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Prayers of a StrangerA Christmas Journey
By Davis Bunn
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2012 Davis Bunn
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAmanda entered the hospital through the crash doors. They were named such partly because they opened into the reception area serving the accident and emergency wards and intensive care. But it was mostly because of the sound the ambulances made when they swooped in and pulled out the gurneys and came rushing inside. Florida summer deluges could dump as much as a foot of rain in a few hours, storms so intense they exploded off the pavement and splattered a fine mist out fifty feet. The winds that sometimes came with these storms, particularly during hurricane season, made standard ER entrances impossible here. So the architects had wisely built a recessed entrance, with the hospital's other seven floors extending over the entire circular ER drive. No matter how violent the tempest, people could disembark in safety and remain dry. The shelter came at a cost, though; namely, sunlight. The gloom was legendary.
When she was appointed personal assistant to the hospital's director, Amanda's first act had been to rework the cave's lighting and institute free valet parking. She called them volunteers, but the parking attendants were all paid minimum wage. The free parking signs stated in bold letters that tipping was forbidden.
A large number of patients and visitors were elderly. This was, after all, Florida. They should not need to walk from the parking garage. Amanda's volunteers, many of them as old as the visitors, made for a cheerful counterpart to the cave's oppressive nature. They greeted newcomers with a smile and the promise that the care they found inside would be the best available anywhere. And because of their genial welcome, most people believed them. Or at least they entered a little less frightened than before.
The brightest light in the shadowy enclave came from the new miniature Christmas tree Amanda had put up the day before. Like so much else about Christmas in Florida, the effect was a bit jarring, but Amanda thought it was a nice touch nonetheless. Such actions came naturally to her. Others called it her gift, doing the things that made everyone feel better, staff and patients alike. She heard that time after time. The only trouble was, Amanda had no real interest in her present job. This had been true from the very first day. She had taken it as a means to escape. Nothing more.
Frank, her favorite of the parking attendants and her next-door neighbor, was on duty when she arrived. When his only sister, who'd never married, became critically ill, Frank and his wife, Emily, had moved down to see her through her final days. They had never left. Frank's sister had been in and out of the hospital for nine very hard months. Parking cars and greeting newcomers was Frank's way of saying thanks. His smile was constant, his heart as big as the Florida sky.
"If I didn't know better, I'd say there was going to be a coup today," he said.
"Not a chance," Amanda assured him. "I would have seen the memo."
"And I'm telling you, something more than the standard muttering is happening."
Amanda stepped away from the doors and waited while Frank helped an older woman unfold her walker and passed the car keys to another attendant. He announced with a grin, "Dr. Henri is smiling."
"Is this a joke?"
"Nope. Forehead to shirt collar. And about two hundred teeth."
"If I didn't know you, I'd say you had finally gone over the edge."
Dr. Henri was head of the emergency room staff. He was a wrinkled prune from the Dominican republic and the finest ER doctor Amanda had ever met. He hated the American way of saying his first name, but if the French Henri was beyond the reach of many staffers, he loathed listening to them butcher his last name, which was Beausejour.
"I always assumed his frown was tattooed into place."
"The nurses all look stunned," Frank agreed. "This could only mean one thing, right? Moira has kicked the bucket."
"Not possible," Amanda replied and turned to leave. "I've gotten five e-mails from her already this morning."
* * *
Amanda decided to go inspect this alleged smile for herself.
She was about to ask the nurse on station if the rumors were true when the impossible happened. Through the open doorway leading to the ready room, Amanda heard humming.
The nurse said softly, "If I'm dreaming, don't pinch me. I never want to wake up."
Amanda asked, "He's in there?"
"None other. Amazing, huh?"
"I've been afraid to ask."
The doctor emerged from the ready room and smiled. "If it isn't my favorite lady. How are you, Amanda?"
She shared round eyes with the nurse. "Fine, Dr. Henri."
"Walk with me, please."
All but one of the treatment stations were empty, as was customary for that time of day. Dr. Henri briefly checked the status of his lone patient as they passed, then said, "your neighbor Frank is leaving us."
"He's been having pains in his hips. You've probably noticed the way he rocks when he walks. He has serious deterioration of both joints."
"He told me it was arthritis."
"That's what he's told everyone. Including his wife. He wanted to keep it quiet, but I thought you should know."
"I certainly should."
"Frank doesn't want any fuss. He says the best way for him to leave is assuming he will soon return."
Amanda nodded her understanding. Frank was facing an ordeal of six months, perhaps longer. Surgery, rehab, then the second round on the other hip.
Dr. Henri stopped by the elevator. "He's due to have his first operation in January."
"Did you know Frank and Emily are supposed to leave for Israel next week? Frank says she's been dreaming of this trip for years."
