I: The Man with a Bird in His Mouth

The young man walked slowly down a Warner Park trail. A brown bird flew into his mouth. He, of course, choked. He grabbed the tail feathers and tried to pull it out, but the bird’s talons had cut deeply into his tongue.

The Medi-Quik Walk-In Clinic was having a slow day, and the waiting room was empty except for an elderly woman in one of the chairs. In walked a tall man with a bird stuck in his mouth.

“Holy…,” said the nurse practitioner Angela. She had been looking at a file on the computer behind the counter.

The doctor on call, a retired man keeping up his practice two days a week, heard the commotion in the lobby and hurried out to see what was going on. He was short and fat with faded brown hair.

“This way,” he said, putting the man ahead of a couple of patients in the examining rooms. Flu.

Flew, he thought, but didn’t tell anyone.

The man was bleeding from the mouth, choking, and no doubt was in vast amounts of pain. How he had driven to the strip mall with the walk-in clinic was a miracle. It helped that the bird didn’t move. Maybe it was dead, although an occasional movement of the tail questioned that. The doctor, Primus Steinbeck, didn’t know much about animals. Is a bird an animal? he thought. Later. He didn’t know where to start.

One of the flu patients in the examining rooms was asked by the nurse practitioner to return to the lobby. She didn’t want to; she had been throwing up in the wastebasket. When she saw the man with the bird stuck in his mouth, though, her hand literally went to her mouth.

“Oh my God,” she said. “Of course.” She left.

Who wouldn’t? Dr. Steinbeck thought. Having dealt with patients for 30 years before his retirement, he knew a few wouldn’t leave. Some might even take pictures with their phones.

“Sir, we need to fill out some forms,” the clerk Rachelle said from the front counter. She looked kind of rednecky, with dirty blonde hair and bad teeth. “Do you have your insurance card?”

“Later,” Dr. Steinbeck said, irritated. “This is an emergency. The man can’t talk .”

The nurse practitioner motioned for the man to sit on the examining table. He did. His eyes looked filled with pain.

“Get me the strongest sedative we have,” Dr. Steinbeck said. Angela did, a needleful. The doctor injected the bird.

“Now the painkiller.”

She did, a needleful. This he injected in the man’s lip.

The bird flapped around a bit. Crap. It was still alive.

“I hate to do this, but I’ve got to kill the bird,” the doctor said.  Then he felt weird. Why did he have to apologize?

“Of course,” Angela said. She was cutesy. Blondie. Skinny. Sometimes her high-pitched voice irritated the doctor. It did now. There was a bird in the man’s mouth, for goodness sake.

He took his scalpel and stabbed the bird. It flapped like crazy. The sedative hadn’t had time to take over. The doctor had made a mistake. Nowhere in his medical school training, his internship, or his 30 years had he seen something on how to remove a bird from a man’s mouth.

He was winging it. The doctor felt ashamed of that thought.

The man screamed, or as much of a scream as he could with a mouth full of brown bird. The bird flapped. It moved inside the mouth. The claws probably were sinking deeper. The man fainted.

“Good. Now we can do something. I should have made him unconscious first. Let’s not panic .”

“I want to take some pictures,” the second nurse practitioner, Daphne, said, holding her cell phone.

“Good. Nobody’s going to believe this. Maybe I can write an article for a journal. A bird-i-otomy .”

Stop the jokes, idiot, the doctor thought.

The man was laid out on the examining table by the staff. The bird still flapped around, though that was fading. Dr. Steinbeck injected it with poison. In ten minutes, it was dead.

The rest was difficult, too. The talons were sliced deep into the man’s tongue. Bit by bit, he cut pieces of the bird until he could see the legs. Those he cut in two.

“Gross,” Daphne chirped. Stop it, the doctor told himself.

The bird body was out and in a bag. Now just two bony legs and the talons remained. More pictures. These parts he removed as he would in any surgery. The tongue was bleeding profusely. The man was going to have to put up with bandages on his tongue. That would be tough.

Everybody stayed until midnight. The other patients left, mad probably, but he couldn’t help it. If they complained to the company, hell, he was retired. He could always find a job elsewhere, another clinic.

“I called my boyfriend and told him I couldn’t make it to dinner tonight,” Angela said. She sounded sad. “He didn’t believe me about the bird. I don’t think he’s my boyfriend anymore.”

“Maybe he wasn’t such a good boyfriend if he leaves because of the bird. You’ll find another boyfriend. The streets are full of them.”

She cried and ran off.

The man stirred awake. The doctor was alone with him now.

