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Everything always changes. There's always another shadow.
Carolyn Kendal awoke with a start, then immediately listened to make sure everything was all right.
She heard the rhythmic noise and sighed with relief as she craned her neck from one side to the other, hoping to work out the kinks, but knowing she wouldn't. Two weeks of dozing in a hospital chair had left every muscle in her body knotted and strained.
She wasn't sure why she was dreaming about Heritage Bay and that almost-forgotten childhood game she'd played with Stephan Foster. Maybe because the words seemed so prophetic in retrospect.
Everything always changes. There's always another shadow.
She didn't doubt it in the least. She was so much older than that long-ago day, and she knew for a fact those words were true. What she doubted was ever having this particular shadow blow away to reveal the sun once again. For weeks she'd forced the belief when she could, and faked it when she couldn't.
She had to believe. No one else did.
She shook her head as if she could physically loosen the pessimistic thoughts. She couldn't afford to give in to them. She had to remain positive. But it was hard. And the nights were the worst.
At midnight, the hospital was eerily quiet. Visitors had long since left and the patients were sleeping, if they were lucky. Nurses bustled about, but with cotton-soft footsteps and hushed whispers. The normal glare of the institutional lights was muted, leaving the room blanketed in grays.
The lack of daytime hospital activities and sounds meant that Carolyn had nothing to do but remember the past and nothing to listen to except the heartmonitor beeping along to its own comforting cadence.
The first few days, the sound had driven her crazy, but now, each beep represented her five-year-old daughter's heartbeat. Each chirp was a sign that Emma was still fighting.
And as long as Emma fought, so would Carolyn.
She'd fight the doctor and his dire prognosis.
She'd fight her family's loving attempts to get her to leave her daughter's bedside.
She'd fight death itself if she could.
Carolyn would fight whoever she had to, do whatever it took, to keep her daughter with her.
The noise fractured the silence, and she turned, already knowing who stood in the doorway, not because she'd expected him.
She heard the door open and just knew before she saw him, before he said more than her name, who it would be. She turned and tried to smile, though she wasn't quite sure she'd pulled off the expression. "Stephan. They called in the big guns, huh?"
Stephan Foster was thirty-five now to her thirty-four. His dark-brown hair sported the first streaks of gray. But for an instant, time moved backward and she could see the sun-freckled boy with the impish grin beneath the tall man with the serious expression.
He walked into the room, the heels of his probably designer shoes discordantly clicking on the tiled floor, at odds with the rhythm of the heart monitor's rhythm. He stood behind her, his hand lightly squeezing her shoulder. "I came as soon as I heard."
She knew that by "as soon as I heard," he meant, "as soon as your parents called to tell me you were losing it."
She wanted to argue that her parents were wrong. They didn't understand that it wasn't that she wouldn't leave her daughter's bedside, it was that she couldn't leave. Emma needed her, and Carolyn wasn't going to let her daughter down.
Caro's parents had raised her in what they considered a logical manner, very much in accordance with the rest of their lives. Order, discipline, reason and ethics. Two college professors, they'd run their classrooms that way and found no reason not to follow suit when bringing up their daughter. However, Carolyn had never been satisfied with simple logic. She'd raised Emma with her heart, feeling her way through it. More importantly, she tried to tell Emma every day she loved her, something her parents had never felt was called for.
And right now her heart was telling her that Emma needed her here, battling alongside her, despite the fact that logic, the doctor and her parents said that Emma might not win this fight.
"You didn't need to come all this way, especially given the weather." It had been the snowiest February on the books, band after band of lake-effect snow had struck the Cleveland area. The trip from Detroit to Cleveland was almost three hours in good weather. She couldn't imagine how long it had taken given the snow between the two cities.
"Really, you shouldn't have come. We're fine. Emma's fighting. She'll find a way to come back."
