Author's note: I prolonged this chapter with some 'filler-scenes' just to bridge the time between Lily's rescue from the river and the scene between her and Keeton in the pharmacy later that night. The first scenes of this chapter are made up by me.
We all need Saving – Chapter 2
The clinic is fairly silent, with the rainforest and the swooshing of a nearby ceiling fan being the only sounds reaching my ears. I sigh. This much silence always causes me to think. The thoughts in my head get louder during silence, becoming non-ignorable. I simply have to deal with them, although I'd rather not. At least not now, because I know what I'll be thinking about … and I don't want to relive the thoughts and pictures of today.
An icy shudder runs down my spine, as I swallow and close my eyes to will it away. But as I open them again, my view falls down to my mud-crusted arms and shirt. Looking up into the mirror, I also see some spots of the grey mass on my face. The crusted arms, those spots of mud on my skin, and the dirty shirt are enough reminders to catapult every picture right back to the foreground of my memory. And whatever willpower I thought I'd had to dispel the memories of today, has vanished. I see myself sitting on the riverbank again, cradling a shell-shocked Lily Brenner in my lap.
For a moment I had thought she'd stopped breathing. Her view was fixed on that river, its rapids, sounds … and possible signs of a 16-year-old kid. She was frozen in place, paralysed. And her breathing just stopped. I swallowed and watched her from only a few inches away. I could see the strain on her face and the pained expression in her eyes. Did she even know how close she had been to drowning herself? Just there and then? What if I hadn't come in time? Just then, I felt how her weight on my left shoulder became heavier, and saw how her jugular vein pulsated rapidly on the side of her neck. Her heart was still racing, her body still recovering from the exhaustion of swimming for her life.
"Brenner," I tried softly, while my hand had started stroking her skull underneath her locks. But again, no reaction. Everything about her had been paralysed, except for her heart and the pumping vein. The desperate look in her eyes was haunting me ever since.
I have to clear my throat and blink the picture of her away. I am sure that I won't forget it anytime soon. The loneliness and desperation in her look were upsetting. My hasty fingers reach for the buttons of my shirt, as I start to take it off. I am feeling the strong need to get rid of these clothes and get cleaned up, as if soap and water could make the memories of this afternoon go away. I start scrubbing my arms and face. What a futile attempt, actually. But I was always great at fooling myself.
The evening has set already, although I haven't had dinner yet. Didn't real feel hungry. Everything is dark outside but I can hear the distinct calls of a male howler monkey, communicating through the night. While I brush away the mud and follow the trails of dark water down to the rinse of the basin, my mind wanders back to Lily Brenner, and what she is doing right now. Maybe she is just doing what I do – trying to wash away the evidence of today's happenings, coming clean about what had happened, and how to deal with it. From those desperate and helpless looks in her eyes, I am sure she's having a hard time.
The ride back to the clinic had been the longest and most depressive that I have ever experienced. And usually, coming back to the clinic meant coming back home and getting back to safety. But as I was sitting in that truck with her, keeping a close eye on Lily Brenner, it seemed as if she was dreading getting back. The closer we got to the clinic, the more restless she seemed. Her eyes never rested on something, she was nervously looking around, fumbling with her fingers, brushing down her soaking trousers, and heaving deep breaths by the second.
It had been a tough game to get her to leave the river banks. She was fixated to the spot, her eyes never leaving the river, as the monstrous waves gurgled along. Andres was long gone. I hadn't been able to see any sign of him, and I just knew he had been carried downstream … away from us. Yet, Lily kept staring, as if he would show up again somehow, while her face was as blank as it could be. She didn't even stir as I gently pushed her off my lap. I still had my hands on her arms, but she just slumped down in the mud, not even blinking. A very sickening feeling spread in my stomach, fearing she'd never recover from this incident.
"Brenner," I tried again, to no avail. I should have known that calling her name didn't really cause a reaction. So, I decided to kneel down again, next to her. I reached for her face, cupping it with both hands this time, saying, "Lily!"
As if I had screamed and thereby hurt her ears, she flinched slightly but turned her eyes to look at me, while I brushed a dark tendril of soaked hair off of her cheek. The intensity of her blue eyes hit me with much more force than I would have thought possible, and I was suddenly lacking words, although I knew what I wanted to tell her. We needed to get going, get back to the clinic, get out of these clothe, stop looking for the kid. And yet I couldn't make myself talk – as if her eyes were silently bagging me to keep looking for that boy, begging me not to give up. And I just couldn't bring myself to disappoint her and pull her away from the last shreds of false hope. How pathetic of me, right? But I just couldn't bring myself to stand up aginst those eyes. I felt myself gobbing like a goldfish, opening my mouth without words coming out. As if I was the paralysed one now.
All the more astonishing that it was suddenly Lily, who broke the silence between us. "I know," she said. Just those two words – and I could see the understanding in her eyes. For a moment the curtain of hurt and fear lifted, and I saw a blink of comprehension. After all, she was a natural when it came to reading people. Maybe she'd just read me, understanding the reasons of my hesitation and somehow understanding my helpless attempts of getting her to leave. Her voice filled with disappointment and frustration, though, like she was choking on it. And suddenly I felt like I was, too. I felt a large lump in my throat, which made it very hard to breathe and talk normally. The truth hurt us both – her, because she had to deal with Andres death and me, because I had to watch her deal with it.
