Cinderella Dances

None of this was supposed to happen.

Accomplished spinal surgeon Dr. Li feels that about a complete stranger, Elaine Crowley. When she arrives in his operating room after being hit by a car, his world is turned over as he races to see her well again in the hopes that, one day, Elaine could stand up and dance.

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1. Accidents Happen

   None of this was supposed to happen.

   The thought possessed me, body and soul, as I took in the face of the woman lying there.  The first thing I could feel was glad--glad that she wasn't awake to recognize me.  Not because I knew her so well or some other drama.  My reason was far more mundane because, truthfully, I knew so little of this woman.  What disquieted me was how well she knew me--5 minutes a day, 5 days a week, for the last 3 months and she knew more of my habits than most of my coworkers.

   She worked at the chicken place nearest my hospital.  I stopped by for lunch each day, and she always took my order.  It was a fact of life I had acknowledged nearly 2 months ago, when she had my order cooking before I walked in and bagged by the time I reached the front of the line.

   I should have known something was wrong when she wasn't there today, but I hadn't thought about it.  I didn't even know her name, yet now I was staring her bruised, damaged body in the face with nothing to say, no way to compensate.

   "Doctor?  Doctor!"  My assistant caught my attention abruptly, startling me back to reality. "We need to operate immediately."

   I nodded once, determination settling in where my guilt had taken residence. "Of course.  Ready the operating room.

 

~~ * ~ * ~ * ~~

 

   "How's your cat?"

   "I'm sorry?"

   The woman smiled. "Your cat.  You said that she had an infection and you were worried about her.  How is she?"

   I stopped where I was, shocked by the fact that she had remembered when I couldn't even recall telling her.  But that was just a memory now, a ghost of the girl who could stand.  Now, I had to look all of that kindness in the eye and deliver the bad news.

   When she saw me walk into the room she smiled, a strangely heart-wrenching sight after her accident. "Doctor.  I never thought I'd be seeing you here."

   I attempted to return the smile, no matter how strained it may be. "Well, you weren't at the restaurant, Miss Crowley, so I decided to come here for lunch."

   She laughed quietly at me, and I could see how worried she was becoming. "So, Dr. Li.  What happened?  Why am I here?"

   This I could do, this I could say.  I had delivered this news a hundred times before. "You were in an accident, walking to work.  Your head hit the concrete rather hard, so it's expected if you have difficulty with your recollection of the event."

   She nodded slowly, a look of dread contorting her expression. "Okay.  What else?  Why can't I feel my legs?  Dr. Li?  Doctor?"

   There it was again, that guilt.  She shouldn't be here. "Where the car hit you--There's damage to your lower spine.  We operated immediately, to do what we could, but...We won't know anything for certain for several weeks, at least."

   "You mean I might never walk again?" she choked on her words, the sound wrenching the heart in my chest.  I'd given the same news dozens of times before.  This time shouldn't have been any different.

   But my eyes refused to meet hers as I nodded. "It is a possibility, but there is a chance that, with treatment and physical therapy, in a couple of years..."

   "In a couple years, I won't have a job.  Or a home," she replied faintly, trying so hard to be brave, I could see it.  Every day for the last 3 months, she had helped me without even a sincere thanks to take home.  Now, when there was the opportunity to help, I didn't know how; I'd never cared enough to learn.

   "I'm sorry," was all I could think to reply with, loathing how the seconds dragged by in agonizing silence. "If you need anything, please don't hesitate to call the nurse.  She'll help to make you as comfortable as possible."

   With that, I turned to leave, at once grateful and regretful that there was nothing left to say.  No way to help and no way to lie anymore about the severity of her condition.  Nothing to do but move on.

   "Wait!"  Her outcry stopped me short, and I was glad for it, though I didn't look back at her. "Thank you."

   I winced at the words, but was far from any mood to interpret my reactions at this point.  I nodded curtly. "You're welcome."

 

~~ * ~ * ~ * ~~

 

   Three days.

   That was all, but I still couldn't seem to get away from that woman, Elaine.  Months after first meeting her, I finally knew her name and now I couldn't get it out of my head.

   "Hey, Li, you alright?  Your head doesn't seem to be in the game today."  Mark brought my attention back to the game of chess we had engaged in, like we did every Saturday morning.  Dr. Hart was a colleague of mine; having met in college we'd remained friends since.

   I took in the game and, with a quiet sigh, brought my knight to check. "What do you mean?  I'm going to win."

   He made a narrow escape by sacrificing a bishop, nodding. "But you usually beat me a lot sooner.  If I didn't know better, I'd say I almost had a fighting chance."

   That made me smile. "But you still know better, Mark."

   "Okay.  How about a bargain?  I win, you tell me what's bothering you," he continued persistently.

   "And what if I win?"  I captured the sacrificial bishop, one move closer to victory.

   "I'll spring for dinner," was his immediate reply, moving forward a pawn rather than defending his king.

   "I'm agreeable."  My knight moved forward. "Check."

   His queen struck from nowhere, throwing me off guard.  Mark grinned. "Checkmate."

   I stared at the setup, taking it in slowly, praying there was a way out. "Of all the times for you to improve..."

   "So."  He leaned back with a triumphant smile. "Who is she?"

   "What?"  I stared at him in shock. "That is a rather bold assumption."

   "Well, it was that or drugs," he replied offhandedly. "So, again, who is she?"

   I sighed quietly in defeat, shaking my head slowly. "I should have known you never would have bought me dinner."

   He smiled patiently. "I'm waiting, Li."

   "I never agreed to a time frame."

   "No, but you still agreed," he pointed out with a triumphant smirk.

   I nodded slowly, weighing my options.  After all, guilt aside, there was no need to be unnerved by anything to do with Elaine.  She was just another unfortunate patient that I happened to recognize.  Nothing more.

   "Alright.  One of my patients--"

   "Oh, really?!"

   "--I just recognize her, that's all," I finished firmly, not wanting him to get the wrong idea. "Honestly, I may just be tired, she may have nothing at all to do with this.  We have been busy," I added for extra effect.  My efforts were met with a disbelieving scowl.

   "You've gone 72 hours without sleep and still never lost to me before," he countered readily. "I'd like to know: Is she pretty?  I mean, what kind of girl catches the eye of the great and stoic Dr. Li?"

   I shot him a glare. "One who isn't my patient, Mark."

   "So we only have a few weeks to wait, then, huh?"  He shrugged. "I can be patient."

   "Please, Mark, spare me.  You're coming dangerously close to sounding homosexual," I threatened him.  Much to my dismay, it seemed to have very little effect on him.

   "Takes on to know one, but you're getting away from the topic of interest."  He stared me in the eye and asked, "Who is she?"

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