A Minor Opposition
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.
The chatter from the waiting room became the voices of
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. Babel
She opened her eyes. The moment of disorientation passed.
. The coastal plains where a cyclone had ripped
through towns and villages leaving death and disease behind. She gripped the edge of the table. India
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.
took the child. Laurel
The infant’s swollen belly and thin limbs spoke of malnutrition. Fevered flesh heated
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. Laurel
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.
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. Laurel
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
in May,” he said.
“Here, there’s the hot wet season and the hot dry season.” London
“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. “Homesick?”
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
week there while we re-equip.” He squeezed
her fingers. “You feel warm.” London
“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
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. Calcutta