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The three off-duty, red-faced cops seated in brown vinyl chairs had been broken—by guns, by fists, by life. And at eight o’clock in the morning, I sat across from them, in the sun-brightened waiting room of Matthew Popov, M.D. I harbored fractures, too—mine were as fine as cracks in a china cup that still held tea. But the trio didn’t see me or my cracks after their T&A check. Just their casts, their bandages, their bruised balls.
“Them kids just don’t get it,” crew-cut Darren complained. “It ain’t always about color. You look suspicious? I’m gonna stop you.”
The nerve beneath my left eye twitched, and the stress headache spilled across my forehead like warm milk. I snatched the month-old issue of People from the coffee table. One glance at the cover—BABY DRAMA FOR KIM—and I tossed the rag back into the swamp of “Divorce Looms for Jon!” and “Charlie’s Drunken Night!”
With my God-given tan, camel-colored pantsuit, and delicate ankles, I’m sure crew-cut Darren assumed that a computer keyboard had caused my job injury. Carpal tunnel syndrome from typing some true detective’s paperwork. What would he say if he knew that I was that Elouise Norton who had rammed a Toyota Rav4 into a Parks and Rec truck high above Los Angeles? That I’d fractured my left arm, cracked two ribs, and concussed my head in the process? That the monster who had killed Chanita Lords and other girls from my old neighborhood had flown through the windshield and chopped into pieces all because he hadn’t worn a seat belt on the way to the place he wanted to kill me? What would Darren say if he knew that I was that Elouise Norton?
Good job, Lou.
Why’d you do something stupid like that?
You got a death wish?
My phone vibrated from my bag—a text message. How was your appointment? Don’t forget we’re bringing breakfast on Saturday morning. See you then. Love u, Mom. She’d discovered emoticons, and now there were sixty pink hearts trailing “Mom.”
Haven’t gone in yet, I texted back. I’ll call later. Love u, too. Then, I tapped the Scrabble app.
Darren was now rubbing his tattooed left calf as he told Brad and Tony about chasing some banger-trash down Hoover Avenue. “Then, that summabitch hopped over the fuckin’ fence like Hussein Bolt.”
Tony laughed. “Usain Holt, dumb ass.”
Usain Bolt and you both are dumb asses.
“What the fuck ever,” Darren said. “I jumped over, too—that’s my point—and tore my ACL. Can you believe it?”
Out in the parking lot, a gardener wielded a leaf blower. Dead foliage and grit swirled around him like confetti. A garden party.
My phone vibrated again. Get felt up yet? Call me later. I have a proposition. My best friend, Lena Meadows, had also used emoticons—ones that my mother hadn’t discovered yet. A lipstick print, a martini glass, and a smiling purple devil.
I texted Lena back. A proposition? Doesn’t sound healthy nor wholesome. I rebuke you.
No message from Syeeda McKay, my other best friend. Or former best friend. Or … Relationship status: it’s complicated.
The door that led to the exam rooms opened. A doe-eyed blonde nurse called out. “Elouise Norton?”
In the vitals alcove, the nurse took my blood pressure (138/90), my weight (120 pounds), and my temperature (99.3). She cocked an eyebrow as she recorded the results in my chart. Then, she led me to the bathroom.
After peeing in a plastic cup, I followed her into exam room 8. I placed my bag in the chair, undressed, then pulled on a blue gown with thousands of ties. With nothing else to do but sit, I studied the posters on the walls.
DID YOU GET A FLU SHOT?
LEARN THE TRUTH ABOUT HEART DISEASE.
DO YOU HAVE POST-TRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER?
I gulped, then clamped my jaw before sending my gaze back to flu shots and clogged arteries. And I kept them there until Dr. Popov’s gray eyes bore into mine.
His wintergreen breath had almost covered the smell of coffee. “Your blood pressure’s up,” he said. “Has your pressure been high lately?”
I futzed with one of the ties on the gown. “No.”
His large soft hands tilted my head this way and that. “Have you been charting it with the machine I gave you?”
“Are you in pain right now?”
My cheeks warmed. “No.”
Three lies told in less than twenty seconds. The Hussein Holt of Lying.
Dr. Popov consulted my chart. “You taking anything for the pain you’re not having?”
“Ibuprofen every now and then.” My nose ached from growing so much and so quickly. “I’ve been taking allergy meds. A lot of fires burning right now.”
“Your elevated BP is a little worrisome. Hasn’t been this high since I cleared you three weeks ago for normal duty.” The doctor squinted at me. “You smoke?”
I cracked a smile. “What do you have?”
“Seriously. Are you drinking?”
We held each other’s eyes. My underarms prickled with sweat, and my upper lip twitched.
