Handle With Care (Platinum Fiction Series)

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9781602854390: Handle With Care (Platinum Fiction Series)
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Struggling to care for their daughter Willow, who was born with brittle bone disease, Charlotte and Sean O'Keefe add additional strain to their overburdened family life when they file a lawsuit against Charlotte's obstetrician.

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About the Author:

Jodi Picoult grew up in Nesconset, New York. She received an A.B. in creative writing from Princeton and a master's degree in education from Harvard. Her previous novels include Keeping Faith, The Pact, and Mercy. She lives in New Hampshire with her husband and three children.

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Handle with Care Amelia


February 2007

My whole life, I’ve never been on a vacation. I’ve never even left New Hampshire, unless you count the time that I went with you and Mom to Nebraska—and even you have to admit that sitting in a hospital room for three days watching really old Tom and Jerry cartoons while you got tested at Shriners was nothing like going to a beach or to the Grand Canyon. So you can imagine how excited I was when I found out that our family was planning to go to Disney World. We would go during February school vacation. We’d stay at a hotel that had a monorail running right through the middle of it.

Mom began to make a list of the rides we would go on. It’s a Small World, Dumbo the Flying Elephant, Peter Pan’s Flight.

“Those are for babies,” I complained.

“Those are the ones that are safe,” she said.

“Space Mountain,” I suggested.

“Pirates of the Caribbean,” she answered.

“Great,” I yelled. “I get to go on the first vacation of my life, and I won’t even have any fun.” Then I stormed off to our room, and even though I wasn’t downstairs anymore, I could pretty much imagine what our parents were saying: There Amelia goes, being difficult again.

It’s funny, when things like this happen (which is, like, always), Mom isn’t the one who tries to iron out the mess. She’s too busy making sure you’re all right, so the task falls to Dad. Ah, see, there’s something else that I’m jealous about: he’s your real dad, but he’s only my stepfather. I don’t know my real dad; he and my mother split up before I was even born, and she swears that his absence is the best gift he could ever have given me. But Sean adopted me, and he acts like he loves me just as much as he loves you—even though there’s this black, jagged splinter in my mind that constantly reminds me this couldn’t possibly be true.

“Meel,” he said when he came into my room (he’s the only one I’d ever let call me that in a million years; it makes me think of the worms that get into flour and ruin it, but not when Dad says it), “I know you’re ready for the big rides. But we’re trying to make sure that Willow has a good time, too.”

Because when Willow’s having a good time, we’re all having a good time. He didn’t have to say it, but I heard it all the same.

“We just want to be a family on vacation,” he said.

I hesitated. “The teacup ride,” I heard myself say.

Dad said he’d go to bat for me, and even though Mom was dead set against it—what if you smacked up against the thick plaster wall of the teacup?—he convinced her that we could whirl around in circles with you wedged between us so that you wouldn’t get hurt. Then he grinned at me, so proud of himself for having negotiated this deal that I didn’t have the heart to tell him I really couldn’t care less about the teacup ride.

The reason it had popped into my head was because, a few years ago, I’d seen a commercial for Disney World on TV. It showed Tinker Bell floating like a mosquito through the Magic Kingdom over the heads of the cheery visitors. There was one family that had two daughters, the same age as you and me, and they were on the Mad Hatter’s teacup ride. I couldn’t take my eyes off them—the older daughter even had brown hair, like I do; and if you squinted, the father looked a lot like Dad. The family seemed so happy it made my stomach hurt to watch it. I knew that the people on the commercial probably weren’t even a real family—that the mom and dad were probably two single actors, that they had most likely met their fake daughters that very morning as they arrived on set to shoot the commercial—but I wanted them to be one. I wanted to believe they were laughing, smiling, even as they were spinning out of control.

· · ·

Pick ten strangers and stick them in a room, and ask them which one of us they feel sorrier for—you or me—and we all know who they’ll choose. It’s kind of hard to look past your casts; and the fact that you’re the size of a two-year-old, even though you’re five; and the funny twitch of your hips when you’re healthy enough to walk. I’m not saying that you’ve had it easy. It’s just that I have it worse, because every time I think my life sucks, I look at you and hate myself even more for thinking my life sucks in the first place.

