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He needed to get out of the car. Jack knew it, just as he knew his best and oldest friend, Dr. Amanda Jacobs, was waiting for him inside the run-down clinic. He'd been due to meet her here two hours ago, but somehow he'd found a million reasons to be late. Lingering over a lunch he didn't want and couldn't bring himself to eat, filling the rental car up with gas, exploring websites about sightseeing in Atlanta, though he had no desire to actually visit the place. Anything and everything to keep him from this parking lot, this moment, this decision he wasn't ready to make. Not that it was a done deal, he reassured himself as he finally reached for the door handle. He hadn't agreed to anything. He was here to see his friend, to take a look around. Checking out the clinic didn't mean he was promising anything. To Amanda or himself. It proved he was interested in what his friend had been getting up to.
Still, the walk to the front door of the clinic was a long one. And not just because of the bowling ball in his stomach. Both his leg and his hand ached from where he'd been shot two months before; Atlanta's humidity exacerbating the still recovering tendons.
Which brought up the question he'd been asking himself ever since his plane had landed the night before. What was he doing here? His doctor was in Boston. His physical therapist was in Boston. His family was in Boston. And yet here he was, in Atlanta, checking out a clinic he had absolutely no interest in working in.
This whole trip was stupid. A joke. He didn't belong here any more than he belonged in the fancy family practice his father had gotten him an interview at in Boston last week. He hadn't been interested in that job, either, but his father had refused to take no for an answer. Dealing with sniffles and high blood pressure was a long way from being Chief of Thoracic Surgery at John Hopkins, but it was better than "scrabbling away in that pathetic little hovel in Africa," as the elder Jack Alexander liked to say.
The casual cruelty, and inherent snobbery, of his father's words was what made Jack dial up Amanda in the first place, then take her up on her frequently issued invitation to come see the newest project she was involved in.
Atlanta felt too foreign, too strange, and that was even before he took into account his ridiculous feelings for Amanda. Feelings that wouldn't go away, no matter how hopeless they were.
And they were hopeless, he reminded himself viciously. They'd been friends for well over a decadeever since they'd met as first years at Harvard Medical Schooland though he'd been in love with her since they'd duked it out for the top spot in the program, she'd never seen him as anything more than a pal. And now she was marriedmarriedto another of Jack's closest buddies and any tiny hope he'd held on to that they might one day be together had been officially destroyed.
He closed his eyes, took a deep breath. Started to head to the car. No, he didn't belong here. But that was the problem, wasn't it? He didn't belong anywhere. Not anymore. Not like he used to. These days he was a shell of his former self, one who could barely hold a stethoscope steady let alone a scalpel.
Jack cut off the familiar thought as he forced himself to turn back around and step into the clinic. He let the cracked glass door with its iron burglar bars swing shut behind him. The pity party was getting old. Especially since he was the only one at the table. Sick of himself, and the grinding pain he couldn't escape no matter how many exercises he did, he tried to distract himself by looking around. Analyzing the surroundings.
There wasn't much to analyze. The waiting room was large and spare, its walls painted with what he guessed had once been cream, but was now more of a dingy yellow splashed with stains. People sat on folding chairs, crammed into every available space, while a couple of forlorn plantsones that had definitely seen better dayssat in the front corner of the room next to a high counter. Behind it, a large, African-American woman worked on a computer, several charts stacked in front of her. It all reminded him a lot more of his tent clinic in Somalia than the private practice his family was trying to force him to join.
To the woman's left was a small sliding-glass window. There were about a dozen people lined up in front of it, all bedraggled and clearly feeling sick and miserable. Nothing compared to the patients he'd seen in Somalia, but still it was obvious these people needed help.
He felt that old familiar stirring inside of him, the one that demanded he roll up his sleeves and pitch in. This was what he did. What he was good at.
He beat the urge back down. This was what he had done. What he had been good at. These days, he could barely dress himself let alone practice medicine.
Despite the fact that the clinic was overcrowded, it was obviously efficiently run. Though the line of people was growing, they were being rapidly signed in and triaged. Behind the window, he could see a nurse taking temperatures even as she typed notes into a computer.
Not that he was surprised. Amanda could work anywhere, could practice medicine in the middle of war zones and natural disasters without blinking an eye. But she demanded efficiency of everyone around heror at least she did when she wasn't drowning in sorrow.
Seeing the way this clinic ran like clockwork, convinced him even more that he'd made the right decision all those months ago. Getting her out of Africa so she could deal with the loss of her child and regain her health, had been exactly the right thing to do. Even if, in doing so, he had lost her forever.
The loss was bittersweet, especially now that he could see that she really had found herself again here in this run-down, little clinic in Atlanta. He'd sent her out of Somalia a year ago, so burned out and run-down he was afraid she would work herself to death. He'd told her to take a vacation. Instead, she'd ended up here.
And now, somehow, so had he.
Not that he was planning on getting involved, he assured himself. He was just here to see an old friend, to see for himself that she really was okay and to assure her the same thing about him. He'd take her and Simon to dinner later that evening. Tell a few stories, crack a few jokes, and then catch the first flight back to Massachusetts in the morning. It would be easy, so easy that even he couldn't screw it up.
Now that he had a plan, Jack straightened his shoulders.
Flexed his already cramping hand.
Made sure his I'm-in-control-and-master-of-my-own-destiny mask was firmly in place, then headed toward the front of the waiting room.
He figured his best bet was the woman behind the computer because, as he'd been standing here thinking, the line at the small window had only gotten longer. So he leaned on the high counter, hoping if he took some weight off his leg it would stop throbbing quite so badly. He smiled at the woman.
"I'm here to"
"The line starts over there." She pointed at the window without ever looking away from the computer.
"I can see that. However, I want to talk to"
"Over. There." The finger jabbed at the air for emphasis, but the woman still didn't look at him. "Again. I see the window. However, I'm a friend of"
She did look at him then, her eyebrows pulled low over her eyes and her mouth curled downward. "I don't actually care if you're friends with the surgeon general, the president of the United States and Denzel Washington. The line starts over there." Again she stabbed a finger in the direction of the window, than grunted as she reached for another file and began inputting its content into the computer.
Jack stared at her for a few moments, then turned to look at the line she was directing him to. It had grown exponentially in the past five minutes, efficient nurses or not. His leg throbbed, his hand ached and the last thing he wanted to do was to stand around for the next hour while he waited on a chance to see Amanda.
Maybe it wasn't meant to be, he told himself as he pulled his cell phone out of his pocket and flipped through his contacts until he found her cell number. He'd call Amanda and if she didn't pick upand she probably wouldn't as she was more than likely with a patienthe'd call it a day. After all, he'd tried his best. He'd shown up, talked to the office manager, had tried to explain who he was. It wasn't his fault that she wouldn't listen.
Ignoring the voice in his head that told him he was being a coward and taking the easy way out, Jack listened to Amanda's voice mail greeting and left a brief message letting her know that he was in the waiting room. Then he headed for the door, doing his best to justify the fact that he wasdespite his good intentionsrunning away.
He assured himself that he wasn't afraid of touring this little, low-income clinic. It was simply that he had better things to do. Like staring at the ceiling of his hotel room
"Jack!" Amanda's voice rang through the waiting room, foiling his escape. He froze, his hand on the door handle. "Where are you going?"
He turned to see her barreling through the door that separated the waiting room from the rest of the clinic. Then she was hurtling herself into his arms and his only choice was to brace himself with his good leg and catch her or let her take them both to the floor.
"Hey! Where's the fire?" he asked, even as he wrapped his arms around her in a huge bear hug.
"I'm so glad you're here!" she said, stretching up on tiptoes to kiss his cheek before pulling away. "I've missed you. And you have perfect timing. My shift just ended."
He swallowed the sudden lump in his throat and smiled down at her. "I've missed you, too. Although Atlanta seems to be agreeing with you."
"It really does," she said, blushing a little.
"I can tell." She barely looked like the same woman he'd banished from Africa all those months ago. The sparkle was back in her silver eyes, the shine back in her short, blonde hair. Her skin glowed and her smile was wide and unfettered. Her time here in Atlantaand with Simonhad obviously been good for her.
He ignored the lingering pain that awareness caused, focusing instead on the sweet realization that Amanda really was okay. That was enough, more than enough, to make up for any hurt he might be feeling.
"I'm so glad you came," she told him, giving him another quick hug. "I've been waiting for you to get here forever."
"I'm sorry I'm late. I got.. " His voice trailed off, his excuses drying up as surely as the deserts of North Africa. He never had been able to lie worth a damn, especially not to Amanda.
"No excuses," she told him, reaching for his hand. "You're here now. That's what's important."
He watched as she examined the still raw scars on his hand. Scars where the bullet went in. Scars from where the doctors at the American University of Cairo had struggled to save his hand. Even more scars from the three operations in Boston to repair as much of the tendon damage as possible. Two top surgeons had collaborated on his caseone a friend of his father's and one a friend of hisbut even their expertise hadn't been enough to help him regain full mobility.
In time, with intensive physical therapy, he'd once again be able to use his right hand to open bottle caps or button small buttons or to do most of the little day-to-day things he'd taken for granted for so much of his life. But no matter how much physical therapy he did, no matter how many exercise reps he forced himself to complete, he would never again hold a scalpel.
Would never again be able to operate.
He could see the knowledge in Amanda's eyes, feel her pity in the soft caress of her fingers over his, and it embarrassed him. Shamed him.
He quickly pulled his hand from her grasp, hating how his inability to perform surgery made him feel like half a manmaybe even less. No wonder he'd never been able to compete with Simon.