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Larry Pontius

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A Creature of Habit
By Larry Pontius
Thursday, May 26, 2005

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This story is included in the anthology, Secrets, Fact or Fiction?

A Creature of Habit

It was not like Frank Teasley.
Frank was a man of routines, a creature of habit; rising each day and slogging down the same narrow path through life that he had tramped out over his 42 years of existence. He prided himself in having found the way, his way. It had served him well, leading to a lasting marriage with the former Emily Price, a Kappa Gamma he had carefully chosen as his college sweetheart, and a long standing career in real estate that supported he and Emily in a manner with which they both felt comfortable. His path didn’t include risk taking or involvement with anything that Frank hadn’t thought out thoroughly, hadn’t planned and tested, hadn’t proven itself.
Yet, here he was, a married man, having a clandestine lunch with a woman he had not seen or spoken to in nearly twenty-five years. It certainly was not like Frank Teasley.
When Marie Driscoll had phoned this morning Frank hadn’t known who it was at first. She gave Rita, his secretary, the name Hancock. Even when he came on the line and she explained, “Hancock is my married name. It’s Marie Driscoll, Frank. Remember me?” it took him a moment. Then a picture crystallized in his mind and something changed. He changed.
“Of course, I remember you,” he heard himself say. “What can I do for you, Marie?”
He thought he heard her give a small sigh. Then she said, “Well, I’m back in Centerville after all this time in Chicago, and I...well, I’m looking for an apartment.”
He let a moment pass, long enough to prompt her to add, “I saw your name in the real estate section of the paper. I think I could use your help, Frank. I don’t know much about this kind of thing.”
After another long pause he said, “Okay. I guess I could give you some ideas.”
“Could you meet me for lunch?”

Marie was staying downtown at the Hartley, within easy walking distance like most everything else in Centerville. Frank agreed to meet her in the bar and regretted it even before he was on his way. As he came out of his office, Dan Crane, one of the firm’s partners, was talking with Rita. Neither of them asked where he was going, but for no reason at all he blurted something about meeting his wife and not being long. At the elevator he glanced back. Crane and the secretary were having a laugh; at his expense he was sure.
All the way to the Hartley Frank chastised himself, wondering why in the world he was going. He had a perfectly good tuna sandwich in the fridge at the office. He liked tuna. What was he thinking? He couldn’t make any money out of a single apartment rental. Why hadn’t he begged off, pleaded a previous engagement? Why hadn’t he invited the woman to come to the office later this afternoon and passed her off to Rita? Rita was trying to move up at the office and get out from behind a secretary’s desk. It would be a good exercise for her.
About half way there, it first occurred to him. Unrequited lust? One last chance with the big breasted cheerleader he’d drooled over as a pimply-faced junior in high school? Shaking his head, he had a private chuckle at himself. How ridiculous was that? Marie Driscoll never knew he existed in those days. Besides, it had been more than 20 years. She’d probably had three kids and ballooned to the size of a NFL lineman. And what if his wife, Emily, somehow found out? How stupid would that be?
However, Frank wasn’t thinking about any of that now. He was looking at Marie Driscoll. The bar at the Hartley was dark after his walk in the noon time sun and his eyes were still adjusting, but even in the bar murk it was clear he’d been wrong. Marie was thinner than he remembered her from high school and she didn’t appear to be over thirty. Her body was trim and taunt, as if she played a lot of tennis or something. She was tanned and her skin seemed lustrous. Her hair had a dark sheen to it that reminded him of Emily’s when she came out of the shower. He’d never been close enough to Marie before, but now he could see that her eyes were hazel with flecks of yellow. Frank hadn’t been prepared for this, not at all. He tried to act calm and cool, but his mouth was so dry he was having trouble swallowing.
Frank didn’t drink except at appropriate occasions, weddings and those sorts of things. However, when Marie ordered a glass of white wine, he said he’d have one, too. They smiled mostly and talked about how much Centerville had grown while they waited for the wine.
After the waiter served the drinks and Marie had tasted hers she said, “I suppose you guessed that I’m getting divorced.”
He nodded and gave her what he was sure was a lame smile. “Yeah. I figured as much.” He shrugged. “It’s not a big deal. It happens to a lot of people.”
She had another taste of her wine, a deeper one. “I really appreciate this, Frank,” she said. “My husband, Joe, did everything. The whole time we were married. I feel like some kind of fool that I don’t even know how to...” She stopped, blinking back tears.
