The Center squatted on the corner of Juniper and Montfort behind a wrought-iron gate, like an old bulldog used to guarding its territory. At one point, there had been many like it in Mississippi— nondescript, unassuming buildings where services were provided and needs were met. Then came the restrictions that were designed to make these places go away: the halls had to be wide enough to accommodate two passing gurneys; any clinic where that wasn’t the case had to shut down or spend thousands on reconstruction. The doctors had to have admitting privileges at local hospitals—even though most were from out of state and couldn’t secure them—or the clinics where they practiced risked closing, too. One by one the clinics shuttered their windows and boarded up their doors. Now, the Center was a unicorn—a small rectangle of a structure painted a fluorescent, flagrant orange, like a flag to those who had traveled hundreds of miles to find it. It was the color of safety; the color of warning. It said: I’m here if you need me. It said, Do what you want to me; I’m not going.
The Center had suffered scars from the cuts of politicians and the barbs of protesters. It had licked its wounds and healed. At one point it had been called the Center for Women and Reproductive Health. But there were those who believed if you do not name a thing, it ceases to exist, and so its title was amputated, like a war injury. But still, it survived. First it became the Center for Women. And then, just: the Center.
The label fit. The Center was the calm in the middle of a storm of ideology. It was the sun of a universe of women who had run out of time and had run out of choices, who needed a beacon to look up to.
And like other things that shine so hot, it had a magnetic pull. Those in need found it the lodestone for their navigation. Those who despised it could not look away.
Today, Wren McElroy thought, was not a good day to die. She knew that other fifteen-year-old girls romanticized the idea of dying for love, but Wren had read Romeo and Juliet last year in eighth-grade English and didn’t see the magic in waking up in a crypt beside your boyfriend, and then plunging his dagger into your own ribs. And Twilight—forget it. She had listened to teachers paint the stories of heroes whose tragic deaths somehow enlarged their lives rather than shrinking them. When Wren was six, her grandmother had died in her sleep. Strangers had said over and over that dying in your sleep was a blessing, but as she stared at her nana, waxen white in the open coffin, she didn’t understand why it was a gift. What if her grandmother had gone to bed the night before thinking, In the morning, I’ll water that orchid. In the morning, I’ll read the rest of that novel. I’ll call my son. So much left unfinished. No, there was just no way dying could be spun into a good thing.
Her grandmother was the only dead person Wren had ever seen, until two hours ago. Now, she could tell you what dying looked like, as opposed to just dead. One minute, Olive had been there, staring so fierce at Wren—as if she could hold on to the world if her eyes stayed open—and then, in a beat, those eyes stopped being windows and became mirrors, and Wren saw only a reflection of her own panic.
She didn’t want to look at Olive anymore, but she did. The dead woman was lying down like she was taking a nap, a couch cushion under her head. Olive’s shirt was soaked with blood, but had ridden up on the side, revealing her ribs and waist. Her skin was pale on top and then lavender, with a thin line of deep violet where her back met the floor. Wren realized that was because Olive’s blood was settling inside, just two hours after she’d passed. For a second, Wren thought she was going to throw up.
She didn’t want to die like Olive, either.
Which, given the circumstances, made Wren a horrible person.
The odds were highly unlikely, but if Wren had to choose, she would die in a black hole. It would be instant and it would be epic. Like, literally, you’d be ripped apart at the atomic level. You’d become stardust.
Wren’s father had taught her that. He bought her her first telescope, when she was five. He was the reason she wanted to be an astronaut when she was little, and an astrophysicist as soon as she learned what one was. He himself had had dreams of commanding a space shuttle that explored every corner of the universe until he got a girl pregnant. Instead of going to grad school, he had married Wren’s mom and become a cop and then a detective and had explored every corner of Jackson, Mississippi, instead. He told Wren that working for NASA was the best thing that never happened to him.
When they were driving back from her grandmother’s funeral, it had snowed. Wren—a child who’d never seen weather like that in Mississippi before—had been terrified by the way the world swirled, unmoored. Her father had started talking to her: Mission Specialist McElroy, activate the thrusters. When she wouldn’t stop crying, he began punching random buttons: the air-conditioning, the four-way flashers, the cruise control. They lit up red and blue like a command center at Mission Control. Misson Specialist McElroy, her father said, prepare for hyperspace. Then he flicked on his brights, so that the snow became a tunnel of speeding stars, and Wren was so amazed she forgot to be scared.
She wished she could flick a switch now, and travel back in time.
She wished she had told her dad she was coming here.
She wished she had let him talk her out of it.
She wished she hadn’t asked her aunt to bring her.
Aunt Bex might even now be lying in a morgue, like Olive, her body becoming a rainbow. And it was all Wren’s fault.
You, said the man with a gun, his voice dragging Wren back to the here and now. He had a name, but she didn’t want to even think of it. It made him human and he wasn’t human; he was a monster. While she’d been lost in thought, he’d come to stand in front of her. Now, he jerked the pistol at her. Get up.
The others held their breath with her. They had, in the past few hours, become a single organism. Wren’s thoughts moved in and out of the other women’s minds. Her fear stank on their skin.
Blood still bloomed from the bandage the man had wrapped around his hand. It was the tiniest of triumphs. It was the reason Wren could stand up, even though her legs were jelly.
She shouldn’t have come here.
She should have stayed a little girl.
Because now she might not live to become anything else.
Wren heard the hammer click and closed her eyes. All she could picture was her father’s face—the blue-jean eyes, the gentle bend of his smile—as he looked up at the night sky.
When George Goddard was five years old, his mama tried to set his daddy on fire. His father had been passed out on the couch when his mother poured the lighter fluid over his dirty laundry, lit a match, and dumped the flaming bin on top of him. The big man reared up, screaming, batting at the flames with his ham hands. George’s mama stood a distance away with a glass of water. Mabel, his daddy screamed. Mabel! But his mama calmly drank every last drop, sparing none to extinguish the flames. When George’s father ran out of the house to roll in the dirt like a hog, his mama turned to him. Let that be a lesson to you, she said.
