Ancient coffee rings scarred the table, prompting her to trace them with her finger while her mind returned to her challenging day. A busy time without bathroom breaks and a hasty lunch was nothing new. Her and her fellow nurses accepted it as part of the responsibility that came with taking care of people. Some days were harder than others, leaving her full of questions too big for answers. But she wouldn’t trade it for anything else in the world.
The waitress set a cup of coffee in front of her, prompting her to sit back. Liquid sloshed out of the overfilled ceramic, making a half-moon circle on the table. Lifting the scalding goodness to her lips, she drew her finger through the mess and pulled it across the table like finger paint.
“Earth to Harper Riley! Please come back from the nebulous web of your mind.”
Shaking her head, blond ponytail slapping against her back, Harper lifted her eyes to catch the concerned brown ones of her friend sitting across from her. A slight turn brought her up close with the confused blue ones of the bubbly redhead sitting next to her. Only, Ally Page didn’t look happy at the moment. She knew they both worried about her, but she thought by now they should know this would happen after she had a day like today.
“Sorry guys.” Setting her coffee down, she rubbed at the back of her aching neck. Too many hours with a stethoscope wrapped around it.
Ally rubbed her shoulder. “You’re thinking about that code.”
Harper sighed. “I just... It could have gone differently.”
Across from her, Kate shrugged. “Maybe. You did all you could, Harper. You take it too personally when a patient dies.”
Did she? Harper sat back, recalling the moments leading up to the code. She had an uneasy feeling all day. She tried talking to the hospitalist, but the labs weren’t particularly remarkable and the patient seemed to be doing better. Sometimes, it was difficult to explain nursing intuition. Years of experience taught her never to ignore her gut feeling, but she understood it proved difficult to follow her thoughts when everything seemed to be fine.
“I just hate it when I have that feeling and I can’t prove why.”
Ally dug into her french fries. “It happens. Don’t take it so hard, Harper. You can only do so much.”
Even Ally, certainly the softest heart of the three, thought she was being too sensitive. Granted, Mr. Roberts had been 78, but she didn’t equate old age with death. He and his wife recently celebrated 55 years of marriage. He had children and grandchildren that loved him. His wife was heartbroken, and Harper felt the sting of death, felt how it impacted that family.
Leave work at work, and leave home at home. It was every nurse’s motto. No, more than a motto. It was necessary to survive. When she walked through the doors of the hospital, she shrugged all her worries aside and gave her patients all her focus. Likewise, she needed to do the same to sleep, to settle back into her life on her days off. But it didn’t mean she forgot, or she didn’t feel.
Kate pointed at her fries. “Are you going to eat those?”
Harper made a face, shoving the plate over to her friend. Kate could eat anything she wanted, as long as she wanted, and never seemed to gain a pound. It helped she was the taller of the three, but Harper couldn’t hold it against her. She loved her too much.
Holding in another sigh, she sipped her coffee. “Maybe you guys are right.”
Kate bit a french fry in half. “Of course we’re right.”
Ally relented and rubbed her shoulder. “You just have a big heart, Harper. We love you for it.”
When the day was particularly difficult, the three friends met over at the diner across from the hospital for dinner. It wasn’t the healthiest dinner, but it beat going home to microwave a frozen meal. Alone. Which seemed to be their lot lately. Of them all, she had the most recent relationship. He didn’t seem to want to work, and when she caught him in bed with another woman, she knew ‘alone’ was a better alternative.
Snatching one of her fries back, she ate it, though her stomach protested. “Tomorrow is our Friday, girls. What are we going to do after work?”
Kate waved a fry. “I need a little sexual tension. I say we go to the dance club.”
“That’s a long drive,” Ally pointed out.
“So. We can get ready at Harper’s apartment since she lives closest.”
“After 12 hours, I don’t know.” Harper sipped her coffee again.
“Oh don’t be a party pooper. You’re both the same age as me: young. Besides, none of us is currently attached. We have to get our excitement somewhere.”
Ally snorted. “Kate, a dance club is no place to pick up a guy.”
Kate winked. “Only for a night.”
“No, thank you.” Ally finished her soda. “It’s like bars. They’re fun to flirt in, but no one is safe to take home.”
“All right, all right,” Harper interrupted, to placate Kate. “We’ll go. But next Friday, I get to pick.”
Kate grinned, triumphant. “Fair enough.”
“Now,” Harper said, reaching into her pocket to find her card. “I don’t know about you two, but 6:30 AM comes faster than it should. We should all get home and go to bed.”
Ally sighed. “I suppose you’re right. We’ve got one more day this week to rock it.”
Kate rolled her eyes. “You mean one more day to run our asses off.”
Sliding from the booth, Harper lead the parade to the cashier. “Oh, you love it, and you know it, Kate.”
“Yeah, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be truthful.”
The cool Autumn air greeted them outside, where they separated and went to their respective cars. Harper liked her little Toyota. It was old, but it still ran and hardly needed a tune up. Kate ribbed her about buying something new, but she didn’t see why she should waste money to update the model or get a big car payment. The Toyota was paid for and reliable. She left the flashier cars to Kate.
Maybe it was her upbringing. Her parents owned a convenience store, and struggled to make ends meet, much less afford extra for her. So, she worked part-time jobs from age 15 and tried to pay for everything she could on her own. When the opportunity presented itself to take college classes at age 16, she took it, allowing for a faster race to her degree. The high school paid for the college classes through a special program, and she owned less student loans as a result.
Ally and Harper grew up together, fast friends throughout middle and high school. Though she started working at the hospital before Ally, it didn’t take long for her friend to catch up and join her on the Medical-Surgical unit. Kate joined them six months after Ally started, a transplant from California, and the three of them formed a tight unit. Seniority eventually allowed them to arrange their schedules to always work together. Harper knew it made working easier for it.
Harper lived two blocks from the hospital, in a decent apartment complex. She wanted a house, and recently considered buying. Kate didn’t think it made sense while she remained unmarried, but Harper felt buying a house didn’t need to have anything to do with a man. It was for her. Her parents spent most of their lives paying a mortgage, and just recently could call themselves true homeowners. She knew her career afforded her a greater opportunity, and she didn’t want to waste it.
Through diligent saving, she had enough for closing costs and a little down payment. Kate said she should use it for a tropical vacation, but Harper hadn’t worked all of these years to squander it on short-lived gratification.
Letting herself into her apartment, she set her keys on the counter near the sink, laying the mail to rest next to that. Most of it was likely junk mail and bills anyway. She took a second to water her plants and pulled her cell from her pocket, checking messages. Two were from her mother, asking if she was coming to dinner this weekend. Knowing she promised, she fired back a quick response confirming.
Gratefully stripping out of her uniform, she threw it in the washer. Having a closet with a washer and dryer was her little luxury. At the rate she went through uniforms, it was easier to wash things when she didn’t have to wait in line at the laundry mat. Ally and Kate often spent one of their days off over at her apartment, washing their clothes too.
A quick shower later, and she collapsed into bed, grateful for the soft mattress and equally soft sheets - another splurge. Snuggling in, she checked to make sure her alarm was set, yawned and closed her eyes. Counting the rise and fall of her chest lulled her into a pre-sleep haze, and it wasn’t long before she drifted to sleep