Frank instinctively reached across the table for her hand to calm her and spilled his wine. Marie gasped and scooted back, but not in time. Her blouse and skirt were soaked.
”Oh no! I’m sorry,” Frank said, jumping up to somehow make amends.
Marie was also up, using her hands to flick the excess wine off her front. Without thinking, Frank grabbed a cloth napkin that had been lining a basket of complimentary bread the Hartley served, and began helping her, dabbing the cloth napkin on her breasts. It was only a moment, hardly enough for Marie to feel it, but when Frank realized what he was doing, he was mortified.
Marie was the one who saved the situation. “Thanks, Frank,” she said, taking the napkin from him. “I can use this in the restroom.” She smiled. “It’s okay. Don’t worry. I’ll be back in a minute.”
Frank smiled his lame smile again. “I’m really sorry,” he said. As she walked away he called after her, “I guess I have to find you an apartment now.” A guy sitting at the bar turned to look at him and he felt stupid.
The waiter had cleaned up and replaced the wine by the time Marie returned. Frank had spent the time thinking about his schedule. He was booked up with appointments to show homes to prospective buyers, but he was sure he could push some of them back into the latter part of the week.
When Marie sat down he apologized again and tried not to look at her breasts. “Look, Marie,” he said, “I’ve got a full afternoon, but I’m sure I can make some time available tomorrow. Why don’t we have lunch while you tell me what you’re looking for, the size and price, you know? Then I can make a few calls and show you some places tomorrow?”
Marie Driscoll smiled. “Really? That would be wonderful, Frank. Thanks.”
That had been an hour and a half ago. Frank didn’t remember much of it. He ordered the soup and sandwich, his regular restaurant lunch. She had a salad, something he’d never heard of called Shrimp Louie. The conversation was mostly about her husband, Joe. Joe thought it was best for them to wait to have children, so they never had. He was a salesman for a business software company, always gone. When he was home he spent a lot of time on the golf course and at late night dinners with clients. Marie had never joined them for dinner; it was business and would be boring for her according to Joe. On his most recent trip Joe called to say he wasn’t coming back. That was it. Marie cried for a week and then decided to come home to Centerville. It hadn’t been much of a homecoming. Her parents had died several years ago and Frank was the only one she’d talked to so far.
When they finally got around to discussing the apartment Frank had already guessed she couldn’t afford much. She was hoping to find a furnished one bedroom, something for under $300 a month. Joe had agreed to take care of that much until the divorce was final which could be as long as six months. She was sure she could find a job by then.
Now, on his way back to the office, Frank was trying to come up with some apartment complexes that might be possibilities, but he couldn’t get his mind off of the fiasco with the wine – and the feel of Marie Driscoll’s breasts.
Then he saw her.
Emily was a half a block ahead of him, moving though the crowd in the same direction he was walking. Suddenly Frank couldn’t breathe. He was sure Emily had seen him with Marie Driscoll. His first thought was to turn around, get out of there, but his legs weren’t listening. They kept him walking on the same course, the same distance behind Emily. He tried to peer around people ahead of him to get a better view of her. She had her hair pulled back and was wearing the white slacks and red blouse he liked. That was all he could see.
At the next crosswalk Emily stopped with the rest of the crowd for the “Don’t Walk” sign and Frank moved closer. Now, he could see her face. She didn’t look angry or even upset. She hadn’t glanced back over her shoulder toward the Hartley while he’d been watching her, either. If she’d seen him with Marie why was she just calmly walking away? When the light changed and Emily surged ahead with everyone else, Frank thought maybe he had been wrong. Maybe she hadn’t seen him. But then why was she downtown? She hadn’t said anything to him this morning about coming downtown.
At that moment, his wife turned and walked into an office building. Frank recognized it immediately. It was the Medico Plaza, the place where Paul LaMotte, their primary care physician, had his office. He’d chosen LaMotte years ago from a short list the firm’s insurance company provided. That was before the Internet, but Frank had checked him out with the AMA, made sure he’d never been sued for malpractice. He and Emily were in to see the doctor at least twice a year for their regular physicals. Frank had even been here himself last week; for a follow-up to the surgery LaMotte recommended to correct the bunion on his right foot.
