Peter and Rachel struggled to keep pace with the young nurse as she whisked them through hallways and stairwells towards the infirmary. She seemed to have the labyrinth of passages memorized, and while Peter knew the layout of the rig well, he found himself distracted all the same. Was it good news or bad news?
At the infirmary, Peter and Rachel were greeted by a sister in a white coat. She introduced herself as Doctor Maria Bennett and invited them into a small room beside the reception lobby. It had been converted into an office of sorts, though the place was stacked with boxes of books and papers.
“Please excuse the mess,” Doctor Bennett apologized. “I’m still trying to get organized here but haven’t had the time with all that’s going on.”
Peter and his wife sat across from the doctor’s desk and waited anxiously.
“I’ll get right to the point. Your friend Ted is going to make it,” she said matter-of-factly, moving a stack of papers to clear a space for her hands.
Peter couldn’t hold back the tears. Part of it was the pent up stress and uncertainty of the last week, but most of it, he knew, was the immeasurable relief at knowing his good friend would survive. His head fell into his hands and he took a minute to regain composure.
“That’s… That’s a huge relief, doctor,” he said.
“Before I get your hopes up too high, though, I need you to know a little about his condition,” Doctor Bennett warned.
Peter and Rachel shared a look and nodded, ready.
“We performed an endoscopy shortly after Brother Watkins arrived. We were able to flush the contents from his digestive tract and analyze them. What we found was pretty conclusive. This wasn’t just a case of bad food or an allergic reaction.”
“He was poisoned,” Peter said flatly. “Wasn’t he?”
The doctor nodded, but with a cautious expression. “It would appear so. There were toxic chemicals present in his stomach that wouldn’t normally be found in food.”
“I knew it,” Peter said, his jaw clenching.
“So he’ll be ok?” Rachel asked.
“I’m going to be cautiously optimistic and say yes, but there could be side effects, some possibly long-term.”
“The toxins Ted ingested were corrosive. As they entered his esophagus and digestive tract, they ate away at some of the tissue lining. In essence, it burned his vocal cords. At worst, this will permanently affect how he speaks and digests food. At best, everything will heal over time and there will be no long-term side effects. We’ll just have to wait and see.”
“The main thing is that he’s alive,” Peter said gratefully.
“And that there appears to be no significant brain damage. This was a major concern of mine due to the choking. The brain can’t go long without oxygen before it starts shutting down. Fortunately, he was here when it happened. But there’s something else I need to inform you of.”
“Oh? Is something wrong?” Peter asked.
“When we performed the endoscopy, we found something unusual in his stomach, a kind of tumor.”
“That doesn’t sound good,”
“We didn’t think so either. We did a biopsy and it turned out to be cancerous.”
“Oh no,” Rachel said.
“Actually we think we caught it early enough. It was very small, about the size of a pea. We were able to remove it without doing any invasive surgery. Of course, we can only wait and see if we got it all. This could be the end of it, it could return. He’ll need regular check ups in the future.”
“If this system continues,” Peter added.
“Of course. If this system continues,” Doctor Bennett said.
“Can we see him?” Rachel asked.
Doctor Bennett nodded. “Yes, you can. But he’s been under for the last few days, so his system isn’t functioning completely on its own. You can talk to him, but he won’t be able to respond.”
“We understand. We’d still like to see him,” Peter said, wiping his face. “All right, then. Follow me,” the doctor said, rising from behind the stacks of papers and boxes to lead the couple out of the room.
Ted Watkins lay on a hospital bed in a small, windowless room. The space was sparsely decorated; a heavily creased Rand McNally World Map hung on one wall, the clothes Ted wore when he was admitted neatly folded beside a vase of fake flowers on a bedside table at the other. Peter wondered how many of the furnishings had been leftovers from the rig’s previous owners.
The rest of the room was occupied by medical equipment. An expensive looking machine blinked and whirred quietly in one corner while various charts and diagrams were pinned to a strip of cork board above Ted’s bed. Ted himself looked remarkably well, but for a messy head of hair and the evident weight loss that had resulted from being tube-fed a liquid diet over the course of several days.
Peter and Rachel pulled up chairs and sat quietly for a few moments at Ted’s side. It was Rachel who finally spoke.
“We miss you, big guy,” she started uncomfortably. “But we’re happy to hear the good news.”
“Sounds like you’ll get through this just fine,” Peter chipped in. “You had us real worried, though.”
