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Stay with Me by Mila Gray (1)

Didi

Ten weeks earlier . . .

Grumpy, Moody, Sleepy,” José says, pointing to each of the doors in turn.

I swallow. My first day isn’t going so well. I’ve already had to run the gauntlet of a dozen half-dressed marines catcalling me when I walked through the wrong door and into the male locker rooms. That sounds like a porn fantasy, and normally Jessa and I would fall about laughing at something like that happening, but in reality it wasn’t in the least bit funny.

I knew that it was going to be a tough assignment and that being the boss’s daughter wasn’t going to buy me any favors, but . . . I wasn’t expecting this either.

Just then an alarm sounds, startling me. José takes off. “I’ll be back in a minute. Don’t move,” he yells over his shoulder.

I stand there in the middle of the hallway, staring at the posters on the walls of marines in triumphant poses with words like “Inspire,” “Overcome,” and “Thrive” boldly printed across them. The center is new and shiny and full of platitudes like this. Personally I’m not sure I’d want to see a picture of a grinning marine running to victory if I’d just had my leg shot off, but I’m not an interior decorator, only a trainee psychologist.

Everything is state of the art (apart from the art, it would seem), including the swimming pool that’s used for therapy. Currently two hundred wounded marines and other army personnel are being treated at the center for a range of issues, from physical injuries right through to mental illness.

This is the first day of my summer internship and I’m being given a tour. The pool was the first stop, the locker room the second. I saw more in those few startled seconds than I think a tour of the entire facilities will give me—an array of limbless bodies, men missing legs and arms. But clearly not their sense of humor. My cheeks are still burning at some of the comments and suggestions made by the guys back in the changing room.

“Damn it!” someone yells, making me jump.

I scan the corridor. The cursing came from the room on my right.

“Damn!”

I inch toward the door and peer around it. There’s a guy on the bed with a bandage wrapped around his eyes. One arm is in a sling. A tray of food sits on the table in front of him and he’s struggling with one arm and no sight to open what looks like a carton of yogurt. Frustration seems to be getting the better of him.

I take a step inside the room. He reaches for a spoon, fumbling on the tray and knocking off a dish that clatters to the ground, spraying cereal all over the floor and his sheets.

“Here—” I start to say, but he lets out a roar, stabs the spoon through the lid of the carton, and next thing I know I’m splattered head to foot in a cold shower of strawberry yogurt.

“Oh,” I say, feeling it drip from my hair onto my blouse.

“Who’s there?” he growls, raising his head.

“Um,” I say, blinking yogurt out of my eyes. “My name’s Didi. Didi Monroe.”

“What are you doing?” he snaps.

“Getting a yogurt facial, it would seem,” I mumble, wiping my face with the back of my arm. Great, I just blow-dried my hair. I’m going to need to go and take a shower now and find some new clothes to wear.

“Are you a nurse?” the guy asks, scowling in my direction.

I shake my head and then, realizing he can’t see me, say, “No.”

“Well, what are you doing in here, then?”

I blink at him in astonishment. “I heard you shouting. I came to see if I could help.”

“I don’t need your help. I don’t need any help,” he shouts. “Just get out!”

I’m speechless. Totally speechless. What an asshole. “Fine,” I stammer. “I’ll leave you to it. Enjoy your breakfast.”

I walk out into the corridor, cursing under my breath, still dripping yogurt. This day can’t get any worse. And then I look up and see a poster of a gurgling baby with the words “Laugh and the world laughs with you” written across it in Comic Sans.

José jogs back along the corridor just then and, taking one look at me standing in a puddle of pink yogurt, his eyes widen. “Oh shit,” he says, trying not to laugh and failing. “You met Grumpy, I take it.”

•  •  •

Half an hour later I exit the bathroom wearing a very unflattering pair of green scrubs that are one size too big. I spent a good ten minutes trying to style them into something that doesn’t make me look like a swamp monster, and failed. The pants are so long I’ve had to roll them up at the ankle, and the top is long in the arms but strains against my boobs. I’ve put on lashings of lipstick, hoping to divert attention away from my chest, but I can tell by the look on José’s face that it isn’t working. I may as well wave good-bye to my dignity for the day.

“You’re wearing the shit out of those scrubs,” José tells me, laughing. “You’re going to make a lot of wounded warriors very happy today.”

I shoot him a dark look, but the grin has now taken over his face and I find myself laughing too.

José is twenty-nine, an army medic who’s already done three tours in Iraq and has now transferred to the center, where he’s in charge of this ward. He’s trained in physical therapy and he also seems to have been trained in positive mental attitude. Either that or he’s been around all these posters for far too long. He’s been given the dubious responsibility of showing me around.

“So,” he says, “you want to continue with the tour?”

“Sure,” I say. “I’m sure there’s some ritual humiliation I’m missing out on. We’d better hurry up and find it.”

José nods his head in the direction of the doors. “Right, let’s go.” He checks the time. “We’ve got half an hour before I take you to your first patient.”

I get a buzz in my stomach followed by a swirl of nausea when he says the word patient. I’ve never had a patient before. I’m not entirely sure I’m ready to have patients. What if they see right through me? What if they figure out I have no clue what I’m doing? No, I remind myself. I have a degree in psychology. I’m studying for a doctorate. I’m smart. I’m capable. I can do this.

“Don’t be nervous,” José says as he holds the door open for me. “They’re big teddy bears underneath.” We pass Grumpy’s room. José hesitates. “Well, most of them.”

I glance quickly inside. An orderly is clearing up the cereal on the floor while the guy in the bed with the bandages sits facing the window, his jaw pulsing angrily. Teddy bear wouldn’t be the term I’d use to describe that one. Grizzly bear, maybe.

“What happened to him?” I whisper as soon as we’re past the open door.

“That’s Walker,” José says, still walking. “He was with Alpha team. Youngest lieutenant in the marines, I hear. Nearly everyone in his unit was killed in an ambush.”

I come to a standstill. “Oh my God.”

José glances back over his shoulder at me. “Yeah, five men died. Only him and one other guy survived.”

Guilt sweeps over me that I thought he was an asshole.

“Welcome to the realities of war,” José says before striding off toward the elevator.

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