Once a Good Girl
By: Wendy S. Marcus
With a few adept keystrokes, 5E Head nurse Victoria Forley shot next week’s schedule off to the nursing office and closed down her computer. Today she would leave on time. She straightened her already neat desk then scanned her tiny utilitarian office to make sure everything was in its place. The memory of her son’s tear-filled eyes made her heart ache. “Why am I always the last kid picked up from afterschool program?” Jake had asked last night at dinner. “My teacher gets so mad when you’re late.”
Mad enough to put Victoria on parental probation. Three more late pick-ups and Jake would be kicked out of the program. Then what would she do?
Victoria hated that the promotion she’d fought so hard for, a bullet-point in her ten-year plan to provide her son a future filled with opportunities rather than financial constraints, significantly impacted the wide-awake hours they spent together. Although, to be honest, it wasn’t actually the job that was the problem; it was her obsessive compulsive need to achieve perfection at it. To show everyone at Madrin Memorial Hospital who thought a twenty-five-year-old wasn’t experienced enough to be the hospital’s newest head nurse that she was up to the task.
She grabbed her lab coat from the hanger hooked to the back of her door and slipped it on. A final check of her H-shaped unit and she’d be ready to go. Exiting her office, Victoria inhaled the familiar, disinfectant fresh odor of pine and scanned the white walls and floors to assure they were in pristine condition. She closed the lid on a laundry hamper and rolled two unused IV pumps into the Clean Utility Room.
When she crossed over to the hallway of odd-numbered rooms she saw it, sitting quietly outside room 517. A shedding, allergy-inducing, pee-whenever-the-urge-hits golden retriever with a bright red bandana tied around its neck.
So, the elusive Dr. K, oncology rehabilitation specialist extraordinaire finally deigned to put in an appearance on 5E, two hours late for their scheduled meeting. Well, now he’d have to wait for her to make herself available. And she was in no hurry to listen to him spout the merits of his program and, she was sure, begin lobbying for her support to make his dog’s position permanent.
While she was all for an in-house staff member coordinating a multidisciplinary approach to the rehabilitation of cancer patients and administering daily bedside PT to chemo patients too exhausted or too immunosuppressed to attend therapy down in the department, she didn’t see why Dr. K. needed a four-legged companion to do it. Victoria walked past the animal, who didn’t budge from his position, the slight wag of his tail the only indication he’d noticed her. Ok. So it obviously wasn’t a threat to visitors. Still. She was not a fan of unsanitary animals besmirching her unit. Unless it benefited her patients, which is why she’d agreed to hold off on casting her negative vote until after the four-week trial.
“We’ll swing by tomorrow morning,” a male voice said from inside the room. The rich, deep timbre and his words ‘swing by’ caused a jolt of recognition.
Unease sauntered up her spine. It couldn’t be. She looked into the room anyway, had to catch a glimpse to be sure.
A man stood at the foot of the bed two. The blinds closed and the lights off, she could just make out was his height: Tall. Shoulders: Full. Arms: Big. Longish, dark hair curled haphazardly over the tops of his ears, reaching the collar of his lab coat in the back. As if he felt her eyes on him, he turned to face her. An unruly swag of bangs hung on an angle obscuring part of his forehead. Despite his unkempt appearance he was handsome in a rugged, untamed sort of way.
Great. He’d caught her staring.
“Victoria?” the man asked and started to walk toward her.
That voice. His stride. Please, God. Not him. Victoria felt flash frozen in place. When he emerged from the darkened room into the well-lit hallway, her eyes, the only body part capable of movement, met his. A blue so pale they’d look almost colorless if not for an outer ring of deep ocean blue. Eyes she’d loved and hated in equal measure, familiar eyes in an unfamiliar face, a man’s face with a slightly crooked nose, obviously broken at some point, and strong cheek bones. A scar bisected his right eyebrow another spliced the center of his chin.
But she’d know him anywhere.
Before she could stop it, concern flitted across her mind. What’d happened to him in the nine years he’d been gone? She mentally slapped it back. It didn’t matter, couldn’t have been worse than what she’d been through because of his irresponsible carelessness.
