Susan pulls back a handful of hair as she tucks the cell phone closer to her ear. “Chloe?” What is it about her sister’s voice that causes Susan’s heart to race after all of these years, even after her commitment to sobriety, even after the near-disaster of her relapse and Little Susie's kidnapping? She automatically takes a mental check of her sister, trying to see through the phone and diagnose her just from that tiny word – but she sounded sober. “What’s going on?”
“Yeah, it’s me,” she says, reading Susan’s intent with her typical lackadaisical ease; her tone was reserved and a tad bit frosty now. “Nothing’s wrong – Little Susie just caught the bus, and I had a couple of seconds before I have to go in, so I thought I’d call you. How’s Cosmo doing?”
The comment forces Susan to glance from the pile of paperwork she’d been busy completing to glance at her son. Como sits in his playpen, chewing on the ear of a bright blue stuffed rabbit while Chuck naps on the floor beside him. “He’s okay – he stood up for the first time all by himself yesterday.”
“Oh my God, Sooz, that’s great!” Chloe sounds like she really means it, too. Susan glares at the phone; she will never understand Chloe’s casual way with life, with people – how she could have gone on a bender and abandoned her daughter and, two months later, be relatively sober and sane, playing housewife while Joe works and Susie goes to school.
“Yeah – I’ve got pictures on my phone, I’ll send them over.” She fiddles with the phone, afraid of sending Chloe off into another flight, another escape. “How have things been going…there?”
A moment of silence as Chloe shifts the phone – for a second Susan presumes she’ll hang up and braces herself for the upcoming drama. “It’s cool,” she says. “One of the girls I was in with sold dope to Robert Downey Junior. Can you believe that?”
Susan props her chin up and listens. For all of Chloe’s flaws, she’s still her sister. “Small world,” she says.
Susan looks up from the phone to see Chuny standing by the reception desk with a phone in her hand. “The girl in 05 just threatened Abby with a nail file – they need you.”
She slugs down her coffee, tucking her file beneath her am. “Okay, I’m going…” As she passes by, Chuny tries to grab her shoulder, offering comfort in the only way she could manage it in the midst of such a hectic scene. “Do you need to talk?”
“Later!” Susan throws over her shoulder. “I’m on break at six!” She knows Chuny will end up giving her the best gossip in return, and frankly, Susan decides, she can use the distraction.
It takes her a minute to cross the room, and two seconds to dodge the jar of tongue depressors as it sails by her head. Over the cacophony she hears Abby’s calm, authoritarian tone. “Please put down the scalpel, Miss Williams,” she requests repeatedly, careful to put the right amount of distance between the sharp point of the instrument and her body. Kerry is standing by the neighboring bed, stripping off a pair of dirty surgical gloves, shouting to be heard over Miss Williams' wails and Abby’s orders. “I’ve already got a psych consult coming in – somebody get Malik in here to make up the bed,” then she turned her eagle eye on Susan, “we think it’s an adverse reaction to her sedation. Did you mix the lidocaine with anything?”
Susan shakes her head. “I told them to push ten ccs. That wouldn’t react with the acetaminophen…”
“I have a feeling she might be taking other meds. ANGELA,” Kerry shouts, “did you take anything other than what you told nurse Lockhart?”
Angela shakes her head wildly. “No no no – give me my puppet!”
“FINE!” Abby snaps, reaching into the back pocket of her pants and whipping out a bright pink sockpupet with large goggle eyes made of plastic golfballs.
“Nurse Lockhart,” Kerry says through gritted teeth, “may I have a word with you outside?” With that, Abby and Kerry disappear into the hallway, leaving Susan to take care of her patient.
Susan approaches her patient carefully. “Hi, Angela…can I take your vitals?”
Angela holds onto her puppet, eying Susan with fear and distrust. She bites her bottom lip but gradually – cautiously – offers Susan her arm. Carefully, she counts off the beat of her pulse and compares them with what she knows, then with the chart.
She frowns. This woman had checked herself into County an hour ago, having slipped on the unusually-icy-for-October curb and cracked her ankle; they’d presumed her mentally delusional though not violent, and sedated her in the hope of setting her ankle with a walking splint. She quickly forged the symptoms into a single picture; the unexplained violence, the erratic pulse….
Her own speeds. “Angela, try to lie still, okay?” Susan straps Angela into a blood pressure cuff and rushes to the hallway, grabbing ahold of the in-house phone, dialing up to surgery. “I need a consult,” she says. “I think my patient’s thrown a clot.”
“I’m on my way down.” The voice on the other end of the line is crisp and British, and Susan feels her tension melt away. Elizabeth would be a great help; she always was. As Susan heads back into the exam room to monitor Angela, she hears the vague buzz of an argument between Kerry and Abby.
“..And I checked those mixes before I pushed the lidocaine!” Abby finishes impassionedly.
“She’s right,” Susan says. “I think it’s a clot.”
“What?” Kerry barks out.
“Check her charts if you don’t believe me,” Susan says, rinsing her hands with antibiotic hand sanitizer before pushing her way back into Angela’s room. “Fight over it later - she needs me now.”
Abby’s look is triumphant – perhaps a little too smug – as she joins Susan in monitoring Angela for another moment. Susan pushes a vial of heparin through her IV, which generally evens out her pulse – enough to keep her stable until they can get her into radiology, where her ankle would be fixed and exploratory monitoring done to figure out where, if anywhere, her clots has traveled. Susan feels a momentary rush of relief as Angela is wheeled up to intensive with her puppet tucked under a messy crown of grey curls.
