Note to Readers - Before settling on the ending of "Empty Quarter" I went in a couple of different directions as to the aftermath. This one I ultimately abandoned after almost 15000 words. It's so dependent on Empty Quarter that I didn't want to post it as a separate story, and I didn't want to let it just completely fade away, either. I hope you enjoy what I've called "The Indian Variation" and spending a little more time with my EQ version of Eyal and Annie.
Annie was reasonably sure the blood on her was not her own, but that didn't matter much either way. She grabbed the arm of the first medtech in the team and pulled him along with her, past bodies and worse, parts of bodies. "This way - he's still alive - " and though they almost didn't believe her after seeing his head wound, he was, indeed, still breathing. The first round of responders had already left with ambulances filled, largely, with the women and children of the marketplace, heading to the major hospitals which by now, she knew, must be nearly full and overwhelmed; she had to get Gareth to help and fast. Thankfully, they were scooping him up onto the stretcher and racing back with him, sliding him into the back of an old-fashioned ambulance. Two badly injured young girls were already inside, along with an injured weeping mother. She understood enough Bengali to know they were being sent to a children's clinic, not a full hospital. "He needs an ICU!" she protested. "This is better, I promise you, all those are full," the medic told her, in English. "It's his best chance if he has any chance. Good doctors there." The doors slammed shut.
The small clinic courtyard was filled with makeshift stretchers and several bodies beyond hope. A tough-faced nurse was doing triage, code marking the foreheads of the two children with a black Sharpie and took one look at Annie's patient and shook her head, moving on to another arrival from a different ambulance. "No!" Annie said, grabbing her. The woman shook her off and let loose a string of dialogue in a dialect Annie could not understand. Annie protested right back. The nurse resorted to hand gestures and a word of German acquired somewhere "Kaput!" - "Dead!" and made a gesture across the throat.
"He is still breathing!" She panted and pointed at his chest.
The nurse ignored her. When Annie grabbed the woman's arm again, a young man serving as a medic pulled her away. She struggled free of him easily enough, catching her engagement ring on his linen shirt. The sound of the rip was satisfying but she had no argument with him, only with the nurse who was determined to let her fiancee die. She felt hot liquid fall on her arm and thought she was bleeding; no, just tears. This was no good, she would not get through this nurse. But there had to be someone else. She told him "I'm going to go find help!", not bothering to see if he was still breathing - they could revive him, she was irrationally sure of that, so it didn't make sense to waste time checking. She ran inside, pushing through the chaos, looking for someone in authority. There was a tall man with his back to her, furiously scribbling on a clipboard. She seized his arm, pulled him around to her. "Please, you've got to help, my boyfriend, he's alive, the nurse ..." Her heart felt like it stopped in shock -she had to be hallucinating - but all she could say to the surprised face looking down at her was another "Please..." as the nurse herself rushed in, talking rapidly, dismissively, repeating that horrible cut-throat gesture.
But the nurse's opinion didn't matter now; Dr. Eyal Lavin ran back to the courtyard with her anyway.
There was no response to the penlight he flashed over the eyes. "She's not wrong. It's a miracle he's still breathing. What about you? Are you hurt?" She shook her head. "Look, I've got three kids here that the odds are good I can save. If he's still breathing when I'm through, I'll do what I can." He grabbed some gauze from one of the assistants rushing by, and loosely wrapped the wound. His hand reached out to cup her cheek. "That's the best I can do. Stay with him, lie down beside him, hold him." She saw his eyes take in the ring on her hand. "You're his best medicine for now. It'll be a couple of hours, maybe more." She couldn't speak, nodded.
The sky grew dark with the rich blues of nightfall on the Indian subcontinent. Time seemed to be standing still. But Gareth kept breathing.
Finally, Eyal returned, flashed the penlight again, listened to Gareth's chest with a stethoscope, made a gesture to the young men to take the stretcher inside. He looked beat. Annie cleared her throat which was choked with unshed tears.
"Saved two of them. The other – she was in much worse shape inside than I thought…."
"I'm sorry." He shook his head.
"Good job keeping him alive. But Annie, you should know, it's ten percent, no better. Maybe one percent for him to survive in anything like good shape."
"I'll take that chance."
"Of course. Here, here's my keys to my office, down that hall. There's a cot, power bars in the desk drawer, bottled water, wifi, Skype if you need to reach someone, password on a card by the computer. Take what you need and try to get some sleep. This is going to be a while."
The office was small, and cramped. An old Army metal-framed cot looked barely big enough for Eyal. Every inch was filled with spare equipment, medical books, files. The only personal items were a couple of photographs, one of a young man who must be his now nearly-grown son, and another she recognized of a scene in Paris that she'd last seen on the wall of his apartment in Israel. Four years without a word and yet he had seen that picture every day. She found the power bars and water, checked in on the computer, reaching her soon-to-be-in-laws with the horrid news, ditto with Langley. The computer password was on the card as he had stated, which seemed incomprehensible to her - so he had really left it all behind? She assumed he was with some international medical society – she knew Medecins sans frontieres were periodically accused of being spies along with every other international medical charity that tried to get help to obscure troubled parts of the world. Was this really different? She climbed on the cot - it smelled of him, of his body, not always well-washed in the Indian heat, but she found it reassuring. She fell asleep.
"Annie." She felt someone touching her shoulder. "Come on. He made it through the surgery You can see him." She woke up with a start, briefly confused. Eyal pressed a bottle of water into her hand, which she took gratefully, and followed along with him. Eyal looked awful, beyond exhaustion, dark circles under his eyes. But he led her through a hallway crowded with sleeping patients and their families to an office which had obviously been commandeered as another patient room. A semblance of an adult-sized hospital bed had been made out of a mattress, desk, and pillows. "He's very sedated, don't try to get a response. But Annie, we weren't getting the reactions we wanted before we upped the sedation." Nonetheless, he touched Gareth's feet and hands briefly, checking again. There was no reaction.
"When will we know?"
"The longer it goes without any change, the worse the likely outcome. But it is still genuinely too early to tell."
"What should I do?"
"Right now? Go back to bed. He needs the deepest sleep possible to do some healing, if he can. Any surgery is more wounding. If you're near, if he's still in there at all, he'll try to respond to your presence." He rested his hand on her shoulder. "No matter what."
"Doctor!" A different nurse, not her nemesis, rushed into the room. Some new emergency. She saw him shake off the exhaustion with an act of will.
"I've got to go. Stay a few minutes and get back to the office. I'll join you there later."
She obeyed, returning to the cot. She was in a fitful sleep when Eyal came in, without ceremony grabbing a small backpack for a pillow and lying down on the floor next to the cot. She sleepily started to drag herself off the bed. "You need rest more than I do," she said. "I'll take the floor."
"Not a chance. Do you know how much I'm looking forward to this sleep?"
"I've got an idea, seeing what you've been doing."
"That has nothing to do with it. For four years, Annie Walker, I've been going to bed wondering where in the world you are and if you needed me - or worse, if by pulling myself out of reach, I hadn't been there to help you when you needed it most. Tonight I know exactly where you are and I know I've done everything in my power to help you. On the floor or on a bed of burning coals, this is going to be a great night's sleep." She let her hand trail over the edge of the cot; he reached up to grab it and hold it, as she knew he would. Even with the awkward pose, he was asleep in seconds, still holding her hand, and his deep, steady breathing lulled her to sleep soon after.
When she woke he was gone; she scrambled off the cot, sure that some new tragedy had struck Gareth and Eyal was rushing to save his life. She ran to the room, but Eyal was not there, only Gareth's silent but breathing form. Whatever had made Eyal get up, it was not a new crisis of hers.
"I saw you were gone, I thought..."
"Annie, I would've told you. No, someone else. But they're okay, now."
"Have you heard anything? About the explosion?"
"Eighty-three dead, they're saying, but I know that doesn't include several deaths we've had here and probably many elsewhere; that will rise. Hundreds injured, of course. You weren't with him at that moment?"
"I'd gone back to buy a scarf I liked. He went on looking for a cell phone charger." Eyal nodded. The damnedest things made the difference between life and death. They walked back together to the office. Annie pulled the top bedding off the cot and put the blanket on the floor, lying down on it. "This time I insist," she said, curling up.
"We'll both suffer, then." he said, and lay down beside her, cradling her against his chest. "Don't worry," he said, and flicked at the ring on her hand with his forefinger. "I am for once truly too tired to be any danger to your virtue."
