Disclaimer: All characters appearing in this work are fictitious and created by this author. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Warnings: Explicit romantic and sexual relations between women. Christian themes.

Feedback: Feedback, thoughts, and screaming should be directed at rysler@gmail.com.

Notes: Originally written as part of National Novel Writing Month 2008. This story will be posted in four parts.

The Riches of Mercy

by Rysler

* * *


Meredith had been looking at a picture of her kids when the call came. Forever after she would give cosmic credo to the connection between her sons' beaming faces, gazing up at her from the inside of her locker door, and everything that followed.

First came the voice behind her.

"Chopper en route," Colleen said, standing in the doorway.

Meredith felt a tingle of excitement. She had made the whole hospital disappear a moment ago, blocking everything out but her boys--no noise, no smell, no vision but them. Colleen brought everything back with her three words.

Meredith shut the locker, letting the hospital come back to her. Green walls and antiseptic scents grounded her again. She checked her scrubs. Colleen held the door. They jogged together toward the emergency room.

Meredith was the lead nurse on duty, though three more were on call--being called. She'd done her rounds and had avoided paperwork and had been looking forward to her lunch break. Her midnight lunch break.

Running through the hallways woke her up.

"What's going on?" she asked.

Colleen said, between breaths, "Car accident. Up on 40. They think she hit a deer."

Meredith hadn't realized she'd been fantasizing about alien crash landings out in the field or bank robberies gone bad until the car accident dashed her hopes. She shook her head.

"She?" she asked.

Colleen shrugged. "One woman in the car. A civilian called 911, which put us on alert and sent out the highway patrol."

"Must be bad if they're not using an ambulance." Meredith shook her head. Deborahville was a straight shot down 40.

"Guess so."

They reached the emergency room. The gurney was already in front of the glass doors. A policeman flanked it, listening to his walkie-talkie. Doctor Wheeler, unshaven, with a polo shirt and slacks under his white coat, smiled when he saw Meredith.

"No aliens," Wheeler said.

"I heard."

"Just a lost little girl," the policeman said.


"It's always a possibility."

Meredith strained and could hear the faint noise of the helicopter. Then she didn't have to strain anymore. The roar got louder.

The parking lot had been cleared and looked oddly desolate the moment before the helicopter search light struck it, and then there was a whirl of wind and Colleen and Wheeler were pushing out the gurney and Meredith was following them, ready to help.

* * *

Two Months Earlier

The cool metal handcuffs pressed into Meredith's wrists. Standard procedure. She didn't think it was a particularly intelligent procedure. With her hands together in front of her like that, she could grab the gun off her escort. If she grabbed the gun, she could shoot herself.

The thought made her fingers itch.

She shook her head. She wouldn't have worked so hard to keep her kids if she was just going to blow her brains out. All that effort, all that shame and degradation had to be worth something--something more than her kids growing up in the shadow of murder-suicide. She wanted more for them than that. Even if she had to suffer.

The bracelets still bothered her, even after all the hearings. She was captive. She was contained.

"You'll get to go home, Merry," the cop next to her said.

The cop she could shoot, if she wanted to, was being kind to her. He put his hand on her shoulder and smiled gently.

"Yeah," she said.

The judge, stern and tired, white and old, read with seeming apathy the one paragraph decision. He hadn't been the one to handle her criminal charges. They'd taken her all the way out to Goldsboro for the custody hearing. The trial would be even further away. They were talking about moving to Charlotte for an unbiased jury. She doubted it would happen. Too expensive. Not for her.

She had been so prepared for that she barely heard the judge when he said, "I am loathe to take children away from their mother, especially when the record shows that the children have thrived thus far. By all accounts, Meredith Jameison has done a fine job, and she is innocent until proven guilty of these charges.

The children have expressed a desire to stay with their mother, and while they are too young for that to be admissible, I see no reason not to honor their preferences. Full temporary custody is awarded, to be reviewed again in one year."

Meredith knew she should have cried when all eyes were on her, waiting to see her reaction--as they had been for months now. She should be grateful. Relieved. But her heart was beating so hard in her chest it drowned out all emotion and robbed her of energy.

Her children's grandparents weren't crying, either. They were staring at her.

She'd taken their child away.

Now she was taking his children away, too. She looked down at her hands, and then didn't move until the cop shook her shoulder and led her out.

"You looking forward to being back?" the cop asked.

He'd been best friends with her husband, back in high school. Before the war.

Everyone had been best friends with her husband. She hadn't had many of her own.

Her eyes welled up. She rubbed at one, lifting her right hand, and dragging her left hand along with it.

"Yeah," she said. "Sure. Stay for supper?"

"Can't. Wouldn't be right, Merry. I just--I'd better not."

She nodded. No one liked to be seen with her. The implication that an affair had led her to this had given her the reputation of a harlot. She could feel the red A burned into her forehead. As if she would cheat on her husband.

As if there was any opportunity in a town like this.

Anyway, she hadn't seen the boys in four months. The grandparents had taken them, and hadn't paid her bail, and in a town where everyone knew what she did and judged her guilty, getting a loan for the bond had taken her a long time. Once she started caring. She'd spent the first two months in the county jail not talking to anyone, just crying in fits and starts, wanting to die, wanting to explain.

Her lawyer had to do all the work on his own, but he'd done it, and when she saw what he'd prepared as her defense she wept again, because it was honest, and it was raw, and it might get her off.

But it wouldn't bring her husband back.

"You think--" she started, and had to cough the sob out of her throat and start again. "You think they'll remember me?"

"Their momma? Of course. They've been crying for you every day, I hear."

She didn't ask her next question, though it came to her mind. Do you think they'll remember their father?

They took the exit off the highway for Deborahville. She impatiently wiped her face. Wouldn't do for the boys to see her upset. They'd think it was because of them. She had to be ready. She had to be happy.

It hurt her soul, but she'd have to lie.

Chapter One

Meredith leaned her forehead against the glass. Beyond, in the ICU chamber, the woman slept, her breathing even, watched over by the machine offering soft hisses every few seconds. Her eyelids weren't moving--no dreams at the moment for an induced coma. Her head had been examined every four hours. The gash on her forehead and cheek had swollen, squeezing one eye shut, making her look mutant.

"What's the most dangerous injury in a car accident?" Wheeler had quizzed, as if Meredith were going to be a doctor someday, in prison.

"Brain swelling." Which this woman didn't seem to have, so far. Thank God. Meredith looked heavenward.

"And the second?" Wheeler was unrelenting.

"Internal injuries that can get overlooked," she said.


"You're the one rooting around in her pelvis. See any swelling or bleeding?"

"Some. We put pins in her hip, and some stitches in her stomach. She's not going to be able to eat for a while."

Meredith wasn't hungry, looking at the disfigured creature on the bed, so she didn't worry too much about the patient's appetite.

"When can we wake her up?"

Wheeler said, "Not until tomorrow, at least. Why, want to gaze into those beautiful brown eyes?"

"You already know they're beautiful?" Meredith asked.

"Aren't they always?"

"You're too romantic for your own good," she chided.

"I'm trying to inspire you."

She said, "I know where I'm going. There isn't any romance in there. That's the whole point. Not watching my kids grow up. Not watching the seasons change. Not working."

"Merry," he said.

Her eyes stung. She pressed harder against the glass, to cool herself.

Wheeler touched her back.

"There's circumstances," he said.

"There's facts."

"See, you're not a romantic." He pointed to the patient. "She could be a duchess. She could be a criminal. She could be Batgirl. We don't know."

Meredith said, "We don't even know her name."

* * *

"Can you hear me?"

She did hear, but it took until the second reiteration for her to realize the voice was directed at her. The voice got louder and closer.

"Can you hear me?"

She wanted to tell the voices they were too loud, shouting practically in her ear. She tried to open her mouth. Her lips felt swollen, and twice their size. And hard. Like her face was made of bricks. And the shudder that went through the rest of her--that was scary.

Something touched her hand. Cold fingers touched hers. She would have screamed, but her mouth continued to be uncooperative.

Stupid mouth.

"Squeeze if you can hear us," a different voice said. A woman's voice.

She focused all her brain power on her hand and flexed. Her hand, it seemed, was fine. Her fingers worked. She squeezed. Pain shot through her shoulder.

Must remember not to move the arm when flexing the fingers. Ouch.

The woman's voice again. "Move your index finger to the side twice."

Which fucking finger was her index finger? She thought. She practiced.

"Good guess," the woman said, and tweaked her finger.

She would have smiled, but her mouth was still made of clay.

Stupid fucking mouth.

"Are you in any pain? Two for yes, four for no."

She inventoried. Except for her shoulder, she felt better than she had in her whole life. She focused. One, two, three, four.

"Are you tired?"

One, two.

"Do you see any light?"

She hadn't thought to engage her eyes in this exercise. She investigated. Nothing, Darkness. They seemed to be closed. She tried opening them. No luck. The woman was certainly patient. She had no idea how long this was taking. She focused. One, two, three, four.


So parched her mouth screamed for relief. She moved her tongue. It resisted. Sandpaper and cotton and--blood?--filled her mouth, her throat, her stomach, all the way down to her toes, making them feel like dried paper.

One, two.

Metal touched her lips, and then ice chips touched her tongue, just enough to dampen. It tasted as good as she felt. She crunched. The best moment of her life. She swallowed involuntarily. Pain seized her throat. She felt bruised, like someone had punched her in the face and neck repeatedly--oh god, had someone punched her? She seized.

"Hey, you're fine," the voice said, accompanied by a gentle squeeze against her fingers. "You're fine. Go to sleep."

She managed two more twitches of her fingers before the darkness and silence took her back.

* * *


The man's voice interrupted her sleep.

He was going to be a jerk. She knew already. Her mind felt fuzzy. There were little aches everywhere in her body. She twitched her fingers. Her hand was more uncooperative. Her shoulder hurt less.

And the light.

Blinding and white. She wanted to turn her face away, into the pillow underneath her head. She settled for making a face. Oh, how it hurt to make a face, but her lips moved. More water touched her lips. From a sponge.

Maybe the woman was there. Her heart fluttered. She wanted so much to open her eyes, and see.

"Ma'am, can you hear me?"

If she never heard that question again, she'd live a happy life. The sponge pressed against her lips, and then retreated.

She rasped, "Yes."

Her lips cracked and it hurt.

"Can you open your eyes, please?" The woman's voice.

She squeezed her eyes shut, and then let them open a slit. She winced against the light. The jerk waited. The woman waited. She tried again, and this time they opened enough to focus on the man with brown hair, wearing a lab coat.