Was that why Emily was downtown? She was going to the doctor? Frank followed her, moving as quickly as he could without pushing people, trying not to cause a scene. He made it inside the lobby of the Medico building just in time to see one of the elevators at the end of the corridor close on Emily and another woman. Frank hurried down to the bank of elevators. Out of breath, he hit the call button. It binged immediately and another set of doors opened. He knew why: it was only a two story building. The elevators had no place to go.
Frank stepped inside and jabbed the button for the second floor and waited for what seemed like an hour as the doors closed and the ancient elevator hummed and shimmied its way upward. Finally, the car bumped to a stop and the doors opened. When he stepped out on the second floor he looked to his right, where LaMotte had his office about half down the hallway. The door was just being pulled shut. He couldn’t be certain it was Emily, but whoever it was had on a red blouse.
Now a new question floated into his mind. Why was Emily here? She hadn’t mentioned anything that would be a reason for seeing LaMotte. Was something wrong that she wasn’t telling him? Trying to keep it a secret? Should he go down to LaMotte’s office and confront her? Or just wait for her to bring it up? He was still trying to decide when his cell phone rang.
He fished the phone out of his pocket. “Hello? This is Frank,” he said. The reception wasn’t good.
“Frank, it’s Rita. Where are you?”
It took a moment for him react. “Ah, on my way back.”
“Your wife called. She asked where you were. I didn’t know what you wanted me to say.”
“I told her you were at lunch with a client, Frank. I hope that’s okay.”
“Did you say where?”
Rita sighed. “I don’t know where, Frank.”
He looked down the hall at the door to LaMotte’s office. “Did she say anything else?”
“No. Just that she’d see you tonight.” When he didn’t say anything, Rita asked, “Are you going to be back here to show the Blakes the place in Hampton Shores?”
The Blakes? That’s right, Frank thought. They were coming in this afternoon at... His mind was a blank. “When are they due?” he said.
“How should I know?” Rita complained. “You won’t let me keep your schedule.”
“It’s in the top drawer of my desk.”
She huffed something and a few moments later, after some paper rattling, said, “At two-thirty – in about ten minutes. They’re probably already on their way.”
He didn’t answer.
“Call them. Tom Blake’s cell is on speed dial on my phone. It’s number...” He couldn’t remember. Frank cursed under his breath. “It’ll be on the prospect folder. I always list them there, too. Tell Tom I...tell him I apologize. I got tied up with someone, another client. See if they can do it tomorrow, in the morning.”
“Just a minute,” Rita said. She was talking with someone else, there in the office. Frank couldn’t hear the exchange because of the reception. In a moment she came back to him. “Dan Crane is still here. He says he’d be happy to take the Blakes over to Hampton Shores, show them around.”
“Crap,” Frank seethed. He didn’t have any choice. ”All right. They’re thinking about the Essex model. That’s the four/three with the sunken Jacuzzi right in the master bedroom. He thinks it’ll help him get her in bed more often.”
“What?” Rita said.
“Is something wrong, Frank?”
“No. I’m just tired,” he said. “If Emily calls again, tell her I’ll be home later.”
Frank closed the phone and put it back in his pocket. He had a headache. He never got headaches. He closed his eyes and massaged his right temple. This was all wrong, Frank thought. He needed to sort it out. He needed some time alone. He pushed the call button for the elevator and the doors on the car he’d taken up opened. He stepped in and pushed the down button.

“The alternator?” Frank sighed and shook his head. “How could that be? I get the car serviced every three months.”
The driver of the AAA tow truck continued to fill out his form. “Sometimes they just go,” he said.
“First time I ever saw you try to leave early,” said the attendant in the office parking garage. He had wandered over when the tow truck arrived. The kid smiled, showing a mouthful of rotten teeth. “Caught trying to sneak home to diddle the wife, huh?”
“Shut up,” Frank said angrily, and then wondered why. Some brain-dead high school dropout wasn’t worth losing his temper over. He already had enough acid swirling around in his stomach.
The AAA guy handed Frank his forms and pointed out the address of the garage where he’d be towing his car. Frank gave him the keys, signed the papers, and called a cab. He hadn’t been sure where he was going, but now he knew.

The house on Jefferson was cool and quiet, the air conditioning unit producing a low grade hum that painted the rooms with a calming white noise. Frank and Emily had lived here all of their married lives. Frank chose it over three other homes in the same subdivision because of the staircase. The three houses were all four/threes, all pretty much the same in value and design, except that 213 Jefferson had a sweeping “Tara” staircase that reminded people of the movie Gone with the Wind. Frank knew it would be a special selling point, something that would make 213 more valuable. Over the years it had proven true . Every year when he checked their equity, the house at 213 was ahead of the others.
