This is a draft first chapter of my work-in-progress, A CIRCLE OF MOONLIGHT, the sequel to A CIRCLE OF FIRELIGHT, which came out in February and which you can totally buy if you want. Merry Christmas!
Christmas Eve | West Orange, New Jersey
“I suppose I shouldn’t ask you how your holiday is going.”
I lean forward in my wheelchair, just a little bit, and give Dr. Lindbergh my best glare. I would say something to him, but I can’t think of anything withering enough. Given my ongoing struggles with apraxia and aphasia, I am worried that whatever I could say might not come out the right way. The glare is sufficient.
“You know I am not the one keeping you from going home for Christmas.”
This is fair as far as it goes. I was supposed to leave the rehab hospital and go home for the holiday. But the first week of December, my younger sister Penny came down with a serious respiratory infection. Penny has cystic fibrosis, a debilitating lung disease, and what would be a couple of days in bed for most people means three weeks in Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia for her. Worse, this particular infection was so bad that they installed a catheter in her chest, the better to deliver antibiotics.
Penny has been home for a few days now. I have been in one hospital or another since I was in a bad car accident in August—Penny was in the car with me, but she had a mild concussion, while I had a traumatic brain injury with surgery. I was in Robert Wood Johnson Hospital in New Brunswick for a month, until they moved me here to the rehab hospital. And because I am somewhere where I might encounter all sorts of exotic germs, I am not allowed to go home for Christmas, lest I give Penny another infection, and land her back in CHOP.
None of that is Dr. Lindbergh’s fault. But the rest of it is.
“Ready to walk,” I say. I didn’t want to just go home for Christmas; I wanted to walk in the front door, and I can’t do that, yet, because I haven’t been cleared to by the man behind the desk, whom I am still glaring at.
“We’ve been over this,” he explains. “You need three things to be able to walk. First is balance, if you don’t have that you’ll fall over. Second is support. Your legs have to be strong enough to support you. Third is the actual motion of walking. All three of these things have to be able to work together—they reinforce each other.”
I make the little circular motion with my hand that means yeah, yeah, go on.
“We can build up your leg muscles, and you’ve been working hard on that in PT. But we don’t know how the brain injury affected your sense of balance, or how well you can perform the motion of walking. The classical way we would do that would be to use parallel bars, or crutches, or a walker. Something to give you support and keep you from falling. But all of that is contraindicated by the wrist injury. There’s too much pain involved, and you could damage yourself badly with a fall.”
I intensify my glare at Dr. Lindbergh. He is not a bad doctor. He is young, with an untidy mop of red curly hair, and thick glasses with thin gold frames. There’s half a hospital-cafeteria sandwich on his desk, and what I think is a glob of Thousand Island dressing on the front of his white lab coat.
“Want to try,” I say.
“Look, Ashlyn,” he says. “You’ve been working hard to build your load-bearing capacity, and you’re almost there. But the left wrist still isn’t at a hundred percent. We’ve had this conversation; we’re probably looking at putting in a permanent screw to stabilize the wrist bones. That’s causing some of the pain; the loose bone fragments are causing the rest of it. A surgeon can go in and clean them all out.”
“Walking is more important,” I say, tripping a little on the sibilant in is. I would omit the verb, but I am tired of sounding like Ashlyn Revere, Unfrozen Cavewoman.
“I understand that. I respect that. Additional surgery is going to set back your rehab, no doubt about it. But that left wrist isn’t getting any better, and you’re overworking the right wrist to compensate—and that wrist had prior damage of its own.”
“I know.” I had jammed my right wrist months before the car crash, when I had tried to punch a hole in a cinder-block wall after losing a field hockey game. Not my finest moment.
“What worries me is that once we give you a walker, you could lean on in hard enough to cause pain in those wrists, and that could lead to a fall. The wrist surgery will set you back two or three weeks. A fall with broken bones will set you back two or three months. It’s not a risk I want to see you take.”
Dr. Lindbergh is right, and I know he’s right, and that makes it all the more frustrating. It would be easier if he were wrong. It would also be easier if I didn’t feel the nagging soreness in my wrist just now, like mismatched gears grinding against each other.
“I have given this some thought, and I think we can get you on a treadmill, if we put you in an upper-body harness and attach that to a lift.”
I turn down my withering glare a notch, trying to figure out how that will work.
