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The phone rang a few minutes after eleven on Christmas night. Laura was at her computer in the study, as usual, but she quickly reached for the receiver. She knew who was calling.
"He's asking for you," the nurse said. "I think you'd better hurry."
"I'll be right there."
She ran through the living room, past the darkened Christmas tree and up the stairs to the second floor of the town house. Although she tried to be quiet, the bedroom door squeaked as she opened it, and Ray lifted his head from the pillow. He was never an easy sleeper.
"The hospital called," she said, slipping off her robe and pulling a pair of jeans from her dresser drawer. "I have to go."
Ray sat up and switched on his bedside light. "Is he…?" He didn't finish the sentence as he reached for his glasses on the night table. He looked dazed, blinking against the intrusion of light in the room.
"He's still alive," she said. "But I think this is it." She heard the lack of emotion in her voice as the calm and collected scientist in her took over.
"I'll come with you," Ray said, throwing off the covers. "I'll get Emma up and she and I can wait in—"
"No." She pulled her sweater over her head, then leaned over to kiss him. "You and Emma stay here. No sense waking her up. Besides, I need to get there quickly."
"All right." Ray smoothed his hands over his thinning brown hair. "But call if you change your mind and want us to come."
He looked like an oversized little boy, sitting on the edge of the bed in his striped pajamas, and Laura felt a quick surge of love for him. "I will," she said, giving him a hug. "Thanks."
Outside, the air was still and cold. She drove quickly through the neighborhood, the houses and trees ablaze with colored lights. On the main road through Leesburg, she hit red light after red light, and even though the streets were nearly empty, she stopped dutifully at each of them.
Her father had wanted no heroic measures, and he'd received none. Although Laura agreed philosophically with his decision, her emotions were another matter, and these past few days she'd been hoping for a miracle. She wasn't ready to lose him. Carl Brandon had been the one consistent person in her life, always there for her. Her relationship with him had not been perfect, but who had a perfect relationship with their father? He'd turned eighty a few months ago, right after the cancer came back. She'd given him a party after hours in the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum, turning on the planetarium lights for him. It would be his last party, and she knew there was nothing he would love better than to gaze at the sea of stars above him. He'd nearly ignored the guests in favor of the mechanically created sky.
Only a few cars were parked in the visitors' lot, and she found a spot close to the hospital entrance. Inside, the lobby was eerily empty and dimly lit. Shivering as she walked through it, she tried to prepare herself for what lay ahead. She would find her father at peace. He was not afraid of dying, and that comforted her. He had an astronomer's appreciation of his own irrelevance. When your passion was the sky and the stars and the planets, the insignificance of your life was a given.
So, she would hold his hand as he drifted away from her. She would be very strong. Then she would drive home and Ray would comfort her. In the morning, she would tell Emma that Poppa had died. She had already tried to explain to her five-year-old daughter about Poppa's illness, trying to equate what was happening to him to what had happened to Emma's guinea pig the year before. But Emma, despite asking dozens of questions, seemed unable to grasp the concept of forever. And Laura, who had always scoffed at the notion of heaven, found herself using the idea to comfort Emma. And at times, herself.
She knew the instant she entered her father's room that he was not at peace. He was clearly worse than when she'd seen him that afternoon. His breathing was raspier, his skin grayer, and he was agitated. As he reached for her, his long arms trembling in the air, he wore a look of desperation on his once-handsome face.
She took his hand and sat on the edge of his bed.
"I'm here, Dad." She guessed he had not wanted to die without her at his side and wished she'd ignored those red lights to get to the hospital sooner.
He held both her hands in his weak grasp, but even with her there, the desperate look did not leave his eyes. He tried to speak, the words coming out between his gasps for air. "Should… have…told…" he said.
She leaned close to hear him. From that angle, she could see the stars of Aries through the hospital window. "Don't try to speak, Dad." She smoothed a tuft of white hair away from his temple.
