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I got the call at three o’clock in the afternoon. The number on my screen showed a US area code. As an expatriate living in Paris, incoming calls from “home” got answered even when I didn’t recognize the number—which I didn’t.
“Is this Leah Bertrand?” the caller spoke with a slow female drawl, a dead giveaway to her Southern heritage.
“Yes. How can I help you?” I was at the gallery sifting through invoices while there were no customers. Getting a stateside call, one from the South no less, put me on high alert for lots of reasons.
“This is Georgia Jones from the National Bone Marrow Registry. I’m the transplant coordinator for the southern US region. We’ve got a patient here who’s a match with your donor swab sample.” Her molasses twang slow-slid across the ocean, sounding exactly like the people in my North Louisiana hometown.
Georgia Jones paused for a breath, then continued, “We’re hoping you’d be willing to do further testing.”
Her words caught up to me. Wait, what? Bone marrow? “O-oh, bone marrow testing? The registry. Yes, what do you need me to do?” I began to catch on. It wasn’t a call I’d expected. Obviously. I’d only recently signed up for the registry.
“The first step will be a simple blood test at the same place you did the original cheek swab to see if your tissue matches.”
Georgia Jones had my full attention now. “Okay, I’m willing to have my blood tested.” I switched the phone from one ear to the other and shifted feet. “The medical office is a couple blocks from where I work.” This whole blood-drawing thing made my liver a bit lily-ish.
“That’s convenient. I have that information right here in front of me. I’ll send over the lab orders.” She rattled off the street names, mispronouncing them badly in broken Southern French.
I almost corrected her. I didn’t, but I cringed. Clearly, the woman didn’t speak French.
“I see on our records that you’re in Paris, France, so that could be a challenge, but you seem to be the only possible option for this patient.”
My first thought was, How sad for her. But Georgia Jones didn’t give me a chance to speak those thoughts. She powered ahead. “Since we’ve tried the US options for tissue matches and come up with none—” She paused. “How would you feel about an all-expenses-paid trip home?”
If I was a match, I would need to go home…or at least to the States.
Jake Carmichael’s face briefly flashed before my eyes, as it always did when the subject of Cypress Bayou came up. Which is probably why I hadn’t been back in quite a while.
“I—uh…” I tried not to choke on my past. “How soon would I need to travel?”
“This isn’t a definite, but should you be a match, I’d say as soon as you can get your affairs in order to stay a couple weeks—maybe more if a marrow donation is necessary. Usually only a few rounds of plasma donations are needed, and the recovery time for the donor is less. We transport donations stateside but prefer not to rely on such supply chains internationally. Too many hours, and the possibility of something going wrong along the way is higher.”
I sensed the urgency for this unknown person and imagined how scared she (I envisioned a woman) might be, wondering if this could be her last chance for a cure. “I’ll go immediately and get tested.” Gallery business was slow on this Tuesday afternoon, and Claude was available for clients who walked in or called.
“We’d certainly appreciate it. And if you are a match, I’ll get in touch in a day or two and help expedite your travel. I can’t thank you enough for your willingness to save a life.”
“Where would I fly in to?” I asked the woman before hanging up. I figured I might as well find out all I could ahead of time. Just in case.
“Hmm, let me see.” I heard some shuffling. “It looks like you’d have the option of Shreveport Regional Airport or New Orleans International Airport. Of course, I can’t give you any patient information.”
I knew it. Louisiana. “I thought I recognized your accent. You sound like the people in my hometown.”
I heard a little laugh from across the ocean. “Yes. Born and raised. I noticed your name was Bertrand, which is a dead giveaway for almost anywhere in Louisiana.” Georgia loosened up and went off script a little.
“Is it possible this is someone in my family?” The idea hit me hard.
“Oh, I don’t think so, honey. The only search we’ve done in the registry has been for a donor match. Close family would’ve been tested first.”
I dialed my sister in Cypress Bayou after I hung up. It was eight a.m. Central time in all of Louisiana, so Carly would’ve been up and heading out to whatever she had planned for the day. I never knew with Carly. “Hey there, Leah. What’s up?” She sounded so cheerful. I missed her.
