1 free soda
THE RANGER WAS ON FUMES when Ian McDaniel turned into the 7-Eleven, pulling up parallel to an island of gas pumps, the little truck squeaking a bit to a stop. He swipes a credit card, punches the lowest octane button and picks up the nozzle while another vehicle pulls in adjacent on the other side of the island. A sign on top of the gas pump that separates the two vehicles says you get a free soda with a fill-up of more than ten gallons. The car is a Mercedes, an E-Class coupe, top of the line, and out of it stands its owner dressed in scrubs. His attire commands Ian’s attention rather than his car. Ian spies on the man from the space beneath the sign and he’s able to make out the embroidery on the left breast of the scrubs in blue and gold. South Highland Women’s Center, above which in white embroidery is the name, Doctor Gray Reagan. At a distance one might mistake Ian and Gray for brothers. They both had the same haircut (though Gray’s is more receded), the same head shape, a similar distance between the eyes. It is him.
That familiar flush of vitriol spikes Ian’s heart rate, holds his breath, grinds his teeth and surprises him. Here, filling his car with premium unleaded is a man he has not seen in fifteen years, the last time, in fact, was when Doctor Reagan exited the delivery suite after performing an emergency cesarean without saying a word. Ian had watched him carefully then and wanted to deny what registered on the obstetrician’s face, only having his nonverbal display to go by. It wasn’t concern or compassion. It was a manifestation of fear as he watched Doctor Reagan’s gaze shift from his wife, Linda, to the newborn under a heater on an exam table being attended to by a team.
It was a look of oh shit.
How easy it would be to induce that look again. Push the nozzle around the pump, point it at Doctor Reagan and squeeze the handle. Ian could do it without a second thought. Inducing labor, a calculated risk of the business of delivering babies turned into the peril of his little girl’s life and the depletion of the most inalienable right a parent could ever have. Hope.
All Ian really wanted was an apology and for Doctor Reagan to understand the impact of his negligence, to be seated across a table in some law office conference room and watch him look at the photographs and watch the videos and listen to the eulogy and say the words that might somehow hint to his contrition and promise it would never happen again. That’s how Ian imagined it would go. But this, to be showered in fossil fuel at such a force from this pump that would surely infiltrate the mucous membranes of his nose, his mouth as he opened it in the shock of the moment, his eyes searching for an escape, would be as bereft of mercy as the McDaniels were of justice. And in this retribution, Doctor Gray Reagan would have no idea as to why.
Perhaps it was that thought that got Ian to exhale and put the fuel nozzle into the fender of his truck rather than douse the doctor with 87 octane. That notwithstanding, the sight of Doctor Reagan leading the life he had, his nonchalance of filling his E-Class with 91 octane, his luxury of having no idea why the man watching him on the other side of the pump wanted him to suffer stoked an old burn that over the next few days, along with his wife’s suicide, would engulf Ian completely.
He should get that free soda, he thought.
2 post-mortem preservation
LITTLE HAS CHANGED AROUND THE INFANT BURIAL PLOT except for a headstone and a monument here and there in this city cemetery. A stone lamb lays across the top of the grave where this woman sits and visits every Friday. She’s calm, her grief matured with the years passed since she began this Friday visiting ritual. On the periphery of this burial ground, minute-hands adhere to their intervals of seconds, but inside the boundary they sweep a little slower. Rituals slow their ticking, like reading aloud, Oh, The Places You’ll Go on every birthday, lighting a candle every Christmas Eve, and releasing balloons on the anniversary of her daughter’s passing. The latex bouquet is now large enough to lift small notes and Baby’s Breath into the sky. Other survivors have similar routines on their children’s graves. Jack-O-Lanterns and stuffed bunnies with potted lilies, even favorite sports paraphernalia often punctuate the turf. Other than these, there’s not much that happens in this cemetery making most movements bigger than life and that’s what caught her eye today, the remains of a small interment and its procession reduced to a limousine, revealing to her the mourner they left behind.
The ignition and diesel idle rattle of a yellow front-end loader takes her attention in a different direction. It’s put into gear and moves along the service road past rows of graves, past her and the manicured marker and the lamb until it comes to a slow arrest a respectable distance from the scene at an open grave–its casket is still suspended above it–where there’s a mourner seated in a folding chair on the front row of others now vacant, his chair covered in a dark green fabric embroidered with a mortuary logo. His elbows are on his knees and his hands clasped in front of him glisten from the tears that have fallen from their apex on his chin.
It is heartbreaking for the woman of the ritual to see. Any similar scene is to one who has buried another, not for the grief of the mourning, but for the void ahead that they will inevitably face, the habit of someone else’s being alive, like flipping the light switch on when the power is out. Obituaries call them survivors, but the grief feels interminable, unendurable, let alone survivable.
According to the obituary, Ian McDaniel is the survivor, the man in the chair. The man at the gas station just a week before. He is old enough to have been married sixteen years, with chin whiskers and short hair wearing a white Oxford over rust Chinos, a tie loosened in the collar buttons, covered with a black sportcoat from a two-piece suit and slip-on loafers, the formal attire of a college professor, his only jewelry a wedding ring.
The tractor operator shuts off the diesel engine and the solemnity of the cemetery is restored. Ian snorts back the accumulation of runny snot, breathing through his mouth. More tears accumulate on the tip of his chin and drip to his hands. The woman can’t pretend in her best cemetery manners not to notice Ian’s complete isolation now and he appears more lonely the longer the man in the tractor waits. She’s changed her position, her knees drawn up, wrapped about with her arms, nesting her chin as she watches the scene.
A truck pulls in behind the tractor, the squeak of its slow braking louder than its idle. It is a pickup with the bed replaced by a frame that supports a girder which supports a chain winch that holds the top to the vault of the casket beside which Ian is still seated. The driver of the truck walks to the tractor operator and they exchange a silent greeting out of habit and look in the direction of the work they need to complete. The woman watches the standoff between the mourner and the cemetery workers.
Ian is one who is terminally polite. Even at a moment like this, the threshold of which truncates anything he knew before, he considers the waiting men and rises and walks around the casket suspended above the vault by wide green straps. He stops at the new headstone lying on two two-by-fours on the Astroturf waiting to be placed. Engraved across the top of this double marker is McDANIEL, with IAN on the left side, his birth date below, and LINDA on the right, her birth date on one side of a hyphen and the date of Wednesday last on the other. He bends down and takes a corner of the Astroturf and peels it back to reveal a second headstone beneath, one that is well weathered. Its engraved Blue Highway font is more frail, worn thin on the vowels in the family name, McDANIEL. Ian was a survivor then, too.
He lets the turf go and it rolls back into place. He then removes the simple corsage from his jacket and places the carnation on the coffin, the only flower. There is no accompanying spray. There are no arrangements on stands surrounding the interment. This funeral appears to the woman looking on to have been little more than a formality. With so few present to pay their respects and the absence of interment accoutrements, she confirms her own intuition that this must be a service for one who took their own life.
In the business of the burial the funeral home edited Ian’s obituary draft censoring the word suicide as if the stigma of the word itself would somehow be bad for business. Immediately following the phone conversation between Ian and his mother-in-law, everyone knew and few, if any, were surprised though none made any attempt to intervene. So, it didn’t really matter that the obituary danced around the truth of the deceased. People ignore the homeless vet asking for spare change at the traffic signal or the young lady with Down Syndrome on the bus for the same reason. To recognize the plight is to admit its possibility. To have seen Linda in any way other than her perpetuated fraud of being happy would have taken time, effort and sensitivity, three resources most people are unwilling to invest in others, especially those close to those who suffer. To empathize at this vulnerable level may admit the possibility, even the ability one might have to self-terminate.
The death of a terminally ill child is handled with no less separation. The saddest rift in the natural order of things, as the woman who sits by the stone lamb can testify, is outliving a child. This wake of grief is most disconsolate. Anyone who is a loving parent is reduced to a sickened silence when the notion of their own child’s death is emphatically introduced by some vicarious association. While most people struggle with existential ideas about mortality, the thoughtful consideration of losing a child to death is so abhorrent that it is easier and safer to ignore it. To empathize with a mourning parent is to admit the possibility of the death of one’s own child. No one wants to go there, so the grief of a mourning parent becomes isolating, especially beyond that designated time when the cycle of grief should be complete, a myth of mourning.
The driver of the limousine steps out of the vehicle and crosses the turf toward Ian. They stand for a moment, the driver appears to contemplate something and then places his hand on Ian’s shoulder trying to persuade him – guesses the woman – to leave the grave and be driven away to the sanctuary of funeral potatoes and quiet talk. Ian struggles a bit to get his feet underneath him and to get beyond the self-consciousness of his runny nose. Composure regained, he appears to reassure the driver who shakes Ian’s hand, turns and walks back to the stretched Lincoln, starts the engine and drives away. Ian shifts his focus to the truck holding the heavy vault lid and walks between grave markers to it.
The perspectives of those who watch this tableau are as varied as their vantages. For the woman it is a previously unseen display, a break in interment protocol wherein the mourner dismisses the limo and now seems prepared to remain for the lowering of the casket and the sealing of the vault. For the driver and the operator it’s a condition of the job, waiting for the mourners to leave and then respectfully complete the interment. For Ian it is something he will struggle to remember and may not actively recall until he has reached the place where his grief is infrequent enough to allow him respite in this city cemetery. That’s what cemeteries are for.
The woman watches Ian approach the two men. She can hear their voices carry a bit in the breeze of this afternoon, though nothing is really discernible. The driver and Ian walk to the bed of the truck and stand together, looking at the suspended vault lid. Up closer it looks massive to Ian, rocking just a bit in its chain cradle. He runs his hand along the top of the lid while he cranes his head beneath to look at its underside, concrete Tupperware to last till the end of time, to contain a coffin of fine wood and rare metal, designed to remain long after its contents have decomposed to dust and bone enveloped in their Sunday best. The idea of post-mortem preservation is a cultural quirk where the more it’s considered, the queerer it becomes.
3 he’s that nice of a guy
THE MCDANIEL HOME IS AN OLDER RANCH-STYLE RAMBLER that Ian and Linda have occupied most of their marriage in an average suburb just outside the Bay Area in Santa Rosa. Inside the master bedroom is a queen bed made-up in a quilted duvet cover and throw pillows and it’s been slept upon. Photographs of Ian and Linda loiter on a dresser. There’s another of a child on the nightstand. Just down the hallway on the right is a closed door behind which is a bedroom. On the left is the hall bathroom in shadows. The short hallway empties into a living area that opens to the right to reveal a kitchen, a great room in the rhetoric of tract home sales. There is no tungsten glow inside this bungalow, no amber light to warm this sterile silent interior, nor the hum from the refrigerator’s compressor to add any indication of living in this living area, except, then, the sound of a key penetrating the deadbolt lock on the front door. The bar clicks back into the tumbler. The knob turns and the door pushes in. It is Ian after his walk from the cemetery to this house where he finds it nearly impossible to enter as if its atmosphere requires an emotional space suit.
IN THE GATED COMMUNITY SIDE OF TOWN, Pamela Reagan also enters through a door in a home where the square footage of its great room alone would swallow the space of the McDaniel’s rambler. High ceilings with pristine plaster accents, Italian tiled surfaces and marble floors framed in a bamboo parquet, and walnut trim that cases doors. Pam is in her second thirties, her early sixties, though for anyone it would be hard to tell. She’s trim from a quotidian active routine and sharp from a career of critical troubleshooting. Inside the door she lights on the entry landing in her gardening attire, a retired pair of tennis shorts, an orange tank that darkens her tanned shoulders, and clogs carefully inspected to keep the compost outside. She descends off the entry into an airy and bright reception room, its meticulousness the only thing common to the McDaniel living space. Pam moves through it to the kitchen, lays her gardening gloves on the granite counter and gets iced tea from the stainless built-in.
IAN OPEN HIS REFRIGERATOR DOOR to expose its usual cooled fare along with a nearly empty bottle of wine. He grabs it by the neck and stares, remembering the last time it was removed from the fridge only three days ago. That was when Linda poured a glass to the brim and drank. She exhaled, shuffled to the couch and sat at one end on her haunches and finished the rest. Ian sat opposite her on the divan and waited for her to speak. She filled her glass again. By her side on the end-table were papers. He said nothing to encourage her because he knew this wasn’t going to be good though what she was about to say was still a surprise. Denial used to be one of Ian’s default responses; denial of her unhappiness, denial of his having anything to do with it.
“I have to stop this,” she said. “Stop being with you. I stopped a long time ago, though you kept going on, without me, and I think I’ve held you back.”
“I love you,” was all he could say back to her. It wasn’t an excuse, it wasn’t justification, it just was for him. He loved her and he hated her to be so incredibly unhappy.
“Till death do us part,” she ended his sentence. “That’s all we have in common with each other. I don’t love you, Ian. I don’t love. That died along with Ginny five years ago. I thought it would come back. It didn’t. There’s nothing.” She set the papers on the divan between them and slid them to Ian. “You just sign above your name on the last page.”
The tragedy in Linda’s death was more manifest in her living. Raised in the monotheistic culture of Mesa, Arizona, she agreed with the premise that a woman’s value is determined by her maternal prowess, her domestic savoir-faire and her ability to please. She was certain in her heart that her daughter’s condition at birth was caused by something she did or didn’t do during the baby’s gestation, making what she had to do to care for the child a constant reminder of her assumed physiological failures. She would then compensate with herculean efforts in feeding, bathing, playing and engaging without any standard indication of a mother’s efficacy, giggles, smiles, and coos. She created parameters of certainty that couldn’t be violated, dialing in a daily care routine that eliminated most anything else in her living. She turned down respite, denied herself any luxuries that most would consider simple habits and sacrificed herself to the point of obscuring her identity. And when her daughter died – her sole purpose in living – her self-perceived failure as a mother worsened.
Over the course of their daughter’s life Linda had to become a second breadwinner and insurance provider, but what little financial relief this gave her family was overwhelmed by her guilt in not being there to guarantee the routine of care despite Ian’s own vigilance. When she got home from work she would assume the watch, relegating sleep to twenty-minute naps on the bus back to work.
She and Ian rotated shifts to reduce the use of a babysitter. They saw little of each other except in passing, snuffing out any other love save the practical kind they had in caring for their daughter. All the expectations of her upbringing that promised a certainty of happiness wound up dying in her declarations of not being good enough, not being mommy-enough, nor wife-enough, nor even woman-enough without the ability to love. Asking Ian for the divorce was an indication of her final failure of which Linda had tragically had enough.
AT THE CEMETERY the casket holding Linda’s remains finally descends into the vault with no one to witness it save the operator and the driver of the truck. The woman has left her spot by the stone lamb. No one tends to the final phase of interment who doesn’t have to since in its recognition, like suicide or infant mortality, is the admission of an end, a certain existential realization that few want to face, even in a cemetery. Ian did not break the rules after all.
The operator has laid out two-by-six planks parallel to each other from the service road to the open grave on which the truck driver backs the rig on to and stops short of the subterranean vault, its lid suspended from the girder beam, swinging again from the stop. The driver gets out and operates a control that moves the lid out on the extended beam over the grave. The winch slowly lowers the lid while the driver guides it into place, the concrete ridge of the lid slipping, grinding a bit into the recess of the vault and seals with a certainty and finality.
The tractor operator removes the green covers from the front row of seating and folds the chairs and stacks them. He rolls back the Astroturf and stacks the rolls next to the chairs and in doing so reveals the other grave marker adjacent the new grave. The full name and dates now appear, VIRGINIA McDANIEL, DECEMBER 6, 1990 – OCTOBER 10, 2001.
The front loader dumps soil over the vault. Sod is rolled out over the tamped earth of this new grave. The men finish their landscaping without speaking, framing out a four-inch deep setting for the new headstone. They struggle with the monument and place it in the middle where it waits for fresh cement to permanently mark the grave site that now waits for Ian. With everything in place and tidy, they mount their vehicles and drive back down the service road, the diesel idle of the tractor peaks a bit to get the torque to turn the big tires and then settles back to a quiet cruise as it goes away, passing the woman from the infant grave who is walking towards the fresh grave.
Her curiosity brings her to the framed headstone. The sod still needing to settle into the earth outlines the space beneath it. She turns her gaze and reads the adjacent grave, settled in with its worn marker, and tries to find some meaning in the implied relationships etched in the stones.
THE OBSCENITY IN THE OPULENCE of the Reagan home is offset by knick-knacks of humanitarianism. There’s a crystal statue of a newborn, a certificate of appreciation, a photograph of a mother and infant in some third-world context. They are all diminished in a room this big. As conversation areas go this one echos with noise despite the soft surfaces of the facing sofas and the runner on the coffee table. Pam is as lost in the room as the furniture. She wanders through it looking at angles, from the entry, from the kitchen, from the egress to the bedrooms, and she stops. Out comes her phone.
“Office,” she says, and the device chimes as it obeys and dials.
The reception of the South Highland Women’s Center buzzes. The waiting room seating is missing its vacancies that make term pregnancy even more uncomfortable. The receptionist is busy at the window of the business part of this office, leaving the phone to ring. Elaine, the Center’s office manager, picks it up.
“South Highland Women’s Center,” she answers.
“It’s Pam,” she hears through her headpiece.
“Hi, Pam. Gray’s with a patient right now. Can I have him give you a call?” It’s an exchange that has transacted a thousand times reduced to this shorthand. Pam knows the drill. “Would you please? This Elaine?” She pauses. No small talk nor pleasantry exchanged. “Thank you, Elaine. I’ll be on my cell,” and the call disconnects. There’s something palpable about the exchange, a dissonance in both their tones.
IAN PICKS UP THE WINE BOTTLE and pours what’s left into a glass and empties it with one swallow. He steps away from the kitchen, walks past the empty divan and stops at the entry surveying the great room from corner to corner. He crosses its breadth just to the opening to the hallway and he examines the structure of the wall, the one that encloses the hall bathroom. He runs his hand along the corner, the junction of the hallway and the great room, up as high as he can go, almost to the ceiling, and there he pounds on it as if he could tell whether or not it bears the weight of the ceiling trusses. He bangs on the wall with a closed fist as he walks down the hallway, listening to the percussions, nothing out of anger, more out of assessing his next home improvement project. At the end of the hall he wanders back to the master bedroom, pounding again. And he stops. His ankles make snapping sounds in the shift of his weight, the turn of his direction that takes him back to the hallway to the closed bedroom door. He turns the knob and lets the door swing and then wanders the rest of the house, letting the air within the room mix with the rest of the space diluting its aroma. Smell has the closest and quickest neurological connection to memory and Ian has learned over time to allow this room to breathe before he enters it.
Pam wanders the rest of her home as well. Her phone still in her hand, she circles the space and looks at the bare wood floor from all the angles and how it diminishes the furniture. And her cell rings.
Doctor Gray Reagan is alone in an exam room wearing scrubs and a smock, his Bluetooth device lit in his ear, his phone in his hand. He’s in the later sixties, the new fifty for him. His schedule in obstetrics is less kind to his waistline, but anyone would be hard pressed to think him out of shape. He’s gregarious in his disposition, a man women love and trust, not just because he delivers their babies, but because he’s also the father-figure fantasy to most of his patients, not having any children of his own. He’s that nice of a guy.
“Hi, Love. You called?” His tone certain and gentle, a deliverer, a guide, his best interest placed in his patients with room for his spouse. He stows his phone and walks and listens to Pam. He passes through the business office and drops a patient file into a holder without the conscious thought of it.
“I have two deliveries scheduled in the morning and we have a tee-time tomorrow afternoon,” he reminds her. “Sunday would be better.”
Adorning the walls of the office hallway are snapshots of newborns and mothers, thank-you cards and birthday photos of one year-olds, a history of the past year. Not all of these were patients of Doctor Reagan, his center has two other OBs, but he’s certainly the patriarch of the practice, the physician of preference. He stops outside an exam room and retrieves a file from a holder on the wall beside the door. He continues into the Bluetooth, “I have four this afternoon and I’m into my last exam.”
Gray raps on the door lightly and immediately goes in. A third-term mother is on the exam table, draped in a blue paper gown. A nurse is finishing her vitals.
“That’ll be good.” He smiles to the woman on the table and taps on the Bluetooth device, an indication he’s talking with someone who is not in the room. He opens the file and reads, and talks, “I haven’t had lunch today. Gotta run. Okay,” and he disconnects, his full attention now given to his papered patient.
4 a good time to intervene
IAN CROSSES THE THRESHOLD to the room he previously opened to air. It was Virginia’s bedroom. This would be a good time to intervene if there was anyone to do so, anyone whom Ian would allow at least. There’s evidence of an attempt, a business card left from the county social services office that sits on the kitchen counter next to the official certificate of death from the coroner, and slipped under his office door at the university is a sympathy card of condolences signed by the chair and his administrative assistant. The obituary elicited the usual neighborhood response of foil wrapped dishes and little to say. No one wants to talk about it. No one knows what to say. No one dares to listen.
The empathic listener runs the greatest risk of becoming emotionally involved. This is what Ian taught in his lectures on listening. The sympathetic listener doesn’t take that risk. It’s easy for one to feel bad about another’s loss and grief, but another thing entirely to feel what the grieving person feels. No one wants to go there, including, it occurs to Ian, his siblings. All of them orphans at this point, his parents died within a couple of years of each other, his mother first from an aneurysm and then his father after a late diagnosis of liver cancer on top of heart disease, the genetic triple-whammy.
Ian and his siblings live far from each other save for he and his sister. There’s a brother on the east coast and the other in the southwest, all proven distances too far to go for a funeral of a suicidal in-law. His sister lives in Monterey. There was a time when at least she would have dropped everything to be there. She was closer to him relationally than the rest, in empathy as well as geography. The two maintained a steady habit of phone calls on Sunday afternoons for two hours at a stretch, sometimes three. Ian was the only professor in the family. His brothers worked in sales and his sister was a pediatric physician’s assistant. She had a pretty good idea how to answer Ian’s questions, though she’d never dare say she knew how Ian might be feeling, but that didn’t stop her from trying.
Whatever it was that did stop her is still puzzling to Ian. In a Sunday phone call she asked Ian if he’d been to church that day, a response to his expressing doubts and discouragement about all things theological. The long pause that followed was tell-tale for her, pushing her to her next question and the next and the last asking if Ian still believed in God. His silence then unnerved her. Religion was a premise to their growing up, a belief system installed by their father and supervised by their mother along with an expected adherence to all things commandment. Following this awkwardly exchange the calls came in less frequent and then sporadic, finally coming to a stop. The first call in over a year was the last call Ian made to her, telling her that her sister-in-law was dead. It was a short one and he couldn’t help but interpret her tone as anything less than a gracious foregone conclusion. She sounded stoic at first, vacant of what empathy she naturally came by in the news of Linda’s suicide. He felt a bit of comfort in the eventual grace of her voice as she asked how he was feeling. Most of what he was feeling was upending, since, it appeared to him, he was the only one surprised that his wife had killed herself.
There, now in Virginia’s room, he stands, but not for long.
IT’S NOT UNCOMMON for people who have experienced physical or psychological trauma to find themselves in a phase of flight with little memory of how the escape began. For Ian it was when his truck came to a stop in the faculty parking lot outside the building that houses his department at the university. Ian enters the facility and walks to the faculty office corridor to the door of his office, unlocks the door and enters stepping on the envelope with the card from his colleagues. He feels safe there since it’s after hours on campus knowing he wouldn’t have to answer questions, plenty of which he was sure were circulating. His Mac illuminates out of its sleep with a bump of the mouse. Someone had passed the news of Linda’s death by email to the rest of the faculty and staff and now his inbox was filled with messages of condolence. He leaves them in their unopened, still highlighted state. Instead he picks the card up from the floor and within he reads something more heartfelt and sincere, a truer contemplation of his circumstances with earnest wishes. These sentiments are just enough relief for him to intervene in his crazier thinking and stave off the screaming he’d been suppressing throughout this incredibly shitty day.
5 not quite at the booger stage
MUCH TO THE CHAGRIN OF HIS WIFE when she was still alive, Ian had never been one to sleep in. Neither of them had recovered the ability to drift off into REM sleep after a decade of developing incredible sensitivities to the nuances of Virginia’s breathing, and after she died Linda found refuge in sleep that made Ian envious. She could sleep away ten, twelve hours at a time, deep and undisturbable. Ian’s own training was prohibitive to long blocks of sleep, the kind that keeps one from feeling that they’re somehow dumbing down.
His interest in verbal and nonverbal human communication and his subsequent white papers to the Department of Defense on nonverbal tells of deception caught the attention of two federal agencies, and with the bestowal of his doctorate he was contracted to assist in intelligence gathering and analysis eventually gaining official General Schedule status as a bona fide civil servant with a security clearance. He had never spoken of his work, only showing symptoms of something highly stressing and exhausting in his behavior, both asleep and awake.
He was absent from Virginia’s living for long periods of time, leaving Linda alone to fend for Virginia. Ian felt guilty for being away and was constantly fearful that Virginia’s eminent demise would occur during one of his deployments. That fear nearly came true when her left lung collapsed six months previous to her passing away. The experience shook him up enough to reconsider his career path, but by the time Virginia died it was too late, though he was fortunate enough to be Stateside and at home with his little girl when she did. Re-prioritizing one’s life is cause enough for sleeplessness. Add to that a history of hyper-awareness, post-traumatic stress from god-knows-what, and a tendency toward obsessive compulsion, sleep never comes easy.
This particular Saturday morning was no different. Were he laying in bed he may have had more of a chance to doze, but he was in the hallway seated on the floor, his back to the wall that faces the doorway to the bathroom. Yellow light from the open adjacent bedroom door fills this space for the first time in years as it filters through the daisy drapes.
