SHE STOOD BY HIS BEDSIDE AND WAITED FOR HIM TO DIE.
Outside the room, the machines and monitors of the ICU hummed and beeped, doctors and nurses went about their business, and the hospital smell—equal parts antiseptic and despair—hung heavy in the air.
With one decisive move she flipped the switch of the respirator and stilled the machine's rhythmic chuffing. In the silence that followed, she imagined she could hear his heartbeat fade away.
She kissed him and exhaled what passed for a prayer, her lips barely moving as she asked for peace and forgiveness—for him and for her.
She stood for a moment with her head bowed, contemplating the enormity of her action. Then she pocketed the empty syringe from the bedside table and tiptoed out of the room.
Dr. Elena Gardner approached her apartment as she had every night for six months—filled with emptiness and dread. The feeling grew with each step, and by the time she put the key in the door, fear enveloped her like a shroud. Some nights it was all she could do to put her foot over the threshold. This was one of those nights.
She turned the key and pushed open the door. The dark shadows reached out at her like a boogieman from her childhood. The utter stillness magnified every sound in the old apartment, turning creaking boards into the footsteps of an unknown enemy.
She flipped on the light and watched the shadows turn into familiar surroundings. Even though the thermostat was set at a comfortable temperature, she shivered a bit.
Elena dropped her backpack by the door and collapsed into the one comfortable chair in the living room. The TV remote was in its usual place on the table beside her. She punched the set into life, paying no attention to what was on. Didn't matter. Just something to drown out the silence, something to remind her that there was life outside these four walls. That somewhere there were people who could laugh and joke and have fun. Somewhere.
She sighed and picked up the phone. She should call David.
He'd been firm about it. "Call me anytime, but especially when you get home at night. That's the toughest time. It's when the memories butt heads with the what-ifs."
She dialed the number. Maybe she should put him on her speed dial. But that implied there wouldn't be an end to this soon. And she wasn't ready to think about that.
"Hey, Elena." Although Dr. David Merritt—a resident physician in one of the busiest obstetrics programs in the southwest—was surely as tired as she was, his voice sounded fresh, almost cheery. "What's up?"
"Oh, you know. Just needed to hear a friendly voice."
"Glad to oblige. How was your day?" That was one of the things Elena missed most. Now that Mark was gone, there was no one to share her day. "Not too bad until I was about to check out. The EMTs brought in a thirty-two-year-old woman, comatose from a massive intracranial hemorrhage. The neurosurgeons rushed her to surgery, but . . ."
She knew David could guess the rest. He cleared his throat."Did that . . . was it tough to take?"
Elena started to make some remark about it not bothering her. But that wasn't true. And she knew David wanted the truth. "Yeah. Not while it was happening. Then I was pretty much on automatic pilot. But afterward, I almost had a meltdown."
"It'll get better."
"I hope so."
"Any more phone calls?"
Elena felt goose bumps pop up on her arms. "Not yet. But it's Tuesday, so I expect one later tonight."
"Why don't you call the police?"
"What, and tell them that for four weeks I've answered the phone every Tuesday at midnight and heard a woman sobbing, then a hang-up? That's not a police matter."
"I know what they'll ask. Caller ID? 'Anonymous.' Star 69? 'Subscriber has blocked this service.' Then they'll tell me to change my number. Well, this one's unlisted, but that doesn't seem to matter. How much trouble would it be for whoever's calling to get the new one?" David's exhalation was like a gentle wind. "Well, let me know if there's anything I can do."
"You've done plenty already. You know, after Mark died, I had a lot of people fuss over me for about three days, but you're the only one who's stayed with it. Why?"
His silence made her think she'd asked an embarrassing question. People didn't go out of their way to be nice the way David had with no thought of something in return. Did they?
"Elena, I've been where you are," David said. "Oh, I know. A spouse divorcing you isn't the same as one dying, but a lot of the feelings are the same. I mean, when I saw my wife and little girl pull away from the house for the last time, I wanted to lie down and die."
She knew exactly what he was talking about. "That's me. I wanted to crawl into the coffin with Mark. At that point, my life was over."
