A Minor Opposition
by Janet Lane Walters
New Concepts Publishing
The ceiling fan stirred the hot, humid air. Alien aromas, sweat, spices and perfumes, assaulted her. Laurel Richmond leaned against the examining table and wiped her forehead with a cotton bandanna. A babble of voices floated through the partially open door of the triage room. She looked for Chandra and remembered the tiny Indian nurse had left for the day.
Laurel’s eyes blurred. A sneeze exploded. Her throat ached and a dull pain settled above her eyes. She looked down at her wrinkled khakis, glad she wasn’t wearing whites the way she would have in a hospital in the States.
The chatter from the waiting room became the voices of Babel, dislocating her in time and space. For an instant, she wondered where she lived this week and what year headed the calendar. A dozen scenes from as many countries flashed in her thoughts. For the past four years, she had worked for International Health Rescue Missions as part of a team that followed disasters and dispensed medical care and trained native health personnel.
She opened her eyes. The moment of disorientation passed. India. The coastal plains where a cyclone had ripped through towns and villages leaving death and disease behind. She gripped the edge of the table.
Some days, she felt like a taper lit at both ends, melting beneath an alien sun to ooze into foreign soil. A wish to go home fluttered in her thoughts. Except, she’d never had a home.
After pulling her spinning emotions under control, she walked to the door of the triage room and motioned to the next group of patients.
A dark-skinned woman with pleading brown eyes spoke in a high-pitched voice, joining syllables with staccato rapidity. Three wide-eyed children clung to her sari. As if offering a gift, the woman held out a baby. Laurel took the child.
The infant’s swollen belly and thin limbs spoke of malnutrition. Fevered flesh heated Laurel’s hands. The weak mewling cries brought tears to her eyes. She bathed the baby in tepid water and then plunged a needle into the thin muscle of his buttock. With shaking hands, she handed the mother a bottle of sugar water. Then Laurel examined the three little girls.
Her knees felt weak. She leaned against the examining table and forced herself to focus on the task at hand.
The sing-song spate of chatter stopped. Laurel looked up. Neil Bourne stood in the doorway. Though the day had almost ended, his khakis looked neat. His dark hair, lightly sprinkled with gray, and the tiny lines of experience at the corners of his eyes revealed the ten years’ difference in their ages.
He smiled. In the past, his smiles had brought comfort and allowed her to speak of her dreams like a child talking to a trusted uncle. Today, his smile made her feel edgy.
“Dear girl, it’s nearly eight. Time to close shop for the day. You work too long, too hard.
“No more than you.” She studied his face. Something in his expression told her he had news. Was the team moving to the scene of some new disaster? She wanted to protest another dislocation.
“Let me help you finish?”
Unwilling to let her tiredness show, she nodded, stepped to the door and gestured to the next patient.
For an hour, she and Neil assessed the rest of the patients in the waiting room. When the last patient had been seen, she closed the door and slumped on a chair.
“Time to go.”
Neil’s deep voice lured her to her feet. She washed her hands and splashed water on her face. As they crossed the road to the house where the members of the team lived, only his hand at her elbow kept her from staggering.
“Dinner?” he asked.
“Let me change.”
He shook his head. “If I let you go, you’ll collapse on the bed and miss another meal.”
She followed him into the house. “It’s too hot.”
“It’s a far cry from London in May,” he said. “Here, there’s the hot wet season and the hot dry season.”
“It’s not like home either.” Where was home? A chill made her tremble. Her vision blurred and she sank on a dining room chair. Flies droned. The ceiling fan stirred the air.
A servant entered and bowed. Soon dishes of curried chicken, rice, vegetables and fruit arrived along with a pot of steaming tea. The mingled aromas made her swallow.
She poured a cup of tea and sighed. “What I’d give for a glass of iced tea.”
“Barbarian.” He reached across the table and covered her hand with his.
