Despite Mother Nature’s attempt to distract, the author got her work done. Jesus, she’s in a mood tonight, huh? I mean Mother nature, not Roz.
“Hey, Doc,” McCallister called when she spied Dr. Lythegow behind the ER reception desk, writing in a chart. “Got a minute? Can I buy you a cup of coffee?”
He readily acknowledged her with both her name and a smile. “I happen to know where they give it away for free.” He gestured with his hand for her to follow. “Walk with me, Detective.”
Wordlessly, he led her down a corridor and then another. Midway, he stopped, slid his ID card into a security slot, and opened the door when it beeped.
“This is the doctor’s lounge,” he said as they entered the mauve and beige room. “It gives the impression that all we do is lounge around all day, doesn’t it?”
“You mean you don’t?”
He laughed as he went to the corner to turn off the television blasting a cable news channel. “Sit,” he said.
She did so and watched him head to another corner and pour coffee into two bone-white mugs. After she declined his offer of cream and sugar, he delivered the coffee and took a seat on the couch across from her.
“What brings you here this morning, Detective? What can I do for you?”
Nervously, she cleared her throat. “I’ve been spending time with the woman who has amnesia,” she admitted.
“You mean J? She thinks her name starts with J.”
“Yes, her. Are you still her doctor even though she was transferred?”
“I am, as a matter of fact. Normally, she would have been handed off to another physician—I’m limited to Emergency Medicine—but with J, we decided that continuity was more important than procedure.”
“Meaning, that because something’s stopping her from remembering, she has nothing to rely on emotionally or mentally. I will remain her attending physician as long as she’s a patient here. My presence—and yours, for that matter—provides a stability that’s essential right now.”
“Think about it. Her lifespan, memory-wise, consists of a matter of weeks. You were there at the very beginning. So was I, but now that I think about it…” He paused and leaned toward her. “You helped her in a big way that day. You saved her from me, from what she perceived as a threat. You saved her and then told her it was okay to trust us. Because you were there and she trusted you, she was able to trust me and the rest of the staff.” He smiled at her. “I’m glad you’re spending time with her. She needs familiar things because nothing is familiar. Does that make sense?”
“And the stronger she feels, the more likely she’ll be to feel safe enough to remember. Like she’s starting to.”
She took a deliberate sip of coffee and then risked asking what she desperately needed to know. “Doc, what would happen if she remembered too fast? If the lights went out in her mind, so to speak, what would happen if they came back on all at once?”
“Actually, that’s quite common, and your analogy is a good one.” He took a drink of his coffee and said, “The mind is a very amazing thing, Detective. Hers is protecting her—from what, we don’t know—keeping her in the dark from whatever is too difficult for her to see. Whatever that is, is at the core, and the insignificant things are like extra layers of darkness, extra layers of protection.”
“But it doesn’t necessarily mean she’s forgetting something terrible, does it?”
He shook his head. “She could have the most ordinary life imaginable, but perhaps the accident made her lose her mental footing. She relinquished everything, tucked it all away inside a dark place for safekeeping. All—and I don’t mean that facetiously—all she has to do is untuck and have enough light to see.”
“So the lights coming back on wouldn’t necessarily be another trauma.”
“Probably not unless it was indeed something horrible—something besides the accident—that caused the lights to go out.” He paused for a moment and then said, “I remember her fear when she came to in Emergency. I assume you remember it that next morning.” After her nod, he continued, “I’d guess there’s something there. Something more than the accident. Something that upset her. Her memories are coming back piecemeal so I don’t think the lights will just come back on. It’ll get brighter and brighter until she sees it all.”
Then she had no right to flick on the lights for her.
But was it wise to tell him she knew where her light switch was? To what end, if he thought a brightening was better?
Doc, I think she’s my sister, she imagined herself saying. … And if she were wrong? … But she wasn’t wrong. She couldn’t be wrong. Scoop, Lenore, James, Pickle, microbiology, black licorice… Holly was right: What more did she need to know? But, Holly was also right when she pointed out the need to act in her sister’s best interest, not her own. If brightening was better, she needed to let that happen. Would telling Lythegow ensure that, threaten that, or make no difference at all?
“Then again, Detective,” he said, jolting her from her thoughts, “maybe the lights suddenly coming back on is exactly what it’s going to take. If you look at what she’s remembered so far, it’s very small things: her mother’s name, a dog’s name. At this rate, she could be doing this for a very long time, and whatever life she has that she’s not remembering has been completely put on hold. That could have repercussions, too.”
In other words, he didn’t know either. He didn’t know any more than she did what was in her best interest. So there really was no choice but to let it be. Letting it be was the safest alternative. But she didn’t have the patience to let it be, to stand back and let her hurt as she remembered painful things.
