touch wood

This thing’s been festering like an embedded unattended sliver in your middle finger that pricks you when you grasp anything, this thing being;

“Skepticism is easy—anyone can do it. It is the faithful life that requires moral strength, dedication, and courage. Those who hold fast to faith are far more impressive than those who give in to doubt when mysterious questions or concerns arise.”

Elder, sorry, President Dieter Uchtdorf said this in a priesthood session of the latest general conference of the Mormon Church.

I’ve been reading about the crush of this statement ever since in blog posts and comments, one a plea to Mormon family and friends saying, “The people who I loved most were being told that I, as a non-believer, was weak, cowardly, and unintelligent. They were told that my feelings, experiences, and opinions were invalid and inconsequential.”

Uchtdorf’s is the kind of rhetoric that gives many who are so affected the impetus to end their lives. But, that’s not why I’m writing.

I’ve always been amazed that skepticism (not to be confused with cynicism as Uchtdorf does) is treated within the so-called church (TSCC) as taboo as a superstition. I’ve been thinking in these past several months that in its efforts to be transparent, the church has advanced several controversial topics – historical and doctrinal – to answer to the general skepticism and malaise of it members, if not for everybody. Uchtdorf’s declarations have cleared that up for me.

Three things here I want to address; moral strength, dedication, and courage of the dissenter.

There’s a common myth held within TSCC that most dissenters do so out of transgression, and that in their apostasy, it’s much easier for them to be tossed around by the temptations of the devil, as if the source of their moral courage were their testimony, their faith, instead of something woven into the fabric of their character. Personally, I didn’t leave the church due to transgression, I wasn’t that shallow in my testimony, I was true blue. I did horrible things after I left – I cheated on my second spouse – but something surprised me after all I had heard throughout my living as a devout Latter-day Saint, that the spirit would be withdrawn from me since I was no longer worthy of it.

What if Daniel doubted and lost his faith? Would his moral strength then atrophy? Is faith the foundation of morality? Despite my moral transgressions, I had a surprising revelation at the beginning of my dissent; the still small voice is mine. My compass had no moral shift, I was weak.

So what moral strength does it take for one who has willingly stripped away their support, both heavenly and temporal, for them to maintain their good living? I’m not talking about the flotsam of the Word of Wisdom, “sent by greeting; not by commandment or restraint,” I’m talking about what drives a person to do and be good. Without the scaffolding of TSCC, what stretch does it take to maintain this course?

Neither god nor satan are left to be blamed. Every decision becomes the responsibility of the dissenter. Gone is the notion of some supplemental heavenly guide, the constancy of an institution that both inspires and shames one into compliance to moral standards, and the network of fellow believers who both encourage and judge the skeptic based on their words and behaviors. How would you, the true believing Mormon, do without your faith, without the church, without your family, friends, your bishop, your home teachers, your visiting teachers, your culture when faced by what you think are the temptations of the devil? What kind of moral courage would you need in this great vacuum of influence?

Dedication within a religion is a brain-washing technique. Don’t take my word for it, be skeptical and research it yourself, but do so outside the prevue of any source steeped in theology. Good luck with that.

After years of associating with dissenters I’ve noticed a trend; it takes a remarkable amount of personal dedication to remain true to new, untested and unfamiliar directions, especially when the dissenter suffers losses in terms of spouses, children, parents, siblings, friends, esteem, reputation, and instead become subjects of gossip, vitriol, and ostracism all the while fighting with self-doubt, that great internal conditioning of religion itself.

That, by definition, is superstition. “I believe the church is true (touch wood).” 

Courage. I’m shaking my head as I refrain from typing obscenities here. When I made the very conscious decision to leave not only TSCC, but the realm of traditional Christian belief altogether, I went through the very familiar stages of grief, though, as may be obvious, I have not transitioned out of anger. The rest – denial, bargaining, depression and acceptance – have been as real as if the church were me. It was. I was.

When I faced the death of my own son, I also faced the inventory of my skepticism and in its wake stripped away the implied comforts of religion when it comes to death. To use TSCC’s most common allegory, I stripped away the very armor and protection of the gospel, left naked to face and feel not only grief without hope, but life without the tacit guarantee of eternity.

Try that on, true believer, and call me a coward.

Uchtdorf’s rhetoric is angering in its dismissal, misrepresentation, and discount of what many in his own audience are experiencing due to TSCC’s own efforts to be more transparent. I shouldn’t be surprised here, having been a cog in that machine, but I’m left shaking my head nonetheless, wanting to stand and bear witness with my middle finger.

Posted in Religion/Ideology | Tagged , , , ,

The Catalyst of To Risk

The good news is that after two decades of increasing rates of full-term induced labor, doubling for that period of time where now one in four deliveries are induced, the numbers are starting to turn by a whopping .4 percent.

In 2013, new studies raised concerns that using pitocin to induce labor had more risks and adverse affects than originally determined. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists reported that the use of pitocin/oxytocin may not be as safe as originally thought.

When an automaker determined their airbag systems to harm or kill infants who were properly restrained in their cars’ front seats, there was a massive recall. When the OB community makes a similar determination dealing with a widely accepted practice that enables managed care, they say, “…we don’t want to discourage the use of Pitocin, but simply want a more systematic and conscientious approach to the indications for its use,” said Michael S. Tsimis, MD, the primary researcher on the effects of pitocin/oxytocin for the ACOG study.

That’s the bad news and yet no one is talking about this. To Risk was written to start a conversation, or at least raise some awareness. It was written first as a screenplay that went on to get some recognition from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and some interest from a production company, but they wanted to bring the story into a more PG-13 context, and I refused.

I started to adapt it to a novel about three years ago, and the posting here on ImNoSaint is its fourth re-write. Ian’s story with his daughter Virginia is auto-biographical. The other cases in the novel are true as well.

To Risk addresses other concerns as well; high-content cultures and religion, depression and suicide in women, and of course, what some are willing to risk for the fleeting idea of justice.

It’s not an enjoyable book. I’m hoping it’s a page-turner though, compelling enough to at least drive you through the story and meet the characters based on those who endured the convenience of induced labor and survived its consequences.

You can read To Risk on this blog, or I’d be glad to send you files compatible with iBooks and Kindle distribution. If you’re sharing this with a book club, I’d be glad to visit for a discussion, and I’m happy to receive your comments and talk about the book here.

Posted in To Risk

missing a glass slipper

27  

GRAY REAGAN IS SUPINE, upper body elevated at thirty degrees, knees articulated at a bit less in a hospital bed in Highland Memorial’s intensive care unit. Ocular dressings cover his eyes, a non-invasive bilevel positive airway pressure, or what is more commonly referred to as a BiPAP mask, seals at his nose. This allows a sophisticated air pump to sense his respirations and assist Gray’s breathing in and out by alternating pressures and supplementing oxygen. The pressure also pushes forward what is left of his tongue, preventing it from sliding back into and occluding his airway. His mouth has been taped closed after a flap procedure was performed just ahead of the terminal sulcus – the remainder of the rear part of his tongue – to stop the organ’s hemorrhage and accelerate its healing. Telemetry fans out from his bare chest and a little farther down and to his left is a percutaneous endoscopic gastrostomy tube connected to a feeding pump. And there’s an E.T. probe on his finger.

On another floor at Highland nestled into a recliner in the PICU is Laura with her little Adam snuggled into her arms, both sound asleep.

Across town in Silverado’s gated community is a pickup truck parked in front of the Reagan home with a number of four-by-four inch post real estate signs neatly arranged across the tailgate as its driver erects one of them in front of the house declaring it on the market.

In the Alvarez home in the avenues Mikayla groups bottle caps and gummy bears doing math manipulatives with her mom on their kitchen table.

And in the old Parks development, police tape strikes an X on the front entry of an abandoned property on Glacier Drive, a two-bedroom, two-bath rambler with a two-car garage, the front door of which is wide open behind the tape. Detective Alvarez’s SUV is parked in the driveway. He is standing in the home’s great room, the term now a tragic misnomer. The space has been hollowed out by some flameless inferno, no smoke or ash, but something combustible nonetheless to consume its interior, its decor, its indications of living. Ahead of him across the room are the splintered studs of a load-bearing frame, some suspended from a sagging ceiling and a couple of others from the base, still clad a bit in painted ragged drywall.

All the horizontal surfaces in the room, the flooring, the tops of the plastic-covered furniture, and the dining table are covered in drywall dust. Steve moves off the entry landing and steps into the space, his shoe smearing the black sooty path of the extricated bathtub. He sidesteps the stain trying to preserve as much of the scene as possible and walks to the demolition that frames out the right side of the hallway entrance. He knows this house or he did when he responded to investigate the suicide that occurred in the hall bathroom that used to be there. Another step and on his left is the open door to the only cheer left in the house, a bright empty room with yellows and pinks. Beyond it and straight ahead is the master bedroom. He crosses its threshold and finds the chaos of Ian McDaniel’s last days of living here, a double-chested dresser with all its drawers pulled open and empty, dust-covered nightstands smeared by fingers reaching for objects on top of them. Between them the queen-size bed, stripped of linen with a scrunched up mummy sleeping bag at its head. On the floor by the bed is a dirty discarded wife-beater and a filthy pair of shorts. Against the wall across from the foot of the bed is a high chest of drawers upon which is a nineteen inch TV/VCR combo with a yellow sticky note attached to its tube. Written on it in indelible thick black ink is the word Play. Steve switches on the appliance, removes the sticky note and presses play. Its VCR makes the noises of pulling a tape out of its cassette and wrapping it around a rotating drum of a video head and engaging the drive on the take-up spool. The screen flashes and diagonal lines move down the tube until an image comes clear.

The image is of Linda happily putting the finishing touches on an amused little Ginny who sits in a special red stroller made to support her body and head. Linda is making her up for Trick-or-treating, a princess in a violet gown. She bobby-pins a small tiara to Ginny’s blond curls and adds a touch of rouge to her cheeks. The shot pushes close up to Ginny, and off camera Ian says, Pardon me, your Highness. You wouldn’t be missing a glass slipper, would you? Ginny blushes to the camera, delighted. The picture goes askew for a moment while Ian moves into frame with Linda and Virginia holding the camera just so while he checks his composition on its little screen. They smile, Ian kisses Ginny on her cheek while Linda kisses the other. Okay, Linda says, Let’s go! and the picture swings around and goes to noise.

Steve still watches, standing there with his face maybe a foot away from the screen. The noise continues to play as he waits for something more, maybe a last message from Ian. He presses the fast-forward and scans the tape further, but there’s nothing more recorded. He turns the set off and stands there staring at its dark screen for a long time.

KATIE CHAMBERLAIN’S GRAVE MARKER is a shade more grown over since the last grass trimming, a task Karen Pierce will tend to this midmorning after she sits awhile there at the cemetery and reflects about her week. And the noisiest thought that comes from her inventory of events is her wonder of what happened to the man she saw there just last week after a funeral, the same man who was at her door and then in her home with a clipboard asking questions about Katie’s induced birth and something about Doctor Reagan’s mistakes.

the end

Posted in To Risk

the illuminated lump

26  

NEXT TO HER POTTING BENCH by the garden shed Pam rests on the old milking stool, her phone to her ear. She listens very closely to the legal advice she’s getting. Her attorney is telling her that Gray’s share in the practice at just over fifty percent should sell at an attractive price to his partners. Their savings, the sailboat, the condo at Squaw Valley, the Mexican property, the Caribbean home, the apartment in The City (news to Pam), the Mercedes, the Navigator, the whole shooting match should liquidate fairly quickly and easily resulting in a large sum that would be distributed through a trust in an attempt to make a difference in certain lives. She will make a phone call to Elaine after this call is finished to get started on that. The last part of this conversation, though, goes more sober. Pam should leave everything having to do with Gray’s abduction alone, no turning in Ian McDaniel, and no anonymous call to the detective about Gray’s whereabouts. Any link, any phone call, any contact that has the potential to implicate her in any way to Gray’s vanishing should be avoided at all costs. There’s already too much for a D.A. to work with. It’s best not to add.

Pam ends the call. On the potting bench next to her is iced tea. She lifts it to the sun just beginning to touch the hillsides. “To risk,” she says, a toast she makes this time with a more vested vulnerability, more on the line than ever before with more potential to do some good than she’s been able to do in years. She drinks, presses a button on her phone and speaks to it.

“Call Elaine Southwick.”

Elaine picks up. She is back at the Center managing the crisis of a missing OB and moves out of the fray and into Gray’s office to take the call. She listens carefully to Pam’s instructions, the first of which is to gather all the patient files with the red and yellow dots. That means she’ll have to go to the Center’s storage unit.

JUST PAST GOLDEN HOUR when the western sky’s ambers start to desaturate, HPD’s Crime Unit is into its protocols at Fort Knox, none of which are routine since Highland rarely sees a crime like this. Unit 435 is drenched in light from two mobile light towers with generators, enough to abate the flashing reds and blues inside the unit from response vehicles and cruisers parked along the entire alley. Gray Reagan has been transported to Highland Memorial Emergency, but Ian McDaniel’s body has yet to be extricated from the tub. The Medical Examiner was busy initially in assessing Gray’s condition before they cut him from the adirondack and prepped him for transport. With him gone he can assess what seems to be obvious about the McDaniel death, taking photographs framed with an ABFO scale, a corner square ruler used to maintain scale in photographing evidence. His body is semi-reclined in the tub, his feet at the base requiring his knees to be bent roughly forty-five degrees. His left hand holds a multi-tool from which is a bloody extended blade. His right hand is down and to the lower right side of his hip on the surface of the tub, partially hidden by the upper leg.