Ted shifted slightly in the bed and the couple froze. Slowly, the large man’s eyes pried themselves open and he turned his head to look at them. His lips quivered as he struggled to say something, but Peter stopped him.
“Doc says your vocal cords are going to need some time to heal,” Peter said, putting a hand on Ted’s arm. Ted pulled away gently and lifted a hand slightly in the air, wiggling his thumb.
“I think he wants your phone,” Rachel said. Peter pulled the device from his pocket and handed it over. Ted’s movements were slow and uncoordinated and it took him a minute to type the message. He handed the phone back, and the couples’ heart sank. On the screen, Ted had typed:
How is Angelica?
When Joyce finally awoke aboard The Golden Age it was nearly eleven o’clock. Warming rays of golden sunlight streamed through a window beside her bed. She stretched and enjoyed her view of the sea. It felt like weeks since she’d seen daylight, and for the first time in weeks she felt rested and well. She took her time getting dressed and combing her hair before strolling to the ship’s medical bay.
Doctor Munoz was the first to greet her, and seemed inhumanly energetic and sharp after having pulled an all nighter. He briefly introduced Joyce to the other medical staff before taking her to see Stacy Owen.
“How is she?” Joyce asked nervously as they walked to her friend’s room and peeked through the door’s window.
“Yes, but not serious. She’s on a strong dose of antibiotics. Like I said this morning, you being there was crucial. Frankly, I don’t think she would’ve made it this far without your medical attention.”
“I wish I could’ve done more,” Joyce said.
“Given the circumstances, I think you did just fine. The staff on hand last night treated her as soon as she arrived. She’s all bandaged up and heavily sedated. I think it’s safe to say we’re through the worst of it.”
“Did she ever regain consciousness?”
Doctor Munoz shook his head. “Too soon. We confirmed that the burns on her arms and hands are second and third degree. It appears as if parts of the jacket she was wearing at the time melted into the skin.”
Joyce shook her head and frowned deeply. “It all happened so fast. There was no time to react.”
“There rarely is.”
“So what happens next?”
“We’ll keep her here as long as we need to, change the bandages every few days, make sure the infection goes away.”
A weight lifted from Joyce’s shoulders, one that had been there for days, perhaps weeks. In the presence of other medical professionals, she could take a backseat. Stacy’s life was no longer in her hands and that was a tremendous relief.
“Any way I can be of help?” she asked.
“For now, just get some rest. You look like you could use it.”
“Under normal circumstances I might be a little offended by that statement,” Joyce said, smirking.
“I’m serious. Medical personnel need their wits. You’re of no use to anyone tired and stressed. The organization has been very strict with us in their directions. They don’t want our doctors and nurses getting fatigued, physically or mentally. As I said earlier, anything can happen out here and we need to be ready.”
“Point taken,” Joyce said. “I guess a day off wouldn’t hurt.”
“Take two if you need it. There’ll be plenty of work waiting when you feel fit.”
“Thank you, brother. In the meantime, do you think you could tell me where I could get something to eat around here?”
Roderick Munoz glanced at his watch. It was nearly noon. “I can do better than that,” he said, grinning for the first time Joyce had seen that morning. “I’ll take you there myself.”
“You hear the good news?” Peter asked Marcus Kelly as the two filed back in to the conference room for their afternoon meeting with the overseers. Brother Kelly shook his head.
“It’s Ted. He’s finally awake and through the worst of it. Can’t talk yet, but we were able to communicate.”
“Wonderful news,” Marcus said, beaming at the younger elder. “I’ll have to pay him a visit later this afternoon.”
“I’m sure he’d love that. The doctors still want to keep an eye on him, but he looks pretty good, all things considered. But get this: when they examined him they found something in his stomach. A cancerous tumor. It’s already been taken care of.”
“Interesting,” Marcus said, lost in thought for a moment. “And did they determine the cause of sickness?”
“They confirmed it was poisoning.”
“You should let everyone know during the meeting,” Marcus suggested.
After a brief prayer, the group of overseers heard Peter’s update. The room was a sea of uneasy expressions once Peter delivered the blow. It was clear that they’d underestimated the threat, but Peter wasn’t about to hold it against anyone. They’d been hit with a perfect storm of unforeseen occurrences that no one could’ve predicted or prepared for.
“Thank you, Brother Burton,” Donnie Chavez said gravely. He removed his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose. They’d all aged visibly since boarding the rig, but none more so than Donnie. Peter could hardly imagine the stress he was under.
