On the day Dr. Susan Chen died, she was having the worst one of her life. She should have trusted her instincts and backed the hell away the moment she touched that dying kid and felt, in that instant, that her life force was bleeding out along with his.
The boy looked at her with his dull, black button eyes and through dry, chapped lips, rasped, “I’m going to die, aren’t I?”
The expiration of six-year-old Amir Johnson wasn’t long after that. His older brothers had been playing with their father’s gun when it went off, and the bullet struck Amir in the torso. The ER staff couldn’t stop the bleeding in time, and his little body was not strong enough to endure the damage. As they rushed to save him, he had his Spiderman action figure clutched to his chest, and his mother was crying over Susan’s shoulder. She told Amir over and over what a brave, tough boy he was.
Near the end, he grabbed Susan’s arm with a bloody hand, which had a formidable grip for a dying little boy, and said, “It’s okay.” Then he expired.
Susan had been an ER doctor for five years. Amir wasn’t the first person she lost on the table— most of the people rushed into the hospital bleeding on a gurney had a good chance of never going back out again. The attending physician was quick to assure Susan that she did everything she could to help that little boy. She was still doing chest compressions way past the time she should have given up because goddammit, she hated losing kids.
Dr. Harris had to call her name five times before she snapped out of it. He ordered her to declare the time of death, then pulled her aside to tell her to take a break.
“Chen, what’s up with you tonight? You don’t usually get weepy. You’re my Spock.” He sighed and squeezed Susan’s shoulder. “Ramirez is here now. You can take off. You’ve been here for almost thirty hours.”
She didn’t argue. “Thanks, Goose.” Everyone called Harris “Goose” because he looked like the Anthony Edwards character from Top Gun. “See you in a couple of days.”
“You better get some sleep, Chen,” he ordered. “I mean it.”
She usually waited until she got home to shower the hospital stink away, but this time, she just had to do it before she left. She made the water as hot as she could stand it and stepped under the spray.
She didn’t scrub or soap up. She just stood there, watching the water go down the drain. She allowed the water to sluice over her head, clearing some of the cobwebs in her mind. She wished she could wash away the mental picture of Amir struggling to breathe through a sucking chest wound.
She couldn’t explain it even to herself, but she felt that kid die. Within her body, everything that made her a person shriveled. It was like some powerful force was sucking out the very marrow of her bones. At one point, she feared he would drag her into the pits of oblivion with him. She was a scientist. She knew there was zero logic to that, but she had never before known that bowel-freezing terror. For an instant, she stood at the precipice of an abyss and experienced the certainty of death.
And then it was all downhill from there.
During her walk to the metro, some foolish crackheads tried to snatch her bag, but she was tired, and her patience gauge was empty. The police say a woman should just give up her stuff and not fight off the muggers, but Susan was angry with the world and needed an outlet for her rage. She couldn’t go home feeling like this.
A little cliché since she’s Asian, but she’d been studying mixed martial arts since she was a little girl. Her Aunt Mimi, who raised her after her parents died, married a Filipino man who owned a gym and studio specializing in mixed martial arts: Tae Kwon Do, Muay Thai, jujitsu, and Eskrima. Uncle Bert was protective and made sure she knew how to defend herself before leaving their home for university.
“Come on, guys, not tonight,” she said as they refused to get out of her way. “I had a shitty day and just want to get home.”
“Your night is going to get even worse if you don’t give us your shit, bitch,” said the tall, skinny white one with the dreadlocks and stunk like Chinese food that went bad two weeks ago. “Hurry up.”
“You better do what he says, girl,” said the short, stout black one with the greasy Rick James hairdo. He was wearing a gold Adidas tracksuit for which Susan would have given him credit under normal circumstances. “Mikey’s honnnngry.”
“Ain’t nobody got time for this,” she muttered and executed her first kick, hitting the white guy square in the stomach. He folded over and went down like a bowling pin. She kicked his head hard while he was down on the ground, ensuring he wouldn’t get up again.
Susan’s only warning that the little guy had a knife was the flash of metal in the corner of her eye. She barely managed to dodge it when it came slashing downward toward her torso, but she got a hold of the guy’s thick arm when he lunged at her the second time. She slammed her knee into his armpit, forcing him to drop the knife. She finished him with two punches to the face and a knee to the side of his head.
The whole exchange lasted only about five minutes, but she had already missed her train. She looked around and saw a circle of people who witnessed the entire thing. None of them stopped to help. A few of them pulled out their mobiles and filmed the fight, though. Ghouls. If this thing went viral, Goose would have a shit-fit.
She didn’t want to wait another fifteen minutes for the next train, so she pulled up a ride-share app on her phone and requested a car.
Ten minutes later and eight dollars poorer, she stood in front of her apartment building with a vague sense of trepidation. She imagined being in a game show where one in three doors would reveal her prize. One has ten million dollars, the other a new car, and the last one, a man-eating tiger. She can only touch one doorknob and can’t change her mind once she does. The moment she touches the doorknob, she knows with certainty that the door she picked contains the tiger.
Ever since she was a girl, she had a tendency to get those red-flag warnings just minutes before disaster struck.
The morning that her parents died, she had a premonition that made her so sick to her stomach that the adults allowed her to stay home from school.
Susan and her family lived in a three-bedroom apartment above a general store that they owned. Her mom and dad ran the store in the morning, and her siblings took over in the afternoon after doing their homework. She wanted to help out at the store, too but was too young at the time.
She’d always been a nervous kid, but on that particular morning, she vibrated with anxiety. She knew something terrible was going to happen, but she couldn’t vocalize it. She begged her parents not to open the store that day so they could stay home and take care of her, but her dad told her she was being silly. She was upstairs with her mother’s younger sister Aunt Mimi when they heard four loud bangs.
By the time Aunt Mimi went down to the store to see what was going on, she was too late. Susan’s parents were already dead. A group of kids had robbed the store and shot her parents. Aunt Mimi believed Susan’s father probably tried to fight them off, and her mother backed him up. The two of them were a team.
Susan said hello to Luis, the doorman, who asked her how she was doing and told him, “SSDD.” Same shit, different day.
He nodded in commiseration. “Have a good night, doc.”
The elevator was broken—they should really replace that death trap— so she made her way to the staircase and trudged up every step to her eighth-floor unit. By the time she reached her front door, she was feeling halfway human again. The trek upstairs burned off what was remaining of her adrenaline from that fight with the crackheads. The soul-sucking existential pain draped over her like a shroud was still there, but a couple of beers ought to sort that out. All she wanted now was to drop dead on her bed and not get up for twelve hours.
Jimmy was usually asleep when she got home because her shifts were twenty-eight hours long, three days a week. That meant she didn’t return till about three in the morning or sometimes, late afternoon the next day. It was the first time in months that she was getting home before midnight.
Looking back on it now, maybe she should have called or texted Jimmy first that she was on her way. She had learned over the years that most people don’t like surprises. Even before she put her hand on the doorknob, she just knew shit wasn’t going to go her way.
But Susan didn’t expect to find her boyfriend making out with her cousin Trudy on their IKEA couch while “Dirty Dancing” played on the sixty-five-inch plasma TV. Her mind reeled, and she couldn’t make sense of what she was seeing at first. It was just a tangle of arms and legs. They were so into each other that they hadn’t even realized she was standing there, gawking at them with disgusted horror as tears rolled down her cheeks.