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Melody sneezed and reached for a tissue from the magazine table of the walk-in medical clinic's crowded waiting room. Then she promptly pumped her hand sanitizer.
Lindsay Harper, the clinic's head nurse, looked over at her from where she was plugging in the artificial Christmas tree in the corner. "Not you, too, Mel," she said. The white, five-foot-tall decoration began to rotate, its multicolored LED lights twinkling in time to the sound of "Jingle Bells," which suddenly filled the air.
Melody could do without the reminder of the upcoming season. Christmas used to be her favorite time of year, but since Patrick's death, it only caused her stressemotionally and financially.
"'Tis the season," she mumbled, sitting back in the plastic waiting-room chair she was sharing with her eight-year-old son, Josh. Every year around this time, they both seemed to get sick. She could mark her calendar by it. December firstfirst day of the flu.
Josh's head fell against her shoulder, and with a scratchy voice he asked, "How much longer, Mom?" The fit of coughing that followed gained him sympathetic looks from some of the other waiting patients.
Melody wiped the boy's dark hair off his hot forehead and checked her watch. "Soon, sweetheart." She hoped. Her evening shift started in less than an hour. Thursday was one of the busiest nights at the bowling alley.
Josh's twin brother, David, who had been sleeping curled up in the chair next to them, stirred and opened his eyes slowly. "Mom, I don't feel so great."
"I know, sweetheart. We'll see the doctor soon."
Lindsay reappeared with their file and a sympathetic smile. She leaned close to Melody as she whispered, "I know you have to get to work, so I'm bumping you guys ahead."
"Thanks," Melody said, grateful for the gesture. Despite Lindsay's reputation as a party girl, she took her job seriously, and her affection for her patients, especially the young children, was obvious. Helping Josh to his feet and taking the hands of both her sons, Melody followed Lindsay down the hallway to an empty examination room. "Dr. McCarthy will be just a moment."
"Okay," Melody said, helping Josh onto the examination table, as David sat in the chair near the door. She buried a throaty cough in the crook of her arm and cringed. Each time she coughed, her chest hurt and her throat felt rawer than ever. If she was feeling this awful, she hated to think how Josh was feeling.
She yawned, shaking off a wave of exhaustion. She'd spent the night before sitting on the edge of Josh's bottom bunk, one hand propping up his pillow while he slept and the other continuously checking his forehead for a fever.
"Where are our pictures, Mom?" David asked, slumping against the back of his chair and studying the wall of photos of newborns. Dr. McCarthy was one of two pediatricians in Brookhollow and was essentially always on call. She'd delivered almost every baby born in the small New Jersey town in the past decade, including Melody's boys.
"Just look for the cutest ones," Melody whispered with a wink at the older twin, who had been born six minutes before his brother on November 2, in the middle of a hail-and-sleet storm. Patrick, a guitar player in a country band, had been performing in Beach Haven that night, two hours away, and had almost missed the delivery, rushing in just minutes before David's arrival. But he'd been there
"There we are," David said.
Melody's heart swelled as it always did at the sight of the boys' baby photos. They'd looked so much like her husband in that first year, with their light hair and bright, crystal-blue eyes. Over time, their hair had darkened to the same chestnut-brown color as hers, minus the ever increasing gray ones that seemed to have arrived in the three years since Patrick's death. Despite the passing of time and the deepening lines on her face, it still felt as if he'd died yesterday. Seemingly overnight, she'd transformed from a stay-at-home mom with virtually no professional skills, to a working woman holding down several jobs and supporting a family on her own.
Dr. McCarthy knocked once on the door before walking in. "Hello, Myers family," she greeted, setting their files on the tiny desk in the room. "Let me guesscoughing, sneezing, fever and muscle aches?"
"Been seeing that a lot today?" Melody asked.
"When one person in Brookhollow gets sick, we all get sick," Dr. McCarthy said, placing a hand on Josh's forehead. "Part of small-town charm, I guess. Has he taken anything for his fever?" she asked as she reached for a tongue depressor. "Say 'aaah' for me, okay, buddy?"
"Children's Tylenol about two hours ago," Melody said.
Dr. McCarthy nodded as she looked at Josh's throat. "Strep is my guess, but we'll send a swab to the lab just to be sure." She swabbed his throat and placed the pad in a tube, which she then sealed and labeled. She turned to David. "Him, too?" she asked, sympathetically.
"I think so
Not as bad, yet," Melody said, before another sneeze escaped her.
