"She's really no different than you," he had said.
He had said it six months ago, but the words still rang in Lizzy Bennet's ears. "No different than what you do with your mom."
She sat on a bench with her coffee, pondering Washington Avenue. In front of her was the University of Minnesota, where she had graduated from. Behind her was Fairview-University Medical Center, where she worked as an RN in the ER.
"She's got you so far from where you wanted to go, you don't even realize you're lost."
Lost . . . that was a good way to put it. Lost in a city she knew like the back of her hand; lost in a hospital she could draw blueprints of. She was lost.
Yet, she was content to be that way. She was now, anyway. It was who she was, and at present, she was neither willing nor inclined to do anything about it.
She only wished she had someone to talk to. It had been hard since she broke up with Richard. Her cousins Jane and Chas Bingley, both doctors, were always there for her, of course, for any reason, and their two young children provided a lively distraction when she needed cheering up, but it was simply not the same as having an intimate relationship with a man.
For almost a year, Richard had been that man. He was cocky and arrogant at times, but he was also handsome, charming, and a good snuggler. The relationship was rocky, but aside from her cousins, he had been all she had.
She had been telling Richard one night about a particular patient of hers – a hooker who found herself beaten rather badly, but who refused to reveal any details. "She was so pretty," she had mused to Richard, snuggled against his chest on the couch in her meager apartment. She wondered out loud what had happened to the woman to turn her in the direction she was going and whether she might now turn around.
"How do you know she was a hooker?" Richard had asked.
"Officer Wickham brought her in," she replied. "He's arrested her a couple of times, he said." She paused then, pensive. "I just wonder, you know?"
"Some might say the same about you," Richard had replied, and then the harsh words came.
"What do you mean?"
"Your mom flirts with you a little, makes an empty promise to make you dinner, and as soon as she has your check in her hand, it's Splitsville until she's spent all of it and needs more. You're no different than the lonely guy who needs affection so much he pays for it."
Lizzy looked at him, horrified. "I cannot believe you just said that."
"Well, it's true," he had said, unaffected by the fact that her hurt and anger were written plainly on her face. "I know she called you this afternoon, and without even having to ask I know what she wanted. How much will it be this time, Lizzy? Three hundred? Eight – maybe fifteen, like last time?"
Lizzy paused, trying to collect herself. "Where is this coming from?"
"I don't know," he said dismissively. "It's been pent up for a while. What does it matter?"
"You couldn't come up with a more constructive way to bring this up than blindsiding me with it? You don't think that maybe I'm a little sensitive about this situation?"
"That only proves that you know you're doing something stupid – not to mention dysfunctional."
"Yes, Lizzy," he had said condescendingly, "you're dysfunctional. You're going to give her all that money and all you're going to get is a load of crap you think is affection."
"This coming from a man whose parents buy his affection."
"My parents don't buy my affection, they just show it that way. It's all they know and it isn't the damn same because my parents do love me. Your mother is just using you. That hooker isn't doing anything you don't do with your mom."
Then it had been Lizzy's turn to be harsh, and she did it with a slap across his cheek with the back of her hand. It had been the last she had seen of Richard.
She would eventually change the way she dealt with her mother, but she didn't want to give up her sisters, so things lay the same way they had before her fight with Richard. It didn't bother Lizzy much, with the exception of the loneliness she felt when she crawled under the covers each night.
The thing that stung more than his absence was the fact that she knew that he was essentially right. Ever since her father died it had been the same. Lizzy, we need money so the girls can have new school clothes, or Christmas just won't be the same this year . . . we haven't got the means for gifts, or If Lizzy wouldn't be so selfish and help us a little more, then maybe Lydia could go to that concert.
Sitting on the bench as a cool September breeze caressed her face, Lizzy laughed a little. And I just did it again, she thought. I just handed her a check for fifteen hundred dollars. She couldn't even remember what her mother had said it was for. Lydia and Kitty's cheerleading, Mary's piano lessons, clothes, rent . . . who cares? she thought. Then her mother had kissed her cheek and promised to make her dinner early on Sunday and urged her to invite a friend over, too.
And if I actually went, there would be no dinner. Lizzy sipped her coffee again. It was one of two luxuries she allowed herself, if one considered one's own apartment and a visit to the coffee shop every day luxuries. Lizzy did, even though it was only a small coffee and the apartment was only the basement of a professor's home near campus. It was small and Lizzy didn't have much in the way of furniture, but it was clean and dry and quiet, and it was hers. She didn't even own a car.
And yet I'm selfish.
Lizzy shook her head. She closed her eyes and let out a deep breath, and let her mind wander a moment. It was noisy that day on Washington Avenue; Lizzy liked it that way. Surprisingly, it helped her think, and she really had something to think about.
One of the people she saw most often in the ER was a Minneapolis police officer named George Wickham. He was assigned to hospital security – not the kind of assignment he had been used to, but it was a job with the department and he could not ask for much else. She knew that the last eight years or so had not been very kind to Officer Wickham. She knew it had been his own doing, but she knew how hard he had worked to change and forgive himself for what he'd done. She sincerely hoped what they had talked about last night didn't have anything to do with his guilt.
She knew most people would have agreed to Wickham's scheme, but she couldn't. Above all things Lizzy loathed deception, and this was deception pure and simple.
Billy Collins was the triage nurse who usually worked her shift. He was a simpering, toadying moron who was in desperate need of a Stairmaster and a bottle of Selsun Blue. She knew he gossiped and she knew he was self-righteous, but he didn't bother her and so she wouldn't bother him.
Wickham's claim was that Billy was in league with a social worker at the Hennepin County Department of Human Services named Catherine. He had told Lizzy that he suspected that whenever children were admitted to the ER and Billy felt that there was reason to suspect abuse or neglect, Billy would call Catherine, who would intervene.
"Think about it, Lizzy," he had pleaded with her. "You know I'm right. How else could she know when to come in? Even if one of the docs called DHS, they wouldn't call her. They see her too much around here."
"It's none of my business, Wick," she protested. "I'm not here to stick my nose in. I'm just here to work."
"You know that kid that burned himself on the stove last week was just an accident."
"But what if it wasn't, Wick?"
"It was, Lizzy. Come on."
"And what would either Billy or Catherine be gaining?" asked Lizzy. "Makes no sense."
"Hey, you've seen Catherine around here enough to know that she thrives on power, and you know Billy. He does that weird submissive thing with her – it's gross . . . and wrong."
Officer Wickham was right, but still, Lizzy pondered, checking her watch, Catherine was doing her job. Whether she was taking it to extremes or not was her supervisor's business, not Lizzy's, and if Billy was doing what Officer Wickham thought he was, that was up to Billy's supervisor to correct as well.
However, he had one final thought to offer to Lizzy, and he did so with a peck on her cheek. "You're just giving your mom money right now, but consider what she might do if you had a child of your own. She tells you you're not good enough now and you bust your rump. You only have to be strong for yourself. What if you had to be a parent, too? What if you were a single parent – or with someone, even – and you did everything you knew to do to raise your child, and you were constantly beaten down and told that it wasn't good enough . . . what then, Liz?"
"What then, indeed," she said aloud, and finished off her coffee. Rising, she located a trash receptacle and tossed her cup in. She went to work and found Officer Wickham, and asked him what he wanted her to do.
(c) 2008 J. H. Thompson