Out of his blood-soaked jacket and having been cleansed both hands and head, Alvarez looks on. He moves from the body in the tub to the back wall. It’s been photographed as a composite making a record of each item’s relationship to others, and then each artifact has been photographed separately while still in place on the cinderblock. Each piece is now being removed and placed into individual evidence sleeves to be dusted and printed at the lab – fetal monitoring strips, intake sheets, physician reports, x-rays. They will eventually remove the rolled up area rug. Another investigator is dismantling the suction machine and placing it in a hazardous materials container upon which she attaches an Evidence sticker. With the wall evidence contained, attention is turned to the box on the floor on top of which is a class photograph. The image is bagged and tagged and the box placed in a larger one also marked Evidence. Would that all crime scenes be contained in one hundred square feet.

Ian’s eyes are still open, his head turned to his right pointing their stare in the direction of where Gray was situated. The M.E. photographs the gash through Ian’s right pant leg with the Forensics scale in place. He’ll get more detailed images in the morgue where a bit more dignity can be be practiced. With the documentation complete he stashes his camera and evaluates how to remove the body from the tub. The location of the laceration on the inside of the right thigh has caused blood and other fluids to pool at the crotch and as the they evacuated the tub through its drain hole they seeped around the body’s buttocks and made confluence just above the small of the back laying on the enamel surface just ahead of the hole in the tub. It is somewhat like a valentine-shaped dam placed in the middle of a crimson river making its flow divert around it. The M.E. motions outside of the storage unit to two Forensic assistants clad in yellow Tyvek biohazard coveralls who have prepared a white heavy-duty polyethylene body bag, unzippered, at the lip of the cement pad.

“Can we clear the unit for just a moment, please?” the M.E. says to the other investigators as he steps out of the way. They grab the containers of evidence they’ve collected so far and clear them from the unit, relieved to finally have the body removed so they can get on to the adirondack and the tub. They step gingerly out of the unit avoiding the body bag on the ground now moved as close adjacent the tub as possible while still clearing the blood trail. Detective Alvarez steps out, too, countering the yellow men stepping in.

One yellow man positions himself at the head of the tub and the other the foot. They carefully find handholds on the body just under the arms and under the calves, and lift it up and clear of the tub, over and down onto the open body bag, trailing strings of crimson fluid along the way. The M.E. and the Detective lean back in to look into the tub. Alvarez produces a small flashlight and shines it inside illuminating the thickening fluid now moving to the drain hole, such a contrast against the polished white enamel.

“I need this contained!” barks the M.E. and a yellow man comes back in and plugs the hole will balled up visqueen. Alvarez’s light has landed on an organic object about an inch and a half wide and two inches long still in the tub, semi-immersed in the plasma. The illuminated lump has the full attention of the M.E. who crosses into the unit around to the opposite side of the tub and kneels down, spreading his latex-gloved hands on the edge of it to support himself as he leans deeper into the cavity for a closer look. “I need a stick in here!” he shouts into the tub and his request is quickly granted. A yellow man hands him an oversized tongue depressor with which the M.E. carefully turns the fleshy lump over on its other side, the irony of which is completely lost on him.

“There’s his tongue!” the M.E. announces. “We’ve been looking all over for that.”

Elaine has pulled into the lot of the Corby Car Wash and is sickened to see what is happening before her. She can see two large light standards hovering above the long storage building behind the car wash shining down into it, along with red and blue strobing light reflecting off every surface in circumference of the scene. A Highland PD cruiser blocks the gate to Fort Knox and parked just ahead of and perpendicular to her car is Ian’s white Ford Ranger. A light invades her sedan and jolts her out of digesting all that’s happening as a flashlight-wielding police officer knocks on her window. She rolls it down. “You’ll have to leave these premises, M’am. You can’t stay here,” he says.

“What’s going on?”

“This is a crime scene, Ma’am. What brings you here?” He’s doing his job.

“Does this have to do with Gray Reagan?” She can’t help herself. She immediately realizes she would have been better off just driving on.

“Are you an acquaintance of the Doctor. Ma’am?”

“I work for Doctor Reagan. I’m here to get-”

The officer looks just ahead of her car.

“Park your car there next to the white pickup and come with me, please, Ma’am.”

The officer escorts Elaine past the gate and under crime scene tape. As soon as they break the plane of light at the storage building’s corner they’re bathed in red and blue strobing lights with a constant glare of high wattage white light making them both squint and slow their pace until their eyes adjust. He continues the escort, bringing Elaine just outside the scene and calls out for Detective Alvarez.

Alvarez turns from the tub and looks in their direction seeing the uniform standing next to the office manager from South Highland Women’s Center. “Bring her here,” he says and the officer takes her by her elbow and escorts her in closer. Elaine resists with each step, horrified by what she’s fighting to comprehend – the bloody tub and the empty adirondack. Detective Alvarez steps in front of her eclipsing her view of the gruesome scene inside the storage unit.

“Elaine Southwick.” he says. “What brings you here tonight?”

Her shock is in full manifest. “Files. I came to get some files from our storage unit,” she says in stunned monotone.

“We’ve found Doctor Reagan. I don’t suppose you know anything about this.” She stares blankly at him.

“Do you know Ian McDaniel, Ms. Southwick?” Her eyes go past his shoulders and she steals a glance inside. He’s keen on her breaking her gaze away from him but can’t quite nail anything to it. He watches for more movement and notes it as Elaine’s eyes find the body bag that is being lifted by two men in yellow suits and hauled to the back of a van.

“He’s dead, Elaine.” Her eyes come back to his but they betray nothing of what this news might mean to her. “It appears he committed suicide.”

“And Doctor Reagan?” she quickly asks, an appropriate response given her relationship to him.

“He’s in pretty rough shape, but he’s still alive.” Her relief is evident in her eyes, but something cancels her display just as quickly. She’s caught in a dilemma, signaled by the movement of her eyes the meaning of which is lost on the detective.

“I’ll have some questions I’d like to see if you can answer tomorrow. I trust you’ll be around?”

“I’ll be at the office,” she responds, recovered and recollected.

Posted in To Risk

unit 435

25 

HAD DETECTIVE ALVAREZ ARRIVED just fifteen minutes earlier he would have heard Gray Reagan screaming I’M SORRY! over and over until he stopped. Instead, a quarter hour later he pulls up to unit 448, steps out of his SUV and walks to the door of the unit. It had yet to be secured from the morning’s search along with Alvarez’s curiosity. He is unconvinced that it is all as innocuous as it appears, especially after Laura Jacobsen’s admission that she had seen the doctor in a storage unit in a green patio chair.

Alvarez lifts the rolling door and steps into the storage space. He lifts the two boxes out of the adirondack and puts them aside, then drags the chair out into the alley and examines it. He tilts it forward, regards the slats on the backrest, sets it upright and examines the broad arm rests, but finds no signs of distress, no residue from tape, no friction points from rope or nylon cord. Nothing. He steps back to look at the chair in its entirety. The oddest thing about the sea-foam green adirondack chair is that it is all by itself.

“Where’s the other one?” he says under his breath. He looks left at unit 450 and sees a lock on the bolt mechanism. He looks right at 446 and sees none. Alvarez walks to it and tries to slide the mechanism but it’s stuck. He then steps on the rolling door’s lip, bring it closed another fraction of an inch, and the bolts frees up and he lifts the rolling door up to expose an empty unit. He moves to the next. It’s locked. And the next, locked.

The next is free and he opens it to find it vacant. Locked. Locked. Vacant. Two locks. He’s reached the top of the alley and crosses to the other side. The first two doors are the larger ten by thirty-foot units, both of which the detective remembers visiting along with Elaine Southwick. He continues down the alley, locked, vacant, locked, locked, and then he stops.

It’s the copious amount of crimson seeping out from underneath the next rolling door that stops Alvarez, so much blood that it is now slowly flowing down the cement gutter that borders the units on this side of the alley. The locking bolt is not engaged and Alvarez lifts the rolling door creating a mist of plasma as the door’s rubber weather stripping pops up and out of the seal created by the spill. The door reaches its apex dripping more blood from its seal on to Alvarez’s head and shoulders of which he fails to take notice. He doesn’t see the empty Gatorade bottle rolling down the alley either. The scene now before him commands his attention in his effort to wrap his brain around it. He pulls his police radio from his belt and brings it to his mouth.

“Control.”

“Control Highland,” reports the radio.

“Alvarez. EMT and CSI to Fort Knox Storage, Corby and Riverside, unit 435. Call their office and have them open the gate. Secure the scene.” 

“Copy.” Blip. Buzz. Silence.

He sees who he assumes is Gray Reagan in the other adirondack and between Reagan and himself is who he assumes to be Ian McDaniel laying in a bathtub, exsanguinated from a femoral slash to the artery through his pants just below the groin on his right thigh. Alvarez checks Ian for a pulse but finds nothing. He carefully steps around the tub avoiding the blood soaked slab and reaches Gray. His eyes are taped open but are fixed. He checks Gray’s carotid artery and discovers that he is still alive. There is a tube that appears to go down Gray’s nose taped to his face, and his mouth is stuffed with gauze.

“Control.”

“Control Highland.”

“Alvarez. 10-52 to this location, one vic.”

“Copy. Ambulance and EMTs dispatched.”

“And one dc’d. We’ll need an M.E. on scene.”

“Copy.” Blip. Buzz. Silence.

There’s nothing the detective can do for the doctor. He has no idea where to start, something best left to the medics. He feels something rolling down the back of his neck and reaches his hand back to feel what it is. It’s wet. He brings his hand around and finds it bloody. Not thinking, he takes his other hand and runs it over the top of his head to find that it’s covered as well. Catching his eye above him is the edge of the rolling door, still dripping from its soaked weather stripping.

He leaves the scene and walks to his SUV, retrieves a towel from the back to wipe off his hands and his head, smearing everything crimson, everything he touches. Giving up on the nettoyage he climbs into the SUV and drives it to the opening of 435 and turns on his red and blue strobes and waits for the circus to show up.

Posted in To Risk

she didn’t feel a thing

24  

ON THE DAY BEFORE GINNY WAS BORN, Linda went in for a final check-up before the scheduled delivery. She was at thirty-eight weeks and according to all the signs she was good to go, except for one thing, Ginny hadn’t turned. This was a concern two weeks previous where Doctor Reagan’s PA gave Linda some exercises she could do that would encourage her baby to move into the proper head-down position. Linda was faithful to the breech-correcting routines, from a breech tilt where she laid down on her bedroom floor and put her hips up on a short stack of pillows, raising her pelvis up above her head, to getting down on her knees with her arms on the floor ahead of her in an effort to open up her uterus to make more room for Ginny’s head. Neither routine worked, and there she was the day before her scheduled delivery in one of South Highland Women’s Center exam rooms being tended to by Doctor Reagan himself. Her belly was uncovered and glistened from the ultrasound jelly used during the ultrasonography. Doctor Reagan used these images to determine the baby’s breech position – bottom down heading into the birth canal instead of her head presenting like it should. He stood at her right side and spread the gel over Linda’s belly and felt with both his hands for the baby’s buttocks at the base of Linda’s abdomen just outside the lowest point of her uterus. Once he found it he pushed in firmly underneath the baby’s position and lifted her rear free of the more constrained area of Linda’s uterus. The pressure was intense for Linda who was grateful her bladder had yet to refill.

Once the baby was dislodged, the doctor pushed with his right hand below Linda’s belly, cupping the baby’s rump and going up her abdomen while he pulled down where the baby’s head was positioned, simultaneously rotating the unborn infant counterclockwise until he could feel the baby’s head lodge low into the narrower part of her uterus engaging the birth canal. Ginny’s slow-motion somersault felt like everything was being anatomically rearranged inside Linda’s body and once the move had reached its terminus, Linda shuddered a chill that seemed to fan a nauseating resettling of her own organs. “That should do it,” he said, wiping the gel off his hands with a white terrycloth towel. “A nurse will be in to clean you up.” And with that he was out the door of the exam room.

Linda laid there on the exam table and caressed her belly with her hands feeling for her baby’s movement. She moved them carefully over her surface, pausing at each position, waiting to sense the infant settling in to her new position as she had imagined her to do. But, she didn’t feel a thing.

*****

“Do you know a Doctor Raymond DeVilliers?” Ian asks as he pours the remaining Ensure from the can into the cath tip syringe. “He’s a neonatologist. Nice guy. Helped me wrap my brain around what you did to Ginny.” The can is empty and the milky cream-colored fluid slowly sinks through the tube. “External cephalic version. You turned Ginny the day before Linda delivered.” Just before the syringe completely evacuates with Ensure, Ian follows it up with a shot of Gatorade, orange mixing with the remnants of the Ensure. It looks like a Julius.

“You’ve done those a hundred times, right? Usually with a monitor and a follow-up ultrasound, but there’s no record of that.”

He sets down the Gatorade bottle while he still holds the feeding syringe with his other hand up as high as he can given what little slack is coming out of Gray’s nose. With his free hand Ian reaches over and pulls a document off the wall and brings it under the light coming through the hole in the door and reads aloud. “‘Baby Girl McDaniel. CAT-scan indications of blunt force trauma, brain bleed under fontanelles.’ Doctor Richard Bryant, the pediatrician you hand off to. That’s his report, the one we never heard about.” Ian holds the document in front of Gray’s face so he can read it, too. He doesn’t. Ian lets it fall to the concrete floor.

“So, you turned Ginny, a practice frowned upon in OB circles, even in those days, and damaged her brain enough for it to bleed into her fontanelles. And the next day you strip away the myelin from her neurons with an overdose of pitocin.” He picks up the Gatorade and pours another shot. “She never had a chance.”

