Then, between the two muttering paramedics, she caught a glimpse of Hatch lying on the other gurney, and abruptly she was jolted out of her half-trance by her concern for him. He looked so pale. But not just white. Another, less healthy shade of pale with a lot of gray in it. His face—turned toward her, eyes closed, mouth open slightly—looked as if a flash fire had swept through it, leaving nothing between bone and skin except the ashes of flesh consumed.
“Please,” she said, “my husband.” She was surprised that her voice was just a low, rough croak.
“You first,” O'Malley said.
“No. Hatch. Hatch … needs … help.”
“You first,” O'Malley repeated.
His insistence reassured her somewhat. As bad as Hatch looked, he must be all right, must have responded to CPR, must be in better shape than she was, or otherwise they would have tended to him first. Wouldn't they?
Her thoughts grew fuzzy again. The sense of urgency that had gripped her now abated. She closed her eyes.
In Lindsey's hypothermic torpor, the murmuring voices above her seemed as rhythmic, if not as melodic, as a lullaby. But she was kept awake by the increasingly painful stinging sensation in her extremities and by the rough handling of the medics, who were packing small pillowlike objects against her sides. Whatever the things were—electric or chemical heating pads, she supposed—they radiated a soothing warmth far different from the fire burning within her feet and hands.
“Hatch needs warmed up, too,” she said thickly.
“He's fine, don't you worry about him,” Epstein said. His breath puffed out in small white clouds as he spoke.
“But he's cold.”
“That's what he needs to be. That's just how we want him.”
O'Malley said, “But not too cold, Jerry. Nyebern doesn't want a Popsicle. Ice crystals form in the tissue, there'll be brain damage.”
Epstein turned to the small half-open window that separated the rear of the ambulance from the forward compartment. He called loudly to the driver: “Mike, turn on a little heat maybe.”
Lindsey wondered who Nyebern might be, and she was alarmed by the words “brain damage.” But she was too weary to concentrate and make sense of what they said.
Her mind drifted to recollections from childhood, but they were so distorted and strange that she must have slipped across the border of consciousness into a half-sleep where her subconscious could work nightmarish tricks on her memories.
… she saw herself, five years of age, at play in a meadow behind her house. The sloped field was familiar in its contours, hut some hateful influence had crept into her mind and meddled with the details, wickedly recoloring the grass a spider-belly black. The petals of all the flowers were blacker still, with crimson stamens that glistened like fat drops of blood.…
… she saw herself, at seven, on the school playground at twilight, but alone as she had never been in real life. Around her stood the usual array of swings and seesaws and jungle gyms and slides, casting crisp shadows in the peculiar orange light of day's end. Those machineries of joy seemed curiously ominous now. They loomed malevolently, as if they might begin to move at any second, with much creaking and clanking, blue St. Elmo's fire glowing on their flanks and limbs, seeking blood for a lubricant, robotic vampires of aluminum and steel. …
Periodically Lindsey heard a strange and distant cry, the mournful bleat of some great, mysterious beast. Eventually, even in her semi-delirious condition, she realized that the sound did not originate either in her imagination or in the distance but directly overhead. It was no beast, just the ambulance siren, which was needed only in short bursts to clear what little traffic had ventured onto the snowswept highways.
The ambulance came to a stop sooner than she had expected, but that might be only because her sense of time was as out of whack as her other perceptions. Epstein threw the rear door open while O'Malley released the spring clamps that fixed Lindsey's gurney in place.
When they lifted her out of the van, she was surprised to see that she was not at a hospital in San Bernardino, as she expected to be, but in a parking lot in front of a small shopping center. At that late hour the lot was deserted except for the ambulance and, astonishingly, a large helicopter on the side of which was emblazoned a red cross in a white circle and the words AIR AMBULANCE SERVICE.
The night was still cold, and wind hooted across the blacktop. They were now below the snow line, although just at the base of the mountains and still far from San Bernardino. The ground was bare, and the wheels of the gurney creaked as Epstein and O'Malley rushed Lindsey into the care of the two men waiting beside the chopper.
The engine of the air ambulance was idling. The rotors turned sluggishly.