“Victoria?” he asked. “What are you doing here?” He scanned the nametag clipped to the breast pocket of her lab coat. “You’re a nurse?” He hesitated, digested his discovery and with narrowed, taunting eyes asked, “What happened? Couldn’t hack it at Harvard?”
He’d happened. She resisted the urge to lunge for his throat and squeeze until his lifeless body collapsed to the floor. Instead, she stood tall, well as tall as a woman of five-feet-two-inches could, threw back her shoulders and lifted her chin. “I’m a head nurse. 5E is my floor.”
“You’re the 5E bitc…?” He held up both hands. “Sorry.”
He didn’t look sorry.
She knew what some members of the staff called her. She’d been the victim of name-calling since high school. Snob. Suck up. It no longer bothered her. “Just because a woman is motivated to succeed and has high expectations for herself and those around her, people feel it necessary to call her demeaning names.” She waved it off. “There’s nothing I can do about it. But I’ll thank you to keep your profanity to yourself while in my presence.”
He looked her up and down. “Still dressing for success, I see.”
For as long as she could remember, up until the time he’d turned his back on her, her father had impressed, “If you want respect, dress and act like you deserve it.” Which is why, when she’d had little money to spare, she’d scoured consignment shops and tag sales to find quality designer pieces to complement the carefully selected clothing she’d been forced to purchase at a discount store.
Victoria took notice of Kyle’s black pocket T, faded blue jeans, and black leather biker boots. “Still dressing for a monster truck rally, I see.” Except his clothes were covered by a lab coat. Dr. Kyle Karlinsky’s lab coat.
Kyle was Dr. K.? No way! Not possible. Before she’d started tutoring him, her a tenth grade honor student, him an unmotivated junior, his highest aspiration had been to snag a third shift job at the frozen pizza manufacturing plant outside of town, because the night shift received a $2.00 per hour pay differential.
“You’re a few months late for Halloween. What’s with the costume?” Victoria asked, trying to control her breathing. While she’d been stuck in the anti-metropolis of Madrin Falls, getting tormented by people more than happy to witness the demise of her seemingly perfect life and raising their child, he’d left town to pursue her dream, to steal her future.
“Calm down, honey. It’s not as big a deal as you’re making it out to be,” were the last words he’d spoken to her until today. And they’d been incorrect. To a sheltered, motherless teenager raised to believe sex before marriage was a sin, giving up her virginity to the boy she’d fallen in love with, the absolute wrong sort of boy who, just a few hours previously, her father had forbidden her to see, it had been a big deal.
Life as she’d known it changed that night. And two weeks before his high school graduation, Kyle Karlinsky had abandoned her to deal with the consequences on her own.
“Not bad.” He nodded in approval. “Marginally funny. Delivered with just the right amount of sneer. Looks like someone’s developed herself a sense of humor.”
“Is that what this is, some kind of prank?” He’d been famous for them back in high school. She glanced at the credentials sewn onto his lab coat beside his name. DPT. Okay, so he wasn’t a medical doctor. But still. A doctorate in physical therapy? “No way you made it to PhD.” The thought of him staying focused long enough to write a doctoral thesis was ludicrous. “And impersonating a physician is reprehensible.”
“Pulling out the big words, huh? Let’s see. Reprehensible. R-e-p-r-e-h-e-n-s-i-b-l-e.” He spelled it out like he was in a spelling bee. “Reprehensible. Deserving of blame or censure.” His smile widened at Victoria’s surprise. “Maybe I wasn’t as dumb as you thought. Maybe I only pretended so I could….”
Steal her virginity, as so eloquently bellowed by her enraged father.
“I never thought you were dumb, Kyle.” An underachiever? Yes. A slacker? Most definitely. Stupid? Absolutely not. “I tutored you. I knew what you were capable of if only you’d have put forth a little effort. But you wouldn’t.”
“Now that’s not entirely true. With the right incentive I was an excellent student.” He mocked her, his eyes dark.
“I promise to study for my trigonometry test if you kiss me. Slip me some tongue, I’ll get a B.” Okay. So it wasn’t an approved method of teaching. But, at the time, it’d been the only thing that’d worked.
“I seem to remember,” he said, leaning close, invading her personal space. “I did a bit of tutoring myself.”