"A woman," he said. "You need…" Her father's face, gaunt and gray, tightened with frustration as he struggled to get the words out.
"I need to what, Dad?" she asked gently.
"Look…" His lips trembled from the strain of speaking. "Look after her," he said.
Laura drew away to study his face. Could he be delusional? "Okay," she said. "I will. Please don't try to talk anymore."
He let go of her hand to reach toward the night table, his arm jerking with the motion. Laura saw the scrap of paper he was aiming for and picked it up herself. Her father had written a name on the paper in a nearly illegible scrawl that threatened to break her heart.
"Sarah Tolley," Laura read. "Who is that?"
"Friend," he said. "Important…has no…family." He swallowed with effort, his Adam's apple a sharp blade beneath the skin of his throat. "Promise."
He wanted her to look after a woman named Sarah Tolley?
"But…who is she?" Laura asked. "Where is she?"
His eyes were closed. "Meadow…Wood…"
"Meadow Wood Village?" Laura pictured the attractive, Victorian-style retirement home on the outskirts of Leesburg.
He nodded. At least she thought he did.
"Can you tell me what you want me to do for her?" she asked.
"Take care of her?" Laura asked. "But I don't know her, Dad. I've never even heard you talk about her before."
Her father's paper-thin eyelids fluttered open, and she saw panic in his eyes. "Promise!" he said. In a nearly spasmodic movement, he reached toward her as if trying to grasp her shoulders, but he caught his fingers in the chain of her necklace instead. She felt the chain snap, and the pendant fell into her lap.
Unsettled by his panic, she caught his hands. "It's all right, Daddy," she said. "I promise. I'll take care of her."
"I'll do it, Dad." She leaned back to slip the scrap of paper into her jeans pocket. "You don't need to worry."
He sank back against the pillow, pointing one trembling finger toward her neck. "I broke…"
"It's all right." She lifted the necklace from her lap and slipped it, too, into her jeans pocket. "It can be fixed." She took his hand again and held it on her thigh. "You rest now," she said.
Obediently, he closed his eyes, their small battle over. Small battles were nothing new between them. Her mother had died when Laura was seven, and her father had been a difficult parent, demanding and controlling, but always attentive. She had been his top priority, and she knew it. He'd instilled in her his love of astronomy, although for him it had been a cherished avocation rather than a profession, and he was responsible for the person she'd become. His methodical shaping of her had at times been painful and contentious, but she was grateful for it.
She sat there for hours, holding her father's hand as it grew slacker and cooler in her own. Taped to the wall was a picture Emma had drawn for him a few days earlier. It was one of those typical five-year-old's drawings. Vivid blue sky. Yellow sun. Green tree. A child dressed in blue and purple, wearing a broad smile, the sort of smile Emma herself wore more often than not. Laura studied the drawing, saddened by the incongruity of that happy child with the scene in this room.
She looked out the window again. Aries was gone, but she could see Jupiter near the center of Aquarius. She closed her eyes, and it was a minute before she realized that her father's breathing had stopped. Sitting very still, she held his lifeless hand in hers, as the room filled with a silence as deep as the sky.
The eastern skywas purplewiththe approaching dawn when she arrived home from the hospital. Ray was brewing coffee, wearing his blue terry-cloth robe, a splash of color in the white, uncluttered kitchen. He walked toward her once she was in the door, his arms outstretched, and she could tell he hadn't slept well. Dark circles marred the skin beneath his eyes, and the stubble of his beard was white. For a moment, she felt the fear of losing him, too. He was sixty-one, twenty-one years older than she, and these last few years had taken a toll on him. When she buried her head against his shoulder, she wasn't sure if her tears were for her father or her husband.
"He died about an hour ago," she said, drawing away from him. She wiped her eyes with a tissue, then took the mug of coffee he handed her and sat down at the table.
"I'm glad you got to be there with him," he said.
