Safe with Me
The first thing Hannah hears is Emily’s soul-piercing scream. Next, the grinding screech of brakes and the sharp crunch as metals collide. The sounds twirl toward her in slow motion—still-frame, auditory blips. But then, in an instant, they stitch together into an image. Into a truth that steals her breath.
Oh, holy god.
She shoves back from her desk and races down the stairway, stumbling out the door and into the yard. With a wild-eyed gaze she sees it: the car she heard—a red convertible Mustang, top down, the engine still running. In front of it lies her daughter’s purple, glittering ten-speed. The handlebars are twisted and broken, the black tires torn right off the wheels. Someone screams and it takes a moment for Hannah to realize that it is her. The sound slices up through her throat like a spinning blade as she runs over to Emily, whose small body was flung from the crash. Her twelve-year-old daughter is splayed
upon the blacktop, arms and legs turned at strange angles from her torso. Blood trickles down her forehead from an injury on her scalp. Her mouth is open, her eyes closed.
She wasn’t wearing her helmet. Oh god oh god oh god.
“Call 911!” Hannah shrieks. “Somebody, please, call them!” She is vaguely aware that her neighbors have rushed from their houses, too.
“I didn’t see her!” a woman cries. She is standing next to the car, hands clutching the sides of her blond head. “She shot out from the driveway! I didn’t have time to stop!” The woman is hysterical . . . sobbing, but Hannah doesn’t care. She drops down next to Emily, scraping her knuckles raw as she lifts her daughter from the rough pavement, gathering her child to her chest the way she did when Emily was still a baby, their hearts pressed together in sweet, synchronized beats.
“Mama’s here,” Hannah says, her mouth against her daughter’s dark, damp hair. “Don’t you worry. Mama’s right here.” Emily is limp, unmoving.
A small gathering of people creates a protective circle around them both. It is a hot, sunny Saturday in late July. A day for barbecues and picnics, for Popsicles and campfires and s’mores. This can’t be happening. It can’t be. She’s all I have. Nothing else matters. Just her.
Their next-door neighbor, Mr. Blake, sinks to his knees beside Hannah and slips an arm around her. “The ambulance is coming,” he says. “Maybe you shouldn’t move her.”
Hannah ignores him. “She’s going to be okay,” she murmurs. “She has to be.” She clutches Emily tighter.
After a few minutes that feel more like hours, like decades, a siren whines in the distance, growing louder as it draws close.
It isn’t fast enough. Mr. Blake places two of his gnarled fingers on Emily’s throat, and Hannah’s first instinct is to yank her away, to protect her daughter from any more possible harm, but then she realizes what he’s trying to do.
“She has a pulse,” he says. “It’s weak, but it’s there.”
Hannah nods, her lips pressed together so hard she can’t feel them. She can’t feel anything. The inside of her skull is a beehive someone just kicked. She can’t form a thought. There is only the buzzing . . . the one word in her head, one incantation, one prayer.
She closes her eyes and whispers the word please.
• • •
Hannah waits. She sits in the emergency room, gripping the edge of her chair, her arms stiff and straight, her body rocking forward and back in small, measured movements. The space bustles with a state of urgency: nurses in brightly patterned smocks and sensible white shoes jog down the hallways; an aide rushes past with an empty gurney. The air, thick with antiseptic and sweat, tickles the back of Hannah’s throat; she’s afraid she might vomit. Patients cry out, phones ring, doctors are paged stat to the OR—sound effects like fishhooks in her skin.
She throws a quick glance at the people in the seats around her—a man with deeply lined skin and a thatch of white hair sits alone, holding a straw hat in his lap, tearing at its brim with shaking fingers. One of his legs bounces in a staccato rhythm; his plaid shorts expose thickly veined, knobby knees. For some reason this feels obscene to Hannah, almost as bad as if he had flashed her. Across the room, a couple hold each
other’s hands. Tears run down the woman’s pale cheeks and she gives Hannah a look filled with palpable, aching empathy. Hannah bobs her head once, holding the woman’s gaze for a moment, but then drops her eyes to the cold, glossy floor. It’s too much for her, this kind of agony laid bare. Too raw and bloody. Too real.
The doctors are attempting to save Emily’s life. They hurried her into surgery just moments after the medics rushed her inside the hospital. In a hazy fog, she signed all the forms the nurses put in front of her, giving the doctors permission to do their work.
“Please,” Hannah said to the doctor hovering over Emily before they wheeled her away. “Help her.” Emily’s hair stood out like a swath of dark ink against the white sheet beneath her. Her skin was pasty except for the blackening blood on her face. She still hadn’t moved.
“We’ll do everything we can,” the doctor said, giving her arm a quick squeeze before whisking her only child through gray double doors.
Now, two hours later, a nurse approaches Hannah in the waiting room. “Can I get you anything?” she asks. “Do you need to call anyone?”
Hannah shakes her head. Not yet. She’ll phone her parents once she knows more about Emily’s condition. When she can tell them their granddaughter will be okay. Mr. Blake had offered to come with her as she climbed into the back of the ambulance, but she told him no.
