Author of My Sister's Secrets

 

Chapter One

August 2014 

 

When a soul re-enters a person’s body—long after it had obviously departed—it’s just not the type of thing you witness and, well … somehow forget.

Doctor Josephine Kenneth had just come on duty at Cooper Hospital when she was paged to report to the trauma unit to provide much-needed respite for the doctor on call.

She’d already been advised the department had been alive with alarms, bells, and buzzers all evening. Owing thanks, no doubt, to the dreaded impending full moon.

Answering the call, she made her way past the nursing station where a busy secretary was typing on a computer keyboard while speaking into a phone propped between her ear and shoulder. Her words … yes, doctor, I’ve got it. Now, about the guy in room 333 … faded as Josephine passed, growing nearer to the exam room at the end of the hall.

She entered quietly and watched as Doctor Lara Bruneau, the senior trauma physician, was going over every inch of the body of a comatose man. He was stretched out on an exam table—unconscious, intubated, and completely naked. Josephine had learned he’d been in a serious motorcycle accident. As is standard, to achieve the most thorough exam possible, the trauma team had cut off what clothing remained after the asphalt had claimed its take.

Doctor Bruneau shouted out STAT lab orders and imaging requests—over the rhythmic sound of the respirator—to the nurse who was assisting her.

The doctor was a woman in her late forties with blond hair and a petite build. From all Josephine had witnessed, it was apparent she’d never allowed her small size to define her. Like a jaguar, her moves were quick and calculating, but most importantly … accurate. As a top healer in the world of life-threatening injuries, she was highly respected.

Josephine observed her steady and capable hands at work. During her time as a resident, she’d spent hundreds of hours working alongside the skilled surgeon and only hoped she’d someday acquire even half her talents.

Once she realized Josephine had arrived, Doctor Bruneau prepared to turn the stranger’s care over to her. Oddly enough, even though Josephine was in her third year of residency, he was actually her first authentic John Doe.

Doctor Bruneau dismissed the nurse who’d been helping her and turned toward Josephine. In a soft, compassionate voice she requested, “Hang with this one if you can, Josie. It’s going to be touch and go for him. Try to make sure he’s not left alone.” Cases like this wore heavy on their hearts. However, they’d each understood, when choosing this field of medicine: they simply wouldn’t be able to save them all.

Doctor Bruneau headed for the door. She paused at the trash can to peel off her purple non-latex gloves. Tossing them in, she turned back toward Josephine and sighed. She lowered her chin, closed her eyes, and shook her head, before leaving her alone with him.

Tentatively, Josephine moved in closer to study the mystery patient. She tried not to notice his amazing build. His hair was so black it almost appeared to be a deep blue. A late summer tan accentuated some very well-defined muscles. No wedding ring and no interruption in the bronze of his left ring finger told her he was probably single. She looked him up and down trying to concentrate only on surveying his injuries.

Frustratingly curious, she bent over, her lips close to his ear. “Who are you, John Doe? Who, out there in this big ole’ world, loves you? And who’s going to feel absolutely devastated when they find out you’re in here … with me?”

Assessing him again, she guessed he was in his early thirties. Hospital personnel usually relied on driver’s licenses of unconscious accident victims, but no documents were retrieved at the scene. His motorcycle had hit a tree and caught fire after he was thrown from it. The police assumed his saddlebags would probably have contained his identification. However, they were no more than ash when the firetrucks arrived to extinguish the bike.

Considering the amount of road rash and the mangled condition of his limbs, it amazed her how well preserved his face appeared. His helmet had surely done a good part of its job. The skin on his face was perfect—soft and flawless. But, she was all too aware of the God-awful destruction hidden beneath his unblemished façade.

Preparing to take him down to Radiology, Josephine snatched a sheet from a linen cart on the side wall and draped it over him. She propped a portable respirator on his chest so it would be ready to breathe for him when they traveled between floors.

