St. Cloud's Orphanage, Maine
I was the boy who belonged to St. Cloud's. As a man, it turns out, not much has changed.
I took my place as resident physician at the orphanage five years ago, despite a lack of formal qualifications. The fact I have never been to college, or high school for that matter, meant little to my predecessor, Dr. Wilbur Larch. He was my teacher, my mentor, and the only father I ever knew.
To say St. Cloud's had a hold over me is not quite right. Instead I have been beholden to the people – the children, the staff, but mainly Dr. Larch. He is the reason I am here. He is the reason I am a doctor at all.
Dr. Larch once said I would never find a more fulfilling life than at St. Cloud's. I only ventured out into the world once, but those two years came close. At least, I thought so at the time. Due to certain circumstances I found myself back where I belonged, taking over Dr. Larch's role as caretaker of many and father of none.
Occasionally I catch myself thinking of the time when I wasn't at the orphanage – the brief period of my life where I was free of St. Cloud's and my responsibilities there. I wonder what my life would have been like had I not returned here… if those certain circumstances were different. But for the most part I am contented, knowing that I am needed here, that the children and women who pass through these doors are better off because I am.
Dr. Larch was right.
The young woman fidgeted in her seat as she waited for Homer Wells to read over the notes the nurse had given him in a plain, brown folder. She forced herself to stay in her seat, when her instinct was to run. But running away would not solve her predicament, and she couldn't hide it for much longer. She wished the doctor would hurry up so it could be done. Then she could go back to her life as it was before the momentary lapse in judgment which had landed her here.
Homer finished reading through the list of vitals that Nurse Angela had taken, then looked up to meet the frightened eyes of the young woman. He had seen that same look countless times. It was always the same, even in the women who pretended they weren't affected by their surroundings, that the sound of children playing outside or the babies crying in the nursery had no effect on them. But they could not hide the deep seated fear, regret and anger that was revealed in their eyes. And for that, Homer was grateful. It was the only reason he could continue doing what he was doing.
"Everything will be alright, Miss Bramley," he stated calmly.
"No one has said anything about money," she said abruptly, then paused as her cheeks colored. "What I mean is, I don't know how much to pay."
"There's no charge for the procedure. But if you'd like to make a donation to the orphanage, we would appreciate it. Only if you're able."
The young women breathed a sigh of apparent relief, then nodded. Homer got up from behind his desk and ushered her to the door.
"Nurse Angela will take you to get changed and I'll be along shortly," said Homer.
The frightened look in the woman's eyes returned.
"Now?" she faltered.
"You've got nothing to be scared about. We'll take good care of you."
Homer opened the door and nodded for Nurse Angela to take her.
"Come along, dear," Angela said, taking her by the arm with her cheerful but professional manner.
Homer watched them leave then returned to his desk to collect the patient's chart. On his way to the room where he would perform the necessary procedure, he stopped to stare at the medical diploma which graced his office wall. The certification was completely fabricated, painstakingly recreated by Dr. Larch's own hand. Homer mused, not for the first time, that it was a wonder he had not been exposed as a fraud. Thorough as his training had been at Dr. Larch's side, he had no formal qualifications as a doctor. He was waiting for the Board of Trustees to discover the ruse and turn him out of St. Cloud's, or worse, have him arrested. But the Board were very contented with their young doctor and no one had any cause to suspect him for anything other than a Harvard educated physician. Even if he looked incredibly young for his 35 years (a good seven years older than his actual age).
The fact Homer continued to perform abortions at St. Cloud's was kept secret from the Board, or if some of them suspected, they did nothing about it. Maybe Dr. Larch was right, maybe it was a necessary service he was performing. It didn't mean Homer felt any better about it, but at least he knew that he was helping. He was, as Dr. Larch had always wanted, being of use in this life.
Homer stopped by the new mothers' ward on his way to the operating room, checking on his most recent delivery. The woman was recovering well, at least physically. Emotionally was a different story, as silent tears streamed down her face. By the end of the week she would be gone, her baby daughter left behind. Another orphan for St. Cloud's. Homer wondered if this baby would remain with them, to grow up with brothers and sisters of all ages who were, in reality, no relation. Or would she be adopted by loving parents before she ever came to realize where she had come from? He could never predict it – some children, like himself, became life-long orphans. Others were raised away from St. Cloud's… the lucky ones, he supposed. But Homer rarely thought of them that way, because he didn't feel unlucky himself, and never had. He certainly didn't want the children of St. Cloud's to feel that way. They just a had different, larger family, that was all.
He left the ward and was almost bowled over by three young boys racing down the corridor.
"What are you doing up here?" Homer asked, trying for a chastising tone but failing.
The boys were puffing, out of breath, and spoke over the top of each other to explain the epic game of chasey that was currently underway.
"There you are!" bellowed Curly, who had appeared at the top of the stairs. The fourteen-year-old, one of the eldest boys still at the orphanage, ran over them.