Thirteen years ago, at thirty-one, Hannah signed up for motherhood knowing full well she’d be on her own. She wanted a child so much that she was no longer willing to wait
for the right man to come along, given the odds of finding someone who, unlike Devin, her fiancé for two years in her late twenties, didn’t screw around behind her back.
Instead, she opted for a sure thing: sperm donor number 4873, a twenty-three-year-old premed student with dark hair and a family history vacant of serious illness. “Look at me,” she joked to her best friend and business partner, Sophie. “I’m a cougar.” Nine months after the procedure, Hannah held a red-faced, squalling baby Emily in her arms.
As she waits, Hannah’s thoughts wander to all of those early nights she and Emily spent together—nights when Emily wouldn’t sleep, when the only thing that brought her baby comfort was pacing the house for hours at a time.
“You are the reason I’m here,” Hannah whispered into Emily’s tiny, seashell-shaped ear. “You’re my angel . . . my sweet, perfect girl.” Emily gazed back at her with round-as-poker-chips blue eyes, and Hannah couldn’t help but believe that, even as an infant, her daughter understood her, that the love she felt for Emily was a language only the two of them could speak.
She had support, of course. Sophie took over the bulk of the salon’s administrative work for a couple of years right after Emily was born, and Hannah worked solely as a stylist. Jill, the nanny she hired when Emily was four months old, cared for her daughter while Hannah expertly cut and colored her clients’ hair. While her parents were in Boise, too far away to be of much immediate help, they flew into Seattle at least once a year, and Hannah took Emily to their farm for almost every major holiday. There was nothing sweeter than seeing Emily at two years old chasing after the chickens that had free range of her parents’ front yard, nothing that filled Hannah’s heart
more than her almost-teenage daughter still climbing up into Grandpa’s lap for a cuddle.
They’d visited the farm just a few weeks ago, over the Fourth of July weekend, enjoying an enormous meal of her mother’s crispy fried chicken and creamy dill potato salad, in which the celery absolutely counted as a serving of vegetables, her father insisted as he scraped the bowl clean. Emily was basking in her grandparents’ attention, relishing her role as their only grandchild, but also missing her uncle Isaac. “Why didn’t he come?” she asked as she stood on the edge of the wraparound porch, tilting her dark head and placing a splayed hand on her jutted-out hip. “He’s supposed to light the fireworks.”
“He really wanted to, honey, but he couldn’t get out of a business trip,” Hannah said. Almost twenty-five years ago, her brother had moved to Seattle because he’d received a full-ride structural engineering scholarship to the University of Washington. A year and a half later, Hannah followed him to the city in order to attend cosmetology school; her parents agreed to her moving away from Boise, too, only because her big brother would be close by. Hannah resented this a little at the time—what eighteen-year-old girl wants her big brother watching her every move? But later, especially after Emily was born, Hannah was grateful to have him around. Isaac was a doting uncle, devoted to Emily at least as much as her grandparents. He was certainly a positive male influence in her life—he taught her to ride her bike and fixed the broken toys Hannah would have thrown out. He played tag and roughhoused with Emily in the silly way that men like to do. His job demanded that he travel far too much to find a relationship that lasted longer than a
few months, let alone become serious enough to consider having children, so he channeled all his paternal emotions into his niece. He took good care of them both.
A scowl took over Emily’s face as she took a moment to consider Hannah’s explanation for her uncle’s absence. “That stinks,” she finally remarked, then trotted off to pet one of the horses over the fence. She adored Isaac as much as he adored her.
“She’s so much like you,” Hannah’s mother said, after watching this brief exchange.
With her long black hair and narrow face, Emily certainly looked like Hannah, but Hannah didn’t think her mother was referring to their appearance. “Like me how?” she asked.
“She’s a thinker.” Her mother reached over and gave Hannah a knowing look. “But not afraid to speak her mind.”
Hannah couldn’t help but believe that her mother was right. Emily had been such a good baby, calm and serious, always seeming to absorb the world around her like a thirsty sponge, observing people’s behavior, every detail. Cataloging them somehow. Deciding who was worthy of her attention and who was not. When Emily was a toddler, her belly laugh was infrequent enough that Hannah felt a true sense of accomplishment whenever she managed to evoke it. Emily wasn’t withdrawn. Just . . . contemplative. She knew her own mind from an early age, stubbornly insisting on picking out her own outfits and meals, asserting her individuality wherever she could. Power struggles arose from time to time, with Emily’s helmet being one of them. Hannah insisted that she wear it anytime she straddled her bicycle; Emily reasoned that if she was only riding on the sidewalk in front of their house, she shouldn’t have
to. “The cement on the sidewalk will crack your skull just as easily as in the street,” Hannah told her more than once.
