"Daddy?" Her voice cracked. She smoothed the gray-white hair away from his eyes. Her fingers lingered on his wide, creased brow. Even now, unconscious, he seemed to be thinking hard, planning some new adventure that only he could devise.
Her legs gave out on her for a second. She clutched the bedrail for support. The metal made a jangling, jarring noise.
She leaned forward. "Hey, Daddy, it’s me, Birdie." At first, she said all the standard things, the familiar soundtrack that is said to all people in all hospital beds every day. Things like, You’re going to be fine . . . and, You’re strong, you’ll make it.
But he was so still and pale. The skin that had always looked tan, even in the dead of winter, was grayed now, pale as the pillowcase. There was a breathing tube in his nostril and an IV needle in his white, veiny arm.
He looked older than his seventy-six years. Not at all like the man who walked his fields every day because "a man should touch the ground he owns." It seemed impossible that last year he’d trekked to Nepal, or that the year before that he’d run the rapids on the Snake River.
"Hey, Daddy," she whispered, stroking his forehead. She bent low and kissed his temple. Gone was his usual scent of bay rum and pipe smoke. He smelled of stale perspiration and sickness. She closed her eyes, wondering how to reach him.
Gradually, she became aware of the smell of flowers. Gardenias, to be precise.
Slowly, she straightened, knowing she wasn’t alone anymore. She turned around.
Anita stood in the doorway, wearing a tight yellow angora sweater and straight-legged black pants with high-heeled black-and-yellow ankle boots. "Birdie," she said in a quiet voice, not her usual tremblin’-with-excitement sound at all, "I’m glad you could get here s’ quick." She went to the bed. "Hey, Daddy," she whispered, touching his face.
"How’s he doing?"
When Anita looked up, her gray eyes floated beneath a dome of electric-blue eye shadow. "They’re hopin’ he’ll wake up."
Elizabeth steeled herself. "But he might not?"
"The longer he’s . . . out, the worse it is. They’re pretty sure he’s paralyzed on the left side."
"God," Elizabeth whispered.
She pulled up a chair and sat beside him. Anita did the same thing, positioning herself on the opposite side of the bed. Elizabeth supposed there was a simple truth to be found in their choices. Two women who loved the same man. He’d always been between them, loving them both but unable to bring them together. For the first few minutes, they muddled through polite conversation, talking about nothing–the weather, the flight–but after a while, they gave up. They’d been there almost two hours when the door opened.
A short, stocky man in a white coat walked into the room.
"Hey, Phil," Anita said, trying to smile. She stood up. "He’s still restin’."
The doctor looked at Elizabeth. "I’m Phillip Close," he said, extending his hand. "Edward’s physician. You must be Birdie. He talks about you all the time."
Elizabeth imagined her daddy, sitting on the edge of an examining table, boring this stern-looking doctor with proud-father stories. It wounded her, that image, brought tears to her eyes. She stood up and shook his hand.
Phillip bent over Daddy, checked a few of the machines, then straightened. "It’s still a waiting game. I wish I could do better than that."
"He could be fine, right?" Anita said.
"I’d never bet against the Colonel. He could wake up in ten minutes and ask for a shot of Maker’s Mark," Phillip answered.
Elizabeth had to know the truth; it was the only way to prepare. "Or he could never wake up, is that what you’re saying?"
"Yes," Phillip answered. "There are a range of possibilities right now. It’s really better not to anticipate too much, just to wait and see. As I told Anita earlier, the longer he’s unconscious, the worse it looks, but he’s always been a strong man."
"Anita tells me he might be paralyzed on one side," she said slowly.
"Yes. And it took the paramedics quite a while to revive him. He may have suffered some brain injury. But, as I said, we won’t know much until he wakes up. The biggest concern now is his heart. Frankly, it’s pretty weak."
"Thank you, Phillip," Elizabeth said, although it seemed ridiculous to thank someone for giving you more to worry about. Still, it was good manners. The way things were done.
"I’ll give you two some time with him," he said, then left the room.
The words didn’t follow him out; they stayed in the room.
Elizabeth stared across the bed at her stepmother. All that pancake makeup couldn’t conceal Anita’s pain.
"He’ll make it," Elizabeth said. "He’s too ornery to die."
Anita looked pathetically grateful for that small bit of comfort. "He is ornery, that’s for sure."
"I . . . am . . . not."
Elizabeth and Anita gasped. They leaned down at the same time.
Daddy’s eyes were open; one side of his face remained pathetically slack.
"We can hear you, Daddy," she said. "We’re both right here."
"I . . . am . . . not . . . ornery."
Anita took his motionless hand, squeezing it hard. Tears bubbled along her lashes. "I knew you couldn’t leave me."
He reached across his own body and touched Anita’s face. "There you are, Mother. I’ve been looking for you."
"I’m right here, Daddy," Anita said breathlessly, crying softly. "I wouldn’t go anywhere."
Elizabeth knew it was childish, but she felt excluded by their love. She always had. There was something special between Anita and Edward, so special that everything around them paled in comparison.
