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 email@example.com.
Notes: Originally written
as part of National Novel Writing Month 2008. This story will be posted
in four parts.
Natalie stretched against the seat of the van. She sat in the wheelchair, but could move around more easily. Both in bonding with the chair, and in getting stronger, she felt rather unstoppable.
Jake had been right, darn him. Even one step was a breakthrough.
The driver seemed especially grouchy. Natalie turned away from the parade of trees and strip malls. He'd grunted three times. She met his eyes in the rearview mirror.
Her lawyer senses tingled--for the first time since the accident. They must have healed, too. She sensed something brewing.
He asked, "You think next week's going to go well?"
He shrugged, looking hard at her.
"I guess, if all goes well, I could--go home," she said.
"Charlotte," he said.
"You?" she asked.
"Honeymooned on the Outer Banks. Wife wanted to go to the mountains. We go there now. Get a cabin. Sometimes on a lake. Not the same."
Natalie said, "I haven't seen many mountains."
"But you've seen the ocean. Wilmington?"
"No, not yet."
He looked annoyed, as if she had disappointed him.
"Maybe someday," she added.
"You should go before you go back to Charlotte," he said.
She shrugged. "You going to drive me?"
"You don't need me anymore. You could drive yourself."
"My car is in little pieces," she said.
"You could get a new one. You're a rich lawyer," he said.
She frowned and looked away, back to the window.
She tried not to think of her car.
* * *
Being in the hospital without being sick was surreal and made Natalie uncomfortable. Her skin itched. She was afraid of getting sick. Teresa and Colleen were happy to see her, and she them, but to be treated like a patient and an invalid offended her nature--as it had when she was there before, but had been too weak to protest--now she could be belligerent, and she had to fight down her own impulses.
Sooner than she wanted to, she'd be going under the knife.
Natalie had fasted throughout the night and in the morning. They were going to continue rebuilding her leg, they told her, and it was going to hurt like hell. Morphine and rods and pins and necrosis and bone growth and muscle atrophy--every word made her want to puke.
Only she couldn't puke, because they wouldn't let her have any food or water.
She sat in her hospital room and flipped through Highlights for Children--supposed to calm the nerves. Teresa promised her ice cream after the surgery. She wanted to cry.
No sedatives. No Tylenol 3.
She turned on the television. She turned off the television. She couldn't concentrate. Every sound touched her ears. Scrapes on the floor and the buzzing of machinery tortured her nerves.
When she recognized Wheeler's voice, somewhere out in the hallway, it was a blessing. She listened. She tried to go outside herself and into the hallway, where he would be, comforting and serene.
Except he was angry.
"Go back to Rocky Mount," he said to someone. Who, Natalie wondered. She leaned forward. She considered getting out of bed.
"Don't you think it's bad for the hospital to have a murderer working here?" A woman's voice.
"Alleged," Wheeler said.
"She confessed. Come on, you know that. All of North Carolina knows that."
"What is going on in her personal life has no bearing on her position here," Wheeler said. "She's an excellent nurse."
"Her personal life? Justice affects the whole society, Dr. Wheeler. Do your patients know? How would they feel?"
Natalie certainly didn't know. She slipped off the bed, grabbed a walker, and hobbled, one-footed, toward the door. She reached it just in time to see Wheeler storming past. He didn't glance in her direction.
She peered into the hallway.
A young woman, so polished and citified she overwhelmed Natalie with a sense of nostalgia--she wasn't even wearing sneakers. She had a briefcase!--had been watching Wheeler leave. She noticed Natalie noticing her.
"Are you a patient of Meredith Jameison?" the woman asked.
"Who are you?" Natalie asked.
"Oh, sorry, most folks around here already know me. I'm Erica Mendes, reporter for the Rocky Mount Telegram. Merry's hearing is tomorrow, so we're doing a follow-up piece."
Erica frowned as if Natalie were wasting her time. "Do you know Nurse Jameison?"
Babysitting for her boys during the hearing, Natalie realized, but didn't say. Meredith hadn't told her what it was for, and Natalie has assumed, selfishly, that it would result in some sort of surprise for her. Like cake.
Was Meredith suing someone? Why wouldn't she say? Murder? Manslaughter?
Natalie furrowed her brow.
The reporter was staring at her and hadn't stormed off yet. Didn't seem likely to.
"Hey, haven't I seen you before?" Erica asked.
"In the news, maybe," Natalie said without thinking, and shrugged. Her stomach was starting to hurt. She leaned more heavily on the walker. She should have stayed in bed. Wheeler was going to be angry.
The reporter looked her up and down, the leg, the walker, the fading welt on her face. She said, "You're her. The prosecutor. You hit a deer."
Natalie shrugged. "No comment," she said.
Erica grinned. "I called your office in Charlotte; I tried to get your contact for an interview. I didn't know you were here in Deborahville. I knew you were nearby."
"Here I am."
"Are you still involved in the Roland case?"
Natalie knew she should keep her mouth shut, but she was far away from any recrimination, and she hadn't eaten and she was worried about Meredith. So she said, "Administrative leave."
Natalie shrugged again. She saw the blazing line under her feet, and would not cross it.
"So you don't have any active cases?"
"Not at the moment. They've been reassigned while I do my rehabilitation here. My injuries were too extensive, initially, to transfer me back to a Charlotte hospital."
"They've got good facilities down here."
"Yes, ma'am. That, you can quote me on."
Erica smiled and asked, "How are you liking Eastern Carolina?"
"It's wonderful. Very peaceful."
"Remind you of home?"
"Been to Wilmington yet?"
Natalie shook her head.
"Cape Hattaras? The Wright Brothers? Cape Fear?"
"Isn't Cape Fear on the other side?"
Erica chuckled. "Sure, but still. Myrtle Beach? Have you just been sitting here?"
"Massive injuries resulting from deer," Natalie said.
"Right. But if you ever want anyone to show you around--" Erica took out her wallet and pulled out a business card. Natalie took it. Erica said, "In return for some inside scoop on the Roland case, of course. No one around here cares, but I bet I could make the AP wire."
Natalie smiled. "I'll keep that in mind."
"You didn't curse me out. Surprising."
"I'm used to reporters."
"I guess you are."
"And Rocky Mount's the big city?"
Eric laughed. "Oh, no. It's just got a supermarket and a couple of Wal-Marts, you know. I'd love to be working in Wilmington or Charlotte."
"Just want to get out of nowheresville," Erica said. "The small towns--you can't imagine."
"I'm learning," Natalie said.
"This hospital is kind of an oasis. For employment and otherwise."
"Where'd you go to school?" Natalie asked.
"Wilmington," Erica said, and grinned wider. "Party school. My parents are first generation, they moved from Texas to here to work in the factory. Why, I don't know. They could have made it to middle class by now if they'd stayed in the maquiadoras. They tell me they like the climate better."
Natalie nodded. "My mother, too. From the old country."
"The Eastern part of the old country," Erica said.
"Yeah." Natalie had never said this much to a reporter in her life, but Erica's clothes, Erica's accent--Midwestern trim, without a trace of drawl, despite her upbringing--lulled her into trust. She wanted to talk to an old friend. She didn't have any. But here was Erica, smiling, still standing in front of her, just like a work colleague. And Natalie had her number.
"How's your leg?" Erica asked.
"It'll be all right. It's better than they expected. They thought they were going to have to saw it off. But I'm even walking." Natalie shook her walker. "Except, I'm exhausted. Mind coming in?"
"Sure. Can I help?"
"I'll be all right." Natalie limped slowly back to the bed. Erica stayed silent as Natalie sat down and exhaled slowly.
"Not walking much?"
"I actually prefer the wheelchair. At least my leg doesn't hurt when I do that."
Natalie asked, with a lump in her throat, "You were talking about Merry?"
"You do know her," Erica said.
"She's been my nurse," Natalie said, cautiously. "Off and on. When it's her shift."
Erica nodded. "You must know everyone in a small place like this."
"But you don't know what she did?" Erica asked.
"What did she do?"
"It's just like the Roland case," Erica said.
Natalie's blood ran cold.
The world went grey. She didn't need to hear Erica's next words, but they rang in her ears, above the ping ringing in them.
"She killed her husband," Erica said. "Vincent Jameison. She pled not guilty for self-defense. There's an evidentiary hearing in a couple of days."
Spots swam in front of Natalie's eyes. She rubbed them, and then could only see black.
She rubbed harder. Haze and light re-entered her vision.
She'd been in worse spots than this; received worse news. Her principal at school telling her that her mother was dead. Defendants lying on the stand. Rape victims telling the truth.
The look in Patrick's eyes, handing her the Roland case. That was the look she probably had now.
Seven years at her job gave her the conditioning to answer, if not the strength. Still blind, she asked, "What happened?"
"He was in Iraq. A war hero."
"I know. I know that."
Natalie thought of Jake. She said, "It's a small town, remember."
"Right. Well, things were different when he came back. Her story is that he had PTSD. His parents claim she was cheating on him."
Erica shrugged and said, "No one knows."
"But she's working."
"Out on bail. Hardship case. Parent. His parents have been trying to get the kids away from her, but at the moment, they don't even have visitation. The police are too afraid of a kidnapping incident."
