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Copyright © 2017 by KTB Books
Cover Art © 2017 Elizabeth Cooper)
Something wasn’t right. I didn’t want to panic, but I was starting to feel claustrophobic. Having a two-ton radiation machine sitting only inches from your chest will do that to you, especially when it seems you’ve been forgotten.
You’re not truly alone, Jennifer, I reminded myself. There were dozens of people down the hall in the waiting room. And this was a hospital. People were constantly moving around, even though they kept the radiation section closed off.
Repeating these things and more didn’t help. At that moment, I felt abandoned, as if no one knew where I was.
“Excuse me,” I finally called, hoping the radiation technician who’d brought me in here would answer, reassuring me.
Robert. I picture his name tag in my mind. Raising my voice, I called again, “Robert?” Nada. The room was probably soundproof with the door shut.
Panic sped up my breathing as I stared at the machine. It hadn’t moved after my radiation treatment had ended. That was the problem.
In my mind, the six inches between me and it had shrunk to three. My arms were starting to go numb, as well as my feet and legs. No one was coming to help me. I had to do something. Now.
Moving while under the machine was kind of tricky. I was a large woman, and I’d never been dexterous on my back, much to my rat ex- husband’s lament, I guess.
I kicked my legs out of their rubber support and, after several tries, scooted my butt down the metal table. Then I did an ungainly slide, like I was slipping under a barbed-wire fence. Except this particular fence was the size of a VW Beetle, and it seemed to be inching closer to me with each passing second.
When I moved enough that my head and neck were no longer in the plastic mold that kept me still during treatment, I banged the back of my skull against the table. “Ow, ow, ow,” I muttered, inching my way farther down it until I cleared the machine.
Finally, my legs dangled off the end. I sat up, took my first relieved breath in eons, and waited for my head to stop spinning. Freedom! I looked around the room, and everything seemed normal. Walking over to the plastic chair to my left, I picked up my long-sleeved cotton jersey and put it on. Since I got topless for my treatment, most of the time I didn’t bother wearing a bra when I came here. It would be one more thing to take off.
I moved to the doors. They’re made of thick steel and tightly sealed. No wonder no one answered me. They wouldn’t have heard me even if I’d shouted. I pushed on one a bit, staggering under the unexpected weight. When it opened a scant few inches, I peered around the edge. I don’t know why I was acting like a guilty person, doing something or going somewhere I wasn’t supposed to.
I hid a giggle behind a cough. Jeez, Jennifer, get a grip. Something still wasn’t right. In fact, I felt an overwhelming sense that things were horribly wrong.
“Robert?” Still no answer, so I pushed the door open a little wider. Now I could see the second lab and computer station. It was as dark as it had been when I came into the radiation lab at the Blue Bald Falls Cancer Center no more than ten minutes ago. I opened the door wide enough and stepped into the bright lights of the hall.
Robert had his head down on the computer keyboard like he was napping. The scalpel sticking straight out from the side of his neck and the blood pooling on the table down to the floor told me sleep had nothing to do with it.
“Are you Mrs. Atkinson?”
The man standing in front of me was about five foot ten with a stocky build and blue eyes. His hair was cut close to his scalp with military precision, but what I could see was thick, healthy, and red. He wore khaki-colored pants and a dark long-sleeved polo sweater and scuffed boots. He looked like he could’ve been a boxer or mountain climber at some point in his life. He was either hospital administration or police.
“Yes, I’m Jennifer Atkinson.” I stood with my left hand out, resisting the urge to run my right over my bald scalp. I’d worn a knitted scarf over it to treatment, but I’d stuffed the scarf in my coat pocket out in the waiting area.
He shook my hand. The warmth of his skin against mine felt reassuring. After being stuck under the radiation machine for what felt like an eternity, and then left waiting in this tiny room for even longer, I’d been so focused on eventually getting out of here that I hadn’t realized I was chilled to the bone.
Hospital security had deposited me here shortly after my scream brought about a crowd of people to the radiation lab. Since then, I’d been left alone wondering what the heck was going on and trying to keep from heaving my breakfast because I kept seeing all the blood pooling on the floor.
