She ought to have been thrilled that he'd come down. Instead, Emily was put off by his presumption. The little boy, her little boy, lying in the dingy, ammonia-reeking room down the hall, was the center of her life. Every fiber of her being, the blood that flowed in her veins . . . the air she breathed, she breathed for Nathan. He needed her, and there was nothing she could do to help him, and the pain of that helplessness was the most savage agony she had ever experienced.
Now, as she looked into Joe's stormy gray eyes, as he waited for her to explain her words, Emily herself only just began to understand them.
Joe was an innocent bystander. None of this had anything to do with him. He cared for her, without question, but he could not even begin to imagine how she suffered right now. It was as though she were on display behind glass somewhere, explicit in her pain, and he merely a casual observer, like a tourist at a museum, able to recognize the beautiful color in the art, but completely incapable of understanding the art itself.
He didn't belong there. She loved him, cared for him, but didn't want to be with him at that moment. She wanted . . . she needed to be with Thomas. Only Thomas could understand.
Emily squinted, bit her upper lip, and shook her head, unable to meet Joe's gaze.
"I'm sorry, Joe," she said, then grew angry at herself for apologizing. "It isn't you. But you have to understand that . . ."
"Sssshhh," he whispered, putting a finger to her lips, his kind eyes wide and clear. "You don't have to explain. I know that all of this — between us — is just starting. Whatever we're going to have, that's for later. Right now you have to worry about Nathan, and about yourself. That much I do understand."
A pair of fortyish nurses whispered to one another as a phone rang unanswered nearby. Emily could smell the wonderful scent of lilacs from a floral arrangement that sat on a pale blue countertop. But no matter how many flowers the loved ones — for that's what they always were, the loved ones — brought in, no matter how many cleaning products were used to scour every surface, hospitals always smelled like death to Emily.
Well, perhaps not death so much as dying.
She hated that disinfectant smell. The thought that Nathan would have to spend the night here, to stay here until the doctors could determine what was wrong with him . . . she felt the bile rise in the back of her throat.
So softly she barely heard him, Joe spoke her name.
"Sorry," she said, though she wasn't quite certain if she was sorry for closing him out or for drifting off like that. Maybe both. She felt as though she spent far too much of her life apologizing. To others. To herself.
An orderly wheeled a new patient by, a girl of no more than thirteen, whose face and arms were cut and bruised and stitched, and told the story of a car accident or similar tragedy. The girl's eyes were open, but she didn't seem to be looking at anything. There was a small gold chain around her wrist with a little fish or dolphin dangling from it. Emily imagined it was a token of someone's affection, a parent or other relative, or maybe a boyfriend, if the girl was old enough to have one.
Then again, what was old enough, these days?
"You'd better get back in there, hmm?" Joe asked. "I know you're distracted. You should be with Nathan now."
"Yeah, I really should," she agreed, but couldn't seem to move.
"If you need me, just to talk, or to do errands, go by the house for any reason, you know you can call anytime," Joe reminded her.
When he bent to kiss her, his lips passed lightly over her own numb mouth as if they realized they weren't welcome.
"Thanks for coming," she said, dimly aware she was even speaking, her mind full of lilacs and nurses and stitches and the smell of dying.
When she blinked again and looked up, she expected Joe to be gone. She'd zoned out again, and instantly was feeling guilty about it. But he wasn't gone, just a step or two away. Burnt blond hair, with a tinge of almost red. Those gray eyes that in the sun could turn green or blue. A college professor at twenty-six, intelligent and ambitious. He lifted her chin with two fingers, gently, and leaned over to give a her a kiss that she would notice.
She noticed, and she closed her eyes and kissed him back.
"Thank you," she said again, whispering into his mouth, and meaning it this time. She was glad he had come and was just as happy that he was leaving. "I'll call you in the morning," she promised.
"Call when you can," he said to her, brows knit with concern.
Joe turned and moved down the hall and Emily watched him go with a lover's pause. Then she turned, steeling herself once more for the sight of Nathan lying so still in that bed and anticipating a return to the unexpected comfort she had felt in the presence of Nathan's father. At least, with Thomas there, she wasn't alone in her anguish.
