Read an Excerpt
Dr. Alan Bulmer
"Can you feel this?"
Alan gently pricked the skin of her right leg with a needle. Fear glittered in the woman’s moist eyes as she shook her head.
"Ohmygod, she can’t feel it!"
Alan turned to the daughter. Her face was the same shade of off-white as the curtains surrounding and isolating them from the rest of the emergency room.
"Would you wait outside for just a minute, please." He made sure his tone would indicate that he was not making a request.
The daughter found the slit in the curtains and disappeared.
Alan turned back to the mother and studied her as she lay on the gurney in the fluorescent-lit limbo, letting his mind page through what he remembered of Helen Jonas. Not much. Borderline diabetes and mild essential hypertension. She hadn’t been to the office for two years, and on that occasion had been dragged in by her daughter. Then, half an hour ago, Alan had been sitting at home reading a journal when a call came from the emergency room that one of his patients had arrived, unable to walk or talk.
He’d made his diagnosis within minutes of seeing her, but followed through with the rest of the examination. He moved the needle to the back of Helen’s right hand.
"How about this?"
Again she shook her head.
He leaned over and touched the point to her left hand and she jerked it away. He then ran his thumbnail up from her bare right heel along the sole of her foot. The toes flared upward. He raised her right hand and told her to squeeze. The fingers didn’t move. He let go and the arm dropped back to the mattress like dead meat.
"Smile," he said, showing her a toothy grin.
The lady tried to imitate him, but only the left half of her face responded. Her right cheek and the right side of her mouth remained immobile.
"How about the eyebrows?" He oscillated his own, Groucho Marx style.
Both of the woman’s eyebrows moved accordingly.
He listened to her heart and to her carotid arteries—normal rhythm, no murmur, no bruits.
Alan straightened up.
"It’s a stroke, Helen. An artery—"
He heard the daughter say, "Oh, no!" behind the curtain, but he continued speaking. He would deal with her later. The main thing now was to reassure Helen.
"An artery on the left side of your brain has blocked off and you’ve lost the power on the right side of your body."
The voice came through the curtain again: "Ohmygod, I knew it! She’s paralyzed!"
Why didn’t she shut up? He knew the daughter was frightened, and he could appreciate that, but the daughter was not his primary concern at the moment, and she was only making a bad situation worse for her mother.
"How long it will last, Helen, I don’t know. You’ll probably get some strength back; maybe all of it, and maybe none. Exactly how much and exactly how soon are impossible to say right now."
He put her good hand in his. She squeezed. "We’re going to get you upstairs right now and start running some tests in the morning. We’ll start some physical therapy, too. We’ll take good care of you and check out the rest of you while you’re here. The stroke is over and done with. So don’t waste time worrying about it. It’s history. From now on you work on getting back use of that arm and leg."
She smiled lopsidedly and nodded. Finally he pulled his hand away and said, "Excuse me."
He turned and stepped through the curtains to where the daughter was talking to the air.
"Whatamygonnadoo? I gotta call Charlie! I gotta call Rae! Whatamygonnadoo?"
Alan put his hand on her shoulder and gave her trapezius a gentle squeeze. She flinched and stopped her yammering.
"You’re gonna clam up, okay?" he said in a low voice. "All you’re doing is upsetting her."
"But whatamygonnadoo? I’ve got so much to do! I gotta—"
He squeezed again, a little harder. "The most important thing for you to do right now is go stand by her and tell her how she’s going to come stay with you for a while after she gets out of the hospital and how you’re going to have everybody over for Easter."
She stared at him. "But I’m not . . ."
"Sure you are."
"You mean she’s going to be coming home?"
Alan smiled and nodded. "Yeah. After a little stay in rehab. She thinks she’s going to die here. She’s not. But she needs someone holding her hand now and talking about the near future, how life’s going to go on and how she’s going to be part of it." He steered her toward the curtains. "Get in there."
McClain, head nurse for the ER, pushing sixty and built like the Berlin Wall, saw him from the desk and held a tPA package with a questioning look. The CT scan had shown no bleed, but from what he’d gathered from the daughter, the stroke had occurred more than three hours ago. That eliminated tPA as an option.
Alan signed the orders, wrote the admitting note, then dictated the history and physical.
After giving final reassurances and saying good night to Helen Jonas and her daughter, Alan finally got out of the hospital, into his Subaru Outback, and on his way back home. He drove slowly, taking the short route through downtown Monroe where all the buildings clustered around the tiny harbor like anxious bathers waiting for a signal from the lifeguard. He liked the solitude of a late night drive through the shopping district. During the day the streets would be stop and go all the way. But at this hour, especially now that all the construction was done and he didn’t have to dodge excavations or follow detour signs, he could cruise, adjusting his speed so he could hit the lights just right. A smooth ride, now that the trolley tracks had been covered with asphalt. He pushed a CD into the player and The Crows came on, singing "Oh, Gee."
