There were days when Molly Snow loved her sister, but this wasn't one. She had risen at dawn to be Robin's water-bearer, only to learn that Robin had changed her mind and decided to do her long run in the late afternoon, fully expecting Molly to accommodate her.
And why not? Robin was a world-class runner --- a marathoner with a dozen wins under her belt, incredible stats, and a serious shot at making the Olympics. She was used to people changing their plans to suit hers. She was the star.
Resenting that for the millionth time, Molly said no to late afternoon and, though Robin followed her from bedroom to bathroom and back, refused to give in. Robin could have easily run that morning; she just wanted to have breakfast with a friend. And wouldn't Molly love to do that herself! But she couldn't, because her day was backed up with work. She had to be at Snow Hill at seven to tend to the greenhouse before customers arrived, had to do purchasing, track inventory and sales, preorder for the holiday season; and on top of her own chores, she had to cover for her parents, who were on the road. That meant handling any issues that arose and, worse, leading a management meeting --- not Molly's idea of fun.
Her mother wouldn't be pleased that she had let Robin down, but Molly was feeling too put-upon to care.
The good news was that if Robin went running late in the day, she would be out when Molly got home. So, with the sun bronzing her face through the open windows, Molly mellowed as she drove back from Snow Hill. She pulled mail from the roadside box, without asking herself why her sister never did it, and swung in to crunch down the dirt drive. The roses were a soft peach, their fragrance all the more precious for the short life they had left. Beyond were the hydrangeas she had planted, turned a gorgeous blue by a touch of aluminum, a sprinkling of coffee grounds, and lots of TLC.
Pulling up under the pin oak that shaded the cottage she and Robin had rented for the past two years but were about to lose, Molly opened the back of the Jeep and began to unload. She was nearly at the house, juggling a drooping split-leaf philodendron, a basket of gourds, and a cat carrier, when her cell phone rang.
She could just hear it. I'm sorry for yelling this morning, Molly, but where are you now? My car won't start, I'm in the middle of nowhere, and I'm beat.
Molly was shifting burdens to free up a key when the phone rang again. A third ring came as she knelt to put her load down just inside the door. That was when guilt set in. Seconds shy of voice mail, she pulled the phone from her jeans and flipped it open.
"Where are you?" she asked, but the voice at the other end wasn't Robin's.
"Is this Molly?"
"I'm a nursing supervisor at Dickenson-May Memorial. There's been an accident. Your sister is in the ER. We'd like you to come."
"A car accident?" Molly asked in alarm.
"A running accident."
Molly hung her head. Another one of those. Oh, Robin, she thought and peered into the carrier, more worried about the little amber cat huddled inside than about her sister. Robin was a chronic daredevil. She claimed the reward was worth it, but the price? A broken arm, dislocated shoulder, ankle sprains, fasciitis, neuroma --- you name it, she'd had it. This small cat, on the other hand, was an innocent victim.
"What happened?" Molly asked distractedly, making little sounds to coax the cat out.
"The doctor will explain. Do you live far?"
No, not far. But experience had taught her that she would only have to wait for X-rays, even longer for an MRI. Reaching into the carrier, she gently drew out the cat. "I'm ten minutes away. How serious is it?"
"I can't tell you. But we do need you here."
The cat was shaking badly. She had been found locked in a shed with ten other cats. The vet guessed she was barely two.
"My sister has her phone with her," Molly tried, knowing that if she could talk directly with Robin, she would learn more. "Does she have cell reception?"
"No. I'm sorry. Your parents' number is here with yours on her shoe tag. Will you call them, or should I?"
If the nurse was holding the shoe, the shoe was off Robin's foot. A ruptured Achilles tendon? That would be bad. Worried in spite of herself, Molly said, "They're out of state." She tried humor. "I'm a big girl. I can take it. Give me a hint?"
But the nurse was immune to charm. "The doctor will explain. Will you come?"
Did she have a choice?
