By Rhonda Eikamp
Illustration by Vivian Gu
I want to start where it starts, in the cath lab, with my patient, Mr. Ward, yelling and cursing and nurses screaming at Dr. Garland to get a grip, but I have to go back and explain the maps, because it’s only through Connor Garland’s maps that I’ve come to realize I’m dead.
Wherever things can be hidden, they will be. Create dark corners and the secrets will come. When Catherine was alive, I would find her nine-year-old secrets stuffed behind the bed: empty cookie boxes, notes passed in class. There were pieces of a broken cup in the back of my hole-puncher, locks of hair cut off for some reason and crammed behind the bathroom cabinet, when she still had hair. Our hearts are the darkest corners. Are you stenotic, megalic, myopathic? Only your cardiologist knows for sure.
“Treasure maps, or maybe a secret code.” The doctors in the lounge were talking about Connor Garland. I was new to Stoakes Memorial and they liked me. I have that scalpel glint not every woman doctor presents with, which meant they could be buddies with me, but it’s something I have to work at. I had a patient getting his heart dyed pretty colors by the cardiologist Dr. Garland at that very moment, so their talk caught my attention.
“Garland sees these patterns on the angiogram,” Baxton snorted. “In the lines of the arteries. They’re maps of cities, he says, or the patient’s house, and it shows him where things are lost or hidden. He helps people find things.”
I felt that dull gut slippage that was a warning of disaster. “That’s insane,” I said.
“Nutty as a diarrhetic squirrel’s ass. I know nurses who keep five of Haldol in their pocket whenever they have to work with him, and it’s not for the patients.”
Rivera from pediatrics leaned in. He had the accepting look of the diehard Catholic for miracles. He was shaking his head in a cautious it’s-not-like-that gesture. “One time, Garland decided this woman’s heart was a map of South Side. Told her where she could find her son who’d run away from home.” I sensed what was coming. “So when she gets out of the hospital, she takes a cop friend and they go up to Chicagoland and there’s the son bopping down the street toward her, all methed up, right where Garland said he’d be.”
Baxton giggled. “And you heard this story from…?”
“It’s sin, not treasure.” Clive Petersen stood by the window smoking. No one ever told on him. Clive was suave and decent and I’d already been out for drinks with him once, a small disaster in its own right because I couldn’t stop being the scalpel. “He told a patient of mine once that his heart was a map of this certain intersection outside town, some motel where the guy was fucking his sister-in-law. I don’t know if it was true, but the guy’s eyes got all big. Never came back after his cath. Sonya?”
I’d heard enough. I was headed for the door. “Last thing I need is a religious nut working my patients over,” I tossed over my shoulder.
Moral apostles, fuckheads who see right and wrong in every shot-glass that helps you get through the day or the skin against skin that gets you through the night. I’d worked myself up by the time I got to the cath lab, which made the scene there all the more like some secular holy-roller session. Everyone yelling at once. A nurse fled past me out the door screaming, “I’m not working with him anymore!”
I knew Connor Garland by sight. Tall, too thin for my taste, hay-blond hair and a nose so long and skinny it probably hurt to sniff. The bony face of an angel, beautiful if I let myself be honest, contorted now as it studied the x-ray screen pumping radiation into my patient on the table while the assisting tried to shove Garland’s hands off the instruments. The lead apron and thyroid collar Garland wore looked like a cassock; together with his fixated stare, it turned the mad doctor into a priest, or a Teutonic knight, the kind that drops babies in fires in an Eisenstein film. The punishing angel.
He had the x-ray machine on an oblique view, to the side of Ward’s chest, allowing radiation to shoot out into the room, exposing everyone more than they needed to be, which was why the nurses were leaving like rats off a ship. Garland was pushing the cine over and over, ramping up the serial exposure he should have been trying to keep to a minimum, just so he could view the dye-lit heart longer, shouting down at my patient, Mr. Ward, the whole time.
“Is that where she is? Is that where you put her?”
“Stop,” I said. No one was listening.
Jesse Ward was a fifty-something stockbroker, referred to me with vascular problems, MS maybe, but more likely heart disease brought on by a surfeit of jelly-filled donuts. The angio should have been routine. He was smart enough not to try and get away from this maniac while he had a tube threaded from his groin to his heart, but he looked terrified. The assisting radiologist, a young guy, gave up fumbling at Garland’s hands and stood by, helpless.
