veryone in the hospital corridor knew he was a boy, but an outsider would have taken him for a young man, perhaps in his midtwenties, because of his height—six four, the breadth of his chest, and his obvious physical fitness. He weighed two hundred and forty pounds. His high-school football coaches called him perfect linebacker material. Until one looked into his eyes and saw the moistness and the vulnerability that he tried so hard to conceal. In truth, Jake St. Cloud had just turned seventeen and would leave for college in only three weeks.
The doctor standing next to him could have auditioned for a role in the old television show
Father Knows Best
. He was kindly looking, with gentle, compassionate eyes, wire-rim glasses, and gray hair, which was thinning at the top. At first glance, he seemed neither tall nor short. One just didn’t notice those things. What one noticed was the white coat, the stethoscope, and his mesmerizing eyes. Also, his capable hands. Those capable hands were now on Jake’s shoulders. Words would come. Jake waited as he sucked in a deep breath, knowing what those words would be and dreading them.
“Just tell me, Dr. Fischer,” Jake said in a choked voice.
“I will, son. But first, do you know where your father is? We’ve been trying to call him all day. We’ve left messages everywhere, but there’s been no response.”
“I don’t know. I tried calling him before I came, but his secretary said she didn’t know where he was, that he hadn’t checked in. Does Mom want to see him?”
“No. She asked only for you. Selma refused the last morphine shot. She said she wanted to be lucid and alert when you got here.” The gentle hands were still on Jake’s shoulders when Dr. Fischer said, “She doesn’t have much time, Jake, so make every second count.”
Jake swallowed hard. “What if... what if my father doesn’t get here... in time?” He realized what a stupid question that was and shook his head to clear it. He shook free of the doctor’s hand and sprinted down the hallway to Room 412.
“Shouldn’t we be there, Dr. Fischer?” the stocky nurse asked.
“Yes, but outside the door. Selma doesn’t want the crash cart. She signed all the papers. Right now, all she wants is to see and talk to her son, Jake.”
“Should I try to reach Mr. St. Cloud again, Doctor?”
A look of disgust washed over the kindly doctor’s face. “I think a dozen calls is sufficient, Nurse Gilligan. The man knows his wife’s condition. I certainly didn’t mince any words yesterday when I spoke to him. He’s not here, by choice.”
“Jake is such a fine young man. His mother so doted on him. I never heard a bad word about Jake St. Cloud. Do you remember that article about him that was in the paper when he graduated in the spring? I remember every word because I wished someone would say such wonderful things about my own son.”
“I do remember. And every word was true. Selma raised a fine son. Taught him right from wrong. Taught him how to be kind, to help others, how to give and give and give. She said he never ever, not once, asked for a thing. That’s the kind of young man he is. And on top of all his civic and charitable duties, he was an honor student, as well as one of the school’s best athletes. He turned down five different scholarships so other youngsters could get them. He said he was paying his own way. Tell me, what kind of kid would do something like that?”
“A very special one, Dr. Fischer.”
Dr. Aaron Fischer leaned up against the wall and closed his eyes. Nurse Gilligan watched his lips move and knew he was praying for his patient because there was nothing more he could do for her. She closed her own eyes, her lips moving just as silently as Dr. Fischer’s.
Inside the hospital room, Jake St. Cloud pulled a chair closer to the hospital bed and reached for his mother’s hand. He squeezed it. “I’m here, Mom,” he said quietly.
“I know. Did I take you away from anything at home?”
“No. Mika told me to go and get lost. He said he was paid to do the yard work and didn’t need me to do the heavy lifting. He’s getting old, Mom; I just wanted to help him. He should retire and play with his grandchildren.”
“He’s been with us forever, Jake. You can’t take his job away from him. He’ll know when it’s time to leave. I provided for him and his family in my will. Loyalty deserves to be rewarded. Always remember that, Jake.”
“I will, Mom, I will. I tried calling Dad but wasn’t able to reach him.”
“That’s a good thing. I don’t think I could bear to look at him right now. Your being here is all I need. I asked you to come for a reason. When... later... when... when things are over, you’re going to have questions. I want you to hear the answers from me. I wish... oh, Jake, I wish so many things, but... you always said you wanted to be just like your dad. I never wanted that because he’s not who you think he is. Please, promise me you won’t . . . you won’t follow in his footsteps. And there is one other thing, Jake. You’re going to hear things... things I would give anything in this world for you not to hear. When and if you do, please don’t think too harshly of me. Will you promise me to try, Jake?”
A promise to his dying mother. How could he deny her anything? He couldn’t; it was that simple. His brain whirled and twirled as he listened to his mother’s strangled words. He wanted to tell her to stop, that he didn’t want or need to hear the words, but he couldn’t get his tongue to work. And, somewhere in the back of his mind, he knew that his mother wasn’t telling him
. He didn’t know how he knew that, he just knew it somewhere down deep.
