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The Night Nurse

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Claire comes home from the police station without Luke. There’s a lump in her throat and her vision’s all blurry and dammit she hates to cry. She thinks she’ll scream if her mother says it’s okay to be weak, but instead she wraps her arms around Claire’s shoulders and says, “Breathe.”

In the morning, that’s the word she writes on a sheet of stationery, tracing each of the letters slowly and carefully, the way she’d always written before nursing school had decimated her penmanship. She folds it into thirds, seals it in an envelope, pictures it hanging on Luke’s wall in Seagate. Maybe it will get there before he does. The best piece of advice anyone had ever given her, sealed and waiting for him to open.

She doesn’t mean to google the sentence for prison escape, but she does it anyway, and then her breath catches in her throat. Her fingers are numb and her stomach’s churning and she’s starting to think that she can’t when somebody knocks on the door.

The man on the other side is thin and elegant in his suit and hat, as non-threatening as they come, and still her hand feels empty without a taser or a canister of mace. He’ll come after the people that I... Luke had said, and Claire wonders what word he would’ve used to finish that sentence, if she’d let him. Now she wonders if she’d been stupid to open the door.

“Bobby Fischer,” the man says. His voice is hoarse and reedy but oddly melodic. “I knew Luke from the barber shop.”

Claire nods and hopes she’s safe. If he’s an assassin, he’s slow about it.

He passes her a file made from heavy cardstock, its cover grooved and pitted by stray shards of glass.

“Somebody told me you’d know what to do with this,” he says. “Go on, open it up.”

Inside are photographs, legal documents whose significance she can only begin to grasp. Willis Stryker’s name leaps out from the pages, over and over again.

“How did you know to bring it to me?” Claire asks, but Bobby Fischer only shakes his head.

“New York’s a big city, but Harlem’s a small town,” he says.

She clenches her fingers around the file, hugs it to her chest. “Do the police know?”

“You think I’m an idiot?” Bobby Fischer asks, raising his eyebrows. “You take that to a lawyer first. Get our man out of jail.”

Claire nods. “I know a good one.”

 

***

She can’t stop looking over her shoulder when she leaves the apartment. She tells herself she’s being paranoid. Stryker, the police, Mariah Dillard all have what they wanted: Luke in jail. Still, she photocopies every page twice on the rickety old Xerox in the diner’s business office. She hides one copy in the bottom of a messy drawer, tucks another in her bag, and rents a safety deposit box for the originals. She’d already lost Luke once. She’s not losing him again.

Nelson & Murdock’s office is a dog grooming salon, and Matt doesn’t answer the phone when she calls. She’s about to stake out his apartment when she hears somebody say, “Hey, did you hear the new fry cook at Lenny’s is blind?”

She covers the distance in long strides, her breath rattling in her ears. The diner is dingy, but she can see Matt through the pass-through.

“Lady, you can’t go back there!” somebody says when she steps around the counter. The manager, probably. She ducks out of his grasp and pushes the kitchen door open.

“Matt, what the fuck?” she asks. The light is dim, the floor is sticky, and Claire doesn’t even want to think about the smell wafting from the fridge.

“She can’t be back here!” the manager protests, and Claire spares him a glance. Yellow teeth, balding, probably hired the blind guy on the theory he wouldn’t notice the health code violations.

Claire spins. “Either I stay and talk to my friend or I go and call the health inspector. Your choice.”

“Claire?” Matt asks, turning vaguely in her direction.

“You do not get to play the poor innocent blind guy with me,” she says. “I need your help. Right now.”

 

***

Matt’s apartment is a wreck. The splintered remnants of the coffee table are heaped up on the living room rug, and there are gaping holes in the plaster walls. Major depression, she thinks, but she doesn’t say it. By now, she’s figured out the difference between fighting alongside someone and trying to fix them.

“I should’ve called you,” Matt says, handing her a glass of water. There’s not much in the fridge besides the Brita pitcher; she’d seen inside when he opened it.

“Can you hear me rolling my eyes?” she asks. “I don’t want an apology. I want you to make it up to me.”

Matt’s quiet while he scans Luke’s file. He’s got some kind of app that reads things out loud in a tinny voice that Claire imagines would get annoying. When he’s done, he turns back to her with the kind of twisted grin that makes her wonder what kind of feelings he’s holding back.

