06 Oct

Here, have 3500 words of Falling Lessons

Shirtless cover of Falling Lessons by Ren BentonThis isn’t polished by me or edited by my editor, so I don’t even know if it’s coherent English, and the book will probably never be finished, in part because it was turning into an “I hate men” book, which is, um, not great in heterosexual romance, but since I feel that sentiment is currently super valid, I’m going to throw chunks of what I have out into the world and see if I’m inspired to rage-finish my own book or just burn shit to the ground. Enjoy if you can.

Lesson 1

Even a person standing still can fall.

Caz’s white lab coat cast a ghostly reflection upon the glass doors at the far end of the waiting room, but it was the absence of patients that spooked her. Even after 8:30 on a weeknight, Birchview Clinic could usually rely on a steady stream of coughs, aches, and lacerations to run the staff ragged.

Jacinta Rawlins sat behind the intake desk with a phone pressed to her ear. She spoke to the caller as if attempting to drum up business. “We’ve been trying to sort this out for five minutes, hon. You’re still alive, so it’s probably okay for you to come here. If it turns out to be an emergency, I will personally roll you across the building to the ER.” A few seconds later, she dropped the receiver onto the base in defeat. “He’ll never show up. Sometimes I swear they just want somebody new to complain to.”

Caz slipped behind the desk to type a quick summary on her final patient, determined to flee before the inevitable post-lull flood surged through the doors. “Where do you suppose everybody is?”

“Weather’s fine, so there must be something good on TV. It’s been quiet except for the family that came in with double-ended spewing.”

“Sorry I missed that.” Caz dropped into an empty chair and wheeled toward the neighboring computer. Her shin collided with the pointed corner of the shredding bin shoved haphazardly under the desk. The profanity imprisoned behind her tight lips emerged as a growl.

Jacinta tsked. “I understood every one of those words, potty mouth.”

A kick forced the bin into proper alignment, well out of the leg space of the next unsuspecting victim who needed the keyboard. Her second kick was for spite. “Speaking of words one shouldn’t utter in polite company, did our illustrious office manager leave a copy of the latest development in erectile enhancement in your inbox, or am I the only one again?”

“You need to report that man.”

“I do, every time. Every time, the argument is made for legitimate medical information sharing.” Caz pulled up the patient’s record and entered the diagnostic details the billing department required to squeeze payment out of his insurance company. “I’m thirteen pages short of taking my copies of the offending documents and a scale upstairs and dropping five pounds of a dick-themed pattern on the human resource director’s desk.”

“He’s just as bad as Stearns.”

“They can sit together during the lawsuit.”

“Don’t tease me.”

“I never tease.”

Caz planned, then implemented. In her wake, she left a swath of broken men mourning their bad decisions—even if she had to endure a year of disgust to build a legal case that guaranteed a serial harasser received more severe consequences than a stern note in his personnel file.

Her immediate plan, however, was to get home in time to see the only decent man in her life before he went to bed.

She attached her digital signature to the record and logged out of the system. “I’m gone.”

“One more patient before you leave.”

“I’ve heard that one before.” Caz checked the clock on the wall. “About ten minutes before my shift ended forty minutes ago, as a matter of fact.”

“Dr. Gupta is busy with the spewers, and this guy has been waiting for ages. His vitals and x-rays are already done.” Jacinta turned on the Pixar eyes, shiny and soulful, the better to instill guilt in the heart of her target. “Think of the patient.”

Caz reviewed the chart. The prelim looked like a straightforward nasal fracture, but looks were deceiving in direct proportion to the examiner’s desire to clock out. Her conscience wouldn’t allow her to leave a patient waiting until the doctor became available, though. “This is absolutely the last one.”

“Scout’s honor.” Jacinta accompanied the vow with a lopsided sign of the cross that called into question both her scouting origins and relationship with the pope. “I’ll make it up to you by hanging back with the stragglers on Sunday Run Day.”

“Deal, but you’re getting off that easily only because I’ll be a no-show.”

“Planning to be hung over after a hot date?”

Caz was overdue for one of those. Her social calendar for the past few months had been a drought-stricken wasteland where only the tumbleweeds got any action, and there wasn’t a drop of rain in the forecast. “It’s Eddie’s birthday. I promised to be at his mercy.”

Jacinta bowed her head. “Lord, grant this woman the strength and serenity to endure an entire day of fourth graders hopped up on cake.”

Caz circled around the desk and headed back toward the exam rooms. “Remember, if divine intervention doesn’t come through, bail money is the next best thing.”

