The Heart of the Matter by Cephalgia

Author’s Note: This story is for Deb who lives with the specter of Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome every single day. Thanks for advising me on the medical things and letting me share a little of your life with others.

The Heart of the Matter
by Cephalgia
cephalgia@hotmail.com

Part One

Chapter One

“Oh fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck…”

The chanting was only in Crystal’s mind, but it became her entire focus. The sterile waiting room, with its vinyl covered seats, artificial plants and magazines from an era Crystal could not remember, faded into the background. This was not a bad thing because the waiting was always the hardest part. The seemingly eternal wait for a shred of news.

A second chant now began in her head and slowly it started to drown out the first. “Is this the day? Is this the day?” That phrase echoed a question that had been in Crystal’s mind far too many times in the past six years. The question tortured her, but just for today she would be happy to hear it again tomorrow.

San Diego’s Patterson General was known for its state of the art pediatric department. She knew most everyone in the department well and they knew her. Knew her and knew Davey all too well. Crystal sat up straight in her chair and wished for the umpteenth time that she had remembered to bring a Xanax with her. Just something to take the edge off the damned interminable waiting.

Larry Hamilton, the Pediatric Cardiology Chief, entered the waiting room in his powder blue scrubs. He still had on the blue paper booties that matched the rest of his outfit and Crystal watched as he made his way toward her with hushed steps. She rose slowly to her feet. “He’s doing fine, he’s on his way to the Pediatric ICU.” Crystal closed her eyes briefly as relief washed over her. “We’ll monitor him overnight, but if everything is stable I think we might let him go home tomorrow.”

Crystal would hear the phrase “Is this the day?” again and she was ecstatic about the prospect.

***********

Watching the rhythmic rise and fall of Davey’s chest was familiar territory for Crystal. She had watched him sleep many times in the six years since his birth. Usually it was at home, but too many nights it had been in the hospital. Looking through the glass and into Davey’s room, Crystal found herself hesitating. Her mind wasn’t in the right place and Davey hated it when he saw her cry. She leaned her forehead against the transparent barrier and willed her emotions back under control. A warm hand broke her nearly meditative state. Turning, Crystal was almost assaulted by warm blue eyes.

“You can go on in, Ms. O’Brien. He’s stable and his vitals are good. I’m going to keep him on the oxygen tonight, but we’ll wean him off in the morning.”

Crystal’s eyes went to the nurse’s name badge. “Thank you?Lauren?I just needed a minute. It’s a little rough sometimes.” She tensed and waited for the inevitable. They said it every time.

“I’d like to say I can imagine what you’re going through, but I can’t. I don’t think anybody could really know unless they are in your shoes,” Lauren said.

Crystal thought for a second she hadn’t heard right. Lauren didn’t say, “I know what you’re going through.” They always say that even though they don’t have a friggin’ clue what it is to deal with this, she thought.

“Do you need to talk?” the nurse offered. “My other patient is gone for surgery so Davey is going to be my only patient for a while. I’m on until seven a.m. and they frown on us going out dancing while we’re on duty.”

Crystal looked from the nurse back into Davey’s room. He still seemed to be resting comfortably. She began talking without taking her eyes from her son. “He was diagnosed with Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome when he was only 19 hours old. His APGAR scores were 2 and 5. Hell, I didn’t even know what an APGAR score was then. All I knew was that he was listless and kind of limp, just not moving around much and they kept needing to stimulate him. And he didn’t cry. Can you imagine that? He didn’t cry. Every movie I’d ever seen, every TV program that showed a baby being born had the baby crying. Not Davey. Not a peep.” She looked at the nurse now.

“Only a few hours later he started having problems breathing. His color wasn’t good and you could see his ribs suck in each time he took a breath. He had to work so hard and he was dusky, you know? They did an echocardiogram and that’s when they found it. At nineteen hours old. He went into the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit and didn’t come out for three weeks.”

“I’m so sorry,” Lauren said simply, in a tone that let Crystal know the feeling was genuine and not just a reflex comment. She was surprised once again.

“I only have thirty-two pictures of Davey without a scar on his chest. That’s all.” A small sound came from the cubicle Davey was in. He was moving around a little. “I need to get in there. He’s used to me being there when he wakes up from these things.”

“Of course. I’ll be right in, I just want to take a quick peek at his orders again.” Lauren moved to head over to the central nurse’s station, but stopped and turned back. “Regular visiting hours are just about over. Only parents can be in after that time. Should I let security know to expect your husband?”

“He isn’t in the picture,” Crystal said, making an effort to keep the bitterness out of her voice.

If Lauren had any thoughts about that, her face didn’t betray it. “Okay. I’ll be in shortly.”

Crystal entered Davey’s room. His face was scrunched up the way it always was when he woke up. Some mornings the look was so comical Crystal would just watch him and chuckle. She moved to the chair sitting next to the bed. Reaching out, she stroked the soft cheek of her son. One sleepy eye cracked open.

“Hey, kiddo. How are you doing? I’m so proud of you; you came through the angioplasty like a champ.” Both of Davey’s eyes were now open and he was much more aware of his surroundings.

“Mom, can I play video games? I’m really not sleepy.” Crystal laughed softly. She glanced up at the screen above Davey’s bed displaying his vital signs and heart rhythm.

“You’re already playing a video game and you’re kicking butt.”

“I am?” he asked.

“Yep,” Crystal confirmed. She looked at the monitor and numbers again. “You’ve got an 86 and that’s a darn good score.”

“Cool.” With a satisfied smile Davey closed his eyes again.

Lauren observed the interaction between mother and son from just inside the doorway. She had seen a lot of terrible things happen to children and their parents over the years, but this was one of the most devastating. Chances are her kid might not live to see adulthood, but look at her?she is one gutsy lady, she thought.

Clearing her throat to let the pair know she was in the room, Lauren went right up to Davey’s bedside. She spoke gently to him and in a respectful manner. So many times Davey had been talked down to and it made him crazy. At six he was almost as big an expert on his condition as many adults.

Lauren made the check of Davey’s right leg and groin, the spot where the cardiologist had entered his body for the procedure, sparing him as much embarrassment as she could. A quick check of his heart and lung sounds along with notations of his blood pressure, pulse and respirations and she was finished.

“I’ll be out at the nurse’s station, right by where we’re monitoring his heart. If he needs anything, let me know. Otherwise I’ll just slip in periodically to check on him.”

“Thanks, Lauren,” Crystal said quietly, seeing Davey’s eyelids droop slightly. The nurse smiled her acknowledgement and turned to leave.

“Thanks, Lauren” Davey said in a sleepy voice.

“You’re more than welcome, Davey,” Lauren replied and left the room.

*********

Lauren finished giving the day nurse report and she gathered up her things in preparation for going home. The patient from surgery was not stable and had taken up most of her time during the night. Still, she had been in to see Davey every hour and was sure he was doing well and would be heading home this morning.

She slung her backpack over her shoulder and headed toward the doors of the PICU. She slowed as she came near Davey’s room and looked in momentarily. Everything still looked stable. Crystal was asleep in the chair that she had pulled up to touch Davey’s bed. Her arm was propped on the bed and her hand just touched his arm. It wasn’t much contact, but it was enough.

Good luck, Davey, Lauren thought. Then she looked over at the blonde haired woman in the chair. Good luck to you too, Crystal.

Chapter Two

Lauren pulled into the parking space in front of her apartment. By reflex she glanced over to the space where Rachel’s car should be, but wasn’t. It hadn’t been there for nine months now, but the habit of four years was hard to break. At least the thought of Rachel didn’t bring the burning anger or crushing loneliness that it had the first month or so. When Rachel had left her, Lauren had been hurt and wounded by what she saw as Rachel’s betrayal. Now, with time and space between herself and the event, the nurse could admit that it had been a long time in coming.

Their love had been white hot in the beginning. The blind date they had met on lasted twenty-four hours and they had decided to move in together after knowing each other less than a month. Neither had raised the question that it might be a bit hasty to take up living together. In time, passion had been replaced by complacency and relationship for companionship. They had been less lovers and partners than roommates, so when Rachel met another woman and fell in love with her, it had been understandable. Understandable a couple of months later, Lauren thought wryly.

She pulled the three plastic bags of groceries from the passenger seat and headed for her apartment. Two flights up, twenty-two steps; she knew each one by heart. Fumbling with her keys as she juggled the packages and her backpack, she managed to get the door open just as an orange and white blur flashed past her and into the apartment.

“Cripes, Ram, you scared the hell out of me! I’ve got to get you a bell, that’s for sure.” The tabby had silently followed her up the stairs and was now perched on the back of the sofa, waiting anxiously while attempting to look nonchalant.

“You don’t fool me, fuzz face, I know you know what’s in the bags. For the life of me I don’t know why you like the stuff.” The nurse walked into the apartment, kicking the door closed with the heel of her trainer. She dropped her backpack and took the plastic bags into the kitchen.

“You’re not even going to ask me how my day went?” she asked the cat. “No wonder they say a dog is man’s best friend. You’d think that we were only passing acquaintances instead of me being your meal ticket for the past three years.”

Lauren thought back to the day she first encountered the cat. She and Rachel had been leaving the hospital on a blustery November morning. It had been Lauren’s regular night to work, but Rachel had been called in to scrub into a trauma case in the O.R. After an exhausting night for them both, they had been walking to Rachel’s car when a noise interrupted their conversation. A soft mewling emanated from under the loading dock next to the hospital’s back exit.

They had both stopped, but it had been Lauren who had decided to crawl under the concrete deck to check out the source of the sound. What she found there had broken her heart. A female cat and three kittens had made a home under the shadow of the hospital. The mother was dead, as were two of the kittens, trauma by the look of the older cat, a car or something like it. The two kittens had apparently starved to death after their mother died and Lauren marveled at the maternal instinct that gave the cat the strength to make it back to her kittens at all.

The third kitten was still alive, though it looked to be in bad shape. It barely had its eyes open and wobbled around on thin legs. The orange fur was matted and dusty, but its lung power was still strong as the frantic mewling that was produced when Lauren picked it up testified. She emerged from under the loading dock as dusty as the kitten was, cobwebs gracing her dark brunette hair.

“Lauren Cook, you’re filthy!” Rachel said as the nurse emerged. Her heart melted at the sight of the bedraggled kitten though and, after alerting the maintenance department about the dead felines, they took the kitten to the vet and then home.

Several nights of feeding the kitten by dropper and letting it sleep on their new heating pad paid off. Soon the kitten was a chubby bundle of kitten energy and the day Lauren described it as “Rambunctious” was the day it got its name.

Lauren returned to the present and took a can of Seafood Splendor out of the bag. Pulling back the lid she got a strong whiff of the contents. “Seafood Splendor? This smells like a very bad day on Fisherman’s Wharf!” Reluctantly she inverted the can over a clean bowl and set it on the floor. “Bon appetite, it’s your funeral.”

Ram dropped his air of indifference and scrambled from the sofa to come to a skidding stop on the kitchen floor directly in front of the bowl. Lauren watched as the cat became absorbed in his meal. There’s no accounting for taste, she thought and then laughed at herself. Yours wasn’t too great either, girl. You thought Rachel and you would be together forever. You should have seen that you and a scrub nurse would be all washed up one day. Groaning at her own pun, Lauren put away the rest of the groceries and wondered if she would get used to the silence in the apartment anytime soon.

Probably not, she thought as she picked up the remote control and snapped on the television.

***********

“Turn off that TV! You’re going to be late for the bus and I’m not driving you to school again!” Crystal yelled down the hall to her son who was being his usual reluctant self when it came to school. “I’m not kidding!” she added for good measure. She stood in the kitchen and continued packing Davey’s lunch as she glanced up at the clock again.

Why is every morning like this?
 she thought. I have to practically use a crowbar to pry him out of the house. Maybe it would be different if his dad were around. A bitter taste found its way to Crystal’s mouth at the thought of Sean O’Brien. It was an understatement when I said, ‘not in the picture’ to that nurse the night Davey had his angioplasty. What was her name anyway? The moniker escaped her, but the memory of warm blue eyes popped immediately into her mind. If, okay?when, Davey has to go back in there, I hope she’s his nurse.

Sean’s image intruded again and pushed away the more pleasant one. She returned to her task and dropped the peanut butter and jelly sandwich she had been making into a plastic bag and then into a brown paper bag where it joined an apple and a pudding cup. She turned to call out the time to Davey, but was startled to see he was standing behind her, fully dressed and ready for school.

“Geez, Davey, you scared the crud out of me! Wow, look at you though, all together and ready for school.”

“Except for this,” Davey said, leaning forward slightly and staring down in consternation at his left shoe. Even before her eyes followed his, Crystal knew what she would find and suppressed the laugh that threatened to bubble up from inside. She peered at the shoe. Sure enough, there it was.

“My God!” Crystal gasped in faux horror. “It’s a knot the size of Cleveland! Again!”

“Dumb shoe,” Davey said, his eyebrows knitting together. “Hey, you usually say it’s the knot that ate Cleveland.”

Crystal shrugged. “Have you got something against trying something new?” She reached out and brushed an unruly lock of hair off of his forehead, but it promptly fell back onto its place of origin. He needs a haircut, she thought.

“I bet those new Nikes we saw at the mall wouldn’t do that,” he hinted.

“For ninety-five dollars those shoes had better be able to tie themselves,” Crystal grumbled as she bent to unravel the tangled laces. She worked silently while she remembered the look on Davey’s face when he’d seen those shoes. If her raise at the bank came through and the water heater held up, she’d be able to get the Nikes for him for his birthday.

“Alright, Buster,” she said as the last recalcitrant string came loose on Davey’s shoe, “that takes care of that.” She re-tied the laces and stood. “You just need to take your meds now and I’ll walk you to the bus stop.”

Davey made a face at the prospect of this next morning ritual. Climbing onto a chair he retrieved five bottles of pills from the bottom shelf of the nearest kitchen cabinet.

“Jerry Minter told a couple of the kids at school that I take drugs,” he mentioned as he brought the bottles to his mother.

“He did, did he?” asked Crystal. At Davey’s nod she said, “Well you tell Jerry Minter you take medicines, not drugs.” She took one pill each out of the first four bottles. Lasix, Digoxin, Vasotec and Aspirin, the medications Davey needed each day to ease the workload on his damaged heart and optimize the function of the heart muscle he did have. “And you can also tell him if he keeps saying things like that about you, he won’t be welcome to come over and play with your X-box.”

Davey had been the first kid in the neighborhood to have an X-box and it had been quite a coup. The electronic game system was courtesy of Sean in yet another example of how he confused being Santa Claus with being a parent. That’s a great comparison she thought as Davey swallowed the pills with half a glass of water. Santa and Sean?they both visit once a year and bring presents. Davey finished the pills and Crystal allowed him to pick out which of the colorful, chewable vitamins he wanted from the fifth bottle.

“Okay, sport, go grab your jacket and backpack and let’s beat feet. I don’t work banker’s hours, you know. Oh wait a second, yes I do too.” Davey giggled at his mom’s foolishness, but ran to where his jacket and backpack waited for him on the arm of the couch.

Crystal returned the bottles to the cabinet, knowing that they, with the exception of the vitamin, would repeat that ritual later in the evening. Twice a day, like clockwork. It was little enough price to pay, she supposed, to keep Davey as healthy as possible. Looking at the bottles she thought about Jerry Minter’s words. Stupid kid. I guess it shouldn’t bug me though; half the adults I meet don’t understand about Davey’s problem either. Shaking her head, she closed the cabinet.

“You got your homework?” Crystal asked as Davey returned and started slipping on his jacket. She retrieved his lunch and put it inside the backpack.

“Yep, everything is in my notebook.” He snatched up his backpack and raced for the door. “Let’s hit the trail, snail!” he laughed as he headed out the door.

“That’s my line,” Crystal laughed as she followed after him.

*********

“So he went back to school today?” Trish asked when they had a lull between customers. Trish had worked at Kingston Savings Bank with Crystal and had been her closest friend there for six years.

“The doctor said he could go back when he felt like it and he was tearing around the house yesterday, so I figured he felt like it?whether he knew it or not!” Crystal paused for a moment to take a deposit from a longtime customer. “Have a good day, Mrs. Anderson,” she said as she handed the woman her receipt. “He kept up with what they did in class though. Mom and the babysitter took turns working with him on his lessons.”

Crystal closed her cash drawer as she turned back to Trish. “I was scared this time. Really scared. He was short of breath, his lips were blue and he was getting tired so easily. I called Larry Hamilton and he got him in for an echocardiogram right away. You know he has one of those every six months with his routine check-ups and there were changes on this one from the last one. His oxygen levels had dropped too. He needed another angioplasty of his aorta.”

“Did you let Sean know Davey was in the hospital?” Trish asked. She opened a roll of quarters into her drawer after noticing she was getting low.

“Yeah, but he gave me the usual song and dance of how he knew I could handle it and how squeamish he is around all that medical stuff. You know, Trish, Davey doesn’t even ask for him anymore. The last three times Davey was sick, Sean didn’t bother to call him. Big jerk.”

The tellers were busy for the next few minutes when two merchants from the neighboring businesses came in with their daily deposits. When their business was completed, Trish picked up the conversation where they had left off. After working in the bank for so many years, they were used to interrupted talks.

“He’s still keeping Davey on his insurance, right?”

“And that’s all he’s doing. He doesn’t pay alimony or child support. Could I have been any more naïve when we got divorced? Sean convinced me that providing the insurance for a child with Davey’s heart problems was going to be a terrible burden on him. Does the ‘sucker’ sign still show up on my forehead?” She pointed to an area just under her short blonde bangs.

Trish laughed. “No, I’d say anybody would be hard pressed to sucker you in anymore. So what’s Davey’s prognosis now?”

Crystal was quiet a moment. “In the short term, better than before by having the angioplasty. In the long term, it’s the same as it has been since he was born. Sometime before adulthood he’ll need a heart transplant or more than likely Davey is going to die.”

Chapter Three
The waiting area outside Dr. McMichaels’ office was tidy and comfortable. The small leather settee and overstuffed chair seemed to belong in the den of a gracious country home rather than the setting of a college professor’s office at a big city’s university. Lauren felt welcome and she never minded the time she spent there.

The door to Dr. McMichaels’ office opened and a bookish young man with a backpack, accompanied by a gray-haired, gray-bearded, distinguished gentleman, appeared in the opening.

“You’re well on your way to getting through your student teaching, Alexander. You hang in there and you’ll be through the program in less time than you think.”

“Thanks, Dr. McMichaels,” the gray-haired man said. “I appreciate you talking this over with me.” He took the backpack from the young man and made his way across the waiting area and through the outer door.

“Lauren,” Dr. McMichaels said as he beckoned to the nurse. “C’mon in.”

Lauren grabbed her bag that was emblazoned with the logo of a well-known drug used to treat male erectile dysfunction. She had gotten it as a freebie at a continuing education course on urological problems and she loved carrying it for the stares she got when out in public. Following Dr. McMichaels into his office, she took her usual seat across from the oak desk he settled behind. The office would have resembled any other academic milieu except for the small collection of Stars Wars figurines placed carefully along several shelves of a nearby bookcase.

“So Lauren, have you decided what your Master’s thesis is going to be about yet?” the professor inquired.

Lauren fidgeted a little and decided to hedge. “Well not exactly, but I’ve narrowed it down some.”

Randy McMichaels leaned back in his chair and steepled his fingers. “I’m going to give that response a big 9.5 on the bullshit scale,” he said thoughtfully.

For a guy who looks like the President of his high school Chess Club, this guy can sure cut to the chase, Lauren thought.

The professor continued. “When you came here for the first time two months ago, I asked you to fill out a few papers. Do you remember that?”

Lauren nodded, but wasn’t sure what he was getting at. She didn’t have to wait long to find out as he reached for and opened a file folder that had been sitting on the two-drawer file cabinet to the right of his desk.

“Question number one was simple. It asked, ‘Why do you want your Masters Degree?’ Do you recall what you wrote?” he asked.

“That I wanted to make changes in the running of the Pediatric and Neonatal ICU’s and that if I was to do that, I needed to be in management. To be in management, I need my Masters Degree,” she summarized.

“Is all that still true?” he asked.

“I suppose so,” she replied. Dr. McMichaels had very discerning eyes and every time Lauren looked into them she felt as if she had been strapped into a lie detector. “Yes,” she admitted, “It is.”

“Question number two,” he continued, “Asked about the three biggest obstacles to you doing your Master’s work.” He glanced down at the paper again. “You said, ‘time enough to do the research, money to finance it and finding a subject I can feel passionate about.’ Does that sound familiar?” Lauren nodded. 

“Correct me if I’m wrong, Lauren, but I believe you’ve adjusted your schedule and decreased the amount of overtime you’re working to deal with the time issue. You’ve also been approved for a University stipend to assist you in getting the research done. Two out of three.”

“Meatloaf says that ain’t bad,” she interjected weakly.

“Humor at this point is entirely inappropriate,” he said in a mild rebuke.

I wonder if he knows how much he looks like a young Bill Gates? Probably not, she thought. “Sorry,” she said contritely.

“Look, you are obviously having problems with this so I took the liberty of calling the director of the nursing program on campus to see if she had any suggestions to offer. She told me about a new service of the department. They have a bulletin board where they post all the faxes and flyers they get that pertain to nursing. There are internships, continuing education offerings, support groups, requests for caregivers and things like that posted. I’d like you to go over there, take a look at what’s on the board and pick something?today. When you’ve decided, you can call me with your choice.”

Lauren was trapped and she knew it. She accepted defeat gracefully and agreed to Dr. McMichaels’ instructions. Maybe it is time I get the ball rolling on this; God only knows why I’m procrastinating.

She headed out across the campus of Coastal Pacific University. It hadn’t been that long ago when she had joined a sea of excited and anxious faces as a transfer there. She had already received an Associate’s Degree with her nursing program in Texas and now she had completed all the requirements and received her Bachelor’s Degree at CPU. She loved college and learning which only made it more curious that she was having a difficult time starting on a project so important to her.

Lauren opened the door to Brookins Hall, the building that housed the nursing program. The new bulletin board was easy to spot and it was loaded with papers both tacked and stapled in place. Every phase of nursing was represented, but Pediatrics was Lauren’s specialty so she concentrated on the papers dealing with that subject.

An orange paper caught her eye. It was a notice listing the monthly meetings of a support group for parents, families, friends and caregivers of children with congenital heart anomalies.

The next meeting is scheduled for two days from now, she thought. There’s got to be a Master’s Thesis in there somewhere.

Pulling her cell phone from her bag, she dialed the office number of Dr. McMichaels.

*********

“Mom, hurry up! We’re going to be late and then I won’t get my favorite!” Davey called to his mom. He was already in the back seat of Crystal’s 1996 battered minivan with his seatbelt on as she was closing and locking the front door of the house.

Crystal had thought seriously about not going to the support group meeting this evening. The minivan had given her more than its usual share of problems, sputtering and dying at stop signs. She couldn’t afford an engine overhaul and hoped Trish’s husband, Perry, would agree to look at it and patch it up one more time. Then her boss had called in with the flu causing her to have to handle branch business between her own customers.

Ordering currency had been a hassle with lost faxes and then the ATM machine ran out of money on her lunch break. Must be nice to have a bank account hefty enough to draw out a couple of hundred, she thought. Crystal’s budget was tight, but she was making her payments on time. She never got behind on the bills, but she wasn’t making much headway either. When Crystal’s cash drawer didn’t balance at the end of the day she knew she was cursed and decided she just wanted go home, pull the covers over her head and stay there until the next morning. It took her half an hour to find the thirty-five dollar deposit she hadn’t entered into the system and it was when she was double-checking the calendar to see if it was Friday the 13th that she realized the support group meeting was that evening.

Crystal had never been a whiner and initially she was reluctant to attend a group where she thought everybody would be doing precisely that. She didn’t have a clue how wrong she was. Now she found strength in those meetings and, though the day had been hellish and nothing was more tempting than to just stay in, she knew once she got to the meeting that those things would fade a little and life would seem manageable again.

Climbing into the mini-van, Crystal looked up into the rearview mirror and teased her son. “The shoe’s on the other foot when it’s someplace you really want to go.”

“Mom!” Davey said in exasperation, dragging the three-letter word out to about four syllables. Crystal laughed, started the minivan and backed out of the driveway. The support group meeting was held in the local community center and childcare was provided which was the reason Davey wanted to go early. There were a small number of Sony Playstations for the kids to use and Davey had cut his out of the herd early on.

Crystal could admit she enjoyed the evenings as much as Davey. The group was small, usually about ten to fifteen people attended, and Crystal could deal with that. In larger groups she tended to hang back and listen, but rarely contribute. There were six children involved with the group with various forms of congenital heart defects, but Davey was the only one with Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome. It helped to hear how other parents and caregivers coped with the stress and listen as they shared their stories with one another. As grave as the conditions were, the stories were just as often humorous and interesting as serious and informative. You never knew what you might hear. The group was also a conduit for information about treatments, research and breakthroughs, something a single parent like Crystal didn’t always have the time to investigate herself.

The community center wasn’t far from Crystal’s house and it wasn’t more than a few minutes before she pulled into the parking lot there. Davey was out and running for the door practically the moment the car came to a stop.

“Davey! Walk!” she called after him. He slowed down a little, but his rapidly moving arms and legs were doing a good imitation of an Olympic race walker.

“The Playstation?” a voice asked as Crystal slid out of the minivan.

“Like always,” Crystal replied to another member of the group. Patsy Cohen was a sixty-seven year old woman who began taking care of her granddaughter when her heroin-addicted daughter was sent to prison for violating her probation.

“Just like always,” Patsy said, pointing to her granddaughter who had joined the stiff-legged competition. The girl, Sydney, had cardiomyopathy, an enlargement of the heart muscle caused by an infection in her bloodstream when she was a baby. The drug-addicted daughter had delayed taking her child to the doctor and by the time she had, the bacteria had reached the infant’s heart. The result was a flabby, ineffective heart pump and another unfortunate child whose family needed the support group.

Crystal shut the door to the mini-van and took an armload of books and papers from Patsy. In retirement Patsy had more time on her hands than most of the parents in the group and at an age when the remote control on the TV might have been the most technology she would have to deal with, she had embraced the world of the Internet and online communication. She volunteered to be the secretary for the support group and printed up a monthly newsletter containing the best data from researchers, suggestions and interesting postings from the several different chat groups she belonged to as well as updates on members of the group and their families.

“I swear, Patsy, you are amazing. Look at all this! I can’t wait to see what’s in The Beat this month.” The Beat was the name of the newsletter Patsy put out and the title was a clever play on words she had come up with. Crystal and the spry red-headed grandmother began walking to the community center. “I think I want to be you when I grow up,” she said.

That caused Patsy to laugh. “Trust me, no you don’t. It’s not half as much fun as it seems to be. Besides, you’re not turning out half bad like you are and Davey looks to be following in your footsteps.”

Crystal pulled open one of the double doors to the community center and allowed Patsy to precede her inside. “It’s hard, you know, to walk that line. I know in my head that Davey’s condition is serious and part of me wants to baby him, but another part of me knows that my parents didn’t raise a brat and I don’t want to either.”

“I know what you’re talking about,” the older woman said as they walked down the hall to the multi-purpose room where the meeting was held. “Let me tell you what happened the other day?”

Chapter Four

The chairs in the support group meeting were set up in a circle and it was easy for Lauren to slip in to the back of the room unnoticed. She took a seat and watched as the meeting progressed. There didn’t seem to be a real moderator, but several natural leaders were evident. The older red-haired woman spoke quite a bit and what she had to say surprised the nurse. She reported in some detail on medical studies that Lauren had barely heard of.

A couple in their early thirties was attending the meeting apparently for the first time. The woman was probably six months pregnant by Lauren’s estimation and their unborn child had already been diagnosed in vitro with a severe birth defect. It wasn’t a heart defect, but the parents-to-be wanted to talk to parents and caregivers of children with special needs. What they received was an honest account of what daily life was like when your child had a serious illness.

One blonde woman in particular articulated the problems and challenges she faced very well. She doesn’t feel sorry for herself or ask for anybody else’s pity either, Lauren thought. And she never lets you forget that no matter how tough the grind is, it is all worth it. Lauren felt a sense of déjà vu as she watched the group meeting come to a close. She felt certain she had met the speaker before, but seeing so many patients in the hospital and other students at the college, she couldn’t remember where. The mystery was cleared up when the door behind Lauren opened up and two children burst in chatting about how well each of them had done on a video game.

The girl Lauren didn’t know, but the boy she recognized immediately. She had last seen him lying flat in a bed in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit. Davey?his name popped into her mind with ease and when he walked up to the blonde haired woman, she also gained a name in Lauren’s mind. Crystal, of course, the nurse thought. She looked so upset that night watching Davey through the glass. So that’s what she looks like on a regular day, when the weight of the world isn’t on her shoulders.

Davey’s clinical history came rushing back to Lauren. Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome, not the rarest heart defect, but certainly one of the most devastating. The agony in Crystal’s words that night was evidence enough of that. Lauren watched as Davey went up to his mom and leaned a little against her.

“Tired?” Crystal asked her son.

“A little,” he replied. “Can we get ice cream on the way home?”

Crystal considered the request. “I don’t think a quick stop at Dairy Queen will hurt anything. Hot fudge sundae sound good?”

“Yep,” Davey answered, a second wind breathing new life into his sails.

Watching quietly, Lauren marveled at how normal an existence it seemed the mother and child had when she knew the situation had to be anything but normal. God, I wonder what it’s like living with the specter of your own child’s health and life hanging over your head everyday. I wonder? It was at that moment Lauren decided to ask Crystal if she and Davey would be the subjects of her thesis. But how do I ask someone to put themselves and their kid under a microscope?

Taking a deep breath, Lauren headed over to the group that was becoming smaller by the minute as the members left. Crystal turned to pick up flyers and handouts spread across a table at the front of the room. Lauren took the opportunity to approach her.

“Crystal? It’s Crystal, right?” The blonde turned to see who was talking to her; the voice sounded familiar.

“Yes?Lauren. How are you?”

The brunette was surprised Crystal would remember her. It had been less than one full shift in the hospital that she had been Davey’s nurse.

Crystal laughed at the expression on the nurse’s face. “You have several patients a day, but Davey only has a couple of nurses each time he goes into the hospital. I think it would be just a bit easier for me to remember you. I’m surprised you remembered my name. What brings you to the community center?”

Lauren didn’t confess to racking her brain to recall Crystal’s name. “I’m actually here for the same meeting you attended. I didn’t want to intrude so I kind of lurked in the background. It was really interesting though; I learned a lot.”

“Do you have somebody in your life with problems like these?” the teller asked. She stacked the last paper and handed them to her son. “Davey, take these over to Patsy. We’ll be going in a minute.” Davey headed over to where Patsy was gathering her things as well.

