Since his diagnosis in September, his disease had taken a toll from Samantha perhaps not equal to the psychological price that Ryan had paid, but serious enough that it had robbed her of the time and passion that she needed for her writing. Her novel had lost momentum. She was not blocked, but she stood high on a dry bank, far above any hope of a creative flow state.
Now, because Ryan was less often with her, she could spend more time at her work. As she became engaged with her storytelling once more, Sam’s enthusiasm for the novel served Ryan’s deception. When long writing sessions went well, she was exhilarated and less likely to consider how much of the time they were apart.
Every week or ten days, Ryan traveled by limo to Beverly Hills to be examined by Dr. Hobb, who insisted on monitoring closely the condition of his heart. With every visit, he became more convinced that he had made the right decision when he turned to this dedicated man.
A few unfortunate side effects of the medications gave Ryan moments of discomfort, but he suffered none of the painful seizures, spells of arrhythmia, or breathing problems that previously plagued him. This argued for the superiority of Dr. Hobb’s care, but it also suggested that Ryan had been prudent when he took control of his treatment in such a way as to foil anyone who secretly might have wished him ill.
At five o’clock in the morning, on January 14, the call came. A heart match had been found.
Of all the lists on which Ryan had appeared-Forbes magazine’s top one hundred Internet entrepreneurs, Wired magazine’s top twenty most creative lords of the Web, People magazine’s one hundred most eligible bachelors-he had risen to the top of the only list that mattered.
After all the months of waiting, now came the call for action, and time was of the essence to a degree that Ryan had never known before.
Having been declared brain-dead, the donor’s body would remain on life support until Ryan arrived at that hospital and was prepared for surgery. If the heart did not have to be stored for several hours in a forty-degree saline solution, if no risks had to be taken with its transport, if it could be removed from the donor by the same surgical team that without delay transplanted it into the recipient, the chances of success would be significantly increased.
Things could still go wrong. Depending on the injuries or the illness that had led to his brain death, the donor might still suffer a heart attack, severely damaging cardiac muscle and rendering his heart useless for transplant. An undetected infection of the kidneys or the liver or another internal organ, secondary to the donor’s cause of death and not immediately recognized, might lead to toxemia, or in an extreme case to septic shock and widespread tissue damage. The life-support equipment could malfunction. The hospital’s power supply could fail.
Ryan preferred not to dwell on what might go wrong. Considering his condition, the worst thing he could do was psych himself into high anxiety. He had lived hardly a third of the year that Dr. Gupta had predicted, but a full year had not been a guarantee, only an estimate. His heart might deal him a deathblow at any time, whereupon he would no longer be an organ recipient but a donor, his corneas and his lungs and his liver and his kidneys carved out of him for the benefit of others.
Immediately after receiving the 5:00 A.M. notification, Ryan called Samantha, desperate that she not answer the phone. He did not want to talk to her directly, to have to answer her questions, to hear the sense of disappointment in her voice or the fear for him that she would surely express.
As she labored on the final chapters of her novel, Sam often worked late into the evening and went to bed after midnight. At this hour, Ryan hoped she would have switched off the phone and that he would get her voice mail-which he did.
Even her flat sorry-I’m-not-available-to-take-your-call speech pierced him, mundane and poignant at the same time. He wondered if he would hear her voice again, or see her.
“Sam, I love you, I love you more than I can say. Listen, the call just came. A heart match. I’m flying out. I arranged with Dr. Hobb and his team to do the surgery. I didn’t tell you because you would think I’m paranoid, but I don’t think I am, Sam, I think what I did was what I had to do. Maybe I didn’t handle the diagnosis well, maybe it made me a little crazy, and maybe paranoia is a side effect of these medications, but I don’t think so. Anyway, I’ll sort all that out when I’m well, when I get back, if I make it. Sam, Sam, my God, Sam, I want you with me, I wish you could be, but not if I die, and I might, it is a possibility. So it’s best you stay here. What I want for you, no matter what, is that you finish the novel, that it’s a huge success for you, and that you are always as happy as you so very much deserve to be. Maybe you could dedicate the book to me. No, scratch that. It’s not right for me to ask. Dedicate it to anybody you want, to some idiot who doesn’t deserve it, if that’s what you want. But if the book is at all about love, Sam, and knowing you I think it has to be, if it’s at all about love, maybe you can tell them you learned at least a little bit about the subject from me. I learned everything about it from you. Call you soon. See you soon. Sam. Precious Sam.”
