Chapters 1 – 3 Tragedy at Silver Creek

Tragedy at Silver Creek

by Belinda G. Buchanan

Chapter One            

Cheryl Collins breathed sporadically through her mouth and nose, trying, without success, to ease the contraction that was currently slicing through her body.

“You’re doing great, Cheryl.”

Grimacing, she looked between her parted knees at Dr. Jensen, whose gloved hands were resting against the innermost part of her thighs, as he studied the fetal monitor beside his shoulder.  Two nurses—one, a thin redhead with a diamond stud protruding from the fold in her chin, and the other, an older, frumpy brunette with a dour expression—stood on either side of him, staring at her nether region.

Cheryl closed her eyes, wishing that the intimate act of giving birth did not have to involve being seen naked by half the staff of Memorial Hospital.

“You’re doing great, sweetheart.”

The familiar touch of Jack’s hand swept across her skin, yet she chose to keep her eyes shut, fearing that any movement, no matter how small, would bring about another contraction.

“All right, Cheryl, on the next one, I want you to push.”

Jack slipped his arm behind her shoulders.  “On the next one, you push.”

Cheryl felt her lips fold in on themselves as she glanced over at her husband.  For the past two hours, he had been repeating everything the doctor had said.  “Jack?”

“I’m right here,” he answered, patting her on the forearm.

She clutched the front of his shirt, uncaring that she’d also grabbed a handful of his chest hairs, and pulled him towards her.  Pausing to draw a shallow breath, she then proceeded to tell him to shut up in the nicest way possible—only to have her words replaced by a cry as another contraction took hold.

“Give me a big push, Cheryl.”

Jack helped her sit up, and she bared down the best she knew how.

“Okay,” said Jensen, watching the monitor, “relax for a moment.”

Exhausted and drenched in sweat, Cheryl let go of Jack’s shirt and fell back against the bed, hoping that the next one wouldn’t come for a while; however, in reality, she knew that she probably had a minute, at best.

As those precious seconds ticked by, the sun began to filter through the open slats of the dark metal blinds, enveloping the tiny room in a suffocating heat.  Cheryl pressed the side of her cheek into the edge of the pillow, seeking comfort in the coolness of its cotton fabric as she waited for the inevitable to return.

“It’s almost over,” Jack whispered, brushing a strand of hair from her face.

Incapable of answering him at the moment, Cheryl moved her head up and down in the hopes that it resembled a nod.  Earlier this morning, she had been awakened, from what could only be described as a restless sleep, to find her side of the sheets, as well as the mattress, soaking wet; it was a discovery that had brought her, along with a frantic Jack, to the emergency room.  Now, five hours and ten centimeters later, she lay in a hospital bed—with her legs spread perversely apart—about to deliver her first child.  It was a moment that was as surreal as it was sobering, as the last two weeks had been the hardest she had ever known.

The sound of the baby’s heartbeat echoed off the sterile white walls, causing a surge of desire to suddenly rise and fall inside Cheryl.  She was a firm believer that joy, as well as hope, could come in many different forms, and it was for this reason that she found herself eagerly anticipating the arrival of her daughter.  Her excitement was momentarily shelved, however, as the pain that she had become all too familiar with wrapped itself around her stomach and began to twist it.

“I need one more push,” Dr. Jensen urged.  “Come on, Cheryl…big, big push!”

Grasping the edge of the bedrails, Cheryl waited for Jack to sit her up, and then, with her teeth clenched, she pushed.  She pushed until her legs trembled.

“Okay, stop.”

Cheryl dug her fingernails into the palm of Jack’s hand as the activity at the foot of the bed increased.  Her breath fell in and out of her in jagged fragments as she kept her eyes locked on Dr. Jensen, searching the crevices in his face for the slightest hint of distress, as time—which had been passing all too quickly just moments before—stood utterly still.

A feeble cry sounded, shattering the thick silence surrounding them.  Relief, in the form of a single sob, came tumbling out of Cheryl’s mouth as ten quivering fingers attached to two tiny arms appeared in her line of sight.

Dr. Jensen thrust a small pair of scissors into Jack’s hand.  “Cut here,” he said, pointing.

The blood drained from Jack’s face as he looked down at the bluish braided rope that bound his wife to his daughter.  The color of his skin went from white, to ashen, to gray as the scissors sank into the cord.  Three ragged snips later, it finally relented.

“Great job, Dad.”  Jensen seemed to be smiling behind his mask as he took the scissors out of his trembling fingers.

Dropping his hand, Jack hurriedly retreated to the safety zone behind Cheryl’s right shoulder.