Now Frank sat there on the couch in the living room, in the cool, white quiet, doing his breathing exercises, thinking of nothing. Once he had calmed himself he made a cup of Earl Grey and sipped it. He allowed himself some time in his happy place: a sunset beach on St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands where he and Emily once vacationed long ago. After a while, he made another cup of tea and climbed the Tara staircase.
Up here Emily and he had once thought there would be running footsteps, little voices. But it hadn’t turned out that way. Emily had never blamed him. The doctors explained that a severe fever when he was young had left him unable to impregnate a woman, either naturally or through in-vitro fertilization. They hadn’t known until a year after they were married when they finally both submitted to a series of tests. He and Emily agreed that adoption wasn’t an alternative because of the risks. You couldn’t be certain of what you were getting. Once it was clear there wouldn’t be children, they turned one of the extra bedrooms into a sewing room for Emily, and one into his office. The other one was a guest room with a bed that served as a collecting point for coats whenever they had a party. Sometimes at Halloween and usually at the New Year.
Frank took the tea into his office. He moved to the computer and turned it on. The pufft sound it made felt good; a part of his routine, every morning, every evening. As he sipped the second cup of tea he checked his emails. There were a few things he should take care of, but he couldn’t stop thinking about lunch and Marie Driscoll. One step off the path couldn’t change everything – could it? He remembered a science fiction story he’d read once when he was a kid. A man went back in time machine to the Mesozoic era, the age of Dinosaurs. The guy was supposed to stay on an elevated path a few inches above the earth, but he slipped and stepped off crushing a small flower. When he came back to the present the English language had changed and he couldn’t speak it anymore.
Frank rolled his eyes at the thought. “Ridiculous,” he said out loud, the word bouncing around the empty house. Today wasn’t a disaster he told himself. It was a hiccup. Normal, run of the mill stuff. So, he had lunch with an old high school classmate and played out a little fantasy. No one was hurt and nothing would come of it. He had already made the decision that he wouldn’t be seeing Marie Driscoll tomorrow. He’d pass her off to Rita. Rita loved to get out of the office and the two women would probably get along, maybe even become friends. So, it might end up a win-win situation.
As far as the Blakes were concerned, Frank wasn’t worried. Dan Crane knew how much spade work he had done with them. Dan wouldn’t try to horn in the sale at this point. He’d thank Dan tomorrow and promise to return the favor when he could. Dan would understand. The car would be fixed tomorrow, too. The AAA guy said it usually only takes an hour. So, he could go in a little late and have Emily drop him off at the garage in her car.
And what about Emily seeing the doctor? There was no sense making a big deal out of it. He’d just wait until she got home and ask her why she was at LaMotte’s office.
What he needed now was something to keep him busy, he thought. It wouldn’t be fair to just dump the search for Marie’s apartment in Rita’s lap; ask her to run around and find potential rental properties in the morning. He could do that right now. Frank clicked on the address window in his browser looking for, the website he always used for his apartment searches. It was the fourth item down. He moved the mouse and was about to tap on it, and then stopped and frowned. He didn’t recognize the website listed at the top of the list, the one that had been visited last. Frank clicked on it.
It was obvious, but he couldn’t figure it out. The name of the website was AIDS International. It was an online support group for HIV-Positive people and their families all over the world. There was information on experimental drug trials that were in progress in a long list of countries, new preventative techniques, hospice locations, testing clinics and dozens of other subjects. But why was the web address on his computer? He knew he hadn’t visited it. There was only one explanation. It must have been Emily; she had been looking at a website for people with AIDS.
Frank took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. He closed his eyes and his mind played back a scene it had recorded earlier this afternoon: a fleeting glimpse of a woman in a red blouse closing the door to Dr. LaMotte’s office. It’s not possible, Frank thought. Is it? It couldn’t be. He got up from the computer and walked to the window. The sun was beginning to slant through the oak trees in their back yard. He looked at his watch. It was almost four o’clock. If he was in the office, he’d still be there for another two hours. He never left before six. Why had Emily called the office? To make sure he was still there? Why had she gone to see LaMotte without telling him?
