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A soft mewing pierces the low hum of the hospital room, instantly rousing Kate. She presses the call button before she's even opened her eyes, then peels herself off the vinyl recliner and slides into the narrow bed beside her twelve-year-old daughter. As a nurse runs morphine into Robin's IV, Kate runs light fingers over her daughter's back, in the slow pattern she instinctively knows Robin likes. She's always had that gift, some kind of sympathetic resonance with other people's bodies; all she has to do is close her eyes and she can feel where the muscles are tight, where the tissue is tender, her fingers drawn to the places that need them by some force not under her conscious control.
The morphine kicks in and Robin's breathing falls into the soft pattern that means the pain's dulled enough to let her sleep. Kate stays beside her, the cramp in her side from her contorted position a minor datum. She breathes deep, savoring the scent of her daughter's skin. She knows it will fade from memory as the years pass, but right now it's still here, still hers, for however much longer they have.
An hour later one of the fearless young nurses who brave Pediatric Oncology sticks her head in the door. "Sleeping?" she mouths, pointing at Robin. Kate nods and eases off the bed to follow her.
In the hall the nurse hands Kate a neatly folded sock. "Found it! I dug through the laundry before they took it away."
Kate's eyes well up. "Oh, god, you didn't have to do that. We could have lived without it."
"I know." The nurse smiles and rubs Kate's arm. "Have you eaten anything since lunch?" Kate shakes her head, and the nurse says, "Hold that thought." She comes back ten minutes later with a heaping plate of tacos, black beans, and guacamole. "Meals That Heal is up on Ped Pulm tonight," she grins as she hands Kate the plate.
However much longer turns out to be unbearably short. But then, it always would have.
Seconds become hours become weeks become years; and life, inexplicably, carries on.
Kate's brushing her teeth before bed when her phone blares out John Denver's "Country Roads": her sister Eva's ringtone. Eva never calls this late; it's past midnight where she lives.
Jack's dead. Her husband Jack is dead. He was only thirty-seven. Kate listens as her shell-shocked sister runs through each detail again, and again, and again.
They were on the couch, watching TV. Eva turned to Jack to snark about the show and he was staring straight ahead, unbreathing, veins bulging in his rigid neck. 911 talked her through CPR. When the ambulance arrived the techs ushered her outside, as if she hadn't already seen the horror. At the hospital she watched through glass as seven people labored over his failing body, then watched as they all fell still. Time stopped then, balanced for one brief instant on the keen tip of a pin too small for angels to see, before its unstoppable fall from grace.
Not that Eva describes it that way. But Kate knows what the moment is like.
She listens for an hour, until Eva asks her how fast she can be there. Then she packs a bag and begins the long eastward drive to Michigan.
Just before dawn she stops at an all-night Texaco outside Moline, Illinois for a Snickers and more Kleenex. As she's paying she hears two teens down the aisle behind her counting their money. They come up a dollar thirty-five short. God knows what they're buying at this hour. It doesn't matter. Kate puts six quarters on the counter. "For them," she says, catching the clerk's eye before she leaves.
He didn't make a sound, Eva kept saying on the phone. Why didn't he make any noise? I would have looked over sooner if he'd just... But he never made a sound. Kate knows what that's like, too. If only you'd seen the signs right away. It's a long road to letting that one go, paved with heartsickness sharper than diamond.
She tosses the Snickers and Kleenex onto the passenger seat and sticks her key in the ignition. As she starts the car the two kids walk out of the Texaco, armed with a giant bag of Doritos and two sixteen-ounce Cokes. Kate silently wishes them well and pulls out onto I-80 East, toward the rising sun and her grieving baby sister.