Mama bent down and kissed Claire’s forehead, then barreled out of the room. Meghann almost fell into her when she left. Mama was standing in the hallway.
“I don’t care if she is dyin’, there’s no need to let herself go like that.” Mama’s composure cracked.
Meghann reached out.
“Don’t you dare touch me, Meggy. I couldn’t take it.” She turned and walked away, skirts flapping behind her, heels clattering on the floor.
There wasn’t a single person who didn’t look at her as she passed.
Claire grew weaker. By her second day in the hospital, she wanted simply to sleep.
Her friends and family had begun to exhaust her. They’d shown up religiously. All of them. The Bluesers had descended on her tiny hospital room, bringing life and laughter, flowers and fattening food, and Claire’s favorite movies. They talked and told jokes and remembered old times. Only Gina had had the guts to brave the harsh, icy landscape of Claire’s fear.
“I’ll always be there for Ali, you know,” she said when everyone else had gone to the cafeteria.
Claire had never loved her friend as much as in that moment. No wartime charge ever took more courage. “Thank you,” was all she’d been able to say. Then, softly, “I haven’t been able to tell her yet.”
“How could you?”
Gina’s eyes met hers, filling slowly with tears. They’d both been thinking about how a woman said good-bye to her five-year-old daughter. After a long pause, Gina smiled. “So. What are we going to do about your hair?”
“I thought I’d cut it off. Maybe dye what’s left of it platinum.”
“Very chic. We’ll all look like old housewives next to you.”
“That’s my dream now,” Claire said, unable to help herself. “Becoming an old housewife.”
Ultimately, as much as she loved to see her friends, she was glad when they went home. Late that night, in the quiet darkness, she gave in to the meds and fell asleep.
She woke with a start.
Her heart was pounding too fast, skipping beats. She couldn’t seem to breathe, couldn’t sit up. Something was wrong.
“Claire, are you okay?” It was Bobby. He was sitting beside her bed. He’d obviously been sleeping. Rubbing his eyes, he stood up, came to her bedside. For a second, she thought it was a hallucination, that the Pacman tumor had eaten through the good parts of her brain and left her crazy. Then he moved closer to the bed, and she heard the jingle of the keys.
“Bobby,” she whispered, trying in vain to lift her heavy, heavy arms.
“I’m right here, baby.”
It took effort, a painful amount, but she reached up and touched his wet cheek. “I love you, Robert Jackson Austin. More than anything in the world except my Ali Gator.
“Come,” she said. “Get into bed with me.”
He looked at all the machines, the IVs, the tubes and cords. “Oh, baby . . .” He leaned down and kissed her instead.
The sweet pressure of his lips felt so good. She closed her eyes, feeling herself sinking into the pillows. “Ali,” she whispered. “I need my baby—”
Pain exploded behind her right eye.
Beside her bed, an alarm went off.
There is no pain. No ache. She feels for the dry, itchy patch of skin on her head and feels long, beautiful hair instead.
She sits up. The tubes that connect her to the machines are gone. She wants to shout out that she is better, but there are people in her room. Too many of them, all dressed in white. They’re crowding her, talking all at once so she can’t understand.
She realizes suddenly that she is watching herself from above—in the air somewhere—watching the doctors work on her body. They’ve ripped open her gown and are ramming something on her chest.
“Clear!” one yells.
There is such relief in being here, above them, where there is no pain . . .
Then she thinks of her daughter, her precious baby girl whom she didn’t hold one last time.
Her baby, who will have to be told that Mommy has gone away.
The doctor stepped back. “She’s gone.”
Meghann ran to the bed, screaming. “Don’t you do it, Claire. Come back. Come back, damn it.”
Someone tried to pull her away. She elbowed him hard. “I mean it, Claire. You come back. Alison is in the waiting room. You cannot run out on her this way. You haven’t told her good-bye. She deserves that, damn it. Come back.” She grabbed Claire’s shoulders, shook her hard. “Don’t you dare do this to Alison and me.”
“We have a heartbeat,” someone cried out.
Meghann was pushed aside. She stumbled back into the corner of the room, watching, praying, as they stabilized her sister.
Finally, the doctors left, dragging their crash cart with them. Except for the buzz and beep of machines, the room was quiet.
She stared at Claire’s chest, watching it rise and fall. It was a moment before she realized that she was breathing intently, trying to will her sister’s body to keep up the rhythm.
“I heard you, you know.”
At Claire’s voice, Meg pulled away from the wall and moved forward.
There was Claire, half bald, pale as parchment, smiling up at her. “I thought: Christ, I’m dead and she’s still yelling at me.”
JOE HAD TRIED TO THROW OUT THE DAMN ENVELOPE AT least a dozen times. The problem was, he couldn’t bring himself to touch it.
He heard the word so clearly he looked up. The cabin was empty. He stared at Diana, who looked back at him from her place on the mantel.