Macabre has a heightened meaning inside this hall bathroom. The bathtub is still soiled by Linda’s own diluted blood leaving a crimson ring from her bleeding-out. On the floor between the toilet and the tub are the artifacts of the failed rescue; empty wrappers of sterile gauze, discarded latex gloves turned inside-out and smudges from service shoes on a wet and bloody floor mostly obscured by the extraction of her body that was laid out on the floor for CPR. The most delicate item in the room was the empty wine glass still on its perch on the bathtub’s rim, stained deep purple at the bottom of the bowl of the crystal, much like the tub itself.
Linda knew well enough, even in her inebriation, that the femoral artery would bleed out quickly. She had a history of long baths and calculated that she might be long gone before her husband ever became suspect. She was right.
Ian stares into the bathroom. He sees the vanity, the rim of the Formica countertop, the mirror, the light fixture he replaced last Summer. He cannot see the sink from his seated position, and the toilet and tub are obscured by the wall. Regardless, he knows they are there. Well-intended offers to help clean it up have been turned away. Ian raises a bottle to his mouth and swigs the remaining whisky. He holds the last mouthful, lets it burn on the mucous tissue inside his cheeks and his tongue and then he lets it go down after a breath, exhaling once the whisky has cleared his throat. The fumes in his exhalation evacuate through his nostrils, his jaw clenches, his temples bulge. The sentiment from the grave is back and tears mark their spots again on the shirt he’s yet to remove since the morning he dressed for the funeral. It is not just grief now, it is anger, the vitriol he entertained a week ago at the gas station.
Inside the master bedroom closet a light turns on and Ian throws back its door and enters. He spreads his arms out wide and wraps them around the woman’s wardrobe hanging before him and he pulls the blouses and skirts and dresses and tops and pants from the rod, plastic hanger hooks breaking away, those that are more stout resist until they snap violently. He’s well on his way out of the closet before all the items are free and he dumps what he has onto the bed and returns for another load. Shoes, this time. Belts, the jewelry rack, the clutches and handbags and purses, all piling on the bed. He’s on autopilot, that trauma-induced state of mind that eliminates obstacles to survival.
IT’S THIS AUTOPILOT that takes him to the produce section of the grocery store where he shops, where they stack the empty apple boxes for patrons like Ian to take away. He’s filling a grocery cart full, carefully collapsing and arranging them to get the most in the load, oblivious to a familiar onlooker, the type that’s seemingly impossible to avoid in a small college town.
It never fails. Leave the house in whatever state exists at the time, no matter what time – for Ian this morning, it’s a state of a trailing buzz from a booze breakfast consumed to inhibit a plummeting and unrecoverable implosion of his heart, along with still being clothed in what’s served as both civilian attire and pajamas, unshaven, dental hygiene deficient, hair askew – and run into a familiar face. She’s a student from his Lying and Deception class this semester, from which, along with his other four preps, he’s been absent since last Thursday.
“We’re missing you in class. Are you coming back soon?” It’s Hillary. Even more embarrassing if Ian had the capacity to care at this point. She’s a senior, a student he’s had all four of her years at the university out of the five he’s been there, the career move he’d considered better late than never. She doesn’t know why he’s missed class. Ian asked his department secretary and Chair that his privacy be respected in this matter of his wife’s suicide. They’ve been able to cover his classes and quell curiosities, but Hillary is perceptive, not hard to do for most coeds on an aesthetic level since he looks like shit.
“Are you alright?” She asks.
“I’m good, it’s all good,” says the lying sack. Were she not emotionally concerned with the professor’s well-being she might have caught several of the nonverbal cues of both his instruction and more acutely, his deception – the break of his eye contact, the shift of his feet in the direction of an exit, the stoic paralinguistics. “I’ll be back on Monday.”
In the parking lot he rolls by mostly empty stalls, still a bit early except for geriatrics and apparently college coeds to be shopping this Saturday morning, and reaches his pickup where he loads the boxes in its bed. Back at full steam after the student interruption, Ian is engaged to a point of oblivion to any other influences around him, anything that could take him away from this extrication, his latest home improvement project.
One by one Ian removes drawers from Linda’s dresser and dumps their contents into boxes he’s arranged along the floor. Methodical. Bras, panties, pajamas, socks and hose, sweats, swimsuits, and lingerie, all of which he’d forgotten. He hasn’t seen this lace and silk in years. He’s sorted the pile on the bed, now all in boxes that are accumulating at the front door and he adds more, two at a time, neatly stacked. In the kitchen junk drawer he scoots the content around until he finds a Sharpie and then marches to the stacks and begins to mark them – LINDA, LINDA, LINDA, LINDA, the last label less legible than the first.
Two by two Ian loads the boxes into the back of his truck, a successful game of Tetris in the small bed of this Ford Ranger stepside. He pulls the keys from the pocket of his waning Chinos, mounts and starts his truck and pulls out of his driveway, slams the gear selector down and the truck lurches into drive, RPMs already escalating, the rear tires chirping under the torque leaving the little house on Glacier Drive.
He drives. The main arteries of his suburban neighborhood are beginning to fill with the weekend’s warriors. The Harley riders are the earliest, then the power stroking turbo diesel pickup trucks towing watercraft, ski boats – all of which the products of second mortgages – and then the minivans en route to soccer fields. While Ian’s destination is one also frequented on weekends, it is by far less popular than the open road, the lake, or the rec center. It’s a storage unit facility.
Fort Knox Storage is a maze of alleys, all looking the same like stairways in a very elementary Penrose effect, save for the numerical addresses of each red rolling door framed out by the buff brick of the facility. It is built on a slice of landlocked real estate behind the Corby Car Wash with an incline that made grading this plot and setting the cinderblock walls a feat of stepping down each alley every five or six units. Each ascending passage is bisected by a cement trough, a virtual skateboard luge were this facility not behind a gnarly fence and a pass-code protected gate, the width of which has been carefully calculated to accommodate two U-Haul vans parked side by side, but no more.
Ian’s truck finds his number and stops. He hops out and releases the chrome puck of a padlock, pulls the securing slide from its rest and raises the rolling door with the yellow nylon cord tied to the handle, exposing his ten-by-ten cache. Then he moves back to his truck, tailgate lowered, and two by two he unloads the boxes into the storage unit, stacking neatly beside other boxes, patio furniture, bikes and children’s furniture.
He closes this loop by stopping back by the grocery store scavenging more boxes and returning home. This time it is the kitchen, specific utensils, serving dishes, a set of pots, kitchen linens, stemware, a blender. Nothing is wrapped in newspaper or spare towels. There is no careful packing as if this were a move. This was still an autonomic extraction as if this all combined were a wisdom tooth with a dead root.
Next is the living area, its library of LPs and CDs. Two piles are created, one at random on the carpet, the other in a box. Decor is removed from the walls, knick knacks from end tables, the coffee table, the decorative shelves on the entry wall and the shelves themselves.
He stops. His breathing is heavy from the pace at which he’s been working, focused on packing each box to make the best use of space. His compulsion is a distraction from the nostalgia associated with every item he packs therein, a subconscious effort to truncate the urge to examine every object and recall its associated memory, its accompanying feeling, regardless the intensity of its value, because it will only result in ache.
He lifts his head from the box and he surveys the great room looking for what else needs to go. There’s the book Linda never finished reading, the coaster with a circle stain of red wine, a tissue tucked between the cushions of the divan. Into the dining area he sees the full china cabinet. The china was a wedding gift from his sister, a Villeroy & Bosch set for eight of Vieux Luxembourg, an elegantly simple design “a la brindille” of delicate blue florals on cream porcelain. Each dinner plate is upright in the cabinet with its accompanying salad plate, bread and butter plate and tea cup with saucer displayed before it. The set had been used nine times throughout the marriage and perhaps warranted a bit more than finding the best way to shove it all into a box. The breakfast nook still held the morning paper from the Wednesday previous, toast crumbs on the placemats and coffee mugs stained from their evaporating residuals, the last swallow no one takes from coffee brewed in a French press.
Ian then sees the family photographs that line the hallway. The family photographs. He hasn’t looked at these in years. They’ve just become fixtures like most everything else that adorns this space that he comes back to. This house is not a space that he comes home to. It used to be. It was for a time. One fixture hangs in a position on the wall opposite the door to the hall bathroom that used to confirm that notion. It’s an eight by ten black and white photograph, matted and framed in cherry wood, a portrait of mother and daughter, Linda and Virginia. Ian sees it for the first time in years. It’s become background, like the vestige of a birthmark in this corridor that loses any ability to be noticed. The photo’s contrast against the putty eggshell of the hallway wall is punctuated now with this family’s new diminished context.
He took this portrait, developed the film and made this print back when everyone in it was still alive. He stands before it, framed himself by the door to the hall bathroom. In its glass he sees that reflection of himself, superimposed over the matte photographic paper. He takes the frame down from the wall and upon it stacks the other frames holding a wedding photo, school pictures, a backpacking trip in Yosemite, a birthday party, graduation, parents, and a Yellow Lab service dog.
On the dining table he improvises two stacks amidst several other items waiting the same sort. One stack is built with the photos of her parents, of Linda and Ian with Half Dome in the background, her graduation from college, and the wedding photo. On the other, Virginia’s school photos, the shot of Ian receiving his graduate degree, Virginia’s third birthday party where she has cake oozing between her fingers, and the shot of Stella, Virginia’s canine companion.
This leaves the black and white portrait. Ian took this at a park. The two of them were backlit by the setting sun and light reflected off something else, enough to fill their smiling faces. It was at a time when Virginia was feeling pretty well, she was happy and so, too, was Linda, and Ian managed to capture this rare moment when the light of the afternoon and the emotion of being together mirrored each other.
There were similar photographs as well, but for the most part of his daughter’s life Ian had his hands full with a liquid oxygen canister, a portable oximeter, a suction machine, a diaper bag or Virginia herself rather than a camera. Virginia dipped her toes in the ocean during the summer of her sixth year at the cove at Stinson Beach and the summer of her last year at San Simeon. She was amazed at the movement of the water rushing in around her feet that then pulled the sand underneath them while she was suspended by her daddy. The toes on her feet would arc up and fan out in the limb’s efforts to respond to her brain’s autonomous reaction to pull her feet from the chill of the water using her muscles and the joints at her ankles, her knees and her hips, none of which had the capacity to respond to such impetus. It didn’t matter, though, for if she could have she would have missed the sensation of the earth being sucked out from beneath her feet, a tickling that brought a precious smile onto her lips. There were wonderful places on her body that did know how to respond to stimuli.
THERE WAS ALMOST ALWAYS AN UMBILICAL that connected Ian or Linda when they were out with Virginia and that, for the most part, consisted of a tube that connected a liquid oxygen canister to the cannula under her nose. Two liters was the typical requirement. Her oxygen saturation was monitored by a portable oximeter, what is commonly referred to in pediatric circles as an E.T. probe since the pickup device makes the finger of its wearer glow like that of the pop-icon alien. The lead trailed from her finger to a device that would display her pulse in beats-per-minute and in her oxygen saturation in terms of a percentage out of one hundred. Anything below ninety percent warranted supplemented room air, additional oxygen provided by the liquid O2. Virginia hovered around eighty-five on good days.
Not tethered, but always close at hand was a portable suction machine, a battery powered pump that created suction by pumping air out of a canister to which a suction tube and catheter were connected. One of many results from the insult to Virginia’s neurological system was her incapacity to swallow correctly, something most take for granted. Although assumed to be an autonomic function like breathing, swallowing is a learned behavior, the placenta is the classroom and amniotic fluid the practicum. She learned this well up to a point, starting around the fifth month of gestation. In her fetal state Virginia drank around thirteen ounces of water and electrolytes, lipids and glucose each day that constitute the fluid that surrounded and protected her unborn body. That amount increased as she grew in size. Her brain created a memory, a neural pathway of coordinating fifty different muscles to move fluid from the mouth to the esophagus. Her last sonogram showed that she was normally functioning right up to the day before she was born.
After that time, instead of swallowing down her esophagus, the swallowing reflex that normally triggered the established muscle memory would not fire, and instead of passing fluid through the pharynx down the esophagus, closing off the larynx, the trachea remained vulnerable in the process and Virginia would swallow down the wrong pipe into her lungs. This introduced fluid into her airway and she ran a constant risk of aspiration pneumonia. Whenever she sounded like a little Darth Vader, she would have to have her upper airway cleared out with a suction catheter to prevent aspiration. This tube would be passed either up her nose and down to her throat to trigger a cough reflex that would produce fluid, and the catheter would evacuate the fluid away from the upper airway, or the tube would be passed into her mouth, hitting the back of the throat, producing the same response, something Ian and Linda performed dozens of times a day.
Virginia’s parents would also provide percussive therapy, a gentle and consistent rapping on her upper chest and back on the sides of her sternum and spine with a little silicone cup. When the cup tapped down on her chest or back it would compress to create a percussive but painless impact to help knock fluid loose enabling her to cough it up. It is the same care one would render a child with Cystic Fibrosis.
IN A SPARE POCKET of the diaper bag and in each glove box of the McDaniel automobiles was a sterile wrapped DeLee suction device, an alternative to the portable suction machine in the event its batteries had failed and no twelve volt source was available. The DeLee device was operated by providing suction with one’s own mouth sucking in on one tube while passing the catheter side down the patient’s airway. Its design facilitated that once expelled fluids were caught in the catheter, the tube would deposit the sputum in a trap without introducing it into the mouthpiece.
Ian used this thing only once in Virginia’s experience. The two were waiting in the car while Linda did a bit of shopping. Ian held Ginny in his arms, playing with her when she suddenly sneezed. Superstition would serve this little girl well for when she sneezed her life would, indeed, become at risk, warranting more than a bless you. The back of her throat would fill with the fluid from the attempted evacuation of the sneeze and hang there precariously, threatening to flow back down into her trachea and drown her. She became immediately raspy. He flicked on the suction machine and it didn’t respond. It wasn’t charged. He then realized that the twelve volt adapter to power the suction machine through the cigarette lighter was in the other car. Ginny’s rasp was getting worse risking aspiration by the second, so Ian broke out the DeLee suction. He ripped open the package, placed the mouthpiece in his lips and the catheter tip into Ginny’s nose and started sucking as he pushed the catheter toward her cough reflex.
In the haste of the moment, Ian failed to recognize that he was holding it upside down. When Ginny coughed she produced copious amounts of clear, stringy phlegm with green striations punctuated with chunks of more mature formed nasal mucous not quite at the booger stage, one of which had clogged the tube passed into Ginny’s mouth. The intense increase of the pounds-per-square-inch suction of her daddy’s oral vacuum compressed the clog and set it free to rush through the tube along with all of the contents behind it through the catheter into the inverted trap and up the tube into Ian’s mouth, filling it completely. His reflex to this pulled the tubes out of his mouth and Ginny’s nose and Ian spat the ingested mucous ball all over the inside of the windshield and dashboard of their little sedan. In the seconds it took for the shivers and his own gag reflex to subside, he caught Ginny’s expression from below in his arms, that rare precious smile, not because it was funny, even though it was hysterical, but because he got a taste of what she went through every time she was suctioned.
IAN ROTATES THE FRAME OVER and places it face down on the table. He turns the clips that put pressure on the backing board out from under the frame and pulls the board away. The undermount is next revealing the photographic paper adhered with acid free tape to the window mat. He pulls the photograph free of the mat and peels off the tape. Every move is deliberate and steady. He turns the photograph over and rotates it, looking at it closer, cocking his head to find a line within it, a line of separation. Then at a point near the top right edge he grasps the image, thumbs and index fingers and slowly rips the paper, the tearing line guided by the torque of his hands, separating mother and daughter. The mother side goes to the first pile. The daughter side on to Ian’s.
As the day goes on the interior of the McDaniel home becomes sterilized from trace objects of living and more boxes are stacked into the back of the Ranger waiting their storage. He’s shuddered a bit by the notion that lifetimes can be contained in cardboard and loaded in the back of his pickup.
He’d racked up a few lifetimes himself, most of which are contained in dossiers, documented evidence bound with clasps. These two lives of his wife and daughter were different; their wedding day, the vacation on the Outer Banks, their first home, Linda’s defense of her dissertation, Ian’s publication, the pregnancy, the conversion of the office to the nursery, the delivery, the first day at school, the surgeries, the ICU, their last trip to Monterey where Ginny contracted her fatal pneumonia, packed away in boxes.
The only objects left inside are large pieces of furniture that will not fit in the back of the Ranger nor in the storage unit, along with enough trappings for Ian to get by. He’s kept his toiletries and personal items, what few clothes he had to begin with, a bath towel, hand towel and wash cloth. There is a mummy sleeping bag on the bed in the master bedroom, and enough items in a drawer and cupboard in the kitchen to serve one. Anything he has felt to be extraneous or harmful has been packed, another load of which he deposits at Fort Knox.
6 impulse buying
TWO TONES PLAY OVERHEAD, the third and the first on a scale and then the announcement, “Customer service to bathroom fixtures. Customer service to bathroom fixtures.” Ian walks nearly the width of the home improvement warehouse on this Sunday morning. He observes the blue aisle placards as he passes them, indicating what merchandise is where. Not that he has to. He’s a home improvement do-it-yourselfer, but he’s not one to waste a step, especially in a retail space this big. Two more tones and the matter-of-fact one of the female announcer declares, “Bathroom fixtures.”
He’s finally changed from his funeral attire. Chore clothes now, worn jeans and a black t-shirt, sneakers and a baseball cap. He’s after a few specific items and he’s shopping in order of distance to checkout, which brings him to safety goggles. Tinted yellow, fluorescent frames, clear lenses, fully enclosed. He grabs the least expensive offering the most protection, the kind that would be found in most high school science labs. The selection for the second item doesn’t have the same variety, except for length. Ian grabs a demolition bar and weighs its heft in his hand, quickly satisfied that it will do. His shopping is interrupted by Bill.
“Ian? How you doing? You doing alright?” Bill says as he sees the bar and the goggles. “Looks like you got your work cut out for you today!”
“Just a remodel project,” Ian says, hoping that’s enough information to stave off the somewhat patronizing neighbor. It is not.
“Well, good. Good for you. A distraction like that will do you some-” He trails off. Saying good again would be awkward, more so than everything is already. “So, you doing okay?” he says instead.
Bill is a human communication archetype. Ian knows this because this is what he teaches. This is what he has researched throughout his career and this is what keeps Ian reclusive for the most part, a hazard of human communication study. There are unwritten rules about how one communicates to another who has suffered some kind of trauma. Death is a particular trauma, especially the death of a child, that rift in the natural order and death gets especially sticky to address when it’s from a self-inflicted major artery in the femur. Most everyone becomes the sympathetic, patronizing archetype when they have little or no experience with death on their own. Those who do, know enough to not say anything, to leave the grieving alone to do their shopping.
“Yeah, fine. How ‘bout you?” says Ian.
Off his guard now, Bill lowers his voice a bit. “Shouldn’t you be, you know, um, don’t you have family? I mean, man, Ian, it’s just been a couple of days-” and he trails off again. Ian’s mouth hints to a smile, though it is unmatched by his eyes that are boring into Bill’s search for some kind of relief in this imposed gesture of goodwill. Bill gives up.
“Well, if you need any help-”
“Yeah, I’ll let you know,” and Ian turns away from him. Bill is left in the background of home improvement, wishing he hadn’t run out of nylon line for his lawn trimmer, the reason for his visit to this big box. Instead he runs into Ian McDaniel, someone with whom Bill has never really been at ease and now here he is in Lowe’s shopping like nothing has happened. It’s pretty strange.
Ian would make most anyone uncomfortable. He has an energy coming off him, a determination now undaunted in the task he’s conjured up as coping or therapy or penance or all the above. He has an intensity that leaves a heat trail, fueled by thirty-six hours or more of raw consciousness, excruciating emotional control, little nutrition, painfully detailed editing of memories and the arrangement of a storage unit to enable the archival of a life that self-destroyed.
He queues up in a checkout line carrying the goggles, a couple of packages of visqueen, a bag of blue shop towels, duct tape, and the demolition bar. One patron stands ahead of him and two more patrons queue up behind Ian. A couple. She’s first, right behind Ian, and then a large, rolled area rug standing on end, and then him. The rug catches Ian’s attention at his peripheral and he glances at the couple. He sees her but not the man blocked by the rug, at least not completely. She smiles at him.
Ian turns back now facing ahead, waiting his turn at the register. The couple speak and Ian eaves drops.
“We’re not going to get this in the car,” the man holding the rug says.
“The back seats fold down, don’t they?” says she.
“My golf bag’s in the trunk,” says he, bringing another archetype to mind for Ian, and within its framing, the stereotype. Ian’s mind flashes to his own frame of reference on this subject, which is rife with physicians, and he turns abruptly, stepping to one side to counter the rolled rug and he sees him, again, twice in one week.
Conditioned throughout his life to think that most everything happens for some preordained purpose, were Ian still a believer in divine intervention he might have assumed this second encounter with Doctor Reagan had happened for a reason. When stock is put into a higher power there is an expectation of a return, a causal order of things, a universal logic assimilated by believers. The dreams of heaven and hell are based on this fundamental principle that they are termini earned, not a place of default. That logic has translated epidemically to terrestrial causal living – reaping what one sows – irrevocable blessings decreed upon the good while the evil kick against the pricks. Turn on any twenty-four hour news cycle and witness the fallacy of this thinking first-hand – tornadoes aren’t discriminative, earthquakes tremble the feet of all in epicentric proximity, the tides raise every boat. Within his previous belief system Ian could see how easily this would be exacerbated by the care and feeding of a child with a terminal condition. Certainly, if everything happens for a reason there must be some better reason behind the suffering of a child. “You must be very special people to have a daughter like Virginia,” or “God knew where to put this angel,” or even on one occasion, “Man, what did you do to deserve this?” With the compounding of these assumptions this became the achilles to Ian’s faith, cruel and otherwise. The pressure of living up to these expectations eventually snapped that tendon. In part, his belief system unraveled from the assumptive logic that God would make his daughter suffer to make him a better human being.
The fatal blow to his faith was in the anticipation of the inevitable in caring for a terminally ill child. The McDaniels grasped tighter to their convictions in the doctrine of a heaven, where a glorious reunion with loved ones passed would somehow make Virginia’s dying easier. Death was romanticized by their religion, it is but a sleep and a forgetting, a transition, an ascent. The McDaniels lived their days in a way that according to their scriptures, their teachers and their faith, the sting of death would be replaced and assuaged by the knowledge of eternal life. While these promises surely must have worked for legions of mourners, this antidote was lost on Ian and on Linda. A process contrived to heal, to provide closure, to eventually move on through washing and dressing their daughter’s corpse, displaying her remains in a viewing for all to see her lifeless body and then to pack her away amidst bouquets and sprays of flora in a box that ensures the protection and preservation of the remains contained within, failed the surviving McDaniels. No reason could be tendered that made any sense of losing their little girl.
Removing divine intervention was therapeutic for Ian who now believed that things just happened due to more categorical reasons, like an overdose or a transected femoral artery or a cephalic version, except for earlier this week and now today in proximity again to Doctor Reagan. Ian is believing again in fate if nothing more and the electrons of that idea push his envelope of control beyond any he has held to this point.
“Even with the seats down this isn’t going to fit in that car.” says Gray.
Ian’s knuckles blanche as he grips the demo bar.
“Maybe we can tie it to the top of the car,” Pam returns.
“Not on that car!” Gray snickers at his wife’s suggestion.
The bar is now moving upward and as Ian lifts it he drops the contents in his other arm to the floor. That startles Pam and she turns away from Gray to see where the sound is coming from. Ian isn’t a threat, yet, but he might have been if Pam’s regard didn’t blink him back to his senses. He picks up his dropped items and advances to the register as his turn arrives to check out. Pam and Gray step forward as well. Ian makes his purchase, grabs his bag and bar and makes egress of the store.
The sliding glass doors open and he exhales with an exasperated growl, catches his next breath and holds it. Every step forward toward the parking stalls is a fight to keep his feet moving in a deliberate direction away from Gray. He exhales again at his truck and digs in his pocket for the key fob and presses the button to unlock his door. He opens it, puts the demo bar in the back, and as he lights onto the seat, there in the stall ahead of him is the Mercedes, the same E-Class from the filling station and as if to mock his nerve it chirps and its lights flash from being unlocked remotely by its owner. Gray and Pam enter Ian’s field of view along with the rug on a cart, making their way to the rear of the Mercedes. Another chirp and its rear hatch lifts as the couple approach. Ian watches. An oversize golf bag takes up much of the room of the cargo area of the Mercedes. Gray works the back seats, folding them down and assessing the space created. Pam surveys the top of the car.
“There’s no way that rug is going on top of this car,” Gray asserts this time.
Maybe this is the reason for this second encounter. This is the moment Ian can reintroduce himself, serve as a good Samaritan, offer a hand and open a door, a kind of Karma in the good intention, something to abate this vitriol. He can and must do something in this moment. He steps out of his truck, a move without compulsion, a man on auto-pilot without the conscience that kept the fuel nozzle in control the day before.
“Excuse me,” he says, startling Pam. “I couldn’t help but notice you have a bit of a situation.”
Gray is a bit embarrassed, “We weren’t thinking ahead here, impulse buying.”
“Yeah, impulse buying.” The Mercedes, the rug, the wife.
Ian forces himself to continue, feigning pleasant, “What direction is home for you?”
“We’re north of here in Silverado.”
“You know, I’m heading that same direction. Why don’t we throw that into my truck and I’ll follow you home?” He’s really nice, this Samaritan. Pam warms to his offer and charm. Gray is relieved to be offered this alternative, saving face and the finish on the top of his Mercedes.
“Why don’t you ride with me,” Ian says to Gray, “in case we get separated by a light or I decide I want that rug more than you.” They all laugh. Gray hands Pam the keys. “See you at home,” he says.
