Rebel North by J.B. Salsbury
Death doesn’t scare me.
I’m drawn to it. My interest has everything to do with my experience. Because people always fear what they don’t know. And I know all about death. I’ve waded into its shallows, felt its icy grip around my throat. Watched as its tentacles pull a soul from this world to the next.
Accustomed to death as I am, it seldom manages to surprise me.
Which is why I catch my breath as I stand frozen in the dark Brooklyn alley, staring at a corpse slumped against the doorway.
I see death every day. But usually, it’s not before I even walk through the door to work.
I sniff the air for decomposition. The ever-present stench of rotting garbage mixes with the briny air from the East River, but I don’t detect the sharp cheese, sickly sweet, cheap perfume combo that accompanies a dead body.
I look left and right, searching for a responsible party, but find nothing except the usual overfilled dumpsters, skittering rodents, and one flickering overhead light. I don’t see any hitmen or a getaway car. No police sirens in the distance searching for a missing person.
I get close and squat for a better look.
A man. With his chin to his chest, a swath of longish hair covers his face, and although I can’t make out his face, his size and clothes confirm he’s male. Light brown hair trimmed short around his neck and ears tells me he’s a regular at the barber, but the expensive smell of his cologne makes me think probably a salon. I push the silky locks aside to catch a glimpse of his face. His lips are full and wide, giving off serious Harry Styles vibes. Those lips are framed by a powerful jawline and a prominent chin that is tipped with a tiny indentation. His eyebrows are dark, placed wide on a strong forehead, and the guy has eyelashes for days.
This kind of beauty deserves to be preserved in a museum. A diorama with him as the centerpiece surrounded by silk upholstery, top-shelf booze, and cigars. The Wealthy American Male. Ego Erectus. Most notable characteristics include serial dating, machismo, and toxic masculinity.
Lucky for him, there will be no preserving this gorgeous creation in a museum, because I can smell the alcohol on his breath. I fan the air between us. “Yep, definitely breathing.”
I do some fancy footwork to step over him to get to the door. I consider leaving him out here until the garbage trucks show up and wake him naturally. But considering the crime rate in this area, he may not be safe left outside.
I give his shoulder a shove. “Hey.” His head rolls on his neck. I shove a little harder. “Wake up.”
I hit the eight-digit code on the door and prop it open. “Come on, big guy.”
I hook him under the arms and attempt to drag him inside, but he’s heavier than he looks, and unfolded, he appears much taller too. I grunt and slide him back with clumsy steps. His legs fall open, and his fancy polished shoes skid against the concrete floor. His head lolls to the side and exposes the column of his neck. Unsurprisingly, his throat is also insanely attractive.
“Shit, Gabby, let me help you.” Evan, one of the RNs, takes my place and drags the man inside as if he weighs nothing.
“Over here.” I direct him to follow me down the hallway to an empty room. “Put him on the bed.” I pull back the comforter. “But be careful.” It would be a crime to disfigure this pretty face.
Evan shoots me a skeptical eye. “I don’t think Rita’s going to be okay with us giving a bed to some drunk you dragged in off the streets.”
“It’s three o’clock in the morning.” I grab the man’s ankles, and together we hoist him onto the mattress. “He’ll be gone before she gets here.”
Evan places the man’s dangling arms at his sides and then folds the man’s hands at his chest, placing him in the death pose.
He grins at me from over his shoulder. “I thought so.”
“He’ll be safe here until he wakes up.”
“Yeah? Then what?”
I shrug. “Then he can go home and hopefully make a generous donation to City Hospice for our spectacular service and care.” I tug off his shoes, noticing how they slip easily from satiny socks. “These shoes alone look like they cost enough to fund this place for a month.”
“What if he doesn’t wake up?” He walks out of the room and holds the door for me to follow.
“Then he’s in the right place.”
The alley door isn’t typically used for receiving. The main entrance is off of Union Avenue and used for visitors and guest arrivals. The back door is exit only, where our patients are wheeled out, covered in a sheet, and taken to the morgue.
“You’re here.” Annette, another one of the RNs, greets me with a grateful smile. Her eyes look tired, but not so much from lack of sleep, more from working around the dying. It takes a certain kind of person to tolerate the heavy weight of what we do, and I’ve always felt Annette would be better suited for something lighter, more hopeful, like labor and delivery.
“Aren’t they all?” She grabs her bag and smooths back some hair that fell loose from her ponytail. “Walter’s waiting for you.”
A trickle of relief warms my chest. I never know if, when my shift is over, I’ll see a patient alive again. When Walter showed up weeks ago, he was still communicative. He loved to tell me old war stories. A few days ago, he got quiet, and now he never opens his eyes.
I grab my book and head straight for his room. He likes stories of heroism, so I picked up a book at the library, and even though I’m not sure he can hear me, I read.
A few hours later, I make a visit to the room where I left the handsome drunk. I expect him to have woken by now, but he hasn’t moved from the supine position we left him in.
A soft snore comes from his parted lips. Even with a day’s worth of dark stubble on his cheeks, his skin looks smooth and blemish-free. A pang of envy twists my gut. This guy must get facials regularly.
Satisfied that he’s still breathing—
He moans, and I jump back, afraid I’ll get caught studying him up close.
I’ll look like a creeper!
His eyes squeeze tighter, causing tiny lines to show around them. He rolls to his side, one hand slips under the pillow, and then he settles. His breathing evens, and I wonder if he passed out again.
Yeah, I think he went back to sleep.
“My head,” he groans as he rolls to his back and jams his fists into his eyes.
“You’re drunk.” Just in case he’s unaware.
His entire body becomes unnaturally still as if the sound of my voice hit the pause button on his motor skills.
“Shit,” he mutters with a sigh for punctuation. His legs move slowly, knees bending and bobbing beneath the bedding as if he’s testing the effects of gravity.
He cracks an eye, opening one just slightly before closing it and working the other. He gives up and throws his forearm over his face. “Can you please turn off the light?”
I dim the bulb but keep it bright enough to see clearly.
Minutes pass as he gets his eyes open and his brain online. He feels around the bed, grips the sheets, rubs his face, and finally pushes himself up enough to see me. His eyes are tiny slits, and I watch those crescent moon shapes widen substantially when he takes in my face.
I could send my gaze to the floor and hide behind my hair. But I’ve learned it’s best to keep eye contact, give the awkward moment life, and let it breathe until the temptation to gawk is satisfied.
He frowns. “I shouldn’t be here.” He continues to squint. Or glare. Either his parents never taught him that staring is impolite, or he just doesn’t give a crap about social etiquette. He sucks in a breath and pushes his hair off his face. The longish pieces go back into place as if trained to do so. One rebellious lock falls forward just enough to give him that disheveled model look—oh, that’s it. I bet he’s a model. This is New York, after all, and he is, without a doubt, too pretty to be just some rich guy.
He looks around the room, taking in the couch, sink, bathroom. “Is this… your house?” His voice is scratchy, and I wonder if it always sounds like that or if the gravel in his tone is the result of a long night.
“No. You’re at City Hospice.” I startle when he suddenly pushes to stand. He wipes his palms against his backside and then his abdomen as if to rid himself of the bed’s death cooties. Looking back at the bed with a grimace, he stumbles a step forward and grips the wall to steady himself. And yep, he’s big. Tall. His well-fitting slacks and button-up shirt hug his form enough for me to see he’s long and muscled. Definitely a model. And not catalog. No, this guy is Versace. I wonder why his clothes aren’t more wrinkled, how he kept his shirt from coming untucked, and how a man can be such a hot mess and still look fresh off a photoshoot.
He pats his pockets, first front, then back. He freezes, and his head falls back on a curse that tosses his whole body off center, causing him to stagger. “You’ve gotta be fucking kidding me,” he mutters. “My phone and wallet are gone.” He turns an accusing glare my way. “Do you know where my stuff is?”
“You’re serious.” I laugh. “You think I’d steal your phone and your wallet and then bring you inside for safe keeping?” I scoff when he doesn’t immediately answer. “What’s the last thing you remember from last night?”
His cheeks turn a bright shade of pink, and he looks me up and down. I watch a flicker of panic cross his eyes.
“You don’t remember.” I lift my brows for confirmation, and his flinch gives him away.
His shoulders slump, and he shakes his head as if reprimanding himself. “Look, whatever happened between us… It was a mistake, and I—”
“Ew. You think we had sex?”
His gaze snaps to mine. “I mean, I don’t know—”
“No!” Now it’s my face that’s flaming. I don’t know if I’m insulted that he thinks I’d have sex with a man blackout drunk or if I’m flattered that a man this beautiful would assume sex with me was a possibility.
“Wait…” He tilts his head and glares at me through one eye. “Did you say ew?”
“I found you passed out cold in an alley. All manner of things could’ve happened to you, but I promise that sex with me wasn’t one of them.”
He seems preoccupied looking for his shoes, and I wonder if he even heard me.
“But I can’t speak for what happened before I found you.”
He shakes his head and then groans and grips his temples. “Shit, what time is it?”
“A.M.?” He side-eyes me.
He mumbles all sorts of things, something about being late and someone killing him. “I need money for a cab back to Manhattan.”
Of course he lives in Manhattan.
“I’ll pay you back.”
“You want me to just give you money?”
“I said I’d pay you back.” Now that he’s a little more alert, I can see his eyes are pale hazel. “Trust me. I’m good for it.”
“That I believe. I’ll get you an Uber.” I slip my phone from the pocket of my scrubs. With my eyes on the screen, I feel him studying my face, and I regret wearing my hair in a ponytail.
It’s easy to forget what you look like when you spend most of your time around dying people. The beautiful people of the world are a constant reminder of all the ways I don’t measure up, and I don’t need that shit in my life.
He’s still staring, so I look him boldly in the eye. He doesn’t look away. What is this guy’s deal? “You can wait outside.”
“Can I use the bathroom?”
“If I say no, are you just going to pee on my wall out in the alley like everyone else?”
I groan. “Fine.”
He moves past me. I watch as his eyes settle on my scar. This time, I duck my head and scurry out of the room.