"Carolyn." Despite the fact his voice was as hushed as everything else in the hospital at this time of night, she could hear pity loud and clear as he spoke her name. "Your parents told me what the doctor said. She's not"
"No. Don't say it. Don't say anything else. She can hear you, and she's fighting. She's off the ventilator and breathing on her own. Just listen to the machine." She was silent a moment, allowing the beeps to speak for her.
"That's her heart, Stephan. My daughter's heart. It's still beating. The nurses said they could turn down the volume, but I asked to keep it on. That sound tells me that she's still trying despite the fact she's so little. She's not quite six and she's got so much to live for. As long as she's trying to get back to me, I'll be here waiting. I can sleep at home in my bed when she's better. Tell my parents I love them, but they have to back off. Emma needs me here, she needs me to hold on, to believe she's coming back. I'm not going anywhere until she does."
It sounded crazy, but Carolyn knew that as long as she was here, standing by her daughter's side, nothing bad could happen. She'd will her daughter to keep going. Maybe if she'd been in the car, been at Emma's side the night of the accident, this wouldn't have happened.
If she hadn't pushed her ex to take Emma, then the car accident wouldn't have happened. No, not an accident, a drunk driver. One who'd hit Ross's car and put her daughter in this hospital bed, while Ross walked away with only minor injuries. In fact, he'd walked away believing what the doctors had said about Emma that she wouldn't recover. Maybe if Carolyn had done something differently
She shook her head, glad she hadn't said those particular words out loud. She knew if she voiced them she would have sounded as irrational as everyone thought she was. But though she wouldn't vocalize them, she felt them, and so much more. The guilt that if she hadn't pushed her ex to show an interest in Emma, her daughter wouldn't have been in the car in the first place. She knew the what-ifs could go on forever. Just as she knew she had to deal with the here and now. And here and now, Emma needed her in the hospital.
Caro owned a small independent bookstore, On the Shelf. Her regular staff, Melody and Dylan, assured her that they had everything under control and she shouldn't worry about the business. With her permission, they'd hired a new bookseller to help pick up the slack. The store was fine, her friends were seeing to that. But even though they supported her need to be with Emma, both had encouraged her to leave the hospital, echoing her parents' arguments.
Carolyn looked at Stephan, her oldest friend in the world, and fully expected him to argue with her, to jump up on the bandwagon with everyone else and try to tell her it was hopeless, that Emma was gone. But he didn't, and she realized she should have known better.
Stephan simply nodded, walked across the room and pulled a chair over the linoleum until it was next to hers.
He said, "I'll just sit with you then," as if that settled that.
They waited in silence, the stillness of the hospital once again enveloping the room.
They'd all run together. Carolyn had lost track of how long she'd sat here, how many days and nights like this she'd listened to the sound of the machine. Yet now, with Stephan at her side, she knew the night wouldn't be so long, so empty, so devoid of the constant noise that could at least distract her from her situation during the day.
No, that was a selfish way of looking at it. This wasn't about her. It was about Emma.
But with Stephan here, she wouldn't have to force herself to drag in each laden breath. Some nights she thought she'd suffocate on the smell of antiseptic.
As if sensing her morose train of thoughts, Stephan asked, "Carolyn, do you remember our first boat ride?"
Instantly, the hospital odor gave way to the long-remem-bered scent of Lake Erie in the summer. She was back in Heritage Bay, just outside Port Clinton, Ohio.
Carolyn knew just what boat ride Stephan was talking about. She remembered the terror she'd felt that day, as well.
"We were so reckless," he continued. "I don't know what would have happened if you hadn't been there "
Fifteen-year-old Stephan Foster knew better than to take his father's small fishing boat out onto Lake Erie without permission.
He knew better than to jump into the still-spring-cool lake. It was so much warmer at the shoreline than it was here, miles into the lake's watery expanse.
And Stephan Foster pretty much knew that odds were he wasn't going to see his sixteenth birthday. He'd never learn to drive, never ask a girl on a date, never graduate high school. All the thoughts tumbled about in his muddled brain.
Whacking his head on the side of the boat as he dove, choking on the water he inhaled added to his exhaustion and the draining effect of the cold water. His head throbbed, and the rest of him felt numb and tired.
