I hold the two bandage rolls in front of me. “B-blue or red?” The red is actually more pink and I know what the little boy will chose before he does but I want him to feel like something is in his control and also hope it will make him stop crying.
It works and the boy sniffles, presses a sleeve to his running nose and points to the blue roll.
“Good c-c-color.” I grin at the mother hovering over us, her eyes still wide and scared, hoping to alleviate her worries. Before I have cleaned the wound some it looked worse than it actually was and a quick scan has shown that the bone was not impacted. It will also need no stitches. But although this is not a real emergency, we never turn anyone away from the Children’s ER.
“So… you are a s-soccer player, huh?” I ask as I slowly unscrew a small medicine bottle.
The boy nods.
“Midfield,” the boy mumbles behind his sleeve.
I carefully turn the bottle upside-down, pressing a clean cotton wad against the opening. “And who is your most favorite s-soccer player?”
The boy removes his sleeve, looks at me with big wet eyes and actually starts smiling. “Iniesta.”
“Oh… g-good choice.”
“Uhm…” I know my fair share of soccer by now since it is the most important conversation topic with my male clients. “Zidane.”
“But he’s not playing anymore!” The boy exclaims, slightly outraged as if I have cheated him.
“I-I know… but he w-was good.” I smile down at the boy’s knee. The wound is perfectly clean now and disinfected without him so much as noticing the sharp sting while he was immersed in our conversation.
“Do you play soccer?”
I am momentarily thrown by the question and I can hear the mother shifting uncomfortably behind me, probably about to call her child off. “No…” I quickly say, matter-of-factly. “But I like watching from time to time.”
I look up at the nurse standing in the background and hand her the blue roll, propelling myself back to give her space. My manual dexterity does not qualify me to apply bandages but it is also not necessary. Talking is the thing I mostly do, nowadays, and probably no one is more surprised about that than I am. I talk to patients and their guardians, calming and reassuring, to the nurses, giving instructions and sharing observations, sometimes lowly muttered under my breath to not worry the parents, sometimes quick words yelled across the room before a bed is hurried away to a scan or an emergency operation. In those situation no one cares how I sound and as long as I get out the words that need to be said neither do I. Until this day I never got stuck completely when a small life was at stake, I seem to reserve this for ordering food at the restaurant.
Children apparently do to not mind my stutter and the adults are mostly too panicked and scared in the moments after they arrive with their sick offspring that they do not question my expertise as a doctor as long as I am wearing a white coat and a name tag. Which does not mean that I do not get the occasional stare, later. Especially when I am in my chair parents seem to do a double-take, trying to figure out if I am a patient who disguises himself as a doctor or a doctor who is taking a rest in a wheelchair that was conveniently nearby. Only I am not. I am a doctor in training and I invested part of my first months’ income in a new wheelchair, one that actually fits me and that is not a literal pain in the ass but a real improvement of my situation. I am pretty sure I would not survive the hasty walks up and down long hospital corridors all day otherwise, from the waiting room to the examination room, from the ER patient’s room to the MRI or other scanning rooms on other floors and back again, for ten or twelve or fourteen hours a day. The wheelchair allows me to do my job quicker, longer and in much less pain, plus, it leaves my hands free, free to shake parent’s hands, to lift blood-stained clothes or carefully bend small joints in a first examination still in the waiting room to determine the urgency of a case.
“When can I play soccer again?” The small boy asks eagerly, inspecting his wrapped up knee.
“I w-would wait until next week. But when you feel good by then, you c-can give it a try. Keep it slow at the beginning.” I look at the mother at that.
The boy grins happily, jumps down from the inspection table, making all the adults wince and storms out of the room.
“Sorry,” the mother says, clutching her bag and getting ready to leave, too. She is quite attractive I notice, long blond hair, long neck and a beautiful face now that she is smiling. “You know how they are, children… He’s a little impulsive and does not always know what… I mean-“
“Don’t w-worry,” I say. I draw my prescription pad from the chest pocket of my coat and write something on it on my knees. “This is a prescription for pain k-killers. Very low dose. If he is in pain tonight, and he might well be with his knee still s-swelling, give him one of these. They can be dis-dissolved in water, so he does not need to s-swallow a pill.” I try not to think about the number of pills I took already when I was a boy his age. “In the meantime, try c-cooling it, if he lets you.”
