May 13, 2001
Mercy Hospital didn't have the best emergency room in town, but it was the closest. And to Lucas Shepard, at that moment, any hospital was better than no hospital. Nothing mattered now except getting there and getting there fast.
At 3:30 A.M., with the roadway blanketed in darkness, Tallahassee was so deserted that it looked every bit like the overgrown market town and tobacco community it once was, virtually free of lights or cars as far as he could see. The Blazer's headlights sliced through the foggy blackness in defiant cones, sweeping into view the road and the overgrown stalks of wild grass cloistered alongside it. Lucas's neighbor Cal was hunched over the steering wheel like an old man, his head close to the windshield. Cal was going seventy-five miles per hour in a thirty-five zone, and Lucas knew any unexpected stop might send them flipping over the embankment. Cradling his son in his arms in the passenger seat, Lucas was breathing in thirsty gulps. He had never been so scared, and it wasn't because of Cal's driving.
Lucas had called Cal instead of trying to get an ambulance because he figured they could cut in half the time it would take to get to the hospital. He could only pray that was fast enough. Right after he'd called Cal, he'd phoned ahead to Mercy to ask a surgeon to stand by. Looks like a hemorrhage, he'd told the physician on call. Pulse was still strong, thank God, but erratic. Blood pressure bottoming out. Lucas had thought of everything he could, even though his hand had been shaking so badly he'd nearly dropped the receiver. The sound of his son's earlier cries of pain still gnawed at his memory, as if they were echoing in an endless loop.
No, they hadn't been cries; they'd been shrieks, followed by an even worse silence. The sounds of every parent's worst nightmare come to life.
"Jared?" Lucas nudged perspiration-damp strands of hair from his son's forehead, above his slack face. Not long ago, the regrowth of Jared's hair in downy patches that had gradually thickened closer to normal had been a triumph, signaling better days ahead. That notion seemed far away tonight. Still wearing his cheerful Mutant Men cartoon pajamas, Jared was limp in Lucas's arms like a fainted bride, his head dangling against Lucas's chest. He'd lost weight. He'd never regained his appetite during his illness, not really, but he looked even more frail than usual, his bones jutting sharply in his cheeks in a way that added years to his features. He was only ten, but he looked thirteen now. Jared had inherited bright cherry-red lips from his mother, but tonight his lips were pale as his circulatory system slowed. Jared's skin had cooled dramatically, so clammy it stuck to Lucas's fingertips like paste.
I'm losing him this time, Lucas thought, barely comprehending. I'm losing my son.
Lucas leaned toward his son's ear, struggling to speak coherently through his heavy breathing. "Can you hear me? Daddy's here. We're going to see the doctor. Stay with me, Jared. You stay right here."
"Is he awake?" Cal asked. They were the first words Cal had spoken since they'd climbed into Cal's Blazer, and the sound of his neighbor's sleep-roughened voice startled Lucas. He'd forgotten, for those few seconds, that Cal was even there.
"He's out." Lucas's own voice was strange to him, too. "Looks like shock."
"Goddammit." Cal sounded perplexed, angry, and sad all at once. Lucas heard the Blazer's engine kick up a notch into an urgent roar. The vehicle pitched around a corner so violently that the tires seemed to scream against the road, a sound that seared itself into Lucas's mind like an omen. It mirrored the screaming inside of him, all his raw emotions clamoring for release past his rationality. Rage. Terror. And a grief he believed was waiting for him with such enormity that it would knock the breath from his lungs, maybe forever.
Suddenly, the lights of the squat, two-story hospital appeared before them. The parking lot, nearly empty, was slick and bright with the lights' streaking reflections against puddles from that night's rainfall. The word EMERGENCY was lit up in red neon, both beacon and warning.
"There's Mercy," Cal said. "We're going to make it, Lucas."
"We're going to make it," Lucas said, simply repeating the words for his son's sake, no longer sure he had a right to believe it.
He'd known, all along, it would come to this. Without wanting to admit it to himself, and especially to his son, he'd known since the very first day.
Lucas, there's a problem with his white count.
Two years before, Jared's pediatrician had called Lucas just hours after the visit. Jared had been listless for the past few days, with a low-grade fever that had kept him out of school that Friday, but that sort of ailment had become commonplace since Rachel's death. Jared had been sick much more often since his mom had died, susceptible to colds and fevers Lucas knew were stress-related. Lucas had been thirteen when his own mother had died, and he remembered spending many hours in bed nursing phantom fevers before and after she finally succumbed to her illness. For a long time now, sickness had seemed to be roosting in Lucas's house.
