Natalie stared at the pile of bills on her gleaming coffee table. One was an eviction notice—she just knew it. Another was for her American Express, followed by her overdue Victoria’s Secret card. Sighing, she looked down at her checkbook. She made $60,000 a year. There was no reason for her to be so broke. Tapping the book with lacquered nails, she considered her options.
She could claim bankruptcy. Her mother had done so, years and years before. She had only been six or seven, but she still remembered moving out of the apartment and into the cramped little studio, where her four-post bed was replaced by a tiny twin. Her dresser hadn’t even fit in the same room.
No, she couldn’t claim bankruptcy. Besides, she surmised, there were probably rules about making sixty grand a year and crying poor.
She stood and went to her closet. Hundreds of designer items hung in neat, color coded rows, the tags still hanging from their sleeves and belt loops. She could try selling some of it on eBay. Pulling a sweater dress from the ranks, she held it up against her, bangles on her wrist clattering against each other. She bought it to wear to work, and just hadn’t gotten around to it. Maybe she would wear it later in the week. She put it aside.
Running her fingers through the clothes, she shook her head. She couldn’t part with any of it. Even if she never wore those Diesel jeans or the red Michael Kors bag, they were more than just apparel.
She sat on her bed, rummaging through her mind for a third option. There was none. She was screwed.
The phone in the living room rang. She swore. She was tired of bill collectors calling. She wasn’t even sure why she had the line. She only ever used her cell phone, anyway. It rang again. She should probably just let it go to voicemail. No one ever called her landline.
The phone rang again, and she stood, scowling. If it were a computerized bill collector, the bot was being awfully persistent. Maybe it was an actual human. She stalked to the living room. Snatching the handset from its cradle, she pressed the talk button.
“Yeah?” she answered.
“Ms. Booth?” a woman asked.
“Who’s this?” Natalie demanded.
The woman paused. “Is this Natalie Booth?” she asked. She sounded like a twelve-year-old girl, her voice lilting at the end of each word.
Natalie bit down on her lower lip. Very rarely did bill collectors call her by name. She glanced at the caller ID, and her eyes widened. Her heart slammed in her chest. “Yes,” she managed. She thought of the last time she had seen her mother. She hadn’t looked sick, but the stress was slowly wearing on her. Natalie swallowed hard. She sucked in a breath, sitting down on her love seat.
“Ms. Booth, I’m calling on behalf of your father. My name is Rosie. I’m a nurse at St. Mary’s Hospital.”
Natalie clenched the arm of the couch with her free hand. Her mouth went dry.
“I’m so sorry to tell you this,” Rosie continued.
Natalie gasped. No. Not her mother. Not her sweet, beautiful, loving mother. Tears dribbled down her cheeks.
“Ms. Booth?” the nurse asked. “Are you there?”
“Yes,” Natalie managed.
“Your father suffered a massive heart attack early this morning. We’ve stabilized him, but—”
Natalie loosened her grip on the arm of the couch. “My father?” she repeated.
“Yes,” the nurse said. “He—”
“Why are you calling me?” she asked, her breath returning to normal. She leaned back against the throw pillows, closing her eyes. Her mother was okay. Her mother was alive.
The nurse cleared her throat. “You’re listed as his emergency contact,” she said slowly. Papers shifted in the background. “It says here you are his only child, currently living in Manhattan. Is that correct?”
“Yes,” Natalie said slowly, “but I’m not his emergency contact. You’ve made a mistake. Call his sister, or someone else.”
The nurse sighed. “I’m sorry, Ms. Booth. I know these situations can be . . . awkward. But you are his only listed contact, and your father’s condition requires a lot of care. Some decisions need to be made—”
“No,” Natalie said. “Not me. I can’t do this. You’re going to have to call someone else!” She jumped to her feet, pacing the room.
“There is no one else,” Rosie said. “You’re going to have to come down here, sign some paperwork. We need to do a few procedures and need your permission.”
“Have him sign it!” she said, her voice rising.
“Natalie,” the nurse said, “your father is currently unable to make decisions for himself.”
Her heart lurched. “What does that mean?” she asked, her voice sounding like a child’s.
The nurse took a deep breath. “It means,” she said, “that without your help, he could die.”
