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Hiding Patty book cover

Hiding Patty
A Tale From Spearfish Lake
Wes Boyd
©2012, ©2014

Chapter 26

Though Molly kept pushing Tricia for details of what she was doing with Henry, Tricia kept teasing her back by reporting that nothing much was going on. In fact, there was a good deal less than Molly suspected.

There simply wasn’t the time for the two of them to get together as much as they would have liked. Henry was still extremely busy with his job at the Record-Herald; he had to spend a lot of his evening hours at various board meetings, or taking photos at basketball games or wrestling matches. Sometimes he had to juggle several things around to manage to do everything. Henry’s father helped take a lot of the load off, but there was still a lot to do.

By now, Henry reported when the two of them got together, it was clear that the plan to get along without a junior reporter at the paper just wasn’t working. It had been thought that his presence at the paper would allow them to explore some new directions and do some things that hadn’t been done in the past, but the junior reporter-level scut work cut into that goal in ways they hadn’t imagined. Over the cold months they had finally agreed to seek a new junior reporter, although whoever they hired probably wouldn’t be available until May, or possibly June, which meant that she still wasn’t going to be seeing much of Henry in the evenings for a while.

They still managed to see each other when the opportunity arose. Sometimes it wasn’t much more than dinner, then a DVD or two afterwards, while cuddling and sharing popcorn on the couch. Sometimes Tricia even cooked dinner; she’d picked up a few tricks from him – more, in fact, than she had from Heather and Molly – and usually it didn’t turn out too badly. She was still not what she considered to be a good cook and admitted to herself that she would never come up to the level of Sarah, the elderly long-time cook she remembered from the Redlite. Her meals tended to be a little more focused on quick and simple than they were on elaborate, but she didn’t mind a great deal and Henry never complained.

The two of them still tried to get out and go somewhere besides the dog barn, at least some of the time. They went skiing over at Three Pines again; on occasion they drove to Camden for dinner and a movie. A couple times they even went to basketball games. It all added up to them slowly becoming more comfortable with each other while they worked on their mostly private and unspoken reservations, and probably their being together was doing as much to deal with them as anything else.

Henry had told her that he still got phone calls from Cindy at irregular intervals, all at the office since she didn’t have his home number or his cell number. Sometimes he’d go a couple weeks without one, and sometimes there would be two or three in a week. All of them shared a single, if sometimes subtle purpose – to somehow lure or threaten or entice or beg him to come back to Decatur. When he told Tricia about them, he also said that, if anything, the phone calls from her only stiffened his resolve to not go back.

One day in early April Tricia got a phone call from Ryan Clark, asking her if she’d be willing to go to a meeting at Randy’s house a couple days later. She was of course willing, but was even more willing when Ryan told her it was about the hospital proposal. Not plan, but proposal – that meant things were getting closer to being a reality.

Tricia had been in meetings off and on with various people about the idea all winter, usually Ryan or Gene, sometimes with both of them, and sometimes with others present as well, although all were in private. This was a foundation and steering committee project, not a public project, after all. All were pretty informal, and to some degree they were unofficial, but things had seemed to be progressing. Everyone pretty well agreed there were things that could be done better, or at least more efficiently, and perhaps extend services to the community if it could be made a reality, but it was proving a lot more complicated and time consuming than Tricia had imagined it would.

In any case, she quickly agreed to attend, and not just because Henry would be covering another meeting that night either.

She was a little surprised to see what she thought of as the full steering committee there – the board members of the two foundations, of course, but other closely allied people like Binky. Nicole served soft drinks and snacks to the group gathered before the fireplace in her living room, and then faded off upstairs to play with Brent and Raven to keep them from under foot.

“To make a long story short,” Ryan told the group, “the county building and grounds subcommittee bought off on the idea a couple days ago. I didn’t doubt they would since they’ve thrown money right and left at that building for years in hopes that someday it could be used a little more effectively. The whole thing still has to go before the full commission, and there will undoubtedly be someone on the commission like Jerry Price who will want to throw up a road block just because they can. So while there are still plenty of things to be ironed out with them, including a firm figure, it’s beginning to look like it could be a go.”