The nurse finished wrapping the infant in a blanket and came around the bed, offering Cheryl a stoic smile as she placed the baby in her outstretched arms.  Pressing her lips to her daughter’s forehead, Cheryl closed her eyes, pausing to give thanks to God for her…and for allowing Jack to be by her side.

“She’s beautiful.”

Opening her eyes, Cheryl forcibly blinked back her tears as she watched Jack caressing the tips of the baby’s fingers with his own.  For one, fleeting moment, he seemed happy—yet before the smile had fully formed upon his face, it began to fade, and she saw the sadness returning to it as the memory of what he had lost settled back into his heart.

Wanting so badly to take his pain away, Cheryl reached up and touched the side of his cheek, but upon feeling his jaw tighten, realized that it was an effort in futility and stopped.  Withdrawing her hand, she shifted her gaze back to her daughter, refusing to let the darkness overshadow this blessed day.

The nurse with the piercing in her chin leaned across the bed.  “Mrs. Collins?  I’m going to take your daughter to the nursery where they’ll get her cleaned up and weighed.”

“Wait,” said Jack, reaching into his pocket.  “Can I get some pictures, first?”

“Of course,” she answered, taking a step back.

Holding the baby close to her cheek, Cheryl sank farther into the pillow and offered Jack a weary smile.  When he had finished with the pictures, the nurse scooped up the tiny bundle and walked away, leaving her arms empty and cold.

Jack stared at the screen a long time before speaking.  “You gave me a beautiful little girl,” he said in a voice that was as uneven as it was broken.

Feeling her own emotions beginning to churn, Cheryl quickly swung her attention over to Dr. Jensen, who was still sitting between her legs, in the hopes of finding a distraction.  She watched with pretend fascination as he placed an instrument, coated in her own blood, on the tray beside him and stood up.

“All done,” he chirped, removing his mask.

Jack cleared his throat but made no motion to move out from behind Cheryl’s shoulder.  “Thanks, Doc,” he said, offering him an appreciative nod instead.

“It was my pleasure, Collins.”  Jensen stripped off his gloves and ran his fingers through a disheveled mop of silver hair before coming around the side of the bed.  “I’ll check on you later, young lady,” he said, peering down at Cheryl with a pair of bloodshot eyes.

“Thank you.”

He wrapped both of his hands around hers and squeezed.  “Be good now.”

“I will.”

After giving Cheryl his trademark wink—which in the beginning she’d found creepy but now had come to anticipate—Jensen turned and disappeared from the room; yet, as the door swung closed behind him, she was unable to shake the feeling that this time he had done it out of sympathy rather than habit.

The older nurse, whose only interest seemed to be that of doing her job as efficiently and rudely as possible, removed the sheet that had been covering Cheryl’s stomach and upper body, causing a shudder to roll across her shoulders as the cool air blowing down from the vent surrounded her.  Out of the furthest corner of her eye, she noticed Jack shifting his feet as the woman began wiping away the blood from her thighs and perineum.  She touched the sleeve of his shirt to get his attention.  “Would you mind calling my parents?  I know they’re dying to hear back from you.”

A look of gratitude, mixed with embarrassment, flooded Jack’s face as he gave Cheryl a small nod.  His blond locks fell against her forehead as he bent down and placed a well-meaning but fragile kiss upon her lips.  “It’s all over,” he whispered.

Cheryl’s sight grew blurry as she watched him turn and walk towards the door with his right arm pressed tight against his side.  The tears that had pooled in the rims of her eyelids silently began to spill down her cheeks.  It was far from over.

 

 

Chapter Two

 

 

Katie Winstead sank to her knees and heaved, emptying the morning’s breakfast into the bowl below as her fingers grasped the rim of the porcelain.  Before she could draw a breath, her gag reflex kicked in, sending another glob of the acidic bile up her throat.

When she was finished, she fell back against the wall and closed her eyes, doing her best to ward off the impending tears as she pulled her knees to her chest.  Her life hadn’t exactly turned out the way she’d planned, and she found herself resentful of the choice that she was being forced to make—along with the reason why.  A sudden shudder tore through her as she thought about the consequences, and the painful reality that no matter what she decided, the outcome was going to hurt her either way.

There was a soft knock upon the door.  “Katie?” said a still, small voice.

Jerking her head up, Katie was relieved to see that she had at least managed to turn the lock behind her, as the last thing she needed at the moment was for the girl that worked for her to come in here and find her sobbing on the floor.