Leaning in, she pressed her thumbs against each of his closed eyelids—raising them. His deep blue eyes were as vacant as sea glass on a barren beach. She’d seen it before. She could always tell when a patient’s lifeforce had left their body. It was usually long before the heart got the message to stop beating. Yes, the eyes were always the first to know when the soul departed. They would harden like ice on a lake with no reaction to light or activity—empty and soulless interpreters of nothing.

She realized transport had arrived when she heard the racket in the doorway. The noises were caused by a stretcher being jammed through a scarcely-big-enough entranceway. Its navigator was a tall, lanky male orderly. Once he’d cleared the threshold, he rolled the gurney across the room—bringing it to a halt next to the exam table.

John Doe didn’t flinch as they grabbed him and shifted his body over onto the stretcher. Limp and motionless, he was no more animated than a rag doll.

Once he was transferred, she tugged on the sheet to pull it up and had tucked it under his chin. Doctor Kenneth placed her lips close to his ear. “Okay, John, we’re going to take you down for some testing now.”

She reached back and grabbed his IV pole, which had several liquid sacks hanging from it. She inserted the rod into a port on the side of the stretcher.

She addressed the attendant with the mop of thick, messy brown hair by the name on his lab coat. “Harry, I’m Doctor Kenneth. I’ll pump the respirator bag and push from this end. You just pull and steer from the bottom there. We have to get him downstairs quickly.”

Not waiting for his reply, she moved some tubes around. After hooking up the device that took over the job of his lungs, she began pumping it with one hand. She reached back with the other and flipped the stationary respirator’s switch to off. The room went eerily quiet. Finally, she grasped the corner of the stretcher, thrust her hips forward against the frame, and started moving.

She and Harry maneuvered down the hall and onto an elevator. When they arrived on the basement level, they maneuvered through hallways and around corners until they reached an overhead sign that read RADIOLOGY DEPARTMENT. A tech greeted them and directed the way into the MRI suite.

At every turn, Josephine gently spoke to her patient. Just a little bump, she’d warned as they rolled him onto the elevator and again when the doors opened, and they’d rolled him off. Just a sharp turn here, John We’re going to transfer you over to the stretcher connected to the MRI machine Now, this table moves so don’t be alarmed It’s going to be loud, so I’ll be putting these foam plugs in your ears before the test begins I’ll remove them when you’re done You’re alright, John. She placed her hand on his shoulder … We’ve got you You’re gonna be alright.

She continued to explain everything that was happening as they took him to X-ray, CT scan, and back upstairs again. Josephine had warmly referred to him as John all the while. Relief followed when he was safely hooked back up to a vent and re-attached to the monitors in the trauma unit.

Josephine stayed by his side. She’d periodically checked in with the emergency department, but each time they’d advised her things had grown unusually quiet; therefore, she wasn’t needed. Lucky for John Doe—otherwise she’d have had to leave him on his own.

When the hum of the ventilator threatened to lull her to sleep in the dimly lit room, she sang to him … ♫ ♪Are you sleeping, are you sleeping, brother John, brother John ♪ ♫ He didn’t move an inch. On one stanza of ♪ Morning bells are ringing Morning bells are ringing, ♪ his night nurse, Megan, had wandered in before Doctor Kenneth had heard her coming. The amused RN merely offered a nearly glow-in-the-dark smile before leaving her alone with him once again.

She’d never been much of a singer, so when she bored with the English version, she’d start … ♫ ♪ Frère Jacques, frère Jacques, Dormez-vous? Dormez-vous? ♪ ♫ It was the only French she’d ever spoken … if it could even be counted as speaking French.

In the wee hours of the morning, Josephine, needing to stretch her legs and get a second wind, went out to the nursing station. She found a weary Doctor Bruneau there—reading the reports containing the lab and testing results on their John Doe.

Doctor Bruneau dropped her eyes and frowned when she spotted Josephine. She shook her head. “It’s all bad news, Josie. He doesn’t have a tub of butter’s chance in hell of surviving this. As I feared, our Doe has a Diffuse Axonal Injury. On the first look at everything—and you know how hard DAIs are to predict by scans alone—it looks like a grade III. On the Glasgow Coma Scale, he was already a 3T when he was brought in. Sadly, we won’t have good news for his people—whenever we finally find them. Wherever they are, they’ll have to agree to discontinue life support. He’s simply never going to wake up from this. Ever.”

