The Complete Woman Excerpt
Vanessa - December 1969
THE ANXIETY THAT had stabbed at the center of Natalia’s chest since getting the phone call amplified tenfold as she rushed past the ambulance in the emergency bay. Lights rotating like a beacon in the night, the paramedics unloaded the man gasping deeply for oxygen his injured body starved for between moans of pain. He was middle-aged, with peppered hair mussed around an aging face, creased with the roadmap of life. The sheet that cocooned him was stained red.
Natalia felt her stomach turn, and the bile rise to her throat.
Swallow. Swallow. Swallow.
She wondered how the two guarding police officers flanking the ambulance were able to stand there with an expression of absolute indifference as the paramedics wheeled the man off.
For one heady moment she thought that could have been Vanessa, and the sick ball at the pit of her stomach tightened. She breathed for calm, once, twice. As composed as she could manage to get, Natalia made her way past the unmarked police cars, the gawkers, cameras and flashbulbs through the sliding doors. Bulleting past the emergency waiting room, she made a dash for the nursing station.
“I’m looking for someone who was brought in by ambulance an hour ago,” Natalia said to the woman behind the desk when the mast of flaming red hair rose. Her vibrant blue eyes, set in a face speckled with freckles, were far chipper than Natalia expected.
Behind Natalia, the soft moans from an elderly woman in a wheelchair, her hand tightly pressed to her chest, mingled with the assuring words from her kneeling daughter. A mother in examination room A rocked her baby in her arms as fatigued eyes begging for sleep looked down in worry. One room over, a man gently patted his wife on the back when she tried to regain breath after the coughing bout she’d just endured. In the distance, the wail of an incoming ambulance got louder and louder as it neared the emergency bay.
“What’s the patient’s name?” Red asked.
“Vanessa Roberts,” Natalia said.
Red tapped a pencil on the clipboard as she scanned it. “Just a moment, please. I need to check with her nurse,” she said, turning to the plump brunette in the blinding white, uniform at the end of the counter. “Margie, do you know if Roberts has been taken up to ICU yet?”
Natalia’s heart took one hard leap into her throat. “ICU? Why is she being taken to ICU?”
Setting pencil and clipboard down, Red swiveled back to Natalia, and shot a sidelong glance in her direction. “Are you family?”
“I’m her sister,” Natalia nervously stammered, and Red cocked a dubious brow. “I need to see her, please. I need to make sure she’s okay.”
The questioning brow still raised Red said, “Let me see what I can do.”
After a short, one-sided telephone conversation with the head nurse in ICU, Red hung up and looked up at Natalia. “You can go upstairs to the ICU waiting room. Take the elevator down the hall to the eighteenth floor.”
“Do you know which doctor is looking after her?” Natalia’s voice trembled.
“Dr. Steward. She’s one of our best neurologists. Your sister is in good hands,” Red said.
The thump of panic reached deep into Natalia’s chest. “Neurologist?”
“Our best, and they’ll answer all your questions upstairs.”
Natalia managed an appreciative smile, and made her way to the bank of elevators where she boarded the first one to ping. Pressing the designated floor, she watched the numbers above her light up—fifteen…sixteen…seventeen—at an alarming slow pace. The ride felt interminable.
The moment the elevator doors slid open on the eighteenth floor, Natalia came face to face with the worried look on the slate gray eyes that magnified every thought in her head. “How is she, Tom? Have you seen her? What happened? Why is she here?”
Tom’s raven black, thick hair looked as if it had seen a few too many rakes of his fingers. “No, I haven’t seen or know how she is. They told me to wait here for the doctor. That was an hour ago.” His tall, slender body hunched as he exchanged an anxious look with Natalia.
“Why don’t we head into the waiting room?” Tom asked.
“Sure, fine. Lead the way.” Natalia followed him into the waiting room although she sensed that sitting and waiting was the last thing he wanted to do. It was the last thing she wanted to do.
The room was small and devoid of human life. Walls were washed in white, and gray carpeting lay at their feet. A black framed clock marking the hour of ten thirty p.m. hung on one wall and a framed colorful print—the only semblance of color in the drab room—of an Italian promenade on the other. A muted television sitting on a shelf in one corner played the words, “I’m loving it,” and below it, a square wood table held an assortment of weathered magazines. The wide unblinded window overlooked a sparsely trafficked University Avenue blanketed in snow.
Natalia took a seat in one of the padded green chairs lined against the wall, and Tom followed suit and sank his long frame into the chair next to her. The familiar hospital stench of antiseptic, despair, and sickness seeped deep into Natalia like the tentacles of a stinging jellyfish.
“Why is she up here? Why the ICU, Tom?” She kept her anxious eyes direct on him.
He pressed his fingers to his eyes; his handsome face brimmed with worry. “I was in the emergency room with her for a while. We were talking. She was alert, coherent, and then out of nowhere she went into a seizure. The doctors and nurses swarmed her bed, and after several minutes managed to stabilize her. She seemed fine for a half hour or so. We spoke at length. She was giving me instructions. I’m her solicitor, and the only one here,” he said when Natalia’s brows creased. “I was holding her hand when she began to grip it tighter and tighter.”
He remained silent for a moment, swallowing hard. “Then she released her hold of my hand and began to convulse again, this time more violently. They called a code blue and the medical team sprinted to her bed. I heard instructions, and unintelligible codes called out. Who the hell knew what they were saying.” In a gesture of pure frustration, he dragged a hand through his hair.
“After twenty-five minutes of watching this unfold before me, I watched her wheeled past me. She was so…pale, so…lifeless.” Tom stopped for breath. “They told me they were transferring her to the ICU. They told me to wait here, that they would be out to update me as soon as they could. That was eons ago.”
The shudder of fear working up her spine, Natalia reached for Tom’s hand. “She’ll be fine, Tom. She’ll be just fine. She’s stronger than any of us,” she said in the most reassuring tone she could muster.
The tears spilling hot, Natalia’s eyes drifted to the swirling snow outside the window and let her mind drift back in time.
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