Another knock sounded—its tone louder and more forceful than the previous one.  “Katie?”

“What is it, Mary?” she answered, reaching up to flush the toilet.

“The guy’s here to fix the oven.”

“All right,” she said, wiping her eyes, “I’ll be out in a minute.”  Using the top of the tank for leverage, Katie pulled herself to her feet and stepped over to the sink.  Making a cup with her hands, she hurriedly splashed the water on her face, letting its coolness soothe the burning in her cheeks.

After using a paper napkin to absorb her remaining tears, she drew a deep breath and opened the door, hoping that the red blotches on her face would go overlooked.  The pretend smile she had placed on her lips immediately began to waver, however, as the smell of her own pastries brought on another bout of nausea.  Swallowing hard, she forced the corners of her mouth to stay in an upright position as she strode across the floor.

The morning rush was over, but there was still enough of a crowd to make the short walk to the kitchen uncomfortable.  Subtle glances, sharp looks, and loud whispers were cast in her direction as she passed by table after table.  Quickening her pace, Katie slipped behind the counter and lunged herself through the open doorway, where she found a man’s large posterior sticking out of her lower oven.  She cleared her throat to get his attention.  “Did you find the problem?”

Upon hearing her voice, the man wriggled backwards and got to his feet.  “I’ve got good news and bad news,” he said, hitching up his pants.  “Which do you want first?”

“It doesn’t matter,” Katie replied, being in no mood to mince words.

A frown formed upon his pudgy lips, seeming disappointed that she wasn’t going to play along.  “Your heating element’s gone out.”

“How soon can you replace it?” she asked pointedly.

“Well, that’s the bad news,” he replied, scratching at the black stubble that was running amok on his face.  “This is an older model.  I’ll have to order the part.”

Katie bit down on the inside of her cheek.  His inability to give her a straight answer was why she hated repairmen in general.  “How soon?” she repeated.

“The company I deal with is usually pretty quick,” he said, letting his eyes roam along her chest as he spoke.

She gathered the ends of her cardigan together and crossed her arms.  “So, does that mean you’ll have it by tomorrow…or the next day…”

“Should be here by Friday,” he said, bending down to gather up his tools, “but no later than Monday.”

Katie stifled a sigh, doing her best to hide her irritation.  “Will you let me know the minute it comes in?”

“Sure will.”  He picked up his toolbox and turned around.  “You know, I used to repair this for the previous owners all the time.”

“Really?” she said, feigning interest.

He patted the side of the oven affectionately and nodded.  “There’s probably not a part in her that I haven’t replaced or fixed.”

That explained a lot.  “Is that a fact?”

“Sure is.  They ran the place for twenty years, you know.”

“No, I wasn’t aware,” said Katie, glancing at the clock on the wall.  She needed to get busy baking for the afternoon crowd, and with only one oven, it was going to take twice as long.  She began edging her way towards the door.  “Well, thank you for coming—”

“Yeah, they were the nicest couple you could ever hope to meet,” he said, resting his hand against the oven.  “Bob handled the business end, while his wife, Opal, did all the baking.”  He looked past Katie’s shoulder, focusing his eyes on the contents behind the counter.  “She used to make the best doughboys.”

Katie resisted the urge to shiver as she watched him licking the drool off his lower lip.  “Well, I can’t say if mine are better, but you’re welcome to have some—on the house, of course.”

The man’s chin disappeared into the rolls of fat surrounding his neck as he gave her a grin.  “That’s really nice of you, thanks.”

“It’s my pleasure,” she said, hoping that he would put forth as much effort into fixing her oven as he had in finagling a free snack.

Making her way out front, Katie plucked five doughboys from behind the glass, yet as she began placing them inside a paper sack, she found herself wishing that she could just shove them into his meaty little hands instead.  It wasn’t that she minded giving away her items—it was the fact that the bag, which was pink in color and had her logo printed on it, cost more than the doughboys themselves did.  “Here you are,” she said, forcing a smile.

He brought the bag to his nose and breathed in.  “They smell wonderful.”

“Well, I hope you enjoy them,” she replied, walking him to the door.  “And you’ll call me as soon as you know about the part?”

“Oh, sure thing.”  He stepped out onto the sidewalk and gave her a nod.  “Have a nice day now.”

Katie let the door swing closed on its own and watched as he hurriedly threw his tools in the side of the van before opening up his prize.  In one bite, the five little doughboys were decapitated and then devoured.  It reminded her of the scene with the giant from The Odyssey—the only difference being, the repairman had two bulging eyes instead of one.  Her revulsion turned to anger when he crumpled the sack in his fist before tossing it into a nearby trashcan.