“No,” Lauren replied. “And from what I heard here tonight it’s obvious there’s a lot I don’t know about what goes on everyday in the lives of these kids and their families. I heard the things you told that couple tonight. They were looking for exactly what you gave them and I’d just like to tell you that you did a great job. You covered technical points without getting technical and emotional points without getting emotional. I was amazed.”

Crystal smiled. It was the kind of smile you couldn’t help but respond to and Lauren thought of the phrase, “people person”. It applied to Crystal O’Brien. Trusting her instincts that this was the perfect subject for her thesis, Lauren plunged ahead.

“Look, I came here tonight for a reason. When I see kids like Davey in the hospital, it’s when things are pretty serious. We are so busy being in the process of doing repair work and getting kids through a rough patch that we lose sight of the fact that living with these kinds of problems doesn’t end when the doctor writes the discharge order. Your group showed me tonight that living with a child with a severe heart defect is a twenty-four hour, seven days a week proposition. I don’t have any children and I would guess parenting is like that anyway, but you have?’parenting plus’ for a lack of words to describe it. I don’t think until tonight that it hit me how big a job you really have. I don’t think most of us at the hospital realize it either and I’d like to fix that. We need some perspective, some insight, into what it’s like everyday for you.”

Crystal had listened to Lauren’s words carefully. “Okay, I can agree with you on that. It would be helpful to both sides if the hospital personnel realized that we deal with our kids everyday. We’re your best asset and yet sometimes I’ve been made to feel like I was in the way. I mean, I can’t do an angioplasty, but I know how to keep Davey still and not scare him when there are some pretty scary things happening to him.”

“Right!” Lauren said. “I want you to be seen not just as a parent, but also as a caregiver and part of the team. Maybe knowing your point of view could do that.”

Crystal shrugged. “Okay, the support group might be a little crowded some nights, but the more the merrier I guess.”

Lauren hesitated here. “I was?I was thinking of something a little more in depth and a little more personal.”

“Such as?” Crystal asked warily. She knew there was more coming.

“I’d like to write my Master’s thesis on the daily life of a family with a child with a serious heart defect. I’d like to write about you and Davey.”

“Whoa now,” Crystal said, putting her hand up in a halting gesture. “I don’t want to be like the subject of some reality show where every time I turn around a video camera or something would be in my face. I deal with the public all day long; I don’t want to go home at night and hang around with Big Brother. Besides, video cameras make my butt look big. Ask anybody; Crystal O’Brien plus video camera equals big butt. No thanks.” Lauren did a swift assessment of Crystal’s body. There wasn’t any way on God’s green earth that her butt would look big, video camera or not.

“It’s not like that,” she explained. “No video camera at all. It would be just me, you and Davey. I’d take notes and maybe use a tape recorder for interviews, but I don’t want this to be intrusive in the least. That would defeat my purpose of letting the medical community see your everyday life.” Pacified on the video camera point, Crystal was willing to listen a little more.

“What kind of commitment are we talking about here?”

Lauren hadn’t really considered that far ahead. “Maybe a couple of hours a couple times a week and maybe one observation session a week?”

“Spell out what that means. What happens during those times?” Crystal’s tone was edged with the suspicion of a mother bear protecting her cub.

“Just talking for the first kind of session. I’d like some background of course, a picture of your daily life and maybe a little of the emotional side of things as well.” She watched for any reaction to the last request. If Crystal would find it difficult to talk about her feelings and emotions, it wasn’t apparent now.

“And the observation session?” the blonde probed.

“Just that,” Lauren assured her. “I observe. No interference or involvement in your life.” The nurse thought about the two thousand dollar grant she had available for the thesis. “I can sweeten the deal a little. There was a small stipend I received to help me get this done. I’d be happy to let you have it for your time and cooperation.”

Crystal thought a second, her eyes darting to Davey and back again to Lauren. The nurse felt as if she were being tested in some way at that moment. She must have passed.

“Okay, lets do the ground rules,” the teller said. “Three times a week for two hours each for the talking. Once a week you can hang with us and watch. No video cameras and I get to read what you write before you turn it in.”

“That’s perfect.” Lauren could hardly believe her good luck. Here was a subject she could get interested in. The people involved seemed like nice , the mother not unpleasant at all to look at.

“I have one more condition,” Crystal said, thinking of the Nikes Davey had set his sights on. “My minimum price for putting my life on public display is ninety-five dollars. This isn’t negotiable; take it or leave it.”

Lauren made a show of thinking it over. She’d find a way to get the blonde to take more of the grant money later. “You drive a hard bargain, Crystal. I’ll take it.”

Davey wandered up to them then, anxious to be going for his ice cream.

Crystal reached in her backpack and tore a small piece of paper from a notebook there. Scribbling hurriedly, she gave the paper to Lauren.

“That’s my number. Call me tomorrow after six and we’ll set some days up.” She gathered her things together and started to leave, but turned back to the nurse before she left. “I hope it won’t break any rules if I get to know you too, Lauren. You can’t have too many friends, right?”

“Absolutely,” Lauren replied, thinking again how “people person” described the blonde. “I’ll talk to you tomorrow.” The nurse walked over to the red-haired woman who had spoken of new research during the meeting while Crystal and Davey left.

“Mom,” Davey asked as they left. “Who’s that lady?”

“That,” his mom replied, “is our shadow.”

Chapter 5

Lauren’s yellow Mustang slipped out of the strip mall and easily into the early Tuesday evening traffic. She had given herself plenty of time earlier to get to the place Crystal had designated as the spot for their first meeting. Davey would stay with Patsy, the name Lauren was told, of the red-haired woman who spoke at the support group meeting.

Though Crystal had said she would take part in the thesis work, she had never said where that work would take place and before a stranger came to her house, she was going to be checking things out thoroughly. Lauren admired the teller’s careful ways. The world could be a dangerous place and no amount of caution was excessive.

The nurse pressed down on the accelerator and the Mustang responded. The plenty of time she’d had earlier had evaporated to barely enough time at Trippin’. Ramon had been her hairstylist for six years and he did a great job, but there were days when Lauren was subjected to hearing about every drama in his life. Today had been one of those days. Ramon was worth it though; he was a magician with a comb and scissors. If Lauren was looking for a change to her hairstyle, all she had to do was sit herself in Ramon’s chair and say, “Go”. She had done that today and Ramon was so happy he launched into a lengthy update on his life as he worked.

Lauren should have expected it. She had found out Ramon was a bit different from the first day she met him. The sign for the new hair salon caught her eye on her way home from work one morning. Walk-ins were welcome and she dropped by on her next day off. Ramon greeted her effusively as she entered. He invited her to take a seat in his chair, but after glancing at the price list she was too shocked to sit.

“If you think I’m paying fifty bucks for a haircut, you’re trippin’,” she said. Ramon laughed and was so amused he eventually changed the name of the business from Ramon’s to Trippin’. He also dropped Lauren’s haircut price to thirty dollars.

The wind blowing in through the window of the Mustang ruffled the hair at her collar. The shorter hairstyle was flattering and a lot more comfortable. Her longer hair had been nice while she had it, but Lauren was feeling the need for a change. Maybe it was getting started on her thesis at last that had prompted it, but she just knew some things needed to be different.

Lauren pulled into the parking lot of the Public Library exactly at seven o’clock. She hadn’t been in one in years, but she figured they were essentially all the same. She entered and the happy feeling of being around the stacks of literature returned to her as if she was still a kid in grade school. She remembered wandering through the walls of books looking at the fiction. It wasn’t until she got into high school that she found out that the kind of fiction she was going to respond to wasn’t going to be found on the shelves of the Public Library. The “Public” in Public Library didn’t seem to include her.

The nurse walked through the main part of the library and into a different kind of section that hadn’t been in the ones she had seen before. The large room was labeled “Conferences”. It consisted of small groupings of plush chairs around circular tables. Several of the seating areas were occupied by what appeared to be groups of students with textbooks and backpacks open on the tables. Conversations were happening in normal speaking voices, but the set-up of the room made it seem like a much lower noise level than it would have been usually.

Lauren saw Crystal motioning to her from an area with two seats near the back of the room. The blonde was dressed much more casually in jeans and a pullover shirt; Lauren surmised the dressier attire she’d had on at the meeting were her work clothes. The brunette found she was looking forward to getting to know the other woman.

“Lauren Cook, I owe you an apology,” Crystal said as the nurse took a seat. “This is my peace offering.” She pushed one of two bottles of Diet Pepsi toward Lauren. “You were carrying one the other night at the support group, so I hope it’s what you drink.”

“It is,” Lauren said in a voice laden with confusion. “What’s the apology for? You didn’t do anything to me.” She sat in the chair across from the blonde.

“I was suspicious of you,” Crystal admitted. “I checked out everything you told me on the phone the other night. I talked to Dr. McMichaels at Coastal Pacific, I checked on your employment with the Human Resources Department at Patterson General and I even looked up to see if there were any problems with your nursing license on the Board of Nursing’s website. Except for not being listed in the phonebook, you check out completely.”

Lauren raised her eyebrows. “I’m so relieved. I was starting to worry about myself, but if you’re willing to vouch for me I must be okay.” Crystal laughed at Lauren’s joke, but the nurse could still sense some tension in the other woman. “Would it help if I told you about me first?” Crystal nodded and Lauren knew she had guessed right.

“I talk to people all day long; I’m a teller at Kingston Savings Bank. I know a little about my customers and they know my name, but it isn’t anything like this. Even when I speak at the support group it’s because I’ve been around most of them for over a year.”

“And now you feel?exposed?” Lauren asked.

“A little,” Crystal said shyly. Lauren wondered if she knew how much she resembled her son at that moment.

“Okay, well, what can I tell you about me?” Lauren said, tapping her chin. “I rose from the sea foam riding with my long flowing golden hair wrapped around me. No wait, that’s Venus. I get us mixed up all the time.” She looked to see how Crystal responded to her feeble attempt at humor.

“You’re attractive I suppose,” Crystal said with a straight face, “But wouldn’t you find all that goddess business just a bit overwhelming? I mean, you could never go out for a gallon of milk without putting on your make up and just forget about wearing sweats to cover up the fact that you’re a little overdue on the old leg shaving.”

We’re going to get along just fine, Lauren thought. “I suppose you’re right. No point having a day off if you don’t get a day off.”

“Know what’s scary?” Crystal asked. “I followed what you just said. By the way, speaking of upkeep on your looks, I like the new hairstyle. It’s flattering.” Lauren was pleased the other woman had noticed. Female attention was something she hadn’t had much of lately, but she reminded herself the woman was straight and brushed the compliment off gently

“Just time for a change I guess. Well, let me stop putting off the introduction thing. I want you to know I’m really sacrificing here?I hate talking about myself.” She tried for doe eyes. Crystal said nothing; she wasn’t letting the nurse off the hook.

“Okay, fine.” My full name as you probably already learned from the Board’s website is Lauren Rosemary Cook. I’m 34 years old and I’m originally from nowhere.” She clarified that last statement. “My dad was a Captain in the Army and we moved around a lot when I was a kid. I was born in Frankfurt, Germany and we lived in a couple of different countries and a bunch of different states. When my parents retired in Texas though, I knew we’d be going separate ways. We’re pretty close, but after going to college, getting through nursing school and working around the area, I realized I wanted something else. My parents raised me to be independent and when the opportunity came up to move to California, I took it. I came to San Diego because they offered me a pretty generous relocation bonus and tuition assistance to get my degree.” She paused here to take a sip of her drink.

“I started at Patterson General in the Adolescent Health Unit and moved to Pediatrics and the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit six months ago. I have an apartment by the water, a cat by default and a real wish to hear your story and not mine anymore.”

Crystal sat quietly through the short biography, her green eyes never leaving Lauren’s face. “You didn’t mention anybody special,” she said. The statement was made with genuine interest and not tabloid nosiness.

“I broke up with somebody a couple of months back. Not much in the way of romance since then.” Lauren deliberately skirted the issue of her former partner, not knowing Crystal’s attitude toward homosexuality and also not feeling it was anybody’s business but her own.

“Sorry,” Crystal sympathized genuinely.

“No need to be sorry. Hindsight is twenty/twenty, right? If it was meant to be then it would have been. They’re happy and I’m okay. Works out all the way around.”

“Another woman?” Crystal asked. Lauren nodded in the affirmative. “That’s rough. At least yours headed toward something, mine walked away from everything.” A bitterness tinged Crystal’s words that the nurse hadn’t heard before.

“Something you want to share?” she offered.

Crystal broke eye contact, crossed her arms and looked down. “My ex, Sean, bailed on me just after Davey was born. You know what they say, ‘When the going gets tough, the tough get going.’ I just didn’t know he’d go with his suitcase, clothes and the TV set.” The teller tried to make her last words sound light, but Lauren could almost feel the hurt and anger still there. Maybe when she got to know Crystal a little better, she’d feel comfortable asking her to tell the whole story.

“So, have you been in San Diego long?” Lauren asked, tactfully changing the subject. The look of relief on Crystal’s face was plain.

“Born and raised. There aren’t many of us natives, but we’re happy ones. The ocean, the weather?what’s not to love? I guess I couldn’t see any reason to go anyplace else.”

Lauren removed a spiral notebook from the backpack she carried and started taking notes. “I’m going to use your first name and last initial. It’ll be the same for Davey. You okay with that?”

“Why not?” the blonde replied. “It will be my fifteen minutes of fame. I’d hoped to have that by winning a new car as a five time champion on ‘Jeopardy’, but I suppose I can settle for this.” She opened her own bottle of Diet Pepsi and took a drink.

The next hour and a half was spent getting details of Crystal’s background, her job and family. The conversation was easy and didn’t always stick to the topic. They found themselves discussing politics and local concerns as much as sticking to the original point of the meeting. Neither Crystal nor Lauren minded though; both women were surprised at how effortless it was to talk to each other.

“I suppose we should talk about the elephant in the room,” Crystal said at one point.

“Davey’s heart problem?” Lauren asked, knowing that was what the blonde was talking about. She wasn’t ready though to give up the luxury of just sitting with and talking to someone so damned likeable.

“Not yet,” Lauren said. “We’ve got plenty of time to get into that. Tonight, I?” She was at a loss for words to describe how she felt.

“I like you, too,” Crystal supplied. “It’s weird. I’m usually shy around new people. I mean, in my job it’s easy to be outgoing?on the outside. With you it’s on the inside too.” She frowned as she found her own words inadequate.

Lauren gave a small laugh. “Want to know something scary? I followed what you just said.” She knew Crystal would recognize her own words.

Crystal laughed and blushed. “Listen, I want to tell you something. Earlier, when I was talking about Sean?”

“You don’t have to explain,” Lauren interrupted. She was interested in what had happened with Crystal’s marriage, but didn’t want the teller to feel obligated to share it.

“No, it’s not like that really. I am still pissed off at Sean, but not for me. He left Davey when Davey could have used another parent, another set of arms to hold him and love him. Sean pops into his life every now and again, but not in any meaningful way. Sorry if I let that anger come through.”

“No problem,” Lauren assured her, finishing the Diet Pepsi she had been sipping on for quite some time.

“I just want you to realize the way it is?was, really. Sean and I ?it’s hard to explain. Do you know how some people make a pact that if they don’t find anybody by age forty, they’ll marry each other?” Lauren nodded.

“That’s the way it was with us, but I guess neither of us found anybody by age twenty-five and we panicked. I thought marrying a friend would be fine, because that’s all he ever was to me, but it turned out that he sucked in that department too.”

She deserves better than that, the nurse thought.

Crystal pondered a moment. “He was the best of the lot as far as I was concerned though. Guess when it comes to guys I have no luck whatsoever. You?”

“Not much,” Lauren conceded. That much is true. Crystal seemed to be waiting for the brunette to add to the comment and Lauren was reconsidering if she should talk about her sexual orientation.

“THE LIBRARY WILL BE CLOSING IN TWENTY MINUTES. PLEASE BRING ALL ITEMS NEEDING TO BE CHECKED OUT TO THE MAIN DESK AND RETURN ALL AUDIO-VISUAL ITEMS. HAVE A GOOD NIGHT,” a disembodied voice stated over the loudspeaker.

Crystal checked her watch and was amazed that two hours had gone by so quickly. “Guess that’s our cue.” They began to collect their things and head for the door. They detoured to drop their plastic pop bottles into a recycling bin and it was then Lauren noticed a display table loaded with books and pamphlets. The texts covered many different aspects of being gay and lesbian in today’s society. The books investigated history, sexuality and politics. There were even volumes of fiction and poetry in the mix.

Crystal saw the direction of Lauren’s gaze. “Never would have seen those books in the library when I was a kid,” she said matter-of-factly. Lauren cringed internally.

“It’s about time the Public Library caught up with the rest of the world,” she added. Lauren was relieved she hadn’t been wrong about her friend.

“Hey, you want to come over to my house on Thursday for the next session? I think Davey would like that and I make a mean chocolate chip cookie,” Crystal offered.

“Sold.”

Part Two

Chapter 6

The two days between sessions with Crystal passed quickly for Lauren. That was due in large part to her bad habit of answering her phone. If she hadn’t answered her phone, she wouldn’t have talked on Wednesday to the day Charge Nurse in the Pediatric ICU. If she hadn’t talked to her, she wouldn’t have heard how short handed they would have to work if Lauren didn’t pick up an extra twelve-hour shift that night.

What a sucker for a sob story I am,
 Lauren thought as she drove to Crystal’s house. I absolutely have got to get caller ID. A mid-morning dentist appointment and abbreviated sleep had left her bordering on exhaustion. If it were anybody but Crystal, I’d have called this evening off.

The Mustang made the final turn onto the street where Crystal lived. The nurse drove slowly as she looked for the house number. Finding it, she pulled up in front of an older home that showed a few more signs of wear than the others in the neighborhood. It was far from dilapidated, but it did need a little attention.

Dusk had fallen and lights were visible through a large picture window and a smaller window to the left of the larger one. Though the house wasn’t in peak condition, it exuded a cheerfulness that made it seem inviting somehow.

Lauren walked up to the front door, passing by Crystal’s minivan and a Honda Civic she didn’t recognize. As she reached to knock on the door, the owner opened it. Crystal wasn’t alone; Patsy Cohen from the support group was with her.

“It was Thursday evening that I was supposed to be here, correct?” Lauren questioned. “And this is Thursday, right?” she asked, suddenly unsure. She thought back rapidly…she went to work on Wednesday night and then stayed up to go to the dentist. She then slept for a few hours; it should still be Thursday.

“Yes and yes,” Crystal assured her. “Patsy was just taking off; come on in.” Lauren moved past the two women and into a cluttered but clean living room. Her peripheral vision noted Crystal giving Patsy a quick hug.

“Call me when you find out anything,” Crystal said, patting the older woman on the back.

“I will and thanks again, sweetie,” Patsy answered as she moved away and headed out the door. “I have my cell phone if you need me.” Crystal watched Patsy leave and closed the door behind her. She turned back to the living room and her guest.

“Hey, how are you?” she asked Lauren, “Other than tired, I mean. Work last night?”

“It shows, huh?” the nurse said in reply.

“A little around the edges.”

Lauren smiled. “I bet.” She nodded her head in the direction of the departing Patsy. “Everything okay?”

Crystal hesitated; she liked Lauren, but wasn’t quite sure how much of that like translated to trust yet. She opted for something vague. “A little family problem. I’m going to keep Sydney here a day or two. Needless to say Davey is ecstatic. Now he has a cohort for his X-box. I’ve tried it, but I’m no competition.”

“I know what you mean. The first time I tried to play one of those things I was convinced I had yet to fully take advantage of evolution. My opposable thumbs just couldn’t seem to keep up with my twelve year old niece.”

Crystal laughed quietly. “You can feel a little left out of the loop. Davey can do everything but have the characters on the screen make you breakfast and I take the controller and can’t make the darn things even run in the direction I want!” She suddenly noticed they were still standing in the living room. “Hey, I was going to get something to drink, you want anything? She nodded at a doorway that led to the kitchen beyond.

“Whatever you’re having will be fine,” Lauren said, following her hostess into the kitchen.

“Okay,” Crystal said walking over to the refrigerator. She removed a large pitcher and poured two glasses of thin orange fluid that Lauren didn’t recognize. The nurse was handed one of the glasses and took a cautious sip.

“I know that flavor…” She began.

“Tang,” Crystal said. “I loved it as a kid and I still do…sugar-free of course now. Got to have something to balance out the sugar blast of these chocolate chip cookies.” She brought out a large plastic storage container from a nearby cabinet. Lauren’s mouth watered when the lid was opened. Honest to goodness real homemade chocolate chip cookies, she hadn’t tasted one in years. Baking had been an elusive conquest and most baked goods in Lauren’s kitchen came directly from the Nabisco kitchens instead of her own. One bite convinced the nurse that Nabisco had nothing on Crystal.

“Oh my God! These are fantastic! How do you get them all soft and chewy like this? Mine never come out like that.” She finished the first cookie and reached for a second before thinking that maybe she was making a pig of herself.

“Go on,” Crystal urged. “Take as many as you want. Oddly enough Safeway has yet to run out of chocolate chips so I think I might just be able to make more.”

“Can I be here when you do? There’s got to be a secret to this racket that I haven’t been let in on.” Lauren blushed as she realized she had just invited herself over to Crystal’s house again.

“I think we might be able to squeeze in a little cookie making in between the thesis writing,” Crystal assured her. “You want to sit in the living room or stay in here?”

“The living room, I think. There’s way too much temptation in here.” Lauren took a seat in the living room as Crystal took a few cookies back to the kids.

“They’re currently engrossed in saving the world from something that looks like a cross between a vampire and my third grade teacher,” she said on her return. She dropped into the recliner opposite the sofa Lauren was seated on. “Now that I think about it, my third grade teacher was scarier than a vampire.”

“I didn’t get my scary one until I was in sixth grade. That was the first time we lived in Texas and it was when my parents decided they would retire there eventually. Miss Shaw was the teacher. As I think about it now I realize she looked like Joan Crawford with a lazy eye.” Lauren paused to take a sip of her Tang. “That was the last year I had one teacher for every subject during the day. I didn’t appreciate then what a hard job that must have been, to teach everything, I mean. I just knew that all day, every school day, I was under the control of Miss Shaw.”

Lauren smiled wryly at the memories. “When my parents retired back to Texas, I saw Miss Shaw in the local grocery store. She had a grocery basket of microwaveable meals for one and a big bag of cat food. I realized then that I didn’t know a damn thing about her or her life and I’ve tried not to be scared of anyone without reason since then.”

Crystal tilted her head to the side in thought. “Why were you scared of her in the first place?”

Lauren raised her eyebrows. “It was the eye. I always felt like it knew just what I was doing all the time. I’ve never been a morning person and I hated to go to bed on time. I was almost always tired in the morning. I don’t get why school has to start at eight. What’s wrong with noon anyway? Anyhow, I would be tired and get sleepy and my eyelids would droop. That’s when she would call on me. Every time.”

“Stop! You’re giving me goose bumps with a terrifying story like that,” Crystal gently teased. “You’re still a night person I take it? On the night shift voluntarily?”

“Oh yeah. I know I’m a little droopy right now, but real soon I’ll start to get my second wind and then we can really get down to work. I’m feeling better already.”

Crystal nodded. “Sounds good. I’ll tell you what, why don’t I get the kids stared on their baths and set up the inflatable bed for Sydney. You just relax and we can sit and talk for as long as you like when I get done. Need anything?”

“How about the TV remote? Maybe I can catch up with what’s been going on in the world while I’ve been working. You get Headline News?”

Crystal picked up the remote from the table next to the recliner. “Channel 36…I don’t have a lot of time for the news either,” she said as she tossed the object to Lauren. “Be back in a couple of minutes.” Lauren watched Crystal walk down the hall and appreciated the sight of firm buns moving in snug jeans.

Must be more tired than I think. Now I’m ogling straight women. Waste of time, girl.
 Lauren watched until Crystal disappeared into what she assumed was a back bedroom. Maybe not a total waste of time. I just made sure my eyes are still working and they’re still connected to my pulse. 

Settling back into the comfortable sofa, Lauren quickly found the Headline News channel. She slipped off her trainers and her feet thanked her for the sensation of freedom as she turned her attention to the broadcast. Now what the heck is George W. up to?

*********

Crystal came back up the hall. It had taken her fifteen minutes to set up the bed and get the kids ready for baths. Sydney was washing up in the main bathroom and Davey was waiting his turn and brushing his teeth in the small bathroom off her bedroom.

The sound of the sports part of Headline News could be heard coming from the living room. I wonder if she’s a sports fan too? That would be great. Her friend, Trish, couldn’t stand sports and Crystal loved most of them.

As she entered the living room, she was greeted with heavy breathing. It wasn’t a snore exactly, just the deep slow breathing of heavy sleep. Lauren was pressed back into the cushions of the sofa, eyes closed and mouth slightly open. In sleep, her face seemed relaxed and peaceful and Crystal didn’t have the heart to wake her.

She gently removed the remote from where it lay on Lauren’s lap and turned the volume down low. She clicked off the lights in the living room, locked the front door and headed back down the hall to the kids. She stopped for a moment and turned around. Lauren’s heavy breathing continued rhythmically and for a moment Crystal just watched her sleep. Then she walked to the sofa and draped the afghan sitting on the sofa’s back over her guest. She moved a stray lock of hair off Lauren’s face. It really is an attractive look for her.

Crystal went back up the hall, hearing the unmistakable sounds of soapy bath water splashing onto the bathroom floor.

********

Why the Prime Minister of England would be speaking to her about international terrorism, she couldn’t say, but he was. Lauren cracked open one eye and saw the news report on Tony Blair. Just the TV,she thought and closed the eye again.

The feeling of mortification warred mightily with the feeling of comfort she had been experiencing only moments before. My apartment, my apartment…please. Opening the same eye that had been open previously, Lauren was confronted with what was the “worst” on her worst possible scenario list. She had fallen asleep on Crystal’s couch.

With both eyes now open she took stock of the situation. She was curled up on her side with an afghan covering her from toes to shoulders. If the nearly overwhelming need to find a bathroom wasn’t prodding her to get up, she might actually have considered staying there for a while longer.

Giving in to bodily needs, she got up from the couch. The television provided sufficient light to guide her down the hall in a search for the bathroom. Peering in to the first room on the right, she found two kids fast asleep. Davey’s room was crowded with all of the boy’s things plus the inflatable bed placed on the floor. Looking at the peacefully slumbering children it was hard to imagine they were both afflicted with serious heart problems. They look like anybody else’s kids.

Lauren thought a moment. They could be anybody else’s kids. It could happen to anyone. Her bladder interrupted her thoughts and she remembered why she had come down the hall in the first place. She continued on her search, passing first by a closed door that proved to be a closet and then a room apparently used for storage before finding the bathroom.

Finishing relieving her most pressing problem, she washed her face and straightened out the parts of her hair that were sticking out sideways. She turned off the light and waited a minute for her eyes to adjust to the dark before she opened the bathroom door again. She walked a few steps further down the hall, wondering if she should tell Crystal she was leaving. She found the blonde in the last bedroom on the right. Muted moonlight beamed softly in through partially open curtains.

Lauren took a step into the bedroom and knew she wouldn’t be able to wake Crystal. She smiled as she noticed the blonde slept to one side of the bed, the other side virtually undisturbed. So different from me. She watched Crystal sleep another minute or two, feeling suddenly and inexplicably protective of the other woman.

“Thank you for the hospitality, Crystal,” she whispered as she left the room. Her friend slept on as Lauren made her way back to the living room. She folded up the afghan and took her glass into the kitchen. She rinsed it and put the glass in the sink. She returned to the other room and sat briefly on the couch to put her trainers back on. She then picked up her bag and went to the front door.

Opening the door silently, she turned the lock on the knob and let herself out into the cool San Diego night. Making sure the door had locked behind her, Lauren walked to her car, but couldn’t shake the feeling she was leaving something special behind her.

Chapter Seven

Swimming. Up from the depths. Lauren had taken a deep breath and dove deep. Now she was surfacing. She did not want to come to the top, but an irresistible force was calling and she was not an immovable object. She reached her hand out to break the surface. Grabbing the phone blindly, she pulled the handset to her.

“Hmmph?” she mumbled.

“Lauren? Oh my gosh, you were still sleeping. I’m so sorry. Go back to sleep; I’ll call you back later.”

“Crystal?” Lauren asked, her fuzzy mind finally identifying the speaker. “What’s the matter?”

“Nothing. Really. Forget I called. I’m so sorry to have woken you,” she continued to apologize.

“S’okay, I had to get up to answer the phone anyway. What’s up and what time is it?”

“It’s almost one o’clock. It’s…well, when you weren’t on the couch this morning, I got a little concerned. I just wanted to make sure you got home okay,” Crystal admitted. “You were pretty tired.”

“Yeah, but later I got that second wind I was bragging about. Of course it was after everybody had gone to bed, but I got it. I let myself out, drove home and caught up on cleaning my apartment. I went to bed about nine this morning, but I guess I can’t sleep all day.”

“Why not?” Crystal asked.

For the life of her, Lauren didn’t know. “I don’t have a clue. Okay then, with your permission, I’m going to be a sloth for the rest of the day.” She turned from her side to her back, bunching her pillow under her head as she did.

“If you think you could drag yourself out of bed by this evening, Davey and I would like to invite you over to supper. I think you got gypped a little last night on the research, even if you were the one doing the gypping,” Crystal observed.

The idea of a home-cooked meal appealed to Lauren, especially as it promised to be something other than soup from a can or a microwave meal. “So what’s for dinner?” she asked, accepting the invitation.

“I don’t know. Sometimes the cooking goddess calls to me and sometimes you get meatloaf.

Lauren laughed. “I’ll take whatever there is.”

“Okay, I’ll see you around six tonight. You can talk and write or you can help cook…your choice. Right now I’ve got to go because I’m committing the eighth deadly sin…using the bank’s phone for a personal call.”

Lauren smiled. “See you at six, Crystal.”

*********

Lauren sat at Crystal’s kitchen table watching her friend work at the counter. She never knew making meatloaf could be an art, but the blonde’s hands were those of a sculptor. She was forming the meatloaf while portioning in the ingredients without measuring.

“I’ve never liked cooking, but I always thought if I had a good recipe I might give it a whirl. How much is that anyway?” she asked as her hostess added bread crumbs to the mix.

“Some,” Crystal replied honestly.

“Okay, keep me in the dark, Julia Child. See if I mind,” Lauren teased.

“No, really, I can’t give you specific measurements in cups or teaspoons. That’s not the way I learned,” she explained

“And what was your method?”

Crystal shrugged. “Same way as I learn anything…hands on.” Lauren thought about how long it had been since she had experienced anything ‘hands on’, but kept it to herself. “I’ll show you,” the blonde offered.

“Oh no…” Lauren began.

“Oh yes,” her friend insisted. “Wash your hands and come over here.” Reluctantly the nurse did as she was told.

