Boyd McNaughton was losing a lot of blood. At least it seemed like a lot. He wondered how much blood a man could spare before he passed out. Staring down at his hand, fascination quickly flipped to anxiety when he realized he didn’t want to find out.
“Boyd,” his pain-in-the-ass brother said, reminding Boyd why he was bleeding and pissed in the first place.
“I’m fine,” he said, grabbing rags off the stack he kept clean by the tanks below the old Foghorn Brewery sign. He covered his hand, not ready to catch a glimpse at how not fine things really were. Boyd boasted a decent tolerance for pain, but this was pushing the limit.
“Come on, man, let’s not do this. You’re bleeding.”
“As always, little brother, you get a gold star. Now get out of my way before I drop dead right here on the brewery floor. Imagine that insurance claim.” He managed to raise his eyebrows in sarcasm as he pushed past Patrick.
“At least let me drive you. The color is draining from your face. Maybe we should call—”
Boyd was in his truck before he heard the rest of Patrick’s assessment. He’d cut his hand. He wasn’t having a heart attack. Sure, it throbbed and a drop of blood escaped his makeshift bandage and hit his jeans as he turned onto Washington, but he was fine, damn it.
The look of shock on Patrick’s face was classic. One minute they were in a full-heat argument over quality vs. quantity, and the next, his brother’s expression fell. Boyd noticed the blood and was more upset that he’d contaminated his work space than anything else. Then the pain kicked in and every petty concern slipped away. He became singularly focused on breathing and staying upright. Pain was powerful that way.
Had he not been the one presently staining his favorite pair of jeans, he would have found the whole scene funny. Stopping at a red light, he replayed the argument.
“You promised we’d be ready for bottles and kegs last week,” Patrick said, doing that pacing thing that drove Boyd nuts.
“I don’t recall promising. Did I pinkie swear?” he’d asked, focusing on adding more yeast to what he hoped would be his last batch. “I know I’m behind.”
Patrick’s hands slapped his sides and Boyd didn’t need to look to know his brother was in the middle of a pseudo temper tantrum. Yeah, Trick was frustrated, but there was nothing Boyd could do about it.
The recipe wasn’t right yet and if his time-obsessed brother didn’t leave him alone, Foghorn Brewery would be pushing lemonade as their anniversary brew.
“Don’t do this to me.” Trick sounded defeated.
Boyd glanced up to find the also-predictable hand running through his brother’s expensive haircut.
“I’ve got people lined up, distributors willing for the first time to carry us on a trial basis. I need to deliver when I said I’d deliver. I gave you a cushion because I know how you can be, but next week that cushion is up and you’re still…”
Boyd had raised his brow, wondering if Patrick was going to go with “contemplating your navel,” or—
“Messing around in your sandbox.”
Of course, it was the “sandbox” today.
“You do realize that I’m three whole years older than you, right? That I taught you everything you know about the sandbox. I’m not responsible for your uptight attitude, but I’ll say it again. I. Am. Older. Step back.”
Boyd took in the aroma of the batch as it cooked. Lemon, still with the lemon. What was it going to take to rein that in?
“You’re acting like an asshole.”
“Back at you, little man.”
“How much longer?”
Boyd glanced up again. “How the hell can I make this any clearer? Are you thinking that I have a killer recipe waiting to brew but instead, I’m screwing with you? Do you think I enjoy having you flying around me like one of the witch’s monkeys in that movie Mom makes us watch every year? I don’t. I’m nearly there. I’ll spell this one out for you too. There. Is. Too. Much. Lemon. I’m racking my brain, and you’re not helping. It could be fixed and ready to brew by this afternoon. It could take me a few more days.”
“We don’t have a few more days.”
Boyd had had it. “Fine. Then I’ll piss in a bottle and we can sell that. So long as we make your precious deadline, right?”
“The beer has got to be good by now. You’re obsessing.”