So, Lucas didn't have a particular reason to be worried about Jared. Still, he was. He'd taken Jared to see Graham at the doctor's gaily decorated office at Governor's Square Mall at 10 A.M. Saturday morning, and Graham had checked Jared's temperature, looked at his tongue, and felt his lymph glands (which Lucas thought felt a little swollen, though not much), and just because Lucas had asked him to, Graham drew blood he promised to get analyzed that same day. Just in case. Then, Graham had given Jared a handful of Tootsie Rolls and sent him home with orders for bed rest.
Jared had already proclaimed he was feeling better by the time the phone rang at exactly two-thirty, as they were eating a pepperoni pizza for lunch and watching a video, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, one of Jared's favorites. Jared was propped up in the leather reclining chair in the living room with pillows and blankets, snug as a bug. On the video, Charlie's mother had just bought him a Willy Wonka chocolate bar for his birthday, one she could barely afford, and Charlie was eagerly peeling the wrapper away to see if it had the coveted Golden Ticket inside. And it did not, of course. "Ooh, I wish it was there!" Jared had said, which he said every single time, though they both knew from at least a dozen viewings that Charlie would get his Golden Ticket soon.
Then, the phone rang.
Lucas would never forget any of these details while there was still breath in his body. Though he missed Rachel like hell, he'd been finding his way back to some sort of balance, living his own life again, before that telephone call had come from Graham. By the time he hung up, another man's life had begun. "Lucas? I've got Jared's blood work here, and there's a problem with his white count. It's high."
Ridiculously, Lucas had first thought Graham was only concerned about a minor infection, maybe mono. "How high?"
The pause wasn't long, but it was long enough for Lucas to detect, and during that silence a part of his mind crumbled, because that was the first time he knew. He didn't hear Graham's answer the first time, so he asked him to repeat it. Then, he realized he had heard, but his ears just hadn't accepted what he'd heard: "One hundred fifty thousand."
Lucas didn't say anything, the number ringing in his head like gibberish that needed translating, because a normal white-cell count was only ten thousand, and that was what his son should have, not fifteen times that. Graham went on, "You'd better get him over to Wheeler for more testing. I'll let them know you're on the way."
Wheeler Memorial Cancer Center.
Rachel had spent time at Wheeler, too. Rachel had died of brain cancer almost exactly two years to the day of that phone call about Jared's blood on June 5, 1999. Lucas had just been thrown off of one heartbreaking merry-go-round, and now he was being forced to board one whirling faster and more furiously than the last.
"Leukemia?" Lucas said in a hushed breath, out of Jared's earshot.
"I can't say for sure, but like you, that's the first thing I was afraid of," Graham said, speaking with a frankness Lucas knew he would not dare with any other parent, especially on the phone. "I know it doesn't make sense. But he's elevated, Lucas, and we need to jump on it. I'm sorry. This blindsided me, it really did."
Jared was giggling in front of the television set, the first time Lucas had heard his son giggle in three days, and one of the few times Jared had allowed himself to giggle at all since Rachel had died. Tears stung so viciously at Lucas's eyes that he felt as if he were blinking acid. Soon, he'd have to tell his eight-year-old son there was something terribly wrong with his blood, and it was probably cancer, just like his mommy had, except his cancer was in his blood.
"I'm sorry, Lucas," Graham said again, as if he were blaming himself, and Lucas wanted to tell him it wasn't his fault, not at all. Lucas swallowed back a sound that would only have come out like a half-hysterical laugh.
Hadn't Graham figured it out yet? It was just the Curse, at work yet again, maybe for the last time. A trilogy. It had taken Lucas's mother, then it had taken his wife, and now it was going to take his son; it was a spiteful brand of evil he'd stirred up long ago without even trying, something stalking him that he'd never been able to shake, that was determined to steal everyone he loved. First one. Then another. And another.
"I'm okay," Lucas said, uttering the biggest lie of his life, because at that moment he'd finally known he would never be okay again.
