Disclaimer: All characters appearing in this work are fictitious and created by this author. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Warnings: Explicit romantic and sexual relations between women. Christian themes.
Feedback: Feedback, thoughts, and screaming should be directed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Notes: Originally written
as part of National Novel Writing Month 2008. This story will be posted
in four parts.
Natalie woke up not to her own pain, but to the memory of the previous night, and Meredith's tears.
Her mother had never clung like that, wanting instead to spare her from the pain of her death. Her dying. Everyone spared Natalie. Patrick never revealed much--he'd only told her about Roland under great duress.
She'd seen it bother him to have to burden her.
So she had been left with people's petty complaints. Co-workers hoping for sympathy because a boyfriend hadn't called or the traffic was bad. She hadn't blamed herself for being bitter that people didn't connect with her. As long as she could connect with the jury--usually the victims and the defendant gave her all she needed for that. She rarely had to offer much of herself.
Jake came with the wheelchair. "Big day," he said.
"They're all big days here."
Jake nodded. Natalie couldn't get herself into her own wheelchair, even though she'd become quite adept at sliding herself inches side to side or front to back on the bed. Jake had to help her. She put her arms around his strong shoulders and let herself be lifted--dragged, really.
Once in the chair, she felt better. It hurt to hold her neck up. Two weeks in bed had made her muscles lose all purpose.
"Is it normal to lose so much mobility, even with a fabulous physical therapist?"
"It's completely typical to be pathetic."
Natalie let her head loll to the side. So this is why people sagged in wheelchairs. She felt a blush accompany the understanding. Her hand twitched. The instinct to cross herself had run through her arm, but the strength wasn't there.
She gripped the wheelchair arms.
Jake parked her out on the sidewalk under the awning. Her first view of Deborahville beyond the view from her window. The world in front of her wasn't remarkable--a parking lot, a ring of trees beyond it. Pavement. Sidewalks. The awning itself was dark green. The hospital signs looked grim.
She breathed deeply.
Her chest burned in protest.
She'd never been one for the outdoors. She'd only been camping once in Girl Scouts and she'd gone home crying in the middle of the night. Here she was in the wilderness.
"How far is the beach?" she asked. Jake stood beside her. He had one hand on the handlebar, just behind her shoulder, and he was slouching companionably. She was glad he was there. Even having met him only a few times, he'd healed her--she could feel herself healing in his presence--and now she looked forward to his easy, friendly smile as if he were a drug.
She shook her head. For someone who'd never had a truly close friend, she was becoming an emotional leech rather quickly.
Jake said, "It's about an hour by car that way." He pointed in a direction she assumed was east. "But by wheels..." He looked her up and down. "Better start rolling."
She smiled. "Maybe I could hitchhike."
Jake giggled, and said, "I just pictured you, chair and all, strapped into the back of a pick-up truck, like some old rocking chair."
She rolled her eyes.
He asked, "Want me to do your makeup?"
"It's just--This is your first big day out. You're a little pale. And blotchy. I don't know that you've looked at yourself recently."
"Recently. You mean since--" Her voice trailed off.
"I mean since," he said.
She had seen in the mirror in the bathroom. She'd looked 60 years old, stooped, and feeble. She hadn't asked for a mirror of her own. The bathroom held horrors enough.
"Do I look haggard?" she asked.
"Sort of like a zombie. But--You're clean, your clothes look okay. Sometimes women like to 'put their face on.'" He made air quotes. "A right of passage. Makes them feel whole again. I'm speaking as a therapist here, not as Mr. Black."
She looked down at her leg.
He said, "Forget I said anything."
"Jake, I didn't mean it like--" From emotional leech to depressed drama queen already. This was a slippery slope.
A horn honked.
A van with a handicap access symbol painted on its side rolled up. A driver got out. He yanked open the bay doors, and began to lower the ramp.
"Only one in the county," Jake said. "Cost your insurance $200 every time you use it. Though I don't expect you will much, except for coming back for your surgery."
She looked down.
Jake said, "Be right back," and darted inside.
Natalie glanced at the driver. He unlocked the brake on her wheelchair and pushed her onto the ramp.
"Is this safe?" she asked. The angle was barely fifteen degrees. He winked and pushed her in. The tilt of her chair made her wince, but she managed not to yelp. Once inside the van, he locked her wheels.
Jake said, "Over here."
Natalie looked back toward the van door. The hospital entrance lay before her. Demure concrete and brick with a red cross on a white background near the sliding glass doors. Her home for two weeks. And in front of her home stood Jake, who was holding what looked like a fruit basket.
Natalie raised her eyebrows.
"For you, my dear," Jake said.
He stood at chest-height. So the terrifying ramp hadn't taken her as high as she thought. She snorted and took the basket.
There was soap and body oil and chocolate and Tylenol-3.
"The chocolate's for Merry, for putting up with your white ass," Jake said.
"What do I get?" The driver asked.
Jake stepped out of Natalie's line of sight. She cautiously leaned forward to see around the van door just in time to see Jake tuck a ten dollar bill into the driver's shirt pocket.
"Drive slowly," Jake said. "She's never been to Deborahville."
"That's absolutely true," Natalie said.
The driver frowned at Jake. "What's with the accent?"
"She's from Charlotte."
The driver looked askance at her.
Natalie retreated back into the van.
Jake appeared in the doorway again. He leaned in and took her hands. "See you soon, Nat."
"Thank you, Jake." His name caught in her throat. Tears stung her eyes.
He smiled and then darted back inside.
The driver got into his seat. "What was that? You two going to the big Pride rally? Tweedledee and Tweedledum?"
Natalie's face got hot. She rubbed her cheek and didn't meet his eyes in the rearview mirror.
The driver started the van. "You thirsty? I got coffee."
"No, thank you." She paused, and asked, "How long of a drive is it?"
He grunted. "Ten minutes."
"I'll just look out the window, then."
The van pulled out of the parking lot. The driver turned on the radio, and then turned down the volume, so that the country-western music became a faint background sound.
He asked, "Get lost on your way to the beach?"
She started, ready to deny the slight, but shrugged. "I guess," she said. And then, "That's what happened."
He nodded. "So did I. Hell, I should've stayed in Rocky Mount."
"What's in Rocky Mount?" Natalie asked.
"They got a Starbucks."
Natalie nearly threw herself out of the van. "Deborahville doesn't have a Starbucks?"
"Welcome to Deborahville, ma'am. We got a nice Hardees."
The urge to cross herself returned--the urge to ward all of this off and beg for forgiveness. She'd survived the accident and survived surviving the accident so far. Just now, she had recovered enough to have awareness, outdoors for the first time since her other life, and it jarred her. Outside the van windows cars and trucks rushed by. Beyond them she saw empty, flat land. She felt she was descending into Hell.
The van slowed to a stop. A train whistle blew. The driver grunted and put the van in park.
Past the front windshield, a freight train rumbled by, improbably slow, right there in the middle of the road.
"You golf?" the driver asked, distracting her from her horror. "I mean, when you were better?"
"No," she said.
"A shame. Not much else to do around here."
"Would you drive me all the way to the beach?"
The driver looked over his shoulder and smiled. He said, "Not today. But Wilmington's closer than you think. You'll see it before you know it. Smells like the sea. That's all you need."
"That and a job," she said.
"Good point, there. What do you do?"
The van finally began to move again. Natalie looked around furtively for the train. She said, "I'm an attorney."
He whistled. "Not many of those around here. Not even in Rocky Mount. You go up to UNC?"
She shook her head.
"Oh, Lord. Not Duke?"
She smiled. "Wake Forest."
"Fair enough," he said.
She asked, "Have you always been in North Carolina?"
"I was born in Rocky Mount. My parents came from Ecuador. A long journey."
"Have you ever been there?"
He shook his head. "No. Don't think I ever will."
The van turned into a neighborhood. He slowed his driving, and asked, "Your people come over on the Mayflower?"
She shook her head. "During the war."
"No, just--" She paused, trying to think of what she was.
"Just screwed. I understand."
"Everywhere you turn," she said.
"Yup. World's a shitty place."
He stopped the van in front of a two-story cottage. Toys were strewn over the front lawn.
The house needed new paint and a good window-washing, but there were flowers planted around the mailbox and the porch had a swing.
Natalie had always wanted one.
The driver pulled open the van door and carefully wheeled her down to Earth.
"Home sweet home," he said.
Meredith came onto the porch.
"I could probably do worse," she said.
Meredith stepped onto the front stoop. Two little boys rushed past her. They stopped halfway up the gravel driveway and stared at Natalie.
Natalie felt her face grow hot.
"Better get used to that," the driver said.
"I have to get used to that?"
He didn't say anything more as he pushed her up the driveway. The wheels moved easily over the thin gravel--more like grey and silver packed dirt. The boys scooted backward as she approached.
"You better say something," the driver said.
"Maybe not that."
She glared at him and then tried to smile at the boys. If she thought of them as the check-forgers and wife-beaters she used to deal with, maybe it would work. She could fake-polite if it was her job.
Winning over Meredith's children was her new job.
"All right," she drawled. "Which one of you is Beau and which one of you is Merry?"
One of the boys giggled.
The other asked, "Aren't you Russian?"
Meredith called, "Little Merry, why don't you help her carry her basket?"
