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Shadow Touch
by Marjorie M. Liu
LoveSpell, 2006

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Shortly before being shot in the back with a tranquilizer dart and dumped half-dazed on a stretcher, right before being stolen from the hospital by silent men in white coats, Elena Baxter stood at the end of a dying child’s bed, her hand on a small bare foot, and attempted to perform a miracle.

She was good at miracles. She had been practicing them for her entire life, and at twenty-eight years of age, had become quite proficient at the art of doing Strange and Wonderful Things.

The child’s name was Olivia McCoy. Eight years old, with a large brain tumor swelling against her skull. Conventional treatments had only delayed the inevitable and likely worsened the quality of Olivia’s end, and yet, unable to let go, Mr. and Mrs. McCoy had brought their daughter to the Milwaukee Children’s Hospital for one last stand. The hospital had a good reputation for healing childhood cancer, and while the doctors frequently patted themselves on the back for their successes, their triumph was tainted by uneasiness. They did not know why all the children in their ward inevitably recovered. The statistics simply did not allow for such a confluence of miracle.

Elena, a simple unpaid volunteer inside the hospital, was not so surprised.

Today she was delivering stool samples and plasma, running from one department to the next, taking the calls of the nurses who needed charts delivered, patients transferred, messes cleaned. Flowers had to be delivered from the gift shop, cards signed by forgetful and not-so-loved-ones. Kind words needed to be said to the dying, hands held for just moments, to give comfort. The patients, young and old, liked Elena. She made people feel good, even if they did not know why.

The nurses and doctors knew this, and as Elena had anticipated, allowed her some freedom of movement. She could go into patient rooms and sit for a while, unattended. The children liked to be read to, especially when their parents had to leave for work or run errands or sleep. Olivia, for example, enjoyed hearing about the old woman who named things, or the story about a kitten with a big meow. Elena thought she was a very sweet girl.

Which was why, with the books piled on the bed stand and Olivia fast asleep, Elena decided it was time for a little miracle. It was clear to her, based on experience, careful eavesdropping, and sneak peaks at Olivia’s charts, that the treatments were not working and the girl would be dead in a week. With children, unlike adults, Elena could not bring herself to perform triage. Every life needed to be saved.

Olivia’s foot was cold. Poor wasted body. She slept uncomfortably, with the pale exhaustion of the dying: a shallow rest, as though in her mind she knew the end was near, and was afraid of never waking up again. Cancer always put a bad taste in Elena’s mouth; like an unripe persimmon, shriveling the insides of her cheeks. No other disease caused quite the same reaction. Elena held on to the little girl’s foot, and through that contact entered her dying body. Olivia’s spirit felt older than her years: like a mummy, dry and brittle.

Elena, drifting like a ghost inside Olivia, played her game of possession. Breathed for the girl an image of health, coaxing and prodding, a gentle heal yourself, bury it down, because Olivia already had everything she needed: protective mechanisms that made it possible for any human to spontaneously regress even the most malignant of tumors. Natural human capabilities were a wondrous thing, but only if the body woke long enough to use them. Elena was very good at waking people up.

It took some time. Olivia’s body was stubborn. Eventually, though, Elena felt the response: a subtle twist, a gathering of strength around the cancer in the child’s brain. Little teeth, gnawing away at the tumor. No more swelling, after today. The girl would live longer than a week, longer than two, and in three, after exceeding everyone’s expectations, after the death watch had grown tiresome, the doctors would perform another scan and discover the dying tumor, the healing brain, the happy child.

Elena fled back to her body. Sounds returned: the nurses, chattering softly in the hall outside Olivia’s room, the click and beep of essential instruments, the squeal of stretcher wheels. She imagined the girl looked better already. There was pink in her cheeks.

Elena never heard the men enter the room. She felt pain between her shoulder blades, had a moment to think that was strange because she was always careful on the farm and rarely pulled a muscle, and then she started falling and it was impossible to stop, to hold on, to keep upright.

Hands caught her. Rough hands, strong, lifting her off the ground. Her throat felt paralyzed. She saw white coats, hard eyes.

Oh, no, she thought, lucid enough to feel fear. They finally found me.

Elena was carried away.

Excerpted from Shadow Touch by Marjorie M. Liu. Copyright © 2006 by Marjorie M. Liu. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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