Atlas Memorial

Copyright © 2020 by Krista Harper

No portion of this may be printed or reproduced without written consent from the author.

Chapter 1

      It was dark, save for the dim light of my phone screen. Crawling on my hands and knees, rug burns formed instantly from the friction. A low hanging shoe bag caught the corner of my head, knocking my phone to the floor. 

      “Shit.” I grabbed for it, snatching the electronic lifeline from a pile of dirty laundry and pressing it against my ear. “Hello?” The sound of instrumental music blasted into my conscience. Thank God. Moving towards the back of the walk-in closet, a high heel impaled my knee. “Ouch.” 

      “Stella?” A voice called from somewhere down the hall. “Are you alright, honey?”

      “Yes,” I shouted through the crack in the closet door. “Don’t come in here. I’ll be out in a minute.”

      “Are you sure you’re all right?” 

      “Mom, I’m on the phone!”

      My mothers’ voice trailed into the background, just as I found the heavy comforter I’d been searching for. Shoving an overfilled shoe basket out of the way, I wedged myself into the corner of the closet, phone still plastered against my ear. Pulse racing, hands trembling, a lump built in my throat. Pulling the blanket over my head I forced my breathing to slow. Knowledge of my fate was only moments away. 

      Anatomy diagrams, research papers and pharmaceutical calculations flashed through my mind, a reminder of the past five years of my life spent plugging away in nursing school. Month after month of clawing my way through study sessions and endless clinical hours as a grunt getting assigned all the horrible tasks no one else wanted but pretended to highlight as a ‘learning experience’ for the lowly nursing student.

      While I may not have graduated in the very top of my nursing program, I was praying I knew enough to pass my boards. Test results wouldn’t be available for several weeks, but one of our professors said roughly five business days after our exam we could call the state department and their automated line would tell us whether or not there was an active license in our name. If an active license existed, that meant we passed the licensing exam and were officially a Registered Nurse. 

      I was pretty sure the entire planet was trying to get through to the state because I’d been sitting on hold with the operator for fifteen minutes and hadn’t even gotten to their automated line yet. She was “transferring” me. My eyes rolled into the back of my head just as the music stopped. 

      “No!” I held the phone out making sure I was still connected. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” I shouldn’t have been so impatient. Now I’d pissed off the hold operator with my eye rolling. There was no way I passed my boards now. “Hello? Hello?”

      “Hello and thank you for calling.” An electronic voice responded.

      Oh, thank god.

      “Please enter your social security number for faster processing.”

      Frozen. I’m frozen in place. I can’t do this.

      “Please enter your social security number now.”

      Oh, shoot okay. Entering the nine digits into the keypad, I sucked in my breath. A clicking sound and then deafening silence.

      “Stella Reynolds,” the voice said. “Registered Nurse, State of Colorado.”

“Aaaaah!” Jumping up from my corner, head crashing into the shelves above, my foot caught on the comforter, my former-protector, sending me forward through the French doors of the closet.

                  My mother burst through my bedroom door. “Stella, what on earth is going on?”

      “I passed!” Trying to uncover myself, my long hair nearly strangling me, and bras strewn everywhere. “I passed my boards!” The blanket and underwear released me and I scrambled to my feet. “I passed!” I plowed into my mother, screaming, and throwing my arms around her.

      “That’s wonderful news.” She returned the embrace, squeezing tight around my middle. “But what were you doing in the closet, dear?”

      Umm.

      “Did you call from in there?” Her eyes narrowed. 

      “Mom, are you asking if I did something as ridiculous as barricading myself into the back of my closet in order to call the state for the results of my state nursing examination?” 

      “Stella.” She sighed.

      Spitting the blonde hair out of my mouth, I feigned ignorance. “Seriously, mom.”

 

***            

            Have you heard anything yet?

      The text message was from my best friend, Bree. We graduated Xavier State together and were both vying for spots at Atlas Memorial in their Nurse Residency program. Now that graduation was over and licensing boards were passed, we both needed to find jobs.

      Nothing yet. You? I texted back.

      Bree: Nothing. The wait is slowly killing me.

      Me: Right?!

      The residency was a year-long program designed for new grads in their intensive care units: Cardiac, Medical, Neurology, and Surgical. Atlas Memorial was the regional trauma hospital in downtown Monroe and saw the worst of the worst. The opportunity to learn and develop my skills in such a high-level facility could not be beat, but only four spots remained available.

      Bree: Do you think we should call their HR lady again?

      Me: No. We’d look super desperate.

      Bree: We ARE super desperate. I turned down two other positions waiting for this.

      Me: I know. I turned down one at a rural clinic out here by my folks. 

      Bree: Well that’s good for a ton of reasons…

      Me: I can’t sit around unemployed Bree. Maybe I should have just taken it.

      Bree: No way. What about the nursing home you’re at now?

      Me: They’re in a hiring freeze. My manager asked if I’d be willing to stay on as a ward clerk until something opened.

      Bree: Yuck. But you need to get out of Enid anyway.

      Me: I know, but now I’m starting to freak out. 

      Bree: Don’t freak out. 

      Me: Fine. NOT freaking out!

      Bree: We need to stay positive. 

      Me: Staying positive. 

      Bree: Onward and upward.

      Me: Onward and upward.

      Blowing out a sigh, I tossed my phone onto the counter. Why haven’t they called? I hated being in this weird holding pattern. I needed to be apartment hunting, packing, moving, and getting settled before I started working. But how did one do that when the location of their final destination was still to be determined? Hmm. I applied for positions all over the state but started leaning towards Monroe after I heard about their nurse residency. Since I wasn’t tied to anyone or anything in particular, I could literally go anywhere. And while that seemed both exciting and adventurous, it was turning out to be the worst kind of limbo. Not to mention I currently lived with my parents in the same bedroom I had in high school, complete with movie posters and a pink ruffled bed spread. 