Natalie held out her gift basket.
The bashful boy--slightly leaner than his brother--giggled. He took the basket carefully from her and clutched the handle with both hands. He wobbled carrying it to the stoop.
"Do you like dogs?" Beau asked, trying not to stare at her legs.
She kicked at him with her bad leg. He leapt away. She grinned. He grinned back, showing his teeth. The spell of her appearance seemed broken. She wondered if it would be so easy with everyone else. She would just have to kick them, too.
"I like dogs," Natalie said.
"Good. I want a dog, but mommy won't let me. See, mommy? She says we can have a dog!"
Natalie blushed and looked helplessly at Meredith. She tried to remember how she'd gotten herself into this situation. She'd been driving east. She'd been driving, and it was dark--
Meredith waved her off. "You know why we can't have a dog, Beau."
Merritt stopped in the front door and put down his basket.
"In the corner, Merry," Meredith said.
Merritt picked up the basket again.
"Because you're going away." Beau said. He stomped inside the house.
"You're going away?" Natalie asked.
Meredith frowned and shook her head.
The wheelchair's front wheels bumped against the stoop.
"Here we are," the driver said.
"And now what?" Natalie asked. Surely he didn't expect her to get up and stroll over the threshold.
"Watch," Merry said. "Well, I guess you won't be able to watch, per se, but observe."
The driver headed back down the driveway. Natalie looked over her shoulder. He got in his van. She waved. He didn't wave back. He just drove away, like she'd never see him again.
Meredith took the wheelchair handles.
Natalie started. "Merry, you're not strong enough--Please don't hurt yourself."
"Hush, I know what I'm doing." Meredith pulled her back and tilted the smaller front wheels over the stoop. Then she rolled forward, and with a heave, the chair rolled up onto the stoop.
"Holy crap," Natalie said.
Meredith smacked the back of Natalie's head.
Natalie ducked her head.
"Sorry," Meredith said. "That's what I do with the boys when they use bad language." She pushed Natalie into the foyer.
"Your boys use bad language?"
"You wouldn't imagine what they learn at preschool," Meredith said. "Anyway. The boys'll want to push you around some, but you're going to learn to do all that on your own." She let go of the wheels, and Natalie rolled to a stop.
"Up the curb, down the curb. Easier than you think."
Natalie said, "And then what, enroll me in the basketball league?"
Meredith looked sad.
"You got a right to be bitter, I guess. Let me show you around." She walked in front of Natalie and into a room on her right.
Natalie rubbed her hands together and then pushed the wheels. The wheels moved. "Hey, cool," she said.
Natalie, emboldened by being able to roll herself, tried intermediate wheelchair maneuvering. She held one wheel still and rolled the other to turn. Physics 101. She spun around and ended up facing Meredith.
Meredith said, gesturing, "We converted the dining room into a guest room. Vince put in the doors himself."
"It's nice," Natalie said.
The front windows let in light. Through the glass she saw the road she'd come from and other houses along the street. The room was filled completely by one hospital bed, metal arms and all.
"I'll have to help you in and out for a couple days, probably," Meredith said. "I couldn't get one of those bars installed, since you're here temporarily. But the rest is from your insurance company."
"That's amazing," Natalie said.
"Sure is. Now, there's a full bathroom down here, so you won't have to worry about the stairs. Unfortunately, the kids use it too. They sleep in the den a lot. The kitchen's in the back. There's a porch out there, too. Not too big, but we've got a grill."
Natalie settled her arms on the armrests and tried to get comfortable. She wasn't. The room was nicer than the hospital's--richly polished hardwood floor, a dresser with a mirror and candles and figurines--A Jesus, a Mary, a clown with balloons, a horse rearing. The windows had lace curtains.
Compared to the hospital room, this one was about the same size and had the same bed.
A nicer prison.
"So. This is my life," she said. Something caught in her throat.
"There's one more thing. Wait here." Meredith disappeared.
Natalie heard her running up the stairs.
When she came back, she had in her arms Hollingsworth.
"My cat!" She was too shocked to cry, but her chest burned with happiness and gratitude.
Meredith piled Hollingsworth onto Natalie's lap.
Hollingsworth crawled up her chest and licked at her face in an un-cat-like fashion and began to purr.
"Oh my God," Natalie said. "You--"
"Shssh. It's a big adjustment." Meredith squeezed Natalie's shoulders. She said, "I'll call you for dinner, all right? Let me know if you need anything beforehand. I'll keep the boys out. I won't always be able to do that, but this afternoon is yours."
Natalie sucked in a breath. She wanted to thank Meredith but a sob in her throat escaped first, drowning out whatever she'd wanted to say, taking over her facial muscles so that they contorted in an anguished grimace. She fought as hard as she could against the tears.
Meredith, rubbing her tense shoulders, leaned over and kissed the top of her head, and said, "It's going to be all right."
Then she left, shutting the door behind her. Shutting Natalie in.
Natalie put her face against fur and cried.
And then she cried harder, because it hurt so much to cry.
The diet of a four-year-old boy was apparently the same diet as an invalid with intestinal trauma. They were having cinnamon toast at 5:30 in the afternoon. Even at the hospital, Natalie had eaten later than that. The afternoon sunlight was turning from orange to dark gray outside the French doors. Natalie contemplated verandas and ate what she could, not hungry and uninterested.
Beau and Merritt stared at her. She hadn't really interacted with them yet, but she knew she would have to eventually, and it filled her with dread. She took another bite of toast. So did Merritt.
She'd taken a nap, parking the wheelchair next to the bed and using her good leg and her arms to maneuver herself onto the cushions. She'd fallen asleep after those exertions.
Meredith's knock on the door woke her up. She dragged herself out for dinner, but she wasn't feeling social.
She was feeling self-pitying.
The half hour between waking and dinner, she spent in the bathroom. The wheelchair only fit one way. She used the face cream from her gift basket. Jake had been right. She felt prettier, which made her feel better.
Whole. More normal. The power of face cream. She was a convert.
Before the meal had come the blessing--Natalie feeling awkward with Meredith's cold fingers in one hand and Merritt's hot paw in the other. Beau had led the prayer, thanking God that they got to eat one of his favorite foods when so many other people had to go without or eat gross things. He wasn't sure which was worse, but he thanked God he didn't have to find out.
When he started in on how he felt about his glass of apple juice, Meredith finally interjected with, "Darling, He can hear your thoughts, you know."
"Yup. Just like Daddy. They're up there together, hoping you'll eat your dinner and become a big, strong man."
Natalie squeezed Meredith's hand.
Meredith squeezed back and gave Natalie a tender smile.
After the blessing, Beau ate four pieces of cinnamon toast, but only drank half of his apple juice.
Merritt ate one piece but had two glasses of juice, and looked hopefully at Meredith, and then Natalie.
"Why is he looking at me like that?" Natalie asked.
"He wants more juice," Meredith said.
"But why would--Does he want mine?" Natalie asked.
"That's how it works."
"Should I give it to him?"
"Only if you want to train him like a dog, that it's okay to beg for food from your elders at the table."
Merritt made a face.
Natalie picked up her glass, drank it down, and smiled at Merritt.
He scowled, but he didn't cry or bang the table, which surpassed Natalie's expectations enough that she felt guilty.
"He's good with adversity," Meredith said.
"Merry, go get some juice from the fridge," Meredith said. "It's all right."
He slid off his stool and backed into the kitchen, keeping his eyes on Natalie.
"Should I make a scary face?" Natalie asked.
Natalie shrugged and went back to picking at her toast.
"Not hungry?" Meredith asked.
"Not really. I mean, it's really good--"
"Please. It's cinnamon toast. There's dessert later, good to save room for it."
"What is it?" Beau and Natalie asked simultaneously.
Meredith rolled her eyes. "You'll see. After your baths."
"Bath?" Natalie asked.
"Off with you," Meredith said.
Beau took his plate into the kitchen. Natalie craned her neck and could see around the door. Beau put his scraps into the trash can, and then put the plate in the dishwasher.
"How'd you get him to do that? Even I don't do that," Natalie asked.
"If he completes all his chores before bed, he gets a nickel and a strawberry. We have a checklist."
Meredith grinned. "What's that look on your face for?"
"You bribe your children?"
"It is positive reinforcement and providing structure and personal motivation."
"Merry," Natalie said.
"It was recommended by Focus on the Family!" Meredith leaned forward. "And it works."
Natalie wrinkled her nose.
Merritt came back and gave the apple juice bottle to Meredith, who poured him half a glass. "You can drink this, and then it's bath time," she said.
"But Natalie's here!" Merritt said.
"And she likes little boys better when they're clean."
"Yes," Meredith said.
Merritt took his glass and drank it all down. Then he set it on his plate and carefully walked with it into the kitchen.
"Hey," Natalie asked. "Usually in an hour or so you bring me dinner. What do the boys do?"
"I give them their bath and read them a story, and then my next door neighbor comes over and reads them another story and puts them to sleep. Then she hangs out in the living room and does paper work for her business until I get back. She's self-employed."
"Do you have to pay her?"
"Natalie, stop looking so guilty. What I do with my home life is none of your concern."
Natalie blushed and looked away.
"I've got to run to the hospital for about two hours tonight, to get all my hours in this week. Once the boys are asleep."