“You should take this to Foggy,” he says. “He has a practice. Just vigilantes. He can do more than I could.”

“Right. Because you’re a fry cook now,” Claire snaps. “Glad you're putting that Columbia law degree to good use.”

Dammit. She wasn’t supposed to care.

“I’ll make the appointment for you,” he says, spinning his phone around in his hand.

She lays a hand on his wrist. “Stop,” she says. Her voice is sharper than she meant for it to be. “What happened at the hospital -- I didn’t do it for you. I did it for those kids, and I’d do it again.”

“I know,” Matt says quietly. “It doesn’t mean I was right to ask.”

She stares at her own reflection in his glasses. Is she a bad person because she’d let Luisa die again for a chance to save those kids? Or just an overconfident one, because she thinks she could save Luisa too, if she had a chance to do it over again. It doesn’t really matter; Luke’s the one who needs saving now.

“Stop trying to get rid of me,” she says. She taps on the file, still open on the counter in front of Matt. “You’re doing this for me, because you were an asshole the last time I saw you. And you’re doing this for yourself, because you help people. A fry cook is not who you are.”

Matt shakes his head. “Claire, I wish I could. But Foggy --”

“Doesn’t owe me,” Claire says firmly. “You do. And you don’t get to decide how you pay me back.”

 

***

On her way home, she tears off a flyer for martial arts class. The instructor surprises her by offering a lesson as soon as she calls, even though it’s seven o’clock on a Sunday evening. Claire’s got nothing to do and nothing she wants to think about, so she accepts and comes home two hours later, limping and holding a bag of frozen peas to her ribs.

Her mother eyes her with a cocked eyebrow. “What are you doing?” she asks.

“Breathing,” Claire says, and collapses heavily on the couch.

“It’s easier without broken ribs,” her mother says, but she replaces Claire’s half-defrosted peas with a baggie of fresh ice cubes wrapped in a paper towel. “Ten minutes on, ten minutes off,” she says sternly.

“I know, Mami. I’m a nurse, remember?” Claire says, even though she’s not quite sure what she is anymore.

“And I’m the mami,” her mother says. She leans over and kisses Claire’s forehead. “Take some Advil before bed.”

Claire leans back against the couch cushions and closes her eyes. “Thanks for never changing.”

 

***

Luke calls a few days later. Her phone rings, and an automated message asks if she’ll accept a collect call from Seagate Prison.

“Do I have a prison boyfriend now?” she asks. It’s better than are you okay, which is a stupid question anyway.

“Do you want one?” Luke asks. His voice is as slow and calm as remembered it.

“Hell no,” Claire says, and she hears the sharp exhalation of his laughter on the other end of the line. She swallows. “Do you need anything?”

He pauses, and she tries to decide if he’s smiling. “Send me your favorite book.”

Claire eyes the bookshelf next to her bed. “It might not be quite what you have in mind.”

“I’m flexible,” Luke says. “I got a lot of time.”

Her stomach clenches at that. “If someone asks you to join a fight club, just say no.”

“Tried that last time,” Luke deadpans. “Didn’t work.”

“Well, if you have to fight, win,” she shoots back. She stands up to look at her bookshelf and winces. She’d gone to another self-defense lesson, even though her ribs hadn’t fully recovered from the first.

“You alright?” Luke asks, his voice suddenly sharp with concern.

“I didn’t say no the fight club,” she admits, pressing her hand against the sore spot on her side.

“Be careful,” Luke says.

Claire snorts. “Never.”

Two beeps sound to warn them their time is up. Claire runs her fingers along the spines of her books till she finds the one she’s looking for: Anatomy and Physiology in Health and Illness, Fifteenth Edition. Seven hundred twenty-four pages, hardcover. It’s going to be a bitch to mail.

 

***

Claire had thought that if she sat around long enough, some desperate vigilante with superpowers would show up and beg for her help. Given how her life had been going, it seemed like a reasonable assumption. But no new vigilantes appear. Maybe she’s exhausted New York’s whole supply. What’s she supposed to do? Search all the dumpsters in Manhattan? Ride the train to another troubled neighborhood and hope a superhero pops out of the woodwork?

“You know, superheroes aren’t the only people who need saving,” her mother says after Claire’s fourth day on the couch.