Hannah shudders now, thinking back to the many times she spoke those seemingly prophetic words. Why did Emily ride into the street when she knew Hannah strictly forbade it? Was she angry that Hannah said she had to come to the salon that afternoon because Jill was sick and couldn’t come to the house? Was this simply a quiet act of rebellion that ended in disaster? What if Hannah had canceled her appointments for the day and instead spent the time with Emily? What if Emily had chosen to watch TV instead of slipping out the side door to the garage and climbing onto her bike? What if she hadn’t zipped out of the driveway into the car’s path? What if, what if?
Hannah closes her eyes and bites her bottom lip, trying to shut out the rampant noises around her. Nausea roils in her stomach and sour bile rises in the back of her mouth. She focuses on her daughter, imploring a God she isn’t sure is there. Please.
Her phone vibrates in her purse, and she grabs for it. “Hannah?” Sophie’s familiar voice, lilting with the soft trill of her French accent. After her parents’ divorce when she was fourteen, Sophie and her mother immigrated to the United States to live with relatives, and while both spoke impeccable English, Sophie’s words still sound as though they were made of music. “You missed your three o’clock color with Mrs. Clark. She was furious, chérie. Where are you?”
Hannah’s chin trembles and her breath rattles inside her chest. “I’m at Swedish hospital. Emily’s in surgery.”
“What? Oh my god. What happened?”
Hannah tells Sophie about the red convertible, about Emily’s
mangled bike. “She wasn’t wearing a helmet. I’ve told her a million times to put that damn thing on no matter what. No matter how hot it is or how itchy. Why didn’t she listen to me?” Hannah’s sobs tear at her throat as she speaks. “Oh god, Sophie. I’m so scared.”
“I’ll be right there.”
“You don’t have to—” Hannah starts, but Sophie has already hung up. Much of their salon’s success was due her partner’s unwillingness to take no for an answer. It was the reason Hannah owned half the business in the first place.
Almost twenty years ago, she and Sophie worked together at a large commercial salon where it was less about the quality of their work and more about how many clients they could shuffle in and out of their chairs each day. Finally, after a few years of dealing with a toxic atmosphere of gossipy and backstabbing stylists, Sophie talked Hannah into applying for a small business loan to start their own salon. They were so successful, in fact, that they had recently purchased a charming Craftsman house in a business district of Bellevue and planned to transform it into a second Ciseaux location.
“Ms. Scott?” A doctor in blue scrubs approaches, snapping Hannah out of her thoughts. He is older, a fact she finds strangely comforting, as though his years of wisdom and experience can somehow erase the perilous nature of this moment. His silver hair is damp around his forehead, and he clutches a surgical cap in one hand. “I’m Dr. Wilder. I was working on your daughter.”
Was? Hannah stands, pulse racing, still clutching her cell phone. “Is she okay? Can I see her?”
“Soon.” Dr. Wilder takes another step toward her and
gestures for her to sit. She complies, slipping her phone back into her purse, which she has only because another neighbor dashed into her house and grabbed it for her before the ambulance shut its doors. The doctor sits as well, taking her hand in his. His fingers are soft and warm. They feel capable. Hannah latches on to this thought as evidence that Emily is safe.
“Your daughter sustained life-threatening injuries,” he says. His voice is low and calm; his gray eyes reveal nothing. “When her head hit the pavement, her brain began to bleed.” Hannah nods, her jaw rattling so violently she has to clench her teeth to stop it. Dr. Wilder knits his thick, white brows together before continuing. “We were able to stop the hemorrhage, but I’m afraid the damage was extensive.”
“What does that mean?” Hannah asks. Her heart thuds against her rib cage in a violent rhythm, hard enough to convince her it will bruise.
“It means she is alive, but only because we’ve put her on a ventilator.” He waits a beat. “She’s had no spontaneous brain function. None at all since she came in.”
The buzzing in Hannah’s head takes over her thoughts and the room starts to spin. She closes her eyes. “Is it a coma?” she finally manages to whisper. “Will she wake up?”
Dr. Wilder squeezes her hand. “I’m afraid not,” he says. “There’s no activity in her brain stem. If we discontinued life support, she wouldn’t survive. I’m so sorry to have to tell you this, but there’s simply no chance she’ll recover.”
Her eyes snap open. “Oh god . . . no!” She moans, a low, throbbing sound. Letting go of his hand, she bends at the waist, crossing her arms over her chest. Tears rush down her cheeks as she once again rocks in place. “Are you sure? Are
you sure?” she repeats. She feels the eyes of the couple across the room upon her. The old man gets up and walks away, as though distancing himself from her could help him avoid a similar fate.
“Yes,” the doctor says. “I’m very sorry.” He doesn’t speak again, waiting for Hannah to right herself.
When she does, she faces him with swollen eyes and red cheeks. “She should have worn that damn helmet,” she says through quivering lips.
“Wouldn’t have made a difference,” he says. “The impact was too severe.”
