Death’s messenger was a short, balding fellow with too pale skin and a barbecue stain on his white lab coat.
Sam Dalton stared at him for a long moment after he had finished speaking, then, ‘I’m sorry, but I’m not sure I understand what you just said.’
‘Your daughter is dying,’ replied the doctor.
‘I know that!’ Sam answered hotly, the weeks of frustration and lack of sleep finally getting the better of him. Realising that his younger, larger frame loomed over the doctor’s, he made a conscious effort to calm down, lest he frighten off his only source of information. He stepped back and ran a hand through his dark hair before continuing in a more reasonable tone. ‘What I don’t understand is why.’
The doctor’s expression never changed. ‘She’s infected with some kind of virus. Something new, something we’ve never seen before. We’ve had the best epidemiologists in the country looking at the samples we’ve collected over the last several weeks. None of them can make heads or tails of it. The disease, the virus, is attacking her internal organs at a cellular level, breaking them down from the inside out. Little by little the organs themselves are starting to decay. In a few weeks, her system will have hit a critical juncture and she will go downhill rapidly from there. Once she reaches that point, it will become a matter of days, maybe only hours. The destructive power of this thing is amazing.’
A touch of awe had crept into the man’s voice and Sam suddenly felt like strangling him. With a real effort he kept himself in check.
‘Can’t you do something for her?’ he asked.
The doctor nodded, but his grimace was plain to see. ‘Yes, yes, of course we’ll do what we can to make her comfortable with the pain. And we’ll continue our tests, try and find the cause of the illness. But these things take time and that just isn’t a luxury your daughter has right now. I’m sorry.’
Sam sank into a nearby chair, his legs suddenly weak and unsteady. He’d been expecting the news, but hearing it spoken aloud was difficult, to say the least. He’d tried to stay positive, tried to believe that everything would turn out okay. Even when the days in the hospital had turned into weeks, he’d made sure to keep his game face on whenever he was around Jessica. But by now even she had to know that something had gone seriously wrong.
The last two years hadn’t been kind. When Denise had been taken from them, he’d thought the world had ended. His grief had been overwhelming; his downward spiral had ended only when the bank had threatened to foreclose on the house after he’d lost his job at the plant. It had been Jessica, or rather her desperate need for him, that had saved him. Saved them.
Still, they hadn’t escaped unscathed. Jessica had gone from a playful, inquisitive girl to a shy introvert who was afraid of anything new almost overnight. She’d cried herself to sleep for weeks after Denise’s death, with Sam unable to do anything but hold her close and desperately wish he could do the same. He, too, had been affected. For months, he’d awoken in the middle of the night, suffocating from an overwhelming sense of impending doom. Something was coming for them. Something that couldn’t be reasoned with, couldn’t be bargained with, couldn’t be avoided, turned aside or outrun. Sooner or later, it was going to get them, and there wasn’t a damn thing he could do about it. Every night, he’d burst out of sleep, alone, slick with sweat, his heart racing madly in his chest as he frantically searched for whatever it was that was threatening them.
Then Jessica had gotten sick, and he’d finally understood.
Understanding hadn’t done a damn bit of good, however.
The waiting area where he was seated was at the other end of the hallway from Jessica’s room. Knowing she’d just had her nightly medication, Sam had no fears that his daughter could overhear what was being said, so he asked the tough question. ‘What happens next?’
‘We’ll keep pumping her full of antibiotics, try to keep the risk of pneumonia and other secondary infections down while we fight the primary one. Her immune system is wiped out by the virus; right now, she’s in serious danger from something as simple as the common cold. We’ve also got some new synthetics we’re going to try, stuff they developed for the Ebola war down in the Congo. There’s a chance they might interact with the virus, slow it down some. But other than that, there isn’t much more we can do.’
‘And then?’ asked Sam wearily.
Unwilling to speak the inevitable, the doctor side-stepped. ‘We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, Mr Dalton. For now, we make her comfortable. And we keep looking for answers. That’s all we can do.’ He clapped a hand to Sam’s shoulder in an attempt to be compassionate. ‘If there’s anything we can get for you, you let us know.’
A cure for my daughter would be nice, Sam thought, with more than a hint of derision as the other man stepped away, but he left the comment unspoken, the rational part of him knowing that the doctor was only doing his job and that there wasn’t much anyone could do. Not any more.
It was only a matter of time now. It was going to take a miracle to save his precious little girl.
And he was long past believing in those.
Feeling a hundred years older than when he’d entered the building earlier that morning, Sam got up and made his way down to the cafeteria for a cup of coffee. The place was practically deserted; visiting hours were long since over and only a handful of night staff and the occasional family member staying over with a loved one were present. The harsh fluorescent lighting made everything seem starker, edgier, and the effect just heightened Sam’s sense of dislocation. It was another world here, a world reserved for a select, miserable few, and he knew that only those who had endured this hellish existence would ever understand.
At no other time in his life had he felt the crushing weight of responsibility so strongly. And never had he felt more alone than he did now. He stared at the other people in the cafeteria, wondering if even they could understand his situation. His wife was dead. His only child was dying. He hadn’t been able to go to work since he’d brought Jessica here and he was sure they wouldn’t hold his job for him much longer, no matter how trivial the position. Not that it mattered much; who could work when their family was dying around them?
He paid for his coffee and wandered over to sit at an empty table. The drink was horrible, the sludge factor practically off the scale, but he hadn’t had anything for hours and he sipped at it, not caring.
He didn’t even know he was crying until a passing orderly laid a pack of Kleenex on the table in front of him in a simple gesture of kindness.
Jessica was still asleep when he returned to her room, and for that he was grateful. The last few times they’d changed her meds she’d been up for all hours of the night, which, of course, meant he had been, too. This time, whatever they’d given her had worked, for she was out like a light, a slight smile on her narrow face.
He stood next to her bed for several long moments, just drinking in the sight of her. He ignored the IV, the heart monitor, and the electronic data feeds taped all over her body, and just looked at his little girl.
Her once cream-coloured skin, now slightly yellowed with the start of jaundice.
Her thin, little arms, the insides of both bruised horribly from the weeks of moving the IV back and forth.
Her thin lips and pert little nose, so like her mother’s.
Her dark hair, once long and full of ringlets, now hanging limp and all but lifeless as her body abandoned supporting it as it routed all the nutrients it could to her vital organs.
God, she’s beautiful, he thought, and just like that the tears started again. He couldn’t help it. During the day he was her lifeline, her means of gauging just how bad things were getting, and he’d be damned if he gave her any reason to worry or be afraid. But here, in the depths of the night, with only the beeping of the monitors and the quiet shuffle of nurses in the hall for company, he couldn’t keep up the charade. In the dark of the night, he purged himself of his despair and pain, if only to be ready to smile again in the morning for his little girl.
In the lonely quiet of that hospital room, Sam’s tears continued to fall.