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Despite graduating from medical school in the top five percent of her class, which required endless hours of studying and hands-on experience, Dr. Aleksandra Pulaski didn't think that the human body could sink to this level of exhaustion and still function.
Yet hers had and it still worked.
In her mind, her consciousness amounted to a modern-day miracle of minor proportions. Now, finally at the end of her endless day, she managed to put one foot in front of the other and drag herself from the underground parking structure to the elevator of the building she'd just moved into this month. The trip from the elevator to the front door of her apartment seemed twice as long as it should have been. Almost at journey's endevery foot countedshe managed to get her key into the lock and get inside the incredibly spacious three-bedroom apartment without collapsing.
That was when the last of her energy evaporated. Even the fumes on which she'd been running were gone. Just like that, her knees gave out.
Fortunately, she was passing the sofa in the living room when they buckled. Angling, she landed on top of a cushion, utterly unable to move.
She took it as an omen. Mama was very big on omens and, although normally she'd pretended it was all just old-country nonsense whenever her mother, Paulina Pulaski, brought up the subject, a very tiny part of her was her mother's daughter and believed in omens.
Right now, she would have believed in the existence of unicorns and pixies if it meant that she could just lie here for a few moments. Just long enough to gather her strength for the long trek from the living room to the second bedroom. That was the one she had claimed as her own once she stopped protesting that she couldn't accept such a generous offer. The people making the offer were her cousins. They were the ones who actually lived here.
Or had lived here before all five had gotten married. The protest was composed of one part honor and two parts guilt, both sections fueled by the fact that no one would allow her to pay even a small portion of the lease on this perfectly located fifth-floor apartment.
Her cousins, doctors all, had said that she was doing them a favor, watching over the apartment when they weren't around. Her fortuitous arrival in New York City had been the deciding factor that had them all agreeing to continue the lease on the apartment. At least, they would have somewhere to crash when they found themselves too tired to make the drive home to Queens or to the Island.
Alyx quickly discovered that they, Sasha, Natalya, Kady, Tania and Marja, were all one nicer than the other. They divided the cost of the lease among themselves, leaving her to reap the benefits of their generosity. All they required was that she live in the apartment and occasionally dust if she had the time.
She wished she and her three sisters had gotten to know her cousins better, like when they were all growing up. They would have, she was fairly confident, if Papa had lived.
But after that awful day when Papa was taken from them, Mama had pretended that Uncle Josef and his family didn't exist. She absolutely refused to allow any one of them to even get in contact with this branch of the familythe only family they had outside of one another and their aunt Zofia. Mama had never explained why, but Alyx was certain that it had to do with Papa's death. Mama had changed abruptly right after Papa had died in that freak accident. Someonethe police had never been able to find out whohad accidentally pushed Papa, a transit cop, onto the tracks as he waited for the train.
Horrified and heartbroken, Mama held everyone, including the City of New York and Uncle Josef who had initially sponsored Papa's passage to America, accountable for his death. Five days after the funeral, Mama had uprooted all of them and moved to Chicago, where her sister, Aunt Zofia, lived.
She'd said it was because she needed help in raising four girls without a husband to support her. It had been an excuse to turn her back on her husband's family. Her decision was final, and for close to twenty years, she refused to discuss it or even have that side of the family's names mentioned. In return, her mother devoted herself to the four of them. When Aunt Zofia passed away from leukemia, she left her money to the four of them and Mama.
That was when she discovered that her secretive aunt held the title of a popular patent that had yielded a fortune, all of which was banked. Subsequently, a substantial amount of money, even in these dire times, was accrued. It turned out to be enough money to send all of them through college and whatever postgraduate school they chose to attend. They all picked medical school.
Or rather, it was picked for them. Mama would not hear of any of them being anything else. Fortunately, they all felt the calling. Or at least three of them did. It had taken Krystyna a bit longer to come around.
And still there had been no attempt on Mama's part to seal the rift that she had created.
When Alyx told her mother that she'd been accepted by Patience Memorial Hospital to complete her residency, the older woman finally, grudgingly, came around enough to get in touch with Uncle Josef and Aunt Magda.
Luckily, when it came to grudges, her aunt and uncle were as different from her mother as night was day. One phone call later she had family here. Family that embraced her and made the scary transition from Illinois to New York so much easier. The ordeal she had envisioned for herself, living with five other roommates in some small, rundown apartment with hot and cold running roaches, was no longer a viable threat.
She'd been awestruck the first time she'd walked into the apartment her five cousins had lived in during their medical training. Her cousins had all laughed at her expression of wonder, but it wasn't at her expense. There was a joyfulness to it that she quickly came to expect from these women whose blood was the same as hers. These women who were all on their way to becoming highly respected physicians in their chosen fields.
As quickly as she came to love them, she was still more than a little in awe. They were all admirable women.
Maybe that was why Mama had been so adamant about all four of them becoming doctors. Growing up, there had been no other course to follow, no other careers even to consider. Mama wouldn't allow it. Her girls, she'd said time and again, were going to become doctors no matter what the cost. Thanks to Aunt Zofia, there was no amassed debt to face.
But even if Aunt Zofia had been a pauper, the course of their lives had been laid out. Mama had spoken.
Though she loved the woman dearlythey all didAlyx knew, as did her sisters, that Mama had an obsessive, highly competitive side to her. And that competitiveness always involved the daughters of Papa's older brother.
