Poughkeepsie, p.37
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       Poughkeepsie, p.37

           Debra Anastasia
 

  Beckett’s smile filled his voice. “Thank you.”

  “Don’t thank us, just go,” Kim replied. “We don’t approve of what you might have done.”

  Beckett kissed each woman’s cheek and said, “Ladies, I was saying thank you for taking such beautiful care of my brother. You’re angels. Selfless, beautiful fucking angels. I’ll get out of your hair.” After the briefest of looks back into Blake’s hospital room, Beckett disappeared down the hall.

  Livia closed her eyes to steady herself for a moment. Her sobs had subsided into small, rhythmic sniffles. When she opened her eyes, she was ready. She sat up and tucked her hair behind her ear. She filled a cup of water and added the straw. The cup was steady in her hand as he took a few sips.

  Livia decided she loved watching things go into him. Food, water, love—all these things she could give him.

  “You look tired. Would you like to nap?” he asked. Blake was definitely back. There was less rasp and more smoke in his silky voice.

  “No, Blake. I never want to sleep again. Just this.” Livia touched his face. “Only this.”

  The pride in his eyes almost changed their color. He turned his face to her palm, kissed it, and said, “Come, my love, put your head on my shoulder. Your burdens have been heavy.”

  In that moment, Livia realized her eyelids were drooping, and the crook of Blake’s arm seemed perfect for her head. His lips stayed on her forehead as he hummed a serene song. Livia fell into a deep, dreamless slumber.

  Blake’s cough woke her sometime later. He shrugged and looked apologetic when she checked his face, touching him again for reassurance.

  “You’re doing great, Mr. Hartt,” said the therapist who Livia now noticed in the room. “We’ll work on those breathing exercises again later.” Blake gave a quick wave as the man in scrubs left the room.

  He returned his gaze to Livia. “I’m sorry I woke you. You were so out. You need the rest.”

  Livia touched his limbs, his blankets, and his hair, taking inventory. “Having you wake me is worth it every time.”

  “Did I pass inspection?” he teased, watching her roving hands.

  “Yes. You’re still here. That’s what I need.” Livia reached to refill his cup.

  She had a flash of her effortless forever: Feeding Blake, tucking a blanket around his body when he fell asleep on a couch, saying thank you any time he passed her the salt at the table.

  “The nurses told me what you did, Livia. You made my heart beat in the woods.” He looked at her lips and continued, “You gave me breath. Were you scared, love? I’m sorry.”

  “You’re apologizing because you stopped breathing?” Livia wrinkled her nose.

  He nodded reverently. “I left you in the clearing again.”

  “You took the bullet that had my name on it and let it lodge in your back,” Livia responded. “You never left me in those woods. You gave me strength when I needed it. You don’t need to apologize, but it’s perfectly acceptable for you to never, ever stop breathing again.” She touched his Sorry tattoo.

  At his slow smile, she gathered him into a gentle hug again. Will I ever be able to stop touching him?

  “Brave Livia, you never cease to amaze me.” He lifted her chin with his finger. “I’ve never been more thankful to be alive than right now.”

  After soft kisses, they pressed their hands together palm to palm. The tingling scattered all over Livia’s body, warming her.

  “Do you feel that?” she whispered with a smile.

  His lips moved in his silent count. Blake wrapped his fingers around her hand. She copied the movement. Their hands together now resembled a heart—not a cartoon rendering of the shape, but a real human heart.

  He touched her lips with his and murmured, “I’ve been feeling it since you first smiled at me.”

  44

  Cool, Clean Water

  DR. HARTT USUALLY KEPT his past from his friends, colleagues, and patients. There was just never a great time to bring up childhood. His wasn’t necessarily something he had to hide; he just chose to omit it from his present-day life.

  His parents had announced they were separating the night before his sixth birthday. Then his father was remarried and Flora, Dad’s new wife, announced he would be getting a baby sister or brother soon. Her belly grew, and Ted watched the house fill with more and more baby toys each time he visited.