“Good is not enough. Goddamn—” Boyd pulled his hand from the keggle and blood ran warm down his arm like something that should have been pleasant, but turned sinister. Everything went slow motion and it took his brain a few seconds to catch up.
As the argument that now had him trying to remember if the ER entrance was off McDowell or Maria Drive faded into reality, Boyd grazed the edge of his wrapped hand as he turned the steering wheel and flinched.
Petaluma was a small city, so there was one ER with an urgent care in the same cluster of buildings. Boyd had considered going to urgent care, but he was still bleeding, and truth be told, he was a little nervous. He needed both hands in proper working order and that lemon balanced yesterday. Was it his turn to carpool to baseball? Was he on the schedule for Friday or was it Colton’s mom picking up his son today? He’d completely forgotten about Mason. His brain must be scrambled.
If it was his turn to drive the guys, he’d need to be stitched up and on his way by two. Boyd glanced at the clock on the dash. He had five hours. Was that enough time? He’d only been to the emergency room one other time, and that had taken at least three or four hours in the middle of the night. All he remembered were connected chairs, televisions whispering infomercials, and of course, the moment one-year-old Mason’s fever finally broke and he fell asleep among the colorful giraffes of his car seat.
That ER visit had turned out well, and there was no reason to think this one wouldn’t be the same, he told himself. As soon as the woman in the Prius figured out which parking spot she was taking, he’d park and let the professionals do their thing. The rag was almost soaked through and the duct tape he’d found under the seat of his truck was barely hanging on. Boyd’s stomach turned at the stained material and what he imagined was beneath. It was likely a lot less gruesome than he pictured, but he wasn’t taking any chances by looking now.
Maybe Trick was right and he was obsessing about the recipe. It was the anniversary brew after all, and Boyd had to admit there was pressure there. Although, he could never figure out if the pressure to create something exceptional was self-inflicted or if doing it better was why they were still in business. All Boyd knew was every morning, his first thought was some version of “knock on wood.” Mason had turned thirteen a few weeks ago and Boyd made a living, a good living, making beer. He wanted to hit pause, keep everything right where it was, but he knew better. Things had a way of changing right from under him.
Shaking his head as he turned off his truck, Boyd pulled his keys free with his left hand.
First things first, his hand was priority. He slid out of his truck and bumped the door closed with his shoulder. The rest of it, including baseball practice, the lemon, and whose fault all of this was, would sort itself out once the bleeding stopped.
Ella Walters was about to hit a wall. She’d been awake for nearly twenty-four hours and hoped to God the eye drops she was fishing from the pocket of her scrubs would help to ease her scratchy eyes. Somewhere after the twenty-eight-year-old male with a kidney stone but before the seventeen-year-old female, who presented with three of her friends a little after four in the morning bawling that she was “dying,” Ella had taken out her contacts and put on her glasses. When she worked at San Francisco General, she never wore her glasses. She hated having anything on her face in the frenzy of a trauma center.
Petaluma Valley was a slower pace, which she was beginning to enjoy. She was glad she’d switched to glasses because it wouldn’t look good to be bumping into things when Julie Blake’s parents arrived in the ER at seven thirty to claim their daughter. Julie’s friends had all been picked up a couple of hours ago, which cut down on the drama significantly. Ella notified Julie’s parents that their daughter was not, in fact, dying. She’d had far too many shots of Firewater, but she was now hydrated and resting.
“This time,” the father said as he and his wife helped an almost sober and mortified Julie off the hospital bed. “This time, you’re okay, but kids die from alcohol all the time. Do you hear me, Julie?”
The young girl nodded, pushing her matted hair from her mascara-streaked eyes as they passed the nurses’ station and the ER doors closed behind them. The white walls and speckled flooring of a sterile space Ella knew better than any other was quiet again, except for the intermittent bump of the air conditioner and the rhythmic beeping monitors. Ella patted the shoulder of the unit secretary and told her she would be in the on-call room if they needed her.
