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The end of a tough road.
"The beginning of a dream."
Claire McCall closed her eyes as the commencement speaker droned on with another clichéd graduation metaphor.
She was about to do what everyone in Stoney Creek had said would never happen. In a few minutes, with diploma in hand, she would join the ranks of the medical profession as Elizabeth Claire McCall, MD. She wanted to savor the moment, to not think about the future, the years of training yet ahead. But she'd heard too many of the horror stories about internship to relax for very long. Stormy water was dead ahead. She only hoped she'd be ready when the wind picked up.
Claire kept her eyes closed and smiled. She'd shown 'em. The people in Stoney Creek, that is. God bless 'em, she thought. They're simple people, with simple dreams. Her smile faded. Too simple. And narrow, too. People need vision to stay alive.
Thankfully, she hadn't listened to the town gossip, though she knew exactly what they thought. Little girls shouldn't grow up to be surgeons. Especially girls with fathers like Wally McCall.
Around her, the portraits of past medical school deans lined the mahogany-paneled walls. They were near-idols at Brighton University, those who had risen to lofty heights by hard work and academicexcellence. They seemed to be watching her today, welcoming her with their long white coats and studious expressions.
"A new dawn. An open door."
Claire yawned. The speaker had over a hundred book chapters to his name, but couldn't seem to find an original phrase to captivate his nodding audience.
She turned and squinted to see her family. Della, her mom, sat motionless in the back. Looking at her was like looking into a magical mirror, capable of revealing the future. Della was gorgeous and youthful and enjoyed every stranger's confused insistence that she must be Claire's sister. Strawberry blond without a hint of gray, high cheekbones, a figure that could turn a man's head, and a smile that could melt his heart. Fortunately for Claire, she looked just like her mother. "I know I'm pretty," Della would tell her, "but you're pretty and smart."
Next to her, Claire's grandmother, Elizabeth McCall, cast a worried glance toward the rear exit. Clay, Claire's twin brother, sat next to Grandma, leaning against the bench back with his eyes closed and his mouth open. Oh, well-she couldn't expect Clay to stay awake if she was having trouble paying attention herself. Next to Clay, John Cerelli, Claire's fiancé, was hidden by a woman with a large hat. If Claire leaned to the left, she could just catch a glimpse of his wonderful dark hair.
But where's Daddy?
Claire looked at the clock hanging on the back wall and checked it against her watch. Her father must have gone out to the bathroom. Or to smoke. Or worse.
Wally, her father, was the one person in Stoney Creek that she'd been glad to leave behind. Their relationship, close during her early school years, had been on a roller coaster since Claire entered high school-up when he was dry, and down and dangerous when he was drinking. Their communication had been on a continuous slide since she'd left for Brighton for undergraduate studies eight years ago. Now, she barely visited, and when she did, his erratic behavior and mood swings transformed every family gathering into a shouting match. When she'd last talked to her mother, Della had hinted that he'd given up on AA again, and hadn't been able to find work.
He's probably out far "a little drink."
Claire touched her throat and tried to refocus on the speaker, who sidetracked into a story of his own triumph in the discovery of some obscure gene responsible for a rare form of kidney disease. Genetics didn't interest Claire. She liked real, hands-on medicine, not futuristic theories of gene alteration. It went without question that she would be a surgeon. She was captivated by the prospect of making quick decisions on her feet, of seeing the gratifying results of her hand's work without delay. Yes, she'd known it since the first day of her surgery rotation. Surgery was for her. For Claire, it was more than a practical match. Her decision ran much deeper. It seemed a destiny, a calling. And in a few short weeks, she would start one of the most grueling years of her life as a surgical intern.
The smile returned to her face. Claire McCall, surgeon. Send that through the gossip mill in backwards little Stoney Creek!
Movement in the back of the auditorium interrupted Claire's dream. She watched as her father moved slowly down the aisle in search of his row. Her hand covered her open mouth as her father stumbled forward. Each step was practiced once or twice, then executed in a slow, deliberate slap. Della lifted her hand quickly, then lowered it as a murmur escaped the crowd.
Wally seemed lost, wobbling past his bench and down the carpeted aisle. Midway to the front, he turned and began a labored journey back, his face twitching in constant rhythmic motion. His right arm flailed forward, then returned, a swing propelled by an erratic, unseen wind.
How long had it been since she'd really seen him, studied him like this? Months? Years? It was close to a decade that Claire had avoided her father in the name of her educational pursuits. Now she gasped and felt a flush burn her cheeks. Drunk again.
Claire turned her head away, clenching her jaw, silently grateful that her classmates didn't know the identity of the strange man. She stared forward, oblivious to the speaker's monologue. How could he do this to me?
Long minutes later, she stole a glance behind her. Mercifully, her father had found his seat, and the disturbance seemed over.
For the time remaining, Claire fixed her eyes on the podium, not even looking back when the dean returned to the stage and asked the parents of the graduates to stand. The ceremony passed in a blur. She stood to be recognized with the Alpha Omega Alpha honor society graduates, and then, a few minutes later, walked the stage to receive her diploma, not risking a glance toward her family.
