If the Fates Allow, page 1
IF THE FATES ALLOW
BY ZOE KANE
Table of Contents
PROLOGUE: Seven Minutes
Chapter One: Two Telephones
Chapter Two: Saint Elizabeth’s
Chapter Three: The House
Chapter Four: Aunt Vera
Chapter Five: Marcus Rey
Chapter Six: The Will
Chapter Seven: Revelations
Chapter Eight: Malcolm
Chapter Nine: Marcus and Annie
Chapter Ten: Morning After
Chapter Eleven: Doctor Megan
Chapter Twelve: Advent
Chapter Thirteen: Helen
Chapter Fourteen: Sleigh Bells
Chapter Fifteen: White Christmas
Chapter Sixteen: Auld Lang Syne
Chapter Seventeen: Epiphany
Chapter Eighteen: Unspeakable
Chapter Nineteen: The Worst Imaginable Thing
Chapter Twenty: Danny
Chapter Twenty-One: Shelter from the Storm
Chapter Twenty-Two: Here Comes the Sun
Chapter Twenty-Three: New York
PROLOGUE: Seven Minutes
The whole thing is over very quickly.
The patch of ice on the highway catches them off guard and sends the front tires skittering left. There is a moment of wild, frantic whipsawing which appears to be chaos but is in reality a desperate pitch to regain control over the wheel.
It works for a moment, and then it doesn’t.
The front of the car meets the side of the mountain and the night is ripped violently open by an explosive sound – a thunderous crash, containing millions of tiny shattering crashes inside it.
And then . . . it’s over.
The hush descends once more. A cold Oregon night, indigo skies alive with stars, a gentle snow falling. Peaceful and still.
In seven minutes, this will change. That’s how long it will take for the next car – a diner waitress from two towns over, hauling a Douglas fir home in the back of her pickup while singing along loudly to Ella Wishes You a Swingin’ Christmas – to round the curve where the smoking wreckage will first become visible. Then she will do these things, in this order. First, she will stop singing and a cry of horror will choke in her throat. Then she will screech to a halt and call out to the silent, slumped-over figure in the drivers’ seat as she vaults from the cab of her pickup truck, cell phone in hand, already dialing the police. Then she will notice the pile of Christmas presents in the SUV’s capacious trunk – someone, it seems, is getting a new bike – and the phone will drop from her hand into the snow. When the paramedics arrive she will have to be sedated.
Twelve minutes after that, this quiet stretch of deserted rural highway will be transformed into a riotous circus of color and light. There will be a great clamor of voices shouting at walkie-talkies and cell phones and each other, and in the distance the pulsing hum of a Life Flight helicopter. There will be two middle-aged state troopers wearing flannel-lined parkas over their uniforms, shaking their heads sadly about why Oregon drivers wait so goddamn long to put on their snow tires. There will be drivers in the other lane, slowing down to a crawl around the glow of orange flares, swallowing hard as they watch paramedics with hydraulic rescue tools pry open the crunched metal. And over it all, through the wide-open door of the waitress’ ramshackle Ford truck, from a crackling old cassette player that nobody has bothered to turn off floats the voice of Ella Fitzgerald.
“Someday soon we all will be together, if the fates allow/Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow . . .”
But let's not get ahead of ourselves just yet. There will be plenty of time, very soon now, for all the things that are about to happen - for the two telephones that are about to ring in two apartments, four thousand miles apart, which mark this story's real beginning. Like the slow, labored creaking of gears as a great machine is awoken from slumber, like the expectant hum of an orchestra warming up before the curtain rises, the snow is merely here to set the stage. This is the Prologue. The rest of the story is slowly stretching and rising to its feet. It is coming. It is already on its way.
But for right now – for the next seven minutes – there is only silence. For the next seven minutes, there is nothing but a light dusting of snow still falling from the sky, frosting the broken glass that glitters on the highway as if all the stars had crashed to earth.
Chapter One: Two Telephones
And so it begins, rather like a play.
The frantic chaos of the crash and the snow and the lights and the shouting and the roadside flares and the music were the overture. Now the curtain rises and, as if on cue, two telephones ring at the exact same time, four thousand miles apart.
The first is an iPhone sitting in the pocket of a man’s wool winter overcoat, hanging on a brass hook in the entryway of an airy, spacious exposed-brick-and-wood-beam loft in Brooklyn – the kind of loft that looks like it used to be a 19th-century warehouse, because of course it was a 19th-century warehouse, and whose price tag would make anyone not from New York start so violently they’d spill their drink. The phone doesn’t ring so much as emit a dull, humming buzz, muffled by the thick fabric surrounding it – and forgotten, at any rate, by its owner, who is currently all the way on the other side of the room and thoroughly distracted. It rings five times before going to voicemail, entirely ignored by both of the partially-obscured figures whose rising and falling shapes under expensive gray flannel sheets cast undulating shadows on the wall, wavering in the dim light like sea creatures.