Hearing this, Hannah allows herself to feel a small flash of relief. “Isn’t there something else you can do? Another surgery?” she asks, but Dr. Wilder frowns and shakes his head. Hannah feels her throat close up. She can’t swallow, and for a moment, she can’t speak. The walls seem to curve, compressing the air around her. She reminds herself to breathe. “I need to see her,” she finally says in a hoarse voice, one she doesn’t recognize as her own. Her body feels fragile, like thinly blown glass.
Dr. Wilder nods. “Of course,” he says, then hesitates a moment before continuing. “And please, forgive me, but I need to ask . . . is your daughter an organ donor?”
“What?” Hannah says, blinking. She can’t focus on his meaning. She knows she should understand it, but everything is muffled, as though they were having this conversation underwater.
“If she’s a donor, it’s possible she can save other lives when she passes.”
When she passes? Hannah can’t wrap her mind around the
thought. I’ll do anything, anything to make this not true. I’ll sell the business, move back to Idaho with my parents like they’ve always wanted. I’ll give Emily a quiet life in the country, let her frolic with goats and milk the cows, like I did growing up. I’ve been so selfish, having her live in the city. I’ll give everything up. I’ll change it all if she’ll just stay with me.
Hannah shakes her head. “I just . . . I don’t . . . I can’t think about that right now,” she says.
“I understand how difficult this is,” the doctor says. “I only ask because her organs will deteriorate as her condition worsens. The sooner we know if she might be a donor, the more lives she could save. That’s all.” He stands and motions for her to do the same.
Hannah stares at him a moment, wondering if she refuses to go, if she cements herself to the chair, would anything change? If she could somehow reverse the day, go back to the beginning and start over, do everything differently, none of this would have happened.
But the look Dr. Wilder gives her lifts her from her seat. With a deep breath, she follows him down the hall, suddenly facing the kind of decision that no mother should ever have to make.
Safe with Me
“We might have a liver,” Dr. Steele says as he enters Maddie’s hospital suite. He is a tall man, six foot five, with long, tapered fingers, seemingly more suited to a basketball court than to a hospital. As Maddie’s hepatologist for the last eight years, he has gained Olivia’s implicit trust.
“It’s the right type?” she asks, clutching the novel she’d been pretending to read for the past three hours. She pushes herself up from the reclining chair in the corner of the room, her heart suddenly in her throat. Maddie’s declining lab results place her as a Status 1 on the UNOS scoring system, which means as soon as a match comes up, it’s hers.
Dr. Steele bobs his head. “A twelve-year-old girl was hit by a car. Her mother still needs to sign the paperwork, but the organ procurement team has been notified and is evaluating the match. It’s looking good.”
“How soon will we know?” Olivia asks as she sets the book on the chair behind her. Relief rushes through her, thinking that
her daughter might survive. In exactly the same moment, she is struck by the plight of the other mother, the one whose child’s life—all that potential and beauty—has been so swiftly and suddenly erased. She can’t imagine the depth of this woman’s pain, the unfairness of it all. It makes her ill to realize how fervently she’s been praying for another child to die.
“Within the hour, I hope.” He smiles, the gesture lighting up his dark brown eyes in a way Olivia hasn’t seen before. Normally, he is the deliverer of bad news for Maddie.
“Thank you so much,” she says to Dr. Steele, who nods and lets his gaze linger on Olivia’s face a moment longer than she expects. She’s accustomed to looks like this from men, filled with admiration and maybe even a little longing. It embarrasses her, really. Especially now, when she’s certain her usually sleek blond bob is a frizzy mess and the makeup she applied yesterday afternoon is likely smeared around her eyes.
“You have tiger eyes,” James told her the day they first met in the lobby of the attorney’s office where she used to work as a paralegal. “Does that mean you’re dangerous?”
Then-twenty-two-year-old Olivia shook her head and blushed in response, a little amazed that this polished, professional businessman with black hair and vivid green eyes was paying attention to her. He had to be at least a decade older than she was, though he carried himself with the slightly chest-puffed air of a much younger man. “I don’t know,” she said, raising a single eyebrow. “Are you?” This bold flirtation surprised her; it usually wasn’t in her nature. But something about James pulled her toward him. She felt like a cat, wanting to arch her back, press her body against his, and purr.
James tilted his head back and laughed, a deep, resonant tone that made Olivia’s skin tingle. Then, he reached over her desk and gently kissed the back of her hand. “Let me take you out for dinner tonight and you can find out,” he said. She accepted his invitation to one of the most expensive French restaurants in Tampa, which he was only visiting for business.
“Please,” he said, holding up the menu after they were seated. “Will you allow me? I want to introduce you to my favorite dishes.” She let him order her meal; she let him instruct her on how to swirl the Merlot in her glass before breathing in its heady bouquet. He told her which fork to use and encouraged her to at least sample the escargot. She managed to choke a bite down so he wouldn’t be offended, but whoever had decided that snails were a delicacy had clearly escaped a mental institution.
“You’re so beautiful with those gorgeous brown locks,” James said, leaning toward her across the table. He reached out and touched her hair. “But I bet you’d put every other woman in Florida to shame if you went blond.”