“Well, it’s clear now that we need to find sister Parry and her captor as soon as possible. Any ideas?” Donnie finally asked, his red, puffy eyes roving the room. A full minute passed before any hands were raised.
“The way I see it, we haven’t got a lot of options,” said Brother Garboni, head of security.
“What options do we have?” someone asked.
“Either we go door to door looking for them in the area we’ve narrowed down, or we wait till there’s another sighting of the stowaway. A third option is the one Brother Burton brought up this morning, holding a stakeout of the place, waiting for him to move, and sending in a few brothers to extract her.”
“Do any of those ideas seem better than the others?” Donnie asked dubiously. Brother Garboni was already shaking his head.
“Extremely risky. The more we learn about this man we’re dealing with, the more nervous I get about any kind of confrontation.”
“I think confrontation is inevitable,” Peter said.
“I agree,” Marcus added. “Sooner or later, the time’s going to come where there’s a conflict between us and this man. We can’t expect him to just pack his bags and leave peacefully. The key is to try to minimize the potential harm to the friends as much as possible.”
More silence as the group mulled this over.
“We know that Jehovah wants us to resolve this peacefully,” Marcus continued, his words slow and calm, just as Peter had always known them. “His organization did not arm us with weapons to defend ourselves out here. There must be another way.”
“What if we could sedate him somehow?” Peter said quietly. The others turned curiously to look his way.
Peter nodded slowly, the pieces still coming together in his head. “The doctor who treated Ted Watkins also ran a chemical analysis on the residue we found in Sister Parry’s cabin.”
“Residue?” someone asked.
“Yeah. When my wife discovered Angelica’s son hiding under their bed, she also reported smelling something strange. When I checked it out, I found there was some discoloration on one of the pillowcases. The doctor has a chemical lab set up in the infirmary and was able to run some tests. She believes it was chloroform.”
“Chloroform? As in the stuff they use in movies to knock people unconscious?”
Peter nodded. “I asked the doctor how anyone could’ve snuck something like that aboard, but she explained to me that it’s easy to make, so long as you’ve got access to common cleaning supplies and know the right procedures.”
“So you’re saying this man not only snuck aboard, avoided detection, and kidnapped one of our sisters, but he also managed to set up a little lab someplace and make a batch of chloroform?” Donnie Chavez asked, visibly disturbed.
“I mean, if this guy is a hired professional, it’d fit the profile,” Brother Garboni said, raising his eyebrows. But then his expression shifted. “Does our doctor know exactly how to make it?” he asked.
Peter shrugged. “Possibly. She seemed to know a lot about the process, but most of it was over my head.”
“What are you thinking?” asked the chairman.
“Well… I think I may have an idea. But I don’t know if you’re all going to like it.”
“Try us,” the chairman said.
Joyce Tucker was awestruck by the sheer size of the sprawling cafeteria. It stretched on so far into the distance that she couldn’t see the back wall. Beyond the endless rows of dining tables stood towering steel shelves stacked with crates, chairs, plastic containers, and dozens of other items Joyce could scarcely name, let alone recognize. Further beyond that, she spotted what she guessed were vehicles and machinery covered by thick tarps. Hundreds of Witnesses filled the dining area, many standing in snaking lines waiting their turn, trays in hand.
“Everything all right?” Doctor Munoz asked, handing Joyce a cafeteria tray. She took a minute to reply.
“I’d forgotten how much I missed this––being with the friends. Feeling safe.”
“You mentioned getting separated from your husband. How’d that happen?”
“I made a stupid decision,” Joyce said.
“I left the camp.”
Roderick nodded thoughtfully. “Why would you do that?”
“We had a sick girl with us. She’d shown up at the hospital I worked at just before the evacuation and turned out to be a Witness. Couldn’t remember a thing, not even her own name. She got caught up in that explosion at the Seattle airport. It was awful. The poor thing was so scared, so alone, family probably worried sick.”
“So you took her in.”
“Of course. Then we evacuated, drove up to Vancouver. Thing is, she wasn’t getting better. If anything, her symptoms seemed to just keep worsening. I was in contact with a doctor at my hospital back in Seattle; he was interested in the girl’s case but needed a blood sample to run his tests. Alvin––my husband––was very against the idea.”
“But you went anyway.”
“Like I said, it was a stupid thing to do.”