I couldn’t believe someone had been killed while I was waiting to begin my radiation treatment for breast cancer. I was a middle-aged divorced freelance travel journalist. I went to radiation five days a week and got chemo every third week. Until this morning, my life had all the excitement of a woolly worm climbing up an oak tree on Blue Bald, the ridge between my little Tennessee town of the same name and the state border with North Carolina.
“I’m Ben Manteo, a detective with the Blue Bald Falls police,” he said. He pulled out a wallet and flashed his badge for me.
“Yes, sir.” I fell back on my manners, calling everyone I don’t know “sir” or “ma’am,” even if they aren’t older than me. Manteo looked to be in his late forties or early fifties. Something about his eyes told me he’d lived a little longer.
“You found the victim?”
I gulped, my shakiness returning. I closed my eyes, then opened them quickly. It didn’t help. Nothing was going to erase the memory of that scalpel sticking out of Robert’s neck. “Yes, sir.”
“Mrs. Atkinson, let’s sit down. I can get you some coffee or something to drink.” His voice had a way of trailing up on the syllables of his words that told me he was native to Blue Bald Falls. The accent is part mountain, part Scottish from the first white settlers in this area, and part Cherokee.
“No, they gave me something,” I said, pointing to the nearly empty bottle of water sitting on the tasteful small end table.
“Good. Now, can you tell me everything that happened?” Manteo asked, leading me back to one of the overstuffed armchairs in the tiny room.
I sat and opened my mouth, only to shut and open it again, this time with a nervous laugh escaping. “I honestly don’t know where to begin.”
“You were here for treatment?” he prompted. He set a small digital recorder on the table and took out a notebook and pen from his hip pocket. For some reason, seeing the notebook reassured me.
I took a breath. “Yes. I got diagnosed with early- stage aggressive breast cancer six months ago. I have a year of chemotherapy and daily radiation through March.”
TMI, Jennifer. TMI.
“Sorry, that isn’t important. When I arrived, I walked back from the reception area, and Robert met me halfway up the hallway.”
“Is that the usual procedure? Someone meeting you on the way?”
“No. But things were a little odd this morning.”
“Describe odd,” he said.
“Usually there are two technicians, and one meets me in the reception area and walks me out when I’m done. But today they are in training or something.”
My throat was extremely dry. I wished I’d accepted his offer of coffee or more water. I cleared my throat again and continued.
“That’s what he told me, anyway. I’d never met him before. Usually, I have women techs, not that it matters, just that I’ve only seen women techs working here with radiation patients. It’s a vulnerable position.”
Sounds silly, I realized, but I was telling the truth. For such an unobtrusive procedure, radiation made me feel defenseless. Heck, I’d been feeling that way from the minute the doctor came in after my annual mammogram and told me they wanted to take a closer look at a spot. She’d assured me it was probably nothing. She’d kept up the positive attitude all the way through the needle biopsy. Then my world changed on a dime.
You may not have figured this out yet, but I don’t do helpless. Yet with this cancer diagnosis, no matter how much I tried to change my attitude, my life kept spiraling out of control.
“Okay. So you chatted a little? Small talk?”
“Yes. They want me to relax, and the small talk helps. I don’t even know his last name. It just said Robert on his name tag.”
“Yes ma’am. What happened next?”
I shrugged. “The treatment is cut and dry. I lay down. They line up the machine, then they leave, the lights dim, and the machine does its thing. Once it’s finished, the techs come back, help me up, and out we go. It only takes about three minutes for the actual treatment. Five minutes total.”
“What happened next?”
“He left and the machine started the treatment. When it was over, the machine should have moved partially away from me. It didn’t. I thought I heard something, but maybe I imagined it.”
Then I went on to explain how I’d found Robert at the desk and screamed. As I finished the story, I felt another wave of nausea building. I bit my lip and managed to keep my breakfast down. It seemed like I’d been here for days, but it’d only been a ninety minutes since I’d arrived for my appointment at eight this morning.
“Okay, Mrs. Atkinson.”
“Call me Jennifer.”
“All right. Let’s go over it from when you were left in the radiation room. Did you see anything before the lights dimmed?”
“No. It only took a second or two.”
“You said you heard a noise?”
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