A Tyler Christmas
Chapter 1: December 2016
I’ll be somewhere down in Texas if you’re looking for me - drinking in that great wide open ... soaking up the summer breeze, kicking back, and settled in with my family. I’ll be somewhere down in Texas if you’re looking for me. – George Strait
“Ambulance in-bound ETA ten minutes. No trauma code. Ambulance in-bound ETA ten minutes. No trauma code.”
At the words, ‘ambulance in-bound, ‘ from the overhead speaker, Doctor Sarah Evans started out of an exhausted sleep, but almost as quickly relaxed into the large over-stuffed chair in the Emergency Care Center’s staff lounge as she heard the words, ‘no trauma code.’
Her sleep-deprived brain realized she had plenty of time to get ready, since the ER surgical team didn’t need to prep for whatever the para-medics were bringing. If she was lucky it was some woman in labor that she could pretty much hand off to the duty resident and interns.
It was Saturday night, well now it was Sunday morning she realized as she forced one eye open to look at the big white-faced clock on the wall. A horrendous traffic accident had taken up much of her night as the ER surgical team had labored to save three drunken college students who had mixed too much alcohol with a desire to see how fast their compact Toyota could go. It had ended badly for all of them, especially the unbelted teen girl in the back seat. Sarah felt fortunate that the State Patrol would notify the next of kin.
Weekend night shift was a mixed bag. The police would always bring in a few college students who had tried to poison themselves with alcohol. She rarely saw the same students twice – a stomach pump seemed to make an impression on even the most inebriated young person. Then there were the traffic accidents. There were over twenty thousand students at the various centers of higher education in a metropolitan area that contained about two-hundred thousand, which meant that a disproportionate number of the patients that passed through her emergency department were young and careless, reckless or stupid. There was a joke about rednecks which went something like this, ‘What’s a redneck’s last words? ‘Hey Bubba, hold my beer and watch this!’ Well in Tyler the redneck would be replaced by a college student – with the same tragic results.
Ah, to be young again. She was only thirty but at three thirty in the morning, and after hours of frantic surgery, she felt like ninety. Even as deputy chief of the Emergency Care Center she had to pull her weight and that meant she was on rotation once a month for a week of nights.
Widowed at twenty-four and pregnant and in medical school at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, Sarah kept at it. Her parents lived in Los Angeles and were a godsend of emotional and financial support, and her daily babysitters. Her late husband’s parents lived in San Diego and never got over the loss of their eldest son, and it seemed they blamed her and their child. Not long after the funeral they withdrew from her, and other than a holiday card once a year they showed no interest in their granddaughter. Sarah would also occasionally hear from members of Mike’s SEAL Team but they were deployed a lot, and they had lives of their own.
“Sarah, you functional?” She coaxed her eyes open again to see her chief nurse Emily Anderson. Emily, ‘Em’ to her friends, was five years older and very pretty in an all-American Texas girl sort of way. She was a bit too tall and thin to fit in the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleader category, but the redhead would still turn heads as she went by, even in scrubs. That was just downright unfair, Sarah thought.
Emily ran a tight ship in the Emergency Department when she was on shift, and Sarah was particularly glad they had become friends. When she had come to Tyler two years ago fresh out of an Emergency Medicine Residency in LA, Emily and her husband Greg had all but adopted her and her daughter Amelia. They had made the transition for Sarah from urban ‘left coast’ California to more rural east Texas, go much smoother, and had eased her through the culture shock into a very different lifestyle that Sarah had now came to appreciate, and in fact embrace.
Dressed in light green scrubs, like Sarah, Emily stood in front of her sipping the foul brew that passed for coffee in the wee hours.
“Don’t know how you can drink that stuff,” Sarah mumbled as she began to stir.
“The stuff we drank in Afghanistan was worse...” She watched Sarah tense and quickly apologized, “Sorry.”
“That’s okay Em ... that was a long time ago. Sometimes it seems like it happened to someone else, but I thank God every day that I have Amelia. She’s a treasure.”
Emily considered her coffee for a moment and eventually smiled and said, “You wouldn’t like to trade for my twins would you? Some days I’d probably throw in Greg too!”
