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~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
There might have been things I missed
But don't be unkind
It don't mean I'm blind
Perhaps there's a thing or two
I think of lying in bed
I shouldn't have said
But there it is

You see, it's all clear
You were meant to be here
From the beginning
-- Emerson, Lake & Palmer
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

He had a raging headache, but his shift was almost over, so he pressed on, figuring he'd catch up on some sleep that night. It had been a busy day, after an incredibly busy night. He'd left his date in the wee hours of the morning, and took the El straight to work. As drunk as he'd been, it was a good thing there was public transportation in Chicago.

His evening had been good. The woman he'd gone out with, Marie, was pretty and fun and they'd ended up after dinner just where he'd anticipated they would, in her bed. That's where most all his dates these days ended up, anyway. It was different now, in a way, dating with no strings attached, no expectations placed on him. After his break-up with Carol, he reasoned that it was just what he'd needed.

Carol. It had been the most unpleasant ending to a relationship that he'd ever remembered having. Of course, he'd rarely had long-standing relationships with women. What he'd had with Carol, though, defied his understanding. He'd ended it in October, walking out when it got too intense, and they'd struggled to be civil to each other at first.

She'd moved on quickly, and he had heard through the grapevine, which meant Wendy, that she'd been dating John Taglieri, an orthopedic surgeon, since early November, and that they were talking about getting married. He never discussed it with Carol because for some reason, he really didn't want to know how serious she was about John. But he'd watch as flowers were delivered into her arms, as she got dressed up to go out after work, as John came down and they'd disappear for awhile.  When he would see Carol smile up at John and watch his arm circle her waist, he'd tell himself time and again that it didn't matter, that he was happy for her.

After a while, however, they were able to rib each other again and to laugh a little, though he noticed two things: She kept her physical distance now, almost stiffening up when he came near her, and she was stealing glances at him when she didn't think he'd see. It was usually at the time that he was surreptitiously watching her. Things weren't quite back to normal, though, and they hadn't spoken a significant word to each other until that one night in late January when the heat and desire of their past relationship had taken him, and her, by surprise.

Ever since that night, something lingered between them, something uncomfortable. It remained there, even after they spoke about it on a warm day in February. And now, tonight, when she was wheeled in, ashen and lifeless on a gurney, it seized him and threatened to destroy him.

He'd watched as they worked on her, as they cut off her clothes, as they intubated her, filled her stomach with charcoal, as they fought to save her. All Doug could think of was the way she'd looked asleep in his arms, so lovely, or the way he'd reach for her hair at night, an invitation to love and tenderness he'd never felt with anyone else.  But now, she was so pale, her body was limp, unmoving. 

If she died, he knew he'd die inside. It was his own private hell. 

Mark finally chased him away, partially because he couldn't bear to look at his face, partially because he didn't want Doug around if Carol had a seizure or if her heart gave out. So Doug listened to his friend and walked away, barely talking to his medical student, barely touching his coffee. He finally came back and walked past curtain two where Carol had been and his heart raced when it was empty.

"Mark? MARK?" He tore through the ER, looking for his friend.

"Doug, here," Mark called out.

Doug followed his voice to the admissions desk. He spoke with intense emotion. "Carol....where is she?" Please, please, he thought.

Mark gestured with his eyes. "Transported up to ICU."

"Any change?"

Mark shook his head solemnly.

Doug nodded. "She's not gonna make it...is she?"

Mark could not look at Doug. Why, when he broke news to loved ones every day, was he unable to do it now, with his friend?

"Mark?"

"I don't think she will, Doug."

"Is she alone up there? Did her mother make it here?"

"Yeah, she did. They called her boyfriend when he was done in surgery, he went up with her."

Her boyfriend. Something dawned on Doug and he looked up at Mark. "I don't have a picture," he said, astonished.

"What?" Mark asked, not understanding.

"A picture. I don't have any pictures of her."

Mark was puzzled. "You went out for two years and you don't have any pictures at all?"

"No. No. I guess I just...never thought I'd...need one. I never wanted to complicate things, never wanted to...I...." He turned away, the tremble in his voice became more pronounced. "I did this."

"Doug, hey, listen. You guys haven't dated each other for months now. You're tired, you're stressed...don't do this to yourself."

But Doug barely heard him. The thought that she was dying, that he'd never see her again, even if only at work anymore, horrified him.

Doug spoke again, a perverse wonder in his voice. "Mark...I don't have a picture of Carol."

"Listen, it's been a long day. Why don't you head home?"

Doug looked up at the clock, realizing he'd been there close to 24 hours. "Will you call me...?"

"Go home and get some sleep. I'll check in on her, I'll call you if there's any news."

Mark watched his friend walk away, shoulders slumped, face drawn. He didn't know how he would be able to call Doug with what he felt would be the inevitable bad news.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
She'll let you in her house
If you come knocking late at night
She'll let you in her mouth
If the words you say are right
If you pay the price
She'll let you deep inside
But there's a secret garden she hides
-- Bruce Springsteen
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

It was annoying, the feeling. Her mouth was so dry it stuck together, her lips and gums felt glued. Trying unsuccessfully to lick her lips.  Trying to swallow, but it hurt too much. It hurt between her legs, too, a burning feeling, irritated. She tried opening her eyes but she couldn't, they were stuck together, though she struggled, trying one, then the other.

It was so noisy. Beeping, hissing. Shut the noise! Shut it....

Down, down, spiraling down, only to try emerging again.

*****

He didn't usually remember his dreams, but this one was vivid. It was Carol, laughing in the sunshine, the light bringing out the red in her hair, her eyes sparkling, her dimples deep on her face. Then, the sunlight faded, and she ran away from him.