Those were the last two words she spoke with me. The connection between us was severed as she suddenly blinked and looked away, as if she hated to know that leaving was the only reasonable thing to do right now. She got up silently, brushed down her muddy trousers, swallowed in disgust as her last view trailed over the river, and started towards the hill I had run down in order to get her out of the water only 15 minutes ago.
Our walk back to the site of the accident was rather a jog. I had to fall into a much faster pace, with Lily walking in front of me. Her short legs carried her effortlessly through the underbrush, and her safe footing came in handy. She never even trapped, although her eyes were always focused ahead. Was she punishing herself with this run? I didn't ask, still feeling blown away by the blank stare she had given me earlier. And I was somehow afraid, I'd see that look again if she would turn around.
I knew that she was reliving her last minutes with that kid, trying to save him – and failing over and over again. And yet I thought that even her trying had been worth more than anything – after all, she had risked her own life to save the boy. She had been in that river for over 40 minutes, grabbing onto a rope with one hand, talking to a frightened boy, feeling colder by the minute and noticing how her own strengths started to vanish.
During the ride back, I more than once thought about survivor's guilt, something Lily was experiencing right now. The fact that she was the one that survived and that a boy of 16 years had to die, was hard on a person. She would need someone to talk to. This wasn't something you could just forget. As strong as one seemed to be. Lily needed help, and not only psychologically, but medically.
As I watched her fumble with her greasy trousers, my doctor's mind went back to the river and how I've seen her head going underwater. Who knew how much water she had swallowed in these 40 minutes? Unboiled water. Dirty, full of foreign germs and bacteria, causing numerous illnesses. I decided that I would talk to her as soon as we got back to the clinic. First of all, about the medical aspects … and if she would let me, I'd deal with her trauma afterwards. But first, I needed to make sure she was physically okay.
But upon arriving, Lily was gone sooner than I had thought. I was about to jump up and call after her, but Fuller came rushing down the front stairs, calling for me. The last image I had of her was her tiny form rushing off, not even looking back.
And that's the picture I am seeing right now – her heading off. I slip into my new shirt, take a deep breath and know exactly what I am going to do. I need to see her. We need to talk. There are things that I need to say and there are meds she needs to take. I can't have her fall ill to some jungle illness when she has just survived that river. And I can't have her suffer about losing that kid, when it wasn't even her fault. Before I head to the pharmacy, to gather the meds and some courage, I grab my stethoscope.
Again, the clinic seems deserted, but it's always like this as soon as the sun has set. Visitors have left the building and it's only us, the patients that have to stay and some nurses. My steps on the wooden boards reverberate from the clinics wall and fall back into Zee's medicinal garden. I see no light in the pharmacy, so I start to fumble for the key, resting in the pocket of my jeans. The lock opens smoothly and I remember the break in a few weeks back. Having locks had been just an obstacle for those thieves, but not a reason for capitulation. As soon as the doors open, I enter the tidy room, turn the light switch on and access the medical list I've made in my mind. As I am about to start looking for those meds, I hear a slight shuffling behind me and spin around.
It's Lily. She's standing right there in the door frame, being as clean as I am – no signs of mud, no soaking hair, nothing to remind us about today. Just some shorts, a low ponytail, and a simple light blue t-shirt that's mirroring the colour of her huge red-rimmed eyes. The sight gives my heart a sting. Have I gathered enough courage to talk to her? As my heart starts pounding, I feel like I haven't. And suddenly, I feel speechless again.
"I …," she carefully utters, and I think her voice sounds hoarse and much more quiet than usual. Her stance seems crooked, as if she has somehow lost her ability to stand straight up. I can't help but think of a weight resting on her shoulders. "I may have swallowed some of the … water."
Being the good doctor as always, and here I was thinking that I needed to tell her to take care of her health. Naturally, she had thought about it herself and I suddenly feel very much relieved. She is caring enough about herself and not drowning in the sorrow of today's events. I silently nod towards her, feeling much better now that she's here, and now that she's talking. At least a little, although her staring hasn't stopped. I see her leaning against the frame, somehow waiting for me to start looking for those meds, and not wanting me to come any closer. So, I turn my back towards her and take a look at the shelves, knowing fully well what I am looking for. Maybe this will give us both time to get used to the others presence, and for me to finally find my voice.
For a while we are silent. I can't even hear her take any breaths, but suddenly it's her voice that fills the small room, barely audible, though, "How's your … patient?"
There is a slight pause before she says the word 'patient'. Maybe it's hurting her, because the word makes her think about Andres. I also sense the slight trembling in her voice, as if it's straining her to talk. Who is she kidding anyway? She's just asking those questions to make some small talk, maybe fearing that if we don't talk, I will start asking questions. Questions she doesn't want to answer, or maybe can't. But I am not that stupid as to ask her, and so I work on, don't react a bit and just look for those meds, while giving her an honest answer to her question, "Stable after surgery."
