Authors: V. M. Black
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Paranormal
by V. M. Black
Aethereal Bonds #1
Black Lotus Press
All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2014 V. M. Black
All Rights Reserved
No part of this book may be distributed, posted, or reproduced in any form by digital or mechanical means without prior written permission of the publisher.
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Cora Shaw’s Story
Installment 1 –
Installment 2 –
– Coming April 2014
Installment 3 –
– Coming May 2014
Installment 4 –
(AB #4) – Coming June 2014
Installment 5 –
– Coming July 2014
o response,” I repeated, staring dumbly at the upside-down chart on the doctor’s desk. “None.”
“I am sorry,” Dr. Robeson said. “There is really no point in keeping you on the alemtuzumab any longer.”
“But you said that it’s the only thing that could help,” I protested. “It has to work.”
“Cora, I have your latest lab results right here.” She tapped the open folder. “Your lymphocytes are continuing to climb. Right now, the only thing the alemtuzumab is doing is decreasing your quality of life.”
I could see my name at the top of the chart: Cora Ann Shaw. There I was, summed up in black and white. My height—a little less than average. My date of birth. My weight, which had fallen from I’d-like-to-lose-10-pounds to terrifying double digits. And, of course, my diagnosis: T-cell prolymphocytic leukemia.
Cancer. To me, it had meant pink ribbons, surgical scars, and middle-aged women without hair. I hadn’t even heard of T-cell leukemia then. I hadn’t realized how the cancer
could steal all my strength, burn through my fat and then consume even my muscle to feed itself as I wasted away.
“There must be other things to try,” I pushed. “Some other chemotherapy.”
“I’m very sorry,” the oncologist said again. “The older therapies were ineffective. That’s why their use has been discontinued. They simply don’t prolong life—in fact, on average, they shortened it. Alemtuzumab was our only realistic shot.”
I should get a second opinion, I thought. Except Dr. Robeson was my second opinion.
I’m at Johns Hopkins, for godssake,
I thought bleakly.
Where else can I go?
“So,” I said. “Five months, then.”
“It could be that long,” Dr. Robeson said carefully.
I felt the tears burning my eyes, and I blinked them away. “You promised me seven months. That was nearly two months ago.”
Dr. Robeson had a bulletin board on her office wall. It was full of the happy pictures and notes from those she’d cured, and even a few grateful letters from those she hadn’t. Mine wasn’t going to go there. I wouldn’t know what to say.
Thanks for trying,
didn’t seem quite generous enough. Anything more would have been fake.
“Cora, cancer has a different rate of progression for everyone—”
“I know,” I said, cutting her off. I was being unfair. I knew it, and it made me squirm inside.
But I don’t want to be fair. Damn it, I just want to live!
“I’m turning twenty-two in two months,” I continued. “I’m graduating—
to be graduating—from the University of Maryland in six months. I’ve applied to grad school.”
“I know, Cora.” And there was genuine sympathy there, behind the professional wall that kept her insulated from all the people she couldn’t save.
I took a deep breath and pushed to my feet. My hips hurt from the institutional chair, my buttocks too thin now to cushion them. “Sorry. I was just hoping for better news.”
“So was I.” Dr. Robeson opened a drawer and pulled out a brochure. “This is an excellent hospice program. Your student insurance will cover all the costs beyond the deductible, and there are many people there who will be happy to help you.”
It took all my will to force myself to accept the shiny trifold of cardstock from her. I squeezed it a little too hard, and it creased in my hand. “Thank you,” I heard myself say.
“I can, of course, continue to treat you, addressing symptoms as they arise, infections and the like, making sure you’re as comfortable and healthy as possible for as long as possible. I’m happy to do so. But I can’t slow the progress of your leukemia.” The oncologist hesitated. “There is one other possibility. A chance in thousands. If it works....” She trailed off. “Anyway, here is his card. You can give him a hearing, at least. Decide for yourself if the risk is worth it.”
She extended a small, linen-colored business card with a discreet black border. On it was a phone number. No name, no details, just a simple copperplate number inscribed in the center of the card.
“Thank you,” I repeated, blinking dumbly at it.
“I’ve already filled out the referral,” Dr. Robeson said. “All you need is to give hospice a call, if that’s what you decide. Or the other number—he’s expecting your call, too.”
“Yeah,” I said. I swallowed. “Goodbye.”
“Bye. Enjoy your Christmas,” the doctor said with reflexive pleasantry.