After the benediction, happy graduates spilled onto the sunny lawn outside Brighton University's Memorial Hall. Claire followed, staying safely in the middle of the pack, but vigilant to observe the doors as the proud parents exited to find the new MDs.
She struck a cheerful pose for a picture with a classmate.
There were hugs, tearful good-byes, and more photos. Claire was mobbed by her fellow MDs, filled with triumphant revelry like that of a high school football team after winning the state championship.
Ten minutes later, she retreated into a white gazebo at the center of the vast lawn, her eyes still watchful of the crowd emerging onto Memorial Hall's columned front portico. John Cerelli found her first and kissed her cheek. "You did it."
She feigned a smile and lowered her voice. "Let's get out of here."
John looked over his shoulder. Claire followed his eyes. Della McCall was marching across the grass, ignoring the sloping sidewalk that led to the gazebo.
"Claire. There you are. I've been looking everywhere!" Her arms were open.
Claire surrendered to her mother's embrace.
"Come on. The family wants a photograph."
Claire stiffened against the pressure of her mother's arm as she attempted to nudge Claire toward the building.
Della knitted her forehead. "Claire?"
"Take my picture with John. Right here."
Della backed up a few steps and obeyed.
"Now," her mother enjoined. "Your father wants to see you."
Claire shook her head and tried to keep her voice steady. "No."
John reached for her elbow. "Come on, Claire, it's-"
"I said no!" She shook free, watchful of the crowd of celebrant graduates and their families. Her mother's confused face prompted her explanation. "Mom, I saw him! Stumbling like a common drunk."
"Claire, it's not-"
"Wake up, Mom," Claire protested, then softened her voice. "How could he do this to me today?"
Della stared at her daughter. "Your father's a sick man, Claire. Come talk to him."
"Take him to a doctor."
"He won't go."
"Take him to Dr. Jenkins. He'll tell him to straighten up."
"Believe me, he won't see a doctor." She lowered her eyes to the floor of the gazebo. "Especially not Dr. Jenkins."
"Then bring him up here to Brighton. Take him to AA. The man needs help."
"He's been through AA. He won't go back. He doesn't drink that much anymore anyway."
"You're in denial. You're codependent."
"He doesn't need your fancy analysis, Doctor. He needs to see his daughter." Della retreated back onto the lawn. "Will you come to Stoney Creek?"
"I'm leaving for New England tomorrow. I've got to prepare for my internship."
"Surgery isn't everything, Claire."
"Don't start with me, Mom. You know this is important to me."
Della nodded without speaking.
Claire could fed her mother's judgment. "Mom, this is what I was made to do. Don't you get it?"
Grandma Elizabeth McCall appeared through the crowd, approaching Claire with her hands raised. "Congratulations, Claire. I knew you'd make us proud." She hugged her granddaughter warmly, oblivious to the tension.
"Let's find your father." Elizabeth raised a spotted hand toward the portico. "He's in there with Clay."
"I-I've got to run, Grandma. Some of my classmates are ... well, I need to finish packing. My apartment's a wreck."
Della placed her hand on Elizabeth's shoulder. "She won't go near her father today."
"Grandma," Claire pleaded. "He's drunk."
Elizabeth's shoulders pitched forward. She sighed slowly before responding with a quiver in her voice. "He's not drunk, Claire."
"Grandma, I saw him." She reached for John's hand. "Let's go." The duo stepped away but couldn't escape Elizabeth's reach.
"Hold on," she insisted, latching onto Claire's wrist. "You don't know everything yet, young doctor." She paused, her voice low, and her gaze locked upon Claire's. "I've seen this before. And I've been around Stoney Creek all my life. This is a curse, pure and simple-the Stoney Creek curse."
Claire was too polite to pull away. "Grandma, I know you believe that. I suspect just about everyone in Stoney Creek would too." She paused. "But if those rumors have some basis in fact, then it's related to alcohol, not the supernatural."
"Don't ignore this. It's darker than you realize, child. I fear your father is a marked man."
"Your son is the town drunk!" She hated hurting her grandmother, but the words were out before she could stop them.
Claire felt John's hand tighten around hers. "Claire, let's just go."
Elizabeth released her grip. "One day you'll understand," she said softly. "I just hope your generation is spared."
Claire looked at her mother and grandmother. Elizabeth knotted the end of a white shawl in her hand.
"I'm sorry, Grandma."
The old woman nodded.
Claire dropped John's hand and slipped her arm around his waist. They walked across the lush lawn toward John's red Mustang.
After a hundred yards, John chuckled. "The Stoney Creek curse." He shook his head. "Your grandmother's a hoot."
"Don't laugh. To her, this stuff is very real. Stoney Creek has never laughed about the curse."
John opened the passenger door to his Mustang, and Claire climbed in and nestled into the leather seat, wanting to disappear. John started the car and headed down the road. With the convertible top down, her long blond hair swirled in the wind and her eyes watered, both from the gusts and from the emotions she vainly tried to cap.
