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By JOANNE FLUKE
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 1984 H.L. Swensen, Inc.
All rights reserved.
"Lord, we commit unto Thee this body ... ashes to ashes, dust to dust ..." Marian shuddered, turning her face away from the small white coffin. Freshly falling snow left her face wet with the tears she could not shed. She leaned against Sally Powell's supporting arm and shut her eyes tightly. This wasn't real. It was only a dream, and she would wake soon to put on the coffee and call Laura and Dan for school.
Last night she had driven home from the hospital after hours of watching Dan in his merciful coma. As she turned past the small cemetery, she saw with horror that one section was in flames. The men at the fire department were kind. They explained haltingly, embarrassed at her ignorance. The ground was frozen; it had to be thawed before a new grave could be excavated.
In the darkness of her living room she had peered through the windowpane, watching the banked fire cast a flickering red glow on the fresh snow. She had hugged herself there in the empty house, pretending that Laura was upstairs sleeping in her yellow-curtained room, that it was all a terrible mistake. But when she looked again, the fire was still there, thawing the ground for her baby's grave.
"Hang on, Marian.... It's almost over." Sally's arm tightened around her shoulders. Tears were running down her friend's face, and Marian felt a stab of resentment. She should be the one to cry, not Sally. She had lost her baby, and Jenny was still alive. But it wasn't right to resent Sally. Her grief was real. Sally had loved Laura, too.
It popped into her mind with sudden clarity, her high school's production of Our Town. She had played the part of Rebecca, Emily's sister-in-law. The night of the performance was a revelation. These were the same friends she had shared sandwiches and class notes with. Then, in costumes and stage makeup, they were total strangers.
It was the same feeling she had now, the same sense of unreality as she faced her neighbors and coworkers. She was playing the part of a grief-stricken mother, delivering the correct lines, making the proper gestures to an audience of nameless strangers. She was incapable of honest emotion. This was merely a performance. It was not real. She was not real.
He had been aware of the voice for some time now, but he was too tired to care.
"Vital signs are normal, Doctor. Are there any further instructions?"
"Continue with the IV, and turn him once an hour. The funeral's this afternoon. Marian's coming in later. Run the blood work again, and call me immediately if there's any change."
He tried to open his eyes, but there was something heavy on his eyelids. All he could do was listen, barely breathing, as footsteps receded. There was a stabbing pain in his arm and the realization that the voices had been talking about him!
This time it worked. He opened his eyes and stared at the white-clad figure leaning over him.
"It's Joyce Meiers." The nurse leaned closer. "Just relax, Mr. Larsen. You're doing fine. I'll get the doctor."
He was in a hospital. It was clear now, the small room with white furnishings. He was in a room at the Nisswa Clinic, on the far edge of town. But what was he doing here?
"Well, well ... you finally decided to join us!" Dr. Hinkley's face swam into focus. "One more little pinprick and we'll talk ... all right?"
There was another stab in his arm, and Dan flinched. "What am I doing here? What happened?"
As he asked the questions, he knew. The snowmobile. The sudden storm. The accident. And Laura. What had happened to Laura!
"She's dead, isn't she?" His voice was slow and thick as the shot took effect. Tranquilizer. "You said something about a ... a funeral. Laura's dead."
"I'm afraid so, Dan." Dr. Hinkley reached for his hand, practiced fingers taking his pulse. "Would you like something to put you back to sleep?"
"No." Even though his voice was weak, the word was definite. "I've slept enough. How long?"
"You've been in a coma for three days." The doctor's voice was kind. "You had a nasty blow to the head, Dan. Now that you're awake, we'll do some tests."
Laura was dead. His baby was dead. Dan tried to think, but his mind was fuzzy. "Marian?" he asked. "Where's Marian?"
"She'll be here in a few hours." Dr. Hinkley released his wrist and wrote something on the chart at the foot of his bed. "Don't try to think about anything now, Dan. Just concentrate on getting well."
Was he dying? His body was numb. His legs felt like lead. He tried tentatively to move, but nothing happened.
"My legs!" Dan's eyes widened. "They're gone!"
"No ... It's all right, Dan," Dr. Hinkley said soothingly. "Your legs are fine ... nothing wrong at all. You're just experiencing some difficulty in moving, that's all. It's probably a simple blockage caused by the accident. Nothing to worry about. Now, relax and let us take care of you."
Just as panic started to set in, there was another prick in his arm and a wave of soft grayness settled down over his mind. Another shot. Don't think. It was all a bad dream.
The sun reflecting against the highly polished desktop hurt her eyes, and Marian shut them for a moment. She wished the sun weren't shining. Something should be changed, in honor of her grief. The scene outside the plate-glass hospital window was straight out of a Currier & Ives Christmas card, but her baby was dead. How could this afternoon be so beautiful when Laura was lying in the frozen ground?