Ian drinks what’s left in the bottle and tosses it on the floor. It’s plastic and bounces and rolls down the imperceptible slope of the unit’s floor until it rests against the rolling door. He pulls the CAT-scan down from the wall and holds it front of Reagan. “We were told that her brain had fully developed, but for some reason it atrophied leaving little else but a brain stem.” Ian lets the film fall to the floor. Gray’s feeding tube has emptied, so Ian corks it and tapes the end of the catheter back onto Gray’s face. He now takes the seat in front of Gray and leans in on his knees, dead-on to him.

“On her second day of life they’re telling us she’s brain dead. All she does is seizure, no suck reflex, low Apgar. A neurologist tells us to let her go, ‘a tough decision,’ he says.”

*****

Baby McDaniel’s isolette was parked diagonally along with a half-dozen other infant incubators in Highland Memorial’s small Newborn Intensive Care Unit. It was relatively new then without much consideration given the ergonomics of parent-involved care in the NICU, arranged more for the logistics of nursing care, access and monitoring. Parents were just one more thing that got in the way. Any who accessed the NICU had to scrub in and dawn gowns that would cover street clothes and booties that covered shoes. So attired was Ian.

Linda remained an inpatient at Highland having had an emergency C-section so she was already clad in a gown and semi-reclined in an industrial Lay-Z-Boy next to Virginia’s clear cocoon. The little family was in between doctor visits and vitals and Linda had just shut her eyes while Ian stood nearby, studying everything he could take in of his daughter. One of the tending nurses walked behind Ian and managed to drop a stainless steel tray upon which were some type of instruments. The tray and its accessories crashed to the floor disrupting the reverence of such a context. Ian never took his eyes away from Ginny, though, and witnessed something that manifested the antithesis of what they had been told. Ginny opened her eyes and turned her head in Ian’s direction, from the source of the sound. She heard it and she responded. A transfer to a children’s hospital and an MRI confirmed that Virginia did indeed have a full brain, it was her white matter that atrophied, axons that lost their myelin inhibiting the transmission of neural signals between the cerebrum and lower brain centers.

“The neurologist was wrong. Up to that point I thought all you guys were gods, saving lives and healing people and fixing things and delivering babies. But you’re not. You’re just regular people.” That last thought is reconsidered. “Well, not you. You’re a fucking butcher.”

Ian pulls another photo from the wall behind him and puts it up in front of Gray’s face. It is a class picture where Virginia is placed in the front row of students in her special red wheelchair.

“She was a fourth-grader when she died. She could read, do math, talk to us by sign language and a computer. Her brain was intact. She lost her white matter to you, but her grey matter was all there.”

He sets the picture down on a box.

“And her heart was all there. She survived respiratory therapy five, six times a day, every day of her life. Percussion, suctioning, inhalers – Albuterol, Alupent, and Atropine to decrease her secretions. She was tube fed every two hours. She never made it out of diapers, and she never spoke. See a pattern here, Doctor Reagan? All I really wanted was for you to know what you did to my little girl.”

He stands and turns to the wall of records, the names of mothers and babies, the attestation of lives cruelly affected.

“All the rest of this was gravy – those mothers, your wife. My wife asked me for a divorce before she killed herself, otherwise I’d have brought her by for a visit, too.”

Ian’s emotional detachment in his diatribe is not an indication to Gray that the rest of this is going to go well and as Ian takes his seat again he notices a change in Gray’s eyes, one he hasn’t seen since Sunday. They are widening under his retreating brow as much as they can under the duress of the duct tape. Were his mouth free Ian might see it open autonomically to accommodate his body’s increased need for oxygen. His nostrils flare slightly instead.

Ian is getting a little louder. “You’re a doctor. You’ve watched people die, I’m sure.”

*****

The McDaniels took a weekend trip to Monterey to visit family four days before Virginia passed away. She was doing well and the coast had just cleared of an aggressive tropical depression that blew down signs and a few trees, but nothing that would keep the McDaniels at their home in Highland on a beautiful Fall weekend. They left on a Friday afternoon and arrived at Ian’s sister’s home that evening. The air in Monterey still smelled of its tropical trespasser, having roiled its atmosphere with dust and foreign particles mixed with domestic creating a gas cocktail that smelled of a flooded river. The thought never occurred to Ian nor Linda nor Ian’s sister that the tropical depression may tout exotic molecular impurities vaporized and inhaled by one who would not have the immune system to naturally process and kill the airborne threat, and by Saturday morning Ginny was desaturating and her lungs were filling with fluid.

The McDaniels made their way back to Highland by midday, struggling to keep Ginny’s oxygen saturation at ninety percent on a flow of five liters. They called Ginny’s pediatrician from a pay phone along the way who was kind enough to be waiting at their home when they pulled into the driveway. Inside, the doctor listened to Ginny’s lungs and noticed a pink powdery accumulation around her nose and mouth. Her oximeter showed eighty four percent and her liter flow was maxed.

“Her pulmonary alveoli are disintegrating,” the pediatrician said to Ian and Linda. “This makes it increasingly difficult, if not impossible for her to exchange oxygen.” He gently swabbed the corner of Ginny’s mouth with this finger and showed it to her parents. “This powdery substance is her lung tissue.” Ginny watched the three who surrounded her. “Her lungs are filling with fluid as well. There’s no amount of oxygen that would adequately sustain her. We could intubate her, buy her a week or two.” He paused in the inevitable.

“Or?” Ian asked.

“Or we can make her comfortable here, away from clinical interruptions.”

And they did. Ian called his parents who lived in California at the time and apprised them of Ginny’s turn, fighting for composure with every word. He then held the phone to Ginny’s ear as they said their goodbyes, just to the point where Ian could hear his mother sobbing and he brought the handset away from Ginny’s hearing. He told his parents he’d call them later and disconnected. Linda took her turn and dialed her parent’s number, waited and connected. When her mother picked up, Linda froze in the simultaneous effort to keep herself together and somehow break the news that they were calling so Ginny could, in a sense, say goodbye. But, she could not. Ian could hear his mother-in-law on the other end, Linda? Linda? Is everything okay? and gently took the phone from Linda’s ear and repeated for her parents what he had done for his.

Ginny slipped into a coma not long after, as her pediatrician said she would. Linda and Ian held her together and separately, taking turns but never far away from her as she continued her pulmonary descent, through that night, through Sunday and on until Monday morning. In the early hours Ginny’s breathing had succumbed to the pressure of her failing lungs taking shallow rattled breaths about every twenty seconds. Then thirty. Ian and Linda were sitting on their bed, facing each other, their legs crossing, both cradling their dying daughter when she took her last breath. And they held each other and they cried over her still, peaceful little body.

“Wait a minute,” Ian says to Gray with a thought suddenly dawning on him. “Do you even have kids?” Gray closes his eyes. “You don’t! So you can’t even imagine what that’s like. You couldn’t, you’re incapable.”

Ian stands and folds his chair and leans it out of the way against the side wall. He takes the adirondack by its armrests just to each side of Gray’s wrists and rotates the chair and Gray half way around facing the closed rolling door and the polished white bathtub. He clicks on the overhead lamp and the tub’s parabolic and gloss increase its light reflecting it up into Gray’s face.

“Linda died in that tub.” Ian rummages through Virginia’s box and finds a roll of cloth medical tape. Then standing upright he tears off four short strips, sticking each just barely on the edge of one of the arms of the chair and then stows the tape back in the box. He leans the adirondack back and begins a procedure that is not unfamiliar to him – with each small swatch of cotton adhesive tape he catches the twitching eye lashes of Gray’s right upper eye lid with one end and secures the other end to his brow. Then the upper left side, then the lashes below them, taping them to his cheek, and then the same with the lower right side. He brings Gray back to his upright position, who is now unable to close his eyes. Gray is trembling, barely able to breathe through his nose in his newfound panic. Ian finds a corner of the duct tape on Gray’s mouth and pulls it off in one slow and steady move. Gray gasps his next breath, breathing easier now, the panic notwithstanding.

“I’m sorry!” says Gray in suspicious awareness of his own peril. “I’m sorry, Ian. I’m sorry about your girl, I’m sorry!”

Ian takes his Leatherman out of its sheath on his belt and unfolds a blade.

Posted in To Risk

puta madre

23  

SWATCHES OF BURLAP THE SIZE OF QUILTS lay on the sidewalk and driveway of the Reagan home and two men tend to the landscaping, one riding a mower and the other edging along with a two-stroke powered weed-whacker with little puffs of oiled smoke spitting out the end opposite the whacking. The mowing rider stops his machine, resting it in neutral, and removes its large clippings catcher, hauls it to one of the burlap throws and dumps it empty and returns to the Thursday ritual of the Reagan home lawn care. The sonic throng of it all masks the squeak of the brakes and the idle of Elaine’s Camry that has come to stop at the curb near the pile of grass. She removes her keys from the ignition, grabs a manilla envelope from the passenger seat and gets out of the car. She walks up the driveway in sensible heels, a Halogen seamed pencil skirt, and a burgundy tunic, turning two heads away from lawn care to the lovely distraction. They extinguish the motors of their machines and with them silenced, the mid-afternoon spectacle of Elaine’s appearance is then complemented by the sound of the landing of her heels on the Reagan stone aggregate concrete driveway. The hush of the machines and the clop of the heels rousts Pam from around the side of the garage, her Golden trailing behind. They meet at the top of the driveway. Pam is considerably shorter. Were the detective staking them out at this point he would see a different exchange from before, something more civil, even symbiotic.

The mowing man looks at his cell phone. The one with the trimmer stands like a rocker, his feet shoulder width apart, the Husqvarna slung over his shoulder like an electric guitar, and watches the two women. The one in the skirt hands over a manilla envelope. Pam removes the documents from within it and carefully scans each page.

She looks at the signatures. Gray’s isn’t quite Gray’s, an indecipherable mark he has scribbled a million times, but this one is detached, less nonchalant than what appears on thousands of charts held in file boxes stacked in neat rows in a storage unit. A third and ironic signature has been added as instructed, embossed by the notary seal of the same.

Pamela Reagan. Gray Reagan (or something to that effect). Elaine Southwick. Signed, sealed, delivered.

Pam slides the documents back into the envelope.

“Thank you, Elaine. Do you have Gray’s cell phone?” Elaine nods. “May I have it back, please?”

“It’s in my car,” she says and she turns from Pam to walk back down the driveway. Pam walks with her.

“When this is all settled and the funds accrue, I’ll need your help in getting them disbursed,” says Pam as they pass by the waiting trimmer man. He rotates around with them as they do with the head of the trimmer making a wide arc and comes up a hundred eighty degrees to a stop, just behind the Retriever.

“Settled? You’re pretty optimistic. We’re accomplices, Pam. I’m afraid all of your money will go to defense attorneys.”

“I’m hoping my phone call to Detective Alvarez took care of that this morning. As far as the authorities are concerned, it’s a closed case.”

“What did you tell them?” asks Elaine.

“I said I had been in touch with Gray, that he’s no longer missing.”

“But it’s not over, Pam. He’s still in that storage unit. What’s Ian going to do with him?”

“I guess it’s all up to Mr. McDaniel at this point. Maybe we should turn him in. He abducted him, he’s guilty,” says Pam. Elaine shoots a look back over her shoulder to her admiring lawn care specialist.

“He doesn’t understand what we’re saying,” Pam says.

“We can’t turn him in.”

“You know where he’s holding Gray?” Pam asks.

“He’s in a -”

“Don’t tell me, Elaine. Knowing makes me even more of an accomplice. I have an idea, but it could be anywhere. If we turn him in, Gray will be rescued and Mr. McDaniel will have to face what I’m sure he’s prepared to face. He’s had to have thought it through at this point.”

“If Gray dies, it’s murder and there will be an investigation,” Elaine says.

“If Gray lives he will testify and there will be more charges than just against Ian. He’s not going to roll over on this. He’s going to see that you and I pay for what we’ve done. We’re accomplices. We can’t turn him in.” 

Pam pauses. They’ve reached the car. She sees the fear in Elaine’s face and her point. This isn’t going to end well, or at the very least, it’s going to be very complicated. Elaine is spooked in Pam’s silence and thinking. She watches Pam’s eyes dart about, up, to the right, then down, right, left.

Elaine’s eyes dart over Pam’s shoulder to find the man on the mower who is now watching them at her car with his cell phone to his ear, and then to the man with the trimmer, still standing at parade rest, fixed on the ladies, waiting for the moment he can pull the cord and throttle up his trimmer. The malaise of it all is going right to her paranoia. She breathes faster. She puts her hands to her face and slides her open fingers up and into her hair. A moan surfaces from within her driven by the dread that’s growing as she stands there with the momentum of it turning into a scream. The neighbor lady across the street steps out of her front door to feign getting the mail she had picked up earlier just to be a spectator of what’s about to unfold. She wasn’t disappointed the last time these two got together. The nosey woman’s movement catches Pam’s eye and brings her out of her critical mode to catch Elaine as her body starts a scream-perpetuating shudder. Pam reaches up to Elaine’s wrists and pulls them and her into her body, tight. She can feel Elaine shaking against her. She releases her wrists and envelopes Elaine with her arms, drawing her even closer, and whispers in her ear, “I’ve been in worse scrapes than this.” Elaine holds her breath. “We’ve got a lot of work to do if we’re going to liquidate his assets and start on reparations, especially if we run a risk of being indicted.” Elaine lets the breath go and holds on to another.

“I’ll talk with my attorneys to get that going and chat with them about our predicament – attorney, client privilege. We’ll see what they recommend.”

Elaine lets that breath go and settles back into a more regular respiratory rate coming off the panic.

“Get yourself together, Ms. Southwick.” 

Elaine opens the passenger door to retrieve Gray’s phone and hands it over to Pamela. The woman across the street now at the mailbox has no sense of inconspicuousness. The man on the mower, sensing, perhaps that this convo is coming to an end snaps his cell phone shut. Pam pockets the phone and her dog stands in anticipation of her master moving. “I’ll let you know what I find out,” she says.

