Doris Pickman jumps out the back of her rig and slams the doors shut. She walks with confident but dragging steps toward the bench by the ER's rear entrance, her heavy EMT jacket unzipped and hanging loose.
Abby holds out her pack of Camel Lights before Doris has a chance to ask. Doris quickly palms the offered cigarette. "Christ, Pickman, how can we do the jobs we do and still have this disgusting habit?" "It's worth it. It makes us look cool." Doris bends toward the lighter as Abby flicks it to life. She inhales deeply, collapses onto the bench beside Abby, and exhales smoke through her nose and mouth. "Besides, I only smoke on bad days."
Abby smiles and rolls her eyes. "When's the last time you had a good day?" Doris shrugs. They sit in companionable silence for a few minutes, breathing smoke and listening to muted traffic sounds. "Have you heard the latest?"
"I don't know. What you got?"
"Weaver and Legaspi." Abby really scores with this one. She savors the moment as Doris's head swivels around in record time, her eyes wide. "Legaspi's back?"
"Yep. I saw them together yesterday."
"Oh my God. Do you think..."
"I don't know. What do you think?"
Doris had never caught the brunt of Dr. Weaver's foul moods, but she'd felt strong enough shock waves to want to avoid them at all costs. "I think we should all pray for a happy, happy ending this time. Or better yet, no ending at all." Abby stands and throws her butt into a half frozen puddle where the glowing embers immediately die. "Everything ends, Pickman," she says, but there's a half smile on her face. As she turns away, she pushes her hair back behind her ears, then hugs herself against the cold.
Kim's lips touch the hollow of her throat. Her silky hair falls across her breasts then drifts down across her stomach and tickles the sensitive skin of her thighs. Her breath is cool against the rising heat of Kerry's body, her voice in the dark, both soft and rough, less a sound than another kind of touch. "Kerry, tell me what you want...."
As Kerry opens her eyes and shakes herself out of her daydream, she comes close to spilling coffee down the front of her white lab coat. "Yeah, Frank."
"We have a woman out here asking for her child's medical records, but I can't find them. I suggested she might be at the wrong ER, and she got pretty agitated. I think her deck is short a few cards, if you know what I mean, and now she's asking to see 'the man in charge.' Will you talk to her?" "Sure--I'll be out in a minute."
Frank's head disappears from the doorway of the lounge, and the door swings shut again. Kerry presses the heels of her hands firmly to her forehead, trying hard to refocus. Her last words to Kim as they'd parted ways the night before were, "I'll call you." In the spirit of taking things slowly, she's determined to wait for a few days. No matter how difficult-even impossible, that may seem. Susan walks into the lounge, drops onto the couch beside her and sighs. Kerry is glad for the distraction. "Rough day?" "The usual, I guess." Susan shifts on the couch so she's facing Kerry, and her expression of exhausted defeat changes quickly to animated interest. "So, Kerry, I hear you had a visit from an old friend yesterday." Kerry's tone immediately becomes harder, with an edge of alarm. "What else did you hear?" "Let's just say that the grapevine has been very juicy today. You two used to be close?" "You could say that."
"I hear she's a psychiatrist."
"I don't think I have a strong enough belief in my own sanity to date one of those." "People are using the word 'date?'"
"Should I tell them not to?"
For a contemplative moment, Kerry swirls the dregs of coffee in the bottom of her mug. "To be honest, I don't even really know that myself." "Well, people are also using words like 'stunning,' and 'gorgeous.' I even heard 'breath-taking' once or twice. Sounds pretty good to me." Kerry gives the impression of trying very hard not to smile. "It's been five years...." "She used to work here?"
Frank's head appears in the doorway again. "Dr. Weaver?" "Coming." She turns back to Susan. "Gotta go." Susan nods and watches Kerry walk across the room and out the door, her expression a mixture of fondness, perplexity and awe.
A s Kerry prepares to go home, more than an hour late as usual, she makes a rare decision to leave work at work. Rather than filling her briefcase with charts and journals, she buys a Tribune from a newspaper box on her way to the el stop, and walks along with a briskness unusual for the end of a long day, feeling self-indulgent, happy and light. In good weather she prefers the el to driving. She actually enjoys public transportation, the feeling of shared experience, the odd combination of idleness and motion, the opportunity to sit back calmly and people watch. When she settles into a seat on the train, she glances quickly at the newspaper headlines, all bleak news of politics and the economy, before she flips to the comics and expertly tucks the page in on itself, forming a tight box around the crossword puzzle. Her eyes scan eagerly across the patterned grid before they shift upward to the clues.
