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A child screamed, a piercing note of terror that seemed to shiver the window glass.
Kathleen dropped her coffee mug and shot to her feet, tripping over her bathrobe. Even as she raced for the kitchen doorway, heart doing sickening things in her chest, she thought, Was that Emma? Not Ginny, surely. Even her giggles were soft!
The scream became a gurgle, a sobbed, "Auntie Kath! Auntie Kath!" and Kathleen knew. Ginny was terrified because she'd found
Emma. Something was wrong with Emma. Hiking her robe above her knees, she leaped up the stairs two at a time. "Ginny! What's wrong?"
Their cat hurtled down the stairs, ricocheting off Kathleen's shin before vanishing below. Wild-eyed and wearing nothing but a sacky T-shirt, Jo emerged from her bedroom, the first at the head of the stairs. One of Kathleen's adult roommates who helped pay the rent, Jo was a graduate student and didn't have to get up as early as the others this semester.
"What is it?"
Kathleen didn't answer.
Six-year-old Ginny, the timid mouse in their household, darted from the bathroom. Hiccuping with sobs, she snatched Kathleen's hand.
"Auntie Kath! It's Emma!"
A whimper escaped Kathleen's throat when she reached the bathroom. Her daughter lay unconscious on the floor, blood matting her hair.
"Emma! Oh, no. Emma." She fell to her knees, barely conscious of Jo and Ginny crowding behind her.
A faint pulse fluttered in Emma's throat, but her face was waxen and still.
"She's so cold." Gripping her daughter's hand, Kathleen swiveled on her knees. "What happened, Ginny? Did you see?"
Tears running down her face, Ginny nodded. "She she was looking at at herself in the mirror." Another sob shook her small body. "Her eyes rolled back, and she fell over! Auntie Kath! is she dead?"
Even in her fear, Kathleen spared a moment to shake her head. Ginny had lost her dad to cancer a year ago. Death must often be on her mind.
"No, Ginny. I think Emma fainted. You know she hasn't been eating enough." Understatement, she thought grimly. In fact, sixteen-year-old Emma had been anorexic for the past year, and this spring had managed to stay barely above eighty pounds. An ounce below, she'd been warned, and she was going into residential treatment. "She must have hit her head on the tub."
Jo laid her hands on Ginny's shoulders and gently steered her out of the bathroom. "I'll call 911," she said briskly. "Don't try to move her, Kathleen."
"I won't." Her daughter's hand was icy in hers. "Hurry, Jo. Oh, please hurry."
The wait seemed forever, although Jo must have been back in no more than a minute or two. She was still pulling a sweatshirt over her head.
"I'll stay with her. Go get dressed, Kathleen. You'll want to go to the hospital with her."
Dazed, Kathleen looked up. "Dressed?" "Hurry." Her dark-haired roommate—and sister-in-law to be—crouched beside her. "You'll be okay, Emma," she said softly, her hand delicately stroking Emma's cold cheek.
Yes. She had to get dressed. Kathleen stumbled to her feet and backed out of the bathroom, her gaze fixed on Emma's white, gaunt face. She did look dead. And why not? She'd been dying for months, killing herself with her refusal to eat.
Kathleen bumped into the wall and turned, blindly heading toward her bedroom. Her fault. This was her fault.
She should have seen it coming, checked Emma into treatment. Her face crumpled. Why hadn't she? Because she'd sincerely thought Emma was recovering? Or because she didn't want to believe she couldn't handle her own child's problems?
In her bedroom, she grabbed clothes from her dresser and scrambled into them without caring what she put on. Not bothering with socks, she shoved her feet into Swedish clogs, yanked a hairbrush through her hair and ran back to the bathroom.
Jo looked up. "Her lashes just fluttered. I think she may be regaining consciousness. I sent Ginny for an ice pack from the freezer."
"Where are they?" Kathleen asked desperately, even as she heard a distant wail.
Jo rose. "I'll let them in." She gave Kathleen a quick hug. "She'll be all right, Kathleen. Just hold on."
The EMTs were actually coming up the stairs when Emma's eyes opened. She stared blankly up. In a slurred voice, she asked, "What happened?"
"You collapsed. And hit your head."
Slow and heavy, Emma whispered, "I was.a.little.dizzy." Her lids sank shut.
"Oh, sweetheart," Kathleen whispered, feeling again how icy her daughter's hand was. "You'll be fine."
For the first time, she knew she was lying.
Kathleen paced the small waiting room, too scared to sit down or to pretend to read a Good Housekeeping or Sports Illustrated magazine, as a couple of other people were doing. They watched her surreptitiously, and she saw pity along with kindness in their eyes.
