Angel Falls Page 2

He loved it when she held him like this. Lately (since he’d started fourth grade) he’d had to become a big boy. Like he couldn’t let Mom hold his hand as they walked down the school corridors … and she definitely couldn’t kiss him good-bye. So now they only had times like this when he could be a little boy.

“Well, I guess any kid big enough to saddle this horse is ready to go on an overnight ride. I’m proud of you, kiddo.”

He let out a loud Whoopee! and hugged her. “Thanks, Mom.”

“No problema.” She gently eased away from him and got to her feet. As they stood there together, she let her gloved hand sort of hang there in the space between them, and Bret slipped his hand in hers.

She squeezed his hand. “Now I’ve got to work Bullet for an hour or so before Jeanine gets here to worm the horses. I’ve got a zillion things to do today before trick-or-treating.”

“Is she giving any shots?”

“Not this time.” She ruffled his hair again, then reached down for her glove.

“Can I stay and watch you ride?”

“You remember the rules?”

“Gee, no, Mom.”

“Okay, but no talking and no getting off the fence.”

He grinned. “You just have to tell me the rules again, don’t you?”

She laughed. “Sit down, Jim Carrey.” Turning her back to him, she tightened the girth and bridled the mare. “Go and get me my helmet, will you, Bretster?”

He ran to the tack room. At the chest marked Mike’s stuff, he bent down and lifted the lid, rummaging through the fly sprays, brushes, lead ropes, buckets, and hoof picks until he found the dusty black velvet-covered helmet. Tucking it under his arm, he let the lid drop shut and ran back into the arena.

Mom was on Bullet now, her gloved hands resting lightly on the horse’s withers. “Thanks, sweetie.” She leaned down and took the helmet.

By the time Bret reached his favorite spot on the arena fence, Mom was easing Bullet toward the path that ran along the wall. He climbed up the slats and sat on the top rail.

He watched as she went ’round and ’round. She pushed Bullet through her paces as a warm-up: walk, trot, extended trot, and then to a rocking-horse canter. Bret watched as horse and rider became a blur of motion.

He knew instantly when Mom had decided it was time to jump. He’d watched so many times, he knew the signs, although he couldn’t have said what they were. He just knew that she was going to head for the first two-foot jump.

Just like he knew something was wrong.

He leaned forward. “Wait, Mommy. The jump is in the wrong place. Someone musta moved it …”

But she didn’t hear him. Bullet was fighting her, lunging and bucking as Mommy tried to rein the mare down to a controlled canter.

“Whoa, girl, slow down. Calm down …”

Bret heard the words as Mom flew past him. He wanted to scramble down from his perch, but he wasn’t allowed to—not when she was working a horse over jumps.

It was too late to yell anyway. Mom was already at the fence. Bret’s heart was hammering in his chest.

Somethingiswrong. The words jammed together in his mind, growing bigger and uglier with every breath. He wanted to say them out loud, to yell, but he couldn’t make his mouth work.

Silver Bullet bunched up and jumped over the fake brick siding with ease.

Bret heard his mom’s whoop of triumph and her laugh.

He had a split second of relief.

Then Silver Bullet stopped dead.

One second Mom was laughing, and the next, she was flying off the horse. Her head cracked into the barn post so hard the whole fence shook. And then she was just lying there in the dirt, her body crumpled like an old piece of paper.

There was no sound in the big, covered arena except his own heavy breathing. Even the horse was silent, standing beside her rider as if nothing had happened.

Bret slid down the fence and ran to his mom. He dropped to his knees beside her. Blood trickled down from underneath her helmet, smearing in her short black hair.

He touched her shoulder, gave her a little shove. “Mommy?”

The bloodied hair slid away from her face. That’s when he saw that her left eye was open.

Bret’s sister, Jacey, was the first to hear his scream. She came running into the arena, holding Dad’s big down coat around her. “Bretster—” Then she saw Mommy, lying there. “Oh my God! Don’t touch her!” she yelled at Bret. “I’ll get Dad.”

Bret couldn’t have moved if he’d wanted to. He just sat there, staring down at his broken mommy, praying and praying for her to wake up, but the prayers had no voice; he couldn’t make himself make any sound at all.

Finally Daddy ran into the barn.

Bret popped to his feet and held his arms out, but Daddy ran right past him. Bret stumbled backward so fast, he hit the fence wall. He couldn’t breathe enough to cry. He just stood there, watching the red, red blood slither down his mommy’s face. Jacey came and stood beside him.

Daddy knelt beside her, dropping his black medical bag into the dirt. “Hang on, Mikaela,” he whispered. Gently he removed her helmet—should Bret have done that?—then Daddy opened her mouth and poked his fingers between her teeth. She coughed and sputtered, and Bret saw blood gush across his daddy’s fingers.

Daddy’s hands that were always so clean … now Mommy’s blood was everywhere, even on the sleeves of Daddy’s flannel pajamas.

