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Touch of Love (Trials of Fear Book 3) by Nicky James (1)

Chapter One

 

Ireland

Normal was always out of reach. It was like I could see it there on the horizon, understood the obstacle course that would bring me into its soothing embrace, yet I couldn’t maneuver the path to save my life. Every step forward, new thorny branches snagged my ankles, wrapped their constricting lengths around my legs, and held me back. A vast canyon would appear. A rushing, raging, impassable ravine that would suck me into its depths and spit me out again at the beginning. All my efforts, all my hard work and dedication were for naught. Normal was nothing more than a mirage in the distance.

Unobtainable.

A dream that could never be.

This was my life. Constantly striving for the impossible.

I was convinced some people got a map to follow. “Here,” it read. “Here is the direct path to normal.” Mine must have got lost in the mail. There were days I was certain the big man upstairs found humor in torturing me. He’d push me to the edge, and I feared someday I would fall.

Hearing the click of the front door, I pinched my eyes closed and emptied my lungs in a long exhale. Like out-of-grasp normal, I could see the end result of my evening off in the distance and knew exactly how it would all come to pass. However, I wouldn’t have any problem winding down this particular road to get to my destination. There weren’t nearly as many obstructions in the way. In fact, I’d practically paved the road with a sheer slick of ice to make it go faster, easier.

“Ireland? Are you home?”

Scanning the backyard beyond the kitchen window a final time, I turned and leaned against the counter, tucking my hands under my armpits and hugging myself. Deep inside my bones, an unmistakable jitter took root.

“Yeah, in the kitchen.”

Julia popped her head in, her brown curls spilling over her shoulders, and her smile brilliant as always. Perfect teeth, freckles spread like fairy dust across her nose, and eyes the color of molasses.

“Hey, you.” She scanned my posture, and slowly but surely that vibrant essence she carried everywhere she went melted away. It was faint, but a tiny crease formed in the middle of her forehead as wariness surfaced behind her once sparkling eyes. She knew. “What’s up?”

Two words, but they held a world of tension.

I shook my head, doing what I could to brush off the weight of despair growing in the pit of my stomach as I found a smile. “Nothing. Any idea what you might want for dinner?”

She was no longer listening. The intense way she studied my face and the slow pace she used as she moved into the kitchen only served to tighten my muscles further. My body ached with the strain. Clamping my jaw to prevent my teeth from chattering, I shifted my gaze everywhere else, unable to match her stare, knowing the truth was all too visible.

She crossed the room, one steady step after another. Nothing about it was threatening, but it gave me the same agitated paranoia as Mike Myers’ ominous gait in Halloween. Every foot closer, I dug my nails deeper into my own flesh through my T-shirt, hugging myself tighter, holding my breath. Julia was always perceptive. I wasn’t a fool. She stopped in front of me, and I pressed back against the counter, knowing I’d wedged myself into a corner. Feeling the need to escape, I squeezed my eyes shut and flinched at her close proximity.

The action was automatic—reactive—and nothing I could have prevented.

While my head spun with every piece of nonsense my therapist preached, I did my best to keep from moving. She was too close. Her Chanel No19 engulfed my senses and bled into my pores. The gentle hint of her raspberry shampoo was lost somewhere in the mix as well.

“Look at me.” The sweet, cheery edge she’d brought home was long gone. Her tone was clipped… and knowing.

Forcing my eyes open, I once again tried to retreat, crushing my back against the counter hard enough to bruise. My personal space bubble had grown by about five feet since that morning, and she was well aware.

As though testing her theory, she reached a hand toward my face, her intent probably to either caress my cheek, thread fingers through my hair, or trace the outline of my lips—all things she did regularly. But that time, I couldn’t take it. Like Keanu Reeves in The Matrix, I slinked away without so much as allowing our clothing to come in contact, dodging the approaching hand, and bolting to the other side of the room, leaving the kitchen island between us.

Julia spun, following my movement with her eyes. Her brow furrowed, her lips pinched, and she adopted that snarly wrinkle in her nose which told me she was pissed. “You went and visited her again, didn’t you?”

With a bit of distance, my mind cleared enough I could respond. “She’s my mother, Julia.”