“Hey, yourself. I just got a call from the bone marrow donor registry about a possible match there in Louisiana.”
“Bone marrow? Oh yeah, you told me about signing up.” I could picture my little sister’s puzzled expression. “Where in Louisiana? It’s rare to find a match outside of family, right?”
“Not sure where. They won’t tell me. I think it’s most likely to match with family, but donors can pretty much come from anywhere, according to the literature packet.”
“So, what do you have to do?” I could hear Carly multitasking in the background, maybe getting dressed for the day.
“I’m about to head down the street and get a blood draw.”
“Hey, don’t pass out, okay?” Carly knew me too well. “Because every time you think you won’t, and then you do.”
Not that I’d had my blood drawn that often, just on normal occasions. “I’ll do my best this time.” I paused a second. “We don’t have any cousins who are sick, do we?”
“Mmm, not any that I’m aware of. I’ll ask the women. They’ll know.”
“Yeah, they would know.” Because they knew everything about everyone going on in Cypress Bayou and the surrounding areas. “Okay. I’ll keep you posted.” I figured putting Carly on checking into the health and well-being of the family while I was giving fluids made sense.
“I’ll give Nana a call about it.” Carly had graduated law school from Tulane last year and passed the bar exam. She was currently clerking at a law firm in Baton Rouge and volunteering her skills for women trying to rise from poverty.
“Good choice.” We both laughed. Mom was rarely the first line of contact if it was possible to avoid because Mom was…difficult. And nosy. And difficult.
When one’s mother was challenging, making fun behind her back was necessary to keep the bitterness at bay. None had ever been more Catholic than Karen Bertrand, which made her dogmatic in the way of martyrs. She attended mass daily. You’d have thought she’d been the one who’d died on the cross horribly; such was the woman’s long suffering.
Nana seemed to be the only one who could straighten her up when Mom crossed the line from whiny to not okay. Thank God for Nana.
“Keep me posted on how this goes,” Carly said.
“I’m heading out now, but I’ll call after work.”
Time apparently was of the essence for my bloodletting, so I found Claude, my business partner and co-owner of La Toile. He was bent at the waist and staring intently through a set of magnifying loupes at a tiny oil painting sitting on an enormous easel and looked up with the myopic gaze of one who’d not quite come back from where he’d been. “Magnifique, oui?”
I eyed the canvas and nodded. It was an old Italian artist’s work. Not my favorite, but I refused to engage in debate as to why at the moment. Claude spoke perfect English, but he was a Frenchman and didn’t hide his disdain for Americans. He wrinkled his nose at me, as he often did—like he smelled feet. “You have something?” He arched his perfect eyebrows.
“I’ll be gone for an hour or so. Call if you need anything.”
He waved me away turning back to his study.
Claude and I had an uneasy truce. A necessary one as co-owners of our recently inherited gallery. Alaine had been our glue, our bond that made things work. Claude and I were both still reeling from Alaine’s recent passing. He was the reason I’d signed up for the bone marrow registry. To honor him. He’d died without a donor, without a possibility of a cure. No family and no matches. There hadn’t been time to do a full search. His cancer had been quick and brutal.
Alaine had given me my first and best opportunity to succeed in my chosen career. Art wasn’t just a job for me, it was a love of color, texture, and talent. I’d fallen in love with the many modalities during elementary school art classes. I didn’t have a personal talent, but I loved the smell of paint and crayons, and I so enjoyed the creative process.
These days I craved discovering new talent and digging up treasures in unexpected places. Alaine realized early on that I had an eye for identifying what was special in a piece that was brought to our attention.
I owed Alaine for his belief in me and for putting me in a position to succeed in doing what I loved. He’d become my best friend on this side of the world. He’d devoted himself to my care when I’d been alone and hurting, and I’d done it for him when he’d gotten sick.
Claude and I had been—and still were—devastated. He’d left us everything. The gallery, his home (where Claude lived), and his money (which I didn’t deserve). I tried not to judge whether Claude deserved it or not.