The second is a landline, thousands of miles away on an elderly wooden desk in a small office in Portland, Oregon. It pierces the night silence with a harsh, braying beep and is answered on the first ring.
We’ll start there.
* * *
There were a thousand small, quiet joys in the life of a professor that had been unavailable to Annie Walter when she was a surgeon, but the most unexpected delight was proofreading. She pulled another red rollerball pen from the neatly rubber-banded bundle in her top right drawer – she only ever used one kind of pen for proofreading, it had become over the years like an extension of her eyes and hand, drawn with magnetic force towards typographical errors and weak arguments – and flipped back to the final page of Jasper Green’s midterm paper to finish her notes. Despite nearly two decades surrounded by the most gleaming white-and-chrome, state-of-the-art medical equipment as Chief of Neurology at Saint Elizabeth’s, there was a peculiar streak of the Luddite within Annie, who remained stubbornly resistant to the ever-encroaching chokehold of technology and had held out as long as she could against the department’s new electronic grading system. But hadn’t she become a professor for just these moments, the warm golden light from the brass lamp on her desk and the soft fall of snow outside muffling what little sound remained on the mostly-deserted campus and her favorite warm shapeless cardigan – the one that lived on the back of her office chair – draped over her shoulders as she sat blissfully alone with her tea and a sea of proofreading errors and the buttery-smooth flow of ink from her favorite red pen? Saint Elizabeth’s was light years away. The noise and the chaos and the shouting was all in the past. There were no more lives in Annie Walter’s hands. There never would be again. It was just her, and the quiet.
Jasper Green was a bright kid, so the treasure hunt for misplaced semicolons and improper source citations turned up very little, which pleased Annie. His insights into the relationship between changing urban life and the medical profession had interested her, and she was glad she could give him high marks.
(Which meant a B-plus. Dr. Walter was not known for handing out A’s freely.)
She had just moved Jasper’s paper from “Unfinished” to “Finis
Campus office caller ID displayed numbers only, no names, and even at this late hour, a local number she didn’t recognize nearly always meant a student. She considered, for half a second, letting it go to voicemail and dealing with it during tomorrow’s office hours, before she remembered that her mailbox was full. With an exasperated sigh, and braced for panicked enquiries about when grades would be posted, she answered the phone.
If you had asked her, afterwards – not that you would, of course; who would do that to a person? – she would tell you that she remembered very little of that brief conversation. She would wave her hand and say something vague but plausible about shock. “I went numb, mostly,” she would tell you. “It was like watching it happen to somebody else, very far away.”
But that wouldn’t be the truth. Because the truth was that from the moment she picked up the phone and said, “This is Dr. Walter,” everything that happened afterwards – every word, every breath, every pause in the voice at the other end of the phone – was seared into Annie’s memory like she’d been branded with a hot iron.
She could not, in those first moments, immediately make sense of it. Her brain was simply refusing to process the information it was receiving, unable to sort the words it was hearing into coherent meaning.
Words like “spinal fracture.”
“ . . . fatalities.”
“ . . . Saint Elizabeth’s Hospital.”
“ . . . what to do about the children.”
The voice said things and then Annie said things and then the phone on the other end clicked into silence. Annie stood there for a long moment, holding the black telephone handset, staring at it without really seeing it, words crashing against each other inside her skull underneath the low, insistent mosquito buzz of a dial tone.
“What to do about the children.” It was both a statement and a question.
And in that moment, a Dark Thing was born inside Annie Walter’s chest and began shifting, squirming, trying to claw its way out. She took a deep breath, swallowed hard and forced it back down.
Annie Walter was a fixer, and her only natural enemy was finding herself in situations she could not fix. And while she knew, down to the very marrow of her bones, that she could not fix this, still she only allowed herself a few moments to stand there, staring blankly out the window as the snow fell on the park benches outside, before the dial tone snapped her back to reality and she hung up the phone and forcibly returned to being Annie Walter again.
The hospital, first, of course. And on the way she would make a list. There were phone calls to make, there were things that needed to be done, she did not have time to be heartbroken right now while there was a crisis which needed to be handled. So first the hospital, then a list. Feelings afterwards – when there was time. A list would make everything better. The more things she crossed off it, the more the world would slowly begin to click back into some semblance of its proper order. A good list could hold the chaos at bay for quite some time.
Brisk and efficient, emotions tidily stowed away for the moment, Annie removed her office cardigan and exchanged it for her winter coat, pulled on her scarf and boots, grabbed her purse from the coat hook, turned off the power strip and lights to remain in compliance with the school’s new campus-wide energy-saving initiative, locked the door, took the elevator three floors down to the underground parking garage where her always-spotless car sat waiting, retrieved her keys to click the “Unlock” button, then turned away into the empty parking space beside her and was suddenly, violently sick.