“To start with, don’t be afraid of the food. It doesn’t hate you or have mysterious powers. As a matter of a fact, you rule the food. Remember that,” Crystal instructed.

“Yes’m,” Lauren replied, not at all sure she had been given dominion over the substance in the large mixing bowl. “Now what?”

“Texture. When you’re working on something like this it’s all about the texture. You have to touch it. Watch…” Crystal put her hands back in the meat mixture, separating the contents in half. On one side of the bowl she work with the mixture, adding a bit more of the bread crumbs until she was happy with the result.

“Okay, that’s mine. Now you make your half feel like mine. That’s what I mean by texture. You just know when it’s right.”

Lauren eyed the meat dubiously. “My hands in there? What about e.coli or mad cow?”

“I bought the mad cow free brand. Geez, come on.” Crystal reached over and took Lauren’s hands. She brought them to her mixture. “Feel this one first.” Keeping her hands on top of Lauren’s, she watched as the nurse squished the substance between her fingers. “Now this one,” Crystal said as she lifted Lauren’s hand to the other half of the bowl. “Feel the difference?”

“Yeah,” Lauren said. “I see what you mean. Texture.”

“Right, now make yours like mine. Use the bowl of bread crumbs.” Lauren concentrated on the feeling of the mixture, but didn’t miss it when Crystal removed her hands. The contact had been pleasant. She worked until it felt like the one on Crystal’s half.

“Done,” she announced proudly.

“Great, you’re a chef,” Crystal said as she picked up the bowl and emptied it into the baking dish.

“Hey, aren’t you going to check it? I worked hard on that meatloaf,” Lauren whined.

“Lesson Number Two. It’s close enough. Come on, time to wash again.” Lauren watched Crystal’s hands as they washed the mixing bowl with warm soapy water; the same hands that had felt so nice when they touched hers during the mixing. Crystal noticed Lauren watching her.

“What?” she asked.

“Just waiting my turn to wash,” Lauren covered, raising her greasy hands. As they were cleaning up, Davey and Sydney came into the kitchen.

The small boy walked over to his mom. “Can we put on the Shrek video?” He looked over at Lauren shyly. “Hi Lauren.”

“Hey there, dude. I don’t think I’ve met your friend formally.” Lauren indicated Sydney. “Could you introduce her to me?”

“That’s just Sydney,” Davey said in the voice children get when they have to explain to adults something they think they should already know. Lauren turned to the young girl. Her brown hair had enough red tint in it to remind the nurse of her grandmother. There was a lot of Patsy Cohen in the girl. Lauren stuck out her hand.

“I’m Lauren Cook. I’m a new friend of Davey and Crystal and I’m very pleased to meet you.” She shook Sydney’s hand, something that caused the little girl to laugh and blush.

“I saw you at the meeting last week. You talked to my grandma.”

“You have sharp eyes, young woman. I sure did talk to her and she is a very nice person. So you’re going to watch Shrek?” Lauren looked over to Crystal. She nodded.

“Yep, come on, Davey.” Davey started to follow his friend out of the kitchen, but stopped and came back to Lauren.

“Lauren, look,” he said. Davey opened his mouth and drew back his lips. Using the tip of his tongue, he wiggled his front tooth back and forth.

“Davey!” Crystal began.

“No, no, that’s very impressive,” the nurse said. “Can I try?” she asked the boy. Davey nodded and held his mouth open. She gently used her index finger to wiggle the tooth. “Not going to have that tooth much longer, that’s for sure.” The boy glowed with the attention and skipped out of the kitchen.

“Now that’s a cute couple of kids,” Lauren said to Crystal who had moved to the stove and was placing red skinned potatoes into a pot.

“Yeah, Sydney’s a great kid. She tolerates Davey though she’s a few years older than him and they seem to like the same things. I like it that their friendship isn’t based on the biggest thing they have in common…the heart problems. They’re just everyday, normal kids who like video games, riding their bikes and thinking up reasons not to have to go to bed at night.”

“So how long is Sydney going to be with you?” the nurse inquired.

“A couple of days I would think,” Crystal said, running water over the potatoes and turning the flame on under them. She was unsure, like the night before, of how much to tell her new friend. I guess I’ll trust in her discretion. “Patsy has a family problem. She has a daughter who has been in trouble for most of her life. She started running around with the wrong crowd at a young age and got into drugs pretty heavily from there. Patsy’s husband had passed away and she was working fulltime to keep their home together.” She placed a lid over the potatoes, tilting it sideways slightly to allow the steam to vent.

“She got busted a year ago for possession with intent to sell and got three years out in the women’s prison at Chowchilla. The judge suspended the sentence and put her on probation, mostly because of Sydney and the fact that she was willing to go into rehab.” Crystal and Lauren took seats at the kitchen table.

“The minute she got released from jail though, she went back to making the same mistakes and that got her probation revoked. Six months ago she was sent to Chowchilla to do all the time remaining on her sentence,” Crystal confided.

“So Patsy has had Sydney fulltime since then?” Lauren asked. Crystal nodded. “I bet she didn’t think she’d be raising a second family at this time of her life.”

Crystal smiled wryly. “She said that this was the last thing she expected to be doing in her ‘golden years’. She thought she’d be sitting around in a lawn chair honing her gardening skills. That dream was pretty much shot to hell the day Sydney was born. She has had to take Sydney in off and on since she was a baby. Candy, that’s Patsy’s daughter, has been strung out, in trouble with the law or just plain ignoring the little girl for a long time.” Crystal got up and removed four plates from a nearby cupboard.

“When Candy went to jail this time though, Patsy had to step up in a more formal way. She’s Sydney’s legal guardian now and she’s looking into ways she might be able to adopt her outright. Candy won’t object, half the time she doesn’t even know the girl exists.” Crystal kept her voice down so only the two of them would hear it.

“What is Sydney’s heart problem?’ the nurse asked.

Crystal turned the flame down under the potatoes. “She has cardiomyopathy from a bacterial infection she got as a baby. Candy knew she was sick, but waited too long to take her to the doctor. Patsy was the one who finally got Sydney the help she needed.”

Lauren listened to Crystal’s tale with dismay. She had heard it all too often at the hospital. Kids neglected and abused by parents who should know better. Pediatrics was Lauren’s favorite party of nursing, but the frustration of dealing with people who put kids in danger because of their stupidity or cruelty, could be overwhelming. More than once she had clenched her jaw when kids were returned to parents who couldn’t raise a houseplant, much less a child.

“That’s a tough break for Sydney,” Lauren said. “Thank goodness she has someone like Patsy to show her the love and attention she needs. Have you heard from Patsy today?”

“Not today,” Crystal replied. “But she said it might be a day or two. There was some kind of problem at the prison, that’s all she knew. It was actually Candy’s attorney who contacted her and asked her to come out.”

“Let me know if there’s anything I can do,” Lauren offered. “I have the weekend off so if you need me to watch the kids or anything like that, just let me know.”

“Thanks for the offer, but we’re fine for right now,” Crystal assured her.

Lauren just watched as Crystal checked the oven and the potatoes. “You guys are amazing. How do you and Patsy handle things day to day?”

“Neither of us knows any other way. This is all part of what makes up our ‘normal’ life. The medications, monitoring Davey’s fluids, watching for signs that fluid is accumulating in his feet, hands or lungs…it’s all part of our routine. I watch Davey’s color and check his pulse. It’s as much a piece of his routine as brushing his teeth and combing his hair.”

“But what about what that all means? You aren’t just supervising his grooming, you’re watching for signs that his heart is failing. That’s a hell of a lot more than most parents have to do,” Lauren observed.

Crystal thought a moment. “If I didn’t make all that stuff part of Davey’s routine, I would want to put him in a plastic bubble. If I didn’t treat this like no big deal, I would be buying myself a one-way ticket to Nervous Breakdown-ville. I already have a ticket to Wrinkle City, I don’t need the whole tour.”

Though she knew Crystal was kidding, Lauren found herself searching the blonde’s face anyway and liking what she saw there. Stop it, Lauren. If you don’t watch out you’ll be a lesbian stereotype…gay woman with a crush on a straight girl.

The racket from the living room broke into the nurse’s thoughts.

“Mom!” Davey cried.

“Crystal!” Sydney echoed. Crystal didn’t hesitate, but took off for the other room at a run. Sydney was standing over Davey who was facedown on the floor with his arm twisted out from him at an awkward angle.

“Davey, oh my God, what happened?” Crystal cried as she rushed to her son’s side.

“He was jumping on the couch when the movie was on and one time he missed,” Sydney supplied. The reason was clear as both of Davey’s socks had apparently wiggled down and were now flopped over on his feet like the ears of a basset hound.

Lauren’s training kicked in and she thought of the traumatic possibilities. Blunt head trauma, lacerated spleen, extremity fracture…

“Got it!” Davey said triumphantly, pulling his arm out from under the couch and sitting up. When I was jumping and I missed that one time, my teeth hit each other and it came out!” Davey held his arm out with the palm up and showed them his prize. There in his hand was his upper right front tooth.

“That is so cool!” he exclaimed with a slight lisp on the ‘s’. His smile seemed all the wider with the large gap in front where his tooth would have been.

***********

“My meatloaf was pretty good, huh?” Lauren asked for the twentieth time.

For the twentieth time Crystal responded, “It was delicious; I couldn’t have done better myself.” The women were loading the dishwasher and scrubbing the pots and pans. They worked together in a comfortable harmony.

“And that’s that,” Lauren commented as she washed, rinsed and handed the last pot to Crystal who wiped it off and returned it to its home in a low cupboard.

“You want a cup of coffee or tea?” Crystal offered. “I usually have something in the evening.”

“Whatever you’re having will be fine. I’m more of a tea drinker though.”

“Sounds good. Go ahead and sit at the table; I’ll bring it over.” Crystal filled an old-fashioned teakettle and put it over a flame on the stove. She removed a few objects from the cupboard and refrigerator. “I’ll just make a pot of my favorite.”

Lauren was content to watch Crystal putter in the kitchen. “This was fun,” the nurse said. “I know we’re supposed to be working, but I have to tell you, I’m really enjoying your company. I think I’ve let myself become a little bit of a hermit.”

Crystal took two large mugs and placed milk and honey in the bottom. “I can relate. Sometimes I think I’ve forgotten how to interact with anybody over six years old in my personal life. If it’s any consolation, I’m enjoying your company too.” She glanced over to the brunette at the table and smiled shyly. “I’m not psychic or anything, but I’ve got a feeling I’m going to know you a lot longer than it takes to write your thesis. That’s a good thing, right?”

“That’s a very good thing,” Lauren said with conviction.

This time the smiles held until the whistling of the teakettle interrupted them.

“One cup of Bengal Spice tea coming right up,” the blonde announced as she moved to the noisy appliance and turned the flame off, effectively ending the moment.

Lauren watched Crystal make the tea and put some of her fabulous chocolate chip cookies on a plate. She is absolutely terrific. She is a wonderful person, a great mom, excellent friend…Oh my God! I’ve got a crush on her already. She was equally excited and dismayed at the prospect.

**********

Lauren had driven off in her yellow Mustang and Crystal had finished getting the kids ready for bed. She had put a dollar under Davey’s pillow for the tooth and now she was in the living room, channel surfing. The lower numbered channels on her cable system were full of the usual late-night talk shows. As she surfed into the higher numbers she hit the premium channels. She had a few; the bigger packages were a luxury she couldn’t afford. She put down the remote and picked up the television guide in the local newspaper to find a relaxing movie to top off one of the best days she’d had in a long time.

Unique Film Channel. Better than Chocolate. Hmm, must be a movie about cooking. Oh what the heck. Crystal picked up the remote.

Chapter Eight

Lauren’s eyes stung as she left the patient’s room. The family would remain behind for a while; it was never easy to leave. She went to the nurse’s station to deal with the interminable paperwork.

Lauren had done a rotation through Labor and Delivery when she was in nursing school. Very soon after birth, footprints and fingerprints had been taken on the newborn. Document and certificate creation started almost from the first breath. It was the same at the other end of the span of life. Documentation in the nurse’s notes, a note by the resident on the physical findings, mandatory notification of the Organ Donor Network and a filling out of the expiration paperwork and release of body form. So much paperwork before a life could officially be over. The life of a child.

Quesha Southard had been in the Pediatric ICU many times. As a pediatric AIDS patient, she had run the gamut of problems in her short twelve years of life. Her very first problem was a mother who passed on HIV to her and then passed care of her to the State.

California had enacted a law attempting to decrease the amount of “dumpster babies”, infants that had been born and then thrown away. The law said a mother could drop off an infant in any Emergency Room and it would be taken in, no questions asked. It was the last consideration Quesha’s birth mother had given her.

HIV positive babies aren’t very popular on the adoption scene. Even with the new medications and combination of medications, having an HIV positive child is no walk in the park. Quesha’s neighborhood didn’t even have a park. A foster family took Quesha in and what love and attention she had lacked at birth, she received in vast quantities afterward.

The Southard’s were an older black, middle class family who recognized the blessing of having raised two healthy children and now never had less than two special needs children welcomed into their house. The unhealthy, unclaimed and unwanted had passed through the doors of their family home. Sometimes it was a baby with a cleft palate or lip who would be adopted out after being tube fed and then loved through a difficult surgery. Sometimes it was an emotionally troubled child saved from an abusive situation. Sometimes it was a child like Quesha.

Quesha had been with them the longest and had maybe had the roughest road, except for the day her adoption by the Southard’s was made official. She had survived pneumonia, systemic infections and the variety of other HIV related problems, the worst of which occurred when Quesha was eleven. She became nauseated and bloated and a CAT scan and biopsy found lymphoma. The cancer was malignant and the little girl with big brown eyes started on an aggressive course of chemotherapy. She was a quiet child and rarely complained. Her expressive eyes would watch Lauren and the other nurses as they did their work. They found themselves trying to coax smiles from the shy youngster. Quesha weathered the chemotherapy and was discharged home after several stays in the Pediatric ICU including one when she had developed blood clots in her legs which then traveled to her lungs. She had barely survived that episode.

She hadn’t been home forty-eight hours when Mrs. Southard had walked into her room to find Quesha unconscious. That had been only a day ago and this night they had learned the truth. At age twelve, Quesha Southard had suffered a massive stroke. The young girl who had started life with little hope finally had none at all.

Lauren had entered Quesha’s room earlier in her shift to find the girl’s parents talking softly.

“You know, Inez, God gave us Quesha to love and watch over while she was on this earth,” James had said. “I guess he’s ready for her to come home now and take that job himself. We’ve got to let her go.” Inez Southard had turned into her husband’s arms and sobbed. Lauren quietly withdrew and Quesha’s parents stayed with her until, without ever regaining consciousness, she passed away.

Lauren glanced up at the clock and realized it would be another hour before sunrise. Just hold it together another hour or two, Lauren. Just another hour or two. The door to Quesha’s room opened and Inez and James Southard emerged.

“We’re leaving now,” James said. “Thank you and please tell the other nurses how much we appreciate what you all did for Quesha.”

“I will,” Lauren assured him. She went over and took each of their hands in turn. “Quesha was a very special little girl.” Inez was silent as her husband seemed to be trying to find words, any words at all. He nodded.

“Take care of our baby,” he said finally in voice thick with emotion. As Lauren watched the couple leave, she felt the liquid proof on her cheek that holding it together was going to prove impossible.

*********

Crystal had been trying to work up the courage to speak to Trish all day. She knew she could usually trust her with anything, but this topic might be a little touchy. Trish was a wonderful friend, but occasionally her religious views got in the way of discussing some subjects.

And this subject might be one of them. It’s that movie; I couldn’t take my eyes off it. I don’t understand why it made me so…needy. Is there something wrong with me?

Crystal tried a gentle probe to test the waters. “Um, I was thinking of taking Davey to the beach this weekend, but I guess I’ll need to take another route from the way I usually go. Think this Saturday is the Gay Pride Parade.”

Trish was attempting to balance her cash drawer. “Eighty dollars off. Where are you, eighty bucks?” She looked up at Crystal. “Go north and catch the freeway, that would be easiest I think.” She furrowed her brow. “Are those people marching again? It seems to me like they did the same thing only a few months ago.”

“Maybe I was wrong about which group it was; I just saw something briefly about it on the news.” Crystal fibbed, noting Trish’s use of the words “those people”. Both women turned their attention back to the work they’d need to complete before going home.

“Gotcha!” Trish announced. “I didn’t enter the money order I cashed this morning. I’m balanced.” Crystal smiled over at her friend, knowing how frustrating it could be to get everything to come out right on certain days. “You ready to go?” Trish asked.

“Yep I’m good,” Crystal answered. They took their cash drawers to the vault and locked both of them inside under the watchful eye of the branch manager. They got their belongings together and left the bank.

“I don’t understand all this marching business anyway,” Trish said as they reached their cars. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, I don’t care what anybody else does with their life, but if you’re gay, why can’t you just keep it to yourself? You don’t see me marching because I’m straight.”

Crystal thought there might be a few more reasons for the Gay Pride March, but she kept quiet. She didn’t want to end the day in a debate.

I’ll talk to somebody else about it.

********

Lauren woke with scratchy and tired eyes, a sure sign that she hadn’t slept nearly enough. She had a powerful yearning to go back to sleep, but a quick peek at the clock showed that she would need to get up for work in another hour anyway. She had tossed and turned most of the day despite having the room dark and cool like she preferred it.

She rolled to her left side from her right and looked at the empty half of her queen-sized bed. She missed having someone she could talk to about the nights that were stressful or traumatic. Talking about the difficult nights sometimes helped her not to relive them in her dreams all day, like she had this day. Images of Quesha’s last hours replayed over and over in her mind.

She clicked on the lamp sitting on the table next to her bed and squinted at the intrusion of light. Sitting up, she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror over her dresser. Dark circles graced the area under her eyes and the only word to describe her appearance was “haggard”.

Lauren trudged to the bathroom and stared at her reflection in the mirror there. The visual wasn’t enhanced by the addition of even harsher illumination. Look at that…patriotic eyes. Red, white and blue. Standing there a few moments more, she came to a decision.

Screw it, what’s sick time for anyway? She walked back into the bedroom, picked up the phone and called the hospital.

*********

Crystal had picked up Davey and Sydney from her mother’s house. Georgie and Dave Jenkins were supportive of their daughter and her struggle with her son’s condition. The blonde tried not to rely too heavily on her parents though, feeling it was up to her to manage on her own. She was determined not be one of those women who asked her parents to raise her children. The Jenkins provided after school care for Crystal and she was both grateful for the help and determined that her mom and dad wouldn’t need to give her anything else. She wanted them to just be able to be grandparents and not caregivers.

As she pulled into her driveway, she recognized a car parked there. So did Sydney.

“Grandma!” she screamed and leaped from the minivan as soon as it came to a stop. She ran up to Patsy and hugged her hard as soon as the redheaded woman extricated herself from her car.

“I thought you’d call first,” Crystal remarked as she stepped from her vehicle. She got in line to get a hug from her friend.

“I was going to give you a heads up before I got here, but once I started driving I had so much on my mind I was here before I realized it.” She looked a bit uncomfortable as she glanced toward her granddaughter. “Sydney, honey, why don’t you take Davey and start collecting your things? I want to get home soon and sleep in my own bed again. That darn hotel mattress has caused the arthritis in my back to kick up again.”

Okay, Grandma,” Sydney said as she deposited her small pink school backpack at her grandmother’s feet. “It won’t take me very long.”

“Take your time, sweetpea. I want to catch up with Crystal a bit before we go.” The young girl headed into the house with Davey close behind her. “She’s a sight for sore eyes, Crystal.”

“She was good as gold while you were gone too. She and Davey were thick as thieves. Neither one wants to admit it, but I think they both wish they had a brother or sister.” Crystal avoided the subject of Patsy’s absence; she figured the woman would bring it up if and when she wanted to. Apparently Patsy wanted to at that moment.

“It was horrible, Crystal.” Patsy sagged against her car. “She’s done it this time; she’s really done it.” Patsy glanced toward the house. “And it’s Sydney who’s going to pay the price.” Crystal waited for Patsy to elaborate.

“Candy has been in trouble out at the prison before. You would think that a place that can keep seven hundred and fifty women inside would be able to keep drugs outside. No such luck. Candy has been written up for drugs three times already and that would be bad enough, but apparently she was helping to sell the drugs to the other inmates to earn enough to pay for hers.”

“Oh Patsy, I’m so sorry.”

“That’s not all though, Crystal. I can talk about it now, but all I’ve done the last few days is cry about it. She killed another inmate over those damn drugs. She told me it was self-defense, but there were plenty of witnesses that it was just cold-blooded murder. She’ll have another trial for the killing of course. Her lawyer isn’t hopeful at all and told me to expect the worst.” Tears welled in Patsy’s eyes.

“When Candy was eighteen she was arrested for breaking into a store in a strip mall with a few other people. She was drunk or high, maybe both, and they trashed the place pretty badly. Anyway, she was convicted, but because it was her first brush with the law as an adult, she was given a fine and ordered to pay restitution and do community service. I almost didn’t remember about it until the lawyer reminded me.” Patsy’s voice had the tone of a woman who had heard much worse.

“It was a felony, Crystal. Even though she didn’t go to jail that time it was a felony. Along with the drug conviction and now the killing, that makes three.” The realization of what Patsy was saying struck her then. Candy had committed the third felony in a state with a “three strikes” law. Three strikes and you are out. Candy would never leave prison again.

*********

Lauren sat on the couch trying to find something entertaining on the television. What a wasteland! She flipped the set off and tossed the remote on the coffee table. She had been vacillating between feeling justified that she had called in sick and feeling guilty for the same reason.

Ram seemed to sense his human’s distress and made one of his rare comforting visits. He jumped onto the couch and settled next to her, purring as she began a rhythmic stroking of his soft fur.

“I must be really pathetic if you’re taking pity on me,” she said to the cat. Her repetitive motion stilled as she spoke and the feline nudged her hand to start the attention again. The cat twisted its body, never allowing Lauren’s hand to leave its head, until he was on his back.

“I know what you want,” she told the cat and began a gentle scratching of the feline’s chest. “Ever since you were a kitten, this has been your favorite. Do I know you or what? You’re a cat hair depositing, repulsive food eating bag of fur, but I love you, Ram. Want to hear about my night?” The cat’s eyes drooped slowly shut. “Is that a no?” Lauren kept up the scratching, finding the interaction with the cat somehow as soothing to herself as it obviously was to Ram.

Lauren allowed her eyes to close as well. She could feel her body relax in the way it always did before she fell asleep and she welcomed the sensation. No dreams this time, she silently begged.

A moment later she was pulled from sleep by the ringing of the telephone. The digital readout of the time on her VCR showed that the moment of sleep had actually lasted three hours. Ram was nowhere to be seen. She reached over to the phone, wondering who would be calling her at almost eleven at night.

“Hello?” she said after pulling the portable phone from its base.

“Lauren? What are you doing home? I thought you were working and I’d get your machine.” Crystal’s voice was as welcome as an oasis in the desert. The nurse pulled a small blanket from the back of the couch and arranged it over her lower body.

“I was supposed to be at work. I called in sick though.”

“Are you okay? Do you need anything?” Crystal asked.

“I’m fine,” Lauren assured her. “This was a mental health night off. Things were a little stressful last night. What are you doing up so late?” There was a hesitation on the other end of the line.

“I had kind of a stressful day myself. I…I’m not sure why I called you when I thought you’d be at work. I guess I couldn’t think of anyone as easy to talk to as you. I thought maybe I’d leave a message and ask you to call me tomorrow or maybe…I don’t know. I sound pretty lame, don’t I?”

Lauren smiled sleepily. “I don’t think I’d say that. To be honest, I’d have called you earlier tonight if my sleep-deprived brain had been working right. Oddly enough I’m available now though if you’re not too tired.”

“I’m not certain I could sleep much anyway. You’re sure I’m not imposing on you?” Crystal asked. Ram appeared then. He had been sitting on the sill behind the curtain of the living room window. He ignored her as he made his way to the spare room where his litter box was located. Lauren saluted him as he passed, acknowledging his continued domination of the residence.

“I’m sure. Now, what’s up?”

Chapter Nine

“You’re a terrible influence on me,” Crystal observed. “And I’d just like to thank you for that.”

“Hey, if God didn’t want us to eat ice cream at midnight, he wouldn’t have invented the all night grocery store, right?” Lauren asked as she spooned another scoop of mint chocolate chip from her pint. The San Diego night was mild and pleasant and the two women sat on the front steps of Crystal’s house. The neighborhood was quiet and illuminated dimly in the soft orange glow of the streetlamps.

“Now there’s a religious philosophy I can get behind,” Crystal concurred. Her pint of Rocky Road was nearly half gone. Lauren deciding to come over and talk instead of chatting on the phone was unexpected; her idea to stop for ice cream was inspired.

“So we both agreed on the phone that today sucked, right?” the nurse asked. At Crystal’s nod she continued, “So you want to go first or should I?”

Crystal looked at the amount left in her pint as compared to her friend’s. The teller had more. “You go first,” she decided. Noting the factor in Crystal’s decision, Lauren had to agree.

“Okay, well last night was one of those nights that make me both question why I ever became a nurse and at the same time tells me I absolutely made the right choice. There was a little girl named Quesha…” For the next fifteen minutes Crystal listened as Lauren told Quesha’s story.

“And that’s why my night sucked. I saw Quesha a thousand times in what I’ll loosely call sleep today.” Lauren noted that Crystal still had more ice cream left than she did. “I hope this doesn’t mean I have to keep talking.” Crystal looked into her rapidly melting Rocky Road; she hadn’t realized just when she had stopped eating and became absorbed in Lauren’s story. She put the container on the step and turned concerned eyes to her friend.

“I don’t know how you do it. I don’t think I could stand that all the time,” she said.

Lauren laughed lightly. “That’s what I thought about your life, so I’m going to tell you something you said to me. It’s not like that every day. You don’t spend every moment dwelling on the fact that Davey has a heart condition and I don’t expect to have my soul shredded by a little girl dying before she ever really had the chance to have a life. We deal with it and our life continues. Maybe we have to take a little time out now and again…that’s what I did tonight. It doesn’t mean I won’t be right back in there on my next day to work. It doesn’t mean you give up hope for Davey.”

“I get it. That’s pretty sneaky, using my own words.”

“Not using…reminding. Don’t worry about me; I’ll be fine. I appreciate you letting me talk about it though. It’ll really cut down on the amount of time it will take me to get to fine.” Lauren set her container beside her friend’s. “So what happened with you?”

Crystal hesitated. “Well, it was Patsy actually who really had a couple of bad days. It looks like her daughter’s problems are going to be a heck of a lot more serious than she initially thought.” She briefly caught Lauren up on the things Patsy had told her that afternoon.

“So what is Patsy going to do now?” the nurse asked.

Crystal shrugged. “What can she do? She’s going to go back to court to get full custody of Sydney and not just be her legal guardian. Candy isn’t going to fight it.”

“That’s rough. No other alternatives?”

“Nope. Patsy has only had Candy and Sydney since her husband’s death. Patsy knows she has to line up alternatives for childcare and I promised to be one of the people she could count on if she needed to be away like she did the last few days. There are a few other people in the support group she’s going to ask also. The better your plan, the better it looks when you go before the judge, she told me.”

“That’s nice of you. Patsy’s lucky to have someone like you that she knows she can count on. I’m a little curious though. Other than it making your friend upset, how did that news make your day suck? You said on the phone that it had been a stressful day.” Lauren felt there was something else Crystal wanted to talk about, but was holding back. The nurse knew she might not talk about what was bothering her, but she was going to give her friend every opportunity to do so.

Crystal was sure Lauren could see her blush, even in the muted light of the streetlamps. One of the lights flickered out suddenly and Crystal was amused. “I still have the power.”

“Huh?” Lauren asked, clearly stumped.

“When I was a kid, I thought if I rode my bicycle by a streetlight and it went out that I caused it. I thought I had some magnetic power or something. Pretty crazy, huh?”

Lauren smiled. “Maybe it was the bicycle,” she ventured.

Crystal snickered briefly. “Maybe. I can really tell you anything, can’t I? You’re really going to be that kind of friend, aren’t you?”

“I hope so,” Lauren said seriously. “I’d like to be that for you. I don’t know what it is about you, but I know we have a kind of connection between us. I haven’t got a clue why it is, but I’m hoping you feel the same way. This is going to sound really lame otherwise.”

Crystal stood up and walked a little way out into her front yard. “I never had a friend like that before. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I’ve had friends, but not the kind I could tell absolutely everything to. Maybe I just never trusted anybody enough.” She pushed her hands into the pockets of her jeans. “I’d like to trust you.”

“I wouldn’t have come over at midnight if I didn’t want you to trust me. What is it? You can tell me,” Lauren urged.

Crystal walked closer to Lauren and lowered her voice. “I watched a movie.”

“A movie. Okay, what movie?”

The blonde lowered her eyes. “Better than Chocolate. Ever heard of that one?”

A small light went on in Lauren’s mind. She had a sneaking suspicion she knew what was going on in Crystal’s thoughts. “I think I’ve seen that one, yeah.” She waited, knowing her friend would speak at her own pace.

“Well I hadn’t,” Crystal said as she began a slow pace in front of the nurse. “It was surprising. No, that’s not right. I was surprised about me…how I reacted.” Crystal put her hands over her eyes and groaned. “This is so stupid.” Lauren knew then she was right. She also knew it was time she was open about herself to Crystal.

“Crystal, before you go any further, there’s something I need to tell you. I’m not sure what assumptions you made about me and I’m not sure what assumptions I let you make, but I should tell you I’m gay. I like you and I hope this doesn’t make any difference to you.” She’d said it, now she waited for whatever reaction was to come.

Crystal stopped her pacing and moved back to Lauren again. “Difference? Of course it makes a difference. Here I was thinking I would just talk about this rather interesting feeling I had and it turns out maybe you can give me some real help here. Why didn’t you tell me before? Okay, maybe it was none of my business. So what do you think?”

Lauren was trying to keep up, but was losing ground rapidly. “Um, about what?”

The blonde stood still and reviewed what she had said. “Oh yeah, I guess I never did spell out what was going on. Sorry about that.” She joined Lauren on the steps again and looked out toward the street, trying to order her thoughts in some way.

“That movie…I don’t know, it caused a response in me that I wasn’t prepared for and was surprised by. Since Sean, I haven’t really thought about my own…needs. I guess sometimes I used Davey as an excuse not to get back out there, but in truth I wasn’t all that interested in the physical side of a relationship that much anyway. I guess my sex life with Sean was okay, I really didn’t have much to compare it with.” She stopped here.

“God, I can’t believe I’m telling you all this, but I’ve started and there’s no reason to stop now.” Taking a deep breath, she continued. “Well anyway, I was watching that movie and when the scene with those two women together came on; it peaked my interest.” She glanced over at Lauren to make sure she understood what she was saying.

