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Harry put one arm around Ali, and held out the other like the stiff arm of a running back. "Sorry, that's enough for now. Dr. O'Day just risked her life to save you and me and everyone else in this medical center. She needs to get some medical attention." As he conducted the limping Ali past the film crew, he called out to the bomb squad. "Guys, it looks like your job just got a whole lot easier. I'm gonna finish an orderly evacuation upstairs, and then let's see about getting these G.o.dd.a.m.ned bombs out of my medical center."
A chorus of whistles and cheers went up from Avery's men as Harry led Ali through the battered emergency door and up the stairs. They looked at him as if he had been the one who had saved them. They didn't get it. He hadn't done anything but believe in this weary, battered, hobbling woman, and act as her wingman when she needed it. It was she who had held the key, she who had had the courage-the courage to endure the unendurable, and to carry the day when hope was in short supply.
Dr. Gosling, Lee, Avery, the media-they would all be after him to explain what had happened during those twenty minutes in Kevin's lab. He would give it his best shot, but none of them would ever understand what it was like- the darkness, the beads of sweat, the agony. Just because there was a happy ending didn't mean they would understand it, any more than they did Nacogdoches.
Yeah, Nacogdoches. This was a kind of do-over, wasn't it? He was alive. Ali was alive. Two thousand people had come out safe, and his medical center was still standing. It was as if he had walked out of that burning house in East Texas with a live, squealing kid in each arm. It was one of those rare moments in existence when the whole world seemed to make sense.
And he owed it all to someone else. That was okay to him. He didn't need to be Wyatt Earp this time around. He was just thrilled to be alive.
When they reached the ground floor, Harry tried to take Ali directly to the emergency room, but she insisted on continuing to the third floor, to the Promenade lobby outside the Neuro ICU. Although the elevators were now running again, they were so jammed with fleeing patients and staff as to be unusable. The two were forced to trudge up several more flights of stairs.
The stairwell opened close to the Promenade, which had turned into a vast parking lot for beds, wheelchairs, IV poles, and monitor carts. Almost half of these had been abandoned when the elevators had first shut down. Since the empty beds could not be moved out of the way, they now clogged the approaches to the elevators and led to an impa.s.sible traffic jam. The atrium-like s.p.a.ce of the Promenade echoed with a throng of anxious and angry cries, along with the cricket-like chirping of a swarm of untended monitors and the constant clang of metal side rails.
Amid this scene of confusion, Ali found what she sought as easily as if the place were empty. Exactly as she had left it, one bed was placed up against the tall window, facing the western sun. At the foot of the bed, a slender, doll-like boy in a blue and white hospital gown and a headwrap like a turban leaned with outstretched arms against the window gla.s.s. Mrs. Gore stood beside him, steadying him with her hand against his back. Even from a distance, her eyes showed wet with tears.
"Doctor!" shouted Mrs. Gore when her eye caught Ali shambling toward her. She broke and ran toward Ali, knocking her thigh against the corner of the bed. "Doctor, it's a miracle! A miracle! Oh, thank the Lord!" She wrapped her arms around Ali and buried her face in Ali's shoulder, little noticing the small spray of blood that stained the neckline of Ali's scrubs. She spoke excitedly, but all the while weeping so lavishly that Ali could scarcely make out what she said.
Ali continued toward the window, leaning upon Harry and the sobbing Mrs. Gore. The boy took no notice of her as she approached. He was rapt by the spectacle outside the window, where three dozen police cars with flashing lights had ringed the entrance to the medical center. The grounds and the traffic circle were thronged with people, some in uniform, some in street garb, some with pale legs and b.u.t.tocks showing through their thin hospital gowns. The gra.s.s sparkled with shards of broken gla.s.s. A steady stream of refugees was still clambering through the windows of the lobby and the first-floor ER.
"Jamie, look who's here to see you," said Mrs. Gore.
Jamie turned and looked at Ali, who stood holding his bed rail. Although his eyes zoomed back and forth in a way they had never done before, there was no sign of recognition in his face.
"Do you know me, Jamie?" asked Ali with a teasing smile.
Jamie shook his head. "Wait!" he said, covering his eyes with his hands. "Say that again!"
"Do you know me?"
Jamie whisked his hands away. "Dr. Nefert.i.ti! It's you! I ... I didn't recognize your voice with my eyes open."
"How are you, Jamie?"
"It worked, Dr. Nefert.i.ti! I can see! I can see everything! I can see you!"
"Am I what you expected?"
He stared at her, as she stood with her hair bedraggled, her eyes squinting into the harsh red dazzle of the evening sun. Her right eyelid had swollen half shut, and had taken on a purplish coloration. Jamie smiled bashfully. "You're ... you're ... Oh, gosh! You're the most beautiful person in the world!"
Ali knitted her brows in a mock expression of sternness. "I'm afraid that the SIPNI device is going to need a little adjustment if that's how things look to you."
"No, it's true."
She smiled. "All right, if you say so."