Claire snorts. “There’s not one hospital in New York that’ll hire me. You know that.”

Her mother just rolls her eyes and hands over her nurse’s bag. “Mrs. Llamosa’s incision isn’t healing. Why don’t you go check on her?”

The bag is heavier than it was a few days ago. Claire opens it and peers inside. “Where did you get all this?” she asks, fingering the vials of local anesthetic and antibiotics.

Her mother just shrugs. “I know people. Now go help Mrs. Llamosa.”

 

***

Of course, it’s not just Mrs. Llamosa who needs help. By the time Claire’s cleaned out the infected spot and changed the dressings on her incision, there’s a little crowd of people in the apartment. Somebody needs stitches and can’t afford the ER trip. A sprained ankle needs taping. Mr. Vargas thinks he might have a concussion, and his granddaughter has a weird mole on her forearm. It’s like a night at Mercy, except with zero supplies and nobody to help.

Finally, Mrs. Llamosa’s niece shoos everybody out with a wave of her hand. “The lady’s tired. Can’t you see?”

Reluctantly, the crowd backs away. The last thing Claire sees before the door closes is a weathered brown face. Eyes pleading, the man says, “When are you coming back?”

 

***

Her phone rings five seconds after she collapses on her bed. She closes her eyes and considers ignoring it, but what if it’s Luke, or Matt with news about the case? She checks the area code. Seagate.

“I never thought I’d be happy to get a call from prison,” Claire says, smiling in spite of her exhaustion.

“I never thought I’d learn so much about flesh-eating bacteria,” Luke counters.

“You got the book,” Claire says. Mailing it had cost $52.74, all her tips from the lunch shift she’d worked at the diner.

“This is really your favorite?” Luke asks. She can’t hear any disappointment in his voice, only curiosity.

“I’ve never been much for fiction,” Claire admits, flopping over on her stomach. “It always seemed like a waste of time.”

Luke snorts. “Imagination isn’t a waste. Beauty isn’t a waste.” She hears the sound of pages rustling, and then, “How about this? ‘I brood not over the broken past, nor dread what time may bring. No days are dark, no nights are long while in my heart there swells a song, and I can sing.”

Claire leans back against her pillow, torn between sentiment and cynicism. “You sing now?” she asks finally. “That’s new.”

She pictures Luke shaking his head slowly, a smile spreading across his face. But maybe he’s frowning. She’ll never know.

“I can’t carry a tune,” he admits. “But the metaphor helps.”

She tries to think whether any of her previous boyfriends would have used the word metaphor in a sentence, much less drawn hope from a piece of literature. She comes up blank.

“I can’t believe the first man to read me poetry is my prison boyfriend,” she says.

“I thought you said you didn’t want a prison boyfriend.”

“Doesn’t mean I don’t have one.”

Luke’s voice goes heavy. “Claire, don’t wait.”

She shakes her head even though Luke can’t see her. “I’m the one who gets to decide how long is too long.”

 

***

The next time she goes back to Mrs. Llamosa’s, there’s a line snaking around the door. She does what she can, mostly debriding wounds and stitching up cuts underneath the kitchen lamp. When she asks for supplies, they appear through a long chain of neighbors: brighter lightbulbs, clean white towels, a fresh box of rubber gloves. Her new patients insist on giving her what they can, and she accepts it because she knows they need to feel like they’ve given something back. The wealthiest press a ten or a twenty into her hand; most offer her homemade soup or a chocolate cake or a promise to fix the broken oven in the back of the diner.

Misty Knight runs into her in the hallway, where she’s struggling with a box of medical supplies and a bag of food. Misty looks her up and down and says, “Please tell me you’re not practicing medicine in there.”

Claire shrugs as best she can under the weight of her boxes and bags. “I have a license.”

Misty rolls her eyes. “Then you know that treating someone’s apartment like an emergency room violates half a dozen laws and twice as many health codes.”

Claire smiles brightly and fishes one of Matt’s old cards out of her purse. “I’m not practicing medicine, and good luck finding a witness to testify. If you have any more questions, feel free to call my lawyer.” She manages to get in the elevator without making a smartass comment about Misty’s interrogation tactics, which she counts as a win.

