The Charlatan and Kokoro
It was the incessant pounding on the door that ripped Charlatan from his slumber. He reached over to grope for his glasses while his eyes strained to focus on the semi-darkness. As his fingers brushed the cold metal frames he swung himself into a sitting position and planted his feet firmly on the floor. Rubbing his eyes he sighed loudly before placing the glasses on the bridge of his nose. He yawned loudly and cast a sideways glance out of his bedroom window.
The sun had yet to fully set and its rays had washed the land in a dark orange mixed with purple.
Still the knocking sounded from the front door of his clinic and reluctantly Charlatan pulled a pair of slacks on over his boxers and fumbled his way into his slippers before he stood and yawned again. Scratching his head with his long fingertips he made his way from the room he slept in at the very back of the clinic to the front door. He attempted to smooth out his wrinkled shirt before slipping on his white lab coat and opening the door.
"What is it? I'm not open yet," he grunted.
"Are you The Doctor?"
The voice that greeted him was soft and feminine and seemed to be resounding from far below him. The Charlatan opened his eyes fully and looked before him only to see nothing. Slightly confused as he was really not quite awake yet, his brown eyes surveyed his surroundings until they fell upon the top of a young girl's head.
He had to look down far enough that his whole head needed to move in order to see her better.
She seemed tall for her age, which he was estimating was only around twelve or thirteen years old. Her body was of a slender build but he could see the definition of muscles beneath the thin layer of clothing she wore. Summer was waning and the air had a bit of a chill in order to announce the coming fall season. The girl was dressed in that confused style of summer-meets-winter. Her sleeves were long but her pants were short. Her rosy skin shone in the sunset and almost blinded Charlatan with their youth. Her long strawberry blonde hair was pulled up in a ponytail and her steely gray eyes locked hard with his brown ones. Across the bridge of her nose was a splash of pale freckles that screamed to him in familiarity but he pushed the thought from his mind.
Leaning against the doorjamb Charlatan locked eyes with the girl once again.
"I may be. It depends on who is asking for me," he said, pulling a packet of cigarettes from his lab coat pocket and lighting one.
The girl seemed to stare at him intensely and Charlatan felt slightly unnerved. Such an intense stare from someone so young.
"Why is the clinic closed? People always need help," she asked.
Charlatan cocked an eyebrow at her.
"Well, yes they do. But I am only one person. If I work too hard and drive myself into sickness then I'm not much help myself. Now get lost. I don't have time for kids," he said abruptly.
Shutting the door to her spluttering protests Charlatan took a long drag from his cigarette.
"Hey! I'm not done talking to you!" her voice cried out from behind him as the banging resumed.
Charlatan ignored it and made his way back into the depths of his clinic.
He made his rounds of the three rooms he had to ensure they were adequately stocked, clean and ready. The linens were clean; the supplies were awaiting usage from their sterilization drums in each room. Charts were blank at the foot of each bed and each chart held a pen. That was his biggest annoyance; when his pens went missing. He used to keep a pen in the breast-pocket of his lab coat but stopped after he tried to use it as a thermometer in the past. Each of the three rooms housed two beds with the option to hold a third if necessary. In order to expand the clinic he had reduced his living space to one bedroom and a small half-bath. Even the kitchen had been taken over for keeping his instruments clean and storage.
While he was heading back to his reception area where he kept most of his files he realized it was quiet again.
He scoffed to himself.
"LET ME IN!"
Her voice shocked his system as her knocking returned louder and more desperate.
"I told you to go-"
His voice trailed off. He had opened the door to be greeted with her desperate eyes as she attempted to support a man almost three times her size on her shoulder.
"He's lost a lot of blood. He needs help now!" she cried.
The cigarette fell from Charlatan's mouth and he ground it into the floorboards as he reached forward and took the man from the girl.
He half-carried, half-dragged the man into the first of his rooms and laid him back on the bed. Quickly Charlatan plunged his arms up to his elbows in boiling water that he kept constantly bubbling in each room. It was the quickest and easiest way to sterilize his hands before coming into contact with wounds. After so many years of doing that the heat didn't bother him anymore. Blood trailed from one doorway to the other and Charlatan immediately began cutting the man's shirt off. He had ascertained that the point of expulsion was the man's midsection. The blood had already stained the shirt and soaked it fully leading him to believe an artery had been cut.
Charlatan recognized his patient as one of the lower level mercenaries from one of the local bands. There were five major outfits that operated in Vanecia and from time to time there would be territory wars that broke out. Charlatan had been working in Vanecia for the last nine years and over time had built a level of trust with all members. His clinic was a neutral zone and oftentimes he would have rival members bunking together. One time two rival members had tried to continue their spat from before and Charlatan had shut that down with two quick injections. Never again did they attempt to continue their violence in his clinic.
