Disclaimers: All previous disclaimers apply.
Send me a line, if you like it:Tragedy88@goplay.com
I wanted to capture her soul in the painting. Its what sets apart the good from the great.
She was insistent upon simple, and in front of that damn trellis. So . I went with the stupid trellis, and it still didnt feel right. I didnt want to lose the 5,000 dollars. It was becoming more and more important as my work hours were cut because of the painful, wrenching spasms my back constantly went into.
Something was seriously wrong, but I hid it like I always did.
With shorter work hours I was able to get in more painting time, as well as sketching time, in the evening. Ive got to say that I liked the sketch a whole hell of a lot better then the painting. But what did I know?
That first week Thom would occasionally come and visit. He'd sit in a chair behind me, and we'd chat about things from animals to war. Though Allison barely participated in the conversations, I was well aware she was listening and absorbing everything I said.
It was Friday, and tomorrow the gallery would open with Thoms collection.
I was in Allisons library, working on basic layering for the trellis' shadows and highlights now that the sun had set. She had left, again, to do last minute things for the show.
How long had I been painting? A twinge in my back warned me that it had been far too long since Id gotten up to stretch or be sick in the bathroom. It was like that now, almost as if nothing was wrong, or at least until I got up. Then the pain would come without warning, and I would collapse on the floor or hurry to the bathroom. I never knew when or how hard the pain would come.
I stood up slowly, but it didnt help. A searing pain raced up my right side, numbing my arm and sending little black and white stars twirling around my head.
So far Id been lucky to avoid the staff, and especially Allison when this happened, but not this time.
"Miss Grace?!" Vella cried.
A part of me heard her, the other part just gasped and continued falling.
"Grace? Are you all right?" Vellas hurried steps carried her to a table where she set down her basket of laundry and knelt by my side.
Her hand touched my back. "Miss Grace? Please. Are you okay?"
"Fine, Vella. Just got dizzy. Got up too fast." I was breathing too hard, trying to focus around the pain. Oh God, it hurt so bad.
"Maybe you lay down? Yes?"
"Fine ." I gasped as a fresh jolt of pain surged up my back and raced through my right arm, making it totally useless. Vella caught my shoulder and pulled me up and to the couch. Who knew such a small woman was so strong?
"Get Miss Allison? Or should I call doctor?"
I saw her wide brown eyes staring down at me. Shit, she was terrified. So was I. "No, Vella. Im ok. Really. Just got dizzy." I smiled at her even as I clutched my arm to make sure it was still there. "Ill just sit and rest for a minute, okay?"
She studied me for a long moment, then nodded. "Ill make tea."
No, thank you. But I nodded yes and smiled sweetly. As soon as she left I let my breath hiss through my teeth. Fuckfuckfuckfuck The couch cushion felt like a rock behind my head, my back was spasming, and I still couldnt feel anything but a dull tingling in my right arm.
Go to a doctor, stupid, my mind screamed.
With what? Medical insurance? I didnt have any, never did, never would. The pain would go away. It always did. I was just working too hard. Pushing myself more then usual. While Allison does her show tomorrow Ill sleep all day. Thats all I need. A little sleep. I closed my eyes and let my body relax.
Vella had said Grace was sick. Allison kept her pace as casual as possible as her heart raced her down the hall. There she was, lying on the couch. Her face was pale, and seemed thinner somehow since theyd met.
Allison stopped abruptly a few feet from the couch. There was a cup of tea on the end table, cold now, and untouched. She moved a little closer and knelt beside the couch. Grace was asleep, her left hand cradling her right elbow and her knees drawn up close to her chest.
She sensed someone behind her and turned to find Vella at the door.
"Shes asleep, maam," Vella whispered.
"Get me a blanket." Allison turned back to Grace. She seems so young, but I know shes not. I know more about you, Grace. I did some checking after the York bridge. Seems youve been an orphan for a long time now. Your sister is God knows where, and both your brothers are dead. Youve led a sad life.
Her hand stretched forward and gently brushed Graces hair behind her ear.
Vella came back with a blanket and Allison took it, gently laying it over the young woman. She stood back and watched her a moment longer. Grace turned, mumbled something and settled back down.
"No one bothers her," Allison commanded. She left and Vella turned off the lights and shut the door behind them.
"Jo," he called to me. "Jo, you need to come here and participate."
I dont think so.
I stayed on the windowsill in my small room. I liked it here, even if there was no door on the room and I could hear and see them all.
The sun was on my face and I could pretend I was outside, even though I was trapped in here.
Here . You still cant admit it, can you? You dont even want to .
"Jo!" he yelled.
Damn. I felt two rough hands grab my arms and pull me out of the room. My anger was slow to come and by the time theyd thrown me into a chair in the circle, in the main meeting room, my fists were just beginning to clench.
"When I tell you to come here, Jo, I mean it."
I looked at him with rage flowing through my veins. "Fuck you." Then I smiled sweetly, which really pissed him off.
"Dont swear," he said between clenched teeth.
I stood up and began to walk away.
"Jo, come back here. Now!"
When I didnt come back they grabbed my arms and hauled me to Isolation. Fine by me. He couldnt yell at me there, or try to make me do things.
Some time later they came by with meds. There were no windows to tell if it was light or dark, so I sat on the floor with my knees pulled up to my chest.