She took advantage of the empty waiting room to ensure her glasses were seated in her nose dents, her hair remained confined to its bun, and her lilac-printed blouse was tied in a demure bow at her throat and tucked neatly into her trousers. The lack of MD after her name meant the appearance of professional competence mattered every bit as much as her ability. The less she looked like a twenty-five-year-old who had been not-a-doctor for twelve months, the more seriously she was taken by her patients.

She was a half dozen steps from the exam room when the door opened from within. A man stepped into the hallway, his back toward her as he pulled the door closed. His size inserted an infinitesimal hesitation in her stride. Several inches over six feet, thick-necked, broad-shouldered, with arms encased in a long-sleeved black compression shirt that left no bulging muscle to the imagination, he radiated an intimidating volume of power not even the man-bun of black hair coiled against the back of his head could negate.

She amputated her preconceived notions where they sprouted. Bias could be lethal in a medical situation. Men didn’t have to make themselves huge to be dangerous; therefore, increased size wasn’t indicative of increased threat. Until he proved otherwise, she’d treat him like a gentle giant.

She affixed a polite smile to her face and pushed it into her voice. “Are you my patient?”

He turned to face her. The bridge of his nose showed a slight asymmetry but none of the trauma that accompanied a fresh fracture. The rest of his lines were ruler straight—square jaw, mouth contained in a box of sharply trimmed facial hair, severe brows lowered over heavy-lidded eyes. Women who liked the hewn-from-stone look no doubt swooned upon receiving his regard.

Vague familiarity tickled the edge of Caz’s mind, but she couldn’t imagine where she’d have encountered him before. A man his size wasn’t easily misplaced in memory.

His voice rumbled from the deep cavern of his chest. “I need a break from your patient.”

He wasn’t her problem, then. She dismissed the sensation of recognition as irrelevant. “The waiting room is empty if you’d like some distance.”

He shot a grim look toward the room he’d vacated. “My conscience won’t let me leave anyone to deal with him alone.”

That sounded like the kind of fun she could live without on a Wednesday night. “Should I call security?”

His eyes widened, revealing irises of an indeterminate color lighter than her first impression. “He’s childish, not violent.”

The majority of men who came to the clinic weren’t at their best under circumstances that compelled them to seek medical attention. “I’ll take a look and send him home as soon as possible.”

He stepped back and let her open the door rather than insisting on faux chivalry that would force her to squeeze past his entrance-obstructing bulk. He followed her into the room, his presence a mobile wall behind her.

The man sitting on the exam table would have seemed huge if Caz hadn’t seen his buddy first. This one had the nasal swelling and periorbital ecchymoses consistent with facial trauma. A drift of blood-stained tissues surrounded him, but he no longer appeared to be leaking.

She went straight to the sink. “I’m Cassandra Nash, your physician assistant for the evening.”

“Luke Szarka.”

Caz washed and dried her hands. In light of the blood, she pulled on gloves before approaching the patient. “Tell me what happened, Mr. Szarka.”

“I already told the other guy.”

“Any form of head trauma raises concern for concussion. We pester you with the same interview because your answers might change as symptoms develop over several hours.”

A put-upon gust exploded from his lips. “Fine. Delighted to repeat myself.”

His friend, leaning against the wall near the door, suggested, “Put a big ol’ check next to irritability.”

Caz flattened the grin that threatened to form. “Go ahead, Mr. Szarka.”

“What happened is I got hit in the face with a chair by a stupid kid who doesn’t know what the fuck he’s doing.”

An ominous “Hey” came from the other man.

Luke flicked a gaze between him and Caz. “Sorry about the language.”

She’d thought far worse when she banged her shin, but if Tall, Dark, Ripped, and Broody wanted to play profanity police, that was between the two of them. The beard and the bruising obscured their relative ages, but her patient seemed content with the junior role.

She flashed a penlight up his nostrils to check for obstruction and clotting. “I think most people know hitting someone in the face with a chair will break some part of that face.”

His pupils took their turn with the light and responded normally. “In our line of work, there’s a big difference between hitting someone in the face with a chair and hitting someone in the face with a chair.”

With the deliberate emphasis on the words, the abundance of muscles suddenly made sense. “You’re with that wrestling outfit.”

The few parts of his expression that weren’t swollen beyond movement drew downward in a crestfallen slump. “You didn’t recognize me?”

She hated to further wound his feelings by informing him watching men beat the shit out of each other—or beat the shit out of each other—wasn’t her idea of a good time. Instead, she used a finger to trace a circle in the air around his bruised face. “Your biggest fan might not recognize you in your present condition.”

