Equilibrium - Newton's First Law by Jules Mills
Part One - One effect of a force is
to alter the dimensions or shape of the body on which the force
Blue eyes followed the graceful figure weaving its way through the crowded brewery. The crowd had tripled over the past twenty minutes, the start time for the live music nearing. From a purely aesthetic point of view--objectively was the only way Doc ever viewed others--she was absolutely magical. Petite, yet not frail. Doc could tell the woman had sophistication and raw strength.
Doc was there for the music but was mesmerized by how the normal people acted, especially the happy ones. Watching was a form of self-torture but a necessary reality check--as necessary as Doc's own self-imposed isolation. Camaraderie and laughing were for everyone else. Doc's world was so different from theirs; it was inconceivable to be a part of it for more than a few hours, and for those few hours, Doc watched them as if through a window. Even before Doc's life had finally and unceremoniously been flushed down the toilet at fourteen, no such ease had existed. But Doc did not want to think about that, ever.
Looking away from the happy blonde to finish off the spittle at the bottom of the bottle of Sam Adams Dark, Doc tried to focus on the goal of the night: re-acquaint oneself on the human level, far from the world of the cell life, mutating DNA, and self-replicating nano machines.
Munching on a handful of a pretzel mix, Doc returned her gaze to the crowd. Eyes fastened themselves on the mesmerizing blonde with an easy smile and faded blue jeans that grabbed the smooth contours of her rounded hips and thighs in all the right places. She wore a sage, sleeveless knit sweater cropped enough to let her midriff show when she reached across her table to pull the bowl of pretzels to her. Doc's mouth was a little dry. The fact that the beer bottle had also been sucked dry was a problem.
There was no sexual interest in the voyeur's intentions. The young woman was in a totally different league, had Doc ever even considered it possible to touch a person in an intimate way.
The young blonde, a Coors light in her hand, smiled and laughed with a copper-haired, bronze-skinned young man who could have passed for a Kennedy. He had the slim build of a boy recently growing into manhood: slim build but square shoulders. His curly hair was kept long and carelessly. She could not have been more than twenty-two herself, and that was pushing it. Both wore sandals, her toenails painted fire-engine red; his were not painted at all. Doc assumed they were more than friends by the way they touched each other. She touched a lot. A hand on the hand, the arm, or the thigh, or a flirting touch to the chin. Then there was the way their eyes curled into smiles as they spoke to each other. Most of the time her body bounced as she giggled at the boy-man's entreaties. Then, after some particular remark, she threw her head back and laughed loudly, clutching her sides. The hearty sound of her laughter reached Doc's ears despite the crowded room, and Doc realized that these were the first sounds from this woman that she had personally heard. With eyes closed, Doc wondered if sounds like that could ever be part of the world that she lived inside.
"Want another?" The bartender's words sounded harsh compared to the purity of the laughter that Doc had just managed to isolate and visualize as a rounded and perfect sine. A man sitting on the next stool nudged Doc's tanned forearm.
Doc was so dry the words barely came out. "Another of these."
"I'll get this one," the man on the left offered.
"No, thanks," Doc quickly responded. She pushed five dollars across the bar. With the perspiring bottle in hand, she slipped off the barstool and headed toward the pool table, a little closer to where the band was setting up but still off to the side. Leaning against the wall, Doc watched a group of men playing eight-ball for twenty bucks. After a few minutes a heavy blues rhythm began to pound as the band started to play; a woman sang deep, throaty words meant to move the soul.
Doc liked the fact that the blues never went out of style and found it hard to believe there had ever been a time when the music did not exist. Jazz and the blues were, in Doc's opinion, the two greatest contributions to the world from the USA, along with Rice Krispies treats. Of course, the blues had given birth to rock and roll, and Doc liked some of that too, but that child was usually concerned with declaring love or moaning about lost love, and Doc could not relate to either situation.
Lost in the music, Doc drained half the bottle of beer and settled back into a comfortable niche of the wall for several songs. The crowd buzzed with conversation at a respectable level. Doc liked the way the young object of her earlier attention had turned her chair to watch the band as if at a recital. Her friend pulled his chair next to hers, and they sipped their beers and leaned into each other every so often to speak.
The evening was going well, Doc thought, when a woman with dark, spiked hair and lily-white skin forced her way through a line of spectators watching the pool competition. She grabbed the arm of the shooter, knocking the cue ball in the process. Then she began to yell at him. Her words were beyond harsh; they were pure obscenities in streams much like the ones Doc had crossed in the pen. The man, obviously her old man, rolled his eyes for his buddies and pushed her away from the table. This only made her face redden and her words even more obscene, some new even to Doc.
