Authors: Kelly Parsons
Tags: #Fiction, #Medical, #Retail, #Suspense, #Thrillers
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For Genevieve, Leah, and Nathaniel
The publication of this novel resulted from a series of improbable and lucky events, perhaps none more fortunate than when an early version found its way into the miraculous hands of my agent, Al Zuckerman. I am forever in your debt, Al, for your hours of coaching, coaxing, and cajoling. It is a singularly humbling and gratifying experience to have joined your orbit. Thank you for taking a chance on me.
Judy Katz was another serendipitous link in the chain and, early on, one of the most enthusiastic cheerleaders for this book outside of my immediate family. Judy, you are a passionate bibliophile and the person most responsible for leading me directly to Al. Thank you so much for your time and encouragement.
Then, of course, there are Jennifer Enderlin and the terrific folks at St. Martin’s. Jen, thanks for your razor-sharp advice, infectious energy, expertise, and—most important—your belief in me. Our next project will be even more fun than the first!
My gratitude goes to Howie Sanders at UTA, another early advocate for this book who has always fought the good fight on its behalf. Thanks, Howie, for all of your efforts and support.
I dragged some old friends along for the ride. Rich Dandliker provided encouragement and schooled me in the basic principles of computer security systems. And to think, Rich, you thought your tutoring days had ended in college once you got me through physics and organic chemistry. I can’t say I was always the best student, but I tried: the clever, accurate computer stuff in the book is yours; the not-so-clever, not-so-accurate stuff is definitely mine. Chris McKenna, one of the funniest people I have ever met, delivered serious professional advice and selflessly went to bat for me several times in my quest for representation. I owe both of you guys a beer. Several, actually.
Gideon Rappaport first planted the seeds for this novel when I was in high school, and then generously gave of his time to help cultivate them twenty years later. Thank you, Gideon, for your constructive critiques, confidence-building conversations, and invaluable insight that Steve’s journey needed to be, above all else, one of redemption.
Amy Halushka, another professional writer willing to humor a rank amateur, read an early draft and diplomatically rendered some of the most astute criticism I received. Thanks, Amy. If this novel looks nothing like the clumsy version you read, it’s in no small part thanks to you.
Many thanks also go out to Dr. David Caparrelli, cardiac surgeon extraordinaire, for lending me helpful medical advice. Dave, now you know why your urologist friend was so interested in learning how to stick big needles into people’s chests.
The Parsons, Riekers, and Noones—you guys are the best extended family ever. Thanks to all of you for your love and support. And Riekers—your book-signing event will
be my favorite!
This book certainly would not have been possible without my parents, Lowell and JoEllen, who over the years gave me every opportunity to succeed … yet also wisely let me stumble. I love you, and, like many parents, never realized how hard you guys had it until I had children of my own.
Speaking of which: Leah and Nathaniel, I love you guys. You are extraordinary kids, and I learn something new about the world from both of you every single day. But when you reach the end of this page, please stop reading and put the book down until you’re eighteen. Okay, maybe sixteen.
And then there’s Gen.
Best friend. The most superb doctor I’ve ever known. Patient. Supportive. Unflinchingly honest in her criticism. Unsparing in her praise. My moral compass.
Did I mention best friend?
More than anyone else, this book is for you. I love you.
My patient is dying.
And it’s all my fault.
I watch as the code team swarms frenetically over the naked, frail body lying on the bed in the center of the bare, otherwise unremarkable hospital room.
One of them forces fresh air into the patient’s lifeless lungs with a thick, plastic balloon the size of a large grapefruit; another shoves jerkily on the sternum, rhythmically compressing the heart, squeezing the blood out of it like juice from an orange; still another stands close by, defiant and eager, manual defibrillator paddles held aloft, ready to deliver additional electric shocks to the tired, cold flesh.
I stare at this grim tableau, transfixed and helpless, watching dumbly as a life slips away.
And it’s all my fault.
One of the patient’s hands slides off the side of the bed and dangles in the air over the floor, swaying slightly in time with the chest compressions, like some macabre metronome. Back in medical school, one of my anatomy instructors had pointed out to us how the hand is one of the most recognizably human parts of the human body; how, unlike the anonymous organs inhabiting the abdomen and chest, it can trigger instant recognition and empathy. To prove his point, he sawed a hand off one of the cadavers and passed it around the class, followed by the spleen of another.
He was right, of course. The hand creeped everyone out much more than the spleen, which was like a big, brown sponge left out to dry in the sun for too long. It was a woman’s hand, I remember. Slight and small. Delicate-looking, despite the ghostly pale skin, pickled by the formalin preservative. It made me curious about its owner. What had she been like? Was she old when she died? Young? What did she do? Had she accomplished everything in life she had wanted? What
she wanted out of life? Did she have children? Grandchildren? Had she died surrounded by family and friends, or anonymous and alone?
And now, as I study the wrinkles and ridges of my patient’s hand as it hangs in space, my eyes traveling over the bony hills of its knuckles and the creases of its palm, I wonder at the lifetime of activity: imagining that hand lifting a forkful of food to the mouth; or balled in anger; or drying a tear from a child’s cheek; or playing the piano; or stroking a lover’s hair.