Natalie stared down at her toes, red nail polish glinting in the light. Wiggling them into the plush carpet, she watched as they disappeared into the fluffy white fibers. The faux fur rug was her favorite thing. It was like walking on the back of a giant fluffy cat. Any time life got hard, all she had to do was bury her toes in the carpet, and everything was fine.
“Ms. Booth?” the nurse asked. Her voice sounded as though it funneled from a million miles away. Tinny static crackled. Natalie wondered how landlines could still sound so horrible when humanity had things like high definition television and wireless headphones. “Natalie, are you there?” the nurse asked again, her voice snapping into clear transmission.
“Bad connection,” Natalie said.
“As I said, you need to come down here as soon as possible. We need to put stents in. It’s not a complicated procedure, but we do need someone to sign for permission. It would be a different story if the patient—your father—were awake.” A fresh wave of static drowned out everything else the nurse said.
Natalie held the phone away from her ear. Of course it was up to her. If her parents were still together, it would be up to her mother. She probably wouldn’t even be living so far from home. Snorting, she looked around her apartment. Her eyes fell back on the eviction notice. Gambling had never been her favorite thing, but if that letter was what she thought it was, she would go home. At least, for a little while.
Cradling the phone between her cheek and shoulder, she leaned forward and scooped the letter from the coffee table. In one swift motion, she tore it open. The words at the top, typed in all capital letters, confirmed her suspicions.
“Okay,” she told the nurse. At the very least, she could go to the hospital, sign whatever she needed to, and go to her mother’s. She had been begging for a visit, anyway. By the time Natalie got to Connecticut, she would have a backup plan, and no one would know what happened.
She cringed at the thought of returning to Waterbury. The only thing left in that city, she mused as she went back into her bedroom, was crumbling buildings and crackheads. She couldn’t understand why either of her parents remained there, especially when they hated each other. Opening her closet door again, she peered inside.
The biggest suitcase she had wouldn’t fit even a fraction of her wardrobe. The irony did not escape her. She should have listed everything on eBay when she had the chance. She couldn’t even afford a storage unit. Sticking her tongue out, she began sifting through, looking for the most practical pieces and the ones she absolutely couldn’t part with. Anger seared through her. Her father was always inconveniencing her life.
When she finished packing, she dragged the suitcase into the living room. The wheels caught in the fluffy rug, and she swore. Yanking at the rug, tears streaming down her face, she wondered how different things would be if her parents hadn’t divorced. She would probably still live at home, and wouldn’t have to leave her rug behind. She ran her fingers through the fibers, tears dripping onto her hand.
Her life was a hot mess, she concluded.
Standing, she looked around the living room. A pair of scissors sat on the coffee table, on top of a stack of magazines. A few weekends before, she had pretended she was a collage artist. She hadn’t even gotten past cutting out a few images. Benjamin swore there was an artist inside of her. All she had to do was find it.
At the thought of Benjamin, she froze.
Tapping her chin with a manicured finger, she tried to think of a way out of ending things between them on a bad note. She didn’t want him to think she was flaking out on him. Up and moving out of state did look pretty bad, she surmised, but she had a good reason—mostly. She just had to convince him that she was worried about her father.
She sat down on the couch and pulled his phone number up in her contacts. She wondered what he was doing on a Sunday morning. More than likely, he was golfing somewhere. Rolling her eyes, she tapped her phone and let the call connect.
“Benjamin Ryan,” he answered, even though he knew it was her.
“Hey,” she said, examining a chip on one of her fingernails.
“Natalie,” he crooned. “It’s so early.”
Okay, then, he probably wasn’t golfing. Glancing at the clock, she rolled her eyes again. It was almost eleven. “You’re spoiled,” she said, thinking of his huge waterbed. Automatically, she remembered the way his skin felt under her fingertips as she ran her hands across his bronzed chest. Soft and hairless, toned and tight, she would have never guessed that he was closer to forty years old. She wished she had time to say goodbye—to really say goodbye. He had a hot tub in every bathroom, and the thread count on his sheets mirrored the play cash in his wallet. The last time she spent the night, she had lain on top of him, chest to chest, feeling his heart race against hers. He wasn’t the worst lover, but he wasn’t the best boyfriend, either.
“Hello?” he breathed. “Earth to Nat.”
