Chapter no 4

The Locked Door

Present Day

My first patient scheduled in the afternoon is at one-thirty. It’s a tight squeeze to get back to our practice from the hospital, where I spent the entire morning operating. My lunch is a burrito from the food cart that’s always parked outside the emergency room entrance. I have to eat the burrito while driving.

But there’s nothing unusual about that. I eat the majority of my meals while driving. I don’t think I could navigate the road from the hospital to my office without a burrito in one hand and the steering wheel in the other. I chug from my water bottle at the red lights.

I park my car in the lot outside our office building at one-thirty-five. I skip the elevator and race up the two flights to the practice I share with Philip. The gold sign on the door says Corey and Davis Surgical Associates. He gets to be first. His main arguments were that he’s been in practice longer, and also, he’s first alphabetically. I let him have that one.

When I get up to the third floor, I’m gasping for air. I’ve allowed myself to get dangerously out of shape over the last decade. I have to remember I’m not in my twenties anymore. If I eat too many more burritos while driving, I might end up with an early coronary.

Then again, heart disease is one thing that doesn’t run in my family.

I’ve nearly managed to catch my breath by the time I burst into the office. The waiting room is empty, and Harper is at her desk, tapping on the keys of her computer. She looks up when I come in and offers me a friendly smile.

“Good afternoon, Dr. Davis!” she chirps. I have told her no less than a thousand times to call me Nora, but she still calls me Dr. Davis. I suppose it’s a sign of respect. “Your first patient is already waiting in the examining room.”

“Oh.” I gulp in some air. I need to get back in shape. “Who is it?” “Arnold Kellogg.”

I wince. This is Mr. Kellogg’s first post-op appointment after his hernia repair, and I know he’s going to be testy about being kept waiting. I look down at my watch. Seven minutes late. Oh well.

“I told him you had an emergency at the hospital,” Harper says. “So he’ll understand.”

I let out a breath. “Thanks, Harper. You’re the best.”

Her cheeks get a little pink the way they always do when I compliment her. Harper is in her early twenties, and I was so mad when Philip hired her. We had a list of nearly fifty applicants for the job, and of course, he picks the youngest and prettiest of all of them. It was my own damn fault for letting him be in charge of it—I don’t know what I was thinking. When I saw Harper walk in with her long legs and shiny dark hair and big blue eyes, I wanted to smack him upside the head.

But for the most part, Philip has behaved himself. It could have something to do with the twenty-minute lecture I gave him on sexual harassment, although I had to dole it out in two-minute intervals between patients.

And then it turned out Harper is fabulous. I liked our old secretary, Bridget, who quit after she had a baby, but Harper is even better than she was. She’s very organized, incredibly personable, and smart as a whip. She recently graduated from college with an English degree and hasn’t quite been able to figure out what to do with it, so she and I have had some late nights at the office and at the Mexican restaurant a five-minute drive away, discussing her future over margaritas.

“Late for clinic again, Dr. Davis?”

I snap up my head, and Philip is standing in front of me, his arms folded across his chest. He’s got an amused grin plastered over his handsome features. Philip is the sort of doctor that all the female patients fall in love with. I would never have anything to do with him, except he’s one hell of a surgeon. He knew me because he was my senior resident when I was a medical student, and after I graduated, he approached me to join his solo practice. I was being courted by a large surgical practice, but Philip made me a really good offer and I liked the autonomy. So here I am.

“My last surgery ran long,” I say.

Philip clucks his tongue. “Nora, when are you going to learn to work faster like me?”

I roll my eyes. “Fast or careless?”

He grins at me. “Say what you want, but I never keep patients waiting.” He winks at Harper. “I never keep ladies waiting either.”

I shoot Philip a look while Harper busies herself at her desk. To her credit, she has never flirted back with him. She has a serious boyfriend, and the last time we talked, she told me he was hinting at getting her a ring. So she’s very smart to stay far away from Philip.

I’ve already kept Arnold Kellogg waiting for too long, so I excuse myself and go into the examining room. Sheila, our medical assistant, has already taken Mr. Kellogg’s vital signs and she’s hanging his chart on the door when I approach the room. All the information goes in the computer, but I like to have it on paper in front of me. There’s nothing I hate more than going to see the doctor and all they do is stare at a screen while I’m talking to them.

“You’ve got your work cut out for you, Nora,” Sheila tells me. She is in her sixties with mocha skin, graying hair, and arms like tree trunks. She’s amazing—I wish I had five of her. “He’s not happy about being kept waiting.”

