Blue tile, white tile. Her eyes crossed staring at it. Glancing down at her toes, she examined the nail polish on them. If only she had thought to bring a bottle. She looked back up at the clock on the wall. Only two minutes had passed since she last looked at it. The second hand ticked its way around the numbers. As always, her phone was dead when she needed it the most. A few rounds of whatever free game looked the most fun would help kill the time.
Scowling, she went back to checking the tiles. Whoever did the floor had forgotten to alternate them in a few spots. She wished she could cut them out and swap them. Surely St. Mary’s would appreciate her home improvement skills.
Scooting off the chair, she got to her feet. There had to be a better way to wait. She walked to the nurse’s station, flip flops slapping against her feet, the sound echoing off the hospital walls. Aside from the occasional overhead call, the surgical waiting area sat in silence.
“Yes,” the nurse said, rolling her eyes.
Natalie couldn’t blame her. She had probably asked five times in the last half hour if there was any news. She gave the nurse a smile. “Is there somewhere I can buy a magazine here?” Despite her best efforts to read TIME and Arthritis Today, she just couldn’t get interested. She needed Cosmopolitan or People. Even Oprah would do.
“Gift shop. First floor.” The nurse looked away, severing the connection.
Getting to the gift shop would be a way to kill time all on its own. The hospital was separated by several walkways and elevators that led to different units. Walls boasted brochures on heart health and pregnancy, but what Natalie really needed was a map of the place. It wasn’t even a big hospital.
She got on the first elevator she found and rode it to the ground floor. Waiting for the doors to open, she held her breath. Stainless steel slid aside to reveal a coffee shop in the center of the lobby. The scent of French roast wafted toward her, and for a moment she thought about getting a cup. The cup holder in her father’s truck had yielded exactly three dollars in change, though, and if she was going to buy anything, it was a magazine.
Stepping off the elevator, she skirted the coffee kiosk and headed to the gift shop on the far side of the lobby. The usual heart shaped Get Well balloons revolved in the windows, moved by a draft that Natalie couldn’t feel. She passed through the entrance, her eyes drawn to a rack of magazines. As she started toward them, she passed a shelf of teddy bears. Pausing, she lifted one from its spot. Sandy brown, its big black eyes stared up at her. Its tiny mouth smiled at her. Its face was sweet, like a kitten’s. A big red heart was stitched onto its chest. It reminded her of a bear her father brought home for her once, when she was little and he still worked for the moving company. It wore the company’s tee shirt and smelled like vanilla and her father’s aftershave. Every time he went away, she hugged it while she slept, breathing in its scent.
She wondered if the bear was still in her things at her mother’s.
Putting the bear back in its place, she continued to the magazines. It only took her a few minutes to scan through the titles and prices. The only ones she was interested in were too expensive. A few comic books and crossword puzzles were in her budget. She couldn’t remember the last time she had read a comic, if ever, though, and didn’t want to have to ask the nurse in the waiting room for a pen.
Twisting her lips, she stalked out of the gift shop. She wondered if the day could get any worse. She supposed it could, if her father died or if she broke a nail. Heat flooded her cheeks. Comparing a broken nail to losing her father was probably the worst thought she had ever had. Pressing the call button for the elevator, she whispered a silent prayer to whatever god might be.
“Please don’t kill him or anything,” she said under her breath.
The elevator doors opened and she strode on, once again riding alone. She wondered what it would be like to have siblings. She might still be taking care of her father, but at least she wouldn’t be alone. Her mother sure as hell wasn’t going to help her, no thanks to her father.
As the elevator stopped on the surgical floor, she realized she could have at least bought a coffee.
“Your father’s awake,” the nurse said without looking up.
Natalie froze, one foot outside of the elevator. “What?”
Eyelashes fluttering as she rolled her eyes again, the nurse repeated herself. “Do you want to see him? He’s in recovery.” As Natalie opened her mouth to say no thanks, the nurse surged forward. “Come this way.” She stepped from behind the nurse’s station and walked down the hall, leaving Natalie no choice.