But that’s all over now.
I feel …
I feel? Like I’ve been punched in the stomach. Sure. But, really, how to take stock of the emotions generated by the certainty of knowing that you’ve caused the death of another human being? That through your stupidity or incompetence or whatever, a person who willingly entrusted their life to you will never again draw another breath?
There’s guilt, naturally. Shame. Sadness. Disbelief. And, lurking beneath its more compassionate brethren, a selfish sentiment that slips unbidden into my consciousness, calculating and cruel.
Everyone’s going to blame me for this.
I shake my head, as if to clear the thought away, repelled that it would even materialize in my brain. My career should be the last of my worries right now.
But it gnaws at me. I can’t help but worry. I’ve worked too hard for too long, and it’s not fair, really. This shouldn’t be happening. This patient shouldn’t be dying.
But now … here we are.
So, knowing that I can’t possibly undo what I’ve done, I try to wrap my mind around the unlikely series of events leading up to this singular, horrible moment in my life.
And I wonder,
Well—how the hell did I end up here?
Saturday, July 11
“Steve?” Sally’s voice floats down from our bedroom at the top of the stairs. “I’m almost ready. Are the girls okay?”
“They’re fine,” I call back automatically, staring into the downstairs bathroom mirror. I give one final tug on my tie, walk out of the bathroom, and step over the baby gate that guards the living-room entrance, separating that space from the rest of our small house like a barbed-wire fence around a POW camp. I survey the scene.
Katie is hunched over her play stove in a corner of the room, rummaging through plastic pots and pans and muttering to herself. Her five-year-old face is set in fierce concentration, and I glimpse what family and friends often comment on but that I myself rarely acknowledge out loud: Except for her dark black hair, which today is set in pigtails, Katie is the spitting image of me—green eyes, an elongated face, and prominent ears. Meanwhile, a short distance away, Annabelle observes Katie serenely from her baby walker, thinking about whatever it is that ten-month-olds think about. She looks every bit as much like her mother as Katie looks like me, with straight, dark black hair, matching dark eyes, and a small nose.
Annabelle spots me, smiles adoringly, bangs happily on the narrow plastic shelf in front of her, bounces up and down, and waves like she hasn’t seen me in months. I wave back like an idiot, pumping my hand back and forth with childish enthusiasm. The waving thing never gets old at this age, and I love it. “Hi, ’Bella. Hi, sweetie.”
Katie spins around. “Daddy!” she shrieks, running over and wrapping herself around my leg. I love that, too. Who wouldn’t? Sure, they’re a pain in the ass sometimes—okay, practically
of the time—but I can’t imagine why anyone would not want to have kids. “I’m making dinner!”
“Oh, boy. Show me.”
She disengages herself from my leg, takes me by the hand, and leads me to the play stove. She solemnly spoons some white Styrofoam peanuts, the kind used as packing material in shipping boxes, from a plastic pot and into a small bowl, which she then hands to me. I poke its contents suspiciously and hold up one of the thumb-sized peanuts.
“Where did these come from?”
“Mommy’s box.” She gestures toward an open cardboard box sitting near the front door, a recent purchase from an online store. A few of the peanuts lie scattered on the floor around it, carelessly strewn across the cracked linoleum. “Eat, Daddy.”
“Katie, you shouldn’t be playing with these. They’re too small for Annabelle.”
“But ’Bella likes them.”
My stomach does a queasy flip. “What do you mean, ‘’Bella likes them’?” I turn sharply to face Annabelle, realizing that she hasn’t made a single sound, not so much as a gurgle or a raspberry, since I came into the room, and that her cheeks are puffed out, like a chipmunk with a bunch of nuts tucked in its mouth. She smiles at me again, and her lips part slightly, revealing a glimpse of white Styrofoam.
Annabelle bears my frantic plucking of all of the peanuts—and there are
of them—from her mouth with grace and equanimity, never once crying or resisting. When I’m done, I hand her a plastic rattle, which she shoves in her mouth as if nothing happened, and squat down next to Katie, who’s flipping calmly through a picture book.
“Katie. You shouldn’t have put those things in ‘Bella’s mouth.”
“Because they could have hurt her.”
“Why?” A hint of defiance has crept into her voice.
“She could have swallowed them and gotten sick.”
Her lower jaw juts forward. “’Bella’s not sick. She
Hard to argue with that.
I’m trying to frame a suitable but firm response that doesn’t involve complex descriptions of human-respiratory-tract anatomy when the doorbell rings. I check my watch. Right on time. As usual. “Just … don’t do it again, Katie,” I say lamely, rising to my feet.
“Okay.” She’s already flipping pages in her picture book.
I grab the box full of the Styrofoam peanuts, shove it in a nearby closet, and open the front door to find my mother-in-law staring up at me, steely-eyed and unsmiling.
“Hi, Mrs. Kim.”
“Steven.” She steps across the threshold. I hesitate, and then awkwardly bend over to hug her. She wraps her arms around my waist and lightly pats my back once before quickly withdrawing. She steps back and stares at me coldly.