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Brody McKenna checked his third sore throat of the morning, prescribed the same prescription as he had twice beforerest, fluids, acetaminophenand tried to count his blessings. He had a dependable job as a family physician, a growing practice, and a close knit family living nearby. He'd returned from his time overseas none the worse for wear, and should have been excited to get back to his job. He wasn't.
The six-year-old patient headed out the door, with a sugar-free lollipop and a less harried mother. As they left, Helen Maguire, the nurse who had been with him since day one, and with Doc Watkins for fifteen years before that, poked her head in the door. "That's the last patient of the morning," she said. A matronly figure in pink scrubs decorated with zoo animals, Mrs. Maguire had short gray hair and a smile for every patient, young or old. "We have an hour until it's time to start immunizations. And then later in the afternoon, we'll be doing sports physicals."
Brody's mind drifted away from his next appointment and the flurry of activity in his busy Newton office. His gaze swept the room, the jars of supplies, so easy to order and stock here in America, always on hand and ready for any emergency. Every bandage, every tongue depressor, every stethoscope, reminded him. Launched him back to a hot country and a dusty dirt floor hut short on supplies and even shorter on miracles.
"Doc? Did you hear me?" Mrs. Maguire asked.
"Oh, oh. Yes. Sorry." Brody washed his hands, then dried them and handed the chart to Helen. Focus on work, he told himself, not on a moment in the past that couldn't be changed. Or on a country on the other side of the world, to those people he couldn't save.
Especially not on that.
"Lots of colds going around," he said.
"It's that time of year."
"I think it's always that time of year."
Helen shrugged. "I think that's what I like about family practice. You can set your watch by the colds and flus and shots. It has a certain rhythm to it, don't you think?"
"I do." For a long time, Brody had thought he had the perfect life. A family practice for a family man.
Or at least, that had been the plan. Then the family had dissolved before it had a chance to form. By that time, Brody had already stepped into Doc Watkins's shoes. Walking away from a thriving practice would be insane, so he'd stayed. For a long time, he'd been happy. He liked the patients. Liked working with kids, liked seeing the families grow and change.
It was good work, and he took satisfaction in that, and had augmented it with volunteer time with different places over the yearsa clinic in Alabama, a homeless shelter in Maine. When the opportunity to volunteer assisting the remaining military overseas arose, Brody had jumped at it.
For a month, he'd changed lives in Afghanistan, working side by side with other docs in a roving medical unit that visited villagers too poor to get to a doctor or hospital, with the American military along for protection.
Brody had thought he'd make a difference there, too. He hadjust not in the way he wanted. And now he couldn't find peace, no matter where he turned.
"You okay, doc?" Mrs. Maguire asked.
"Fine." His gaze landed on the jars of supplies again. "Just distracted. I think I'll head out for lunch instead of eating at my desk."
And being around all these reminders.
"No problem. It'll do you good to take some time to enjoy the day." Mrs. Maguire smiled. "I find a little fresh air can make everything seem brighter."
Brody doubted the air would work any miracles for him, but maybe some space and distance would. Unfortunately, he had little of either. "I'll be back by one."
He stepped outside his office and into a warm, almost summer day. The temperatures still lingered in the high seventies, even though the calendar date read deep into September. Brody headed down the street, waving to the neighbors who flanked his Newton practiceMr. Simon with his shoe repair shop, Mrs. Tipp with her art gallery and Milo, who had opened three different types of shops in the same location, like an entrepreneur with ADD.
Brody took the same path as he took most days when he walked during his lunch hour. He rarely ate, just walked from his office to the same destination and back. He'd done it so many times in the last few weeks, he half expected to see a worn river of footsteps down the center of the sidewalk.
Brody reached in his pocket as he rounded the corner. The paper was crinkled and worn, the edges beginning to fray, but the inked message had stayed clear.
Hey, Superman, take care of yourself and come home safe. People over here love and miss you. Especially me. Things just aren't the same without your goofy face around. Love you, Kate.
Brody had held onto that card for a month now. He ran his hands over the letters now, and debated the same thing he'd had in his head for weeks. To fulfill Andrew's last wishes, or let it go?
He paused. His feet had taken him to the same destination as always. He stood under the bright red and white awning of Nora's Sweet Shop and debated again, the card firm in his grip.
Promise me, Doc. Promise me you'll go see her. Make sure she's okay. Make sure she's happy. But please, don't tell her what happened. She'll blame herself and Kate has suffered enough already.
The promise had been easy to make a month ago. Harder to keep.
Brody fingered the card again. Promise me.
How many times had he made this journey and turned back instead of taking, literally, the next step?
If he returned to the thermometers and stethoscopes and bandages, though, would he ever find peace?
He knew that answer. No. He needed to do this. Step forward instead of back.
Brody took a deep breath, then opened the door and stepped inside the shop. The sweet scents of chocolate and vanilla drifted over him, while soft jazz music filled his ears. A glass case of cupcakes and chocolates sat at one end of the store while a bright rainbow of gift baskets lined the sides. A cake made out of cupcakes and decorated in bridal colors sat on a glass stand in a bay window. Along the top of the walls ran a border of dark pink writing trimmed with chocolate brown and a hand lettered script reading Nora's Sweet Shop. On the wall behind the counter, hung a framed spatula with the name of the shop carved in the handle.
"Just a minute!" a woman called from the back.
"No problem," Brody said, stuffing the card back into his pocket. "I'm just.."
Just what? Not browsing. Not looking for candy or cupcakes. And he sure as hell couldn't say the truth
He'd come to this little shop in downtown Newton for forgiveness.
