A Novel By
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She almost turned away from the man lying so still on the bed. Her mind was momentarily playing tricks, refusing to identify him, trying to keep the pain at bay. But deep down she already knew. Her eyes filled with tears. She decided quickly that she was sad. The poor man was so badly hurt. She started to turn away.
Then she noticed his hand lying outside the covers. It was raw and scraped, but artistic and beautifully formed.
Julia shook her head, still in partial denial, and a moan escaped involuntarily. How could this have happened?
“He’s not your relative?” the nurse asked.
Julia looked at the woman standing at her side, blinking away tears. “This is my brother.”
Julia turned back to him, her eyes widening in anguish. It was no wonder she hadn’t recognized Brian at first glance. Her brother was young. Now he looked like an aged, wizened old man. His skin had turned grey and slack and he appeared desiccated, as if the vital fluids in his body had dehydrated.
All that was visible of Brian’s head was his shrunken face, with pinched nose, sunken eye sockets, and a mouth which seemed to have withered around his teeth. The rest of his head looked enormous, covered with thick bandages.
“We have to move him to a private room,” Julia said, still gazing at her brother. “I have to talk to his doctor. He looks so…sick.”
Julia carefully picked up his hand. She leaned over him, putting his hand against her cheek. “I’m here, Brian. You’re going to be fine.”
There was no returning pressure from the limp fingers.
She touched his brow, smoothing it, almost expecting his eyes to open, with the quick, wide smile she was used to seeing when he surprised someone with one of his famous practical jokes. But he lay still. The only movement was a slow, almost imperceptible rise and fall of his chest with each breath.
“We don’t have private rooms,” the nurse said crisply. “The doctor will be making rounds this evening. You can stay if you like. In the mean time, we’ll take your brother off the John Doe status. You are next of kin?”
Julia took a deep breath and turned toward the nurse. “Yes. I want to talk to a doctor. Now.”
The nurse explained that this was a county hospital, where the indigent, without any means to pay, were given medical treatment. There were no private rooms. The doctors rotated in from other hospitals, so speaking to one at this moment would be impossible.
“What if there’s an emergency?”
“We have a doctor on call at all times,” the nurse said.
How utterly unreassuring, Julia thought. What if there were several emergencies at the same time?
“I’m sure you’ve taken good care of my brother,” Julia lied carefully. “But I want Brian moved to the best hospital in Los Angeles. I’ll pay for any treatment he’s had. I don’t know why he was sent here. He’s not destitute. What happened?”
“He didn’t have identification. No wallet, no money. This is where injured and sick people go when the police don’t know who they are. Lucky you found him.”
Julia thought she saw a shimmer of compassion on the woman’s tired face before she turned and led her to the office of the hospital administrator, where arrangements were made to take her brother to Cedars Sinai Hospital in West Los Angeles. It was the hospital where the rich and famous went. The hospital with the best doctors on staff.
The portly hospital administrator, who appeared as tired as his nurse, didn’t seem to mind that Julia was taking away one of his critical patients. Particularly since she was paying for all the medical treatment. He quickly sent for the one doctor on call who could legally sign a sick patient out of the county hospital.
Julia felt like she was in a haze through the next hour. Her eyes were raw and hurt with the effort to keep them from blurring. She tried to remain oblivious to a family clustered around one of the beds, near Brian’s, praying for their loved one to get well.
The transfer was risky. Brian had sustained what could be lethal injuries. The ambulance attendants were careful. It took three of them to move Brian from his hospital bed to the stretcher.
After they wheeled him outside the hospital and transferred him to an ambulance sitting in the parking lot, they waited until Julia was behind them in her car before taking off across town to Cedars.
The traffic was hideous. Typical for Los Angeles, Julia thought in frustration. The bumper to bumper flow seemed unfazed by the siren. Cars would not, or could not, make an opening for the ambulance. The heat was almost overwhelming, tempers also soaring.
Didn’t they understand that the piercing, undulating siren meant that there was an emergency vehicle trying to save a life? Julia pounded her fist on the steering wheel and prayed that Brian would survive the trip.
Finally, the ambulance parked in the back of the Cedars Sinai Hospital, right next to the Emergency Room entrance. A uniformed security guard walked over and waved Julia away, pointing her toward an open parking lot a couple of blocks away.
She sat stubbornly in her car, as the guard glared at her, watching while the gurney with her brother was guided through the sliding glass doors into the hospital.
Then she accelerated with a squeal of tires to find a place to park. In her rush to make sure her brother had arrived safely she ignored the no-parking signs.