She shook her head. “Just weary.” Tired of living like a gypsy, though she’d never known another kind of life. Nannies, city apartments, country houses, boarding schools, summer camps.
“In two weeks, we’re for London and a week there while we re-equip.” He squeezed her fingers. “You feel warm.”
“The heat. I wonder if I’ll ever feel cool again.” She sipped the tea and toyed with the food on her plate.
Neal ate as though his next meal would arrive at some unspecified future date. He finished eating and walked around the table. “Let’s take tomorrow as an escape day.”
“Can we?” As his fingers lightly stroked the tight muscles of her shoulders and strayed to brush her neck, she tensed. “The patients?”
“Will be here long after we’re gone.” His fingers caressed her throat. “I know a place in the mountains with a pool fed by streams and breezes sweetened by the scent of flowers. “I’d like to take you there.”
“That’s not a day’s outing.”
“I know, but it would be a splendid place for a honeymoon.” His stroking fingers stilled. “Marry me.”
Shock waves rode her nerves. What could she say that wouldn’t hurt him? From deep inside came the knowledge she no longer wanted this roving life and that was all Neil could offer. She wanted the home she’d never known and for him to remain a friend, a mentor, not a lover and the keeper of her heart.
He pulled her to her feet and turned her to face him. “We’re a smashing team.” His deep voice spun webs of enticement. “Consider the miracles we’ve performed and how many more are possible if we marry.” His mouth covered hers.
He’s not the one. The inner warning stiffened her body and aborted her response to his kiss. “I can’t.”
She couldn’t decipher the look in his pale blue eyes. She wanted to explain, but anything she said would keep the situation rolling like a mud slide down a canyon wall. Months ago, she had told him about the secret love she held in her heart. He had dismissed the memories as a fantasy.
He cupped her chin. “You’re alone. So am I. The world is full of people crying for what we can give them.”
The look in his eyes belonged to a zealot. She would never come first with him. The sick would always claim his energy. “I...”
His fingers touched her lips. “Don’t decide in haste. Think of how much you can give to so many in the future. Then give me your answer.”
She backed away. Beneath the panic that gathered in her thoughts, she wondered why he had waited until tonight to ask her to marry him. Was it because yesterday, her birthday, she had told him about the money that would be hers next year? Why hadn’t he asked her last month, last year, or at some time during the two years she had been part of his team. Not once in that time had she sensed his caring went beyond friendship.
She walked to the bedroom she shared with another nurse. Without undressing, she lay on the hard mattress.
The long night of tossing and turning, of sleep interrupted by strange, frightening dreams, ended at dawn. She sat up. Her head and throat ached. She looked at her roommate.
“Tell Neil...tell Neil...I can’t...I have to...” She lay back and closed her eyes.
As soon as the house emptied, she packed, wrote a note to Neil declining his proposal and hitched a ride to Calcutta with the man who brought supplies to the clinic. Though she knew running away was wrong, she couldn’t think of any other action to keep Neil from stirring guilt over her leaving IHRM. At the airport, she booked the first flight west.
From Calcutta to Athens to Rome. When she boarded the plane for London, her memories of the number of airports had blurred. Aspirin washed down with tea or coffee had kept her body bathed with acrid perspiration. In Athens, she had begun to sniffle. A cough had developed in Rome. By the time she reached London and the flat she had rented four years before, she wanted to sleep for a week. Five minutes after entering, she collapsed on the bed.
Sixteen sleep-drugged hours later, she showered to wash away the stench of travel and of fever, Her decision had been made. Tired of constant relocation and living out of suitcases, she yearned for a place where she could build a stable life.
A frantic day of packing began. The dolls she had collected. Her clothes. Two boxes of books. She stopped long enough to have dinner with her landlady. After leaving shipping instructions, she wrote a check to cover the rent for the rest of the lease. Then she booked a flight to the States and called Megan Carter.
The next morning, she headed for the offices of IHRM. Within thirty minutes of her arrival, she had typed a letter of resignation and carried it to the director’s office.