"You don't like that ring, do you."
"Seems a bit bigamous to me, yes."
"You're accusing me of bigamy? We aren't married!"
"According to numerous witnesses in a wide swath of Saudi Arabia, we are."
"I don't remember any wedding there!"
"I don't remember any divorce anywhere!"
"We were never officially married!"
"Even if you don't count Santa Margarita? Then common law." She didn't protest. They lay there in silence for a few moments.
"Did you ... ever hear anything?" Annie asked at last. She felt him sigh against her.
"There were a couple of leads. I was out of the big picture by then but I called in every favor I could. In the end, nothing."
"He'd be four now."
"I think of him but only see him as that poor tiny baby. When I'm in that part of the world, that's what draws my eyes, women with their new babies. As if everything stopped at the instant they took him. In reality, now he'd probably look more like your son," From their angle on the floor the corner of the frame was just visible. Eyal reached up for it, held it so she could see it. "This is the only photo I have. But perhaps like this - only blond, of course," he added, gently joking.
"I don't think my side of the genome would win out on that point."
"You never know." He put the frame back up on the desk blindly groped for the other photo, brought that to her eyes as well.
"I saw it. I remember."
"You've got some tough days coming, Annie."
"I know. His parents are scrambling for tickets right now. They've never been out of the United States."
"This will be quite a challenge for them. Don't have them come here. By the time they make their flights, I want to get him out to a neuro ward in New Delhi. Is he a company man? Can they get him back home for you?"
"Marrying outside the faith? Annie, I am surprised." She had been too; his simplicity and happy spirit and passion for teaching had mesmerized her; he made it easy to see herself taking the nice, safe desk job at Langley and juggling childcare schedules and soccer games. That had yet to exist, yet the sense of new loss washed over her. She tried to see herself with a baby by him but the only baby she could picture was the one she had already lost with Eyal. "Do you believe he's dead?" she asked.
"I don't know, Annie. Every night I pray that he's healthy and happy and well-fed and well-loved."
"Same prayer I made for you. Maybe I should have skipped that last part." She fist-bumped him, gently, on the shoulder. How that motion led her to be pressing her mouth against his, kissing his lips, her fingers trying to stroke away the tiredness from around his eyes, guiding his hesitant hands onto her breasts, she didn't know.
They awoke to one of the nurses knocking on the glass in the door, speaking rapidly. They had fallen asleep still entangled. Eyal called out to her.
"What is it? Is it him?" A horrible rush of guilt swept over her. She had made love to Eyal and now her fiancée would die because of her faithlessness. She adjusted her clothing as best she could and followed after him.
"I told her to come get me with any change. But it's O.K., it's not bad."
They raced through the hallway, now graying with dawn, and back into the makeshift room. He was still completely unconscious but the nurse was pointing at his foot. As they watched, the big toe twitched and the foot flexed slightly.
"That's good, isn't it?" Annie asked.
"Very good." Eyal touched his other foot and hands, checked the pupils for a response, turned back to her, satisfied. "A minor response, but a response. I'll be happy if we can see that other toe twitching. " He gave additional orders to the nurse. Another nurse found him, an anxious look in her eyes. His day had begun.
It was hours later, the deep hot afternoon. Annie had fallen asleep seated at the foot of Gareth's bed, clutching one foot in each hand. She woke as Eyal entered. "Anything new?" he asked, picking up the chart. The facility had gotten quieter, the crisis absorbed. "Hanging on to his feet?"
"I know it probably doesn't matter, but I didn't want to miss any movement, and, well, it seemed this is farthest from his head…if he could maybe feel me touching him there …" She didn't want to explain her near-magical belief that possibly she could draw the nervous impulse toward her somehow and reactivate his feet. The poetic and mystical Eyal she had sometimes encountered would understand; she wasn't positive Dr. Eyal would. But he did.
"Gotcha. But remember I want him to have that deep rest. We still have him strongly sedated, so don't expect much. Looks like I can get him on a medevac out of here tomorrow, if we're lucky."
"Tomorrow?" So soon? She stopped herself before she actually said the words. "Yes. They're airlifting a number of victims out to specialized facilities. Just room for patients, Annie – but we'll get you on a flight out in a day or so."
"What's up with his parents?"
"The State Department is expediting passports, they've got a flight to New Delhi, should be here in three days."
"We'll get you there in time to meet them." He was being helpful and reassuring. Why on earth did she feel like he was rejecting her? Maybe her expression betrayed her. He looked at her with tenderness. "Come with me. You need some water, you're dehydrating and I can't spare a drip rig for you."
[Missing material. Eyal and Annie hold it together for a bit, but fall into recriminations while waiting to see if Gareth recovers.]
"No. Four years was too long!"
"Well excuse me! For the first six months of it I was busy being imprisoned and tortured – by your side of the family."
"And then you went back undercover! You can't tell me after all you endured that you didn't have any choice in that. I know the way these things work. You chose that over me!"
"I knew I was uniquely positioned to do a great good. I was a fool – I thought instead of adding to my sins, it would make up for some of what had gone before."
"Like kidnapping me and holding me hostage?"
"I never did that, Annie. See? That's one of the reasons I stayed away, I didn't know what you'd think once you were back home, and safe, and being endlessly debriefed and guided to think what they wanted."
"That's not true. I mean, I was debriefed - they thought I was pretty suspicious as you can imagine -but I wasn't pushed to hang you out to dry. I was questioned by Joan, almost immediately, in the hospital in Germany."
"And how did that go?"
"She sorted through my story and found every bit of information that could possibly exonerate you – things I didn't even realize myself. She thought you'd be forcibly drained of information and killed. Supposedly – at least she believed it – what I said and what she made of it at least gave you a respite."
"I wondered. It wasn't the end of it, but it was the end of the worst of it." He was calmer. "You really didn't know, did you?"
"Eyal, in the desert, every morning I would wake up convinced one way or the other."
"Annie, I'm so sorry. I knew everything I said and apparently everything I heard was being monitored, but I didn't know how. It must have been heartbreaking for you, to believe one way, then the other, all those months, and to be carrying our child on top of everything else."
Annie looked out the window. "It's true I woke up every other morning believing you were a terrorist. The worst part, was I woke up every morning in love with you. It was just that on about half the days, I didn't like trust you, or trust myself. What do you mean you didn't have anything to do with my capture?"
"I didn't. You nearly destroyed my mission. My supposed uncle brought me in and showed me a tape of you in captivity. Apparently in your nightmares or under torture you repeatedly called out my name. They wondered what the hell that was about, since they were suspecting you of espionage along the Jordanian border – don't know why they would think that – and I convinced them that you were my abandoned wife coming looking for me. I would never have dragged you into that, neshema. As it was, I barely got you to me in time. Another day or so and that head wound or that bastard would have done you in." He reached for her hand.
"I don't remember much of that."
"That's a blessing. Don't try." He kept his eyes on the road. "The truth is, you're right. I could have contacted you. But there wasn't a lot left of me, neshema. Not that I recognized. Not that you'd recognize. I couldn't come back to you as some sort of charity case. I wouldn't do that to you. So when eventually, the suggestion was made I might consider finishing my medical degree, I thought it was the hand of God and that it might be the way back for me – to myself, first, and then to you, later."
"But by now I could be married in the suburbs out of the agency, doing the afternoon soccer mom route."
"I knew that. But I do trust – us. I wouldn't have let that, or anything, stop me. And I won't now. You have things to do to settle this situation. I know. You will, and then, you'll be with me."
"You make it seem so simple."
"The essential things usually are, Annie."
"I spent six hours operating on a man I wanted to kill, Annie, every second of that time. Every bit of me responded to him as the enemy,the rival, the obstacle between me and everything I hold dear. But I could not do that to you, Annie. My medical training, altruism, ethics, all that crap, none of that came to my aid. The only thing that kept him alive under my hands on that table was you !"
She could not listen any longer. "I've got to get out of here, " she said, not so much to him as to the air, and pushed by him. He didn't try to stop her at least. If he expected her to pause at Gareth's room, she didn't, heading out of the clinic for the first time since she'd run in. It was nearing sunset. Without knowing or caring where she was going, she found herself at the banks of the river, where a number of people were bathing themselves as the sun gilded the buildings lining the river, the light for a few moments washing away any sign of poverty or decay. She didn't think as she went down the steps into the river herself, immersing her head, coming up with the water pasting her garments to her body, her summery skirt trailing on the water. She stood there, wet, for a long time; Indian women nearby completed their ablutions and wound up their hair long before she moved. She waited for the last glimmer of gold to fade from the surroundings, then went back up the steps. At the top, on a low wall, Eyal was sitting there watching her.