I stepped close to Garland and said “stop” again.
He glanced at me with a feral light in his eyes and looked back to the screen. “Do you see that?” he whispered.
I shoved him, hard. He stumbled back. It made him see me. “Get that out,” I told the assistant, indicating the catheter. I snapped my fingers at a nurse, who regained her senses long enough to shut off the x-ray machine.
“What’s your goddamn problem?” I hissed at Garland.
“I had to see. To be sure.” The room went silent, listening.
“Sure about what?”
“I’ve found the man who murdered my daughter.”
A nurse behind me gasped.
On the table, Ward said, “What the fuck?”
Garland reached up and fingered the screen, where the last frozen image showed the patient’s branching heart arteries, one tiny speck near the left circumflex like a lump of soil caught in a plant root, only a hazy point on the screen. An atheroma. A clot to you. Every second person over fifty has one. “And that’s where he buried her body.”
The hospital fired Garland by noon. Their lawyers loved it. They’d heard it all as far as malpractice went — sponges left in abdomens, wrong legs amputated — but a total doctor melt-down was a rarity. Jesse Ward had called the police as soon as he’d stopped shaking enough to punch his cell-phone buttons, and was howling bodily injury and defamation. It’s not every day you go in for a medical procedure and get irradiated up the bazoo and then accused of murder. I stood outside the chief of medicine’s office after reporting on what I’d seen and I listened to Ward shout his way toward a heart attack. A plainclothes officer who had flicked his badge earlier (a detective, which seemed unwarranted) but acted otherwise uninterested, was watching me from the end of the hallway. McFarSomething. He came to stand beside me and we gazed out the long windows.
“Garland’s daughter disappeared three years ago,” he said.
“I know the story. Eight years old, never found, and no, my patient does not have a map of her whereabouts built into his heart, Officer.” Right, be tough. A tough enough lady and he wouldn’t see the warmth that was more a fizz in my blood as the office door opened to let a cop out and shut again, and I caught a fleeting glimpse of Connor Garland, standing straight and angry beside the desk while a lawyer handed him a piece of paper.
“I was on his case,” the detective said. McFarley, I recalled. “Literally. Parents equal prime suspects when a kid goes missing. Except his daughter was just the first. Turned out to be a series of abductions.” McFarley subscribed to the Columbo school, ditzy hair, disarming, chatting while he ferreted. The frayed collar and clip-on tie completed the look. “Garland does this about every three or four months, you know.”
I turned to him. “No, I don’t. I’m new here.”
He didn’t get my fuck-off hint. “Started after his kid disappeared. Calls us up to report some crime he’s seen in those heart maps of his. Tip-offs on murders. Rapes. Lots of those.” He harrumphed. “Never accosted a patient on the table though.”
“And you never look into them?”
His glance away, the pursed lips, was better than an eye-roll.
The office door flew open again and Jesse Ward stalked out. Behind him Garland was yelling, “Arrest him, goddamit!”
“Arrest him,” Ward yelled back.
“Never this,” said McFarley. “His daughter’s murderer.” He harrumphed.
Grief buries you, I said to Connor Garland later. That sounds banal, but he understood what I meant — how after you’ve lost a loved one, the details of life begin to form a humus around you, terrifying at first, an insect-ridden swelter of soil you claw at until you realize how comforting it is to be a ball in the ground, no demands, no reason to act, the eroded mineral taste in your mouth sufficient for the day. I hadn’t felt compelled to do anything since Catherine’s death other than my work — not call Thomas out in California or even friends, not try to make up to Clive Petersen for the date from hell — but something compelled me to take Ward’s angiogram and drive out to Connor Garland’s house.
The address a friend in HR read off to me turned out to be a comfortable ranch-style home, with wisteria around the front windows and a swing-set peeking out from the back. The street was quiet, dusk popping the sodium lamps on. While I was sitting in the car deciding what to do, Garland came out to stand on the porch, lifted his chin and called, “Milton.” A basset hound trotted around the corner. All so normal.
When Garland spied me he walked to the car without hesitation. No way out. He bent to peer at me through the open side window.
“I’m sorry about your patient this morning.”
“You did make an enemy for life.”