      My parents lived in the tiny town of Enid, population 1,000. It was an agricultural community that prided itself on cattle ranching, located about two hours from any major city. Aside from being the home of Xavier State University, it was barely a blip on the map. Growing up, my brother Seth and I used to complain that Enid was the saddest town in America. It had no mall, no museums, no major sporting events. Nothing. But, on the positive side and as my mother would say, it also had no crime, no gangs, and no murders. While that was true, I couldn’t help wanting to get the hell out of here the moment I turned eighteen. The only problem was that I got a partial scholarship to Xavier State and couldn’t pass up the opportunity of free money. Now that I was done with school though, the time had come to finally leave Enid and move on with my life. Spread my wings and all that crap. I just needed to find a job first. 

      I looked over at my phone. Its darkened screen taunting me with the possibility of rejection. The HR lady said she would call by today if they were planning on offering a spot in the residency. It was already three in the afternoon and no such call. I reached for my phone to shove it into a drawer, unable to stare at it any longer, when it rang. My hand froze as it hovered over the glowing face that currently displayed Monroe’s area code. Answer it.

      “Hel… Um, Stella… Hey… Hi?” What in the actual hell?!

      “Hello, yes may I speak to Stella Reynolds please? This is Trudi calling from HR at Atlas Memorial.”

      Oh my god. Oh my god. Oh my god. Oh my god. “Umm, yes this is she.” 

      “Hi Stella. I’m so sorry to have made you wait so long for a follow up call, but we’ve had so many applicants for the residency.”

      “Oh, no problem at all,” I lied.

      “Well I just wanted to let you know we appreciate you applying and feel you would be a perfect fit for our facility.”

      “You do?” Bouncing on the balls of my feet, fireworks lit inside my chest.

      “Yes Stella, we would love to extend an offer to you for placement into the program.”

      The fireworks exploded into a million brilliant pieces. “You would?”

      “Of course. You’re just what Atlas is looking for. Are you still interested?”

      “Yes. Totally. Yes!” Stifling a squeal, I added, “Still very interested.”

      “Wonderful. Now you know the program begins on the 22nd, correct?”

      Mental head slap. The 22nd was literally nine days away. “Oh totally, next week? Pfft, that’s perfect.” 

      “Great. I’ll be emailing over paperwork for you to complete, and it includes information of hospital orientation and all the new employee details.”

      “Okay, thank you. I’ll watch for it.” Dropping to the floor in the middle of the kitchen... I did it. All my hard work and sacrifice. It was all coming together. I couldn’t believe it. Now I had just nine days to find an apartment, pack, and move.

      My mother stood over me, hands on hips, “Stella Ann Reynolds, what on earth are you doing on the floor?” 

      Jumping up, I grabbed her by the shoulders. “I got the job!” 

      Her arms were around me, wrapping me up in a hug that seemed to go on forever. “Honey that’s wonderful.” Sniffling, she held me tighter. “Oh goodness, but that means you’ll be leaving home.” 

      “I know, Mom, but this is what I wanted.” 

      “I know dear.” She released me. Pulling back just enough to look me in the face. “I remember when you were a little girl…”

      “No.” I pulled back completely, taking a giant step away from her. “Do not make me start crying.” Eyes burning, I slapped at my cheeks, tilting my head towards the ceiling in an attempt to stop the tears. It couldn’t be easy seeing your children grow up and leave home. My brother left over a year ago when he finished culinary school and was offered a job in Chicago. Me being just a few hours away in Monroe would be way easier on them than Seth’s move, but still it would be difficult.

      “You’re the first woman in our family to have a college degree,” she said, wringing her hands. “And now you’ll be the first to have a career.”

      Oh, sweet baby Jesus. “Mom, don’t start. The pressure’s too much.” 

      But it was no use, the fear of failure was already swirling in my head. My parents sacrificed everything for me to go to school. Even though I got a partial scholarship, college was still a huge expense for a family of farmers like mine, but my parents insisted. They wanted Seth and me to find careers on our terms, not because of family obligations. 

      In a matter of minutes, my mother and I were embracing again, this time full on tears and snot coming from both of us. Me and my Mama. I loved her so. I even loved Enid. And although I would never admit that out loud to anyone, it was still my home and I was about to leave it for good. 

      “Christ.” My father appeared in the doorway, a motor oil soaked rag in his hangs. “Why’s everybody crying?”

      Releasing my mom, I took a step back, wiping my eyes. “I got the job at Atlas.” 

      His brows knitted together. “But now you don’t want it?” 

      “What? No, of course I want it.”

      “Then why are you crying?”

      My mother let out a sigh before clicking her tongue. “Herb.” 

      “What?” He looked from my mother to me, then back again. 

      “Never mind,” she said.

      Snatching my phone, I made a bee line for my bedroom before my mother could start interrogating me on the new position. A mental to-do list began formulating in my head before I even hit the hallway.

 

Chapter 2

       While I only briefly lived on campus during my freshman year of college, the short experience of having a roommate scarred me for life so it wasn’t something I ever wanted to experience again. But trying to find an affordable apartment in an expensive city like Monroe was nearly impossible. Especially on such short notice. And while I wouldn’t budge on the whole roommate thing, it also wasn’t feasible to commute when my shifts would be twelve hours long, which meant I needed to compromise on space. Goodbye two-bedroom art deco loft with a killer view of the city skyline. Hello basement level studio apartment and homeless dude sleeping on the front curb. On the bright side, I was going to be able to start using the expert karate skills I honed at the Enid Community Center. Oh, plus they accepted pets, so my cat Ophelia could come with me. 

