HERE AND NOW

 

Summary:  When Dix faces a crisis, is Kel too emotionally close to her to help?

 

Disclaimer:  The story and characters of Emergency! belong to whoever now owns them – and that’s not me.  This work of fan fiction is for personal amusement only and is not intended to infringe on any of those rights.  The writer seeks no profit or credit from this story.

 

Rating:  PG for a handful of mild swear words.

 

Author:  Greer L   greer85@yahoo.com

 

Author’s Note:  This story is based on medical convention as it existed in the mid-1970s.  I realize that, due to improved technology, some of the medical issues portrayed in the story would be handled much differently today. 

 

****

 

Prologue

 

            She awoke in darkness and immediately turned over to look at the clock on her bedside table.  It read 4:13 a.m., more than an hour before her alarm was set to go off.  She considered going back to sleep, just closing her eyes and welcoming the additional moments of solitude. 

 

            There was a reason she'd awakened extra early this morning, the same reason she’d barely slept during the night.  It was her day of reckoning.  She'd given herself two weeks, two weeks to the day.  It was enough.  Actually, it was much more than she should have allowed, but she was hopeful.  If it didn't happen in two weeks, it wouldn't happen.

 

            Checking now, a few hours shy of two weeks, would be cheating.  A part of her wondered if "cheating" on those hours would jinx the results.  Her logical half reminded her that was nonsense, that another hour or even week wouldn't change a thing.  The thought didn't comfort her at all.

 

            She reached her arm toward the empty side of the bed and not for the first time wished someone were there.  Someone who could celebrate with her if things went well and could hold her tight if they didn't.  More than anything, she hated facing this alone. 

 

            She glanced again at the clock.  4:16. She made her decision.  The moment of truth had arrived.

 

****

 

Chapter 1

            "Look out!" John Gage cried out as he skidded down the hill.  He felt his backside scrape the wet grass before he regained his footing.

            "You all right?"  John heard his partner Roy DeSoto's voice from above and behind him.

            "Fine.  Just be careful, it's like ice."
 

            They were responding to a call on an injured child.  A neighbor had met them at the street and pointed them toward the backyard where the boy had apparently fallen off a trampoline.  Although the front yard was level, the ground behind the home dropped off sharply and two days of rain had turned the area into a slippery mess of grass and mud.

            Johnny scampered down the rest of the hill with the drug box banging against his leg.  He saw a boy lying on the ground and a woman he assumed to be the boy's mother kneeling beside him.  He glanced around and saw that Roy was halfway down the hill, followed closely by Chet and Mike.  As Johnny approached, he could see that the boy appeared to be unconscious.

            By the time he reached the boy, the woman had risen to greet him.  She was wringing her hands and worry was clearly etched on her face.  "Thank goodness you're here.  Please help him."

            "Yes, ma'am, that's what we're going to do."  John continued moving toward the boy, whom he estimated to be nine or ten years old.  "Are you his mother?"

            "Yes, yes I am."

            Johnny knelt next to the boy and felt wet mud seep through his uniform onto his knees and legs.  He called out to Chet to have someone bring a plastic sheet so they could get the boy off the wet ground.  "What's his name?" he asked the mother.

            "Edward, but we call him Eddie.  Eddie Marks."

            "Eddie? Eddie?  Can you hear me?"  Johnny had begun assessing the boy for injuries when he felt Roy's presence beside him. 

 

            "Ma'am, did you see what happened?" Roy asked.

            "Roy, he's got a laceration on his right shin."  Johnny looked up from his assessment. "It's bleeding pretty bad.  How about giving me a couple of four-by-fours?  And I’ll need a cervical collar."

            The boy's mother continued to stand over them.  "I told him not to play out here today, that it was too slippery.  And then when he didn’t come inside for lunch, I came out and found him like, like this."

            "Roy, I think he's coming around."

            The boy started to stir and moan slightly.  "What--?"  He tried to twist his way into a sitting position.  "Hey, what are you guys doing here?"

            Roy spoke first.  "It's all right, Eddie, just relax.  We're firefighters."  He gently pressed the boy back into a reclining position.

            "I'm all right.  Let me go."

            "Eddie."  Johnny kept his voice firm.  "We're just going to check you out here.”  He shined a penlight into the boy’s eyes.  “Does your head hurt?” 

 

            “A little.”  Eddie started to pull at the collar.

 

            “Eddie, you need to leave that alone.  We have to make sure you didn’t hurt your neck.”   Johnny returned to his assessment of the boy’s leg.  “That's a pretty nasty cut there on your leg.  Do you remember how you got it?"

            "I slipped off the trampoline.  It's no big deal."

            Chet had returned with the plastic sheet and the three firefighters carefully maneuvered the boy onto it.  When they were finished, Johnny looked up.  "Hey Chet, can you give us a hand here."  He pointed to the bandage on the boy’s leg.  Keep pressure on this, will you?"

            Roy picked up the biophone.  "Rampart, this is Squad 51, how do you read?"

            "Go ahead, Fifty-one," Dr. Joe Early's voice responded.

            "Rampart, we have a male patient, approximately ten years old."  Roy looked at the mother for confirmation and saw her nod.  "He apparently slipped and fell off a trampoline in his backyard.  When we arrived, patient was unconscious.  He subsequently regained consciousness and is now alert and oriented.  His pupils are equal and reactive.  He has a severe laceration on his right shin."  Roy saw that Johnny was pumping up the blood pressure cuff.  "Stand by for vital signs."

            Johnny looked up.  "Pulse is 88, respirations 20, and BP is 110 over 70."

            Roy repeated the numbers to Early and indicated that they had already taken spinal precautions.  At the same time Roy was speaking, Chet turned to John.  "Do you have more of these?" he asked, indicating the bandages.  "These are starting to soak through."

            Johnny gave him a look of surprise and leaned over to examine the wound for himself.

            "Not again." It was the boy's mother who spoke.

            Roy spoke into the phone. "Stand by, Rampart."  He dropped the phone into its cradle and looked up at the mother.  "Ma'am, is there something we should know?"

            "Tommy's a hemophiliac."

            "Mom! You promised you wouldn't—"

            Roy grabbed for the phone. "Rampart, we've just been advised by the boy's mother than he is a hemophiliac."

            "Ten-four, Fifty-one.  Check for bruising that would indicate internal injury.  And find out what type of hemophilia."

            "Ten-four Rampart," Roy replied and turned to ask Eddie’s mother about the hemophilia. 

 

            Meanwhile, Johnny focused his attention Eddie and pushed up the boy's shirt.  "Eddie, this is very important, did you hurt yourself anywhere other than your leg?"

            "I dunno."

            Johnny shook his head.  "Nothing obvious, but—"

            "Rampart," Roy reported into the biophone, "we see no evidence of additional injury at this time.  Also, the mother indicates Factor VIII deficiency."

            "Start an IV with ringers’ lactate wide open.  Put a pressure bandage on the wound, monitor his vitals, and transport as soon as possible."

            "Ten-four." Roy replaced the biophone and looked up at Captain Stanley, who had just arrived.  "Cap, is the ambulance here yet?"

            "They're waiting up top."

            "We’ll need a backboard to carry him up."

            "Right,” Stanley said.  “Mike, Marco, go get it."

            "I don't want to be carried," Tommy protested.  "I can walk."

            "Oh no!" his mother exclaimed.  "You're taking him to the hospital.  Is it that serious?"

            Johnny tried to calm the boy and Roy turned toward the mother.  "Ma'am, it's just a precaution.  That cut will probably need sutures."

            Johnny and Roy began packing up their equipment as they waited for Mike and Marco to return.  A few moments later, they saw the men appear at the top of the hill carrying the backboard between them.

            A shout came from above them.  "Oh man!"

            Johnny looked up in time to see Mike tumble down the incline, the board sliding down the hill after him, followed by Marco moving more carefully.  Mike came to rest at the bottom of the hill.  He started to stand up then immediately sat back down.

            "You all right?" Johnny called.

            "Okay.  Just twisted my ankle."

            Roy stood up.  "I'll go check him out."

            Marco and the Captain ran up with the backboard and helped Johnny strap the boy into it. 

            "Let's be careful going up," Captain Stanley said.  He pointed to their left.  "I think if you go around this way, it's not as steep."  As the group started the climb, he stopped by Roy and the injured Mike.  "How is he?"

            "He'll be all right, Cap.  Maybe a slight sprain."

            "Does he need to go to Rampart?"

            "No," Mike answered emphatically but Stanley waited for an answer from his paramedic.

            "Well, Cap, I really don't think it's broken, but he probably should get it x-rayed just to be sure.

            "Okay then," Cap said taking one of Mike's arms.  "Here, let us give you a hand." Roy put the other arm over Mike’s shoulder and helped him stand.

            Although the hill was steep, it was also relatively short.  Even so, by the time they reached the top, Stanley seemed out of breath.  They set Mike down on the bumper of the squad.  "You all right, Cap?" Roy asked.

            "Me?   Fine."  Captain Stanley took a few shallow breaths and looked at his injured fireman.  "Mike, we gotta put you on a diet, pal."

******

 

Chapter 2

            Nurse Dixie McCall looked up at the clock that loomed over her desk at the base station – the hub of Rampart's emergency department – and sighed.  Only ten minutes had passed since she'd last checked and less than two hours had gone by since she started her shift.  That meant she had at least another six hours left – if she was lucky.  Experience had taught her that most eight-hour shifts ended up being much longer.

            Normally, the day was over almost before it had begun; even on slow days the emergency department bristled with activity.  It was one of the things Dixie loved most about working here – her days were never dull.  That, and the people.  When Dr. Kelly Brackett agreed to head up the department, he'd insisted on total control and had personally selected everyone working here.  He'd managed to recruit the best – the best doctors, residents, nurses, even orderlies.  Kel himself could be demanding bordering on tyrannical.  But he was also brilliant and demanded no less of himself than of those who worked for him.  There was a reason that, if you were dying, this was the place you wanted to be. 

 

            Today, however, was tortuous and the torture had little to do with work.  Today, Dixie couldn't even focus on work.  Ever since she’d awakened early this morning, her mind had been on something else.  It kept nagging at her, kept reminding her that everything wasn't right.  She would brush it aside yet it always came back. 

 

            She needed to tell someone, should have told someone days ago.  But from the moment she'd stepped inside the door, the situation bordered on chaotic.  As Kel liked to say, "business was booming."  The moment hadn't been right – as if there would ever be a right moment.  The whole thing had her on edge.

            The door to the biostation room opened and Joe Early walked over to where she was sitting at the nurse's station.  "Hey Dix, you seen Kel?"

            "What do I look like, his mother?"  Almost before the words were out of her mouth, Dix wished she could take them back.  Although Kel – and occasionally Dr. Mike Morton – could get on her nerves, Joe was by far the most easygoing physician in the department.  There was no excuse for snapping at him. 

            To Joe’s credit, his expression never changed.  "Of course not," he said evenly.  "It's just that I've got a hemophiliac coming in.  He may have internal bleeding."

            Dixie sighed.  "Sorry Joe, it's been a long day."

            He glanced at the clock.  "It's just started."

            "Yeah.  I'll see if I can find Kel for you."

            Joe nodded.  "I'll be in Two."

            It was nearly twenty minutes later when Squad 51's victim arrived.  Dix heard John Gage giving a verbal update to Joe as the stretcher was rolled toward the treatment room.  “Doc, this is Eddie.  He's still bleeding from the leg and I think a hematoma may be starting to form on his abdomen.  BP dropped a bit, last check was 100 over 60."

            As Dix entered the room, she passed Johnny on his way out.  Joe had already begun his examination and was calling out orders.  "We've got to get the bleeding stopped.  Let's infuse 1500 ml cyroprecipitate."  He checked the boy's pupils.  "Start a second IV with normal saline.  Draw blood for CBC with differential and PTT and get him typed and cross-matched for six units.  And get x-ray down here.  I want a full skull series, chest x-ray, and a flat plate of the abdomen." 

 

            Dix picked up the necessary supplies from the cabinet and crossed to the examination table.  She smiled down at the boy.  “Hi, Eddie.” 