“I mean I’m sorry your patient turned out to be Beth’s killer.” Run while you can. Floor it. He stared for a moment at the x-ray jacket on the seat beside me. “Come in and have a drink?”
When you’re buried alive, any scraping sound is something to follow, even if it’s coming from below you. Garland’s home was clean and economical. No feeling that it housed grief or obsession, other than the framed photo on a desk in the living room — a blonde girl laughing in yellow grass beside a pretty woman — and an album lying open in front of it, full of screengrabs and newspaper clippings. He handed me a cold longneck to match his and leaned his head against his forearm on the kitchen doorframe. “Go ahead, have a look.”
Three other children had disappeared after his daughter, Beth. The children all smiled at me from their photos. Their best shot, one chance to win your heart. A black girl with a cheerleading trophy. A boy in a blue-and-white sailor suit. The articles were sparse on detail. The boy had been wearing his sailor suit when he disappeared. Someone had seen an olive-green van. The faces became smoke, bitter and cloying, and I had to look away. I touched the framed photo instead.
He nodded. “She left me right after I saw my first heart map. Moved to Trenton for the water.”
“The water’s great in California too, I hear.” He raised an eyebrow. “My— my daughter died of leukemia. It’s been about two years now. My husband divorced me and moved to California almost as soon as she was gone. Like he was waiting.” I took a swig. The beer tasted like smoke. “We fought so hard for her together, for years, so many treatments, and then— that. Just— see ya around.”
The irreality that always came over me when I talked about Catherine made me wobble, a frisson of nightmare, as though it had all been experienced in a psychotic break. The treatments I’d pushed for as the control-freak mom, doctors’ names, a slew of faces parading past — all faded. As soon as she was gone. How her hair smelled. Or maybe this was the break. I couldn’t remember what bottle I was on, the fourth or fifth, Garland watching me. Time unravelled, spilled across his hands, and he said, “That’s all right,” and grabbed a towel to mop it up.
“There I was, a doctor, and I couldn’t save my own daughter, you know.” Don’t do this. “You know what her last words to me were?” I’d never told anyone what Catherine said to me there in the hospice that last day, sworn I wouldn’t. When I looked up, I saw he’d picked up Jesse Ward’s x-ray that had slipped to the floor when I spilled my beer. Intent on it, in another world. Forget confessions. He turned and slid a leather artist portfolio from a cabinet.
“Take a look at this, Sonya.”
I tried to focus. The portfolio was full of heart x-rays — arteriograms, the blood vessels dyed to display occlusions, atheromata that showed up as foggy flecks on the arteries, X marks the spot. Each heart pretty much like every other heart in the world. The arterial pattern couldn’t vary a lot or they wouldn’t be human hearts, and yet from a distance I heard his voice explaining to me how the clots occluded certain lines and opened up others, roadblocks of sins committed here and here in the patient’s life, calcium build-up forming new patterns of arteries. Making maps. Which was bullshit. Subsisting on tacos might be a sin, but it wouldn’t create a map on your heart showing where you favorite taco stand was.
“You think I’m crazy.”
“No shit.” I was in the zone. The glow around him was the beer talking. He was beautiful. “But I figure what happened to your daughter made you crazy, so you’re absurd. Solved.” The right word wouldn’t come, sloshing around in me. “Absolved.” Forgiven for being broken. I could have been talking to myself, begging Catherine.
“I did everything to help the cops, but they still suspected me. For months I had this recurring dream — I’d see a map somewhere, lying on the sidewalk, pick it up and go show it to them and they’d use it to find Beth. Finding a map became a solution to everything.”
“A dream solution.”
“In the dream, she was always still alive.” He leaned wearily on the desk beside me. I could smell the hospital on him and below it something older, a sadness that had seeped into the creases of his skin. “Before this morning, that was still a possibility, you know.” I realized how puffy his eyes were, in a way they hadn’t been that morning, skin like bruised fruit around red rims. “All the hearts I’ve looked at all this time, I always believed I’d see her, alive, the place she was being held. But this morning, what I saw in Ward… I knew it was the place she was buried.”
Soil and roots. The decaying ticking life below the ground. “Why let him know you were on to him? Why not just call the cops?”
