Excerpt 2 of Alan Nayes’ Hemlock Pond
How could a view be both so frighteningly desolate and alarmingly beautiful? She’d never traveled to the arctic far north, but she imagined the vista would not be so very different—except for the trees, many only barren trunks and scraggly limbs. They would remain denuded and brown until the winter snow melted. Even the hemlocks had lost some of their green.
Sparkling white surrounded her position atop the shallow knoll. In every direction, the snow blanketed pastures and woods, even touching the big house on the hill.
Below her, the pond was no longer visible, hadn’t been for several months, hidden under a foot-thick mantle of solid ice. Every day she would walk over the submerged water and attempt to see what she’d started. The police kept coming by, asking the same questions. She didn’t care. She’d never tell. She thought about the cattail marsh, dormant for many weeks—would it survive the brutal temperatures? And the kiddy dock where they used to fish—she hoped the pinewood planks would not splinter and break.
And under the ice…
The deputy sheriff had said five months of freezing cold.
Then in the spring, the pond ice would thaw. When the snow melted, she would be ready for It. She had secured a heavy chain with ankle shackles to the huge oak behind the house. She’d picked a spot secluded from view and where the sun’s early morning rays bathed the ground. She knew It would come for her at night. Then once the shackles were locked in place, there would be no place for It to hide. What she had done, she would undo. Sure, she was afraid. More afraid every day. She prayed the end came quickly. And with little pain, though she doubted this would be the case. For either of them.
For now, she could do nothing but shiver and wait.
So shiver and wait for It, she would.
Megan Parker never believed in God. Not really believed. True, she recited all her childhood prayers while attending Sunday school in the Lutheran church: “Holy Father, help me to…,” “Now I lay me down to sleep…,” “Our Father, who art in heaven….” And there were times during her early years in that cramped brown clapboard house in Dallas, Texas, when she could almost make herself believe someonewas listening. “Please, heavenly Father, help Mommy and Daddy stay together.”
Her parents divorced when she was eleven.
No, Megan Parker never truly believed while growing up.
Years later, when her four-year-old son was diagnosed with cancer, she found it necessary to alter her nonbeliefs. A malignant retinoblastoma, a tumor of the eyes, the doctors told her, the most aggressive form. She would never forget how the pediatrician, an older physician on the verge of retirement, had averted his gaze as he’d delivered the painful news. Zachary Parker was promptly referred to a medical specialist in the arcane field of optic malignancies.
That day Megan subconsciously found herself believing. Because, she reasoned, how could she hold an entity responsible for her child’s misfortune, if she didn’t accept the existence of that entity?
“How could you, Father?” she lashed out silently. “My precious boy, why his eyes, his fucking eyes, for god sakes?”
Megan became intimately familiar with terms that prior to the diagnosis would have elicited nothing more than a comment. “How sad.” Now these same words sent icy chills of terror through her mind.
Leukocoria: the pupil turns white, like a blind cat’s eye. External beam radiation. Photocoagulation. And that most dreaded word of all, other than death: ENUCLEATION.
Megan wanted to scream every time she heard the word. No one was going to cut out her little boy’s eyes. Another round of divine entreaties: “Please, God, don’t let…”
The team of Dallasoncologists infused poisons strong enough to weaken a buffalo through her baby’s veins. Etoposide, carboplatin, vincristine. The drugs burned his thin blood vessels. He cried, lost weight, pleaded. “Mommy, make the pain stop.” He failed to thrive.
Megan hung on and so did Zach, though his illness waxed and waned. She began taking antidepressants. These helped her cope.
She left on family leave from her work as a physical therapist at a busy Dallas suburb clinic to tend to her son’s recovery. Her boy was in and out of radiation therapy. Medical bills mounted. More antidepressants. The strain on Megan’s marriage became noticeable, then palpable, like a beating out-of-sync drum, and finally intolerable. Husband Joe left home early and worked late. Megan fought hard to make the union survive. But Joe had already thrown in the surrender towel.
Four months after the divorce papers were filed, and sixteen months after the initial diagnosis, ophthalmic surgeons did what Megan vowed she would never accept: they removed Zachary Parker’s right eye.
Megan suffered nightmares for months afterwards, dreaming her son’s eye had been plopped out with an ice cream scooper. She imagined she could hear the sucking sounds as the optic nerve and artery were severed, like pulling off a rubber suction cup from a frigid window pane. Plop. She’d awake in a cold sweat, palpating her own eyes.
Why my son?
After the surgery, a new physician assumed Zach’s care. Dr. Kylie Brodie, fresh from a Stanford University residency, was intelligent and pretty and hip, everything Megan would have cherished in an older sister, if she’d had one.
Their bond was cemented solid after one forty-five-minute office visit. Miraculously, Zachary’s condition improved over the ensuing twelve months. With Kylie Brodie’s expertise in treating malignant eye tumors and her intuitive manipulation of complex therapeutic regimens, Megan watched her son’s health blossom until one afternoon, Dr. Brodie proclaimed, “There’s no sign of residual tumor.”
“He’s cured?” Megan gasped.
“For the time being,” Kylie Brodie cautioned. “One more year and he’ll be out of the woods for good.”
“Thank God,” Megan gushed, unaware she’d even said it.
She was able to cut back on her antidepressants.
Then, four weeks after celebrating Zachary’s seventh birthday, Megan learned Dr. Kylie Brodie had accepted a position as Chief of Oncologic Services at a medical center just outside Madison, Wisconsin. She would run her own oncology eye clinic.
Eleven hundred miles away!
Megan’s decision to pull up stakes came as easily and naturally as brushing her teeth. Her divorce was final, Joe spent little time with his son, and she relished the possibility of leaving the pain and misery of the preceding three years in Texas behind. Inside, though, she accepted the real reason for abandoning Dallas. Megan Parker adamantly refused to allow any other ophthalmic surgeon to care for her only son. Only Stanford grad Kylie Brodie could make the grade. She’d preserved her baby’s life. No one else would be offered the opportunity.
And that was how Megan Parker found herself cruising north through Illinois on Interstate 90 listening to an Alan Jackson CD in mid-August.
Destination: Oakgreen, Wisconsin.