"It was upsetting." She held the mug between her cold hands. "I thought I'd just sit with him while he… slipped away. But he was very anxious. Really wired. He asked me to take care of some woman I've never even heard him talk about before, and he made me promise I'd do it. It was as if he couldn't let himself die until I swore I'd take care of her."
Ray frowned. "Who's the woman? And what did he mean by 'take care of?"
Laura reached into her jeans pocket for the scrap of paper, which she flattened on the table. "Sarah Tolley," she said. "She lives in Meadow Wood Village. You know, that retirement home?"
Ray turned away from her to pour himself more coffee. He was quiet, and she imagined that he, too, was trying to puzzle out her father's request. His body looked thick and shapeless beneath the robe. Too heavy. It wasn't healthy to carry around so much weight. She wished he'd take better care of himself.
"And you don't know her connection to Carl?" he asked finally, his back still to her.
"I have no idea. He said she's a special friend. Or important. I don't remember his exact words. He could barely speak." The conversation with her father now seemed vague, as if she'd dreamed it. "He said, or at least implied, that she has no one else to take care of her. No family."
"Sweetheart." Ray sat down at the ancient oak table and rested his hand on top of hers. "I think this was the ranting of a dying man," he said. "You know he's suffered from dementia on and off this past week. The medication—"
"I know, but he seemed clearheaded about this. You should have seen him, Ray. It was so important to him. And where would he get this name from?" She pulled her hand from his to touch the scrap of paper. "She must mean something to him. Maybe he had another life we knew nothing about. I'm going to call Meadow Wood Village later today to see if this woman actually lives there."
Ray's expression was the one he wore when he lobbied politicians on Capitol Hill. She saw the calculated patience in his face, the tightness in his lips, and knew he was choosing his words with care.
"It's probably not a good time to discuss this," he said, his tone even, his hand on hers again, "because you're understandably upset and feeling pretty emotional about Carl. But I really want you to think about the fact that he ran your life when he was alive and now he's trying to control it from the grave."
She knew what he was talking about. Sometimes her father's love had seemed tied to her achievements, and, no matter what she accomplished, it was never quite enough. But it seemed harsh, almost cruel, for Ray to imply that her father's deathbed wish was a final act of manipulation.
She leaned toward her husband, feeling tears fill her eyes. "This is the last thing my father will ever ask of me," she said. "I promised him I'd do as he requested, Ray, and I will. I don't know what this—" she looked at the piece of paper "—Sarah Tolley was to him, but there is no way I can simply turn my back on her."
"Damn it!" Ray slammed his mug on the table so hard she jumped, and coffee splashed onto the white place mat. He stood up. "Here you go again, throwing yourself off the deep end headfirst. Don't you have enough to do? Aren't Emma and I ever enough to satisfy you?"
Startled by his outburst, she could not find her voice. She stared at her husband while he plowed ahead.
"Why do you always need to have a million projects going at once?" he asked. "Have you looked at your life lately? You just got back from a month of research in Brazil, you drive to Baltimore to teach at Hopkins one day a week, you're overextended at the Smithsonian, and last week you told me you're going back to Brazil next summer. What happened to your promise to us, huh?" He leaned on the table, his hands balled into fists. His knuckles were white.
Laura reached out to touch his hand, confused by his sudden, dramatic change of heart. "But you said it was fine for me to—"
"You said we could spend next summer at the lake house, just the three of us," he interrupted her. "Like a normal family, instead of one where the wife and mother drags her kid all over the place, chasing comets and traveling around the world giving speeches and accepting awards and who knows what other crap, while her husband sits home and gets rejection letter after fucking rejection letter." He stood up and wiped the back of his hand across his chin. The white bristles of his beard stood out against the red of his face.
Laura pressed her fist to her mouth, stunned by his uncharacteristic fury. He'd never spoken to her this way before, never uttered a word of complaint about her career. She'd had no idea his unhappiness with her ran so deep.