He had not wanted to grow up like his daddy, but in the way that an apple seed can’t help but become an apple tree, he had not become the best of husbands. He knew that now. It was why he had resolved to be the best of fathers. It was why, this morning, he had driven all this way to the Center, the last standing abortion clinic in the state of Mississippi.
What they’d taken away from his daughter she would never get back, whether she realized it now or not. But that didn’t mean he couldn’t exact a price.
He looked around the waiting room. Three women were huddled on a line of seats, and at their feet was the nurse, who was checking the bandage of the doctor. George scoffed. Doctor, my ass. What he did wasn’t healing, not by any stretch of the imagination. He should have killed the guy—would have killed the guy—if he hadn’t been interrupted when he first arrived and started firing.
He thought about his daughter sitting in one of those chairs. He wondered how she’d gotten here. If she had taken a bus. If a friend had driven her or (he could not even stand to think of it) the boy who’d gotten her in trouble. He imagined himself in an alternate universe, bursting through the door with his gun, seeing her in the chair next to the pamphlets about how to recognize an STD. He would have grabbed her hand and pulled her out of there.
What would she think of him, now that he was a killer?
How could he go back to her?
How could he go back, period?
Eight hours ago this had seemed like a holy crusade—an eye for an eye, a life for a life.
His wound had a heartbeat. George tried to adjust the binding of the gauze around it with his teeth, but it was unraveling. It should have been tied off better, but who here was going to help him?
The last time he had felt like this, like the walls were closing in on him, he had taken his infant daughter—red and screaming with a fever he didn’t know she had and wouldn’t have known how to treat—and gone looking for help. He had driven until his truck ran out of gas—it was past one a.m., but he started walking—and continued until he found the only building with a light on inside, and an unlocked door. It was flat-roofed and unremarkable—he hadn’t known it was a church until he stepped inside and saw the benches and the wooden relief of Jesus on the cross. The lights he had seen outside were candles, flickering on an altar. Come back, he had said out loud to his wife, who was probably halfway across the country by now. Maybe he was tired, maybe he was delusional, but he very clearly heard a reply: I’m already with you. The voice whispered from the wooden Jesus and at the same time from the darkness all around him.
George’s conversion had been that simple, and that enveloping. Somehow, he and his girl had fallen asleep on the carpeted floor. In the morning, Pastor Mike was shaking him awake. The pastor’s wife was cooing at his baby. There was a groaning table of food, and a miraculously spare room. Back then, George hadn’t been a religious man. It wasn’t Jesus that entered his heart that day. It was hope.
Hugh McElroy, the hostage negotiator George had been talking to for hours, said George’s daughter would know he had been trying to protect her. He’d promised that if George cooperated, this could still end well, even though George knew that outside this building were men with rifles trained on the door just waiting for him to emerge.
George wanted this to be over. Really, he did. He was exhausted mentally and physically and it was hard to figure out an endgame. He was sick of the crying. He wanted to skip ahead to the part where he was sitting by his daughter again, and she was looking up at him with wonder, the way she used to.
But George also knew Hugh would say anything to get him to surrender to the police. It wasn’t even just his job. Hugh McElroy needed him to release the hostages for the same reason that George had taken them in the first place—to save the day.
That’s when George figured out what he was going to do. He pulled back the hammer on the gun. “Get up. You,” he said, pointing to the girl with the name of a bird, the one who had stabbed him. The one he would use to teach Hugh McElroy a lesson.
Here was the primary rule of hostage negotiation: Don’t fuck it up. When Hugh had first joined the regional team, that’s what the instructors said. Don’t take a bad situation and make it worse. Don’t argue with the hostage taker. Don’t tell him, I get it, because you probably don’t. Communicate in a way that soothes or minimizes the threat; and understand that sometimes the best communication is not speaking at all. Active listening can get you a lot farther than spouting off.
There were different kinds of hostage takers. There were those who were out of their head with drugs, alcohol, grief. There were those on a political mission. There were those who fanned an ember of revenge, until it flared up and burned them alive. Then there were the sociopaths—the ones who had no empathy to appeal to. And yet sometimes they were the easiest to deal with, because they understood the concept of who’s in control. If you could make the sociopath believe that you were not going to cede the upper hand, you’d actually gotten somewhere. You could say, We’ve been at this for two hours (or six, or sixteen) and I get what’s on your mind. But it’s time to do something new. Because there is a group of men out here who think time’s up and want to address this with force. Sociopaths understood force.
On the other hand, that approach would fail miserably with someone depressed enough to kill himself and take others with him.
The point of establishing a relationship with a hostage taker was to make sure that you were the only source of information, and to give you the time to find out critical information of your own. What kind of hostage taker were you facing? What had precipitated the standoff, the shoot-out, the point of no return? You might start trying to build a relationship with innocuous conversation about sports, weather, TV. You’d gradually find out his likes and dislikes, what mattered to him. Did he love his kids? His wife? His mom? Why?
If you could find the why, you could determine what could be done to disarm the situation.
Hugh knew that the best hostage negotiators called the job a ballet, a tightrope walk, a delicate dance.
He also knew that was bullshit.
No one ever interviewed the negotiators whose situations ended in a bloodbath. It was only the ones with successful outcomes who got microphones stuck in their faces, and who felt obligated to describe their work as some kind of mystical art. In reality, it was a crapshoot. Dumb luck.
Hugh McElroy was afraid his luck was about to run out.
He surveyed the scene he had spearheaded for the past few hours. His command center was an event tent the department had used a few weeks ago at a community fair to promote safe child fingerprinting. Beat cops were posted along the building’s perimeter like a string of blue beads. The press had been corralled behind a police barricade. (You’d think they’d be smart enough to get further out of the range of a madman with a gun, but no, the lure of ratings was apparently too high.) Littered on the sidewalk like empty threats were placards with giant pictures of babies in utero, or hand-drawn slogans: ADOPTION, NOT ABORTION! IT’S A CHILD, NOT A CHOICE.
Ambulances hunkered, manned by EMTs with foil blankets and portable IVs and hydration. The SWAT team was in position waiting for a signal. Their commander, Captain Quandt, had tried to boot Hugh off the case (who could blame him?) and take the shooter by force. But Hugh knew Quandt could do neither of these things in good conscience, not if Hugh was on the verge of getting George Goddard to surrender.