“Yeah,” I said again. I shoved the brochure and the card in my jacket pocket and stumbled from the office.
The carpeted halls of the office wing were dotted with nurses in scrubs and plastic clogs. I hated them all. Blinking hard, I willed them not to look at me and measured the distance from the oncology department to the nearest exit in my mind.
Keep it together for just a few seconds more, Cora. You’re almost there.
Head down, I blew past the bank of elevators and burst through the heavy fire door into the stairwell, forcing my tired legs to keep up as I flung myself down the stairs to the ground floor.
At the bottom, I ducked out the side door and into the cold. I found myself in a small, semi-concealed alcove between two wings of the building. No one could see me, at least for the moment. I let my legs give out, sinking to the sidewalk with my back against the institutional brick, half-gasping and half-sobbing.
Five months. Or less.
Finals were next month. I’d already picked out my classes for the next semester. Sent in my tuition.
I wondered if I should withdraw. But why bother? It wasn’t like I’d live long enough even to owe payments on my student loans.
Enjoy your Christmas.
The last Christmas I had enjoyed had been two years ago, before Gramma died. Now there was no one. I’d gone home with my roommate Lisette and her sister the last year, but it wasn’t the same. Now, I didn’t think I had the strength to try to smile through the season with the specter of my death hanging over the festivities. I’d already decided that it would be better for everyone if I stayed in our university apartment alone.
I dashed away the betraying tears and got my phone out of my pocket. Lisette would want to know the news. But I couldn’t make myself call.
I pulled the brochure out and smoothed it. There was a photograph, the edges artfully out of focus, of an elderly woman being hugged by a smiling model who could have been any age from thirty to fifty-five. The text was full of words like “care,” “comfort,” and “dignity.” The toll-free number stared at me, but I couldn’t make myself call it, either.
There was the other paper—the card, rather, small and mysterious with the single phone number on it. The cold from the hard cement under me was beginning to seep into my bones, and the wind chilled my wet cheeks. I shifted. What did I have to lose?
I entered the number and looked at it for a long moment before I touched the send button. The phone rang once, as it connected, then once again.
“Name?” The voice was male, light and impersonal.
Taken aback, it took me a moment to respond. “Cora Shaw.”
“Please proceed to the emergent care entrance, Ms. Shaw.” the man said. “A car will meet you there. Thank you.”
“But—” I said. I looked at the phone. The time was flashing on the display—he had already hung up.
I thought about redialing, but I didn’t really see the point, except maybe to complain about him hanging up on me—which, on reflection, seemed like a pretty stupid thing to do.
Well, then. The emergent care entrance, he had said.
I pushed to my feet and looked around. The Johns Hopkins Bayview medical campus was huge. I figured the emergency department had to be somewhere in the medical center, but I couldn’t see it from that side of the building.
I could go back inside. There would be signs and directories there. But there were too many people there, too many bustling nurses and bewildered visitors. I had just escaped the hospital. I couldn’t make myself go back.
I zipped up my jacket and flipped up the hood. I hadn’t bothered to take it off inside the offices. I was always cold now, even inside. I arbitrarily picked a direction and began walking around the brick and glass monstrosity of the main hospital building.
A car will meet me? How strange was that? I didn’t have to go, I told myself. But I needed to do something. Something other than just wait to die.
The wind grew suddenly sharper as I got farther from the building on the main sidewalk that circled it. I shoved my hands in my pockets. I could feel fatigue dragging at me with every step. I would pay tomorrow for this walk—never mind the blind flight down the stairs.
For now, I didn’t care. I told my leg to swing, and it swung and held my weight, and that was enough for me.
The emergency department turned out to be on the opposite side of the center from the medical offices. By the time I rounded the second corner of the building, I was winded, and my legs were shaking. I trudged on, shutting out pain and exhaustion as I fixed my eyes on the sign over the emergency parking circle.
I stumbled under the protection of the canopy at the entrance.
I turned. There, at the curb, stood a man in an old-fashioned chauffeur’s uniform, complete with hat and gloves. The car he stood next to was an understated silver color, but the elegant shape screamed money. A Bentley, I realized as I recognized the symbol on the trunk.
“I’m Cora Shaw,” I said cautiously.
The driver opened the rear passenger door. “Please, enter.”
I gaped at him for several seconds. I mean, a Bentley? I didn’t know what I had expected, but it wasn’t this. Maybe a yellow cab. The man on the phone had told me that they would send a car. And here it was. But that didn’t make it seem any less bizarre. It was, I decided, more than a little creepy.