“I hate Los Angeles,” Julia muttered to herself a few hours later.
She stood perfectly motionless in the hot, dusty impound lot, gazing at her car. It sat like a shiny, blue jewel among a collection of dilapidated vehicles. All had shared the same fate; towed away for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Totally focused on the huge dent in her driver’s side door, she finally walked over and tried to open it. There was a horrible squealing noise. She almost moaned in sympathy as it creaked open about a foot. She managed to squeeze inside the small opening and got the registration papers from the glove compartment.
As Julia hurried to the impound office to pay her illegal parking ticket, she passed a typical denizen of this sleazy, benighted town. The man was half naked, his shirt over a shoulder, on hands and knees, gazing at the underbelly of an enormous, septic yellow truck.
The man straightened up, brushing dust off the knees of his jeans, and smiled as she passed. Julia pretended not to notice. She couldn’t help noticing the dark tan, which probably indicated an incipient case of skin cancer, and the eyes, which were a startling light blue in the bronzed face.
At the impound office, she knocked at the locked door. A woman behind a grimy bullet-proof window buzzed her inside. Julia handed over the registration and produced her drivers license, trying to remain calm as she said, “My car was smashed. I can hardly open the door.”
“Sign here,” the woman told her, pushing over a yellow form.
“It wasn’t that way when I left it.”
The dark haired woman peered at the parking ticket through half glasses perched on her nose, her eyebrows rising. “In a red zone. At a hospital entrance.”
Julia nodded without remorse.
“I’ll send someone over to look at your car.”
There was an exorbitant fee to get her car back, Julia saw when she signed the form. Besides the ticket there were additional charges for towing and storage. It didn’t matter. She was frantic to get back to the hospital.
Julia could feel a headache beginning to throb as she rushed back to her car. She passed the big guy with the awful truck again. Handsome and undoubtedly a dangerous degenerate, she decided. They sure grew them big and healthy in this town, she mused, as she waited in the sweltering heat.
A tubby man in a greasy blue mechanic’s uniform sauntered over with deliberate, thorizine slowness. Julia felt like screaming with frustration and tried to take some deep breaths as she pointed out the damage to her car. She noticed that the big dark man standing beside the hideous yellow truck was motionless, watching with concentrated attention.
“Look lady, we just tow ‘em,” the mechanic said with lazy apathy. “We’re not liable for an old rusty dent.”
Julia stared at him in disbelief. “This car is brand new. There’s not a speck of rust.”
She listened as the mechanic explained very clearly that they had towed the car from the front end, not from the rear. He denied any liability and strolled insolently away, chuckling and shaking his head like she was crazy.
The towing company was responsible, there was no doubt, but right now it didn’t matter. Julia got inside the car and drove slowly and carefully through the gritty, bumpy lot to a security gate. She didn’t want to damage her car any further. And what difference did it make, anyway, how they had towed the car from the hospital? Front end or back end, the door was ruined.
The security gate opened after what seemed like hours when she finally tooted her horn, and she drove out of the impound lot. She had been in Los Angeles for two days, leaving behind a man who wanted to marry her, and in search of her brother, Brian, who had abruptly stopped all communication after the last email, urging her to come and enjoy the wonderful California sun.
Julia felt like she was in an oven in the sweltering heat, which her car had been sitting in for several hours. She turned on the air conditioner and accelerated. Santa Monica Boulevard was packed in the evening rush hour, but as her car moved forward she grew increasingly alarmed. Something was disastrously wrong. When she pressed the accelerator the car responded sluggishly. Then it sprang forward suddenly, forcing her to slam on the breaks so she wouldn’t hit the motorist in front of her.
Julia prayed she would make it back to the hospital as the car lurched along. Frustrated and aggressive L.A. drivers started honking, slowly at first, but soon there was a chorus from the parade of angry motorists behind her. Julia gritted her teeth, but was afraid to go any faster. The car was a new BMW Roadster. She had driven it across the whole country to join Brian in California, and the car’s responses had almost become an extension of her own. It wasn’t behaving like her car any more. It was hurt.
Julia turned into an alley to go back to the towing company. They had ruined her wonderful little car.
When she shifted into reverse and tapped the accelerator, the engine revved loudly, but the car didn’t budge an inch. Oh no, she whispered, please go. She put the gear lever into drive, squinted and pressed the gas carefully. Nothing happened.
Julia took a deep breath and sat there a moment. The impound place was blocks away. She would either have to walk or get a taxi, but she didn’t think you could just wave and get a cab in this awful place, like you could in Boston or New York. Everyone here drove their own cars until the air turned to a stinky, filthy brown sludge.