“When I tried to get back across the border, it was already closed. It’s a miracle I’m here, Doctor.”
“So, why’d you do it? Why did you leave?”
Joyce found the way Roderick spoke both jarring and galvanizing, like waking up in a cold shower. She could almost feel his clinical mind prying at her own, probing the symptoms one by one until he’d delivered a diagnosis.
“I guess… I mean, I thought… I thought I had to save her. It didn’t feel like I had a choice.”
The doctor stopped moving with the line to turn and peer into Joyce’s eyes. “Oh, there’s always a choice.”
“What I mean is I felt like she was my responsibility. I couldn’t just let her… die.”
Roderick turned back towards the queue and proceeded a few steps. “Tell me, Sister Tucker, what got you into nursing in the first place?”
“Just that, I suppose––a desire to help people. To try and save some lives.”
“Jehovah saves lives. We just prolong the inevitable.”
“That’s a rather macabre way of looking at it,” Joyce said with a grimace.
“It’s the truth though, isn’t it?”
“I mean, from a certain point of view, I suppose so. But it’s a very bleak way of looking at things. Why did you become a doctor if you didn’t think you could help people?”
“It wasn’t my choice, actually. I was in Bethel at the time and there was a need for doctors. I was chosen. They sent me to a local medical school to get licensed.”
“Was this in the United States?”
“It doesn’t sound like you much enjoyed it.”
“To the contrary. I’ve learned to enjoy all of my assignments in full time service. It’s simply that being a doctor wasn’t my choice, nor was it something I’d ever considered.”
“Well, that might explain why the two of us have different outlooks on helping patients.”
“Sister Tucker, don’t get me wrong: I enjoy taking care of patients and I take my responsibilities very seriously. The difference is that I don’t believe their lives are in my hands.”
Roderick shook his head. “I was fortunate enough to meet a brother who’d served for years as a GP at headquarters. We met shortly after I’d graduated and he quickly overturned much of what had been drilled into my head at medical school.”
“So much of it was a worldly way of thinking: the idea that advances in medicine could save the world, an inflated view of one’s self, that doctors and nurses were somehow heroes above the rest of society, the saviors of mankind. It doesn’t take long for that warped thinking to make inroads.”
“You’re saying doctors and nurses are trained to be arrogant?”
“To some extent, yes. I think it’s a tendency that’s built into the culture of medical care. It can be a pitfall, and you have to fight against the idea that we have been charged with saving lives. That’s not our job.”
“Then what is our job?”
“Helping the body to heal itself and providing quality care.”
“I don’t see the difference,” Joyce said skeptically.
“Medicine is powerless without the body Jehovah created. We are merely helping bodies to do what God intended them to do perfectly from the beginning. But when an imperfect body has had enough, there is nothing more that we can do. We are not miracle workers.”
“Once we start focusing on trying to ‘save lives’ or start feeling like we are responsible for everyone around us, we begin to lose perspective. We are no longer modest. No matter how spectacular a doctor’s abilities are, her patients will still die eventually. Keeping this in mind helps us provide quality health care while maintaining a spiritual outlook. Additionally, it keeps us from feeling like failures when a patient’s body fails to heal, or we lose them entirely.”
“Easier said than done. Have you ever lost a patient?”
“More than I can count. Before evacuating to Burrard Harbor I served for years in a Bethel where the majority of our patients were elderly. It was never easy, seeing those dear brothers and sisters eventually succumb to sickness and death.”
“How did you cope?”
“It was difficult at first to not feel like a failure when a patient died, to not second guess decisions that were made and determine what could’ve been done better. But that kind of thinking will sap your spirit in no time. The branch was there for us, always giving the needed emotional support and shepherding. I had brothers sit down and tell me the same things I’m telling you.”
“Too bad I never got that Bethel training.”
“Well, we condensed a lot of the training we received in headquarters and put it into the medical training videos.”
“Videos? Were those available online?”
Doctor Munoz gave Joyce a puzzled look. “Oh, no. They were designed for training doctors and nurses in the evacuation camps. Weren’t you with the medical unit in Burrard?”
Joyce shook her head slowly, a sad realization dawning on her. “I never checked in. I was too busy caring for Claire.”
“Ah, I see,” said the doctor, frowning.
“And Alvin kept trying to get me to go… If only I’d listened.”
“Not to worry,” Roderick said, smiling. “I’ve still got the videos on my laptop. You’re welcome to have a look. Perhaps it’d be a good little project for your days off.”
