Authors: Greta Nelsen
Copyright © 2012
by Tara Nelsen-Yeackel.
Photo © iStockphoto.com/realPHOTO and used by license.
book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and events are products of
the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual
persons, places, or events is coincidental and unintended.
portion of the proceeds of this novel will be donated annually toward the research
of rare childhood diseases.
previous version of this book referenced a real terminal illness. Out of
sensitivity to those affected by the disease, its portrayal has since been
fictionalized. The storyline is unchanged. If you are moved by this book,
please consider donating to a rare-disease charity. Thank you.
should have known it was an omen. Bob Evans had never been sick a day in his
life, and suddenly he contracts a violent case of salmonella from a farm stand
cantaloupe? Now I have to hop a plane to Cincinnati? Schmooze every bigwig in
sight? Pitch our new point-of-sale system to a cadre of wannabe VPs who’d
rather be off screwing their assistants, but who will nonetheless hang on my
every word with the rapt attention of nuns in church?
this I must accomplish with Eric Blair at my side? The alpha stud? The high man
on the belt-notch totem pole? If the ending weren’t so dire, my story might be
comical, in a dark sort of way. But I get ahead of myself.
U.S. offices of the multinational grocery conglomerate Hazelton United inhabit
a sprawling complex of brick buildings that in a previous incarnation housed
mental patients. We don’t make food at Hazelton; we sell it. Four-hundred and
thirty-nine retail outlets, from Maine to Virginia and as far west as Colorado.
I started bagging groceries at the Hazelton-owned Food Mart when I was sixteen,
the proceeds of which I poured into slinky outfits, rock concerts, and blow.
years and two master’s degrees later, I am the U.S. Vice President of Human
Resources, responsible for ninety-thousand associates in fourteen states. But
this week I’m pinch-hitting for Bob Evans, High Priest of Information
you remember to sign Ally’s permission slip?” I ask my husband, Tim, through a
wireless headset, my indestructible L.L. Bean suitcase rolling along behind me
at top speed.
airport seems bigger today. Uglier. Bright and dirty.
sighs. “I’ve got this, Claire. How many times do I have to tell you…?”
knew this when you married me,” I say. “You knew I was…” A crashing sound on
Tim’s end of the line stops me. “What was that?”
knocked something over. Don’t worry about it.”
the fertility idol. Please don’t tell me your horse of a dog just… I swear to
God, Tim, if that dog…”
interrupts, urgency in his voice. “I’ve gotta go. Call me from Cincinnati. Have
a safe flight.”
call drops just in time for me to spot Eric Blair, as perfectly coiffed and cocky
as ever, oozing in my direction.
want to spit on him.
tips his specialty brew—not just Starbucks but something more high-end and
exotic—to his Botoxed lips and leers at me. “Ready to rock ‘n roll,
level of familiarity is inappropriate; he is my subordinate. I should call him
out but don’t. “They’re predicting two feet of snow,” I say.
gaze lingers on my cleavage, toys with it. “Really?” he says, his neon-white
teeth glinting in the sun.
can tell he is imagining my nipples erect in the cold, so I tug the zipper of
my coat, thwarting him. “We’d better get going.”
have stayed at some of the finest hotels on earth: Claridge’s, Villa d’Este,
Paris’s Hotel de Crillon, the evidence of which withers in yellowing photographs
and the recesses of my mind. I was too young then to appreciate such decadence,
its merits lost on my ice cream-obsessed, Barbie doll-coveting five-year-old
brother, Ricky, would have loved Paris. The soul of it. Ancient and wise, like
his. I try to imagine him there, skipping along the Champs-Élysées, the light
of a thousand stars reflecting in his carefree eyes.
Ricky never saw Paris, and even when I take him there, part of him refuses to
go, remains frozen in that upstairs bedroom of a Rhode Island carriage house
with a tiny pane of glass and a death sentence. His window on the world.
hands the front desk clerk our corporate credit card and waits, leans on the
counter as if it’s the bar of his Saturday night watering hole.
here for the Eastern Grocers Conference, I see,” the clerk says with more
enthusiasm than is required.
step up and say, “I’m presenting.”
study Eric’s reaction as if I’m examining an alien life form. Soulless.
