Saving Meghan: New Excerpt

Saving Meghan

D.J. Palmer

April 9, 2019

Saving Meghan by D.J. Palmer is a psychological thriller about a teenage girl plagued by an ever-present mysterious illness — an illness her mother insists is real, but medical professionals, and her father, are beginning to doubt. 

Can you love someone to death?

Some would say Becky Gerard is a devoted mother and would do anything for her only child. Others claim she’s obsessed and can’t stop the vicious circle of finding a cure at her daughter’s expense.

Fifteen-year-old Meghan has been in and out of hospitals with a plague of unexplained illnesses. But when the ailments take a sharp turn, doctors intervene and immediately suspect Munchausen syndrome by proxy, a rare behavioral disorder where the primary caretaker, typically the mother, seeks medical help for made-up symptoms of a child. Is this what’s going on? Or is there something even more sinister at hand?

Becky

Panic gripped her as the airplane’s hatch door closed. Her heartbeat skittered against the tightness stretched across her chest. The air tasted stale, harder to take in as her breathing turned rapid and shallow. A thin sheen of sweat dampened her face and coated her body. Her skin stuck to the seat’s faux leather upholstery like adhesive. Becky Gerard thought to herself: I’ve made a terrible mistake.

A composed flight attendant, appropriately attired in a blue uniform with a matching silk scarf, spoke through an intercom.

“Ladies and gentlemen, my name is Katrina, and I’ll be your chief flight attendant on this six – and – a – half – hour flight from Boston’s Logan Airport to Los Angeles. The cabin doors are now closed, so kindly make sure your seat backs and tray tables are in their full upright positions and your seat belt is securely fastened low and tight across your lap. Also, please note at this time we respectfully ask that you power down and store all portable electronic devices until we’ve reached our cruising altitude.”

Becky focused on the portable electronic device clutched in her hand. Instead of powering it down, she held the device low against her leg to keep it out of Katrina’s sight. The phone was Becky’s lifeline to the outside world, her conduit to what mattered most—her daughter, Meghan.

The plane jolted as it pulled away from the gate and soon after began a slow taxi toward the runaway. The pit in Becky’s stomach deepened. She waited for a text, some reply from Carl, her gaze fixed on the phone.

Her seatmate, a pleasant fortysomething man, took note of Becky’s open defiance with a degree of bemusement. “I’ll shield you,” the man said in a conspiratorial tone.

Becky glanced up to thank him. He gave her a warm, friendly smile, nothing more. It was rare for her to sit next to a man and not feel his desire. She was tall, annoyingly thin to some outspoken friends, with long, flowing blond hair and sharp blue eyes that called attention to her nicely symmetrical face, very much the prototypical California girl—which happened to be her home state.

At forty-eight, Becky could easily pass for a woman a decade younger, but these last few years of Meghan’s illness had begun to take a toll on her youthful appearance. There were gray streaks camouflaged in her blond mane, and crow’s-feet marked the edges of her blue eyes, deep enough as though the birds themselves had perched there at night while she slept. Still, men found her attractive, lusted after her, convinced themselves that she could not resist their charms. She understood the sway she held over some men—most men—but she was always strategic in the application of this power of hers.

Her seatmate was the rare breed who gave off no creep factor whatsoever, so she could keep her attention on her phone and not be distracted by him. Carl, her husband of twenty years, should have answered her by now. How hard was it to text Meghan’s fine or We’re fine or No worries, safe travels xo, anything of the sort, but it had been ages (well, more like thirty minutes) since she’d sent her last probing text, and his radio silence was deeply unsettling. He knew how nervous she was to leave Meghan. She’d been up all night with worry, and he’d promised to respond right away whenever she texted him.

Why isn’t he answering now?

The flight attendant patrolled the aisle with the watchful eye of a prison guard. Becky slumped farther forward to block her phone as she typed another message to Carl: Plane leaving. Where are you? What’s going on?