The Mercedes pulls rearward out of the stall and into the lane. Falling in behind are Ian and Gray. Behind in the bed of the truck is the rug. Gray is gracious.
“I’m Gray Reagan,” he says. The cab of the Ranger is a bit cramped for a comfortable handshake.
“Ian, Ian McDaniel.”
Talk radio accompanies their navigation out of the parking lot and onto the streets that lead to over-built homes with blue swimming pools and green landscapes. The Mercedes is several lengths ahead. In it Pam checks her mirrors making sure she hasn’t lost the men and leads them past culs-de-sac and bisecting avenues. A red sedan slowly passes the other way. Pam’s mirror reflects her view of the pickup, but it’s difficult to see detail in the cab with the overhead sun making contrast extreme. All she can make out are the two figures of its occupants.
“This is really nice of you. I hope we’re not taking you away from anything,” says Gray.
“Oh, I’m just doing a little remodeling. I’m in the demolition phase right now, the easy part.” Says Ian. Gray nods his head.
“McDaniel,” Ian repeats. “I said, ‘McDaniel.’”
“Yes, Ian McDaniel. Pleased to meet you.” Gray takes a harder look. “Sorry, have we met before?”
Ian is distracted now, an idea has coalesced in his mind, his thoughts are turning, aspirated with the vitriol from the gas pump. He looks out ahead.
“Yes, we have.”
Gray studies him further. “How embarrassing. I don’t remember.”
“Yeah, you see? That’s the problem.”
Ian throws his right elbow into Gray’s face, breaking his nose and dislodging teeth, a blunt force trauma that renders Gray unconscious, bleeding onto his golf sweater, his head now bowed.
He stuns at this own reflex. He inhales and holds his breath in. This wasn’t even a thought – the elbow – just a natural reaction to the impulse that formed in Ian’s mind. He looks ahead at the Mercedes. There’s no change, no brake lights. She hasn’t seen this happen. The E-Class rolls through an intersection and Ian accelerates, turns right, and speeds away down another street at a right angle to the now hesitating Mercedes.
Ian’s hands are ten and two on the wheel. He forces himself to slow down and pushes Gray back into an upright position. The g-force of that right turn dumped Gray out of his seat belt across Ian’s lap. He cannot draw anyone’s attention with a man hemorrhaging unconscious in his front seat. A cell phone ring tone cracks over the droning of the radio. Gray’s cell phone in the holder on his belt illuminates and vibrates with its ringing.
Ian clears his nose, check his mirrors, and drives.
7 they do have the same head shape
THE SOUND OF A ROLLING METAL DOOR slamming shut disrupts Gray into semi-consciousness. He hears the stripping and tearing of tape and feels his head being bound and someone working above him. They move from his head to his wrist and to the other and then to his feet. He finds some comfort in being stabilized for transport and tries to open his eyes to confirm that thought.
Swelling prohibits his eyes opening beyond slits, yet it’s enough to pull exposure and faint focus on a cinderblock wall ahead of him. He attempts to turn his head to draw in more information but it has been immobilized. Standard procedure in a motor vehicle accident, he thinks. His limbs have been secured as well, but they are not yet rolling and there is no prick of an IV and he feels as if he were drowning. And now the pain, his nose, his mouth. The cinderblock makes no sense.
Ian regards his hasty binding, Gray’s wrists and feet duct-taped to the arms and legs of a sea-foam green adirondack chair, his head to the center pair of slats that help make up the backrest. If Gray could see he’d realize he was in mortal circumstances more severe than being in the back of an ambulance. He wouldn’t see much, a folding chair against a cinderblock wall, a discarded roll of duct tape, an opened bag of shop towels and his good Samaritan, Ian McDaniel.
He can’t see, however, because the tender tissue below his eyes has swollen as fluid rapidly accumulates to assuage the trauma sustained to his face. His nose is akimbo with a moustache of coagulated blood and snot. No air can pass through there, instead Gray is currently a mouth-breather where there’s a vacancy of two important teeth, an upper left incisor and the tooth adjacent. His jaw is fractured beneath their sockets. Complicating this is the aspiration of blood and secretions now pooling in his upper airway.
Ian does not want to give away his proximity to this casualty and makes no noise whatsoever. He observes with the same disbelief that stunned him in the cab of his truck, this time to the swift chain of events that terminated here in this storage unit. He is terrified on one hand and exhilarated on the other.
A single twenty-five watt bulb is suspended above Gray and the adirondack, hardly enough light to make it to the floor, but enough to cast Ian’s shadow on the wall as he crosses around to look and listen more carefully. He decides if he does not intervene on some level, Doctor Reagan will aspirate further, develop a pneumonia, desaturate and become more of a liability.
“Who’s there,” Gray manages to say, the th digraph of there being nearly impossible for him to say without all his teeth. Instead his tongue bounces off the roof of his mouth making the sockets bleed a bit more. His tongue moves back to them instinctively to quell the bleeding, but it induces a cough and then choking as he aspirates more and that causes him to cough even more, a vicious cycle that produces bloody mucous that runs down his chin. Ian wipes Gray’s face clean, around his chin and underneath his neck with a blue shop towel.
“You should probably cough again to get it out.”
Gray is oblivious to being cleaned up but stuns to the sound of Ian’s voice. He tries to turn his head in Ian’s direction, but the restraint of the tape distorts his brow and prohibits his head from turning any farther than the connecting tissue of his forehead allows.
Ian is more insistent. “Cough it out,” he says a bit louder. The rasp is at that point where Ian knows if Gray inhales any deeper the aspiration will descend beyond the upper airway making this mess even more complicated. Gray’s noncompliance makes Ian whack him on his chest, Ian’s cupped hand landing on Gray’s sternum, again and again, the cupping creating more percussion in the impact and Ian gets the results, a hearty airway clearing cough that draws the flirting fluid back up the pipes into Gray’s mouth and out over his chin. His breath clears for a moment. Ian wipes Gray’s chin. He listens for a couple of breaths.
“That’s better,” says Ian.
Gray’s eyes search what they can up into their lids then semicircle around. His lucidity is demanding some sense.
“Was I in an accident? Where’s this? Where’s my wife?” he says.
Fluid continues down his throat. The rasp is coming back. Ian steps directly in front of Gray and leans down bringing his face to Gray’s face to get a better look in what little light is falling on it. He turns his head angling his ear closer to Gray’s mouth and nose and listens to him breathe. There are a number of troubling sounds, the accumulating fluid at the back of the throat, the rasp at the top of the airway, and deeper, the wheeze of the infiltration into his lower lungs with a subtle rumble that with a sigh or a yawn would become truly obstructive. Ian knows these sounds, what they mean, what needs to be done. It has become second nature to him.
He pulls his ear away and turns now his examining eyes on to Gray looking at his mouth and nose. The mouth isn’t open enough to see, so Ian inserts his right thumb over the bottom teeth, his forefinger down around the chin and opens the jaw. Gray roars in pain and in its exasperation he clears his airway, an aerosol of bloody mist evacuates his mouth over Ian’s thumb. Ian pulls his head away and turns his face, his nose, wipes it on the sleeve of his shirt and waits for the mist to dissipate before he goes back to the examination. Still not enough light. With his free left hand, Ian pushes the adirondack chair back on its rear legs, rotating Gray’s body back far enough for twenty-five watts of light to illuminate the cavity of his mouth. Ian looks closer. Gray aspirates again in the fear that he is falling over backwards.
Ian allows the chair to come back to rest on all four legs carefully to not induce a jar or bump that would ripple through Gray’s shattered face. He moves around behind the chair still holding Gray’s jaw open. Ian then inserts the index finger of his left hand in Gray’s mouth, palm facing Gray’s broken nose and probes the hard palate, the roof of Gray’s mouth, like a dentist installing an upper bridge. The gape of the mouth amplifies the gasping and wheezing and the rattling down low in his chest. The pain is incredible, but he dare not scream again as his mouth fills with more fluid. Ian feels with his finger, not so gently, his eyes visualizing what his touch discovers and then he withdraws his finger trailing a bloody, mucousy string of saliva, his finger itself covered in fresh, bright blood.
“Your palate is cracked from where your incisor was.”
He releases Gray’s jaw as well and wipes both hands on the blue towel he used to swab Gray’s face moments ago. Facing him again, Ian’s left index finger and thumb grace the bridge of Gray’s nose and he wiggles the solid cartledge. They descend the bridge until they reach the separation going into the septum. They move the nose to its symmetrical home but it refuses to stay. Tears stream from Gray’s eyes, blood and snot from his nose, his face is bulging, flush with burst capillaries and swelling, his eyes now pressing through the thick lids, his entire head shaking. Ian withdraws his examination.
Gray relinquishes to his hysterics, “Why are you doing this to me?!” The d phoneme is pretty sloppy without those teeth in place.
Ian picks the folding chair from the wall, opens it and places it in the tiny space in front of the adirondack, its back to Gray and straddles it, lighting in front of him, faces parallel each other, eyes on a level trajectory. They do have the same head shape. Ian stares at him, stoic, but inside the adrenalin is still coursing, every synapse firing, while Gray settles out of the hysteria.
“Who are you,” Gray rumbles.
Ian’s told him thrice and he still doesn’t know who he is. He exhales his exasperation. No clue. The second-guessing noise in his head about this whole mess gets louder, the doubt, the fear, the irreversible and mounting consequences of every moment that passes with this guy duct-taped to a chair in a storage unit.
Holy Christ, what have I done?
Lower and resigned, Gray’s voice slowly and over-articulating his new speech impediment asks, “What are you going to do with me?”
Silence. Neither is breathing at the end of the interrogative.
“I don’t know,” Ian finally says. His eyes leave Gray’s and go down to his Izod golf sweater. It was a lime green but now had a saturated bib with all that’s been escaping Gray’s face. “I’ve wondered what I’d do if I had the chance.” Ian diligently remains in control.
“Had the chance?” asks Gray.
Ian’s eyes are back on Gray’s. “To be face-to-face with you. I thought this would be different though, some kind of arbitration. You apologize.”
“For what?” whispers Gray.
“And that’s it. You don’t even know, you don’t remember.”
Gray’s breathing increases in its wheezing, fluid accumulating again. Ian pounds on his chest, cupped hand, less restraint, more resolve. He is figuring this all out.
“Cough it out. That settles in your chest, you desaturate, you can’t concentrate, I lose your attention.”
Gray coughs a gruff foaming bark that crescendos to a wheeze. He spits weakly and produces a flow that runs down his chin and strings to his chest. No clean up this time, the expectorate saturates the sweater turning it more of an avocado green.
“Are you a doctor?” Gray asks.
“What else have you forgotten?”
Gray locks on, a bit of his secondary nature is coming to the surface. A clot gives way and another rush of blood flows from a nostril.
“I imagined if I ever saw you again I’d punch you in the face. Then last week at the gas pump, there you were, and I didn’t do a goddamn thing. And then, today! Again!”
Ian rises. “In my truck! Threw an elbow instead.” And he reenacts the contact throwing his elbow like a hockey player. “A reflex. Didn’t even think about it. Boom! And you dropped. Shit! How was I going to explain this to your wife?”
Gray listens and watches, blank-faced, the tops of his eyes cut by his swollen lids, unable to tilt his head up to see Ian and the charade entirely, but the bottom halves of his dilated pupils have him in focus. Somewhere way back in the far reaches of Gray’s conscience is a fear of this very thing happening to him or something like it.
“So I brought you here,” says Ian.
It is beneath Gray to ask, but he does anyway, “Where is this?”
And it all now comes together for Ian. A purpose to this fate. A reason for the happenchance. The cogs of Ian’s recovering mind turn a plan and he picks up the duct tape from the floor and peels a strip.
“It’s a storage unit,” he says, tearing the piece off and with both hands placing it over Gray’s broken mouth. His nose sizzles with the attempt to breathe, a bubble of snot inflates and deflates. And then silence. Ian listens and Gray noisily inhales. It is difficult for him, but possible.
“And you’re going to know my little girl,” says Ian, calmer, resolved. Gray’s lung-rattle has worsened.
“You’re going to aspirate on that, unless you keep coughing. But you’ll have to swallow it now. Can’t have you screaming anymore.”
8 counting on the kindness of strangers
IAN LAYS ON TOP OF THE DUVET this Monday morning still in the clothes he had on yesterday staring at the ceiling. The activity in his brain runs a pattern from searching for familiar shapes in its texture – a decor of post-popcorn acoustics, this design done with a mop saturated with paste made from thinned drywall mud and joint compound slopping it overhead onto the ceiling, overlapping splotches – to the terror of the thought that there’s a man in a storage unit, bound and gagged, hopefully alive, waiting for Ian to return.
It’s been about nine years since Ian scraped off the popcorn texture with a super wide putty knife attached to a telescoping pole. The popcorn had flecks of glitter in it, tell- tale of a 1960’s remnant in a master bedroom that has since been made contemporary. The mess it makes and the effort it takes to remove is gigantic. Everything has to come out of the room and the carpet has to come up. All this shortly after he and Linda finished the first remodel. He would subsequently lay there in bed on weekend mornings while she dozed, and look at the ceiling when it occurred to him he probably spent more time looking at the ceiling than any other part of the room, so it should be corrected, match the decor of the rest of the chamber.
The human body can go three days without water. Gray probably had breakfast the day before. He’s okay. The bleeding has had to have stopped by now. He’s upright, harder to aspirate and easier for him to blow out his nose. If he had been found by anyone at this point, Ian would not be laying on the bed staring at the ceiling where he finds the moose with an exaggerated nose and huge antlers.
So they moved everything out of the room, pulled up the carpet, new sculpted wall-to-wall with a thick pad, and masked off the walls, three of which are painted in Taupe, the accent wall in Sage, both in eggshell, along with the door trim painted in gloss linen, including the master entry, the closet door and the master bath door. This bedroom was critical to Linda’s and Ian’s sanity, a sanctified respite away from the round-the-clock care, feeding, flexing and bending, engaging and loving of their daughter.
It was in the third of the ten-year vigil when someone suggested they have a place in their home, plush and thick and quiet and warm with a spa of a master bath where they could take a break. They infers they did it together, but that was never the case. Not once. The queen-size bed might suggest some togetherness, but the Lay-Z-Boy recliner in the nursery undermines that assumption. Spa is an overstatement for anyone who’s been to one. The best they could afford in the remodel was a jetted standard tub, but the tile and the upscale fixtures and the expensive bath linens from Target and the high gloss paint on the trim made it feel and look like how they imagined a resort hotel bath to be, at least for the first few weeks. It was all really nice and the thick pad in the bedroom held up pretty well.
With the furniture out, carpet up and the masking in place, the master bedroom was ready to have its ceiling scraped. Enter the shop vac, the super wide putty knife, the painter’s paper coveralls, the shower cap, the goggles.
THE GOGGLES. They are still in the truck in the bag, and the shop towels are in the unit, and the phone –
Ian lifts straight up off the bed and brings his feet to the floor. There on the nightstand is Gray’s phone with its battery next to it. He picks them up and hesitates and holds his breath. He snaps the two together, rotates the phone and flips it open and presses the power button. A tone and a blip and it powers on, then a chime and a message on the ID screen, Pamela, Missed 27 calls. The device illuminates and chimes its ring tone now in Ian’s hand. On the screen it says Pamela.
This renders him motionless except for the bulge in his temples, the tears in his eyes. He looks away from the phone, still ringing in his hand, and he inhales, taking quick choppy breaths stifling the cry, what would most certainly turn into bawling. He has a hostage sequestered in a storage unit that he has assaulted. Kidnapping, aggravated assault. No, it would just be assault without the use of a gun. The phone stops ringing. A moment later the voicemail tone rings. Ian disassembles the phone back to its two parts, the battery and the receiver.
I’ve got to keep it together.
THE REAGAN MASTER SUITE has floor-to-ceiling northern light, the rest of the walls in Antique White with low-mass furnishings trimmed in stainless steel and bamboo. A bamboo floor creates the space for a king size adjustable bed, all of it too masculine for Pamela’s taste, though she’d never breathe a word of critique. Pam has lit on her haunches, knees together on a lounge, her elbows on her knees, in her hand her cell phone. Like Ian she hasn’t changed since yesterday. Pre-dawn light is coming through the windows as she dials and brings the device to her ear and speaks, “Detective Alvarez, Missing Persons.”
Bedside on the integrated night table is a photograph of the happy couple, the deck of a sailboat on a vector leading out from behind them.
“He told me to call this morning if I didn’t hear anything last night.”
In front of the frame is a ladies Rolex.
Her voice is getting more stainless steel itself, “I didn’t hear anything last night.”
On a wall is a framed and matted photograph of a very young Doctor Reagan holding a newborn. It’s his first delivery, then in residency at U.C. San Francisco, when he met Pam.
“I haven’t heard anything from my husband who’s been missing since yesterday.”
“Can you explain that to me?”
She listens, growing more indignant as she interrupts.
“My husband is a respected obstetrician in this community, I hardly think- No, he didn’t know the man that he was with.”
Out in the great room is a space that has been created for the rug, the sofas separated, the coffee table moved to the landing, Pam’s voice bouncing off all the hard surfaces from the master bedroom to this space.
To be easily escalated is uncharacteristic for Pam, even when the stakes involve her husband. He has always been one to take care of himself and she has always been one to negotiate in the stickiest of circumstances with a cool head. Pam’s skills were honed in Uganda, negotiating for supplies and bargaining with a regime that had no interest in preserving quality of life. Safely back in the States she turned her attention and prowess to philanthropic work, raising money for facilities and treatment for the non-profit foundation of the prominent healthcare organization under whose umbrella the South Highland Women’s Center functioned. Pam was instrumental in the Foundation’s success in building a pediatric wing, expanding Labor and Delivery and attracting cardiologists to populate the region’s only acute cardiac care unit. She created the town’s cultural attraction during the holidays with the Christmas Tree Festivity, the Foundation’s top fund raiser where individuals and organizations decorated evergreens and auctioned them off at a Dickens-like festival with music and other crafts, all the proceeds of which go to the foundation. When a major donor, who for political reasons decided to rescind an eight figure donation to establish a free-clinic since part of its care purview would be to provide family planning, Pam was able to close the deal with everyone still smiling about it. She competed directly with neighboring regions to establish a cancer center in her town, making it possible for treatment to be available within a few minutes drive instead of the hours’ distance it would otherwise take, a horrible journey for any chemo patient. And Pam has been the champion of women’s healthcare in an era and area of phallocentric agendas. She is no stranger to holding a position with the rhetorical skills of a litigator resulting in health care access for women below the poverty line and for oncology patients in therapeutic regimens. At five-feet, barely one hundred pounds, her influence was forged in her engagement, her intuition and her intelligence. Gray Reagan was a lucky man.
“I told you we ran into him at the hardware store,” her frustration echoing through the home.
The Reagan garage floor is finished cement in a gloss maroon stain upon which is parked the Mercedes alongside a black Lincoln Navigator and a customized golf cart.
“It was a small white truck, a Ford I think. I don’t know what is what.”
She escalates more, “I don’t have a license number,” she stands and at just about the volume of a yell, “because we were counting on the kindness of strangers!”
It echos through the rest of the house. Then, back in control, “So, I guess I’ll call you back later, then?”
She disconnects, grabs her keys and sac and leaves the retreat through the living space, down the hallway to the laundry and mudroom and through the door to the garage. She gets into the Mercedes and the garage door opener engages the faux concrete slab of a door, the sound of which is eclipsed by the ignition of the E-Class that then backs out into the early morning.
The drive out of Silverado is an homage to the wines of the famous Napa Valley vintner. The Reagan home is on Mt. George Circle fed by a side street, Cabernet, that stems from Miller Ranch Boulevard. Cabernet is a street too short to host any addresses, just the red sedan that was passed Pam and Gray and Ian the afternoon before, now parked. She drives by Merlot Avenue, Carneros Circle and Sangiovese Circle. Miller Ranch is unusually quiet. James and Catherine are usually walking their Collie, or Joyce can be found on her morning constitution, Peggy on her Sunday walk/run flinging her arms swinging up ridiculously high like a – today is not Sunday. There is no one. No traffic either, but that is lost on Pamela, all the way to the home improvement center.
Her Mercedes navigates its empty parking lot, finds a stall close to the entry and parks. Pamela gets out, remotes the door locked and crosses the lane to the store front. She does not notice what is not present – the absence of the rows of gas grills and lawn mowers – she just marches right to the strategic entrance engineered to funnel home improvers and merchandise returners into the big box, while the other doors facilitate the exit of paid customers with their Lowe’s merchandise. She is in full anticipation that the automatic doors will slide open, until that one last step when the neurons are firing signals to halt the momentum due to a fixed object. She stops. She steps back. Maybe it did not sense her. Forward again, but no open. They are locked.
She looks for the business hour placard and glances at where her watch would be then takes her phone out of her pocket. It is ten to seven. Six-fifty. She turns to look at the big empty lot within which the E-Class is parked. Much farther beyond it, at the boundary of the empty is a sedan of some sort.
Pam has no idea it is this early. The temporal context of her living the last nineteen hours had slipped a cog running together hours and thoughts and frustration. No wonder the detective wasn’t in. She cups her hands around her eyes and presses against the sliding door and searches. A figure of a man walks down the aisle that separates general paint merchandise from the gardening section. She bangs on the glass.
“Hey in there!”
Bang, bang, bang.
The figure walks on, pushing a propane powered floor buffer.
A man appears from nowhere just the other side of the glass, startling her. His badge indicates he has something to do with management. She fogs the window slightly as she speaks into it.
“Please, can you help me? I need to know who was in your store yesterday. Please, can you help me?”
He processes her, sizing up this little woman with this strange request. His eyes go to the side and then back to Pam.
“We were in your store yesterday and bought a rug and a man helped us take it home, only he didn’t take it home or my husband who was with him. My husband was with him and now he is missing and I’m trying to find him and the Police won’t do anything because it’s too early. Please?”
He looks at his watch. “Your husband is missing?”
“Yes, it was just yesterday! I have the receipt. We were right after him in line, the man who took my husband.”
She holds the receipt against the window pressing it flat so the entire slip makes contact on the glass. He checks it out and returns his eyes back to Pam.
His keys come out from their tethered anchor on his belt into a tumbler and turn, throwing the bolt back. He reaches to the side and flips a switch and the doors split open, sliding to their apex. Propane exhaust wafts a bit over them and in the recesses of the big box the drone of the propane powered buffer oscillates on.
“Please, can you just tell me his name?”
IAN’S WHITE FORD RANGER is backed into the driveway of the ranch home on Glacier Drive, several boxes already in the bed. He exits the home with another load, three boxes at a time. They must be blankets and stuffed animals and such. He’s been busy since he recovered from the panic of Gray’s ringing cell phone. These boxes along with the others in the bed of the truck have been neatly identified with the name Virginia in indelible ink, some with sub-headings like Bed, Feeding, R.T., Toys, and Meds. He has opened her door and packed the rest of her room – what has become a shrine in a way – left untouched for the last five years. One toy in particular is a cube with color and shapes, switches and toggles and buttons that would reward their manipulation with a sound, the moo of a cow, the ring of a ship’s bell, the whistle and chug of a locomotive. That’s the sound it made when Ian pulled it down from a shelf in her closet. A motion switch inside energized a circuit and played a sampled clip. It surprised him, haunting in a way. He touched a button, turned a crank, flipped a toggle, every tactile impetus had an auditory response, even after five years of dormancy. He could still hear it packed inside a box with her stuffed bear, her long-eared floppy rabbit, Eeyore and Winnie and her pink satin night-night blanket as he carried it to the truck.
Ian lifts the tailgate and secures it, the fourth wall of this box. A muffled moo. The Ranger backs out of the driveway, is put into drive and goes forward to the intersection of Glacier and Rainier Road, Rainier to Yosemite, Yosemite to Yellowstone that dumps out to Grand Boulevard. These roads are busier than the wine roads of Silverado. Bedroom community commuters on their way to diamond lanes and Park-n-rides, and converging strollers for playdates. A stroller is the only unboxed item in the back of the truck. It is nothing like the Graco models at WalMart. This one is stout, a thick red frame with hand-machined hardware, cleats that hold the bottom cushion and seat back in place, buttresses that adjust to place a headrest and side bolsters in just the right positions, and a spring-loaded locking pin mechanism that allows an abductor to flip out from between the legs of this stroller’s passenger to make it easier to get her out and in. The wheels are industrial, large and thick and easy to get rolling. All the cushioned pieces are covered in black vinyl and were fashioned to the specific contours of its passenger’s little body. That, and the inherent liability of this handmade device made it impossible to recycle for another kid’s use. Not the case for Stella, though, the canine companion. She found a new companion within a couple of weeks of Virginia’s passing.
Ian arrives at Fort Knox at the long and tall black iron gate, the passage through which is marked by a post that arcs out from its base that holds a keypad within the shadow of its sunshade. Ian pokes out the numbers from his truck window. A moment, and then the gate begins a slow, sideways move on rails, opening at least twice with width needed for the Ranger to pass, which it does and ambles along the uneven asphalt and the cement ruts. It turns up an alley flanked by red rolling doors and buff brick. Brake lights burn and the little white trucks squeeks to a stop. The hockey puck padlock clicks and a bar slides over and the door rolls up.
Ian looks into the unit. There are the other boxes he unloaded yesterday, the bikes and the patio furniture. At the bed of the truck he lifts out boxes and carries them into the unit, on one trip grazing his head on the suspended low-watt bulb. He places the last two boxes on the seat of an orphaned sea-foam green adirondack chair, steps out of the unit and pulls the door down closed and secures it. He picks up one last box from the bed of the truck. It’s marked Virginia with the subheading Feeding, and walks away from the unit, the box held with both arms.
Just outside the automated gate is a pay phone. Perhaps not the smartest place for a pay phone because when the dryers turn on from the automated car wash bay the conversation is over if not suspended, not a problem though this Monday morning. Not many people wash their cars on Monday morning. Ian is at the payphone, box on the ground, his wallet in hand and he is fishing through it to find a business card, A-1 Medical Supplies. He dashes a couple of coins in the slot and dials and waits. The coins are released inside the phone.
“Hi, um, I need to know if you have any adult NG tubes in stock.” Ian looks around. “No, I need one this morning. I thought I had one but I’m out.” He shoulders the receiver and puts the card back in his wallet and his wallet back in his pocket. “Uh, yeah, you can call this number,” he reads it off the payphone, “Six, five, six, one, one, one, seven. You might want to let it ring.”
No luck. He hangs up, picks up the box and walks to the keypad, but before he enters the numbers he goes back to the payphone, pulls the A-1 card out again along with the Sharpy from his pants pocket and writes the number on the back of the card. Numbers written, numbers punched and the gate begins to open, the long drive chain wagging from the torque of the motor. Ian slips through and with haste disappears back into the alleys of Fort Knox.
In the alley where the Ranger is parked, Ian is at another rolling door of another unit across the way. He fishes through his pocket for another key. It is dark inside this unit except for the light that bleeds through the crags and joints of the door. The metal-on-metal sound of the lock clicks, the bolt slides and the door raises violently up. Ian slips inside and then just as violently the door rushes down right to the point of contact where he finesses it to seal shut. His eyes having not adjusted he gropes the air to find the string that is tied to the cord of the light fixture, pulls it and illuminates the interior. He sets the box on the cement floor and waits a moment for his eyes to adjust, then walks around the adirondack and faces what he wept about earlier this morning.
THE HOME IMPROVEMENT STORE shift manager is slowly pulling a cash register tape through one hand with the other, his big thumbs feed it through line by line past his searching, magnified stare. He and Pam are standing in the elevated customer service booth just outside the business office located at the end of the long row of checkout stands. He bites his bottom lip as he scans, not entirely believing the woman’s story, but not one to deny her either. She seems credible, even desperate and given all the price changes he has to get out this morning along with all the clearance tagging this seems a worthwhile endeavor. The morning shift is arriving and a cashier weaves between them to get her drawer, giving them both a look. The feed of the tape stops, his thumbs frame a transaction on the paper. He finds Mrs. Reagan’s transaction number that is on her receipt and reverses the tape back one transaction. He looks at her over his reading glasses.
“It was a cash transaction, Mrs. Regan.”
This doesn’t register with Pam. “A cash transaction?”
“He paid with cash. There’s no record of who he was.”
She pinned more hope on this than what she had thought, the disappointment taking her breath away for a moment. She collects herself, steps down from the customer service area, looking down the row of registers. The retail lights are burning on to their business brightness. There, right there, is where they were yesterday. She looks more and all she finds is her way out, the manager at the door, spinning a key and manually opening it for her and she steps out into the anteroom with the rock salt and the propane exchange rack. A switch is flipped from inside and both sets of doors slide open and Pam walks back to her car.
9 of course he has to go now
GRAY IS LOST IN THE LIGHT. He squints from the flood of daylight and now is adjusting to the overhead bulb and as his pupils dilate he can make out the figure before him.
No aggravated murder charge.
Not yet. There is some relief in that thought. Ian sees what has become familiar only to him; Gray’s mouth taped shut, his chin covered in bloody clots and hardened mucous, his Izod golf sweater drying in stages from the night’s expulsion of fluids from his broken nose to get air.
Ian sets the box on the folding chair. Gray reads the permanent marker, Virginia – Feeding. He would draw a big sigh if he could, but doing so collapses his nostrils and obstructs in the ingress of air. There is some relief for Gray in the box’s label, at least he is not there to kill him. His eyes go up from the box to Ian’s eyes. Gray isn’t too exhausted to show a modicum of disdain, a look of contempt that would have revealed an asymmetric curl of the upper lip were it not taped immovable. His eyes, though, agree, dilated like a shark, the pupils cut off at the top in the straight dash of the upper eyelids.
“Oh, keep that. You’ll need that. It’s what’s going to keep you alive.” Ian produces a Leatherman multi-tool from his pocket and unfolds a blade and uses it to cut through the clear cellophane tape on the top of the box and he opens the four flaps. From inside he pulls out a 90cc cath-tip syringe with plunger.
“This is going to keep you alive, too.” He reaches back into the box. “And this, too.” A long, thin package that holds a catheter, about three millimeters in diameter. Ian peels the package and draws it from its sterility. He places the top end of the catheter on Gray’s cheek with a few inches of slack leading to the opening of the tube and then measures the rest of the catheter across Gray’s face, down his throat and to the end of his moist, sweater-covered sternum. It’s a pediatric catheter and comes up a bit short.
“As long as it gets past the pyloric,” Ian asserts. “You’ve got to eat.” Gray never looks away from Ian’s eyes. With all the damage he’s sustained he cannot eat, so Ian is going to do a procedure, the insertion of a nasogastric feeding tube through Gray’s nostril down his esophagus and into his stomach, providing it makes all the right turns and doesn’t induce an aspiration episode.
“You haven’t pissed yourself, yet. When the time comes,” Ian reaches back into the box and retrieves a urethral catheter and searches deeper. “Forgot the K-Y though, sorry. We’ll cross that bridge – unless you have to go now. Do you have to go now?”
Gray’s mouth is still taped. He makes no nonverbal response. Of course he has to go now.
“Just let me know, then. We need to get some fluids into you, though, some electrolytes, some calories.” He pulls a can of Ensure from the box. “This liquid diet shit. You’ll need your energy. You ever taste this stuff? It’s awful. But you won’t be tasting this.”
Before Ian moves the box off the chair he finds one more item inside, a roll of hypoallergenic medical tape. He places the roll, the syringe and the can in its place on the chair, and holds the NG catheter up.
“Ever had one of these down your nose? Maybe as an intern, did you ever have to practice on a partner?” No response. “I did. Wasn’t very pleasant. Ginny had one for six months and we had to change it out and I wanted to know what she went through. So, I took one and threaded it up my nose, but I couldn’t get it past my gag reflex.” Ian clears the chair, putting the tape and syringe on Gray’s lap, the can on the floor, and he sits in front of Gray, holding the tube closer. “So, one night in the PICU I talk a nurse into doing it to me. Same thing. It took a housekeeper and an RT to hold me down while she threaded past my gag reflex and into my stomach and it was just a peds cath like this one. It hits the back of your throat and sends you into convulsions. The trick is to keep the force of the insertion consistent so when the reflex relaxes it pushes through down the esophagus.”
Ian stands and walks around the adirondack behind Gray.
“Six months. Because of you.” He tears a piece of medical tape off the roll and attaches it to his sleeve. “This is what we had to do to feed my little girl.” Ian’s purpose in holding this man hostage is crystallizing now.
He reaches around the right side of Gray’s neck and tilts his head up with his right hand and with his left starts to thread the tip of the NG tube up the doctor’s nose. Gray’s scream is muffled by the duct tape. Ian stops.
“Oh, I almost forgot.” He crosses back in front of Gray. “Your nose is broken.” He sits and examines. “What side are you breathing out of?” Ian plugs the left nostril by pushing it closed and air wheezes through the right. He plugs the right nostril and nothing. The congestion of clotted blood and hardened mucous impedes the flow of air.
“Better leave that right one alone. That’s your breather.”
It is here where the irony of this is not lost on Ian. He is about to perform a procedure that if unwarranted would be considered torture, but for Gray, this is the only way Ian can get fluids into him barring an IV, something outside of Ian’s scope of care for his daughter. And this patient is going to need other care in addition to the nasogastric feedings with that rumbling deep in his lungs.
Gray screams again.
Ian goes back behind Gray to his previous position and in one move grasps Gray’s jaw to steady his head and threads the feeding tube up – gag, release, continued pressure – then down the left side. The length of the tube disappears down the nostril until all that is left at the opening is a couple of inches to the top of the catheter. Gray’s face swells and blushes, his eyes bulging in their slits hemorrhage tears, his screaming cut short by the catheter bouncing off his epiglottis ricocheting into his esophagus closing off his vocal fold in the swallow.
Ian attaches the syringe, its plunger fully deployed and slowly draws the plunger back and the base of the syringe starts to fill with fluid. A successful placement. He shows Gray the contents of the syringe as if Gray were paying attention. “A bit acidy. That’ll eat right through your pyloric.”
He plunges the fluid back into Gray’s stomach, removes the syringe, corks the catheter and pulls the tape off his sleeve and secures the catheter in place by taping it on to Gray’s now very rosey cheek, its capillaries beginning to burst. Clear fluid is pouring down his face, blood oozes from his left nostril around the NG tube and begins to bubble out of the right side.
Ian comes back around in front of his patient, lights on the chair and picks the can up off the floor and places it in Gray’s convulsing lap.
“Shit! You can’t breathe!”
He reaches for the duct tape on Gray’s mouth, but the corners have adhered as well as the rest of the swath. Ian digs in with what little nail he has and tries to pull a corner, and another, and on the bottom, but nothing gives. Gray is convulsing fully, his face explosive and wet. Ian stands in front of Gray for better leverage, pressing in hard on his face where the tape sticks to his flesh and finally, a corner. Ian peels enough away to get a good pinch between his index finger and thumb and rips duct tape away off Gray’s mouth. It explodes with vomit, blood and mucous and then Gray sucks air in desperately in a rasping draw that feels as if it is changing the ambient air pressure of the unit. Fluid vibrates in his trachea and upper lobes of his lungs creating tones an octave lower on his expiration.
He assesses his patient, his hostage. Gray is dusky, blue around his lips, around the cuticles of his fingernails. He’s desaturating, RT code for not getting enough oxygen. Respiratory Therapy. Ian knows this because he and Linda were trained as such to take care of Virginia. That is how, after the first three years they kept her out of the hospital except for the sepsis and the collapsed lung.
Ian is back on the folding chair. He’s covered in the fluids Gray expelled and pulls his warm, wet shirttail out away from his body. Gray alternates clearing his airway, hocking over the epiglottis, trying to satiate that persistent need to void the throat that comes with projectile vomiting, with just breathing. The heave forced material into the back of the throat, now with an NG tube to boot. He spits and coughs, clearing his throat, cleaning his vocal cords, saturating with oxygen while he does, blue giving way to rose.
Gray, almost recovered, speaks to him through the liquid dregs of his throat. “You’re a sick man, Mr. McDaniel.”
Ian, for the first time in a week, smiles. “Oh, you’re the sick man here, Doctor Reagan.” He looks down at his shirt. “God, what a mess.” The wet mess is cooling against his skin and it stinks, making his own skin crawl, which is not insignificant, considering the gross injustices he had to perform daily as a care-giving daddy. He removes his shirt, pulling the black tee over his head. The pragmatic of black.
“Time for your feeding.” And with that Ian pulls the plunger from the cath tip syringe, pops the pull-top from the can of Ensure, peels the tape from Gray’s face holding the NG tube, plugs the syringe into the catheter and holds it up just barely past the height of Gray’s nose and fills it with thick vanilla fluid. He waits, standing there, bare chested, depending on gravity’s pull while Gray breathes. What sounds like turbines beginning to whir gets up to a stabilized frequency with an accompanying rush of air are the dryers of the car wash next door. Someone is washing their car this Monday morning after all.
10 that catch-all, paper-thin parenthetical
GO ANYWHERE AND FIND that there is a ratio of franchised coffee shops to big box retail of about three to one. And there is a risky business model at work in all of them, the availability of a wireless network for those with the right devices to log on to the Internet and browse their emails or post on their Facebook wall while they sip their caffeinated concoctions. Contrary to any restaurant model that turns tables in thirty minutes, these joints want customers to stay up to a point, up to two hours. And they do, at the little round tables, space enough to accommodate one with a laptop or in the slightly overstuffed chairs arranged in conversation style or bistro tables lining the windows where one can watch the drive-up traffic. Seated there with his territory clearly marked by his coffee, his technology, his keys, his cell phone and the wallet that holds his badge is Detective Steve Alvarez.
It’s a Monday morning ritual for him, as much as investigating crime in a low-crime suburban incorporated city will allow. What happens here on Monday mornings is akin to the weekend after-party, not for anyone of any particular social interest or attraction. This place, much like Lowe’s, has become a mixer, a place for recent divorcees to put up their shingle and display their new singleness. One doesn’t arrive here in yoga pants having coiffe and face paint in place by accident. The comfy conversation area and bistro tables are more window merchandising than ergonomics for preparing Powerpoints and rehearsing for job interviews. It is a suburban neighborhood red-light district where the Johns are complicit and the girls nonchalant in this hook-up while they sip their grande skinny lattes.
It’s Pike Place for Alvarez. A tall. Nothing illegal is going on here. He is here out of habit because he likes the coffee and the transition this cafe makes from the weekend to the station. His PowerBook is open and he is checking through the postings of the weekend’s activity, new cases in his in box of which there is only one.
GRAY REAGAN – MISSING PERSON 02.27.09
The screen scrolls showing an image of Doctor Reagan and other information, his home address, business address, profession, no AKAs, no criminal record. The detective scrolls back to the image. He picks up his cell, opens and speaks into it. “Home.” The phone dials and connects.
“Hey, you went with a midwife for Mikayla because of some doctor, right? What was his name?” he asks.
On the other end at a kitchen table in a gentrified Arts and Crafts home in the avenues is Steve’s wife, Serena and his young daughter Mikayla. They are beyond breakfast, into the routine of home school with manipulatives. Mikayla is dressed for the day, leaving her mommy in a faded favorite Oregon Ducks sweatshirt and pajama bottoms.
“It was Reagan. Doctor Reagan. Why?” she says.
Detective Alvarez clears his mouth of coffee. “He showed up on my log this morning.” He listens. “Since yesterday.” Then, “It’s not mature enough. Why didn’t you like him?”
There are bottle caps on the table, cola, grape, orange, root beer, and lemon-lime sodas. Mikayla groups them in fives.
“I had a bad experience with him when I was a teenager,” she says. Mikayla’s eyes are doing the math and now she not only groups them in fives, she groups them in fives by color. Her mommy, still on the phone, “He was the only OB in town then.”
“He was the only OB in town then,” Mikayla mimics.
Steve hears her, “Sorry, you’re in class now, I didn’t realize what time it is. Be good-”
Serena pulls her cell away from her ear and holds it to Mikayla’s, “-for mommy, Mikayla. I love you.”
WHAT REMAINS OF THE FURNITURE in the McDaniel great room is covered in clear visqueen making odd bubbles in the space that used to contain moments of Virginia laying on her daddy’s chest, sleeping in her mother’s arms, rolling on the floor watching a big purple dinosaur on TV and Stella at the ready by her side.
A loud banging comes from somewhere deeper in the house that rattles a drinking glass in the sink. Dust evacuates the hallway opening to the great room and the banging stops. Then there is the sound of a large heavy tool dropping into an enameled steel bathtub. From among the bubbles in the great room Ian can be seen leaving the hall bath, now brightly lit from inside and he marches out through the great room to the door that leads to the garage. He opens it and goes through and just as it slams shut it opens again, with Ian returning to his station in the bathroom armed with a Sawzall. The grating whir of its electric motor echoes off the bathroom’s hard surfaces and then resonates throughout the rest of the house, deep and high tones play on as the reciprocating saw removes what must be attached to the structure’s very foundation by the noise and vibration being made. Underscoring this power-tool roar are the two quarter-notes of the ringing doorbell. The Sawzall stops. Its staccato hangs just a microsecond longer. Then silence.
Ding dong. Ian sniffs back the dust in his nostrils, clears his throat. He’s heard the ring, but maybe they have gone away.
Shit. This could only be- no one comes here- it’s 10:30, who’s at the door at 10:30?
He has no story, no cover, no alibi. He hasn’t thought that far ahead or into that parenthetical. There is nothing that could be said to justify what’s been done – Doctor Reagan’s condition, his whereabouts, his detention. All Ian would be able to do, all he could do is face the facts and the consequences of his actions. He has nothing left to lose. Ian moves to the door, Sawzall in hand, and pulls it open.
It’s Bill. The neighbor. The guy from Lowe’s.
“Hey! Got the rest of the day off. You up for some racquetball?” he says.
Ian is dusted in drywall. His hair is thick with it, his face smeared from wiping away sweat.
“Kind of busy right now,” says Ian.
“Oh, yeah, that’s right.” Bill remembers the Lowe’s encounter. “Need a hand?”
“No, I’m okay.” Especially with the Sawzall.
“No, really,” Bill insists. “I’d be glad to help. Whatever it is you’re doing-”
“I’m remodeling the hall bath,” says Ian.
“Oh, um…” Oops.
“Taking out the wall between it and the master bedroom.”
Bill’s in the minefield now, treading carefully. “So you could use a hand?”
“Going to pull the tub out and do a shower instead, make a real master bath. Wanna see?”
Bill can’t back out now. If he did he would blow any credibility of sincerity. “Yeah, let’s see what you’re doing.”
Ian steps back into the house and Bill steps in, the odor inside is the first thing to strike him. Flooding leaves behind this same smell, or a tornado, the undoing of old construction, a mold mixed with the unlocked dust of gypsum released from its paper sandwich. Bill wants to turn around right now and leave, but Ian has closed the front door.
Bill’s wife told him she did it in the bathtub. The whole neighborhood knows. The giveaway was the emergency response without the emergency lights and sirens and the Coroner’s car and then the van from the mortuary and then the cops. It didn’t take much to figure it out.
Ian leads Bill between the bubbles to the opening of the hallway crossing into the bathroom. Bill stands at the threshold, instantly sickened. The bathtub. The bloody brown ring clings to its perimeter. Bloody purple latex gloves litter the bottom with a half dozen large coagulated gauze sponges and a demolition bar. Debris and dry wall dust season the artifacts like dirty powdered sugar on everything except the demo bar. The surround of the tub is four inch white tile over a cement backing screwed through a vapor barrier to the studs. Above it is drywall, the area where Ian started the remodel. Ian has blown through the tile backsplash of the tub surround with the demo bar to see what is underneath. If he can cut the backing out in big chunks with the Sawzall it would be less messy and easier to clean out. Ian is about ready to fill Bill in on all this.
Bill is fixated on the wine glass still somehow on its perch on the tub.
Ian pulls the demo bar from the tub and hands it to Bill.
“I need to take out this pony wall so I can get some leverage on the tub.”
Bill is frozen. Ian pushes the bar closer. Every single little sound, the debris under Ian’s Wolverines, his breathing, the leaky toilet, is amplified in the hard surfaces of this tiny chamber.
Bill breaks his stare from the wine glass, “I think you need to get some help, man.”
“Isn’t that what you’re here for?” says Ian.
“No, I mean some psychological help.”
Ian feigns surprise. He knows the expression, all its components, like the other six human emotions: fear, sadness, happiness, contempt, and anger.
“Why would you say that, Bill?”
“Don’t they have someone who can come and clean this up?”
“You think this is kind of weird?”
“Hasn’t anyone come by to help you out with this?”
There’s that mysterious third party, the they, the someone. Ian is unclear as to who exactly that would be. The folks at church? They stopped coming around when he and Linda stopped attending. The colleagues in the department? They are satisfied with the collection they took up to defray some of the funeral costs. The neighbors? One can only take so many casseroles. There are still some in the fridge that have never been eaten. And then there’s the old standby.
“Don’t you have any family coming to be with you?” asks Bill, cautious and deliberate.
“The only family I had left bled out in this tub five days ago.” Ian’s tone is deep and even.
Bill is left with nothing to say except that catch-all paper-thin parenthetical that does nothing but make its utterer feel a tad better, “If there’s anything I can do-” and he retreats through the hallway before he wretches and makes his way to the door.
“I just need a little help getting this tub out,” says Ian. And that’s truth of it all, really, for the moment at least. Bill is out the door.
11 induced labor should be regulated
IN THE REAGAN’S BACKYARD their Golden Retriever barks at the sound of the door chimes having been rung. Pamela opens the front door and finds who she was calling for much earlier this morning, Detective Alvarez. She invites him in and they light in the displaced space of the reception room, both a bit awkward on a couch. He opens his PowerBook and spins it around to show Pam.
“This is Doctor Reagan, right?”
He watches her. Golf shorts, sleeveless white button down top, tan, on her haunches, knees together, feet parallel, shoulders tense, leaning in. Everyone’s suspect.
“And you saw him last at Lowe’s?”
“No. The last I saw him he was in that man’s truck.”
He reads the display. The look of the lack of preparation is a ruse. “Oh, yes, the white Ford, the man from the store. Do you know this man?” he asks.
“No. I never saw him before.”
“And he was with you at the store?”
“He was in line ahead of us, yes.”
“Did your husband seem to know this man?”
“No, I don’t think so.” She has no idea, honestly. She doesn’t seem to even know her husband, a rift that began when they returned from a service opportunity in Uganda. Doctor Reagan worked with the nascent Médecins Sans Frontières, or MSF, where he initiated family planning training among an exploding population in crisis. He team-taught in General Obstetrics and Urogynecology and established field clinics during the early reign of Idi Amin while Pam volunteered with MSF support in triage and in teaching hygiene. A year after their return to the States, Gray established a practice partnership with another Doctor Reagan of no relation other than their internship rotations at San Mateo General and all he seemed to focus on was delivery, where before he was intent on specializing in Gynecologic Oncology, a field with a burgeoning need for physicians and research. South Highland Women’s Center was established in a growing small bedroom-community where deliveries of middle-class healthy white babies to double-covered babymakers proved extraordinarily profitable.
She did not know with whom he golfed when she was not golfing with him. She paid little attention to his associations, rarely accompanying him to conferences and dinners and tournaments and retreats. She was never part of the country club. Her ambitions centered around the NGO work and philanthropy she discovered being immersed in her volunteer work with MSF, more widely known as Physicians Without Borders. The couple never had what centers most couples in a home – children – and as such they went two different directions in their contributions to humankind.
She managed South Highland the first year but quickly recognized the impending clash of two strong and bright personalities bound in matrimony, so she hired Elaine Southwick to manage the practice. The gulf in the Reagan’s relationship grew from there leaving Pam now to wonder just how well she does know her husband.
“And this was at Lowe’s, the one on Redwood Road?”
“Yes, that’s the one.”
Detective Alvarez types some notes. She is not going to like what he needs to say next, a correct assumption he made in her assessment. Most of Alvarez’s experience in this jurisdiction is in investigating missing children and child sexual abuse. The occasional missing person case involving an adult male typically turns out to be man-fleeing-wife. Mrs. Reagan is sharp, she’s beautiful, affluent, obviously active, intelligent. He has a hard time imagining why her partner would flee.
“Mrs. Reagan,” his tone in premonition, “I’m a little early on this one. It’s protocol to wait twenty-four hours on a missing person, because, you know, you just don’t know. More often than not the missing person just got a wild hare, a late poker night, an old friend shows up.”
“An old girlfriend,” she says.
Alvarez’s eyes go to the ice on her ring finger, the fresh roses on the table behind the divan, the recent photograph of the very happy Reagans on the deck of their sailboat.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Reagan. It’s the most popular motive in a disappearance like this.”
“He didn’t leave me,” she says in tones more convincing of herself.
“Is there anyone at the practice who might know his whereabouts? Anyone who he may have crossed lately? A disgruntled patient, a malpractice suit in the works?”
“People are suing all the time.”
Alvarez types some more. Of course they are. This is a litigious time. People are sue-happy. But his notes serve to remind him to research just how many people are suing compared to other OB/GYNs in the area. He is unconvinced, though, of foul play. No ransom demands, no contact. Just poof. Gone.
THERE’S LITTLE HUBBUB for a Monday at Lowe’s with a few do-it-yourselfers off the weekend pattern. The shift manager who was interrupted earlier this morning has managed to get the clearance tags assigned in different departments until he is interrupted again, this time by Detective Alvarez. The two descend the customer service platform and walk the checkout aisles. After Pam’s inquiry, the manager has some context for the detective’s questioning and having reviewed the register tape, he knows where the transaction took place and stops at the point of purchase, still closed since the weekend rush.
Alvarez steps up to the register counter as if he were making a purchase and from his standpoint makes a visual survey. Big box stores have inventory controls. It’s just a matter of finding them. Alvarez tilts his gaze up and there it is, the little black bubble of a surveillance camera.
“Does that work?” he says.
In a corner of this Lowe’s is a climate controlled room with the store’s transaction servers fed with cable trays stuffed with dozens of data lines, a few of which carry a video signal into a smaller room tucked into a corner. Inside it is a small desk with a pair of large computer monitors tied to freestanding servers upon which is displayed matrixes of images fed by twenty-four security cameras, half of which come from the transaction area. The shift manager is seated at them on a stool, nothing comfortable enough to encourage the perusal of security footage. Over his shoulder is the detective watching as the manager shuttles through hours of footage acquired at fifteen frames a second.
“That’s the time of the transaction?” says the detective. The manager nods, handing over the photocopied portion of the register tape. And then Alvarez sees it, the unmistakable feature of two people in line with a rolled up area rug seen from directly above.
“Wait, go back,” and the video rewinds a few frames to when a man in a ball cap and black t-shirt enters the frame. “Stop there, please. Now, go frame-by-frame.”
The manager taps the right arrow on his keyboard and the monitor shows now full-screen the angle of this one particular camera, a man in the cap and t-shirt and the woman and the man with the rug who line up behind them. Each frame jerks them in the movement of the man in front turning, moving a bar in his hand, then dropping his contents, picking them up, while the woman observes and the man peeks around the rolled-up rug to see what is going on. The two review the footage again, but the man in the ball cap is unidentifiable.
“Any other angles on this register?”
“No, this is it,” says the manager, realizing the futility of the installation of probably all his security cameras. They are aimed at cash register drawers, not at the faces of patrons who may prove later to be kidnappers.
