Disclaimer: Captain Obvious wanted me to tell you that I am not Stephanie Meyers and I don't own Twilight. Surprised?
A/N: Believe me, the injury described in this fic is entirely plausible. I, er, know someone who once had a very similar injury for a very similar reason. -coughmecough- And, just so you know, this is a pretty unusual fanfic. I mainly wrote it for myself, but I thought I'd throw it out there in case somebody else gets something out of it too. It's set early in Eclipse, before Forks High's graduation, but after spring finals at Washington State. (Yes, I looked up WSU's academic calendar, because I'm obsessive like that.)
Also, this was written before the release of Breaking Dawn, so there are a couple inconsistencies. Sorry, I'm not changing anything.
This was so embarrassing. If I hadn't been so preoccupied with the excruciating pain in my arm, I would have been humiliated.
"Rachel Black?" the lady at the front desk called. "They're ready for you now."
Who knew they made people wait in emergency rooms? Of course, I'd only been here a minute or two, and the gash in my arm was hardly life-threatening. But still.
I followed a dark-haired nurse into a small cubicle consisting of three walls and a curtain. He had me sit on one of those paper-covered tables, and then gently pulled the bloody wad of paper towels off my arm to examine the cut. It was shallow and not serious, he informed me, but I would need stitches.
"Are you here alone?" he asked, as he gathered supplies to disinfect the cut.
"Yeah," I answered. "I'm just visiting a friend for a couple days, but she's at work right now."
"Are you from out of town then?" he said conversationally.
"Kind of," I replied. "My dad and brother live in La Push. I go to Washington State, but I'm home for a week." Although I probably won't stay that long, I thought. Dad and Jake were acting so… strange. I couldn't help feeling they were hiding something from me. Jake was so uncharacteristically moody, when he was home at all, and Dad seemed almost nervous to have me around the house. He was positively relieved when I mentioned spending the weekend in Forks with Sarah.
I inhaled sharply as the nurse sanitized the open wound. Great. Now I looked like a sissy and an idiot.
"Don't worry," he assured me. "Dr. Cullen will be here in a moment and he'll numb it for you."
Cullen? Oh. Right. It hadn't occurred to me that, since this was Forks, not La Push, I might run into him. I groaned inwardly. This day just got better and better.
Then, as if on cue, a surprisingly young (and, much as I hated to admit it, good-looking) blond doctor stepped through the sickly yellow curtain. He gave me a warm smile, but I pretended not to notice.
"She's all cleaned up," the nurse informed him.
"Thank you, Brian," Cullen replied. "I think Dr. Thorton wants some assistance with that toddler who just came in."
Brian nodded and disappeared.
"I hear you had a bad run in with a knife," Cullen said as he filled a syringe with fluid. "Is that correct?"
I sighed dejectedly. For a split second, I considered coming up with some elaborate story to explain the mishap. An armed robber was breaking into the house, and I had single-handedly fought him off. I'd heroically broken up a street fight. I was an undercover cop who'd been discovered by drug lords and barely escaped with my life. The thought of lying was very tempting. Besides, all those far-fetched explanations were probably more believable than the truth.
"I was slicing a melon," I muttered, not meeting his eyes. Might as well tell the truth now and get it over with. "With a steak knife. And, er, I was holding it in my arms instead of putting it on the counter."
The doctor raised a pale eyebrow. Part of me wanted to smack his perfect face and tell him to mind his own business. But then I remembered that unfortunately, as his patient, I was his business.
"Sarah's apartment is really cluttered," I explained pathetically. "There wasn't much space, and I thought I knew what I was doing."
I thought I saw a smile tugging at his lips as he focused on my arm.
"And, yes, I know it was totally idiotic," I grumbled.
I winced as the needle pierced my upper arm. It reminded me of being stung by a bee. But it was nothing compared to the throbbing pain that ran from the inside of my left elbow halfway to my wrist. His gloved hands felt unusually cold, but I figured that must have something to do with the rubbing alcohol.
"I bet you don't get klutzes as stupid as me very often," I said sourly.
"Oh, you might be surprised," he replied warmly. "Not long ago I treated a young lady with injuries nearly identical to yours."
"What happened to her?" I inquired.
"She fell and knocked over a table that was stacked with very fragile crystal glass plates," he answered.
I smiled in spite of myself.
"Okay," I admitted, "I guess that's even more embarrassing that accidentally slicing your own arm open in the kitchen."