I still thought about Alaine every day. When I entered the gallery—his gallery—especially. So, getting this call, while shocking, made me feel like I maybe I could help someone for him. He would love that.
I made my way down the sidewalk, thankful the medical office was within walking distance. Georgia from Louisiana had told me what to say when I got there. Truth was, I got woozy when I gave blood. It was my not-so-secret shame. I was a grown woman, for heaven’s sake. But I had to insist on lying down during the process and for a time after. They would roll their eyes at the stupid, squeamish American, but I was used to it.
I figured an hour would give me enough time to recover and get back to La Toile if I passed out.
Home now from my harrowing near miss with death-by-needle-stick, I called Carly. I’d warned the woman at the medical office who’d come at me with a gleam in her eye that I was likely to faint, but as usual they hadn’t listened. Good thing the floor had been carpeted. I hadn’t actually lost consciousness, but it had been a close call.
“Nobody’s sick that we know of on our end,” Carly responded to my earlier query.
“That’s good to hear.” I was relieved, and knowing the extended family was healthy reassured that slight question in the back of my mind about what strange providence this might have been. “So, how are they?” She knew of whom I spoke.
“They are how they always are. Mom thinks we’re all going to hell because we don’t go to mass every day, and Dad spends most of his day gardening and avoiding her, but boy, you should see the size of his zucchinis this year. And Nana is…resigned to it all.”
“It’s nice to know that nothing changes.”
“So, you might come home, huh?” Carly moved to the bright side. “Finally?”
“I’ll know soon enough.” As I said it, Jake’s face swam by again. “The patient isn’t a match with anyone stateside, so I’m unsure why I would be. But who knows?” I’d poured a glass of my favorite red and was now in my usual after-work spot out on the patio overlooking my part of the city. My flat sat over a café and across from a flower shop. One couldn’t get any more Paris cliché than that. But I loved it.
“What if Jake’s in town?” Carly put words to my fear.
“What if he is?” Did I sound childish? “I can’t control what he does.” I definitely sounded childish.
Carly laughed at that. “Are you kidding? It’s been two years. Either you’re over him or you’re not. Plus, he’s rarely in Cypress Bayou from what I hear. It’s unlikely you’ll see him while you’re in town unless fate strikes.”
“Of course I’m over him. It’s not like we had some big blowup. We just…didn’t find our way back to each other.” And I would be relieved not to see him in the flesh. Glimpses on social media were enough. “It’s just as well he’s not around. No use digging up the dead.”
“Which is even more tragic, in my book. At least you had someone. I’m twenty-five and haven’t had my big love story yet.”
“You’ve had boyfriends. What about Joe in law school?” I remembered Carly sending photos of her with a cute guy at an event. And she posted often with guys on Instagram and such.
I could almost hear her rolling her eyes through the phone and across the ocean. “Joe had a crooked—”
“Wow, okay, too much information. It’s pretty late over there—midnight, right? I’ll keep you posted.”
Carly was still laughing. “You’re such a prude, Leah. I was gonna say he had a crooked big toe. And yeah, keep me posted.”
I sputtered a little. “I’m not a prude. Okay, maybe a little bit of a rule follower, but I never know what’s gonna fly out of your mouth, and it makes my face red.”
“G’night, my sweet sister.”
I frowned. Maybe I was a bit of a prude in some ways. Maybe that’s why Jake had never circled back to me or tried harder. Why he’d lost interest.
Jake’s phone alerted him to a new text.
Hey there. Got time for lunch?
Jake was in his office going over patient charts. Elizabeth Keller, MD was a childhood pal, medical school classmate, and coworker. They’d known each other forever. Since she’d been an overly tall, plain young girl. This likely explained a lot about her as a tall, model-gorgeous, highly successful surgeon who had quite an edge to her personality.
Elizabeth was a consummate professional when it came to her career. Most folks only saw the glamorous side of her. Some got the slightly snobbish side. Jake saw her as the insecure woman he’d always known, so he could forgive some of her more annoying behavior or comments that sometimes verged on rude or abrupt.
He checked the time. It was noonish, and he could eat. So, he replied: I’ll meet you in the cafeteria.