 

            At first he returned her smile but started to squirm when he saw the equipment she was holding.  "No more needles."

            "Eddie, I know you've gone through this before and that it's no fun.  But you also know that it's necessary."

            The side door opened and Kel walked into the room.  "What have you got, Joe?"

            "A bleeder, Kel."  Joe kept his voice soft.  "Fell off a trampoline and cut his leg. We're just starting to get the bleeding under control.  He probably has a concussion but right now I'm more worried about internal injuries.

            Kel stepped to the bed and pushed up the boy's shirt.  Dixie watched as both doctors immediately pointed a small bruise that had begun to form on the boy's upper abdomen.  Kel gently palpated the area then looked up at Joe.  "Abdomen's getting rigid."  He turned toward her.  "Dix, better notify OR.  We'll wait for the blood work to come back, but I'm pretty sure he's bleeding into his belly."  He looked around just as the x-ray technicians entered the room with their equipment.  "His parents here?"

            She nodded.  "John said his mother followed the squad in.  Should be in the waiting area."  She turned to him as they walked out of the room.  "Will you be doing the surgery?"

            “No, we're too busy down here, especially with Mike out today.  See if Tomlinson is available."

            When Dixie arrived back at the base station, she found Roy and John waiting for her to sign the supply inventory sheet.  "Just a minute, guys."  She picked up the phone and quickly dialed the number for OR scheduling.  "This is Nurse McCall in emergency. We're sending up a patient who needs an immediate laparotomy."

            The response was not what she expected and she forced herself not to shout into the phone.  “I don’t care if you’re busy.  We’re busy down here too.”  Again the response was unsatisfactory.  “Look, you’re the surgical department; it’s your job to find a surgeon.”

            When the conversation was finished, she slammed down the phone in exasperation and turned toward the paramedics.  “So, what’s your problem?”  She tried to keep her tone light but felt the frustration creep into her voice.

            Roy raised his hands.  “No problem.  How’s the boy doing?”

 

            "Sorry, Roy."  For the second time that day, she found herself apologizing for her harsh words.  She shrugged.  “Don’t know yet.  Looks like he has internal injuries.  They should be taking him to surgery in a few minutes.”  She took the supply form from him, verified the contents, and signed.  Usually, the paramedics stayed to chat but today they left quickly and she had little doubt her demeanor was responsible.

            "Were you able to get an OR?" 

 

            Her head snapped up at the sound of Kel’s voice.  "Of course I did.  You told me to, didn't you?"

 

            Kel jerked back as if he'd been slapped.  "Dix."  His voice was surprisingly solicitous.  "Something wrong?"

 

            There was a lot wrong.  She needed to discuss it with someone and it might as well be Kel.  But this definitely wasn't the time or the place.  "Let's just say I'm having a bad day."

 

            He gave her a grimace of understanding.  "Would a cup of coffee help?"  When she hesitated, he added, "I might even throw in a free danish."

 

            "That's a tough invitation to turn down," she said, twisting off the stool. 

 

            They'd taken only a few steps down the hallway when the buzzer sounded, signaling an incoming call from one of the paramedic units.

 

            Kel turned with a sigh.  "Duty calls."

 

            She followed him back to the base station.  "Doesn't it always."

 

*****

            "Sounds like it was a long shift."  Nurse Ellen George, Dixie's relief,  gave her a sympathetic look.

            Dixie removed her nurse's cap and stowed it in her bag.  "It was and now I'm more than ready to go home, put on some soft music, and put my feet up—"

            "Don't rub it in," Ellen interrupted.  "I'm just starting my shift and if you thought the day was bad you know how weird it gets around here at night."

            Kel approached the base station shaking his head. “That was a crazy one to end the day.”  Dix and Ellen gave him quizzical looks.  “Don’t even ask,” he responded to their wordless question.  He pulled off his white lab coat and folded it over his arm.  “So, Dix, ready to get out of here?”

            “Am I ever.”  She picked up her bag and gave Ellen a slight wave.  “Try to have a quiet night.”

            Ellen gave her a look of mock horror.  “Don’t say that, you'll jinx me.”

            Kel waited until they were halfway down the hall before speaking again.  “Feeling any better?”

 

            “I guess so, although I don’t think I’ll relax until I’m in the car driving away.”

 

            “I know what you mean.”  He stopped as they passed by the door to his office.  “Let me drop this off,” he said, indicating his lab coat.  He was back a moment later.  “How about I take you to dinner?  I thought we might try Raphael’s.  A nice veal scaloppini, a glass of Chianti and maybe some tiramisu to top it off?”  His voice was subtly seductive.

            “Well, Doctor Brackett, that sounds awfully good to a nurse who’s been on her feet for ten hours with only a vending machine lunch.  However, there is one condition.”

            He looked at her in surprise.  “And what’s that?”

            She looked down at her uniform.  “That you let me stop by my apartment to change out of these clothes.”

            “It’s a deal.”  He took her arm and steered her out of the hospital.

****

Chapter 3

            "All right, Dixie, out with it."  Kel leaned back on her couch and crossed one leg over the other.  He’d rolled up his shirtsleeves and his coat and tie dangled from a nearby chair.  "What's really going on with you?"

            "What do you mean?" Dixie set a glass of scotch on the table in front of him and dropped into a chair.

            Kel looked at the glass but didn’t reach for it.  "I take you to the best Italian restaurant in town and you barely touch your food."

            "Guess I wasn't as hungry as I thought."  She tried to look innocent but didn’t think for a moment that she’d fool him.  She’d wanted so much to enjoy herself tonight, to forget her worries for just a few hours.  But the fear that had nagged her all day threatened to choke her during the meal and she'd managed little more than a few bites of dinner and a sip of wine.  By the time the waiter had brought the dessert menus, even Kel knew the evening wasn't going well.  She'd tried to make up for it by inviting him into her apartment for a quick drink.

 

            "It's not just tonight, Dix."  Kel’s voice was intense.  "You've been out of sorts for at least a week."  He gave her a half smile.  "I expect you to snap at me on occasion.  But not at the paramedics.  And certainly not at Joe."

            Uh-oh, Dixie thought to herself.  He found out about that.  "He told you that?"

            "He didn't have to.  I do know a bit about what goes on in my emergency department."  There was just the slightest edge in his tone.

            "Kel, it’s been a long week and I'm tired.  I do have a right to get tired, don't I?"

            "Dix, I've seen you more than tired.  I've seen you do triple shifts and not lose your cool.  I also know when something is bothering you, and something is definitely bothering you.”  His eyes bored into hers.  “When it starts to affect your work, I'd like to know what it is." 

            She could meet his gaze only for a moment and with a sigh leaned back and faced the ceiling.  She should tell him the truth, but this wasn’t a good time.  Of course, that’s what she’d been telling herself all day and every day for the last two weeks.  The right time had long passed and she knew it.  Tomorrow, tomorrow she’d find Joe or someone at the hospital and get this taken care of.

 

            “Dix?” The word hovered in the silence between them.

 

            No, he deserved to know, she owed him that much.  She took a deep breath then lowered her eyes to meet his.  "You're right, Kel, I have been worried about something.  Very worried.”

 

            His eyes narrowed but he said nothing, allowing her to continue.

 

            “I found a lump in my breast."  There, she’d said it.  She exhaled.  Just saying the words brought the tiniest measure of relief.

            "A lump in your breast?"  Instantly, the physician in Kel took over as she knew it would.  He sat up straight and swung around to face her.  "When?  When did you find it?"

            Dix closed her eyes knowing that her answer would displease him.  "Two weeks ago," she whispered. 

 

            "Two weeks!”

 

            “I wasn't sure and then I thought…."

            "You thought it would just go away."  His voice dripped with sarcasm.

 

            “I thought maybe I’d made a mistake, that it was--  Oh, I don’t know what I thought.”

 

            "Dix, you know better than that." 

 

            "Kel, please—"

 

            He seemed to sense her anxiety and took a breath before continuing.  “I take it you’ve yet to see a doctor."  It was a statement rather than a question.

            She shook her head and tensed in anticipation of his anger.  Instead, he rubbed his lips together and seemed to stare right through her.  Finally, he uncrossed his legs and stood up.  "All right," he said, tilting his head toward her bedroom.  "Let's have a look."

            She immediately understood what he wanted.  "Here?"  Her eyes widened.  "Now?"

            "Right here, right now.  This should have been done two weeks ago."

            She recognized the tone as one he used with difficult patients.  And she knew that when Kelly Brackett made up his mind, argument was wasted.  Besides, he was right.  As a nurse, she knew what she had done was foolhardy but as a patient – well, she wasn’t used to being a patient.

 

            He followed her into the bedroom then crossed into the adjoining bathroom.  She heard him wash his hands while she sat down on the bed, slipped out of her blouse and bra, and covered herself with the edge of the bedsheet. 

 

            She tried to decide how she felt about his examining her.  It wasn't exactly the response she'd expected, but in a way she was relieved.  Maybe the lump was normal breast tissue, maybe she'd been worried about nothing.  Or maybe she'd been waiting for Kel to tell her the truth because she couldn't bear to hear it from anyone else.

 

            He stepped back into the bedroom and sat down on the bed beside her.  "Was the mass you found in your right or left breast?" 

 

            She noticed he didn't say tumor or even lump.  "The left.  Right about here."  She pointed to the area where she'd discovered the lump.

            The corner of his mouth lifted slightly.  "Let's start with the right side then."  His tone was purely professional, as if she were any other patient and they were in a hospital examining room.   

            Dixie nodded and lay back on the bed, curling her right arm over her head.  Kel produced a folded towel and eased it under her shoulder.  She’d always hated these exams, was always afraid that the doctor would find something.  This time she was certain that he would.  The fact that the doctor was Kel and that he was examining her in her own bedroom didn’t make it any easier. She almost smiled when he carefully folded the sheet over the left side of her chest.  He'd seen her undressed before, but this was different.  For the moment, at least, she was his patient.  

            "That side's okay," he said when he'd finished.  He gave her a reassuring smile as he rearranged the sheet.  She tried to return a look of bravery that she didn't feel.   

 

            She recognized the moment he felt the lump.  His brow furrowed and the touch of his hands became more precise and intense – a surgeon's hands probing, diagnosing.  "Well, there's definitely something there," he said.  She could feel him rolling it – whatever it was – between his fingers.  He then had her sit up and repeated the examination, this time also palpating the glands under her arms.  She was vaguely aware of his explaining what he was doing but she couldn't seem to focus on his words.  She was suddenly chilled.

            When he was finished, he handed back her blouse, stood up from the bed and turned his back to give her a measure of privacy.  When she indicated she was dressed, he turned back around.  "We'll get some pictures first thing in the morning, but you're right that there's a mass.  About the size of a small marble.  The good news is that we've found it."

 

            Nothing about this seemed like good news.  She finished buttoning her blouse. "What do you think?  Could it be a cyst?"

            She half expected him to cross his arms as he so often did when broaching a difficult subject with a patient.  Instead, however, he reached for her hand and almost imperceptibly shook his head.  "Dix, I can't be certain with just this cursory examination, you know that.  We won't know for certain until the biopsy."

            "But," she prodded him.  He was holding something back.

            He sighed.  "No, I don't think it's a cyst."

            A straightforward answer – she hadn't expected anything else.  Tears welled in her eyes.  She tried to speak but couldn't get words out of her mouth.  

            She felt his free hand wrap around her shoulder.  "Dix, I know you're frightened.  But listen to me."  When she didn't respond, he grasped both shoulders in his hands and forced her to face him.  "Listen to me.  First of all, I could be wrong, it could still be a cyst.  And even if it's not, you know that eighty percent of breast tumors are benign."

            Her voice was barely a whisper.  "And twenty percent aren't."

            He pulled her close to his chest.  In his eyes, she saw something she'd rarely seen from Kelly Brackett – fear.

****


Chapter 4

            “Guess what today is?”  Hank called out as he entered the day room.

            His men looked up warily.  They had learned that whenever their captain was this cheery, it usually meant a long day of drills.

            “Saturday?” Chet volunteered, peering over the top of the newspaper he’d been reading.