Soon the anesthetic kicked in and I felt no pain at all. Instead, I was left with that creepy sensation of just knowing it should hurt as I felt the pressure of the needle and thread sewing my skin shut.
Nevertheless, I was fascinated by the process. I couldn't help it. I watched attentively as the doctor's slender fingers danced over my wound. I wondered if I could ever, possibly, be able to do something like this. Probably not, I decided, considering how I couldn't even cut fruit without causing serious damage. He was so sure and professional, but young too, so he couldn't be that experienced.
"How do you do that?" I marveled, momentarily forgetting that I didn't like this guy.
"It's really not very difficult, not with practice," he answered calmly. "Most people don't like to watch. I'm impressed."
So I was a klutz, but at least I wasn't squeamish.
"Yeah, well, I'm kind of interested in medicine," I admitted. "I'm not really sure if it's for me though."
"What else have you thought about?" he asked, deftly tying yet another stitch.
"Oh, research, teaching maybe," I replied. "I'm a bio major, so there are a lot of directions I could go. But I'll be a junior this fall. I'm running out of time to decide."
"Ever work in a hospital?" he asked, now smearing on some kind of antibiotic.
"Not yet. I want to, though." I paused. He was so easy to talk to. He seemed so… trustworthy. Maybe I had misjudged him.
"Can I ask you something?" I blurted out.
"Of course," he smiled.
"Why did you decide to become a doctor? What do you like about it?" I asked. Dad and Jake probably wouldn't be happy about this conversation, but what they didn't know wasn't going to hurt them. If they were keeping secrets, then so would I.
"Well," he said thoughtfully, as he began to quickly bandage my arm, "at risk of sounding a little unoriginal, I'd have to say that I really enjoy healing people. I like the idea that some people's lives are better because I'm around."
"Being a doctor isn't the only way to make people's lives better, though," I pointed out.
"I didn't say that it was," he responded calmly. "It was merely the way that appealed the most to me."
"But weren't you worried about making mistakes?" I pressed. I couldn't believe I was continuing the conversation. "I mean, even the best doctors are only human. Didn't you ever worry about accidentally hurting someone, even killing them?"
He smiled yet again.
"You have no idea," he said softly. He finished with my arm, and seemed to be looking at something far away.
"I'm sorry," I said, "I'm keeping you from your work. I know you have other patients."
"Actually, I don't," he replied, still smiling at me. Now that I was making eye contact, I was startled to notice his irises were a dull gold color. "My shift ended two minutes ago, and I'm in no particular rush to get home. I'd be happy to stay a while if you like."
"I-" I hesitated. "Sure. Thanks."
"So, to answer your question," he went on, leaning back against the supply cabinet, "yes, I was extremely worried about the possibility of harming someone instead of helping them. For, well, for quite a long time, I didn't trust myself. Even though I was fascinated with medicine, I was afraid to begin practicing."
"So then what changed your mind?" I asked quietly.
"There was a boy," he said after a brief pause. His eyes got that faraway look again. "A young child. Not here in Forks, but in another city. There was an accident, and there was… no way to get him to a hospital in time. There were ways to save him, I knew that. But I didn't know exactly how, and I didn't have the tools anyway."
His focused his gaze on me again.
"It was then that I realized," Dr. Cullen continued, "that, regardless of my profession, people would die. If I was a doctor, I might be able to save them, or I might not. But, if I was too afraid to ever try, I couldn't possibly help."
"But what if something went wrong, and it was completely your fault?" I asked.
"That is a risk I must take," he replied. "And that is why, if you decide to go into medicine, you work as hard as you can to be as competent as you can possibly be."
I glanced down at the floor. There was something else I needed to ask.
"Um, Dr. Cullen," I began, carefully controlling my voice, "now that you are a doctor, well, you have had patients die, right?"
"Yes," he answered gently, "quite a few."
I kept looking at my sneakers.
"How do you, well, how do you deal with that?" I asked. "I mean, isn't hard to watch one of your patients suffer or die, and not really be able to help them?"
Despite my best efforts, my voice cracked at the end.
"Of course it's hard," he said softly. "Is there a particular reason why you ask?"
"I just, well, I just think it would be hard to do, that's all." My voice was definitely breaking up now. I was vaguely aware that I was running my fingers through my long hair and using the word 'well' in almost every sentence, two nervous habits of mine.
"Why, Rachel? Have you been in that situation?" Dr. Cullen asked very gently.
