ON THE DAY I SET foot on the path to immortality, I was with Justine in her car driving down 95th on our way to pick out her new sofa. Ordinary. That’s what the day was. The plain kind of ordinary that obscures the secrets lurking in the shadows—or behind the faces of those you love.
Justine was the sister I’d never had, and our relationship was close to official since her brother had asked me twice to marry him. Tom was sexy, persuasive, and best of all, dependable. The next time he asked, I was considering saying yes.
A van came from nowhere, slamming into Justine’s side of the car.
Just like that. No warning.
Justine jerked toward me but was ultimately held in her seat by the safety belt. My head bounced hard off the right side window. A low screeching grated in my ears, followed by several long seconds of utter silence.
An explosion shattered the world.
When the smoke began to clear, I saw Justine’s head swing in my direction, though not of her own volition. Her blue eyes were open but vacant, her face still. Fire licked up the front of her shirt. Her blond hair melted and her skin blackened.
“No!” The word ripped from my throat.
I tried to reach out to Justine, but my arms wouldn’t move. Heat. All around me. Terror.
Pain. The stench of burning flesh.
Fire and smoke obscured my vision, but not before I saw something drip from the mess that had been Justine’s face. We were dying. This was it. The point of no return. I thought of my parents, my grandmother, my brothers, and how they would mourn me. I couldn’t even think about Tom.
A premonition of things to come?
I lost consciousness, and when I came to I was lying flat on my back. A sheet covered my face. I was suffocating.
“Witnesses say . . . in flames almost on impact,” a man’s voice was saying. “A fluke . . . not for the fire . . . might have survived.”
I turned my face, struggling to move my mouth from the sheet. Searching for air. Agony rippled up my neck and all over my head and down my body, the pain so decimating that it sapped all strength from me. I couldn’t move again, but that little bit had been enough.
“What the freak!” the voice said. I could barely hear the words, but they gave me something to focus on through the pain. I clung to them. “Gunnar . . . the oxygen . . . thought you said she was dead.”
The sheet lifted and air rushed into my tortured lungs. I could sense people all around me, though I couldn’t see anything except a hazy light. My throat was tight and burning, reminding me of the time I’d had both strep throat and tonsillitis as a child. Only far worse. Blinding pain so intense that I couldn’t even moan.
More snatches of conversation filtered to my brain. “Black as a crisp . . . try an IV . . . have to be amputated . . . University of Kansas . . . Burn Center.”
Motion. The blare of a siren. Then blessed nothing.
When I awoke the next time, my throat still hurt, and so did every single inch of my body, though not with the all-consuming pain that made me wish I were dead. Probably they’d given me drugs. Or maybe too many nerves were damaged. I could feel an oxygen tube in my nose and cold seeping into a vein in my right shoulder. How could that be? I’d had IVs before and I’d never felt the liquid. It was so good, so necessary, that for a moment I concentrated all my attention on that small, steady flow. Life seeping into my body. But far too slowly. I wanted more.
Abruptly the sensation was gone. The pain cranked up a notch.
I tried to open my eyes, but only the right one was uncovered. From what I could tell, I seemed to be completely swathed in bandages and unable to move. My single eye rested on Tom, who was standing near the window, staring out with the unfocused expression of a man who saw nothing.
Tom shifted his weight, his muscles flexing under his T-shirt and jeans. In the past months I’d learned his body almost as well as my own, and even now I felt a sense of wonder at the miracle of our relationship. He didn’t push me for commitment, didn’t question why I was so hesitant to take the next step, and I loved him for that perhaps more than anything. It was also why I didn’t know if things would work out between us.
A tiny rush of air escaped the hole they’d left in the bandages near my mouth. He turned toward me, his face stricken, looking older than his thirty-five years. “Erin? Are you awake?”
I tried to nod, but found I couldn’t. I lay mute and helpless. Finally, I thought to close and open my single eye.
He was at my side instantly. “Oh, honey. Thank God! I thought I’d lost—” He broke off, struggling for control. “Erin, can you understand me?”
I blinked again.
“Okay, good. That’s really good. Do you remember what happened?” He took a shaky breath and hesitated before adding, “Blink once for yes, twice for no.”
I remembered the accident. I remembered the fire and how Justine had burned, but I wanted the rest explained. I wanted to hear if Justine was in a bed like I was. I wanted to hear if we’d be okay.
