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"Hush little baby, don't you cry…" Chandy McDaniel sang in a low voice as the runners of the wooden rocker made a rhythmic thump, thump. The two-month-old in her arms gave a soft sigh. Little Emily's lips puckered and Chandy put a finger to her own lips as Lynda entered the nursery. "Shh. She's finally asleep," Chandy whispered.
Lynda, a fiftysomething pediatric nurse with the St. Louis Crisis Nursery, nodded. "Good," she replied in the same hushed tone. "That little one's had a rough day. I thought she'd never settle down. But you always have the magic touch."
"Thanks." Chandy lowered her chin to gaze at the baby she'd cradled on her chest. Smooth skin and perfect tiny features hid the ugly truth. Little Emily's mother was temporarily unable to care for her daughter because her boyfriend had broken Emily's mom's arm the day before. So Emily had been brought here, to one of the five crisis-nursery locations in the St. Louis area. Chandy rocked more, unwilling to pass the infant over until she was certain Emily wouldn't stir. She'd been overly fussy today.
"You're so good with babies," Lynda observed, arms at her side but ready.
"Thanks." Chandy repeated, not breaking her rocking rhythm. Chandy had been volunteering at the nursery for the past two years, and her main duty was to hold and rock the youngest infants.
Finally convinced Emily wouldn't wake up, Chandy faced the inevitable, rose to her feet and handed the sweet-smelling baby to Lynda, who was working the night shift. "You leaving now?" Lynda asked.
Chandy nodded. "Yeah. Tomorrow's Sunday but I'm on E.R. duty starting at 7:00 a.m. You know it'll be busy. This weather's been far too nice. It's more like May than March and every weekend warrior will be outside overdoing it."
"Yeah, I couldn't believe that it hit ninety yesterday. I thought I'd need to turn on the air-conditioning it was so hot. Well, have a good night and I'll see you next time you come through."
"Definitely." Chandy retrieved her purse, signed out and headed for her car. The temperatures had been unusually warm all week. Tomorrow marked the last day of summerlike weather. The meteorologists predicted rain would move in Sunday evening and bring back the gray days, heavier coats and umbrellas that were typical for the end of winter.
As she stepped out into the balmy parking lot, Chandy reflected that St. Louis weather was insane, and even though she'd been living in the city for eight years, ever since she'd done her pediatric residency at Cardinal Glennon Children's Hospital, she'd never quite adjusted to the crazy temperature fluctuations.
However, she loved St. Louis, which was why she'd chosen to take a job as a pediatrician at West County Family Health instead of returning to Iowa. She enjoyed her job. The one minor downside was that she had shifts several times a month at the nearby hospital's pediatric E.R. with which the practice was affiliated. Working in the E.R. added extra hours to her week.
Traffic was light for a Saturday evening, and it didn't take long to get to her Kirkwood condo, a one-bedroom garden unit located off Ballas Road that she'd purchased because she liked the mature trees and friendly neighborhood setting. She parked in the garage and entered her apartment. Her cat, Mr. Wu, met her at the door and followed her into the kitchen, rubbing against her leg as she filled his empty food bowl.
She opened the fridge and removed the prepackaged Cobb salad she'd bought at the local supermarket the day before, then ate dinner while she checked Facebook on her laptop. Lisa needed a ball of twine in Mafia Wars. Jenny had announced she was pregnant again. Hope was going to Paris for two weeks. Chandy finished reading everyone's status updates but didn't post anything herself—her friends led much more interesting lives than she did. She didn't really mind, though. She'd never been the party-animal type, anyway.
She moved to close her browser, but before she could log out a chat icon popped up. Her older brother Chase was online. Eight years separated them, but after he'd become CEO of the family company and married his soul mate, they'd become even closer. What are you doing? he typed.
Just got home from the crisis nursery, she replied.
She chewed a bite of her salad while the icon flashed, telling her he was typing something else. Chase would turn forty soon, and his and Miranda's three-year-old son, Bobby, was the cutest thing in the world.
The chat window flashed. Stop thinking about it.