      My Dad stacked the last of the boxes into my new front hallway while my mom finished stocking my refrigerator with Diet Coke and pre-made frozen dinners. She spent the day grocery shopping and scrubbing everything in sight. I think she hoped if she scrubbed hard enough the whole neighborhood would come clean.

      “Do you guys want pizza or do you think burgers would be better?” I asked from the pile of IKEA table parts.

      “Oh, honey we’re just going to head home,” my mom said.

      “What? You have to eat. Don’t run home right away,” I said. 

      Dad plucked the instructions from my hand. “We’ll grab burgers on our way.” 

      “I seriously cannot figure this thing out. I’ve got too many legs and not enough tabletop,” I shook my head. “I don’t understand.”

      “Are you going to be alright by yourself tonight Stella?” My mom came into the living space. 

      “Jesus Barb, she’s gonna live here by herself.” My Dad huffed. “She’d better be able to make it tonight.” He nudged me out of my seat in order to get a better look at the parts he was dealing with. 

      She peered through the bars on the windows. “I’m not a fan of this neighborhood.” 

      “The neighborhood is up and coming according to the property manager,” I said. “The houses on this street are like a million dollars. Plus, I can walk to work.”

      “Walk? What if it’s dark out?” My mother clenched the front of her blouse. “I don’t think I like that idea.” 

      My father grunted, digging through the various table parts. 

      “I’ll be fine.” I reached for her.

      “I still just don’t understand why you want to live alone. Isn’t Bree in the program too? Where is she living?” Mom asked.

      “Bree is staying with her aunt and uncle.” I sighed. We had been over this at least a hundred times. “And I’m not gonna just live with a stranger again.” I cringed at the thought of the llama which may or may not have survived my one and only roommate experience. 

      “Christ almighty.” My father threw the instructions onto the pile of parts. “This goddamn thing. How much did you pay for this?”

      “Dad, it’s IKEA. It was like $14.”

      “Well you got ripped off.” He stood up and reached for the keys in his front pocket. “Barb, send her a check for a real table.” He grabbed his hat and stuffed it onto his head. “Let’s get going before there’s traffic.”

      Following them outside into the parking lot, my eyes and throat burned from the tears I wouldn’t allow myself to spill. The past week had been a whirlwind and it wasn’t about to stop. In four days I packed up my entire life, hunted down an apartment, quit my job, and moved out of the only town I’d ever lived in. The adrenaline was beginning to wear off and my emotions were ready to take a dive.

      Mom wrapped her arms around me. “Be safe honey.” The minute they reached my shoulders, I was done. The waterworks came full force. “We love you so much.”

      “I love you guys too,” I said, my voice uneven. She held me for a minute then pulled away to display matching tears across her cheeks. “I’m going to be okay.” I assured her as well as myself.

      My Dad patted my back before climbing into the car. “We love you kid.”

      “Bye Dad.”

      I watched my parents pull away and waved while my mom blew a kiss through the window. I stood in the parking lot and looked around. My car was parked near the dumpster in the back of the lot. I wouldn’t use it much since everything was in walking distance, but if I ever planned on going home to visit I’d need it. I walked over to make sure there weren’t any overlooked items left from the move. 

      “Hey, you just moving in?” A voice called from behind me.

      Spinning around, I was faced with an attractive guy coming towards me on a bicycle. His sandy blonde hair fell into his eyes as he flashed a gorgeous white smile that contrasted with the deep bronze hue of his skin. Placing a hand on the trunk of my car, I held on for fear my knees might give out and watched as he dismounted, the fit of his spandex riding shorts causing my breath to hitch.

      Forcing my eyes to meet his, I smiled.  “I’m sorry?”

      “I said are you just moving in? I haven’t seen you before.” He stopped his bike in front of me and extended a hand. “I’m Travis, apartment 102.”

      “Hi. Stella. I’m 202 so I guess I’m underneath you. Er, not like really underneath you but like you’re on top of me.” Shaking my head, my tongue tied around itself. Shut up, you idiot. “202. Umm, yeah, sorry.” I pulled my hand back, folding my arms around my midsection. 

      “You from Monroe? Lots of transplants here from California.” He continued to smile.

      “No, Enid. Small town, middle of nowhere. I just graduated from Xavier State.”

      “Oh congratulations. What brought you down this way?”

      Travis wasn’t just attractive, he was edible. His skin perfectly sun kissed and muscular build impressive. 

      “I just took a job at Atlas Memorial. I guess I’m a nurse.” My cheeks heated. You guess?

      “Nice. I’m a firefighter, but I actually moonlight doing paramedic work at Atlas sometimes.”

      “Oh great.” Damn. Neighbor and sometimes coworker. Mental note: Do not fall for Travis, Stella. Super messy.  

      “Well I better get going,” he said, never breaking his smile. “I’m on-call tonight.”

      “Oh, yeah… totally. Okay. Nice meeting you.” I watched him ride over to the entrance of our building then scoop up his mountain bike with one hand, resting it on his shoulder as he unlocked the main door. 

      I leaned against the car, taking a moment to fully enjoy the view of my new neighbor Mr. Travis Apartment 102and his glorious fitted shorts. A low sigh escaped me just as my car alarm began to wail. I froze, shutting my eyes, hoping he wouldn’t notice and turn around.

      “You alright?” 