But he knew the bands were getting uneasy. There had been rumours of one band selling out members from a rival group to Byrnan soldiers. Mercenaries were an untrusting bunch as it was and these rumours only served to fuel fires that were better left untouched.
Charlatan began working quickly to identify and stop the source of bleeding. The man on his bed was sweating profusely from the shock of losing so much blood. His skin was ashen and his eyes were rolling back into his skull. Wordlessly Charlatan worked; his hands flying back and forth and the blood inching its way up his arms.
Sweat began to bead on Charlatan's forehead. Before he could wipe it away he felt a soft cloth being swiped across his brow. Shocked he turned to see the girl from before standing at his side and staring intently.
Such intense eyes for one so young, he thought to himself.
He nodded in thanks and continued his work.
Finally after two hours of cutting, cleaning and stitching the man was clear from danger and his wound which had undoubtedly been caused by the sharp edge of a blade was cleaned and sutured.
Charlatan left the room and closed the door behind him. He went into the kitchen area to wash the blood from his arms.
Sitting down on a chair he looked up at the young girl who had followed him and pulled out another cigarette.
"What do you want?" he asked in a sharp voice, "I don't have any money."
"I want to work here," the girl said to him.
Charlatan tilted his head to the side as he looked her over once again. Her shirt had been stained with the man's blood and for the first time he noticed the large pack she had on her back.
"Work here? What can you do here? I don't need assistance," Charlatan scoffed.
Work here, he thought to himself, kids these days.
"You can't do this all by yourself. War is coming, Doctor. You will need help. Your clinic is the only neutral zone for blocks. You're going to get overrun. I'm a Medi-Aide by trade. I can help you," she said in a voice that sounded like it came from an adult.
Charlatan looked her over again. If she was as young as he thought she was, there was no way she was practically trained. At least not at The College. Who knew if she was even telling the truth? He hadn't seen any magic while he was working on the man she had brought him. He would have noticed if she had used any. The entire procedure would have taken forty-minutes to an hour instead of two hours if she had used any healing magic.
Still, she stood there with such determination Charlatan couldn't help but feel slight awe.
He shook his head and stood.
"I don't need your help. Now get out of here and go change your clothes. You'll get arrested if you walk around town like that," he said dismissively and left the room.
War did come to Vanecia. It was a bloodbath years in the making. Three of the five major mercenary bands were involved and bodies littered the back alleys and side streets. Charlatan didn't sleep for almost seven days. Every morning he took his stimulants and went about his work. He stitched up bodies, removed body parts that were no longer useful. He stopped the lives of those who were beyond saving. He reported to the heads of the bands via cell phone communication. For days men came and went from the clinic. Some came for treatment; some came to remove their comrades for recovery at their headquarters. Some came to remove the bodies of their comrades for burial. Every now and then as he worked he thought he saw a glimpse of the young girl who had banged on his door in the beginning.
Finally, after three weeks, Charlatan saw the last of his patients through the doorway of his clinic and into the waiting vehicle of their band that would take them to headquarters for recovery. Charlatan watched the dark car drive away before he turned back into the clinic, pulling his door shut behind him.
He was barely able to drag himself to the kitchen where he half-fell into a chair and pulled out a cigarette. His hands shook as he brought it to his lips and lit the tip. He took a long, deep drag and let his lungs fill with the poison as his eyes closed.
Finally his exhaustion caught up with him and Charlatan felt his consciousness slip from his grasp.
Ah....I hope I don't burn the clinic down.
It was the last thought he had before his head hit the table and everything around him was enveloped in darkness.
When Charlatan opened his eyes again he found himself in his bed, in new clothes and his body was clean. His head throbbed slightly and his glasses were off. He gingerly turned on his side and saw that the glasses were neatly sitting on the table where they always rested. Beside his rectangular frames was a small bowl of warm water with a cloth sitting in it. Charlatan pushed himself up into a sitting position and a similar cloth fell from his forehead into his lap.
"The hell....?" his voice trailed off.
He put his glasses on and swept his eyes around the room. A vacant chair was at his bedside and it seemed as if the room had been tidied. A large pack he thought he had seen somewhere before sat upright in the corner of his room.
It was the voices that caught his attention next. They were coming from the clinic and Charlatan cursed under his breath.