Doc sighed sadly, hoping the two would take the ruckus outside, where it belonged. No one here cared about the fact that he was, in her words, "a dickless, cheating bastard." Doc did wonder about the contradiction of the statement.
Doc had edged away from the scene as it escalated. Taking a swig of the beer, she moved up to stand at the edge of the tables, next to several bystanders who had turned from the now-defunct game and placed their attention on the band. But the noise behind grew louder and louder until the music could no longer be heard.
"What the fuck," Doc muttered, becoming angry. Doc hated to be angry because anger led to a lack of control, and then bad things happened, bad things caused by Doc, and then came punishment. Starting that cycle again would suck the life out of her once and for all.
Another woman screeched at the man now, and the first woman was crying hysterically, but the expletives continued. A group of angry male voices jumped in with the usual "Shut up, bitch" litany, taking cracks at the women. Doc did not watch it but could hear--everyone in the room could hear. Some people tried not to look; some gawked. It all made Doc uncomfortable. She hated those sounds. It was just like Mom and Dad, always yelling, screaming, every damned day, almost always about money, the lack thereof. Then finally, on a Tuesday, it had ended. Her mother had left while Doc was at school. She hadn't made any arrangements for her daughter to be met by a neighbor or by her father. After that there was only silence. Her father held onto his words as closely as he held his pain. Doc was never sure if the silence was any better than the yelling; it hurt her just as much.
The unhappy memory disappeared with the sharp crack of a pool cue to the back of Doc's head. She watched as half of a broken cue skittered under a nearby table. Doc did not think the cue had hit that hard, but it had struck hard enough to hurt.
Turning toward the source of the blow, Doc discovered a wide-eyed group watching, waiting for some reaction from the recipient of the blow. Luckily for Doc, it was the blubbering woman who was wielding the weapon, the other half of the cue still in her hands and her muscle mass nowhere near as large as her mouth. Her old man had apparently moved to the edge of the crowd directly behind Doc and had ducked out of the path of the woman's swing at the most fortunate of times--for him. Blue eyes squinted in irritation more than pain at the belligerent couple while Doc's expert fingers gently prodded the stung and welted skin. Her returning fingers were covered with blood.
"Oh, shit." The vulgar woman now appeared nervous as Doc silently stepped toward her and pulled the cue out of her hands. Broad, muscular shoulders and a powerful body honed from sailing the Atlantic alone for a few years in search of peace were poised and ready to strike. The only piece Doc wanted now was of the cue-wielding bitch.
Sweat dripped off the black, spiky hairline of the trembling woman.
The rest of the arguing had ceased immediately after the first errant whack. In fact, everything had stopped: the band, the chatter--even the bartender had frozen in mid-pour. Doc felt the discomfort of blood trickling down under the gray T-shirt material. She took a deep breath that sounded more like a hiss.
The woman stepped back behind another woman. The boyfriend snickered.
"I have no objections if you want to kick her ass. Been bitchin' at me all day." He offered his pool cue with both hands. His eyes lit with a sadism that was probably aggravated by the booze. The woman was likely drunk as well.
Three years earlier Doc would have had one option: pummel them all. She knew that immediate butt-kicking would feel really good during the "during" part, but then there would be the guilt and blood to clean up. Or Doc could walk away, an option lacking in the pen because there was nowhere to walk to. Now, with freedom, she could shove off toward the islands and let the anger dissipate over the next few months. Trying to beat palm trees into toothpicks always made her feel better; it just took so damned long. Then there was the fact that Doc could not chance being picked up in a fight and being sent back to hell. Self-defense or not, cons were not exactly given the benefit of the doubt when bones were broken and breweries were destroyed.
"You okay?" A gentle, feminine voice from behind caught Doc's ear, but she fought the impulse to turn toward the sound and continued to threaten menacingly with the half-cue. No one ever got the best of Doc twice, and she still had not decided upon a course of action.
"You're bleeding quite heavily, and that's not a good thing to do from the head." A soft hand was on Doc's right forearm.
"Don't touch!" Doc hissed, pulling the arm away instinctively. She had not heard her own voice of fury for years, and it was obvious that her control of the situation was fading fast as she felt pulled into the darkness of anger.
The woman's offer of help would not be thwarted so easily. She inserted herself between Doc and the spike-haired aggressor. Doc was stunned to see that it was the magnificent blonde she had been watching before the music started.
Doc's heart stopped.