"That seems so--different from how it would play out in Charlotte," she said.
Well, not totally different. She thought of all the poor mothers that had come through her doors. She'd never associated Meredith with them. Or with Roland.
And now--another shuddering chill went through her. Roland was an evil, sick bastard.
"Small town," Erica said. She smiled gently. "Her husband had friends on the force. They're sticking by Meredith. Guess they noticed a change, too."
"Seems that would taint the jury pool."
"Sure." Erica leaned forward over the chair, dangling her briefcase. "They want to move it down to Charlotte. I'm in favor. More sensational, I think. And I'll definitely get a travel budget."
Natalie felt sick. She closed her eyes.
"Are you all right?" Erica asked.
"Feeling a little weak. Would you mind--? I've got your number."
"Sure," Erica said. Her footsteps retreated. "Give me a call. Even if you just want to go to dinner or something. It's nice to see--a kindred spirit."
Natalie kept her eyes closed, willing her heartbeat to slow. She wasn't sure how many minutes passed with just her quiet, slow breathing and the sense of dread that infused her, but there came a knock on the open door.
She didn't open her eyes, but she rolled her head vaguely in the direction of the sound.
"Nat? You ready?" Wheeler asked.
She opened her eyes and sat up.
He met her eyes with a friendly smile and came into the room.
"Is it true?" she asked.
"Is what true?" He sat down on the edge of the bed, still looking into her face. Looking concerned. Looking doctorly.
"About Merry," she said. "I talked to Erica."
"That bitch," Wheeler said.
He took her hands. "I'm sorry. She isn't. I just--Yes, it's true. Everything she told you is probably true."
"Oh. Oh, Jesus."
"It's bad," Wheeler said. "If you care about her--"
"I do," Natalie said. Her chest hurt. She couldn't see again. The black spots were back.
"I don't know why she didn't tell you."
He squeezed her hands. "Maybe so. Natalie--"
She turned her head away. Her eyes stung with tears. Wheeler scooted closer so that he could put one hand on her shoulder.
"It's okay, Natalie."
"It's not. How can you say that?"
He rubbed her shoulder with his thumb in slow, soothing circles. Contact with another human being--not Meredith, but someone connected to her, and to Natalie, and to the whole human race--comforted her.
He said, "It's horrible and sad, but we'll get through it."
"Tell me everything," she said.
"After your surgery. That's more important."
"It's not important at all."
He smiled. "It is to me."
"Well, screw you."
"Just for that, I'm bringing a mirror to the surgery so that you can see everything."
"You wouldn't," she said.
"Oh, I'm devious."
"Just like everyone else around here."
He sobered. "Nat--You can only trust yourself. That's why you've got to get stronger."
"I'm an attorney, maybe I could--" she searched for the words. "Help. Maybe I could help."
"After your surgery," he reiterated.
He stood, and after pausing, leaned forward and kissed the top of her head. "It's time. I'll go get Colleen."
She closed her eyes after he had gone and waited for the nurses and doctors to come to her and change everything.
"We'll be going in with laser scalpels," Bhatti said. "You won't feel a thing after."
"We just got the equipment installed a couple of months ago," Wheeler said.
Those tools had been available for years--perhaps longer than a decade--in Charlotte. If she had been transferred, if she had been injured there, she would have had top surgery at Presbyterian instead of emergency hacking. They wouldn't have had to call a doctor down from Duke Medical.
Wheeler settled into the chair, the one Erica had sullied, and the anesthesiologist came in.
"Usually I'd do this myself, but since he was on site--" Wheeler said, and shrugged.
"Better for your liability, though it costs more," the anesthesiologist said. "Gotta love insurance, right?"
Her insurance company had told her that this would be the last surgery they would pay for, and that at the end of the week, she was out the nursing service, too.
She would be on her own.
"Nat?" Wheeler asked.
She looked up, meeting his eyes.
"You looked pale for a second. You'll be all right."
"I have good hands," Bhatti said, and wiggled his fingers.
She smiled faintly. "I'm ready."
The anesthesiologist pushed a long, thin needle into her leg, and that hurt--God, did that hurt--but the numbness came after, flooding through her leg, warmth and then incredible lightness. Nothingness. Wheeler poked her leg for her, since she couldn't reach, and there was only the sensation that her leg had turned into a giant pillow.
The anesthesiologist stabbed her several more times, and some she felt, and some she didn't, and she began to worry that something that felt this incredibly good must be wrong, somehow.
Wheeler's face was filled with concern.
"Am I all right?" she asked.
"We're waiting to see if you're going to swell up like a balloon and stop breathing," Wheeler said.
The anesthesiologist looked at his watch.
"What happens if I do?" Natalie asked.
"Epi pen, right into the heart," Wheeler said. "You'll be fine."
The anesthesiologist took her pulse. "She's doing well," he said.
"We're ready," Wheeler said.
Bhatti rubbed his hands together. "Let the games begin."
* * *
Wheeler and Bhatti had cracked jokes with her throughout the surgery, poking her leg with small metal tongs, going into the side of her abdomen with a tube and a camera, testing stitches. She'd have known earlier if the internal wounds had not healed, if her intestines had leaked and poisoned her--as it was, she was eating hot dogs and macaroni with impunity. But now they were medically sure, and they smiled when they told her.
With her leg numb she was brave enough to glance at the surgical monitor--three times--for a second each.
"Take your medicine exactly as instructed. Do not be brave. Do not be bold. Do not be ambitious," Bhatti said. "Then, you will not feel any pain."
"He's serious," Wheeler said. "And so am I."
"Stay drugged out of my mind. Got it," Natalie said.
Wheeler patted her good leg, and said, "It'll be a different experience than before. I promise."
Lighter, then. The light she felt inside her, especially inside her leg and her side, would continue. She smiled.
"There's my angel," Bhatti said.
She smiled, her cheeks warming under his words, despite herself.
Colleen took her back to her room and kissed her cheek and pointed to the flowers sitting on the table that hadn't been there before.
Natalie took the card. "Way to go, champ," she read aloud. "Love, Merry."
Colleen grinned and folded her arms.
"Champ?" Natalie asked.
"Want me to scruff your hair?"
Natalie's hair had grown out some since they'd had to shave it the first night--the last night--and it was of scruffable length. She made a face.
Colleen winked and went to the door. She said, "I'll bring you lunch. Well, a liquid lunch. You'll love it."
Colleen turned around in the doorway.
"When will the numbness wear off?"
"Oh, about four hours," Colleen said. "But you'll be on the painkillers before that. Don't worry."
"Oh, I'm not worried," Natalie said.
Colleen grinned back and gave her a little wave, and then left her alone with her absence of pain and the card from Meredith. She traced the writing. Champ--She'd have to get Meredith back for that one. She'd have to--
The memory of her conversation with Erica came back to her, filling her mind and pushing out the happiness. Her heart sank. Her hand, holding the card, trembled.
The idea that Meredith was a different person than she'd thought--an evil person, perhaps--warred with the idea that Meredith might go to prison and that Natalie would lose her.
She tucked the card back into the flowers. She felt ill. She wanted to go home. She wanted to see the boys--to see that they were safe, that everyone was safe--that there was no deer, no Roland.
She rubbed her wrists. Her skin itched. She wanted to leave. Maybe this is what it was supposed to feel like, to be healthy in a hospital. She felt ready to go back to her old life, the one in the sick, sick world. The world Meredith was of. She was like everyone else.
The shock had passed. So Meredith was a murderer.
She turned her head and looked at the flowers. They were common daisies and lilies, arranged in earthy combination. Their scent tickled Natalie's nose.
She could walk. She could run all the way back to Charlotte. Roland was free of her, and she of him, but Patrick could quietly slip her back into a caseload. She could take a demotion. She could transfer to Washington, D.C., or Delaware, or Pittsburgh.
She could enter private practice.
She could run for office.
She would never have to see Meredith again.
* * *
Meredith played cards with Terrance, who was in for his regular dialysis.
"Gin," he said, spreading his cards on the hospital tray.
"I wasn't even close," she complained.
"You shouldn't let an old man beat you at cards," Terrance said.
"'Let' had nothing to do with it."
Meredith reshuffled the cards.
Wheeler knocked on the open door. "Nurse?" he said.
'Nurse' was a word she never wanted to hear from that man's lips. Used in the hospital, it was code for, 'keep cool, keep professional, because something's about to go down.' Or 'Don't scare the patients, but--'.
White-faced, she smiled at Terrance and got up. "Next week," she said. "I'm going to read some strategy books. You won't know what hit you."
"I'd at least like a challenge."
She winked and went into the hallway with Wheeler.
Wheeler ran his hand over his head, and said, "Look, Merry. I don't know how to tell you this."
Dread washed over her, icy cold, robbing her of senses. Her boys--It could only be--
"It's Natalie," he said.
Relief brought with it confusion. "I heard the surgery went fine," she said. "You asked--" He'd asked that she avoid Natalie when she came in for her shift. The memo had seemed ominous at the time, but since she never saw Natalie at work these days anyway, she had slipped into her routine, comforted when she'd heard Natalie was fine.