The small room off the hallway and across from the vending machines was more like a large closet than on-call quarters, but Ella could have fallen asleep standing up by that point. The clean air of the small city and the easy life was making her soft, she thought as she opted for the timeworn chair over the wobbly cot in the corner. Easing onto the cool green vinyl, she rested her head back.
Before her eyes had a chance to slide blissfully closed, Bri burst through the door eating a bag of Sour Patch Kids and exclaimed she had important news. Ella, resolved that there were only forty-five minutes left on her shift, extended her hand. At the offered bag, she put a piece of candy in her mouth.
“God.” She chewed enough to swallow without choking. “How do you eat those things?”
“Best candy in the world.”
“That’s not a candy. That’s toxic waste. Look, your tongue is blue,” Ella said, leaning up in the chair now.
Bri propped herself against the wall, crossed one flowery clog over the other, and stuck out her blue tongue. “My news.” She chewed. “Baker, Dr. Baker, Dr. Where Does a Man Get Shoulders Like That—”
“Yes, Bri, I know who Dr. Baker is,” Ella said. She would have laughed, but she didn’t have the energy.
“He’s getting divorced,” Bri said, licking the sugar off her finger and putting the bag back in the pocket of her scrubs. Ella took off her glasses, pinched the bridge of her nose, and closed her eyes. When she opened them, Bri was waiting for a response.
Brianna Cramer, or Nurse B as most of the doctors called her, was the first person Ella met when she transferred to Petaluma Valley Hospital almost two years ago. She had wanted nothing more than a job and some solitude. She wasn’t looking for a friend, but Bri was, and Ella soon learned that Nurse B often got what she wanted.
“You need coffee,” she’d told Ella after their first shift. “I’m off now too, so I’ll show you the best coffee.”
“Actually, I’m going to go home and—”
“Coffee doesn’t take that long,” Bri had said with that defiant honesty Ella now loved.
They’d had coffee and Bri turned out to be a steady, this-is-how-it-is beacon in the storm that was Ella’s life back then. She consistently wore some shade of pink nail polish and her hair was a dozen shades of brown. She had large, warm set-apart eyes and full lips Ella envied. Most importantly, Bri was a great nurse. She was technically proficient and cared about every patient who walked through the doors. Ella often questioned when her friend would run out of compassion.
Ella had believed she owed patients her skills and her focused attention. As a doctor, she was there to ensure nothing slipped by her and that patients left her better than they were when they arrived. Until Bri, she’d worked among like-minded colleagues, but that was her old life. She normally left the warm and fuzzy to Bri, but working in a smaller hospital called on parts of Ella that were untapped in the whirl of a big trauma center. Patients presented with less than life-threatening injuries and wanted to talk, know about what book she was reading or if she thought acupuncture really worked. Ella didn’t know how to move through that kind of contact, but she was trying.
Bri and Ella became friends shortly after that first day over coffee and had never turned back even though Ella was surely hard to love during her first couple of months in Petaluma.
“Maybe I’m getting old,” she said now, still trying to get the pucker of the candy out of her mouth. “I used to be the queen of the double shift. Two shifts, shower, and out with friends.” Thirty-six was closer to forty than thirty. Maybe it had nothing to do with fresh air. Maybe this was her downhill shift, Ella thought.
“Wait, you had friends in the big city? Were they paratroopers or super doctors?”
Ella closed her eyes again.
She shook her head, eyes still closed.
“You’re really no fun when you’re tired, you know that?” Bri sat on the arm of the chair and mocked a whisper. “Back to my news. Can you believe that Shoulders and Perfect Teeth are getting divorced?”
Ella opened one eye. “Are we surprised by this? Baker is not exactly the model of monogamy.”
“Oh, come on. Those are rumors.”
Ella held her gaze and waited.
“You know something.” She pointed at Ella and stood. “Who told you he was cheating on his wife? Why don’t I know?”
