Just Another Night


AUTHOR: Elisa
EMAIL: elisasan@libero.it
CATEGORY: JC/JMC/KW
RATING: PG-13
SPOILERS: Season 8. This story is set sometime after episode 12.
DISCLAIMER: How many falling stars does it take to have your wish come true? Obviously the fruits of a lifetime careful nocturne sky monitoring aren't enough because I still don't own them. I'll keep my eyes open.
AUTHOR'S NOTES: You thought I was dead? Most of you probably don't even remember my previous fics but I'm back with a new one. The problem is that I don't have much time to write and even less good ideas. I like this one, though, and thought it was worth the effort to put it down in words. Now it's up to you: read and let me know what you think. E-mail me at elisasan@libero.it .
THANKS: I got the inspiration for this piece while doing a long journey by train but I took some important ideas from a spoiler-discussion thread at ER Daily Message Board. All the credit goes to those wonderful posters, you know who you are. (You don't know me but I've been lurking there for over a year and I do feel like I know each of you!) This one is for you and my mom too, who patiently puts up with my pseudo-writer crap, even though she hates ER.
SUMMARY: Carter treats a special patient, offers Deb a sympathetic ear and has a tense late night talk with his mom. There's a bit of Kerry in this, too.

But first a few things you might wanna know:

    1. I don't live in the US and haven't seen season 8 yet.
    2. English isn't my first language. Go easy on me but feel free to point out any mistake!
    3. I know I'm playing with fire here. I shouldn't have messed with maybe the greatest ER fan fiction classic, Carter's parent-related angst. I couldn't resist after reading the spoilers for ep 11, though. As I know that when expectations are high (and we've waited this moment for years!) delusion inevitably follows, I apologize in advance to anyone who might be disappointed with how I played it out.
    4. I'm no doctor and I have no medical knowledge whatsoever. I tried to put a little medicine in this, though, so forgive my many mistakes.



Jing-Mei Chen sighed heavily as she opened the doors of the ladies' room of the ER.

She moved slowly to the sink and splashed her tired face with water. She then stood still, leaning heavily on the sink, keeping her head down and her eyes closed. She avoided carefully her own reflection, knowing too well what the mirror would show her.

After a few moments, which to her tired mind seemed to have lasted forever, Jing-Mei slowly opened her eyes and faced her own reflection. Deep black bags circled her eyes, her skin was terribly pale and her traits were tense with exhaustion. Boy, she really looked lousy. No surprise there, given that she was halfway through a double shift and hadn't gotten any sleep in the last twenty hours. She remembered many times during her internship when she had managed to go on even two days with no more than three hours of sleep. That mere thought was enough to make a shiver run up he spine and she wondered how she could have done it.

She thought about making up a bit to hide her tremendous pallor but she quickly abandoned the idea. She lacked the strength to trudge into the lounge and retrieve her make-up. Besides, her zombie-like appearance could come in handy: maybe she would scare away all the noisy patients waiting in chairs.

As that silly thought filled her mind, Jing-Mei gave a small chuckle and got out of the room.

Jing-Mei headed to the admit desk. Scrolling down the hallway, all her body numb with sleep, she felt as if the entire world around her were moving in slow motion. The sounds of the bustling ER that reached her ear were muffled like when you listen to someone talking through a glass. Her body was definitely telling her that she needed some sleep.

Jing-Mei threw a distract look to chairs and, to her surprise, discovered it was almost empty. Things seemed to have clam down a lot while she was in the ladies' room. There were just a couple of people with minor injuries and little old lady coughing loudly. Maybe her Halloween night look was working for real. Oh well, that was just the way things worked in the ER, one minute the place looked dead and the next a trauma came in and all hell broke loose. Luckily it worked both ways.

She approached the admit desk and scanned the board, noticing with relief that all the patients were already signed.

"What's free Frank?" she asked the desk clerk " Things have slowed down around here and I need to take a little nap."

Frank looked up and met the doctor's tired stare "Exam 2. Yeah, you'd better get some sleep, Dr. Chen, because you do look like you've been run over by a truck".

"Thanks" Jing-Mei replied quickly, eager to reach her destination. She reached exam 2 and, as she laid her hand on the doorknob, she heard a voice calling her from behind.

"Dr. Chen!"

Jing-Mei cringed and turned around.



Haley was walking up to her pushing a wheelchair on which was sitting a fat, middle-aged woman with her head hanging on her side, muttering incomprehensible words, lost in a seemingly alcohol-induced stupor.

Jing-Mei grimaced and, trying to repress a yawn, turned to the nurse.

"What do you want Haleh?" she asked brusquely and immediately regretted her annoyed tone.

