This is the final chapter of Compass, which I enjoyed writing, mostly because I love these characters. Zoe and Wade said a lot to each other while they were apart, and their actions said a lot as well. So I wrote the last scene with a minimum of words and action between them. I left the rest to your imaginations. Comments and reviews are always appreciated.
During the next three months, Zoe and Wade launched a constant flurry of soul-searching talks, angry words, and passionate make-up sex. Her two-day trip to New York to meet with the fellowship committee served as their timeout. She had lunch with Gigi, who prescribed a day of shopping to distract her friend from any thoughts of Wade. When Zoe's return flight arrived in Mobile, Lavon was waiting for her at the airport.
"Trip go OK?" Lavon asked as he drove toward Bluebell.
"Fine, thanks. Wade's at school, I assume?"
"Yep. When do you go back to New York?"
"In two weeks. I already have my ticket." Her breath was shallow. She was relieved Lavon's eyes were focused on the road so she didn't have to look at his face.
"Zoe . . . Part of me knows that your life is none of my business, but part of me wants to shake you senseless. Do you know what you are doing? Over the past few months, with you and Wade being together and all, I got a feeling that you were really happy here. Happy with your life."
Zoe gazed out the passenger-side window. "Lavon, I know what you're doing. Did Wade ask you to talk with me?"
"No, this is Lavon Hayes talking to you now. But I'm sayin' what I believe, and also on his behalf. You should know that if you leave, it will put a powerful hurt on him."
Her pain ran so deep that she couldn't bear to hear what she knew was true. It would pierce her resolve. So she said, "Oh, Lavon, we're talking about Wade here. You remember him. The guy who doesn't give—how did he put it?—'a rat's ass' about anything. That Wade will be back. In the long run, my leaving isn't going to matter to him."
"Zoe, you're wrong," Lavon said. "Wade is a changed man. And you helped that along. It would matter to him."
"Lavon, I've got to do this. It's something I worked for my entire adult life," Zoe said, her voice shaking. "Besides, it's not as if Wade and I are breaking up completely. The fellowship is for two years. We'll still see each other. Sometimes long-distance relationships work out even better."
"I wish I knew of one."
Zoe turned back to the window and wiped away her tears.
"You talk to her?" Wade asked Lavon the next morning.
"Yep. Fat lot of good it did. You were with her after I brought her home. Did she say anything?"
"Yeah, but we didn't do much talkin', at least not with words anyway." Wade took a deep breath and sighed, thinking of how Zoe felt in his arms last night. "What am I gonna do without her, Lavon? I love that woman so much I . . . What's the point of goin' to school now? I wanted her to be proud of me and—"
"Listen here, Wade. You've got to keep goin'. That's the legacy she left you. She put you on the right path."
"But what's the point when she's gone?"
"The point is, you're helping Bluebell . . . and yourself. We'll all be proud of you. Don't let us down now."
The evening before her flight back to New York, Zoe and Wade made dinner together, trying to keep the conversation light. She had met that day with George and Brick to draw up and sign papers that would legally sell her half of the practice to Brick. And she said her good-byes to Addie as well as Shelley and Rose. Lavon had already agreed to take Zoe to the airport. Wade had admitted that he couldn't face saying good-bye to her in a place that would take her away from him for good. Their last night together, they made love at her place and talked till the sparrows stirred outside.
"You need to come visit New York, Wade. You'll like it," Zoe whispered, wrapped in his arms. "Give it a chance. There's so much to do there, you'll never want to leave."
"We've been over and over this, darlin'." Wade sighed and kissed her forehead. "I might come and visit, sure. But small-town life means everything to me. It's my home. I couldn't live anywhere else. I thought maybe you changed enough to feel that way, too."
Some part of her knew he was right, but she brushed that aside. "We can still work this out, Wade. It's only two years. We'll text and call."
"That seems like a lifetime, Zoe. And all that time, you'll be back living in New York. You'll feel right at home again. You won't be able to tear yourself away."
"I'm not giving up on us yet." A few of her tears dropped on his chest.
Wade lifted her chin and kissed her softly. "I'm not a prayin' man, but startin' tomorrow I think I'm gonna do my share."
The next morning, Lavon knocked on the door as Zoe packed the last bit of clothing in her bags. "Good morning. I'll get those, Zoe," Lavon said as he came in. He glanced at Wade. "I'll leave you two alone to say good-bye. We have some time." He reached for the bags and carried them to the car.
"Thanks, Lavon." Wade pulled something out of his pocket and sank to the edge of the bed.
Zoe followed him and put her arms around his neck. "What's that?" she asked, looking at the metal circle in his hand.
