On Shelly’s phone screen glowed bright letters: 1:04 AM. The letters of Garcia’s name wound into a DNA helix in the background.
“Hello!” she said sleepily, so much for my lovely dream.
“Shelly, sorry to wake you up. I need your help.” Garcia’s voice crackled from static.
“Is George OK?” she asked
“He’s fine. But I have a problem with my visa. I’m going with some people to straighten it out. Can he stay with you for a few hours until then?”
“You’re a friend.”
Garcia hung up.
No wonder you have no friends, just like him to assume she would help — like all the times he mansplained about faults in the medical establishment.
Weird, who addresses visa issues after midnight? Didn’t Pandolf track that, given their international workers and patients.
“Mom,” she said into her phone, instructing it to connect to her parents. The Genie now displayed her parents’ latest pictures: white beaches, topaz ocean and clear skies, a beach rental in Goa, India.
She left a video message, “Hey, place looks pretty, call me, need some advice…”
She would have to buzz Garcia in. Groaning, finger-combing her hair, yawning, cat following, she checked her phone’s call history as she walked to the living room. Could Garcia’s call have been part of her dream?
Laying on the common room’s couch, she pushed the cat’s insistent paw away and set the phone ringer to a particularly obnoxious Indian party jingle for calls from Garcia in the future. Then she tapped ride requests into her phone for Hunterview the next day to avoid driving sleep-deprived.
Returning home post-call one rainy evening, her second car accident had been more serious than rear-ending the Pandolf bus. Peering through her windshield, wipers on their fastest setting, she felt a frightening bump and stopped.
Just a shadow, a black shape now rose tall in front of her. Panicking, she jumped out her car to find a man in a long dark overcoat that had made him hard to see. After brushing himself off while listening to her flustered apologies, he spoke politely — British accent — and requested a ride home. Remembering crime stories, she hesitated before agreeing.
Nothing dramatic happened. The stranger’s wife was visibly upset but curtly, she served Shelly hot milky tea with sugar cubes. They were researchers from England.
Shelly sipped tea in their cozy living room, glowing in the light of the wood fireplace, blonde floor to ceiling paneling, delicate crown molding and neatly stacked bookshelves. Antique furniture was tidily arranged on dark Persian rugs.
She mentioned that her father had lived in the UK and had fond memories, not mentioning the racism he had also described.
“He loves aphorisms,” she told the couple, “saying getting into America was like winning the lottery and how great opportunities are fearsome.The prizes go to those who run the race.”
Like her, other Pandolf’s doctors and scientists also had unfortunate accidents, busy in the ethereal life of the mind. One hot day last summer, rushing to 6AM rounds, a pediatrician forgot his toddler in the car. Fortunately for the child, a passer-by had broken the window to free her.
“People need to be paying attention when they walk and not looking at their phones,” announced Pandolf’s CEO Dean Baluyn.
Now, she was dreaming again, back in the Britishers’ living room, nibbling on biscuits with tea. They invited her to stay and become part of their miniature world — the tiny isle they called home — surrounded by its frigid ocean moat. She was their cat, resting in front of the fireplace where chestnuts roasted in the crackling logs.
Foreboding shadows on the walls became a monkey that demanded, “Take the chestnuts out and share with me.” Catching her stealing them, her hosts became angry and told her to leave.
Burnt hands in pain, hungry, alone and cold, she found herself in front of a dark theater. The drama had moved outside, where the skies roared rain, water loudly gushed into gutters, crowds rushed away, and feeling lost, Shelly walked on a shiny street around puddles to the London Underground stop.
“All this isn’t real,” the couple shouted from their doorway, twins except for their clothes, one dressed as a man and the other as a woman.
Shaken, Shelly awoke and looked at her uninjured surgeon’s hands! Her phone now showed 3:14 AM. Feeling cold despite the blanket, she got up and made herself a hot mug of cardamom chai — like her father liked to make — with his favorite British butter biscuits.
She told herself to not feel anxious. After all, Garcia seemed harmless enough, an eccentric scientist with occasional outbursts like the one he had recently.
“At Pandolf,” he said, “we’re just gears in giant medical machines. To break out, we have to face the fearsome real world…swim or drown.”
