copyright Lisa J Lickel
Fox Ridge Publications
The lingering echo and tingle of a quarter-century-old slap trembled along her fingers and tickled her palm. She clenched her fist to stop the sensation.
“Mom, here’s another e-mail from that guy with the strange name. The one who keeps asking about you.”
Rachel Michels closed her eyes, even though her grown daughter couldn’t see her cower behind the front section of the newspaper. The paper rattled in her hands. Rachel lowered it.
“Hey, Mom—you there? You said you were going to take care of it.”
“I said I would, Maeve.” Soon as she could stomach the thought of telling Gervas to knock it off. He probably didn’t even know who Maeve was, just that she had the same last name as a girl he once knew in Wisconsin.
The real question was why, after twenty-three years, he thought he had the right to come waltzing into her life. How dare he? “Just hit delete without opening it. I’ll take your laptop in to work with me tomorrow, have Scott in IT purge the sender, okay? And I’ll call Bob in security, see if we can trace it.”
“I don’t want to lose any of my stuff.”
“You won’t. Just copy the material you need and you can use mine tomorrow.”
“I guess that’ll be okay. I’ll let them know at work, so they don’t think I stole or wrecked their equipment.”
Maeve, Rachel’s surprise gift child, was all of twenty-two, with a newly minted bachelor of arts under her arm and the owner of a condo—too many miles away for Rachel’s taste —in Cottage Grove, south of Madison. At least the advertising company she’d interned for the last summer had hired her full time. Almost any job that paid the bills was good these days when so many graduates were struggling with the tanking economy of 2011—which was shaping up to be nearly as awful as 2010. It was worse in Europe, where the European Union was voting whether to bail out member nations in economic crisis.
Rachel stood and tossed the paper aside. “I’m going to fix a cup of tea. Want one?”
With fingers poised over the keyboard, beautiful Maeve looked up, two little squiggles of concentration crossing an otherwise smooth forehead. Her daughter’s long-lashed tiger eyes blinked to focus. “Um, yeah, sure. Thanks.”
Too far away, Rachel thought again. Fifteen point seven miles, door to door. It had been just the two of them forever, and now, well, empty nest couldn’t come close to describing the aching alone-ness and touch of fear that there’d be no one to share the rest of her life. What Rachel’s sister Ann had gone through those years she’d been alone—no, nothing could prepare a person. It was like living in a bubble, and suddenly popped out on a cold rainy night with no plan, no training, no advice.
Rachel pretended her smile worked perfectly and practiced one before she turned and went to boil water. At least her daughter’s hair had returned to its natural, glossy brown color. The various gruesome facial piercings she’d given herself in college were healing. Rachel shuddered. If not for Ann’s husband Mark, who knew what would have happened to them. So handy to have a lawyer in the family.
Carrying the mugs, Rachel set one down next to her daughter. “I feel like I should be serving iced tea in July.”
Maeve’s grin made things right.
“It’s a little cool tonight.” She held up the steaming cup of mint. “Besides, there’s nothing like home and something warm. Thanks, Mom.”
Rachel crouched near the sofa, creaking in the knees. Maeve laughed.
“What are you working on now?” Rachel scooted her cheaters across her nose.
“New mug designs for a local businesses. They send their logos, and I give them some options, or if I need to, work with them to create a logo.”
A ping sounded and a small window popped up in the lower right hand corner of the screen. Before she could stop herself, Rachel crushed the delete button so hard she broke her fingernail. She put the finger to her mouth. “Yikes. There goes my manicure.” She let her voice fade at the look on her daughter’s face.
“How did you know?” Maeve’s expression was open-mouthed shock. “I don’t remember telling you his name.”
Too late. Rachel grimaced. “Sorry. Mother-hen instinct. I hope that wasn’t a client. I can have Scott get it back.”
“It just went to trash. But, no…it was him. Jer-Grr-Gervas Friedemann. However it’s pronounced. He said he was looking for you, or at least someone with your name who used to work at Mendota. What’s going on?”
Years of practice side-stepping reality hadn’t quite prepared Rachel for this—the possibility that he would seek them out. She felt the heat rush to her face and knew she couldn’t lie. But the truth belonged to no one except her. And him.
Gervas Friedemann thanked the receptionist who showed him to a chair in the pastel-themed lounge at University Hospital. Americans were so vapidly indulgent with everything, even their waiting areas. He studied the innocuous floral print in a pink frame nailed to the wall. No real form or design. Machine cast? Spit out from something beige and metallic, no attempt to create a bond with its viewer, or capture a piece of the artist’s soul? Perhaps one of their test creatures had painted it. He had seen the scrawls of apes and elephants. Fewer people were needed to do even the simple tasks that made life glow.
