Monday, December 23, 2013

Frontline Outtake - Christmas Quitter

To thank all of you for your support this past year, here is an exclusive Frontline outtake. It takes place after Frontline, just prior to the sequel, which will be released in 2015. So if you haven’t read Frontline yet, please do so before reading this outtake.

Happy Holidays!!

CHRISTMAS QUITTER

The front of the card is a pencil drawing outlined in thick, black marker, showing a girl crowded by men and women, all curling their arms around her in a group hug. The girl doesn’t look comfortable. She looks like she’s being strangled by an octopus.
The message on the card reads:
They’re here for you every day,
(whether you want to see them or not)
Work with you through all your trials
(because they’re paid to)
Beg you to share the most intimate details of your private life
(because they’re bored)
And drink with you on paydays…
The illustration on the inside shows the girl standing by herself coupled with the punch line: But remember, they’re only work friends.
I don’t know whether to interpret the message to mean they’re not interested in keeping in touch, or look deeper to find some kind of pledge of friendship buried somewhere beneath the sarcasm. Messages and signatures are scrawled in different colored pens with barely legible signatures and initials beneath them.
“Barely knew ya! Good luck out there!”
“Sara, you’re special. Always remember that, okay?”
“Don’t be a stranger. Visit often!”
And the obligatory:
“Keep it real!”
I guess I should feel flattered that they at least went to this much effort. I didn’t expect any acknowledgement in the first place.
Tonight, I’m not just changing clothes and locking my locker until next shift. I’m emptying my locker, too, tossing out any garbage, leaving it clean and shiny for the next nurse to settle into it as a member of Manhattan General Hospital staff. I wonder if carving my initials into the back of it would be significant in any way, like an I Was Here message to all future nurses. I think better of it. They’d probably send me a bill for the paint and patchwork.
My last time in Manhattan General’s locker room.
I don’t plan to return. I finalized my decision two weeks ago when I slipped my notice of resignation under the office door of Valerie Hendrix, the tough-as-scabs nurse manager with a raging temper and words that bruise like a collapsed vein. I’ve avoided her successfully ever since. If I can make it out of here tonight without seeing her, I’ll be home free.
Valerie’s office is located in the administration wing of the hospital, a short elevator ride down three floors from my unit. The maintenance crew pushes floor polishers—vacuum cleaners that almost look big enough to ride on—over the scuffed tiles. I scamper past them, glad for their low hum muffling the sound of my footsteps as I approach Valerie’s office door. There’s just enough space between the bottom of the door and the surface of the carpet to slip my laminated badge and keycard underneath. I feel a rush of adrenaline when I stand and launch myself down the hallway. It’s only just after seven o’clock in the morning, but Valerie is known to work all sorts of odd hours. I can’t be too cautious.
My last time in Manhattan General’s A-Wing.
It’s hard to believe only one year ago, everything here was a series of firsts: My first night on the job at a real hospital, my first patient as a real, honest-to-goodness registered nurse. My first wound cleaning, my first pill administration, my first . . . sponge bath. Then again, maybe some things aren’t worth committing too deeply to memory.
Despite my speed, I get only a few strides away from Valerie’s office before I hear her door whip open behind me.
“Sara!” she shouts down the hall.
One member of the maintenance crew snaps from his trance and stares at his machine as if Valerie’s voice called from it. The rest of them continue uninterrupted. I could keep walking. The hum and hiss of the floor polishers at least masked her voice partially, and it’s not like Valerie to run after someone to get their attention. But it is like her to yell even louder if she’s not heard the first time. If only I’d had the sense to put on my headphones before I left the locker room.
I glance over my shoulder. She waves to me from her office doorway.
Busted.
“Thought you could leave without saying goodbye?” Valerie steps aside and motions for me to enter her office. I feel like a student heading to the principal’s on the last day before summer vacation.
Valerie’s office sports a clean, no-frills aesthetic, just like her daily pantsuits. A wall calendar mounted above an L-shaped desk shows a single green line stroked through the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Vacation is written above it in small printing. A laptop sits open on her desk beside an empty three-tiered filing tray. Other than the coffee mug and a small basket for stationary, nothing else in the office seems out of place, except for the small, plastic Christmas tree, lit up with a tiny string of blue, yellow, and green lights, and a sprinkling of tinsel. It’s the kind that comes decorated right out of the box.
“I was hoping we’d get a minute to talk.” Valerie walks behind her desk, but doesn’t sit down. Instead, she leans against the headrest on the top of her chair. “I have to say, Sara, your resignation caught me quite by surprise.”
