Safe with Me
“We might have a liver,” Dr. Steele says as he enters Maddie’s hospital suite. He is a tall man, six foot five, with long, tapered fingers, seemingly more suited to a basketball court than to a hospital. As Maddie’s hepatologist for the last eight years, he has gained Olivia’s implicit trust.
“It’s the right type?” she asks, clutching the novel she’d been pretending to read for the past three hours. She pushes herself up from the reclining chair in the corner of the room, her heart suddenly in her throat. Maddie’s declining lab results place her as a Status 1 on the UNOS scoring system, which means as soon as a match comes up, it’s hers.
Dr. Steele bobs his head. “A twelve-year-old girl was hit by a car. Her mother still needs to sign the paperwork, but the organ procurement team has been notified and is evaluating the match. It’s looking good.”
“How soon will we know?” Olivia asks as she sets the book on the chair behind her. Relief rushes through her, thinking that
her daughter might survive. In exactly the same moment, she is struck by the plight of the other mother, the one whose child’s life—all that potential and beauty—has been so swiftly and suddenly erased. She can’t imagine the depth of this woman’s pain, the unfairness of it all. It makes her ill to realize how fervently she’s been praying for another child to die.
“Within the hour, I hope.” He smiles, the gesture lighting up his dark brown eyes in a way Olivia hasn’t seen before. Normally, he is the deliverer of bad news for Maddie.
“Thank you so much,” she says to Dr. Steele, who nods and lets his gaze linger on Olivia’s face a moment longer than she expects. She’s accustomed to looks like this from men, filled with admiration and maybe even a little longing. It embarrasses her, really. Especially now, when she’s certain her usually sleek blond bob is a frizzy mess and the makeup she applied yesterday afternoon is likely smeared around her eyes.
“You have tiger eyes,” James told her the day they first met in the lobby of the attorney’s office where she used to work as a paralegal. “Does that mean you’re dangerous?”
Then-twenty-two-year-old Olivia shook her head and blushed in response, a little amazed that this polished, professional businessman with black hair and vivid green eyes was paying attention to her. He had to be at least a decade older than she was, though he carried himself with the slightly chest-puffed air of a much younger man. “I don’t know,” she said, raising a single eyebrow. “Are you?” This bold flirtation surprised her; it usually wasn’t in her nature. But something about James pulled her toward him. She felt like a cat, wanting to arch her back, press her body against his, and purr.
James tilted his head back and laughed, a deep, resonant tone that made Olivia’s skin tingle. Then, he reached over her desk and gently kissed the back of her hand. “Let me take you out for dinner tonight and you can find out,” he said. She accepted his invitation to one of the most expensive French restaurants in Tampa, which he was only visiting for business.
“Please,” he said, holding up the menu after they were seated. “Will you allow me? I want to introduce you to my favorite dishes.” She let him order her meal; she let him instruct her on how to swirl the Merlot in her glass before breathing in its heady bouquet. He told her which fork to use and encouraged her to at least sample the escargot. She managed to choke a bite down so he wouldn’t be offended, but whoever had decided that snails were a delicacy had clearly escaped a mental institution.
“You’re so beautiful with those gorgeous brown locks,” James said, leaning toward her across the table. He reached out and touched her hair. “But I bet you’d put every other woman in Florida to shame if you went blond.”
Olivia felt a small twist in her stomach hearing his words, unsure if they were a compliment or an insult. Even so, she wanted to please him, so two months later, after several more comments like that, she let him set up an appointment for her to transform her into a blonde. Eight months after that, James proposed, wanting her to relocate to Seattle. “What about my job?” she asked. “And my mom?”
“I’ll take care of her,” James promised. “I’ll get her a full-time nurse so she can move into her own place.” He knew Olivia was especially close to her mother, who suffered from such debilitating arthritis that she was forced to live off disability.
Olivia shared a small apartment with her, and there was no way her mother could pay the bills on her own.
“You would? Really?”
James nodded. “Of course. She’d be my family, too.” Stunned by his generosity, Olivia accepted the flawless, three-carat diamond ring he presented to her. James kept his word, purchasing and moving her mother into an elegant two-bedroom condo near the beach. He helped Olivia hire a wonderful, live-in Jamaican nurse named Tanesa to care for her. A month later, they were married and left Florida, returning only when Maddie was born, and then again, three years after that, when Olivia’s mother passed away after a heart attack.
