I was moving even before Aiko’s panicked shriek died in the air and the deputy was right behind me. We found Dalene stretched out on her back in the doorway to the bedroom, her head cradled in Neff’s lap as she twitched and gagged, foam drooling from the corner of her mouth.

I froze, staring at her as Neff looked up at me with terror in her eyes, Aiko standing over both of them with her hands twisted in her hair and tears streaming down her face. In that moment there was nothing but paralyzing fear- had I made a mistake? I expected withdrawal, expected it to be very unpleasant, but this bad, this suddenly?

The Deputy swore a quiet oath and gently yet firmly guided me to one side as he brushed past me to kneel beside her.

“Turn her head, girl,” he said to Neff, “don’t need her choking. Miss Angie, you dial zero on the phone there and ask for an ambulance. Tell ’em Buck Carlyle is here.”

Ambulance? Disaster. I had to stop it, had to deflect his concern, take control of this, think of something…

“She’s epileptic… falling sickness,” I heard myself saying even as the story formed in my mind, “She doesn’t need an ambulance. Aiko, go out to the Coke machine and get a bottle- we need to stir out the bubbles so she can sip it. We need to get her onto the bed.”

I spoke with authority and the Deputy looked at me, uncertainty writ on his face.

“It’s happened before, but not in a few months. I think being sick and on the road like this… I’ll get her legs.”

The three of us lifted Dalene onto the bed, and I saw the relieved look on Neff’s face. Neither she nor Aiko had batted an eyelash when I spun my tale- lying to the police had been a given in their lives for so very long.

“I don’t know, miss…” the Deputy sighed, shaking his head.

“She’ll be fine, Deputy, honest.” I was being as earnest as I knew how, but to no avail. He could not just leave her in our care and walk away.

“Call me Buck, everybody else does. Tell you what: I’ll put a call into Doc O’Malley, have him stop by and take a look. Just to be safe.”

There was no way to talk him out of it so I smiled and said that would be very kind of him. Chances were good a town doctor would not recognize what was really happening. He waited while we got Dalene settled into bed, just making certain she really was doing better, then I walked with him to his car, trying to reassure him with my words and manner. I mostly succeeded, but he was still going to make the call, and as I returned to our room my thoughts were focused on Dalene and how to deal with the doctor.

“Why no hospital?” Neff demanded, both fear and accusation in her voice. “We took her before- you know this. She nearly died!” She punctuated that last with a long finger jabbed against my chest.

“It’s not the same thing,” I tried to reassure her, “that time she’d been drinking and using. This… this is because she hasn’t got anymore. We can get her through this, I promise.”

“You promise? I saw your face! I saw how scared you were!” She turned and looked into the bedroom, looking at Dalene as she lay curled on the bed, rocking gently back and forth, sobbing quietly as Aiko tried to soothe her.

“You are never scared, Angie. Nothing frightens you, but this does. Admit it.”

I nodded, after all it was true enough. “I’m worried,” I told her, “I’m familiar with this kind of thing, but… she’s going downhill so fast. Listen, there is a doctor coming to check on her. If he says she needs to go to a hospital, she goes, but you have to understand- it’s been three days since Jacques and the others were killed. The police will notice we disappeared; they may even be looking for us. The less attention we bring to ourselves the better.”

Her eyes narrowed and it did not require any skill to know what she was thinking.

“So you are protecting us, and not just yourself?”

“I didn’t murder those people, Neff. If I had I would have told you and let you decide whether to come with me or stay in New Orleans. Would you have stayed?”

“No. Dalene would follow you anywhere, and we would go with her, you know that.”

I could tell that upset her, the notion that her friend might abandon her and Aiko had I asked her to. I was not so certain that was true, but I would never have put any of them in that position. They had survived nearly three years under Jacques’ brutal care by holding tightly to each other. Those are the kinds of bonds that should never be sundered.

“I would never ask her to leave you. Never.”

“Angie?” Aiko called from the bedroom. Neff and I both went in and found Dalene still curled into a ball, rocking and trembling. “She can’t sit still, she won’t drink any of this,” she held up a small cup of flat soda, “I’m not sure she can even hear me sometimes.”

“I hear you,” Dalene whispered between clenched teeth.

I sat on the bed beside her and laid my hand on her shoulder. She flinched, like the touch was a shock to her system, then pulled away.

“Day, baby, we need to get you out of your clothes and into something more comfortable.”

“Leave me alone,” she moaned.

“We can’t, honey. I know it’s hard, but you have to let us do this.”

It took all three of us the better part of an hour to coax her out of her clothes and get her into a set of flannel pajamas. She was extremely sensitive to being touched, she said it was like she had sunburn everywhere, but the softer material was easier for her to tolerate once we had her dressed. We even managed to get her to drink some soda and it seemed she was at least handling it better even if she did not actually feel any better.