She hated Los Angeles.
The irony was that her brother, Brian, had loved this place. He had been beaten unconscious and horribly wounded in this gloriously sunny town.
Julia was startled by the scalding tears on her cheeks, but the last two days had been a nightmare. First, the frantic search for her brother, calling police stations and hospitals. Then the shock of finding Brian in that crowded county hospital.
Julia felt around in her purse for a tissue. She couldn’t just leave the car, but she had to get back to the hospital. She didn’t know if Brian had been neglected because he was found without identification, money, or any proof of medical insurance. The county of Los Angeles was in financial straits and had laid off many health care workers. They were overburdened by those who could pay. Now the doctors at Cedars were saying he might not survive.
Julia opened her glove compartment and reached for her cell phone. Her fingers didn’t feel anything and she leaned over to look inside. It was empty.
Unbelievable, Julia thought, not only had the impound place ruined her car, they’d stolen her cell phone. She checked into the little niche on the dashboard where she kept loose change for toll roads. It, too, was empty.
Julia took her purse and jacket out of the car and locked it, dabbing at her wet cheeks, biting her bottom lip hard to gain control. She noted she was near the corner of Fairfax and Santa Monica Boulevard as she gazed around for a public phone. All she saw were grungy bars and several pawn shops.
Abruptly, there was the sound of squealing breaks and she saw a yellow streak from the corner of her eye, like a big angry bumble bee, hurling toward her through the heavy traffic. It shrieked across several lanes to a jarring stop. It happened so fast she was afraid the truck would leap the curb and hit her.
Startled, she sprang back, almost tripping on the sidewalk.
She recognized the big guy from the towing lot, gazing at her through the front windshield of the ugly yellow truck. Did he think this was a funny situation, or what? An ironical smile, and a shake of his head.
Julia backed up as the man slid across truck’s front seat and got out on the passenger side.
“A damsel in distress?”
Julia shook her head. The man was smiling at her and had made a dumb joke. Brian had told her native Californians were friendly, but this was certainly appalling. The guy must be an idiot if he couldn’t tell she didn’t want his attention or help. He was a bit intimidating up close, towering over her, muscular and fit. He had curly, uncombed dark hair. At least he had his shirt on, she noted.
“I’m Robin,” the man said.
Now she understood. “I’m not Maid Marian. And I have mace in my purse.”
“Black belt in karate, too, I’ll bet?”
Julia almost smiled, but she was uncomfortable about the way he was looking her over, as if she were vulnerable and lying about the mace. She dabbed with the tissue at her eyes, which were undoubtedly red as a rat’s.
“Car trouble?” Robin asked, nodding at the car. “I could check it for you.”
Maybe he’s a mechanic, Julia thought, who had stopped when he saw her wiping her tears. But more likely, a car-jacker searching for an easy mark. Even in Boston she’d heard about the number of cars typically stolen in Los Angeles. At least the guy couldn’t be carrying a gun. He had on tight jeans. She doubted he could fit anything in his pockets as he leaned forward and looked into the window of her car.
“It’s a beauty. What’s wrong with it?” Robin asked.
How should I know? “It won’t move.”
“You try all the gears?”
Julia nodded. “It seems to be stuck.”
“Transmission. They tow it from the front or rear?” He was walking slowly around the small car admiringly.
“The mechanic made a point of saying they towed it from the front end. But I was just complaining about the door.”
Robin ended his inspection near where she was standing and peered closely at the door. “A real shame.” He shook his head. “I’ll bet a week’s pay they towed it from the rear, in Park, and ruined the transmission. In the process, it looks like they bashed it against something.”
“I’m in a rush,” Julia said. “I’ll have to leave it here. Call Triple A later.”
“We’ll put it in a parking place. You won’t get a ticket now, but you’ll have to move it early in the morning.”
Robin stood there for a second, gazing at her and then the BMW. “I’ll check for it on the way to work; feed the meter if you can’t get here in time. You get in. I’ll push.”
“I’ll pay for your help…” Julia started.
“Never mind.” He sounded impatient.
“I’ll help push,” Julia said, and moved around to the front of the car.
He was studying her again, probably deciding she was too puny to help. She saw his lips twitch, like he was holding back a smile, “You’ll need to steer.”
Julia unlocked the door and got behind the wheel. Robin called out for her to shift into Neutral and he started pushing from the front end until she was in the street. Then he moved around to the back of the car. She could see him from the rear view mirror. He was straining hard. She had a view only of the bent top of his dark head and his large muscled arms. Then she was busy steering into a vacant parking place right behind his truck.
