Outside Concord, North Carolina the tird Sunday in August
Sitting cross- legged on the cool clay floor, the watcher used the tip of his survival knife to carve another letter into the wall of his hide. After he inspected the letter–an O
–he ran the sharpening stone against the blade, holstered the knife, and set it down gently by his side.
The midday sun cooked the still air outside the hole. He looked out at the rear of a sleek, modern house through the four- inch opening in the trap door. When the interior lights were on, and it was adequately dark, looking through the large windows reminded him of peacefully watching fish in a tank. The house’s two occupants–a man and his wife–swam from room to room like trout. He often watched their big TV screen through his binoculars, over the back of the leather sofa. Rarely were the residents together for more than a few minutes. Their conversations were short ones, and the obvious emotional distance gave the watcher great pleasure.
The sound of a motor’s purr caught the watcher’s attention as he looked up in time to see the wife’s Lexus coming around the house while the garage door opened. He felt a rapidly growing sense of arousal watching the SUV roll slowly into its bay. The woman was not perfect, but nevertheless a beautiful and desirable creature.
Watcher switched off the iPod, opened his rucksack, drew out a jar, and held it up, illuminating six large dark- shelled beetles he’d found under a rotten log that morning on his way to the hide. In the sunlight, their ebony armor had the iridescence of raku pottery. The bugs ambled along, content, creeping like tanks over the bottom of the jar he had brought to urinate into while he was in the hide. The insects would walk around in circles, try to scale the walls, and climb over each other for the rest of their lives, constantly looking for a way out. The man knew this from experience. He knew a great deal about captive behavior. While it was true that the bugs were docile, he had experience with beetles and many other creatures whose de- meanor seemed fixed . . . until outside forces intervened.
Finding a drinking straw, the man opened the jar and set the lid aside. He used the end of the straw to jab at the insects, prodding each once or twice before going to the next. After a few seconds a steady hissing sound, like a leaking tire, erupted from the jar’s inhabitants. He smiled, knowing that before long the seemingly docile beetles would attack each other and begin using their powerful jaws to dismantle their mates, leaving severed appendages in the jar’s bottom. And he would release the victor–the bug with the most limbs left–and crush the losers under his boots. His grin widened as he watched the garage door close, the hissing of the insects reaching a frenzy.
Dr. Natasha McCarty slipped on her reading glasses and gently pressed the abdomen of Josh Wasserman, a four- year- old whose appendix had ruptured early the previous evening. As usual, she’d done a first- class job both on the removal of the defective body part and in the even spacing of the sutures. Across the room, a bright bouquet of tulips stood centered in the window, and Mr. and Mrs. Wasserman sat quietly in chairs on the other side of the bed where the small child lay. Mrs. Wasserman, a petite, roundfaced woman, appeared to be about eight months pregnant. She stared at the child as though he might vanish should she blink.
“How are you feeling this morning?” Natasha asked the bright- eyed boy as she checked the chart hanging at the foot of his bed. His color was good, his vitals strong. She wouldn’t know he’d been at death’s door less than twelve hours earlier if she hadn’t performed the operation herself. Children could be amazingly resilient.
“My stomach hurts,” he replied sullenly.
Natasha smiled sadly as the small face twisted in on itself and tears streamed down his cheeks. She set the chart down, put her hand under his chin, and sat on his bed, careful not to jostle his small body.
“You’re going to be fine very soon,” she told him tenderly.
“You’ve been such a brave boy,” his mother added with forced cheer.
“He’s worried that his soccer career is over,” his father said.
“That’s not a problem, Josh. You’ll be back running around and playing ball in a couple of weeks like this never happened.” Natasha handed him a tissue from the bedside table and waited until he wiped the tears away.
“What about peritonitis?” Mrs. Wasserman asked. “Complications.”
After smiling reassuringly at Josh, Natasha looked over at the parents.
“We cleansed the site and we’ll monitor very closely, but the antibiotics he’s on are very effective. Josh is a very strong young man. There’s no reason to worry.”