The gray-haired woman looked up. “Laurel, you’re not due in for a week.”
A bout of coughing left Laurel weak. “Resigning. A family emergency.”
“You sound beastly. Let me ring up a doctor.” The director reached for the phone.
“Can’t. Have a flight. Have to go home.”
The woman shook her head. “You’re ill. How can you handle an emergency when you’re the one who needs care?”
“I’ll see a doctor as soon as I reach the States.”
The director walked Laurel to the door. “I’ll hold your resignation. When this emergency ends, come back.”
“I can’t.” In the distance, a clock chimed twelve times and brought a fear she wouldn’t reach Heathrow in time for her flight. She hoisted the duffel and waved down a cab. When the plane rose from the end of the runway, she fell into a fevered dream as scrambled as her thoughts.
The annoying ring of the phone interrupted a strange, yet beautiful dream. Alex Carter groped for the receiver and mumbled a greeting. Instead of the husky drawl of his answering service, the sound of his sister’s voice confused him. She spewed a stream of sentences with the force of a flash flood. “Megan, slow down. Do you know what time it is?“
“Six AM and I have to work and Laurel arrives this morning and I was supposed to meet her, but I can’t so do me a favor and go to the airport. Her plane arrives at ten.”
Alex pushed into a sitting position. “It’s Wednesday.”
The sarcasm in her voice made him clench his teeth. “Brat.”
“I know you’re off and since I can’t go and neither can Jen, you have to. Just think, you can do this favor for me without rearranging your office hours. Were you planning something special with Johnny?”
“Noooo” He dragged out his response. Who was Laurel?
“Please say you’ll go. The other day when she called, I was so excited about her coming home, I never thought about who would meet her.”
Alex interrupted her stream of words. “I’ll do it.”
“Great. See you.”
“Wait a minute!” He shouted to gain her attention. “How will I know her?”
“Brown hair, brown eyes, tall, slender. She was here the summer Mom got sick. She roomed with Jen and me at Grantley.”
“My memories are vague.”
“Alzheimer’s so soon.”
“I’ll remember that.” Alex stretched. “Once I have her, what will I do with her.” Megan’s giggle pressed a warning button. “No way, sister mine.”
He imagined the cat in the cream smile on her face. “Megan!”
“I’ll leave my key under the mat. Have her call the minute you arrive. See you.”
Alex held the receiver until he heard a dial tone. Why did he have the feeling Megan had just orchestrated a crescendo in his life? His sister had a habit of trying to match every unmarried acquaintance, friend or relative with someone. He shook his head. Being involved in one of her schemes was the last thing he wanted.
Should he take Johnny or arrange for Sarah Rodgers to pick him up from kindergarten? He wasn’t sure.
After he finished dressing in jeans and a cream-colored knit shirt, he decided that while a five year old might find the airport fascinating, if the plane arrived late, his son would complain and fidget.
Alex remembered hours wasted at the airport waiting for his wife to return from one of her vacations in Europe with her “beautiful” friends. Though nearly three years had passed since the divorce and six months since her death, his anger remained strong.
Pushing thoughts of Rhonda aside, he ran down the stairs of the post-Revolutionary farmhouse. The aroma of fresh coffee made his stomach rumble.
While he breakfasted, he reviewed his memories of Laurel Richmond. Bit by bit, he built a picture of a tall, slender girl with a mass of brown hair, huge amber eyes and a propensity for popping into his presence as though she’d set an ambush.
His hand tightened on his coffee mug. “Poor little rich girl.” The comment had been his mother’s. Laurel Richmond was an heiress. Megan, he silently shouted. Not me. There was no room in his life for another spoiled rich woman.
He been there, done that. Money bread selfishness. His dead wife was proof of that. The moment her trust fund had been hers, she’d run to destruction. Parties, alcohol, drugs. She hadn’t had a thought for her son or the man she’d professed to love,
The insistent wail of an infant penetrated Laurel’s chaotic dream and brought an automatic response. One hand searched for the stethoscope usually worn around her neck. The other reached for a bag of medical supplies. Finding neither confused her. She opened her eyes.