Oh, so tired.
If he just stopped kicking, he could rest. And right now, it was tempting.
But before he could give in to the temptation, something splashed him, but he felt too weary to open his eyes to investigate.
"Stephan, there's the life ring, grab it."
He'd almost forgotten that Caro was on the boat with him. As if she could read his mind, she continued, "Stephan Foster, don't you dare stop trying. Swim over and grab the ring. I can't throw it any farther than that."
He opened his eyes and spotted the ring. He thought about obeying Caro, but wasn't sure he could swim the distance to the yellow-and-red ring that was floating just a few feet away.
"Stephan, dammit, swim. If you don't go grab that ring, I'm going to jump in and come get your scrawny ass, then I'm going to tell everyone what happened, that a tiny girl had to save you."
It wasn't the thought of Carolyn telling anyone, but rather the thought of her jumping in that made him try to swim and grab for the life ring. He missed, but as he sank into the deep, cold water, his hand connected with the rope that tied the ring to the boat. It grazed his wrist, and without thinking, his hand closed around it, holding on to it with what little strength he had left.
Stephan was a good swimmer. He'd grown up on Lake Erie, spending every summer on its shores at his family's small cottage in Heritage Bay. But today, he'd been clowning around and when he'd jumped into the water, he'd done a flip, hit his head and his usual grace in the water had escaped him. He'd panicked, pure and simple.
He wasn't sure how long it had been since he'd gone under, but he seemed much farther from the boat than he should be. He didn't know if he'd swum the wrong way, or if he'd hitched a ride on some current, regardless, the boat seemed too far away to contemplate.
Yet, as he held on to the rope, he suddenly knew it would be okay. Carolyn had thrown in the life ring, she held the other end of the line. She'd pull him back.
He was safe.
He kicked with all the force he could muster, trying to help. Caro was such a thin girl. Even though she was fourteen now, she was still so petite. She couldn't possibly weigh a hundred pounds soaking wet, however, she pulled the rope quickly and confidently, bringing him to the boat's ladder.
"You're going to have to climb up yourself." She looked over the edge and their eyes met. "Come on, Stephan. So you've got a small cut on your forehead, and so what if you breathed in a gallon or so of water. You're here now, at the ladder, so climb your lazy ass up here."
Carolyn always had such a gentle vocabulary, the fact she was swearing told him how afraid she was. And knowing Caro was afraid was enough of a jolt to make him continue trying. The ladder seemed insurmountably high, but he reached for the bottom rung.
"Come on, Stephan."
He wished he could tell her to shut up, just to leave him alone. He was tired. He was cold and his chest hurt. But yelling at her would take energy he didn't have. He'd wait and yell tomorrow.
Slowly, with the speed of a very old man, he climbed.
"Come on. It's only a few more steps."
He made it close enough for her to grab his T-shirt. She held on with a death grip, pulling, making the last bit of his climb easier.
Stephan found himself on the deck of the fishing boat, coughing and gasping.
Caro sat down next to him. He expected her to start hollering at him for being a show-off, for being stupid. Instead, she just sat there and started crying with the same fierce gusto she did everything else.
Despite the fact he was hacking up his lungs, piece by piece, he was aware of her sobs.
"Caro?" he gasped in between spasms.
She looked up, then unexpectedly, reached out and slapped his chest. "Don't you ever, ever scare me like that again, Stephan Foster. That was the dumbest thing you ever did. And believe me, you've done plenty of dumb things, but this time, you could have died, and how would I have felt if you did? I'd have lived the rest of my life stricken with inconsolable grief."
He smiled, despite the fact he felt sort of sick to his stomach. Carolyn Kendal didn't sound like any other kid he'd ever met. She sounded more like an English teacher than a ninth-grader.
"Stop smiling," she scolded, sounding even more teachery. "You took ten years off my life with that stupid stunt."
"That would make you four, and you wouldn't be able to yell at me like this if you were only four."