Light After Dark Excerpt
The slap, slap, slap of running shoes on pavement was the only sound in the otherwise tranquil morning on Gansett Island. No cars, no bikes, no mopeds, no airplanes overhead. Nothing but wide-open road before her as Mallory counted down the miles on her usual circuit around the island.
Slap, slap, slap. Laid off.
Escorted from the premises after twelve years.
Disposed of like yesterday’s hazardous waste.
It’d been ten days since Mallory Vaughn, RN, director of emergency nursing, had been given a pink slip. With hindsight, the handwriting had been all over the wall for months, with every management meeting focused on the hospital’s increasingly dire budget situation.
Naturally, they were cutting the highest-paid employees and in many cases not replacing them at all or with people so new they were still trying to tell the difference between an ass and an elbow. Oh to be a fly on the wall the first time the Emergency Services Department didn’t have enough nurses on duty to cover a shift. She hoped it was utter chaos. That was the least of what the hospital deserved after treating her like a common criminal when she’d given them everything she had for a big chunk of her professional life.
Thanks a lot for nothing.
Although, the severance package had been generous, she’d give them that much. They’d given her a year’s salary, a one-time, lump-sum payment for all her accrued sick and vacation time and health insurance coverage for a year. It definitely could’ve been worse, but it would be a very long time, if ever, before she got over being escorted from the building by security as if she were a common criminal rather than a faithful, dedicated employee.
She understood why they had to do that. Disgruntled employees had been known to leave with a flourish by deleting critical files from computers along with other malicious activities, but did they honestly think she would do something like that? The incident was particularly galling in light of the fact that she’d sacrificed so much for that job, including any semblance of a personal life. Who had time for a personal life while working eighty hours a week, doing a job that needed two people to get it done properly?
Good luck finding some other schmuck willing to work like a dog.
More than once since it had happened, Mallory had thought the layoff might turn out to be a blessing. The tight knot of stress in her gut that she’d lived with for years was gone. She woke up now unencumbered, with the whole day ahead of her to do with as she pleased. It’d been years since she’d had a real vacation with no one calling or texting or emailing for answers only she could provide.
And best of all was unlimited time on the island that had become her second home in the last year, since a letter from her late mother had finally given Mallory the name of her father and told her where to find him.
Big Mac McCarthy.
All she had to do was think about him and she smiled. After she’d lived her entire life with a giant question mark where her father should’ve been, Big Mac had more than made up for lost time by wrapping his big, burly arms around her and welcoming her into his life. He and his wife, Linda, had made her feel like a part of their family from the minute they learned she existed.
Like everyone else who knew the big, jovial, generous, affectionate man who’d fathered her, Mallory was madly in love with him as well as with Linda and their amazing family. Mallory had gone from being completely alone after her mother died to having parents, five siblings, four sisters-in-law, a brother-in-law, two nephews and a niece, as well as uncles and cousins she already adored and the wide circle of friends that came with the McCarthys. Sometimes she still couldn’t believe the twisting turns her life had taken since she lost her mother.
Over the last year, she’d tried to reconcile and make peace with the secret her mother had kept from her and her father for nearly forty years. She’d run the gamut of emotions from anger over what she’d missed, to sadness for what could’ve been, to elation over her new family.
Though she knew that raging against her late mother wouldn’t change the past, anger simmered just below the surface of her newfound happiness. Her mom had sacrificed a lot to bring her into the world, including her own parents and siblings, who’d turned their backs on her when she became pregnant out of wedlock.
Diana had done her best to give Mallory every advantage in life, and the two of them had made a happy family together. But when Mallory thought of what might’ve been with the other half of her family, she simmered with outrage that had no outlet. Mallory had loved her mother and was trying to forgive her for the secrets she’d kept. Forgiveness was a work in progress, as was her hard-won sobriety, which had been tested in the last year.
Mallory was ashamed to admit that she’d had a few sips of beer and wine here and there while trying to fit in with her new family. Those few sips had her back to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings for the first time in many years. The tastes of alcohol she’d allowed herself during a particularly stressful time in her life hadn’t derailed her recovery, but they’d scared her straight into daily meetings.
Sobriety, she’d learned, was a journey with many destinations. The drinks she’d relied upon when meeting her Gansett Island family had been the first she’d had in more than ten years. When she realized what she’d allowed to happen during a particularly stressful and emotional time, she’d been unnerved by how easily she’d put aside all her hard work with almost no thought to the consequences. That couldn’t happen again.
