By Meredith Morgenstern
When Park Slope pediatrician Dr. Miller died, it wasn’t only the neighborhood paper that covered it, and not just the borough-wide Brooklyn news that remarked on his passing. Tilly Mendelssohn noticed the New York Times itself carried a lengthy, multi-column obituary full of many photos and anecdotes.
As a baby, Tilly was thought to have colic until her parents took her to see Dr. Miller, who informed them the infant simply didn’t like the color of her room. Parents often referred to Dr. Miller as the Child Whisperer, or the Baby Genius, or sometimes the Miracle Man. But to Dr. Miller’s little patients he was simply known as The Good Doc, and for seventeen-year old Tilly he was the inspiration for her to study hard and apply to Columbia University’s pre-med program.
Older siblings whispered to their newborn brothers and sisters about the Good Doc. Babies babbled side-by-side on blankets in the park, extolling the virtues of the Good Doc to one another and swapping stories while their oblivious parents complained about broken diaper pails and sleep training. In school playgrounds kids took turns playing Dr. Miller, treating the long lines of their classmates by laying hands on each other’s heads and reading their symptoms. Tilly’s younger sister, 7-year old Emily, bragged to her second grade friends how her big sis was going to be a good doctor, too.
At the moment of Dr. Miller’s death, babies all over Park Slope let out simultaneous, lusty wails of distress that went on for so long their parents and babysitters finally placed them gently into cribs, shut nursery doors, and collapsed into breathless heaps on couches in other rooms. They turned up the volume on their Internet radio stations and pretended not to feel their blood pressure shoot up from stress. The preschoolers stopped singing during circle time, started crying, and even the promise of extra cookies couldn’t soothe what ailed them. The elementary school kids all went silent and refused to eat at lunch, which made their teachers increasingly nervous until the exasperated principals at last called an early dismissal. When Tilly found Emily in the crowd of confused grade-schoolers, the younger Mendelssohn sister finally broke down and cried into big sister’s shoulder. Though Emily wasn’t exactly light, Tilly carried her most of the way home.
As the oldest of three children, Tilly held herself together with all the cool and calm her seventeen years could muster. When her fifteen-year old brother Zak kicked a wall she placed a gentle hand on his shoulder and shook her head. At home Tilly pampered Emily until their parents arrived, dazed and breathless, from work.
When word of the death reached parents, babysitters and teachers, the adults all looked at one another and understood what had happened to their children that morning. And then, in their own selfish ways, the parents dissolved into deep mourning for the doctor with the uncanny ability to place his hands on his little patients’ heads and know — just know — what was wrong and how to fix it. There was never any trial-and-error, no wait-and-see with Dr. Miller, no “call me if anything changes,” and for that the parents had always been grateful.
The other pediatricians of Park Slope did not bother to clear their schedules or increase their office hours to make room for a sudden influx of new patients. The Good Doc’s children weren’t going anywhere.
The children, though, took a little bit longer to figure out what they needed to do.
First, the older ones sensed something, in that way teenagers have of being both totally oblivious and highly sensitive at the same time. Tilly was filling out her Columbia pre-med applications when she first felt tingles, like pins and needles from head to toe. Her breath caught in a gasp. A few minutes later Zak knocked on the door, still in the throes of an angry sulk, but curious to find out if she knew what was going on. Emily didn’t feel a thing until the next morning. By then Tilly and Zak had confirmed the sensation, via social networking and text messaging, with most of their friends and knew what to tell Emily.
By the time school opened the next day even the kindergarteners knew what was needed. At recess everyone gathered in tight groups away from the teachers and talked about it.
The Good Doc’s funeral was held on a weekend so that teachers, students and parents alike could attend and make their farewells. The mourners at Holy Name Catholic Church filled every pew and aisle, stood shoulder-to-shoulder in the back, and spilled out the door, down the steps and onto the sidewalks of Prospect Park West, but Tilly, Zak and Emily made sure they got there early and sat right up front.
The parents wept silently, more for themselves than for the loss of such a great man. Who now would be their ally in the ongoing fight against fussy babies, and oppositional, smart-mouthed kids? Who now would tell them exactly, and in no uncertain terms, what their child was thinking and feeling and how to make it all better — better for the children, of course.
During the services, the Chorus Clubs of P.S. 295, P.S. 10, M.S. 51, and John Jay High School all sang songs to honor the Good Doc, some kids read their own poems, and even the rambunctious eleven-year old Dombrowsky twins pulled themselves together enough to read a short Bible passage.
Afterword, Dr. Miller’s widow, adult children, and grandchildren followed the hearse in a limousine provided by the funeral home. Everyone else walked en masse down 19th Street to Green-wood Cemetery for the interment, a sea of black-clad humanity in the light of a bright, cloudless day. Even the babies did not cry out or fuss or fall asleep, but stared wide-eyed and silent at the procession, occasionally glancing over a parental shoulder or from the side of a stroller to give one another a knowing look. Tilly walked between her siblings, holding each one by the hand.
At the gravesite none of the adults noticed several of Dr. Miller’s little patients, including Emily and Zak Mendelssohn, drawing maps and making notes.