Staring into the brave, foolish green eyes,
Doc felt her dark, twisted soul creep back down into the recesses
of her being. Without a breath, she turned and left the bar,
disappearing safely into the darkness of a moonless sky.
"You, my girl, are a total, fucking lunatic." Ben was standing by the table as Grace returned to her seat, his young face expressing concern, with a hint of admiration. "Getting in the middle of that?" He shook his head disapprovingly and tsked her.
Grace smiled at him.
"I work in an ER, Ben. I deal with that kind of stuff every day."
"Yeah, but that chick was a con, and by the look on her face, one teetering on homicide." He continued to shake his head, still reeling at the image of her up against the tall, dark woman.
Grace bit back her surprise that Ben had noticed the series of numbers tattooed on the right hand of the bleeding woman. She knew about the tattoos because Yale-New Haven Hospital, where she was a resident, routinely accepted the critically injured prisoners flown in from the maximum-security women's prison located forty miles down the coast. Some of the prisoners, enamored by their young, beautiful doctor-in-training, would try their best to entice her into conversation. Grace had taken the opportunity to try to empathize with their experiences. She had questioned them about what the numbers meant and had discovered that the first two numbers denoted the severity of the crime, the third number the prison, and the last seven a personal-identification number. The state had gone to tattooing all felony cons after a series of mistakes in releases in the late 1990s.
Grace reminded herself that Ben's sister was a cop who liked to fill his young head with horror stories of the gangs and criminals she fought. Ex-cons were lost causes, which made them the worst of the worst, in Beth's eyes.
Ben spoke into his bottle. "Beth's gonna be soooo pissed at you when I tell her what happened tonight."
Grace jerked his beer bottle out from under his mouth.
"Heyyyyyy!" He reached for it, but she held it too far away. He was even smaller than she was. Grace glared at him.
"Beth isn't going to be told anything about this. Understand, Benjamin?"
Ben squinted back at her. He hated dividing his loyalties.
"I mean it, Ben. It will only cause a fight." A silent stand-off took place between the two; then Ben crumbled.
"All right, already, now give me my brewsky back," he demanded. Slowly she returned it to his hand and hooked her pinky finger with his.
"You must pinky-swear, Benny. Not a word to Beth." Her eyes curled in a smile at him.
God! He wished she were straight and his girlfriend, not his big sister's. He smiled at the thought and wondered which Greek complex described his warped psyche.
"Okay, I pinky-swear," he replied, and smiled back.
Grace was relieved, and decided to settle back and enjoy the groove that had resumed moments after the disturbance had ended. The owner had escorted the instigators outside to waves and harassing whistles of patrons who had suddenly become bold.
"Did you notice she didn't even flinch when that stick popped her?" Ben asked. Grace nodded and sipped at her Coors light. "She was one big, tough bitch."
In the back of her mind, Grace worried about the woman. The splintered cue must have gashed her deeply, because by the time Grace reached her, which was not more than twenty seconds, her shirt was soaked red down the back. And the cracking sound it had made against her head--Grace could not forget that. That noise was what had turned her away from the band initially.
Grace tried to relax. She could not admit it to Ben, but her whole being was shaking inside. At first she thought it was the adrenaline rush, but after half an hour it was still there, something rattling her deep within. Something about the way the woman had looked at her just before she left, and the way she had watched her earlier. It should have creeped her out, normally would have, but the mystery of the woman...an ex-con who looked like that.
She closed her eyes to the fluid, sexy, sad sounds that penetrated her. "Mmmmm, love that song," she mumbled to Ben.
He smiled and then thought she kind of
looked turned on. What the heck, the music is kind of erotic, he
thought. But Grace was not thinking about the music. She was
thinking about the way the woman's incredibly blue eyes had
followed her for an hour as she moved around the pub, greeting
acquaintances and flirting with Ben. She had noticed right away
and knew if Beth had been there, she would have noticed too, and
not liked it very much.
An hour later, after the band had finished its first set, Grace skipped out on Ben, using her early-morning responsibilities at the local clinic as an excuse for leaving. Beth was working thirds, which was why she was not with them in the first place. Despite Ben's wit and charm, she wanted to be somewhere else, doing something other than drinking and socializing with the same group she saw every Friday night. She had been spending more time at the clinic to keep busy and to get away from her current relationship.
Ben walked her out to her vehicle, a hunter-green Jeep Wrangler, not too big but capable of taking her to her duties at the hospital in the snow. He chivalrously helped her into the vehicle and gave her a hand with lowering the top. She pecked him sweetly on the cheek and gave him a big hug before heading down the road.