This wasn’t Guatemala, Ethiopia, India or one of the other countries where she had been sent by IHRM. A spate of coughing left her ribs aching. Maybe she should have stayed in London long enough to see a doctor, but her desperate need to find a place where she belonged had goaded her into flight.
She glanced at the watch on her too thin wrist. How many hours had she lost as she’d fled India and Neal? Memories of his proposal still shocked her.
“Would you like a beverage?” Her flight attendant asked.
“Cola with lots of ice.” Laurel sighed. Soon, she could drink gallons of iced tea and eat chili dogs on crusty rolls.
Would she find a home in Eastlake? A trickle of grief seeped beneath the barrier blocking the sad moments in her life. She thought about the lie she had written in her letter of resignation. “A family emergency.” She hadn’t had a family since she was three.
Her mouth twisted into a mocking smile. “My mother was a hired nanny and my father the Mellwood Bank.” As memories rose of the accident and the hours spent trapped in the shattered car with her unresponsive parents, she shivered. The long months of pain-filled rehabilitation belonged in the depths of her subconscious. Only the kind and caring nurses who had become models for her life deserved to be remembered.
The stewardess collected her untouched breakfast. The infant’s wails ceased. Laurel pulled her jacket close and wished for a blanket.
A short time later, an announcement of the expected arrival time in Pittsburgh blared from the loudspeaker. Her thoughts focused on the summer visits to the Carter’s house in Eastlake. A brief taste of being part of a family had been snatched away by Mrs. Carter’s illness. When Laurel had returned to attend college at Grantley, things hadn’t been the same.
The plane touched down and rolled to a halt. While the mass of passengers pushed to the exit like angry ants from a shattered hill, Laurel remained seated. The aisles cleared. A flight attendant paused beside Laurel’s seat. “Are you okay? Would you like a wheelchair?”
“No, but thanks.” Laurel rose and walked to the exit. Using the railing on the right hand side of the enclosed ramp, she soon reached the end. The long hours of travel, the fever and the cough that had plagued her since the flight from India had drained most of her reserve strength.
At the end of the ramp, she scanned the milling crowd for Megan. Without warning, a memory of being sixteen and in love rocked Laurel.
A tall, blond, athletic man scanned the area around the exit ramp. His glance slid past her. She walked toward him. “Alex Carter, what are you doing here?”
“Laurel Richmond. I’m here to take you to Eastlake.” He clasped her hand.
“I thought Megan was meeting me.”
“She had to work.” His gaze swept over her. “Rough trip? You look exhausted.”
“I’ve been living a hectic life. How did Megan trap you into meeting me? I could have rented a car.”
A lock of sun-bright hair fell across his forehead. “That’s a long story. I didn’t know you were coming until six AM when my scatterbrain sister called. ‘Alex, I have to work and Laurel’s arriving at ten thirty and would you meet her and I know you’re off, so say yes.’”
Laurel laughed. “And so you came.”
He took her arm. His touch, the overheated building, the noisy crowd combined to make her feel faint. She inhaled. A trickle of cigarette smoke triggered her cough reflex. She fought to catch her breath. “Let’s get my bag.”
“Are you home for good?”
How could she tell him she didn’t have a home, just two residences the bank had retained? Would he understand why she had returned to Eastlake?
“Why don’t you consider staying in Eastlake? The hospital needs nurses. Have you kept up your license?”
“Yes.” She noted the signs pointing to the baggage area and turned to the right.
“Lately, I haven’t been thinking beyond each day.”
His fingers lightly stroked her jacket sleeve. She wondered if he was aware of his action. The rush of heat she felt in response to his gentleness dissolved the wall holding back her pain. In silence, she walked beside him.