“Can I have it?” Josh asked.
“Have what?” Natasha asked.
“The palendix,” he said. “In a jar. So I can have it to keep.”
“Josh,” Mrs. Wasserman said, “you do not need your appendix.”
“We could use it for bait next time we go fishing,” Mr. Wasserman joked.
“I’m sorry, Josh,” Natasha said. “We didn’t keep it.”
“What did you do with it?” he asked, curious. “We incinerated it.”
A look of confusion grew on his face.
“Incinerate means we had to burn it up. When we remove things from people, we are required by law to burn them up in a furnace.”
Natasha smiled. “Yes.”
“Like Buster,” Josh said.
“Buster was our Labrador,” Mrs. Wasserman explained.
“A vetanarin cremated Buster,” he went on.
“In a hot, hot fire.”
“He was nine,” Mr. Wasserman added.
“Mr. Murphy runned over Buster in a car,” Josh said with a tiny sneer.
“Ran over,” Mrs. Wasserman corrected.
“He ran over him. I wanted a new dog, but I’m getting a new sister instead. I wanted to bury him, but Daddy said our yard was too little. Our yard is all brown and crunchy because the police won’t let us put any water on it.”
“It’s very dry where I live, too,” Natasha said.
“Where do you live?” Josh asked.
“I live way out in the country north of here,” she replied.
“Do you have a dog?”
“We don’t have any pets. But we do have deer, squirrels, raccoons, and possums, and lots of birds.”
“You live on a farm and you don’t got pigs and cows?”
“We don’t live on a farm. We live in the woods.”
“You got many snakes?”
“We have a few. Mostly harmless snakes, thankfully.”
“Do you live with your daddy and mommy?”
“My mommy and daddy live in Seattle, Washington. That’s a long way from here. I live with my husband.” Natasha braced herself for the next question.
“Do you have any little boys and girls?”
“No,” Natasha said, smiling.
“Josh,” Mr. Wasserman said, “you shouldn’t pry into Dr. McCarty’s personal life.”
“I’ll see you tomorrow morning, Josh,” Natasha said, rubbing his head.
“When can I go home?”
“In a few days.”
Natasha was near the nurses’ station dictating her notes for transcription when she saw Dan Wheat walking toward her. One of her partners, Dan had the bedside manner of a mortician. She didn’t know why he’d gone into pediatric med icine, since he seemed to view children as troublesome monkeys. He was railthin with a roving eye and a legendary bag of tired pickup lines. Natasha had once overheard one of his young patients tell him he had stinky breath. Dan immediately ordered a spinal tap for the offender before he went off in search of mints.
“Natasha,” he said, waving her down. “You see my new wheels?”
“I broke down and treated myself to a top- ofthe- line Benz SL five- fifty–that’s a two- seat convertible–in jet black. It’s a bitch to keep clean, so I run it wide open to blow the dust off. I figure, hey, I work hard for my money and I deserve it. You know, he who toots not his own horn risks leaving it in a state of untootedness.”
“Lovely, Dan,” Natasha interrupted. “How are your patients?”
“Claire is making me buy her a new car as an act of revenge because I won’t let her drive the Benz, so I was thinking maybe a simple Lexus SUV like yours so she can haul the kids around in fair style. You buy it or do you lease?”
Natasha sighed. “Ward bought it for me.”
“I lease strictly for tax purposes. I drive it free, basically.” Dan barely paused for breath. “Oh, did Edgar talk to you about my little brother? I was thinking he’d be a great addition to our practice. The boy’s got hands like mine, and he aced medical school. We should get him here before he gets an offer he can’t refuse in a major city.”
“I didn’t know we needed a sixth partner,” Natasha said.