Ryan’s suitcase had been packed for weeks. At 5:45, he rode with it in the elevator down to the main floor and carried it through the grand, silent rooms to the front door.
This was his dream house. He had devoted much time and thought to the design and the construction of every element. He loved this house. But he did not say good-bye to it or waste a moment admiring it one last time. In the end, the house didn’t matter.
At this hour, neither the domestic staff nor the landscaping staff was in evidence. Outside in the predawn dark, the neighborhood lay quiet except for the hollow hoot of an owl and the idling engine of the ambulance in the driveway.
Dr. Hobb had ordered the van-style ambulance. Using Ryan’s security password, he had phoned the guard gate to ensure that the vehicle would be admitted to the community.
One of the paramedics waited at the front door. He insisted on carrying the suitcase for Ryan.
After putting the bag in the back of the van and assisting Ryan inside, the paramedic said, “Would you like me to ride back here with you or up front with my partner?”
“I’ll be fine here alone,” Ryan assured him. “I’m not in any imminent danger.”
He lay on his back on the wheeled stretcher for the trip to the airport.
Around him were storage cabinets, a bag resuscitator, a suction machine, two oxygen cylinders, and other equipment: reminders that for a while to come, his world would shrink to the dimensions of a hospital.
Not long from now, Dr. Hobb would saw through Ryan’s breastbone, open his chest, remove his diseased heart while a machine maintained his circulation, and transplant into him the heart of a caring stranger.
Instead of escalating, his fear diminished. For so long, he had felt helpless, at the mercy of Fate. Now something positive could be done. We are not born to wait. We are born to do.
The driver used the array of rotating beacons on the roof to advise traffic to yield. At this hour, the freeways should not be clogged, and a siren might not be necessary.
As a driver, Ryan had a need for speed, and as a passenger, he had never before gone as fast as this-especially not while flat on his back. He liked the loud swash of the tires, which reminded him of breaking surf, and the whistle of the wind, which the ambulance created as it knifed through the early morning, a whistling that was to him neither a banshee shriek nor the keening of an alarm, but almost a lullaby.
They were nearing the airport when he realized that he had not called either his mother or his father. He had half intended to phone them.
He had never told them about his diagnosis. Bringing them up to speed would be tedious, especially at this early hour, when his mother would be set on CRANKY and his father would be set on STUPID, and neither of them would have the desire or the capacity to switch to a different mode.
Anyway, they had nothing to give him that he needed and much to give that he did not want.
If the worst happened, he had taken care of them generously in his will. They would be able to cruise through the rest of their lives with even greater self-indulgence than they had displayed to this point.
He felt no animosity toward them. They had never loved him, but they had never hit him, either. Although they were not capable of love, they were capable of hitting, so they deserved credit for their restraint in that regard. What they had done to themselves was worse than anything they had done to him.
If he wanted to take the time for a good-bye, he would receive far less emotional satisfaction from saying good-bye to his parents than he would have received if he had delayed to say good-bye to his house.
Their destination was Long Beach Airport. Arranging an emergency flight out of LAX would have been too time-consuming and frustrating.
In the early light, standing on the Tarmac, the Medijet loomed larger than the corporate Learjet that Ryan had intended to use. Dr. Hobb preferred to charter this aircraft to accommodate both his team and a contingent of the patient’s friends and family. In this case, Ryan’s contingent consisted of the image of Samantha that he carried in his mind, which sustained him.
Furthermore, the Medijet came with medical equipment that might be required en route, and it had the capability of handling patients who were not ambulatory or otherwise had special needs.
Three ambulances, which had ferried Dr. Hobb and his team from different points in the Los Angeles area, were lined up near the jet. The last of their suitcases and other baggage was being transferred to the aircraft.
While a paramedic took his suitcase to the Medijet steward, Ryan stood for a moment, peering east, savoring the pink and turquoise and peach celebration of the risen sun.
Then he boarded the jet to fly to his rebirth or to his death.
Ryan walked in yellow radiance, and yellow crunched under his shoes, and the melting yellow warmth of an autumn sun buttered his skin.
