Thank you to my intrepid editors, Kyrie and Janette! And thanks to "Dr. Carlisle" for her input as well!!

 

Secret Spaces of the Gods

 

Chapter 3

The rest of the night passed like a nightmare. To Trixie, unconsciously straining along with Jim for each breath, he seemed to hover between this world and the next. Nurses came in and out of the room, checking monitors, replacing the antibiotics that continued to drip into his arm. And their answer to Trixie’s whispered questions never varied.

“No change.”

Trixie held his hand, stroked his forehead, spoke softly to him. She felt like she was the link that kept him here—as long as she kept telling him how much she loved him, how much Katy and the rest of his family loved him, how much his students needed him, then how could he possibly leave them?

Only when the sterile light of the room was slowly replaced by a rosy dawn did Trixie become aware of the passage of time. She leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes, still clinging to Jim’s hand, making sure not to break the contact.

Dr. Brandt entered the room and stopped in front of her. Trixie knew even before she confirmed it that it was what they had feared.

"Your husband's blood cultures tested positive for the bacteria that causes endocarditis and the echocardiogram confirmed it."

Trixie found herself nodding stupidly, feeling like one of those bobbing head dolls whose heads keep moving long after you poke them.

Dr. Brandt’s voice was calm and steady. “I’ve already been consulting with Dr. Carlisle, who is the best infectious disease specialist on the East Coast. She wants to try the antibiotic cocktail she’s developed for this particular illness.”

Trixie glanced at Jim’s still, white form then back at the doctor. “What happens if it doesn’t work?” Luckily, or unluckily, having a doctor for a brother had exposed her to medical knowledge over the years. And she knew that certain strains of infection had grown resistant over the years to antibiotics.

Dr. Brandt put a hand on her shoulder. “Dr. Carlisle has already thought of that—it’s highly unlikely, but if the infection doesn’t respond she has an experimental group of antibiotics she wants to try.”

Trixie’s expression spoke volumes and the doctor hastily added, “She’s had an excellent success rate with this kind of thing. The experimental dose is just a back-up.”

Trixie’s mind was leaping like a fish. “Why didn’t you just start him on this cocktail right away? Even as she asked the question a nurse came into the room and began replacing Jim’s IV bag with a new one. Trixie had the strange urge to knock her away.

“It’s never a good idea to flood somebody with the kind of strong antibiotic mix we’re using now unless you’re absolutely sure what you’re dealing with. It’s the misuse of antibiotics in the past that has paved the way for some particularly nasty new strains of bacteria. Unfortunately, the evolution of resistance to antibiotics was inevitable. But now that we know what we’re dealing with, we can move on to the next level of treatment.”

“And then he’ll be okay, right?” Trixie’s face was drawn and tired, and Dr. Brandt wondered when the last time Trixie had eaten anything.

“Trixie, we’re going to do everything we can. Why don’t you go home and get some rest? We’ll call you immediately if there’s any change.”

Trixie shook her head, the very idea of leaving Jim completely ridiculous.

The doctor sighed inwardly but was hardly surprised. “At least take a break and eat something. Your mother is here, and from the looks of it, she’s brought enough to feed an army.”

Trixie almost smiled—how very like her mother. She was about as far from hunger as she could get, but right at that moment she felt the baby move. She began awkwardly to rise, gratefully accepting the doctor’s proffered arm. She leaned down and kissed Jim’s white cheek. “Your baby wants breakfast, but I’m coming right back.” Her gaze was full of a combination of love and pain that had Dr. Brandt feeling like an intruder in her own stomping ground.

Trixie wearily went down the hall and into the small waiting room. The décor was almost as sterile as the rooms themselves, only containing non-descript armchairs and two couches just short enough in theory to discourage sleeping. She wasn’t surprised to see that Dan was still there. She smiled slightly at the sight of his tall form draped sideways over the couch, one hand under his cheek and the other around his girlfriend Joeanne, also asleep, her head comfortably pillowed on his chest. Trixie wondered when she had gotten there and felt her eyes moisten over her friends’ concern. Matthew and Madeleine Wheeler were likewise stationed on the other couch.

As soon as Katy saw her mother she broke away from her grandmother and flew at her, burying her face into Trixie’s side and throwing her arms around her hips.

Want Mommy…want Daddy,” Katy had cried when Helen went to pick her up. Her grandmother had held her and rocked her in her arms, wisely not allowing Katy to see her father carried out, limp and still, on the stretcher.

