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Authors: James Grippando

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BOOK: Lying With Strangers
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“BREAKFAST IS READY,” HER MOTHER CALLED FROM THE KITCHEN.

Hearing those words was like a time warp for Peyton. So many times they had gone to bed angry at each other. They’d wake the next morning and try to pretend it had never happened. Neither of them was a very good actor.

“Just a sec,” said Peyton. She was in the bathroom, checking her eye in the mirror. It hadn’t bothered her further since expelling the tiny shard of glass last night. But, cosmetically, the skin around the eye wasn’t healing quite as smoothly as she had hoped. She tried not to dwell on it, but it
was
her face. The image came to mind of those ugly ducks along the Prado with all that bumpy extra skin around their eyes and beaks that resembled oozing lava. She knew she was only tormenting herself, but she leaned over the sink and pressed the injured side of her face flat against the mirror on the medicine cabinet. She angled it perfectly so that half her face—the good half—reflected from the medicine cabinet to the mirror on the wall, to the full-length mirror on the back of the bathroom door, and then back to the other half of the medicine cabinet. In the reflection of the reflections, she was able to create a whole face from the unscarred half, smooth and beautiful. It wasn’t exactly the way she used to look (on any face, the right and left sides were always different), but the little game made her wonder if she would ever be pretty again. Every day Kevin told her she was still breathtaking, but did he really mean it?

As much as she tried not to think about it, she wondered, too, if she was prettier than the woman Kevin had lunched with yesterday.

“Toast is getting cold,” her mother called again.

Peyton mounted her crutches and headed for the kitchen. Her mother was sitting at the counter, reading the morning paper and sipping coffee. Peyton took the seat across from her, where toast and juice were waiting on the table.

Her mother never looked up from the paper. Peyton didn’t want to pick another fight, but she had lain awake last night thinking, juxtaposing the things she and her mother had said against the remarks the NICU nurses had made in the bathroom yesterday. It was bothering her too much to let it go.

“Do you think I would make a good mother?” asked Peyton.

Finally, Valerie lowered the newspaper. “I think you’ll make a fine mother.”

Peyton took a bite of her toast, which was indeed cold. “Have you ever wondered why I went into pediatrics?”

“I assume you love children. Which is all the more reason you’ll make a great mother.”

“Have you ever wondered if it had something to do with us? Subconsciously.”

Her mother sighed and said, “I don’t want to rehash last night. I came here to help you, not to argue. All I want is to be here for you when you need me. I just wish you would let me.”

She turned her attention back to the newspaper, but Peyton didn’t look away. She wondered if her mother appreciated the irony of her complaining about being shut out. Stoicism in the face of personal tragedy was a family tradition she had learned from her mother. The first hard lesson for Peyton had come at age fifteen. The family had just moved to Florida. It was a temporary relocation that lasted only one school year, just long enough for her mother to carry the baby to term. The pregnancy had been unexpected, and the reasons for the sudden move to Florida weren’t fully explained to Peyton at the time, except for vague allusions to the medical
benefits of a warmer climate. Peyton wasn’t happy about leaving her high school friends behind, but the excitement of having a sibling soon eased that loss. She was fascinated by the changes in her mother’s body, the growth of the fetus, and the eventual prospect of her mother actually giving birth. She read books about the subject and researched it. She even accompanied her mother to the obstetrician for her office visits, until the sixth month, when her mother apparently decided that Peyton was becoming a pest. During the third trimester, her mother visited the doctor alone. As the delivery date neared, Peyton lobbied hard for a spot in the delivery room, but her mother refused an audience. Not even her father would be allowed to watch. As it turned out, when the actual day came, Peyton wasn’t even allowed in the hospital. Her mother made her stay home. It finally came clear that Peyton was much more excited about this baby than her mother was.

Throughout the day, her father called with periodic updates from the hospital. He had no specifics for her. Finally, more than twenty-four hours after her parents had left the house, Peyton got a phone call from her mother.

“I have some bad news,” she said.

“What?”