"She knows--She knows everything, Merry. Everything about you."
Her mind filled with the things Natalie could possibly know, that she'd kept secret from Natalie without even realizing, Meredith sagged against the wall. Wheeler tried to put his hands on her shoulders. She shook him off.
"Oh, heavens," she said. "What am I going to do?"
"You're going to go home and talk to her," Wheeler said.
"I can't do that. I can't--" Her home hadn't been a home since she'd lost Vincent. Since before that--Since he'd come back from the desert. Natalie's coming had made it feel like it once had, safe and loving and full of light.
She'd known it was just a mirage, but in just days, she had gotten so used to it. The absence of pain. The joy that filled whenever she thought of Natalie, for no reason at all.
"I can't go home," she said, knowing she wouldn't be able to make Wheeler understand that there would be no home left anymore.
"Take some time. You're off-shift, but take some time. Think. Pray. We're keeping her here for a day or two, but you've got to go home," he said.
Then he left her, going on to do his rounds, and for long minutes she leaned against the wall, too stunned to cry, too empty to be ashamed.
When she regained her senses, she asked God what to do. Then she asked Vincent. Then she asked her heart. All were agreed on the course of action--the one she didn't want, the one that would be the hardest to face.
Sooner or later, she had to look Natalie in the eye.
* * *
Natalie stayed in the hospital two days, experiencing a milder reliving of her previous nightmare. The first day she slept, sedated, in between bouts of pain. She hadn't missed the Vicodin, but she welcomed the new doses. She was familiar with the high.
The second day, of course, the nurses gave her Tylenol instead. She tried not to think about Merry.
She tried not to think about anything.
At three P.M. on the third afternoon, Wheeler appeared.
"We're releasing you," he said. "The van'll be here to pick you up in about a half hour."
"Am I healed?"
"As long as you take it easy at home, especially tonight, I think you'll be fine. Have you been taking it easy?"
She blushed. She rubbed her cheek and frowned at him.
"Well? How's the home front?" he asked.
"Come on, Hank. I take it easy. I mean, as well as I can with two boys. But they've been really great--fetching things, being quiet, pushing me around. They feed the cat every morning. I mean, I have to remind them. But we make it a little game. 'Okay, you get to feed the cat now!' They have no idea they're doing chores."
Wheeler stared at her oddly.
"You just didn't strike me as a cat and kids kind of person when you rolled up in here," he said.
She said, "I was heavily medicated and you sawed me open. That pissed me off."
He shrugged. "I get that a lot. No one ever likes my technique."
"I'm grateful, you know--You saved my life. Thank you."
"Oh, geez, Nat. Just doing my job."
"When I do my job, people go to jail."
"Sorry," she said.
He shook his head, and asked, "People like Merry?"
"No, not people like--" She stopped herself. It wasn't fair to say they weren't like Meredith. Maybe Meredith was just poor and desperate and raised wrong and addicted and trapped like the rest of them.
Even Roland thought he had no way out.
No easy way, at least.
"People just don't seem willing to do what's hard," she said.
She thought of her life. "Especially me. I just wanted--not to feel too much. I was just going to get hurt, anyway."
Wheeler sat on the edge of the bed.
"Oh, gosh, Hank. Not one of the talks."
"Yes, Nat. All part of the service here. And you said Gosh."
"I'm around kids now."
"Sure, that's it."
She narrowed her eyes.
He grinned and then turned slightly to look out the window. It was only mid-day. Natalie was healed enough to think that lying in a bed in the middle of the day was a crime. She stretched. Pain traveled through her leg and up to her abdomen and her chest.
She settled back into the bed and frowned.
Wheeler turned back and asked, quietly, "You going to be able to go back?"
"To--To Merry's?" She hadn't meant for her voice to catch like that.
"Yes. I want--I want to talk with her. I want to know."
"And if she doesn't want to talk?"
"I guess--" She shrugged. "I guess I'll just sleep and eat there. I'm not afraid, if that's what you mean."
"I didn't think so. And what about the boys?"
A pang went through her heart. "I think--Hank. I love those boys. And they had nothing to do with it. Right?"
"No, they didn't," he said.
She squared her shoulders, and asked, "Hank, what's on your mind?"
"I was thinking about that conversation we had a few weeks ago. About your visitors."
"And the lack thereof."
"Then you remember."
"Yes. You accused me of being--" her words stuttered. She made no second attempt, and only stared at him.
"I didn't accuse. I'm sorry about that. About making you uncomfortable," he said.
"You were doing something good. I mean, I don't hold it against you. You were being kind."
She looked at him, but he did not speak. She reached out and put her hand on his arm.
He covered her hand with his, and said, "I have a favor to ask."
"It's a big favor, and I have no right to ask it."
"All right," she said. She met his eyes.
"You're being brave," he said.
He squeezed her hand and said, "If you can find it in your heart to be Meredith's friend, with all that you know--then do it. Try. I could tell before that it revolted you. As it does all of us. But please, try."
"Okay," she said.
"It will be hard. I know you want to leave."
"Of course I do," she said, and tears spilled down her cheeks.
"You can't believe she was who she is. You can't help but see a different person."
She nodded, then shook her head, and squeezed her eyes shut to stop the tears.
He didn't say anything more, just sat with her until she could breathe evenly. She let go of his hand and hugged her shoulders. He didn't say anything. She cleared her throat and then found the strength to look him in the face.
He was still the same calm, gentle man he always was.
"Any more advice," she asked, "Before you send me back into the den of lions?"
"Have faith in your own abilities," he said. "I know you feel you can't do this. I can see it. You're just not that kind of person. Who is? We're only human."
"I only have faith in your abilities, Doctor Hank," she chided.
"I'm only good with my hands. Merry needs you."
"I'm just a stranger."
"I know." He took her hands in both of his. "Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things."
She squeezed his hands. She met his eyes and looked into them, into the honesty and the trust.
She said, "Don't worry."
He smiled. "I'm not." He got up and smoothed down his coat and went to the door.
"Hank?" she called.
He leaned against the door and looked back at her.
"Tell me where that was from," she said. "I think I'm ready to hear it."
He grinned. "First Corinthians 13:7." Then he shut the door, leaving her in contemplation.
"Great," she said. She looked up at the ceiling. "I heard you. Bastard. There's no way I can do this."
She could crawl into the van herself, with the driver helping, treating her like Queen Elizabeth. They'd wheeled her to the exit, hospital policy--fair enough, she wouldn't have wanted to make the walk herself. As it was, the walker was coming home with her. Five steps. She could do five steps.
About halfway to Meredith's house, the van always passed a stoplight with a gas station and a strip mall, and it was in that area that Natalie could squeeze out cell phone reception. She dialed.
Patrick answered. "Hey! I have good news," he said.
"I do, too." She looked through the window. People were shopping at the Dollar Store across the street. A woman walked two big dogs right past the van. Life continued in the early afternoon, and she was a part of it. She grinned and pressed her cheek to the glass.
"You first," Patrick said. "I want to hear how you are."
"I had surgery a few days ago, and I'm doing better than they expected. I can go home this weekend. Be at work Monday."
"That's great! We can accommodate you, you know. What do you need? We can move your desk so--"
"Pattypat," she said, interrupting him.
"I can walk," she said.
The words carried as much dramatic weight as when she'd told him she might never again, but these words were joyous, and she told him because she wanted him to be as happy as she was.
He cheered. "Natalie, that's so great! I'm so glad."
"Me too," she said.
He chuckled into the phone.
"What's your news?" she asked.
"Oh, that. I'm glad you're doing better. I didn't want to bother you, you know? When you're trying to heal. I guess you haven't been reading the papers, either. You don't need this shit."
"Oh, nothing. I just haven't heard bad language in a while. I was surprised."
"Fuck that, Natalie. The city needs you."
The driver glanced over his shoulder.
"Charlotte, honey. I'll email you some links. Or you could just do a Google search for your name. That's cool. Nothing ever comes up under my name, unless it's like, paperwork related."
"Uh huh," she said.
"You've been cleared. The police released your report, and they said alcohol and speed were not factors in the crash."
"I wasn't even speeding?"
"Well, maybe you have friends on the force? But no. They said it was a freak accident. Could have happened to anyone. Deer with their timing. And they said you reacted and left a skid ten feet long on the road."
"Woo," she said.
"Right, girlfriend." Static came through the line.
"You're breaking up, Patrick," she said.
"I'll email you. I can't wait to see you!" he called through the phone, and then the line went dead.
She snapped the phone shut. The driver was looking at her.
"What?" she asked.
"You look very professional. With the cell phone and all. I guess you are back to normal?" he asked.
She frowned and glanced out the window. Trees, now. Power lines. Nothing else. The van was between civilizations.
"I guess so," she finally said.
He nodded. "It's nice."
"I guess so."
"That your fellow?" the driver asked.
"What? No. My boss."
"Sounds like he's a fan of yours."
"I guess so," she said.
Patrick had always been nice to her. Friendly. Invited her over for Thanksgivings and Christmases and always brought her a card on her birthday. He'd never made any moves on her, so she'd assumed he was just being kind out of pity. She had no one else.
Or maybe he really just liked her.