Helen had managed to calm her down, deciding to take her to the school stables before taking her back to Crabapple Farm. It was one of Katy’s favorite activities, and she absolutely adored Regan, the head of the school’s riding program and one of Jim and Trixie’s best friends.

Helen hoped that Trixie couldn’t tell that Katy hadn’t eaten or slept much in the past 24 hours. It would have been easier to take if she had screamed and cried or threw tantrums, but she just quietly sat in whatever room Helen happened to be in, occasionally asking when was her mother coming home and when would Daddy be better. “It was either bring her or World War III,” Helen said. 

Trixie stroked Katy’s hair and wished she could pick her up. “It’s okay,” she assured her mother. She walked to one of the chairs and sat down so that Katy could crawl into what remained of her lap and snuggle against her.

“Honey went home to be with Matty, and your dad and Brian are only a phone call away.  They had to get back to work,” Helen said, sitting across from her. She bent down and began rummaging in the large grocery sack on the floor, pulling out Tupperware containers.

Trixie glanced down at Katy who had not said a word, only pressed up against her. She looked so lost and tired that Trixie felt a twist of fear. “What do you think Grandma brought us?” she said, kissing the top of her daughter’s head. “I sure hope it’s macaroni and cheese, don’t you?” Homemade macaroni and cheese was one of Katy’s favorites. Trixie was rewarded with a smile.

“I’ve got some fried chicken and fruit salad left from last night. I want you to eat something. Both of you,” Helen said.

Trixie let Katy pretend that she, Katy, was the mommy and Trixie was her baby, letting the little girl feed her bites. To Trixie’s relief Katy was soon giggling and even managed to eat a large portion herself. 

The others woke up and gratefully dove into the food, mumbling their thanks to Helen in-between bites.

Helen merely smiled. She had long understood the power of food eaten together. It allowed the comfort of normalcy, and lord knew, they all needed that right now. It was killing her that she could do nothing for Trixie. The mother in her wanted to wave a magic wand and set everything right.

She watched Trixie and Katy together—their bond was obvious. Trixie looks so beautiful when she looks at her, Helen thought. It never failed to fill her with fierce joy to reflect that, being a mother herself, Trixie couldn’t help but fully understand the depth of Helen’s love for her, a love that seemed to have no beginning or end, a love as basic as the air that she breathed.

Mrs. Wheeler daintily wiped her mouth on a napkin. “Has the doctor talked to you yet? She told us she had an update, but that she needed to talk to you first.”

The food in Trixie’s stomach suddenly felt like a brick, and she hoped she could keep it down as she quietly relayed everything the doctor had told her. She knew Katy couldn’t possibly understand and made sure to keep her descriptions deliberately medical.

She was glad Mrs. Wheeler didn’t start to cry. Mr. Wheeler merely looked resigned, and Trixie could tell that he’d geared himself up for the worst when the diagnosis of endocarditis was first given.

“They know what it is, and they know what needs to be done,” he said. He stood up, helping his wife to his feet. “We’ll just pop in on him for a moment,” he added. He bent down and kissed first Trixie, then Katy, on the cheek.

“Can I go, too?” Katy asked. “Please,” she added when her grandfather looked uncharacteristically grave.

Trixie hugged her close. “I’m sorry, Katykins, but children aren’t allowed where Daddy is.”

Katy’s face fell. “But I want to see Daddy!” she protested, her lip starting to quiver.

Matthew scooped her out of Trixie’s lap and gave her a squeeze. “I know you do, Pumpkin, but you know what happens when you break the rules.”

Katy nodded solemnly. “You get in a lot of trouble.”

Joeanne suddenly spoke up. “You know what I saw just down the street? A park with swings in it.” She gave Dan’s hand a squeeze and stood up, taking Katy from her grandfather and settling the little girl easily on her hip. She smiled at Trixie and was glad she could finally do something to help.

Trixie watched them go and was grateful that Katy would be in such good hands. She remembered how good Joeanne was with her own younger siblings. She’s a lot like Diana, Trixie suddenly realized, wishing that her sister-in-law wasn’t out of town for the week. She had her sons with her at least, freeing Mart to spend most of his time at the school in Jim’s absence. But Trixie missed her soothing presence, remembering how her brother used to refer to her as ‘the dove of peace’ when they were younger.