"Rose Granger, found unconscious on the streets. Cops have just dropped her. " replied Haleh matter-of-factly, handing the doctor a chart.

Jing-Mei simply refused to take it. It was just another drunk, they got six or seven of them everyday and she needed to sleep so badly.



"Where's Carter?" she pleaded.

"Gone to Doc Magoo's to grab a bite. And Weaver told me specifically to give it to you."

Jing-Mei finally gave in and took the chart from Haleh's hands. Defeated, she closed her eyes and gave the nurse the routine orders.

"Get a CBC, Chem 7, blood alcohol level, and a tox screen. Hydrate her with a banana bag and let her sleep it off." Jing-Mei opened her eyes and tried to focus on the chart " She's febrile so give her a gram of Tylenol too. And don't wake me when her lab results are back."

Haleh nodded and walked off.

Jing-Mei finally opened the door to Exam 2 and crawled into the bed. As soon as she rested her head on the pillow she fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.

--------------

The light coming through the door that had just swung open filled the dark Exam 2 and pierced the closed eyelids of Jing-Mei. The voice of the Haleh echoed loud and clear inside the doctor's head as she tried hard to rise and sit on the bed.

" Sorry to wake you honey but we have a single MVA coming in, ETA 4 minutes."

Jing-Mei nodded and stood up. It took her a few seconds to regain her balance, she still felt a little dizzy. As she exited the room she glanced at her watch and realized she hadn't even been asleep for fifteen minutes. Cursing under her breath she headed towards the trauma rooms and met Carter who was escorting an agitated young man lying on a gurney.

" Give me the bullet Carter!" she asked quickly, feeling the sleep fade away as her body was swept by flows of adrenaline. It was the sudden change she had always experienced during this kind of emergencies since her early days in emergency medicine. She sensed her heart rate drop and all her senses heighten as her mind switched into full emergency physician mode.

" Harry Brookings, 17 year-old, single MVA, run into a tree. He's tacky and hypertensive. "

Jing-Mei caught up with the gurney and said "Ok. Let's take him to Trauma 1."

As they hurried along the hallway the boy kicked and moved incessantly trying to get up, screaming his head off.

"Get this thing off my neck!" he cried, referring to the neck brace the paramedics had put on him as a precaution.

As they were entering Trauma 1 he screamed again and jerked up, hitting with his head Jing-Mei, who was bent over him to examine his injuries.

"Get this fucking thing off my neck! I can't breathe!"

"Restraints!" Carter yelled as he turned to Chen. " You ok, Deb?" he asked her, a worried look on his face.

"Yeah, don't worry." She reassured him, touching his forehead where the patient had hit her. It was already starting to swell up. "I'll just have to put some ice on it when we're done with Mr. Congeniality here".

They both returned their attention to the patient.

"We need an x-ray to clear the neck. Haley, get an x-ray, please!"

"BP is up, 200 over 100" announced Yosh who had joined the team.

"The neck looks clear. I'll remove the collar" Carter said as Chen tried to assess other possible injuries. Her task wasn't being made much easy by the kid who was still moving a lot, even if he was in restraints now.

"Leave me alone! Don't touch me! Get off me you bastards! Aaaaah!" the patient gave a louder scream when Jing-Mei palpated his right thigh.

"It looks like a hip dislocation." Jing-Mei declared." We'll have to reduce it. Give him 10 of morphine and some Valium ."

Carter walked to the other end of the gurney. "I'll reduce it. Make sure he's out before I start. Stabilize the pelvis and provide counter-traction, Deb." As his colleague held Harry down Carter stepped onto the gurney and grabbed the kid's leg under the knee. He then started lifting it firmly. Both doctors relaxed when they heard the familiar sound of the femur slipping back into place.

"Ok. Femoral head is back in place." Carter stated with satisfaction. "We're almost finished. Let's send him up to radiology. We'll take a post-reduction film."

"Uhm…I think I know why our friend here had this close encounter with a tree." Jing-Mei chimed in while they were bringing the unconscious young man to the elevator "His blood level is pretty high, 0.12."

" He was lucky. He could have ended up worse than this. Well, I'll take him up to radiology. Go and get an ice-pack for that bump before it grows as big as Romano's bald head!" Carter added jokingly.

"Yeah, and if you don't see me around you'll know why" replied Jing-Mei "I'll have probably locked myself in a closet. I'd be too ashamed to go around bearing any resemblance to Rocket Romano…"

-------------------

Jing-Mei poured herself another cup of coffee. She couldn't remember how many she had already drunk and that fact alone was a tip-off. She started wondering how much caffeine the human body could take, searching through her medical knowledge for any scientifically proven information about caffeine intoxication.