This was exactly what Hugh had been banking on when he broke the second rule of hostage negotiation five hours ago, screaming onto the scene in his unmarked car, barking orders to the two street cops who’d been first responders.
The secondary rule of hostage negotiation was Don’t forget that this is a job.
Hostage negotiation is not a test of your manhood. It is not a chance to be a knight in shining armor, or a way to get your fifteen minutes of fame. It may go your way and it may not, no matter how textbook your responses are. Don’t take it personally.
But Hugh had known from the get-go that was never going to be possible, not today, not this time, because this was a different situation altogether. There were God knew how many dead bodies in that clinic, plus five hostages who were still alive. And one of them was his kid.
The SWAT commander was suddenly standing in front of him. “We’re going in now,” Quandt said. “I’m telling you as a courtesy.”
“You’re making a mistake,” Hugh replied. “I’m telling you as a courtesy.”
Quandt turned away and started to speak into the walkie-talkie at his shoulder. “We’re a go in five . . . four . . .” Suddenly his voice broke. “Stand down! I repeat—abort!”
It was the word that had started this disaster. Hugh’s head flew up, and he saw the same thing Quandt had noticed.
The front door of the clinic had suddenly opened, and two women were stepping outside.
When Wren’s mother still lived with them, she’d had a spider plant that she kept on top of a bookcase in the living room. After she left, neither Wren nor her father ever remembered to water it, but that spider plant seemed to defy death. It began to spill over its container and grow in a strange verdant comb-over toward a window, without playing by the rules of logic or gravity.
Wren felt like that now, swaying on her feet toward the light every time the door opened, drawn to where her father stood in the parking lot outside.
But it wasn’t Wren who was walking out of the building. She had no idea what it was that her father had said to George during their last phone conversation, but it had worked. George had pulled back the trigger and told her to move the couch that he had used to buttress the door. Although the hostages couldn’t talk freely without George hearing, a current had passed among them. When he instructed Wren to open the lock, she had even begun to think she might get out of here in one piece.
Joy and Janine had left first. Then George told Izzy to push out Dr. Ward in the wheelchair. Wren had thought that she’d be released then, too, but George had grabbed her by her hair and yanked her back. Izzy had turned at the threshold, her face dark, but Wren had given a small shake of her head. This might be Dr. Ward’s only chance to get out, and he was hurt. She had to take him. She was a nurse; she knew. “Wren—” Izzy said, but then George slammed the door behind her and drove home the metal bolt. He released Wren long enough to have her shove the couch in front of the doorway again.
Wren felt panic rise in her throat. Maybe this was George’s way of getting back at her for what she’d done to him. She was alone in here now, with this animal. Well, not quite—her eyes slid along the floor to Olive’s body.
Maybe Aunt Bex was with Olive, wherever you go when you die. Maybe they were both waiting for Wren.
George sank down on the couch in front of the door, burying his face in his hands. He was still holding the gun. It winked at her.
“Are you going to shoot me?” she blurted.
George glanced up as if he was surprised she would even ask that question. She forced herself to meet his gaze. One of his eyes pulled the tiniest bit to the right, not so much that he looked weird, but enough that it was hard to focus on his face. She wondered if he had to consciously pick which view he took in. He rubbed his bandaged hand across his cheek.
When Wren was little, she used to hold her hands to her father’s face to feel his stubble. It made a rasping sound. He’d smile, while she played his jaw like an instrument.
“Am I going to shoot you?” George leaned back on the cushions. “That depends.”
It all happened so fast. One minute Janine Deguerre was a hostage, and the next she was in a medical tent, being checked over by EMTs. She looked around, trying to find Joy, but the other hostage with whom she had walked outside was nowhere to be seen.
“Ma’am,” one of the first responders said, “can you follow the light?”
Janine snapped her attention back to the kid, who in fact probably wasn’t much younger than she was—twenty-four. She blinked at him as he waved a little flashlight back and forth in front of her face.
She was shivering. Not because she was cold, but because she was in shock. She’d been pistol-whipped earlier across the temple, and her head was still throbbing. The EMT wrapped a silver metallic blanket around her shoulders, the kind given to marathon runners at the finish. Well, maybe she had run a marathon, metaphorically. Certainly she had crossed a line.
The sun was low, making shadows come to life, so that it was hard to tell what was real and what was a trick of her eyes. Five minutes ago Janine had arguably been in the worst danger of her life, and yet it was here underneath a plastic tent surrounded by police and medical professionals that she felt isolated. The mere act of walking past that threshold had put her back where she had started: on the other side.
She craned her neck, looking for Joy again. Maybe they had taken her to the hospital, like Dr. Ward. Or maybe Joy had said, as soon as Janine was out of earshot: Get that bitch away from me.
“I think we should keep you for observation,” the paramedic said.
“I’m okay,” Janine insisted. “Really. I just want to go home.”
He frowned. “Is there someone who can stay with you tonight?
Just in case?”
“Yes,” she lied.
A cop crouched down beside her. “If you’re feeling up to it,” he said, “we’re going to take you back to the station first. We need a statement.”
Janine panicked. Did they know about her? Did she have to tell them? Was it like going to court, and swearing on a Bible? Or could she just be, for a little longer, someone who deserved sympathy?
She nodded and got to her feet. With the policeman’s hand gently guiding her, she began to walk out of the tent. She held her metallic blanket around her like an ermine cloak. “Wait,” she said. “What about everyone else?”
“We’ll be bringing in the others as soon as they’re able,” he assured her.
“The girl,” Janine said. “What about the girl? Did she come out?”
“Don’t you worry, ma’am,” he said.
A surge of reporters called to her, shouting questions that tangled together. The cop stepped between her and the media, a shield. He led her to a waiting police car. When the door closed, it was suffocatingly hot. She stared out the window as the policeman drove.
They passed a billboard on the way to the station. Janine recognized it because she had helped raise money to erect it. It was a picture of two smiling, gummy-mouthed babies—one black, one white. DID YOU KNOW, it read, MY HEART BEAT EIGHTEEN DAYS FROM CONCEPTION?
