Chapter 1

“You know when you get home after work tonight, I’m going to put that thang on you, babe.” Xavier playfully threatened his wife, Sandy, during their routine chat on her way to work.

“That thang, huh? Is that what you’re calling it now?” Sandy replied, weaving in and out of traffic, doing her best Danica Patrick impression.

“Yes! That thaaang,” he exaggerated. “It’s my birthday, and you know I like to get a little freaky on my birthday.”

“Oh, I know. Even Sean knows.”

“What! You told Sean?”

“Of course not, babe!” she assured him. “I would never. But it only took him a few minutes to notice I couldn’t sit down properly the morning after your thirtieth-birthday tryst. He definitely didn’t buy the hemorrhoid story you and I came up with.”

“I did get a little carried away, huh? I’m sorry, San,” he said.

“Uh-huh, I’m ‘San’ whenever you’re trying to be cute, so I’ll forgive you,” Sandy said, triggering a sly snicker from Xavier, followed by an unbridled burp.

“Eww! Nasty!”

“Sorry, it’s the beer,” he admitted.

“Are you already in your man cave?”

“You know it. It’s almost game time, and we finally have a running back and defense worth bragging about. We’re making the playoffs this year and after that the Super Bowl, baby!”

“I sure hope so,” Sandy said, pursing her lips and shaking her head. “Just make sure I don’t come home to another broken flat-screen if they disappoint you again.”

“That was one time, San.”

“Mmmhmm. And the last time, right?”

“I love youuu,” Xavier sang.

“Mmhm, I love you too,” she responded, smiling at the shirtless picture she’d saved to his contact profile so she could see it whenever he called. She could feel his bright smile emanating through the phone.

“Okay, love, I just parked at the hospital. I have rounds soon as I walk in the door, so I’ll text you later in the day when things calm down. Enjoy the game. Me and you,” she concluded.

“Me and you,” he responded with their customary gesture of endearment, followed by a kiss he threw through the phone. Sandy returned the kiss and turned off the ignition. She exited the car, opened the rear door, grabbed her white coat from the plastic hanger dangling behind the driver seat headrest, and threw it over her forearm. It took her less than a minute to power walk the length of the employee parking lot and through the emergency room doors.

“Why are you at work, honey? Isn’t today Xavier’s birthday?” Sandy’s well-groomed and chubby work husband questioned from the triage desk.

“Good morning to you too, Sean! He’s at home watching football, so he’ll be just fine until I get home tonight.”

“Chile, all I know is if I had a big ol’ dark, muscular policeman at home and it was his birthday, I’d be on my back instead of at work.”

Sandy playfully cut her eyes at Sean.

“I did that all day yesterday,” she admitted, snapping her fingers and cocking her neck to the side. The two friends burst into laughter.

“I know that’s right.” Sean raised both hands in the air and lowered his head as if praying.

“Okay, girl. I’ll see you at lunch,” Sandy said, blowing a kiss before heading into the heart of the emergency room. She greeted everyone with friendly waves and smiles before making her usual pit stop in the break room. There she found two nurses and the ER’s chief physician, Dr. Murphy, already congregated around the TV, watching the start of the Cowboys versus 49ers game.

“Good afternoon, everyone,” Sandy said as she approached the trio, maneuvering around them to grab the largest paper cup available for her coffee.

“Good afternoon, Doctor,” the group said almost in unison. Sandy eyed the three large coffee thermoses, each with its own unique label.

Which one of you will be my best friend today? Sandy contemplated with a pointed finger oscillating in front of the French Vanilla, Jamakin Me Crazy, and Decaffeinated coffee options.

“I made the French Vanilla right before you walked in, Dr. Darboe, in case you’re looking for which is the freshest,” a Vietnamese nurse offered.

“Perfect,” Sandy said, “French Vanilla it is.” She winked at the bubbly young nurse before filling her cup. The heated beverage warmed her fingertips while its aroma flooded her nostrils, igniting a slight chill at the top of her spine.

“I bet you this thug doesn’t stand for the national anthem again,” Dr. Murphy blurted out as the break room TV screen showed cameras scanning the length of each team’s sideline. The camera operators were searching for which players, this week, would take a knee during “The Star-Spangled Banner” to protest police brutality. It had been months since San Francisco’s quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, had first refused to stand for the national anthem and instead took a knee, sparking an overdue countrywide debate about racism in America.

“I don’t understand why so many people are upset. The way some are reacting, you’d think he’d set the flag on fire on the Fourth of July and doused the flames by urinating on it,” the other nurse, a fair-skinned Dominican man with glasses, added.

“He’s disrespecting our military,” Chief Murphy said. “This is America! We stand during our national anthem. If you have a problem with America, feel free to leave!”

“With all due respect, Dr. Murphy, it’s not the law or a requirement to stand during the national anthem. Standing is typically done out of tradition, but another American tradition is peaceful protests in the face of oppression. This isn’t North Korea, for God’s sake,” the young nurse said.