She pointed to the navy blue duffel circling the carousal with the suitcases. “The duffel’s mine.”
Alex snagged the strap. “Just one?”
She nodded. “I’ve learned to travel light. Not much room in a tent or a hut.”
“What were you doing in a tent?”
“Working for International Health Rescue Missions. Didn’t Megan tell you?”
“Probably. It’s hard finding facts in her chatter.”
They entered the bullet train and exited minutes later at the door leading to the parking lot. The air, redolent with exhaust fumes, made her choke and cough. Alex opened the car door and slung the duffel in the back.
“How’s your son?”
“Johnny’s five and a lot of fun.”
“And your wife?” As soon as she blurted the question, she remembered what Megan had said about her sister-in-law and how she had abandoned her husband and her son.
A muscle at the corner of Alex’s mouth twitched. “She died six months ago.”
“Does your son miss her?”
The tic increased in tempo. “He hadn’t seen her since the divorce.” He pulled out of the parking lot and headed for the Parkway. “What were your assignments like?’
“Primitive conditions. Needy people. Too little help often arriving too late. I saw a lot of apathy and anger.”
“But you helped?”
“Some.” Just now, she didn’t want to talk about IHRM and the reason she had left.
“How’s your father? So many of Megan’s letters were lost because of the number of times the team moved. All I have is bits and pieces of what’s been happening.”
He caught her eye. “I bet if you had them all, you’d still be confused. Dad’s become the heartthrob of the middle-age set.”
She watched his face lose it’s guarded look. Though sorrow lines remained deeply etched at the corners of his mouth, the tic had disappeared. Had his wife’s desertion soured him? Not knowing how to offer comfort, she closed her eyes and drifted to sleep.
Alex glanced at his passenger. Though she had spoken about being a member of a medical team, he noted the expensive cut of her khaki slacks and jacket. Bet she had fun playing “Lady Bountiful.”
Her gauntness reminded him of his ex-wife’s physical condition the last time he had seen her. That afternoon, Rhonda had brazenly admitted using cocaine to enhance her playtime. “All of my friends do it. Why not try before you knock something?”
His fingers tightened on the steering wheel. The miles flew past. Laurel shifted in her seat. He became aware of the wheeze in her breathing. Deep circles under her eyes spoke of exhaustion. She was too thin. Anorexia? He could suggest several people who could help. He shook his head. She hadn’t asked for medical advice.
As they neared the mall ten miles outside Eastlake, he glanced at the clock. “Laurel, would you like to stop for lunch?”
She opened her eyes. She’s ill, he thought.
“Do you have time? It’s your day off. You don’t have to give up your plans for me.”
The vulnerability in her voice surprised him. “My plans are flexible.” He stretched the truth a few inches. His Wednesday afternoons belonged to his son, but there were many occasions when lunch wasn’t included.
“Then I’ll accept.” She straightened. “A mall. When did this happen?”
“Two years ago.”
He flipped on his turn signal and pulled into the parking lot of the Pirate’s Cove. “This is new, too. Owned by a friend. He just started serving lunch in January. Dad and Megan give it rave reviews. Evenings, there’s a jazz combo and a fabulous buffet.” He parked, got out and walked to her door. Her amber eyes appeared glazed.
As she slid from the passenger’s seat, a paroxysm of coughing caused her to double over. Perspiration covered her forehead. Her tanned skin blanched. She fell forward, but he caught her before she hit the ground. Her hair loosened from the coil at her neck and fanned over his arm. He lifted her into the car and reclined the seat. Her frailty shocked him.
Just how seriously ill was she? Had she come home to die? Her skin felt as though lava flowed beneath the surface. He inhaled the scent of jasmine.
“Laurel, can you hear me?” His fingers found her pulse and he counted the rapid yet regular beats. The dusky hue around her mouth alarmed him. He fumbled in his medical bag, pulled out his stethoscope and listened to the rattles and crackling sounds in her chest.
