Book Details

Is it ever better to lie than to tell the truth?

BACK TO NORMAL, set in the Eastern Sierra, introduces the reader to Sue Beauchamp whose lie of twenty years is exposed the night her daughter, Michelle, is injured in an accident. To save Michelle’s life, Sue contacts the biological father, John Sadek, a neighbor, for a transfusion. With her secret exposed, Sue’s life unravels. Her husband, Chris, leaves and takes “his” sons with him. John wants a relationship with a child he’s never been allowed to know, and when Michelle discovers the “truth,” she runs away. As Sue attempts to save her own life, BACK TO NORMAL becomes a meditation on truth and lies and the gray area of a love lived in between.

 

Book Excerpt

Part I Pleasant Valley, CA December, 1991 You shall know the truth, and it shall set you free. --John: 32 Chapter One With the first shrill ring of the phone, Sue’s eyes are wide open. With the second, she crawls across her husband’s body to answer, but Chris is already grappling with the receiver. He switches on the light. “Missy?” he breathes into the receiver. At this hour it can only be their daughter. Has she forgotten chains in her hurry to leave? As always Sue leaves it to Chris to calm Michelle down. It’s R-1 on the eastern side of the Sierra. With four-wheel drive Michelle should have no trouble making it home. So why did she stop to call? Sue’s eyes dart to the antique clock on the wall. Its hands are locked in an upright position as if they’re clasped in prayer. She wonders what has happened as she waits for Chris’s half of the conversation to continue. “Slow down, Tom,” Chris says. Then he slams the receiver down with no explanation as to why their family doctor has called. When Chris stands, Sue crawls back across the bed to her husband’s warm empty depression and watches as he rifles through the keys in the nightstand drawer, taking the ones to his Park Service truck, a vehicle he would only use in an emergency. “There’s been an accident,” he says. Sue’s mouth goes dry. “It’s a mistake.” His eyes tell her it isn’t. She tosses the comforter back, tucks her nightgown into a discarded pair of jeans, and tugs the sweater she never bothered to throw into the hamper over her head. “Tom says Missy will be all right.” “How would he know?” Sue demands. “And how did he know about this before us?” “The CHP saw PLEASANT VALLEY LOCAL on Missy’s license plate frame and called the hospital. The paramedics contacted Tom for her blood type.” Chris slips his sheepskin jacket over the sweats he wore to bed. He laces his Sorels. Sue does the same, flinching when he pulls her up. “Wear your Uggs, because we’ve got to go, we’ve got to get to the hospital. For Michelle.” The use of his daughter’s full name imparts the seriousness of the situation. “What else did Tom say?” “It was black ice.” Chris eases his grip on Sue’s arm. “Missy didn’t see it coming.” Neither did Sue. Bile burns in her stomach and rises to the back of her throat. Why did she agree to allow Michelle to drive herself home from college in winter? “Thank God Cal Trans noticed tire tracks going over the embankment and radioed the CHP.” Bothered it seems by what he just said, Chris rushes off, leaving Sue no choice but to grab her purse and coat and follow. On the other side of the Christmas tree he pauses before the French doors that lead from their second story living room to the deck. Wisps flutter past frosty panes of glass as he flips on the deck light. “Damn it!” Chris’s hand finds his forehead and massages a temple. “The storm is here already. The weatherman was wrong--again.” Flakes settle onto a mound that grows before Sue’s eyes. “How many inches?” “Six. Maybe eight.” He jabs the light switch off. When his arm brushes the tree, an ornament clatters to the floor. The photo inside the ornament was taken of Michelle when she was in kindergarten and is framed by a bread dough wreath. Her blond hair is tamed into braids. Her gap-toothed smile is wide beneath blue eyes. Sue sucks in her breath as she picks up the photo ornament. The wreath around it has cracked and is now fragile, like the memory it holds. She jumps when Chris touches her shoulder. “I’m sorry, Sue, but we have to go.” She hangs the ornament up carefully. “What about Jim and Rich?” “They should stay here.” Chris jogs down the stairs, only to stop before his teenaged sons’ bedroom door. “I know we should tell them something, but . . .” Sue urges Chris toward the front door, her hand on the small of his back. “You go scrape the windshield, and I’ll go tell the boys.” With the roads not cleared yet, the windblown drifts lap at the wheels of the Park Service truck as it twists and turns, their reluctant snowplow. Sue swipes at the condensation that fogs the inside of the windshield to clear a small patch. When snow blows straight at them, it looks as if they’re jumping to warp speed even though their progress is painfully slow. Come on, come on, she repeats in her mind, her mantra as she gloves her hands and shoves her hair into a knit cap. The empty white expanse of the hospital lot is unbroken except where the staff’s cars lie buried. As soon as Chris parks, Sue flings herself from the truck and slogs through the knee-high snow. The blacktop is treacherous, slick and icy beneath the soles of her boots. The sky glows an eerie