Doc, I think she’s my sister, she screamed in her mind. And again. And again. And again. Hoping that one recitation would make its brave way through her vocal cords and to his ears.
Doc, I think she’s my sister. Doc, I think she’s my sister. Doc, I think she’s my sister. “Doc, I think … I’ve used enough of your time.”
As though officially slamming shut the door of opportunity, a ceiling speaker crackled, “Dr. Lythegow, please report to ER.”
Immediately, he rose. “Duty calls, Detective.” He headed to the door and told her to feel free to stay and finish her coffee.
She did stay, but it nothing to do with the untouched brew in the bone-white cup.
She was more frustrated, more confused than when she had arrived there with the intention of asking for his help. For one who usually proved very resolute and confident, she perplexed herself and felt a nearly overwhelming urge to hurl the cup at the wall.
If the brightening was better, why couldn’t she—wouldn’t she—just let it be and enjoy getting to know her as she worked to get to know herself—all over again? What was wrong with her? Was she really that fearful of her sister being angry with her? Or was she still afraid it all amounted to wishful thinking? Or was she losing it, or simply terrified of being that vulnerable, of facing ghosts whose hauntings had now turned to full-blown assaults?
Because it wasn’t as simple as putting the woman’s needs first. That she wanted to do, unquestionably. The complications, the torture she felt, stemmed from her inability to silence her own needs as she did so. The woman’s caused her pained. The woman’s uncertainty compounded her own. She needed to take care of her own needs so she could be patient, so she’d neither pull away in fear nor push in eagerness. As Holly had said: Her job was to make sure they were both okay as this all unfolded. How did she make herself okay? What exactly were her needs?
Her mind raced, and it quickly became clear to her that paramount to it all, she needed to know whether the woman was Jaye. Beyond a reasonable doubt, was the person she was slowly surrendering her heart indeed her sister?
Once more, she thought of Holly’s reasoning. She did need a detective on the case. But, just a Watson would not do; that was not fair to Holly, because Holly had a bias, too. Holly wanted her to be happy. Therefore, she wanted the woman to be Jaye just as much as she did. But somewhere inside her emotional maelstrom, there was a detective. Think! she ordered herself. Turn off your f-ing gut and think like an detective!
Her mind sped to Holly’s list of evidence. To a detective, she concluded, everything thus far was purely circumstantial. As a whole it was uncanny, but it proved nothing. She imagined herself taking the list to the DA’s office. Would Sharon Pierce, picky and demanding, be satisfied with what she had to present her, or would she thrust an angry finger toward her door as she had done innumerable times? Defeatedly, she could quite foresee the dismissive gesture. What would appease her?
Instantly, a light went on in her own mind. “Elementary, my dear Watson,” she said aloud as she rose from the chair. She deposited the bone-white cup in the sink, and then her hand confidently seized the phone from her pocket.
She dialed the woman’s room, and when she answered, she explained that she was at the hospital on business. She asked whether they could get together now instead of during her lunch hour.
Five minutes later, she watched the woman disembark the elevator in the lobby. They exchanged pleasantries, and then at McCallister’s insistence, they decided that a run to Timmer’s for coffee seemed a decadent thing to do.
Half an hour later, she pulled her car in front of St. Mike’s to drop her off.
“Thanks for taking me out for coffee, Detective. It was a nice surprise, and I had fun,” she said as she reached to retrieve her cup from the holder.
“Just leave your cup,” she said and stopped her hand. “I’ll throw it out with mine.”
“It’s not a problem. I can get yours, too. There’s a trash can right at the door.”
“I’ll get them,” she nearly shouted. “You just get back up there before they decide I’m a bad influence.”
“Is it that late?”
“It is, and I’ve got to get back to work. Go,” she urged. When she realized how desperate she sounded, she softened it with, “Our time together is important. I don’t want to jeopardize it. I’ll see you tomorrow.” She forced a smile.
“Okay,” she replied. “I sure don’t want you in trouble on my account.” She flung open the door.
As the woman’s body twisted to exit, McCallister spied the handle of her hairbrush sticking out of her sweat jacket. With no time to debate the action, she reached for the brush and held it. The woman moved away, and McCallister retained the brush, which she quickly pushed to the floor.
The woman ducked her head into the car. “Go! Get out of here.”
That was exactly what she wanted to do. When the door slammed shut, she took a deep breath and accelerated, neither breathing again nor slowing until she reached the far side of the parking lot. There, she shoved the car into park and plopped back on the headrest. She glanced into the rearview mirror and then twisted around for a glimpse of the hospital entrance. Seeing no sign of her, she reached into her pocket to retrieve a pair of latex gloves. She put them one and angrily snapped each finger.
