Monday night Rachel sat at the computer composing the family newsletter. Laura and Jennifer were camped out in front of the television with their father exploring the ins and outs of the latest Nintendo game machine. David had easily been persuaded to make the purchase as a coming-home present for Jenny.
Rachel was brimming with good news to share with their friends and relatives. But she had long since stopped typing and instead sat and watched her husband and children. It was better than any movie. Laura and Jenny finally figured out the controllers and shouted and danced around playing a game of electronic tennis.
The doorbell rang.
“I’ll get it,” Rachel said. Nobody else noticed.
Sunlight streamed through the glass panels on either side of the front door, painting bright rectangles on the hardwood floor.
“Yes?” Rachel said as she opened the door.
The sun was almost even with the horizon, clipping the roofs and slanting through the side yards, making her squint. A girl in her late teens stood on the porch. The western sky at her back set her brilliant white hair afire. Clear eyes shone out of her shadowed face.
“Milada, come in—” Rachel said. In that same moment, she knew the girl was not Milada. But that was the only logical connection her brain could make.
The girl looked back at Rachel with an equally startled expression. She was perhaps an inch shorter than Milada. Her hair was pulled back from her face in a ponytail. She was wearing green hospital scrubs. She could have passed for any of the medical students Rachel saw all the time at DCH—if not for her extraordinary complexion and strange outfit.
The mention of Milada’s name told the girl what she needed to know. “Excuse me,” she said. She pushed past Rachel and strode into the foyer and down the hallway, hesitating briefly at the stairway and then becoming aware of the commotion radiating from the family room.
“W-wait!” Rachel said, coming to her senses and hurrying after her.
David glanced over his shoulder, expecting to see his wife. He leapt to his feet. “Who—?” he started to say.
The girl’s eyes focused on him briefly and then fell on Jennifer, as the gaze of a circling hawk falls on its prey. She stepped forward. David held out his arms, shielding his children from this stranger.
Rachel’s frantic mind finally connected a name with the face. The picture she’d seen on Milada’s kitchen counter. “Kam—” she started to say.
Kamilla whirled on her, teeth clenched, her eyes bright with shock. “What did she do? What did Milada do?”
Rachel stared at her dumbly. “It—it was my idea,” she felt compelled to say.
“Your idea? How could it be your idea?” Kamilla’s eyes narrowed. She seized Rachel’s chin and turned her head to one side and the other. Though there was nothing to see, Rachel’s hand reflexively went to the invisible scars on her throat.
“I didn’t sleep—” Rachel said defensively. She choked off the rest of the sentence.
David stepped forward to defend his wife from this incomprehensible hostility. “Look here—”
Kamilla stretched out her right hand toward him, a gesture made with such resolute authority that David yielded to its force. She focused her eyes on Rachel. “I have the test results. So don’t tell me—”
“The test results?”
“The genetic test Milada ran through Wylde. Damn it! What were you thinking?” Rachel sensed that the question was directed as much at Milada as herself.
“Hey!” said David. “You don’t use that kind of language—”
“Stay out of this!” she snapped.
“Stay out of what? What are you talking about? What’s Milada got to do with this?”
“But—but she refused,” Rachel said. “I asked her. But she refused.”
“Refused to do what?” the girl growled.
Another horror seized Rachel. The girl’s body eclipsed her husband’s presence, creating a small pocket of privacy between them. “Please.” Rachel’s voice fell into a harsh whisper, the air barely escaping her lips. “He doesn’t know.” Truth stood before her, ready to destroy her utterly, and all she cared about in that moment was the lie. Rachel would have knelt before the girl if she believed it would further her cause.
The few seconds of tense quietude was all David needed to gird up his loins. “I don’t know who you are or what you’re doing here, but you’re going to have to leave.” He stepped forward and grabbed the girl by the wrist, placing his left hand against her shoulder to leverage her away from his wife. Rachel could not remember the last time he had laid hands on another person in anger.
She didn’t budge. Rachel blanched. “Don’t touch her—” she gasped so desperately that he dropped his hold as if touching a hot iron.
Kamilla shot her an icy glare. “Give me some credit. Please.”
David had not exhausted all his courage. “What is going on? What was she looking at Jennifer like that for? What does she have to do with Milada?”
“She’s her sister,” Laura and Jennifer piped up together.
The three adults turned as one. Laura and Jennifer were backed up against the far wall of the family room, looking alternatively aghast and enraptured by the drama unfolding in front of them.
“Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it?” Laura shrugged a nonchalant teenage shrug. “Or maybe she’s another vampire.”
David gaped at his older daughter. Rachel clenched her fists and closed her eyes and prayed.
“Laura, be serious,” her father said.
“Yes, Laura, be serious,” echoed Kamilla.
The abrupt, absurd turn of the argument drained the energy from the room. The air fell still. Kamilla again stepped toward Jennifer, and again David blocked her way.
“I have to see Jennifer.”
Rachel found her voice again. “Kamilla’s the doctor I told you about.”
David stared at her, this girl who looked only a few years older than Laura. “You mentioned a genetic test. Is this is an experimental drug your company is working on?”
Kamilla seized upon the assumption. “Something like that.”
“Then why didn’t you say so earlier?” David asked. Rachel felt a cold hand tighten around her heart as he turned his eyes on her. Her house of cards came tumbling down. “You made this decision on your own? Shouldn’t we have discussed it together?”