The mere presence of the craft—and the sense of extreme urgency that it represented—was like a flare of sunlight that burned off some of the dense fog in Lindsey's mind. She realized that either she or Hatch was in worse shape than she had thought, for only a critical case could justify such an unconventional and expensive method of conveyance. And they obviously were going farther than to a hospital in San Bernardino, perhaps to a treatment center specializing in state-of-the-art trauma medicine of one kind or another. Even as that light of understanding came to her, she wished that it could be extinguished, and she despairingly sought the comfort of that mental fog again.
As the chopper medics took charge of her and lifted her into the aircraft, one of them shouted above the engine noise, “But she's alive.”
“She's in bad shape,” Epstein said.
“Yeah, okay, she looks like shit,” the chopper medic said, “but she's still alive. Nyebern's expecting a stiff.”
O'Malley said, “It's the other one.”
“The husband,” Epstein said.
“We'll bring him over,” O'Malley said.
Lindsey was aware that a monumental piece of information had been revealed in those few brief exchanges, but she was not clearheaded enough to understand what it was. Or maybe she simply did not want to understand.
As they moved her into the spacious rear compartment of the helicopter, transferred her onto one of their own litters, and strapped her to the vinyl-covered mattress, she sank back into frighteningly corrupted memories of childhood:
… she was nine years old, playing fetch with her dog, Boo, but when the frisky labrador brought the red rubber ball back to her and dropped it at her feet, it was not a ball any longer. It was a throbbing heart, trailing torn arteries and veins. It was pulsing not because it was alive but because a mass of worms and sarcophagus beetles churned within its rotting chambers …
The helicopter was airborne. Its movement, perhaps because of the winter wind, was less reminiscent of an aircraft than of a boat tumbling in a bad tide. Nausea uncoiled in Lindsey's stomach.
A medic bent over her, his face masked in shadows, applying a stethoscope to her breast.
Across the cabin, another medic was shouting into a radio headset as he bent over Hatch, talking not to the pilot in the forward compartment but perhaps to a receiving physician at whatever hospital awaited them. His words were sliced into a series of thin sounds by the air-carving rotors overhead, so his voice fluttered like that of a nervous adolescent.
“… minor head injury … no mortal wounds … apparent cause of death … seems to be … drowning …”
On the far side of the chopper, near the foot of Hatch's litter, the sliding door was open a few inches, and Lindsey realized the door on her side was not fully closed, either, creating an arctic cross-draught. That also explained why the roar of the wind outside and the clatter of the rotors was so deafening.
Why did they want it so cold?
The medic attending to Hatch was still shouting into his headset: “… mouth-to-mouth … mechanical resuscitator … O-2 and CO-2 without results … epinephrine was ineffective …”
The real world had become too real, even viewed through her delirium. She didn't like it. Her twisted dreamscapes, in all their mutant horror, were more appealing than the inside of the air ambulance, perhaps because on a subconscious level she was able to exert at least some control on her nightmares but none at all on real events.
… she was at her senior prom, dancing in the arms of Joey Delvecchio, the boy with whom she had been going steady in those days. They were under a vast canopy of crepe-paper streamers. She was speckled with sequins of blue and white and yellow light cast off by the revolving crystal-and-mirror chandelier above the dance floor. It was the music of a better age, before rock-'n'-roll started to lose its soul, before disco and New Age and hip-hop, back when Elton John and the Eagles were at their peak, when the Isley Brothers were still recording, the Doobie Brothers, Stevie Wonder, Neil Sedaka making a major comeback, the music still alive, everything and everyone so alive, the world filled with hope and possibilities now long since lost. They were slow-dancing to a Freddy Fender tune reasonably well rendered by a local band, and she was suffused with happiness and a sense of well-being—until she lifted her head from Joey's shoulder and looked up and saw not Joey's face but the rotting countenance of a cadaver, yellow teeth exposed between shriveled black lips, flesh pocked and blistered and oozing, bloodshot eyes bulging and weeping vile fluid from lesions of decay. She tried to scream and pull away from him, but she could only continue to dance, listening to the overly sweet romantic strains of “Before the Next Teardrop Falls,” aware that she was seeing Joey as he would be in a few years, after he had died in the Marine-barracks explosion in Lebanon. She felt death leeching from his cold flesh into hers. She knew she had to tear herself from his embrace before that mortal tide filled her. But when she looked desperately around for someone who might help her, she saw that Joey was not the only dead dancer. Sally Ontkeen, who in eight years would succumb to coc**ne poisoning, glided by in an advanced stage of decomposition, in the arms of her
boyfriend who smiled down on her as if unaware of the corruption of her flesh. Jack Winslow, the school football star who would be killed in a drunken driving accident in less than a year, spun his date past them; his face was swollen, purple tinged with green, and his skull was crushed along the left side as it would be after the wreck. He spoke to Lindsey and Joey in a raspy voice that didn't belong to Jack Winslow but to a creature on holiday from a graveyard, vocal cords withered into dry strings: “What a night! Man, what a night!”