I tried to focus on something else, like the geometric pattern of floor tiles. The distraction didn't work. My vision blurred.
"My mom," I whispered. "She died when we were pretty little. I don't think my brother Jacob even remembers her that well. But I do. She-" I took a deep breath "-she was great. But then, well, she got cancer. She was really young. She tried all kinds of treatment. Pretty horrible treatments. But nothing worked."
I took another shuddering breath. I was not going to cry.
"There was nothing we could do," I said in a choked voice. "It almost killed my dad. I mean, that cancer was destroying both of my parents, my whole family. And there was absolutely nothing I could do."
A tear slid down my cheek. Crap.
"I felt so powerless. I hated not being able to help," I choked out, wiping my eyes angrily. "Sorry. I hate crying in front of people."
"You have nothing to apologize for," he replied gently, handing me a box of Kleenex.
"Yeah, well, this was a long time ago. I should be able to talk about it without falling apart. Thanks," I sniffed as I dabbed my wet face with a tissue.
"Some injuries never fully heal," he said softly. "It is never easy to see others suffer and not be able to help. It can be agonizing. And a hundred times more so if that person is a loved one."
I nodded slightly, looking at my toes again. I was glad he didn't say he was sorry for me. Not that I resented people saying that, of course; I just didn't think they should be sorry for me. I was still alive.
I took a steady breath, regaining my composure. I was done talking about my mom.
"But what about ordinary people, strangers?" I asked. "I mean, doesn't that get hard too? Even if they aren't your family, well, they're someone's family. And they have names and lives and dreams and all that."
"Yes," he replied, "that is hard too. But once again, in those cases, I would say that I would not be able to help anyone by running away from the sight of suffering. And of course, not all cases end in tragedy. When you are able to help someone, someone who would otherwise have been lost, the experience is extremely rewarding."
"Yeah," I smiled weakly, "I guess so. But still, I mean, you see a lot more pain and death and suffering than the average person, right? And yeah, I know all the bad stuff would be happening whether or not you tried to do anything about it. But the thing is…"
I struggled to find the right words. Dr. Cullen just waited patiently.
"I guess what bothers me," I finally said, "is that if you're a lawyer or sales clerk or teacher or whatever, and somebody dies or gets hurt, you're allowed to be upset about it. Even if you didn't really know the person. I mean, you're allowed to be sad. You're allowed to cry and mourn a little bit. It's almost expected. But if you're a doctor, and somebody dies, you just have to move onto the next patient. Like nothing just happened. Business as usual."
I looked up at him.
"Isn't that hard?" I demanded.
"It can be," he answered. "But if there is someone else who urgently needs your attention, it would be a bit hypocritical not to 'move onto' them, as you put it. And that kind of thing becomes less difficult as you get used to it."
"But, see, I'm not sure I want get used to it," I smiled bitterly. "Do I really want to get to the point where it no longer bothers me if I see someone die?"
"Ah, but you misunderstand me," replied Dr. Cullen. "No. Of course, I would never advise you to… to become immune to the suffering of others."
His golden eyes became distant again, and he shook his head.
"No," he went on, "that compassion, that capacity to care deeply for others, is a vital part of being a good doctor. Of being human, really."
His eyes focused on back me.
"What I meant," he continued, "was that you get better at handling the pain and sadness. I did not mean that those emotions fade away."
"How?" I still could hardly believe I was having this discussion, with a Cullen of all people. But I couldn't stop. It was an incredible relief to finally ask these unspoken questions that had been running through my mind for years, almost like I'd been underwater too long and was now finally surfacing for a breath of air.
He paused to consider my question for a moment.
"I suppose you accept that death is a part of life," he said. "And also a part of being human. Having some type of faith often helps. But, working in a hospital, you also realize that there is so much more to life than the end of it…. Have you ever seen a baby be born?"
"Er, no," I answered.
"That is something worth seeing."
"I did see a litter of puppies born once," I remembered. "That was pretty cool, I guess. Messy, but still awesome. One minute there was just one dog there, then there were thirteen!" I laughed quietly at the memory.
"I'm not saying that new lives replace lives that are lost," he continued, "but I try not to focus only on what's tragic. I try not to forget that down the hallway, someone else is recovering, or a baby is being born."