Mechanical. His approximation of a human being so polished it induces envy.
tongue darts out and makes a smooth sweep across his lips, which slowly utter,
“I’m the arm candy.”
clerk giggles uncertainly and passes him the key cards. “Welcome to
hotel we are booked at is a step above a Motel 6. Gone are the days of megawatt
expense accounts and first-rate ass kissing. Corporate austerity, they call it.
room is beside mine, a favor I neither requested nor appreciate. “This is you,”
he says, pausing to slip the key into the lock. “Two fourteen.”
push ahead of him and roll my suitcase to the closet. “I’ll take that,” I say,
noticing how he eyes that little plastic card. His expression simulates hurt
but fails to move me. “Meet me in the lobby at eight.”
coy grin advances from his mouth to his eyes. “Lighten up, Claire-bear.” He
dangles the card over my head, as if I’m a playful dog he aims to rile. “I
wish I could pluck a witty comment from the air, something that would muzzle
Eric Blair’s sexually-charged, overblown ego. But such power fails me. “I do.”
past Tim’s bedtime, but I call anyway.
His voice touches something primal in me.
I say. “You up?”
spends a few minutes briefing me on the day’s events, while I take my best stab
at lounging on the hotel’s commercial-grade mattress, painting my toenails
electric-blue. In a soft voice, he asks, “How are you feeling?”
think I’m getting a migraine,” I say, missing the subtext of the question.
“This must have been a smoking room before.” It dawns on me that he wants to
know if I have pregnancy symptoms. “Other than that, I’m pretty normal.”
This is code for the fact that the
fertilization is a bust.
tell Ally,” I say. “I want to wait a bit longer.”
it snowing?” he asks.
ignore the change of subject. “This might not work, you know. It’s been ten
years since Ally. Forty-six is pushing it.”
feels like a failure and so do I, a well-worn secret that binds us. “There are
eleven viable embryos left,” he reminds me. “That’s two or three more cycles, depending
on how many we transfer.”
could not be more acutely aware of this. “Then we’re done,” I say. “It’s over.”
of what happened to Ricky, I never wanted children. Spent my youth tripled up
on birth control: spermicides; condoms; the pill. The holy trinity.
Tim and I got tested for Dukate Disease, the beast that devoured Ricky before
granting him sweet release on his ninth birthday. And for a moment there was a
flicker of hope that our union may bear fruit, after all. But the results were
grim: Tim and I are both carriers, the probability of which is so
infinitesimally small as to convince me I was selected by fate for special
punishment. Not the kind of punishment Ricky endured, but the kind that drove
our mother to a nervous breakdown and a life of institutionalization.
we were to conceive naturally, Tim and I would have a one in four chance of
producing a child with Dukate Disease. The embryos are Dukate-free. And so is
sighs. “We should go on vacation.”
is plan B: flush the embryos and sail the globe. Only I can’t do it to Ally.
still have a chance,” I say, forcing an optimistic tone. “I think we should
roll the dice.”
wish I’d packed the goddamn Imitrex. After twelve years of relative calm, my
migraines have returned with the vengeance of a Mongol horde. Hormone fluctuations,
my doctor says. Peri-menopause. I’d sooner blame it on the drop in barometric
pressure accompanying this ill-timed snowstorm or the lingering stench of Pall
Malls in room two fourteen.
dig to the bottom of my purse, unearth a questionable-looking sample packet of
Tylenol and pop the pills without even a sip of water. Then I summon my
professional façade, tuck my portfolio under my arm, and waltz into the hotel
lobby, where Eric Blair is already hard at work angling for a promotion.
