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December 24, 1986
Later, Molly McBride would look back on this night and wonder if the disappearance of the baby Jesus hadn't been a sign. A portent that her life was about to dramatically and inexorably change.
At the moment, however, attempting to get to work on time, she had no time to ponder the existence of signs or omens. During the half-block walk between her bus stop and the hospital, she'd been approached by three panhandlers.
"'Give to him who begs from you. He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none, and he who has food must do likewise.'"
A cloud of foul breath strong enough to down a mastodon wafted between Molly and an emaciated man, but she did not back away. The quiz, administered by the former Jesuit seminarian, was a daily event. And as much as she worried about the man she only knew as ThomasDoubting Thomas, he'd informed her one dayMolly had come to enjoy them.
"Those are easy, Thomas. The first is from Matthew, the second Luke."
She cheerfully handed over the cheese sandwich she'd made that morning. "Now I have one for you."
He bowed and gave her a go-ahead sign as, with yellowed teeth, he began tearing the wrapping off the sandwich.
"'God created us without us but he did not will to save us without us.'" She waited, not willing to admit that she'd spent hours looking up that obscure quote.
Thomas wolfed down nearly a quarter of the sandwich, rewrapped the remainder and stuck it in his pocket. Then he rocked back on the run-down heels of his cowboy boots and clucked his tongue.
"Me dear, darling, Saint Molly." His brogue could have fooled any of Molly's ancestors back in County Cork. "A keenly educated Catholic girl such as yourself should know that Saint Augustine is required reading in any seminary."
"Actually, I was thinking more of Saint Augustine's message telling us that we must take responsibility for our salvation, and our lives, than winning today's contest. If you're not careful, you're going to end up in the hospital."
Beneath his filthy Raiders jacket he shrugged shoulders that reminded her of a wire hanger. "It won't be the first time."
"No. But it could be the last." She put her hand on his sleeve. "I worry about you, Thomas."
His smile was sad. "You worry about everyone. When are you going to realize, Saint Molly, that no matter what Saint Augustine told us, you can't save the world?"
"I'll pray for you, Thomas." It was what she always said.
"Save your prayers." It was what he always said. "I'm beyond redemption."
Molly sighed as he walked away. Then continued on.
Mercy Samaritan Hospital sprawled over a no-man's land in the shadow of the Harbor Freeway and Santa Monica Freeway interchange like a huge gray stone Goliath. The neighborhood where Molly spent her nights was home to some of the roughest bars, seediest transients and oldest whores in the City of Angels.
Thanks to gang members' propensity for shooting out streetlights, once the sun went down, the streets and alleys were as dark as tombs. To the residents of these mean streets, the gilt excess of Beverly Hills and the sparkling sun-drenched beaches of Malibu might as well have belonged to another planet.
Mercy Sam, a teaching hospital established by the Sisters of Mercy nearly a century ago, had been more than a place of healing; it had been a living symbol of hope and compassion. Hope had long since fled, along with most of the population of the inner city. Fortunately, although Molly was the only Sister of Mercy still on staff, compassion had remained.
A visual affront to Frank Lloyd Wright's famed concept of organic architecture, the building featured a hulking main building with two wings. Various outbuildings had cropped up over the years like weeds.
The pneumatic doors opened with a hiss as Molly entered the emergency department beneath the bright red neon sign. The triage area was nearly deserted, as were the fast-track cubicles, where patients with level-one complaintsbloody noses, scrapes and bruises, migraines, intestinal upsets, minor burns and strep throatswere treated.
She went into the staff lounge, changed into the cranberry red scrubs that had recently replaced the hated pink ones and joined the other nurses in The Pit, as the ER was routinely called.
"Merry Christmas," Yolanda Brown greeted her.
"Happy holidays to you, too." Nothing in Molly's voice revealed her painful memories of Christmas Eve. "I'm sorry I'm late."
"It's getting tougher and tougher to run that gauntlet," Yolanda said with a frown. "Nobody rides the bus in L.A. Especially not at night and in this neighborhood. You really ought to get yourself a car."
Molly smiled, feeling the shadows drift away as her equilibrium returned. "Why don't you write a letter to the Pope and suggest he cosign a loan?"
Yolanda's shrug suggested she'd expected that answer to the ongoing argument, but intended to keep on trying, anyway. "You didn't miss anything," she said. "It's turning out to be a blessedly silent night. According to Banning's report, it was pretty quiet on the day shift, too. Which is pretty amazing, given that not only is it a holiday, it's a full moon.
