Page 32

But she didn't. With Nathan there in the bed and Gershmann standing by, and with the overwhelming feeling she'd had for the past couple of days that she was being observed . . . Emily simply felt too exposed. She hoped that Gershmann would get the hint, but he seemed to be waiting for some kind of response from her. Something more.

Emily turned her gaze to meet the doctor's. "If you'll excuse me," she said weakly, "I'd just like to be alone with my son."

The morning had passed that way, with Emily sitting quietly by Nathan's bedside. The previous day, she had spent a great deal of time on the phone. Lorena had called several times from the office. The detective, Walt Sarbacker, had called to say that they'd found no useable fingerprints, but the hair fibers were still being analyzed. Francesca had called to say the Fox deal was going to happen and wasn't that good news?

"Wonderful," Emily had said, without conviction.

But she hadn't heard from the one person whose voice she most needed to hear. She'd left Joe a message before leaving for the hospital this morning, but hadn't shared any of the urgency she felt. She hadn't told him anything about the break-in. As the morning passed, she began to wish she had told him how badly she needed him. How intensely she felt the desire simply to be held. Embraced.

Midmorning, she had two calls from Lorena. She was in the office on a Saturday, which made Emily realize she would have to return to work soon. It wasn't fair to the other woman, whatever her own personal tragedies.

The next time her phone rang, she was certain it would be Joe. But when she answered, her tone hopeful, she was disappointed to discover that it was not Joe, but Chris Lebo, her attorney. As Chris spoke to her, Emily began to feel numb. By the time he said good-bye, tears of anguish were streaming down her face. She leaned against her son and wept for several moments, until a nurse came in to bathe Nathan.

It was nearly one o'clock when Emily left Nathan in the nurse's care. An errant thought ran through her mind, a reminder that she'd had nothing to eat save a nibble at breakfast. But she wasn't hungry. After leaving her son's room, she went downstairs to see Thomas.

In his bed, her ex-husband seemed diminished. The imagination that had once thrilled her so now simply disconnected. As she entered his room, she sniffed the air, without truly understanding why she would do such a thing. She didn't know what she expected to smell. But there was a scent there. An aroma not generally associated with hospital wards.

The air in Thomas's room smelled wild, like the sky pregnant with imminent showers and the animals running for some shelter from the angry storm.

It stopped her, there in the doorway.

She looked into Thomas's face and saw Nathan's. Never had the two shared so much, looked so alike. And yet, where Nathan's face had looked serene and unlined, Thomas's expression was troubled. Perhaps, she thought in a fleeting moment of fancy, he too had the scent of the coming storm.

"Emmy, you're losing it," she told herself, and forced a dry chuckle that even she did not believe.

She would not believe.

Emily walked into Thomas's room and over to his bedside. She stood there for a moment, love and sorrow in her heart, though she was still angry with him for what she thought a cowardly action. But she could not remain angry with him. For whatever he might have done to her, what she was even now doing seemed, to her at least, to be so much worse.

With a sigh, she crouched down beside Thomas and put her hand on his bicep. She studied the stubbled face and the way his salt and pepper hair had gone over to more salt than pepper in the past week or so.

Biting her lip, she said, "I'm sorry."

Behind her, someone cleared their throat.

Emily stood, face flushed at this interruption of the closest thing to intimacy she and Thomas had had in nearly a year. When she turned, her eyes were cold and hard. Until she saw the familiar figure framed by the door, the burnt blond hair and tender gray eyes.

"Oh, Joe . . .” she whispered, feeling suddenly weak.

He moved to her swiftly. Emily drew him close and held him as tightly as she was able, her face pressed against his chest. Though she tried her best to fight them, fresh tears sprang to her eyes as she told him what had happened the night before. For the first time, Emily began to realize just how frightened she had been. And she was forced to admit that the terror had not departed.

She told him about the man who had broken in, and he was furious with her for not telling him sooner. Emily felt a bit angry. Did he actually expect her to leave that kind of a message on his machine? Besides, when he didn't call, she had thought he needed some space.