After a minute, he turned away from the window and walked out of his office and down the hall to the master bedroom. He and Emily had long ago decided on separate bathrooms. It was a good way to solve the seat up/seat down problem once and for all. Besides, he didn’t need much space. So, he’d offered to take the one in the hall, giving her the master bath off of their bedroom. Frank couldn’t remember the last time he’d been in there.
The room smelled like Emily. He didn’t know what it was, a skin cream or hair spray, some scent that always reminded him of her. It made him feel like an intruder, and gave him a thief’s nervous energy to have the job done. The obvious first place to look was the medicine cabinet behind the mirror next to her sink, but he was afraid he would find something he didn’t want to find. Instead, he started with the drawers.
He found it in the bottom drawer, where he would have never ventured, under her panties. It wasn’t the AIDS medication that he was afraid he would find. It was worse. A plastic disk with what was left of a month’s supply of Ortho-Cept. Frank didn’t have to read the label; he’d seen the ads. They were birth control pills. He had no idea what he planned to do with it, but he pushed the disk into his pocket. He put Emily’s underwear back like he’d found it and closed the drawer. Then he walked back to his office and sat down at his desk.
His mind was swirling with hurt and anger. Emily had been having sex outside their marriage. There could be no other reason for her using birth control pills. But why? They made love nearly every Friday night after they went out for dinner. If not then, they almost always made up for it on Saturday. Didn’t that satisfy her? Didn’t he satisfy her? Obviously not. Why hadn’t she said something to him instead of cheating on him? Having sex with God knows who? Risking killing herself because she couldn’t control her passions? Now, maybe she had.
At that moment, a car door slammed. Seconds later a key rattled in the back door and it opened and slammed. Frank recognized Emily’s footsteps as they hurried across the kitchen, into the living room, and up the stairs. He held his breath, frozen in the desk chair. He needn’t have worried about being discovered. Emily went straight to their bedroom.
He heard shoes being kicked off and the rustle of clothing. The shower in the master bath came on. He waited until the shower door slid shut and the sound of the water was muted, then Frank got up and walked into the bedroom. Emily’s clothes were scattered around, some on the bed, some on the way to the bathroom. Next to Emily’s red blouse on the bed was a crumpled brochure. Frank picked it up and flattened it out. Living with Aids was headlined across the cover. He shook his head. “God, no.” he said in a guttural whisper.
“Frank!” Emily gasped from behind him.
He snapped around. She was naked except for a towel she’d wrapped around herself. It had been a quick shower. Her hair wasn’t even wet.
She smiled weakly. “You scared me. What are you doing home?”
The timbre of her voice told him that she truly was frightened. But not by fear of an intruder, he thought. “What were you doing this afternoon?” he said.
She frowned. “What do you mean?”
“I saw you.”
Emily just stood there, dripping.
“At LaMotte’s office,” Frank said. “Why didn’t you tell me you were going to see him?”
“It was was nothing,” she said.
Frank nodded like a bobble head, a strange smile on his face. “Nothing?” he said. “Nothing?” Then he held up the brochure and screamed, “Living with Aids! Is that nothing?” He ripped the brochure apart and threw it on the floor.
Emily had gone pale. “Frank, it’s not what you...” she began, but he cut her off.
“How could you do this to me? You... you slut!” He started toward her and she backed away. “Why didn’t you tell me you’d decided to risk my life by screwing someone else?”
“Frank, don’t do this,” Emily said, trembling. On her next step back she nearly stumbled over some of her clothes on the floor and glanced over her shoulder. The bedroom door was only a few steps away. She clutched the towel and ran.
Frank followed her. She hadn’t gone far, just half way down the hall, the towel still clutched to her breasts, her back against the banister of the Tara stairs. As if she knew she couldn’t get away from this.
He took the Ortho-Cept disk out of his pocket. He held it up, showing it to her as he walked toward her. “You’re not so stupid that you thought these would protect you, are you?” Frank said.
She shivered and shook her head.
“Just when were you going to tell me you’ve got AIDS?” he said quietly. And then suddenly he drew back the disk and hurled it at his wife.
Emily instinctively jerked away from the projectile, slamming back against the banister. In the instant she hit the wooden dowels and railing and they gave way with a sickening crack her eyes widened and her mouth opened, but she didn’t make a sound. She simply disappeared backwards over the edge.