She gulped down her coffee and emptied the last contents of the coffee pot in her cup, brushing away her silly fears.

Jing-Mei opened the door of the lounge and jumped back as it hit someone who was standing there, miraculously managing not to spill the coffee on her lab-coat.

"I'm sorry Haleh" Jing-Mei said when she found herself face to face with the head nurse.

"Whoa, Dr. Chen, I was just looking for you. The lab results for Mrs. Granger are back." Haleh replied cheerfully.

"Mrs. Granger?" asked Jing-Mei. The name sounded familiar but she couldn't link it up either with a face or a diagnosis.

" Altered level of consciousness and slurred speech " Haleh explained quickly and gave her the test results.

" Yeah, right, the drunk. Hasn't she dried out yet?"

"No, and she's still slurring a lot. You might want to check those results a bit more carefully" Haleh replied with that sort of condescending tone she usually reserved for third-years who asked particularly dumb questions. "Her tox screen is negative and her BA is incredibly low."

Jing-Mei acknowledged silently these observations and volunteered a lame explanation: "Maybe she just wants to spend a night in a warm bed with clean sheets."

Haleh was still standing there, her hands on her hips, with an increasingly furrowing face.

Jing-Mei mentally slapped herself for being so careless and for ignoring one of the most important ER rules: always listen to the nurses. "Ok, I'll do a LP and order one MRI. We will see" she concluded and scribbled something on the chart.

Haleh left, satisfied, leaving behind a doubtful Jing-Mei. The doctor was very much perplexed that she hadn't spotted the incongruence in the labs results and mad at herself for hastily labeling Mrs. Granger as a drunk, without even bothering to ask her if she had drunk at all.

Once again her mind was too tired to let her concentrate properly and Jing-Mei found herself immersed in improbable thoughts. She stared at the Styrofoam cup she was still holding in her hands, wondering how some people could predict the future just reading the few drops of coffee and the partially-melted sugar left on the bottom of the cup. The indistinct contents of the cup didn't make sense to her, but she wasn't surprised. Lately she hadn't been able to interpreter her patients' symptoms correctly, so she didn't feel very confident about her diagnostic skills, let alone her psychic ones.

Jing-Mei tried harder to focus on her coffee grounds, but they still looked like a blur, confused, as she was feeling right now.

---------------------

Carter dropped a chart on the chart rack and calmly turned to the board to sign for the next patient. He was deeply intent in reading the patients' names and complaints, looking for one that could raise his interest, so he didn't notice Weaver limping her way to him.

" Carter!" she called out, startling the young doctor. " Your MVA is awake. Thought you might wanna take a look at him." Kerry went on: "What were you doing? You were not cherry-picking, were you? You know choosing patients is a practice I don't tolerate. They must be taken in time order."

Kerry leaned more heavily on her crutch and tapped impatiently her good foot.

" No, no. I was about to take the…" Carter looked frantically through the patients' names and chose the first one on the board "…er, the bleeding hemorrhoids in exam 3." He grimaced as soon as he realized what he had said. It was too late to do anything, though.

"Well. I'd better check on that MVA patient." he said and went away hastily.

He walked shaking his head in disbelief. Sometimes Weaver was scary. She had the almost supernatural ability to show up when you least expected it. He didn't know how that woman managed to run an emergency department and still found time to keep tabs on all her employees. As he pondered this great mystery of life, he reached curtain area 3.

He cheerfully introduced himself again to Harry, who was now fully alert, sitting on his bed.

"Hi, Harry, I'm Dr. Carter."

The kid greeted him with a loud grunt.

" Do you remember what happened? The accident?"

Again, a scornful grunt was the only response Carter got. Carter went on as nothing had happened: " You were lucky, you got away with a dislocated hip and a few scratches only. You were slightly concussed too, and that's why we had to admit you overnight. Other than that, you're fine."

"I'm not fine" Harry snapped angrily "I'm feeling crap. My head is killing me and I'm sick too."

"That's probably because you're hung-over, your BA was so high you shouldn't have been anywhere near a car, let alone driving one." Carter replied a bit patronizingly, starting to feel fed up with the kid's annoying attitude.

" Oh, stop it, please! You're not my mother so don't lecture me!"

Realizing that the boy wasn't completely wrong Carter tried to play it cool, taking it all as some kind of patience test. "Your mom is on her way, so it shouldn't be long before she's here."

" Great!" Harry replied, a good deal of sarcasm in his voice.

