Rachel stood at the door to Jennifer’s hospital room, waiting for Milada to glance up and see her. She felt a pang of guilt in her heart for having burdened a complete stranger with her own family’s tragedy. She’d been expecting drive-by charity. Milada actually caring hadn’t been part of the equation. But now that empathy seemed like the single remaining thread of the lifeline keeping Rachel’s head above water.
Rachel sat down across the hospital bed from her. Milada casually retrieved a nine-by-twelve envelope from the side table and returned it to her attaché. Something to do with her business, no doubt. Milada had fewer qualms about revealing the impossible things about her life than the mundane.
Rachel was no different. The more impossible her beliefs, the more bold she was in her beliefs and the more willing to claim a knowledge of things not seen.
But now a black tide of doubt spilled into her thoughts.
Again, in a moment of honest introspection, she would admit that Laura was right about her sister: She just lies there. What drew her time and again to this sterile room, what kept her in the uncomfortable plastic chair by her daughter’s bed, was a daydream, a hope, a fantasy that in the next moment Jennifer was going to open her eyes and recognize her and say, “Hi, Mom.”
And she would be there to take her in her arms and comfort her. The thought alone brought tears to her eyes.
When that moment didn’t come, there was the next moment, the next moment in which everything would change, and then the moment after that. It was pure hope, it was faith without works. But it kept her more alive than anything else she knew.
She said to Milada, “Do you need a ride home?”
Rachel couldn’t think of anything else to keep the conversation going. She really did need to learn more about business and finance. There was no telling when such knowledge could come in handy.
When she pulled into Milada’s driveway, she put the Odyssey in park and turned off the engine.
“Thank you for the ride,” Milada said with perfunctory courteousness.
Rachel hesitated a second and then got out as well. As she came around the front of the car, Milada gave her a disconcerted—even annoyed—look that Rachel pretended not to see. She hated presuming on other people. But desperation was a powerful thing. It drove Saul to Endor, and it drove her here. The briefest memory of Jennifer lying comatose in her hospital bed eviscerated any second thoughts.
The last straw. This was it. She would seize it and let it go and let the wind carry the chaff where it may.
The air inside the house was still warm from the heat of the day. Rachel closed the door behind her. Milada turned on the kitchen light and then the cooler fan, filling the dark, empty quiet with soft incandescent light and hushed white noise.
“Jennifer was doing better for a while.”
Milada didn’t answer.
Rachel could no longer be bothered with subtleties. She said in a pleading whisper, “If Jennifer were like you, she wouldn’t die—”
“The infection alone would kill her.”
“The cancer will.”
“Does your faith thrive on failure, Rachel? Pascal’s wager is the rationalization of gamblers everywhere. God plants the seed, and we do everything in our power to make it grow. He gets the praise if it lives. We take the blame if it dies. How is that fair?”
Rachel stared back at her. She didn’t know the answer.
“You asked me before, so I shall tell you: I am the creation of a virus. A carrier, a host, or perhaps I have become the parasite itself. Genetically speaking I am hardly human. A medical curiosity. There is nothing miraculous about me.”
“Then why do you care?” Rachel asked desperately.
“Do you want the truth? Then let me tell you about my family. I have three fathers—the man who gave me life, the devil who gave me eternal life, and the paterfamilias who forced upon me a life worth living. If Jennifer became like me, whose blood would flow in her veins? Whose daughter would she be? Tell me that is something you could live with.”
Milada pushed Rachel out of the way and descended the stairs to the basement. But Rachel knew how to deal with recalcitrance. After all, she had a teenager in the house. And though for most of her life her brothers had been bigger and stronger, she could usually goad them into seeing things her way. She could be just as stubborn and no less insistent. It was not something she was proud of.
“What do you want, Rachel?”
The tone of indifferent exasperation in Milada’s voice only stoked Rachel’s fury. “Jennifer wouldn’t turn out like you!” she shouted, the words erupting out of all her shattered dreams and wounded pride.
