We’re in the midst of winter storm Mateo here in the Midwest, just after winter Storm Liam visited a few days ago. Liam dropped a couple of inches of snow, but Mateo is supposed to drop up to ten inches of snow on us. So, it’s a good day to stay inside and watch the snow from the window.
But many people don’t have that choice. They have to brave the wind, snow, and tall, snow drifts and go into work. They are devoted and loyal to their employers. Maybe sometimes a little too loyal.
The snowstorm had been fierce. All the schools in the area were closed. All the government offices were closed. And slowly, other offices and businesses were letting their employees know that they shouldn’t risk the drive into town. No one would be coming in for business anyway. They should just stay home.
But Franny never got that call. Franny’s boss was out of town, so he relied on her to drive in and open up the little apothecary store that sat on Main Street in their small town. Someone might get sick and need a prescription. This wasn’t like all those other stores, he had reminded her numerous times before, she needed to be there.
So, she cleared the snow off her late model car, got it started and warmed up and then slowly drove the five miles from her house to the store.
The snow was still falling, and the road crew hadn’t been out yet. Franny held on to her steering wheel with tight fists as she slowly drove through one drift after another. The five miles seemed more like five hundred and the thick snow made the landscape look like a foreign wasteland. She peered out the clouded windows for landmarks to make sure she was still on the road.
Finally, she could see the town’s only traffic light, suspended in the center of the intersection of Main and First Street. She pressed the brake, but the car slid forward, into the intersection and across the street. She thanked the Lord there wasn’t another soul on the road because she wouldn’t have been able to avoid them.
The car finally stopped sliding in front of the apothecary store. She drove it to the curb and parked. Her employer didn’t like her parking in front of the store, that spot was reserved for customers. But Franny decided that today, that spot was reserved for her.
She grabbed her brown sack containing her lunch, her purse and the key to the front door. She had to brush the snow away from the lock before she could insert the key, but finally she was inside, away from the storm.
She turned on the lights, but the store still seemed dark. Through the window she could see that it looked like evening and fat snowflakes were still blowing across the picture window. She opened the safe and took out the register tray. Then she started up the register for the day and flipped the sign from closed to open.
When she picked up the phone, to see if there had been any call-in orders, she found, to her dismay that the lines were down. With a sigh of frustration, she climbed up on the tall stool behind the counter and put her head in her hands. This was going to be a very long day.
Suddenly, there was a noise in front of her. She looked up to see a man standing on the other side of the counter.
“I’m so sorry,” she apologized, scrambling off the counter. “I didn’t hear you come in.”
“My daughter’s very sick,” he said. “I need some penicillin.”
“Do you have a prescription?” she asked.
He shook his head. “No,” he explained. “We haven’t been able to get through to the doctor. Her brother had the same problem and penicillin is the only thing that saved him. Please.”
“I’m not supposed to give our medications without a prescription,” she said sadly. “I don’t know…”
“My daughter will die if you don’t do this,” he exclaimed. “You have to do it.”
The look in the man’s eyes frightened Franny. And, she realized that she had the only store open for miles. And she had no phone to call for help. If he decided to harm her, no one would know.
She nodded at him. “Yes, sure, I’ll get the prescription for you,” she said. “Just give me a minute to prepare it.”
“Thank you,” he breathed, relief showing in his eyes. “Thank you so much.”
She hurried to the back area and prepared the drug, then brought it out to the counter. “Here you…” she paused. The man wasn’t there anymore.
She looked around the entire store. He was nowhere to be seen.
Finally, she went over to the front door. She pulled it open and discovered she had neglected to unlock it when she had flipped the open sign. When she did unlock it and look out, she saw that the only set of foot prints in front of the door had been hers.
Her heart pounding in her chest, she closed the door, locked it securely and went back to the counter. A few minutes later, the phone rang, nearly frightening her to death. She reached for it and nearly dropped it on the ground.
“Hello,” she finally stammered into the receiver.
“Franny? Franny, is that you?” her boss’ voice came from the other end of the connection.
“Yes. Yes, it’s me,” she replied.
“What in the world are you doing at the store?” he demanded.
“I thought you would want me to come in,” she said. “In case anyone needed a prescription.”
“Not today,” he replied. “You shouldn’t be alone at that store. Not today of all days.”
“Why not today?” she asked, a chill running up her spine.
“Well, about forty years ago, when I had just become a pharmacist, there was a storm like this one,” he explained. “A man came in asking for medicine for his daughter. She was sick, and he couldn’t get a doctor to come. Her brother had been sick with the same ailment, but the medicine had been too late for him. The man was desperate that his daughter not die too.”
“What happened?” Franny asked.
There was a long pause and then a soft, shuddering sigh. “I turned him down,” her boss replied sadly. “I was so filled with rules and regulations, that I discarded empathy and compassion. I told him that without a prescription I wouldn’t do it and I sent him back out into the storm.”
“Did he find a doctor?” she asked.
“No, he didn’t,” he replied. “And his young daughter died. In his grief, he took his own life. Sometimes, when I’m at the store late at night, I think I see him standing at the counter once again.”
“If you could do it all over again?” Franny asked.
“I’d give him the penicillin in an instant,” he replied. “And perhaps he would finally be free.”
Franny nodded, as goosebumps ran up her arm and looked at the bag of penicillin still sitting on the counter. “I think, perhaps, he finally is free.”