Beth and Grace always took I-95 out of New Haven because it was faster and because they were usually feeling lusty--alcohol can do that to a woman. However, tonight Grace decided a drive along the way down the Boston Post would be a nice change; it would take a little longer but would give her time to think about things, nagging things. She thought about Beth and about her career, hoping that she could sort out these subjects better in the fresh air and with the music blaring. Driving was good for that. She had come to terms with the fact that Beth's jealousy no longer flattered her. In fact, most of the time she was with Beth she felt lousy. Even the sex was not that great, not like when they had first started seeing each other. And now Beth was intimating that she wanted them to move in together.
Doc had been careful to stay away from the well-lighted roads to avoid gawkers and the police. Her T-shirt was sticky and was clinging to her back, and a slow headache had enveloped her brain, slowing her footsteps. The pounding had grown so loud that she did not hear the hum of the Jeep's engine until the vehicle had passed her. She was surprised when the little cruiser stopped and backed toward her, the wheels whirring as they spun. Doc stopped and watched with trepidation. There was a lone head just barely visible over the seat back. The vehicle stopped less than a foot from her toes.
"Can I give you a lift?" the golden-crowned Samaritan asked over wire-rimmed driving glasses. A pause. "Tough question?" Grace chided with an easy gibe.
"Are you following me?" Doc responded, unable to hide her paranoia. She crossed her arms over her chest and waited for an answer.
"No," Grace laughed.
Doc continued forward on her journey.
"But since I did run across you, I would like to take a look at your head." Grace's Jeep was crawling alongside the tall brunette as she leaned across the passenger seat and spoke. It was true; the woman looked worse than she had in the bar, pale and a little wobbly, and it had been an hour without any care. She had hoped the woman would go to an emergency room or seek some help.
Doc continued to walk, ignoring the following vehicle.
"I'm a doctor. I can help you."
"Really." Doc stopped, and Grace nearly drove over her toes again. Doc coolly pulled her foot away from the tire and continued to walk.
"Tell me, are they making twelve-year-olds doctors now?"
Grace smiled. She had heard that before, way too many times.
"I'm twenty-eight," she said with a proud smile.
"Suuuuure you are."
"What if I showed you my driver's license? Would you believe me then?"
Hmmm, she needed another angle and thought she would try a professional one.
"I bet you have a headache right now, and you're a little chilled despite the fact that it's ninety degrees, and you're feeling weak, maybe even want to vomit?" she tried.
"Sounds more like too much beer to me."
"Come on, please stop."
And Doc did just that, although she had no idea why. Grace pulled off to the side under a streetlight and let several cars pass. Pitch pines lined the road. The ocean twenty-five yards beyond the dunes and across the beach to their right pounded the sand. The lights of New Haven, miles away, lit the sky behind them.
After a brief hesitation Doc climbed into the passenger side, avoiding the seat back because of the blood on her shirt. Grace reached into her gym bag behind the seat and pulled out a towel to hang over the back, knowing her passenger would not relax otherwise.
"So, where are we headed?" she asked cheerfully, proud of her little victory as she pulled away from the curb.
"My boat is moored another mile down the road."
That was interesting. "Did you walk all the way into town?"
The woman next to her nodded and watched the dark trees and water pass with the time.
Grace knew very little about ships and boats and mooring. "Are you a Merchant Marine or something?"
Grace waited. Nothing further came. "What kind of something?"
The driver obeyed, turning off into a beachfront parking lot.
"Park right up there on the left, under the light."
She did that too.
"Thanks for the ride," Doc said, sliding onto her long legs.
"Wait!" Grace yelped as she turned off the motor and hopped to the ground. She moved around to the front of the vehicle and gently caught Doc by the arm before she reached the line of overturned rowboats by the water's edge. "I really do want to take a look at that gash."
"I can take care of it myself."
"With what, a needle and some sail thread?"
"No, I have first-aid gear. This is not the first scrape I've been in, Doogie."
"Well, I'd like to come along to observe your methods because I don't see how the hell you're going to sew a wound like that without being a contortionist."
Doc was no expert, but she could swear she actually saw a look of concern in the doctor's eyes.
"I promise not to get in your way when you're bending," she said softly and smiled, dimples poking her youthful cheeks.
Doc's eyes flitted shyly to her face and saw a gentleness so rare in her world that she could not deny the smaller woman.
"My boat's moored inside that cove. So we have to row out," she explained with a nod toward the water.