"He has leukemia, and he passed out. He looks shocky, so I'm afraid he's had some kind of internal rupture. Maybe he fell and didn't say anything to me about it. Where's your trauma surgeon?" Lucas said, following the gurney carrying his son down the hospital's overly bright hallway; one of the back wheels danced in a crazy whirl as it wobbled across the riotously gleaming white floor. Nurses and orderlies stared at their processional, frozen in place where they stood, as if they weren't used to late-night interruptions.
"We don't have one," said the crew-cut physician who'd met Lucas at the mechanical double doors. Lucas had been mortified to see him; he must have been at least thirty but barely looked twenty-five. His smooth, boyish face was covered with freckles, and he was wearing a lilac-colored scrub suit and bright orange sneakers, an overall effect that was so clownlike that Lucas had wondered for a moment if he was hallucinating. The young doctor, whose picture identification tag dangling from his neck identified him as R. Mandini, went on, "We usually refer the serious traumas to General -- "
"Jesus fucking Christ," Lucas said, the sickly dreamlike sensation sweeping him again. He brushed Jared's forehead as if he needed to physically touch him to feel assured he was still there. Jared's eyelids were fluttering slightly, involuntary impulses.
" -- but I went ahead and paged Jaime Gonzalez, who's affiliated here through the university. He's on his way," the young doctor finished, and Lucas felt such a surge of relief that he thought his knees would buckle. Jaime Gonzalez was on staff at Florida State University, and he was a damn good surgeon. Thank Mary and Jesus above.
While one of the nurses wrapped Jared's arm in a blood-pressure cuff, Mandini pressed his hand gently against Jared's abdomen, then pierced his pale stomach with a long needle. In an instant, blood spurted into the hypodermic's plastic casing. There was internal bleeding, then, and a lot of it. Seeing his worst fears confirmed, Lucas's heart went cold.
"Blood pressure's only fifty," the young nurse said. Her eyes were wide, alarmed.
Mandini looked up at Lucas. "You're right, Dr. Shepard -- your son is hemorrhaging, and he's in distress. I need to get him open to stop this bleeding. Dr. Gonzalez will back me up when he gets here. In the meantime, you're free to assist." Then, Mandini looked at Lucas almost hopefully, as if willing to defer to an elder.
"I'll go in the OR with you, but I'm not a surgeon," Lucas said, more sharply than he'd intended. He hadn't performed anything remotely resembling a surgery since med school thirty years before, and even then it had only been on cadavers. Was this doctor so inexperienced that Lucas would be forced to take the scalpel in his own hand?
"Okay, right, I wasn't sure...," Mandini mumbled, his face flushing red.
Lord, please deliver me from fools, Lucas thought. Please deliver Jared tonight.
"Well, Dr. Shepard, I'm going to do everything I can for your son. I hope you have, too." Then the young doctor added reproachfully, practically under his breath, "I hope you know a kid this sick needs a hell of a lot more than voodoo."
Lucas stared at him, momentarily stunned, wondering if he had heard wrong. Then, when he'd decided he hadn't, he was too weary even to be angry. How could this doctor even ask him if he'd done everything he could?
"What do you think?" Lucas said. "He's my goddamned son."
Mandini only glanced at him with nervous resignation as he shuttled the gurney toward the operating room, preparing to witness a death.
"I couldn't believe that little twerp, practically asking you to do the operation yourself," Cal said, biting into a powdered doughnut he'd just bought from the row of well-stocked vending machines in the Mercy North Medical Center doctors' lounge. Cal's sand-colored hair was splayed wildly across his head, betraying his sudden arousal from sleep. Gazing at his neighbor, Lucas realized he must look like hell, too. He glanced down at himself and saw he was wearing only a pair of tattered sweatpants and a stained undershirt, the clothes he'd been sleeping in. He was lucky he hadn't run out of the house buck naked.
"He was scared is all," Lucas said. "Knew he needed all the help he could get."
"Yeah, well, that's the kind of crap I would expect from Clarion, that HMO Nita and I are with. As long as the cheap bastards thought they could save a buck, they would've asked us to do the operation at home, too. Skip the emergency room altogether." Even sleep-deprived and under stress, Cal's face looked ruddy and cheerful because of his oversize cheeks. "Want some coffee, Doc? This fancy machine even has espresso."
Lucas shook his head. He was so tired it almost hurt, but he knew coffee would only make him anxious. He'd begun hoping again, and Cal's attempts to be jovial fed his hope, even though part of him was afraid to hope at all.