Chandy leaned back in her chair and pushed her dinner aside, having lost her appetite. She'd actually been trying to avoid thinking about it, although she'd hadn't quite succeeded. While holding Emily she'd fought back quite a few tears. I'm not, she typed.
Liar, Chase returned.
Chandy sighed as Chase typed more. The high-speed connection brought his words quickly to the lower right corner of her laptop screen. It's been fifteen years. Let it go.
Chandy drummed her fingers on the table. Chase meant well, but he'd never understand. How could he? His son had been born healthy. Her child had died before it had become viable. Just a mass of cells growing inside her with no distinguishable features.
Yet she'd been devastated. She'd miscarried on March 5, and ever since, the first few days of March had been painful. She couldn't help herself. She grieved for what she'd lost—and for the children she'd never have.
Everyone thought that after fifteen years she should be over her miscarriage. And the remainder of the year she sent the knowledge that she'd lost her baby and could never have another into the far recesses of her mind.
But every anniversary she mourned for what she'd lost. Her last therapist had said that her behavior was normal and for the first time, Chandy hadn't felt like a freak. After all, at that point she'd been holding on to the guilt for thirteen years.
I have to be up early for work. Talk to you later, she typed to Chase, suddenly unwilling to talk anymore, even to him. She logged out of Facebook and glanced at the clock. Not quite eight-thirty. Too soon for bed, and far too late to go do anything when she had to get up at 6:00 a.m. for work.
So here she sat on a Saturday night, alone, if she didn't count Mr. Wu. As if knowing he was needed, her fat black Persian jumped into her lap and began to purr.
Chandy scratched the cat behind his ears. If she'd kept talking to her brother she knew what he would have said. Now that he'd married and found the love of his life he was a regular matchmaker. He would've told her she should find a guy and settle down.
But how could she? She might marry, but marriage usually meant having kids, and the infection following her miscarriage had robbed her of that ability.
She'd also lost the last piece of Justin and the life she'd thought they'd have. While her grandfather had been supportive of Chandy and her decision to be a teenage mother, he'd seen the miscarriage as fate's way
of giving her a fresh start. Although he'd tried not to show it, she knew he'd been relieved.
Chandy set Mr. Wu on the floor and went into the bathroom. She could do this. Maybe this could be the year she finally let go of the past. Ten years ago her then therapist had told her she had to face herself. She'd told Chandy to list all her positives, reaffirming her personal value. Chandy wasn't sure her advice worked, but as she did every year since the therapist's recommendation, she started reciting the list of her assets aloud.
"I'm a good doctor."
She sounded so stupid. She gripped the sink and forced herself not to look away from the image in the mirror. Taking a deep breath, she continued.
"I work out. I eat right. I'm smart."
The cat came in, sat and stared at her. "I am not crazy," she told him. He simply blinked.
She faced herself again and said the words that she always said but sometimes had a hard time believing. "I'm worthy. I'm a good person. It wasn't my fault. I can be a whole person without being able to give birth."
She repeated the final affirmations five times, fighting back the tears. Then she shook her head savagely, uttered a small curse and grabbed her toothbrush and the toothpaste tube. Scarlett O'Hara had declared that tomorrow was another day. Well, for Chandy tomorrow was D-day. She squared her chin. Like Scarlett, she would survive.
The wild pitch that hit Ben McCall in the side of the head was one of those freak accidents that just sort of happened. Combine warm weather, a dry field and a chance to get a two-week jump on the official start of freshman baseball practice, and Ben and his friends had been raring to go. They'd met at the local park, and the last thing the group of fourteen-year-old boys were concerned about was safety. After all, wearing those batting helmets sucked.
But they were necessary, as all discovered when the ball clocked Ben in the left temple and the impact dropped him to the ground like a rock.
Thirty-five minutes later, Ben's dad, Justin, had him at the pediatric E.R. of a west county hospital. After initial triage, someone installed Ben in an examination room where the nurse again took his vitals.