“You were aroused by it,” Lauren paraphrased.

“Yeah,” Crystal replied in a tone of confession.

“Good for you,” the nurse said. “It goes to show you aren’t dead and that you haven’t lost being a woman in being a mom and a good employee. That’s a good thing.”

“What about it being two women that did it for me? What do you think that means?”

Lauren nudged her friend. “Of course I’m going to think it’s wonderful, but then again I’m prejudiced. I just think you shouldn’t worry about it. Sexual excitement is normal and healthy and I think you should be happy to know you’re still interested in it.”

“But I’ve never had that kind of reaction to a woman before. I don’t think…”

“Oh Christ,” Lauren interrupted in exasperation. “Look, do you suddenly have an urge to go out and meet a woman? To start dating and have a relationship?”

“Well, no, I hadn’t thought about it,” Crystal said.

“I didn’t think so. A very beautiful scene of two attractive adults enjoying each other in a physical way turned you on. The movie industry will be happy that they succeeded in getting that response from you, but Crystal, being gay is a lot more than responding to a sex scene in a film.”

Crystal smiled sheepishly. “I suppose you’re right. Maybe what intrigued me was that I never defined myself as straight or gay. I mean, I didn’t consciously rule out women sexually, I just never considered them.”

“The union will be so disappointed to have missed out on you.”

The blonde laughed. “I’ve been a little idiotic, haven’t I?”

“No, you’ve been a little human and there’s nothing wrong with that. So, are you better now?” Lauren asked.

“Yeah, I think so.”

“Good, well my work here is done. I’m going to head on home and let you get on to bed. You have to work in the morning,” Lauren said as she rose and fished her car keys from her pocket. She walked over to her car with Crystal accompanying her.

“I think I may take a page from your book and take a mental health day. Thanks for the ice cream and the talk. I needed that reality check,” the blonde said as Lauren climbed into her Mustang.

“Not a problem; what are friends for?”

“To talk sense into someone being a bit foolish I think. Thank you, friend,” Crystal said. She leaned into the car and gave the nurse a quick peck on the cheek. “Drive carefully, okay?”

“I will. Give me a call when you get the time today. I’d like to schedule that observation session.”

“You got it. Goodnight, Lauren.”

“Night, Crystal.” Lauren started the car, turned on the headlights and eased up the street. Almost unconsciously she reached up to touch the spot that Crystal had kissed.

Crystal returned to the steps and picked up the ice cream containers and the spoons, recalling Lauren’s words as she went. Start dating and have a relationship. She glanced in the direction that Lauren’s car had gone even though she knew the taillights would no longer be visible.

********

Lauren was working on her computer, organizing her outline for the thesis, when the phone rang. It seemed she had been waiting for the phone to ring all day though she would have denied it if asked. She had left Crystal’s physical presence during the night, but the blonde had stayed with her all day in her mind

“Hello?”

“Hey Lauren, it’s Crystal.”

“Hey there, how are you feeling?”

“Not bad considering I’ve got that twenty-four hour flu that’s going around. At least that’s what my boss thinks. I’ve felt almost decadent today. I don’t think I could do this very often, but I enjoyed the extra day off. I got a lot of work done around the house too. With Davey in school I didn’t have any distractions and I got several things done on my long ‘to do’ list.”

“It was worth it then?”

“Definitely, so thanks for the idea. That’s the reason I’m calling. I’d like to pay you back for the company last night and the good idea for today. My parents called and said they have oranges on their tree that need to get picked. The branches are getting so heavy that they will snap off if some of the weight isn’t taken off. How would you like a bag?”

The thought of fresh, juicy oranges appealed to the nurse. “Oh man, that sounds great. You sure it isn’t any trouble to get them?”

“I told Davey to just get on the bus as usual when I dropped him off this morning. It takes him right by my mom and dad’s house and I usually pick him up there. Now I will have to reach up a little to get the oranges, but I think I can handle it. You working tonight?”

“Nope, one of my co-workers needed the weekend off so I traded her some time. I don’t work until Saturday. I could swing by later and pick them up. I have a couple of chores I still need to get done,” Lauren commented.

“You weren’t as productive as I was today, huh?” Crystal teased. “I’m going to get Davey and the oranges in a bit. If you want to come over, you can have supper with us…if you don’t have plans of course,” she added quickly.

“Hang on while I check my pressing social calendar.” There was a fraction of a second’s hesitation. “Gee, it appears I’m free. How about I trade you some Chinese food for those oranges. I think it’s about time I provided the food.”

“A day off and no cooking? I’m going to get spoiled.”

An unexpectedly protective feeling surged through Lauren at Crystal’s words. She needs someone to spoil her. “So is there anything in particular you like? I like to get my Chinese at this great little hole in the wall place over on Crabtree Street.”

“Two Wongs Make it Right? I’ve heard that place is fantastic. Davey and I don’t get to eat out much, but that’s one of the places I’ve always wanted to try. Davey will eat anything with chicken in it and I like most everything. Just get what you like; I’m sure it will be fine.”

The women hung up and Lauren headed to the shower. The prospect of spending more time with the blonde was exciting. As she turned the water on she thought again about the time she had spent with Crystal the night before. More and more she was finding herself drawn to the blonde and the pull was nearly irresistible. Lauren reached out and turned the water to cold.

Chapter 10

“Hey Stewart, how’s business?”

“I can’t complain, Lauren. Your order will be up in a minute.” Stewart Wong and his brother, Truman, were third generation Chinese and were the epitome of American businessmen. Armed with Stewart’s degree in business and Truman’s flair in the kitchen, they had opened Two Wongs Make it Right to rave reviews from customers and critics alike. It was only takeout and delivery, the Wong brothers never wanted to be slaves to their business.

Lauren paid the bill and Stewart placed the hotboxes into a large white paper bag. “Walnut Shrimp, Vegetable Foo Yung, House Fried Rice and Muu Shu Chicken. Either you’re really hungry or you’ve got company.”

“Just treating some friends to a little of your wonderful food.” She watched as the man added packets of soy sauce, hot mustard, fortune cookies and a plastic container of plum sauce for the Muu Shu to the bag.

“Stewart, do you still have some of those special fortune cookies?” The businessman looked up in surprise.

“It’s been a while since you asked for them. Must be a really special friend,” Stewart speculated as he reached into a bin beneath the counter. He dropped two fortune cookies into the bag. “The special ones have the red printing, remember?”

“Vaguely,” Lauren said and winked.

**********

As soon as Crystal opened the door, Lauren knew something was wrong. Her friend’s body language was different than it had been at any time in the past.

“What’s wrong?” Lauren said, entering the house as the blonde held the door open wider.

“I’m mad, that’s what’s wrong. How are you, by the way?”

“I’m good,” Lauren replied, “But you obviously aren’t. Care to share what’s put a burr under your saddle?”

“Davey…and this.” Crystal held up an envelope. “This came home pinned to him today.” She handed the envelope to Lauren. “Go ahead and read it; it’s from his teacher.”

Lauren pulled a single sheet from the envelope. It was printed with the name and address of Freeman Elementary School.

Dear Ms. O’Brien,

I just wanted to bring to your attention that Davey is doing it again. He was out at recess playing a game of tag with his classmates when he started doing the same thing we’ve talked about before. I would appreciate you talking to Davey about this again.

If you have any questions or if I can help in any way, please do not hesitate to call me.

Vicky Weaver

Lauren looked up at Crystal. “Davey has been acting up in school?”

“Not acting up, just acting.” At Lauren’s confused look, the teller clarified the situation. “At the start of the school year, I had a meeting with Davey’s teacher and the school nurse. Vicky is a great person and a good teacher. I explained about Davey’s condition and when I need to be called. We talked about the kind of symptoms he might show if he was having problems. You know, squatting and panting, dusky color and being excessively tired.”

Lauren nodded and they made their way to the kitchen. She put the bag with the food on the table there.

“Well, Davey is no dummy. He knows the teacher and a few of the other students know about his heart problem. The Hypoplastic Heart Syndrome isn’t anything I think should be hidden from the teacher and he’s told a couple of friends. A couple of months ago I got a phone call from Vicky. Davey was playing a game with some of his friends outside and apparently his team was losing. The next thing Vicky knows, Davey is squatting down and panting a little. Game over; panicked call to me at work.”

The light was beginning to dawn on Lauren. “Let me guess…Davey was fine.”

“Better than fine. When I got to the school he was kicking back in the nurse’s office, playing with her tongue depressors. This was the first time I had been called to the school and my worry over-ruled my common sense. In the back of my mind I knew he’d been faking, but I was more relieved than anything. We talked about how important it was for him not to exaggerate or ‘make believe’ when it came to his health. I thought he understood and that we wouldn’t have any more problems. We didn’t, until today.”

Lauren was unpacking the bag, careful to keep the fortune cookies inside and near the chair she planned to sit in. “So you’ve talked to him about this already?”

“Not yet, I was too irritated to speak to him before. I don’t want to be mad when I talk to him; this is too important for him not to listen because I’m angry.” Crystal brought a kettle of tea to the table and a carton of milk. “Go ahead, sit down. I’m going to call Davey.” Crystal left the kitchen and Lauren opened the hotboxes, placing them directly on the table. She pulled the fortune cookies out of the bag and placed two with red printing and one with black printing in a small pile next to her plate.

The fortune cookies with red printing were ones with a romantic theme and the black printing indicated the regular cookies Two Wongs used. Originally used for a Valentine’s Day promotion, the ones in red printing remained popular with customers who knew about them. Lauren would have Stewart put two of the cookies in her order when she was with Rachel. It was just something silly and romantic and Lauren hadn’t felt like getting any of them in a long time.

If Crystal has any questions about her preferences maybe ‘the fates’ can lend her a hand. Guilt assailed her momentarily, but it was quickly replaced by the certainty that she couldn’t come right out and tell Crystal she was attracted to her. The whole concept is too new to her. No sense scaring her off. Something as subtle as a fortune cookie is a much better idea and if I get a romantic one too, she won’t think it’s a set up. She was satisfied with her plan and was retrieving serving spoons for the boxes when Crystal and Davey entered the kitchen.

“Fortune cookies! Cool!” Davey said as he grabbed for one. One with red printing was in his hand before Lauren could do anything about it.

“Davey, don’t you open that up until after dinner,” Crystal instructed. Davey frowned, but put the unopened cookie next to his own plate. Lauren eyed the situation with dismay, but was determined to give Crystal the other cookie with red printing.

“You might as well take yours now too,” the nurse said casually as she handed the other red printed cookie to Crystal.

“No way! It’s an old family tradition…if you touch the fortune, it’s yours. I’ll take this one.” She reached past Lauren and took the only one left on the table, one with black printing.

Let that be a lesson for me, Lauren thought wryly. If things are meant to be, they’re meant to be. Maybe I’ll remember that the next time I try to mess with destiny. I sure hope Davey will enjoy knowing true love is right around the corner!

Dinner was spooned out of the hotboxes and Lauren enjoyed showing Crystal and Davey how to put together the Muu Shu Chicken. “It’s like a Chinese burrito,” she explained as she picked up one of the thin pancakes. “Put some plum sauce on it and scoop the chicken and vegetable mixture on top. Roll it up and there you are.” The meal was progressing nicely, the conversation enjoyable and comfortable.

About halfway through, Crystal spoke to Davey. “I got a letter from Miss Weaver today. She said you were pretending to be having problems when you’re outside playing games with the other kids.” She gave her son the opportunity to tell his side of the story.

“It’s not fair, Mom. I’m the smallest one in the class. I can never win the games and if I get close to winning I get tired sometimes.” Lauren’s heart went out to the little boy and the frustration he had to deal with on a regular basis. Crystal was a different story though.

“Your heart muscle is small, not your brain. Are you telling me it’s impossible for you to win any kind of game?”

“No,” Davey said in a small voice. Lauren said nothing, but watched as Crystal dealt with the boy.

“It’s not the game that’s the problem, Davey. What were you doing today that Miss Weaver had to write me a note?”

Davey’s eyes dropped to his plate. “We were playing tag and I was ‘it’. I couldn’t catch the other kids so I pretended I was sick and when they came over to me I tagged them.” The nurse had to turn away for a moment to suppress a smile. She thought Davey’s ingenuity was admirable, but knew Crystal had an important lesson to impart to her son.

“A few weeks ago you were in the hospital and Dr. Larry had to work on your heart. You were really sick then and the only way I knew it was watching you and figuring out that something was wrong. When you pretend to be sick and you aren’t, nobody can tell when you may really need to go to the hospital or see the doctor.” Davey had no reply and Lauren knew Crystal was right; Davey was smart. He knew he’d done the wrong thing.

Crystal continued. “I can’t take the chance that you may need help one day and somebody will say, ‘oh, he’s just pretending’. You know you did the wrong thing, don’t you?”

Davey looked at her. “Yeah.”

“We talked about this before and I know I made myself clear when I said you weren’t to do it anymore. This time you earned a punishment,” Crystal said in a tone indicating she was about to pass judgment. “No video games for a week.”

Davey’s expression was one of devastation. He opened his mouth to protest, but was cut off by Crystal. “End of discussion,” she said. “Can I have some more of that Walnut Shrimp? That’s the best I’ve ever tasted I think.”

“Um…sure,” Lauren replied, just realizing Crystal was speaking to her. “Two Wongs is the only place I call now for Chinese.” She handed the blonde the box with the rest of the shrimp and glazed walnut mixture.

“I can see why.” They continued their meal and Davey even seemed to forget about his looming punishment. He was shy and animated, boisterous and distracted. He was an average six-year old boy.

“When would you like to schedule the observation session?” Crystal asked, reminding Lauren of one of the reasons for her visit.

“I think I just had it,” the nurse said. “There isn’t anything more honest than what I saw tonight and it wasn’t with any observation session in mind. This was the kind of interaction I wanted to observe and I should tell you one thing.” Lauren looked at Crystal earnestly. “I’m damn impressed.”

Crystal blushed. “I’m not doing anything that any other mom isn’t doing every day with their kids. It’s not heroic, it’s just family.” Crystal downplayed her action, but was secretly pleased that Lauren had noticed.

“I’m done now,” Davey announced. “Can I have my fortune cookie now?” Crystal looked his plate over. It wasn’t completely cleared and she noticed a familiar pattern to the seemingly haphazard leftovers. “Still can’t stand green beans, huh?” Davey smiled his wide single-tooth missing grin and shook his head back and forth rapidly.

Crystal laughed and said, “Go ahead.” Davey tore off the red printed wrapper and broke the cookie in half, tossing the paper inside to his mother.

“Let’s see what the great Chinese fortune tellers have to say to you,” she said to Davey as he popped half the cookie into his mouth and produced a loud crunch. Lauren prepared her face to reflect innocence.

Crystal straightened the paper and read, “‘You will achieve victory over many things.’ Hey, that’s pretty good.” Davey nodded and began to chew on the other half of the cookie.

Lauren was confused. She looked again at Davey’s wrapper. There was no mistaking the red wrapper that should have contained a romantic fortune. Lauren didn’t understand it, but was grateful to be spared the embarrassment.

“Let’s see what mine says,” Crystal said. She tore open the cookie with the black printing and broke apart her cookie. She handed the cookie to Davey who was surprised, but not enough so that he failed to start munching on the treat. Crystal read the fortune silently and stared at the message a moment.

“What is it?” Lauren asked. “Are you going to come into unexpected money or go on a long journey? Go ahead, read it.”

Crystal looked up from the small piece of white paper. “It says, ‘New and wonderful, love is within your reach’.” She glanced at Lauren. “I’m not sure I ever came across a fortune like that before.” Her look never left Lauren’s blue eyes.

“Sounds mushy to me,” Davey said as he finished the remainder of the cookie. “Can I go watch TV?”

“Um…sure,” Crystal said, her attention finally moving from Lauren. “No X-box though!” she called as her son left the kitchen. “Oh, Mom!” was heard as he moved down the hallway.

Crystal returned her gaze to Lauren. She nodded toward her unopened fortune cookie. “You going to open that?”

“This? Well, I’ve never been a big believer in fortunes, fortune tellers…that sort of thing,” she said. The wrapper with the red printing seemed to glow like neon next to her plate.

“Open it,” Crystal said in a challenging voice. “Do it.”

“Okay, okay, I’m opening it,” Lauren said in a defeated voice, wishing she had never even thought about giving destiny a nudge. She pulled the wrapper off and broke the cookie in half. Taking out the paper from the center she smiled as she read the words.

“What is it? What does it say?”

Lauren held up the paper for Crystal to see. “It says ‘Honesty is always the right policy’.” She started to laugh.

For the life of her, Crystal couldn’t figure out what was amusing Lauren so much.

Part Three

Chapter 11
The days seem to pass uneventfully for Lauren. Work was progressing on her thesis, the job was no more stressful than usual and her friendship with Crystal was growing. Lauren continued to call their relationship a friendship, but all indications were that the feelings of trust, comfort and closeness were present on both sides.

Crystal was also having a run of good luck. Davey was stable on his medications and there had been no recurrence of the problem leading up to his angioplasty. Work was going well and her yearly performance evaluation was glowing enough to have netted her a very welcome five percent raise. Spending time with Lauren was becoming as necessary as it was enjoyable. The nights Lauren worked her twelve-hour shifts, and then slept during the day, just seemed longer to Crystal. It was a rare day though that went by when they didn’t talk, e-mail or see each other.

Lauren was lying on her couch contemplating calling Crystal when the phone rang. The nurse had finished three nights in a row and was now looking forward to having the entire weekend off. She had no specific plans yet, but hoped whatever she did, she would be doing it with Crystal and Davey.

“Hello?”

“How was the last shift?” Crystal asked. They had moved beyond the point where preliminaries were required. Lauren smiled just hearing the other woman’s voice.

“It was just the usual fresh hell, nothing really too bad. What’s up?”

“Well, I happen to know a fabulous friend of mine has the next few days off and I am calling with an irresistible offer for her,” Crystal stated.

“I don’t know why, but I have the feeling this offer is going to be anything but irresistible. Call it my naturally suspicious nature,” Lauren said in a wary tone.

“Oh, I’m wounded by that, I really am. Would I let you do anything horrible?”

Lauren rolled her eyes. “Just spit it out, Crystal. You can save the snow job.”

“I need your body.”

Lauren sat bolt upright on the couch, nearly choking in surprise. “Okay, I suppose you’re going to explain that in short words and terms I can understand. It sounded like you said you wanted my body.”

“Nope, I need it. Wow, has it been that long since you’ve heard those words? It sounded like you were going to swallow your tongue there. Don’t worry; I just need you to go with me to chaperon a school party for Davey. Saturday afternoon at two o’clock for about 3 hours. We need one adult for each six kids and I know kids are your area of expertise.”

“Flattery will get you nowhere, but I might do it anyway, just because I have a soft spot for Davey, mind you. So, where are we going? The zoo, the museum…?” Lauren ventured.

“Roller skating,” Crystal supplied.

“Roller skating?” Lauren asked. “You mean put wheeled boots on your feet and go around a rink in circles, roller skating?”

“That would be the one. C’mon, it’ll be fun. Davey and I go roller skating every once in a while and we always have a good time.”

“I have a question for you, Crystal. What about me have you learned that would lead you to believe I would strap unstable wheels of death to my feet and risk life and limb to have the pleasure of the company of a pack of six year olds? Does it say ‘sucker’ on my forehead?” Lauren inquired.

“No, it says ‘best friend’ there,” Crystal replied. With that statement, Lauren knew she was sunk.

“Fine, if you put it that way, I’m in. Let my demise, or at least my total humiliation, be on your conscience.”

“It’ll be tough, but somehow I’ll find the will to go on. Come by tomorrow at about one and we’ll go together, okay?”

Lauren agreed and they hung up.

Now what have I gotten myself into? the nurse thought.

*********

“Can I tell you how bad an idea this is?” Lauren asked the woman who was tightly lacing the skates on her feet. Crystal looked up at her in amusement.

“Will you give it a rest? You’ve been predicting gloom and doom for yourself since you got to my house. May I point out the kids?” Crystal jerked her head in the area of the rink where several children, including Davey, were making their way effortlessly around in a large circle.

“It’s a scientific fact that children are closer to the ground than adults and therefore have a lower center of gravity, making activities like roller skating much easier for them,” Lauren said in an officious tone.

Crystal laughed at her friend. “Where did you learn that…The Journal of American Nonsense? Let’s go, oh intrepid one.” Crystal stood and let Lauren make her way to her feet. The brunette wobbled from the bench she had been sitting on to the rail circling the rink.

“Why can’t I just watch them from the bench?” she asked as Crystal skated up to her.

“You could, but where’s the fun in that for me?” She snickered and motioned for Lauren to follow her. “Besides, I am an expert skating teacher. You’re going to be my star pupil.”

“Sure I am,” the nurse mumbled, but followed along anyway. With stiff legs and jerky, short movements Lauren entered the rink. Her uncertainty increased as several small children seemingly raced around her at breakneck speed. The nurse looked behind her to see if she could make it back to the entrance to the rink safely, but an oncoming group of skaters made that impossible. Once around and I’m out of here.

She shuffled forward awkwardly, her mind set on surviving the circuit and getting out of the circling mass of people. I’ll never make it, she thought. I’m going to get knocked on my ass and be run over by these rolling dervishes. At that moment a warm arm wrapped around her waist from the left and a hand was placed on her right arm. The calming effect of the touch was accompanied by an even more calming voice.

“Hey, relax, okay? I’m right here and I’m not going to let anything happen to you, but you need to work with me. Let’s just stop a second and go over a few things.” Lauren was willing to do anything as long as Crystal kept her arm around her. “Let me just look a minute, alright?” Crystal did a quick survey of the children. “Everyone present and accounted for. Now, let’s deal with you.”

Lauren had closed her eyes, enjoying the steadying presence of the blonde, but she opened them now and glanced down at the hand still on her arm. She looked over and into the calm green eyes of her friend. It was enough to bring the situation back into perspective and she smiled for the first time since they arrived at the rink.

“First, calm down,” Crystal instructed. “Loosen up a bit. Let your arms swing naturally and bend your knees a little.” Lauren tried to do as she was told and felt better once her body wasn’t as taut.

“Good,” the blonde said, feeling Lauren relax. “Now, let’s try to move a little. I’m going to be right with you the whole way. Push off with your left leg and move your right leg forward at the same time.” Lauren had her doubts about the process, but did as instructed. She felt the movement and quickly looked over at Crystal.

“That’s right, just like that,” the blonde praised. “Now the other side. Keep going.” Lauren moved much more smoothly than she had before and her pleasure at not feeling so vulnerable to a fall was followed by the dismay of having Crystal remove her arm from around her back. The dismay was short lived though as the blonde moved away just enough to slip her hand in the nurse’s.

“I’ll hang on as long as you need me, okay?” she offered. Lauren wondered if that included forever. The pair began skating slowly but surely and had completed one trip around the rink before she had even realized it.

“You’re getting the hang of it,” Crystal said as they headed for a second circling. “Try and time your skating to the music.” It was only at that point that Lauren even realized there was, and had been, music playing. She listened as they kept moving hand in hand. Madonna was singing “Crazy for You” and Lauren found it easy to keep time to the ballad. She was skating much more smoothly, but Crystal hadn’t suggested they go solo yet. Lauren wasn’t about to suggest it.

Crystal, like all moms, had a million things on her mind at once, but the one thing that kept popping up to the forefront was how nice it was to have Lauren’s hand in hers. She wasn’t sure how long she could get away with hanging onto the nurse now that the skating was going more smoothly. She can skate forward, but how about backward?

Crystal moved ahead of her friend and spun around to face her. “Now you need to learn to go backward. I want you to watch what I do.” She glanced behind her to make sure the path was clear and then reached out for both of Lauren’s hands. Guiding her friend, she showed her how to move her feet and legs to generate the backward movement.

Lauren stared at the gentle undulations Crystal was doing to skate backward and her mouth went dry at the sight. Her grip on Crystal’s hands tightened. Crystal responded to the increased pressure by looking directly into Lauren’s intense blue eyes. She slowed her backward movement enough so that Lauren’s forward movement closed the small gap between them. Continuing to move fractionally backward, Crystal brought their joined hands to her sides and came almost flush up against Lauren.

“Mrs. O’Brien,” a young girl said directly behind Crystal. Still moving, the blonde was unable to stop completely and fell over the small child. Her grip loosened on Lauren’s hands and she waved her arms in a failing attempt to maintain her balance. She hit the floor of the rink, first with her backside and then with the back of her head. The second contact produced a dull thud and a brief cry of pain.

“Crystal!” Lauren called as she moved to her friend’s side. The little girl who had made an effective roadblock was unharmed, but Crystal didn’t respond to the nurse’s words. Lauren dropped to her knees and cradled Crystal’s head. She felt a wet warmth on her hand as she checked her friend’s wound. A small amount of blood and a large knot was present on the back of the blonde’s head. Almost immediately, Crystal’s eyes fluttered open.

“Oooh, was that the westbound or eastbound train?” she asked when she realized it was Lauren holding her. Davey skated up to them then. He saw the blood and his lower lip began to tremble.

“She’s fine, Davey,” Lauren said in her most calming voice though she felt anything but that on the inside. “She’s just got a bump on her head. I’m going to make sure she’s okay.” The little boy looked at the nurse as if trying to read the truth in her eyes. He nodded. A crowd of parents, teachers and students was forming around them.

Lauren took charge. She got their skates off and assisted Crystal to her feet slowly after the blonde insisted she was fine. Making arrangements for the monitoring of the children at the party, Lauren drove Crystal and Davey to the hospital’s Emergency Room despite the blonde’s protests.

“I tell you there’s nothing wrong with me,” Crystal continued as Lauren ushered her inside, one arm wrapped around Crystal’s waist and one hand in Davey’s.

“And I’ll believe that and be totally relieved when the doctor agrees with you.” Lauren was not taking no to an exam for an answer.

*********

“You’ve got a concussion with a very tiny bleed in the back of your brain,” Dr. Patel, the Emergency Medicine resident, told Crystal. Lauren and Davey were sitting in the cubicle with her, listening to the test results. “The blood in your brain will reabsorb, but as with any case of loss of consciousness, however short, we would like to keep you in the hospital overnight for observation.” Dr. Patel made some notes on Crystal’s chart. She had placed three small sutures in the back of Crystal’s head to close the tiny gash there and had supervised the neurological work-up.

“I appreciate your offer, Doctor, but I can’t stay. I have a son and he needs me at home.” Crystal turned and winked at Davey.

“I’d be happy to call your husband, Ms. O’Brien, if that would help. Most cases like yours resolve uneventfully, but do you really want to take the chance on being in that tiny percentage of people who have complications from a relatively minor head injury?”

Lauren knew her friend well enough by this time to see she wouldn’t be talked into staying if she didn’t want to. She tried to find a solution that would work for them all. “I could keep Davey with me, Crystal. I think we could get along fine for one day.”

Crystal was uncertain and Lauren knew she had to try another track. “Dr. Patel, what would be involved in Crystal’s observation in the hospital?”

“No pain medication except Tylenol, no sleeping medications, hourly neurological checks and Glasgow Coma Scale assessments. She would need someone in constant attendance who would have the ability to pick up neurological changes and notify an attending doctor immediately.”

“I can do that; I’m qualified,” Lauren stated. “I’m an RN here in the PICU. If I stayed with Crystal until tomorrow and did all those things you just outlined, would that be okay with you?”

Dr. Patel considered the offer. “Being in the hospital would be my preference, but if that is not an option…” She looked at Crystal who shook her head slowly. “Then I suppose it’s the next best option. I’ll get the paperwork finished and you can go. The nurse will bring everything in for you. Good luck, Ms. O’Brien.”

“Lauren, if you take Davey to the waiting room, I’ll be out as soon as I get dressed and get my instructions.” She watched as Lauren rose and took Davey’s hand. “Looks like we have a guest tonight, kiddo,” Crystal said to him.

Davey looked up at Lauren and then back to his mom. “That’s okay,” he said simply. Lauren only heard acceptance, but Crystal knew her son a bit better. It was a tacit welcome and she echoed his feelings exactly.

Chapter 12

Lauren, Crystal and Davey stopped briefly by Lauren’s apartment to pick up a set of clean clothes and Lauren’s toothbrush. The nurse was surprised to see Ram come out to greet them even though she wasn’t putting food in his bowl.

“That’s Ram, short for Rambunctious, although today that’s a cat I don’t really know.” She watched in amazement as Ram immediately went up to Davey and walk around his legs, rubbing up against them as he went. Davey reached down and scratched the cat on the head. “Fine, I see how things are now, Ram. Maybe I’ll have to hire a boy to come over every now and again and entertain you. You interested in the job, Davey?”

The small boy’s eyes widened in surprise. “Sure,” he breathed. “I’d do it for free.” Lauren fetched her things and joined Davey in the living room. He was sitting on the floor with Ram, the cat’s purring machine running on high.

“We need to get back down to your mom, but I promise you I’ll have you and Crystal over for a barbecue real soon and you can play with Ram as much as you like.” Davey accepted that and they went back downstairs to where Crystal was waiting in the mini-van. A mild throbbing headache had started and all the blonde wanted to do was get home and relax for the evening.

The group arrived at Crystal’s home and Lauren followed the other two inside, watching Crystal’s gait and steadiness. Once inside, Lauren directed Crystal to the couch. “I’ll make dinner,” Lauren said in a tone that made it clear it was a foregone conclusion and not an offer. “How about if I whip up some soup and sandwiches for us? I think maybe you should stick to soup though, sometimes you can get a little nauseated with a bad bump to the head.”

“I don’t think I want much more than soup anyway,” Crystal said as she lowered herself to the couch. “Do you think you could get me some of that Tylenol the doctor said I could have? It’s in the medicine cabinet.”

“Sure, I’ll be right back.” Lauren got the requested medicine along with a glass of water. “I’ll start the soup now.” She headed for the kitchen.

“Can you give Davey his medicine too? The list is on the inside of the far left kitchen cupboard along with the bottles.”

“No problem. Davey!” she called to the boy who had taken his skates back to his bedroom. “Come on, dude, time for your meds.” Davey came up the hall and followed Lauren into the kitchen. After Lauren dispensed them, he sat at the kitchen table, taking his small pills one at a time with a glass of juice.

“Is mom going to be okay?” he asked without looking up from the two pills remaining in front of him.

“Sure she is,” Lauren said and stopped gathering the things for supper to go over to Davey. “I promise you, I’m going to watch her like a hawk tonight. By tomorrow she will be as good as new.” Davey took his last two pills.

“Can I have peanut butter and jelly?” he asked, letting the subject change. Lauren was starting to get an insight into the child and knew he was trusting her.

