The roles of the healer and the healed get all twisted up in Waking Samuel... A haunting first novel.-Anchorage Daily News
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Waking Samuela novel
By Daniel Coyle
BLOOMSBURYCopyright © 2003 Daniel Coyle
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThree-seventeen A.M.
In the upstairs bedroom of a white-curtained house near Seattle, Sara Black opened her eyes. Moving carefully, like a spy in enemy territory, she raised her head over her husband's shoulder and checked the clock glowing on the bedside table.
I should not go to him, was her first thought. I should stay.
Sara leaned back. Three-seventeen. That meant three hours and forty-three minutes until the alarm went off. Five hours and forty-three minutes until her shift started at the hospital Seven hundred and fifteen days since the accident. Eighty-seven days until what would have been their son's sixth birthday. Sara closed her eyes, finding comfort in the stalwartness of each number. That was the reassuring thing about numbers: the unquestioning way they advanced and retreated, always remaining balanced. Numbers were honest. They gave her a foothold where she could locate herself.
Sara looked around, trying to see things as they were. The dark skylight. The pale white room, the blue patchwork quilt, the tidy house on Raven Lane where they'd lived for seven years now. She concentrated on sounds: a distant dog barking; the digestive gurgle of a street grate. Sara shifted slightly, and as she did she felt a pain shoot up her leg, a ghostly spark she welcomed because it carried her back to her purpose. I won't go, she told herself sternly. I will stay here. But even this reminder had the opposite of its intended effect. Instead of firming her resolve, it only made her see his face.
Stop, she told herself sternly, and for a second it worked.
To distract herself, Sara looked around the room, the garret-like space where she and Tom had spent half of their married life. When they had first moved here, she had thought of this place as an engine room, full of gleam and motion. But now the room felt more like a museum: placid, expectant, everything arranged just so.
Here was the blue wallpaper sprouting its golden field of flowers, the flowers of the condolence bouquets her neighbors, most of whom she barely knew, had sent for the funeral. There'd been so many flowers that they had blanketed every available table on their first floor, so many that the hungry birds and insects had mistaken their living room for a meadow, slipping through the open windows to feed among the end tables and the breakfront. For days afterward their upper floors were home to a number of small, batlike birds that darted from dark corners with such regularity that Sara had nearly begun to regard them as pets.
Here, propped on the windowsill, stood a clutter of family photographs, a seemingly offhand set of images that Sara knew was anything but, since all close-ups had been carefully excised and replaced with photos that showed the family in a hazy middle distance, images that communicated, as the grief counselor had recommended, the idea of family without flesh-and-blood specifics. Or here, the vaguely dental shine of its combination lock visible through the open closet door, stood the red leather suitcase that had belonged to Sara's mother, a tattered and slightly rancid relic that Tom was constantly threatening to throw out and that for reasons she could not divine, Sara would not permit him to touch.
Sara tapped her fingers soundlessly on the quilt, craned her neck to recheck the clock. Three-twenty-one. Three hours and thirty-nine minutes until she and Tom would be rising, clicking on the coffeemaker, until they'd he sitting down to their scrambled eggs. Three fifty-four until they would watch their next-door neighbor Mrs. Wooding emerge regally from her door to pluck her newspaper from the sidewalk as if it were a particularly distasteful weed. Four thirty-nine until the workday began, the moment when Sara would be transformed into her official daytime self. But for now she lay here, watching the numbers, summoning her energies for the fight that lay ahead.
It was a fight. Sara would never admit that it was a fight (that was the most essential part of it, not admitting), but a fight was what it was. Specifically, it was a fight against a handful of concerned neighbors, tireless folk who drew their strength from the exhilarating conviction that they were helping her. There were not many-a half dozen, perhaps-but they seemed to occupy most of MountainLake Hills, padding smilingly down every grocery aisle, sidling casually along every sidewalk, fixing her with concerned eyes. Concern, that was the magical word, the one they liked to use. They were concerned about Sara, concerned at the way she was handling this. Concerned, they whispered, because Sara hadn't "come to grips with things," because she had "closed herself off." So those neighbors made it their duty to watch her. If Sara glanced at them, they would tilt their heads understandingly and smile their inscrutable dolphin smiles. If Sara walked away, they would follow, keeping a discreet distance. If Sara stayed home, they slipped through the phone wires, calling on the flimsiest pretense to pepper her with casual-sounding questions. So how are you feeling these days? (Have you started therapy? At least taking medication?) So I hear you've started back to work at the hospital. (That, at last, is something. Maybe they'll be able to talk some sense into you.) I want you to know that I'm there for you. (Whenever you finally decide to rejoin the world, let me know.)
