Lily is really excited about the crabs, the same way she’s excited about nearly everything Noah does or says. I thought she’d be thrilled to have some one-on-one time with him, but when they’re getting ready to go down to the lake, she bounces into my bedroom and says, “You ready to come with us, Mommy?”
I look up from my sketchpad. I’ve been drawing Katy the Waitress and I quickly turn the page so Lily won’t see. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. Especially because I made Katy look quite hideous.
“Um,” I say, “I think I might stick around here. You can go with Noah yourself.”
Of all the bad things I can say about Noah right now, I definitely trust him with my daughter. If there were a maniac firing a gun around the lake, I haven’t the slightest doubt he’d throw himself in front of the bullets to save her. That’s the kind of Boy Scout he is.
“Noah said you should come,” Lily says.
I frown. “He did?”
She shrugs. “He said, ‘We’re leaving. Go get your mom.’”
He probably thinks I wouldn’t want her to go without me, which is understandable. I put down my sketchpad and head out to the living room, to tell Noah I’m staying behind, but he’s already at the door, waving the two of us through.
“Come on,” he’s saying. “Let’s go! Let’s go!”
“Um…” I look down at my bare feet. “I’m not wearing shoes, so…”
He looks at me like I’m a moron. “So put on your shoes. Come on, it’s getting late. I want to empty the trap.”
I don’t want to start arguing, so I put on my sandals. As I’m heading for the door, I notice a crumpled napkin lying on top of the garbage bin. The napkin has a phone number on it.
So he isn’t going to call Katy after all.
There’s a bucket on the patio, which Noah picks up and hands to Lily. “This is how we’re going to carry the crabs,” he tells her. “How about you carry it there, and I’ll carry it back.”
“I can carry it back!” Lily insists.
“It’s going to be a lot heavier on the way back,” he says. “Also, the crabs are going to be alive and I don’t want one of them to pinch you.” He glances up at me. “Your mom would kill me.”
Lily shoots me an accusing look. I think she likes him better than she likes me.
Before Noah steps off the patio, he picks up a simple black cane that’s leaning against the side. Up until now, he seemed capable of walking without a device without any problem. So it’s surprising to see him pick up that cane. His eyes meet mine for a second, as if daring me to comment. I don’t.
Lily is another story.
“What are you using a cane for?” she speaks up. “That’s for old people.”
He grins at her. “I’m old.”
“No, you’re not,” she says. Then she amends, “Well, you’re a little old. Like Mommy. But you’re not very old.”
“Aw, thanks.” He looks down at the cane. “I’m using it because there’s no pavement here and it helps me keep my balance.”
“Why do you need help keeping your balance?”
Noah hesitates for a second. “See, Lily, the reason I sometimes have trouble balancing is because I have bionic legs.”
Lily frowns. “Bubonic legs?”
He smiles crookedly. “No, bionic. Like, robot legs.”
She looks down at his legs, then back up at his face. Her own face breaks out into a smile. “No, you don’t! You’re foolin’ me!”
“I do,” he insists. He glances at me, then he picks up the right leg of his pants to reveal the narrow metal rod that’s now where his shin would have been. Then he picks up the other side of his pants to reveal the same exact thing. Lily’s blue eyes turn into saucers.
“Are you a robot?” she breathes.
Noah laughs. “No, I’m not. But I do have robot legs.”
“That’s so…” I hold my breath, waiting to hear what Lily’s going to say. “That’s so cool!”
And then she looks up at him in a way that makes me think she loves him even more than she did a minute ago. After all, not only is he handsome, but he’s also a robot. Which is better, somehow.
We follow Noah down to the dock where the crab traps are set up, and there are also a bunch of moderately sized motor boats tied up.
“Which boat is yours?” Lily asks Noah.
He points down the pier at one of the smaller white boats. There’s room in the front of it for two people to sit, then room in the back for another two or three people. It’s far from being a yacht, but it looks like it would be fun to ride around in that boat. Not that I would suggest such a thing.
Lily claps her hands together. “Can we go for a ride on it?”
Noah squints up at the sky. “It’s getting late. How about tomorrow? We can fish a little if you want.”
Great. Stuck on that boat for hours fishing.
The thought of it brings back memories. I glance over at Noah, wondering if he’s remembering too. But he won’t look at me.