“I guess I just had a change of heart.”
I rehearsed this conversation over the last two weeks, knowing of its inevitability, but the more days that passed without running into Valerie, the more I hoped the was a chance it would never take place. Silly me.
“Is Manhattan General too boring for you?” She pulls my resignation letter out of her filing tray and looks it over.
“Not at all,” I say. “I just need some time to think things over. I like being a nurse, but I don’t think I’m on the right path.”
Valerie’s shoulders slump and she frowns. She pulls the chair out and finally sits in it.
“Young people.” She sighs. “You all expect to be running the show right out the gate. What’s wrong with learning the ropes first, Sara? Putting your head down, working hard, and getting some real experience?”
“Nothing. Nothing at all. I just want try to find a better fit for myself.”
I try to be as vague as possible, but Valerie always presses for more details as soon as she catches the faintest whiff of bullshit. This conversation is fast becoming an interrogation.
“Fit? Fit where? Where do you want to fit?”
“Somewhere else.”
“Different ward? Different hospital? Different nursing discipline entirely?”
“All of the above . . . maybe?”
Her eyes narrow. “So who made you the offer?”
Now she’s lost me.
“Offer?”
“Oh, Sara. Don’t play dumb and make me keep asking. Was it Roosevelt? Please tell me it wasn’t Lenox Hill.”
I shake my head, but a little giggle slips out. I have to admit I’m flattered Valerie would think I’m a good enough nurse to be lured away by another hospital.
“That’s not it.”
My smile seems to alleviate some of the tension in the conversation and Valerie exhales a deep sigh. “So you’re not skipping over to one of our rivals. You promise? I have eyes and ears everywhere, Sara. It will get back to me.”
“I promise. I swear.”
She pulls her glasses from her face and tosses them onto the desk. Her eyes look small and tired without the magnification effect of the lenses. It’s amazing how much of her ferociousness vanishes without them.
“Does this have anything to do with your leave of absence this past summer?”
My fingers tense around the chair’s armrests. This is getting a little too close to Trenton territory. I’ve successfully kept us a secret this long, and I’m determined not to let it out now in my final moments here. If Valerie ever found out about our little lip-to-lip rendezvous the night Trenton and I met, right here in an examination room at Manhattan General, my career as a nurse might end today for good.
“I told you, Valerie. I was just home visiting my parents, and my dad and I got into a car accident. That’s it.”
She stares at me for a long time, looking for just one indication—excessive blinking, a hard swallow, chewing my tongue—characteristic signs that I’m lying to her.
“Well, I think there’s a lot more to it than what you’re letting on.” She puts her glasses back on and those wide, menacing eyes bear down on me. “But if you don’t want to tell me, fine. That’s your business.”
Valerie stands and offers me her hand. Her grip feels strong for such thin, bony fingers and calloused skin. She follows me toward the door.
“I was grooming you, you know . . .”
“Grooming me?”
“There’s a lot of potential in you, Sara. I saw you as nurse manager here at Manhattan General someday.”
I step out into the hallway but don’t turn my back on Valerie. This new revelation intrigues me.
“You saw me in your position?”
“You have the respect of your co-workers. You’re reliable, efficient, willing to learn and listen to the opinions of others.”
If these are qualifications for Valerie’s position, how did she get the job in the first place?
She stands in her office doorway with her arms folded, waiting for a response, but I don’t have one. I made my decision to leave, and the specific reasons why are none of her business. Dangling her own job at some point far off the future after decades of loyal service probably seems like a fitting reward to her, but not to me. What else is there to offer other than some half-assed apology?
“Good luck out there, Sara. You’re gonna need it. I just hope to God you know what you’re doing.”
The echo of her slamming office door reverberates down the hallway. The maintenance staff has disappeared, and after a few seconds, it’s quiet enough that my footsteps squelching over the freshly waxed floor sound deafening through the thick morning silence on A-Wing.
My last time talking to Valerie Hendrix, Nurse Manager of Manhattan General Hospital.
I really hope I’m that lucky. 
A crisp New York morning like this one deserves better than a subway ride, and since my days in this city are numbered in single digits, I decide to revisit some of my favorite places while it’s quiet. The black morning sky is just starting to brighten and many of the Christmas lights on trees and in storefronts are still illuminated. The journey inevitably takes me past the front window of Sam and Ella’s, followed by a quick cab ride up into Central Park, where I find myself gravitating toward landmarks like a certain hot dog cart (not to eat, even I can’t manage that at this time of the morning) and across the terrace to the Bethesda Fountain. It sits alone and dry, a sprinkling of snow dusting the head and wings of the angel sculpture. The spring buds on the trees that were leafing when Trenton and I spent an afternoon here months ago have all withered and fallen, now decorating the park grounds in dried yellows, browns, and reds.