"He told me. He doesn't want to go. It would be good if you could help break the news to Emily. If Frank goes, he'll need to use either a walker or perhaps even a wheelchair."
"Which he would positively loathe."
"Traveling would be painful. And he could well face the risk of further deterioration in a foreign land."
"I'll handle it," Amanda promised.
"Yes, that is what you are best at. Handling things."
When Dr. Henri started to turn away, Amanda stopped him. "I was looking for you to find out what's going on today. why are you smiling?"
Dr. Henri's beaming face was awesome to behold. "why, Amanda Vance. Shame on you. Doctors don't deal in rumors. we're trained to remain above all that."
* * *
Amanda had insisted on taking the least appealing office as her own. It was little more than a walk-in closet, long and narrow and angled like a crooked elbow. Her lone window was up too high to grant her a view of anything save the sky. During her early days on the job she had sat at her empty desk and watched the square of light crawl across the wall opposite her desk. She'd needed a position inside the hospital that would take her away from nursing and grant her space to heal. But within a few weeks she had found her job becoming as high-stressed as anything she had known.
But she had also found a new home.
Amanda stopped by the desk of Harriet, the secretary she shared with four other administrators. "Anything?"
"The witch has called for you. Five times."
Hardly a surprise. Amanda asked, "Anything important?"
Harriet was a hard-bitten lifer whose laugh was a single bounce of her shoulders. "Cute."
Amanda heard her phone ringing and hurried into her cubbyhole. "This is Amanda."
It was the ER nurse on the line. "Did Dr. Henri tell you what has him doing a jig?"
"Dr. Henri is dancing now?"
"Close enough. What did he say?"
"Nothing. Not a peep."
"Did you ask?"
"Of course I did. He just smiled." Amanda changed the subject. "Did you hear that Frank is leaving?"
"yes. And he wants us to just let him slip away without any fuss at the end of the day."
"Are we going to let him?"
"When did we ever listen to what men want?"
Amanda hung up the phone, stowed her smile away, and told Harriet, "I'm going upstairs."
The woman gave her a jaded smile. "Better you than me."
* * *
When the elevator doors opened on the seventh floor, Amanda knew something had happened. Nurses learned to notice small shifts in their ward's atmosphere. This sixth sense might be scoffed at by outsiders, but Amanda had no doubt that her ability to detect subtle signs had saved a number of lives. This morning her antennae were twitching.
She had not really wanted the job of administrative assistant to the hospital director. But Dr. Henri, one of the hospital's three senior doctors, had insisted it was this or go back to being a floor nurse. Which she couldn't. Not then. Perhaps not ever.
Amanda had been looking for a quiet corner where she could regroup following what she silently referred to as her Christmas ordeal. Which had actually happened the week after Thanksgiving the year before. But Dr. Henri had been adamant. The doctors knew Amanda and they trusted her. Which was more than any of them could say for the hospital's new director, Moira Campbell.
Moira had turned the hospital against her on the very first day. Amanda had been out on maternity leave, so she missed the worst of it. Apparently the new director had turned up her nose at the former director's office and demanded the one used by his predecessor. The fact that it had been redone as the doctors' lounge meant nothing to her. The doctors were evicted, Moira instated, and the battle was on.
The throne room, as it was now known, occupied the southeast corner of the hospital's top floor. Three wings intersected there, one housing the new heart center, the second radiology, and the third, a stubby afterthought, contained the hospital's legal and Medicare staff. Moira Campbell's office stood at the end of a long lonely corridor, from where she ruled her fiefdom in isolated splendor.
Amanda had insisted upon remaining downstairs, and the doctors had backed her. Her primary duty was liaison with the hospital staff, they had told Moira, and this role would best be handled from the hospital's nerve center. In truth it had worked out best for them both. Amanda could take Moira in small doses. So long as she was not forced to remain in the woman's company for too long, she managed to treat Moira with the same patience she did a squalling infant—check vitals, see if anything was needed, and if the baby just wanted to bawl, let her. And Moira was most comfortable with her computer and her balance sheets. It was people she couldn't handle.
Amanda knocked on the closed door. "you wanted to see—"
Moira did not pause in the process of dumping the contents of a drawer into a cardboard box. "I'm being reassigned."
A trio of thoughts flashed through Amanda's mind. First, Dr. Henri did indeed have a valid reason for smiling. Second, Amanda would soon be experiencing considerable pleasure as official deliverer of this news. And third, heaven help any patient who arrived in dire need of care today.
Moira demanded, "Don't you have anything to say?"
Amanda shrugged, a gesture she despised seeing in one of the sullen young trainees. But she couldn't say what she was thinking. It would be like pouring oil on an open flame. Finally she settled on, "who is your replacement?"
