It is normal to give away a little of one's life in order not to lose it all.
~ Albert Camus
She can’t remember a time when she didn’t want to be a doctor. The urge to nurture, to heal – to save – has been as automatic as breathing for as long as she can recall. Being a doctor is as much a part of her as the beat of her heart or the colour of her eyes and having that taken away from her, even temporarily, is almost unbearable. It makes her feel like a stranger to herself.
The last time – the first time - she fell from grace and took the first steps towards getting clean, it was being cut off from her life’s work, her vocation, that had stung the most. She had managed to deal with the guilt and the shame and the humiliation, but not being able to be what she was - it had made her feel as though half of her was missing, as though she’d lost a limb. She’d eventually come to understand that she was just as addicted to being a healer as she was to any drug, and having to wean herself off both habits at the same time had been almost enough to break her.
The last time had been very, very bad.
This time is far, far worse. This time, she feels as though so much more has been torn away, and she begins to wonder how much of herself is actually left. Last time, the only person she really hurt was herself. This time, she betrayed so much more than that.
She feels adrift, finding herself clinging to the small things – advising a fellow group member on a sore throat, asking her elderly neighbour about his recurring back problems – telling herself that if she can still do these little things, that part of her is still alive.
So when he – Lance, she thinks he says his name is – begins to talk about his fear of dying, she can’t help wanting to reassure him. Like Pavlov’s proverbial dog, all it takes is a simple trigger – she sees someone who is afraid, and the urge to nurture overwhelms her. “Lance, MS isn’t usually considered genetic.”
He’s not impressed. He simply stares at her for few seconds, then asks belligerently, “What are you, a doctor?”
Bellick’s long ago words run through her head - you used to be a doctor, right? – and, just as it did then, the answer comes quickly, almost defiant, perhaps an affirmation. Because being a doctor is what she is, not just what she does. “I am, actually.”
He stares at her, obviously still annoyed, and she wants nothing more to curl up into this hard pew and pretend she doesn’t care enough to have interrupted. She apologises, but the damage is already done. She stares at the altar at the front of the church and wonders if she’ll ever learn to stop trying to help people who don’t want or need her help. Given that she’s twenty-nine years old and has never managed to come even close to learning that particular lesson, the odds really aren’t all that good.
Half an hour later, Lance gives her a sheepish smile and an apology while she’s trying to decide between instant coffee and generic tea bags. Swallowing her own pride, she returns the favour, then escapes with a recommendation to try the blueberry pie. It’s not that she’s averse to making new friends, she’s just a little more wary of new (possibly) single male friends. And anyone who knew the life she’d lived for the last few months, she thinks as she walks out of the church hall into the bright sunshine, would not blame her in the slightest.
Despite her best attempts to escape, five minutes later he's invading her hastily sought sanctuary of the church steps. Her greeting is resentful, even to her own ears. “Hello again.”
He smiles hesitantly, then gestures with his plate. “May I join you for pie on the stoop, ma’am?”
Suddenly ashamed of her churlishness, she gives him a smile she hopes is both polite but detached. “Be my guest.”
He drops onto a step a few feet away from her, and she’s grateful for the space he’s left between them. “I really am sorry about before,” he says quietly, trying to catch her gaze with his. “I guess I was just wallowing.”
She takes a sip of her coffee. “Hey, if you can’t wallow here-“
He grins. “Where can you wallow, right?”
Settling back against the church wall behind her, she takes a bite of pie and washes it down with the surprisingly drinkable coffee and thinks that things could be worse.
“I’m Lance, by the way.”
She blinks - I’m Michael, by the way - then gives herself an inner shake. She hates that everything reminds her of him, yet she can’t seem to stop it from happening. “Um, Sara.”
“I always feel weird when these things are in a church, you know?” He breaks off the tip of his pie with the plastic fork, then studies it warily. “Gives it too much of a creepy confessional vibe.”
“Well, that’s part of what we’re here for, I guess.”
He swallows his first mouthful, then gives her an oblique thumbs up. “Good pie.”
She shoots him a quick smile. “Let me be the first to say I told you so.”
They sit and eat in a silence that feels strangely companionable, then he waves his fork in the air. “It really is the best piece of pie I’ve ever had.” She’s tempted to tell him to give it a rest, but he’s already talking again. “You know what it needs, though?”
