A Fierce Radiance
By Lauren Belfer
Copyright © 2011 Lauren Belfer
All right reserved.
Wednesday Morning, December 10, 1941
The Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, New York City
Claire Shipley was no doctor, but even she could see that the man
on the stretcher was dying. His lips were blue from lack of oxygen.
gen. His cheeks were hollow, his skin leathery and tight against his
bones. His eyes were open but unfocused, like the glass eyes in a box
at a doll factory she'd once photographed. Although his hair was full
and dark brown, not gray, Claire pegged him at over eighty. His head
swayed from side to side as the orderlies slid the stretcher out of the
ambulance and onto the gurney. Beneath the once-white blanket, his
right leg was grotesquely swollen.
Making a split-second appraisal of the scene, guided by intuition,
Claire crouched and pivoted until she found the best angle. Using the
35 mm lens, she stopped down on the Leica to increase the depth of
field. She took a quick series of photos, bracketing to guarantee the
exposure: the patient in profile and a half-dozen nurses, doctors, and
orderlies gathered around him, like a group portrait by Rembrandt,
their faces saying their thoughts. They knew he was dying, too. Out
here in the cold without their coats on, with the man looking dead
already and nobody else nearby but Claire, they dispensed with their
usual cheery and encouraging expressions.
The group proceeded into the hospital. Claire followed, the others
oblivious to her. She was like a spy, paid to fit in, to hide in plain
sight, her identity and her loyalties concealed. Her ability to hide in
plain sight was a paradox, even to herself, because she was physically
striking. Had the others taken the time to notice her, they would have
seen a thirty-six-year-old woman filled with the confidence and glamor
of success, tall, slender, strong, her arms and shoulders shaped
from carrying heavy photographic equipment. Her thick dark hair
fell in waves to her shoulders. Her face was broad, her features well
defined. She wore her usual winter uniform of loose navy blue trousers,
cashmere sweater over silk blouse, and a beige fleece-lined jacket
with eight pockets. It was a hunter's jacket, and she'd ordered it from a
specialty store. Claire Shipley was a hunter: searching and waiting for
the proper angle, the telling moment, for a narrative to give sense to
the jumble of existence.
Upstairs, the group crowded into a private room. In one coordinated
heave the orderlies shifted the patient from the gurney to a bed.
The man moaned. At least the orderlies were quick. The staff bustled
around the bed, taking the patient's pulse, drawing blood, rearranging
his useless limbs. In the enclosed space, the rotting stench he gave off
assaulted Claire. She felt a constriction of revulsion and forced herself
to ignore it, because the man's eyes were alive now. Golden brown
eyes, shifting slowly, their movement consuming his energy. His eyes
followed the voices of the nurses. When Claire's daughter, Emily, was
a newborn, her delicate face peering from a wrap of pink blankets, her
eyes had followed Claire's voice around the room just so while Claire's
husband held her.
Claire felt a piercing ache. Her daughter had died seven and a half
years ago. June 13 would mark eight years. Rationally, Claire knew
that seven and a half years was a long time. Nonetheless sudden,
intense memories jarred her, bringing Emily back with painful clarity.
Claire's husband was gone, too, although by now she could usually
keep a mental door closed on the anger and despondency that had
followed his departure. Automatically Claire did a maternal check-in:
her younger child, Charlie, was safe at school. Later he would be
at home following his usual routine with Maritza, their housekeeper,
who was like a grandmother to him.
At the recollection of tucking a wool scarf into Charlie's coat this
morning, Claire confronted the dying man before her. Outside, he'd
been easy to objectify. Here, with the movement of his eyes, he became
an individual. Someone's husband, dad, son, brother. His fate became
personal. Focusing on his eyes, Claire opened the camera's aperture to
narrow the depth of field. She wanted to portray the staff and equipment
as blurry and ominous, the way he must be experiencing them.