When Doug awoke, slapping at the alarm, he remembered that something had happened. What had it been? Then he knew. He looked at the clock.  10 a.m. He wasn't due at work until 6 that evening. No call from Mark. That could only mean good news. Doug walked out of his bedroom to use the bathroom, then back to the kitchen. The rain hadn't ended, it was still so gray out. He looked at the phone and decided to call the hospital. See what he could find out.

"ER." It was Rolando.

"Hey, Rolando, it's Dr. Ross. Is Mark around?"

"Nah, he left a coupla hours ago."

Doug ran his hand through his hair. "Okay. Okay. Is...Dr. Lewis in?"

"Nope, gone, too." Rolando's statement was met by silence. "Dr. Ross?"

"Thanks, Rolando." Doug hung up the phone and dialed the hospital's main number.

"County General, how may I direct your call."

"ICU, please."

"One moment."

He waited for a very long time.

"ICU, Charlotte Evans, can I help you?"

"Hi. Uh, yeah, I'm calling to inquire about a patient there, uh, Carol Hathaway."

"And are you a relative?"

Doug was taken aback. He was nothing to her, was he? He had no ties. "Um, I work with her in, uh, in the ER."

"Then you know I can't give out patient information. Sorry." She hung up.

Feeling powerless now, Doug numbly replaced the receiver and spent the rest of the day aimlessly doing things around his apartment. He walked from room to room, trying to settle his mind, trying to relax. Maybe he'd make something to eat. As he walked into the kitchen, he recalled her first visit to his apartment, about a month after they'd started dating.

*****

He was a bit short on cash, and suggested to Carol that instead of going out, they eat something at his place. Carol had laughed and asked if they were having peanut butter sandwiches.

"I'll have you know," he said, "that I can cook."

"Oh, really?" she laughed. "Then why do you always say you're getting take-out?"

Grinning, he explained, "Well, that's because I don't have time to cook  most nights."

"Where did you learn to cook?"

"When I was a kid in high school, I'd come home from practice and my mom would be working late. It was just the two of us, she'd come home too tired to cook. She always tried to work overtime, you know, so we could eat better, live in a nicer place. So, I just opened a cookbook one day and started cooking."

Carol listened, nodding her head.

"I mean," he explained sheepishly, "I'm not a gourmet cook, but I do okay. So, how about coming over tonight and I'll make something for us?"

Grinning, she nodded and said, "Sure. Sure, why not?"

She drove over to his apartment and made her way down the hall, finally finding his door. Smoothing her hair for a minute, she knocked and heard him bellow from the other side to hang on.

He smiled as he opened the door. "Hey, come on in."

Carol stepped through the door and looked around. It was definitely a man's apartment. It was decorated in dark colors and he had some bold paintings on the wall. He had a large leather couch with a white crocheted afghan on the back, and several large pillows strewn around the living room.

Carol took a deep breath and was immediately hungry. "It smells great in here, what are you cooking?"

"Uh, it's chicken parmesan and angel hair pasta, with garlic bread, if I don't burn it," he laughed.

"Why?"

"Because, even though I always follow the directions on the package, I always end up burning it. Here, let me take that coat. What can I get you to drink?"

"Hmm, what do you have?"

"Everything. What do you want?" he asked.

"What are you having?"

"A Manhattan."

"How do you make yours?"

"Bourbon, sherry, bitters."

"Okay, I'll have the same."

Doug walked over to the kitchen to fix her a drink and she continued walking around. There were a few medical journals on the shelf under the coffee table, assorted magazines, and a stack of newspapers on the floor.

Doug picked up the shaker and watched her. "Uh, excuse the mess."

"Actually, I was looking around here, impressed at how neat everything was."

"Well, it's amazing how quickly you can clean when there's company coming," he said with a sheepish grin.

Company coming. She decided she liked that very much.

Dinner was delicious, even if the garlic bread didn't quite make it to the table, and as she stacked the dishes into the sink and ran the water to wash them, Doug stood behind her and began kissing her neck.

"Doug, stop, I need to do these."

"Carol, nobody 'needs' to do dishes. They'll be there tomorrow. Come into the living room with me."

She rinsed and wiped her hands, then turned around into his embrace.  They walked over to the leather couch and as he sat down, he drew her to his lap. He reached over to turn off the light and she saw that he'd lit two scented candles.

"Pretty," she said, glancing at them and then him.

"Yes. Very pretty." He leaned in and kissed her softly. "Very, very pretty."

Maybe it took hours, maybe it was minutes. Carol wasn't really sure just how it happened, but she found herself sitting on top of him, naked in his arms on the couch, his erection pressing against her. He lifted her up and in a moment, he was inside of her.

"Do you always get this wet, or is this just for me?" he asked, and from then on, she was his.

They stayed that way for a long time as he kissed her tenderly, stroking her body, arousing her even more. She closed her eyes, swaying in response to his movement as Doug watched himself disappear into her, and he saw her hand move toward her clitoris. He grabbed her wrist, surprising her, making her eyes open.

"You gonna come, Carol?"

"I was going to...I'm close."

Doug let go of her wrist and smiled. "I'll take care of you."

She whimpered a vague reply, giving her body over to him, trusting him as he sought to find her limits. The way she submitted herself to him, to his wants, his needs, made his heart pound. He reached between her legs and found her clitoris, hard and engorged and needy, and he stroked it softly.

His voice was quiet, yet had an urgency to it that she'd never heard before. "Is all this for me?" he asked.

Carol looked at him, not knowing what he meant, what he was getting at or how to answer him. His eyes pierced her, and as she searched them, they narrowed and Doug plunged deeply into her. She gripped his shoulders in response and stifled a moan, startled by the power, the strength of his body, by the fullness of him as he demanded more of her.