She propped her hands on her hips, her chest rising and falling as she sucked in controlled breaths so she wouldn’t explode. Her teddy bear scrubs hugged her petite, slender frame perfectly, but she no longer looked like the tiny innocent pediatric nurse. She was not happy. Regardless, I couldn’t help taking note of all her perfections and storing them away. The end was imminent. Normal and abnormal simply couldn’t co-exist together.

Not for lack of trying.

The defeat behind her brown-eyed glare cut deep. “You promised, Ireland. She doesn’t even know who you are anymore. And for what? Every single time, it’s a huge step backward. Every. Fucking. Time. I can’t keep doing this.”

“Julia…”

“No! Do you have any idea how hard this is for me?”

“For you? Excuse me?”

“I get it, I knew when we got together how things were, but every time you make progress you purposefully go out and sabotage it.”

“What?” Was she serious? “You think I want to be like this?”

“Sometimes I wonder.”

“Julia… what? Really?”

“You made love to me last night. That was the first time in five months. Five. Months. That’s how long it took you to get yourself back after your last visit. So, what do you do? The next day after we finally make progress, you go visit her again. How long will it take this time? How long before I’m even allowed to touch you again? Three months? Eight? A year?” She shook her head. “I can’t. I love you, but I just can’t.”

I bit the inside of my cheek, hoping it would quell the pain of my heart breaking or at least cushion it somehow. Knowing the consequences of my actions didn’t make it hurt any less. My eyes burned, but I blinked hard, refusing to shed a single tear.

“The home called. She hasn’t been doing well. Was I supposed to ignore it? She has nobody. I’m it.”

Dark flames grew behind Julia’s eyes. She approached the island and slammed her hands down, punctuating her fury. It was such a contradiction to the sweet, quiet woman I thought I knew. But I was hardly surprised by it. I’d earned that anger fair and square.

“And she broke you, Ireland! She did this to you, and yet you continue to allow her that power even though you’ve been nothing more than a stranger to her for over a year.”

All of that was true—sort of—but it didn’t erase the fact that she was talking about my mother. The woman who’d birthed me and protected me against the monster she’d married. The woman who’d sacrificed herself every day to keep me out of foster care. Despite her issues, despite the barebone fact that her mental health issues had become mine, I couldn’t ever dismiss her from my life.

“If your mother had Alzheimer’s and didn’t know who you were anymore, could you simply stop visiting and cease caring?”

Julia’s shoulders fell, and her anger softened. Those big beautiful eyes of hers with her long lashes and the splash of freckles across her nose had the power to calm even the most distraught person. When no one gave me a chance at the hospital years ago, Julia had friended me, listened, and understood my struggles. I guess everyone had limits. I’d never proposed, so she’d never promised forever.

“My mother didn’t land me in therapy.”

So, what now? Where do we go from here?

I didn’t ask because the question already hung in the air, implied. Had I known my decision to visit my mother today would land me here? I’d had a good feeling. Did I consider not going? Yes, more than once. I’d even sat in the parking lot at St. Helen’s Nursing Home for over an hour, thinking.

When the silence stretched longer than Julia could take, she shook her head and dropped her gaze to the ceramic countertop of the island. “I don’t want to do this anymore, Ireland.”

“You said you understood. I’ve never lied to you. I always told you how it was with me. You knew going into this. I never made promises I knew I couldn’t keep.”

“I know, but you seem hell-bent on not improving.”

“You think I want to live like this?”

She shrugged, the firm position she held over her decision pooled my tears despite my effort to keep them at bay. I knew this would happen, I could hardly be surprised. With a thick bulge growing in my throat, I tried to swallow and act like a man and not the defeated wreck of a human being I felt like most days.

“Okay,” I whispered. “Who…” I cleared my throat, working strength into my voice. “Who’s keeping the house?”

She raised a brow like it was obvious, and again, I reined in my surprise. Nodding, I worked my hands loose from under my pits and shoved them deep into my pockets, rocking on my heels.

“I’ll need a week or so to find somewhere to live. Give me that at least.”

There was no need to discuss things like sleeping arrangements. The spare room was my safe haven, and I slept there more times than I’d ever slept beside Julia. Unable to find the strength for any more discussion, I slinked out of the kitchen and headed down the hall. I guess I needed to find somewhere to live and soon.

“Ireland,” Julia called. “Don’t forget to eat something. It’s after five. You don’t need more problems.”

Another reminder of just how far from normal my life had drifted. Whether out of spite or simply a lack of self-preservation, I ignored her.