Natasha had met Dan’s younger brother. If such a thing were possible, Bill Wheat was half as impressive as his older brother. He was short and stocky, and his half- open eyes made him look like he was in the process of passing out. Natasha hadn’t wanted Dan brought on board, but she hadn’t felt like opposing her partners. Dan was typical of what was coming out of medical schools: very intelligent, aggres sive, competitive, and greedy. He saw each patient as a business opportunity and his billingswere off the chart because he ordered every test he knew the insurance company would pay for.
“Perhaps we should discuss this at the next partners’ meeting,” she said noncommittally. “I hate to break this off, but I haven’t slept in two days.”
“Does Ward get fed up with your hours? It drives Claire crazy that I’m always working.”
“Ward doesn’t complain.”
“Well, keep my brother Bill in mind. We’re getting busy as hell and it would help you and Ward to spend some more time together.” Natasha realized to her horror that Dan Wheat was staring at her right hand, which was tingling like it was asleep. And that hand was shaking ever so gently.
“Are you all right?” Dan asked her, the note of concern ringing false.
“Fine,” she said, shoving it into the pocket of her gown. “Fatigue, I guess.” She turned and headed for the bathroom.
After she’d finished at the hospital, Natasha got into her Lexus SUV and headed home. Al though it was just after noon, she was exhausted; she hadn’t been able to fall asleep after the Wasserman surgery, which had ended around ten- thirty the previous evening.
Twenty minutes later Natasha was turning into her driveway. The McCartys’ twelve wooded acres had been a wedding present from Ward’s father. Ward and Natasha had selected a wide ridge for their house site, cleared the trees from it, and built a four- thousand- square- foot split- level modern house. Other than the asphalt driveway and the mailbox, there was no sign at all that a house sat back in the woods. The asphalt driveway wound through the trees, and curved in front of the house. The home’s façade of raw textured concrete and floor- to- ceiling windows had been built with its back facing a tree- lined and elevated ridge.
Natasha used the remote to open her bay in the three- car garage, and pulled in. She went into the kitchen, poured herself a glass of Pinot Grigio, and carried the bottle into the den, where she turned the large- screen television to the Food Network. She put the bottle on the Noguchi coffee table, drank a long swallow from the glass, went into the bedroom, and took a hot shower. After slipping into a robe she got a blister pack of Ambien and went back to the den.
Natasha popped a pill out and held it in her palm for a moment, staring out at the grounds, feeling again the unease she’d become all too familiar with. Her eyes caught a motion in the shadows as she searched the tree line for the source. A chill ran up her spine. Her discomfort grew. A wild animal, or perhaps a house cat foraging for field mice. Of course, with the new subdivision up the road, it was possible that kids were playing in the woods. Over the past two years she and Ward had seen evidence of people having been in the woods–beer cans, soda bottles, and candy wrappers–but had never caught anyone close to the house. Ward had the standard POSTED signs on the property line, but they knew that such signs were just suggestions, respected only by the reputable.
Due to the woods, and since the house faced north, there had been no need for curtains to block the sun or to give the McCartys privacy. For the past weeks, though, she’d been considering having blinds installed. She had even gotten an estimate, which had been staggering since the curved thirty- foot- wide wall was comprised of four- by- eight double panes of thick glass.
Natasha sat down and put her feet up next to the bowl on the coffee table. The bowl held a baseball she’d put in it the night after Ward left for the trade show. She’d been almost asleep when she put her hand under his pillow and was startled to discover the baseball. She brought it out to the den as she paced, holding it like the egg of a strange bird, trying to figure out why Ward had placed it there. It had to have been a message about Barney, but the meaning hadn’t been apparent, unless Ward simply wanted her to think about him. When had she not thought about their son? The incident had stunned her and she’d fought the urge to call Ward and yell at him, but she had taken a pill instead and had gone to sleep angry. It seemed cruel, and not like the old Ward she’d fallen in love with–had lived with all these years.
Natasha reclined on the couch and chased an Ambien with a glass of the chilled wine. She held up her hand and stared at it, daring it to shake.
Excerpted from The Last Day by John Ramsey Miller. Copyright © 2008 by John Ramsey Miller. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.