"All this. Is it for me, Carol? Does anyone else get to have you like this?"

"No," she breathed. "No one but you."

Then Doug took her breath away as he leaned in to suck on her nipples, one after the other, drawing them deeply into his mouth as his thumb rubbed her clitoris and then she exploded, gasping and moaning, and in her passion, she confessed to him that no one would ever have her the way he did.

And now, years later, alone in his apartment, as thoughts of her filled him, he wondered if it was ever really true.

Doug sighed and rubbed his neck with his hand. He realized that he'd spent most of the day calling her face to his mind so that it would be marked indelibly on his memory, so he would never forget her at her most beautiful, looking at him with love in her eyes.

Before he knew it, it was almost 5 p.m. Time to get ready for the night ahead of him. Doug walked into the bathroom, turned on the shower, and stepped into water so hot it almost burned him. He placed his hands against the cool tile, bowed his head and cried for the first time in his adult life.

*****

It was a strange existence, but there were things to take note of. Something smelled awful. Lots of awful smells. Someone's hands had touched whatever it was that was on her eyes. Hadn't they? Something was lodged in her throat. Something was making her arm cold.   Something.

Something someone said. Stroked her hair, her face. What did he say? So quiet, he was. Remember. Remember.

"Oh, Carol -- you're a mess. Are they taking care of you up here?"

Up here? Up where? Why do they need to take care of me?

Gone.

Submerged into the muddy water for a time. Up again, later, like a crocodile.

Ears work. Nose works sometimes. No taste. Well, maybe taste. Latex? No. Silicone. Yeah. Yeah. No sight. Still stuck.

Touch. Touch. Many touches. Someone's touch was cool, not cold, but very cool. Another's was efficient. The cool one used the sticky stuff, the stuff that stuck to her face. She could feel it pull at her skin, stripping something away. It itched so much, then it stung. It hurt. The cool one had lots of work to do. Efficient one, too. Came and went, came and went.

See you later.

Oh, another touch. Worried, this one was. Frightened. Noisy, sobbing touch. Go away. You burden me. Go away.

Ah, here's one. A lover's touch? Hmm, almost, but no, too tentative, too confused. Yet, steady. On her hand, on her arm. Laying on her arm a long time. Stay. Stay a while, steady one. Oh, gone.

Then, the cool one came back. The cool one was always busy. Squeezing her arm, poking, prodding. Okay, you done? Oh, it's tape, isn't it?  No, please, not the tape again. Oh. Pain. The cool one left again, then no touches. None.

It would be a long time before worried and steady would be back. She'd learned that much. Time seemed to drag on as these players marched to and fro. Busy times, then quiet times, busy, quiet, busy, quiet. Ebb and flow. Patterned. Cool one, worried, steady, cool again, then alone until efficient one came when things were quieter. A pattern. Predictable. Very, very predictable.

But for one. One confused her. It was a soothing one. It came and left according to no schedule, only appearing two or three times. It was stealth. It did many things. It stroked the stuck eyes. Yes! This was the one that had touched her eyes. It fingered that nasty tape. It looked for something in her hair. It was warm. Swift and secretive.   Soothing one never stayed long enough. Don't go! Don't leave me, soothing one.

Why did you leave me?

Nothing to do now. Noise still there. Burning. Smell. Down, down.

Hey. She remembered something. Sort of like when she was a kid and she could float on top of the water, just hanging there, looking down, suspended with no effort at all. She'd been suspended, yes. But not over a body of water.

Just over a body.

She'd watched, knowing with her smug confidence that it was futile. She'd outsmarted every one of them, those predictable players.

Mark, Mark, here's your chance for leadership. It's what you were groomed for. You've always been the leader. So smart. Now, get some confidence. And some vision. And stop acquiescing!

Susan, use your skill. You are the best diagnostician, show them what you know. It's a boy's club, you know it, but raise your chin. Assert yourself.

Haleh, take your rightful place. It's you, even if everyone points to Lydia. Forget seniority. Just pay attention to details, accept the responsibility. You have what it takes if you really try. Use it.

Tag. Poor Tag. Not around right now, they won't get you out of surgery for this, you'll find out later. It was just a matter of timing. You'd dated Cheryl for three years. Maybe if she hadn't been around, we'd have met sooner. You'd have prevented the lows, wouldn't you have?  Would you have given me the highs?

And you. You there. Just standing there, frozen. You're in my way, you're blocking my line of vision. I can't see because of you. Make a move. Don't tempt me; you tried that, remember, you tried, but I won't come back. You need to walk away now. You were always paralyzed when it counted. Always obscuring my view of things.

Oh, here comes cool one. Cool one is fussing with the damned tape. Can't you tell it hurts me? Can't someone tell? Oh, gone too fast. No one for a while. Oh, listen, cool one is talking to efficient one.

"She needs a bath."

"I'll do it later."

"Gotta do something about this tape, she's so irritated."

"I'm afraid to change it, afraid I'll make it worse. I'll ask the doctor when he comes around in the morning."

Doctor? What doctor? Morning? Oh, it's quiet again. They're gone. Long gone.

Quiet again.

No, wait, they're not gone. One is back. Oh, dammit, that tape sound again. Please stop hurting me!

"Hey."

Oh, here's that voice. Listen, listen. Steady one? No, no. Listen....

"You're having trouble here. I went over to the NICU. We'll use some Hy-Tape. It'll feel much better. I'll try not to hurt you, okay? I won't hurt you." The hated tape was removed and the raw spots were delicately assessed. "You always had such...tender skin, didn't you?"