“I’m sorry. This is it,” he says. And this is nothing.
IN IAN’S DIVISION of the contents of his house he has spared a few items from the produce boxes along with a cordless power drill and an outlet adaptor he’s retrieved from the garage. These sit on the plastic that covers the dining table along with a pair of EMT utility scissors and an unopened box of latex exam gloves left over in Virginia’s medical supplies, a small bag of adult diapers, and a plastic grocery sack containing a canister of diaper wipes, cans of Ensure and bottles of Gatorade. There are a number of issues Ian needs to attend to as his plan comes together, the first of which is Gray’s wellbeing. That includes hydration and feeding, keeping his respiratory system open and clearing his waste. No imminent need should stand in the way of the reason behind the fate of these two men coming together. Ian is going to give Gray an education about the ramifications of Virginia’s botched delivery and what it took to maintain her living for ten years. He has that documented, sitting on the table as well under the drill in three stacked overstuffed FedEx pouches. What he does not have is the record of his wife’s care.
FOR THE WHOLE of Virginia’s life, Ian and Linda had never confirmed the origin of her condition. Neurologists and geneticists alike did more than their share of shoulder shrugging when it came to diagnostic attempts. The initial MRI of Ginny’s brain indicated a gross atrophy of white matter, the myelin sheath that protects the nervous system, but its cause remained a mystery, at least to her parents. The two went through genetic testing at the university’s medical center, screening for genetic metabolic abnormalities, but the results comes up negative, though nothing ever seemed conclusive. It is the reason the McDaniels had no other children. There were no guarantees, the uncertainty too high to risk something like this again.
It was after Virginia’s death when Ian, by chance, began to uncover the mystery of it. Before his department at the university exploded in enrollment, Ian served as the coach for the school’s speech and debate team. One of his competitors was researching evidence for a case, her resolution being induced labor should be regulated, an argument that caught Ian’s attention. Linda’s labor was induced.
The student was struggling to find evidence, so Coach McDaniel was helping her, taking a deductive approach. The two were in his office, he at his computer and she seated on the other side of the built-in peninsula of a desk, the monitor turned so they could both view the results of the search engine query. Ian had typed in the word pitocin, and ten links displayed in Google’s browser with another ten thousand or so links to go. Ian clicked one opening a page from a pharmaceutical company. They both scanned the contents until they found a link titled, Overdose Indications. Clicking on that opened a laundry list of symptoms and the girl at the desk took notes duplicating that list in her notebook. Ian had a different response. He read, silently:
“Cardiovascular: Arrhythmias, bradycardia
Central nervous system: Brain or CNS damage (permanent), neonatal seizure
Hepatic: Neonatal jaundice
Ocular: Neonatal retinal hemorrhage
Miscellaneous: Fetal death, low Apgar score”
Fetal death, low Apgar score. Surely those last two are not interdependent, Ian thought. And such was his defense mechanism, a sterile logic that kicked in whenever he was at the cusp of something earth-shattering. Save for fetal death and retinal hemorrhage, Ginny had every symptom and as for the hemorrhage, he didn’t know for sure since he didn’t see her blue eyes until the second day of her life.
The three accordion file folders larger than Bay Area phone books stuffed into FedEx pouches back at the house was Virginia’s medical file. He had made a number of attempts to leaf through them and crack the code that seems to semantically insulate physicians from patients and their parents. And while Ian was adept enough to wrangle denotative meaning in terms that appeared with surprising redundancy, he doubted his own ability to make big-picture sense out of all the notes, the charts, the strips, the MRIs, and especially the last, most painful part of the file in that third folder.
“Coach, you okay?” she asked. She saw Professor McDaniel biting his lower lip, his jaw thrust forward, his eyes going over the list again and again. He moused back to the search field and typed in Doctor Raymond DeVilliers, hit return and his screen filled with only four search results. There was one in Chicago, one in Salt Lake City, one in Los Angeles, and one in San Francisco. They were all for the same doctor, a neonatologist. Her question was ignored. Instead, Ian picked up the handset of his office phone and dialed the first number autonomically, never consciously making the decision to do so. The call connected and Ian asked if Doctor DeVilliers was in. He was told he was in California at his office in Los Angeles. Ian disconnected and dialed that number. It was crazy for him or anyone to think they’d be connected immediately, but Ian left a message, his name, Virginia’s name and then the time frame when Doctor DeVilliers looked into the records of her gestation and neonatal development. He was the neonatologist enlisted by the attending neurologists early in Ginny’s care.
Ian’s office phone rang no more than thirty minutes later with a Los Angeles area code starting the number in the caller ID digital display. It was then just the professor, his student having abandoned her post in seeing her coach become rigid and escalated and non-responsive to her, and he answered the phone. It was Doctor DeVilliers himself. Ian asked if there had ever been a link formed between Ginny’s CNS dysgenesis and the use of pitocin to induce Linda’s labor.
“Do you have her medical file?” was the doctor’s response. Ian confirmed he did.
“Send it to me and I’ll have a look.”
Ian did, that afternoon. FedEx, overnight, the return address was that of the university with Ian’s office code. This was something best left to just him. Linda was in no condition to deal with the potential implications of what might exist within the reams of Ginny’s medical history. Two weeks later when Ian returned to his office after class he found on his desk three thick FedEx packages with return addresses from DeVillier’s office in Chicago. He opened all three, one of which had a hand written note, succinct with an illegible signature save for the D and the V.
“See the tabs. Call me with questions.”
There were two yellow sticky-notes, one a dozen pages into the file, the second just a few more pages beyond. Ian turned to the documents where he found contents that had been highlighted. One suggested the possibility of pitocin overdose, the other the discovery of evidence of an earlier brain bleed, both notes by the same pediatrician, the very pediatrician recommended to the McDaniels by Doctor Reagan. His office was located in the same medical arts building that housed the South Highland Women’s Center.
Ian made one call back to DeVilliers with two questions. One dealt with the likelihood of an external cephalic version – turning the fetus from outside the abdomen – resulting in brain trauma, and the other, how much is considered to be an overdose when pitocin is prescribed to use to induce labor. The highlighted record had no numbers, no amounts of what was prescribed, and no notes of what was administered, because that information was part of the treatment of the mother, not the baby. That information would be in the mother’s chart. The answers from Doctor DeVilliers were concluded with his recommendation of a good malpractice attorney and his willingness to testify in behalf of Virginia’s case with Ian and Linda as plaintiffs. When Ian shared this news with his wife – the discovery of not one but two insults to their daughter’s delivery, and DeVilliers admonition to take legal action – her reaction was at first silent as her mind played it all out. When it reached its inevitable conclusion, one that would inculcate her culpability in the minds of a judge or a jury, that it would be shown to one and all that it was she who was responsible for the suffering and death of her daughter, she told her husband in no uncertain terms that she would have no part of it, that it would destroy what was left of her, that they should get over it, leave it alone, let Ginny be. She’s dead. There’s nothing that can be done about that.
Ian filed anyway. He was counseled to settle. He wanted justice and pressed that the case go to court. In its hearing the case was dropped due to a statute of limitations and its incredibly shitty timing with frivolous malpractice suits clogging up the docket. With that and Linda’s plummeting depression, Ian put it all away.
Until this afternoon.
The grounds of any good argument are based on evidence. While Virginia’s FedExed files had documented the results of Doctor Reagan’s slip of hand and negligence of care, what Ian needed were Linda’s charts, with treatments and orders, to prove his case to his hostage.
12 the panic is palpable
THE WAITING ROOM at the South Highland Women’s Center is brimming with women in various stages of brimming themselves. Despite the advancements in Obstetric and Gynecological medicine, little has spilled over into the waiting room to make its endurance less awkward, like Barcaloungers and Haagen-Dazs. There are some toys in a corner for the few children who have accompanied mommy to the Center, and Women’s Day, Highlights, Pregnancy, Parents, and American Baby magazines, all of which have had the subscriber’s name and address redacted in black magic marker. There are two ladies’ rooms, no men’s room, and no men.
In semi-hushed tones can be heard the reception’s side of a phone call, “I’m sorry, Doctor Reagan isn’t in today. Doctor Akhim is taking his patients this afternoon.”
Not a single male to be found until Ian walks in.
“He hasn’t confirmed yet when he’ll be back.”
It’s not Ian’s entry that has changed the barometric pressure in the waiting area, rather it’s the conversation on the phone that now has the rapt attention of every expectant mother there.
“You’ll be just fine. I show you’re still scheduled for the ninth. You’ll need to report to Labor and Delivery by seven.”
Ian surveys the office area of the practice. Behind the reception desk is a horizontal filing system with most of its doors open showing the colored tag systems with alphanumeric labels designed to make retrieval and replacing a snap. Each rack is jammed full and one of the office billers is trying to cram a patient file into its alphabetically correct slot.
“They’ll get you settled in and Doctor Akhim will be in shortly after.”
The panic is palpable. Ian is at the business office window and is abruptly accompanied at his side by an escalating patient. Dodging the bullet on the phone the receptionist, closes her call, “Okay, good luck. Bye-bye.”
“Excuse me, but did I hear you say that Doctor Reagan is out?” says the third-term woman next to Ian. He watches. The cues here in the body language of the ladies behind the desk are tell-tale, cringing at the prospect that their delivering OB is nowhere to be found. All except for the woman in charge, the cool, stoic matriarch of the business of Maternity, South Highland Women’s Center’s office manager, Elaine.
“He never said anything to me about leaving. He’s delivering my baby,” asserts the woman at the window, and before she can finish her declaration, Ian is flanked by another. The receptionist tries to ease the blow, “Doctor Akhim is taking Doctor -”
“I’m not seeing Doctor Akhim,” insists the second patient, “I’m seeing Doctor Reagan.”
Other women are approaching. Ian is now surrounded by them, an anomaly for this office, for Elaine, to have not only a wave of panic among the Center’s waiting patients, but to have a man at the window without a suit and tie and sample case.
The second woman continues, “Doctor Reagan told me Friday-”
“I know,” interrupts Elaine, “and Friday he thought he would be here. He got called out over the weekend on a family emergency and he’s not sure when he’ll be back in the office.”
Nobody believes her, though this really isn’t that uncommon, and it is not because Elaine is unconvincing, it is because of the wide-eyed displays of anticipated panic from all the other associates of the practice surrounding her.
“You’ll be fine,” she says, more of a commandment than an attempt to make everyone feel better. The two women at Ian’s sides have retreated to their seats and the office workers stand down and go back to their business of entering HCFA codes and rearranging Doctor Akhim’s schedule, leaving Elaine at the window.
“Can I help you?” she asks the man.
“I’m Linda McDaniel’s husband. I called earlier about her records.”
“Linda McDaniel,” Elaine writes it down and without looking back up, “Her birth date?”
“June third, nineteen sixty nine.”
And this resonates with Elaine. “Yes, Linda. I’m so sorry, Mr. McDaniel. I read her obit-”
“I’m here for her records,” he says.
Elaine has nothing immediate to say to that. There’s a policy, one that she has dealt with a hundred times before. Over the years she has learned how to defuse what could potentially be an escalation over office policy, written by the practice’s counsel, when family members are denied records.
“We do not let patient records go out like this,” she says, still suspending the end of that sentence as a cue to an alternative. “When did she deliver last?”
“It was in nineteen ninety.”
“Oh, see,” she says, “we don’t have her records on file. Anything over ten years goes to a storage facility off site from here.”
Every word of hers is the truth and that becomes more troublesome for Ian. He has a plan and he is in no condition to allow anything to thwart it. His stare at Elaine waxes into something unsettling to her. “I’m sorry,” she says, hoping that has ended that.
Ian looks at the horizontal files lining the back wall and then turns to the full waiting room of heightened expectant mothers and then sends his gaze back to Elaine. Her shoulders are back, her posture more erect, mirroring Ian’s. I’m sorry will not be the last words.
“She’s been here since. Yearly checkup, pap smear,” he says.
“It’s office policy-”
His intensity and tone begin to escalate, “but I think she was seeing your other doctor,” and he opens his body out from the window out to the waiting room, “since Doctor Reagan botched her delivery.”
Elaine is prepared for this. There was that seminar in Ft. Lauderdale, the conference in Salt Lake City, the risk assessment training in San Diego, and then the role-playing she did with the center’s staff, all of whose eyes are now focused on Elaine while the eyes in the waiting room are locked on Ian.
Her assertiveness training kicks in. “There’s no need for that.”
“Then give me her records.”
“I’ve told you-”
“Just pull her file and copy her records for me.”
“It’s the Patient Privacy-”
“My wife is dead,” he says, now getting louder, deliberate, ignitable. “I don’t think she’ll mind.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. McDaniel. Those are the rules. It’s our duty to protect patient rights and privacy.” Her hand is on the front desk phone handset, ready to pick up and dial. She cannot stand down. She cannot cave to this request with the rapt attention of everyone else in the office, front and back. She has never done so before, be it legal inquiries, special investigators, vengeful spouses. Unless Elaine was the agent served for South Highland Women’s Center with a subpoena or a warrant, as guardian and custodian of patients records for the practice, not a byte of data nor sheet of paper transfered from her stewardship without following protocol. Ian knows this. Her nonverbal signals show her entrenched, immovable, non-negotiable. He completes his turn away from the window and Elaine maintains her posture watching every step he takes away, willing him to the door and out. Five paces into the silent waiting room he stops. Elaine picks up the receiver.
“From what?” has says, turning to a waiting patient. “Is your privacy threatened?” and back to the window, “Is that what you’re worried about?”
Elaine presses nine for an outside line.
“I think these ladies have more pressing concerns like the right to a full term,” he addresses the first mother-to-be who joined him at the window, “A right to know who’s delivering their baby.”
And he swings around to the entire waiting room. “Who here is having their labor induced?” Nothing for a moment, then a hand, a second, then more until more hands are up than down. “And why is that? Is that your idea or is that out of the convenience of having your baby delivered by Doctor Reagan?”
“They’ve got more goddamn rights than you do,” he says pointing at the window. “You all signed the liability waiver, the agreement to arbitration. They are the ones who are protected!”
“Mr. McDaniel, please leave,” she says, phone to her ear.
“All I wanted was my dead wife’s file,” he says in a tone that indicates this all could have been avoided were Elaine complicit with his request, and he leaves the waiting room. The palpable panic is now cresting high anxiety. No expectant mother wants to be feeling this.
Elaine returns the phone to its cradle and lights at a workstation. The screen illuminates out of its sleep with a touch of the return key. A few mouse clicks and she is at a data field where she types in, LINDA McDANIEL, 06/03/1969. In a moment Linda’s electronic file appears listing her information. Elaine tabs through the data fields until the cursor lands on a field with the heading status. She clicks, a dialog box opens with choices, one of them being deceased. She clicks on it and scrolls back to the patient’s address.
The clicks and keystrokes of this data entry are all that can heard in this office, at least for a few moments. Like Gray’s own premonition in the adirondack chair about his fate, Elaine suspects that a number of lives are at a cusp, not just those seated in the waiting room. Certainly, no one’s life is the same who is directly involved in the birth of a child. Anyone who has had one refers to the temporal aspect of living in terms of before childbirth/after childbirth, but the momentum in the events that are unfolding at the Center are going to culminate in a different meridian of time, and not just for Doctor Gray Reagan.
Elaine Southwick lives alone, but that does not mean she has a cat. She never remarried after a short marriage to a man long on ego. Instead, she found purpose in putting her Business Administration degree to work. She interned for a law firm the summer of her senior year where she made significant connections in a network any college senior would covet, except for the one of which was the guy she ended up marrying, another archetype, this one being all too familiar in the discipline of Law. Smart as she is, it did not take her long to realize that she would put up with the same amount of abuse from him that she was willing to give herself. As soon as she broke herself out of that equation she divorced the douche bag, left the firm and decided to get into something worth her while that challenged her education. This was all readily apparent in her interview for the Office Manager position at South Highland Women’s Center, impressing Pamela Reagan. Elaine was what Pamela had been at that age and in any job interview it doesn’t hurt to remind one of one’s own better attributes.
With the fiasco of Ian’s office visit abated and fears assuaged for the most part among the waiting patients this Monday afternoon, Elaine has made it home to her condo, now seated at her kitchen bar and is in the last swallow of something to either take the edge off or bolster her courage, or both, because she is considering a bold move, even for her.
BEST THAT IAN WORK off the visit to the Center. Taken aback just by being in that context was a surprise for him, one that fueled the rage stoked by the events of the past two days. To even that out, maybe even to calm himself down a bit, he has eliminated that pony wall in the hall bathroom making egress of the tub possible and he was dragging it out into the great room when the knock landed on his front door.
Bill again, he was certain, but he’s too late, the tub is out. Ian could use a hand, though, to get it in his truck. He opens the front door and to his surprise there is Elaine.
“Is that your white truck?” she asks.
Ian assesses her, up and down, feet apart, hands to her side, wrists flexed, shoulders back much like he left her at the Center. The Ranger is parked in the driveway, the truck of her query. Her presence is baffling to him as he tries to understand what possible motive she has to be there. His visit earlier that afternoon wasn’t a waste after all. Maybe fate is favoring him once again.
Elaine pushes her way past Ian into the home and closes the door, not wanting to be seen there. “Is that your white truck?” she says again, slower, more deliberate this time, but Ian says nothing in return. Now is not the time to be self-incriminating.
The context of the interior of the McDaniel home is disconcerting to her as if to pull the rug out from under her induced assertiveness, even the aggression in her question, self-righteous in tone and courage. No archetype here. She is authentic, brave and frightened now surrounded by clear plastic covered furniture with an atmosphere of gypsum dust hanging in the air with an odor of damp decay, and in the middle of what she just stepped into is the extracted bathtub. A vector of a black, sooty trail leads to it from where it was dragged out of the hallway. All of this combines to have her second-guessing her intent, doubting Ian’s credibility, wondering if she has put herself in harm’s way now. All her senses are saturated, amplifying in that fight or flight response, with the tragedy of this little family’s life, the only evidence of which is the man standing there with her – wife-beater, work gloves, and sweat – catching his breath.
South Highland’s receptionist’s mother-in-law lives on Glacier Drive four doors down on the corner, next door to Bill and his family; such is the genealogy of the news and rumors of any neighborhood. When Elaine heard the news of the suicide she knew exactly who it was, McDaniel was a name that wouldn’t go away in the perpetual paperwork of litigation. When she heard of the details of the death, only one of which was true, the exsanguination, she was disheartened to know of such a disparaging circumstance for a family that had already more than its share of suffering.
Her proximity to Ian in the entryway was reason enough to move away from him – his breathing, his odor – but the tub was almost as prohibitive for her to approach, the only direction she could logically move, and she did. She stepped four paces to the enameled stamped steel tub. The rumor is verified for her, the details of which are borne out in the bloody ring just below the level of the clean-out, the inside-out gloves, the spent sponges still accumulated at the bottom.
“Where is Doctor Reagan?” she says.
Ian says nothing. He just watches her. To his advantage, Elaine’s eyes were still on the tub when she asked the question. She kept them there in her waiting for his response, it seems, out of some twisted courtesy, more baffling than having her show up on his doorstep this afternoon.
“I saw you,” she says. “I saw you drive into his neighborhood following their car.”
He breathes now shallow and silent, running what he could possibly remember, if anything, in the heightened state of acquiring data during that drive.
“Doctor Reagan was in your truck with you,” and finally she turns to face him. “I’m going to the police.”
His mind is racing with this, all the peculiarity of it, of her, there in his living room, all the training in his former life now summoned to negotiate this most critical punctuation of these events. Her eyes locked, her body turned at the waist, her left foot pointing back to the door, her right hand out palm down against the presence of the bathtub. She is conflicted.
“What’s been keeping you?” is Ian’s stoic response, his break of the silence and the unpredicted stability in his tone is creeping out Elaine to the point of unnerving. “You saw him with me,” and the memory retrieves, the red sedan on Miller Ranch Boulevard, its strange retard as the Mercedes and the Ranger passed, “…you saw my vehicle. Why haven’t you gone to the police?”
Now it’s Elaine who says nothing.
“What were you doing in Gray’s neighborhood?” It doesn’t take him long. She doesn’t live in Silverado and this exclusive development is tucked far enough away to be on the way to anywhere, even on a Sunday. It doesn’t take him long once he handles any benefit of a doubt in observing her body, both feet pointing at the door now, her right hand moving from the tub, palm still down flexed at the wrist to Ian’s proximity.
“Was it patient business? Something that couldn’t wait?” he says.
“What have you done with Gray?” she says in her deflection, her confidence cresting her fear.
“What have you done with Gray?” Ian fires back. The edge in his frequency is the only giveaway that he has locked on to an advantage. Elaine, however, spills out the cues, her diverting eyes when Ian punched the word you and their trip to the door, the shrug of her shoulders, leaving her left side higher, her hips now straight with her torso, all in line with the door, her escape.
“You were there waiting for him. Kind of a habit for you?” He presses.
Her silence is confirmation enough and then he searches back, farther, synapses of long-term recall are firing away, a strength upon which Ian has depended for his very life.
“You’ve been in his office since Linda was going to him, and that’s been fifteen years.” The recall of which is easy to calculate, the same amount of time since Virginia’s birth.
“Has this been going on all the time?”
“Where is he?” she says, but she is too late now, he has the momentum in this exchange.
“Fifteen years? Twenty?”
“Where is he?” Her blink rate increasing, she is escalating, and he is reveling in his newfound leverage.
“You’re his Sunday afternoon tee-time. Kind of risky hanging out in his neighborhood, stalking his house, watching him come and go.” It is tough to not get caught up in the euphoria of having an upper hand in any line of questioning. The first rule of interrogation is to never let the target know they have been uncovered. Tactically, it is time to advance any logic made from the evidence.
“He stood you up that afternoon, and you saw him with someone else.”
“I saw him with you,” she says. The second rule is to not allow the target to see any manifestation, any positive or negative confirmation in the interrogator’s face. Stoic only comes by easily for psychopaths and sociopaths. Her threat assessment training in San Diego would be paying dividends right now were she in attendance. Ian’s guard is down, sleep deprived, low electrolytes. He would be considered compromised in his current state.
“It was you,” she asserts.
“Then why haven’t you gone to the police?” His calling her out has her grasping now. “You came to my house, you saw my truck, and instead of dialing 9-1-1, you knocked on my door. Too much to take to the cops? ‘And why were you waiting for Doctor Reagan Miss -’” and Ian looks at her security badge from the center, “‘Elaine?’”
He’s right. If only this were all she has compromised over the last dozen years in the cover-up of her affair with Gray. Elaine is ill with the thought of it. She intervened on Gray’s behalf, covering missed deliveries, creating alibis in changing dates in patient records, forwarding the Center’s line to an answering service that kept indiscretions, margins in a practice as intimate as the Center. She protected Doctor Reagan in a thousand other ways as well, privy to his sloppiness in the compounding of deliveries, editing charts and creating histories where fiction protected everyone involved better than truth. The billers, the medical assistants, the two nurses, the receptionist, all women, all in working proximity over the better part of any day, synchronized in the social, cultural and psychological aspects of each others’ living outside the Center. It took months to learn to cover the cues of an illicit relationship within this context, something at which both Elaine and Gray thought they’d become good and clever. To risk exposing this history by going to the police, though, was not the reason why Elaine was still standing in Ian’s great room.
In what feels to Ian more like a ploy than empathy, Elaine looks him in his eyes and says barely above a whisper, “I know what he did to you.”
Know is such a certain word. It is without doubt. If she said I think or I believe instead, Ian’s systolic contractions would not be forcing the veins to show in his forehead. It takes a moment for the ramifications of that certainty to be reflected.
“And I can guess why your wife bled out in that bathtub.”
And now that moment is truncated. Whatever ability Ian had left to maintain a civil approach in his critical compliance gaining with the person who could do the most harm in exposing him was exhausted. Her ploy unhinged him.
“You know what he did to me.”
“You know what he did to me.”
“You know what he did to me?” His interrogative tone is punched more from losing control than that of a query.
“You can guess why she slit herself open and drained her life down the plumbing of this house?” She can feel the aerosol of his speaking on her face. “Okay, guess.”
She is committed now in a corner of Ian’s psychosis where she does not dare negotiate her way out. She realizes she has no idea what he has done to Gray, nor what he is capable of doing to her and it’s fathomable that he could do something to her with her complicity implied in her affair with Doctor Reagan.
“Guess, Elaine. Do you know what he did to her for ten excruciating years?”
The vitriol, his old friend, is back, as saturating as it was in the pickup truck.
“Guess, goddamn it!”
She meets his eyes, shifts from one to the other at this proximity, trying to determine if he is beyond reason and weighing the impact of what she is prepared to say next.
“You’re not the only one. You have no idea how many,” she says with impeccable caution. She watches a revelation manifest in his eyes and the rest of his face, his eyebrows separate, his temples lose their bulge, his nostrils their flare. Were Elaine to lower her eyes, impossible to do at this distance to his face, she would see the pounding of his heart in the carotid artery of his neck skip beats. In her declaration, Ian now has a purpose beyond the scope of his spite.
He breaks away past her, down the hallway to the master bedroom and quickly returns in the time it takes Elaine to respond to his terrifying burst, she thought was focused on herself. She has a hold of the handle and opens the front door that gets slammed back into its jamb with Ian’s left hand barring her escape, and with his right he holds an object in front of her face. It is too close for her to make out immediately. She turns away afraid it is something more awful and defends her face with her lifted hand in front of it, palm out, to push away any threat.
“Take this,” he says. She pulls focus. The object is a cell phone. He pushes it into her hand and pulls a scrap of paper from his pants pocket, the A-1 business card. He holds it to her face with the number that he wrote down on it from the pay phone this morning.
“Call this number tonight at eight. I want to know how many. I want the names of the others you’re talking about.”
