[This is a scene from a plot bunny I’ve been writing down, in between working on Fifty-Five Days, so that I won’t forget anything until I can go back to it later, maybe. Who knows if this idea will bear fruit?]
Piper Kearns hated sleeping on her back. She was a stomach sleeper, despite all the click-bait articles insisting that sleep position was the worst for your spine (which she believed,) your digestion (which seemed more questionable,) or your fertility (which seemed completely unrelated and was not a particularly high priority for her at the moment anyway.) She would roll onto her belly, tuck one knee up to the side slightly to keep her legs from feeling glued together by her heavy blankets, and tuck the hand from the same side under her pillow. Whenever she posed herself that way, sleep was instant; whenever she tried to train herself to sleep on her back, or even on her side, for the supposed health benefits, she tossed for hours until she gave up and rolled over anyway.
All of that made her unexpected hospital stay more miserable than it had had to be. So did not coming fully into awareness, out from under the fog of sedation and pain medication, until long after she was supposed to be at work. Her phone sat on the tray in front of her, and it had messages waiting. Not as many as she had expected, honestly, but her boss was a busy man, and she knew there would be one from him wondering why she had not come in on time, nor called in properly. But there were actually three, spaced exactly an hour apart, as if he had set an alarm to remind him to check up on her.
If the pattern held, he would be calling again in seventeen minutes. She had that long to figure out what to say to him.
She knew she wouldn’t be in trouble. “Hi, I couldn’t call because I was unexpectedly rushed to the hospital last night and I only woke up half an hour ago,” would solve any possible repercussions from her breach of policy. Mr. Perkins was strict in many ways and had high expectations, but he was no monster.
But that line left her open to questions about why she was in the hospital. Questions that were perfectly understandable from a place of concern and surprise, and questions that were illegal when coming from her boss. He knew that, and he wouldn’t ask. But if he did, if, she had to be ready with some bland explanation, because invoking the illegality of those questions about her personal medical situation would only imply she had something to hide.
A car crash? That wouldn’t work. Her car was fine, and not using it “while she got it fixed” would be too much of an inconvenience. Her injuries weren’t at all consistent with being a pedestrian or even a bicyclist hit by a moving car. Even at the low speeds that wouldn’t simply have killed her. She couldn’t make that make any sense.
She flexed her left hand and felt a wave of gratitude that it was only sprained, not broken. It was still swollen badly and the brace holding it was uncomfortable, but it would heal far more quickly and cause her less aggravation. What lie could account for a sprained wrist, badly bruised ribs, and a split lip? Those were the injuries she couldn’t hide, because they were visible, or in the case of her ribs, because she couldn’t breathe deeply yet and had to move cautiously. She’d already been up to the little bathroom in the corner of her hospital room once, and walking normally had been impossible. She was reduced to a shuffling gait, half as fast as usual.
She had to call him back but hesitated, because she couldn’t come up with any lie that sounded as reasonable as the truth, and she wasn’t a particularly good liar. She was good at keeping her opinions and thoughts to herself, which the same thing at all; when she tried to deliberately say something untrue, her brain balked and her tongue stuttered.
Mr. Perkins joked sometimes about inviting her to the monthly poker game he threw for his friends and some of his more important subordinates. She knew it was a joke because there was a special version of his smile reserved for jokes. And because it was obvious to both of them that she would get fleeced if she went.
Thirteen minutes. It would be better if she called first; it would put her in a position of greater power. She still wasn’t ready, though.
She hadn’t listened to the messages yet; she knew what they would say, and she was afraid if she heard Mr. Perkins being angry at her, she would start to cry again. But, on the other hand, she would look like a fool if she called in without listening first and being prepared for his mood, without knowing what he had already said to her.
The first one was exactly what she expected, short and gruff and word-for-word from the company policy on tardiness. “Miss Kearns, it’s five after nine, and your desk is empty. Please arrive as soon as possible or contact me with your ETA.” Normally it would be a department chair making the call about one of their juniors, but her only direct superior was the CEO himself. The other officers were her seniors, certainly, but they had their own assistants and she didn’t answer to them. Just to Mr. Perkins.
He had never had to make that call to her before, and he sounded annoyed he needed to take even the thirty seconds it had required.
The second message had come one hour and one minute later. “Miss Kearns, in the three years you’ve worked for me this has never happened. Please call me and let me know what’s going on.”
Short, but completely off-script, and more concerned than annoyed. That message shook her a little, because she had imagined him growing increasingly frustrated by having to answer his own phone and make his own calls and wade through–what was on the docket this morning? She honestly didn’t remember, and that should have concerned her, but the minutiae of her job seemed distant and fuzzy this morning.
The third message was only fifty-nine minutes after that–had she been wrong about the timer? Or had he been staring at it waiting for it to go off, then given up early? “Piper,” he began. “Now I’m honestly worried. You’ve never pulled a no-show and you barely ever call in anyway. Are you lying in a ditch somewhere? Did your apartment burn down? I’d have called the police already if I didn’t know they would laugh at me trying to report a missing person after two hours. If I don’t hear from you by lunch, I think I’ll start making calls anyway. Where are you?”
Her hands shook so hard she set down the phone before she dropped it, because retrieving it from the floor was utterly beyond her at the moment, and calling a nurse in to do it would be a bother they didn’t need. She gave herself a few minutes to cry, then a few more to calm down enough to pick the phone back up.
He answered on the second ring. “Piper?”
He hardly ever used her first name, as they were a very formal bunch at work, and hearing it for the second time that morning in his voice nearly made her cry again. “Mr. Perkins, I’m sorry. I’m–I’m in the hospital. I only woke up a little while ago, and the doctors needed to go over everything with me. I couldn’t call any sooner.”
“Oh, thank god you’re okay. I mean, are you? Okay?”
She swallowed painfully, her throat still swollen from crying. “Injured, not dying.” She bit her lip against the need to explain. “They’re discharging me soon. I can be in after lunch.”
“No!” There was a pause where Piper imagined Mr. Perkins forcing himself to calm down, to lower his voice. He really had been worried about her. “If you need time off, you can take it. You haven’t used a single sick day in months. Just have the hospital fax your work return forms and I’ll authorize them.”
“I can work, sir,” she said in a small voice. “It’s not that bad.” And she didn’t want to go home and lay around doing nothing for three days, or however long the doctors would tell her she needed to rest.
In truth, she didn’t want to go home at all. But she was already forming a plan, and she would need to return to get her things, at least enough for a few days. Maybe a week. She wasn’t sure how long she could pull this off without anyone knowing or suspecting. Her organizational skills went into a sudden overdrive, creating a list in her head of the items she would need to pack and the things she would need to do, which meant she zoned out while her boss replied.
“I won’t pretend I can’t use you here if you’re well enough, but your health comes first.” He took a deep breath. “Do as you think best. I trust you to make that decision for yourself. But don’t be afraid to take shorter hours while you’re recovering, if you need to.” This is where her brain reengaged in the conversation, and she was about to launch into an entirely separate list of everything she needed to get done in the next week, which doubled as the list of reasons why she needed to work. But he either heard her indrawn breath, or he knew her well enough to know what she was going to say. “I can handle things for a while without you. And if I can’t, there are other people I can lean on, okay?”
“Okay.” She vowed privately that she was still going to put in her hours, maybe extra overall, though possibly with more breaks. “I’ll see you this afternoon.”
He chuckled softly. “I don’t know why I thought you would listen to me, but fine. Come in this afternoon. But I reserve the right to send you right back out if you collapse on your desk.”
“Fair enough, sir.” She ended the call and opened the note app on her phone and started a checklist, to fill the time until she got her discharge sorted out.