Carter left the room but stared long at the kid's face through the crystal window of curtain three, trying to see through his sullen appearance. There was something about him that bothered Carter deeply. Everything in the boy's behavior told him Harry was unconsciously screaming for attention. He hoped he could find out what Harry was desperately trying to say.

-----------------------------

Jing-Mei noticed the spasm tensing the old Hispanic man's face only a few seconds too late and wasn't able to prevent Mr. Lopez from barfing all over her chest.

"Ouch!" she exclaimed jumping back from the side of the gurney and grabbing a towel to clean herself.

" What's up today?" asked Abby who had quickly handed Mr. Lopez an emesis basin and was efficiently regulating the IV pole attached to the side of the gurney. "Is it national puke day or what? I think we're gonna run out of scrubs soon. We've already used the equivalent of a monthly scrub supply and it's not noon yet." She added and gave Jing-Mei a pair of scrubs to change into.

"You're right" replied the doctor without looking up as she still made an unsuccessful effort to clean her lab-coat "Don't say it out loud, though. Weaver might hear you and she would make us all bring our own spare clothes. She's in a lousy mood today."

"Has Weaver's mood ever been anything but lousy?" quipped Abby while wheeling away the patient.

Jing-Mei chuckled quietly and made her way to the lounge to strip off her dirty and smelly clothes. When she passed the admit desk, thinking that her day couldn't possibly get worse, Frank stopped her.

"Lab results for a Mr. Granger."

Jing-Mei almost snatched the results out of Frank's hands, eager to examine them. The LP showed sclerositosis and the MRI confirmed her new diagnosis: multiple sclerosis. She prepped herself to give the poor woman the bad news when Haleh hurried by, carrying a bunch of emesis basins, probably off to some other puking patient. Jing-Mei called out to catch the nurse's attention.

Haleh stopped in her tracks and turned to Chen: "Get Abby or Yosh! I'm swamped and literally swimming in puke!" she said apologetically yet impatiently.

Jing-Mei smiled warmly: " I just want to let you know that Mrs. Granger turned out to have multiple sclerosis. Good save, Haleh, thanks."

"I'd say it was a good team-work" replied Haleh and smiled back. And with that she dashed away.

---------------------------

"Mrs. Brookings? Mrs. Brookings!"

Carter had to shout to be heard over the loud noise that filled the waiting area. A petite blonde walked up to him.

" I'm Dr. Carter. I treated your son Harry."

As Mrs. Brookings spoke her lips were curved with apprehension. " What happened? Is he alright?"

Carter put on his best competent-and-reassuring doctor smile and got on with his explanation. "He had a car accident but he is fine now. He had a dislocated hip we have already reduced and suffered from a light concussion. It's nothing too serious but we admitted him for observation."

Mrs. Brookings eyes lit up with relief. "Can I see him now?"

"Sure. But there's something I have to tell you first. Harry's blood alcohol level was 0.12, which meant he was driving under influence." Carter explained while looking closely at the woman easily readable facial expression. There was no trace of surprise on it.

Mrs. Brookings sighed. "That's not the first time. Lately he's been pulling a lot of these stunts. He even punched another kid at school. He's having troubles at school too. He has never been a straight-A student but now he's risking college." She spoke quickly, lowering her gaze from time to time, as if shy of sharing these intimate details with a virtual stranger. As she did that she kept playing nervously with her purse, zipping and unzipping it furiously.

" How long has this been going on?"

"Since his sister's death. She died of melanoma about four months ago." Mrs. Brookings shut up as a veil of tears obfuscated her eyes. She dug with one hand in her purse and took out a Kleenex. As the woman blew her nose Carter spoke softly:

"I'm terribly sorry for your loss, ma'am." His words sounded futile and cliché and Carter felt awkward as soon as they came out of his mouth. No matter how many times he had already had to comfort a patient's grieving relative, he wasn't able to express in words that his heart really went out to them yet.

He was angry and relieved at the same time: not getting used to death, although he encountered it on a daily basis, could cause him this kind of problems but he regarded it as a positive thing. The day he would get used to it he knew he would have to quit his job.

"Have you ever considered making Harry sit through some therapy sessions? It could help. If you want I could give you a list of names."

Mrs. Brookings nodded but looked a bit perplexed. " I don't think Harry would open up to a psychiatrist."

"Maybe you should talk with him about it first." Carter convened " I'll take you to your son's room."

-----------------------

Kerry erased her name off the board and stood by the desk, looking around her.

Jing-Mei was sitting near-by, quietly doing charts. Kerry studied the Asian doctor's face, sure that Chen wouldn't notice as she kept her eyes down on her charts and her sight was limited by her black cascade of hair falling on her forehead. Kerry bit her lips involuntarily. Her relationship with Jing-Mei Chen, a mostly exclusively employer-employee relationship based on a great deal of reciprocal respect, had always been a good one. Or at least until a couple of moths before.

