The Death Factory
the past few hours. Last week was pretty rough, and Dad’s coronary on top of it . . .”
    “I know.” He squeezes my shoulder and gives me an empathetic smile. “You want to give the story a rest? Go back and see him?”
    “In a minute. I need to get this out. Are you okay?”
    “Hell, yeah. I want to know what happened. I’m betting Detective Washington found the picture of the girl. That’s how they nailed Conley, right?”
    “Nope.” I wish I had a bottle of water to wet my throat. “When I got home from meeting Joe, Sarah was still out. After being out in the real world—even for just that one hour—I could see how exhausted everyone was, even Annie. Everyone sensed we were on our last lap. If we weren’t, some of us wouldn’t reach the finish line. Mom and Mrs. Spencer no longer looked like nurses tending a patient. They looked like old angels hovering by the bed, waiting to collect a soul.
    “While Sarah slept, I took Annie outside to play with a neighbor’s dog. All I could think was that in a matter of days, maybe even hours, there would only be the two of us. She seemed to understand that, too, but she didn’t want to talk about it. I didn’t, either. So long as Sarah’s heart beat, so long as there was one breath in her body, her presence filled that house.
    “Late that day, she came out of her haze. With wakefulness came the pain—bone pain in her legs—and she got very agitated again. Worse than the morning, even. Something had changed in her. The iron self-control I’d seen slip just after dawn had finally given way altogether. There was an animal fear in her eyes. Nobody knew what to do. There’s nothing worse than seeing someone you love in pain and being unable to take the pain away. Dad filled a syringe to knock her out again, but Sarah slapped it out of his hand. I think she was afraid that if he gave it to her, she’d never wake up again.
    “That was the worst night. Annie was crying, and Mom had to take her upstairs. Sarah’s mother finally cracked. We were in the final stage of the struggle. The Avila case never once entered my head. Dad titrated morphine for pain, but Sarah refused to be fully sedated, and he was losing the battle by then. Half the time she wasn’t coherent, and when she was, she was terrified. I couldn’t understand it. She’d been so accepting all along, so heroically stoic. I think she was like an army that had finally outrun all its lines of supply and was disintegrating on the battlefield.
    “At that point I asked everyone to leave her room. With just the two of us, I tried to bring Sarah back to herself, to get her centered again. I talked about the simplest things from our past, things I didn’t think she could ever forget. I realized then that a lot of her fear was caused by the brain mets, terror generated by having no control over anything, not even her thoughts. After a while, she let Dad give her a shot of fentanyl. She calmed down a little then. I felt enormous relief, but when the pain subsided, she took my hand and in a very clear voice said, ‘I don’t think I can do it anymore.’
    “‘Do what?’ I asked.
    “‘This . Being awake is . . . worse than nothing. I don’t want Annie to see me like this.’
    “I said everything I could think of to reassure her, but nothing was getting through. I don’t know how much time passed, but when the pain started climbing the scale again, she asked me to get Dad. I did. Then I went upstairs and watched The Little Mermaid with Annie. She fell asleep on my shoulder. Very carefully, I put her to bed, then went down to check on Sarah.”
    “She was gone?” Jack asks quietly.
    “No. The opposite, in fact. Dad seemed to have worked some kind of miracle, because all her anxiety was gone. Her pain, too. I found out later he’d rolled her over and given her an epidural, like they do for pregnant women. He wasn’t an anesthesiologist, but he knew how to do it, and he got my mother to assist him.

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