“Don’t try to talk. You’ll be in considerable pain. It’s against policy, but I think you should stay in the clinic tonight. I’ll let the doctor coming in tomorrow know what happened. He’s asleep now, so I will call him in the morning. Just relax. I’ve put you on a painkiller, and your head will feel in the clouds. Believe me, that’s better than all the pain in the real world. I’ll sleep in the other examining room. If you need something, push that button. I’ll come. Try to sleep. You will need it.”

In the other room, door open, the doctor started laughing. He couldn’t help himself. A man with a stupid bird stuck in his mouth. This was a highlight of his career. Widowed, he had no wife to tell, but he would tell everybody else, his friends, the company, the nearby big hospital. He would be a celebrity. Dr. Steinbeck hoped the nurse took good pictures. He wished he had taken a shower. This could go viral, be on the national news, make the medical journals even without his writing the article. Slowly, he drifted off into sleep.

Keep your mouth shut next time, he thought. That is what he would tell the man the next day. Just keep your mouth shut.

2: The Man Covered in Mountain Lions

Dr. Bharat Patel entered the Medi-Quik Walk-In Clinic for his rotation, but it wasn’t the usual near-empty waiting room or the one clerk behind the counter copying insurance cards. Instead, police officers with raised pistols clogged the back hall.

“What’s going on?” he asked the obvious.

A voice shouted from behind and below the counter, the clerk Rachelle.

“A patient is in Room 2. He is covered with mountain lions. I closed the door.”

Before the doctor could open his mouth, he heard sirens. In a few seconds, the windows in front flashed even more blue, maybe five or six police cars. A few seconds after that, police began pouring through the front door, guns out.

“Get out of the way,” one said, threatening him.

So Dr. Patel did. He took two steps into the center of the room. Shaved bullet head, tall, skinny.

Gunshots sounded from Room 2, muffled by the wall.

A snarl and a new round of gunfire.

A new man entered the clinic dressed in khaki.

“I’m from the zoo. We got a crazy call, but I thought I had better investigate. What the hell is going on?”

The policeman near the door said, “We have an emergency. Mountain lions.”

“Mountain lions?”

“Mountain lions. Apparently, a man was hiking around Radnor Lake and got off the regular path. He was attacked by mountain lions. The clerk said he was covered with five when he came in the clinic. We will need the zoo’s help.”

“Sure. Anything.  I’ll call my associates. This is crazy. Don’t shoot the animals.”

More shots from Room 2. The nurse practitioner, Daphne, screamed from the back of the clinic. More shots.

An officer, maybe the leader, emerged.

“Who are you?” he asked Dr. Patel.

“I am the resident physician. I was about to start my rotation. No idea what is going on.”

“We had to kill five mountain lions, including one who just injured the nurse. The man who brought them is also dead. We had to shoot the lions attached to him.”


“Attached. They sank their teeth and claws into him front and back. One covered his head. I don’t have any idea how he drove here. There’s a big truck in the parking lot with the door open.”

A head popped up behind the counter. Rachelle, the clerk. She was shaking. Dr. Steinbeck kneeled beside her. He was about to go off duty.

“Rachelle, Dr. Steinbeck, are you all right?” Patel asked.

“No. No, I’m not all right,” the retiree physician said. “I was examining an ingrown toenail when that man came running in covered with lions. And I’m not lying.”

“Calm down. We have a lot of cleaning up to do.”

“Dr., will you examine the deceased?”


And there he was on the floor of the examining room. Blood covered the floor. Even the examination table was knocked over. Four mountain lions lay beside the man, also bleeding, also dead. He could tell just by looking. The man was in his fifties, Patel guessed. Thin, wearing beige cargo shorts and a black T-shirt. His face was so torn up it was hard to say anything else.

“Nothing I can do here.” He felt the vein in his neck. “He’s passed.”

“And in the back,” the woman.

He had forgotten about the nurse practitioner, Daphne. He rushed to her.

She was lying against the back wall. A mountain lion lay dead beside her. She was bleeding.

Her side had been bitten into badly.

“Daphne, let’s go into Room 3. You need stitches and maybe an infusion. I’ll start you on recovery, but you need to go to the hospital.”

“Help me,” she said. She was crying. Her man-cut black hair was shiny with sweat. Square jaws. Chunky. “And get this animal out of here.”

“Officers, I have to attend to her.”

“Okay. We’ve got lots to do.”

They took the mountain lion by the legs and dragged it into the hall.

He closed the door. The insanity outside was muffled into a dull roar. Stitching up the nurse was something he was used to. She was in immense pain, so a painkilling shot solved that. The rest of the world had gone insane. In time, there might be an explanation, but he doubted it. People walked in, like the name “Walk-In Clinic” implied, and walked out. The company would clean up the clinic in a couple of days, then the flow of diseased, old, dying, coughing, puking, scratching humanity would resume. Dr. Patel was sorry he was a doctor just then.