We walk down to the end of the pier where all the crab traps are set up. Noah leans his cane against one of the poles supporting the pier, and he bends on one knee to pull the trap from inside the water. It’s basically a huge cage that is filled with live crabs. They’re crawling around inside, crazy to get out.
“So this is the fun part,” Noah says to Lily. “We have to get them out of the cage.”
Noah actually holds onto the cage for support to get back on his feet, which seems dangerous to me. Once he’s standing again, he lifts the cage in the air, opens a little door on the side, and starts shaking it out over the bucket. One by one, the crabs fall out of the cage into the bucket.
“Crabs!” Lily squeals. “Look, Mommy! They’re crawling everywhere!”
Oh my God, they are crawling everywhere. They’re squirming and trying to climb out of the bucket, and are just generally horrifying. I edge away from the bucket.
Noah raises his eyebrows at me. “You okay there, Bailey?”
“Fine!” I say, too loudly.
When the bucket is about half-full, Noah shakes the rest of the crabs out into the water to release them. Then he drops the empty trap back in the water. He starts to pick up the handle of the bucket, but then hesitates.
“Hey, Bailey,” he says. “You know, it would really help me out if you could carry this bucket.” He gestures down at his cane. “My balance isn’t very good.”
He’s lying. That bastard is lying. I can see it in the smirk on his lips. He’s not even pretending not to be lying. He just wants me to carry these stupid crabs because he knows I’m absolutely terrified of them. Well, I can play that game too.
“No problem,” I say. I pick up the bucket of crabs and immediately they all start shifting. One of them somehow climbs on top of its friends, and manages to scale the side of the bucket. I scream as it jumps ship and scurries across the pier.
In my defense, Lily screams too.
Of course, she’s six.
Noah laughs like he’s never seen anything so funny. He holds onto the side of the pier as he carefully leans forward and picks the crab up off the ground. He holds it by its shell, so that its writhing limbs don’t pinch him. He drops the crab back in the bucket as I shudder.
“I really appreciate your help,” he says to me, all wide-eyed.
Screw you, Noah. These better be the best crabs I ever tasted.
I don’t know if they’re going to be the best crabs I’ve ever tasted, but they certainly smell good. The aroma of them travels into the bedroom and distracts me from the book I’m reading. My stomach growls insistently.
Right on cue, Lily comes into the bedroom and flings herself on the bed beside me. “Mommy! Dinner’s! Ready! In! Five! Minutes!”
I don’t know why Lily sometimes feels a need to emphasize every word she says.
“Okay.” I close my book. “It smells really good.”
“I know!” Lily licks her lips. “Noah’s a really good cook.”
“Uh huh,” I mutter.
Lily leans her chin thoughtfully on her hand. “Maybe you should go out on a date with him.”
I nearly choke on the drool that’s been accumulating in my mouth since I started smelling the crabs. “A date? With Noah?”
“Yeah!” She grins at me. “If you and Noah got married, then we could come here all the time and he could cook dinner for us.”
“I don’t think Noah wants to go out on a date with me,” I say. Actually, that’s not true. I know that Noah would not want to go out on a date with me in a million years.
“I think he might,” Lily says.
Um, what does that mean?
“Why do you say that?” I ask carefully.
“I don’t know.” She shrugs her skinny shoulders. “He keeps looking at you whenever you’re not looking.”
I don’t know exactly what to make of that information. But I’m certain he’s not looking at me because he’s hoping for a date. More likely, he’s glaring at me and wondering how to tell me he wants me to leave.
Chapter: 11 YEARS EARLIER
Noah is late.
He’s usually late, if I’m being honest. He usually shows up about half an hour after the promised time, all full of apologies and kisses and good sex. Noah’s never been great at being prompt, so I can’t fault him. I’m sure he means to get on the road at the right time, but then gets distracted by something on the computer, or caught up studying for a test, or who knows. It’s fine. Considering he’s driving nearly five hours just to see me, I can’t get too angry.
Today, however, he’s two hours late. Actually, more than two hours. We’re closing in on three hours past the time he was supposed to arrive at my dorm. During the last hour, I’ve gone from angry to worried. Even though I try not to call him when he’s on the road, I’ve tried his cell phone three times. No reply.
It was snowing a few nights ago. I told Noah the roads might not be safe, but he insisted it was fine and he wanted to see me. God, I hope he’s okay.