But that was exactly what he needed. People. A person, anyway. Something from a particular person to help his daughter Katrine. Machines had not yet been able to recreate bone marrow. Not yet. This University of Wisconsin had experts creating and recreating the microscopic elements of a person’s genetic map. Katrine’s diseased blood, but deeper, his own faulty genome, had betrayed the family.
Gervas looked up at the tall young man in a white coat, his smooth hand held out. In greeting? Or helping an old man rise? “Yes. Gervas Friedemann.”
“I’m Dr. Randolph, assistant to Dr. Kappers, director of the Stem Cell Gene Therapy program here at the William and Alexis Barton Institute. We’ve been expecting you. Please, come with me.”
Gervas stood before shaking the hand and gripped it briefly. He followed the unlined face and vigorous steps of the one who held Katrine’s fate. A boy doctor in gray shirt and tie under the pure clean laboratory coat. William and Alexis Barton? Who were they? Another thing distasteful about the States—such pretention everywhere. Naming rights.
The room where Randolph led them was not a typical office but a conference room with a large table, comfortable chairs, and blinds at the windows. Randolph gestured toward one of the high-back blue padded seats. “Please.” He poured them each a glass of water, and sat next to Gervas. “Dr. Warner, another associate, will join us shortly. Unfortunately Dr. Kappers is out of town today. I understand you are interested in our ongoing clinical trial?”
“There was an exchange professor at Mendota years ago,” Rachel said. “You know we have that study program with Freiburg University in Germany. This probably has something to do with my work. If that’s so, then he shouldn’t be trying to contact you just because we have the same last name. Or he’s simply confused. I’ll take care of it.”
Clicks and pops in her hips made Rachel gnaw the inside of her lip as she pressed herself upright. “Why don’t you put your files on a disk and we can trade computers now?”
A flash of the old mutiny glinted in Maeve’s eyes before she corralled it. “Okay.”
As they traded machines and her daughter packed up to leave, Rachel wanted to erase the doubt Maeve wore. They walked outside to Maeve’s car in the driveway. Crickets stirred the summer evening and gnats swirled under the lofty streetlamp. It wasn’t cold, but not as hot as it could be, either. Blacktop, heated from the day, radiated fumes of the underworld.
Rachel rubbed her arms as Maeve stowed her gear. “I’m glad you came. You’re always welcome to stay.”
“Thanks.” Maeve’s look had a question. But then she smiled and hugged tight, leaning down slightly from her two-inch advantage in height, before she slid into her car.
Rachel waved at the taillights, wondering how the tables had turned in such a short time. She was the one who needed to prove herself to her daughter now. To show her that some secrets were worth keeping, even though outright lying usually did more harm than good by creating a false sense of security.
How far did Rachel want to root into the past? What good would it do, anyway? Maeve had turned out pretty well. Sure, she’d had some rough spots—who hadn’t? Rachel had made many poor choices—some she’d even admit. The messages must be a mistake. Gervas didn’t know what he was doing, how much things should have changed in two decades. Absent-minded professors were like that.
Scott would help her keep Gervas from her daughter. And all the office staff knew how to protect her privacy.
“Yes,” Gervas replied to the physician. Were all prospective patients given this preferential treatment of a private consultation? He handed over Katrine’s file, with the letter of permission from her, as an adult, and her many doctors, giving him the right to discuss her case. “My daughter Katrine suffers from Fanconi Anemia, and unfortunately, many side effects.”
“How old is she?” Randolph didn’t look at him, but instead leaned across the closed file.
“Twenty-seven.” Right there on the file, if you’d just look. What it didn’t say was that she’d been born of Gervas’s first marriage, nearly three decades of teaching, traveling, networking, study, international acclaim, and a second marriage, ago. He rubbed his cheekbones over his trimmed beard where Sylvie’s ring had etched his face that day she’d learned of Julianne and filed for divorce. Katrine had been eight, Max eleven. A bad end to an interminable situation.
“She’s been receiving excellent care,” Randolph muttered when he finally began to turn pages. “I see an attempt at MSD was undertaken to slow the myelodysplasia.”
Gervas would not entertain that discussion, though echoes of it slammed him at times like these. When he’d confronted his ex-wife, she told him why the matched sibling bone marrow donation, MSD, had failed. “That’s because Max is not your son.” Sylvie’s voice had lacked the triumph he’d heard during her announcement, he realized later. She was not that cruel to flaunt their mutual and many indiscretions in Katrine’s face, despite the vicious things they’d done to one another.
