It was well past closing time at Stoney Creek Family Medical Center
when Claire McCall, M.D., saw her through the front window.
Bruised, her blond hair caked with sticky blood, and her bare arms
draped around the neck of the man who carried her, the young woman's
face reflected sheer terror.
Claire leaned against the front door of the clinic and sighed. She had
her hand on the lock she was ready to twist, bringing a ceremonial end to
another day in the clinic. It was a private ritual, a small celebration of survival
in the rural clinic where she was as likely to see a life-threatening cardiac
arrest or a chain-saw accident as she was a benign case of the common
cold. She desperately wanted to secure the bolt, to hear the click as it slid
into place, signaling the end of office hours and the promise of a quiet
night ahead. Or even better, a chance to spend some time with John
Cerelli, the man who graced her life with laughter, friendship, and the
hope of a lost love rekindled.
She glanced again through the front window. She knew she would
open the door. She was the only physician in the town. Turning the
patient away would mean, for the young woman, a long trip to the hospital
in Carlisle, a trip that many of the locals would forsake for a patch-up
on the kitchen table. "Set up a laceration tray, Lucy. And keep the light
on in the X-ray room."
"What? Not another one." The gray-haired nurse shook her head.
"Lee and I were going to the Ruritan Hall for a pancake supper."
Claire opened the door. "Tell him you'll meet him in an hour."
Her patient clutched the neck of a muscular man wearing a white T-shirt
soiled with the day's work. Black grease and dirt mixed with a bib of
sweat below an unshaven face and dark, curly chest hair. He entered as
Claire held the door, his back to her, stepping around the empty chairs,
looking toward the empty reception desk.
"Is the doctor here?"
"Yes. You can take her in there," Claire answered, pointing to a
hallway leading to the back. "The first room on the left. The nurse will
Claire followed the couple, catching the unmistakable scent of stale
sweat and whiskey, an odor she knew only too well from her father, Wally.
"She fell down the stairs," the man offered, setting the patient down
on the old examining table covered with white paper.
Lucy didn't bat an eye. "Leave her with me," she said softly. "I need
you to give some information to the receptionist."
He shook his head. "She wants me to stay with her. She's afraid."
The woman, appearing no older than a teenager, had her right eye
wide open, darting between the nurse and the man who towered over her.
Her left eye was closed, swollen shut by a lid the color of grape jelly. A
jagged laceration crossed her eyebrow, gaping open, split by the force of
whatever had contacted her face, pinching the skin against her supra-orbital
ridge, the boney rim of skull above her eye.
Claire watched as she made eye contact with the man, who appeared
older, perhaps thirty-five. "I'm so clumsy," the girl said. "I should have
been more careful."
The man nodded. "It's okay, baby. We'll get a doctor to help."
Claire put on a sterile glove and stepped in front of the man. "Excuse
me." She touched the patient's fair face, gently feeling the cheeks and forehead
for step-off deformities or crepitance, signs of a facial fracture. She
looked at Lucy. "She'll need an X ray." Then, to the girl, she asked, "How
long's it been since you had a tetanus shot?"
The patient shrugged. "Don't know. I think I had one last year."
"You got one when you wrecked your bike, honey," the man said.
"You split your lip on the handlebar trying to carry in the mail."
Claire nodded silently. "We can close the wound here. If she has a
fracture, I'll have to call a maxillo-facial surgeon in Carlisle."
"I want the doctor to see her. She needs a doctor."
Claire offered a plastic smile.
"Where's old Doc Jenkins?"
"He retired. I'm his replacement. Doctor Claire McCall," she added,
without extending her hand.
The man shook his head. "You're a real doctor?"
It was a reaction Claire had come to expect. Overcoming gender bias
was a daily part of life in Stoney Creek, the town that women's liberation
The girl reached over her short cut-off jeans, which were purple with
blood. "I twisted my ankle."
Claire checked the patient's right ankle, which was swelled with fluid,
obscuring the normal bony landmarks. "We'll X-ray this, too." Claire
examined her legs, dotted with bruises. She touched the girl's thigh. "You
The girl shrugged and looked at her escort. "I'm so clumsy."
The standard answer. Claire had heard it before. She touched the girl's
chin. "What's your name?"
"Smile for me, Lena."
She did, parting her fattened upper lip to reveal a chipped front
"Are you hurt anywhere else?" She slid her fingers along the girl's neck.
"Any tenderness here?"