It’s a date
He winced a little. It wasn’t a date. They weren’t dating, though Elizabeth might’ve wished otherwise. But they weren’t dating.
There’d always been someone else for him. Always. Leah Bertrand never strayed far from his mind, though she was about as far from Cypress Bayou as one could be, living in Paris, France.
The nudge from his phone that Elizabeth was waiting in the cafeteria spurred Jake into action and pulled him from his thoughts of Leah.
As he shrugged into his white lab coat, he shoved the ever-present stethoscope into his pocket. He never went anywhere without it while inside the hospital. An emergency could arise at any moment.
Jake Carmichael’s job required him to travel around the state to different hospitals with his team of diagnosticians and handle challenging cases. He’d been referred to as a less abrasive Dr. House. The reference was to the television show he’d never taken the time to watch. It was long canceled but apparently still on Netflix or some other streaming service he wasn’t familiar with. So, how behind the times was he?
But now that he was back home in Cypress Bayou, Jake might finally check out the show and take up golf like so many of his colleagues. He’d been working nonstop for almost ten years now, if he counted medical school. Surely he deserved a hobby aside from his job.
His phone dinged again.
He hoped meat pies were on the menu today. West Monroe, where he’d been just before here, hadn’t had them as an offering. Louisiana was particularly food centric. Jake had his favorites in every hospital system, depending on which part of the state he worked.
In the southwest, the crawfish étouffée was amazing, but the muffulettas couldn’t be beat in New Orleans, nor the oysters. The northwest provided perfect purple-hull peas and crumbly cornbread. Meat pies were a specialty of Cypress Bayou specifically. Some of the best fare could be had at a gas station off the highway that doubled as a diner.
As Jake rounded the corner, he caught sight of Elizabeth checking her watch as she stood outside. It was a clear sign of irritation. She raised a brow as if he should confess to something he’d done wrong.
“Sorry. I was finishing a chart.” A lie. He never lied.
She didn’t answer, merely strode into the fragrant, loud cafeteria where everyone seemed to be in a hurry.
They grabbed a couple trays and got in the line of mostly scrub-wearing souls who were on a quick lunch break from somewhere inside the hospital. A lab, a desk, or a nursing floor. Many would get to-go containers because of time constraints and budget cuts to their departments. Jake had worked hard for his lunch privilege, when he had one, but remained ever-cognizant of how difficult the mere act of finding time to eat a meal or even a small snack within a workday could be for those in the medical profession.
Elizabeth was busy questioning the food service employee about the freshness of the fish.
“Dr. Keller, this fish here is fresh as a daisy in springtime.” The woman’s tone didn’t reveal any outward irritation at being interrogated regarding how she was doing her job. Her response was to be commended in Jake’s opinion.
“Thanks, Hazel. I’ll have the fish,” Jake requested as soon as Elizabeth wrinkled her nose and passed on the catfish fillets stuffed with crab stuffing. “Looks amazing.”
“Thanks, Dr. Carmichael. I know it’s one of your favorites.” Hazel grinned at him. What he wanted to say was Ignore her, Hazel.
Jake moved beyond the entrées to the desserts and snagged a chocolate pudding pie and joined Elizabeth at the checkout line. “The food here is second to none, and you know it.”
Elizabeth swiped her staff card and paid her ticket, then turned to reply. “It never hurts to keep the kitchen staff on their toes and let them know we’re paying attention.”
“Yes, but it’s their job to handle the food. It’s ours to be doctors.” He left off and it’s rude.
“Oh, stop being judgy.” She waved her hand around as if she were swiping at a buzzing fly. “I’m glad you’re back, by the way.”
Elizabeth presented him her thousand-watt smile that reminded him how she could catch enough flies with her honey without losing more favor with her lapses of vinegar. “Thank you.” Plus, she was a brilliant cardiothoracic surgeon so, mostly, her strong personality didn’t matter to patients who were under general anesthesia.
They made their way outside to the patio seating area, which was a nice upgrade added in the recent renovation.
“How’s the fish?” She eyeballed his plate like she regretted her choice of baked chicken and steamed veggies.
“Not on your life.”
End of Excerpt