“I can’t do that,” she says, an autonomic response for her more than resisting compliance.
“You’re going to do that,” he says.
“No, there are rules-”
“Not anymore. Get me names, addresses, and Mrs. Reagan stays in the dark.”
As if. Elaine takes the card with the number along with the cell phone.
“Eight. Let it ring.”
13 to risk
GOLDEN HOUR IS THE TIME when the heat of the day is at its apex here. Regardless the season it is when Pam pays homage to the spin of the planet and its last light for this latitude. The only thing that makes this late afternoon’s easing into evening different is that Pam doesn’t know the whereabouts of Gray. Pam was rarely certain before, either when she was left to guess where he might be or even when he would call to confirm.
Her knees make deep impressions on the pale green foam gardening cushion from which she rotates and lifts up with more grace than anyone watching would expect. Her shoulders are dark and freckled where the same might anticipate liver spots and others might expect surgical correction of the breakdown of her skin’s connective tissue around her neck with all her exposure to ultraviolet rays breaking down her collagen. But they would be mistaken. Pam appears immune to solar damage save the sun’s effect on her bronzing. She removes her gardening gloves revealing tan lines at her wrists, lines that used to be created by golf gloves, which she hasn’t worn all season until just a couple of days ago. It was last Saturday when she and Gray played the front nine at South Highland Country Club. That seems like months ago for Pam now.
She gathers her garden trowel and knee pad, a sack of soil conditioner and a bulb planting tool along with her gloves and carries the armful to the garden shed, placing each where they belong. Outside the shed on its northwest side is an old three-legged milking stool adjacent a potting bench. On it is the glass of diluted iced-tea she thought she would get to a little sooner, though she is not too late to watch one of most notable indications of the earth’s spin, the sinking of the sun over the range of vineyard covered hills. She lights on the stool and toasts what is left of the setting sun.
This routine centers Pam. Only one stool stands beside the potting table. She is the sole observer of sunsets at this home, even when Gray is there. She had asked years ago for it to be this way, her solitude and her salute to her vulnerability.
This is a ritual she devised after therapeutic sessions dealing with her sense of worthlessness, a mine attached to the bottom of her soul when her first husband left her for someone fertile. That is how she met Doctor Reagan, at the fertility clinic at San Mateo General, trying to understand whose side of the zygote tango wasn’t dancing. The heartbreak of her diagnosis did not register until her husband of eighteen months sued for divorce over her infertility. It was Doctor Reagan who introduced her to the heartache, a diagnosis from a series of blood tests indicating two abnormalities – a disruption in two critical hormones that stimulate ovulation, and a disorder induced by her autoimmune system that kills ovarian tissue.
With the golden hour into its final minutes, Pam goes in for the evening through the backyard entrance into the mudroom where she removes her clogs and wipes her feet and then into the kitchen where she pulls her cell phone from her front pocket and sets it on the granite, looking again, now at less frequent intervals, at the display. Only the time of day. No calls. No messages. Nothing from Gray.
It was Pam’s second visit, her insistence on a new panel of testing by a different gynecologist, someone other than an intern, that caught Gray’s attention. It was nothing out of the ordinary to have a diagnosis of an intern questioned, but the pathology on this is pretty cut-and-dried. When he caught word of the second lab request for this particular patient he broke protocol and found Mrs. Pamela Madsen seated in the clinic’s waiting room. It was there where he tried to explain the futility of her request, his best bedside manner employed, and it is there where Pamela melted down, the heartbreak of abject rejection, having been reduced to a sum of parts that could not procreate and therefore she was summarily ignored in her marriage. It was Gray who allayed her heartache, first as a physician in a clinical setting, then months later on a walking trail on Mount Sutro next to campus where he passed Pamela quite by accident.
Eucalyptus is the overwhelming olfactory influence on this forested tract of land in the middle of San Francisco’s urban sprawl. It is a refuge adjacent the campus of UCSF, a place where Pam walked and ran and worked on defusing the mines of depreciation still floating in her soul. She was single again and in her solo decided to enroll in university studies focusing on female fertility, complete her degree and then move on to graduate work. She failed to recognize him in her jogging descent of Historic Trail. Gray was much more casual in his walk going up, a sentimental journey for him in closing his residency and getting his degree. He stopped at an overlook where one can see the city across its financial district when she passed him by. He recognized her immediately, petite physically, pained emotionally, at least that is how he last saw her at the clinic. He was attracted to her then but had to abate her appeal while he tried to alleviate her anguish in facing the facts of her reproductive system and their consequences to her marriage.
Gray called after her and it took only once. She stopped and turned, easy to do with the momentum of a small frame. She recognized him, embarrassed a bit from their exchange a few months previous, but not so much to inhibit the progress of their meeting again. This time the auspices of their encounter were much more conducive to more of a relational outcome.
They found a bench and sat and talked, Pamela for the most part to Gray’s questions about her well-being, about the falling-out of her marriage, about her ambitions. The evening fog enveloped the Gate and rolled through to the city, leaving these two in a heightened state of isolation among the intensifying smell of eucalyptus near the top of Mount Sutro. Their walk together down the trail and into mist concentrated that feeling even more with wild cucumber and fringe cups dampening, joining the smell of the trees making quick connections through each other’s proximity, by each other’s company and the disclosures that took them well into the evening.
Their courtship lasted the rest of that summer and they were married at the Historic Presidio Golf Club with an intimate reception of close friends and family. Gray never being one to ignore the pragmatics of two birds and one stone, thought Uganda to be a fitting honeymoon. It was there where Pam’s sense of depreciation crept back in. While she was now married to a remarkable man and physician and her life had taken a turn to philanthropic service and adventure, her own direction had been sacrificed along the way, especially her formal education, though she would eclipse any accredited influence in developing her critical and wise approach to life. She gave up the very ambitions she talked about on top of Mount Sutro with Gray and in a way became absorbed by him, in the shadow of his work, Mrs. Gray Reagan.
Years of this would make it hard for Pam to maintain the identity she was creating when she was single the second time. To be solo, alone for her was to be all one, complete, invulnerable to any evaluation outside herself. Gray was never one to tell her otherwise. Her acquiesce to his direction was more passive, swept up in it, easy to do when one first falls in love. After Uganda, so early in their artificially matured relationship, Gray changed from her implications of his personality when they first met, of his character, of his benevolence, and it wasn’t long until she had less certainty about her second husband, and felt more vulnerable about herself.
It is that same genre of vulnerability that prevented Linda from getting pregnant again. It has kept Elaine from any committed relationship and Ian from pursuing any passion he once held before Virginia was born.
This evening Pam raised her watered-down iced tea to the setting sun and embraced her vulnerability. This ritual brought about through brainstorming with her therapist, to honor an act of human spirit that, no matter what happened, the sun would still come up – sometimes its only reassurance. “To risk,” she said aloud. The risk of speaking truth and acting out, the risk of daring questions and taking chances, the risk of staying without certainty, the risk of living with Gray.
From the kitchen Pam walks into the space she was considering a few days before, the gap still there waiting for the area rug.
14 this new peephole
URBAN SUBWAYS AND BACK ALLYS of drinking establishments smell of the same odor that has hit Ian’s olfactory channel. He leaves the door open longer than he had dared to before, airing out the space where Gray has finally lost control of his bladder and giving him the ambient light he needs to remove the light bulb and screw into the electrical socket the plug adaptor and then screw the bulb into the adaptor. The tungsten element burns again and Ian rolls the door closed. He steps in front of Gray and places at this feet a plastic grocery bag and a backpack from which he pulls a cordless drill with a three-eighths drill bit. This is duly frightening to Gray.
“Pissed yourself. I could smell it outside.” Ian pulls the trigger on the drill and it responds and stops with a ferocity of a freshly charged battery. “I’ll be right back.” Ian steps back to the door, lifts it quickly, steps outside and brings it back down to rest. He looks around to see that he is still alone, then sizes up the door, running his hand along its steel to a spot at eye level. He lifts the drill and places the tip of the bit on that spot and drills. It doesn’t take long to produce the hole. Were he inside he would have heard the Gray’s muffled scream during the drilling. Ian scuffs away the shavings from the door with his foot, re-enters the unit and with the door down back in place puts his eye up to the hole and looks. He turns his head from one side to the other checking what little peripheral he has through this new peephole. He needs this, a way to check if the coast is clear, a sixteenth century idiom that Ian knows to actually be a misquote. It originally meant that a vessel had cleared the coastline, though its true insinuation stems from smuggling contraband with an indication that officials are out of the way making it possible to proceed.
Back in front of Gray, Ian removes the bit from the drill and stows the tools in the backpack. Gray abates his earlier panic and breathes a bit easier now, as easy as he can with his mouth sealed with duct tape and an NG tube up his nose. Ian sits on the folding chair and lifts a box of latex exam gloves from the backpack. He pulls out a pair and stretches them onto his hands. They are powdered making their installation a bit easier. Looking at Gray he sees his soiled trousers, his wet crotch, and he touches the wet spot with the back of his hand, letting it linger there for a moment.
“Lost it a while ago. You been sitting in your piss for a while now, Doctor Reagan?” He can say nothing with the tape still in place, but the rasping in his upper airway is tell tale of his increasing respiratory rate. Ian reaches into the backpack again and pulls out utility scissors and cuts up Gray’s left pant leg from the cuff, stopping at his knee. Gray’s breathing is becoming more rapid and more junky.
“Lift your leg.” Gray does not respond. “Lift your leg.” And again, nothing. Ian thumps Gray’s knee with the handle of the scissors and there is no response. He wiggles both legs and they wag like bags of gelatin. “Are they asleep?” Gray just looks at them. “Of course they are, shit. I’m sorry, I didn’t think about that.” Ian produces his Leatherman pocket knife and cuts the duct tape securing Gray’s legs to the adirondack. Ian straddles the sleeping legs and lifts Gray’s left one, placing its foot on the rung of the folding chair between his own. Ian vigorously massages it and slaps it and eventually sees the ankle rotate in relief, that moment just before the sensation of long dormant nerves becoming electrified. Ian repeats the process with the right leg. With the reverie complete, Ian finishes cutting away Gray’s soaked pants and then his boxers, his breathing slowing down, his wheezing increasing in depth and intensity.
“Arch your back so I can pull these out from under you.” Gray lifts as much as is possible and Ian pulls the soiled clothes out and lets them drop to the floor. Gray sits naked from the waist down. Ian retrieves the diaper wipes from the bag, opens the canister and pulls out a couple of wipes from the top and throws them onto Gray’s bare lap. He then cuts the tape securing Gray’s right hand to the armrest of the adirondack. “Clean yourself.” While Gray makes the attempt, Ian pulls an adult diaper out of the bag. “When you’re done put this under your ass,” and he tosses it on his lap. Any indignation in the action would have been warranted had Doctor Reagan not done the same thing a thousand times to women in his care, certainly without the abruptness, but with the same nonchalance and indifference, not with diapers, but with paper gowns and lubricating jelly. Ian checks his watch and regards Gray as he struggles to get the diaper underneath himself. It’s askew, but under him nonetheless. Ian reaches around Gray’s putrid smelling body, rights the butterfly of the diaper and fastens its tabs. One need down.
With his ears in proximity to Gray’s chest it’s clear his breathing is strained, upper and lower. Fluid has settled in his lungs and given the duskiness around his lips, his oxygen level is desaturating, probably in the mid eighties.
Ian peels the gloves off, snapping the first off his hand while still retaining it in the thumb and index finger of his gloved hand, then with the bare hand he pulls the second glove off enveloping the first, something he has done a thousand times. He tapes Gray’s hand back to the chair, checks the coast through his new peephole and exits the storage unit, bringing its rolling door to a careful, quiet close.
The pay phone at the entrance to the storage facility rings and Ian trots through the opening gate, reaches the phone and picks up the receiver.
“What do you have?” he says, no phone etiquette here and the assumption it was Elaine was pretty safe. It is eight on-the-nose.
“I want to get those from you. Now. Tonight.”
Her next question has Ian looking down the street. “There’s a 7-Eleven on Corby Avenue.” Elaine tries to orient herself to where he is referring. “Now. Right now,” he says and ends the call. He replaces the receiver and darts back to unit to retrieve the backpack.
THIS IS A BUSY 7-ELEVEN. Ian waits inside the store and watches the lot and the pump islands. He has a clear view up and down Corby and has tagged any vehicle that has arrived in proximity to the convenience store and, so far, it appears to be safe. He has the backpack slung over one shoulder. After a few more moments the red sedan, a Toyota Camry, from the Silverado neighborhood pulls into a parking stall in front of the store. Elaine is behind the wheel. Ian reaches her door before she has a chance to get out. She rolls the window down and Ian takes the pack off his shoulder and hands it to her. He sees a thick manila envelope on the passenger seat.
“Put that into the bag, please.” Elaine complies, struggling a bit to get it in along with the stuffed FedEx pouches.
“What are you going to do with those?” The anxiety in her voice is unmistakable.
“Are Linda’s in here?”
I told you we don’t have records on site that are over ten years-old.”
“Do you have the cell phone?”
Elaine pulls it out of the center console. It illuminates as she does.
“Turn it off.” She flips it open and powers it down. “Have you received any calls on it?” and Elaine shakes her head. “No one’s called?” He has to be certain.
“No,” says Elaine.
“And you placed the call to me on that phone?” She looks at him. He looks at his watch. “I think you’d better get out of here,” he says.
“What are you going to do with those?”
“That’s Gray’s cell phone,” He encroaches on her, his face almost through the car window. “…and if I were looking for Doctor Reagan I’d be following his phone. Wouldn’t you?”
“How did you get it?”
Ian warns one last time. “I’d get out of here,” and with that he stands and walks away. Elaine backs out of the stall and drives out of the lot onto Corby and speeds away.
A POWER CORD HAS BEEN PLUGGED into the outlet adaptor just above the light bulb. The hum of a small compressor strains against a load of pressure against the suction it provides and as it does Gray violently coughs. The cord leads to a suction machine, a small, whirring compressor connected to a clear container via a small hose that evacuates the air from the container creating suction. The container is filling with a cocktail of mucous and blood. Feeding that to the container is another hose that reaches up from the suction machine to a suction catheter, the base of which is in Ian’s gloved hand. At the junction of the tube and the catheter is a plastic piece that attaches to the tube. It has a shallow oval tube that rises about a half inch at a right angle to the suction part of the catheter. With the hole uncovered, there is no suction at the catheter’s tip. When Ian covers the hole with his thumb, it creates vacuum at the tip, sucking away any fluid with which it comes into contact, like Gray’s previous expectorate.
The tip of the catheter is up Gray’s nose and Ian is trying to get is past Gray’s gag reflex again to just the top of his trachea where a bothersome rattle is still coming from his upper airway. As soon as Ian gets the tip past the reflex, he covers the oval hole with his thumb and the tip of the catheter pulls in any surrounding fluid. Gray heaves and produces plenty for it to suck up, straining the compressor under the load of vacuum a second time.
Ian withdraws the tube from the nostril, about five inches worth and he switches off the compressor and places the catheter and hose on top it. Gray’s mouth is free from tape. He breathes through it, quieter, less effort than it took before Ian’s respiratory treatment. When he breathes in deeper to speak, though, a deep raspiness is still low in his chest.
“Are you going to tell me what this is all about?” asks Gray.
Ian lights on the folding chair in front of him. He opens the backpack and pulls the manilla envelope from within.
“Yes,” says Ian, “I think I’m going to do just that.”
He opens the little brass clasp that threads through the hole of the flap and pulls the contents out, drawing from it a number of file folders. “But, I have to do some reading first so we’ll have something to talk about.”
Gray is as confused as ever. The two are in tight proximity, knees alternating as they face each other, an intimacy that makes everyone in the room uncomfortable except for Ian.
He puts the manilla envelope on Gray’s bare lap covering his cool sweaty blanched thighs. In Ian’s hands are four file folders each with a name handwritten on the tabs, alphabetized: BARRETT, CHAMBERLAIN, ESPOSITO, JACOBSEN. Ian takes the top file and places the other three on the envelope on Gray’s lap. Gray cranes down for a look, the duct tape stretching his brow, opening his eyes wider than natural, and tries to make out the names.
Ian opens the folder, a dozen pages or so with a cover, a patient intake sheet.
PATIENT: BARRETT, LEIGH
DELIVERING OB: Doctor GRAY REAGAN
BABY BARRETT-CNS DYSGENESIS
Ian thumbs through the copies of the fetal monitor strip, consultation narratives, discharge summary. He closes the folder and exchanges it with another.
PATIENT: ESPOSITO, SERENA
DELIVERING OB: Doctor GRAY REAGAN
He closes the folder and picks up another.
PATIENT: CHAMBERLAIN, KAREN
DELIVERING OB: Doctor GRAY REAGAN
BABY CHAMBERLAIN-DECEASED POSTNATAL
And the next.
PATIENT: JACOBSEN, LAURA
DELIVERING OB: Doctor GRAY REAGAN
BABY JACOBSEN-CNS ABNORMALITIES
He finds the discharge sheet that bears Gray’s signature.
“That your signature?” he says, as he holds it up to his face. Gray remains silent. Ian stands and stretches his back, his hands behind him pressing his hips forward. “You want to stretch? Bet those hips of your are burning in their sockets.” He rubs his eyes and then points to the file folders on Gray’s lap. “That’s what this is all about.” He plants back into his seat in front of Gray and picks up the folders. “Esposito, fetal death. Barrett, CNS dysgenesis. Chamberlain, died after delivery. Jacobsen, CNS abnormalities.”
“Where did you get those?”
“Doctor Reagan, that is the wrong fucking question.”
Gray knows these names. He has seen them on subpoenas, on law office letterhead, on court dockets. “If I were an obstetrician, and if my mortality rates were as shitty as yours, I’d be asking different questions.”
“Those aren’t my patients.”
“That’s right. It’s the mothers, they’re your patients. Their babies are just some kind of collateral damage in the wake of your practice of medicine.”
“As soon as the baby is born-”
“The pediatrician is the physician of record, and that would be Doctor Bryant, the same pediatrician you referred in all of those cases.” Ian is clarifying where he is going with this. The emotion that drove Gray’s abduction is growing more cognitive, while Gray’s emotion is retreating to something more primitive.
“Is that what this is about?” Gray is escalating. “You’ve kidnapped me here, you’ve assaulted me because I had complications with some deliveries?” He’s incredulous, indignant, as if every litigating little shit should know that attrition is part of the game.
Ian does all he can to retain his control. He thinks, he considers this context he’s created, the power he has within it for the time being.
“Her name was Linda.” Ian says, stone cold. “McDaniel.”
“I told you, I don’t rememb-”
“December, nineteen ninety. Full term. Breech presentation so you did an external cephalic version, you turned her the day before you delivered.
Gray defends his procedure. “Turning breech babies is not uncommon.”
“Yes, but not monitoring them after is. Doing an external cephalic version in your exam room at your office is. It’s very uncommon,” says Ian as he goes close to Gray’s face, “and so is a fucking blunt head trauma.” Ian lifts, gathers himself back in. “But you didn’t stop there. She goes into pre-labor, mild contractions. We’re admitted to the Women’s Center. She doesn’t dilate, so we wait. I can hear three other deliveries being prepped out in the hallway. A few hours go by and you put her on Pitocin and walk away.”
“It’s common protocol.”
“Helps you manage your deliveries. I believe it’s also common to monitor IV medication.”
“That wasn’t my fault,” Gray growls back in his defense.
He does remember.
Ian shakes his head. In a previous life this guy would have rattled him to a point of something more severe in working with sociopaths who have no connection between conscience and behavior. “No, that goes back to your nurse. But you saw it. You looked at it. You overlooked it. She overdosed.”
IT WAS A NEWER DELIVERY SUITE. Patient load was growing beyond any expectations with the population growth of the area. Young families, couples attracted there to the tech industries and the university, insured, healthy, middle class. The Center kept up with additions, the latest in birthing comfort and ergonomics, with hardwood floors and quilts and sleigh bed headboards. None of this dulled the panic that unfolded on that December afternoon fifteen years previous.
The fetal monitor was alarming. The baby’s heart rate was way out of parameters. A nurse had come in to check the data and alerted the delivering physician and staff. Ian just had his video camera to his eye and was slow to realize the gravity of what was unfolding before him. Another nurse and PA burst into the room, the nurse disconnected the telemetry and the three rolled Linda out of the suite and into the corridor. Ian was in tow trying to keep up, his camera still rolling. He was intercepted by someone and pulled into another small waiting room. “You’ll have to wait here. They’re going to get her prepped and when she’s ready we’ll take you in.” Linda is rolled away. “We need to get you ready, too,” she said as if there was any notion of joy left in this delivery.
Ian was brought into the surgical arena where he found Linda prepped and draped with a curtain blind at her collarbones, naked from the waist down. At the bare end were two OBs, one between her legs and the other at her side, sanitizing the incision site for a Caesarean section. Ian was brought to a position at Linda’s head, joining an anesthesiologist who was monitoring her oxygen and sedation. Her arms were at right angles to her sides, bound to supports and inundated with IVs and telemetry. Linda was agitated, panicking through her groggy state.
“Ian?! Ian, what are they doing to me?”
He was there trying to reassure her, comfort her.
“What are they doing to me?!”
This was not in the plan, a C-section. She had this carefully and painstakingly thought out and suddenly none of those thoughts had meaning.
From the other side of the blind Doctor Reagan matter-of-factly described to Linda what they were doing. “We’re going to do a C-section to deliver your baby, Mrs. McDaniel.”
She was getting groggier. “A C-section?” she slurred.
“You haven’t responded well to starting your labor and we feel we need to take your baby now. We don’t want to risk anything,” said Doctor Gray Reagan.
“You’re cutting me open!” she cried out through the onset of the sedative.
The two OBs looked up, Doctor Reagan was incising longitudinally across Linda’s abdomen with a long scalpel.
“You can feel that?” he said as he shot a look at the anesthesiologist.
The assisting OB urged Gray. “You’ve started, we’ve got to go.” Fetal and maternal heart monitors were beeping faster. Doctor Reagan continued the incision.
“I can feel that!”
And then the uterine incision. The sack was broken and the water evacuated. Doctor Reagan’s gloved hand reached in through the incision and Linda’s whole body moved with his force. Linda was terrified.
“What are you doing to me?!”
“They’re delivering right now.” Ian said, “Your water is broken and they’re pulling the baby out.” Linda’s head and shoulders almost disappeared through the drape as she was pulled. The baby’s head crested through the incision and a nurse with a bulb syringe cleared her airway, but the baby was not breathing. The rest of the baby’s body was cleared from the incision. The cord was cut and the quiet and still infant was handed off to an attending PA. He rushed to a heated exam table and placed the silent tiny girl on the surface, her legs straight at the knees and displaced at her hips, her arms folded up tight to her chest, and she still wasn’t breathing. She was blue.
Telemetry patches were placed on her body, and a bulb syringe invaded her mouth and tiny nose again. Ian was as close to her as he could be without being in the way. He looked back at Linda. She was out. Her uterus rested on top her abdomen just above the incision and the other OB was wrapping up the procedure, while Doctor Gray Reagan was backing out the door to the arena, and for a moment made eye contact with Ian.
The baby began to breathe with very shallow respirations. There was no lung clearing cry into living, just the hiss from the blow-by oxygen tube near her nose and mouth.
A pediatrician entered the arena, Doctor Bryant, and that was when Ian broke the silence of his daughter’s attending care. “Can someone tell me what’s going on?”
“Not just yet,” said the pediatrician and as if Ian had suddenly become incapable to speak on his own behalf, Doctor Bryant turned to the PA and asked, “Is this the father?” And he gestured to have Ian removed from the arena.
“Mr. McDaniel,” said the nurse who got him prepped for the delivery, “come with me into the next room. You can watch through this window and I’ll tell you what we know as soon as we can determine it.”
He stood outside that window for three hours, watching the gradual peeling off of personnel, of Apgar testing happening every five minutes change to every fifteen. He watched an intravenous line placed into his daughter’s tiny arm, and a clear plastic dome put over her head to concentrate the oxygen around her mouth and nose. He saw a respiratory therapist do the most gentle percussive therapy on her chest. Her color had improved but she was still a shade of dusky, a term with which Ian would become too familiar over the next nine years and ten months.
15 It was, it was you
HER NAME ISN’T CHAMBERLAIN ANYMORE. That decision was a struggle for her since her baby bears that name, one that belongs to her ex-husband. Taking back her maiden name was an effort to establish her identity again, something she lost along the way to the cemetery shortly after she lost her baby. What was for an instant three in her family was now reduced to her, the woman who every Friday brings a new windmill and tends the grass growing around the lamb headstone and marker that bears the name Katie Chamberlain.
Six years into her marriage Karen conceived after fertility treatments. She started with an anti-estrogen drug to increase her likelihood of ovulation. She got pregnant shortly after, but miscarried after four weeks. Another round of Clomiphene produced no results so she was injected with a gonadotropin to trigger her ovaries to produce and release her eggs.
It seemed that her drug therapies were contradicted by events happening outside her body, namely stress induced by her husband at the time and their extended family, the previous generation of mothers specifically. Karen and her husband Mike were the products of a patriarchal culture where status and worth were garnered through virility and fertility, which isn’t a new or even uncommon cultural measurement, and yet, not without its price. Karen learned and believed since a tender age that her value as a person would be ameliorated as a mother. She married early under the auspices of love and when the couple’s attempts at procreation proved fruitless, certain aspersions were cast on the two, and then when issues with his virility were ruled out, Karen became the target. She lived in a faith much like Ian where there were certain irrevocable laws in cause and effect, that obedience and clean living result in blessings. It was also assumed that the inverse of that was true, so for Karen being unable to bear children there must be something wrong with her, a breach of faith, an undisclosed transgression, or something as simple and as disdained as doubt. At the very least, her childlessness was a disappointment to her mother and mother-in-law and was an incorrect indication of her husband’s virility, something which he held against her. The longer these expectations remained unfulfilled, the more self-sacrificing Karen became in trying to circumvent their inability to have children, and the more turgid became her husband’s regret in marrying her. His regret turned into resentment, the black mold of their marriage where it had already done its damage long before it was ever discovered.
