“There’s nothing I’d rather do.” She put her camera equipment away and repacked their gear while Danny spoke to the village elder and thanked him for the pictures. She set up her satellite phone on the desert floor, unfolding the silver wings and positioning it until she found a signal.
As she expected, the magazine offices were closed, so she left a message for her editor and promised to call from the Chobe River Lodge in Zambia. Then she and Danny climbed back into the busted-up old Land Rover, drove through the lunar landscape of Kaokoveld, and hopped on a plane headed south. By nightfall, they were at the Chobe River Lodge, on their own private deck, watching the sun set over a herd of elephants on the opposite shore. They were being served gin and tonics while a hundred yards away lions were hunting in the tall grass.
In a bikini that had seen better days, Nina stretched out on the luxurious two-person lounge chair and closed her eyes. The night smelled of murky water and dry grass and mud baked to stone by the unforgiving sun. For the first time in weeks, her pixie-cut black hair was clean and there was no red dirt under her fingernails. Pure luxury.
She heard Danny coming through their room toward the deck. He took an almost imperceptible pause before each step, a tiny favoring of the right leg, which had taken a bullet in Angola. He pretended it didn’t bother him, told people there was no pain, but Nina knew about the pills he swallowed and the way he sometimes couldn’t find a comfortable position in which to sleep. When she massaged his body, she put extra effort into that leg, although he didn’t ask her to, and she didn’t admit that she’d done it.
“Here you go,” he said, putting two glasses onto the teak table beside her.
She tilted her face up to thank him and noticed several things at once: he hadn’t brought a gin and tonic. Instead, he’d put down a straight shot so big it was practically a tumblerful of tequila. He’d forgotten the salt, and worst of all, he wasn’t smiling.
She sat up. “What’s wrong?”
“Maybe you should take a drink first.”
When an Irishman told you to take a drink first, there was bad news coming.
He sat down beside her on the lounger. She eased sideways to make room for him.
The stars were out now, and in the pale silvery glow she could see his sharp features and hollow cheeks, his blue eyes and curly hair. She realized in that moment, when he looked so sad, how much he laughed and smiled, even when the sun was broiling or the dust was choking or the gunshots were exploding in the air. He could always smile.
Except now he wasn’t.
He handed her a smallish yellow envelope. “Telegram.”
“Did you read it?”
“Course not. But it can’t be good news, now, can it?”
Journalists and producers and photojournalists the world over knew about telegrams. It was how your family delivered bad news, even in this satellite phone and Internet age. Her hands were unsteady as she reached for the envelope. Her first thought was, Thank God, when she saw that it had come from Sylvie, but that relief died as she read on.
YOUR FATHER HAS HAD A HEART ATTACK.
MEREDITH SAYS IT LOOKS BAD.
She looked up at Danny. “It’s my dad. . . . I need to go now—”
“Impossible, love,” he said gently. “The first flight out of here is at six. I’ll get us tickets to Seattle from Johannesburg. Is it best to drive from there?”
“Aye. I want to be there for you, Nina. Is that so terrible?”
She didn’t know how to respond to that, what to say. Relying on people for comfort had never felt natural to her. The last thing she wanted was to give someone the power to hurt her. Self-preservation was the one thing she’d learned from her mother. So she did what she always did at times like these: she reached down for the buttons on his pants. “Take me to bed, Daniel Flynn. Get me through this night.”
Interminable was the word that came to mind to describe the wait, but that only made Meredith think terminal, which made her think death, which brought up all the emotions she was trying to suppress. Her usual coping mechanism—keeping busy—wasn’t working for her now, and she’d tried. She’d buried herself in insurance information, researched heart attacks and survival, and come up with a list of the best cardiologists in the country. The second she put her pen down or looked away from the screen, her grief came rushing back. Tears were a constant pressure behind her eyes. So far, though, she’d kept them from falling. Crying would be its own defeat and she refused to give up.
She crossed her arms tightly, staring at the multicolored fish in the waiting room tank. Sometimes, if she was lucky, one of them actually caught her attention and for a nanosecond she forgot that her father might be dying.
She felt Jeff come up behind her. Though she hadn’t heard footsteps on the carpet, she knew he was there. “Mere,” he said quietly, putting his hands on her shoulders. She knew what he wanted: for her to lean back into him, to let herself be held. There was a part of her that wanted it, too, longed for that comfort, in fact, but the larger part of her—the part that was hanging on to hope one breath at a time—didn’t dare soften. In his arms, she might fall apart, and what good would that do?
“Let me hold you,” he said into her ear.
She shook her head. How was it he didn’t understand?
She worried about her father in a way that consumed her. It felt as if a knife had plunged deep in her chest, tearing past bone and muscle; the sharp point lay poised at her heart. One wrong move and the tender organ would be punctured.
Behind her, she heard him sigh. He let go. “Did you get hold of your sister?”