right up my alley,” I hear him say to Chuck Noble, the Bob Evans of Price
Slasher, our fiercest competitor. “Just the kind of project I’ve been looking
continental breakfast beckons, something to blunt the impact of the Tylenol on
my stomach. I smile at one new face after another as I slather a gob of cream
cheese across an English muffin and settle on a seat by the window with a prime
view of the ten-inch snow cover that has accumulated overnight.
try staring outside, but it’s too white. Blinding. Instead, I cast subversive
glances around the lobby, observing that almost everyone sports a giant slice
of cantaloupe on their plate.
notices me and saunters over to my table, launching my headache into orbit. “I
had the hotel print a hundred of these,” he says.
stack of papers he holds looks expertly arranged, down to the shiny silver
staples that punctuate at regular intervals.
didn’t ask for these,” I point out, as he hands them to me.
preens, fluffs his feathers. “You’re welcome.”
should be happy that he’s done this, but I don’t want to be. Yet the hardcopies
will come in handy. “Thank you,” I say.
conference center is a short walk from the hotel through a slushy back lot.
Eric offers to carry the papers under the umbrella he has scrounged up, but I decline,
opting to clasp them to my chest instead, their sole protection an
out-of-season trench coat that matches my smart navy-blue business suit.
presentation is scheduled for two o’clock, which means I have five hours to run
through Bob’s PowerPoint a sufficient number of times to commit it to memory,
while feigning a level of interest in marketing technology that escapes me. I
am in human resources for a reason: People are messy; they keep me up at night.
But a B.A. in Business with a minor in Computer Science has me pegged as Bob
zero in on a seat at the back of the amphitheater, and Eric follows. “Don’t you
want to sit over there?” he asks, nodding at a roped-off pit flanking the stage,
where VIPs and presenters rub elbows.
can’t sit there without me, and I don’t want to. Too much inbreeding. “No.”
half an hour to go before the conference begins, most everyone is still milling
around, burning off that last bit of restless energy.
glances about longingly, as if I’m the evil stepmother who has forbidden him
from attending the ball. “You’re free to move about the cabin,” I say.
hold up the sheaf of papers and smile. “I’ve got to study.”
further encouragement, he makes a beeline for the nosebleed seats, where there’s
a miniscule chance some CEO may dribble coffee on his Armani blazer.
before I can slog through the first page of Bob’s jargon-filled opus, a buxom
blonde lays claim to the seat Eric has vacated. “Hey there,” she says, as if she
knows me, more than a hint of a southern drawl infecting her voice. She jostles
the undersized chair with her robust frame as she settles. “I’m Becky.”
clasp her outstretched fingers and mumble, “Hi.” Then I resume staring at my
lap, determined not to make a fool of myself on Bob Evans’s account.
with Piggly Wiggly. How about you?”
can’t help but think fate is toying with me. Not only does Becky seem hell-bent
on demolishing my concentration, but the flowery scent she’s bathed in flips
the nausea switch on my migraine. I now feel as if I may vomit.
just filling in,” I say, wishing she would somehow divine the status of my
swiftly deteriorating health and leave me be. “Our IT guy has food poisoning.”
cringes. “My Aunt Beverly once…”
sudden hot flash drives the final spike through my coffin. “Excuse me,” I
blurt, not at all sure that a stream of vomit won’t be the next thing out of my
mouth, “but I have to…”
have been sick like this before, the kind of sick that turns respectable, well-meaning
humans into incoherent puddles of bio-sludge that crave nothing more than the
solitary stillness of a black hole.
must have seen the color in my face morph from white to red, then back to white
again, because my abrupt departure elicits nothing more than a mild shrug.
need Eric Blair desperately and immediately, but he has vanished in a sea of
polyester. The only thing that might save me now is the brutal cold of this
swim against the tide for the door and slip out. There is no awning to protect
me, so I shuffle away from the entrance, enormous snowflakes dissolving as they
slap my face. The cold feels good. I draw a full breath that penetrates all the
way to my gut. Then another. Slowly the nausea loosens its grip but refuses to
surrender. It wants me.