Someone called 'lights out', but still I sat on the floor. Next bedcheck I knew theyd write it down. They wrote it all down. At least Id been smart enough not to give them my real name. How could they check? After all Id just been one of hundreds of indigents. One of the crazies that had been caught that day.
Never again, I promised myself. Things would be different when they let me out.
Thomas had insisted I go to his show. He also insisted I still just call him Thom though everyone around him called him Mr. Thurbs. He said he hated it, that it made him feel like his father.
I figured that meant it just made him feel like an old man.
I wore the dress Id worn to his party while Allison wore a conservative knee length dress, with thin shoulder straps that crossed in the front and ended at her waist in a thin silver chain. She looked good. Okay, not just good, sexy. It was all I could do to keep my eyes from straying to where it hugged all her curves.
As we reviewed the collection before the public and the reporters were allowed inside, Thom walked beside me with a raucous grin.
"Shes looks good, huh?" he asked.
I blushed furiously but nodded. "She looks good in anything. Allison could wear a burlap bag and still be drop dead gorgeous."
Thomas chuckled. "Damn straight. If only I was a few years younger." He paused. "But then these days with queers and stuff-"
"Thomas!" I chastised.
"What?" He turned to me. "Oh, not politically correct, huh?"
I stuck out my tongue at him. "Gay, not queer and stuff. Theres no telling who youll offend."
"Well, I didnt offend you, did I?" He glanced at me with a wink.
Oh great, does everybody know? I raised an eyebrow. "I didnt know I had it stamped on my forehead. Who else knows?"
"Only those who take the time to watch you around her." He inclined his head towards Allison, where she stood with one hand on her hip, contemplating the lighting and placement of one of the pieces.
After a second I looked away. "You dont have a problem with it?" I asked quietly. Allison was turning and walking our way.
"Not at all," he answered just as softly. "Well, my girl." His voice rose as he spoke to Allison. "It looks good. Opens at nine, right?"
"Yup." Allison paused and glanced around. "What do you think, Grace?" She turned back to me as a young man stepped up to her side. He had a disheveled surfer look, that worked oddly well with his dark suit and pinstriped tie.
"It does look good. Chris did a great job," I answered.
"Thank you, and you might be?" the young man asked.
"Oh, Im sorry," Allison said. "Chris this is Grace. Grace, this is my assistant, Chris."
I held out my hand. "Nice to meet you."
"And nice to finally meet you, Grace." After a second he let go of my hand and turned to Allison. "Five minutes, you ready?"
"Ready as Ill ever be. Mr. Thurbs?" Allison inclined her head towards him.
He held out his arm to her and they made their way to the front doors and the official opening of his priceless collection to the public for the very first time.
After he was sure the show was running smoothly Chris approached Allison, and asked if he could speak to her a moment.
"Sure, anything wrong?" she asked.
"No, no. Nothing wrong," he assured her. Chris glanced across the room to the young woman by Mr. Thurbs side. "So, that's her, huh?"
Allison followed his gaze, then nodded. "Grace Jordan," she said softly.
Chris caught the smile on his boss' face. Well, I'll be, he thought. "She's a hottie," he grinned.
She turned to him with an arched eyebrow. "And what do you know about women, Chris?" she asked smugly.
He chuckled. "I know she looks good in that dress." He paused. "And I know you haven't been able to keep your eyes off her."
Allison shrugged. "What can I say? I know how to pick 'em." There was a twinkle in her eyes. Chris is right, she thought. I haven't been able to keep my eyes off her. There's...something about her. I know she's lived on the streets, been on welfare, ate at the Kitchen.... But, there's more to her then how much money she has or doesn't have. And I plan to find out what that is.
"Uh huh, just friends," Chris mumbled, with a grin.
"Oh you be quiet, you little chraa," Allison replied. She left him with raised eyebrows, as she made her way back into the crowd to play hostess.
The show had gone over better then anyone expected. It had been in the papers, and termed one of the best and well executed showings in the history of the gallery.
Now the first snow had fallen; white, wispy flakes covering the city in a blanket of beauty. But the filth was still beneath it.
The holidays brought more work, and by that time I was stretching myself pretty thin. I slept and ate little, traveling between Allisons, work, and the apartment. No place for any length of time. It reminded me too much of when Id first come here. Street to street. Doorway to doorway. Minute by minute.
Allison asked a number of times if I was all right. Id shrug, say sure, fine and be on with painting. The pain increased and my trips to the bathroom lasted longer. Finally I dropped into the walk-in clinic. And all they could tell me was to take a vacation. I was stressing too much and working too hard.
One step at a time, I told myself. Only another hour on shift. Okay, so youve gotten clumsy these last weeks. Broken two plates and the wine glass cant forget that.
Its so hard .
A hand tapped my shoulder and tiredly I turned to face my boss. I knew this was coming.
"May I talk to you, Grace?"
I nodded and followed him to the little alcove just before the kitchen doors, near the bathrooms. "Whats up?"
"Thereve been some complaints-"
"About me," I interrupted. I held up my hand before he could continue. "Save your breath. I quit." With shaking fingers I tugged at the knot on my apron till it finally gave way. I tossed it at Donovan on my way out the door. My whole body seemed to sag in a combination of relief and disappointment as I hobbled down the sidewalk to the subway.
I didnt go back to the apartment. I ended up on Allisons doorstep a day or two later.