"I told you this floor was out of bounds. Don't you listen?" he growled, pulling the three of them away. He glanced at the doctor who was smiling in amusement. "Sorry, Homer."
"That's okay. Try and keep it down, alright?"
Curly nodded and pulled the boys roughly away. They escaped his grasp and bolted for the stairs, yelling loudly. Curly grimaced at Homer and ran after them.
Homer continued down the corridor and entered the nursery. The newborn girl was asleep in her crib, a tiny red-faced being wrapped tightly in her swaddling blanket. Homer checked her chart and noted she had not yet been named.
"We were waiting for you," came a voice from the corner.
Homer looked up to see Mary Agnes cuddling another baby to her white uniformed-chest. Another life-long orphan, she had remained at St. Cloud's long after she could have left to make her way in the world, choosing instead to take on nursing duties to assist Angela and Edna. The latter, the stalwart of St. Cloud's, was retiring in the new year, so Mary Agnes was assuming many of Nurse Edna's duties. Like Homer, she was not formally trained, but had been taught by two of the most devoted nurses St. Cloud's could ever have.
"It's your turn to name her," Mary Agnes continued as she rocked the baby boy in her arms.
"It is?" replied Homer, returning his attention to the infant. "Let's see then… How about Katherine?"
He glanced at Mary Agnes for her approval, and after receiving a slight nod in response, touched his fingertip to the baby's forehead.
"I name you little Katherine." He smiled to himself over the familiar St. Cloud's ritual. If the baby was adopted young enough the parents would probably change her name. But for now, she was Katherine.
The baby in Mary Agnes's arms started fussing.
"Shh, Wilbur. You've been fed and now it's time to sleep," she said.
Homer was surprised when Mary Agnes had chosen that name for the boy. There had been an unspoken rule at St. Cloud's for the past five years that they would not name any of the babies after Dr. Larch. He didn't know if they refrained from doing so to protect their own feelings or simply because, over the years, there had been an abundance of babies named Wilbur at St. Cloud's and it could get confusing. But Mary Agnes had been insistent and, when questioned over her choice, simply stating that the boy looked like a Wilbur. She had been his primary caretaker since assisting Homer with his delivery two months earlier. For whatever reason, Mary Agnes felt an especially close bond with the baby, despite being old enough to know that he might be adopted at any time and taken from her.
Mary Agnes had always looked after the other children. For many years she was, just as Curly was now, the eldest of the orphans, and took the little ones under her wing. Of all the children at St. Cloud's, Mary Agnes had seemed like the sort to leave the orphanage as soon as she was old enough. She had certainly made plans to that effect over the years. But after Dr. Larch's death and Homer's return, her demeanor had changed. The once overly emotional girl had quieted into a responsible young woman who chose to stay and help where she was needed. Like Homer, she belonged to St. Cloud's.
Of course, Homer reflected, he had influenced her decision to stay, however inadvertently. At least, it had been inadvertent at first, when Mary Agnes first developed a hopeless crush on him. He hadn't encouraged her in any way before he left St. Cloud's, nor when he returned two years later. But then he was used to having her there, and appreciated having someone to talk to nearer his own age. After Buster left the orphanage they had grown even closer.
Despite living under the same roof as several dozen orphans and a small smattering of staff, Homer had been lonely. He missed Dr. Larch. He missed his friends at Cape Kenneth – Rose Rose, Peaches, Muddy, Hero, even Jack. He missed Wally and, of course, he missed Candy. But they were part of his other life, the one outside St. Cloud's. He was back where he belonged, and Mary Agnes was there too. When she started showing an interest in nursing he was happy to teach her, to share books and articles with her that he thought she might like. Not surprisingly, Mary Agnes fell even more in love with him than before, and Homer had surprised them both by asking her to marry him a year ago.
"How's he doing?" Homer asked, feeling baby Wilbur's forehead and cheek which was still a little flushed with fever.
"He's fine, still a little fussy. He's been breathing easier today," Mary Agnes said, not taking her eyes off the baby.
"Good," Homer said, relieved that the boy was on the mend. Mary Agnes had stayed up with him for two nights when his fever was high, refusing to leave him.
"I have a procedure," he commented quietly, before replacing baby Katherine's chart and heading for the door.
"Do you want some help?" Mary Agnes called after him.
Homer paused, his back to her. "No, that's alright. Angela's with her."
He didn't know why he continued to protect his wife from the realities of his job. She knew he performed abortions, and had even watched him do a number of D&Cs during her training. But he never asked for her assistance now and, even though she continued to offer, she never asked why he was always refused. Homer suspected Mary Agnes was grateful for this, though they didn't discuss it.
"I'll see you at dinner," he said, smiling over his shoulder at her.
Mary Agnes returned her gaze to Wilbur and smiled too.