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A Rhea Lynch, M.D. Novel (Book 1)
Author: Gwen Hunter
2012 Reissue Edition
5.5"x 8.5" Trade Paperback
Retail: $15.95US; 300pp
ISBN 978-1-933523-41-5 ebook
Also available as
Audible Audio Edition
I always wanted to
be a hero. Another part of me, almost as strong, almost as needy, wanted
to be kept safe and protected by a hero of my own. The two sides of me
were in constant contradiction, an internal discord I thought I had resolved
by attending medical school. I had thought that being a doctor would provide
a way out of my miserable, ugly-duckling youth. I thought that I could
save the world and make a good living, finding friends, a husband and
children along the way. That I would blossom in the rarefied atmosphere,
a Florence-Nightingale-like MD in mink and diamonds, copies of How to
Win Friends and Influence People and Dr. Spock under my arm. That was
youth dreaming, egotistical and idealistic. Some parts of it worked out
well enough though I wear scrubs instead of mink and diamonds, and having
the MD hasn't meant kids and love ever after.
My first year as a med. student squashed my ideas
of my own superiority, and residency took care of the rest. I lost Johnmy
fiancémost of my compassion, and am still in hock up to my
armpits for medical school. But I have friends. It was a talent I always
had, the making of friends. Real friends, not the casual, speak-to-you-if-I-get-time,
forget-you-if-you-move-away or get-transferred-to-another-department,
kind of friends, but lasting friends. The life-long kind.
And because of my best friend, because of Marisa,
I accomplished the first dream of my youth, only to discover that being
a hero wasn't all it was cracked up to be. It could in fact, make my second
dream impossible to attain.
I had never been a
coward, but it took all the courage I ever had to walk in to Marisa's
room. She was just sitting there, slightly slumped, her face and form
in silhouette, framed by the window and rising sun. Unmoving. A mannequin
I reached for all the instincts created by four
years of medical school and three years of residency. All the cool dispassionate
calm and impersonal stoicism pounded into me by impossible hours of study
and other people's heartache and pain. That professional calm had deserted
me. Everything I had learned, everything I thought I knew, vanished like
low-lying fog in the face of dawn.
Marisa didn't rise to greet me. Didn't lift her
head. Didn't move at all except for the slow rise and fall of her shoulders.
The usual scent of Chanel Number Nine she had worn for years had been
replaced with the faint scent of sicknessfeces and the ammoniac
smell of urine in diapers. I clutched the door frame, a weakness in my
knees that had nothing to do with the lack of sleep or the long night
in the ER.
She didn't move. I crossed the room to the rocker
where she sat beside the bed, bundled into an afghan in the too-warm room.
Knelt before her, eye to eye. She blinked. Tears gathered at the corners
of my eyes, making her waver with motion not her own.
Her face was bruised, the left orbit purplish
and green, the lid puffy with fluid. Her hair, only two weeks past so
gloriously thick and blond and always perfectly secured with pins in some
elegant version of a French twist, was lank, hanging parted in the middle.
Her breath stank from teeth left un-brushed.
"Oh, Jesus, Marisa."
It was true. All that the ER crew had said when
I walked in from my two weeks in the Appalachians, still covered with
the sweat of our last, cold hike up some well traveled tourist path, still
carrying the anger of John's last words, our last goodbye. It was all
true. Marisa had had a cerebral vascular accident. A stroke, just thirteen
days past. And her prognosis didn't look good.
Steven Braswell, Marisa's husband and my immediate
supervisor in the Emergency Room, had taken her home from the hospital,
making it clear that Marisa was to receive no visitors. She needed rest,
interspersed with bouts of intensive therapy, not socializing. But even
after all I had heard last night, all the horror stories of the morning
Marisa had been found and brought in by ambulance, I hadn't expected this
. . . this . . .
I tried to position my eyes so hers would fall
on mine, so she would recognize me, come back to me, show me that she
was going to recover. Marisa only blinked. When I did the same, my tears
fell, and God knows I hadn't cried in years.
Angrily, I knocked back the tears with my wrist.
Doctors learned early not to put fingertips to eyes. Contagion. Viruses
left beneath the nails. My hands shook. My breath was too fast, coming
up from my lungs in quick little gasps that sounded somehow like sobs.
I lifted my hand to touch her, shake her, slap her awake from her stupor,
as in some old movie.
Marisa blinked again. And that was when I saw
the small drop.
My hand paused in midair. Fingers curled. I focused
on the drop leaking beneath Marisa's nose. Odd little drop of . . .
Slowly I reached forward, touched the single drop
of bloody fluid below Marisa's left nostril. It was cold. Startled, I
jerked back my hand and started to rise.
I stopped, the motion arrested, the drop of fluid caught on my finger,
trembling in the sunlight that struggled up over the horizon and in through
the window. I took a deep breath. It, too, trembled as I stared at the
fluid. Slowly, the drop rolled down my finger tip, into the shadow of
Standing, my knees groaning like a grandmother's,
I carried the fluid to the window and the pallid Friday morning sun. Outside
the house, scudding clouds took on a golden hue. A bird sang off somewhere,
a warbling throaty tune. Leaning into the dawn, my back to Marisa, I touched
thumb to the drop, dabbing it gently, swirling the fluid.
"My God," I whispered.