He sure had, with a hand under her skirt in their private study room, up against the cinderblock wall behind the gym, and in a secluded spot down by the lake. At the memory, an unwanted, excited tingle crept out of hiding deep in her core. She slammed it back, refused to acknowledge it, would not let him get to her. Not again.
“Help,” a woman cried out.
Victoria jerked her head in the direction of the panicked voice. A pale, middle-aged woman with dark hair ran into the hallway. “My father. He’s choking.”
Without hesitation, she ran to help. The morbidly obese patient she recognized as Mr. Schultz sat in an extra wide chair beside his bed. Mentally she cued the information she’d obtained during morning rounds. Age seventy-two. Status post CVA six days ago with residual right-sided hemiplegia, speech deficit, and difficulty swallowing.
“Are you able to breathe at all, Mr. Schultz?”
He slapped at his neck with his left hand and strained to inhale, a high pitched wheezing sound the result.
Quick assessment: Face flushed. Diaphoretic. Eyes pleading. Inefficient air exchange. Victoria pushed his over-the-bed-table out of the way, noticing an open bag of colorful hard sucking candies as she did. His daughter was going to get a stern talking to when this was all over. She inserted her hand behind his back and pushed him forward, giving four rapid blows between his shoulder blades.
“Papa. Don’t die, Papa,” the hysterical woman cried. “You have to save him.”
Victoria moved in front of the patient. “Open your mouth, Mr. Schultz.”
She could not see the obstruction.
“What can I do to help?” Kyle asked.
“I need this bed out of the way.” So she could reach the suction apparatus on the wall behind the patient. “Then please accompany Mr. Schultz’s daughter and his roommate to the lounge.” As stressful as this situation was for her, a trained practitioner, it was worse for a family member/roommate to experience, especially if things didn’t turn out well.
“I’m going to help you, Mr. Schultz,” she said, surprised at how calm her voice sounded, knowing the man was probably past listening or understanding, but needing to say it just in case.
“I don’t want to go. I want to stay with him,” the daughter yelled.
Kyle spoke in soothing yet persuasive tones.
Victoria focused on her task. She reached for the disposable suction container and snapped it into the plastic wall receptacle, thankful her exemplary staff made sure each room was fully stocked with all necessary equipment at all times. Her hands shook. It’d been a while since she’d been in any life or death situations. They were not her favorite part of nursing, too many variables outside of her control.
“Almost done, Mr. Schultz.”
Kyle rushed back into the room. “Should I try the Heimlich?”
“Can you get your arms around him?”
“I think so.” Unable to squeeze behind the patient since she was back there setting up suction, Kyle moved the chair like Mr. Schultz was the size of a child rather than the three-hundred-plus-pounder he was.
“I think his belly is too large for your thrusts to be effective,” Victoria said. “Position your hands over his sternum instead. Pull straight back. Hard and fast.”
Kyle did as instructed with excellent technique but no positive result.
The patient’s skin took on a purplish reddish hue. They were running out of time.
Leaving Kyle to continue his attempts on his own, Victoria returned to the suction equipment, hooking the red vacuum tube to the container. She ripped open two sets of tubing, unraveled both. One she connected between the collection container and the wall gauge. The other she attached to the nozzle labeled “Patient”, then pulled apart the ends of the wrapper on the curved oral suctioning catheter, and, attaching it to the suction cable, she was finally ready to proceed.
“Any luck?” Victoria pulled on a pair of latex gloves and turned back to the patient.
“No. He looks about to pass out.”
Yes he did. If one attempt at suction didn’t work she’d call for the code team. Victoria removed the suction catheter from its packaging, turned on the suction device and cranked the knob to high. When she reached for Mr. Schultz’s chin, preparing to open his mouth, he grabbed her wrist. Hard.
Kyle intervened, prying the patient’s fingers off of her. “She’s trying to help you, sir. Let her do her thing.”
Victoria placed her finger on the patient’s lower jaw to open it. “Open up for me, Mr. Schultz. I’m going to clear your airway.” Please, please, please let this work.
He allowed her to open his mouth.
Pressing down on his tongue with her thumb, Victoria slid the catheter deep until it tapped something hard that did not feel at all like the walls of the mouth or throat. She pressed her finger over the hole in the neck of the hard plastic catheter to concentrate the suction into the tip, pressed against the hard object very carefully, and gave a little tug. Like a cork had been released, Mr. Schultz sucked in a huge, gasping breath. Then another and another. A course but wonderful sound.
