The Long Sleep

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NEW!! It's HERE!! From Fire and Ice, the Young Adult imprint of Melange Books.

Hoping to make friends at her new school, Maddie joins the newspaper staff. Its charismatic editor, Hank Dalbeck, plans a controversial series on the right to die. This causes so much discussion at their weekly meeting that Hank misses his bus home and accepts a ride with Maddie. Before they can leave the parking lot, someone fires a shot through the windshield.

Now Hank himself is in a coma, like the people he wanted to write about. Who put him there? Was it someone violently opposed to his ideas?

Maddie suspects Evan Steffers, her jealous and possessive ex-boyfriend, who’s supposed to be out of state. Nevertheless, he’s been stalking her, sending flowers, messages, and threats. He’s everywhere and nowhere, and her life is in danger. Even attractive police officer Rick Falco can’t protect her from an unseen menace.

Maddie decides to carry on with the work that got Hank shot. Digging though old news clippings, she begins to understand the truth.

But it comes too late.

Chapter 1

It’s funny how you know by the smell that you’re in a school. I mean, I knew I was there, but what struck me was how much Southbridge High smelled like Lakeside, where I used to go. Was it chalk dust, or what? I wondered if college smells the same.

I’d only been at Southbridge for about a month and still had trouble finding my way around. It wasn’t huge, by any means, but bigger than Lakeside. And after three o’clock, there was hardly anybody I could ask.

Lugging my backpack and coat, I looked for room 215. That would be on the second floor. I followed the noise.

You could hear it from way down the hall, voices shouting in disagreement. They were so worked up, they didn’t even notice me. Before going in, I slipped out of sight to powder my nose, which was shiny, and comb my hair, not shiny enough even though I washed it all the time. It was ordinary brown but I tried to make it interesting. When I was twelve I got some stuff called Blonde-In that was supposed to lighten it gradually. I thought it would be gradual enough that my parents wouldn’t notice. I was wrong.

The door to 215 was open. In the back were long lab tables and the room smelled of sulfur. Seven or eight people sat near the front. At the teacher’s desk was a tall young man with shaggy black hair and thick glasses. He seemed to be enduring the racket, not trying to stop it. Most of it was directed at him.

I stood in the doorway, trying to orient myself. He turned to me and asked, "May I help you?"

I moved in closer, trying to get past the noise. Now they were shouting at each other. I asked, “Is this The Tiger’s Roar?”

He smiled. The rest of him wasn’t much, but he had a beautiful smile. “Yes, it is. Can’t you hear it?”

He meant the chorus of voices. I smiled back and explained. “I’m Madelyn Canfield. I transferred from Lakeside and I’m interested in joining the newspaper. If you can use another person.”

“Always. What’s your name again?” He had a notepad on his desk and prepared to write.

“Madelyn . . .” I spelled it for him. There are several variations and most people pick the wrong one. “Canfield. I usually go by Maddie, with an i e.”

“Do you have a cell phone?” he asked.

I gave him the number. “What’s all the shouting about?”

He chuckled and shook his head. “Just an idea I had. I knew it was controversial but I didn’t think the controversy would start right here.”

“You’re the editor? Hank Dalbeck?”

“That’s me. Have a seat, Maddie, and enjoy the show.”

I wished he would smile more. And not cut his own hair. It was chopped off and uneven around his ears. His chin had a faint dusting of stubble. He wore a red flannel shirt, unbuttoned at the cuffs, showing bony wrists.

The room was quieter now. I couldn’t help asking, “What was your idea that caused all the racket?”

“You know that case that’s in the news?” he said. “The woman in Georgia and the right to die? There are two points of view on that, the right to die and the right to life.”

“Wow,” I said. “That is controversial.”

“There’s so much to it, I thought we could make it a series.”

A man bustled into the room. I didn’t have him for any classes but I knew it was Mr. Geyer, who taught chemistry and physics. He had a round, doughy face and thinning hair. I guessed he was about forty. He nodded to Hank and took a seat at the back of the room.