A doctor? Why was--Oh, God. The pain--the aches--her shoulder--all became acute. She shuddered, which made her hurt more.

Her eyes must have widened, because she heard the woman's voice again. "It's okay. You're going to be all right. Breathe."

She breathed.

Breathing helped.

The doctor said, "You've been in a car accident."

"My car?" she asked.

"Can you tell me your name?"

"Natalya," she said, sounding out each syllable.

The doctor seemed like a mirage in front of her, indistinct and waving. And frowning.

That wasn't her name. That wasn't even her accent. She looked away from him, toward the woman's voice.

The woman stood there, also brown-haired--had she been kidnapped by hospital pod people?--and looking worried. Whereas the man seemed indeterminately middle-aged, the woman seemed young. Impossibly young to be a doctor. A nurse? A student intern? Her brown hair was swept into a bun at the nape of her neck, and her eyes--Natalya wanted so much to see the woman's eyes.

The woman smiled.

Natalya smiled back. But that wasn't her name. Drat. What was her name?

The pod people probably weren't going to be helpful, but she worked up all her energy and asked. "Don't you have--driver's license?"

"It burned up in the fire," the doctor said.

She turned her neck so fast that it would never, ever forgive her. Pain shot through her spine. She cried out. The woman--a nurse? A doctor?--cupped her neck and supported it, massaging the muscles. She had moved close enough that Natalya could see her eyes--blue--crystal blue--she stared at them. The pain eased.

"You're not burned," the doctor said. "You had some smoke inhalation, but a Good Samaritan got you out before the EMTs arrived. Your engine was on fire. And then he just didn't get to it--there's bad cell reception out there so he had to flag down a motorist to drive a few miles until they could place a call."

The man's accent was thick--not that fake Charlotte politician/car-salesman thick, but farm boy thick--She must be in Eastern Carolina somewhere. What was she doing there? She'd been going--where had she been going?

"Where did you go to medical school?" she asked.

Not the question she had intended to ask, but he seemed unruffled.

He smiled kindly and said, "UNC."

That definitely made him a jerk.

She tried to nod--No luck. She scrunched her face into an expression of affirming acknowledgement.

"Do you know who you are?" he asked.

The woman's hands left her neck, but smoothed her cheeks before retreating, leaving Natalya to remember for herself.

Flashes--Colonial pillars, fireflies, the Charlotte skyline, the Biltmore estate--that class trip to Washington, D.C. where she'd gotten in trouble for drinking with the boys in their hotel room--A man, wearing a suit, smiling like a slick good old boy.

Not John Ashcroft-- who?

The doctor frowned.

She said, the clarity suddenly in her mind, "I think I'm a lawyer."

The man merely nodded and smiled. The nurse gasped. Natalya and the doctor both looked at her. She shook her head.

Natalya asked, "Is my car okay?"

The man took her hand gently and sat next to her. He said, "I'm afraid not."

She closed her eyes.

Chapter Two

"Her reflexes are good. She isn't paralyzed," Meredith said, looking at Natalya through the glass.

"And I'll bet she has health insurance," Wheeler said.

Meredith rolled her eyes.

"If she's really a lawyer."

"She is."

"Do you recognize her, Merry? Is she your lawyer?"

She sighed, and pushed away from the glass. "You old fox. Don't you ever watch the news?"

"Too depressing. I'd rather be out with my dogs."

She took him out of intensive care and through the general ward. Sick people in the waiting room looked at them hopefully, and then ignored them when Meredith merely pointed at the TV.

News 14 showed the weather.

Wheeler glanced at Meredith.

"The crawler, Hank," she said.

He squinted, and read, mumbling, "...for Natalie Ivanovich enters its fourth day. Police are dragging Lake Wylie for a possible body. She's the lead attorney for the state prosecution against Mike Roland...

"That the guy that drowned his wife?" Wheeler asked.


"And they think he knocked off the prosecution?"

"They don't know, I guess," Meredith said.

"That she was just on her way to the beach in her fancy BMW and hit a goddamn deer," he said.

Merry raised her eyebrows.

"Sorry. Jesus." He took out his wallet and handed her a dollar bill.

She tilted her head.

"Christ." He took out two more dollars. She put them in her pocket.

"You know I have to request dollar bills at the bank now? My banker thinks I'm seeing a stripper. I have to hide the money from my wife."

Meredith winked.

The weather went off.

Natalie Ivanovich filled the screen as the lead story.

With Natalya's face bruised from the steering wheel and her body pretzeled from the car flipping, she looked absolutely nothing like her picture. They'd shaved most of her dark hair. The television showed a city I.D. badge picture--an angry-looking woman with black hair loose and past her shoulders, and then rotated to a DMV photo with the same expression, and then a candid shot from some sort of party. Natalie smiled in that photo, leaning on the arm of someone just out of frame.

A grave-looking sheriff reported Natalie's description. Her age--33--startled Meredith, who thought the woman in the hospital bed looked much younger, and the woman in the photographs looked much older. Pinning down the year reconciled neither. Meredith rubbed her eyes.

The sheriff started to explain that after 48 hours, hope was unrealistic. Natalie Ivanovich never checked into her rented beach house. Her car was missing. Her cell phone was off. Her cat was being taken care of by a friend.

"Well, I'll be," Wheeler said.

"We should call the police," Meredith said.

"Yeah. And then see if we can get in contact with her family." Wheeler ducked back into the hallway.

Meredith stayed to watch the news report. Apparently there were no parents to contact, no boyfriend, no leads in her townhouse in downtown Charlotte. Nobody cried on television for Natalie's tearful return. If Roland hadn't been on the front page of The Charlotte Observer every day for a year and a half, no one would have noticed Natalie was gone.

So nice that a murderer could be so helpful.

Alleged murderer, Meredith corrected herself.

Despite being a suspect in a prosecutor's disappearance, Mike Roland was a free man. Meredith hadn't followed the case beyond the nurses' gossip in the locker room, but now, seeing him in handcuffs from stock footage from his original arrest, her heart filled with dread. She looked away.

The conversation of the waiting room seeped through her--worried voices, sad voices, deflecting.

"You think he did that lawyer?"

"He ain't got the balls. She probably just went nuts. You know, like Anne Heche."

"Or maybe she's a runaway bride, on up from Georgia."

"I think she just realized she couldn't win against a man like Roland and ran with her tail between her legs. Arf!"

"Nah, I think he drowned her, just like the other bitch. They should dredge Lake Norman next."

Meredith shook her head and left them to the gossip and the blaring television as she pushed through the door.

* * *

"Your name is Natalie Ivanovich," Wheeler said.

Natalie stared at the Jell-O on the tray in front of her. She shook the tray. The Jell-O jiggled. They wanted her to eat that? She felt like throwing up. Stupid pod people.

"The district attorney is coming to see you," Wheeler continued.


"Yes. Harold Taylor."

"Do you remember what happened?"

She shook her head.

"Do you remember heading down to the beach?"

She nodded. "It was just for the weekend. Two days, before I had to go back and the defense case would start."

"They've postponed while they searched for you."

"Searched for me?"

"You were found Saturday morning."

"Had to work late Friday night," she said.

Wheeler nodded, and said, "It's Wednesday."

"What? Jesus Christ."

He hesitated, and then said, "You weren't in a coma. You were just--out. We kept you lightly sedated to encourage you to stay unconscious, so you'd heal. It's working."

"It's working," she said.

"Your shoulder is broken, two ribs are cracked, and we had to remove--well, we'll get to that later. But you're going to be all right. Sturdy little car."

"I owed a fortune on it. And it was used. You wouldn't believe what I had to pay."

"You seem to be fixated on the car," Wheeler said.

Natalie shook her head. "I don't know why. It was just--there with me, at the accident. That I don't remember. But it was there. I was there. My purse was there. My cat--Oh, God, my cat. I just left her with some food and--"

"They're taking care of her," Wheeler said.

"Who is?"

"I don't know. But she was on the news."

"My cat was on the news?"

"The whole state's looking for you," he said.

"Crap. Everyone wants to be famous. What about the trial?"

"Postponed for a day, then picked up Tuesday afternoon, without you, I guess."

"With Rich instead. He'll bore them to tears. God."

"How do you feel, Natalie?"

"Kind of awful. I feel guilty making everyone worry. I feel bad missing work. I'm angry that I'm stuck here, and that this happened, and it's really inconvenient."

"How do you really feel?" Wheeler asked.

She snorted.

"Eat. It'll help. Really." He got up.

"Hey, doctor? When you said I wasn't in a coma. You were going to say something else. What?"

"Oh, just--We don't think much of cussing around here."

Her eyes widened.

"Think nothing of it," he said, and smiled. "It's just the nurses." He left, and closed the door behind him.

"This place is fucking creepy, pod person!" she shouted at the door.

Lightning did not strike her.


The Jell-O, though, watched her every move.

Chapter Three

Sedation made Natalie's head heavy. She couldn't think clearly. She wanted to oppose the drugs, but she was afraid of pain. She stayed awake long enough to eat or answer questions but she didn't have the strength or the focus to really observe her surroundings. The generic nature of the hospital room didn't help. The interesting things were at the edges.

Her mind shorted out before she got that far. Her eyes hurt.

She noticed the closer things they tried to hide--her leg under the blanket, framed in metal, like she'd caught it in a fish trap. Her hip and belly had surgical lines that had to be bandaged every four hours.

They'd had to tell her what her name was--that was embarrassing. Now she could remember everything except the accident--she could even remember driving down the highway with the top down, her hair wrapped in a scarf to keep it from blowing. Her eyes stinging. Her mouth watering for the first scent of salt in the air.

But nothing else. The doctor--Doctor Wheeler?--told her there had been a deer. She only remembered Roland's face.

The bastard.

She hadn't been looking for any spotlight. She'd just wanted a steady job that didn't require 80 hours of work for twenty years to get anywhere. The city attorney's office had been fine. Steady job, and overworked meant 50-60 hours a week. Doing her time in the trenches right after law school, prosecuting drug felon after drug felon, before moving onto domestic violence, and then onto sex crimes. High profile murder had not been her purview, but when the city attorney comes calling

"You're taking the Roland case," Patrick had said.

"I don't want the Roland case," Natalie said, not looking up from her desk. "I've got that FBI thing. Can you believe they're actually questioning the bust?"

"They're defense attorneys. That's what they do. But someone else can do it. An intern--"

"You think an intern can do my job?"

"Paralegal?" he said, grinning.

She shot him a look.

"Look, Nat," he said, sitting down across from her desk.

She raised her eyebrows.

He sighed.

She put her pencil down.

"This is the case of the year," she said. "And it doesn't involve Duke. Thank God. You've got to be shitting yourself."