Josephine’s heart sank. She’d already known—by the vacancy in his eyes—he wouldn’t make it. They’d even expected it would turn out to be a DAI. But, it didn’t stop her from wanting a miracle for the good-looking guy she’d spent all night serenading. Poor John.

Leaving Doctor Bruneau at the desk, Josephine returned to his bedside. She sat on the black vinyl chair with the chrome armrests where she’d been sitting earlier. Reaching between her legs, she grasped the edge of the seat and walked her feet forward to scoot closer to him. With a sigh, she gazed at his beautiful, perfect, and youthful face.

Josephine never prayed anymore. She had a sixteen-year long beef with her Creator, and she had no doubt He knew it. But, she was calling Him out on it tonight. She leaned her elbows on the edge of the bed and wrapped a hand around her John Doe’s wrist, grasping it.

The next words she spoke were tender and soft and floated in the air like feathers in that dark, lonely room. She raised her eyes to the ceiling. “God, I’m still madder than hell at You. We both know You owe me some answered prayers. Well, I want to cash in on one of those tonight … for this guy. All the medical science in the world won’t save this one. I know a miracle is a big order, but with all You’ve done to me—it’s the least You can do right now.” As nearly an afterthought, she added, “Amen.”

Josephine looked back up at the face of the man in the bed. She released his arm, leaned back in her chair, and audibly exhaled. For the first time all night, she felt the tiniest bit of hope for her handsome John Doe.

 

Chapter Two

October 2014 … Three Months Later 

 

Wide-eyed and gasping, Ann Marie McBride fell straight to her knees after rounding the corner to enter her son’s hospital room. The poor woman groaned, just before crying out, “Oh, dear, God!”

Startled by the commotion, Doctor Kenneth glanced up from the chart she held in her hand and hastily tossed it onto the bottom of the bed before dashing across the room to Ann Marie’s side. She’d moved so quickly, her lab coat had taken flight behind her like a bright white cape.

Ann Marie’s husband, Albert, had been a few paces behind. When he entered the room, he immediately stumbled backward—his back and palms coming to rest on the wall behind him— as he fixed his eyes on their eldest son, Donovan, sitting upright on his hospital bed.

Bending over and tucking her arm under Ann Marie’s armpit, the doctor slowly eased her onto to her feet. Her long red hair fell forward, practically covering up the blue monogram on her jacket, which read DOCTOR JOSEPHINE KENNETH. Her heart raced as she tried to explain to the woman in her grasp, “I didn’t call you because we wanted to surprise you. But, I’m afraid we didn’t consider the risk of nearly shocking you to death instead. I’m so sorry!”

With eyes still bulging and mouth wide open, Ann Marie glanced up at Doctor Kenneth. “Why … I … oh, my goodness …” Rapidly blinking and scrambling to her feet, she directed an incredulous gaze toward the bed. After glancing back at her husband—and appearing to suddenly trust her eyes—she stumbled, recovered, and ran toward Donovan with open arms.

Josephine smiled as she witnessed the mother and son reunion. Ann Marie wrapped her arms around Donovan, paused, leaned back, cupped his face in her hands and smiled through her tears as if she’d believed she’d never have had the chance to gaze into the open, alert eyes of her boy again. Technically—and medically—she’d been right. Albert joined her at the bedside and encircled his arms around his wife and son.

Crossing the room to join the trio, Doctor Kenneth reached out and grabbed the backs of two side chairs—one in each hand—and dragged them over near the bed. “Mr. and Mrs. McBride, why don’t you both have a seat, so Donovan can try to explain what happened here last night?”

Mr. McBride spoke, “Oh, yes, ma’am. Thank you.” He slid one of the chairs over toward his wife and closer to Donovan. He extended his hand out, waving it in the direction of the chair. “Sit here, dear.” He dragged the second one next to the first and sat down.

It still surprised Josephine when someone referred to her as ma’am. After all, she’d won a game of beer pong only a few weeks back while playing with a group of friends from college. Ma’am felt like a lab coat she might grow into—one that didn’t exactly fit her yet.