The woman smiles at me and takes the piece of paper from my outstretched hand. “Thank you, Doctor… Parker.”
“You’re welcome,” I say and I wheel ahead of her to the door, swinging it open for her, spinning the wheelchair around in the process to face her again. “Children can be a h-handful, I guess.”
The woman sighs and gives me that relieved look that I often get when I say that. “Whom are you telling this? Since my ex and I got divorced my son has grown into a whirlwind. Sometimes I simply don’t know how to handle him anymore.” She blushes after the confession and grips her bag tighter, her lips pressed onto each other.
I fish in the other chest pocket and offer her one of my business cards with my office room and emergency mobile number. “If you n-need someone to talk to or to direct you to someone professional, please don’t h-hesitate calling me, Ms. Martin.”
She takes the card with a smile. “Call me Violet.”
She steps through the door, calling after her son who has already charged down the corridor. “I’m sorry, I need to go after him, I’m afraid,” she says, blushing again.
I block the door with a wheel and offer her a handshake. “Good luck, Violet.”
“Thank you again, Doctor Parker. You’ve been a great help.”
“I’m h-happy I could be of service.”
I listen from behind the closed door to her telling her son to behave at least until they have left the hospital, smiling to myself.
My life has turned out well in the last months. I graduated with better grades than I had hoped for, I got the position here at the hospital that I had dreamed of and it turned out that I am good at what I am doing. I like being a doctor, I love my little patients and I might be fooling myself but I think that they like me, too. Earning my own money has improved my life a hundred fold, it certainly did wonders on my credit status. I did not only buy the new wheelchair but also a more reliable car with hand controls that are better suited to me and rented a new apartment, with a continually working elevator and actual accessibility, with real grab bars, wide door frames and lowered cabinets. I have great co-workers and although I do not go out often anymore since working takes up most of my time, I have had the one or other promising date. Nothing has worked out in the long run so far but I am definitely hopeful.
I took Rachel's painting with me to my new apartment. It stood for some time in the hallway, facing the wall, before I had the heart to let it be mounted on the wall in my bedroom. I often stare at it, thinking of her.
From my father I know that Rachel got sentenced with failure to provide assistance and some minor accusations like trespassing. The sentence is only a few weeks and most of it is on probation. The video tape that she had taken from the assault by hacking into the guard's computer using my laptop while he was on patrol had relieved her from the accusation of attempted murder and a medical assessment of her mental illness had rid her of most of the responsibility for what had happened. However, I also know that she was sentenced to several months in a secure psychiatric unit after prison, with a possible extension depending on her development.
My father and I are on speaking terms again, something we have not been for years, more precisely since I confessed I wanted to become a doctor and he told me how ridiculous he thought that was. We have been working on having a proper father-son relationship since I asked him for help with Rachel. I still remember the scene, after I had been at Victoria's, too late to do anything else than call an ambulance that I knew would do nothing else than officially determine her death, after I had called Karl and heard what Rachel was accused of and then had driven the four hours to my parent's house, in the morning of this long night, feeling more dead than alive myself. I had stood in the middle of my parents' living room, trying desperately not to collapse but at the same time refusing my mother's repeated pleads to sit down because I did not think I could ask my father for help in any other way than facing him directly.
After I had told them everything, my father had remained silent, his face unreadable like always. He has the perfect face for a lawyer, I do not think I have ever seen any emotion coming from him. Then he had nodded and said: “Of course, son”. My mother had burst into tears.
My father showed up at my graduation ceremony, hugged me carefully not to disturb my precarious balance and told me how proud he was. We speak once a week over the phone. I am still mostly shit at phone conversations and sometimes I suspect that this is the reason why we are doing it, because we both know how much it takes of us, me speaking on the phone, him listening to me stammering forever on the simplest words. We are punishing ourselves for our failure at sustaining a real connection but it is all we can achieve in the moment.
I turn the wheelchair to the nurse who is standing behind me. “Yes?”
“There are no new patients in the moment...” she looks at me apologetically.
“Oh...” I have been deep in thoughts for quite some time I guess, staring at the closed door of the examination room. “Um... you c-can take a break, then, Sarah. I... um... yes...”
