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The hospital had settled into that level of quiet unique to the nighttime hours, the only sounds the occasional beeping of monitors, laughter from a patient’s TV, or the squeak of the nurses’ rubber-soled shoes on the tiled corridor floors. Dr. Roman McQueen’s shoes didn’t squeak, instead leaving a dull sound of contact with each of his steps as he followed a familiar path to Room 312.
After a long day of seeing patients at his family practice office, a couple of hours at the free clinic, and hospital rounds, he craved a shower, a good meal and several uninterrupted hours of sleep. But he couldn’t leave until he made a final, personal stop, one he’d been making at the end of each day for the past week.
“I bet you thought I’d forgotten about you,” he said as he entered the room, a few minutes later than normal.
The patient in the bed, Anna Kenner, didn’t respond. She couldn’t. At least not yet. But he liked to think that despite her being in a coma, she could hear him. That his nightly visits were helping her slowly navigate her way back to consciousness. She wasn’t his patient, but that didn’t keep him from checking up on her—just not in his professional capacity. After all, she was from his hometown of Logan Springs, the kind of small town where people did that kind of thing. They’d gone to school together. And for the most part, she was alone. That was the worst thing to be in a hospital.
He sank into the chair next to her bed and opened to the first page of Nevada Barr’s Flashback. “You ready for Anna Pigeon’s next adventure?”
Normally, he read more nonfiction, and when he did read fiction he tended toward medical thrillers instead of mysteries. But Anna’s co-workers at the Logan Springs Library, where she was head librarian, said she loved the mystery genre and had become a big fan of Barr’s series set in national parks, the protagonist of which shared a first name with Anna. Together, they had figured out how far she’d read on her own, and he’d picked up from there.
He’d been surprised how much he enjoyed reading Hunting Season, set along the Natchez Trace Parkway in Mississippi, despite jumping into the series ten books in. He’d ended up reading longer to her each night than he might have because he got so into the story. So it wasn’t any sort of hardship to move on to the next installment of Park Ranger Anna Pigeon’s adventures, this time in Dry Tortugas National Park off the coast of Key West, a speck on the globe as different from his Montana home as he could imagine.
Before he began to read, he took a few moments to watch Anna as if his scrutiny might cause her to suddenly wake. But there was no indication of change. She’d been unconscious when she’d been brought in after being discovered in her overturned car off the side of I-90 a couple of miles outside of Livingston. It was a miracle she’d been found when she had with her car resting upside down at the bottom of an embankment and it already dark outside. Only a couple pulling over to switch drivers at exactly the right spot had led to her discovery. No one knew why she’d gone off the road, only that when the ambulance rushed her to the ER she’d been unconscious and covered in blood from where her head had slammed into the driver’s side window.
Her friends came to sit with her when they could, but Anna’s only family was her grandmother, a patient at the local nursing home. The fact that she seemed so incredibly alone and the thought that she might possibly be aware on some level had led Roman to his nightly visits.
He shifted his gaze down to the page and began to read. He lost himself in the story, not noticing he’d read two entire chapters until the sound of approaching footsteps drew his attention toward the doorway. Lorraine Duncan, the head nurse on the night shift, stood there as if she didn’t want to interrupt. Realizing how much time had passed since he’d entered the room, he closed the book and stored it in Anna’s nightstand.
“You don’t have to stop on my account. Just here to check on Sleeping Beauty.”
He couldn’t suppress a yawn.
“On second thought,” Lorraine said, “I think you need to catch some Z’s of your own.”
“That is definitely in my near future.”
Lorraine walked into the room and checked Anna’s vitals, then smoothed her hair in a motherly gesture. “Poor girl. I keep coming in here hoping I’ll see her eyes wide open.”
He hoped that as well. She was healing from her injuries, and the initial swelling around her brain was completely gone now. But her body still wasn’t getting the message that it was safe to wake up. He realized it was possible that message might never be delivered, but he chose not to believe it. Though he didn’t know her all that well despite them having gone to school together since their elementary days and having been in all the advanced classes together in high school, he’d always liked her. And he’d never heard a single bad word about her. By all accounts, she was a sweet, kind-hearted person, if a bit shy, who’d persevered despite some tough breaks in her life. Her being quiet and bookish was what he remembered of her from their years in school. It made perfect sense she’d become a librarian.