They part, Elaine walks around to the driver side of her car and Pam and her dog walk the curved stoney driveway, and the two-stroke Husqvarna and the Toro commercial riding lawn mower start in synchronicity and move back into the lines of the Reagan’s front yard manicure.

WHILE ELAINE AND PAM were discussing his fate, Ian had put Serena through what has now become routine – a blindfold, a ride, an arrival. Ian has her seated on the folding chair in the small space between Gray and the back wall of the storage unit and removes the bandana from her eyes. Early afternoon light streams through the peep-hole, the only light in the chamber, but enough to be near the same exposure her pupils have pulled and as she blinks them open she sees before her Gray Reagan, seated, bound, with tape over his mouth. Ian learned with Laura that it is best to keep it there.

Serena sits and stares at the doctor for a long time. Ian has disappeared into the shadows and watches her respond as she takes in the sight before her. A decade has rolled on since the last time Doctor Reagan and Serena were in the same room together, a delivery suite where she was on an obstetric labor table, feet in stirrups, knees high. She is no longer the home-schooling beautiful mother and wife of Detective Alvarez. She’s seventeen now, reverted in a memory she has suppressed for just as long in the presence of the man culpable of traumatizing her then.

“Puta madre,” she whispers on the release of her controlled breathing. “The last time I saw you was when you upped my meds to induce me. Her heart beat was gone and my labor wasn’t starting.”

Serena leans back on the folding chair and locks her heels on the connecting rung of the bottom brace and spreads her legs. Her boot-cut, low-rise jeans cover her pelvis, but it’s not hard to imagine the scene.

“Your nurse left, too, called out to go help you with something else, and then they started, the contractions. My water broke. I tried not to push. Who would deliver my baby?”

The escalation of the question is matched by her heartbreak. Gray stays locked on to her stare. She reels it back in and breathes deep.

“I pushed her into this world already dead.”

She was calling out screaming for someone to come, her baby girl laying motionless except for her limbs unfurling from the constraint of the womb she left. Serena suffered one last contraction, screaming again as she delivered the placenta, and then passed out. The suite was silent except for the beep of her heart rate monitor, the only indication that Serena hadn’t passed as well, it’s rapid beeping slowed as she dipped into oblivion.

“I was alone when I came to, my baby cold between my legs.”

Serena rocks forward on the chair bringing it abruptly down on it front legs.

“Serves me right. Seventeen. Unwed Latina mother. Doesn’t know who knocked her up.”

She leans in closer to Reagan. He does not blink.

“I could hear that in your voice in all those prenatal visits. You acting like you were doing my mother some big goddamn favor. Every time we’d leave your office she’d fall over herself thanking you. Hijo de puta,” she hisses.

Doctor Reagan closes his eyes, a combination of the autonomic response from his face being sprayed with the aerosol of Serena’s breath on the plosive P and T of puta, and his deliberate blocking her out in keeping them closed against her polemic. He doesn’t see Serena’s windup to the open fisted haymaker that strikes him on his left upper cheek, eye, and bridge of his nose. His head cannot turn in the follow through because it is has been re-attached to the back slats of the adirondack. The collision has hurt Serena’s hand, something she won’t feel, though, until later.

“Don’t you close your eyes, don’t you drift away on me.”

Blood trails from of his nose and into the cleft centered in his upper lip, then over the duct tape on his mouth, drizzling down its width to his chin. Ian leans out of the dark over Gray’s shoulder and checks on the doctor. He is awake, more so now, his breathing is deeper, raspy on the cusp of a growl but not in immediate need of clearing. Gray’s nose, though, is noticeably a bit more out of whatever whack it was in before the hit, having lost its anchor five days previous. Gray’s eyes roll up and to his left catching Ian in his exam, condemning instead of pleading, threat instead of any sort of acquiesce to his own transgressions. Serena moves back to her perch like a boxer to her corner. She reclines the chair again, this time with her feet planted on the floor. Ian gets out of the way snapping Gray’s stare off of him, his eyes moving back to their default position on Serena who is now out of spitting range.

“It was best for this little girl,” she says, slightly nodding her head as if she were in agreement with the good doctor and her mother. “Seventeen. She has her whole life ahead of her, what good’s a baby going to do?” Serena now has her eyes closed. “Twenty minutes with my dead baby girl between my legs. What good is that going to do for her?”

Doctor Reagan never did return to the delivery suite. It was his PA who closed with an evacuation procedure, cleared her uterus and stitched up a small perineal tear. Serena had lapsed back into unconsciousness after her delivery.

She is acutely conscious now, her head resting against the wall on the copy of Linda McDaniel’s fetal monitoring strip, her eyes still closed in her recollection. Her right hand is on her abdomen and she slides it down until her fingers reach the swell of her pubis bone. She pushes down and curls her fingers down in between her legs covering her vagina. Her hand cups her curve and rubs herself tenderly, painfully and she allows herself to cry.

Ian feels like a gross intruder and would sooner melt away at this point than continue to invade this moment, even in Serena’s current detachment. Her crying escalates to sobs, close to heaving, but she stops as suddenly as she open her eyes, bearing again back on Doctor Reagan. She removes her hand and rights her chair, face-to-face.

“I have a living baby now. She came from my womb moving and breathing and crying and beautiful.” She stands, her groin at the level of Gray’s face. She grabs her crotch and looks down on the man in the chair.

“I – gave – her – life,” clenching her hand on every word.

Tears roll down Ian’s face.

And then in the grace that purifies over having reached her point with the obstetrician, she bends down, leaning into his face, her hands landing on the tops of his taped wrists, locking back into his eyes for one last time into his compassionless glare.

“Mother. Fucker,” she quietly says.

BY THE TIME ELAINE had gotten back into her car at Pam’s house, Ian and Serena are back in his Ranger, stopped in a parking lot of a small retail outlet on Corby waiting for a city transit bus to light at the Thrifty’s stop just across the sidewalk. There is nothing to say. They just wait for the No.14 that goes up town to the Avenues. There are people in the bus stop shelter and Serena was ready to step out of the truck and wait with them, but Ian told her she could just wait there in the truck if she’d like, so she did. He faces a bit left, watching for number fourteen and Serena looks at her folded hands in the her lap, still in the emotional aftermath of that early afternoon. Ian catches sight of her bus a block or so down and turns to her. She looks up to see it, too, and then puts her hand on the door lever and waits. She looks at Ian and he at her for the first time since leaving the storage unit. He sees her calming, the stress of the lines in her brow fading, her lips filling back with color and fluid, her eyes express a warmth of what he hopes is gratitude. Serena sees him unsure and tentative, cautious and maybe even a bit of a threat given the level of what is at stake now. Surely he saw Steve’s academy graduation picture, his service portrait as well. He’s not stupid. He knows what he’s done.

Number 14 lumbers to a stop into the curb adjacent the shelter and appears to kneel into position for passenger egress and loading. Serena pulls the lever and opens the door, gets out and leaves Ian behind in so many ways. She is the last to board the bus for the Avenues.

Ian reverses his truck out from the stall and puts the transmission into drive, pulling to the parking lot exit with his curious load of a polished bathtub. He signals and turns left onto Riverside and drives to the next signal at Corby and turns right, drives to the next commercial entrance a few blocks down at Corby Car Wash and Fort Knox Storage and turns right into the drive that takes him to the gated entrance next to the pay phone. He pulls up to the keypad and punches in his code and the motor on the gate’s rail engages the chain that is connected to the long gate and starts its long pull to make way for Ian’s white Ford Ranger. Another moment and he’s parking just outside the storage unit on his right, number 435. Not a soul around on this Thursday afternoon except for his and the one inside, though several people might argue that one.

Ian hops out of the cab of the Ranger and walks to the rear of the truck and folds down its tailgate. He grasps the tub by its lip on the end and draws it out of the truck’s small bed just to the edge of the tub’s opposite end where it rests on the edge of the tailgate. He sets his end down and steps to the other and lifts it off and carefully rotates it clear of the truck and sets it down on the asphalt. It is manageable in weight if not a little awkward in size. He unlocks the unit and slides the bolt and lifts the rolling door. Gray is motionless with the commotion, enough to alert Ian. He steps into the unit and looks over Gray’s shoulder to his face and sees his eyes blink, staring straight ahead at the empty folding chair before him as if Serena were still there.

“Still with us?” says Ian, and he pats him on his shoulder. Satisfied that he is, Ian turns his attention back to the bath tub, stepping to it, grasping it again by its edge with both hands and dragging it into the boundary of the cement pad of the opening of the unit checking to make sure the door will clear it when it is rolled down closed. The drain end of the tub is closest to the unit’s right or south wall. Ian steps out and surveys the unit’s contents and their orientation to each other – the adirondack facing the rear wall up against which is the folding chair and to the right side in the corner leans a rolled-up area rug. There’s a box with feeding supplies and suction catheters, a suction machine, a backpack with a couple of cans of Ensure, a bottle of Gatorade and a pack of adult diapers, and behind the adirondack between it and the opening of the storage unit is the tub. Oh, and Gray Reagan. Ian checks him again, thinking the sound of the tub grinding on the cement as he slid it inside might have shaken him up a bit, but it does not appear to as Gray is now making eye contact with him. “Sit tight there and I’ll be right back to get you some lunch going.” 

He steps out of the unit and pulls the rolling door closed checking to see if anyone else has shown up in the alley, but it’s vacant still. Just the sound of the car wash.

NUMBER FOURTEEN STOPS AT THE CURB of 1st Avenue between C and D streets, kneels in its suspension’s decompression and allows a couple of riders off the bus, one of which is Serena. She makes the gentle uphill mile trek to 4th Avenue in little time, down two houses from the corner, crosses her lawn with a bit more haste to the mahogany door with the leaded glass and throws it open to her startled mom who is playing with Mikayla on the floor of the front room.

“I’m good now, Ma. Thank you for watching her,” Serena says. She’s doing her best, but not all that well in keeping her disposition as neutral as possible in front of her mother, who throws her that shorthand nonverbal combination of what’s-going-on? and are-you-okay? while keeping Mikayla aloof of the exchange. If that were still possible. Serena smiles not in her eyes and looks down at Mikayla and then back to her mother. “I think Mikayla and I will take a little nap now. Will you join us for dinner later?” Her mother gets to her feet and hugs her granddaughter tight and kisses her on each cheek. “I will see you a little later,” she says to her, and then she steps to Serena and throws her arms around her. “And I will see you a little later, too.” She holds Serena longer and tighter, until she can feel Serena’s head nod on her shoulder. “Thank you, Mama,” she says as her mom releases her embrace and walks out the open door.

Serena and Mikayla are curl up on the couple’s big bed in the afternoon sunshine dappled by the Elm tree just outside the window of the master bedroom. Mikayla is curled up, fetal and tucked into her mommy who is curled around her. They sleep.

IAN HAS MOVED THE RANGER out of the fence line of Fort Knox and has parked it in a row of stalls adjacent the car wash building dedicated to those drying and detailing their rides. He walks his way back through the gate and to the first alley on his right and back up to the unit where he deposited the tub.

Lunch for Gray is more of a transfusion than a feeding. Feeding has an implication of mastication and swallowing and Gray isn’t doing anything like that. Ian pours another syringe-full of Ensure and lets it gravity feed through the feeding tube still placed through Gray’s nose and down into his stomach, just barely. The pediatric NG-tube is precariously long enough to dangle just beyond his lower esophageal sphincter, feeding Gray the nutrient-dense liquid diet supplement. The Gatorade is next. Work on those electrolytes.

Posted in To Risk

holy shit

PART THREE

22

SLEEPING IN A PEDIATRIC INTENSIVE CARE UNIT is achieved only by the unfortunate veterans of it, most of them mothers. There is a constant white noise of HVAC air pressure with an overtone of oxygen delivered by cannula with a pitch that varies depending on the liter flow and the little nose to which the flow is intended. And then there is the background of the occasional hallway traffic, the electric motor-assisted portable x-ray machine, the soft thud of a phlebotomist’s tote, the quiet clop-clop of nurses’ Crocs. This feels arranged to a rhythm dictated by the asynchronous metronomic beats of pulse oximeters that are calibrated to sound an alarm any time a number falls out of default parameters. These are the electronic nannies that monitor heart beats, respiration rates and oxygen saturation of the little bodies to which they are connected. All the wires and connection points make the word telemetry seem hyperbolic since it is often confused with the perpetuated myth of transmitting thoughts. That would be telepathy, a channel used by many an insomniac mother to send signals to housekeeping and PICU nurses in the hall to shut the hell up. Somehow their babies sleep through it all.

For the new parent unaccustomed to oximeter alarms, any attempted REM sleep collides with a 75 decibel alarm programmed to alert attending nurses of a drop in oxygen saturation, a change in heart or respiratory rates, or to the machine’s eminent shutting down due to its batteries running out because someone forgot to plug the device into house current. While just about anybody would want to know if a child is having trouble breathing, it would seem that similar attention would be paid to keeping the oximeter from unduly panicking a parent or volunteer caretaker, amplified only by that elusive sweet spot of slumber reached just as the batteries fade.

Such is the plight of Mark Jacobsen. Despite the recent weeks of providing Laura some nocturnal respite from the PICU, he has yet to calmly wake up to an oximeter alarm, an event that happens roughly every twenty minutes. This was how he slept last night even though he was at home in his own bed. He stills hears the beeping, the alarms, the desk phone, the insertion of cassettes into IV machines and the accompanying beep for every button pushed to program the flow. Add to this Laura’s narrative from yesterday afternoon, and the combined noises make for a long night. Mark hasn’t slept for weeks, the deprivation spiking adrenaline rushes of thoughts like getting the mortgage paid, the slipping clutch in their only car, and Laura’s visit to Doctor Reagan.