For a moment, in his anger, Frank didn’t understand what had happened. Then he heard a faint whimper and it was clear. He moved to what was left of the banister and looked over. Emily was laying face up, naked, on the tile floor below. There was blood coming from her nose and more pooled on the tile by her ears. The towel had fluttered down to cover a lamp on an end table next to the couch.
“Emily?” he called softly. When she didn’t answer or move he repeated it, louder. There was no response. He backed away from the railing and pressed himself against the wall of the hallway. “What have I done?” he whispered. For a long moment, he stood there with his thoughts, hiding from the scene below. Finally, he broke away and hurried down the stairs.
Frank bent down close to Emily. She was breathing, thank God. He took the towel off of the lamp and covered her, making sure not to move her. He had decided upstairs that his best explanation for what had happened was that he didn’t know. He’d been in his office answering emails when he heard the banister give way and Emily cry out. He had rushed out in the hall and found her on the floor below.
There was only one problem: the Ortho-Cept disk. He had to find it, get rid of it. Birth control pills would be a complication neither of them needed, an embarrassment, especially now with Emily’s condition. To his relief, it didn’t take long. The disk had skittered on the tile floor across the living room and into the entrance way. He took it to the kitchen and pushed it half way down into the stuff that was already in the trash can. Then he called 911.
The paramedics arrived ten minutes later. Frank told his story about what happened and took them to Emily. They were grim; no direct comments, but plenty of surreptitious head shaking and knowing glances between them while they worked. They didn’t like the blood oozing from Emily’s ears, the fact that she was still unconscious. Once they had her in a neck brace, they carefully maneuvered a long slab of hard plastic under her, covered her with a blanket, and lifted the whole thing onto a waist high stretcher with wheels. Then they wheeled her out to the ambulance. There was only one hospital in Centerville, so Frank didn’t have to ask where they were taking her.
Once they were gone, he went back into the house and upstairs to the bedroom to get the keys to Emily’s car from her purse. When he saw the torn AIDS brochure lying on the floor, he was angry with himself for a moment. How had he forgotten it? What if one of the paramedics came upstairs? Then he shook his head and sat down on the bed. Why was he doing this to himself? He didn’t have anything to hide. He hadn’t cheated on anyone. He’d spent a lifetime gaining people’s trust. It was the way, his way. He took a deep cleansing breath and slowly blew it out. Then he used his cell phone to call Paul LaMotte’s office. The nurse said he’d left early today, but she would page him and have him call back. She took his cell phone number. Frank collected the pieces of the brochure and stuffed them in his pocket. He looked around for Emily’s purse, but couldn’t find it. He went back downstairs and finally found it on the kitchen counter. He took the car keys and was started out the back door when his cell phone rang.
“What’s happened, Frank?” LaMotte asked without any preamble.
“That was quick,” Frank said, the surprise obvious in his voice. “Thanks for calling, doctor.”
There was a moment’s hesitation. “I don’t think you’ve ever called before. I figured it was important.”
“Yes, it is. Emily’s been hurt. She took a fall, here at home. The banister gave way.”
“Where is she now?”
“I called 911. An ambulance came about...twenty minutes ago. They put a neck brace on her, put her on some kind of board, and took her to the hospital. She’s still unconscious.”
“Where are you, Frank.”
“On the way,” he said as he opened the door of Emily’s SUV.
“Okay,” said the doctor. “I’ll be there as soon as I can. Don’t worry, Frank. The ER people at the hospital are very good.”

Emily was still in Radiology. X-rays had shown at least two fractures of the skull and some possible damage to two of the upper vertebrae. The ER doctor wanted a CT scan to get a better indication of the injuries. She was still unconscious and Frank couldn’t get anything out of him about what that meant.
“When can I see her?” Frank asked. The doctor didn’t know. “What the hell do you know?” he demanded, and then apologized.
“It’s alright. I understand,” the doctor said. “We’re trying to arrange for a room in Intensive Care.” He pointed down the hall to the clerks in ER Reception. “Ask anyone down there that looks like they’re awake.” Then he smiled. “Around here we all need a laugh sometimes. Actually, they try hard. They’re just overloaded like everyone here.”
Frank thanked the doctor and walked back down the hall. Before he could get in line at one of the clerk’s windows, a nurse came out of an automatic door on one of the walls.
“Mr. Teasley?” she announced.
“Here,” Frank said, raising his hand.
She beckoned and he followed her out the automatic door where Paul LaMotte was standing.