Maybe they were actually friends.
She glanced at the phone, wanting to call him back. But the reception was too weak, and anyway, she didn't know what to ask. She didn't even know how to tell who her true friends were.
"I'm an idiot," she told the driver.
"At least you're a healthy idiot," he said, as he pulled the van into Meredith's driveway. "God bless."
He got out and opened the sliding door and helped her down carefully. She patted his hand when she steadied and said, "You, too."
* * *
When the van dropped her off at the empty house, Natalie called the neighbor and said the boys could come home. Apparently they were swimming in one of those big plastic pools in the backyard, and so it would be a while. She planned dinner. She tidied. She convinced herself that Meredith's personal life was none of her business. She was just a patient, after all. One who would be going home soon. She didn't want to be impolite--to be indecent to someone who'd been kind to her.
She passed the staircase that led to Meredith's room. The stairs were insurmountable. She took her laptop to the front porch, where she could watch the boys come home, and Meredith, and took Patrick's advice. She Googled herself.
"Prosecutor Cleared in Probe" was the headline buried in the local section of the Charlotte Observer. There was a picture of her--one Patrick had taken at Henry's house. She wore a cocktail gown and her hair was swept up on top of her head--she'd paid a hundred bucks for her hairdresser to do that, an hour before the picture was taken. She wore diamond earrings, but she did not, thankfully, look drunk. In the picture she wasn't smiling.
She looked down the street. No diamond earrings here. No BMW. No mansions housing state attorneys--well, actually, that was probably true. Maybe before she left--
"Natty!" Beau's voice, as he rounded the corner. His shirt was off, but his shorts looked dry. He carried a toweled bundle. He ran straight toward her. She closed the laptop.
Merritt followed with the neighbor, holding tightly onto her hand. He smiled shyly when he saw Natalie, and then narrowed his eyes when Beau climbed into her lap. Natalie reached out her hand to Merritt, around a squirming Beau. He took it.
She locked eyes with the neighbor, Mrs. Cranston. "Thank you for watching them," she said.
"They going to be all right with you?" Mrs. Cranston regarded her suspiciously.
"Sure. I'm used to watching them now."
"You don't have your wheelchair."
"Don't need it as much anymore," Natalie said. Trying to keep her tone quiet and low-key.
Mrs. Cranston's face softened. "Glad to hear it."
"Me, too. Oh, me, too." She squeezed Merritt's hand. "Merr, go set the table."
Merritt slipped in the door.
Beau climbed off. "What about me?" he asked.
"You've got some wet things to hang up in the bathroom. Over the tub. Okay?"
"I don't know how to do that," he complained.
"Well, give it a shot, and I'll come help you in a bit."
He frowned, but padded off in bare feet.
"Wipe your feet on the mat!" she shouted.
"Then Merry has to, too," Beau called back.
"I'll tell him. You get into the bathroom." Natalie looked up at Mrs. Cranston. "That's a fight waiting to happen."
The neighbor smiled. "They've been pretty good all day. Nervous about Thursday. They know something's up."
"And you--" Natalie paused, regarding her. "Know?"
Mrs. Cranston regarded her oddly. "Whole town does. Some're even going to the hearing." The woman helped herself to the rocker opposite Natalie. Natalie turned to face her, pasting on her most non-offensive, 'confess everything to the nice prosecutor' smile.
"We got one of the most mixed places in 'Carolina, you know. Blacks, whites, Latinos, Laotians, Indians--both kinds. And we're all united around one thing."
"Then why do you take care of the kids?"
"Them boys ain't never harmed anyone," the woman said.
"And Merry ain't harmed anyone before or since. She's a nurse, you know. Do no harm. I figure it was a crime of passion. Won't happen again. Unless she gets herself another man." The woman made a face.
"Until then?" Natalie asked.
"She'll get hers before God and man. But the boys deserve a normal life. I don't know what they'll do when they take her away."
Natalie's stomach twisted. She felt faint and hot, and it was all she could do to smile neutrally.
"And you?" the woman asked, suspicion creeping back into her tone.
"I'm going home next week," she said, and then clarified, "to Charlotte."
The woman nodded. "Been nice having you around. For the boys. They were getting kind of isolated."
"Wonder why," Natalie said.
The woman's expression hardened.
Meredith's van pulled into the driveway. Mrs. Cranston got up. "See you later, you hear?"
"I hear," Natalie said.
Mrs. Cranston stepped lightly off the porch and was around the corner before Meredith got out of her car. She locked the door. Natalie stood up. Her leg ached. She cursed it, inwardly, and waited, smile still plastered on her face. She'd faced bad news before.
And bad people.
Meredith came apprehensively onto the porch. She said, "Wheeler called me."
"Yeah," Natalie said.
"I--" Meredith met her eyes briefly, and then looked away. "You--"
"I'll start dinner," Natalie said.
"Okay." Meredith went through the front door.
Natalie lingered on the porch and then gathered up her laptop and hobbled inside, one step at a time. She wanted to scream at Meredith, to ask how could she have done it, how could anyone so good have done something so awful.
Natalie wanted to demand to know if it was really true. She wanted to know every detail. She wanted to figure out a solution. She wanted to see the guilt on Meredith's face.
She wanted to run away so much that her feet itched.
She gathered all the strength she had to force herself to go through the front door. Even then, nausea overcame her as she passed the threshold. She swayed into the side bedroom and put her laptop on the bed and sat, breathing in and out, until the energy normalized and her head felt clear.
Merritt peeked around the corner. He said, "I'm hungry."
"Okay," Natalie said.
"I know," Natalie said.
"She's crying," Merritt said. He looked worried.
Natalie pulled herself up off the couch and leaned heavily on her walker. "You know what will make her feel better? Dinner."
"What are you making?" he asked. He watched her carefully, like a guard dog, as she made her way out into the hallway.
"Pancakes," she said.
She looked over her shoulder at him. He stared at her, aghast, as if she were the naughtiest person alive. She smiled.
"It'll be a surprise," she said.
She was probably not a good influence on these kids.
In the kitchen she found the pan and put it on the stove, heat on low. "Where's the Bisquick?" she asked.
Merritt opened the pantry and pointed upward. She grabbed the box.
"And where's your brother?" she asked.
"Beau!" she shouted.
Beau popped his head up from the arm of the couch. He slid off and came into the kitchen, holding Hollingsworth, who was half his size, in his arms. Hollingsworth's feet dangled down to the floor. Hollingsworth looked pained, but patient.
"Bravo," Natalie said. "Could you get the milk?"
Beau dropped the cat. Hollingsworth and Natalie winced. Hollingsworth darted into the hall, toward Natalie's room. Beau got the milk from the refrigerator much more carefully. Merritt noticed Natalie staring at him.
"Why are you staring?" Merritt asked.
"Nothing. I was just in my thoughts."
"Why were you thinking?" Merritt asked.
Just when she thought children were wonderful, they started to annoy her. She winked at Merritt.
He scratched himself and frowned at her.
Beau carried the milk over to the table.
"What do you like in your pancakes?" Natalie asked. She got a bowl from the cupboard for the batter and began mixing. This part, she could do.
"Syrup!" Beau said.
Merritt made a face. "You're gross," he said.
"You are," Beau said.
"What do you like, Merry?" Natalie asked. She was getting a headache. She sprayed oil in the pan--Meredith had the canola-in-aerosol that was fun to use, but clearly didn't come from Whole Foods. Of course, neither did the Bisquick. She grinned to herself.
Merritt said, "I want mouse pancakes."
"Shaped like a Mickey Mouse face," Meredith said. She'd come to the doorway of the kitchen, wearing a bathrobe and smiling wanly at them. Her face was pink and scrubbed but the skin under her eyes was puffy. Natalie's heart ached.
Natalie said, "We can do that. Mice all around."
"I want syrup!" Beau shouted.
"The boy wants syrup," Natalie muttered.
Meredith slid past her to the pan and said, "You know, we have a griddle. But this'll be fine."
"Next time," Natalie said.
Meredith looked up and met her eyes and smiled.
Beau jostled her. "Can we really have pancakes for dinner, mommy?"
"Yes," Meredith said.
"Every night?" Beau asked.
"Maybe. We'll see if we feel like pancakes tomorrow night."
"Pizza!" Beau shouted.
"I like pancakes better than pizza," Natalie said, interjecting quickly. Meredith shot her a grateful look.
"Oh, me too," Beau said.
Merritt climbed onto his seat and leaned on the kitchen island.
Natalie poured the first batter into the pan.
"Can I help?" Meredith asked.
"No. Shush," Natalie said.
Meredith grinned and settled down next to Merritt, wrapping her arm around his waist.
Beau disappeared, presumably to chase the cat.
Keeping busy kept Natalie pretending everything was happy. Everything was fine. Still, she turned around and caught Meredith's eye and asked, "Do you have any wine?"
"Mommy doesn't drink," Merritt said defiantly.
"No, but our guest might, and we should respect her," Meredith said.
Merritt looked down. Meredith kissed the top of his head. She said, "You know where the wine is. Why don't you go get it?"
"Okay." Merritt slid off the seat and went to a bottom cupboard.
