Rachel readied herself for the inevitable. She readied herself for the heartfelt sympathy, the trite and meaningless reassurances of faith, and the litany of scriptures surely to come. Her favorite had no deep theological import attached to it other than a simple statement of reality: Thou shalt live together in love, insomuch that thou shalt weep for the loss of them that die.
Except that Jennifer refused to die. A perverse air of disappointment haunted this growing realization. Like a fireworks display interrupted by a sudden downpour, the big finale turning into an emotional fizzle. At first, in the words of the hospital staff, Jennifer was “holding on.” Then she was “soldiering on.” Then she was “out of the woods.” Then going from “strength to strength.”
“Her FDP is in the basement, and her ANC is through the roof,” said Dr. Ingebretsen. In other words, the blood factors of a healthy child.
The flock of her extended family finally figured out that the news of Jennifer’s death was very much exaggerated and with a collective shrug winged their way back to more comfortable climes.
And then Jennifer was “awake and alert.” She opened her eyes and smiled and said, “Hi, Mom. Hi, Dad,” as if she’d just gotten off the bus from day camp. She cast her eyes around the room. “Where’s Milada?” she wondered.
Rachel and David exchanged curious glances. Rachel said, not questioning the thinking behind such an odd question, “She had to go back to New York.”
“Oh,” said Jennifer with a small, pouting frown. She quickly brightened. “How about Laura?”
“She’s at school. We weren’t expecting you to wake up so suddenly.”
“When can I go back to school?”
“Not so quick,” her father cautioned but with a broad smile that said, Yes! My child’s a trouper!
Two weeks later Jennifer was declared as healthy as could be expected of a leukemia patient who’d camped out at death’s door for the past six months—except for a persistent normocytic anemia revealed in her CBC that responded well to Epogen and blood transfusions. But Dr. Ingebretsen was sure her bone marrow only needed time to recover, and he sent her home.
Lingering concern about opportunistic diseases kept her out of school and wearing a surgical mask whenever she went out, which she treated as a comical disguise. To her mother’s great delight, Jennifer was Jennifer, in all her resurrected exuberance, everything she treasured about her.
But a shadow grew on Rachel’s soul. Nothing she had read—and she’d become a walking encyclopedia on the subject—suggested that a child in Jennifer’s condition should recover this fast. When Jennifer’s CBC dropped too low, she plainly declared, “Mom, I need blood.” Watching the phlebotomist feed the line into her daughter’s vein, Rachel restrained herself from blurting out, “Why not let her drink it and see what happens?”
Jennifer hated the needle. But after getting a transfusion, she would sit in the passenger’s seat in a kind of rapture, completely blissed out for most of the ride home.
Once Jennifer’s hair began to grow in, Rachel’s fears were confirmed. Dr. Ingebretsen remained unconcerned. The hair of cancer patients, he explained, often grew back in a far different fashion than before. But Jennifer’s silver-white hair—her pale skin—her once sky-blue eyes now the color of cut glass—could mean only one thing.
Laura was the first to state the obvious. “She looks like Milada.”
Rachel could no longer keep the truth at arm’s length. In the end Milada had bowed to her wishes and infected Jennifer. And then she’d left, convinced that she had killed her just as she had killed all those other children. Rachel knew she should contact Milada and explain what had happened. But every day she didn’t was another day Jennifer was hers alone.
Worse, Jennifer somehow knew. Remind my mother that God never walks away from an honest wager. Rachel had made the offer, and the bookie had accepted the bet. The only question was when she would be forced to give God or the devil their due.
Jennifer raised the subject again as they were tucking her into bed. “When are we going to go see Milada?” A subtle but demanding tone crept into her voice.
“I don’t know,” her mother said. “She’s very busy with her work. She has her own family to tend to.”
Here she was, lying to her own daughter.
David began to wonder as well. “How does she know Milada? I thought Milada left before Jennifer came out of the coma. Why does she keep talking about some deal they made together?”
Rachel thought carefully about which question to answer and how to answer it. She held a pillow under her chin and pulled on the pillowcase. “I, um, promised we’d go see her when she got better.”
“Oh,” David said, following suit on his side of the bed.
“Remember I told you Milada came to the hospital to see Jenny? I think she developed quite an attachment to her.”
“To be honest, she didn’t strike me as the type.”
“No,” Rachel agreed. “But we should go see her. It’s important to Jenny.” Except that the moment Milada saw her, she would realize what had happened. Rachel set the pillow against the headboard and got into bed. “David, do you remember the story of Samuel and Eli?”
“You mean, when Samuel thinks Eli is calling him and gets up and goes to his bedside, and the third time Eli tells him that it is the voice of the Lord calling him?”
“Yes, but do you remember what happens before that?”
He thought it over for a minute. “What did happen before that?”
“Hannah, Samuel’s mother, promised that if she had a son she would give him to the Lord for all the days of his life. That’s why she took him to Eli in the first place.”
“Ah yes. I believe Laura calls it the Rumpelstiltskin story. Or was it Rapunzel?”
“Maybe it’s just me, but the humans in these fairy tales often behave as badly as the witches and goblins.”
“It’s not just you,” Rachel said quietly.
“So at least Hannah followed through.”
Rachel sighed to herself. If only David were more suspicious, more inclined to read between the lines. He would grab her and shake the truth out of her the way frustrated men did with their wives in television dramas. She knew he was puzzled, curious, and confused about his daughter’s remarkable recovery. But confronted with something beyond his expertise, like most men he resorted with a helpless shrug to Occam’s razor: the simplest, most logical, most obvious explanation—especially when it came to truths with emotional baggage attached—was presumed correct until proved otherwise.
Maybe metaphysical truth or existential truth or scientific truth would make her free. But it was better to live with some lies than drive people crazy with the cold, hard facts. The best lie told in all the scriptures is the lie God tells Abraham. Sarah laughs when told she will bear a child, but when God brings the proposal to Abraham, he tells him that his wife was concerned that she was too old to bear children. Exactly what a guy would tell another guy.
Except that’s not what Sarah said. She said that menopause aside, she just didn’t think the old codger could get it up anymore.
Funnier yet, Abraham was pretty sure that’s what she was laughing about, but Sarah denied it. Two lies in a row.
Rachel was in good company. Small comfort.