Working in a public hospital in New York City was a bit like playing Russian roulette. We never knew what we were going to get.
Some days, we hit the ground running and didn’t stop until an hour or two after shift. Since our hospital was chronically and severely short-staffed, those were the days we had the most of.
Every once in a while, like today, we caught a break. Time dragged by with little action happening to make it pass faster.
But like fight club or no-hitters, no one talked about it when we had a quiet day. Not unless that person wanted to inadvertently cause a massive accident, natural disaster, or some other catastrophic event.
Even the emergency department had only paged me once this shift for a quick resuscitation and I’d been told they could handle it from there.
As I waited for the ancient coffeemaker in our break room to spurt the sludge that passed for caffeine around here into my cup, I glanced down at my wrist to check the time. How has it only been three hours?
Another couple of minutes inched by until my mug was full, but then the process started over when I swapped it out for Hunter’s. My best friend and assistant had taken over some exercises with a physical therapy patient of mine when I’d been called away by the ER.
The least I could do was fuel his borderline addiction to this sludge. Then again, coffee was the lifeblood of our hospital. Even the bad stuff would do as long as it was potent enough, which the sludge was.
Which is probably why it’s so sludgy.
I carried both steaming mugs up to the PT center and paused in the doorway to see how my seven-year-old patient was getting along. Hunter was a giant of a man who’d once made a living performing in strong-man competitions. He’d since let himself go to the extent that even his shaggy red hair and ginger beard looked unkept most days.
Kids were almost always afraid of him at first until they realized he was a big teddy bear. Philip, the patient he was busy with, had been with us for a few months now. He’d come to adore Hunter, as most did, and was currently playing catch with him.
“Look at how far your gross motor function has come,” he cheered when Philip managed to catch the ball in his mitt. “Two weeks ago, you were struggling to move your hand with that thing on. Now you’re almost ready to go pro.”
Philip’s little chest puffed out, and he beamed when he saw me standing there. “Did you hear that, Doctor M? I’m almost ready to go pro.”
“Yeah.” I smiled and walked into the room, holding up Hunter’s coffee. “You’re doing great, Phil. I can see you’ve been working hard at your homework. I’m really proud of you, bud.”
Hunter pulled his mitt off and stuck it under his arm, grinning as he walked up to our patient. “Let’s see how much strength you’ve built now that we know how hard you’ve been working.”
He tapped his arm. “Give me a love tap.”
“A love tap?” Philip asked, his brow tugging into a frown.
“He wants you to punch him,” I said, going over to stand next to him and faking a stern look. “But don’t punch him so hard that you hurt him, okay? I still need him for the rest of the day.”
He giggled. “You got it. I’ll try my very best not to hurt him.”
Hunter let out a playful huff, shaking his head. “Take your best shot, big guy.”
“Here goes nothing,” Philip said, lifting his scrawny arm to do what he had been told to. As his fist connected with Hunter’s massive bicep, the big man made a show of falling over and gripping his arm.
I patted Philip’s shoulder. “I’d say that arm is holding up pretty well, but you need to make sure you keep doing your exercises, okay? We’ll see you next week.”
He nodded dutifully, smiling up at me. “I will, Doctor Matthews. I promise. See you next week.”
Once he had bounced out the door to meet his mother in our waiting room, I extended a hand to help Hunter up. “One of these days, you’re going to make that offer to a kid and they’re going to end up breaking your arm.”
He slapped his palm into mine and jumped to his feet with far more agility than one might expect from a man his size. He snorted as he reached for his coffee. “I’m not that old.”
“Yet,” I said, one corner of my lips tugging into a smirk. “How long do we have before our next victim comes in?”
Hunter’s blue eyes darted toward the plain round clock mounted above the door. “About ten minutes, I’d say. It’s Lizzie’s last session, so we have to go over her maintenance plan before she leaves.”
“I have it ready. I just need to print it out before she gets here.” I sighed, giving my head a shake. “She’s not ready to finish hands-on treatment yet. We’re going to have to find a way to bring her back despite what policy says.”
“We can always go into private practice,” he suggested, not for the first time. “I heard OB/GYN lost another one. The doctor gave notice this morning, and he’s taking two of the nurses with him.”
“Fuck.” Scratching my jaw as I took a sip of coffee, I closed my eyes and wondered if I would be asked to catch babies from now on, too. “Maybe it’s not a bad idea to consider moving out of here. We always said we wanted to go private later on, and as a bonus, we’d get to treat patients for a lifetime.”