      Crap. Peeking my eyes open one at a time, I met his gaze. “Who me?” I waved him off. “You mean this? Oh no. I’m great, this is nothing. Thanks.” I dug into my pockets searching for my car key but came up empty, which also meant I didn’t have my apartment key either. “Hey Travis, can you hold that door?” I ran to meet him, hoping to God the ground would swallow me up before I got there.

 

***

      The City of Monroe was divided into four main areas: Tennyson, Baker, Downtown, and 7th. My apartment was in Baker, one of the oldest neighborhoods, just east of downtown. The streets were lined with mature trees and most homes were oversized from the early 1900s but had since been divided into apartments. While Baker was a bit dodgy compared to Downtown and Tennyson, it had a comfortable feel to it. Shops were independently-owned and any remaining families had been in the area for generations. It was up and coming and would most likely be gentrified within the next ten years, pushing out anyone who wasn’t a six-figure professional. But for right now it held a nice mix of young singles, new transplants from either coast, and a few families sprinkled in. 

      On my first official day of work, I woke up at four in the morning and stared at the ceiling, butterflies swirling in my stomach. It wasn’t until the sun started to rise that I finally climbed out of bed. Thankfully it was also Bree’s first day, so I’d have someone to secretly freak out with on top of having a lunch buddy. Lunch buddies were imperative in new surroundings. 

      After a quick shower, I stood examining myself in the mirror. My long hair was strategically tied back with an overabundance of clips, reminiscent of a Russian gymnast during the Olympics, and my makeup was completely overdone in an attempt to conceal my inadequacies. Neither was working and I had just about run out of time. I quickly washed my face, pulled out the clips, and ran a brush through my hair before pulling it back into a single, more natural ponytail. Next, I gave my eyelashes a swipe of mascara and dotted my lips with gloss before grabbing my bag and running out the door, pushing open the main exit of my building just in time to see Travis walk up the path.

      “Morning,” he said. I hadn’t seen him since moving day, and my memory did not do him justice. He was dressed in his fireman’s uniform, his golden hair concealed under a ball cap, his bright smile beaming.

      I gulped. “Good morning.” 

      “That’s a great color on you.” He pointed to my blue scrubs. “Brings out your eyes.”

      My cheeks heated from his words. “Thanks. I’m headed to work.”

      “Nice. You do twelve hour days?”

      “Umm, yeah and I’m gonna be late. Sorry.”

      He moved to the side, gesturing for me to go ahead. “Have a great day, Stella.”

      “Thanks, you too.” I hurried past him, slipped on my sunglasses and made the five block walk in a matter of minutes. Every step reminding myself Travis Apartment 102 was a terrible idea to entertain. Even if he weren’t a neighbor and sometimes  co-worker, I arrived in this city only a handful of days ago and had a new career to focus on. I couldn’t let some cute blonde with a friendly smile deter me from my path. I needed at least nine months to get comfortable as a new nurse, plus I hadn’t even explored Monroe yet. If all my first adventures in this town were introduced by way of Travis, or any guy really, when it ended it could very well destroy any plans of mine on staying here. I shook my head, pushing aside any romantic thoughts regarding my neighbor just as I approached the main entrance to the hospital. 

      Heart pounding, I stood on the sidewalk in front of Atlas Memorial stalling for time. This was one of the largest hospitals in the region, providing care to over four states. It was also a teaching hospital that housed medical students and interns from the local university. Intimidating was an understatement. I’d only done student Clinicals in small rural facilities near school, combined with nursing homes and a few state-run facilities. None of them compared to the intensity of Atlas. At twelve stories high and four city blocks wide, they owned the ambulances for the city, ran the public health programs for immigrants and refugees, and were responsible for providing care to all prisoners in the county. They actually held a bed for the President when he was nearby, and even a documentary from the early ‘80s was created when Atlas had the reputation of the most violent patients.

      I stood inside the automatic doors; hands clenched. This is it. Taking a deep breath, I took a step forward, dodging a group of men in surgical scrubs, and taking a sharp left towards what I thought was the elevator bank. A few steps in and I quickly realized I had gone the wrong way. Instead of elevators, a coffee cart with a line of customers wrapped around the corridor stood in its place. Shit. I must have gotten turned around and needed to go right, not left. I spun around to change course only to plow directly into someone holding a fresh cup of scolding hot coffee.

      “Oh my god.” I stumbled backwards, my heel catching on the toe of my other shoe.

      “Hot. That’s hot.” The guy swiped at his chest, coffee running down the front of his shirt and tie.

      I looked up into the face of one of the most gorgeous men I had ever seen. “Oh my god, you are hot.”

      “What?” He pulled at his clothes.

      “I mean, er, yes. Your coffee.” Shit. “It’s super hot. I’m so sorry.” Heat spread across my cheeks for the second time this morning. I reached over the counter for a stack of napkins, trying to remove all evidence of our meeting from his shirt. “Did I burn you?”

      “No it’s… I’m fine. I’m good.” He tossed the empty cup into the trash and took the remaining napkins from me.

      “That was completely my fault. I’m gonna be late and I got totally turned around and I wasn’t paying attention to where I was going and…”

            “It’s okay.” He smiled. “Apology accepted.”

      His voice was deep and sensual, forcing my thighs to squeeze together at his words. For a split second I took the risk of looking him in the eye, but quickly decided my knees weren’t strong enough to handle it. His complexion was a creamy sand and his black pearl eyes were warm but mysterious. Longish onyx hair, a direct contrast to the professional business attire, fell slightly into his face as he looked down at me. My insides melted into warm pools when he reached for my hand, shaking it firmly in his grip.

      “Ryan,” he said, licking his lips.

      “Stella.” I breathed, barely audible. Whoa. Electricity passed between us as my heart fell into my stomach. Who was this guy?