This one was talking to her in a quiet, low voice. Talking to do what -- distract her? Which one was this?

"There you go. Better?" Hands again, gently changing the tape, avoiding the sore spots, then tending to the tape over her eyes as well.  Pausing a moment.

Sighing.

Ah. Now, this one was familiar. It was soothing one again. And the tape didn't hurt now. Lifting my cold arm, changing the tape there on my hand. All done.

You feel the cold on my arm, too? My hand aches, you see? I tried to tell them, but my voice doesn't work. Yes, you know, don't you, you're lifting it, warming it within your own hands. Oh, so warm.

"Carol...."

Umm. What's that? Something, warm, but rough on my hand, rubbing back and forth. Rough, but...what is it? And why are you shaking so? Oh, now, that's not rough there, now on my knuckles. It's soft and tender, a gentle caress. Lips, perhaps? Playing on my skin. Feels familiar.

But it's covert.

Oh, and soothing one's breath now, on my hand. No, no don't put it down! Come back! Don't leave me....

Sinking down again, down for a long time. So confused, straining upward.

She pulled against the restraints, against the tubes and machines, trying to figure things out, trying to call someone, anyone, and then was frightened that she could make no sound. Almost immediately, the ICU nurse came to her side and laid a cool hand on her.

"Hey, Carol, it's okay, you're okay."

Carol's eyes strained to open, and she felt the woman gently remove the tape that was holding them shut. Now that she could see, she blinked back, even the dim light hurt her. She was terrified and confused.

"You're in the hospital. My name is Charlotte. Do you remember what happened, sweetie?"

The nurse smiled warmly as the horrified realization crossed Carol's face, as she closed her eyes in shame and disappointment. She hadn't been successful. She was alive.

"Let me call Dr. Mitchell, hold on, sugar."

She strode over to the phone, punched in numbers and spoke discreetly into the receiver, and just as quickly came back to Carol's side. Carol became agitated again.

"Shh, shh, sweetheart, relax. You've been intubated for three days, in a coma. You have a Foley and we've been giving you IV fluids."

Three days? Carol tried to comprehend this. Just as Charlotte finished talking, a man Carol vaguely recognized walked in.

"Hello, Carol, I'm Dr. Mitchell." He diverted his attention to the nurse. "Vitals?"

"BP 120/70, temp 102.3, pulse 96."

"Okay. Carol? We'll watch you for a bit, see if we can't extubate you soon."

Carol's eyes darted from doctor to nurse, trying to absorb everything, still confused as to how she'd failed.

"Continue IV antibiotics, call her family." And with that, Dr. Mitchell smiled and was gone.

Carol turned away. Her family. How could she face her mother? Her sisters, were they here? John? Oh, what must he think? She avoided the kind eyes of the nurse and retreated back into herself, cursing the position she'd put herself in.

In one huge rush, her mother was at her side, worry etched into her face. Laughing and crying and clutching Carol's hand, avoiding the tubes that had kept her alive.

"Oh, my God, thank God, my baby!" Carol squeezed her eyes tightly, unable to view her mother's pain and joy. "Why, my baby, why?"

If I keep my eyes shut, she thought, I'll be okay. But they flew open when she heard her mother's greeting. "Dr. Taglieri! She's back, she's back with us!"

John looked at her, wiping tears of his own away. "Hi, sweetheart, welcome back." He laid a steady hand on her arm and bit his lower lip. They both stayed there, fussing over her, joyful at her survival. 

But for Carol, the same sadness enveloped her.

*****

Dr. Mitchell returned that afternoon and explained that he was ready to extubate. "Do you know what do and what to expect?"

Carol nodded yes, took a deep breath and blew out. The tube seemed to be miles long and she gagged and wheezed for a moment after it was removed. She gestured for water, and the nurse gave it to her, but as she took the water in her mouth, she motioned for the basin and spit it out, feeling unable to swallow. She laid back and tried to cough, but couldn't. In a hoarse, breathy voice, she said her first words in three days: "I stink."

The nurse smiled and agreed, "Yes, we'll take care of that soon."

Carol nodded. "Foley hurts. UTI?"

"Yes. Don't talk anymore, okay? Relax."

The last thing Carol felt she could do was relax. She was achy and feverish. "My chart?"

"No, you can see your chart later. Relax."

Carol closed her eyes and took a deep breath, coughing finally. The nurse was gone, the lights dimmed and she rolled onto her side, facing the door. She began dozing off, the fever making her vision blurry, her chest felt heavy. As she fell asleep, she strained, fighting the fatigue, trying to focus on something that was just out of her reach.   Something hovering in the doorway. Stealth. But her eyes disobeyed and when she opened them again, the doorway was empty.

*****

"Hey, Carol. Ready to try getting up?"

"Yeah."

The two nurses got her ready, removed the Foley catheter and stood at either side of her. With the help of the nurses, she sat up, but the paleness of her face made them hold her back.

"Let's take this slow, okay?" Charlotte suggested.

They did. They swung one leg, then the other, to the side of the bed.  Stood her up. She swayed a bit, but she steadied herself.

"I want to go to the bathroom. Damn, it's gonna kill, isn't it?" Carol asked, though she already knew her answer.

"Yes, it probably will sting. Sorry, sweetie."

They got Carol to the bathroom, where she urinated with some difficulty, then sat her down on a chair in the shower.

"At last," Carol breathed. They turned on the water and stayed close by while she showered, washing her body slowly and deliberately, seeing the bruise marks on her hand and arm, avoiding the irritation on her face from the tape.

When she was finished, they brought an extra towel for her hair and a new, clean gown.

"I feel better. Thank you, Charlotte, and ... ?"