            “That’s right,” Hank said, clasping his hands together.  “And not just any Saturday but the second Saturday of the month.”

            “Uh-oh,” Marco groaned from his seat beside Chet.

            Chet sighed.  “Man, why does it seem like it’s always the second Saturday?”

            Mike stood at the counter, adding sugar and cream to his coffee.  “At least it’s warm out.”

            “Morning, guys,” Johnny called out, buttoning his shirt as he entered the room. “Hey, what’s wrong?” he asked, looking around.  “You all look like someone died.”

            “We’re the ones who’re gonna die,” Chet answered.

            “Come on now, it’s not that bad,” Hank said, helping himself to a mug of steaming coffee.  “I was just reminding the guys that it was the second Saturday of the month.  Time to wax the engine.”  He looked directly at John.  “And the squad.”

            Roy walked over to Johnny.  “I told you we should have gone to Rampart for supplies this morning,” he said under his breath.

            “What’s that, Roy?” Hank asked innocently, even though he’d heard every word.

            “Uh, nothing Cap.  I was just telling Johnny here that the squad was looking a little dusty.”

            “Good, glad to hear your enthusiasm.”  Hank gave them time to finish eating breakfast, then ushered them into the area behind the station.  “Got the school tours this week.  Want to have everything sparkling and in tip-top shape.” 

 

            No one seemed to match his eagerness for the task at hand, Hank thought as he watched Mike back out the engine and Roy pull the squad next to it.  As Marco washed down both vehicles with the hose, Hank passed out buckets, soap, and rags.  “Have to wash ‘em before we can wax ‘em,” he said gleefully.  An hour into the activity, Hank’s men were wetter and soapier than the vehicles they were trying to clean.  Hank could only imagine how they'd look if they had to respond to a call.  Luckily, this Saturday was the first time in weeks that they hadn't had a morning run.

            Hank had decided a few years ago that one of the perks of being a station captain was not having to participate in washing and waxing the vehicles.  However, he also remembered the countless days when he’d performed this task and how he’d hated it when his captain stayed inside while the firefighters sweated out their tasks.  Thus, Hank was careful to stay outside and assist his men by turning on and off hoses and providing clean rags. 

 

            Hank walked up to the squad and pretended to inspect it critically.  “Looking good, John.  Looks like you're almost done."

           

            Johnny wiped a hand across his forehead.  "Uh, thanks, Cap." 

 

            Hank started to say more but suddenly found himself unusually hot.  He glanced at his men, arrayed across the vehicles, vigorously polishing and buffing.  None of them had broken a sweat.  He felt his heart racing and, for a minute, feared he would faint.  He wanted to lean against something, sit down.  Actually, he wanted to get back into his air conditioned office as quickly as possible. 

 

            By force of will he remained standing and slowly walked the twenty feet toward the brick wall of the station.  He wouldn’t show weakness in front of his men.  He reached the side of the building, located a section that was in the shade, and carefully rested his back against it.  He tried taking a few deep breaths as he watched his men work.

 

            Hank noticed that Chet had dropped his rag and scooted over to the squad.  Chet pointed to the right door panel.  “Missed a spot.”

            Johnny gave Chet a nasty stare and pushed his hand away.  “Don’t touch that.”  He rebuffed the spot with his rag. 

 

            Chet marked another spot with his thumb.  “My aren't we touchy.  What do you think’s going to happen the first time you drive this thing through a puddle?”

            “Why don’t you go finish the engine so I can mess that up?” John looked around for help. “Hey, Cap!”

            Sometimes Hank wondered whether he ran a fire station or a kindergarten.  He
knew he should go referee the discussion but was afraid that if he stepped away from the wall that was holding him up, he’d fall flat on his face.  He tried giving the men an annoyed smile.


            When Johnny started to walk toward him, a concerned expression on his face, Hank knew that his ploy hadn’t worked. 

 

            “Cap?” Johnny called out, “you okay?” 

 

            “Fine.”  Hank tried to speak forcefully, but the word that emerged from his mouth sounded pitiful. 

            “Hey Roy?” Johnny called over his shoulder.  “Can you come here a minute?” 

 

            Johnny’s face was now inches from Hank’s own and Hank had little doubt that the paramedic was examining him with his eyes.  “Cap?” he asked again, and Hank heard the hint of worry in Johnny’s voice.

 

            When Johnny reached for Hank’s wrist and started to take his pulse, Hank jerked away.  “Hey, what are you doing?”

 

            “You look a little flushed.”

 

            “I was just taking a break, pal.”  Hank realized belatedly how stupid that must sound, given that he’d been doing little more than supervising.  To his dismay, he saw that the other men had noticed the activity and were headed toward him.

            “What’s wrong with Cap?” Chet asked.

            “Nothing’s wrong with me,” Hank said firmly. “But something will be wrong with you if you don’t finish waxing that engine.”

            “It’s OK, guys,” Roy chimed in, urging them away.  “We’ll take care of it from here.”

            It was Johnny’s turn.  “Cap, why don’t we go inside where we can check you out.”

            This was becoming embarrassing.  “I don’t need to be checked out.  If you guys need something to do, why not try something useful like reviewing the list of fire extinguishers that need inspecting.”

            John had managed to regrasp his wrist and turned to Roy with a worried look. “Roy, his pulse is racing.”

            “Of course it’s racing,” Hank said.  “Because you guys are driving me nuts.”

            “At least come inside where it’s cool,” Roy urged.

            “All right, all right.”  Hank stepped away from the wall and was relieved that he felt steady on his feet.  “I’ll go inside if,” he gave them a stern look, “if you guys promise to leave me alone.”  He wasn’t anxious to face his paramedics but this would give him an excuse to return inside where it was cool and he could sit down.  He gently stroked the perspiration on his neck.  The heat had really gotten to him. 

            Hank walked slowly and steadily into the station, fighting the urge to touch his hand to the wall along the way.  The blast of cool air rejuvenated him and, by the time he reached the day room, he felt considerably better.  He sat down at the table while Roy got him a glass of water and Johnny again tried to take his pulse. 

 

            “It’s slowed down a bit,” Johnny reported.

            “I told you so,” Hank replied.

            Roy sat down next to him.  “Cap, you did look kind of flushed out there.”  The paramedic’s voice was soft.  “After that spell at that kid’s home the other day, I really think you should go to Rampart and get checked out.”

            “What spell?” Johnny asked.

            “Roy, that was—“  Before Hank could finish his thought, the station alarm went off.  “Squad 51, unknown injury, 245 Ocean, cross-street Pine, 2-4-5 Ocean, cross-street Pine. Time out, ten forty-three.”

            The paramedics exchanged looks.  Hank knew what they were thinking -- should they call out and see to him or take the incoming call? 

 

            “Roy,” Johnny started to ask, “Do you think we should—“

            Hank answered the question himself.  “I think you should respond to the call and stop worrying about me.  I’m fine.”  To prove it, he jumped out of his seat, jogged into the garage area and scribbled the address on a sheet of paper.  “Squad 51, KMG-365.”

            Johnny grabbed the sheet from his hands and gave him one last critical look, then ran out back toward the newly waxed squad.

****
Chapter 5

            Dixie had been waiting in Kel's office for nearly twenty minutes.  She'd told Carol that she was going on break and to page her if things got hectic.  In truth, she didn't need a break, she needed to hear the results of her mammogram and to talk with Kel about what would happen next.  And she couldn't handle sitting at the base station for one more minute waiting for him.

            Things weren't much better in here.  Twenty minutes was nineteen more than necessary to inventory Kel's office.   As she surveyed the room, she thought not for the first time that it could use a woman's decorative touch.  But Kel Brackett was fiercely independent and for him an office was supposed to be functional, not "pretty."

            She perused the diplomas on the wall and smiled.  Dr. Kelly Brackett had already received enough diplomas, awards and honors to fill these walls and a few more.  But in this room only his medical school diploma and surgical board certifications testified to his accomplishments.

            Stacked on his desk was a foot-high pile of charts.  As the head of the emergency department, Kel was required him to do extensive chart review.  She knew it was a job he hated but believed he couldn't delegate.  The task only extended his already long days.  Maybe that was part of what had sabotaged their relationship.  After the countless hours they both spent at work, it was nearly impossible to sustain any sort of relationship outside the hospital. 

            Dixie sat down in one of the two green vinyl guest chairs and listlessly leafed through an old surgical journal until she heard the door opening behind her.  When Kel stepped into the room, he carried an x-ray envelope as well as the worry she’d seen in his eyes last night.  "Uh oh," she said with a nervous laugh, "this must be bad news."

            Kel started to cross behind his desk then seemed to think better of it and perched himself on the front corner.  "Sorry it took so long.  I was just reviewing your x-rays."

            She struggled to maintain a façade of calm.  "Well, are you going to keep me in suspense?"  Her attempt at levity fell flat.

            "The mammogram confirms what I found in my examination," he said formally then shrugged slightly.  "There’s definitely a small mass in your left breast.  We can't tell much more without a biopsy."

            "A biopsy."  Dixie sank into her chair.  She hadn't realized that she had clasped her hands together until she felt her nails digging into her skin.  She unclenched her hands and firmly placed them on her lap.  "When?"

            "I'd like to set it up for first thing tomorrow morning."

            "Tomorrow?"  This was all happening so fast.  Yesterday at this time she'd been thinking about what to eat for lunch.  Now she was facing disfiguring surgery, cancer, death.  Her hands started to shake and she held one in the other to keep them steady.

            "There's no benefit in waiting.  Best to find out what we're dealing with.”

 

            “But Kel, I can’t tomorrow.  I’ve got a staff meeting with—“

 

            “The meeting can wait,” he said in a voice that closed the subject.  “I'm going to ask Guy Hollis to do the biopsy.  He has a lot of experience with—"

            "No."

            The word was spoken softly but Kel heard her because he stopped mid-sentence.  "Is something wrong with Dr. Hollis?" he asked.  "You know that he's our most experienced breast surgeon."

            "I don't want Dr. Hollis.

           

            Kel gazed at her for a moment then folded his arms over his chest.  "Okay."  The word was drawn out.  "I'm sure we can find another surgeon.  Is there someone you have in mind?"

 

            She met his eyes.  "I want you to do it."

            His jaw seemed to dip slightly  "Dix, I’m flattered but I don't think—"

            "I’m serious, Kel.  Hear me out." 

            "I'm a thoracic surgeon.  I haven't done a breast biopsy in—"

 

            "You could do it in your sleep and you know it."  She wouldn't accept this excuse.  "And you did one last year for Mrs. Molino."

            Kel stood up from the desk.  "Dix, that's not the point.  You know I want you to have the best surgeon possible."

            "Kel Brackett, you're the best surgeon I know.  If I'm going to have someone slice into my breast tomorrow morning, I want it to be you."

            He turned away without answering and stared at one of his empty walls.  She saw him pull a reflex hammer from his pocket and finger it for a moment before quickly shoving it into his coat and turning back to face her.  Once again he started to speak and again he stopped.  It was one of the few times she'd seen him at a loss for words.

            “Please, Kel.  Do this one thing for me.”  She was begging, but this was her breast and possibly her life.  She watched him take several deep breaths and could only imagine the thoughts roaming through his mind. 

 

            Finally, he turned back to face her.  "All right, Dix, it’s against my better judgment, but if you're sure it’s what you want."

            She sank back into the chair and closed her eyes in relief.  "Thank you."

            He gave her the slightest smile.  "Don't get too comfortable in that chair.  We need to get you admitted, run some tests—"

            Dixie would have preferred to finish out the rest of her shift.  But she'd just won a huge round and now was not the time to push her luck.  "I'll do whatever you ask, endure whatever tests you order."  This time she smiled at the astonishment on his face.  "Just do one more thing for me, will you?"

            He gave her a wary look. "Dix," he started, his tone one of warning.

            "I don't want everyone to know why I'm having surgery."

            Kel again leaned against the desk and again folded his arms over his chest.  "I'm not sure what I can do about that, Dix.  I'll have to admit you to the surgical ward.  The nurses up there are bound to know.”