“Dr. Garcia,” she had objected, “My career plans are going well. As an employer, Pandolf provides generous benefits: insurance, pensions, and even onsite childcare. Our CEO, Dean Baluyn, does a good job and deserves to be paid well.”
Why had Garcia been trying to do his own repairs with the Drukker printer. Maybe, he was in a hurry to fix a glitch, get on with his experiment and then pick his son up from the airport.
After all, the scientist was the campus Drukker expert and had led the team that brought the supercomputer to Pandolf. He travelled often to the Dock, Drukker headquarters.
“I love it,” he told her. “Young people like you, smart, enthusiastic…. but it’s not conservative like here. There you see tattoos, wild beards, piercings, short skirts, rainbow colors! Back in my day, at university, we didn’t have many women around. My boss thought women were distracting — especially if they were dressed like that. I’m glad things have changed. One of these times, would you like to come with me to see the Dock?”
“I really appreciate it, Dr. Garcia. But I’m too busy here. I’m just trying to catch up on my sleep in my free time.”
Garcia nodded. “I understand. Still, it’s a cool place, always food, even a conveyor belt going 24/7 with hot pizza you can order on a touchscreen. Machines mix you any drink you want. I like the mango kiwi seltzer.”
He smiled dreamily. “Oh, Shelly, the architecture is world-class, international classic in some places, modern and playful in others. You should see the organic gardens you can walk through, fresh-pressed juices from what they grow right there…”
Garcia had rambled on. Fascinated by the pattern of scratches in his glasses, she had stopped listening. Was she watching too many surgery videos, the designs of veins and arteries branching, lymph channels and nerves knitting? Why was the weave in the cracks of his lenses only in their lower half?
Sugary biscuits and warm chai finished, Shelly returned to the living room to lay back down and replay happy memories of Sam Nepski. At lab meetings which she diligently attended, he sat at the head of the table, slim, tall, impressive in his knowledge and aggressive with his questions. At scientific meetings, he was a lead speaker or organizer. Despite his relatively young age, he was on prestigious committees that determined certification of specialists, approval of research funds and new medications for pregnant women.
Garcia grumbled to Shelly how men like Nepski were too powerful and could permanently derail someone who crossed them or competed with them. But her mind usually wandered during his rants to some breakthrough surgical technique she was learning.
In her carefully mapped plans for her life, Garcia’s oddness was a distraction. Successes that he could never even dream of awaited her. In a few years, she will have finished her fellowship and be working at a top research institution, curing ovarian cancer.
Her future would not be tedious pandering to needy, privileged women in rich suburbs, becoming another Dr. Brickstone at a place like Hunterview or toiling in someone else’s lab like Garcia. Someday, she would be living in the Operating Room like her medical school professor and doing groundbreaking research in her own lab like Dr. Nepski.
She had last seen her mentor talking with his father, his back to her, at the Provencale.
“Garcia is smart,” he was saying. “But Dad, he doesn’t catch fire about our work. Oh, like a good soldier, I can always count on him to plod on. I suggested many times that he start his own projects, but …at least, he’s excited about the supercomputer. Who wouldn’t be? Pandolf may soon buy another one.”
The senior Dr. Nepski said, “Garcia is the way he is because he doesn’t belong here or anywhere. People like that spark new beginnings or start a fire that destroys everything … not bad if that’s what we need.”
“I belong here, Dad. I care about Pandolf and what we stand for.”
“Of course,” his father said. “Still, remember I’m here because our family was going to follow the crowd in Poland, and then my crazy uncle killed our Nazi guards. Sadly, those dead young brutes were just followers. But it’s the only admirable thing my uncle ever did.”
The older Nepski continued, “The Puritans left England to put an ocean between themselves and their lunatic king. Yet, here we are centuries later, reverting to that old world of rulers and serfs, where a descendant of an original Puritan family, Dean Baluyn is your CEO.
“Sam, you have so much power over someone like Garcia? It’s times like these when I feel a wind blowing, change-a-coming like my father said he felt as a boy in Poland a long time ago…”
Both Mrs. Nepskis emerged together from the womens’ room to rejoin their husbands. The couples walked away toward the exit.
