“Sam,” he said, but then remembered that she was not with him, that he was home, alone in his bedroom.
He tried to reach the lamp on the nightstand…but could not lift his arm.
When he tried to sit up, pain bloomed in his chest.
Ryan felt as though concrete blocks were stacked on his chest. Although mild, the pain frightened him. His heart raced so fast that the beats could not be counted.
He counseled himself to remain calm, to be still, to let the seizure pass, as it had passed when he had been floating on his surfboard.
The difference between then and now was the pain. The racing heart, the weakness, and the dizziness were as disturbing as before, but the added element of pain denied him the delusion that this was nothing more than an anxiety attack.
Even as a small child, Ryan had not been afraid of the dark. Now darkness itself seemed to be the weight on his chest. The black infinity of the universe, the thick atmosphere of the earthly night, the blinding gloom in the bedroom pressed each upon the next, and all upon him, relentlessly bending his breastbone inward until his heart knocked against it as if seeking to be let out of him and into eternity.
He grew desperate for light.
When he tried to sit up, he could not. The pressure held him down.
He discovered that he could push against the mattress with his heels and elbows, gradually hitching backward, three feather pillows compacting into a ramp that elevated his head and shoulders. His skull rapped against the headboard.
The weight on his chest forced him to take shallow inhalations. Each time he exhaled, a sound thinner than a whimper also escaped him, offending the black room like a nail drawn down a chalkboard.
After he had hitched into a reclining position, not sitting up but more than halfway there, some strength returned to him. He could lift his arms.
With his left hand, he reached blindly for the bedside lamp. He located the bronze base, and his fingers slid along a cast-bronze column with a bamboo motif.
Before he found the switch, the ache in his chest intensified and swiftly spread to his throat, as if the agony were ink and his flesh an absorbent blotter.
The pain seemed to be something that he had swallowed or was regurgitating intact. It blocked his airway, restricted breathing, and pinched his cry of shock into a half note followed by a hiss.
He fell from bed. He did not know how it happened. The bed became the floor, leaving him with no awareness of the fall, with only a recognition that mattress had been replaced by carpet.
He was not alone in the house; but he might as well have been. At this hour, Lee and Kay Ting, the couple who managed the estate, were asleep in their quarters, on the lowest of the three floors, in the wing of the house farthest from the one that contained Ryan’s third-floor master suite.
In the same way that he had fallen unawares from bed, he came to the realization that he was dragging himself across the floor, his torso raised on his forearms, legs twitching as feebly as the broken appendages of a half-crushed beetle.
Rapidly intensifying, the pain had spread from his throat into his jaw. He seemed to have bitten on a nail so hard that the point had penetrated between two teeth and into the mandible.
Suddenly he remembered that the house intercom was part of the telephone system. He could buzz Lee and Kay by pressing 1-1-1. They could be here in a minute or two.
He did not know in which direction lay the bed, the nightstand, the phone. He had become disoriented.
The room was large but not vast. He should have been able to find his way in the dark.
But pain seared, vertigo spun, weakness drained, fear twisted his thoughts until he had no capacity for calculation. Although the fall from bed to floor was only a couple of feet, he seemed to have been cast down from a great height, all grace pulverized on impact, and all hope.
His eyes were stung by hot tears, and his throat burned with refluxed stomach acid, and the balefire in his jaw would surely consume the bone and collapse his face.
The darkness spun and tilted. He could not crawl farther, but could only clutch the carpet as though gravity might be repealed and he might be whirled away, weightless, into a void.
His heart hammered faster than he could count its blows, at least two hundred a minute.
Pain spread from his throat into his left arm, radiated across his shoulder and down his back.
A prince of the Internet, richer than most kings, he lay now as prostrate as any commoner abashed in the presence of royalty, at the mercy of his body, mere clay.
The black ocean swelled under him, and he had nothing to which he could hold, neither a surfboard nor the dorsal fin of a shark. The sea was infinite, and he was as insignificant as a tracery of foam on a single wave. A great mass of water shouldered up, and he slid down its back into a trough, and the trough became an abyss, the abyss a vortex that swallowed him.
The alarm-clock feature on the TV had been set for seven in the morning. The volume remained low, and Ryan woke slowly to murmuring voices, to music scored for drama.