            "I'm afraid that a parade of people will stop by telling me how sorry they are. I can't take that right now.  Maybe when it's all over, but not right now."

            His eyes were kind.  "I'll see what I can do."

****
Chapter 6

            Kelly Brackett strode back down the long hallway of his emergency department after his meeting with Dixie and surveyed the unnatural calm.  It was late morning; the early rush had cleared and the noon rush had yet to start.  A student nurse approached with discharge orders.  He managed to balance the package he was carrying under one arm while signing the chart with his free hand.  "Who else is left?" he asked when he'd finished.

            "The heart attack – Mrs. Rosenstein – is still in four.  We called CCU again and they said they should have a bed before noon."

            "Good.  Make sure someone stays with her until she goes up."

            "Of course, Dr. Brackett."  She started to walk away.

            "Oh, Marie?  Have you seen Dr. Early?"

            "I think he's in room two finishing up some charts."

            He gave her a quick nod and headed in the direction she'd indicated.  He'd barely taken a dozen steps when he saw Joe Early come out of the treatment room.  "Joe,  got a minute?"

            The older man turned in his direction.  "Sure, Kel.  What's up?"

            Kel patted the package he was carrying.  "Got some pictures I want you to look at."  He pushed open the door of the nearest room and Joe followed him inside.  He snapped the x-rays into position as Joe pulled reading glasses from his pocket.  Kel noticed that Joe looked a bit surprised – these weren't the usual films they saw in the emergency room.  Joe stared at them for nearly a full minute then pointed to one of the films with the tip of his pen.  "See here.  That's definitely a mass." 

 

            Kel rubbed his chin.  "I agree."

 

            "What did the examination show?"

 

            "Small palpable mass, about a centimeter in diameter."

 

            "Fixed?"

 

            Kel nodded.

 

            “What’s your impression?”

 

            “I’m not sure on this one, Joe.  It’s clearly not a cyst, but beyond that, the exam was inconclusive.” 

 

            "How were the nodes?"

            "No masses on palpation."

 

            "Well, other than the one spot, these look clean."  Joe shook his head.  "But it's always hard to tell in these cases until you do a biopsy."  He gestured toward the x-rays.  "Anyone I know?"

            "Dixie."

            Joe didn't manage to hide his surprise.  Finally he regained his voice.  “Does she know?"

            "That there's probably a tumor?  Yeah, she knows.  She found it in the first place."  Kel jerked down the films and flicked off the bright viewing lights.  "Hell, she’s known about this for two weeks and didn’t tell anyone.”

 

            “She was probably frightened, Kel.  I can understand that."

 

            “Well I can’t.  She’s a nurse.  It could be cancer.  She knows better than to wait around hoping it will just go away.”

 

            “I trust you didn’t say that to her.”

 

            Kel looked sheepish.  “I’m afraid I did.”

 

            Joe slowly shook his head.  “When something like this happens, you lose a lot of your common sense.  You don’t think like a nurse – or a doctor.  Trust me, I’ve been through it.”

 

            “You didn’t wait two weeks for your arteriogram.”

 

            Joe smiled.  “That’s only because you forced me into it that very day.”

 

            Kel returned the smile.  “Point taken.”

 

            “Go easy on her, Kel.  What’s done is done.”

 

            “Message received loud and clear.”

            "Who's going to do the biopsy?" Joe asked.

            Kel replaced the x-rays in their folder and leaned against the wall.  "I’d planned to ask Guy Hollis."

            Joe nodded approvingly.  "He's good."

            Kel took a deep breath.  "Yeah, well, Dixie wants me to do it.”

            Joe’s eyebrows arched upward.     “And?”

            “I don’t know, Joe.  I told her I’d do it.  She was so insistent and I--” He looked closely at his friend.  “Now I’m not so sure.  Am I making a mistake?”

 

            “What are you worried about?”

            “Well, first off, I’m not a breast surgery specialist.”

 

            “Kel, you can do a breast biopsy with your eyes closed.”

 

            “That’s exactly what Dixie said.” 


            “Look, there’s no question you can do the surgery.  So what’s your real concern?” 

 

            Kel stroked his chin.  “I guess what I’m asking is if I’m the one who should operate on Dixie.”

            Joe slowly shook his head.  “Technically, there’s no reason you can’t treat her.  She’s not a blood relative.  What is comes down to is whether you can treat Dixie like any other patient.”

            “She’s not any other patient, Joe.”

            “I know that.”

 

            "I'm not so worried about the biopsy.  But what if it's malignant – what if I have to do more?" 

 

            Joe's voice was soft.  "I know you, Kel.  You'll do what you have to do."

 

            Kel tossed the x-rays onto the nearest cabinet.  “Dammit, Joe.  I’ve treated friends before.  So have you.  Heck, we’ve taken care of each other many times.”

            “Kel, are you really worried about your own judgment, or are you afraid of what other people might think?”

            Kel gave him a sharp glance.  “What's that supposed to mean?”

            “You know exactly what I mean.”  Joe stepped toward the door then turned back around.  “You’ve never let other people’s opinions get in the way of treating patients.  Now isn't the time to start.”  The door closed softly behind him.


**************
           

Chapter 7

 

            “Wow, something in here smells—“ Hank searched for a kind word to describe the acrid odor that assaulted his nose as he stepped into the day room.  “Well, smells,” he finally said. 

 

            Johnny looked up from where he was sitting on the couch reading a magazine.  “What do you expect?  Chet’s cooking lunch.”

 

            “What are you making, Pal?”  Hank crossed over to the counter and pretended to sniff around.

 

            “Lasagna,” Chet said.  He opened the oven door and tasted from a ladle.  “Eggplant lasagna; my mother’s recipe.”  He surveyed the room.  “Anybody got a problem with that?”

 

            Hank raised his hands.  “No problems here.  As long as it’s done before the shift is over.”

 

            “It’ll be done, it’ll be done.”  Chet glanced at his watch.  “Just give me another ten minutes and you’ll be treated to a feast.”

 

            “That’s what he said last week,” Johnny mumbled loud enough to be heard. 

 

            “No, last week it was zucchini surprise,” Marco called from across the room.

 

            “And what was wrong with my baked zucchini casserole?” Chet asked.

 

            “Well, Pal,” Hank said with a grimace.  “There’s baked and there’s baked.  Maybe if you’d only baked it half as long . . . .”  He allowed his voice to trail off as Roy walked into the room.  Just the man he was looking for.   “Hey, Roy, got a minute?”

 

            His senior paramedic looked up in surprise.  “Sure, Cap, what’s up?”

 

            “Just a quick question, shouldn’t take a minute.”  He ushered Roy toward the open doorway.  “In my office.” 

 

            “Uh oh, Roy’s in trouble now,” Chet called out.

 

            Hank silenced him with a look.  “The only one in trouble will be you if you don’t get lunch on the table before our next call.”  He led Roy through the bay area and into his office.

 

            Once inside, Roy rocked on his heels while Hank crossed to his desk and sat down. 

 

            “Close the door, please.”

 

            Roy did so and remained standing.

 

            “Sit down.”

 

            Roy dropped into a chair like a mechanical soldier.  “Uh, Cap, is something wrong?  Something I did?”

 

            Hank knew what Roy must be thinking.  He hadn’t handled this situation well, not well at all.  But he didn’t have the energy to think up an excuse to get the man alone for a few minutes and, besides, he preferred the direct approach.  “No, no, nothing like that.  I needed to talk to someone and uh . . . you’re the most, uh . . . .”  Hank felt like an idiot.  Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all.

 

            “Is it something to do with one of guys?”  Roy was clearly trying to help him out.

 

            “No.  Well, sort of.”  Hank abruptly leaned forward in his chair and rested his elbows on his desk.  “How do you think that last run went?”

 

            “You mean the burn victim Johnny and I had this morning?”

 

            “No, I was thinking of the car fire we had yesterday.”

 

            “Oh.  Roy shrugged his shoulders.  “Far as I know it went fine.  Why?  Was there a problem?”

 

            “I didn’t think so.”

 

            Roy shifted in his seat.  “Was that all, Cap?”

 

            Hank lowered his eyes and stared at an invisible point on his desk.  “I was just wondering, have the guys said anything to you about—about me?”  He hated himself for asking such an obvious question but couldn’t think of any other way to get the information he needed.  Nothing was more important to a station captain than the respect of his men and Hank had to know if he still had it.

 

            Roy furrowed his brows.  “About you?  What about you?”

 

            “You know, said they were worried or anything.”

 

            “I’m not sure what you mean.”

 

            This wasn’t going well.  “Take that car fire yesterday.  You all seemed to be watching me like I was suddenly going to keel over or something.” 

 

            “No one said anything that I know about.”

 

            Hank tried to figure out how to get out of this conversation as quickly as possible before Roy became convinced that his captain was completely paranoid.  “Okay, then.”  He clasped his hands together.  “I guess that’s all.”  He stood up from his desk.

 

            Roy remained seated.  “Are you worried about something, Cap?”

 

            Hank’s head jerked upwards.  “Me?  What would I be worried about?”  Maybe Roy had noticed something.

 

            “I don’t know, just thought you might be.”

 

            “No, not at all.  I feel fine.”

 

            “You know, if you’d like, I can have a word with one of the docs at Rampart, get you checked out.”

 

            Hank had already considered – and dismissed – this option.  The last thing he needed was to be in the grip of Brackett or Early.  If he even hinted at a problem, the doctors would undoubtedly keep him in the hospital for days trying to find something wrong with him.  Besides, right now he felt great.  The spells in the last couple of days were probably due to the heat.  He must be getting out of shape from too much supervising and not enough doing.  A bit more outdoor exercise was all he needed.  “I’m fine, Roy, really.”  He walked towards the door.  “Chet’s lasagna has got to be ready by now.  Let’s go get some.”

 

******                

Chapter 8

            It was nearly eight o'clock in the evening and the hospital was eerily quiet.  Dinner trays had been removed hours ago and visitors were slowly streaming out of the building.  Dixie knew from experience that the nurses would soon be making evening rounds, taking vital signs and dispensing night medications.  After they were gone, she'd have nothing to do but contemplate tomorrow.  She knew Kel was concerned about the lump.  He hadn’t said much but he didn’t need to, not to her.  After all these years of working with him, she could read his nonverbal cues as if he were shouting at her.     

 

            She counted the ceiling panels in her room.  There were six and a half going across and another eight from front to back.  She figured each was two feet square meaning that the room was -- just over two hundred square feet.  She decided she hated hospitals.  Well, that wasn't exactly true.  She hated being a patient in a hospital, especially in her hospital.

            She'd spent the entire day undergoing the various tests Kel had ordered.  Blood tests, urinalysis, chest x-rays, an EKG, and even more blood work.  Though it was all standard procedure for a patient undergoing surgery, she was tired of being stabbed and poked and probed.  And no one would give her any results, even though they knew she was a nurse.  They simply smiled indulgently as they informed her that her doctor would discuss the results with her.  She wanted to scream. 

            Dixie flicked on the television and tried hard to dredge up some interest in the program.  After a few moments she turned off the sound and a few minutes later turned it off entirely.  She glanced at the book on her bedside table that two nights ago had been so intriguing.  Right now she had no interest in the plights of fictitious characters in a book or on television.  Her right hand drifted toward her breast and she absently rubbed the small lump.  She felt fine.  So how could something so small cause so much trouble?

            Her head jerked up at the sound of a knock on the door.  When it opened, she expected the night nurse had come to take yet another set vital signs. Instead Kel strode into the room.  He'd removed his long white coat and now wore just his street clothes.  As she watched him, Dixie thought not for the first time that the man was incredibly handsome but had absolutely no sense of color coordination.  How he'd ever decided to wear that brown tie with a light blue shirt . . .

            "Evening, Dix.  Sorry I'm so late."

 

            "Late?  What are you still doing here?  Your shift ended what -- four hours ago?"

            He gave her a smile of resignation.  "Started with a stack of charts and ended with a couple of emergencies."

            "Well then, you certainly didn't need to stop by to visit me."