"Hi, Vella." I smiled weakly at the woman holding the door. "Am I early or late?"
She raised her eyebrows. "Late."
I looked at my watch. I didnt think it was off by that much. "Five minutes, Vel, that aint bad."
"Try five minutes and a day."
Vella placed her hand on her hip and stared me down. "Ms. Allison expect you yesterday and clear her schedule so you paint. You never show up, Grace." Her voice lowered and she leaned around the doorframe. "You all right, Grace? No drinking?"
"No," I hastened to assure her. "No drinking. May I speak to Allison? I should apologize."
"Not wise." The maid leaned further forward and dropped her voice again. "Ms. Allison very upset when you not show up yesterday."
I sighed. "I know. I lost track of the days. Please, Vella, let me in? Ill explain to her-"
Allisons deep voice came from behind Vella. I looked up and away, ashamed that I still felt that uncontrollable lust roiling through my veins whenever I looked at her.
"Ah, I see. Grace finally showed up," she murmured.
My scruffy, torn sneakers were suddenly very interesting. "I mixed up the days, Allison. Im sorry. I can make up the time today."
"No. I have appointments." Allison paused. "Saturday?"
"Okay." I looked up slowly and found those gorgeous blue eyes watching me carefully. "Ill see you Saturday."
Saturday was a long time away.
"Doug!" I yelled. "Doug!"
"What?" He bounded around the corner, that stupid grin on his face, and halted in his tracks when he saw me. "What is it, Gracie?"
"How many times have I asked you and the others not to eat my food?" I asked angrily.
He shrugged and mumbled dunno.
My hands were clenched around the container and the bowl I was going to put it in. All day long and no food. I come home and its gone. My breath came hard between my clenched teeth. "What am I suppose to do now?"
"Go to the grocery store?" he replied sarcastically.
"With what money, you fucking moron? I buy my own food and you eat it. I cant afford any more." Anger swelled, red and hot through my veins and I was close to shattering.
"Get an advance on your paycheck, stupid." He walked away with a shrug.
"I dont have a job anymore!" I screamed and threw the ceramic bowl across the room. It shattered against the doorframe, sending fragments into the hall and down Dougs back. He whirled on me.
"What the hell are you doing?"
"Nek ni, you little chraa. All of you!" Startled by the power of my anger I ran from the room, down the hall and out the door, forgetting my coat along the way.
My teeth were chattering as I sat on the cold, hard ground under the York bridge. I thought about going somewhere else, but where?
Her name flashed briefly through my mind and I saw her tall, trim body and her pale blue eyes.
I swore to myself, then and there, to never go to her in desperation.
I walked from barrel to barrel, recognizing old faces, and learning names to go with the new ones. My old, burned out crate was taken and all I could really think about was my soft bed at the apartment.
So I went back home.
As I started up the stairs to the loft, I heard something in the kitchen.
"Hey, Gracie," Doug called.
I hated being called Gracie. "What's up?" I paused on the fourth step and looked over into the dining area. I suddenly realized everyone was home and gathered in either the dining area or the living room. Reluctantly I went back down the stairs and stood awkwardly at the edge of the living room.
"What's up?" I asked again.
"We need to talk," Angela said.
"Okay," I said as I flopped down in the dark blue recliner.
"Well, um...." Angela looked at the others for support. "We've been talking and we think...um...we think that it...." her voice trailed off.
Torch piped up immediately. "We think you should leave."
My eyebrows inched up a notch. "Leave?"
"Yeah, it's not working out," Doug said.
I noticed the others shuffling from foot to foot.
"You threw a bowl at my head, ate all our food and you dont have a job anymore," Doug said.
A deep, humiliating ache started in my chest. "I found this place first," I replied defensively.
"There are more of us. We voted and decided we want you out."
"Out?" I repeated. "Just like that."
There were some mutterings and some embarrassed looks. No one would meet my gaze.
"We'll give you two days to figure something out, then we change the locks," Doug said.
I have no where to go. "Fine," I said angrily, that ache in my chest making it hard to breathe. No one moved as I stood up, then everyone made a mass exodus to their rooms as I turned and limped up the stairs. There wasn't much to pack except my laptop, portfolio, art stuff, and a backpack of threadbare clothes. Cases tucked under my arms, I left that night.
As I walked down the stairs and out onto the street my chest tightened and I collapsed on the bus stop bench half a block down. Two buses came and went, both drivers giving me dirty looks before I stood up and made my way to the pawn shop on 83rd.
There I sold my laptop and unused paints. From experience I knew it wouldn't be enough.
I got back on the subway and took the train to the Center.
I'd been at the Center for three months when I first got to the city. I'd been there two times since. It would figure, now that I needed it again, the doors were closed and all the beds taken. I limped down the dirty, dimly lit streets till I made it to the park. All the benches were taken.
So, I sat under a tree, my portfolio clutched tightly against my chest, and cursing myself for not slapping them all silly.
I watched the sun rise on the next dreary day in my life.
It took forever to find a payphone without gum in the ear piece or severed from the base. When I finally reached Allison it took everything I had to lie and ask her to send Ed to Shoni's on 13th street, my 'new place of employment.' But there was still the question of my bags and what to do with them.
Eventually I stowed them at the train station and pinned the key to the inside of my shirt. Then I made my way over to Shonis and waited for the limo.
Saturday was finally here. And it had only taken a few days before that to tear my world apart.