“Ward recognized my name. He knew, the moment I turned. He was being an asshole to the nurse because she was having trouble getting the cath into his vein, then he read my name tag and got this shocked look and shut up. I didn’t know what to make of it until I saw the map on his heart. I knew I had to call him on it then, back him into a corner. I couldn’t risk having him vanish when he left the room.”
I gazed at the x-rays in his portfolio, blurs of similarity. “I don’t understand what you see.”
He shrugged. “Ever heard of copyright traps? Up to the 70’s mapmakers would add these made-up streets to their maps so they could prove plagiarism if other companies copied their work. When I was young we had a map of our city that showed a made-up street going right through our house. I’d go out in the yard and gaze around and it’d feel so strange. Like the ghost of the street was there. That’s what it feels like.”
“You see ghost streets in hearts.”
He was avid suddenly, drawing a sheet of paper from the print-out tray beside his laptop. A section of map from an online route finder.
“North of here, outside of town. I matched it up with what I remembered of Ward’s heart from this morning.” His finger traced an upside-down blue V on the route finder, a water intersection, and I recognized where Stanborn Creek branched off from the Little Okaw and trailed away to the west. “Place your bets now.”
He positioned Ward’s x-ray over the paper on the desk and traced the lines with his finger. Where the left anterior and circumflex branched they lined up perfectly with the waterways. At the point where they separated, the atheroma blocked the view. I wanted to laugh, but his finger was magical. I thought of plant roots again, river deltas. Cracks in sidewalks, or in people. Secret maps I’d seen when I was a child, roads in spider webs, spiralling away from some fantastical city with a black god at its heart. Spinning a room around me.
I took his finger from the map and drew his hand up under my shirt to my heart. Braless, because I’d known this, maybe. He seemed unsurprised. He thumbed my nipples, watching me, and kissed me. His mouth tasted of smoky beer. We were alike. “I have a map,” I groaned and pulled his hand down between my legs.
There’s a hunger that bypasses the brain and goes straight for the limbs and skin. So strong right then I felt it pounding at me from inside like a fetus kicking, Catherine waiting to live again. Garland led me through his clean and economical house to the bedroom and I should have turned and walked away when I saw it, or run screaming. Being unable to feel fear is another sign of depression.
Every surface of his bedroom was covered with framed photos of his missing daughter. The walls, the ceiling. Different sizes and shots. A wallpaper of Beth, headshots and full-length, her eight-year-old eyes everywhere, laughing or posed or oblivious to the camera. I lay on the bed and fucked him and it was like looking into a many-faceted mirror on the ceiling, only I was dark-haired and she was blonde. The photo over the bed was a blow-up, a life-size shot of Beth in a white dress standing before shrubbery, some special occasion. Watching us. Behind the photos the walls were painted dark red, a low lamp plunging the room into a submerged scarlet glow. Wine-red curtains at the window, a bordello ambiente.
He was rough. I longed for him to be someone decent and unbroken inside, a Clive Petersen, bland and safe, but I knew that if he had been I wouldn’t be there. In a thrusting, viscous moment, tearing at him, my teeth in his golden hair, I looked away at the walls, and the daughter turned to stare at me, all the heads swivelling at once. I wanted to scream but didn’t, because I knew it was real.
She shouted something, angry, and began to slide between the frames, jumping from one to the next, dragging the wall-paint with her in a red streak, faster and faster while we thrust, until all her iterations blurred to a blood glow, a children’s ring game become a rush of fluid that filled and emptied the room in a rhythm I knew. The walls contracted and expanded. We were drowning in a blood river, riding the sinus rhythm; we were the clot, occluding everything down the line, every beat of this heart furious to dislodge us. From beyond the chamber, lights flashed, cines of x-ray heat pulsing through me, emanating from every point on the walls at once, and I knew all of a sudden that something vast and evil was searching for us.
Garland rolled off me and lay panting. The next moment I heard the crack of a gunshot outside the bedroom window.
I gasped. “Someone’s shooting!” From the kitchen I could hear the dog going crazy. Garland flung himself up from the bed and strode to the window, pushed back the curtain. “Are you nuts?” I hissed. “Get down!”
He stood peering out, in full view of the dark back yard, like some nude shooting-range silhouette. I expected to see his head explode any minute. He slid the window up and leaned out. “Ward,” he called.
