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Authors: Ellen Hart

Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #General, #Nonfiction

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BOOK: Dial M for Meat Loaf
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“But he can’t talk. And his blood pressure is still through the roof. It’s not good, Sophie. Even if he survives, he might never—” Instead of finishing the sentence, she broke into tears.

Hesitating for just a moment, Sophie said, “Why don’t you let me drive you to the hospital? I don’t have anything on my agenda for the rest of the day. Please, Bernice. In your condition, it’s not safe for you to drive.”

Bernice glanced at her wristwatch again.

“If we stayed on the freeway and didn’t get off in downtown Minneapolis, you’d save half an hour.”

Closing her eyes and leaning her head back, Bernice relented. “Maybe you’re right. But I hate to impose.”

“It’s settled. You navigate and I’ll drive.”

3

Mary Washburn hung up the receiver, then turned and rushed down the broad corridor to her husband’s hospital room. As she pushed softly through the closed door, she found her brother-in-law, Milton Washburn, and her son, Plato, standing on one side of the bed. On the other side a doctor bent over her husband, shining a tiny light in his eyes. Mary stood silently in the doorway and watched. “Is it true?” she asked finally. “Is he really awake?”

“So it seems,” said the doctor. “Can you hear me, John? Can you give us a sign?”

They all waited, but no sign came.

Looking up, the doctor continued, “I’ll need to order more tests, but this is good news. We should all be hopeful.”

Mary sagged against the door and started to cry. Ever since her husband had been rushed to the hospital last Thursday night, she’d been holding so much guilt and fear inside, she felt the weight would crush the life out of her. Now it looked as if he might recover. Or, at the very least, there was hope. And that meant she had another chance to be the wife he deserved, the wife he would need to help him get better. She had to put the last year of her life behind her, no matter what it took.

“Are you all right, Mom?” asked Plato, rushing to her side. Milton followed, and together they helped Mary over to a chair.

“I need to go see about those tests,” said Dr. Hoffman, moving around the end of the bed and striding to the door. “But before I leave, I want you all to understand that I need your help. So does John. Now more than ever, it’s important that you talk to him.” He gave them all a stern look. “Read to him. Sing to him. Touch him. Tell him about the weather, the fish you caught this summer, the stock market. Anything you think might engage him.”

“Of course,” said Milton, casting a glance at his brother’s still body lying under the covers. “We’ll do everything we can.”

“Mary, will you be all right? Perhaps you should go home. Get some rest. John needs your strength right now more than ever, but if you get sick yourself—”

“I’m fine,” she said, sucking back her sobs. “I have to stay.” She looked at the cot she’d been sleeping on for the past week. How could she leave now, when her prayers finally had been answered? “I’m just so glad—”

“We all are,” said Dr. Hoffman.

He couldn’t understand, Mary thought. He was a young man. His whole life was ahead of him. How could anybody his age truly understand the complex emotions she was experiencing right now? He had no idea what her life had been like.

After the doctor left, Milton walked back over to the bed. “Hey, Johnny,” he said, taking firm hold of his brother’s hand. “It’s Milton. Your little brother. Mary and Plato are here, too. And Bernice is driving down from the Cities. Can you hear me, Johnny? Can you say something? Come on, just one little insult to let me know you care?”

Mary got up and went to his side. “I love you, sweetheart.” She kissed his forehead. “John? Do you hear me?” She was startled to see him look straight at her. “John, I’m here.” She glanced up at her son. “He looked at me.”

“I don’t think he moved his eyes, Mom,” said Plato.

“No, I saw it. He recognized me.” She took his right hand and lifted it to her lips. “Honey, you’ve come back.” That’s when she felt it. A slight pressure. He was reaching out to her! “He squeezed my hand.”

Milton and Plato exchanged glances.

“John, can you say something? Please try. I need to know you’re okay.” Was his mind still intact? Had the stroke taken it away from him?

This time, his hand moved. It pulled away from her. As it did so, his arm dropped back onto the bed.

They all watched in hushed amazement as John struggled to move his lips. At first, nothing came out. Then, soft as the brush of a bird’s wing . . . air. He was forcing air out of the right side of his mouth. Finally, closing his eyes and concentrating, he said, “Phh . . . ahhh.”

“John!” Mary cried. “Oh, John. You’ve come back!”

“He’s trying to say something,” said Milton, shushing her.

John moved his eyes. This time, they came to rest on Plato.