She did, however, recognize his friend with the addition of context. Professor Pain was a big enough deal to have his picture on Eddie’s wall. She’d recently shelled out fifty bucks for a collectible figurine and could now certify it was a decent likeness, even scaled down to six inches tall.

Luke shot a horrified look across the room. “Is my face that bad?”

The Professor lifted one well-developed shoulder. “It wasn’t that good to begin with.”

Caz choked on a laugh and turned to the computer while she regained her composure.

“I have a right to be irritable,” Luke grumbled. “The office never should have let that asshole out of the barn.”

Her attention zoomed back to the patient.

“Sorry about the language,” he repeated.

She was more concerned about the barn than the asshole. She consulted the Professor. “Did that sound like nonsense to you?”

A broad grin revealed straight white teeth and carved deep creases that framed his facial hair. A light shone from the heavens, and a chorus of angels sang Nelly’s “Hot in Herre.”

Caz revised her initial assessment. Even without a fondness for hewn-from-stone features, that smile rocked her balance.

He called her attention back to her job, where it belonged. “We have a farm league for guys who aren’t quite ready for the show. The chair swinger was brought up by management to fill an unscheduled vacancy in the program.”

“I see.” Professional jargon in any field sounded like gibberish to a layperson. It paid to get a translation before leaping straight to diagnosing cognitive dysfunction.

A few clicks of the mouse displayed the relevant x-rays on the monitor. Caz studied both views, then pointed for the patient’s benefit to the dark line running through the nasal bone, most obvious on the lateral view. “As for the fate of your nose, it’s a simple fracture, minimally displaced, easy to set. Once the swelling and bruising resolve, if you can avoid future violent confrontations with furniture, no one will be able to tell it was ever broken.”

“Hold up. Can you set it crooked?”

She stared at Luke for several seconds. “Is there a spouse or parent authorized to help you make medical decisions?”

A muffled snort came from the Professor.

“I’m not brain damaged,” Luke protested. “If I show up completely fine, I’ll look like a wuss who went to the hospital for a nosebleed. It might as well be a paper cut. The grudge match will be a joke.”

Her mouth tightened at macho posturing so extreme, a man would rather inflict intentional deformity to his face than be perceived as a wuss. “Ethically, I can’t make your injury worse.”

Luke gingerly touched a finger to his discolored nose and winced. “Will my face collapse if I leave without getting patched up?”

Caz took a fortifying breath. “I can’t predict the future, but an educated guess would be that the bridge of your nose will be perceptibly off center, but not drastically so. The gap in the bone will fill in with callus, which may result in a visible bump.”

“Perfect. Let’s do that.”

She’d never seen anyone so enthused about permanent disfigurement. “Will you sign a form declining my treatment recommendations?”

“Anything to get out of here.”

It wasn’t required of either of them, but when patients made bad decisions, she liked to have documentation that she’d offered better ones.

She dragged and dropped items from one window to another and printed two copies of the resultant form. She handed one to Luke along with a pen and indicated where he should sign, which he did without so much as a glance at the contents. When he returned the page and pen to her, she gave him the second copy. “Keep this one and read it. From here down are the recommendations that won’t make you look less rugged. Ibuprofen or acetaminophen as needed for pain. Ice four times a day for the first forty-eight hours to reduce swelling. Head elevated to minimize throbbing. If you experience bleeding, fever, or difficulty breathing, seek medical attention. Is there someone at home to wake you up a couple of times tonight?”

The Professor answered. “He’s staying with me while he’s in town.”

Luke’s lower lip rolled out in a transparent play for her sympathy. “He won’t be gentle with me.”

The Professor laid an oversized hand over his heart. “I solemnly swear to be as gentle as Florence Nightingale.”

War nurses in the 1800s didn’t have the luxury of being gentle by today’s standards. Judging by the exaggerated innocence stamped on the big guy’s face, he was well aware of that when he made the comparison.

Caz hoped he was more compliant with instructions than the patient. “He needs to be coordinated and lucid, so get him all the way on his feet and talking. Bring him back for confusion, memory loss, dizziness, slurred speech, clumsiness, vomiting—there’s a full list on the treatment sheet. If you can’t wake him up, call an ambulance.”

“I know the drill.”

Such knowledge was bound to develop with expertise in his chosen field. Regardless of their employer’s local training facility and a farm league to teach wrestlers how not to kill each other, performing violent stunts live, without special effects or editing to erase wires and safety equipment, came with massive risk. A broken nose probably counted as an easy night’s work compared to the rest of the physical punishment they endured in the line of duty.