“Bad news, Ben,” she said, crossing her legs. She imagined him sitting up in bed, one eyebrow arched, the sheets cascading away from him as he moved.
The question only punctuated the image in her mind. She struggled to hold the giggle that threatened to escape. Everything about Benjamin Ryan was textbook playboy. Even the way he moved and spoke was a cliche. She wondered if she, too, was a cliche, by association. Sucking in a deep breath, she let him have it: “I’m moving back to Connecticut.”
Silence met her on the other end.
“Ben?” She pulled her phone away from her ear, checking to see if the call was still connected. It was. “You all right?”
“When?” he asked.
She squirmed on the couch. “This afternoon. Now.”
“Why?” The question settled heavily on her ears. He didn’t actually want to know why she was leaving. He wanted to know why she wasn’t putting in her two weeks’ notice.
Amping up the actress she always wanted to be, she said, “My dad, he’s sick. He had a heart attack or something. I’ve gotta go take care of him.” Then, she threw in a sniffle, for good measure.
“Nat, Ryan & Sundry needs you,” Benjamin said. “We’ve got that huge deal with the Giants coming up. I can’t trust anyone else to take care of their print design.”
She thought of the huge Mac desktop in her office. She would miss designing on that thing. “I’m sorry, Ben,” she said. “You think I’m thrilled to just up and leave, too?”
“Why don’t you just take a vacation? I can talk to HR. You’ll be fine.” She could practically hear him smile.
He didn’t get it. “Ben,” she said, letting his name linger in her apartment. She couldn’t tell him she was getting evicted. She couldn’t let him know about the credit cards.
“Or what if you work remotely?” She could see him, throwing the sheets back and slipping out of bed, his naked penis dangling in the late morning light.
Stifling a laugh, she shook her head. “I’m not going to have time, Ben,” she said. “The nurse said it’s really bad. I’m gonna have to take care of him.”
“Dammit, Nat, you’re leaving me at such a bad time.”
She wanted to tell him that he would find someone else, that there were plenty of girls who had majored in graphic design. They just weren’t all stupid enough to sleep with their bosses. Instead, she said, “I don’t have a choice.”
At first, he said nothing. Then, he laughed. “No, I guess you don’t.”
Without another word, he ended the call.
* * *
The train hit a bump, smashing her knee against the seat in front of her. She swore and rubbed at the spot. The scent of sweat and greasy food enveloped her. Wrinkling her nose, she placed a hand on her luggage, steadying it. Another bump rocked the train. Unlike the few flights she had been on, not a single word of reassurance was uttered over the loudspeaker. Natalie guesses that turbulence on a train was normal.
Rolling to a stop, the train’s brakes let out a whoosh. The conductor muttered the stop name, and Natalie had to strain to hear what he said. Static crackled around his words. She frowned. “Any idea what he just said?” she asked the woman sitting across from her.
But the doors whooshed closed and a fresh slew of passengers stumbled around, looking for seats. Natalie’s heart fluttered in her chest. Not only could she hardly make out the stops when they were announced, but there were no more seats left, other than the one her suitcase barricaded.
“Excuse me,” a delicate voice sniffled. She sounded like she had the flu, or a sinus infection.
Natalie groaned, clutching the handle to her suitcase protectively.
“Anyone sitting there?” the girl asked.
Shifting in her seat, Natalie looked from her luggage to the space between her knees and the next seat. She got the feeling that her train wasn’t meant for anything other than daily commute. Licking her lips, she looked back up at the girl.
“Can you speak English?” the girl asked slowly. She shifted in her Converses. A backpack hung from her shoulders. A camera dangled from her wrist. She peered at Natalie with blue eyes, the interior lights reflecting off her glasses. Another bump sent her jolting into the air, and she clenched the seat, her knuckles white. “Any way you can move so I can sit?” she grumbled.
“Sure,” Natalie said, sighing. Bringing her knees to her chest, she slid the suitcase in front of her.
“Thanks,” the girl said. She sat, shoulders heaving. “You never get used to that.” She gave Natalie a watery grin.
Natalie smiled back, then let her gaze wander out the window. There was no point in talking to anyone. She would be off the train in an hour or so. Making friends was not on her priority list.
“So where are ya going?” the girl asked from beside her. She blew her nose into a tissue.