“Exactly!” the Vietnamese nurse agreed. “I grew up watching football with my father and brothers. I remember when the players all stayed in their locker rooms and weren’t even on the field during the playing of the anthem. It wasn’t until ten or eleven years ago the federal government started paying money to the NFL to really focus on promoting the anthem at their games to increase military recruitment. That’s when the NFL mandated players come onto the field during the national anthem.”

I can see where this is headed. Time to slip out of here, Sandy thought to herself, making her way toward the door now that she’d finished adding cream and sugar to her coffee.

“Not so fast, Dr. Darboe,” Chief Murphy said. “You’re not going to leave me here to debate these radical millennials alone, are you?” Sandy delayed her retreat at the beckoning of her boss, then turned to face the group again.

“This is a sensitive subject, and I’d rather not talk about politics or religion, especially at work. Sorry,” she said.

“See! What did I tell you?” The chief pointed to the screen, ignoring Sandy’s response, where cameras showed Kaepernick taking a knee in protest alongside two other 49er teammates. “Now there’s two more thugs kneeling alongside him. He’s lucky I’m not the owner. I’d have security drag him from my field and remove him from my stadium.”

The Dominican nurse tilted his head and threw his chief a questioning gaze.

“You would fire one of your best employees over not standing for the anthem?”

“Without hesitation!” Chief Murphy asserted.

“Interesting,” the nurse replied as Sandy watched the young man contemplate his next words. “Well, I’m from a military family, and none of my family who’ve served see any issue with what Kaepernick is doing. They’ve admitted that they prefer he stand. However, they also understand why he’s not standing. My family members, both military and civilian, know this protest never was about the military. Our lying president would like you to believe that, but we know better than to believe a con man and the lies he spouts randomly day to day.”

“Dr. Darboe, isn’t your husband a police officer? Care to weigh in here?” the chief asked. Sandy’s eyes flickered among the trio. She sipped her coffee, continuing to stall before responding.

“To be honest, I’d rather not say,” Sandy said, prompting a look of disapproval from her chief. “However, I believe firing someone for peacefully protesting, even the national anthem, is extreme and goes against everything the flag stands for. Let me play devil’s advocate.” Sandy took another sip. “Our annual team trip to the Rangers’ opening-day game—if someone in our group chooses not to stand for the national anthem, are you going to fire them?” The melody of the anthem playing in the background set an eerie mood while Chief Murphy pondered his response.

“Of course not,” he answered sternly. “They can always join us in our section after the anthem is done being played. You all have a good day today,” Chief Murphy concluded before exiting the break room.

“Out of the way!” a frantic voice familiar to Sandy yelled from down the hall. “Take him to trauma room three! Sandy! I need you! STAT!” Sandy shot out of the break room and saw her best friend, Camila, visibly shaken by what lay before her on the bloody gurney. She tossed her coffee into the nearest trash receptacle and darted toward her hysterical colleague. The cocktail of adrenaline and caffeine rushed through her system. Her heart raced as she pushed open the swinging double doors to the trauma room and was greeted by a scene of ER nurses and doctors barking out directions as they all jostled for position to save a teenager’s life.

“One, two, three, lift!” the ER doctor directed before turning his attention to Sandy. “We need you to prep for surgery if we’re going to have any chance at saving him once we’ve stabilized his vitals.”

Sandy nodded before darting out the double doors, down the hall past the elevators, and up two flights of stairs where the hospital’s operating rooms were located. She hurried through another set of doors that led to a sterile scrub room with a large sink and surgical gowns packaged in tearaway paper bags. She removed her white coat and rolled up the sleeves of her blouse, then stomped on the metal lever under the sink that turned on the water. She ripped open a soap sponge, wet it, and scrubbed every area from her fingertips to her elbows before rinsing them off.

As she shook her arms of excess water the ER team burst through doors of the operating room. Through the glass wall separating the two rooms , she watched the team feverishly replace already empty one-liter bags of blood and IV fluid. She rushed through the door connecting the two rooms where a nurse was waiting to assist with putting on her gown and sterile gloves.

“Okay, tell me what we have!” Sandy ordered.

“Multiple GSWs to the torso, one in the arm, and another in the thigh. Both chest and thigh wounds are losing a lot of blood. Possible artery damage.”

Sandy peered through the crowd to get a glimpse at the patient among the chaos but could see only blood-saturated underwear.

“Jesus! How many bullet holes are there?” Sandy asked.

“Five,” the ER doctor responded.

“Patient has been intubated, bleeding has been stopped for all wounds except the two bullets lodged in his chest near his heart. He has a collapsed lung, and you may have to crack his chest, Dr. Darboe. He’ll be all yours in five to ten seconds.”

Machines designed to monitor the patient’s vitals beeped at random; the liter of blood hung only moments ago was half-empty.

The nurse who initially called out to Sandy pressed a round plastic bag pumping air down the patient’s throat and into the lungs. A trail of mascara coated both her cheeks.