John slid his hand from the gearshift to her thigh. "Well, Dr. McCall, shall we join the others at the Oasis?"
She grabbed his hand and stared away.
He tried again. "Come on. We should celebrate. Would you rather drive over to Henley? Pringle's Café? We could sit on the deck and watch the ducks."
She shook her head. "Just take me home, John."
"Claire, this is what you've been working for." He tapped his left hand on the steering wheel. "Doctor McCall," he added, raising his voice above the whine of the engine.
She didn't see it that way. This was just the beginning. She wasn't even halfway to her goal. The MD degree was just the entrance ticket to another level of training. From where she stood, she couldn't even see the light at the end of a dark tunnel. A dark tunnel called surgery residency.
Sure, Claire was glad to have the degree behind her. But with her father's behavior at the graduation, and with her sharp words with her family still fresh in her mind, she didn't feel like celebrating a milestone.
John prompted again, "Oh, Doctor," he continued, pinching her leg, "paging Dr. McCall ..."
She flinched and squeezed his hand. "I just want to finish packing. I want to be ready for an early start in the morning."
She watched him shrug. He waited until he pulled to a stop at the next light before he turned and lowered his voice. "Just forget about your father, okay?" He paused. "That's what this is about, isn't it?"
That and everything else, Claire thought. She couldn't articulate the rising restlessness she'd been feeling. It was deeper than a desire to get her surgery training under way. It was more than wanting to put the stigma of being a student doctor behind her. John was right. She wanted to erase from her memory the feeling of being the town drunk's daughter. She had wanted her graduation to feel like a victory. Instead, it felt like an old scab, picked open and oozing fresh pain.
She nodded slowly. "It feels smaller than I thought it would. For years, I wanted to show everyone in Stoney Creek that I could do what they thought was impossible."
"You did, Claire. You're a doctor!"
How could she tell him what she felt? She bit her lower lip and twisted her hopelessly tangled hair.
Here, on the pinnacle of her medical school education, she felt curiously defeated. The air rushed from the balloon, just as children come to realize that all those foot races with Father were won because he let them win, not because they were so fast after all. Here she was, a child again, with a medical diploma in her hand, feeling cheated of the elation she thought she'd earned. The degree meant a lot when it was obtained by others. For Claire, she couldn't suppress the nagging feeling that they'd let her win. Someone somehow had turned the tables on her emotions. Instead of celebration, she felt mired again by the inescapable anchor of her small-town identity as the daughter of Wally McCall.
She forced a smile, hoping her emotions would obey and follow.
John pulled to a stop in front of her apartment. "Want some help?"
"I just have a few things to pack yet." She lifted the neck of her graduation gown. "It would have to be ninety degrees today."
John nodded and leaned forward. Claire accepted his kiss as a perfunctory good-bye.
"Why don't you bring some Chinese takeout later?" she offered. "I've packed away all my kitchen stuff."
He smiled. "Sure. Our regular?"
General Tso's chicken. Extra spicy. Small side of shrimp lo mein. Two egg rolls with hot mustard. "You know me."
She watched him go, the Mustang convertible disappearing behind the corner Exxon.
She turned alone, diploma in hand, and trudged up the cracked sidewalk to her front door.
* * *
An hour later, Claire sat in the middle of the small living room struggling to fit her blow-dryer into an already full box. She pulled out the last three items, a small jewelry box, an anatomy textbook, and a photo album, and restacked them for the fourth time, creating an opening just large enough for ... a hairbrush, but not the blow-dryer. "Ugh," she gasped, lifting the blow-dryer by the cord. She stomped across the room and dangled the appliance over the open trash bag, which overflowed with the last few items she hadn't been able to fit into the box. I'm going to cut these curls soon anyway. Surgery residents don't have time for this sort of vanity. With the blow-dryer hanging precariously by its cord, Claire touched her thick blond hair and sighed. She paused, then grabbed a pillow that leaned against a box of dishes. She shoved the blow-dryer into the pillowcase against the soft foam. There. Never know. I might chicken out about the haircut.
Excerpted from Could I Have This Dance? by HARRY KRAUS Copyright © 2002 by Harry L. Kraus
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Posted April 22, 2012
This is one of the best books I've read. Dr. Kraus combines interesting medical details with suspense, romance, family dynamics, and cultural implications into an original intriguing story that's difficult to put down. I was compelled to find the two sequels and did nothing else until I had finished them. Dr. Kraus could easily give up medicine for a writing career, but medicine in general and his work in Africa would undoubtedly suffer. Excellent read!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 17, 2002
I literally could not put this book down. This author is great and I hope he will write more, though I have to say, I don't know how he could possibly top this one. It's love and romance mixed with thriller/suspense. If I had one complaint it would be that there wasn't enough info at the end concerning Claire and John's relationship and what happened later. Maybe there will be a sequel. I hope so!!!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 25, 2013
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Posted August 29, 2011
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Posted February 16, 2011
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