In a storage unit.

Doctor Reagan is in a position where he’ll listen to you. That’s what that guy at the hospital said. And I said I’d kill him where he sits.

This morning is still early enough where he has a few hours before his shift on the forklift at the distribution center. He showers, dresses and drives to Highland Memorial. He picks up coffee in the cafeteria and makes his way to the PICU. Laura is awake, changing a diaper through the access holes of the isolette.

“Good morning.” He sets her coffee down. “How was your night?” They speak in the hush of the aural context of this sanctuary.

“The same,” she says. “He desaturated a couple of times, but we got him back in the nineties.”

“Do you want to go down and get some breakfast while I’m here? I have an hour or so.”

“They’re bringing a tray up for me,” she says. This seems all too too routine for them now, habits they would all rather resist than succumb to. The first light of dawn backlighting the high fog seen from the window, the white noise of the HVAC system changing pressure and temperature anticipating the thermal shift of daytime, and the smell of coffee punching through latent odors of Iodoform, soiled tiny diapers and soured remains of reflux signal that cusp of another successful rotation of the planet and a night passed in a PICU. Laura and Mark sip their coffee, Mark having prepared hers they way she wants it. He breathes in the aroma from the styrofoam cup and on that breath he says, “What are we doing here?”

“What do you mean?” she asks.

“What are we doing here? For Adam?”

Laura is puzzled at the question. It’s pretty obvious what they are doing in a PICU and so is her answer. “Keeping Adam alive.” Mark agrees in nodding, and fights back the swell of sadness and anger that are bi-products of their herculean efforts.

“Okay. So, what’s Doctor Reagan doing in a storage unit?”

The question makes her sick to her stomach. In the rush of yesterday’s retribution, her confrontation with Doctor Reagan and confirmation of his sociopathic avarice she had not once thought about the consequences of his situation. Her visit had served a more paramount purpose to her, something upon which she has since been able to turn a corner and not look back. Mark’s question forces her redress almost against her will.

The contradiction of her husband’s question is intensified by the isolette, the suction catheter, the feeding tube, the tape on baby Adam’s hands, holding his tiny fingers to his palm to prevent him pulling off his cannula or pulling out his NG tube or pulling loose any one of a half-dozen leads of telemetry. She considers these parallels to the man in the storage unit before she responds, and then with vitriol similar to her husband’s from the day before she answers. “He’s paying for this.” 

And the noise from the room’s sustaining efforts for little Adam – the beep of his heart rate monitor, the rotation of the infusion pump, the low hissing of two liters of oxygen through a tiny nasal cannula – increases even more the contradiction of Mark’s point.

“That’s not right, Laura.” This is obvious, too. She knows it. She might even be bothered by the morality of it were she not still basking in the satisfaction of having seen Doctor Reagan in his current state. Laura also knows that Mark has already thought this through. “What are you going to do?”

“I’ll take care of it.” He says and she believes from this point on she won’t have to worry about it.

The little planet that is Highland Memorial is in full rotation as Mark heads out to his second job, a discharged patient or two going out, a delivery of flowers going in, housekeeping busy in erasing the night’s patina on all surfaces. He steps through the giant rotating glass doors into the fog-cooled morning and stops at a bank of pay phones near the curb. He deposits a couple of coins and dials and waits. “I need to speak with someone about Gray Reagan’s kidnapping.”

Finally, someone has said it. Kidnapping. Just the fact that this word is now synthesized through the signal of a phone call validates it and puts into motion a chain of events that will accelerate the pace of this Thursday.

Tall Pike Place in hand, Detective Alvarez lights in his usual spot at the coffee shop while his devices automatically connect to its wi-fi. Two Splendas, a quick stir, full bars and 3G. He opens his laptop and his phone vibrates.

“Alvarez,” he answers. He listens. “Put him through.”

A click, and then a voice. “Doctor Reagan is in a storage unit,” it says.

“And who is this speaking, please?” says the detective.

“You probably ought to find him before the bastard dies.”

And click, the call disconnects. Alvarez presses two buttons on his phone and it connects anew.

“Trace that call and send me the origin.” He then sees the cell activity alert from the night before on the screen of his laptop, Gray Reagan’s cell number originating a call from a tower in the vicinity of the storage facility. “And I need back-up and EMT at Fort Knox Storage, Corby and Riverside.”

He gathers his devices and coffee and he’s out the door and in a moment, lights and sirens as his SUV speeds away.

IAN GRABS HIS KEYS and heads out the door. His task from the evening before, the bathtub, is finished and is now loaded into the back of his Ranger, brighter than the day it was installed in the hall bath. It sits cockeyed due to its one decorative side that is just a bit taller than the tub is deep. The other three sides are vacant where the tub once rested within its ledger nailed to the studs of the hall bathroom wall.

Ian pauses at the back of the truck bed and lifts the tailgate to its closed position. He tries to rock the tub but it is pretty secure due to its own weight. It’s not going anywhere.

“Is that coming or going?” It’s Bill walking his dog, a hybrid of a labrador and a poodle, and he is on the other side of the street following his nose back into Ian’s business. Bill should know better by now, but his failure to make any connections empathic to one who lost his wife to a bleed-out suicide is tantamount only to his inability to check his words before they leave his mouth. He walks across Glacier Drive and lights on the sidewalk dip that leads into the McDaniel driveway. “That a new tub?” he says.

Ian turns and looks at Bill, reminding himself of what life Bill comes from. The neighbor, the racquetball guy, the chicken-shit hypocrite who offers a hand and then is too freaked out to follow through. That was a lifetime ago. Dots connected, Ian says nothing in response.

“That’s great. Pretty cathartic for you to get a new one in there,” says Bill.

“This is the old one, Bill.”

That alone would shiver Bill’s backbone, but Ian’s tone in the disclosure is both unrecognizable and disconcerting enough to him and his dog to make the Labradoodle growl and then bark back at Ian, duly taking Bill aback. The last Bill saw this tub it still contained the remnants of Linda’s attempted recovery just below the nasty coagulated ring. Now it glistened. Pure. Redeemed. Regardless, Ian notes Bill’s nonverbals, his is face the same as when he saw the tub in the house, his posture is, again, in simultaneous retreat while squelching a dry heave, and his feet are finding the exit. “Hush it!” Bill barks at the dog and pulls its leash in greater restraint from Ian.

“That’s the tub? What are you going to do with it?” Bill says, his face is a shade greener.

“It’s going into storage for now,” Ian says with more purpose than his dismissive answer has. Bill is thinking a bit more than usual, suppressing an offer to help this time in recall of the regret he had in his previous offer in the house.

A Highland City meter-reader breaks through the conversation making her way to the house’s water meter with the Labradoodle pulling close behind lifting Bill away from the exchange.

“Bye, Bill.”

Ian continues around the truck to the driver’s door, gets in, starts it and backs out of his driveway onto Glacier Drive and pulls away. Bill pulls on the leash and his friendly dog relinquishes his new-found temporary interest in public servants and the two step off the unkempt lawn of the McDaniel yard while the meter-reader notes the numbers of consumption of water at this address.

ELAINE IS AT THE CENTER earlier than usual seated at her desk, more of a built-in nook away from the reception window of the office but still within the flow of the practice’s work area. She stamps a document with her notary seal and signs her name. The receptionist and the insurance coordinator walk in and raise a level of morning banter, and then the physician’s assistant and two medical assistants. Coffee starts to brew and routines commence in opening the South Highland Women’s Center only to be interrupted by Elaine as she calls everyone to the reception area.

“Good morning,” she says and they respond in kind. It is a matured respect that they have for her, a professional revere with little sentiment vested. She has made it a habit to work closely with them while revealing very little herself personally.

“No more appointments for Doctor Reagan. Please make sure all existing appointments and patients are re-assigned to Doctor Akhim. Highland OB has agreed to take overload at this time.”

She pauses and searches her mind assessing whether that was adequate. She then searches the faces before her for any reflection of the gravity of what she has just previewed to the staff. Doctor Reagan’s PA registers something as he thinks Elaine’s pronouncement through. His face changes from neutral to concern. The biller and receptionist are more concerned with this situation’s new logistics, and the medical assistants exchange glances. No one asks anything in the quiet, and then the phone begins its day’s signaling of all needs obstetric. Elaine leaves the office with her documents, and the whispering starts.

THIS MORNING WILL NOT BE SO QUIET for the office help at Fort Knox Storage. The lock-checking man is throwing the bolt on the office’s glass door when he is confronted by a badge-wielding Detective Alvarez, behind whom in the parking lot is a growing complement of uniformed officers in two police cruisers, then punctuated by a black armored personnel carrier filled with six members of Highland’s SWAT team. The lock-checking man is awed by the spectacle and almost doesn’t understand the detective’s edict.

“Show me a current list of your renters,” says Alvarez.

Alvarez enters the office and now it is the lock-checking man barking the orders to one of two young women, the accounts-receivable manager who just happens to have the short stack of wide green-bar on her desk. She lifts the stack up and into Alvarez’s direction in complete contempt for her co-worker who has no place in barking orders to anyone. The detective flops the stack on the reception counter and quickly thumbs through the connected pages to the M’s, at the top of which is the name McDaniel. His finger traces right to the unit column and finds a number, 448.

“Get the gate open,” the detective says to the lock-checking man who quickly exits the rear of the office into the maze of storage units, the shortest route to the gate by the car wash on Corby.

“Unit four – four – eight,” he speaks into a handheld radio and then vacates the office.

Alvarez’s SUV leads the two cruisers and the SWAT vehicle through the gate and queue up behind the lock-checking man who has met them there. “Show me,” says the detective as he gets out of the SUV. He follows the walk-running man to the first alley where the two stop and the lock-checking man points. The detective signals the SWAT vehicle to move forward while one of the cruisers quickly advances past the two to the other end of the drive to secure it. A uniformed officer steps out of the remaining cruiser and secures the entrance to Fort Knox where an ambulance has now appeared. Detective Alvarez steps onto the small platform on the side of the personnel carrier and tells its driver to pull up an adjacent alley. They drive past the first, turn right, right again and again, and then slowly descend the alley of the 400s and roll to a position just outside the unit that holds Doctor Reagan.

From inside the unit, the light bouncing off all that is outside is coming through the hole in the rolling door and projects the scene. Gray watches the upside down image as the SWAT truck rolls to a stop, his eyes riveted on the optical trick of the camera obscura. The contrast of the white letters on the black truck make it easy to identify, even inverted.

This is it. It’s over.

Gray begins to cry and strains to see through what few thick tears his dehydrated eyes can produce. He sees the image of a man riding on the outside of the truck dismount, and doors open front and rear with black uniformed men gathering around the first man. He points, he is handed something – the image isn’t clear enough to tell – and then Gray watches the group move out of the field of view. Gray waits and listens. All he hears is the ramping whine of the dryers at the car wash.

Detective Alvarez has been handed bolt-cutters and is leading his band of rescuers down the alley.

All Gray sees now is the SWAT vehicle. He calls out the best he can with his mouth taped and waits. He calls again, louder. Again, louder. He is screaming now.

The little troop stops short of the second unit from the end as Alvarez advances to the door, places the jaws of the bolt cutter on the padlock and cuts it. A SWAT member clears the slide of the lock and throws the bolt open, rolls out of the way while a second moves into position to lift the door. The remaining team readies their weapons and the door is violently thrown up, quickly flooding the storage unit with the light of day.

The cacophony ceases, both inside their heads and outside with them in the alley, except for the blasting drying fans. Assault weapons lower automatically as their shooters’ eyes draw away from sites and into the contents of the storage unit. The one who threw the bolt has his back against the buff brick wall doing the double-peek move around the corner into the unit, stopping on his second pass. Alvarez is both incredulous and puzzled. Seconds crawl by as the scene sinks in and the lock-checking man who has now made his way up behind the offensive line looks over their shoulders and says, “What was it that you were looking for?” The fans wind down making it possible to hear the next washing cycle commence on another car.

Alvarez scans the contents of the storage unit. There are rows of boxes neatly stacked five high, each marked in black letters that spell Virginia along the back wall. There is a head and a footboard for a twin bed stacked between the boxes and a twin mattress and bed rails bolstered by a dresser, then two night stands stacked, another column of boxes and a liquid oxygen vessel. Along the left side is a stack of apple boxes hastily marked Linda in black letters, each one less legible than the one below.

Next to them with its back against the stack of apple boxes is a sea-foam green adirondack chair with two boxes stacked upon its seat, both skiwampus with the reclined angle of the perch. Next to the chair is the red stroller, collapsed and upright. On the right wall are a pair of bicycles and a bike trailer for kids that is collapsed, its wheels removed, precariously stacked on top of the bikes. Holding these in place are more boxes marked kitchen, china, books and a few boxes without any markings at all, all of which are the indispensable detritus of dead people.

This is nothing like Detective Alvarez thought he’d find inside. He keys his radio. “Alvarez. Ten-22 ambulance and units at Fort Knox.” A blip, a quick buzz then silence. “Copy,” chirps back on the small radio speaker.

THE AVENUES MAKE UP Highland’s gentrified grid system of twelve square blocks with numeric avenues running west/east and alphabetic avenues going north/south. Neighborhood home values are on the rise with each restored turn-of-the-century structure occupied by young two-income families migrating from the more densely populated urban streets of the Bay Area. This grid lays on the leeward slope of north Highland with home values increasing with each numbered street, prices paid for the view. Steve and Serena settled somewhere in between in a southern exposed three-bedroom, two-bath bungalow set in the middle of the block, outside of which is now parked on 4th Avenue a white Ford Ranger with a bathtub in its bed.

