For someone I haven’t seen since I moved here two months ago, I suddenly can’t turn around without bumping into Benny. In this case, twice on the same day. Is that why my heart is beating as if I’ve just completed a sprint?
“Hey,” I say as he gets out of his truck. His left arm is bandaged just above the elbow, the wrap peeking from under the folded sleeve of his button-down shirt which also reveals his muscled forearm. His features look pinched like he’s hurting. “Tetanus shot bothering you?”
“How’d you know?”
“Standard operating procedure. It’s the big guys who usually feel the aches and pains the most.” I place the last of my purchases into the trunk of my SUV and close the door. Since I canceled my plans to drive down to Taos, it meant a trip to the supermarket as soon as I woke up from my nap to stock up on junk food and rent a DVD. Maybe some action flick or comedy, anything that will take my mind off Benny and his six-pack abs. Only that’s not exactly working because he’s right in front of me and just to be sure, I just might need to go back inside and get new batteries.
“Did you just come from the office?” I ask as Benny rubs his bandaged arm absently. “I would have thought you took the rest of the day off. That cut was nasty, and that bump on your noggin was, too.”
“It’s nothing,” he grunts and I can’t help but chuckle. Benny hasn’t changed much even if he’s looking a bit pale. Side-effects must be hitting him.
“It’s normal for patients to feel pain and even get a fever, muscle aches, nausea. Even lightheadedness,” I say. “In fact, you probably shouldn’t be driving.”
“Nobody told me that at the clinic,” he says, frowning.
“I’m sure they did. You just didn’t hear them.”
“Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t,” Benny says, shrugging. “I’m a big boy.”
“That you are. But acetaminophen should ease the pain. Not that I’m officially diagnosing or prescribing you anything,” I say.
“Don’t worry. I won’t tell anyone.”
“What about a bit of TLC from your girlfriend?” I continue. “I’m sure she could–”
“I don’t have a girlfriend.”
I look at Benny incredulously. Benny Turner? Single? Did hell just freeze over?
I almost ask him about Noelle but I remind myself it’s none of my business. I also need to stop worrying about Benny. Before we know it, I’ll be offering to make him dinner and tucking him into bed. I walk past him and pull open the passenger door of my SUV.
“I should get going. It was nice seeing you again, Benny.” I do my best to act nonchalant even as my heart thunders inside my chest. How can two years go by and yet feel like it was yesterday when I last saw him?
“Go home and get some rest,” I say as I get behind the wheel. “A fever reducer and painkiller along with chicken noodle soup should do you some good, too.”
He closes the driver side door for me. “Green chili maybe?”
I nod. “Yeah, green chili stew although I’d opt for something clearer. And rest. Lots of rest.”
For a moment he doesn’t speak. A faint smile lingers on his lips. Then he takes a deep breath, taps my door two times, and steps away. “Thanks for all your help, Sarah. Guess I’ll see you around,” he says, turning away from me and grabbing the basket I’d parked by the side of my SUV.
As I slip the keys into the ignition, I know Benny’s too tough to admit he needs help. At the same time, I’ve got no excuse treating him the way I just did. Cold to the point of being mean. I’m a nurse, for crying out loud. I’m supposed to be compassionate.
I chuckle to myself as I start the engine. Yeah, right. Like I need to be compassionate toward someone like Benny who’s just going to break my heart like everyone else. The sooner I nip this in the bud, the better.
* * *
So much for walking away.
Five minutes later, I find Benny in the medicine aisle, standing between the ibuprofen and acetaminophen products and holding one in each hand. Tall and broad-shouldered, Benny has always been a sight to behold. It’s in the way he carries himself, raw confidence evident in every step and a roughness underneath the surface.
Right now, though, it’s a different story. Benny looks tired and a bit confused as he tries to decide which bottle of pills to buy. But I can’t blame him. Benny’s not the type to rely on medication. He’s the type of man to power through broken bones and barroom brawls, two things I’ve witnessed when we were both students at UNM. But body aches and fever from a tetanus shot? Apparently not so much.