  When he first met his half-sister Elizabeth, she was angry, red, and crying. Flora made him sit in a big rocker and hold the terrifyingly loud bundle while she took a picture. But by the time Flora had found the camera, remembered to remove the lens cap, and added the flash, Elizabeth had quieted in his arms. She put one of her flailing hands in her mouth and settled her grass-green eyes on her big brother’s face.

  Ted was hooked. Every visit to his father’s after that was filled with Elizabeth. And it seemed she felt the same. Before she could even walk, Elizabeth insisted on getting a handful of Ted’s cheek by way of greeting.

  One afternoon Ted overheard Flora on the phone. “I’ll tell you what, Pam, Ted has such a way with Elizabeth. She adores him. I swear she cries for hours when he goes back to his mother’s. That boy will make an amazing dad someday.”

  Over the next four years, Ted and Elizabeth created a world all their own. He built her grand forts using blankets and chairs. Flora took hundreds of pictures of the two of them, and she liked to call them Hansel and Gretel.

  Then the night before Ted’s twelfth birthday, his father sat him down. “I’m sorry to tell you this, son, but Flora and I are separating. She’s not taking it real well. She needs some time is all, and she’s taking Elizabeth down to her grandmother’s.”

  Ted’s father seemed resigned to the loss.

  “Are you done with Flora like you were done with Mom?” Ted wanted him to say no.

  His father answered as if Ted was a full-grown man. “I can’t get it right,” he sighed. “Another one keeps catching my eye. I have trouble with forever, you know?”

  That night Ted went through the photo albums and took a fistful Hansel and Gretel pictures. He had no problem with forever, even at his tender age.

  Ted refused to visit his father after that. His dad was soon married for the third time—to an even younger version of Flora. During their infrequent phone calls Ted always asked his father about Elizabeth. He never received solid answers or any information he could act on. The door to finding his sister closed permanently when an aggressive cancer suddenly ended his father’s life.

  In the years after he finished med school, Ted took advantage of all the technology at his fingertips. But his searches for Elizabeth or Flora Hartt yielded too many results. Desperate for something to do, Ted decided the obvious choice was returning to work at Poughkeepsie Hospital. His mother still lived close, and the house where he used to visit Elizabeth still stood in one of the old neighborhoods. In Ted’s mind, this was a way to honor them both.

  He’d plunged himself into his work and set his past aside, but his new trauma patient had piqued his interest. The green eyes and strong jaw were so familiar, and coupled with the matching last name, Ted was inspired. Maybe it was time to take things a step further. He’d hired a private investigator.

  He’d received the report not an hour earlier, complete with arrest records, a death certificate, and a birth certificate. The young man who’d so recently beaten the odds and emerged alert and aware from his medically induced coma was most likely his nephew. After looking over the hospital records and intake papers, Ted had learned Blake was a vagrant. So he had a homeless, injured nephew whose childhood had been a casualty of his half-sister’s descent into alcoholism and death.

  He now struggled to find a way to explain this bizarre connection to the man behind the hospital-room door in front of him. He glanced down at the photo he’d brought: Elizabeth giggling happily with Ted in the center of their sheet-made castle. He traced the face of the little girl who still held his heart. How terrible to learn wh
at she’d become.

  His surgeon’s hands shook as he opened the door. A curtain of light brown hair obscured Blake’s face as he was thoroughly kissed by his girlfriend. Ted cleared his throat. Livia sat back and gave a sheepish smile with a matching blush. Blake reached up and touched her cheek. Ted felt like he’d walked into a confessional.

  “Dr. Hartt, good afternoon,” Blake said warmly, ending his discomfort.

  “Mr. Hartt, good afternoon to you as well. Ms. McHugh.” He nodded formally to her. But he didn’t know where to start, his easy bedside manner was lost for once. He just forged ahead. “Blake, I had a sister named Elizabeth—she was my half-sister. I lost touch with her when I was twelve. I’ve been looking for her ever since, and I think she was your mother.”

  Ted held out the report with Elizabeth’s digital mugshot printed in color on the bottom. Blake looked at the picture and turned to stare out the window. He made no move to accept the papers.