"How did you know where I'd go?"
"I had a vision." She could almost believe it. Even more, he had a length of fabric with him for her to use as a towel. She paused. If he'd followed her, he'd had to have grabbed it on his way – how would he know it would be needed? And how could he catch up after her with even that small delay? He had not chased after her – he'd let her run from him.
He held out the fabric to her with one hand. "I brought this for you..," he said. "And this."
"Ow! What are you doing? What is that?" He held a small gauze over where he had just jabbed her with a hypodermic needle.
"My most powerful antibiotic. Do you have any idea how contaminated this river is? The locals can get away with it, but you can't."
She pressed against the gauze.
"You enjoyed that. You enjoyed hurting me."
He looked at her with a disgusted expression on his face. "Of course not. But If I thought that hurting you a little could somehow inoculate you against hurting me a lot, yeah, I'd do it. But I know it doesn't work that way. You'll do as you damn well please. Do you love him?"
"More than me?"
"Love anyone more than me?"
"Loved? All those guys? The ones I know of, probably a dozen more by now?"
"You sure, Annie? Because from the outside, some of those looked pretty intense."
She looked away from him at the water.
"Some of them were," she said quietly. " I had a lot of fun. It was like being on a speedboat, lots of waves, spray, excitement, danger. And with this one? Like diving off a pier into a really great pond, splashing around, almost nothing to go wrong, fun, but safety." She kept looking at the river and then finally let her gaze find him. "But with you, Eyal, you're the only one I can dive as deep as I want to with, wherever I want, and know you'll be right there, fully with me, with the situation. Ahead of me or keeping up with me or on my heels, but you'll be there. And I'll be in love with you through every moment of it."
"Oh Annie." He had closed his eyes. She saw his shoulders shake, as if something was falling away from him. He opened his eyes. "And you'll still put me through all this crap over him?"
She stepped closer. "Yeah, and there's probably more to come because I feel like absolute shit over this. I know I have to deal with his family, and yes, every other hour I'm thinking, Annie, do the right thing, stay with him, take care of him, you're responsible – Can't get away from the guilt. It may as well have been an agency shootout. It feels the same - that he would not have been here except for me."
"Guilt. Well,that's handy training for when you have to convert. You'll be culturally prepared."
She laughed ruefully.
"But maybe you're right," Eyal continued. Annie frowned. He rarely admitted she was right on anything.
"What do you mean?"
"Have you considered …" Now he looked momentarily uncertain. She could see him gather his forces and plunge in. "What we have here is big between us," he said, more gently than she expected him to speak. "Maybe I don't know – maybe it's big enough that you're right, anything really starts to get in the way the universe itself crushes it, clears the way. Or tries to."
"You're saying," Annie repeated carefully, because she couldn't quite believe he was saying it, and she couldn't bear the fact that it rang true in her insides, rang true like a bell, "You're saying then that this was my fault. That because I … I let myself care for someone, after years of silence from you, after nothing at all from you, no help finding our child, no finding out how I was doing, how I was coping, whether or not I was hurt or lonely or half-crazy with worry and fear and all that …. you are saying because I reached out for something, I brought this down on him? On me? On you?"
He didn't speak. He didn't deny it. His dark eyes were unfathomable, but she didn't feel him about to back off from that horrible accusation.
"No. You just let yourself pretend to care for someone." Annie stared at him, then sprang into movement.
"This is over. I'm out of here." And left.
[Missing material. Eyal adjusts things so Annie stays with him one more day and goes with him to a remote clinic to work with villagers. He lets the deception slip as they are driving there]
"So you deliberately kept me here!"
"You're giving him the whole of the rest of your life, Annie – all I wanted was one more day. You'd really deny me that? One day?"
"I should be with him! Stop the car! I'll hitchhike back,"
"Not a chance. There are cobras and tigers, you wouldn't make it twenty minutes."
"Really, Eyal? Cobras and tigers?" she repeated sarcastically.
He slammed on the brakes, pointed at something in the road that looked like a peeled tire. "Dead cobra." She looked. He was right. "You'll just have to trust me on the tigers." He jammed the car back into gear and accelerated.
"I haven't heard from you in four years, Eyal! Four years!"
"Yeah, so. So what? You think what we have has a shelf life stamped on it? Like canned tuna? "Don't give me this shit, Annie. If you loved him enough to really get all the way through this with him, you'd have been on that plane. It was easy to keep you from going. You wanted this extra day together as much as I did!"
"That is absolutely true!" she spat back.
She stared at the landscape bouncing around outside the jeep. Eyal seemed to be aiming for every pothole for the next mile. Finally he spoke again, as angry as before.
They jerked along the road. "I've got three patients to see, Annie; then we'll turn around and I'll take you back and get you on a goddamned plane tonight."
He hit the horn, she thought for emphasis, but no, they were coming to a stop in front of a painted mud-brick building with a line of people around it. He threw a clipboard to her. "You'll have to fill in for the nurse I should have brought with me. You know enough Bengali to get through it and you've had the emergency med training/first responder shit." Looking at the line, she knew there was no way they would leave the village today. And she also knew she couldn't stay angry with him a second longer. She gave in. "Ok," she answered, without any charge to it, checking over the form on the clipboard. Already they were being surrounded by the villagers, Eyal ran a hand through his hair. "Annie, I'm sorry."
"It's all right."
"No, I'm really sorry."
"And it's really all right." They were both outwardly smiling at their clientele. "But why four years, Eyal? Tell me that."
"I had things to do."
"Expiation," he said.
"That over now?"
"The moment you ran through the door."
"No, it's more than that. Later. We have work to do now."
He had three minor surgeries scheduled, but they would have to wait; there were dozens of small crises to take care of first. She brought some order to the queue, deputized an older teen who'd learned some English to assist her, patted arms, held children, and gave shots and was taken to see a woman too shy to be examined by a male doctor. She watched as Eyal examined the small children, saw his affection for them and how that was returned; it was obvious the children inherently trusted him, even knowing that his shots and other procedures could hurt. Not knowing any better, the villagers assumed she was a nurse or doctor or medical authority on par with Eyal; she handled what she could and sent the others on to him. It almost was as if they were not working together, but both on their own tasks. She found herself enjoying it. There was nothing vague about it, no question if the action she had just taken would favorably impact the world or not; it favorably impacted the child or woman or old man in front of her. An unbidden fantasy popped up in her head – Eyal with her, running some remote clinic somewhere, a couple of their own toddlers around their ankles. She shook her head and bent over her task, sewing up a small wound.
She found Eyal, at last alone, eating a bowl of a watery curry in the small storage room they had taken as their "office". There was an impromptu concert nearby outside; she could hear the sound of a sitar. She sat down beside him on an upturned orange plastic bucket. "It's good. Have some." He brought the spoon to her lips; it tasted good. She wondered if her stomach would be as accustomed to the local bugs as his was, but she was so hungry she didn't worry. "The water's good here. You should be okay." They shared the curry with the one spoon which seemed oddly intimate, as if the liquid drew them together more than taking alternate bites of a sandwich would do. "By the way, you did very well today,"
"Thanks. I can see the appeal to this, after all that we've done…' He nodded.
"When I got out, I knew I had been one lucky bastard and also that I still had a lot to answer for. Especially after the time in the desert. Annie, you don't know a tenth of what happened then. I don't want you to know."
"I won't pretend to. But I know – or I can guess – what "pretending" to be a terrorist that long entailed."
"After your supposed death, there wasn't much "pretend" in it for a while," he said, softly. He stared into the nearly empty bowl of curry. "Anyway, Annie, I came up with a number. I'm not going to tell you what that is, so don't ask me. It was, to the best of my knowledge, the number of people who because of me had needlessly died or been maimed or otherwise lost all they held dear. Because of me. My presence, or expertise, or … if I think of it too closely even now I think I might've missed some. I took that number and tripled it, and I decided that I would finish out my medical degree and go to every hellhole I could find until, at some point, I could look in my soul and say, because of me, my presence, my expertise, these people, this tripled number, these people lived. And I've kept count over these last years – since I got my M.D.. I made a deal, one of those one-sided deals with God you make. Maybe it should've been seven times the number, or just double, but I chose three. And I thought I would do that and at the end of that time, maybe there would be a sign and I would know what to do next. Maybe more of the same. Maybe something different."