orange in the halo the street lamps cast. The far off wail of a siren, muted at first, becomes piercing as the ambulance swings into the parking lot, its red lights obscured by the haze. Sue shields her eyes from the whirlwind of snow the ambulance kicks up. “I’m her mother!” she yells, only to have the paramedics ignore her. She runs to help them anyway, with the gurney they half push, half carry toward the hospital. In the harsh glare of the emergency room lights she peels back wet wool to reveal her daughter’s face. An oxygen mask hides Michelle’s delicate features. Bandages caked with blood cover the rest. Afraid she will vomit Sue presses a fist to her lips. When one of the paramedics yanks the blanket up again, she strips it away, the drape over her daughter’s body too much like a shroud. “The doctor says get her to OR,” a nurse dressed in scrubs tells the paramedic. The gurney jostles over the doorplates of the emergency room and out to the hallway. Sue runs alongside and tries to find a pulse in the veins on Michelle’s wrist. Hands pull her back as the doors of the operating room slap shut. Sue struggles to break free, only to dissolve at the sight of an old friend. Helen Morgan’s eyes are rimmed in red as she folds Sue into her arms. “It’ll be all right once Michelle is out of surgery.” “Surgery?” Disinfectant fumes sting Sue’s eyes. “Does Chris know about this?” Helen nods, her face lined with worry. “He’s in the staff room with Tom, discussing the procedures Michelle needs. You should hear what he has to say.” Across the checkerboard tile that gleams beneath the garish fluorescent lights Helen leads Sue to a room. Inside sits Dr. Tom Kincaid, his white lab coat on, his black-framed glasses perched on the tip of his nose. Beside him Chris still wears his sheepskin jacket as he hunches over a stack of papers. On the table Styrofoam cups steam, untouched. As soon as Chris sees Sue he springs up and offers her the comfort of his arms, but she brushes past, eager to hear what their family physician has to say. “Is Michelle . . ?” Her daughter’s name catches in her throat. “She’s stable.” Tom stands. The skin on his high forehead smoothes. Sue blots her face with her hands. Wrung out, she feels as if her life spirals down an invisible drain in the floor. When Tom tells her Michelle will be all right, she clings to him, grateful to this man who has tended every sniffle that has ever plagued her daughter. But Tom’s eyes are unable to hide his concern. Though his voice is soothing, his words distort in Sue’s ears until they weaken like a distant radio signal. She hopes Chris is making better sense of what Tom says, but her husband appears to be faring no better with all the medical jargon. With his arms crossed over his sheepskin jacket that is still wet from the storm, Chris winces every time Tom uses words like “crushed” or “bleeding” to describe one of Michelle’s injuries. “Dr. Allen, our new general surgeon, is confident he can repair the damage. He’s ready to begin surgery, with your permission, since we’re only down a few pints.” “Of blood?” Sue chews on her lower lip to control its trembling. When Tom nods, she asks, “Would you recommend that?” “It’s up to you.” Tom removes his glasses and rubs his eyes, then he smoothes his thinning brown hair over a growing bald spot. When Helen’s full moon face looms over Tom’s left shoulder, Sue moves toward her friend. “If it were Jamie, your daughter, what would you do?” “I’d wait. I’d try to find a donor, ASAP.” Dressed in pastel floral scrubs, Helen radiates authority, which reminds Sue that her predicament demands something she rarely displays: courage. How does Helen do it? As a nurse she deals with pain and suffering on a daily basis, the constant pressure to make the right decision. “Then I’ll donate,” Sue tells her. “The blood. For Michelle.” The door to the staff room opens, and a young male orderly pokes his head in. He eyes the forms on the table. “I can take those for you, Dr. Kincaid. I just wanted to let you know that Dr. Ritter’s outside. He needs to speak to the parents before he and Dr. Allen begin.” Tom gathers the paperwork from the table and follows the orderly out. “I’ll see you at OR,” he tells Sue and Chris Carson Ritter waits for them in the hallway. He looks smaller somehow beneath his pale green clothing. Like Tom, he’s more than the hospital’s anesthesiologist. He’s their neighbor and a long-time friend. He still climbs with Chris, and his wife, Mary, is in AAUW with Sue. But in all the years Sue has known Carson, she has never seen him at work. A gas flame of worry flickers in Carson’s eyes. He runs a hand over his faded blond hair before he says, “We’re ready to begin, but there’s a problem. Michelle’s lost a lot of blood. She’s type O negative and our supply at the hospital is nearly spent. We had a bad ski accident in here earlier that required a transfusion of that type, and the paramedics gave Michelle everything they had on board. As a precaution, we shouldn’t operate until we have more units of O negative on hand. But with the roads closed, there’s no other source right now except you.” Chris steps forward. “I’ll do it,” he tells Carson. “I donate every year.” “But you’re AB, aren’t you?” Carson sounds as tentative as he looks. “That’s right.” “Well, I’m afraid in this case only O negative will