Resigned, Molly cradled the cat and carried it to her bedroom at the back of the cottage. After nesting it in the folds of the comforter, she put litter and food nearby, and then sat on the edge of the bed. She knew it was dumb bringing an animal here when they had to move out in a week, but her mother refused to let another cat live at the nursery, and this one needed a home. The vet had kept her for several days, but she hadn't done well with the other animals. She wasn't only malnourished; she looked like she had been at the losing end of more than one fight. Her little body was poised, as if she expected another blow.
"I won't hurt you," Molly whispered assuredly and, giving the cat space, returned to the hall. She trickled water on the philodendron --- too much too soon would only drain through --- then took it to the loft and set it out of direct light. It, too, needed TLC. But later.
First, a shower. It would have to be a quick one --- she could put off the hospital only so long. But the greenhouse was hot in September, and after a major delivery of fall plants, she had spent much of the afternoon breaking down crates, moving pots, reorganizing displays, and sweating.
The shower cleared her mind. Back in her room to dress, though, she couldn't find the cat. Calling softly, she looked under the bed, in the open closet, behind a stack of cartons. She checked Robin's room, the small living room, even the basket of gourds --- which was one more thing to pack, but it filled an aesthetic need and could easily hide a small cat.
She would have looked further, if her conscience hadn't begun to nag. Robin was in good hands at the hospital, but with their parents somewhere between Atlanta and Manchester, and with her own name first on that tag, Molly had to make tracks.
Letting her long hair curl as it dried, she put on clean jeans and a tee. Then Molly drove off with the cell in her lap, fully expecting that Robin would call. She would be resilient and sheepish --- unless it truly was an Achilles rupture, which would mean surgery and weeks of no running. They were all in trouble if that was the case. An unhappy Robin was a misery, and the timing of this accident couldn't be worse. Today's fifteen-miler was a lead-up to the New York marathon. If she placed among the top ten American women there, she would be guaranteed a spot at the Olympic trials in the spring.
The phone didn't ring. Molly wasn't sure if that was good or bad, but she didn't see the point of leaving a message for her mother until she knew more. Kathryn and Robin were joined at the hip. If Robin had an in-grown toenail, Kathryn felt the pain.
It was lovely to be loved that way, Molly groused and, in the next breath, felt remorse. Robin had worked hard to get where she was. And hey, Molly was as proud of her as the rest on race day.
It just seemed like running monopolized all their lives.
Resentment to remorse and back was such a boringly endless cycle that Molly was glad to pull up at the hospital. Dickenson-May sat on a bluff overlooking the Connecticut River just north of town. The setting would have been charming if not for the reasons that brought people here.
Hurrying inside, Molly gave her name to the ER desk attendant and added, "My sister is here."
A nurse approached and gestured her to a cubicle at the end of the hall, where she fully expected to see Robin grinning at her from a gurney. What she saw, though, were doctors and machines, and what she heard wasn't her sister's embarrassed, Oh, Molly, I did it again, but the murmur of somber voices and the rhythmic beep of machines. Molly saw bare feet --- callused, definitely Robin's --- but nothing else of her sister. For the first time, she felt a qualm.
One of the doctors came over. He was a tall man who wore large, black-framed glasses. "Are you her sister?"
"Yes." Through the space he had vacated, she caught a glimpse of Robin's head --- short dark hair messed as usual, but her eyes were closed, and a tube was taped over her mouth. Alarmed, Molly whispered, "What happened?"
"Your sister had a heart attack."
She recoiled. "A what?"
"She was found unconscious on the road by another runner. He knew enough to start CPR."
"Unconscious? But she came to, didn't she?" She didn't have to be unconscious. Her eyes might be closed out of sheer exhaustion. Running fifteen miles could do that.
"No, she hasn't come to yet," said the doctor. "We pulled up hospital records on her, but there's no mention of a heart problem."
"Because there isn't one," Molly said and, slipping past him, went to the bed. "Robin?" When her sister didn't reply, she eyed the tube. It wasn't the only worrisome thing.
"The tube connects to a ventilator," the doctor explained. "These wires connect to electrodes that measure her heartbeat. The cuff takes her blood pressure. The IV is for fluids and meds."