“Hey, doc!” came a man’s drunken voice. Very drunk. Another shot. Garland didn’t even flinch. The shooter had to be firing into the air.
“How you like that? Start accusing people of things, you better watch your back!”
“You’ll fry, Ward.” Garland’s tone was almost conversational. I had the sudden sense he was talking to no one. Berating a dark back yard. “I saw what I saw.” I waited for another bullet, the one that would silence him, shatter the whimper in my throat, but nothing came.
“He’s gone,” Garland said.
He called the police and helped me dress. I was shaking. I’d sobered up too fast and my whole body was a headache. Red memory kept washing over me — the room, so silent now, pulsing, pushing blood over and under us in tidal waves. The sound of the gunshot stopping it.
Two patrolmen arrived and Garland met them at the door and led them around the outside of the house. I knew he wouldn’t invite them in if he could help it. Let them get a load of the bedroom from the inside and they’d run him in on a psych charge just on principle. I heard another car pull up and when they came barging in anyway Detective McFarley was with them. Garland was scowling. McFarley grinned when he saw me.
“New here?” he murmured.
“Just what is it you’re doing here?” Garland asked him.
“I got a friend calls me on anything involving this address. I happened to be nearby.”
“Funny, there isn’t a donut shop around here for miles.”
The bedroom door had been left half-open. In the lamp’s gleam it was a red maw. I could see McFarley eyeing it. I closed it and threw him what I hoped was a defiant look.
“Did you two actually see anyone in the yard?”
“I saw him,” Garland said.
“It sounded like Ward,” I added. “I couldn’t say for sure. Whoever it was, he was drunk out of his mind.”
“I’d probably get drunk too if I went in to have my heart fixed and my doctor accused me of murder.”
“I’m pressing charges.” Garland looked triumphant. The detective understood at the same time I did. “You’ll have to search Ward’s house.”
“Looking for what? We don’t know anything happened here. Your witness can’t even back you up.”
It took the wind out of Garland’s sails. “You have to do something.” He wasn’t looking at me.
“Get his statement,” McFarley told one of the patrolmen. “Ask the neighbors if they heard anything.”
With their pissing contest over, McFarley went out onto the porch and I followed. He looked tired.
“It’s a felony, isn’t it, to shoot off a gun like that? Don’t you have to do something?”
“If I trusted the witnesses as to who it was.” He looked me up and down, took in my bare feet growing cold on the porch. “So, did the earth move for you?”
Kinda. I wondered if it would be a felony to slap him.
“You got some idea I’m the villain in this, Doctor Burmester. Your lover in there’s a loose wing-nut. Spouting off about his maps. If it really was Ward, he’s almost justified in letting off a little steam.”
“If I showed you what Garland showed me—”
“You know what I think? I think Dr. Garland has a violent streak, knocked his daughter around, killed her by accident.”
“It was a series—”
“So he tried to hide it by killing more kids.”
“Occam would say you’re pushing it.”
“That a detective?” He’d already lost interest, retrieving his car keys. He looked back up at me from the bottom step. “Evil is small, Dr. Burmester. That’s what’s so evil about it.”
After they left, I found Garland in the living room. The bedroom door was wide open. He was holding the portfolio of x-rays, looking at nothing.
“They’re not going to do anything,” he said. The angular face tightened until it no longer suggested knightly asceticism but the thinness of disease. “It’s a calculated move on Ward’s part. I backed him into that corner and he had to go on the offensive. Act outraged, make such a stink no one could really think he has anything to hide.”
With a bark of No! he threw the portfolio across the room. X-rays scattered. His fist found the desk lamp and it disintegrated on the floor. A chair toppled.
“Stop,” I said. The news-clipping album was next. Wheezing, he tore out page after page, tossing fistfuls into the air. Bits of children’s smiles rained on us. He slammed the frame of his wife and daughter face-down on the desk and glass crunched, then he hunched over it, still as death. In my mouth hung a battery-acid taste of blood, as though I still lay screwing with him on the bed, in the beating heart.
He called two days later with the news.
“I don’t know what caused McFarley to change his mind.” Garland sounded pleased but vaguely wary, someone who’d heard half of a promising joke and wasn’t sure where the punchline was going. “Maybe he figures I’ll do it myself if they don’t. Which I would have. They’re going out there this afternoon. Will you come?”