Olivia felt a small twist in her stomach hearing his words, unsure if they were a compliment or an insult. Even so, she wanted to please him, so two months later, after several more comments like that, she let him set up an appointment for her to transform her into a blonde. Eight months after that, James proposed, wanting her to relocate to Seattle. “What about my job?” she asked. “And my mom?”
“I’ll take care of her,” James promised. “I’ll get her a full-time nurse so she can move into her own place.” He knew Olivia was especially close to her mother, who suffered from such debilitating arthritis that she was forced to live off disability.
Olivia shared a small apartment with her, and there was no way her mother could pay the bills on her own.
“You would? Really?”
James nodded. “Of course. She’d be my family, too.” Stunned by his generosity, Olivia accepted the flawless, three-carat diamond ring he presented to her. James kept his word, purchasing and moving her mother into an elegant two-bedroom condo near the beach. He helped Olivia hire a wonderful, live-in Jamaican nurse named Tanesa to care for her. A month later, they were married and left Florida, returning only when Maddie was born, and then again, three years after that, when Olivia’s mother passed away after a heart attack.
Now, eighteen years later, Olivia runs her hands down her simple gray cardigan, smoothing out the wrinkles, wondering what James would think if he walked in and observed this moment with Dr. Steele. What he’d assume they had been doing. The thought lights a spark of panic in her chest and she swallows hard to extinguish it.
“I’ll keep you posted,” Dr. Steele says. “The social worker will be along soon. I’ve found a younger, less gullible member of the team. I think Maddie might like her.”
Despite the weight of the moment, Olivia can’t help but smile, remembering how a week ago, a meek, older woman with mousy hair and orthopedic shoes attempted to get Maddie to talk about any fears or concerns she might be having about becoming an organ recipient. Maddie peered at her, then cocked her head to the side. “Yeah,” she said, deadpan. “I’m afraid of becoming possessed by the other person’s soul.”
“Maddie,” Olivia said, knowing her daughter was testing the worker. Maddie couldn’t rebel like a typical teenager—she
couldn’t miss curfew or make out with a boy beneath the bleachers—so she tended to channel her hormonal angst into harassing hospital workers.
“What, Mom?” Maddie said, blinking. “I mean it.”
Despite Olivia’s best efforts to intervene, the poor woman went on for at least twenty minutes, trying to convince Maddie that those tales of possession were false, until Maddie could no longer keep a straight face. “I can’t believe you fell for that one,” she snickered, and the woman blushed, whipped around, and fled the room.
Now, Olivia nods and thanks the doctor again, watching as he strides out of the suite and down the hall. Then her gaze moves over to Maddie. Her daughter, petite for fifteen but unnaturally swollen, lies hooked up to machines pumping her full of the medications that are the only things keeping her alive. Her head is turned to the side, her sandy brown hair is straggly and limp, and her eyelids—covering beautiful hazel irises—are fluttery but closed.
As always, Olivia’s gut clenches at seeing her daughter so distorted, so ill. Since she was seven, she has been plagued by a rare case of type 2 autoimmune hepatitis. When the immunosuppressant meds that controlled Maddie’s disease stopped working a few months ago, her skin and eyes yellowed, and her belly plumped up as it began to retain more fluid and toxins than her bedraggled liver could process. The scarring on her organ has progressed to the point of her needing a transplant; if she doesn’t get one, it is likely she will die in a few weeks. The thought makes Olivia feel as though she has been gutted. The past eight years have been tenuous, with Maddie in the hospital more often than she was out of it. Her health has been
so fragile that she couldn’t go to school or play with other children, for fear of picking up an infection that might kill her. All Olivia wants for her daughter is a normal life; a transplant is her only hope to have one.
Reaching over, Olivia pushes a stray lock of hair back from Maddie’s face. “It’s going to be okay, baby,” she whispers, knowing she is reassuring herself as much as her daughter. I can’t lose her. I can’t. “We’re going to get you well.”
Maddie stirs, turns her head back and forth across the pillow. “Mommy?” she murmurs, and Olivia’s chest aches. Maddie tends to call her Mom or Mother—sometimes Olivia, or even Mrs. Bell when she is feeling sassy. Mommy is an endearment left over from toddlerhood, a term that reappeared only after Maddie was diagnosed.
“I’m right here, sweetie,” Olivia says, touching Maddie’s thin arm with the tips of her fingers, careful to avoid the IV taped to the back of her daughter’s hand. Maddie’s veins are so exhausted from being prodded, they have shrunk away from the surface of her skin. When she was first admitted, it took the nurse an hour to find one that didn’t collapse.
“Where’s Dad?” Maddie asks as she finally opens her eyes. When Maddie first looked in the mirror and saw the whites of her eyes glowing yellow, she cried—a sound so haunting it tied Olivia’s heart into messy knots. She tried to tell Maddie that she didn’t see the yellow. All she saw was her daughter, her brilliant and beautiful child. That’s all she sees now.