1. Written language of ancient Mesopotamia
Kerry is instantly transported back to her third grade classroom, to a gloomy afternoon of rain clouds and thunder when she'd taken oddly shaped stones, pressed them into soft clay, and felt a quick glint of pride, letting herself believe for a moment that she had single-handedly invented the written word. Her teacher that year, she remembers, an intense but soft-spoken woman who gently encouraged Kerry and her strange, quiet ways--her fascination with Georgia O'Keefe and her habit of drawing giant chalk flowers on the sidewalk during recess, had been censured by the school board for wearing open toed sandals at school. She inks the letters darkly into their assigned boxes: CUNEIFORM. She had been hoping for more of a challenge. Puzzles, Kerry thinks, are always either too easy or too hard. She glances out the window now where faces and neighborhoods flash by, and thinks for at least the thousandth time that day of her time with Kim last night, their hands resting together on the table top. She understands clearly that when simple touch is so intense and delicious it's a gift. And she knows that losing that feeling again--having it taken away, would almost be the end of her, if not physically, then emotionally, if not as a living being, then as a person who can love and trust and feel. A child sitting across the aisle drops a ball on the floor and his mother picks it up. The ball is blue with sparkling red stars. The man in the seat in front of her scratches the shiny crown of his bald head and yawns. As the train pulls up to her stop and slows to a halt, Kerry sets her pen on the pulpy gray paper above the puzzle's grid and writes KIM. Then vertically, beneath the K she writes ERRY.
The phone is a sort of animal presence in her house tonight. It hunkers darkly in the shadows. It stalks and lurks.
Sometimes it's a matter of survival, she tells herself, to take things slowly. Sandy had talked about this sometimes, how, when approaching a burning building with people trapped inside, one's instinct is to rush in before the fire can take them, before life is obliterated by smoke or consumed by heat and flame. But it's important, she'd said, to pause and consider factors like building design and materials, wind speed and direction, to neither act in haste nor to hesitate, but to spring at exactly the right moment.
Kerry flips the completed puzzle up onto the table top beside her cleaned plate, its off-white surface speckled like an egg with a few stray grains of brown rice. She notices now that while pondering the puzzle's single challenging clue (a woody, Asian plant used to make fabric and cordage: RAMIE), she had absent-mindedly boxed in the block letters of the linked names suspended on the page above the grid and systematically inked them into oblivion.
She hadn't needed Sandy to tell her that a single error can be fatal. If she has a bad day, when she's feeling "a little off," she knows people might die. Even a single, fumbling, graceless movement can result in death, or, if it's a lucky day, only plunge someone into long, black months of pain and rehab, misery and despair, for which the shadow of doubt in the back of her mind will tell her she is responsible.
A single, graceless movement. Without thinking she touches her left hip, the small, persistent ache there.
Why would Kim possibly want her?
Lighten up, she thinks. God, Weaver, LIGHTEN UP. The phone rings its normal ring, but it seems to Kerry to be loud and abrupt, a kind of auditory violence. When she jumps, the pen spins out of her hand, arcing into the air and landing with a clatter on the kitchen floor 3 yards distant. She does, for a few seconds, appreciate the humor in this, but then she's across the room with the receiver in her hand. "Hello? Oh, Carter. What's up? Yeah, go ahead and call maintenance. Well, then call them. There are 24 hr. plumbers, Carter. Look in the book. I know. Yeah, I know, but it's a necessary repair. I'll sign off on it in the morning. Is Randi giving you a hard time? Tell her if she calls her cousin instead of a real plumber, she's fired. No, I don't want to talk to her, I want you to tell her. John, I want to hear you say it. Ok, then, I'll see you in the morning. No, it's ok. 'Bye John. Yeah, 'bye." She sets the phone back down and takes a deep breath. Playing manager always gives her a jolt of exhilaration, makes her feel needed and strong. But now she's too wound up to sleep, or even to sit still. Maybe a walk around the block before bed and a book, she thinks. Fresh air and language to clear her mind. She's just swung open the closet door to grab her coat when the phone rings again. In case it's Randi intent on convincing her of the refined amateur plumbing skills of her cousin Lou, Kerry stands where she is and lets the phone ring until the machine picks up. "Hi Kerry." Kim's voice is even softer than usual. Tired, Kerry thinks, then another word appears in her mind: tentative. "I know you said you'd call me, but I was thinking about you and... I guess I just wanted to say goodnight." Kerry is moving toward the phone now, listening intently to that voice. "So, I guess that's all. OK... Good night, Kerry." Kerry's hand touches the receiver just as the machine clicks and the line goes dead. She lets her hand rest there for a moment before she pulls it back. She can imagine Kim sitting on the other side of town chastising herself for calling, but takes no satisfaction at her victory in this small battle of wills. She feels only relaxed and sleepy.
Tomorrow, she thinks. Tomorrow, Kim. I'll call you tomorrow.