The glow from the screen did not fully relieve the darkness. As the value of light changed in a scene and as figures moved, phantoms throbbed and flickered through the bedroom.
Ryan lay on the floor, in the fetal position, facing the screen. William Holden, many years after Sunset Boulevard, was in an intense conversation with a lovely young woman.
In thirty-four years, Ryan had experienced only two hangovers, but he seemed to be suffering a third. Headache. Eyes crusted shut, vision blurry. Dry, sour mouth.
Initially he could not recall the events of the previous evening or remember what possessed him to go to sleep on the floor.
Curiously, the mystery of his circumstances intrigued him less than the events on the television: the older man, the younger woman, worried talk of war….
The once-sharp edges of his mind were worn, his thoughts a shapeless stream of quicksilver. Even when his vision cleared, he couldn’t follow the movie or grasp the character relationships.
Yet he felt compelled to watch, haunted by the feeling that he had awakened to this movie not by accident but by the design of Fate. Here to be deciphered was a warning about his future that he must understand if he were to save himself.
This extraordinary conviction grew until he was impelled to rise to his knees, to his feet. He moved closer to the large TV.
As the fine hairs prickled on the nape of his neck, his heart quickened. The thudding in his breast knocked into memory the much more furious pounding to which he had awakened in the night, and abruptly he recalled every detail of the terrifying seizure.
He turned away from the TV, switched on a lamp. He stared at his trembling hands, closed them into fists, opened them once more, half expecting some degree of paralysis, but finding none.
In his bathroom, black granite, gold onyx, and stainless steel were reflected in a wilderness of mirrors. An infinite line of Ryan Perrys faced him, all of them gray and haggard and grim with dread.
As never before, he was aware of the skull beneath the skin, each curve and plane and hollow of bone, the perpetual death’s-head grin concealed behind every expression that his face assumed.
Shaved, showered, and dressed, Ryan found his estate manager, Lee Ting, in the garage.
This large subterranean space provided eighteen parking stalls. The ceiling was ten feet high, to accommodate delivery trucks and-if he should ever want one-a motor home.
Golden ceramic tile, a kind used in automobile showrooms, paved the floor. Glossy white tile covered the walls. The brightwork on the Woodie and other classic vehicles sparkled in the beams of pin spots.
Ryan had always before thought the garage was beautiful, even elegant. Now the cold tile reminded him of a mausoleum.
In the corner workshop, Lee Ting was polishing a custom-made license-plate frame for one of the cars.
He was a small man but strong. He appeared to be cast from bronze not yet patinaed, and prominent veins swelled in his hands.
At fifty, his life was defined by parenthood denied, his hope of family thwarted. Kay Ting twice conceived, but a subsequent uterine infection left her sterile.
Their first child had been a daughter. At the age of two, she died of influenza. Their second, a son, was also gone.
The sight of certain young children elicited from them the most tender smiles, even as their eyes glistened with the memory of loss.
When the power buffer clicked off, Ryan said, “Lee, do you have a staff meeting this morning or appointments with anyone?”
Surprised, Lee turned. His face brightened, his chin lifted, and a cheerful expectation came into him, as though nothing pleased him more than the opportunity to be of good service.
Ryan suspected this was in fact the case. All the strivings and the particular satisfactions of raising a family, denied to Lee, were now expressed in his job.
Putting aside the license-plate frame, Lee said, “Good morning, Mr. Perry. I have nothing scheduled that Kay can’t cover for me. What do you need?”
“I was hoping you could drive me to a doctor’s appointment.”
Concern diminished the arc of Lee’s smile. “Is something wrong, sir?”
“Nothing much. I just feel off, a little nauseous. I’d prefer not to drive myself.”
Most men of Ryan’s wealth employed a chauffeur. He loved cars too much to delegate his driving.
Lee Ting clearly knew this need for a driver was proof of more than mild nausea. He at once snared a key from the key safe and went with Ryan to the Mercedes S605.
A tenderness in Lee’s manner and a wounded expression in his eyes suggested that he regarded his boss as more than an employer. He was, after all, just old enough to have been Ryan’s father.
The twelve-cylinder Mercedes seemed to float on a cushion of air, and little road noise reached them. Although the sedan rode like a dream, Ryan knew that it carried him toward a nightmare.