      “Well it was nice meeting you Stella, but I’m running late myself.” He dropped my hand. The warm burn remained like a phantom ghost in my palm. “Have a good day.” 

      “You too,” I said. 

      He disappeared through the crowd of visitors pushing in through the Emergency Department and I inhaled a deep breath, allowing my heart to slow down to a normal rate. Several stunned moments passed as it took me to realize that what I had experienced just then was in fact not an out of body experience. That guy, that… Ryan really existed. I caught my reflection in the window and saw my face and chest were still burning a deep red. Plus I was pretty sure my loins were hanging out completely exposed. Not a good look for a positive first impression. I took another deep breath and got myself turned in the right direction, realizing I was supposed to go right instead of left to find the elevators. I was never going to make it on time but at least I wouldn’t be lying when I claimed that I had gotten turned upside down, and not just by the building. 

 

***

       Bree’s eyes widened as I slid into a seat next to her, mere seconds before the nurse educator stepped up to the podium. She was the one always notoriously late to everything while I was known to arrive well before anyone else, including our professors. I ignored her persistent staring and instead focused on finding a pen in the bottom of my bag. 

      “Where the heck were you?” she whispered.

      “Got lost.” 

      “No way.”

      “Shhhh, they’re starting.” Flipping open my notebook, I turned to the first page.

      The nurse educator was in her mid-fifties, with deep lines running the length of her face. She smiled as she welcomed the group, exposing tobacco stained teeth. She began to speak and the sound of tar rattling against her lungs filled the room.

      “Hello everyone. It’s great having you each here this morning for orientation. My name is Frances and I am the Intensive Care Nurse Educator for the Medical and Cardiac ICU’s.” She cleared her throat. “We have one other educator Trina but unfortunately she couldn’t be with us this morning. She will, however, be joining us this afternoon when we tour the units.” 

      “Damn,” Bree said under breath. “I really wanted to meet her this morning.”

      I shrugged, glancing around the room. An older woman stood towards the back in heels and slacks, in addition to two other women, about my age, in scrubs seated in the row beside us. Assuming we were all part of the nurse residency, I gave an oversized smile in comradery to the blonde woman, but she returned the greeting with an eye roll and clenched jaw before turning back to Frances at the podium. Yikes.

      “Today isn’t going to be very exciting so I apologize in advance.” Frances wheezed. “There’s lots of paperwork and handouts, but they are necessary so if you could bear with me.”

      In between bouts of coughing, wheezing and throat clearing, Frances continued to talk while my attention began to waver. I tried to focus, but instead my thoughts drifted to Coffee Cart Ryan… and then to Travis Apartment 102. 

      I wasn’t lying when I’d said Ryan was the most gorgeous man I’d ever seen. His sexy black hair and moist, kissable lips. Yum. Hmm, but the more I thought about it, there really was no denying that Travis was also incredibly attractive. His rugged, muscular build and perfectly tight ass. Even though I decided he should wear spandex shorts all the time, I’m pretty sure his smile alone could make me do inappropriate things. 

      Still, Travis was my neighbor and that was a terrible thing to mess around with. And Ryan? I would probably never see again since I didn’t even know his last name and had only met him because I literally ran into him in a public place. Damn though if I wouldn’t fantasize about him for the rest of my life. 

      I felt a nudge from under the table. 

      “What?” I looked up to see all eyes on me and Bree attempting to mime instructions. 

      “Introduction,” she whispered.

      “Oh, introduction. Yes, sorry.” I shot up in my seat. “Hi, umm… My name is Stella Reynolds…” I did my best to spit out a couple of interesting things about myself before shrinking back down into my chair. I needed to stop thinking about men and get my shit together or I was going to lose this job before it even started. Sex and love and dating had no room on my immediate schedule, and I needed to remember that. I reached for my pad of paper and clicked my pen to begin jotting down notes. Focus Reynolds. You got this.

      The minutes crawled by as Frances reviewed hospital policies and procedures. An endless stream of paperwork came at us, all demanding signatures for our HR files. By the end of our morning session, I had approximately 47 forms that required “special attention.” My mind swirled in an attempt to keep everything straight, but by noon the swirling shifted into pain as a dull headache crept its way towards the back of my eyes. 

      “Alright, ladies.” Frances clapped her hands together. “It’s time for a quick lunch break and then we’ll resume at 1 o’clock in your designated units.”

      Thank god. I shifted in my seat, shoving my belongings into my bag while simultaneously nudging Bree. “Do you want to grab tacos on Broadway? We can walk from here.”

      “Sure,” she said. “Should we umm…” She tilted her chin in the direction of the other nurse residents.

      I shrugged my shoulders. The blonde was completely rude in response to my earlier greeting, but maybe she was simply overwhelmed and hadn’t even realized she was such a bitch. Before I could think about it any further, Bree already made her decision.

      “I’ll go see if they’re interested,” she said.

      “Okay.” 

      I finished packing up my bag before trailing behind Bree, a fake smile plastered across my face. 

 

Chapter 3

      Both women declined our lunch invitation, but Bree was able to glean some information about the two before we headed out for tacos. The rude blonde was Gemma and, unfortunately, we would be working together in the Medical ICU. She’d worked here as a tech for years while putting herself through school, and she did not sound happy to be meeting us or being a part of the nurse residency. Apparently, she “hated inexperienced nurses that would most likely kill a patient from their incompetence.”  Literally, her words. Note to self: Avoid Gemma at all cost. 

      The other new gal was super sweet and would be working with Bree in the Surgical ICU. Her name was Maggie, and she had to drop off some paperwork in HR instead of eating lunch but apologized profusely and told us she would love to hang out sometime since she was new in town. At least one of us got lucky with our new co-worker situation.