Emily glanced up at the door to Nathan's room.
Thomas stood, frozen halfway across the threshold, staring at her.
"So that's him, huh?"
With a sad tilt of her head, blonde hair tumbling over her shoulder, she opened her mouth to respond, to tell Thomas what she was feeling. Then she only sighed, gave a barely perceptible shake of her head, and pushed past him into Nathan's hospital room.
"I know you go for younger guys, Em, but he's pushing it a bit, isn't he?" Thomas asked bitterly.
Ignoring the swirl of color in a mural on the wall behind her, Emily sank down into a chair at the edge of her son's bed. When she finally replied to her ex-husband, she couldn't bring herself to face him — not from shame, but surrender.
"I know you want this right now, Thomas," Emily said weakly. "Maybe you need it, I don't know, to distract you. Whatever. When Nathan . . . when Nathan wakes up, I'll be happy to waste my time telling you that what I do with my life is none of your business."
Finally, she did turn to regard him, saw that some of the anger and righteousness had left his face, his stance.
"I just don't have the strength right now," she concluded.
Emily turned away and reached out for Nathan, caressed his pale cheek with the backs of her fingers, ran them through his always unruly hair, wished he would look at her. Smile. Laugh. Anything to let her know that he was still in there.
Slowly, she lay her head on Nathan's chest, listened to the beating of his heart and felt the rise and fall of his breathing beneath her cheek. The tears came freely now. Though she hadn't heard or sensed his approach, Emily didn't respond at all when Thomas placed his familiar hands on her back in a gesture of comfort.
At least, that was how he'd obviously meant it. Instead, the warmth of those hands, and her memory of them, only made her feel more alone. The communion she'd hoped to have with Thomas, the sharing of their joint pain, seemed now to have been a foolish hope.
She'd never felt more alone.
"I should go call Francesca," Thomas said, his voice cracking. He cleared it loudly. "Tell her to cancel my trip to L.A. tomorrow. I'd like to stay in here tonight with you and Nathan, if that's all right."
Out in the hall, there was a great clatter as an orderly fumbled with a pair of meal trays and they crashed to the tile floor. Emily didn't even start at the noise.
"That's fine," she said, and then had a hint of amusement that never reached her face. "Your stalker will be so disappointed."
It wasn't until she heard the quick intake of breath from above her, and felt the pressure of Thomas's right hand on her shoulder increase, that she gave any thought to what she had said. Wide-eyed, she turned to him and gazed at his darting, contemplative eyes. But Emily knew those eyes weren't seeing anything at that moment. Thomas was thinking.
"You don't suppose . . ." she began.
"It's crazy," he admitted, "but it isn't impossible."
Thomas reached over to the small nightstand by the bed and picked up the phone. He pressed nine for an outside line and then called information.
"I need the main number for the Tarrytown police," he said, his voice tight and curt.
While he waited for the number, Thomas glanced at Emily, nodded toward the long cable with the tiny button on the end. "Buzz for the nurse," he said. "We've got to have him tested for poison . . . something."
His fingers curled into her own, and she gripped them tightly, held his hand. Together they waited.
* * * * *
It rained Monday morning; a storm more common in spring than midsummer, and even then, it would have been unusual. At sunrise, it had been warm and only a little cloudy, with very little wind. By nine o'clock, that had changed. The wind had picked up quickly, dark clouds sweeping across the sky, and the temperature had begun to drop rapidly.
By nine-thirty, it was just above seventy degrees, and the horizon looked bruised and sickly, as if the worst of tumors lay just underneath. It was nearly as dark as if it were night, yet the sky had the odd quality of twilight, the queer color of a solar eclipse. The air seemed to shimmer with anticipation of — something.
The first lightning reached electric fingers from earth to sky just before ten o'clock, and the rumble of thunder that accompanied it was loud and long and rattled the windows in the hospital cafeteria. On the third crack of thunder, the downpour began. The shower pounded the windows with huge raindrops, a thick, saturating storm that instantly began to build wide, deep puddles in the parking lot and the roads beyond.
