Read an Excerpt
On Monday morning, Shannon Wilson stood in front of her brother Tom's apartment door with dread running cat's claws across her nerves. She'd already given him a good ten minutes to answer.
Her sister's voice came through her cell phone. "I'm concerned about him," Janey said. "He looked terrible when he was here."
Two weeks ago, Tom had come to see Shannon, and he had looked awful, emotionally spent. Go to rehab, she'd said.
Sure, he'd replied with his sweet lopsided smile. She'd known he wouldn't.
Instead, last week Tom had visited Janey in Ordinary, Montana.
"Before he left," Janey said, "he wouldn't stop hugging me and telling me he loved me."
Shannon needed her to stay calm. "I'm sure he's fine."
"Promise you'll check up on him?"
"I'll head over to his apartment as soon as I hang up." Liar. You're already here. "I'll call if there's a problem."
Had those visits been Tom's way of saying goodbye? Had he planned to hurt himself? Shannon knocked again, rapping so hard her knuckles hurt, covering the phone with her other hand so Janey wouldn't hear.
Come on, Tom, answer.
"I'm so worried." Janey was the older, wiser sister, but Shannon had an urge to reassure her.
"I know."Me, too. Terrified. "You go to Disneyland. You worked your butt off for this trip, sis, and planned it for a year. It's your family's dream vacation. Go. I'll take care of things here."
"I don't know"
"If you don't leave, I'll come to Ordinary and drag you to California myself."
Janey chuckled. "Okay, okay. I'll bring you back a souvenir."
Shannon tried to laugh, but it sounded phony. "Something really tacky?"
"You got it." Janey's answering laugh was genuine. Good. Shannon had managed to assuage her fears.
"Call me if you need me." not likely. Her sister really had earned this trip.
Shannon ended the call. She glared at Tom's apartment door. What about her own unease? Who would reassure her, when she was the one always taking care of others?
When she'd called Tom half an hour ago, he'd sounded out of it, but not drunk. Which drug was it these days? She knocked again, loudly enough to rouse everyone in the building.
He'd said he was home and didn't plan to go outwhy wouldn't he answer?
Swearing, she hurried down to the first floor through a dirty stairwell that reeked of boiled cabbage. The smell nauseated her, reminded her of the poverty she'd clawed her way out of.
She knocked at the first apartment. The superintendent answered.
"There's something wrong with my brother in 308. You have to get me into his apartment."
"Yes. Now." Her panic made an impression and he followed her upstairs with his set of master keys.
On the third floor, he unlocked Tom's door.
The stench hit her firstgarbage and stale cigarette smoke. He'd started smoking again. Despite everything the family had done, was doing for Tom, it wasn't enough if he wouldn't take care of himself.
Why couldn't men handle the problems in their lives?
She stepped over a pizza box.
With the toe of her shoe, she nudged aside a grubby shirt. There was something on itGod, old vomit. Oh Tom.
Afraid of what she would find, she stepped into the living room. Laundry and dishes littered every surface. Dust coated the room.
When she walked across the stained carpet, something crunched under her foot. An unfinished pizza crust.
At first, she looked right past Tom.
He lay on the sofa so folded in on himself she'd mistaken him for a pile of laundry. She approached. His clothing was soaked with sweat, his once hale body ravaged, his stomach concave as though it were eating itself. He'd grown even thinner in just the past week. The deep clefts bracketing his mouth looked deeply ingrained, as though he'd carried them for a lot longer than his thirty years.
Shannon sank to her knees beside him and touched his arm. Too hot. He stank.
"Tom," she whispered. "What have you done to yourself?"
He raised a hand as if to touch her cheek. Too weak to complete the action, it fell back to his stomach. "Cathy," he whispered and smiled.
Cathy? He thought she was his dead wife? What was he on?
His pulse raced beneath her fingers. How could a man's heart beat so fast without hurting itself?
She turned to the super. "Call 9-1-1. It's an overdose."
Of what, though? He'd done so many different drugs, taken anything to deaden memories of the crash.
She wiped his forehead with her sleeve. "Tom, talk to me. What did you take?"
"Yes. What did you take? I need to know."
"How much, sweetie?"
He didn't respond. "Tom, how much!"
Still no answer. She was going to kill the bastard who sold her brother the meth.
"Where's Cathy?" he whispered.
Shannon grabbed the photo of Cathy and the two boys from the coffee table. His fingerprints coated the silver frame and glass. She wrapped his hand around it.
"Here, honey, they're right here." He thought they were still alive. That would last only until the drug cleared his system.
Tom, you're breaking my heart.
"Where did you get it?" she asked.
"Huh?" He was falling asleep.
"The meth," she yelled and shook his shoulder, her fear making her harsh. "Where did you get it?"
"Ordinary? You're kidding. Who in Ordinary would sell you meth?"
He whispered something and she leaned close. "Cooking. Main Street." His voice was thin.
He looked past her. "Where's Cathy?" Panic started to set in. His pupils dilated until they were huge, and Shannon took his hand. He nearly cut off her circulation.
The terror in his eyes begged her to do something, anything, to save him.
"Tell me what you need, honey." His eyelids drifted closed.
"Stay with me, Tom." He opened his eyes at her words. If he fell asleep he might not wake up again. She refused to let him die, damn it.
She sprinted for the kitchen. In the freezer she found ice cubes furry with frost and an old freezer pack. She carried them back to the sofa.
Where should she put them? On his chest? His forehead? For God's sake, why hadn't she ever studied first aid? Her hands shook, but she managed to tuck the cubes into his T-shirt, because she didn't have a clue what else to do.
