Peyton and his mother ran all the way from the parking lot, up the front steps of the hospital, and straight to the front desk, where a receptionist waved them on. "Sixth floor, Katie!" Peyton was too preoccupied with his father to ask why a hospital receptionist would be so familiar with his mother.
They arrived at the waiting room just in time to see a tall, forbidding nurse bring order to the chaotic Cabots. "That's enough!" they heard her shout as they stood just outside the room full of family. The Cabots, who generally obeyed no one but their patriarch, fell silent. "You will 'not' disturb my patients. Everyone, take a seat and keep your voices down, or security will escort every last one of you to the lobby. You'll be updated shortly."
The nurse spun around and marched into the corridor where Peyton and his mother stood. She stopped when she saw them. Peyton expected her to bark them out of the hospital, but instead she took his mother's hand and said, "Oh, Katydid." Peyton's mother fell sobbing into the nurse's sympathetic embrace, leaving him to wonder whether he really knew his own parents at all.
When his mother finally collected herself, she opened her purse and handed the nurse a white envelope. "He gave me his power of attorney before he shipped out," she said.
The nurse nodded. "Well and good. Come with me."
Peyton could only follow behind, as his mother and the nurse seemed to forget he was there. Only when the two women entered a conference room and the nurse turned to close the door did she notice that a teenage boy was trailing them.
"Who are you?" she demanded.
Peyton's mother looked surprised to see him standing there. "Oh, honey, I'm so sorry!" she said, taking him by the hand and pulling him into the conference room. "Ida, this is our son, Peyton. Sweetheart, this is my dear friend, Nurse Ida Buck."
"Pleased to meet you," Peyton said.
"I'm pleased to meet you too. Now look after your mama or you'll have me to deal with—understand?"
Nurse Buck left them alone in the windowless conference room, closing the door behind her. Peyton's mother took a seat and patted the chair next to her. "Come and sit down, honey."
He sat beside her and wondered what he should be doing as she blotted her eyes with a tissue and took one deep breath after another. He had never seen his mother like this. Peyton's father used to tell her she was like a Roman candle—small but full of fire. Right now his mother seemed small, alright. But there was no fire, at least none Peyton could see. She looked like someone in dire need of protection, but her protector had ridden a bourbon bottle into a tree and was now himself helpless, lying unconscious on a gurney somewhere down one of these aimless corridors.
She jumped slightly when the door opened and Nurse Buck ushered a doctor in. "Mrs. Cabot, I'm Doctor Crenshaw. I'm head of neurology here at the hospital."
"Thank you so much for taking care of Marshall," his mother said as Nurse Buck made her exit. "This is our son, Peyton."
"I understand you have your husband's power of attorney, so you needn't worry about interference from anyone else. I don't have to tell you it's serious..."
Peyton was aware of sound coming from the doctor's mouth, but he couldn't distinguish the words swirling out. He had the sense of being unplugged, still taking up space and filling a chair, but unable to think or speak or feel.
He found himself staring at the doctor's wristwatch, which looked very old and expensive. Had it belonged to his father? Maybe the dad was also a doctor. Was the watch a gift from father to son—a passing of the torch, a reward for footsteps followed?
As sound kept flowing from the doctor's mouth, Peyton's mother reached over and took his hand as if she knew he was adrift and instinctively offered an anchor. What was happening in this room, now a matter-of-fact occurrence, would've seemed unthinkable just yesterday—just this morning. It was unthinkable still.
Peyton hovered outside the waiting room, where the Cabots couldn't see him, and listened. Once concern for his mother broke through the fog in his brain, he had asked her to explain everything the doctor said and then volunteered to update the family himself. Just the thought of dealing with them, he knew, was too much for her right now. As he had done earlier that day on his grandparents' porch, Peyton stood still in the hospital corridor and tuned in to one voice after another.
Aunt Camille: "Did you see that bunch o' rednecks that looked in here like they wanted a seat?"
Aunt Charlotte: "Lucky we fill up the waiting room. Can you even imagine being cooped up in here with white trash?"
Uncle Julian: "Do you finally see, Daddy, why you cannot afford to have Marshall in charge of the family holdings?"
Granddaddy Cabot: "There's no such thing as the family holdings, Julian. They're all my holdings. I earned them, I own them, and I'll direct them as I see fit."
Grandmother Cabot: "Do you think, George, we should perhaps resume our lovely picnic and await word at the house? There doesn't seem to be anything we can do here, and we'd all be so much more comfortable on the porch."
Peyton felt a tingly wave that started at the base of his spine and quickly moved up, all the way to his temples. He had felt it only once before in his life—right before lightning struck a tree by the stadium during a Georgia game. As the lightning cracked and a tall pine split apart with a deafening pop, his father, in one swift motion, had dropped the Coke and hot dog he was holding and wrapped his arms protectively around Peyton. It was a memory he hadn't revisited in ages, but the tingling brought it back. He stepped inside the waiting room just in time to see his grandfather wince, reach for his head, and slump over.
Peyton's grandmother looked down in horror. Without touching her husband, who had fallen into her lap, she repeated over and over, in an eerily calm voice, "George? George, dear, get up. George, do get up..."
This excerpt ends on page 23 of the paperback edition.
Monday we begin the book Under Scottish Stars by Carla Laureano.