Back at home, she shoves the food into the fridge and counts her dwindling medical supplies. The syringes are almost gone, and at $36 a box, they won’t be easy to replace. Her local anesthetic’s about done too, and she can’t exactly order refills on Amazon. Her life as a vigilante nurse is going to be short-lived if she doesn’t come up with a solution soon.

 

***

Matt calls when she’s getting ready for bed.

“Nice to hear from you, fry cook,” she says when she picks up the phone.

“I prefer fry chef,” he says, clucking his tongue. “Listen, if you want me to do anything, I’m going to need the original files.”

“I was afraid you were going to say that,” Claire says, wrapping a blanket around her shoulders. Letting go of the files will be hard; if she doesn’t have them, it will be that much easier for someone to pull the rug out from under her again.

“You know I can keep them safe, right?” Matt says, and she remembers him coming for her in that parking garage. It feels like a hundred years ago now.

“I trust you,” she says, because she does. He’s not the kind of man anyone should date, and he’s not the kind of friend you can depend on for a cup of coffee, but he will see justice done. That much she’s sure of.

“I’ll get him back for you, Claire,” he says, and she doesn’t bother to ask how he knows what Luke is to her. She’s sure he heard it in her heart.

 

***

Matt meets her at the bank in the morning. His stubble’s gone, and he’s wearing a suit. Predictably, there’s a bruise on his jaw, but all in all, he looks much better than when she’d seen him last.

“Thank you,” he says when she hands him the file. “For the case, I mean. I needed it.”

“Hell yeah you did,” Claire says. “You going to stop making chicken fingers now?”

She’d forgotten the way Matt’s smiles could blossom across his face. “I can’t say I love the smell. Or anything about it, actually.”

Claire nudges him with her elbow. “So go be a lawyer. Help people with your fancy education.”

“Yeah.” Matt ducks his head. “I still owe you one, Claire.”

“Good, because I’m practicing medicine illegally in an old lady’s apartment,” she says.

“You’re not supposed to tell your attorney you’re guilty, you know,” he says. He squeezes her hand. “But I’ll do some research just in case.”

 

***

“This lawyer you got me is not a normal lawyer,” Luke says the next time he calls.

Claire taps her fingers on the nightstand, weighing what to say. “You have some hobbies in common,” she offers finally. Matt’s secrets are his own, and anyway, it’s not a secure line.

“You ever get coffee with him?” he asks. His voice is still tinged with humor, but there’s a darker current underneath.

Claire snorts. “That is so not your business.”

“If my lawyer wants my girl, it sounds like my business,” Luke says firmly. She thinks about him stuck in a prison cell, with nothing to trust but her good faith, and decides it’s not fair to play coy.

“It’s not like that anymore,” she says. “He owes me.”

“I’d like to hear that story sometime,” he says, and Claire thinks, not on a monitored prison line.

“You wouldn’t believe it if I did,” she tosses back. Which is why she hasn’t told anyone yet, not even her mom.

“Try me.” Luke’s voice is all humor now, and she can picture his eyes sparkling. Well, she hopes they’re sparkling, that it’s possible to feel that kind of happiness where he is, just for a moment.

“When you get home,” she says.

“Then I’ll try to make it fast.”

Claire leans back against her bedroom wall, pressing the phone closer to her ear. “You’d better,” she says.

As if any of this is under their control.

 

***

Misty Knight knocks on her door in the morning.

“If you’re here to question me, I want my lawyer,” Claire says, then feels like an ass when she sees the cellophane-wrapped basket in Misty’s arms.

Misty licks her lips, shakes her head. “That’s fair,” she says finally, “but it’s not why I’m here.” She thrusts out the basket. “I never said thank you. For my arm.” She sighs. “Or, you know, for my life.”

“Most people don’t,” Claire says. Then she looks at the basket. It’s filled with little blue boxes, the kind she remembers from her days at Mercy. Hundred-count packages of hypodermic needles and syringes, probably a few hundred dollars of supplies altogether. She blinks. “Where did you get these?”

Misty shrugs. “They were my uncle’s. He was diabetic, but he passed last week.” She holds up a hand before Claire can offer condolences. “He was a mean old cuss. Sure never helped anyone when he was alive. But he might as well do some good now he’s dead.”

Claire nods, and Misty says, “You’re doing a good thing. Thank you.”