Shelly dozed off again and awoke this time at around 4:30 AM. Still no Dr. Garcia or George.
“Friendly, chatty, young like you,” Garcia had described his son.
What about Lucky? What would she say to finding a teenage boy in their apartment this morning?
“But most of the time, Lucky’s gone, right?” She scratched the cat’s head and belly and remembered the snub from Dr. Nepski’s mother. “Well, I don’t want to be like your owner, do I? I don’t need all kinds of men buzzing around me all the time. Livingstone, we’re mutts — weeds whose flowers are pretty enough that people keep us around.”
The doorbell jangled inside the quiet apartment. The loud sound broke open a revelation. At the Palatine dinner, Garcia had gazed into the night elsewhere in time. The candlelight had flickered in the cut crystal of his wine glass. The refracted reflection on the lower half of his glasses was the Drukker sunburst trademark.
The apartment doorbell rang again.
“Uggh!” Shelly reluctantly pressed the yellowed button that unlocked the main building entry.
She heard the massive double wooden doors creak open, then loud footsteps on the landing, followed by dragging and banging until the racket stopped in front of her apartment — silence and then a tentative knock.
She opened her door. In the dim lighting of the stairway, she looked up to a tall and slender teenager with shaggy hair, almost a unibrow, and glasses with splatter on them. A heavy suitcase sagged against his right leg. In his left hand, he carried a trademark plastic bag from the luxury brand, Salome. Through a tear in its bulging side, there poked a pencil.
Smiling down at her, he stuck out one bony hand with long fingers and said, “Hi, Dr. Narayan, I am George Garcia. So sorry to keep ringing your bell.”
“Hi, George! Please call me Shelly.” She ignored his outstretched hand. Who knew where it had been and what germs it carried.
Trying to keep her voice calm and level, Shelly then asked, “Is your dad on his way up too? Come on in. Here’s a towel to dry yourself. The irrigation around here does get crazy. Here you go, hand sanitizer. Welcome to California!
“Take your shoes off,” she said next, trying to sound welcoming. “And put all your wet stuff, yes, your bag too — there on top of that blue mat. The floors are hardwood. We don’t get them wet.
“Oh no! We don’t wear shoes inside this apartment. They go on the mat too. But keep your socks on or your feet will be cold.
“Where’s your dad?”
Chaos had come knocking. Next, the cat slipped out into the stairwell and she scooped him upl.
“Livingstone was a feral kitten and will still run off outside.”
The boy’s face softened. He touched a finger to the animal’s nose.
“But you cannot let him out. He belongs to my housemate.
“So where’s your father?” she repeated for the third time.
George carefully placed his large shoes next to her small pairs on the floor mat. Wiping his face and glasses carefully with the washcloth, he replied, “Dad says hello, but he had to go with the other men.
“He’ll call you,” he added, resembling his awkward father even in facial expressions and bent glasses.”
“Please sit down, George. Have you eaten?”
“They had crackers on the plane, um-hum and pop.”
“There’s a 24-hour pancake place around the corner,” she offered.
“You don’t have to do anything, Dr. Narayan, I have protein bars and meal replacement powder.”
“Let’s go get real food: ‘brinner,’ breakfast and dinner, that’s what we resident doctors call it. Leave your coat on, get your shoes back on and tie those shoelaces this time, double knots.
“Let me grab my wallet,” she added. She returned to her bedroom, closed the door and called Garcia again. As before, the call went to voicemail.
They went around the corner to the Golden Griddle, where she sipped lukewarm green tea and picked at a bland house salad: wilted lettuce and non-fat dressing with a chemical aftertaste.
George had stacks of pancakes, followed by liver and onions, then a chocolate shake, all the while downing endless glasses of ice water. He concluded his meal with a mountain of onion rings under a downpour of ketchup. Putting down one empty ketchup bottle after its final exhalation of splatter, he reached over — long arm — to the next table for another one. She insisted on ordering more food. He surrendered and doubled his meal.
“Do you have a phone, George?”
Eyes widening with admiration, he then picked up her Genie,
“Do you mind? You have the latest model with that crack Caller ID nail.”