Ann Marie hesitated, as though she’d considered not moving away from her son. She leaned closer to Donovan, glanced at the chair, and sighed before sliding from the edge of the bed onto the nearby seat. She reached forward and grasped her son’s hand and gazed intently at him. “You must tell us what happened! I mean … this is a miracle! I can’t believe it! Today was scheduled to be the worst day of my whole life!”

Josephine knew no truer words had ever been spoken. This was to be the day Donovan McBride took his last breath. His parents had been coming in to say goodbye. After three months in a coma, with no hope of recovery, all the machines keeping him alive were to be turned off. Even Dr. Kenneth’s personal request for Divine intervention several months ago seemed to have gone unanswered.

“Oh, my God, what the …?” All eyes shifted to the doorway where a visibly shocked, thirty-year-old Liam McBride stood with both arms extended, gripping the matte gray door jamb on either side of where he stood. His eyes were as blue as mood ring stones, but each upper and lower lid was encircled with red rings, disclosing the emotional hell he’d experienced. Obviously shocked, he shuffled with the gait of an old man as he crossed the room to the bed, never shifting focus off his thirty-two-year-old brother. “Donnie? Mom and Dad? What’s going on? I thought….”

Donovan smiled at him. In a raspy, soft voice he said, “I’m no quitter, little brother. I hear you were supposed to be attending my funeral this week. I wanted to surprise you all by being a no-show!”  He stiffly reached out and welcomed an embrace, as Liam leaned in. Their hair blended perfectly. An identical match, you couldn’t tell where one mane ended, and the other began.

Liam leaned back and looked at his parents before turning his head and acknowledging Doctor Kenneth. “Hey, doc! This is something else, right?” He grinned like the Cheshire Cat.

Josephine bobbed her head up and down, smiled, and raised an eyebrow. “It’s quite a story … he’s pretty darned amazing.”

The good doctor had gotten to know the family quite well over the last three months as they’d kept a daily vigil by Donovan’s bedside. It’d taken the police a full three days to locate them using a partial license plate retrieved from the scene of his accident. But, once his parents were located, the police had driven them over to Cooper, so they might learn of the fate of their oldest child.

She’d never forget the night the McBrides arrived to see her John Doe for the first time. Sadly, it was a scene all too familiar to Josephine. The family had fallen completely apart while trying to absorb his fatal prognosis. The attending doctors failed to offer anything other than advising them to pray. She could still hear Ann Marie’s cries and Albert’s choked sobs—it had been heart-wrenching. Soon after arriving, and once Liam was there, they’d even called for a priest to perform the Anointing of the Sick … a Catholic sacrament reserved for those believed to be dying.

She’d routinely witnessed the appearance of sheer terror on the faces of many of the visiting loved ones of patients in her three years as a resident here. Mothers who refused to leave the side of a comatose child, not even to shower … grown men crying like babies at the bedside of a dying brother … the trauma unit was indeed a scary place. Looks of profound grief, expressions of immense pain, and copious amounts of tears flowed everywhere one looked. It was an environment in the hospital that severely contrasted with the bouquets of flowers, boxes of doughnuts, balloons, and laughter one would be sure to find upstairs on the maternity floor.

While the surgeons here could save a good deal of the people who were brought in, as soon as a patient was stable they were transferred to a step-down unit, making room for the next long-shot to be provided a bed. So, the mood on this floor was always one of high alert, master skill and, well, quite frankly … prayer.

Today was pure evidence the McBrides had made the right choice to take a wait and see approach to Donovan’s care. While the suggestion had been made for the family to discontinue life support, Mr. McBride had been adamant. “If our son’s going to be dead, then he’s going to be dead. But, I want to allow ample time for a miracle to reach him. I don’t see how anyone could object to that. We have money—if that’s what the concern is—but, we won’t be making any decisions to give up hope anytime soon. Hell, hope is all we have.” Even at the time, it was an alternative Josephine had been grateful for, as she’d become pretty attached to her first John Doe.

