California on the Brink of Secession
The reception area of the tiny hotel is eerily empty. On the desk, a coffee mug smeared with red lipstick sits beside a small television, the volume turned up high, blaring news of the vote. Eleanor’s mug, Eleanor’s lipstick. Famously difficult Eleanor.
I leave my crutches behind and use the rail to pull myself up the stairs. At the top, I turn left. The first room is empty, the door open to reveal two twin beds, an old dresser, blood on the floor.
I continue along the hallway. The second door is closed. Room 2B. Heather’s room. Early this morning, while I was still sleeping on the couch of a radio station at the other end of the city, my phone began to vibrate. It was Heather, texting: It’s time. It seems like a life-time ago.
I try the knob, but it doesn’t budge.
Finally, a scraping sound, furniture moving across the floor. The knob turns, the door opens a few inches, and there she is — red in the face, her T-shirt drenched with sweat, her eyes strangely calm. Her gaze takes in my wrecked face, my filthy clothes, the hastily wrapped bandage on my foot.
I squeeze through the doorway. On the opposite wall, a bureau is shoved against a tall window that opens onto a balcony. To my left, as far as possible from the window, stands the bed, the sheets twisted and wet.
“When I saw him coming toward the hotel,” she tells me, “I barricaded the door. When he left, I barricaded the window.”
She shuts the door behind me, then locks it. Together we shove the desk back into place.
“What happened next door?”
“He had Eleanor,” she says. “Sounded bad.”
Heather doubles over in pain, moaning. I limp to her side. She grips my arm so tight I can feel her fingernails through my sweater. Seconds pass before her face relaxes. She catches her breath, lowers herself onto the bed. “What’s the difference between a pregnant woman and a light bulb?” she asks.
“You can unscrew a light bulb.”
I smile, happy to see the Heather I know.
In the bathroom, I wash my face and hands. I smell terrible and look worse. The skin under my arms is bleeding, rubbed raw from the crutches. Rummaging through Heather’s cosmetics bag, I am grateful for the small miracle of a rubber band. I gather my hair into a ponytail, drink cold water from the faucet, and rinse my mouth with toothpaste.
I scan the bathroom for anything useful. There’s a small bar of soap, two towels hanging beside the stained tub, an empty waste bin beneath the sink. I grab the towels and bin and hobble into the darkened room. I drag a chair up to the end of the bed and drape a blanket over Heather’s knees.
“Are there any cops out there?” she asks.
“Just one terrified kid.”
She clutches the sheets as another contraction seizes her. Her face registers the pain, but she is silent. Thirty seconds pass before she collapses back onto the pillow, panting.
“Where’s the National Guard?” she asks.
“Sacramento and L.A., I guess.”
“Mesmerizing…Richmond’s dissection of California on the violent brink of secession provides the backdrop for her deeper inspection of the fragile, uneasy relationship between siblings.” Booklist, starred review
A foghorn wails in the distance — that familiar, soothing sound. “Scoot down,” I say. “Here comes the fun part.”
“When I said I didn’t need the bells and whistles, I didn’t quite picture it like this.” She moves toward the end of the bed.
“The baby’s going to be fine,” I say, mustering my calmest voice.
I lift the blanket to examine her. I’m not an ob-gyn, I’m a general internist. This is not what I do. Of course, I did it during my residency years — a month on the maternity ward at San Francisco General — but I was relieved beyond measure when my time was over.
Just to the west of us, beyond the barricaded window and the empty parking lot, is the Veterans Administration hospital. The six-unit hotel is normally booked with veterans’ families, waiting out heart surgery and organ transplants, but today the place is deserted. All but the most crucial surgeries have been postponed, and the whole campus is running on a bare-bones staff.
Both of us are startled by the footsteps on the stairs. Our eyes lock.
A knock on the door. I open my mouth to answer, but Heather brings a finger to her lips.
The knock again, more insistent this time.
“Dr. Walker?” I recognize the voice — Greg Watts from security. Relief washes over me. I shove the desk away from the door just enough to let him in. At sixty going on forty-five, Greg has the slim, athletic build of a runner. He looks me over quickly, grimacing.
“You okay, Dr. Walker?”
He glances at Heather. “What about her?”
“We’re managing. It would be great if we could get a nurse and supplies.”
“Nobody wants to cross that parking lot,” he says. “Not after Eleanor. Not after he shot at you.”
“You crossed the parking lot.”
Greg holds up a cellphone. The blue Mute light is flashing. “Special delivery. He wasn’t going to shoot his own messenger.”
I look at the phone, uncomprehending. “What?”
“He wants to talk to you.”
“He says if he can’t talk to you, someone’s going to get hurt.”
“Where is he now?”
“He broke into your office.”
I take a shaky breath. My office. I think of the photos on the desk, the art on the walls, the radios from Tom, the sand dollar from an afternoon on the beach with Ethan. If he wanted to get inside my head, he’s done it.
Betty’s worked ICU for twenty-six years. A nice woman, a gifted nurse, very calm, four kids and eleven grandkids spread out all over the country. Every year, she and her husband travel by RV to Florida, New Jersey, Ohio, and Montana to see all of them.
“Better staff than patients.”
Greg shakes his head. There’s something he doesn’t want to tell me. “He’s got Rajiv.”
My heart sinks. Twenty-seven years old, in his final year of residency, Rajiv is my chief resident and my favorite student. In a couple of months, he’s getting married. I’ve been looking forward to the wedding.
I press the Mute button and take a deep breath.
“So,” a familiar voice says, “I finally got your attention.”