The good thing about painting was that I could watch Allison, but not for the reasons she thought. She looked good this morning. Very good. A few more lines, a couple more shadows and the painting would be finished. So would Allison and I. My throat tightened and I swallowed against it. Don't be foolish. I was little more then a client to her.
My hand shook over the canvas.
Allison watched Grace carefully. She was shaking. Everytime shed said something before Grace had just brushed her off. Was she sick? Should she even bother to ask?
"Want to take a small break?" Allison asked gently.
Grace looked up and their eyes met. She hesitated. "Sure, I guess." But she didnt get up from the stool. Her lower lip twitched and it looked like she was about to say something.
"Care to join me in the library for a drink?" Allison asked.
"Ill be right behind you."
But when Allison paused and glanced back around the corner Grace was only starting to get off the stool. She watched with wide eyes as Grace collapsed and brought the stool crashing to the brick patio. Without hesitation she rushed to Graces side.
"Im fine," I said as soon as I felt a hand on my arm tugging me to my feet. "Just tripped."
"Dont lie to me anymore, Grace."
Startled, I looked up into Allisons brilliant eyes. This was not something I could hide, and certainly not from someone as intelligent as Alli. I should have realized that.
"Back strain," I finally said, after Alli had righted the stool and I stood, painfully gripping the edges. Her hand rested on my back.
"Here?" she asked, and gently rubbed her palm in a circle.
I grimaced and nodded.
I nodded again.
"Why dont you come sit down and relax? Ill see if I can find some pain relievers-"
"No, Alli, itll be ok." I looked at her in time to see her doubtful look. "Okay, relaxing would be good."
For such a stiff looking lounge it was really comfortable. I sank down into it and waited till Allison brought a glass of water and some Motrin.
"Anytime you want to take a break just say so, Grace." She sat down beside me. Her hand stretched out then dropped to her side. "Id understand."
I shrugged. "Sok. Sometimes its better just sitting still."
"Its hurt for awhile now?"
What would it hurt to tell her the truth? There was nothing she could do. "It started about a year ago." I was looking at my hands and nearly missed her startled expression. "Itll go away."
"A year, Grace? You should really see a doctor." She took the glass from my hand and set it on a coaster on the coffee table.
"I went to the walk in clinic. They said it was stress and that I should take a vacation."
She made a 'phffhting' sound and I looked at her curiously.
"You should go to a real doctor."
Immediately my hackles went up. "I saw a real doctor."
"I didnt mean-"
"I know what you meant." My lips trembled and my hands shook again as I looked back down. Her warm, gentle fingers touched my chin and turned my face to look at her. A whole new kind of tingle chased through my body as her eyes captured mine.
"If its a question of mon-"
"Dont even go there," I whispered, anger gone and fear suddenly replacing it.
Her eyes drew away from mine and her hand dropped away. "I only meant I could advance your pay-"
"Youve already advanced it. Theres nothing left." This time I looked her square in the eye. "All the stuff youve gotten for me, and done for me theres nothing left."
"No. That was my money. We agreed on the dress, and thats it, remember?"
I shook my head.
God, how her voice still sent a chill through me.
"Are you cold?"
"Theres something else, isnt there?" Her hand rested on my shoulder.
No more lies. No more secrets, I told myself. "IWill you go with me?" I asked uncertainly instead.
Quietly she turned and picked up a portable phone off the end table. She punched in a number and handed me the phone. It rang a couple times before a pleasant voice said, "Hello, Doctor James' office. May I help you?"
After a deep breath and a reassuring pat from Allison I set up an appointment for Monday morning. Now there would be nothing left from my paycheck. Id probably end up owing the hospital a few thousand dollars.
"Here?" Ed turned briefly to glance at me as I slumped in the passenger seat. "Not your apartment? Its awfully dangerous-"
"Here," I said firmly. The limo pulled to a stop under the lip of the bridge and I got out. "Can you pick me up here Monday?"
Eds mouth opened and closed before he nodded silently. "And if Ms. Parker should ask?"
"Tell her ." No secrets, no lies. "Tell her I moved out of the apartment."
As the limo pulled away I stood watching the tail lights disappear, before I looked for the Professor. He was in the same place he always was and looked up as I approached.
"Hey," he mumbled.
"Hey, Professor," I said, then sat as he gestured to his little fire and the spot next to him. I crossed my legs and silently regarded him. He'd been a professor at one time, years of college, and more years of teaching. I once asked what had happened to him and he'd explained that all the little chraa's in the world had fucked him over. I'd thought him completely crazy then, till I found out what the word meant. And, found out that he knew hundreds of other curses. My favorites had been the Arabic ones, since the syllables crashed together and the words sounded ten times tougher then what they actually meant.
"So, how's life?" I asked.
"Same old. You?" He turned dull eyes on me. The years had taken their toll on him.
I shrugged. "Same old." My arm twitched as a knot of pain traveled to my shoulder.
"You should have that looked at," he commented.
"Yeah," was all I said. It had always been like that between us. He'd grown into the father figure I'd lost, and I loved him. I'd even gone so far as to go back for him, and offer him a place in my new home. He'd refused, no matter how much I pleaded with him. I hadn't understood till now.
He'd given up.
"Can I ask you something?"
"Sure." He pushed another stick into the fire, watching as it shot up momentarily, then died back down.
