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Summer and Lilacs
"I'm Mark Lily," I said, and shook Sergeant Dave Holden's beefy hand. We stood next to his cruiser. "What can you tell me about Susan?"
"If we're talking about the same girl," he said, "she was shot at six times. Hit four times."
I momentarily froze; I tried not to wince. Then I settled into the seat next to the cop in his car and pulled the door closed. My heart stalling, I said, "But she's still alive?"
"A miracle. She's in a coma."
But alive! I thought. My heart crashed back to life.
The cop grabbed a white handkerchief from his back pocket to wipe his neck and face. His cruiser had been parked in the Texas noonday sun, windows probably closed, while he'd waited for my plane to land at the Dallas/Fort Worth airport.
I scoured Holden's face, afraid to ask: "Think she's got a chance?"
He shrugged. "Don't know. Crazy bastard gut-shot her once."
The pain I felt was a knife in my stomach—my face knotted up.
Holden's car, hot and dry inside, like a metal box left in the desert, smelled of cigarette smoke. He turned on the air-conditioner, and a whoosh of hot air hit me in the face. He said, "Nice of you to fly down all the way from up North quick like this to help out."
"Most citizens wouldn't give a damn. First time in Texas?" His voice was raspy, like a rusty hinge. Probably from smoking a pack or two a day.
"First time," I said. "Always this hot?"
"Not in June like this. Usually not till August. How long you going to stay?"
"Depends. Day or two."
"Hospital's not but ten minutes away," he said. "Bethany in Southlake. Hope you can ID her."
Forty-five years old, I'd never been in a cop car before. I glanced at the shotgun mounted vertically between us, the computer, and the metal screening separating the front seat from the back seat. Though I was sweating, the entire scene gave me the shivers, and I remembered the blue-and-white cop car parked in front of my house when I was a kid, its motor running, the radio squawking, as an officer stood in the drive and told my mom about my dad.
When Holden swung his cruiser out of the Dallas/Fort Worth airport onto the freeway, he said, "You're not the girl's old man, huh? Not her stepdad, nothing like that, no relation?"
He gave me a look.
He was perhaps fifty, a heavy man with a florid face and kinky black hair, patches of gray at the temples.
"Just a friend," I said. "If the girl you have in the hospital is the one I think she is, she was once a high school student of mine. We...were good friends."
As I gazed in silence out the window, the maze of multi-lane concrete highways, cloverleaves, overpasses, and underpasses—all glaringly bright in the sunlight—bewildered me.
We drove for maybe five minutes without speaking. Finally I forced myself to ask the next question: "What happened to her?"
"This girl," he said, "has had lots of friends of the wrong kind. Girls working them gentlemen clubs are always getting themselves into trouble." The cop shook his head and wheezed out a long sigh. "Broads stripping almost naked and dancing in front of a guy, up close and personal like, but he can't touch them, what do these bitches expect? Creeps out there nowadays are something else."
I forced out another question: "Um...what do the doctors say about the girl's chances?"
"Doctors tell you exactly nothing. That way they can't be wrong."
I looked again out the window at the freeway's eight lanes of sun-baked concrete and the gleaming cars zipping by with the sun reflecting off their windows. The countryside was filled with tall concrete-steel-and-glass buildings, hardly a tree anywhere. The entire scene seemed sterile.
I tried not to think.
I didn't want my memories of Susan rushing in on me like a tide. I'd managed to avoid them on the plane by rereading parts of Tolstoy's Crime and Punishment and by gabbing with an elderly, gray-haired woman seated next to me.
I said, "Didn't you tell me on the phone yesterday the girl has a tattoo?"
"Butterfly on the butt."
"Has to be Susan. She'll make it—she's a tough kid." I squeezed my hands together; my palms felt sweaty. I screwed up my courage for one more question: "Um...exactly what happened?"
"Guess you didn't get to read it in the newspaper. It's crazy."
I'd expected a cop with a southern drawl wearing a Stetson, but Holden sounded as if he'd come from the East, New York, maybe, and wore no hat. "This Jane Doe," he said, "is parked in a ramp two blocks from the police department. She gets out of the car and this crazy bastard, Victor Randolph, a guy she's living with, is waiting for her. He jumps out of his car—fifty yards away—whips out a gun, and starts running toward her, shooting. This is only two blocks from the police department, mind you—witnesses all over the place."
"That's pretty stupid."