She was beginning to get tired and thought about turning around to head back to Big Mac and Linda’s house when a motorcycle came flying around the curve behind her, just missing her as it passed in a flash of metal, the roar of an engine and the stink of exhaust.
Ugh. If that idiot only knew the injuries she’d seen thanks to motorcycles, he’d never go near one again.
Mallory had turned toward home when a sickening sound of metal scratching against pavement had her reversing course and heading in the direction the sound had come from. Though her legs were tired, she sprinted with everything she had toward the man she saw sprawled in the street, his bike on its side about ten feet from him.
From the other direction, another jogger came toward them, arriving a second after Mallory squatted next to the man on the road to assess his injuries. Blood was pouring from an abrasion on his face, and his leg was resting at an awkward angle that indicated a possible femur fracture.
“What’ve we got?” the other runner asked when he stopped next to her.
Mallory filled him in on what she’d seen so far. “Do you have a phone? I never bring mine when I run.”
“Yeah, I’ll call it in.” He withdrew a cell phone from the pocket of his running pants and made the call. “I’m at the scene of a motorcycle crash with a single rider unconscious and bleeding from abrasions to the head and bleeding profusely from what appears to be a compound fracture of his femur.” He recited the other details in a methodical way that indicated medical training. Bending low to the ground, he peered at the growing pools of blood under the unconscious man. “Dispatch a chopper. We’re going to need it.” He ended the call and then pulled his T-shirt over his head to make a tourniquet for the man’s leg.
“Are you a doctor?” she asked, trying not to notice his ripped chest and abdomen or bulky arm muscles. In addition to his medical abilities, he also apparently spent a lot of time in the gym.
“Trauma surgeon. You?” Still bending at the waist, he worked the man’s wallet out of the back pocket of his shorts and flipped it open.
“Despite how it seems, this might turn out to be our friend Michael’s lucky day.” He sighed. “Twenty-four years old. From New York.”
In the pearly early morning light, they stayed by the side of their victim, watching over him until help arrived. Though she was conditioned to senseless injuries after a career as an emergency nurse, it never got any easier to see a young person’s life possibly changed in a matter of seconds or to think about the frightening call an unsuspecting family was about to get.
“I’m Mallory Vaughn,” she said after a long silence.
No other words were exchanged between them as they listened to the sirens get closer to their location on the island’s north end. Though he was unconscious, Michael’s heart continued to beat and his breathing was regular, if shallow. It remained to be seen if he had suffered life-threatening damage.
EMS arrived and took over in a whirlwind of activity and shouted orders.
Mallory recognized Gansett Island Police Chief Blaine Taylor in the crowd of first responders. Blaine was married to her sister-in-law Maddie’s sister, Tiffany. He walked over to her with another man who had to be six and a half feet tall.
“Hey, Mallory,” Blaine said. “Did you see what happened?”
“Hi, Blaine. He was driving like a maniac and crashed after he just missed taking me out as he went by. Dr. James and I did what we could.”
“You might’ve saved his leg,” the tall guy said. “Mason Johns, fire chief.”
“Oh, hi,” Mallory said, shaking his hand. “Mallory Vaughn, ER nurse.” Or former ER nurse, she should say, but since she hadn’t yet told her own family she’d been laid off, it probably wasn’t the best idea to tell someone she’d just met.
Mallory stuck around until the Life Flight helicopter arrived and took the young man to a level-one trauma center in Providence. Dr. James offered to go with him, which Mallory thought was nice of him, but the paramedics said they had it covered. As soon as the chopper left, the doctor took off running back the way he’d come, still shirtless after donating his to the cause. Mallory watched him go, noticing a slight hitch in his gait and wondering what his story was.
“Can I give you a lift home?” Blaine asked when the police and firefighters had cleared the site of debris and gotten traffic moving again.
Her muscles were rubbery from standing around, and the sun was now shining down on them, so his offer would save her the trek home, and it would allow her to make her meeting in town. “Do you have time?”
“Sure do. Hop in.”
“Good to meet you, Mallory,” Mason said as she walked past with Blaine.
“You, too, Mason.”
Big Mac and Linda were eating breakfast when she came in the front door.
“There you are,” her father said. “We were beginning to wonder if you’d jogged off the bluffs.”
“I witnessed an accident and stuck around until the Life Flight came.”
“Oh, we heard that and wondered what was going on,” Linda said. “Anyone we know?”
