(Originally published with the title, In The Blood)
WHAT THE HELL is that?
Chester Sorenson had grown up with cows and knew just about everything there was to know about them. But with all he knew and all he’d seen, he had no idea what this was on the floor. There was some ropy-looking stuff that reminded him of one thing, but nothing else about it fit.
He moved around to get a look from a different position and began to think that what he believed was a single object, might in fact, be more than one. He wanted to see it flipped over, but didn’t want to touch it.
“What have you got there, Chester?” a voice said from over his shoulder.
Chester had been so interested in the object that he hadn’t heard his supervisor, Peter Dobbs, come up behind him.
“Damned if I know,” Chester answered.
Dobbs took a quick look, then said, “I can’t tell what it is either, but it doesn’t belong in here. You go on with your work. I’ll take care of it.”
Before departing, Dobbs said something to the milker working the animals on the other side of the parlor and then practically pulled the guy from the room. Reluctantly, Chester left his discovery and returned to his duties, his mind still on that object.
Dobbs sent the other milker to the main office to straighten out some problem with his time card. Dobbs then went to his desk and made a phone call.
“No, he didn’t seem to know what it was,” he said. He listened carefully to the lengthy response, then said, “I’ll take care of it.”
As Chester was fitting the pulsators to another animal, Dobbs returned with a black plastic bag and a wide aluminum dustpan. Producing a metallic screech that startled the cows, Dobbs scooped up the object and put it in the bag, leaving behind only a slimy spot on the tiles.
A short while later, while Chester was cleaning things up between milking sessions, Dobbs approached him with a white envelope in his hand. “I need you to take this down to motor pool storage and give it to the guy who’s waiting there. He’s the contractor for some renovation work scheduled on that building, and this is the signed contract. So don’t lose it.”
Though rankled at Dobbs’s suggestion that he was a moron, Chester didn’t let it show. “Why can’t he come up here and get it?”
”When you’re in charge, then you get to decide how things are done. It shouldn’t take more than ten minutes. So you won’t get too far behind here. Take your car.”
Right, like I was planning to walk all the way down there, Chester thought as he headed for the exit.
The dairy was situated on rolling land just inside the corporate limits of the little town of Midland, Wisconsin, about thirty-five miles from Madison. The motor pool storage building sat in a valley so that when you were there all you could see of the rest of the farm was the incinerator smokestack. As Chester pulled onto the asphalt apron in front of the building, he saw a car, but no driver. The big metal overhead door was open. Figuring that the contractor was inside, Chester parked and went to find him.
Going inside, Chester edged past the four-wheel-drive truck with the big blade in front they used to keep the dairy roads free of snow. In the back, past an old hay baler, he saw a man wearing a bright clean pair of blue coveralls that made him look more like a newly minted garage mechanic than a contractor. He was standing with his hands in his pockets, butt against a workbench on which there was a galvanized washtub.
“Good morning,” the man called out.
Then Chester recognized him: a guy he’d seen around for a couple of years, mostly in the Lundstrom brothers’ café, where he was always in a shirt and tie. They’d exchanged enough “how are yous” for Chester to feel he knew him, but he’d never heard his name.
“I didn’t know you were a contractor,” Chester said.
“And I didn’t know you worked here,” the fellow said, grinning.
“Fair enough,” Chester replied. He extended his hand and introduced himself.
The man responded in kind.
“Here’s the contract,” Chester said. “What are you gonna do with the place?”
The man put the envelope in his pocket. “Move that wall over there out about thirty feet,” he said, gesturing behind the hay baler and a tractor on the other side. “Say, Chester, let me ask you something. You ever see anything like this?” He pointed into the galvanized tub.
What, again? Chester thought. Two oddities in the same day? He eagerly walked up to the tub and looked in. But he saw only a foot and a half of clear water. He turned to the contractor. “It’s just water.”
“No… I mean what’s swimming in it. You have to look closely.”
Chester bent and stared into the water.
Suddenly, there was pressure on the back of his head, forcing his face into the water. In his surprise, he inhaled, flooding his lungs.
He struggled hard, but not for long. As he passed from this life into the next, he briefly saw himself on the farm he hoped to own someday, proudly driving a new bright green John Deere tractor.
Back at the main complex, Peter Dobbs led the cow that had been closest to the strange object on the floor out of the barn. It followed him docilely, until about ten feet from their destination between two huge silage bunkers, the cow’s legs buckled and it went down. It then began to kick wildly. Mucus bubbled from its nose and mouth.
Dobbs was bewildered at what was happening, but it made what he had to do easier. Walking to the animal’s head, he lifted the .45 caliber pistol at his side and fired a shot into its brain.
“HERE’S THE CHART for room three.”
Holly Fisher accepted the clipboard and scanned the existing data on Ralph Hanson, a fifty-three-year-old real estate agent, who had been referred by his regular physician following a nasty discovery during his annual physical. Satisfied with her grasp of the details, Holly opened the door of room three and went inside.
Her patient got off the examining table and stood when he saw her.
“Mr. Hanson, I’m Doctor Fisher.”
Other than being about thirty pounds overweight, he didn’t look sick, which of course, he wouldn’t. She could see the fear in his eyes, and when she shook his hand, it was like gripping a moist sponge. At her request, he returned to the examining table.
“What’s this about?” he prompted, one dangling foot beating out waltz time.
“Part of your recent physical included a quantitative analysis of the various kinds of cells in your blood,” Holly said. “It was found that you have an unusually high number of the type known as lymphocytes.”
“Which means what?” Hanson said.
This was the point where she’d have to use the word, and his life would never be the same again. Even now, after having uttered it to so many patients that their faces were lost to her, it still set off an internal fire alarm. No surprise there, considering…
“It means you have leukemia.”
The blood drained from Hanson’s face and the bounce went out of his foot.
Holly hastened to tell him the rest. “Chronic lymphocytic leukemia, to be precise,” she said. “The key word here is chronic.If you have to get leukemia, that’s the kind to get.”
“It’s not… terminal then?” Hanson said.
“I have a patient who was diagnosed eighteen years ago, and in all that time, she’s only had to treat it once, for a two-week period.”
Hanson’s color brightened.
“Your lymphocyte count is only about four times normal. That’s not terribly high. In all likelihood, this condition will not create any problems for a very long time. And when it does, we’ll treat it.”
“And the treatments are effective?”
“How long before I’d have to worry?”
“Let’s put it this way. When your time comes, chances are slim that this will be the cause. But I do need to give you a short physical exam.”
As the referring physician had noted, Holly found no enlarged lymph nodes, and though it was a bit difficult palpating Hanson’s spleen through his extra weight, it too felt normal in size. They talked for a few minutes after the exam, during which Holly told him to return in three months for another blood study.
It was now nearly four o’clock, almost time for her to hit the gym for a workout. But first, she had to do a total white count and a differential on some preps that had come up from the lab just before she’d seen Mr. Hanson. Normally, she’d have let a med tech handle the counts, but this was a very special case.
Returning to the office, she sat in front of her binocular microscope, where two Wright-stained blood smears and a sample of the same blood in a solution that dissolves red cells were waiting for her. She set about performing the total white count by drawing a small amount of the sample into a tiny tube fitted into the cap of the container holding the sample. She filled both chambers of a counting slide with blood from the tube, then put the slide on the scope. After a few adjustments, the white cells came into view, standing out like shiny ghosts against the vague debris of the dissolved red cells. She made the count quickly and plugged the result into a standard formula that yielded the good news; seventy-five hundred cells per cc, right smack in the middle of normal.
She replaced the counting chamber with one of the blood smears. A couple turns of the coarse focus, then a tweak of the fine, brought the tiny embalmed blood components to sharpness, revealing a punctate landscape as familiar to her as the furnishings in her home. Technically, the slide was excellent; the erythrocytes nicely separated from each other and spread evenly over the slide, the white cell nuclei just the right shade of purple, the various granules specifically tinted orange or azure.
She’d always enjoyed looking at blood smears, finding beauty even in the disturbed and immature shapes that spelled trouble for the patients they came from. But these cells were perfectly normal in appearance and in a few minutes, when she’d completed her diff count, she saw that the number of the various components were all within normal limits. This pleased her immensely because this blood was from a woman who, seven years earlier, while a student in medical school, had faced a death sentence from acute myelocytic leukemia… not the relatively benign disease Mr. Hanson had, but a fire-breathing dragon. And now, after treatment, she’d been in remission for more than six years. This continued evidence that the woman could look forward to a long life filled Holly with a joy that couldn’t be put into words, for the slide had been made from her own blood.
To treat her, her doctors had taken a sample of her bone marrow and purged it of the outlaw stem cells causing her disease. They had then given her drugs to kill all the stem cells in her remaining marrow. The purged marrow was then injected back into her with hopes that those cells would begin producing only healthy progeny. And they had.
But until today, Holly had not fully believed she was cured. She’d worried that the chemo they’d given her to kill the renegade stem cells in her body, or the method they’d used to clean up the marrow sample they’d re-injected, had missed one or two that had merely gone into hiding… that one day they’d mount a suicidal coup, and she’d be in the obituary column before she’d really lived. That fear was one of the reasons she’d decided on a specialty in hematology… to know the enemy. But now, with these good results, she suddenly felt free of all that. She was cured, really and truly.
She picked up the phone, entered the number of Grant Ingram’s pager, then waited for him to call back, which he did barely two minutes later.
“Hi, I need to talk to you. Can I come up?”
“Sure,” Grant replied. “What’s the topic?”
“It’s a surprise.”
As she passed the small room that housed the practice’s phlebotomist, or vampire, as Rena liked to call herself, Holly leaned in. “When you get a chance would you dispose of that blood sample in my office and clean my hemacytometer?”
“Will do,” Rena said, keeping her attention on her patient’s arm, where she was searching for a vein. “You off to take out your aggressions on some gym equipment?”
“Actually, I’m on my way to propose to Doctor Ingram.”
This got Rena’s full attention and she looked at Holly, her face beaming. “A frontal attack. I love it.”
Was there any more magical word in the world?
In the years since her disease had gone into remission, Holly had tried to live a normal life. And for the most part, she had. For weeks at a time, she wouldn’t even think about the possibility that her leukemia might return. But even then, the specter was always there, lurking in the shadows at the edge of perception. Several times a month she’d see it clearly, often enough to remind her not to make any long-range plans or commitments.
But that was in the past.
Waiting for the elevator, she felt reborn; fresh and new, her life an uncluttered highway, stretching away to a distant horizon that held mysteries and wonders she longed to experience. So as the crowded elevator arrived and she stepped on, she began to hum a lullaby for the child she was now free to think about, caring not at all about the curious glances the other passengers were giving her.
Two floors up, Holly found Grant in the hallway of his practice area scribbling in a chart.
“Remember, somebody else may have to read that,” she quipped.
He looked up, his brow furrowed. “I write legibly.”
“It was a joke,” Holly whispered in his ear.
“Oh.” He gave her a smile with no heart in it and motioned with his head. “Let’s go to my office.”
In college Grant had been a champion swimmer, and his office was filled with the trophies he’d won. Now he was one of the city’s brightest young internists, and his blond hair still looked as though he’d just popped out of the pool and toweled it dry. He sat behind his desk, put his feet up, and cupped his hands behind his head.
“I’m yours for the next five minutes.”
“I just looked at my blood. Everything’s still fine,” Holly said.
“That’s great, babe.”
“For the first time I feel as though I can plan for the future… like I’m going to be around as long as anyone else.”
“I never doubted that.”
“I did. So when do you want to do it?”
“Get married. Start a family.”
Grant took his feet off the desk and rocked forward. “Slow down.”
“What do you mean? I’ve been slowed down. I couldn’t even think of having a child when I didn’t know if I’d be around to raise it. But I’m sure now that I will.” Holly stared at Grant’s strained expression. “I don’t understand. I thought this was something you wanted too, and that you were just being considerate and supportive by not pressuring me to do something I felt so strongly was wrong.”
“That’s not entirely correct,” Grant said. “I don’t recall ever saying I was ready for that responsibility. I’m only thirty-three years old, my practice is just beginning to take off, I’d like to travel…”
“You son-of-a-bitch,” Holly said. “You only stayed with me because I was safe. As long as I was afraid my leukemia might return, you knew I wouldn’t pressure you for any kind of commitment. I was just a… vagina with no strings attached.”
Grant shot to his feet. “Now that’s pretty nasty.”
Holly crossed the room and snatched a framed photo of Grant accepting some swim medal off the wall, lifted it over her head, and impaled it on one of his trophies, sending glass everywhere. “No,” she said. “That’s nasty.”
Fighting back tears, Holly returned to her own floor.
“When’s the date?” Rena asked as Holly steamed past.
“He’d rather travel,” Holly said, leaving the words trailing behind her.
In her office, Holly grabbed her coat and headed back to the elevators, ignoring the receptionist, who tried to hand her a message. Feeling utterly betrayed by Grant and stupid for allowing that to happen, Holly claimed her car from the parking garage next to the medical arts building and pulled onto Madison Avenue.
Last year in Memphis, the terrible summer heat had carried all the way into mid-October, irritating the inhabitants and making many of them, Holly included, wonder why they remained in a place where summer lingered so long. This year, in a turnaround that would help make the average temperature for October match the benign numbers put out by the weather service, the city had been experiencing record lows for the last two nights. With the temperature now hovering around thirty-four and a low of twenty-nine expected, it would only be a matter of hours before the light mist speckling Holly’s windshield would turn dangerous, a rotten day for aimless driving around.