So instead he grabbed the first assembled basket of treats he saw and marched over to the counter. He was just pulling out his wallet when a slim brunette woman emerged from the back room.
"Hi, I'm Kate." She dried her hands on the front of her apron before proffering one for him to shake. "How can I help you?"
Kate Spencer. The owner of the shop, and the woman he'd thought of a hundred times in the past weeks. A woman he'd never met but heard enough about to write at least a couple chapters of her biography.
He took her hand, a steady, firm gripand tried not to stare. All these weeks he'd held onto that card, he'd expected someone, well, someone like a young version of Mrs. Maguire. A motherly type with her hair in a bun, and an apron around her waist, and a hug ready for anyone she met. That was how Andrew had made his older sister sound. Loving, warm, dependable. Like a down comforter.
Not the thin, fit, dynamo who had hurried out of the back room, with a friendly smile on her face and her coffee colored hair in a sassy ponytail skewed a bit too far to the right. She had deep green eyes, full crimson lips and delicate, pretty features. Yet he saw shadows dusting the undersides of her eyes and a tension in her shoulders.
Brody opened his mouth to introduce himself, to fulfill his purpose for being here, but the words wouldn't get past his throat. "L..I uh," he glanced down at the counter, at the cellophane package in his hands, "I wanted to get this."
"No problem. Is it for a special person?"
Brody's mind raced for an answer. "My, uh, grandmother. She loves chocolate."
"Your grandma?" Kate laughed, then spun the basket to face him. "You want me to, ah, change out this bow? To something a little more feminine? Unless your grandma is a big fan?"
He glanced down and noticed he'd chosen a basket with a red Sox ribbon. The dark blue basket with red trim, filled with white foil wrapped chocolates shaped like baseballs and bats, couldn't be further from the type of thing his staid grandmother liked. He chuckled. "No, that'd be me. I've even got season tickets. When she does watch baseball, my grandma is strictly a Yankees fan, though you can't say that too loud in Boston."
Kate laughed, a light lyrical, happy sound. Again, Brody realized how far off his imaginings of her had been. "Well, Mr. Red Sox, let me make this more grandma friendly. Okay? And meanwhile, if you want to put a card with this, there are some on the counter over there."
"Thanks." He wandered over to the counter she'd indicated, and tugged out a card, then scribbled his name across it. That kept him from watching her and gave his brain a few minutes to adjust to the reality of Kate Spencer.
She was, in a word, beautiful. The kind of woman, on any other day, he might have asked out on a date. Friendly, sweet natured, with a ready smile and a teasing lilt to her words. Her smile had roused something in him the minute he saw her, and that surprised him. He hadn't expected to be attracted to her, not one bit.
He tried to find a way around to say what he had come to say. Promise me.
He'd practiced the words he needed to say in his head a hundred times, but now that the moment had arrived, they wouldn't come. It wasn't the kind of subject one could just dump in the middle of a business transaction, nor had he quite figured out how to fulfill Andrew's wishes without giving away why. He needed to lead up to it, somehow. Yeah, easier to climb Mt. Everest.
"So how's business?" he asked.
"Pretty good. We've been growing every year since we opened in 1953. Mondays are our only slow day of the week. Almost like a mini vacation, except at the beginning of the week."
"You make all the cupcakes and candy things yourself?"
She shook her head and laughed. "I couldn't. It's a lot of work. Nora's Sweet Shop has been a family business for many years, but." she trailed off, seemed to look elsewhere for a second, then came back, "anyway, now I have a helper who's invaluable in the kitchen. Why, you applying?"
"Me? I'm all thumbs in the kitchen."
"That can be dangerous if there are knives involved." She grinned. "But seriously, baking is something you can learn. I never had formal training. Learned it all at my grandmother's knee. And if a hopeless case like me can grow up to be a baker, anyone can."
"Sounds like you love working here."
"I do. It's therapeutic." The humor dimmed in her features, and her gaze again went to somewhere he couldn't see. He didn't have to be psychic to know why sadness had washed over her face. Because of choices Brody had made on the other side of the world.
Brody cleared his throat. "Work can be good for the soul."
Or at least, that's what he told himself every time he walked into his practice. Ever since he'd returned from Afghanistan, though, he hadn't found that same satisfaction in his job as before. Maybe he just needed more time. That's what Mrs. Maguire said. Give it time, and it'll all get better.
"And what work do you do, that feeds your soul?"
She colored. "Sorry. That's a little personal. You don't have to answer. I was just curious."
"I'm a doctor," he said.
She leaned against the counter, one elbow on the glass, her body turned toward his. "That's a rewarding job. So much more so than baking. And not to mention, a lot more complicated than measuring out cupcake batter."
"Oh, I don't know about that," he said. "Your job looks pretty rewarding to me. I mean, you make people happy."
"It takes a lot of sugar to do that." She laughed. "But thank you. I try my best. Three generations of Spencers have been trying to do that here."
Brody's gaze drifted over the articles on the wall. Several contained accolades and positive reviews for the sweet shop, a third generation business that had enjoyed decades of raves, as evidenced by some of the framed, yellowed clippings. Brody paused when he got to the last article on the right. The page was creased on one side, as if someone had kept the paper in a book for a while before posting it on the wall. A picture of a handsome young man in uniform smiled out from the corner of the article.
Shop Owner's Brother Dies in Afghanistan
Brody didn't have to read another word to write the ending. In an instant, he was back there, in that hot, dusty hut, praying and cursing, and praying and cursing some more, while he tried to pump life back into Andrew Spencer.