"They had only half a dozen patients during their last three hours," Yolanda continued. "The last one was some guy who sliced his finger to the bone trying to put together a bicycle for his eight-year-old son. He was stitched up, given a tetanus shot, advised to pay the ten bucks to have the store do it next time and was leaving just as I was coming on duty.
"By the way," she tacked on as an afterthought, "the baby Jesus is gone."
"I noticed as I walked by the creche." Molly sighed. "I suppose it isn't surprising. Putting a baby doll outside in this neighborhood is just asking to have it stolen, especially this time of year."
Molly was of two minds about the theft. She found the act wrong, but she couldn't help envisioning the joy on the face of whatever child received the doll on Christmas morning.
"Santa's gonna be paying a surprise visit to some kid's house," Yolanda said. "Apparently from now on, the swaddled babe is going to be a bunch of rolled-up towels. The visual impact won't be the same, but administration has decided it might last through the night."
Molly wasn't so certain about that, since clean towels were even more precious than baby dolls around there.
It was almost eerily quiet. There were no metal-bound triage charts in the racks, crisp white sheets covered the high-wheeled gurneys lined up in the hallway outside trauma area A and all the booths were empty, curtains pulled back in anticipation of patients. Molly was Irish enough to be vaguely superstitious of such calm.
"Where's Reece?" Molly asked.
"Your handsome young brother-in-law is hiding away in waiting room A. Seems he's got a hundred bucks' bet with Dr. Bernstein on the Houston Rockets over the Bullsit's the third quarter, Jordan's on a roll and he's starting to get nervous that his bride is going to murder him when she finds out."
"Lena would never murder Reece. She adores him."
And rightfully so, Molly thought. Dr. Reece Longworth, Mercy Sam's ER resident, was the nicest man she'd ever met. He was also her best friend.
"And he's nuts about her. The guy lights up from the inside like a Christmas tree whenever she's around." Yolanda sighed. "If I could ever find me a man who looked at me the way Reece looks at your little sister, I'd marry him in a heartbeat."
"Lena's lucky," Molly agreed. Lena had met Reece one night two years ago when she'd shown up unexpectedly to eat dinner with Molly in the cafeteria. Instantly smitten, Reece had proposed within the week. It had taken him six months to convince Lena to marry him.
Until Reece, Lena's choices in men had been disastrous, eerily similar to their own mother's. All of her loversand there had been manyhad been carbon copies of their abusive, alcoholic father. Molly often thought that Lena hadn't believed she was deserving of love, even though she'd been ravenous for it all her life. During those bad years, Lena had reminded Molly of a bottomless, fragile porcelain bowlimpossible to fill and capable of shattering at a touch.
Molly sat staring at the lights of the small artificial tree atop a filing cabinet at the nurses' station thinking that Lena's first Christmas Eve with Reece had probably been the only truly happy one she'd ever had. The lights blinked red, green and white, flashing gaily on yellowed and cracked plaster walls in the unnaturally quiet room.
Normally, Molly would never have questioned the rare peace. Emergencies came in spurts. But she could never remember it being as quiet as this.
"You know, this really is starting to get a little spooky," she said thirty minutes later as she bit into a bell-shaped cookie covered with red sugar sprinkles. "So where are all the customers?"
She'd no sooner spoken than the dam brokea drive-by shooting; an attempted suicide who'd washed a bottle of nitroglycerin tablets down with a fifth of Beefeaters gin, then burned the inside of his mouth trying to blow himself up with a Bic lighter; and a cop carrying a newspaper-wrapped bundle.
"One of the bums found her in a Dumpster," he said, shoving the bundle into Molly's arms.
Sensing what she was about to see, Molly gently placed the newspapers onto a gurney and carefully opened them up. The baby's eyelids were sealed shut, its pale blue skin gelatinous. She was wet and so tiny, she reminded Molly of a newly hatched hummingbird.
Reece, who'd just finished the unenviable task of telling the shell-shocked parents of the thirteen-year-old honor student that he'd been unable to save their son, paused on his way to check out a lacerated scalp.
"Aw, hell," he responded in his characteristically even tone that was faintly softened with the accent of the deep South. "Get a neonatologist on the line, stat," he told the clerk. "Tell him we've got an extramural preemie delivery. And start arranging for a transfer upstairs to NICU, just in case."
Unlike so many other physicians Molly worked with, Reece Longworth never raised his voice except when it was necessary in order to be heard over the din. Few had ever seen him get angry. Such a relaxed, informal demeanor helped calm the staff, as well as thousands of anxious patients. The fluorescent red plastic button he wore on his green scrub shirt reading Don't Panic probably didn't hurt, either.
"She's so small," Yolanda murmured as Reece managed, just barely, to put the blade of the infant laryngoscope into the baby girl's rosebud mouth. "She could fit in the palm of my hand."
"Probably another crack kid," the cop muttered as he stood on the sidelines and watched.
While Reece slid the tube between the tiny vocal cords, Molly said a quick, silent prayer and checked for a pulse.
"Sixty," she announced grimly. She did not have to add that it was much too slow for a preemie.
"Dr. Winston's the neonatologist on call," the clerk announced as Reece put in an umbilical line to start pushing drugs. "He wants to know how much the baby weighs. Because if it's less than five hundred grams, the kid's not viable."
As soon as the line was in, Reece bagged the baby girl, forcing air directly into immature lungs through the tube. Molly wrapped a towel around the frail infant in an attempt to warm it.
"See if you can find a nursery scale," Reece instructed Yolanda. "And round up an Isolette, too."
When the baby suddenly kicked, Molly felt her own pulse leap in response.
"It doesn't mean anything," Reece warned as they exchanged a look. "It's only reflex. No matter what she weighs, we're not even talking long shot here, Molly."
Yet, even as she prepared for the worst, even as she saw the infant crumping before her eyes, Molly took the weak little kick as a sign of encouragement. Death was a frequent companion in her line of work, but Molly had also witnessed enough miracles to allow her to hang on to hope now.
Yolanda came back with the scale and a hush suddenly came over the room as Molly placed the baby girl on it.
"Four hundred and twenty grams." Molly closed her eyes and heard the onlookers sigh in unison.
"Too light to fake it," Reece said what everyone already knew.
The clerk passed the information on to the neonatologist still waiting on the phone. "Winston says to pull the plug. The kid's FTD."
Fixing to Die. Accustomed as she was to the term, Molly was irritated by it now.
As was Reece. "Easy for Winston to say," he muttered. With an icy, controlled fury that was almost palpable, he marched the few feet to the phone and snatched the receiver from the clerk's hand.
"As much as I appreciate your consult, Dr. Winston, we don't throw terms around like that in my emergency department. She may be small, but she deserves the same respect we'd show your child, or wife, or mother, if they showed up down here."
He hung up.
"All we can do now is make her as comfortable as possible," he said. Every eye in the room was riveted on him as he turned off the line, pulled the plug from the baby's lungs, wrapped the painfully tiny girl up again and placed her in the Isolette.
"She's still breathing," Yolanda pointed out unnecessarily.
An aide popped her head into the room. "You've got a stab wound in treatment room B, Dr. Longworth."
He turned to Molly. "I'll need you to assist." Without waiting for an answer, he cast one more quick, regretful look at the baby and left the room.
After asking the clerk to page Father Dennis Murphy, who she'd seen going upstairs to bring Christmas communion to Catholics on the medical wards, Molly followed Reece.
After stitching up the wound that had resulted from an argument over whether "Away in a Manger" or "Silent Night" was the Christmas carol most appropriate to the season, Reece stopped by to check the baby again and found her still breathing. They also found the cop still standing beside the Isolette.
"I'm off duty," he said, as if worried they'd think he was shirking his work. "My daughter's pregnant with her first. This could be her kid."
Despite the tragedy of their situation, Molly managed a smile at the thought of a new life on the way. "I'll add your daughter to my prayers."
"Thank you, Sister." Patrolman Tom Walsh, a frequent visitor to the ER due to his work patrolling the seediest parts of the city, managed a smile. "Someone needs to baptize her."
"Father Murphy didn't answer his page," the clerk, who overheard his statement, informed Molly. "The guard said he left about thirty minutes ago."
"Looks like it's up to you, Sister," Walsh said. "How about naming her Mary?" he suggested. "That's my mother's name. And it is Christmas, so it fits."
It took all Molly's inner strength to grace him with a smile when she wanted to weep. "Mary's perfect."
The patrolman put his hat over his heart. Molly sprinkled water over the tiny bald head, wishing for the usual cries, but the infant didn't so much as flinch. Even so, the hopelessly immature lungs valiantly continued to draw in rasping breaths of air like tiny bellows.
"Mary, I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit."
Walsh exhaled a long breath. "Thank you, Sister. I feel a lot better."
Molly was grateful that she'd managed to bring one of them comfort. With a no-nonsense attitude that had always served her well, she reminded herself that such emotionally painful situations came with the territory. She'd chosen to live out her vocation in the real world, where a sacred moment was when someone shared with youlike Thomas earlier, and Officer Walsh now. If she'd wanted her life to be one of quiet dedication contemplating holy mysteries, she would have joined an order of cloistered nuns.