3: The Woman Who Thought She Was a Snake

Rachelle sat behind the counter at the Medi-Quik Walk-In Clinic, checking on a Medicare reimbursement, when the front door opened. She didn’t see anybody entering from the strip-mall parking lot, so she stood up. A woman slithered on the tile floor, an S making her way to the counter. She didn’t use her hands or her legs, which were tucked next to her body. She just slithered.

“May I help you?” Rachelle said, not sure what to do.

The woman hissed loudly. She wore a track suit, dark gray, and had long black hair.

“Doctor! Help!” Rachelle said into the intercom.

Dr. Patel emerged from the back hall curiously. He was young. The clinic company, with branches throughout America, had hired him right out of medical school.

“What’s…?” he started. The woman slithered over to him and bit him on the ankle.

“Ouch.” He used that word. “Call the police.”

And once again, the third time in a week, a police car pulled up in front of the windows. The officers looked familiar because they had been there before.

“What is the problem this time?” the older one asked.

Dr. Patel pointed to the floor. The woman turned around with a few wiggles and headed for his feet.

“What…?” the policeman said. It was becoming a familiar response. The woman bit him on the ankle.

“Mental case,” Dr. Patel said. “She should go to the mental ward. I will call in advance. They probably won’t believe me.”

“Come on, lady. Let’s go.”

The two police officers grabbed her by the arms and pulled her upright. She hissed.

“What’s your name?”

Hiss. Her tongue flickered out of her mouth. She tried to bite the younger man.

“Mental,” Patel repeated. “She has to be sedated. I didn’t see a car, but there might be one in the parking lot.”

“We will investigate.”

. They hauled her to the door. Angela, the nurse practitioner on duty, rushed to open it for them. Soon, the snake-woman was out of the clinic.

“I might have to quit,” was Angela’s first response. The blonde stood by the counter looking doubtful.

“Never a dull day at the walk-in clinic,” Rachelle said.

“Apparently. But why here and why animals? I haven’t heard of any other clinic having these incidents,” Dr. Patel said.

“Just lucky, I guess,” said Angela, turning back to a patient in Room 5. She had been taking his blood pressure when she heard the commotion at the front.

“What next? A herd of elephants?”

“Don’t rule it out,” said the doctor. “Let’s tell the corporation.”

“Don’t,” Rachelle warned. “They might shut us down.”

“Think they’ll hear anyway. Give me a poison ivy patient any day.”

4: The Man Who Thought He Was a Germ

The door to the Medi-Quik Walk-In Clinic opened, the bell attached to it tinkled, and a man entered. Rachelle, the clerk behind the counter, saw that he was normal looking: youngish, brown hair cut short, wearing a blue dress shirt and khaki pants. Normal. Around there, that had become important.

The man approached the counter.

“Hi,” he said. “I am a bacillus.”


“You know, a bacillus. A germ. A microbe. I cause disease.”

She laughed but he didn’t.

“Can I help you?” she asked, not sure how to take him. He seemed serious.

“I have a rupture in my one cell. This happened this morning when I was shaving. I have to find new material to repair my cell.”

“Let me call the doctor.”

Dr. Steinbeck emerged from the back hallway with a half-curious, half-annoyed look. He held a needle in his hand, having just given a man an antibiotic injection in his foot.

“Can I help you?” he asked. Behind the man, the clerk was giving him a “oh God, here we go again” look.

“I hurt my cell wall,” the man said, smiling. “I can’t produce enzymes anymore.”

15 minutes later, a police car pulled up to the curb outside. Rachelle saw it through the windows. Two officers emerged without hurry. She recognized them. They had been there before.

“Hi,” the older officer said. “Bradley,” his name plate announced.

“Hello, is there a problem?” the man said. He had been told to wait in one of the chairs. Two women waited in the other chairs, average patients.

“We received a call that you were causing a disturbance.”

“Me? Of course not. I cause disease. All these people in the clinic will start coughing soon. You, too. I am a bacterium. But I need help. I thought maybe a doctor could cure a tear in my cell wall.”

The man went peacefully with the police, who were going to take him to the mental ward of the hospital.

“These officers will get you help,” Dr. Steinbeck said.

“Thank you. Thank everybody. I hope you enjoy your colds.” The man seemed happy to leave with the police.

“Call the corporation. The curse continues,” the doctor said. “What’s next, an amoeba?”

“At least this one didn’t have claws and teeth,” the nurse practitioner Daphne said from the hall. “I couldn’t take another one of those.” She had just come back to work after several days off.