Recovery turned out to be a large room that looked like some kind of war infirmary. Several hospital beds lined the walls. The only one with a patient in it was her father’s. Another nurse stood by his side, holding a cup of water and a giant pink swab.
Her father peered at the nurse from under heavy eyelids. He opened his mouth, tongue lolling. His hand lifted and he jabbed a finger in the direction of the cup.
“No, Dylan,” the nurse at his side said. “You can only have a little.” She painted his tongue with the swab. Water trickled into his mouth and his throat worked as he swallowed it. He moaned. “That’s it,” she said.
“More,” he said, his voice surprisingly strong.
The two nurses exchanged exasperated glances. When the nurse at his side saw Natalie, she held out the cup and swab.
“Thirsty,” her father gasped.
“Dylan, we’ve been through this,” the nurse said. She beckoned for Natalie to join her. Placing the cup in Natalie’s hand, the nurse stepped to the side and darted away. Without another word, both nurses headed toward the exit.
“Wait,” Natalie said, but both nurses kept walking.
“Be right back,” one called.
“Don’t let him drink it. Use the swab,” the other directed.
Then they disappeared around the corner, leaving Natalie alone with her father.
“Dammit,” she said.
“Is that you, Nat?” her father asked, his eyes wide open.
“Don’t be so dramatic,” she told him.
“Gimme that cup,” he said, his voice hoarse. His eyes pleaded with her. One of his hands reached out toward her, his arm shaking a bit.
She gently pushed his arm back down. “Okay, Daddy,” she said. “You’ve got to rest.” Dipping the swab in the cup, she swirled it around. Then, giving him a timid smile, she held the swab out to him.
He moved fast for a man who had just had surgery. His hand slapped hers, sending the swab spinning through the air. It landed on the floor with a plop, droplets of water painting the tiles.
Natalie’s jaw dropped open. A red mark bloomed on her hand. Her skin stung. Her fingers twitched. Shaking, she drew her eyes away from the swab on the floor and met her father’s eyes.
“Gimme that cup,” he rasped.
“You hit me!” she screeched. Her voice echoed off the walls. She glanced toward the door, but neither of the nurses appeared.
Her father shrugged. Struggling on his elbows, he raised himself into a sitting position. “Cup,” he gasped, stretching his fingers out toward it.
She backed away, her eyes never leaving his face, moving toward one of the empty beds across the room. She set the cup down on a tray next to the bed. Then, still staring at her father, she said, “Get it yourself.”
“Why did you go and do that?” her father yelled.
“Because you hit me!” she fired back, holding up her hand. The red splotch had receded a bit, but she could still see the mark where his hand had connected with hers. She couldn’t think of a single time her father had ever hit her. Even when she was a mouthy tween, he had left the discipline to her mother, who firmly believed in the timeout chair. She went almost her entire childhood without being hit, until her mother married Edward. Shaking her head, she cleared the memories away, narrowing her eyes at her father. “Are you going to apologize?”
“Apologize for what?” he asked, gasping. He shifted in the bed, leaning up against the pillows. “All I did was ask you for the water.”
“And you slapped me,” she said, still holding up her hand for him to see. Tears stung her eyes.
He shrugged. “It was an accident,” he said, lowering his voice. He offered her a smile. “Now, come on. Bring that cup of water back here.”
Resisting the urge to stick her tongue out at him, Natalie shook her head. “They said you can only have a little at a time.”
“So give me a little,” he said, his voice rising again. He sounded desperate, like a man trapped in the desert instead of a hospital bed. “I’m so thirsty,” he said. “Come on, Lee.”
