by Steven Gossington
on Tour February 1-29, 2016
When a doctor loses everything and is forced to start over, he finds himself in a strange town filled with addiction and mental illness. Now he must find a way to survive his dark and deadly patients …
Dr. Aaron Rovsing, Family Practice Physician, is charged with incompetence and fired from his medical practice in Connecticut. After he flees and starts over in a town in East Texas, he discovers that things are not as they first appear, and soon Aaron must combat the deranged and addicted minds of the townspeople.
But things take a deadly turn when he finds himself the next chosen victim of a serial killer who plans to add the doctor to his collection of skeletons. In this town of insanity and with a serial killer waiting to strike, how can Aaron manage to stay sane . . . and alive?
Read an excerpt:
Something’s not right, Aaron thought.
He touched the bandage taped to his lower jaw and then eased open the door to the chief of staff’s office.
Aaron Rovsing, MD peeked around the office door into an anteroom, and a wide-eyed secretary shot up from behind a desk.
“I’ll show you right in. They’ve been waiting for you.”
“Do you know what this is about?” Aaron said.
She shook her head. “It’s not for me to say.”
Aaron stepped past her and glanced around the inner meeting room. Three medical staff members sat flanking the chief of staff at the far end of a polished rectangular mahogany table.
“Sit down,” the chief said.
Aaron sat on the edge of a chair.
“I’ll get to the point. We’re all here to inform you of some complaints against you.”
“Complaints?” Aaron squeaked out the words. “About what? Who’s complaining?”
“Some of the medical staff have questioned your clinical decisions recently, and—”
“My clinical . . .” Aaron gulped.
“Complaints about your medical judgment, including a charge of patient endangerment—”
“Endangerment?” Aaron whispered the word again. “Endangerment?”
“And that patient of yours that overdosed and died because of what you prescribed.” The chief leaned forward and pointed at him. “That was the last straw.”
Aaron’s body stiffened.
The chief’s eyes glinted at him. “We recommend that you resign.”
Aaron’s legs wobbled as he struggled upright, his mouth gaping. The chief of staff slid a paper toward him. “Sign this paper, indicating that we had this discussion and that you understand—”
Aaron scribbled his name with shaky fingers.
The chief looked around the room with his hand poised above the table, and the other three men nodded in turn. He slapped the table and growled at Aaron. “This meeting is over.”
Aaron stumbled out of the room, striking his shoulder on the doorjamb.
As he hurried down the hall, Reuben, a doctor friend of his, hailed and approached him.
“Did something happen? You look pale as a ghost,” Reuben said.
Aaron sputtered, his eyes wide. “The chief just asked me to resign.” He turned to the wall as two nurses clattered by, their giggles echoing down the glistening hallway.
Reuben leaned toward Aaron. “Wow. That’s serious.”
“It doesn’t seem real.”
“Are you going to fight it?”
“You mean like appeal it?”
Aaron looked down. “I don’t know.”
Floating before his eyes was an image of the chief, a muscular and athletic man whose eyes gloated over everyone, a man with a commanding presence in any room.
I don’t think I could stand up to the chief, he thought.
“You’re not just giving up, are you?”
“He said I was incompetent.” Aaron looked at Reuben. “Be honest with me. You think I’m a competent doctor, don’t you?”
“No, Aaron, don’t get the wrong idea. I don’t work with you directly. I’m not in a position to answer that question, but I imagine you’re competent enough. Why not stand your ground and challenge it?”
Aaron dropped his head and walked away, avoiding eye contact with anyone else. What will my wife say?
Outside in the late winter chill, he pulled his coat tight around him and walked to his car in the hospital parking lot. Lauren will help me. We can get through this together.
“Damn it. I’ll start a new practice.” He hammered the dashboard with his fist. “How could that asshole do this to me?”
His hands squeezed the steering wheel. I wonder if I should fight back. The overdose was not my fault. That could’ve happened to any doctor.
I’ll ask Lauren.
Even with the car heater blasting, he shivered during his drive home.
Aaron unlocked the door to his house. “Hello, honey?” he said. “I’ve got some bad news.” He heard no noise. “Lauren?”
He switched on lights and scanned the front rooms and kitchen. Sensing no movement, he hurried to the master bedroom. “Lauren?”
Aaron stood by their bed and scratched his cheek. He was alone. Did she have an emergency? She has been acting different lately, like she’s stressed over something.
In the kitchen, he spotted a yellow post-it note on an otherwise bare counter.
His hand trembled as he read the message: “I’ve left you. I’m in love with someone else.”
Uncaring, foul words that blurred into black blobs on the paper.
What is happening?
Aaron’s body buckled. As he slumped to his knees, the bandage slipped off his jaw and fluttered to the floor.
Something is different out there, Aaron thought as he stared out the windshield of his car.
