn't have been surprised to find that they did something like this any time bad news regarding a child's health arrived.

This reason made much more sense than the others I had come up with, but that was a main part of why I had had to come up with the others.  When one is embedded in a culture that isn't too foreign, sometimes it is easy to forget the role one is to play there.  I made it a point to at least make a token effort at challenging my assumptions about these people, hence the deliberate exercise in strangeness.  On the other hand, the very concept of strangeness was a relatively archaic one.  The discipline had become a little more lax in its standards of objectivity in the days since anthropology's peak.

I shook my head to myself as I shut my notes and did a little inconspicuous stretching.  A lot of the old work in anthropology had been done during the time of colonies and empires, and the methodology was skewed towards that perspective.  Things were looser now, and I appreciated it.  Change was good.

The doctors gathered in front of the nurses' station, as they often did when they were waiting for something to go in or out of the department.  There was a convenient countertop on which they could lean, and make idle chatter with the nurses if they were inclined.  If the wait looked to be a long one, they often sat where I sat now, in the front area with the low tables and the chairs and the magazines, which altogether was referred to variably as the reception area, front waiting area, or visitor lounge.  Most recently, it had been referred to as my office, since that was the place I often stationed myself to watch the flow of human traffic through the department.  I left when something caught my interest, but I always returned.  That was where I started my day, and that was where I ended my day.

I felt eyes on me, after which I noted a faint murmur of discussion.  Looking up, I saw the three doctors in attendance eyeing me.  I eyed them right back.

There was a brief pause during which Duo and Quatre looked somewhat hesitant.  Trowa wore the same neutral expression he always did.  The silence was soon broken by Duo.  "Wanna come?" he asked simply, jerking his head slightly towards the elevators.

Of course I wanted to.  The problem with my job was trying to figure out how to be nosy and inquisitive without being intrusive and rude.  By asking me, they had quite neatly taken the decision out of my hands.

"Is that alright?"  I didn't want to appear too eager.  Who knew how sensitive this grief reaction was?

Duo shrugged, and Quatre answered more clearly.  "Of course, Heero."

I responded with a brief nod, swiftly collected my things, and joined them by the time the elevator doors dinged open.

Our destination was Howard's, a small, cozy bar situated three blocks from the hospital.  I had been brought there once before, when the department had still been enchanted by the idea of having a pet anthropologist, despite my subject matter, and had showed me off quite proudly to their bartender and friend, Howard.  It was fortunate that I would be spared an introduction this time.  The first time had been a social gathering, but this seemed to be a ritual directly dealing with my research, and I wanted to disturb the proceedings as little as possible.

We entered without fanfare.  The previous time, our presence had been announced with hearty laughter as we walked through the door.  This time around, there were a few waves to the owner as we entered, and he waved back, indicating with a flip of his hand that we were free to take a table.  He arrived by our sides soon after, and by the restrained look on his face, I could tell he already knew that bad news had precipitated this visit.  That confirmed my theory that this was a regular occurrence.

"What can I get you boys?"  We were all grown men with careers, and yet we were still boys.  Granted, he was almost old enough to be a father to any one of us, but that aside, it had an almost proprietary air to it.  Not just boys, but his boys, and special enough that he would wait on our table personally.

I was glad that the others made their orders first, clueing me in on what the regular procedure here was.  Quatre and Trowa got what they got last time; Duo requested something a little bit harder.  I stuck with my trusty ginger ale.

"Don't drink much, do ya, Heero?" Duo drawled lazily at me, slouching down in his chair.  Howard's had nice chairs.

"Not really," I shrugged.  "I drink when I have to.  Parties, receptions, that sort of thing."

"Do you attend that sort of thing often?" Quatre asked curiously.  His family had money, so it was likely he had attended those things as well.  It showed, somewhat.  He was in a bar, and was still sitting up straight in his seat.  Trowa looked a little more relaxed, but on the other hand, Trowa had that look about him that made me think that he could probably blend in in just about any environment.

I smiled briefly.  As if I had a life.  "Not really."  Usually it was my publisher, some fellow researcher or professor or someone.  I didn't exactly go out of my way to socialize with them without reason, and when I did spend time with them, I found that I didn't even like them particularly much.  There was nothing wrong with them, per se.  I've just never felt like I belonged with that crowd, even though we all shared a similar focus on our work.  Or perhaps it was because of that.

"Excellent," Duo declared.  "It looks like we have here our designated driver."

"What would you have done if I hadn't been here?"

"Hung out long enough for the buzz to wear off, probably," Quatre answered.  "Howard doesn't mind.  Or maybe we'd just let Duo drive."

I raised an eyebrow at him, and Duo spoke up in his own defense.  "The alcohol doesn't hit me like it used to anymore."

"You've built up an impressive tolerance?"

"Yep.  I've run into far too many drinking occasions, thank you very much."  He blinked then, as if surprised he had actually said that, but recovered quickly.  "So, I'm sure you've got questions about what's going on.  Ask away."  He gestured permissively at me with a wave of his hand.

I shook my head.  "No, please, just do whatever you would do if I weren't here.  I don't want to disturb or distract you."

"Too bad, you lose.  We came here to be distracted tonight, and it looks like you're the main attraction.  Distract us."

"Well, now I know why you invited me."

"That's not true," Quatre protested, shooting Duo a mildly reproving look.  "We invited you because you're a nice guy, a friend, even, if that doesn't cause you any objectivity trouble with your study."

"And you probably wanted to come anyway," Duo piped up.  "Wanted to crawl inside our heads and find out how we tick."

"That's my job," I murmured.  I had no defense besides that.

"And is that the only reason you agreed to come along?"

I was fortunately spared having to answer that question when Howard fortuitously returned with our drinks, but it made me think a little.  It was certainly a main reason why I had come, but there was some tiny little part of me that claimed it would be disappointed if that was the only reason.  I noted it with a silent 'hn' and filed it away for later analysis, turning instead towards observing the interaction between bartender and guests.  Or, more particularly, this bartender with these guests at this time.

Howard was a funny old man.  I wasn't sure if he wore the Hawaiian shirt to blend in with the tropical motif of his bar, or if he had decorated the bar to match his own personal tastes.  I tended to think the latter.  His taste, or tastelessness as the case may have been, was scattered all over the establishment.

"Anyone I know?" he asked casually as he passed us our drinks.  As he was standing right next to me at the time, it took me a second to realize that he had not been referring to me, but to the cause of the visit.

Duo only stared morosely into his drink as he played with his straw, leaving Quatre to answer after he had accepted his own drink with polite thanks.  "She's new."



Howard gave a low whistle.  "That sucks."  Succinct, and quite to the point.  He knew these doctors, and knew that those few words would be taken as all the compassion and sympathy he could give, all that they would allow.  It wasn't a tragedy yet, and they would all fight as hard as they could to see that it didn't become one.  They seemed to nod in agreement, and with that, all that would be said about the matter had been said.

Howard returned to his position as someone approached the bar, and Duo swiftly changed the subject.  "You haven't painted anything yet," he said to me, and it almost sounded like an accusation.

"I haven't decided what to paint yet," I returned, and it came out like an apology.  I hated things that were meaningless, so I was unable to force myself to simply paint the first thing that came to mind.  Instead, I bided my time, waiting for the answer to strike me.  Hopefully, it would come before the end of my study.

"There's no hurry," Quatre was quick to assure me.

"But I wanna see," Duo whined petulantly around the straw between his lips.  "I wanna see what he comes up with.  I wanna see what makes Heero tick."

"Payback?" I asked dryly.

He only grinned in response, but it didn't quite reach his eyes.

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