“I left messages everywhere I could. You know Nina. She’ll be here when she’s here.” She looked at the clock again. “What is taking that damn doctor so long? He should be giving us a report. In ten minutes I’m calling the head of the department.”
Jeff started to say something (honestly she was barely listening; her heart was beating so fast she couldn’t hear much above it), but before he was finished, the door to the waiting room opened, and Dr. Watanabe appeared. In an instant, Meredith, Jeff, and Mom came together, walked to the doctor.
“How is he?” her mother asked in a voice that carried throughout the room. How could she possibly sound so strong at a time like this? Only the heaviness of her accent showed that she was upset. Otherwise, she looked as calm as ever.
Dr. Watanabe smiled briefly, barely, and said, “Not good. He had a second heart attack when we were taking him to surgery. We were able to resuscitate him, but he’s very weak.”
“What can you do?” Meredith asked.
“Do?” Dr. Watanable said, frowning. The compassion in his eyes was terrible. “Nothing. The damage to his heart is too extensive. Now we just wait . . . and hope he makes it through the night.”
Jeff slipped his arm around Meredith’s waist.
“You can see him if you’d like. He’s in the cardiac care unit. But one at a time, okay?” Dr. Watanabe said, taking Mom by the elbow.
Details, Meredith thought, watching her mother walk down the hallway. Focus on the details. Find a way to fix this.
But she couldn’t do it.
Memories gathered at the periphery of her vision, waiting to be invited near. She saw her dad in the stands at her high school gymnastic meets, cheering with embarrassing vigor, and at her wedding, weeping openly as he walked her down the aisle. Only last week he’d taken her aside and said, “Let’s go get a couple of beers, Meredoodle, just the two of us, like we used to.”
And she’d blown him off, told him they’d do it soon. . . .
Had it really been so important to drop off the dry cleaning?
“I guess we should call the girls,” Jeff said. “Fly them home.”
On that, Meredith felt something inside her break, and although she knew it was irrational, she hated Jeff for saying it. He’d given up already.
“Mere?” He pulled her into his arms and held her. “I love you,” he whispered.
She stayed in his arms as long as she could bear and then eased away. Saying nothing, not even looking at him, she followed the path her mother had walked, feeling utterly, dangerously alone in the austere, busy CCU. People in blue scrubs moved in and out of her field of vision, but she had eyes only for her father.
He lay in a narrow bed, surrounded by tubes and IV lines and machines. Beside him, her mother stood vigil. Even now, as her husband lay connected to life by the most tenuous strands, she looked strangely, almost defiantly, serene. Her posture was perfect and if there was a shaking in her hands it would take a seismologist to detect it.
Meredith wiped her eyes, unaware until that moment that tears were seeping out. She stood there as long as she could. The doc had said one at a time and Meredith wasn’t one to break rules, but finally she couldn’t stand it. She went to him, stopped at the foot of his bed. The whir of machinery seemed absurdly loud. “How is he?”
Her mother sighed heavily and walked away. Meredith knew her mom would head straight for a window somewhere and stare out into the snowy night, alone.
Normally, it pissed Meredith off, how alone her mother liked to be, but just now she didn’t care, and for once, she didn’t judge her mother harshly. Everyone broke—and held themselves together—in their own way.
She reached down and touched her father’s hand. “Hey, Daddy,” she whispered, trying her best to smile. “It’s your Meredoodle. I’m here, and I love you. Talk to me, Daddy.”
The only answer was the wind, tapping on the glass while the snow flurried and danced beneath the outside light.
Nina stood in the confusing jumble that was the Johannesburg airport and looked up at Danny. She knew he wanted to go with her, but she couldn’t imagine why. She had nothing to give him right now, nothing to give anyone. She just needed to go, to be gone, to be home. “I need to do this alone.”
She could see that she’d hurt him.
“Of course you do,” he said.
He ran a deeply tanned hand through his long, messy black hair, and stared down at her with an intensity that made her draw in a sharp breath. It got through, that look, hit her hard. He reached out slowly, pulled her into his arms as if they were alone, two lovers with all the time in the world. He claimed her with a kiss that was deep and intimate, almost primal in its power. She felt her heartbeat quicken and her cheeks heat up, although it made no sense, that reaction. She was a grown woman, not a scared virgin, and sex was the last thing on her mind.
“Remember that, love,” he said, drawing back but not looking away.
It was a kiss that almost softened her grief for a second, lessened her load. She almost said something, almost changed her mind, but before she found even the start of a word, he was pulling away, turning his back on her, and then he was gone. She stood there a minute, almost frozen; then she grabbed her backpack from the floor beside her feet and started walking.
Thirty-four hours later, she parked her rental car in the dark, snow-coated hospital parking lot and ran inside, praying—as she had for every hour of the transcontinental flight—that she wasn’t too late.