"Sumi."

"Thank you, Sumi." Sumi, Carol thought, must have been the efficient one. She moved faster than Charlotte did.

They helped Carol back to bed. Then Sumi left, but Charlotte remained behind.

"They've been asking about you down in the ER. Asking if they can come up and see you," Charlotte said with a kind smile.

"Who?" Carol asked warily.

"Drs. Greene, Lewis. Lydia Wright, Haleh Adams."

"Oh," Carol said quietly. "Tell them I'm okay, but no visitors except my family and Dr. Taglieri."

"Okay, honey, I will," she said, patting her arm, and she turned to leave.

"Wait," Carol called. "Was anyone here to see me, anyone from the ER, during those three days?"

"No," replied Charlotte. "No one other than Dr. Taglieri and your mother, at least while I was on. You can ask Sumi."

"Oh. No other doctors?"

"Well, Drs. Mitchell and Pashanhari. Though, Dr. Taglieri must have been here a lot. He changed your tape to Hy-Tape. You had such an awful reaction to the adhesive from the silk tape."

"Changed my tape?"

"Yeah, I came on in the morning and asked Sumi whose idea it had been to switch, but she said she didn't know who'd done it. We just figured it was Dr. Taglieri, taking special care of you. He was here so much."

Carol nodded thoughtfully.

She had been moved from intensive care to another private room and got up a great deal during the next day, walking to the window, looking down at the busy street. She joked with her nurses that it was a good thing the locks on the windows were strong, and they smiled, happy to see any kind of humor from her.

When she got up the nerve, she paged through her chart. She recognized Mark's handwriting, Susan's, then Conni's. She didn't even want to think of them cutting off her clothes, inserting the Foley, forcing charcoal down her throat. Closing her eyes, she realized after reading their notes that she'd been as good as dead, really. The skill of her coworkers had saved her.

It was all very sobering.

The youngest nurse, a woman named Sharon, came in to take Carol's food order. "You can eat some solid food today, though you know how awful the food is here!"

Carol nodded and handed her the paper.

"Someone from psych is coming to talk to you today."

Carol froze. "Who?"

"Dr. Cvetic."

"Oh. Oh, no, not Div Cvetic. No. I don't want to see him."

"Well, he's scheduled to come after rounds."

"Absolutely not. I have to work with him in the ER, I don't want to see him, I won't talk to him."

"Carol, there's lots of people you'll have to work with in the ER, assuming you come back."

"Oh, god," she said. It suddenly dawned on Carol. Maybe she couldn't come back, maybe they wouldn't have her now that she'd attempted suicide. It took her a moment, but she recovered and insisted that anyone but Cvetic would be just fine, thank you.

So a young resident came in and Carol had to work not to laugh at his naiveté. He was trying, though, so she was tractable and answered his questions. Yes, she'd guessed she was depressed, yes, she knew the signs of clinical depression. Of course her job was demanding. Her relationship with her mother? A normal mother-daughter thing. Her father? Yes, she missed her father. No, her relationship with her boyfriend was good, so good in fact that they were planning to get married. Did she have an idea what caused it? She had lots of ideas.  No, she didn't want to come to the hospital as an outpatient; yes, she knew she had to arrange for counseling. Question after question after question. She answered them mechanically until the very last one.

"No, I'm not pregnant," she scoffed. "Why?"

"Because I'm going to prescribe Prozac, and you know it's  contraindicated during pregnancy.

"Ugh. Prozac? I don't want it."

"Well, I have to prescribe, you'll talk to your psychiatrist about any alternative medication you may want. Might I suggest Dr. Alan Bickleman? He taught at Northwestern for years and is in private practice now. He's very kind, and he's a no-nonsense kind of a guy.  Older. He's quite good."

"Yeah, thanks, I'll think about it. Okay, Doctor, differential diagnosis?" she smiled.

He smiled back. "Depression."

"Not manic-depressive?" she asked, lifting a questioning eyebrow.

"No," he assured her. "But you knew that, didn't you?"

"Yeah, I knew." And with that, she turned away from him.

*****

The last day she was in the hospital was chilly, the kind of day that made people agree that Chicago had no spring season at all. Carol showered and pulled on jeans that were now way too large for her, pulled an old sweater over her head, stepped into her clogs and was ready. John said he'd take off after rounds to drive her home. When he stepped into the doorway, he carried a big bouquet of flowers and had a huge smile on his face.

"Ready to go home, Princess?"

Carol smiled back, reaching for the flowers, submerging her face in them. "The freesia is beautiful, it smells wonderful. Yes, John, I'm really ready to get out of here." She looked around the room, picked up her toiletry case and walked out ahead of him.

They walked past the ambulance bay on their way to the parking garage, and Carol never looked up. Once they were in the car, she reached for his hand.

"I'm glad you're here, with me. Thank you for being here."

"Carol, I'm glad you're still here, too. I love you."

"I love you, too. Let's get out of here."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
She'll let you in her car
To go driving round
She'll let you into the parts of herself
That'll bring you down
She'll let you in her heart
If you got a hammer and a vise
But into her secret garden, don't think twice
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Once Carol was home, she spent much of the time secluded in her bedroom. Her mother was never far away, but felt so helpless, unable to reach her daughter. Carol dutifully went to counseling but steadfastly refused to discuss her feelings or her reasons for wanting to die with anyone but Dr. Bickleman.

Helen Hathaway began to panic because she saw no outward signs of recovery from her daughter, no happiness at all during the weeks she was home. Even when John came to visit, Carol was pensive and withdrawn.  Helen viewed all this with fear. She felt she was living on a tightrope, frightened to make waves, afraid to discuss anything but the weather.