The girl shook her head silently.
Claire studied the man for a moment. He stood by the girl's side, too
close for Claire's comfort. "You'll need to fill out some paperwork. We
need her insurance information. If you'll follow Lucy here, I'll make sure
Lena gets taken care of."
He stepped even closer to Claire. "I want to stay with her. Bring the
papers to me. I'll fill them out."
Claire didn't want to challenge the man. If her suspicions were right,
he wasn't a man to tangle with after he'd been drinking. "Bring me a
wheelchair. Let's get her X rays."
They transferred Lena to a wheelchair and rolled her across the hall
to the X-ray unit.
"You'll have to wait out in the hall, sir," Claire insisted. "We're going
to be x-raying. It's not safe."
"I'm stayin' with her. I'm not afraid."
Lucy took a deep breath and grasped the man by the arm, attempting
to face him toward the door. "Come on. A big strong man like you
don't want children lookin' like aliens, do you?"
Obviously, the warning about genetics was over his head. "Wh-
"We don't want to radiate your manhood, sir. Stand out in the hall."
The man jerked his arm free from Lucy's grasp. "I'm going nowhere.
I know what you're trying to do."
Claire forced a smile. An alien child would be an improvement over
their father. "You were warned."
"Trouble here, Dr. McCall?"
Claire turned to see Cyrus, her office maintenance man, standing
right behind the other man. Cyrus, a young man whose stature matched
the other man's, had been an answer to prayer, appearing two weeks before
on a warm summer's evening as Claire was locking up the office. She'd
walked to the parking lot to find a man loading a lawnmower into his
pickup. She hadn't remembered asking anyone to mow.
"Ma'am?" He wiped his large hands on a towel and extended his right
hand to her. "Cyrus Hensley. I understand the clinic is lookin' for a maintenance
She studied the immaculate job. He'd edged the sidewalk and
trimmed the unruly bushes. "Uh, well, yes." She hesitated. "You did all
The man beamed. "I can do plumbing and electrical work, basic carpentry
if something's broke."
"Did you fill out an application?"
He lifted his hand and gestured to the freshly cut grass. "This is my
Claire shook her head. She had prayed for help. Until Cyrus showed
up, she had bugged her boyfriend to help her with the maintenance items
she couldn't handle. Two weeks before, she'd mowed the grass herself.
"Okay," she responded, marveling at the ease of doing business in small-town
America. "You're hired."
The man nodded. "Thank you, ma'am."
For a moment, they looked at each other without speaking, doctor
and maintenance man sizing each other up. The grin on Cyrus's face never
broke. Claire pulled her gaze away and stepped toward her car. She found
her voice again after she heard him slam the tailgate on his truck. "We
still need the paper application for our records," she called, then shook
her head. The man was already pulling out of the lot.
Now, Cyrus proved his knack for showing up at the right time yet
again. He repeated his question. "Trouble? Anything I can do?"
Claire smiled. "Stand with this gentleman in the hall while we do an
X ray on his, uh ."
"Lena's my wife," he said. "I need to stay with her."
"Not in there, you don't," Cyrus said.
The man sized Cyrus up and down. Even with his alcoholic bravado,
he had enough sense not to challenge the sober maintenance man.
"Any chance you're pregnant?" Claire asked the patient softly.
"I wish." She looked away. "We haven't been successful yet."
"Just the same, let me shield your ovaries." Claire put a lead apron
over the girl's lower abdomen and positioned her ankle for the first shot.
She looked up to see Cyrus closing the door. She leaned close to her
patient's face and whispered, "He's been hitting you, hasn't he?"
The girl pulled her fingers through her tangled bangs. Her eyes were
wide, brimming with tears.
"You can trust me. I can take you to a safe place."
"Billy Ray loves me. I'm just clumsy is all."
"Lena, listen to me," she whispered with quiet fervor. "What's to stop
him from killing you next time? Men like him need help. But till he gets
it, you need to get away."
"He wouldn't hurt me."
"He already has. I can't help you unless you let me. He needs help,
Lena. But the next time could be the last. Men like this can kill."
"I fell down the steps."
Claire sighed and scribbled her number on a piece of paper. She
folded it and shoved it into the front pocket of the girl's shorts. "This is
my phone number. Think about this, Lena. I can take you to a safe place
anytime you change your mind."
This time the girl did not speak, but only wiped her eyes with the
back of her hand and sniffed. Then, for a moment, her eyes met Claire's.