“No one told me anything. It’s obvious, don’t you think? Does anyone really need that many extra blankets from clean linens? And why is the good doctor so helpful? Quickies among the water pitchers, my dear friend. No need for Sherlock on this one.”
“Oh. My. God. That is… well, that’s kind of hot. I want to be ravaged in a closet.”
“Do you? By a married man?” Ella knew her friend and there was no way, but Bri hesitated and appeared to be entertaining the idea.
“With twin daughters and one more on the way?” Ella helped her along. Christ!
Bri finally shook her head. “Okay, yeah, that’s gross.”
“Took you that long, huh?”
“Those shoulders are so—”
“Bri,” Ella barked, moving past her to the vending machines in the hall. Sleep was not happening and it was time for liquid assistance.
“You’re right. He’s a pig. Good for her, right?” Bri followed.
“There you go. There’s the woman I love.” Ella slid a dollar into the machine and pressed the button for Coke. She could be a commercial, she thought. Exhausted ER doctor invigorated by the fizz of caffeine finds the strength to—
“Dr. Walters, they need you,” Bri said, now closer to the nurses’ station.
Breaking free of her advertising dream, Ella popped open the Coke and drank half of it in one gulp. Setting her ice-cold goodness on the counter, she tightened her ponytail and waited for the twin tingle of sugar and caffeine.
“Two things,” Bri said. “Campbell is running thirty minutes late.” She paused, allowing Ella the expected curse under her breath.
She did not disappoint. “Son of a bitch,” she said, barely above a whisper.
Campbell was coming off a three-day vacation, she thought but did not say. Bri could practically read her mind anyway.
“And… you have a hand laceration in four. Male, thirty-seven, with acute signs of a bad attitude.”
“Perfect. Chart?” Her eyes cut to Bri, who scrunched her face and handed her a single piece of paper. She took a couple of steps back.
“Trina is still helping Dr. Briggs in Exam One. The guy who kicked through his sliding glass door. She said she’d be in as soon as she was free.”
Ella finished the last bit of her soda and threw the can in the recycle. “Looks like you and I get this one. Let me know when he’s ready for—” She stopped. “Where are you going?”
Bri already had her keys dangling from one finger, her purse up on her shoulder as she threw another bag on top of that. “I’d stay to help, but if I don’t leave now, I’ll miss my flight.”
“Los Angeles. Hello. My brother’s wife had the baby. Remember? I told you I was going down there for the weekend.”
Somewhere Ella did remember, but all the hours and days were dancing around in her memory. Sort of like how Bri was dancing while she waited to confirm that outside of their friendship, it was all right for her to leave a doctor without an attending nurse and with a patient waiting to be seen. Bri mouthed sorry, still dancing in place. Ella laughed and shook her head, now fueled by caffeine.
Her friend, who suddenly morphed from Nurse B to Baby Annie’s excited aunt, leaned forward and hugged her. Ella wasn’t a hugger, but the give-and-take of friendship won out and she allowed her arms to be pinned to her sides as Bri got it out of her system.
“When I get back, we’re getting you some hugging lessons.”
“Really? Is that something they’re now offering at the community college?”
“It should be.”
Ella pointed to the clock. “The airport, Bri. Fly safe. You can resume Operation Cuddle after you’ve seen your niece.”
Bri hefted her bags one more time and was gone.
After a few brisk pats to her cheeks that Ella hoped restored some color, she pushed the cold metal handle of Exam 4. The caffeine humming through her bloodstream, followed closely by a serious longing for the egg-and-cheese bagel she was going to pick up on the way home as soon as she took care of Mr.— She glanced at the piece of paper, a sad substitute for a chart.
“Mr. Boyd McNaughton,” she said and glanced up to find a bear of a man. He was tall, broad, and scarcely teetering on the edge of the narrow bed. Dark jeans and a flannel rolled to his elbows, he presented in what was pretty much the standard uniform for March in Petaluma.
