I was over the moon when I got my job. The local market for medical assistants had become saturated since the community college started an accelerated program that churned us out like an assembly line and landing an interview, much less employment, seemed like a miracle. I’d heeded every warning that the program head had offered, completed unpaid internships, participated in a mentoring program, took extra classes to help me stand out, and I still spent a year throwing resumes in one direction while slinging overpriced coffee in the other.
When I got a call back from Caring Hands Pediatrics, I put on my sharpest pant suit and danced my dolled up self all the way to the office. The process was long and slow and required me to meet a revolving door of people involved in the making the final decision. I just kept smiling and answering questions, certain that each interview was another step towards being hired.
The following week spent waiting to hear back was a nerve wracking one. Every time my phone buzzed, I was on it, eagerly checking to see if it was The Call, which resulted in an embarrassing amount of hurried, incorrect orders, irate, under-caffeinated customers, and one very unimpressed manager. I apologized profusely, but the entire time I kept one eye on my phone’s caller ID.
When they did finally end my misery and offer me the position, I accepted immediately and turned over my barista apron in favor of bright scrubs decorated with cartoon animals and colorful patterns. With my hair tied back in a tight bun, a name tag pinned to my chest, and a skip in my step, I joined the team at Caring Hands and started my career.
I was assigned to Dr. Palima, an older man with a perpetually thoughtful frown and a deeply ingrained love for all of his young patients, and I struggled at first to find my rhythm working under him. He communicated little, having grown accustomed to his last, apparently psychic assistant, and I relied heavily on the others in my department to understand my role and his needs. After a few missteps, some his fault, some mine, we eventually found our footing and I grew efficient and effective.
I liked my boss, I liked my coworkers, but most of all, I liked the kids. I felt like we were lucky; we didn’t see too many of the horror stories that came out of the nearby children’s hospital, mostly just yearly check ups, sore throats, and rashes. All things that were relatively tame and treatable. Seeing a sick child was never easy, regardless of severity, but I looked forward to the follow up visits, when they’d be feeling better and trying to weasel their way into an extra lollipop for the road.
By the time I’d been there for six months, I felt competent, confident, and could spot a Lego in a small nostril a mile away. Dr. Palima must have felt the same way, because around that time, he scheduled a week long getaway to the Philippines, leaving me to take his phone calls and help out the other doctors when needed. It was going to be a simple, fairly relaxed week.
The Wednesday after his departure, I was sitting in the assistants’ office getting caught up on paperwork when the phone rang. I let it go to voicemail, wanting to finish the file I was working on without interruption, and figured I’d return the call shortly. The office was quiet for a moment, and then the phone started to ring again. Concerned that it might be an emergency, I put my work aside and answered.
“This is Callie, assistant to Dr. Palima, how can I help you?”
The line was silent.
“Hi.” It was a child’s voice, tiny and nervous.
“Hi there, sweetie.” I automatically adopted my patient care voice, “Does your mommy or daddy know you’re on the phone?”
“Are they home?”
“Can I talk to them?”
“Are you ok, sweetie?” The child’s monosyllabic answers and quavering tone were setting off red flags in my mind.
“You sound nice.” He whispered.
“You do, too. What’s your name?”
“Hi, Ricky, I’m Callie. Can you tell me why you’re calling?” I wanted to ask him how he got our number, but some kids would find that very accusatory and get upset, so I was building towards it slowly.
“Is the doctor there?”
“No, Ricky, do you need to see him? Are you sick?”
I didn’t even hear the line click when he hung up and only became aware of that fact when the dial tone started. I set the phone slowly back down in its cradle and gazed at it. For some reason, the call had left me very unsettled. While I was staring at it, it rang again, making me jump. I giggled uneasily at myself and picked it up with my usual greeting.
“Is Dr. Palima in?” This time it was a man.
Just a parent, I thought with relief, and said, “He’s out of the office until Monday, would you like to set an appointment?”
“He’ll be in all day Monday?”
“Ok, thank you.”
“Is there anything else I can he-”
For the second time in barely five minutes, I was hung up on. This time, though, I didn’t think anything of it. There were a lot of parents who refused to speak to anyone but the doctor.
The next day, after a busy morning spent standing in for an assistant who had called out, I went to the office and dropped into my chair. The moment I sat down, the phone rang.
“Hi, Callie.” He said timidly as soon as I picked up. I recognized him immediately.
“Well, hi there, Ricky! How are you?”
“Ok.” He hesitated and then asked, “Is the doctor there?”