I blinked twice.
He leaned closer, not touching me, his eyes rimmed in red. His eyes had a tendency to change color with what he wore, and today they were the inviting shade of a lake on a hot summer day. My favorite color.
“This morning you and Justine were in a car accident. There was a fire. You were burned.”
Over seventy percent of my body. The thought came from nowhere, and I wondered if I’d unconsciously heard someone talking about my condition. If that was true, my chances weren’t good. I’d heard of a formula at the insurance company where I worked: take your age, add the percentage of your body burned, and the sum was your chance of fatality. I’d be over a hundred percent.
I’m still alive. I’m the exception.
“Your parents just stepped out for a while. Your grandmother was here, too, almost all day, but they finally convinced her to go home. Chris is on his way.”
Had that much time passed? My older brother, Chris, had left that morning to pilot a charter flight from Kansas City to Tulsa. I’d been planning to go over tonight when he returned so I could spend time with him and Lorrie and their kids.
“They called Jace. He’ll be here soon.”
Jace was on his way from Texas? My younger brother had barely arrived at his new unit, and the army would never allow him to come home.
I knew then what Tom wasn’t saying: I was dying. Was that why there wasn’t as much pain? Or had my limbs been amputated? I tried to move my legs, but they felt heavy, and I wondered if that was the sensation the nerves sent to the brain after amputation. I concentrated on moving my arms, and though they were sheathed in bandages, I managed to move my right one slightly.
Tom’s eyes followed the movement, swallowing so hard I could see the lump in his throat go up and down. He wet his lips, started to speak, stopped, and then tried again. “It’s going to be okay, Erin. You’ll see.” The lie was so bad I felt sorry for him. I knew it was killing him not to do something useful for me, to somehow alleviate my suffering, but there was nothing he could do now, nothing either of us could do. This was one of those moments you endured and survived. Or you didn’t.
A nurse entered, and Tom eased away from the bed. “She’s awake,” he said. A pleading kind of hope had come into his face, and it was painful to see. More painful than the lie. “She understands what I’m saying.”
The nurse leaned in front of my good eye, doubt etched on her round face. Two bright spots of red stood out on her plump cheeks like awkwardly applied blush. “Well, that’s a good sign,” she said, but hesitantly, as though I was somehow breaking the rules by regaining consciousness.
Her eyes lifted toward something behind me. “What happened to the IV? It shouldn’t need changing already. That’s the third time we’ve run out in the last hour.” She shook her head. “Must be something wrong with the valve. I’ll check it and get another bag.”
After she left, Tom said more encouraging words, which only made me feel worse because I’d seen the truth in the nurse’s face. Talk about something real, I wanted to scream. Talk about the things we didn’t do. Talk about Justine. Tell me she’s okay.
He didn’t, and I guessed what that meant. A tear slipped from my eye into the bandage. She was gone. Justine was gone.
Meeting the siblings at the Red Night Club six months earlier had been a changing point in my life. Tom hadn’t been able to tear his eyes away from me that night, or since, and over the past months Justine had loved and bullied me into thinking seriously about my future, something I’d lacked the confidence to do since leaving law school in disgrace. So what if I was thirty-one and living in the basement apartment at my parents’ house in Kansas City? Or that I worked a boring job as an insurance claims clerk when I’d always longed to do something more adventurous? I could change all that. I bought new clothes, took up biking, and began looking for a new apartment.
Tom couldn’t see my tear, but it really didn’t matter. I was dying. I’d lost my best friend, my almost sister. I’d lost any future I might have had with Tom. I couldn’t wrap my understanding around either loss.
The nurse returned, and shortly I felt cool liquid seeping into my veins again. Purely imaginary but sweet all the same. I closed my right eye and concentrated on that lifeline, as though I could suck it into me and repair the damage to my body from the inside out.
“Don’t worry.” Tom’s voice came from far away. “I’m here for you. We’re going to make you well again. No matter how long it takes.” I couldn’t hear the lie in his voice anymore. Maybe it made him feel better to believe.
I wished I could.
The next time I woke, it was dark except for a dim light over the sink that stood against the wall. I sensed someone in the room but couldn’t move my head to see who it was. Tom? My brother Chris? More likely my mother or father.
The door opened and light sliced into the room. In walked a short, broad man with longish dark brown hair, intense brown eyes, and a trim mustache. Not good-looking, exactly, but so sure of himself that he exuded an animal attractiveness. A stethoscope hung from his neck and down his white lab coat. If anyone could accomplish a miracle, this man could; his presence was almost palpable.
Behind him came a similarly dressed blonde, and my single eye riveted on her in surprise. She carried her head and lean body with the same regal confidence of the man, but her face was familiar, though I had no idea where I might have seen her before. The fierce, possessive way her eyes fixed on my unmoving body gave me the unnerving feeling that she’d been looking for something for a long time.
And had found it.
The woman turned on the light, and I shut my eye momentarily at the brightness. “We need to take her for a few tests,” she said to the person at my bedside.
“More tests?” The voice was my mother’s, exhausted but not quite devoid of hope. I opened my eye, straining to see her, but she was out of my line of sight. “She woke up earlier. Isn’t that a good sign? Could the doctors be wrong?”
The woman shook her head. “I don’t believe so, but I promise we’ll do everything we can for your daughter.” Her smooth, clear skin was wrinkle-free, and I pinpointed her age near mine, or perhaps a few years older. Could she be a doctor? A specialist maybe? Her attitude suggested absolute authority. Even if I could have moved my head, I doubted I’d be able to look away from her for long.
“Thank you.” My mother sounded unhappy. Things weren’t perfect between us, but I would give anything to be able to console her, anything not to be trapped in this ruined shell of a body.
“Dimitri,” the woman said. “The IV.” The man nodded and moved around the bed, but not before I caught a glimpse of another IV bag in his hands, though it seemed different. Larger, maybe.
“The bags keep running out before they should,” my mother said. “I’m worried it’s not helping her condition. Where’s all the liquid going?”
Was that a flash of excitement in the woman’s eyes? It was hard to tell with my monovision. “We’re monitoring it carefully,” she assured my mother.
Within seconds I could feel the drip of the liquid again—different this time. Sweeter, thicker, and coming faster. I closed my eye and drew the liquid into my body, though I knew the effect had to be entirely in my mind.
“Don’t I know you?” my mother asked the woman. “You seem familiar.”
“I must have one of those faces.”
“No, I’ve seen you before. I know I have. Aren’t you my mother’s neighbor? The one who teaches karate?”
“I have a sister who teaches taekwondo. People often confuse us.”
A lie. I couldn’t hear it in her voice, but I felt it all the same. An unease, a hint of uncertainty that marred her perfect confidence. What was she trying to hide? Or maybe my imagination was kicking in again.
“That must be it,” my mother said.
“Probably. If you’ll excuse us? We should be back within the hour.”
“I’ll be here.” My mother’s hand briefly touched my shoulder as I was rolled from the room. I wished I could see her face.
The hallway was quiet, nearly deserted, though the lights overhead blazed brightly. We passed several tired-looking nurses and an orderly mopping a section of floor.
“Ava,” the man said from the head of my bed. “The bag’s half gone.”
“Then we were right.” The woman walking beside me fell silent a moment before adding, “It’s about time.”
“Too bad it had to happen like this. She’s suffered a lot.”
“At least we’re sure. And there won’t be anything to explain to her family. They’re already prepared for the worst.”
“She might not cooperate. It wouldn’t be the first time.”
“She must cooperate. There’s too much at stake.”
I didn’t like her clipped tone, or any of their words. They were talking about me, but I couldn’t understand the context. None of it made sense. Maybe the drugs had scrambled my brain.
When they began discussing transfer papers with another man, icy suspicion crawled through my mind. Where were they taking me? Maybe they weren’t with the hospital at all. As they loaded me into an ambulance, panic ramped up my breathing, but no one noticed my distress. My mouth refused to utter a sound.
The woman sat near my head out of sight while the man stayed at my side. I didn’t see who was driving. “This bag’s gone,” the man said. “I’ll get a new one. I’ll start another IV, too. The idiots already amputated half her left arm. She’ll need the extra.”
My left arm was gone? Bile threatened to choke me. No! This was too much. I couldn’t survive another minute.
Yet when the man put the second IV in my upper chest, I felt another rush of cool liquid, and my body gulped it down as though it were life itself. My fear numbed at this relief, and I dozed as the ambulance cruised through the streets, rousing a little each time we stopped at the traffic lights. I heard honking, a snatch of music, the throb of the engine, and my own breathing, which seemed loud and fast in the small confines of the ambulance.
