(Reader note: Although Don’t Tell Anyone is Book Two in the Trager Family Secrets Series, it is a stand-alone story.)
As Liza’s professor scrawled diagrams of molecules across his whiteboard in an attempt to explain osmosis and the sodium-potassium pump, something began to ring. That bothered her. There was only so much organic chemistry she could fit into her head, and the ringing took up too much space. She nudged her leg against her husband’s. “Make it stop.”
He said something that sounded like, “Beer me.”
Right, Liza thought, slowly waking. They’d been down the hill at the Miller’s Halloween party; apparently it was still in full swing in Adam’s head. She wondered if he was still dancing with Cara Miller’s breasts.
Ring. Alert now, Liza could identify it as the telephone. She forced open her eyes, crusted with last night’s congealed makeup, and peered at the clock through a clump of disheveled auburn hair. Four-thirty.
As she fought her way out of the covers for the cordless handset, which should have been on the nightstand, several thoughts seeped through her muzzy brain. One, it had been warm in bed next to her passed-out husband. Two, she almost had the sodium-potassium pump story down pat. And three, dressing up like a flapper and drinking three glasses of zombie punch at the Miller’s Halloween party two days before her organic chemistry midterm had been a very bad idea.
“Where’d he leave that stupid phone?” Startling her orange tabby, Liza followed the sound down the hall to the top of the washing machine. When she picked up, she heard heavy breathing.
You’ve got to be kidding. I was in the middle of a perfectly efficient REM cycle. It had to be one of her neighbors, who’d come to the party dressed as a flasher and had been a little too deep into his character, the punch, and every woman in the room.
“It isn’t funny anymore, Ted.”
The breathing became a tiny, wheezing, nasal voice. It creaked out, “I’m Estelle’s upstairs neighbor? I just called 911.”
Liza froze. Her own voice failed her. She swallowed. “We’ll be right there.” Still holding the receiver, she bolted toward their bedroom, calling her husband’s name.
She shoved his arm. It flopped over like a dead halibut. “Adam.”
“It’s your mother.”
A groan emanated from the pillows. “What about my mother?”
“A neighbor called. She’s on her way to the hospital.”
Oh, for the love of— “Adam. Get dressed.”
There was no time for coffee or hygiene, no time to remove the physical or emotional remnants of the party. Adam and Liza threw on jeans and grabbed car keys and bolted from their yellow ranch house halfway up the hill on Sycamore Street.
Now it seemed surreal to Liza that such a short time ago, they were drinking and dancing in the Miller’s living room. That only three hours ago, they’d argued whether Adam perhaps enjoyed a little too enthusiastically the lewd comments Cara Miller had made about the tight leather pants of his punk-rocker costume. That two hours ago, when they’d arrived home, Adam, possibly thinking about Cara’s hydraulically raised breasts in her Naughty Nurse outfit, had attempted to make love to Liza but passed out instead.
Just as well, Liza thought. She hadn’t wanted that to be the story of how their first child was conceived.
As she drove her baby blue VW bug out of the neighborhood, not trusting Adam behind the wheel, Liza noticed a dribble of cars still parked in front of the Miller’s house. Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” pulsed from the windows. What looked like a human form lay on the side of the Miller’s lawn. Another human form swayed rhythmically atop it.
“Unbelievable,” Adam said. “Is that Cara?”
More to the point, Liza thought, is that her husband?
In Liza’s observation, it had hit Adam somewhere around the New Paltz Thruway entrance that a call to 911 at four-thirty in the morning could mean bad news. He’d sobered up enough to be scared and quiet. He seemed to completely disappear when Liza asked the emergency room guard where they could find Estelle Trager.
The guard made a phone call and pulled a glass screen closed.
Adam’s compact body seemed to flinch. “Why’s he doing that?” He knocked on the glass. “Hey—”
The guard ignored them. He talked into the phone and nodded. Then slid the partition open. “They’ll come get you soon.”
“Soon? What the hell is ‘soon?’ It’s my mother.”
“They’re trying to stabilize her.”
Adam’s voice climbed an octave. “Stabilize her? What does that mean?”
“No, damn it. We should be in there.” He turned to Liza. “Shouldn’t we be in there?”
“Soon,” the guard said. “Have a seat.”
Adam and Liza clung together in the tiny, mostly empty waiting room. The buzzing overhead lights drained the remaining color from his boyishly handsome face and turned his greenish-blue eyes a shade of pale mud. The smeared eyeliner and blue tips in his short, sandy brown hair made the horror of the situation worse. It no longer mattered what Cara had said, Liza realized, or where her neighbor might or might not have put her hands. She just wanted to make it better. She wanted to scrub last night off her husband’s face and hair and tuck him into bed.
Adam said, “Maybe it’s just an allergic reaction.”
“I don’t even remember the last time she was sick.”
Finally they heard the slide of the glass. “Mr. and Mrs. Trager, you can go back now.”
Liza cringed, a reflex sharpened over the past five years, at hearing someone call her “Mrs. Trager.” That title belonged to Adam’s mother. She was Liza Stanhope. But at the moment it wasn’t worth an argument.
No one showed them which partition shielded Estelle Trager. Liza felt lost and small as she and Adam wandered amid the bustle of hospital personnel and equipment. People ignored them, as if bedraggled Halloween party refugees drifted through every night. On one gurney was a man in jeans, work boots, and a sleeveless T-shirt. He was out cold and, from the odious cloud surrounding him, dead drunk. Atop another lay a mountain of a black woman surrounded by family and a minister who recited scripture.
“Here.” Adam tugged at Liza’s arm.
All she saw was a rumple of bedclothes, spent equipment, and plastic wrappers on the floor. “But there’s no one…” Then she spotted the dyed red shock of Estelle’s hair sticking up out of a sheet. “…here.”
“Christ,” Adam muttered. “Jesus H.…”
“Are you the son?”
Adam hadn’t moved. Liza normally thought of herself as sanguine, but she had to force her attention from the tube in her mother-in-law’s throat, from the sallow hue of her face, and from the rhythmic wheeze of the machine that thrust Estelle’s chest out and in, out and in.
Standing behind them was a ridiculously young woman in a lab coat.
“Yes,” Liza said. “He is. Well. The only son in the country at the moment.”
The young woman blinked at him and forced a bit of a smile. “Halloween party?”
No, Liza thought, glaring. My stockbroker husband just likes to dress up as Sid Vicious on the weekends. “What happened?”
“First I need to ask you some questions about her history. She’s not in our database.”
“How long has she been sick?”
Adam shrugged, still staring at his mother. “Didn’t know she was sick.”
“Has she ever had surgery?”
Adam failed to respond. Liza shook her head.
“Taking any prescription medication?”
Again, not a word came from the son who was supposed to supply the answers. “I don’t think so,” Liza said.
“None that I’m aware of.” Why have I made myself the keeper of Estelle Trager’s medical history?
The technician scribbled at her chart. “I’ll leave that as ‘unknown.’ And how long has she had the tumors?”
A knot tightened in Liza’s throat. Adam went wooden against her. Finally, he snapped out of his focus and looked at the technician, his brow wrinkled in confusion. “How long has she had what?”