That voice in Becky’s head, the one that had told her not to go to California in the first place, spoke up again to issue stern admonishments of how long the flight was from Boston. She’d be thousands of miles from her daughter. It was stupid to think she could go there without feeling perpetually sick to her stomach. But what other choice did she have? Her mother was dying. According to her sister, Sabrina, her only sibling, it was a matter of days.

“I know you have your issues, we both do, but she’s our mother,” Sabrina had said during yesterday’s phone call. “You should come home.”

The truth was, Becky did want to be with Cora in her final moments. She wanted to hold her mother’s hand, console her, be there for her despite all the insanity, the layers of hurt that like geological strata had marked the epochs of her journey into adulthood.

Even with years and distance between them, Becky could not escape her mother’s long shadow. Though the cancer had taken her mother’s voice, that voice still rang loudly in Becky’s ears. If she wasn’t chiding her, she was either critiquing her or ignoring her.

Did her mother have a mental illness? If so, none was ever diagnosed, but Becky had done plenty of research over the years, not to mention countless hours spent in the therapist’s armchair, trying to understand Cora’s ambivalence toward motherhood. The bits of wisdom Becky got growing up were not the kind a normal mother would have imparted.

“You have to figure out their doubts and fears, try to use their pasts to your advantage,” her mother had once said while explaining how to manipulate people. They were in a doctor’s office at the time. Then again, they were always in some doctor’s office.

“Look on the wall.” She pointed to the pictures that hung in pretty silver frames. “There isn’t a woman in any of them, just him and his two daughters. Is he a widow? Divorced? Could be he’s lonely, or his confidence has been shattered. That’s good for us. We can use it. See how one of his daughters looks like you?” She had pointed out a blond girl who looked to be ten, the same age as Becky at the time. “We’ll tell him we’re new to town, don’t know our way around yet, wondering about schools and such. He’ll think of his own daughter when he looks at you, and it’ll make him want to be extra helpful. So when we ask for a doctor’s note—for my work, I’ll say—he won’t think twice about writing one, even though he hasn’t reached any diagnosis yet.”

Her mother did not actually have a job. Her job was getting those notes from the doctors she had taught Becky to manipulate. She did not show Becky how to braid her hair or brush out the tangles. There were no lectures on healthy eating. “You ask around, you’ll figure it out,” her mother had said when Becky inquired where babies came from. Her mother’s love was dished out like food rations, given only in times of great need. And it seemed the only time that need arose was when Becky was with her mother at the doctor’s office or a hospital. Becky accompanied her mother on these frequent sojourns as nothing more than a prop—something cute and little to evoke sympathy and dispel suspicion from the doctors and nurses whom Cora had come to depend on for her disability checks.

Like an actress in a play, Becky had her lines down cold, coached by her mother, who was both the director and her harshest critic, which made her so believable when answering the doctors’ questions.

Yes, I’ve seen Mommy faint a bunch of times.

Sometimes Mommy’s headaches are so bad that she can’t see straight.

Not surprisingly, for all the trips they made to the doctors over the years, nobody could ever figure out what was wrong with Cora, because nothing was ever wrong.

Now Becky was off to say goodbye to this damaged and damaging woman, worried it would be to the detriment of the sick daughter she’d left behind.

Becky bit her lower lip as she stared forlornly at the squat gray buildings that appeared to be rolling past her portal window. Of course, it was an illusion. Becky was the one moving, not the buildings, which meant she was leaving, that this was really happening. She was going to fly, and there was still no word from Carl.

Becky’s seatmate sent her another sidelong glance. Perhaps he noticed some color drain from her complexion or her knuckles whiten as she gripped the armrest.

“Nervous to fly?” he asked.

Becky peeled her eyes from her phone, tried to relax and let it all go, but her heartbeat accelerated as the terminal vanished from view.

“No, I’m fine. Thank you,” she managed. Her soft voice lacked conviction.

“My wife hates to fly, too,” said the man. His capacity to ignore the “don’t talk to me” vibes Becky gave off annoyed her, but it was not surprising. Men often had blinders on in that regard—even the non-creepers. “A vodka tonic usually does the trick,” he continued. “Anyway, I’m sure you’ve heard that flying is far safer than driving.”

“I’m fine, really. Thank you for your concern.”

Becky took a sharper tone and, judging by her seatmate’s wounded expression, doubted there’d be any more idle chitchat. She returned her attention to her phone, feeling terrible for the way she’d dismissed the man. Thanks to her mother, Becky was remarkably in tune with other people’s feelings.

It made sense she’d be good at it—there had been no better way to get her mom’s attention than to show an aptitude for figuring out what people wanted to hear based on their appearance or mannerisms. To see her daughter plying the family trade had impressed Cora more than when Becky made the cheer squad in middle school or got into the National Honor Society her junior year in high school. At the feet of the grand master herself, Becky had learned what to say or do to ingratiate herself with most anyone. With these insights, she could make people happy, put them on edge, or keep the peace, whichever suited her needs. It was shameful in a way, but it was also what had made her such a successful real estate broker. It was all about knowing which levers to pull.

“I’m sorry,” Becky said to the man. “I’m traveling for the first time in a long time, and it’s hard for me to leave my daughter. She’s sick, and, well, I’m waiting to hear from my husband to let me know everything is all right.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” the man said sincerely. “What’s the matter, if you don’t mind my asking?”

“I wish I knew,” Becky said. “Nobody seems to know.”

Becky was a notoriously private person, except when it came to Meghan’s illness. For that, she blared the horns. She talked to anyone, stranger or friend, about the puzzling array of symptoms plaguing her daughter. She sought advice, doctors’ names, homeopathic remedies, experimental treatments, diagnoses from the expert and uninformed alike. She had filing cabinets in her office filled with papers, printouts from the web, doctors’ reports, lab tests—enough so that a friend once jokingly asked if she was opening up a health clinic.

While Becky avoided the specifics of Meghan’s confounding symptoms, she gave enough details to help her seatmate visualize a tense and uncertain situation back home. Muscle weakness. Fatigue. Blinding headaches. Achy joints. Weight loss. Decline in physical coordination. Trouble concentrating. Her daughter’s symptoms could change or worsen at any time, making a six-hour cross-country flight feel like an eternity.

“I’m sorry for what you’re going through. I’ll pray for you,” said the man after Becky had dispensed with the background.

It was a kind gesture, not at all unwelcome, and something Becky heard quite often these days. When there were no clear answers or well-defined next steps, prayers seemed to be the only thing people could offer.

Carl finally returned Becky’s many texts just as the captain came on the intercom to inform the passengers and crew that they were number six for takeoff. The buzz of the phone surged through her arm like an electric current. Carl’s reply was short and simple, four words that made Becky’s blood turn cold:

We’re at the hospital.

* * * * *

Becky’s phone buzzed for a second time.

Carl’s next message read: Can you talk?

The plane crawled forward a few more feet. Becky did the math in her head: six hours in the air, a layover in California until she could get a return flight home to Boston, six more hours to fly back, and then travel time to the hospital. All of it added up to far too long.

Becky got Carl on the phone.

“Baby, what is it? What’s going on?” Panic leaked into her voice.

“I don’t know. Holly was over with the twins. The kids were in the backyard kicking a soccer ball when Meghan just fainted. I called 911. The ambulance brought her to Saint Joe’s. But she seems fine now, alert, chatty even.”

“What did the doctors say exactly?” Becky asked. “And how could you let her run around?”

“She wanted to play.”

Becky got the subtext. Her daughter may have inherited her father’s natural athletic ability, but there was no question she got her strong will from Mom. The twins, Addy and Danielle, were younger kids from down the street. Their mother, Holly, was a neighbor who had become an expert on Lyme disease after Addy contracted it. Becky remembered now that she and Holly had made plans to meet for coffee and talk about the condition, plans she had forgotten about when she booked the last-minute flight to California.

The symptoms of Lyme disease are easy to miss or confuse with something else, and half the people who have it don’t even remember getting a tick bite. Meghan had already been tested, but Holly knew some rare forms of the disease that she thought worth consideration. It was no surprise she had brought the twins with her. The girls were always eager to learn soccer from Meghan, the older, far-superior player.

But Carl knew better, and it took every bit of restraint not to scream at him. Exercise, exertion of any kind, worsened her daughter’s symptoms, which was why Becky had insisted Meghan quit the varsity team, as well as the travel clubs where she was always the star.

The flight attendant stormed down the aisle, glowering as she marched. “You have to put that away immediately.”

At that moment, the captain’s monotone came over the loudspeaker. “We’re presently number three in line for takeoff. Flight attendants, please prepare for departure.”

“Now, please!” Katrina barked, pointing at the phone.

Becky ignored the order. “Carl, what’s going on? Is she all right?”

This was hardly the first time Meghan had been to the hospital, but it was the first time that Becky had not been with her. Anxiety built in Becky’s chest and spread outward as the hard stares of many sets of eyes bored into her from the front and back of the airplane.

“The doctor thinks she became dehydrated. No IV—she wouldn’t allow it, of course—but they’ve given her lots of fluids.”

Becky was not surprised. The only tangible result of all the doctor visits seemed to be her daughter’s newly developed and incredibly intense needle phobia. Too many failed attempts at venipuncture from inexperienced phlebotomists had deeply scarred Meghan and turned every doctor’s visit into an ordeal. Getting an IV into her would have been a miracle.

Despite Carl’s reassurances, Becky visualized her daughter on a hospital bed in the ER, the electrocardiogram going flatline. She heard alarms ringing in her ears, and imagined a swarm of doctors and nurses administering lifesaving care.

Becky pinned the phone between her shoulder and ear as she fumbled to unclasp her seat belt. She stood, nearly cracking her skull on the overhead bin as she rose, and clambered over her seatmate, issuing a string of apologies as she forced her way into the aisle.

“Ma’am, you must take your seat this instant,” Katrina said while blocking the aisle.

Ignoring the order, Becky shook her head in defiance. “My daughter is very sick. She’s in the hospital. I have to get off this plane. Now.”

“Ma’am, I’m ordering you back to your seat, right now.” Katrina pointed at Becky’s empty seat, as though she needed the reminder of how to find it.

Two flight attendants hurried toward the commotion while a third accessed the intercom, perhaps to inform the captain of the disturbance in row 16. The plane continued to roll forward, while Becky, retrieving her bag from the overhead bin, acted as though it had come to a complete stop at the gate.

“Please, I have to be with my daughter. She’s in the hospital; she’s very sick.”

“Hey, sit down, lady!” The angry voice came from some rows back.

Becky’s seatmate stood and glowered at the man who had scolded her. “Her daughter is sick,” he snapped. “She has to get off the plane. Have a heart, buddy.”

“If she’s sick, what’s she flying for?” the angry man shot back.

Becky paid no attention to him. Her thoughts looped like a recording on repeat: Get off the plane! Get off the plane! Get off the plane!

Becky figured she could knock on the cockpit door to get the captain’s attention, forgetting what those terrorists had done on that fateful day and how everything about flying had changed since then. As she pushed past Katrina, Becky felt a firm hold on her arm, followed by a strong tug backwards.

“Take a seat!” Katrina commanded. She dug her fingers into Becky’s tender flesh.

“My daughter is in the hospital with a heart attack or something. Please . . . please . . . don’t do this to me. Let me go. I have to get to her.”

“Hey, let her go,” someone called out. “It’s her damn kid!”

“What the hell is wrong with you?” shouted another supporter.

“Sit down, lady!” This third voice, a female’s, called out. “I’ll kick your ass if you make me miss this flight.”

“Ma’am, if you don’t take your seat this instant, I’m going to have you forcibly removed from this plane,” Katrina threatened.

“Yes,” Becky cried out. “That’s what I want. Kick me off right now. I need to be with my daughter. I can’t fly to California, don’t you understand?”

Becky turned to see a large man approaching her from behind. He had a bushy mustache and thinning dark hair that gleamed beneath the cabin lights. As he flashed some sort of ID to Katrina, his fingers clamped around Becky’s left arm, which he then wrenched painfully and awkwardly behind her back.

“I’m an air marshal,” he gruffly announced to Katrina. “Please tell the captain we have a situation here, and we need to get this plane back to the gate—now. Ma’am, I’m taking you into custody for interfering with a flight crew.”

Becky heard some cheers mixed with plenty of boos. In her peripheral vision, she saw cell phones out, small lenses recording her meltdown for the whole world to see. Soon it would be all over Twitter, Facebook, maybe the news. The air marshal yanked Becky’s other arm behind her back with total disregard for tendons and range of motion. A second later, Becky felt the clamp of cold steel biting into her flesh as he secured his handcuffs around her delicate wrists.

She’d never done the “perp walk” before, and understood now the desire for a clipboard or hoodie to shield her face as the air marshal escorted her off the gangway and back into the departure lounge. As a woman, she thought she knew what it meant to feel degraded when men groped her, touched her, approached her, catcalled her, but this was dehumanizing on an entirely different level.

It was a short walk from the departure gate to a waiting electric-powered cart that the air marshal had summoned on his radio. People gawked at Becky as the uniformed driver, an employee of the airport, drove her away. They were understandably curious. What could she have done? Even Becky could appreciate the odd sight—a tall, willowy woman manhandled by a brute like the air marshal. It hardly made for a fair fight.

Becky tried to hold it together as the driver weaved the cart between clusters of airline passengers all making their way to gates or other destinations. She felt less conspicuous while seated, as nobody could see the handcuffs around her wrists. She was aware of the crime she’d committed, but not the penalties it might carry. All Becky wanted was to get at her purse, which held her phone. Meghan was still in the hospital. For all she knew, her daughter could be gone.

“Please, please,” Becky said, willing strength into her voice. “You don’t have to do this.”

The air marshal answered coolly, “You didn’t have to interfere with a flight crew.”

Some minutes later, Becky found herself in a stark back room constructed entirely of gray concrete bricks located somewhere in the bowels of the airport. Overhead lights reflected harshly off a metal table positioned in the center of the room. She looked across the table at several members of the TSA, all dressed in crisp blue shirts pinned with gold badges. Their shifting glances and nervous looks told her they were not trained to handle a distressed mom in handcuffs.

“Dave, I think you may have overstepped your bounds here,” one of the TSA agents offered a bit apprehensively.

Dave.

At least now Becky knew her captor’s name.

Just then, the room’s only door swung open, and in stormed a strong-featured man in his fifties, with ebony skin and short-cut dark hair. He had on a charcoal gray suit brightened with a bold red tie, which distinguished him as a person in charge. When he looked at Becky and saw the handcuffs in place, his stern aspect softened. His gaze shifted over to Dave, the air marshal.

“Unlock her,” he said. “You went way, way over the line here.”

“She interfered with a flight crew,” Dave protested in his defense. “She should be charged.”

“I can’t believe you blew your cover for a situation the flight crew could have handled. Just so you know, I spoke with the captain, who informed me that he would have willingly returned to the gate to let this poor mother off that plane. Now, get her free.”

Dave muttered to himself as he complied with the order. Becky rubbed at her wrists, which were ringed red in the matching contours of the handcuffs.

The man who’d come to Becky’s rescue pulled over a chair. He sat down beside her. “Ma’am, I’m Reginald Campbell, head of TSA here at Logan. I am so very sorry for what you’ve been through.”

Becky regained her composure. “I know you think I’m going to threaten you with lawsuits and whatnot, but I only want my purse with my phone in it so that I can check in with my husband and make sure my daughter is all right.”

“Of course,” Reginald said, retrieving the purse from the corner of the room where Dave had tossed it. “If you don’t mind, we just need to see some ID for the paperwork.”

Becky’s hands trembled as she fished her license from her wallet and her phone from her purse. She handed the ID to Reginald and then checked her phone, which showed a series of texts from Carl. The last one eased her anxiety considerably.

Meghan is resting in the ER. Seems stable. She’s asking for you. Are you able to get here?

Becky texted back: Don’t let them discharge her. Be there soon.

“I need to leave now,” Becky told Reginald. “I have to get to the hospital. Am I under arrest?”

“Well, Mrs. Gerard,” said Dave the air marshal, taking it upon himself to answer. He stood and exhaled loudly in a way that pushed out his ample midsection like a balloon. “You’ve created a serious situation for yourself.”

“Stop it, just stop it,” Reginald snapped. He handed Becky back her license. “No, Mrs. Gerard, you are not under arrest. You’re free to go. And we owe you a sincere apology. I also suspect you’ll have your airfare refunded and a free trip coming your way.”

But Dave was not through. He had to save face somehow. There was a brief, albeit stern, lecture on how to properly engage the flight crew during an emergency, and then some forms to sign, and threats of a stiff fine and possible jail time if she ever disrupted a flight again, all of which Becky said she understood just so they would hurry up and let her go.

Eventually, Reginald took Becky to some dingy back room where piles of confiscated luggage languished, each piece representing someone’s horrible day. There Reginald explained at least one reason why he’d shown her such compassion.

“I had a son who died of leukemia a few years back,” he explained. “Those last moments we had together were the most precious of my life. If I were in your position, I’d have done the same thing.”

“I suspect you wouldn’t have been on that plane in the first place,” said Becky, who had yet to forgive herself.

She felt Meghan’s pain, her daughter’s illness, as though it were her own. Exhaustion took root inside her bones, where it calcified to make activities once routine (grocery shopping, laundry, cooking, yard work) an effortful chore.

Of course, the brunt of Meghan’s care had fallen on her, the mother. At times Becky felt angry for the burden, and immediately afterwards consumed with guilt. How dare she feel anything other than tremendous empathy when it was Meghan who suffered the most? These were things Becky wrestled with in the quiet dark, while Carl slept peacefully beside her and she dreaded what tomorrow might bring.

Becky’s community of online friends, built up over a year and a half through her Facebook group, Help for Meghan, regularly posted positive affirmations, which she’d turn to when in need of a mental pick-me-up.

I breathe in calmness and breathe out fear.

I let go of my anger so I can see clearly.

I may not understand the good in this situation, but it is there.

She had invited friends she knew would want regular updates on Meghan’s health to join the group, but word spread the way word does on the internet, and before long, strangers began opting into the public group. Initially, Becky kept the group public, thinking it would be good to cast as wide a net as possible. Members offered advice on doctors, made assured diagnoses, and suggested treatments without ever having met Becky or Meghan, all to no avail.

Becky was never one to turn to God for answers. Cora had instilled in her children no sense of the divine, which left Becky unmoored as Meghan’s condition worsened. Her online group had evolved to become her church as well as her religion. It was there she’d turn when needing solace and support. Carl tended to focus more on solutions and answers, at the expense of a compassionate ear. Becky knew not to cast blame. They were both pushing through the dark, and in the process, sometimes, oftentimes, losing sight of each other.

Becky thanked Reginald for his kindness as she got ready to depart. Instead of a handshake goodbye, Reginald pulled her in for an unexpected hug, something she so often wished Carl would do.

She again thanked Reginald again before rushing out the door, luggage in tow, in search of a cab to take her the hospital, praying that if her worst nightmare came true, she’d arrive in time to say a final goodbye to her precious daughter before she was gone.

Copyright © 2018 D.J. Palmer.

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