Always do the thing that scares you. That’s the way to break out of a cage of your own making. My father used to say that all the time. He died back when I was fifteen and left me with a lot of bad memories and a genetic dark cloud hanging over my head, but his mantra’s what I’ve chosen to keep for myself. It gives me a bit of courage when I need it most.
Like right now.
The automatic doors to the Pediatric Oncology unit swing wide, and I force myself not to hesitate on the threshold. I push back a stray tendril of hair that falls across my cheek again a second later. I wobble a bit on the heels I bought over the weekend in the hopes of looking professional … and just a bit taller. I smooth my skirt and make sure the nametag that hangs from the lanyard around my neck is facing outward. It’s my first week of internship—the final year of training I need to get my PhD in clinical psychology—and my first day on this rotation. My nametag is the only way I can prove I’m actually supposed to be here.
Not that Psychology Intern is all that reassuring or impressive to anyone. But when the patients’ parents get too upset to reason with, the nurses call Psychology, and it’s Friday at 5:26pm, so I’m it.
I can hear the disgruntled father snarling from here. His voice is hoarse, like he’s been at it for a while. And as I walk into the atrium, where colorful fish swim lazily around the circular aquarium at its center, I see him through the undulating plastic seaweed. He’s a big guy in a stained t-shirt, sporting a serious case of hat-hair. His face is flushed and his eyes are red.
At the main desk, a plump, middle-aged nurse in lavender scrubs looks at me and raises her eyebrows. I walk over to her. “I’m Nessa Cavenaugh,” I say. “You called for a psychology consult?”
She folds her arms across her ample chest. “And like I told you on the phone, we’ve got a parent and kid who need some help.” She nods at the dad and gives me a get a move on kind of gesture.
My cheeks grow warm as I head for the big, angry guy. I round the end of the huge aquarium as he grabs for the kid at his feet, a boy of about four or five. “You will apologize to your brother, Shawn!” he barks at the kid.
“No!” Shawn shrieks. His face is pink like his dad’s. “Won’t!”
“He’s sick, and you have to be nice!”
“I don’t care!”
The dad opens his mouth to reply, but then he sees me standing there. “What?” It comes out rough, a challenge. He looks like a bull ready to charge.
“My name’s Nessa. Can I be helpful to you guys?” I wish my voice wasn’t shaking.
The dad looks me over, and his eyes narrow as he reads my ID badge. “Psychology? They called the shrink? And not even a real one. Some high school kid!” He rolls his eyes. “Thanks a lot, Lynette!” he calls over to the nurse.
My cheeks have gone from warm to freaking five-alarm blaze. I know I look young, but I’m not that young. I stand up a little straighter, not that it helps much, seeing as I’m five-five in my shiny two-inch heels. “Maybe she thought you might want to talk? She knew you were having a hard time.”
He rocks back. “A hard time?” he whispers, his face twisting. “That’s what you call it? One kid’s got cancer, the other one’s completely outta control, and their mother is—” He clenches his teeth.
“No, I’m sorry—I was only—” Making things worse.
He waves his arm, shooing me away. “Leave me alone. If you think this is just a hard time ...” He’s shaking his head as he grabs the little boy by the arm and drags him, kicking, into Room 411. The tag next to the door says “FINN BEEMAN.” It’s printed in block letters with a blue marker, like maybe the kid wrote it himself.
I look over my shoulder, and the nurse points toward the doorway, her mouth tight as Shawn’s sobs echo down the hall. I draw in a long breath, dread curling in my stomach. I’m stuck—I already messed up with this dad, and trying to talk to him again so soon is risky at best. But the nurse is going to tell my supervisor—and worse, all the other nurses and docs on this unit—if I don’t at least attempt to fix this.
So I do the thing that scares me most and head for Finn’s room.
Lying in the bed is a little guy who doesn’t look much older than Shawn. Finn’s got a red bandana tied over his bald head, and his sallow skin is lit up by the screen he’s holding a few inches from his face. His brother is huddled in the corner, wailing, and his dad is on the plastic recliner chair, his head in his hands. And I think I get it: Shawn wanted a turn, Finn didn’t want to give up the Gameboy, and Dad feels too guilty to say ‘no’ to his sick child. As I open my mouth to speak, Mr. Beeman’s head jerks up. “I told you I didn’t want to talk to you.”
“I understand, but I hoped we could—”
“Get out!” he booms, standing up suddenly.
I take a stumbling step back, and the heel of my pump lands squarely on … someone’s toe. “Ow,” says a deep male voice.
I spin around. Lab coat over a striped button-down. Splattered with coffee. “Omigod,” I mumble, reaching out like an idiot to wipe brown droplets from the center of my victim’s chest, vaguely registering firm muscles beneath the fabric … and the fact that I am smearing hot coffee over them and (once again!) making things worse. “So sorry.” I lift my gaze to his face.