"And you've made the count,now."
"Neshema," he said, and she realized he had not called her that since they had met again. "I made the count with your fiancé. He's the one, Annie, that last number. And here you are, and I don't know what the hell that means. Is God laughing at me – "You thought your suffering was over! Now watch your beloved dedicate her life to another man, and half of one at that, and one you saved into the bargain." Or are you my reward? Or a sign I should return to that life, what we shared, instead of continuing in this one?"
"I don't know the answer, Eyal. For you or for me." She set aside the bowl. "I know I have to go to New Delhi", she said, quietly. "I know I have to make it easy for his parents, as much as I possibly can. And I know I have to "be there for him", at least in the beginning, and help get him home. But I also know there is a day coming where we have to have a conversation, assuming he is progressing, that he really is going to be okay." She saw Eyal wince at "okay" – he still had his doubts, she knew. "And that it ends with me giving back this ring."
"If that's really what you want to do," he said, softly.
"Whether I want to or not, I can't marry him … or anyone - not knowing that if you showed up at my door, any vow or promise I'd made would evaporate.…"
"Annie, us falling into each other's arms the other night – you needed strength. You needed to – to be filled, with strength and love … and I – I just needed you back, for a night. It doesn't mean – that you wouldn't keep a bond with him if that's what you decided to do." She thought she should sit there and be dazzled by how big a soul Eyal had – that he was honest enough to say that to her. Or that he cared enough for her own soul that he didn't want her to falsely accuse herself of being instantly ready to be unfaithful. But it still felt as if he was backing away from her, perhaps for some noble reason.
"Is that the explanation you want me to take as true?"
The pause was long. In the distance, there was an odd sound, something snuffling in the dark. "There's the tiger," he said, and they both listened. Someone called out a warning; they would not hunt the tiger, the area was now promoting tiger tourism, the lives of a few villagers now and again measured out against the enrichment of life for many tourists. She wondered if the only ravening beast threatening them was the tiger on its paths outside.
"You once said to me that there would come a moment where I didn't have a choice to make about what I would say to you in reply to certain words. Do you remember that?"
"I remember, Annie."
"But now maybe you can't say them. Maybe you need to figure out what you're going to do next first. Maybe you're no longer beyond having a choice. Maybe you've given that up, given me up, as a sacrifice, as expiation."
"No, Annie, never you." The words came quick and free to his lips.
[Missing material - back at the clinic, on the day Gareth is being transferred, they make love and then argue, Annie storms away to the airport, then filled with regret, pretends she's left her backpack and returns]
"Can't you go any faster?" she said, just after getting back in the taxi after having quickly bought a small backpack off of a corner street vendor. That wasn't a question the taxicab driver was asked often. "And I'll pay you to wait for me.'
"Yes, ma'am." He obliged, forcing his way through the crowded streets to the small clinic that Eyal was staying at, filling in with an extra pair of hands.
She shot through the door and found him in the small room used for overnight visitors.
"Eyal." She stumbled forward into his embrace. "I couldn't … I couldn't let it end that way between us…."
He held her against his chest. "The plane's literally idling on the tarmac, and I've got a taxi waiting outside, but I had to say … " whatever her words were intended to be, they were lost in the kiss. A kiss that quickly transformed itself into something much much more as she found her hands up under his shirt, reaching around to his back, feeling his skin against her fingers. This was not what she had intended – or it was exactly what she had intended. That wasn't any more clear to her than anything else. It was quick, and not as artful as some of their unions, but it was enough and left her gasping against his chest, only then realizing that she had just kicked over a piece of carryon luggage.
"You're leaving too?"
"Out of here today. On my way to the airport, actually."
"Oh. You're really leaving all this behind?"
"I don't know, Annie. Most of my thinking the past few days has been that you're leaving me behind. Nothing else has fallen into place. Yet. Maybe more with MSF. Maybe I go back to our old way of life. Or into security systems, something. And right now, I don't even know if that's true."
She stared at him through tear-stained eyes. "It's still true. I just…"
"Yeah. I know. Save it. It was hard enough to hear the first time. Can I get a lift with you back to the airport?"
"Sure…." Another doctor tapped on the door, offering goodbyes and thanks. They got into the taxi in silence and the driver took off.
"Back gate. Hopping on an MSF flight. Probably near your plane. I'll take you there."
"You don't have to…"
"Door to door service, a specialty." He smiled at her, but it looked a little grim.
"The MSF, I could reach you through them?" she asked.
"Don't, Annie. Don't pretend. You won't need me, not in this new life you're creating. Cushy desk job at the Agency, or maybe , maybe not. You may find that doesn't play well with the rest of this." They were pulling up to the medevac plane at high speed. She saw Dr. Rauger looking out the open door of the plane, probably wondering where the heck she'd been.
He'll contact me, she thought, fervently. I know he will. Someday. Her stomach clenched, shocked at the thought. She thought she was okay with this. Hadn't he talked of expiation? Wasn't Gareth that for her? Abandoning him would be – what, abandoning her sense of being a good soul, her sense of self?
And abandoning Eyal?
He'd be fine. He'd be fine.
"Okay," Eyal was saying. "So, within the parameters of our new relationship, I think I'm entitled to a squeeze of your shoulder, a pat on your back, a dry brush kiss on your cheek or forehead, and a brief hug without lower body engagement. That all right?"
Of course it wasn't fine. But he accomplished his announced move perfectly and not being able to look at him directly, she grabbed her backpack and went to the steps just as Dr. Rauger called out. "Eyal Lavin? Is that you?"
"Guilty as charged."
Dr. Rauger bounded down the steps. "Good to see you – maybe very good to see you. It's been a while! Are you flying out of here today?"
"That's right, I'm catching a spare seat on an MSF transport."
"Tight schedule?" Annie stood at the base of the steps, her heart strangely feeling as if it were going in two directions – sinking and rising. Eyal shot a glance toward her. Maybe she could have stopped it all right then, with a furious shake of her head, or a glare. She didn't know what her face was conveying, probably blank shock.
"Actually, no. What's up?"
"Dr. Tomlinson just called in – he's been mildly injured in a car accident on the way to the airport. He'll be fine, but he can't be the second physician on this flight, and we can't take off without the backup. We're going through Tokyo and on to Seattle – any chance you can fill in for him? Otherwise, we lose this plane for three days and have to get all the patients back to their respective facilities and a couple of cases are borderline for transport as it is – it'll be a mess."
"Dr. Lavin? Can I speak with you for a moment?" Dr. Rauger looked at Annie in surprise at the interruption. Eyal excused himself. They moved off a few yards.
"What are you doing?"
"What am I doing? I'm being a doctor, it's my new profession, remember? Gave up the spy thing, supposed to help the ill and sick and those in need."
"You can't come with me on this flight. I can't stand it."
"Oh, this is the new altruistic "I'm giving up my life to care for Gareth" Annie? That one? Who doesn't care if she inflicts immense difficulties on eight patients and their families because she might feel a little uncomfortable with her spurned lover on the same plane for a day? Who doesn't mind if maybe her tender little emotions even cause medical setbacks for the badly injured? Maybe for Gareth himself? That one? That Annie?"
He was, damnably, right.
"You're not exactly my spurned lover."
"Oh really? I think that's exactly what I am. You may have to work harder on the "spurning" part if recent events are any indication. But I'm getting on this flight. It's the right thing to do. Deal with it."
"You're right. Of course. You're always right," she added, venomously and completely unfairly. She sidled by him and went up the steps, past the bewildered Dr. Rauger, where she was heartily greeted by Gareth's parents, who promptly shared with her their fears that the flight might be cancelled and how awful that would be. Annie forced a smile and reassured them as she heard Drs Lavin and Rauger coming up the stairs behind her.
She could not stand the internal conflict any longer. The last-minute substitution of Eyal for the doctor who had been meant to attend this flight of survivors back to the States was more than she could take. They had barely finished making love twenty minutes before she was due to board the flight, accompanying Gareth and his parents, one of a half-dozen severely injured foreign patients and their families being flown home. The "right" doctor had been mildly injured in a car accident on the way to the airport and the flight was in jeopardy of cancellation or a difficult delay requiring all the patients being removed from the aircraft and returned to various facilities for the night. But when Eyal, his own bags at the ready for his commercial flight out, had escorted Annie to the plane on the tarmac, the other doctor on the flight recognized him. After having sewn herself together internally, putting aside her guilt and confusion and finding solace and love in his arms for what she was determined would be one last time,to have him back in her presence just showed how paper-thin her resolve was, even as she watched him expertly providing care for Gareth – who was, blessedly, heavily sedated for the flight – and saying all the right things to Gareth's parents.
