By Ekta R. Garg
Prompt: Everyone has a love story. Here’s mine.
Sameer Malhotra squinted up at the modest three-story hospital. The sun had just risen behind the building, causing him to squeeze his eyes until he was looking through small slits. Using his hand as a visor, he examined the place he hoped to call his soon.
“Are you Dr. Malhotra?”
He looked back at the entrance to the hospital. A pretty woman in scrubs with an ID clipped to the V of her shirt held the door open. She smiled at him, open and looking a little relieved.
Sameer nodded. “That’s me. You can call me Sam.”
“Nice to meet you, Sam. I’m Wendy. Come on in. Dr. Jackson is ready to talk to you.”
Sameer stepped forward and shook her hand, then followed her inside. The waiting area offered clean but well-worn chairs and a small television on a table against the window. A home improvement show played on mute. To Sameer’s left, a desk with a sliding glass window sat empty. Wendy nodded at it as they walked past.
“That’s where you’ll find me most mornings unless Dr. J has some sort of emergency. Then it’s all hands on deck.”
“What happens if another emergency comes in while you’re back there helping?”
Wendy pushed through an oversized swinging door. “They have to wait.”
Blinking in mild shock, Sameer followed Wendy down a long hall. A quick glance inside the rooms showed clinic exam rooms and physician offices. Doctors examined the few patients who had come in, but they didn’t stop what they were doing to make eye contact with him.
At the end of the hall, just before the glass door with “Emergency Exit” above it in bold red letters, Wendy stopped at a door on the left. She knocked with a quick rap of her knuckles and then stuck her head inside.
“Dr. Jackson? Your eight a-m.”
Sameer rolled his shoulders a little as he tried to hide his nerves. Wendy came back out.
“He’s ready for you.”
She made her way down the hall. “You know where to find me afterward.”
Hope fluttered in Sameer’s chest. If Wendy was so casual about all this, it would be easier than he thought to get the job here. All he needed to do was stay confident and not say too much about why he’d really come to town.
“Dr. Malhotra, welcome,” Dr. Jackson said, standing up and coming around his desk with an outstretched hand. Sameer took it and returned the firm handshake. “Good to have you here.”
“Thanks. And please call me Sam.”
“All right, if you’ll call me Marcus.” He gestured to the chair in front of his desk. “Have a seat.”
Both men took their places, and Marcus sat back with fingers tented.
“So, tell me why a young single man such as yourself wants to move here.”
Sameer smiled wryly. “How do you know I’m single?”
“No ring,” Marcus said, gesturing to Sameer’s hands. “Plus, your CV didn’t mention it. And, honestly, we really haven’t had any luck getting married doctors to apply or even stick around if they come out here. Eventually all of them want to go to where there are more amenities.”
He put air quotes around the last word, and Sameer shook his head in a show of camaraderie.
“I don’t care about amenities, Marcus. I just want to spend my life taking care of people who need it, and I think patients in small towns like this one need it more than most.”
Marcus nodded in agreement. “True, true. But this really is a small town. Two grocery stores. One bar, and even that’s more like a community center than a place for drinking. I mean, you can get most any type of liquor there, but people generally bring their kids and drink in moderation.”
Sameer held his hands up as if in surrender. “Fine by me. I’m not one to drink much anyway.”
“Right.” Marcus leaned forward and eyed him with more scrutiny. “Our nearest mall is about 25 miles away.”
“Not one to shop much either.”
Marcus narrowed his eyes in thought. “Do you have a girlfriend? Divorced? Any kind of obligations or family that might make you want to leave?”
Sameer’s mouth went dry at the mention of family, but he’d had enough practice by now not to let his discomfort show.
“No one. I’m really a free bird.”
Marcus slapped his desk lightly. “Well, then, you’re hired.”
Sameer jerked his head back in surprise. “That quick? I thought…I mean, my references—”
“Were excellent,” Marcus interrupted. “We may be a small town, but we’ve got a mean internet connection. I’ve already spent a lot of time vetting you and talking to people you’ve worked with along with your fellowship director. I knew that if you came off as good in person as you did on paper, I was going to make sure you didn’t leave town before signing a contract. Speaking of which…”
He opened a desk drawer and pulled out a sheaf of papers.
“Sorry, I don’t have an envelope back here, but Wendy might,” he said. “Everything you need to know about our expectations and the formal terms of the job are right there, including your salary. Do you need help finding a place to live?”
Sameer took the papers, his pulse picking up speed. “If you know someone who could take me around to what’s available in town, I’d really appreciate it.”
Marcus indicated the paperwork with a nod. “Cathy’s number is in there. She’s the main agent in town. Has to cover a pretty wide area in the region to make a decent living, but she’s the best.”
Before he knew it, Sameer found himself on his feet shaking hands with Marcus again who explained he had a full roster of patients that day. He encouraged Sameer to stop by Wendy’s desk again and told him they’d meet at rounds the next morning, 8 a.m. sharp. Without having said 10 words, Sameer stood in front of Wendy’s desk. She greeted him with a grin.
“How…” he began, and she handed him a blank manila envelope for the contract.
“You’ll learn this soon enough about Marcus Jackson,” she said. “When he knows, he doesn’t quit until he gets what he wants. And by the way, there’s already a fair amount of gossip about you in town.”
Sameer scrubbed his hair with his free hand. “I’ve been in town less than 24 hours. How can people be gossiping about me already?”
“As soon as Dr. J announced he was thinking about hiring you, people jumped online and started doing research of their own,” she said. “I’m afraid that part about small towns is true. Everyone’s going to want to know more about you.”
They made small talk for a few more minutes. A few people entered the waiting room, and Sameer glanced at them over his shoulder and stepped to the side. He said a quick goodbye to Wendy who gave him a hurried smile as she began to process the new arrivals.
Outside the sun had barely had time to warm the sidewalk. Sameer couldn’t believe his plan had made it past the first step so fast. With a look over his shoulder at the hospital, he jogged to his rental car, got inside, and sat in the driver’s seat.
Instead of starting the car, he stayed still for a moment. The passenger seat held his old briefcase, well-traveled but still in good shape. He stared at it for a long minute before opening it and looking at the stethoscope that lay inside. After a moment or two, he let his fingers rest on the steth and closed his eyes tight against the way they burned now.
I’m here, Maya, he thought. I made it to the town where your heart is. Now I’ve just got to find who got it.
With a hard swallow, he opened his eyes, started the car, and drove to the hotel to start preparing for his big move.