Meredith got two wine glasses. She looked questioningly at Natalie.
Natalie mouthed, "I'd like to--talk." She'd almost said "know."
Meredith nodded at her, almost imperceptibly.
Natalie put the first pancakes onto a plate. Meredith poured the wine. The kids squirmed around them like eager, honking seals, reaching for the food before it was cool enough to handle. Beau attacked with the syrup, making a mess. Natalie took an offered wine glass gratefully and drank, the cool liquid tasting shockingly exotic and sinful after a month without indulgence.
Her stomach warmed. Her skin flushed. She set the glass down and poured the next few pancakes. Her back turned, liquor in her, she could safely let her eyes water with how much she loved this family, and how fake and fragile and hopeless the idyllic setting really was.
She should have stayed in Charlotte. Being happy was worse than anything else she'd ever experienced.
The pancakes needed flipping. She took the spatula, and with blurry eyes, dug at the patties.
"Hurry up," Beau shouted. His words were gargled. His mouth was probably full of dough, and maple syrup probably stained his face.
She'd be glad to leave, she told herself. Her apathy was helped by the wine and the smell of food and the ability to stand up without crying out in pain. She could turn inward now, and it wouldn't matter what Meredith said to her tonight.
They'd let the boys stay up and watch The Lion King, despite the scary parts. The boys had fallen both asleep on the couch with the movie still flickering in front of them.
Meredith had done the dishes. Natalie worked her way from the couch to sit at the kitchen table. She poured a second glass of wine. Meredith settled into the stool opposite hers. She looked tired and for the first time Natalie noticed lines around her eyes and the blotchy, imperfect texture of her skin.
"Look, it's none of my business," Natalie said. She took a sip of wine and found it hard to look at Meredith. But Meredith looked at her.
"It's okay. I guess I misrepresented myself. It was just--You were the first friend I had since--it all happened. And the first one who didn't know. So I guess I didn't want you to know."
Natalie looked at her glass.
Meredith said, "He drank a lot, after he came back. That's why the boys were worried. Soon they won't remember their daddy's bad habits. When they're older, they won't really remember him at all." Meredith's eyes filled with tears.
Natalie wanted to reach out to her, but she didn't know what she should say. She swallowed hard, and just kept listening.
"We didn't even keep alcohol in the house before the war. Baptists, you know. And such a church wedding. Punch and pretzels." She chuckled. "It was great."
"But after?" Natalie asked. It pained her to hear about Meredith's happy times with Vince. Maybe that idyllic time was just as fake as dinner had been.
"He'd been sending me letters. He'd met someone--he wanted me to meet them. And the boys, too. He sounded so happy. For the first time in his life--You don't know, but it was hard. I mean, he had Jake, but around here, it wasn't always easy to make friends. Real friends. Not just the people you grew up with. He said the military was different. That for the first time, he could see what the world was like, and it wasn't like it was back here."
Meredith looked sad. She smiled at Natalie and took another sip of wine. "He wanted to take us there. Be a part of that life. But his friend--was shot. Friendly fire. And Vince felt, I guess, like that was his last chance. He just gave up after that. Didn't think he could do it again. Handle all that pain. That and the war and being away from the boys, it all messed with his head so bad. And the drinking helped, but it made him weak. He tried to hurt himself, so that he could come home.
"And once he was home, he kept trying and trying. It just got worse."
Natalie put her hand on Meredith's arm. Meredith cried, looking away from her. Her voice was shaky, and there was hesitation between her words.
"What happened?" Natalie asked.
"We were arguing--shouting. We did that a lot. It scared Beau and Merritt. And the neighbors. Heck, they called the cops on us. Twice. It wasn't any different that night. But the way Vince was talking--I was afraid he'd hurt the boys. He wanted to go away--He wanted to go back to what he'd had--but it was gone." Meredith patted Natalie's hand with her free one, and then wiped at her cheeks.
"There was nowhere to go," Meredith said.
Natalie nodded. A lump rose in her throat.
Meredith said, "He hit me. It wasn't--It wasn't the first time. I didn't hate him. He was in agony, and he trusted me--me and no one else, anymore. But--it hurt."
Natalie imagined the bruises on Meredith's cheeks--now faded, but shadowed there, in her past. Meredith met Natalie's eyes.
"Lots of men do it to control. You know, they get so frustrated that their world isn't in the order they'd like it to be--we see it at the hospital all the time. And it was the same with Vince, in a way, but more than that, he just wanted it to stop. He wanted it all to stop."
"So," Natalie said, her voice hoarse, "You stopped it."
"He was screaming--He had so much anguish in him, he just couldn't let it all out fast enough, he wanted to rip off his own skin to let it out, I could tell, and he came at me, and I thought he was going to make me hurt the way he did, with his bare hands, and I--I grabbed the knife."
The last word was choked, and after she said it, Meredith kind of deflated. Her shoulders slumped. She stroked Natalie's fingers idly, worrying them, and said, "I wish I could say it was purely self-defense, but a part of me was just--so tired. So tired of it all. So tired of him."
"I'm sorry," Natalie said. And she was. All the fear had left her. She reached across the island and cupped Meredith's face, first in her free hand, and then in both. Meredith's cheeks were hot, and tears dripped onto her fingers.
Meredith squeezed her eyes shut. She took Natalie's wrists, to hold her hands against her face, but other than that, she didn't say anything and she made no movement, until her breathing had slowed and she didn't have to clench so hard to keep the pain from showing.
She smiled weakly and squeezed Natalie's wrists.
Natalie dropped her hands, self-conscious, and asked, "Who was this person that he met? In the war?"
Meredith exhaled. She looked at the wine instead of Natalie, and said, "That's the other half of it. I've never told anyone. Not my lawyer. Not my family."
"I'll go away, and you'll never have to worry," Natalie said. She meant it jovially, but Meredith winced.
Natalie got up from her stool and walked around the island, glancing once at the sleeping boys before putting one arm around Meredith's shoulders. Meredith shuddered and went on staring at the wine glass.
"Tell me," Natalie said. She knew when people were at their breaking point. She used her free hand to stroke Meredith's hair.
"They were in love. I was okay with that," Meredith said. "Because Vince and I never were. We were best friends. All through grade school and high school and prom and--I never had a friend like Vince. He protected me and took care of me and--but he'd found someone, finally. I was so happy. Jealous, too. The way he talked--I never knew that kind of happiness, the kind that would make him think he could take the boys and live and that his friend would care for me, too, and it would all be okay.
"Have you felt love like that? The kind that makes you think paradise is possible?"
"No," Natalie said.
"Me either. But Vince had found it. And then they took it away from him."
"Who was his friend?" Natalie asked.
"Tommy. Tommy Birch. I have his picture somewhere. His parents wouldn't let Vince go to his funeral. They knew who Vince was, and they wouldn't--It killed him. Not as much as I did, but it killed him all the same."
Natalie hugged Meredith close, standing by the stool. Meredith sobbed against her chest. Natalie didn't know what to do, what to say. She smoothed Meredith's hair and stayed silent, wanting to weep too but processing too much to let her emotions overtake her thoughts, at least for the time that Meredith cried in her arms.
"I'm sorry," Meredith said, her breathing ragged. She held onto Natalie tightly, and said, "I'm sorry. I've never had a friend to tell that to. Not with Vince gone."
"And his family?" Natalie asked, just to keep her talking.
"They loved the old Vince as much as I did. Loved him so much that they wouldn't believe in the new one. They blamed me. They never wanted me to marry him. They knew, somehow, that we weren't in love. But they thought it was my fault. That I was tricking him. If I hadn't tied him down, he could find someone--He wouldn't have to--"
Meredith stopped, and Natalie rubbed her back gently, still full of questions about the boys, and about why Meredith would marry a man who didn't love her and didn't want her, but for now she could see that Meredith was spent. She was exhausted and had too much wine. Natalie eased back, keeping one hand on her shoulder.
"Mom," Beau called, sleepy and cranky from the couch, "Why aren't you watching the movie with us?"
Natalie looked at Meredith, and shrugged.
Meredith took Natalie's elbow and walked with her slowly across the living room carpet, where they crowded onto the old, lumpy couch with Beau. Merritt slept sprawled on his back on the floor, his mouth wide open, snoring.
Natalie felt awkward, sitting like that next to Meredith, their shoulders pressed together, pretending to be normal after a talk like that. So she shifted and put one arm around Meredith's shoulders instead. It felt more comfortable. Meredith gave her a grateful look, and reached across and took her free hand and pulled it into her lap. They stayed like that, reading the subtitles, with Beau curled against Natalie's back like a heating pad.
They stayed like that until Meredith fell asleep in her arms and Merritt woke up enough to crawl off to his own bed. Natalie knew that her body would hurt all over tomorrow morning.
She smiled and closed her eyes.
* * *
Meredith woke to the sensation of being in someone's embrace. She snuggled closer, wrapping herself against warm curves. Her cheek pressed a breast, and she--
Her eyes flew open. Everything that had felt good twisted inside her. She wanted to get away as quickly as possible. Confessing everything to Natalie should have resulted in recrimination, not comfort, and if she even deserved comfort, exploiting it was--
She shook herself, suppressing the thoughts, wishing away the heat from her body--it would not leave--and stood up.