Until that fateful Marfan's case, to be precise.

Kerry sighed as memories of that messy Marfan's affair ran through her mind. She wasn't mad at Chen for fighting her job back. In a way she even admired her for this, thinking that she had met someone who was so strongly career-oriented as she was herself. It didn't even bother her that Chen had let her hang out to dry, proving her misconduct by bringing to Romano evidence of her misplaced pager. She was mostly angry with herself for her own stupidity, she would have never left the ER for such personal and not urgent reasons in the first place. She hated that it had been necessary Jing-Mei's return to make her realize how wrong she was. She had lied and denied her responsibilities to cover her back, fooling everyone else but herself. And Jing-Mei's determination to get her job back had obliged her to face it. She knew she had no excuses for her behavior but her job was everything she had. As this last thought filled her mind Kerry decided she was pathetic and sighed more heavily. Jing-Mei heard her and looked up.

" I'm almost done here. I need a confirmation, but Dr. Sharif is not here today. I just need to look her pager or home number up on the computer." Jing-Mei explained, a slight hint of defensiveness in her voice.

"There's no hurry Jing-Mei. You know, it's not like I'm always on my employees' back." Kerry replied quietly, trying to sound jokingly but failing, her voice more tired than usual. "Not that I like it, anyway."

Jin-Mei frowned slightly, wondering what Weaver meant with that. That almost sad tone of voice didn't go well with Kerry's usual bitchy self, which she had displayed until a few moments before.

The truth was that Jing-Mei knew the other Weaver, that affectionate and caring woman, ready to offer help to her co-workers as soon as they let her, the one that Kerry hided so meticulously behind the workaholic, brusque, demanding and over-zealous boss façade. She had discovered Weaver's discreet kindness when she was pregnant and from that moment she had always marveled whenever one of her colleagues had been skeptical about this matter. The problem was that Kerry showed her compassionate side only in private and never let words gets around, as if that could ruin her reputation.

" I heard about your multiple sclerosis diagnosis. Good job, it wasn't easy to rule out. You could have easily missed the symptoms, taking it for a simple drunk." Kerry added casually.

" And in fact I did." Jing-Mei replied, surprised that she was admitting her mistake to none other than Weaver. " If Haleh hadn't pointed out her unusually low BA I wouldn't still have a clue." Jing-Mei shook her head.

" You're pulling a double, tiredness and lack of sleep could play nasty tricks. Don't be too hard on yourself." Kerry spoke calmly "The important thing is that Haleh helped you realize your mistake. That's what nurses are for, to help doctors." Kerry paused and looked Jing-Mei directly in the eye " Our mistakes only make us stronger. Next time you'll get a drunk you'll check his breath twice before sending him off to dry out."

" You bet " exclaimed Jing-Mei trying to smile. " I've just made too many mistakes lately" Jing-Mei went on, realizing that she had said her last words out loud without meaning to.

An awkward silence fell between the two women. Both of them were thinking to that chain of mistakes that had led to their present situation. They raised their heads simultaneously and when their eyes met they both smiled. A silent agreement to put it all behind them had just taken place.

Kerry was the one who finally broke the silence. "You're a good doctor, Jing-Mei. Apart from the great opportunity Romano had to remind me he's the one who runs the place, I'm happy that he made me rehire you."

------------------------

"TV time!" exclaimed Carter, wheeling a TV set inside curtain three.

Harry glanced sideways at his doctor.

"The Bulls are playing against Washington Wizards tonight. I saw your Bulls shirt. Wanna watch the match?" Carter asked and jumped on the empty bed next to Harry's. "Because I do".

"You don't have nothing else to do?" asked Harry brusquely " They surely don't pay you to sit and watch television."

"They surely don't pay me to put up with your spoiled brat crap" he snapped back. " Listen, if you don't want me around it's fine by me. I can still find another place to watch the match peacefully. You choose."

" I don't mind your staying." Harry replied quietly, no trace of anger in his voice this time. Carter relaxed, satisfied, thinking that was the closest thing to an apology he could get from Harry. He looked around the room and noticed Mrs. Brookings's absence.

"Where's you mom?"

"She's gone to eat something" Harry answered him while flipping through TV channels, waiting for the match to start "She needed to make a phone call to find a baby-sitter for my brother Tom too."

As minutes passed by they got more and more involved in the game and the tension between them dissolved and the atmosphere got more laid-back. Carter looked at his watch and turned to Harry:" Why is it taking forever to your mom to get back?"