Her cousins, bless them, were nothing like she'd expectedand turned out to be everything that she needed. Instantly friendly, instantly warm, their combined support made her first day at Patience Memorial not utterly terrible. The latter condition was purely the results of the mentor she'd been assigned. Her first rotation was in the ER with a martinet who shouted rather than talked, put down rather than lifted up.
Rumor had it the woman wanted to get the very best out of her and the other residents assigned the ER rotation. That was the rumor. However, Alyx secretly felt that Dr. Gloria Furst enjoyed putting people down and trampling on their self-esteem.
Alyx refused to let the doctor demoralize her, but it was still an exhausting, draining experience. Four weeks into the rotation and Alyx caught herself praying that the chief of staff or someone else in power would come by unannounced to witness the woman's M.O.
But prayer or no prayer, that was not about to happen. Dr. Furst had a network going for her comprised of residents who would do anything not to wash out of the program. Consequently, to cull her favor they clued her in when they heard anything and Dr. Furst always knew when someone of stature within the hospital's hierarchy would be stopping by.
It was at that point that the woman went from being the maniacal Mr. Hyde to the kindly Dr. Jekyll. She became sweet enough to send any diabetic in a ten-mile radius into a coma.
This too shall pass, Alyx told herself as she stretched out on the sofa.
Two shifts. She'd endured two full, back-to-back shifts. How in heaven's name did they think she could be at the top of her game in this life-or-death arena by the end of the second shift when her brain felt numb and the rest of her was on automatic pilot? She was lucky she hadn't killed anyone, she thought with a huge, soul-felt sigh that seemed to all but deplete her.
She was running on empty.
Alyx realized that her eyes were closed.
Two minutes, she promised herself. Two minutes and then she'd get up. That's all she needed, just two little
Her eyes flew open a second before she found solace in sleep.
She strained to listen. Maybe she'd imagined it. Maybe it was just part of the haze that was descending on her brain
Get back here, you damn bitch! Don't turn your back on me when I'm talking to you! You hear me?
No, definitely not part of her dream, Alyx thought, swinging her legs off the sofa and sitting up. Her brain didn't create scenarios like that, even when it had the freedom of sleep.
The yelling came from her next-door neighbors. Or rather, from her next-door neighbor. A married couple lived there and what she was hearing was only the man's voice. Hearing it as clearly as if he were in standing in the room with her.
God forbid, Alyx thought with a shiver. Although he was tall and good-looking in a showy kind of way, Harry McBride gave her the creeps.
Harry was shouting at his wife, Abby. Again. As far as she could find out from talking to the doorman, Harry and his wife were new to the building. They had moved in just as Marja had moved out to live with her fiancénow her husband.
Alyx listened for a moment, clinging to the momentary spate of quiet and hoping that it would continue, signaling an end to the abrupt outburst.
Maybe it had just been some kind of heated difference of
The crash Alyx heard two seconds later followed by a volley of cursing and yelling ushered in a death knell to her sliver of hope. The heart-wrenching, high-pitched yelp of distress was almost too much to bear. She couldn't quite make out what Abby was saying, but the cadence told her that the woman was pleading.
Alyx felt herself growing angry.
Ordinarily, she didn't meddle in other people's lives. Had the noise been generated by an untimely party, she would have put cotton in her ears and gone to her bedroom. She had nothing against people having fun, even the noisy kind.
But this didn't sound like fun. This was a woman in distress.
She'd be distressed, too, living with this Neanderthal. She remembered her first encounter with Harry McBride. It was on the elevator, shortly after she'd moved in. He'd actually hit on her. His wife, Abby, a meek, mousey little thing who seemed almost afraid to raise her all but lifeless eyes from the floor, had been right there, a witness to the encounter. Abby had pretended not to hear.
But she'd heard all right. Alyx would have sworn to it. The woman's face was flushed with embarrassmentall except for one cheekbone which, despite the heavy layer of foundation appeared bluish. As if there was a bruise beneath the coating of makeup, healing.
The yelling continued, the volume swelling.
Alyx shook her head as she walked out into the hallway. The apartment on the other side of the McBrides was vacant so she was the only one privy to this "Punching Judy" show.
Alyx knocked on the door once, then again, harder this time to be heard above Harry's voice. She raised her own as she called out, "Abby, is everything all right in there?"
Instead of Abby, it was her husband who answered the question, punctuating his words with what sounded like a snarl.
"Everything's just fine. Now why don't you mind your own damn business?"
She was a doctor. Alyx thought, struggling to rein in her anger. As far as she was concerned, humanity was her business. And this surly neighbor had just crossed the line with her.
But angry as she was, Alyx had no desire to become the man's next punching bag. So instead of demanding entrance to their apartment, she went into her own, closed the door and waited.
She didn't have long to wait.
The shouting and noise started up within less than five minutes. Round two was even worse and more vitriolic. Whatever had incurred the man's wrath the first time around was still there. And growing.
Alyx dialed 911.
"Hey, Calloway," Sgt. Stubbs called out. "You just caught one."
Officer Zane Callowayall six foot two of him kept on walking toward the front door. He knew he couldn't pretend not to hear, but it was worth a shot. Sarge just shouted louder.
"I'm off duty," Zane called back to the desk sergeant.
"Not for another seven minutes," the desk sergeant countered, pointing to the large clock that hung on the wall behind him. "C'mon back, Calloway. I don't want to have to put you on report for failing to obey a higher-ranking authority."
Zane didn't bother suppressing a sigh as he turned around. The white-haired sergeant had earned the right to pull rank.