“You’re a good soul to read to her,” Lorraine said.
“Caring for people is what doctors do, even when they aren’t our patients.”
“And yet I don’t see Dr. White or Dr. Mills, who are her doctors, stopping by to read to her after their workdays are over.”
“I don’t have a family to go home to.”
“Neither does Dr. Mills. And that’s a damn shame, for both of you.” Lorraine shook her head.
Roman couldn’t help but smile. He couldn’t imagine any of the other nurses speaking to him or any of the other doctors the way Lorraine did. But then, with the exception of Dr. Denton, who was eighty if he was a day, Lorraine had been here longer than anyone. Roman remembered a younger version of Lorraine coming to check on him when he’d been a patient here as a child.
“Are you flirting with me, Lorraine?”
She laughed. “Honey, I’m too old and tired for a young looker like you. Besides, pretty sure Billy wouldn’t take kindly to me trading him in for a newer model.”
There were times when Roman didn’t feel particularly young, but Lorraine’s description made him smile. He stood and gave Anna another glance.
“I’m sure you’ll be the first person Dr. Mills calls if anything changes,” Lorraine said, referencing his best friend and business partner.
There was hope in Lorraine’s voice, but it was tempered by a healthy dose of realism as well, with the knowledge that with every day that passed, everyone at the hospital lost a little more faith that Anna would rejoin the land of the conscious.
He was at the door when Lorraine spoke again. “Your mom would be so proud of you.”
A familiar, sharp pain pierced his middle that his mom couldn’t tell him herself what she thought of the man he’d become. Not that she’d never said she was proud of him. She told all her sons that. But he liked to imagine that Lorraine was right, that his mom would approve of how he did his job every day, and of the time he was spending with Anna. He looked over his shoulder.
“I appreciate you saying that.”
“Nothing but the truth.”
As he walked out of the hospital to his truck, he nixed the idea of driving down to his dad’s place in Logan Springs. He needed a good night’s sleep before he made the trip to the ranch, even though it was only about twenty miles. As he maneuvered through Livingston’s empty streets, his thoughts drifted back to how Lorraine had called Anna Sleeping Beauty. She wasn’t wrong. Anna was pretty in that soft, normal way that could escape someone’s notice if they weren’t paying attention. And the fact that she didn’t ever seem to do anything to draw extra attention to herself in high school had caused him to not give her attractiveness much thought. He supposed the same could be said of the years since they’d sat in the same classrooms.
But he could imagine her getting married to some hardworking guy in the future and having a couple of cute little kids who would share their mother’s love of books. He pictured them sitting in a big, comfy chair surrounded by their favorites and eating freshly baked cookies Anna had made for them.
But first she had to wake up.
As he pulled into the driveway of his small house not far from the hospital, he thought that Lorraine and the other nurses would likely read too much into his imagined future for Anna. What they didn’t know, what no one knew, was that his imagination often came up with life stories for patients, colleagues, even people he met in passing. It was something he’d started doing to pass the time when he’d had to go to countless doctor appointments and during hospitalizations as a kid. It’d been a way to pass the time and help distract himself from the fact that his body was fighting cancer and worrying that he might not win.
Even though he’d now been cancer-free for more than twenty years and had more than enough to occupy his thoughts, the habit of creating fictional lives for other people hadn’t gone away. And since he saw no harm in it, he didn’t fight it. Maybe it even helped keep his mind sharp, always a good thing for a doctor.
He turned off the engine and stepped out onto his driveway. As luck would have it, Kailee Upton was walking her pair of golden retrievers past his driveway at exactly that moment. His neighbor was not very good at hiding that she was attracted to him, if she was even trying.
She waved with bubbly enthusiasm. “Hey, Doc. Another long day?”
He mustered a smile that was friendly but not too friendly. He didn’t want to come across as an ass, but he also didn’t intend to give her false hope.
“Hey, Kailee. Last walk of the night?”
“Let’s hope so. If I wasn’t afraid of something scary coming in from the outside, I’d install a pet door big enough for these two. But my luck, I’d wake up with a bobcat or a bear cub in my kitchen. You’d hear me scream all the way down the street.”
He chuckled at the image. “Best to avoid that. Well, have a good night.”
As he turned to head inside, she said, “Before you go, can I run something by you?”
He did his best not to sigh. With each passing moment, his fatigue seemed to magnify tenfold.
“Sure,” he said as he turned halfway back toward where she and the dogs stood.
“I was thinking about hosting a block party sometime soon. I want to make sure as many people as possible can attend, so I was wondering when would be best for you.”
Was this some sort of camouflaged play to spend more time with him, specifically, or did she truly just want to host a gathering for all her neighbors? Truth was he wasn’t sure. Yes, Kailee seemed to be interested in him, but she also was a social butterfly who thrived on interactions with other people.
“Get me some dates and I’ll see if I can make one of them work.” There, an answer that was open and yet noncommittal.
If possible, her smile grew bigger. “Great! I’ll do that.”
One of her dogs started pulling at the leash, so she waved goodbye and disappeared down the sidewalk.
As Roman made his way into his house, he wondered if he’d made a mistake. Had Kailee read too much into his willingness to try to attend the block party?
Well, there was no taking it back now. He made his way to his refrigerator, but when he realized he’d been standing in front of the open fridge for several seconds without any desire to actually eat anything he closed it and headed for the shower instead.
Cleaner but still tired, he crawled into bed after the shower. It was barely dark outside, but nothing held more appeal than going to sleep. He couldn’t help smiling at the memory of how his mom had a devil of a time getting him and his brothers to bed when they were younger. Especially after he’d gotten past his illness and regained his strength, the last thing he’d wanted to do was sleep his life away. He supposed he still felt that way to some extent, working and trying to make the most out of each day until he didn’t have any choice but to sleep.
Even after getting comfortable and closing his eyes, though, he didn’t immediately succumb to sleep. His thoughts wandered back over his day, finally settling on Anna. He wondered if the authorities were any closer to figuring out why she’d gone off the road, if they’d ever find out. Maybe Anna could shed some light on the reason when she woke up. Because he had to believe she’d wake up. She was too young with too much of her life ahead of her to be trapped in the prison of a coma for the rest of her days.
Roman jerked awake when the phone rang. He was still groggy, still halfway in the dream he’d been having when he reached for his phone. He blinked to bring the bedside clock into focus. The red display read 5:34 a.m. He’d obviously been out cold because it felt as if he hadn’t even moved during the seven hours he’d been asleep. He noted the familiar number of Dr. Andrew Mills on the phone’s display before bringing it up to his ear.
“Yeah?” he said, still sounding groggy.
“Guess who decided to wake up.”
It took him a moment to process the meaning of his best friend’s words. But then it clicked.
“I’m on my way.”
This Sleeping Beauty hadn’t needed a kiss to wake up, only time.
Why couldn’t she keep her eyes open? She felt as if someone had sewn lead weights to her eyelids. Every time she lifted them, it was harder to keep them open. She wasn’t sure, but she thought maybe greater amounts of time passed between blinks than was normal.
Where was she? And why did she feel as if moving her body would take some sort of herculean effort she couldn’t muster no matter how hard she tried? She felt…trapped, as if she was being held under water by some invisible force. Panic welled within her and she fought against whatever was keeping her from waking up, from moving.
She jerked when something touched her hand.
She heard the words as if they’d been spoken on the other side of a wall. But then the thing touching her hand wrapped around it and squeezed gently.
“Can you open your eyes?”
No. Yes. God, she was trying. Her lids fluttered, allowing momentary light to hit her retinas. And it burned as if her eyes had never seen anything but complete darkness.
“Take it slow,” the voice said again. A man’s voice. One she didn’t recognize. Or did she? Maybe it sounded familiar, but she wasn’t sure.
Concentrating all of her effort on opening her eyes, she took the voice’s advice and slowly lifted her lids though it proved way more difficult than it should. She squinted against the light.
“Turn off the overhead.”
In the next moment the brightness lessened to a bearable level. She blinked to try to clear her vision, which was fuzzy around the edges. Gradually, the face of the person holding her hand came into focus. She…knew him. Didn’t she? What was his name?
And why did it feel as if her brain function was moving in slow motion? Her gaze drifted slowly away from the man’s face to take in her surroundings. They didn’t make sense. Lots of tans and whites and other muted colors she couldn’t identify. She blinked, again slowly, having to concentrate to reopen her eyes. When they did, they were pointed back at the man. He smiled, and the thought crept into her mind that he looked nice. And…what was the word? Oh yeah, handsome.
She opened her mouth, but nothing came out. And she became aware of how incredibly dry her throat felt, like she’d inhaled all the sand from every desert in the world. A cough took hold of her and then another. She couldn’t stop. The man lifted her to a seated position, his other hand placed firmly at the middle of her back. Suddenly, a woman appeared on the opposite side of the bed—Why was she in a bed?—and in the next moment brought a cup of water to Anna’s lips.
The first drink caused her to cough again.
“Go slowly, honey,” the woman said, also in a soothing voice.
Why was everyone talking to her as if she was a child or something so fragile that too loud of a noise would cause her to crumble?
When she was finally able to drink without coughing, the water felt so incredible. Cold, wet, a balm to a throat that felt raw and unused. She never wanted to stop drinking, but eventually the woman pulled away the cup.
“You don’t want to overdo it. You haven’t had anything to drink in a while.”
“Where…?” What was wrong with her voice? It sounded weak, raspy, as if she hadn’t used it in… “Where am I?” Her words came out as a painful whisper, and her eyes for some reason sought those of the man, the familiar.
He helped her lie back as a mechanical buzzing clicked something in her brain a moment before she realized the sound was the woman—a nurse—raising the back of a hospital bed.
“You’re in the hospital in Livingston, but you’re okay.”
She tried to speak again, swallowed against a throat that had gone completely dry. After another drink, she met the man’s eyes, then noticed his white lab coat. A doctor.
“Why?” Voicing the single word tired her, and her eyes closed.
“You were in an accident, and you’ve been sleeping for a while.”
Something about the way the doctor said it scared her, causing her eyes to open again. No, it wasn’t how he’d answered her question, but something at the back of her memory made her afraid to go back to sleep, afraid she’d never wake up again.
The panic must have shown on her face because the doctor squeezed her hand as he reclaimed his seat next to the bed just as another doctor stepped into the room. The first doctor nodded toward the new arrival. “This is Dr. Mills. He’s been taking care of you. He was here earlier when you initially woke up but continued his morning rounds when you dozed off.”
“Hello,” Dr. Mills said. “It’s good to see you awake again. What do you remember?”
She searched her mind, feeling as if she was lifting boulders to look for clues beneath them. With each one, she became more frustrated.
“It’s okay,” the first doctor said.
She abandoned her search and looked at him. His name felt as if it was close. “I know you.”
He nodded but didn’t provide the answer. “It’ll come to you.”
Why wouldn’t he tell her? After all, he’d revealed the other doctor’s name. Another cog turned in the wheel of her mind. “How long…?” She swallowed, trying to rid herself of feeling as if her throat was two sheets of sandpaper rubbing together.
“You’ve been here a bit more than a week.”
A jolt went through her. A week? How was that possible? She did not have a week’s worth of memories of being in the hospital.
She shook her head on the pillow, and for a moment her vision swam.
“Time is probably messed up for you right now, but that will get better,” Dr. Mills said.
“I don’t understand.”
“You were in an accident that caused a head injury. You’ve been in a coma since the night you were brought in,” he said.
“A coma?” She choked halfway through the second word, but this time it wasn’t because of the need for water.
The still nameless doctor nodded when she looked at him. “You had a head injury, but your neurologist lives nearby and it was decided not to move you to a bigger hospital. He decided the amount of swelling you had would likely diminish within a few days. Sometimes the body just needs time to heal itself before it’s ready to resume normal function.”
She started to lift her arm, to examine her head for the injury, but like every other part of her body it felt as if it weighed a literal ton.
“You’ll get your strength back, too,” Dr. Mills said, seeming to be able to read her mind. “We’ll help you with that.”
Despite her determination to stay awake, her eyes started to close. With great effort, she opened them again.
“It may take you a while to stay awake very long, but you’ll get there,” Dr. Mills said.
The doctor she knew but couldn’t name placed his other hand over the top of hers, sandwiching hers between the warmth of his. Did doctors normally do things like that? She either couldn’t remember or she’d had no idea in the first place.
“You can rest without worrying. Your doctors and nurses will keep a close eye on you.”
The warmth of his words matched that of his hands, and that helped her to believe him. As she allowed her eyes to drift closed, she hoped he was telling the truth and she wasn’t dropping into a darkness that stole more of her life.
End of Excerpt