Just when I’m about to completely lose my mind, my cell phone rings and I see Noah’s name flash on the screen. I pick up the phone, ready to give him a piece of my mind for worrying me so badly, when I hear a female voice on the other line.
“Bailey?” the voice says.
“Yes?” I reply. My stomach has twisted back into the knot that had loosened slightly when I first got the call.
“It’s Gwen,” the woman says. “Noah’s mother.”
Gwen Walsh. I met her a handful of times since Noah and I have been together. She’s a nice woman, and she seemed to like me a lot. She seems like she’ll be a good mother-in-law.
“Hi, Mrs. Walsh,” I say, because I can’t quite bring myself to call this middle-aged woman by her first name.
“Bailey,” she says, and her voice breaks on the words. “Bailey, I’m at the hospital. Noah… he’s been in an accident.”
This horrible, cold sensation overtakes my entire body. I’d tried to tell myself that it couldn’t be true, that Noah was fine. But all along, I knew it. He never would have kept me waiting this long without a call. Never.
A lump forms in my throat. He’s dead. I know it.
“I just got to the hospital,” Gwen tells me. “But… I didn’t see him. They said he’s in emergency surgery and that he’s in critical condition and…” Her voice breaks on the words, and she can’t go on.
My knees go weak. I grip the phone, sinking down onto my bed. “What hospital?”
Gwen names a hospital about two hours away from me.
“Is it all right if I come?” I ask her.
“Of course it is,” Gwen sniffles. “Bailey, he loves you so much. That’s why when they gave me his phone, I called you right away because I knew you’d be worried.” She takes a shaky breath. “When he wakes up, he’ll be happy to see you there.”
If he wakes up. “I’m on my way.”
I make it to the hospital in an hour and a half. My hands are trembling the entire way, but I keep my foot jammed on the gas pedal. I realize it would be ironic for me to get into a car accident and die while coming to see Noah after his accident, but I can’t help myself. I need to get to the hospital. I need to see him.
Gwen gave me instructions on how to find the waiting area where she’s keeping vigil until Noah is out of surgery. I have no idea what kind of surgery he’s getting. It could be absolutely anything. I try not to think about it too much, considering the last thing I need is to start getting faint right now.
I find Gwen sitting in a plastic chair in the waiting area, her strawberry-blond hair disheveled, looking ten years older than the last time I saw her. There’s a pile of magazines on the table next to her, but she’s just sitting there, staring straight ahead, her eyes red and swollen. But when she sees me, she stands up.
“Bailey!” she cries.
Then she hugs me. She hugs me even though I’m the reason Noah got in this accident. He was driving out to see me.
In the middle of our hug, Gwen starts sobbing hysterically. “They won’t tell me anything.” She pulls away from me to wipe her eyes. “For all I know, he could be…”
I swallow hard. “If it were really bad, they’d tell us, right?”
“All they said was that he was critical.” She looks in the direction of the door that leads to the operating rooms. “They said he lost a lot of blood.”
Lost a lot of blood. I sink into one of the cheap plastic chairs. I can’t think about this. I have to believe he’s going to be okay. He’ll pull through this. He’s so young—he has to.
And then I’m crying too. We’re both crying and hugging. And praying that Noah will be okay.
It’s another forty minutes before a man in his forties with a surgical cap and scrubs emerges from the back room. He has a grim look on his face. I look over at Gwen, who is getting ready to cry again. My eyes are just as swollen as hers, and I feel them welling up too.
“Mrs. Walsh?” the man asks. Gwen nods. “I’m Dr. Hoffman.”
I can’t help but think of Noah’s dream to become a surgeon. I wonder if this surgeon realizes this about the boy he was just operating on. Probably not.
“So we got him stabilized,” Dr. Hoffman says.
Gwen’s eyes spill over with tears. “You did? You mean he’s okay?”
Dr. Hoffman hesitates. “It’s still early to know for sure, but he’s most likely going to pull through.”
My knees feel weak with relief. Noah isn’t going to die. He’s going to be okay. Thank God.
“That’s so wonderful,” Gwen sobs as she grabs onto Dr. Hoffman’s arm. “Thank you so much, Doctor! Thank you for saving my son.”
The surgeon’s expression is still grim. “You have to understand though, Mrs. Walsh, his injuries are very severe.”