Mallory shook her head and helped herself to a glass of ice water. It’d taken a few months to make herself at home here, but they’d insisted often enough that she finally relaxed and helped herself to whatever she wanted. “Tourist from New York on a motorcycle.”
“Ugh,” Linda said. “I hate those things, especially the one Mac bought from Ned when he was in high school. I was so sure he’d kill himself, and now Evan’s got it.” She shuddered. “The best part about him being away on tour is no one riding that horrible thing.”
Big Mac chuckled at her tirade. “Tell us how you really feel, dear.”
“I just did.”
As always, Mallory giggled at their banter. They had the kind of marriage she’d once hoped to have herself, but fate had made other plans for her.
Since she had time before her meeting, she took her ice water to the table and sat with them. It was time to tell them what’d happened at work.
Big Mac gave a look she’d seen him use on the others, inquisitive, concerned, paternal. Now it was directed at her, and she loved that. She loved having a father, and she especially loved that he was her father.
“What’s on your mind?” he asked.
“I’ve been meaning to tell you that I got laid off about ten days ago.”
“What?” Linda said. “Are you kidding? You run that department!”
“I know, and I’m sure by now they know it, too.” She told them the whole story, about being escorted from the building and how it made her feel, to the generous severance package that would buy her time to figure out her next move.
“It’s an outrage,” Big Mac declared. “How can they treat loyal employees that way?”
“You and I agree, but that’s the way it goes. I was one of the highest-paid nurses in the building, and they’re having major financial problems, so the pink slip wasn’t a total surprise.”
“Still,” Big Mac said, “it must’ve been upsetting to have it go down that way.”
“It was, but I’m better now. Thanks for letting me hang out here for the last few days. I’ll figure out my next move and get out of your hair soon.”
Linda reached over to put her hand on top of Mallory’s. “You’re not in our hair. We love having you, and you’re welcome to stay for as long as you’d like. It’s boring around here this time of year. It’s nice to have the company.”
“I agree,” Big Mac said. “Our home is your home for as long as you want to stay.”
“Thank you.” Mallory swallowed hard, determined not to break down in front of them. They would never know what it meant to her to have them on her side now that her mom was gone. She’d felt so alone in the world until she came to Gansett and found Big Mac and his brood. Now a big, boisterous family surrounded her, and they would get her through this latest challenge.
Mallory walked into the nondenominational church and took the stairs to the basement, where the AA website had said the meeting would be held. This was her first meeting on the island, but she immediately recognized the fellowship she’d found elsewhere in the encouraging signs on the wall, the circle of chairs and the table full of refreshments.
One man approached her and introduced himself as Andy. After so many years working in the ER, she was pretty good at guessing people’s ages, and she put him at mid-sixties.
“Hi, Andy, I’m Mallory.”
“Nice to meet you. Is this your first time with this group?”
“A nice bunch.”
“That’s good to know.”
“Are you a year-rounder? Don’t think I’ve seen you in town.”
“My father is. I’ve been visiting him.”
“Ah, I see. We don’t get many tourists this time of year. Another couple months, and it’ll be crazy.”
“I was here last summer and saw that for myself.”
“I like to enjoy the quiet while it lasts. What do you do for work?”
“I’m a nurse. You?”
“Retired engineer. My missus and I always said we were going to move out here when we retired, and we did it two years ago.”
“Not a one. Wish the grandkids were a little closer, but we see plenty of them. Their folks like to visit.”
Others wandered in and joined their conversation, and Mallory was immediately at ease with these people. That was the beauty of AA. No matter where you went in the world, you could always find your tribe at meetings. In her time away, she’d forgotten how comforting the fellowship could be.
The facilitator, Nina, came in a few minutes before the start time, apologizing for running late.
“When are you not running late, Nina?” Andy asked in a teasing tone.
“I know, I know,” she said with a good-natured grin that put Mallory immediately at ease.
“She runs the Summer House hotel,” Andy told Mallory. “She’s always crazy busy.”
Mallory remembered what it was like to be crazy busy. Now she was trying to get used to a slower pace and the lack of a schedule.
Nina asked everyone to take seats, and Mallory ended up sitting next to Andy with her back to the door. They were reciting the Serenity Prayer when she saw Mason Johns come in and take a seat across the circle from her.
Each meeting was similar, but every group had its own quirks. This one did a round of introductions before they began.