"If someone gave you everything you needed- money, clothes, uh food and stuff.... What would you do?" I watched him intently.
"Question the motive, my girl."
"Motive," I said, but it wasn't a question, as I rolled the word around my mind.
"What do they get from giving you everything?" he asked.
"Nothing," I replied. "I don't think I have anything to give them."
"Then there is your answer."
"I don't understand." I wrapped my arms around my body, beginning to tremble as the brisk air picked up, and screamed beneath the bridge. He retrieved a blanket from somewhere behind him and handed it to me. Gratefully I wrapped it around my shoulders, thanking him.
"Welcome." He paused, and I could see some flash of life in his eyes. But then maybe it was just a reflection from the fire. "A gift given freely- whether it's money or food- is the greatest gift of all. If it's given with no strings attached and nothing required in return then it's from the heart."
"But, how will I know?" I asked.
He smiled. "When you have something to give in return."
We returned to silence, as I thought long and hard about what he'd said. I knew I had nothing to give to Allison. So, what could she possibly want from me?
The McDonalds on 3rd street had a clean bathroom, so I washed up there, avoiding the curious or disgusted stares. Then I changed into a clean shirt, returned my bag to the station and waited for Ed.
Smells of food wafted all around me. From experience I knew how fast money could be spent, just on food. So I was eating a muffin and my 69 cent large coffee from Gate gasoline this morning.
It had been a long, long Sunday.
Finally Ed pulled up and with butterflies in my stomach we rode to the mansion where we picked up Allison then made our way silently to Doctor James private practice.
The place was decedent, rich, but cozy. Id seen a few hospitals and this didnt look anything like them, except for the doctors in their white lab coats. We sat in the waiting room and the butterflies turned into ferocious, fire breathing dragons. I was about to be sick when the receptionist called my name.
I glanced at Allison and her bright smile chased the dragons away.
"Want me to come in with you?"
"Nah, Im fine." Ha! Whatever. But I smiled anyway then turned to follow the receptionist into a small office.
"Doctor James will be in shortly," the nurse informed me.
I just nodded as I looked around the room. There were a few potted plants in the corners, a long couch covered in deep rich colors, and pastel paintings on the walls . It was all meant to be comforting. In a way it was. As I sat on the couch my head snapped up at the sound of the clicking door.
A man in his mid thirties stepped through with a kind smile on his face. "Hi, Im Doctor James. You must be Grace." He held out his hand.
Hastily I shook it.
"So, what are we here for today?" He had a clipboard in hand and settled it on his lap as he sat in the chair across from the couch. "Go ahead and sit down, Grace. Tell me whats wrong."
I stared at him a moment. "Arent you going to take my temp, vitals, all that crap first?"
"I like to get to know my patients before I get to all that crap." He smiled.
I shrugged and sat down. "Ive had a pain in my back for the past year. Its gotten worse recently."
"A year?" He looked at me the same way Allison had. "How worse?"
"Um." I studied the Berber carpet. "It makes me sick."
"What kind of work do you do?"
"Anything I can find." I paused. "Mostly waitressing or dishwashing. Some cleaning and bartending."
"So, a lot of jobs where youre on your feet." He made a few notes. "Have you ever had an accident on the job?"
Surprised, I looked up. "Yeah. I was cleaning up in a bar, and I someone had spilled something on the stairs. I slipped and fell."
"How many stairs?"
"How many stairs?" I asked.
He looked up from his notes and nodded. "Did you trip down a few? Or all the way?"
After a moments thought I looked back up. "I tripped forward the first two and tried to grab the railing, but I slipped anyway. I twisted and fell backwards down to the landing. Um, twenty, twenty-five steps?"
He whistled softly. "That must have hurt."
"A little bit."
"Id say. All right, that leads me to believe that old injury never healed properly and youve had pain since then. What prescriptions were you on then, and what kind of treatment did you receive?"
"I never saw a doctor." He said nothing but I felt the need to continue. "They fired me because I couldnt work, so I had no insurance. I couldnt afford it," I said quietly.
"Well then," he said after a moment. "Lets get some x-rays and see what we can do." He folded up his clipboard then said, "And a nurse will be in in a minute for all that crap."
"Hey, Dan," Allison called out as he passed through the hallway that connected the offices, labs, and treatment rooms to the reception area.
"Allison. What are you doing here?" He smiled as he came towards her.
"I came with Grace Jordan. Have you seen her yet?"
"Just saw her."
"She all right?"
She looked at him with such a strange expression he was tempted to tell her that everything was just fine, even if it wasn't. "Not sure yet. Im going to run some tests and well know whats going on in a few hours."
Tests that cant be a good sign, Allison thought. "Where is she now?"
"Room two. Go on back, the nurse is just taking her vitals right now. Ill be back to kick you out in a few minutes."
"Hey." Allison popped her head around the door.
I looked up from the nurse wrapping the pressure cuff around my arm. "Hey. What are you doing in here?"
"Just came back to see how it was going." Allison glanced at the nurse. "Dont worry, Dan said it was fine."
"Dan?" I asked.
"Doctor Daniel James. Two first names. God, he got so much teasing for that growing up."
I watched her lazy smile and the way she glided across the room and sat on the chair the doctor had just been in. "You grew up with him?"
"Yup, same charming charm school." Her smile faded. "So, hes gonna run some tests?"
