PART 1 By Pebbles


It was shaping up to be a hot summer. Doc Magoo’s was fairly quiet. Their usual custom from County General tended to come in waves. Many of the doctors, nurses and ancillary staff used the small diner for their breaks or at the beginning or end of their shift. They used it out of convenience not because it had any special culinary reputation. It was almost part of the hospital it was so close and yet it offered a temporary refuge from the stress and trauma there.

Alice had been very grateful to find a job at Doc Magoos’s after a long search for work. It was not that she wasn’t very capable but she lacked the necessary paperwork. Joe had not seamed very concerned about her status so long as she agreed to work very long hours for very little pay. No vacations, no sick leave, no questions. Alice didn’t mind, she was desperate.

At the diner Alice was virtually invisible. The other staff bothered her very little so long as she did her job efficiently. The customers seamed not to see her at all. They were so wrapped up in their own lives; the stress of their jobs, their petty quarrels, their love lives. They never gave a second thought to the girl who took their order, wiped their table or refilled their coffee cup. This suited Alice very well.

If only she could remain invisible all the time. Perhaps then Lennie wouldn’t get so mad with her, perhaps he wouldn’t hit her. She would like to be invisible all the time, to melt away forever. Then there would be no more pain. 

Although the customers at the diner did not notice Alice, she liked to study them. Almost all of them worked at County General. After a few weeks she could easily identify the different groups. The doctors, the nurses, the different departments. Mostly they stuck together. Little groups of medical students or nurses. The doctors tended to come in singly or in pairs. Occasionally a romantic triste but more usually just internal department gossiping. Often they came in alone looking stessed out and tired.

After a few weeks in the job, mainly doing the graveyard shift, Alice began to notice one doctor in particular. He was always alone, ate very little and appeared very withdrawn. She began to look out for him, because although he was so apparently wrapped up in his own thoughts he was unfailingly polite and courteous. He was also undeniably attractive.

He tended to choose a quiet booth in the corner and would often sit staring out of the window with his head resting against the glass. His eyes although looking outwards seamed to be focussed on some other place. Yet when Alice approached with a cloth to wipe the table or with coffee to refill his cup he would always look up at her and thank her as if she were doing him a special favour. And Alice tried to make sure that he got the best service possible.

Alice began to see him as her special project. Her mission was to elicit a smile, a few words, a human contact. One humid night in late June she saw him take his usual table but because she was in the middle of loading some glasses into the washer, the other waitress on the shift, Corrine went over to take his order. She noticed that they had a brief conversation – more than that required to give and take an order and felt a little disappointed that she had not managed this herself.

When Corrine returned to the kitchen area she made a beeline for Alice. “Hey, Alice. That foreign guy is asking after you – you’d better take him his coffee.”  Alice felt a little thrill of anticipation as she went over to him. Putting the coffee carefully down on the table, she hesitated. “You asked for me, sir?” she quietly questioned.

He looked a little embarrassed. “I just wondered where you were. I, er, thought you might be sick or something…” he mumbled. His accent was European – Alice had it figured for east of Italy, maybe Hungarian or Bulgarian. It was very sexy and combined with his dark looks and charming manners – he was completely irresistible.

It was Alice’s turn to feel uncomfortable. Corrine had made too much of his polite enquiry. He wasn’t really interested in her. “Sick? Nah, we Finlays are never sick!” She tried to make a joke of it “Except after a heavy session on the ‘Amber nectar’!” He smiled. Wow! That was the first time she had ever seen him smile. She beamed back at him – it was catching. “You should smile more often,” they said in unison and then burst out laughing. And that was a first too. 

“You’re not from round here either are you?” he questioned. “The name, Finlay, that’s Scottish isn’t it?” Alice hesitated a moment, she was not sure she wanted to give away any information about herself. But he seamed to be a kind person. “Yes, I am Scottish – well as least that’s where I come from originally. How about you?”

“Croatia” He added no more. He didn’t need to. Alice’s brother, a paratrooper had served in Bosnia and Alice had followed the news with morbid fascination at the time. Something about this man before her spoke volumes about what his experiences may have been. He had been damaged in some way – she did not want to cause him any more pain with more questions. She offered her hand to him “Alice Finlay, I’m pleased to meet you”.

He took her small hand in his warm large one. “Luka Kovac. And I’m very pleased to meet you Alice.” He had risen to his feet and made a little bow as he introduced himself. Now he sat down again and Alice was reminded that he was a customer – first and foremost. “Can I get you anything else now?” she resumed her waitress persona. “No, no thank you. But please come over and talk to me whenever you’re not too busy. We ‘foreigners’ should stick together!” 

 Later that night – or rather early the next morning – Alice made her way home. It was a long lonely walk but Alice never took the El. She was saving hard. Every cent she earned was being hidden away in an old shoebox she kept under the bed. One day she would have enough for her ticket home. Meanwhile she walked everywhere; got by on the little food she could scrounge at work and avoided being in the apartment when Lennie might be around.

She was less afraid of the low-life’s she might meet on her journey through the pre-dawn streets than of Lennie. He had a foul temper and seamed to take a special delight in torturing her. She stayed in the apartment only because she had nowhere else to go and she had worked out a system of avoiding him, especially in the evenings when he might be drunk or high. By the time she got home he would most probably be passed out cold and safe for several hours. Even when he came round he would be in no fit state to do her any harm.

True to form, as Alice quietly slipped into the apartments the sleeping figure of Lennie could be seen sprawled out on the couch. Alice tiptoed past into the bedroom. Before hitting the sack she crawled under the bed to hide away her nights share of the tips. The shoebox was gone!

It was about 2.30a.m when Luka walked back over to the ER. His break had lasted less than twenty minutes but he felt refreshed, alert and ready to complete his shift. The night was warm and balmy. Before entering the hospital Luka looked up into the sky but the stars were obscured by the orange glow of the streetlights. Despite all that had happened there he did miss his homeland – more than he cared to admit. But he realised that he was not the only one.

The girl in the diner – Alice, she said her name was – kept entering his thoughts. Tonight was not the first time he had noticed her. She was pretty in a somewhat unconventional way. Her eyes were perhaps a little widely spaced and very large. He was not sure that they were grey or green. Before tonight she had kept them almost hidden under long lashes and a curtain of honey-blonde hair that swung across her face as she bent over the table, her gaze fixed firmly on it’s surface as she delivered his order or cleared away. But tonight he had been privileged to see them twinkle with merriment.

And her smile! It seamed to stretch from ear to ear. Some might say that her mouth was too wide to be beautiful. Luka was no expert but her face kept appearing in his mind’s eye, animated by laughter. And the feeling of her hand in his, fragile but warm - a human contact. Luka had felt dead inside but now he felt the glimmering of life again.     

It was a quiet night in the ER - the first for a long time. With Carter still away they were short handed but somehow they always seamed to scrape through. Luka preferred to be busy – less time for thinking. His professional relationships amongst the staff had regained some sort of equilibrium since the shooting at the schoolyard, although Peter Benton seamed reluctant to let go of the issue. But he had avoided any personal contact with any of them. He did not want sympathy or any chance of being exposed to further heartache.

It was a little after five am. The board was clear and Luka was sitting behind the admit desk going over charts. There was a draft of warm humid air as the ambulance bay door swung open briefly and a small dark haired woman ran in. She paused, looking around her to get her bearings and then hurried to the desk. Seeing Luka she ignored the protestations of the desk clerk and made a beeline for him.

“Please, you’ve got to help me. It’s Alice. She’s over at the diner. That bastard has beaten her up but she won’t come over here.” Corrine paused for breath. “I’ll come over and see what I can do.” Luka reassured her. “Randi, tell Dr Chen where I’ve gone and if I’m not back in fifteen minutes to call for EMT support.”

Luka grabbed a small bag of supplies on the way out and followed Corrine over to Doc Magoos. She lead him straight through into the kitchen where a little crowd was gathered round Alice who was slumped in a chair, a bag of frozen peas pressed to her cheek. “Let me through, I’m a doctor” Luka commanded. As one they all stepped back, revealing Alice – her hair matted with blood, eyes shining with tears.

Luka crouched down on the floor so that he was at her level. Using gentle tones, as if to soothe a frightened child he reassured her that she was safe now and that he was going to carefully check her over. She lifted her face to look at him and Luka could immediately see that she would need stitches. She had a large gash over her right cheekbone, a split lip and a lot of facial bruising. He needed to examine her properly in privacy. “Alice, I need you to come over to the hospital with me..” he saw her face start to crumple, her lips to move in protest “It will be alright” he quickly reassured her “I will take care of you myself” She nodded slightly in agreement.

Corrine spoke up. “I’ll come with you too, honey. And when the doctor’s fixed you up your coming home with me!” Alice stood up gingerly; her head was banging like her brain was trying to jump out of her skull. “Why do they always hit you in the face?” she muttered through swollen lips, allowing herself to be helped by the tiny woman on one side and the tall Croatian doctor on the other.

After safely installing her in Exam room 2, Luka went to fetch the necessary supplies. He was accosted by Jing-Mei. “Would you like me to take over this, you’re due off soon aren’t you?” She thoughtfully offered. “No, it’s OK. She seams very scared of hospitals and she knows me a little – so I think I should stay this time. But, thank you for offering” He smiled at Jing-Mei who went away thinking <anytime, Dr Kovac, anytime>.