“No, he isn’t sweetie.” I could sense his distress and added, “Why don’t you tell me what’s wrong? Maybe I can help.”
“My daddy’s mad.”
Immediately I straightened, but I kept my voice calm and even, “Mad? Why’s that?”
“He’s mad at the doctor.”
“‘Cos…” He seemed to be thinking hard, “‘Cos he did a bad.”
“What kind of bad?” I found myself gripping the phone with both hands.
“A very bad bad.”
“Can you put your daddy on the phone? I’d like to talk to him.”
“Please, Ricky, if something’s wrong, I’d like to try and make it better.”
Disturbed by the child’s calls, I spun around in my chair to face Laine, another assistant who was entering a chart into the system.
“I’ve gotten the weirdest calls from this kid twice now.” I said.
She grunted in acknowledgement.
“He said his dad’s angry because of something Dr. Palima did.”
“Probably got his bill.” Laine replied lightly.
“He sounded scared.”
“Did you get his name or number?”
“He said his name’s Ricky.”
She shrugged, “Doesn’t ring any bells, but you should give Dr. P a head’s up when he gets back.”
“You don’t think I should tell Hillary or anything?”
“You could, but what’s she going to do? She likes to act important, but Lead Assistant just means she’s authorized to order more prescription pads and paper clips when we’re running low.”
“I just feel like the kid might be in trouble or something.”
She sighed and shrugged, “Yeah, you get that feeling sometimes. Without anything more concrete, though, there’s nothing we can do. Sucks, but that’s the system for you.”
Thoughts of little Ricky stayed with me. I could almost picture him, this boy I’d never even seen. I imagined he had soft brown hair, a gap toothed smile, bright, intelligent eyes. At the same time, I also imagined him crying with fear and deeply upset, but I didn’t know over what. I tossed and turned in bed that night, unable to get my worries for the strange boy out of my head.
I was exhausted the next morning and felt like I had to drag myself around the office. My only consolation was that it was Friday and soon, I’d have two days all to myself to recover. I distracted myself with work, helping out wherever I could, whether or not I was asked. Even still, I thought of Ricky.
I went almost the whole day without hearing from him and, with minutes to go until close, I thought maybe he wouldn’t call at all. I had just started packing up my desk for the weekend when the phone rang.
“Callie,” Ricky sounded desperate, “my daddy’s really mad.”
“Are you ok? Where are you?”
Ricky was crying softly, little mewling whimpers that were like shards of glass in my heart.
“Sweetheart? Are you ok?”
“I’m here, Ricky.”
“I don’t want Daddy to be mad.”
“I know, sweetie, it’s not your fault.”
“Yes it is.” He said miserably.
“Oh, Ricky, no. Sometimes adults just get mad, but it’s not your fault.”
“Is the doctor there?”
“He’ll be here Monday, honey, but you can talk to me, ok?”
“You’re really nice. I hope Daddy doesn’t hurt you.”
“Ri-Ricky? What do you mean? Sweetie?”
But he’d hung up.
I tried to find someone to tell about the call, but it was after five and the office was already a ghost town. I sat in the lobby, drumming my fingers on the armrests of my chair, trying to decide what to do. I could call the cops, I thought, but there wasn’t much to say except that a little boy was worried about his dad. I didn’t even know how to take his parting statement; could it even be considered a threat? They wouldn’t be able to do anything with so little information.
I tried to call Dr. Palima, but he was still out of the country until Sunday. I called one of the practice’s partners on his home and cell phone, but only got his voicemail. When I reached out to Hillary, she just advised me up try and get more information from him next time.
“Kids can be weird,” She told me, “they over-dramatize things, make them seem worse than they are. I’d take it with a grain of salt and enjoy your weekend.”
But I couldn’t. I stressed the entire time over Ricky and his cryptic messages. I felt helpless and boxed in, unable to do anything but sit on my hands and hope he was feeling more chatty next time he called in. By the time Monday rolled around, I was a frazzled, overtired mess. Knowing I would be all but useless in my current state, I called out of work.
“On my first day back?” Dr. Palima asked after I told him I’d not be coming in.
“I’m really sorry, I’m just not feeling well at all.”
“The risk of working with sick kids.” He said in a way that implied he was half joking, “Feel better.”
“Thanks, um…before I let you go, do you remember a patient named Ricky?”
“I’ve had a lot of Rickys over the years; you’ll have to be more specific.”