Relief made Victoria’s leg week.
Tears streamed from Mr. Schultz’s eyes.
Careful to maintain full suction so the obstructing object did not loosen from the tip and fall back into the patient’s throat, Victoria eased back on the catheter. A bright red ball of candy stuck to the end.
Victoria blew out a breath.
“You did good,” Kyle said.
Mr. Schultz took her hand and held it to his cheek. She patted his shoulder with her other hand. “You’re very welcome.”
Victoria hit the button for the intercom to contact the unit secretary. “Nora, is Ali back on the floor?”
“She’s heading my way right now.”
“Tell her Mr. Schultz just choked on a hard candy. He’s okay. We’re going get him into bed. She needs to call his physician and come take a set of vitals.”
“Would you help me…?” When Victoria turned back to the patient Kyle already had him sitting on the side of the bed. She rushed over to lift his swollen feet and together they pulled him up in bed, although Kyle did most of the work. Then she raised the head of his bed.
“I’m going to talk to your daughter, Mr. Schultz.” She put up all four side rails and put the patient’s call-bell in his left hand. “Push this button,” she demonstrated, “if you need anything before I get back.”
He nodded and gave her a small half-smile using the facial muscles not affected by his stroke.
“Thank you for your help, Kyle.” He followed her to the door.
“Still perfect in everything you do, huh?”
He took her by the arm. She turned to face him. He leaned in until his mouth grazed her ear. “For the record, my thrusts are always effective. And hard and fast suits me just fine.”
Typical. He’d taken her Heimlich instruction and turned it into something sexual. She didn’t respond, would not be provoked. She simply looked down at his hand on her arm. He released her and she walked out of the room.
After discussing the prescribed dietary restrictions with Mr. Schultz’s daughter and supervising the removal of all the remaining hard candies, Victoria left the patient in Ali’s capable hands, surprised to see Kyle waiting for her in the hallway.
His eyes seemed softer somehow, not as antagonistic as they’d been. But she refused to let down her guard until she found out why he’d come back to town.
“Nothing better to do with your time?” she asked.
“He okay?” Kyle tossed his chin in the direction of Mr. Schultz’s room.
“Fine.” For a split second she appreciated his concern. Until a suspicion he was up to something pushed its way in. Why was he being so nice all of a sudden?
Nora called down the hallway, “Victoria, if you don’t leave in the next five minutes, you’ll be late to pick up Jake.”
She cringed at the sound of her son’s name blurted out in Kyle’s presence. The less he knew about Jake the better. She glanced at her watch. “Fudge.”
“Still can’t say what’s really on your mind,” Kyle taunted.
“Lucky for you,” Victoria replied then yelled to Nora, “Thanks.”
“I’ll walk you out,” Kyle offered, falling into step beside her, his dog beside him.
“Don’t bother.” She hurried up the hallway. “I’ve been walking since I was a child and am perfectly capable of doing it on my own.” Apparently that didn’t matter. She ducked into her office, grabbed her purse, briefcase, already packed with work she needed to do at home, and coat. Kyle stood propped up against the wall beside her door. She ignored him and headed for the stairs.
“I think I’m allergic to your dog.” She pushed out what she hoped were a few convincing coughs. “Would you mind keeping your distance?” Why was he back now, after all these years, when she’d finally regained control of her life? Dread balled in her gut.
She yanked open the heavy metal door, his hand landed a few feet above hers and suddenly the door weighed nothing.
“Since we’re going to be working together I think there’re a few things we need to work through,” he said.
Victoria hurried down the first flight of metal stairs, each pounding step echoing in the empty stairwell. She did not want to work through anything with him, could not get away from him quick enough.
He jogged a few steps behind her.
“To start with,” he proceeded despite her silence. “Why did you tell that crooked sheriff I raped you?”
Raped her? She stumbled, glanced over her shoulder. “Are you insane? I never….” The words died in her throat as she missed a step. Maybe two. Her right foot hit hard. Her ankle twisted at an awkward angle, her knee buckled. She grabbed for the railing, missed, screamed out as her forward momentum sent her diving toward the fourth floor landing.