“Yeah, ok,” Joyce said.
Rachel dragged herself up the winding staircases to her and Peter’s apartment pod. It had been another exhausting day of scrubbing hallways and bathrooms and shower stalls. The salty sea air clung to every surface, leaving behind a gritty residue that presented a constant battle. After only a week on the custodial crew, Rachel’s lower back ached. She sat on the edge of the bed, massaging her lower back as she tried to relax.
The thunderstorm playlist helped some. It played from a portable speaker connected by Bluetooth to her phone and filled the small apartment with the otherworldly sounds of raindrops slapping on a canopy of leaves and slipping down ancient boughs into streams and rivers and eventually finding the great ocean atop which Rachel now sat.
She turned from the sink and fished a couple of plastic wine glasses from a narrow cabinet space beside their closet. Glass was a material seldom seen aboard the rigs; it was considered too delicate and risky for life aboard the unsteady vessels, and its safe disposal in the case of breakage was nearly impossible. One of the few exceptions was wine bottles, although they were increasingly becoming a scarcity as well.
Rachel sighed wistfully as she pulled the Cabernet from a rolled up towel in their closet drawer. The idea had been to save it for the Big Day––or perhaps just after––when the old system was finally behind them, but she hadn’t been particularly put off by Peter’s suggestion to break their pact and enjoy it earlier. Who knew, really, what would even be left of their belongings when that time finally came?
She set the two glasses down beside the bottle and pulled one of the chairs to the center of the room, facing the picture window overlooking the setting Atlantic sun. And waited.
By the time Peter finally arrived, Rachel had been dozing for nearly an hour. There was a kink in her neck where her head had rested at a funny angle, but at least some of the back pain had abated. Peter slipped out of his coat and kissed his wife on the forehead before washing his hands in the sink and joining her at the window.
“I come bearing gifts,” he said, reaching into his pockets.
Rachel covered a yawn and turned with a curious look. She could hardly believe her eyes: in his hands Peter held a half stick of salami, a small block of extra sharp cheddar, and a sleeve of saltines.
“Where? How?” Rachel gasped, her mouth already watering.
“A gift from the chairman. I mentioned after our meeting this afternoon that I had a date night with you. I think it pricked some consciences.”
Rachel snickered. “I’m sure there are a lot of wives feeling a little neglected these days.”
Peter nodded, carefully tearing into the pack of crackers and setting them neatly on an overturned cardboard box between them. “Some of these brothers are in four to five meetings per day. That’s on top of the supervision they have to carry out, and the inspections of the different departments. There’s just so much going on.”
“Who knew it’d be such a big task caring for a couple thousand people aboard a floating city?” Rachel said dryly.
“Yeah, no kidding.”
“Any updates on the Angelica situation?” Rachel watched as Peter worked a cork free from the wine bottle. It wasn’t easy with a pocketknife corkscrew; Peter’s hands trembled as he struggled to pull it free without tearing the cork in half. It wasn’t looking good.
“As a matter of fact, we came up with a plan,” Peter said, casting his wife a quick look. The cork came free cleanly and he smiled triumphantly.
“Oh? That’s good news.”
“We’ll see. To be honest, it’s a little crazy, but we decided it’s the only viable option. But you know what, I’d really rather not get into it now.”
“Oh. Okay,” Rachel said, frowning. She held out her glass and Peter filled it.
“I just want to put all that stuff aside for tonight and enjoy the moment.”
Peter filled his own glass and gazed out of their picture window at the vast sea before them. A ruby sun was dipping into the farthest waters on the horizon, dyeing the clouds red and violet. A handful of other rigs’ silhouettes could be seen in the distance, their long shadows extending across the trembling waves.
Rain sounds washed down around them. Peter could almost feel the drops tickling his spine. “I’m proud of you,” he said quietly.
“Oh? What for?” Rachel asked.
“I know how tough it was for you to step aboard that ferry back in New Orleans. We haven’t been on solid ground since, but I don’t think I’ve heard you complain even once.”
“What choice did I have?”
“There’s always a choice. Could’ve headed back home.”
“If it’s a choice between obedience and disobedience… It’s not really a choice.”
“Like I said, I’m proud of you,” Peter said, leaning over to place a kiss on his wife’s forehead.
“And I’ll admit, this view is something else,” Rachel said, ignoring Peter’s advances. He was still gazing in her direction.
“Yep, quite a view indeed.”