"I have to recuse myself, Natalie," he said.

"Why?" She ran her fingers through her hair, and frowned at him. He looked sad, and tired, and she wondered for the first time just how close to retirement he was.

"Roland--he's a friend of mine, Nat. Not just a guy I know at parties, that I schmooze money from, that I see at the golf club. A friend. Our kids play together. We're from the same alma mater. Roland--he's a good guy."

A sickening, twisting feeling came in Natalie's stomach. She picked up her pencil again and asked, "You don't think he did it?"

"I don't know." Patrick looked away, and his eyes glistened. He folded his hands. "I guess he did. I guess--we arrested him. But Jesus, Nat. I can't do this."

"Why me?"

"You do your job, but you're not an asshole about it. I can't stand to see anyone out for blood. Rodriguez--" He sighed.

"Can be a prick on high-profile cases," Natalie agreed.

"And you're qualified. It's out of your zone, but not out of your rank."


Patrick leaned across the desk and said, "Make sure he pays for what he did." He squeezed her hand.

She covered his with hers and said, "Okay. Don't worry about it."

But when he got up and walked away, his posture showed he'd be worrying about it for the rest of his life.

And she, at least, had yet another reason to hate Roland.

* * *

"You awake?" A nurse said, coming into the room. She carried pills--sedatives, Natalie hoped--and a glass of water and a newspaper.

"Thank God," Natalie said.

"Are you in pain?" The nurse came closer. Her badge read Teresa.

"No, I was just thinking. And--You're the first person who isn't white with brown hair. I thought I'd been abducted by very bland clones."

The nurse chuckled. "Wheeler and Merry are cousins," she said. "Distant cousins. Not in the Southern sense. Well, maybe a little. You probably understand."

"Everyone knows each other around here?" Natalie asked.

"Of course. Merry sat two seats down from me in elementary school. I had to tutor her in math." Teresa shook her head.

"Charlotte isn't like that," Natalie said.

"You grew up there?"

"My parents were from Pittsburgh, but you know, the economy."

"Yeah, Charlotte does that. The bases down here bring in all kinds of damn foreigners, too--" Teresa stopped herself. "Sorry."

Natalie grinned.

Teresa put the pills on the tray. "Let me tell you why you need to take these, girl," she said.

"You could tell."

"I can always tell. Confusion lies close to the surface."

Natalie sighed.

"You're tired, right?"


"And don't feel much like moving."


"And you want to think about everything. How you got here, where you're going, what the hell is up with your leg."

"And my hip," Natalie said.

"You have got to sleep," Teresa said. "You're a big-time lawyer. You're going to keep yourself up all night. This is the off-switch."

"For how long?"

"We have you scheduled for three more nights, but if you're good, we might make it two."

"And then--" Natalie's eyes filled with tears, unbidden. Teresa was right--she felt chaotic, emotional, terrified. She didn't want to feel like this all night. "And then will they tell me what's wrong with me?"

Teresa put her hand on Natalie's shoulder. "First thing in the morning."

Natalie took her pills.

"Good, good. Now, as your reward, I brought you the paper. You're on the front page."

"Oh, crap."

"So's your car," Teresa said.

Natalie grabbed the paper.

Teresa laughed. "They said you would do that."

Natalie was ashamed, but she couldn't take it back. Her fingers traced the image of her crumpled BMW. She'd been inside that. Or maybe thrown out. She felt nauseous. The destroyed car felt like an extension of herself--a visualization of her insides. It wasn't pretty.

"You gonna be all right with your paper?" Teresa asked.

"Yes. Thank you. Hey," Natalie said, looking up, forcing herself to put the paper down. "When is Merry scheduled?"

"She'll be here in the morning," Teresa said, smiling. "Everybody loves Merry."

"I love you, too, Teresa."

"Everyone loves the Candyman. And hey," Teresa said, going to the door. "Merry needs a good lawyer."

Natalie raised her eyebrows, but Teresa waved and left. Natalie looked back at the paper. She started to read the article on herself, but by the second paragraph her eyes were too heavy to hold open and her head threatened to give her a headache if she tried anymore.

The great thing about hospital beds, they were always ready to let her sleep. She didn't even have to lie back down.

Chapter Four

"Ready to see your favorite patient, Merry?" Wheeler asked.

Meredith felt her face get hot. "She's not my--I treat all my patients equally."

"How noble."

She frowned.

"We're delivering the bad news. She may need you to make her feel like your favorite patient."

Meredith knew the drill. Needed in a crisis, and then forgotten afterward. Caring wasn't lying, even if it was brief. She'd wanted to do this. She made it her life's work. That and caring for the boys, which wasn't brief or easy. Which gave her life balance, she hoped. And a whole lot of light. Never quite enough.

Wheeler put his hand on her shoulder. She glanced at the door.

A tall, dark, and handsome stranger had literally dropped from the sky. That never happened. Even the strangers they treated--scraped off the road, or choppered in from the beach with burns or jellyfish stings or the unexpected appendix burst--had lives to go back to, people to care about them, routines to embrace.

Strangers were always disappointing. It was always easy to stop caring when they did.

But she couldn't deny the anticipation and expectation that came before the disappointment. Natalie intrigued her. And charmed her. She wanted to tell Vincent how weird it all was. She sent him a prayer.

She took a deep breath and nodded at Wheeler. They went into Natalie's room.

Natalie smiled at them. The breakfast tray lay across her lap. Dry toast with marmalade and ice water to wash it down. The marmalade had come from Colleen's aunt's farm. Meredith felt like sharing that with Natalie, but didn't, and just trailed Wheeler to the bed.

"How many patients are at this hospital?" Natalie asked Wheeler.

"About thirty. We have fifty beds."

"Wow," Natalie said.

"Wow," he agreed.

A pang went through Meredith's heart. Natalie struggled to get her bearings. Meredith wanted to take her hand and explain everything.

But some things were harder to explain than others, and Wheeler had taken the burden.

He sat down beside Natalie and put papers on her bed. "We talked to your insurance folks this morning, everything's going to be all right."

Meredith could tell that Natalie didn't care about the insurance. Her eyes flickered toward Meredith's. Meredith met her gaze and smiled.

Natalie gave her a faint smile back.

Meredith pulled a second chair up to Natalie's bed, sitting beside Wheeler, down near Natalie's knees. Natalie wouldn't have to turn her head much to look at either of them.

Wheeler asked, "How was breakfast, Natalie?"

"Was it real?"

"It wasn't a figment of your imagination," he said. "Call me Hank. Do you think you imagined it?"

"I'm not calling my doctor 'Hank', and I'm not having hallucinations, sir." Natalie said, rolling her eyes.

Meredith nearly giggled.

Wheeler looked relieved. "Dr. Henry?" he suggested.

Natalie looked at the papers.

Wheeler said, "It's time to give you a full assessment of your injuries and your recovery time."

Natalie's face grew paler. She blinked rapidly. Merry leaned forward, looking concerned. She knew nausea when she saw it. She knew pain.

Wheeler waited.

Natalie said, "Okay."

"You were out for four days, you know that. I'm glad to see you've recovered so well from the anesthetic."

Natalie nodded.

Wheeler went on. "During that time, you had two surgeries. The first after you were med-evaced in--"

"You have a helicopter?"

"The state does. They took care of it. We put you down in the parking lot. People are still talking about it," he said.

Meredith was still thinking about it; how the first spotlight looked on the pavement; how small and still and bloodied Natalie had been.

Natalie didn't respond. Wheeler's expression sobered and he continued. "The first surgery was part of your triage. We put the pins in your hip to keep your midsection from collapsing. We took out your appendix, part of your spleen, and assessed your intestines. And we tried to stabilize your crushed leg. But we couldn't devote much time to it, because we were focused on making sure you didn't have any head or neck trauma."

"My neck hurts. That's a good sign, right?"

Meredith nodded, even though Natalie hadn't asked her.

Wheeler smiled and said, "You pulled every muscle in your body, and it's going to be a few weeks until we can see if there's any lasting trauma on your spine. But you're mostly okay."

Natalie nodded again. She swallowed and looked at Meredith.

Meredith leaned in and took Natalie's hand.

Natalie exhaled, and then as the silence gathered in the room, tensed, her fingers tightening on Meredith's. Meredith covered Natalie's hand.

"There's more?" Natalie asked.

Wheeler took a deep breath and said, "We did a second surgery on your leg to repair tendons and make sure the blood could flow properly. The swelling was more than we would have liked. I don't know if we're going to have to do more--I'll talk to you about that in a moment. But Natalie, even though you aren't paralyzed, I don't know when you'll be able to walk again."

Natalie looked down.

Meredith squeezed her hand.

Wheeler said, "Or how that'll go. It'll be rough, whether you get full mobility back or not. We're also looking at only 80% recovery of motion in your right shoulder. You should still be able to write."

"But my leg," Natalie said, in a small voice, still looking down. Meredith's heart broke. Natalie hadn't let go of her fingers.

Wheeler said, "Only time will tell. Natalie--Beyond that, there's going to be a pain issue."

Meredith admired the man beside her. Inside she was frantic for Natalie's sake, but Wheeler got calmer and more focused with every word. Doctor-calm. Pain was such an ugly, four-letter word.

Natalie looked up at Meredith.

Meredith held her gaze and held her hand.

Wheeler said, oblivious by trade to the emotions next to him, "We can't keep you on these kinds of drugs forever. There are other kinds of drugs, and we may be looking at lifetime treatment for chronic pain.

We won't know until you start healing. And that is going to hurt."

Natalie's eyes filled with tears. She blinked them away, and looked at the wall opposite them, at a poster of a cat hanging from a tree.

"What kind of pain have you been in before, in your life?" Wheeler asked. "Can you recall any instances?"

Natalie exhaled. She slowly turned her head back to meet Wheeler's gaze, her hand slack in Meredith's. She said, "I broke my arm one summer, when I was ten."

"Tell me about it," Wheeler said.

Natalie swallowed. She said, "I remember--Really?"


Natalie said, "I remember lying in the grass, smelling the fresh summer clippings around me. I was trying to breathe--it was hard--hard to breathe through the pain. I remember my friends screaming out for my mother, and trying to breathe."

"What happened next?" Wheeler asked.

"I guess after a minute or two in the grass it got easier. My mother drove to the emergency room and they numbed the arm. I don't remember the recovery, the cast, or anything else. I'm sorry. Just the long, aching moments in the grass."

Natalie glanced at Meredith.

Meredith smiled.

Natalie smiled back weakly.

Wheeler said, "Your insurance wants to transfer you up to Duke Medical Center--"

"I'd rather stay here," Natalie said.