He held out his palm. "It's a compass. From my Boy Scout days. I don't think I need it anymore, but maybe you do. Maybe it'll show you the way back home . . . back to me." He placed it in her hand and closed her fingers over it.
Her chin trembled as she squeezed it tight. "It'll be OK, Wade," she whispered through her tears.
He stood and they held each other, silent, for several minutes. He pulled away slightly and covered her mouth and face with kisses. "Knock 'em dead, Doc," he said finally. With his fingers he gently smoothed away her tears.
"You, too," Zoe replied. "Top of the class. You can do it."
They walked out of the guest house and to Lavon's waiting car.
Her mom welcomed her home. Zoe settled back in her old bedroom, at least until she could find a place of her own. Through her phone conversations with her daughter over the past few months, Candice was aware that Zoe and Wade had become close, so she tried not to ask too many questions about the status of their relationship, which Zoe appreciated. But two weeks after Zoe's arrival, her mother felt compelled one day at breakfast to ask: "Have you broken things off with Wade?"
Zoe glanced at her across the table. "We haven't talked in those terms. We're just taking it slow, see how things go. We text almost every day, and we try to call a couple of times a week. But our schedules don't seem to mesh very well."
After a month, it became even more difficult for them to find the time to connect. "Hey, baby, how's it goin'?" Zoe heard Wade say one evening on her cell phone.
"Wade, you're not going to believe this, but I'm headed into surgery right now."
"It's ten o'clock there. You're doing a surgery now?"
"I know. Crazy, right?" she said, running down the hallway of the operating-room wing to scrub. "An emergency heart transplant. I'm assisting. I don't know what time I'll finish. Can I call you tomorrow morning?"
"OK, but I'm openin' the Rammer Jammer tomorrow. I can probably talk if you call early enough."
Zoe tried Wade's phone 6:30 the next day, but the reception was so bad in the subway that she gave up. She tried again once she was on the street. "Hey, Wade, sorry. The connection was terrible. I'm headed into work now. How about tonight? I can't wait to tell you about last night's surgery. It was awesome."
"I'll be in class, Zoe. It's Wednesday. I can call you when I get home."
"OK," she said wistfully.
After class that night, Wade left a message for Zoe on her cell. But by the time she texted him back, he was already asleep. As she lay in bed, she wept softly, struggling with her feelings. She missed the evenings with him, when they talked about their day and laughed about Lemon's latest project and read Dash Dewitt's daily blog. She hadn't realized until lately how those simple things could mean something to her.
Over the following weeks, they started to settle into a routine—calls twice a week after class or work, and texting almost every day. It was usually enough for Wade. With school, work at the Rammer Jammer, and his apprenticeship with Joe Reddy, he stayed busy. But the phone calls weren't enough for Zoe. She felt scattered, frustrated, and alone. After a particularly grueling day, she tried three times to reach him, but each call went to voice mail. "Hey, it's 7:30, it's not a school night, so where are you? I really need to talk with you,Wade. Please call me as soon as you can." Her mind wandered to places she didn't want to go. So by the time he said hello two hours later, Zoe was frantic. "Why didn't you call me?" she cried. "I needed to talk to you!"
"Whoa, baby. Joe and me were rewiring a house. We just got out of the basement. I had no satellite connection down there. What's wrong? Why are you so—"
"I didn't know where you were or who you were with. I almost killed a patient today, and I—"
"Oh, come on now. You weren't operating alone, right?"
"No, but I still can't believe I was so stupid. I wasn't concentrating. I'm always focused . . . and I . . ." Her words dissolved into tearful sobs.
"Zoe," Wade said softly. He gave her a few seconds to cry. "Zoe, I'm sure it's a lesson you'll remember. Is there anything else botherin' you?"
She sniffed back her tears. "I don't know," she whined. "I'm usually so focused, but I've felt so distracted lately. I miss you."
Wade got into his car as Joe packed up the rest of his tools in his truck and headed back to Mobile. "I miss you, too, baby. Have you been workin' nonstop?" He started the engine and turned onto the highway.
"Yeah, it's been pretty much 24/7 since I got here. It's a tough program."
"Maybe you need a break. Go out with Gigi or another one of your friends."
"Some of the other doctors go out for a drink some nights if they're not on call. Maybe I should join them one evening."
"Uh, most of these doctors are guys, right? I think I just gave you a bad idea."
"Relax, cowboy. I know where you're headed with this."
He paused for a moment, then said, "Ya' know, I was thinkin' . . . maybe we should sign up for Skype. We could see each other as we talk. We could see each other naked—better than porn."