They shook hands and LaMotte said, “I was able to apply a little pressure. They’ve found a room in the ICU for Emily. They’ll be moving her there as soon as the CT is finished.”
Frank took a breath and blew it out.
“You all right?” LaMotte asked him.
He nodded. “Yeah.”
The doctor turned and moved away down the hall. “Let’s go then.”
They took the elevator to the third floor. Emily was just being moved into the room as they arrived. She had an IV in her left arm and she was on oxygen, plastic tubing everywhere.
“You go ahead, Frank,” LaMotte said, guiding him forward with a hand on his back. “I want to take a look at her chart and talk to the radiologist first.”
Frank waited while the ICU nurse went through her welcoming routine, hooking Emily to a heart monitor, taking her blood pressure and temperature, drawing some blood. Then he walked into the room and stood at the end of the bed. The nurse had turned the lights down and the air conditioning up. It was almost cold in the room, but Emily didn’t feel it, Frank thought. She looked like she didn’t feel anything. He wondered if she ever would again. How much time did she have? He knew almost nothing about AIDS.
“I’m sorry, Emily,” he said. “I didn’t mean to...”
Someone coughed behind him and he turned to find Paul LaMotte in the doorway.
“Forgive the interruption,” LaMotte said.
Frank swallowed. His mouth was dry. “I was’s silly, I know she can’t hear me. Maybe she never will now.”
The doctor gave him a restrained smile. “Actually, the news is fairly good.”
Frank frowned. “What do you mean?”
“Why don’t we sit down?” LaMotte said. He pointed to one of the two chairs in the room and sat down in the other one. Frank took his suggestion.
“Emily is in a coma,” the doctor began once they were both settled. “But Doctor Nielsen, the neurosurgeon we’ll be working with, is sure it’s what he calls a protective coma. The body has shut down to outside stimulation in order to concentrate on internal healing. He believes it’s only temporary. She’ll come out of it. You understand?”
Frank nodded. “I guess so.”
“The radiologist’s report indicates that the two vertebrae involved are not as bad as they originally thought, just some bruising. And the two cranial fractures are restricted to the surface, with minimal bleeding and no fluid accumulation.”
“What does that mean?”
LaMotte blew out a little puff of air and scratched his chin. “Well, she’s going to have a hell of headache when she wakes up. And she’s not going out dancing anytime soon. Let’s put it that way. But like I said, the news is fairly good.”
Frank glanced over at Emily. She looked drawn and frail. Someone he thought he knew, but didn’t. He took the pieces of the AIDS brochure out of his pocket and handed them to LaMotte. “What about this?” he said. “Is this part of your ‘fairly’ good? How long were going to keep her secret from me?”
The doctor stared at him for a long moment. “Did you push her over the banister, Frank?” he asked.
Frank shook his head. “No. It was an accident...but it happened during an argument. After I found the brochure and her birth control pills. Did you prescribe the pills for her, doctor? Did you give her the means to screw around and kill herself?”
Paul LaMotte closed his eyes and put his hand to his mouth. After a moment, he gave a sigh and said, “You need to know the truth, Frank.”
“It’s about time,” Frank agreed.
The doctor got up and walked to the window. He stood there for a while and then turned and faced Frank. “Yes, I write Emily’s Ortho-Cept prescription. The truth is that she and I have had a relationship for almost 10 years.”
Frank was shocked into silence and LaMotte continued. “That’s why I called her as soon as I got the results from the blood test, and why she was in my office today.”
”When were either one of you going to let me know?” Frank asked.
“Emily said she wanted to tell you.”
“Sure. The same way she told me about you. Five years from now, when I’m checking into some hospice she’ll say, ‘Sorry, Frank, I had AIDS.’”
LaMotte looked down at the floor. After a moment he said, “You don’t understand. There was some problem in the sterilization process with Dr. Barnett’s surgical tools.”
“I don’t...Barnett, the podiatrist?”
LaMotte nodded. “That’s why I had the nurse draw some blood during your follow-up.”
“What are you saying?”
The doctor sighed. “Emily’s not HIV-Positive, Frank. You are.”

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Reviewed by Justin Bumgarner 9/19/2006
when i first started reading i had a feeling she was having an affair with the doctor, but i was suprised at the ending. really good story
Reviewed by Karen Lynn Vidra, The Texas Tornado 5/26/2005
oh, boy...that ending really got to me. wow! great writing!

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