“You would not! That man adores you.”
Emily fixed her with a mock-serious face, “Well how about just the twins for Amelia and a player to be named later?”
Sarah got to her feet. “Oh, does that mean you and Greg are working on having a ‘player to be named later?’”
Emily almost spit out her coffee. “Heaven forbid! Having the twins around is the best form of birth control there is. Sorry, the offer of a player to be named later is off the table!”
Sarah laughed at the look on her friend’s face. “So how about an undisclosed amount of cash?”
“Sorry, no cash.”
“Dang, I could really use some right now.”
“Couldn’t we all,” Emily agreed.
“Anyway Em, your girls are twelve now, so I really think the trading deadline has already passed, especially since they’re about to become teens.”
“Oh ... yeah. Well, there goes my bargaining position!” They both laughed.
Still smiling, and trying with only some success to get her short blonde hair back into a ponytail; Sarah turned from the mirror in the break area. “So what have we got inbound?”
Moving instantly to her professional mode, Emily said, “The para-medics called it in ... said twenty-five year old male. He works at Bailey’s Guns downtown. His boss came into the shop because the lights were still on and found him on the floor. That was about forty-five minutes ago.”
“No sign. He’s running about a 104 degree temp – lots of congestion, maybe pneumonia they think. He’s also pretty dehydrated. They’ve started fluids and ice packs.”
“Good. Who’s on the run tonight?”
“Even better, she’s solid.”
“Yeah, the best.”
They walked down the corridor toward the main part of the Emergency Department.
“Any word on the kids we patched together tonight since they went to ICU?” Sarah asked.
“Touch and go for the passenger, but he’s young and will probably pull through. The driver, he’ll be well enough to stand trial for vehicular homicide in a couple of months.”
“Never ends, does it?”
“No, they all think they’ll live forever.”
Sarah’s heart jumped as her mind conjured Mike’s smiling face. He thought he’d live forever too. So had she.
“I’m sorry, what’d you say?” She’d completely missed Emily’s question.
Emily stopped and turned to face her. “I should make you drink some of this so-called coffee if you’re going to zone out on me.”
“I said, have you got a date for the Hospital Holiday Gala yet?”
Sarah just looked at her friend. “No, as usual I’ll be with you and Greg. He always saves a few dances for me.”
Emily took her elbow. “Let’s see ... you got here two years ago and each year you’ve attended by yourself. Is that ever going to change? I know several members of the staff who would love to be your escort.”
Sarah just shook her head. “No one has asked me yet and some of those interested parties are married!”
“Well besides that...”
“Em, I’m really happy to just go with you and Greg. He’s the best looking man around, especially in a tux, and on top of that he’s interesting, funny, and when necessary can keep the wolves at bay. Come to think of it, he’d make a great husband. Too bad he’s already taken!”
“No slow dances with Greg this year girl!”
They laughed. “Anyway I’m too busy for a man in my life right now.”
“Sounds like too busy ever...”
“Look Em, with Mike, it seemed like love at first sight. We met on a friend’s boat on a beautiful day as we sailed out of San Diego Harbor for a trip up the coast, and from that moment we just were. I don’t know if that will ever happen again or if I even want it to...” Her voice trailed off and the gaiety that had been there moments before evaporated.
Emily hugged her.
“Sorry Em ... just tired.”
After a moment Emily smiled and said, “But if gorgeous Doctor Adams asks, you’d go with him, right?”
Sarah recognized her friend’s attempt to cheer her up and replied, “Guess I’ll just change your name to ‘Emma’ if you insist on matchmaking. You’re as bad as my mother, and I happen to know that Doctor Adams already has a date for the gala.”
“What? How’d that happen without me knowing about it?”
The tension broken, they laughed.
“Anyway, I’d just as soon avoid the whole thing. Standing around all evening in hose and heels isn’t my idea of fun, even with you and the ever-handsome Greg.”
Emily looked at her. “Listen Sarah, when you put on your little black dress and those stiletto FMP’s you’re the envy of most of the women in the place and the lust object of every straight male. It’s a good thing you’re so nice and a mom, because I think a number of those trophy wives, and not-so-trophy wives, would like to do you in!”