“We use the lift to support your body weight, then we maneuver you onto a treadmill. With me so far? You can walk as much as you can manage, however slow or fast as you like. With the harness holding you up, you can’t fall. As you build up muscle strength, we reduce the tension on the lift. Before too much longer, you ought to be able to use the treadmill independently. Then you’d be ready to walk normally.”
“Not right now. Too many people off for the holiday. But soon, maybe? Tomorrow? What do you think? Would that make your holiday season a little brighter?”
No, it wouldn’t. I will still be alone, without my family—outside of brief visits and FaceTime calls. I will still be injured, scarred, and vulnerable. I will still be struggling with my speech, and my thought patterns, and my fine motor skills. I will only be one step closer to what I really want, which is to have my independence back.
But as long as that’s a step I can take on my own, I’m all for it.
“Deal,” I say to Dr. Lindbergh, and stretch out my hand for a fist-bump.
“Deal,” he says. “And Merry Christmas to you, Ashlyn.”
I take a deep breath. “M-m-merry Christmas, Doctor.”
Christmas Morning | Residence Inn by Marriott, Henderson, Nevada
It is six in the morning in Nevada, but my body clock is still set on Chapel Hill time. I knew when I got up that I would not be able to go back to sleep, so I came downstairs to check out the breakfast spread at the Marriott. It has not disappointed so far. I am sipping a paper cup with cranberry juice and clearing croissant crumbs off my copy of Biochemistry and Nutrition for Nurses.
“How are you so tall?” a small voice asks.
I look up from my textbook and see a little girl, maybe four years old, in a soft wooly coat. Her mother—or I assume that’s who she is—is sitting in the back of the lobby, typing impatiently on a laptop.
“I drank all my juice when I was your age,” I tell her. “My mother is a dietician—do you know what that is? She helps people learn what they should eat, and she always served us healthy food. That helped me grow tall.” Six feet, one and a quarter inches, to be exact.
“I don’t like the purple juice. Just the yellow.”
“That’s good for you, too, as long as you don’t drink too much of it. Are you having a good Christmas?”
“We’re going to leave to see my Nana here in a minute. Mommy says that Santa Claus brought all the toys there this year.”
“Well, I hope you get something nice in your stocking,” I say. “What’s your name?”
“Angelica. What’s yours?”
“My name is Jennifer. Jennifer Lamb. Nice to meet you, Angelica.”
“Shouldn’t you be with your parents?” the child asks.
“They’re back home, in North Carolina. They’re going to watch me on television, though. I’m playing in a basketball game later today.”
Angelica’s mother closes her laptop with a decisive crack and walks over to collect her. “Sorry if my daughter was bothering you,” she says.
“She’s fine,” I say. “Don’t worry. I need something to distract me from all this homework.”
Angelica’s mother is tall, with sharp features and artfully teased hair. “Did I hear you say you play basketball?”
“You did. University of North Carolina. Pre-season tournament; we’re playing Marquette at two-thirty.”
“That’s great. I played backup point guard in school. Arizona State. We made it to the Sweet Sixteen my junior year. It was an awesome experience.”
“We went out early last year,” I say. “Beat Rice in the first round, lost to Gonzaga.”
“Well, good luck to you, then,” she says. “Come on Angelica. Let’s go see Nana.”
I get up from the table, stretch a little, and then walk over to the counter to get another croissant. Even though it’s a chilly morning, the Marriott has the air conditioner turned up to teeth-chattering levels. I consider running up to the room to get a jacket, but I decide to fix myself some hot tea instead.
I get halfway through the first chapter of the biochemistry textbook when I look up to see Coach Morgan sitting at the table across from me.
“Good morning,” she says. She is uncharacteristically sloppy, wearing a tattered pale-blue sweatshirt, and cradling a paper cup of coffee. “Getting in some classwork, I see.”
“Trying to get a head start for next semester,” I explain.
She nods approvingly. “I thought I would get up early and walk a few miles on the treadmill, but I decided I needed coffee first. And then I saw you here, by yourself, and I thought I would say hello.”
“I need to tell you something, Jennifer, and I figure now is as good a time as any.”
“What is it, Coach?”
I flash through the last month or so of practice, mentally reviewing my performance, to figure out what she could possibly be wanting to talk to me about.
“I want you to know that you’re my rock on this team, Jennifer. You are the one player I can count on. We’ve been together going on four years now, and you’re the most dependable player I’ve ever coached. I trust you out there, and believe me when I tell you that I wouldn’t trade having you on the team for anyone else in the conference.”