In the months Tricia had been in Spearfish Lake she’d learned a great deal about the old hospital building and some of the issues surrounding the idea. For many different reasons re-opening it as a hospital was out of the question. It had been cost-prohibitive when it had closed and would probably not be any better were it to re-open, even if they’d been willing to spend literally years digging through mountains of government and insurance company red tape. No one had even seriously considered raising such a proposal.

Ryan turned to Tricia. “Knowing who your boyfriend is,” he grinned, “I’d be just as happy if you didn’t tell him that, at least for a while. But when the worst of the issues have been ironed out, we’ll bring him into the picture fully.”

“I haven’t said much to him about it,” Tricia replied. “He knows it’s in the kicking-around stage, but he also knows it’s foundation business, not public business. We had a little talk about that a while back, and he explained there are times when a good reporter knows not to stick his nose into a story for fear of upsetting an apple cart.”

“I always thought Mike and Kirsten had raised a responsible kid,” Ryan smiled. “I don’t know if he had anything to do with the building and grounds subcommittee meeting, but he won’t be able to miss it when it comes up before the full commission, and we ought to be giving him a heads-up by then. I don’t know how we’ll want to work it, since we have the school board election coming up about then and we’ll want to keep a low profile. It may come down to having you tip him off, but we’ll just have to wait and see on that.”

Tricia knew a good deal about the school board election issue, all of it through Henry, although at least part of it was supposed to be kept quiet. The members of the Donna Clark Foundation board had long ago lost their patience with the school board, and especially with the school superintendent and the high school principal. The main thing that precipitated the whole affair was the way Cody and Janice had been treated by the school in the wake of Cody’s rescuing Jan, so much so the two had to finish their senior years home-schooling. That had yanked the foundation board members’ collective chains, both in a community service and a personal sense. She knew that the year before John Archer, Cody’s father, had been elected unopposed to a seat on the school board. Four seats were up for election this year, and the foundation board members had privately agreed to try to make a clean sweep of the current board members. If they could manage that, several things around the schools could be cleaned up and some people were likely to get their walking papers.

But that was something not on the topic of tonight’s meeting, although everyone in the room was probably pretty clear about the plan, if not all the details. “It probably wouldn’t be a bad idea to keep this a little close to our chests until the school board election is over with,” Gene agreed.

“Well, true,” Ryan said. “In fact, I wouldn’t mind if it got held off for another month or so, but we may be able to keep it low key that long, anyway. One of the things about the commission is that they’re unable to make up their minds to blow their noses without taking six months to do it. Even though they’d like to be out from under the old hospital, it could well take them that long to do it this time. And, when you get down to it, that’s fine. Even if they said tonight it was a go, it would still take months to get all the details worked out. One of the things we need to do is to set up a non-profit to run the new operation. We can set one up quickly but it could take months to get the status approved by the IRS. But that can be dealt with by working through the Donna Clark Foundation for the time being. The list of details is several pages long now, and I have no doubt it’ll get longer before it gets shorter.”

“Ryan,” Jennifer spoke up, “how long is this going to take?”

“Your guess is as good as mine,” he replied. “I’d like to hope we could have it working before winter sets in, but there are so many ifs, maybes, and buts involved that it’s only a hope. The building needs serious work, and that’s a big variable.”

“That’s going to be tricky,” Randy, the president of the construction company, said. “The interior stuff, well, if I had the go-ahead tonight I could just about get started in the morning. We haven’t gotten into construction season yet, so I’d have the time and people to throw at it. As we get into summer, it’s going to be harder, since there’s going to be so much else that has to get done, too. Then you get to the roof. Because of the weather, we really couldn’t even get started on that for a month or two, since it will still be too cold. That’s going to be a big project, and there’s nothing we can do but to do it right. Put it all together, and we’re probably talking fall before we could get done, and that’s assuming we get the go-ahead in the next month or two.”

“That’s about what I was expecting,” Ryan sighed. “But at least it gives us some time to get some of the other irons in the fire dealt with. Let’s face it, because of the condition of the building it’s going to take some serious work, but it’s still a better deal than trying to build something from scratch. That’s a good thing about the school situation. Because we’ve not been supporting the current administration, we’re a little cash heavy right now, so we can take advantage of that fact. If they get their acts cleaned up at the schools the economic status could change, but we don’t have to re-open the tap all at once.”

“So it looks like it’s going to fly, then?” Danny asked.