The relief that went through Meredith was sharp and unprofessional. Her hand had involuntarily tightened on Natalie's hand. She looked down, shame burning her cheeks. Her heart pounded in her ears. She prayed Natalie wouldn't notice her reaction.

Wheeler went on, as monotone as ever, "We're going to have one of their specialists come down and look at your leg and your neck for you."

"Thanks--Doctor Henry," she said.

He nodded. "Sign these?"

She reached for the papers, and grunted when her shoulder wouldn't let her cover the distance. Wheeler moved her breakfast and put the papers on the tray.

Meredith let go of her hand.

Natalie signed her life away to Blue Cross Blue Shield. She rubbed at her eyes.

"Are you all right?" Meredith asked.

"My cat. One of the maintenance workers found her in a city sewer and brought her to the government building. She was just a kitten. Muddy and beautiful."

"She's fine," Meredith said. "I talked to--Susana?"

"My next door neighbor," Natalie said.

Wheeler smiled and took his papers. "See? Just fine. I'll come by tonight, when you've processed this all. Write down your questions as they come to you. We'll go over them."

Natalie nodded.

Wheeler patted Meredith's back and left.

Meredith sat on the edge of the bed, and wiped Natalie's face with a cool cloth. "You all right? That's a lot to take in."

"I don't know," Natalie said. Her eyes glazed over. She looked lost in thought.

Meredith tapped her cheek with the cloth to get her attention. Natalie met her eyes. Meredith said, "We'll get through this."

"We will?"

"Stick with me," Meredith said. She said the words the same way to Natalie as she would to a geriatric man facing a liver transplant or a little boy with a pencil up his nose, and the words had the same effect. Natalie looked visibly relieved.

Merry sat back, and said, "You've had your breakfast and your talk. It's naptime. And when you wake up, everything will be different."

Chapter Five

The attorney called ahead the next morning to see what was to be done about the cat. His kids were allergic and Natalie's neighbors--he had no idea who they were.

They might be cat-murderers, for all he knew. So it was this or the kennel. He pleaded, but his voice also held authority and command.

So Meredith ended up with a cat named Hollingsworth. She assumed Patrick would inform Natalie, but Natalie had asked no follow-up questions. Meredith had only had a cat once before. An outside cat that strayed too close to her family home and she'd fed it. She'd bought cat food with her own money for weeks, until her father caught her. He told her they were a sign of the devil. The cat, he said, was trying to seduce her--it had already got her to keep secrets for it.

She'd been so ashamed she hadn't thought about cats as pets since. A dog, maybe, but her husband had been afraid of dogs. And now, God had sent her a second cat, by way of Charlotte attorney. And a horrific accident.

Hard to figure out God's involvement, but when she knelt next to the cat and looked into its bright, blinking blue eyes, and felt its purr under her fingers when she stroked the long, grey hairs, she figured He had a hand in it somewhere.

* * *

With each day that passed, the accident felt less like a horrible inconvenience and more like Natalie's whole life was altering; morphing. The loneliness grew stronger.

Natalie missed her life. She missed her city.

No one had called to see how she was. She only ever talked to doctors and nurses. The reality of her empty life was sinking in, and it made her feel terribly cold.

Now that Wheeler had told her about her leg, she actually preferred the sleep. She would float, at ease and dreamless, for hours. No pain, no past, no future. And then she would wake up, and the panic would set in--always within the first minute. She had no idea what she was going to do. She'd burned through a week of sick leave. She only had one more left.

The defense counsel had rested in Roland's trial. Closing statements were Monday.

She had to do something. But her head still hurt most of the time and all she wanted to do was sleep.

Meredith brought Patrick in. He'd driven down and then had to wait three hours for Natalie to wake up. He looked exhausted.

"How's the case?" she asked, feeling limp and useless in the hospital bed. Not even her brain worked, and she was starting to get tired again.

"Screw the case," he said.

"That'll be a dollar."


"They don't like you to cuss around here." She lowered her voice. "I think it's a Christian hospital."

Patrick looked around furtively. "Eastern Carolina. Jesus. That's why I didn't go to school down here."

"Oh, that's why?" she asked.

"That, and I thought Atlanta would be really exciting."

Natalie smiled. It was easy to talk to Patrick. She could slip into the patterns of her life for the past year, and feel like everything was normal.

She asked, "Was it?"

"Hot," he said.

"Patrick, tell me about the trial. I'm going crazy. I'm atrophying."

"We're hoping you'll be back before closing. It'll have an impact on the jury, to see you strong and--well, vengeful."

"I--my recovery is going to take weeks."

"Weeks?" He looked pale.

She clenched her hands together. "I don't know what I'm going to do," she said.

"It was just a car accident, Natalie. It's not the end of the world. Look, we'll take Casey's car and let you use it as a loaner until you get all this sorted out."

"I'm not taking your kid's car."


"Please," she said. "I'm not ready for much."

"Can I get you a computer?"

"Maybe next week," she said, looking away.

"How are you?" He didn't make her look at him, but his be-okay tone persisted, and it pissed her off.

"They don't think I'm going to walk again," she said.

There. Said.

She felt like she was going to throw up.

"Oh, God. I didn't--I'm sorry, Nat."

She glanced back at him. He was trying not to look at her, and trying to look at her at the same time. The behavior annoyed her, but she realized that if she ended up disfigured, or limping, or worse, that everyone would be looking at her the same way for the rest of her life.

She said, "Most of me will heal. They scooped out some of my insides."

Patrick coughed.

He'd always been too sensitive for bravado. He was a nice guy. He didn't cope well with hard edges. She changed the subject.

"How's Nancy?" she asked.

"Oh." He leaned over and opened his bag, and pulled out a teddy bear wearing a beret and handed it over. "Nancy got you this."

She accepted the bear.

He pulled out a bag of M&Ms. "And the kids got you these. Not sure what you're eating."

"They cook for me," she said.

His eyes widened. He looked as if he didn't quite believe her. She nodded. "Really. Homemade."


He glanced around, so he wouldn't have to look at her, and she saw the disappointed look on his face. She followed his gaze. No flowers, no cards, no books. She knew. And then he saw that she knew.

"Natalie, you know you're family." He took her hand. "You are. I just wish you had more."

She didn't say anything, just kept looking at the bear, until her face stopped hurting, and the tears retreated.

He left her with case files, a new Blackberry, and a promise to come back in a week.

The Blackberry didn't get reception.

She read the cover page of the first document, and then fell asleep.

* * *

Meredith opened the front door. She heard the thuds--an avalanche rumbling down the hallway toward her--before she saw the boys, who yelped and then skidded to a stop when they saw what she carried.

She shut the door behind her. "Boys, I brought something home."

"We made lunch," Merritt said, looking confused.

"I know. I can't wait to eat it." Every day she worked, she came home for lunch, and Ms. Cranston saw to it the boys prepared something that was ready for her. Ten minute drive, ten minutes to eat, ten minutes back.

"Is that a cat?" Beau asked.

"Yes. It belongs to a patient. It's not ours."

Beau frowned.

Meredith sat the carrying case on the floor. Patrick had arranged it--he'd apparently drugged the beast for the drive from Charlotte--his kids were too allergic to take care of it.

"Be gentle," she warned.

Merritt nodded vigorously.

She opened the cage.

The cat stayed inside.

Merritt knelt, and then stretched out on his stomach, looking into the cage.

Beau gave the case a little kick.


He frowned.

Merritt grinned.

The cat cautiously stepped out and sniffed at Merritt.

Beau stood perfectly still.

Meredith enjoyed a moment of silence she hadn't experienced at home since the boys learned to crawl. The cat was already a blessing.

Beau lunged.

The cat took off for the kitchen.

Merritt howled.

Meredith smiled and shook her head and went in to lunch.

* * *

Meredith brought Natalie dinner. Natalie smiled wanly at her. The mild anxiety Meredith felt whenever she was around Natalie intensified. Natalie didn't look good.

She settled the tray and then at Natalie's encouragement, sat on the edge of the bed.

"Thanks," Natalie said. She picked up her fork and then set it down again, sighing.

"You all right, honey?" Meredith asked.

Color rose in Natalie's cheeks. She met Meredith's eyes and said, "I'm worried."

"About your leg?"

"Not really. Not that. Wheeler explained it all. I understand. Stupid leg," Natalie said.

Meredith smiled at stupid leg.

Natalie smiled back and added, "I'm worried about--what I'm going to do."

Meredith glanced at the briefcase next to the bed. "Looks like you got plenty to do."

"Yeah. But--I don't have the energy. I read a few pages and then have to stop. My head hurts. Oh, geez, do I sound like a four year old?"

"I have four year olds. Twins. You sure don't sound like them," Meredith said. "The headache'll go away in a few days. I promise."

"You promise?"

"I do."

"All right then," Natalie said. She leaned back and said, "I can bear it."

"Those papers look like pretty heavy stuff. Do you want any magazines? Books?"

"I, er. Are you going to bring me Christian literature?" Natalie asked.

The question took Meredith by surprise. She couldn't fathom what had brought Natalie to that line of questioning. Natalie was either reaching out or warding her off. Natalie hadn't come into the emergency room wearing a cross or a star. She hadn't asked about Sunday services. Not that outward signs were always the way to tell something about a person, but Meredith had a feeling for it. She didn't have that feeling with Natalie.

Meredith said, "I--I suppose I could bring you whatever you want. Are you a Christian, Natalie?"

"Are you?"

"I am." She could see Natalie wasn't angry, or pensive, or closed off. So she asked, "Have you been depressed?"

"Yeah." Natalie looked away, at a stuffed bear.

Meredith reached out for her hand, but stopped herself, settling her fingers nervously on the edge of the dinner tray. She said, "You're tapering off some of your post-surgery meds. I can ask Wheeler to give you something mild. Help with the anxiety. I know it's rough. Believe me, I know."

"Sure," Natalie said. "Like it's that easy."

She seemed to be looking at Meredith's fingers.

Meredith said, "I've been praying for you. Rest assured. But God doesn't really say how he's going to heal someone. I just get the feeling that he will."


"But you should eat."

"I'm not really hungry."

There was awkwardness in the room and Meredith couldn't dissipate. Natalie had an open expression and made eye contact, but silence grew between them. Meredith didn't know what to say. So she slid off the bed.

"Just one bite," she said.

"Yes, mom," Natalie replied. She picked up her fork.

"It always works."

"I bet it does," Natalie said. "You're hard to refuse."

Meredith blushed, glad to hide her face as she went out.

Chapter Six

The Pirates were losing and they were losing bad. On national TV, too. Meredith wished she lived in the blackout zone. The carnage was almost too much to bear.