“Thank you, Coach.”
“Which it’s why it’s hard for me to tell you that I’m starting Unique at power forward today.”
If she had slapped me in the face, it wouldn’t have hurt any less.
“You’ve worked so hard, Jennifer. You deserve every opportunity I can give you. But I have to think about the team, too. And Unique—well, you’ve gone against her in practice. You know what she can do with the ball in her hand. She had a rocky freshman year, but all she’s done in practice is light it up, and we need points however we can get them.”
I want to say something, anything, but when she puts it all together, it’s obvious. Unique Templeton is a little smaller than I am, but she is maybe a little quicker, and she has a soft fall-away jump shot that she can make from anywhere on the court. I’m a better defender, no question, but Unique is a better scoring threat.
I just didn’t think she was good enough to take my job.
Coach tilts her head to the left, just a little. I know she is waiting for me to say something, trying to anticipate which way I am going to jump. If I am going to shout—if I am going to cry—she would rather it happen here, in this deserted early-morning Marriott lobby. Not in front of the team, because the team comes first.
You’re my rock, she had said.
Rocks don’t whine. Rocks don’t complain. Rocks endure.
“What Unique is going to need,” I say, “more than anything else, is a good working relationship with Monica. Monica has a hard time finding the happy medium on the court. If she has the hot hand, she gets overconfident and starts taking risks. If she goes cold, she gets tentative and slow. You have to work with her to find the right rhythm; if Unique can do that, she’ll be golden.”
“What would keep Unique from being able to do that?”
“It’s mostly about expectations. If the expectation being placed on Unique is to score, and score big, she’s going to put less emphasis on being a good teammate and working with Monica. The only way this is going to work is if they’re both feeding off each other, both trying to get the ball to the open teammate. If they’re competing against each other for the ball, you’re setting them both up to fail.”
“It’s about being unselfish,” Coach says. “I know you get that. And that’s what I’m asking you to do, Jennifer. For the team.”
I bite back my tears, because rocks don’t cry. “My parents are going to be watching today,” I say. “The whole family is going to be coming over for Christmas, and they’ll have the TV on. I don’t think I’m being selfish by telling you that.”
Coach relaxes, just a hair. “I understand. Don’t worry. I’ll get you some minutes. You’ve earned that, maybe more than you know. And if you’ll excuse me, I need to get up on that treadmill.”
“Thank you, Jennifer. Thank you for understanding. I hope we can make it work.”
“We’ll see,” I say, and that’s all I can say. Maybe she wants me to say thank you, maybe she wants me to slobber all over myself in self-pity. I can’t do either.
I am a rock. Rocks don’t react. Rocks don’t feel pain.
But rocks can crumble.
If you hit them hard enough, rocks can break.
Christmas Day | Montgomery, New Jersey
“Jason, you can’t take that deal,” I say.
“You can’t tell me what to do,” he says.
“Yeah, you can’t tell him what to do,” his twin brother Ray chimes in.
“You be quiet. He wants Park Place. And all he’s offering is Connecticut Avenue.”
“I need Connecticut Avenue,” Jason says.
“And he needs Park Place. And he has, I don’t know, fifteen hundred dollars over there, and he can use that to blow us both out of the water if we land on those properties.”
My twin brothers are just old enough to get the rules of Monopoly, but not old enough to evaluate a good deal or a bad deal. Or I don’t think so. Ray is the competitive one. Jason is the smart one, the one who is devious—or he would be if he weren’t as easy to read as a Dan Brown potboiler.
“Wait a second,” I say. “You’re letting him win.”
“No, I’m not,” Jason says.
“Penny, let him do what he wants to do,” Ray says.
“Okay. Maybe you don’t want Ray to win. Maybe you don’t care who wins. But maybe you’re bored, and you want us to keep playing so you can sneak off and play Fortnite.”
Jason makes a face at me. “You are officially my least-favorite sister right now.”
“Call Ashlyn and tell her. I’m sure she’ll be thrilled to hear that.”
“I already talked to her. She says she wishes she could come home.”
“I wish that too,” I say, and I do. I’ve only been home from the hospital four days, and it feels like I was gone for a year. Raymond and Jason look like they’ve both grown three inches; they will be taller than I am before too much longer.