Over the almost surreal volume of the rain pelting the building, Thomas frowned deeply and looked angrily across the table at Walt Sarbacker, the detective sent by the Tarrytown police to take his complaint regarding the stalker.
The "alleged" stalker, according to them. That was the word that had made Thomas angry. But he realized quickly that his anger was counterproductive.
Sarbacker was a thin, bespectacled man, gray at the temples and salt and pepper everywhere else. He pushed his glasses up on the ridge of his nose, awaiting some comment from Thomas, and then glanced out at the driving rain, apparently having realized that no answer was forthcoming. The detective was younger than the gray would imply, though Thomas couldn't guess his age with any real confidence.
He wondered if Detective Sarbacker had children of his own.
The man had raised his eyebrows several times as Thomas told him about the weird things that had been happening of late. The way Nathan had been behaving, the boy's concerns that the characters of Strangewood meant him harm, his contention that they'd actually been there in the house . . . which now seemed frighteningly more possible than it had previously.
When Thomas told the story of the peanut butter foot and face prints at his house, Sarbacker actually grunted. Thomas chose to take that as a sign of consternation on the part of the lanky detective, and in that regard, as good news. He wanted the man to take him seriously. Wanted the detective to be concerned.
Sarbacker scribbled in a small notebook as Thomas spoke. The bustle and buzz of daily life went on around them in the cafeteria. Patients allowed to walk around and sick of their rooms managed somehow to get trays to their tables. Families and individuals awaiting answers to questions of mortality sat in silence or painfully manufactured levity. A pair of new fathers traded notes as they picked up an early lunch to bring back upstairs to the women to whom they were now joined for life.
For no matter what happened, Thomas thought, they would always have the child. Always have the baby they had brought into the world together.
Anything else was unthinkable.
Thomas shook his head. He felt as though he'd been walking, seeing, and especially thinking through a fog ever since he'd walked in on Nathan in the bathroom the night before. But he had to pay attention, now. The cop was talking to him.
The detective nodded slightly. "I said it didn't make any sense to me," Sarbacker repeated. "I suppose anyone can have a stalker. And I understand how it connects to your work, that much is obvious. I just don't get why. Obviously you've made some money, but this kind of thing isn't about that. If someone is stalking you . . ."
Thomas didn't miss the if.
". . . it's a matter of obsession. And no matter how wonderful Strangewood may be, what is there in a series of children's books that could inspire that kind of obsession?"
Though he searched his mind for a snappy retort, Thomas couldn't find one. What could he say?
"Maybe it isn't really that at all," Thomas suggested. "Maybe it's someone who knows me. Has a vendetta against me or something? It could be professional. Some psycho . . . Jesus, I don't know."
He almost said, isn't that your job? But decided against it. He had to remind himself several times that Sarbacker was on his side. Supposedly.
"What about my son?" Thomas asked, repeating a question he'd asked twice already with no response. "Something in the toothpaste, you think? How the hell did the guy get in my . . . I mean my ex-wife's house."
Again with that slight nod that Thomas was quickly learning meant nothing at all, Sarbacker grimaced. "I don't see any reason to believe he did, Mr. Randall. There were no signs of forced entry, no reported sightings of any alleged stalker around your wife's residence. And, according to the doctors, Nathan wasn't poisoned."
Thomas blanched. "What? He wasn't . . . then what the hell did this to him?"
"I wish I knew, sir," Sarbacker said. "But Dr. Gershmann was very clear to say that the toxicologist found no poisons . . . in fact, nothing at all out of the ordinary . . . in your son's system."
Thomas bit his lip, shook his head, refusing to comprehend the man's words.
"I'm sorry, Detective . . ." he began, but let his words trail off. How absurd, to be calling someone “Detective.” He'd never had to use the title before, and it felt slightly ridiculous.
"Mr. Randall?" Sarbacker ventured.
"Nothing," Thomas said, covering his eyes as if to shield them.
Suddenly, he dropped his hands, sat up straight, narrowed his eyes and looked closely at the detective.
"You were in my son's room, right?" Thomas asked.
"Just for a moment, speaking with your wife," Sarbacker replied. "Why?"