But that’s what Holly did, finding herself an hour later in Mississippi, forty miles down I-55. In truth, the trip hadn’t been worthless, for she’d made a decision. She didn’t need Grant to have a child. She didn’t need any man. Well, at least not one she’d ever have to look at. It was too late today to call the clinic, but first thing in the morning…
“HELLO, THIS IS Doctor Holly Fisher. May I speak to Doctor Morrison please.”
There was a moment of silence, and then the woman on the other end said, “Did you say Holly Fisher?” as if Holly were some kind of celebrity whose call was a big surprise.
“I’ll get the doctor.”
Now that the moment was almost here, Holly felt apprehensive… not so much about her decision, but whether the whole thing would work. For most women, to conceive through the use of a sperm donor was a relatively simple matter; pick the donor, show up at the appropriate time of the month, and wait for results. If it doesn’t take, you try again.
But with Holly it was different. Warned that the chemo she’d be given to kill her bone marrow would probably also destroy all the eggs in her ovaries, Holly had delayed treatment until Doctor Susan Morrison at Fertility Associates had induced her to super ovulate eleven mature eggs. For seven years those eggs had been sitting in liquid nitrogen at the clinic waiting for Holly… eleven tiny spheres, hardly big enough to see with the naked eye, let alone hold a woman’s future. And now their time had come.
“This is Doctor Morrison.”
“Hello, Doctor. Holly Fisher here. Seven years ago I had some of my eggs stored there while I underwent chemotherapy…”
“Yes, Doctor Fisher. I remember that very clearly.”
“I’d like to make an appointment to discuss plans for fertilizing those eggs and implanting them. I know it’s short notice, but I just decided to do this, and I’m free today. Could you possibly see me?”
“Yes. I most definitely think we should get together at the earliest moment.”
The clinic was two hundred miles away in Jackson, Mississippi, where Holly had been living when she was diagnosed. Since it was one of the best anywhere, she’d never considered moving her eggs to a Memphis clinic. But that meant… “It’ll take me about three and a half hours to make the drive.”
“Would two o’clock work for you?”
“Perfect. I’ll see you then.”
It was only after hanging up that Holly reflected on the odd phrasing Morrison had used when she’d agreed to an appointment today. She’d actually seemed eager for them to meet, as if the clinic needed the business, which, considering its reputation, didn’t seem likely.
Thinking that it was probably just her imagination, Holly turned her mind to the things she’d have to do before heading for Jackson.
THE WAITING ROOM for Fertility Associates was more like a drawing room in someone’s home than a doctor’s office: a muted floral carpet, comfortable upholstered chairs, and Impressionist-style paintings of children at play in gardens bursting with flowers. The presence of six other women waiting for their appointments showed that business was in fact as good as Holly had believed.
Holly stepped up to the receptionist, a pretty olive‑skinned brunette behind a carved English desk, and gave her name. Hearing it, the girl inhaled sharply, then practically lunged for the phone. She announced Holly’s arrival in a breathless voice.
What on earth is going on here?
A nurse appeared in the doorway to the clinic area. “Doctor Fisher, please… come on back.”
Holly followed the nurse to an unoccupied office with furnishings that continued the theme from the waiting room.
The nurse waved Holly into a chair in front of a larger version of the desk out front. “Doctor Morrison will be with you very shortly,” the nurse said, leaving Holly alone.
On the credenza behind Morrison’s desk was an assortment of pictures—a couple of kids, most likely her grandchildren; a young man wearing a graduation robe and mortarboard; a teenage girl in a prom dress; and one of Morrison herself in camouflage fatigues, a shotgun tucked under one armpit, the opposite hand holding up a fistful of limp ducks.
“Doctor Fisher… so good to see you.” Morrison came over and clasped Holly’s hand in both of her own, as if they were dear friends. Though Susan Morrison had to be nearly sixty, the years had not found their way into her eyes, which retained the glow of youth. But there was also something else in there… Still holding Holly’s hand, she said, “I hope it wasn’t wrong of me to ask you to make such a long drive, but…”
While Holly wondered why Morrison was apologizing for arranging an appointment Holly had asked for, a terrible thought took shape. The odd things she’d been noticing in talking to Morrison and the receptionist… Maybe it was because…
Oh my God.
“I just didn’t feel right about saying this over the phone,” Morrison continued. “The eggs you left in our care… they’re gone.”