 

***

Claire's been working at Mrs. Llamosas' place for a few weeks when she hears her nickname.  Thinking back, it shouldn't surprise her: she'd stitched up wounds, delivered a baby, managed a whole lot of diabetes, and shepherded a few people to the ER, where they got better care because an actual nurse was standing up for them.  But she's just doing her job -- or trying to, anyway -- so she doesn't think it's worthy of a nickname.

The first time she hears it, she's limping home from self-defense class on Tuesday night.  She barely has time to register the sound of gunfire before the shooting’s over and the perpetrator’s car is screeching away. Then somebody grabs her arm and yells, “Hey, Night Nurse, we need your help!”

It’s bad. Multiple gunshot wounds, and she can’t do much more than use her coat to try and staunch the bleeding. But the victim’s still breathing when the ambulance arrives, so she counts it as a win. Back in her kitchen, she peels off her bloody jeans and tosses them in the trash. She wants to say a prayer for the victim, but instead she checks her bank balance and sighs. She’s broke, and now she’s down a coat and a pair of pants.

She’s talking to Luke when somebody knocks on her door. She remembers how empty her hands had felt when she opened the door to Bobby Fischer all those weeks ago; now her hands are her weapons, and she opens the door without a second thought.

The woman looks familiar -- an upstairs neighbor, maybe, or an occasional customer at the diner, Claire thinks. Maybe both.

“Can I help you?” she asks, trying not to resent the minutes stolen from her conversation with Luke.

“No,” the woman says, and then she hands Claire a heavy black coat.

Claire stares at the bundle of thick fabric in her hands. “What’s this for?” she asks finally.

The woman smiles. “You’re the Night Nurse. You lost your coat back there. I saw.” She ducks her head and disappears before Claire can say thank you.

Her hands are shaking, and she can’t understand why.

“You okay?” Luke asks. She’d almost forgotten they were on the phone.

“They know who I am,” she says slowly. “I lost my coat on the street tonight, and somebody brought me a new one.”

“The neighborhood takes care of its heroes,” Luke says. “How long do you think it’s been since I bought a hoodie?”

Claire shakes her head. “I’m not a hero. I’m just a nurse with an illegal clinic and less than half the supplies I need.”

“The people say you’re a hero. I say you’re a hero.”

Luke’s tone is firm, but Claire rolls her eyes anyway. “You just want a cup of coffee when you come home,” she says, and she hears him laughing on the other end of the line.

“Don’t be afraid to own what you are,” he says, and then their two beeps sound.

 

***

She hears her nickname again in the stairway of Mrs. Llamosa’s building. The elevators are down. Of course. Thanks, New York City Housing Authority. Venturing into the stairwells of public housing complexes is not a recommended nighttime activity, but what in Claire’s life is safe? She slings her bag over her shoulder and starts climbing.

On the landing between the third and fourth floor, she realizes that carrying a bag full of pills might make her a target -- even more than she already is, because she’s a woman. The lights on the next flight of stairs are out, and for a minute, she considers calling Matt. But what is she taking all these self-defense classes for, if not to protect herself?

The fight’s over fast. The hairs prickle on the back of her neck before somebody slams her into the wall. She’s practiced this a hundred times by now. The moves are routine. Snap your hips back, knock your assailant off balance, spin around and shove your knee into his groin. She hears a groan of pain, followed by the dull thud of her attacker hitting the floor.

A flashlight beam appears on the stairs before she can catch her breath. Her stomach clenches when she sees the three young men standing on the steps above her. Their reputations precede them, and she’s not trained for three against one.

The flashlight beam travels up and down her body, fixes on her face. She wills herself not to squint.

“Thumper, right?” she says, willing her voice not to shake. “I’ve heard a lot about you, from your aunt.”

“Night Nurse,” he says. “We’ve heard about you too."

The flashlight beam races down to the boy who’d attacked her. He’s just now getting up off the floor.

“What the fuck, Alfredo?” Thumper says. “This is the Night Nurse. She stitched up my cousin last week.” He flicks the flashlight back toward Claire. “Forgive my friend. Come on, we’ll walk you up the rest of the way.”