How is it possible to feel so nostalgic after such a short period of time? I doubted big city life would suit me, and in less than a year, it managed to change my life forever. The plan was simply to come to New York, live independently of my parents, work hard, and build a quiet, peaceful existence for myself. Well, there’s nothing quiet about New York, and there’s nothing quiet about car chases, machine gun fire, helicopters, and stormy seas, either.
My last time traipsing through Central Park.
Definitely not.
It took months to stop feeling so out of place as soon as I approached the main entrance of The Majestic, especially when coming off a shift dressed in my nursing scrubs, even if they did come from a designer store. I’m sure most people I pass still assume I’m a day nurse for an elderly oil baron or ailing tycoon of a decades-old multinational.
The lobby gleams from every corner. A giant Christmas tree, at least twenty feet tall, soars between the pillars at the far end of the hallway. White ivy decorated with brass baubles and golden bows covers each pillar like a tapestry. Clear lights woven through it shine like icicles, and their reflection on the marble makes the floor glitter as if strewn with diamonds.
The direct-to-floor elevator whisks me up twenty-nine floors to Trenton’s penthouse suite, one place I’m still not used to calling home even months after we returned to New York from San Francisco. The speed the elevator carries me from ground floor to penthouse serves as a pretty accurate analogy for life with Trenton. One day, a studio apartment in Brooklyn. The next, The Majestic.
I don’t say any of this to brag. I say it because I’m still pinching myself out of disbelief that any of it is real. Maybe that’s the reason I still have trouble feeling comfortable surrounded by all of this luxury. Trenton tells me what’s his is mine, but none of this belongs to me at all. Aside from dodging bullets and jumping off bridges, I didn’t earn it, and I certainly didn’t work for it. One snap of his fingers and it could all disappear as fast as Cinderella’s ball gown and glass slippers. Is it possible to survive a twenty-nine-storey freefall?
The elevator slows as I reach the top floor. It doesn’t ding, but instead opens directly to the small lobby, lit by a crystal chandelier, its light reflected off the white glossy walls trimmed with crown molding and hand-carved rose petal insets.
“Enjoy your day, Mr. Merrick,” the elevator voice says.
There’s no sense changing that greeting, or at least adding a Mrs. to it; something I hope to become one day soon. All I know of the immediate future is we’ll be spending it abroad. Christmas far away from home will be an odd feeling, one I’ve talked with Trenton about at great length. Why not stay an extra few days in the apartment, celebrating our first ever Christmas together? What’s the rush?
The mission is the rush, Sara. 
It’s an answer I heard so many times it became as stock as the answers Trenton uses for interviews with journalists at financial magazines. 
People are in trouble and they need our help. We’ve had enough Christmases, don’t you think? Let’s help others have one this year.
Arguing with a point like that automatically throws you into nomination for Selfish Ass of the Century.
I drop my bag in the foyer, and remove my coat, hat, gloves, and boots. My footsteps move silently over the marble floors. I peer through each open door as I pass and find Trenton in his study, poring over topographical maps, taking distance measurements and inputting the data into a tablet computer. His forehead creases while he works, his eyes jump around the map, clear and focused, lit by a small desk lamp shining from behind a stack of newspapers at his left elbow. He sniffs the air quietly, like a bloodhound that's detected something delicious and readies himself to follow the scent.
He lays the tablet down on the desk. When he looks at me, I become his new focus and walk steadily toward him as if caught in a tractor beam.
“From the rosiness in your cheeks, you obviously didn’t call your driver to bring you home.”
I shrug. “I wanted one last look around at everything, so I walked.”
Acting nonchalant when Trenton challenges me on something that concerns him feels obnoxious, but it’s the only way I can keep him calm about small, insignificant things that stress him out.
He stands and walks around the desk, wraps his arms around me, and tucks me into him. “It’s dangerous out there, Sara. Please understand I’m just trying to keep you safe.”
“It was dangerous six months ago, Trenton. We’re fine now. Nothing has happened and nothing will.”
He rubs small circles up and down my back in a gentle caress.