He shrugged. “I’m not so worried about that. I just don’t want to be left behind in this miserable place without you. I’d end up looking like her.”
A nurse walked past the physical therapy ward, stomping as she blew her silver hair out of her eyes. “She’s been here twenty years and I think it’s been almost as long since she’s been in a good mood.”
“Why would you get left behind here without me?” I asked as I spun toward the small office we shared with the ward next to ours.
Hunter trailed after me. “Uh, how about because you made a bajillion dollars with that machine of yours? You could retire any minute of any day and live off that money for three lifetimes without having to worry about working again.”
I rolled my eyes as I bent over, leaning with my one palm on the desk and the other on the mouse to click into my folder on the shared computer. I typed in my password as I replied and hit print on Lizzie’s homecare plan.
“If I’ve told you once, I must’ve told you a thousand times by now. I didn’t develop that machine to make money or to retire early. I thought I had an idea that could help people, so I made it come to life.”
“You revolutionized physical therapy for entire groups of patients, dude. You must’ve known you’d make money.”
I lifted my shoulders and grabbed the sheaf of papers, stapling them together in the corner. “I knew I might make some money if it worked, which it did, but only after I put every last cent I had into the prototype. Not that it matters. I’m not about to retire at thirty-two anyway.”
“But you could,” he pointed out again. “Better yet, we could. You could buy us an island and—”
The door to the office banged open and a frazzled-looking nurse I didn’t know rushed in. Her gaze bounced off Hunter and landed on me. “Are you Doctor Matthews?”
“Yes. Why?” I straightened up, instantly alert. “What’s happened?”
“The paramedics just called. They’re on their way to the ER with a nine-year-old girl who had an accident on a motorcycle. She wasn’t wearing a helmet.”
A chill raced down my spine. I crossed the office in only one stride, handed the treatment plan over to her as I passed, and shouted instructions over my shoulder just before I took off running.
“There’s a girl coming in. Her name is Lizzie. Give her that and tell her I’ll be in touch about discussing it.”
She nodded dumbly, but I didn’t have time to make sure she understood the message. Hunter was right behind me, sprinting toward the ambulance bay as fast as our legs could carry us. Treating injured kids was never fun, and motorcycle accidents were never pretty.
Combine the two, subtract the tiny layer of protection provided by a helmet, and we probably weren’t in for a good afternoon. I’d just pulled on my protective gear when the ambulance screeched to a halt.
The tires hadn’t quite stopped moving yet when the doors at the back burst open. “We need help here. She’s having difficulty breathing, and she’s complaining about a headache. Damage to the right arm.”
“We got her,” I barked at the medic, running to get the side of the gurney.
Hunter materialized at the other side, shouting the information we’d just received to the nurse in charge. She directed us to a trauma room, but I trusted Hunter to navigate us there while I paid attention to trying to stabilize the girl.
As I flashed a light across her eyes and scrutinized her face, my heart sank. I knew this girl.
Well, I knew who she was anyway. I recognized her from the pictures at the front desk. Unless I was very much mistaken, the girl’s name was Adi and her mother was our receptionist, April.
While I hadn’t said much more than hello to the fiery-haired receptionist, I knew she was proud of her daughter. I’d overheard her talking about the kid on more than one occasion when I’d walked past her desk.
A lump formed in my stomach. April was one of our own, which meant her daughter was, too.
For the next harrowing seven and a half minutes, I focused every ounce of my attention on the tiny human lying helplessly on the gurney.
“My head hurts,” she moaned, squinting her eyes against the harsh light hanging above us.
I squeezed her forearm and gave her what I hoped was a reassuring smile. “I know, sweetheart. We’re going to take good care of you, okay?”
She nodded but then winced and closed her eyes. Her breathing was coming in shallow pants and her skin was ghastly pale. Gently placing my stethoscope on her chest, I tried to locate the cause of her struggle.
“Everything sounds clear,” I said, looking up at Hunter. “It has to be a panic attack.”
“Not surprising. I’ll get the meds.” He spun around and headed to the cart while I murmured soothing phrases to our patient.
While coaxing her into trying to breathe deeply, I completed the rest of my examination. A dark bruise was forming on her forehead and disappeared beneath her hairline, which explained the headache.