 

***

When Claire comes back to the diner, there’s a palette of medical supplies in the middle of the floor. Most of it’s pretty standard -- bandages, OTC pain meds, tape for sprains. But in the middle are crates of things she can’t get herself. Insulin, anesthetic, vials of IV antibiotics. It’s too good to be true. Claire knows that even before she sees the snake sitting in the booth next to the door.

“Claire Temple,” Mariah Dillard says. “You are truly an asset to our community.”

Claire clenches her jaw so hard she’s surprised it doesn’t break. “Thank you. Now get out.” She jerks her head toward the pile of supplies on the floor. “And you can take that with you.”

Mariah’s beneficent smile doesn’t waver. She slides out of the booth and walks toward Claire, smoothing her designer jacket as she goes. “Surely we can put the past behind us. We’re two women working for the good of our community, aren’t we?”

“No.” Claire grits her teeth. In her mind, she’s playing the game her self-defense instructor taught her, the one where she plans attacks on the most vulnerable parts of her opponent’s body. Elbow to the solar plexus, she thinks, heel of the hand straight to the nose. She can imagine the soft, surprised sound Mariah would make as she hit the floor.

Mariah spreads her hands in a conciliatory gesture. “We’re more alike than we are different, Claire. You’ll see that soon enough. For example, we’re both willing to bend the rules when we know it will help people we care about. You have your illegal clinic, and I have...well, an unorthodox manner of doing business. What matters is the end result.”

“What matters is you take your presents and get out of here,” Claire says, shivering in spite of herself. Mariah’s not giving her a gift; she’s buying herself leverage, a chance to call the cops if Claire steps out of line.

Mariah shakes her head sadly. “There’s really no need for this, Claire. Think how many people you could help.”

“What part of leave don’t you understand?” Claire asks. Her eyes dart across the room, looking for undercover cops and hidden mikes. “Your supplies are illegal, and I won’t accept them.”

“I will,” her mother says, stepping out of the kitchen. Her apron looks old and frayed, and strands of hair are falling out of her bun.

“Mami no!” Claire protests. “We can’t trust her.”

But her mother only squeezes Mariah’s hand and thanks her for the generous gift. Afterward, she hustles Claire into the office and shoves her into one of the spindly old chairs.

“You think you know something I don’t?” she asks, shaking her head. “Mariah Dillard’s a snake, but what she gave you can save somebody’s life. You don’t say no to that.”

“But Mami --”

“But nothing. You think you’re the only one with shady friends? We’ll hide this till you need it. And anyway, what’s she going to do? Call the cops and say she gave you medical supplies you’re not supposed to have? She’s an accomplice now. That’s what we want.”

 

***

“Hey, Night Nurse,” Luke says the next time he calls.

Claire pulls her blanket more tightly across her shoulders. “Not you too,” she says. “How did you even hear that?”

“You think you’re the only one I talk to on the outside?” he asks. “You’re getting quite the reputation.”

Claire sighs. “Yeah, even Mariah Dillard heard. She tried to give me a bunch of medical supplies. Anesthetic, IVs, stuff that’s not easy to get.”

“And you accepted it?” Luke asks.

“No.” Claire swallows. “But my mother did.”

She wishes she could see the concern on Luke’s face, let herself fall back into the comforting weight of his body. Instead, she listens to the soft exhalation on the other end of the line and tries to guess what he’s feeling.

“Maybe it’s not such a bad idea to collaborate with her,” Luke says finally.

Claire resists the urge to hang up the phone. “She had a murder witness assassinated, and she hung you out to dry,” she says, pulse pounding in her temples. “And you want us to...what? Have sleepovers and braid each other’s hair?”

She hears Luke smile on the other end of the line. Or she thinks she hears it, anyway. Is this what Matt’s life is like? Trying to assemble a mental picture of someone through a hundred tiny clues?

“Working with someone and trusting them aren’t the same thing,” Luke says. “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Isn’t that what they say?”

The two beeps sound before she can answer.

 

***

The palette of medical supplies is stacked in the living room now. Sitting cross legged on the floor, she forces herself to take inventory. Needles, syringes, IV bags, tubing, antibiotics -- everything she can’t get without an authorized clinic or a doctor to write prescriptions. If she gives it back, people might die.

She picks up her phone, punches the numbers reluctantly. It goes straight to voicemail, and she says, “I need to talk to my lawyer.”

 

***

Matt’s clean-shaven when she meets him in his new basement office. It’s damp and smells of mildew, but obsessively neat.