He watched the clapboarded shop fronts slip by. He hadn’t been in favor of the downtown restoration at first when the Village Council—why did Long Island towns insist on calling themselves villages?—decided to redo the harbor front in a nineteenth-century whaling motif. Never mind that any whaling in this vicinity of the North Shore had been centered to the east in places like Oyster Bay and Cold Spring Harbor, the village wanted a make over. Passing the newly faced seafood restaurants, clothing stores, and antique shops, Alan had to admit they looked good. The former lackluster hodgepodge of storefronts had taken on a new, invigorated personality, fitting perfectly with the white-steepled First Presbyterian Church and the brick-fronted town hall. Monroe was now something more than just another of the larger towns along Long Island’s "Preferred North Shore."
The illusion almost worked. He tried to picture Ishmael, harpoon on shoulder, walking down to the harbor toward the Pequod . . . passing the new Blockbuster.
Well, nothing was perfect.
A red light finally caught him and he pulled to a stop. As he waited he watched Clubfoot Annie—the closest thing Monroe had to a shopping bag lady—hobble across the street in front of him. Alan had no idea of her real name and, so far as he knew, neither did anybody else. She was known to everyone simply as Clubfoot Annie.
He was struck now, as he was whenever he saw her, by how a misshapen foot that no one had bothered to correct on a child could shape the life of the adult. People like Annie always managed to get to Alan, making him want to go back in time and see to it that someone did the right thing. So simple . . . some serial casting on her infant equinovarus deformity would have straightened it out to normal. Who would Annie be today if she’d grown up with a normal foot? Maybe she—
Something slammed against the right front door, jolting Alan, making him jump in his seat. A ravaged caricature of a human face pressed against the passenger door window.
"You!" the face said as it rolled back and forth against the glass. "You’re the one! Lemme in! Gotta talk t’ya!"
His hair and beard were long and knotted and as filthy as his clothes. The eyes shone but gave no evidence of intelligence. What ever mind he had must have been pickled a long time ago. The man straightened up and pulled on the door handle, but it was locked. He moved along the side of the car toward the hood. He looked like a Bowery derelict. Alan could not remember ever seeing the likes of him in Monroe.
He crossed in front of the car, pointing at Alan over the hood, all the while babbling unintelligibly. Tense but secure, Alan waited until the man was clear of the front of the car, then he gently accelerated. The man pounded his fist once on the trunk as the car left him behind.
In the rearview mirror, Alan saw him start running behind the car, then stop and stand in the middle of the street, staring after him, a picture of dejection and frustration as he waved his arms in the air and then let them flop down to his sides.
The episode left Alan shaken. He glanced at the passenger window and was startled to see a large oily smudge in the shape of the derelict’s face. As it picked up the light of a passing street lamp, it seemed to look at him, reminding him uncomfortably of the face from the Shroud of Turin.
He was pulling up to another red light when his beeper chittered, startling him into jamming on his brakes. He checked the illuminated readout:
Call Mrs. Nash re: son. Abd pain and vomiting. The phone number followed.
Alan straightened in his seat. Sylvia Nash—he knew her well; a concerned parent but not an alarmist. If she was calling, it meant something was definitely wrong with Jeffy. That concerned him. Jeffy Nash had come to occupy a special place in his heart and his practice.
He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. What to do? His usual procedure in a case like this was to meet the patient at either his office or the emergency room. His office was on the far side of town, and he didn’t want to go back to the emergency room to night unless absolutely necessary. Then it struck him: The Nash house was a short way off the road between the hospital and his own place. He could stop in on the way home.
He smiled as he accelerated through the green light. He found the thought of seeing Sylvia invigorating. And a house call—that ought to flap the unflappable Widow Nash.
He followed Main Street around to where it passed the entrance to the Monroe Yacht and Racquet Club on the west side of the harbor, then turned inland and passed through the various economic strata that made up "The Incorporated Village of Monroe." The low-rent district with its garden apartments and rooming houses clung to the downtown area, eventually giving way to the postwar tract homes surrounding the high school. From there it was up into the wooded hills where the newer custom-built homes of the better off had sprung up in the past decade. Alan lived there, and would have continued on Hill Drive if he’d been going home. But he bore right at the fork and followed Shore Drive down to Monroe’s most exclusive section.
Alan shook his head at the memory of his first day in town, when he’d promised Ginny that someday they would own one of the homes along the Monroe waterfront. How naive he’d been then. These weren’t homes—these were estates, rivaling the finest mansions in Glen Cove and Lattingtown. He couldn’t afford the utilities, taxes, and upkeep on one of these old monstrosities, let alone the mortgage payments.