do.” When Carson’s eyes find Sue’s, his face recedes, as if she peers at it through the wrong end of a telescope. She grasps Chris’s arm as her own blood drains to her feet, thinking this can’t be happening, not now, not with Michelle’s life on the line. “Then Sue will do it,” Chris says to Carson. “I only volunteered because years ago we both wanted to donate, but the hospital wouldn’t let her, she was such a lightweight.” Looking worried, he tells her, “Guess we can’t worry about that now.” Then Chris and Carson’s shoes squish over the black and white tile as they walk her down the hall, her feet barely touching. It makes her feel like she’s the pawn, like she’s trapped between the knight and the bishop. “Are you all right?” Chris shores her up. “It’s the boys,” she tells him as her heart pounds. “Could you call your sister, ask her to go over to the house and stay with them?” “I’ll call Patty, after--” “My purse, Chris. I left it in the truck. Could you--” “No one will steal it. I’ll bring it to you after you’re all hooked up.” Her legs buckle, but it’s to no avail. Carson merely tightens his grip. With Chris’s help, he practically carries Sue down the corridor until a coughing fit racks her body and brings them to a halt. “Are you sure you’re all right?” Chris asks, his voice cracking along with his confidence. “Do you need some water?” Carson thumps her back gently. His voice sounds tinny, as if they stand in a tunnel Sue nods, because her vision is becoming increasingly dim and fuzzy. “Could you get her some?” Carson motions toward an adjoining hallway that reeks of orange-scented disinfectant. “There’s a cooler down there.” Chris runs off, which allows Sue to catch her breath. “There’s something you should know, Carson. Something I need to explain before--” “You’re white as a sheet.” Carson pulls her toward a sign that reads LABORATORY. “I thought Chris was teasing when he called you a lightweight.” He props her up. “You’ll be fine, Sue, and so will Michelle once she gets that transfusion.” “Not unless you can to find another donor.” “There’s nothing to be afraid of.” Carson gestures to Helen who has trailed them down the hall. “Helen will be right there to make sure you don’t pass out.” “You don’t understand.” Sue’s chin quivers when her husband returns, his chest heaving from his sprint back with the water. “I can’t, Carson. I can’t because I’m A negative.” Chris’s eyes narrow as he passes the Dixie cup to her. Is he merely shocked that neither of them can donate? It happens sometimes. As a biologist he understands that parents can’t always donate for their children. But it may already be dawning on him that an AB father and an A mother could never produce an O child. The water shimmies as Sue raises the cup to her lips, only to gag, which sends the water dribbling down her chin. It’s obvious Carson knows from the way he keeps his eyes averted. Even her friend Helen squirms, uncomfortable with an admission she never wanted to hear. It won’t take either on of them long to figure out who the biological father is. “I’ll make some calls,” Carson tells her, his appearance blurring to skin tone and surgical green. “Don’t worry, Sue. We’ll find a donor.” When Carson tries to leave, Chris catches him by the arm. “But this is ridiculous. One of us has to be able to donate. For Christ’s sake, Carson, we’re her parents.” His eyes still carefully averted, Carson pries Chris’s fingers from his arm and folds them into Chris’s palm. “You know that’s not always the case.” Carson’s unfortunate choice of words does not escape Chris. “I can explain,” Sue tells him, but when she doesn’t, Chris gives her a look of utter shock followed by one of total betrayal before he turns and walks away. With Chris’s footsteps echoing down the hallway, Carson follows Chris while Sue heads for the bank of pay phones in the hospital’s lobby, until Helen blocks her way. “You don’t have to call him, Sue. We’ll find another donor, an anonymous donor.” “But I do.” Sue swipes at her cheek. “For Michelle.” “All right then.” Helen walks Sue to a pay phone, grabs the receiver, and thrusts it at her. “Call John Sadek, and hope to God you get him on the line, not Karen. And if he’s O negative, you tell him to get his sorry ass down here, or I’ll drive over and drag him here myself.” Sue takes the receiver, grateful for her friend’s loyalty, her attempt to relieve the tension. She prays that John is O negative so he can save their daughter’s life. You shall know the truth, and it shall set you free. She presses her forehead to the cold black metal and grimaces at this religious training from a childhood long past. When the dial tone becomes an insistent bleat, she hits the lever and punches in a number she knows by heart.

 

About the Author

Debbie Boucher

Debbie Boucher is currently teaching at the International School of Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. BACK TO NORMAL, her first novel, won Honorable Mention in the ForeWord Magazine contest in the romance category. Her second novel, Millennial Fears, won second in the general fiction category from Reader Views. Her latest novel, Oblivia, was a finalist in the mystery category from Foreword Magazine. For more information visit Debbie’s site on Facebook or www.debbieboucher.com.

Also by Debbie Boucher

Millennial Fears
Oblivia
The Aunties