That night, dusk fell over Park Slope in the same way it had for many years. Metallic clanks of brownstone gates slammed shut as people arrived home after the long day, or left for their evening’s activities. The clickety-clack of would-be novelists grew silent in the closing coffee shops and the drinkers and merry-makers arrived at the bars just opening their doors. Shadows grew long and stubborn, and the sun’s glare off car windows and storefronts gave way to electric lights from within the buildings. The gentle breeze in the air went from refreshing to chilly. Tilly Mendelssohn lay on her bed, hands behind her head, waiting.
Long after all the bedtime stories had been read, the good night kisses had been placed on little brows, the night lights had been turned on and big lights turned off, the loveys had been recovered and returned to their rightful positions in tiny beds, after all the “Sleep tight, I love you’s,” the children of Park Slope crept out of their homes.
All the adults, perhaps sensing something in the air, perhaps not, stayed indoors for a while. In superhero pajamas and pink nightgowns and ratty old t-shirts and sweat pants, the children made their way in small groups to Green-wood Cemetery. Brothers and sisters held hands and older siblings made sure the little ones didn’t get left behind in the dark. Zak and Tilly each carried a flashlight and walked slow enough for Emily to keep up. The children met up on corners and formed larger groups. Without talking about it, they all knew that for this one night the streets of Park Slope were perfectly safe for children out at night with no grownups.
By the time the Dombrowsky twins and their 5-year old across-the-hall neighbor Joseph arrived, a group of about three dozen children already surrounded Dr. Miller’s burial mound. Some held little toy flashlights, others, like Tilly and Zak, had taken their parents’ larger industrial flashlights, and the littlest ones, including Joseph, carried multi-colored glow sticks, adding an almost festive atmosphere to the thick graveyard darkness.
Though the lights they held cast the stone angel residents of Green-wood Cemetery into wicked shadows and turned the knots in the ancient trees into monstrous eyes, no one cried to go home or gasped in terror or knit their brows in fearful anticipation. Even the babies sucked their thumbs or their pacifiers and rested their sweet-smelling heads on the shoulders of the teens carrying them, perfectly relieved to be away from electronic baby monitors and the prying ears of nervous parents for a while.
Zak Mendelssohn, who maintained the lie that his broken arm two years ago was caused by a skate boarding accident, produced a wide, curved snow shovel he found in his parents’ hall closet. Several other older kids held snow shovels as well, Park Slope not being the sort of place many people kept real dirt-digging shovels.
The children dug in silence. Even the little ones didn’t fidget or complain, though it took over an hour to reach Dr. Miller’s coffin and haul it up out of the ground.
It required the efforts of six boys and girls to open the lid. Inside, dead Dr. Miller looked much the same as he had in life, since he had only been buried that morning and had not yet fallen into decay. Some of the little ones reached out to touch his face, but the big kids held them in check.
Jake, the elder of the Dombrowsky twins by four minutes and thirty-two seconds, shattered the silence first. “How do we get it?”
The children all looked at one another, and for the first time apprehension crept into their eyes. The compulsion that had brought them this far had only pushed and led them where they needed to be, had not given them confidence or special knowledge.
Little Joseph, with his green glow stick tight in his fist, said, “Just reach in and get it.” Before Joseph’s first asthma attack at 18 months old, Dr. Miller had diagnosed him and given his parents the necessary prescriptions for inhalers so that they were ready for it when it came and avoided a trip to the emergency room.
“It can’t be that easy,” Zak said. “Do you even know what to look for?”
The children all shared curious glances. The babies looked down at their tummies.
“I guess I’ll know when I get it.” Tilly paused. “Right?” No one answered.
“I think Joseph is right,” said the other Dombrowsky twin, Ethan. “I think you actually reach in and get it.”
“Into where? His belly? His chest?” Tilly swallowed, said, quiet, “His head? And what, exactly is it I’m supposed to be looking for? And why me?”
Joseph rubbed his temples distractedly, scrunched his face, and reached for Ethan’s hand. Ethan pulled Joseph close and gave his tiny hand a tiny squeeze.
“Just try it, Til,” Zak said. To cover the sick knot in his stomach and justify why he himself wouldn’t do it, he added, “You’re the oldest one here. Like you said, you’ll know it when you get it.” He looked around the group. “We’re not going anywhere.”
Tilly’s eyes remained on Dr. Miller’s face, masked with eerie shadows and stark, unforgiving flashlight beams. “And then what?”
Zak shrugged one shoulder with far more indifference than he felt, not trusting himself to open his mouth without retching up his dinner. He looked off into the darkness as if he were too far above any of this nonsense, grateful for the illusion of invisibility to cover his disgust.
“And then…I don’t know.” Tilly’s whispered answer to her own question floated like a feather in the silence, hanging in the air, observed but unremarked upon. “You will all have to give me yours, too. Since it’s going to be me.”
“Well, go on, then.” Jake made a forward urging motion with his flashlight. “Start looking.”