            Again he smiled.  "How could I leave without a visit to my favorite patient?  And besides, someone has to do your pre-op physical."  For the first time, Dixie noticed that Kel was carrying a stethoscope and ophthalmoscope, which he deposited on the bedside table.

            "You could have asked one of the residents to do it."

            "You're right, I could have.  But I didn't.”  He grinned.  “I'll let them practice on someone else."  He picked up the phone.  "Marilyn, could you come in here for a minute.  Oh, and bring Dixie's chart."

            This time she was the one who smiled.  Hospital policy required a male doctor to have a nurse present when examining a female patient.  Although Kel Brackett had been known to challenge more than a few hospital rules, this was one he wouldn’t touch.  "Don't trust yourself, Kel?" she asked sweetly.         

            "Dix, you know that—" He stopped in mid-sentence when he realized she was teasing him. 

 

            Dixie fiddled with the edge of the thin hospital blanket, wondering why they couldn't be soft and thick like the ones most people had on their own beds.  "Joe stopped by this afternoon."

            "I hope you don’t mind that I told him about your – situation."

            "Of course not.  We talked about how tough it is to be on the other side of this bed and facing – well, the unknown.  It helped.  Was it your idea, Kel?"

            "Wish I could take the credit but, no, not my idea."

            The ward's head nurse walked into the room.  "I must say, Doctor Brackett, that Dixie has been our most compliant patient.  Haven't heard so much as a peep out of her all afternoon."  She handed him the metal chart.

            Kel feigned surprise.  "I'm shocked.  Let's hope she stays that way."  He flipped through the chart, nodding occasionally.  “Well, your test results look good, Dix.  Everything’s normal except that you have a touch of anemia.  You'll either have to start gorging on spinach or we'll have to put you on iron supplements.” 

 

            She gave him a half-hearted frown.

 

            He closed the chart and picked up the ophthalmoscope.  "Let's get started."

            Kel was methodical yet briskly efficient as he checked her ears, nose and throat.  As he examined her, Dixie silently prayed he wouldn't find anything else wrong; she couldn't deal with that right now.  She took deep breaths as he listened to her back and tried to breathe normally when he moved the stethoscope to her chest.  The examination only made her situation all the more real and she couldn't stop her heart from racing.  The look of concern that creased Kel’s face told her that he’d noticed. 

 

            When he'd finished the examination, he made several notations in her chart, then handed it back to the nurse.  "Thanks, Marilyn, that's all for now.  I'll be out in a few minutes to write up night orders."

            When they were alone, Kel sat on the bed beside her.  "Still can't convince you to let Hollis do the surgery?"

 

            "No way."

 

            "All right then, let's talk about tomorrow."

 

****

 

Chapter 9

            She nodded nervously.  She'd made it through today only by not thinking about tomorrow.

            "You know that I'll make an incision in your breast and excise the entire mass,” Kel said in a voice that was maddeningly calm.  “We'll send it to the lab for the frozen section and keep the incision open until we get the results." 

            Again she nodded.

            "Assuming it's benign, I'll sew you up and you'll go home probably tomorrow night.  We'll get the final biopsy report in a few days and if that confirms the frozen section, it’ll all be over."

            That she understood; that was what she was hoping for.

            He reached for her hand and held it lightly in his.  "We also need to talk about what happens if it's-- if it's not benign."

            Inwardly, Dixie couldn’t resist the faintest smile.  Kel was never one to mince words with patients yet he couldn't bring himself to say the "C" word to her.  She tried to help him out.  "I assume you'll remove . . . perform a . . . ."  She found herself unable to continue.  She looked down at her breast and tried to imagine what would happen if--.  Tears welled in her eyes.  "Oh, damn."  She dabbed at her eyes.  "I promised myself I wouldn't cry."

 

            He reached across the bedside table and handed her a tissue.  "Dix, it's okay to cry."  His voice was soft as a caress.

 

            "It doesn't help anything," she sniveled.

 

            "No, but it's still okay."  He waited while she dried off her eyes and blew her nose.  "I know this is difficult.  If you'd rather I'd wait—"

 

            She swallowed hard.  "Go ahead, I'm all right."  She knew Kel was required to go over this with her both to fulfill his ethical obligation as her surgeon and the legal requirement of "informed consent."  At times like this, she wished there could be a little less information in the informed consent.

 

            Kel seemed to force the words out of his mouth.  "If – and I emphasize if – the tumor is malignant, I'll go ahead and biopsy the lymph nodes.  If they come back clean, I'll perform a modified radical.  If they're not—"  He took a breath.  "If they're not, I'll have to do a more extensive procedure."

 

            Dixie sighed.  "And I won't know what happened until I wake up."         

 

            Kel shook his head.  "If you'd rather, I can just perform the biopsy and you wake up with your breast still intact.  Then we wait for the final pathology report and, if necessary, perform a second surgery." 

 

            "But if it's malignant," she forced herself to say the word, "the final result would be the same."

 

            "Yes, and it would require two surgeries instead of one.  But, you'd wake up knowing."  He gave her his habitual grimace.  "It's your decision."

            She'd thought a lot about this, much as she'd tried not to.  She hadn't wanted to consider that the tumor might be malignant, that she might have cancer.  But that worry had convinced her that she wanted the surgery done all at once.  She didn't want to wake up and have more time to think about her fate.  It's not as if there were a real choice about doing a mastectomy.  If she had cancer, she'd lose her breast and if the cancer had spread – this she really didn't want to think about.

            Dix trusted Kel.  He might not be a specialist in this area but she'd seen him performing surgery for too many years to question his judgment.  If he was the least bit uncertain, he'd get another opinion.  Even now, she heard the authority in his voice.  Whatever decision he made, it would be the right one. 

            “Kel," she said quietly, "I know you have reservations about even doing this surgery.”  He started to interrupt but she silenced him.  “I know you do,” she said.  “And I understand.”  This time her eyes were able to meet his.  “Tomorrow, I want you to do whatever you think is best.  I learned a long time ago never to question your judgment and I won’t start now.”

            “Dix, I—“

            This time it was she who laid her hand on Kel’s.  “Do whatever you need to.”

            He squeezed her hand.  "I only wish there were something I could do to make this all go away—"

 

            "Now don't go getting all melodramatic on me.  Weren't you the one who said I shouldn't worry?"

 

            He smiled briefly.  "I guess I did."

 

            "Then get out of here.  I want my surgeon well rested."

 

            "Okay, Nurse McCall."  Kel stood up from the bed and started toward the door.  A few steps away he paused and looked back at her. 

 

            She knew that she couldn't handle him staying one more minute.  "Go," she urged.

 

            “I’ll have Marilyn give you something to help you sleep.  And I'll see you in the morning.”

 

            The moment the door swung shut, she lost her battle against the tears.

****


Chapter 10

            After her talk with Kel, she was afraid she'd never sleep.  But the medication he'd ordered last night had knocked her out and she awakened only when the nurse came into the room before dawn to start an IV.  Now her mouth was dry and fuzzy.  She knew it was from the – what was the name of the drug?  She struggled to remember and then gave up.  It was too hard. 

 

            Two orderlies came for her just as the sun was rising.  Within moments she was wrapped like a mummy, transferred to the gurney, and whisked down the corridors into the operating suite.  Other than the day nurse who’d wished her luck, no one else seemed to know the reason for her admission.  However Kel had managed to keep it a virtual secret, she owed him another huge debt.

            In the OR, she was transferred to the operating table and then left alone for a few minutes.  The table was designed for the comfort of the surgeon, not the patient, and the hard metal was already pinching her muscles.  She felt chilled under the thin sheet that was draped over her body and wished someone would give her a blanket.  She didn’t want to look around at the tangle of cords and machines, the surgical tray arrayed with glistening instruments, the green-clad nurses scurrying about.  She couldn't count the number of times she'd been part of this orchestrated ballet.  She closed her eyes and listened and tried to recognize the noises.  In all of the years she’d worked in surgery she didn’t ever recall just listening to the sounds of the OR. 

 

            She sensed a presence beside her and allowed her eyes to open.  Standing beside the table was Keri Adams, probably the best scrub nurse in the hospital.  Dix wondered how many strings Kel had pulled to get her assigned to a simple biopsy.  Then again, Kel had a way of getting exactly what he wanted.

 

            “Hi, Dix," Keri said.  "How’re you feeling?”  The voice was pleasant but without any false cheer, for which Dix was grateful.

            “Wonderful.”  At least that was what she tried to say until the words stuck in her throat and she wasn’t sure she’d managed anything intelligible.  Keri didn't seem to notice – or more likely she was used to this reaction from her drowsy patients. 

 

            “Okay," Keri said, "here’s what we’re going to do.”

            Dixie didn’t want to know what “we” were going to do.  She just wanted it done. She wanted this entire operation over with as quickly as possible.

            But Keri was determined to explain each step.  “I’m going to hook you up to the EKG now.”  When the nurse pulled away the sheet and pushed down her hospital gown,  Dix shivered in the cold air of the room.  Keri attached three electrodes to her chest, being careful to leave most of her left side free.  When she'd finished, she wrapped a blood pressure cuff around Dixie's right arm.

            Keri was explaining again.  “Now I’m going to take your left arm—“ Dixie felt the nurse stretch her arm perpendicular to her side and tape it to a board.  It wasn’t painful exactly, just awkward, and left her feeling trapped and vulnerable.

            The nurse removed the sheet to expose her left breast and began laying green surgical drapes across her chest and abdomen.  The air against her skin felt cool.  There was sharp clatter from across the room and she flinched.  Keri touched her arm and said something reassuring.  The room started to swirl and she wondered if it was the drugs or panic.   Probably both.  This was it, it was really happening.  Dixie closed her eyes.  She felt her heart pounding faster and her breath coming in short gasps.  She knew she needed to relax, to take deep breaths, but she couldn’t. 

            “How’s my most famous patient?”

            She recognized the deep voice and her face broke into a weak smile.  “Kel.”

            He’d donned his surgical greens and mask so that only his dark eyes smiled.  From the way he held his gloved hands away from his body, she knew he was already scrubbed. 

 

            “You okay?” he asked softly.

 

            "Okay."  It was the only word she could manage.

 

            She saw him glance away for a moment and suspected he was reading her EKG.  He would know exactly what she was feeling.

            “Ready?” His voice was calm as always.

            No she wasn't ready; she wouldn't ever be ready.  The drugs were eating into her consciousness.  “Drug – ah – can’t concen--”

            “Good.”  He leaned close and spoke so quietly that she was sure no one else could hear.  “It will be all right, I promise.”

            She tried to say “I know” but she wasn’t sure the words emerged from her mouth. Kel nodded and another voice spoke to her from above and behind her head.  The anesthesiologist.  “All right, Dixie," the new voice said.  "I want you to count backwards from 100.”

            She concentrated very hard.  She knew most patients never made it past 97 and she was determined to do better.  She looked at Kel.  “One hundred, ninety-nine, ninety-“

****


Chapter 11

            She opened her eyes and saw the ceiling.  She was on her back and she never slept on her back.  The ceiling had tiles – her bedroom didn’t have tiles, so this couldn't be her room.  She knew where there were tiles, she saw them every day.  There were tiles in the emergency room.  She must be in emergency.  An accident?  Had she been in an accident?

 

            She blinked several times.  This room was different.  A hospital, another room.  She closed her eyes again and tried to think. 

 

            “Hey there.” 

 

            The voice was familiar and she reached for it.  The hospital, the operating room.  She fought to remember.  She’d had surgery.  She'd had surgery on her breast.  Kel was doing surgery on her breast.  The surgery must be over.  Her breast?  Was her breast still there?  She lifted her hand to check and immediately felt resistance.

            “Easy now.”  Something grabbed her hand and placed it back at her side.  “Don’t mess with my handiwork.”

            She recognized the soft deep voice and struggled to focus on the speaker.  “Kel.”  

            “Welcome back.”

            She closed her eyes then opened them again.  Kel Brackett’s features slowly came into focus.  He was still wearing his surgical greens but his mask was gone.  That must mean she was in the recovery room.  She tried to look down at her chest.  “Did you—“

            “It’s there, your breast is still there.”  He grinned.  “Although it now has a few exceptional Kelly Brackett stitches.”