“Thanks, Sheila.” I grab the chart off the door and look at Kellogg’s vitals. All fine. “I’ll have to turn up the charm.”

Sheila snorts. “I know you will.”

I take a deep breath, my hand on the doorknob. I already feel the phony smile spreading across my face, but it doesn’t look phony. It looks real. It’s the same smile Aaron Nierling used to lure girls into his car. My father had a lot of charisma, and he could really turn up the charm when he wanted to. And so can I.

When I open the door, seventy-three-year-old Mr. Kellogg and his wife are sitting together in the examining room. He is frowning. Not just his face. His whole body is frowning. His sparse gray hair is frowning, his saggy gut is frowning, and his hunched shoulders are frowning. I didn’t think such a thing was possible until I saw it with my very own eyes.

“Mr. Kellogg!” I exclaim, like he’s my long-lost best friend. “You look fantastic. How are you doing?”

He looks up at my smiling face. He’s struggling now. He wants to be angry with me for making him wait, but I’m making it challenging for him.

Before he can say a word, I grab the stool I keep in the room and sit down. I always sit down with my patients. I don’t think Philip has sat down once in the last fifteen years (including possibly for meals), but I make sure to always do it in examining rooms. And when I sit with Mr. Kellogg, I lean forward as if whatever he has to say to me is intensely important.

“Are you doing okay?” I prompt him. Finally, I see him cave. “I’m okay, Doctor.”

I smile wider at him, and he reluctantly smiles back. I suppose I have to thank my father for this gift. The ability to turn up the charm. And I can turn it off just as easily.

“We heard you had an emergency,” Mrs. Kellogg speaks up. “I hope everything is okay?”

I tilt my head to address my patient’s wife. I consider myself very observant when it comes to the human body, and it’s very hard not to notice the hint of purple fading into yellow below Mrs. Kellogg’s left eye. I’m so taken aback by it, the smile slips from my face and I can’t manage to answer her question.

“She can’t tell you that!” Mr. Kellogg snaps at her. “It’s a privacy violation, Diane. What’s wrong with you?”

“Oh.” Mrs. Kellogg drops her eyes. “I’m sorry.” “Don’t say sorry to me. Say sorry to Dr. Davis.” She doesn’t lift her eyes. “Sorry, Dr. Davis.”

I keep staring at that bruise under her left eye. I remember from his chart that Mr. Kellogg is right-handed. So a right hook would end up hitting her in the left eye. I do recall she was at his pre-op appointment, and I remember him snapping at her. I didn’t like it, but I figured it was none of my business.

But now she’s got a black eye.

Mr. Kellogg is not a large man. But his wife is a frail little thing, and even in a weakened state from his surgery, I believe he could’ve done this to her. Scratch that. I believe it’s likely he did this to her.

I wish I knew before the surgery. I wish I knew when his abdomen was sliced open and he was under anesthesia. One slip of the knife and I could have nicked his bowel. If I had done that, he wouldn’t be smacking around his wife. He would be experiencing a world of hurt right now.

But no. I would never do that. Never.

I’m not like my father. I feed stray cats. I save lives.

I take a deep breath and ask Mr. Kellogg to get up on the examining table. He pulls up his gown to reveal the row of vertical staples I embedded in his belly. The incision looks great. I get out a staple removal kit and start pulling them out one by one. It takes less than two minutes, but then the last staple snags.

“Easy there, Doc,” Mr. Kellogg says.

I look over at Mrs. Kellogg, who is wringing her hands together. I yank on the staple and it twists free. A drop of blood oozes from his skin.

“Jesus, Dr. Davis!” he yelps. “That hurt worse than the surgery!” “Sorry,” I say. Not sorry.

While Mr. Kellogg grumbles under his breath about my incompetence, I dig around in a drawer to find a bandage. I open the package to pull out the gauze, but on the discarded wrapper, I scribble a sentence with the pen in my scrub top pocket:

Is he hurting you?

I pass by Mrs. Kellogg as I’m walking back to the examining table, and I hand her the scrap of paper as surreptitiously as I can. She takes it from me and looks down at my question. Then she looks up at me with her watery brown eyes and hesitates.

Then she shakes her head no.

Do I believe her? I don’t know if I do. At the very least, I’ve seen him act emotionally abusive to her in the span of this short appointment, so God only knows what happens in their home. But she’s denying it, and the woman isn’t even my patient. It makes my blood boil, but there’s nothing more I can do.

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