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©HelenGregory 2009-present.Do not reproduce in any manner
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My mom and sister had the taxi drop me off at the savings and loan Tuesday morning on their way to the hospital. I felt like I had been away for months, rather than only sixteen hours. Anxiety overtook me—would they pity me? Would they ask questions I could not answer? Could I keep my composure? I took a deep breath and pushed open the door to face the coworkers I barely knew.

My angst was short-lived. They welcomed me back with wide smiles and open arms. After a round of hellos and hugs, I followed Ethel to her office in the savings side of the company.

"I've got a surprise for you," she said. "There's been a change in your job status."

"How so?" I asked, fearing a setback.

"You're being transferred to the loan side of the company, to work with Tom. The girl that worked with him—she only started the week before you did—left on Friday afternoon." Ethel paused to glance down at some papers on her desk. She frowned, as if irritated that she couldn't find the right words to use, then added, "Suddenly."

"Oh," I mumbled. "You mean she quit? She's not coming back?"

"No." Ethel looked serious. "She won't be back . . . I can't discuss it. But I can assure you she will not be back."

"Okay. What will I be doing over there?"

"You'll assist Tom with customer loan accounts, credit and collections, skip tracing, that sort of thing. He'll fill you in on the details."

I had enjoyed working with Ethel last week, and I would miss that because, in my mind, she was already a very good friend. But I knew, due to how well he treated me going to the hospital last Friday, that assisting Tom would be a pleasant job. I also knew that my past experience in credit and collections made me a better fit for that side of the company. Plus, I could look forward to working in the same department as Sheila, and I could still visit with Ethel during our employee breaks and lunch hours.

I thanked her and crossed the lobby to the loan department where I settled myself at the desk alongside Tom's, making careful notes of his instructions about my daily work—posting payments, pulling past-due accounts, sending late notices, typing collection letters, verifying current insurance coverage on collateral, credit-checking new loan applications, the list went on—much the same duties I had done for the finance company in Seattle. I dove into the work, intensely focused, eager to do my best.

"Are you going to lunch today, Helen?"

Startled out of my concentration, I raised my eyes to see Sheila standing next to my desk, smiling at me as if she knew how quickly my first morning back at work had flown by, and happy that it had.

I glanced at my watch—ten after twelve. Darn. I'd worked right through the morning break, and now I would make Sheila late for her one o'clock lunch hour unless I came back early. "I brought a little something," I said. "I'll go upstairs to the lunch room. Would it be all right if I called the hospital on the courtesy phone up there?"

"You go right ahead," she said. "Just dial nine for an outside line."

"Thanks, Sheila. I'll be back by one so you won't be late going to lunch."

"Don't worry about it," she said, flashing that Hollywood smile of hers that could melt a person's heart.

I picked up my purse and the apple I had grabbed out of the refrigerator that morning and headed upstairs. The lunchroom was empty. Perfect. I pulled a paper out of my purse with the phone number for the nurses' station on it and dialed.

A woman answered, "I.C.U."

I told her my name and asked about Mike's condition.

"He's doing fine," she said. "He ate breakfast this morning, without argument, and is now visiting with your sister. Would you like to talk with her?"

"Yes, I would. Thank you." I bit a chunk out of my apple and chewed, listening to the mixed sounds of nurses' chatter and rustling papers while she went to get her.

Soon she picked up the receiver and, following our mutual hellos, I asked how things were going.

"Well," she answered. "The doctor unwrapped the bandages on Mike's head this morning while I was in there. You can see where a big flap of skin was torn loose—big as a horseshoe. Starts at the hairline in the center of his forehead, goes down and curls around just above his left eyebrow and then back up to his left temple.

"I asked if he wanted a mirror, and he said yes, so I got the one out from the drawer in the overbed table and handed it to him."

"How'd he react?"

"Fine. All he said was 'Well, I really did it this time, didn't I?' and handed the mirror back to me. I noticed that his eyes were teared-up though."

I hurt for him. "Will you tell him I called?"

"Yes, of course. You'll be here after work?"

"I plan on it. Don't know what time though, because I'm not sure just how I'll get there. I'll figure it out."

"Okay. Be careful. See you later. Oh, by the way, they said his move out of I.C.U. won't be until this afternoon sometime, up to the third floor."

"Okay, thanks. I'll find out the room number when I get there. See you later." When I get there. I should have said if I get there.

We said our good byes. I listened as she hung up the phone and the line went quiet, then I hung up too—breaking the connection to where I wanted to be at that moment. I finished eating my apple, made a quick trip to the ladies room, washed my hands and headed back downstairs to my desk, ten minutes early.

"Helen!" Sheila motioned for me to come to her desk.

I did. "What?"

"I was just talking to my husband a few minutes ago, and he suggested that if you needed a ride to the hospital after work, we could drop you off on our way home. It wouldn't be out of our way at all because we live in Menlo Park."

"That would be great. Thank you so much!"

And thank you, God, I thought to myself over and over as I worked at my desk that afternoon. The time passed as quickly as it had that morning, and soon I was on the way to the hospital with Sheila and her husband.

They dropped me off at the front entrance. I crossed the lobby to the information desk and asked about Mike's new location.

"I show him in room 309 now," the receptionist politely informed me, then gestured down the hallway and added, "You can go this way to the escalators—it's much closer than back to the elevator. Get off at the top and take the next one up to the third floor, then follow the corridor on the left and you'll find it."

"Thank you." I smiled at her and headed down the hall.

The third floor layout appeared similar to the I.C.U., with twin hallways enclosing a middle row of storage rooms, restrooms, and nurses' stations. Private and semi-private patient rooms, one and two-bed accommodations, lined the opposite, outside walls of each hall. Unlike the I.C.U. corridor of the past four days, activity on this floor appeared to be nonexistent—no top-heavy diagnostic machines clogged the aisle. No waiting gurneys lined the walls. Almost eerie in its quietness. My shoes were making too much noise, I thought, and tried to repress the strike of my heels on the spotless corridor floor.

A white-uniformed nurse sauntered into a patient's room as her colleagues-in-care worked leisurely behind an open counter area halfway down the hall. One of them called out softly to me, "What room are you looking for?"

"309," I answered in the loudest whisper I could muster.

"Almost there!" She smiled.

Between the next two doors, a young lady in a pinstriped red and white apron stacked retrieved dinner trays and dishes onto the stainless steel shelves of a tall utility cart. As I passed by, the lingering aroma of hospital food flooded my nostrils and sickened my stomach. However unappetizing the smell, my gut rumbled in response as I peeked into room 309.

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