" She'll probably be arguing with our neighbors' daughter, Sally, to talk her into looking after Tom for the night. He's a real troublemaker and she always has troubles to find a baby-sitter. But Sally is a smart girl, she will get mom to give her five bucks more than last time and she'll accept."

" I really feel for your mom" Carter said half-seriously " She must have a hell of a life with two boys like you and your brother!"

"My little sister, Angela, had always been the quiet one, daddy's good girl." Harry's traits tensed visibly and fixed his eyes on the TV screen, which showed a floor-detergent liquid commercial. A young, beautiful and perfectly made-up housewife was cleaning an already stainless floor, an ecstatic smile on her face, as if that were the most exciting activity in the world.

"She died this past November. She had some kind of skin cancer…"

"Melanoma, yeah." Carter finished the sentence for him. "My older brother died of leukemia when I was a little boy." he added. "I still miss him at times. Is this the reason you've been acting so strangely lately- because you miss her?"

"Yes, er, no, not exactly…" Harry stopped momentarily, concentrating hard to find the words to express his entangled feelings. " I do miss her but…oh, shit, I hate her too." He didn't take his gaze off the television. Talking was much easier this way. He turned the sound down and, as a result, the people in the commercials opened and closed their moth as golden fish and looked utterly ridiculous. Hardly did he feel like laughing, though. "I hate her for leaving me so suddenly, without even giving me a chance to tell her I loved her." Harry bit his lips violently and a drop of blood rolled down his chin. He was fighting tears back with all his energy. Tough guys don't cry.

" I didn't read her stories, I didn't even take her to see that goddamn Pokemon movie! But this doesn't mean that I didn't care!" he exclaimed, his voice reaching a high-pitched note.

"Feelings don't need words to be understood. Believe me, your sister knew you loved her even if you didn't tell her."

Harry wiped his eyes with the back of his hand and waited for Carter to continue.

" It's okay to be upset but you can't going on like this. You're ruining your mother's life as well as yours. Hey, you still have another brother who needs you as much."

The kid nodded faintly. "I don't know if I can do it. I mean, it doesn't feel right to be nice to Tom while I couldn't be bothered to do it for Angela."

Carter raised his voice suddenly: " Don't make this mistake! Don't let Tom feel he lost not only his sister but his brother too."

Harry knew he wouldn't forget these words and the hurting determination he read on Carter's face as he spoke.

Mrs. Brooking chose that very moment to enter the room. She stopped in the middle of the room, sensing that something must have been going on between the young doctor and her son.

"Am I interrupting something?"

"No, no." Harry reassured her" We were just watching the match."

"Oh" replied casually Mrs. Brookings " I'd better get out of here, then. Basketball is beyond my comprehension."

" As every other sport" added Harry.

The freckled face of a small boy peeped in from behind the open door, a mischievous smile about it.

" I couldn't get someone to look after him." explained the woman " Tom, come in and say hello to Dr. Carter and your brother."

Tom launched his body in a breath-taking run and jumped on his brother's bed, completely ignoring his mother's request. " How do you feel Harry?" he asked his older brother.

" I'm feeling good, thanks." He said while messing Tom's red hair with one hand. "Came on, gimme a hug!" Tom buried his face in his brother's chest and Harry whispered in his ear: " You know that I love you, don't you?"

Carter silently left the room, a quiet joy filling his heart.

------------------------

Jing-Mei unclipped her ID badge and slip it in her pocket. She then put away her lab-coat and closed her locker. When she turned around she found herself facing a tired but cheerful Carter.

" I'm off at last." She greeted him "I can't wait to get outta here."

"You had a bad day?" Carter asked while putting on his coat.

" It was crap" Jing-Mei replied and stood to wait for her friend.

"Nah, it can't be too bad." he tried to cheer her up "I got thrown up on four times"

" That doesn't make you special today, Carter. " she chuckled, as the doors of the ER closed loudly behind their back.

" So, how many times did you got puked on?" he asked, faking an angry voice.

" So many I can't remember" she replied still chuckling " Puke was not my main problem today, though." They were walking slowly and the wind swept them from side to side and made one lock of Jing-Mei's hair fall over her face. She lifted it and started nervously playing with it with her finger. " I almost misdiagnosed one patient." She let out in one single sigh.

" Almost" Carter interrupted her.

" This woman came in with altered LOC and blurred speech. I took her for a drunk and she turned out to have multiple sclerosis."

"Don't worry about it. It happened to Mark once too. And you noticed you mistake, after all." Carter said, watching as he spoke his breath condensing in the air because of the cold and forming little puffs of smoke.