"You don't sound too good yourself," the doctor said. She checked David's throat.
I'm too busy to be sick." It was true. Three jobs didn't afford her the luxury of giving in to sickness, even if it meant she was spreading the contagion.
"I think it's strep over here, as well." Lifting the back of David's shirt, Dr. McCarthy listened to his breathing. "I'll give you a prescription for antibiotics for both of them." She scribbled a prescription. "And just continue the Tylenol every four to six hours for the fever
Do you want me to take a look at you, as well? I've heard you cough."
Melody shook her head as she accepted the prescription slip and helped Josh climb down from the table. "Thank you, Dr. McCarthy." Antibiotics for the boys would be expensive enough, and they needed the drug more than she did. If only her pending promotion with Play Hard Sports, the big sporting-goods store in town, could happen a little sooner. Medical coverage was a benefit enjoyed by a full-time management employee, which she hoped to become in a few days, after she'd completed the training course and written the final exam. She hoped the three months of study would pay off. With the raise in pay, she could quit her two evening jobs bartendingas long as she passed this one last exam.
She began to collect their belongings. She had half an hour to pick up their babysitter, Lauraleea high school girl who'd been babysitting the boys for yearsdrop them all off at home, put their dinner in the oven and then get to the bowling alley. She'd be lucky if she had time to change out of her Play Hard Sports uniform. She prayed the predicted snow hadn't started yet. Her old minivan still had its summer tires and it would be at least a few weeks before there was money in her tight budget to take the vehicle into Bailey's Place to have new winter tires put on. She knew the mechanic, her future sister-in-law Bailey, would do the work without charging her, but she couldn't accept charity.
When Patrick was alive, he'd taken care of such things as the upkeep of the vehicles, or repairs to their old bungalow, which they'd bought as a fixer-upper ten years ago. As much as she loved the character-rich home, in recent years the maintenance had drained her limited funds. Still, the idea of selling the home where her family had made a lot of happy memories wasn't one she liked to entertain.
"Come on, guys," she said, taking Josh's hand.
"Mel, hang on a sec." Dr. McCarthy opened a locked mini fridge in the hallway near the file cabinets. Removing a white plastic bottle, she checked the label before handing it to Melody. "Here. This is essentially the same antibiotic I gave the boysjust a stronger dose. It's FDA-approved, but it's still in the clinical-trial stage, so it isn't being offered in pharmacies yet. It'll help with your cough."
Dr. McCarthy reached for her hand and forced the medicine into it. "Take it. It's really not a big dealI've been handing it out all week. Unfortunately, the dosage is too strong for the boys," she said, stopping in front of the door of the next examining room and turning her attention to a file.
"Thank you again, Dr. McCarthy," Melody said. Exchanges like this were so awkward. She longed for the day when her financial struggles weren't obvious to everyone in Brookhollow. But today wasn't that day. She was sick and she was expected to be behind the bowling alley bar in twenty-five minutes.
"The key steps in performance-based management are
defining missions and goals," Melody muttered as she stacked clean beer mugs on the glass shelves behind the bar. The Thursday-night crowd at the bowling alley was full of the usual suspects. To her right, the over-thirty men's bowling league occupied eight of the twelve lanes, and to her left, several off-duty firemen played pool at the corner table. The front wooden doors opened and a group of twentysomethings entered. "Be with you guys in just a moment," she told them, turning to grab menus.
She noticed her brother approaching the bar. "Hey, Ethan, another round?"
"Just for those guys," he said, pulling out his wallet and nodding toward his fellow firefighters. "Bailey's off in ten minutes and I'm picking her up from the shop. I finally talked her into storing her motorcycle a few weeks ago."
Melody nodded her understanding. Ethan's fiancée, Bailey Sheppard, loved her motorcycle, and since Brookhollow had been blessed this year with a mild fall season, she had been able to ride the bike longer. "Have I mentioned how happy I am that you two finally got together?" Melody said, drawing the beer.
After years of friendship, Bailey and Ethan had finally realized what the whole town had known for yearsthey were perfect for each other. They'd gotten engaged three months before during a trip to Venice.
Ethan tossed enough cash on the bar to cover the group's tab, and added several additional bills to Melody's tip jar. "You and me both. I can't believe it took me so long to see how amazing she is." Then, noticing the textbook on the bar, he asked, "How's the studying?"