“Yes,” Gervas said to Randolph. “The procedure had disappointing results.”
They’d been desperate enough in those days, he and Sylvie and the doctors, to risk the transplant under less than perfect conditions. How did they say it, here in America? Close, but no cigar. Tumors had resulted in surgery that reduced Katrine’s voice to a harsh rasp.
The doctor reminded Gervas somewhat of a house spider, spindly and nearly colorless, but capable of dispatching anything that got in its way. Randolph sat back and crossed his ankle over a knee. “Fanconi Anemia, or FA, presents with several disorders and may affect nearly any system in the body. As you know, it is inherited and often fatal, though it seems your daughter has escaped many of the debilitating birth defects, except for the heart, and then the tumors as a result of the failed bone marrow transplant.”
Gervas held his breath and let this self-important American doctor get his ingratiating need to spew data out of the way. He supposed many of those students and colleagues who attended his lectures over the years felt so, and reaped his punishment as another step to get help for his daughter.
“In the decades since your daughter’s diagnosis, we’ve…”
Always that American overconfidence. It had been the Swiss, Friedrich Miescher, who first isolated your genetic material, and the British who worked with it. A young woman doctor with a good German name, Catherine Freudenreich, was a current expert in abnormal DNA structure. Even though she was an American.
“Of the damaged genetic markers so far, we’ve been able to identify…”
And so Randolph spoke the words of the initiated, those invited to the specific chromosome party who could absorb the meaning of mesenchymal stoma cells and non-hematopoietic cells and insert them in conversation like so much ex vivo and in vivo; outside the living environment or inside a living host. Gervas knew all the words, the tests, the impossible treatments.
“Our trial’s outcome is to provide a disease-free survival for patients who have developed conditions such as myelodysplastic syndrome,” Randolph said.
Gervas narrowed his eyes.
“Should your daughter decide to enroll in and is qualified for our program, which has a number of years to run, she will receive free evaluation and treatment.”
Of course Konrad Meissen, Katrine’s lead physician, had already explained this. Gervas had wanted to see for himself, to meet these people and form an opinion based not on the coldness of letters and figures and numbers on a page, or impersonal computer screen.
Konrad had also looked Gervas in the eye and told him there needed to be someone unrelated, but still HLA-compatible. Neither he nor Sylvie were acceptable donors for this program, nor could Max be considered an HLA, or human leukocyte antigen donor. There were no other close enough relatives with similar genetics to help Katrine. Marvelous, the information people could discover today about human white blood cells and the substances on their surface—leukocyte antigen. A miracle to have such data at one’s fingertips.
“Usually, a blood relative would make a better donor,” the American doctor said, seemingly echoing Konrad’s Bavarian accent.
A blood relative. A blood relative. A blood…
“But there are ways to work with unrelated, HLA-compatible donors.”
The door to the conference room opened to a similarly-coated young woman. Randolph and Gervas stood. “Dr. Warner,” Randolph said, eagerness and pleasure creating a sense of adultness, of knowingness in his being. Once, Gervas would have enjoyed such a lovers’ secret. Now, he wanted no more distractions to come between his daughter and her existence.
As they repeated the situation so that the new doctor could catch up, Gervas studied the pair, their professional and intimate body language proving their interest in themselves and the research they both apparently loved. Would this pose a problem? Could he trust them?
“Professor Friedemann.” Dr. Warner smiled. “Thank you for taking the time to come and meet us. I feel confident that something can be done to alleviate your family’s suffering.”
At last. Gervas allowed the warmth of her certainty to flow through him. Someone understood. Yes. It was good. And just.
“You won’t remember me,” she said, giving a faint toss of wavy brown hair behind her shoulder and jingling earrings that looked like coins. “I was in the exchange program for a summer semester, from Mendota to Freiburg. I took your cultural anthropology course and nearly changed my major.”
“I’m glad you didn’t,” Gervas responded, allowing a small twist of his lips.
Mendota again. And memories, back twenty-some odd years, nearly the time of this young woman’s birth. No…a little later, obviously. The underlying reason of his visit to Wisconsin, which, unfortunately, had little to do with Katrine and everything to do with the family honor.
If he didn’t find her, that young woman who had taken her revenge on him all those years ago, more than his daughter—an entire coalition of nations—would suffer worse than this disease of one person’s blood.