“Sorry, right.” I quickly explained the phone calls and my concerns, but the doctor couldn’t think of anyone he’d seen recently with the name Ricky and he certainly hadn’t done anything “bad”.
“We can discuss this more tomorrow when you’re feeling better.” He said, “But I have an appointment that I need to get to.”
I paced my apartment, feeling somehow even more ill at ease than before. I needed rest, I scolded myself, I needed to shut my brain down for a bit and relax. With natural sleep feeling all too far off, I dug around in my medicine cabinet for the bottle of ZQuil I kept for situations like this. It didn’t take long for a healthy dose of the stuff to send me crawling into bed, where I passed out as soon as I was tucked under the covers.
I was stiff when and cotton mouthed when I finally woke hours later. The combination of exhaustion and over the counter aid had been a potent one and I didn’t think I’d even moved while I was asleep. I groped at my nightstand to check the time and was surprised to see I had a slew of text messages and voicemails from my friends and family.
“Just heard what happened, are you ok????”
“Call me ASAP!”
“Please be ok, I love you, call me please”
I stared at the screen dumbly, wondering why everyone was suddenly so concerned. Had they somehow heard I wasn’t feeling well? Still groggy, I went to the kitchen for a glass of water and looked at a few more messages, all begging me to be alright and to get in touch as soon as I was able.
I dialed my mother first and, when she answered, she was sobbing.
“Oh my God, Callie! My baby! Oh thank God! Chuck! Chuck, it’s Callie! Baby, are you ok?”
“Yeah, fine, what’s going on?”
“Y-you don’t know?”
“I was napping.”
“You didn’t go to work today?”
“No, I wasn’t feeling well.”
She started thanking God again and was crying too hard to answer any of my questions. Dad wasn’t much better when she put him on, but after some exasperated prying, he finally told me to turn on the news.
With a growing feeling of trepidation, I switched on my TV and flipped to the first news channel I came across. Across the bottom of the screen, in a big red banner, it read, “Shooting at pediatric clinic leaves four dead”. I let the phone slip from my hand and sank onto my couch as the image changed to an aerial shot of an office.
“Among those killed, Dr. Frederick Palima, a beloved pediatrician of over thirty years.” A grim voice was reciting, “He was the shooter’s first victim.”
I sat in front of my television for the rest of the day, only looking away to mechanically answer calls and texts to verify that I was ok.
I’d only been asleep for six hours, I thought dully, only six hours.
Every local station was covering the story, each trying to outdo the others in details. From them all, I heard and reheard what had happened. I learned that Laine had been the second victim, having been filling in for me in my absence. The third was a janitor, Jimmy, who’d tried to tackle the killer as he attempted to flee. The fourth death was the killer’s suicide.
The shooter was identified as Brent Burstick, a high school physics teacher who had taught at a private school in town. The photos they kept showing of him were all of a middle aged man with a slight beer paunch and a tired smile. He looked entirely unremarkable, even harmless, and they kept emphasizing how he’d always seemed so normal.
Except when they gained access to his home, they found that he’d been anything but. Burstick had been obsessed with Dr. Palima. From scattered journal entries, they found that he blamed the doctor for the death of his five year old son two years before.
Dr. Palima had seen the boy a few months before his death and noted bruises on his arms that his mother, Burstick’s ex-wife, said were from a misbehaved cousin playing too roughly. When he questioned the child, he repeated the story. There were no other obvious signs of mistreatment, so there was nothing more the doctor could do but monitor him during future visits. Palima was the last doctor to see the child alive.
Burstick found this out and believed Palima should have pressed the boy harder, followed up. It didn’t matter that he had been moved away by his mother shortly after the visit and never returned to the office; Burstick thought Palima should have known those bruises were the result of the abuse the child was receiving at the hands of his mother’s new boyfriend.
The same boyfriend who would eventually end up beating the child so badly that he died as a result of his injuries.
Burstick was convinced if Dr. Palima had reported the bruises, his son would still be alive. He followed Dr. Palima’s career, hating him for his success, resenting him as much, and then more, than the man who had actually killed his son. He’d harbored that hate, letting it grow into a darkness that eventually consumed him and cost three innocent people everything.
As the story unfolded, they kept flashing the kindergarten photo of a small, sandy haired boy with oversized glasses. He stared out of the TV, serious and unsmiling, and before they’d even said his name, I knew and I was sick with grief and confusion and the same sense of trapped helplessness that had plagued me since the first phone call. A caption along the bottom of the picture only confirmed the impossible.