A CHRISTMAS SUSPENSE STORY
From Chapter One
It was Christmas Eve in New York City. The cab slowly made its way down Fifth Avenue. It was nearly five o'clock. The traffic was heavy and the sidewalks were jammed with last-minute Christmas shoppers, homebound office workers, and tourists anxious to glimpse the elaborately trimmed store windows and the fabled Rockefeller Center Christmas tree.
It was already dark, and the sky was becoming heavy with clouds, an apparent confirmation of the forecast for a white Christmas. But the blinking lights, the sounds of carols, the ringing bells of sidewalk Santas, and the generally jolly mood of the crowd gave an appropriately festive Christmas Eve atmosphere to the famous thoroughfare.
Catherine Dornan sat bolt upright in the back of the cab, her arms around the shoulders of her two small sons. By the rigidity she felt in their bodies, she knew her mother had been right. Ten-year-old Michael's surliness and seven-year-old Brian's silence were sure signs that both boys were intensely worried about their dad.
Earlier that afternoon when she had called her mother from the hospital, still sobbing despite the fact that Spence Crowley, her husband's old friend and doctor, assured her that Tom had come through the operation better than expected, and even suggested that the boys visit him at seven o'clock that night, her mother had spoken to her firmly: "Catherine, you've got to pull yourself together," she had said. "The boys are so upset, and you're not helping. I think it would be a good idea if you tried to divert them for a little while. Take them down to Rockefeller Center to see the tree, then out to dinner. Seeing you so worried has practically convinced them that Tom will die."
This isn't supposed to be happening, Catherine thought. With every fiber of her being she wanted to undo the last ten days, starting with that terrible moment when the phone rang and the call came from St. Mary's Hospital. "Catherine, can you come right over? Tom collapsed while he was making his rounds."
Her immediate impression had been that there had to be a mistake. Lean, athletic, thirty-eight-year-old men don't collapse. And Tom always joked that pediatricians had birthright immunization to all the viruses and germs that arrived with their patients.
But Tom didn't have immunization from the leukemia that necessitated immediate removal of his grossly enlarged spleen. At the hospital they told her that he must have been ignoring warning signs for months. And I was too stupid to notice, Catherine thought as she tried to keep her lip from quivering.
She glanced out the window and saw that they were passing the Plaza Hotel. Eleven years ago, on her twenty-third birthday, they'd had their wedding reception at the Plaza. Brides are supposed to be nervous, she thought. I wasn't. I practically ran up the aisle.
Ten days later they'd celebrated little Christmas in Omaha, where Tom had accepted an appointment in the prestigious pediatrics unit of the hospital. We bought that crazy artificial tree in the clearance sale, she thought, remembering how Tom had held it up and said, "Attention Kmart shoppers..."
This year, the tree they'd selected so carefully was still in the garage, its branches roped together. They'd decided to come to New York for the surgery. Tom's best friend, Spence Crowley, was now a prominent surgeon at Sloan-Kettering.
Catherine winced at the thought of how upset she'd been when she was finally allowed to see Tom.
The cab pulled over to the curb. "Okay, here, lady?"
"Yes, fine," Catherine said, forcing herself to sound cheerful as she pulled out her wallet. "Dad and I brought you guys down here on Christmas Eve five years ago. Brian, I know you were too small, but Michael, do you remember?"
"Yes," Michael said shortly as he tugged at the handle on the door. He watched as Catherine peeled a five from the wad of bills in her wallet. "How come you have so much money, Mom?"
"When Dad was admitted to the hospital yesterday, they made me take everything he had in his billfold except a few dollars. I should have sorted it out when I got back to Gran's."
She followed Michael out onto the sidewalk and held the door open for Brian. They were in front of Saks, near the corner of Forty-ninth Street and Fifth Avenue. Orderly lines of spectators were patiently waiting to get a close-up look at the Christmas window display. Catherine steered her sons to the back of the line. "Let's see the windows, then we'll go across the street and get a better look at the tree."
Brian sighed heavily. This was some Christmas! He hated standing in line -- for anything. He decided to play the game he always played when he wanted time to pass quickly. He would pretend he was already where he wanted to be, and tonight that was in his dad's room in the hospital. He could hardly wait to see his dad, to give him the present his grandmother had said would make him get well.
Brian was so intent on getting on with the evening that when it was finally their turn to get up close to the windows, he moved quickly, barely noticing the scenes of whirling snowflakes and dolls and elves and animals dancing and singing. He was glad when they finally were off the line.
Then, as they started to make their way to the corner to cross the avenue, he saw that a guy with a violin was about to start playing and people were gathering around him. The air suddenly was filled with the sound of "Silent Night," and people began singing.
Catherine turned back from the curb. "Wait, let's listen for a few minutes," she said to the boys. Brian could hear the catch in her throat and knew that she was trying not to cry. He'd hardly ever seen Mom cry until that morning last week when someone phoned from the hospital and said Dad was real sick.
Copyright © 1995 by Mary Higgins Clark