But it was six-thirty, and Jared was still alive. The sun was easing its way to full daylight outside, glowing ever brighter through the room's louvered windows. The situation had slowly evolved into a maybe, not as dire as it had been in the car when he'd thought Jared might go into cardiac arrest. Maybe felt good. And having Cal here felt good. The day was beginning to dawn like one they might all survive. This time.
Because it was only May, Lucas realized. It wasn't June yet. Lucas's mother had died in June. Rachel had died in June. And he felt a new certainty that if Jared was going to die, it would be in June. It couldn't happen on that operating table, not on an early morning in May. Not yet.
For Jared, today was not the day. It was like the line from Audre Lorde's last poem, written while the poet herself was dying, that Rachel had taped to her wall for inspiration and memorized while she was sick: Today is not the day. It could be but it is not. Today is today.
"Hey, Doc...I hope you won't take this wrong, but you look kinda rough sittin' there," Cal said, pulling Lucas from his morbid thoughts. "Maybe you'd better put that operating gown back on before someone comes in here and sticks a broom in your hand."
"Fuck you very much, Cal," Lucas said, nearly smiling.
Lucas and Rachel had befriended Cal Duhart and his wife, Juanita, almost as soon as the Duharts had moved into their neighborhood nearly ten years ago, when they all made the unlikely discovery that they were two interracial couples living across the street from each other. Juanita had lost her best friend when Rachel died, just as Lucas had, but thank God he hadn't lost Cal. By now, after more than five years of striving, waiting, grieving, and then striving and waiting some more, Cal's insults had become pure, lifesaving habit.
"You know how it goes, one of these redneck MDs walks in and sees a black man lounging in here," Cal went on, taking a seat beside Lucas while finishing his doughnut. "Some of the less enlightened may not realize you're free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, you're free at last." Cal's expert imitation of Martin Luther King's preaching voice was almost frightening -- especially from the lips of a blue-eyed white man whose usual speaking voice was cracker to the core. Cal had been raised in the hills of Georgia and usually sounded like it.
Lucas laughed hard, from his gut. Then, the laugh caught in his throat and almost turned into a sob as it suddenly dawned on him that this might be the worst day of his fifty-five years of life. He squeezed his friend's shoulder hard and didn't let go for a long time, not saying a word. The silence seemed interminable. Cal broke it first, avoiding eye contact by staring steadfastly at the mounted television playing at a low volume above them.
"You can't let your mind whip you in circles from waiting," Cal said gently, all mirth gone. "Waiting's the killer, Doc. You know that by now. Jared's a tough kid."
Lucas nodded, unable to speak.
"At least they're treating you right here. They're giving you and Jared the red carpet. That's gotta be good for something."
Yep, it was star treatment, all right. Maybe the medical community didn't respect Lucas's work in alternative medicine -- as typified by Mandini's snide comment about voodoo, a term so often misapplied that Lucas had given up correcting it -- but at least his name still carried weight from the days he had won the Lasker microbiology prize in 1986, the field's highest, before science had dismissed him as a kook. Or, maybe Mercy North just wasn't interested in being noted in national news reports as the place where Dr. Lucas Shepard's son had died. Whatever the reason, Mercy had gone out of its way to treat him and Jared well, and Lucas was glad.
The doctors' lounge was much more friendly than the sterile emergency-room waiting area outside (although the term doctors' lounge, at any hospital, struck Lucas as an oxymoron), with plush, wine-colored chairs and cherrywood-paneled walls that projected the air of a library. At the center, a handsome matching cherrywood conference table had chairs for a half dozen people. A cleaning woman had come in to begin brewing coffee about a half hour before, but Lucas and Cal had been relatively undisturbed since they'd been ushered to this room. Their only company was the television set, which had been playing a test pattern earlier, but was now blithely showing the Mutant Men cartoon Jared would ordinarily have risen to watch by now. Neither Lucas nor Cal had thought to change the channel. Lucas found himself watching the manic cartoon, trying to memorize the antics of the deformed but noble heroes, vowing he would tell Jared exactly what he'd missed as soon as he had the chance, as soon as Jared woke up. If he woke up, a voice in his head corrected him, trying to protect him from his hopes.
After all, he reminded himself, he might find himself sitting on the other side of death today.