“Hi, I’m Mallory. I live in Providence, but I’m here visiting. I’d been sober for more than ten years until a few slipups recently. Thank you for letting me be part of your group.”
“Welcome, Mallory,” the others said.
The thing she’d always loved best about the meetings was the lack of judgment. Everyone here was wrestling his or her own demons. They offered the kind of unconditional support that put lives back on track. They’d done it once for her, and she’d paid it forward for many others over the years.
Her life wasn’t off track, per se, not like it had been when she first came to AA. But she was unnerved by how easily she’d fallen back into casually drinking, as if she hadn’t waged war and won a hard-fought battle.
“I’m Mason. I’ve been sober twelve years.” As he said the words, he looked at her across the circle.
Mallory wasn’t concerned about him telling anyone he’d seen her there. The word anonymous was in the name for a reason, but it was odd to see someone she knew, even if she’d only met him that morning, in a place where she knew so few people other than those she was related to and their friends.
Not that she cared about her family knowing about her alcoholism, but she’d like to be the one to tell them when the time was right.
During the next hour, several people shared their stories. One woman talked about her husband leaving her because he couldn’t handle her drinking anymore. Her pain was so palpable, it brought tears to Mallory’s eyes. A young man told of nearly losing a close friend in an alcohol-fueled prank gone wrong and how it had sobered him up to the realities of his addiction.
Each of them had been through hell before seeking out the help they’d found at the meetings, and Mallory was no different. Her hell had been years ago, and her mistake had been thinking she’d succeeded in putting it far enough behind her that she could occasionally indulge again. She knew better, and she’d learned that in times of stress she needed to be extra vigilant about her sobriety.
The meeting ended, and when she stood and turned to leave, she was surprised to see Quinn James sitting behind her. He nodded to her as she went by.
“Hey, Mallory,” Mason called to her.
She stopped to wait for him.
“You want to grab a coffee?”
“Sure, that’d be nice.”
As they walked to the South Harbor Diner, the chill of the March air off the water had Mallory zipping her jacket all the way up to cover her neck. Even at five-foot-nine inches, she was dwarfed by the strapping fire chief, who had to be at least six and a half feet tall. With broad shoulders and light brown hair, he was handsome in a rugged, muscular way.
“I’m ready for spring any time now,” Mason said.
He held the door for her at the diner and followed her inside to a booth that overlooked the ferry landing. A waitress brought them coffee and menus.
“Are you hungry?” he asked.
“I might have an English muffin.”
When the waitress returned, she ordered her English muffin, and he got a corn muffin.
“That seemed like a nice group at the meeting,” she said as she stirred cream into her coffee.
“It is. I’ve been part of that meeting for years, and they’re all good people. Like everything around here, attendance swells in the summer.”
“I’m sure the alcohol-related incidents do, too.”
He rolled his eyes. “You have no idea.”
“So do you like the summer or dread it?”
“A little of both. I love the warmer weather, but I’m not so fond of the shenanigans that go on around here in the summer. At least once or twice a week, we have to Life Flight someone with alcohol poisoning off the island. It gets old after a while.”
“I’m sure it does, especially when you know where they’re probably headed.”
“Exactly. That’s how it started for me. Binge drinking in college that I didn’t grow out of once I graduated. Then I wanted to stop and couldn’t seem to do it on my own. Thankfully, I got help before it ruined my life.”
“Same here. I suffered a painful loss when I was twenty-six and found solace in vodka. Turns out the vodka made it worse, not better.”
He nodded in understanding. “I’m sorry for your loss.”
“Thanks. It was a long time ago.” Some days it still feels like yesterday. “I was ten years sober when I lost my mom. She left me a letter that finally told me who my father is, and when I came out here to find him, that’s when I slipped up and had some wine and beer to be social. When I thought about it after the fact, it terrified me and brought me back to meetings for the first time in years.”
“You’re in the right place to get back on track.”
“The crazy part was I didn’t even give it a thought before I did it.”
“Stress does funny things to people. I imagine it was a big deal to meet your dad for the first time, not to mention the rest of the family.”
She liked how he didn’t pretend not to know who her father was. The whole island probably knew their story by now. “It was so overwhelming, but wonderful, too. I’d wondered about him my whole life, and to get someone like him… Well, lucky doesn’t begin to describe how I feel.”
“You definitely hit the jackpot with him and the entire family.”
She gave him a warm smile. “I couldn’t agree more.”
“So you’re here for a visit?”