“The baby didn’t live.”

Peyton could hardly speak. “What went wrong?”

“There’s no one to blame. These things happen.”

Peyton wanted details but got none. She, too, was grief stricken and wanted to plan a memorial service. She wanted to select the grave site. She wanted to take care of those heartrending things so that her mother wouldn’t have to. The more supportive she tried to be, the more furious her mother became.

“But I want to help,” said Peyton.

“You can’t. This isn’t about you. It’s between me and your father.”

That was twelve years ago, but the memory was vivid. It was horrible, the way her mother had made her feel like an outsider. Under normal circumstances, Peyton probably would have for
given her. Surely, the death of a newborn was a traumatic event that elicited sympathy. A person couldn’t be blamed for acting a little irrationally.

The problem was, Peyton had long ago deciphered the obvious unstated truth.

“Are you going into work today?” her mother asked.

Peyton shook off her memories. “What? Oh, yeah. I was planning on going in for a little while. Don’t want to forget everything they’ve taught me.”

“Don’t be silly. You won’t forget.”

“You’re right,” she said, thinking of where her mind had just taken her. “Some things you never forget.”

KEVIN ARRIVED AT NINE O’CLOCK. THE MEETING WAS SCHEDULED IN
Turlington Hall, which was a fancy name for one of the hotel’s mezzanine-level conference rooms. Percy Gates wasn’t there, but his assistant greeted him at the door. A crowd had gathered inside, standing in clusters of four or five around the room and conversing. Most were dressed in business attire, except for two balding guys with ponytails who wore blue jeans and tweed jackets. Kevin made an effort to introduce himself to a few people who were mingling around the breakfast bar, hoping to network. His luck, he met only others like him. Aspiring writers.

The Percy Gates fiction writers’ conference came with an impressive guarantee: find a literary agent or your money back. After two years of writing and rewriting his novel, Kevin had received enough rejection letters from publishers to know that Percy’s premise was correct: The big houses didn’t buy a novel unless it was presented by an agent. Percy liked to relate the story of the clever journalist who, as a test, retyped
The Yearling
verbatim and submitted it in manuscript form directly to every publisher in New York. One or two recognized it as the 1939 Pulitzer Prizewinner, but most rejected it out of hand on the assumption that if it wasn’t represented by an agent it wasn’t any good.

Not that Kevin was shooting for a Pulitzer. Mostly he just wanted to hear that his stuff was entertaining. At times, he’d even
been tempted to let Peyton read a few chapters. It would have been a bit like asking his mother if she thought he was handsome, but every writer had to start somewhere. That was where Percy Gates had come in. He claimed to handpick aspiring writers whose sample chapters exhibited “serious talent.” That, plus a thousand-dollar registration fee paid in advance, got best-selling wannabes five minutes each at the podium to present their work to a roomful of agents in an informal setting.

By nine-thirty, Kevin counted roughly sixty bodies in the room. With just a dozen authors—Percy had promised there would be no more than twelve—that meant an agent-to-author ratio of four-to-one. If he couldn’t score in this room, he didn’t deserve to be published.

“Do you have your speaker’s card, Mr. Stokes?” It was Percy’s ever helpful assistant.

“Yes, thank you,” said Kevin.

The young woman stepped up to the microphone and made brief introductory remarks that emphasized the informality of the occasion. Each writer had been given a numbered card and would speak in that order, for three minutes tops. There would be no introductions, and strict silence was not required. Guests were free to continue to mingle and enjoy themselves, listening or not as they wished, as if the authors’ cries of
Please represent me!
were no more than Muzak.

Kevin figured his placement—sixth—was perfect, far enough down on the speaker list for things to get rolling but not so far down that people would leave before he got his shot. He watched the initial speakers with an eye toward gauging what type of comments piqued the interest of the audience. The first guy was nervous, sweaty, and horrible. The next three were just flat. Interestingly, they were all lawyers, like him. The fifth had obviously mastered the art of billing by the hour. He droned on well beyond the time limit.