There were plenty of doctors who'd learned to manage their emotions well enough to treat the seriously ill not only with dignity but with patience and compassion, and Lucas had known some wonderful doctors during Rachel's illness and his residency in med school -- but he would also never forget a senior doctor, his adviser, who always sounded pissed with terminal patients and their families, routinely reducing them to tears, as if they'd brought their illnesses upon themselves and were refusing to improve simply to fuck up his day. Dr. Everett Lowe. Lucas often thought of Dr. Lowe since his own brief stint in pediatrics, when his first three young patients had died in harrowing succession. Children crying and dying. It was too much. Each night, Lucas had gone home feeling as if he'd swallowed crushed glass. Maybe Dr. Lowe had been like that once, and he'd turned so vile to keep his sanity. The experience had spooked Lucas so much that he had decided right then he would get his Ph.D. and become a researcher. He'd fight disease, but he'd keep his soul safe in the process.
Thank God there were good pediatricians for Jared. Good pediatricians reminded Lucas of veterinarians: they considered cooing and coaxing a part of their job description. That meant fewer stony faces, less contempt, more of what patients referred to as that oft-craved bedside manner that still was not, as far as he knew, part of the standard curriculum at medical schools.
And it should be. Because death could never be mundane.
Lucas had always thought so when he was only on the other side of it, but he definitely understood that now. There was nothing the least bit mundane about watching his son die. It was like breathing hot coals, each breath more painful than the last.
Lucas's glazed eyes were so fixed on the television set overhead that he hadn't seen the door to the doctors' lounge open, hadn't noticed Mandini walk in. Lucas only glanced at the doorway when he felt Cal tap his knee, and Mandini stood there in his scrub suit, which was hugging his chest with streaks of perspiration.
Lucas lurched to his feet, looking for clues about Jared in Mandini's eyes, and he felt the same voiceless hope he'd seen in the faces of patients' family members his entire life. He'd first seen it in his father's face when his mother had gotten sick, a childlike hangdog wondering, the first time Lucas had realized his father couldn't fix everything the way he'd thought he could. He'd seen it in Jared during Rachel's illness, when Jared quizzed Lucas every day she spent in the hospital, waiting for the news that his mommy would soon be coming home for good.
And at the pediatric leukemia center where Jared had received his rounds of chemotherapy, there had been a special room where doctors took parents when they needed to impart bad news. And all of the other parents -- himself included -- had felt sympathy for those poor folk they saw ushered into that room while at the same time they thanked God they weren't the ones about to have their hopes crushed.
Lucas knew what crushed hope sounded like. Through the closed door, all of the fortunate families in the waiting area had been able to hear the unlucky parents' screams.
"Well?" Lucas said hoarsely.
Finally a hint; not a smile, or anywhere near a smile, but Mandini nodded and beckoned Lucas toward him so they could speak privately. "He's alive. But..."
Lucas didn't want to hear the rest. "Just tell me where he is."
As Lucas walked alone in the hallway toward the intensive-care post-op ward, all he wanted to focus on was that his son was still breathing, his brain was functioning, his heart was beating. Lucas had been told Jared was on oxygen, but not a respirator. That was good.
But with each footstep, Lucas's mind swept him back to his memory of the frank talk he'd just received from Mandini and Gonzalez, both of them speaking in turns with condescending patience, as if Lucas didn't have his own medical degree and hadn't himself served on a medical school faculty and once won a national microbiology award -- as if he were a witch doctor who needed a stern talk on the wonders of modern American science.
Have you tried to get him a bone-marrow transplant? There have been some real strides there, and that's the only cure for the kind of leukemia he has. Chemotherapy isn't very effective. His short-term prognosis is very poor. We couldn't save his spleen, you know, and his other organs will be attacked by infection after infection. By the way, our on-site pastor doesn't get in until eight -- is there a family minister you want to call?
And Lucas had just listened, nodding with pursed lips. He'd resisted equally strong drives to burst into laughter and to punch both of them in the face, but he was afraid he would lose touch with his own mind if he did either. That is, if he hadn't lost it already.
Lucas could have given both of these doctors an education on autologous bone-marrow transplants himself, because Jared had undergone one last year. He'd nearly died of pneumonia as a result, and it simply hadn't worked. Only six months after the transplant, when Jared still hadn't regained his ability to taste food (thus robbing him of the joy of chocolate ice cream, one of the few pleasures the kid still had left in the world) and was getting regular blood transfusions and couldn't interact with people because his platelet count was still so low, the leukemia had shown up yet again. And he and Jared, together, had cried all night long.
So much for science.
Jared's doctors said maybe it would have worked with the bone marrow from an outside donor; or ideally, the marrow from a sibling. But Jared didn't have any siblings -- though he'd always begged for a little brother or sister; and Lucas and Rachel had just decided they would try to have another baby only a couple of weeks before, as they always put it, The Day the Earth Stood Still -- and there hadn't been any movement on the waiting list Lucas had placed Jared on the same day he was diagnosed.
And even if they found a donor, they all knew a second bone-marrow transplant might kill Jared sooner than the leukemia would. Not to mention that Jared had told Lucas, in all earnestness, that he would rather die than go through that procedure again, because he'd finally regained the use of his taste buds and chocolate had become a miracle to him, and he didn't want to risk losing it again, maybe forever this time.
And he didn't want to be so sick for months and months that he couldn't play outside or see any of his friends. And he was so, so tired of hospitals. And medicine. And being in bed. And he hadn't started feeling really bad until he'd started the treatments, and if he was going to die anyway, he wanted to feel good as long as he could instead of taking treatments and feeling bad all the time.
Besides, Daddy, maybe Mommy misses me too much in heaven, and that's why God gave me leukemia in the first place. The doctors and the Magic-Man aren't as strong as God, right?
That was what Jared had told Lucas only three months before. And they had both cried for more hours on end after he'd said it, because Jared was only ten years old and was accepting death, which made him more grown-up than most adults Lucas knew. And as he'd hugged his son, Lucas kept imagining the last day Jared had truly been a child, when they'd been sitting in the living room watching Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and eating pizza, when neither of them had had any reason to suspect, much less know, that Jared would never grow up.
As he walked down the deserted hospital hallway, Lucas longed so much to return to that last day of normalcy, just for twenty-four hours, that he felt his chest burning.
Because Lucas could not accept what was happening. He could not accept what Mandini and Gonzalez had told him, that even if Jared survived the next twenty-four hours, his body was likely to fail him in the next six weeks, or sooner. There had to be something else Lucas could do, something else he could try. Somewhere, there had to be a Golden Ticket for his son, too.
The sign on the door at the end of the hall read I.C.U. -- Authorized Personnel Only, posted above a mop and a large rolling yellow bucket full of dingy water someone had left nearly in the door's path. The water smelled so strongly of disinfectant, grime, and urine that Lucas had to pinch his nose. He pushed the glowing blue button beside the door to unlock it, then he turned the knob and let himself in, sidestepping the mop and bucket.
When he gazed through the square-shaped window of the first door on the left, he saw a narrow room with a row of unevenly spaced curtain partitions, presumably separating patients. This door was unlocked, so Lucas walked inside. He could hear Jared's heart monitor, or at least that's what he assumed it was. He followed the beeping, his stomach clenching. Someone attached to an IV was pushed up against the wall on a rolling bed, waiting for a room assignment. The man or woman -- he couldn't tell which -- was curled up in a fetal position facing the wall.
As he walked past, he could tell that the patient on the table was a woman after glancing at the thinning tangles of long silver hair on her pillow. He saw a freshly bandaged, bloody stump where her right foot should have been, as if her stick-thin leg had simply vanished at the tip. An amputee. Probably diabetes, he thought. Lucas heard the old woman moan softly, but he kept walking, his son's heart-song beckoning him.
Beyond the partition, through the clear plastic of the isolation tent over Jared's bed, Lucas could see his son's face. His eyes were closed, his eyelids no longer fluttering.
Immediately, Lucas gazed at the electrocardiograph monitor at Jared's bedside, to be reassured by the jagged pulses of his heartbeat on the small screen. The heart rate was slow, but the rhythm was good. How many nights had Lucas fallen asleep to the sound of that machine's beeping? Often, sleeping near Jared's heart monitor, he'd awakened from dreams that he'd heard the jarring tone of a flat-line, signaling that Jared's heart had stopped.
Maybe they hadn't been dreams, he thought sadly. Maybe they'd only been glimpses into a future that was drawing closer all the time. Because he had known all along that Jared would not get well, hadn't he? Even when he'd pretended his knowing was only irrational dread left over from losing Rachel, it had probably been genuine intuition all along.