            She sighed but then realized she still didn’t have the answer she really wanted. “Was it—“

            Kel shook his head.  “The frozen section showed no evidence of malignancy.”

            She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and swallowed hard.  She didn't have cancer.  She still had her breast.  “What--?”

            “Ssh.  We’ll talk later when you might remember some of our conversation.”  His voice was not unkind.  “For now, just close your eyes and go to sleep.”

            There were so many questions she wanted to ask but the thought of sleep overwhelmed her.  She closed her eyes and welcomed oblivion.

 

*****

            As Engine 51 pulled up to the scene of the reported school dormitory fire, Hank could see at least one building ablaze.  Engine 16 was already on the scene and, almost before the wheels of his own engine had stopped, Hank jumped off and walked briskly toward the captain in charge.  "What you got, Ed?"

 

            "Fire's in the dorm," Ed Gaston, head of Engine 16 reported, shouting to be heard.  "School’s on semester break so there weren’t many kids inside and the principal says they’re all accounted for.  A couple of the kids got singed a bit, but doesn't look like anything serious."

 

            "I'll have my paramedics check them out."

 

            Gaston continued.  "I've got men on the south side trying to protect that one."  He pointed toward a modern-looking building a few dozen yards from the burning dormitory.  "It's the science building – don't want that going up."

 

            Hank followed his gaze.  "How about I put my men on the west side and when 39 gets here they can work their way from the north?"

 

            Gaston nodded.  "Sounds good."

 

            Hank called out the necessary instructions to his men and within minutes they had two additional hoses trained on the building.  By then another engine had arrived with additional hoses and engaged a third side of the burning building.  Hank again consulted with Gaston.  "Looks like we're beating it back.  Don't think we'll need the ladder company."

 

            "I agree."  Gaston spoke into his HT to cancel the call.

 

            "Hey!  Hey!"  A small balding man ran towards them.  "You gotta help.  Someone’s still in there!"

 

            Hank grabbed the man by his shoulders.  "Who are you?”

 

            “The principal,” Gaston said to Hank.  He turned back to the other man, concern clearly evident in his voice.  "I thought you said everyone was out."

 

            "We thought she'd left on break this morning, but—"

            Hank realized they didn't have time for explanations.  "Never mind.  What’s her name?”

 

            “Amy.  Amy Swenson.”

 

            “Where's her room?”

 

            “I don’t know!”

 

            “Think man, where is her room?  What floor?”

 

            It was all Hank could do to get a semi-intelligent explanation from the man, and he realized they would probably have to do a complete search of the building.  He looked around – his firefighters and men from the other companies were all handling hoses.  Although Johnny and Roy were still tending to the students, Hank knew from their actions that none of the victims was seriously injured. 

 

            “Ed, I’ll take one of my paramedics and go inside.”

 

            “Okay, Hank, but be careful.  The fire’s not fully contained and I’m worried about structural collapse.”

 

            “We’ll be careful.”

 

            Both paramedics looked up at his approach.  "John, Roy, I need one of you to come with me.  We've got a student still trapped in there."

 

            Johnny jumped up.  "I'll go, Cap."

 

            "We think her room was on the second floor, east side,” Hank said as they jogged back toward engine, “but there's no telling where she could be.  We may not have much time in there; Gaston’s afraid it could go at any minute."  He and Johnny quickly donned their gas masks.  As they ran toward the building, Hank tried to remember the last time he'd actually participated in a rescue and had to admit that it felt good to be doing rather than supervising. 

 

****

 

Chapter 12

 

            The first thing that hit Hank on entering the building was the thick smoke that made it difficult to see more than a few feet in any direction.  He and Johnny moved as quickly as possible to clear the rooms on the ground floor; he took the right side of the corridor and directed John to the left.  He pushed open a room door, called out the girl’s name, looked inside closets and under beds, then exited the room, closed the door, and slapped a sticker on the outside indicating the room had been searched.  He sucked in a deep breath of air.  As many times as he'd done this, Hank couldn't escape the feeling that he was slowly suffocating.  He pushed open another door.  The bed was burning and books were singed, but this room too was empty. 

 

            By the time he'd finished his side of the hall, he was breathing hard and, he knew, wasting valuable oxygen.  He could feel the perspiration pooling on his forehead and dripping down the sides of his face.  When it ran into his eyes, he wanted to brush it away but that would mean removing his mask and that was something he didn’t want do. 

 

            Johnny met up with him at the staircase at the end of the hall and pointed upwards.  Hank nodded and began climbing with Johnny just behind him.  Each step was harder than the last and he grabbed onto the rail for support.  He paused for a moment and felt Johnny sidle up to him and ask if he were all right.  Hank nodded and pulled himself up the remaining stairs. 

 

            It took only a few steps for them to encounter fire.  The situation was so dangerous that they'd have only a few minutes to search before returning outside and getting a hose team to go back in with them.  Again they divided up the hallway. 

 

            Hank found the first room empty.  The second door was closed and when Hank ran his fingers along the edge, he found it hot to the touch.  He wouldn't risk opening it now.  As he backed away and moved down the hall, he noticed a room at the end and motioned to Johnny that he was heading for it.  He was still breathing heavily and knew he was quickly depleting his oxygen.  He checked his available air and realized he was using it up way too fast; he didn’t have much time left before he’d need to resupply.

 

            As he suspected, the door at the end of the hall opened into a communal bath and shower room.  Although this room was smoky, fire had not yet reached it.  Sweat rolled down his forehead and stung eyes.  He jerked off his air mask, and brushed his hand across his face, shouting as he did so.  "Amy!  Amy!  Are you in here?"  He thought he heard a muffled response then wondered if he’d imagined it.  He moved toward the back of the room toward the shower stalls.  "Amy!"  He was finding it hard to breathe and loosely covered his face with his mask.  The rush of fresh air felt heavenly and he pushed on.  Again he heard a noise – a choking sound.  This time he was sure he hadn't imagined it. 

 

            He found the girl in the last stall, huddled on the floor and breathing into a wet towel.  Someone had obviously paid attention in fire prevention class.  He knelt down next to her.  "Are you Amy?"

 

            She nodded and he placed his mask over her face.  "Breathe into this."  After she’d gulped several breaths, he pulled her to her feet.  "We need to get out of here right now."  He saw panic in her eyes and she started to back away.

 

            "It's okay.  There's another firefighter in the hallway.  We got up here, we can get down.  Just keep breathing into the mask and you'll be fine.  We'll get you out."  As he spoke, he walked her toward the door and saw Johnny coming down the hall.  "I've got her."  He coughed out the words.

 

            Johnny ran up and grabbed the girl by the other arm.  “Let’s get out of here!” he shouted and headed toward the stairwell at the end of the hall. 

 

            Hank had been without his mask for over a minute and the smoke was now snaking into his lungs.  He found himself unable to stop coughing as they moved down the hallway, and by the time they reached the top of the stairs, his pulse was racing and he was having trouble keeping up.

 

            Johnny pulled off his mask and handed it to Hank.  “Cap, take mine.” 

 

            Hank shook his head.  “Get her out of here.  I’m right behind you.”

 

            “At least take some breaths.”

 

            Hank saw that the girl was starting to panic and staying here to argue would only get them killed.  He snatched the mask from Johnny’s hands, breathed in several times, and handed it back.  Johnny put his own mask back on and led the girl down the steps and outside.  Hank stumbled down the steps behind them. 

 

            Suddenly the room seemed to explode and he felt himself lifted off the stairs and tossed into the railing on the opposite side of the stairway.  When the room stopped shaking, Hank shook his head to clear it and surveyed the situation.  The explosion must have occurred in some other part of the building because nothing in the stairwell had changed other than the smoke was even more dense, and fire could be seen from the second level landing.

 

            “Cap!”  The voice came from below him.  “You okay?”

 

            Hank peered over the railing, relieved that Johnny and the girl were on their feet.  “Fine,” he coughed.  “Keep going.”  Johnny gave him a long look before continuing toward the exit with his victim. 

 

            Hank hung onto the railing and forced himself to put one foot in front of the other until he reached the open doorway.  Even though the air surrounding the building was tinged with smoke, it felt wonderful compared to the oven from which he’d just emerged. He stopped for a moment to gulp down the fresh air. 

 

            “Cap, keep moving,” someone called.  “It’s gonna go.”

 

            He turned to see who had spoken.  Everything was a blur.  He felt dizzy, hot, tired, all at the same time.  He wanted to lie down right where he stood.   

 

            “Cap!”  The urgent voice sounded further away.  He tried to answer, tried to turn, didn’t know which way to go.  He couldn’t get his legs to move.  His feet were tangled, he was falling.  He heard a huge crash. 

 

****

Chapter 13

            Dixie had only been out of the recovery room for a few hours, and Marilyn was taking her vital signs for what seemed like the tenth time.  She appreciated the personal attention but this bordered on the ridiculous; she felt tired but otherwise fine.  “How am I doing?” she asked more out of boredom than actual curiosity.  

            “Well, for someone only a couple hours out of surgery, you’re doing great.”  Marilyn smiled.  “If you want specifics, your pulse is 84, respirations 15, BP is 134/72, and your temperature is normal.”  The nurse gave her a smile.  

            “Thanks, Marilyn.  For everything.”

            “I’m glad it—turned out so well.”

            “I am too.”  She’d slept through the move from recovery to her room.  When she’d awakened, the first thing she’d done was look at the incision.  Although the skin was now an angry red dotted by black sutures, she immediately recognized Kel had done exceptional work.  He’d hidden the incision in the fold of her skin, the sutures were small and neat, and there was minimal indentation.  A month from now, there would be little evidence of today’s surgery. 

            “You're awake,” Kel said as he entered the room and crossed to the bed.  “How are you feeling?”

 

            “Pretty good,” she admitted.

 

            He turned to Marilyn.  “How’s she really doing?”

            Marilyn repeated the information on vitals.

            Kel smiled in response.  “Good.”  He shifted his gaze to her and leaned over the bed.  “Let me take a quick look.”

            Dix lay back against the pillows as Marilyn moved aside her gown.  Kel first examined the area critically with his eyes then lightly pressed against the edges of the sutures.  “No edema, looks good.”  When finished, he nodded at the nurse, who quickly covered her patient.  Dix knew Kel had tried to be gentle, but her skin was tender and she was grateful when the brief examination was over. 

 

            He stood back and crossed his arms.  “So, how much pain are you having?”

            Of course he’d noticed.  She thought about the question for a minute.  “It’s not too bad.”  The pain was a small price to pay for not being diagnosed with cancer. 

            She saw Kel frown and knew her answer hadn’t satisfied him.  “How bad is not too bad?”

            “It just twinges when I move.  I’m all right, really.”

            “Uh huh.”  His tone dripped with disbelief.  “Marilyn, get me 50 mg meperidine for IV use.”

            "I don't need that," Dixie protested.

 

            Kel didn't even respond and Dixie knew she'd lost another battle.  The nurse returned moments later with a syringe and alcohol wipe, which she handed to Kel.  “Thanks, Marilyn, I’ll take it from here.”  The nurse took the hint and quickly left the room.  When the door closed behind her, Kel set the medicine on the bedside table and shoved his hands into the pocket of his lab coat.  “Before I give you the medicine, I want to talk a little bit about what I found and where we go from here.”

            A concerned look must have crossed her face because he spoke quickly to reassure her.  “No, no, there’s no need to worry.  I told you that the frozen section came back benign?”

            She nodded.

            "The mass looks like a fibroadenoma, about a centimeter and a half in diameter.  It’s a bit rare in someone your age, but not unheard of.”

 

            Dix knew that, despite the terrifying name, Kel had just described a non-malignant breast tumor common in women under age thirty.

            “But,” he continued, “we won’t know for sure until we get the final biopsy results.”

            Kel was making sure she didn't get too comfortable with the initial good news because they wouldn't be certain that she was cancer-free until the final pathology report.  She'd seen more than a few cases where the frozen section came back benign but the final report found cancer.  Still, she couldn't help being hopeful.  "So, I have a few more days . . .  ." 