Robin walked over as Julia got out of the car. “I’m going the same way. Can I drop you someplace?”
“You’re very kind. I’ll call a taxi,” Julia said. She didn’t believe he was a kidnapper, but you could never tell. Now that she could see him up close, without tears clouding her vision, she could tell he was older than she had first supposed. There were a few wonderfully placed white streaks at his temples and his eyes had small lines around them, as though he spent a lot of time in the sun.
“You mentioned being in a hurry. It’s rush hour. Hard to find a cab, now.”
“Thank you for your help,” Julia said, backing up slightly. She didn’t want to hurt his feelings. She wanted him to leave. “You really have been kind.”
“I’d hate to abandon you alone in the street,” Robin said, looking around with a slight frown.
He was serious and she found herself believing him. “Are you going by Cedars-Sinai?”
Robin grinned and opened the passenger door. A degenerate with appealing dimples, she thought, as she got in. The truck was astonishingly high off the ground and she hiked up her skirt. She could almost feel him glancing at her legs from behind. There was a queer sense of unreality. Unbelievable she was getting in a monstrous, repulsive truck with a stranger.
“I can see for blocks,” Julia remarked appreciatively as the truck moved forward, remembering the misery of driving a small car behind SUVs and buses, craning to see around them and fanning at choking exhaust fumes.
“I’ve named the truck, ‘Make my Day,’” Robin said, patting the wheel with affection.
Julia thought he was rather obnoxiously referring to her presence in the hideous truck, when he explained, “If anyone gets nasty, this is the perfect intimidation vehicle. I’ll just say, Go ahead, make my day…and ram them.”
He did a pretty good Clint Eastwood, with that softly menacing voice. Julia couldn’t help smiling. The truck was so ugly and dented it wouldn’t matter at all if he dinged it up a little more.
“If you have a few minutes, we could stop at the service station on Santa Monica,” Robin said. “They’re the best in Los Angeles for transmissions. Then you’ll have to sue the towing company.”
“I won’t have time to sue. I’m going home.” And can’t wait, Julia thought. As soon as Brian was able to leave the hospital she would take him home to Boston, where he would get world-class care.
Julia sat in the truck at the service station as Robin made arrangements for her car. He greeted the busy mechanics like they were all good buddies. There was excessive back slapping and joking, a sort of silly male bonding, she suspected due to her presence in the unsightly vehicle. She had to hand over her car key and sign a form that said they would give her an estimate before beginning the work.
Robin jumped back inside the truck. “You have a relative at Cedars?” he asked as he turned south on San Vicente toward the hospital.
Julia nodded. She couldn’t say anything about her brother. In her emotional condition right now, she might start bawling in front of a stranger. She had to change the subject, “You seem to know all the people at that repair place.”
“I work with them a lot.”
“You’re a mechanic?” Julia asked.
His gaze was piercing, the large eyes seemed impossible to look away from, almost hypnotic in their blue power. Had she made him angry? No, she could see he was smiling.
“How’d you guess?” Robin said.
“But you don’t work for them?”
He shook his head. “If I’d taken you to a BMW dealer they would have charged twice as much.”
Well, that explained how he had known it was her transmission, Julia thought, his being a mechanic.
The big truck turned right on Gracie Allen Street. The street names had been changed and Gracie Allen Street intersected George Burns Drive. Julia thought it was a charming and romantic thing for the city to do. Then she remembered that this same city had towed her car away from the hospital.
They went under the bridge that connected two of the mammoth hospital buildings. Robin stopped at the entrance.
Now all she had to do was leave gracefully, and hope Robin, the mechanic, wouldn’t be insistent about wanting to see her while she was in Los Angeles.
Robin got out of the truck, walked around the front of it and opened her door. He steadied her out of the vehicle, holding her arm courteously. She was glad because she might have fallen out. Julia thanked him profusely and waited with dread for him to beg for her number.
Robin told her, with another show of dimples, that it had been his pleasure. He got in the truck and left.
Well, Julia thought as she walked into the lobby of the hospital, that was refreshing. A man who assisted her and asked for nothing in return.
Julia didn’t see the huge yellow truck go around the block, pass the entrance to the hospital once again, and then park nearby. She didn’t know that the big, blue-eyed mechanic went into the building and stopped at the Information Desk in the lobby. Using an abundance of charm, he requested facts about the beautiful blond who had gone to the west wing of the hospital.
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