He then climbed into his van and, after taking a moment to lick his fingers, started the engine and pulled away from the curb, giving her an unobscured—and unwanted—view of the police station across the street.  Unable to turn away, Katie felt her eyes being drawn to the plate-glass window to the left of the station’s concrete steps.

The back of her throat began to ache as she remembered how she used to stand in this very spot, wondering if Nathan could see her from his office.  She would occasionally catch sight of him running down the steps on his way to answer a call; his long and slender frame would be rigid as he hurried towards his truck, yet his brown locks would be flopping loosely above his brow.

“Katie?  There’s a reporter for you on the phone.  He says he’s with the Billings Gazette.”

Katie pressed her fingers against the glass, desperately trying to keep him in her sight.

“Katie?”

Nathan’s image faded as quickly as it had come, escaping through the gaping hole in her heart.  “Please take a message for me,” she said, wiping at her eyes.  Upon hearing Mary’s retreating footsteps, Katie reluctantly turned and began heading towards the kitchen, but the burning sensation in her stomach, combined with the wide-eyed stares from her customers, made her stop.  After doing an abrupt, and rather awkward, about-face, she strolled as casually as she could into the women’s bathroom and locked the door, where she once more assumed the position in front of the toilet.

~

The heat rising from off the sidewalk wrapped itself around Jack’s legs making them feel unusually heavy.  It had been a record-breaking July, and they were on their tenth day in a row of hitting above ninety, with no relief in sight.

Several people nodded at him as they trudged by, the look on their faces bordering on miserable.  He cast his eyes downward, knowing that the heat wasn’t the only reason for their despair.

He stumbled slightly as he started making his way up the wide, concrete steps that led to the station house—only to do it twice more.  He shook his head as he grabbed onto the rail.  Although his feet knew every inch of these steps by heart, they seemed to be having a great deal of trouble navigating them this afternoon.

Upon finally reaching the top, he paused outside the wooden door, finding that his emotions, as well as his breath, were bound up inside of him like a rubber band.  Without warning, his whole body began to tremble, making him realize that it had been a mistake in coming here.  He had halfway turned to go when he noticed a familiar figure standing on the sidewalk below.

“Oh, man!” exclaimed Si Hoskins, trotting up the steps.  “Are you ever a sight for sore eyes!”

Jack extended his hand as he drew near, but when he saw that Hoskins was barreling towards him with his arms open wide, dropped his right elbow against his side and braced himself.  A jarring pain resonated through him as Hoskins wrapped him in a massive bear hug.  “How are you, Si?” he managed to squeak out.

“A heck of a lot better now,” he answered, letting him go.  “How have you been?”

Jack reached for the rail again to steady himself.  “I’m doing all right,” he replied, trying his best to sound convincing.

The grin embedded in Hoskins’s face faltered as he lowered his arms.  “Let’s get out of this heat,” he said, opening the door.

Jack remained where he was, more certain than ever that he didn’t want to go inside.

“Come on,” Hoskins said, pulling him along.  “You’re gonna make Norma’s day.”

A blast of cool air surrounded Jack, but did nothing to stop the perspiration that was rapidly forming underneath his collar, as he followed Hoskins through the door.

Upon seeing him, Norma gave him a big smile and wave before returning her attention to the caller on the phone.  “How long ago?” she asked, impatiently motioning at Si with her free hand.  “Mmm-hmm…”

Hoskins turned away, ignoring her.  “So what brings you by?”

Jack concentrated on keeping his focus on Hoskins’s face as he reached into his pocket, and although his eyes did what he told them to, he could still make out the edges of Nathan’s office with his peripheral vision.  The rubber band inside of him wound itself tighter, forcing his emotions to the top.  “I wanted to give you this,” he said in a voice that was dangerously close to breaking.

Hoskins looked down at the cigar with the pink band of paper wrapped around the middle of it and began to shake his head.  “Are you kiddin’ me?”

A small laugh, as welcome as it was needed, fell from Jack’s lips.  “Nope.  Six pounds, four ounces.”

“Jack!”  Norma hung up the phone and hurried over to where he was standing.  “How are you?”

“Good,” he replied, bending down to accept her firm but gentle hug.

“Aww, he’s better than good,” said Hoskins, slipping the cigar into his pocket.  “Tell her, Collins.”

She drew back to look at him.  “Tell me what?”

“Let me show you.”  Jack pushed a couple of buttons on his cell phone and held it up for her to see.

