It was 3pm and they had been airborne for almost an hour. At this rate, they would be in a taxi en route to their hotel by 4pm.
Sitting comfortably in First Class, Drs Lucien Dubenko and Neela Rasgotra had been discussing their presentation since before take-off and the time had flown. Lucien was glad he had invited Neela to attend the conference with him. Not only had it taken a huge burden of pressure off him, it was also an excellent opportunity for his favourite protégé so early in her career.
Thankfully they were not giving their joint presentation until tomorrow afternoon so they would have time to put the final touches this evening after the opening session. If they needed to fine-tune anything, there would be time. He noticed Neela was getting more and more distracted the nearer they got to their destination, he put it down to a combination of nerves and tiredness. After all she had just come off a 36 hour shift, showered, changed, collected her things and headed to the airport.
Poor Neela, this was completely insensitive of him, she had not even had something to eat. " Sorry Neela, we should stop now, we can finish up later, I'll just call one of the cabin crew so that we can order lunch. Ah! The pleasure of flying First Class."
"No, no, I'm fine, honest."
But Lucien insisted.
She really would have preferred the distraction.
Ever since Dustin Crenshaw had told her last week that she would be accompanying Lucien to the conference on advanced micro surgery, she had been living on her nerves. She should have been over the moon at the prospect of being joint presenter of a paper at a major conference and she was. But instead of focussing on it, all she could think of was, "I'll be in New Orleans for 3 days, I have to contact him." Every time she thought this, she could feel a giant knot tightening in her stomach. What if he refused to see her, she would surely die. And so, here she was en route to New Orleans and she had not even contacted him yet.
In the beginning, after their respective accidents, they had e-mailed frequently, at least twice a week. But gradually the e-mails dropped off and now they averaged once a month. He continued to keep her well informed about his progress and she knew he had been walking unaided for quite some time now. He was working part time in an ER in Baton Rouge but had mentioned nothing about returning to Chicago. That saddened her.
She knew her e-mails had become more and more distant but the truth was her life was so boring she had nothing new to tell him. Her life revolved around work and home. Work had consumed so much of her time over the past year that she really did not have time for a social life. But she was embarrassed to tell Ray that. His life seemed to be so full right now. He was busy with work, busy with rehab but most of all busy with family and friends. She felt empty when she thought of just how full his life was.
The food arrived and she was surprisingly hungry. The accompanying wine was a welcome anaesthetic. She knew, she shouldn't really but she wasn't giving her presentation until the following day and she really needed to unwind. After her food, she dozed and soon they were making their descent into New Orleans. The next twenty minutes went by in a flurry of collecting luggage and getting a taxi.
Soon they were in their taxi heading for downtown New Orleans. Lucien sat back into the air conditioned comfort of the taxi. It was hot and humid outside. He noted that Neela was still very remote. She did not seem to be stressing about the presentation but there was something definitely bothering her.
If the truth be known, although professionally outstanding, Neela had really not been herself for a very long time. Not since Michael's death over two years ago in fact. If that in itself was not enough to cope with, she had been seriously injured herself the following year and he knew that Gregg Pratt's recent death had been another body blow. In addition, her best friend Abby had just moved to Boston so it was no wonder the poor girl was looking a little sad and remote. Somewhere in the midst of all that Ray Barnett had also had a most horrific accident and although the nature of her relationship with Ray was never clear this had had a profound affect on her also. All in all, the past two years or so had been a right roller coaster for Neela.
They followed the exit sign for Baton Rouge and he heard a faint gasp escape her. He was perturbed. " Neela, are you OK?" she was deathly pale. "I'm fine." She replied with a wan smile. "….just feeling exhausted, I guess its time I had some time off."
"I've been saying that for some time now. I really don't want to see any of my staff getting ill from overwork. You should consider taking a break and heading home."
"Sorry", the driver explained, "we've to take a slight detour. The main route into the city has been blocked by a major traffic accident which will not be cleared for hours. I'm just taking this exit to join another highway into the city.
Lucien frowned in puzzlement. It was definitely the sign for Baton Rouge that upset her, but who did she know in Baton Rouge?? Suddenly, he recalled a slight southern twang and the light dawned. Well one phone call would confirm his suspicions. But right now they needed to get to their hotel and get freshened up for their orientation programme. Thankfully traffic was running smoothly and they were making good time.