 

            He touched her arm lightly.  "Try not to worry too much.  For now, the news has been as good as we could have hoped for, and there’s no reason to think the final report won’t confirm the frozen section." 

 

            She held onto his arm.  “Kel, I want to thank you . . . ."

 

            He gave her his habitual grimace.  “You can thank me by getting some rest."  He  picked up the syringe and added the meperidine to her IV.  “This should help."


            “So, when do I get out of here?” she asked.

            Kel smiled broadly. “What’s your hurry?  Don’t like our service?”  She started to protest but he cut her off.  “Okay, okay."  He gave her a look of mock surrender.  "How about this evening.  If—“ he held up his hand.  “If you continue to be a cooperative patient.”

            She nodded.  “I will.”   She wouldn't let him off this easy.  "And when can I go back to work?" 

 

            "You can go back to light duty—" Kel emphasized the last two words, "the day after tomorrow.  But no heavy lifting for at least a couple of weeks."  He gave her a stern look.  "I mean that, Dix."

 

            She rubbed her arm gently.  "Don't worry, that's one order I'm more than happy to obey."

 

            "I'll come by tonight to drive you home."

 

            "You don't have to do that."

 

            "I guess you plan to walk?"  His voice was playful.

 

            Before she could answer there was a knock at the door and Marilyn poked her head in.  “Doctor Brackett, they need you in Emergency.  They’re bringing in three patients from a vehicle accident and a couple more from a school fire.”

 

            Kel shook his head.  “No rest for the weary.”

 

           

****************

 

Chapter 14

 

            Hank hated hospitals, absolutely hated them.  Roy and Johnny might want to spend half of their days walking through the sterile halls and rooms, but for Hank Stanley a trip to Rampart meant either that one of his men was hurt or that he himself had been injured.  Today it was the latter.

 

            After he’d collapsed at the school fire, he'd known that a trip to Rampart was inevitable, but that didn't make sitting in this treatment room feel any better.  The emergency department had been swamped when he arrived and, given that his injury wasn't life-threatening, he'd been placed in this room with a nurse to monitor his condition until a doctor was free.  After nearly an hour under an oxygen mask, he was ready to get out of here and said as much to his nurse.

 

            "I'm glad you're feeling better, Captain Stanley," she replied with a plastic smile.  "But you know you can't be released until you're examined by a doctor.  I'm sure someone will be in here shortly."  She shrugged slightly.  "That traffic accident has everyone hopping.  I’m sorry."

 

            Hank nodded in resignation and stared up at the ceiling.  He wondered if his men were still here waiting for him and hoped they weren't.  The last thing his misery needed was company.

 

            He didn’t know how long he’d been gazing at the stainless steel lights when, without warning, the door to the treatment room opened and Dr. Brackett walked in carrying a metal chart.  "Sorry you've had to wait so long," the doctor said, "but we've really been backed up in here."

 

            Hank lifted the oxygen mask.  "It's okay.  Carol here is making sure I don't go anywhere."

 

            Brackett pulled his stethoscope from the pocket of his white coat and slowly unwound it.  "I bet she is."  He gave the nurse a slight smile.  "Thanks, Carol.  I’m fine here.  I think Dr. Early could use some help in four." 

 

            After the nurse had gone, Brackett pulled a penlight from his pocket and checked Hank’s eyes.  No, Hank told Brackett, he hadn’t passed out or lost consciousness.  The doctor checked his nose and mouth, then listened carefully to his chest and back.  Taking the deep breaths the doctor ordered caused him to cough uncontrollably and sent waves of pain through his chest and ribs.  He had no doubt that the doctor had noticed his discomfort. 

 

            When he started to lie back on the gurney, Brackett stopped him.  “Hold on, I‘m not finished.”  Brackett’s tone was clipped and Hank suspected the doctor was in the midst of a long and trying day.  Brackett proceeded to examine his ribs and palpate a decent-sized bruise that was forming along his midsection.  “I’ll get some x-rays to be sure,” the doctor said when he’d finished, “but I don’t think anything’s broken.”

 

            Hank nodded gratefully.  Maybe he’d get out of here yet.

 

            Brackett stepped back from the bed and made a few notes in the chart.  “Wanna tell me what happened out there today?"

 

            "Pulled a girl out of a burning school dorm.  Couldn’t believe the smoke – it was like breathing rubber.  How is she, anyway?"

 

            "She's fine, thanks to you and Johnny.  In fact, I think we’ve already released her.  But that's not what I asked."  Brackett folded his arms.  "I want to know what happened to you."

 

            "I told you, I just inhaled a bit of smoke."

 

            "Anything else been bothering you lately?"

 

            "I don't know what—"  He stared at Brackett more closely.  The doctor had something specific in mind and Hank suspected he knew what it was.  "You've been talking to Roy and Johnny."

 

            Brackett wasn't fazed.  "They're worried about you.  And when my two best paramedics are worried, I'm worried."

 

            Hank wasn’t sure if he was angry or relieved.  He’d known it was only a matter of time before Roy or John took their concerns to Brackett.  Still, he was able to perform his job, and smoke inhalation was merely part of the job description for firefighters making rescues in burning buildings.  "It's nothing.  I just—"

 

            "Why don't you tell me what happened and let me decide if it's nothing."

 

            "Doc, I'm telling you—"

 

            "No, I’m telling you."  Brackett's tone was flat.  "We can do this the easy way or the hard way.  You can tell me what's got your paramedics so worked up, or I can keep you here for the next 72 hours running every test I can think of until I find out for myself.  Which will it be?"

 

            Hank never cursed but he almost did so now.  Of all the doctors who worked in the emergency department, he had to draw Brackett.  On his best days, the doctor was tenacious, and today was clearly no exception.  When Brackett seized on an issue, he didn’t let go, and Brackett clearly thought he was onto something right now.  Hank wasn’t interested in facing the doctor’s inquisition and had half a mind to say so.

 

            Two thoughts stopped him.  Brackett might be demanding and obstinate, but no one questioned his skill.  How many times had Brackett brought one of his men back from the brink of death?  More importantly, the firefighters respected him.  Brackett had ridden along with the paramedics; he'd done helicopter duty; he insisted new residents and interns spend time with the station crews.  Firefighters and paramedics in this city owed this man.  Hank owed him.

 

            He sighed.  "All right, Doc.  You win.  It started a few weeks ago."  Hank went on to describe recent situations where he'd found himself unusually hot, tired and irritable.  "Can't have that in a firefighter."

 

            The doctor nodded sympathetically.  "Can you sit up for a minute?”

 

            “Sure, Doc.”  He allowed Brackett to pull him up from his reclining position. 

 

            To Hank’s surprise, Brackett started to feel around the base of his neck.  The doctor briefly held his hands in place.  “Swallow, please.” 

 

            Hank thought Brackett frowned.

 

            “Once more.” 

 

            Brackett had definitely frowned and that couldn’t be good news.

 

            “Have you noticed any swelling in your neck?” Brackett asked.

 

            “Uh, no, I don’t think so.  Haven’t really thought about it.”

 

            “That’s fine, you can lie back now.”  Brackett pulled a pen from his lab coat pocket and made a few more notes on the chart.  After a minute, he looked up.  “How's your weight been?"

 

            It was Hank’s turn to frown.  He had no idea where this conversation was going.  "I've lost a few pounds."

 

            "Been eating well?"

 

            "Like a horse."  Hank raised an eyebrow.  "What do you think it is?"

 

             "Could be any number of things," Brackett said noncommittally.  He managed to cross his arms while still holding the chart.  "Look, your lungs are congested so I'm going to keep you overnight for observation.  While you’re here I’ll run a few tests and see if we can’t figure out what’s going on."

 

            “It’s my heart, isn’t it?”

 

            Brackett gave him a sharp look.  “Why?  Have you been having chest pains?”

 

            “No.” 

 

            The doctor didn’t look convinced.

 

            “Promise, Doc.”

 

            Brackett chewed on his lower lip.  “Then why don’t we wait to see what the tests show?”

 

            Hank started to argue, then thought better of it.  Something was wrong with him, and ignoring the problem wouldn't solve it.  "Okay, Doc.  Whatever you say."

 

             "Good.  We’ll start by sending you to x-ray.  Then we’ll put you in a regular room.”  Brackett forced a smile.  “We need this bed for sick people.  I'll stop by later to do more complete exam."  He turned to leave.

 

            "Doctor Brackett?"

 

            He turned around at the door. 

 

            "You won't have to say anything about this to the guys, will you?" Hank asked with a hint of apprehension is his voice.  “At least not ‘til we know something definite.”

 

            Brackett’s face was expressionless.  "Say anything about what?"

 

            Hank relaxed back onto the gurney.  "Thanks, Doc." 

 

****

 

Chapter 15

 

            “So, Dix . . . ready to go home?”

 

            Dixie had expected Kel, but it was Joe Early who entered her hospital room not long after the dinner trays had been cleared.  The food had tasted terrible, and she’d forced a few bites down her throat only because she knew from experience that they wouldn’t let her go home after surgery until she’d eaten.  “Sure am.  Where’s--?”

 

            “Kel?  Stuck in surgery, where else?”  Joe shrugged.  “He asked me to take you home.  Okay with you?”

 

            “Joe, at this point I’d go home with the ward mascot.”

 

            Joe gave her a puzzled look.  “Do we have a ward mascot?”

 

            “Come on, let’s get out of here.”

 

            “Where’s your bag?”

 

            Dixie already had the few things she’d brought with her packed away in her small suitcase.  Joe tucked in the prescriptions that he’d retrieved at the hospital pharmacy then picked up the phone. 

 

            “Don’t tell me you’re calling for a wheelchair?” she asked.

 

            He gave her a wry grin.  “Hospital policy, Nurse McCall.”

 

            When they reached her apartment, Joe insisted that she go directly to bed. 

 

            “But I’m not tired.”

 

            “Dix, you may want to face Kel’s wrath, but I don’t.  He made me promise to put you right to bed, and I intend to do just that.”

 

            She allowed Joe to get her settled and bring her a bowl of chicken soup and crackers.  She wasn’t hungry but managed to eat at least some of what he’d prepared and decided that, after not eating for a full day, it actually tasted quite good.  “I feel like a queen,” she joked as he cleared away the tray.

 

            “Does the queen mind if I check her incision?”

 

            Dix began to wonder who hadn’t seen her incision but didn’t complain while Joe examined the small wound.  He finished quickly. 

 

            “Kel did a great job.  I doubt you’ll have much of a scar.”

 

            “I know.”

 

            “There’s just a bit of swelling.  If it’s not gone by morning, you should have Kel take a look at it.” 

 

            “I will.”

 

            He stood up from the bed and returned a moment later with a glass of water and two small pills. 

 

            She grimaced as she took them from him.  “I guess I shouldn’t waste my time arguing that I don’t need those.”

 

            Joe smiled and shook his head at the same time.  “I guess not.”

 

****

 

            She awoke to a stinging pain.  No wonder, she’d turned onto her left side and managed to twist her arm in just the wrong way to stretch the incision.  She tried for a few minutes to go back to sleep and finally gave up.  A glance at the bedside clock told her it was almost seven in the morning and she’d been asleep for nearly twelve hours.  She pulled on a light bathrobe and headed for the kitchen.  Right now, she needed a hot cup of coffee and some acetaminophen, in that order. 

 

            As she entered her living room, she almost screamed at the sight of a man sprawled on her sofa until she recognized who it was.  “Kel!  What are you doing here?” 

 

            He sat up slowly and rubbed his neck.  “What do you think I’m doing here?  I relieved Joe last night.”

 

            “You spent the night on the sofa without even a pillow?  Oh, Kel.”

 

            “Well, I wasn’t about to leave you alone the night after general anesthesia.”

 

            “You worry too much.”

 

            The corner of his face lifted.  “Only about my favorite patient.”  He pulled himself into a sitting position and patted the cushion next to him.  “Sit down here.”  She  expected that he wanted to examine her and was pleasantly surprised when he pulled her toward him and wrapped his arm around her shoulder.  “How are you doing?”