And she nodded.
They took the X rays. They were negative. No ankle fracture. No
supraorbital fracture. But on the facial X rays, Claire could see another tell-tale
sign of abuse: an old, healed fracture of the patient's mandible, or jaw.
It took thirty minutes to clean and suture up Lena's eyebrow, leaving
a fine row of suture, evenly spaced and symmetric. While Claire sewed,
Billy Ray stood close by, stroking his wife's arm, calling her "baby" and
Claire had just about finished when Billy Ray presented his own theory.
"Ever heard of the Stoney Creek curse, Doc? For generations people
been stumbling around this town. Think that's what Lena's got? She's
always fallin' down."
The doctor's head snapped upright. "Don't even start in on that
Claire was the doctor who had solved the Stoney Creek curse mystery
last year, uncovering an undiagnosed pocket of Huntington's disease
patients in and around the Apple Valley. Unfortunately, the illness is
genetic, with those carrying the HD gene coming down with symptoms
during midlife. The symptoms consist of progressive mental deterioration
and a loss of control of voluntary muscles until the victim is tormented by
constant flailing motion of the arms and legs, and is eventually unable to
swallow or eat. Even more bittersweet than the notoriety of making a great
diagnosis was the fact that Claire herself stood directly in line to inherit
the disorder. It was that fact, along with her desire to help her mother
with the care of her father, who had HD, that drove her to leave her surgical
residency training in spite of her lifelong dream of being a surgeon.
HD had changed everything for Claire McCall. Her greatest diagnostic
triumph in solving the Stoney Creek curse became her greatest fear, looming
over her life like a dark cloud pregnant with rain.
"Come on, you must have heard of-"
"I said, don't go there!" Claire took a deep breath. This jerk not only
wanted to cover up his inexcusable abuse, now he wanted to do it with
ignorance. She looked at Lucy. "After you've wrapped Lena's ankle and fitted
her with crutches, could you give Billy Ray here a copy of the article
I published in Contemporary Neurology?" She looked at Billy Ray without
flinching. "Read the article about Huntington's disease in the Apple Valley.
I think it will sufficiently deal with your fears about your wife's curse."
Claire pivoted and walked out. It had been a long day, capped by a
malodorous wife-abuser with an attitude about women doctors. She'd had
She passed Cyrus in the hall where he stood on a ladder changing a
fluorescent light. "Thanks for your help, Cyrus. You saved the day again."
He seemed preoccupied and replied with a silent nod.
She cleaned off her desk, shoving two medicine periodicals into her
canvas briefcase. As she closed it, Betsy Jackson burst in without a knock.
Betsy cleaned the office in the evenings, and on most of them, found
Claire sitting in her desk with her head in a book. Betsy was fifty, and
knew more about most of Claire's patients than Claire did. Of course it
was all the stuff the doctor didn't ask: who was dating whom, who was
engaged, who was divorced, who was cheating, and who had problems
with their boss. It wasn't that she was a busybody. She just had such a big
heart that everyone ended up telling her their problems.
She grabbed Claire's left hand. "Well? Let me see it!" She dropped her
jaw. "What's wrong? Don't want to wear that rock at work? I don't blame
you. I don't wear my solitaire around this joint either. You never know
"Betsy! Slow down. I didn't get it."
"He didn't give you a ring?" She dropped Claire's hand and leaned
over to pull a trash can from beneath the desk to empty it into the large
black plastic bag she carried. "I don't get it. Did he give you something
else? I heard of a man that gave a woman a car for an engagement present
once. But it's not like you can wear a convertible or anything. I-"
"He didn't ask me."
This news stopped Betsy's pressured speech. "I, uh . well."
"We had a nice quiet evening in Brighton. We ate by candlelight at
DeAngelo's. Then we saw a movie. That was it. No ring." She shrugged
and looked away. She didn't want Betsy to see her tears. She quickly
dabbed her eyes.
"You said he wanted it to be a special night."
"It was, I guess."
"Maybe Italian food is special to a man," she said. "But a woman
needs jewelry to make a night special."
Claire lifted her briefcase. "It's been a long day, Betsy."
"What is that boy waiting for? It's not every day that a beautiful, smart
young lady like you comes along."
Claire had expected an engagement ring. The night was going to be special,
John had said. The night. That's what he'd been hinting at, hadn't he?
But he hadn't come through, and now, at this moment, with all the
other pressures, Claire just felt like having a good cry.