“Lust object huh?” Sarah smiled and shook her head trying to get that idea to fit with how she looked and felt at the moment. She desperately needed a shower.
“Yes, and why do you think the CEO drags you around all evening to chat up the wealthy donors? Fortunately his wife is one of your biggest fans.”
“Hey, all I did was to be the first to diagnose her ruptured appendix. One of the interns could have done that!”
“But they didn’t. You did, so now she’s in your corner and won’t allow any crap from the prima donna wives and girlfriends. Or even any of the backbiting staff.”
“Backbiting staff? How could you say such a thing? At a hospital?” She failed to suppress a laugh.
“You know Sarah, with your legs, if you shortened the hem of that little black dress a couple of inches you could probably get those donors to pony up another half mil!”
“And why not? You look like that tennis star who’s in all those ads. What’s her name anyway?”
Emily let out a snort. “Very funny! No, the Russian one ... Maria something...”
“I do not look like Maria Sharapova!”
Emily pulled out her phone and soon was showing Sarah a photo. “You said your mother’s family was originally from Russia, maybe you’re related.”
“Hardly! And maybe there is some resemblance, but it says she’s six-two and only twenty-eight. I think I’d have to put on a growth spurt and take two years off my age!”
“In heels you’re six-two, easy!”
“I’ve never been easy,” Sarah deadpanned.
Emily just chuckled. “Okay, I give up.”
“You should. That swill you’re drinking is making you nuts!”
“Is that a professional opinion doctor?”
“Yup, with lots of evidence to back it up!”
Sarah looked at the young man on the exam table. He was bare-chested with his lower half covered with a sheet. He had close cropped dark hair, and looked awfully young. There was a pronounced surgical scar down his right shoulder. It looked recent – within the last few months anyway. His skin was hot to the touch and his heart was racing. Her stethoscope told her what she had already suspected - that his labored breathing was due to fluid in his lungs. The paramedics had done a good job getting a line in despite the fact he was dehydrated. She also noted he was very thin. There didn’t appear to be an ounce of fat anywhere. His upper body was well defined though. Swimmer maybe?
“Give me the rundown Pat,” she said to the senior para-medic who was across the exam table from her. Pat King was mid-thirties, and like Emily, a Texas Army National Guard Medical Command Afghan vet. She was dressed in her paramedic uniform – white shirt, dark blue pants, and black shoes. Tonight she was also wearing a dark jacket because of the sudden December chill.
“His driver’s license says he’s James Cavanaugh. He’s twenty-five – and he lives at the address where we picked him up...”
“He lives at the gun shop?”
She smiled. “Well sort of. According to his boss he lives in a room upstairs from the shop.”
“So about an hour ago the owner, Ed Bailey came back to the store. He’d left for dinner and then to visit his wife - she’s here on the sixth floor. Then he went home and went to bed, but sometime later he got a call from one of his friends. Apparently Ed doesn’t drink but he has a standing offer to a few of his friends that he’ll come get them anywhere, anytime, if they’re too drunk to drive. He was on his way home from dropping someone and as he drove by the store he noticed the lights were still on. He found Mr. Cavanaugh in the shop lying on the floor unresponsive. By the way, Mr. Bailey is in the waiting room if you need to talk to him. He assured me that Cavanaugh’s an employee with health insurance.”
Sarah and Emily exchanged knowing looks. The Emergency department treated people first and it was up to the billing department to sort out the rest.
“Anyway, when he couldn’t arouse Mr. Cavanaugh he called us. We checked him for tracks and any sign of alcohol poisoning, but from his high temp and pulse and dehydration I’m thinking pneumonia, maybe brought on by the flu. Mr. Bailey said Cavanaugh hadn’t complained to him about being sick, but he said Cavanaugh might not have told him anyway. We were damn lucky to get a line in him as dehydrated as he is. I started IV fluids and O-two and we packed him in some ice on our way. In the unit he was in and out, mostly out.”
“Thanks. You guys did a great job as usual. Guess we’ll take it from here.”
“Thanks Doc, always glad to be of service - keeps us from being bored.”