When her crying had subsided somewhat, Joe whispered to her. "You're okay, sweetheart," he said. "I won't let anything happen to you. I promise."

Emily stiffened. Joe felt her sudden tension and stepped back from her a bit, studying her face. She didn't know what to say to him. Was he aware, she wondered, of what he'd just promised? And was it a genuine promise, or merely spoken to calm her?

At length, she relaxed a bit and offered a wan smile. "I'm glad," she said. "After yesterday morning, I don't want you going anywhere. Not that I need protection, mind you."

"Oh no," Joe agreed, shaking his head. "But there's strength in numbers."

"Exactly," Emily agreed.

This time, her smile was warmer, more natural. She embraced Joe again, and it felt better than she could have imagined. Whatever was coming, he planned to stick by her. That was what had really transpired here, and it was exactly what she needed at the moment. The night before, alone in her house, she had been terrified that the intruder would return.

Joe asked, "So what are you apologizing to Thomas for? It isn't like you're the one who gave him that booze-and-pills cocktail."

With a small shudder, Emily pushed gently away from Joe, allowing the fingers of her right hand to stay entwined with his as she turned to look at Thomas again. He had not moved, of course. But unless it was her imagination, his face seemed even more troubled than before.

"I heard from my attorney today," she said. "He believes my motion for sole custody will be approved. Of course, when Thomas recovers, they'll give him a psychiatric evaluation to see if he's fit, but . . . for now . . ."

Her words trailed off, and Emily let her head fall, her eyes closed as she said a silent prayer. She pulled her hand away from Thomas and ran her fingers through her messy blonde cascade of hair.

"You make it sound like that's a bad thing," Joe said tentatively. "I thought . . . I mean, isn't that what you wanted?"

Without turning to face Joe, Emily nodded slowly. "It was. But now, I just don't know. I don't know what's best for Nathan, and if I don't . . . then who does? I've reached the point where I can't be sure if Thomas's raving was just him losing it, or if it was . . ."

Emily froze. Her eyes were wide and she looked down upon Thomas without really seeing him. It felt as though she and Joe were both holding their breath. She had just realized what she had been about to say, and she knew that Joe realized it as well.

Then he put voice to it.

"Real?" he asked, his voice barely hiding the derision he obviously felt. "We are talking about the same lunacy, right? That whole business about him receiving secret messages from the characters in his books? I know you're under intense pressure, honey, but please don't tell me that you actually think . . ."

She erupted then, turning on him in a rage. "I don't know what to think!" Emily shouted, glaring at him for a moment before burying her face in her hands, all the energy passing from her in a single instant.

Joe reached out, grabbed her hands, and pulled them gingerly away. Emily looked up, unwilling to meet his eyes at first. Finally, she gazed into the calm gray there, and she saw how much he cared, despite himself. She knew what a trial it must have been for him to be with her of late. A lot of guys would have cut and run. But Joe didn't want to go. He wanted to stay with her. That meant a lot.

"It's crazy, Emmy," he said gently, eyes imploring. "You know that, right? I'm sorry, but Thomas went off the deep end, and then he tried to kill himself. That's what happened. If you want to stay by him until he gets his head back together, that's okay. But don't get sucked into the asylum. Don't stare too long into the abyss, Emily."

Later, Emily wouldn't be able to recall what exactly had changed in her at that moment. Perhaps it was the eloquence in Joe's words, the presence of an English teacher rearing its erudite head. It might merely have been his tenderness. Whatever the reason, she felt both the sudden need, and the sudden ability, to share with him the source of her troubled mind.

"Sit down, please," she said, taking him by the hand. "I want to tell you a story."

She led him to a chair by the window and, though he hesitated, Joe sat. Emily looked out the window for several long moments, and then she turned to look at Thomas. Her back was to Joe. That seemed important for some reason, as though she could pretend that he wasn't there. That she was speaking only to Thomas, who could not hear her.

"When he was seven years old, Thomas's family moved to Virginia. His father, Sean, was a career army officer, and they were living on base at that time. One afternoon, after his father had been gone for several days, Thomas was playing with several other children just down the street from his family's home. His mother, Annie, was inside making dinner. Thomas remembers, even now, that she was making liver that day, and he was desperately hoping he'd be able to stay out so late that she'd feed his to the dog."