"Randolph shoots her, hops into his car and tries to drive away, but we get a nine-one-one in thirty seconds from witnesses, and our guys are there in no time. They chase him for maybe five or six blocks. At the first intersection with a light he runs it and T-bones a beer truck. He jumps out of his car, dashes down an alley, hides behind a Dumpster, and shoots at us till he's got one shell left. That he uses on himself. Forehead."
"You were there?"
Holden shook his head. "I read the report."
"We get an easy ID on Randolph—record a mile long—but we don't know who the girl is. She's got a phony driver's license and social security card. The car she's driving is registered to a Sherri Ashley. We track down Miss Ashley—she's the one who put us on your trail—and ask her if she knows where her car is. Says she loaned it to her girlfriend, Wendy Kiss. Now ain't that a phony name?"
"Sounds like something Susan might make up."
"Turns out Wendy Kiss, alias Jane Doe, was headed for the county courthouse to file for an emergency order of protection from Mr. Randolph, when he nails her. Miss Ashley—she dances at Baby Dolls, where Wendy Kiss also dances—has been friends with Miss Kiss maybe five or six months but doesn't know her real name, doesn't know much of anything about her except that they're good friends, and they dance at the same joint."
"I can't believe that, they don't know details about each other's lives."
"It's not unusual. These girls sometimes ain't proud of their background or what they've been doing. They form strong bonds, but they stay out of each other's past."
Lost in the story Holden was telling, I didn't realize the cop had wheeled off the freeway and was driving a tree-lined city street in Southlake. He pulled up to the Emergency Only entrance to Bethany Hospital, stopped, and killed the motor.
"That's about it," Holden said, unbuckling his seat belt. He wore baggy brown pants, a wrinkled, white, short-sleeved shirt, sweaty at the armpits. A dark tie. "You guys raise lots of potatoes up North there in Iowa?"
"Corn, pigs, and soybeans," I said. "They grow potatoes in Idaho."
"Oh, yeah, right. Right. I always get them two mixed up, Iowa and Idaho."
While zooming up to the third floor of Bethany Hospital in the elevator, Holden beside me, I played out the perfect scenario in my mind: I'd step cautiously into Susan's room and up to her bed, touch her hand. Her eyes would flutter open; she'd smile. In a day or two she'd be able to talk to me. She'd realize the foolish waste of her life so far. I'd send her home to her mother, and I'd return to Minnesota, where, before getting a call from Holden, I'd been enjoying what I hoped would be a summer-long camping trip with a woman who said she loved me. A woman I intended to marry.
When we got off the elevator, Holden said, "We need an ID bad."
"I'm sure the girl's Susan, and she's going to be all right."
"We couldn't get a fingerprint match."
Room 3472 in the ICU of Bethany Hospital was at the end of a long, carpeted hallway. The door to the room stood closed.
As Holden knocked softly, it opened, and a tall, grim-faced nurse stepped into the hallway with us, letting the door close behind her.
Stepping aside, Holden waved me forward. "Got a guy here who can maybe ID Miss Doe. Mind if he takes a look?"
"Not at this minute."
"She still alive?"
I held my breath.
"Doctors are with her now. Perhaps if you go down the hall to the waiting room. Someone will be with you shortly."
"She going to make it?" Holden asked.
"Only the Lord knows."
My throat dry, I followed Holden down the hall, where we found a waiting room. The Texas sun streaming through the window, I collapsed into a chair.
"Don't worry," Holden said. "The girl's been on the edge for days now, but she'll pull through."
I tugged at my shirt collar. "I wish I could've gotten a glimpse of her, so I'd at least know who I'm worried about. I mean, I hate to see any young girl die like that..."
"Look, sit tight. I'm going outside for a smoke. Got some telephone calls to make, and I should check in with the precinct." Holden pointed at the wall where a TV perched on a chain-suspended shelf. "Watch the tube. Don't worry about her. Nothing you can do."
"The thought she really might die—it's overwhelming."
"I know. Kills me to see these girls throwing their lives away dancing and hustling. Doing drugs. Makes you wonder how they get so screwed up in the first place. Some guy must've done them wrong." He patted me on the shoulder. "I'll be back in a bit."
I rubbed my forehead, the back of my neck. Elbows planted on my knees, I dropped my face into my hands.
Left alone, I found that I could no longer fight the memories of Susan Albright, my former student, my former nineteen-year-old lover. Memories of her, complete and full-blown, flooded my consciousness, so vivid in total recall I thought they had happened yesterday. Not a year ago.
Perhaps if I recalled the events one more time—and never again—I could escape the feelings of guilt and regret that weighed on me so heavily I felt as if my chest were caving in.