Chapter One excerpt five

(Start from the beginning here)

As the last of the light faded, Aiden McCall walked the half hour across the beach, angling upward until the smooth sand became interspersed with the rough brush and tall, spiky grasses growing roadside. How much of his rant, he wondered, had that dog walker caught?

A million miles of empty beach and he had to pick the one spot where someone could hear him.

And not just anyone.

A cute blonde with long curly hair, toned arms, and the kind of no-nonsense attitude that belonged behind a triage desk.

Had she really thought he’d been stranded? Her dog—Jewel?—seemed to consider him the prize at the bottom of the Cracker Jack box. How long had he been sitting there? Surely not that long. But he wasn’t the most reliable witness, was he?

One second he’d been watching the sun move down toward the sea and the next he was wrestling a dog in the semi-dark, up to his ass in seawater.

He swiped at his face, recalling the animal’s warm tongue, ripe with the stink of life. Bacteria too numerous to count, certainly. Nothing dangerous, hopefully. Pet lovers always told him that living with animals strengthened the immune system; he preferred the soap-and-water method himself.

 Still, the creature had shocked him with its fleshy closeness. The heavy body leaning against him without boundaries, judgment, awkward courtesy, or worst of all, sympathy, had been oddly intimate.

If only the woman hadn’t been there to witness it all.

He kicked at a piece of driftwood. With his luck, she’d turn out to be the head ER nurse, and before he’d even set foot in the hospital, everyone would know that the new trauma doc spent his evenings yelling into the sunset.

Let it out. Yell. Scream. Be angry. Find a place where no one can hear you and get it all out. Psychobabble bullshit.

What a load. Letting it out wasn’t his style, but good old-fashioned denial wasn’t working, so he had to try, didn’t he?

Aiden preferred joking. He teased. He laughed. He prattled in true idiot savant fashion. Because, contrary to the board-mandated therapist’s belief, he was already plenty angry and well aware of it. But open that can of worms? Let it out? Who would that serve?

Still, he’d tried, as he’d tried everything. He’d yelled into the setting sun and not only did he not feel better, but by tomorrow, they’d be calling him Crazy Eyes and monitoring his scalpel blades..

If he had the energy, he’d feel mortified. Or at least, embarrassed. But once you’ve self-diagnosed a heart attack in your own ER and been convinced you were dying, only to be informed that you were one hundred percent A-Okay, just suffering from anxiety, well, it was tough to beat that low.

His ward clerk finding him hyperventilating in the mop closet had done it, though.

That’s when he knew he had to leave Portland. Two hundred and ten pounds of raw, quivering panic caused by a little car accident? He’d faced down whacked out meth-heads, calmed an armed man in full paranoid delusion, leaped into codes, led his team, handled everything, seen everything.

But the memories intruded, as they always did.

Tires squealing, metal screeching against metal, “Mommy-Mommy-Mommy . . .

Then, silence.

The silence was the worst.

Aiden could hear his breath over the soft sounds of night. Slow down. Don’t think about it.

Don’t think at all.

But like avalanches, thoughts once started aren’t easily stopped. They tumbled in, over, through, gaining momentum until now, after thirteen years running a Level 1 emergency facility in one of the biggest hospitals in the Pacific Northwest, he was falling apart..

It was the damnedest thing.

His chest hurt. He couldn’t catch his breath. He needed to get inside. To sit down. To lie down.

It was almost full dark now as he wound through the rabbit warren of Beachside Villas, looking for the one he’d rented for the summer, trying not to violate the privacy of those who hadn’t drawn their curtains.

But the eye naturally follows light and every window seemed to frame people sitting around tables or moving about kitchens. Ordinary people. Ordinary meals. Not takeout in soggy cardboard containers, eaten alone in front of the TV, but real food. Eaten on dishes, at tables. Families. Friends. Husbands and wives.

Children.

Babies.

He couldn’t resist looking, even though the sight of one towheaded youngster in a high chair brought Garret to mind so clearly his knees nearly buckled and he had to stop walking. This, years after the memory of his young son’s face had faded, after making peace with Michelle’s remarriage, being happy for her, even.

The vise grip banding his ribs tightened but he stumbled on, tearing his gaze away from the window frames.

Almost there. You can make it.

Rich smells spiked the air, piercing his mind, giving his fragmented concentration something to grab on to but it made things worse: spicy tomato sauce spilled thick and red, garlic bit like acid, grill-seared flesh smoked, choking him.

He gripped the back of his neck, then brought his hand up over his head, crushing his cap, as if he could physically squeeze the negative thoughts from his brain.

He was over this! He was strong, fine, great. So why was he gasping like an asthmatic in a dust storm?

He bent over, bracing his hands on his knees.

He’d probably forgotten to eat again. That was a mistake. There was a bagel left in the cabin, he thought. In a bag on the counter. He’d eat that. That would help.

Right. A bagel. That’ll fix everything.

He half straightened, stumbling Quasimodo-style to the small playground adjacent to his unit. He grabbed at the lamppost that cast a soft light over the swings and teeter-totter, swallowed hard, then forced his ribs to expand and contract.

Garret was gone. It was no one’s fault. But that little boy six months ago, well. Aiden, of all people, should have known to check.

The lights from the windows started to dance in pairs, then triplets. He couldn’t get enough air.

Rough gasps tore raggedly from his throat, littering the serene night air.

In-one-two-three. Out-one-two-three.

Nope. The lights stopped dancing and coalesced into one small pinpoint, disappearing down a long tunnel, far away, like a subway train.

You’re catastrophizing again, called a little voice from way off on the subway train. Mountains, molehills. Tempests, teacups. Crazy eyes, yes, a result of adrenal overload caused by living in the worst-case scenario, of which he had endless templates.

It was entirely possible that he’d pull himself together, get a full night’s sleep, and walk into the office tomorrow morning bright and competent, prepared to become the new emergency physician in the smallest trauma center he’d ever seen. It would be perfect. Bug bites. Food poisoning. Cuts and scrapes.

Yeah. He could do that.

Except that he was going to die first. His heart was exploding. The roar of the ocean pulsated all around him, thump-thump-rushing like blood from an aortic dissection. Just because he hadn’t been having a cardiac event last month didn’t mean he wasn’t having one now.

He pushed his back against the lamppost and slid down until he plopped hard into the dirt. He was fine. He just couldn’t breathe, that’s all. No one died of panic. Of course not. That was silly.

They died of cardiac arrest. Which followed respiratory arrest. Which was happening to him.

Right. Goddamn. Now.

He pushed his head between his knees, hoping to hell that he’d get over this spell before someone came by and found him. He imagined that big friendly dog leaping on him, body-slamming him to the ground, knocking the dead air out and resetting his lungs.

He remembered the woman, Haylee, when she’d fallen into him, her warmth bleeding into his cold flesh, hearing the steady, normal rhythm of her heart, the weight of her slender body like a blanket on a cold night, or a brick on a sheaf of papers, keeping them from flying away in the wind.

Slowly, slowly, the tunnel shortened.

The steel band around his chest loosened and he gulped in desperate lungfuls of cool night air. He was drenched all over again with icy sweat, as if he really had been trapped by the tide, like Haylee, the pretty dog-walker had warned. His limbs quaked and he couldn’t have gotten to his feet for anything, but he could breathe again. 

“You all right there, young man?”

Aiden lifted his head with a jerk. A figure stood in the lane beneath a large oak tree, her hair glowing white in the lamplight. Thin, knobby fingers gripped the slack leash attached to an equally small and elderly terrier.

“It’s just, you look a little frayed around the edges,” she added. “I recognize the signs, being a little frayed at times myself. Only you being young and strong, well. Seems a little out of place.”

He got to his feet, keeping his back to the post in case the dizziness returned. It was too late for anonymity anyway, if such a thing was even possible in a small town.

“I’m . . . fine, thank you,” he managed. “It’s been a . . . fraying . . . kind of day.”

“Ah, yes. Those happen, don’t they? Is there anything I can do to help?”

Her gentle smile eased the embarrassment that welled up in him at being caught. “You already have.” He glanced around the deserted play area. “It’s late. Would you like an escort home?”

She hesitated and he realized he’d overstepped. She was right to be cautious. He started to speak, but she interrupted him with a laugh, a crinkly, tinkling sound that danced over the night air. “name is Elsie. My husband—Anton—and I are in cabin three. You’re the new doctor, I believe, yes? In cabin four?”

He held out his hand. “I see word’s gotten around. Aiden McCall. I’m very pleased to meet you, Elsie.”

Her small bones felt like twigs. The dog eyed him suspiciously and took a couple of steps sideways.

“Be nice,” Elsie said to the dog. “Her name’s Bette Davis. She’ll be fine once she gets to know you. I’ve got apple pie in the cabin. Would you care for a piece?”

A short stand of shrubs blocked his view of the cabins on either side, a factor that had played into his decision to rent here. He wanted privacy, not company. Still, her easy generosity drew him.

 “I appreciate the offer, Elsie. But I’ve got an early morning tomorrow.”

“Young people, always so busy,” she said with a sigh. “We’ll be off, then. But the offer stands if you find yourself at loose ends another time. I love to bake and pies are my specialty. We’re here year-round and always enjoy meeting the summer people.”

He waved at her. His hands were steadier now, his vision clearer.

“See you, Bette Davis,” he called.

The dog glanced over her shoulder and gave a low woof.

Elsie waved again and disappeared around the corner.

Aiden leaned against the lamppost. Elsie and Anton, he thought. They sounded nice. He hoped they had a dozen pie-loving grandchildren.

He waited a minute or two to let his new friends get a head start, then followed the trail back to his cabin. What would he do if a dozen children suddenly showed up next door?

He’d have to find a new place.

No. He couldn’t keep running. He had to be okay. He was okay.

He could breathe.

Some days, that was the best you could get.

 

Copyright © 2017 by Roxanne Snopek, All Rights Reserved

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© 2018 Roxanne Snopek. All rights reserved.