She’s probably going to regret asking, she thinks, but she asks anyway. “What?”
He wiggles his eyebrows at her, his eyes wide. “Some crack.”
She feels her lips twitch. “Some crack.”
“You know, not a lot. A pinch.”
She shakes her head, but she feels the laughter bubbling up in her throat. “A pinch of crack.” She can’t remember the last time she actually laughed and, for the first time in a long time, she feels almost normal.
Okay, so he’s flirting with her – she thinks again of Bellick and wonders if there’s a subgroup of people out there who just see group therapy as a handy dating resource – but that’s okay because she looks at him and she feels nothing. There’s no pitch and roll of her stomach, no goosebumps raising all the hairs on her arms. There’s nothing at all that reminds of her of Michael, just the fact that he’s making her smile and today, that’s just the thing she needs.
“Pinch of crack, a dollop of smack.” He’s grinning broadly now, performing for her, she suspects, but amusing himself at the same time. “Hmmm, that’s good pie,” he adds in a sing-song voice, his eyes even wider than before, and she begins to laugh.
“That’s so wrong.”
Her phone rings just when her fingers are at their stickiest, obviously fulfilling an updated Murphy’s Law that cell phones will always ring when you’re least able to answer them. “Hmm, okay.” After hastily licking her fingers – why on earth hadn’t she grabbed a napkin? - she rummages in the depths of her bag, trying to smear the screen of the phone as little as possible. “Hello?”
The bottom drops out of her stomach at the sound of Michael’s voice, everything else around her – Lance, the sound of the traffic, the hard concrete step beneath her - falling away into nothingness. It can’t be him. It’s not possible. It would be madness for him to call her now -
Her legs are suddenly pushing her up off the stairs and towards the kerb without conscious thought, and she doesn’t know if she’s running towards or running away from the sound of his voice. “What do you want?” She sounds angry, and she’s glad.
His voice is so raspy that it’s almost unrecognisable, and later she will wonder how she knew it was him. “I don’t have time to talk, and there’s every chance they’re listening to this call right now. But there’s a lot I want to say.” His breathing is loud and harsh in her ear, as though he has the phone very close to his mouth. “Please don’t hang up on me,” he whispers, his voice choked and broken, and she feels something inside her weaken and falter.
No. No. No. No.
She draws herself up to her full height – God, as if that will make a difference – and shakes her head as though he can see her. “I don’t - I don’t want to talk to you.” She doesn’t hang up. Her fingers tighten around the phone and she doesn’t hang up and she’s afraid she knows why.
“I heard about -” His voice drops away to nothing, and she has to press the phone hard against her ear. “I heard about what happened.”
The blood rushes to her face. He knows. He knows her dirty little secret, the one thing she never, ever wanted him to know. He knows and he’s still calling her and he’s talking to her as though nothing has changed between them.
“I want you to know -” He sucks in a harsh breath, and she suddenly realises he almost sounds as though he’s crying. “I want you to know how sorry I am. For everything.”
“Sorry’s not going to do me a lot of good with what I’m up against right now,” she shoots back, clutching desperately at words of defiance because she wants to hate him but all she can think is that he sounds as though he’s crying. Her hand is tugging nervously at her hair – he still manages to bring out every one of her nervous tics, damn him – and she feels as though she’s about to jump out of her skin. She wants to throw the phone across the street. She wants to hold it to her mouth with both hands and beg him to tell her that it wasn’t all for nothing.
She wants to stop feeling as though she’s being torn apart.
She wants –
She wants a normal life.
“Listen,” he says now, his voice louder. “Anyone with any ties to me and my brother is in danger now.”
Anger wells up inside and she clings to it gratefully, because being angry with him is better than wanting to reach out to him so badly that it makes her very bones ache. “I’ve no ties to you and your brother anymore.” She sounds much more convinced of the fact than she feels – now that he’s gone she feels more entangled with him than ever - and she’s pleased.
“There’s a way I can protect you.” Again his voice cracks and breaks, and again she thinks that he might be crying. The thought makes her stomach curl up around the edges. “It’s already in your possession.”
Her temples start to pound as she struggles to make sense of what he’s saying, an impossible task because his words are making no goddamned sense whatsoever. “What are you talking about?”
