“I’ll stay on the phone with you.” She heard Claire slam the car door shut. The rolling thump of luggage followed her.
“Wait. I don’t know which way—”
“Is there a covered walkway in front of you, with airlines listed above it?”
“Yes. It says Alaska and Horizon.”
“Go that way. I’m right here, Claire. I’m not going anywhere. Take the escalator down one floor. You see it?”
She sounded so weak. It scared the hell out of Meghann. “Go outside. Pick up the phone that says Taxi. What’s the number above the door you just came through?”
“Tell the cab driver to pick you up at door twelve, that you’re going downtown.”
Meghann heard her talking.
Then Claire said, “Okay.” She was crying again.
“I’m right here, Claire. Everything is going to be okay.”
“Who is this?”
Meghann felt an icy rush of fear. “It’s Meghann. Your sister.”
“I don’t remember calling you.”
Oh, Jesus. Meghann closed her eyes. It took an act of will to find her voice. “Is there a cab in front of you?”
“Yes. Why is it here?”
“It’s there for you. Get in the backseat. Give him the piece of paper in your hand.”
“Oh God, Meg. How did you know I had this paper? What’s wrong with me?”
“It’s okay, Claire. I’m here. Get in the cab. He’ll drop you off at my building. I’ll be waiting for you.”
The cab pulled along the curb and stopped. Before Claire could even say thank you, the front passenger-side door opened. Meghann threw a wad of bills at the driver, then slammed the door shut.
Claire’s door opened.
Meghann was there. “Hey, Claire, come on out.”
Claire grabbed her handbag and climbed out of the cab. She felt shaky, confused.
“Where’s your luggage?”
Claire looked around. “I must have left it in my car at the airport.” She laughed, though it sounded weak, even to her. “Look, Meg, I’m feeling a lot better now. I don’t know . . . I just spazzed out for a minute. The plane ride was awful, and they practically strip-searched me in Memphis. I’m already missing Bobby, and he’s going to be down there for the next few weeks. I guess I had a panic attack or something. Just take me to a quiet restaurant for a cup of coffee. I probably just need to sleep.”
Meg looked at her as if she were a science experiment gone bad. “Are you kidding me? A panic attack? Believe me, Claire, I know panic attacks, and you don’t forget how to get home.”
“Right. And you know everything.” The stress of her . . . thing . . . snapped cleanly, left her exhausted. “I don’t want to fight with you.”
“You’re not going to. We’re getting in that car and going to the hospital.”
“I’m fine now. Really. I’m probably getting a sinus infection. I’ll see my doctor at home.”
Meghann took a step toward her. “There are two ways this can go down. You can get nicely in the car and we can leave. Or I can make a scene. You know I can.”
“Fine. Take me to the hospital, where we can spend the whole day and two hundred dollars to find out that I have a sinus infection that was exacerbated by air travel.”
Meg took her arm and guided her into the cushy black interior of a Lincoln Town Car.
“A limo to the emergency room. How chic.”
“It’s not a limo.” Meg studied her. “Are you okay now, really?”
Claire heard the concern in her sister’s voice, and it touched her. She remembered suddenly that Meg always got loud and angry when she was frightened. It had been that way since childhood. “I’m sorry I scared you.”
Meg finally smiled. Leaning back in the seat, she said quietly, “You did.”
They exchanged looks then, and Claire felt herself relaxing. “Bobby aced the auditions. They offered him a big fat contract.”
“He won’t sign it until I review it, right?”
“The standard response is: Congratulations.”
Meghann had the grace to blush. “Congratulations. That’s really something.”
“I believe it belongs in Ripley’s Believe It or Not! under the headline Eliana Sullivan Does Good Deed.”
“A good deed that benefits her. A famous son-in-law puts the spotlight on her, too, you know. Just think of the I-discovered-him-and-changed-his-life interviews.” Meg pressed a hand to her breast, and said, “I’m so bighearted when it comes to family” in a gooey Southern drawl.
Claire started to laugh. Then she noticed that the tingling in her right hand was back. As she stared down at her hand, her fingers curled into a kind of hook. For a split second, she couldn’t open it. She panicked. Please, God—
The spasm ended.
The car pulled up in front of the hospital and let them out.
At the emergency room’s reception desk, a heavyset young woman with green hair and a nose ring looked up at them. “Can I help you?”
“I’m here to see a doctor.”
“What’s the problem?”
“I have a killer headache.”
Meghann leaned over the desk. “Write this down: Severe headache. Short-term memory loss.”
“That’s right. I forgot.” Claire smiled weakly.