“Don’t worry,” the girl said. “It’s just allergies.” She jerked a head toward the window. “Worst thing about summer.” Reaching for her backpack, she squeezed a glob of hand sanitizer from a bottle on a keychain. She rubbed her hands together, then held one out. “Charlotte,” she said.
From the seat in front of her, two guys about her age argued over whose drawing was better.
“Your lines are so much cleaner,” one said.
“No way, dude. Yours is so much more detailed.”
Natalie fought the urge to peek over the seat and see what they were doing. All she could see were the tops of their heads. One wore a Pokemon snapback and the other wore a Cardinals fitted. She didn’t think they were related, or even gay. She wondered whether they were the kinds of artists who went to the city for the weekend, selling as much as they could out of their backpacks.
“Um, hello?” Charlotte waved a hand in front of her face. “You all right, there?”
Swallowing, Natalie nodded. “Sorry. I’m just tired.” Tired didn’t even begin to cover it, but she wasn’t about to tell a stranger about her problems.
Charlotte nodded. “I hear ya.” She leaned across Natalie, pulled her camera off her wrist, and snapped a picture as they rolled by a station. “This weekend was a blur!”
Natalie raised an eyebrow. “Um, kinda short on space, here.”
The other girl didn’t seem to hear her. “I’m just glad this thing’s on time. They were delayed all weekend because of that thunderstorm.” She snorted. “Like the MTA’s never seen rain before.”
“Sure,” Natalie said, looking back out the window.
The speaker above them crackled to life. The conductor uttered the next stop, sounding like a robot whispering.
“Good luck to them,” Charlotte said.
Natalie turned to look at her. “How can you understand what he’s saying?”
The train lurched to a stop and another group of passengers clambered on. They frowned at the full seats and shuffled toward the next car. The doors hardly closed before the train got moving again.
“This is so dangerous,” Natalie said, looking down at her hands. Her knuckles were white.
“Which stop are you?” Charlotte asked. “Wait, let me guess. New Haven?” She shook her head. “Nah, you don’t look like a student or crackhead.” She pulled lip balm from a pocket of her backpack and spread some onto her lips. The scent of cherries wafted toward Natalie. “Waterbury?”
Natalie nodded. “Pretty sure I’m going to miss it, though.”
“Well, you haven’t missed it yet.” Charlotte grinned. “Lucky for you, that’s my stop, too.”
Breathing a sigh of relief, Natalie let her head rest against the seat.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” Charlotte said.
Natalie quirked an eyebrow at her.
“People always use the backs of the seats to help them move, and there’s a bathroom on the train.” When Natalie just looked at her, Charlotte said, “There’s never any soap. They don’t wash their hands.”
Whipping her head away from the seat, Natalie returned to watching the world slide by.
The stop came sooner than she thought it would. The train hit a bump, the speakers overhead crackled, and Charlotte stood.
“You coming?” the other girl asked.
Natalie almost wanted to say no, that she had gotten on by mistake. There was still time. She could still go back to New York, up the elevator, and into her apartment. But the nurse said her father could die, and she didn’t hate him enough to let that happen. She shoved her luggage away from her, stood, and exited the train.
A breeze ruffled her maxi skirt. Sunlight lanced down at her, and she lowered her sunglasses. She hugged the handle of her suitcase to her chest, mind whirling. She couldn’t remember ever having gone to St. Mary’s, at least not recently. She was pretty sure it was on the bus line, but had no idea where the closest bus stop was.
“You good?” Charlotte asked from beside her.
Biting her lower lip, Natalie nodded. “Totally.”
“Are you sure? I can give you a ride somewhere.” Charlotte fished out keys from another pocket in her backpack. “I’m licensed.” She winked.
Clearing her throat, Natalie reconsidered. A ride was a ride. “Do you know where St. Mary’s is?” she asked.
“The hospital?” Charlotte cocked her head, looking a little like a sad puppy. Natalie nodded, and Charlotte waved for her to follow. They descended the stairs leading from the platform, weaving past people attached to luggage and cell phones. Apparently Natalie wasn’t the only person coming home. She followed Charlotte out into the parking lot, where the other girl led her to a beat up green Sunfire. “Despite the way this thing looks,” Charlotte said, unlocking the trunk, “I’ve never been in an accident.”
