It was feeding day, and they were hungry.
David Thistlewaith had to control himself to keep from sneering at the homeless. The way they crowded the food truck disgusted him. He made himself smile for Dr. Morgan’s benefit.
“This is why the clinic is so important,” Dr. Morgan said. The old guy looked like he greeted every morning with a five mile run. “We’re at the heart of I-65. People drift in and they need us, David.”
David observed boils and rashes. The wheeze of chronic emphysema. A ramshackle man had a line of stitches on his cheek. David said, “Looks like your work is healing well, though.”
Dr. Morgan smiled. A compliment never hurt anything, and David needed everything he could get. Med school had been rough and rotations abysmal, and the only residency that would consider him was Dr. Morgan’s hospital which sponsored this free clinic. It was either land the gig or have his student loans crush him.
“Mingle a bit,” Dr. Morgan said with a sly wink. “I’ll meet you back at the clinic.”
David nodded. It was the “see if you can handle it” portion of the interview. For the ER in a big city it would have been a busy Saturday night on the floor, but here it was an abandoned parking lot — go on, kid, can you deal with these people every day?
The food truck was a Chevy van where a soccer mom handed out sandwiches. David waited in line just to see what it was like but his black suit — still cheap by most standards, having come straight from the rack at J.C. Penney — was too clean. A miasma rose around him, the mingled smells of urine and sweat, and he was glad medicine had moved past strapping a vinegar-soaked sponge beneath the nose to prevent disease. He felt like he’d need a round of antibiotics from just standing there.
“You don’t want to eat that.”
David turned and a young woman greeted him with a mystical wave of the hand. Her fingers were bedecked in orange plastic spider rings. She’d braided tufts of newsprint into her long black hair. Her coat — if you could call it that — was carefully folded sections of newsprint sewn together with yarn.
“I wasn’t,” David said. She had no obvious signs of illness, but her eyes darted about in a way that spoke of instability. He took a step back. “I’m fine, really.”
“I’ve gotten through to you, then. I’ve tried to use reason with the others, but the hunger does it every time. That’s how they get us.”
“Who?” David asked. He’d spent part of his med school rotations on the locked-down fourth floor of Mercy General. The Psych ward. A watch-the-train-wreck mentality developed in the students passing through. What crazy thing will little Johnny say today?
“Them,” she said, pointing to the single volunteer in the van. “They test things on us. In the food. A few die, who cares? Well, I care.” She slapped a sandwich from a woman’s grasp. It plopped on the ground. “Martha, we talked about this.”
Martha picked the sandwich up, brushed away grit, and took another bite.
The young girl moved close to David. Strangely, her breath smelled minty, freshly brushed. “You have to help. They might listen to you. I shield myself with the truth, but that’ll only save me.”
Random words on her newspaper jacket had been underlined. Tornado. Humankind. Knight. It was a hell of a shield. On the other side of the lot a man traded cigarettes for an extra sandwich. The girl chased after him. “Hank, how many times must I tell you…”
David laughed, a bitter sound. He really should have studied harder when he had the chance. He went to the open window of the van and introduced himself. He told the woman what had happened. “But I guess you see that a lot.”
“Funny,” the soccer mom said. Her voice was flat. She wore a diamond tennis bracelet that looked too expensive for her. She gripped a clipboard. A paper with two rows, one labeled X, the other reading CONTROL GROUP, had hash marks stacked beneath them. The paper’s header read Brandal Pharmaceuticals.
The woman tossed the rest of the wax paper-wrapped sandwiches onto the pavement and drove away.
David scratched his ear. What the hell was that?
The homeless moved in a sedated sway. Eyes glazed. Fingers fumbled. David asked to take a woman’s pulse and found it alarmingly slow. But did that mean she’d been drugged? David couldn’t ignore the clipboard he’d seen, but he had to take into account the person that had put the idea into his head. The young woman with the spider rings was still chasing people around the parking lot. She was a little crazy, sure, but that minty breath — and the care it would take to maintain it while sleeping rough — edged him into thinking that she was more observant than she first appeared.
If Brandal Pharmaceuticals was running illicit test there would be a reckonings-worth of fines if the story broke. David took out his iPhone and grabbed a few of the sandwiches as evidence. He should really call somebody. A news station maybe, or at least Dr. Morgan.
Instead he searched Brandal Pharmaceuticals’ website. Contact us, it said, and gave a number to call. He felt queasy again, only this time it wasn’t from the smell. He thought of the Hippocratic Oath, of Do No Harm. If he didn’t kick up a fuss and something really was going on then he’d certainly be Doing Harm. But he thought of his loans and bills. He did have some potential evidence, after all.
He dialed the number, and when he finally got through to a person he said, “Some things have recently come to my attention, and I’d like to discuss the price of my silence.”
Jesse Knifley lives in Bowling Green, Kentucky, where he works for the public library. His fiction has appeared in Electric Spec and Hills of Fire: Bare-Knuckle Yarns of Appalachia.