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Exerpt from Living Proof

No one was near her when it happened.  Trent watched in disbelief as Arianna stuck her right foot in the spokes of her front wheel, missing the pedal by inches. He could see her body tighten, as if clenching her muscles would forestall the blow, as her front tire stopped short and the momentum hurled her over the handlebars.

Even from his distance, he heard her shriek–a useless cry wrenched out of a voice he had never heard lose control.  She flew forward, arms stretched out, clawing at the air in vain, as the bike collapsed underneath her.  Onto the unforgiving pavement she crashed, skidding on her forearms, bouncing on her chin.  With a smack, her knees followed.  The momentum dragged her a foot until friction interceded.  Then, facedown, she was still.

Jesus Christ, he breathed.  She could be dead.  Panic and restraint wrestled within him, keeping him in helpless limbo at the edge of the sidewalk.  His urge to run over to her was growing dangerously compelling, but then she let out a moan and turned onto her side, bringing her knees up to her chest.  Several passersby rushed toward her, yelling to one another to call an ambulance.  A motherly looking woman crouched and held her hand, while a man collected her bicycle from the middle of the sidewalk.  The last thing Trent saw before more people gathered around her was the blood streaming from her kneecaps, scarlet rivulets of pain.

He waited on that corner, an inconspicuous onlooker, until an ambulance arrived six minutes later.  Even after she was placed on a stretcher and loaded into the back, and the siren wailed on, Trent remained standing.  He watched the ambulance squirm and twist through the traffic until he could no longer see or hear it.  He thought of calling the hospital to ask about her condition, but then he realized he didn’t know where she was going. Instead he grabbed his cell phone from his pocket and dialed Dopp’s office. No answer. He dialed Dopp’s home. No answer.

By default Trent started to walk north, as if a magnetic pull was dragging him to the one place he had no interest in going: home.  It was more than 60 blocks away, but he passed the subway in Union Square that would have accelerated his trip, unable to bear standing still on a packed rush-hour train. Moving his legs provided a release of his escalating energy and gave him a sensation of purpose.  As the sky deepened to indigo dusk, he walked on, passing storeowners pulling down metal fronts, closing their clothing boutiques, pet shops, used bookstores. Trent took no notice, insulated in a mental world by thick walls of concern, coated with dread.  His body reacted appropriately to stop lights and traffic, although later he would have little memory of the journey home.

After 20 blocks, he began to tire, but pushed on, ignoring his chilled bones, blistering heels and grumbling stomach. He had not eaten for six hours, since Dopp had stopped by, interrupting his solitaire game and tuna sandwich.  As he walked, he recalled his boss’s words: Don’t hesitate to call me at home if you get anywhere significant this time.

Trent snorted as he considered the last few words.  What if they were forced to close the case because of significant injuries to the targeted party?  That was certainly not a possibility his boss was expecting.  And how would he explain the accident to Dopp? He imagined how their exchange might go:

She fell off her bike.

How come?

Missed the pedal.

Was she going very fast?

No.

It doesn’t make sense, Trent thought.  Nothing was in her way to distract her.  Suddenly he remembered that she had been limping several days before, but it had not been severe enough to hamper her speed, and he hadn’t noticed it when they walked home last night.  Though he hadnt been too steady himself.  Then he remembered their plans for tomorrow morning and cringed: they were supposed to bike the trail on the west side; he was supposed to call her tonight to confirm. So thats exactly what I will do, he thought.  It gave him a perfectly innocent reason to call her.

The starless sky was now navy blue–as dark as the city of infinite nightlights would allow. Soon Trent noticed that the blur of stores around him was beginning to assume a familiar pattern, and he saw he was only four blocks from home. He stopped by a corner pizza place across from his building and devoured three slices, washing them down with two bottles of water, realizing just how hungry and thirsty he had become. Then he crossed the street and went up to his apartment with one goal flashing in his mind: Talk to her.