So much, so soon? Molly gave Robin's shoulder a cautious shake. "Robin? Can you hear me?"
Robin's eyelids remained flat. Her skin was colorless.
Molly grew more frightened. "Maybe she was hit by a car?" she asked the doctor, because that made more sense than Robin having a heart attack at the age of thirty-two.
"There's no other injury. When we did a chest X-ray to check on the breathing tube, we could see heart damage. Right now, the beat is normal."
"But why is she still unconscious? Is she sedated?"
"No. She hasn't regained consciousness."
"Then you're not trying hard enough," Molly decided and gave her sister's arm a frantic jiggle. "Robin? Wake up!"
A large hand stilled hers. Quietly, the doctor said, "We suspect there's brain damage. She's unresponsive. Her pupils don't react to light. She doesn't respond to voice commands. Tickle her toe, prick her leg --- there's no reaction."
"She can't have brain damage," Molly said --- perhaps absurdly, but the whole scene was absurd. "She's in training." When the doctor didn't reply, she turned to her sister again. The machines were blinking and beeping with the regularity of, yes, machines, but they were unreal. "Heart or brain --- which one?"
"Both. Her heart stopped pumping. We don't know how long she was lying on the road before she was found. A healthy thirty-something might have ten minutes before the lack of oxygen would cause brain damage. Do you know what time she started her run?"
"She was planning to start around five, but I don't know whether she made it by then." You should have known, Molly. You would have known if you'd driven her yourself. "Where was she found?"
The doctor checked his papers. "Just past Norwich. That would put her a little more than five miles from here."
But coming or going? It made a difference if they were trying to gauge how long she had been unconscious. The location of her car would tell, but Molly didn't know where it was. "Who found her?"
"I can't give you his name, but he's likely the reason she's alive right now."
Starting to panic, Molly held her forehead. "She could wake up and be fine, right?"
The doctor hesitated seconds too long. "She could. The next day or two are crucial. Have you called your parents?"
Her parents. Nightmare. She checked her watch. They wouldn't have landed yet. "My mom will be devastated. Can't you do something before I call them?"
"We want her stabilized before we move her."
"Move her where?" Molly asked. She had a flash shot of the morgue. Too much CSI.
"The ICU. She'll be watched closely there."
Molly's imagination was stuck on the other image. "She isn't going to die, is she?" If Robin died, it would be Molly's fault. If she had been there, this wouldn't have happened. If she hadn't been such a rotten sister, Robin would be back at the cottage, swigging water and recording her times.
"Let's take it step by step," the doctor said. "First, stabilization. Beyond that, it's really a question of waiting. There's no husband listed on her tag. Does she have kids?"
"Well, that's something."
"It's not." Molly was desperate. "You don't understand. I can't tell my mother Robin is lying here like this." Kathryn would blame her. Instantly. Even before she knew that it truly was Molly's fault. It had always been that way. In her mother's eyes, Molly was five years younger and ten times more troublesome than Robin.
Molly had tried to change that. She had grown up helping Kathryn in the greenhouse, taking on more responsibility as Snow Hill grew. She had worked there summers while Robin trained, and had gotten the degree in horticulture that Kathryn had sworn would stand her in good stead.
Working at Snow Hill wasn't a hardship. Molly loved plants. But she also loved pleasing her mother, which wasn't always an easy thing to do, because Molly was impulsive. She spoke without thinking, often saying things her mother didn't want to hear. And she hated pandering to Robin. That was her greatest crime of all.
Now the doctor wanted her to call Kathryn and tell her that Robin might have brain damage because she, Molly, hadn't been there for her sister?
It was too much to ask of her, Molly decided. After all, she wasn't the only one in the family.
While the doctor waited expectantly, she pulled out her phone. "I want my brother here. He has to help."
Excerpted from WHILE MY SISTER SLEEPS © Copyright 2011 by Barbara Delinsky. Reprinted with permission by Doubleday. All rights reserved.
While My Sister Sleeps