He was tired of being in this waiting room, tired of being ignored.
No one seemed to care that Bret was always by himself in this grody, disgusting room. Jacey’s friends came at lunchtime—they had driver’s licenses—and it didn’t bother her one bit to leave her little brother alone while she went to the cafeteria with “the gang.” Even Grandma and Daddy seemed to have forgotten all about him.
The only people who talked to Bret were the nurses, and whenever they looked at him, they had that poor you look in their eyes that made him want to puke.
Bret went to the sofa again and tried to interest himself in drawing, but he couldn’t do it. There was that sick feeling in his stomach and it was getting bigger and bigger. He was pretty sure that he was going to start screaming.
Instead, he picked up the nearest crayon—black—and went to the wall. He didn’t even bother looking around to see if he was alone. He didn’t care. In fact, he wanted someone to see him. In bold, sweeping letters, he wrote I hate this hospital across the bumpy wall. When he finished, he felt better. Then he turned around and saw Sarah, the head nurse, standing in the doorway, holding a bunch of comic books.
“Oh, Bret,” she said softly, giving him that poor you look.
He waited for her to say something else, maybe to come in and yell at him, but all she did was turn around and walk away. A few minutes later, he heard his dad’s name ringing out through the hospital paging system.
He dropped the crayon on the floor and went back to the sofa. Picking up the headless action figure, he started playing.
Bret’s cheeks burned. Slowly he turned.
Dad was standing there, holding a bucket and a sponge. He set the bucket down and crossed the room in a few big steps, then he sat down on the coffee table in front of Bret.
“I know, Daddy.” He tried not to cry, but he couldn’t help himself. Every time he sucked in a breath, he tasted his tears. “I’m sorry.”
Dad wiped Bret’s tears away. “I’m sorry we left you alone, Bretster. There’s so much going on … I’m sorry.”
Bret drew in a great, gulping breath. “I shouldn’t’ve written on the walls, Daddy. I’m sorry.”
Dad almost smiled. “I know you want to see your mom, kiddo. It’s just … she doesn’t look good. Her face is pretty bruised up. I thought it would give you bad dreams.”
Bret thought about how she’d looked, with her eye open, staring at him, and he shuddered. He wiped his eyes and whispered, “When dead people have their eyes open, can they see you, Daddy?”
“She’s not dead, Bret. I swear to you.” He sighed heavily. “Do you want to see her?”
“The rules won’t let me.”
“We could break the rules. If you want.”
Bret sniffed and wiped the snot away from his upper lip. That image of Mommy flashed through his mind again, and when he saw it, his heart did a little ka-thump. “No,” he said quietly, “I don’t wanna see her.”
Dad pulled him into a hug, and Bret felt himself slowly, slowly relaxing. The hug felt so good. He felt almost safe. He clung to his dad for a long, long time.
Then, finally, Daddy said, “Well, pal, I guess you’d better start washing that wall. I don’t think it’s fair to make the custodians do it.”
Bret scooted back. On wobbly legs, he got to his feet and went over to the bucket. When he picked it up, soapy water splashed over the rim and hit his pant legs. Holding on to the metal handle with both hands, he carried the bucket to the wall and set it down. He plunged the sponge into the water, squeezed it almost dry, and started cleaning up his mess.
It wasn’t even a minute later that Dad was beside him, crouching down. He grabbed a second sponge, dunked it into the water, and wrung it out.
Dad smiled at him, right at eye level. “I guess this is sort of a family mess, don’t you think?”
At dinnertime Rosa took the children home. Liam knew he should have gone with them, but he couldn’t leave Mikaela. It was as simple as that.
He stared down at his wife. She was lying on her side now; the nurses had turned her. “I hired Judy Monk to take care of your horses,” he told her. “They all seem to be doing great. Even that whacko mare—what’s her name, Sweetpea? She’s eaten through the top rail of the corral, but other than that, she’s okay. And the vet said Scotty’s colic is completely cleared up.”
He reached for the box he’d brought from home. “I brought you a few things.” He lifted the cardboard box from the chair and brought it to the bedside table. He pulled out a beribboned bag of scented potpourri. “Myrtle down at the drugstore told me this brand was your favorite.” He poured the multicolored clippings into a small glass bowl. The soft scent of vanilla wafted upward. Then he pulled out a collection of family photographs and layered them along the windowsill—just in case she opened her eyes when none of them were here.
He set a tape player on another table and popped a cassette in. Madonna’s “Crazy for You”—to remind her of the old days. The last item was a sweater of Bret’s, one he’d outgrown long ago. Liam smoothed it over her shoulders, tucking the tiny Shetland wool arms around her. If anything could reach her, it would be the never-to-be-forgotten smell of her little boy.
Memories tiptoed into this quiet room. He remembered the first time he’d seen Mikaela. It had been here, in this very hospital. He’d come home for his mother’s funeral and found his father—the great Ian Campbell—suffering from Alzheimer’s. The disease had slowly and methodically erased every larger-than-life aspect of Ian’s personality.