In the yellow distance, someone called his name, and though the voice was faint, he thought he recognized it. He could not identify who summoned him, but the voice made him happy.
He seemed to walk for a long time out of yellow into yellow, untroubled by the sameness or by his lack of a destination, and then he lay supine on a black bench that he found comfortable in spite of it being iron. Overhead hung a canopy of yellow and all around him spread a yellow carpet.
When he breathed in, he discovered what yellow smelled like, and when he breathed out, he regretted expelling the yellow that he had inhaled.
Gradually he became aware that someone stood over him, holding his right wrist, timing his pulse.
Dazzling yellow sun pierced the canopy of yellow aspen leaves at a thousand points, yellow burnishing yellow into a more intense and brighter yellowness, backlighting the person who attended to him and simultaneously enveloping that presence in a misty yellow aurora through which Ryan could see no features that would allow him to identify his caregiver.
He assumed that the one taking his pulse must be the one who had called to him out of the brilliant yellow, and for a while he remained happy, for he knew this presence loved him.
Later, when he tried to express his gratitude, he discovered that he was mute, and his inability to speak reminded him of when he had been unable to reply to William Holden on the shore of the black lake.
Suddenly the looming pulse-taker seemed not to be glorified by the yellow aurora but to be hiding within the radiance, cunning and calculating, not a loving presence after all, but in fact the dark figure that had circled the shore of the lake, into the arms of whom Ryan would have delivered himself had it not been for Mr. Holden’s admonition.
The thumb and two fingers on his wrist, seeking his pulse, were cold, although they had not been cold a moment ago, were icy, and were squeezing harder than before, were pinching, and the shape of a head descended toward him through the yellow aurora, a face, a face, but a face constituted entirely of a wide and hungry maw-
With a throttled cry, grasping at the safety railing, Ryan sat up in a hospital bed, in a shadowy room redolent of an astringent pine-scented cleaning solution.
The sheets smelled of bleach and fabric softener. They crackled and felt crisp, as if starched.
In a lamplit corner, putting aside the book that he had been reading, a man dressed in white slacks and a white shirt rose from an armchair.
The lamp base and shade gleamed, stainless steel or polished nickel. The vinyl upholstery on the armchair glistered like the flesh of an avocado drizzled with olive oil.
Everything in the room appeared to have a coat of lacquer or to be wet. The polished white-tile floor, the shiny blue top on the nightstand, the wall paint glimmering with a crushed-pearl glaze.
Even the shadows had a hard gloss, as if they were layers of smoky glass, and Ryan understood that this universal sheen was less real than it was an effect caused by the sedative that he had been given.
He felt that he had come fully awake, his wits sharp and his perceptions clearer and more penetrating than ever in his life, but the witchy luster of everything led him to the realization that he was narcotized. Sleep would take him again the moment he returned his head to the pillow.
He felt helpless and at risk.
At the windows pressed the murky and unwelcoming chrome-yellow darkness of any large city at night.
“Bad dream?” asked the male nurse.
Wally. Wally Dunnaman. A member of Dr. Hobb’s team of eight. Earlier he had shaved Ryan’s chest and abdomen.
“My throat’s dry,” Ryan said.
“Doctor doesn’t want you having much to drink before surgery in the morning. But I can give you a few chips of ice to let melt in your mouth.”
At the nightstand, Wally removed the stopper from an insulated carafe. With a long-handled spoon, such a shiny spoon, he fished out a piece of ice, glimmering ice, and fed it to Ryan.
After allowing his patient three chips of ice, he stoppered the carafe and put down the spoon.
Studying his wristwatch, Wally Dunnaman timed Ryan’s pulse.
In the yellow dream, neither the loving presence nor the hateful one had been this man. Nothing in this room, in this hospital, had inspired the dream.
Releasing Ryan’s wrist, Wally said, “You need to sleep.”
In some way that Ryan could not explain, the reality of the dream equaled the reality of this room, neither superior to the other. He knew the truth of that in his bones, although he did not understand it.
“Sleep now,” Wally urged.
If sleep was a little death, as some poet had once written, this sleep would be more of a death than any other to which Ryan had given himself. He must resist it.
Yet he lowered his head again to the pillow, and he could not lift it.
Helpless and at risk.