"Goddamn kids," he swore as he pulled on the pair of slacks and the dress shirt that seemed to be waiting for him at the end of his bed, "I bet I didn't lock the damn door. Ah they better not have gotten into the drugs again."
He stumbled from his room, ready to give a lashing to whoever was ransacking his precious clinic. Instead, his gaze was met with one of his patients getting ready to leave and the back of the girl who he had sent away not so long.
With his body still weak he could only shuffle down the cold hallway towards the door. He came up behind the girl, towering over her head and stared at the patient.
"Thanks Charlatan! This new girl you hired is great for the clinic. We were all worried about you afterwards, you know, since there were so many of us in and out of here. I just came by to get my dressing changed since all our medics are out," the man said, pointing to the fresh wrapping on his left arm.
All he could do was nod to the smiling man who waved before leaving. Charlatan reached forward and shut the door, turning his sign over so that it said 'Closed'. He stood there, waiting for the girl to turn and face him.
"Are you mad?"
Her voice had lost that adult determination he remembered. She kept her back to him and Charlatan realized just how small she really was. Her shoulders were slender and seemed like they could only belong to a child. And they did.
"How long have you been here?" Charlatan asked as he shuffled to the kitchen for a smoke.
"I came by and found the door open. You were passed out in the kitchen. That was three days again," she said softly, following him.
Charlatan looked up at her, startled. Three days? He had never been out that long before. No wonder his body was having a hard time keeping up.
"Well, thank you then, I guess," he grunted.
For a while, the two sat in the kitchen in silence. The girl looking down at her knees and Charlatan looking up at the ceiling, watching the smoke swirl by.
The girl looked up and locked eyes with him.
"Pardon?" she asked.
"Name. What is it? Or do I need to call you 'Hey you'?"
Her face beamed with a large smile and Charlatan felt something tighten in his chest.
"Kokoro. You can call me Kokoro."
That was how it started. That was how Kokoro found her way into the clinic at the tender age of twelve. She told Charlatan that she had been born in the red light district in a border town. She had the knack for magic and had trained on and off with traveling professionals. The brothel where she had been born had been burned down when she was eleven and she had decided to come to Vanecia to look for work. She had been in town for six months when she met a woman who directed her to the clinic for work.
"A woman?" Charlatan interrupted, "What was her name?"
"Her name was Raelin. She was working out of a small clinic and let me train under her for a few months when I first got here. But she said she was closing shop because of her other job and told me I might find employment here. She did say you were really stubborn but not to give up," Kokoro said.
Charlatan started laughing. Of course. Who else would send a twelve-year-old girl into a clinic for mercenary bastards?
For the next six years Kokoro worked at the clinic. The rooms were changed around again so that she would have a place to sleep. Charlatan found his own room getting smaller and smaller. Kokoro took over the paper work and assisted with surgeries and walk-ins. She had become a regular fixture in his clinic and her skill was indeed useful. She was very talented and proved her worth to him in a matter of days. Now, at the age of eighteen, she could do almost everything Charlatan could. Her practical skills were less refined but her healing abilities were astounding for someone her age. Charlatan wondered how far she could go if she went to The College. It was something he had brought up to her before but she adamantly refused.
"But just think of how much more you can improve with the proper training!" Charlatan had shouted.
He had been secretly saving up in order to pay tuition for her to go. This way she wouldn't have to be assigned to the front lines to pay back a scholarship like he had. He had been looking into getting her proper paperwork to prove her identity so that she would have no barriers. In the six years since Kokoro had come, the clinic had been expanded so they could house more beds but his room still remained small.
"I don't need to go all the way to that frozen hell to learn things I can figure out on my own," Kokoro had shot back.
Her face was twisted in fury and the beautiful smile that lit up the clinic was suddenly gone.
"I don't understand what the problem is. The program is only four years and then you can do anything you want! You can go anywhere and work anywhere you want! Even the big hospital would hire you! With what you have now no one will take you," he shot, his anger rising.
Her voice was suddenly soft and Charlatan detected a hint of sorrow. He looked up from the paper he had been reading to see tears in Kokoro's eyes.
"YOU'RE AN IDIOT!" Kokoro shouted and ran from the kitchen.
Charlatan stared incredulously then he heard the door to the clinic slam shut and shuddered.
"Women," he muttered to himself and continued reading.
It was the first argument they had ever had. Sure, they had had disagreements in the past but Kokoro never raised her voice to him like that before.
"It's just because she's finally becoming an adult or something," Charlatan muttered to himself and went back to reading his paper.
Four hours passed and Kokoro still hadn't come back.