Grace looked at the waves and hesitated. "That's fine. Let me get my bag."
Doc nodded, noticing the hand still on her arm. They stood like that in silence for a moment, and then the woman released her to retrieve a doctors' bag from the rear floor of the Jeep. Doc had righted her dinghy and was pushing it toward the water when Grace returned. She held the dinghy steady while Grace climbed into the wobbling craft, then climbed around to the bow bench and started to row toward the dark shadows of the moored boat.
The water made Grace nervous, and when she was nervous she did the only thing she could do to cope: she talked, incessantly.
"I'm not a big fan of water travels. It's more a motion-sickness thing than boats in particular. It's probably because I'm a Taurus; I like the land; I'm most comfortable on my own feet on earthen materials, not flying thousands of feet above the land or floating over fathoms of water."
"Mmmmmmm-hmmmmmm." Doc continued to row, her headache growing worse by the syllable.
"It's a little rough out here, isn't it?" The boat rocked slightly, forcing Grace to tightly cling to the sides.
Doc held the oars still to settle the boat. The waves were nothing more than normal.
"You do know how to swim, right?"
"Yes." Then Grace yelped as another small wave raised, then lowered the dinghy. She was too scared to talk, it was so dark, and she was suddenly thinking about how foolish she might have been to climb into a dinghy with a complete stranger. And it did not help that the stranger's face was completely hidden by shadows as she rowed. They continued into the darkness. Doc cut directly into the waves to eliminate some of the cross-tossing. A few minutes later they reached the stern of her boat, well out of the aura of the marina dock lights.
A loud bark, then a splash just to Grace's right nearly made her pee her pants and shocked her out of her thoughts. A dark, snorting head popped out of the water a foot from the boat.
"That's Rip," the stranger offered as she stood and tied the small boat to the stern of the classic, teak Tartan forty-eight-footer. She braced her legs and held her hand to Grace to aid in boarding. Bag in one hand, Grace took hold of Doc's arm with the other and climbed into the cockpit. Once aboard, Doc leaned over the stern, grabbed the wet hound by its full-body harness, and heaved it into the pit. The dog then shook, splattering water everywhere. Grace wiped water from her face and arms.
"I would apologize for Rip's lack of manners," Doc said, "but then again, she is a dog."
Rip, her only companion, some sort of bird-dog mutt she had found rummaging in the garbage in a northern marina three years prior, whimpered with glee until Doc slid her hands across the furry back a few times and patted the dog's head roughly. Rip then turned to the guest and growled nervously, the way dogs with greeting disorders do. Grace reached down slowly and let the dog sniff her hand. Eventually the hound nudged the proffered hand onto her head for stroking.
"Rip, go up front and keep lookout." Doc pointed toward the bow. The dog groaned, then climbed up onto the fiberglass deck and scratched up toward the bow to guard her territory. Unclasping the key attached to a thinly woven rope hanging around her neck, Doc unlocked the companionway and ducked into the guts of the ship.
"Latch-key kid, were ya?" Grace joked.
"This way," Doc said stoically and climbed down into the compact living quarters. She switched on a small lamp attached to the wall, then another until the cabin was well lit. Grace followed cautiously, glancing over her shoulder into the night.
Doc pulled out a large, white, dented metal tin with a faded red cross painted on it. Sitting on a cushioned berth that ran three-quarters the length of one side of the cabin, she pulled her sandals off her tanned, callused feet while Grace inventoried the cabin. Grace spied several piles of books stuffed onto the shelves that ran above the berths. Some were fiction, modern poetry, epic poems, "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey," but most were college textbooks on genetics, mechanical physics, organic chemistry, and chaotic math. One shelf was lined with old National Geographic magazines, another with Laser World and Popular Science. She noticed silver wire-rimmed glasses next to a laptop. A counter and wall by the entryway were dedicated to the navigational equipment, some attached to the wall and some built into it. The only other equipment in the cabin was a small CD player hooked up to two Boss speakers. She marveled at the use of space to hold all of the materials this woman owned.
"Sorry it's such a mess. I don't entertain company often," Doc offered, a little embarrassed.
"Never," Doc answered dryly.
Grace appeared to mull the answer over, then proceeded to figure out how to lower the folded table that was locked to the wall. Eventually she worked the table free from its latches. Meanwhile, Doc had opened the first-aid kit and pulled out a surgical staple gun and a package of staples.
"You aren't going to use that on your head?" Grace asked in disbelief.
"Sure am. Works like a charm too," Doc replied with a half-grin.
"Yeah, but that instrument isn't meant for the head."