"Go--shdarnit," Angelo said. He scowled and glanced at Meredith.

"Don't you make me think my jar is working," Meredith said, "You'll only encourage me."

"You promised pizza, right?"

"If the patronage doesn't dwindle," she said. "Blessed is the day when we're too poor to afford pizza."

"Yeah. I don't think we'll ever get to that day."

"Not with how East Carolina's playing," Meredith said.

"Right. How can we do good works if the world is so bleak?" he asked.

"Is it really bleak, Angelo?" Meredith asked.

"Don't look so sympathetic, chica. It's only bleak because I clean the bathrooms." He glanced at the television. "I clean with a vengeance, today."

"We've got the cleanest bathrooms between Wrightsville and Raleigh, that's for sure," Meredith said.

"What did you do before the Latinos moved into NC, eh?"

"Went to Baptist church, instead of Catholic," she said.

"That's right. We don't deal with no snakes."

"Nope. In your church, the snakes have to talk to the Pope before they can get involved in church affairs."

Angelo grinned. "Don't think that they don't, either. Snakes everywhere." He asked, "How's your patient?"

"Which patient? I've got twelve on my rounds," Merry said.

"Oh, come on. You know the one I mean."

Meredith smiled, but under Angelo's interested gaze she faltered and confessed, "She just looks so lost."

"They all look lost, Merry. And none of them can be saved. You tried on every damn one.

No one listens."

She frowned at him.

He got out his wallet, but said, "I'm doing this for emphasis. Her looking lost doesn't make her a little lamb, wandered off from the flock. You're no shepherd. She's a lawyer. You know what a lawyer is? A snake."

"She hasn't asked for anything yet," Meredith said.

Angelo whistled. "That's a new record. Not a phone call, not morphine, not the Good Book?"

Merry shook her head, and said, "I don't think she has much to ask for."

"If she latches on, she'll suck you dry. Just like everyone else. Just like--"

She looked away, flinching when she should have been enraged, but it stopped Angelo all the same.

He said, "Merry, got enough problems of your own. Think hers are going to distract you for long?"

"Everyone tells me I need a good lawyer," she said. "One just appeared."

"It's not a sign from God." He put his hand on her shoulder. "Especially if she's on the other team."

Meredith wiped at her cheek and said, "Well, I guess I should have been more specific."

"He knows what you meant, Meredith."

"And He knows what he's doing. Give Him a little more credit."

"Si, chica. But do you?" Angelo patted the top of her head, and then left her alone in the break room.

East Carolina punted on the fourth down and then took off running, trying to stop the avalanche of players crushing down on them.

Meredith understood the futility. But she couldn't tear her eyes away. Having someone new to talk to--a foreigner, practically--made life feel a little less stagnant.

Roland had been on the news every day for over a year. Natalie was practically a celebrity. Tourists only ever stopped in town for gas. No one ever stayed.


God, someone had to save her, and it wasn't going to be anyone around here.

* * *

The cat had cried half the night in its carrying case, so Meredith had let it sleep on her bed, instead. She'd teared up at its purr--another heartbeat, another life beyond her children and her own. She had the late shift the next day so Mrs. Cranston came at lunch.

Meredith chided herself for looking forward to work. Throughout her ordeal--and for at least a year before, if she were being honest, work had been her salvation. But she knew that wasn't the reason she was looking so forward to work today.

"Knock, knock," Meredith said, tapping on the hospital room door. She poked her head in and smiled.

"Come in," Natalie said. "Since when do you knock?" She ran her fingers across her short hair self-consciously, unable to fight the urge, though her nurse probably didn't care.

"I'm not here on official business." Meredith brought in an old brown shopping bag and closed the door.

"Social call?" Natalie asked. She looked at the bag.

"If you're up for visitors."

"I am so up for visitors."

"I thought you might be asleep," Meredith said.

"I'm tired of sleeping. It's six o'clock in the evening, shouldn't I be awake?"

"Are you in any pain?" Meredith asked.

Natalie looked away.


Natalie said, "Yeah. But it's not too bad. Just--mostly sore. And then throbbing when it is close to medication time. And then back down to sore. There's an ache."

"Must be depressing," Meredith said.

"Yes. Yes it is. And I'm awake to go through it." Natalie looked at the ceiling, and said, "Whee."

Meredith asked, "Do you miss the sedatives?"

Natalie smiled, lowering her chin and meeting Meredith's eyes and said, "I'm tired of being tired."

Meredith glanced at all the papers strewn across the bed, and said, "And you're thinking straight."

Her voice had a lilt that took the 'g' off thinking, making her sound soft and sweet, like Dolly Parton really was the angel she seemed like on TV, and had manifested in Podunk, N.C., not quite having made it to the beach. Natalie felt foolish, but found it comforting all the same. Meredith talking was so far the most soothing curative she'd experienced. She had a sense that telling Meredith that would make everything impossibly awkward. After all, Meredith just talked like everyone else. Even Wheeler had a voice that sounded like butter.

Still, Natalie didn't want Wheeler to talk sweet to her.

"Well, I'm back to usual," Natalie said.

Her mind did seem to wander more, following tangents, analyzing all the new stimuli she unwittingly presented it. The last week and a half she'd lived mostly in her half-formed memories--still images floating in front of her eyes. Scents. Feelings. Her brain, done being tormented, was back to tormenting her.

"It's good you have a job where you can still--I mean--" Meredith looked away.

Natalie didn't want to think about that. She couldn't imagine making a career for herself in a wheelchair. Second-chair, maybe. All paperwork and witness interviews and nothing interesting. She wouldn't be able to run for office--not as the chick who flipped her car on the way to the beach.

She might, though, make judge. There was a thought. Her gaze strayed back to the paper bag.

"So, this is a social call?" she asked Meredith.

"Right." Meredith opened the bag, and then pulled Natalie's tray over her lap. On the tray, she laid out a chess board--old and worn wood with black paint, and pieces, some painted with the same black lacquer, some plain wood. Natalie helped her with the pieces. She made herself, by default of the piles, the white player, and lined up the black along Meredith's side.

"We're going to play chess?" Natalie asked.

"I saw on The West Wing that it helps with mental acuity," Meredith said. She pulled up a chair and settled into it.

"So this is therapeutic?"

"Unless you get all enraged and throw the board across the room," Meredith said.

"It might feel good to throw something," Natalie said.

Meredith touched a rook, thoughtfully running her fingers over the battlements. She said, "Wouldn't want you to pull out any stitches, though. I mean, if you want to do that, we'd have to start stretching every day."

"Yeah. There's a thought." Natalie felt her face grow hot.

"There's just one problem," Meredith said.

"What?" Natalie felt sicker by the second.

Maybe sedatives and sleep were the way to go. She was thinking too much. Her body was far too awake. She wasn't ready. She wasn't healed.

Meredith grinned slowly, and asked, "Can I go first?"

Natalie turned the board around so that the white--well, brownish--pieces faced Meredith's chair.

"See, I read all the instructions last night--just a refresher, I'd like to teach my boys to play when they're old enough. But I memorized how to start."

Natalie smiled. "So, start."

Meredith moved a white pawn forward two spaces, and then folded her hands in her lap and smiled at Natalie.

Natalie considered, and then moved a pawn out to meet it.

"So, you're a lawyer," Meredith said. "Are you like some chess grandmaster?"

Natalie said, "I was on the chess team in high school. For like, a week. I thought it would be cool, you know? I was bookish. But I was awful at chess."

"What did you do instead?" Meredith asked.

"I volunteered for the teen hotline. Far less stressful."

Meredith studied the board, and then moved another piece.

Natalie moved one out to match it. She said, "You're right. This is engaging."

"Don't think too hard. I don't want to lose by an embarrassing margin."

"Will all the other nurses find out?" Natalie asked.

Meredith said, "Yup, and then I'll never be able to face playing you again. Or anyone. Can you imagine what Wheeler'll say? He'll want to play you himself. And then you'll just cause a general disruption of hospital operations while the pecking order gets established."

"Well, wouldn't want that," Natalie said. "I'll just let you win."

"That'd be really nice of you," Meredith said.

She said it so sincerely and so sweetly that Natalie decided to start moving pieces at random.

The last time she'd played chess was in college--not counting the time she played it on the first computer she bought for herself, just to see if it worked. It had worked. She'd closed the program and never opened it again.

Meredith would think carefully over each piece, taking long minutes to decide. Natalie would spend a few seconds on her move, and then spend the rest of the time looking at Meredith.

"I'm spending too much time thinking," Meredith said.

"But you're winning."

Meredith lifted her head. "Are you letting me win?"

"Well, I'm not trying very hard."


Natalie froze in mid-movement. A pawn dangled from her fingertips. She had been about to move it into Meredith's kill-zone. Really, thinking up ways to die, to catch Meredith's attention for moves, to coax Meredith into taking advantage had all been rather fun.

She grinned, but Meredith's eyes were filling with tears. She frowned.

"No one's ever let me win before," Meredith said.

"Will you let your boys win at chess?" Natalie asked. Her throat constricted around the words. Foolish of her to picture Meredith single and alone, an angel waiting for her and having nothing else to do. Meredith had a whole life.

Natalie was the anomaly in it.

Meredith said, "I'm just glad they're past that age where they'll eat the pieces. They're good at checkers, though. I don't let them cheat. Their dad--he would have let them cheat."

All the blood must drained from Natalie's face.

Meredith met Natalie's eyes, and said, "They're four. Merritt and Beau."

"Merritt. Like Merry?"

Meredith smiled. "That's what we call him. He gets a kick out of having a name like his mommy. That'll change, I'm sure. But it makes Beau jealous."

"Is Beau--" Natalie couldn't get the words out. She set down the piece, in a defensive spot, unwilling to open her side up to attacks when she was feeling so vulnerable, and then tried again. "Is Beau named after his daddy?"

"Nah, his daddy's Vince. He didn't want a kid named after him, so we went with grandfather Beauregard." Meredith sobered up and looked down at the board. "Can we change the subject, please?"

"Yeah. Um, sure." Natalie felt heat returning to her cheeks. She was as happy to change the subject as Meredith was. She was happy, though not by honest means, that maybe Meredith wasn't still married after all--No ring, no visits, and no mentions of going home to her husband. It was nearly seven, after all. Natalie wanted to ask where the boys might be, if not at home, but the topic was forbidden.

She shrugged and asked, "What's the weather like?"

Meredith chuckled. "We don't have to talk about the weather."

"I haven't been outside in a week. It was already starting to get cool in the mountains. But down here--perfect beach weather. I would have loved to have seen the beach," Natalie said.