"Marian?" Dr. Hinkley pushed a box of Kleenex across the desktop, and Marian realized that tears were running down her cheeks. Why now? And not at the funeral?
"Do you want a tranquilizer for tonight? It helps sometimes, just to get a good night's sleep."
"No, thank you." She had the insane urge to giggle. He sounded as if he were offering her a pastel mint at a party. Would you like a mint, Marian? No? Then perhaps you'd care for an after-funeral pill.
Marian realized with a start that she wasn't paying attention. Dr. Hinkley was trying to tell her something.
"We think it might be conversion hysteria, Marian." She tried her best to concentrate. "That's a term for acute anxiety converted to dysfunction of parts of the body. In Dan's case the problem is his legs. He regained consciousness briefly this morning, and we immediately ran tests. There's no sensation in the lower extremities. Even though the paralysis is only in his mind, it has the same effect as a break in the spinal column."
"Wait a minute." Marian tried hard to understand. "Are you saying Dan can't walk?"
Dr. Hinkley nodded slowly. "I'm afraid so, Marian."
It was just too much to take. Laura was dead now, and Dan was paralyzed. The bright room was closing in on her. There was a sound growing around her, a thin, high-pitched wail. She was shocked to find it was coming from her own throat. And then the afternoon sun began to darken alarmingly, and she was pitching forward, falling into Dr. Hinkley's arms.
There was a metallic taste in her mouth as Marian struggled to open her eyes. She must have made some sort of sound, because suddenly a nurse was there beside her.
"Good morning, Mrs. Larsen. We had a wonderful night's sleep."
The nurse was holding a glass of water to her lips. Marian gulped thirstily. Her lips were stiff. The words formed slowly in her mind.
"Dr. Hinkley? I need to see him."
"He'll be here in a few minutes." The nurse smiled. "You can doze off again, if you want. Dr. Hinkley said to give you the royal treatment."
She must have responded somehow, for the nurse left and she was alone again. Marian made herself sit up straighter. She knew she had to play a part again, the part of an alert, competent woman. Then the doctor would let her go home. It was important that she didn't let anyone guess how helpless and frightened she was inside.
Things were better when she applied the light makeup she carried in her purse. The hospital coffee was weak, but it helped. She was ready when Dr. Hinkley came. This time she would not faint.
"The X-rays show no spinal damage, Marian." Dr. Hinkley was sitting in the chair by the bed, and Marian nodded alertly. "In Dan's case, the paralysis is definitely a form of hysterical neurosis. Only his lower extremities are affected. That means he can use a wheelchair, Marian. And he can go home tomorrow, if you think you're up to it."
"Yes ... of course I am." Marian drew a deep breath. "But when will he recover? You said it wasn't physical. When will Dan be able to walk again?"
"No one knows, Marian." Dr. Hinkley reached out to pat her hand. "Dan's body is punishing him for the accident. He blames himself for Laura's death. In some cases of Dan's type, spontaneous remission has occurred almost overnight. But, Marian ... Dan may remain paralyzed for the rest of his life."
"I have to help him." Marian straightened her shoulders. "What can I do, Dr. Hinkley?"
"Good girl!" Dr. Hinkley nodded. "You're a fighter, Marian, and that's precisely what Dan needs. Take him home with you tomorrow. There's no reason why he can't go back to work in a week or so. He has a commitment to that hockey team of his, and that might just pull him out of this. I talked to Jim Sorensen at the Conoco station, and he says he can rig your van for a wheelchair. You drive it down there this afternoon, if you feel up to it, and Jim'll work on it tonight. And don't stay alone in that house of yours. I've had calls from half the women in town, offering to stay with you until Dan gets home. You take somebody up on that, Marian. Or I can move an extra bed into Dan's room, if you'd rather stay here."
"I'll stay here with Dan." Marian's voice was strong. "He'll need me if he wakes up. And thank you, Dr. Hinkley. Thank you for being so kind."
* * *
She sat in the chair by the window, looking out at the gathering darkness and hearing the deep, even sound of Dan's breathing. He had opened his eyes once and had seen her sitting there. It seemed to satisfy him, for he had gone straight back to sleep without a word. Marian turned to study her husband's sleeping face. He was a handsome man, rugged and muscular. They'd called him "the Viking" when he'd played hockey in college. But Dan had never wanted to be a professional hockey player. He'd wanted to teach history and coach hockey on the side. He took the job in Nisswa because of Harvey Woodruff's persuasion.
Harvey was a principal in danger of losing his school. There was talk of dissolving the Nisswa district and busing the students to Brainerd or Pequot Lakes. Dan's job was to add prestige to the school and make the community proud to have a winning hockey team. There was no way Harvey wanted the local kids bused away. The Nisswa School was his life. He'd built it into a fine academic institution, and Dan could help him save it.