Norma fingered the glasses that hung from a small chain around her neck and squinted at the tiny screen.  “Oh, my goodness!” she exclaimed.  “When did this happen?”

“About seven this morning,” said Jack with a grin.

Taking the phone from him, Norma began swiping through the pictures one by one with her thumb.  Every so often, she would pause to put her hand over her heart and sigh.  “She’s just adorable,” she said, shaking her head.

“Yeah,” Hoskins chimed in, peering over her shoulder.  “It’s a good thing she doesn’t look like you, Collins.”

Norma flapped her elbow at him, making him move away.  “How’s Cheryl?”

“She’s doing fine,” replied Jack.

Once Norma got to the end of the pictures, she started scrolling back through them the other way.  “She’s got your mouth,” she said after a moment.

Jack bent down to study the screen.  “You think so?”

“Your nose, too.”

Hoskins craned his neck to see as well, but Norma turned so he couldn’t.  “You need to get over to Fifth and Main,” she said flatly.  “There’s an accident, no injuries.”

“It’s hotter than blazes out there,” he retorted, giving her a scowl.

She looked up from the phone and arched a pencil-drawn eyebrow at him.  “Well, it’s no picnic in here, either.”

The door to the chief’s office suddenly swung open, making Jack turn his head.  For just the briefest of seconds, he truly expected to see Nathan come walking out of it.  Bitter reality quickly set in, however, at the sight of the heavy-set man standing in the doorway.

“Norma,” he said in a booming voice, “I need to see you for a moment.”

Her brow began to droop.  “See what I mean?” she muttered.  “Coming, Sheriff.”

Jack watched her short but stout legs carry her across the floor and over to Art Driscoll, a retired sheriff from neighboring Wibaux County, who had been appointed the interim chief of police by the mayor.  Jack had heard several people around town describe Driscoll as an ex-marine with a no-nonsense type personality, and—judging from the heavy sigh that was rolling out of Hoskins’s mouth—guessed it to be true.

Driscoll’s eyes went sharply from Norma to Jack, narrowing in on him like a hawk spying its prey.  “You must be Collins,” he said, starting towards him.  “I’ve heard a lot of good things about you.”

“Likewise,” replied Jack, noticing that he looked a lot taller from a distance.

The sheriff let his hands settle on his waist, which was twice as wide as the rest of him.  “I didn’t expect to see you back at work so soon,” he said, running his gaze down the length of Jack’s body.  “Have you been cleared for duty?”

“Uh…no,” Jack replied, returning his cell phone to his pocket.  “I just stopped by to see everyone.”

“He became a daddy this morning,” Hoskins added, slapping him between his shoulder blades.  He did it with such force that Jack had to take a step forward to keep his balance.

“Is that right?”  The corners of Driscoll’s mouth curled upwards.  “Well…I guess congratulations are in order, then.”

Seeing the pretentiousness behind his smile, Jack remained silent.

“What room is Cheryl in?”

Jack shifted his attention back to Norma.  “414.”

“I’ll stop by after work and see her.”

“I’m sure she’d like that,” said Jack, catching a glimpse of the annoyed look that had begun to form on Driscoll’s face.

“Can I bring her anything when I do?” continued Norma.

Before Jack could answer her, the telephone rang, sending her scurrying across the floor to get it.

“Well, it was good meeting you, Collins, but as you can see,” Driscoll said, waving a hand at nothing in particular, “we’re pretty busy here, being understaffed and all.”

Jack felt his cheeks flush.

Seeming satisfied that he’d made his point, Driscoll turned and followed after Norma.  “Where did you put yesterday’s arrest report?”

“Silver Creek Police Department, please hold.”  She put her hand over the receiver and pointed to Nathan’s office.  “It’s on your desk.”

Where on my desk?”

“In the top tray.”

“I didn’t see it.  Are you sure it’s not on yours?” he countered, gesturing at the cluttered stack of papers that lay scattered in front of her.

Having no desire to watch Driscoll humiliate her any further, Jack pivoted around and started for the door.

“Wait up, Collins.”

Jack slowed his pace, allowing Hoskins to catch up to him, but refused to look back.

Once they had made it outside, Si waited for the door to swing closed before speaking.  “That guy’s a piece of work, ain’t he?” he remarked, shaking his head.

Jack didn’t answer.  He didn’t want to talk about Driscoll any more than he wanted to think about the reason he was here.

An uneasy silence drifted between them, making both men shift their feet.

Hoskins reached up to wipe away the sweat that had already accumulated on his forehead.  “I swear, when I retire, I’m movin’ to Alaska.”