"A lot tougher than I'd expected." It was true. The three-month management-trainee program had included ten different instruction manuals, four exams and weeks of on-the-job training, in which she'd had to shadow a Play Hard trainer in his management role. "But it's worth it," she was quick to add. "I just wish I had more time to study. A lot is riding on this last exam."
"Well, you know Bailey and I would be happy to babysit the boys if you need some extra time."
"Thanks. I appreciate the offer. I wish it was just the boys keeping me busy, but honestly, I've been working such long hours lately, I barely have enough time with them as it is. I really hope I'll be able to give up these evening shifts soon."
The strong early December wind caught the front double doors as Heather, the parttime bartender, walked in, her long, dark hair blowing wildly around her pink cheeks. Tugging the doors closed behind her, she mumbled something unintelligible. "Sorry I'm late, Mel," she said, panting.
"Don't worry. It's just starting to pick up." She watched as Heather struggled to catch her breath. "Did you run here?" She shot a glance at Heather's feet. She was wearing five-inch-heeled, red leather, pointy-toed boots. Still, if anyone could run in them, the tall, slender, feisty brunette probably could. A New York City girl, she'd come to Brookhollow for the wedding of her friend Victoria Mason, the owner of the B and B in town, to Luke Dawson, and had decided to stay. She said she'd taken a liking to small-town life. Melody was grateful to have someone to train to take over the bar once she left.
Heather took off her coat and hung it on the hook behind the kitchen door. "Practically. That piece-of-crap car I bought broke down again yesterdayit's still at the shop." She wrapped the black apron around her thin waist and smiled at Ethan. "Thank God for your fiancée. She rescued me from the side of the highway again last night."
"Bailey picked you up in the tow truck?" Ethan's annoyance was pretty obvious.
Heather hesitated and Melody waved her arms, shaking her head behind Ethan's back. Heather shot her a puzzled look as Ethan swung around to face her. "I saw that. She was supposed to have Nick doing the evening highway tows."
"Oops," Heather said sheepishly. "Didn't mean to get her in trouble."
Ethan grabbed the tray of drinks from the bar. "Don't worry. I suspected she was still doing the towing herself. Bye, ladies. Mel, good luck on the exam. Tell the boys I need them next week at hockey practice, so they should take it easy this weekend and get better."
In addition to working as a firefighter, her younger brother coached the junior boys' soccer, hockey and football teams. "Thanks. I will, but you know the boysthey'd play even if their limbs were falling off." Her twins had been born with athletic genes, and they rarely missed a practice.
She hoped they'd feel better once the antibiotics kicked in. Already her own symptoms appeared to be easing, for which she was grateful. Customers rarely appreciated being served by someone at death's door
Heather saved Melody's textbook page with her finger as she closed the book to see the cover. "Essentials of Management
yuck." She wrinkled her nose. "How's that going?"
"It was going terribly. But it's much better now that I took your advice about writing my notes on index cards and leaving them all over the house. Now as I'm cooking or getting the boys ready for bed, I'm memorizing information." She covered a cough as she opened the dishwasher and loaded in the empty beer mugs. She'd never been great at academics, barely getting by in school, but this management course was important to her. The past three months, she'd pushed herself harder than she ever had before. She'd passed the three previous exams with a B average.
Heather collected more empty cups from around the bowling alley and set them on the bar before reaching for the television remote control. "Well, take a break. It's eight o'clock. Our show is on." She flipped through the stations on the flat-screen television above the bar. She passed the hockey game, ignoring the cries of protest from the men playing pool, and stopped on American Voices, the reality television competition they'd watched every Thursday night together since she'd started training at the bar.
A young woman wearing a black leather jumpsuit, was crooning a Sheryl Crow song. Heather folded her arms and leaned against the bar as she watched. "I still think you should have tried out when they were holding auditions in New Jersey, Melody. You can sing circles around these contestants."
She winced as the redhead struggled to hit a high note.
Melody took several shot glasses down from the shelf and refilled them with tequila as Mark Adams, a local firefighter and the biggest flirt in town, approached the bar. He asked for another round of shots. "Good luck, Heather. We've been trying to convince Mel to try out every season for three years."
"I'm too old, guys," Melody said, sliding the shot glasses toward him. She tossed her long, wavy chestnut hair over one shoulder as she added, "Besides, I gave up on that dream a long time ago."
At twenty-one, all she'd wanted to do was leave Brookhollow and move to Nashville to pursue a career in country music. But then she and Patrick had gotten married and the boys had arrived
and the dream had turned into more of a quiet longing.