The waiting area was dim, quiet, and at least three degrees warmer than the rest of the hospital. An elderly maintenance man was working on the light fixture above the desk. He took little notice of Anton speaking to the receptionist.
She smiled and nodded. “Have a seat. Dr. Brynn won’t be long.”
Anton stood a moment longer, watching the maintenance man, before taking a seat.
A twenty-four hour news channel flickered silently on an old television wedged between two chairs in the corner of the room. A colossus of a man, sweating profusely, sat within arms reach of the television, clutching the remote control in one hand and a soda can in the other. In spite of his thunderous snoring, he appeared to be awake.
Anton tried to watch the muted television, hearing only the titan breathe, but was distracted by the soda can in the man’s gargantuan left hand. Every half-minute or so, the man would twitch and the soda can would droop a little more. Judging from the ring of condensation on the can, Anton awaited the imminent spill.
Anton cleared his throat. “Excuse me.”
He leaned to the left, dead center in the giant’s wide-eyed field of vision. “Hi.” He pointed at the remote control. “Do you mind if I …” Anton mimed changing channels with the thumb of his empty hand.
The soda can tilted another few degrees and fizzy brown liquid dribbled out, splattering on the floor.
Anton straightened up and looked back toward the receptionist’s desk. She was nowhere to be seen. The maintenance man had also left.
The deep, rhythmic, almost hypnotic snoring that had filled the room was suddenly shredded by an explosion of violent coughing. Reflexively the man reached up with his right hand to cover his mouth, still holding the remote control. When the eruption subsided, he frowned disgustedly at remote control and wiped it on the upholstered side of the waiting room seat, leaving a visible smear of phlegm behind.
Anton broke off all attempts to communicate further. He turned his attention to the pile of magazines on the table in the middle of the room. Glancing back at the trail of mucus on the chair, he pulled his hand up inside his sleeve and nudged through the stacks with the cuff of his jacket, careful not to touch any of them with his bare skin.
The most recent publication on the table was more than two years old. He performed a quick mental calculation to estimate the number of infectious hands that could have thumbed through the pages: Two-years, times two-hundred practice days per year, six hours per day, roughly four patients per hour … nine-thousand, six-hundred.
He sat back with his hands safely tucked into his jacket pockets and closed his eyes.
The receptionist returned. “Anton Novik?”
Anton stood up and followed her down a narrow hall to the last door on the left.
Dr. Brynn was tall, thin, pale, had short, cropped, graying hair and a gray goatee. His tortoise shell glasses, brown corduroys, and tweed jacket with leather elbow patches added a Freudesque air of eccentric wisdom. He held out his hand in a welcoming gesture. “It’s good to see you again Anton. You look well. How have you been?”
Anton hesitantly shook the doctor’s hand. “Not bad.”
“How is Elena? Getting close now, I suppose.”
“Eight months and counting. She’s only been off work for two weeks. It’s like she’s going through withdrawal now that I’m her only patient.”
Dr. Brynn nodded knowingly. “So you’re here under duress?”
Anton touched the tip of his nose with his index finger, then pointed at the doctor. “Something like that.”
“She seemed quite concerned when she called me last week, Anton.”
“Really? What did she say?”
“No matter. Tell me what’s going on. Really. How are you doing?”
Anton rolled his eyes and peered around the examining room as if looking for answers on the stark, white walls. “Well, if you ask Elena, I drink too much, I exercise too little, and I stay up too late.”
Dr. Brynn opened a file folder on the desk and took a pen from his pocket. “I’m not asking Elena. I’m asking you.”
Anton took a minute to consider where best to start, searching the bare walls again for answers. “Well, she’s right, in some ways, I suppose. I haven’t been sleeping well. When I wake up I’m confused.”
Dr. Brynn nodded. “That’s normal. It’s called sleep inertia. Everybody wakes up at a different rate, but it can take a few minutes for the brain to become fully conscious.”
Anton squinted, shaking his head slightly from side to side. “I know what you mean, but no, this is different. I have these vivid dreams that just …” He paused, still searching the white walls for the right words, “… they just turn me inside out. I’m almost afraid to fall asleep.”
Anton shook his head. “Not frightening. No. Upsetting. Really intense. Like bad memories that I just can’t let go of.”
“Are they? Memories, I mean?”
Anton leaned back and ran his hand through his hair. He took a deep breath then looked Dr. Brynn square in the eyes. “That’s part of the problem. I don’t know. They feel like memories, but I can’t be sure. Sometimes, during the day, I remember things but I don’t know if I am remembering a dream or something real. Other times I dream about people and places and I’m not sure if they really exist. Sometimes I’m not entirely sure if I’m awake or still asleep and dreaming. It makes reality a bit fuzzy.”
Dr. Brynn was writing furiously on the notepad in the file folder. “That would be confusing. When did this begin?”
Anton stared blankly at Dr. Brynn for a moment. He looked down at the floor, then around the room. He closed his eyes briefly, then shook his head with an uncomfortable sort of nervous laugh and a pained expression. “That’s the other part of the problem; I don’t really know when it started. It sort of feels like I’ve always been this way.”
Dr. Brynn changed tack. “Elena told me but I’ve forgotten … what do you do for a living?”
“I’m a data analyst. Statistics bureau.”
Dr. Brynn wrote a few more lines on the notepad in the folder. “Ah yes, now that you mention it, I remember Elena mentioning that. A numbers man.”
Anton’s tone changed. “Forgive me, Dr. Brynn. I realize you and my wife both work in the same hospital, but I didn’t know you were so close. You seem to know quite a bit about her and I.”
Dr. Brynn closed Anton’s file folder on his desk, pushed his chair back, and stood defensively. “Well, Anton … for the last few years we’ve eaten in the same cafeteria, ridden the same elevators, waited in the same lines for the same bad coffee, attended the same meetings and conferences, and in case you’ve forgotten, I live across the street from you.”
Anton felt the warm brush strokes of embarrassment moistening his brow. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t implying …”
“I know. It’s quite all right. You’re under a lot of stress, Anton – you’re not yourself. Lack of sleep will often cause paranoia. Take some time off. Spend a few weeks with Elena before the baby arrives. How long have you been married?”
“Almost two years. Our second anniversary might be spent in the delivery room.”
From his jacket pocket, Dr. Brynn produced a small, plain, white prescription bottle. “I want you to take one of these each day for the next while.”
Anton took the bottle and examined it. There was no information on the label other than a string of digits and a pattern that resembled a bar code. He opened it and shook a few of the round orange pills into his hand. “Skittles.”
Dr. Brynn looked confused. “Skittles?”
“Yeah, you know, the chewy, fruit flavored candy in the crunchy shell.”
Dr. Brynn frowned and shook his head. “No. I can’t say I’ve ever seen a … a skittle.”
Anton awkwardly dropped the orange pills back in the bottle and snapped the cap closed. “Right. Not Skittles. One a day. Got it.”