That accomplished, Susan moves on to a case of strep in number five and a case of projectile vomiting in twelve (Passing it off on Ray had, to her dismay, not worked). Around five, nearly through with her shift, she opens the break room door and is bombarded by the sound of ‘Monster Mash’ piping from a small boom box. Orange crepe paper had exploded all over the room, and someone had stuffed Jerry - who occupies a metal folding chair desolately in a corner of the room, his mouth stuffed with pastrami - into a Frankenstein costume.
“Heyyy,” she says to Chuny, biting back a pained smile as the woman handsher a cup of butternut pumpkins; she downs a mouthful and realizes she’d forgotten her own costume at home – mostly because Halloween itself was tomorrow and she’d deliberately tried to schedule a short day so she and Chuck could take Cosmo around the block together early in the afternoon. She glances at the variety of home-cooked potluck dishes sitting on the table and realizes she’d also forgotten to make her own contribution.
“I’m sorry!” she calls over the music to Chuny, piling some chili into a disposable, collapsible bowl covered with pumpkins.
“Don’t worry! Chuck dropped a cake off a couple of hours ago,” she calls.
She raises an eyebrow and glances at the table, noting the cake, covered with chocolate icing and orange-and-black nonpareils. “I didn’t know he could bake.” Chuck is, she has come to discover, filled with surprises.
She hears Chuny snicker behind her, and for the millionth time she heard the secret meaning behind that little sound of amusement – there’s just SO much she didn’t know about her own husband, whom she’d married, tried to shake, and ultimately ended up co-parenting with in the span of just a year.
“You guys go all out,” notes Abby, entering the room with her typical abruptness.
“You should see us at Christmas,” Susan remarks. “They stuff Jerry into a Santa costume and make him sing carols.”
"Made my ass," Jerry muttered, continuing his meal.
Abby makes an approving humming sound as she sucks upon her thumb – somehow she’d accidentally plunged it into the cake while getting a slice. Susan piles more food onto her pilfered tray, until Abby says, “thanks for standing up for me.”
“Hey, I’m not defending either of you. You just happened to be the one who's right,” Susan replies. “I know working under Kerry can be stressful, but yelling at her only makes a fight worse. But you do know your stuff, Abby. Keep going with it.”
Abby shrugs – she isn’t good with praise, hadn’t ever been comfortable with too much being lavished on her by someone she didn’t really know. “So…what’s going on with you?”
“That’s personal,” says Susan.
“It’s not that personal. Chuny told me you were having family problems…is it Chuck?”
Susan squints at her. “Haleh and Chuny..”
“Chuny told Haleh, and Haleh told me.”
“Are we in fifth grade?” She glances over her shoulder at Chuny, whom, with Haleh, had started bobbing for apples with Ray and Malik in the corner. Both women ignored her, but she knew all about their fondly-intentioned tendency toward gossip. “If it’s your sister, lemme give you some advice – quit trying.”
She and Susan lock eyes – they understand one another too well, both survivors of addicted siblings, both victims of their early-enforced adulthood, both trying their damndest to become the best medical professionals they can. “Nurse Lockhart,” interrupts Kerry, coming through the door with an armful of files, “Doctor Rasgotra needs you in pediatrics.”
Susan rolls her eyes. “Why didn’t they ask for someone on the duty roster?”
“She specifically asked for you,” Kerry replies, neatly placing the files on the table and grabbing a tray.
“I’ll watch your food for you,” Susan offers out of politeness, and eventually stows the meal in the breakroom’s fridge once Abby’s gone on to tackle her duties. To Susan’s surprise, Kerry’s the one who sits with Susan for the meal.
Afterwards, they scrape plates and tuck the trays back into their previous positions. “It’s your sister again,” she says, as they headed to their lockers and prepared to leave the hospital.
Susan’s breath hitches. Kerry can be eerie with her ability to absorb what was in the periphery. She’s more of an actor than an observer, but she knows Susan’s problems, and can offer her own experience, minus Abby’s bitterness. “She called me out of the blue this morning.” Susan shakes her head. “She hadn’t even spoken two words before I started counting up what was left in our joint checking in case I had to fly out to New York.”
“And you didn’t have to,” Kerry points out. “You have to respect her just a little when she makes baby steps toward recovery, Susan.”
“I’ve been trying. But in my mind, it comes right back to that night she left her daughter for her addiction,” she admits.
Kerry switches subjects to avoid poking her wound. “If you can’t help Chloe, you can help other people. You know you saved a life today, don’t you?”
Susan has to think to bring herself back into the moment - back to the grey-haired woman and her puppet. “Angela?”
“They found an embolism. It took two hours to restabilize her, but she’ll be fine.” Kerry leans against her arm brace and pauses for a moment of thought. “You know that it was a one-in-a-million break,” Kerry declares. “If she hadn’t fallen backwards, it wouldn’t have happened at all.”
Story of my life, Susan thinks, but just gives Kerry an awkward half-grin.
The EL takes her home at nine, where a bathed and fed Cosmo greets her, along with a shaved husband and clean house.
They are a pretty good team when it comes down to brass tacks. She gets playtime with her son while he takes a shower and has a beer. Then they have a communal dinner, while she helps him hem Cosmo’s Halloween cape.
She halfway expects her phone to ring – just not when it does, two minutes before bedtime, while Chuck was trying to kiss the back of her neck.
“Sooz?” the voice is tentative, surprisingly sweet, not at all like the sister she remembers from that morning. “I want you to know…I almost did it. But I stopped myself. And do you wanna know why?”
Susan barely has the courage to ask why in return. Chloe’s response is soft and quiet. “I didn’t want you to have to leave your little boy to take care of me.”
“Tell me everything,” Susan asks, making it a near- demand.
The sun drags itself up over the Chicago skyline long before Chloe finishes pouring her story into her sister’s ever-open ear.