Was it her imagination, or was he fishing for info? “An extended visit. I was laid off ten days ago after twelve years on the job.”
“Ouch,” he said, wincing. “That sucks. I’m sorry.”
“It was a bummer, but I’m trying to see the positives. It’s a chance to try something new and shake things up a bit.”
“I couldn’t help but notice this morning that you seem to have medical skills.”
“I was the director of emergency nursing at the hospital where I worked in Providence.”
“Wow, that’s impressive. You wouldn’t be interested… Nah, that’s ridiculous. You could do much better.”
“You have to finish that thought. I’ll die of curiosity if you don’t.”
Smiling, he said, “We’re hiring people to work the rig this summer. Technically, we’d like our EMTs to be paramedics, but your training far exceeds paramedic level.”
“I’m actually a certified paramedic as part of a program I instituted for my nurses to make them more aware of what goes on in the field before the patients reach us.”
“Am I drooling?” He stuck out his chin dramatically. “Tell me the truth.”
Mallory laughed at the silly expression on his handsome face. “No sign of drool.”
“Maybe so, but I am drooling. Figuratively speaking.”
“Of course,” she said, laughing.
“Would you have any interest at all in spending the summer making very little money while treating drunks and disorderlies, accident victims and sick tourists?”
“Why, Chief Johns, you make it sound so appealing. How can I ever resist such an amazing offer?”
“You should probably resist it with every fiber of your being, but I’m hoping you won’t. I’m dead serious, Mallory. The job is yours if you’re looking to try something different for a few months. Unfortunately, I can only offer you a summer gig, beginning right after Memorial Day Weekend, ending Labor Day. I don’t have the budget to take you on year-round.”
“You may be surprised to hear that it sounds like just what I need to allow me to be here for the summer with my family while I figure out what’s next.”
His brown eyes lit up with pleasure. “Really? You mean it?”
“Sure, why not?” Mallory’s mind raced with details she’d need to see to, loose ends to tie up, such as figuring out what to do with her house in Providence and finding a place to live on the island. But she had a couple of months to deal with all that before Memorial Day.
“You have no idea how totally you’ve made my day.”
“Likewise. My summer just got much more interesting.”
“We’ll see if you’re still saying that on Labor Day.”
Mallory’s laugh got stuck in her throat when Quinn James came into the diner, nodded to her and continued to the counter, where he purchased a coffee.
“What’s his deal?” Mallory asked Mason, who turned to see who she meant.
“Not sure. He hasn’t been here long. His brother, Jared, and his wife, Lizzie, hired Quinn to run the new healthcare facility they’re opening in the former school.”
“He said he’s a trauma surgeon.”
“I heard he was in Afghanistan, but I don’t know anything else about him.”
“Well, we know one thing,” she said meaningfully.
“True. He comes to the meetings but doesn’t say anything. He never misses a day.”
“He’ll talk when he’s ready to.” She hoped she’d get to hear his story.
The door opened again to admit Mallory’s brother Mac and his best friend and brother-in-law, Joe Cantrell. Even after all these months, it still felt strange to realize she had four siblings, not to mention in-laws, nephews, a niece, uncles and cousins.
Mac’s face lit up with pleasure at the sight of her. He and Joe walked over to the table she shared with Mason.
“Move over.” That was the only warning she got before he nearly landed on her.
“Sorry about him,” Joe said when he slid in next to Mason. “We’re still working on his manners.”
“Manners are overrated,” Mac muttered.
“Work in progress,” Joe whispered loudly, making Mallory laugh. “Hope we’re not interrupting anything.”
“Now you ask.” Mallory had learned to jump into the scrum or get left behind in this crowd. “We’re just having coffee. What’re you guys up to?”
“Same thing as you,” Mac said as he perused the menu. “What’s Rebecca cooking up this morning?”
“Didn’t you already eat?” Joe asked.
“Is there a law that says a man can only have one breakfast per day?”
“Not that I’m aware of,” Joe said, shaking his head. “Mason, you got any info on this so-called law?”
“I’m all for as many meals as I can get. Go for it, Mac.”
“I will, thank you,” Mac said with a smug grin for Joe.
When Rebecca came to the table, Mac and Joe both ordered coffee, and Mac added an omelet with bacon, home fries and wheat toast.
Mac sat back to enjoy his coffee. “So what’s going on with you guys?”
“So far today,” Mason said, “your sister helped to save a guy’s life, and she agreed to come work for me this summer.”
Mac stared at her. “Say what?”