His studio apartment on the seventh floor looked like the physical form of an afterthought: it was half-heartedly decorated with a tan sofa, a futon with a black bedspread, a small wooden table with two chairs, and a bookshelf.  Across from the sofa was a Yamaha keyboard waiting for its daily dose of attention.  A 19-inch flat screen television hung on the wall like an empty black picture frame. Near the head of his futon, overlooking 73rd street, there was one window. Maroon curtains hung from either side, the one touch of color in the room. He liked the fiery glow they emitted in the mornings, making it seem as if he were tucked into a cozy den lush with color, rather than a sparse room, alone.

He walked to the window, withdrew his phone from his pocket, and called her. It had already begun ringing when he contemplated the possibility that she might not be able to answer at all. He paced over the wood floor, pressing the phone hard against his ear. One, two, three rings passed.

“Hello?” came her voice, scratchy and soft.

“Hey Arianna,” he said, his tone chipper. ”How are you? I just wanted to see if were still biking tomorrow.”

“Actually no. I’m in the hospital.”

“What?”

Her voice was flat. “I had an accident on my bike, and Im pretty scraped up. Got six stitches on my chin, and my knees and elbows are all ripped up. But luckily that’s about it.”

“Oh, wow, I’m so sorry to hear that. That must be so painful.” He exhaled a breath he did not know he was holding. “But at least it sounds like you’ll be fine in the end.”

Silence.

“Arianna?”

“I’m here.”

“What’s wrong?”

She sighed a long breath, and when she spoke, even her voice sounded deflated. ”I guess it’s only fair to tell you.”

“Tell me what?”

“Look Trent, I owe you an apology. I haven’t been completely honest with you.”

“Ok…” In spite of the irony, his heart began to race; was this the moment of her confession? He hadn’t imagined it like this–with his opponent bandaged and broken, a suddenly weaker match. But why would she tell him now about a secret lab?

“I have malignantly progressive multiple sclerosis. I lose my balance sometimes, and my limbs go numb out of nowhere, which is what happened today. I shouldn’t have been riding anymore, but I hate letting it interfere with my life. Which is also why I didn’t tell you. You may not mean to, but I don’t want you to start treating me with pity, like I’m some cripple. Because I’m not. Maybe it’s only in my mind, but I’m not.” Her voice rose, lifted by self-respect. “And if you still want anything to do with me after this, you’ll have to get that straight.”

Trent’s mind swirled with a montage of instantly linked events: her limp, her stumbling into the lobby, her foot thrust into the spokes of the wheel. He had never known anyone with MS, had no idea what it involved or implied.

“Jesus, Arianna. I had no idea! I can’t believe you were still biking, when you knew the danger, you’re a doctor for God’s sake!”

“Oh, and don’t even dare patronize me. I will live my life however I choose and take whatever risks I want. If I decide to skydive tomorrow as my last life’s wish, then you can either wave to me from the ground or–”

“Your last life’s wish?” he interrupted. ”What? What are you talking about?”

“It’s malignantly progressive. Soon I’ll be in a wheelchair, and after that….” After a pause, her voice dropped to a hard note. “I like you, Trent, but you’d be wasting your time to date me.”

He took a deep breath, trying to loosen the shock that was lodged in his throat like a clot. ”I don’t care,” he said, trying to sound brave and supportive, and not as rotten as he felt, “I still want to keep seeing you for as long as I can.”

“You do?”

“Yes. But isn’t there any treatment that could help you? Any drug?”

“There are some drugs that slow its progress,” she said slowly. ”But no, right now, there’s no cure.”

No cure.

Right now, there’s–

And then, flabbergasted, he latched on to the wildly glaring connection–could it be? His head began to throb as if from an ice freeze, oversaturated with information.

“I don’t know what to say,” he finally said.

“I need to go anyway. You probably need some time to digest this. You can call me later if you want. And needless to say, we can’t bike together anymore.”

He closed his phone and stared out the window. Dark treetops swayed below, but he hardly perceived them. Time passed–perhaps a minute or ten–before his hand mechanically lifted his phone and flipped it open. His finger found Dopp Home in the directory, and pressed send.

Dopp’s voice sounded incongruously normal, even pleasant, when he answered. ”Hey Trent, how did it go?”

Something deep within him, unacknowledged and unwanted, recoiled against his words as he answered:

“I think I found her motive.”