“I see my book as a kind of big-screen, literary thriller,” he said. “Sort of Jackie Chan meets
Moby Dick
.”

Finally, number five was finished. No one applauded, but no one had acknowledged the previous speakers, either. Less than half the crowd was even listening at all and, of those, half were listening only to be polite. Kevin felt a knot in his stomach. The confidence and energy he’d felt earlier were slowly giving way to embarrassment and desperation. He glanced toward the door and considered making a run for it. What was once opportunity seemed like nothing more than an expensive form of humiliation. But he had waited months for this, and it was his turn. The microphone was waiting.

What have I got to lose?
He reached the lectern just as another man did.

“Excuse me,” said Kevin. “I’m number six.”

“No, I’m number six.”

Kevin removed his number from his coat pocket and showed him. “I’m quite certain, I’m number six.”

The guy showed him an identical little card bearing the same number. “Looks like we’re both number six.”

A woman approached. “I’m number six too.”

“Me too,” said another.

Kevin quickly canvassed the room for Percy’s assistant, but she was gone. A wave of concern washed over him. He stepped up to the microphone and asked, “Excuse me, but is there any other author who has the number six?”

Two men to the side raised their hands. At that, Kevin’s voice started to quake. “How about number seven?”

“I’m number seven,” said four people in unison.

“Seven here,” said another.

A murmur of concern passed through the crowd. Kevin said,

“Show of hands, please. Who’s number eight?”

Six people raised their hands.

“Number nine?”

Another dozen hands went up.

His face flushed red. He was ready to explode, filled with anger and humiliation.

The guy behind him said, “I’m gonna sue this bastard.”

“Me too,” said another, and another, and so the sentiment passed throughout the room until suddenly it was painfully plain to Kevin what had happened.

He gripped the podium and asked, “Is there
anyone
in this room who is
not
a lawyer aspiring to be a writer?”

Silence, till a short guy in the back finally volunteered, “I’m a dentist.”

“I was told there would be agents here,” a woman said angrily.

“So was I!”

“Me too!”

“Hey, get this,” said another number six, cell phone in hand. “I just dialed Percy’s office number. It’s disconnected.”

The room was abuzz with panic. A bitterness rose in Kevin’s throat. He scanned the crowd, believing but not quite willing to accept that so many smart people had been so easily scammed. Dreams could make anyone stupid, and busy professionals with money to throw after their dreams were stupidest of all. Sixty suckers at a thousand bucks a pop.
Not a bad day’s work, Percy.

“Son of a bitch,” he said into the microphone without even realizing it, his amplified voice resonating above the angry clamor.

 

A horn blasted outside Peyton’s apartment, and she headed out to the taxi. Boston was generally regarded as a walking city—“Should we walk or do we have time to take a cab?” the old joke has it—but the rules were different on crutches in the dead of winter. With their only car now totaled, cabs would be Peyton’s only real option until she was walking normally and ready to fend for herself on the subway.

“Children’s Hospital,” she said, climbing into the backseat. Her cell phone rang as the car pulled away from the curb. It was Dr. Sheffield from the hospital.

“Dr. Landau asked me to call you with the good news,” he said.
“We tracked down that mime you were so concerned about. His name’s Andy Johnson.”

“I don’t recognize the name.”

“He’s relatively new to Children’s, but he works at several other local hospitals in pediatric wards.”

“What was his story?”

“Don’t be alarmed, but it appears that he may have a little thing for you.”

“What kind of ‘thing’?” she asked with trepidation.

“Let me say up front that security took your concerns very seriously. Several years ago, we had a resident stalked by a relative of one of our patients, so we know how to handle these situations.”

“I can’t believe this. I am being stalked.”

“No. All I’m saying is that security did everything by the book. They interviewed Johnson thoroughly. At first he denied acting inappropriately toward you in any way. But things started to unravel when security asked him who arranged for the surprise party and who hired him to dance with you. He said that one of the clowns at Mass General told him he had been hired for this job at Children’s and was unable to cover it. Supposedly he paid Johnson seventy-five bucks to fill in for him. He told us the guy’s name was Rudy, but when security called Mass General, it turned out they don’t have any entertainers named Rudy.”