Returning to the exam room, Luka went straight to work gently bathing Alice’s face to reveal the extent of the damage. His hands were sure but gentle as he thoroughly checked her over – it didn’t look like any of the fourteen bones of her face were broken. “Did he hit you anywhere else?” “No.” You’re sure?” “Yeah, I legged it out of there so fast. He wasn’t going to get a second chance” She winced – it hurt to talk. “What kind of a man does this to a woman?” Luka wondered out loud. There was no answer.

Having done a standard neurological exam Luka was satisfied that he did not need to order a head CT, or any other tests. He then proceeded to neatly suture the wound to her cheek. Taking great care to minimise any future scaring. When he was done he wrote a prescription for pain medication and advised Alice on care of the wound. “Come back in four days to have the wound checked but I’m sure it will heal well.” Alice frowned “Will you be here?” “Yes, and if you don’t come – I know where to come and find you!” He smiled and was pleased to see the slightest hint of smile flicker around the corners of her lips. 

Luka sighed as he watched them leave the ER. He wondered again about what kind of man could have hit a defenceless young woman. He gathered she had been living with him up until now. He was glad that the other waitress had offered to take her in. Jing-Mei cleared her throat, breaking into his thoughts. “Makes you wonder why women stick around with these kind of men, huh?” Luka was surprised by her attitude. “Maybe, but we don’t know the full story, Dr Chen. Imagine you were in a strange country with no friends, no money of your own…..you might not be so able to break free of a bad relationship” He raised one eyebrow and Jing-Mei felt crushed. “I suppose not, Dr Kovac.”

His shift over, Luka made his way home. The apartment was hot and stuffy having been shut up for the night while he was at work so before he did anything else, Luka threw wide all the windows. Then he stripped off all his clothes and stood under the shower until the clinging smell of the hospital was rinsed away. A towel casually wrapped around his waist, Luka fixed himself a quick snack of a bowl of cereal and ate it standing by the open window gazing out over the early morning streets. People who lived more ‘normal’ 9 to 5 lives were just getting up now, mostly unaware of the lives that went on whilst they were sleeping. Perhaps it was time he rejoined the human race. He could start by asking Kerry to take him off nights for a while. He had done more than his fair share – it was time to stop punishing himself.

 Alice woke up in a strange bed and for a moment felt disorientated. The pain in her face reminded her soon enough of the events that had brought her here. She looked around with interest to see that she had been sleeping in a child’s room. The walls were decorated with characters from Disney and the shelves and floor strewn with toys. For a moment Alice recalled her tiny room at The Manse in Oban and felt a strong pang of homesickness.

She looked around for her clothes but they were no where to be seen. Corrine had put out a towelling robe for her and Alice slipped this on before venturing out in search of the bathroom. The bright lights in the living room assaulted her eyes but as soon as she had got used to the glare she could make out a middle-aged man with a young girl of about seven or eight sat on the couch watching t.v.

“Hi, guess your up then?” he stated the obvious “Corrine said to tell you she’d put your clothes in the washer-dryer. Should be done by now.” His manner was brusque but friendly. “I’m Jake by the way. And this is Georgina”

“Pleased to meet you. Um, where’s the bathroom?” “Right over there” he gestured. “Georgie, go and show the lady where to get her clothes, good girl” And he turned his attention back to the screen.

Alice smiled at the little girl realising that her face must look pretty awful. “Mommy’s gone to work and Daddy let’s me stay up late” the little girl volunteered. “Thank you for letting me sleep in your bed” said Alice. “You’re welcome!”

 It felt good to be in a regular family home but Alice realised that she couldn’t stay. There was barely room to swing a cat in the tiny apartment. And she couldn’t put the little girl out of her room. When Corrine got back from work she would thank her and be on her way.

When Corrine returned she would have none of Alice’s argument. “Just forget it will you. Look I know it’s cramped but I’m working on something. My sister’s got a place just two blocks away and she’s taking a trip to L.A. to meet her fiancée’s people. She’ll be gone for three or four weeks and I was going to have to keep going over there to keep an eye on things. Now, I’ve talked to her and she said you could move in while she’s gone so long as you feed her cat and water the plants. What do you say to that?”