When the inevitable slide to death began, Ian had been moved into the medical center that bore his name.
That was when Liam met Mikaela. She’d been young then—only twenty-five—and the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen.
“Did you know how much I longed to talk to you?” he said softly, leaning toward her. “You were sitting by my dad’s bedside. Do you remember that day? I didn’t say anything. I just stood in the doorway, listening to the way you talked to my father.”
He sat down in the chair by the bed and took her left hand in his, coiled his fingers around hers. “I still remember the first time you looked at me. You’d seen me, of course, but you never really noticed me until I told you that he was my father.
“It was springtime … remember that? You’d opened his window and brought him a small azalea plant that was a riot of pink flowers. I saw the sadness in you right away. Was it so close to the surface? I wonder about that now. Then, I thought I was special to see it, like we were soldiers of a similar war. The walking wounded. All I could think was how it would feel to be the one to make you smile. Do you remember what you said to me?
“‘Do you talk to him?’ you asked me. I was so embarrassed. I said, ‘No one really talks to my dad anymore.’
“And you said, ‘Then you should. It doesn’t matter what you say, just that you’re here. He needs to know you care.’”
Care. It was such a little word. Like love or hate. There was so much packed into those four letters. Up until that moment, Liam and his father hadn’t spent much time caring.
“You gave him back to me, you know. I never really knew him when he was strong and bold and sucking up all the sunlight, but when he was old and shrunken and afraid, he finally became mine. You taught me to talk to him, and in those last weeks, there were moments when he saw me, moments when he knew who I was and why I was there. The day before he died, he held my hand and told me he loved me for the first and only time in my life. You gave me that, Mikaela, and I don’t know if I ever thanked you for it.”
He stood and leaned over the bed rail. He slowly released her hand and touched her swollen cheek. “I love you, Mike, with everything inside me. I’ll be here, waiting for you, for the rest of our lives. The kids and I … Come back to us, baby.” His voice broke. He gave himself a minute, then kissed her forehead, whispering, “Forever,” against her skin.
Then he sat back down in the chair, still holding her hand.
Still do the stars impart their light
To those that travel in the night.—WILLIAM CARTWRIGHT
For four weeks, Mikaela had seen only darkness.
By the end of the first week, Liam and the children had learned the age-old truth that life went on. As much as they wanted the world to stop for them, it didn’t. Day by day, ordinary life pushed into their sterile, grieving circle, demanding, prodding. Amazingly, the sun still rose in a world without Mikaela, and hours later, it set. Thanksgiving came and went, and in the last week in November, the first snow fell.
Liam had learned that it was possible to appear to move forward when you were really standing still. As the coma dragged on, he’d had no choice. The kids went back to school; Rosa knit enough sweaters and blankets to cover everyone in town. Liam hired people to care for the horses; he paid the bills. And eventually he began seeing patients again. At first he’d only seen a few, but now he was up to a half-day schedule. He left the office at two o’clock every afternoon and sat by Mike’s bed until dinnertime. Some days Jacey showed up, some days she didn’t. Bret hadn’t yet found the courage to visit his mother, but Liam knew he would.
Liam’s patients kept him busy a few hours a day, and he thanked God for it. Because when he wasn’t working, he was waiting, watching his beautiful, cherished wife lie in a bed that had held someone else a month ago and would hold others again in the future.
He stood at his office window, staring out. Next door, the snow was beginning to stick to Mrs. Peterson’s picket fence.
In a few hours, the last elementary-school bell would ring; children would begin to gather at Turnagain Hill, dragging their sleds and inner tubes along the snow-slicked street, careening down the hill on their breathless journey to the lip of Mr. Robbin’s frog pond.
By tomorrow morning, Liam knew those same kids would wake early and race to their bedroom windows, hoping to find that their backyards were white. Parents would watch the morning news beside their shrieking children, praying silently that the buses could still make their routes. But their prayers would be drowned out by younger, more enthusiastic voices—and school would be canceled. By noon, Mrs. Sanman at the bakery would begin simmering pots of whole milk on her stove, offering free hot chocolate to anyone brave enough to venture to her street corner, and the firemen would blast water along the turnout at the end of Sasquatch Street, creating the best ice rink in the state.
Liam forgot for a second what his life had become. The urge swept through him to pick up the phone and call her, Hey, Mike, come quick, it’s snowing, but he caught himself just in time.
She loved the snow, his Mikaela, loved the crisp, pure taste of a single snowflake and the tiny spray of icy water that was left on her face when she came inside. She loved mittens with fake fur trim and black angora cowled hoods that turned an ordinary housewife into Grace Kelly. She loved watching her children eat Cup-A-Soup at the kitchen table while snow melted from their bangs and slid down their pinkened cheeks.