" Wrong. Haleh spotted my mistake."

" She was just doing her job." A chillier blow of wind penetrated Carter's coat and a shiver of cold ran through his body.

Jing-Mei corrected him with a poignant smile " Saved my ass is more like it". They were now climbing the stairs leading to the El platforms, which, due to the late hour, were deserted.

"Something good happened to me, anyway." Jing-Mei said lightly, trying to snap herself out of self-pity. " I had this little chat with Kerry and we kinda sorted our problems out. Or so I think." She stopped briefly to clear her throat. "She's not so hard to talk to if you know how to take her " she stated.

" That's what I keep telling over and over even if no-one believes me!" Carter exclaimed.

They sat on a bench near the tracks and kept chatting. Jing-Mei yawned repeatedly. Carter smiled and asked: " You going straight home?"

" Yeah" Yet another yawn made Jing-Mei's reply almost incomprehensible " Can't keep my pillow waiting". She covered her mouth with one hand and got on: " What about you? Do you and Susan have any plans?"

" Nope" Carter shook his head " She's visiting Chloe and little Susie in Phoenix. I'll go home too. If I'm lucky mom could even pay me a visit".

Jing-Mei didn't fail to notice the bitter sarcasm in Carter's voice. "Is she still in town?"

"Pretty surprising, isn't it? She's going through this amazing maternal phase, too, showing up at Gamma's almost everyday."

"Does she think this will make up for what she missed before?" Jing-Mei asked somehow tentatively, fully aware that his parents were a touchy subject for her friend.

" Dunno. I certainly don't think so." replied Carter and closed his eyes in a defeat gesture. " But she hasn't always been like this" he continued, talking more to himself than to his companion "Everything was different before Bobby died…" his voice trailed off. Jing-Mei waited patiently, not wanting to push him.

" She was the one Bobby's death affected the most."

"It's been twenty years, for God's sake!" Jing-Mei couldn't prevent herself from exclaiming. She couldn't stand watching her friend in that miserable condition and hated Mrs. Carter for it. "That's no excuse for her behavior."

Carter stayed silently for a while. Jing-Mei's quick judgment had irritated him a little bit. He always criticized his mother severely, but didn't like it when other people did so. He knew Jing-Mei was just being a friend, though. As he spoke up Harry's words echoed inside his head:" You're right, but that could be the reason".

They heard a train approaching and Jing-Mei got to her feet.

"That's my train. Good night John, see ya." She said and squeezed his arm gently.

"''Night, Deb."

The train slowly began to move and Jing-Mei, looking out of a window, stared at Carter who hadn't moved a single inch, still sitting in the same position and staring off into space. She kept looking at him, his figure quickly getting smaller and smaller until it eventually became a small dot and disappeared completely out of her sight.

------------------

Carter shook the carton milk over his glass but only a few drops of liquid came out. He chuckled inwardly; happy it was he the one who found the nearly empty carton and not his Gamma. As he had witnessed a similar scene many other times already, he could easily imagine his grandmother's lips curving in annoyance as she opened the fridge. He could even hear her voice in his head: "Why do you keep returning carton milks in the fridge when they're empty, darling? Yu know I hate it." It did tick Gamma off and he knew it but old habits are die-hard.

He crossed the huge kitchen of his grandparents' mansion, shivering as his feet, protected only by the thin layer of his socks, made contact with the marble-tiled floor. He reached the trashcan and threw the orange carton-milk away. The remote sound of a pendulum-clock reached his ear from a far-away corner of the big house. It was two in the morning already. Yet, there was no trace of sleep in his body, despite his tiring day.

He returned to the fridge and took out a new carton. He filled the glass to the brim and sipped the milk slowly. The soft crack of the kitchen door opening announced him that he wasn't the only sleepless soul in the Carter's mansion.

His mother was standing in front of him, wrapped in her silk dressing gown. The dim kitchen light reflected upon her face. Maybe it was the light, Carter couldn't tell, but a strange thing happened to him, he was sort of struck by a mental flash and, his new eyes moving over his mother's figure, noticed some wrinkles surrounding her eyes. They give her a wiser but tired air. Suddenly Carter realized that his mother looked much older. It felt like he was looking at her for the first time.

" I see that you can't sleep either, John." She noticed that her son had a glass of milk in his hands and commented: " Do you remember when you couldn't sleep at night, so I would give you a glass of milk and we made-believe it was a magic sleep potion? I guess it still works." She chuckled softly "Oh my gosh, you couldn't have been more than 5."

