“The … her brain is functioning, but we don’t know at what level because of the meds.” Stephen produced a straight pin and poked Mikaela’s small, bare feet, saying nothing when she failed to respond. He conducted a few more tests, which he knew Liam could assess along with him. Quietly he said, “The neurosurgeon is on board and up to speed, just in case, but we haven’t identified anything surgical. We’re hyperventilating her, controlling her pressure and temperature. Barring development of any bleeding … well, you know we’re doing everything we can.”
Liam closed his eyes. For the first time in his life, he wished he weren’t a doctor. He didn’t want to understand the reality of her condition. They had a state-of-the-art medical center and some of the best doctors north of San Francisco, all drawn here by the quality of life. But the truth was, there wasn’t a damn thing that could be done for her right now.
He didn’t mean to speak, but he couldn’t seem to hold it all inside. “I don’t know how to live without her …”
When Stephen turned to Liam, a sad, knowing expression filled his eyes. For a split second, he wasn’t a specialist, but just a man, a husband, and he understood. “We’ll know more tomorrow, if …” He didn’t finish the sentence; it wasn’t necessary.
If she makes it through the night.
“Thanks, Steve,” Liam said, his voice barely audible above the whirring of the machines and the steady drip-drip-drip of the IVs.
Stephen started to leave but paused at the doorway and turned back. “I’m sorry, Liam.” Without waiting for a response, he left the room. When he came back, there were several nurses with him. Together they wheeled Mikaela out of the room for more tests.
Courage, Liam thought to himself, wasn’t a hot, blistering emotion held only in the hands of men who joined the special forces and jumped out of airplanes and scaled unnamed mountains. It was a quiet thing, ice-cold more often than not; the last tiny piece you found when you thought that everything was gone. It was facing your children at a time like this, holding their hands and brushing their tears away when you were certain you hadn’t the strength to do it. It was swallowing your own grief and going on, one shallow, bitter breath at a time.
He put away his own fear. Where, he couldn’t have said, but somehow he boxed and buried it. He focused on the things that had to be done. Tragedy, he’d learned, came wrapped in details—insurance forms that had to be filled out, suitcases that had to be packed in case, schedules that needed to be altered. All of this he managed to do without breaking; if he did it without making eye contact with another human being, well, that was the way it had to be. He called Rosa Luna—Mike’s mother, who lived on the eastern side of the state—and left an urgent “Call me” message on her answering machine. Then, unable to put it off any longer, he walked down the busy corridor to the hospital’s lobby.
Jacey was sitting in one of the red vinyl chairs by the gift shop, reading a magazine. Bret was on the floor, idly playing with the toys the hospital staff kept in a plastic box.
Liam’s hands started to shake. He crossed his arms tightly and stood there, swaying a little. Help me, God, he prayed, then he forced his arms to his sides and strode into the area. “Hi, guys,” he said softly.
Jacey lurched to her feet. The magazine she’d been reading fluttered to the floor. Her eyes were swollen and red-rimmed; her mouth was drawn into a tremulous line. She was wearing a wrinkled pink sweatshirt and baggy jeans. “Daddy?”
Bret didn’t stand. He pushed the toys away and wiped his moist eyes, tilting his little chin upward. “She’s dead, isn’t she?” he said in a voice so dull and defeated that Liam felt the grief well up inside him again.
“She’s not dead, Bretster,” he said, feeling the hot sting of tears. Damn. He’d promised himself that he wouldn’t cry, not in front of them. They needed his strength now; the fear was his alone to bear. He forced his eyes to open wide and pinched the bridge of his nose for a second, then he knelt down beside his son and scooped him into his arms, holding him tightly. He wished to God there was something he could say, some magical bit of verbal wizardry that would banish their fear. But there was nothing save “wait and see,” and that was a cold comfort.
Jacey knelt beside Liam and pressed her cheek against his shoulder. He slipped an arm around her, too.
“She’s in bad shape right now,” he said slowly, searching for each word. How could you tell your children that their mother could die? “She’s suffered a pretty severe head injury. She needs our prayers.”
Bret wiggled closer to Liam. His body started to shudder; tears dampened Liam’s lab coat. When Bret looked up, he was sucking his thumb.
Liam didn’t know what to do. Bret had stopped sucking his thumb years ago, and here he was, huddled against his dad like a boy half his age, trying desperately to comfort himself.
Liam knew that from now on his children would know that dark and terrifying truth, the one that he and Mike had tried so hard to keep from them: The world could be a frightening place. Sometimes a single moment could change everything, and people—no matter how much you loved them—could die.
The hours of their vigil dripped into one another and formed a day.
Finally it was evening. Liam sat in the waiting room with his children, each of them watching the slow, methodical pirouette of the wall clock’s black hands. It had been hours since anyone had spoken. Words, he’d learned, had the density of lead. Each one seemed to weigh you down. And so they sat, together and yet alone.