"Wade!" she squealed. "That's so trashy and inappropriate. . . . So how much do you think that would cost?"
The following Friday, Zoe took Wade's advice and joined her surgical colleagues for a drink at the bar across the street from the hospital. She sipped her chardonnay and smiled.
"Hey, anybody interested in going to that performance-art show at the 97th Street Y?" asked Jessica, one of the cardiac fellows. "I read about it in New York magazine, and it's supposed to be awesome."
"I'm sure it can't beat the performance-art show called Planksgiving in Bluebell, Alabama," Zoe said to the group. "For Thanksgiving, the town celebrates pirates instead of Pilgrims—complete with costumes."
"You're the one from Arkansas?" asked Josh, another surgeon who was standing next to her.
"It's Alabama, and no, I'm from New York originally, but I spent the past year there practicing family medicine. It was actually better than I expected. I was out of my comfort zone for a long time. But I found that the town has its charms."
"Really. I'm from a small town in New York State and I couldn't wait to get out," Josh replied.
"I actually miss it, the people." Zoe looked around the bar and, except for her colleagues, saw no one she knew.
"What's in your stock portfolio these days?" asked Marty, another surgeon who was listening to their conversation.
"I . . . haven't bought stocks yet," Zoe replied.
"Have you seen Apple's stock lately? It's through the roof. You've got to get in on that, Zoe." Marty reached in his pocket for a business card. "I have a broker's license. I sell stocks on the side. You know, in case this surgery thing doesn't work out. Give me a call and I can set you up."
Zoe offered him a thin smile and glanced at the card. "Thanks." As she walked to the bar to get another drink, she rolled her eyes and tossed the card in the trash.
On that same night, Wade wiped down the bar at the Rammer Jammer as Lavon greeted him and Shelley and took a seat at the end.
"Good to see you this evening, Mr. Mayor," Shelley said with a smile.
"And you, Shelley."
"What's your pleasure tonight, sir?" Wade asked Lavon.
"How 'bout an Absolut martini? Hey, you hear from Zoe?"
"Yep, day before yesterday," said Wade as he grabbed the bottle of vodka. "We usually talk after class, Mondays and Wednesdays. Sometimes on the weekends. I miss her so much I'm trying to get up the nerve to go visit her in New York. But the thought of that city scares me to pieces."
"Nothin' to be scared about, Wade. You should go." Through the crowd, Lavon saw Joelle walk in. "Now that's something you should be scared of," he said, nodding in her direction.
"Hey, lover," Joelle said to Wade as she faced him at the bar. "Heard your doctor girlfriend dumped ya'."
"She did no such thing." Wade slid the martini to Lavon and walked over to her. "She's back in school, in a manner of speakin,' in New York. I'm in school. We're trying to work it out. So don't go looking for trouble, Joelle. Ain't no trouble here."
"Well, if I can help ease your pain, just let me know, OK? You have my number." She ordered a beer and walked to a table near the door.
Lavon and Shelley exchanged glances across the bar and slapped a discreet high five.
Zoe waited in the small anteroom of Dr. Solomon's office. Three months had passed, and Dr. Solomon, head of the program, was ready to give his quarterly review of her work, her first. He's going to bring up my lapse in judgment in the operating room last month, Zoe thought. I know it. No excuses, just work harder.
The door to the inner office flew open. "Dr. Hart, come on in," said Dr. Solomon, waving her inside. Zoe rushed in and took a seat in front of his desk.
"So, how do you think it's going?" Dr. Solomon asked.
"Good. I know I've made some errors, such as the angioplasty last month, but I always learn from my mistakes."
"I didn't see that as significant. You caught it in time. Overall, I'm quite impressed with your approach in surgery. And based on your records, you've improved your patient care."
Zoe smiled. "I think my year in family medicine helped me to treat people with a little more compassion."
"It shows, according to the patient surveys." He paused a moment and put her folder on his desk. "One thing concerns me, however. I don't know quite how to put it. I get the impression that you lack some enthusiasm for the program. I know you work hard, I have no question about that. But I get the sense that you are not completely committed to the work."
Zoe looked at him as if he had been living in her heart and head for the past three months. She enjoyed the challenges of surgery, but doubts about her decision to leave Bluebell picked at her every day, keeping the hurt of uncertainty fresh and raw.
"A heart surgeon's hours are grueling, Dr. Hart. You know that already. If you don't have the passion for it, that single-minded drive, the job will grind you down, and you'll eventually regret your choice."
"Being a cardiothoracic surgeon is something I wanted forever," she said softly.
"That may be true. But is it something you want now?"