5: The Whale in the Waiting Room

“Just heard from the company,” Dr. Patel told his nurse practitioner Angela. “They say the weird patients we’ve had this week are normal. I don’t believe it. I think they’re trying to hush it up.”

“Me neither,” Rachelle the clerk said. “If this is normal, I’d hate to see abnormal.”

They stood in the waiting room. Rush hour. He counted eight coughing, hacking, depressed patients in the chairs. The ding-dong of the door bell sounded. A huge man, maybe six foot ten and enormously fat, waddled in. His mouth was gasping.

“I need to be in water,” he said. “I am a humpback whale.”

“Here we go again,” Rachelle said.

“Let’s go to Room 2,” Dr. Patel said, giving her a cynical look. By now, the unusual had become the usual.

Once in the examining room, the man sat on the table. He was clearly in trouble. His breaths were deep. Once he had taken off his shirt, Dr. Patel saw the problem.

On his back were rows of parasite fish. They were black and hung from where their mouths had attached to his flesh. Along each side were what for all the world looked like gills.

“Explain,” was all the doctor said. Angela shook her head.

“I am a humpback whale. What else do you need to know? I am out of water. I can’t breathe in your air. I need water.”

“Nurse, call the police. They need to get this man in a swimming pool. Quick.”

This time, he didn’t recognize the two officers who arrived, blue lights flashing. They took him away. The hospital undoubtedly had tanks of water. The mental department was ready yet again.

“I can’t explain the gills,” the doctor there told Patel by cell phone. “Everything else, even the parasites, can be explained by the man’s bathtub. Police examined that, and its filthy. But the gills…this is one for the journals.”

“Did he say how he became a whale?”

“Just his size. Everybody called him a whale in high school, so he decided to become a whale. He lived in Hawaii for a few years. The humpbacks used to jump in the air and plop down in the Pacific. He saw them from his living room window, he said. He joined them with diving equipment, even though it was against the law. The transfer, the gills, however, he hasn’t got an explanation.”

“Somehow he became accepted by the whale pods? Is that it? Seems unlikely.”

“What doesn’t these days?”

“Especially at the Medi-Quik Walk-In Clinic. Thanks. Keep me informed. That’s all we can do. I’ve given up trying to understand.”

“Yep. Seems like the world has gotten out of control. All we can do is all we can do.”

6: Stampede

“I hope everything is back to normal,” Dr. Steinbeck said.

“It has to be,” said the nurse practitioner Daphne. She had dyed her short black hair metallic green. The doctor had just changed her bandages from the lion.

They heard a distant rumble. It grew louder.

Dr. Steinbeck walked to the front windows. People were looking to the right. A single longhorn cattle ran by. It was followed by others.

“Get to the back,” the doctor shouted. The nurse practitioner and the clerk Rachelle looked at him in horror. They ran. Steinbeck turned to the five patients in the chairs, three elderly.

“Get out of the lobby quick. Go to the back room.”

They did, but one elderly woman had trouble. She used a walker and she had trouble standing from her chair. The doctor stopped to help her up.

Cattle crashed through the front windows. By now, the parking lot had become a river of brown animals. The stampede reminded Dr. Steinbeck of the Western cattle drive movies he used to love as a boy in Ohio. The woman took a long time to struggle up.

The lobby filled with sharp horns and big brown bodies. They ran over the doctor and the woman, who soon were trampled to mush. Seeing the door to the hallway closed, a bull jumped over the counter. Soon, others jumped, too. They trashed the office and the three examining rooms with open doors. In one, a woman and her six-year-old child, there for the child’s school vaccinations, were soon bloody messes. Examining Room 4 had the door closed, and for a while, it was spared. Then a bull started banging it with its head and hooves. Other cattle followed. They had heard screaming from inside.

The cattle flood simply disappeared when it passed the parking lot of the strip mall. The buildings were left alone except for the Medi-Quik Walk-In Clinic.

Sgt. Bradley surveyed the destruction.

“Something just hates that clinic,” he said. “No other explanation.”

“But what?” said his partner, Officer Malone.

“A witch. The Devil. Who knows? How are we going to take that to the courthouse? We can only do so much.”

Sirens filled the air: police, ambulances, animal control.

“I’ve got a lot of thinking to do because of this,” said Malone.

“We all do,” said the sergeant. “Except it won’t do no good. Guess the clinic will just have to shut down.”

“The hole to Hell. That clinic has to go. Maybe we should call an exorcist.”

“Or a voodoo priest. We aren’t talking science here.”

“How many dead? The doctor, the nurse, the clerk, patients. By a cattle stampede in the middle of a modern city.”

“Yeah, well, I’m just going to fill out the forms. Let the bigshots worry about it.”

“Biggest shot of all is God. Let’s just fill out the forms.”