“I don’t know what it has to do with me, Connor.”
“Nothing. I’d just like a friend there.” He must have sensed me frown at the word friend. “I’ve got a lot of ex-friends I wouldn’t call if I was dying.”
If it was going to happen, I wanted to see it. Not curiosity. There’s no word for why I met them at the river that afternoon. Gameness maybe. McFarley stared at me when I got out of my car. Garland gave me a grateful wave. A brisk breeze blew off the Little Okaw and feathered the oncoming clouds. The embankment was high, offering a panoramic view of the delta formed where the smaller creek split off from the main river — a mid-channel tongue of land, choked at its upper tip by aggradated debris and deadfall. The delta seemed an imperfect place for anyone to have hidden a body, inaccessible perhaps, but prone to exposure any time the water rose and sank. Or perhaps it was the perfect place, the river detritus adding to it year by year, piling up a deeper grave.
I stayed alone on the embankment while Garland and McFarley and the officers with them half-tramped, half-slipped down to the river’s edge. Several men from a special unit were already there with a small inflatable boat. I watched Garland gesticulate, arguing to be included, but they weren’t about to let a civilian compromise a crime scene if it turned out to be one. Three of the special-unit men putt-putted over to the delta, working against the current. It was the only sound aside from the wash of the water.
On the opposite embankment, I could see houses, a street that ran close to the edge, but no one had shown up to rubberneck. Once they reached the delta’s tip, the men had little room to move around, wading knee-deep through brambles that had fused with garbage to a black sludge. The centermost knot of dead branches reached higher than their heads. They spent twenty minutes poking through it, even sawing through the larger branches with a small chainsaw, until the buzzing cut off and a shout went up.
At the river’s edge below me, I could see Garland and McFarley tense and shade their eyes. One of the men on the delta held up a piece of cloth that might have been a shirt. A flash of color against the silt. Blue and white.
Part of a little boy’s sailor suit.
Then they were lifting a dark lump from the brambles, a mud-thing created by the river, that fell apart in their gloved hands and shone white in places.
I wanted to sit down, quell the dizziness, but I made myself stand and watch the shocked figures below acting out their shadow-play, sounds cancelled by the breeze, Garland turning, vindicated by the discovery of the body and yet disturbed because he’d gotten it only half-right, Detective McFarley not surprised at all, only barking an order to the cops beside him, who grabbed Garland and handcuffed his hands behind his back.
McFarley looked up at me and nodded. Acknowledged the smallness of evil.
When I glanced away a figure was standing on the opposite embankment. He could have been following me or Garland, just taken a wrong turn and ended up on the other side of the river, but I knew that wasn’t it. He’d known where to come. Worried perhaps at first, but now Jesse Ward was smiling. He raised a hand and gave me a little wave and when he did the world tilted, detritus falling away, all the maps true and pointing at him. I closed my eyes and when I looked again the irreality from Garland’s bedroom was back, choking me, because Ward was burning, wrapped in flames, and then I was too. Blue scarves that wafted up from my limbs to caress me, silent and snow-cold. I blinked and the flames vanished.
“Good call.” McFarley had trudged up the hill and stopped in front of me. “Garland subconsciously wanting to be caught. Glad you convinced me.” Below us Garland was yelling, twisting his arms away from the cops. He looked devastated, uncomprehending, a child that has trusted up to the moment it is yanked into the stranger’s car.
“He needed help,” I murmured. “He couldn’t stop…believing.” Couldn’t stop living, as I had, his heart still beating there in his insane photo room, obsessed with his maps, doing something. And he’d been right. He’s magic, he’s a seer, he didn’t do it. All I had to do was say it. Point to the real killer over there, his olive-green van parked behind him. Look.
I must have swayed. “Are you all right?” McFarley put his hand on my arm and withdrew it, stunned by the stiffness. Rigor mortis, I wanted to say. You’ve seen it. I thought of Catherine’s words then. In so much pain she could hardly speak, writhing on the bed, and I’d had to lean in close to hear. The last words I would ever hear from her. Mommy, she’d gasped, why can’t you do something?
McFarley was still staring at me. Behind him, I could see Ward’s van pulling away. The air was silent, time frozen on the cusp of happening. I wanted to lift my hand and point, but the dead don’t move.