Josephine learned—as she’d suspected—he wasn’t married. Therefore, his parents had every legal right to choose to keep him on life support. In situations like this, the doctors didn’t argue with the family because they were usually empathetic enough to give them time to realize their loved one was, in essence … already dead.

Doctor Kenneth moved to the head of the bed, gazed into his eyes, and grinned as she rested a hand on Donovan’s shoulder. She nodded. “Now that everyone’s had time to catch their breath, how about telling them what happened here last night?”

She stepped back and rested her behind on the wall-mounted air conditioning unit. While she knew the comatose mind could imagine all sorts of crazy things, she’d have to admit—it was a great story and she was eager to hear it again.

Besides, she wanted to believe the Big Guy had granted her … an honest to goodness walking, talking miracle.

******

Donovan gingerly settled back against a pile of propped up, crisp, white pillows and waited as Liam moved away and seated himself on the bottom of the bed near the footboard. Donovan scanned the faces of his family. They all looked so strained. He was only beginning to understand what they’d endured. As the one who’d been in a coma, he wasn’t even aware he’d been gone for three months. In his memory, he’d just been with them for a family dinner the week before. The time he’d spent in this room didn’t exist for him.

If he thought about it, he’d have to admit there were periods of time where he could recall being in a black space. A peaceful place. But, there was no rational thought about it. He never wondered why he was there. It never occurred to him that he wasn’t here. But, by the look on their faces, they’d felt his absence. Every. Single. Day.

Realizing they were all staring at him in anticipation, Donovan began, “Well, I opened my eyes sometime in the middle of the night last night, and a man was sitting right over there.” He pointed to a dark blue, empty, reclining Geri Chair in the far corner, situated underneath the wall-mounted TV.

Everyone shifted their gaze to where he directed. Donovan rubbed the front of his neck. It was hard to swallow; his throat was raw.

Doctor Kenneth must have recognized his struggle because she shifted and poured him some water. Reaching across and raising the cup to his mouth, she offered his lips a straw she had fixed between her thumb and forefinger. She explained to the group, “His throat is very sore from being irritated by tubes for so long. It will be that way for a while.” Donovan’s family nodded in unison as he took a sip of the welcome remedy and wrapped his shaky hands around the cup, taking it from her.

He swallowed and began again … “The guy was surrounded by this incredible glow of white light. It was so warm and inviting and even sorta bluish in some spots. I wanted to stand up and get closer to it. It was as though a magnet was trying to pull me closer to him.” The memory still made him tingle. “Then, behind the dude, there was this huge ladder. It looked like it was propped up on that windowsill …” He balanced the cup in one hand and pointed to the window to the right of the chair. “… I could see the bottom rungs, but I couldn’t see the top. It seemed to go up into infinity. The ceiling over the ladder was gone—there was just emptiness. Just warm, safe, calm emptiness.” He paused and took another sip.

Ann Marie, Albert, and Liam each had their eyes fixed on Donovan. Not one of them had moved when Donovan had been speaking. One could hear a pin drop.

Albert leaned forward, “Do you think it was a dream, son? I mean … you’ve been pretty out of it for a long time.”

Donovan sat up taller in the bed. He knew they’d have trouble believing him. It was a pretty big story, and he hadn’t even gotten to the crazy part yet. “No, pop, I don’t. He was as real to me as the three of you are now. I’m telling you …”

Tilting her head, Ann Marie interrupted, “Did he say anything to you, Donnie? Like, did you actually talk to him, honey?”

Slightly shifting on the bed, he nodded. “That’s kinda the wild thing, mom …” He could picture the whole scenario but struggled for the right words to describe it. “The silence in my room was deafening. It was like coming out of a rock concert after sitting too close to the speakers. You know, like when you can hear but everything seems so far away and hollow? It was like being in a vacuum. I could see he was talking. His mouth was moving, and his face was lively. Sometimes his expression went from looking extremely serious to looking as though he was laughing out loud.”

His mother furrowed her brow. “But, you don’t know what he said to you … like why he was here?”