Her struggle to get pregnant was the first, the miscarriage the second, and the death of their baby the terminal blow to their marriage. For Karen, though, it was her saving grace. Having been liberated from the perpetual oppression of her husband and subjugation of her family and their beliefs, Karen eventually found herself on quiet Friday mornings sitting next to her infant daughter’s grave where she realized that through the passing of her sweet baby – alive for only minutes after she was delivered – Karen could shed the unrealistic expectations of her life and release the weighty displacement her husband bore on her esteem that made her living almost impossible.
NOW KAREN’S FRIDAY VISITS to the cemetery have two purposes, one to express her gratitude to a child that had no chance of living outside her womb, and the second to create herself anew in that gratitude, her identity, a habit she’d extend throughout the week. On Tuesdays that meant being creative. On this Tuesday morning, Karen was staining an old ash wash basin table, a relic that came across the plains with her great grandmother, when she heard the knock at her door. Karen reached the door before the second knock was necessary and opened it to find Ian McDaniel. The only indication of the anxiety induced by Karen’s presence was his slightly turned-in right foot.
“Are you Karen Chamberlain?”
She’s neither off-putting nor warmly receptive. She didn’t care much for door-knocking types, especially in pairs, which was something Ian had going for him. Her face and slight head nod indicated the that she was Karen, if not Chamberlain.
“My name is Ian McDaniel, I’m a professor at the university, doing a bit of a survey.”
“I don’t go by Chamberlain. It’s Pierce now.”
Ian checks his notes and makes a correction.
“What is it you’re doing?” She looks at him, hard, studying him carefully, something kicking around in her memory.
“I’m doing research on infant mortality in our area and with all due respect and my sincere condolences, I found you through the Chronicle’s archived obituaries, the one about your baby, Katie.” he says. Karen is taken aback. Since her departure from all things oppressive, Katie is a name she hasn’t heard in conversation for months now.
“I have a few questions about your prenatal care up to Katie’s delivery. Would it be okay if we talked?” Ian has since corrected his pigeon toe.
“Please, come in,” she says. She steps back with the widening door and allows Ian entry to her home. It’s a small Craftsman bungalow with a habitable attic, bright and spartan in the repopulating of her decor. A small couch with an adjacent rocking chair anchor the space and Ian lights on the sofa knowing full well the pad on the seat and the quilts slung on the back of the rocker are intended for only one person, and there she sits. Now it’s Ian’s turn to look at her closely.
“Would you mind signing a form? It’s a stipulation of this kind of research, lets the university off the hook of any liability. It’s just a formality.” Ian hands Karen a clipboard with a document on it and a pen. She signs. He looks around quickly while she does, getting a sense of her context, the most noticeable aspect of which is the absence of photographs. There is artwork, but nothing indicative of any relationships.
“And what is this for?” she asks. The noise from this man’s presence obscured her understanding at the door. There’s something very familiar about him, but she has yet to nail it.
“It’s for my dissertation. I’m working on my Ph.D and part of my research-”
“A Ph.D in what?”
Ian checks his next lie against the facts of the institution where he teaches, and decides to stay general.
“I’m researching the biological anthropology of this area in terms of birthrates and infant mortality, specifically the practice of inducing labor with the use of oxytocin or pitocin.”
He has hit a nerve with her. She sits back into the reception of the quilts and draws her knees up to her chest and wraps her arms around them. The rocking chair leans back in her new center of gravity.
“What did you same your name was?” she asks.
“Okay, Ian. What do you want to know?”
Her shift in both her tone and her body elicits his question. “Are you okay in talking about your pregnancy and the delivery of your baby?”
“I’m fine. Go on.”
Ian checks his notes again. The only note there is the intake form from the Chamberlain file.
“It’s been a little over a year?” he asks.
“Tell me about your pregnancy. Regular prenatal visits?”
She was a prenatal stickler. Visits, diet, exercise, everything by the book. It was nine months of risk-reducing vigilance.
“I made regular visits, yes,” she says.
“And you went full term.”
“To the day.”
She hugs her knees tighter. She has put this all away and is trying to move on, putting space in between like her hesitancy in responding.
“To the day? What does that mean?” asks Ian.
“Katie was a full-term pregnancy. She was seven pounds, four ounces. I had regular prenatal care, no complications right up to her birth.”
“To the day. Was your labor induced?”
“My husband was going to be out of town around the time so we scheduled the delivery.”
“Scheduled?” he says, as if it were a new concept to him.
“We were to go in at a given time, they’d strip my membranes and start labor.”
“And you were at term at this point?”
“To the day,” she says.
Ian writes to the day on the intake form.
“You said, ‘Right up to her birth.’ What happened after you delivered?”
“She was blue and wasn’t breathing. They worked on her for a few minutes but couldn’t get her heart going again.”
“Did they do anything else to induce labor?”
“Stripping my membranes and breaking my water didn’t start my contractions so they gave me oxytocin.”
Ian is on his haunches, his hands now clasped in front of him. “And your labor started then?”
“It took awhile to start, but after the second injection my contractions kicked in.”
“And how long was your labor?”
“It lasted three hours and then Katie’s heart rate started to climb, and that’s when I delivered.”
Ian knows this. He has read through her chart thoroughly, so Karen’s account is curious to him. She did not mention the oxytocin until he pressed.
“It’s my fault,” she says.
Ian has heard this before, those words that germinate in the sacrifice of one’s self. He wants to intervene with something, a string of words to crush the crazy notion of blame and the shame that accompanies it, but he knows there is nothing that could be said that can penetrate that aching place of psychological self-cutting. It would have to be something tangible, something logical, evidence of forces beyond her control that terminated her baby’s life.
“Who was the delivering physician?” asks Ian.
“Doctor Reagan. Doctor Gray Reagan, not the other one.”
“What if I were to tell you that in my research I’ve discovered evidence of Doctor Reagan’s mistakes in delivering your baby?”
And then Karen lights up, something resonates within her, a recognition she knew she’d come around to, obscuring any value Ian’s question may have held for her.
“I saw you at the cemetery!” she says.
“I’m sorry?” he says on the cusp of this ruse going awry.
“It was, it was you. Everyone had left and there you were all by yourself by that open grave.”
Ian is stunned by her narrative.
“Oh God, you looked so painful,” she continues as her arms release from around her legs, her compassion drives her hand, palm down, reaching for him. “I felt so bad for you there.”
She finds his hand, his left, wedding band still in place, and carefully caresses over the top of his. Ian’s self-control is his only way out of there, what energy he has left is usurped in his departure.
“I’m sorry, you must be mistaken,” Ian says, the only thing that comes to mind. He hadn’t planned an exit strategy here, too confident in his newfound purpose of bringing Doctor Reagan’s perpetual malpractice to light.
“It was just last week. I watched you at that funeral,” she says.
He rises from the sofa and heads to the door.
“I’m, sorry, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he asserts and he leaves Karen Pierce’s home.
16 Camera Obscura
NEWS ABOUT A MISSING OBSTETRICIAN spreads as fast as rumors of tummy tucks and rhinoplasties, making this Tuesday morning at the South Highland Women’s Center a hectic one. Phones are ringing, the reception window is crowded with expectant mothers exempt from line etiquette, office staff are at wits’ end and at the helm back by the file stacks is Elaine. Behind the crowd and agitating paranoias is Detective Steve Alvarez with his badge suspended on a stainless steel dog tag chain around his neck. Elaine took notice of him when he walked in but has been ignoring him since. The receptionist is finally off the phone and amidst the cacophony of questions Alvarez’s distinct voice cuts through to the receptionist and quells the noise in the waiting room.
“Detective Alvarez, Highland PD. I need to speak with Elaine Southwick.”
Elaine is pulling files, blending into the business of the Center, speaking into a headset to a calling patient. Doctor Akhim walks through and hands her a number of files. She looks at the detective and the receptionist spins around, “Elaine?”
“Would you hold for a moment please?” she says to her caller. She mutes her headset and approaches the window. All eyes are on this inevitable exchange, all ears amplifying in the silence of the office. “Can I help you?”
“Is there a place we could talk?” he says.
“Not today,” Elaine says back with a tone that speaks to the ridiculousness of Alvarez’s ignorance to her predicament.
“We can talk now or I can come back in an hour. Now will be much more pleasant,” he says.
If anything trumps an assertive, stressed office manager, it’s a badge. “Take care of these, please,” she says as she hands off the files to one of the office’s clerks. Elaine leaves the business area and appears at the patient door, opening it enough for Alvarez to see her. “Come on back.” Every waiting patient is at full attention, every employee of the South Highland Women’s Center feigning busy.
The place they can talk is Doctor Gray Reagan’s office. It’s a physician’s feng shui with hardwood and leather punctuated by trophy vacation photos. Elaine leans back on the doctor’s desk and Alvarez realizes that waiting to be asked to have a seat is a waste of time, so he gets right to it.
“How long have you worked for the South Highland Women’s Center?”
“Fifteen, sixteen years,” she answers.
“Where do you think he is?”
The detective knows. Elaine knows he knows. Any comeback to this is futile.
“I don’t know,” she says.
It’s a line of questioning no different than any other investigative inquiry. The chance for confession is broached, everyone in the room knows full well nothing happens on the first turn, kind of like the first pull on the lawn mower in Spring. Steve looks around the office at the credentials on the wall. “Did you know they have a neighborhood watch in Silverado?” he says as his eyes find the eight-by-ten of Reagan’s sail boat. “Did you know that they take that civic duty very seriously?”
The repetitive stem. It’s expected that this happens in threes, another question beginning with did you know but the detective takes her attention with a declarative sentence instead that puts him into a position of getting answers to the really important questions yet to be framed. “There are at least three little old ladies who tell me they saw your car parked around the corner from the Reagan home the day he disappeared.”
Elaine says nothing.
“The car they described is in the parking garage of this facility, a red Toyota Camry. The tags on it are registered to you.” He has made the rounds of Reagan’s office and is now in Elaine’s personal space. “Three ladies. We don’t ever get corroborating witnesses like that.”
Elaine is trapped against Gray’s desk. Any counter move to Alvarez’s would be awkward, incriminating, so she holds her ground in proximity to the detective’s morning coffee breath.
“I was waiting for him but he never showed,” is her confession.
“And you don’t know where he is.”
“I don’t know where he is,” which is the truth. She has no idea.
“Is there anyone else, perhaps a patient, who might want to make Doctor Reagan disappear?”
She is relieved in his framing this question, exempting her again from lying to him.
“Not one.” she answers. “There are hundreds.”
This is what the detective was looking for.
“And where would we start on a list of hundreds?”
SPARSE MORNING LIGHT REACHES THE BACK cinderblock wall of the storage unit that contains Doctor Gray Reagan. He sits in the adirondack now turned one hundred eighty degrees to the back wall where small crude swatches of duct tape adhere rows of documents from the files Ian was reading the night before to the cinder blocks. It’s an unusual decor complemented by an odd blurry projection on the upper left of the wall that has riveted Gray’s attention.
The small circle of light is in color with a pattern of red blurred squares framed with tan borders on a blue base. Gray watches it closely, instead of examining the documents it illuminates, an unintended circumstance of the three-eighths hole drilled into the rolling door. He has looked at it so long that his eyes have exposed only for its illumination letting everything else go to shadow. He stares at it so long that when he closes his eyes the circle of light has burned into his optic nerves. When he blinks quickly he can actually see the negative of the image with green squares on a red base with a dark blue frame.
Inside the Fort Knox business office a computer printer knocks out a report on green-bar paper being tractor fed past the zipping printer head. When it stops it is ripped at its perforation by the one who initiated the printing, a bimonthly ritual performed by one of three Fort Knox employees, not counting the manager. He’s a dirty thirty, wearing a green superhero t-shirt and jeans, appropriate attire to walk the alleys of Fort Knox and check the list of current and past due tenants against what few vacancies exist in the inventory.
Outside along the rows of units that separates Fort Knox from the Corby Car Wash, the lock-checking man has a big clipboard, a pencil behind his ear as he totes behind him a black milk jug crate bungeed to a small dolly used to haul large luggage. In the crate are silver hockey puck locks. The man starts at 400, checks the list, checks the lock, and moves on to 402. The odds are on the east side of the alley, the ones that back up to the car wash lot. He will make the mistake, though, a time or two, in not skipping the odds, making him have to go back and erase his marks on three or four checked units and carefully remit his number-two pencil slashes in the correct places on the green-bar report. He comes across his first sixty-day out, unit 410. He checks the lock on the slide mechanism, reaches into the crate for one of his own, draws out a set of keys tethered to his belt with a retracting holder, isolates the proper key, unlocks the puck and attaches it in the empty slot of the bolt mechanism, securing the unit’s contents until the owner makes good on their bill. The lock-checking man does this with such aplomb it is instantly obvious why he is the right man for the job, his ignorance of the purpose of green-bar notwithstanding. He is accompanied by the ambient noise from the car wash, busy this Tuesday morning with constant ramping bursts of drying fans and pressurized spraying and alarms sparked by vehicle position sensors.
Gray stays fixed on the circle of light in front and up to the left of him. It has no border, it just feathers out to nothing. There is no definable aspect ratio to it. Once he is certain it is a circle it either changes or his own eyes create the illusion that it is not. The movement that he’s seeing this instant within the light is not illusion. He blinks away anything that might lend itself to be one and watches as a figure moves through the frame, though the more he concentrates on it the harder it is to see. It suddenly makes sense to him, camera obscura, a phenomenon of light when passing through a small hole into a dark room falling onto a surface perpendicular to the light creates an inverted image of the illuminated objects outside. Ian’s peephole is close to the right diameter and distance to the back wall to inadvertently create a crude camera obscura, a tiny upside down window to the world outside of Gray’s prison. And there was someone walking through it. Gray screams inside his taped and broken mouth.
The lock-checking man attaches another puck to the unit of a delinquent renter, 434, and were the drying fans of the automated car wash silenced along with the high pressure nozzles and the earphones from his MP3 player he uses to drown out all the noise, he might have heard Gray’s screaming.
17 red dots
HIGHLAND MEMORIAL HOSPITAL IS IN the throes of changing its name, replacing memorial with something a bit more optimistic like community, and as an acronym HCH rolls of the tongue a bit easier than HMH. Nothing’s been decided yet, though a consulting group is pushing for something along the name of Highland Regional Health Center, more of a branding statement than a terminus as memorial might imply. If trends mean anything in healthcare, the more the consulting group is paid, the more likely their suggestions will be adopted, though HRHC is a bit of a mouthful. Highland Memorial has the area’s newborn and pediatric intensive care units, a second home to the McDaniels over the course of Virginia’s living, though, this morning, Ian is an outsider, both figuratively and literally, as he waits on the pedestrian side of the secured doors of the PICU. This is bold for Ian, breaking the sanctity of a place that some believe is tended by angels. He knows the routines of this floor, its temporal patterns of both its staff and the parents, grandparents and guardians of its conscripts. It is shift change, a time when the secured doors of the PICU are more susceptible to be piggy-backed, following in a properly credentialed caregiver as the magnetic lock charges, clicks and frees its massive door to open and allow entrance with just the swipe of a card. But, Ian does not. It’s his rules-and-manners thing that would upset Linda more often than not, especially when it came to second guessing first opinions on Virginia’s condition.
Instead, he has an image in mind and a name from a file that hangs on the wall of a storage unit and he is looking to see who in the ins-and-outs of the PICU threshold might come close to fitting that image. In a context as intimate as the PICU there are only a couple degrees of separation. Say a patient’s name two or three times and someone’s bound to make a connection. The door clicks and opens and mingled amongst the shift change are other worn caregivers, parents. Ian stops one, a man, a rare find on the floor.
“Excuse me, Mr. Jacobsen?” he asks, but the man walks on. From the other direction is a woman entering the PICU. “Are you Laura Jacobsen?” She shakes her head and enters and the door closes and locks shut behind her.
“Sir, is there something I can help you with?” The query is from an astute unit secretary starting a shift in the PICU. She has observed his last approach and she has engaged him per HMH protocol.
“No, I’m fine,” he says, though he is clearly conflicted to not only be there, but to have his presence now called out.
“Do you have family here?”
“I did-” and he checks himself. There is a level of fraternity in the chambers behind that door, a solidarity of parents engaged in their most treacherous of stewardships. It is a community, happily transient though heartbreakingly consistent in its population. Support groups form here – without the intervention of social workers – with offers to break roommates for the cafeteria run or a power nap, a system from which Ian has been absent for five years. He is no longer a familiar face here, not only due to the turnover in staff, but due to the change of the guard as well. “-um, I’m just waiting for someone.”
He’s harmless. She unclips her badge and holds it against the card reader and the bolt is thrown. The unit secretary enters the PICU, and just before the bolt knocks secure against the door as it returns to its jamb it opens wide enough for the small frame of a young mother much older than her years to slip into.
“Are you looking for me?” she asks Ian.
WHILE IAN McDANIEL MAKES Laura Jacobsen’s acquaintance, Detective Alvarez is getting started on the list of hundreds. His state SUV is parked in front of two storage units, the doors of both are wide open. They are the standard ten feet wide, but thirty feet deep. Cardboard file boxes are stacked on metal adjustable shelves that line the walls and are stacked in between, back to back, three rows thirty feet deep in each unit. The boxes are stacked four high to the ceiling, each one displaying a code and a listing pasted on the front. More boxes than not have a red dot sticker, some have multiple red dots and others have yellow dots.
Down one of the aisles is the detective along with Elaine. She knows these files by heart. She touches a box.
“CNS dysgenesis. Baby died at seven weeks.” She touches another of the several dots on this box. “Twins. Girls. Premature labor. Doctor Reagan waited too long to go C-section. The babies and the mom dc’d.” She touches another across the aisle. “Still birth to a young mother, seventeen years, placenta abruption. The mother delivered without anyone in the room. It was over twenty minutes before a nurse found her with her stillborn baby and placenta between her legs.” Another box. Elaine hesitates on this one. Alvarez is reading her every signal. Her eyes fix on the listing and she knows her hesitation has given something away, so she leans more stoic in her description to compensate.
“CNS dysgenesis. Baby girl. She lived ten years requiring care twenty-four/seven. Dc’d five years ago. Her mother exsanguinated in a bathtub just last week.”
Alvarez looks down the row. There are red dots everywhere, enough to make anyone incredulous, even him. This is a list that does the opposite of narrowing anyone down. Besides overwhelming this father of one little girl with a nauseating realization of his jurisdiction’s infant mortality, this list would only make his job investigating the disappearance of Doctor Reagan harder. What little crime that does happen under his purview is relatively innocuous even by suburban standards. Most of his cases of missing persons are related to the cooking and distribution of meth. But here, represented by red dots are more dead or dying than Alvarez will ever investigate over the course of his career, none of which fall under the legal definition of a crime.
“CNS dysgenesis?” asks Alvarez. The diagnosis has been a common denominator in Elaine’s narrative about the files.
“It’s a common side effect of pitocin or oxytocin overdose,” she says, but Alvarez still does not understand. “Pitocin and oxytocin are hormones used to induce labor. Mothers who have gone beyond term, mothers whose water has broken but failed to go into labor, or mothers who are stacked eight deep in labor and delivery are induced.”
“I’m sorry?” he replies, becoming more baffled in the revelation of the business of obstetrics.
“It’s a common practice at South Highland Women’s Center to induce labor. Deliveries can be scheduled that way. It’s convenient for everyone involved,” says Elaine, a line she’s delivered a thousand times, but this time it was without the vocal inflection implying that it was an actual benefit.
Alvarez is still trying to digest that last bit. He is causal in his deduction, the link between induction and the mortality represented by all those red dots. All kinds of questions are forming with enough noise in his head to distract him from the task at hand, investigating the disappearance of Doctor Gray Reagan, OB/GYN.
“You’re about due for another unit,” says a voice from the alley. It’s the lock-checking man just stepping into the opening and he has startled Elaine. “Getting pretty full, this one,” he says, and he moves on, his milk crate trailer in tow, to the next unit. Alvarez steps out of and watches the man continue down the long row, checking each lock and checking his list. After gathering his thoughts steps back in and tells Elaine, “I want to start with the twins and mom.”
“The father left town years ago,” says Elaine.
“I still want the file. And the stillborn file.” Elaine knows what this holds for the detective. Pandora has nothing on these boxes. She opens one for the twins’ case and another for the stillborn and retrieves the requested files. “And the suicide, the mother-in-the-bathtub.” She knows what this holds as well.
Outside, the lock-checking man continues his route and his charge descending down from the open unit where Alvarez and Elaine are finishing up, now a half-dozen doors away. Inside Gray’s storage unit the blurry projection from the peep-hole is eclipsed and the sound of a hand rattling a lock on a latch goes unnoticed by the doctor since he has passed out from his previous screaming. Just outside, no more than five paces away from the adirondack the lock-checking man looks at the number stenciled in black on the buff brick wall, finds the number on his green bar report, makes a note, and moves on.
Elaine and Alvarez exit the center’s unit, Alvarez with files in hand. Elaine rolls the door shut and locks it.
AT HIGHLAND MEMORIAL’S PICU, one year-old Adam sleeps on a reflux board in a stainless steel crib. Photographs have been taped to the interior of the cage, pictures of the boy with mom, another with dad, and shot of the big sister. A toy monkey has his arms around a side of the crib, his tail suspends down and when pulled music box-like tones play, “When You Look Upon a Star.” The inclined board is covered in a blue satin blanket upon which he sleeps. He’s held upright by an abductor between his tiny legs and a strap around his back keeping his head above his chest. He sleeps like this because of his reflux condition. He lacks the ability to keep anything down which is problematic because when he regurgitates he swallows the vomit down into his trachea instead of his esophagus creating aspiration pneumonia, the reason he is still there at Highland Memorial PICU. The incline helps him keep fluids down and out of his airway.
For Adam to survive he will soon be undergoing a Nissen fundoplication, a surgical procedure where the opening at the top of his stomach is wrapped around the lower esophageal opening. This makes it so whenever the stomach contracts to regurgitate, it closes off the esophagus keeping stomach contents where they belong instead of in the lower esophagus. This will take care of the issue of fluids moving up out of his stomach and into his airway, which is only half of the problem. Something else needs to be done to keep fluids from infiltrating the lungs from above, so, in addition to the fundoplication, the baby will also have a gastrostomy tube inserted through the wall of his abdomen into the wall of his stomach through which he can receive nutrition, fluids and medicine. After these two procedures all the Jacobsens will have to worry about is little Adam’s saliva and mucous secretions. Ian knows this because Virginia went through the very same thing.
Adjacent the crib is a well worn recliner and around it are objects of a long-term stay. There’s a quilt, a couple of paperbacks sitting on a closed laptop that rests on a small table, an uncollected breakfast tray, a telephone, and behind the recliner a cot with bedding neatly made.
Baby Adam is the room’s only occupant tied to its context of observation by the telemetry of a heart monitor, a pulse-oximeter, along with an oxygen tube that delivers five liters a minute to the pediatric cannula under his nose. His little hands have socks over them, taped at the wrists to keep him from pulling the cannula off his nose that would deprive him of the oxygen he needs. This is what Ian sees as Laura introduces him.
The two stand at the door for a moment, long enough to pry memories of the same for Ian. Virginia was in this same room years ago, and so little has changed. They are silent in watching since Laura sensed there was no need for explanation of what Ian was seeing.
They turn out of the door and into the hallway where Laura continues the conversation they started a few moments ago. “Fourteen months,” she says. “I went into labor but wasn’t dilating. Doctor Reagan put me on pitocin, but I didn’t respond.”
The room, the baby, the smell, the sounds of the telemetry and now the story, all resonating in a core of Ian’s conviction in his task at hand.
“We had a case,” she continues. “We were told not to settle, to take it to a jury, but the case never made it. Reagan delivered the youngest child of the judge hearing the case, so he disqualified himself. Highland was so small at the time that they couldn’t find an impartial judge in the district. It got buried in an attempt to get it transferred, and our attorney advised us to drop it because of the fees we were racking up.”
Ian runs the risk of being overwhelmed by all the stimulus, old and new and leads Laura back out of the PICU to the mezzanine where they met. He’s able to breathe a bit deeper and summon the courage for what he’s about to offer her.
“When’s the last time you saw Doctor Reagan?” he asks.
“We haven’t seen him since the delivery. Our attorney advised us not to be in touch with him.”
He studies her. He wonders if fourteen months has been long enough. They’ve taken legal action, a cue to their disposition about Doctor Reagan. She stands there in clothes that serve both the purpose of sleep and tending, her hands to her sides, her feet apart, her body too tired for pretense. That what was for her will never be again.
“If I could make it so you could face Doctor Reagan, what would you say?” asks Ian.
Laura knows exactly what she would say, but she doesn’t waste it on Ian. They are words only for the OB. Instead, her nostrils flare, her eyes pivot in their search for veracity in Ian’s hypothetical question, her unpainted nails dig into her palms, her posture rises in her sweatshirt. Just as Ian reads her body’s response, the elevator doors open nearby and among those landing on this floor is Laura’s partner in care. She sees her husband leave the elevator and walk to the PICU door and she catches his attention, a shorthand of a nonverbal signal and will, and he changes his direction and approaches her and the stranger.
“Ian, this is my husband, Mark.” To her husband, “This is Ian McDaniel.” They shake hands, though Mark is more leery of Ian’s presence. No one just shows up here.
“He says he can take us to Doctor Reagan,” she says.
“What the hell for?” says Mark.