She looks at me worried but then she smiles shyly and leaves. I sigh, keep sitting for a few moments before I wheel to the computer and start typing in the few information about the latest patient when there is a knock on the door.
“It's okay, Sarah, I already t-took c-care of document-”
I slowly turn the wheels, propelling the wheelchair around to face the door.
She has cut her hair and it is back to blond, fluttering around her head like bird feathers. She wears a tank top, denim shorts and heavy boots. No make-up.
“R... Rachel?” I swallow against the tightness in my chest.
She does not move. “Can I come in?”
I shrug. “S-sure.”
She steps in the examination room, closes the door and drops the huge backpack on the floor next to it. For a few surreal seconds I imagine she ran away from the secure ward and is hoping to get shelter in the hospital, with me.
“What I am doing here?” she asks, hopping onto the new clean paper sheet on the examination table, her boots swinging under it. “Saying goodbye. Today was my last day in the nuthouse.”
I wince but she laughs. “Hey, it wasn't that bad, altogether. Crazy nice people in there.”
I groan and roll my eyes. Nothing has changed with her.
And everything has.
“Yeah, you should have visited me.”
I stare at her.
“I'm just kidding. They don't allow that, of course. Which you know, I guess, because you tried visiting.”
“I...” Shit. I wrap my hands around the push rims, trying to figure out her state of mind.
“Listen, Noel, don’t worry. I won’t stay long. I know you do not want to be seen with a crazy person like me, and a nearly-convicted murderer at that.”
“T-that's not true.” I manage to say, finally. “O-okay, at first... W-w-when I thought you had wanted to murder that guy...”
Her eyes widen before she turns them down.
I wheel closer, stopping directly in front of her, touching her knees with my fingertips. “I shouldn’t h-have... I-I’m so sorry for w-what that swine did to you, Rachel.”
“I-I am.” I repeat, trudging through the stammer. “And I u-understand w-why you had to do w-what you did.”
“You left me,” Rachel whispers, not looking up.
I inhale slowly. I could explain to her how difficult it was, not being a family member or in any way connected professionally, to meet her during the trial or afterward. But I know what she really means.
“I d-don't know why I... I... Ra-Rachel, I was confused, s-so confused. One d-day you were gone and then b-back again and I let you in and it was w-wonderful and then...” I stare at her, willing her to understand why I had drawn away, why I had needed to get space between us, to prevent getting burned in her flames.
Rachel says nothing.
“P-please... It was... I realized I d-d-don't know y-you at all and thought that I h-had been so stupid.”
I still know how it had felt believing she had murdered him. The problem was not the thought she might have ended another life. The problem was that I actually believed she could. If only for a second.
“Stupid for letting a murderer into your apartment?” She says, her voice dead.
“S-stupid for letting her into my heart,” I say, pulling my hands away as my fingers start to spasm.
There are a few moments of silence.
“I-I'm so sorry for what happened to you. I really am.”
I am sorry for what happened to us.
Rachel exhales slowly and lifts her head. “Karl said you asked about me.”
“A-all the time.” I smile, folding my trembling fingers in my lap. Karl and my father had been the only source of information about Rachel, during the trial, during her sentence and during her stay in the psychiatric hospital. Karl had tried getting me cleared for visits but internally I had been glad when he never managed. Apart from not knowing if I would survive meeting Rachel emotionally, I had seen the look in her face at the funeral. The pain, the accusation, the pity… as she had steadied me in the snow.
“R-Rachel... I'm s-s-so sorry I c-came too late.”
Rachel sighs. “I know,” she says, and she reaches down and firmly takes my quivering hands in hers, her thumb tracing circles on my knuckles. “I’m sorry, I know. It was not your fault.”
I exhale a shuddering breath, suddenly realizing that what had really and most of all kept me from visiting her, from going back to her even in my thoughts and forming the idea of starting to get to know her again, was guilt. A festering, sickening doubt that if I had driven faster, if I had been able to talk to Rachel on the phone, if I had done anything, everything, differently, Victoria would still be alive. I know that this is an illusion, that nothing I could have done would have changed anything, but although I kept telling that to myself I could never shake off the thought.
“I-It was not y-yours either,” I whisper, closing my fingers around hers, squeezing lightly.