“At the office,” Olivia says. “Do you want to talk to him?”
Maddie shakes her head. “Can I have my laptop?” Her voice is thick, groggy from the meds and lack of moisture.
Frowning, Olivia grabs the pitcher of water from the table next to Maddie’s bed and pours her a glass. James bought Maddie the computer several years ago to help keep her entertained, and it seems to Olivia that her daughter spends too much time online, but she can’t justify limiting something that Maddie loves—she is able to enjoy so little. Still, she hesitates. “Are you sure you feel up to it?” she asks. “Maybe you should get some more rest.”
“All I do is rest,” Maddie says, an irritated edge to her tone. She takes a sip of water, then sets the cup on the tray in front of her. “Please, Mom?”
Sighing, Olivia reaches into the drawer of the nightstand and places the laptop on the tray, careful not to knock over the water. “I’m going to call your dad, okay?” she says as Maddie turns on the computer. She needs to tell James about the possibility of the transplant, but she doesn’t want Maddie to know until they are certain it will happen. No use getting her daughter’s hopes up if the other girl’s mother decides not to donate. Again, Olivia’s stomach turns, imagining what this woman is facing. Could she make that kind of decision? Could she end her own child’s life knowing another depended on it? She isn’t sure that she could. There’s a very real possibility that this woman might say no.
Maddie nods and waves Olivia away, keeping her fingers poised over the keyboard and her eyes on the computer screen, waiting for it to boot up. When Maddie was admitted to the hospital, three weeks ago, Olivia quietly suggested to her husband that their daughter might like to have a roommate to talk with during her stay, that Maddie had already
spent too much of the last eight years in solitary confinement because of her illness. Tutors and homeschooling; weeks at a time in lonely hospital rooms with nothing to do other than watch movies or surf for silly videos on YouTube. But Olivia’s husband insisted on privacy for Maddie, the fancy suite with the wide, comfortable bed and flat-screen TV, usually reserved for children of politicians or celebrities. As the owner and CEO of one of the largest investment firms on the West Coast, James had no concern about money. The ominous flash in his green eyes made it clear to Olivia that it wasn’t worth trying to argue the point.
Once Olivia is in the hallway, she calls James’s cell. Her breath becomes shallow as the phone rings, four . . . five . . . six times. At eight, she will have the electronic protection of voicemail and avoid having to speak with him directly. She won’t have to worry about the words she chooses or the tone of her voice. James can take an unexpected pause in a conversation and turn it into a heavy silence he’d punish her with for weeks.
“What” is his greeting—not a question, but a challenge, because she’s interrupting his day. Olivia swallows to keep from crying as she tells him about the little girl on life support. He listens, his impatience traveling on the line between them with invisible sparks. “So, it’s possible, but the mother hasn’t even signed off yet?” he asks.
“Right.” Olivia knows she has to keep her voice steady. “I just thought you’d want to know . . . I thought you might come.” Your daughter needs you, you jerk. Words she often thought over the past eight years, but would never, ever speak. James leaves the bulk of caring for Maddie to Olivia—he pays the
bills, he visited the hospital when Maddie was admitted—but it is Olivia who spends every night with their daughter.
“I’m neck deep in closing a deal, Liv. I told you that this morning. Didn’t I? Were you not paying attention?” His words are hard, pummeling her like barbed little fists. Olivia pictures him standing behind his huge burled walnut desk, looking younger than his fifty years. His six-foot-four, broad-shouldered build is imposing to anyone and anything that stands in his way. His suits are custom made to fit him perfectly, the hues of all his shirts carefully selected to set off his tan skin and salt-and-pepper hair. Everyone says they make a beautiful couple. On the surface, Olivia supposes they do.
“Yes.” She bites the inside of her cheek to keep from saying more.
“I’ll be there the minute we know for sure. Otherwise, I need to work. Call me when the papers are signed.” He pauses, his voice momentarily softening. “Give Maddie a kiss for me.” He hangs up without saying good-bye, and Olivia keeps the phone to her ear for a minute, thinking about their daughter, the one reason she didn’t walk out on James eight years ago.
She had a plan—she’d squirreled away enough money from the allowance James gave her to take care of herself and Maddie for at least a year. Her strategy was to find a job with hours she could work when Maddie was in school. She would have changed their names if she had to. Dyed their hair and worn colored contacts. Started their lives all over again. And then, just before she began third grade, Maddie got sick, and Olivia knew she couldn’t afford the kind of treatment her daughter’s illness would demand. She couldn’t work and get
Maddie to endless doctors’ appointments. She’d never actually threatened to leave him—she was too afraid of what he might do to her if she spoke those words—but Olivia was certain if she did leave, that James would attempt to prove her an unfit mother, that she didn’t have the resources to properly care for her sick child. And since there was no way in hell Olivia would let him take sole custody of her daughter, she resigned herself to the fact that as long as Maddie was ill, they had to stay with James.