He set up new features on the device, then discussed the school he had attended in Chicago and his life with his uncle, “a famous artist” and his “beautiful” aunt, the original owner of his Salome bag.
“I left Argentina after my mother passed,” he said, “and moved to Paris with my grandmother, then to Chicago in eighth grade. Now I’ll go to Pandolf High School.”
“Will you miss your friends in Chicago?” she asked.
He shook his head. “I have two friends in Argentina that I stay in touch with online. Hopefully, Dad and I can go back for a visit soon.”
From his travels, George spoke English, Spanish, French, and Italian. “Dad wants me to take Mandarin and genetics at Pandolf High. He says the science curriculum here is amazing because we’re next to a medical center.”
When they returned to the apartment, Shelly set him up on the living room couch. She texted Lucky to let her know. She would understand. After all, Charlie, Lucky’s brother, was also in high school and had spent many nights on this very couch.
Charlie was a charmer with gelled blonde hair, silver laptop and musical phone that never left him. Lucky was supposed to supervise her brother, but he just came and went, ear Dots stuck behind his ears except when he peeled one off to talk. Helping Shelly in the kitchen, he wanted to learn about Indian food and would ask about her day in the hospital while telling her jokes with his flirty, “I know I’m adorable, but don’t trust me for a minute” smile.
In contrast, George now sat solemnly on the couch, sad eyes like one of the stray animals she would rescue for her childhood menagerie.
“Here you go, fresh towels, sheets, blanket, change into your pajamas, brush your teeth and go to bed. Lucky, my housemate, will be walking through this room in the morning. She knows to expect you. I guess we’ll know more about what to do when your dad calls…”
She made a mental list for Garcia: George needed a shave, a haircut and a comb. The boy needed to fix his bad posture and untied shoelaces.
Her phone rang, her ringtone for unknown callers, Stargod music.
“I don’t usually answer Blocked Caller IDs,” she said, “but maybe this is about you. Hello?”
“Hello, Dr. Shelly Narayan?” It was a man’s voice with an accent she recognized, her home state of Texas.
“Dr. Narayan, this is Dr. David Campbell. I needed to let you know about Dr. Garcia because he can’t talk to you directly right now, I am sorry.”
“ICE, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, has detained him. I am sure he’ll clear up this business soon. I’m a friend of his.”
“But I have his son here!”
“I am sure the problem will be temporary, Dr. Narayan. It must be a mistake.”
As a child, one night an immigration agent had called and only identified herself to Shelly with a serial number. Telling her not to worry, her parents would have quiet conversations about it.
“You blow hot, and they’re ICE cold!” Shelly remembered her father joking one day after watching the recent news.
Aware that George was listening, she was careful not to say anything that would upset him.
“Can you find out more?”
“Call ICE?” Campbell exclaimed. “ Like I have their direct local number here, their 1-800 toll-free line or the friendly website for an instant chat with my favorite agent.”
“OK, Dr. Narayan, but in the meantime…,” Campbell continued, fending off her next interruption. “In the meantime, Manny asked me to make sure things are taken care of for George till he can return. There are empty apartments in your building; there’s one on the floor below you, 252, I see it here online. I’ll grab it this morning.
“Your building is close to the school George is enrolled in. He can walk there and back. If it’s OK, I will swing by later today and make all the arrangements. When is a good time? I know you’ve never met me so we can meet at the place across the street from you, The Ivy Drip.”
Now Shelly was speechless.
“Dr. Narayan.” He was pleading now. “I know you’re busy. I’ll have George out of there today. You need to keep him in your place just for a few hours. Please help. You don’t know me, but George does. Ask him!”
“OK. George, do you know a Dr. Campbell? The man on the phone says he is a friend of your father.”
George brightened “Yes, Dr. Campbell is a forever friend of his.”
Shelly and Campbell worked out details for a tentative meeting after work.
Soon, she could close the door on this strange twist in her carefully planned life. But her father’s voice teased her otherwise: “The best-laid plans of mice and men.”
“Well, Shelly always lands on her feet like a cat,” her mom would say.
“Get some sleep, George,” she said uneasily, remembering the fable about the cat’s burned paws.