Milada whirled about, eyes blazing, the tendons in her neck tight with fury. Rachel quailed. She retreated to the hallway, retreated until her heels clicked against the baseboard and her head thumped against the sheet rock. Milada’s right hand flew to her throat, pinning her like a butterfly to the wall. Rachel did not doubt that if Milada closed her fingers her spine would snap in two.
The flesh between Milada’s thumb and forefinger pressed so evenly against Rachel’s larynx that she was not conscious of the force Milada was exerting until her lungs convulsed from lack of air. Instinctually she grabbed at Milada’s forearm. She might as well have been grasping an iron rod.
The pupils in Milada’s pale eyes dilated, widening into ovals. Her lips parted, revealing the tips of the needle-sharp fangs behind her white incisors. Rachel felt the raw scream of anger coming. She tried again to push the hand away. Black splotches bloomed in the borders of her vision.
At the last moment Milada held back, her voice emerging in a strained shout, still loud in Rachel’s ears. “That man came from going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it. I was twelve years old. When did I fear God for naught? I did as I was told and did it well. Tell me, where are my fourteen-thousand sheep and my six-thousand camels and my seven sons and three daughters? Where?”
Milada’s voice broke. The ferocity in her countenance faded as suddenly as it had appeared, replaced by a softer expression, hurt, almost, by what she had been driven to do. She walked away.
Rachel slid to the floor, gasping for breath, her limbs twitching, the blood pounding in her veins. Her hand went to her throat. Milada had not, she was sure, even bruised the skin. A storm of emotions kaleidoscoped through her mind. Rachel started to laugh and then to sob.
She pushed herself off the floor. When she got to the top of the stairs, Milada was sitting at the kitchen counter staring at a glass of red wine. She didn’t look up. Rachel steadied herself. She took a breath and let it out.
“You may have her.”
After all you can do. It would be impossible for her to do more or to offer more. Had Milada asked for her life in exchange, she would have laid her own body on the table. But Milada didn’t want her life.
Now Milada looked at her.
Rachel said, “Hannah asked for a child, and when she was blessed with a son took him to Eli to have and to raise as his own.”
Milada looked away. Bitterness filled her voice. “Therefore I have sworn unto the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be purged with sacrifice nor offering.”
“Please. Surely the Lord forgave Eli for the life he gave Samuel.”
“Do I look like a mother to you?” Milada smiled wryly and shook her head in disbelief. “Christians claim to believe in eternal life. So why are you so afraid of death, Rachel?”
The question rocked her back on her feet. Her heart reacted before her mind could respond, before her mouth could answer. Rachel clenched her hands and teeth but couldn’t restrain the tears coursing down her cheeks. The reason was so very simple, and yet she had never articulated it aloud before. “Because I’ll miss her when she’s gone. I’ll regret all that she could have been.” She drew a great sobbing breath. “I’m sorry, Milada. I shouldn’t have—” She turned toward the front door.
Milada came to her feet. “Rachel, stay. Don’t go home like this. Sit, have something to eat. I’ll order out.”
“No. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have in the first place. It was my fault.” She took a deep breath and somehow managed to maintain her composure until she’d made it back to the car and driven the hundred yards up the street to her own driveway.
She sat numbly in the driver’s seat, staring through the windshield at the back of the dark garage. A few minutes ago Milada could have killed her. She wouldn’t have, Rachel was certain, but she could have. Rachel had come close to bodily injury before in her life. She could think of a dozen times as kids when one of Carl’s stupid stunts could have put them all six feet under. But she had never looked at death directly, stared into its eyes, and seen embodied there the raw power and will to extinguish life.
“Rachel?” said David. His voice brought her back to her senses.
He opened her driver’s-side door. As she climbed out, her limbs gave way. David reached out and caught her. The dam broke. She collapsed in a flood of tears. His arms encircled her, bearing her up, protecting her, promising her eternal refuge against the storm.
Rachel wept until she had cried herself out, and then she rested her head against his shoulder for a long time. “I just guess everything finally hit home,” she said, and he nodded. Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails. He understood. He was a very understanding man, and she loved him for it.
Walking back to the house, his arm firmly about her waist, she felt the weight lifting off her shoulders and rising into the night sky. After all that anguish, she somehow felt better about the world and her place in it. And much worse about Milada.