When she’d first arrived in town, she’d wondered how long anyone could live in a place so consistent, but it had grown on her and now, despite the occasional craving for superior sushi or an opera, she found she didn’t miss Dr. Ella Walters, Head of Trauma, or all the drama that went along with that life. She was settling into being one of four full-time ER docs, plain old Dr. Walters. Ella had been raised to never accept being one of many and while she wasn’t ready to say it out loud, she was content in the clean air of smaller.
“Yeah.” Her patient shifted farther onto the metal frame as if he were sitting up taller in class, then flinched and cursed under his breath.
Full beard, but his brow was damp and what she could see of his face was pale. The guy was in pain.
Is that duct tape?
“Great. We at least have your name right. I’m Dr. Walters.” For an instant, Ella moved to shake his hand, which was her usual rehearsed greeting. That was not happening with his injury, so she defaulted to what she knew. She washed up and snapped on gloves.
“Tell me what happened,” she said, grabbing a folded blanket and gently lifting his forearm. She needed to get what seemed like an entire rag collection off his hand before she could tell what she was dealing with. Quite a bit of blood and yes, it was duct tape. Wonderful. She began carefully unwrapping his hand.
“Okay, well I tried to tell one of the nurses out there, but she ran off and stuck me in this room. Does anyone work here?”
Ella raised her hand, met his eyes.
“Right.” He huffed and instead of releasing a breath, some of the tension, it all seemed to rattle around in his lungs. “I cut my hand.”
“I can see that. On what?” She opened the rags to find a nice-sized laceration, about 53 millimeters from the side of his hand into the palm. After asking him to carefully test range of motion, Ella was confident she was dealing with a cut. A nasty one, but there were no particles embedded in the tissue, no broken bones or damaged tendons. She grabbed the saline and four-by-fours.
Ella met his eyes. Dark green, thick lashes, and pupils normal. All good signs.
His expression indicated she should know exactly what a keggle was. Ella’s stomach groaned. Bagel time was well over an hour out now.
She inhaled. “What is a keggle, Mr. McNaughton?”
He was seething, presumably at someone or something that had nothing to do with her. His attitude did not improve while she manipulated his hand, but suddenly the reluctant patient had an answer. Amazing what a little cold saline could inspire.
“I make beer.” He winced but didn’t pull away. “I was working on a small batch, trying to get the lemon under control because I’m using Sorachi Ace, which I haven’t tackled since 2010.”
Right when Ella thought he might be delirious and speaking gibberish, he huffed again.
“You don’t need to know any of that. Point is, my candy-ass brother barged into my happy space with his ‘we need this yesterday’ bullshit. A keggle is a metal vat. You’ve seen a keg, like at a party or something?”
Ella nodded, tossing the soiled rags and holding fresh dressing to his hand now. She’d seen a keg in some movie she could no longer remember. He cut his hand on metal. That was all she needed.
“It’s that thing, a keg. But mine is cut out on top. It’s not finished off because it doesn’t need to be. I like to get in there when I’m working. It’s a huge pot. I don’t cut myself on the edge. Ever.”
“Until today,” Ella said, meeting his eyes again.
“Until today.” Frustration finally spilled off his shoulders.
He exhaled as she peeled back the compress. Things were looking better already, Ella thought. Jagged, but clean. He’d need stitches, sixteen or seventeen from the looks of it. She was approaching that glorious moment, in most emergency rooms, when the all-important doctor wished her patient well with a smile before handing him off to a nurse for stitching and after-care instructions.
Any other ER and there would be no need to chitchat or put the patient at ease. She’d be less than fifteen minutes away from fluffy egg whites and melted Swiss on a toasted bagel, easy red onion, and avocado. But Trina had not even poked her head in, so to the disappointment of Ella’s stomach, she was on her own. Which could be productive, she told herself. It had been awhile since she’d stitched anyone up.
“Practice and patience are the keys to good medicine” was her first-year professor’s motto. Right now, that certainly rang true.