“That’s a definite maybe,” Ryan said. “There’s still a chance the commissioners could get a bug up their butts and hold this up for a while or even kill it completely. If the latter happens, we’d have to re-assess, of course, but I think we need to keep moving ahead either way. It would just take a lot longer if they’re too much of a roadblock. But for the moment I think we have to keep moving ahead with the assumption that it’s going to turn real sooner or later.”

“I feel I must submit a question,” Myleigh spoke up. “How might this affect the current tenants?”

“Well, we’ll have to continue the current leases,” Ryan shrugged. “The physical therapy clinic is under an adequate contract and I see no reason that we can’t continue at the present rate. The senior citizens, well, that’s a sweetheart deal at a very low price.”

“Maybe we ought to just continue the arrangement,” Gene suggested. “It would be good public relations; they don’t use that much of the building, not that we’re going to use the rest of it at any time in the near future, and, let’s face it, it would be convenient for people going there to see us for medical services.”

“Probably not a bad idea,” Ryan nodded. “There’s still going to be a portion of the building we won’t be using, although if we own it I wouldn’t be surprised if we can find some use for it sooner or later. But one of the things we need to start tacking down is how we’re going to be using the building in the first place.”

Tricia had already had a number of discussions about the idea with Ryan and Gene. It was going to be a little complicated, since the practice she operated was still owned by the Donna Clark Foundation, at least temporarily until the new non-profit was set up; it would be handed over to the new group in the process. However, Gene still owned his practice personally, so they would have to be two different operations, although sharing at least some staff and functions. Up till this point how to manage the complex situation had been mostly theoretical, there were also plenty of bugs that needed to be ironed out there.

The discussion about who would do what, and where, went on for a while. One of the things that had been decided early on was that the Spearfish Medical Support Service, the billing operation that had replaced many of Tricia’s early worries, would be established in some part of the building, moved there from where it was in the old Spearfish Lake Appliance store. There had already been the agreement to set up a small lab in the hospital’s old laboratory room although how to staff and administer it still needed to be worked out. A few other such decisions had already been made, and the discussion brought out more points that needed further consideration.

All in all, it looked to be an interesting setup that would do much to improve medical services to the area. Though they would be in separate practices, Tricia and Gene would be able to support each other and back each other up, and the same held true for their staffs. Once the arrangement was running, the new non-profit, which would then own the building where Tricia had her practice now, could sell that building to help with the costs of the new one. Gene owned the building his practice was in, but the building was in bad shape and the plan was for the new group to buy the building from him and put it on the market for what they could get for it.

Eventually that part of the discussion wound down. “I think this holds a lot of potential in the long term,” Ryan summed up. “Looking ahead a few years, and assuming Tricia stays in Spearfish Lake, I can see the day coming when she’s the only MD in town. We’ve talked about this, and after the trouble we went to earlier in recruiting her, I think she’s right that eventually the medical service in town will consist of one doctor overseeing a staff of perhaps two to four PAs or NPs. I think we were lucky to be able to find her at all the way that direction is changing.”

“It’s not going to just be here,” Tricia said. “It’s going to be like that in a lot of places. As much as I hate to say it, I think the days of the home-town general practitioner are dying, and there will be no choice but to go in that direction.”

“I think she’s right,” Ryan said. “I made the statement last fall that it seemed to be harder to get an NP or PA here than it was a physician, and I can tell you it may be true. Now, here a while back a suggestion Tricia made about solving that problem caused me to think about it a little more. That suggestion was that, rather than trying to bring someone in from the outside, we find experienced nurses who are committed to the area and encourage them to do the rather extensive training to become nurse practitioners.”

“It doesn’t solve the recruitment problem,” Tricia said, “but it might do something about being able to keep them here. I know of at least one nurse who is thinking about it, although it might be some years before she could take time away from her family and do it.”

“That’s definitely a fly in the ointment,” Ryan agreed, “but it doesn’t mean the idea is not valid. Now, speaking with my Donna Clark Foundation hat on, I think once we get the current issues worked out and running, we need to take a little harder look at the idea. And I’m also thinking that it might be an idea to encourage local students who are in training to be nurses, but still in undergraduate school, to raise their sights a little higher by starting to fund some of their training. Of course, that would include a commitment to work here for a while. There are obviously details on that to work out, but I’d like to ask Dr. York to act as a consultant to the foundation to work on this problem, and probably on vetting candidates for foundation scholarships.”