Probably he was their faculty advisor. I would have thought an English teacher would be more appropriate than science, but maybe nobody else wanted the job.

Hank told him, “We have a new staff member. Madelyn . . .” He glanced down at his notepad. “Canfield.”

Geyer nodded to me. He looked bored, his eyes half closed. Hank didn’t bother introducing him. I was just supposed to know.

Hank went on, “We’ve been giving a lot of thought to what you said, Mr. Geyer. Some of us agree with it, others don’t. But it seems worth a discussion, so I thought we’d go ahead.”

One of those who agreed—with Geyer, not with Hank—was a blond girl I knew as Cindy Belcher. She sat with her legs crossed, her foot swinging, and spoke in a shrill voice. “You can’t publish a thing like that. What are you trying to do, get us firebombed?”

Hank barely blinked. “I doubt anybody’s going to get that worked up. We’re only a school paper with near zero circulation.”

“What about the woman in Georgia?” Cindy demanded. “You don’t call that worked up?”

“She’s not worked up, she’s unconscious,” Hank said with a twinkle.

Cindy pounded her chair’s flat arm. “I don’t mean her! I mean her family and everybody. They’re split down the middle.”

I could see how it caught Hank’s interest. The woman, Maisie Halloran, was in a coma, possibly brain dead. The media were having a ball, with her own family divided about whether or not to pull the plug.

“That’s why it would make a good topic,” Hank said. “Right now, while it’s hot.” He turned to me. “You said you used to go to Lakeside School?”

I nodded yes, surprised that he’d picked up on that.

“Seems to me,” he said, “there was a student there . . .”

“Oh. Yes. Paula. That was ages ago. I wasn’t even born.”

Neither was Hank, for that matter. Or anybody else in the room, except Mr. Geyer.

“So you know about it?” Hank said.

“We all did. Every year, never mix drugs and alcohol. Better yet, don’t take either of them. She was our poster girl.”

Cindy started up again. “That’s so degrading, using a real person as an example. She can’t even fight back.”

“She didn’t know,” I said, agreeing with Hank.

Cindy turned to me, fuming. “How would you like it if you were in a coma and the whole world was talking and writing about you?”

“One way to get famous,” somebody muttered.

“Cindy,” I said, “by the time it all came out, she was gone. She never regained consciousness.”

Cindy wouldn’t back down. “It’s gruesome. What gives anybody the right to decide somebody else should die?”

“They do it all the time,” said Hank. “Not always legally. The point is, most of the people we’re talking about are already pretty much dead, medically speaking. They’re only kept breathing by a machine. Would you want to stay like that forever?”

Cindy glared.

“If you would,” Hank went on, “then you’d better make that known. An advance directive, signed, sealed, and notarized. And don’t forget a copy for your doctor.”

There was a moment while they all considered it. Or some of them did. I felt like an outsider, being the new kid, but I couldn’t help speaking up. “Hank is right. How else are people going to know? That’s why they’re having all that trouble in Georgia. Nobody knows what she would have wanted. All they can do is speak for themselves.”

Hank looked around at them. I counted eight, including him. Not Mr. Geyer or myself. Hank said, “Regardless of which side you’re on, does anybody besides Cindy think it’s too gruesome for The Tiger?”

He didn’t ask for hands. I raised mine partway and said, “I think it’s a worthwhile idea and I think most high school kids are mature enough to handle something that’s not—well, something that’s different.” I had wanted to use the word “fluff,” but that might seem insulting. Most of what ran in The Tiger’s Roar was fluff.

Several people applauded. Cindy glowered and sulked.

I said, “Is this going to be straight reporting, or are you looking for input from the public? Like a poll, or something.”

“I see it as straight reporting,” Hank said. “It will cover both sides. People can write in and give their opinion.”

I wasn’t sure how they could fit in a lot of letters. The Tiger’s Roar was only eight pages, printed on both sides and stapled together. Hardly a professional-looking job, but the best they could do on a limited budget.

Maybe it was time for me to shut up. They would all start hating me, the newbie upstart. They’d think I was a smarty pants rich kid because I came from Lakeside.

Hardly rich, although I suppose that’s relative. I could settle for “comfortable.”

Hank had been on the Internet and found several cases besides Paula Welbourne, the Lakeside girl. Being local made her especially interesting.

Eight years she was in a coma, kept alive for the first three on a breathing machine. Five more years without the machine. The doctors called it a “chronic, persistent vegetative state.” In other words, a vegetable. Is that the same as being alive? Where’s the boundary? Maybe that was what Hank wanted to explore, as well as the morality of keeping someone in a twilight zone between life and death, on the chance they might wake up someday. It’s happened, as he pointed out. He could see both sides of the argument.

Cindy was still on a rampage. She thought it was immoral to make people die when it meant pulling a plug.

“Not make them die,” Hank explained. “It’s a matter of letting them die.”

Cindy ignored that. “It’s out-and-out murder. If they can be kept alive, then they are alive. It’s not like natural death, if it happened from some sort of accident, like—” She looked at me. “Like drugs and alcohol.”

It seemed to me that an accident is an accident, whether it’s a car crash or too much depressant. But I couldn’t help sort of agreeing that if you can be kept alive, then maybe you are, sort of. Maybe I didn’t know anything about it. No wonder Hank thought it was interesting. And certainly controversial.

He turned to Mr. Geyer. “You must have heard something about the Welbourne case if you were in Southbridge around that time. How long have you been teaching here?”

Geyer gave him a stony look as if he didn’t want his age announced. But he certainly wasn’t any teenager.

“Twenty years,” he said, and clamped his jaw shut.

Then he opened it again. “It’s true, I heard about it, but it didn’t concern me. I had nothing to do with the Lakeside School.” He packed up his briefcase and left, giving a little wave from the door.

I thought that would end the meeting. Instead, the discussion went on. Hank kept looking at his watch, but he let them talk. As for me, I had to keep an eye on the window. This was November and darkness came early. With only a junior license, I wasn’t supposed to drive after sundown.

Finally, during a lull, Hank noticed how late it was and called it a day. He could have called it earlier. I could have left on my own, but this was my first time at The Tiger’s Roar. I didn’t want to get up and walk out.

As I left, Hank caught up with me. He wanted to talk about Paula Welbourne.

We went out together, with me saying, “I really can’t tell you anything new. It was ancient history by the time I got there. All I know is, they took her off the ventilator and she lived a few more years and then she died.”

“That’s right,” he agreed. “That’s what it said on the Internet.”

“I suppose technically she was alive, if she could breathe on her own. She died of pneumonia, but she never was conscious again. Is that really living?”

“Hard to say. I understand some people in a coma can hear what’s going on around them, and even feel, but they can’t respond.” He took another peek at his watch.

“What’s with the watch?” I asked. “Are you meeting someone?”

“Just a bus. I missed it.”

“Is there another one?”

“I missed that, too.” He grinned but he didn’t look happy.

“Do you have far to go?” I asked. “I could drop you somewhere.”

“Nah, I’m okay. You’d better get on home.” It was very nearly dark.

“Really, it’s no problem. It’s too cold to walk.” I steered him to a corner of the lot where I was parked.

He asked, “You drive to school every day? From where?”

“Lake Road. It was easier when I went to Lakeside. I could walk there.”

“How come you transferred?”

He might as well know. Everyone else did.

“There was this guy. He got too controlling and I tried to break it off but he wouldn’t accept that. He hit me a couple of times, as if hitting could win me over. Even when I left Lakeside, it didn’t help. He followed me around and he broke into my house one night and tried to drag me away.”

“Oh, that was you? I read about it in The Chronicle.”

“Yep, that was me.” I unlocked the car and made sure Evan wasn’t crouched in back.

Hank got in on the other side. “Poor besotted fool.”

“Fool is right,” I said. “It has nothing to do with love. It’s obsession and it’s sick. People don’t realize they’re just being a jerk.”

He groped for the other half of his seatbelt. “How are you liking Southbridge so far?”

I found the belt for him and closed my door. It made the interior light go off.

With a loud boom, the windshield exploded.

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