Read an Excerpt
Prescription for Trouble Series
By Richard L. Mabry
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2011 Richard L. Mabry, M.D.
All rights reserved.
Dr. Elena Gardner approached her apartment as she had every night for six months—filled with emptiness and dread. The feeling grew with each step, and by the time she put the key in the door, fear enveloped her like a shroud. Some nights it was all she could do to put her foot over the threshold. This was one of those nights.
She turned the key and pushed open the door. The dark shadows reached out at her like a boogeyman from her childhood. The utter stillness magnified every sound in the old apartment, turning creaking boards into the footsteps of an unknown enemy.
She flipped on the light and watched the shadows turn into familiar surroundings. Even though the thermostat was set at a comfortable temperature, she shivered a bit.
Elena dropped her backpack by the door and collapsed into the one comfortable chair in the living room. The TV remote was in its usual place on the table beside her. She punched the set into life, paying no attention to what was on. Didn't matter. Just something to drown out the silence, something to remind her that there was life outside these four walls. That somewhere there were people who could laugh and joke and have fun. Somewhere.
She sighed and picked up the phone. She should call David.
He'd been firm about it. "Call me anytime, but especially when you get home at night. That's the toughest time. It's when the memories butt heads with the 'what-ifs.'"
She dialed the number. Maybe she should put him on her speed dial. But that implied there wouldn't be an end to this soon. And she wasn't ready to think about that.
"Hey, Elena." Although Dr. David Merritt—a resident physician in one of the busiest obstetrics programs in the Southwest—was surely as tired as she was, his voice sounded fresh, almost cheery. "What's up?"
"Oh, you know. Just needed to hear a friendly voice."
"Glad to oblige. How was your day?"
That was one of the things Elena missed most. Now that Mark was gone, there was no one to share her day. "Not too bad until I was about to check out. The EMTs brought in a thirty-two-year-old woman, comatose from a massive intracranial hemorrhage. The neurosurgeons rushed her to surgery, but—"
She knew David could guess the rest. He cleared his throat. "Did that ... was it tough to take?"
Elena started to make some remark about it not bothering her. But that wasn't true. And she knew David wanted the truth. "Yeah. Not while it was happening. Then I was pretty much on automatic pilot. But afterward, I almost had a meltdown."
"It'll get better."
"I hope so."
"Any more phone calls?"
Elena felt goose bumps pop up on her arms. "Not yet. But it's Tuesday, so I expect one later tonight."
"Why don't you call the police?"
"What, and tell them that for four weeks I've answered the phone every Tuesday at midnight and heard a woman sobbing, then a hang-up? That's not a police matter."
"I know what they'll ask. Caller ID? 'Anonymous.' Star 69? 'Subscriber has blocked this service.' Then they'll tell me to change my number. Well, this one's unlisted, but that doesn't seem to matter. How much trouble would it be for whoever's calling to get the new one?"
David's exhalation was like a gentle wind. "Well, let me know if there's anything I can do."
"You've done plenty already. You know, after Mark died, I had a lot of people fuss over me for about three days, but you're the only one who's stayed with it. Why?"
His silence made her think she'd asked an embarrassing question. People didn't go out of their way to be nice the way David had with no thought of something in return. Did they?
"Elena, I've been where you are," David said. "Oh, I know. A spouse divorcing you isn't the same as one dying, but a lot of the feelings are the same. I mean, when I saw my wife and little girl pull away from the house for the last time, I wanted to lie down and die."
She knew exactly what he was talking about. "That's me. I wanted to crawl into the coffin with Mark. At that point, my life was over."
"But I got past it," David said. "Oh, I didn't 'heal.' You don't get back to where you were, but you learn to move on. And when Carol sent me the invitation to her wedding, it broke my heart, but it helped me realize that part of my life was over. Anyway, I made up my mind to use what I'd learned to help other people. And that's what I'm doing."
Elena sniffled. "Sorry." She pulled a tissue from her pocket and dabbed at her eyes. "That's another thing. I feel like tears are always right there, ready to come anytime."
"That's normal. Let them out."
They talked for a few minutes more before Elena ended the conversation. She wandered into the kitchen, opened the refrigerator, and looked in without seeing the contents. She wasn't hungry. Since Mark's death she'd lost twelve pounds off a frame that had little to spare. Maybe she should patent the process. "Sure-fire weight loss guaranteed. Withdraw life support and let your husband die. If you don't lose weight, double your money back."
Her lips drew back in what started as a hesitant smile but turned into a grimace of pain. She dissolved into tears.
Elena wasn't sure how long she sat at the kitchen table with her head cradled in her arms before the ring of the phone roused her. She looked at her watch. A little after nine—too early for her midnight caller. Had the routine changed?
She shuffled back to the living room. When she checked the caller ID, she felt some of her tension subside. Dr. Helen Bennett represented the only ray of sunshine in Elena's dark landscape right now.
"Elena, did I wake you?"
"No, not really. Just starting to unwind. What's up?"
"We need to talk."
That didn't sound promising. "Wow, that sounds like what I used to tell boys in college before breaking up with them. What's going on?"
"I'd rather do this face-to-face. Why don't we have breakfast tomorrow morning? I usually make rounds at six-thirty. Can you meet me in the St. Paul Hospital staff cafeteria at six? We can talk then."
Elena hung up with a growing sense of unease. Mark's death had plunged her into a dark abyss. The only glimmer of hope for a future had been Dr. Helen Bennett's invitation to join her practice. The opportunity to work alongside a woman who was one of the most respected family practitioners in the community, a doctor Elena had admired since her days in medical school, seemed like a gift from above. Was that about to be taken from her?
The evening dragged on as Elena worried about the problem like a kitten with a ball of yarn. Finally, she ate some peanut butter and crackers and forced down a glass of milk. She'd shower in the morning. Right now, she just wanted to crawl into bed.
Sleep was elusive as a glob of mercury. She picked up a book from her bedside table and tried to read, but the words blurred on the page. Finally, she closed the book, turned out the light, and tried to sleep. Instead, she watched the red numerals on her bedside clock change: 10:00, 10:40, 11:15.
She was tossing in a restless slumber when she heard the ring of the phone. The clock showed 12:05 as Elena reached for the receiver. Her left hand clutched the covers tighter around her as her right lifted the phone and brought it to her ear.
At first there was silence. Maybe this was simply a wrong number. Maybe the calls had stopped.
No, there it was. Sobbing. Starting softly, then rising to a crescendo. A woman's voice—a husky alto, like a lounge singer in a smoky, second-rate club.
"Who is this?" Elena said.
No answer. Only sobbing.
"What do you want?" Elena's voice rose to a shriek.
A click. Then silence.
Elena stabbed blindly at the phone's "end" button, finally hitting it as an electronic voice began, "If you'd like to make a call—"
She turned on the bedside lamp and stared at the cheap lithograph on the opposite wall. In it, a young man and woman were walking through a field of flowers. They looked so happy. Like she and Mark had been.
But he was gone, and she'd never be happy again. Ever.
She reached for the light but withdrew her hand. No, leave it burning. Elena burrowed deeply under the covers, the way she used to do as a child after hearing a ghost story. She closed her eyes and watched the images march across her brain: endless days spent at the bedside of a living corpse, Mark's casket disappearing into the ground, a faceless woman at some shadowy location sobbing into a phone.
As the sound of those sobs echoed through Elena's mind, the image of a face from her past came into focus. Was that who was calling? If so, there was nothing Elena could do. She'd simply suffer ... because she deserved it.
* * *
Elena slapped at the snooze button on her alarm clock. Why was it buzzing already? Then she remembered—her breakfast with Dr. Bennett. What had Helen meant by "We need to talk?"
Her stomach did a flip-flop, and she tasted a bitter mix of peanut butter and bile. Maybe some coffee would help.
Elena padded to the kitchen and reached into the cabinet, wishing she'd had the foresight to make coffee before going to bed last night. The weight of the canister told her before she removed the lid—empty. She filled a glass at the sink and drank the contents, hoping to at least wash the bad taste from her mouth.
A quick shower brought her a bit more awake. Now for hair and makeup. Elena had always taken pride in her resemblance to her mother, a beautiful woman with dark, Latina looks. But long days at the hospital followed by sleepless nights had taken their toll.
There were dark circles under her eyes, the brown irises surrounded by a network of red. A few drops of Visine, and she looked less like the survivor of an all-night drinking spree. She'd cover the circles with a little makeup and hope Dr. Bennett wouldn't notice.
Elena ran her hands through her long black hair. She needed a haircut, needed it in the worst way. But there was neither time nor money for that right now. She'd pull it into the always-utilitarian ponytail she'd favored more and more lately.
Dressed, her backpack slung over one shoulder, her purse over the other, she stepped through the door into the early-morning darkness, in no way ready to face the day. It was bad already. She hoped it wouldn't get worse.
* * *
The ride in the elevator was three floors up, but Elena's stomach felt as though she was in a free fall. She didn't have to do this today. When Helen Bennett called, she should have put this visit on "hold." But something told her she needed to get it out of the way.
The elevator doors slid open, and the scene before her made memories scroll across her mind like a filmstrip unwinding. The waiting area of the ICU at Zale University Hospital was quiet at 5:30 a.m. The television mounted high on the far wall flickered with silent images as closed captions of the local news crawled across the bottom of the screen. An older man huddled in a chair near the "Staff Only" door, glancing every few seconds toward that portal as though Gabriel himself were about to come through it with news of his loved one.
Elena knew the feeling. For two weeks, she'd spent much of every day in this same waiting room. The rest of the time, the minutes not spent snatching a quick bite in the cafeteria or hurrying home for a shower and change of clothes, were spent at her husband's bedside, holding his hand and listening to the even rhythm of the respirator that kept him alive. Her heart bled for the old man and for every other person who'd ever sat in this room.
Elena was pleased when her final training assignment took her away from Zale, the place where her life fell apart. St. Paul Hospital was less than half a mile away, but she welcomed every foot of that buffer. When she walked out of Zale for the last time, she silently vowed never to return.
Now she was back, and she still wasn't sure of her reason. Was it to add the books from the box balanced on her hip to the dog-eared paperbacks next to the volunteer's desk? Or was it to show she had the courage to revisit the scene of the most terrible two weeks of her life? No matter, she was here. She clenched her jaw and forced her feet to move.
"Dr. Gardner. What are you doing here?"
Elena looked up at the nurse emerging from the elevator. The woman's name tickled at the periphery of Elena's memory like a loose hair. What was it?
"Oh. You startled me."
"Sorry. What brings you back here?"
Elena held up a handful of books and shoved them into the bookcase. "These are some of Mark's—" Her throat closed and words left her. With an effort, she began again. "I was going through some of Mark's things and thought these might help the people in the waiting room pass the time."
The nurse moved closer, and Elena sneaked a look at her nametag. Karri Lawson. Of course. How could she forget Karri? The pretty brunette had been the nurse responsible for Mark's care almost the entire time he was in the ICU. In fact Karri had been Mark's nurse the day—. Elena shook her head. Don't go there. Don't go back.
If Karri noticed Elena's discomfort, she made no mention of it. Instead, she gave Elena a brief hug. "I haven't seen you since ... since that day. I'm sorry for your loss." She made a gesture toward the closed doors leading to the ICU. "We all are."
Elena had heard "sorry for your loss" so many times, it was almost meaningless. Her response was automatic. "Thank you."
"Would you like to come in and see the other staff?" Karri looked at her watch. "The day shift isn't here yet, but there may be some nurses you remember from when ... from your time here."
"I don't think so." Elena reached out and touched Karri on the shoulder. "I have a meeting. But tell everyone hello for me. Tell them I said 'thanks.'"
* * *
"The coffee here is surprisingly good," Elena said. "Everyone always says that hospital food, especially hospital coffee, is terrible."
"I agree," Helen Bennett said. "I wish my receptionist could make coffee like this. She's a jewel, but in fifteen years with me she's never learned to make coffee that doesn't taste like it's brewed from homogenized tire treads."
"Don't be too hard on her, Helen. I'm looking forward to working with her. And with you, of course."
Helen placed her mug on the table as carefully as an astronaut docking the space shuttle. "Well, that's what we need to talk about." She looked around to make sure there was no one within earshot. Around them, the cafeteria was filled with bleary-eyed residents, medical students, and nurses, but no one seemed interested in the conversation at their table. "I'm afraid you're not going to be working with my receptionist, or my nurse, or me."
Helen stemmed Elena's words with an upraised hand. "Let me give you the whole story. Then I can answer questions if you have any—assuming you're still speaking to me by then."
The hollow feeling in Elena's stomach intensified.
"I've been in private practice for fifteen years, going it alone. There aren't many of us left in solo situations, but I've held out. I've managed to get other doctors in various groups to share call with me, but lately that's been somewhere between difficult and impossible."
"I know. That's why you wanted to bring me into the practice," Elena said.
"True, but that's changed. The Lincoln Clinic has approached me to join their family practice section. Actually, they want me to head it. They've made me a great offer. Not just the money, although that's good. The whole package seems tailor-made for me. I'll be supervising six other doctors, and I'll be exempt from night call. A great retirement plan and benefits." Helen looked down at the tabletop. "I couldn't turn it down."
Elena's mind scrambled for a solution. The ship was sinking, and she grabbed for something to keep her afloat. "So why don't I take over your practice? I can buy you out. I mean, I won't have the money right way, but I can pay you over several years. It'll be sort of like an annuity for you."
Helen was already shaking her head. "No, one part of the deal was that I bring my patients with me. The clinic will hire both my receptionist and nurse, and give them a good package as well. They'll even buy my equipment from me. I've already terminated the office lease. I'm moving out in ninety days."
Elena forced back the tears she felt forming. "Helen, do you realize what this does to me?"
"I know. I just—"
"No." Elena worked to keep her voice level. "You don't know. You don't know how I've struggled to get through my residency after Mark's death. You have no idea what it meant to me to have a practice waiting for me. No need to lease space, to remodel and buy equipment. No waiting to build up a practice. There'd be a guaranteed income and a chance to pay off a mountain of debt."
Elena shook her head. "I finish my residency in less than a month. Thirty days! Now you've pulled the rug out from under me. I have four weeks to find a way to do the only thing I know how to do—practice medicine." She turned her back to Helen, thinking that Helen had done the same thing to her. "No, I realize this is good for you, but I don't think you really know the effect it has on me."
"Elena, I had to do this. Once you get over the shock, you'll think about it and agree. But listen, I'm not going to leave you hanging."
Excerpted from Diagnosis Death by Richard L. Mabry. Copyright © 2011 Richard L. Mabry, M.D.. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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