  Livia took them from the doctor’s hand and touched Blake’s arm. “Is this her?” she asked. “Is this your mom?”

  Blake’s nod was barely perceptible.

  “That’s great. You have family.” Livia rubbed Blake’s arm.

  “You’re my family,” Blake said coldly.

  She looked confused and handed the report back. “I’m sorry, Dr. Hartt. Can we have a moment?”

  She asked politely, but Ted could tell she would enforce whatever Blake decided regarding his newfound uncle. He had to try one last time before he left them to their own conclusions. He stepped up and set the picture from his childhood on Blake’s bed, where the two could see it.

  “This is your mother to me, this little girl,” Ted explained. “I adored her. My father’s poor choices took her out of my life. I’m not trying to do anything other than tell you I’m here, and I was looking for her. Whatever she became, she was a wonderful little sister. I miss her.”

  Ted left the picture and walked out. He felt not the least bit professional. Why hadn’t he waited until Blake recovered? That was selfish, just like my goddamn father always was.

  “You look pale. Are you hungry? We don’t have to talk about this now.” Livia watched as Blake lifted the snapshot from the fuzzy splash of blanket.

  “That’s your mom?” She looked at his face as he studied it.

  He nodded. “I never imagined she could smile that big.”

  Livia felt the deluge of hate fill her to the top. Blake should’ve received limitless smiles as a child. Every time he entered the room his mother’s face should’ve lit up. His counting of Livia’s smiles made even-more-painful sense.

  “Your future will be full of smiles. I promise.”

  He looked surprised by the vehemence in her voice. “My past was worth it,” he said evenly. “All the trials brought me to this: you holding my hand.” He trailed his fingers up her arm to her shoulder and finally around the nape of her neck. “Kiss me.”

  Livia leaned into his full lips, relishing the taste that was Blake. The little slice of Ted’s past slipped from between them and landed on the floor. The kiss led to embarrassing moaning, and they pulled away, laughing at the need between them.

  “Being with you might just kill me right now.” Blake held her hands and took slow measured breaths.

  “I’ll wait until you can pant properly.” Livia looked at him from under her lashes.

  “Oh crap. That’s not helping.” Blake pretended to do CPR on his own chest.

  “What are you going to do about Uncle Dr. Hartt? He’s been really wonderful while we’ve been here.” Livia got off of the bed and retrieved his picture from the floor.

  “I don’t want to be anyone’s charity case. Not even my new uncle.” Blake’s raspy voice cracked a little.

  “Well, you’re all mine now, Blake. We can handle anything; we will or won’t be charity cases together. I don’t think he’s offering to diaper you and buy you a wagon. Maybe just a cup of coffee?” She touched his hair.

  He softened. “Together makes this easier to swallow. I guess there’s no harm in talking to the man.”

  “Uncle or not, he did save your life,” Livia pointed out.

  Blake bit his bottom lip and shook his head. Livia felt a wintry shiver as he licked his lips.

  “You saved my life, Livia. Only you.”

  Blake’s hospital stay lasted two more weeks, and when he inquired about the bill, Kim informed him it had been covered by an anonymous donation. A cash donation.

  “The billing department actually had to call the hospital president for instructions on how to deal with all the large bills,” she explained in a secretive voice. “In the end, hospital security escorted the head of accounting to the bank in the middle of the day.” Kim shook her head and laughed, but Blake’s eyes hardened. When they were alone he vented to Livia.

  “Beckett and his goddamn blood money. This feels all wrong to me.” He sat in what Livia had come to think of as her recliner as she helped him lace up his boots. Their soles were still dulled with a coating of soil from their traumatic night.

  Livia wasn’t sure how to comfort Blake. She certainly didn’t have a big pile of clean money to take the place of Beckett’s. “Beckett is all sorts of bad because of what he does, but who he is—that’s very beautiful. Sweetheart, he really stood by me while I waited for you to come out of surgery.” She rose and held out her arm.

  “I would’ve been a wreck waiting for you for hours like that,” Blake said. He leaned on her arm as little as possible as he stood.