Ryan’s internist had a concierge practice limited to three hundred patients. He guaranteed an appointment within one day of a request, but he saw Ryan only three hours after receiving his call.
From an examination room on the fourteenth floor, Ryan could see Newport Harbor, the Pacific Ocean, distant ships bound for unknown shores.
His doctor, Forest Stafford, had already examined him, and a med tech had administered an electrocardiogram. Then Ryan had gone down to a medical imaging company on the third floor, where they had conducted an echocardiogram.
At the fourteenth-floor window, he waited now for Dr. Stafford to return with an interpretation of the tests.
An armada of large white clouds sailed slowly north, but their shadows were iron-black upon the sea, pressing the surf flat.
The door opened behind Ryan. Feeling as weightless as a cloud, and half afraid that in an angled light he would cast no shadow, he turned away from the window.
Forest Stafford’s powerful square body was in contrast to his rectangular countenance, in which his features were elongated, as if affected by a face-specific gravity that had not distorted the rest of him. Because he was a sensitive man, the deforming force, at work for years, might have been the pain of his patients.
Leaning against the counter that contained the hand sink, the physician said, “I imagine you want me to cut to the chase.”
Ryan made no move to a chair, but stood with his back to the window and to the sea that he loved. “You know me, Forry.”
“It wasn’t a heart attack.”
“Nothing that simple,” Ryan guessed.
“Your heart is hypertrophic. Enlarged.”
Ryan at once argued his case, as if Forry were a judge who, properly persuaded, could declare him healthy. “But…I’ve always kept fit, eaten right.”
“A vitamin B1> deficiency can sometimes be involved, but in your case I doubt this is related to diet or exercise.”
“Could be a congenital condition only now expressing itself. Or excessive alcohol consumption, but that’s not you.”
The room had not suddenly gone cold, nor had the temperature plunged in the day beyond the window. Nevertheless, a set of chills rose at the back of Ryan’s neck and broke along the shoals of his spine.
The physician counted off possible causes: “Scarring of the endocardium, amyloidosis, poisoning, abnormal cell metabolism-“
“Poisoning? Who would want to poison me?”
“No one. It’s not poisoning. But to get an accurate diagnosis, I want you to have a myocardial biopsy.”
“That doesn’t sound like fun.”
“It’s uncomfortable but not painful. I’ve spoken with Samar Gupta, an excellent cardiologist. He can see you for a preliminary exam this afternoon-and perform the biopsy in the morning.”
“That doesn’t give me much time to think,” Ryan said.
“What is there to think about?”
“Life…death…I don’t know.”
“We can’t decide on treatment without a definitive diagnosis.”
Ryan hesitated. Then: “Is it treatable?”
“It may be,” said Forry.
“I wish you’d just said yes.”
“Believe me, Dotcom, I wish I could just say it.”
Before Forest Stafford was Ryan’s internist, they had met at a classic-car rally and had struck up a friendship. Jane Stafford, Forry’s wife, bonded to Samantha as if she were a daughter; and Dotcom had since been more widely used.
“Samantha,” Ryan whispered.
Only upon speaking her name did he realize that the preliminary diagnosis had pinned his thoughts entirely on the pivot point of this twist of fate, on just the sharp fact of his mortality.
Now his mind slipped loose of the pin. His thoughts raced.
The prospect of impending death had at first been an abstraction that inspired an icy anxiety. But when he thought of what he would lose with his life, when he considered the specific losses-Samantha, the sea, the blush of dawn, the purple twilight-anxiety quickened into dread.
Ryan said, “Don’t tell Sam.”
“Of course not.”
“Or even Jane. I know she wouldn’t mean to tell Sam. But Sam would sense something wrong, and get it out of her.”
Like wax retreating from a flame, the mournful lines of Forry Stafford’s face softened into sorrow. “When will you tell her?”
“After the biopsy. When I have all the facts.”
With a sigh, Forry said, “Some days I wish I’d gone into dentistry.”
“Tooth decay is seldom fatal.”
“Or even gingivitis.”
Forry sat down on the wheeled stool, where he usually perched to listen to a patient’s complaints and to make notes in his files.
Ryan settled into the only chair. After a while he said, “You made a decision on the ‘40 Mercury convertible?”