Nodding, Natalie lifted her suitcase inside. She slid into the passenger seat and buckled her seat belt.
Charlotte started the car. She pulled her blonde hair into a messy bun and lifted sunglasses from the rearview mirror. “Who are you visiting?” she asked as they left the parking lot.
Natalie decided to go for honesty. “My father,” she said, looking out the window as they joined downtown traffic. The area looked vaguely familiar. “He had a heart attack.”
“Damn,” Charlotte said as they stopped at a red light. “That sucks.”
Natalie shrugged. “For me, mostly.” She felt the other girl looking at her, and sighed. “He’s not the easiest person to get along with.” She studied her hands in her lap. Once upon a time, she had been the epitome of the term daddy’s little girl. They had regular Sunday dates. She wondered if they would be on a father-daughter date instead of meeting up at the hospital, if things were different.
The rest of the ride passed in silence. Natalie wondered whether she had said something wrong, or if maybe Charlotte’s own father had passed away. It was too late to fix it, though. They pulled in front of the hospital. Charlotte kept her foot on the brake but didn’t put the car in park. She popped open the trunk. “Here you are,” she said.
“Thanks,” Natalie said. She slid out of the passenger seat and walked around to retrieve her luggage. The hospital loomed above her, casting its shadow down. With a tug, she freed her suitcase from the trunk. “Thanks again,” she called, slamming it shut. Charlotte said nothing. The little Sunfire whirred away, leaving Natalie alone.
Sighing, she turned toward the hospital.
Cool air conditioning greeted her as she entered. She hadn’t realized how long she had gone without it, on the train and in Charlotte’s car. Brushing back a strand of sweaty hair, she considered finding a bathroom and freshening up. She didn’t want the hospital staff to think she was a scumbag and dirty. She passed door after door, though, and did not see a bathroom.
Rolling her luggage up to the information desk, she made eye contact with the woman behind it. “Hi,” she said, lowering her sunglasses. “I’m looking for my father. He had a heart attack.”
“Name?” the woman asked.
She gave it.
The woman frowned. “Your father’s name, sweetheart.”
Sucking in her cheeks, Natalie squeezed the handle of her suitcase even tighter. “Right,” she said. “It’s Dylan Booth.”
The woman tapped on her keyboard, made a few mn-hmn sounds, and looked up from her screen. “He’s in cardiology,” she said, giving Natalie directions.
Her heart thudded in her chest, and the floor swam up at her. The word cardiology sounded so much more formal. Colors plunged into view, sharp and clear. Every speck on the floor looked as if she were looking at it through a microscope.
She reeled backward, catching herself at the last second. The woman behind the desk seemed not to notice, though. Casting one more glance at the desk, Natalie collected herself and walked away.
Switching elevators and rolling through the halls, she felt stupid for bringing a whole suitcase with her. She should have dropped it off at her father’s first. Looking back, she should have done a lot of things, she surmised. The cardiology ICU sat bathed in silence. Only one nurse sat at the nurse’s station, and her name tag read Brea.
“Excuse me,” Natalie said, rolling her suitcase until it rested against the desk. “Is there a Rosie here?”
Brea brushed waist length brown curls over her shoulder. Her blue eyes measured Natalie. Then, slowly, she shook her head. “She’s gone for the day. Is there something I can help you with?”
“Dammit,” Natalie said, and the nurse flinched. She kicked at her luggage. She could have spent one more night in her apartment. Scowling, she glanced across the hall at the room her father was in. With no more money for another train ticket, all she could do was move forward. She gave the nurse her best smile. “Rosie said I had to come sign some forms for my dad.”
Brea nodded, her neck lengthening like a giraffe’s as her head bobbed up. She shifted some papers around, then plucked a folder from underneath a Victoria’s Secret catalog. Slapping it on the desk in front of Natalie, she used a French-manicured nail to show Natalie where to sign.
“How is he?” Natalie asked, scribbling her signature.
“Sleeping,” the nurse said, picking up the catalog. “They usually do. Takes a lot out of you.” She turned the page.
Natalie nodded and went to the next form. “DNR?” she asked. “What’s that?”
“Do not resuscitate. It’s if your father codes and we have to bring him back.”