Janine knew a lot of facts like that. She also knew how various religions and cultures looked at personhood. Catholics believed in life at conception. Muslims believed that it took forty-two days after conception for Allah to send an angel to transform sperm and egg into something alive. Thomas Aquinas had said that abortion was homicide after forty days for a male embryo and eighty days for a female one. There were the outliers, too—the ancient Greeks, who said that a fetus had a “vegetable” soul, and the Jews, who said that the soul came at birth. Janine knew how to consciously steer away from those opinions in a discussion.
Still, it didn’t really make sense, did it? How could the moment that life began differ so much, depending on the point of view? How could the law in Mississippi say that an embryo was a human being, but the law in Massachusetts disagreed? Wasn’t the baby the same baby, no matter whether it was conceived on a bed in Jackson, or on a beach in Nantucket?
It made Janine’s head hurt. But then, so did everything right now.
Soon it would be getting dark. Wren sat on the floor cross-legged, keeping an eye on George as he hunched forward on the couch, elbows balanced on his knees, and the gun held loosely in his right hand. She tore open the last packet of Fig Newtons—all that was left of the basket of snacks taken from the recovery room. Her stomach growled.
She used to be afraid of the dark. She’d make her dad come in with his gun in his holster and check out the whole of her bedroom— beneath the bed, under the mattress, on the high shelves above her dresser. Sometimes she woke up crying in the middle of the night convinced she had seen something fanged and terrible sitting at the foot of her bed, watching her with its yellow eyes.
Now she knew: monsters were real.
Wren swallowed. “Your daughter,” she asked. “What’s her name?”
George glanced up. “Shut your mouth,” he said.
The vehemence of his words made her scoot back a few feet, but as she did, her leg brushed something cold and rigid. She knew right away what it was—who it was—and swallowed her scream. Wren willed herself to inch forward again, curling her arms around her bent knees. “I bet your daughter wants to see you.”
The shooter’s profile looked ragged and inhospitable. “You don’t know anything.”
“I bet she wants to see you,” Wren repeated. I know, she thought, because it’s all I want.
Janine sat in the police station, across from the detective who was recording her statement, and lied. “What brought you to the Center this morning?” he had asked gently.
“A Pap smear,” Janine had said.
The rest that she had told him was true, and sounded like a horror film: the sound of gunfire, the sudden weight of the clinic employee slamming into her and knocking her to the floor. Janine had changed into a clean T-shirt that the paramedics had given her, but she could still feel the woman’s hot blood (so much blood) seeping into her dress. Even now, looking down at her hands, she expected to see it.
“Then what happened?”
She found she could not remember in sequence. Instead of linked moments, there were only flashes: her body shaking uncontrollably as she ran; her hands pressed against the bullet wound of an injured woman. The shooter jerking his pistol at Janine, while Izzy stood next to him with a heap of supplies in her arms. The phone ringing, as they all froze like mannequins.
Janine felt like she was watching a movie, one she was obligated to sit through even though she had never wanted to see it.
When she got to the part where the shooter smacked her with the gun, she left out why. A lie of omission, that’s what they used to call it when she was a little girl going to confession. It was a sin, too, but of a different degree. Still, sometimes you lied to protect people. Sometimes you lied to protect yourself.
What was one more lie to add to the others?
She was crying as she spoke. She didn’t even realize it until the detective leaned forward with a box of tissues.
“Can I ask you a question?” she said.
She swallowed. “Do you think that people get what’s coming to them?”
The detective looked at her for a long moment. “I don’t think anyone deserves a day like today,” he said.
Janine nodded. She blew her nose and balled the tissue into her hand.
Suddenly the door opened, and a uniformed officer stuck his head inside. “There’s a gentleman out here who says he knows you . . . ?” Behind him, Janine could see Allen—his florid cheeks and broad belly, the one that made him joke that he knew what it was like to be pregnant. Allen was the leader of the local Right to Life group. “Janine!” he cried, and he pushed past the cop so that he could fold her into his arms. “Sweet Jesus,” he sighed. “Honey, we’ve been praying for you.”
She knew they prayed for every woman who walked through the doors of the Center. This, though, was different. Allen would not have been able to make peace with himself if anything had happened to her, because he had been the one to send her inside as a spy.
Maybe God had been listening, because she had been released. But so were Joy, and Izzy, and Dr. Ward. And what about those who didn’t make it out alive? What kind of capricious God would roll the dice like that?
“Let me take you home and get you settled,” Allen said. And to the detective, “I’m sure Miz Deguerre needs a little rest.”
The detective looked directly at Janine, as if to see whether she was okay with Allen calling the shots. And why shouldn’t she be? She had done what he wanted from the moment she arrived in town, intent to serve his mission any way she could. And she knew that he meant well. “We’re more than happy to give you a ride wherever you need to go,” the detective said to her.
He was offering her a choice; and it felt heady and powerful.
“I have to use the restroom,” she blurted, another lie.
“Of course.” The detective gestured down the hallway. “Left at the end, and then third door on the right.”
Janine started walking, still clutching her foil blanket around her shoulders. She just needed space, for a second.
At the end of the hallway was another interrogation room, much like the one she had been in. What had been a mirror on the inside was, from this vantage point, a window. Joy sat at a table with a female detective.
Before she realized what she was doing, Janine was knocking at the window. It must have made a sound, because Joy turned in her direction, even if she couldn’t see Janine’s face. The interrogation room door swung open, and a moment later a female detective looked at her. “Is there a problem?”
Through the open doorway, she met Joy’s gaze.
“We know each other,” Janine said.
After a moment, Joy nodded.
“I just wanted to . . . I wanted to see . . .” Janine hesitated. “I thought you might need help.”
The detective folded her arms. “We’ll make sure she gets whatever she needs.”
“I know but—” Janine looked at Joy. “You shouldn’t be alone tonight.”
She felt Joy’s eyes flicker to the bandage at her temple. “Neither should you,” Joy said.
In the hospital room, there was a piece of tape stuck to one of the slats of the air-conditioning vent overhead. It fluttered like a ribbon, like an improbable celebration, as Izzy lay on her back pretending she didn’t feel the doctor’s hands on her.