“Probably. Probably.” Her desperate sense of conviction returned. “Yes! Okay? Yes! But it made no sense. And you never would have agreed. Nobody in their right mind would.” The same argument Milada had once used against her. Tears spilled from her eyes. “This was the only chance Jenny had. And I—I didn’t think Milada would. She was furious when I brought up the possibility. She said she wouldn’t. I thought—”
David turned his attention back to Kamilla. “And you didn’t know it was given to Jenny until just now.” Give him time and the proper motivation, and David could put the pieces of any puzzle together. Even if what he came up with didn’t look exactly like the picture on the box.
“This is not a tenable—protocol,” Kamilla said. “It works only if the patient possesses a specific pair of mutations.”
“You’re talking about gene therapy?”
Rachel heard wonder and horror mingling in his voice.
“RNA interference using an in-vivo retrovirus as the vector.” The terminology rolled smoothly off Kamilla’s tongue, one truth eclipsing the broader lie.
“Would you have approved this treatment for my daughter?”
“No,” Kamilla answered flatly.
“Because of the side effects.”
“Among other things. This—protocol—is not according to FDA procedures.”
Kamilla was reacting just as Milada said she would. “But it worked,” Rachel insisted.
“What side effects?” David pressed.
“Besides the hypomelanism? Persistent anemia, to start with,” Kamilla answered carefully. “Hypersensitivity to sunlight. Functional changes to the periodontium and surrounding tissues. Retardation of the aging process.”
“But it worked,” Rachel insisted again. “I was with Jenny every day. Every day. There weren’t any alternatives left. Like you said, David. Like Dr. Ingebretsen said. There wasn’t any hope left. But it worked.”
“That doesn’t make it right!” Kamilla’s voice rang out in frustration, the flush of righteous anger darkening her white countenance.
“Then what good is it?” Rachel answered with equal vehemence. In this one instance, Milada had gone ahead and hacked through the Gordian knot. In this one instance, Rachel had no desire to see the frayed threads tied back up in a nice bow. “Sometimes the ends do justify the means!”
“What good is it?” Kamilla’s voice rose in barely contained rage. “Do you know the mortality rate under this so-called protocol for those who don’t have the mutation? One hundred percent! The nurses and doctors treating Jennifer had no idea what they were dealing with. And you felt justified exposing them to that risk? To get what you wanted?”
Rachel felt the blood drain from her face. The thought had never occurred to her. “I’m sorry,” she said in a tiny voice. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” She bowed her head in contrition. “But what—what do we do now?”
Hearing no response, Rachel looked up. A slight tremor passed across Kamilla’s face. Rachel saw in her countenance an eighteen-year-old girl who, out of the clear blue, found herself bearing a weight of responsibility beyond her wildest dreams.
“I—I don’t know.”
Kamilla’s arms flopped to her sides. Her head slumped. As if finally realizing she was an unwelcome stranger in these unfamiliar surroundings, she wandered in a daze to the sliding glass door and leaned her head against the dark glass.
Cautiously, Laura and Jennifer emerged from their father’s shadow.
“Milada’s sister?” Jennifer asked.
“Yeah,” said Laura.
“Look!” said Jennifer. “It’s Milada!”
They turned as one. Rachel remembered that she’d left the front door open. Milada must have simply walked in. She stood at the foot of the short flight of stairs. Her eyes wide. Her mouth half-open. Out of breath.
Rachel glanced at Kamilla. Kamilla stared at her sister. Rachel watched as the anger slowly suffused her face, years of frustration distilling into human language. She shouted, “You want to know why I don’t work in pediatrics? This is why I don’t work in pediatrics!”
Milada’s eyes, showing only guilt and fear, flicked to Jennifer and then back to Kamilla.
Kamilla stepped forward. “Do you have any idea what you’ve done?” Already a more plaintive tone of bewilderment was creeping into her voice.
The question hung there in the air. Raw desperation contorted Milada’s face. “One child.” A plea. “One child.” An entreaty. A prayer. “One child to live after all the children I—”
Kamilla’s head snapped around, terror on her face, her mouth opening in a roar of pain. A primal scream. Rachel felt her heart lurch. Jennifer and Laura jumped, holding their hands up to their ears. Even David took a step back.
A sharp retort in a Slavic tongue. Milada nodded, abashed, ashamed. Kamilla strode forward. Milada backed away until the wall stopped her. She did not raise her arms to defend herself. Kamilla seized her by the shoulders.
“He killed them. He killed them.” Kammy shook her sister’s shoulders with sufficient force that Milada’s head knocked against the wall with an audible thud. “He deserved to die. You made the right decision. Milly, please. We aren’t what our pasts made us.”
Milada nodded again. She looked so numb and fragile and weak. She slumped against the wall, hiding her face in her hands and drawing ragged breaths. Kamilla looked at her until she could apparently stand it no longer and turned away, biting her lip. She sat down on the arm of the couch, ragged exhaustion clouding her face. The family room grew still except for the quiet sound of Milada’s weeping.
Rachel was so focused on Milada that she didn’t notice Jennifer until her daughter stood at Milada’s feet. Jennifer waited until first Kamilla and then Milada noticed her. Wonder showing on her face at this creature she had wrought, Milada crouched down so their eyes could meet. Cautiously, wondrously, she ran her hand across the soft white down of the child’s head.
“Jennifer. I’m sorry. I truly am.”
Jennifer shook her head. “It’s okay. We’re going to be okay.”
Milada reached out, the child rushed forward, and Milada took her into her arms. As she stood, lifting her up, Jennifer’s small arms clinging to her neck, Rachel instinctively reached for her daughter as well. But she was too far away and by now out of her grasp.