I just nodded a little. I guess I could see his point. But still, I didn't think his words would be much comfort to somebody whose parent was dying. I knew his reasoning wouldn't have helped me. Unwelcome memories floated to the surface of my mind. My beautiful mother, who'd once had long waves of silky black hair, going completely bald. The vivacious woman who had loved to play make-believe with me and Rebecca, too exhausted to get out of bed, too nauseous to eat, and growing thinner every day. The IV drips and beeping monitors. The doctors and nurses who acted sympathetic, but couldn't possibly feel what we were feeling. In the middle of that nightmare, I certainly would not have wanted to hear about Dr. Cullen's little circle of life. With a shock, I realized my mom hadn't been much older than I was now.
"It's one thing for really old people to die," I said, with a hint of anger in my voice. "I mean, of course that's still sad, but at least they've had a long life. But it doesn't seem fair for young people to die, good people, people who are supposed to have a long future ahead of them. It's… it isn't right!"
"I've often felt the same way myself," Dr. Cullen sighed. He was looking past me again. I scrutinized his expression. Was that… pain in his yellow eyes? I wondered if he'd ever lost someone close to him. Or was it possible he was only thinking of strangers? But I wasn't going to ask. That was his business.
He turned his gaze back to me once more.
"I wish I could tell you why such things happen," he continued quietly. "I wish I knew myself. But there is no understanding it. Not on this side of eternity, at any rate."
He paused, but I had nothing to say. I wasn't about to argue. After years of well-meaning people telling me that everything happens for a reason, his words came as a relief. My mother's death, I could accept. I had long ago accepted it. I could even embrace the idea that it was possible for some good to come out of all the bad. But I simply could not, would not, believe that there was a justification for her passing. There was no explanation, no logical reason. It just happened. There was no making sense of it.
"However, believe it or not, I think there is something to be said for mortality," Dr. Cullen said, bringing me out of my thoughts. "It gives a great deal more meaning to the passage of time. And it's harder to take life for granted when you know there is only so much of it."
As soon as the words had left his mouth, my cell phone rang. I pulled the phone out of my purse, silencing the William Tell Overture as quickly as possible, and making a mental note to get a better ringtone.
It was Sarah. Of course. As much as I loved my friend, the girl had a knack for calling at the worst possible time.
"Sorry," I said meekly, "It's my friend. She's probably wondering what happened to me."
"Not a problem," he replied. "Should I step out?"
"No," I laughed. "Don't bother. You already know all the humiliating details."
I hit the green Talk button.
"Rachel, where are you? And why is there a bloody melon on my floor?" Sarah sounded a bit frantic. I could picture her coming home from work to discover the blood-spattered butcher knife and half-opened melon lying right where I'd dropped them on the tile floor. I cringed.
"I'm at the hospital," I explained, and gave her a quick summary of my disastrous attempt to slice the fruit.
"Why the heck didn't you put the stupid melon on the counter, like any sane person would do?" she demanded.
"What counter?" I retorted. "I don't see any counter-space in that kitchen, do you?"
"Very funny," she snapped. "You could always move the dirty dishes and other crap out of the way."
"I didn't want to cause an avalanche," I said, rolling my eyes. "Some of those stacks are a foot high! Besides, I don't see why you're pissed. I'm the one with half a dozen stitches."
" 'Cause I hate to think that you're hurt because I'm a slob," she replied, less angrily than before. "Even if it's your fault too for being an idiot."
"Gee, thanks. Look, if it makes you feel better, I promise to help you clean the kitchen when I get back," I amended.
"And when are you coming back?" she asked. "For that matter, why are you on the phone if they're stitching up your arm?"
"Uh, they're not," I answered. "I'm all done actually. I'll be there in like fifteen minutes, 'kay?"
"Sure. Just try not to run into a telephone pole or anything on your way back."
"I'll do my best," I assured her with a smile. I shut the phone and slid it back into my purse.
I glanced at Dr. Cullen and noticed with eyes were sparkling with amusement, like he had heard both sides of our little exchange.
"Guess I better get going," I told him. He nodded.
"Be sure to make an appointment to have those stitches removed," he reminded me. "And you'll want to change to bandage and apply antibiotic every night."
"Yeah, okay," I said as hopped down off the paper-covered recliner, grabbing my purse and jacket. "And, hey, thanks. For staying to talk with me and everything."
"My pleasure," he smiled. "And I might add that I think you would make a very good physician, if that's what you decide to do."
"Thanks," I replied, returning his warm smile this time. I paused. "But I don't think I'll ever be a surgeon."
Dr. Cullen raised a questioning eyebrow. I held up my bandaged arm.
"I'm not very good with knives, remember?" I explained with a grin.