"You can't hold it inside forever, hon," the psychiatrist had murmured, and Sara had nodded in violent agreement-she couldn't hold it in. But neither could she let it out. And how do you fight off someone who interprets your every move as a cry for help? Such a terrible tragedy, who wouldn't have trouble coping? they whispered. We need to be there for her.
Sara would have never said it, but in her heart she knew her existence had come to resemble that of a prisoner of war. She palmed her Zolofts and fed them to the dog. She logged an unhealthy number of hours driving the fateful section of highway with a ball-peen hammer in her purse, hoping for the opportunity to perform a make-good rescue (and spending some time considering forcing someone's car off the road so she could rescue them). At her doctor's insistence, she had attended meetings of Life Beyond Grief, When the Bough Breaks, and Listening to Your Heart, during the latter of which she had apparently fallen noisily and happily asleep. After that episode, she had sworn off therapy and replaced it with Aviation Weather, an hour-long loop of satellite maps and pressure contours that she found soothing beyond belief. She became obsessed with purging imperfections from her skin, marking her face with game trails of fingernail dents. She made midnight visits to the hospital to visit a patient whose name she didn't know.
Three twenty-five. Sara looked up, hoping to see a sign of dawn, but the skylight might as well have been painted black. During her recovery, Sara had developed the habit of asking the skylight questions. It worked like this: She would whisper an inquiry, then wait for a reply. Signs from the air-a distant plane, a bird, a spinning leaf-meant yes, while those from the ground signified no. But tonight Sara did not ask any questions, because she had made up her mind that she would stay here, in bed.
She stared up, and the skylight seemed to react, its areas of deeper blackness pooling amoebically. I don't even know his name, Sara told the skylight firmly. It makes no sense. Seeming to hear her, the skylight morphed again. Sara knew it was an imperfection in the glass, a trick of light and angle. Still, she felt obliged to respond. No, she repeated silently. Don't even try.
I am arguing with a slab of glass, she thought, and smiled.
Sara leaned back and looked across the bed at Tom. He lay facing away from her, his square-shouldered, faintly whistling bulk reminding her of a cast-iron stove. He was listening, she knew. Tom never admitted it, but Sara knew he was awake, standing at the ready. Not because he thought anything would go wrong, but because this was the kind of role to which he was well suited, the rumpled yet vigilant watchman, jangling his keys, strolling the quieted rooms. Now we're listening to each other listening, she thought. She heard his measured breathing, felt his inner steadiness, the tick of his motor. Even in feigned sleep, Tom was good at emanating the sense that no matter what happens, everything will be okay. This bedrock certainty-the precise quality she'd fallen in love with-now made him seem as remote as the moon.
Lately Tom had begun acting strangely. The change appeared first in his voice, in a new brightness of tone that leapt on the first syllable of words-Hell-o. Good morning. Always a late sleeper, he'd started waking early, bounding out of bed to make breakfast, brimming with energy and ideas. Say, what did she think about redecorating the living room? Having the new neighbors over for barbecue on Saturday? Joining a bowling league? She did not know what to say. She only knew what not to say.
It has been forty-five nights since we made love.
You are becoming exactly like the rest of them.
I have found someone. I do not know his name. But he is lost, and I can help him, and that is all that matters.