"Is--Is your neighbor coming over?"
"Nope. I thought I'd leave them with you."
"Merry! I can barely move myself."
"If there's a fire or a flood, just yell really loud and get them to haul you out. But you'll be fine."
"Merry, please don't leave me here with your kids."
"You won't notice a thing."
Upstairs, a faucet turned on. Beau yelled, "Mommy."
"Time to get the little rascals clean and sleepy," Meredith said.
"Should I do something in the kitchen?" Natalie asked.
"No, no. You can watch TV if you want, though it's probably better to start after the boys are asleep."
"Mommy!" Beau yelled again.
"Go. I can fend for myself," Natalie said.
"More than you think," Merry said, patting her shoulder before jogging upstairs.
Natalie rolled herself back to her room, listening to the laughing and splashing above her. More civilization and home than she'd experienced in years. Perhaps ever, beyond what the television offered.
Being around people wasn't so bad.
She prayed to God she wasn't going to cry again.
* * *
The house was so blissfully quiet after sunset that Natalie couldn't be sure there were kids around. The peace wasn't what she'd expected, having not grown up with brothers or sisters or nieces and nephews. She'd been a hellion as a teenager, so she assumed all children terrorized their parents. She hoped she wouldn't be there long enough to corrupt Beau and Merritt.
She dozed, finding sleeping in a bed in a home so comforting that she wanted to stay in it forever. Her world in Charlotte evaporated. Patrick and Roland were gone, along with her coworkers and the memories of her mother. Instead she dreamed about the sidewalk outside and the gravel driveway and the awning of the hospital.
She found it hard to believe she had seen it for the first time that morning.
Her laptop was on the dresser, beckoning to her. She had emails to read and her internal clock was pointing out that it was only nine at night. At home, she'd be in the thick of her case files, with dinner packed away and the late night shows far off.
She tried reminding her body that sleep had come much earlier every night for the last two weeks. But she wasn't in the hospital any longer, she was in a home. Someone else's home.
The last time she'd been in someone else's home was a trip out to Utah. Her friend had a ranch. She didn't talk to that friend anymore.
Maybe an email was warranted.
She scowled at the laptop.
* * *
Meredith hesitated outside of Natalie's door. She'd gotten home and gotten dessert, but Natalie might be asleep. Natalie might want to be alone.
Coming home to someone was harder than she remembered.
"Yeah?" Natalie called.
Meredith poked her head in. "You awake?"
Natalie smoothed her blanket over her legs. "I was contemplating doing some work."
"At this hour?" Merry asked.
She ran her fingers through her hair. Natalie was settled in bed, looking sleepy and tousled, and it all suggested to Meredith that she could be asleep, too. She yawned.
Natalie asked, "You were working at this hour, weren't you?"
"Last hour. That makes all the difference." Meredith smiled and came into the room, holding a bowl of strawberries. "Up for dessert?"
"Absolutely. But I didn't clean my plate or brush my teeth."
"Or take a bath," Meredith said. The banter removed her apprehension--her friendship with Natalie had happened too easily to be truly understandable, but she was glad nothing had changed.
This hadn't been a mistake, she told herself.
Natalie said, "Hey, I spent nearly an hour in the bathroom. I'm somewhat clean."
"Then you deserve a strawberry." Meredith plucked one out of the bowl and offered it.
The strawberry was sprinkled with powdered sugar. Natalie bit into the sweetness and nearly convulsed. Her expression of delighted surprise warmed Meredith. Juice dripped on her lips. She wiped her mouth with her hand.
Natalie asked, "Geez, why don't I eat strawberries more?"
Meredith produced another.
"Thank you," Natalie said.
Natalie looked steadily at Meredith and then patted the bed.
"Thanks," Meredith said, sitting down with a sigh.
"How was work?" Natalie asked.
Meredith shrugged. "You know what my day is like. People are nice."
"Really nice," Natalie said. She took another berry from Meredith's bowl.
"You look happy," Natalie said. "Explain yourself."
"Having another adult in the house who doesn't--it's just amazing."
"Who doesn't what?"
Natalie frowned, but leaned over for another strawberry.
Meredith lingered upstairs past the time when she should wake up the boys for preschool. She strained but could not hear them waking up on their own. In the room across from theirs--the sunroom that had been the guest room since they bought the house, Natalie slept.
She didn't believe in feng shui, but there was a different energy in the house. Natalie brought an aura with her. Meredith was too nervous about having Natalie around to discern if the changed reality was pleasant or unpleasant. She'd only be able to decide with experience.
Which meant going downstairs.
She put her pocketbook over her shoulder and went down to wake up the boys.
When they were distracted by cereal and only calling for her every 30 seconds, she ducked into Natalie's room.
Natalie slept, oblivious to the play of sunlight on her features. The hospital bed, outside of its context, seemed scary, and Meredith was glad at least there were no machines. Natalie's wrist had purple blotches from the IV needle. Her face was mottled green and yellow from the fading bruises.
Asleep, she was perhaps the most beautiful creature Meredith had ever seen--outside of her children. The most beautiful woman, then.
Meredith moved closer to the bed. She didn't know quite what to make of Natalie's appearance in her life--here, in her home, now, when she was about to lose everything. Natalie couldn't have come at a worse time. Meredith didn't think she was up to helping anyone else, with her own life the way it was.
But she would try.
She resisted the temptation to sit on the bed and smooth hair away from Natalie's sleeping face. Natalie's expression was relaxed and pain-free.
Meredith envied her.
* * *
"Natalya," Natalie's mother would say, "If you're going to just sit there and drink coffee, study. Read."
"I know it all, mom," Natalya would say. She'd set down her coffee mug and toss her mother a textbook. "Quiz me."
Her mother would glance at the book and frown, and shake her head, and on good days she would express a desire to beat her daughter with the book, like in the old country.
On bad days she would just say, "Drink your coffee," and leave the room.
Natalya hadn't made her own coffee in a long time. Starbucks had been enough. The office always had coffee. The courts always had coffee. She bought expensive beans over the internet from far off places, and on rare, quiet Saturday mornings, she'd grind them up and make pancakes and drink pretentious coffee that never quite tasted as good as it should.
Meredith had the pre-ground bags and the percolator. Natalie sat in her wheelchair and watched it brew for nearly a half hour. What else did she have to do? Then she'd taken it into the living room and turned on the television. Proud of those accomplishments, cursing her mother's voice in her head telling her to do more, she slept.
A talk show was on television when she woke up. She squinted and Ellen DeGeneres came into focus. Too bright and sunny and cheerful and California to take when she was groggy and full of despair. Natalie turned the television off.
Silence descended. Her coffee was cold. She turned the television back on and put it on mute.
That was just enough light to live by.
Wheeling herself back to the microwave to heat up her coffee seemed like too much, so she settled for drinking it cold and cringing and drinking some more. She had papers to sign, things to do. Patrick had priority-mailed her the paperwork to go from her sick leave to short-term disability. She had to eat through her vacation days first, but she needed to be ready.
Watching her time slip away depressed her. Those days had been for a vacation. This was not a vacation, even if she was an hour from the beach.
The boys had gone off to preschool and Meredith had gone to work. Natalie missed them.
They'd been noisy and smiling at breakfast. And she missed the hospital--Teresa and Colleen and Wheeler and everyone she'd been friends with, or at least, those who had been pleasant to her, had kept her from being alone.
She was alone and hurting, too far from her medicine or hot coffee, across an abyss of living room carpet, with nothing to do but contemplate her sorry life. The one she'd lived before the accident. She turned to the television, waiting for distraction.
Knowing enough not to hope for salvation.
* * *
The choice between sleeping and pain continued. Natalie dozed all day in front of the television and then, stiff and achy, did her stretches over the course of a half hour, and had to choose whether or not to bathe off the sickly sweat that had gathered on her skin or call Meredith and offer to start dinner.
In the end, she ordered pizza and then finagled herself into the bathroom. She was exhausted by the time she'd combed her hair and contemplated another nap. The soreness in her abdomen made her want to curl into a ball and whimper.
The doorbell rang.
"Come in," she called. "Door's open." She backed out of the bathroom and into the hallway that opened onto the foyer.
A sheepish young man stood just inside the door, holding a black bag. "Ms. Ivan--ovich?" he asked.
"That's me. Take those into the kitchen, would you? The money's on the table."
He scooted past her, trying not to look at her wheelchair or her face and trying not to look away. She sighed, deciding she'd prefer one or the other to the tip-toeing.
He scooped up the money and asked, his voice cracking, "Need any change?"
"Thanks ma'am." He backed toward the door. "Uh--thanks."
He left and closed the door.
She texted Meredith, "Be warned. Got pizza."
Even with pizza on the table, she had nothing else to do but wait. She wheeled herself into her bedroom and took Tylenol. Her doctor had told her that if she was to take pain medication, she should take the maximum dose they'd worked out and not to cut it in half in order to tackle half the pain. It didn't work like that, he said.
Her instincts told her otherwise, but she followed orders.
He'd also told her to be light with the Tylenol, because a shot liver did no one any good. Contradictory advice. He was appealing to her lawyer's nature, and figuring out the puzzle of dosage and balance each day had so far kept her goal-oriented. And in pain.
Stupid stomach. Stupid steering wheel. Stupid glass.