"It was an act of God," his mother said, reaching over and patting her arm, The transit beds were divided by sections of four seats facing each other in two rows for family members and medical staff. "That you had forgotten your backpack and had to get it from Dr. Lavin. Otherwise this entire flight would have been cancelled without a second attending physician."
Annie nodded silently and patted her hand back. "An act of God," his mother repeated. The first hour the medical staff were busy with various adjustments, adapting to the pressurized cabin, administering medicines. But then Eyal, confident his half of the transit cases were settled, sat down in the empty seat next to Annie. It was completely reasonable. Her leaping up with an inarticulate sound and running to the bathroom was not. His getting up and following her to see what was wrong – he was a doctor, after all – was also perfectly reasonable. By the time she reached the restroom she was sobbing. "Go away. I don't want to talk with you. Leave me alone." He ignored her and closed the door behind them.
"I will … once I know what's wrong."
"What's wrong? What's wrong is that there is a good man out there who loves me and is counting on me to get him through this horrible thing. What's wrong is we were making love on the way to the airport after I'd told you I had to go away and care for him now. What's wrong is that Gareth's mother just told me it was an act of God that I went to get my missing backpack from you, when I only went there to see you another last time."
"Well, maybe it was." The confines of the tiny bathroom were almost impossible to manage with the two of them. He bodily put her up on the sink, at least bringing them to near eye-level.
"How can you say that?"
" It's easy for me. Act of God? I was minding my own business in the middle of India when something dropped you in my courtyard. I can't believe that I'm meant to ignore you,– or just let you go."
"Then that would make the only reason for Gareth to be nearly killed was to bring us together? I just don't buy that."
"I don't claim to understand it, Neshema." He hugged her against his chest. She let him, crying against his scrubs. She couldn't claim to understand it either, that he could be both what tormented her most and be the comfort to that torment, too. And she couldn't understand why she could be in this tiny airplane bathroom – there was a specially equipped handicapped one across the hall, why couldn't she have run into that one instead and be able to keep some distance from him?– sobbing over her messy, conflicted relationships and still be reaching up around Eyal's neck and wanting, more than anything in the world at that moment, for him to make love to her again.
"You sure about this?" he murmured.
"I'm not sure about anything," she said, and put her mouth on his; if he still wasn't sure, her hand sliding into his waistband and working to free him from his pants surely conveyed the right idea. He took charge of the logistics, twisted around, bracing his long legs against the opposite wall as she scrambled on top of him to slide him inside of her, even as she kept sobbing, her body jerking against him. The audible sobbing was convenient when Gareth's mother tapped at the door full of solicitous concern. "Is everything all right?"
'"She'll be fine. We'll be out in a minute." That only brought out an increased spate of crying even as she was avidly seeking her release; only when she found it did the sobbing, for a moment at least, stop, and he moved against her to take his own. Then they both rested in the awkward peacefulness and he stroked her back and hair.
"Okay. It's all okay, now." She didn't protest his words but pressed herself closer to his bare chest as if still seeking something from him, then gently moved to disengage herself. "All right. I'm going to go back out. You stay here, wash your face, take a few minutes. I'm going to tell the family that I've given you a mild sedative, which I hope in some sense is true. You come out, you sit down, close your eyes, and get some sleep. We will sort this all out, hear me, neshema? In a good and honorable me?"
"It's all mysteries and miracles, neshema. All of it."
[Missing material. Back in the states, Eyal is at the hospital where Gareth has been transferred. He's run out of patience with Annie being "torn" between her two men. He finds her in a waiting area.]
"So, you've got him here. He's stable – improving. On his way to a probable full recovery. His parents are obviously obsessed with his care and seem to be good advocates for him."
"Yes.." She started to say "Yes, but…" Why?
"So, Annie Walker, why are you still here?" The words rang in her; he had said nearly the same phrase to her in Washington D.C. at the Parchment bar, years ago, in a very different circumstance, and being Eyal Lavin, he probably knew that and knew the resonance it would evoke in her. It was the night of their first kiss; she had been "still here" because she loved him, wanted him, and was trying to save him. To be "still here" for Gareth meant, at least to Eyal, that those feelings had been permanently transferred, away from him. She felt the wrenching distress in her stomach, the tightness in her throat.
"Annie – I love you. I've supported you through this, and in my heart I will go on supporting you. But I can't stay and watch. Not any longer. If you want me here – physically in your life, not thinking "good thoughts" in your direction from another continent – then you have to choose."
"I have chosen, Eyal, You know that. I've chosen you. It's just that, these are really good people and I'm going to hurt them all really badly. And I just need some more time to … work up to that."
"You think this doesn't hurt me every day, Annie?" Eyal said, quietly. He tapped at the ring on her finger. "You think I'm not damaged – something destroyed, just a bit – every day, thinking, three millimeters to the left with the scalpel, I could have had everything I want? Everything I need? I've done some horrible things in my life- things I never will tell you about – but I've never in my years as a doctor begun to wish I'd taken that lower road. And I don't like it. You need more time? Okay. You have twenty minutes."
"I'm going to go over to that chair, Annie, and pick up that copy of "Martha Stewart Living" and pretend to read it and in twenty minutes, if you haven't come back, I'm going to put my cell phone on that table – the only way you have of contacting me – and walk away."
"Eyal, no, we don't have to do it this way. I'm getting there, it's just that …"
"Twenty minutes. Two forty-two."
She lost a minute looking at him. He did exactly as he said. Finally she broke away and went down the hallway.
Gareth was alert and in a happy mood. "Hey Annie! You're just in time for the next segment on "Pawn Stars"!
"Oh, great." She went and kissed his cheek and sat down beside his bed.
"I love these guys. I've used them in my classes. It's a great way of exciting kids about history."
Annie, inwardly, disagreed. She stayed silent and stared at the TV.
"Hello!" Gareth's mother and father appeared in the doorway.
"I brought pierogi!" Gareth's mother announced, opening a box and passing the meat pies around. "Eat quickly, before the nurses notice."
"Delicious," Annie mumbled through a full mouth. Gareth's father went to steal another chair from an adjacent room.
They must have come up the other bank of elevators. At least they weren't acting as if they had seen the wonderful but mysteriously omnipresent Dr. Lavin on their way inside.
A commercial came on. "These pierogi are delicious, Mom."
"They'll help you get well. This hospital food – blehh. No one can heal on that."
They discussed hospital food for a minute or two, Annie agreeing it was terrible.
The commercials continued.
"Oh, hey, everybody, I wanted to show you something! Look at my foot! Dad, peel back the covers." His father obliged. "Second toe. Watch." Gareth, after a moment's concentration, made it wiggle ever so slightly. As small as the motion was, it was another sign of progress.
As a group, they watched the scene on the TV. Annie thought, maybe this is it, my life. These nice people. Watching TV on a Sunday afternoon. Together. And I'll have kids with a father who will raise them on television. And I will never tell them or have cause to tell them that, for a while, I was a CIA operative.
Now the subject of "Pawn Stars" was an unusual knife, supposedly in a solid-silver scabbard, but nope, a quick test proved that was silver plate and not worth that much. That's me, she thought. A sharp blade under what looks like a valuable and wonderful coating, but it isn't real. Only the sharpness of the knife would be real.
"What time is it, Dad? I'm supposed to get some more pain meds at 2:45."
"Almost there, son. It's about twenty of three."
Annie felt panic rise in her. How had the time gone so fast? About twenty of three? How close was about?
She looked at Gareth, content, munching another pierogi. At his parents. His father chose that moment to look at her very kindly. She felt the hardness of the little diamond under her fingers.
"I have to go."
All their eyes turned on her. They usually sat together for hours like this.
"Why? What's wrong?" Her expression had to be giving her away.
"Gareth, there's no right way to say this." She twisted at the ring on her finger. It was sticking and it took all her strength to pull it away."I can't marry you. I can't do this any longer. I'm not the person you think I am and I'm sorry for that, but I have to go."
"This is crazy! What are you talking about? You can't be serious!" There were sounds of distress from his mother and a sentence that started, "Now, see here," from his father.
"You're going to be fine. And you're going to be fine without me. Better than fine." She squeezed Gareth's hand which was a big mistake because his other, apparently returned to full strength from the stress, reached over and clamped down on hers.
"I am not going to be fine, Annie!" He looked around the room wildly. "Mom! Dad! We can't let her go!"
"She's not going anywhere, Gareth, until we talk this all out."
"Annie, you don't mean this, I know you don't. I know you love Gareth."
"I do love you Gareth. But not enough." She tried to pull her hand away.
"If you love me, then why are you leaving me?"
"I have to go," she repeated.
"But you don't, you don't have to go. For God's sake, Annie, don't leave me now, like this! When there's hope! I'm going to be fine! The doctors here think I'll make a full recovery! Full! I'm not going to be some cripple … if you think that, you're wrong! Wrong!"
"Annie, you know we love you like a daughter. And we know this has been very stressful and you, you've been amazing. Maybe you need a little break away from the hospital, that's all."
She freed her hand with enough force that Gareth said "Ow!", briefly distracting his parents. "I've got to go," she said again. Pawn Stars had gone to another commercial break. How much time had elapsed? And no, no, no, there was the nurse arriving with a paper cup of pain medicine for the 2:45 dose. With Gareth telling his dad to go after her, she ran back to the waiting area. Empty. She saw Eyal's cell phone precisely positioned on the magazine table and snatched it up. The elevator bank showed nothing but declining numbers, all going down to floors below her. She ran to the stairwell, hearing Gareth's dad calling to her, but she knew he probably wouldn't try pursuing her on the stairs. Her damn shoes were slowing her down, so she pulled them off and ran down the steps, dropping one of the shoes in the process. She left it, and one flight lower she threw away the other one, bursting into the lobby and running to the parking lot. She called out his name but there was no answer and she could not see him in the parking lot. Her heart dropped as she realized she didn't even know the color of his rental car. Now, outside, perfect clarity came to her. There was nothing she genuinely wanted or needed behind her if she was not torturing herself with guilt – well, possibly the lost shoes, but she was sacrificing them. Of course her choice – no, not choice, there was no choice, she was now finally beyond choosing, as he had wanted from her back in Israel all those years ago – of course her love was Eyal, her fate, her destiny. And she'd come to that final realization exactly three minutes too late. She gazed at the parking kiosk and the gate arm at the far side of the parking lot. If she went there, she'd see who was in all the cars leaving. She jumped off the curb and heard a squeal of brakes, putting a hand on the hood of the car to steady herself. She had not looked.
"That would have been uncomfortably ironic," Eyal said, getting out of the driver's side door and coming to gather her close.
"I thought I'd just lost you forever."
"Even at those moments it's still a good policy to look both ways before crossing the street, neshema. Did your shoes just pop off now?" He glanced around.
She wasn't sure if she was laughing or crying. "I left them in the stairwell."
"I'll go get them."
"They don't matter. You do."
He put her into the passenger seat. "Thanks. But I'm still going to go get them. Throwing away your Christian Louboutins? You couldn't have found a better way of convincing me that you really do care. What floor?"
She handed him his cell phone. He slipped it into his pocket. "Somewhere below the seventh." She sank down in t he seat – there was just enough time for Gareth's dad to have gotten an elevator and come after her. After a few minutes she peeked above the door edge and saw Eyal, casually carrying her spring green shoes with the bright red soles, enjoying his trophy, she thought, and she smiled over that. He slid into the driver's seat and handed her her shoes..
"Here you go, Cinderella." He pulled out and headed toward the gate.
"Are we going to the airport?"
"We could do that. But I was thinking, we have a car, no one that we know of is chasing us for any reason, I was thinking we could drive back to Washington, see the country, stay at a motel with a cement tepee, put the top down and do the road trip thing."
He paid the parking fee and accelerated onto the access road. She projected ahead in her mind – Eyal in a roadside motel with a funky Indian theme, his jokes, a bad diner meal, making love on a bumpy mattress. Just then, they pulled ahead of an RV occupied by an elderly couple, a bit frail-looking,probably in their eighties, who were nonetheless still on the road, still after an adventure of some kind. That could be her and Eyal, if there still were RVs in forty or fifty years and they weren't replacing it with a yacht in the Greek islands. From the thought of the cheesy Indian motel tonight to the idea of ending up RV'ing from place to place with him in a half a century, maybe even with a lucky grandchild or great-grandchild with them for the summer and a little yappy dog that would have replaced the bigger, more serious dogs from the family years - she thought – that will do.
If I'm with him, that will do.
She accessed a hotel app on her own cell phone, punched in search terms. "There's the Indian Village Motor Hotel about two hundred miles away, roughly on the way. We'll need to take the next exit east …"
And even within this "Variation" I had some discarded material. Here is one sequence for your enjoyment.
She felt him. Simple as that. The lobby had chairs arranged back to back in the layout and after a moment of standing behind her, he sat down in the one behind her. Her own words had been meant t that instant, but lost their power by the third click in the elevator. "This is over…" She had "given" in to him by pausing in the lobby. Lobbies had always been important to them. That was her move, that she didn't race back to the clinic or to some destination unknown. He had sat down behind her. So now it was back on her. After a few minutes of utter silence, she came up with something to say.
They got up, not looking at each other, and headed to the hotel bar. It was nearly empty, fortunately, not filled with happy people or drunks or much of anything except a couple of single businessmen nursing drinks. The barman approached. Both of them were staring forward; fortunately, there wasn't a mirror over the bar and they didn't have to see each other in it.
"McCallan 18, neat."
"What?" the bartender asked, bewildered.
"McCallan 18, neat."
"I don't know what those are…"
'McCallan 18. Type of whiskey," Eyal explained.
"A Sazerac is a cocktail, rye whisky, bitters, absinthe washed glass."
"I'll see if we have ,mik- micha…"
Eyal made a slight snorting sound. She glanced at him, the first time she had looked at him since they had been in the room. He was trying not to laugh. Annie suppressed a smile, then shot "What's the matter with you?"
"Me? Nothing. Just…." He trailed off. The barman brought over a bottle. It had nothing to do with either of their drinks. Rejected, he went back to looking.
"Just we're undeniably furious with each other…." Annie started him off.
"And still making sure the other gets what they need or want."
"See? That's what I'm talking about!"
They sat together in a more companionable silence. The drinks eventually arrived. Eyal's Sazerac was adorned with a heretical paper umbrella. Annie snatched it out of his drink.
"Thanks. How's yours?" She sniffed it.
"Not McCallan 18. More like McDonald's three-and-a-half. Weeks."
They clicked. Annie threw back hers. Eyal drank off a good half of his.
"So now what?" she asked.
"So now we order another round." He gestured to the barman.
"That's not what I meant."
"Sure it is."
She didn't dispute it but shoved at him. He shoved back. Not hard, but responding in kind. She didn't know what she expected, or wanted from him, but that wasn't it. Or was it? Impulsively she grabbed the cocktail umbrella and jabbed it firmly into his hand, it briefly serving as a kind of bullfight bandorillo sticking in his skin.
"What the hell are you doing? That hurt! Or should I just expect any and every possible kind of hurt from you now?" He pulled out the umbrella and threw it farther down the bar. The small round hole was bleeding; she'd practically gone through the web of his hand.
"Maybe so. Maybe so! Because I think that's exactly what it is going to be. I'm going to hurt you like hell and then…. And then…."
"And then what, Annie?" Eyal asked, dabbing at himself with a cocktail napkin.
"Then maybe I'll be with you. If you'll have me at that point."
She couldn't define the sound he made. He took the rest of the second Sazerac. She did the same with hers, minus a few drops she poured on the wound she had just caused. Eyal winced from the sanitizing sting.
"That's how I figure it too. Rough ride till we get there though."
"Yeah," she said, and pushed at him again.
"You want to get into this? Really?"
"I don't know," she said, and jabbed her shoulder against him."Maybe."
"This place got a gym?"
He settled up. Wordlessly they went to the elevator and got off on the gym floor. It was open and utterly empty, floor to ceiling windows showing the lights of the city spreading out into the distance.
"Neither of us have been keeping up training lately, I imagine."
"That's right." She kicked off her shoes. Eyal flexed. They looked at each other. What the hell was this, really? But here they were. Neither moved.
"Bring it, little girl," he said to her, gesturing toward himself with his fingers. She took a deep breath, paused long enough to feel his alertness falter ever so slightly –that was as much as she could hope for with Eyal Lavin, out of practice or not – and then she went for him, to the throat with her daggered fingers, but he caught that way ahead; stupid, the difference in height gave him all the advantage. She twisted, ducked, slid through his grasp on her wrist by compressing her hand, tried to go for his groin, was blocked. He had her down over a piece of exercise equipment in moments. "That the best you can do, neshema? You're worrying me. What are you doing in the field?" She wriggled free, twisted again, got behind him, hung from his neck, her arm tight against his windpipe. He eased her forward over his head, broke her grasp, she got behind him again with a strong shove to his kidneys. "Give you that point," he growled. "Even, then." He tripped her, she fell to the pad on the floor, rolled before he could slam into her. Their blunted attacks and evasions continued until, finally, he had her by her hair, head pulled back, arms constrained,pressed against a rack of weights. She tested his balance, lost her own bracing, it was over.
"Give it up?"
"I give it up," she gasped. She felt his grip on her release by degrees. When it was just loose enough, she squirmed, he freed her head, and she turned to press against him. For a long moment there was nothing but the sound of their breathing.
"Checkin' me out? Wondering if I've still got what it takes?"
"You've got what it takes," she said. "You always have."
That was enough for him to smash his mouth against her own and for their fingers and hands to make quick work of the majority of their clothing and to drop back down onto the mats; the adrenalin and oxygen and sweaty arousal made it quick. The reassembled their clothing well enough to get back to Annie's floor before it all came off again for the shower.
Another Bonus Scene
He hadn't shared his concerns with Annie yet, but he really wished her fiancé had wakened up by now. No, Dr. Lavin wished that. Eyal …. Eyal was pretty good with the status quo persisting as long as it wanted to.
But if Gareth would never recover, never wake up … what was his "right thing to do" with Annie? He'd stayed away from her for four years and more – at least in part because he believed that she might sacrifice herself for him in exactly the same way she seemed to be preparing to do for Gareth. Was that her fate, regardless of who it was for? Had Eyal, by taking himself out of the mix, just made room for her to have the same fate with someone else, someone he believed she loved less, not more? And what the fuck was she doing here, in his clinic, anyway? He murmured a prayer in Hebrew.
But Gareth,even unconscious, might be more of a man than he, Eyal, was. In all likelihood nothing had impaired Gareth's potential fertility. If she wanted the burden of a baby on top of an unconscious or severely debilitated mate, Gareth, perhaps with minor medical intervention, could still provide that.
Could he? Eyal had deliberately chosen "not knowing" and had rejected any offer of testing to see if his fertility was impaired from the radiation exposure he'd received in the desert, in part because the likelihood that it was not impaired was so slim, given the damaging, near-fatel dose he had received. The basics were simple enough to find out– he'd need a sample and a microscope, and he had one of those on the desk and, well, the ability to produce a sample was ready at hand. Would knowing change how he felt? Would it change what he did with, or for, Annie now?
Yeah. It wouldn't change how he felt about her – that was still in full force, unabated, needle-on-the-post, passionate love - no change there, but knowing … either way … would make him feel like a responsible human being. And if he could – if he could give her the child or children he knew she wanted – well, that would be good to know, now, when his competition was lying unconscious and increasingly unlikely to wake up. He got up and locked his office door, laid out a couple of blank slides by the microscope, sat down behind his desk, and as efficiently as he approached anything, let his mind run in the fanciful directions he had not needed to visit since Annie had run back into his life. Not that his fantasy Annie was much different or any better than the reality, just took advantage of certain storylines that had proved their worth to him before. His rescue of her from the Russian prison, for example, in his version they had a little more time back at that apartment. And even their first meeting, in the apartment in Zurich which had come so completely supplied with some leather gear – yeah, this would not take long and if he had any healthy swimming gametes left, they would surely emerge for this.
Except, damn it, he was about to be interrupted, given the noise just beyond the frosted glass in his door where he could see a shadow. Oh no. It wasn't one of the nurses. It was Annie – and she had his key. Fuck.
The door swung open just as he made himself somewhat presentable, as long as she did not get close. Another five seconds and, well, there would have been embarrassment, to say the least.
"Oh! I didn't know you were here!"
"Yes, yes I am here," he said, inanely. "Just looking at some …. Ah samples. Tests." He shifted delicately and fiddled with the microscope.
"I've been with Gareth," she said. "All day. Eyal, what are you doing?"
"Exactly. You're telling me nothing." She came closer, leaned over his desk. He could see her breasts pressing against the thin fabric of her Indian-cotton blouse. "I can take it, Eyal," she said, looking at him. "I can take it all, right now," she continued.
"Of course … you can," he managed to choke out. Her half of the conversation was not helping his situation at all.
"I want you … I want you to tell me what's really happening. Is there any hope at all?"
"Of course … there's hope," he managed, desperately trying to regain some control over himself and backing off of his impending release as he forced himself to think only of Patient Gareth and Gareth's Significant Other, Annie.
"But how much, Eyal?" Annie settled into the chair on the other side of the desk. She seemed exhausted, sad, resigned.
"That I can't tell you, Annie. I would …. I would like to see some more response at this point. But it is not too late. It really isn't."
"Really?" She questioned with her voice and with her eyes.
'Really." He was proud of himself. He thought he said that very convincingly.
But she wasn't convinced. "I don't think you're telling me the truth." She got up, came around the desk, put a hand on his shoulder. Her touch, in his condition, did not help his self-control. Would staying seated be better or worse than standing up? Seated. Not quite so obvious.
"Annie, it's not that easy. Not that black and white. There is no one schedule for recovery in these things. He's young, strong. And he has you. His odds are as good as they can get."
"Because he has me? His faithful fiancé who's fucking his doctor?" Shit, Annie, don't say "fucking". Not now.
Suddenly Annie realized his situation. Maybe she even realized exactly what he was doing, the microscope, the slides, the raging … He could see it all register on her face. She turned away, retreated to the seat opposite again, gazing at the wall behind him, at some random object on his shelves.
"Yes. Because he has you," he said, softly. "If anything can save him, that can." She looked at him.
"Has that saved you?"
"But I don't .. have you. Not like he does."
"Because you kept me away. Because you chose to stay away. And chose to forget about our child."
"Forget about our child? No, Annie, never. I did everything I knew to do. I piled sin upon sin on my head, trying to find him. I failed, that's true. But it wasn't from lack of trying. But how could I face you without him?"
She looked at him for a long time and he met her gaze, fearlessly on this. He had exhausted every pathway. What Hejra had told him had not added up to much. He'd succeeded in tracking down the German housekeeper who was back in Europe. The foundling home she'd taken the child to had passed him on almost immediately. The sheik, in his anger, had virtually abandoned the baby, a minor cash gift to them to take the infant off his hands, nothing beyond. The baby boy's health problems had encouraged them to pass him on, first to some local chieftain's tent where boy babies were needed. But then the health challenges had emerged and the boy, now a toddler, had been given over to someone else. And there the trail had gone cold. He summarized it for her, proving his diligence. She shared her own efforts. At least the horrible topic of their boy had stripped him of his arousal and left them finally communicating about the most painful thing left from their time in the desert wastes.
Annie sat back, feeling simultaneously exhausted and soothed. 'I knew you would have looked for him. I knew you would."
"Yet you doubted, also..."
She couldn't answer that. Yes.
Later, when she had gone, he returned to his project. On the one side, it seemed like a stupid indulgence. As if it mattered, especially now, when a new rival for her affections had taken center stage, again. But now his curiosity wouldn't be abated by anything else and as methodically as he could, he 'collected' the sample, placed it on the prepared slide, pretended that it belonged to someone else entirely, and looked into the eyepiece as Dr. Eyal Lavin, scientific, unemotional. Beside him he had a check sheet of key markers to observe, motility, deformity, worldwide averages by country or culture,with the percentiles that would tell him if he'd ever be likely to father a child again. He looked away from the eyepiece, blinked, looked again.
He knew he was smiling as he looked at the check sheet. Superior motility. More than sufficient quantity, Almost no observable deformities. His numbers, he noted with satisfaction, easily beat those of average American men, presumably including that not-so-average man who had somehow attracted Annie's attention and even love. He had more apprehension looking at the figures compiled on averages for Israeli men, but, he noted with satisfaction, he had no need to feel inferior there, either.
Bravo, boys, he said silently to the busy round field shown by the microscope. Somehow he had escaped, either with fertility intact or it had restored itself in the intervening years. Not that it would make any difference, he told himself. Annie was hardly indicating that she needed or wanted him to get her with child, but the thought that he could never replace their missing son – not that it would be a replacement at all – had weighed heavily on him. And the thought that if Annie united with him, she would never experience that side of life again, of being a mother, had almost paralyzed him. Looking at evidence to the contrary, he felt immensely better. He heard Annie out in the hallway,speaking with one of the nurses who spoke English well and never missed a chance to practice. Insanely, he wanted to bring her in and show her his miracle, but that was a little freaky. Come, my dear, and gaze upon my glorious seed….. He felt bad that these lively single cells would never see the inside of an egg cell; of course he would be producing hundreds of millions more in a matter of hours or days, but he was fond of these specific ones which had restored his confidence. Of course, he thought, he could always anesthetize Annie, extract an egg or two, and breed an in-vitro embryo, freezing it as an insurance policy, but that would be going a bit far.
But he still went to the door, eager to see her, to be able to look at her for the first time in four plus years and see how it felt to see her as a man who was not filled with doubt in such an essential area. He opened the door just as she was ending her conversation, and let himself immerse in the moment, watching her animated gestures, the way she used her mouth, hearing the sounds of her voice and even a little laugh. The nurse moved on, Annie turned toward him, her smile expanding.
"What's up with you?" she asked.
"Nothing," he said, but he still couldn't wipe what must be a silly looking grin off of his face.
"No, it's something…." she said, with happiness at whatever had cheered him. "I've seen a lot of expressions on your face, Eyal Lavin, but not this one before." She moved toward him. He backed into the office, let her come in, shut the door behind them, because she too seemed to have an expression he didn't quite recognize, either. "Come on. Give it up."
"All right. I had some good news, something that could have gone either way, but it worked out."
"Very mysterious," she said, and reached up to kiss him. There was a lightness in her touch – she was responding to the difference in him, an effervescence. He wanted to tell her, but of course, that was out of the question. Or was it? He had a brief flash of anxiety in his belly. Was this one of those defining moments, where he should let himself be "vulnerable", something he'd always found disgusting in other lovelorn – or pussy-whipped - men? But he liked this lightness in her, this bubbling quality that was new to him. "You know I have ways of making you talk," she said, playfully. God, her hair smelled delicious. "So what is it?
."Annie…." But how could he share any of this, without bringing in the depressing aspects of their separation, of his radiation exposure? "You'll think I'm foolish."
"A foolish Eyal Lavin? Now that would be a change."
Very well, boys. You're on. "Take a look at this," he said, leading her to the microscope, looking sheepish as he did so. She glanced up at him with her sparkling eyes then bent her head to the device.
"Oh!" she said, recognizing what was under the lens and making a small adjustment to the focus. "They seem lively enough…"
She leaned back from the microscope. "So you've just checked yourself out. For the first time , since…" she gestured with her hand. Since the caverns, since nearly dying from radiation sickness, since all that.
Now he was feeling stupid and silly and yet, that was somehow all right. "Yes." She was still smiling. He just hoped she wouldn't make the darker connection – that he wouldn't have this on his mind so much if he expected her boyfriend to survive in good enough form to do the job instead.
She moved away from the microscope and came back around the desk to him.
"So these little guys have been sacrificed to science," she said.
"Let's sacrifice some more to love," she said, and he was more than willing to oblige.
That, he thought, that will be the time I always remember as the first time we made love. He shifted slightly in the tight strip of floor between his desk and his bed; the top of the army cot was just visible from the door and if someone burst in, they wouldn't be immediately exposed. That such a battered bit of floor could be such a treasured and sanctified spot amazed him. She was dozing against his chest, and he found her mere breathing enchanting. So this is happiness, he thought, wanting to note it, document it, save it on a slide.
"You know, you didn't need to use the microscope. I might've been able to give you the answer to that question soon." He stared at her. What was she saying?
"What do you mean?" he asked carefully.
She shrugged her shoulders, still seeming quite bright and happy. "I know it could be just the incredible stresses of this past week, but, I'm late."
"You're not on any birth control?" Didn't you learn in Arabia!, he almost added.
"No. We were actually trying. Have been for months, since before this trip. Gareth thought it would be great if we could conceive in mystical India…"
Eyal tensed at the mention, at this warm post-coital moment, of Garry. Oh did he? Without even marrying her first? Well, Eyal had some mystical places for Annie to conceive, too. Like in his bed. Or anyplace in the mystical nation of Israel. And if she was with child again, that meant it could be his or Gareth's but Gareth would have been with her closer to the peak time of fertility. Still, passionate lovemaking had been known to shake loose an egg outside of the usual timing … if she and Garry hadn't succeeded in several months of trying, it was just possible he might have – that they could produce a child together was already proven. More likely it was just as Annie thought, lateness from the tensions of the attack and its aftermath, though she was certainly resilient.
She shifted now, fully waking up. "That was amazing," she whispered and pressed her lips very gently to his. She was looking at him in a different way. He realized he had seen that kind of expression on her face before – but not aimed at him. Directed at Auggie. That warmth, friendliness, love, a tender concern. What did that mean,that she was looking at him that way now? Their connection had always been stronger, darker, more intense, sexual and powerful. He moved and kissed her, a little hard, to see if that was still part of them. She returned it just as passionately, and Eyal felt something inside of him relax one degree deeper. That warm love and tenderness was not replacing anything between them, it was adding to it; somehow, perhaps through his utter stupid vulnerability earlier, he had claimed new territory, gaining that sweetly loving Annie, something they had come close to in Santa Margarita and in Israel – certainly not in their situation in the desert – but never really attained. Until now. With a little distance, he realized that his message had not been stupid and vulnerable as he had thought. He had basically told her, "I want to father more of your children. And now I know I can." That wasn't a weak message at all and it seemed to be one that Annie wanted to hear from him.
At the glass door one of the nurses knocked fiercely and called out in Bengali. He translated automatically.
"Garry's awake," he told Annie. She did not move. He felt her tense, go a little small against him; reflexively, he held her closer, tighter. He took a deep breath. Dr. Lavin was taking control. "It might not last long," he said, as Annie stayed still against him. "You got anything to say or hear, you need to be there." His words shifted her and she sprang up as Eyal called back to the nurse, telling her he would be right there. Annie scrambled into her clothing. When her eyes did meet his, they looked frightened. Good; that was better than cold or indifferent or some new variety of delirious joy at Gareth's recovery. She got herself out of the office as if escaping from a compromised safe house, Eyal at her heels. From the room ahead came a surprisingly strong bellow mingled with desperation."Annie! Where are you Annie! I can't move my legs! Annie! Where's Annie?"
He found her in the hallway and he slid his arm around her shoulders; he felt her shoulder reflect her thinking, a tension, then a surrender which lifted his heart. So she wasn't immediately back in the thrall of Gareth. Not that Gareth had done himself any favors... the past hour had been filled with tears, whining, demands, accusations, even a tirade against Annie liking to shop which had taken them to the marketplace where the attack occurred - until he'd finally intervened with a syringe. Eyal's greatest fear was that Gareth would manage to play the noble and suffering victim well – taking that role away from himself, but that didn't seem to be likely. "You okay?"
She nodded and moved closer to him, not farther away. "I'm sorry. He shouldn't …. Have said those things."
"It's all right. The guy has had a brain injury. He's not thinking straight." Or maybe this was Gareth-as-usual –if so what was Annie thinking - but it wouldn't hurt Eyal to at least pretend to expect the best of him. "I just can't have him frightening the children. Or you." He looked at her affectionately. This should have ruined the energy between them from earlier but it hadn't, and that filled him with a strange calm joy. This is what I saved you from by staying away when I was at my worst, he was thinking.
As if reading his thoughts – maybe she was! Annie responded, "You …. This is why you stayed away, isn't it. Why you let me think you were dead or missing."
He nodded and gathered her to his chest. "But I wouldn't have minded with you…" she whispered against him.
"Yeah, you would've. Or should've. And I wasn;'t much more pleasant than that for most of the first six months. And much messier." Again, absolutely nothing to be lost by being retroactively Noble here. She didn't reply to that, made a gesture with her eyebrows, as if saying "I don't know about that."