The receptionist frowned at that and shoved a clipboard across the desk. “Fill that out and give me your insurance card.”
Claire retrieved the card from her wallet and handed it to the receptionist. “My family doctor thinks I need to exercise more.”
“They all say that,” the receptionist said with a little laugh. “Take a seat until we call for you.”
An hour later they were still waiting. Meghann was fit to be tied. She’d yelled at the receptionist three times and in the last twenty minutes, she’d been throwing around the word lawsuit.
“They’ve got a lot of nerve calling this an emergency room.”
“Look at the bright side. They must not think I’m very sick.”
“Forget the headache. We’ll both be dead from old age by the time they see you. Damn it.” Meghann popped to her feet and started pacing.
Claire considered trying to calm her sister down, but the effort was too much. Her headache had gotten worse, which she definitely did not reveal to Meghann.
“Claire Austin,” called out a blue-scrubbed nurse.
“It’s about f**king time.” Meghann stopped pacing long enough to help Claire to her feet.
“You’re a real comfort, Meg,” Claire said, leaning against her sister.
“It’s a gift,” Meg said, guiding her toward the tiny, birdlike nurse who stood in front of the white double doors of the ER.
Bird Woman looked up. “Claire Austin?”
To Meg, the nurse said, “You can wait out here.”
“I’m coming with my sister. If the doctor asks me to leave for the exam, I will.”
Claire knew she should be angry. Meg was being herself—pushing in where she didn’t belong—but truthfully, Claire didn’t want to be alone.
Claire clung to her sister’s hand as they pushed through the double doors and entered the frightening white world that smelled of disinfectant. In a small exam room, Claire changed into a flimsy hospital gown, answered a few questions for the nurse, relinquished her arm for a blood pressure test and her vein for a blood test.
Then, again, they waited.
“If I were really sick, they’d rush to take care of me,” Claire said after a while. “So this waiting is probably a good thing.”
Meghann stood with her back to the wall. Her arms were crossed tightly, as if she were afraid she’d punch something if she moved. “You’re right.” Under her breath, she said, “Shitheads.”
“Did you ever consider a career in health care? You’ve got quite a bedside manner. God knows you’re calming me down.”
“I’m sorry. We all know how patient I am.”
Claire leaned back on the paper-covered exam table and stared up at the acoustical tile ceiling.
Finally, someone knocked, then the door opened.
In walked a teenage boy in a white coat. “I’m Dr. Lannigan. What seems to be the problem?”
Claire sat up. “Hello, doctor. I really don’t need to be here, I’m sure. I have a headache and my sister thinks a migraine is emergency-room-worthy. After a long flight, I had some kind of panic attack.”
“Where she forgot how to get home,” Meghann added.
The doctor didn’t look at Meghann. He didn’t look at Claire, either. Instead, he studied the chart in his hands. Then he asked her to perform a few functions—lift one arm, then the other, turn her head, blink—and answer some easy questions—what year it is, who the president is. That sort of thing. When he finished, he asked, “Do you often get headaches?”
“Yes, when I get stressed-out. More lately, though,” she had to admit.
“Have you made any big changes in your life recently?”
Claire laughed. “Plenty. I just got married for the first time. My husband is going to be gone for a month. He’s in Nashville, making a record.”
“Ah.” He smiled. “Well, Mrs. Austin, your blood work is all normal, as are your pulse and your blood pressure, and your temperature. I’m sure this is all stress. I could run some expensive tests, but I don’t think it’s necessary. I’ll write you a prescription for a migraine medication. When you feel one coming on, take two tablets with plenty of water.” He smiled. “If the headaches persist, however, I’d recommend that you see a neurologist.”
Claire nodded, relieved. “Thank you, doctor.”
“Oh, no. So no.” Meghann pulled away from the wall and moved toward the doctor. “That’s not good enough.”
He blinked at her, stepping back as she invaded his personal space.
“I watch ER. She needs a CAT scan, at the very least. Or an MRI or an EKG. Some damn initial test. At the very least, she’ll take that neurology consult now.”
He frowned. “Those are costly tests. We can hardly run a CAT scan on every patient who complains of a headache, but if you’d like, I’ll recommend a neurologist. You can make an appointment to see him.”
“How long have you been a doctor?”
“I’m in my first year of residency.”
“Would you like to do a second year?”
“Of course. I don’t see—”
“Get your supervisor in here. Now. We didn’t spend three hours here so that an almost-doctor could tell us that Claire is under stress. I’m under stress; you’re under stress. We manage to remember our way home. Get a real doctor in here. A neurologist. We are not making an appointment. We’ll see a specialist now.”