Ian is at the home’s mahogany double-paneled front door glazed with leaded glass cut and set Frank Lloyd Wright style just above a dentil shelf with four evenly spaced corbels, having knocked and waiting. The glass is backlit which fades with the approach of the person who is about to open it. A bolt turns, and then its steel latch pressed to draw the latch bolt from the strike freeing the door to swing open and reveal Serena Alvarez.

“Serena Esposito?” says he.

“Serena Alvarez,” says she with a hint of a roll on the R in each name.

“Ian McDaniel,” he says, but his introduction is interrupted when Serena’s daughter peeks around the door between its heavy frame and her mother’s legs.

“Who are you?” the precocious little girl asks.

“Well, that’s a good question, isn’t it,” he answers back with a smile, the first he has had in months. Serena senses this as a bit creepy and starts to push the door closed.

“Move back, Honey, so I can shut the door.”

“Mrs. Alvarez, please. I’m here to speak with you about Doctor Reagan. Gray Reagan.”

Serena’s suspicion of who the man at her door may be is both abrupt and tantalizing. The hesitation in her reply is filled with the critical process of weighing all the possible consequences of what she might do or say next.

Ian’s patience has been practiced throughout his adult life for this moment. He suspects he saw a micro-expression of surprise on her face when he mentioned Reagan, to be followed more by her expression of contempt when she makes the decision to ask him, “And what about Doctor Reagan?”

“You and I have something in common,” he asserts and this is too much for Serena to resist. She calculates again, bringing him inside, hearing him out to confirm suspicions.

Serena takes Mikayla by her hand and gently pulls her out of the way of the door opening it to allow Ian entrance to her home. He clears the door and she closes it.

“Wait here,” she says as she takes Mikayla into the kitchen and finds something to keep her busy. Ian stands in his position and surveys the cozy front room, nicely appointed, modest, with family photographs set along a small shelf that caps the wainscoted walls, one of which is of Detective Alvarez, matted and framed in rosewood, graduating from the Police Academy.

Holy shit.

As this dawns on Ian – exactly just what he has stepped into – Serena returns from the kitchen discerning exactly what it may be that the two them have in common.

“So,” she says, “what happened to your kid?”

He can’t let her know that he knows, he can’t break the nice-guy, Robinhood-esque persona he held at the door when it opened a moment ago, but he can’t perpetuate the direction Serena is going with this conversation. Patience gone, he cuts to the chase.

“If you had the chance to speak with Doctor Reagan, would you?”

And this confirms Serena’s initial assessment of the man at her door. It is him. What he is saying, though, overrides her civic duty, the wife of a cop.

“Is this something you can arrange for me?”

“Right now.” Though he hadn’t counted on a kid being there.

“See Reagan right now?” she clarifies, her vitriol throttling in, the same rage he saw with Laura. Ian banked on this.

Serena pauses again weighing it all out. She would be an accessory if this is indeed some kind of abduction. In her hand at her side is her cell phone and now having made up her mind she brings it forward in plain view and hits a speed dial numeral. She’s giving Ian nothing at this point, stoic. Ian hides his panic in the breath he is holding. Serena has the phone to her ear and waits for the call to connect.

“Mom, I have to run somewhere, Can you come over and stay with Mikayla? Just a little while.” She listens. Ian shudders and exhales through his nose. “Okay,” she says and ends the call.

“She’s just a block away. Leave now and pick me up at the corner, D Avenue.”

DETECTIVE ALVAREZ IS AT Highland Memorial. He’s talking to Laura Jacobsen out in the mezzanine by the elevators and the entrance to the PICU. They face each other. Laura stands with her arms folded, head up.

“That was your husband who called me this morning from the pay phones here at the hospital?” says Alvarez in his escalated timbre, dropping the interrogative tone, though, at the end of each question making them sound declarative.

“Yes, it was,” says Laura.

“And is your husband involved in the disappearance of Doctor Reagan?”

“No, God no.”

“Do you know where Doctor Gray Reagan is, Mrs. Jacobsen?”

“He’s in a storage-”

“And how do you know Doctor Gray Reagan is in a storage unit, Mrs. Jacobsen?” 

“Because I saw him there.”

That is the response his line of questioning was after. Now a new line is in order.

“You have a child here in this hospital, is that right?”

“My son is here.”

“Since the day he was born, is that right?”

“Yes.”

“Delivered by Doctor Gray Reagan, is that right?”

“Yes.”

“Gives you motive, Mrs. Jacobsen. Do you know what motive is?”

“It’s-”

“It’s the reason why people do crazy things, like kidnap a doctor because he happened to mess up your kid.”

“I didn’t-”

“That’s vigilantism – people taking the law into their own hands.”

“I only saw him-”

“In the storage unit. I was there this morning after I got the call from your husband.”

“A man came here-”

“Ian McDaniel. Thanks to Doctor Reagan his kid’s dead. I’m watching him, too. It was his storage unit I busted open this morning. You know what I found?”

“Oh, my God, Doctor Reagan?”

“A bunch of boxes, bikes and a beach chair.”

Alvarez’s volume is now turning heads in the hallway. He stops to collect himself while Laura deals with the nonsense of what the detective found this morning. Her head is bowed, arms still folded, Alvarez looking now at the top of her slowly shaking head. The pause goes long as Laura’s very tired mind pulls together a link in what Detective Alvarez just spat at her.

“What kind of beach chair?” she says.

Alvarez immediately knows the intent of this question.

“A big wood one.”

“Bluish-green?”

“You’ve seen it, too?” Alvarez asks, much less patient than he was a moment ago.

Laura hesitates to answer. The detective already laid it out for her – motive – and now she’s admitting to opportunity, or she already has.

“Yes, Doctor Reagan was sitting in it.”

Detective Alvarez shakes his head in disbelief, more puzzled.

“Well, he’s not anymore. He’s not missing anymore. Mrs. Reagan called me after our little raid on Mr. McDaniel’s storage unit, saying she got ahold of Doctor Reagan this morning and he’s not missing anymore. Do you see why I am confused, Mrs. Jacobsen?”

Now it is Laura who is incredulous.

“Because according to your husband,” he continues, “I needed to find Doctor Reagan before the bastard dies.”

“He’s just very angry-”

“Let me say something to you, Laura. You, your husband, Ian McDaniel – you’re not alone. Doctor Gray Reagan is a son-of-a-bitch, he’s hurt a lot of people. But outside the law – outside of me – there is nothing you can do about that.”

Yes, there is. Laura has done it.

“I can’t put enough together in all this to come up with a crime,” the detective continues, “not until your husband called me. You have him stand down, you understand what I’m saying?”

There it is, that moment at which most people experience a different sort of mitigation – a conclusion that could have lead to ends more dire or panicked, did not – and not by her intervention, but by the happy accident of timing, not by any regrettable deed or testimony, but by the cosmic coincidence of the wrong place at the right time. Laura nods her head at the detective’s ultimatum. She will have him stand down. Done. They both will since they will never see Doctor Reagan again.

“You take care of that precious baby of yours,” he says as he turns toward the bank of elevators and walks to them knowing whatever attempt he made to put the fear of the law in this woman was in vain. She had a far more important purpose to her days and weeks. Laura stays where she stood with the detective, arms still folded across her abdomen, her head turned now to the view outside of Highland Memorial, waiting for the elevator’s signal of arrival, its doors to open, for the detective to enter, press a button, for the doors to close, before she turns to the entrance of the PICU, back to that unconditional context that floats above all else, with a Mona-Lisa smile on her lips.

Posted in To Risk

down to business

21

PARKED OUTSIDE IN THE NIGHTTIME AVENUES of the Alvarez Arts and Crafts bungalow is the detective’s SUV. Inside the vehicle the screen of Alvarez’s mounted laptop lights out of sleep and displays Doctor Gray Reagan’s now-active cell phone activity and its location at the Fort Knox Storage facility on Corby.

INSIDE THE STORAGE UNIT, Ian, Elaine and Gray wait for the call to connect.

“Hello?” says Pam’s voice through the speaker. Her tone is completely nonchalant, stoic regardless of her phone’s identification of this caller.

“It’s Elaine, Pam. I need you to meet me at the 7-Eleven on Corby. Do you know where I mean?”

“Right now?” Pam asks, as if now is a good time.

“Right now,” says Elaine. And the call disconnects.

Ian pulls a Red Bull and a bottle of chocolate milk from the grocery bag. He sticks the cath-tip syringe into the end of the NG tube, opens the Chocolate Milk and pours some into the 90cc syringe.

“He needs to eat,” he says. “I’ll clean him up and make

sure he’s awake.”

Elaine lifts the roll-up door, exits and as she brings the door back down, he stops her. “She can’t know where we are.” She continues the door’s travel to a close.

Ian fills another syringe full, this time with Red Bull, and he looks down over the mess that is Gray Reagan. In the middle of the sterile bronze area on his abdomen is the puncture wound feeding a trickle of blood. Nothing percutaneous, just a surface gash. He watches it, the blood piling up into a drop that will eventually heave over the roll of fat and slide down his side. He’s reminded of similar trickles leaving Virginia’s wound, the creamy thick formula laced with phenobarbital ooze from under the gauze dressing and the nipple, or the clearer electrolytic fluid stained by the excoriation of her stoma rubbed raw by what little play the catheter had in her side. All of the sudden Ian realized that none of this was normal.

Only the frequency of the dressing changes, the catheter replacements, and the feedings made this normal. He had even created certain hacks in caring for this wound that would never heal, like applying denture adhesive around the stoma to seal the wound and keep it from fissuring and bleeding. In the time since Virginia’s dying, all that at one time seemed perfectly normal to Ian and Linda and Virginia had now returned to execrable, lamentable, unimaginable, something no one could ever possibly consider doing to their own child. Especially one as pure, precious and defenseless as Virginia.

THE SHADOWS ARE PRETTY FRESH in the Alvarez home, light fixtures having just gone out. Serena has said nothing more to Steve after the eruption at the fountain and Steve was at least wise enough to stay quiet on the very long short drive home. She is in bed, alone, awake. He is on the couch in the living room, alone, dozing. His phone vibrates him away from that front porch of REM sleep, making a racket on the glass top of the coffee table. He silences it before the third shake and pulls a difficult-to-come-by focus on the screen. Cell Activity Alert, it announces, a response to an algorithm that pushes notifications from his laptop. The metadata surveillance on Gray’s phone triggered the alert, a moot point by now, though. It was all just as he had thought. He’s bathed in the glow of a big screen showing the top ten plays of the day on SportsCenter. He powers down the TV, extinguishes his phone and leaves the couch to wanders off into the dark house, past Mikayla’s door and into the room he shares with Serena. He strips down to his boxers and climbs into bed respecting the space between them.

THE CORBY 7-ELEVEN is one of the busiest stores in the region with the majority of its traffic drawn for beer and cigarettes. The parking lot turns most patron cars about every six minutes, a serial procession of parking and departing that condenses at 7:45a, noon, 5:00p and midnight. This very early Wednesday morning’s makeup of which is replete with an older Ford F-150, an assortment of high mileage Hyundais peppered with some vintage eighties muscle and a bombed-out Coupe de Ville. Pam’s Mercedes looks like a coiffed French poodle in the city pound, and she looks a bit less nervous than one as she waits behind the wheel. She has been waiting for this.

Elaine comes from inside the 7-Eleven and opens the driver door of the Mercedes. “I’m driving,” she says, inarguably. Pam gets out and walks to the passenger side while Elaine gets behind the wheel. She produces a red bandana that she purchased inside the convenience store. She removes its tag and hands it to Pam now seated. “Put it on.”

“Really?” Pam says.

Elaine opens her door and makes quick egress of the car and walks.

“Oh, okay.” Elaine doesn’t stop. “Okay!” Pam shouts and she blindfolds herself. Elaine pivots and gets back in this familiar coupe, starts the engine, flicks it into reverse and backs out of the stall, asserting its rank among the dross of this convenient lot.

IAN POURS RED BULL into the cath-tip syringe gravity feeding Gray. It fizzes from the residual of chocolate milk left in the syringe as Ian alternates between to the two fluids, one a quick caloric and sugary pick-me-up, the other liquid caffeine that quickly metabolizes. Were one to put a curious eye up to the three-eighths peephole drilled in the door, like the man from the old ambling pickup truck, they would see two men silhouetted against a cinderblock wall, one seated facing the wall and the other standing, right arm lifted up a bit, his hand holding a large syringe that is slowly voiding through a tube. Once it has evacuated the standing man tapes the tube end back on the seated man’s face.

Ian peels back the duct tape from Gray’s mouth and leans the adirondack back onto the folding chair. He examines Gray’s face. Gray opens his mouth as if he were facilitating a dental exam, the stench from within foul enough to drive Ian back.

“Hoo-boy,” Ian says. “I wouldn’t kiss her.”

Ian resumes the exam. It has been almost three days and the swelling in the tissue under Gray’s eyes has receded. The hematomas under each have gone from deep purple to bluish green, but the big one on the bridge of his nose retains its original hue of a dull denim-blue. Ian cuts the tape that has restrained Gray’s head since he took occupancy of the unit.

Gray’s supine position in the chair and his head’s rest between the third and fourth slat of the six-slat back keep his head still. Three days’ worth of atrophy prohibit movement as well. Had Gray the energy, he would find that his neck felt as if it were paralyzed. Ian opens several alcohol swab packets, unfolds them one by one and dabs at Gay’s oily skin, cleaning under his nose and his chin particularly, and down his neck. The facial wipe-down has created an accumulation on the floor of torn packets and spent swabs, all of which Ian gathers and discards into the backpack.