But now, there is a liver. Olivia believes that if she has managed to survive a life with James this long, she can hold out a little longer. Maddie will miraculously be healed, and Olivia can start working out the details of her new plan. And then—finally—she will muster up the courage to make her escape.
Safe with Me
I wait until Mom leaves the room before I log in to my email account—the one linked to the Facebook profile my parents know nothing about. The one I created so I could pretend to actually have a life.
About six months ago, when I was just dinking around on the Internet, I stumbled across the Facebook profile of a gorgeous twenty-one-year-old girl in Austin, Texas, who was stupid enough to not use any kind of security on her page. (Not a single, solitary one. I mean, really. Who does that?) Despite her ignorance of privacy settings, as I looked through her picture albums, I thought, I want to be her. She’s everything I’m not—tall and thin with breasts like cantaloupes and a sparkly belly button ring. She has long, black, wavy hair, shimmery, tanned olive skin, and legs that are, like, twice as long as her torso. She dates hot guys with Abercrombie & Fitch–like style and gets to travel for her job as a car show model. And then I thought, Why can’t I be her? It’s not like I’d be hurting anyone—I wouldn’t be stealing her Social Security
number or the password to her bank accounts. I wouldn’t be using her airline miles or racking up charges at Victoria’s Secret on her credit card. Using her pictures on my online profiles would simply give me a chance for a little vacation from pills and blood draws and IV fluids. It would let me be something other than sick.
I quickly discovered that while I could copy some of her pictures, there was no way I’d copy her status updates, since they tended to be filled with multiple exclamation points: “TGIF!!! Bring on the boys and beer!!! LOL!!!” (I might only be fifteen, but I’m not an idiot.) Instead, I amped up “Sierra’s” (aka my) profile by liking what I hoped was a cool assortment of different pages. I kept it as close to the truth about me as possible, listing my music interests as hers (Coldplay, Fiona Apple, and Nirvana); giving her the books I adore (the Hunger Games series, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and The Nanny Diaries); and liking a few trendy pages: “Bacon” and “George Takei.” I changed the girl’s name (from Tiffani Myers to Sierra Stone), college (from none to WSU), and career (from model to aspiring graphic artist), then copied Tiffani’s profile picture and other snapshots from her albums, making backup files on my hard drive so I could use the images as my avatar in the chat rooms I liked to visit and the games I liked to play online. (I had to restrain myself from sending Tiffani what I thought would be a helpful, anonymous message: “You do realize the Internet is forever, right? That pic of you lying across the BMW in a red bikini, men lined up take body shots off you? Your grandchildren are going to see that.”) I accepted friend requests from anyone who wasn’t already friends with Tiffani, amazed by the number of random strangers who “Sierra” was suddenly “friends” with simply because of the way she looked.
Now, as I lie in my hospital bed with zero emails in Sierra’s inbox, I toy briefly with the idea of creating a profile as my actual self: a fifteen-year-old girl with a diseased liver, an emotionally distant father, and a sweet but overprotective mother. A girl who doesn’t have any friends. Who has never gone to a school dance or had a boy try to kiss her. A girl who, if she doesn’t get a transplant, is going to die.
I dig my fingernails into my palms and gulp hard, fighting back the tears. Most of the time, I’m able to keep the reality of my situation shoved into a corner of my mind. I can see it, I know the truth, but I can dance past it when I want, pretending to be Sierra instead of Maddie, hovering above what feels like an impending doom. Being in the hospital makes it impossible to ignore. I sleep most of the time, I can’t eat, and the looks on Dr. Steele’s and my mother’s faces tell me that things aren’t getting any better—they’re getting worse.
When I first got sick, I didn’t really understand what it meant. I knew I didn’t feel good—I was tired all of the time and I didn’t want to eat. I was six when I was diagnosed with celiac disease, which meant I couldn’t ingest anything with any sort of gluten in it. When I did, I’d ache all over and get incredibly nauseous. A year later, it became worse. After a couple of weeks of thinking my symptoms were due to my secret stash of my dad’s beloved multigrain bread, Mom took me to the pediatrician, who, while pushing gently on my abdominal area, discovered my liver was enlarged. Several blood tests and specialist visits later, my problem had a name: type 2 hepatitis, which, apparently, adolescent girls who already have some kind of autoimmune disorder like celiac are more likely to contract. It’s rare, but it happens. Lucky me.
“It’s treatable,” Dr. Steele told us. He prescribed an initially high dose of prednisone, then gradually tapered the amount down to try and keep my immune system in check. The meds worked, at first. I was able to stay in school, though I couldn’t run as hard or fast as the other kids in my class. And then one morning, in third grade, I woke up writhing and sweating in my bed. “I can’t get up, Mama,” I cried. “Help me!” I remember the fear, the agonizing ache in my bones. I remember vomiting so hard I saw streams of blood in the toilet. I remember my throat swelling and feeling like I couldn’t breathe. I was in the hospital that night, and didn’t leave for several weeks.
