Freedom to Love

CHAPTER 1


"Rough night?"

"Can it, Ramsey," Matt ground out through clenched teeth. Ignoring his colleague, Matt directed his wheelchair towards the row of mailboxes. He found that the mailbox marked, 'Harmon' wasn't empty, so he reached inside for the stacks of paper.

"What did you do?" Chris persisted, as irritating Matt was a pastime that he could not resist. "Did you get out of the wrong side of the bed or what? You know, Harmon, you can't approach the patients with a grumpy bedside manner."

Matt paused long enough to give Chris a cold, hard stare before he spun the wheelchair around and left to do his rounds. He heard Chris chuckle behind him and he forced himself to drown out the other doctor's cackling. Chris' life purpose was to cause him aggravation. Matt knew better than to react to, but he knew that there would come a time when his resolve would weaken. He just hoped that he wouldn't be at General Hospital when it happened.

The morning visit with his patients helped to pass the day along for Matt. Despite their pain and discomfort, patients greeted him with a smile. By lunch time, Matt's mood had cheered and he had almost forgotten what had gotten him down in the first place.

As was customary for him, at noon he left the hospital and went across the street to The Recovery Room to grab lunch. Since moving out of the back room apartment almost a year ago, Matt made sure to stop by the restaurant/bar as often as he could to reassure the owner and his good friend, Mike, that he was still a part of the living.

"How's it going?" Mike said with a wink and a smile as he wiped down the counter.

"Good," Matt replied, good-naturedly. He rolled over to his preferred table and waited for Mike to join him. "Everything is just peachy."

"Peachy, huh?" Mike asked with a grunt. He grabbed a chair, swung it around and straddled it as he faced his younger friend. "What does that mean?"

"Why does anything have to mean anything?" Matt asked. He avoided Mike's stare by focusing on the menu. Mike grabbed the menu and Matt's eyes flew to his. "What was that for?"

"You have it memorized." Mike slammed the menu down onto the table and crossed arms over it. "What gives?"

"Why does anything have to give?-"

"Matt!" Mike growled. "Your eyes are strained, the smile is fake and I wanna know why. It's not idle curiosity. I care."

"I know that you do," Matt quietly admitted, "and I appreciate your concern, but nothing is wrong. The normal reactions from being a doctor. It's a lot of hard work."

Mike responded with a slow nod. His eyes were unreadable as he gazed at his friend. "Sure. Whatever you say. So, what's for lunch?"

Unable to believe that Mike would give up so easily, Matt stared in surprise. "Mike..."

"Today's special is Eggplant Parmesan. I'd say that was right up your alley, right?" Mike asked, rising from his chair. "I'll put in the word with the chef."

"Mike?" Matt asked from behind narrowed eyes.

"Don't worry about it. I've sampled the sauce. It's a good one." Mike patted Matt's shoulder as he started to move past him. He paused for a moment to add, "I know when to back off. It doesn't happen often so enjoy it when it does."

Matt offered the older man a faint smile. "Thanks."

"No problem." Mike gave him another pat before he left Matt alone with his thoughts.

Mike's absence barely registered on Matt's consciousness as he thought back to the decision he had made in the wee hours of the morning. With limited sleep and haunting dreams of Ellen, he had been sure that he would get her out of his heart and his mind. Now, in the light of day, he wasn't so sure if he wanted to... He released a deep, agitated sigh as the doubts began to take over him again.

~*~

With her hand at her forehead, Ellen shielded her eyes from the glare of the afternoon sun. She stepped out of the restroom of the truckstop feeling like a new woman. The power of soap and warm water was not something to sneeze at. Her face and hands had been scrubbed free of the dirt and grime that had built up over her time in the wilderness. She was beginning to feel human again and she relished the feeling.

"Hey there!"

Startled, Ellen jumped at the sound of Ray's booming voice. The loud man had been generous enough to offer her a ride. As was her nature, she had been wary of him at first, but after taking a long hard look into his dark, blue eyes she realized that she could trust him. They had driven along in silence for a little while until he began to slowly tell her about his little stories about the life of a truckdriver. At first, she had simply nodded in response, but soon, she found herself responding. She had been amazed at how the casual give and take had made her feel warm inside. She hadn't realized just how much she had missed it.

She glanced up at her newfound friend and said, "Hey yourself!"

"Feeling better?" he asked, stepping away from the truckstop's glass doors to peer down at her.

"Just peachy," she said with a faint smile. "Thanks again for the ride. I really appreciate it."

"That sounds like good-bye," he asked, his eyes narrowing in concern.

"It is," she responded. She gave him a tight smile and moved to pass him. He blocked her path and she glared at him. "Ray. Goodbye."

"Not, yet," he said, shaking his head at her. "Not until you eat. Mattie is in there dishing up a bowl of chicken soup for you. There's also a mug of tea and side of pie. No good-byes until you eat."

"You've given me a ride," she stated firmly. "I can't take anything else."

"Pride won't feed. Neither will stubbornness. Beside, you're not taking when someone is giving." He moved aside, giving her the freedom to leave. "The food is good and filling. You won't be disappointed."

She heaved a heavy sigh. Her glaring eyes softened as they fell to the leaf and gravel covered parking lot. Her stomach rolled and grumbled underneath the baggy coat she wore. Subconsciously, her hand moved to quiet the sound. Ray coughed softly, but didn't say anything else. Feeling a little defeated and kinda foolish, Ellen raised her eyes to his. "Thank you," she murmured.

"You're welcome, lady," he said, kindly.

Upon entering the restaurant, Ellen found the smells and food display as appetizing as she had imagined. The soup, tea and pie were all laid out on the counter, waiting for her. She pulled her coat tighter around her as she slid into the barstool. Her hand trembled as she closed her fingers over the spoon. Inside, her mouth watered her and stomach grumbled again. With eyes as big as saucers, she dipped the spoon inside steaming bowl of soup.

"Take it slow," Mattie advised, "it's hot."

"Thanks," Ellen murmured, unable to tear her eyes from the spoon as she raised it to her mouth. She blew on the steaming broth a few times before sliding it between her parted lips. The clear liquid was flavorful and moved down Ellen's throat with ease. She dug in and soon the bowl was empty.

"More?" the waitress offered with a smile.

"Um...I d-don't have any money," Ellen said, embarrassed.

Mattie waved her concerns away with her hand. "It's all been taken care of. And when you're done...if you want...there's a cot in the back. You look like you could use a good rest."

Ellen accepted the second bowl of soup eagerly, but to the other offer, she shook her head. "I couldn't intrude."

"Roy said you'd say that." Mattie moved closer to Ellen and said with gentle sincerity, "Don't worry about it. I wouldn't offer if I didn't want to."

Ellen placed her spoon on the saucer before she looked up into Mattie's dark brown eyes. "Why are you being so nice to me?" she asked, unable to keep the suspicion from her voice.

Mattie offered her a gentle smile, "Because it looks like someone hasn't been too nice to you and we all deserve a little kindness every now and again. The offer is there if you want it, but I won't browbeat you into to taking it."

A lump lodge in Ellen's throat at the kindness she saw in Mattie's eyes. She didn't know why Roy and Mattie had appeared before her when they did, but she was smart enough not to question it for too long. She slowly nodded her head and said, "Thank you."

"You're welcome," Mattie told her with a smile.

Go to Chapter 2

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