Jamie went on scrutinizing her face. "Are those tears?" he asked at last.
"Why are they different colors?"
"What do you mean?"
Jamie reached out and touched both of her cheeks, one with his index finger, one with his middle finger. When he held them up, she could see that one was moistened as with a dewdrop, the other was daubed with blood.
"One for sadness, one for joy," she said with a wistful smile. In the glancing light of the sunset, she saw that Jamie's eyes were wet, too. It was too much for her. She flung her arms over the bed rail, wrapping them around him, clasping him so hard and so long that he could scarcely steal a gulp of air. Never before had she broken the barrier between doctor and patient in this way, but she could not hold back now. She wanted to feel the life within him-his warmth, his joy, his courage-to replenish the strength she needed to carry on. She wanted never to let him go.
After what seemed a long, long time, she felt Harry's strong hands upon her arms.
"It's been a h.e.l.luva day, Ali. You need medical attention, and I have an evacuation to manage."
She let her arms slip back over the bed rail, and turned to go with Harry. For an instant she thought of the new three-ring chart binder that lay on Jamie's bed, and felt an urge to write something-a change in his orders, a progress note-anything to seal this triumph in the permanent record. But she was far too tired. Tomorrow, tomorrow. Until then, history would have to write itself.
Harry walked her in the direction of the same stairwell by which they had come. No sooner had they gotten clear of the tangle of beds than Ali felt a vague, oppressive heaviness about her, as though she were surrounded not by air, but by an ocean of liquid lead.
A sigh stole from her, then a string of sobs, and then a storm of weeping. Embarra.s.sed, she tried to pull away from Harry, but he reached after her, so gently that she scarcely noticed his touch, and made her sit down on a bench that faced the window. For a long time, she said nothing-just wept uncontrollably with her face pressed against his chest.
Ali could not remember ever having cried this way. As she wept, her thoughts were of Kevin and Richard Helvelius-the two men she had loved. Brilliant but flawed men who had given shape to her life. She had lost them together in a single day, the day of the greatest triumph that she and they would ever know. She had not had time to grieve for them until this moment. Now, with the fading of the crisis, the full weight of her loss came toppling down on her. She had no defenses left, no solace, no hope-except to wash away the horror in a river of tears.
Tears had once frightened her. She had buried her mother and father and son without tears. Even for Wafaa she had not fully mourned. Although her heart had ached to the breaking point, she had sat at her sister's funeral as a shy little girl amid the wails and ululations of her aunts and cousins, afraid that if she abandoned herself to emotion as Wafaa had, she would share Wafaa's fate.
Now, as she plunged herself into a torrent of grief, she felt none of her accustomed inhibition. In place of it was a new feeling-a sense of being at one with herself. Even that savage dance of pa.s.sions at her core ceased to repel her. Pa.s.sion was nature-her nature. And she saw for the first time that the mastery of nature came not through denial, but through embrace.
Liberated, she wept for all the unmourned losses of her past.
Harry held her, drinking up her Nile of tears without a word. He was still a stranger, but she sensed that he was destined to hold a place in her life in days to come. His strength, so physical and so unlike Richard's imperturbability or Kevin's daredevil acrobatics, would shelter her from harm while she found the time to heal. She would be safe with him.
She thought of the child she carried, the child that would have been buried with her if these great walls had come crashing down. Its name came to her suddenly, as if the child itself had spoken it-Selim (Peace) if a boy, Selima if a girl. There was no question now but that she would bring this child to birth. It was a survival of one of the two men who had once loved her, and who, each in his own way, had taught her to believe in herself. She would never seek to find out which the father was. She would raise the child as a temple to both.
The sun was dying in a blaze of crimson and purple clouds, but she did not fear the coming night. She held her arms out to the future. Never again would she mistrust it as before. She would submit herself to whatever happened, not as to unalterable fate, but as weft glides through warp in a vast tapestry of meaning. Unshakeable peace came upon her-peace more pervasive than she had ever thought possible. It was this that she had sought in yoga, and at the right hand of Helvelius in the operating room-but it had always eluded her. Now it possessed her, so deeply rooted that she was sure it would never go away.
Serenity! It seemed miraculous, wonderful, an inexplicable gift. How astonished she was when she realized that, just as she had given Odin the power to feel, there was something that Odin in turn had given her....
And through her tears, she smiled.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR.
Scott Britz-Cunningham, M.D., Ph.D., is the son of a police officer and a commercial artist, and was born and raised in the Chicago area. He completed post-graduate training in anatomic pathology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, and at the Harvard Medical School Joint Program in Nuclear Medicine. He works as a staff radiologist at the Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, and is an a.s.sistant professor of radiology at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Britz-Cunningham lives in Quincy, Ma.s.sachusetts, with his artist wife, Evelyn, and his son, Alexander. After a long day of reading PET scans, he likes to unwind by picking a few Scruggs-style licks on his favorite five-string banjo.
This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author's imagination or are used fict.i.tiously.
Copyright 2013 by Scott Britz-Cunningham.