 

            “I slept well last night,” she reported.  “There’s no swelling around the incision—“

 

            He placed his free hand on her arm.  “That’s not what I meant.  I mean how are you?” 

 

            “I’m okay, really.”

 

            “No thanks to me.”  Before she could respond, he gently turned her face toward his.  “Dix, I realized last night that I’ve been trying so hard to be a good doctor for you that I forgot to be a friend.”

 

            She heard the guilt in his voice.  “Kel, you’ve done far more than I had any right to ask – as a doctor and as a friend.”

 

            He continued as if she hadn’t spoken.  “I got angry at you for waiting two weeks to tell someone, without even stopping to think how terrified you must have been.”

 

            “You were right, I was stupid.”

 

            Again it was as if he hadn’t heard her.  “I was so anxious to fill all the squares, check off all the boxes.  No wonder everyone says I don’t have any bedside manner.” 

 

            “They don’t say that.”  She laughed softly in a vain effort to lighten the mood.  “Okay, maybe they do, but I know it’s not true.”

 

            “Dix, when I saw you lying on that operating table, I felt so-- helpless.”

 

            She recognized the vulnerability that Kel rarely let others see.  People thought that he was insensitive, that he didn’t care.  But she knew differently.  Sometimes he simply cared too much.  She touched his arm.  “Kel, it’s all right.” 

 

            “We don’t know that,” he said sharply.  “I can’t stand not knowing.  I would run up to pathology myself if I thought it would speed things up.”

 

            Dix had little doubt that he’d already made several trips to the pathology lab, even though he knew full well that preparing and reading the biopsy results would take at least forty-eight hours.  “You’ve done all you could.  Now, the only thing either of us can do is wait.”

 

            He pulled away from her.  “Here I go again, thinking about myself and how I feel when it’s your body that we’re talking about.

 

            This time she reached for his face, took it in hers, and kissed him softly on the mouth.  She felt him resist at first, then slowly relax in her embrace. 

 

            “What’s that for?” he asked finally.

 

            “Just for being you.”

           

************

 

Chapter 16

 

            Hank cringed and sunk lower in his hospital bed when Dr. Brackett entered his room the following morning. Yesterday, Brackett had threatened to order every test he could think of, and by now Hank was convinced he’d undergone every one.  “Please, Doc, no more tests,” he pleaded as the doctor approached. 

 

            Brackett chuckled softly.  “No more tests.”

 

            “You’re done?”

 

            “All done.”

 

            “Then have you figured out what’s wrong with me?”

 

            “Yes, Hank, I think so.”

 

            He didn’t like the look on Brackett’s face.  “Sounds serious.”

 

            Brackett shrugged slightly.  “It can be.  You have a condition called hyperthyroidism.  Have you heard of it?”

 

            Hank thought for a moment.  He supposed he’d heard of it but that was about it, and he said as much to Brackett.

 

            “Hyperthyroidism is a fancy name for an overactive thyroid.  The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland located right about here.”  Brackett pointed to a spot at the base of his own neck.  “Your thyroid is controlled by hormones made in your pituitary gland.  In hyperthyroidism, that control mechanism malfunctions and causes large amounts of hormones to surge through your system.  And that,” he explained, “increases your entire metabolism.”

 

            Hank thought he understood the explanation so far and nodded for the doctor to continue.

 

            “When your metabolism speeds up, it can cause symptoms such as nervousness, weight loss, excessive sweating, and unusual sensitivity to heat.  And, it’s not uncommon for the thyroid itself to be enlarged.”

 

            “So you already thought I had this hyperthyroidism when you were feeling my neck yesterday?”

 

            Brackett gave him a smile of acknowledgement.  “It was one of the things I suspected but, frankly, the condition is much more common in women than in men.  I wasn’t sure until I had the blood test results.”

 

            “How serious is it?

 

            “It’s a condition that has to be treated, but it can be treated very successfully.  We’ll start with a combination of two drugs, propylthiouracil and methimazole.”

 

            Hank swallowed hard.  “That sounds ominous.”

 

            Again Brackett chuckled softly.  “Not really.  They’re just pills that you’ll need to take every day and in time usually bring the condition under control.”

 

            “Usually?”

 

            “It takes about eight weeks to see if the drugs are effective.”

 

            “Eight weeks?”  Hank nearly jumped out of bed.  “Are you telling me I have to stay in this hospital for eight weeks?”

 

            “I’m not saying anything of the kind.  Of course, I’ll want to see you back here every couple of weeks to run blood tests.”

 

            “What about work?  Does this mean I can’t work for two months?”

 

            “No.”  Brackett drew out his answer.  “You can work, but you’ll be restricted to light duty until we have this under control.”

 

            Hank digested this for a moment.  “So, if the drugs work, then I can go back to regular work?”

 

            “I don’t see any reason why not.”

 

            “And if the drugs don’t work?”

 

            “The second option is surgery.”  Brackett folded his arms and smiled.  “It’s effective 90% of the time.”

 

            “Can’t we just do that right now and get it over with?”

 

            Clearly Brackett was amused.  “Never had a patient so anxious for surgery,” he said and then turned serious.  “Look, every surgery has risks and the drugs are almost always effective.  Let’s give them a chance before we talk about surgery.”

 

            Hank ran his hand across his forehead.  “Doc, I’ve heard all you said, but give me the straight scoop.  Am I or am I not going to be able to work again as a station captain?”

 

            “Hank, by now you should know that I always give the ‘straight scoop.’  And the answer is, yes, in time, you should work again as a station captain.”

 

            Hank breathed a huge sigh of relief.  “That’s all I needed to know.”  He thought of something else.  “Will you explain it to my wife and to the guys?  I think it’ll make more sense coming from you.”

            “Be glad to.” 

 

            He looked around anxiously.  “So now can I get out of here?”

 

            “That depends entirely on how your lungs are doing.”  Brackett reached into his lab coat and pulled out his stethoscope.  “Let me take a listen.”  When he’d finished his examination, the doctor stepped back from the bed.  “Better, but I’d like to keep you here one more day.”

 

            “Come on, Doc.”  Hank was less than thrilled about spending another day in the hospital. 

 

            “Hank, you know if it were one of your men you’d give me your full support.”

 

            Brackett was right and Hank admitted as much.  He held up the arm that held the IV.  “Can I at least lose this?”

 

            Brackett smiled.  “I’ll see what I can do.” 

             
******

 

Chapter 17

 

            “Dix.”  Joe Early looked up from the patient he was examining.  “Will you get her a room in CCU?  We’ll send her up as soon as they’re ready.”

 

            “Sure thing.”  Dixie left with alacrity.  At this point she would do anything to keep busy, to keep moving so that she wouldn’t have to think about her test results.  Her surgery had been two days ago and the way Kel had been badgering the pathologists, she knew the report would be in his hands the minute it was signed.

 

            She wanted the results and she didn’t want them.  More than once Kel had done his best to reassure her that they would likely confirm the frozen section and that contrary results were rare.  But there was a reason they did a more thorough analysis.  A surgeon had once told her that it didn’t matter what the odds were – for you they were always fifty-fifty.  You either had cancer or you didn’t.  There was no such thing as having twenty percent cancer.

 

            Roy and John were waiting for her in the hallway.  “How’s she doing?” Roy asked anxiously nodding back toward the treatment room from which she’d just emerged.

 

            “I’m doing – I mean, she’s holding her own.  It was a bit rough but Joe thinks she’ll be all right.”  She stepped toward the base station.  “I’m going to call CCU now and get her a bed.”

 

            The paramedics followed her down the hall and took up their usual position opposite her desk until she’d finished the call. 

 

            Johnny leaned over the edge of the counter.  “Missed you the last couple of days.”

 

            “Really?” she said, doing her best to project wide-eyed innocence.  She knew Johnny had a direct line to all hospital gossip and wondered exactly how much he knew.

 

            “Rumor had it you were upstairs having some surgery yourself.”  He leaned closer.  “You okay?”  The last word almost exploded out of Johnny and Dixie was sure that Roy, who had been studiously inventorying supplies, had kicked him under the counter. 

 

            Coming from anyone else, she would have resented the question.  Johnny, however, managed to bring out her maternal instincts and she knew his concern was genuine.  “Yeah, I think so,” she said. 

 

            “Roy, John, how are you?”  Kel’s deep voice seemed to appear out of nowhere. 

 

            “Fine, Doc,” the men answered almost in unison.

 

            Kel’s gaze switched to her.  “Dix, can I see you a moment?”  He paused for the briefest instant.  “In my office.”

 

            “Of course.”  She tried to ignore the looks that she knew Roy and John were exchanging as she eased herself around the corner of the base station.  She vaguely heard Kel asking the men to “excuse us.”  It was all she could do to put one foot in front of the other and follow him down the hallway.  Some part of this scenario reminded her of the condemned heading toward the gallows.  The news must be bad and Kel wanted to avoid telling her in public.  She suddenly felt very cold and very afraid.

 

            As soon as they were away from the base station, Kel broke into her thoughts.  “I hope I didn’t scare you back there, but I’ve got your biopsy results and I didn’t think you’d want to discuss them in the middle of the emergency department.”

 

            “Then it is--?”

 

            His voice was quietly insistent.  “I haven’t looked at them yet.”

 

            “Oh my—“  She almost tripped over her own feet leading Kel to grab her arm and propel her down the hall. 

 

            “Dix, I’m so sorry,” he said the minute they’d entered his office and he’d shut the door behind them.  “Damn, I’ve done it again.”

 

            She sank into the nearest chair.  “No, I just assumed . . .”

 

            “I wanted to read the results with you and not be the doctor from on high. . . .”  He grimaced.  “Oh, never mind.”  He pulled an envelope from his lab coat and extended it to her.  “Do you want to see it first?”

 

            She held out her hand, saw it shaking and snatched it back.  “You do it.”

 

            Kel gave her a long look as he opened the envelope.  She looked for some indication of the results in his expression but he’d been a physician far too long to reveal anything as he scanned its contents.  It seemed like it took forever for him to read the small sheet of paper.  It was only when his eyes met hers that she released the breath she’d been holding. 

 

            “Benign,” he said with a smile.  “Completely benign.  Thank God.”

 

            She watched him exhale and realized that he too had been holding his breath.  For a moment, she simply sat in the chair and absorbed the news.  No cancer, no mastectomy.  She wasn’t going to die, at least not yet.  It was over.  She felt an arm on her shoulder and looked up into the concerned eyes she knew so well. 

 

            “You okay?” he asked

 

            She breathed again, a full cleansing breath.  “Yeah.  You?”

 

            “Relieved.”  He perched on the corner of his desk.

 

            “Had you worried there for a time, didn’t I?”  She was beginning to understand why he’d been ultra-professional.  At first she’d believed it was to rebuff any suggestion that he was emotionally involved with his patient.  Only now did she realize it was the only way he could hide his own anxiety.  She’d seen it for just an instant that night in her apartment, and then he’d buried his feelings by doing what came so naturally – being an extraordinarily talented surgeon. 

 

            He pressed his lips together.  “That night when I first examined you, I was so afraid—“

 

            “That it was cancer.”

 

            He nodded.  “I thought if I told you—“

 

            He’d been terrified at his findings but even more afraid to share his concerns with her.  Kel’s instincts were dead on.  If he’d told her that he suspected cancer, she would have panicked and she’d been panicked enough as it was. 

 

            She stood up from the chair, not sure that her legs would support her.  She reached him in only two steps and cupped her hand along the side of his face.  “Kel,  when I was lying on that operating table, I was so terrified that I wanted to jump up, run out of that room and never come back.  And then you were there and you promised me that everything would be all right.”  He started to speak but she lightly brushed her hand across his lips to stop him.  “And at that moment I knew that whatever happened, you’d be there for me.”

 

            “Dix, I’ll always be there for you, no matter what.  You know that.”  He took her face in his hands and gently kissed her lips. 

 

            For a moment, she let herself float.  She’d forgotten how magical Kel Brackett could be.  There would be plenty of time to rekindle those feelings, but not here, not now.  They had work to do. 

 

            “Come on, Doctor,” she said, pulling away from him.  “Let’s go mind the store.”

 

The End.

           

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