Charlatan sat in his room, eating instant noodles from the packet with a pair of broken chopsticks. Kokoro had been making their meals for the last six years and Charlatan didn't know where anything was in his own clinic any more. The sun had long since set and the darkness of the new moon swept over the city of Vanecia.
Charlatan began to feel uneasy. He threw his refuse away and went to the entrance of the clinic. He opened the door and peered out into the darkness. Aside from the few homeless people that wandered around he didn't see anyone. Even the light dusting of snow that had fallen seemed undisturbed. Coming back inside he turned the exterior light on and went back to his room. Never had Kokoro been gone for so long. The background sounds of sirens and gunshots were suddenly brought to the forefront and were all Charlatan could hear.
Where could she have gone? She had no family and as far as Charlatan knew she didn't have a boyfriend or lover. She spent all her time in the clinic, with him.
It was then that Charlatan realized how empty the clinic was. All the rooms were empty and the clinic had been closed since the day before while they were waiting for a shipment of drugs. He went back to his room and sat on his bed. Falling back into his pillow he looked up at the ceiling as he realized just how much a part of his life Kokoro had become.
But where was she? Was she lost? Was she cold? Did she wear her boots? Did she take her phone? Should he call her? He didn't even understand why she was so mad in the first place.
Reaching over to his bedside table he grabbed his cell phone and dialed.
"It's me. Is she there?" he said into the receiver, "Are you keeping her tonight?"
His conversation was a short one but it ended with him feeling more relieved. Kokoro was safe and she would be back in the morning. He was also harshly told to review his actions and to think about how Kokoro was feeling.
He put the phone back on the table and crossed his arms behind his head while he thought. He ran through their conversation again and again in his mind. He thought about his offer and still didn't understand why she was refusing it.
Then the silence of the clinic overwhelmed him.
"Ah. Is this what it would be like if she was gone?" he wondered aloud.
Shutting off his mind he rolled back to his side and got some sleep.
The next morning while he was making coffee he heard the door to the clinic open. He made no movements to rush into the hallway to confirm that it was Kokoro even though he was certain his legs wanted him to. He continued making his coffee content with the knowledge that no one else would be able to get into the clinic aside from her anyway.
Her voice was soft like it had been she had first come to the clinic. Charlatan looked up to see Kokoro and Raelin standing in the kitchen doorway. He nodded to his old friend and she slipped away.
"Sit down. Coffee is almost ready," he said, gesturing to a chair.
Kokoro sat down, her shoulders slouched and her eyes downcast. Wordlessly they waited for the machine to finish the carafe of caffeine. Once completed, Charlatan poured them each a cup; his in the black mug adorned with a white 'C' and hers in the white mug adorned with a black 'K'. They had been the first things they had bought together when Kokoro started living with him.
Charlatan sat across from Kokoro and took a sip of his drink. He cast a glance upwards and saw that Kokoro's eyes were red. Had she been crying?
"Ah fuck," Charlatan exclaimed, slamming his mug onto the table top. Coffee spilled onto the table and Kokoro looked up in surprise.
"I didn't mean that I wanted you to go away and never come back. I just wanted you to have all the options someone your age should be entitled to," Charlatan said gruffly before wiping up the coffee with the sleeve of his button-up shirt.
Kokoro sipped from her mug and reveled in the bitterness of black coffee.
"Well it sure sounded that way," she said quietly.
Charlatan shot a look over the brim of his mug and saw that she smiled.
"You idiot," he said softly and continued drinking.
"Raelin said she will teach me whenever she's in town. She agreed with you that I should continue training but she doesn't think you should send me to The College," Kokoro told him.
"Yeah yeah. If I sent you there you probably wouldn't be able to come back safely," Charlatan said, "I thought about that after you left."
"Is that the only reason?"
Charlatan felt his face flush as he remembered how lonely it would be without her smiling face in the clinic.
"Well, it's also because you do a lot of work here," Charlatan coughed, "the patients would miss you and I would be overrun now that we've expanded and everything."
Kokoro laughed and finished her mug.
"Of course, Doctor," she smiled.
Charlatan downed the rest of his coffee and stood. He pulled his lab coat off the table and put it on.
"Come on now," he stammered a bit, "our drug shipment finally arrives today so we can be back in business."
He strode from the kitchen with Kokoro on his heels.
It had been six years since she had joined his clinic. Her youth and vitality often reminded Charlatan that he was getting old and that he needed to depend on her more and more as he aged. At forty-two he felt like he might die in the next twenty-four hours some days. That beautiful smiling face he saw every morning, that laughing voice that filled the sterile halls. They belonged to him now. He wasn't ready to give her away to any one just yet.