"But I got past it," David said. "Oh, I didn't 'heal.' You don't get back to where you were, but you learn to move on. And when Carol sent me the invitation to her wedding, it broke my heart, but it helped me realize that part of my life was over. Anyway, I made up my mind to use what I'd learned to help other people. And that's what I'm doing."
Elena sniffled. "Sorry." She pulled a tissue from her pocket and dabbed at her eyes. "That's another thing. I feel like tears are always right there, ready to come any time."
"That's normal. Let them out."
They talked for a few minutes more before Elena ended the conversation. She wandered into the kitchen, opened the refrigerator, and looked in without seeing the contents. She wasn't hungry. Since Mark's death she'd lost twelve pounds off a frame that had little to spare. Maybe she should patent the process. "Sure-fire weight loss guaranteed. Withdraw life support and let your husband die. If you don't lose weight, double your money back."
Her lips drew back in what started as a hesitant smile but turned into a grimace of pain. She dissolved into tears.
Elena wasn't sure how long she sat at the kitchen table with her head cradled in her arms before the ring of the phone roused her. She looked at her watch. A little after nine—too early for her midnight caller. Had the routine changed?
She shuffled back to the living room. When she checked the caller ID, she felt some of her tension subside. Dr. Helen Bennett represented the only ray of sunshine in Elena's dark landscape right now.
"Elena, did I wake you?"
"No, not really. Just starting to unwind. What's up?"
"We need to talk."
That didn't sound promising. "Wow, that sounds like what I used to tell boys in college before breaking up with them. What's going on?"
"I'd rather do this face-to-face. Why don't we have breakfast tomorrow morning? I usually make rounds at six-thirty. Can you meet me in the St. Paul Hospital staffcafeteria at six? We can talk then." Elena hung up with a growing sense of unease. Mark's death had plunged her into a dark abyss. The only glimmer of hope for a future had been Dr. Helen Bennett's offer to join her practice. The opportunity to work alongside a woman who was one of the most respected family practitioners in the community, a doctor Elena had admired since her days in medical school, seemed like a gift from above. Was that about to be taken from her?
The evening dragged on as Elena worried about the problem like a kitten with a ball of yarn. Finally, she ate some peanut butter and crackers, forced down a glass of milk. She'd shower in the morning. Right now, she just wanted to crawl into bed.
Sleep was elusive as a glob of mercury. She picked up the book from her bedside table and tried to read, but the words blurred on the page. Finally she closed the book, turned out the light, and tried to sleep. Instead, she watched the red numerals on her bedside clock change: 10:00, 10:40, 11:15.
She was tossing in a restless slumber when she heard the ring of the phone. The clock showed 12:05 as Elena reached for the receiver. Her left hand clutched the covers tighter around her as her right lifted the phone and brought it to her ear.
At first there was silence. Maybe this was simply a wrong number. Maybe the calls had stopped.
No, there it was. Sobbing. Starting softly, then rising to a crescendo. A woman's voice—a husky alto, like a lounge singer in a smoky, second-rate club. "Who is this?" Elena said.
No answer. Only sobbing.
"What do you want?" Elena's voice rose to a shriek.
A click. Then silence.
Elena stabbed blindly at the phone's "end" button, finally hitting it as an electronic voice began, "If you'd like to make a call—"
She turned on the bedside lamp and stared at the cheap lithograph on the opposite wall. In it, a young man and woman were walking through a field of flowers. They looked so happy. Like she and Mark had been.
But he was gone, and she'd never be happy again. Ever.
She reached for the light but withdrew her hand. No, leave it burning. Elena burrowed deeply under the covers, the way she used to do as a child after hearing a ghost story. She closed her eyes and watched the images march across her brain: endless days spent at the bedside of a living corpse, Mark's casket disappearing into the ground, a faceless woman at some shadowy location sobbing into a phone.
As the sound of those sobs echoed through Elena's mind, the image of a face from her past came into focus. Was that who was calling? If so, there was nothing Elena could do. She'd simply suffer . . . because she deserved it.