Chapter Two: Saint Elizabeth’s
By the time she had finished vomiting onto the bare expanse of concrete on the floor of the campus parking garage, taken the elevator back up two floors to the nearest bathroom to splash cold water on her face and clean herself up, returned to her car and driven across the river to Saint Elizabeth’s, they had already been moved from the emergency room to the morgue.
In a strange way, Annie was grateful; for one, it made it far less likely for her to run into anyone she knew – condolences being something for which she was entirely unprepared just yet – and for another, the frigid steel-and-white room lent the whole event a curious air of unreality which made everything just a bit easier. Annie did not become sick again. She did not cry. She was not angry. The Dark Thing had receded from her chest, leaving a vast hollow nothingness in its wake. It had taken every emotion with it, and so Annie stood in that metal box of a room with the two white bodies on silver slabs and she felt absolutely nothing at all.
There was paperwork, of course – there was always paperwork – and she got it over with as fast as she could. They had all had The Talk, years ago, about wills and funeral arrangements and all of that (Annie was a doctor, she was sensible and practical, she’d forced everyone in the family to do it) and it had all felt as distant and unreal then as it did now, here in this cold white room. The attendant had turned her back for a few minutes and returned to the sleek white computer screen in the corner, her keyboard click-clacking away, leaving Annie alone with these two pale things that were once the two people she loved best in the world.
She bent down and absently brushed a strand of glossy dark hair back from the woman’s temple. Only her head and shoulders were visible. The cuts had been stitched up already, leaving winding tracks through the dusky blossom of dark bruises. Annie could barely recognize this cool-skinned stranger with marks all over her face. It had been Michael, all those years ago, who ran and tumbled and roughhoused and fell down stairs and ate mud and fell off the swings and the monkey bars. It had been Michael whose elbows were always in slings, who served as little Annie’s first patient as she clumsily bandaged his scraped shins and bloody knees, who logged the most hours on the decrepit old pair of crutches that lived in the basement, while the girls sat quietly on the porch with their books. Annie reached down and lightly brushed a finger over the first and last stitches Grace Walter had ever had in her life.
She could not look at Danny at all.
“They did everything they could do,” said a soft, apologetic voice from behind her, and Annie turned with a start to see a paramedic standing in the doorway. He was young, with a gentleness about him that felt wrong somehow inside this cold white room.
“I don’t think you’re supposed to be down here,” was all she could manage to say, falling back on the comfort of protocol. (You can take the doctor out of the hospital . . .) She looked down at his name badge. “Peter.”
“I was the one that brought them in,” he said, as though he hadn’t heard her. “I was the one in the helicopter. I heard that someone had come for them, and I wanted to –“ He stopped again, and then looked down at the floor. “It’s my first day,” he said quietly.
It was impossible to know how to respond to this. Annie said nothing.
“They said they got a hold of her family,” Peter went on, looking at Grace’s body on the slab, looking at Danny underneath that blue sheet behind her, looking anywhere but at Annie. “Are you her family?”
“Yes,” she finally said, after a long, long moment. “That’s my sister.”
Chapter Three: The House
It was only a few minutes’ drive from Saint Elizabeth’s Hospital through the tree-lined streets of Laurelhurst to the rambling Craftsman home that Danny and Grace had shared – the home where Annie had grown up. This was the hospital where Annie had visited Michael when he cracked his skull in a bike accident in middle school and had to stay under observation overnight, the hospital where she’d held Grace’s hand in the delivery room, the hospital where they’d said goodbye to their parents. Even in the dark, in the snow, she could have driven from Saint Elizabeth’s to the Walter house blindfolded. She knew the way like the back of her hand.
It was only just approaching December, but already the night streets were aglow with colorful lig
She drove slowly, carefully through the snow, forcing her mind to stay focused on these ordinary things – on architecture and urban development, on the changing shape of the city – and willing the next few minutes to stretch out as long as they possibly could. She would have liked to live in this moment forever, driving down the dark snowy streets of her favorite part of the city, rather than have to face the next thing she was about to do. Because as awful as the hospital had been, the house would be worse.
The hospital was nothing compared to what would happen when Annie pulled into that driveway, climbed the steps to the porch and opened the front door.
She turned her car onto Glisan and drove the handful of blocks until she reached the turnaround on 39th, with its small oasis of green grass and shrubbery surrounding the big gold statue of Joan of Arc. Out of nowhere came the unexpected memory of their mother driving them to school and looping one extra turn around the traffic circle each time – “for luck,” she had always said. In Annie’s youth the statue had had the dull green patina of aged bronze, but a few years ago the city – or someone – had burnished it to brilliance again, and Joan gleamed with an almost artificial golden shine under the streetlamps. Annie drove around the traffic circle three times before continuing on; she was not superstitious, or particularly spiritual, but maybe Mom had been right. Tonight she would take whatever luck she could get.