"I . . . There are days when something pulls me away from my goal. Practicing family medicine in a small town . . . I didn't think I could ever find that satisfying. . . . But I did," she said, surprised to hear her own words. "Even the relationships I made there . . . I never expected it."
"Dr. Hart, there is nothing wrong with family medicine. God knows, the country needs more GPs, especially in rural areas." He smiled at her. "Look, your capabilities are strong as a surgeon. I have no doubts you'd make a fine one. But find out what's in your heart. Whatever you decide, you have my complete support and respect."
Zoe sighed. "Thank you, Dr. Solomon. That's reassuring."
Candice walked past her daughter's bedroom and listened. Crying again, she thought. She knocked on the door. "Zoe, can I come in?" She opened the door to hear her daughter's answer.
"Uh, yeah, come on in, Mom," she said, sitting up on her bed and wiping her face.
"You and Wade have an argument?"
"No, no. We haven't talked today."
"What's wrong, then?" her mom asked as she sat on the edge of the bed.
"I had my review with Dr. Solomon today."
"Was he critical?"
"No, actually. He was very complimentary. But . . . he did mention something that I need to think about."
"Which is . . ."
"He wondered whether my heart is really in the program . . . whether I still have the commitment." Zoe's tears spilled over her cheeks as she spoke.
"Oh, sweetheart," Candice whispered as she wrapped Zoe in a hug. "I could tell you haven't been truly happy since you've been back."
"I think I've cried more over the past months than I've cried my entire life," Zoe said between sobs. "What's wrong with me? I've always acted like a laser when it came to heart surgery, so focused. Now I feel like an overcooked piece of spaghetti."
"No, silly. You're something much better than a laser—you're a more complete human being. You're still a skilled and highly competent doctor. But over the past year, you've opened yourself to new experiences and different people—and that has made you more compassionate, more giving. And I know what else you are, too."
"What?" Zoe asked, sniffing back tears.
"Oh, God," Zoe cried as another flood of tears descended. "What am I gonna do about Wade?"
"Do you love him?"
She took a tissue from her mom and wiped her eyes. "Yes. Am I crazy?"
Candice chuckled. "Not at all. I told you when I visited that I thought he was charming and fun and could lighten up that serious side of you. And now that you say he's studying to be an electrician . . . It sounds as if he's trying to better himself, Zoe. Maybe you've been a good influence on him. I think he's been that for you."
Zoe glanced at the compass on her night table and placed her head on her mom's shoulder. "I think so, too. It's not at all what I had planned."
"Lavon, it's Zoe."
"Big Z! Good to hear your voice."
"And yours, Lavon. How's small-town life these days?"
"Oh, you know. The usual. We're starting to plan for Planksgiving. Lemon wants new decorations this year, and I'm tryin' to find money in the budget. How are things up there?"
"How's Mr. Kinsella doing?" She wasn't ready to answer his question.
"He's doin' just fine. But you talk with him every week, right? You should know."
"Well, from your perspective . . ."
"Zoe, he's not seein' anyone, if that's what you're wonderin'. He misses you plenty. He mopes around some. He's still studying and going to class. But since you left, I don't think he's got that same enthusiasm, you know?"
Lavon's words sparked a familiar feeling in her. "I know exactly what you mean. I seem to have the same problem. I . . . My heart's not in this program. It's . . . somewhere else."
He smiled at the phone. "So what are you gonna do about it?"
"I spoke with my supervisor last week. He wants me to think about what I truly want in medicine. As strange as it sounds to me, heart surgery might not be for me anymore. I enjoy family practice much more than I ever thought I would."
"Zoe, I can't tell you how happy I am to hear that. And nothing has changed here. Wade made sure of that."
"What do you mean?"
"He made me promise not to rent out the guest house for six months. I mean, I didn't care, I don't need the money. But he also begged Brick and George not to file the
papers for the sale of the practice. He told them that, once he got his license, he would do any kind of electrical work for them for free. Wade wanted to give you a chance to come back."
Zoe gasped. "He never said anything to me about that!"
"So, you're comin' back, big Z?"
"Yeah. But please don't tell Wade."
"I won't. Just let me know when you're flying in and I'll pick you up."
"I'm coming, just a minute," Candice cried as she ran down the hall to answer the doorbell. "Ethan," she said when she opened it. "I wasn't expecting you."
"Is Zoe here? She and I need to talk." Ethan stepped into the foyer.
Zoe's bedroom door opened down the hallway. "Hi, Dad. I thought I heard your voice. How are you?" she asked as she walked over to hug him.