He shook his head. What doctor would let a patient this ill fly across the ocean? Had she even seen one?
As he pulled out of the parking lot, he reached for the cellular phone and tapped 911. “Dr. Carter here. I’m on the way to Eastlake Community with a patient.”
Three miles from town, a waiting dark blue sedan pulled from the side of the road. With lights flashing and siren blaring, the police car led the way to the hospital.
Alex pulled up to the door and jumped out. He lifted Laurel and held her against his chest. From nowhere, came a jolt of desire. He wanted to brush his lips over her face. Damn, he thought. She’s ill, and even if she wasn’t, these thoughts are out of line.
By the time a nurse appeared with a gurney, he was halfway down the hall with Laurel in his arms. Gently, he placed her on the sheet and steered the gurney into the Emergency Room. An urge to scold Laurel warred with his guilt over not seeing how sick she was.
“Portable chest, routine labs, make the CBC and blood gases stat. EKG. Nasal oxygen at three liters after the blood gases.” He reached for Laurel’s wrist and checked her pulse. “Hang a D5W at 75 ccs an hour.” Was she allergic to any of the antibiotics?
Leaving the nurses to carry out his orders, he opened Laurel’s purse. Inside her wallet, he searched for the name of someone to notify. A snapshot of his family caught his eye. Behind a credit card, he found a slip of paper. “In case of an emergency, notify the Mellwood Bank.” No help there, he thought.
He dialed his sister’s unit and waited for her to come on line. In a few words, he explained what had happened. “Allergies?”
“Penicillin. She took it once when we were in school and ended up looking like she had scarlet fever. What are you going to do with her?”
“Oh, dear.” Megan said. “I remember how she freaked out when they wanted to keep her in the infirmary overnight. Better put her on my unit. There’s a private room. I’ll be down in ten minutes.”
“Any idea why she doesn’t like hospitals?”
“She spent months in one as a child. After the accident that killed her parents. She seldom talks about what happened then.”
Alex hung up and called Admitting. Then he returned to the curtained cubicle. Laurel moved restlessly. She reached for the intravenous tubing. “Neil, please. I can’t.”
Who was this Neil who had upset her so? Alex put his hands on her shoulders.
“You’re all right. You’re safe here.”
She opened her eyes. “Where?”
“Pneumonia. I need to know about antibiotics.”
“No penicillin, sulfa or erythromycin.”
He shook his head. “You’re making this difficult.”
“Don’t I know.” She tried to sit up. “When can I go to Megan’s?”
His fingers massaged her shoulders. “She’s on her way. You’ll be staying here for a few days.”
Tension ran like a wire through her body. “I can’t.”
The nurse pushed the curtains open and handed Alex the results of the X-rays and lab work.”
“How bad? Tell me.”
“Right lower lobe pneumonia. Elevated blood count. Low red count. Low oxygen blood level.”
She looked up. “I’m a mess.”
“You’ve got it.”
She sighed. “Guess I’ll stay.”
He nodded and ran his knuckles over her chin. “Be back in a few. Have to call home.” Moments later, he explained to his housekeeper why he was late. “Is Johnny upset?”
“Not so it shows, but he and his invisible friend are in the yard.”
The muscle at the corner of Alex’s mouth throbbed. While the pediatrician had assured him imaginary friends were a normal part of his son’s development, Alex wasn’t convinced. “Tell him I’ll be home soon.”
Megan appeared at the desk. “Where’s Laurel? What’s wrong? She’s seldom sick.”
He looked up. “Pneumonia, anemia, maybe anorexia.”
His sister shook her head hard enough that her short blonde curls bounced. “Never. She said she was coming home because she needed to think. How long are you keeping her?”
“Until I like the lab results and know the antibiotics are working. Are you sure she’s not anorexic?”
“She eats like Jen.”
“Where is she?’
“This way.” Alex crossed to the cubicle.
Megan pushed in ahead of him. “Laurel Richmond, what have you done to yourself?”