At eight o’clock they heard footsteps coming down the hallway toward them. Liam tensed instantly and leaned forward. Please, don’t let it be bad news …
Jacey’s boyfriend, Mark Montgomery, swept into the quiet room, bringing with him a swell of energy. “Jace?” he said, his voice too loud. He stood in the doorway, wearing a red-and-white letterman’s sweater and baggy black sweatpants. “I just heard …”
Jacey ran into his arms, sobbing against his chest. Finally she drew back and looked up at him. “We … haven’t gotten to see her yet.” Mark kept his arm around her and led her to the sofa. Together they sat down. Jacey leaned against him. The quiet flutter of their whispery voices floated through the room.
Liam went to Bret and hugged him, cradling his son in his arms, carrying him back to the chair. And still they watched the clock.
Just before nine o’clock, Stephen came into the room.
Liam eased Bret onto the floor. Then he stood up and went to Stephen.
“The same,” Stephen said softly. “There’s nothing more we can do for her tonight. We just have to wait and see.” He lowered his voice then, speaking with a friend’s concern. “Take your children home, Liam. Try to get some sleep. We’ll talk again in the morning. If anything … happens, I’ll call you.”
Liam knew that Stephen was right. He should take his children home, but the thought of walking into that empty, empty house …
“Take them home, Liam,” Stephen said again.
Liam sighed. “Okay.”
Stephen patted him on the shoulder, then turned and left.
Liam took a deep breath. “Come on, kids. It’s time to go home. We’ll come back in the morning.”
Jacey stood up. “Home?” She looked terrified. Liam knew that she didn’t want to walk into that house, either.
Mark glanced at her, then at Liam. “A bunch of us were going to go to the haunted house. Maybe … maybe you want to come?”
Jacey shook her head. “No, I need to stay—”
“Go, Jace,” Liam said softly. “Just take your beeper. I’ll call you if anything happens.”
She moved toward him. “No, Dad—”
He pulled her into his arms and held her tightly, whispering, “Go, Jace. Think of something else for an hour or two. We can’t help her this way.”
She drew back. He could see the war going on within her; she wanted to go and she wanted to stay. Finally she turned to Mark. “Okay. Maybe just for a few minutes.”
Mark came over, took Jacey’s hand in his, and led her out of the room.
“Daddy?” Bret said after she’d left. “I’m hungry.”
“Jesus, Bretster, I’m sorry. Let’s go home.”
Bret popped his thumb back in his mouth and got to his feet. He looked small and pathetic. For the first time, Liam noticed the clothes his son was wearing. Plaid flannel shirt, fake leather vest with a tin sheriff’s star pinned on the chest, crisp Wrangler jeans, and cowboy boots. A costume. The haunted house.
It was almost nine-fifteen. For the last few hours, all over town, kids dressed as astronauts and aliens and princesses had been piling in and out of minivans. Their parents, already tired and headachy before it began, would crank the music up—mostly comfort rock and roll from their youth—and drive to the single housing development in Last Bend. In a town where your nearest neighbor was often half a mile away, trick-or-treating had to be carefully planned.
Liam glanced down at his son. He had a sudden flash of memory—Mike staying up late at night to finish the chaps that went with the costume. “You want to drive over to Angel Glen and go trick-or-treating?”
Bret’s cheeks bunched up as he sucked his thumb, then slowly he shook his head.
Liam understood. It was Mommy who always organized Halloween. “Okay, kiddo. Let’s go.”
Together they walked outside, into the cold, crisp October night. The air smelled of dying leaves and rich, black earth.
They climbed into the car and drove home. The garage door, when it opened, cut a whining, scraping hole in their silent cocoon.
Liam took his son’s hand and led him into the house. They talked in fits and starts—about what, Liam couldn’t have said. He turned on the interior lights, all of them, until the house was awash in false brightness.
If only it weren’t so damned quiet.
Make Bret dinner.
There, focus on that.
The phone rang. Mumbling something to Bret, Liam stumbled into the kitchen and answered it.
“Hi, Liam. It’s Carol. I just heard … really sorry …”
And so it began.
Liam sagged against the log wall, hearing but not listening. He watched as Bret went into the living room and lay on the sofa. There was the hm-click of the television as it came on. The Rugrats. Screamingly loud. Bret stared dry-eyed at his least favorite cartoon, one that only last week he’d said was “for babies.” He curled into a ball and sucked his thumb.
Liam hung up. He realized a second too late that Carol had still been talking, and he made a mental note to apologize.
Then he stood in the empty kitchen, wondering what in the hell to fix Bret for dinner. He opened the refrigerator and stared at a confusing jumble of jars and cartons. He found a plastic container of leftover spaghetti sauce but had no idea how old it was. In the freezer, he found dozens of similar containers, each marked with a date and contents, but no instructions for cooking.