Jack forced a smile.  “Is that a fact?”

“Mark my words,” said Hoskins, nodding as he let his right hand rest on his Glock.

Jack’s hand involuntarily went to do the same—only to find his belt.  His fingers slid awkwardly along it before dropping to his side.

Hoskins’s expression suddenly became no different from that of the people who were roaming the sidewalks.  “I’ve gotta go,” he said, starting down the steps.  “Be sure and give Cheryl a hug for me.”

“Si, wait,” Jack said, remembering that he hadn’t come here just to give him a cigar.  “I have a favor to ask you.”

He stopped and turned.  “Sure thing.”

Jack glanced towards the street for a moment, trying to gather his thoughts.  When he looked back, Hoskins was staring at him expectantly.  “I want to read the report from the Scobey Police.”

Hoskins began scratching the side of his neck with the tip of his index finger.  Jack knew this was something that he did when he was trying to think of an excuse.  “Driscoll has it,” he finally replied.

“Can you get me a copy?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Why not?”

Hoskins did a bad job of pretending to notice the time on his watch.  “I’ve got to go.”

Jack scrambled down the steps after him.  “I need to see it, Si,” he said, putting his hand against his chest.

“I’m not sure you do,” he replied in a raspy voice.  “At least…not right now.”

“Have you read it?”

Hoskins’s face grew solemn, telling him that he had.  “Go home, Collins,” he said with a sigh.  “Go enjoy bein’ a daddy.  There’ll be plenty of time for stuff like this when you get back.”

The right side of Jack’s face began to burn, and he didn’t know if it was from the heat, or from the anger that was starting to swirl inside him.  Whatever the reason, he felt his jaw tighten as he watched Hoskins hurrying across the sidewalk towards his truck.

 

 

Chapter Three

 

 

Katie took a moment to wipe the perspiration from her upper lip before pulling the sleeves of her cardigan down.  She then grabbed her purse from the front seat of her car and proceeded to walk across the parking lot, hoping she would go unnoticed.

The sliding glass doors of Memorial Hospital made a swishing noise as they invited her in, and having never been here before, she paused a moment to get her bearings.  To her immediate left was a set of elevators with a directory mounted between them; to her right stood a small gift shop.  Deciding it would be best not to make the visit empty-handed, she started towards the store.  The smell of stale potpourri and scented candles instantly assaulted her as she walked inside, making the outer edges of her nostrils burn.

“Good afternoon.”

Katie turned in the direction the voice had come from and gave a slight nod to the salesclerk.  “Hello.”

“Can I help you find something in particular?”

“I’m looking for a baby gift.”

“Right this way.”  The woman stepped out from behind the counter and motioned for her to follow.  Her black stilettos made a distinct clicking noise upon the tile floor as she led Katie down a narrow aisle and stopped.  “Here we are,” she said, extending her hands as if she were showing her a piece of fine furniture.

Katie frowned as she looked at the slim selection of outfits hanging sadly in front of her.

“Is this for a boy or girl?”

“Girl.”

The clerk tucked a strand of silky gray hair behind her twenty-four carat studded ear lobe and took a step closer.  “Well, we have some beautiful sleepers,” she said, touching one of the pink ones with her exquisitely manicured nails.

Feeling underdressed, and somewhat unkempt, Katie folded her fingers inside her palms as she studied the choices.  “I’ll need a moment to decide,” she said, hoping that would prompt her to go back to her perch behind the counter.

The clerk’s eyes narrowed, causing the skin around them to crinkle.  It was a subtle movement, but Katie felt her heart skip a beat nonetheless.  Slowly, but surely, the smile disappeared from the woman’s thin lips.  “Take your time,” she finally said.

Wanting to do nothing of the sort, Katie grabbed the sleeper, along with a pink-and-white polka-dotted gift bag, and handed them to her.  “These will do fine,” she replied.

With deliberate steps that enabled her slender hips to swing back and forth, the clerk carried the items over to the register and rang them up in silence.  “That will be fifteen even.”

Katie scowled, chastising herself for not having looked at the price tag first.  It wasn’t that she minded spending the money, it was the fact that this flimsy piece of clothing could have been bought elsewhere for half that.

The woman ran her long red talons over the raised letters of Katie’s credit card before swiping it.  “Will that be all, Ms. Winstead?

“That’s it,” she answered, snatching the garment and bag from the counter.

“Would you like your receipt?”

Pretending that she hadn’t heard her, Katie took the longest strides that her short legs could make as she headed for the exit.  Marching over to the elevators, she stabbed the button repeatedly with her thumb while searching the directory for the Maternity Ward.