Helen was beside herself, alarmed at the robot-like way her daughter was walking around and she didn't know who to turn to. Finally, in desperation, she called Tag.

"I'm sorry to bother you at home...."

"No, no problem at all. What's up, Helen?"

"I'm afraid for Carol. I'm still so afraid. Has she told you anything?"

"No. No, she hasn't, and I've been hesitant to pump her for information. I figured she'd tell me if and when the time was right."

"I don't want her going back to work at the hospital. It's too stressful for her. And I don't want her anywhere near Doug Ross."

Tag shifted the receiver to his other ear. "I know he treated her badly, Helen. Was there something else? Anything else?"

"That was everything. She loved him and he broke her heart. She had a hard time last fall. When she started seeing you, she was happy again and I was relieved. Then, around February, I really noticed she was depressed, like a different person. I don't know what could have happened. I don't know if he said something else to hurt her, but something happened."

Tag took a deep breath, nodding in agreement. She'd changed with him back then too, she'd become sullen and distant. She had refused to be sexually intimate with him for weeks; they'd just shared a few hugs and kisses. When he asked her for an explanation, she had looked up at him dully and said that she simply didn't know why. That she loved him, but she needed the time to herself.

And, again, since coming home from the hospital, they'd had no opportunity to be alone.

"I don't know. I don't know," Tag admitted. "What can I do to help?"

"Get her out of the house, take her out on a date, as soon as you can.  She can't stay here, alone in her room all the time. She needs to get out, but she refuses to go anywhere with me. Would you please?"

"Of course. I'll call her tomorrow, make a date."

He did call the next morning and they decided to go out to dinner that evening. Carol showered and tried to find a pair of slacks that didn't engulf her. Unable to find any, she settled for a pair of khaki pants which she wore with a black denim shirt and tan suspenders. She pulled her hair back, chose some earrings, and put some blush and lipstick on so she didn't look so damned pale. Stepping back, she assessed her appearance in the mirror. The eyes that looked back at her were still dead.

They'd had a lovely dinner at a small neighborhood restaurant. John made her laugh and held her hand softly, his eyes warm over the candlelight. Carol smiled, realizing how much she owed him, how wonderful he was to stay with her during these past few months.

He noticed, though, that her laugh, her smile, never reached her eyes.

He took her hand to his lips and kissed it gently, a gesture that was unusual for him, but seemed appropriate that evening. Tag was gazing at her, unabashed love on his face. "Will you come to my place for a while, Carol?"

She squeezed his hand, smiling her acceptance.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
You've gone a million miles
How far'd you get
To that place where you can't remember
And you can't forget
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

He was so sweet, so typically sweet, and he was tentative with her, tenderly holding her as if she'd break. Carol closed her eyes and waited to breathe again, waited to feel life inside her heart, but the murkiness persisted. He took her hair in his hands and stroked it softly, then laid her back, ready to make love to her after the long weeks of being apart.

John positioned himself to be on top so he could see her face, but Carol shifted her body and turned her back to him. So, he settled in behind her, waiting for her to part her legs, to welcome him. As she did, he slipped inside of her, gently at first, the pressure of his hand on her hip the only indication of his growing passion.

Carol waited to feel aroused, waited for the infusion of life she'd hoped would come from their coupling, but her heart was leaden. Just as she felt the most hopeless, as she was about to resign herself to the grayness of her spirit, the forceful memory of her last time with Doug illuminated her soul like a floodlight and she felt him behind her, gripping her hips, the water splashing between them, the insistence of his strong, beautiful body straining to own her. The way he surrounded her. Then her ears were opened as the memory of his voice, his words, permeated her mind, and he begged her to leave John...and he begged her to let him come inside of her...and he cried out in a raw, desperate voice that he loved her and he needed her and he wanted her. And when he came, surrendering himself to her at last, her name uttered like praise to the gods, she had finally prevailed.

As her mind played with her memory of Doug, she felt John climax, heard his quiet sigh, and she burst into tears, silently cursing Doug for deserting her, for abandoning her, for his cowardly avoidance of her.

For waiting until it was too late to say that he loved her.

"How could you leave me?" she whimpered quietly and John, concerned that he'd hurt her or upset her, pulled her sobbing, limp body to his, and he tried to soothe her.

"I won't leave you, Carol! I'll never leave you," he insisted.

Carol felt so lonely in his arms.

Once she settled down, Tag invited her to stay, but she demurred, saying that her mother would worry, that she needed to be home. Tag was utterly confused, but wanted only to make her happy and drove her home, exchanging worried looks with Helen Hathaway before leaving.

In her own bed that night, alone, she thought about Tag. So steadfast, so sweet. Patient with her during these tumultuous weeks. And she thought about Doug, about the conversation that finally tore them in two, just a few weeks before she had attempted to take her own life.

The day had been a rare gift during the midst of a harsh Chicago winter; the promise of spring, still weeks away, trying to emerge, sending a tentative feeler out to see how sunshine and warmth would feel to the cold and the weary.

And, like some promises, it was hollow.

Things had been so quiet that day until a little girl, no more than two, was rushed in. She'd ventured out on a pond that had looked frozen but in fact was as soft and risky as that single warm late February day.  Doug worked feverishly to save her, screaming orders at the end, realizing that the brown-eyed, brown-haired little girl would not survive.

"I will not lose her, dammit!"

But he did lose her.

Carol, Susan and Haleh were shocked to hear his tone, and even more shocked when his voice cracked as he called it. They were afraid to talk at first, but finally Haleh sighed, "I'll get the death kit."

She walked out quietly, then Susan touched Doug's sleeve gently. "Doug, do you want me to tell the parents?"