“Here we go,” the OB murmured. He moved the wand left, and then right, and then pointed to the fuzzy screen, to the edge of the black amoeba of Izzy’s uterus, where the white peanut of the fetus curled. “Come on . . . come on . . .” There was something urgent in his voice. Then they both saw it—the flicker of a heartbeat. Something she had seen multiple times in other women’s ultrasounds.
She let out a breath she didn’t know she’d been holding.
The doctor took measurements and recorded them. He wiped the gel off her belly and pulled the drape down to cover her again. “Miz Walsh,” he said, “you are one lucky lady. You’re good to go.”
Izzy struggled onto her elbows. “Wait . . . so . . . that’s it?”
“Obviously, you’ll want to make sure that you don’t have any cramping or bleeding in the next few days,” the doctor added, “but given the strength of that heartbeat, I’d say that little guy—or girl— is planning on sticking around. Definitely takes after its mama.”
He said he’d write up some discharge orders and ducked out of the curtain that separated her ER cubicle from the others. Izzy lay back on the gurney and slipped her hands underneath the scratchy blanket. She flattened them on her stomach.
As soon as she had gotten outside the clinic, the EMTs had put her on a stretcher beside Dr. Ward, even as she had tried to tell them she wasn’t hurt. He would have none of it. “She’s pregnant,” he insisted. “She needs medical attention.”
“You need medical attention,” she argued.
“There she goes again,” Dr. Ward said to the young paramedic inspecting his tourniquet. “Won’t give me a moment’s peace.” He caught her eye. “For which,” he said quietly, “I am supremely grateful.”
That was the last she had seen of him. She wondered if he was in surgery; if he would keep the leg. She had a good feeling about it.
Maybe some people simply were destined to survive.
She had grown up with a chronically unemployed father and a mother who struggled to take care of Izzy and her twin brothers, in a house so small that the three kids shared not just a room but a bed. But for a long time, she didn’t even know she was poor. Her mother would take them on a spare change hunt. They’d go fishing for dinner. Occasionally they celebrated Colonial Week—when they used candles instead of electric lights.
When Izzy thought about her life, there was such a clear break between then and now. Now, she lived with Parker in a house three times larger than her childhood home. He was, on paper, the prince from the entitled family who’d fallen for a debt-ridden nursing-student Cinderella. They had met when he was in traction with a broken leg. Their first date, he liked to say, had been a sponge bath.
Parker had gone to Yale like his father and grandfather and great-grandfather. He had grown up in Eastover, the snobbiest neighborhood in the whole state. He went to private schools and dressed in miniature blazers and ties even as a child. He summered. Even his job—a documentary filmmaker—was possible only because of his trust fund.
Izzy still ordered the cheapest thing on a menu if they ate out. Their freezer was packed with food, not because she couldn’t afford to go grocery shopping now, but because you never stopped anticipating another lean time.
They might as well have come from different planets. How on earth were they supposed to raise a child together?
Izzy wondered if now—finally—the fault line of her life would no longer be the first day she earned a paycheck. It would now be today’s shooting; she would divide everything into before and after.
A nurse entered the cubicle. “How are you feeling?”
“I’m good,” Izzy said, glad that her shaking hands were still tucked under the blanket.
“I got some information on that patient you asked after . . .”
“Dr. Ward?” Izzy sat up.
“No. The woman. Bex something? She came out of surgery okay,” the nurse said. “She’s in intensive care.”
Izzy felt tears spring to her eyes. Thank God. “And what about Dr. Ward?”
The nurse shook her head. “I haven’t heard anything yet, but I’ll keep an eye out.” She looked at Izzy with sympathy. “I guess y’all went through Hell together.”
They sure had. In trying to save Bex’s life, Izzy had pushed her finger through the other woman’s chest wall; had felt for the pillow of her labored lungs. She had been covered in Dr. Ward’s blood.
“The police want to talk to you,” the nurse said. “They’ve been waiting. But if you’re not feeling up to it, I’m happy to tell them.”
“Can I use the restroom, first?”
“You sure can,” the nurse replied. She helped Izzy off the gurney and led her through the curtain to a single-person bathroom. “You need any help?”
Izzy shook her head. She closed the door and locked it, leaned against the wood. The shakes had migrated from her hands to the rest of Izzy’s body. Her teeth were chattering now.
“Pull yourself together,” she commanded, and she ran water in the sink and splashed it on her face. She blotted her skin dry with paper towels, looking at the bathroom mirror, and immediately wished that she hadn’t. Her hair had long ago escaped its braid and was a hot red frizz around her face. The scrubs they had given her to replace the bloody ones she had been wearing when she was brought in were too big, and the top was slipping off one shoulder, like a really poor version of a sexy nurse fantasy. Although she had washed off most of the blood that covered her arms and neck, she could see the spots she had missed.
She scrubbed until her skin was raw and then walked back to her little cubicle. Hovering outside the curtain was a police officer. “Miz Walsh? I’m Officer Thibodeau. I was hoping you might be able to just give a short statement?”
She drew back the curtain and sat down on the gurney, her legs dangling. “Where do you want me to start?”
Thibodeau scratched above his ear with his pen. “Well, I guess at the beginning,” he said. “You went to the clinic this morning?”
“How long have you worked there?”
Before she could respond, there was a voice demanding to know where Izzy was.
Izzy’s legs slid off the table and she stepped forward as he pushed past the nurse and the resident who were trying to keep him out of the secure patient area.
“Parker!” she shouted, and his head snapped toward her.
“Izzy, my God.” He took three giant steps and crushed her into his arms. He held her so tight she almost couldn’t breathe. But she only noticed that when she touched him, she finally stopped shaking.
When the paramedics had first brought Izzy in and the intake nurse asked her who they could call as next of kin, Parker’s name had slipped out of her mouth. That was telling, wasn’t it?
Maybe there was a way to stop worrying about what might drive them apart, and to focus on what bound them together.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
She nodded against him.
“You’re not hurt?” Parker pulled away, holding her at arm’s length. There were dozens of questions written across his features, and he stared into her eyes as if he were trying to find the answers. Or the truth. Maybe they were even, for once, the same.