Lindsey shuddered, but not solely because of the frigid wind that howled through the partly open chopper doors.
The medic, his face still in shadows, was taking her blood pressure. Her left arm was no longer under the blanket. The sleeves of her sweater and blouse had been cut away, exposing her bare skin. The cuff of the sphygmomanonieter was wound tightly around her biceps and secured by Velcro strips.
Her shudders were so pronounced that they evidently looked, to the paramedic, as if they might be the muscle spasms that accompanied convulsions. He plucked a small rubber wedge from a nearby supply tray and started to insert it in her mouth to prevent her from biting or swallowing her tongue.
She pushed his hand away. “I'm going to die.”
Relieved that she was not having convulsions, he said, “No, you're not that bad, you're okay, you're going to be fine.”
He didn't understand what she meant. Impatiently, she said, “We're all going to die.”
That was the meaning of her dream-distorted memories. Death had been with her from the day she'd been born, always at her side, constant companion, which she had not understood until Jimmy's death five years ago, and which she had not accepted until tonight when death took Hatch from her.
Her heart seemed to clutch up like a fist within her breast. A new pain filled her, separate from all the other agonies and more profound. In spite of terror and delirium and exhaustion, all of which she had used as shields against the awful insistence of reality, truth came to her at last, and she was helpless to do anything but accept it.
Hatch had drowned.
Hatch was dead. CPR had not worked.
Hatch was gone forever.
… she was twenty-five years old, propped against bed pillows in the maternity ward at St. Joseph's Hospital. The nurse was bringing her a small blanket-wrapped bundle, her baby, her son, James Eugene Harrison, whom she had carried for nine months but had not met, whom she loved with all her heart but had not seen. The smiling nurse gently conveyed the bundle into Lindsey's arms, and Lindsey tenderly lifted aside the satin-trimmed edge of the blue cotton blanket. She saw that she cradled a tiny skeleton with hollow eye sockets, the small bones of its fingers curled in the wanting-needing gesture of an infant. Jimmy had been born with death in him, as everyone was, and in less than five years cancer would claim him. The small, bony mouth of the skeleton-child eased open in a long, slow, silent cry …
Lindsey could hear the chopper blades carving the night air, but she was no longer inside the craft. She was being wheeled across a parking lot toward a large building with many lighted windows. She thought she ought to know what it was, but she couldn't think clearly, and in fact she didn't care what it was or where she was going or why.
Ahead, a pair of double doors flew open, revealing a space warmed by yellow light, peopled by several silhouettes of men and women. Then Lindsey was rushed into the light and among the silhouettes … a long hallway … a room that smelled of alcohol and other disinfectants … the silhouettes becoming people with faces, then more faces appearing … soft but urgent voices … hands gripping her, lifting … off the gurney, onto a bed … tipped back a little, her head below the level of her body … rhythmic beeps and clicks issuing from electronic equipment of some kind.…
She wished they would just all go away and leave her alone, in peace. Just go away. Turn off the lights as they went. Leave her in darkness. She longed for silence, stillness, peace.
A vile odor with an edge of ammonia assaulted her. It burned her nasal passages, made her eyes pop open and water.
A man in a white coat was holding something under her nose and peering intently into her eyes. As she began to choke and gag on the stench, he took the object away and handed it to a brunette in a white uniform. The pungent odor quickly faded.
Lindsey was aware of movement around her, faces coming and going. She knew that she was the center of attention, an object of urgent inquiry, but she did not—could not manage to—care. It was all more like a dream than her actual dreams had been. A soft tide of voices rose and fell around her, swelling rhythmically like gentle breakers whispering on a sandy shore: