Author's Note: Well, I finally decided to take the plunge into fanfic. ; ) If you're like me, the somewhat abrupt ending to the novel was a bit jarring, although beautifully written and inspirational, so I thought I might try my hand at tying off a few of those cliffhangers Mrs. Marshall left us with. The story takes up immediately after Dr. MacNeill's bedside confession.
Disclaimer: Catherine Marshall's Christy is the property of the Marshall-LeSourd family. I am in no way seeking credit or profit for her story; this work of fanfiction is for amusement only.
THE JOY OF THE children...I could hear the peals of carefree laughter still floating in the air, pressing in around me, giving comfort, familiarity – a sense of coming home. Fairlight's smile filled my mind's eye, and the last vestiges of grief fell from my heart; instead I was overflowing with a new freshness. That joy! How I had coveted it, and now it was at last within my reach!
"Christy?" Again, that deep voice called me, lovingly, desperately; and then I remembered. The Doctor...his prayer...the river, Fairlight's river...he needed me. "Christy, please, open your eyes. Squeeze my hand again – anything – just show me that you can hear me. Christy?"
I struggled to open my eyelids. Light – an unwavering, piercing light – was gleaming somewhere in the distance, and I wanted to see it...I wanted to see him. With great effort, my lashes parted.
The light was the steady warmth of an oil-lamp flame, flickering on the bedside table. The brightness stung, and I was suddenly aware of a deep, weary ache that stole throughout my body, but my reward was in seeing the look of glowing delight on Dr. MacNeill's face as our eyes met.
"Christy!" One large, square-palmed hand reached out and touched my forehead, the calloused fingers gentle against my feverish skin. He stared at me, his face ashen and streaked with tears, and mustering up my strength, I smiled at him.
He grasped my hands, almost wildly, and dropped his head down to the mattress next to me, his shoulders trembling. "Oh, thank God," he gasped. "Thank God. Alice! Alice!"
Footsteps pounded up the staircase, and the bedroom door flew open. Miss Alice stood in the doorway, breathless, looking uncharacteristically frightened. "Neil...?" She saw me; her hands flew up to cover her mouth as she began to cry.
I tried to call out to her, reassure her that I was well; the words stuck in my sore, parched throat. All that escaped was a faint whining sound, a pathetic imitation of my voice, but it managed to draw the Doctor's notice. Wiping his damp face unashamedly on his sleeve, he turned around and said, his tone again decisive and confident, "Get me that pitcher and cup from the cabinet, will you, Alice?"
Miss Alice rushed to do his bidding, and in seconds she was kneeling on the opposite side of my bed, smoothing back my hair, beaming as Dr. MacNeill helped me drink from the glass. I choked on the first sip – the inside of my mouth felt fuzzy and thick, like it had been stuffed full of cotton. He and Miss Alice propped me up until the coughing subsided, and the next few drops went down without much trouble.
The instant the Doctor set the glass aside, I slumped down onto the pillows, completely drained. "Rest thee easy, Christy," Miss Alice soothed, her impenetrable Quaker calmness once again restored. "You have been given back to us." Her grey eyes glittered softly as she tucked the quilt back up around my shoulders.
I wanted to fight against the weariness that was pulling so strongly against me. There was so much I wanted – needed – to know. How long had I been sick? Was the epidemic finally over? Had there been school while I was ill? What had happened to the children?
As much as I wrestled with exhaustion, it overtook me soon enough, and my last memory before I drifted off was that of the comforting pressure of two hands gripping mine – one soft and warm, the other roughly-hewn but cradling my fingers with all the gentleness of a caress.
I AWOKE SEVERAL HOURS later to the low murmur of hushed voices. I could pick out Miss Alice's mild tones, as well as Dr. MacNeill's rumbling baritone, but the third voice, speaking now even as I listened, took me a few moments longer to recognize.
"...and you're positive, MacNeill? If there's even the slightest chance that Christy could have a relapse..."
Suddenly it came to me: David! I forced my eyes open again and twisted around toward the sounds. The three were gathered around the window, apparently deep in conversation, for none of them heard me rustling under the covers as I propped myself up on my elbows. Even the small movement made my head spin but, determined not to give in to the weakness, I remained in that position until the dizziness ebbed away.
"Da-vid," I croaked.
They all swiveled around simultaneously, almost mechanically, and I would have laughed if I hadn't been aching from the roots of my hair down to my toenails.
"Christy, you're awake!" Sidestepping Miss Alice, David scooted over to sit on the bed next to me, grinning from ear to ear. "About time, sleepyhead."
He was trying to tease me, but I could see the tension in every line of his face and the set of his lean shoulders. Even his warm smile couldn't hide the rings under his bloodshot eyes. Poor David – the past weeks must have been unbearable with all the sickness at the mission. I knew how much he disliked playing the nursemaid.
Miss Alice joined us. "How are you now, Miss Huddleston?"
I touched her hand affectionately. "If I'm supposed to feel like I've been dragged through the Big Mud Hole," I rasped, "then I'm just fine."
At this, Dr. MacNeill moved from his position at the window and came to stand behind Miss Alice, peering at me intently. "I think it's time for an examination, now that you've gotten a little rest. Are you up to it?"
I nodded, allowing David to prop the pillows up against my back. I smiled my thanks, and Dr. MacNeill briskly shooed him out of the room. Miss Alice went downstairs for a wash basin and towels, promising that she would help me clean up a little. It sounded wonderful – I felt grimy and grubby, and I knew my hair must be a snarled mess.
Dr. MacNeill brought over his bag and took out the stethoscope and a thermometer. He was all physician, efficiently checking my lungs and pulse, examining my eyes, ears, and mouth, and ensuring that I held the thermometer securely under my tongue for an accurate reading. He didn't say much, his concentration absorbed by the inspection, and I kept silent, knowing from experience that he hated interruptions while he was working.
Only after he had tucked away the stethoscope did he speak. "Do you feel nauseous? Chilled?"
I shook my head, and he jotted something down on a pad of paper from his pocket.
"How about pain in your abdomen or chest? Congestion?"
Again I answered in the negative – or at least answered as well as I could around the thermometer.
He reached up and tipped my chin forward, removing the thermometer from my mouth. "Faintness? Dizziness?"
I started to say no, hesitated, and nodded. The Doctor leaned forward, frowning, and probed around my scalp. I winced as he reached my temples. "We'll have to watch that headache," he said gravely. "Tell me or Alice at once if it should get worse. I don't think it's anything to alarm yourself over – just residual stress – but it could cause complications if it worsens, and in your state, we need to be as cautious as we can be."
My curiosity could be contained no longer; now that my mouth was free, I leapt headfirst into the questions that had been crowding my thoughts. "How is everyone, Doctor? I mean, how are Ruby Mae and Will – and Little Burl? Sam Houston? Creed? The Spencers? Is Lety Coburn better? What about —?"
"One at a time, please," he cut in. I could see his lips twitching, as though he wished to smile but didn't dare. "Ruby Mae is fully recovered, and Sam Houston and all the Allens and Spencers are fine." Any traces of amusement left his face as he continued, "Lety didn't make it. Neither did Wraight Holt, and about eight others down in Low Gap."
"I'm sorry," I murmured, knowing how deeply losing patients affected him.
He shrugged, and, seeming to wish to change the subject, held the thermometer out in front of me and tapped the red line. "Your temperature is still a little high, but it's to be expected. Your color is good, and your pulse is steady." He took out a cloth from his bag and began rubbing the glass tube down with alcohol. Without looking up, he added, "You gave us quite a scare, Miss Huddleston." He lifted his head, piercing hazel eyes searching my face – for what I didn't know.
All of a sudden, I felt unconscionably shy, and I could hardly bring myself to look him straight in the eye. After all, what was I supposed to say to a man who had stayed steadfastly by my sickbed – nearly my deathbed – day and night without proper rest or nourishment, who had wept and declared passionate love for me, whose prayers had seemingly called me back from the threshold of heaven itself?
The next moment I scolded myself for being utterly melodramatic. We had become friends of a sort, and he was the same stubborn, red-headed Neil MacNeill that he had always been...No – no, that wasn't true. I thought of that prayer, and how he had apparently at long last given up his anger at a God who had to him seemed only to punish and destroy and devastate. No, he wasn't the same.
I said the first thing that came to mind. "Thank you."
Dr. MacNeill looked momentarily taken aback; his eyes narrowed, and he glanced away. "Don't thank me."
"Why not?" I was tempted to reach out for him, but the weariness was creeping up on me again and it didn't seem worth the effort. "I know that you stayed with me while I was sick. You looked after me so carefully, and I honor you for it."
His lips tightened. "I couldn't do anything for you," he said tersely. "I was perfectly worthless – you were burning up, and I couldn't bring down your fever. I tried everything. I..." He broke off. I simply waited, hoping and doubting at the same time. Would he admit it, or would he pretend that the wondrous events of that morning never happened?
Fixing his eyes steadily on mine, he said deliberately, "I wasn't the one who healed you."
I felt stirrings of joy fill my heart at this admission, expecting that he would confess the whole of it, but he said nothing more – he only sat there, watching me silently. For a moment I was disappointed, but a glance at his face made me realize that he was uncertain, maybe even a little afraid. This was all new to him; he had rejected these ideas years ago, and to suddenly be confronted with the truth would be enough to unsettle anyone. He looked diffident, almost timid, and with a rush of compassion, I extended my hand.
He took it gingerly. "Did you hear me? I didn't save you, Christy."
The astonishment on his face made me smile. "I would have been in your debt forever if you had," I said, injecting all the playfulness I could manage into my voice. "You don't want to be a miracle worker, just a doctor – and a very good doctor at that."
I hoped he would understand what I was trying to say, and, judging from the smile on his face, he did. There was a tenderness about his eyes as he rose and fussed with my covers, tucking them underneath my chin. "Get some sleep, Christy. You've had a rough time of it, and you must get your strength back." We could hear Miss Alice climbing the stairs. "Alice will help you with your bath," he said, taking up his bag, "and I'll be in to check on you in a few hours."
He winked at me and left; I watched him disappear through the doorway and down the staircase until my view was blocked by Miss Alice, coming inside with a basin of hot water and a pile of freshly-laundered towels.
It took more effort than I expected to struggle out of my nightclothes and sit up, and it was rather embarrassing to undress in front of Miss Alice, but the wonderful feeling of the warm water washing away several days' accumulation of sweat and dirt made it worth the laborious process. Miss Alice helped me towel off and change into a new nightgown, and I lay back on the pillows, what little energy I had left completely sapped.
After setting the basin over by the door to be emptied, Miss Alice sat with me on the bed. "Tired?"
I nodded, a little surprised that I could already want to be asleep so soon after having awoken. As usual, Miss Alice seemed to recognize the direction my thoughts were taking, for she tucked a stray curl behind my ear and said gently, "Sleep is the best thing of all for you. It shall heal you as efficiently as any medicine." I watched as she turned her face toward the open windows, the afternoon sunlight glinting off her golden coronet of braids. A sudden thought occurred to me.
"Miss Alice, do my parents know I'm sick?"
"I telephoned your mother and father the first night you were ill." She hesitated, looking at me with compassionate eyes. "Yesterday, I was prepared to call again and tell them to take the train to El Pano at once. I shall not lie to thee: we did not expect you to survive. Neil had never seen a typhoid case that brought such a high fever." She trailed off, and I lay back; her silences pacified me, just as they always had. "It was a miracle that you came through, Miss Huddleston. Neil and I despaired of seeing you well again." A beautiful smile drew across her lips. "By the grace of God, you were given back to us."
I pondered this for a moment. How I longed to tell her of what I had seen and heard in those early hours – but something held my tongue. I could not bring myself to speak of the prayer, or of Fairlight and the children... Someday, perhaps, when the time was right, I would share with her my vision of heaven. For now, I held it securely inside me, like a little girl might clasp close a secret.
"I will inform your parents of your recovery tonight, and when you are able, you may speak to them yourself. They will be relieved to hear from you."
My parents...I thought of how the typhoid epidemic must have terrified them, how apprehensively they must now be awaiting news of my fate. I could almost see the grief on Mother's lovely face, the anxiety in my father's eyes as he wondered what was happening to his 'Girlie' so many miles away...It suddenly seemed like an eternity since I had been with them, and I found myself desperately wishing to be back in Asheville with Mother and Daddy, George, Grandmother Rudd...
Miss Alice must have sensed something of my thoughts, for she sat against the headboard and lightly pulled my head onto her lap. I resisted at first, feeling childish, but the comforting weight of her hand on my head and her familiar scent, peppermint and sweet perfume, made me relax. I didn't care how young or mawkish it might make me seem; I acknowledged that above everything else, I wanted my mother.
"Sleep now, child, and rest thy body."
I was helpless to disobey her order – I felt my eyelids drooping even as she spoke. Miss Alice bent to press a kiss on my forehead, and as I snuggled back under the gentle weight of the covers, I heard, just before the door closed, her whisper, "God bless thee, Christy Huddleston."