With the air conditioner near the maximum setting, he drove along the two-lane country road at dusk, 1500 miles from his previous life. He’d scoped out this area a few months before, but now that he was moving here, he paid more attention to details.
Looking toward the sky, he saw pine trees swaying over the road. These trees are taller than the ones a few miles back.
After finding a country music station on the car radio, he cranked up the volume.
I’ve got to give country music a chance.
Aaron swayed in time with the melody. It was a song about feeling crazy over a hopeless love. ‘Crazy,’ by Patsy Cline,” the DJ said.
He glanced at his shoes and slapped his knee. “And I need to get some boots, real cowboy boots.”
As his mind wandered to his recent divorce, he shut his eyes and shook his head.
I don’t want to go there.
His eyes opened.
“What the . . .” He jammed the brake pedal and jerked the steering wheel to avoid something—a figure—darting across the road in front of his car. Screeching and sliding in a 180-degree oval, the car came to rest on the shoulder at the opposite side of the road. Aaron gasped for breath and his heart pounded. His knuckles were white on the steering wheel.
Easing his grip, he looked in the direction of the figure.
What the hell was that?
After turning the car off, Aaron stepped out onto unsteady legs and examined the front bumper and the road nearby. No other headlights were in sight. A smell of burnt rubber permeated the muggy air.
Standing still, he scanned the nearby trees and listened. Soft footsteps in the trees?
He walked around and studied the pavement and the grass beside the road.
Well, whatever the hell it was, at least I didn’t hit it. Maybe it was a deer.
After several minutes, his breathing slowed and his jitters eased. He started the car, punched the radio off, and made a U-turn, squinting for any sign of motion.
A hazy image of a frowning, bald man popped into his mind.
Surely that wasn’t him I almost hit: the guy with the machete?
After several miles, Aaron slowed to a stop in his driveway. He gazed at the front of his new home and sighed.
I can’t believe it. I’m finally here.
He unlocked the front door, switched on a light inside and surveyed the empty rooms.
So it starts, he thought. A new chapter.
“Should I even be here?” he said, slapping the wall.
He sighed and walked outside to the street in front of his house. They’re chintzy on the streetlights. Maybe the Texas moon gives off enough light.
“Yikes.” He threw up his arms and ducked as a bird flapped by just over his head. He looked up but didn’t see anything.
His house was at the end of a row of one-story homes, and across the street was fenced-in land that sloped up to a mansion.
I guess someone owns all that property. Maybe it goes with that huge house on the hill.
As Aaron carried in bags and boxes from his car, an owl hooted from a grove of trees nearby.
After emptying his car, he wiped the sweat off his forehead and plopped down on top of a sleeping bag. He closed his eyes.
No, get something to eat first.
He forced himself to walk outside, and he took a deep breath of fresh evening air and looked up at the stars.
Aaron cupped his hands around his mouth. “I’m here now and I’m not going back.”
After pushing his car air conditioner to the max, he consulted a restaurant guide and some map pages scattered over the front seat and planned a route to a nearby diner.
Several miles and a few turns later, he spotted the diner’s sign and saw lights inside the restaurant. Good, it’s open.
He parked and walked inside to an aroma of cinnamon and apples. Mmm, apple pie.
“Let’s put you right over here,” a waitress said as she led him to a booth. “How are you tonight?”
“Hungry,” Aaron said as he gazed at her. Mid to late forties, I’d guess. She was tall and pudgy, with jet-black hair.
Her eyes were wary. “I’m Wanda. Are you traveling through?”
“No, I just moved here.”
She stepped back. “You’re the new doctor?”
“Yes. I’m Aaron Rovsing.”
“I heard you’d checked us out, and we all hoped you’d come. Where’re you from?”
“The Northeast, Connecticut.”
“Welcome to our little piece of paradise. It’s quite a bit hotter here in East Texas, especially now in late summer.”
“I think I’m okay with that.”
“Is anyone else joining you tonight?”
Aaron followed her eyes to his bare left ring finger. “No.”
She cocked her head. “I’ll give you a few minutes to look at the menu.”
Wanda stopped by a table with two occupants and motioned toward Aaron. A woman and child stood from the table and followed Wanda to his booth.
“This is Dr. Rovsing, our new doctor in town,” Wanda said to the woman.
Aaron stood and they shook hands.
She’s got quite a grip.
“Nice to meet you. I’m Marley.” She had short blond hair and stood a few inches shorter than Aaron’s five feet ten.
I might like this town after all, he thought.
The child peeked out from behind Marley and pointed at Aaron. “Mommy, what’s wrong with his face?”
Marley looked down. “Now Cristal, that’s not nice.”
Aaron touched his left lower jaw. “It’s all right. It’s just a battle wound.”
“You were in the military?” Marley said.
“No, a different kind of battle.”