Now, eighteen years later, Olivia runs her hands down her simple gray cardigan, smoothing out the wrinkles, wondering what James would think if he walked in and observed this moment with Dr. Steele. What he’d assume they had been doing. The thought lights a spark of panic in her chest and she swallows hard to extinguish it.
“I’ll keep you posted,” Dr. Steele says. “The social worker will be along soon. I’ve found a younger, less gullible member of the team. I think Maddie might like her.”
Despite the weight of the moment, Olivia can’t help but smile, remembering how a week ago, a meek, older woman with mousy hair and orthopedic shoes attempted to get Maddie to talk about any fears or concerns she might be having about becoming an organ recipient. Maddie peered at her, then cocked her head to the side. “Yeah,” she said, deadpan. “I’m afraid of becoming possessed by the other person’s soul.”
“Maddie,” Olivia said, knowing her daughter was testing the worker. Maddie couldn’t rebel like a typical teenager—she
couldn’t miss curfew or make out with a boy beneath the bleachers—so she tended to channel her hormonal angst into harassing hospital workers.
“What, Mom?” Maddie said, blinking. “I mean it.”
Despite Olivia’s best efforts to intervene, the poor woman went on for at least twenty minutes, trying to convince Maddie that those tales of possession were false, until Maddie could no longer keep a straight face. “I can’t believe you fell for that one,” she snickered, and the woman blushed, whipped around, and fled the room.
Now, Olivia nods and thanks the doctor again, watching as he strides out of the suite and down the hall. Then her gaze moves over to Maddie. Her daughter, petite for fifteen but unnaturally swollen, lies hooked up to machines pumping her full of the medications that are the only things keeping her alive. Her head is turned to the side, her sandy brown hair is straggly and limp, and her eyelids—covering beautiful hazel irises—are fluttery but closed.
As always, Olivia’s gut clenches at seeing her daughter so distorted, so ill. Since she was seven, she has been plagued by a rare case of type 2 autoimmune hepatitis. When the immunosuppressant meds that controlled Maddie’s disease stopped working a few months ago, her skin and eyes yellowed, and her belly plumped up as it began to retain more fluid and toxins than her bedraggled liver could process. The scarring on her organ has progressed to the point of her needing a transplant; if she doesn’t get one, it is likely she will die in a few weeks. The thought makes Olivia feel as though she has been gutted. The past eight years have been tenuous, with Maddie in the hospital more often than she was out of it. Her health has been
so fragile that she couldn’t go to school or play with other children, for fear of picking up an infection that might kill her. All Olivia wants for her daughter is a normal life; a transplant is her only hope to have one.
Reaching over, Olivia pushes a stray lock of hair back from Maddie’s face. “It’s going to be okay, baby,” she whispers, knowing she is reassuring herself as much as her daughter. I can’t lose her. I can’t. “We’re going to get you well.”
Maddie stirs, turns her head back and forth across the pillow. “Mommy?” she murmurs, and Olivia’s chest aches. Maddie tends to call her Mom or Mother—sometimes Olivia, or even Mrs. Bell when she is feeling sassy. Mommy is an endearment left over from toddlerhood, a term that reappeared only after Maddie was diagnosed.
“I’m right here, sweetie,” Olivia says, touching Maddie’s thin arm with the tips of her fingers, careful to avoid the IV taped to the back of her daughter’s hand. Maddie’s veins are so exhausted from being prodded, they have shrunk away from the surface of her skin. When she was first admitted, it took the nurse an hour to find one that didn’t collapse.
“Where’s Dad?” Maddie asks as she finally opens her eyes. When Maddie first looked in the mirror and saw the whites of her eyes glowing yellow, she cried—a sound so haunting it tied Olivia’s heart into messy knots. She tried to tell Maddie that she didn’t see the yellow. All she saw was her daughter, her brilliant and beautiful child. That’s all she sees now.
“At the office,” Olivia says. “Do you want to talk to him?”
Maddie shakes her head. “Can I have my laptop?” Her voice is thick, groggy from the meds and lack of moisture.
Frowning, Olivia grabs the pitcher of water from the table next to Maddie’s bed and pours her a glass. James bought Maddie the computer several years ago to help keep her entertained, and it seems to Olivia that her daughter spends too much time online, but she can’t justify limiting something that Maddie loves—she is able to enjoy so little. Still, she hesitates. “Are you sure you feel up to it?” she asks. “Maybe you should get some more rest.”
“All I do is rest,” Maddie says, an irritated edge to her tone. She takes a sip of water, then sets the cup on the tray in front of her. “Please, Mom?”
