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Her hand squeezes my arm painfully and then she tosses it away, crosses her arms, and stares out the passenger window. “8745 Oak Drive. Take me home. Now.”
I’m at a crossroads. I want to come out on top, preserve what’s left of my dignity, and get Bailey the hell out of my car, but then I think of how annoying it will be to walk into work on Monday and admit to Patricia and Kendra that Bailey quit because I couldn’t put my ego aside.
“Take. Me. Home,” she says again, each word bitten out.
“I’ll never be the nice guy in the operating room,” I say suddenly, words spilling out of me before I’ve even decided I want to say them. “I won’t put on a Beach Boys playlist and joke around. With pediatric scoliosis surgery, you aren’t making the spine straight again. You’re taking a spine that operates like a slinky and turning it into a rock. It’s a preventive measure, not a cure. There’s no definitive reason why this happens to some people and not to others. Through no fault of their own, my patients are given a life sentence of pain and suffering.”
She doesn’t budge, so I continue talking to the back of her head.
“I’m passionate about what I do, and sometimes that carries over into how I treat my staff.”
“Not everyone. Just me,” she clarifies.
“I hold you to a higher standard.”
She snorts and shakes her head. I want to yank her ponytail and force her to turn around and look at me. I want her to meet my gaze and see for herself that I’m trying as hard as I can. I can’t touch her while I’m this worked up, though. So, instead, I focus on the storm brewing outside her window and try to ignore the painful tightening in my chest. This is hard for me. I don’t like to dwell in the dark underbelly of my job, but she dragged me here, and she doesn’t get to turn back now.
“Tell me, have you ever held a child’s life in your hands, Bailey?” My voice is cold and unfeeling. “Have you ever had to walk into a waiting room after a ten-hour surgery, look a mother in the eyes, and explain to her that there’s nothing more you can do for her child? That if you keep trying, you’ll shred her daughter’s spine? That she won’t be able to walk no matter how many surgeries or rounds of physical therapy she endures?
“Have you ever had a ten-year-old code on your table? Ever accidently nicked a nerve and nearly paralyzed someone? You think I’m a cold bastard. You want me to be polite and gentle with you. You want me to pat your head and give you a gold star for doing your job. I won’t.” I pause briefly. “Grow up.”
If I could roll out of Dr. Russell’s car on the highway without sustaining any major injuries, I would. As it is, I sit beside him silently, shaking with untold emotions until we pull up in front of my house. There are no words exchanged as I reach into the back seat for my backpack and brace it against my chest so it doesn’t get completely drenched. We don’t look at each other. We barely breathe. I clutch the door handle, consider thanking him for driving me home or apologizing for whatever it was that just happened, but in the end, I say nothing before I dart out into the rain. I’m running because it’s raining, but I’m also running because I want to get away from him as fast as I possibly can.
I push open the front door to our house with too much force and slam it closed behind me even harder, peeking past the window shade in time to see him peel away. I watch him go and my heart pounds in my chest like a stampede of wild horses.
“You’re not going to believe it!” Josie shouts behind me.
I jump out of my skin and whirl around to see her holding up the laptop we share. The messenger app is open and when I step closer, I see that she’s been having a conversation with Cooper without me knowing.
Shit. I haven’t checked our texts all day.
She waves her hand to cut me off. “Yes, okay, technically I’ve been texting him without your explicit permission, but he’s back in town and he invited you on a date tomorrow!”
My stomach fills with dread. “Please tell me you—”
“Told him yes?! Duh! And you aren’t going to believe it! You’re going to a wedding!”
Her eyes—the same light brown shade as mine—fill with stars as if a wedding is on par with the Oscars.
Oh my god. How many times am I going to feel panicky and weepy in one day? I can’t believe she did this. Sure, Cooper is nice, but I’m not sure I would have agreed to go on a date with him, and definitely not to a wedding!
I grab the computer and scroll furiously through the texts, trying to catch up. Their conversation is innocuous and kind of boring. They talk about the weather (So cold, right? Brrr!) and his flight back from Cincinnati (The guy next to me is snoring so loud!). Josie uses way more emojis than I would. Pretty much every sentence is dotted with three or four. Jesus, if I were him, I would never text me back, but Cooper isn’t deterred.
There, at the bottom, I see with my own eyes that he did invite me to be his date for a wedding, and Josie stupidly accepted on my behalf—with four hearts-in-my-eyes smiley faces. I look like a desperate weirdo.
Worse, Cooper goes on to explain that it won’t be a big, fun, eat-cake-and-blend-into-the-wall sort of affair.
I jerk my attention back to her. “It’s his cousin’s wedding! That means his entire family will be there!”
Her brows scrunch together like she doesn’t see the problem.
“He said it would be small,” she argues. “See there? ‘Just fifty people or so, nothing too crazy’.”
“That’s worse, Josie! It means there’s no way I can just fly under the radar!”
“Ooooh, yeah.” She nods, lip starting to quiver. “Now I see your point.”
I drop the computer onto the couch and start pacing. On a good day, this would stress me out. Today, I can barely stop from pulling my hair out.
“How do we undo this?”
“We don’t!” she says, trying to cut into my path and grab ahold of my shoulders, but I don’t let her. I need to keep moving or I might spontaneously combust. “He’s really nice and you said yourself you thought he was cute! So it’s kind of an awkward first date—so what? It could be really fun!”
I stop suddenly, drop my hands to my knees, and force down the urge to throw up.
Her hand hits my lower back. “Do you want me to get you out of it?”
She groans. “You were supposed to say no! It’s too late. I accepted the date on your behalf and now he’s all excited. Are you really going to let the poor guy go to a wedding by himself? Only losers do that!”
This is a mess, and unfortunately, it’s not entirely Josie’s fault. I’m the idiot who asked her to start messaging him in the first place. I look up at her and she’s standing before me, blonde hair tied up in a bun, cheeks stained red with embarrassment. She’s wringing out her hands and trying very hard not to cry.
“I don’t have a dress, Josie.” I sigh with defeat.
“The thrift shop a few streets over is still open for another two hours,” she says softly, the edge of her mouth curving with the start of a smile.
“And what about…”
I trail off, realizing I don’t actually have another excuse.
She rushes forward and wraps her arms around my middle. “We’ll get you a dress! I’ll do your hair and makeup. I’ve been practicing on myself all day.” Well that explains the heavy eyeshadow; I thought it was a little much for a weekday afternoon. “You’ll look like Cinderella going to the ball!”
References like that remind me that in some ways, Josie is still so young. She wants to believe in fairy tales so badly, and I know I have no choice. I’ll go to the wedding even if the experience leaves me permanently scarred.
The next day, I sit dutifully in front of our bathroom mirror while my sister does my hair. I have a face full of fancy makeup I could have never done myself. My eyes have never seemed so bright thanks to the combination of eyeshadows she’s painstakingly applied over the last hour. It’s subtle and pretty. I should feel like a million bucks, but I feel nothing beyond the knot of tension in the pit of my stomach.