Stone walls and tall stands of trees shielded the waterfront estates from passersby. Alan wound along the road until his headlights swept the two tall brick gateposts that flanked the entrance, illuminating the brass plaque on the left.
He turned in, followed a short, laurel-lined drive, and came upon the Nash house—formerly the Borg mansion—standing dark among its surrounding willows under the clear, starlit spring sky.
Only a single window was lit, the one in the upper left corner of the many-gabled structure, glowing a subdued yellow, making the place look like it belonged on the cover of a gothic novel. The front-porch light was on, almost as if he were expected.
He’d driven by in the past, but had never been inside. Although, after seeing the spread The New York Times Magazine had run on it a week ago—one in a continuing series on old North Shore mansions—he felt as if he knew the place.
Alan could smell the brine and hear the gentle lap of the Long Island Sound as, black bag in hand, he stepped up to the front door and reached for the bell.
He hesitated. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea, what with Sylvia’s reputation as the Merry Widow and all, and especially with the way she was always coming on to him. He knew it was mostly in fun because she liked to rattle him, yet he sensed there might be something real under the surface. That scared him most of all because he knew he responded to her. He couldn’t help it. Something beyond her good looks appealed to him, attracted him. Like now. Was he out here to see Jeffy or her?
This was a mistake. But too late to turn back now. He reached again for the bell . . .
"The Missus is expecting you?"
At the sound of the voice directly behind him, Alan jumped and spun with a sharp bark of fright, clutching at his heart, which he was sure had just gone into a brief burst of ventricular tachycardia.
"Ba!" he said, recognizing Sylvia’s Vietnamese driver and handyman. "You damn near scared me to death!"
"Very sorry, Doctor. I did not recognize you from behind."
Ba stood well over six feet. His lank black hair was tinged with gray, but his features gave little hint to his age. He could have been forty or sixty. In the glare of the porch light, his Asian skin looked sallower than usual, his eyes and cheeks more sunken.
The front door opened then and Alan turned to see the startled expression on Sylvia Nash’s pretty, finely chiseled face. She was dressed in a very comfortable looking plaid flannel robe with a high cowled neck that covered her from jaw to toes. But her breasts still managed to raise an attractive swell under the soft fabric.
"Alan! I only wanted to talk to you. I didn’t expect you to—"
"The house call is not entirely dead," he said. "I make them all the time. It happened that I was nearby in the car when I got the beep so I thought I’d save time and stop by and see Jeffy. But don’t worry. I’ll be sure to call ahead next time. Maybe then Ba won’t . . ."
His voice trailed off as he turned. Ba was gone. Didn’t that man make any sound when he moved? Then Sylvia was waving him inside.
"Come in, come in!"
He stepped into a broad, marble-floored foyer decorated in pastels, brightly lit by a huge crystal chandelier suspended from the high ceiling. Directly across from where he stood, a wide staircase wound up and away to the right.
"What was that about Ba?"
"He almost scared the life out of me. What’s he doing skulking around in the bushes like that?"
Sylvia smiled. "Oh, I imagine he’s worried about that Times article attracting every cat burglar in the five boroughs."
"Maybe he’s got a point." Alan remembered the published photos of the elegant living room, the ornate silver sets in the dining room, the bonsai green house. Everything in the article had spelled M-O-N-E-Y. "If the place is half as beautiful in real life as on paper, I imagine it would be pretty tempting."
"Thanks," she said with a Srueful smile. "I needed to hear that."
"Sorry. But you have an alarm system, don’t you?"
She shook her head. "Only a one-eyed dog who barks but doesn’t bite. And Ba, of course."
"Is he enough?"
"So far, yes."
Maybe Ba was enough. Alan shuddered at the thought of running into him in the dark. He looked like a walking cadaver.
"They certainly made enough of a fuss over you in the article—famous sculptress and all that. How come no mention of Jeffy? I’m surprised they didn’t play up the human interest angle there."
"They didn’t mention Jeffy because they don’t know about him. Jeffy is not for display."
At that moment, Sylvia Nash rose another notch in Alan’s estimation. He watched her, waiting for her to start with the provocative comments. None came. She was too concerned about Jeffy.
"Come take a look at him," she continued. "He’s upstairs. He quieted down after I called. I hated to disturb you, but he was in so much pain, and then he vomited. And, you know . . . I get worried."
Alan knew, and understood. He followed her across the foyer and up the curved staircase, watching her hips swaying gracefully before his eyes. Down a hall, a left turn, and then they were stepping over a knee-high safety gate into a child’s room, gently illuminated by a Donald Duck night-light in a wall outlet.
Excerpted from The Touch by F. Paul Wilson.
Copyright © 1986, 2004 by F. Paul Wilson.
Published in July 2009 by Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.