“How do I know you’re not trying to kidnap me?” I demanded, crossing my arms across my chest.
“I must admit, Ms. Shaw, that this is often a fear of our patients,” the chauffeur said evenly.
I waited for him to continue with his reassurances, but the man simply stood, waiting impassively.
I shifted from foot to foot. I could see the soft interior from here, and my whole body clamored for a chance to settle into the warm comfort it offered.
What if he was a kidnapper? I wondered. What is the worst that could happen? Well, I could get brutally mutilated and murdered, I supposed. Torture would be bad, but my death was coming pretty soon, anyway.
On the other hand, the best that could happen was, of course, a cure. I barely let myself think that for the tiniest instant before shutting it away. I’d already had my hopes dashed today. I didn’t need to make create new ones only have them destroyed, too.
I looked at the car and its driver again. He didn’t
like a serial killer. Still...
Oh, to hell with it. I sent a quick text to Lisette:
The last # I called was 202-324-6475 n they sent driver to hospital to pick me up. Will txt or call in 2 hrs.
Then I turned off the ringer and alerts even as Lisette’s first text arrived, shoved the phone in my pocket, took a deep breath, and got into the car.
The chauffeur closed the door as I struggled out of my jacket. The interior was all fawn leather and burled wood, with two wide seats contoured into the back bench. A dark screen was mounted into the headrest in front of me. I ran my hand tentatively over the upholstery. The leather was warm and soft, cradling my body.
The chauffeur got into the driver’s seat, and I buckled hurriedly.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“Mr. Thorne is in Baltimore today,” he said, shifting into drive. “It is not far.”
I hadn’t fully realized how tired I was before I settled in the seat’s embrace. The heated leather molded itself to every muscle, chasing away the chill and aches and letting exhaustion settle over me like a thick blanket. It was easiest to sink into the warmth and let my fears go to sleep as the buildings passed by the tinted windows.
I roused myself as we passed the Inner Harbor. The car swung up one of the side streets, and in a moment, the driver pulled up to the curb and sprang out, swinging open my door before I had time to do more than unbuckle and gather my jacket.
“Top floor, Ms. Shaw,” he said, giving me a fractional bow.
A bow? Really? “Thank you,” I managed awkwardly.
The building was marble on the bottom two floors with high arched windows and half-columns on the façade before defaulting to red brick above. The great stone letters from a hundred years ago and more were still on the frieze: FIRST BANK OF BALTIMORE. But there was no indication of what the building was used for now. It didn’t look much like a biotech company, but that was the only thing that I could imagine that it might be, if it could be of any help to me.
I climbed the six steps up to the brass double doors, taking note of the address in gold letters on the glass of the transom above. The glass was covered by linen shades so that I couldn’t see inside, but the right door opened to my tug, and I stepped inside.
I found myself in a marble lobby, dotted with brass pots and burnished mahogany and humming with quiet activity. Each of the great windows had a shade drawn over it like those of the doors, the light that filtered in supplemented by glittering chandeliers above. Business people in suits strode across the room rapidly or spoke in low, urgent tones in corners among the groves of potted ficus.
My stomach twisted with sudden uncertainty. Among pencil skirts and neat ties, my sweater and jeans were definitely out of place.
The receptionist across from the doors raised her eyebrows. “May I help you?”
“Cora Shaw to see...Mr. Thorne?” I asked weakly. I hoped I remembered the name.
The woman smiled briefly, nodding at the central elevator. “He’s waiting for you, Ms. Shaw. Go on up.”
I went to the elevator, the shaft of which was wrapped in the curve of the staircase. It opened at soon as I hit the button. A sign? I was ready for anything to be a sign right now.
I hit the twelfth floor, then fumbled in my jacket pocket for my cell, texting Lisette the full address of the building that I was in. She’d already blown up my phone with texts and calls, but I couldn’t answer them. Not yet. But I was glad she’d already seen my message. Feeling safer, I shoved the phone back in my pocket as the doors opened.
Just like in the lobby, all the windows in this floor were shaded. A striking woman sat behind the reception desk, a redhead with an immaculate cream blouse and heavy pearls that I had no doubt were real. Again, I felt distinctly grubby. I had dressed for class and a doctor’s appointment, not this.
Whatever this was.
“Ms. Shaw?” she asked, smiling pleasantly. “Mr. Thorne will see you now.”
She must have pushed a button, because the tall mahogany doors beyond her desk swung open.
I braced myself and went inside, the doors closing silently behind me.