I spent the following few hours on the internet, seeking housing in the Dewhurst area. Single room dwellings, apartments, shared housing, and condos were among my many choices. I wrote down a few numbers and made a few calls to set up viewings.

After a short time, the pages and descriptions blurred, and my fingers trembled as I worked at refining my search options. The room wavered and spun. A steady rumble invaded my stomach, yet I was too irritated to do anything about it. With effort, I shook it off and clicked another tab.

Without knocking, Julia let herself into the spare room and glared at where I’d perched myself in the middle of the bed. Only when I looked up, confused at why she was standing there with a plated sandwich did I realize I was clammy and sweating.

She marched forward and dropped the plate beside me along with a juice box. “You know, for a nurse, you’re kind of an idiot sometimes.”

She walked out again but left the door open. I could hear her rummaging in the washroom across the hall, and she returned a moment later with my black pouch containing my glucometer, a vial of insulin, and a new needle. Those items hit the bed beside the food, and I caught an eye-roll before she left again, closing the door behind her.

I didn’t need to check my sugars to know they were dipping far lower than the normal range. My symptoms, now that they’d been indirectly pointed out, were glaring. It was long past dinner; I should have known better.

With trembling fingers, I managed to fit the tiny straw into the juice box and sucked it dry. After, I proceeded to devour the sandwich. Maintaining adequate blood sugar levels wasn’t difficult, except when my life was in shambles—which was sadly more times than not. It required too much brain power to balance insulin and carbohydrates when I was more focused on the proximity of the entire human race in relation to me.

The minute my food was consumed, I shifted my laptop aside and rested back against the stack of pillows. Closing my eyes, I fought the nauseating symptoms of low blood sugar as my dinner did its job. It was funny how easily I could pass them off as something else after twenty-four years of being diabetic.

It was thirty minutes before I felt more human and was able to sit up again and properly resume my search. Julia was banging around in the kitchen, her shows blaring from the TV in the other room. For a half a minute, I considered ditching the effort and trying to win her back like I’d done so many times before. But I knew she had nothing left to give. I’d known after my last slip, there were no more chances to be had. I’d known all of this, but I’d gone to visit my mother anyway.

While I thought about what had gone on during my visit, I blindly checked my sugars. The ends of my fingers had become so callused over the years from the constant prick of the needle that it was sometimes difficult to get them to bleed at all. Happy to find them back in the normal range, I took an appropriate dose of insulin which I should have taken before dinner to balance what I ate. Julia had a point, for all I knew about balancing my sugars, I did a shitty job of taking care of myself.

I tugged my phone from my pocket and searched up my doctor’s number. It was after hours, but there was no doubt in my mind that I needed an appointment and soon. When her voicemail picked up, I cleared my throat.

“Hey, Erin, it’s Ireland. I know we have an appointment in two weeks, but… I need to come in sooner. Things aren’t so good right now. Since I’m working days this week, I’ll pop in your office tomorrow sometime and see what you have available, but if you could squeeze me in sooner than later, I’d appreciate it.”

With that settled, I scanned the remaining list of phone numbers I’d scrawled on my notepad. They were all available places that seemed to fit my needs. I resumed making phone calls, hoping I could slide into a new place before the end of the week.

 

* * *

 

Hugging my travel mug of coffee, I rode the elevator to the third floor and the surgical ward where I worked. Dodging the light traffic of shift change, I steered into the nurse’s lounge and tossed my backpack into my locker.

I was one of the head nurses on the surgical floor, but it wasn’t a position I’d earn rightfully. It was more or less given to me out of necessity. Off and on over the years, I’d bounced departments and stations repeatedly in a fruitless attempt to find somewhere I could work which didn’t cause my problems to flare.

Emergency was a nightmare. Long-term care was a big fat no considering the amount of times patients’ simple words triggered me. Pediatrics, where I’d met Julia two years ago, was where I’d been working when I ended up going on leave once. Maternity, no. Intensive care, no. Palliative care, another big fat no.

The surgical floor was my most recent stop. In truth, it wasn’t any better or worse than everywhere else, but the people upstairs had grown tired of moving me, so they shifted my position title and made it work other ways. They couldn’t dismiss me because of my doctor-confirmed mental health limitations. It would mean a ridiculous fight with the labor board if they wanted to take it that far. It was easier to shove me in a corner and hope I shut up.