Gwen frowns. “But you said he’s going to live.”
Dr. Hoffman sighs. “Yes, but…”
“I don’t understand,” Gwen says. “Is he some kind of vegetable…?”
“Nothing like that,” the surgeon says quickly, although Gwen is still wary. “We scanned his brain and there was so sign of bleeding—nothing to indicate a significant brain injury. He did have a lot of blood in his lungs though, which is why we had to place a chest tube and we’re keeping him sedated and intubated for now. The major trauma, unfortunately, was to his lower extremities.”
Gwen shakes her head. “His…?”
Dr. Hoffman puts his hand on Gwen’s shoulder. “I’m sorry to tell you this, but we had to amputate his left leg above the knee. He had already lost a tremendous amount of blood through his femoral artery and by the time we got him to the table, the leg wasn’t salvageable. There was nothing we could do.”
Gwen’s mouth falls open. I understand exactly how she’s feeling. Five minutes ago, all I cared about was that Noah would live. But hearing this new piece of information is a punch in the gut. He lost his leg. He will never, ever be the same after this.
“Also,” Dr. Hoffman adds. There’s an “also”? Shit. “There were multiple fractures in his right leg as well. He had an open femoral shaft fracture, which means the bone went through the skin, and he unfortunately lost quite a bit of skin. He had a tibial shaft and tibial plateau fracture. He also has a trimalleolar ankle fracture. We placed an external fixator, but he’s looking at an extremely long recovery time for that leg.”
“But at least it’s still there,” Gwen says.
Dr. Hoffman is quiet for a moment. “Right. It’s still there.”
I can hardly listen to any of this. I’m trying my best not to imagine all these injuries, but even so, there are spots dancing before my eyes.
“Can we see him?” Gwen asks.
The surgeon nods. “We’re going to be moving him to the surgical ICU. You can see him down there.”
Part of me is hoping Dr. Hoffman will say I can’t go in because I’m not immediate family. I’m not his wife—I’m nothing. But I know that Gwen wants me with her, and nobody is trying to stop me. I’m just not sure I can handle seeing Noah like this. The thought is making me feel like I’m going to throw up.
I follow Gwen down the hallway to get to the surgical ICU. I can’t stop shaking. My whole body feels cold and horrible. She glances over at me. “Don’t worry, Bailey,” she says. “Noah got through his dad leaving us in the middle of the night, and he’s going to get through this. We’re going to get him back.”
The surgical ICU is quiet, which makes sense considering it’s two in the morning. There’s a woman manning the front desk, who gently asks us who we’re coming to see. “My son just was brought here,” Gwen tells her, in a voice stronger than I’ve heard since I arrived. “His name is Noah Walsh.”
There are no separate rooms here, only hospital beds. Three of them are occupied, and from afar, I couldn’t say which of the patients is my fiancé. They all look the same—a million tubes coming out of them, bandaged up, barely alive.
It brings back memories of my mother. When she was at her worst. When we thought the cancer might win.
“That’s him!” Gwen grips my arm.
She’s pointing to a bed at the end. Of the three patients, Noah looks the sickest. As we get closer, I see he’s got a tube coming out of his throat, taped to stay in place. He’s wearing a hospital gown with only a sheet half-heartedly covering the parts of him that aren’t injured. I count at least three tubes coming out of his body and draining off the side of the bed.
“Oh, Noah!” Gwen cries out. She runs to his side, grabbing his hand in hers. She reaches out to stroke the side of his face, at the stubble growing there. He doesn’t even flinch. “Noah, your mother is here. I’m here.”
The nurse at the desk, watching the entire encounter, speaks up, “He’s very sedated right now. He’s not going to respond to you.”
But Gwen doesn’t care. She keeps whispering to him and stroking his hand. As for me, I try my best to focus on Noah’s face. Amazingly, his face seems to have sustained very little damage. He’s got an abrasion on his cheekbone, but other than that, he looks fine. Well, aside from the tube sticking out of his mouth, pushing air into his rising and falling chest. Looking at his face makes me feel like he really might be okay.
But my eyes get drawn like a magnet to his legs. His right is clearly badly injured. It has pins sticking out of it both above and below the knee, with rods connecting the pins. If he were awake, I’d have to imagine it would be extremely painful. Everything is wrapped in gauze, but I can see the blood oozing out under the gauze.