“Alright, any more of this looking like a lost puppy and I’ll be taking you home. Why don’t we get you all sorted out?” I take the box of ibuprofen from his hand and return it to the shelf. When he doesn’t say anything, I continue, “Do you live far from here?”
“If you want, I can help you with whatever you need to buy and follow you to your apartment. We’ll get you settled and I’ll make you something to eat.”
“You don’t have to do that, Sarah.”
I shrug. “Just say the word then and I’ll be on my way.”
Benny opens his mouth to say something but stops. Then he nods. “Alright, nurse Sarah. I’ll take you up on your offer, but you better not be doing this out of pity.”
“Not out of pity, no,” I reply, pushing his basket down the aisle. “As a friend… a former friend or whatever the hell we ended up as after I… well, whatever.” I take a deep breath. “Anyway, I’d rather you not go home alone, not when you look the way you do and it’d be nice to have some company tonight. Maybe we can catch up on what we’ve both been up to.”
He arches an eyebrow. “That’s all?”
“I was going to head back to Taos and see if I can talk sense to Dax but my dad’s coming in to spend the weekend,” I add, shrugging. “No sense in driving out there and everyone’s busy. It’s not like my brother’s going to listen to me anyway.”
“Dax is in trouble?”
“He’s hanging with the wrong crowd and Mom’s worried. He’s already gotten into two fights since I started working here,” I reply, taking a few things off the shelves. If I’m making him something to eat, then I might as well get started with the ingredients. “And it’s not like I can talk sense to him, you know, although I try? I’m just the older sister who gives him a hard time.”
“An older sister who loves him,” Benny says softly. “What about your dad? Can he talk to him?”
“I’m sure he can but once he returns to New York in a few days, Dax goes back to whatever trouble he gets into.”
“So he lives in New York while your mom lives in Taos?” Benny asks, frowning. “And they’re not separated or anything? Divorced?”
I shake my head as he stop in front of the meat aisle. “Hell no. They just have this weird arrangement where he works there but flies back to Taos twice a month, spend time with Mom and Dax and then flies back again. It’s crazy.”
“Why does he do that?”
“Because he handles other people’s money and he loves what he does. Mom would like him to work from Taos but big money’s back east, you know?” I pause, choosing two packets each of precut pork shoulder and pork belly and putting them in the basket. I don’t know why I’m telling him my life story all of a sudden. But then, there was a time when we used to have the same exact conversations. “Anyway, I don’t know if you remember, but my dad owns an investment firm that handles rich people’s money.”
Benny nods. “I remember.”
“Anyway, it’s gotten pretty successful, actually. It allows him to charter a plane and all but it still means he’s not around most of the time and I think that’s why Dax acts up. He loves his dad.”
“He needs a father figure then, while your dad’s away.”
“Maybe. Or maybe he just has to use his common sense and not get into trouble.” I look at Benny, noting the furrow in his brow as he studies the stuff I’ve put inside his basket.
“You’re making hominy stew?” he asks and I can spy the hint of a smile on his face.
“Why not? It’s your favorite, isn’t it? You’ll just have to settle for frozen hominy as the base. I don’t intend on soaking dried hominy overnight.”
“You’re welcome to,” he says as I glare at him. “Alright, frozen is fine. It’s better than canned.”
“I don’t know if you’ve got spices in your kitchen–”
“Salt and pepper count?”
“–so I’m just going to get everything just to be sure.” I stop in front of the spices aisle and take a jar of cumin seeds, Mexican oregano, and bay leaf from the shelf and toss them into the basket. “That okay with you?”
He grins, nodding. “You’re the boss.”
“And I’m just going to make this for you, make sure you’re not running a high fever or anything, and then leave, okay?” As the words leave my mouth, it almost seems like I’m trying to convince myself that’s all I want to do. After all, this is me being the compassionate person I really am underneath all the armor I need to wear around Benny, even as the broad grin on his face makes my belly do flip flops.
“Alright,” Benny says, grimacing as he rubs his bicep gently. “Deal it is.”