      Bree and I left the conference room, making a bee line for the taco shop on the corner while she drilled me on my whereabouts this morning.

      “It was nothing,” I said, as we sat down to eat. “I got turned around because of nerves and then I plowed into somebody making me even more late.”

      “You. Did. Not.” She stared at me. “Like into a doctor or something?”

      “I don’t know who he was.” My lips betrayed my attempt to downplay the situation, curling up at the ends, evidence of my efforts. My ears grew hot.

      “Oh really?” Bree squealed. “Was he gorgeous? What do you think he was doing here?”

      I shook my head, attempting to refocus on my food. “No idea.”

      “What did he look like? Was he wearing scrubs? Maybe he works here.”

      “Oh god, I hope not.” My stomach rolled. “I can’t focus on guy stuff right now, Bree. There’s too much at risk.” Not to mention I completely humiliated myself by practically scalding the poor man during our introduction, but she didn’t need to know about that.

      She sighed. “Oh geez, will you lighten up Stella? You can’t keep putting all this pressure on yourself to be perfect all the time.”

      Inhaling my food at record speed, I choked out my half of the conversation between bites. “I’m not trying to be perfect. I just need to prioritize right now.”

      Bree made a gagging sound from across the table.

      “Stop pressuring me to party and date and lose my focus. You’re supposed to be my best friend. You’re supposed to be supporting me.”

      “I am supporting you. I’m helping you to remember you’re still alive and living in a great new city and the world is your oyster.”

       “I hate oysters.” I shoved the last of my food into my mouth and began gathering my things.

      She made another throat gagging sound before gathering up her stuff. “Whatever, just promise me we’re going out on Friday to celebrate our first week, okay?”

      “No promises but I’ll keep it in mind. How’s that?”

      “Whatever. Let’s go before we’re late.”

***

      “I hate to do this to you,” Frances said, looking ashen, “but I just need to take care of a couple things before we tour the unit.”

      “Oh, that’s not a problem,” I said. I’d just arrived in her office which sat in the far corner of the unit. 

      “How about if I drop you in Rounds until I’m done? Usually they round in the morning but it’s the first day for Interns so everything is kind of mixed around.” Frances led us back to the front of the unit where a large group of physicians were standing. “Okay quick crash course,” she whispered to me. “June 22nd is the first day for residents. Yesterday they were in medical school, today they are doctors. Residency is three years long, but they only stay with us for a one month rotation. We take the 1st and 3rd years paired together as a team, and even though they’re both technically Residents, we call the 1st year an Intern. Over the Resident and Intern is the Fellow and over the Fellow is our Attending. Oh, and we also don’t allow any short coats.”

      “Short coats?” I asked.

      “Medical students. Our Attendings refuse to have medical students because our patients are too complex and they don’t want the baby docs killing anybody.”

      Interns? Short coats? Killing anybody? I tried sorting the information out in my head.

      “Don’t worry.” She smiled, exposing her yellowed teeth. “Just hang out in the back and listen to them talk about the patients. No one will even notice you. I’ll be back to get you as soon as I can.”

      Moving towards the back, I shifted my weight from one foot to the other, and hoped Frances was right and no one would even notice me here. I’d never really been exposed to a teaching hospital except for on TV. My clinical rotations were never this sophisticated. I tried to focus, listening to an older gentlemen discuss a study on insulin resistance from 1996 in New Zealand and quickly realized I was in way over my head. I had no clue what the hell he was talking about. I was guessing he was the Attending by the way he looked so relaxed and comfortable. As opposed to the dozen or so others who were deer in the headlights terrified. From what I could see from my position in the back, the residents were a mix of men and women, mostly in their late twenties to early thirties. All the females were in high heels, which seemed crazy to me. How could anyone be expected to run up and down these halls taking care of patients all day in heels? I glanced down at my supportive clogs in gratitude.

      “Why do we care so much about blood sugar regulation, Dr. Ortiz?” the Attending asked.

      “Because of decreased mortality and morbidity in tight control of blood glucose between 80-110,” the doctor answered. His voice was familiar, but I couldn’t place it. He spoke in medical jargon but it sang with seduction. Geez.What was wrong with me? Focusing on my new career would be so much easier if I didn’t need to get laid so bad. Maybe Bree was right.

      “Very good,” the Attending said. “Regardless of history of insulin dependent diabetes, our patients have a lot better outcome if we can control their sugars.” He began moving on to the next patient room. “So, you’ll need to get used to putting nearly all of your patients on insulin drips.”

      The Attending led the herd of residents on, as he continued to discuss life-saving evidence from recent studies. I tried to blend in but once everyone had settled, I was actually shoulder to shoulder within the group. I stood beside a blonde female resident who was visibly very pregnant. She began spouting off lab values and blood gases while everyone else nodded or jotted down notes. I tried being aloof, staring at the ground and avoiding any form of eye contact, as if I’d done this every day, but it didn’t work. I felt like a fraud; inexperienced and obvious. 

      I shifted my weight again, crossing my arms over my chest. My eyes focused on the shoes of a male physician in front of me. He coughed and adjusted his footing, drawing my eyes    upward. I froze at the sight of the coffee stains on his shirt, now tucked behind a white lab coat. Wait a minute… My eyes betrayed me as they made their final ascent up to the good doctors’ face. 

      Same dark eyes and sandy brown complexion.

      Same loose black hair and sexy smile.

      My insides did a somersault. 

      Coffee Cart Ryan.