I’ve stomped on the most gorgeous guy I’ve ever seen up close. And made him spill his coffee. And wiped it on his neatly pressed shirt. He’s a few inches north of six feet tall, lean and broad-shouldered, with dark blond hair and seriously green eyes. A small, crescent shaped scar just above his angular jawline somehow only makes him hotter.
He’s gazing down at me like he’s expecting an explanation.
“Uh,” I say, grasping frantically for words and coming up empty. Because: his mouth. I can’t stop staring at it. “Sorry. You’re very … stealthy.”
His eyebrow arches, then he looks over the top of my head at Mr. Beeman, giving me the chance to read the nametag on his lapel: Aron Lindstrom, M.D.
“Hey, Greg,” Dr. Lindstrom says. “Got you a coffee when I was in the cafeteria. Thought you could use it.” He holds out the cup, now only three-quarters full thanks to my clumsiness, and Mr. Beeman’s footsteps clonk as he comes to retrieve it.
“I got something for Shawn, too,” Dr. Lindstrom says more quietly. “If you want to give it to him.” He holds up a small Dunkin Donuts bag. From inside the room, Shawn’s sobs fall silent.
I step to the side while Greg Beeman accepts the Munchkins from Dr. Gorgeous.
“Thanks, Doc,” Mr. Beeman says. “Tell your nurse to call off the shrinks, ‘kay?” He jerks his thumb at me. “I’m not crazy.”
The doctor doesn’t bother to look in my direction as he claps Mr. Beeman on the shoulder. “Of course not. Everything all right now?” Shawn approaches his father cautiously, a fragile, hopeful smile on his face, and Mr. Beeman chuckles and hands him the bag, like he’s relieved that he can offer this kid something—and that Shawn is no longer screaming. Dr. Lindstrom smiles at him.
“Looks like it.”
“Looks like it.”
They start to talk about Finn and his IV nutrition, and I back away slowly. The nurse who called for the consult is riveted to her computer screen, and all I want to do is shout, “Why did you call me down here if all it took was coffee and some Munchkins?”
I clamp my mouth shut and walk quickly to the back hallway, toward the booth where I’m supposed to enter stuff into the electronic medical record. I have to document that I was here even though I did nothing but demonstrate my incompetence to one and all. Wishing to God that I’d chosen different shoes this morning, I climb awkwardly onto the high stool in front of the computer on the counter. My feet dangle several inches from the floor, and I swing my legs as I type the password and find Finn’s chart. I click the tab labeled Psychology/Psychiatry. And then I stare at the screen for who-knows-how-long, my eyes stinging. What am I supposed to write?
Intern accidentally enraged parent during emotional situation that was resolved by hot doctor with donuts.
“Can I get on when you’re done?”
I almost fall off the stool. Dr. Lindstrom is leaning against the wall of the booth with a lazy sort of grace. “Sure,” I say, then clear my throat.
“You’re new,” he comments, reading my nametag. “Ah. One of the interns. I knew there was another rotation starting.”
“Yeah.” I’m staring at his coffee-stained chest, which is making my insides feel fluttery. So I meet his gaze, which scrambles my thoughts—right when I need every IQ point I possess. “The nurse called me down. She thought Mr. Beeman needed some help. But I … then he …”
I look over at the blank screen. Intern inadvertently trivialized Mr. Beeman’s suffering, then stomped on Dr. Lindstrom’s toes and ruined his shirt. I rub my hands over my skirt and wish I was invisible.
“You’re upset because he yelled at you,” Dr. Lindstrom says coolly. “You need to get over that. These people are going through a lot. Sometimes it’s too much. You can’t take it personally, especially—”
“That’s not it at all.” Frustration burns through me as I raise my head. “I’m upset because I couldn’t help him. Or that little boy. And that’s what I was supposed to do.” But all I did was make things harder for them.
All my doubts hit me at once: I don’t belong here. This is one of the most prestigious internships in the country, and one of the hardest rotations on said internship, full of docs known for being total hard asses, and I’m already screwing it up because I can’t think on my feet. Needing to escape, I hop off the chair—and it turns out thinking on my feet is the least of my problems. My heel gets stuck in a rung of the stool and I topple over with a yelp.
My face crashes into Aron’s coffee-scented chest, and his steely arms wrap around me, keeping me from sliding to the floor.
“Now I’ve got coffee and lipstick on my shirt. What did I do to deserve this kind of treatment?” he says, but he’s obviously working hard to keep from laughing. He holds me slightly away from him and looks down at his chest. Then at my mouth.
And his gaze stays. Right. There.