“So they say, yes,” Rachel exhales slowly. “She died in her sleep. Just like that.”
I nod, swallowing against the sudden constriction in my throat, looking at my hands in her slender ones. “I d-don't know w-why I ever thought you c-c-could k-kill someone.”
Sitting in front of her, her hands steadying mine, the last traces of doubt that had plagued me are gone and I can see clearly... Rachel would never hurt anyone. Not willingly.
Rachel chuckles and lets go of my hands to play around with a few leather bands on her left wrist. “It's okay. You were not the only one and I guess I cannot blame anyone who thought the crazy bitch had finally lost it completely.”
I wince again.
“So yeah... thanks for helping me out, nonetheless. Your father is a scary lawyer.”
At that I chuckle. “T-tell me s-something new.”
“Is he like that at home, too?”
“P-pretty much, yeah.”
“Oh god, no wonder you turned out that way.”
I glare at her. “W-what's that s-supposed to mean?”
She only laughs.
“So...” I nod towards the backpack. “W-where are you going?”
“Places,” she says, scoots to the side and hops off the table. She retrieves a battered photo from the top compartment of the backpack and offers it to me.
I hold it in my hands and study it. “What is that?”
“More importantly: where? Victoria got it a few years ago. Turn it around.”
I turn the photo, my hands trembling still. The other side is blank, except for a post stamp and a single letter: R. “Re-Reagan?”
“Maybe,” Rachel says. She takes the photo from me again, turning it around. “The post stamp is from France, the mountains probably the Pyrenees. Do you see this?” She points at a spot in the distance of the photo. “Could be a building.”
I take a closer look. “A c-castle?”
“Something like that. Karl thinks it's a monastery.”
“Oh... So y-you are going there?”
Rachel nods. “I sold the house and I am going to search Reagan.”
This is when it hits me. “F-for… for how long?”
“As long as it takes.”
I grab the hand rims, trying to keep myself from veering off because the room is spinning. It takes me several minutes until I find the courage to ask. “W-will you c-come back?”
She looks at me strangely and goes to store the photo again, carefully handling the frail piece of memory. I catch her hand as she returns, pull her towards me before she can step away. Roughly.
“Noel...” She sits down in my lap, light as a bird, and her cool hands encircle my face, her fingertips pressing lightly into my temples. She kisses me, tenderly, her soft lips taste of smoke and cinnamon.
“Please...” I beg, holding her around the hips as she strips off her clothes, her top falling to the floor in a small black heap. Her breasts are still those perfect wonders, her skin smells of rain.
She presses my hands to her breasts, holding my shivering fingers in place, my callused skin on her soft, pristine white one, and kisses me again, deeper this time, her tongue slipping between my teeth.
The knot in my chest grows, a deep ache filling me until I can barely breathe.
“Rachel...” Before I know it I am crying, the tears falling from my eyes unstoppable and I sob embarrassingly loud, my head falling forward on her chest, and I cannot seem to stop anymore, my body heaving with the anguish flowing from it. I have tried shutting my feelings away, I have tried leaving her behind, living with the fact that nothing will ever be the same. Now, I realize what a mistake I have made, and that I will never be able to repair it and I cannot hold back anymore.
“I-I'm sorry, Rachel, I'm so sorry.”
She hugs me, her arms tight around me until I have gained some control at last and pushes back, unbuttons her pants and steps out of them and her slip, standing naked in front of me.
“Please...” I am shivering uncontrollable at this point, all my muscles do not seem to belong to me anymore. “D-Don’t go. Please…”
“Come,” she says, her voice calm.
She takes a step forward, bends down and strips the white coat off me. I wear a plain white T-shirt underneath and it comes off as well. She kisses along my chest, her hot breath tickling on my skin. I suck in my breath and try to stifle the tears that want to well up again, my face hot.
“Come,” she says again, leading my arms over her shoulder and heaving me up, efficiently as a nurse, and I take the few staggering steps to the examination table leaning on her, all fear of falling gone although I barely feel my feet, I am numb all over, a puppet without will or if so, then only one, a single wish. Stay.