"No," he responded quietly. "I will." He walked away, banging his fist on the gurney then pausing to collect himself before he shoved the door open.

"What's with him?" Susan asked, stunned at Doug's meltdown.

Carol averted her eyes and shook her head. "I dunno." She, too, walked out and glanced up to see Doug, head down, standing in front of two sobbing parents. He turned around and walked toward Carol, looking past her.

"Would you...clean her up, take the tubes out? They want to see her. I don't want them to see her like that."

"Sure, Doug," she answered, but he was already gone.

Carol and Haleh tended to the little girl, then brought the parents in.

"We'll give you some time alone," Carol offered and they walked out. She looked around, but didn't really expect to see him there. He needed to be alone. And she knew where he'd be.

A little sliver of sunlight sliced the stairs. The door up top was propped open with a well-worn wedge of wood, friend of all those who sought refuge on the roof. Carol pushed the door open and squinted as the sun warmed her face. As her eyes adjusted to the glare, she saw him by the southwest corner, one foot up on the brick wall. She made her way toward him, not knowing why she'd followed him up, knowing only that there was unfinished business between them.

"Feels like April, doesn't it?" she offered.

"Yeah, I guess it does."

Carol sat against the railing, facing him. "Tough case."

"I thought we'd pull it off. I screwed up, I think. I should have been able to save her." Doug hung his head.

"Doug." She reached out and touched his arm. "You did everything you could to save that little girl."

"Not enough." He glanced down and she removed her hand quickly. They hadn't touched, talked privately in almost a month, and she knew that it had burdened him, though he'd never have admitted it. He had avoided her effectively and only his eyes betrayed him.

Carol addressed the taboo subject of their tryst head on. "Doug...it just happened. I don't know why, but it did and now it's over."

He cut her off quickly. "Not now, Carol." The last thing he wanted was to reopen that fresh wound, to hear anything about what had passed between them only weeks ago. He'd walked out of her apartment in a whirl of confusion that night, after they were intimate, after she'd pursued him with hunger so ferocious he could scarcely believe what had happened between them.

*****

Doug had waited a moment, afterwards, staring at her as she stood there, breathing fast, dripping wet from the shower, her nipples hard from the cold. His eyes beseeched her to reach out for him again, to smile at him. And she knew he would have carried her off to her bed and taken her once more, wet and tangled and ripe with passion. He would have made love to her so fully that she'd have forgotten John. He'd have told her again and again that yes, he did love her, yes, he'd always loved her.

But Carol knew him better than anyone else did and she knew that she'd evened the score that night, finally. She'd had him on her terms and now she would discard him as he'd discarded her months before. The look of triumph that covered her face haunted him, she could tell.

When he saw it, he knew immediately that he was too late.

And she realized with some satisfaction that she could break his heart with one last act, and by coolly walking away from him, she did.

But what she didn't count on was the ache in her own.

*****

On the roof, the sunlight casting long shadows now, despite his initial reluctance, they spoke about it for the first time after an awkward silence.

"John Taglieri...does he love you, Carol?" So low was his voice.

"Yes, he does," she answered resolutely.

"And you...you love him, too?"

Carol glanced away and nodded. This wounded him.

"And he can give you things I can't, is that it?"

"Doug...things you wouldn't give. You're the one who walked away from this, remember?"

"Does he take care of you, Carol? The way I did?" His eyes took her in, her face, her breasts, her hips, and she willed herself not to follow his gaze.

Carol shook him off, raising her voice. "He is honest and faithful to me and he treats me with respect."

Doug nodded. "Um-hmm." Then he looked at her full on and she knew what was coming, wishing she could now flee down the stairs to avoid it.

"And you? You're faithful to him...and honest, too?"

So he'd use it against her. "That was low, Doug. Don't you throw that back in my face."

Doug viewed the city, trying to ignore the pounding in his chest. "He came home to you that night, didn't he? After I left?"

"Yes, he did."

"Did I fulfill your desire that night? Or did you turn to him when he came to your bed?"

Uncomfortable now, not willing to reveal such private things, not wanting to reveal the truth at any cost, she ignored the question.  "God, Doug, don't...."

"Well, you came into the shower, came to me, looking for something, Carol. Did you find what you needed?"

Carol remained silent, not wanting to continue the discussion.

Doug pressed her, needing to know. "Tell me that you and he didn't...."   Stopping, the hypocrisy of what he was about to say became clear even to him. Her words had now become his. He could not lift his eyes to hers at first, but did so finally with great difficulty. "Did he come home and make love to you?" His eyes were dull, she noticed, as if he expected nothing from her; they were as lifeless as a pond in winter, as murky. "Or was I your only lover that night?"

Carol looked away, wondering if she should even answer him. She remained silent.

"Carol?"

"It doesn't matter, Doug."

Doug turned away from her briefly, trying in vain not to reveal his hurt. "It matters to me. To know I didn't...share you with him. That for one last night, you were mine."

Her stomach lurched and she raised her hand to deflect his words. "Doug, please don't...." She was close to tears.

He looked out into the setting sun. "I meant it, Carol...what I said to you that night."

There was a time when Carol would have burst with happiness to hear these words from him, but that time had long since passed. She had worked for months to steel herself against his pull, reminding herself every day how much pain and anguish he'd caused her. Though his words tugged at her heart, she was resolute.

"No. It's over, Doug. It's been over between us for months." With that, Carol turned and left him. She ran down the steps, ran past the admissions desk, into the bathroom where she cried bitterly, knowing that she would never give him the opportunity he sought, never be seduced into trusting him, never again love him.

Hiding secrets she would never confide, even to herself, because the truth was, she loved him to the depths of her heart.