“We’re going to need painkillers as well,” I said before gingerly lifting her arm. It wasn’t mangled, and it definitely wasn’t as bad as it could have been, but it wasn’t exactly good, either. There were a few scrapes and bruises, but that wasn’t what worried me.
The girl’s arm was lying in an unnatural position that didn’t look comfortable at all, but she hadn’t moved it so much as an inch. “She might need surgery. Did you see April out there?”
“April?” Hunter frowned as he handed over the syringe with the medicine we needed. “Who’s that?”
“The receptionist,” I said as I injected the girl as quickly but painlessly as possible. “I’m pretty sure this is her daughter. Now that we’ve stabilized her, we need consent if she has to go to surgery.”
He snapped his fingers. “Ah, her. I haven’t seen her, no. You’d better go look for her. I’ll stay with the little princess until you’re ready for her.”
“Thanks.” I peeled the gloves off and leaned over Adi, brushing a hand over her soft red hair. She was already breathing easier. Seeing it made my own chest expand without it feeling like I had a rhinoceros sitting on it. “I’ll be right back, okay, sweetheart? I need to speak to your mom.”
“She’s not here,” she groaned. “I was with my dad.”
Rage filled my vision with red spots for a moment. That makes more sense.
I’d had trouble understanding what Adi had been doing on a motorcycle since I realized who she was, but I’d figured I would get to the bottom of it eventually. Stabilizing her had to come first, but now that she was doing better, my hands were itching to punch something.
My fingers curled into my palms so hard that my short nails bit into my skin, but I kept my expression serene. “I’ll get someone to call your mother then. Don’t worry, honey. She’ll be here soon and Hunter will stay with you until she gets here.”
Her glassy brown eyes slid to his side of the bed. “Hi, Hunter.”
“Hey, little darlin’.” He managed a grin, but I could see it hadn’t come easily to him, either. “I’m right here. You just tell me if you need anything, okay?”
She nodded, but her lids were getting heavy. The sedative and painkillers were doing their job, but this girl shouldn’t have been in here needing them in the first place.
Everyone with ears in the hospital had heard the whispers about April’s ex and what he had done to her. I didn’t know the whole story since I wasn’t her friend or one of those people who spread gossip around like a foul smell on the wind, but even I knew the guy was an asshole.
When I walked out into the corridor, a guy wearing a black leather jacket and scuffed motorcycle boots was leaning against the wall. The bored expression on his bearded face confirmed what I’d heard about him.
If this was the father, he really was an asshole. I was half beside myself over what had happened to this girl, and I didn’t even know her. April’s ex, on the other hand, just seemed bored.
“You Adi’s father?” I asked as I strode toward him.
The man’s head jerked in a nod, but he didn’t even straighten up. “She done yet?”
“No.” I clenched my hands together behind my back so I wouldn’t do something I’d regret later. “What was she doing on a motorcycle without a helmet?”
The boredom melted from his features and was replaced by a deep scowl. He stepped away from the wall, and his dark eyes narrowed. “What the fuck do you want to know for?”
“Don’t get an attitude with me. I’m treating your daughter and I need to know what happened. She might need surgery and it’s possible she has a concussion. So I repeat, why wasn’t she wearing a helmet, and what was she doing on a motorcycle?”
The guy folded his thick arms, lowering his chin in a way I was sure was supposed to have been threatening. “Do whatever you need to do to her. Then I’ll take her home.”
“I’m afraid it’s not that simple. Where’s her mother?”
“It’s none of your business where she is.” He took a step forward, but I still didn’t feel the least bit intimidated. If anything, he was putting himself in danger by getting so much closer to me. “It’s not her weekend with Adi. This has nothing to do with her.”
Aggression and the urge to unleash it rolled around in my stomach. My jaw clenched so hard I was pretty sure I heard my teeth crack.
But this wasn’t the time or the place to get worked up. Knocking him out wouldn’t help his daughter, and she had to be my priority. Lord knew she clearly wasn’t his.
Dragging in a deep breath, I turned my back on him without saying another word and stalked back into the room. The door slammed shut behind me and Hunter’s head snapped up.
“Find April’s number and call her to come in,” I said, going back to my place at Adi’s side. “I’ll stay with her, but that guy is on strike two with me already. If I have to keep dealing with him, he won’t be the only one facing the possibility of arrest today.”