The nurse snapped off the pressure cuff and silently left the room.
"X-rays. He thinks its pain from an old injury."
"What kind of injury?" Allison crossed her legs and I leaned back on the couch and closed my eyes.
"I fell down a flight of steps awhile back."
"Doc said the same thing." I smiled slightly and opened my eyes. She looked pale. Worried? Not as worried as me. "Hes nice, but this is all kinda weird."
Allison's stomach rumbled. I raised an eyebrow as she grinned and said, "How about going out to eat after all this, my treat?"
"Ah, sure. Ive got a craving for a chili cheese." She raised an eyebrow back at me.
"Chili Cheese?" she asked.
"Yup. Yo quiero Taco Bell." Briefly I closed my eyes as a slice of pain traveled up my back and left my heart racing. Suddenly the couch shifted and she pushed me gently forward. Her warm hands touched my back, fingers beginning to knead in circles.
"Right side. No, lower. Yeah, right there." I was putty in her hands and couldnt help but let out a contented sigh.
I nodded mutely and slowly sat back up. There was nothing left now but a dull ache and a slight chill where her hands had been.
"Am I interrupting anything?" Daniel asked lightly.
A faint heat crawled up my cheeks as Allison laid her arm along the couch behind me. She chuckled. "You wish."
Daniel laughed and tapped his clipboard. "Ready for those x-rays Grace?"
"Not really." I sighed and stood up slowly, relieved when Allison lent me a hand.
"It wont hurt."
Id changed into a thin hospital shift and it was cold in here. Finally the x-rays were done and I was allowed to get up and get my clothes. As I stepped off the chair, pain exploded across my back and shoulders, sending me briefly into darkness and to my knees on the floor. Immediately several nurses and Daniel were all around me asking me if I was all right.
I shook my head furiously. "Bathroom. I just need a bathroom."
"Are you nauseous, Grace?"
Daniels kind gray eyes looked down into mine and I nodded painfully. I was given a bin just in time to hurl up the contents of my stomach.
"Its okay," Daniels gentle voice consoled me as I leaned over the bin and continued with dry heaves. "Pam, lets get her something for the pain."
Soon I was recovering in a hospital bed. An iv stuck in my arm giving me morphine for the pain. But I lay curled up in a ball before it started to have any effect. "Wheres Alli?" I asked the nurse who was monitoring the meds.
"Ms. Parker? I believe shes out in the hall. Do you want me to get her?"
"No. Just wanted to know where she was." I didnt want her to see me like this, again.
"Im right here," Allison said from the doorway. "But I can leave, if you want?"
"You can stay." My eyes stayed riveted on the iv tube as she walked to the side of my bed.
"I heard you had some trouble. Im sorry I wasnt there." She pulled the beige chair from the corner over to the bed.
"Nothing you could have done." I shrugged my shoulder and stared past her.
"Still I wish well, nevermind. Its over. Is there anything I can do for you now?"
"Can you find out how long theyre going to keep me here?" I asked.
"I stopped Daniel in the hall on his way to the lab. He said he was going to talk to you as soon as he got the results. But I dont think youll have to stay here overnight."
I didnt know if I should be upset or relieved. On the one hand it was a bed and probably a meal or two. On the other hand it was a bed and a meal or two that would cost a few thousand. "Just gimme some good drugs and Im outta here."
Allison smiled crookedly. "Nothing but the best."
For awhile neither of us said anything.
"Pam," Daniel called his head nurse over to the counter where he was checking out Graces vitals. "Is this right?" He looked up as Pam approached.
She nodded, light brown curls cascading over her shoulders. Impatiently she brushed the strands back behind her ears and took a corner of the clipboard and turned it in her direction. "Fraid so, Dan. She's dehydrated, malnourished and her electrolytes are way off the scale."
Dan was silent for a moment. "That would indicate more then back pain."
Pam nodded silently and placed her hands in her coat pockets. "Kelsey took her vitals." She paused and looked intently at her colleague. He was still her boss. "Want to know what I think?"
He just 'hmmed' and nodded.
"Anorexia or possibly bulimia, but Id lean more towards Anorexia."
For a moment Daniel studied the chart, her vitals, and the little information he had on his new patient. "I dont think its as simple as that."
"What then?" Pam pushed back another strand of unruly hair. "Something more serious?"
Hopefully not, he thought. For a moment he saw the slight woman on the couch, seemingly a small child lost in her clothes. Threadbare jeans, and those tattered shoes shed stared at. A jacket that was far too thin for winter .
"Well? Should I take another blood sample? Run-"
"No," he said. "I need to talk to Allison first, but I dont think theres anything well be able to do." He paused. "On second thought see what kind of food you can come up with."
Pam looked at him for a moment. "Thats it?"
"'Fraid so." He smiled sadly. Alli, are you bringing me a stray? I thought you were tougher then that. An art dealer hanging out with a possible indigent. Who would have ever guessed theyd run in the same circles?
Daniel met Allison in the hallway in her pursuit of coffee.
"Can I talk to you a minute?" he asked.
"Sure. Is there a problem?"
"I don't know." He glanced around the hallway. It was relatively quiet, but he didn't want to risk anyone eavesdropping. "Why don't we go to my office for a moment?"
Allison nodded and followed him down the hall. He shut the door and indicated she should have a seat.
"I think we need to talk...about Grace."