She froze at the old nickname. A smile tugged at her lips. Memories of fishing and camping rushed her. She thought of the teddy bear again. Her knees buckled. Then her hand throbbed, breaking the spell. She looked at it. A welt began to rise where the red mark had been. “I’m not giving you any water,” she said. “I don’t even want to be—”
“Everything okay in here?” One of the nurses stood in the doorway, a hesitant smile plastered on her face. Maybe, her expression said, I shouldn’t have left them alone.
Dylan scowled. “Everything’s great. I’m only dying of thirst here.”
“You’re not dying,” Natalie said.
“Then why did I have a heart attack?” Red splotches blotted his face. His eyes glared through her, and his chest heaved.
“Okay,” the nurse said, crossing the room. She pressed her hands to Dylan’s chest. “Let’s lay back down.”
“When can I take him home?” Natalie asked, stooping to pick up the soggy swab.
“Well,” the nurse said, pushing a button on the side of the hospital bed, “we’d like to keep him another night to monitor him. Then, if everything’s okay, he can go home.” She smiled as the bed lowered, forcing Dylan to lay flat on his back. The bed hummed, and Natalie’s father’s scowl deepened.
Natalie put her hands on her hips. “They told me I had to be here to take him home when he got out of recovery,” she said. Her nerves rattled and she felt heat rush through her. Without looking down at her arms, she knew her skin was breaking out in a rash. “Do any of you people know what you’re doing?”
The nurse raised an eyebrow at her. “Recovery time can’t be rushed,” she said, smoothing Dylan’s sheets. She patted his hand. “You’ll be out of here as soon as possible.”
Gritting her teeth, Natalie threw up her hands, a wordless scream of aggravation erupting from her throat. Without another word, she stomped out of the room, tears blurring her vision. Fatigue tugged at her, amplifying her frustration. She stormed all the way back to the parking garage, her father’s keys clenched in her hand. The rash on her arms itched the way a heat rash did, and she balled her other hand into a fist to keep from scratching it.
She wished she had stayed in New York. She probably could have just crashed with Benjamin for a few days until she found a new place to live. Or, she surmised as she unlocked her father’s truck, she could have fought the eviction. She wasn’t that far behind on rent. Maybe she could have saved up and paid her landlord weekly.
Tears trickled down her cheeks. She hadn’t even tried to salvage her life, which meant that it hadn’t meant that much to her in the first place. Maybe a part of her had wanted to come home. She wondered if she could blame it on temporary insanity. She sure as hell didn’t want to be around her father anymore.
Sliding into the driver’s seat, she turned on the truck. She flipped open the center console and rummaged through a pile of crumpled receipts for a fast food napkin. A splotch of grease marked one corner, but the rest of it was clean. She dabbed at her face, careful not to smear her makeup. It was a good thing she had gone for the waterproof mascara that morning, she mused as she dried her eyes.
Nodding at her reflection in the rearview mirror, she put the pickup into reverse and backed out of the space.
The drive back to her father’s house only took a few minutes. Grateful, she parked in the driveway next to a shiny Lincoln. Mrs. Spinelli must be home, Natalie mused. On shaking limbs, she climbed the stairs back to her father’s apartment. Her luggage still sat on the deck, untouched. Snorting, she pulled it over to the front door with her. Then, retrieving her father’s keys from her pocket, she pushed the house key into the lock. It only went in halfway.
Stunned, she pushed harder, jiggling it. It didn’t fit. She withdrew it and examined the lock. Nothing blocked it, that she could see, anyway. She squinted at the key. No grease or other debris clung to it. She tried it again. The key still did not fit.
Swearing, she kicked at the door. Somehow, her father had given the nurses the wrong key. Maybe, in his fear and pain, he had strung the wrong keys together. She saw him, stooped over his kitchen table, one hand clasping his chest, the other fumbling through his box of key rings. The man had more sets of keys than she would ever know about. He had keys to the apartment, keys for the truck, spares for cars he no longer owned, and even a copy of the key to the house they had lived in before the divorce.