Aaron smiled. “No worries.”
“It’s good to meet you. I hope you like it here,” Marley said.
Aaron waved at Cristal as she and Marley walked away.
He snorted and touched his face again. “Damned scar.”
Aaron polished off a decent meal of coleslaw, a turkey sandwich, and a slice of apple pie with ice cream. Everything, even the tomatoes on the sandwich, tasted fresh.
At one point, he glanced up and caught Wanda staring at him. She turned her head away.
That was an odd look in her eyes.
When he paid the bill, Wanda’s eyes were back to normal. She was all smiles.
Back at his house, all was quiet, except for an occasional hoot from an owl. In less than a minute, he was asleep on a sheet on top of his sleeping bag.
Aaron woke up in a pool of sweat. Bright red numbers on the alarm clock showed 3:00 a.m. In the bathroom, he toweled off and dried his short dripping hair.
He recalled fragments of a dream. A young woman with a headache sat on the floor. “Hydrocodone is what I need.” She wore sunglasses and held her temples, crying, rocking back and forth. She swallowed all the Vicodin at once and collapsed right in front of him. He shook her, but she didn’t respond. Two muscular men dragged him into a courtroom, in front of a judge with white hair and a black gown. Her sunglasses still on, the dead woman was stretched out on the floor at Aaron’s side. While pointing down at her, the judge yelled something at Aaron…
Part of the dream, the fatal Vicodin overdose, had happened in real life over six months ago, but he hadn’t been summoned to court yet.
Aaron sighed and gazed at his blue eyes in the mirror. I don’t remember what her eyes were like.
He dried his sleeping bag with a towel and stretched out over it, and stared at the ceiling until sunrise.
At 8:00 a.m., a moving van rumbled to a stop in front of Aaron’s house. For the rest of the morning, Aaron directed the two men with their payloads of furniture and boxes. They took frequent breaks to drink water and cool off.
His long, dark wood desk just fit through the door of the office room. Next, the men heaved into the office boxes labeled with “college stuff” and “medical school stuff.”
“What’s in these boxes?” one of the men asked.
“Those are old school papers. I can’t seem to part with them.”
“Oh, yeah, I know what that’s like,” the man said with a nod. “I still have boxes from high school. I have a hard time throwing anything away. Drives my wife crazy.”
Near noon, Aaron blotted his forehead with a paper towel and turned to the men. “It’s hard to move around in here now. I didn’t remember that I had so much stuff.”
“We hear that all the time,” one of them said. “Sometimes, there isn’t room for it all.”
During one of their breaks, Aaron overheard part of a conversation from the front yard.
“I sure can smell the livestock around here.”
“These country folks are used to it. They probably don’t smell a thing.”
Aaron walked to his back yard. What are all these cows doing at my house?
A tightly grouped herd of brown cattle lingered near his fence. Some of the cows looked at him. Aaron shrugged. “All the animals around here are checking me out.”
He stopped at the fence. “Hello. I’m your new neighbor.”
One of the cows mooed back at him.
Aaron laughed. “Thanks. I’ll take that as a ‘welcome to our town.’ ” He watched the herd for several minutes. They don’t seem afraid of me.
Resting on the sturdy, flawless fence, he looked beyond the cattle at an undulating green pasture that spread out as far as he could see, to a faint line of trees in the distance. Groups of trees scattered around the pasture provided the cows welcome shade from the midday sun. A cool breeze lifted his hair and ruffled the cows’ fur.
He turned in a circle, scanning the horizon. Even the sky seems bigger in Texas.
In the late afternoon after the moving van had gone, Aaron stood in his front yard and studied the house. Its light coral paint job was holding up.
Good. No missing shingles.
He strolled around the property, admiring the grassy lawn and azalea bushes that surrounded the house, and stepped into the street. Wow. I can see the heat rising from the asphalt.
Including his, four houses stood in the block, separated from each other by groves of pine trees. Sweat ran down the sides of his face. He toweled off and drove to a nearby store to buy supplies. Along the way, he listened to a few country music songs on the radio.
After a savory, spicy barbecue dinner at a restaurant not far away, Aaron busied himself with opening boxes and arranging his closet. On his bedroom wall, he hung a framed painting, which featured a dirt footpath winding through the forest. Shoe prints and footprints were imprinted in the dirt. Among the trees at the far end of the path were hazy figures that appeared to be watching.
Aaron positioned the painting so he could see it from his bed.
Steven Gossington is an emergency room physician with over 30 years of patient care experience. For 11 years, he was an academic professor in emergency medicine at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center in Oklahoma City, and he published 20 book chapters and medical articles of original research. His enjoyment of mystery and suspense fiction and his love of writing led to his first novel Fractured Eden, a psychological suspense story in which he draws upon his extensive experience with mentally ill emergency room patients.