Dr. Popov sighed, then examined the last scars high above my right eye, my right ear, and behind my hairline. He pressed on the scalp wound, then held up his fingers. Blood. “You have to stop scratching that. It starts to scab, but then…”
“I keep forgetting it’s there,” I said. “I’ll stop. Promise.”
“Does it still hurt?”
My eyes watered as though his fingers were still pressing the wound. “No.”
“You sure? I see tears.”
“Allergies because of all the fires.”
“You didn’t take anything this morning?” he asked.
I shook my head. “Didn’t want to compromise my urine test.”
“We can tell Claritin from Percocet. The miracle of science.” Then, he lifted my left arm.
A dull twang spun in my shoulder like a pinwheel.
“You winced,” he said.
“Sore from physical therapy.” I smiled. “And I’m back in Krav Maga for strength training.”
True, and true.
My phone caw-cawed from the inside of my bag—the eagle ringtone for my partner, Colin Taggert.
“When you’re sore like this,” Dr. Popov was saying, “what do you do?”
“Heating pad and Icy Hot,” I replied. “Long baths and hot showers.”
After promising to lower my numbers through clean living and exercise, and after receiving a flu shot, I trudged to the scheduling desk where the doe-eyed blonde nurse pulled up a calendar to schedule my next visit.
The eagle caw-cawed from my bag again. This time, I answered. “Happy Tuesday.”
“It’s not even nine o’clock yet,” Colin complained, “and it’s already eighty-six degrees.”
A heat wave now roasted Los Angeles—yesterday, we hit 103 degrees in the Valley, 94 degrees downtown, and enjoyed 80 percent humidity, courtesy of a hurricane currently destroying Baja California. Fires to the north of us, fires to the south of us, fires to the east of us. All we needed was an earthquake and a Sig Alert on the 405 freeway to complete the “Seasons of LA” bingo card.
I stepped away from the scheduling desk and wandered to a corner. “What’s up?”
“All these fires are making my eyes itch,” Colin whined.
“You use the drops I gave you?”
“Then stop complaining.”
“We’re on deck,” he announced.
“Just when I was about to go out on the yacht.”
“So, you’re driving to 8711 Victoria Avenue, off Crenshaw and Vernon.”
“What’s today’s special?”
“A suspicious death. An old guy dead in his old house.”
“Dead, you say?”
“Seniors are droppin’ from the heat. It’s like we’re standing on hell’s patio.”
I gave the doe-eyed blonde nurse the “one minute, please” finger, then said to Colin, “Old guy, old house, no A/C probably. Nothing suspicious about that. This shouldn’t take long.”
“You’ll get to go out on the yacht after all,” he said.
I scheduled my next appointment for October 2nd, then left the medical office of Matthew Popov, M.D., with a bloody wound in my hair, sparks shooting in my shoulders, and sparks shooting at the base of my skull.
I was healed.
At the lobby gift shop, I purchased a bottled water and a morning bag of Doritos (baked Doritos: my first step toward clean living). By the time the elevator stopped at P2, I’d already popped four Advil and a Claritin. I stepped out of the air-conditioned car and into the muggy underground parking garage. My eyes flitted from dark corner to darker corner. Shadows. Weird echoes.
A man stood … by the…? What is he…? He looks like … him. But’s he dead. Right?
That’s what I’d been told. That’s what I’d read. But those seconds before the crash … couldn’t remember.
I darted to my Porsche Cayenne with my heart pounding, my nerves frayed, my lungs pinched so hard I could barely breathe.
The same state I’d been in when I first arrived.
That shadow moved … The man, his shadow …
No. Don’t go there. Just the wind. Dr. Bernie Shankman’s soothing baritone filled my head. Just the wind blowing, Elouise. Just the wind. Take a breath. Take a breath.
I reached my car, panting as though I’d run a mile in a minute. Knees weak, I leaned against the car door with my eyes squeezed shut.
Your pounding heart? That’s the wind. The scent of a man’s cologne—but it smelled like his cologne—that’s the wind, too. Just the wind, Elouise. Breathe. Breathe.
Second time in an hour that I’d employed visualization to coax me off the ledge.
And now, in my mind’s eye, I reclined in a chaise surrounded by palm trees. I was relaxing on my favorite Big Island beach. The breeze lifted my hair and ferried the aroma of Lava Lava Club’s sticky-sweet drinks and pineapple-fried rice. Waves. Fluffy white clouds. Blue sky. Quiet. So quiet.
“Open your eyes,” I whispered.
I was still hunkered in the dark parking garage. But there were no ghosts now. No shadowy man in the corner. No Zach Fletcher.
Copyright © 2017 by Rachel Howzell Hall