Gazing around the room, I chuckled at the thought that these kinds of places probably looked the same from one side of the galaxy to the other.
And I've seen a lot more of that galaxy than you'd think.
Hey. My name is Tim Sanderson. I'm sixteen, which means I'm just about to start grade twelve at school. I live in a tiny coastal village on the Australian eastern seaboard. It's a sleepy little place, and even saying that much is overselling it. In fact, it was so uneventful that morning that the local doctor's waiting room was empty except for the receptionist filing some paperwork behind the counter, and my parents and I. Sitting next to me, my mother was tapping her foot nervously on the tiles and holding my hand so tightly that I was in danger of actually needing to see a qualified medical professional. I got my dark, curly hair and green eyes from my mother, but I sometimes wish I'd gotten her strength as well. She'd always been able to put on a brave face no matter what. I don't know how she did it.
"It's gonna be okay," I said softly. "You don't have to worry."
Mum turned to me with surprise, broken out of her thoughts. She glanced to my hand, smiled and let go. "Oh, I know," she replied. "You can't blame us for being a little nervous, though, not after everything that happened."
"I know, I don't," I said quickly. "That's why I'm here, right? One final check-up to make sure everything's okay."
"Still, maybe we should go in there with you," said Dad, and I turned to see him sitting on the other side, rocking back and forth. "Do you want us to go in with you? I think we should go in with you."
"How many mugs of coffee have you had this morning Steve?" Mum asked.
"Just four," Dad replied. "Why?"
"No reason," Mum said, and shot me a look.
I laughed. "I appreciate your concern," I said, "but I'll be fine, I promise. See that wall?" I pointed to the wall opposite, where a poster warning us about the danger of measles was facing us beside a small painting of a sunflower. "I will literally be on the other side of that wall, not four metres away. If something happens, you'll know about it."
Dad bit his lip, while Mum didn't seem convinced. "But that's such a long way away," she said.
The door opened and the doctor poked her head into the waiting room. My face fell. I'd been expecting to see Doctor Randall, my family's physician ever since I'd been a kid. I liked Doctor Randall. She always let me have some of the jelly beans she kept hidden in her desk, even though I'd long since passed the age where bribery still worked. But instead, the young woman before us was a doctor I'd never seen before. She was tall and graceful, with long silken black hair tied behind her head. I couldn't see a name badge pinned to her lab coat, but I caught the hint of a yellow dress with a cheerful floral print.
"Mr Sanderson?" she asked, and her gaze fell onto me. "Come on through."
I stood up and turned to my parents. "I won't be long," I said. "I'll be right inside," and I leaned forward to give Mum a light kiss on the cheek.
That seemed to settle their nerves. "We'll be here if you need us," Dad said.
"Thanks," I said. "I know you will." I followed the doctor into the building's only consulting room and shut the door behind me.
The doctor sat down at her desk and offered me the chair facing her. "I didn't mean to tear you away from your family," she said.
"Yeah, they've been super-protective lately," I said, and sat down. "Dad hasn't let me out of his sight in, like, a week. My sister Sally had to practically bribe them just so she could go and hang out with some friends this morning."
"That's understandable, given everything in my notes."
"About that," I began. "I don't mean to be rude or anything, but what happened to my usual doctor? I thought I was seeing Doctor Randall today."
"Sorry, no, Doctor Randall was unexpectedly called out of town," the doctor replied. "I'm covering for all of her patients today, which at the moment only seems to be you."
I nodded, and the words slipped out before I could stop them. "You seem awfully young to be a doctor," I said, then blushed redly.
But the young woman behind the desk smiled. "They'll let anyone into medical school these days," she said. For the first time, I noticed the kindness in her face. I've always had a knack for reading people, and I couldn't help the feeling that she was someone I could trust, even if I didn't understand why.
"So Doctor Randall left you notes about my visit today?" I asked.
"Yes, this is a simple follow-up," the young woman replied. "With everything you went through last week, this is just a final check to make sure that you're okay."
I sat still as the doctor checked my blood pressure and temperature, jotting down notes in a little spiral notepad. "Everything looks good," she said eventually, and sat back on the desk. "Before I let you go, was there anything else?"
I looked away, and started speaking before I realised it. "I, uh, I lied before," I said.
The doctor's expression fell. "Oh?"
"To everyone," I continued. "To my parents, to Doctor Randall, even to my best friend. A lot more happened to me than what I said."
The doctor met my gaze. "Well you can trust me," she said. "I promise that whatever you tell me doesn't leave this room."
I looked out the window, and suddenly felt like I was a million miles away. "Two words," I said softly.
"Two words she said to me while the sky was falling," I said. "And then I watched them do the impossible, right in front of me. The more time passes, the more I keep thinking back to that moment and those two words." I blinked, and turned back to the doctor. I'd forgotten she was there in the room. She probably already thought I was crazy. "I'm sorry," I said, and offered her my most charming smile. "That probably doesn't make a lot of sense. I've thought about this a lot, and it's still all kind of jumbled in my head."
The doctor nodded. "You know what I like to try?" she asked.
She laughed lightly, and stepped back around the desk. "Not quite," she replied. "If I'm trying to make sense of something, I start at the very beginning. Saying it all out loud the way it happened can help you put your thoughts in order. Just start from the beginning. I promise I'll listen," and she gestured to her lab coat. "It's what the outfit means. I'm here to help."
"All of it?" I frowned. "We might be here a while."
The doctor sat down and settled in. "I've got no other patients today," she said. "The floor is yours."
I took a deep breath. "Okay, okay," I began. "I guess the best place to start would be when we pulled into the museum carpark that morning, the day before New Year's Eve..."