Sighing, Natalie shoved the ring of keys back into her pocket. Digging in her bag, she pulled out her cell phone. All she had to do was call the cardiology unit and see if they could put her through to her father. Someone had to have a spare key. It would take some time, but Dylan could make a few phone calls, and Natalie would be on his couch by bedtime.
Nodding to herself, she pressed the home button to wake up her phone. A black screen greeted her instead of her lock screen. She tipped her head back, stomping her feet. She had never charged her phone.
Swearing, she tossed it back into her purse. The rash on her arms tingled and itched, and she sucked in a deep breath. She needed to calm down. Her eczema cream sat on a shelf in the medicine cabinet of her New York apartment, and she had no idea when she would next be able to get a refill.
Blowing out a puff of air, she grabbed the handle of her suitcase. A moment later, she started down the stairs, dragging her luggage behind her.
At the bottom, she checked the heels of her feet. Fresh scrapes joined the blisters from her first trip to Dylan’s apartment. The wounds oozed bright red blood, and she grimaced. She hadn’t been home for twenty-four hours, yet she was already completely broken.
Tossing the suitcase back into the pickup, she steeled herself for yet another trip back to the hospital. She wondered how many times she had driven back and forth, then decided not to try to count. It would probably only make her feel worse.
By the time she parked the truck in the parking garage, the sun was dipping below the skyline. Stomach rumbling, Natalie slid out of the driver’s side. With every step, the blisters on her feet stung even more. She tucked her hands into her pockets to avoid scratching or picking at anything, and walked back into the hospital.
The scent of antiseptic greeted her once again. Another stronger scent burned at her nostrils, and she forced herself to breathe through her mouth. A bitter taste danced on her tongue. Scowling, she walked by a maintenance man spraying the same spot with a bottle of Windex, over and over. The blue fluid bounced off the glass and into the air. He glanced at her, a vacant expression in his eyes, as if he had just shot himself up with heroin.
Shivering, Natalie hurried away.
The surgical unit was even more quiet than when she left it. Saying a silent prayer to whatever might be listening, she stepped off the elevator and walked back into the recovery area. All of the beds were empty. She bit down on her lower lip.
“Do you need help?” a nurse asked from behind her.
Relief washed over Natalie. “I’m looking for my father,” she said, giving the nurse his name.
“Right this way,” the nurse said, leading her back into the hall. She pointed to a room down at the end.
Natalie thanked her and made her way to the room, hoping her father was awake. If they had moved him into a room, they had probably already given him whatever medications he needed for the night.
When she peeked inside, though, Dylan sat staring at the television. He had the room to himself for the moment. Apparently it was a slow night for heart surgeries.
“Kiddo,” he said, nodding in her direction.
Rolling her eyes at the lame nickname, she stepped into the room. She pulled the ring of keys from her pocket and jingled them at him. “Why did you give the nurses the wrong key?”
He cocked his head at her, eyelids drooping. So they had given him medication. Blinking a few times, he shook his head. “I didn’t give you the wrong key,” he insisted.
“Um, yeah, you did,” she said, tossing them at him. They landed at his feet, bouncing on the mattress.
Leaning forward, he picked them up. He moved like an elderly man, his body stiff and slow. Holding the keys in his hand, he shook his head again. “Nope. These are the right ones,” he said.
Natalie threw her hands up in the air. “Dammit, Daddy. Why do you have to make everything so hard?”
“I’m not making anything hard,” he said, forcing each word out. He slumped back against his pillows. His eyes slipped closed.
“Oh no,” she said, stalking toward him. “You are not falling asleep yet.” She shook his shoulder. “Where is the house key? Who has a spare?” Tears threatened to spill down her cheeks again. She blinked them away.
“You don’t need the house key,” he said, a soft smile spreading across his lips. His eyes drifted closed.
“Why not?” she demanded, shaking him again.
Dylan opened his eyes a crack. “Because,” he said, “we’re not going home. We’re going somewhere else.”
Natalie might not survive a summer back home with her father.
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