And then there’s his left leg. Or the absence of it. Where his leg used to be, there’s only nothing. His left leg ends abruptly, mid-thigh, swathed in bandages. I see crimson staining the bandages. Dark, dark crimson. So much of it.
And that’s when I pass out.
It’s embarrassing. More than embarrassing—it almost sends me to the emergency room. The nurse saw me starting to go down and managed to catch me before I hit the floor, and then she started fussing over me like I’m one of the patients. She ended up giving me some apple juice while I sat in a corner, feeling horrible about the fact that just the sight of my fiancé made me faint.
Gwen decides to spend the night at the hospital, dozing in a recliner by her son’s bed. I offer to stay too, but it’s a relief when she insists on paying for a hotel room for me nearby. “Come back in the morning,” she says. “When you’re feeling better.”
As if I’ve got some sort of bug that knocked me out.
In the morning, I take my time. As much as I love Noah, the thought of seeing him like that again makes me queasy. But it’s not like I can leave town and not come back until he’s better. Especially since the doctor promised his recovery would be a slow process.
It’s mid-morning by the time I make it to the surgical ICU. I’ve braced myself for the worst, but when I arrive at the small unit, I get a surprise: Noah is awake, the tube out of his throat.
The head of the bed is raised so he’s partially sitting up. He has dark circles under his eyes and he’s very pale, but he’s most definitely alive. Gwen is next to him, looking exhausted but still smiling. There’s a white sheet covering his lower body, making a strange-looking tent over the pins and bars in his right leg, then falling flat over where his left leg would have been.
When Noah sees me, his face breaks into a tired half-smile. “Bailey,” he says. His voice is hoarse. “We thought you took off.”
He’s joking. He has no idea how close he is to being right.
“He took out the tube in his throat himself early this morning,” Gwen tells me. “They were going to wait another day, but as soon as the anesthetics wore off a little, he pulled it right out.”
“It was uncomfortable,” Noah says.
Gwen pats his arm. “I’m just relieved you’re awake and okay.”
Noah leans his head against his pillow and sighs. “Yeah, that’s relative.”
Gwen looks between the two of us, then stands up from the chair where she’s spent the night keeping vigil. “Let me give the two of you a little privacy. I’ll grab some food from the cafeteria.”
With Gwen out of the way, I slowly make my way to the empty seat that she had occupied. It’s better if I’m sitting. Just in case.
Noah rolls his head to look at me. He sighs and shakes his head. “I’d say you look worse than I do, Bailey, but I’m not sure that’s possible.”
“You look fine,” I say, too quickly.
“Do I?” He raises his eyebrows at me. “I heard about your little spill yesterday. The nurse blabbed.”
“Oh.” My cheeks grow warm. Why would someone tell him that? I thought I’d keep that secret from him till one of us was in the grave. “Well, you know how I am.”
“Yeah,” he mutters.
I squeeze my hands together. Aside from seeing his mangled limbs, this was the part I’d been dreading—seeing how my usually upbeat fiancé would react to something beyond horrible. And now he finds out I couldn’t even stand the sight of him last night. “I’m sorry,” I murmur. “It wasn’t… I mean, it was just hard to see…”
Noah is quiet for a long time. Long enough that my stomach starts to churn and I’m certain he hates me. When he finally speaks, he says, “I threw up.”
Huh? “What?” I say.
“When I first saw them,” he says. “My legs. I looked at them… what’s left of them… and I… I threw up.” He gestures down at them. “That’s why this sheet is here. I couldn’t stand to look at them.”
I feel a new rush of sympathy for Noah—at least I can go to the hotel and not think of what’s going on here, but he can’t escape it. Ever. I reach out and grab Noah’s hand off the bed. He slides his fingers into mine, and squeezes my palm.
“This is really fucked up,” he sighs in that hoarse voice.
I squeeze his hand. “It’s going to be okay.”
“Don’t worry,” I say. “Even if I faint every day, I’m going to be here with you through this whole thing.”
He manages a hollow laugh. “I think at some point, you might get desensitized. Hey, maybe after all this, you’ll decide to go to med school.”
Well, that’s impossible. But I make a vow to get past my phobias and be here with Noah through this entire ordeal. He needs me. I’m not going to let him down.
To be continued.....