This was not how—or where—she had thought her day would end. But somehow, it was exactly where she needed to be. “I’m fine,” Izzy said. She took his hand and flattened it against her belly, smiling. “We’re fine.”
Suddenly Izzy’s future no longer seemed impossible. It felt like the stamp of a passport when you reached your own country, and realized that the only reason you’d traveled was to remember the feeling of home.
When one of the junior detectives brought the word that his older sister Bex was out of surgery, Hugh winged a silent thank-you to a God he had long ago stopped believing in. The part of his brain that had been worrying about her could go back to focusing on Wren, who was still in there with a murderer.
First the two women had been released. Then the nurse and the injured abortion doctor.
Hugh had waited. And waited. And . . . nothing.
He paced the command center from where he had made the call to give the shooter a few more minutes, in the hope he would make good on his promise to release all the hostages. The question was, had he made a bad decision? A fatal one, for Wren?
Captain Quandt approached once again, blocking Hugh’s path. “Okay, I’m done waiting. He released most of them. Now we’re flushing him out.”
“You can’t do that.”
“The hell I can’t,” Quandt said. “I’m in charge, Lieutenant.”
“Only on paper.” Hugh stepped closer, inches away from him. “There’s still a hostage. Goddard doesn’t know you from a hole in the wall. You go in there and we both know how this will end.”
What Hugh didn’t say was that it might still end that way. What if George had agreed to release the hostages, planning all along to go back on his word? What if he wanted to go out in a blaze of bullets, and take Wren with him? Was this going to be his ultimate fuck-you to Hugh?
Quandt met his gaze. “We both know you’re too close to this to be thinking clearly.”
Hugh remained immobile, his arms crossed. “That’s exactly why I don’t want you blasting through that goddamn door.”
The commander narrowed his eyes. “I will give him ten more minutes to release your daughter. And then I will do everything in my power to make sure she is safe . . . but we’re ending this.”
The minute Quandt walked away, Hugh picked up his cellphone and dialed the clinic number, the same one he had been using for hours now to speak to George. It rang and rang and rang. Pick up, Hugh thought. He had not heard any gunshots, but that didn’t mean Wren was safe.
After eighteen rings, he was about to hang up. Then: “Daddy?” Wren said, and he couldn’t help it, his knees just gave out.
“Hey, sweetheart,” he said, trying to tamp down the emotion in his voice. He remembered when she was a toddler, and she had fall- en. If Hugh looked upset, Wren would burst into tears. If he seemed unfazed, she picked herself up and kept going. “Are you all right?”
“Did he hurt you?”
“No.” A pause. “Is Aunt Bex—”
“She’s going to be fine,” Hugh said, although he did not know this for sure. “I want you to know I love you,” he added, and he could practically hear the panic rise in his daughter.
“Are you saying that because I’m going to die?”
“Not if I have anything to do with it. Would you ask George,” he said, and then he swallowed. “Would you ask him if he’d please speak to me?”
He heard muffled voices, and then George’s voice was on the line. “George,” Hugh said evenly, “I thought we had a deal.”
“You told me you’d release the hostages.”
“I did,” George said.
“Not all of them.”
There was a hitch in the conversation. “You didn’t specify,” George replied.
Hugh curled his body around the phone, like he was whispering to a lover. “You want to tell me what’s really going on, George?” A pause. “You can talk to me. You know that.”
“It’s all a lie.”
“What’s a lie?”
“Once I let your kid go, what happens to me?”
“We’ll talk about that when you come outside. You and me,” Hugh said.
“Bullshit. My life’s over, either way. Either I go to jail and rot there forever or they shoot me.”
“That won’t happen,” Hugh promised. “I won’t let it happen.” He glanced down at the notes he’d scribbled after his last discussion with George. “Remember? You end this, and you get to do the right thing. Your daughter—hell, the whole world—will be watching, George.”
“Sometimes doing the right thing,” George said quietly, “means doing something bad.”
“It doesn’t have to,” Hugh said.
“You don’t get it.” George’s voice was tight, distant. “But you will.”
That was a threat. That definitely sounded like a threat. Hugh glanced at the SWAT team commander. Quandt was staring at him from the corner of the tent. He lifted his arm, pointed to his watch.
“Let Wren go,” Hugh bargained, “and I will make sure you come out of this alive.”
“No. They won’t shoot me as long as I’ve got her.”
What Hugh needed to do was offer a viable alternative, one that did not involve Wren, but let George still believe he was protected.
Just like that, he knew what to do.
Hugh looked at the captain. There was no way Quandt would go for this. It was too risky. Hugh would lose his job—maybe his life— but his daughter would be safe. There was really no choice.
“George,” he suggested, “take me instead.”
Bex was dead. She had to be dead, because everything was white and there was a bright light, and wasn’t that what everyone said to expect?
She turned her head a fraction to the left and saw the IV pole, the saline dripping into her. The light overhead was fluorescent.
A hospital. She was the very opposite of dead.
Her throat tightened as she thought about Wren and about Hugh. Was her niece all right? She imagined Wren, knee bent, drawing on the white lip of her sneaker. She pictured Hugh leaning over her in the ambulance. That was how Bex saw the world, in images. Had she re-created it in her studio, she would call it Reckoning. She would highlight the cords of tension in Hugh’s neck, the vibration of Wren’s moving hand. The background would be the color of a bruise.
Bex had installations with collectors as far away as Chicago and California. Her works were the size of a wall. If you stood at a distance you might see a feminine hand on a pregnant belly. A baby reaching for a mobile overhead. A woman in the throes of labor. If you stepped closer, you saw that the portrait was made of hundreds of used, multicolored Post-it notes, carefully shellacked into place on a grid.
People talked about the social commentary of Bex’s work. Both her subject—parenthood—and her medium—discarded to -do lists and disposable reminders—were fleeting. But her transformation of that heartbeat, that particular second, rendered it timeless.
She had been famous for a brief moment ten years ago when The New York Times included her in a piece on up-and-coming artists (for the record, she never up and went anywhere, after that). The reporter had asked: since Bex was single and had no kids, had she picked this subject in order to master in art what was so personally elusive?