 Alice was speechless. One day she was a stranger in a new town with no friends. Now she was being offered friendship and kindness beyond her dreams. It was too much and Alice burst into tears. Huge wracking sobs shook her body. “Oh now, your poor thing!” Corrine swept the younger woman into her arms, gently rocking her as Alice’s tears soaked the front of her blouse. “There, there it’s going to be alright”

Later, when Alice had calmed down, Corrine told her even more good news. “That old Joe, he’s not such a hard guy you know. He said you can have four days off paid sick leave and then you can start off on days if you like.” She winked ”And he said if that Lennie come’s looking for you he’ll break every bone in his body!”  Alice’s face fell. She hadn’t thought of that. But no, Lennie didn’t know where she had been working and besides he had thrown her out, after taking all her money – he wouldn’t want to go looking for her.

Four days later Luka was finishing his last night shift, for a while at least. Kerry had taken his request to be moved off nights in good part. In fact she felt pretty guilty for taking advantage of him for so long. “Go on take a couple of days off too. It’s a public holiday next week. When did you last have one of those off?” She squinted up at the much taller doctor.

 “Well the 4th July is kind of an American thing, isn’t it?” “Yeah, but take it anyway. I hate all that patriotic crap!” and with that, she crutched off to the lounge.

As he cleared the board of the last patients he had seen, Luka remembered that Alice should have shown up today to have her sutures removed. He went to find her chart to see if she had been seen by one of the other doctors but she hadn’t. He decided to stop over at Doc Magoos at the end of the shift to find out why she hadn’t come back.

He was not altogether surprised not to find her there either but Corrine was there, just finishing her shift. “She’s not shown up? I did remind her but she’s in a world of her own sometimes. I thought it would do her good to have some time off work but I’m not sure now.” She breathed a heavy sigh. She had tried to be a good friend to Alice but she seamed to be sinking lower into depression and Corrine didn’t know how to help her.

“Is she still staying with you?” Luka asked. “Yeah. Look, could you come round to see her at home? Maybe you could talk some sense into her.” “Of course, we could go now if you like” So the two of them left the diner together. Luka had his car so they were at Corrine’s in no time. Luka noticed the apartment building had seen better days but Corrine kept her own place immaculately clean.

Alice was sprawled on the couch watching t.v. Neither Jake nor Georgina we’re up yet – it was only 6a.m. It didn’t look as if Alice had been to bed at all. In truth she was finding it hard to sleep. Her time clock was all shot up and when she did get to sleep she kept having nightmares.

 She was very surprised to see the tall Croatian doctor with Corrine and hurriedly slipped her legs off the couch. Luka gave her a friendly smile. “Well if you won’t come to the hospital, the hospital will have to come to you!” he said to explain his presence. He was disappointed to see no reaction at all from her.

 “Can I check your sutures Alice?” She nodded briefly. “How about you come and sit at the counter here so I can see what I’m doing” When she had done as he asked he opened up his bag and got out all the necessary kit. He was pleased to see that she was healing well – physically at least.

“Your face is healing well, Alice. How are you feeling in yourself?” Luka gently enquired. “Oh, OK I guess.” She mumbled. Corrine butted in “Oh come on Alice, we all know your not sleeping and hardly eating at all. You can’t be OK!”

“You’re not my mother!” Alice immediately regretted raising her voice and burst into tears. Corrine enfolded her in her arms and let Alice sob until she was done. “It’s OK, we just want to help you. We know it’s been a bad time for you but you’ve got to let us help.” She looked up over Alice’s head, her eyes pleading with Luka to help the girl.

For a moment, Luka hesitated, unsure of his own abilities. What Alice probably needed was professional help but perhaps he could do something to bring the sparkle back to her eyes and the smile to her lips. She had offered her friendship back at Doc Magoos - broken through the wall that he had been building up around him - he owed her a debt of gratitude for that.

“Hey, Alice. You are with friends now. We might not be able to sort out all your problems but we would like to try.” He put his hand on her shoulder and gently soothed her.

“I’m sorry.” Alice spoke at last. “I don’t mean to be so ungrateful.” She sniffed and Luka silently produced a large white handkerchief. Alice took it and blew her nose noisily. “It’s just that I’ve not had anyone be so kind to me for so long, it’s sort of broken down my defences.”

 “Believe me, I know what you mean.” Luka’s face took on a haunted look. “You can get through many bad things if you shut yourself off, don’t let yourself feel. But you can’t keep it up forever and when you start to become human again all the pain is still there waiting for the break in your defence.” He went on “I can’t pretend it is easy but if you let people reach out and help you it will get easier.”

Alice felt chastened. It was obvious that Luka had suffered – still was suffering – far greater pain than she had ever imagined. But he was not judging her or forcing his own philosophies upon her. He was simply offering friendship. Not knowing what to say, Alice placed her hand on top of his and gently squeezed it.

Corrine eventually broke the long silence that followed Luka’s outpouring. “How about a cup of tea?”


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