“Okay, Dr. Darboe. He’s all yours,” the doctor said, stepping away from the patient, his gown and sterile gloves covered in blood.

Sandy moved into place, quickly surveying the carnage the bullets had made of this young man’s body.

All his clothes had been cut off, and if not for his blood-stained underwear and friendship bracelet around his wrist, he’d be as naked as the day he was birthed into this world. Her gaze fixed on the bracelet. A red, white, and blue flag with a large single star in the center.

Sandy’s head snapped over to the patient’s face. Her mouth and eyes shot wide open. The youth she had to save was her godson. Sandy whipped her head over toward Camila. The sides of her best friend’s face were even darker from the mix of tears and mascara. Her two small hands with laser precision pumping lifesaving oxygen into the young victim. Then Sandy saw it. Wrapped around Camila’s wrist was her own matching friendship bracelet of the Puerto Rican flag.

Sandy’s heart sunk as she watched Camila peel her eyes away from her bleeding, motionless son, Emmanuel, to lock in with Sandy’s eyes.

“Please. Don’t let him die, San!”

Sandy fought back the tears welling up in her own eyes. She swallowed deeply, clearing the knot forming in her throat, determined to save the life of her best friend’s son. Dr. Murphy burst through the trauma room door.

“Nurse Camila! Dr. Darboe! What are you doing?” he demanded.

“Saving a patient’s life,” Sandy answered.

“Ten blade?” a seasoned ER nurse asked, snapping Sandy’s focus back to Camila’s son.

“Yes, ten blade—”

“Dr. Darboe, I’m going to insist that both you and Nurse Mercado step aside while other physicians and medical staff attend to this patient. It’s against hospital protocol to allow you two to work on this patient. You both are too emotionally invested in the care of this patient.”

Sandy, without hesitation and steady hands, sliced through the child’s skin, disregarding their boss’s orders. “I’m the only surgeon presently on the floor. If you’d like, page whoever’s on call, but until they arrive, I’m going to save this child’s life,” Sandy said while spreading his chest with another surgical device, methodically working her way through his torso in search of the two bullets. She glanced up at the shallow bag of blood.

“I’m not going anywhere,” Camila declared. “You can fire me if you want, but I’m not leaving this room. Not while my child is in it.”

“Suction and another bag of O neg!” Sandy ordered, putting her scalpel down, and she placed two of her thin, long fingers inside one of the wounds and closed her eyes. Chief Murphy scolded at them both before storming out of the trauma room. Sandy never looked up. She’d committed herself to preserving the life of the patient the moment Camila cried out to her. The both of them would have to be dragged out of the chaotic room before surrendering his care to another.

“I can feel one of the bullets. Make that two.” She kept a finger in the wound and used her other hand to retrieve her scalpel. She made another small incision at the entry wound.

“Retr—” Before she could complete the order, the same senior nurse placed a retractor in Sandy’s hand. After spreading the wound, she looked up and the same nurse had a pair of forceps waiting for her. Sandy removed her finger and replaced it with the forceps. Seconds later she carefully pulled a blood-coated bullet out and dropped it into a metal tray.

The sound of the bullet landing in the metal container seemed so heavy and dense for such a small piece of metal. Her best friend moaned in agony. Sandy placed her finger into the other wound, performing the same technique to retrieve the second bullet before moving on to the young man’s legs and arms.

One hour, five bullets, and two empty liters of blood later, Sandy watched the seasoned ER nurse hang a third bag of blood.

“He’s still losing too much blood. We’re missing something.” Sandy took a sponge rinsed in saline and wiped both wet and dried blood away, looking for a wound they may have overlooked.

“Carefully roll him.” They moved him onto his side as she ran her hands down his neck, back, and legs, finding nothing. Horrifying alarms sounded only seconds later, signaling a drop in the patient’s vitals.

“God no! Sandy, please!” Camila pleaded as she pressed more air into his lungs.

“Roll him back,” Sandy ordered. “Wait!” She grabbed his wrists and raised his arms almost over his head.

“There it is!” Again, she placed her finger into a hole camouflaged by the budding hair in his armpits.

Camila shot a look at the ER doctor who triaged her son. “How did you miss that?” she scolded the doctor.

“Camila!” Sandy yelled. “I need you focused on Emmanuel.”

“I . . . I didn’t see it. Ca . . . Camila, I’m sorry,” the ER doctor said, walking backward into a corner of the trauma room, his head lowered in shame, hands tightly clasped together as if praying his mistake didn’t cost his colleague’s child his life.

“I can fix this, Camila,” Sandy reassured her.

“There wasn’t any blood near that shoulder. How can a bullet enter an armpit without going through a shoulder or arm first?” the doctor asked, growing more and more distraught about his oversight.

The senior nurse assisting Sandy slowly shook her head and pursed her lips, and a tear traced down her cheek before she could reply.

“The bullet is in his armpit because his hands were in the air before he was shot.”