“Codes?” Natalie frowned. “You mean, like, dies?” She stared at the form. She almost wished her father were awake. Then she could at least ask him. If he was awake, though, they wouldn’t have made her come sign the forms. She sighed. She couldn’t remember a single time she had ever talked to her father about his last wishes. Even when her parents were together, their conversations never exactly got heavy. Her parents never went to church, so she had no idea what either of their religious preferences were. “What should I put?” she asked Brea.
The nurse shrugged. “Is your father super religious? Like, is he Catholic?” She indicated the walls.
“Are most patients here Catholic?” Natalie asked. She supposed religious people would choose St. Mary’s over Waterbury Hospital. Reaching into her bag, she pulled out a tube of lip gloss. Putting on lip gloss always helped her think. She smeared pink over her lips. Her father lived on the second floor of a two-family home. An elderly woman lived on the first floor. Old ladies were usually Catholic, especially the Italian ones. So, Natalie surmised as she put her lip gloss away, Mrs. Spinelli was probably the one to call the ambulance. Checking the box, she moved on to the next form.
When she finished, she closed the folder and slid it back to Brea. “So, thanks, I guess,” she said, retrieving the handle of her suitcase.
“Wait,” the nurse said. She plunked a set of keys down on the desk. “These are for you.”
Natalie stared at them. Closing her eyes, she smiled. Maybe she should start believing in a god.
“I was also told to let you know that the pickup is in the valet.”
Grabbing the keys, Natalie turned to leave. Then, as Brea’s words sank in, she turned around. “Who told you?”
Brea smiled sadly at her. “Your father. He drove himself in.”
Her mouth fell open. Before she could say anything else, Brea returned to her catalog.
Walking on her tiptoes, Natalie went to the doorway of her father’s room. Machines beeped around him. An oxygen tank whirred. He lay on his back, his head tilted, his mouth wide open. In the half light, he looked at least ten years older. Tears stung her eyes. Swallowing hard, she walked away, the image of her father sleeping burned into her mind like the flash after a photo.
* * *
Shutting the truck off, Natalie leaned her head back against the seat. The engine ticked in time with the beat of her heart. Warm sunlight slanted in through the windows, and birds chirped from the trees above, but she felt cold. With any luck, she could be at her mother’s in a few hours. First, though, she needed to get herself together. A nap on her father’s couch and a shower would do the trick.
Clutching the keys in one hand and dragging her suitcase behind her with the other, she staggered up the wooden staircase. Every few steps, the suitcase skidded into her heels. By the time she reached the top, blood trickled from fresh blisters. She fumbled through the keyring for the house key. Once upon a time, he had given her a copy. It sat somewhere in her apartment in New York. The landlord would throw it away, whenever he figured out that she had left.
Sighing, she began to insert the key into the lock. Her phone vibrated in her bag, making her jump. Swearing, she dug it out and pressed it to her ear. Static buzzed, then a familiar voice began talking.
“I’m so sorry,” Brea, the nurse from the hospital, said.
Natalie’s heart slammed into her throat. She tried to say something, but her airway felt blocked. She squeezed the keys, metal biting into the palm of her hand.
“I forgot to tell you,” the nurse continued. “Your father went into surgery shortly after you signed the forms.”
Air whooshed into her chest. Gasping, Natalie let go of the keys and sank to her knees. The wood from the deck scraped against her skin.
“Has anyone run you through his post-surgery instructions?” Brea asked.
“What’s there to talk about?” Natalie said, her voice rising. “I signed the forms. That’s all I had to do. Rosie said so.” She felt like an indignant toddler, insisting the crayons wrote on the wall, not her. Blood trickled onto the greying wood. Using her thumb, she swiped at one of the blisters. A sliver of skin hung from the wound.
“The procedure is pretty simple,” the nurse said. “After his initial recovery period, he will be released into your care. You can take him home.” Natalie could practically hear her smiling. “Your father is going to be just fine.”
Gritting her teeth, Natalie tore off the slice of skin. Sharp pain lanced through her heel, then the throbbing stopped. She pressed her thumb to the wound.
The last thing she wanted to do was take her father home. So much for taking a nap.
Natalie might not survive a summer back home with her father.
Or 1-Click® buy for your Kindle: