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Drop By Drop



Naked, Rachel padded into the bathroom. Only a moment lapsed before the hiss of the shower began.

Five minutes later, her head, already swathed in a towel, poked around the bathroom door. “We need to be out of here in twenty minutes or I miss the plane.”

“Damn.” I had rolled out of bed only to stub a toe on one of the heels she’d shaken off last night. Home from the office just before ten, she’d shown me the little white plastic stick with a straight pink line across it. If the pregnancy kit could be trusted, our first child was less than nine months away.

She’d cried, I’d laughed, and after forty-five minutes discussing baby names, we’d headed straight for bed in an attempt – not altogether unsuccessful – to fit a week of lovemaking into a couple of hours.

The LCD on the clock radio now glowed six-fifteen. With rush hour traffic on 101, we’d have to be lucky to get her on the eight o’clock flight for her week in Boston. I smeared shaving gel around my face, wiped the already-accumulating steam off the mirror, and cursed again as the razor lopped off the piece of skin covering my Adam’s apple. Ah well, if you play the tune, you have to pay the piper. And last night had been worth it. Definitely.

By seven we were floating along in my one-week old Jag convertible. It had been an anniversary present from Rachel. She’d had a heck of a year. The lid was coming off the IPO basket, or rather Rachel and a couple of other i-bankers were tearing it off. She made more money in one year than an associate professor of history at Stanford like me would make in twenty. I really hadn’t seen any reason to give up my ten-year old Camry and was embarrassed by such conspicuous consumption, but all she had to do was to lower her chin and look up at me from beneath raised eyebrows. Rachel could be pretty damn persuasive.

I navigated over to the carpool lane. Only in California would one driver plus one passenger equal a carpool. And only in California would such loose admission requirements still result in an almost empty lane. We rolled along on our own magic carpet, not saying much. Anything but a poker player, Rachel couldn’t help letting a grin flit across her lips every few seconds. We had been talking about children since before we were married, but had decided to wait a couple of years – time for her to be named a managing director and for me to get tenure. Talk was one thing, the pink line was another.

“I didn’t expect it to happen so fast,” I said, eyes, fixed on the road.

“It’s a little late for second thoughts.”

“No, no. I’m ecstatic. Really. Just surprised. When you think how long it took Sarah and Frank. And for us the first month after you’re off the pill. Doesn’t seem fair.” Rachel’s college roommate and husband had resorted to in vitro fertilization after five years of trying for the pink line that had just shown up, practically unbidden, at our place the night before.

“I know it’s not fair.” She laid her left hand on my shoulder, and I looked over into her verdigris eyes. “You’re just a stud.”

“Let me tell you about life as a stud. When I worked in D.C., a couple of us drove down to Kentucky for the Derby. We visited a few horse farms. They’d bring out the beast with his male organ scraping the ground. He climbs on board the mare – one thrust, two at the most. All done. And he keeps it up twice a day for four or five months.”

“You looking for equine reincarnation? Twice a day sex with no foreplay. Or is that a reminder of life as a bachelor?”

I’d grown up in Palo Alto and lived there still while teaching at Stanford. Naturally enough, we came across some of my old girlfriends. After one such encounter a few months ago, I’d told Rachel that I couldn’t be found guilty of cheating on her before we’d even met. She didn’t buy it.

“We’re making good time,” Rachel said, looking down at her watch as I pulled off the freeway onto the long exit to SFO. “I should be fine.”

“Now you’ve done it. You’ve tempted the traffic gods.” Confirming my warning, the rear lights of the car in front of us began to glow orange-red, and I applied my foot to the brake.

Fifteen minutes later we crept into a spot between a twenty-year old Chevy and a black Lincoln Town Car. Rachel would still make the flight. Her United 1K card would expedite passage through the security queue. We got out of the car and circled back to the trunk.

“Sam, should I stay home?” She buried her face against my chest.

The question caught me off-guard. Flying around the country visiting hot companies was what she did. Was this a test to see whether I considered the pregnancy to be a big deal, whether it changed everything?

“So don’t go,” I told her.

“I have to, don’t I? Everyone’s counting on me.” She clutched me even harder. After a few seconds, she pulled away and looked up with those green eyes.

Did she have to? Her boss had told her that she was going to run this deal on her own. A first. What she’d been wishing for. But now she was pregnant. A good excuse to beg off, wasn’t it?

Before I could say anything, we heard a loud call of “Sam, Rachel.” Still holding each other, we looked around.

“Dougie!” Rachel cried. A moment later my old grad school roommate had replaced me in my wife’s arms.

After a little too long – Doug knew what he was doing – he let her go. Doug and I had met Rachel at the same time – in line for gelato on Emerson Street in downtown Palo Alto. While any woman in her right mind would have picked the taller, blonder, and just all-around better-looking Doug, Rachel had slipped a business card to me after the three of us finished spooning down our cups of Italian ice.

Doug and I shook hands.

“What are you doing here?” I asked. We had met when working on Capitol Hill. After three years in D.C., we’d both ended up in graduate school at Stanford. While I wrote my doctoral thesis on the British intelligence services in the years leading up to World War II, Doug had studied under Jessie Levine, the professor of political science and Stanford provost. Five years ago Jessie had climbed down from the ivory tower of academe to deal with the chaos of the real world as the president’s national security advisor. Doug himself liked the idea of applying power better than studying it. As soon as asked, he fled Palo Alto to join her in Washington, D.C.