“Which means what? Johnson organized the surprise party himself just to dance with me? I don’t even know him.”

“That would appear to be a possibility.”

Her heart began to race. “Did you ask him about the car accident?”

“This is the really good news,” said Sheffield. “Our security director was able to persuade Johnson to submit to a polygraph examination. They asked him several questions about the accident. Whether he knew anything about it. Whether he was involved in it in any way. He was even asked point blank whether he ran you
off the road. He denied any knowledge or involvement, and the examiner concluded that he was telling the truth.”

“What happens next?”

“He’ll probably be dismissed. The legal department will figure out the exact grounds, but I would imagine it will have something to do with violation of the hospital’s sexual harassment policy.”

“Will there be any follow-up with the police?”

“In what aspect?”

“Lie detector tests aren’t infallible. Isn’t anyone going to investigate to see if Johnson really did run me off the road?”

“I’ll have to check with security on that.”

“I’m on my way into the hospital right now. I’d like to talk with them.”

“My advice to you is to concentrate on getting well.”

“But this is important.”

“Yes, and so is your well-being. Please don’t take this the wrong way. But Dr. Landau and I both thought it would be appropriate to remind you that the hospital has two psychiatrists available to counsel residents in times of stress. More people take advantage of that than you would think. There’s no stigma. If this accident has you feeling fearful, angry, guilty, paranoid, or whatever, you can talk it out.”

That was the reaction she’d feared. “I’ll be okay.”

“I know you will. I hasten to add that although it’s early in your residency, my observations so far tell me that you have true star potential. You will get through this.”

“Thank you.”

“But do think about that counseling. I know the accident was especially stressful for you. We all respect your privacy, but it has percolated up through the grapevine that you miscarried. I’m sorry.”

“Oh,” was all she could say.
Was anything private anymore?

“An accident that results in injury to an innocent or unborn child is bound to generate feelings of guilt. Psychologically, you may need someone to blame. But the blame game is a dangerous road, because you may eventually come to realize that this mys
terious other car wasn’t at fault. You may then blame yourself for having driven when you were too tired or when the weather was bad, or for not having taken another route home. The reality is, no one is to blame. It was just an accident.”

“What are you suggesting? I’m making up stories about another car to shift responsibility for the miscarriage to someone else?”

“No one is judging you. We don’t know where this investigation of Andy Johnson will lead, but it may not provide all the answers you’re looking for. If you want to talk it out, counselors are available any time.”

“I’ll keep it in mind. Thank you.”

They said goodbye. Peyton switched off her phone, her thoughts a jumbled mess. She had been on the fast track to success throughout med school, and she knew that Dr. Sheffield’s compliment about her “star potential” wasn’t just fluff. A month ago he’d planted seeds in her mind about pursuing the elite pediatric fellowship program after her residency. The mishap at the Haverhill clinic and the ensuing lawsuits were enough of a setback to her young career. She didn’t need remarks like “paranoid delusions” in her evaluation file. Dr. Sheffield only meant well by recommending counseling, but the best thing for her career right now was to knock off all this talk of kamikaze cars and mysterious villains.

“Eight-fifty,” said the driver.

She gave him a ten and stepped down to the sidewalk. The main entrance to the hospital was straight ahead. To the right of it, a plate-glass window displayed billboard-size paintings of Scooby-Doo, the Tasmanian Devil, Sylvester the Cat, and other cartoon characters. Above them was an ominous sign that read
EMERGENCY
. That seeming contradiction summed up her feelings. Try as she might to laugh the whole thing off, underneath it all was a true crisis. She planted her crutches on the wet sidewalk and started for the entrance, having resolved on the spot that her sick leave was over. She didn’t care what Sheffield or Landau thought. She didn’t need a psychiatrist.

She was going straight to the director of security.

BOOK: Lying With Strangers
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