Rachel guides me to lie down and lifts my legs up before she slowly removes my white shoes, white pants and the braces underneath. I wince as she rolls the long socks down and her fingertips follow the lines of scars along my legs, but then I force myself to breathe through my nose. Rachel knows. I can see her countless scars from where I am lying, my head supported by the height-adjustable head portion of the table. She knows and she does not mind. The thought is so overwhelming I have to fight against tears again.
She climbs over me, frees my straining cock and throws my shorts on the floor to my other clothes. She smiles as her fingers gently close around me. “You are beautiful, Noel.” Before I can answer, my chest expanding on yet unknown words, she has scooted down and taken me in her mouth, and I moan surprised and because the moist, the heat, her lips sealed tight around me and her tongue flicking against the head nearly makes me lose my mind.
She does not stop, her head starting to bob up and down in a tormenting slow rhythm, and I fight against the overwhelming urge to grab her head or to buck up into the beautiful heat because I do not trust myself to be gentle anymore, my muscles stiff and uncontrollable and my movements jerky. My legs start to spasm, the left ankle crossing over my right, and I gasp from the pain until she gently places a hand on my knee, somehow making it better, never stopping the delicious torture she inflicts upon my cock.
For a second I think that anyone could come in on us at any moment, the door is not locked and I am not even the only doctor using this room. But I decide I do not care at all when Rachel picks up her speed and I yelp, my hands forming fists at my side, convulsing into the white paper sheet covering the table and my orgasm in plain sight already.
The moment only lasts for short because when I think I cannot withhold any longer she pulls off, grinning at me madly and then kisses her way up to me.
I suck air into my lungs, trembling with desire. “Ra- Ra- Ra-...”
“What?” she asks, and I cannot believe she mocks my inability to say her name and I cannot believe I am so happy about that. I will my fists to unclench and place my hands on her sides, the right shivering over the rose tattoo the meaning of which I never dared to ask but always suspected, and slowly, carefully slide them up, following the gentle curve of her hip, in and out, admiring her perfect body, towards her breasts, trembling thumbs caressing the hardening nipples, her heartbeat fluttering under my fingertips.
“C-come c-c-closer,” I beg, the back of my head bumping against the headrest with every repeated consonant and she does, her breath ragged like mine.
She gasps as my tongue meets the first nipple, slowly slides around the hard nub, flickering over it, until I gently bite into it, only a little, and she moans, high-pitched and surprised. I change sides and slide a hand between her legs at the same time, feel the moist, the warmth as my fingers tremble over it with the tremor inside them, and enter her with two, carefully stroking her insides, causing her closed eyes to fly open.
I grin at her, increasing the speed as much as I dare, trying not to overwork my muscles and provoke more severe spasms. It seems to be enough because she squirms on top of me, tiny moans falling from her lips, her hips gyrating down onto my fingers, meeting them, following my rhythm.
“Noel, shit, Noel!”
“Promise,” I insist, cupping one of her breast with the other hand, clenching my teeth in an attempt to stay gentle. “Promise you'll c-come back, Rachel.”
Rachel hisses, then grabs both of my hands, pins them down next to my shoulders and pierces me with dark eyes. “Noel...”
“P-please... I'm sorry.”
She shakes her head, mute.
“I’m sorry, Noel” She releases me.
I press my trembling hands over my closed eyes, seeking to compose myself. I try turning towards her but my legs are still locked. “L-let me c-come with you, then.”
She smiles, her fingers trailing over my arm and I shudder from the small contact alone, the muscles in my trunk and thigh taking it as cue to go into another round of spasms, causing my rigid legs to lift off the table for a few seconds.
“W-what?” I gasp through clenched teeth, trembling.
“Okay. If you really want to. Come with me.”
Despite the pain I nearly laugh at that. This is so ridiculous, she cannot actually want to take someone like me on a freaking hiking trip through the Pyrenees. She is out of her mind. Well... more than usually.
“I mean it.”
I shake my head. “I c-can't.”
“I think you can.”
“No... w-what I mean is... I... My place is here, Rachel. I am needed here.” And it is the truth. I want to stay here, work with the children, more than anything. “I can... come visit you.”
“Yeah...” She lies down next to me, molding her hot body against my stiff and hurting one, the warmth of her loosening my muscles, the pain seeping out of it with every beat of her heart against mine.
“You know I cannot promise you to come back. But I'll try. Okay, Noel? I'll try.”
Slowly, I nod. In a way I have always known that my time with Rachel would be limited. From the first seconds on, when I had seen her dancing, her naked feet moving over the dirty floor in a strange trance-like pattern, I had known that she would step out of my life as suddenly and abruptly as she had stepped in. However, I had never thought it would hurt so much and I had never imagined she could have such an impact on me, leave traces that are deeper trenches than the scars on my skin.
I take her arm and sling it around me, imagine for a second she might never leave, we might stay like this, wrapped around each other forever, until my muscles have gone lose and normal and my body free of pain, and for a moment I feel universal happiness.
“I visited him.”
I relax my arms around her as she gasps, only noticing then that I have pressed her against me.
“I told him that I am sorry.”
“Did he… did he s-say anything?”
Rachel makes a strange sound. “Noel, he probably won’t say anything ever again.”
I knew that but somehow I had hoped it would be different, and dreaded it at the same time. Picturing that monster in a power wheelchair so different from mine, hooked up to machines and his eyes void, as far away from hurting anyone ever again as possible has been the only comfort to me in the darkest hours. I shiver now, thinking back to it and wonder how Rachel feels about it.
“I’m sorry, Ra-Rachel… for e-everything.”
“I know. I am too.”
She says nothing for a while and when I think she fell asleep, then “Noel?”
“Can you do me a favor?”
And this is what we do.
As she orgasms on top of me, her eyes locked with mine, screaming (later I spread the story of a mother losing it when I have to tell her that the stomachache of her fourteen year old daughter is caused by pregnancy) I try to store the moment away in a place of my mind that I can visit later, and hope I will never forget.
We clothe each other gently, taking our time, she watches as I struggle with grasping the tiny zipper on her pants but does not make a move to help me and I am grateful for that, then we kiss and I inhale the scent of her hair with my eyes squeezed shut, trying to memorize it, the feeling of her lips on mine, her warm body in my lap, to remember it forever, until she wriggles out of my arms and straightens.
She heaves the backpack onto her small frame and turns around one last time to me sitting in the wheelchair, motionless, before she vanishes, the door falling shut behind her as it does behind all the other patients. Only she has never been just a patient, she has been special from the very beginning.
“Bye, Rachel,” I whisper to myself, staring at the white door, willing it to open again, her telling me she decided otherwise. But it does not happen.
It will never happen.
Years later I still sometimes sit in front of that same closed door and think about her. I never got to know what happened to her, although I stayed in touch with Karl and Helen, but they know as much as I do. I do not know if Rachel found Reagan. I do not even know if she ever set foot in Spain. I like to think she lives, happily, somewhere, surrounded by people who love her like I did.
The years have taught me to be grateful for the moments I shared with Rachel. It was only a brief time that I have known her, but it left me with an endless stream of memories. They still come up sometimes, unexpected, the pain dulled over the months and years but still to be felt, the joy bittersweet. Someone rolling a cigarette like she did, fingers moving determined, nimble, submerged in a task like only she could. A remark as sudden, honest and direct, and so precious, as they used to come from her. Her laughter and her sadness, a dam breaking and sweeping everything away. Her eyes on mine, the trust in my ability to reach out and pull her out of the foaming waters, when I did not believe I could stay afloat myself.
I never met anyone quite like her, but I had not expected to. Somehow I knew that meeting someone like Rachel is a chance only given once in a lifetime, and it will either leave you shattered on the shores, or rising so much stronger. In the minutes after she had left I very much felt like breaking, the hollowness and pain she had left behind unbearable, the wound open and fresh and tearing me apart. I did not think of what was still left of her, in me and everyone she had met, of what I had learned of her and with her, about me. I only thought of what I had lost.
A few hours later, when I fished for a pen in one of my coat's pockets my fingers brushed against something smooth and cool and when I pulled out my hand a small stone was sitting in my palm, black, with a white streak across it.
“That's a nice stone,” the slim girl with the violent rash over half of her face said, stepping closer boldly until she knocked into my knees.
“Yes...” I mumbled.
“Can I have it?”
“Nope, I'm s-sorry.” I ruffled up her hair, smiling. “It's mine,” I said, and I placed it back into the pocket, close to my heart.