If I was doing well, I could run an IV, check blood pressures, draw blood, and do all the things necessary when dealing with patients, but if I wasn’t doing well—which was seventy to eighty percent of the time—I couldn’t do any of those things. During those times, all I was good for was working behind the desk, charting patients’ progress, coordinating medical records, doing intake and out-patient paperwork, and giving orders. Everything that was hands-off.

I made my way to the nurse’s station and met up with Patty, the night shift head nurse, so I could get the updates required before I delegated work to my team coming on shift. And by team, I meant two other nurses who would be responsible for pre-op or post-op care.

Dewhurst wasn’t a huge city, and our hospital paled in comparison to our neighboring cities. The surgeries performed were often minor in nature or emergencies that didn’t require transportation to bigger hospitals. Sometimes, we were stuck with doozies, and the option of transporting a patient simply wasn’t feasible. In those cases, time was of the essence, and we did what we could.

“Morning, Ireland,” Patty called when she caught sight of me.

“Good morning.”

I fell into a chair two down from hers and swiveled to face her. Without wasting a beat, she slid a handful of clipboards across the long desk toward my station and leaned back in her chair with a tired, twelve-hour smile that no longer reached her eyes. “Been a fun night.”

I gathered the clipboards and skimmed as she relayed what I needed to know to take over.

“Room 306 is having a hysterectomy at eight. Blood work needs to be drawn still; the lab is on their way up. IV already ran. 302 is tonsillectomy. It was supposed to be at eight-thirty, but Dr. Bradshaw called and pushed it to nine. He’s caught in traffic. 304 just came out of—”

“Transabdominal impalement?!” I read off the chart from the patient she was referring to, my eyebrows reaching my hairline. I flipped a page, scanning with my mouth hanging open.

“Yup. Fell off a ladder early last night. Wooden stake penetrated the left lumbar region. Gave Dr. McDonald a nice challenge. Surprisingly quick procedure once he sorted himself out. Ninety minutes. Anyhow, BP was low when he came out but seems to be stabilizing…”

Patty went on to explain everything I needed to know, finishing just as Stephen, one of my day shift nurses, showed up and leaned on the counter separating the nurse’s station from the hallway. Stephen was in his mid-thirties with dark hair, gray eyes, and a failing bedside manner that needed to constantly be addressed. I hated when we ended up scheduled together. He begrudged me my position and wasn’t ashamed to express it.

He listened, drumming fingers on the countertop as Patty completed her rundown. Once Patty finished, she dispersed, and I scanned the hallway that led to the lounge. “Where’s Pauline?” I asked Stephen.

She was supposed to have been my second nurse on duty, and she was late. That wasn’t like her. Pauline was sweet and hardworking, but she was also friends with Julia, so I wondered if our breaking up would make things awkward.

Stephen shrugged and skewered me with his impatient glare. “What do you have for me?”

I shuffled the clipboards and handed him half, relaying all Patty had shared before he’d arrived. Morning rounds consisted of taking vitals, ensuring our surgical patients were ready for their procedures, calling the lab to come take blood, and running IVs and catheters if required.

Just before Stephen wandered off to start, Patty popped back over to the desk, her purse over her arm and a light jacket covering her scrubs. “I forgot to mention, Pauline called, she’s not coming in. She’s been up sick all night. I made a round of phone calls to try and replace her, but I haven’t heard back from anyone. You’re running short, sweetie, sorry.”

Patty spun and walked toward the elevators as that information sank in. A beat passed as reality sent a chill up my spine before I turned pleading eyes on Stephen.

“No,” he snapped, spinning and heading down the hall at a fantastic rate of speed.

I couldn’t handle it, not today, not after what I’d put myself through yesterday. My pulse spiked at the thought, and I rounded the desk and bolted after him.

“Stephen! Stephen, wait.”

He came to an abrupt halt, and I skidded to a stop, preventing a collision and sucking in a panicked breath in the process. I stepped back, widening our distance to something more tolerable before speaking.

Being a dick, Stephen lunged forward, psyching me out, feigning an approach which sent me stumbling backward a few more steps in horror.

“Jesus, don’t! What the hell!?”

“Forget it, Hayes, I’m not taking all the work. If you can’t do the job, then leave and do us all a favor. You’ve been playing this goddamn card for long enough, and we’re all tired of it. Maybe no one else has the balls to speak up, but I do.”