Sarah smiled, “Any time Pat, any time.”
She turned to Emily, “Let’s get him rolled over onto his side. We need to try and get a sputum sample for the lab. Also I want to start him on IV antibiotics right now.”
When they got him on his side they stared at the numerous ugly red scars on his back, most still showing the suture marks. “What the hell caused all that?”
Emily looked sad, “Shrapnel would be my guess. Saw a lot of those in Afghanistan. From the size of those wounds, I’d say a mortar, maybe artillery, got him before he had a chance to armor up.”
“Yeah, that’s getting all your protective gear on. You know, body armor, helmet and such.”
“Oh.” Sarah wondered how many times Mike had to ‘armor up.’ Had he been wearing that when he was killed?
Emily moved the sheet down and saw more wounds on his buttocks and the backs of his legs. “Probably a good thing whatever it was went off behind him.”
Sarah pointed to an older circular scar on his right thigh and said, “Damn, that looks like a bullet wound.” She examined the other side of his thigh, “Through and through. Looks like it didn’t hit anything important, so they patched him and sent him out again. Considering the battering he’s taken he should be someplace convalescing. The question is, what’s this kid doing out of the hospital? Are the military docs so incompetent they’d let him go in this condition?”
Emily looked thoughtful. “None that I’ve met.”
Just then James Cavanaugh opened his eyes and looked at Sarah. Suddenly she couldn’t breathe and almost stepped back. His eyes were amazingly dark and there she saw incredible sorrow and pain. Oh God, she thought, I’ve seen that look before. She’d seen it in her mirror after Mike died and then for weeks and months that followed. Sometimes the memory of him brought back those feelings even after six years.
Then he started coughing. His breath wheezed each time he took a labored breath.
When the coughing abated a bit he rolled onto his back and struggled to sit up.
Sarah put a green-gloved hand on his chest and quietly said, “Please just lay back down. You’re pretty sick.”
He nodded and just looked at her, his eyes searching. She noticed the sorrow and pain had been replaced by a very guarded look.
“I’m Doctor Evans, and this is Nurse Anderson, can you tell us your name?”
He thought for a moment, and then rasped. “Yes, ma’am ... I’m James Cavanaugh ... Sergeant.”
Out of the corner of her eye Sarah saw Emily nod.
“And do you know where you are?”
He looked at the two women dressed in scrubs and then around the room, taking in the medical equipment, and said, “Landstuhl?”
Sarah turned to Emily. “I don’t know where that is.”
“It’s a military hospital in Germany ... the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Kaiserslautern. It’s where we sent casualties from Afghanistan for further treatment and evaluation before going back stateside.”
She turned to look at Cavanaugh again. “You’re in a hospital in Tyler, Texas, and you’re pretty sick, maybe pneumonia. Your boss, Mr. Bailey found you unresponsive at work about an hour ago. Do you remember anything about that?”
He slowly shook his head, and then started coughing again. Emily brought him some water and the coughing subsided after a bit. After a few moments he said hoarsely, “Now I remember. I was at the shop and it was maybe this morning and I started to feel terrible, but I had lots to do, and so when I had things kind of wrapped up I decided to quit for the night and go up to bed. Then I was here.”
The coughing started again,
“One last question. These injuries, what happened?” There was a sudden flare in his eyes as he struggled to breathe, but it was quickly hidden. Had she not been looking Sarah would have missed it.
“Afghanistan happened.” He wouldn’t look at her any longer.
“Mr. Bailey, I’m Doctor Evans and this is Chief Nurse Anderson. I know it’s pretty late, but could you give us some background on Mr. Cavanaugh?”
“Please just call me ‘Ed, ‘ everyone else does. How’s he doing?”
Ed Bailey was probably in his late sixties and rail thin, with piercing blue eyes and a thick crop of gray hair. He wore faded jeans, western boots and a heavy wool shirt. His belt featured a large silver rodeo buckle and his accent was the quiet drawl of east Texas.
Sarah and Emily had pulled up chairs so they could face Bailey. They were seated in the now-empty waiting area. The para-medics had left. The Emergency Department had settled back into quiet anticipation.
“Ed, he’s probably going to be fine. He’s very lucky you came by when you did and called the paramedics. I’m going to admit him so we can treat whatever’s going on ... probably pneumonia. Maybe set off by a bad cold or the flu.”
“When can I see him?”
“Oh, I’d guess maybe tomorrow sometime.”
“Okay. Sure glad he’s getting some care. I was pretty worried.”
“Ed, how long have you known Mr. Cavanaugh?” Sarah asked.
“Let’s see...” His hand moved across his unshaven chin. “I recall it was somewhere about the beginning of October. He just walked in off the street. Kind of funny ... I had a ‘help wanted’ sign in the window, but I didn’t find out until later he’d just got into town and was looking for a recommendation for a place to eat. He hadn’t even planned to stay.” Ed Bailey smiled broadly at that memory.
He paused and frowned and then continued, “Anyway that was shaping up to be one of the worst days of my life. My wife had called and was crying on the phone telling me she had just been diagnosed with breast cancer and asked me to come to the hospital to pick her up – she was in no condition to drive. I didn’t have anyone to cover the store and was ready to just close up shop and go. I was pretty upset too.” He stared into the distance.
“Two days earlier my gunsmith of twenty years had been hospitalized with a heart attack and on top of that the other fellow who works for me just didn’t show up that day -found out later he was drunk again. So I was pretty frantic. As I said, I was getting ready to close the shop even though I had a couple of large shipments coming in and the guys at the gun club had a competition coming up and my gunsmith was supposed to put new triggers in ten of their rifles. I was waiting on those parts too. But anyway, I knew in the scheme of things all that stuff was minor and I had to go.”
He picked up a Styrofoam cup from the side table and looked in it and scowled and put it back down.
“Well anyway, James walks in and I see he’s older than the typical student around here, and he had this look about him – you know, older and wiser than his age somehow, and I asked him if he knows anything about guns. He says, ‘a little.’” Bailey let out a laugh. “A little? Hell, that kid is a natural. These days my gunsmith has cut back to two days a week and he’s teaching it all to James and he’s picking it up so fast I think Pete, my gunsmith, is worried I won’t need him at all soon, and I probably won’t! In fact if he keeps up the pace he’s been going for the last two months, I won’t need me much longer!” He chuckled.
“So I told him he was hired, told him about the shipments and the new trigger assemblies coming in and showed him how to work the cash register and then I left.”
Emily shook her head. “You put James Cavanaugh in charge of your store and you’d known him for just a few minutes. Didn’t you wonder if he’d clean you out, guns and cash?”
Ed just shook his head. “I think I’m a pretty good judge of character and I was desperate and maybe not thinking all that clearly that day, but it all worked out. When I got back several hours later to check on things he was still there and he’d gotten the shipments taken care of, sold three rifles, a shotgun and two pistols, swept the place and was in the middle of replacing the trigger assembly on the fifth of the ten competition rifles that needed it done.”
“He sounds pretty resourceful.”
“He’s a fine young man, and smart too. He knows about lots of things. He even quotes Shakespeare. ‘Once more unto the breach, ‘ seems his favorite. My wife tells me it’s from Henry the Fifth, and pretty common, but what’s funny is that he knows the rest of the speech too.”
Sarah looked at Emily and then back at Ed. “Your Mr. Cavanaugh is full of surprises for someone who just appeared one day.”
“All good surprises so far.”
Sarah nodded, and asked, “How did he come to be living above the store?”
“Well, after we closed up that night – the night he arrived that is, I took him down the street to Julie’s Diner and bought him the biggest steak on the menu. I found out he’s a vet. Marine Corps though. I was army in Vietnam and I told him I was going to go into the Marines but they found out my parents were married so I was disqualified!” Ed let out a sharp laugh, almost a bark, at his joke.
“And when I found out he hadn’t even had a chance to look for a place to stay, I offered the room upstairs at the back of the building. It had been used for storage. He cleaned it up and he’s still living there and it’s a damn-sight nicer than when he moved in - doesn’t have a TV but he has shelves full of books. He reads a lot. It doesn’t have a shower or bath, just a sink and toilet but he runs over to the YMCA on Vine, probably every morning, early, and swims and then showers over there.”
Sarah looked at Emily and asked, “Ed, any idea where he’s from?”
He thought about that. “No not really. He never said. He doesn’t really talk about his past. I didn’t talk about the war when I got home either. I did see his old license when I took him over to the DMV. It was expired since he hadn’t renewed it while in the military. I needed him to have a valid license to drive the truck to make deliveries and run errands. I remember it was from California, but as I recall there used to be lots of Marine bases in California so he might have just got it while stationed out there.”
“Perhaps, but that’s good information. Any mention of family? Someone we could notify?”
Ed shook his head. “The kid doesn’t talk much, at least about himself, and I sort of have the impression there’s no family. He does fine with the customers, very professional, but there’s not much small talk. I think the women customers like that ... they know he’s not trying to hit on them.” He smiled. “Although there are a couple of women who are old enough to know better who are beginning to get on my nerves - always in the shop pestering James to help them with their ‘breathing technique, ‘ or ‘holding technique, ‘ or something else. Technique my ass!” He laughed. “He does have a quirky sense of humor though. I didn’t know it at first – hell, I think it was at least a month before I even saw him smile - Oh, sorry for my language.” He really didn’t look sorry.
Ed smiled and added, “Anyway, he’s teaching a pistol class for women in January, and it’s already filled up.”
Emily glanced at Sarah, and said half under her breath, “Maybe you should get on the waiting list.”
Sarah ignored her. “Did you know about his injuries?”
“You mean the scars on his back and legs?”
“One of the ladies at the YMCA who swims in the morning mentioned them to me. She was kind of curious about how he got them. I told her if she was that nosy, she should ask him herself. That’s the only reason I know about them myself.”
“Anything else you can tell us?”
Ed paused for several seconds before answering. “I know wherever he was with the Marines he had a tough time. I can see it in his eyes. He reminds me of myself a lot when I got back from Vietnam. I joined the Army right out of high school for three years in 1966 – wasn’t drafted - was an infantryman, spent back-to-back twelve-month tours there. I was home exactly two days – grew up down the road in Chandler, when I put my old man in the hospital. He was drunk and was getting ready to slap my mother. The cops came. They said they’d answered a lot of ‘domestic calls’ at my folks’ house while I was gone and the old man had it coming, but they suggested I get out of town for a while. So I went on the rodeo circuit for a few years. The second time I busted the same leg I hung it up and went to the oil fields.”
He got a faraway look in his eyes. “It paid better but I managed to drink most of it up. Then I met Melody. Haven’t had a drink in forty years.”
He wiped his eyes. “She’s upstairs on six, you know. The chemo is real hard on her...”
They waited silently for a minute or so while he composed himself, and then he added, “Like I said, kind of reminds me of me at that age. He’s hurting. He’s kind of a lost soul, but I think he’s getting better and I think he’s found a home here.”
He paused again. “I don’t want you to think he’s going to cause trouble or anything. He’s kept my shop going almost singlehandedly since he walked in the place. He’s smart – pretty sure there’s some college in there too. He also completely redid my computer system and my books and records are all automated. He also rebuilt Melody’s laptop so she has something while she’s here. And he’s really some kind of wizard where guns are concerned. The customers love him. He’s a godsend. If my Melody wasn’t so sick he’d probably be living in our house.”
“Thank you Mr. Bailey ... Ed. We’ll take good care of him. Guess we’ll let you finally get home and get to bed.”
Emily and Sarah stood and watched him as he pulled on a battered denim jacket and walked slowly out into the pre-dawn darkness.
Sarah let out a tired sigh. “Guess we didn’t find out much other than James Cavanaugh is a wounded vet, an all-around good guy, conscientious to a fault, and maybe from California – someone who needed a home and apparently has found one.”
Emily nodded and said, “True enough, but James Cavanaugh intrigues me and one of these days in my spare time I’m going to contact a friend at Walter Reed Military Medical Center in Bethesda and ask for a favor.”
“Spare time Em? What’s that?” The exhaustion of a hard night in the ER made it come out as a rasp.