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Make Lies All Day To Keep The Pain Away

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Conrad wanders back and forth in her field of vision, constantly on the move, burning caffeine in the bloodstream like fuel. A swarm of med students, looking rested for the very last time in their lives, buzz anxiously around him as he attempts to impart wisdom to their absorbing brains. He is woefully outnumbered against the many questions bombarded at him, testing his patience. All the while, his jaw is tense and a wrinkle has taken permanent residence between his eyebrows.

Despite seemingly thriving with the newfound authority, the second year of residency weights on his shoulders with the responsibility of teaching a large group of future doctors. Practicing medicine is a brutal reality in comparison to the hypothetical scenarios of med school, the risks taken have real consequences and his currently rough, no-nonsense teaching approach reflects that. Even with the tense undertone of his voice that only Nic can hear, he speaks to the students slowly but intentionally, savoring every syllable, always meaning every word and leaving no room for misinterpretations. In this chaotic world of sickness and flat lines, Conrad still manages to keep an impeccable seriousness to him, with an unreadable face and focused eyes that seldom betray emotion. On the outside he is all bravado, the personification of confidence.

But it’s in the fractured space between words, or in the pauses he takes before unleashing either a bitter truth or an angry response, that she finds the real Conrad and those emotions he tries so hard to hide. The more Nic scratches his intriguing surface, the more she discovers the many layers that constitute the man that hides behind arrogance and quick temper, and it is only in the sanctity of their own homes, when their work is locked outside the door, that Nic sees glimpses of vulnerability in him.

Conrad had tossed and turned all night long in anticipation of starting the second year of residency, and eventually woke up covered in cold sweat and with uneven breathing that had not calmed down since then. In the morning light, as they spoke in whispers while tracing the boundaries of each other’s bodies in the afterglow, Nic reminded him that he had once been on the side of medical ignorance despite his reluctance to admit it, and he should practice some patience during the day with his med students, and even with himself. He had dismissed her warnings with a smug grin back then.

Nic monitors him throughout the day, orbiting around him at a safe distance, and has to remind herself countless times that he is not her patient despite her concern. Instead, she registers his symptoms in a mental list that grows by the hour.

At lunch time, Conrad lands on the empty chair beside her with a heavy sigh, looking exhausted and lacking appetite when she offers some of her chicken salad. He takes a sip of her coffee instead.

Her gaze shifts first to his neck where a rash has spread below the shirt’s collar, then it lands on his index finger, which is red from obsessively twisting the ring around.

“You okay?” She asks casually between bites.

And without surprise, Conrad expertly deflects her question. “I'm not sure there's much hope for any of these students.”

“You should go easy on them, not everyone can be a “medical genius” like you.” Nic lifts two fingers and the fork and bends them in quotation marks.

“Are you making fun of me?”

She chuckles, a master at deflection as well. “Relax, Conrad. They are young and still have time to learn.”

“No, they are naive know-it-alls from fancy schools that think they already know everything needed to practice medicine.”

“Sounds like someone I met a year ago. This very arrogant intern that keeps bending the system and breaking rules while getting away with it because he fancies himself better than most,” she offers with no malice intended, suppressing a smile at the same time.

Although in truth, Conrad was never that naïve. By the time he stepped inside a hospital for the first time as a medical student he had already performed countless medical procedures, crude and bloody, sometimes unsuccessful, in the battlefields of a distant war.

He opens his mouth, most likely to contradict her statement by the way he looks offended, but the pager calls for his attention. After a quick look, followed by a groan and a kiss to her forehead, he is in motion again.

Nic exhales, feeling even more exasperated while watching him run full speed ahead out of the cafeteria. Eight more hours until the end of the shift, she reminds herself.

They find each other again in the afternoon, converging to a code blue on the fourth floor. Once they emerge together from his patient’s room after avoiding fatal arrest, and his students have been shocked into silence, Nic eventually notices he is struggling for air and not only from the effort of the compressions he just performed. His fingers scratch one forearm sprinkled with clusters of red spots, making the skin there angrier than before.

They stare at each other, the truth in his brown eyes is never entirely hidden from her, even though he stops all of her attempts to reach deeper inside. Beneath that hardened exterior, lays a vast battlefield of burdens that prevents him from showing any sign of vulnerability, even to her, and it hurts not being allowed to ease his pain.

“You’re not well, Conrad. Asking for help when you need it doesn't make you weak.” There's a gentleness in her tone, a kindness without being condescending.

“I'm fine.”

By the sharpness of his tone, she can tell his patience has run out at last. Even though she loves and trusts the man that is regarding her so solemnly, the conviction grows that she should quench her caregiver instinct and not press the matter any further.

Conrad walks away without looking back, followed by his flock of students resembling baby chicks after a mother hen.

Time passes by in an unhurried pace before Nic sees him again. In the last half-hour of the shift, her pager buzzes once more with a simple message, an urgent call to the ER.

“He’s in bay two,” Hundley states, smiling conspicuously at Nic as soon as she rushes through the doors.

Nic pushes the curtain aside and finds Conrad sitting on the edge of the bed, shoulders slumped, pale and breathing heavily. His jawline is tense and he is massaging one temple.

“There's something wrong with me, Nic. I think it's serious. I've never felt this sick before.”

Surprise is all there is left for her to feel. Knowing Conrad well enough by now, only extreme discomfort would make him admit defeat and seek help, even if it’s only from her. It’s just as well that Nic diagnosed him hours ago, but she indulges his dramatics anyway with that commanding tone reserved for the most stubborn patients.

“Take off your shirt.”

Enjoying being the center of her attention as always, his lips press into a mischievous grin as he complies with her request.

The racing beat of his heart reaches her ears as soon as she presses the stethoscope to his chest. There’s an undercurrent of tension beneath his skin that feels cold and clammy on the tips of her fingers.

Even though he is neither shy, nor self-conscious about his body, Nic knows he’s feeling exposed by such a moment of weakness in the crowded ER. From the corner of her eyes, she catches a few stares from staff and patients alike, their gazes are solely fixed on him, devouring every inch of exposed skin with their eyes. There's selfishness swelling inside her, a feeling that makes her want to show them he belongs only to her, and driven by a sense of entitlement to his body Nic runs her hands over him with a gentle touch that goes beyond the standard of care for any other patient, playing with the line of professionalism that is so sacred to her.

She tracks the hives that are spread unevenly all over his back and disfigure the tattoo across his shoulders, and feels him shiver when her hand reaches his lower back. A trail of goosebumps erupts on the surface of his skin.

“What's the diagnosis, nurse Nevin?”

“Cutaneous rash, shallow breathing, headache, stomach pain. All signs of a psychosomatic reaction to your first day as a second-year resident. You are experiencing a severe case of resident anxiety syndrome, Conrad.”

He scoffs, “That can't be right. I don't get anxious or stressed under pressure, especially not because of med students.”

One neat eyebrow shoots up challenging him to contradict what he already knows is the truth. Her stare lingers on him not without pity.

“I'm prescribing an antihistamine and rest,” she leans forward to whisper in his ear, “preferably in my bed.”

Conrad finally surrenders and rests his forehead on her shoulder, the release of a deep sigh allows his body to sag in admitted defeat. “I would like that very much.”