“Look at you, a real lawyer,” Claire says, sliding into one of battered chairs across from his desk.

“Making almost enough to pay for this luxurious hovel,” he says. “I tried practicing out of my apartment, but my landlord objected.”

“Of everything you do, this is what your landlord is pissed about?” Claire asks, waving a hand at the stacks of files on his desk.

Matt smiles ruefully. “Well, he doesn’t know about the other stuff.” He pauses, taps his fingers on his desk. “You’re worried about something, Claire. What is it?”

“I think Mariah Dillard’s trying to set me up. She dropped off a ton of medical supplies yesterday. Stuff that it’s not technically legal for me to have. I tried to turn it down, but my mother took it instead, which is even worse…” She slumps in her chair and wonders if Matt can hear the knots in her stomach.

“Legally, she can’t touch you. If she gave you the supplies, she can’t turn you in without implicating herself. You pulled the security tapes, right?”

Claire nods, even though Matt can’t see it. “As soon as she left. What’s she playing at, Matt?”

Matt shrugs. “Hard to say, but she might see some advantages in having you depend on her. Keep your friends close and your enemies closer, right?”

Claire sighs. “You’re not the first person who’s said that to me in the last twenty-four hours.”

Matt shakes his head. “Listen, Claire, it’s not the medical supplies that will send you to jail. It’s the clinic. If Mariah Dillard wants you gone, all she has to do is send you a patient with a weird complication who dies on you. Or get you to treat someone who’s just committed a crime. The whole doctor-patient confidentiality thing gets blurry when someone’s running an unlicensed clinic in the kitchen of a public housing complex.”

“What are you telling me, Matt? To stop?” She feels anger blooming inside her chest, even though she knows it isn’t fair. “These people don’t have insurance. They can’t afford a doctor. A visit to the ER would ruin them. It’s me or nothing.”

Matt rubs his forehead. “Believe me, Claire, I know the feeling. But as your lawyer -- as your friend -- I have to tell you the risks. Open a clinic. A real clinic. Then I can protect you.”

 

***

The diner’s closed on Mondays, and her mom’s waiting on the couch when she comes home.

“What did your lawyer friend say?” she asks.

Claire thinks about lying, but no, she owes her mom better than that -- and anyway, she’s a shitty liar when she’s upset. “That I can go to jail for stitching up gunshot victims in Mrs. Llamosa’s kitchen.”

She collapses onto the couch next to her mom. Her patients are flickering through her mind. She thought she’d done a good job picking who to treat and who to send to the ER, but Matt was right: she’s one bad judgment away from prison. And she had stitched up some of the local thugs.

“This would be much easier if you could prescribe medicine, right?” her mother asks. Her feet are tucked up under her, and there’s a cup of tea in her hand. She looks determinedly casual, so Claire knows a serious conversation is in store.

“Ay, Mami, we’ve talked about this,” she says, but her mother flicks away her protest with a wave of her hand.

“So we’ll talk about it again.” She shrugs her shoulders. “If you could write prescriptions, you wouldn’t have to depend on crooked politicians to get you drugs.”

“I’m not going to medical school,” Claire says firmly. She’s got an excellent diatribe on why doctors aren’t better than nurses.

But her mother’s not hearing it.

“Medical school? Who the hell has time for that?” Her mother shakes her head. “And so much money. You’ll be a nurse practioner. Just like a family practice doctor but in half the time and for half the money. And then you won’t go to jail for ordering medical supplies.” She leans over and pulls a stack of glossy brochures out of the drawer on the coffee table. “See, I’ve been researching. Columbia has the best exam pass rate, but you’d like the internships at Hunter much better.”

Claire wishes she’d thought to pour herself a drink before she sat down -- not that her mother would approve of using alcohol to get through a difficult conversation.

“Mami, you know I can’t get a loan, right?” She hadn’t worked in a good six months, and her credit’s not exactly pristine, thanks to Mike the secretive ex.

Her mother just shrugs. “You worry about the applications. I’ll worry about the money.”

“No, Mami, I can’t let you do that. The profit margin in the restaurant business is razor thin as it is. You get one health code violation, or something breaks, or --”

Her mother stands up in an instant, her hands on her hips. “You listen to me, Claire Temple. Not all the heroes in this city wear masks and fight crime. Some of them heal people. You know what they have in common? They all need help. I picked my hero. It’s you. Now get started on those applications.”