"You will." Meredith leaned forward and took her hand.

"Maybe. I don't know if I'll ever swim in it."

Meredith squeezed her fingers, and said, "It's still nice outside. Sunny every day. The rains haven't come yet. They will, I expect. It's been hurricane season for two weeks."

"Oh, God, a hurricane?"

"Well, not yet," Meredith said.

"Let's change the subject," Natalie said. Being near the eastern shore of hurricane territory was unsettling. She remembered the devastation Fran had wrought, and Floyd, and Hugo--this was not a good place to be. Not in September. Not when the seasons changed.

"Want to talk about politics?" Meredith asked.

"Oh, sure. Or how about God?"

She meant it flippantly, but Meredith put her other hand over Natalie's, clasping Natalie's hand in both of hers gently. Her thumbs rubbed Natalie's wrist. She said, "We can talk about God anytime you want."

Natalie managed not to flinch. She turned her head to the side, faced the door, and said, "Not tonight."

Meredith gave her another squeeze and let her go. "Not tonight. Is it my turn?"


Meredith had to look pointedly at the board before she moved. "Check, I think," Meredith said.

Natalie studied the board. "Crap." She moved her king out of harm's way.

Meredith moved again. "Check," she said.

"Oh, come on." Natalie shoved a bishop in front of her king. That wouldn't hold for long.

Meredith circumvented it. "Check--mate?"

Natalie flicked her king over.

Meredith grinned. She offered her hand to Natalie. Natalie shook it, and then fell back on the bed while Meredith scooped the pieces and the board back into her bag.

"When are we doing that again?" Natalie asked.

"If you're good, I'll swing by after lunch tomorrow."

"I have to be good?"

"Teresa tells me everything," Meredith said.

Natalie closed her eyes. She felt a warm pressure on her shoulder. Meredith said, "I'm going to get you something mild to help you sleep. You look drained."

"Thanks," Natalie said. She felt drained. Her back and leg were sore, and her head hurt from paying so much attention to something for so long. She hadn't been ready for that, probably.

Was she going to feel like this from now on, every time she wanted to play a game with a nurse?

Meredith ruffled Natalie's hair. She said, "It'll get better."


"Honey, I know what I'm doing," Meredith said.

And even though there was a note of false bravado in Meredith's voice, Natalie decided to believe her. She exhaled slowly, and just said, "Bring me the good drugs."

She heard the door shut. She lay in pain until the door opened again, and someone pressed pills and a paper cup into her hand. She took the pills without opening her eyes, and after that, she waited for the pain to ebb so that she could sleep.

Chapter Seven

Natalie woke to pain--worse than before. Light was against her eyes. It must be morning. She was afraid the pain was so bad she couldn't breathe. But, she reminded herself, she had been breathing before she woke up. She could do so now.

She wasn't gasping. She just hurt.

Shooting pain went through her leg and hip and shoulder and neck. Tears came to her eyes, but it hurt to cry--it hurt to be tense with the need to sob. She tried to breathe more slowly. In and out. If Meredith were here, Meredith would be telling her to breathe.

Even though she was already breathing and it wasn't helping.

The room was filled with light. Natalie sank into it, and closed her eyes and let the light glow on the backs of her eyelids. The room was so empty and so quiet that she couldn't tell if it was that early morning light, pure and cold, before everyone woke up, or that afternoon light, warm and beating down on everyone who was too busy to interrupt a sleeping woman in a hospital bed.

The pain came in waves. After one subsided, she breathed deeply--into soreness in her chest that was pleasant, after the sharper pains, and turned her head to look at the clock. 6:36 in the morning.

She was clear-headed.

The button to call the nurses was by her side. But she'd never called them. She would wait. They'd be in around 7:30, she supposed.

She waited in agony.

Whatever Meredith had given her last night hadn't lasted, and they'd taken off her IV bag. Nothing dripped through her veins since they had established that her stomach, kidneys, and intestines, though enveloped by bruised skin, were functioning adequately. Well, mostly adequately. One of her kidneys, she'd learned when Teresa let her read her chart, had frightened Wheeler enough that he'd considered scooping it out. But it was still there. Her back hurt.

She shifted, prodding her abdomen, wondering if she was bleeding internally.

6:42. She reached for the button, crying before her fingers even brushed the knob. She'd never felt this helpless. She'd never wanted to ask for help this badly in her life.

The doctors and nurses had earned her trust in the last two weeks. They had taken care of her and saved her and cleaned her and put her back together, she should trust them now--maybe the pain was normal.

Maybe she was just being a baby about how much she hurt.

Maybe she should pray.

She clutched the call-button remote in her hand and closed her eyes, and tried to open herself up to the universe. The pain ebbed and flowed through her. The light in the room stayed constant. Everything around her was ordinary hospital furniture, and she felt ordinary, too.

Just a sick woman.

God would probably tell her to push the damn button and stop being so full of herself. He was busy and He had doctors for that sort of thing.

She squeezed, just as the door slid open.

Colleen, the nurses' aide, came in carrying breakfast and a newspaper.

"Oh, thank God," Natalie said.

Colleen rushed to her side, and put her hand on Natalie's forehead. "Where does it hurt?"

"Everywhere," Natalie said.

Colleen looked at Natalie's chart, and then picked up the phone by Natalie's bed and called someone. When she hung up, she sat on the edge of the bed. Natalie sniffled.

Colleen gently pried the remote control out of Natalie's fingers and placed it by her side.

Natalie lifted her chin.

Colleen said, "Good morning." She offered a hopeful smile. "The P.A. is on her way."

"Jesus Christ," Natalie said. "Is it going to be like this every morning?"

"They took you off the codeine. I don't know what they'll give you for the long-term pain management--" Colleen looked over her shoulder, and then lowered her voice, and said, "Your doctor should tell you this, but, yes. You're going to be in some discomfort for a very long time."

"Okay," Natalie said.

Wheeler came in, looking groggy and carrying a syringe case and some medication. He said, "I ran into the P.A. when I was coming in this morning. You're doing badly?"

"Worse than ever," Natalie said.

She'd been calmer since Colleen arrived. Her tears had stopped and her face, she hoped, was less puffy. She could even move around a little, though she had a fear of doing so.

"We're going to put you on Percocet, since the stuff you were on hasn't made you nauseous. You're going to feel great."

"I don't want--" she started, but Wheeler cut her off.

He said, "You can have the addiction discussion with your pain therapist, okay? I already had to sign three sheets of paper just to get this out of the cabinet. You might as well try it."

She held out her arm.

Colleen got alcohol and a cotton ball from the cabinet. Natalie felt about two years old, but she let Wheeler give her the shot without complaint, even though it stung.

"Give it about 20 minutes," Wheeler said. "I'll be back. Try and have some breakfast when you can, but don't worry too much if you can't."

"I never worry," Natalie said.

He smiled and closed the door behind him.

Colleen laid out her breakfast tray and stuck the newspaper next to it.

Natalie regained some sense of herself and said, "I'm sorry to cause so much trouble."

"You're not." Colleen put a hand on her shoulder and said, "Try harder. I mean it. Give us something to do around here."

"I will," Natalie said, although the pain in her hip had started to ease and her head was floating. Food? She didn't care about food. Anxiety? She'd call the nurses a thousand times. She grinned goofily at Colleen.

Colleen grinned back, and then left her in peace with her breakfast.

The county school board had met last night, she read in the headlines.

Drama had ensued.

Natalie decided to nap, instead.

* * *

The drugs had mostly worn off and the pain and soreness had returned, though tolerably. Back to normal. Natalie's head still felt heavy when Meredith came in with the chess board and dinner. Natalie was relieved to see her, and it must have shown on her face, because Meredith's brow furrowed in concern.

"Were you bored today?" Meredith asked.

Natalie looked away, shaking her head, and said, "It was a bad day."

Without the Percocet, it was a lot harder to explain herself. She missed feeling invulnerable and not caring. Especially in front of Meredith, who crept over, trying to see her face.

Natalie blushed and said, "Don't worry, Wheeler hooked me up."

"Are you up for this? We could just watch TV."

The thought of television had never been more appealing in her life, which scared her. Maybe it was a sign of healing, to want to lie in bed and watch sitcoms, like she'd done at home, between work and late night prep. They had been her friends.

She might be ready for the outside world again.

She shook her head, and asked, "What did you bring to eat?"

Meredith grinned. She opened the bag and said, "Chinese. I thought about Greek, but the aides would kill me if I gave you that much fatty meat."

Natalie laughed. "You should only feed me asparagus and carrots."

Meredith's grin grew wider. She pulled out small white cardboard boxes.

"Are there many Chinese? I mean, around here?"

"Um. There are mostly Laotians. And Koreans? There are Koreans with the boys in day care when they go. And a great barbeque place. I'll take you when you can--Though, I think it's mostly" She faltered, contemplating the boxes.


Meredith snapped her fingers. "Bingo." She pulled out chopsticks.

"Is there a fork?" Natalie asked.

Meredith looked surprised. She searched the bag, and sheepishly said, "No."

Natalie took the chopsticks and examined the instructions on the wrapper.

"They're not hard," Meredith said.

"I'm Eastern European," Natalie said. She pulled apart the chopsticks and held one in each hand, pointing them at Meredith. "Is stabbing an option?"

The blood drained from Meredith's face so fast that Natalie yanked her hands down, and asked, "Teach me?"

"I'll teach you," Meredith said. "I tried teaching the boys, but their motor skills aren't quite up to it. Maybe next year. They like to eat the little corns with their hands, though, like it's real corn."

Natalie kept her hands in her lap until Meredith clasped one and took the sticks from her, positioning them in her fingers. Meredith's hands were cold, and slightly scented. Natalie inhaled.

Meredith pulled back, and said, "Sorry. Lotion."

"It's fine," Natalie said. And then said, "It's nice."

Meredith smiled and lifted Natalie's hand by the wrist. She said, "Now. Like they're scissors."

Natalie scissored. A chopstick fell to the bed.

Meredith laughed and repositioned it. "Try again."

Natalie tried. The scissors ended up perpendicular. She frowned.

Meredith giggled, and then said, "I'm sorry. I'm being so impolite. You're doing great."

"Let me practice."

Meredith gestured to the box of food.

Natalie inhaled the steam and the scent of brown sauce, and the chicken and broccoli and water chestnuts soaking in it. Hunger gnawed at her. She carefully closed her chopsticks on a piece of chicken and squeezed as hard as she could. The chicken lifted out of the box, and then fell back with a splat.

She stuck the sticks in the box, feeling chagrined.

Meredith said, "Here." She scooped up a piece of broccoli and waved it at Natalie.

