Of all people, he’d expected Dr. Okun to make an almighty fuss about being injured, yet there he sat on the examination bench, cool as a cucumber while blood overflowed his palm and dripped onto the floor. He’d even apologized for the mess.
“How’d it happen?” Milton asked, raising the bench with the foot pedal until Okun’s feet didn’t quite touch the tiles. The nurse briefed him: a clean palm laceration requiring stitches. She hadn’t mentioned the cause.
“It was an accident.”
As Okun continued, Milton took his hand and wiped the wound with antiseptic. He didn’t wince, so the local anaesthetic the nurse administered must’ve kicked in.
“Lenel was experimenting with one of the ship’s power coupling thingies. While he was slotting it back in place it slipped out. I put my hands up to stop it hitting me in the face, ‘cause those things are real heavy, and… I guess there was a sharp bit.”
“Is the power coupling okay?”
It took Brackish a moment to catch his humor. When he did, he nodded and huffed a nervous laugh.
“You might want to look the other way for this bit.”
The suture kit had been laid out on the trolley. As he rolled it closer, Okun turned away, closed his eyes, and swallowed hard.
Milton positioned his patient’s trembling hand. “You won’t feel a thing. If you do, you tell me and I’ll stop, okay?”
Milton had never heard him sound so timid and frightened. Still not making a fuss, though. Then Okun’s hand retreated just before the needle touched his flesh.
“I’m scared,” he whispered, eyes remaining tightly closed.
Milton’s heart melted. In his time, he’d seen people act out fear in a hundred different ways. He’d been shoved, cursed and yelled at, and by soldiers no less. They’d smashed equipment, sobbed like children and made him promise to never tell a soul, refused treatment and worsened their condition. Rarely had anyone admitted their fear in so frank and truthful a manner.
“Take a few deep breaths and give yourself a minute,” Milton soothed, touching Okun’s thigh briefly. Small talk was an option, but topics like the weather or ‘what do you do for a living?’ weren’t exactly applicable in Area 51.
Okun’s chest rose and fell while he calmed himself, and all Milton could think of was stroking the doctor’s thigh to reassure him. Inappropriate. But tempting. Seeing such a bubbly, happy-go-lucky guy so terrified and upset made him wish he could offer a less frightening treatment, but this was the only option.
“Ready to try again?”
Okun nodded sharply, sliding his hand back to where it was before.
“Have you read any good books lately?” Milton asked, positioning the needle. He wanted Okun distracted, talking.
“No,” Okun said through clenched teeth, still trembling.
Message understood. Well, if he couldn’t talk, Milton would fill the silence. He slid the first stitch through and knotted it.
“See those flowers on the shelf over there?” Brackish wrenched his eyelids open and stole a quick glance at the row of potted plants before closing them again. “Which one do you like the most?” The second stitch went in easy as anything.
As Okun peeked at the flowers again, the tremor in his hand lessened. “The weird-looking one.”
Milton chuckled. “That’s a subjective viewpoint.”
“The one on the end.”
“Ah. Vanda insignis. A rare orchid, native to one tiny Indonesian island. They’re hard to grow. People don’t usually bother.”
“As you say, they’re weird-looking.” He’d always been drawn to flowers considered less aesthetically pleasing and was particularly proud of that bloom. Cultivating it had been a challenge. Worth every second.
“Why did you grow it?” Okun’s gaze was fixed on the Vanda, hand motionless as Milton tied the last stitch. The flower appeared to have him captivated.
“Because I never had, and I like a challenge.” Applying a dressing to Okun’s palm, he stepped back slightly, giving him a more appropriate amount of personal space. “All done.”
“Oh.” Okun’s shoulders lowered in relief as he faced him. “That was quick.” A small smile quirked at the corner of his mouth as he peered down at the dressing, proof that it really was all over.
“I’m afraid I don’t have any lollipops.”
Milton scratched the back of his neck, felt his cheeks heating up. “I uh… as a reward for being brave I mean. Just a joke.” It sounded like he was calling him a child. And why did he feel the need to make jokes around him anyway? “But if you’d like the orchid, please take it.” And why had he said that?
Okun looked as confused as Milton felt. “You… want me to have your prized orchid?”
“If you like it. I prefer them to go to good homes.”
He preferred them to be here to admire while he worked. He preferred to be the one keeping an eye on them, ensuring they received the correct amount of water, heat and artificial light. But Okun’s face lit up, and suddenly Milton would’ve given him the whole shelfful.
“If you’re sure.”
Stepping off the exam bench, Okun approached the shelf and leaned in close to examine the Vanda. “You know, they’re actually kinda pretty when you get up close.”
“They need to be watered every morning with a few teaspoons of tepid water,” Milton said, trying not to sound worried. “And keep it warm. Near a radiator or away from drafts.”
“I’ll take good care of it,” Okun said, sliding it from the shelf with his good hand. “Thank you, Dr. Isaacs!”
Okun left, a smile on his face, the orchid held against his belly.
Milton would keep watch of the Vanda from afar, ask Okun for condition updates every chance he got. He still wasn’t sure why he’d gifted it to him. Perhaps he wanted to create a fellow avid gardener. Perhaps he merely wanted an excuse to talk to Dr. Okun again.