"Our Birdie is here, too. She hopped on a plane the very second she heard," Anita said, smoothing the hair away from his eyes.
Slowly, he turned to look at Elizabeth. In his eyes, she saw something she’d never seen before–defeat–and it scared her. "Hey, Daddy," she whispered. "You’ve got a hell of a nerve scaring us this way."
"Give me just a moment with m’ little girl, won’t you, Mother?"
Anita leaned down and kissed his forehead. When she drew back, the bright pink lipstick print of her kiss remained. "I love you," she whispered fiercely, then left the room.
A second later, the door opened again. White-coated nurses bustled into the room. They shoved Elizabeth aside–politely–and busied themselves around their patient, checking machines, taking blood-pressure readings, listening to his heart. Phillip was the last to arrive. He rushed into the room, a little breathless, then saw his patient and smiled. "So, you decided to quit playing possum, huh? You had two beautiful women mighty worked up."
Daddy’s smile was sadly lopsided. "Just wanted you to earn some of that hellacious bill you’re gonna send me. It’ll probably stop my heart right then and there."
Phillip listened to Daddy’s heart, frowned briefly, then straightened. As he made a notation in the chart, he said, "I earn every penny putting up with your sorry butt, and you know it. I suppose I’ll have to let you win at golf for a while." He turned to Elizabeth. "Make the old coot take it easy. I’ll be back in a little while to check on him. We’ll want to run another EKG."
Phillip herded the nurses out of the room and closed the door behind him. Through the glass wall, Elizabeth could see that he was talking to Anita.
"Damn doctors," Edward said, breathing hard. "They won’t leave a man in peace." He tried to smile.
All the way down here, Elizabeth had been rehearsing what to say to him, and now nothing came to her. She was afraid that if she said a word, she’d start to cry.
"Where’s golden . . . boy? And my granddaughters?"
"Jack is in the waiting room. Stephie and Jamie will be here in a little while."
Edward’s eyes fluttered closed. He took a few rattling breaths, then came awake with a start and shouted, "Anita!"
"She’s just outside, Daddy. You said you wanted to talk to me."
"Ah . . . yes." He calmed down. Very slowly, he lifted his hand and touched her hand. "When I saw that movie, Forrest Gump, all I could think about was my little sugar beet. We were peas and carrots, weren’t we?"
She squeezed her eyes shut, then slowly opened them. "Yes."
"I didn’t handle things well. I surely didn’t."
Elizabeth didn’t know what he was talking about. Before she could ask, he went on:
"Anita. Marguerite. I shoulda done it differently, God knows. But your mama near killed me . . . I swear, I don’t know what I should have told you."
"What are you talking about, Daddy?"
"I thought it best you didn’t know, that’s all. To protect you. Memories . . . they’re important sometimes, more important than the truth. But Anita paid the price. We all did."
He started coughing hard, gasping.
"Sshh, Daddy," she said. "There’s plenty of time for talking. You just rest now."
"You’re the best part o’ me, Birdie. You always were. From the moment your mama put you in my arms, I knew. I fell in love with you so hard I practically cracked my head. I reckon I should have told you more often."
"You told me all the time, Daddy."
He tried to come forward off the pillows, to sit up. It was heartbreaking to see his failure. With a sigh, he sank back down. "I need you to do somethin’ for me, Birdie. It won’t be easy for you."
"Anything, Daddy. You know that."
"You take care of Anita. You hear me?"
"Don’t say that," she said, hearing the sudden desperation in her voice. "You’ll be around to take care of her."
"Don’t sass me. This is important." His breathing became shallow, labored. "Promise me you’ll take care of her."
"Okay." Elizabeth leaned down and kissed his forehead. "I love you, Daddy."
He looked at her, but his eyes were glassy now, unfocused. As if he’d spent all his energy and had nothing left. "That love’ll carry me through the Pearly Gates, sugar beet, it surely will. Now, ask Anita to come in here."
"No . . . please."
"It’s time, Birdie. Now go get your mama."
Elizabeth stood there a minute, unable to leave him.
"Go on," he said gently.
She forced herself to move. At the door, she gave him a last smile, then left the room. "He wants you," she said to Anita.
Her stepmother made a sound that was half sigh, half sob, and hurried into the room, closing the door behind her.
At the window, Elizabeth stood close to the glass, on the outside of their love, looking in. She prayed hard. Be strong, Daddy. Be strong.
An alarm on one of the machines went off.
Anita stumbled back from the bed, screaming, "Help us, help us!"
Elizabeth jerked to open the door, but nurses and doctors rushed past her, filled the tiny room, pushed Anita out of the way. People clustered around her father. The noise turned into a dull roar in Elizabeth’s ears. She pressed the glass, hard. "Don’t you die, Daddy. Don’t you dare . . ."
Phillip raced into the room, elbowed his way to her father’s side. He reached for the heart paddles.
Elizabeth squeezed her eyes shut. She couldn’t breathe. Her own heart kept skipping beats, unreliable now that her father’s had stopped. Please, God, please don’t take him. Not yet . . .