“Why didn’t you call?” Rachel asked. We saw Doug a few times a year when he visited his old stamping grounds. I think he got a kick out of the quietly bubbling resentment that his trips engendered among most of his former colleagues. We had been friends for long enough for me to know that he envied what I had with Rachel and for him to know that I had no desire to try to climb greasy poles in D.C.

“Sorry. I was just here for a day. You know, for some meetings.”


“Naah. Jessie was supposed to be here last night for a dinner at the Institute for International Studies. She couldn’t make it and sent me. I flew in yesterday afternoon, out this morning. Need to be back in DC by late afternoon.”

“I read that Barak was in town?” The former Israeli prime minister had gone to graduate school at Stanford in the seventies.

Doug bobbed his head. He figured that a knowing nod would seem more mysterious and more impressive than a recap of what was probably not much more than a faculty cocktail party. “And where are you two going?”

“It’s just me going to visit a client back in Boston,” Rachel replied.

“You two chat,” I said. “Let me get Rachel’s case, and I’ll check on the flight.”

“Hey! Watch it,” I called. An old Accord had pulled into a now empty space behind the Jag and almost pinned me between the two cars. A bespectacled young woman wearing a Middle Eastern-style head scarf with a baggy shirt and pants sat behind the wheel.

“You okay?” Rachel asked me.


I pulled Rachel’s black Tumi case out of the trunk, extended the handle, and trotted into the terminal to check the gate for the flight to Boston. I arrived in front of the bank of terminals and turned around to look through the glass. The driver of the Accord had made the mistake of abandoning her car, and a traffic cop had swooped in like a vulture to carrion. For no apparent reason, Rachel swung her head away from Doug and toward me. She waggled her fingers and blew me a kiss. I smiled, jerked a thumb at the video monitors, and turned around to find out her gate.

Then it hit me – an enormous whoosh and the sound of a dozen thunderclaps.

I was deaf. Couldn’t hear anything.

I was blind. No, the air was filled with sooty black smoke.

I was on all fours. Sticky blood was smeared on the floor beneath me. I pushed down on my hands and heard the crunch of glass underneath them. Shards embedded themselves into my palms. The pain chased the grogginess away.

Rachel. I staggered up and crunched my way back toward her. Now I could see dim light through the smoke. The huge window I had just looked through had been blown out. Even as I stepped through the jagged opening, I could see the abandoned Accord in flames.

I started to scream.

“Rache, Rache.” Where was she?

My head scanned from side to side. The traffic cop had been blown against the side of the terminal. A six-inch icicle of glass stuck out of her chest. Her face was blackened. As I leaned toward her, I caught a scent like beef on the barbeque and had to swallow a mouthful of bile. Blood was seeping from her mouth, but her eyes were open and her pupils moving. I tried to pull out the glass, but the blood made it too slippery. I wrapped the tail of my shirt around my hand. That worked. I opened her jacket and saw a red splotch spreading over her chest. I pressed the shirt tail down on the wound. I kept yelling for my wife.

A lean gray-haired man bleeding from the face appeared from behind me.

“You go look for your Rache,” he said with an accent. I could hear again. “It’s okay. You look. I’m a surgeon. From Tel Aviv. I know this.”

As I stood, I began to hear the whine of ambulances and fire trucks. Even so, I just yelled louder. The Jag was still there, windows gone, rear blackened, tires shredded. I was not the only one yelling. Other survivors were stumbling around, their eyes out of skew, zombies. I called for Rachel, walking in widening circles from where I had left her with Doug. About twenty feet from the Accord, I started coming across small pieces of fabric and flesh. A little further away a blue backpack lay on the roadway and then two men in white T-shirts and blue workpants came up to me.

“Come with us,” one of them shouted over the screaming of humans and sirens.

I shook my head. “Need to find my wife.” And I tried to shake off the hands they had on my forearms.

“Your back is bleeding.”


One of the paramedics let go of my left arm. “He’s got to find his wife,” he said. The other one dropped my right arm.

A man slumped over the wheel of the Lincoln that had been in front of my Jag, the back of his head open to reveal the spongy gray of what had been brains. I continued jogging in an expanding spiral. A cellphone on the ground. Was the owner alive? The guys who had tried to stop me were lifting a moaning woman on to a stretcher. One of her feet was Nike-clad, the other bare. As they lifted her, a crimson pool was revealed.

I turned around. Thirty yards behind me, firefighters were covering the twisted metal hulk that had been the Accord with foam. From above came the beating of helicopter rotors. Still I shouted the same word over and over in rhythmic protest. Against a barricade ahead, I saw a body wearing a tattered chalk-striped suit lying face down. I ran. I turned it over. It was Doug. Or rather it had been.

Where there had been a face was now only burnt flesh, hollows where there had been eyes. Underneath him, a left hand reached out to me, a hand with long tapered fingers and delicate pink polish, a hand with a wedding ring on it, the wedding ring that had belonged to my father’s mother. No damage to the hand. I pulled on it and stumbled backwards as it came free. There was no body connected the arm. Tendons and white bone stuck out from the end. I screamed.

This was what was left of her, of my wife? And what of the baby, our baby? No more life growing inside of her. Instead death spread everywhere.

Drop By Drop: A Thriller by Keith Raffel © 2011. All rights reserved