She set out her antibiotics to eat with dinner. Shifting herself back into bed tempted her. Meredith could bring her pizza. Or not. It didn't matter. She rubbed her stomach. The pain didn't go away.
Her eyes itched. She blinked rapidly, but tears still formed at the corners of her eyes, and then fell on her cheeks. She tried to read the book by her bed, but was too distracted by aches. She rolled herself back into the living room, slowly. She banged her hand on the doorway past the kitchen, and cursed as loud as she could, yelling at the empty house.
The new pain stung worse than the old pain. She angrily managed to get herself all the way into the living room. She turned on the television.
The local newscaster said, "The Roland case's local angle has--"
The front door swung open. Children's voiced filled the space, drowning out the newscaster.
And Meredith's, louder, calling, "We're home."
Natalie bit her lip. She wiped at her cheeks.
Merritt said, "Pizza!"
Beau screamed and ran to the kitchen.
Natalie turned off the television. She wheeled in a slow, backwards circle until she faced Meredith.
Meredith said, "That's right. Natalie got the pizza. You'd better thank her."
"Thank you, Natalie!" Merritt flung himself at her, landing against her good leg, thankfully, and not against her stomach or her other leg.
She oofed anyway, but when Merritt hugged her she awkwardly hugged him back. No one hugged complete strangers with such affection over pizza. She didn't think she ever been as naïve and open hearted as Merritt.
Beau, shyer to approach, just leaned against Meredith's side and said, "This is awesome."
Meredith grinned. "Thank you."
"I was too lazy to cook," Natalie said.
Meredith shook her head. She walked into the living room and shooed away the boys, telling them they could start eating as long as they used plates and napkins. Over the clamor of cupboards opening and plates hitting the counter, Meredith took Natalie's hands.
"Any little thing that brightens their day like that--I'm grateful. It doesn't matter how small. It's a positive contribution to the universe."
"Gluttony, laziness, and junk foods are positive contributions to the universe?"
Meredith smiled. "If you do it every day, now, it won't be special."
Natalie looked at their intertwined fingers. Her skin tingled, like Meredith was infusing her with the very graciousness she was talking about. The touch made her feel better.
"Can you afford it?" Meredith asked.
"I can afford it right now," Natalie said. "Who knows if I can afford it in a week? But--everything can change. I'm not going to worry about next week until next week."
Meredith chewed on her lower lip. Then she shrugged and said, "I guess you've got enough to worry about."
"All kinds of things," Natalie said.
"Then come have pizza. You don't have to worry about where you're getting your next meal, tonight. That's a blessing." Meredith tugged on Natalie's hands.
Natalie grunted. She said, "You could push me, instead."
"I guess you have been wheeling yourself around all day."
"More or less."
"Think of how buff you'll get." Meredith let go of Natalie's fingers and went around to the handles.
Natalie leaned her head back to see Meredith, and said, "Just what I always wanted."
Meredith squeezed her shoulder and then pushed her to the kitchen table where the boys waited.
"Your turn to say the blessing, Merritt."
"What about Natalie?" Merritt asked.
Meredith glanced at Natalie, and then said, "It's your turn tonight, Merritt. Come on."
Merritt shifted in his seat, curling his legs under him so he could more easily reach the table. He said, "Thank you for pizza, Jesus and Natalie." Then he looked expectantly at his mother.
"Amen," Meredith said.
Beau reached for his slice.
Natalie picked up one from the box, and looked heavenward. "Thank God for pizza," she said.
Meredith elbowed her.
Natalie took a bite and chewed smugly.
"You are a terrible influence," Meredith said.
"I knew I would be," Natalie murmured.
Meredith held her gaze, and then reached over and rubbed her arm.
Beau spilled his milk.
Natalie ate her pizza. She wondered if Meredith had bigger troubles than her influence on four year olds. Though it did feel good to put food on the table for people she cared about.
Totally different than doing it for herself.
Meredith nudged her shoulder.
Natalie swallowed and looked over.
Meredith said, "You're staring at the French doors. Thinking of bolting?"
"No," Natalie said. She sat back and ran her hands through her hair. "Just thanking God for pizza. Really."
"Tomorrow you can thank Him for tilapia. Friday night is grill night."
Merritt giggled, and said, "Mommy lets us play with the charcoal."
"I figure they're past the point where they're going to eat it."
"Smart," Natalie said.
"They just draw all over the porch with it. Come winter I'm going to start having to worry about my walls again."
Merritt slid off his seat and took his plate into the kitchen.
Beau started picking the pepperoni off the pizza still in the box.
"You're not going to make me babysit again, are you?" Natalie asked.
* * *
Natalie spent Friday in bed, imagining her leg was getting worse. The laptop was by her side and she typed half-heartedly with one hand. She felt far-removed from the day-to-day drama of the Charlotte courts, and she didn't miss it. The criminals, the petty bickering, and often the stench of the jail. The judges who didn't like her, or the judges who liked her too much.
She checked her work email, but it mostly pertained to cases that were not her own. Patrick had re-assigned them and had turned over her notes. He had even hired a temporary clerk to sort through everything. Today, she told herself, she could just stay in bed and have fish later and worry about tomorrow, tomorrow.
She didn't like fish.
Refreshing her email box produced an email reply from Patrick in reference to a query she'd sent about Roland.
The letter read simply, "You shouldn't be reading your email while on leave."
"Well, all right then," she muttered. She turned the computer off and then dozed.
Only after she woke up did she realize it was the first nap she'd taken without painkillers.
Her leg throbbed.
* * *
Natalie wheeled herself out onto the front porch. She checked herself. Not tired, which surprised her. No pain--Well, some, if she reached for it. There, the lingering feeling like her abdomen was bruised. And indeed, if she lifted her shirt up, there was the yellow and purple skin and the angry pink rash of zipper-like stitches.
Her leg gave her the most trouble, and the drugs she took to keep the blood flowing through its pinched, rerouted veins gave her the most anxiety. Her foot was white. She couldn't move her ankle or her toes very easily. It hurt to try. If she lost the leg--well, it might be better than this. But her life would be over.
The rest of her was stronger. Her wheelchair moved easily under her fingers to--mostly--where she directed it. She'd learned the tricks and corners of the house.
So she made it to the porch, looking out at the other little porches and two-story bungalows.
The neighborhood had been developed only ten years ago, when golf moved inland and Wilmington real estate shot sky-high. Deborahville felt more small-town than seasonal. The city seemed suspended between cute and depressingly generic, but none of the grit of Charlotte was there, and none of the crime.
Natalie inhaled deeply. When she felt better, Jake was going to take her on a tour. The water tower, the railroad depot, the farmer's market, the library.
For the first time in weeks, she was energetic enough to be bored. She dug her cell phone out of her bag and called Patrick.
He was at his desk. "Uh, hi, Nat," he said.
"Uh, hi, Pat," she said, trying to be jovial, but miffed at the hesitation. He was her only lifeline, didn't he know that?
"Look, I've been meaning to call you. I thought maybe I'd come down and see you on the weekend. When's your surgery scheduled?"
"Patrick, is something wrong at the office?"
"Tell me how you are, first," he said.
He paused, breathing evenly against the phone, and then coughed, and said, "Look, have you seen the news?"
"Not really. I mean, sometimes the local stuff here, or CNN on the computer, but I haven't really been up to it."
"Oh, okay," he said.
She hadn't gone to the Inquirer's website once. She was purposely avoiding Roland like a spoiled child offended at the whole city for something that had happened three states away. But she assumed that everything had gone on as normal in her absence. Life usually did.
"It's the jury. They've been deliberating for days, Nat. And, Roland's lawyers have been starting these rumors, and you know the blogosphere, and it's just you've been so under the radar--in the hospital, I know--"
"Maybe you should talk to the District Attorney directly," he said.
She wanted to throw the phone on the ground and roll over it with her wheel, so infuriated was she by his babbling. She trembled, and whispered into the phone, hoping that calmness would bring clarity.
"Patrick," she hissed. "What the heck is going on?"
"They're saying you were drunk."
"That you were drunk and distraught over having no case and framing poor, innocent Roland that you took off for the weekend to drown your sorrows."
She made some sort of squeaking sound against the phone, too stunned to speak.
"We're placing you on administrative leave," he said.
"Look, it's a good thing. More money than short-term disability, so you can ride this out longer. Once the trial is over--" He paused again.
"Once the trial is over <I>what</I>?" she asked.
"You can come back to your job."
"Not until then?"
"It's only until the verdict comes back and everything's straightened out. A week, maybe two. Nat," he asked. "Were you drunk?"
"Can you prove it? The Deborahville police have been very uncooperative with the press."
"They haven't--Do you want the damn police report? I'll fax it directly to the Observer."
"Have you seen it?" he asked.
"Not yet. But I will." She seethed, but at least he was giving her a plan. She could clear her name. Once she stopped being brutally offended that she had to clear her name.
"Nat," he asked, his voice quiet. "Were you speeding?"
"I--don't know. I don't remember anything."
"The police report will say."
"I could have been. It was night, and the highway was wide open, and God, I was so angry about the case that--"
"I don't want to hear anymore," Patrick said.
"So basically my career is ruined."
"Come on, Nat. Don't be dramatic."
"The case is tainted, the jury will think the city is either laughable or corrupt, and Roland looks like a victim."
"Those are issues we're dealing with. You need to heal," he said.
"He drowned his wife," Natalie said. "He drowned her."
"I didn't drown anyone."
"I didn't drink. I didn't hurt anyone. Just--myself."
"It's politics," he said.
"I thought I worked for justice."
He didn't say anything.
She relented, still angry but not at him, and asked, "How're the girls?"
"Great." He launched into a story of their fall break, and Natalie listened, red with rage, breathing hard. She listened quietly and wished she was screaming, instead.
* * *
On Saturday, Natalie made dinner, though it was hard to deal with the stove when she sat underneath it. But macaroni and cheese from a box, she could do. On Meredith's instructions she added a vegetable mix from the freezer and set out ketchup on the table.
She didn't know if she could watch them eat it.
Hollingsworth followed her around, wary of the metal contraption that housed her. Only when she was in bed or on the couch would he leap up to join her.
Sometimes when the chair was otherwise unoccupied, she would find him curled up and asleep.
Hollingsworth dozing in the wheelchair miffed the boys because they liked to roll the wheelchair through the house.
Which miffed Meredith.
They were all one big happy family.
She'd timed dinner perfectly and was stirring the butter into the noodles when the door flew open and Merritt and Beau bounded through.
"Natty!" they called.
Her name sounded so much better on their lips than Patrick's. The bastard. No, she shouldn't think about him when the kids were home. And hugging her.
She pulled Merritt onto her lap so that Beau could crowd her good leg without touching her bad leg.
Meredith followed more sedately after putting down her bag. She held Natalie's gaze, smiling, until Natalie's face ached from smiling back and it became awkward. She wanted to hug Meredith, too, but her arms were full, and Meredith finally reached over and tousled her hair, smoothing locks in front of her eyes.
Natalie blew the hair back. "Thanks," she said.
"Hey, anytime I can beautify you, you just let me know," Meredith drawled.
"Mommy, you made Natalie ugly!" Beau complained.
Meredith cringed, but Natalie laughed. "What am I, Clark Kent?" she asked.
"What's your superpower?"
"Making dinner?" Natalie offered.
"That's a good one. All right boys, set the table."
Beau and Merritt climbed off of Natalie and slunk toward the drawers for silverware.
Natalie patted her lap. "Space free," she said.
She'd meant it as a joke, but Meredith blushed.
Natalie said, "I got fired today."
"That was just for dramatic effect--Kind of. Placed on 'administrative leave.' They said I was drunk when I had the accident."
"You weren't drunk," Meredith said. "I saw the toxicology report myself. I--just violated HIPAA. I'm sorry."
"It's all right. I mean, you're telling the patient," Natalie said.
"Sure, but--Natalie, I'm so sorry." Meredith took Natalie's hand, and Natalie squeezed it, drawing it against her arm.
They stood together until Beau banged his fork on the table, and said, "Hungry!"
"You're raising monsters," Natalie said.
Meredith let her hand go, and said, "Wolves, disguised as sheep."
"We're going to be soldiers, like daddy," Beau said.
Natalie glanced at Meredith, who smiled and kissed the top of Beau's head. "Yes, you will. And what else did daddy tell you to do?"
"Go to college," Beau said.
Merritt picked up macaroni and cheese with his fingers and put it on his plate.
"Guess he's ready for Columbia," Natalie said.
Meredith said, "I told them they weren't allowed to leave the state for college unless they were real smart and wanted to go to Emory. They had no idea what I was talking about. They're four, you know."
"I finally found the audience for my cooking," Natalie said.
"Aw, honey, if you read the directions on the box, cooking's real easy."
"Don't you think I've tried?" Natalie asked.
Meredith grinned. Natalie freed the pot of macaroni and cheese from the boys long enough to get some only lightly spittle-covered noodles for herself.
"Hold hands," Meredith said. And then when she saw Merritt's orange-stained hands, she mouthed "Sorry" to Natalie.
Natalie shrugged. Three days with children in the house and she'd already acclimated to parts of her feeling gross. She clasped the slippery, warm hand. Merritt giggled.
Meredith bowed her head and said, "Dear Heavenly Father, bless this food we are about to eat. We pray it may be good for our body and soul. If there be any poor creature hungry or thirsty walking along the road, send them in to us that we can share the food with them, just as You share your gifts with all of us. Amen."
"Amen," Beau shouted. Then he got out of his chair and ran to the door.
Meredith smiled, and said, "Every time I say that he goes to the door to let in the hungry and the thirsty."
"Have any come?"
Meredith called out, "Beau, come back. She's already here."
Beau skittered back. He frowned but climbed back into his chair.
Natalie picked up her fork but had to wait until the lump that had risen in her throat subsided before she could eat.
* * *
Natalie hadn't talked to her law school friends in a year. They'd all been close, spending at least two hours a night studying together in the law library. Quizzing each other, memorizing words, eating bad pizza and good Chinese food. After every semester they'd go out for beer, and the second time Natalie puked it all up, she decided that after every semester, she'd have ginger ale.
Thinking about drinking made her slightly nauseous. But it always made her think of her friends. She'd been a blip on their social networking for a while, and commented on baby pictures or a good book, but she hadn't paid much attention.
So it took her a good ten minutes to figure out where their blogs were. Then she composed the email. "You'll never guess where I am..."
* * *
Meredith knocked on Natalie's door.
"Come in," Natalie called.
Meredith opened the door. "Heard you typing. Thought you might want breakfast."
Natalie smiled at her. Meredith chuckled and pushed the door open so that she could maneuver in a tray. She couldn't help but notice how small Natalie looked under her quilt--how tired, still. And yet, something about the way her dark hair shined in the lamplight made Meredith's breath catch.
"I do want breakfast," Natalie said. She put the laptop aside.
Meredith settled the tray over Natalie's lap, just like at the hospital, except this one was made of wood and the dishes on top were ceramic, not plastic. The pancakes were homemade, but certainly not as good as Colleen's.
Natalie raised an eyebrow at the water glass with dandelions and clover blossoms.
"Boys picked those for you," Meredith said. "But I made them promise not to come in." She wasn't sure how Natalie felt about her children, and it made her nervous.
"Where are they?"
"In the living room, petting your cat," Meredith said.
"Is my cat all right?"
"When I left he was." Meredith smiled.
Natalie bit her lip, but looked at the plate.
"Do you want syrup?" Meredith asked.
Meredith tapped the little polished silver vessel.
"What's that?" Natalie asked, tapping a glass.
Natalie took the glass and carefully took a sip.
"Unsweetened," Meredith said.
"I see that."
"Gotta start you slow."
"We do have tea in Charlotte, you know," Natalie said.
"Is it Lipton?"
Natalie shook her head. She put the glass down and poured syrup on her pancakes.
"Ain't tea," Meredith said.
Meredith eased off the side of the bed.
"Going to work?" Natalie asked.
"Day off," Meredith said. "We get those sometime. I was thinking of going to Wal-Mart and getting a few things. It's a couple of towns over."
"Want me to watch the boys?"
Meredith considered. "They can get pretty wild on you. How about you take one, I'll take one."
"I think I can handle that," Natalie said. "Maybe after breakfast."
"Got a preference?" Meredith asked.
Natalie took another bite of pancake, chewed, swallowed, and said, lifting her tea to toast Meredith, "I love them both the same."
Meredith's chest constricted. "Good answer. I'll leave you to your breakfast."
"I really do," Natalie called, just as she reached the door.
* * *
Natalie got up early Sunday morning--an unhappy consequence of going to bed so early every night. She carefully made her way out of her bedroom.
The boys were awake. Merritt colored in the kitchen. Beau played with blocks.
What he was building, Natalie couldn't guess.
"What're you doing?" Natalie asked as she wheeled herself into the kitchen. Her legs itched. Her hips were sore. She wanted out of the chair, but she was pretty sure she'd forgotten how to walk.
Merritt came over and crawled onto her lap. He'd gotten good at avoiding her broken leg by wedging himself against the arm of the chair and her shoulder.
Beau said, "We can't watch TV without mommy. And we have to be quiet. She's asleep."
"What time does she usually wake up?" Natalie asked.
Beau looked at the clock. "Um. Nine."
Merritt began combing his fingers through Natalie's hair. Natalie hoped they weren't sticky.
The kitchen clock read 8:15.
Natalie asked, "Should we make Merr--Mommy breakfast?"
"Okay," Merritt said.
Beau put down his blocks.
"What's her favorite food?" Natalie asked.
"She likes eggs," Beau said.
Merritt pushed his face into Natalie's shoulder and giggled. "With hot sauce."
"It burns," Beau said. He had a dismayed expression.
"Hot!" Merritt shouted.
"Shssh," Natalie said.
"Beau, see if we have any eggs," Natalie said.
Beau scampered to the refrigerator.
"Merry, do we get the paper?" Natalie asked Merritt.
Merritt nodded. "On Sundays."
"Go get it," she said.
Merritt slipped off her lap and wandered in the general direction of the door.
Beau carefully set the hot sauce and the eggs on the kitchen counter and then frowned.
Natalie wheeled over.
Beau said, "We can't reach the stove."
"Good point. Maybe mommy will make everyone breakfast."
Beau nodded. He looked determined and marched back over to the refrigerator, and pulled out the milk.
"We can have cereal," he announced.
"Where are the bowls?"
He opened the bottom cabinet and pulled out a bowl, and then more carefully stretched to pull a spoon from the silverware drawer. His triumphant smile faltered when Natalie narrowed her eyes at him. She waited. He looked down at his bowl.
Merritt scrambled in with the paper, which he dumped on Natalie's lap. "I want cereal," he said.
Natalie said, "Me too."
"Oh," Beau said. He got out two more bowls and two more spoons. Natalie took it upon herself to open the Corn Flakes box. Meredith had picked up a boggling assortment of bulk cereals at the Wal-Mart.
Merritt whined, "I want Froot Loops."
Beau and Natalie turned on him, growling.
"Or Corn Flakes," he said.
* * *
Meredith looked at herself in the bathroom mirror. Her face was pale and splotchy. She prodded her puffy skin. Noises came from downstairs--the occasional giggle, rustling around, but the happy family below couldn't block out the memory. The blood. Vincent's anger. The heat rising in her to match it.
The memory was so incongruous with what awaited her downstairs that she didn't know which one was real. Death, she knew, was forever--the rest was transitory. She didn't know how she could face her children.
But Natalie was downstairs. She wanted to see Natalie. Every time she did, she felt lighter--almost happy. Just from being in the same room. To be in the same room, she'd have to go downstairs, and face her children, too.
Her eyes stung with fresh tears.
She tightened her bathrobe and went downstairs to find them piled onto the couch, reading the comics page. Dirty bowls were stacked in the sink. A cereal box was open and out on the counter, along with eggs and hot sauce.
"We made breakfast!" Merritt shouted when he saw her.
Beau said, "I made breakfast. You ate it."
"Did too--I brought the paper!" Merritt shouted.
Natalie said, "Boys. Merritt did bring the paper. Beau got the bowls."
Beau and Merritt looked smug.
Meredith put the eggs and the hot sauce away and poured herself a bowl of cereal.
"Natty's reading us Garfield," Beau said.
"Is it funny?" Meredith asked.
"There's lasagna," Merritt said. He began laughing so hard he rolled off the couch and onto the floor. He writhed until Beau kicked him.
"Ow," he said.
Hollingsworth shot across the living room, headed toward the French doors.
Beau took off in pursuit.
"Kitty!" Merritt shouted, joining the chase.
"Cats are evil after all," Meredith murmured.
Natalie gave her a lazy smile and then flipped the page to Ann Landers.
"Sleep well?" Meredith asked, bringing her cereal into the living room.
"Yes, actually. You?"
"It's Sunday," Natalie said. "Do you--go to church?"
Meredith shook her head. "Not anymore."
Natalie nodded. She read the paper.
"Oh, no," Meredith said. "Did you want to go? There's a Catholic church right here in Deborahville. Or, if you're Orthodox or Jewish, I don't know if you are, I think that's all the way down in Wilmington. We should have left hours ago--"
"And yesterday," Natalie said. "Orthodox, and I haven't been to church since I was confirmed."
"It's just--most guests want to go and be a part of their spiritual community, you know? It's like being homesick. Makes people feel grounded."
"I don't know what would make me feel grounded," Natalie said. "Why don't you go to church?"
Meredith fiddled with her spoon.
"Sorry, it's none of my business," Natalie said. "Forget I--"
Merritt and Beau came back, holding Hollingsworth between them. "We watch church on TV," they said.
"We do," Meredith said. "We're starting a little late. That's all right." She turned on the TV.
Natalie put down her paper.
"You don't have to--" Meredith started.
Natalie waved her off. "Have to set a good example for the children."
"By watching television on a Sunday morning," Meredith said.
* * *
The van came to take Natalie back to the hospital, where there was a therapy room and a gym. Merritt and Beau watched in awe from the safety of the front porch.
"How's living with that woman?" The driver asked her.
'Just wonderful' was on the tip of Natalie's tongue, but something in the driver's tone gave her pause. She said, instead, in measured, lawyerly tones, "Fine. I'm lucky to have nursing care."
Nursing care had consisted of fresh flowers in her room and breakfast in bed in exchange for dinner and babysitting. Natalie wasn't even sure it was a fair trade, much less worth what her insurance was paying Meredith.
Not that she'd tell the driver that. Or the insurance company, for that matter. She was happy about the arrangements.
The driver chuckled and said, "Sure. Just like living with Kathy Bates."
Okay, so Meredith might be on the curvy side, but she'd had two kids and worked a high-stress job, and really, she was still 20 years younger than Kathy Bates.
Natalie rubbed her nose.
The driver didn't elucidate.
She focused on the scenery outside her window. She was sorry when the van pulled up to the hospital entrance. The sight filled her with dread.
Numbly, she let herself be lowered and then pushed inside.
Jake came out to greet her. He kissed her cheeks and said, "Mon cherie! You have color! You have tone!"
He pushed her wheelchair and leaned over to smell her hair. "Your hair is so clean and shiny. Are they feeding you new oats?"
"Corn Flakes," she said.
"Oh, honey. At least in the hospital we cook for you."
Natalie said, "You came here for lunch, didn't you? This physical therapy thing is merely incidental."
"Merely incidental," he said, and giggled. "You're such a lawyer."
Natalie lifted her chin.
"That's all right," he drawled. "I'll put you in your place. Today you're going to walk."
"What? No. I'm not ready to walk."
He parked her wheelchair next to the parallel bars, and produced crutches. He sprawled on them, swinging one foot forward.
"Jake, I'm still in pain every day. I can't--"
"Look," he said, pointing two fingers at her, and then at his eyes, and then back at her again.
She folded her arms.
"You've gotten downright comfortable, haven't you? You can get to the bathroom. You can bathe, obviously. Your leg hurts like hell, and isn't it great that you don't have to worry about it so much? You can feed yourself, probably, and watch TV, and probably even work. Are you working?"
"Sort of," she said.
"Plenty of people are in wheelchairs and do just fine. And besides, it's only temporary, right?"
"Right," she said. Her face felt hot.
"Do you have Tivo?" he asked.
"Sure, back at my condo."
"You have a condo."
She stuck her tongue out.
"Girl, I have a house here and a trailer by the beach. There ain't no condos in Deborahville. Or Warsaw. Or--"
"There's some in Wilmington," she pointed out.
He tossed his head. "Let's walk."
* * *
"You're good at this," Natalie said, falling with relief into her chair. Jake held her, making sure her hips didn't slam into the sides and that her back didn't bunch up.
"I was trained well," he said. "I went to school, you know."
"And you found it worthwhile?"
"Oh, yeah. They taught us things I never would have thought of on my own. How to keep you happy." He winked.
"Just smile," she said.
He smiled wider and blushed. "It's all about total health. And preventative. Weird to say after trauma, but true."
She nodded. "Is this your, uh, calling?"
"Oh, no." He laughed, sprawling on the mat in front of her, looking up with his wide, friendly brown eyes. "I wanted to be a soldier. I was totally going to enlist the second I graduated high school."
"Why didn't you?"
He shrugged one shoulder. "Isn't it obvious?"
She raised her eyebrows.
"Right. You ain't from around here. Everything must seem a little off."
"It does. I've gone, what, a hundred miles? And it's like visiting a foreign country. All the signs have English on them and the people are dressed the same as you, but you're worried using the wrong fork could land you in an underground prison."
He grinned. "Right, well, my dad. He forbade it."
"Doesn't like soldiers?"
"Well, he listens to what the Quakers say when they come to do their outreach. He thinks they're misguided Buddhists. But no, he's an American, he believes in what that costs. You'd think he'd be proud to have a son go into the army."
Jake looked away and ran his fingers through his shaggy hair. He said, "Dad said, 'They'll kill you. They'll beat you. I don't want my boy to get hurt. You just aren't man enough.' Well, he didn't say that last bit, but that's what he meant. And he was serious. I never want to see that reflected in his eyes again--an old man imagining of his son's death. Hell, I was going to be a medic anyway, so I just went to vocational school."
"Where'd you go?"
"G-Tech." He grinned. "Quakers paid. I could have worked for a few years, and saved up, but Dad went and asked. I think he figured if I was enrolled in something, I wouldn't slip away to Camp Lejeune."
"You don't seem resentful. You're too good at what you do."
"I love my job. I paid back in full. And around here, I'm lucky to have a trade."
"Ever thought about upgrading? Becoming a nurse?"
"Thought about it. But it's a different job. I don't think I could be like Merry. I'm more physical. Maybe when I grow up I'll transfer to sports medicine, though. Follow the Panthers around." He winked.
"Merry. Did you know her husband?"
"Yeah." A shadow fell across Jake's face. "Part of the reason I wanted to enlist. We were going to do it together. He made it--I didn't."
"You were friends?"
"Oh, yeah. Since grade school. Hard to see someone who wet his pants in third grade and who set a frog free in middle school as a soldier. But there he was."
She didn't know precisely what she was asking, but Jake had a far-off look in his eyes, and wherever he would go, she would follow. Guiltily, she wanted to learn more about Merry. Sinfully, she hoped for clues to Merry's heart that would let her in.
Jake said, "Oh, man, 9-11. He was seventeen, and wanted to enlist the next day. He was so--I mean, all of us were terrified. We were just kids. We didn't watch the news much. We didn't read The New York Times. So this happened in a vacuum and just filled all the space. It was shocking. And Vincey got so angry--So angry. He just never stopped. He was never truly happy again. Not at prom. When the boys were born, he wept. But he wasn't happy."
"Was he violent?"
"No--Hell no. Not before the war. He brooded like crazy, sure, but he was the sweetest guy. My dad didn't think I could be in the army? I was always the one getting in fights to defend his sissy ass. Once, in high school, he came into homeroom crying. He told me he'd hit a rabbit on the way to school. It just darted out in front of him, there was nothing he could do--happens a lot around here. But just broke his heart."
Jake sighed, and said, "He was a good guy."
"No wonder Merry married him," Natalie said.
Jake rolled onto his feet and frowned. "When you've got a life plan from kindergarten, it's kind of hard to deviate. They found more reasons, as they got older. They were a team."
He looked sad, so she didn't ask any more questions. Knowing more about Merry warmed her through. That was enough. The question on the tip of her tongue, "How'd he die?" seemed as inappropriate as getting naked in a church--at least around here.
She just let Jake push her to a low table.
"Massage time," he announced.
"Oh, yes. You've earned it. You've walked. I can't send you home to Merry all stiff and sore and expended. She'd whup me. Now, the trick is to get onto this on your stomach, so you don't have to roll over."
She gamely planted her hands on the edge of the table and strained forward. Jake was there immediately, wrapping his arms around her waist and leveraging her. She felt lighter than air and toppled easily onto the table, face-first. She spread her arms and her good leg and sighed.
The scent of lavender tickled her nose. She turned her head. Jake had lit a candle and placed it in front of her on the floor.
"I'm going to take off your shirt, okay?"
"Okay," she mumbled. The obvious joke came to her--dinner and a movie, first--but she didn't make it. She was used to Jake's hands by now.
Jake said, as he worked her shirt up over her head, "Once you're walking again like you've done it all your life, I'll come to your place instead. After the surgery. But here we've got all the good equipment, and you need it."
"So there's a plan."
"There's always a plan, girl. And there's a plan for if you don't follow the plan, or if there's a flaw to the plan, or if we all get nuked from orbit."
Natalie smiled. She breathed in the lavender air and then breathed it out again. "Thanks for telling me the plan," she said.
"You're welcome. I don't tell everyone. It's nice, having a lawyer around. You understand things."
She blinked. Her back must have tensed, because his hands settled onto her shoulders and he pushed her gently back down.
"I mean, you're smart. You see things. Some people--lovely people, just differently lovely--it's a one day at a time thing. Goals are vague, or short-term. Their recovery seems miraculous--to them, to their friends."
"I won't be miraculous?" Natalie asked.
"Oh, you will. In my hands? But you'll feel better if you see the future."
"I hate that--that you know that."
"Don't like being obvious?"
"I thought I had it all figured out," she said.
"Until splat," he said.
"So, are you going to get back on course with your fancy lawyer life story, after we patch you up?"
She shook her head. "I hope not."
"I pray to God that I don't go back there."
"What are you going to do?" Jake asked.
Natalie closed her eyes. "I'm going to start having physical therapy at the place I'm staying next week. Short term. Different. I like the sound of that."
Jake rubbed her back. Though she wasn't about to cry, there was sorrow in her bones, and he comforted her, as gently as he could, using his hands and his knowledge to try to keep every part of her from hurting.
The van took her home. The neighbor brought the boys over. She cooked them dinner and read to them and made them brush their teeth. Constant, cloying demand for attention from the boys made them just another obstacle to conquer. Merritt, in particular, would not move away from her even when she wheeled around the kitchen cutting up hot dogs, and Beau terrorized her cat.
She couldn't quite match up their faces--though mischievous--with the tormentors of her childhood, who called her Polack and beat her up and made fun of her left-handedness. She swore she would correct Merritt and Beau if they taunted their friends.
As if she'd have a say in it.
She had expected her monumental accomplishment in the morning to exact a monumental price, but her hips and leg, while sore, felt loose.
No headache had plagued her in days.
She put the boys to bed and stayed with them until they were asleep, reassuring them that their mother would come home soon. They were past separation anxiety, but they looked at her with worried eyes until she promised them she'd wake them up when their mother got home.
A promise she intended to break. She cleaned the kitchen and let her mind wander. Her early evenings in Charlotte had never felt this fulfilled, doing paperwork alone. Here, she was doing domestic work and she was actually happy.
She checked on the boys one more time before bed, choosing to stand and pant and holding onto the wall. She took the step to peer around the door rather than squeak through with the wheelchair and risk banging into something. Exhausted, aching, and proud, she crawled into bed and fell asleep. She trusted that the night would continue as planned and that Meredith would come on home.
* * *
In sleeping, free of drugs, exhausted by her day, she dreamed.
She saw the deer for the first time. A fragmented, still photograph of a deer. The deer was caught in motion--leaping like a gazelle but impossibly small--She'd imagined deer as moose, large, black shadows across the night road.
This doe had white spots on the flank and a watery, gentle look in her eyes.
No terror. There wasn't enough time to be terrified. To turn the wheel. To scream.
Natalie and the deer were powerless, both of them, against physics and atoms spinning in the universe to bring them right to that collision. She didn't take a breath. She didn't yank the wheel. The deer was still and moving, from right to left across her vision, and she was still and moving.
Heisenberg, damn him. She could see where she was and how fast she was going.
She could see the future.
Everything went black.
"Natalya, Natalya, get up."
Natalie's eyes fluttered open. Her mother stood over her bed, shaking her shoulder.
"You're going to be late for school."
"I don't want to go. They make fun of me," she mumbled. If she'd been clearer in the head, she never would have confessed that. The deer--the dream about the deer--it made her feel broken in half.
"Screw them," her mother said. "You are there for an education. A free, good, American education."
Natalie groaned and tried to roll over, but her mother's grip on her shoulder tightened, pinning her down.
"You will go."
Natalie turned, ready to stare her mother down. The nails hurting her shoulder made her set her jaw. Her mother had no idea what she was going through.
Her words failed.
Her mother grew older, frailer, and smaller in front of her eyes. Natalie blinked. Held in the grip, she couldn't move, couldn't turn away. Her mother turned into the deer--not a metamorphosis, but just instead of her mother's face, there was the deer, the deer from the picture, twisting Natalie's stomach with a sense of déjà vu. The deer was her mother, and everything was perfectly still and yet rushing past Natalie.
She gathered up all her strength, terrified, and thrashed. Her arms landed against the pillows. Her back sank. Her eyes flew open and she heard herself yelping, like a ghost that had been stepped on.
The lamp beside her bed came on, and then hands were on her shoulders, pushing her down, but tenderly, into softness. Not her mother, then.
"Natalie," Meredith said, sounding far away but feeling impossibly close.
"Wha--" Natalie tried. Her eyes were wide. She blinked, feeling foolish for having dreamed about deer and her mother and yet being scared.
"You had a bad dream," Meredith said.
"No kidding. What are you doing here?" Natalie asked.
"I couldn't sleep, so I decided to check on the boys. And then I decided to check on you," Meredith said. She looked sheepish.
"Oh. Good timing."
"Are you all right?"
"I think so."
"Didn't pull any stitches?" Meredith dropped a hand to Natalie's leg, pressing through the blankets.
Natalie tensed. "No pain," she said.
Natalie exhaled slowly.
"Your heart is pounding. You're sweating." Meredith put her hand on Natalie's forehead.
Natalie closed her eyes. She said, "You put the heat on. In North Carolina."
"No, I didn't," Meredith said.
"It's the humidity."
"Yes." Meredith soothed her, stroking her cheek.
"All year round?"
"Except for winter," Meredith said.
Natalie made a face.
Meredith laughed. "Sorry. What was the dream about?" She dropped her hands to her lap.
Natalie wanted to reach for them. She hooked one hand around Meredith's forearm, trying to put on a brave face to answer.
"My mother," Natalie said. "And--the accident, I think. Or, my idea of the accident. Or my idea of my mother."
"When I was sixteen. Cancer."
Meredith covered Natalie's hand on her arm and squeezed her fingers. "I'm sorry," she said.
"It's all right. I mean, we weren't that close--that makes it sound worse, doesn't it? I just mean, I turned out okay."
"Yes, you did," Meredith said, smiling.
Natalie made a wry face. "I lived with a friend until I graduated high school, and then as a poor, smart orphan, made a life for myself through student loans and on-campus housing."
"Huh," Meredith said.
"Tell me. Please?" Natalie wanted the conversation to continue, to go in unexpected, sharp directions, to shatter the image of the deer's eyeball, staring at her, impossibly vivid. Weren't dreams supposed to fade? She felt like she was still trapped in this one, only Meredith had appeared and was warm and tactile.
Meredith blushed and said, "I just--it's wrong of me, I guess, but I thought lawyers were just born rich. And--born lawyers."
Natalie chuckled. "I was just like everyone else."
"And your father? Oh, geez. Stop me. I don't mean to ask such personal questions. I--"
"It's okay," Natalie said.
"Mother always says he died in the war--I'm not sure what war. Just combat. I mean, the Iron Curtain. Everything. We fled. I know that. But I think--I've always thought that he just abandoned her."
"Oh, Natalie." Meredith leaned forward, hugging her shoulder. "I'm so sorry."
"What about your parents?"
"We'll talk about that later. You need to relax."
Even with Meredith closer so that her hair tickled Natalie's ear, Natalie could still only see the deer. She blinked and cursed to herself, but it wouldn't go away.
"I don't want to go back to sleep," Natalie said, feeling petulant.
"You don't have to. We'll--"
"Stay?" Natalie asked.
"Sure, I can stay," Meredith said. She let Natalie go, and then walked around the bed and crawled onto the free side. Sitting against the headboard, companionably next to Natalie, she put one hand on her arm.
Natalie closed her eyes.
Meredith blew a kiss to the picture of her boys and closed her locker. She'd changed into clean scrubs, brushed out her hair and put it back up, and had 25 minutes left for lunch.
Natalie had packed cold pizza and an apple. She could eat it in the locker room and not have to worry about the break room at all. Before--everything--she would have eaten whatever the patients were eating, but now the cook looked at her as if she was taking the food of orphans right out of their mouths.
She'd retreated to the vending machines, but even there she got stares and whispers.
Working was okay in the eyes of her peers. That was penance. But eating--that was a luxury reserved for non-criminals.
Better she do the world a favor and waste away.
She settled onto the bench and pulled out the foil-wrapped pizza.
Angelo came in, half-way to pulling off his shirt before he noticed Meredith.
"Oh, hey." He grinned. "I'm hitting the shower. You're not eating the crackers that come in packs?"
"Not today. Natalie packed my lunch."
"You have your patient doing your chores?" He whistled.
Meredith felt her cheeks grow hot. "It's not like that," she said.
He yanked off his shirt and straddled the bench. "What's it like, Merry."
"It's--nice. She's nice. It's nice having someone around who's--"
She unwrapped the slice of pizza.
Angelo leaned forward. "How nice, Merry?"
She looked down at her hands.
"Look, I never met Mr. Jameison," Angelo said. "Everyone around here knew him--I never met the man."
She didn't move when he put his hand on hers.
He said, "But I met the Russian--"
"She's not Russian--"
"Whatever. I've seen you with her. It's--" He grinned. "Nice. You should be hanging out with her, not with us clowns."
"Gotta pay the bills," she said.
"Lawyer bills, right. You know I'm praying for you, right, girl?"
"I should shower." He started to get up.
She put her hand over his, clasping his wrist. "Angelo, talk to me."
"I'd rather be offended than ignored. Please. My friends walk around like they're on eggshells and everyone else--"
"Pretends you don't exist. I've seen it. Even some of the patients. I want to punch them in the face. You're healing them and it's like they want to scrape you off their shoe."
"Sorry." He squeezed her hand. "Merry, I've been wanting to tell you. We have your name on our prayer roster. You and the boys."
"That's so sweet. Thank you." Her cheeks warmed.
"You could come by sometime. If you're not doing anything on Sundays. We don't even do that Inquisition thing anymore."
She laughed, but said, "I'm not ready." The idea of walking into a church put fear in her heart. Even the conversation made her skin prickle.
"Sure. When you're ready. God's with you, Merry," he said.
"You too." But it had the ring of a platitude, and he caught it. She looked away.
"Been talking to God much, Mer?"
Meredith shook her head. "Are you witnessing to me, Angelo?"
"I'm on a roll. Aren't I? I'm never eating in the break room again."
"You should still shower."
He stuck out his tongue. "Come on. Remember when that beach house caught fire and they brought those kids to us?"
She remembered. The man and the woman who couldn't be stabilized in Wilmington. He had died of smoke inhalation. She had lost an arm to the burns. They'd been able to save her shoulder. Her grief at the death of her friend had been untreatable.
Even the smell came back to her--backyard smoke, charred skin, salt and sweat and fear.
"I remember," she said.
"I didn't know you then, but I was running back and forth for you and the doctors, and--You had peace itself in your hands. Every time you touched those kids, something happened. It was like a miracle. That's--Well, I'll back you anytime, Meredith."
"I'm not anything special. I never felt that I was."
"But you're a nurse. You have a calling."
"I just--It happened by default." She tried to smile.
"And you're afraid to ask God about that?"
"No," she said, with some surprise. "I'm--That's fine."
"What are you--" He stopped.
"Heck," she said. "I just don't know what He expects of me, sending Natalie into my care. I'm trying to help her--heal her--but it doesn't feel exactly right. Not enough. I can't figure out what He wants. Maybe he's just testing me, or--"
She said that, and would say no more, she decided. That was already too much voice to give to what made her heart ache, but voicing it brought her relief, and if not to Angelo--then, to no one. She had seized what opportunity she could, and let that be enough.
He looked down. "Look, I don't speak for Him. I don't mean to. But he's not screwing with you, Merry."
She took a bite of pizza, purposely filling her mouth. Silencing her tongue.
"He loves you."
She swallowed, and despite the food felt hollowness in her chest. She knew God loved her. She could feel that warmth when she reached out, whenever she was alone, or in a crowd--it was as real to her as the boys. But--
"And there ain't nothing you can hide from Him."
She laughed. "Oh, I know."
"He knows every part of you, Merry. He knows the thoughts you're afraid to think. And he sure as heck knows what He's doing."
She looked up as he stood and put his shirt in his locker, and then flung a towel over his shoulder. He flexed.
"Like what you see?" he asked.
She looked away.
"Merry. I know I already said all the things you're not supposed to say to another person. Not in a 'work environment.'" He made quotes with his fingers. "So I'm going to say one more thing. Because God commands me to help. I'm not very good at helping. So I'm talking."
She crumpled aluminum foil in her fist.
"You may think there are worse things than killing a man. Or not honoring your father and mother. Or gossiping. You may think those worse things are inside you--deep inside you where you put them, so no one can see them. You may think it's worse than all the abortions and rapes and assaults and poisonings and sheer stupidity we see every day, here or in the news."
"I do think that," she whispered.
His hand fell on her shoulder. "It's not true, Merry. Those things inside you, that you're pushing down--God wants you to raise them up. He wants to shine a light on them. He wants you to sing."
"You're in the wrong line of work, Angelo."
He grinned. "I was an altar boy."
"Don't believe me? Ask Him." He pointed at the ceiling.
She inhaled deeply, and then made a face.
"I get it, I get it. I'm going." He went around the corner and turned on the shower. "Ask Him!" he shouted.
Meredith put her chin on her hand and contemplated her apple.
* * *
Maybe it was the lack of sleep, but the children seemed more manic, less tolerable, and Natalie eased herself onto the back steps and forced them to play outside when they were begging to watch television. Overruling their desires was difficult. Morally, she knew--but it would be so easy to make them so happy. She wanted them to be happy. She loved them.
She really did.
And now they were crying and sitting in the grass.
She hung her head.
She hadn't thought to bring a magazine or her laptop out with her, and the journey inside would be arduous. She couldn't leave the boys out there, not with the street a few feet away. They were fast.
So she watched them, and the afternoon sunlight, and the trees.
The boys wrestled. She threatened to turn the hose on them. They all laughed together, the television argument forgiven. Forgotten.
A hand dropped on her shoulder. Natalie looked up. Meredith smiled. Before the boys even saw her, Natalie reached up to her shoulder and clasped Meredith's hand and said, "Wait."
Meredith wrinkled her nose.
Slowly, because her muscles had stiffened on the uncomfortable concrete seat she'd made and because her bad leg was still mostly bad and her hips felt too fragile for this--though Jake assured her they were not--she held onto the stoop and held onto Meredith and stood.
She stood up all the way, with Meredith watching her, holding onto her with that nurse strength and not saying a word.
Merritt and Beau ran up.
"Look, look what she can do!" Beau said.
Natalie stood and faced Meredith and loosened her grip on Meredith's hand, to balance herself.
She could stand on her own.
"Hey, Merry," she said.
"Hay is for horses," Meredith said, and hugged her.
Natalie sank into the embrace, wrapping her arms around Meredith's waist and hugging her closer. Meredith pressed Natalie's back. Her cheek went against Natalie's ear. Natalie inhaled deeply.
She felt ten times more alive than she had a moment ago. Her last hug, her last friendship, had been so long ago that she couldn't remember it. Someone was happy enough to hold her. Proud enough.
"Merry," she said.
Meredith pulled back. Her eyes widened as she searched Natalie's face. "Sorry," she said.
"No, don't be sorry. Look."
"I see," Meredith said.
Merritt and Beau grabbed a leg each, and Natalie wobbled. She put her hand on Merritt's head.
"We helped," Beau said. "Do we get ice cream?"
"Yes," Meredith said.
"Ice cream for dinner," Meredith said.
Natalie blinked at sharp, sudden tears. She swayed. Meredith reached for her elbow. "Are you all right?"
"Yes. I think so. I just--"
"Inside, woman," Meredith said.
Natalie shook her head, and continued, "I just--Is this what having a family is like?"
Meredith smiled, but her eyes showed worry. She sent the boys inside to set the table and wrapped one arm around Natalie's waist to help her.
Natalie met her eyes--the sad, worried eyes--and smiled weakly.
"I wish," Meredith said. "Oh, I wish."