"I'm surprised that you still remember it, because that must have been about the last time you were around when I couldn't sleep." he hissed, amazed that he was attacking his mother so freely. Taking a few moments to think, he realized that he had bottled his feeling for so long that now that he had opened the door, anger and resentfulness flew out like a river in spate. He wasn't able to stop it but he really didn't want to, the taste of finally letting out his frustration being too sweet.

His mother seemed to be about to drawn in that anger flood but somewhat managed to keep her head above the water and maintain her much-studied dignity. She couldn't help to throw him a hurtful look, tough.

"Oh, please, John, can't we stop this?" she ran her fingers through her hair, a gesture Carter knew was a clear sign that she was very upset. Her distant attitude, a weird mix of social manners and self-defense, was beginning to crumble to pieces. "How long will you be pouting?"

" News-flash, mom: I'm not 5 anymore and I'm not pouting" Carter raised his voice " Run and hide if you want, but you can't change the fact that you stopped being my mother long ago, when Bobby died."

Eleanor tuned around as if her son's accusing eyes were too much for her to take. When she turned again the pain in her was almost palpable: " Do you hate me so much?"

"You wanna know the truth, mom?" he asked, his hands holding his glass so tightly that his knuckles were almost as white as the milk under them. " I don't know if I hate you or not, but I'm sure that I couldn't forgive you if I don't understand you." He lowered his gaze to meet his mother's "Mom, help me understand, please." he begged, all of a sudden turning into little five-year-old John.

Eleanor Carter sighed and the air coming out of her mouth seemed to take out all her energy with it either. "What do you want me to say? Since when I learned about Bobby's illness I had tried to prepare myself for his eventual death but I didn't take it in until a week later it had happened."

She stared somewhere beyond Carter's right shoulder, reliving with her mind eyes the whole scene.

" I was wandering through the house. You and Barbara weren't there, you were staying over at Millicent's. Ronald was out too, probably at some business meeting. I was numb, I didn't feel a thing I, er…"she paused "It's so hard to explain. I didn't even think either. It felt like I was sleepwalking. Anyway, I found myself at your brother's bedroom door. Everything was the way he had left it before going to the hospital for the last time. I hadn't touched a thing. I took a few steps and tripped over something."

Eleanor caressed gently her silk dressing gown, trying to take some comfort out of the pleasant sensation the soft tissue gave her skin.

"It was Bobby's leather shoes, his favorite ones, the ones he used for school. They were old and worn-out and I thought I should by Bobby a new pair because school was starting in a week."

The pendulum-clock broke the surreal silence that filled the house but none of the two paid any attention to it.

"That was when it dawned on me. There would be no more school for Bobby, no new shoes, nothing. I immediately thought I should buy you and Barbara some new things for school too but I couldn't bring myself to do it. I had to send the maid."

Eleanor stopped for a moment. Her throat was desert-dry. She took the glass out of John's hands and took a tiny sip of milk. A tight knot closed her stomach and she felt sick as soon as the sweetish taste of milk filled her mouth.

" I couldn't buy you anything without buying the shoes for your brother. It simply wasn't fair to Bobby. It wasn't fair that you were there while he wasn't, that I couldn't do anything to show him how much I loved him. It was stupid, I know, but I suppose that in my twisted mind you were kind of dead too. They say a mother couldn't choose one of her children over the other ones, and I learned the hard way that's true, even if one of them is dead."

"What about the stabbing?" Carter asked in a whisper. Time seemed to have stopped altogether and they were sort of frozen on the spot, standing in the middle of the kitchen.

" I was out of my mind with pain. It was too much for me to take. I couldn't go through Bobby's ordeal all over again. I locked myself into the hotel penthouse and simply refused to get out. They had to knock the door down. Then I refused to eat or drink. Your father had to have me hospitalized in a Japanese private facility for a week."

Carter was pretty surprised, yet it didn't come to him like a complete shock.

" Ronald kept it quiet. It would do no good to the family reputation if word had gotten around." Tears started rolling down Eleanor's cheeks. " I'm sorry John. I'm not as strong as you are. I don't even know where all your strength comes from. Your father is weak too but he's very good at using his job to hide it. He told me he had this business with his Japanese partners that couldn't absolutely be put off. We stayed in Tokyo two more weeks. I should have stood up to him, but, I told you, I'm weak. I'm so sorry I didn't, I'm so sorry, John…" she repeated softly and motioned towards him but stopped, lost.

It was Carter who reached her and hugged her gently: "It's ok. Don't cry, mom. I understand now. I guess that in a way I knew it all already but I needed you to tell me."

They stood like that for a long time, oblivious to everything, savoring that embrace they had waited for many years.

Fine



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