The halls were bare, and apart from the medication trolley, a traveling shelf stocked with towels, wash clothes, bedding, and gowns, and a stray blood pressure machine, it was stark and empty, clinical and quiet. Our patients had either just had surgery or were waiting to be taken in, and it lacked the noisy bustle other departments endured.

“Please. I’ll do all the paperwork. Anything. Help me out.”

“No.”

“Stephen.”

“No. And that’s final. You’re little on-again, off-again problem is getting really old.” Stephen spun and entered the room on his left, instantly transforming into a calm, kind nurse as he called out, “Good morning, Mrs. Friar, how are you doing today?”

Just like that, my hand was forced to do a job I was unprepared to handle. I needed to see Dr. Kelby. Sooner than later. Like yesterday. Shit!

Defeated, I returned to the main desk as I tried to calm the drum slamming against my ribs, making me ill. Ordinarily, I could perform the simple tasks required. Yesterday morning, they would have been difficult but doable. Today, even thinking about performing such actions was giving me heart palpitations and shakes similar to what I experienced with low blood sugar.

I sank onto the chair by my computer and worked through one of the calming exercises Dr. Kelby had given me in the past. Closing my eyes, I pictured a serene setting. A field, long grass, vast open space with no one around, birds in the sky, the scent of spring flowers in the air. It was peaceful and quiet. I breathed. In through the nose, out through the mouth. In and out. In. Out.

When I knew I couldn’t sit anymore, I blew out a final release of anxiety and grabbed the remaining stack of clipboards which should have belonged to Pauline. Mind over matter, I told myself over and over again.

My first patient was the up and coming tonsillectomy. An eight-year-old girl who was looking rather pale with nerves. Her mother was sitting on the far side of her bed, braiding her curly blonde hair and talking calmly, soothing her daughter’s worries. They both looked up at my entrance with matching silver-blue eyes and the exact same noses that curved up at the end, more round than pointed. There was no mistaking their relation. They even shared a distinctive widow’s peak that dipped quite pronounced onto their foreheads.

“Hi, good morning.” I smiled gently, injecting calm into the strained room, pulling out all the nursing abilities I’d learned over the years. “My name is Ireland, and I’m going to give you a little check-up before your surgery today. Is that okay?”

The little girl smiled and nodded as her mom scooched off the bed and draped an arm over her daughter’s shoulder. “Nice to meet you. We’re a little nervous today,” the girl’s mother said as she tilted her head toward her daughter.

“I can see that.” That makes two of us. I checked the clipboard in my hand before meeting the young girl’s eyes. “There is nothing to worry over, Gretta. I know Dr. Bradshaw really well, and he will get those icky tonsils out of you lickety-split. Then, all those sore throats will be gone for good, hopefully. Won’t that be nice?”

Her mother smiled, gaze falling from me to her daughter. “Sweetheart, I’m going to let Ireland do his job while mommy grabs a coffee from the cafeteria, okay? I’ll be right back.”

Brief worry crossed Gretta’s pale eyes. Her lip jutted out in a pout, but her mother kissed her forehead reassuringly. It was sweet. When the girl’s mother moved toward me, I reactively backed up a few steps to keep space between us, but she persisted closer until my back hit the wall.

What the hell?

I held my breath as she leaned in to speak privately, standing far closer than was comfortable. My stomach did summersaults as my head screamed for space. It took every effort to fight the impulse to run and focus on her words.

“My name’s Robin,” Robin said, clearly not taking any note of my instability or the fact that she was close enough I could smell her breath. “She’ll be a lot more cooperative if I’m not here. I’ll be back in a few.”

I mentally measured every inch that separated us, no longer hearing Robin’s words, only wishing for her to leave so I could breathe again.

“Never let them touch you, do you hear me? Never! No one EVER touches you. No one!”

The shrill cries of the past penetrated my thoughts, and I inadvertently squeezed my eyes closed against their assault. They were the rambling cries of a psychologically damaged soul. I could fight it. They didn’t have to be my reality. I knew this to be true.

My breathing came short, but I forced my eyes open, forced myself to remain in the moment. Robin didn’t seem to notice the chaos she was causing. In fact, she seemed to be waiting for a reply. To what? I couldn’t be sure since I’d tuned her out for self-preservation the minute she decided it was okay to claim my personal space.