      He continued to smile, even raising a single eyebrow in recognition. I smiled back but was unable to maintain eye contact. Damn, he was gorgeous. And he was here in my unit working as a doctor. With me. Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god. Choppy exhalations escaped my lungs as I shifted my weight again. Small beads of sweat formed under my armpits. When I met Ryan this morning, it was a brief fleeting moment of ecstasy. Sigh. Okay, so maybe not pure ecstasy, but you get what I’m saying. The man was delicious and kind and a completely unexpected bonus to my morning. And while I couldn’t help but replay our chance encounter during my morning paperwork session of hell, I didn’t really assume I would ever lay eyes on the man again. 

      But now here he was. Right here in my unit for the next month. Suddenly I couldn’t help but feel this alleged good thing was actually a bad thing. How was I going to concentrate or learn anything at all with someone so distracting around every day? I turned my focus to the pregnant female reviewing medications beside me, an attempt to bring my mind back where it needed to be, but it was no use. Him being here was definitely a bad thing. Not even thirty seconds into realizing his presence, and suddenly I can’t even think straight? Shit.

      I stole a second look just as a red-headed, female resident began whispering in Ryan’s ear, her lips nearly touching the side of his face. She had one hand on his forearm, while he leaned in, a hand of his own on the small of her back. Her face flushed as she continued to whisper intently. Brow furrowed, he reached around, squeezing her hand as he whispered his response. Heat spread across my cheeks at the sight of their personal exchange. Abruptly they left the group as a flutter of embarrassment filled my chest. 

      Double shit. This was going to be even worse than I could have imagined. Not only was Coffee Cart Ryan in my unit and making me flustered, but he was obviously taken and it was by someone else in my unit. Oh, this was bad.

      After Rounds, a tour of the unit, even more paperwork, and an entire afternoon of policies and procedures, I was finally free. It had been twelve grueling hours of information and my brain was full. Not only that, but my entire afternoon was spent inside the Medical ICU where I had the privilege of witnessing the red-headed doctor fan about Dr. Ortiz all day long. 

      The redhead, or should I say Dr. Auburn, was just as attractive as Ryan. With her hourglass figure and extra-long legs that seemed to start at her neck, she had a porcelain complexion, perfect white teeth, and literal auburn hair. 

      From what I gathered, they were both 1st year interns. And apparently, it was really difficult to be placed in intensive care so early on in the program because only those in the very top of their class had a chance. So not only was Coffee Cart Ryan gorgeous, but he was also incredibly smart. And he was dating an equally smart and gorgeous fellow physician. Great.

      I made the trek home while pondering the thought of grabbing an XL pizza on my way. This wasn’t quite a gallon of ice cream for dinner kind of night, but more of a greasy, all-you-can-eat carbohydrate type evening. I needed to clear my head of all things Ryan and veg out to a few romantic comedies.

      I decided to run home and change before grabbing food, my cat unexpectedly greeting me at the door. Ophelia was an oversized grey feline with extra-long hair, and I guess you could say she didn’t exactly like me. On occasion she would let me pet her, but for the most part I was never allowed to pick her up or god forbid hold her. I was definitely surprised when she started rubbing her head against my ankles in greeting.

      “Hi Fifi.” I reached down to stroke her back but was met with a growl, and I quickly pulled away. “Well you said hello first.” 

      While still in the entryway, I pulled my scrub top over my head, kicked off my shoes and slid off my bottoms. I tugged my hair loose from its ponytail holder and stood for a minute gently massaging my head. Even though I hadn’t touched a single patient today, I still had that sterile medical smell that I didn’t want to get on my furniture. Plus, any shoes that touched a hospital floor shouldn’t be brought into the house, because well… gross. Ophelia scurried away and I stood alone in the living-eating-sleeping space of my tiny studio apartment. 

      Even though this wasn’t the art deco loft I had originally coveted, it was actually kind of cute. The ceilings were low, the wooden floors creaked, and any built-in fixtures were ornate and original. It had wrap around windows that required an old-fashioned crank to open and I filled them thoroughly with climbing plants. My decorating style was a bit bohemian with a mix of country hand-me-downs from my folks, and I loved to blend a variety of textures and woods. The studio wasn’t big enough to hold a sectioned off sleeping area, so I literally had just a sleeper sofa, a small table and two chairs. 

      Standing there, still in my underwear, the adrenaline of my first day started to fade and the fatigue of my 4am wake up began to set in. I needed to just throw on some clothes and walk right back out the door before I fell asleep into a box of crackers on the sofa. I rummaged through my closet and was pulling on a fitted t-shit and some yoga pants when someone knocked at the door. I peered into the peephole to find Travis Apartment 102 standing in the hallway. A 6-pack of beer and a pizza box in his hands. God Bless America. I froze for a second, unsure of what to do, before coming to my senses. I reached for the doorknob while simultaneously kicking my scrubs and shoes into the closest.

      He smiled. “Hey, you’re home.” 

      “What’s all this?” I smiled down at the oversized box, my stomach audibly recognizing the scent of melted cheese and pepperoni instantly.

      “You said you were doing a twelve so I figured you’d be needing some dinner right about now.”

      “You brought this for me?” I continued to smile.

      “Well, you and me.” He winked and my uterus contracted. “Can I come in?’

      “Sure, yeah, sure. Come in.” I stepped back, making way. “Can you give me one second though? I was just getting changed.”

      “Absolutely.”

      Ducking into the bathroom, I locked the door behind me and braced both sides of the sink. Just relax, girl. The reflection in the mirror was of a woman with hair standing on end and mascara fallen to her cheeks. Oh god. I quickly washed my face and brushed out my hair, dabbed a bit of concealer under my eyes, then pulled my hair into a messy bun on top of my head, before walking back out into the studio. 

