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Julia Cooper squeezed her eyes shut and blinked hard a few times as she sat at a small cafe table. She couldn't have seen what she'd thought at first. Ever since her concussion, she didn't quite trust how her optic nerve was shooting messages back to her cerebral cortex. Misbehaving brain. Had to be playing tricks on her.
Even so, her heart still pounded as the man walked down the cobblestone street. He chatted with an older man, hands moving animatedly. Darned if he didn't look like Frank, at least from the back, black hair curling over his collar as if he'd forgotten to get a haircut. The man disappeared around a corner before she saw his face. Of course, all the men on this Azorean island of Sao Miguel, St. Michael's island, were dark, their sunny Portuguese heritage transplanted to a cool and misty string of rocks in the middle of the North Atlantic. Although the chain of islands stretched almost four hundred miles from end to end, Sao Miguel, the largest, was less than three hundred square miles in area according to her father, a huge geography buff.
Did the Azorean men ever have some ancestral longing for the hot, dry mainland, she wondered idly. A remnant of mitochondrial DNA passed from their mothers that made them crave the juice of blood oranges running down their chins as the Mediterranean sun beat on their heads?
She shook her headcautiously, though. Fanciful thoughts for a decidedly unfanciful woman. Perhaps she was experiencing one of those moments that the poets described, where magic and reality entwined, the hazy time between waking and sleeping when you dreamed strange thingsor were they dreams?
And what was reality? Was it that past life of hers in Boston, that world of white fluorescent, green scrubs and red blood? Blood and oranges. Blood oranges. She had a sudden craving for citrus, a craving for sun.
Or was it a Vitamin C deficiency? Ah, there was her normal nature asserting itself. She laughed softly, not wishing to appear as flaky on the outside as she sometimes felt on the inside.
It was normal, they had assured her. Normal, she scoffed. As if anything that had happened to her could be called normal.
But she was here, not just in the Azores, but here here, alive and breathing. Still on this earth. And that was something. What, she couldn't exactly say.
Frank, the recesses of her mind whispered to her. Francisco, they insisted. And that was what she had feared, coming back herethe insistence of her thoughts. Not just her thoughts, her emotions.
Enough. Julia set her coffee cup down with a resolute clink and stood. Good, no more dizziness today. But she was a bit tired. Fatigue is your body reminding you to rest. She had learned that in nursing school and grad school, but mostly ignored it. Her reserves were much lower now than back then.
Home again, home again. She picked her way along the uneven street, stopping to peer into store windows. Around her, friends greeted each other with affectionate cheek kisses, talking animatedly in the local Azorean dialect. She remembered a couple of words from when she was a child but not enough to understand their conversation.
Julia just let the noise wash over her and bought an English-language newspaper for her dad and a German candy bar her mother enjoyed. She climbed a small hill to her parents' apartment in a renovated old stone farmhouse, brushing her dark curly hair out of her face in the ever-present ocean breeze.
She could use a good trim. Her hair was the type that grew bigger, rather than longer, and the humidity was poufing her hair into a dark facsimile of a clown wig. Maybe she'd ask around to see if any of the island beauty shops could handle the daunting task.
She waved to their landlord, Senhor de Sousa, who offered her fresh berries. He chatted away to her in a mix of English and Portuguese. She nodded and smiled and couldn't help contrasting it with her own condo building, where she knew her next-door neighbors only by sight and not by name.
She gracefully withdrew from what looked to be a rather involved conversation and climbed the steps to the apartment. instead of seeing her parents sharing a quiet cup of coffee, they were in a tizzy. Her mother paced back and forth, listening intently to the phone while her dad clicked away on the laptop. "If we book now, we can get a flight out later this afternoon," he called.
Mother made an impatient gesture and then caught sight of Julia. "Oh, thank goodness. Here, my daughter is a nurse. Tell her what's going on." She shoved the phone at Julia, who grabbed it.
"Who's sick?" she hissed.
"Your great aunt Elva and uncle Paul."
Julia winced. Aunt Elva and Uncle Paul were her favorite relatives. "Hello?" Unfortunately, she was speaking to a hospital social worker. Her aunt and uncle had been driving along minding their own business when a truck plowed into their sedate sedan. Aunt Elva had bruised ribs and a broken arm, needing pins put in to stabilize the fracture. uncle Paul had a broken leg but wouldn't require surgery as long as he kept off his feet. "No head injuries or broken hips, pelvises, nothing like that?"