My fingers grip his waist, which is ridged with muscle. Aron Lindstrom clearly works out, I think stupidly. He leans over, making sure my right foot is stable on the floor before tugging my left heel from the evil clutches of the stool. His fingers skim over my bare ankle and raise goosebumps. “I’ll bet it was a long walk from the Psychology Department in those shoes,” he comments.
“You’re not kidding.”
He chuckles as he straightens up, and as he does, his shoulder brushes my breasts, just a barely-there touch. I gasp, nearly losing my footing again as my nerves send frantic more more more messages zinging through my entire body. I cross my arms over my chest because: nipples. I’m pretty sure he could see them through my shirt if he bothered to look.
His fingers tighten over my bicep, and I glance up at him in time to see something stir in his eyes. Did he bother to look?
“Is your ankle okay?” he asks. I don’t think I’m imagining the strain in his voice.
“Yeah.” I’m breathless. I want to press my entire body up against his, which would probably not come across as professional.
“My name’s Aron,” he says, finally letting me go. “I’m one of the fellows.” Which explains why he only looks a few years older than I am. He’s still finishing up his training.
“I’m Nessa. And, er … you know what I am.”
His lips quirk up. “I’m not sure I do.”
He takes my place on the stool in front of the computer and types something on the Psychology/Psychiatry page. Then he clicks to the General Medical section and writes something else while I stare at the scar on the left side of his slightly stubbly jaw. I’m imagining what his skin would feel like beneath my fingertips—rough, deliciously warm—when he gets up and gestures at the stool again, offering it to me. His gaze slides from my nametag all the way to my face, and I feel it on my skin as it moves, a path of heat that makes me shiver.
Please touch me again. That is my only thought.
He flashes a devastating grin, like he knows. “Nice meeting you, Nessa. I’ll send you my dry cleaning bill.”
He walks past me before I can respond. I inhale the crisp, grassy scent of his cologne before turning my attention back to the medical record. My hands shake as I click back to the Psychology section and see:
Intern Cavenaugh assisted Dr. Lindstrom in resolution of family conflict and began an assessment of parent stressors and needs.
“I couldn’t have said it better myself,” I mutter, closing Finn’s record and turning in the direction of Aron’s voice. He’s in one of the rooms down the hall, talking to a patient, judging by his gentle tone. I sit for a minute and listen. He’s got a very faint, hard-to-place accent, yet another thing that renders him hotter than can really be considered fair. I clench my fists and tell myself to focus. I can’t spend my Friday evening stalking Dr. Aron Lindstrom through the pediatric cancer ward at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia like a crazed fangirl. I have other things to do, like ...
… an assessment of parent stressors and needs.
Right. Exactly. I tuck my hair behind my ear only to feel it slide across my cheek yet again as I start walking back toward Finn’s room. I’m a few doors away when Mr. Beeman comes out. I can hear Shawn laughing from here. “Sounds like you got him settled down,” I offer, bracing myself for a hostile response.
Instead, Greg Beeman runs a hand through his hair and looks sheepish. “Listen, I’m sorry. About earlier, you know.”
“You don’t have to apologize. I’m not here to add to your stress, and I’m sorry that I did. It wasn’t my intention.” I lean forward. “And I don’t think you’re crazy. I think you’re extremely strong, to be handling all of this.”
He gives me a weary smile. “Thanks. Sometimes I wonder …” He looks back into Finn’s room and sighs.
“Mr. Beeman, can we start over?” I offer my hand. “I’m Nessa Cavenaugh. I’m a doctoral psychology intern, and I’m here to help parents manage under all this stress. You don’t have to talk to me or tell me anything, but I want you to know that if you do think of a way I can help, whether it’s talking to your boys or problem-solving or whatever, I’m available, and I’d be honored.”
He blinks at me, then shakes my hand. His is rough and callused. I wonder what job he had to take a leave from so he could be here. “You can call me Greg,” he says. “And thanks. I’ll think about it.”
“I’m glad. Take care.” I head for the exit to the unit, grateful for this one tiny victory. Aron strides around the corner and stops to talk to Mr. Beeman, and I hover near the double doors, mesmerized. While they converse in low tones, Aron smiles, and it lights up his perfect face and shows off his straight, white teeth. Before I look away, he glances up and catches me staring.
His grin grows wider.
I hustle myself off the unit before I forget why I came here in the first place.
But then I practically skip down the wide hospital corridor. Considering the string of humiliations I just experienced, my first trip to the oncology unit was a little bit awesome. I started to clean up the mess I made with Mr. Beeman, and I met one of the fearsome onco docs, who miraculously didn’t seem to hate me. In fact, he seemed to like me, despite the fact that I faceplanted on his shirt. He was kind. But also really scary … in an I’ll-steal-your-heart-if-you-let-me kind of way. I can’t afford to let that happen.
I bite my lip as my dad’s mantra runs through my mind before I can suppress it.
Always do the thing that scares you.