“Your father was never faithful to me, Jake. He had his reasons; I have to be honest about that. Every month, every week there was a new woman. Women he made promises to, promises he never kept. He only married me for my inheritance. I like to think I knew that, and that’s why... He needed my money to start up his business. I gave it willingly because I thought I was in love. It took awhile for me to realize I wasn’t in love at all. The only thing I ever got in return was
. That was enough for me. I made my life around you and let your father do what he wanted. My lawyer will be in touch with you... later. All my money, my holdings go to you. We set up a trust fund for you. It will see you, your children, and your grandchildren through their lives. I want you to use it wisely. Wisely, Jake. I need you to remember that word. Your promise, one more time.”
“I promise, Mom.”
“Jake, listen to me. Come closer. I know you have a half brother or sister out there somewhere. I hired detectives, but we could never find out who or where he or she is. Your father covered his tracks very successfully. I know this because I overheard your father on the phone one day with the child’s mother. Her name was Sophia. That’s all I know. I want you to find him or her and make your sibling’s world right—the mother’s, too. I don’t want you to be alone in the world. I want you to have a sibling. I want you to make it right for them. Later... later, you’ll understand.”
“Mom, are you sure?” Jake whispered in an agonized voice.
“Yes, Jacob, I’m sure.”
It had to be true, Jake thought. His mother only called him Jacob when something was important. A brother? Possibly a sister? How could that be? “I promise, Mom.”
“Good. Now be a good boy and find Dr. Fischer. Tell him I’m ready for my shot.”
“Okay, Mom. I’ll be right back.”
Jake thrust open the door and was halfway down the hall in search of the doctor when he realized that Dr. Fischer had been standing right outside the room. Tears rolling down his cheeks, Jake ran back the way he’d come.
Dr. Fischer wrapped his arms around the boy and led him away from the room. “Your mother is sleeping now. Nurse Gilligan will stay with her. Let me buy you a cup of coffee, Jake.”
Across the table in the cafeteria, Dr. Aaron Fischer looked at the young man sitting across from him. Just thirty minutes ago, he’d sent a young boy into his patient’s room. The boy sitting across from him had cold, unforgiving eyes; he simply was not the same person who’d entered the room, then left it. The kindly doctor couldn’t help but wonder what it was Selma St. Cloud had said to her son. He wondered if he’d ever know.
Jake’s hands were rock steady around the coffee mug in his hands. His voice was as cold as his eyes when he asked if anyone had heard from his father.
The doctor shook his head.
“How long, Dr. Fischer?”
“I don’t know, Jake.”
“Bullshit! How long, Dr. Fischer?”
“A few hours at the most.”
“Then I guess I had better get moving. Thanks for the coffee. And thanks for taking care of Mom. If I can ever repay you for all you’ve done, let me know how to do it.”
“I will, son, I will.”
Dr. Fischer dropped his head into his hands. All he could think about was what he’d seen in Jake St. Cloud’s eyes.
Back in Selma St. Cloud’s room, Jake looked at Nurse Gilligan and asked, “Is there anything you can do for my mother?” He looked around at the machines in the room.
“No, Jake, there really isn’t. I wish there were.”
“Okay, then, I’m taking over. I’ll stay with her until... until I no longer have to stay. Thank you.”
Nurse Gilligan stepped out of the room, tears spilling from her eyes. She didn’t care. She looked up to see Dr. Fischer. “He said he’ll take over.” The doctor nodded as he led Nurse Gilligan to the doctors’ lounge, where they sat down and had a good cry.
Jake’s hold on his mother’s hand was fierce. He prayed as he struggled with the prayers he’d learned as a child and more or less forgotten as he entered his teen years. Once he finally got the words out, it was easier to repeat them over and over and over. He didn’t ask for life for his mother because he knew it was her time, but he did ask God to make the transition easy for her. He knew so little about life and death. He wished he knew more.
For five hours, Jake sat, prayed, and held his mother’s hand. He didn’t cry. He couldn’t. When he heard the steady tone and saw the flat line on the monitor, he squeezed his mother’s hand harder. He wasn’t sure, but he thought he felt a return squeeze. Wishful thinking.
And then the room was full of people: Dr. Fischer, Nurse Gilligan, and the crash team, which was waved away by the doctor.
What seemed like a long time later, but couldn’t have been more than fifteen minutes, Aaron Fischer led Jake to his office.
“Tell me what to do now.”
“Forget about my father, Dr. Fischer. Tell me what to do, how to do it, and I will make all the preparations, and if my father should manage to show his face here anytime soon, tell him . . . tell him his wife’s son has taken care of things. Can you deliver that message verbatim, Dr. Fischer?”
“I can, son. I will. Now, this is what you have to do . . .”