"I do things my own way, Doogie."
"I've noticed," Grace said, reaching out her hands for the instrument. Doc handed it to her hesitantly. She looked at the machine closely.
"I take it you've used this before."
"It came in really handy after a shark attack off the ruins of Trinidad. They took me in the shoulder and thigh," Doc offered with childish pride.
"No shit, let me see." She leaned over as Doc pulled her left shirtsleeve up to reveal a V-shaped, gray scar that ran from the point of her collarbone into the meaty muscles of her triceps.
"It was a flap of muscle and skin," Doc explained. Grace ran an expert finger across it, surprised at the smoothness. Doc moved away from the touch and blushed, quietly adding, "I'll let you imagine the other scar."
Grace could not help noticing the woman's sudden shyness. She had reacted that way each time Grace touched her, almost shocked by the contact. Deciding to leave it alone, she let the professional in her take over the situation. She handed the surgical instrument back to Doc and laid out gauze bandages, cleansers, sutures, and needles onto a sterile cloth from her own bag.
"No staples," Grace stated matter-of-factly. "You have a two-hundred-dollar-an-hour doctor here for free. I suggest you make the most of it." With that she rubbed waterless cleanser on her hands while Doc watched her with concealed wonder. It looked more like irritation to Grace.
If Doc could like anyone, she could like this person. Somehow the blonde beauty had surprised the con. Not only was she the beautiful bar butterfly, she was also a doctor with a damned good bedside manner.
"Do you have running water?"
"I want to use some to clean the blood off," Grace said, then added, "if that's okay."
"I'll get it." Doc suddenly discovered that she had been staring and immediately felt foolish.
The blonde gently pushed Doc back down. "No, you sit," she said. "Just point me in the right direction."
"The sink's there," the taller woman replied, pointing to the small galley near the stairs. "Or you can use the head there." She motioned to a door in the bow.
"In the head, above the shitter--I mean 'toilet'."
Grace reached into the small john and grabbed two worn, white towels, slinging them over her shoulder. She then put warm water into a small, curved, hospital bowl, the utility kind used in hospitals for holding everything from vomit to used body parts. She returned to where the other woman sat waiting. Placing the bowl on the table next to her tools, she dried her damp hands on a towel and turned to Doc. She noticed that her patient had placed the ship's first-aid box on the table next to the physician's supplies and smiled at the surgical staple gun laid out carefully next to her needle.
"You need to remove your shirt."
"Right," Doc responded, but she didn't move.
"Do you need help?"
"No, I can do it." Doc's brain was in a haze of discomfort and excitement, both emanating from actual human company. She turned her back to the young doctor and started to pull up her shirt from the bottom, revealing a lean, deeply-tanned torso. Grace watched the process out of the corner of her eye while she filled a syringe with anesthetic. Doc groaned as the collar dragged across the cut on her head. She was surprised to see the shirt soaked with that much blood. Careful to cover her scarred abdomen with one arm, she turned to the young woman, who took the bloody garment and placed it in a makeshift garbage pail made from a bucket and a plastic trash bag.
"Do you want to lie down for this, or sit?" Grace asked.
"Which is easier for you?"
Grace thought for a moment, taking in the half-naked form in front of her. "How about sitting over here by the light. This way I'll be near my instruments and you can lean across the table."
Their eyes locked as Doc slid onto the berth next to her caregiver and set her head on her forearms, which were resting on the table. Grace pulled on rubber gloves with a snap. Doc jumped when the gloved hand unlatched the bra between her shoulder blades. The woman then soaked a towel in water and, with long strokes, wiped the blood off the tanned back. Slowly and gently the cool, damp towel slid across the strong shoulder muscles. All the while her patient trembled.
"Are you cold?" Grace asked.
"No," was the quiet reply.
"Jesus, you're tall. Sit up a little so I can reach your neck."
Doc complied, and Grace moved the bloody hair out of the way. The bleeding had stopped and was drying around the gash. The wound turned out to be three inches long and an inch or so deep into the flesh.
"How did you get caught in the middle of that fight anyway?"
"Wrong place at the wrong time. I have a knack for that," Doc replied shakily. She had not been touched by another for years and could not remember being touched out of kindness. It must have happened a few times in her life, she thought. Her body could remember only the other touches, and she began to shake from a panic attack that crept into her.
Grace worked in silence as the waves lapped gently against the fiberglass hull. A dog groaned from boredom above deck.
With the excess blood removed, Grace dried off her patient's back with the second towel. She placed the bloodied towels under the table out of the way and reached for her syringe. She stopped when she saw the tremors growing stronger.