Beau squirmed. She scooped him into her arms and took him to bed. The boys slept on as if nothing had happened that night.
She went to wake Natalie.
"Mugh?" Natalie said.
Meredith said, "Come on. I put Beau to bed. You're going to be in a lot of pain tomorrow if you stay on the couch."
Natalie yawned and said, "I don't feel any pain now."
"You will. Come on." Meredith tugged on her hand, smiling. She found it difficult to hold onto dark thoughts when Natalie was nearby.
Natalie seemed to have enough dark thoughts for the both of them. She said, defeat and sloth in her voice, "It's hard to walk."
"Big baby." Meredith squeezed her fingers.
Natalie sighed and opened her eyes.
"Come on," Meredith said.
Natalie put her arms on Meredith's shoulders and together they stood.
"Ow," Natalie said.
"Ow. I had surgery today!"
Meredith ignored her and helped her hobble to the bedroom. She made Natalie stand while she turned down the sheets and then tucked her arms under Natalie's again, pulling up her hem.
"Um," Natalie said, and Meredith's hands froze on her abdomen, with her shirt halfway to her breasts.
"Fine, change clothes yourself," Meredith said. She ducked out of the room, blushing at what she had almost seen.
"That isn't what I meant," Natalie called.
Meredith went upstairs to the medicine cabinet. When she went back to Natalie's bedroom, she handed Natalie a pill and a glass of water.
"I've been drinking," Natalie said.
"Hours ago, and not very much."
Natalie looked at the pill in her hand.
"Please," Meredith said. "I'm your nurse."
Natalie swallowed the pill and then finished off the water.
Meredith said, "Goodnight." Her thoughts turned to leaving and going upstairs, to re-living their conversation over and over--
"Stay," Natalie said. She smiled at Meredith as if Meredith weren't some kind of monster, but just a woman and a friend.
The tenderness of the look made Meredith feel worse. She said, "I can't stay."
"It's been a shitty day," Natalie said.
"Nat." Meredith was so taken aback she almost laughed.
"Always save the strong language for when it's needed," Natalie said. "This qualifies."
"Are you trying to reason me out of my emotional state?" Meredith asked. "That's never going to work.
Natalie patted the bed.
Meredith sighed and sat down.
Natalie reached out, her hand landing on Meredith's thigh and said, "I know you."
The words sent chills through Meredith, even as the touch brought heat. She had no idea how to feel.
Natalie said, "If you go upstairs, you'll just cry all over again."
"If you're going to let me take advantage of your kindness--" Meredith started.
"Then at least let me change."
Natalie nodded rolled over, into her pillow. Meredith went upstairs. Her bedroom felt bitterly empty and she was glad, pulling on a nightgown and a robe, that she didn't have to stay. That there were places to go.
She went back downstairs with a pillow, apprehensive as she slipped into Natalie's bedroom.
Natalie smiled at her and yawned.
"Thank you," Meredith said.
"I owe you," Natalie said, sleepy words that startled Meredith.
She started to say something, but Natalie lifted her hand. Meredith sat on the edge of the bed.
Natalie said, "Life will probably be awful all over again tomorrow."
"But not until then?" Meredith asked.
"Not until then."
"I brought my own pillow."
Meredith laid it by Natalie's head, and then slid up to get under the sheets. The hospital bed was not quite a double. There was barely room for both of them without touching. Meredith settled cautiously onto her back.
"Good idea," Natalie said.
"I haven't slept with anyone since my husband died," Meredith said.
"You two slept in the same bed?"
"Almost every night he was home. I felt so protected. We tried sleeping with the kids. Very New Age. Beau didn't take to it. He liked his own space. If he was in our room he slept on the floor. But Merry would wriggle in between us, and it was almost perfect."
Natalie grinned and said, "I can't promise that."
"No," Meredith chuckled. "This is something entirely different."
Natalie said, after quiet had settled into the room, "I'm glad you told me, Merry. You didn't have to."
"I've wanted to--Thank you for listening."
"Do you believe me? How I saw it?" Meredith asked.
"Yes," Natalie said.
"Other people might have seen it differently."
"I know," Natalie said.
"'Course you do. You're a lawyer."
"I've heard it all before."
"Did you ever believe them?"
"No. But I believe you."
Meredith closed her eyes. "Night, Nat," she said.
She stopped with those words, with that salutation, even though there was more on the tip of her tongue. She figured she'd said enough for one day.
Natalie woke up inside a lingering mental fog that did nothing to shroud the pain in her back and legs. The worst of both worlds, she thought. She tried to stretch her calf and winced. Every morning was going to be like this, probably for the rest of her life.
She closed her eyes against the garish sunlight and tried to sleep until the pain went away.
Of course, she was starving and had to go to the bathroom. A lack of movement was in no way going to help.
Merritt pushed open the door. "Natalie," he hissed.
"Mare, get out of there," Meredith's voice, louder down the hallway, called.
Merritt slipped in and closed the door. To buy himself more time, Natalie decided, peering at him under the lids of her eyes. Clever boy.
He bounded onto the bed. No need to slink now that he was caught. "Natalie!" he called.
The bed shifting and bending to him sent waves of pain through Natalie. She seized and let out a whimper, and then covered it by gritting her teeth at him.
He grinned. "Get up," he said.
"Don't wanna," she replied.
He leaned forward and shook her shoulder. "Get up, get up, get up."
This would be endless, she thought, until she got up. She did not have the determination and time-management skills of a child.
Meredith burst through the door.
"Merry, you are going to get a whuppin'," she said.
Merritt squirmed off the bed and darted underneath it. "Have to catch me first," he said. He hit upward, against the bedframe.
"I'm so, so sorry," Meredith said, coming to sit on the edge of the bed.
"Don't be," Natalie said. "I have to get up, anyway."
"I was going bring you breakfast," Meredith said.
"I can bring myself to breakfast."
"If you want. How do you feel?"
Meredith said, "Jake's coming by today. He'll make you feel real good."
"Oh, sure." Natalie rolled her eyes. "Hasn't happened yet."
Meredith got up. She said, "We're having eggs. How do you like yours?"
"Poached," Natalie said.
Meredith folded her arms.
Natalie batted her eyelashes.
Meredith went to the door and said in a sing-song voice, "I'm going to make Natalie's eggs all by myself, and she'll love me best, and she'll forget anyone else is in the house."
"No she won't!" Merritt hollered, and scooted out from under the bed and was through the door just as Meredith opened it.
"Well done," Natalie said.
"A mother's gift," Meredith said. She tossed her hair and then went out, shutting the door and leaving Natalie in peace.
She groaned and very slowly and very carefully swung her legs over the side of the bed, and braced herself for standing up.
If not for the children, she might not get out of bed at all. Not this morning, not any of the others.
"Let me go with you," Natalie said, hobbling into the kitchen. With her walker, which she was not ashamed of, which was her new best friend, it had taken five minutes to go from the bedroom to the kitchen. Her back was stooped--too cramped to straighten. But her head was clearing, and breakfast would help, and she didn't want any more drugs. She hated the haze they brought. The idea of being mentally useless made her nauseous.
"No," Meredith said.
"I would be useful," Natalie said.
"You'd take over my case?"
The accusation burned Natalie's cheeks. She looked down.
Meredith's voice softened. She said, "I'll be all right."
Natalie wanted to say, "Like hell you will," but she bit her tongue and hobbled toward the table.
Meredith checked that the boys were engrossed in their cereal, and then lowered her voice even more and said, "It's just an evidentiary hearing. One of the neighbors making a fuss about what he heard, the 911 call, things like that."
"You called 911?"
"Of course." Meredith was offended.
Natalie should have stayed in bed after all. Might as well go for broke, then. "When's the trial?" she asked.
"Month after next," Meredith said.
A chill went through Natalie. She shivered. It had seemed so far in the past--Meredith, recovered, adjusted. The fact that she was still in her own home, working her own job, raising her children--Natalie hadn't worried.
"Two months?" That felt like nothing. That felt like tomorrow.
"It'll probably be up in Oxford. They wanted to move it. Less prejudicial, I guess. I don't think it matters."
"Eat your eggs, Nat."
But Natalie didn't want them. They'd be as cold as she was, as unappetizing as the churning in her stomach. She looked at the boys. Beau was drinking the last of the sugary milk from his bowl. Merritt was concentrating, brow furrowed, as he fished one marshmallow out at a time.
"I can't move," Natalie said.
"What hurts?" Meredith came closer. While Natalie had stayed in bed, Meredith had taken the time to shower that morning, plus feeding the boys and cooking for her. Her hair was still damp and she smelled of soap.
Natalie could see by the VCR clock that it was only 7:30 or so. Rising with the sun. In Charlotte she'd still have a half hour to leave for work. She could have a cup of coffee.
"My back," Natalie said. "I think it's done."
Meredith laid her hand on Natalie's back, and said, "Hardly."
"It is. Something got weakened by the accident, and now it's shifted, and I shall be a hunchback, all the days of my life."
"Feeling poetic, are we?"
"Impressive education at one of the finest law schools in the country. I wish you'd let me help."