When the elevator finally arrived, she stepped inside and moved towards the back, allowing the crowd of people that had gathered behind her to file in as well.  After countless buttons had been pushed, the finger-smudged doors slowly slid closed and all eyes rose upwards to watch the light jump from floor to floor.

The small space was cramped and hot, and didn’t particularly smell all that great.  It was late in the afternoon, and having been on her feet for the last thirteen hours, the only thing Katie really wanted to do was go home.  Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed that the middle-aged woman standing to her left was staring at her.  Katie tightened her grip on the gift bag, doing her best to ignore her, but more glances quickly followed suit.

Katie sighed inwardly.  It had been two weeks, yet she was still just as popular as ever.  She pursed her lips.  Popular really wasn’t the right word to use in this instance; she was more of an anomaly—a freak.  Her claim to fame?  She was the only surviving victim of serial killer Sam Bryant.  She felt her face turning red as the stares, some sympathetic—others unforgiving—began coming at her from all directions.

The elevator groaned to a halt and chimed.

“Excuse me, please,” Katie said, making her way to the front.  As she stepped out onto the fourth floor, she could hear the whispers starting before the doors ever slid closed.  Swallowing her anger, she walked up to the counter and waited for the woman in the chair to acknowledge her.

“May I help you?”

“Yes, what room is Cheryl Collins in, please?”

The nurse peered down at her computer screen and typed in the name.  “414. You go right around that corner and make a left,” she said, pointing the way.

Katie gave her an appreciative nod and began walking once more.

Two nurses, both dressed in purple scrubs and tennis shoes, eyed her curiously as they passed her in the corridor.  “That’s the girl that Nathan Sommers saved before he died,” said one to the other in a hushed tone.

Katie picked up her pace as she scanned the doorways for the number the woman had given her.  Finally, she saw a piece of white tape with Cheryl’s last name printed on it and ducked inside.

Cheryl looked over, startled.

“Are you up for visitors?” she asked, feeling out of breath.

“Absolutely,” Cheryl said, waving her in.  “Did Jack call you?”

Katie shook her head, wondering why she would even think that.  “No.  Norma did.”

“Oh.”

“How are you?” she asked, forcing her feet to move farther into the room.  “Is the baby okay?”

“We’re both fine,” Cheryl answered, reaching up to give her a hug.

Katie reluctantly leaned forward, letting her embrace her.  “You look wonderful.”

Cheryl laughed as she pulled back.  “I’m a mess,” she replied, running her fingers through her matted hair.

Katie set the gift bag on the bed, trying to stave off the onslaught of silence that had already begun circling the room.  “This is for Lydia.”

Peering inside, Cheryl pulled out the fuzzy pink sleeper and held it up.  “It’s beautiful!  Thank you!”

Katie smiled, delighted that she liked it, and yet, at the same time, ashamed that she’d only spent a few seconds picking it out.  Her friend deserved better.

“My daughter will look very stylish while she naps,” she continued, running a finger along the embroidering on the front.

It was just about then that Katie noticed the price tag dangling from one of the tiny sleeves.  “Here.”  She plucked the outfit from Cheryl’s hands and stuffed it back inside the bag.  “I’ll put it over here where it’s out of your way.”

“Thanks.”

“You’re welcome.”

“I’m really glad you came,” Cheryl said, settling back against the pillow.  “It’s been a while.”

Katie let go of the bag and nodded, knowing exactly how long it had been.

“How are things at the bakery?”

“Good,” Katie answered, eyeing the bag as it sat on the nightstand beside the bed.  She soon found herself wishing that she could remove the tag without Cheryl’s knowledge.

“Are you staying busy?”

“Mmm-hmm.”  Maybe she would have to go to the bathroom.  That would give her ample time.

“How’s everything else?”

“Everything’s good,” she said absently, still thinking.

“Really?”

Katie stopped and swung her eyes over to Cheryl, knowing that her line of questioning was about to turn personal.  “How’s Jack?” she blurted, hoping to derail her.

“He’s doing better.”

“I guess he’s thrilled about becoming a father.”

Cheryl gave a short laugh.  “Thrilled, nervous, unprepared…”

“Has he gone back to work, yet?” asked Katie, continuing to steer the conversation.

Cheryl lowered her eyes and shook her head.  “No.  Not yet.”

The silence that had been circling above let loose, falling on top of them with an audible thud.

The two of them had not seen or spoken to one another since the funeral, and it was painfully obvious—at least it was to Katie—that being here only served as a bitter memorial for what had happened.