She studied his face a moment. "If it's the insurance-"
"No, it's about Grace herself." He paused. "I don't know how to say this, so I'm going to come right out and say it." He paused, cleared his throat then asked, "Does she have any eating disorders that you know of?"
Allison's eyebrows rose. "No. Not that I've noticed, anyway."
"It's not always an easy thing to spot," he said gently. "Where is she working now?"
"Don't you think you should be asking Grace these questions, Dan?" Allison crossed her arms, and gave him a sour look.
"I will. But, I wanted to approach you first." Daniel looked her straight in the eye. "Where did you meet her?"
'What does that have to do with anything?" she returned defensivley.
"Patient doctor confidentialty doesn't allow me to discuss the specifics of this with you, unless the patient gives me permission, but I can tell you that some of these test results give me worry and a great concern for Grace's current condition." He tapped the folder on his knee as he spoke.
"I met her in the park. She was sketching," Allison admitted. "And...as far as I know she's working at Shoni's and lives in an apartment with a bunch of college kids."
Daniel's brow furrowed. Well, it doesn't match up, but I can't ignore these results. "All right. I need to return to the lab and pick up Grace's x-rays." He stood.
Allison stood as well, shoving her hands into her pockets, and clenched her fists. "I know Grace would kill me if she found out I said anything..."
"What is it, Allison?"
"I know she's lived on the streets, and has been homeless a number of times. And on weekends she goes to the Mission Kitchen.... " She paused, looking steadily at the doctor. "Will any of this help you? Help Grace?"
He nodded. "More then you know."
"Good. Because I promised her the best care possible. And I know you'll give it to her, no matter her background," Allison said.
Daniel smiled and resisted the urge to put a reassuring arm around her shoulders as they walked out of his office. "Darn right. I'm good at my job. No, make that great."
Allison grinned, relieved beyond belief, and slugged him on the shoulder. "Arrogant SOB."
Allison returned to my room, and with that dark look on her face I decided not to say anything. So we waited for the doctor in silence.
Daniel finally came back with x-rays and a grim look on his face. "We have good news, and we have bad news. What do you want to hear first?"
"Straight to the point, I like that." I glanced at Allison then back to Daniel. "Bad news first."
Allisons soft hand captured mine and I held it tightly.
"I so hate the bad news." He walked over to the light board and hooked the x-rays up. After flicking the switch he ran a finger along the white lines and began to explain.
A slipped disk, pinched nerves, something, something, something... Too much information. All the technical terms fell away as I realized Allisons hand was still in mine. I studied her profile as she followed Daniels every word.
"And that brings us to the good news. There are medicines for the pain, and after surgery youll be almost as good as new."
"Surgery?" I looked away from Allison and abruptly fastened my stunned gaze on Daniel. "Almost good as new?"
"Ok, not good news but not the worst news youve heard all day. The surgery is a relatively simple procedure, but with certain risks. Well be able to repair all the damage except for the deadened nerves."
"And the risks?" I asked hoarsely.
"As with any surgery there are risks. But were working with the spine here and any misstep could lead to more damage or paralysis. My team is the best team youll find anywhere on the East Coast. So theres no need to worry."
"Ill decide when to worry." I pulled away from Allison and lurched painfully up out of the bed. As I ripped the iv from my wrist they tried to stop me. "I dont need this. Ill be fine." I pushed them away and staggered down the hall.
Allison caught up to me and grabbed my shoulder. "Grace, you cant leave. Havent you heard anything Daniel said in there?"
"I heard him."
"Its routine surgery, darlin, youre momma will be out and awake in no time."
I felt the tears threatening as I stood face to face with Allison in that quiet hallway. We seemed to stand that way for an eternity before either of us moved. Suddenly she was opening her arms and I was leaning forward and holding on for dear life.
"Its gonna be okay."
I didnt say anything as I stood in the warmth of her arms and felt her heart beating against my ear.
"Its gonna be okay."
She seems so small. So fragile. What the hell do I do now? Allison didnt have to wait long to find out when Grace suddenly pulled away.
"Sorry," Grace murmured.
"Whats there to be sorry about?" Allison asked. Come back here. Let me hold you and take away that pain I see in your eyes.
"Just didnt mean to fall apart on you like that," Grace said.
You can fall apart on me anytime. "Its ok. Want to talk about it?"
"Nah-" Grace paused and met Allisons eyes. "Imy mom . She went into surgery and never came out. Guess I just sorta panicked."
"Im sorry, Grace." Allison watched her shrug it away. I bet shes done that all her life. Shrug everyone and everything away. "Daniels not just my friend you know, hes the best damn doctor in the US. Hes egotistical as hell about it, but he is. And he knows Id kill him if anything ever happened to you."
Grace blinked. "You would?"
Allison nodded, slightly embarrassed that shed rambled. She realized it was probably the most shed ever said to Grace in one sitting. "Absolutely. What are friends for? Right?"
"Right." Grace smiled shyly.
"Come on, I think Daniels waiting for us."
We discussed the pros and cons, the ups and downs and lefts and rights till my head was spinning and it was all I could do not to scream at them all to just go away. Finally they did and Allison and I were the only ones left in the room. A nurse had brought a platter of food and I ate it selfconciously.
"Guess Im staying the night," I said between mouthfuls of green beans and something I supposed was meatloaf.
"Yeah. Is there anything you want me to pick up from your apartment?" Allison asked.
I gave her a blank, startled look.
"Clothes? Books? Stuff like that?" she prompted.
"N-nothing, thanks." I shoveled in more potatoes so I wouldnt have to look at her.
The fork froze over my green beans at the tone of her voice. Slowly I turned to look at her. "What?"
"You know you can tell me anything, right?" Allison asked softly.
I nodded silently.
"Then why didnt you tell me Ed's dropped you off at York the past few days? Or that youd lost your job. I checked-"
"You checked up on me?" I asked incredulously.
"You left me no choice, Grace. I knew something was wrong so I called-"
"What the hell, Alli? What do you care?" Silence descended so heavily that I could feel it, and feel the hurt my words had caused. I pushed my food away and turned to stare out the window.
Allison sighed. "Everyone says I'm a cold hearted bitch." She was quiet a moment. "You think so too, don't you? Nevermind, don't answer that. I care, Grace. I really do. So I cant show it like other people do, like you do ."
When her voice trailed off I turned to her quizzically. "Like I do?"
"The picture," she said simply.
My eyebrows bunched together and I just stared at her.
From the inside pocket of her blazer she pulled out a folded piece of paper. Slowly she unfolded it and turned it so I could see it. A copy of my sketch stared back at me. The one Id done on impulse, with Allison leaning over, hair cascading down and tangling with the rose she held in her hand.
Of course there hadnt been a rose, nor had there been a wild landscape of mountains and trees anywhere nearby. When I didnt say anything she folded it back up and put it away.
"No one sees me like that," she whispered. "Just you. I thought . Well, I dont know what I thought." Her hands where clenched tight in her lap. "But, then you are an artist and maybe thats just how you see a lot of things," she finished resignedly.
"No," I said quietly. "From the first time I saw you its how Ive always thought of you as someone different." She didnt say anything and didnt look at me. "Why do you have a copy of it? Its not even finished."
"I like it." Now she looked up. "Will you finish it for me?"
I blinked several times before I nodded. "Its in my port- Oh God, wheres my portfolio?" I asked, suddenly panicked.
A slight smile touched her face. "Its in the car, dont worry. So, will you finish the sketch?"
"I already did."
"You did?" Allison asked, with raised eyebrows.
I just nodded and smiled slightly. "I was going to paint it."
"I havent had the time. No, thats not true. I just cant," I admitted.
"Why not?" Allison reached over and took my hand.
I could feel it shaking and held it tightly with mine. "I had to throw my paints away because there was no room for them in the station locker." With my other hand I took out the key. "I didnt want you to know- " God, this was harder then Id thought. "I didnt want . Im not staying in the apartment anymore."
"Are you in a shelter?" Allison asked softly.
I shook my head. "I was sleeping under the bridge."
"Its winter, Grace. You must have been freezing."
"It wasnt so bad," I admitted. "Ive been through worse."
"Tell me about it?" Allison asked. Her hand tightened around mine. It was warm and reassuring and I felt my eyes beginning to water. I sniffled lightly and clutched the key tightly in my other hand.
"Not right now," I whispered.
Allison nodded and we were both silent for a moment. Then she said, "You could have come to me."
"I didnt know that." Now I wasnt so sure Id be able to stop the tears and I continued on before she could say anything else. "And I didnt want to. I work for you. It wouldnt be right."
"Grace, I want to be your friend. You can count on friends, right?"
I nodded wordlessy as tears began to roll down my cheeks.
"Ill be the best friend youve ever had, Grace," Allison whispered. "Ill take care of you."
"I cant ask you to do that."
"You didnt ask. I want to." Allison rose from the chair, her hand never leaving mine, and sat on the edge of the bed.
My tears came hard and fast as she laid her other hand on my cheek and wiped away my tears with her thumb. My heart skipped a beat and I think I stopped breathing.
"Come here," she whispered. That was all I needed and I found myself once again in her arms. "Friends?" she asked.
"Friends," I said quietly. Allison smelled faintly of lilac perfume and soap.
We stayed that way, in each other's arms, for a long time. Probably a lot longer then necessary because Id already stopped crying and was just selfishly enjoying her warmth.
Itd been so long since someone touched me. I dont mean sex, though its been a long time for that too. My father never hugged us, mother was too busy and I never developed the kind of relationships that warranted this this silent reassurance that I was human and deserved to be loved.
I wondered if Allison felt the same way.
When I started to pull away, embarrassed and self-concious, Allisons arms tightened around me.
I slept well that night. I had a warm bed, my belly was full and Allison had promised to be back early in the morning.
No dreams either.
In the morning I ate all the breakfast I was given. Daniel came by to say that his team of doctors would be by later and I could meet them and ask them any questions I might have.
All questions I might have had flew out of my brain the second Allison stepped through the doorway. Oh yeah, I could definitely get used to seeing that every morning.
"Looks like youre in a good mood this morning," she said with a grin of her own.
"Not bad," I admitted. "So, whats on your schedule for today?"
"Nada." She smiled. "Youve got me all day."
Oh dont go there. When I didnt say anything I watched her grin turn lopsided. I chuckled softly. "Well, if Ive got you all day Id better think of something for you to do."
She raised a brash eyebrow. "How about some coffee then?"
"Sure." Not quite what I had in mind, but it would do. For now.
CONTINUED IN CHAPTER 16
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