Claire couldn't help herself: there was Emily, lying on her bed at
home, too weak to fight on, lost to infection, strands of her curly, light
brown hair sticking to her cheeks. The well-meaning doctor who visited
each day couldn't help her. Claire held Emily's hand long past the
moment when Emily's spirit or soul or sparkwhatever constituted
lifeslipped away. In a wave of delayed recognition, Claire understood
that Emily was no longer simply resting after her terrible, twisting
struggle, but was lifeless. Without life. Dead. After a moment
Emily's eyes opened, staring at the ceiling without seeing it. Her pale
blue eyes seemed to turn white while Claire watched. Screams of torment
consumed Claire in waves, even though someone else seemed to
Claire to be screaming, a kind of ghost self within her.
Charlie woke from his nap in the next room. "Mama," he called.
Whom did he want? Claire wondered as she heard his cries. She
was immobilized by a dense weight within her chest. Then Claire
realized with a start that she was his mother. The "mama" Charlie called
for was her. She heard footsteps in the hallway. A voice hushed Charlie.
Comforted him. Took him from his crib. Claire's own mother,
here to care for them.
Ever so softly, with a lifetime's worth of gentleness, Claire pressed
Emily's eyelids shut. She kept her hand in place for long minutes.
Beneath her finngers, she felt Emily's brow, the tickle of her eyelashes, the
tender perfection of her eyelids, the softness of her eyebrows. Emily's
eyebrows were darker than her hair, and Claire's mother had predicted
that Emily's hair would turn dark as she grew older. Now they would
never know. Claire tried to collect within her hand a generation of
caresses, from the moment of Emily's birth to the point far in the future,
past Claire's own death, that should have been the natural course of
Emily's life. Emily's skin was still warm beneath Claire's palm.
Seven and a half years ago. Like yesterday. A cliché that was always
true. Claire picked up the chart from the end of the hospital bed and
read the history of the man lying helpless before her. Edward R. Reese
Jr. Age: 37. Height: 5'11". Weight: 175. Marital status: Married. Two
children. Address: 1020 Park Avenue, New York, N.Y. Profession: Banker.
Claire shuddered. He was only one year older than she was. She
imagined him holding his children on his lap to read them a story at
bedtime, the way she held Emily and Charlie. She saw him advising
clients in a wood paneled office.
He began to breathe in quick, choked gasps, as if the air were a
knife cutting his lungs.
Claire read on. Fever upon arrival at the Presbyterian Hospital on
Monday, December 8: 104.1. Fever upon transfer to the Rockefeller
Institute: 106.04. Bacterial level in his blood at 7 AM on December 10: 100
per milliliter. Claire didn't know what that meant but assumed it was
high. He'd been treated with two types of sulfa drugs, sulfadiazine
and sulfapyridine. Neither had worked. He'd had three transfusions to
try to clear the bacteria from his blood, to no avail. The infection had
entered his bloodstream from a skin abrasion at the right knee. There
were six abscesses in his right leg. His lungs were affected. Diagnosis:
Blood poisoning. Emily had died of blood poisoning.
In one gliding motion, a stately, straight-backed nurse took the
chart from Claire's hand and reattached it to the end of the bed. Chief
Nurse Brockett, her identification badge read. Beneath her regulation
cap, her steel gray hair was pulled into a bun. Her aloof severity
reminded Claire of her high school headmistress, the type of woman
who could intimidate with a glance.
"You may not read the chart." Nurse Brockett enunciated each
word with precision, as if she suspected that English were not Claire's
"That's fine." Claire pushed her memories of her daughter out of
her mind and attacked the problem at hand. Nurse Brockett. Well,
Claire wasn't subject to this hierarchy, and Nurse Brockett didn't intimidate her. Through her years of work she'd learned to agree with
everyone in charge and then, when their attention was diverted, do
exactly what she needed to do to get the story. Bravado was a trait
Claire put on each morning with her silk blouse and tailored trousers.
Her boss had sent her here to follow the testing of a potentially revolutionary
medication, but already Claire knew that the real story, the one
with emotion and power, was about saving the life of Edward Reese.