Ian’s premonition about the Jacobsens is confirmed. He looks down, studies the carpet at his feet while the emotion of this moment hits its flashpoint. He looks up at Mark, larger, more worn, more brittle, and now confused at Ian’s offer. Ian tries to clarify.
“I’ve been where you are now.” Mark’s rage wells in his eyes. Ian dares a bit more. “Doctor Reagan is in a position where he’ll listen to you.”
“I can’t,” Mark whispers, “I’d kill him where he sits.”
Laura breathes in as if she is about to say something. She looks at Mark but doesn’t console him, she has given up trying, instead she looks at her husband’s face and as she releases her breath she speaks through the relief of it.
“I want to. I want to face him,” she says.
Inside the PICU, Mark stands at the side of Adam’s crib. His boy rests in the rhythm of the sounds of his own telemetry. The three photos that were taped to the stainless steel bars are gone.
18 an infusion pump
OUTSIDE IN THE PARKING LOT of Highland Memorial, Ian escorts Laura to his truck, nothing said, though she has a million questions and is doubting Ian’s intentions more with every step she takes. Ian is beyond doubt, he knows this is a terrible idea if he had anything to risk, but in that vacancy he reaches the passenger door and opens it for Laura, always the gentleman. Ian mounts as well and once inside he opens the console and pulls out a black bandana.
“I have an unusual request before we go.” Laura doesn’t understand and is becoming more unnerved. “I need you to do this for both of us.”
“Do what?” she says.
“We’re both protected if you don’t know where Doctor Reagan is. I need you to blindfold yourself.” Her courage and his credibility lead to her compliance and they pull out and leave the parking lot of the hospital.
IT’S FASCINATING HOW CERTAIN psychological responses manifest physically. Strong romantic emotion feels as though it emanates from the heart, worry seems to restrict pulmonary capacities, and fear mixed with dread and regret infiltrate the gut, the very feeling Elaine has as she sits in her car on a side street in the Silverado development. She has returned there from the storage unit after giving Detective Alvarez the files and she is waiting for the inevitable consequences that will ripple through so many lives caught up in the common denominator of Doctor Reagan. It is a nausea that culminates in panic rather than vomit, though she would feel better if she could just puke. In her hand is Gray’s cell phone, open and lit. She has to do something to abate this feeling, this drive that makes her want to come apart in this evolving wake of destruction, the ruins of a marriage, the damage of the cover-up, the shrapnel of malpractice, the dissolution of a career. And the babies. And the mothers. And so she presses the send button and the phone dials.
Pam’s phone illuminates and chimes. Its tones barely fill the master bedroom where it sits on a nightstand. Pam is making lunch for one in the kitchen, out of reach from the chimes.
Elaine can’t believe it, baffled that this call goes unanswered. She wells up, breathing shallow and quickly, and redials.
Pam puts away the fixings for lunch in the built-in and pulls out a jug of iced tea unaware again of her chiming phone.
DETECTIVE ALVAREZ IS HAVING LUNCH, too, behind the wheel of his state vehicle. Sandwich in one hand, he navigates a mounted laptop computer with his right, his index finger scooting around and tapping the screen. He has initiated an approved cell phone trace request and types in a number. A blank field fills with Gray Reagan’s name along with a list of recent calls placed and received. He clicks a link on the last call made, a call made just moments ago. The number the call was made to is displayed along with the name Pamela Reagan.
Alvarez has stopped eating at this point and is opening another window on his laptop. It shows the location of the base transceiver station that transmitted the call. He copies that location data and pastes it into another field in another window where a map displays showing the location of the cell tower and its service radius, Silverado, and within it is the address of the Reagan home. He dials Pam’s number on his cell phone and while it rings he clicks on the second most recent call on Gray’s cell phone, this one made to a pay phone.
Pam’s phone lights up again, the display reading Unavailable. It chimes on.
Alvarez’s screen shows a map displaying the pay phone’s location. It’s in the vicinity of a Fort Knox Storage, where he was at earlier this morning. Finally, his call to Pamela connects.
“You’d let me know if Gray called you, right?” he says, no pleasantries. He does not have time nor the tolerance for that right now.
Pam knows the detective’s tone, ”Detective Alvarez?”
“Check your incoming calls,” he says.
Pam looks at the display on her phone and she opens an application. Under “Missed Calls” is Gray’s number. She is taken aback. “He called just a few minutes ago,” she says.
“That call came from somewhere in your neighborhood,” asserts Alvarez.
On his screen another page opens and shows the location of the base transceiver station that transmitted the call to the pay phone. “And a call was made from the vicinity of the women’s center to a pay phone at a storage unit facility where the office stores their records.” The detective stows his sandwich, starts his vehicle and drives. “He’s out there, Mrs. Reagan and I need you to stay on top of your phone,” and he disconnects.
Pam disconnects the call and then speaks into her phone, “Call Gray’s cell,” and the phone obeys.
Elaine has left the Reagan’s neighborhood and is still in her car now in the parking terrace of the women’s center. Gray’s phone lights and rings and startles her in her escalated state. Pamela shows in its display, her chance to find whatever redemption she may have been looking for earlier. Three rings, four, and then she thinks better of her previous intentions and as the call goes to voicemail she removes the battery from the phone and barely gets her door open in time to lose the contents of her stomach outside of her red sedan.
Ian’s risk in taking Laura blindfolded is compounded at every red light, with every car that passes, any passenger or driver a potential witness, and perhaps that would’ve been the case a generation ago. Few, if anyone make eye contact from car to car anymore and Ian pulls into Fort Knox with his blindfolded passenger and no one is the wiser. He parks in a stall by a dumpster, gets out and goes around to assist Laura out of his truck. Weekdays are quieter than the yard sales and moves of the weekend and this Tuesday is no different. It’s just Ian and Laura in the maze. He escorts her away from the truck by her elbow and he can feel her hesitancy as she becomes increasingly unsure about her situation, cresting into fright and she stops. They’re exposed right in the middle of the lane on the concrete furrow that directs rainwater away from the units. Ian gently negotiates her out of the multiple views of the intersection into the shade of larger units.
“You okay?” he asks.
Laura nods her head and Ian presses on with his escort. The prospect of facing Doctor Reagan still trumps the risk for her. She has laid awake nights thinking about this, about some encounter with the man. She used to involve her husband in the parenthetical circumstance of bumping into him, but Mark’s anger would override any fantasy of facing the one who ruined their lives. Ian stops her. They are at the rolling door.
“Now, Laura, this is going to scare you. Just remember why you’re here.” She covers her mouth, a precaution to thwart the scream that’s building inside her. “I’m going to open a door and it’s going to be loud.” Ian unlocks the door, slides the bolt and quickly lifts the door making a terrific clatter right next to Laura who still has no context of her whereabouts. All she has heard is the sound of the machinery of a nearby car wash. She steps back from the racket of the door and when it stops, Ian takes her again by her elbow and helps her inside, bringing her around to the front of the adirondack. He leaves her there to roll the door shut. The cacophony of the door’s wheels and metal segments rolling in the tracks flanking their entrance stops as abrupt as a noonday sun on a dilated pupil. Her ears ring in the silence and then adjust enough to hear the raspy breath of another person. It’s dark except for the ambient light from around the perimeter of the door and the beam of concentrated light coming through the peep-hole that illuminates Laura on her abdomen.
Gray looks at the visitor. His mouth is still taped. Laura is still blindfolded. Gray inhales through his nose and creates a sound deep in his barrel chest of congestion resonating through wet and raspy bronchi. It is Laura’s undoing.
“Oh, God! Ian? Ian?”
He moves to her quickly and starts to take off her blindfold. “It’s okay. It’s okay. Let your eyes adjust, it’s a bit dark in here.” With the bandana gone her eyes dilate to expose properly for the light in this little chamber and they land on the doctor before her.
“Oh my God. What have you done? Are you -” She stops and takes a harder look leaning into the light.
He is backlit from the door but she can still make out his face. She draws a breath and holds it. The swelling has receded in his eyes, there’s a feeding tube in his nose and dried mucous crusts the duct tape on his mouth. She exhales and takes another breath. His diaper is saturated and it’s not until now that she feels the odor onslaught of old piss, but it doesn’t repel her.
Instead, her fear evaporates.
Ian introduces her. “Doctor Reagan, this is Laura, a patient of yours.”
Gray’s eyes roll over to her. “That was only fourteen months ago, so, surely you remember her, don’t you?” says Ian. Gray’s gaze leaves her eyes and descends, and Laura, calm and deliberate, speaks.
“I brought you a picture you can hang on that wall in your office that has all those pictures of the precious and beautiful babies you delivered.” She holds the image in the light from the peep-hole. The ambient light that bounces off the photo’s surface lights up Gray’s face. His eyes move to it and he looks. It’s a four-by-six photo taken just a week ago, one of a rare smile from this one year-old, gently held by his daddy with an oxygen cannula and a feeding tube in his nose and telemetry on his bare chest.
“We haven’t really had a chance to send you one, we’ve been really busy just trying to keep him alive.” Her face replaces the photo’s position in the light. Ian pulls a can of Ensure out of the backpack and shakes it up.
“You started me on my due date. Four in the afternoon and Mark counts five other moms in delivery. We’d been there since six that morning when you started me. He was so bored he video taped everything.”
Mark’s video, in fact, did show everything, from a very pregnant and tired Laura, to the paper tape coming out of the fetal monitor showing waveforms of heartbeats, to the drip system on the IV circuit that contained the pitocin used to induce Laura’s labor. It also showed Doctor Reagan entering the delivery suite and the first thing he does is cover the camera’s lens taking it to black and the end of the recording.
“Even the drugs you were putting into me.” Ian has attached the cath-tip syringe to Gray’s feeding tube and pours Ensure into it, gravity feeding Gray while Laura continues with her visit. She knows this routine of feeding, so common to her that she pays it no attention.
“From that video they figured I got over ten times the normal amount of pitocin.” Laura leans in close to him, and almost at a whisper as if to hide his little indiscretion, “You didn’t use an infusion pump. They were all being used on other mothers.”
Laura raises the photo of her boy back into the light, now closer to Gray’s face. “The white matter in this little boy’s brain atrophied along with the myelin around his neurons. His brain has a really hard time talking to the rest of his body. Because of you. He can’t breathe on his own, he can’t eat on his own, he can’t use his arms very well, his hips are dislocated from his seizures.”
She holds up another, smaller photograph, one from her wallet, this one of her husband. “This is that little boy’s daddy. His company found a way to force him out of his management position, the medical claims covered by his insurance benefits exceeded a million dollars after the first twelve months.” She retires the picture of Mark. “I guess that became too much to pay. He works three jobs now.”
Ian pours another syringe full and another photo fills the light, this one was taped on Adam’s crib, one of a young girl. She’s happy, wearing a yellow sun dress hugging a dog.
“And this is that little boy’s big sister. She’s three. We had her before we moved to Highland. She spends most of her time at my mom’s.” She hands the photos to Ian. Gray remains fixed on her, stoic.
“We sued you, but you know how that came out, you lucky little dog.” Ian finishes the feeding. He pinches off the feeding tube, removes the syringe and corks the tube.
“All I want-” Laura finds a corner of the duct tape on Gray’s mouth and slowly peels it back, “-is to hear you say you’re sorry.” And the tape comes off his mouth. She waits there, their eyes are locked on each other. Gray opens his lips, emitting a stench that would drive anyone back except for Laura. She leans in so as to not miss the apology. Gray draws a breath with which to speak and holds it. His eyes well up. She turns her face so her ear is closer to his mouth, and finally, forced from his diaphragm, he whispers, “Get me out of here.”
Unsurprised, Ian rips and tears a six-inch length of fresh duct tape off the roll and hands it to Laura. She holds it up to Gray’s mouth and hesitates, giving one last benefit of the doubt about the character of the man in the adirondack, and when the pause remains empty she gently puts the silver tape over his mouth, pressing it on with her fingers, pressing harder as she goes, distorting his face while exhausting what is left of her incredible restraint. Ian carefully tapes the three photographs up on the cinderblock wall next to the Baby Jacobsen file. Laura picks the bandana up off the chair and hands it to Ian.
“I’m ready to go.”
In the Ranger they ride silent. They are far enough away to keep Gray’s whereabouts still secret and Ian reaches over and gently pulls the blindfold down from Laura’s eyes and she squints until they constrict in the afternoon sun, the bandana around her neck. It is now her memento of this very strange afternoon. Ian turns the truck into the roundabout in front of Highland Memorial’s main entrance and comes to a stop. Laura unfastens her seatbelt and looks at Ian.
He wants to say it, to tell her, but she puts up her hand to stop him.
“No, stop. It’s okay. It’s okay.” She opens her door and steps out, shuts it behind her and walks away. She knows his reason. She knows it well.
19 now is a good time
DETECTIVE ALVAREZ IS TAKING UP A NEW POSITION since lunchtime, a stakeout in a cul-de-sac in the Silverado community, one that gives him a good view of the Reagan home. The laptop screen shows a failed-trace message on a number that is Doctor Reagan’s cell phone. The files he got from Elaine are on the passenger seat and he reaches over the console and retrieves a folder. On its intake form he finds the information he’s after, a name that he types into his laptop, the name of the surviving father of the deceased twins and mother. No priors, no records. His current address is hundreds of miles away. Not the type for foul play.
He picks up a second file, this one indexed with the name Esposito. Steve knows this name. He knows the given name on the cover sheet as well. He turns the cover sheet to the patient’s history and reads more. He cannot read fast enough as the words therein make a connection he had no idea existed. “Call home,” he says, and the hands-free device in his vehicle executes the call. There’s a ring and connection and she answers. Steve speaks while he continues to read the file, “Hey, is it too late to get a sitter tonight?”
Down the street from the cul-de-sac of Detective Alvarez’s stakeout is Elaine’s red sedan that has just pulled to the curb in front of the Reagan home. She pops an Altoid to cover up her vomit breath and is summoning enough courage to get out of her car. Despite emptying her stomach, she is still driven from her core, reaching a desperate level in trying to limit the momentum of damages put in motion so many years ago. She pulls the handle on her door and steps out. She walks up the drive that curves toward the home intent on the front door, but one of four garage doors begins to lift with the sound of a well lubricated screw-drive garage door opener revealing the Mercedes. Pam walks around the rear of the car making her way to the driver’s door but catches a surprised Elaine walking up her driveway. She stops, just as astonished as the office manager she hired years ago. Pam changes her direction, stepping with purpose toward Elaine yet bracing for whatever reason she might be paying this visit. They meet and stop in the driveway about ten feet in separation.
“Where’s Gray?” says Pam, her query is even with an undertone of a foregone conclusion. Elaine cannot respond. Pam waits for an answer long enough for her to not quite lose her decorum and she turns back to the open garage.
“Pam, we need to talk.”
Pam stops. She looks into the garage, the Mercedes, and up over to the house before her and then she turns around back to Elaine, her keys in hand imprinting their cut in the recesses of her clenching palm. “About what, Elaine? About the affair you’ve been having with my husband?”
Alvarez watches the standoff from his vehicle. “Steve? Are you there?” is heard on its audio system. “I’ll call you back,” he says and he disconnects. These two women before him, both of whom he knows only because of this investigation, are now engaged in a standoff. They’re rigid, squared off at each other, hands down at their sides. The door to the red sedan on the street is open and a neighbor, the woman who lives across the street has exited her house and is pretending to weed an immaculate bed of peonies. High clouds and humidity dull the colors of the scene that unfolds in front of the detective.
The rehearsals for this moment have failed Elaine. There is no justification, no reason to her actions. Pam is rehearsed as well, much longer than Elaine, which is to her advantage.
“I appreciate the fact that you never treated me like I was stupid.” The grace of Pam’s prologue. “And all these years not a soul in the office ever suspected, at least no one ever owned up to knowing.” Pam pauses for rebuttal, but Elaine isn’t stupid either and says nothing. “I’ve lived since then in this marriage of convenience. I got everything I ever wanted with some solace knowing that you didn’t.” Elaine finally breaks her gaze and looks down at the driveway. “It was excruciating for the first two years.”
Elaine sees Pam’s feet step closer and she brings her stare back to Pam’s eyes in her own instinctive defense, yet she holds her ground on the driveway.
Detective Alvarez sees the advance. No question what is happening here. His inference to Gray’s disappearance was not in vain after all.
“I could smell you on his breath, on his fingers,” says Pam. At this proximity Elaine cannot avoid Pam’s eyes.
“Overnight he likes blue cheese dressing. We’d been married a dozen years and suddenly he likes blue cheese.”
Elaine interjects, “Pam, there’s more-”
“Elaine, there is nothing you can say to me that will make me feel any different about you or about Gray.”
“Please, just listen-”
“No. Stop,” says Pam, a bit louder. And Elaine does. “Just tell me this, is he with you now?”
“Has he left me for you?”
“Are you in cahoots with that man in the white truck?” This out of nowhere. Elaine fails completely at masking her reaction, her eyes widen, her lips part, her right foot turns.
“Did he help you two make your little escape?” asks Pam, who is still, remarkably, without indignation.
“It’s not that all!” Elaine sees the pieces that Pam has put together and as plausible as it all might seem, Elaine’s nonverbal reaction is indicative of something far worse. Pam had not rehearsed for this.
“Where is he?” demands Pam.
“I don’t know!”
Alvarez sees Pam slap Elaine. Right handed, open palm with a wind up from Pam’s waist hitting Elaine on her left side hard enough to take her out of her position on the driveway. Confirmation. Case closed. He speaks into the mic on his radio, “Control.”
“Control Highland,” reports the radio.
“Alvarez. Ten-seven.” He starts his SUV and pulls out of the cul-de-sac leaving Silverado.
Pam and Elaine are oblivious. The weeding neighbor has her payoff as Elaine gets her footing. Her left cheek is flushed. “The man in the truck knows where he is,” Elaine says, though not in her defense. This is what she came to say.
“I want to see him. I’ve had papers for two years now, waiting for the time when this would be rational rather than emotional.”
A hand-sized welt raises on Elaine’s cheek. “Now’s a good time,” she says. “Maybe tonight or tomorrow morning. Wait for me to call you.”
Pam stands by, waiting for anything else Elaine might say and in her silence she turns and walks back into the garage and mounts in the Mercedes. It starts, the reverse lights glow and the car backs out of the driveway past Elaine.
NOW IS A GOOD TIME. It is a good time to wash out the tub. There is a certain olfactory link to the powdered cleanser in the green can for Ian that takes him back, that pine and bleach mix of Comet that brings anything dirty back to a baseline of cleanliness, stripping anything from the surface and leaving it white and sanitary. Clean. He is halfway around the tub that now sits in his driveway this evening. He got it out of the house without Bill’s help or anyone else. The subtle slope of the ramp that leads from the front door was helpful.
To clean the tub, Ian started at the deep end where the hardware were for the clean-out and drain, and he is still on his knees prone over the enameled steel scrubbing with a green pad, dousing it with the powdered sanitizer and rinsing away the build up with the garden hose. It has been running the whole time he’s been at it, streaming down the driveway into the gutter, each rinse starting out a mix of burgundy and grey until it dilutes to mostly water. More scrubbing and another rinse and with it another flush. The front of the tub looks brilliant compared to the rest. He has removed the loose material, the chips of drywall and dust, splinters from the bearing frame, the gloves and gauze and packaging from the failed rescue efforts, even the wine glass that eventually tipped into the tub and shattered leaving pieces of the base, the stem and part of the bulb intact. Ian demolished it all with his boot right after he knocked it in, ground it all down to flakes and dust of glass.
Wet the surface, douse with Comet, scrub, rinse. Repeat. This is nothing new to him. He worked at domestic chores as much as Linda, not by compulsion or cajoling. Like laundry and feeding and respiratory therapy and diapers, cleaning the tub was something that needed to be done to continue on with the quotidian quality of life he and Linda worked so hard to maintain for Virginia. If anything was not taken care of, nothing else could progress in the day. They created a system of if-this-then-that and if this was left undone, that would have to wait. The tub was critical to this process, the anchor of every day to bathe and clean Virginia in as sterile an environment as possible, and there on Glacier Drive that meant this stamped enameled bathtub was scrubbed with Comet and rinsed completely clean every morning in a round-the-clock effort not to hurt Virginia’s compromised immune system. The smell of bleach and pine never left his hands.
Another gush goes down the driveway, crimson diluting to grey, to clear, the stream of which flows now down the block to the storm drain on the corner. Ian watches has he rinses with the hose, the deep end of the tub angled down the slight descent of the driveway, the water swirls with its burden around the hole where the stainless steel drain was once set. He’s worked up a sweat and takes a drink from the hose.
NOW IS A GOOD TIME for a glass of wine, a pinot noir for Pam, breathing in the large bowl of her glass intended for wines this strong and dense. Tonight’s salute has not been done with iced tea. To risk was just sanctified by her first swallow from this glass instead, this time in her favorite restaurant. Risk is a word that elicits its antithesis – reward – a causal relationship, something compensated for its venture, but that is not how Pam feels. All that is going on this instant is not a reward – Gray’s disappearance, Elaine’s confession. The latter is the fruition of Pam’s daring questions and her risk of staying with Gray without certainty.
There is no reward here except for the feeling in Pam’s soul, her identity, the confirmation of her intuition in how to be with uncertainty.
She has yet to order dinner, does not have the stomach for it just yet with the driveway confrontation still smoldering in her core, though much of that burn has since been doused by that slap. That was unrehearsed. That, like Ian’s thrown elbow into Gray’s face, was instinct. The difference between her and Ian is that eventually she will feel bad for having done it.
NOW IS NOT A GOOD TIME to draw skeletons from the cupboard, but the detective cannot help himself. It is his nature. It is what makes him good at what he does for a living and terrible at what he does with love.
Serena found a sitter, and her and Steve have found a spot to talk on the cement rim of a water feature in a small park downtown. She is curious about the file folder in his hand despite his conspicuous efforts to keep it out of sight. He has never been any good at keeping anything out of sight or mind from Serena because very little if nothing gets past her, and not just because she is the wife of a detective.
“How long can a guy keep an affair like that hidden away?” he says. Serena knows this approach, his bait-and-switch to broaching something with the potential to be sensitive if not explosive. “You know, for Mrs. Reagan’s sake, I was really hoping it was something else.” For the detective the case is closed, for Steve it is a segue to the reason they have a sitter for the evening. Serena is being very patient.
She got caught up with Steve Alvarez shortly after he transferred to the suburbs of Highland. He was burning out investigating child abuse cases in a retirement community where he could no longer pass a grandpa pushing a little girl on a swing in the park without staking him out. She was working as a preschool teacher finishing up her degree in Early Childhood Development when she had to get background-checked and fingerprinted to apply for a district position. Detective Alvarez happened to be in the office when Serena Esposito showed up to do the paperwork and get her fingers inked, an embedded conflict of interest, but it has always made for a good story.
“That’s not all he’s kept quiet,” he says.
There it is, his tease. She could just sit there and play dumb and let him come up with another way to get to the business of being there, but she resists.
“What do you mean?” she asks. He brings a file folder from his side on to his lap.
“Out of all those files I saw today in that storage shed, this was one of the three that I pulled.” he says. Serena looks at it on his lap. She sees Esposito, S on the tab. The trauma that folder represents to Serena has not diminished.
“You read it?” she asks. He nods. “You didn’t have to keep this from me,” he says in his best apologetic tone.
“No, Steve, I’ve had to keep that away from me. You will throw it away.”
Steve stares at the folder on his lap. He knows this is a threshold of some sort and something on the side of reason is telling him to shut the hell up and do what she asks. But something on the side of his ego will not leave it alone, like a scab with a lifted edge.
“I had no idea.” he says.
“I didn’t want you to have an idea – it doesn’t matter now.” She speaks in tones now all too familiar to him, escalating along with the punctuation of certain vowels and syllabic rhythms that betray her efforts in eliminating her accent. All this notwithstanding, Steve presses on.
“Look at you. It does matter.”
“A minute ago I was fine. I’ve been fine for ten years now. And you want to make this matter?” she says.
“I just want to know one thing and then that’s it.” His ego is now balls-to-the-wall.
“What?! What do you want to know? What is so goddamn important that you can’t just let this be?”
There’s no turning back for Steve. Had this been an interrogation, this is exactly where the detective would want to be, knowing the next question is going to bust it all open. But all the training and experience he has had along these lines of questioning failed to cull certain sensitivities he should be calling on at this point as a husband.
“Who was the father?” he asks.
The question drives Serena to her feet and her tone at an attention-getting volume. “You want to know who fucked me? That’s what’s so important to you now?”
Serena walks away letting her husband bask in the shame of his question, but she does not get far when the primer of his query detonates inside her and in less steps it took her to get away from him she is back in his face and furiously attacks him, beats him, landing her closed fists on the sides of his head. The file falls to the ground spilling its contents and she lands another punch on the bridge of his nose. He has to defend himself at this point, standing, crossing his arms and taking her by each wrist, spinning her around, tucking her arms now behind her. He releases her wrists and brings his arms around her body holding them now to her side. Her knees buckle, her shoulders ride up and she slips his embrace and falls to her knees on the ground while her meltdown goes into its most heartbreaking phase.
20 a percutaneous gastrostomy
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.
21 down to business
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.
22 holy shit
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.
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.
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?”
“Delivered by Doctor Gray Reagan, is that right?”
“Gives you motive, Mrs. Jacobsen. Do you know what motive is?”
“It’s the reason why people do crazy things, like kidnap a doctor because he happened to mess up your kid.”
“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.”
“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.
23 puta madre
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.
24 she didn’t feel a thing
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, 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 for what I did to her!”
Ian takes his Leatherman out of its sheath on his belt and unfolds a blade.
25 unit 435
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 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.
“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.
26 the illuminated lump
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.
27 missing a glass slipper
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.