Uncertain what she was waiting for, I nodded, hugging the clipboard to my chest, using it as a shield and wishing it were bigger. My response must have satisfied. She stepped away and disappeared out the door. Only then did my world realign.

This day was not going to work for me. Julia’s admonishments rang in my ears. She was right, and I knew she was right.

Shaking free from my thoughts, I refocused on young Gretta whose big eyes were taking me in like she knew all my secrets. She was just a child. I needn’t fear a child. An unpredictable child, my brain reminded me. With a buzzing head and jittery nerves, I approached her bed and worked hard at finding that smile I’d come in with.

“What’s wrong with your ears?”

It took a beat for me to understand her question, but then, I chuckled. As I dragged the blood pressure machine closer to the bed, I quirked a brow. Oh, the inquisitive minds of children.

“I have really big earrings I wear when I’m not working.”

“But they dangle. My earrings don’t make my earlobes dangle.”

“That’s because your earrings aren’t gauges.”

“What’s a gauge?”

I shifted the cuff in my hands trying to work up the nerve to reach out and touch the girl’s arm so I could check her blood pressure. She was oblivious to my struggles and more interested in playing twenty questions.

“I’ll tell you what. You can ask me all the questions you want if you help me out today. Can you do that?”

She nodded without thought, a blonde curl falling loose from her braid and into her inquisitive eyes. “’Cept, I don’t know how to be a nurse.”

“I’ll teach you.” I held out the cuff, ensuring there was an adequate amount for her to grab without risking our fingers touching. She took hold of it and turned it in her hands, examining it.

“Now what?”

I glanced at the door, knowing I’d gone too far but not seeing another option short of hightailing it into my director’s office and resigning. Wouldn’t that make Stephen’s day.

“Okay. It’s like a big sleeve. You’re gonna put it on like you do your shirt, but here is the trick. See the tube attached on the one side?”

“Yeah.”

“That has to go on the bottom, so it aims toward your fingers, not your armpit. Slide it on and show me.”

She seemed proud to be helping, and whatever nervous tension she’d had when I came in was gone, replaced by her enthusiastic determination to act as my helper. She slid the cuff on her arm just as I’d explained.

“Good, now pull it all the way to the top.” She did. “Now, see that tube? That has to be on the inside of your arm, pointing to here.” I pointed to the inside of her elbow, and she fought to maneuver it into the right position. “Excellent. Now, all you have to do is pull the tab closed nice and snug.”

That was when she fumbled. It was tricky for her little hands to keep the alignment and do it up at the same time without twisting or bunching it up. When she tried and failed twice, she scrunched her face and shook her head.

“I can’t.”

It was taking far longer than it should have. Ideally, I should have been onto my next patient by now. I needed to assist somehow. Squeezing my hands into fists then releasing, I shifted closer.

“Hold your arm straight out and get it lined up again. I’ll help you pull it tight and stick the Velcro.”

She copied my demonstration, and when the tab hung, I carefully grabbed it and pulled it snug, breathing through the wave of nausea, trepidation, and head noise when I needed to press it firmly to her arm.

“Good stuff. You’re a pro. Now relax and let’s let the machine do its job.”

She smiled with satisfaction as the machine worked. “Does your ears hurt like that?”

“Nope.” I flicked one of my lobes in demonstration. “They don’t look as silly when I put the earrings in.”

“Why aren’t you wearing them?”

“Not allowed to at work.”

She thought about this, her gaze flitting once to the tight cuff as it inflated. “You have sneaky tattoos, too, like my daddy.”

I resisted the urge to tug my shirt sleeves lower, but it was pointless, I knew my art showed through, much to the displeasure of the board of directors. Unprofessional, they chided.

Whatever.

“Yup. But they are supposed to be hiding, so shh.” I held a finger to my lips and winked. It earned me a giggle.

With blood pressure complete, Gretta helped clip the finger pulse oximeter in place and knew exactly where the thermometer went without being told.

“You should be a nurse when you grow up.”

It earned me another giggle just as her mother returned, clutching a coffee between her palms. “How did things go?”

“I got to be the nurse, Mommy.”

I winked at Gretta as she explained how she’d helped. “The lab will be around shortly to take some pre-surgical bloodwork, and I’ll have someone come around to insert an IV as well.”