“I’m a fortunate man, but I never thought I’d be lucky to have you in my life. Now that you’re mine, I’ll die before I let anything happen to you.”
“I know. And I love you for that.” I hold him tighter, and we move through the next moment silently.
Trenton brushes his lips over my ear. “Good shift?”
“Best one ever.”
“Because it was your last?”
“Yup.”
We share a laugh. I press my cheek against him and feel the vibrations through his chest.
“Did you get out of there without seeing what’s-her-name?”
“Nope. Valerie caught me at the last second when I returned by badge. She wanted to know where I was going.”
“What did you tell her?”
“Nothing. I kept tight lipped. She knows there’s something more to my quitting, but she gave up asking after awhile.”
We shift our weight gently from foot to foot and move back and forth, only inches at a time, in a silent, slow dance. The front of his pants felt soft when he embraced me, but the bulge grows larger now, and harder.
I rub my hand over the bottom of the bulge and squeeze him. He tenses like he’s been poked with a charged wire.
“It’s the effect you have on me, Sara. Morning and night.”
Trenton sweeps his hands over my breasts. I hope nothing on his desk is important, because once he gets a peek at the red silk bra I’m wearing, with tiny snowflakes embroidered in the lace over my nipples, we’re probably going to end up on top of it. I think about us under a Christmas tree, Trenton untying the bows of my lingerie . . .
“Trenton, do we really have to leave so soon? Like before Christmas and everything?”
He presses his lips to the top of my head. “You know we do, love.”
His voice sounds calm yet determined. Trenton’s not a person to commit to a challenge and then take a holiday. When I agreed to this journey, I knew that once the ride began, there would be no disembarking until it ended, that we would meet every twist, turn, and loop on the track ahead of us at full speed. It’s the only way Trenton works. My job is to be there beside him and hold on for life.
“I have something for you." His arms fall away from me, but he takes my hand and guides me out of the study. “Close your eyes before we go any further.”
“I’d rather go further on top of your desk.”
I try to pull him back into the study, but in a tug of war, Trenton always overpowers me.
I snap my eyelids shut and place the flat of my hand over my eyes for dramatic effect. We’ve extended our intimacy to different parts of the penthouse: the couches, the kitchen counter, the shower, the dryer while it vibrated on the Extra Dry cycle, and most recently, the elevator. If he’d rather surprise me with a quickie somewhere else this morning, I’m more than happy to follow.
Trenton leads me forward and we round the corner to the den on the east side of the suite—I can tell because through my thin cotton socks, I feel the cold marble flooring of the hallway turn to warm hardwood.
“Okay. Open them.”
“Merry Christmas!” a chorus of voices exclaim.
A roaring fire crackles in the fireplace and the fresh aroma of pine drifts through the air. Kelly, Denim, Chris, Sean, and Randall stand before a towering Christmas tree, its tallest branch brushing the ceiling. Somehow, they still managed to plunk the angel I made during crafts in second grade—complete with yellow pom-poms and pink glitter glued around a cardboard paper towel roll—at the very top. The rest of the decorations hang from the branches I recognize in an instant—the Snow White and the Seven Dwarves baubles, the Sesame Street figurines, and layers of popcorn strung through with red and green yarn.
“Where did you . . .? How . . .?”
“I asked your father to box them and send them on a shipment I had flying back from out west yesterday,” Trenton says. “We worked on this last night while you were at the hospital.”
Kelly and Denim throw their arms around me while Chris, Sean, Randall, and Trenton look on, their arms crossed over their chests. They nod proudly to each other. I thank them about a million times over, smiling so widely my cheeks hurt. Tears blur the corners of my eyes.
“This is amazing. You can’t know what this means.” I tighten my arms around Kelly and Denim.
“Merry Christmas, Sara,” Kelly and Denim say again.
I give them both a kiss on the cheek. “You guys are the best.”
Our small little band stands together inside this massive room.  
Good luck out there, Sara.
Valerie’s final words to me echo in a memory that already feels distant. In a few days, this will all be gone too—the inviting warmth of the fire replaced by a chilling step into the unknown.
I hope you know what you’re doing.
The truth is, I don’t. I held back from telling Valerie because I didn’t want to admit it to her. I don’t even want to admit it to myself. Where we’re going is a dangerous place that will test us in different ways. Most of all, it will test what we are to each other, simultaneously pushing our individual limits and the strength of the bond that holds the seven of us together. So the answer is no. I don’t know what I’m doing. But I do know that with friends like this, and Trenton’s love, I’ve got a pretty good head start.



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