“Dad, it’s me. Sarah and the kids aren’t here, but they’ll come by later. They’ll all be so thrilled to see that you’re awake.”

John’s gaze rose to the ceiling. “Pah . . . pahh,” he said again, lifting his right hand a few inches off the bed and making a tiny circling motion.

“He wants his papa,” said Mary, clasping her hands in front of her.

“He never called our dad Papa,” said Milton, scrutinizing his brother’s face. “He’s saying . . . paper. He wants to write something to us. Is that it, John? You want to try and write?”

“Here’s a notepad,” said Plato, retrieving one from the vest pocket of his rumpled tan suit. “And a felt-tipped pen.”

Milton carefully placed the pen in his brother’s hand, the notepad underneath. “Go ahead, John. If you can’t talk, maybe you can write.”

Everyone waited as John’s hand began to move. Slowly, with great difficulty, he scratched out:

i dying?

“No, no,” said Mary, assuring him with great vehemence. “You’re going to be just fine.” She had no idea if that was true or not, but she had to be positive.

His hand moved again.

don lie

“I’m not lying,” said Mary. “Tell him, Milton. He’s going to get better now.”

“Sure, Johnny, you’ll be fine. Why, before you know it, you’ll be back making those yummy carrot juice cocktails, just like before.” He smiled and shuddered at the same time.

John turned his eyes on his son.

“Say something to your father,” said Mary, encouragingly.

“I . . . ah.” Plato smiled. “It’s hot out, Dad.”

Mary gave him a disgusted look.

John’s eyes swung back to Milton.

“Sorry for that crack about the carrot juice, John. You know how much I hate health food.”

Again, John’s hand began to move. This time he wrote:

krby runbek

“What’s he saying now?” asked Milton.

“He’s talking about that handyman who did some work on our garage,” said Mary. “The one who died last week in that awful bombing.”

“Weird,” said Plato, watching his father’s hand continue to move.

Everyone stared in shocked silence at what John Washburn wrote next.

4

“You have a brother, don’t you?” asked Sophie, watching the road ahead, but still enjoying the panorama of farms and fields as they whizzed past. As soon as they’d left the city limits, she’d called Bram on her cell phone. He hadn’t returned to their apartment at the Maxfield Plaza yet, so she left him a voice mail message explaining that she was driving Bernice to Rose Hill and not to expect her back before ten.

“Yes, his name is Plato,” said Bernice, one hand trailing through the ends of her curly brown hair.

“Unusual name.”

“It was Dad’s idea. He loved it. It’s strange, but it actually kind of fits my brother. He’s a philosopher at heart, an odd guy. He worked in banking for years. He and his family lived in a house right across from Lake Calhoun. Very posh. Between you and me, I lusted after it from the day they moved in, but it was too ritzy for my limited budget. Then about five years ago, his wife, Sarah, got a bee in her bonnet that they should buy a hobby farm and leave Minneapolis behind, raise their two boys in the country. Plato didn’t seem all that enthusiastic about it at first, but he eventually quit his job and they moved to a ten-acre place just south of Rose Hill. The local paper, the
Rose Hill Gazette
, happened to be up for sale at the time, so Plato bought it and became a journalist—or publisher, as Sarah insists everyone call him. Odd transition, if you ask me, but then my brother never felt comfortable in banking. He said it was just a lot of men sitting around in suits trying to fake each other out.”

“Does he have any training as a journalist?”

“None. He majored in philosophy at UMD, minored in political science. I can’t say that he seems particularly happy with his new profession, either. Quite honestly, I don’t know what would make my brother happy.”

“How old is he?” asked Sophie.

“He’s forty-four. Three years older than me.”

“Are you two close?”

Bernice thought about it. “Not really. I mean, we don’t talk about what’s really important in our lives. The personal stuff. Feelings. We discuss ideas a lot. Politics. Current events. But never our hopes and our disappointments. I suppose it’s kind of sad. I love my brother, and I know he loves me, but I’m not sure who Plato confides in. His wife, I guess. He doesn’t have many friends.”

Sophie adjusted the air-conditioning, making it a little cooler inside the car. Outside, the sweltering summer heat baked the fields. It had been an unusually dry summer. Good for vacationers, bad for farmers. “Sometimes I think emotional stoicism is a cultural thing. Bram calls it the Minnesooota Mule Manifesto: stubborn and silent; don’t moan and for God’s sake, don’t brag; just suck it up and keep going. Bram has a sign above his desk that says ‘Thou shalt not snivel.’ ”

Bernice laughed.

When Sophie glanced over at her, she saw that her friend’s good spirits were only temporary. She was back to chewing on her lower lip again.

“You’re still very worried about your dad, aren’t you.”

“I’m worried about a lot of things,”mumbled Bernice.

Sophie got the impression that the problems in the Washburn family ran deeper than John Washburn’s recent stroke.

Sighing, Bernice continued, “My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer a year and a half ago. It’s been a tough battle, but she’s healthy now. I’m terrified that my father’s stroke could change all that. She’s suffered so much—the radiation, the chemotherapy, the hair loss, the nausea, and the fear that she’d never get better. Nobody who hasn’t been through it could understand. That’s why Dad asked Uncle Milt to come stay with them. He needed help with Mom. Uncle Milt’s wife, Aunt Doris, died many years ago, so he was able to drive up from St. Louis right away. He’s been staying with my parents ever since.”

“Your Uncle Milton is your mother’s brother?”

“My father’s. He’s part owner of Home Built Inc., a St. Louis company that builds and sells trailer homes. Believe it or not, it’s made him a millionaire many times over. He ran the company until he retired in ’97. Way back when, Milton convinced my dad to buy stock in Home Built. It’s made my parents’ retirement a lot more comfortable.”

“He sounds like a great guy.”

“He and my dad are so funny together. They’re always insulting each other. Uncle Milt’s been good to have around. He keeps everybody laughing . . . well, at least part of the time. Before the stroke, Dad had become terribly moody and out of sorts.”

Sophie glanced at a sign that said Rose Hill was seventeen miles away. “Do you know why?”

Bernice shrugged. “I asked Mom, but she said she didn’t know.”

“Sounds to me like you’re not sure you believe her.”

Again, she sighed. “I don’t know what to think.”

Fifteen minutes later, Sophie pulled the Lexus up to the curb across from St. Matthew’s Medical Center. “Seven-forty-five. We made good time.” She left the motor running.

“I can’t thank you enough, Sophie. Really.”

“I’m glad I could help.”

Bernice hesitated. “Look, why don’t you come in? I’ll see how Dad’s doing. If everything is as hopeful as Mom says, and if you don’t mind waiting a bit, maybe I could buy you dinner. It’s the least I can do. There’s a cafe down the street. What do you say?”

Sophie rarely had to be cajoled into eating, especially when her stomach was already growling. “Sure. I’d like that.”

Once they’d pushed through the glass front doors, Bernice led the way. “Dad’s on the fourth floor in a private room.”

“Looks like the hospital is pretty new.” The white ceramic walls gleamed.

“The building was completed four years ago, while my father was mayor.”

“I didn’t know your father had been the mayor,” said Sophie, folding up her sunglasses and slipping them into her shoulder bag.

“He spent most of his life in sales, on the road selling sunglasses for Midwest Optical. But, yes, after he retired, a bunch of his friends talked him into running. He served one term.”

Standing at last before the closed door to her father’s room, Bernice’s voice dropped to a whisper. “I’ll be back out in a few minutes. Make yourself comfortable in the lounge. The coffeepot’s always on, so help yourself.” She nodded to a small waiting room directly across the hall.

When Bernice pushed through the door, Sophie caught a glimpse of the people inside. Everyone was sitting around the bed. Since there was only one woman in the room, Sophie assumed it was Bernice’s mother, Mary. She was an attractive older woman, with a pretty, oval face and short, platinum hair. Her eyes seemed enormous, set against her pale face, and she looked exhausted. She was also terribly thin, no doubt a result of the cancer therapy.

The older man in the room, the one Sophie figured was Milton, was stocky and almost bald, with a full salt-and-pepper beard. He was dressed in a blue oxford-cloth shirt, rolled up at the cuffs, and dark-brown Dockers. Sophie guessed the younger man with the moon face was Plato. He appeared hot, wilted, and uncomfortable. His thick, overweight body was packed sausagelike into a wrinkled, tan summer suit and his shaggy blond hair was in need of a good wash and cut. In fact, everything about him seemed bloated and sagging.

Seeing Bernice in the doorway, her mother got up, pressing a finger to her lips.

Sophie retreated to the other side of the hall as Bernice disappeared inside.

“We have to keep our voices low,” said Mary, drawing her daughter into her embrace, then nodding to the empty chair next to Milton. “Your father’s asleep.”

Before Bernice sat down, she bent over the bed, gave her dad a soft kiss on his cheek, then took a moment to study him. He looked exactly the same as when she’d seen him only two nights ago. Her mother insisted on combing his thinning gray hair straight back from his high forehead, the way he used to wear it when he was on the road. In the last ten or so years, he’d started to part his hair on the right side, because he thought it made him look younger. Bernice also noticed that the cot was still in the room, which meant that her mother was spending her nights at the hospital.

“I want to know everything,” Bernice said, sitting down and dropping her purse to the floor, then leaning forward, her arms hugging her stomach.

“He’s out of the coma,” said Plato. “But he can’t talk.”

“But . . . is he out of danger? Will he get better?”

Plato shook his head. “We don’t know.”

Her brother seemed so restless tonight, Bernice thought. Usually, he was calm to the point of inertia. He could sit for hours in a chair, staring at the wall, never moving or uttering a sound. Tonight, one leg was twitching nervously and he kept crossing and uncrossing his arms. The strain was obviously getting to him, just as it was to everyone else.

“They did another MRI,” said Milton. “Dr. Hoffman wants a specialist to look at the results.”

“His vital signs are strong,” said Mary, her eyes fixed on her husband’s face. “We should know more in the morning.”

“The left side of his body seems the most affected,” continued Milton.

“When he was awake, did he understand what you were saying to him?” asked Bernice. “Did he try to communicate?” When no one jumped in with an answer, her gaze shifted from face to face. “What’s wrong? You’re scaring me. If you know something I don’t, tell me!”

“It’s nothing like that, honey,” said her mother, trying to sound reassuring. “It’s just, we don’t know anything for sure. And we’re all so very tired.”

“But, did you try to communicate with him? If nothing else, maybe he could blink his eyes. Once for yes. Twice for no. I’ve seen people do that in movies.”

“This isn’t a movie,” muttered Plato.

“Your father did try to communicate with us,” said Milton. “It’s just . . . it didn’t make any sense.”

“Are you saying his mind is gone? Is that what you’re afraid to tell me?”

“Bernice, please,” said her uncle. “Whatever we tell you, it’s only a guess. We’ll know more when the test results come back.”

“How long was he awake?” demanded Bernice.

“Not more than half an hour,” answered her mother. “I know your father, and I know he wanted to stay with us, but he couldn’t. He was too tired. Dr. Hoffman thought he’d sleep through the night.”

They’d answered her questions, but Bernice still felt frustrated, as if they were holding something back.

“Listen, Mary,” said Milton, placing a hand on her back. “I think I should stay here tonight instead of you.”

“Absolutely not,” said Mary, her voice firm. “He’s my husband. I can’t leave. I want you to go home, Milton, before that thunderstorm they’ve been predicting hits. You too, Plato. Get a good night’s rest. Bernice can keep me company for a while.”

“What storm?” asked Bernice.

Plato squirmed in his chair, then stood and walked to the windows, looking up at the sky. “We’ve been under a tornado watch all afternoon. About an hour ago, the warnings started to pop up due west of us, so it’s bound to get here sooner or later.”

Bernice thought of Sophie. How could she send her off in the middle of a tornado? “Look, Mom, a friend of mine drove me down. She was planning to head back to the Cities after we had a quick dinner, but now I’m not so sure that’s a good idea. If it’s all right with you, I’d like to ask her to stay overnight at the house. She can follow Milton home, use the spare bedroom.”

“By all means,” said Mary. Hesitating just a moment, she added, “Is something wrong with your car?”

“No, it’s nothing like that.” Bernice didn’t want to worry her mother with the state of her emotions, not when her mother’s were so fragile, so she added, “My friend Sophie is the new restaurant reviewer at the
Times
Register
. We had some business to discuss, so she offered the ride and I took it.”

Plato stepped away from the windows. “Let’s get going. I don’t like the looks of that sky.”

“We have some food in the house, don’t we, something Sophie could have for dinner?”

“The refrigerator is packed to the gills,” replied her mother. “Friends and neighbors have been bringing hot dishes, salads, and desserts over all week, but nobody’s been home to eat it.”

Bernice stood. “Then I’ll just tell Sophie about the change in plans.”

“Fine,” said Mary. Rising from her own chair, she moved closer to the bed and gazed down at her husband.

In just those few seconds, Bernice could tell that her mother was already a million miles away.

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