Dan had been coaching for two years when Marian joined the Nisswa staff. The hockey team was winning, and Dan was the town hero. There was no more talk of busing. Nisswa was proud of its school and even prouder of Dan. It had been exciting to date the most eligible bachelor on the faculty.
Marian hadn't dated much in college. Her particular combination of femininity and brains had served to scare off most of the college men. And she had to admit that she wasn't all that interested in beer parties in student apartments. Marian was convinced she was destined for something more worthwhile than becoming a simple wife and mother. She had dreams of an academic career, perhaps a place on a college faculty, the respect of her colleagues, the publication of her innovative teaching methods.
Then he'd asked her for a date, Marian Walters, newly graduated, her head filled with theories of education, her heart dedicated to bringing enlightenment to the children of America. And Marian realized what she had been missing by pouring every waking hour into her lesson plans and her research. Dan Larsen was fun!
She remembered telling Dan her dreams, how disappointed she was in not landing a job in a warmer climate, how she longed for a break from the endless snows of Minnesota winters. But jobs in better climates were at a premium, and elementary school teachers were a dime a dozen. She was lucky to get the position in Nisswa. After two years she thought she would try to move on, perhaps to California, where the days were sunny and warm, even in the winter, but there was Dan, and then there was love and marriage ... and Laura. Painful tears squeezed out behind Marian's swollen eyelids. Her baby was dead, and Dan was paralyzed. It was too much.
"Would you like some coffee, Mrs. Larsen?" A white-uniformed nurse came into the room on silent feet. "I'll sit with Mr. Larsen if you want a little break."
"Thank you, yes." Marian rose to her feet stiffly. She had been sitting in the chair for hours now, just thinking.
"There's coffee at the nurses' station at the end of the hall, and there's a sandwich machine there, too. I'm Joyce Meiers, Mrs. Larsen. I had Mr. Larsen for history when I was a senior."
"Thank you, Joyce." Marian forced a pleasant smile. She remembered Joyce now. Dan would be pleased to see her if he woke up, she thought as she began to walk down the hall.
In a way, he was glad she was gone. He loved her so much, and he didn't know what to say. He had opened his eyes in the early evening to see her sitting there, head bowed slightly, eyes vacant and weary. Somehow it was wrong to interrupt her solitude. They had always been so close, but now what could he say?
I'm sorry I killed your daughter, Marian.
Oh, that's all right. It was an accident.
It was better to say nothing at all. They would talk later, heal the breach, start over. But not now. Now he was too heartsick to try. And his grief was too new. It was best to pretend to go back to sleep until the pretense became a reality.
She felt better after the coffee and sandwich. There was a candy machine at the end of the hall, and Marian reached into her purse for change. She should take Laura a Nut Goodie. It was her favorite candy bar.
Marian stopped suddenly, a quarter balanced against the coin slot. A hard, racking sob shook her slender body. She leaned her forehead against the cool, impersonal glass case and held it there until her legs stopped trembling. She couldn't break down now. She had to be strong for Dan. He needed her. It wasn't fair. Life would go on and time would pass, whether she wanted it to or not.
The jangling summons of the little bell made her headache worse. Even upstairs, in their bedroom, the noise was jarring.
"Marian? Is there any more coffee?"
Marian sat up. She must have fallen asleep, and Dan needed her. She had to go to him, even though she was so tired, she wanted to sleep for a week.
That was how long it had been. One week of Dan settling in, getting used to the den downstairs, which they had converted into his domain. One week of waiting on him hand and foot. A week of plumping pillows, smiling lovingly, running back and forth to fulfill his every need. But soon all that would change. She couldn't put it off much longer. Soon she would have to go back to work, take her coffee break in the morning with the other teachers, pretend interest in their lives and their work, and appear normal. She would have to start a new group in reading, put up a colorful bulletin board, sing songs with her class, and convince everyone that everything was just fine. Marian was terrified that she couldn't do it. Everyone would see that she wasn't really competent Marian Larsen. She had turned into someone else, some colorless impostor who was no good for her students, no good for Dan, no good for anyone ever again.
Marian hated making excuses to be alone, but she couldn't let Dan see how unhappy and frightened she was. It wouldn't be fair to burden him with her problems. Up here, alone, it was all right to cry.
She reached for the bottle of pills on the table and took another one. Dr. Hinkley claimed they would elevate her spirits. She hadn't told him the pills didn't work. He had prescribed several types already, and she couldn't ask for more. Dr. Hinkley might give up on her and tell Dan. She couldn't let Dan know how desperate she felt. Life wasn't worth living without her baby. If only she could think of a decent way to end her torture.
"Just a minute, honey!" Marian slipped her feet into moccasins and ran her fingers through her short, brown, curly hair. "I'll make a fresh pot of coffee. Then we'll watch a little television together."
Excerpted from WINTER CHILL by JOANNE FLUKE. Copyright © 1984 by H.L. Swensen, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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