She felt like peace of mind was forever out of her grasp, and wondered again how this could be happening. Jim, please don’t die. God, please don’t let him die. She wondered if Jim’s mother had felt this kind of anguish years ago when Jim’s father died. Trixie shivered, feeling like a goose had walked over her grave. She unconsciously began to rub her belly. Jim already loved this baby so much—would his child grow up never knowing him? She felt as if the earth beneath her feet was beginning to shift.

She didn’t realize her mother and Dan were gazing at her with worried expressions as she remembered when she first told Jim she was expecting their second child.

“Sammy’s such a cute little guy.  You know, I’m really glad for Mr. Lewis, but to be perfectly honest, I would have liked to have adopted Sammy myself.”  Jim’s voice had been wistful as he spoke about the baby that they, along with Honey, Dan and Joeanne, had helped. 

“Oh, I don’t know,” she had answered, deliberately sounding careless.

Jim stopped dancing, looking down at her in surprise.  “What do you mean?  You’re crazy about that kid.”

Trixie smiled and nodded.  “I am.  But you know…” her voice was warm with a mixture of mischief and joy, “we’re going to have our hands full in seven and a half months as it is...”

He had stopped moving, staring down at her for a startled moment before lifting her up into his arms, kissing her for a long while before spinning them around and around. It had seemed so fitting to hear everyone around them shouting out “Happy New Year!” Trixie had thought her heart would surely burst from happiness.

“You can put me down now,” she said, although her body spoke another story, her legs beginning to wrap around him as she buried her face in between his neck and shoulder. They had made love just that morning, but she wanted him again. And feeling him against her, it was obvious that he felt the same way. She murmured his name and began kissing his neck.

“On the other hand, I could just carry you out of here and up to my old room,” Jim said, pulling her even closer, unable to stifle the small groan that escaped him at the feeling of soft curves meeting hard flesh. He seemed unaware of the people around them as he kissed her hard.

“Put me down, and we’ll walk out of here. I do have some dignity, you know!” she had answered when she was able to breathe again.

Trixie came back from the safety of memory as her in-laws returned to the hospital waiting room. Mrs. Wheeler was crying again, but trying desperately to hide it. 

Trixie knew just how she felt. Impulsively, she hugged her mother-in-law for a long time. “I’m going back in,” she said. Her eyes met her mother’s, and they both tried to smile.

Helen watched her only daughter return to Jim’s room, rubbing her back as she walked away. Her heart ached in hopeless sadness as she prayed for her, prayed for Jim.

“It never gets any easier, does it?” Madeleine Wheeler sat down and wiped under her eyes with a handkerchief while her husband paced restlessly. She smiled a watery smile at Helen. “Watching your children suffer, I mean.”

“No, it doesn’t,” Helen replied. She sat next to Madeleine and took her hand, the two women silent, breathing in, breathing out.

***

The day passed, but there was no change. Jim’s condition was changed from ‘unconscious’ to ‘borderline coma,’ and Dr. Brandt changed to the experimental combination of antibiotics she had talked about before.

“I’m so sorry, Trixie. If you’ll remember what I told you before about new strains of bacteria…” She waited while Trixie got herself under a modicum of control. “It’s much more difficult for the antibiotics to work,” she finished. “So, we’ve upped the dose, and now all we can do is wait.”

Trixie was sitting in her usual spot, as close to Jim as she could get, and was too frightened to move for a moment. She knew what the doctor was getting at. Jim could die if this didn’t work. 

It was with great effort that she rejoined her friends and family out in the waiting room, feeling like a zombie as she walked with the doctor at her side. She stood and faced them: Honey and Brian, who had baby Matthew with them, sound asleep in his stroller; Mart, who had left the school in the care of Regan and Dan; her in-laws and her parents. Katy was still with Joeanne, and for that, Trixie was grateful. Her mother put an arm around her as she opened her mouth to speak. But no words would come, only raw grief.

“Oh Moms,” she sobbed, breaking down and collapsing in her mother’s arms. She didn’t hear the doctor explaining to them; she only wanted to escape into memory again, where she and Jim could be together and where life could be as it was before. It was hard to believe that only a few days before everything had been fine. Her mother held her for a long time, rubbing the back of her head and murmuring to her. When Trixie was finally able to lift her head she could barely make out her father and two brothers.

“It’s all my fault,” she heard Mart blurt.

Trixie looked at him, and he slowly swam into focus. “What are you talking about?”