Sighing, Olivia reaches into the drawer of the nightstand and places the laptop on the tray, careful not to knock over the water. “I’m going to call your dad, okay?” she says as Maddie turns on the computer. She needs to tell James about the possibility of the transplant, but she doesn’t want Maddie to know until they are certain it will happen. No use getting her daughter’s hopes up if the other girl’s mother decides not to donate. Again, Olivia’s stomach turns, imagining what this woman is facing. Could she make that kind of decision? Could she end her own child’s life knowing another depended on it? She isn’t sure that she could. There’s a very real possibility that this woman might say no.
Maddie nods and waves Olivia away, keeping her fingers poised over the keyboard and her eyes on the computer screen, waiting for it to boot up. When Maddie was admitted to the hospital, three weeks ago, Olivia quietly suggested to her husband that their daughter might like to have a roommate to talk with during her stay, that Maddie had already
spent too much of the last eight years in solitary confinement because of her illness. Tutors and homeschooling; weeks at a time in lonely hospital rooms with nothing to do other than watch movies or surf for silly videos on YouTube. But Olivia’s husband insisted on privacy for Maddie, the fancy suite with the wide, comfortable bed and flat-screen TV, usually reserved for children of politicians or celebrities. As the owner and CEO of one of the largest investment firms on the West Coast, James had no concern about money. The ominous flash in his green eyes made it clear to Olivia that it wasn’t worth trying to argue the point.
Once Olivia is in the hallway, she calls James’s cell. Her breath becomes shallow as the phone rings, four . . . five . . . six times. At eight, she will have the electronic protection of voicemail and avoid having to speak with him directly. She won’t have to worry about the words she chooses or the tone of her voice. James can take an unexpected pause in a conversation and turn it into a heavy silence he’d punish her with for weeks.
“What” is his greeting—not a question, but a challenge, because she’s interrupting his day. Olivia swallows to keep from crying as she tells him about the little girl on life support. He listens, his impatience traveling on the line between them with invisible sparks. “So, it’s possible, but the mother hasn’t even signed off yet?” he asks.
“Right.” Olivia knows she has to keep her voice steady. “I just thought you’d want to know . . . I thought you might come.” Your daughter needs you, you jerk. Words she often thought over the past eight years, but would never, ever speak. James leaves the bulk of caring for Maddie to Olivia—he pays the
bills, he visited the hospital when Maddie was admitted—but it is Olivia who spends every night with their daughter.
“I’m neck deep in closing a deal, Liv. I told you that this morning. Didn’t I? Were you not paying attention?” His words are hard, pummeling her like barbed little fists. Olivia pictures him standing behind his huge burled walnut desk, looking younger than his fifty years. His six-foot-four, broad-shouldered build is imposing to anyone and anything that stands in his way. His suits are custom made to fit him perfectly, the hues of all his shirts carefully selected to set off his tan skin and salt-and-pepper hair. Everyone says they make a beautiful couple. On the surface, Olivia supposes they do.
“Yes.” She bites the inside of her cheek to keep from saying more.
“I’ll be there the minute we know for sure. Otherwise, I need to work. Call me when the papers are signed.” He pauses, his voice momentarily softening. “Give Maddie a kiss for me.” He hangs up without saying good-bye, and Olivia keeps the phone to her ear for a minute, thinking about their daughter, the one reason she didn’t walk out on James eight years ago.
She had a plan—she’d squirreled away enough money from the allowance James gave her to take care of herself and Maddie for at least a year. Her strategy was to find a job with hours she could work when Maddie was in school. She would have changed their names if she had to. Dyed their hair and worn colored contacts. Started their lives all over again. And then, just before she began third grade, Maddie got sick, and Olivia knew she couldn’t afford the kind of treatment her daughter’s illness would demand. She couldn’t work and get
Maddie to endless doctors’ appointments. She’d never actually threatened to leave him—she was too afraid of what he might do to her if she spoke those words—but Olivia was certain if she did leave, that James would attempt to prove her an unfit mother, that she didn’t have the resources to properly care for her sick child. And since there was no way in hell Olivia would let him take sole custody of her daughter, she resigned herself to the fact that as long as Maddie was ill, they had to stay with James.
But now, there is a liver. Olivia believes that if she has managed to survive a life with James this long, she can hold out a little longer. Maddie will miraculously be healed, and Olivia can start working out the details of her new plan. And then—finally—she will muster up the courage to make her escape.