"Oh, I don't know. Someone from HQ."
The hospital's owners were based in Boston. Which was where Moira had come from. The prospect of another Moira clone dampened Amanda's joy. A little.
Moira Campbell had probably once been quite attractive. But something had happened along the way, and Amanda suspected it had to do with a man. Now Moira was a parody of herself. Her pale blue eyes had grown flat and guarded. She wore too-flashy clothes; her hair was kept to a pageboy cut that did not suit her at all, and its orange DayGlo color could only have come from a bottle. Her pinched face and suspicious air invited people to dislike her.
Amanda turned to the window and stifled the urge to break into song. The view from Moira's office was stupendous, out over rooftops to the inland waterway. The barrier island was a brilliant green ribbon in the distance. Amanda asked, "when is your replacement arriving?"
"Tomorrow." Moira upended another drawer into her box. "I've been ordered to vacate the premises before the new boy arrives. No official transfer. Nothing. It's a scandal."
"Can I give you a hand packing?"
"No, thank you very much. You're no doubt delighted to see the back of me."
Amanda caught herself in the act of nodding agreement. Beyond the window a sailboat cut through the inland waterway. She wondered what it would be like to spend days in such a carefree manner, separated from the world and its many woes, free to go where the wind took her.
Moira hammered a stack of files into an already full box. "you have a special place in my end-of-duty report, I can promise you that."
Amanda decided she'd had enough. She stepped out of the office, softly shut the door, and released a breath she had been holding for eleven months.
* * *
The oddest thought struck her as she stepped into the elevator. Almost as though it had been waiting there for her to arrive.
Amanda's finger hovered over the third-floor button. Suddenly the elevator jerked and started down, as though it had grown tired of waiting for her to make up her mind.
Amanda pressed the button.
The ob-gyn and infant care departments had a guard station directly opposite the elevators. One could not be too careful with babies these days. No one was permitted on the floor without an appointment. Everyone was checked in.
The duty nurse was a new face, young and alert. Amanda did not recognize her, which was hardly a surprise, since she had not been on the ward for almost a year. The nurse checked her admin ID, asked her to sign the registry, and smiled her through.
It was all familiar, and so very alien. Her former boss, Dr. Frost, had retired two weeks after Amanda's departure. She of course knew the ward's new senior doctor, but spoke with him only when it could not be avoided. She assumed he had heard of her breakdown, for the new doctor treated her with the sort of gentle patience awarded the most frightened mothers.
Amanda did a quick tour of her former world, past the birth stations, the patient ward, their own radiology room, which she had fought so hard to install. She continued down the hall outside the newborns' chambers and did not stop until she arrived at the critical care unit. The glass wall overlooked the nine incubators, three of which held premies. This was where she had most belonged. Her world.
A nurse she recognized despite the mask and blue hairnet walked over, checked the infant's vitals, wrote them into the chart, then noticed Amanda. Her eyes widened. She waved tentatively. Amanda wanted to respond. But her hand was too heavy to lift, and a smile would have been a lie. She stood like that at the entrance to the unit, filled with longing and regret, then turned and walked away.
As the elevator doors closed, Amanda whispered to herself, "one day."
If only she could convince herself the words were true.
Chapter TwoBy the time she arrived back downstairs, news of Moira Campbell's departure was all over the hospital. laughter and light chatter filled the hallway, sounds from the hour before a party started. As she opened the doors leading to the admin wing, she saw two nurses hug and a pair of interns exchange a high five. Oh, yes. They'd heard.
The battle-scarred Harriet, whose favorite pastime was counting down to retirement, greeted her with, "Tell me you're not leaving too."
"Don't think for an instant your work is done here."
To her astonishment several worried faces emerged from neighboring cubicles. She realized what was going on. "you can't possibly have heard about my stopping by the infant ward."
"Oh, please. CNN has nothing on this place for spreading news."
The senior bookkeeper slipped from her office. "So it's true, you're leaving?"
Harriet demanded, "who's supposed to pave the way for us with the new suit?"
"who says you'll be needing anyone?" Amanda countered.
She sniffed her disdain. "He's coming from the home office, isn't that right?"
"How could you possibly know this?"
"It's how we survive down here in the burrows."
"All right. Yes. Boston is sending someone from HQ."
"So now we get Moira Two."
"For all you know he could be a perfect prince. Don't look at me—" Amanda stopped because Dr. Henri had stepped through the doorway. "yes?"
"I'd like another word, Amanda."
"Tell her she's got to stay," her secretary said. "Tie her to her desk. Give me a call if you need a hand."
Dr. Henri moved to the door to her office and waited. "Now, please."
Excerpted from Prayers of a Stranger by Davis Bunn Copyright © 2012 by Davis Bunn. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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