Ian then takes Gray’s head in his hands much like a chiropractor and slowly swivels it left to right and back accompanied by Gray moaning in both relief and pain. He brings it back center, Gray’s crooked nose pointing up.

“Can you tilt your head back?” An optimistic question since Gray still has no ability to move his noggin. He can do nothing. Ian takes his head by the base of his neck and pulls, drawing Gray’s head back and opening his jaw like that of a CPR mannequin. Ian looks inside Gray’s mouth, being careful not to agitate the healing that has progressed since the trauma – the clots in the sockets of the missing teeth, the split palate, the crack in the maxillary bone, and the mending of the frenulum, the little told of tissue centered up above his front teeth. It must have torn on impact with Ian’s elbow. It is a good thing that the mouth is the fastest healing part of the body. Gray’s tongue remains largely unaffected.

“I have learned,” Gray says with some tone and control, “over the course of my practice that no good deed goes unpunished.” Ian has no idea how to take this and before he can ask a clarifying question, Gray goes on, “Whatever it is you’re trying to do here, you’re going to end up in prison.” Now he makes sense.

“Oh, no question, Doctor Reagan – I’m in deep. Assault, kidnapping. I have motive and opportunity. No contest.” Gray makes eye contact with Ian. “Had I anything to live for that would be enough to make me truly afraid. But I’m not. So far, this has been worth every moment.”

The satisfaction of that last sentence still lingers in the air when Ian says, “And I’m not done yet.” Gray closes his eyes against whatever not done yet might mean.

“I want you to try moving your head from side to side, just a little at a time.” Gray can finally comply, making slow arcs with his broken nose. While Gray is engaged with this physical therapy of his neck, Ian carefully brings the adirondack upright to its front feet, setting down without a bump, while the shift in gravity makes Gray’s head movement a bit less stable. Ian reaches for and opens a bottle of water and puts it to Gray’s lips. He pours just a little in trying to avoid aspiration and yet give Gray something to work with. He then places the bottle back on the floor behind the chair. “Swish that around and spit it out.” The good patient does. Ian sees that he’s capable of taking liquid by mouth and bends down to reach for another Red Bull, inadvertently knocking the water bottle over and it rolls away toward the door, water draining out the mouth and quickly flowing across the cement floor of the storage unit to the edge of the pad where it meets the rolling door. Ian watches the flow. The grade of the floor rushes the fluid to the door and underneath it. He brings the bottle upright and opens the can in his hand.

Elaine and the blindfolded Pamela ascend the alley just outside. She stops Pamela at a door, produces a key and unlocks it, opening it to dark columns of file boxes. She grabs a flashlight from a charging station on an interior wall and turns it on. “Pam, you can take off your blindfold.”

Pam slips it down over her nose and watches the beam of the flashlight lead down the little chasm. The two walk behind it as it finds the boxes with red and yellow dots.

“Try to drink this,” Ian says. The Red Bull foams as it floods Gray’s mouth and works loose what’s left from the water rinse, dried mucous and blood that has formed in the crevasses and recesses of Gray’s cheeks and under his tongue. Ian puts his hand over Gray’s mouth. “Swallow it.” Gray swallows hard. A pink foam evacuates from his nose and he aspirates yet again, drawing a mist off that foam into is upper airway. His head flops forward in a weak attempt to cough and as his chin reaches his chest he occludes his airway even more, inhaling against both the narrowed trachea and the cough reflex spurred by the aerosol of carbonation going down it.

It’s now routine – turn on suction, pass catheter, gag reflex, expectorate, suction, clear. Ian stops the machine and listens. Gray breathes easier now. Ian presses his ear against Gray’s bare chest high on the side of his sternum. He lifts and moves to the other side and listens through another respiration cycle.

A quiet knock barely rattles the metal door.

Ian lifts up from Gray’s damp chest, grasps the adirondack by a back slat with one hand and the opposite arm rest with the other and rotates the chair one hundred eighty degrees facing the door, and then back a bit centering it under the suspended bulb. He regards the prisoner. Doctor Gray Reagan sits, restrained and naked save for his diaper, bathed in a tungsten glow, his head free resting on the back slats, a feeding tube taped to his face of many colors paling the rest of his skin from his middle-aged rounded shoulders, the slight sag of his breasts, and the protrusion of his abdomen rolling over the waistband of his Depends to his thick, flat thighs with area where hair no longer grows from the constant rub of surgical scrubs. His knees eclipse any further light that might fall beyond them. It is the best he has looked since Sunday.

Outside the unit Elaine and Pam stand, waiting, listening, Pam especially given her temporarily blinded state. The door finally lifts and Elaine escorts Pam across its threshold and Ian rolls the door closed.

“Where am I?” Pam asks, her patience at an end. Elaine removes her blindfold and Pam gets her bearing, her pupils pulling exposure, her nose drawing in the odor while she reaches clarity, making out the man in the chair before her. She resists her intuitive response, much like Elaine’s, and remains quiet, looking at a man duct-taped to a turquoise deck chair. Stripped of his scrubs, of the fondant of his practice, of the goodwill that once motivated him, he sits naked before his wife who finds her composure.

“Who’s your decorator, Gray?” She leaves him at the chair and turns to examine the tapestry of evidence adhered to the cinderblock. She reads Linda Jacobsen’s intake form, a document she formatted herself. She looks at the Jacobsen family photos of a big sister and her daddy, of an infant in an isolette. More to the middle of the wall is an array of MRI images, photographic dissections of a little brain in a progressive matrix, a photo of Virginia smiling, her belly exposed while she’s fed through a G-tube, and a finger-painted artwork. Pamela’s eyes come to rest on an image of the ten year-old Ginny in her casket.

“Is this your handiwork, Doctor Reagan?” Pam lingers here, memorizing the picture, studying the features of a beautiful lifeless face with unnaturally closed eyes and blonde curls, her arms at what used to be impossible right angles folded across her little abdomen. The reverence she feels softens her tone. “And is this your little girl, um-”

“Ian. Ian McDaniel. Yes. That’s Ginny.”

“I’m so sorry, Ian.” She says even quieter. She continues her sweep across the wall, stopping to examine each artifact, the Chamberlain delivery, the Esposito stillbirth, the Barrett emergency c-section. She takes her time, enough for Elaine to find a seat on the folding chair and for Ian to lean against a wall, arms folded, head bowed as everything becomes clearer. Pam’s gaze eventually and deliberately leaves the documents and pans to the right corner of the unit to find the area rug she and Gray bought the Sunday before, leaning into the cinder-block corner, still wrapped in its shipping visqueen.

“Is this my area rug?” she asks.

Pam feigns more relief about finding the rug than the husband. “I’m glad to see that again.” She comes back around to find her audience of three. She points to Elaine’s chair and asks, “May I?” and Elaine rises and hands Pamela the chair, who sets it down squarely in front of Gray and lights upon it, knees together, a manilla envelope placed in her lap, her fingers interlaced, rest upon it.

“Down to business,” she sighs, a breath, an exasperation fermented for years within her core, finally released into the inescapable space that exists between her and Gray. He has no choice but to breathe it in.

“These papers are two years-old, Gray. I thought I had reached my limit then, but like you’ve done throughout our marriage you managed to convince me that you were a good man and that I must be the bad one to have ever suspected you.” Her hands separate and move to the edges of the envelope, the right one forces its brass brad open. Her fingers slide inside and grasp the thick stack of documents. Ian and Elaine watch from outside the illumination of the suspended lamp.

“I’m not the bad one. I know that now. I’ve known about Elaine for a long, long time. I took careful steps to make sure I would come out of this marriage in a good way. Now I’m glad I waited.”

Out come the papers. They are indexed with clear strips that have color-coded tabs, indicators of where to sign.

“There’s a lot in here so let me summarize. I get it all. Twelve million. The practice. The house. The condo. The sailboat. You are going to give it to me in lieu of alimony and I am going to liquidate and use that cash for something atoning.”

Gray listens. She has his attention.

“On the way over here tonight, Elaine showed me the boxes and explained the dots to me.” She stops. The picture in her mind of the red and yellow dots, the rows of file boxes makes her shudder. “My God, Gray. All those mothers. All those babies.” She stops again, shifting into another vein. “All these years, Gray, I wondered why you married a barren woman. You’d think a man who brought lives into this world would want lives of his own.” She collects herself again and goes to a green transparent tab in the paperwork and separates the stack. She draws three pages from within and holds them up for Gray to clearly see. “You wanted this instead.” One by one she displays each page before him, taking a few moments with each as if giving Gray enough time to read through each asset’s description, single-spaced, anchored within the spreadsheet by a dollar value. Portfolios, bonds, investments, collections, gold, a sailboat. The pages come back down, returning to their place in the stack, Gray’s stare uninterrupted by them and their display. He remains locked on to Pamela while she finds the first of all the signature pages.

“Ian, would you be so kind as to free his right hand so he can make his signatures?” Ian obliges, cutting the tape on Gray’s right wrist with a blade from his Leatherman. Pam upends the manilla envelope and a pen rolls out of it into her hand. She clicks it ready and hands it to Gray. His fingers are barely able to grasp it. Pam places the envelope on Gray’s sweaty lap and then puts the stack of papers on it. “Sign here.” Gray scribbles something legibly close to his signature. “And here. And here. And here.” With the last, Pam lifts the stack from atop the now saturated manilla envelope, taps them on her own lap making order out of their askewed state and hands them to Elaine. “You will notarize these?”

“Of course,” Elaine says.

Pamela stands. “That’s it. Take me back to my car, please.” She replaces the blindfold over her own eyes and Elaine takes her by her elbow as Ian lifts the door. As they make careful egress of the chamber, Pamela stops and turns back to the direction of the unit’s interior.

“And Ian, would you be kind enough to drop that area rug by the house? Elaine can show you where I live,” she says. Ian rotates Doctor Reagan back around to face the rear wall, and then commences to tape the doctor back up.

Posted in To Risk

a percutaneous gastrostomy

20  

THE BATHTUB HAS BEEN POLISHED so that whatever ambient light dances around the midnight sky above Glacier Drive is captured and amplified in its oblong parabolic. It looks like it is glowing from inside as it now rests on the driveway beside Ian’s truck. It becomes momentarily brighter in the headlights of Elaine’s car as it pulls into the driveway, parks and goes dark. She steps out of the sedan. Drowning out the usual nighttime neighborhood sounds is the continued banging and splintering of the remodel going on inside. Just a day ago this would have been frightening to her. She walks to the door and knocks.

Inside the McDaniel home her knock cannot compete with the percussion of removing the wall between the bathroom that Ian has since destroyed, and the great room. Debris is everywhere and drywall dust hangs in the air suspended in the bright light cast by a pair of portable work lamps on the floor. Random holes have been pounded through walls and cabinets and cupboards. This has gone awry some time ago.

She waits outside the front door for a break in banging but it is unrelenting. She tries the doorknob to find it unlocked and she walks in making her way to where the concussions are coming from. She reaches the middle of the great room and the banging stops, a large tool hits the floor in the bathroom startling her along with Ian as he exits the space turning down the hall to the master bedroom without noticing the intruder. She steps beyond the work lights on the floor, casting her shadow on what is left of the rear wall of the great room, its studs dappling her shadow into the recesses of Ian’s demolition, down the hallway and into the master bedroom. The breakers for the east part of the house are off and she is standing in one of two of the only sources of light. On his way back from the master bedroom with a large hammer in his hand he is startled by this little eclipse and stops. He looks at her, wipes his mouth with his bare arm. His wife-beater is saturated and soiled, his breathing still trying to catch up to his upper body muscles’ demand for oxygen, post meltdown.

“I want you to take me to Gray,” she says. There is no room for negotiation in her tone. Ian looks at her hard, discerning for longer than what most nerves would endure and then he drops the hammer, turns and retreats back into the dusty darkness of the back of the house and disappears.

“You’ve got nothing on me,” she calls out after him. “I told her, I told Pam about us. I don’t care.”

Ian emerges from the back of the house with a shirt on and keys in his hand. “We need to stop by the store first,” he says.

ELAINE’S RED SEDAN pulls into the parking stalls of the 7-Eleven on Corby Avenue. Ian and Elaine get out of the car and go in. He scans the beverage coolers and finds Gatorade, bottled water, chocolate milk and Red Bull. She is putting the pieces together. She has been here before. Ian makes the transaction at the register and the two leave the convenience store, walk past her parked car, through the gas pump islands to the intersection. He presses the call button for the walk signal and waits. She stares at him. He has clearly turned a corner, operating at a cadence and fervor that ignores any consideration of one’s self and she would be duly frightened by him if she had not found what she prayed was not misplaced trust. The signal goes green and the walk sign chirps and they cross the street.

They go down another block past office buildings and just beyond their parking structures on the other side of a retaining wall is a self-serve car wash. Ian leaves the sidewalk and cuts diagonally across the tarmac with islands of vacuums and carpet shampooers, through a car wash bay and out the back. Elaine follows having to double-step to keep up. The two go left out of the bay along a cinder block barrier that leads them to a long steel gate that rolls on a track. Ian steps up to a keypad on the other side and enters a code. Elaine stands on the asphalt in the middle of the entrance, looking through the bars of the gate as it makes it slow retreat to allow them entry. She realizes she was just here earlier today.

Ian leads her through to the first alley where they go up, every unit looking the same except for the regression of the odd numbers painted on each door. Ian stops at a unit and fishes in his pocket for keys. Elaine arrives at this side. And then he sees it.

There is a second lock on the door’s bolt, a silver disk lock clamped adjacent the lock Ian affixed to the door. He grabs the disk and yanks it around. “Fuck!”

As this obscenity reverberates down the alley, Elaine hears a muffled growl from inside the unit. She presses her head against the rolling door and it raps along its chassis waving up and down from her force against it. There’s another growl, low and barely human. Her eyes go to Ian.