*****

The weekend came and after her obligatory hour with Alan Bickleman, Carol decided the last thing she wanted to do was go home to her mother's questioning face. Every Saturday when Carol came back from therapy, Helen had looked at her as if to say, "Okay, you're all right now, yes? Whatever it was is fixed?"

No, she couldn't deal with it. Her time with Bickleman had been draining and she was questioning so much, she wanted to steer clear of her mother and decided instead to drive over to see John. She knocked on the door and when he answered it, his face lit up. He was thrilled to see her.

"Come in, come in, what's this, did you bring lunch?"

"Yeah, Chinese Empress had a special on egg rolls, I couldn't resist!"

They sat together at his big oak table, sampling a little bit from each carton, fighting over the last of the duck sauce.

"Okay, Carol," Tag said good-naturedly, "just this once."

"Thank you. I hate that hot mustard anyway."

"You do? Usually you like spicy things, what happened?"

"Maybe I'm giving up spicy for a while," she quipped, grinning.

When they were both full, John brought coffee for each of them. They were quiet, then, until Carol brought up something that had weighed heavily on her mind for weeks.

Carol lifted her face to his. "John, when I was in the hospital, did you change my tape?"

He looked at her, not quite understanding. "What?"

"You know, the tape that held my breathing tube in, my IVs on my hand.
Someone came and changed the tape, I remember it, because I was so irritated. Was it you?"

"No, Carol, I didn't touch it. I just let the doctors do their thing."

Carol took a deep breath and nodded, looking away.

"Was it Ross?" Tag asked.

"What?" Carol was incredulous.

"Your mother seems to think it was because of him that you tried to kill yourself."

"Oh." Carol shook her head. "My mother doesn't know what she's talking about."

"So, it wasn't about him?"

"Tag, we broke up in the fall. I was over him long ago."

"When?"

"When did we stop seeing each other? The end of October."

"Why? What happened?"

Carol looked down at her cup and absent-mindedly swirled the coffee in the bottom. Sighing, she began talking. "Doug and I had seen each other for two years, on and off. He's not the kind of guy who can remain faithful, and it hurt me that he couldn't."

"So you broke up with him?"

"Not exactly. I asked him, finally, for a commitment."

Tag studied her face, her gestures, and tried to see past her carefully guarded expression. Was she telling him everything? Carol took a deep breath and ventured forth.

"I wanted a commitment from him that he wouldn't give."

John nodded thoughtfully. "So, he wasn't in love with you?"

"Well...." Carol paused, considering this. "He said he was, once, but...." Her voice trailed off.

"But?"

"Too late. He was too late."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Maybe I might have changed
And not been so cruel
Not been such a fool
Whatever was done is done
I just can't recall
It doesn't matter at all

You see, it's all clear
You were meant to be here
From the beginning
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Carol had begun talking about returning to work, but Helen couldn't see how she could possibly be ready. She still had that same dull look about her, still refused to talk, though she kept her commitment to Dr. Bickleman, seeing him every Saturday morning. But, in her heart, Helen knew that something was still terribly, terribly wrong. And then, one night, when Helen thought it couldn't possibly get any worse, it did.

Doug Ross came to the door.

When her daughter had finally emerged from her room that evening, Helen noticed with dismay that she was still in her nightgown, that she hadn't gotten dressed at all that day. Carol was at the table, eating a bowl of soup and drinking a glass of milk when they heard a knock at the door.

"Carol! What if this is John, how can you let him see you like this?" Helen chastised her as she walked toward the door. Once she opened it, Helen tried to keep her cool, tried not to let his appearance rattle her, but it was impossible.

Carol shook her head at her mother's reproach and bent down, eating another spoonful. And then, as she heard his voice, her spoon remained suspended over her bowl, her heart began pounding in her chest.

"Hi, Helen. Can I come in?"

She stared him down. "No, you can't. Go away."

"Who is it, Mama?" Carol called, not wanting her mother to chase him out.

"I asked him to leave." She stared at Doug.

Carol stood up, feeling the need to see him, to know why after all this time he'd come. She didn't care how she looked, she didn't care how her mother felt, but she knew that she needed to at least see his face.

"It's okay, Mama."

So there he stood, looking edgy and slightly pale. Though Doug wouldn't have known it, the first signs of life appeared briefly in Carol's face, as she smiled slightly at the flowers he held. So like Doug to be nervous and forget to hand them to her.

Carol tried to concentrate on what he was saying, but she was nervous, too. She could hardly answer him, certainly couldn't make small talk, so afraid for him to see her this vulnerable. Wondering why he hadn't even called. But, now, looking at his face, she saw immediately that he felt responsible. That's why he came, because he felt like it was his fault. His conversation was stilted, and when she looked up into his eyes again, they mirrored the pain in her own. 

"Take care," was all he could muster, and he turned on his heel and left.

Carol watched him as he rushed down the hallway and out the door. She remained there for a long time, leaning on the door frame, looking at the outlandish flowers he'd probably picked up at the neighborhood Jewel.

"Carol? Carol, close the door." Her mother was agitated.

Carol obeyed, and walked into the kitchen to find a vase. Somewhere in the recesses of her mind, she realized that this was only the second time in his life he'd ever brought her flowers. She ran the water and filled the vase, taking a long time to arrange the bouquet, flower by flower, making them fan out. And then, she turned without looking at her mother and walked back to her bedroom, vase in hand, and closed the door.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
She'll lead you down a path
There'll be tenderness in the air
She'll let you come just far enough
So you know she's really there
She'll look at you and smile
And her eyes will say
She's got a secret garden
Where everything you want
Where everything you need
Will always stay
A million miles away
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The end