Angst and Cake (Niki’s smiling face)

Chapter 43

 “So what happens to Melissa now, Grant?”

“The hospital can file a complaint against her with the Board of Nursing if they choose, but that’s unlikely. She isn’t named in the suit, so she’s off the hook for that. Like I said, Dr. Straid filed against the hospital to protect his financial interests. With Melissa’s testimony, it’s clear the hospital has responsibility for not preparing their pediatric nurses better, and we can successfully throw in understaffing the unit too. There will be more discussions, but ultimately, the hospital will settle with the family out of court.”

“And Dr. Straid will still be a bully, and a child is dead.”

“I defend clients Niki, I don’t have to necessarily like them. You said it yourself, even if Straid had come in, the child still might not have survived.”

I drove home from La Jolla with feelings of angst. I think about how lucky I am to work with a good group of doctors in the PICU. Dr. Polk is respectful, even if he does sometimes forget he’s in a pediatric unit and cusses. He knows if a nurse says, “Come in and see this kid,” he’d better.

At home I sort through the pile of mail that collected while I was away, and am shocked by my smiling face on the cover of the latest issue of Call Lights Magazine: summoning the power of nurses! I remembered Todd saying, “Niki, look into the camera and smile,” before snapping the photograph. I had no idea it would be on the cover. Should I be happy or embarrassed? Have my friends at work already seen it? Probably. I’m sure I’m in for teasing of some kind.

I was right. I enter the PICU at change of shift to find every nurse on both shifts has a tiny photocopied print of the cover with my face taped over their picture of their employee name badges. Dr. Polk is there, and he’s wearing my face on his name badge too. So’s Gerald, and standing beside him, Corey, giving me a shy smile. It cracks me up; it’s so funny.

Kris walks over holding a copy of the magazine. “Great picture of you Niki. It’s too bad they didn’t Photoshop that crease between your brows though. You know, not taking care of that with a little Botox is sort of like having a unibrow.”

Is she kidding? I can’t tell. “Thanks Kris, I’ll keep that in mind.” I make a mental note to look more closely in the mirror when I get home tomorrow morning.

There’s a sheet cake in the staff lounge with the Call Lights Magazine cover airbrushed on it in sugar and food coloring. I cut into my face with the knife, and everyone has a piece during report.

Before taking his cake down to the ER, Corey touches my elbow, saying, “Congratulations, Niki,” and then quietly, “Let’s meet during our breaks tonight. I need to talk to you.”

“Okay. Text me.”

* * *

Around 0100, Corey texts me to meet him in the stairwell between our floors. Instead of bringing the lunch I’d packed from home, I cut two slices of what’s left of the ravaged cake, and bring them on paper plates with plastic forks. When I reach Corey several flights down, I see he read my thoughts: he’s holding two cups of coffee. I’m touched to see he’s remembered I like mine with half and half.

“You guys have half and half in your fridge?”

“No we don’t. All I could find was that irradiated or whatever stuff in those tiny plastic tubs that don’t need refrigeration. Sorry.”

While arranging the coffee cups and paper plates on the stairs, we’re uncharacteristically shy with each other. Seated, our hips touch on the narrow stair. He smells clean, of soap and water. Corey turns towards me, and I think he’s going to kiss me, but he pauses before placing his hand on the side of my face, brushing away the hair that fell loose from my ponytail.

“You’re beautiful, Niki. No wonder your face made the cover of the magazine.”

I don’t know what to say, so I start in,

“How’s Sheila? What’s been happening?” I’m afraid to go down this road, but we only have half hour breaks.

“She’s a fighter. She’s got a positive attitude, and the oncologist says there’s every chance they caught it early and she’ll beat it. I never knew Sheila was so strong, so vital.”

Uh oh. I braced myself for what was coming next.

“You’re staying, aren’t you Corey?”

“Niki, I,”

“No don’t, I get it. She needs you. You see her in a different light. She’s the mother of your girls.”

“Niki, it’s not that simple. I really love you.”

I will not cry.

“Corey, stop, it’s okay. We were both going through a rough time. No harm, no foul.”

“Niki, don’t, it’s not like that.”

I’m not going to be able to hold back the tears much longer. Shit, I have sick kids to take care of for the rest of the shift. I will not let this wreck me. I pick up my paper plate and cup, standing to leave.

“Thanks for the coffee Corey. I wish you the best.”

Corey’s also standing, and calls after me as I hurry up the stairs back to the PICU. “Niki, wait!” Behind me, the fire door closes more loudly than I’d intended, and I can’t hear the rest of what he’s saying.

Leaning against the door, I bite the inside of my mouth until the metallic taste of blood overcomes the sugary residue of cake. The pain forestalls my tears. I dump the cake and coffee into a wastebasket in the PICU’s empty family waiting room before entering the unit and return to my shift.