He closed his eyes, wishing she’d come to him again, maybe sit down on the bed beside him and whisper, You break my heart, Joey, the way she used to.
But she hadn’t come to him in so long that he’d forgotten how those hallucinations felt. Although he didn’t need to conjure her image to know what her words would be right now.
She would be ashamed of him, as ashamed as he was of himself. She would remind him that he’d once taken an oath to help people.
And not just anyone, either. This was Claire Cavenaugh, the woman who’d sat by Diana’s bedside hour after hour when she was ill, playing dirty-word Scrabble and watching soap operas. Joe remembered one night in particular. He’d worked all day, then headed for Diana’s hospital room, exhausted by the prospect of another evening spent beside his dying wife. When he’d opened the door, Claire was there, wearing nothing but her bra and panties, dancing. Diana, who hadn’t smiled in weeks, was laughing so hard there were tears on her cheeks.
No way, Claire had laughed when he asked what was going on. We are not going to tell you what we were doing.
A girl has to have some secrets, Diana had said, even from the love of her life.
Now it was Claire in a bed like that, in a room that smelled of despair and looked out on graying skies even in the height of summer.
There was probably nothing he could do for her, but how could he live with himself if he didn’t try? Maybe this was God’s way of reminding him that a man couldn’t hold on to old fears if he wanted to start over.
If she were here right now, Diana would have told him that chances didn’t come any plainer than this. It was one thing to run away from nothing. It was quite another to turn your back on a set of films with a friend’s name in the corner.
You’re killing her, and this time no pretty word like euthanasia will fit.
He released a heavy breath and reached out, pretending not to notice that his hands were shaking and that he was suddenly desperate for a drink.
He pulled out the films and took them into the kitchen, where full sunlight streamed through the window above the sink.
He studied the first one, then went through the rest of them. Adrenaline made his heart speed up.
He knew why everyone had diagnosed this tumor as inoperable. The amount of skill needed to perform the surgery was almost unheard-of. It would require a neurosurgeon with godlike hands and an ego to match. One who wasn’t afraid to fail.
But with a careful resection . . . there might be a chance. It was possible—just possible—that this one thin shadow wasn’t tumor, that it was tissue responding to the tumor.
There was no doubt about what he had to do next.
He took a long, hot shower, then dressed in the blue shirt he’d recently bought and the new jeans, wishing he had better clothes, accepting that he didn’t. Then he retrieved the film, put it back in the envelope, and walked over to Smitty’s house. Helga was in the kitchen, making lunch. Smitty was in the living room, watching Judge Judy. At Joe’s knock, he looked up. “Hey, Joe.”
“I know this is irregular, but could I borrow the truck? I need to drive to Seattle. I may have to stay overnight.”
Smitty dug in his pocket for the keys, then tossed them.
“Thanks.” Joe went to the rusty old ’73 Ford pickup and got inside. The door clanged shut behind him.
He stared at the dashboard. It had been years since he’d been in the driver’s seat. He started the engine and hit the gas.
Two hours later, he parked in the underground lot on Madison and Broadway and walked into the lobby of his old life.
The painting of Elmer Nordstrom was still there, presiding over the sleek black high-rise that bore his family name.
Joe kept his head down as he walked toward the elevators. There, making eye contact with no one, his heart hammering, he pushed the up button.
When the doors pinged open, he stepped inside. Two white-coated people crowded beside him. They were talking about lab results. They got off on the third floor—the floor that led to the sky bridge that connected this office building to Swedish Hospital.
He couldn’t help remembering when he’d walked through this building with his head held high; a man certain of his place in the world.
On the fourteenth floor, the doors opened.
He stood there a half second too long, staring at the gilt-edged black letters on the glass doors across the hall.
Seattle Nuclear Specialists. The business he’d started on his own. There were seven or eight doctors listed below. Joe’s name wasn’t there.
Of course it wasn’t.
At the last second, as the doors were closing, he stepped out of the elevators and crossed the hall. In the office, there were several patients in the waiting room—none of which he knew, thank God—and two women working the reception desk. Both of them were new.
He considered walking straight down to Li’s office, but he didn’t have the guts. Instead, he went to the desk.
The woman—Imogene, according to her name tag—looked up at him. “Can I help you?”
“I’d like to see Dr. Li Chinn.”
“And your name?”
“Tell him an out-of-town doctor is here for an emergency consult. I’ve come a long way to see him.”
Imogene studied Joe, no doubt noticing his cheap clothes and small-town haircut. Frowning, she buzzed Li’s office, gave him the message. A moment later, she hung up. “He can see you in fifteen minutes. Take a seat.”
Joe went to one of the chairs in the waiting room, remembering that Diana had picked the fabric and colors for the office. There had been a time when their home had been wall-to-wall samples.