"He was unconscious on the field, but no one knows exactly how long. Thirty seconds? A minute?" Justin told her. He'd folded his six-foot frame into one of those black plastic chairs that were never comfortable. Today he'd planned on watching the NASCAR race and doing some laundry. He'd been petrified when he'd gotten the phone call that Ben was unconscious. Yet Ben had been awake by the time he'd arrived at the field.
The nurse finished the blood pressure check and gave Justin a benign, flat smile. "The doctor will be in shortly."
"Thanks." Justin leaned back, placing his head against the white wall. How many other fathers had stared up at the same white drop-tile ceiling? He lowered his eyes and gazed across the room. Ben lay on the hospital bed. His head obviously hurt, as he'd draped his arm across his eyes to keep out the light, and Justin could clearly see the huge ugly bruise that had formed on his temple.
"You doing okay?" Justin asked.
"Yeah," Ben replied, hardly moving.
Justin folded his hands into his lap. The waiting was always the hardest part. He'd been in the E.R. or urgent care with his son several times before. When Ben had been three he'd climbed on the toilet, reached for something, fallen, and bitten through his lip. That had required three stitches. When he'd fallen off his bike, that had been another nine. He'd broken his arm at age eight in a skateboarding accident, sprained his knee while playing soccer at ten. Otherwise he was a pretty healthy child. Lean. Muscular. Already five-eleven. Just a typical boy who everyone said looked like his dad.
Although, Justin did see a hint of his ex-wife. Ben had Lorna's lips and smile. He had her intelligence, but thankfully not her propensity to waste it. Ben had gotten straight As in middle school, although he hadn't had to apply himself much. He was finding high school to be a lot harder, and Justin prayed that Ben would continue to do well. So far his son's grades had been good. Grades were important—Justin wanted Ben to go to college and make something of himself. He wanted his son to be able to be more than just the owner of an auto body repair shop.
Sure, being a business owner provided a decent living and Justin enjoyed his work. He also had good health insurance, and some money set aside for retirement and Ben's college tuition. But his life wasn't supposed to have turned out this way, and he wanted Ben to have the choices he hadn't had.
The knob turned and the door began to open. A blonde doctor dressed in a white jacket entered. Her name was stitched over her heart, but Justin would have known her anywhere, even after fifteen years. He fought back the surprise as her name returned to his lips. "Chandy?"
At the familiar use of her name, Chandy's head turned toward the man who unfolded himself from the uncomfortable plastic chair. She'd entered the exam room, her focus on the teenage boy lying on the bed. Ben McCall, according to the charts. A common enough name.
She felt herself sway a little. What was the probability? And on March 5 of all days? One in a trillion?
Fate had to be mocking her, for the man in the room was none other than a grown-up version of the gangly boy with the shaggy hair who had left her standing on the sidewalk in the cold.
Yet he'd changed…and not for the worse. He'd become a well-built man with a handsome face. His blue eyes were the same and as they had in high school, even after fifteen years, they automatically made her knees weak. "Justin?"
"Chandy. It is you."
"Yes." She took a deep breath and found her poise. Recovered. After all, a decade and a half was a long time. She was no longer the naive girl who'd loved him and lost his baby. She was no longer the desperate and depressed girl who'd waited for letters and phone calls that had never come.
She moved to the bed and concentrated on work. She was experienced in dealing with trauma, and that included her own. She could handle this turn of events. She would handle the situation, and with grace. She kept her voice light. "So, Ben, I hear you got hit with a baseball."
"Yeah. Petey throws a mean fastball." Ben's joke was accompanied by a wince.
"And you weren't wearing a batting helmet," she stated, more for his benefit than anything. She already knew the answer, which was obvious from the bruising and lump on his head.
"Learned that lesson the hard way," Ben mumbled.
"Yes, you did. Well, let me take a look." She lifted his arm and did a quick visual examination. "So how old are you?"
"Uh-huh. I can't miss baseball season. It starts soon."
He blinked, and she saw that he had his father's eyes. Would her child have had those baby blues had he or she survived? She calmed herself, refusing to get further rattled, and continued her exam. "I'm sure I can get you patched up by then. But once I do it's a helmet from here on out for all sports. No exceptions. Ever."
"Okay. Can I go to sleep now?"