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“Is that spread through blood?” Shelby doesn’t want rabies.
“Saliva. You’re fine as long as you don’t let him bite you. You’re a good-deed doer too.”
“No.” Shelby shakes her head. “I’m not.”
The fallen man is tied to the bed with restraints.
“Ask him how he’s doing,” Shelby instructs the orderly.
“I can tell you just by looking at him. He’s not doing too good.”
“Talk to him in Russian. That’s why you’re here.”
The fallen man appears to be unconscious, but when the orderly speaks a few words in Russian, his eyes flutter beneath his closed lids.
“He’s responding,” Shelby says.
“What do you care?” the orderly asks.
“I don’t.” But the truth is, Shelby feels the same about this stranger as she did about her dogs when she rescued them. “Keep talking.”
The orderly continues speaking, and the fallen man groans, then mutters something. The orderly signals Shelby to follow him from the room.
“It’s better to leave some things alone,” he tells her. “Go have lunch. The burritos in the cafeteria are good. Ask for the chicken.”
“What did he say?”
“He said he’s a wolf, let him die.”
“He’s not a wolf.” Shelby is currently taking a class in comparative zoology along with advanced biology.
“He says he’s a wolf. Let him die. You wanted to know? Now you know. He asked me to shoot him, as a matter of fact. I told him we’re in New York. We don’t do things that way.”
“He’s delusional.”
“Maybe. But now you have to let your hair grow. You promised you would. Then you’ll be beautiful, Miss Egghead, and you’ll have me to thank.”
“How do you say wolf in Russian?”
After the orderly leaves, Shelby goes back into the room. She can hear the fallen man’s ragged breathing. She knows she’s not supposed to get involved. But the idea that he’s something other than human, that he’s a wild animal, makes her go closer. She thinks about how it feels to rescue something, how fast she ran when she took Blinkie and the General, how her heart was pounding when she freed Pablo. She is a do-gooder and she didn’t even know it. She sings the song her mother sang to her long ago. “Over the Rainbow.” She sings until she realizes the wolfman has fallen asleep.
Outside the hospital, Harper Levy is waiting on the sidewalk. “You disappeared,” he says.
“He said he was a wolf.”
“I could have helped him if he had been. Canidae, same family as the domestic dog.”
They walk toward Union Square, but they won’t go to work. Instead they’ll have coffee and sit in the park. They don’t want to go their separate ways. They hang on, as if the day is a dream and they don’t want it to end. When Shelby does get into bed beside Ben later that night, she dreams of wolves and of a white world of snow and ice. She dreams her hair is so long it reaches her waist, and every morning when she wakes she brushes it a thousand strokes, all because of a promise she made to a stranger.
Chapter 5
It takes months to break up with Ben. He just doesn’t take a hint. Shelby stays out late, she spends nights at Maravelle’s, she stops talking to him for days on end, and he still doesn’t get it. By now Shelby’s hair has begun to grow out. It’s short and spiky, and she looks fierce, like a terrier. She’s afraid to tell Ben the truth. She thinks about the nights they walked through Huntington in the snow. The way he was there for her when they first moved to the city and how generous he’s always been. She waits until his graduation, which is probably a terrible idea, but she doesn’t want to disrupt his studies. They have been together for more than four years. They’re at the point in their relationship when most couples would be making a permanent commitment, but instead Shelby tells him it’s over at the restaurant on the Upper West Side that his mother chose to celebrate his graduation. He is a full-fledged pharmacist now, and his parents are proud. The restaurant is called Coral Reef, and everything inside is dark, as if they have fallen to the bottom of the sea. As soon as they’re seated, Judy Mink takes Shelby’s hand and says, “So. You two. What’s next?” Clearly she’s hoping for a daughter-in-law. Ben’s father, Arthur, immediately suggests they order drinks. He never looks at Shelby. She doesn’t blame him for disliking her. By the time the day is over, he’ll probably hate her.
Shelby says she’s feeling dizzy, which is true enough, and Ben, a gentleman as always, walks her to the toilets. She had planned on telling him after dinner, but she can’t act as if nothing is wrong for another minute. She pulls him inside the ladies’ room. If she waits any longer she’ll explode. She’s been living a lie and she hates herself even more than usual.
“Hey,” Ben says with a grin when she locks the door. He thinks she wants to have sex with him here, a kinky graduation present. He leans to kiss her before she can back away, then says, “Don’t you think my parents will wonder what happened to us?”
He’s so tall and kind and stupid Shelby can barely stand it. She doesn’t tell him she’s been seeing another man for some time, or that she was unsure of the relationship from the beginning, or that the thing that any other woman would want—a commitment, a ring—is what she dreads. He has never heard what she’s tried to tell him a hundred times before. Every time she turned away from him in bed, every time she walked out of the room while he was still telling a story. He doesn’t understand now when she says they’re over.
“Over? Because my mother made that stupid remark? She didn’t mean anything negative. She likes you. She likes us. She probably wants to plan a wedding or something.”
Shelby shakes her head. It’s not easy to look Ben in the eye. When she forces herself to do it she has a sinking feeling, but she dives right in. “We’re breaking up. Your mother will get used to our not being together.”
“My mother?” Ben says. “What about me?”
“You know what I mean. Everyone will get used to it. It will just be something in the past.”
“Why now?” Ben asks.
“It’s just time.” There’s a knock at the door when another customer wishes to use the facilities. Shelby calls out, “Go away.”