Natalie opened her mouth and Meredith deftly dropped the broccoli inside. She discreetly took her own food from her box while Natalie chewed. Natalie swallowed and said, "That was impressive coordination."

"You're easier to feed than a four year old," Meredith said. She tilted her head and frowned at Natalie. "A little."

Natalie snorted.

"Watch me do rice," Meredith said. She opened the smaller box of rice and scooped some up on her chopsticks.

"Wow," Natalie said.

Meredith popped the rice into her own mouth, and then scooped more out for Natalie. She paused. "This is unsanitary."

"I don't care."

"I could have mono."

"You're already my nurse," Natalie pointed out.

"Good point."

Natalie opened wide.

Meredith couldn't quite get the rice close enough because she'd doubled over in laughter.

Natalie tried to look hurt.

"Sorry, sorry. I'll get you a fork."

"You don't have to--" Natalie started, but Meredith was out of the room before she finished. She looked at the containers of food on her tray and smiled. She scooped some rice out with her fingers.

When Meredith came back, Natalie asked, "What did you give me last night?"


"I mean, the medication."

"Oh. Tylenol," Meredith said.

"That's all it took?"

"Did it help?"

Natalie nodded. "Yup."

Meredith smiled. "I'm glad," she said.

"Me too." Natalie paused, and then added, "Real glad."

Meredith chopped her chopsticks. "You're making fun of me."

Natalie shook her head and said, "Just joining in."

"Welcome, then. In a week or two you'll be up to barbeque and lemonade."

"You keep promising me food. Is this some sort of ritual?"

That seemed to take Meredith off-guard. She leaned back and thought about it, and then said, "Just hearth and home and family. I guess so."

That just made Natalie want to ask, "When do I get to meet your boys?" but she didn't. Couldn't, somehow.

Meredith looked down, and plucked out a baby corn. She offered it to Natalie, like a peace offering, and said, softly, "You look like you're not eating enough vegetables."

"I have been eating that Jell-O with the fruit in it. Doesn't that count for anything?"

"Sure it does," Meredith said. "Why do you think we put the fruit in it?"

Natalie grasped Meredith's wrist, and steadied it while she took the corn between her teeth. Sweet and crunchy and a little cold. Meredith stayed still, letting Natalie hold her hand. Natalie met her eyes.

Meredith smiled. She said, "You're feeling better."

"Think they'll let me out of here?" Natalie asked.


Natalie took another piece of chicken with her fork, and ate it, chewing thoughtfully and thinking things over. The food was warm and fortifying, and gave some steadying weight to the nervousness in her stomach.

She said, "Wheeler's specialist is coming tomorrow afternoon. He might want to operate, or move me up to Duke, or--I don't know." She looked at the contents of her box. Chicken and broccoli lay limply together. "I don't know."

Meredith said, "I don't, either."

Natalie nodded.

Meredith said, "If I did, I'd tell you."

"You'd reveal all the secrets in the universe?" Natalie asked.

Meredith shrugged and said, "Tell me about your case. Papers say the jury has it."

"I don't want to talk about the case." The case felt so far removed from this little hospital in this little town, and she wanted it to stay that way.

"You're not on the news anymore," Meredith said.

"Good." Natalie ran her hand through her hair. She closed her container and put it on the table, away from Meredith's reach. She said, "I'm done for now. That's for later."

"Don't tell Teresa where you got it, okay?"

"I won't," Natalie said. She paused and then added, "Your secret is safe with me."

"One at a time, then," Meredith said. She smiled and put away the rest of the food, and said, "Here's your chance to redeem yourself at chess."

"I didn't lose that badly," Natalie said.

"Oh, Natalie," Meredith said.

"I let you win!"

"Oh, I know you did," Meredith said, in the most condescending tone she could manage while grinning.

Natalie hadn't known she could be provoked into seeking revenge in a chess match, but energy came through her to wake up her brain and make her fingers tingle. The pieces waited.

She lost anyway.

* * *

A hand on her shoulder shook her awake. She grunted, groggy and sore. Slowly she opened her eyes. Teresa stood by her bed. Her hand touched Natalie's cheek.

"Ungh?" Natalie asked.

"Take these," Teresa said, helping Natalie sit up and pressing two pills into her hand.

Natalie oriented and wet her lips, and then took the cup of water Teresa offered. She took the pills, then the water, and then handed everything back so that she could lie down and look out the window. No stars were out. The only light came from the half-open door leading into the hallway.

Teresa said, "I'm going off shift, but Merrybelle wanted me to give you these on my way."

"What are they?" Natalie asked, sleepily.

"Just Tylenol."

"Make a note in my chart," Natalie said. She yawned.

"Already taken care of. Go back to sleep."

Natalie closed her eyes.

Chapter Eight

The specialist from Duke arrived a half hour early and came in to see Natalie during her lunch break with Colleen. All My Children was on, but Colleen turned it off and guiltily scrambled off the side of the bed.

"Doctor Wheeler," Colleen said.

"Colleen. Mind giving us some privacy?"

"Sure." She left the room.

The doctor, a short Indian man with graying hair and dark skin offered his hand. He said, "I'm Doctor Bhatti."

His voice had a blend of Indian and Southern, and the result was a melodic lilt.

She shook his hand. Dry and leathery, but steady.

He set his coffee down on her table and asked, "Mind if I have a look at your leg?"

"Only if you buy me dinner first," she said.

He smiled and said, "I brought barbeque down from our church fundraiser. It's in the staff fridge for you."


He nodded. "Best barbeque in North Carolina."

Wheeler grunted.

Bhatti chuckled.

Natalie nervously drew back the blanket over her leg. Colleen had helped her shave, not over the damaged flesh, but her calves and the other leg, so at least she looked presentable. Not that the doctors cared about the dark hairs her ancestors had brought over for her DNA strands, but she cared.

Colleen had offered to shave the rest of her, too, but Natalie had been too nervous about the appointment to even think about her armpits. Maybe if Bhatti wanted to prod her lymph nodes, she'd regret it.

"How are you feeling today?" Bhatti asked. He pulled up a chair and leaned against the arm, studying her leg without getting too close to it.

"Okay," Natalie said.

The midnight feeding of Tylenol had helped--it was true what they said about hospitals and Tylenol--but the soreness was never-ending, and every so often a sharp pain would overtake her. If she moved too quickly, or if something on the television made her excited or sad, or even for no reason, sharp pain would rush through her and leave her breathless. Too breathless to whimper, thankfully, or the nurses would stay on the other side of the hospital.

"Sprains?" Bhatti asked.

Natalie opened her mouth but Wheeler fielded the question. "Shoulder, knee, ankle. We were afraid of an ACL tear but it's just dislocation."

"But you think the tissue damage is severe," Bhatti said.

"We're afraid the major arteries were crushed and have lost integrity," Wheeler said. "Internal bleeding in her leg is a concern."

"May I look at your abdomen?" Bhatti asked.

She hadn't been able to do anything about the standard-issue cotton panties she wore, or the tattoo of Pravda written in Cyrillic, the result of a drunken all night study session before her Criminal Justice final at Columbia that she was far too proud of, as long as no one but her saw it.

Now Bhatti did, gently opening her gown. He didn't comment on the ink, but instead asked, "What are you eating these days?"

"They won't let me have steak," Natalie said.

"But almost everything else. No complaints of stomach aches or intestinal distress," Wheeler said.


"When I eat?"


"No," she said. "But I thought that might be because of the medication."

Bhatti nodded. "It might be."

He stood back and Natalie closed her gown.

"I'm going to look at the scans and x-rays of your leg, all right?" he asked. "I've seen them up at Duke, but I want to get Doctor Wheeler's perspective."

"Okay," she said.

"Move your toes for me?" he asked.

She wiggled her foot. It hurt, but she grimaced and said nothing.

He patted her foot, through the blanket, and then he and Wheeler left.

Natalie turned the television back on and tried not to cry.

Doctors frightened her. Nausea gurgled in her stomach. Maybe the food she ate was secretly damaging her. She took the half-eaten carton of Chinese and threw it at the trash can.

Colleen slipped back in. "What'd they say?" she asked.

"Nothing," Natalie said. "Not yet."

Colleen settled into the chair Bhatti had pulled out. "There's pork for you in the fridge. God, I hate you."

"You hate God, or is that an inflective?" Natalie asked.

"I hate everything," Colleen said, and rolled her eyes. "God, lawyers."

Natalie smirked.

Colleen put her feet up on the edge of Natalie's bed. She said, "You know, when a patient becomes ornery, you know they're getting better."

"It takes spare energy to be ornery?" Natalie asked.

"Yup. Soon you'll even be wanting to use the bathroom in something other than a tin."

That cheered Natalie so much she didn't even try to hide her blush. Colleen winked, and together they laughed and watched TV and pretended Natalie was in the hospital to have a hangnail removed.

As usual, an hour later, she was sound asleep.

* * *

Natalie didn't see Wheeler again that day, or Bhatti, but Meredith came to play chess with her, and tease her that she had a secret waiting at home, watched over by the boys. Natalie spent a good hour trying to figure out what it was, to no avail.

Wheeler came by after morning rounds. After Natalie had eaten breakfastreal scrambled eggs and hash browns, slightly burnt, and a slab of ham that Colleen informed her was from Virginia. That was apparently a good thing.

She was debating between Tyra Banks or reading about the new cases Patrick wanted her to review. The eternal question, leisure or work. She had no other options, really, which meant that life was returning to normal. That depressed her.

Shouldn't the accident be a more life-changing event? She wanted her life changed. She wanted a portal into another world, like those guys on TV who got hit on the head and woke up somewhere else. Though, technically, she had woken up somewhere else--Deborahville was not a place she ever expected to be. But she still felt the same.

Awake, she just had her old life, waiting impatiently for her.

Wheeler asked, "Mind if I sit?

She said, "Sure, Hank.

"I'd tip my hat if it were on, he said.

"I suppose I should close my robe with a man in the room," she chided.

"It's the new century," he said. "But that's what brought me, actually."


He began to take off his lab coat.

"Hank" she said. She reached for the call button. "I may not be able to move, but I can scream."

"Oh, heck no, Natalie." He put his coat on the chair, and rolled up the sleeve of his tee shirt.

Wheeler was the only doctor on staff who wore tee shirts--this one was of a rock band she'd never heard of, black and stretched tight across his chest--but she assumed from too much television that Greg House had made sloppy dressing acceptable for doctors who had the skill to back it up.

And Wheeler qualified in her book.

Under his sleeve was a tattoo of a red heart with an arrow through it, and the word, "Dawn."

"Who's Dawn?" she asked.

"Ex-girlfriend," he said, and grinned. "I think of her every time I look in the mirror. Keeps me humble. I could have it removed, but then I'd just look at the absence and think of her."

"Do you still love her?"

"Oh, heck no," he said. "But I did."

She nodded. The tattoo had stretched and faded with time and did no favors to the age of his skin.

He rolled his sleeve back down and asked, "What about you? Any exes tattooed on your heart?"

"No." She shifted away and looked out the window.


"Huh?" Her voice sounded hoarse. She swallowed.

"You ain't had any visitors, except your boss and the district attorney. Isn't there someone?"

"No. Mom died, no siblings, no--relations. Friends to have a drink with or see a movie with, not to schlep all the way down to North Carolina for me."

He touched her arm, still sitting facing her. "I thought it was something else."

"Nothing else," she said. She girded herself and didn't look at his face.

"Natalie, no one's going to lynch you for who you love," he said. "Not down here."

Her whole body felt hot. She breathed slowly before she said, "There's no reason to have this conversation," and rolled back over to face him. "But that's nice, that you said that."

You know, she thought, for those people.

He said, "We're all Christian here. We try. Not everyone is as obnoxious about it as Merry. But we try not to judge."

"She's not obnoxious," Natalie said.

"She's got a good heart. You getting along with her?"

"Yes. I guess. Sure." She tried to shrug nonchalantly without hurting her shoulder or her stomach too much, and mostly succeeded, which was the best part of the morning so far.

"That's good, because--Look, Doctor Bhatti's going to come operate on your leg next week, but until then we'd like to discharge you."

Panic made bile rise up in her throat. She asked, "Back to Charlotte?"

He shook his head. "We wouldn't want you to travel that far. Look, you could get a hotel, but the ones with the internet that you'd probably need for your job are pretty far away. Merry lives just down the road. She'd be able to provide nursing care. She'd take you in."

"Why can't I stay here?"

"You know how much it costs? Your health insurance is getting harder to authorize already."

"It's always about money." Natalie exhaled.

"Besides, you're getting back some mobility. The stitches on your insides are holding just fine. This hospital isn't doing any good for you. I mean, you're only taking Tylenol. Merry's able to give you Percocet in an emergency. I know you think you're in a lot of pain, but the change we've seen in you is remarkable."

Natalie put her hands on her forehead, and thought. Then she asked, "Why are you telling me this, and not Merry?"

"Thought it would sound more official this way. Doctor's orders. And I had to talk to your insurance company about nursing care." He smiled. "Besides, you'd refuse any hospitality offered by a friend."

"I've got manners," she replied. "Decency not to put people out."

"Not always in your best interest. Take advantage."

That's what Colleen had said to do.

It was the hardest thing anyone had asked her. The thought made her sick. She didn't want to be a burden to Meredith--she liked Meredith too much to be resented underfoot. To be helpless. She really had no idea how it would turn out. It was terrifying.

Like everything else around this place.

Wheeler squeezed her shoulder. "Think about it," he said. "I'll be on my rounds."

"Later, gator," she said.

When he left, she turned on the television. Tyra over work, definitely, just to get her emotions steady. And Tyra would have good advice, though Natalie didn't need to hear it.

Live a little, make a friend. Love was important.

She turned off the television and tried to sleep.

She couldn't.

Chapter Nine

Jake introduced himself as her physical therapist extraordinaire. He had a gentle, quiet accent to match his round, kind eyes. He was of indeterminate Asian origin and Natalie didn't want to ask, because it was rude, and because her years in court had given her a pretty good handle on the basics.

She enjoyed the guessing game, as politically incorrect as it was.

He was rotating her ankle in a most pleasant way, and asking her how she liked North Carolina, so she finally said, "Jake Syha. That's a nice name. Where's it from?"

Jake smiled. He said, "My grandparents came from Laos. You know, after the war. And my parents had a farm out by Fayetteville. Growing tobacco, until the government told them to grow soy. So they grow soy. Whatever."

"Fayetteville's where the big base is?"

Jake nodded. He gently lowered her ankle and started massaging her calf. "I went into the Army, got some medic training. Paramedic, combat stuff. I got out and here I am."

"Wouldn't have thought the Army would have taught you to be so tender," Natalie said.

"Farm taught me that." He grinned. "I'm still in the reserves, though. Keeps my hand in. I got a little girl."

"What's her name?"

"Sunisa. Sunisa Syha-Jackson. My parents wanted to kill me for going back to the traditional ways, but I feel the same way about them not going back, you know?"

Jake had silver studs in each earlobe, black hair that reached his neck, and a leather bracelet on one arm. He didn't look traditional. But he was just as friendly as everyone else she'd met.

She asked, "Why'd you come back to North Carolina, after the army?"

"Wanted to live at the beach," he said. "But the hospital's better here. Still, I go surfing every other weekend if I can."

"Sounds great," she said, closing her eyes.

"You surf?"

"Never have."

"I'll teach you. I give classes to all the Yankees who come for vacation."

"All right."

He moved on to her good leg, and lifted it gently. "Rotate your ankle," he said.

She did. "This is my good leg."

"Sure, but it's just lyin' around. You don't want it to not remember how to move, once you're ready to stand on it. You'll flop right onto the floor."


"How soon will it be?" he asked her.

She sighed and looked at him. "Today's the big day." She glanced at the bathroom.

"There and back."

He squeezed her foot. "You'll do it."

"I don't know."

The thought exhausted her. Having an assigned physical therapist, long-term, instead of just the guys who did shifts at the hospital, exhausted her. Jake would be coming to Meredith's house. She'd have to get him something for Christmas if this kept up. Him and Sunisa.

"You celebrate Christmas, Jake?"

He moved up and began working on her arms. "Yeah. But we're Buddhist." He shook his head. "Gotta go down to Cape Fear for the big celebrations. Yet another reason to live at the beach. Sit up."

She tried to sit up. "Stomach hurts," she said.

He put his arms around her waist, supporting her back. For some reason she didn't mind being touched by him, being near him, even though he smelled like cheap cologne and she was only in a flimsy hospital gown.

"Put your hands on my shoulders and try again," he said.

She pulled herself up, and it hurt, but nothing agonized. "Okay," she said.

"And you're not even breathing hard."

"Will it get easier?"

He smiled, meeting her eyes directly. "Of course it will. Faster than you think. You'll forget all this."

"Never, Jake," she said.

His grin got wider. He patted her hand and said, "I'll be back on Tuesday. Don't slip on the way to the bathroom. There are parts of you I don't want to massage."

"You haven't even seen my tattoo!" she called.

He wolf-whistled, and left her alone to contemplate lunch and her great adventure of the afternoon. By the time she saw Meredith, she might have something to brag about.

* * *

Natalie looked exhausted. Meredith could tell from the tension in her expression that she was in some pain. Meredith had come with dinner from the cafeteria--French toast with fresh fruit and bacon. She brought it in, feeling apprehensive in the face of Natalie's mood change.

"For dinner?" Natalie asked.

"It's Breakfast Tuesday," Meredith said, smiling. A little too brightly, she felt.

"I never noticed."

Natalie picked up her fork, but just sat glumly staring at the toast.

"Television?" Meredith suggested. The natural desensitizer when people didn't want to feel anymore.

Natalie nodded.

Meredith turned on the television and found the six o'clock sitcoms on. Natalie nibbled on bacon. Beyond the grayness of her complexion, Natalie's hair had been washed and her hospital gown was crisp. The bruises had faded from her face and arms. Except for the shaved part of her head, she looked halfway to healthy.

Meredith kept quiet until the first commercial break, and then had to ask, "You smell like--strawberries?"

Natalie smiled. "Yeah. Colleen brought it for me, now that I can do my own sponge baths. Well, I helped. I was sweaty this afternoon. Can you believe it? Sweaty. From lying in bed."

"Well, that's not all you did today, is it? You exerted yourself."

"Barely," Natalie said. She sighed.

Meredith reached for a raspberry on Natalie's plate.

Natalie said, "I just can't believe that I can't walk across a room without my entire body hurting. I want to lie in bed for a week after that. And that's with enough drugs in my leg to put down a rhinoceros."

"Two weeks ago you were in a coma, you know. You've come pretty far."

"Yes, but three weeks ago." Natalie said. Her voice trailed off.

"What is it?" Meredith asked.

"I was just trying to picture where I was three weeks ago. There'd been the beach trip, all planned. All by myself. But here I am, with you." Natalie said. She turned and met Meredith's eyes and gave her a genuine smile.

Meredith smiled back. Sharp relief struck her heart at the shedding of Natalie's despair. With it her own despair rose up in her chest. She bit her lip until it hurt. Her thoughts turned inward, to Vincent, and she forgot Natalie was still gazing at her.

"You don't look very good, Merry," Natalie said.

"Oh, dear. I just got some bad news, is all. I don't mean for it to affect you."

"It does. I mean, it should. I mean--" Natalie put her hand on her forehead.

Meredith, her thoughts still half-distracted by the morning call from her lawyer, said, "You have enough of your plate without me adding mine."

"I could say the same thing," Natalie said. "I've been taking advantage of your kindness for too long. I've been selfish--you probably have bigger problems than being able to walk across to the bathroom or not."

After a pang of shame was overwhelmed by the desire to open up to another living soul, Meredith said, "It's just about my husband, is all." Even saying that made her feel better.

Natalie hesitated, and then reached over and brushed Meredith's arm. She said, "What about him?"

Meredith looked down, and said, having to clear her throat and restart, "Well, you know he passed away."

"Okay. I didn't know--Okay."

Natalie slid her hand down Meredith's arm, past her elbow, and tugged, until Meredith willingly clasped her hand with one of her own. Meredith squeezed. Natalie winced.

"Oh, goodness, sorry," Meredith said, letting go.

"No, it's okay." Natalie took her hand again. "I was just--I was surprised. I haven't been held on to that tightly in a long time."

A tear rolled down Meredith's cheek. She impatiently brushed it away. She wasn't even thinking of Vincent at all, not since Natalie had taken her hand. The despair, though, remained, coiled up and heavy in her chest, and somehow Natalie's presence made her feel even more lonely.

"I'm sorry. I'm so sorry, Merry."

Meredith half-bent and half-raised Natalie's hand so that she could press her forehead against the clasped fingers. She inhaled deeply, fighting back the crying. Natalie's grip was strong. Meredith let herself draw on that strength. She got control of herself and lifted her chin to give Natalie a watery smile.

Natalie smiled back, meeting her eyes with a solid, compassionate gaze.

"I think I'm in the wrong room," Meredith said, drawling for effect. "I heard you was a lawyer."

To be continued...