But Bex had never needed marriage or children. She had Hugh. She had Wren. True, she believed all artists were restless, but they weren’t always running in pursuit of something. Sometimes they were running away from where they had been.
A nurse entered. “Hey there,” he said. “How are you feeling?”
She tried to sit up. “I need to go,” she said.
“You aren’t going anywhere. You’re ten minutes out of surgery.” He frowned. “Is there someone I can get for you?”
Yes, please, Bex thought. But they are both currently in the middle of a hostage standoff.
If only it were that simple to rescue Wren. She couldn’t imagine what Hugh was feeling right now, but she had to believe in him. He’d have a plan. Hugh always had a plan. He was the one she called when the toilets in her house all stopped working at once, like a cosmic plot. He trapped the skunk that had taken up residence under her ancient Mini Cooper. He ran toward the scream of a burglar alarm, when everyone else was fleeing. There was nothing that rattled him, no challenge too daunting.
She suddenly remembered him, fifteen or sixteen, riveted by a comic book and completely ignoring her. Only when Bex grabbed it from him did he look up. Damn, Hugh had said, one syllable with equal parts shock, respect, and sadness. They killed off Superman.
What if she lost him? What if she lost them both?
“Can you turn on the television?” she asked.
The nurse pressed a button on a remote control and then settled it underneath Bex’s palm. On every local channel there was a live report about the Center. Bex stared at the screen, at the orange Creamsicle stucco of the building, the ribbons of police tape blocking it off.
She couldn’t see Hugh.
So she closed her eyes and sketched him in her imagination. He was silhouetted by the sun, and he was larger than life.
Bex could still remember the first time she realized that Hugh was taller than she was. She had been in the kitchen, making dinner, and had dragged a chair toward the cabinet so that she could reach the dried basil on the highest shelf. From behind her, Hugh had just plucked it off its rack.
In that moment, Bex realized everything was different. Hugh had grown up, and somehow she had gone from taking care of him to becoming the one who was being taken care of.
“Well,” she had said. “That’s handy.”
He’d been fourteen. He’d shrugged. “Don’t get used to it,” Hugh had said. “I won’t be here forever.”
Bex had watched him jog up the stairs to his room. And then, soon after, she had watched him go to college, fall in love, move into his own home.
No matter how many times you let someone go, it never got any easier.
Hugh hung up the phone. “I’m going in,” he announced. “Alone. He wants a hostage? He can have me.”
“Absolutely not,” Quandt said, turning to a member of his team. “Jones, get your team to—”
Hugh ignored him and started walking. Quandt grabbed Hugh’s arm and spun him around.
“If you storm in there, there will be casualties,” Hugh said. “I am the only one he trusts. If I can get him to walk out with me, it’s a win.”
“And if you can’t?” the commander argued.
“I won’t condone an action that risks my daughter,” Hugh snapped. “So where does that leave us?” His fury was a shimmering curtain, but there were glimpses of what he was hiding behind it.
The two men stopped, staring at each other, a standoff. Finally, Hugh glanced away. “Joe,” he said, his voice broken. “You got kids?” The SWAT leader looked down at the ground. “I’m here to do a job, Hugh.”
“I know.” Hugh shook his head. “And I know I should have walked away as soon as I found out Wren was inside. God knows this is hard enough when you don’t have a personal stake. But I do. And I can’t sit on the sidelines, not if she’s in there. If you won’t do this for me, will you do it for her?”
Quandt took a deep breath. “One condition. I get a couple of snipers into position first,” he said.
Hugh held out his hand, and the men shook. “Thank you.”
Quandt met his gaze. “Ellie and Kate,” he said, just loud enough for Hugh to hear. “Twins.”
He turned away, calling over two of his men and pointing to the roof of a building across the street and a spot on top of the clinic. As they strategized, Hugh walked back underneath the tent. He saw the young detective who had brought him news of Bex. “Collins,” he called. “Over here.”
She hurried to the command tent. “Yes, sir?”
“That patient in the hospital—Bex McElroy, my sister? I need you to give a note to her.”
The detective nodded, waiting while Hugh sat down at his makeshift desk. He picked up a pen and ripped a page off his legal pad.
What did you say to the woman who’d basically raised you? The one who had nearly died today only because she had been trying to help his own daughter?
He thought of a dozen things he could tell Bex.
That she was the only one who laughed at his terrible dad jokes, the ones that made Wren cringe. That if he was on death row, his last meal would be her chicken Parmesan. That he could still remember her making shadow puppets on his bedroom wall, trying to bribe him to go to sleep. That, at age eight, he hadn’t known what the Savannah College of Art was—or even that she had given up her scholarship to come take care of him when their mother went to dry out—but that he wished he’d said thank you.
But Hugh had never been good at putting his feelings into sentences. It was what had led him to this very point, this very instant.
So he wrote down a single word and passed it to the detective.
Louie Ward was unconscious, and in the ocean of his memory, he was not a fifty-four-year-old ob-gyn but a young boy growing up beneath a canopy of Spanish moss, trying to catch crawfish before they caught him. He had been raised to love Jesus and women, in precisely that order. In southern Louisiana, he was reared by two ladies—his grandmama and Mama—living in a small cottage that was, as his grandmother pointed out, still a palace if the Lord dwelled there among you. He was a practicing Catholic, as was everyone else he knew, the result of a long-dead white landowner who had come from France with a rosary in his pocket and who had baptized all his slaves. Louie had been a sickly child, too skinny and too smart for his own good. He had wheezy lungs that kept him from tagging along with the other kids, who snuck at midnight into nearby houses rumored to be haunted, to see what they might find. Instead he followed his grandmama to Mass every day and he helped Mama with her piecework, using tweezers to pinch tiny links into gold chains that wound up around the necks of rich white women.
Louie had never met his father, and knew better than to ask about him since his grandmama referred to him as the Sinner, but whatever hole his father’s absence had left in him was, by age nine, well plastered over.
Louie knew how to open doors for ladies and to say please and thank you and yes, ma’am. He slept on a cot in the kitchen that he made with tight hospital corners, and helped kept the house tidy, because as his grandmama had taught him, Jesus was coming at any moment and they’d best all be ready. Mama had spells where she could not muster the courage to get out of bed, and sometimes spent weeks cocooned there, crying. But even when Louie was alone, he was never alone, because all the ladies in the neighborhood held him accountable for his behavior. It was child raising by committee.