She pulled a boilerplate form from a drawer beneath the computer, wrote in the details by hand, and signed it. “Here’s a work release stating no contact sports for six weeks.”

Luke stared at it as if she’d offered him a prescription for a chainsaw enema. “What am I supposed to do with that?”

She kept it extended toward him, willing him to take it. “Most patients submit it to their employers so they have adequate time to recover from illness or injury and don’t worsen their condition.”

He scoffed and slid from the table. Rust-splotched tissues rained on the floor around his feet. “That’s not how wrestling works. If we can move, we can put on the show.” He waved the treatment sheet at her on his way out the door. “Thanks for your help, doc.”

The Professor scowled at the mess left behind, as if considering a career change from profanity police to waste disposal specialist with little enthusiasm.

Caz held up a hand and wiggled her nitrile-gloved fingers. “I’ll take care of it.”

“You shouldn’t have to.”

“I’m afraid I do. Administration has strong opinions about the handling of bodily fluids on hospital premises.”

“Well, when you put it that way.” He straightened, ending his contest with the wall in a draw. “I wouldn’t have offered him a room for the night if I’d known he was such a slob.”

Caz dropped the rejected work release on the counter and grabbed the red-lined wastebasket. “Too late now, Florence. You’re committed.”

She moved to the exam table and swept the tissues littering its surface into the basket.

With one long stride, the Professor took her place at the counter. He flipped over the form and used her pen to scribble on the blank side. “If you want to come to the training center to see how we work around each other’s injuries, give me a call. I’ll set up a tour.”

“A fist in the kidney to protect a broken nose won’t be tremendously reassuring from a medical perspective.”

“That punch is easy to pull. If there’s any contact at all, it will damage the sciatic nerve, not a kidney.”

Her lower back clenched in sympathy. “Well, when you put it that way.”

Quiet humor crinkled the corners of light-colored eyes that invited closer inspection. “So long, Cassandra Nash.”

He followed Luke out the door without awaiting a response from her.

Caz shook her head and bent to scoop up the tissues on the floor. It wasn’t the first time a man had given her a phone number at work, but it was the first time the man hadn’t badgered her for hers and stuck around afterward to harass her about calling him. She’d appreciate the courtesy if not for prior exposure to “nice guy” tactics adopted as camouflage in order to con women who wouldn’t have anything to do with the true nature they concealed.

They should stick to easier prey. Caz selected her own flings after observing them in the wild from a safe distance so she knew from the start what breed of jerk she’d get.

She dropped the gloves on top of the trash and sealed the biohazard bag. After logging out of the computer, she grabbed the work release from the counter. A flip of the status flag by the door signaled the cleaning crew to target this room on their next circuit and everyone else to park their patients elsewhere.

On her trek back to the front desk, she glanced at the page in her hand. The bold scrawl read Phin Payne.

Professor Pain’s name was Phin. Short for Phineas? He’d probably bulked up to spite his parents.

The first three digits of his phone number matched hers. The four that followed corresponded with Eddie’s upcoming birthday.

Her sister would have claimed the pattern was destiny and started planning the wedding.

Gigi’s impulsive certainty where men were concerned had never measured up to her dreams.

Caz tossed the work release in the shredding bin, disposing of the patient information written upon it and the unwanted memory of her older sibling. Without looking at Jacinta, she said, “Don’t even think about joking about one more patient.”

The other woman cackled. “How can you still be mad after I sent you to that sausage fest?”

“It was probably preferable to the Spewington family,” Caz admitted, “but now that you’ve spoiled me, I refuse to linger for any less than Idris Elba.”

As if on cue, the electronic bell above the entrance doors chimed to herald the end of the lull.

Jacinta and Caz raised four sets of crossed fingers and turned in tandem to inspect the new arrival.

Two women staggered across the threshold, three shoes and several drinks between them. The one bearing more than her rightful share of the pair’s weight scanned the rows of empty chairs. Loudly enough to be heard over a nonexistent crowd, she commanded, “Gimme a cheeseburger and large fries.”

Jacinta relinquished the fantasy with a sigh and grabbed a clipboard. “Gupta will be done with the Spewingtons by the time I’m the done with intake. Go home to your boy.”

Caz didn’t have to be told twice.

© 2018 Ren Benton. Archived for posterity, so don’t be a thieving asshole.

CONTINUE TO PART 2

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