"Hey," she said, gently placing a hand on the strong shoulder. "You're going to be fine." Doc's teeth were chattering. Grace did not think there was enough blood loss to cause shock but was concerned about a concussion.
"Turn so I can check your eyes," she commanded, slowly lifting Doc's chin. Grace gently cupped the shaking face with one hand and examined the pupil of each eye. They were not dilated abnormally and followed her finger movements appropriately. She felt the brow for fever. Nope, no concussion, she ruled. "Are you diabetic or hypoglycemic?"
"N-n-n-no," Doc shivered out.
"Did you eat dinner tonight?"
"Well, because you're shaking so hard you're making my teeth chatter."
Doc smiled despite the fact that the shakes were almost painful. Grace smiled back, hers with a tinge of worry. Absently she brushed dark bangs from her patient's brow. "By the way, I know your dog's name but not yours."
Doc chided herself for her terrible manners. She had never even thought of introducing herself.
"I'm Dana, and she's not my dog, she just travels with me."
"Any more to it?"
"No, we're just traveling companions."
"No," she laughed. "I mean do you have a last name?"
"Papadopolis, but most people call me Doc."
"Well, Dana, I'm Grace."
"Any more to it?"
"Dr. Wilson is it?" Doc asked with a lazy smile.
"Doc Papa...Papa...Pap...uhhh." Grace looked to her for help.
"Papadopolis, but I'm not a real doctor of any sort."
"That's perceptive." The smile faded from her caregiver's face. Doc had not meant to sound as rude as she had, but one cannot brush off two decades of defensiveness. Still, she had to at least try to be slightly kind. "My father was a proud Greek immigrant who refused to Americanize his name."
Grace acknowledged her with a quiet hum and gently pushed the dark head forward so that she could swab the wound with Betadine cleanser. It stung like mad.
"Wilson's a nice Anglo name...ouch," Doc hissed in pain.
"That's because I'm a tenth-generation Kentucky hillbilly. Descendant of the Scottish gentleman James Wilson."
"Did he come over on the Mayflower or something?"
"No, but he took part in the signing of the U.S. Constitution."
"Oh." Doc did not know what else to say. There weren't any great statesmen in her lineage, only verbally-challenged fishermen. Maybe on her mother's side, but she did not know a lick about them. "With an ancestor like that I'm surprised you're not the mayor."
"No, thanks. The last eight generations have been doctors of one sort or another. Dad's the town doc back home, and my sister's a vet. My brother, however, is a writer in Lullvul."
"Where the hell is Lullvul?"
"I'm sorry. Lou-is-ville."
Grace began to snicker to herself.
That kind of irritated Dana. "What's so funny?"
"Nothing. Thinking of my brother always makes me laugh. What about you--how did you get the nickname 'Doc'? Are you a Ph.D.?"
Doc chuckled at the impossibility, not that a degree would mean anything to her anyway. In her book, "Ph.D." simply meant "piled higher and deeper." She respected work, not degrees.
"No, it's more along the line of the seven dwarves. I was short as a kid and wore glasses." That was a lie. Not only had she been tall as a child, she had received the name during her incarceration. The prison librarian had christened her with the nickname as a cruel cut at her foolish desire to learn despite the fact that she would never leave York. The staff member had also guffawed at the dry material the teenager chose: biological science magazines mostly during the first year, then old textbooks on physics and genetics as she grew older. She wore glasses for reading, silver wire-rims that hooked around her ears and bent back into shape easily after being damaged in a fight. They made her look even more studious. The librarian used to laugh at the quiet, hopeful teenager who scribbled out problems as if she were still in school. It was foolish, but Doc lived for the escape into the perfection of math and physics. That world made sense to her. It helped her get through the beatings, the rapes, and the everyday cruelty that someone so young and naive encountered. As she grew older, quickly, she continued using knowledge to escape. She had an uncanny proficiency for mechanical physics and dawdled in genetic theory for fun. The torment that had occurred daily the first year had grown sporadic after Doc cut the throat of one of the rapists with a sharpened Ticonderoga number-three pencil. That had been the first in the pen, and it hadn't been the last. It had also landed her a reputation and a two-month stint in solitary, an all-new hell but one that brought her a short reprieve from being bothered. Every so often things would erupt. Sometimes she was able to stop them, usually by maiming or killing, but sometimes she did not fare so well. That was life at York. But she could not tell this woman that story, now could she? What she should do was to urge the doctor to finish, then row her back to shore and say good-bye.