No surprise that Jared's acute myelocytic leukemia had turned out to be so difficult to cure. No surprise that the chemo hadn't worked. No surprise that the bone-marrow procedure hadn't worked, either. And ultimately, it had been no surprise that one of the most powerful shamans in the world, the one Jared called Magic-Man, hadn't been able to help him even a little. The Something, whatever it was, was determined to have Jared, too. And contrary to what Jared believed, Lucas didn't think it had the first thing at all to do with God. Lucas was convinced it was the work of something else altogether.
Three Ravens Perez, the Arizona-based healer known globally for his successful treatment of terminal patients, had told Lucas as much in a rare moment of weary frustration. Perez was an old friend, one of the first shamans to teach Lucas the observable merits of spirit-based healing rituals, and Lucas had seen the anguish in his friend's face. When Perez had flown to Tallahassee to perform a healing ceremony on Jared shortly before the bone-marrow transplant, Lucas's optimism during the brief remission period had been crushed by something haunted in the powerful man's eyes. And Perez's words, spoken to Lucas in a hush while they drank tepid coffee, had been even more haunting. This is hard for me to say to you, but you have a right to hear it. The shadows have Jared, Lucas. I saw the same shadows with Rachel, smelled the same foulness. I have never known shadows like these. I'm afraid they won't heed good medicine. I think they have hunted for him.
"Well, champ, you missed a good one today," Lucas began at Jared's beside, his tone much more upbeat than his thoughts. Jared had told him he sometimes heard the things Lucas said when he was unconscious or sleeping, so Lucas had made it a habit to talk and sing to him. Jared had probably heard him sing every Robert Johnson song ever recorded, from "Love in Vain" to "Ramblin' on My Mind," if slightly off-key. In case it made a small difference.
Slipping his gloved hand into the tent, Lucas smoothed back Jared's wispy, light-brown hair, which only curled where it grew thickest at the top of his head. The hair, too, he'd inherited from Rachel, along with his skin color. Jared's complexion had always been very pale, lighter than Lucas's peanut-colored skin, but his son's face was now almost ghostlike, as if he'd been dusted with powder. In the harsh glare of the fluorescent lights above them, Lucas could even see tiny blue webs of capillaries under Jared's skin, just below his eyes. He looked almost like a stranger.
Still, aided by the oxygen tubes in his nose, Jared's chest rose and fell steadily. His breathing sounded good, not bubbling in his chest the way it did when he had fluid in his lungs. Lucas squeezed Jared's unmoving fingers, and the warmth that bled through the plastic felt like sunshine.
"Let's see now...you know I get the names all mixed up, but I'll remember as best I can," Lucas said, stooping over to speak close to Jared's ear. "These Mutant Men of yours are ugly as can be, Jared. Is Ned Nuke the one with the face like Swiss cheese? In any case, I think Ned Nuke found out about some kind of conspiracy to kill the earth's population by poisoning the air. So he and the other one, the black one...is his name Freddy Fallout? Well, the two of them teamed up with that really big one who has tentacles for arms, that one you like so much..."
Hearing the soothing tones of his own voice, Lucas began to forget where he was, and details from the past few hours, the past few wretched years, began to melt away in his mind. This was no different from countless times before, when he'd told Jared bedtime stories about his other favorite heroes trying to save the world. It wasn't so different at all.
But his fantasy ended abruptly when he realized he could hear the old woman calling out. He must have been ignoring her, dismissing her voice as background noise, but now he could hear her soft, piteous voice from across the room. She spoke almost politely, as if she didn't want to intrude, but she repeated the same phrases over and over, too proud to beg but desperate to be heard: "I'm cold. Can someone bring me a blanket? This room is so cold."
Glancing over the top of the partition, Lucas could see her lying shivering on her side in her thin gown, thoroughly and completely invisible to the world, her droopy buttocks exposed through the gap. This woman was alone, and no one else could hear her. It wouldn't take him more than a couple minutes to find someone to look after her, he told himself. But though he wanted to, Lucas could not force himself to let go of his son's warm little hand, not even to search for an old woman's rightly deserved blanket.
Not if it meant leaving Jared alone, if it meant Lucas might not be there when his son finally opened his eyes and looked for his father. Lucas realized that was the only thing in the world he was living for, all he could afford to care about. In the end, that was all human life boiled down to, wasn't it? Only survival. Only love.
"Please...I'm so cold," the woman's voice pleaded.
Bent over his dying son's bed, Lucas Shepard wept.
Copyright © 2001 by Tananarive Due