“Esophageal inflammation,” Dr. Steele explained to my parents when he met us in the emergency room. “When the circulation in Maddie’s body gets blocked because of scar tissue on her liver, blood can back up into other vessels. Mostly in her stomach and esophagus, which I think is what’s happening now.”
“And how do you propose to fix it?” Dad asked, holding on to the metal rail of my bed until his thick knuckles went white. I’d always hated my father’s hands: they gripped too tightly, slammed too many doors.
“We’ll try adding another course of anti-inflammatories and upping the prednisone. If that doesn’t work, we may have to consider surgically inserting a shunt, to drain the fluid from her liver,” Dr. Steele said, then looked over to me. “You’ll have to stay here awhile, Maddie, so we can get you better. I promise, we’ll take excellent care of you.”
“I want her moved to a private suite as soon as possible,” Dad said.
“Please,” my mom quietly added to his demand, and Dad grabbed her hand hard enough that she flinched. He shot Dr.
Steele a charming smile. “I apologize. It’s just . . . Maddie is my little girl. I only want the best for her. You understand.”
Dr. Steele nodded slowly, then tweaked my nose. “I’ll see you after your ultrasound, missy. Can I bring you a Popsicle from the cafeteria?” I bobbed my head yes, because at eight years old, I still thought Popsicles made everything better.
Seven years and countless hospital stays later, I detest Popsicles. I’ve also managed to build up a tolerance to the drugs that are supposed to suppress what Dr. Steele calls my “hyperimmune response,” so they aren’t working anymore. They make me fat and bloated and still my stupid immune system thinks my liver is its enemy and keeps trying to kill it. And the unfortunate side effect of that is killing me. Unless I get a transplant. Unless some other person with the right blood type dies and saves my life.
I try to distract myself from these depressing thoughts with a quick review of Tiffani’s profile, scanning for material I might be able to snag for Sierra. I note that she’s taking a trip to England for a car show next week, so I know there’ll be new pictures to use. I cringe, imagining Tiffani’s Facebook posts as she travels: “OMG!! Big Ben!!” and “I ordered chips and got French fries. LMAO, y’all!!”
My mom reenters the room just as I close the browser and lock the screen. She doesn’t know much about computers past being able to email and surf the Web, but I password-protect mine, just to be safe. “Your dad sends his love,” she says.
“Awesome. Why be here when he can just ‘send his love’?”
Mom frowns at my sarcasm. “Maddie—”
“What?” I snap, closing my laptop. I get so tired of her pretending that Dad is such a great guy. I know she’s trying to protect
me. I know she hopes I don’t notice what goes on in our house, but I’d have to be a moron not to. I’d have to be Tiffani.
Suddenly, the weight of overwhelming fatigue clamps down on my body. My heartbeat thuds inside my skull, chipping away at my consciousness, and I have to close my eyes. It hits me like this sometimes. I’ll be feeling almost normal (well, normal for me, at least, which Dr. Steele says is probably how most people feel when they have a seriously bad case of food poisoning), and out of nowhere, I think, Okay, this is it. These are my last breaths. I try to have meaningful thoughts, to wish for world peace and the end to childhood famine and Miss America-y things like that, but usually, like now, I think about how I wish I could have a bowlful of chocolate gelato just one more time. I wish I could lie on the beach and get a sunburn, listening to the waves crash against the shore. I wish I wasn’t going to die a virgin.
Mom rushes over to my bed. “Are you okay?” she asks, placing a cool hand against my forehead. I know I have a fever—my skin crackles beneath her touch. In the last year, there has only been a total of about a week that I haven’t had a fever.
“I’m in a hospital, Mom,” I say with a weak smile. “So, no. Not so much okay.” I force my eyes open. “Thanks for asking, though.”
“Sassy.” Mom shakes her head, but smiles, too.
I pat the top of her hand. “These stupid pain meds are making me dizzy. I feel like shit.” Mom is quiet, worried lines etched in deep parentheses around her mouth. I jiggle her arm gently. “What, no ‘watch your language’? I must really be going to die this time.”
Seeing the look of horror that takes over her face, I want to
reel the words back the second they tumble out of my mouth. “Madelyn Bell,” Mom says. Tears gloss her pretty hazel eyes. “Don’t you talk like that.”
“Sorry,” I say, with a guilty shrug. She hates it when I joke about death, but for me, it’s the easiest way to deal. Plus, the way I figure it, if I’m happy and laughing, I can’t die. God would have to be a total asshole to strike me down in the middle of a giggle.
Mom looks like she’s going to say something, but then Dr. Steele rushes into the room, practically tripping over his long legs. I consider briefly that he and Tiffani, with their superextended, alienlike limbs, might make an excellent couple.
“We got it!” he says, and my mother starts to cry. I must look confused, because then he says, “She hasn’t told you?”
I throw my gaze back and forth between them. “Told me what?”
He smiles, a wide motion that shows his gums, top and bottom, and his big Chiclet teeth. “We need to get you prepped for surgery,” he says. “This is it, kiddo. Your whole world is about to change.”