"I'm fine, or at least I was until I spoke with Dr. Solomon. You're leaving the program? What are you thinking, young lady?" Ethan said, his voice angry.
"Dad, calm down. I was going to call you tonight and tell you myself."
"I put in a good word for you, Zoe, put my reputation out there. And this is how you repay me?"
"Now, hold on, Ethan," her mother said, hearing every word. "This has nothing to do with you."
"Stay out of this, Candice." He saw the luggage in Zoe's room and turned back to her. "Wait a minute. You're not going back to Arkansas, are you? To that family practice." Ethan practically spit out the words.
"It's Alabama," Candice shouted.
"Yes, I'm going back to Bluebell. After three months, I realize that I enjoy treating real people, not just their cases. I like treating their whole families, getting to know their history, medical and otherwise. I like being part of a community. Who knew? I sure didn't." She leaned against the wall, waiting for her dad's response.
"That Wade had something to do with this, I bet. He was probably begging you to come back."
"No, he never asked me to do that. He's been very supportive in all this." She paused a moment, then said, "I can't deny that I missed him. I'm in love with him. But that's not the only reason I'm going back, Dad."
"You're going to regret this. You don't know what you're doing."
"Dad, I know exactly what I'm doing. I'm thirty years old. This is my life, not yours. I appreciate all your help, and being a role model for me. But as it turns out, family medicine makes me happy. Helping people I know and live with gives me a great deal of satisfaction."
"In the medical community, family practice is the bottom rung. There's no prestige, and there certainly isn't any money."
"I'm not in it for the money. You're not listening, Dad. My life is more than medicine and money. I need to strike a balance, and I think I found that in Bluebell."
Zoe heard Wade's voice on her cell phone. It was her last night in New York, and she was packing some last-minute items. "Hey. It's Monday, right? You back from class?"
"Yep. Semester's over this week, so I have a break of about two weeks. And I was thinkin' . . . maybe I could come up and visit you and—"
"Whoa. Easy, cowboy. I would like nothing better than to see you, but I have ten angioplasties next week, and another heart transplant, if I'm lucky. Just too much goin' on . . . ."
"Well, what about the week after that? Things slow down some?"
"No. After that is a special week-long course for us. New techniques in stent replacement. Riveting."
"Really?" Wade sighed. "Or maybe you've got somethin' cookin' on the side that you're hidin?"
"No, no, absolutely not. Wade, I love you. Just be patient. Christmas is not too far away. Besides, tickets are so expensive. I have some frequent flyer miles I can use to come down there."
"I love you, too. But Christmas? Damn it, Zoe. I've got some money saved. C'mon, now. Don't you want to see me?"
"Of course I do. More than you know." She put her boarding pass in her purse. "If I can make it down there before Christmas, I will. I promise."
He sighed again. He looked up at the ceiling over his bed. "You better hurry. I miss you real bad."
"I'll be there before you know it."
The next evening, after he dropped Zoe off at the guest house, Lavon drove down the driveway, heading into town. He stopped as he saw Wade pull in and they rolled down their car windows. "Hey, Wade. Rammer Jammer still open?"
"Yeah, slow night, though," Wade replied. "Shelley's there. Billy and Rebecca Rogers are havin' dinner. They brought in little Noah. Dash is there, too. He's doing a whole blogpost on the baby."
"How's Zoe doin'?"
"OK, I guess. I told her last night I wanted to come visit on my break. She said no. Too busy. You think that's the reason?"
Lavon tried to hide a smile. "Well, she is a heart surgeon, you know. Her operating schedule must be jam-packed. I wouldn't worry too much. Hey, before I forget . . . I finally got a tenant in the guest house."
"Lavon, I asked you to keep the house open for six—"
"Yeah, I know. But this time . . . I think you two just might get along." Lavon rolled up his window and drove off.
Wade looked down the driveway and saw the faint light from the guest house. His breath quickened as he thought about last night's conversation. A moment later, he stepped on the gas pedal, the tires kicking up gravel. He parked in front of the house, bolted out of the car, then stopped at the porch. What if it's not her? he thought. God, please, let it be her. He tried to steady his hands. The door was slightly open, so he pushed it and walked slowly into the hallway. He turned at the first doorway, and on the other side of the room stood Zoe. His breath came shallow. "Hey," he said, his voice shaky.
"Hey." Zoe trembled at the sight of him.
"What are you doin' here?" he whispered.
Zoe grabbed the compass off her dresser. She walked to him and reached for his hand. "I came to give this back to you." She placed it in his palm and looked at him, her brown eyes wide and shining. "I'm not going to need it anymore."
They fell into each other's arms and held on, long into the night.