Cathy smiled at her from the photo, watching every move with her lively brown eyes as though asking her sister-in-law to take care of her man while she was gone. Shannon swore she could detect Chanel No. 5, Cathy's favorite, and smell the kid-sweat of Casey's and Stevie's hair. She almost turned, half-convinced they were about to barrel into the room with mischievous grins to throw themselves into their aunt's arms.
But Shannon's arms were empty. She slid Tom's hand over the picture so she couldn't see their faces.
He was burning up. Most of the ice had already melted
The photo skittered sideways. The rhythm of his breathing changed. His chest rose and fell too rapidly.
"Come on, come on," she whispered to the ambulance, as though the mantra would get the paramedics there any sooner.
The Montana ambulance system was usually pretty quick. Shannon knew a bunch of paramedics in Billings. They were good at their jobs. So why was it taking so long?
"Tom, are you still with me?"
He didn't respond, no longer seemed to recognize her.
"Hey!" she yelled to the super. "Where's the ambulance?"
"I called." He hovered at the apartment door but didn't enter, as though an overdose were contagious. "They said just a couple of minutes."
She heard the pounding on the stairs then, almost mistaking it for her own heartbeat, or maybe Tom's where her fingers sat on his wrist.
When a pair of paramedics entered the room with a stretcher, she said, "He took meth. I don't know how much. I don't know when. Do something. Hurry." Her voice broke. She still gripped Tom's hand even though it had fallen slack.
"Okay, we got him." The paramedic spoke quietly. He eased her away from Tom. "We'll take care of him. We know what we're doing."
She nodded and stepped back, bunching a fist against her mouth.
Calm down. Tom needs you.
The paramedic quickly took her place, kneeling beside Tom. "His blood pressure's through the roof," he told his colleague who stood beside the stretcher and took notes.
Tom looked from one man to the other, confused. When the paramedic tried to take his temperature, he weakly flailed at the man.
"Tom," Shannon said. "Take it easy. These people are here to help."
His throat gurgled.
"What's happening?" Her voice rose an octave. "He's choking on his saliva." The paramedic turned Tom onto his side.
Shannon pressed a hand against her roiling stomach. "Shannon, are you okay?"
At the sound of the deep voice behind her, Shannon turned slowly, giving herself time to put on her game face. Officer Dave Dunlop had entered the apartment.
They had history. She wanted to forget it. He wanted to make up for it.
"Dave," she said, keeping her voice cool enough to discourage familiarity. She was tired of putting him off. He had to get the message one of these days. "It's Tom. My brother."
"Looks like he isn't going to make it."
Shannon gasped. Dave had a habit of being socially inept. Wrong response, wrong time. Not the best trait in a cop.
"For God's sake, Dunlop," one of the paramedics said. "Show some humanity."
Dave grimaced. "Sorry, Shannon."
Within seconds the paramedics had Tom on the gur-ney and wheeled out the door.
Dave stared at Tom as he passed. "Poor bugger. I wouldn't have recognized him."
Shannon tried to follow but Dave wrapped his fingers around her arm.
"Let me go. I need to get to the hospital."
"Shannon, I can help you with this. I can take care of you." Trust Dave to use a time like this to try to ease his own conscience.
In her experience, women handled things, not men. Men had their usesbrute strength, fun in bed, pillow talkbut she was better off on her own.
"Give it a rest. It's too late to make things up to me."
She pulled out of his grasp and he let go easily enough. He wasn't cruel. Just clueless.
"If you really want to help," she said, "call the cops in Ordinary. Someone there is cooking meth. That's where Tom got it."
"They've got cops. They'll deal with it."
"I need you to notify them. They'll take a call from you more seriously than if I just show up to ask."
"Okay. I'll call today."
She glanced around. What should she bring to the hospital? Tom owned nothing of value. His days were populated by despair, cravings and addictions.
Nothing else in his life meant anything to him anymore.
A glint of silver on the filthy carpet caught her attention. Tom had dropped the photo of his family. This mattered. Only this. When he awoke in the hospital, he would want it.
She picked it up and left the apartment. Dave followed her down the stairs, his presence like a weight on her back.
"What are you doing in the old neighborhood?" he asked. "You said nothing could drag you back here."
She didn't answer. Of course she would come back for her brother.
Shannon ran to her car. She didn't expect Dave to have much luck with the cops in Ordinary. She relied more on herself than on the local cops. They'd never found Janey's rapist, had they? She'd had to do that herself once she was old enough.
She sped to the hospital. By the time she got there, Tom had slipped into a coma.
There was nothing they could do for him but keep him on life support and wait for a change, the doctors said. What did that mean? Were they waiting for his death?
She stood by his bedside. The terrifying image of him with tubes running everywhere was burned onto her retinas.
Slipping the photo under his limp hand, she gave instructions for it to stay near him, either on his body or on the bedside table.
She brushed too-long hair from his sweaty forehead and willed her tears away. Better to be angry. Furious.
"I'll get whoever did this to you," she whispered with an intensity she hadn't felt since Janey's rape. "I'll crush them."
She turned around. Dad. Who had called him? Dave? Good. He'd done something right.
"Tom's bad." Her voice cracked and she moved into her father's arms. As usual, though, she ended up comforting him more than receiving comfort. Dad had fallen apart after Mom's death, too, but that time it had been Janey who'd held the family together. These days, with Janey living in Ordinary raising her own family, the job had fallen to Shannon.
She called the twins to tell them what had happened and then held her father while he cried. She'd deal with her own grief later.