He doesn’t answer the question, but that doesn’t matter because what he does say makes her forget she ever asked it. “It was real, Sara. You and me.” Her mouth goes dry, her skin prickling with heat as a wave of sensation washes over her. “It’s real,” he whispers again, the soft declaration as true a caress as a touch upon her skin, then she hears the dial tone, dull and final.
“Michael,” she says, letting herself utter his name aloud for the first time in days, knowing that he’s gone but not wanting to believe it. “Michael?” She stares unseeingly at the passing traffic for a moment, the phone still pressed to her ear. As she forces herself to take several deep breathes, she hears Lance ask, “Everything okay?”
“Family stuff,” she says flatly, her hands trembling as she flips her phone shut. “Nothing unusual, I’m afraid.” She finally turns around, praying that she doesn’t look as shell shocked as she feels. He obviously sees something amiss in her face – he hesitates briefly – but then he flashes her a hopeful grin.
“You want to grab another coffee?”
She forces herself to smile at him. “Maybe some other time.” Her fingers tighten around the phone, pressing it hard into her palm, then clears her throat. “See you tomorrow?”
“I’ll be here.” His grin seems to dim slightly, but he adds jokingly, “Wallowing.”
She reaches down to pick up her empty plate, but he waves her away. “It’s okay, I got it.”
“Thanks.” She walks away, concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other, glad that her car is parked close by. She can feel him watching her and she knows she should feel bad for dismissing him so abruptly, but she can’t bring herself to care. She’s filled with the urge to flee, to escape so that she can be alone with her thoughts.
She drives home with all the caution of a learner driver, aware that she’s dangerously distracted but not able to wrench herself out of the fog of her thoughts. By the time she pulls up in her driveway, she’s replayed their conversation over and over in her head – I don’t want to talk to you please don’t hang up on me - and she knows that even if she could go back and do it all again, she still wouldn’t be the first one to hang up.
That night, she pulls out her tattered copy of Gray’s Anatomy from the bookshelf, delving into its pages to find the paper crane Michael had hidden in her bag the night of the escape. Rubbing her finger over the boldly printed words, she thinks - not for the first time – that despite everything, she would still trust him with her life. She’s not sure what that says about her, and she’s not sure she wants to know.
Putting the crane carefully to one side, she slowly flips through the pages of the book, remembering the first time she opened it, her hands shaking with anticipation. Even now, her wide-eyed idealism dulled by years of actual practice, she feels an echo of that excitement, and she knows that - no matter what lies ahead - she will always be a doctor. Even if she feels as though she's treading water - waiting for the other shoe to drop, waiting for something - she is still a doctor, she is still herself, and all she can do is the next best thing.
She doesn’t let herself think about the possibility that it’s not the loss of her job that’s making her feel as though half of her is missing, but her sub-conscious betrays her. She sleeps badly, her dreams filled with the sound of Michael's voice whispering secrets she’s afraid to believe. At 3:00 a.m., sick of tossing and turning, she sits huddled in the corner of her couch and watches a 1970’s cartoon revival, her hands wrapped around a mug of tea, and tells herself that having a normal life takes time.
The next day, she’s sorting through her mail before she leaves for her session, marvelling at how much junk mail one person can attract. When she finds herself staring at a white envelope with the now-familiar handwriting, her breath snags in her throat, her heartbeat starting a steady tattoo of nervous anticipation. Trying not to dwell on how carefully he’s printed her name, she tears the envelope open with a surprisingly steady hand, then tips the contents into her palm.
She stares at it with a growing feeling of déjà vu. It’s another origami bird, pale blue this time, but otherwise an exact twin of the one she already owns. Holding her breath, she slowly flips down the wing to reveal the writing she hopes - knows - will be there. She frowns at the numbers scrawled across the paper for a long moment, then something clicks into place in her head.
There’s a way I can protect you. It’s already in your possession.
She smooths her fingertips over the delicate fold of the wing, hiding the numbers from sight once more. She still has no idea what it is he wants her to do, but that doesn’t matter. Pressing the paper bird hard between her palms, she closes her eyes, knowing that he's waiting for her, that he's been waiting since the moment they first met, and that having a normal life just might be vastly overrated.