The doctor arrived shortly after we finished. He was an older man, with the bearing of a military veteran and a south Boston accent wildly out of place in this small southern town. Dr. Brian O’Malley was a forty-odd year old who got his start in medicine as a Navy medic in the Pacific campaigns of World War II, as one of the corpsmen who went ashore with the Marines into the teeth of Japanese defenders. These were things I learned later, but when he first showed up all I knew was I would have a hard time convincing him Dalene had the flu.

His face was round and a bit doughy, but he stood straight and moved with the ease and grace of a man half his age. While he was a little gruff, he was not unfriendly as he asked about what had happened. He seemed to take my explanation in stride, but I could tell he was making mental notes about certain things. I did not lie to him, not explicitly, but it was clearly hopeless and as he briefly examined Dalene I saw his demeanor go from curious, to suspicious to disappointed.

“How long has she been using? And how often?”

He was checking her arms, looking for needle marks, when Neff spoke up.

“Two years, just about every day for the last year.”

“Well she’s damned good with a needle; there’s hardly any scarring. Morphine? Or is it heroin?”

“Heroin,” I replied. “She ran out this morning…”

Dalene jerked her arm away and curled up around herself in the center of the bed, moaning quietly while Dr. O’Malley turned his gaze first on me, then on Neff and Aiko.

“Prostitutes?” He spoke it as a question, but did not wait for an answer, instead motioning Aiko to take a seat on the bed. She looked at me and I nodded.

“Not anymore,” I told him, but he ignored me as he started examining Aiko.

He did not speak again except to give instructions as he gave each of us a very thorough physical. Dr. O’Malley was meticulous, and polite, but it was clear he was very angry about the situation in general, and with me in particular and when he finished cleaning up he pointed at me then at the door.

“Just so I can be sure- she’s not epileptic.” His pale grey eyes were very hard as he tried to stare me down, but I held my ground.

“No, she’s not. I couldn’t let Deputy Carlyle call an ambulance and it was the first thing I could think of.”

“Tell me everything- what you’ve been up to, how you got here. Don’t leave anything out.”

We were standing in front of the hotel room and I wanted to move off from the building for more privacy, but he refused to move, so I told him most of the truth about what happened three days before, leaving out my little visit to Jacques’s office and the bag full of money in the trunk of the car. He took it all in and I could see the conflict within him as he sorted through it all. In the end he reached a reluctant conclusion.

“Missy, if I tell the Sheriff all this it’s anybody’s guess if he’ll toss you in jail and call the Louisiana State Patrol, or just escort you to the county line. That black girl seems pretty steady, but that little Jap is a wreck- she starts falling apart there’ll be all sorts of crap coming down.”

“I can take care of Aiko. She’s scared, that’s all. Like I told the Deputy- once Dalene can travel we’ll be on our way.”

I was trying to turn down the intensity between us, but the doctor was seething, his face ruddy with his anger even as he kept his voice quiet and even.

“I don’t take well to liars, missy, and you’ve been spinnin’ a tale almost since the moment you got here. Can you tell me why I should go back into town and lie to my best friend about what’s going on here?”

I realized immediately he was talking about the Sheriff. Perhaps they were even war buddies- that might help explain a man from Southie in a small Virginia town. There was no way for me to be certain of it, but it felt right and I knew I could not ask him to lie for us. There was only one choice.

“I can’t,” I sighed, “and I can’t ask you to lie for us. Give me an hour, just so Day can get some rest. We can make Richmond by midnight…”

“Stop it,” he snapped, “she can’t travel and you know it. Just let me think.”

Too many mistakes, too many things to try to account for- it had been inevitable that at some point there would be nothing I could do. I wanted to make a suggestion, but I knew it would be a mistake to say anything at that point so I just stood there, staring at the ground, waiting. He was struggling with his options, trying to find a way to protect his honor and still do right by a girl who needed his care. It occurred to me that he could easily choose to have us arrested and take Dalene to a hospital.

“Okay,” he sighed after what felt like an eternity, “here’s where we stand. You were trying to protect your friend- I can understand that. I’m going back to town to get a few things and if I don’t run into Duke Carlyle I don’t have to lie to him. I’m gonna call a friend of mine in Metairie and see what he knows about any of this and if the police are looking for you girls you’re gonna come clean, understand?”

“Yes, sir,” I whispered, nodding. He saw fear in me, and it was no act. If the police were looking for us there was a terrible choice I would have to make. I was not certain I would be able to do what I knew I would have to.

If you’re lucky you get to choose
Between those things you love,
And the things you need to lose
But Mother Nature is a Bitch
Doesn’t matter what you want it to be
You’ve got no corner on Reality
And I’m not here to tell you its okay
Because choices, they’re torture
Is it agony, or is it horror
And can we tell the difference?
Best to turn and walk away
Leave you to the life you chose
When you had no choices at all

Hobson’s Choice
Hera, 1965

Comments are closed.