“I … will it hurt, do you think?” Tilly suspected she might be stalling, though she’d never admit it. A grown-up, practically in college already, who had interned all summer at the hospital observing surgeries and tending the very sick, shouldn’t hesitate at something like this. She’d been to the hospital morgue. This was hardly the first dead body she’d seen. So why wouldn’t her hand reach forward to find whatever she needed to find inside Dr. Miller? “If this doesn’t work it’s not like we have anyone to ask.”
Zak swallowed, unenvious of his sister. “Just see first. See if you can just—” he breathed through his mouth, “—reach in search around for it. Whatever it is.”
No one shifted, no one moved. None of the babies fell asleep, but they did not fuss, either. The little ones held still in a way their parents and teachers yearned for.
“Okay,” Tilly finally sighed. “I’ll need some light.”
Zak stepped forward, careful to avoid looking directly at the dead body. A few other older kids joined him in a circle around the coffin, concentrating the beams of their flashlights into one bright spotlight on Dr. Miller’s chest. Joseph and a few other little ones helpfully held their glow sticks out towards the corpse.
When Tilly deemed the light sufficient she took a deep breath in through her nose, visibly steeling herself. “Here goes.”
Like reaching out for a burning hot coal, she eased her hand forward, knuckles bent, fingers curled under protectively. A bead of sweat tickled her temple but she refused to wipe it away. Aware of many pairs of eyes on her she concentrated all her will on not flinching. After many breaths, she uncurled her fingers.
“At least open his shirt first.” The statement startled everyone. No one knew who said it. Tilly jumped. Then she smiled.
“Right.” She loosened the tie around the Good Doc’s neck in the way she had seen her father do a hundred times when he came home from work. With his tie out of her way she opened his suit jacket and unbuttoned his shirt. His chest hair was grey, like her grandfather’s, and tickled her sensitive fingertips. She hovered her hand over the spot on his chest. It seemed as good a place as any to start.
She expected resistance through the hard breastplate, absolutely did not expect such squishy pliancy, like sticking her hand into jelly. She held her breath to avoid retching. Sucking and popping noises hit the night loud as thunder. Some of the little girls made noises of disgust, some of the older boys laughed with too much machismo, most of the littler ones whimpered. Tilly tuned them out, focusing on the task before her like experienced surgeons did. When her fingers hit something warm and tingly, she knew she’d found it.
Noticing his sister’s discomfort, Zak gave her his most reassuring smile and a slight nod. She grimaced back.
Tilly gripped the essence against her palm and took three deep breaths through her mouth to calm her nerves, counting out loud with each exhale. At three she pulled her arm out of Dr. Miller with devastating slowness.
The children around her did not blink. Even the babies watched, eyes wide and mouths closed. Zak did not dare look away, not anymore.
Tilly gasped. Her hand was clean, not bloody. The light she held contained itself in a fuzzy spherical shape, glowing so brightly it drowned out the flashlights and glow sticks. Tilly could no longer see the children around her, now reduced to shadows beyond the great brightness in her hand. She lifted her arms and held the light over her head. The faces around her swam out of the shadows, pale and solemn.
One by one Tilly looked each of her companions in the eyes. One by one they all nodded their assent, though she had known from the first that this task would be hers alone. She was the oldest, and planned to become a doctor, inspired, in no small part, by the Good Doc.
“Bear witness,” she said, from a voice she did not recognize as her own, with words she did not hold in her own mind. “I protect the children, and the children are my own.”
The identification of their protector and champion had returned to the children. In the backs of their lizard brains, in the ether of collective unconscious, and deep in their primordial DNA, they remembered, now, what to do.
As one, the children reached into their own bodies, even the infants with their pudgy hands, and withdrew little balls of light. Tilly circled the crowd. Each child added his or her own light to Tilly’s glow so that it grew, grew, grew, bigger than a soccer ball, bigger than a basketball, almost the size of a beach ball.
When dozens of lights had become one, Tilly braced herself. She hunched over, creating a c-curve in her spine, and pressed the light into her body. It went easily, softly, and without noise. Because it had been waiting for her.
Her audience remained, eyes glued to the ritual before them. When she finished they rejoiced the new Good Doc.
The light rooted itself inside Tilly and when it settled she could no longer remember it ever not being there.
She placed a hand on her brother’s head. “Zak, you’ve never had a skateboarding accident.” She said it so only he could hear, but he still hung in head, embarrassed.
She would still have to go to medical school, of course, and complete a doctor’s regular training. But, tonight, with her future patients still there with her, before they all walked home dazed and barely remembering what had just happened, Tilly made them a promise to always be nearby, to always take care of each and every one of them, like a good doctor.
Meredith Morgenstern writes historical fantasy, dark paranormal, and Twilight Zone-esque speculative fiction. Her short stories have been published in Fiction Vortex, Burial Day Books’ 2014 anthology, “Gothic Blue Books IV: Folklore,” and in Spencer Hill Press’s 2013 anthology, “Holiday Magick!” She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband and two children who love glow sticks. They can see Green-Wood Cemetery from their living room window. You can find her on her blog at http://meredithmorgenstern.blogspot.com, on Twitter @AuthorMeredith, and on Facebook at AuthorMeredithMorgenstern.