There was zero chance I could make that happen today, not with the state of my nerves. I’d never hit a vein and would only cause the poor kid agony if I had to poke around too long. Stephen would have to buck up and help. I was already concerned how I was going to manage basic procedures with my adult patients who wouldn’t take half as much joy in being a nurse’s helper as Greta had.

 

* * *

 

By lunch break, I’d gone two verbal rounds with Stephen and worked myself into such a knot I could barely work my fingers to undo the lock on my locker. I checked my messages, downed a bottle of water, and pulled my glucometer from my backpack.

I made quick work of checking my sugars and drawing adequate insulin into a syringe to balance my up-coming lunch. Setting my needle aside for a second, I pulled my arm through my long-sleeved shirt and scrub top to expose my upper arm, then, I injected the lifesaving juices subcutaneously.

Story of my life. I’d been giving myself insulin for more years than I could remember all so I wouldn’t succumb to Sugar Urine Disease or whatever fancy name they liked to call it way back when. I rejected the idea of using a pump or gravitating to insulin pens as most type one diabetics did nowadays. Using a syringe, measuring my own sugar, drawing the correct ccs to counteract my meals the old-fashioned way helped me feel more in control. And when I fought for control throughout most of my everyday life, it was imperative I retained authority somewhere. Besides, being a nurse made the tasks simple. Working with needles was second nature.

Maybe I was simply too stubborn to change.

Once the routine task was complete, I grabbed my lunch bag and headed for the elevators, hoping Erin—or Dr. Kelby, my psychiatrist—was in her office and not busy. It wouldn’t be the first time we’d shared a meal at the hospital, and knowing my life, it wouldn’t be the last.

Her door sat open and inviting when I approached. I poked my head in and found her head down, strawberry blonde curls framing her face as she wrote on a form. Her in-hospital office was functional but nothing like her main office downtown. A few bookshelves, basic, plastic hospital seating you’d find in almost every room in the building, and bland-colored walls with limited personal touches.

“Knock, knock.”

She lifted her green-eyed gaze and smiled. “Ireland. I got your message. Come on in. Are you on lunch?”

I jiggled my lunch bag in response as I entered, finding a seat on the other side of her desk in the hard, plastic chair that recognized my ass. “You busy?”

“Nah. When I got your message this morning, I ensured I kept my lunch hour open. Thought we could chat.”

I’d been a patient of Erin’s for many years, long enough we’d developed a reasonable friendship on the side, and we talked more often than our scheduled appointment times. There were days, like today, where she liked to see what was up before determining what kind of extra help I required. We went for coffee frequently and crossed paths almost daily in some capacity or another seeing as we both spent a great deal of time in the hospital.

I sighed and set my lunch bag on her desk before leaning back and scrubbing a hand through my recently dyed hair. Julia liked it nearly platinum blond and often encouraged me to cover my natural light brown hair with something a little more “fun.” I didn’t care either way and colored it to make her happy. That would probably change.

“I went to visit my mom yesterday.”

Erin pinched her lips and watched me with interest as she nodded for me to go on. Erin knew my opening statement and the actions I’d taken held a world of power over me.

“The nursing home called. She’s not been doing well, so I went. Lots of outbursts and they’ve struggled when helping her with her daily routines. She’s become stuck in that part of her past more and more. I don’t think they really expected me to do anything. I mean, what can I do? They were being courteous and calling, but…”

“But you felt an obligation to go see her.”

I nodded. Erin always understood. “She… it was exactly the same as always. I try so hard not to hear it all in my head every day. I do. But then, when I’m there, it’s unavoidable. It’s not just echoes. It’s real. When I left…” I blew out a breath, feeling like I’d had this exact conversation a dozen times before, but Erin didn’t care if we talked about it a thousand times over, and I knew that. “It was like someone pushed the walls back in place again.” I shook my head, gaze falling to my lap.

Erin shifted and leaned across the desk, pushing my lunch bag toward me. “Eat your lunch.”

Erin knew all my issues, even the way my mind became absent in the face of other, more traumatic things. She knew I often forgot to eat or check my sugars or take care of myself adequately enough, and she looked out for me when she could.

I pulled my lunch bag onto my lap and retrieved the sandwich I’d made that morning. Without unwrapping it right away, I traced a finger over the protruding piece of lunch meat at the side of the wheat bread through the Ziploc baggie.

“Julia’s done. She wants me to move out. I was doing so well. We were sharing a bed again. We even managed… other things, finally. It’d been months.”