Carefully, she removed the woman’s cup from the holder and placed it inside an evidence bag she retrieved from the backseat. She put the evidence bag inside a paper bag, and then she repeated the exact process with the hairbrush. As she rolled the bag shut, her stomach twisted and contorted in a way that made her think she’d vomit. She opened the window and breathed the cool air.
Fifteen minutes later, she stood in front of the reception desk in the Coroner’s Office, asking to see Hastings. As she waited, she pulled the paper bag to her chest, feeling sickened by what she was about to do, but knowing that DNA would give her something indisputable, proof that what she saw, what she felt had to be an undeniable truth—a truth to vanquish her own doubts, a truth she could give to her if the brightening required a sudden flip of a light switch. It’s the right thing to do, she told herself. It’s the only thing to do.
Soon, Hastings appeared, and she knew by the look on his face that he had a harmless barb all prepared for her. It was what they had done since they were children, when he lived down the block from her … and Jaye.
But instead of doing what she expected, his eyes narrowed, and he gently grabbed her by the arm. He steered her into his office and quickly shut the door. “Are you okay, Laura? You look a little pale.”
He pointed to the chair, and she compliantly sat down.
“Everything okay at home? Holly’s all right?”
“Holly’s just fine.”
He scrutinized her as he went to his desk to take a seat. “There have been no more kids on my table. No autopsies you think I’m dragging my feet on. No test results you just have to have. So why are you here? What’s wrong?”
“I need a favor.”
“Laura, you trust me that little that asking me a favor makes you look physically sick?”
“It’s a big favor.”
“Name it,” he said, leaning back in his chair.
Except, she couldn’t. For a long moment, she stared at him. She was about to cross yet another line, a nonnegotiable line. She was about to ask him to cross it with her. But, it was neither of those truths that compelled her to stand and make a beeline for the door. She knew he would cross it with her—for her—and that seemed insufferable.
He flew to his feet. “Laura, where are you going? What’s the favor?”
“There isn’t one,” she answered with a twist of the doorknob. “I’m really sorry I bothered you.”
“Laura, you obviously needed something.”
She turned and looked at him, the concern on his face making her gut start to twist again. “I need money,” she blurted to her own surprise. Then, she scrambled to give the lie plausibility. “I don’t have any money, and I don’t have an ATM or a credit card. It’s almost lunch time. I’m hungry.”
He stared at her in obvious disbelief.
“You know me,” she said. “I don’t like asking for money. Can you bum me five bucks?”
Still, he gaped at her, but finally, his hand went to his back pocket. He withdrew a thin, black wallet, flipped it open, and removed a bill. “Here. Have ten.”
With little choice, she plucked it from his outstretched hand. “Thank you, Peter.”
“Laura, you’re sure everything’s okay at home?”
That, at least, made her laugh. “Holly did not withhold my allowance for the week. We don’t work that way.”
“I didn’t think you did. But are you sure you’re okay?”
“I am okay,” she said as she left his office.
“What’s in the bag?”
“I brought it in case you could only give me five bucks in pennies.” Before he could say another thing, she hurried to the front door as she thanked him again.
Once outside, she dashed to her car, threw the bag into the backseat, and took off as swiftly as she could. She drove several block away and pulled over. Again, she felt as though she would vomit, and once more, she lowered the window to breathe.
Had it really come down to this? Had she really swiped genetic material without a warrant, without probable cause? But, this wasn’t a criminal investigation. It was personal. It was so personal that she had been about to ask Hastings, a lifelong friend, to conduct personal business in his official capacity as Ledder County Coroner. It was so personal that it made her sick.
And then, it happened. In nearly an audible way, she felt as though something shifted in her chest, as though her heart had steeled itself, unable or willing to feel anymore. Maybe in some strange way, her own kind of light went off inside her. Whatever it was left her feeling stronger, but at the same time, she sensed that it was not patently a good thing. She knew there would be a price—a darkness, but maybe a necessary one, one that could allow the necessary brightening to take place without her own issues interfering.
* * * * *
From that moment on, her life became mechanical: work, lunch hour at the hospital, work, soda delivery to the Dylan and the boys, home to Holly, dinner with Holly, sleep with Holly, bridge watching with Holly. Repeat.
Being with Holly was the only thing that allowed her to feel close to normal, and yet, even something so blessed became tainted. Holly would ask the nightly question about whether there was anything new to add to her Watson list. She’d give her the tidbit of the day, and then, Holly would ask whether she had enough evidence yet. She’d shrug, and Holly would narrow her eyes at her as though trying her best to understand. She experienced nothing but patience from her, and yet, she sensed a concern that made her feel guilty.
The weekend came, and she did her best to make up for what she sapped from Holly all week. She doted on her, kept her near, and tried to please her in every way she could.
And then, another week of mechanical motion began.