 

***

Claire’s flicking through the brochures when Luke calls. Columbia has the name recognition and the stats to go with it, but her mother’s right -- of course -- that Hunter’s program fits her interests better.

“What’re you doing?” Luke asks. His voice is light as ever, but Claire can hear a dark undercurrent beneath it.

“Going back to school, apparently,” she says, steeling herself for whatever he’s about to say.

“Good for you,” he says. He pauses. “Claire, I’m glad you’re moving on with your life. We should talk about -- well, our future. Your future.”

“I’m listening,” Claire says tersely. She’s already sure she doesn’t like where this conversation is going.

“Getting out of here could take months. Maybe more than a year.” He pauses, takes a breath. “I can’t let you wait for me that long.”

“Let me? Let me?” Claire asks, pushing herself up from her chair. Her voice is loud -- too loud, but she doesn’t care. “You don’t let me do anything. I choose. And I know what a mistake feels like. Believe me, I’ve made enough of them. This isn’t one.”

“Listen to me, Claire. After everything you’ve done, you deserve better than a man with a life sentence hanging around his neck.”

“Damn right I do,” Claire snaps. “Which is why we’re getting rid of this life sentence bullshit. Now you listen to me. I’m not some idiot who’s so hung up on a man she can’t think straight. I told you, I decide how long is too long to wait, and I meant it. But if you’re not strong enough for that, say the word and I’ll hang up right now.”

For a moment, they listen to each other’s breathing in silence. Luke’s voice goes soft when he says, “For you Claire, I can do anything. Always.”

 

***

Bobby Fischer asks her to come to the barbershop on the first day of autumn. Spring and summer had passed in a blur of wistful phone calls to Seagate, and hours fine tuning her applications, trying to make her dismissal from Mercy sound like less of a liability. Now her new textbooks are stacked on her desk, their covers still glossy. A cool breeze is blowing through the window, and Claire knows she should pick up a jacket on the way out the door, but it doesn’t seem worth the time. She’s lucky she even remembers her keys.

Easy, Claire, she tells herself as she weaves through the pedestrians on the sidewalk. If it were bad news, Matt would have called. But that doesn’t mean it’s good news. Not the good news. She would’ve heard about that already. Surely.

Still, she walks fast enough to stumble on the cracks in the pavement. Once she nearly knocks over someone’s grandmother and has to stop to apologize.

She doesn’t let herself believe it’s him until she can see his face. Harlem is full of men in hoodies, she tells herself sternly. The last time she’d let herself believe something good was happening, Luke had been pulled away from her in handcuffs a few minutes later.

But there’s no mistaking the slow smile spreading across his face, or the way he opens his arms to her. She flings herself toward him without a second thought and feels herself swept off the ground. He’s strong -- ridiculously strong -- and solid beneath her. Someone she can lean on. Finally.

“Really?” she asks when he finally puts her down. Her voice is breathless, barely her own.

“Really,” he says, calm and implacable. “Free and clear.”

She looks around them, taking in the crumbling sidewalk, the boarded-up window, the oblivious crowd swirling on the sidewalk. She can’t say half the things she wants to say, or do any of the things she wants to do to him right now -- at least, not without getting arrested.

“Why are we here?” she manages finally.

Luke inclines his head toward the boarded up windows of the barbershop. Bobby Fischer hadn’t been able to rebuild on his own, or hadn’t wanted to.

“You know, I’m not a barber,” he says. “But you’re a nurse.”

The words take a moment to sink in. Claire’s mouth opens and closes. “Are you saying what I think you’re saying?”

“It’s small, but it would be a good clinic. Still a neutral zone. Pop would’ve liked that.”

“I’m sorry. This is going to take me a moment to process,” Claire says. Her knees are weak. “Men usually just lie to me, and then leave. So the whole coming back for me, giving me your most precious possession...It’s going to take me a minute to figure out what to say.”

Luke smiles ruefully. “Technically, it’s not my possession. It’s the bank’s. But as long as the bills keep getting paid…” He gestures toward the building. “You want a tour? Start making plans?”

Claire shakes her head. “Nope. I want a cup of coffee.”