Nearly a half a year to be precise.

“Does she blame you?”

“Yeah. But how can I not go visit my mother?”

“No one has any right to expect you to stay away from her, Ireland. Julia knows the battles you fight. Unfortunately, if she doesn’t work with you to help you overcome them, then she’s just going to hinder your progress. You don’t need someone pointing fingers and accusing you of self-sabotage.”

I laughed humorlessly. “Feels like my progress is for naught.”

“You certainly are a two-steps-forward, one-step-back kind of person, but you’re a fighter. You’re aware. You know your mother is an obstacle in all of this. You understand your condition more than a lot of my patients, and you work hard at getting better. When you first came to me years ago, I told you the path to recovery wouldn’t be straightforward or easy. Especially with your mother’s decline. We talked about expectations, and you understand realistically what you can achieve and what you probably will spend a lifetime fighting.”

“I know.”

Erin nodded again at my untouched lunch. “Eat.”

Only when I’d worked through over half of my dry, tasteless sandwich did she continue. “This happened yesterday?”

I nodded, my mouth full, the bread catching in my throat.

“How has today been?”

Swallowing the dry bread, I found a napkin in my bag and wiped my mouth then downed a little juice box so I could talk. “Horrible. I have a nurse off, and I went to blows with another trying to get him to do all the hands-on stuff. I’m a mess. I’ve fallen right back where I was. The idea of anyone near me is making my skin crawl, and I get nauseous even thinking about it. Her voice is screaming in my head again like she’s standing right over my shoulder.” I re-bagged the remainder of my sandwich, unsure I could eat anymore while hoping it was enough to balance the insulin I’d taken. “I might need a leave of absence again.”

“I don’t think so.”

Erin’s answer was immediate, and I snapped my head up with wide eyes. She reclined in her office chair as she watched me. Her dainty fingers were weaved together and steepled under her chin.

She went on before I could voice my protests. “I’m not enabling you to sink further. When I put you on leave two years ago, and three years before that, it was different. Ireland, you are in control.”

“I’m not, it’s awful. This morning—”

“You. Are.” Her firm tongue bore no room for argument. “This is a small slip backward. You’ve had many before this, and I don’t expect it will be your last. I expect you will struggle, but if you don’t push yourself, it will be too easy to fall off the rails again.”

How did I explain, I felt like I’d fallen off the rails already? Julia being near me last night had spiked my anxiety, and she was supposed to be my most trusted ally, my rock. This morning, the act of touching anyone gave me the sensation of having swallowed maggots. Ordinarily, those reactions were reserved for other people threatening to touch me. Me making the decision to touch them was supposed to be simpler, a process that was easier for my mind to overcome. An element of control in my daily life, and one that helped me gradually get through my day. If I touched, it was a choice, if others touched, it was threatening. Today, both were a problem.

“I want you to focus and do your best to push through. Self-coaching, remember? Even if you make no progress at first, be aware. Keep pushing forward. Don’t wallow in a setback. If Julia doesn’t want to support you any longer, then I hate to say this, but it’s better you let her go. You need support all around you. Toxicity will only hold you back. If she spends every day playing the blame game with you, you will regress.”

I stared at Erin’s desktop without seeing. How many times did I have to fall? Why did normal stay so far out of reach? It was like playing Monopoly. I couldn’t seem to get all the way around the board without landing on the “Go to Jail” square. I just wanted to pass go and collect my two-hundred dollars like everyone else.

“I think you’re right, though. We should set up a few extra appointments until you feel like you’re walking on stable ground again.”

Numb, nodding robotically, I waited for Dr. Kelby to flip through her appointment schedule to find me an opening. Stable ground? There was no stable ground. Never had been.

She scribbled a few dates and times on a business card without asking if they were okay because we both knew I took my therapy seriously and would change plans to ensure I didn’t miss our times together.

“Once you find new living arrangements and get settled, don’t let yourself hide away at home. Surrounding yourself with people and growing comfortable in those social situations is key.”

“Thanks.” My voice came out hollow.

Why couldn’t I simply take a leave of absence? How was I supposed to return to my afternoon post and all the patients I couldn’t help? Stephen was determined to make me suffer. For what must have been the hundredth time, I reminded myself that Erin knew best. She was the doctor. She specialized in phobias and mental health disorders. If she said it would help, no matter how bleak the outcome seemed, I had to believe it too.