"You are helping," Meredith murmured. She stood behind Natalie and wrapped her arms around Natalie's waist, so that she was pressed up against Natalie's back.
Her body heat radiated through Natalie, and turned her to liquid, and without the walker, Natalie would have toppled to the floor, boneless, robbed of her senses.
Meredith said, "Relax."
"I mean it. I know it sounds illogical, but lean forward. Let go." Her hand moved to Natalie's shoulder, crossing her front like a seatbelt, and Natalie didn't need much encouraging to go limp.
She relaxed and Meredith squeezed, giving her back the support to stretch downward, and bring Natalie upright, with her knees bent and her arms braced on the handles.
It was just as easy to stand, with Meredith holding her. She straightened. Her grip lessened on the handles, and then she let go completely, raising her arms out to her sides--about 45 degrees, at least, as her shoulder wouldn't allow any more.
Meredith stepped away and rubbed Natalie's back.
"Thanks," Natalie said.
"I knew you had it in you."
"I'm glad someone did." Natalie turned and hugged Meredith, as hard as she could, which was not very hard, but enough that Meredith pressed against her, and kept smoothing her back.
"Thank you," Natalie said.
"Any time," Meredith said. "You're welcome."
She didn't move back from the hug, so Natalie let it linger, pressing her cheek against Meredith's hair. It felt good to move her arms and her shoulders like this, to be in this position, to feel limber and encompassing.
"Hey," she said, "I'm taller than you."
"Sure are, tiger," Meredith said. She laughed and finally stepped back, moving her hands to Natalie's shoulders to steady her.
"I guess I didn't notice," Natalie said.
"This is the first time you've stood tall. You looked so--so small, in that hospital bed. You should've seen yourself."
Meredith glanced at the clock. "I've got to go. My lawyer's picking me up." She gave Natalie a forced smile. "My other lawyer."
"We'll be fine," Natalie said.
Meredith glanced at the boys, and then said, "I'll try to slip out. I'll be back before you know it."
"Don't worry," Natalie said. Meredith met her eyes, and there was strain in her face, and her hands moved awkwardly against Natalie's arms.
Natalie made a guess, and gave in a little to her own self-interest, and hugged Meredith again, burying Meredith against her.
She did feel tall.
"Don't worry," Natalie repeated. "When you come back, we'll fix everything."
"Just like this," Meredith said, in a small, muffled voice against Natalie's shoulder.
"Nothing." Meredith stepped back and gave Natalie a watery smile. "Say hi to Jake."
"He's going to break me in half," Natalie said.
"Good. Then I'll be taller than you, and the boys will each have their own Natalie."
"Oh, God," Natalie said.
Meredith gave her a stern look, and then as a horn honked, headed toward the front door.
"Oh, Gosh," Natalie corrected herself. She looked at the ceiling. "Oh, golly gee, these people are going to tear me apart."
Nothing on the ceiling answered her, but a warmth tingled at the back of her neck and down to the base of her spine, and while she was standing there, contemplating it and the possibilities of some sort of sunlight angling into the kitchen, Merritt came and tugged at her hand, sending a sharp pain through her hip and nearly toppling her to the floor.
"Merry?" she asked him patiently.
"Read to us!"
"All right. Go get a book. But it'll have to be one you can read to me. I've still got to eat my eggs," she said.
"All the better to distract me," she said.
He frowned, but went to his room.
"Merry reads better than me," Beau complained, coming up to sit next to her and contemplate her eggs with a studious expression.
"That's okay," Natalie said.
"It just is."
Natalie put one arm around his shoulders and picked up her fork with her free hand. She wanted to tell him that she didn't love him any less for being less eloquent than his brother. He was too young to understand. But she made a mental note. When he got older--
Maybe she'd write him a letter. And in ten years, when he read it, Meredith would have to explain who the hell this crazy woman was, writing to him from the past.
Merritt came back and spread his book on the kitchen table.
Beau dug his fingers into her eggs.
* * *
"Mom's coming home soon," Natalie said. "What's her favorite meal?"
"She likes fried chicken," Merritt said.
"Are you only saying that because you like fried chicken?"
Beau giggled. "Merry hates fried chicken. Crunch. Crunch!" He waved his arms at Merritt.
Natalie wrapped her arms around Beau and held him off.
Merritt looked smug.
Natalie said, "I still need your advice, boys. I can't make fried chicken."
Merritt, the free agent, pulled up his chair to the counter and climbed first onto the chair, and then onto the counter, and stood, carefully opening the pantry. Natalie winced, imagining him falling. She wanted to warn him, and all the recriminations were on the tip of her tongue, but she held it. He seemed to know what he was doing.
He pulled out a box of shake and bake and then climbed down. The chair squeaked under his weight. Natalie nearly yelped.
Beau sighed and gave up resisting against her grip. He leaned in and said, "There's chicken in the freezer. We're not allowed to touch the freezer."
"Bring me the box, Mare," she said.
Merritt looked sullen. He'd brought it this far.
"Please, Merritt?" she asked.
He grinned and brought her the box. She read the instructions. Seemed doable. "Are you boys allowed to touch the stove?"
Beau adopted a look of horror.
Merritt shook his head rapidly.
Natalie opened the box, and asked, "Is there no Popeyes around here? No KFC?"
She'd never had to work for fried chicken before. She wasn't even sure how it was really made.
Beau ignored her in favor of getting milk out of the fridge and then getting a bowl.
Merritt said, "There's a Kentucky Fried Chicken at the beach, but mommy never takes us."
"She takes us to McDonalds, though," Beau said. "Can we go to McDonalds?"
"Tonight we're making a special dinner for your mom," Natalie said.
Natalie pre-set the oven, thinking about small towns and having to cook all the time. At least pizza delivered, and Chinese, but she hadn't been to a restaurant since she got here, and Meredith was a good-enough cook that she hadn't noticed.
But now she noticed.
She could learn Shake N' Bake.
* * *
Beau and Merritt tore out of the living room just as Meredith made it into the foyer. She took off her coat and set down her briefcase. The kids hugged her. She knelt to hug them back. Strands had fallen around her face and against her neck.
Natalie hobbled into view and Meredith smiled radiantly. "What's that smell?" she asked.
"Fried chicken!" Merritt exclaimed.
"Nat wanted to make something special for you," Beau said. "So we made her make that."
His simple sentence made Meredith want to cry. The day had been awful, away from her family, back out into the world. Even the mood of it, full of dread with an underlying current of hate, coming from everyone in the courtroom except for her lawyer, drained her spiritually and physically.
Coming home washed it all away.
Meredith straightened up and hugged Natalie. "Thank you," she said.
Natalie put her hand on the back of Meredith's head, tightening the embrace, and whispered, "How did it go?"
Meredith squeezed her before pulling back and mouthing, "We'll talk about it after dinner."
"I can't believe you got Merritt to eat fried chicken," Meredith said, her voice still low.
"Well, he hasn't eaten it yet," Natalie said.
Meredith said, "All right, since you all cooked, I'll set the table."
Natalie limped over to the kitchen.
Meredith asked, "Is there--just chicken?"
Natalie said, "There's peas in the microwave, ready to be heated, and I made a pot of rice. It's still warm."
"You made rice?"
More and more the day at the courthouse felt like she'd visited another world. She didn't understand how all that badness and all this goodness could co-exist in one life.
"There're instructions on the bag. I can cook." Natalie scowled.
Meredith smiled and said, "I just assumed you'd have a rice cooker."
"I do have a rice cooker. But I can improvise."
"Thank you," Meredith said.
Natalie settled in at the table and asked, "Would you mind getting everything? I think I've been standing too long."
"It's my pleasure," Meredith said.
Natalie smiled. "I was hoping you'd say that."
Meredith put the kids to bed. Natalie put herself to bed, which took nearly as long as making sure two four year olds washed and brushed their teeth, got read a few stories, and whined about glasses of water and more television.
Similarly sponged, minty, and reading, Natalie was engrossed in First Corinthians. She'd remembered what Wheeler had said, and had found it, the words elegant and beautiful in Meredith's New King James, but the rest of the chapter at parts enthralled and irritated her. She hissed in frustration, and would have thrown the Bible across the room if it wasn't Meredith's.
Meredith knocked on the door.
"Come in," Natalie said. She closed the book.
Meredith came in wearing a nightgown and robe that nearly touched the floor and that took Natalie's breath away. The fabric was satin the color of corn silk, pale and flowing, and Meredith, like the rest of them, had washed her face, so that she looked young and sweet and pure with her hair falling against her shoulders.
"May I?" Meredith asked, and Natalie patted the bed. She'd moved over to the other side, to make space, the anticipation buzzing through her so much that she'd been driven to pick up the Book, to remind herself just exactly what was going on here--healing, and that was all.
"How's the Good Book?" Meredith asked.
Meredith frowned, and asked, "Not so great? Are you so pagan that it burns your flesh?" She grinned.
"It's just--Oh, it really doesn't matter."
"Come. Tell me." Meredith put her hand on Natalie's shoulder. "I don't really get to have adult conversations that don't revolve around basketball. I promise I won't judge."