To establish her prerogatives, Claire took her equipment bags to a
narrow table against the wall on the far side of the room. The table
held a blue-patterned porcelain vase filled with white, billowy
hot-house roses. Claire placed the vase on the floor. Sensing the nurse's
glare at her back, she slowed her movements, staking her claim. She
took off her jacket, folded it, and stashed it beneath the table. When
Claire heard the nurse's footsteps leaving the room, she felt relieved:
first skirmish won. She arranged her cameras and film on the table for
easy access. In her notebook, she wrote down the details about Edward
Reese. She checked the picture count on the cameras and sketched out
rough captions. Claire was working alone today, without a reporter
to take formal caption notes and help with the equipment. Ever since
the attack on Pearl Harbor several days before, the office had been topsy-turvy.
This assignment had come in unexpectedly, and with
staff heading to Washington and Hawaii, editorial had no reporters to
spare. Just as well. Claire preferred to work alone, without a reporter's
When Claire finished what she thought of as her housekeeping
chores, she looked around and was surprised to find herself alone with
Edward Reese. His eyes had settled on her. She felt self-conscious
and wanted to say to him, don't worry, I'll do you proud. Meeting his
gaze, she said nothing, but it was the vow she made to herself. With
her light meter in hand, she toured the room, taking sample readings
and orienting herself. Luckily the room was bright. She wouldn't need
artificial light or a tripod, at least not yet.
The setup here was a little strange for a hospital. She glanced at
Reese, who continued to watch her. She wondered if he'd noticed the
oddness. The spacious, high-ceilinged room looked like the reception
area of a private club, with floor to ceiling windows facing the river
and an arrangement of leather chairs and a sofa. Brilliantly colored,
semi-abstract seascapes decorated the walls, no doubt loans from Mrs.
John D. Rockefeller Jr., who collected modern art. Sunlight reflecting
from the river shimmered and trembled upon the walls and ceiling, as
if the hospital room were an extension of the paintings.
Claire turned. A doctor in an unbuttoned white coat stood before
her. He was about six feet tall, lean, with brown hair brushed back,
and steel rimmed glasses. He wore a conservative tie, buttoned down
oxford shirt, and a dark suit beneath the white coat. A stethoscope was
draped around his neck. He held a clipboard and a three ring binder.
He was in his late thirties, Claire judged from the lines around his
eyes. His face had an open, boyish handsomeness, yet the hard set
of his shoulders revealed his disapproval. Nurse Brockett stood like a
sentinel behind him. In the light from the river, the doctor's eyes were
deep blue. At five foot eight, Claire could almost look him in the eye,
"I'm Dr. Stanton. The physician in charge of this case." As Claire
evaluated him, he evaluated her, and he was surprised. She was attractive.
A professional woman who paid attention to herself. He appreciated
hat. She wore red lipstick. Her clothes, clearly designed to be
comfortable for her work, nonetheless showed off her figure.
Claire understood his look and gave him time to indulge it. She
needed Dr. Stanton, because now her narrative had two protagonists:
the man dying on the bed, and this doctor, who might, or might not,
save his life.
"Would you kindly step outside?" he said.
"Happy to." As she followed him into the hallway, she sensed
Reese studying them. Dr. Stanton walked with a certain insouciance,
or maybe simply absolute confidence. Of course the confidence could
be a veneer forced upon him by his position. Whichever, Claire found
it stirring. The bottom of his white coat flicked backward with each
step. He turned to her when they were several yards down the hall.
"Dr. Rivers told me you'd be working here today." Dr. Rivers was
the director of the hospital. He was the one who'd contacted her editor
about the story, following up on a casual conversation they'd had over
lunch at one of their clubs. "Frankly it wasn't my idea to invite you, but
he's the one in charge. We don't have time for you, and we won't be
making allowances for you. I'd advise you to stay out of our way."
"Good. I'm hoping to stay out of your way, too. I'm hoping you'll
forget about me completely."
Frowning, James Stanton appeared at a loss for a response. Nothing
like agreement to diffuse an argument, Claire had learned long ago.
By necessity, she was an expert in the manipulation of her assigned
subjects. Stanton stared at her, and she stared back.
"Maybe you should tell me what you're dealing with here. So I can
work harder at staying out of your way," Claire added with a flirtatious
touch of irony.
Excerpted from A Fierce Radiance by Lauren Belfer Copyright © 2011 by Lauren Belfer. Excerpted by permission of Harper Perennial. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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