“Of course,” Tricia smiled. “I will be happy to.”

“I suppose I ought to ask you this. You’ve been here over six months now, so you still have more than four years on your contract with us. Do you have any feelings about whether you plan to stay after that?”

Tricia thought quickly. She had no plans to leave, at the moment anyway, and she was coming to really like the place. But the possibility of Peppermint Patty being revealed was always there, too, and that made things uncertain. “I’d like to stay, at least as far as I know at this point,” was all she could say. “There’s always the possibility of things happening in the future, and those could affect my decision to stay either positively or negatively.”

“Well, I can understand that,” he said. “If we could see the future as well as we would like, we’d be able to make a lot better decisions about things like these. Tricia, we knew we were taking a little risk when we first signed the contract with you a few years ago. From every report and everyone I’ve talked to, you’ve met or passed our highest expectations. What’s more, you seem to be trying to fit into the community, and not just working here. I like that, too.”

“I really appreciate your faith in me,” she said. “I could not be anywhere near as far along as I am today without the unstinting and continual support of the foundations, and especially your help, Mr. Clark. Several times you’ve taken problems that would have been nearly impossible for me to solve on my own and just dealt with them, leaving me to do what I know how to do best. Don’t give me all the credit, because the people in this room deserve a great deal of it.”

The meeting was effectively ended shortly after that, although people stood around talking about side issues. For example, Binky was concerned about being able to sell the current doctor’s offices for the amounts Ryan and the other board members were hoping for, given that the local real estate market was softening, but she said she’d do her best when the time came.

Although the deal had been talked about for months, Tricia now felt like it was really going to happen. She had grown comfortable in her own office, with Heather and Molly working with her, but she also realized that it limited her. The new and as yet unnamed medical clinic was going to be a huge improvement; even if the place wasn’t a hospital they would be able to do some outpatient services people now had to drive to Camden for. Several other possibilities seemed to also lie within reach.

But, as Tricia drove back home after the meeting broke up, she was concerned that a lot of responsibility was being placed on her shoulders by doing this. True, Gene would be a part of the deal, but Ryan and the foundations were trying to look a long way into the future with this plan, and she had plenty of concern that she could hold up her end of the bargain.

Of course, there was the possibility of a pure accident; some drunk driver could come along right now, crash into her, and the whole thing would go down the tubes; that could happen, and could only be planned for to a limited extent. But other things were possible too, and that needed some thought.

As always, there was the Peppermint Patty part of her history waiting to really louse things up. That couldn’t be denied, although it seemed increasingly likely that it could be kept a secret, unless, of course, something truly unexpected would happen – and it could.

But now, for the first time, there was another concern: Henry. While it was too early to speculate, and much could go wrong, if he could work out his Cindy problem and she could make an accommodation to her Peppermint Patty problem, it seemed increasingly possible that they could wind up making things permanent. Now that she looked at it that way, it might be a potential problem for the future, at least in terms of her staying in Spearfish Lake, and probably in terms of staying with Henry. She’d been thinking about that issue for a while and was not any closer to a conclusion.

While Henry had come back to town at least partly to escape Cindy, he’d also come back because his parents wanted him running the Record-Herald within the next few years. But suppose that didn’t work out? She didn’t know much about small newspapers, but knew from what little news she’d read on the Internet and talked about with Henry that there were newspapers in trouble all over the country. Small town newspapers still seemed to have a future, although the distant future was unknowable.

Besides, there was a part of her that somehow thought Henry’s talents were too much for a small-town paper. From stories he had told, she knew that his father had never intended to stay in town when he first came here decades before; he’d been a junior reporter, looking for a line on a résumé to boost him into a better job. Finding Kirsten and having to confront her refusal to move on was the only thing that had kept him here.

Spearfish Lake might be all right for Henry for a few years, but wouldn’t there be a temptation for him to move on? If she were as entrenched here as Ryan seemed to hope she would be, wouldn’t it be a situation just like his father’s and mother’s? They’d made a very good life here, but still . . .

It was something else to think about in a future she couldn’t control.

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To be continued . . .

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