Old Miss Essie came and sat on their porch every day. She told Louie about her daddy, a slave who had escaped his plantation by swimming through the bayou, braving the alligators because relinquishing his body to them would at least have been his decision. He had not only survived with all his limbs, he had hidden along the Natchez Trace, moving only by the light of the moon and following the instructions of everyday saints who had helped others get free. Eventually he had reached Indiana, married a woman, and had Miss Essie. She would lean forward, her eyes bright, and hammer home the moral of this story. Boy, she told Louie, don’t you let nobody tell you who you can’t be.
Miss Essie knew everything about everybody, so it was no surprise that she could tell tales about Sebby Cherise, the hedge witch rumored to be descended from the voodoo priestess Marie Laveau. What was a surprise was that Louie’s mama had been the one doing the asking. The bayou could be easily split between those who believed in gris-gris and those who believed in the Lord, and Grand- mama had set her family squarely in the latter camp. Louie had no idea what his mama could possibly want from Sebby Cherise.
His mama was the most beautiful woman in the world, with sad eyes you fell into, and a voice that sanded all your rough edges. For the past few months he’d noticed that she hadn’t cried, and instead had been rising as if helium were pulsing through her veins. She hummed when she wasn’t aware, melodies woven through her braids. Louie rode the outskirts of her good mood.
When Mama knelt beside him and asked if he could keep a secret, he would have followed her to Hell and back. Which, as it turned out, was not that far from the mark.
That summer was a parched throat, and as Louie and his mama hiked to the witch’s home, his clothes became a second skin. Sebby Cherise lived in the bayou, in a hut with a porch that was draped with dried flowers. There were crudely lettered signs that said keep out.
Sebby Cherise traded in miracles. Jimsonweed, cut with honey and sulfur and crossed by the path of a black cat, could root out cancer. Dixie love perfume could net you the man who slipped into your dreams. Five-finger grass set a ward around your house to keep it safe. Louie wondered if it was one of Sebby’s potions or pouches that accounted for his mother’s recent good spirits.
He also knew, from his grandmama and the priest, that the deals you made with the devil came back to bite you. But just like his mama seemed willing to overlook that, so was Louie, if it meant she stayed this way.
His mama told him to stay on the porch, so he only had a glimpse of Sebby Cherise, with her long red skirt and the scarf wrapped around her head. She might have been twenty years old, or two hundred. She beckoned Mama inside, and the bangles on her arm sang. Her voice sounded like fingernails on wood.
It didn’t take long. Mama came out clutching a small packet on a string. She looped this around her neck and tucked it in under her dress, between her breasts. They went home, and that afternoon, Louie went to Mass with his grandmama and prayed that his mother had gotten whatever she needed, and that Jesus would forgive her for not going to Him instead.
One week later, it was so hot that Grandmama stayed at church between morning and evening Mass. Mama told Louie she was going to take a nap. Near dinnertime, Louie went to wake her up, but she didn’t answer at his knock. When he turned the knob he found his mother lying on the floor, a widening triangle of blood pooling between her legs. Her skin felt like marble, the only cool surface in the world.
The outpouring of goodwill in the aftermath of Mama’s death had given way to the whispers Louie heard when he passed folks in church, or walked down the street holding fast to his grandmother. Something about Mama and Mr. Bouffet, the mayor, who Louie knew only for his marshaling of the Mardi Gras parade with his pretty blond wife and matching blond daughters at his side. And something else about abortion: a word he had never heard before.
His grandmama would squeeze his hand to keep him from look- ing at the people who murmured behind their hands and stared.
She squeezed his hand a lot, those days.
She was squeezing now.
Dr. Louie Ward’s eyes flew open and he immediately struggled against his surroundings—the soft beep of a heart monitor, the snake of tubing in his IV. He didn’t feel pain in his leg, as he expected, but then if he was in a hospital he probably had some kind of nerve blocker. The only thing that hurt like hell was his hand, which was being clutched by a skinny girl with pink hair and a ring of hoops climbing the cartilage of her left ear. “Rachel?” he rasped, and her head flew up.
The administrative assistant at the clinic had pinched features that always reminded Louie of a badger. “I’m sorry, Dr. Ward,” she sobbed. “I’m so sorry.”
He glanced down at his leg, thinking for one panicked moment that perhaps it had been amputated, and that was the source of Rachel’s hysterics—but no, it was there, if swathed in batting like a cloud of cotton candy. Thank God for that nurse at the clinic. “Rachel,” he said, raising his voice over the sound of her weeping. “Rachel, I already feel like I was run over by a truck. Don’t give me a headache, too.”
But the girl showed no signs of quieting. He didn’t know her very well—he flew to many clinics around the country, and the staff often blurred with each other. He was pretty sure Rachel was a grad student at Jackson State. She worked part-time as what the antis called a “deathscort”—guiding women from the parking lot inside the clinic. She also helped Vonita, the clinic owner, with administrative work. There was so much to do at the Center that they all pitched in, wherever they had to.
“I’m sorry,” Rachel repeated, wiping her nose on her sleeve.
Louie was used to crying women. “You got nothing to be sorry about,” he said. “Unless your alter ego is a middle-aged white anti with a gun.”
“I ran, Dr. Ward.” Rachel mustered the courage to glance at him, but her gaze slid away again. “I’m a coward.”
He had not even known that she was in the building at the time the shooting began. Of course, she would have been up front, and he was in the rear in a procedure room. And naturally she wanted to believe she would have been a hero, when push came to shove. But you never knew what path you’d take until you got to that crossroads. Hadn’t Louie heard this a thousand times before, from patients who had come to the Center, who seemed shell-shocked to find them- selves there, as if they’d awakened in someone else’s life?
“You’re alive to tell the story,” he said. “That’s what matters.” Louie was aware, even as he spoke, of the irony. He turned his own words over in his mind. Coal, with time and heat and pressure, will always become a diamond. But if you were freezing to death, which would you consider the gem?