Seated beside Nathan, Mario looked up from his hot tea when the door creaked open and the jailer’s bright green bulk ducked in through the small doorway.
Mario liked the big green guy and was happy he returned. “You’re back.”
Cayn pulled up the only large chair, the one he had tried to use before, and sat with Mario and Nathan around a low table, which he dwarfed, on which rested a wooden tray of tea and biscuits. Cayn said, “How is the tea today?”
The inquiry seemed to be the awkward equivalent of talking about the weather. Appreciating the charming concept, Mario decided to participate in the small talk.
“It’s good,” said Mario, looking in the white ceramic tea cup in his hand. The tea tasted like a more flavorful version of chamomile. It also had a similar gentle golden color. “Earthy and sweet.”
Nathan placed a few biscuits on a small plate and pushed it toward the jailer who nodded gratefully and popped one of the crisp baked snacks in his mouth whole.
After chewing, Cayn looked from one human to the other. “Have you finished the questions?”
“What questions?” said Mario.
“He has,” Nathan answered hastily.
Mario glanced aside at Nathan. I did? They had chatted for a few minutes, but that was it. Did they mean that?
Cayn’s round eyes bored into Nathan. “And?”
Nathan tilted his head and smiled aside at Mario. “He passed.”
Um… Mario looked between them for a hint of what that meant but neither seemed inclined to do so. It didn’t seem like a bad thing, whatever they were talking about. Thanks?
Cayn leaned forward in his chair which, despite being enormous, still appeared too small for him. He looked like an adult having a tea party with children in kindergarten. “Pardon me,” he said to Mario. “I’m sorry if you’ve already explained this, but I was wondering what your life was like up until now. How were you employed?”
Nope, no one’s asked that question yet. Mario held the tea in both hands, letting the container warm his palms. He gazed off at the opposite wall and let out a soft, exasperated sigh. “I’m the manager of a medical office.”
Curiosity piqued, Nathan sat back and held his tea cup in his lap, head tilted. “What sort of medical office?”
“Internal medicine.” For Cayn’s sake, Mario added, “That’s the office a general physicians. They know a little bit about everything but not enough to be useful for everything.”
Cayn listened intently, leaning forward as if waiting to hear more. “Indeed?”
Mario smiled. He couldn’t explain it but the big jailer’s attention and silly little efforts made him inexplicably happy.
“Did you enjoy it?” asked Cayn.
No one had dared ask that question in a long time either. The short answer? “No.” Mario said it before realizing the word came out of his mouth after which he wondered why he shouldn’t say so—it was the truth. His own blunt response surprised him somehow, and he felt a queer need to validate his answer. “Yes, see the office…”
It had been a heyday since he was hired. The doctors had constantly promised improvements and more flexibility. The days, weeks, and years passed and the promised support never came and he realized the promises had meant to placate him and to persuade him to do what his supervisors wanted without any extra effort on their part. He had basically been fending for himself for the past three years. Wait, three years? Where the hell did the time go?
The patients were worth it, he thought. I stayed for them. That’s what he’d told himself over and over. It wasn’t the patients’ fault the office was a mess. They shouldn’t have to suffer for things beyond their control. That line of thought was tricky because it always came around to Mario asking himself why he had to be the one to suffer.
Just thinking about going back steeped his insides in anxiety.
There’s way too much backstory here and, if I dump it all on them now, they’ll think I’m a whiner. Mario passed a hand over his face. “It’s just… I-I mean, the pay is great but I’m beginning to think no amount of money is worth my sanity.”
Nathan gazed off.
“Because the work is difficult?” Cayn prodded.
Mario scoffed lightly. “Because people are difficult. And there are sooo many of them. Add an insane workload which, realistically, is meant to be done by three people and—.” He scratched his forehead, agitated. “It’s too much. It’s just waaay too much for one person—” No, stop. Let it go, he told himself. Struggling to swallow his bitterness, he clenched his jaw so he’d stop complaining.
“It’s a relief then,” said Cayn matter-of-fact, “to be here and not there.”
Mario stared at him for a long time.
Cayn’s bright green face bent in a childlike smile. “I’m glad then.”
Silent, Nathan looked aside for Mario’s reaction.
Holy hell, that’s right, thought Mario dumbfounded. I’m either in a coma or in another world—a coma or something health related seems more probably—but, either way, I can’t physically make it work on Monday. A grin crossed his face. Oh well. Can’t be helped.
He felt light, as if a burden had been lifted. He felt badly for his patients. He didn’t know who would make sure they were treated properly…
But it couldn’t be helped.
[to be continued…]
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