  “And Beckett would’ve been right next to you the whole time.” She shrugged. None of this changed the fact that Beckett was a murderer and the funds probably came from merchandise customers injected into themselves.

  Checking out of the hospital was a process that had started in the morning and now continued into the afternoon. Kim and Susan popped in before their shifts were up to give Blake and Livia hugs and praise. The nurses waved away the thanks Blake and Livia showered on them. Directions from the respiratory therapist, prescriptions for rehabilitation and pain pills, and consent forms made a little pile on Blake’s hospital bed. And still they sat. Waiting. The TV was off. The room felt claustrophobic. Blake and Livia had made all the hard decisions already. Now they just needed to go.

  True to his word, Blake had spoken to Dr. Hartt every day since he revealed their connection. They’d even progressed to calling each other by their first names. And Ted’s answer to Blake’s housing predicament was almost perfect.

  Ted owned the apartment building he lived in, and he told Blake that his property manager had moved out a few months ago, and he needed someone new to fill the job. In exchange for collecting rent and making minor repairs, Blake could live in the building’s basement apartment. It was small, but it came furnished, Ted explained.

  Livia had a sneaking suspicion he’d filled an empty apartment with belongings just for Blake, but he was trying very hard to be respectful and sensitive to Blake’s pride. She was thrilled when Blake agreed to take the position.

  Around four p.m., Cole and Kyle gave up waiting for Livia’s “Come get us!” text and appeared in Blake’s hospital room. Cole greeted Blake with the usual arm hug, and their eyes locked in silent conversation.

  Where’s Beckett? Blake’s asked.

  Cole quickly shook his head. “Blake, you’re looking great,” he said instead.

  Blake nodded. “Livia wouldn’t have it any other way.”

  He smiled at her, but Livia was busy watching her sister hop from one foot to the other.

  “Do you have to use the ladies’ room or something?” Livia asked.

  “No. No, I don’t. I just can’t wait. I’m having all sorts of problems with the waiting.”

  Livia knew her sister’s secret would bubble out of her soon.

  Cole put a hand on Kyle’s shoulder. “You wanted to wait, remember? Tell her if you can’t stand it anymore.”

  At that, Kyle exploded. She waved her sparkling left ha
nd in front of her. “Oh my God! I’m engaged! I’m marrying Cole!”

  “What?!” Livia squeezed her sister hard. “Let me see. When did this happen? Did you tell Dad? When is it going to be? How did he propose?”

  The men stopped their congratulatory handshake to stare at the speed-talking ladies.

  “Last night, not yet, four weeks from today, naked!” Kyle blurted in response.

  The girls became a moving, jumping circle of hug.

  “Cole, you popped the question in your birthday suit?” Blake teased.

  Cole put his face in his hands. “Did not think she would share that bit of information.”

  Blake slapped his brother on the back. “Pretty sure Kyle lacks any kind of editing mechanism.”

  “So, seeing as you know all the details already, can I count on you to be best man?” Cole watched fear creep over Blake’s face. “The ceremony is at night,” he added quickly.

  Blake said nothing, just opened and closed his fist.

  “If Mr. Old Timey is still all jacked up from being a bullet catcher, we’ll put it off,” Kyle added.

  Blake smiled and held his arms open to the female ball of fire. “I’ll be fine, Kyle. I wouldn’t want you to spend one extra day not married to Cole because of me.”

  Kyle hugged him carefully. “Your being well is one of the only things that could ever make me wait.”

  After an extra squeeze Blake unclasped Kyle and she found her way to Cole’s hand, as surely as a river finding the bay.

  Blake answered Cole’s question still hanging in the air. “I’d be honored to serve as your best man.”

  Neither mentioned Beckett, but both touched their tattoos. Then a nurse appeared in the door with some final paperwork and a wheelchair. Livia took the papers and pen over to Blake, whose gaze was riveted on the wheelchair.

  “I’d prefer to stand when ladies are standing,” he said quietly to Livia.

  She longed to smooth a balm on all his wounds. “Blake, I’m exhausted. What I really need is a nice, strong lap to sit on to get me out to the car.”

 
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