Cheryl fussed with her covers before making what appeared to be a stiff gesture.  “Why don’t you have a seat?”

Katie’s mind immediately began searching for any plausible excuse not to, but when she realized that leaving at this point would appear insensitive, begrudgingly sat down in the padded chair.

“So, how’s your cat…Lester?”

“It’s Lance, and he’s fine,” Katie replied, feeling embarrassed to be talking about her cat, and yet at the same time, angry that Cheryl couldn’t even remember his name.

“Did you get your car back from Scobey?”

“Last week.”

Cheryl shifted her gaze to the window, seeming to grapple for what to say next.

Katie grappled too, and with the exception of a long held sigh, came up empty.  Cheryl was the first friend she’d made after moving to Silver Creek; now, she was her only friend—and the fact that she couldn’t carry on a normal conversation with her simply confirmed what she had been denying in her heart for the past few weeks.  She tucked a wisp of hair behind her ear as she began to regret the impulsiveness in her decision to come here.

“Hello?”

Throwing her thoughts to the side, Katie turned excitedly in her chair, hoping that the voice belonged to one of Cheryl’s umpteen girlfriends, yet her dreams of making a quick escape were dashed when she saw a nurse pushing a clear bassinet towards the bed.  Scooting out of her way, Katie couldn’t help but smile as she looked inside it.  “She’s absolutely beautiful,” she whispered.

“Well, I think she is,” replied Cheryl as the nurse placed the baby in her waiting arms.  “But I might be a little biased.”

As the nurse left the room, Katie found herself reaching out to touch the fine layering of blonde hair that was peeking out from the top of the receiving blanket.  It wasn’t long before her mind became transfixed on the tiny life growing inside of her…as well as what would become of it.

“Katie?”

“Hmm?” she answered, rubbing her chin to disguise the fact that it was trembling.

“Would you like to hold her?”

Katie shook her head and smiled, hoping that the gesture would stop the stinging sensation in her eyes.  “I don’t want to intrude on your time with her.”

“Oh, please,” said Cheryl.  “I’ve got the rest of my life to be with her.”

Hiding her dismay that Cheryl hadn’t gotten the hint, Katie reluctantly got to her feet.  Leaning forward, she reached out to take the baby, but as she did, the left sleeve of her cardigan slid backwards, exposing the dark, jagged lines that encompassed her wrist.  She was able to grab hold of the sleeve with her other hand and pull it down, but not before giving Cheryl an eyeful.  Her awkward movements woke Lydia, who started to fuss—then cry.

Feeling ill equipped to handle such a thing, Katie promptly gave her back to Cheryl, whose face now bore a look of abject sorrow, mixed with pity.  Desiring neither of those things, Katie straightened up and turned away.  “I need to be getting home.”

Cheryl reached out and caught her by the hand.  “I’m so sorry.”

“I know you are,” she said, fighting to keep her voice even.

“I wish there was something I could do.”

“Well, there’s not,” said Katie, pulling out of her grasp.  “There’s nothing that you can do to bring him back, and there’s nothing you can say to me that’s going to make it all better—”  She stopped, startled by the harshness of her own words.

Cheryl’s eyes grew moist.  “I know that,” she said loud enough to be heard over the baby’s cries, “but I can’t stand seeing you this way.”

“I should go,” Katie replied, grabbing her purse from off the back of the chair.

“Wait…”

Reaching over the bedrail for Cheryl’s hand, Katie gave it a squeeze.  “It’s been a really long day, and I just need to go home.”

Cheryl swallowed hard and nodded.  “Thanks for coming.”

Katie slid the strap of her purse over her shoulder and forced a smile that she did not feel.  “I’ll see you soon,” she said.  As she turned towards the door, she was amazed at how easily the lie had rolled off her tongue.

Stepping into the corridor, the gawks and murmurs immediately resumed, making Katie wish she had the power of invisibility.  She made her way towards the elevator pretending not to notice, but she’d have to have been deaf as well as blind, not to.

She slipped through the doors of the elevator and, upon finding it empty, sank against the wall.  Although she knew how much she had hurt Cheryl just now, she also knew that it was something that needed to be said.  Her friend had this irritating habit of wanting to fix people.  Some would call it a sweet affliction, but Katie saw it for what it was—a savior complex.  As she wiped at the corners of her eyes, she couldn’t help noting the bitter irony of Cheryl’s plight.  The one person who truly needed fixing was Jack, and yet the last few times Katie had seen him, he’d seemed beyond repair.


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