Something was very wrong. They’d told my mother I’d be back within an hour, but we’d been driving too long for that now. Not to mention that removing me from the burn center would lower what minimal chance I had of survival. Yet whoever these people were, they didn’t seem to want me dead—for now.
I tried to move, but the only limb I could get to obey me was my right arm. I lifted it halfway in the air before the man grabbed it. “It’s okay, Erin. I really am a doctor. Best one in the world, I daresay. I’m Dimitri, and my friend is Ava. We’re here to help you.” To the woman, he added, “She’s a fighter.”
“So it seems.” Satisfaction laced Ava’s voice, and I felt a sudden and distinct hatred for her. What did she want from me? Was she an organ harvester? It was the only rational explanation—though utterly terrifying.
Dimitri laid something on my chest. Another IV bag. “Hold onto this.” He placed my right hand over the bag. Immediately, a delicious coolness entered my fingertips even through the plastic bag and the bandages. I blessed him silently and gave myself up to this drug-induced hallucination.
The next thing I knew, I was being rolled into a cavernous room. I had the impression of large crates and of a woman sitting in front of several computers which she seemed to be using all at once. One of the computers was connected by a thin black cord to a woven metal headpiece the woman wore on her head like a crown. Her chair turned toward us, one hand twisting up a circular section of the headpiece that obscured one eye. “Good, you’re back.” A smile spread over her face.
I stared. I’d been wrong thinking Ava and Dimitri were the most assured, compelling people I’d ever seen. This new woman had the same confident bearing as the other two, but it was coupled with straight dark hair, a heart-shaped face, slanted Asian eyes, and flawless golden skin. Her revealing green tank showed an ample bosom and a torso that fell to an impossibly thin waist, flaring again for perfect hips. Her delicacy and utter perfection was the kind that inspired poets and started wars between nations—and made me feel completely inadequate.
I knew that feeling well. I felt it often in the presence of my mother.
“Cort’s got the room ready,” the woman said. She was younger than the others, perhaps in her late twenties, though her dark eyes were far too knowing for true innocence. A chill shuddered in my chest.
I knew Stella meant star in some other language, and the name fit her perfectly.
We were moving away, and Stella vanished from my line of sight. My thoughts of her cut off abruptly as I was wheeled into a smaller room, bare except for what looked like a coffin on a long table.
My heart slammed into my chest, its beating furious and erratic.
Ava withdrew scissors from the pocket of her lab coat and started cutting the bandages from my feet and legs. Dimitri began at my head. I caught a glimpse of blackened tissue, the bloody stub of my left arm. Tears leaked from my right eye, but I couldn’t see anything through my left and I doubted I still had tear ducts there. Now I knew why Tom had felt the need to lie. No one could be this badly burned and survive.
If by some cruel twist of fate I did live, I would be a monster.
I tried to struggle against them, but any tiny movement sent shards of pain in every direction until it seemed pain was all I had ever known. Neither would my mouth open to scream, though hoarse sounds of distress issued from my throat, sounding grotesque and panicked. My chest convulsed wildly with the effort. Before too long, my throat became too raw for sound, and even that haunting noise ceased.
“It’s okay,” Dimitri said, his voice gentle. “It’ll be over soon.” Somehow I didn’t feel comforted.
When I was nothing more than a mass of burned and bleeding raw flesh, Ava and Dimitri lifted me into the coffin. Exquisite torture. My vision blurred and darkened. Nausea gouged at my insides.
A gelatinous substance oozed around me and the pain slightly eased. Dimitri pushed it up against my chin and smoothed a layer over my entire face. They’re drowning me in Jell-O, I thought, but Dimitri made sure I had ample space beneath my nose to breathe. The syrupy sweetness I’d felt with the IV bags was increased a hundredfold, as though each of my damaged nerve cells had become a conduit for an IV.
Dimitri’s face leaned close to mine. “I’ve added something to one of these IV bags to put you out. It’d be impossible for you to sleep in this stuff otherwise. But you’ll heal better if you aren’t awake.” Already I struggled to keep my good eye open.
Ava stood by the coffin looking in. “Don’t fight it, Erin. You’ll have your answers soon. Sleep, Granddaughter. Sleep.”
Granddaughter? I must not have heard her correctly.
Well, I suppose there could be worse ways to die than cradled in a coffin full of sweet gelatin. I gave up fighting and let my right eye close.