Looking as if she'd been running, Jo appeared in the doorway, Ginny clinging to her side. "How is she?"
"I don't know!" Kathleen wailed. "They're taking X-rays."
Jo opened her arms and Kathleen fell into them, marveling at how natural it felt even though she'd never been comfortable with casual hugs or physical intimacy. It was a moment before she felt movement down by her thigh and remembered that poor Ginny was here, too.
Face wet, she pulled back and said quietly, "You didn't put Ginny on the school bus?"
"How could I? She was too upset. Here, Hummingbird." Jo hoisted the child onto a chair. "Your mom is coming."
"You called Helen?"
Jo looked at Kathleen as if she were nuts. "Well, of course I did! You don't think she'd want to know?"
"Well, I suppose " Kathleen said uncertainly.
This was new to her, having this oddly assorted family. After leaving her husband, she and Emma had lived for a few months in an apartment, before she decided the arrangement wasn't temporary and they needed a real home. Of course they could have moved in with her father, but she'd been glad to leave her parents' house in the first place, and wasn't about to go back at her age. With Seattle real estate prices and her own lack of job skills, she couldn't afford a mortgage on her own. So she'd advertised for roommates.
She had been amazingly lucky. Kathleen had had her doubts about the wisdom of taking on Helen and small, sad Ginny. Helen was engulfed in grief and Ginny was so withdrawn, Jo admitted to thinking of her as a ghost, drifting insubstantially around the house. The truth was, Kathleen had felt sorry for Helen and offered her a room out of pity, not common sense. Sad though Helen still was, she had become a good friend.
In her late twenties, Jo had seemed like a better choice. Unencumbered with children, she'd gotten tired of being an "acting" librarian and decided to go back to school to get her master's degree so she could be the real thing. She'd seemed to be pleasant, private and quietly ambitious. Better yet, she had turned out to have some construction skills and had been a big help in remodeling first the upstairs and then the downstairs bathrooms in the old house in the Ravenna district.
She had also become engaged in short order to Kathleen's brother, Ryan.
Now, clinging to her hand, Kathleen was intensely grateful that they'd decided to put off the wedding until summer to give his kids time to adjust to the idea of having a stepmom. After all, Melissa and Tyler had suffered enough trauma when their mom decided over christmas vacation that she couldn't keep them and had sent them to live with Ryan.
Kathleen was dreading having to find a new roommate who would come close to measuring up to Jo.
Especially since the three women and two kids had really come to feel like family in such a short time. They depended on each other. How could they replace one member of their household as if she was was a washing machine that had quit?
"I left a message for Ryan, too," Jo told her. "I don't know when he'll get it."
"Something's wrong," Kathleen decided. "They'd have come back for me if it wasn't." She pressed her fingers to her mouth. "I should go ask. I'm so scared, Jo."
"I know." Her roommate gave her another hug. "But she was already talking to you on the way over, wasn't she?"
"Yes, but her eyes looked funny. And her voice " Kathleen had to stop, then try again with quiet desperation. "Her voice was slurred. As if she were drunk."
"She did hit her head," Jo reminded her.
"Yes, but "
A dark-haired, plump woman in a white lab coat, stethoscope around her neck, stood in the waiting room doorway.
Kathleen's heart drummed in her ears.
"I'm Dr. Weaver. Emma wants to see you, but I'd like to speak to you first."
Kathleen nodded dumbly and followed her, leaving Jo and Ginny in the waiting room.
Dr. Weaver stopped in the wide corridor where they were alone, and said quietly, "Emma tells me she's been in counseling for her eating disorder."
"For the past year." Kathleen told the doctor Emma's history, the name of her therapist and internist.
"Ah." Dr. Weaver's face was compassionate. "Well, I suspect she's been conning them somehow. She weighs seventy-seven pounds." The doctor talked about electrolytes, liver and kidney function and the danger of heart damage, concluding, "Emma needs to be in a controlled, residential setting where her food intake is monitored. She should gain as much as ten pounds before she can safely be discharged."
Kathleen seemed able to do little but nod. The lump in her throat made talking difficult, but she said, "We've discussed putting her in a residential program, but she seemed " She bit her lip, breathed deeply. Don't cry. A semblance of control regained, she said simply, "I kept telling myself that she was doing better."
The doctor nodded. "People with eating disorders are some of the best liars and manipulators in the world. They're a little like drug addicts. They'll do anything to protect their habits."
"Has she suffered permanent damage?"
"We'll need to run further tests to have a better sense of where she is. I think she can recover. Her youth is in her favor. The odds of complete recovery diminish the longer someone with her problem goes without effective treatment. You did the right thing getting her into counseling so soon."
"For what good it's done," Kathleen said bitterly.