Natalie considered, biting her lip. Aristotle, she could quote. Machiavelli. Augustine. Solon.
This wasn't even an Orthodox Bible. She shouldn't even care.
But Meredith cared.
She inhaled and said, "Corinthians. The stuff about love is beautiful, right? I mean, it sucks you in. I heard it at a wedding once, when I was a kid. My mother cried--But--look."
She took the book back from Meredith and opened it, searching for the passage that had inflamed her. She flipped through several pages and scanned, and Meredith was quiet, still rubbing her shoulder.
Natalie read, "Now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner--not even to eat with such a person.
"You can't even eat with them?" Natalie asked.
Meredith moved closer, to see the page. Her shoulder brushed against Natalie's as she pointed. "It does point out that the whole world is full of those people, and you'd basically have to die to get away from them."
"How often do I feel like that," Natalie said.
Meredith smiled. She stroked the words with her fingers, and said, "It's really only the good Christians you have to worry about. The ones in your temple, or in your home, who are close enough to poison you."
Natalie shivered at the word 'poison.'
The passage made her burn with something she couldn't express to Meredith, not without confession--not quite shame, but revulsion.
Natalie said, "Look, I deal with those immoral perverts every day. They're not bad people. And even if they were, they need help. Compassion. Not to be flicked off like some flea. I mean--" she stopped.
"You mean, if you followed Paul's tenets, you couldn't live in my home," Meredith said. "A lot of people around here believe that. Casting out the sick among us so that we ourselves are not blighted is a common instinct. Self-protection."
Natalie didn't say anything.
Meredith said, "There are any numbers of ways you could look at it. That Paul is merely a servant of God, and not Jesus, and he doesn't even really say that he's speaking for Jesus or God here. Or that he's just a man, and that he's fallible. Or that he's frustrated with the founding of the first church."
"But those are cop-outs."
"Maybe," Meredith said. "But I'm not trying to give you an excuse. I'm saying what you'd hear in Bible study somewhere. I'm speaking as a Christian. This stuff is complicated, and to be honest, not all of it requires understanding to live."
"Oh, I understand," Natalie said.
Meredith took the Bible gently from her hands and flipped the pages. She said, "Here. 'Was anyone called to God while circumcised? Let him not become uncircumcised. Was anyone called while uncircumcised? Let him not be circumcised. Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing, but keeping the commandments of God is what matters.'"
"The ten commandments?"
"Or the ones Jesus set down--love God and your neighbor."
"And you're illustrating this with circumcision? Ew?"
Meredith grinned. "Let me read on, lawyer." She read, "Let each one remain in the same calling in which he was called. Were you called while a slave?"
Natalie folded her arms.
"So, if God speaks to you, listen. If you're a slave and he speaks to you, it doesn't matter. If you're a homosexual, or an alcoholic, or in prison, or a jerk--it doesn't matter. You are what you are. So reconcile that with what Paul said about who to eat with."
"I can't," Natalie said.
Meredith shrugged. "Then don't. It's all academics, as long as you understand that God loves you."
"Well, I don't understand that either."
"Do you understand that I--" Meredith stopped.
Natalie leaned over to see the page. "What's this about virgins?"
Meredith elbowed her.
"That's volatile stuff," Natalie said.
"It can be." Meredith turned on her side, to regard Natalie. She asked, "What words do you live by?"
"Whereas the law is passionless, passion must ever sway the heart of man," Natalie said.
"And yours?" Natalie asked. "Surely not Corinthians."
"Faith, hope, and love. But I've always preferred the Book of Job. More so when it was less prescient, I suppose."
Natalie shifted, facing Meredith as best she could, lacking the strength to lie on her side. She winced as her shoulder throbbed.
"Are you all right?"
"Just being smote," Natalie said.
"I'm no saint."
"Why is that?" Meredith asked.
Natalie froze. She swallowed hard and considered her words carefully. "I am unkind to orphans," she said.
"You are not."
"I have road rage."
"The deer started it."
Natalie smiled and asked, "How was court?"
A cloud passed through Meredith's expression. "Fine. I mean--fine. They provided me a bill for my court-appointed lawyer. Apparently I make too much money to qualify, even under North Carolina guidelines."
"I should have taken my kids, right? Pleaded single mother. Shown them my grocery bills."
"Merry--" Natalie started.
Meredith shook her head. "Vince's parents showed up. They always do. For the smallest thing. For the largest. They stare at me with such hate--"
"Merry, hey," Natalie said. She pushed herself up on one arm, though her shoulder threatened to collapse out from under her, and found the strength to cup Meredith's cheek in her free hand.
"Don't worry yourself. It'll sort itself out. Somehow."
Natalie brushed away tears with her thumb.
"God," Meredith said, and then, perhaps since the curse had already escaped her lips, closed her eyes tightly and said, "God, how did I have no one to talk to for months? How did I survive that?"
Natalie's shoulder gave way and she sprawled against Meredith's side, still holding her cheek, forcing Meredith to look at her. Their eyes were only inches apart, and Meredith blinked, holding her gaze. Neither of them moved.
Natalie said, "Because you're stronger than you think."
Meredith broke into a sob. She covered her face with her hands. Natalie pulled her close, slipping her arm under Meredith's neck and holding her, as best she could with her leg still useless.
How she cursed the uselessness. How she hated the weakness. Meredith, though, curled into her, burying her face against Natalie's chest. She adjusted to Natalie's posture, and Natalie offered what comfort she could. Meredith's sobs turned to sniffles, and then sobs seized her again, making her shake with the energy she was trying to scream out of her system.
"It's okay," Natalie whispered over and over. "It's okay. I'm here."
She curled her fingers in Meredith's hair and let Meredith's tears fall against her throat.
Meredith rolled onto her back, onto Natalie's arm.
Natalie could see the dark circles of her eyes as Meredith gazed at the ceiling.
"Stay," she said, before Meredith could say goodnight.
Meredith closed her eyes.
Natalie reached out and brushed a final stray tear from Meredith's jaw.
Meredith smiled and said, "We're going to the beach tomorrow."
"We'll see the ocean," Meredith said. "It'll be nice."
Natalie put her hand on Meredith's arm and closed her eyes. "Our problems will seem small in front of the ocean," she said.
Natalie woke up before Meredith with the first sunlight, blinding and orange, shining on Meredith's face. She had slept on her back, with Meredith still curled up on her side, and though the stiffness brought agony, Natalie knew how to work through it.
She rotated her ankles and then rubbed her shoulder with her good hand. Turning her neck to look at Meredith resulted in satisfying cracks. The light, too, made her limber, warming her enough to move.
Natalie held her breath and settled down against her pillow. She thought about pretending to be asleep, but she kept her eyes open, staring at the yellow ceiling as Meredith sat up.
"Did I wake you?" Meredith asked.
"No. I was awake," Natalie said.
"Just lying there?"
Natalie said, "Trying to move."
"Oh, gosh. Are you all right?"
Meredith's face appeared above her, concerned. Natalie laughed. She said, "It's fine. It just takes a while to stretch out the muscles again."
"Right. Gee, you should have a nurse or something." Meredith frowned.
Natalie tried to protest, but Meredith, nimble and healthy, maneuvered and cupped Natalie's neck in both of her hands. She massaged, lifting Natalie's head enough to roll back, and there were more painful crunches that traveled down her vertebrae. Natalie sank back and rubbed her shoulders, working the muscles.
"Lift your arms," Meredith said.
"Oh, come on."
Meredith, sitting against her side, took Natalie's wrists and raised them upward.
Natalie grunted. Meredith pulled, stretching her, and when she let go, Natalie felt looser.
"Thank you," Natalie said. "Are you always this chipper in the morning?"
"I think it's kind of an anticipatory energy to deal with the boys. Wait until I have to send them to school--" she paused, and a sadness went through her, making her whole form seem to shrink.
Natalie, with newly invigorated limbs, reached for Meredith's arms and clasped them gently. "You will," she said.
"Maybe," Meredith acknowledged. She studied Natalie's face with a serious expression and said, "At least I want to, now."
Meredith touched Natalie's cheek and leaned down, pressing her lips to Natalie's forehead. Natalie tilted her head back, trying to see Meredith, and Meredith seemed to take that as invitation, for she kissed Natalie's lips, too. The touch was brief. Meredith straightened.
"I'm going to need your help at the beach," she said.
"Do I have to carry chairs and coolers? Frisbees?"
Meredith slid off the bed and walked around to the foot. Her robe, though wrinkled, flowed with her steps. She looked radiant in the morning, and Natalie's own self-image--sweaty, slug-like, and immobile, diminished. She scoffed.
Undaunted, Meredith took Natalie's left calf in both hands.
"No," Natalie said.
"Hush. It'll help," Meredith said, sliding one hand up to cup her knee.
Meredith lifted until Natalie's leg bent, guided by gravity and a professional nurse. Natalie groaned with pain. Meredith, mercifully, straightened out her leg. Natalie exhaled.
"Again," Meredith said.
Whatever Paul of Tarsus had to say about spending too much time with the wrong people, there was absolutely nothing sexy about physical therapy, even in a bed lit by the morning sunlight. Even with Meredith in a robe like that.
"Again," Meredith said.