“Is that Gray?”

Ian doesn’t confirm, he’s gone in panicked thought. She turns her face to the door and speaks into it, louder.

“Gray?!” She pounds on the door.

“Give me your keys.” Ian says.

“What?” she says in more dismay.

“Give me your car keys!”

She hesitates, trying to make any sense of what’s going on. She pulls her car keys from her bag and that momentary silence breaks with a muffled roar from inside the unit, in two syllables, repeating three times, louder until Elaine interrupts.

“Gray?” Her face is back to the door and she pounds on it. “It’s okay, we’ll get you out of there.”

Ian is already running down the alley and around the corner. He breaks the beam of the gate’s exit sensor and it opens too slowly for his state of panic. He squeezes through with widening space, runs through the car wash to Corby Avenue and crosses through rolling traffic to the 7-Eleven parking lot. He is in her car, starting, slamming it into drive and peeling out of the parking lot onto the four-lane thoroughfare of Corby.

Elaine is crouched in front of the door on the balls of her feet to keep her legs from shaking. Gray has gone quiet and all that can be heard is the ambient traffic noise of the evening. And then the clang of the front gate’s drive chain and the squeak from its steel wheels rolling across the steel beam that keeps the gate centered, and then the sound of a slowly accelerating vehicle. Elaine is watching in the direction of the noise. The feeding lane’s asphalt has a glow of light as she hears the vehicle move and she races in her mind of what possible excuse she could have to be seen there by herself at Fort Knox crouching by a storage unit that late in the evening.

The exhaust noise of a detuned V8 engine becomes more pronounced the closer it gets and as its light starts wrap around the corner down the alley from Elaine, she rises from her position, her knees cracking along the way, and as she does an old oxidized pickup truck makes the corner. It is burdened by its load of storage fodder and lists to the driver’s side as it comes around. Its headlights slowly pan across the alley, eventually catching her standing there at unit 435. She has no clue what to do.

The truck ambles along jostled by the rut of the drainage ditch and the stepped escalation of the alley’s grade. Its springs squeak and frame creeks and the engine’s idle increases under a little more throttle to pull its load up the alley. The driver looks at Elaine as his truck passes her. He’d stop and ask if she were alright if he spoke her language. He watches her watch him in his passenger-side mirror before he makes a turn up another alley.

Elaine exhales, unaware she had been holding her breath that whole time. She is in a rare position standing outside that storage unit. She is stranded, helpless, second-guessing everything that has brought her to this point. Just as her emotional response to this brims her ability to control it, she sees a tiny bit of light coming through a small hole in the door at the level of her eye. She steps close to the door and puts her right eye to the light holding on to the roll-up door with both hands, fingers curled into the tops of the slats and her thumbs gripping beneath them. She sees the interior of the unit, the low wattage light suspended above and just ahead of what looks like a man seated in a patio chair who appears to be facing the rear wall of the unit, silhouetted against it. The wall is covered with paper and photographs, large x-rays and MRIs, and charts and telemetry readouts.

“Gray?” she whispers and taps against the door, but the man in the chair doesn’t move.

IAN HAS BEAT LOWE’S CLOSING for the night. He grabs a red shopping basket and runs through the big box store to the hardware aisle. He stops at rows of padlocks on merchandising hooks and finds the silver hockey pucks, Contractor Grade No. 40 padlocks. Their position on the rack forces him to his knees as he reads the product numbers on each plastic-bubble package. One by one he throws them in the basket. Once he has gathered all the product numbers he can find he is back on his feet. He hefts the loaded heavy plastic basket and runs to the checkout queues, none of which are illuminated. He detours to the self-checkout section and begins scanning the packages. An automated female voice begins to announce, “Twelve dollars, forty-eight cents” and repeats eight times, each announcement sounding louder to Ian, beckoning the attention of any Lowe’s associate within the vicinity, but even the kiosk where the associate monitors activity in the self-checkout area is vacant.

“Please select payment method.”

Ian has triple-bagged the packaged locks and on his way out has placed them on a demagnetizer at a vacant register, triggering a faint pulse that deactivates any security tags that may be inside the packaging.

THE SOUND OF YET ANOTHER VEHICLE captures Elaine’s attention. Before she can prepare for another encounter she sees her own sedan round the corner and come up the alley, stopping short of hitting her. Ian gets out of the car toting the plastic bags holding the locks.

“Take the car out of here. Park it by the car wash.”

Elaine gets in her car and closes the door, but Ian stops her before she drives on.

“Do you have a pen?”

She searches her bag and finds one and hands it to Ian who clicks it, grabs her hand and writes a four-digit number on her palm.

“This is the code for the gate to get back in,” a brave or stupid assumption on Ian’s part. She’s had a bit of time to think while he has been shopping – a new resolve, a better plan. It’s written all over her face. Ian still has her by her wrist.

“Did you touch that door?”

“I looked at him through that hole. Yeah, I touched the door.”

“Those files you gave me, they’re in there with him. Your fingerprints are on them and now they’re on the door. You don’t want to go anywhere, go calling anybody. You’re an accomplice now.” He watches the expression on her face change.

“Hurry back here. I need your help.”

Elaine drives away. Ian tears into the bags, pulls out a package and rips into the plastic bubble clamshell. He pulls the keys out from under the lock and tries one of them in the tumbler of the lock on the door. No good. He opens another package, pulls out another key. No good. He grabs the remaining six packages out of the bags and runs up to a better illuminated spot in the alley flooded in amber light by a sodium vapor street lamp above. All six packages are laid out on the tarmac, two rows of three, in systematic order of product key code numbers. He sees that three of them are the same. He splits open one of the three packages and retrieves the keys and runs back to the door.

A key goes in the lock and the bolt slides. Elaine returns around the corner and runs up to the unit.

“Grab those,” Ian says pointing to the packaged locks left under the amber light. She does so and meets him back at the door. He unlocks the remaining padlock, slides the bolt on the door freeing it from the jamb and slowly raises it up. The light coming from the suspended bulb climbs Elaine’s body and finds her face. Without the frame of a three-eighths inch hole the scene before her is amplified in its depth and breadth. Gray struggles to turn his head, trying to see who is there behind him, but the duct tape is unrelenting, keeping the tissue of his forehead and face in place while his skull tries to rotate in the sack of his head.

“What have you done to him?”

Ian presses on the small of her back, pushing her forward while he brings the rolling door down to close.

Elaine’s senses are overwhelmed and as most brains do, hers tends first to what she sees – the wall, the documents and artifacts from the files she gave Ian, the suction machine, the pale, clammy thighs of the hostage void of any tone or definition spreading flat over the sea-foam green slats of the seat of the adirondack. She is lead by what she sees around to the front of the the chair. The doctor confirms what he thought he had heard earlier, the sound of a familiar voice, and yet he is still stunned by Elaine’s presence.

The sight of him makes her take her breath and hold it. The damage to his face, his soiled diaper, the NG tube up his nose, the patina of vomit, blood and expectorate meshed into the knit of his Izod are a lot to take in against how she last saw him. She lets her breath go and draws another and along with it the stench of a man held for two days against his will, covered in the decay of his own physiological responses. Despite it all she reaches out to his face, more of a habit than compassion and wipes away sweat from his brow.

Gray has changed, though, not the man she last saw. What there was about him she loved is gone. His eyes bore into her, cut at the tops of their irises by his partially closed upper lids. He frightens her. Revealed in the context of his secrets, his greed, his lies, and now his contempt, Elaine finally sees him for the devil she denied he was all along.

“My God, Ian.” She turns to Ian to find him occupied rummaging through a box marked “Virginia” in black ink.

“I’m not getting enough calories in him. That’s a pediatric NG tube and it doesn’t allow the volume he needs.”

“Just let him eat.”

“He can’t eat. His jaw is broken, his palate is crushed and he’s missing teeth.”

Elaine resists the urge to cover her mouth. “What happened?”

“I hit him.”

“You did this?” She was right to be afraid of Ian.

“It was a reflex.” Ian pulls a packaged catheter out of the box along with gauze dressing and medical tape. “Hold this.” He says, and searches deeper in the box and finds a 2cc screw-tip syringe and a packet of individually wrapped alcohol swabs, all of which he hands to Elaine. From a small sheath on his belt he pulls out the Leatherman. He unfolds the tool and from within it  pulls out a two-inch leather punch.

“What are you doing?” she asks. Ian takes an alcohol swab packet from her hands, removes the swab and rubs the leather punch and the handles with it.

“Look at him,” he says while he is sterilizing the instrument. Ian grabs skin on Gray’s arm between his thumb and forefinger and pinches it. When he releases his hold, the tissue on Gray’s arm retains the shape for a few moments.

“He’s dehydrated and starving because I can’t get enough fluid in him.”

“Then just stop doing this,” she says, escalating in her dismay of what’s unfolding before her. “Let’s get him to a hospital.”

“No, we can do this. He’ll be okay.” Ian grabs a cath-tip syringe and connects it to the NG tube and draws the plunger back. Nothing comes up in the tube form Gray’s stomach. “It’s empty.” Ian slides the folding chair over positioning it behind the adirondack and then he pushes the chair along with its patient to lean back and rest on the back of the folding one.

“Ian, what are you doing?”

Ian rips what’s left of Gray’s Izod right up the middle of Gray’s body exposing his bloated white and belly. He reaches for and pops open a Betadine package and takes the iodine soaked sponge with one hand while he palpitates the left side of Gray’s abdomen with two fingers from his other hand. Tap, tap, listen. He finds the spot and marks it with his index finger and brings the Betadine sponge in trailing dark, disinfecting iodine along its path to the indexing finger and traces a circle of bronze antiseptic around his digit. He works the sponge in a concentric circle working away from the center. Finished with the sterile area he lifts his finger from the middle and scrubs that point as well.

“Open the Foley catheter package so the valve and opening are exposed. Don’t touch the tip,” he tells her.

Elaine doesn’t comply. The two are locked by their eyes, his waiting, hers searching. Ian is gone, a decade ago, a dozen years, any of a number of times he had to replace Virginia’s feeding tube, not the nasal gastrostomy, the tube down her nose, but the one she had surgically inserted through her abdomen wall into her stomach when she was six months old.

“What are you doing?” She’s more forceful with panic on the threshold of her reaction.

“I’m putting in a G-tube. Get the catheter ready.”

A Foley catheter is a long surgical tube that has a central channel for fluids and a peripheral channel that is used to inflate a small balloon either with air or sterile water. The balloon is near the inserted tip of the catheter and once inflated inside a bladder, or in this case, Gray’s stomach, the balloon keeps the catheter from sliding out of its invaded organ. When used for a stomach G-tube, the site where the tube enters the abdomen, called an ostomy or stoma, needs to be dressed in a way that the tube is gently pulled so that the balloon seals the hole through which it is threaded from inside the stomach. Ian and Linda were taught to use a baby bottle nipple with the top cut off to match the diameter of the feeding tube and the side split so the nipple could be placed around the tube with the nipple base down against the dressing surrounding the stoma. The catheter is then gently pulled snug, the nipple pressed into the dressing and the stoma site and then taped secure. Depending on the surgical quality of the stoma, this dressing needs to be changed daily. If the stoma leaks, the dressing should be changed more often. Over the course of Virginia’s life, Ian and Linda have replaced G-tubes hundreds of times, catheters that either came out of Virginia’s tummy due to a failure of its balloon, or when Virginia pulled them out herself.

Ian has never done the actual surgical insertion of a G-tube, a percutaneous gastrostomy. It’s a surgical procedure that is done with an endoscope, a small camera on the end of a long tube that is inserted in the stomach to ensure placement of the tube. Ian doesn’t have an endoscope, just the leather punch on his Leatherman multi-tool.

Gray knows full well what a percutaneous gastrostomy is but has no energy nor ability to fight what Ian is about to do to him. Ian pushes the index and forefinger of his left hand hard into the left side of Gray’s abdomen dead center of the iodine circle, straddling the point he had previously marked. His right hand comes around to that point with the leather punch and begins a slow push into the flesh between Ian’s fingers.

“Are you out of your mind?!” Elaine pushes Ian back by his shoulders knocking the adirondack forward slamming back down to its front legs sending a shockwave of pain through Gray. She has Ian pinned against the wall with her hand on his right wrist trying to restrain his lunacy and the Leatherman.

“What’s your point here, Ian? Why are you doing this? To get even? Revenge for your daughter? Your wife?”

“Ginny had a G-tube since she was six months – she never ate by mouth – she couldn’t swallow. I want him to have this goddamn catheter sticking out of his side!”

She still has him pinned. She’s not much of a match for him, he could plow right through her, but she presses her body against him, fully, slides her other arm around his neck, her hand to the back of his head, her fingers through his hair and she pulls him forward onto her shoulder, his face into the curve of her neck.

And Ian just barely breaks.

It’s been years since Ian felt an embrace. The more he lets the tension subside, the deeper she penetrates him. He exhales, his eyes closed, his right arm coming down and she leans into him even more.

“You want vindication?” She whispers. He opens his eyes while his face is buried in her neck and he tilts his head up just enough to pull focus on Gray, naked save for an adult diaper, some duct tape and the remnants of a golf sweater. Gray meets Ian’s gaze with the stare of a sociopath.

She is still uncertain that if she pulled away from Ian, he’d either collapse to the floor or stab Gray, so she moves from him with a slow grace, her body leaving him in a peel instead of all at once. She reaches into her jacket pocket and pulls out Gray’s cell phone and with her other hand retrieves its battery from the other pocket. She snaps them together and powers up the phone. Its start-up ring tones are familiar to Gray and his eyes shift from Ian to the phone. Elaine opens the phone. She presses a button activating its speaker and then another that induces a connection.

Posted in To Risk