      Travis had found plates, napkins, and the bottle opener and was kicked back on the couch, a slice of pizza already in hand, when I returned. His muscular build only minimally camouflaged by his loose clothing. My stomach growled again as I found a spot next to him on the sofa. 

      “You bring dinner to all your new neighbors?” I reached for the box.

      “Not exactly.” He took a swig of beer. “How was work today?”

      “This was actually my first day.” I swallowed a piece of pepperoni. 

      “Nice. What’d you think?”

      “It’s a lot for sure.” 

      “Yeah when I first started doing medic work at Atlas, I felt pretty overwhelmed. Now it doesn’t bother me so much, but I usually try to do more firefighter shifts instead of medic stuff if I can help it.”

      “Why’s that?”

      He shrugged. “Just preference I guess.”

      I slouched back into the cushion, cradling a hot slice of pizza in my hands. “I was actually going to go out and pick up a pizza just now,” I said.

      “Great minds.” He nudged my knee with his elbow, making my heart flutter.

      We ate for a minute in silence before Travis started again.

      “So, tell me about yourself, Stella. What do you like to do for fun? You climb or bike?”

      Suddenly I felt like a contestant on The Bachelorette. I enjoy long walks on the beach and I love my Mom and my favorite animal is baby kittens. I shifted in my seat, unsure how to respond. I hadn’t had any sort of fun in nearly five years. I had no idea what kind of hobbies I used to have or would want to have again. It was like emerging from a coma.

      “Umm, I used to love hiking.” I shrugged. “But I haven’t really had any free time lately.” 

      “Ah, you’re one of those all or nothing types.” He nodded.

      I stared at him in confusion.

      “All or nothing, like whatever you’re doing you do 100% with no interruptions.”

      Considering I had this gorgeous neighbor I hardly knew on my couch when I just started a brand new job in a brand new city, I hardly considered myself an all or nothing kind of gal. But the fact that I had the rules of no canoodling in place to begin with probably meant I was exactly that type. I wasn’t going to tell Travis that though, so I shrugged and picked at the cheese on my slice of pizza.

      “You ever do anything spontaneous? Like totally out of left field? Try something just because you can?”

      I frowned. “Why do I feel like you’re insulting me?” 

      “No, not at all. I dig you Stella.”

      “Okay, well then what about you? What do you like to do for fun? Ever do anything spontaneous? You know if allyou ever do is spontaneous stuff, by definition that makes it no longer spontaneous.” I fought the urge to stick out my tongue.

      “Hey.” He squeezed my knee. “I didn’t mean to sound like a dick. I was just trying to figure out your vibe.” 

      “Sorry.” My ears heated. “I’m being rude. I think I’m just feeling out of sorts not being in school anymore. I had no choice but to spend every minute of the day focused only on that, or else I never would have passed.” 

      “Totally understandable.” He nodded again, his hand still on my knee and my insides officially liquefied.

      “I feel like all of sudden I’m a grown-up and I don’t exactly know how it happened.” The anxiety I’d been keeping at bay was beginning to brim over and I wasn’t sure I could stop it.

      Travis continued nodding but remained quiet.

      “I mean, I’m twenty-three years old so I have technically been an adult for a few years, but I feel like college is pretend adult-ing and all I’ve done so far is study.” My speech accelerated as the floodgates of inadequacy began to open. “Like, what if I can’t do this? What if it’s too hard and I fail? If I get kicked out of my nursing residency then no other hospital will want to take me, and I have nothing to fall back on and then I’d lose my apartment. And then what? I have to move back to Enid with my parents?” Thoughts racing, all fears of screwing up came racing to the forefront of my mind. “Not to mention I literally have nothing else in my life besides nursing. I mean, except for my best friend Bree. I have almost no friends. My own freaking cat doesn’t even like me. I haven’t been on a date in at least three years and I couldn’t even tell you the last time I had sex or any kind of…”

      Travis choked on his beer but attempted to recover with a throaty cough. 

      Suddenly I realized my declaration wasn’t just inside my head, but actually spoken out loud. I snapped back wincing, unsure of how to recover from my personal confession.

      “I… I’m sorry.” I attempted to redeem myself. “I didn’t actually mean that…”

      “It’s okay.” He took another swig of beer.

      I reached for a second slice of pizza attempting a distraction but the verbal diarrhea continued. “I didn’t mean to say any of that actually, and most of it isn’t even true. I mean, I have sex like all the time. Wait, that came out wrong too.” I closed my eyes, praying for the earth to swallow me whole right then and there. 

      “No worries,” he said. “I’ve been there.”

      “Right.” My eyes opened into an involuntarily roll. “If you haven’t noticed, being awkward is kinda my thing. I’m really good at it.”

      “You’re fine,” he said. “We’re just talking. And anyway, I like your honesty.”

      “Sure.” I laughed, reaching for a beer.

      Travis left just after ten o’clock. I got a second wind after my accidental confessions and we spent several hours talking about our families and where we grew up. Not only was Travis attractive as hell, but he was genuinely nice. Like, firefighter-saving-a-cat-from-a-tree kind of nice. He told me about his brothers and growing up in Southern California near the beach. He said he headed east four years ago because of a previous girlfriend who dumped him two weeks after moving here, but Travis liked Monroe so much, he ended up staying.

      I wasn’t sure if I wanted him to kiss me goodbye when he was leaving, but I guess it didn’t matter because he never even attempted it. It wasn’t until around midnight while I laid in bed, heart still in knots as I replayed the evening, when I realized I wished he did.

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Love,

xoxo

Krista

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