Would it be okay, though, if I tell her that Fuller had been an amazing help today? How his idea of a temporary bypass had saved our patient? Or would she think even less of herself when I tell her about somebody who had been able to save a patient today? Me, as a doctor, decides that it is okay to talk about Fuller's success. After all, they are like siblings. I have never met three people less competitive about their jobs and more caring about each other. "Fuller did great," with that I have my hands on the last med package and turn around to come closer towards her, hoping that she wouldn't bolt. Right now, she's looking like a frightened dog, ready to run away every second. So my steps are controlled and steady.
But I worry in vain, she stays put, squirming only slightly as my eyes take a look at her pale face, "And for you … Cipro and Flagyl twice a day, and Vermox q day for a week." As I am standing closely before her, she turns her head away, back to the ground and shakes it slightly, as if she wants to say that all this medicine isn't necessary, telling me that I am overreacting with the medication – that less is more. And yes, maybe she's right. But I always hated to take chances, especially when treating people I care about.
I am standing right in front of her, and suddenly realise how small she is. I can't see her face, although I know that she is watching my hands and the meds in them. As her fingers carefully touch mine, I am shocked about how cold they are and a mighty wish to warm them overcomes me. Yet, I don't do anything, because as much as I wish to do it, it's not what she needs right now - it's rather what I long for. So, I just let her take those meds out of my hands, and before I know it, she is leaving. Lily has what she came for, and now it feels like she's running again. From me and the situation.
She's moving quickly, her steps absolutely silent, and so I look after her and speak up. I am hating this. To see her like this. To walk around like the shadow of her usually sunny and witty self, and I am somehow glad that my calling her name comes out as softly as I want it to be, "Brenner."
She stops in the next doorway and I have a chance to come closer to her again, while she fidgets with the meds, avoiding my gaze, looking down. I can sense her restlessness and her fear that I might say something, ask things she doesn't want to answer. But right now, I have to say something. I can't just watch this, because it's making me sad, as well. And in this moment I realise that I care too much about her to simply let this go. A quick look from her and I feel even more convinced that I have to speak up, "Whatever happened today … it wasn't your fault."
Her blue eyes meet mine again and I can see them tear up within a second. A sight that takes away my breath. Her face looks so innocent and scared that I question my expertise on her character. I believe that Lily is one of the strongest doctors I have seen so far. The rare combination of compassion, professionalism and the ability of staying calm in critical situations are all impersonated within Lily. But right now, with me looking into those huge eyes, I feel like I may have misinterpreted her. Maybe she's not that strong … maybe she's as fragile as I am. Her look tells me so, and I feel a pinch right to the heart as she insecurely looks back and forth between the floor and my eyes, before staring blankly into the distance – not seeing me, not seeing the walls of the pharmacy, but possibly being back at the river.
Feeling like I am loosing her to the events of today, I need to keep talking to her, to keep her grounded in the here and now, "You do anything to save a life. So, I know that you did everything possible for that kid." My voice is soft, somehow trying to soothe and comfort her through my voice, because I somehow feel that it would be inappropriate to touch and embrace her, wouldn't it? After all, I am her boss. So, I wait for a reaction from her. For a sign that tells me, she's listening – understanding, for the best. But somehow she just starts shaking her head slightly, negating what I just said. She's not believing what I am saying – she still holds herself responsible for Andres death, and my mouth slightly opens in sympathy and disbelieve. Why can't I make her see? Or better to say, why doesn't she see that for herself?
I am stunned and have to heave a deep sigh, all the time watching her staring at the ground. What do I need to do to help her? To notice me and what I am saying? I am at a loss and I feel horrible. Why can't I help her? Why can't I reach her with my words? Maybe I need to think this through, first. Make up a whole new strategy, a new plan, before I can help her? As I moisten my lips, I think that maybe I should just start fresh tomorrow, after I have had time to think this mess through. Right now, I feel like there's nothing I can do for Lily … or if there is, I don't see the solution ... and she doesn't let me know.
"Why don't you, uhm, go home and get some sleep, huh?" With that I carefully touch her arm, feeling confident that I will talk to her tomorrow, with a new strategy in mind, but then her eyes meet mine. I finally got her to look at me … but what I see, is shocking. She's lost. Alone. Looking up with her eyes and screaming for help. Silently. And here I am, standing right in front of her, wanting to help her, but not knowing how. The tears in the corners of her eyes glisten in the dim light of the pharmacy's lamp, and the huge lump in my throat is back. She's looking at me like she awaits something, like she is waiting for me to react, to help her, but what am I supposed to do? What can I do?
Before I can react, she turns and leaves. It's in this moment that I know I should take the next step, because I know I care enough about her. But again, she is faster than my mind can catch up and the sight of her walking away tears me apart.
But now I know what I have to do.
Thanks for reading!
Be kind and leave a comment, no matter if good or bad. Criticism is always appreciated.
Take care, K.