"You didn't get the name at York, then?"
Doc froze and stopped breathing for a second, fearing the young woman had read her thoughts. "Do I know you?" she finally managed to get out.
"No, it's the tattoo." The young doctor traced the numbers across the hand. "I went to med school at Yale. We had inmates sometimes." Doc looked stunned. "You were in for a capital offense," she said, pointing to the "01" of the tattoo.
Doc nodded, mute with wonder, and rubbed the tattoo, self-conscious about the amount of information it revealed about her. She hated the mark. She knew she could have it removed but kept it as a reminder of who she really was, especially if a situation like this ever arose. She cautiously came clean on the name, leaving out most of the ugly details of her existence.
That would explain all of the reading material, Grace thought, but she wondered how a mind like that had ended up in York. However, she did not push getting that information. Getting the dark-haired woman to give out her name had taken two hours.
"I hope you don't mind, but I'd like to stitch you up, now that the shaking has stopped."
Dana smiled at her, relieved that the young doctor had not panicked at her ex-con status. But she did wonder why such a lovely person would pick up an ex-con in the middle of the night and offer her services. Most of the cons Doc knew would have eaten her alive.
"Fifteen stitches," Grace exclaimed when she had finished and applied antibacterial ointment to the wound. She pulled off her gloves and tossed them into the trash bag and tied it off before tossing it out into the cockpit.
"That many?" Dana could not believe the gash had been that serious. "I was thinking maybe four or five staples."
Small, powerful hands punched a cold-pak, then gingerly placed it on the dark woman's head.
"Hold this here for the swelling." Larger hands reached up and took hold, gently brushing the caregiver's fingers in the transfer. "I'll get you a clean shirt if you point me to the right room."
"We call them cabins, Grace," the brunette said, pointing to the front cabin. "Second drawer down." Grace disappeared and returned with a pale blue shirt, worn as thin as the towels, obviously a favorite.
Exposing her belly to the young doctor's view, Dana took the shirt and hoped the woman would not notice the lines of scars covering her abdomen. Grace held the cold-pak while Dana carefully slipped her loosened brassiere off and the shirt over her head. A vulnerability created by exhaustion and pain showed in the pale blue eyes as they met the green of the beautiful young woman watching her.
"Do you feel up to rowing back yet, or would you like to rest a while?" Grace asked, privately wanting to stay. She had taken a huge risk with this woman, following her to a boat in the dead of night, but it felt so good. Beth would be furious if she knew.
"I doubt I could sleep with you here," Dana said abruptly. "I'm not used to--I mean I never--" God, talking to people was hard. She blew out an exasperated sigh. "The head-shrinkers used to tell me I had intimacy problems, among other things. I won't even let the dog sleep in the same cabin as I."
Grace took the hint that she had worn out her welcome, plus she had to be at the clinic in five hours. "So we head to shore, then."
Doc nodded in agreement.
Grace tossed the trash bag onto the beach. Doc surprised her by lifting her, quite easily, out of the dinghy and setting heron the sandy beach. Rip hopped out and ran up the sand to a small grassy dune to sniff and leave her mark. Grace wondered how many territories this dog had claimed during their journeys. They walked to where Grace had parked her Jeep, bumping shoulders as the shifting sand made their tired steps unsteady.
"Sorry," Doc said after bumping Grace hard.
"It's okay," she laughed, grabbing Dana's shoulder for balance. "You would think we were high."
Doc allowed herself to chuckle at the comment. Grace dropped the trash into a steel barrel placed at the edge of the dune for the garbage of beachgoers. The parking lot was deserted. Feeling slightly awkward, both women looked around while waves lashed sand behind them. Grace placed her bag behind her seat while Dana, leaning against the fender, wondered why she did not want to lose this woman's company.
"I want to see you again." Grace had turned back to Dana. "In five days to remove the stitches and before then if there are any problems, like infection, pain--you know what I mean. Here's my card, with my beeper number on the back." She handed Dana a business card. "I usually work Saturdays at a clinic on Lincoln. It's on the east side of the city. The address is on the back. I don't live too far from here, so call the beeper number if you have any trouble."
Dana flipped the card over but could not read it in the dim light without her glasses. Grace climbed into the Jeep and started it up, slipping on her own glasses for poor night vision.
"Um, Grace," Doc said quietly as she stepped closer to the door.
Grace smiled that endearing little curve of lips and dimples that Dana realized she enjoyed seeing.
"You're welcome. Now go rest."
Then, unceremoniously, Grace drove off down the road.
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