Donovan shook his head and glanced at Liam who was being unusually quiet and stroking his chin. Using his big toe, he poked his little brother’s thigh. “You’re not saying much …”

Liam dropped his hands into his lap, folded them, and used his fingers to create a steeple. He wagged it as he used it to point at Donovan. “Well, brother, this is a lot to take in. I came here today thinking I was saying goodbye to you, and here you are …” He unlocked his fingers and threw his hands in the air, “… sitting up and telling stories about some white-winged angel coming …”

Donovan interrupted. “They were black.” He realized he’d forgotten to tell them that crazy detail. The guy in the corner had an enormous span of beautiful black wings. He could picture them as clear as day. They’d expand up and out with the man’s movements and then flutter down to rest behind him when he remained still.

Liam furrowed his brow. “Black? What? Jeez, you’re killin’ me, Donnie!” He smiled.

“No, no … I mean it. The guy had black wings! Oh! And he looked just like Michael Douglas!” He glanced back at Doctor Kenneth for support. While she was nodding and smiling, he understood she’d only known what he’d told her, too. Like the rest of them, she’d only had this second-hand accounting after the fact.

Liam let loose a laugh, threw his head back, and smacked his hand down on his thigh. “Come on, Donnie. This had to be a dream!?! Michael Douglas?!?”

Before they’d all arrived today, in the little bit of time he’d had to prepare, Donovan recognized how crazy his story sounded—outrageous even—but he felt certain it had happened exactly as he shared. This was no dream. He could feel every minute of the entire experience. He stiffened his lips. “Well, choose to believe or not to believe … I can tell you an angel with black wings was right over there—in my room—and now, here I am … alive and talking with you.”

Ann Marie rubbed his arm. “I’m so very, very grateful for that, sweetie.” She leaned in closer to her son. “Did he stay with you all night?”

He smiled. He’d known his mother would be the one to believe him. He appreciated her validation. “The last thing I remember I was nodding, my lips were moving as though no tubes were present, and he was beaming in response to what my mouth was saying. I still have no idea what that was. I couldn’t even hear my own words. Then, the angel stood up, and it was as though a huge gust of wind blew across the room. The draft stung my eyes so, instinctively, I’d closed them.”

He paused and took in a breath. “When I opened them, he was gone, and I was gagging on the tube in my throat. The alarm on the ventilator went off and—before I knew it—Doctor Kenneth here …” He turned and reached a hand toward her—she stood and grasped it. “… and a nurse came rushing in! Next thing I knew, my room was full of people, someone was yanking at the tube, and I shot straight up in my bed, taking in a huge—life-giving—breath of air. The trauma team in my room began clapping, crying, and laughing! I didn’t even realize why everyone was so emotional until things settled down and Doctor Kenneth told me what had happened to me and how long I’d been here.” He squeezed her hand before letting it fall away.

Albert clapped his hands together. “Well, that sure is some story, son. Whether it happened or if it was a dream doesn’t much matter. We’re just happy as hell you’re back with us! This is an answered prayer!”

Dr. Kenneth moved to the foot of the bed, next to Liam, and picked up Donovan’s chart. Holding it to her chest, she wrapped her arms around it. She addressed Donovan. “I’m going to finish making rounds. I know you all have a great deal of catching up to do! I’ll be back to check on you before I leave today.” She grinned and nodded at the group before heading for the door.

Donovan watched her leave. The fact that she was beautiful didn’t go unnoticed by him, nor did her kindness. He would never forget how calm and soothing her voice had been last night as she tried her best to tell him about the last three months of his life. She’d even stayed by his bed when sleep beckoned him because he’d been afraid to close his eyes again. Her words flowed like a lullaby when she reassured him … You’re alright I’ll be right here I promise you—you’ll wake up. He leaned forward to catch the last glimpse of her as she rounded the corner out of his room.

Grinning ear to ear, Liam jammed his finger into his brother’s leg. “She’s easy on the eyes, isn’t she, brother?”

Donovan smirked. “I’m calling dibs!”

Liam nodded and threw his open hands up in the air. “After what you’ve been through for the last three months? She’s all yours!”

 

 

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