“Hang on, Mike,” his dad kept saying, over and over again, “hang on. We’re all here … stay with us….”

Stay with us. That meant don’t die … which meant she could die.

Dad looked up at Jacey. “Call nine-one-one now.”

It felt like hours they all stood there, frozen and silent. Finally red lights cartwheeled through the dim barn, sirens screamed; an ambulance skidded through the loose gravel alongside the horse trailer.

Blue-uniformed paramedics came running into the barn, dragging a bumping, clanking bed on wheels behind them. Bret’s heart started beating so loud he couldn’t hear.

He tried to scream Save her! but when he opened his mouth, all that came out was a thick black cloud. He watched the smoke turn into a bunch of tiny spiders and float away.

He clamped his mouth shut and backed away, hitting the fence so hard it knocked him dizzy. He covered his ears and shut his eyes and prayed as hard as he could.

She is dying.

Memories rush through her mind in no particular order, some tinged with the sweet scent of roses after a spring rain, some smelling of the sand at the lake where she tasted the first kiss that mattered. Some—too many—come wrapped in the iridescent, sticky web of regret.

They are moving her now, strapping her body to a strange bed. The lights are so bright that she cannot open her eyes. An engine starts and the movement hurts. Oh, God, it hurts …

She can hear her husband’s voice, the soft, whispering love sounds that have guided her through the last ten years of her life, and though she can hear nothing from her children, her babies, she knows they are here, watching her. More than anything in the world, she wants a chance to say something to them, even if only a sound, a sigh, something …

Warm tears leak from the corners of her eyes, slide behind her ears, and dampen the stiff, unpleasantly scented pillow behind her head. She wishes she could hold them back, swallow them, so that her children won’t see, but such control is gone, as distant and impossible as the ability to lift her hand for a final wave.

Then again, maybe she isn’t crying at all, maybe it is her soul, leaking from her body in droplets that no one will ever see.

Chapter Two

When he was young, Liam Campbell hadn’t been able to get out of Last Bend fast enough. The town had seemed so small and constrained, squeezed as it was inside his famous father’s fist. Everywhere Liam went, he was compared to his larger-than-life dad, and he fell short. Even at home, he felt invisible. His parents were so in love … there simply wasn’t much room left over for a boy who read books and longed to be a concert pianist.

To his utter astonishment, he had been accepted at Harvard. By the time he’d finished his undergraduate studies, he’d learned that he wasn’t good enough to be a concert pianist. The best player at Last Bend, even the best at Harvard, wasn’t good enough. He could be a music teacher at an expensive private school, maybe, but his talent didn’t include the power or the anger or the desperate passion of the best of the best. So he’d quietly tucked that youthful dream aside and turned his attention to medicine. If he wasn’t talented enough to entertain people with his hands, he believed he was caring enough to heal them.

He studied day and night, knowing that a quiet man like him, so reserved and ordinary, needed to be better than the competition.

He graduated at the top of his class and took a job that stunned and appalled his Ivy League classmates—at an AIDS clinic in the Bronx. It was the early days of the epidemic and people were terrified of the disease. But Liam believed that there, amidst true suffering, he would discover the man he was meant to be.

In hallways that smelled of death and despair, he made a difference in patients’ lives, but he never once got to say “You’ll be fine. You’re cured.”

Instead, he dispensed medicines that didn’t work and held hands that got weaker and weaker. He held newborn babies who would never have the chance to dream of living in Paris. He wrote out death certificates until he could no longer hold a pen without horror.

When his mother died of a sudden heart attack, he came home and tended to the father who, for the first time, needed his only son. Liam had always meant to leave again, but then he’d met Mikaela …


With her, at last, he had found his place in the world.

Now he was in the hospital, waiting to hear whether she would live …

They had been here for only a few hours, but it felt like forever. His children were in the waiting room—he could picture them, huddled together, weeping, Jacey drying her little brother’s tears—and though he longed to be with them, he knew that if he looked at his children now, he would break, and the tears that fell from his eyes would scald them all.


He spun toward the voice. His hip cracked into a crash cart and set the supplies rattling. He reached out and steadied them.

Dr. Stephen Penn, the chief of neurology, stood before him. Though he was Liam’s age—just turned fifty—Stephen looked old now, and tired. They had played golf together for years, he and Stephen, but nothing in their relationship had prepared them for this moment.

He touched Liam’s shoulder. “Come with me.”

They walked side by side down the austere corridor and turned into the ICU. Liam noticed the way the trauma nurses wouldn’t look at him. It was humbling to know how it felt to be the “next of kin.”

At last they entered a glass-walled private room, where Mikaela lay in a narrow bed, behind a pale privacy curtain. She looked like a broken doll, hooked up to machines—ventilators, IVs, monitors that tracked everything from her heart rate to her intracranial pressure. The ventilator breathed for her, every breath a rhythmic thwop-whoosh-clunk in the quiet room.

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