“Absolutely. I’ll give you a call when it’s ready and we’ll bring your mom into the kitchen and all have supper together, just like always.” Davey moved away from the table, heading for his bedroom. He seemed satisfied with Lauren’s plan. He left the kitchen as Crystal came into it. She ruffled his blonde hair as he passed her and he smiled up at his mom.

“Hey, you don’t need to be up right now,” Lauren protested as Crystal took the seat at the table that Davey had recently vacated.

“I’m not up…I’m sitting right here. I just need a distraction until the Tylenol kicks in. So what’s this Glasgow Scale thing you’re supposed to do to me?” Lauren emptied two cans of vegetable beef soup into a pot and added water. She placed it over a low flame and went over to sit next to Crystal.

“It’s a composite score of your neurological function. First we assign a number to your eye opening. It’s a one up to four score. You open your eyes spontaneously and without needing any prompting so you get a four. Four is normal. Next you get a number for your verbal response. Tell me who the president is,” Lauren instructed. Crystal made a rude noise with her tongue.

“Okay, a raspberry…that’s correct. You get a five on a one to five scale for being alert and oriented appropriately. Lastly we check your motor skills. Can you squeeze my hands?”

Crystal reached out and grasped Lauren’s extended index and middle fingers. “Squeeze hard. You can’t hurt me when you just squeeze the first two fingers on each hand.” The blonde did as instructed.

“Good, you get a six for that. Six is best. Four plus five plus six is fifteen and that’s the best you can get. Congratulations.” Lauren stood up and went to stir the soup.

“What’s the worst you can get?” Crystal asked.

“Three. A turnip can get a three so I much prefer you have a fifteen.” The nurse got bread, peanut butter and jelly from the cabinet.

“I see Davey put in his request,” Crystal observed. “So is that the whole neurological assessment that the doctor talked about?”

“No, I need to check your pupils and I want to take your blood pressure too. If the gap between the top number of your blood pressure and the bottom number gets bigger, it could indicate a problem.” Lauren spread a generous amount of peanut butter and grape jelly on a slice of wheat bread. “I guess this is ready. Are you going to be able to eat?”

“Yeah, I’m okay. I think I’m going to want to lie down on the couch after supper though. I just want Davey to see I’m fine.” Lauren nodded and sped up her preparations.

*********

Lauren finished the few dishes they had used and went back to check on Davey. He was in a warm bath loaded with Mr. Bubble. Lauren spoke to him through the door, not wanting to embarrass him by looking in too much. Satisfied he was happily splashing away, she went back to the living room.

“Is Davey making little motorboat noises in there?” Crystal asked.

“Yeah, he is. How did you know that?” Lauren asked.

“That’s his signal that he’s just about done with his bath. He gets cleaned up first, then plays with his frogmen and then the boat. He’s usually out and tracking water on the floor shortly after that. He has some clean pajamas in his top drawer. Can you set them out on his bed for him?”

“I sure can. Anything else he needs before he heads off to bed?” Lauren asked.

“No, he occasionally likes me to read him a story, but most times he gets in some practice with the video games and then he is ready to sleep. I always tuck him in though, it’s our routine.”

“I think you’re healthy enough to keep up with that part of the routine this evening, but not a whole lot more than that, okay? I might be a little overprotective here, but humor me just one evening and I swear I will go back to normal tomorrow,” Lauren pledged.

“Okay, that’s a deal. You’re my nurse tonight and back to normal tomorrow.” Crystal closed her eyes and relaxed back on the pillow Lauren had fetched from her bedroom. My nurse, she thought. I wish.She sighed, knowing she had wanted Lauren in a way far beyond friendship for a while now. She had no clue though how to let her know that she was receptive to something more.

Louder splashing was heard coming from the direction of the bathroom. In a minute Davey appeared, a large towel adorned with Spiderman wrapped around him. He hurried across the hall and into his room.

“Mom!” he called from his room. Lauren moved to go see what Davey needed, but Crystal stopped her by placing a hand on her arm.

“It’s okay, I’ll get it.” She rose from the couch and moved slowly up the hall. Lauren watched the day’s news on the television while she waited for Crystal to come back. Fifteen minutes later she did. “He’s exhausted. I guess the day finally caught up to him.” Crystal smiled. “That’s the first time in a very long time he’s volunteered to go to bed.”
Lauren got up from the couch to let Crystal stretch out.

“You might have noticed I’m not that tall. There’s plenty of room for us both on here. Sit back down,” Crystal said.

“I’ll take you up on that offer as soon as I check your pupils and your blood pressure.” Lauren brought the first aid kit she normally kept in her car out from where she had placed it in her backpack. Pulling a tiny penlight out of the kit, she shined it briefly in her friend’s eyes, flicked it away and then back again.

“The pupils look good?” Crystal asked under the brunette’s scrutiny.

“The pupils look great and the green part is gorgeous too,” Lauren complimented. Her friend blushed. Lauren proceeded to take Crystal’s blood pressure. “One eighteen over seventy-two.”

“Not too bad,” Crystal assessed. I’m surprised it’s not higher with her so near, she admitted to herself. “You think I’ll live?”

“To a ripe old age, lucky for me.” Lauren was serious as she continued. “I mean that you know. I’m really lucky to have found you.” Crystal said nothing and Lauren felt she might have embarrassed her. “Well, let me put my things away. I’ll check the pupils and blood pressure again later. I’m going to have to wake you up every hour too. I’ll apologize for that now…I’ll try not to keep you awake long enough to do that later.” Lauren stood and returned the items to her backpack.

“That’s okay, I know it’s business,” Crystal said. Lauren stiffened when she heard that.

“It’s anything but business, Crystal,” Lauren said. “Just so you know that.” She looked directly at her friend. “I’m going to grab a quick shower and then I’ll be right back.”

Crystal nodded and after Lauren left the room she rubbed her arms trying to banish the chills of excitement she felt at Lauren’s blistering look. She didn’t fully understand why she was so attracted to Lauren, but she had finally accepted she was. Would Lauren think I was just experimenting? I wouldn’t want her to think that. I suppose the idea of being attracted to a woman never bothered me, but that’s different than having concrete feelings…loving and warm feelings…for a specific person. I do have those feelings for her though. For all the good that does me.

Crystal eased back onto the couch and closed her eyes. Just forget about it, Crystal. It’s not possible.

In the back of the house Lauren was having similar thoughts about Crystal. Looking into her eyes and sitting so close to her that the warmth of her body had almost been a palpable thing, had tortured her.How can I tell her how I feel now after being just her friend for all this time? Would everything I ever said be taken out of context? Would she think I only pretended to be her friend? Lauren wasn’t willing to take the chance of losing Crystal completely. Better friends than nothing at all.

She left the shower, toweled off and slipped into lightweight sweats. She looked in on Davey as she made her way up the hall. He was sleeping quietly while holding loosely to a small stuffed dog. Lauren came up the hall where the television was still on the news channel she had been watching earlier. Crystal was as sound asleep as her son. She had curled up on her side and seemed perfectly comfortable. Lauren checked her watch; there was another 20 minutes before she would need to wake Crystal again for her check. Lauren set the alarm on her watch in case she dozed off and, after turning the lamp in the living room off, settled in to watch TV until it was time to disturb her friend. Twenty minutes later she gently called Crystal’s name and was relieved when the blonde responded quickly.

“Move your right foot,” the nurse instructed and Crystal’s right toes responded appropriately. “Can you name the Vice-President?” Lauren asked. Crystal replied with a grimace and two raspberries. “Correct again.”

“Score?” Crystal asked sleepily.

“Fourteen, but only because I had to wake you up. That’s normal for night,” Lauren assured her. Crystal sat up slowly.

“God, I love this couch. When I bought it I actually stretched out on it in the showroom. It was the eighth sofa I tried and when I put my body on it, I was sold. I’ve slept more than one night right here. I’d really like to take a shower, but the doctor asked me not to get the stitches wet until tomorrow. For tonight I’m going to get into something clean to sleep in, but first thing tomorrow a shampoo is in order. I’ll be back in a minute.”

“I can come to your room if you’d be more comfortable in your bed,” Lauren offered.

“No need, it will be easier for the hourly checks if I’m here.” She frowned. “Maybe I should have stayed in the hospital; this doesn’t seem fair to you.”

“It’s fair if I volunteered and I did,” Lauren reminded her. Crystal nodded and went to her room to change. She returned in a nightshirt that came just above her knees and moved back onto the couch. “Let the vigil begin.”

********

It was four in the morning and Lauren was doing what she had been doing most of the night. She was dividing her time between watching an old movie and watching Crystal. The blonde had dozed most of the night except for the times that Lauren had woken her to do the neurological assessments. They had remained perfectly normal as did her pupil checks and blood pressure.

The movie featured the beautiful Greer Garson trying to get the amnesiac Ronald Coleman to remember he was her husband. Lauren thought she had seen the movie before, but it had been a long time ago. She glanced at Crystal; it was time to wake her up again. Lauren had almost decided she didn’t need to wake her this time, but knew that it wasn’t what was in Crystal’s best interests. She would wake her, but she would make it quick.

“Crystal?” she called softly, trying not to startle her friend. Crystal slumbered on heavily. “Crystal?” she tried again. She moved from the chair she had taken up residence in to the couch where she crouched by the blonde. “Hey you, I…” Words failed her as Crystal opened up her eyes and just looked silently at Lauren.

The flickering black and white images from the television cast Crystal in starkly beautiful shadows and Lauren was mesmerized. The urge to speak her heart warred with the caution her rational mind knew she should take. Blanketing both feelings was the need to just look at Crystal and this was the course that won out.

Long moments passed as the women neither moved nor spoke. Then Crystal raised her hand and lightly placed it against Lauren’s cheek. She gently stroked the soft flesh under her fingertips and the brunette closed her eyes and trembled at the touch.

“Look at me,” Crystal said. Lauren opened her eyes and met the blonde’s gaze again. “I just want you to know this isn’t a dream and I’m not going to say it was in the morning.” Without any further words, Crystal slipped her hand around to the back of Lauren’s neck and urged her forward. She met no resistance.

Lauren leaned forward and placed her lips against Crystal’s. In that instant, Lauren felt something click into place inside her. It was something she never realized was out of place at all.

The reaction inside Crystal was no less profound. It was as if she had been trying to fill up an empty space the size of the Grand Canyon with a teaspoon and never knew it. That space was filled by one simple kiss from a remarkable woman in a dark room in the middle of the night.

The kiss broke, but neither woman pulled back. They remained close, their breaths mingling and hearts marveling.

“Can this be slow, Lauren?” Crystal asked in a whisper. “I think I’m going to need this to go slow.”

Lauren nodded slowly. “Slow is good. We can do slow.” Lauren moved her head so her cheek touched Crystal’s. “Does slow mean I can’t have one more kiss now?” she said softly into Crystal’s ear.

Lauren felt Crystal’s cheek move up in a smile. “I said slow, not stationary.” Both hands moved to Lauren’s head and lifted it, allowing another long kiss. When this one ended Lauren slid down to the floor completely and placed her head on the couch. Crystal slowly stroked the dark brunette hair.

“Twenty-five,” Lauren said, basking in the glow of a very right thing in her life.

“Hmm?”

“I said twenty-five. Your Glasgow score is a fifteen and you are definitely a ten. Twenty-five,” Lauren said as she closed her eyes and relaxed completely under Crystal’s touch.

Chapter 13

The smell was unusual and Lauren opened her eyes immediately to investigate. A quick glance at her watch showed it was after ten in the morning. She recognized Crystal’s living room, but the blonde, who had been resting on the opposite end of the couch, was nowhere to be seen.

How did she get off the couch without waking me? I’m never that heavy a sleeper. Lauren’s thoughts were interrupted by an olfactory recognition. The scent was bacon and it was close. Drawn as if by a siren’s song, the nurse left the couch and followed the enticing aroma. Entering the kitchen, she found Crystal at the stove and Davey sitting at the table, racing small cars across its surface.

The teller looked up as Lauren entered. “Good morning. How’d you sleep?”

“Better than usual, I must confess,” Lauren replied. Davey and Crystal were both still in their night clothes, though Crystal had added a pair of fuzzy slippers with Tweety on them. “How is your head this morning?”

Crystal followed Lauren’s line of sight to her footwear. “My head is a bit sore, but no real headache anymore and these…” she turned her feet to better display the yellow slippers, “…were a wonderful Christmas present from my boy over there.” Davey blushed and hid his face under his arm, but Lauren could tell he was pleased by the compliment.

“On Sunday morning Davey and I usually just chill out. Unless we have somewhere we have to be it’s PJ’s until noon. We also make a bigger breakfast. Today’s menu features pancakes, bacon and hot chocolate if you’re interested.”

Lauren’s stomach growled just then. “Apparently I am interested.” She moved to the stove where an empty cup awaited her. She poured a generous amount of steaming hot chocolate from the kettle on the stove and was going to sit down when Crystal instructed, “Wait! Where’s my assistant chef?” Lauren was about to volunteer her services when Davey lifted his head up.

“Oh yeah!” He slid out of the chair and went to a nearby cupboard. He pulled out a bag and reached into it, producing a small fistful of miniature marshmallows. He motioned to Lauren to lower her cup to him. “Bam!” he said as he gently dropped each marshmallow to the liquid.

Lauren laughed at their clowning and went to sit at the table after Crystal assured her one assistant chef was plenty. The blonde put the last of the bacon between paper towels to drain and started on the pancakes.

“She’ll make you a mouse one if you ask,” Davey confided to his tablemate. “They’re better than regular ones.”

“I’d like to request a ‘mouse one’ if I may,” the nurse said to the cook and received a thumbs up sign in return. She expected Crystal to pour the batter in a manner suggesting the head and ears of a mouse, but she was wrong. Crystal poured a large round pancake and dotted it with chocolate chips she took from a plastic container in the freezer.

“One mouse pancake coming up!” Crystal announced after flipping the cake. She put two pieces of bacon on a plate with the pancake and slid it in front of Davey. “With droppings.” Davey laughed and Lauren appreciated being let in on what was obviously a long-standing joke.

“How many strips of bacon?” Crystal asked.

Lauren considered the question and decided to be conservative in her request. “Two.” Crystal looked at her in disbelief.

“Okay, suit yourself, but I’m having four. To start,” the blonde said as she poured more batter into the pan.

“Two? Did I say two? I’m sure I meant four,” Lauren amended. “Are you positive I’m not the one who bumped my head yesterday?”

Breakfast was consumed in short order. Lauren carried her dishes to the sink and began rinsing and placing them in the dishwasher.

“I had a strange dream last night, Davey,” Crystal said to her son. He looked up at her from his activity of dredging designs in the excess syrup on his plate. Lauren looked up immediately.

“I dreamed we’re going to see a lot more of Lauren coming up than we have before. What do you think about that?”

Davey glanced at Lauren who was seemingly absorbed in her task of continuously rinsing the same plate. He shrugged. Leaning toward his mother he said something in a low voice. Crystal chuckled and told Davey it was time to get dressed. He left the kitchen.

“What did he say?” Lauren asked as she wiped her hands and moved to the table.

“He said we could do anything with you but go skating. He thinks you might be bad luck there.”

“He could be right,” Lauren agreed. “By the way, thank you for breakfast.” She leaned over and kissed Crystal. The same warm feelings rushed over her as had the night before. It just gets better she thought. Lauren’s eyes flew open and she pulled back quickly. “I’m sorry,” she apologized, putting distance between them. “Davey…”

Crystal stood up and followed Lauren as she backed away. “The only thing you have to apologize for is that it was way too short.” Crystal moved closer and brought her arms up and around Lauren’s neck. She pulled the nurse to her and initiated a long, and for the first time, exploring kiss. “Now that’s a thank you kiss,” Crystal said, trying to draw sufficient air into her lungs. “And you’re welcome.” The blonde remained leaning against Lauren, enjoying the feel of arms around her and the remnants of the brunette’s cologne that faintly clung to her clothes.

“As far as Davey goes, yeah, I’d like to keep it from him for a bit. I guess I never thought I’d have to deal with telling him about mom’s girlfriend.” She stopped here. “Girlfriend. That’s even a bit of a foreign concept to me still.” She looked at Lauren. “You’re not going be my dirty little secret or anything like that; I want you to know that. You’ve been a great friend to me and my feelings are…I don’t know if I can describe them right now. I just know I’ve never had anything like them before.”

“So we take it slow with us and with Davey too. That’s okay by me,” Lauren said. “To be honest, I’m a bit overwhelmed too. Now I know how Sleeping Beauty felt with that kiss last night. It feels like I’ve just woken up.”

Crystal smiled at the tender words as she recalled the fairy tale. I wonder if she even realizes she was talking about ‘love’s first kiss’? “Knowing Davey’s snail-like workings, we have about twenty minutes before he comes back from getting cleaned up and dressed. What do you want to do to pass the time?” Crystal asked in a saucy tone.

Lauren’s eyebrows rose. “Well…”

“Right, cleaning up the kitchen it is,” teased the blonde.

With an exaggerated and forlorn sigh, the nurse moved back to the sink. “From Sleeping Beauty to Cinderella…story of my life.”

***********

A little over a week later Crystal, Lauren and Davey were headed to the monthly support group meeting. Davey was suggesting to Lauren that she should skip the meeting and go with him to play video games instead.

“It’s just boring talk and stuff,” he maintained.

Lauren glanced at Crystal briefly as she drove. Looking into the rearview mirror, she told the boy, “Well, there are other attractions for me at the meeting and I wouldn’t want to miss them.” It had been three long days since she had seen Crystal and she didn’t want to waste a moment of their time together. Crystal smiled and turned her head to suddenly become fascinated by the scene outside the window.

“You mean Mom?” Davey asked.

Simultaneously both women’s heads turned toward one another. “Your mom?” Lauren asked innocently.

“Yeah, Mom made some sugar cookies for the meeting. I’d even go to the meeting for those!” Relief etched the faces of the women in the front seats.

“You got me there, Davey. I’m definitely interested in something sweet,” Lauren said with another quick look at the teller. Crystal’s cheeks pinked and she wished she and Lauren were alone so she could demonstrate how much she appreciated the words.

**********

The support meeting was scheduled to begin about fifteen minutes after the time Crystal and Lauren arrived. Patsy was already there, arranging the seating. She had set up the table that held the latest information she had gleaned from her many sources. She turned from her activity and greeted Crystal with a hug, then noticed Lauren standing behind her.

“Ms. Cook, it’s nice to see you again. How is the thesis coming?” Lauren shook Patsy’s hand.

“Better than I could have hoped,” Lauren said. She looked to Crystal. “I’ll be over checking out the latest information.”

“Nice woman,” Patsy said, observing the look Crystal sent after the brunette. “You two are becoming close friends,” she noted in a tone of understanding. Crystal looked at Patsy quickly, but was met only with a genuine smile of happiness.

“You could say that,” Crystal confirmed. She debated about confiding in Patsy and decided to risk it. “She’s been such a good and understanding friend. I’m having feelings I never expected…never thought existed, to be honest. I’m…drawn to her. It’s hard to explain.” The blonde was mildly frustrated by a lack of words to describe her response to Lauren.

“Do you think this might be something serious? You never mentioned any relationships like this in the past.” Crystal knew what Patsy was referring to.

Crystal ran a hand through her short hair. “There never has been. This has been a huge surprise for me, but it’s a wonderful one. She’s very special, Patsy, and yeah, it might be serious. You don’t have any problems with that, do you?” she asked a little anxiously.

The redhead gave Crystal a quick hug. “No, and you’re not getting out of watching my grand-daughter for the next two days either.”

“Will two be enough?” Crystal asked.

“Should be…it’s just the preliminary hearing for the trial. I probably wouldn’t go up for it, but I have some papers for Candy to sign regarding Sydney.” Patsy seemed to deflate as the conversation continued and Crystal changed the subject.

“Good turnout tonight,” she observed.

Patsy looked around. “Yeah, we better get this thing going. Oh, I almost forgot something.” She opened a large notebook and took out three pieces of paper stapled together.

“I found this on the Internet earlier and I thought it might be something you’d want to know.” She handed Crystal the papers. It appeared to be a research study of some kind. The blonde was very familiar with those.

“Thanks, I’ll take a look at it later when we have refreshments.”

**********

Lauren wasn’t sure what the problem was, but Crystal had been sullen and uncommunicative since the support group meeting. Davey apparently hadn’t noticed anything out of the ordinary as he was wrapped up in gloating to Sydney about his video game victory during the meeting. Lauren had noticed though and was at a loss to know how to handle it.

This is one of those things that you learn about the people you care about as you go along. Do I let Crystal tell me when she’s ready or do I ask her what’s wrong? Well, if I mess it up this time I guess I’ll know better the next. She walked into the kitchen to talk to the blonde after making sure the kids were in bed and asleep. Crystal stood at the stove waiting for the teakettle to come to a boil.

“Long day, huh?” Lauren ventured. Crystal shrugged in reply and removed two cups from the cupboard. The brunette chewed her bottom lip and decided to just ask the question.

“What’s the matter, Crystal? You’ve barely said two words since we came back from the meeting. Is it something I did or something I can do something about? If I’m pressing you here, I apologize, but I haven’t seen you this upset since the night I first met you in the hospital when Davey…” Lauren stopped here as Crystal turned to her with tears brimming in her eyes. The nurse moved to immediately take the blonde into her arms, but Crystal stopped her with a raised hand.

“Don’t, okay? I just don’t feel like being comforted right now,” she said. She turned back to turn off the flame under the teakettle that had started its shrill whistle. Lauren could see a single tear slip down Crystal’s cheek and it broke her heart.

“Crystal, please…” The blonde looked over to Lauren whose expression showed nothing but concern for her. It was something she hadn’t seen much of from Sean, but had seen frequently from this remarkable woman. She set the cups on the counter and moved rapidly into Lauren’s arms.

Crystal sniffled a few times, but didn’t cry any more than the single tear Lauren had already seen. Exercising the same self control she had used time and time again since Davey’s birth helped her clamp down before her emotions got out of hand. She stood back from Lauren, but took her hand and led her to the living room and the couch. She sat across from the nurse and kept her eyes on the folded hands in her lap as she began to speak.

“When Davey was five months old he became very sick. I had only had him home for two months and I was scared. He became listless and wouldn’t eat. His breathing started going faster and I took him in to the Emergency Room right away. He hadn’t been sick long, but he was already dehydrated because of his system being so fragile. Lauren, he was breathing ninety times a minute. Ninety! That terrified me, but what terrified me even more was when that ninety started dropping fast. I heard the doctor tell the nurse he was ‘crashing’. By the time they decided to intubate him and put him on a respirator, he was only breathing four times a minute. He was too critical to even take him to do a heart catheterization and see what was going on.” She paused momentarily to take a deep breath and let it out slowly. Lauren knew she was seeing the scene as it was in the Emergency Room that night.

“He had already had a major and dangerous operation in his first month of life and he was only given a fifty-fifty chance to survive that one. Sean had skipped on me right about then and I had to make all the decisions after that. Everything that happened to Davey from that point on was up to me and because of me. Davey’s pediatrician wasn’t very hopeful and he told me in not so many words that I may need to decide on whether to end life support if he didn’t improve.” Lauren couldn’t fathom what grief that must have entailed.

“He advised me to wait twenty-four hours and see what happened before any decision needed to be made. They would support him in the meantime in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. The next day Davey had stabilized and they did an echocardiogram on him. It showed his aorta was narrowed and they were able to take him to the Cath Lab and do an angioplasty. It was another close call.”

“Like the one he had when I met you in the Peds ICU.” Lauren still couldn’t see why Crystal was so upset this evening.

“Yeah, just like this last angioplasty.” Crystal reached to her bag which was sitting on the table next to the couch. She pulled out the three pages Patsy had given her at the meeting. “I got this tonight at the support group; Patsy found it on the Internet. The latest study shows that kids who have these angioplasties, especially at a young age, are much more likely to develop both aneurysms and scar tissue in that area.”

Lauren’s medical mind pushed into high gear and she saw at last why Crystal was tortured. By deciding to allow the angioplasty when Davey was an infant, Crystal might have set up her child for something even more devastating and potentially fatal. She knew an aneurysm is a weakening of a vessel wall that can balloon out and eventually break open or dissect. If an aneurysm developed on Davey’s aorta and it wasn’t caught in time, he would bleed out and die. Lauren wanted to pull Crystal to her and hold her as a friend, but had the feeling what she would say from a nurse’s point of view might be more important. She reached out to take Crystal’s hands in hers.

“Crystal, you did what you had to do at the time. You went with the best medical advice you had. These surgeries haven’t been around that long that we can know everything that will happen down the road. You made the same decision that I would have then. The very same one.” Crystal looked at the brunette for any signs that she was hedging the truth or humoring her. She found none. For the second time in the span of a few minutes, she moved into Lauren’s arms. This time Lauren could feel a dampness where Crystal’s face made contact with her shoulder.

“Hey, hey, why are you crying? Nurse Lauren must not have done a very good job of showing you that your decision at the time was right.” Lauren pulled Crystal closer and turned her head just enough to place a small kiss on Crystal’s wet cheek.

Crystal held tight and said in a small voice. “I think I made the right decision at the time; I see that now. It’s just that it reminds me of the decision I never had to make. Never had to make formally anyhow.”

Lauren was confused. “What decision? What do you mean?”

“When Davey was on that respirator and he was so sick…I had made my decision. He had been through so much already.” Lauren felt Crystal tremble a little in her arms. “I never had to say so, but I was going to pull the plug. God help me, I was going to pull the plug.” The trembling changed to wracking sobs as Crystal, safe within Lauren’s embrace, let the emotion of that day out. Letting it out, Crystal was finally able to let it go.

Chapter 14


That night sure broke the dam, Crystal thought as she began to look for the discrepancy in Mamie Sinclair’s account. The teller was pretty sure she knew where the missing eight hundred and thirty eight dollars from the elderly woman’s checking account had gone so she was working with just half her attention at the moment.

I never thought I could open up to someone like that.
 Crystal had kept her emotions bottled up for so long that she had been surprised at how simple it was now to say what was on her mind and reveal what was in her heart. It just had to be the right person…the right woman, she mentally grinned.

“What’s funny?” Mamie asked good-naturedly. Crystal blushed as she realized her grin might not have been completely internal, but covered nicely when she discovered what she expected to find in Mamie’s computerized records.

“I think I might have found the problem, Mamie. Your automatic debits for the mortgage and car payment…did you happen to deduct them at the beginning of the month?” Crystal knew she hadn’t; the gray-haired woman had forgotten each of the last two months and the combined total of the two payments came to exactly eight hundred and thirty eight dollars.

Mamie consulted her checkbook and realized she hadn’t remembered at all. The look on her face was one of mixed annoyance and dismay as she made the appropriate entries and corrected the balance. “Silly me,” she said in a small voice.

Crystal looked up and saw the only other customer in the bank at the moment was being taken care of by Trish and she decided to give something a try. “Mamie, can you give me just a moment. I have an idea.” At the woman’s nod, Crystal went back to the word processor behind her and selected a label making program. It took just a minute to type in and print the label she wanted.

“Can I see your checkbook?” the teller asked as she returned to the counter. Mamie handed over the requested item and Crystal peeled the label, sticking it on the front of the checkbook. “This is just a way to be reminded of the automatic deductions every month.” The older woman read the label which indicated the amount, to whom it was paid and the day the funds would be deducted. “I have one on my checkbook too to remind me of my monthly deduction for my medical insurance.” It was a lie; Crystal did all her banking online, but if it helped Mamie Sinclair then she thought the lie was all in a good cause.

“That’s very clever. I should have thought of that myself,” Mamie said as she replaced her checkbook into the large black pocketbook she carried. “Thank you Crystal, you’re a dear,” she said and exited the bank. Crystal consulted the clock and saw it was time for her lunch break. She glanced at Trish who nodded and then to the assistant branch manager who would act as her and Trish’s relief. Crystal loved working at the neighborhood branch; with the automatic teller machine outside, four employees could run the operations inside without much of a problem. There was a part-time teller on Fridays who worked only on that day as the bank was much busier on what was most people’s paydays.

Crystal locked her cash drawer, the assistant manager had her own, and went through the door to the right of the vault that led to the employee’s break room. She pulled a frozen meal from the freezer compartment of the small refrigerator and popped it into the microwave as she thought about Mamie. Richard Sinclair had come into the bank a month before and talked to Crystal. He was a co-signer on all his mother’s accounts and revealed she had been diagnosed as being in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. He wanted his mother to retain as much independence for as long as she could, but asked them to notify him if there was any problem with her accounts.

Crystal was shocked. She knew Mamie hadn’t been as sharp since her husband’s death two years previously, but had no idea it was Alzheimer’s. Mamie was a brilliant musician and had played first violin with the San Diego Philharmonic for years and it saddened the teller to hear the news. She debated on whether to call Richard Sinclair now, but decided to give the new system a try first. She felt sorry for Richard, she understood what being a caregiver involved and he was just starting out on his long path in being one.

Crystal consciously changed the subject in her mind, determined not to spend her break on a situation she couldn’t change and turned her thoughts to a more pleasant topic. As it always seemed to be lately, the more pleasant topic was Lauren. Once again the feeling of how warm and comforting it had felt being held in the nurse’s arms washed over her. Not much had been said and Lauren left soon after the last of Crystal’s hiccoughing sighs had subsided, but both of them knew something was different now. Barriers had been breached and walls had been knocked down and there was no putting them back up.

The blonde removed her Salisbury steak entrée from the microwave after the beeping indicated the cooking was done. She ate absently as she reflected on the time they had spent together since that night. The fledgling romance was blossoming and what had been tentative gestures and kisses on both their parts had evolved into the kind of relationship Crystal had thought never really existed, but now knew did. It was as if she was tasting full-bodied wine instead of watered down lemonade.

The mere thought of bodies sparked another issue in her mind. Neither she nor Lauren had spoken of it, but there was definitely a sexual tension building between them. The blonde had learned it was completely possible to want something and be absolutely petrified of it happening at the same time. Her mind went back to two nights previously.

**********

Lauren carried Davey in from her car. He had fallen sound asleep at the bowling alley and was hanging limply in her arms. Crystal walked ahead of them, unlocking the door and turning on lights. The nurse deposited the small boy on his bed and watched as Crystal removed his outer clothing and pulled the covers up over his underwear clad body. She kissed the top of Davey’s head and led Lauren out into the living room.

“I’d try to get him into his pajamas, but it’s like trying to nail Jell-o to a tree. It won’t hurt him to sleep in his underwear tonight,” she said as she sat down on the sofa. Lauren sat beside her and slipped her left arm around Crystal’s shoulder. Immediately the blonde snuggled in closer.

“He sure fell asleep fast,” Lauren commented. Her right hand came up and started a gentle stroking of Crystal’s cheek.

“He’s like that,” Crystal responded. “One minute he’s going like a house afire and the next moment he’s down and out for the count. The bowling really wore him out.”

Lauren chuckled. “I can see why. The ball he picked out was as big as his head and that fourteen step delivery must have had him walking miles tonight. He did pretty good for his first time though.”

“High score of eighty-four,” Crystal said proudly. “Even with the bumpers that’s not bad. Remind me to put the printout of his score on the refrigerator door; he’ll be bragging about it tomorrow and begging to go back.”

“Anytime,” Lauren affirmed. “I had a lot of fun too, you know. I always do when I’m with you and Davey.” She leaned over and kissed Crystal gently. She didn’t move back when the kiss broke, but leaned forward to place a firmer and more intense kiss on the woman in her arms.

“If you give lessons in that you’re going to make a million,” Crystal whispered as the second kiss broke. That made Lauren smile.

“How about a lesbian kissing booth at the San Diego County fair? That would go over big with the general public, I’m sure.” This time Crystal smiled with the nurse.

“Only if you give me time to save up my money and be first in line,” she teased.

Lauren moved closer to Crystal again and told her in a low voice, “You’ll never need cash with me, your card will work just fine. Care to start establishing a line of credit?” Lauren’s blue eyes had darkened in the muted light of the living room, but the blonde could see the passion in them nonetheless.

“Oh yeah,” she mumbled as she moved to capture Lauren’s lips before the brunette could do the same to her. Mouths opened with this kiss and tongues convened in a most cordial meeting. The velvety texture of Lauren’s tongue against hers caused the now familiar need to start in areas no longer dormant. Crystal’s hand came up behind Lauren’s head to press her even closer. Both women were slightly panting when the series of deep kisses ended.

Crystal breathed rapidly and could feel her pulse thrumming through her system. “My heart is beating so fast. God, the things you do to my system.” To illustrate her point she picked up Lauren’s hand and placed it over her wildly beating heart. The touch of Lauren’s hand only served to make the rate even more rapid. She trembled slightly.

“I can take your pulse in other places,” Lauren said, concerned they might be moving too fast for the blonde.

“Don’t you dare,” Crystal said as she moved Lauren’s hand directly to her breast. “Don’t you dare.” Lauren knew an invitation when she heard one and almost reverently began a soft caressing of the breast under her hand. She could feel the nipple firm up even through the bra and t-shirt Crystal wore. Moving to the other breast, Lauren gave it the same attention as the first. She looked up and watched as pleasure became visible on Crystal’s face. Her eyes were closed and her mouth was just slightly open. The lips were too tempting and Lauren took possession of them swiftly as she continued her touching of Crystal’s body.

Lauren was becoming as lost in the sensations as Crystal and it was only with a supreme effort that she brought her excitement under control. The blonde moaned when the nurse removed her hand from her highly stimulated nipples. They both lay back on the couch struggling to return to normal breathing.

“It’s late and you have to work in the morning,” Lauren said, not really giving a damn about Crystal’s employment schedule. She needed an excuse, any excuse, not to push the blonde too quickly. Crystal wasn’t helping her regain her composure though.

“I want to touch you too,” she stated plainly as she lifted her hand toward the brunette’s breasts.

“Oh God, no! Crystal, if you touch me right now I don’t think I’ll be able to stop and I’m not sure either of us is quite ready for that.” The level of Lauren’s excitement was clear to the blonde now and she decided that this time she agreed with the nurse. It wouldn’t be tonight, but it would be soon.

**********

Crystal realized most of her lunch hour was gone and she hurried to clean up the remnants of her mostly uneaten meal. A quick trip to the restroom to freshen up and she would need to get out and let Trish take her lunch break. She stood and felt the rush of moisture between her legs.

Memo to self, she thought as she moved toward the small bathroom. Speak to Davey very soon and stop thinking about Lauren at work.

**********

Davey was playing an action adventure game on his X-box when Crystal walked into his room. She stood watching as her son nimbly maneuvered a masked hero around an intricate maze of booby traps and villains. When Davey had his protagonist do a double backward somersault and bounce off the head of a dragon-like creature to capture a reward, she had to admit he had a flair for the game.

“How’s it going?” Crystal asked, taking a seat on his twin-sized bed..

“I just got another life. That’s good because you never know when you’ll need an extra one,” he said.

Life philosophy from a videogame,
 Crystal thought. “Can you put that thing on pause for a minute? I want to talk to you about something.”

“Okay.” He pushed a button and all action on the television screen froze. Davey turned expectant eyes to his mother. Crystal wished she had been able to come up with a great way to tell Davey about herself and Lauren, but in all the thinking she had done there hadn’t seemed to be the right words. She decided to wing it and hope that something would guide her as she went along.

“Um, you know that Lauren has been around here quite a lot lately and I think that’s really great because I like her a lot.” More than a lot. “I think you kind of like her too, right?” Davey nodded.

“Well, Lauren and I have come to have a very close friendship…it’s more than a friendship really…it’s kind of like…” Crystal’s fumbled explanation ground to a complete halt, her winging it failing miserably. Davey stared at his mom for a moment. Crystal made several more attempts to speak, but no words other than “um” and “uh” came forth.

“Mom, if you kiss somebody, do you love them?” Crystal stopped mid-stammer and opened her mouth to reply followed in quick succession by scrunched eyebrows and then an astonished expression.

“What?”

“I said, if you kiss somebody, do you love them?” he repeated. Crystal shook her head to get her thoughts to adjust to a new track.

“Why are you asking?” Crystal questioned. Davey shrugged.

“You kissed Lauren.” Panic surged through Crystal’s veins until she remembered this was the very thing she came to talk to Davey about…sort of. That knowledge renewed her shattered confidence.

“Yes, I did kiss her. I didn’t know you knew that.”

“Sydney saw you. She said when you kiss somebody, you love them.”

Crystal considered Davey’s words. “Well, even though Sydney is a nine year old woman of the world, maybe she doesn’t know there are many kinds of kisses and just as many kinds of love. I can kiss you like this…” She stopped and kissed Davey on his forehead. “…and it means goodnight.” She kissed him on the cheek. “And this kind is for when you go to school or stay overnight with grandma and grandpa. Lots of different kisses, right?” Davey nodded. “Every kiss I give you means I love you and sometimes when grown-ups kiss it means the same thing.” Davey fidgeted a little and looked around, trying to figure the complicated thing out. Crystal didn’t know if she was making matters better or worse. She decided simple honesty would be the only way to deal with things.

“I kissed Lauren because I like her very, very much. I think she feels the same way about me. I think I might love her, but with grown-ups it’s a little tougher to figure things like that out. How about if I tell you as soon as I’m sure?” Davey considered the offer.

“Okay.” Now that Davey’s question had been answered, he was rapidly losing interest in the conversation. His eyes strayed back to the frozen images on the television screen. Crystal knew she needed to wrap things up if she wanted him to understand at all what she was saying.

“We’re going to be seeing a lot more of Lauren and sometimes she might be staying overnight here.” If things go right, she added internally.

“Like a sleepover?” he asked. When Crystal nodded he said, “She’s too big to stay in here with me.”

“Don’t worry, I think I can take care of that,” she assured him. “Hey, don’t you have some monsters or something to destroy?” she asked, indicating the X-box.

“Oh yeah, I forgot,” he said, though she knew he had not. He turned back to the game and restarted the action.

“Hey, can I have one of those ‘I’m going to be in the kitchen making supper while you finish the game’ kisses?” Crystal requested. Davey rolled his eyes, put the game on ‘pause’ again and gave his mom a brief kiss on the cheek followed by a hard hug around her neck.

She rose from the bed and watched him resume his playing. Once again the masked hero was vanquishing foes and reaping rewards. He doesn’t quite get it all I think, but that’s okay. He never even batted an eye about me kissing another woman. She raised her eyebrows, amazed at the pure goodness of the human spirit before the world could ruin it with stupid and pointless prejudices. I think I laid out a foundation for more talks if we need them down the road though and if I need to speak to him about anything really serious…Maybe I’ll have Lauren here with me for that. Satisfied, at least for the present time, Crystal turned and headed to the kitchen.

Chapter 15

“You’re sure you have everything? Davey’s meds and his sleeping bag and…”

“We’ve got it all,” Patsy assured her. “Don’t worry about his medicines; I’ve got a little one on heart pills too, remember? I’ll give Sydney hers and then Davey will take his. Patsy’s Pill Pit Stop…hey, I kind of like that.” Crystal laughed and some of her nervousness dissipated.

“Are you positive this isn’t going to be too much for you?” Crystal asked one last time.

“I wouldn’t have volunteered if it was. Look, you kept Sydney for me so many times during all the stuff I’ve been going through with Candy. It’s been a godsend not to have to worry about who’s looking after my girl and if they would understand her routine and medicines and… Let’s just say I owe you more than taking Davey camping with us for these two little days. Besides, two’s company, three’s a weenie roast; we’re going to have fun.”

Crystal gave Patsy a brief hug. “You don’t owe me a thing; it was our pleasure. Davey would never admit it to us of course, but he likes when Sydney is here. It’s the closest he’ll get to having a sister anytime soon.”

“Well I hope Sydney isn’t counting on me to give her a little brother! That would be an Immaculate Misconception,” Patsy laughed. Crystal smiled with her and turned as Davey and Sydney came racing out of the house.

“Shotgun!” Sydney yelled.

“Guess again, Tonto, the Lone Ranger is riding up front all alone,” Patsy said to her granddaughter. “All you pilgrims can ride in the back seat. There’s no way I’m going to have you two yelling at each other back and forth across the seats. Climb your backsides in and let’s get this show on the road.” The kids piled into the backseat and Patsy slid in behind the wheel.

“We’ll see you in two days, Crystal. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do!” The older woman winked and Crystal blushed. She waved at the group of campers until they disappeared out of sight.

Guess I have a phone call to make, she thought as she turned and headed into the house.

**********

Lauren was scooping out a generous portion of Ram’s food into his bowl. Liver-n-Bits…oh my God, can this get any more repulsive? Like always though, Ram attacked the bowl like he hadn’t eaten in days. Lauren shook her head and wondered what the “bits” consisted of, but resisted the urge to read the label. What I don’t know can’t nauseate me. She double wrapped the empty can and deposited it into the trash.

She hadn’t been up long. It was the same question on every day off; should she sleep for an hour or two and then get up to be on the rest of the world’s clock or sleep as long as she really wanted and then be up all night? Having worked three nights in a row, she had opted for the second one. Maybe I can spend a few hours with Crystal and Davey before they head off to bed and I do something exciting like washing my scrubs.

As she reached for the phone, it rang. Checking her recently installed caller ID let her know it was Crystal and not the hospital calling.

“Hey there,” she answered.

“How’s my favorite nurse?” Crystal asked.

“Tell me her name and I’ll find out for you. What’s up? I was just going to call you,” the brunette said.

“I was wondering if I was going to be seeing you this evening.”

Lauren smiled. “I was hoping I wouldn’t have to invite myself. I’ve fed Ram the Ravenous and I can head out shortly. How about if I pick up a pizza on the way there?”

“Sounds good to me. I like ground beef, black olive and mushroom,” Crystal said.

The nurse made a mental note. “That’s fine by me too. What does Davey like?”

“Just pepperoni and cheese, but don’t worry about ordering for him. Tonight it’s just dinner for two.” Crystal’s voice took on a sensual tone and Lauren was momentarily speechless. “He’s on a two day camping trip with Patsy and Sydney. Two whole days,” Crystal repeated for emphasis. “Now, why don’t you call and have that pizza delivered to my house and just worry about getting yourself over here…fast”

“Yes, ma’am. No problem. I’m on my way,” Lauren said quickly, not quite believing her good fortune.

“And Lauren? This is going to be a pajama party, but don’t feel obligated,” Crystal instructed.

“Obligated?”

“To bring any.”

“Jesus,” Lauren breathed. “Thirty minutes or less,” she vowed and hung up the phone.

Crystal replaced the hand set in the phone’s base and found her hand was trembling a little, whether from excitement or trepidation she couldn’t tell.

I hope I haven’t bitten off more than I can chew.
 She shrugged off the thought and went to make her preparations for Lauren’s visit.

**********

Lauren arrived at Crystal’s house exactly twenty-six minutes later. She checked her look quickly in the rearview mirror and headed up to the door. It was pulled open before she even had the chance to knock.

“Hey there, that was fast,” Crystal said as she opened the door wider.

“As requested,” Lauren said, entering the living area. “You might want to plug your ears though; the sonic boom I created by exceeding the speed of sound should be here any second.” The blonde chuckled at Lauren’s playfulness.

“So this camping trip…I don’t remember you mentioning it,” Lauren probed.

“I didn’t,” Crystal replied. “Patsy called and said she was taking Sydney up to their favorite campground and did Davey want to go with them. I couldn’t have kept him from going if I’d tied him to a tree.” She paused for a moment. “Patsy knows about us, that we’re…involved I mean. I wanted to be honest with her. I’m the first back up for her childcare and if she had a problem with it, I felt she had a right to know.”

Lauren nodded. “I can understand that. So this invitation to Davey just isn’t blind luck?”

Crystal shook her head. “I’m pretty sure not. Patsy wanted us to have a little ‘alone time’ I think. She’s an awfully sweet person.”

“Perceptive too, I’ve wanted a lot of ‘alone time’ with you for quite a while now.”

Crystal’s heart sped up at the words and she swallowed hard. “Me too,” she confessed. Lauren moved close to the blonde and gently reached out to touch her cheek. Crystal leaned into the caress, never losing eye contact. Lauren’s hand slipped from Crystal’s cheek and moved around to the back of her neck where gentle pressure urged Crystal forward. There was no resistance from the blonde.

This kiss was like all the others given between them, loving and considerate, but this time there was an added flavor. It was as if Tabasco had been added to a great entrée. The food was good, but now it was hot and spicy as well. It’s mere intensity intimidated Crystal a little. She shivered as the kiss broke.

“Too fast?” Lauren asked, willing to sacrifice anything if it wasn’t.

Crystal looked down and shook her head. “Too long in coming,” she admitted.

“Well, you won’t have long to wait for another.” Crystal looked up and saw the passion in Lauren’s eyes and met the brunette in a kiss that made the first seem tame. She opened her mouth in invitation and Lauren accepted, exploring Crystal and then enticed the blonde to do the same with her. The kiss broke and for a few moments they just held each other, trying to regain control of their breathing. Lauren was the first to speak.

“Crystal, I want to…”

The doorbell interrupted her sentence.

“Pizza,” they said simultaneously, but without enthusiasm. Their only hunger was for each other. Crystal stepped away and walked reluctantly toward the door.

Lauren had her back to the door, but turned quickly when Crystal exclaimed, “Mom!”

“Glad you recognize me. I wasn’t sure if you would; you and Davey haven’t been over to visit in quite a while. Where is my boy?” Georgie Jenkins said as she entered. “Your Dad and I were out shopping…well, I was shopping and he was moping. Anyway, we found those denims Davey likes so much on sale so we picked him up a couple of pair.” Her soliloquy was halted by the sight of Lauren in the living room.

“Mom, this is my friend Lauren Cook. She’s a nurse at Patterson General. Lauren, this is my mom, Georgianna.” Crystal’s mother reached out a hand to shake Lauren’s.

“It’s very nice to meet you, Ms. Cook. Crystal has spoken of you of course. She told me what a wonderful job you did with Davey and how good a friend you’ve become to her.”

“I’m glad she feels that way and I’m glad to meet you, Mrs. Jenkins.”

“Oh call me Georgie. Georgianna is too Victorian and Mrs. Jenkins was Dave’s mother,” the older woman said.

“So Davey was named after your dad?” Lauren asked, noting the connection. Crystal appeared uncomfortable and uneasy. There’s the bucket of cold water on us then, Lauren thought. She decided to fill in the gaps for her mom.

“Davey’s not here right now. He was invited on a two day camping trip and I guess, like every other little boy, he couldn’t resist,” Lauren said pleasantly.

“He’s with Patsy and her granddaughter, Crystal added.

“He’ll be full of stories the next time he comes to stay overnight which I’m sure will be soon. Very soon…hint, hint,” Georgia said, poking her daughter playfully. Lauren couldn’t help but like the effervescent woman, but wondered if Crystal would have problems with her if she became deeply involved with a woman.

“Yes, Mom, I get your oh-so-subtle hint. I’ll let Davey stay over with you one night next week, okay?”

“That’s fine, dear, how nice of you to suggest it!” Georgie laughed as she made her way toward the door. She handed over a gray plastic bag bearing the name of a popular department store. “I need to get a move on; you know how cranky your father gets if he misses the Padres’ game.” As if on cue, a car horn honked out front. “That’s Dave, nothing if not predictable. I’ll see you when you pick Davey up on Monday, Crys.”

“Right, Mom. Hey, Dad!” the blonde yelled to the man behind the wheel of a SUV. He waved back. Crystal waited until the were driving off before she closed the door. “My mom sees Davey for an hour and a half five days a week and that’s not enough,” she laughed. “They’re very close to Davey though and that I like.”

Lauren nodded, thinking their earlier mood was completely broken. The doorbell rang again. Neither woman predicted who would be at the door this time.

“Delivery from Capone’s,” a young man barely old enough to have a driver’s license said after Crystal opened the door. “That’ll be $16.25.” Lauren stepped up behind Crystal and handed the delivery driver a twenty dollar bill while Crystal took the pizza.

“Keep the change,” she said.

“Thanks, lady,” the youth said as he sauntered back to a beat up Honda. Crystal and Lauren walked to the kitchen where they deposited the pizza on the table.

“I really liked your mom,” Lauren said.

“Too bad she has such a bad daughter,” Crystal replied despondently.

Here’s where she regrets what almost happened between us, Lauren thought dejectedly. “You’re not a bad daughter.”

“I am,” Crystal said. “The whole time she was here all I could think about was how to get rid of her.”

The nurse brightened considerably. “You did?”

“Yep,” Crystal assured her. “Want to know something else?”

“Sure,” Lauren said. A smile was growing across her features.

“Cold pizza is my favorite breakfast.” It took a moment for Crystal’s meaning to click, but once it did, Lauren’s course was clear.

“Crystal, will you come with me to the bedroom?” Crystal didn’t speak, but merely took Lauren’s hand and they exited the kitchen together.

***********

Arriving in Crystal’s bedroom, Lauren was stunned to see preparations had been made for her visit. This almost looks like a…seduction. Lauren smiled and released the blonde’s hand, turning completely around in the room. Candles were burning, giving the room a muted glow. The bed was turned down and crisp clean sheets were evident. Dried rose petals were placed in small bowls set strategically around the room and were giving off a soft scent that stimulated Lauren’s senses. She stopped turning when she was facing Crystal again. The blonde was blushing.

“Does it seem a little mercenary in here? If it looks like I planned things, I assure you the coincidence is strictly intentional. I’ve never been as attracted to anybody as I am to you. Sean and I didn’t exactly burn up the sheets with our sex life. He liked it and I tolerated it. I was pretty sure it was me and I guess I was right. It was me, but not for the reason I thought. The right man never came along, but I think the right woman has.”

It had been a very long time since Lauren had heard such sweet words and never with the kind of honesty she found in Crystal’s short speech. Without words she moved toward Crystal and directly into a deep and loving kiss. It was all the reply she needed to give and the mood that had been broken by visitors earlier returned full force.

Crystal loved the feel of Lauren’s soft lips on hers. Something very new and very right was happening to her and she didn’t fight the sensations at all. Sean had been able to excite her with kisses and caresses, but beyond that there was nothing in the act for her. Her instincts told her it was going to be completely different with Lauren.

Lauren moved her lips from Crystal’s and trailed them across her cheek and down onto her neck. Shivers of excitement rose in the blonde as Lauren reached sensitive areas and lavished attention on them. Crystal’s nipples felt taut and strained for the nurse’s touch. Lauren felt the agitated movements and guessed at the need they expressed. She brought her hands up and caressed Crystal’s breasts through her thin t-shirt. The blonde moaned in satisfaction.

Lauren moved her lips down the line of the v-neck shirt and stopped at the meeting of the material. She stood up, moving her hands from Crystal’s breasts to her shoulders. Crystal’s eyes had been closed, but they opened at the loss of the contact she craved. There was no teasing in Lauren’s look though, just undisguised desire.

“I need to see you, Crystal. I need to feel your skin next to mine and touch you to make sure all this is really happening and not just another of my dreams about you…about us being together.” Crystal stepped back and looked directly into Lauren’s eyes as she began removing her clothes. She had never done that with Sean, always preferring to climb into bed, have sex in the dark and then redress into the nightshirt she wore to sleep in. It was exciting to see Lauren’s breathing increase and her eyes drop to her body as each piece of clothing was slowly and deliberately removed.

Lauren held in check a nearly overwhelming urge to assist Crystal in disrobing. Something inside told her Crystal needed to do this and it needed to be at her pace. She watched as Crystal removed the last of her clothing and stood before her in resplendent nakedness.

“You’re beautiful,” the nurse said simply. Unbuttoning her simple cotton shirt she shrugged it off and then reached behind her to remove her bra. Shorts and panties followed. Lauren reached for Crystal and pulled her up against her body. Flesh met flesh as they learned to fit their forms together for the first time.

“I’ve wanted this forever it seems like,” Lauren said into Crystal’s ear, placing small kisses on the side of her head and face.

They held the intimate embrace until Crystal whispered, “Lauren, I didn’t do much with Sean. It didn’t take him long to…you know. I want to make love with you, but I…” Crystals words trailed off, but the brunette understood what was being requested.

“Let me teach you, Crystal. Let me show you how wonderful it is to love a woman.” From her place against Lauren’s shoulder, Crystal nodded. The nurse stepped back, gently tugging Crystal with her to the bed where she lowered them both to the mattress. The sheets felt cool against their heated flesh. Positioning the blonde on her back in the middle of the bed, Lauren reclined on her side to Crystal’s right.

“First, we don’t hurry. If you never had pleasure with lovemaking it’s probably because things went too fast. I’m a patient woman and we have all night. I want to touch and love all of you.” Lauren leaned over her partner and began a series of long, deep and exploring kisses and Crystal felt a familiar stirring inside. It was the beginning of the need she felt every time she and the brunette kissed. The need was building more rapidly than usual because Lauren’s kisses were now accompanied by touches to Crystal’s skin. The nurse stroked Crystal’s arms and across her belly, returning to the breasts she had been touching outside the clothing only a few minutes before. Trails of muted fire were left wherever the fingers roamed. When Lauren began touching Crystal’s nipples, feeling them harden under her ministrations, the muted fire quickly fanned to life.

Lauren broke off her kisses and looked down at Crystal. “You’re very sensitive here; I like that.” Crystal nodded, her flushed skin testifying to that fact as well. Lauren lowered her head to Crystal’s breasts and took first one then the other into her mouth. With tongue and teeth she teased the nipples into rigid attention. Crystal had been aroused before with caresses to her breasts, but knowing Lauren didn’t need to rush actually made Crystal impatient for her to do so. The need between her legs was making itself known and she could feel the moisture gathering there.

“Please,” Crystal pleaded, unable to articulate her need more than that. Lauren lifted her head and looked down at the blonde.

“You taste so good. I want to taste you everywhere. I need you to know how very much I want you.” Crystal trembled at the words. This was something she had never experienced with Sean, the open and sexual talk. A new world of lovemaking was opening to her.

Lauren began a languid exploration of Crystal’s body with her mouth and hands. She stroked, kissed and licked her way inexorably lower. Reaching the silky mass of curly blonde hair between Crystal’s legs, she looked up.

“Open for me,” she urged as she nudged the blonde’s legs apart. Crystal’s scent rose as she gladly allowed the access and Lauren felt an answering fire as she moved her hand between Crystal’s legs for the first time. Her fingers gently touched the very hot and very wet flesh there and Crystal’s body jerked with the initial contact.

“You feel so wonderful, Crystal. I can feel how wet you are for me.” Lauren’s fingers delved deeper at the words and found the firm nub they sought. “You’re hard for me,” the brunette said simply. Any embarrassment Crystal might have felt with Lauren’s words or touches was lost in the tidal wave of raw sexual feeling. Her hips took up an unconscious rhythm matching the pace of the stroking of her clit.

Lauren wanted to close her eyes and revel in the soft, wet heat, but forced her eyes to stay open and watch as Crystal’s body responded to her. Drifting her strokes even further down, she circled the opening there. Crystal tensed up a bit at this point, but Lauren eased her tension patiently.

“Do you feel that, Crystal? Your body is on fire for me. You’re so wet and silky down here. This is something meant to give you pleasure.” Lauren shifted down on the bed until she was between the blonde’s legs. “Let me give you that pleasure.” Crystal looked down at Lauren and knew what she was asking. She swallowed hard and smiled slightly, giving her approval.

Lauren almost reverently lowered her mouth to Crystal’s wetness. Her tongue slipped by the swollen and open lips to find the clit on the first pass. She felt Crystal suck in a deep breath and knew she was giving the blonde something she had never experienced before. That knowledge fueled her own need and her need for her partner. Holding Crystal open, Lauren used her tongue in a series of short firm strokes that renewed the movements of Crystal’s hips, though those movements were more frantic now.

Lauren took Crystal’s clit in her mouth and felt the complete arousal there. The blonde could only clutch at the sheets as flames licked their way through her body and sweet juices poured from her. Lauren felt every tremor passing through Crystal’s body under her tongue and fingers and moved to bring Crystal to her climax. Her tongue never losing contact with the blonde’s clit, Lauren brought a single finger to the opening she had already discovered and slipped it inside easily.

“Yesss,” Crystal managed as Lauren set up matching rhythms with her tongue and finger. Coherent thought was lost to the blonde as her hips rose and fell faster and faster.

“Come for me,” Lauren insisted, only momentarily lifting her mouth from Crystal’s wet center. Those three words, combined with the continuing stroking of Lauren’s tongue on her clit and one, then two fingers deep inside her set off a sexual explosion in the blonde. The orgasm that overtook her shattered the last barrier Crystal had and she let herself go with the avalanche of sensation.

The shuddering and cries of completion subsided slowly and Lauren placed a last soft kiss between Crystal’s legs. “Thank you,” the nurse said. “Thank you for letting me be the one to give you that.” Crystal’s breathing was still rapid and she licked her lips to reply.

“Incredible,” she said. Lauren felt she had never heard a greater compliment.

“Two whole days you said,” Lauren reminded Crystal as she placed her cheek on the blonde’s thigh. “Get some rest, we’ll take up more teaching later.” Crystal closed her eyes, relaxing into the sheets. Her eyes opened a moment later when Lauren’s hand reached up to hold hers. She smiled and closed her eyes again, a new certainty setting itself up in her heart.

She was completely and deeply in love with Lauren.

Part Four… Conclusion
Chapter 16

Crystal woke with an arm being draped over her mid-section and she held back a scream at the last moment as she realized the limb in question belonged to Lauren. The blonde certainly wasn’t used to sleeping with anybody again. Davey had crawled in with her once or twice after bad dreams, but usually he remained snugly within his own bed.

Moving only her eyes, Crystal glanced to the window. There was no sign of dawn, which accounted for the scarcity of light in the room. It had been just into evening when she and Lauren had come to the bedroom. Memories of their first time together flooded back and Crystal found herself blushing, now grateful for only the moon’s pale light. She moved her head on the pillow just enough to see the digital alarm clock which read, “1:43”.

It was the middle of the night and she was wide awake next to a very nude and warm Lauren. The muted illumination still gave Crystal a good view of the woman who had moved up in the bed and now rested beside her. Crystal’s eyes wandered over the womanly form. Lauren was fit and was sculpted in all the right places. A surprisingly curvy form resided under the jeans and t-shirt she usually favored. Her breasts were generous, but not overly large, with delectable pinkish nipples. Her face was calm and innocent in repose.

“How am I supposed to sleep with you staring at me that way?” Lauren asked without opening her eyes. Crystal startled at the unexpected comment.

“I thought you were asleep,” the blonde observed.

“I was until a little while ago,” Lauren confirmed. “I think hunger, thirst and a moderately pressing need for a bathroom is what woke me up.” She opened her eyes and met Crystal’s.

“You were looking at me.”

“I was not,” Crystal replied indignantly. “Much.”

Lauren gave a soft laugh. “Look all you want. I’m going to the kitchen for refreshments for us, so if you want to use…” She pointed toward the bathroom. “I’ll be right back.”

The nurse’s naked form rose from the bed and Crystal stared spellbound until Lauren disappeared down the hallway. It was then her own pressing need to visit the bathroom made itself known. Moving quickly, she finished in time to meet Lauren returning from the kitchen with two slices of pizza on a paper towel and two cans of Diet Pepsi. Setting them on the dresser, Lauren slipped into the bathroom as Crystal arranged an impromptu picnic. The blonde glanced over at her nightshirt that hung over a chair in the corner. She thought about putting it on, but decided Lauren might feel a little underdressed if she did.

Crystal opened the cans of soda and brought one of them and a slice of pizza to the bed where she took a bite just before the brunette re-emerged.

“Started without me, huh?”

Crystal took another bite. “Seems to be a habit with me tonight.” She indicated the bed and Lauren laughed.

“Don’t worry, I may start slow, but I catch up fast.” She walked over to the dresser and took two large bites of the slice of pizza there to illustrate her point.

Watching Lauren standing there and eating, Crystal realized that she was in her bedroom, in the middle of the night, having pizza in the nude with her female lover. It sounded incredulous even to herself and she made a sound of amazement around her slice.

“What?” Lauren asked. Crystal swallowed and took a sip of the soda.

“It’s just that this is the first naked picnic I’ve been on in…ever!” She began to work on the crust of the pizza. Lauren nodded as she chewed.

“It becomes you, we’ll definitely have to do this more often.” They finished their food with Lauren getting them each a second slice.

“I’ll do the dishes,” she offered, carrying their empty cans to the kitchen. When she returned, Crystal was under the covers with the blankets pulled up to her chin. “It’s a bit chilly in here. Mind if I join you?” the nurse asked respectfully.

“Please do,” the blonde answered magnanimously. Lauren virtually dove under the covers and slid up next to her partner.

“Oh my God you’re cold!” Crystal shrieked.

“You haven’t seen anything yet,” Lauren threatened as she pushed both her feet against Crystal’s leg.

“Holy cripes! Those aren’t feet, they’re ice cubes with toes. What are you, the undead?” Crystal cried.

“Yep, and I’ve come to dine on human flesh,” Lauren laughed as she began nibbling on Crystal’s shoulder. “Mmm… Say, this undead thing isn’t such a bad gig!” She nibbled her way from the shoulder down to the breast nearest her. Crystal writhed with the pleasure Lauren’s mouth was creating, but she kept control long enough to push at the brunette’s shoulders.

“No!”

Lauren lifted up her head. “Is something wrong?” she asked, her tone concerned.

“No, I’m definitely all right, but that’s the problem. I’m all right. I may be clumsy and inexperienced, but I want to make you feel a little of the way you made me feel earlier. I might need a little coaching though, if that’s okay.” The brunette was ecstatic that Crystal seemed to share her enthusiasm for the physical side of their relationship.

“Absolutely!” Lauren flopped onto her back dramatically and moaned, “Do me!” Crystal rolled her eyes and laughed. Lauren lifted her head and looked at Crystal. “That’s the first rule; make it fun. The second is, care. I don’t mind if you’re inexperienced or clumsy, Crys. I’ll feel you loving me and it will be great.”

“How will I know what to do or if I’m doing it wrong or you don’t like it?” the blonde asked anxiously. Lauren thought a moment.

“How about this…if you know it gives you pleasure, go ahead and do it to me. If you just think you or I might like it, ask. And remember, I’m in this too. I want to help you. I’ll talk to you and you’ll have no doubt if you’re doing something right.” Crystal was satisfied with Lauren’s response. Their brief talk was more conversation than she and Sean had ever had about sex in their whole marriage.

I want you, Lauren.” Crystal’s words were open, honest and touched the nurse in a place she had thought long abandoned.

“That’s a good start,” she said as she pulled Crystal down for a heated kiss. Many kisses followed the first, but the latter ones were accompanied by the exploring hands of the novice.

“That’s good,” Lauren groaned when Crystal’s hands found her breasts. Crystal’s hands and fingers didn’t feel like that of a beginner and when her tongue and teeth joined in the activity, Lauren knew she was a natural. Crystal wasn’t thinking about skill or technique; she only knew when she had Lauren’s words and moans of approval, that she must be on the right track.

As much as she was enjoying Lauren’s breasts and nipples, her curiosity compelled her to move on. Moving into unexplored territory, Crystal’s uncertainty was increasing until she recalled Lauren’s words. “If you know it gives you pleasure…” She moved her hand between Lauren’s legs. That evoked the reaction she was hoping for.

“Touch me, Crystal,” Lauren pleaded. I need you to touch me.” Crystal complied, delving into the wet warmth of Lauren’s center. Finding the firm nub, she stroked across it several times.

“Yes, just like that,” Lauren hissed. Her breathing had quickened and her face was showing an attractive pink flush. Resuming her rhythmic stroking of the nub, Crystal gloried in the feelings she was evoking in the nurse. She was also becoming powerfully excited herself. Lauren’s hips took up a rhythm to match Crystal’s action on her clit. Her eyes were closed as she concentrated on the sensations emanating from between her legs.

“Go inside, Crystal. God…go inside now.” Lauren’s tone wavered between begging and demanding. Inexpertly, but with great eagerness, the blonde moved her hand in the wet heat. Finding the opening, she slipped two fingers inside easily.

Crystal loved the feeling of being inside the woman she loved, but missed the almost wild way Lauren had moved against her. She sat up further and brought her other hand to bear and stroked the clit rapidly as her fingers plunged in and out. The doubled contact pushed Lauren over the edge and she came hard.

“Now!” she announced with a cry and an arching of her back. For several seconds she seemed to be suspended on the edge of ecstasy before falling over into it entirely. Completely spent, she then lay on the bed panting. It was several minutes before the breathing of both women returned to normal.

“Coaching?” Lauren said. “I don’t think so. That was amazing.” Lauren pulled Crystal up and into her arms and with tired smiles they drifted back into sleep.

********

After a languid morning in bed and a lazy afternoon on the couch watching old movies together, both women were ready for a more vertical activity. Lauren had a suggestion.

“I know this whole thing is a little new to you yet. Okay, a whole lot new to you, but I was wondering if you’d like to go out dancing with me? I don’t think there’s anything I’d like more than listening to good music and holding you close to me.”

“Where would we go?” Crystal asked.

“I know a dark little club downtown where we could dance for hours if we want. Look, I know you might not want anyone to know about this yet,” Lauren said in a tone of acceptance. “But I’m pretty sure you’re not going to meet anybody there you know.”

Crystal laid a hand on Lauren’s arm. “I want to say something to you right now and I’m just going to say it once so I need you to listen closely and believe what I say.” Lauren sat up on the couch a little straighter and gave Crystal her full attention.

“You’ve fascinated me, charmed me and loved me to the point of exhaustion. I’m not college educated or a rain man in the art of romance, but I know when something is right for me. This…you…are right for me. It’s true that I don’t want to go out right now. The reason that’s true is because I don’t want to share you…with anyone.” Crystal looked down and blushed. “Maybe the other reason is that I don’t want you to be able to compare me to any other women because I’m not sure how well I’ll stack up against them.”

Lauren understood it then. Crystal wasn’t scared or ashamed, she was insecure. That the nurse could deal with. I’ll enjoy showing her how wonderful she is. Lauren leaned forward and placed a very soft kiss on Crystal’s lips.

“There is no comparison. You’re best thing that ever happened to me and I know it. A million women could cross my path tonight, but I’d only see you. A billion women could cross my path over the rest of my life and I’d love only you.” Crystal was the one asking for belief, but now she couldn’t quite put credence in her own hearing.

“Yeah, you heard me right,” Lauren repeated. “I love you. If you don’t love me yet then that’s alright; I intend on sticking around until you do.”

Crystal’s world flipped upside down at that moment. Something she thought she would have to hide and work up the nerve to say had just been said by the love of her life. She launched herself at Lauren and kissed her long and hard.

“I take it this comes as good news then?” Lauren asked when the kiss broke, her head swimming with happiness.

“Very good news,” Crystal replied from her place in the nurse’s arms. “I love you too. I didn’t know when I’d be brave enough to tell you or if I’d be brave enough to tell you. Thank you for saying it first.”

“If I’d known this was going to be the reception, I’d definitely have mentioned it earlier.” Lauren pulled Crystal up so she could look into her eyes. “You’re the one, Crystal. I didn’t even realize I was waiting for you, but I was. You and Davey are part of my life now and I’m going to love every minute.”

Crystal blinked several times. “Davey…guess I need to have another talk with him now.”

“Another talk?” Lauren asked, looking for enlightenment.

Crystal smiled. “I was trying to give him a bit of a heads up about us. I think I realized this was getting serious.”

“What did he say? What did you say to him?”

“I said I’d tell him if I found out I loved you,” Crystal clarified. “I’m not sure he understands it, but he will. There’s no going back for me, not even if I could, so Davey is going to have to get used to you in our lives.”

“When you talk to him I’d like to be there. This isn’t a you or I thing anymore…it’s an us.” Lauren looked at Crystal earnestly and the teller knew this was something important.

“Absolutely.” Crystal return to her place in Lauren’s embrace. “I can get ready in just a couple of minutes if you still want to go dancing.”

Lauren shrugged and held Crystal tighter. “Nah, all of a sudden I found something better to do.” She moved to kiss Crystal again when the phone rang. Lauren had to chuckle when the blonde literally growled in frustration over the timing of the call. “It could be worse,” she said as Crystal got up to answer the phone. “We could have been in the shower.”

“We can do that?” Crystal said, clearly intrigued as she reached for the ringing instrument. “Hello?”

“Crystal, it’s Dad,” Dave Jenkins’ voice came over the line. “I’ve got an extra ticket for the Padres’ game tonight. One of my friends can’t use his season tickets for the game and gave them to me when we went golfing this morning. How about taking in the game with your old man? I’d ask to take Davey, but your mom told me he’s gone on a camping trip.”

Crystal looked over at Lauren still sitting on the couch. “I’d like to, Dad, but with Davey gone I’m taking advantage of the time to take care of some important things around here. As a matter of fact I just found out I have some cleaning to get done.” She winked at Lauren who had to suppress a laugh.

“Okay, Crys, but I’m blaming you in advance for me having to explain the infield fly rule to your mother for the hundredth time.” Dave Jenkins moved the phone away from his mouth and called, “Get your hat and mitt, Georgie, you’re in.” Crystal could have sworn she heard a distant sarcastic “whoopee” and she laughed at her parents.

“Bye, Dad,” she said as they hung up. She ran back to the couch, jumping over the back, and returned to her lover. More heated kisses were exchanged when the phone rang again. Crystal laughed. “I could have predicted this. That’ll be my mom asking me to spare her from having to go to the game. She doesn’t mean it, but she likes to make my dad think she’s doing him a favor.” Reluctantly she got up from the couch again. “Don’t lose my place, I’ll be right back.”

She went to the phone again. “Hello?”

“Crystal, thank goodness. It’s Patsy.” Patsy’s voice contained an unmistakable tone of anxiety.

“Patsy? Patsy, what’s the matter?” Crystal’s tone was rapidly mirroring the older woman’s. Lauren heard it and got up from the couch quickly.

“It was so fast,” Patsy said. “One minute they were playing and tossing pinecones around and the next… We went straight to the Emergency Room up here in Morrisville. It was the closest place. They said it was pulmonary edema…flash pulmonary edema. Crystal, can you meet us at Patterson General? That’s where we’re going; it has the closest Pediatric cardiologist. They’re going to use the Life Flight helicopter and we’ll be there as soon as we can in my car.”

“Oh my God,” Crystal said as Lauren reached her and put a concerned arm around her. “Is Davey going to be okay? What did the doctor in the Emergency Room say?”

There was a moment’s pause. “I’m so sorry, Crystal. I should have said something earlier. It isn’t Davey, he’s fine. It’s Sydney and she’s in critical condition.”

Chapter 17

“I don’t know how you do it. Every phone call could be the phone call you dread. Look at your hands, they’re still shaking.” Crystal looked down at her hands as instructed. As Lauren noted they still showed a fine tremor. The adrenaline was just now leaving her body as the nurse drove her to the hospital.

This is going to scare her off now. It’s too much to expect for her to take on a new relationship and a child with Davey’s problems too. Crystal said nothing aloud.

Lauren continued. “This is just the kind of thing I want to write about in my thesis. Nobody can understand how there are moments of extreme stress in having a child with serious heart problems, but there also has to be an undercurrent of worry all the time. I think that’s an important point to get across.”

It’s back to business. She’s had a taste of what it’s like and she’s going to back away. I can’t blame her. If Davey wasn’t my son, would I willingly take on the responsibility? I’m not sure I would, so how can I ask her to?

Lauren stopped for a red light. “I’m so glad I’m going to be around now to support you and take some of the worry off you. I know being Davey’s mom that you will never be free of that stress, but I hope I can take a share of it on and be there for you.” Lauren took one hand off the steering wheel and reached over to take Crystal’s hand in hers.

Crystal was stunned. That was the only word for it. In that minute, with those words and that gesture, Lauren answered all Crystal’s concerns. She squeezed the nurse’s hand and tears misted her eyes. She had to look away as a wellspring of pure emotion rose within her.

The action confused Lauren and she looked over her last words in her mind. The light changed and she reclaimed her hand to begin to drive again. She had a gut feeling she knew what was bothering Crystal and she decided to ask the question she’d wanted to know about for a long time. “Crystal, will you tell me about Sean leaving?” Crystal didn’t look back at Lauren, but a tightening of the blonde’s body told Lauren she had hit the problem exactly. Crystal took a deep breath.

“Sean and I had been pretty much just friends who occasionally had sex, I told you that before. When we found out I was pregnant, that friendship became closer. Sean was really happy about the prospect of being a dad. When the ultrasound showed it was a boy, Sean went out and bought a baseball mitt and a football. He decided on the spot where his Father of the Year trophy would go. He was there with me during Lamaze classes and during my labor. He cried when Davey was born.” Lauren felt a pang of envy that Sean had shared all that with Crystal.

“He even held Davey first and cut the umbilical cord. I thought the baby was going to be the answer to all the problems I could see were developing between us. ‘Just friends’ didn’t seem like it was going to be enough to last until ‘death us do part’. Then the problems started…almost immediately it seemed. Sean was shocked of course, we both were. It wasn’t anything we had thought about or prepared for.” Crystal paused here and Lauren glanced over, thinking Crystal might have started crying. She hadn’t. She was speaking of the events in a flat tone and Lauren knew this wasn’t new ground Crystal was going over; this was something she had thought about quite a bit.

“Sean stayed with me as the neonatal intensivist explained the problem and gave us our choices. He had called in a cardiac surgeon who was standing by for our decision. Sean left to take a ‘quick walk and think,’ he said. That quick walk was a walk away. I made the decision for Davey to have the first surgery and I’ve made them all since then. Sean drifts in and out of Davey’s life, but he has no part of mine. He forfeited that when he left me and Davey.” Crystal fell silent, but Lauren felt she hadn’t finished just yet and so she said nothing. There was one more thing.

“When I went home for the first time after I delivered Davey, it wasn’t how I had envisioned it. Instead of Sean, Davey and I coming home to live happily ever after, my parents drove me home long enough to shower and get some fresh clothes so I could head right back to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. I found the baseball mitt and football in the trash. Sean, for all intents and purposes, gave up on Davey then and I gave up on Sean. I haven’t expected much from anyone since then.” She concluded her story and looked over to Lauren who was now navigating the hospital parking lot. Pulling into an available space, the nurse brought her Mustang to a stop and killed the engine. She reached for Crystal and pulled her close.

“Expect a lot from me, Crys. Please…expect a lot.” Crystal did cry a little then, but it was tears of relief mixed with happiness instead of the hurt and frustration of the past. They were the kind of tears she’d experienced far too few times in her life.

Lauren patted Crystal on the back. “Let’s go see Patsy, find out how Sydney is and get your son.” Crystal nodded and reached for the handle of the door.

**********

They found Patsy and Davey in the waiting room of the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit. Davey jumped up and ran to hug his mother.

“Mom, Sydney is sick. We were just playing and she got sick. We weren’t doing anything.” Davey’s voice was anxious and Crystal reassured him that they had done nothing to cause Sydney’s illness.

“They won’t let me see her. Is she going to die?” Crystal looked to Patsy, not knowing the answer to that herself.

“The last update I had was that she was stable, but very serious,” Patsy said. “She’s on a respirator to help her breathe and they are working to get the fluid off her lungs. I needed to wait here with Davey before I could stay in there all the time. They wouldn’t let him visit unless he was family.”

“How about if I go see if I can grease some wheels for us?” Lauren offered. “Sometimes it pays to know somebody and as a staff member of the PICU, I pretty much know everybody.”

“That would be wonderful,” Patsy replied.

“I’ll try to get another update on her status too. Be right back.” Lauren walked over to the doors of the PICU, entered a code in the box on the wall and the double doors swung open. She gave a little wave and entered.

Patsy turned to Crystal. “Thanks for getting here so fast. I was trying to hold it together so both Sydney and Davey wouldn’t be so scared, but it’s tough when I’m absolutely terrified on the inside. I’m so sorry again for having scared you too when I called earlier. I suppose I wasn’t thinking straight. It’s not like I have the only child with a heart problem.” Crystal put her arm around Patsy’s shoulder and led her back to the chairs where Davey had already returned, now engrossed in Sponge Bob Squarepants on the television there.

“It’s okay, my heart was racing there for a minute, but Lauren calmed me down. She even drove me here. She’s a good person to have around in a crisis.”

“I’m glad Lauren was with you. That was very good timing,” Patsy said.

“She never left,” Crystal confided in a low voice after glancing at Davey. Patsy gave a tired smile.

“Well, that’s the best news I’ve heard all day…literally.” The doors to the PICU swung open and Lauren re-emerged. She approached the little group in the waiting area.

“I did a little explaining and a lot of cajoling and we can all go in to see Sydney. Patsy will be able to stay with her of course and we…” she indicated Crystal, Davey and herself, “have five whole minutes. Patsy, why don’t you go on in first…the pediatric resident just got back and he’ll be able to talk to you.” Patsy got up and headed for the doors, but glanced back.

“Davey’s things are in my car, but his medicine is in that small bag there, Crystal. I brought them inside because I didn’t know how long we’d be here.” Crystal saw the small backpack and gave Patsy a thumbs up sign. The older woman picked up a phone hanging by the door and waited a moment. “Patsy Cohen to see Sydney.” She listened and then hung the phone up. The double doors swung open and she went inside.

“How is Sydney?” Crystal asked when Patsy was out of earshot. Lauren sat next to her in the chairs.

“She’s going to be okay. She’s responding well to the diuretics and it looks like she’s going to need her medications tweaked a little, but she’s going to be fine.”

“What’s a di-retic?” Davey asked. The program had gone to commercial and he was now paying attention to the grown-up’s conversation.

“It’s the same medicine you take…the Lasix. They give it into Sydney’s vein though, through a needle in her arm. You’ve had those before, remember?”

Davey nodded. “Yeah, those hurt. Sydney’s not going to die then?”

Lauren smiled. “Nope. She has to stay on the breathing machine until morning probably, but she will be a lot better by then. In a couple of days she’ll be back home.”

“Yes!” Davey said, pumping his arm in the air. He caught his outburst and checked the emotion. In a very calm voice he said, “She’s my best friend.” Sponge Bob returned to the television screen then, as did Davey’s attention.

Lauren took Crystal’s hand in hers. “You okay?”

“I am now. It would have broken my heart if anything had happened to Sydney. She’s all Patsy has. Candy gets sentenced in a few days and that will be it. Patsy came into the bank the other day to get some papers notarized. I’ve been helping her with the formal adoption stuff. She told me Candy’s going to get another twenty years tacked onto her sentence probably, but that it doesn’t make a difference. It is her third strike and she is inside for the rest of her life.”

“God, what a horrible thing for a mom to have to go through,” Lauren said. “I’m glad Patsy has Sydney…and the other way around too.”

“I’m glad I’ve got you,” Crystal said. “I’m really glad you’re here today.”

Lauren smiled softly at the blonde. “Where else would I be? I love you.”

“Yes!” Crystal said in a low voice and pumped her arm as Davey had done. Lauren laughed.

“Why don’t we go in to see Sydney and then go get some food?” With all three in agreement, they headed for the PICU doors. Lauren went to put in the entrance code, but Davey reached up for the phone.

He listened and then said, “Davey O’Brien, my mom and Lauren to see Sydney.” He beamed when the doors opened. They entered the PICU.

*********

Patsy was standing at Sydney’s bedside when they entered her cubicle. Davey stood stock still when he saw the medical equipment, lines and tubes snaking their way in, out and on the girl.

“It’s okay,” Lauren said to him. “These are all the things we use here to make sure Sydney is getting better. You’ve had some of these things yourself, remember? You had the IV,” she pointed out the bag of fluid connected by way of a pump to a vein in Sydney’s arm. “And you had the heart monitor, too.” Davey looked as Lauren indicated the oscilloscope showing Sydney’s heart rhythm, heart rate and oxygen level. Remembering that he had been in somewhat the same position not too long ago seemed to put Davey at ease. He walked up to where Sydney lay in the bed.

“Hi,” he said a bit shyly. Sydney’s eyes tracked to her diminutive visitor. She looked pointedly at the tube emanating from her throat.

“Sydney can’t talk right now because that tube is helping her breathe,” Crystal said to Davey. His eyes wandered to where loosely tied restraints kept the young girl from reaching up and pulling the endotracheal tube out. He thought very hard for a moment and then fished something out of his pocket.

“You can’t play this with those things on, but maybe you’d like to hold it for when you can.” He took the Game Boy and placed it in Sydney’s hand. The girl wrapped her fingers around it, hanging onto the familiar object for security.

Crystal touched Davey’s shoulder and he turned to his mom. “Davey, we have to go now. We were only allowed to be here for a few minutes.”

Davey nodded. “Okay, mom.” He returned his attention to Sydney. “I got better here; you will too. Lauren works here and she’ll take care of you.” His words made the nurse smile. Sydney didn’t respond to the words; she looked miserable with all the tubes, especially the one in her throat.

“You’ll get that thing out in no time,” Crystal assured her. “When you’re better, maybe we can all go on that camping trip again.” Sydney looked slightly happier at the news, but not by much.

“She really hates that tube,” Patsy explained. “The doctor told me she was doing really well and he planned to take the tube out tomorrow, but that seems a very long time away to her. I guess I can understand that. I’m going to be right here with you all night, sweetpea,” she said to her granddaughter.

“Is there anything we can get you?” Crystal offered.

“No, I’m okay. Now that I know my girl here is going to be fine, I will be too. They’re going to bring in a cot so I can stay with her. I’ll give you a call tomorrow and let you know how things are going,” Patsy promised.

Lauren, Crystal and Davey left the cubicle as Patsy made herself comfortable in a chair by Sydney’s side. Lauren glanced at Crystal who was looking back into the cubicle, a concerned expression on her face.

“She’s going to be fine,” Lauren reminded her.

“I know; it just breaks my heart to see her look so upset. She might be better in the morning, but it’s going to be a long night for her before that.”

Lauren thought a moment. “Maybe I can help that. Hang on a sec.” She left Crystal and Davey and walked back into Sydney’s room. She leaned over the bed and whispered something into Sydney’s ear. The little girl listened and smiled around the endotracheal tube as she gave Lauren a thumbs up sign. Lauren smiled back and gave Patsy a nod as she left the room and re-joined Crystal.

“Okay, that was an amazing transformation,” Crystal marveled as they walked from the PICU. “What did you say to her?”

Lauren pushed a large silver button on the wall and the doors swung open. “I just told her she was a very smart little girl and that she was right…sometimes when you kiss someone it does mean you love them, because I kissed you and I love you very much. I guess she liked being right more than being miserable.”

Crystal stopped walking for a moment. “You’re pretty terrific, you know that? Hey, how’d you like to spend the night with a very attractive single mother and her son?”

Lauren considered the offer. “As much as I would love to take you up on that, I better head home tonight. I’m sure Ram is starting to get worried about me and he hasn’t had his fix of stinky cat food today. I’m working tomorrow, too and I have scrubs to wash and…”

“And Davey is home and you’re feeling a little awkward with that,” Crystal surmised.

“Well, maybe,” Lauren admitted. “I just think we should have that talk with him before I stay overnight with you while he’s there. He’s only six, but he deserves that respect.”

Crystal smiled at that. “Did I mention lately that you’re pretty terrific?”

“Yeah,” Lauren said ruefully as she took Crystal’s hand and headed for the exit with Davey. “And tonight I’m going to be terrifically frustrated.”

Chapter 18

A very sleepy Patsy Cohen rubbed tired eyes as she sat up from the recliner she’d spent the night in. Sydney had done well through the night and the Pediatric resident had already seen her, promising to come back and remove the endotracheal tube when she had completed her rounds. Sydney had been off the respirator for eight hours and only had oxygen flowing through a piece of equipment that resembled a “T” attached to her tube. The nurse had called it “blow by” and said it was a precursor to Sydney having the tube discontinued.

No doubt about it, all-nighters are a thing of the past for me,
 Patsy thought as the heartburn she’d had much of the night returned. Fishing another Tums from her purse, popping it into her mouth and chewing slowly, she thought, Hospital coffee and no sleep. I’ll be lucky if I just don’t go ahead and get an ulcer. She looked over at Sydney who was finally resting, knowing the endotracheal tube would soon be gone. She’d be worth an ulcer though. Patsy gazed at the brown-haired little girl and smiled slightly. My poor baby, all these problems at your age. You’re strong and brave though, you’ll come through this. 

The Tums started to kick in and Patsy felt better. She felt even better a few minutes later when the resident made her appearance with Sydney’s nurse. The doctor was scribbling in Sydney’s chart while the nurse gathered a few items from the supply cart in the room. She turned on the suction apparatus that hung on the wall and placed a new kit containing a suction catheter at the head of the bed.

“Okay Sydney,” the doctor called, rousing the girl. “We’re going to get rid of that tube now, but we need you to help us.”

Sydney’s eyes opened and she paid close attention to the doctor. She was anxious to have the hated equipment gone. The nurse began disengaging the Velcro holder from around the girl’s neck that held the tube in place. She also removed the light ties that had prevented Sydney from reaching the breathing tube and then handed the doctor an empty syringe without a needle on it.

“I’m going to deflate the cuff…that’s the balloon on the tube that holds it in your airway.” Patsy and Sydney watched as the doctor used the empty syringe to deflate a tiny plastic balloon on the end of a thin plastic tubing. “When I see that this balloon is flat, I know the balloon in your airway is too. Now, I’m going to count to three and when I get there I want you to cough, okay?” Sydney nodded in understanding. “Ready? One, two…three!” Sydney coughed as the doctor pulled the tube out. Patsy was amazed at how much had been inside her granddaughter.

Sydney coughed twice more. The nurse handed her a tissue and asked, “How does that feel?”

Despite the rough night the little girl smiled and said in a slightly hoarse voice, “Better. Can I have a drink of water?” The nurse placed nasal prongs on Sydney and adjusted the flow of oxygen by a meter on the wall.

“Sure thing. I’ll get you some ice chips to start.” The resident promised to check back in later and the nurse left to get the ice. Sydney spoke to her grandmother.

“Is it okay if I take a nap? I’m kind of tired now.” Patsy reached over the siderail and patted Sydney’s arm.

“You go ahead, sweetpea. I think I’ll join you.” Patsy and Sydney slipped into some much needed sleep.

**********

It was nearing noon, the time Lauren usually laid down to get a couple hours rest before tackling her first twelve hour shift of a series. She had been busy all morning with the routine chores she had put off while staying with Crystal. Now the laundry was done, the apartment was clean and the groceries bought. As she slipped between the cool, clean sheets she recalled how the morning had started.

An indignant Ram had been dogging her heels ever since she woke. Actually it had been even before she woke as Ram had acted as her alarm clock by jumping on the bed and walking on her still slumbering form. He circled a few times and plopped down on her blanket-covered legs. Lauren was pulled from sleep abruptly by the action.

“Good grief, I must be feeding you too much. I swear I can’t feel my lower limbs now. Get off me, you big galoot.” She moved her legs enough to plunk Ram unceremoniously to the mattress. Unfazed, he got to his feet and marched toward the head of the bed where he sniffed at Lauren’s face, tickling her with his whiskers as his purring kicked into high gear.

“Affectionate, motor running, wanting to snuggle…your bowl must be empty I’m guessing.” Ram gave her an inscrutable look, but at the mention of the word “bowl” he jumped off the bed and headed out of the room.

“Got it in one guess,” Lauren said as she piled out from under the covers. She gathered the shorts and t-shirt from where she had dropped them on the floor the night before and then glanced at the alarm clock. “Five thirty? You need stinky cat food at five thirty?” she groaned as she made her way to the kitchen. Opening the cupboard, she selected a can at random.

“Will you look at this? ‘Poultry Picnic’. Can it get just a tad more repulsive?” She opened the can, appalled at the smell. “Never have so few done so much for so little,” she said as she placed the bowl on the floor. She placed fresh water in Ram’s other dish and shuffled back to the bedroom. The phone rang as she walked in.

“Hi there, lover,” she said. Caller ID had been a godsend.

“Hey there, wonderful. Did I wake you?” Crystal’s voice was bright and wide awake.

“No, no…I’ve been awake for hours,” she lied.

“Sure you have. Just remember, I know that wake up voice of yours now.” Lauren knew she was caught.

“Okay, it might have been minutes. I just got confused there,” she amended.

“That sounds more like it. How are you this morning? I missed you last night.”

“I’m good, great in fact now that you said that,” Lauren repied. I’m just like Ram, she thought, I might start purring any second now.

“I called the hospital and Patsy was awake already. They took out Sydney’s tube and she will probably go to the regular Pediatric ward on a portable heart monitor later today.”

“That’s great news,” Lauren said. “I’ll stop by before my shift starts and say hello.”

“You can say hello to me too. Davey and I are going to the hospital to visit after she’s moved out of the PICU. I thought maybe I could spell Patsy and let her go home for a shower and a nap. I’m taking her a bowl of homemade soup and I thought I’d see if you want some too,” Crystal offered.

“Oh my God, I’d sacrifice a chicken to you if you did that. I’ll be there about six, okay?”

“Sounds good to me. See you then. Love you.” Crystal hung up and Lauren had glowed with how right things were in her world.

**********

Crystal arrived at the hospital with Davey at a half past five o’clock. They were familiar enough with the pediatric portion of the hospital that they had no problem finding Sydney’s room. Patsy was dozing in a chair when they walked in and Sydney was playing a video game on a television that was placed on a rolling cart. Davey immediately walked to the head of the bed to see which game was being challenged.

“That one’s for babies,” he said with disdain.

“I know,” the girl agreed. “This old Nintendo is all they have. I wish they had an X-box or a PS2.” Crystal shook her head at the video game jargon and turned to Patsy who had woken when Davey spoke.

“You look tired,” the teller said.

Patsy shrugged in acceptance. “This was easier when I was younger. Every time they came in to check on Sydney last night or give her a medicine or a treatment, I woke up. I guess it was left over from being so scared on the camping trip and at the little hospital and during the time she was being transported…oh heck, all through this. I knew things like this were possible and even probable. It’s one thing to know them, it’s another thing to experience them. That girl shaved time off my life I tell you.”

Crystal sat down on a straight back chair next to Patsy. “I can understand that; when Davey had his angioplasty I sat in the waiting area of the Cath Lab and nearly chewed my fingernails to the nub. It’s stressful. When I got Davey home all I wanted to do was sleep for the next week at least.”

Patsy leaned forward in the chair and rubbed the back of her neck. “You mean sleep, in a real bed? Does that really exist? I cant remember,” she laughed.

Crystal leaned over and brought up a large plastic bag she had placed on the floor when she came in. She reached in and brought out a plastic container. “The soup was hot when I put it in here so it’s probably still warm. I can ask the nurse to put it in the microwave if you want.” She handed the container and a spoon to her friend. Patsy took the lid off and inhaled the mouth-watering aroma.

“Navy bean! I haven’t had this in years. Sydney had macaroni and cheese earlier along with a hot dog and chocolate pudding. The stomachs of the young,” she marveled. “I’ll take this anytime.” She dug into the substantial soup with relish. “At least this won’t give me heartburn,” she said between mouthfuls. “I’m pretty certain food in the hospital is designed to get visitors to go home.”

“You could be right,” Crystal said, concerned about the dark circles under her friend’s eyes. “It’s worse when you combine it with a lack of sleep. Why don’t you go home and get a shower and a nap. My mom and dad will come by in an hour or so and pick up Davey, but I can stay until about midnight. I have to work tomorrow, but with them taking him to school, I’ll get plenty of sleep.”

“You’re sure this isn’t imposing? I mean I won’t look a gift horse in the mouth, but if this is a bother, just say so, okay?”

“It’s not a bother,” the blonde assured her. She watched as Patsy finished the soup. She was amused as she observed the interaction between Davey and Sydney. Davey was constantly giving advice about the game and Sydney was patiently replying, “I know,” to it all.

Patsy snapped the lid back on the container. “You saved my life. Now I’m going to go home, get a nap and get back here by midnight. Every bone in my body is grateful to you.” She rose and slipped a lightweight jacket on. “Sydney, Crystal will be here for a while and I’ll be back later. I’m going to be at home if you need me and I’ll be back by midnight. You have Crystal call me if you need anything.”

“Okay, Grandma. Can you bring me Grumpy when you come back?” Patsy nodded, knowing the twelve inch high stuffed replica of Sydney’s favorite dwarf was a cherished companion during times of stress.

“Sure thing, kiddo. You be good for Crystal.” Patsy started to exit Sydney’s room, but turned back and said to the blonde in the chair, “Heads up, the nurse is coming in.” Expecting Sydney’s nurse, Crystal looked toward the door and a broad smile creased her face when Lauren entered. She was dressed in olive green scrubs and had a stethoscope looped around her neck.

“Don’t mind me, just on my way out to Dreamland,” Patsy said as she passed Lauren.

“Sleep well,” Lauren said over her shoulder. She couldn’t take her eyes off Crystal. It hadn’t even been a full day, but she had missed the blonde.

“Hey there,” she said softly as Crystal rose from the chair to meet her. She glanced at the two kids who were still absorbed in the video game and leaned over to place a quick kiss on Crystal’s lips. “What’s up?” she asked.

“Probably Patsy’s blood pressure,” Crystal said, only half joking. “She’s pretty tired. I’m glad I could give her a break.”

“And I’m going to give you one. What time is Patsy coming back?”

“Midnight, why?” Crystal asked.

“Because you’re going home at eleven. I arranged to take my lunch time and breaks together and I’ll be here to take over for you. You can get home and get some rest yourself. I’m going to be up all night anyway, so it’s logical,” Lauren answered.

“I’d argue with you, but you make too much sense. I brought you some Navy bean soup for your lunch. If you’re going to sit here on your lunch time, I guess I can at least feed you.”

“That’s an offer I won’t refuse,” the brunette said. “How is she doing?” Lauren asked, indicating Sydney.

“Better from what Patsy said on the phone after they transferred her to this room. It looks like she’ll be here another two or three days. The doctor said they didn’t feel she had any permanent damage.”

“That’s great news; Patsy must be relieved.”

“She is, but she’s going to have a lot to share at the next support group meeting.” Crystal checked her watch. “When do you have to be on in the PICU?”

“Not for a while yet, but there’s a staff meeting before the shift starts that I need to attend so I have to get going. I will see you later though and a quick peck isn’t going to do then,” Lauren added in a low tone.

Crystal smiled. “For me either.” She held Lauren’s hand briefly before letting her go. “See you at eleven.” The nurse waved as she left.

**********

Lauren was completely relaxed in the chair at Sydney’s bedside. She wasn’t sure if the pleasantly warm sensation inside her was from the homemade soup that Crystal had heated and had waiting for her or the deep and loving kiss they had shared in the dimly lit room before the blonde went home.

Definitely Crystal, the nurse thought as she glanced at her watch. Plenty of time. It was as that thought crossed her mind that Patsy walked into the room.

“I didn’t expect you for another half hour,” Lauren observed.

“I tried to sleep and I drifted off eventually, but I kept thinking I needed to be here, needed to see for myself she was all right.” Patsy moved to Sydney’s bed and watched the rhythmic and unlabored breathing of her granddaughter. She pulled Grumpy out of a canvas tote bag she carried over her shoulder and set it next to the slumbering girl. He was a little the worse for wear, but his scowling countenance in his red jacket would soothe and comfort Sydney as soon as she was awake.

“Grumpy, huh? He’s my favorite,” Lauren commented softly, coming up beside Patsy. “Other kids liked Dopey, but I was always a fan of the Grumpster. You should have seen me push those kids aside in the big gift shop in Disneyland and get my Grumpy. They stared at me like I was crazy.”

“Why would they do that? Everybody has their own favorite dwarf.”

“Maybe because I was twenty-six at the time,” Lauren replied.

Patsy snorted and laughed quietly. Sydney woke slightly and saw Grumpy next to her. She pulled the stuffed toy close and settled back down into sleep. “Grumpy therapy…works every time.”

“Speaking of therapy, I better get back to the unit. My break will be over soon and I’ve got a couple of kids up there who need my attention.”

“Thanks for staying, Lauren, I appreciate it. I’d say Crystal is a lucky woman.” Patsy reached over and gave the nurse a quick hug.

“Don’t be fooled,” Lauren said as she was leaving. “I’m the lucky one. Goodnight.”

“Night, Lauren.” Patsy returned to the chair she had occupied earlier. It folded out to a small bed and she would ask the nurse to help her with it in a bit. She was having a hard time admitting why she had returned to the hospital early.

For most of the evening, Patsy couldn’t shake the feeling of impending doom. She looked over at Sydney and realized that logically she had no reason to feel that way. All the doctors assured her that Sydney was doing well. Maybe it was seeing Sydney so sick out there in the woods where I didn’t have anything I could help her with. That must be it, she thought.

She settled back in the chair, still plagued with uneasy feelings.

**********

The phone at Crystal’s house rang at six o’clock in the morning. Opening one eye, Crystal’s first thought was that she had forgotten to pack something in Davey’s overnight bag.

“Hello?”

“Is this Crystal O’Brien?”

“Yes,” she replied to the unfamiliar voice.

“This is Rhonda Craft, the charge nurse on the Pediatric Unit at Patterson General. Mrs. Cohen asked that I call you…”

Chapter 19

Lauren was giving report to the oncoming day nurse when James, the unit clerk, paged her for a phone call. Must be that new intern, she thought in exasperation. He doesn’t know his ass from a hole in the ground. Still, she picked up the phone and pressed the line with the flashing light indicating someone was on hold and said in a pleasant voice, “PICU, this is Lauren.”

“Lauren, it’s Crystal.” The tension in the blonde’s voice was almost palpable.

“Crystal? What’s the matter? No, wait. Hold on a second, okay?”

“Sure,” Crystal replied and the nurse put her on hold again.

“Any questions?” she asked the day nurse.

“No, go on home and get some sleep. See you tonight.” Lauren nodded and walked quickly to the nurse’s lounge where she picked up the phone located there.

“Okay, Crystal, I’m back. Honey, what’s the matter?” She sat at the table where the nurses took their lunch breaks and held meetings.

“It’s Patsy. The charge nurse on the Pediatric Unit just called me…”

“Sydney’s in trouble again?” Lauren interrupted. “I didn’t hear that we were getting a transfer from the floor, but I can go down and check on her right away.”

“No, it’s Patsy. Patsy’s the one who’s sick. The nurse said she started having terrible chest pain this morning and they sent her on a gurney to the Emergency Room. I’ll be on my way as soon as I call in to work, but can you go down there and find out what’s going on? Patsy doesn’t have anybody but Sydney; she’s basically on her own. Oh God…Sydney. She’s got to be frantic too.”

“I can go down there, no problem. I’ll go right away. I’ll meet you in the waiting room.”

“Thanks, Lauren. Thank you so much.”

*********

Lauren had known Geri Davis for several years and had served on a couple of hospital committees with her. Geri was the day charge nurse for the very busy Emergency Room at Patterson General. She was coming out of a patient’s cubicle when Lauren entered the treatment area of the department. Extraneous foot traffic was kept to a minimum in the ER as nurses, doctors, phlebotomists and X-ray technicians already crowded the hectic area.

“Geri!” Lauren called.

“Hey Lauren, what’s up and whatever it is I hope it’s short. We’ve got a big MVA coming in, a dissecting triple A just left for OR and a whole mess of criticals waiting for unit beds. I don’t remember seeing any kids on the list though.” Lauren’s mind automatically made the translation of the medical jargon. An MVA was a motor vehicle accident and usually called for the trauma team. The dissecting triple A meant someone had a weak and ballooning portion of the wall of the biggest blood vessel in the body and it was cracking open. Emergency surgery was the only means to save that person’s life.

“I’m not here about any kids right now.” A pediatric ICU nurse always accompanied any transfer from the Emergency Room to the PICU. “This is about a friend, Patsy Cohen. She was visiting on Peds and got brought down here for chest pain.”

“Let me check the board.” Geri consulted a large dry-erase board mounted on a nearby wall that listed all the patients currently admitted to the ER along with their chief complaint. “Here it is, Bed Seventeen. Oh yeah, I remember now. She’s the one they brought down right before shift change. Let me see, her first labs should be back by now.” Geri went over to the closest computer and entered her ID and password. Tapping a few keys, she brought up Patsy’s results. “CBC, lytes, coags all normal. Whoa! Her Troponin is sky high. She’s going to need TPA.”

Lauren knew then that Patsy was having a heart attack and that she would be given a “clot-busting” drug to try and open up whatever narrowed or closed blood vessel in her heart was causing the problem.

“Your friend could have picked a better day to infarct,” Geri said as the announcement came for the trauma team to assemble in the ER. The MVA was arriving.

Lauren walked over to Bed Seventeen. It was actually a cubicle with a gurney and medical equipment in it. She pulled back the curtain quietly. Patsy was lying on the gurney, the head up slightly. Lauren’s eyes roamed the scene in a nursing reflex. Vital signs were displayed on a monitor behind and above Patsy’s head. A continuous EKG showed her heart rate to be a little fast, but in a normal rhythm. An IV slowly dripped fluids into the somewhat ashen woman, keeping a line open for medications. A second IV was on a controlling pump. The name “Tridil” was on the bottle dripping into Patsy and Lauren knew this was intravenous nitroglycerin being used to control the woman’s chest pain.

Patsy opened her eyes then. She saw Lauren and smiled weakly. “I suppose Crystal called you?” Lauren came up to the side of the gurney.

“Yeah, she said all the Cohen women were getting a turn in the hospital. How are you feeling?”

“Like death warmed over; I imagine I look that way too. How’s Sydney?” Patsy was acutely and possibly critically ill, yet her first thoughts were for her granddaughter.

“I haven’t seen her yet this morning; I wanted to come down here first. I know her first question will be to ask how you are doing.”

Patsy raised her eyebrows. “Probably. I’m not supposed to be the one who gets sick, at least in her eyes.” Lauren knew Patsy was unaware of how serious her condition was and she desperately wanted to tell her, but knew this was a medical line she couldn’t cross. The new confidentiality rules said she wasn’t supposed to even know about Patsy’s condition, much less tell her about it.

“Crystal will be here pretty soon. I better get out to the waiting room to meet her. I’ll make sure she goes up and checks on Sydney.” Lauren started toward the door.

“Lauren,” Patsy called. The nurse turned. “Tell Crystal I didn’t expect her to be needed so soon.” Lauren nodded, not completely understanding Patsy’s meaning. She assumed the older woman was referring to Crystal being her back-up with Sydney.

Heading out to the waiting room, several heads turned toward her, expecting news of their friend or family member. She disappointed all but the blonde who was just coming through the door. Lauren met her and took her aside where they could talk.

“What’s going on?” Crystal asked. “Have you had time to find anything out?”

In a low voice, Lauren said, “You can’t say anything. If you do I could lose my job.” She waited to be sure Crystal understood that important point. “Patsy is having a heart attack.”

“Shit,” Crystal said, sitting down on a plastic waiting room chair. “Can I see her?”

“I’d give it some time. They’re going to need to work with her a little bit. I think she wanted you to check on Sydney. Apparently she was pretty shaken up.”

Crystal ran a hand through her blonde locks. “I bet. That girl has had a rough road lately; she really doesn’t need Patsy being sick. I’ll go up now and see how she is.”

“I’ll hang around here for a little while until you get back. I’m going to need to head home pretty soon though, I have to work again tonight.” Lauren sat beside Crystal. “I wish I could stay longer and be with you today, but the staffing is thin on my unit. We have one nurse on vacation and two more out on maternity leave. There’s no way I can miss my shifts without hurting the other people I work with.” She placed her hand over Crystal’s.

“I know. It’s okay. Can I call you when you get up and let you know what’s going on?”

“Absolutely. You better.” She squeezed the hand in hers. “You better get upstairs and see about Sydney. Don’t worry, I’ll be here when you get back. Come on, I’ll walk you to the elevator.” They rose and headed for the doors leading to the main hospital. Before they could exit, Geri Davis came out of the treatment area doors. She approached the women.

“I’m glad I caught you, I thought you might have left already. Are you Crystal O’Brien?” she asked the blonde. Crystal nodded. “Okay, Mrs. Cohen has requested we give her medical information to you and Lauren. I’ve got to make this quick…we’re swamped. Her chest pain is back and Cardiology has decided to take her right to the Cath Lab. You should be able to find something out in an hour or so. Lauren, can you show her where it is?”

“I know where it is,” Crystal interjected. “I’ve spent a bit of time there.”

“Okay then, that’s all I’ve got for you. The rest you’ll need to get from the Cardiologist. There’s some beds opening up in the Cardiac Care Unit so I assume she’ll be transferred right to there after the angio.” The nurse headed back to the treatment area.

“An angioplasty,” Crystal said ruefully. “Yeah, I know about the Cath Lab and angioplasties.” Lauren put a supportive arm around the blonde’s shoulders. “There’s just a lot of waiting involved now. I remember that all too well. You might as well go on home and get to bed. I’ll call with the news later.”

Lauren hugged Crystal and gave her a quick kiss on the cheek. “Call me any time you need me. I mean that.” They stood together a moment more and Crystal pulled away.

“Sydney…” she said apologetically. She would have liked to have stayed in Lauren’s comforting embrace a lot longer, but knew she was needed on the Pediatric Unit. “I’ll call.” She moved away slowly and Lauren watched her until she got on the elevators. Lauren stood in the doorway of the ER a moment more doing what most nurses did. They hoped for the best, but expected the worst.

**********

Crystal stood by the door a moment, gazing in at the young girl. The television was on, but Sydney was simply staring out the window. Even the beloved Game Boy was sitting on the bedside table untouched.

“Hey there,” Crystal said softly, not wanting to startle the child.

“Crystal!” Sydney cried. There was no pretense of being brave or unfazed; this was a little girl who was frightened to death. Crystal’s maternal instincts kicked in and she moved quickly to sit on the bed and take Sydney into her arms. The little girl wept as she attempted to tell Crystal what had happened. The blonde rocked the girl and stroked her brown hair, untidy now from the time in bed.

“It’s okay, Sydney,” Crystal said in a soothing tone. “I know about Patsy; the nurse called me.”

“Where is Grandma?” Sydney asked plaintively. “Why hasn’t she come back?”

Crystal set the girl back from her a bit so she could look her straight in the eye. “Your grandma was taken to the Emergency Room, like you were a day ago. The doctors and nurses are working very hard to make her feel better so she doesn’t have so much pain.” Sydney’s tears subsided a bit. “Do you remember when Davey was in the hospital a while ago?” The girl nodded slowly. “Well, they took him to a special room where they put a wire into his leg and ran it up to his heart so they could look at it. That’s what they’re doing to your grandma right now. They’re looking inside her heart.”

“Why?” Sydney asked in a straightforward manner. “Why do they have to do that?” Crystal could only answer her in the same way.

“Your grandma had a heart attack.” Sydney’s tears ceased then; she knew from her own experiences and those of her friends in the support group what a heart attack was and what it could mean. She began trembling and Crystal pulled her into her arms again.

“Will Grandma be all right?” Sydney asked through nearly chattering teeth.

“I don’t know, Sydney,” Crystal said truthfully. “Right now, I don’t know.”

**********

Her day’s sleep had been nearly worthless. Lauren had tossed and turned and when she finally had fallen asleep, she kept dreaming about what was happening at the hospital. At three o’clock in the afternoon she gave up and got out of bed. She fed Ram and wandered around the apartment for a bit, completing the odd chore here and there. At four o’clock she could stand it no longer and called the cell phone Crystal carried for emergencies. She hoped the phone ringing wouldn’t upset Crystal any more than the day already had.

The phone rang three times before Crystal answered, “Hello?”

“It’s me,” Lauren said. “I’m sorry, this was the only way I had to reach you. I didn’t know where you’d be.”

“It’s okay and boy am I glad to hear from you. This has been a day I don’t want to experience again anytime soon. I’m about at the end of my rope, but just hearing your voice is helping me.”

“How’s Patsy…and how’s Sydney? And yes, how are you?”

“Well, lets start with the easy one. I’m okay. Sydney is doing remarkably well. I saw her Pediatric resident this afternoon. She’ll be ready to go home the day after tomorrow. She’s worried about Patsy, but not hysterical or anything. Patsy has done a great job with her.” Lauren was somewhat relieved, she really liked the intelligent girl.

“What about Patsy?” Lauren inquired. Crystal hesitated.

“Patsy’s another story. They took her to the Cath Lab and from what they told me, they worked on three of the major blood vessels of her heart. She seemed to be okay afterward, but she developed some bleeding at the puncture site in her right groin. Her blood pressure dropped and she had some irregular heartbeats because of that. They finally got her stable enough to transfer up to the Cardiac Care Unit and right now she’s on IV medicines to keep her blood thin and to control her irregular heartbeats. Her blood pressure is holding right now, but the doctor said the next twenty-four hours would be critical. He also said if she comes through this, when she’s stronger she’ll need open heart surgery. Patsy apparently didn’t know it, but he said it looks like she’s had a few ‘silent’ heart attacks before.”

“Jesus,” Lauren breathed, “what a mess.”

“Yeah. I’m outside the CCU right now waiting to be able to see her. It’ll only be for a few minutes I’m sure, but I want her to know Sydney is okay. Sydney will be coming to stay with Davey and I until Patsy gets better.”

“Oh, I forgot this morning, Patsy asked me to tell you she didn’t expect you to be needed so soon,” Lauren said.

“Oh.” Crystal’s voice took on a tone of dejection. “I hope that wasn’t a premonition on her part.”

“A premonition? I don’t understand, Crystal. Wasn’t she talking about you being the back-up care for Sydney?”

“Kind of…” Crystal was holding something back and Lauren waited to hear what it was. “When Patsy got custody of Sydney, she realized there wasn’t anybody in her life she could trust Sydney with. There aren’t any blood relatives except Candy and she’s out of the picture now. I thought about it and when Patsy asked, I agreed to it.”

“Agreed to what exactly?” Lauren asked though she thought she already knew.

“It’s in Patsy’s will. If she dies, custody of Sydney passes to me.”

“Holy Christ,” the nurse said. “I’m on my way in.”

**********

Crystal was escorted to Patsy’s room in the Cardiac Care Unit by her nurse. It reminded her of the Pediatric ICU in many ways and the equipment was all too familiar. Nurses moved quickly in ways and patterns she recognized from Davey’s and Sydney’s admissions. Vital signs were being checked, rhythms recorded and progress notes written. The hum and whir of many different machines created a kind of white noise that was almost soothing until an alarm would break the calm. She followed the nurse into Patsy’s room.

“Just a few minutes, okay? She’s pretty weak and tired right now.” Crystal nodded and the nurse left. Approaching the bed, she was almost intimidated by the amount of equipment and lines attached to the older woman. It was as if Patsy was being enveloped by Medusa’s hair.

“Patsy?” she said. “Patsy, it’s Crystal.” The red-haired woman opened her eyes and looked around groggily. Crystal moved closer to the bed to allow Patsy a better view. “Hey, how are you?”

“I’ve been better,” Patsy admitted. “How is Sydney?”

“She’s been better too. Her best friend is in the hospital, you know.”

“She’s my best friend too,” Patsy said quietly. She looked directly at the blonde. “I don’t want to leave her, but I’m scared that’s precisely what might happen. Apparently she’s not the only one in my little family with a bad heart.” Crystal wasn’t sure how to respond to that, knowing Patsy was exactly right.

“You’ve just got to concentrate on getting better, Patsy. Try not to worry about Sydney. I’ll bring her home and take really good care of her for you while you’re in here. The doctor said she could go home the day after tomorrow,” she said, hoping to give Patsy some good news on this day when she hadn’t had much.

Patsy reached a hand out to Crystal who took it gently. An IV was situated in the back of the hand and an elastic bandage held an oxygen monitor in place. “I know you’ll watch out for her, but what if the job becomes…permanent? I know when we wrote that will you were helping me out with the State people. Neither one of us thought we’d be faced with the possibility so soon.” She was quiet a moment, sure she was saying what Crystal was thinking. “I know I’m not doing so hot. There’s a certain amount of sugar-coating that the doctors have to do, but I’m not an idiot. I realize this can go either way. I just need to know Sydney is going to be safe and taken care of.”

“She will be, Patsy. I agreed to take care of her if anything happened to you and I will. We will, I mean. Sydney will never lack for a family. It’ll be us if that’s what happens, but I think you’ll be around for a quite a while to do that yourself.” Patsy accepted Crystal’s assurances and relaxed back onto the bed. The nurse returned, staying near the door, but providing a reminder that Crystal’s time to visit was up.

“I need to pick up Davey soon, but I’ll be back tomorrow afternoon. If you need anything at all, have the nurses call me on my cell phone.”

“You gave me everything I need, Crystal. I’ll see you tomorrow,” Patsy said as she settled back onto the pillow. “I’ll be fine now.” From the corner of her eye, the blonde saw Patsy’s nurse move quickly to the heart monitoring station. She left the room as the nurse came back and entered.

“Mrs. Cohen? I’m going to check your blood pressure, okay? How are you feeling?”

“I’ve got a little pressure here,” Patsy said, indicating an area under her breastbone. Crystal walked slowly toward the exit, glancing back occasionally at the increased activity around Patsy’s door. She was exiting when a shrill alarm sounded at the monitoring station. A nurse was pushing a large red cart to Patsy’s room and yelled back to the technician at the desk.

“Call the Code!”

Chapter 20

Sydney sat in the living room at Crystal’s house, staring forlornly out the front picture window. It was a place she could be found frequently, having lost interest in most everything. School had been out for a week and Crystal was finding it difficult to get the girl to be excited about or participate in anything.

Crystal was carrying a basket full of freshly laundered and folded clothes to the bedroom when she spied Sydney back at the window, observing, but not becoming a part of the world outside.

Poor kid, she thought. It’s been almost four weeks since she got out of the hospital and she’s spent most of her time right there. I know it’s been tough on her. She’s been uprooted from her regular routine, regular friends and regular world. That’s a lot for a nine year old to handle. Hell, that would be a lot for anybody to handle. With a sigh she continued up the hall. She looked in on Davey who was playing a new video game Lauren had given him. The nurse had been spending a great deal of time with Crystal and the children, trying especially hard to get Sydney to feel comfortable being with them fulltime. She hadn’t had much success yet.

“How’s it going?” Crystal asked her son. He looked up at her in consternation.

“This one is hard. Is Lauren coming back soon? I think I need some help.” Lauren had used Davey’s video games to create common ground between them and now that initial common thread was weaving itself into a full blown quilt of a relationship. It made Crystal happy to see Davey bring questions, problems and even the fun and happy things to Lauren more and more.

“Maybe I can give you a hand; did you ever think to ask me?” She managed to keep a straight face as she made the offer, knowing both she and Davey were aware of her ineptitude at the whole genre of video games.

“Sure, Mom,” Davey laughed. Crystal had to laugh too as she dropped off Davey’s things on his bed.

“Into the right drawers sometime today,” she instructed. “Don’t let me find any more clean clothes on the floor.” She checked her watch, realized Lauren would be back soon and moved to get her own clothes put away. The few small chores she had left to do could wait until later. A car horn honked outside and Crystal recognized the sound as coming from Lauren’s yellow Mustang.

“Lauren’s here!” Sydney yelled and Crystal thought she hadn’t heard that particular tone in a very long time. Crystal came up the hallway at the same time Davey came shooting out of his room and only narrowly avoided a collision with the streaking child.

“Easy there, Speedy Gonzalez, we’re going to be with Lauren for the rest of the day.” Despite her words, Crystal hurried her pace to meet the brunette also. Sydney had already opened the door and was running out to meet the woman in the yellow Mustang.

“Grandma!” she yelled as Patsy slid out of the passenger seat. Sydney had raced to meet her grandmother. Even after emergency open heart surgery and a prolonged recovery, including time on the hospital’s rehabilitation unit, Patsy’s smile and happiness at seeing her granddaughter was undiminished.

“Hold it, sweetpea, I’ve still got some healing to do, but I sure will take a nice easy hug from my best girl.” Sydney stopped just short of the older woman and then gingerly walked the remaining distance and gave her a hug that conveyed in affection what it necessarily lacked in robustness. “I missed you, kiddo. Visiting with you in the hospital just wasn’t the same.” Sydney took Patsy’s hand and showed no signs of letting go any time soon.

“Patsy, you look good,” Crystal said as she came out of the house with Davey. She gave Patsy a hug and then walked to the driver’s side of the car and graced Lauren with the same.

“I’m feeling close to my old self now. Well, my old self with a leg vein in my heart, but still…pretty close.” As always, Patsy’s good humor was infectious and there were smiles all around. “Sydney, what do you say we go home tonight? I kind of missed the old homestead.”

“Me too, Grandma. I liked being here with Crystal and Davey and Lauren, but I’m ready to go home with you now.” Not one of the people Sydney mentioned took offence at her sentiments. They completely understood her desire to be with her family.

“Let’s get your suitcase and then Lauren is going to give us a ride home. We need to head out now because they are going to be pretty busy this afternoon.” Sydney took off for the house, but looked back at the door to make sure Patsy wasn’t going anywhere. “Go ahead, Sydney, I’m going to be right here.” The girl ducked into the house. “I’m going to be here for a long time to come.” Patsy turned to the trio waiting by the front of Lauren’s car.

“I owe you guys a lot and don’t think I’m going to forget it. You kept Sydney and gave me support for this last month. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to tell you how much I appreciate it. You three are gold in my book.”

“It was our pleasure, Patsy, and you don’t owe us anything,” Crystal assured her.

“Well, you can say that, but I know differently. What do you say in a week or so you come over and we have a party to celebrate Sydney and I both being out of the hospital?” She started to tick things off on her fingers. “Let’s see…a low fat, low cholesterol and low sodium party, but a party nonetheless.”

“Sounds good, Patsy,” Lauren said. “Count us in.” Sydney returned with her small suitcase and placed it in Lauren’s car next to Patsy’s white belongings bag from the hospital. The nurse gave Crystal a quick peck on the cheek. “I’ll be back in a jiffy; don’t go anywhere.”

“We’ll be waiting,” the blonde said. Davey and Crystal waved as Lauren backed the Mustang out of the driveway and took the two Cohen women home.

*********

“I don’t know about you, but my ass is dragging,” Lauren said as she collapsed onto the sofa next to Crystal. “Can we do the rest in the morning?”

“We have to, I couldn’t do another lick of work if you paid me,” an equally tired Crystal agreed. “It’s going to take a small boy and an elephant to get me off this couch as it is. I don’t think it’ll hurt anything to leave the rest.” Lauren dropped her head to Crystal’s lap.

“What would you say to a hot bubble bath followed by a full body massage with warm oil?” Lauren said from her comfortable place on the blonde’s thighs.

“That sounds great,” Crystal replied.

“Good, call me when my water’s hot, will you?” Crystal reached over and smacked Lauren gently on the head with a sofa pillow which caused the nurse to chuckle. “I’d pillow fight you, but a strong breeze would knock me over right about now. Who knew moving was such a tough thing to do?”

“Well the lifting and hauling is done, now we only have to worry about the unpacking and sorting and…maybe we should keep working.”

Lauren groaned. “Tell you what…we’ll let fate decide. I’ll get a quarter and we’ll flip. Heads, we push all the boxes into the spare room, forget about them for a week or so and go to our bedroom for some more of that ‘quality time’.”

“What if the quarter comes up tails?”

“Then we forget about the boxes altogether and just head straight to the bedroom.” Crystal was amused.

“Did anybody ever tell you that you have a one-track mind?”

“What was that?” Lauren asked innocently. “I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you. I was thinking about sex.” They laughed together and were still chuckling when Davey entered the living room. He was in a pair of Incredible Hulk pajamas. In his hand was the leash to the harness Ram still wore.

“If it isn’t my son the cat master,” Crystal observed. “I think we can let Ram out of that thing now that the doors are closed up. We just have to make sure he stays inside until he realizes this is his new home.”

“I already took care of that,” Lauren informed her. “I had Davey put ten cans of stinky cat food in a cupboard in the kitchen while Ram was with him. Believe me, Davey just inherited a feline barnacle.”

“What’s a barnacle?” Davey asked.

“A barnacle is something that sticks close to you. If you feed Ram, he’ll be yours.”

“Really?” Davey asked in amazement. “That’s cool. If you’re staying in Mom’s room, can Ram stay in mine? I’m pretty sure I have enough space for him.”

“Absolutely,” Lauren answered. Davey grinned from ear to ear.

“Ram and I are going to my room to fix his bed.” Davey picked up the cat and carried him down the hall. The center of attention job suited Ram just fine.

“Don’t say it,” Crystal warned.

“Hey Crystal, do you want to go to our room and play ship and barnacle?”

“You said it anyway!” Crystal laughed. “I can’t believe Davey didn’t say he was going to his room to play video games. I’d say that cat is a miracle worker.”

“It might not be the cat, but we’ve definitely got one. Look at all the miracles we’ve had. My thesis is almost finished, I’ve found the love of my life and she loves me back, Patsy and Sydney are doing well, I’m moving in with two of my favorite people on the planet…the list goes on and on.” Crystal brought up her hand and stroked the brunette’s hair. She didn’t say anything for a minute. Lauren waited; the silences between them were never uncomfortable.

“Lauren, what will happen if someday one of our miracles doesn’t happen? We’ve got a lot of changes coming up you know. We have to tell my parents about us and we need to make you part of Davey’s life legally. Then there’s Davey himself.” She paused, not needing to be more specific about Davey’s problems. “There’s a lot of things in which we aren’t going to have any guarantees.”

Lauren sat up and leaned in to Crystal for a tired but loving kiss. “The only guarantee I need is that you love me and you’ll let me love you and Davey. I know all those things you said and believe me, if I didn’t realize how precious and unpredictable life is, I sure would have after what happened to Sydney and Patsy.” She glanced in the direction of Davey’s room. “We may have very tough times ahead, but I’ve signed on for permanent duty. Whatever happens, we’re going to go through it together.”

Lauren stood and brought Crystal to her feet as well. Draping her arm over Crystal’s shoulders, she headed them up the hallway. They stopped to look in on Davey who was talking quietly to Ram. Being certain the boy was fine, they moved further up the hallway to the bedroom.

Lauren turned Crystal to her once they were out of earshot. “I get it now, you know. It’s the reason my thesis is nearly finished… because I get it. It’s like there’s a small ball of fear for him that stays inside you all the time. It never leaves, does it?”

Crystal shook her head slowly. “No, it doesn’t.”

“I feel that fear inside of me now too. I don’t know how you stood it alone all this time.” Lauren paused a moment. “It’s not an ‘if’ with Davey, is it? It’s a ‘when’.”

A look of profound sadness crossed the blonde’s features. “Yeah,” she answered simply.

Lauren nodded her head rapidly several times. “Okay, well, like I said, tough times ahead, but we’re a family now and there’s nothing more important than that.”

“Important?” Crystal asked as she moved into Lauren’s comforting embrace. “It’s the heart of the matter.”

 

The End 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s