The social worker assured her that wasn't the case and Julia quickly explained to her mom and dad. Broken hips and pelvises were almost a death sentence for the elderly, few recovering well from that injury.
Julia made a few notes on the paper that her mother shoved at her. They were in a hospital in the Boston suburbs, one with a good reputation for patching people up. She told the social worker someone would be there in a couple days when they were released and got the direct number for their hospital rooms to call later. She hung up. "So when are we going?"
Dad looked up from the laptop, peering over his half-moon reading glasses. "We can get a flight out tomorrow morning and be in Boston in under five hours." Thanks to the large Azorean community in Boston, direct flights were pretty frequent, by Azorean standards.
Her mother twisted her hands together. "But what will we do about Julia?"
"What do you mean? You don't need to do anything about me. I'm coming with you. Aunt Elva and Uncle Paul won't stay in the hospital for very long. When they go home, they'll need nursing care, and I am a nurse. A nurse practitioner, even."
Her dad shook his head. "They need somebody who can help them up and down to the bathroom, move them around in bed. Basic nursing assistant skills. Brute strength that you don't have. You fall over if you stand up too fast."
"Dad!" He had all the tact of a bull from one of the local ranches.
As usual, her mother stepped in to smooth Dad's bluntness. "I know you would do anything to help, but Julia, honey, you're not strong enough right now."
Great. Her parents thought she was as much an invalid as her poor aunt and uncle. At least she could make it to the bathroom on her own.
"We want you to come back with us," her mother continued. "You can sleep on the pullout couch at their apartment."
Julia winced. Aunt Elva and Uncle Paul had a modest two-bedroom apartment, big enough for them, but a tight squeeze for five adults plus whatever nursing staff they needed.
Her dad raised his eyebrows. "Come on, Evelyn, you know we're going to be packed in like sardines, anyway. And what is Julia going to do all day with us old folks? Watch game shows and soap operas?"
No need to watch soap operas, her life had been one for quite a while.
"We can get you set up at your condo, and then you can come spend the day with us!" her mother exclaimed with a sudden bright idea.
Julia caught Dad's sympathetic gaze. He knew she would be climbing the walls within a few days. At least it was spring in Boston, although mid-April was a toss-up with the real possibility of snow. "No," she said impulsively, "I'll stay here."
"What? No, you can't," Mother protested. "By yourself?"
It sounded better the longer she thought about it. Go back to gray, cloudy Boston, bundle up in her down parka and stagger around in the slush or stay here in the sunny green Azores and eat fresh oranges from the trees? "I'm doing much better." Julia ticked off the points on her fingers. "I haven't had a bad headache in the past week, I'm not dizzy very often, and Senhor de Sousa can help with anything I may need. He would do that anyway."
"Oh " Mother fretted. "I would worry so, with you so far away."
Dad unexpectedly came to her rescue. "Evelyn, we'd be only four hours away by plane. The girl is getting stronger and we can't be hovering over her like a helicopter. She'd be more likely to have a nervous breakdown than a relapse with us."
He pointed a thick finger at her. "But we expect you to have some common sense. Carry your cell phone with you and stay away from cliffs and those rodeos they call bullfights around here."
"And call Dr. da Silva if you start feeling funny." Her mother rummaged in the papers on the table. "Here's his number. But I don't know "
"I'll be fine," she assured her mother. "I'm just not ready to go back to Boston yet."
"Understood," Dad said. "But just say the word and I'll hop a flight back to Sao Miguel to collect you."
"Thanks." She smiled at him. Master Sergeant Robert Cooper, United States Air Force (ret.), was an expert at hopping flights and collecting people.
The rest of the evening was spent helping her parents pack, mostly her mother since Dad could pack anything into a small duffel bag and proclaim himself well supplied.
When Julia brushed her teeth that night, the memory of that dark-haired man in the plaza popped to mind. Was she staying behind just in case he was Frank? And what on earth would she do if it was her former lover? Her first lover, she mentally corrected herself. The first man she'd loved.