I must be hallucinating. That man across from me, the one with the dark curly hair, who’s far too calm and happy for an E.R. waiting room, has a shining aura.
Shining Guy catches me staring and smiles. It’s a nice smile—warm, comforting, friendly. I smile back and pretend to study the wall behind him. The sign is in gibberish, but there’s no mistaking the Pepto Bismol wall color. If it’s intended to be soothing, it fails miserably.
A nurse with a foghorn voice calls for a Mel Parris. An elderly man in clashing plaids shuffles past me muttering, “It’s about damn time.” He continues past the nurse into the clatter and din of the hallway. She shuts the door behind him, and the waiting room returns to its previous quiet rumble. For a moment, the florescent lights sound like cicadas, then the room tilts, and everything goes black.
Shining Guy is kneeling in front of me, but his aura’s gone. Up close, I see his eyes are the color of chocolate pudding. I love chocolate pudding. “Are you all right?” he asks.
“Fine,” I say, groggily pushing myself back into a sitting position. “Why?”
“You just fell over. I think you passed out.”
“Not possible. I’d remember something like that.” Even I can hear the slur in my words.
His brow wrinkles in concern. “Who’s here with you? You’re not alone, are you?”
“As a matter of fact,” I snap, “I am alone. I’m a grown woman. I can take care of myself.”
“I can see that.” His voice makes it clear he doesn’t see at all. Damn. I usually flirt with cute guys, not attack them.
“Who are you, anyway?” I ask. “What are you doing here?”
Nurse Foghorn rolls up with a wheelchair. “Let’s get you into the chair,” Shining Guy says. “Can you stand?”
I push myself off the plastic waiting room chair. The room spins, and my legs become marshmallows. Shining Guy catches me and holds on. I kind of like the way his hand grips my waist, firm but gentle. He smells good too—like Ivory soap. “You didn’t answer my questions,” I say.
He guides me into the wheelchair. “I’m Jake,” he says. “Jake Grogan.” He turns to the nurse. “I’m coming with.”
She looks at me, her lips pursed. “That’s not standard procedure.”
I know he’s a stranger and I know I shouldn’t trust him, but right now, I trust me less. “Really, it’s okay,” I tell her, hoping that I’m right.
Jake puts his hand on my shoulder and walks alongside while the nurse pushes me down the loud hallway, which smells of blood, vomit, and antiseptic. I start to gag but manage to swallow away the urge. I’m wheeled into an examining room. I can’t help noticing it’s the color of rotten eggs. Dear lord, who chose the color scheme around here?
A sandy-haired teenager in a lab coat walks in carrying a clipboard. I suddenly feel old. “Anna Martin? I’m Dr. Hill. I understand you bumped your head.”
“Something like that.”
Dr. Hill uses a penlight to examine my pupils. “Tell me what happened.”
“I tripped over a mop, broke my fall with my head.”
Jake snorts. “A mop?”
The snort is adorable, but the doc and I ignore him.
“Your pupils are dilated,” Dr. Hill tells me. “Any other symptoms?”
“She passed out in the waiting room,” Jake chimes in. “And her speech was slurred.”
Dr. Hill raises an eyebrow. “That true?” he asks me.
“So I’ve been told.” I hold up the remains of my glasses. “I also can’t read worth a damn. And I have a headache.”
The doctor scribbles on the clipboard. “All right,” he says. “I’m going to give you three words. I want you to remember them and recite them back to me when I ask later. Okay?”
“Okay.” I nod and pain shoots through my temples. When I feel Jake’s hand on my shoulder again, the pain recedes the slightest bit.
“The three words are: pencil, hippo, razor. Got it?”
“Pencil, hippo, razor. Got it.”
“You’ve got a concussion,” Dr. Hill says. “The memory test will give us an idea of how severe. When I come back, we’ll discuss your treatment.”
The doctor is hardly out of the room when I turn to Jake. “Why are you doing this?”
“I’m a sucker for a damsel in distress. Especially when she’s got such perfect freckles and impossibly red curly hair.” He smiles, and my heart flip-flops.
I twirl one of my red curls and almost forget what I wanted to know. “But why were you in the E.R. in the first place?”
“I’m a reporter. I’m working on a story about local emergency rooms.”
“Ah, you’re using me to get a Pulitzer.”
Before Jake can respond, Dr. Hill returns. “Anna, those three words?”
“Pencil, hippo, razor.”
“Good,” he says, scribbling on the clipboard again. He hands me a paper cup with two pills in it and another cup with water. “Acetaminophen, for your headache. Don’t take any other kind of painkiller. Acetaminophen only. And rest. No exercise, no TV, no computer, no reading, no thinking.”
“Um, okay.” It’s not, though. The doc had ruled out all my favorite things.
“And no driving,” Dr. Hill adds.
“I’ll make sure she gets home,” Jake promises.
A nurse leads us through the discharge paperwork. On our way to the parking lot, Jake takes my hand. My heart does that flip-flop thing again. I actually hear myself sigh. What am I, a teenager?
Jake settles me in his car—a coupe that’s clearly seen better days—and I direct him to my building. He insists on walking me to my door. My inner alarms should be screaming at this, but I only hear a faint buzz. But maybe that’s just my concussion. My hand finds Jake’s.
He helps me up the stairs. My head is pounding so badly when we get to the top, I’m grateful we only have to climb one flight. My next apartment building will most definitely have an elevator.
We stop at my door. “I’ve got it from here,” I say, but I don’t let go of his hand. My knees quiver when he kisses my forehead.
“I’m going to check on you,” he says.
“You better.” I hope my words sound as flirtatious out loud as they do in my head. Just to be sure, I kiss his cheek.
He blushes and fishes a card out of his wallet. “Call me if you need anything.”
I will, Jake Grogan. I will.
Click here to read the story behind "A Friend in Need."