It wasn't mucous. Or even serous fluid, the clear,
yellowish fluid often secreted from a wound.
It was something else entirely.
I turned my back to the morning and looked at
Marisa, struggling against the tears that clogged my throat and thinking
processes. Drawing upon the medical detachment that allowed a doctor to
see a patient as no more than a series of symptoms pointing to a diagnosis,
I looked at her again, breathed deeply, and forced calm into my system
as I observed her. Studied her not as a friend, but as a patient.
I brought the drying drop to my nose and sniffed.
It was scentless.
Marisa was pale and nonresponsive, staring sleep-walker-style
at the corner of the room. There was nothing to stare at. The corner was
I recrossed the room and knelt again at her side,
touched her skin. It was cool and dry. As I measured her respiration,
I took her pulse through the thin fabric of her nightgown. Twelve and
shallow. Eighty and steady.
The January sunlight was strengthening by the
moment, brightening the cheery yellow room, highlighting the bruises that
marred her flesh. In medical school, while my complexion grew sallow and
dull from the long hours and stress, Marisa's had remained vibrant, lovely.
The traditional peaches and cream of a plantation owner's daughter. No
Bruises stained the skin beneath and above the
left eye, a hematoma circling the orbit. A small circular wound was healing
just beneath the brow bone where the flesh was puffy and swollen, edematous.
When she blinked, that lid moved a fraction of a second after the right
one and opened sluggishly.
There was a healing scar above her left eye, the
pale white and pink puckered irregularities of recently removed stitches
in sharp contrast to her skin.
Even with the presence of the strange fluid, nothing
I was seeing was, by itself, abnormal for a stroke patient who might have
fallen and hit her head. But taken together. . .
The small wound above Marisa's left eye was oddly
circulartoo regular, too symmetricalone centimeter in diameter,
as though she had landed on an upturned unsharpened pencil and the rough
end had penetrated the skin creating an abrasion. She had a subconjunctival
hemorrhage in the inner corner of the eye, the white of the eye stained
a bright crimson. And the pupil was blown, dilated to its full width.
Marisa was blind in that eye.
I lifted her wrists, which resisted slightly,
the pressure equal in both sides. When I dropped them, they fell slowly,
settling into Marisa's lap. Marisa had some motor function left. . . .
"It just don't seem right, Dr. Missy Rhea."
I whirled, my heart slamming painfully in my ribs.
It was Miss Essie. Only Miss Essie. My co-conspirator and Marisa's long-ago
Nanny, standing in the doorway wearing a housedress and slippers.
"She always so smart and all and beautiful
as that Princess Diana was. And now she sit and stare. Just don't seem
"It isn't right, Miss Essie. I need my bag."
"No reason, Dr. Missy Rhea. Dr. Steven done
all he could to bring her back. I seed it with my own eyes." Miss
Essie shook her head slowly and shuffled into the room. Nearly eighty,
Miss Essie did everything slowly. But she had been with Marisa's family
for over seventy years, and was as much family as Marisa's blood. She
had kin in Charleston, a daughter here in town and other family up north
somewhere, but neither Marisa nor Miss Essie would have thought of parting.
"That man done holler and weep and all going
on. Fell out hisself when he brung her home. I seed him, fell out in the
floor. I bring a dab of ammonia like Missy Marisa done showed me how to
do. Wake him up after a while it did. And him cry like a baby." Miss
Essie shook her head. Which matched my judgment about the situation perfectly.
I didn't believe it, either. Steven Braswell never displayed emotion in
public and seldom in private. And certainly not in front of the servants.
He was an iceberg.
"Miss Essie, I need my bag. I'm going to
the car and come right back in. Okay?"
Miss Essie eyed me, her mouth in a tight line,
arms crossed over her chest as she considered. "You got to be gone
before that nurse come. Dr. Steven say no visitor, not even family, exceptin'
the nurse, and the muscle man."
"Steven hired a physical therapist?"
Miss Essie nodded. "That the one."
"I promise I'll be gone before they get here."
"Well you hurry then, Dr. Missy Rhea. I too
old to be standing in line for unemployment. And too old to be hunting
me a job."
"You get fired and I'll hire you myself.
It'll be the best move I ever made."
"That the truth, that pigsty you live in."
"I love you Miss Essie." I kissed her
on the cheek, turned and ran for the back door and the brand-new BMW Z3
I had left in my drive, a quick run through the woods.
Three minutes later I was back, breathing deeply
from the exercise. Miss Essie was sitting in her favorite overstuffed
chair by the gas logs in the keeping room, knitting piled on her lap.
Pointedly she looked up at the clock as I passed.
Flipping on all the lights in the bright yellow
room, I dispelled the last of the gloom left by the night and checked
my watch. If I pushed it I could do a thorough exam in ten minutes. A
quick one in five flat.
The room was silent around me as I worked, black
bag at my side, instruments clicking, whooshing and pumping, tapping rubber
on flesh. Normal. Everything was normal. Slipping the stethoscope from
around my neck, I inserted the ear pieces and unrolled the blood pressure
cuff, rolled up the sleeve of Marisa's nightgown. And stopped.
The bruise was fading, bluish green around her
wrist bones, pale pink over the artery which pumped steadily beneath the
surface. It was about five inches long and circled Marisa's wrist. And
it had the unmistakable shape of a large hand.
©2012 Gwen Hunter