Mart bit his lip. “I noticed how tired he’s been this past week. I see him almost everyday. I should have done something.”

Trixie stepped out of her mother’s embrace and threw her arms around him. “I noticed the same thing. If it’s anybody’s fault, it’s mine. Why didn’t I insist he go see a doctor?” she said in anguish.

“Stop that, both of you. Nobody is to blame,” Peter Belden said. He deliberately used the same tone of voice he used to use when they were children and he had to separate them.

It worked—Trixie and Mart both let out startled laughs.

“We just have to keep praying. We can’t let ourselves lose hope,” Honey said. Her voice was firm despite her red eyes, and Trixie again marveled at the strong faith her best friend had always shown.

“You’re right,” Trixie said, rubbing her eyes so hard she saw stars, the weariness she felt a thousand bricks slowly settling on her.

Brian looked at her sharply. “You look like shit,” he said bluntly. He tried to ignore the look his mother gave him.

Trixie gave him a weak grin. “Thanks, big brother,” she muttered.

Brian shook his head. “Honey brought some sandwiches, which you will eat. And then you’re going to lie down and rest for awhile.” He raised a hand as Trixie began to protest. “Trix, if you can’t think about yourself, at least think about the baby.”

Trixie choked back a sob. “I’ve done nothing but think about the baby since I got here,” she said, but she allowed him to guide her to the couch where she forced herself to eat one of Honey’s sandwiches. Honey was an excellent cook, but to Trixie’s numbed senses, it may as well have been air between two pieces of cardboard.

***

It was getting harder to fight. For awhile, Trixie’s voice helped, but the war between body and invader was wearing him down, bit by bit, chipping away at him until Trixie and Katy began to lose their hold over him, turning shadowy.

No,” he moaned, but every time he reached for them it was as if his hand passed through vapor instead of contacting solid flesh.

He thought about his birth mother and found himself wondering if this was how she felt towards the end of her life. She had been bedridden and in constant pain, her voice growing weaker, her brilliant green eyes dimming until one day Jim came home from school to find they were forever closed.

He’d been consumed with grief and something more—an indescribable heaviness that felt like a hot stone in between his heart and his belly. Forced to numb himself completely in the dark days that followed the death of his mother, he had simply learned to live with it. Life with his stepfather didn’t allow room for much introspection, so it was years before Jim understood what he was feeling. 

It filled him with hidden shame—he never told anyone, not even Trixie, that along with the heartache, grief and sadness there was also a bitterly sharp anger towards his mother that lived inside of him. How, he had wondered in the most secret recesses of his heart, could she leave him when it meant that he’d be without family? Why didn’t she fight harder to stay?

Feeling his body grow weaker and weaker, Jim suddenly wondered how she lasted as long as she had. I’m sorry, Mom. I’m so, so sorry.

Everything grew dark and still. Trixie was gone. Katy was gone. There was nothing left, nothing holding him. Jim felt like he was floating, felt a blessed respite from the pain and heat that filled him. His eyes grew accustomed to the darkness, and he soon realized he was walking through the preserve again.

He took a deep breath, filling his lungs with the special smells of the woods. He couldn’t remember a time when he felt more at peace. Every worry and every care he’d ever had in his life gently floated away, leaving him serene in a way he’d never been.

He walked and walked, his energy suddenly boundless. The sun began to rise and the myriad colors in the wood began to sparkle as he walked among the trees. A robin swooped near him and perched on a nearby branch, the sun making the little bird glow even redder than usual. Jim watched as the bird preened, grinning at the incredible busyness of the ritual.

“Got a hot date?” he said aloud. He closed his eyes and tilted his head back, feeling the sun hit his face and throat. The bird trilled almost as though it was answering him. Suddenly, the robin flitted away as the sound of a small animal came crashing through the underbrush.

Jim’s jaw dropped as a familiar black and white furry creature bounded up to him. “Patch!” he exclaimed, his voice joyful as he dropped to one knee and embraced his former pet. Patch managed to excitedly lick every inch of Jim’s face before settling back on his haunches and panting while his tail thumped the ground. “What are you doing here?” Jim slowly straightened. “What am I doing here?” he muttered.

He scanned the horizon, the trees spreading out all around him, thicker than they’d ever been. He noticed two figures coming towards him and for the first time felt nervous. He squinted until they began to come into focus, his nervousness disappearing as a wave of indescribable joy filled him.

“Mom…Dad!” he gasped.

 

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