Now Sara looked at Tom's body, studying its outline. It was muscular but not conventionally attractive-too hunched in the shoulders, a touch meaty in the butt, with a barrel-shaped chest whose contours were more automotive than sexual. Still, there had been a time when Sara could not keep her hands off him, when they had stolen away to kitchens, in bathrooms, on the stairway, when there was no time to make it to bed. Sara remembered the times while they'd been renovating this house when they'd come up to this very room and lain on the painter's tarps. When they were done, they'd lingered, looking at the unfinished ceiling and telling each other stories about what would happen in these very rooms. It had become a friendly contest between them, and they would take turns to see who could construct the most entertaining yarn-backyard epics of last-inning Little League home runs and calamity-filled canoe trips, excerpts from a family album whose pages had yet to be filled. Lying there next to Tom's warmth, safe within the ribs of the house, Sara had loved those stories. She could feel them, the words linking into sentences, the sentences ascending like breath-blown threads, reaching toward their shared future.
She looked. Tom's shoulder shone in the cold light, the same bone and muscle and skin, the powdery drift of freckles, the pale blossom of his vaccine scar. Automatically, she reached toward it, then stopped her hand in midair. If she touched him, what could they talk about? What stories were there to tell now? What words, whispered in the dark, could make any difference?
Silently, without warning, a blunt streak of white skidded diagonally across the skylight - a shooting star? A seagull? A windblown grocery bag? Sara chose the bird and pictured it gliding over the toylike grid of houses, headed east. She eased her leg to the side of the bed, letting gravity draw it downward, as if she were slipping from a boat railing into a dark current.
Sara drove quickly through the darkness, her face tipped into the dashboard lights. She was forty-one, with reddish curly hair and a runner's build. She was an attractive woman, with dark intelligent eyes set against a pale Irish complexion, but there was something slightly disproportionate about the geometry of her features, as though they had been knocked loose by some tremendous force and were in the process of migrating into a new arrangement. Sara had lived in the neighborhood for seven years, but it wasn't until the accident that her face had become a symbol of something, something whose very presence caused people to speak in whispers that Sara sometimes heard and sometimes didn't hear but always knew were spoken: That's her. She's the one.
Sara drove through the neighborhood, finding comfort in the familiar rhythm of the turns. Left, left, right, left, left. As she rounded the final corner, her eyes were drawn to a sunflower yellow Colonial, to a light in a second-floor dormer. She looked closer and saw the backlit profile of an upper torso-a petite woman seated at a desk, her hair tied in a collegiate ponytail, her head lowered in what looked like writerly contemplation. Brenda, Sara realized. Brenda Oliver, their neighborhood's official tragic celebrity.
Sara slowed the truck and examined the shadow more closely, noting its clerical tranquillity. She pictured Brenda's soulful blue eyes, her unfairly curvaceous body, her cheerful swoop of hair that was the exact same color as her house. Knowing Brenda, Sara assumed she was using this wakeful time for something ostentatiously productive, like working on her cancer fund-raiser or assembling one of her memory books about her late daughter. Or perhaps Brenda had guessed that Sara might drive past and was merely pretending to be engaged in work so that Sara would see her shadow and be inspired in the same way that medieval peasants were inspired by a stained-glass madonna. That would be just like Brenda, Sara thought darkly. No scheme was too elaborate, especially if it held the possibility of teaching a healing lesson, and God knew, no one was more in need of a healing lesson than Sara Black. Sara strongly suspected Brenda had been the one behind the flood of flowers at the funeral, as well as those mysterious sunflowers she'd been receiving each month on the anniversary of the accident. Be happy today, the unsigned notes read. Somebody loves you! It had been nice, the first few times, to find the flowers. But now, so many bouquets later, it seemed as if the giver had forgotten their original purpose and sent them out of childlike persistence-which was Brenda all over.
Sara hit the accelerator and the house shrank satisfyingly in the rearview mirror. She lowered the window to let the night air move through her hair. There was something reassuringly clandestine about driving, a solidity that returned her by degrees to her purpose. She was a nurse. She was driving to the hospital where she worked to check on a patient. That was all.
Sara's free hand traveled unconsciously to her knee, to the three titanium rods whose tips could be felt protruding faintly beneath her skin. She touched them in the usual order-thumb, middle, pinkie; one, three, five, a major chord. Sara moved the pins slightly but precisely, as one might wiggle a loose tooth, feeling the cat's cradle of metal within her bones.
Excerpted from Waking Samuel by Daniel Coyle Copyright © 2003 by Daniel Coyle. Excerpted by permission.
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