How could a man so right for me in every way have done something so wrong?
I gazed at Carter as he dozed in front of the muted television set. He’d told me more in the last few hours than I could possibly take in, and I was glad enough that his medicine had finally made him nod off. Taking hold of his hand, I faced the truth: I loved a murderer. And as much as I didn’t want to, this realization forced me to face another truth—about my mother.
I’d taken on the private nursing job as a way to make money while I sent my resume to hospitals, doctor’s offices, and clinics. I never believed that I’d become involved with my patient. After all, he’d been badly wounded, and he’d killed a man.
Carter had seemed so hard, so indifferent, and so closed off that I’d told myself not to think of him as a man. But that was easier said than done. Even though I was tempted at times to show my impatience with his cynical attitude, I knew that he was becoming special to me. Now I sat next to him still shocked by the revelations that he’d finally allowed to pour out.
Before she died, my mother told me that there are no coincidences in life. Now, I wondered. Was I somehow destined to meet and fall in love this man who didn’t want anything but the skill that I brought to him as a nurse? In the two months that I’d been Carter’s live-in nurse, my pity had turned into something stronger. A poet once proclaimed that pity and love were close kin, and I sure believed it.
I hadn’t found much time for love in my twenty-six years. My father left when I was twelve, leaving Mama to raise five kids by herself. We’d scraped by, though. Sometimes I’d sacrifice lunch in order to buy school supplies and I seldom spent money on movies or even a Coke and hamburger. My lack of fast food funds probably helped me to maintain my lean figure, which was the envy of some of my fellow nurses in training. My mind only thought of necessities, and I didn’t expect to find love.
Carter Lee wasn’t the lovable type, either. He was almost forty, had never married, and seldom smiled. He was also withdrawn and tight lipped. He’d been injured in a terrible encounter, one that he’d steadfastly refused to talk about—until this afternoon. Now, as he slept, Carter looked utterly vulnerable.
I remembered how the previous nurse had whispered the word “murderer” in the most melodramatic way. The situation wasn’t ideal, but I needed a job, and I was sure that I could handle any patient for a few months. She explained that Carter’s fiancée had been killed by her ex-husband and that the man had also shot Carter. Semi-conscious, he’d shot back and killed the man.
The trauma had left Carter damaged both physically and emotionally. A string of surgeries and weekly physical therapy was repairing the physical damage. His face now looked almost normal and his body was healing. The most recent surgery had involved taking bone from his hip, and he was in a wheelchair as a result.
I absentmindedly picked up one of the seashells from Carter’s bookcase as my eyes started to wander around the room. His house was by far the most comfortable place that I’d ever lived—many times larger than the apartment I’d shared with my mother and siblings. Compared to the one room I lived in on my own, it was a palace. My mother had insisted that I finish high school, even when I was working too many hours at the local burger joint and could hardly keep my eyes open in class. After high school, I worked as a clerk and stayed with my younger brothers and sisters while Mama worked nights cleaning the hospital. Still, over a couple of years, I’d managed to earn almost a year of community college credits. My prospects of continuing on and getting a nursing degree became far less promising when my mother’s health failed that January four years earlier. I had to take care of the homemaking and pay the bills in her absence.
After that came what seemed like a series of coincidences. Uncle Nico, Mom’s brother, offered to take the three youngest children to live with him and his wife, Rosalie, in California. Their youngest was almost seventeen, and they told us that they needed more children to fill the empty nest that would soon be upon them. Even though they’d miss us, Chrissy, Mikey, and Gail were happy to leave snowy Chicago, and looked forward to life on the sunny West coast. Wade, next in age to me, decided to move in with his girlfriend, Adele. They shared her tiny apartment, and would probably get married soon, he’d told me.
Late one night, after Mama dragged herself home from work, she called me into the kitchen. Her face was sickly gray but also somehow vividly alive. She handed me an envelope stuffed with money.
“Take it,” she whispered. “And don’t ever ask where I got it. I want you to promise me that you’ll go to nursing school.”
“But, Mama,” I started. I’d never seen so much money before and for a wild moment I wondered if Mama had sold the children! “How? Did Uncle Nico—”
“Please, Naomi. Promise me you’ll go to school and become a nurse. You must!” Mama’s tone was fierce and her face was determined. She looked tired and old, even though she was barely in her forties.
“Yes, I promise,” I said. “You know that it’s what I want more than anything in the world, but—”
“There is enough here, with luck and no frills, for you to make it. My little Naomi, you’ve had too few frills in life, but someday, a fine man will come along and give you all that you want.”