But Ashlyn’s been gone far longer. She and I were in a car wreck last summer; a glazier’s van somehow flew into the air and crash-landed on top of my mother’s old Volvo. I got off with some cuts, scrapes, and a low-grade concussion. Ashlyn got a broken wrist, a broken leg, and a broken skull—all that, and she almost died in the operating room when a jagged piece of rib bone came an inch from poking her in the heart. And then again later, when they had to drill into her skull to remove the pressure from a blood clot on her brain. She has been busy trying to learn how to walk and talk again, while I have been sitting around the house waiting for word from my pulmonologist about my lung transplant—when I’m not in the hospital, that is.
Because of my most recent hospitalization, I have a shiny new piece of medical equipment lodged in my actual body; a catheter that delivers my antibiotic regimen straight into my bloodstream without having to swallow a million actual pills. This is not quite the improvement you might think it is, but it helped me get home in time to spend Christmas Day with my family.
Except for Ashlyn.
But I can either be sad for her or happy for me, and given that choice, I’ll take happy.
“Okay. You kids put the Monopoly set today. I’ll go warm up the PlayStation. Deal?”
“That means I win, right?” Ray asks.
“It means you get to hear me laugh at your weak Fortnite skills. Hurry up.”
My father is sound asleep in his recliner, the remote control in his hand. I try to sneak it out slowly, carefully, like Indiana Jones trying to winkle a golden idol from a hidden altar. I do not succeed, and his eyes open halfway. “Yes?”
“We were going to play Fortnite on the PlayStation. Sorry to wake you up.”
“I wasn’t asleep.”
“Sure you weren’t. What’s the score on the Jets game?”
“They were down three touchdowns at halftime. I switched to ESPN.”
I look at the screen for the first time; it’s showing a women’s basketball game.
“North Carolina playing Marquette. I think.”
“Then you won’t mind us switching to a video game.”
“Not very Christmasy, is it? Violent video games?”
I snort at this. “You watched Die Hard last night, that’s as violent.”
“It’s a Christmas movie.”
“Be that as it may. You can go back to sleep; they’ll be…”
I stop, because I can’t see my dad in his recliner, it’s all a blur.
“What is it, Penny? You okay?”
I am not okay, not one bit okay, and I don’t know why. I start coughing—no big surprise there, but it hurts for some reason. I have a high pain threshold and this hurts like hell. I fall to one knee in the deep pile carpet.
“You’re turning blue.” He doesn’t sound sleepy anymore.
I stop myself from coughing and suck in air. There is a deep pain in my chest, like an icepick to the heart. All I can see is the beige blur of the carpet.
“My name is Dennis Revere. I’m calling for my daughter. She was fine a second ago, and now she looks like maybe she’s having a heart attack.”
Heart attack? I have not lived seventeen years with cystic fibrosis to die of a heart attack. I don’t know what’s wrong with me but your heart stops in a heart attack; mine is going a mile a minute, each beat sending hot spikes of pain through my system.
“She’s still breathing—she has trouble breathing, she has cystic fibrosis—but she hasn’t stopped. Something’s definitely wrong.”
I am down on all fours now, panting with effort. I am not going to die today. I am not going to ruin Christmas Present and all the Christmas Futures by dying. I am going to stay alive, although I have no idea how I do that other than to keep breathing. I cough some more, thick fluid dripping from my mouth.
“What happened?” my mother asks, on the fringe of my consciousness.
“No idea. I’m on with 9-1-1. Call Dr. Morton.”
I am still breathing, with deep, shuddering sobs. The pain has a metallic edge to it, hard and bitter, and it is not subsiding one little bit.
“Morton says have her sit up, see if that helps.”
Oh, that’s brilliant. Sit up, that’s the best he can come up with? If this doesn’t kill me, I am going to write a strongly worded letter to the Pennsylvania medical authorities.
My parents lift me up off all fours and deposit me on the couch. I can feel the pain subside, but only a little. My breathing is slow and ragged, but I am moving air in and out. Someone hands me an oxygen mask, and the cool air takes a little bit of the edge off my panic.
“So I guess this means we’re not playing Fortnite,” Ray says.
“Go upstairs, you two, and change out of those pajamas into something warm. Morton thinks it’s an air embolism, from the central line. Dangerous but treatable.”
“Tell… Morton… go to…”
“Penny. Language. We’re going to the hospital. It’s going to be okay. You understand? You’re all right. Just hold out a little while longer.”
“Sorry,” I say. “Ruining. Christmas.”
“It’s okay, sweetheart. Just keep breathing. That’s all I’m asking right now.”