Emily smiled. "He used to say there were times he didn't mind going to bed without his supper."

She turned to look at Joe now. His face was rapt. The story was simple enough, but she knew that he could hear in her voice that it was more than that.

"I'm sure you see where this is going," she said, and then her eyes drifted out the window as her voice dropped to just above a whisper. "Or you think you do."

In the corridor, a nurse began to shout. Several pairs of feet ran past Thomas's room. A phone rang at the nurses' station just down the hall. Life went on. Death went on. Out the window, the afternoon sun cast long shadows. In his bed, Thomas Randall didn't move a muscle; didn't even twitch. But the sensors registering his brain waves continued their impossible analysis.

Joe began to speak, apparently thinking Emily had paused, expecting him to respond in some way. But the first sound that came from his mouth was squelched when she went on.

"It was getting late. Thomas was happy his mother hadn't called him yet for dinner. For liver. Many parents had come home already, and there were cars parked along the street. The ball they were playing with sailed out into the road . . ."

That was as far as Emily could go at the moment. She bit her lip and wiped her eyes and turned to smile at Joe and shrug.

"Happens every day," she said.

Joe looked at her oddly, uncomprehendingly. "Thomas ran after the ball. He was hit by a car?" Joe surmised. "So . . . what? He's been in a coma before?"

Emily nodded. "Actually, that's why he had those pills in the house. He's had seizures off and on for years, ever since that accident."

"I'm sorry, Em. I don't understand. It's a damn shame, but like you said, it happens every day. And Thomas obviously recovered." He shrugged. "I'm not trying to be insensitive, but what does this have to do with anything?"

The word "nothing" came to Emily's lips, but she pressed them tight to keep it from escaping. Then she swallowed it back down. These things were swirling around her head, tearing up her mind with needles for claws, and she needed to let them out, to share them with someone or she really would go insane.

She remembered the first time Thomas had told her this story. They'd been married less than a year, and she'd laughingly related a run-in she'd had with an old friend who, upon learning she had married the famed children's author TJ Randall, asked where her husband got his ideas. It was widely regarded as the dumbest question anyone could ask of a writer — mainly because none of them had a real answer — and Emily was aware of the notorious quality the question had.

But Thomas hadn't laughed. Instead, he'd said, very quietly, "I want to tell you a story." And his story had begun with the words, "When I was seven years old, my family moved to Virginia."

She'd never forgotten the story. But there were parts of it she had never quite believed, either.

"The driver of the car was General Sean Randall," she said quickly. "Thomas's father."

She saw the pain in Joe's eyes, pain for a little boy he'd never known, not even as the man that little boy had become, and Emily found that she loved him a little then. Maybe more than a little. She took the three steps to the chair where he was sitting and took his hand, leaning against the wall for support as she continued.

"Thomas's mother hadn't called him for dinner because she wanted to surprise him. His father was coming home a few days early. It was dark, and the General was driving a little too fast, looking forward to seeing his family. At first, he'd thought Thomas was dead. But, obviously, Thomas wasn't."

They both looked at the prone form of Emily's ex-husband. Joe muttered, "Obviously," under his breath. Emily smiled thinly, and quite purposely kept her eyes on Thomas.

"No. He wasn't dead," she repeated. "He was in Strangewood."

She felt Joe's eyes upon her, but he said nothing. What could he say, after all, to such a statement?

"With his parents dead, and the doctors who treated him likely passed on or not long for this world, you're the only person besides myself who knows this part of the story," Emily admitted. "I shouldn't even be telling you, but maybe you'll start to understand why all this is frightening me so much. Why the fact that the doctors can't give me a single clue as to what's happening to my boy is scaring the hell out of me.

"Thomas spent nearly a month in that coma. When he recovered, all he could talk about was Strangewood, a wonderful and yet scary place where he had lived while his body lay in that bed. All the ideas for those books came from there, don't you understand?