I didn’t have time to think about some fine man, especially since none of the boys who wanted to date me fit into that category. They were too much like my brother Wade—willing to settle for jobs that provided enough money for beer, rent, and car payments.
I tried to make Mama tell me more about the money, but she wouldn’t say anything more. I couldn’t imagine that she’d borrow such a large sum, so I asked her outright if Uncle Nico had paid my mother in exchange for my siblings going to live with him. Mama swore that was not the case. “The children deserve a chance for a better life,” she said. She looked awfully pale.
“Well, where did you get it?” I asked. “It’s a big coincidence that you suddenly have so much money.”
Mama sat quietly and then said, “There are no coincidences.” She wouldn’t meet my eyes.
Two days later, she collapsed at work and passed away. Uncle Nico couldn’t afford to come fly back and bring the children, so he sent a big wreath. He also invited me to come to California to live, but I knew that I never would.
Carter looked surprisingly peaceful with his head forward on his chest. The gentle sounds that he made told me that he was fully asleep. I was glad that I’d kept after him and tried so hard to get him to talk to me.
My curiosity amazed and even scared me a little. I’d always kept a comfortable distance from others. Now, I was more curious than a child with a new kitten. I felt somehow bound to Carter and I wanted to hold, cuddle, and comfort him. But, did I dare love him?
A few hours earlier, as I sat near him, I wondered what I could do to help. He looked startled when he saw my warm gaze and my face flushed with embarrassment. He instantly averted his eyes—shy and a little irate.
“I felt a kindness hovering over my sleep,” he mumbled, slightly confused. “I moved further in the re-visioning this time, Naomi.”
I knew all about his nightmares. He dreamt that blood rushed over him like a flood.
“The blood receded a little,” he said. “This time, I got to the surface without that gurgling, smothering sensation. I even felt a slight sense of hope.”
“I’ll get you some hot tea.” The words were innocent enough, but still I felt like I’d been caught in some erotic daydream.
“Thanks,” he muttered. He sounded sullen and bewildered. I looked in the mirror as I slipped from the room and noticed that Carter was watching me. That was something that he’d never done before.
While he sipped his tea and I munched on a piece of shortbread, I tried again to encourage him to talk.
“Carter, as your nurse—” I was less tentative in my tone than I’d been on other occasions. “I believe you need to heal emotionally as well as physically. You—”
“I know what you mean,” he interrupted. “My body may be your business, but my mind sure as hell isn’t!” As he said it, his eyes met mine and he flushed. Talking about his body seemed to make him aware of its needs and responses. He’d never blushed before, even as I’d tended to his most intimate needs. I was always careful not to overstep the boundaries of a proper employee-employer relationship, and I never dressed provocatively or lounged carelessly in his presence. I knew he respected me for my business-like attitude, and it made my attention to his body less frustrating for the both of us.
“It should be someone else’s business, then,” I replied. “You’ve refused to go back to counseling and you’re—”
Again, Carter surprised me by interrupting, “Exactly what do you want to know?”
My professionalism slipped a little as my eyes misted at his abrupt, angry tone. But then I realized that his question was a first step, and maybe even a real breakthrough.
“All I know is that your fiancée was killed and you were shot. Can you tell me about her?”
Carter’s face couldn’t show much expression because of his recent surgery, but his eyes took on an emptiness that I’d come to recognize. He leaned back and with an effort, said, “Chloe was—she was my first love. I was in my mid-thirties when I met her. I somehow got through my teenage years without that great tumble into first love.”
He paused, as if surprised at his own confession.
“Chloe worked for a competitor. We met at one of those business seminars. She needed a friend, and gradually, she told me about her jealous ex-husband, Lance. She’d taken her little girl, Yvette, and moved to Chicago to get away from him, but he followed them.
Quietly, Carter recounted the horror of that day: He’d driven Chloe to visit a friend in her old apartment building. The friend was supposed to be home early, but wasn’t there when they arrived. When Lance showed up unexpectedly, Carter had left the apartment to avoid a confrontation. He walked to a neighborhood bakery to give them some time to talk things over. As Carter walked back through the parking lot, he saw Lance near his car. Lance said something like, “I’ve shot that no good whore and you’re gonna be next—then Yvette.”
Carter swallowed with difficulty. Perspiration was beginning to appear on his forehead. “I clearly remember him saying, ‘I came to get more bullets. If I can’t have her, nobody is going to.’ I stood there in shock. He shot me point blank in the face.” He gestured to the side of his face that had been shattered.
“Then things are blurry,” he continued after a few moments. “I guess he thought I was dead. Anyway, he headed back into the building.” I wiped his forehead with a tissue.
“I pulled myself up and reached into the glove compartment for my own pistol. I’d never used it before. But then Lance turned and saw me. He fired again, hitting me in the shoulder. He walked away because he thought for sure that he’d finished me off. The rest is still—it’s still hazy.”
More perspiration dampened Carter’s forehead. I wanted to wipe his face again, but it would’ve interrupted his story.
“Somehow, I got to the apartment just as he was aiming at his own child. Chloe was on the floor, all bloody, and Yvette was hugging her and crying. I fired one bullet. I didn’t know that I’d killed him—I just knew that he fell. I kicked his gun away, I think, and then collapsed. The next thing I remember I was in the hospital, full of wires and pins.”
Carter told me that Yvette had run from the apartment to get help. Paramedics were on the scene within minutes. Yvette now lived with her grandparents who were grateful to him for saving her life. Since they wanted the child to put the whole episode behind her, they’d moved to another state.
“And so I lived,” he stated flatly. “Here I am, the product of amazing medical technology.”
I’d always kept my emotions under control, but I couldn’t stop the silent tears that flowed down my face. I wanted to toss my professionalism to the curb and go to my patient. I wanted to take his hand and tell him—what? Should I tell him that I was falling in love with him?
“For God’s sake,” Carter said, “control yourself. You work in the medical field. Surely you’ve seen and heard worse.” His abruptness told me that he didn’t want my pity.
“I can’t say anything to make it different—or better,” I murmured, “but I wish I could.” We sat in silence for a long time. The next time I looked at Carter, he was far away.
“There’s more, isn’t there?” I finally asked.
“Telling you all of this has helped,” he admitted. “But yes, there’s more. I dream most nights about the shooting. I keep seeing all that blood.”
I’d heard his wild bellows in the night. After the first time he’d told me not to come to his room, not to wake him, because he always needed to finish the dream—no matter how bad it was.
“What I don’t dream about is what happened to the ring.”
Carter closed his eyes and seemed to force his body to relax. He breathed deeply. “You know, Naomi, I didn’t grow up in a big house like this. I worked hard to get off the streets. I started Servcomatic and worked eighteen-hour days to keep the business going. I didn’t have any time for love or for women. But the one thing that I coveted was a gold ring. When I was eight, a rich man had come to talk to us kids at the Y. He wore a big gold ring, and I guess after that, I thought a gold ring would mean that ’d made it. It would mean that I was successful. When I was thirty-five, I bought the ring.”
I sucked in my breath, but he didn’t notice.
“Soon after that I met Chloe. Maybe it was a coincidence, but I thought the ring had brought me luck. With Chloe, I had everything a man could want.” Carter paused, and his voice was hard, flinty. “Then she was killed and—” his voice broke, “and the ring disappeared.”
“By the time I got to the hospital, it was gone. For days I assumed that they’d put it in a safe place, but it was just gone. No one remembered a ring, not the nurses, doctors, or paramedics.”
His anguish drew me to his side. I took his hand and placed my cheek against the “good” side of his face. He remained still, and did not draw back.
“I dream about the blood, Naomi, but I can’t see the ring. It’s gone and I think—” Carter swallowed hard again. I knew that he was telling me something that he’d never told anyone else. “I think I can almost understand, well at least I can accept the shooting. But to steal a dying man’s ring? That just about killed my faith in human beings. I never thought that I deserved Chloe; she was a gift. But that ring I’d worked for; I’d earned it.”
He looked deep into my eyes. “It felt like the gods had deserted me.”
“No, Carter, that’s not true. You’re not alone. I’m here.” I said gently, remembering my mother’s face on that cold day. I knew it in my soul, but still needed to be certain. “Tell me more about that day.”
“What else do you want to know?”
“Where exactly did it happen? And when?”
“A suburb north of here. It was about four years ago in January. Why?”
Carter reached out to me. It was the touch of a hurting man, not the touch of a patient. His hand was warm and I held it against my lips. He didn’t pull away. He was beginning to heal.
“No reason,” I told him.
He was exhausted from talking and his eyes started to close. I knew that I should leave the room to think, but instead I just sat there and gazed at him. I wondered if I would ever be able to tell him why I knew exactly when he’d lost his ring. Maybe when he was stronger I’d tell him about the money that my mother had given me—the money that I’d used to fulfill my dream of becoming a nurse. But then again, maybe I’d never tell him. The only thing that I was sure of was that I’d be his last love, and it was the ring—not coincidence—that had brought us together.