Here’s a snapshot of what it’s like to be me:

Amelia, don’t jump on the bed, you’ll hurt Willow.

Amelia, how many times have I told you not to leave your socks on the floor, because Willow could trip over them?

Amelia, turn off the TV (although I’ve only watched a half hour, and you’ve been staring at it like a zombie for five hours straight).

I know how selfish this makes me sound, but then again, knowing something’s true doesn’t keep you from feeling it. And I may only be twelve, but believe me, that’s long enough to know that our family isn’t the same as other families, and never will be. Case in point: What family packs a whole extra suitcase full of Ace bandages and waterproof casts, just in case? What mom spends days researching the hospitals in Orlando?

It was the day we were leaving, and as Dad loaded up the car, you and I sat at the kitchen table, playing Rock Paper Scissors. “Shoot,” I said, and we both threw scissors. I should have known better; you always threw scissors. “Shoot,” I said again, and this time I threw rock. “Rock breaks scissors,” I said, bumping my fist on top of your hand.

“Careful,” Mom said, even though she was facing in the opposite direction.

“I win.”

“You always win.”

I laughed at you. “That’s because you always throw scissors.”

“Leonardo da Vinci invented the scissors,” you said. You were, in general, full of information no one else knew or cared about, because you read all the time, or surfed the Net, or listened to shows on the History Channel that put me to sleep. It freaked people out, to come across a five-year-old who knew that toilets flush in the key of E-flat or that the oldest word in the English language is town, but Mom said that lots of kids with OI were early readers with advanced verbal skills. I figured it was like a muscle: your brain got used more than the rest of your body, which was always breaking down; no wonder you sounded like a little Einstein.

“Do I have everything?” Mom asked, but she was talking to herself. For the bazillionth time she ran through a checklist. “The letter,” she said, and then she turned to me. “Amelia, we need the doctor’s note.”

It was a letter from Dr. Rosenblad, saying the obvious: that you had OI, that you were treated by him at Children’s Hospital—in case of emergency, which was actually pretty amusing since your breaks were one emergency after another. It was in the glove compartment of the van, next to the registration and the owner’s manual from Toyota, plus a torn map of Massachusetts, a Jiffy Lube receipt, and a piece of gum that had lost its wrapper and grown furry. I’d done the inventory once when my mother was paying for gas.

“If it’s in the van, why can’t you just get it when we drive to the airport?”

“Because I’ll forget,” Mom said as Dad walked in.

“We’re locked and loaded,” he said. “What do you say, Willow? Should we go visit Mickey?”

You gave him a huge grin, as if Mickey Mouse was real and not just some teenage girl wearing a big plastic head for her summer job. “Mickey Mouse’s birthday is November eighteenth,” you announced as he helped you crawl down from the chair. “Amelia beat me at Rock Paper Scissors.”

“That’s because you always throw scissors,” Dad said.

Mom frowned over her list one last time. “Sean, did you pack the Motrin?”

“Two bottles.”

“And the camera?”

“Shoot, I took it out and left it on the dresser upstairs—” He turned to me. “Sweetie, can you grab it while I put Willow in the car?”

I nodded and ran upstairs. When I came down, camera in hand, Mom was standing alone in the kitchen turning in a slow circle, as if she didn’t know what to do without Willow by her side. She shut off the lights and locked the front door, and I bounded over to the van. I handed the camera to Dad and buckled myself in beside your car seat, and let myself admit that, as dorky as it was to be twelve years old and excited about Disney World, I was. I was thinking about sunshine and Disney songs and monorails, and not at all about the letter from Dr. Rosenblad.

Which means that everything that happened was my fault.

· · ·

We didn’t even make it to the stupid teacups. By the time our flight landed and we got to the hotel, it was late afternoon. We drove to the theme park and had just walked onto Main Street, U.S.A.—Cinderella’s Castle in full view—when the perfect storm hit. You said you were hungry, and we turned into an old-time ice-cream parlor. Dad stood in line holding your hand while Mom brought napkins over to the table where I was sitting. “Look,” I said, pointing out Goofy pumping the hand of a screaming toddler. At exactly the same moment that Mom let one napkin flutter to the ground and Dad let go of your hand to take out his wallet, you hurried to the window to see what I wanted to show you, and you slipped on the tiny paper square.

We all watched it in slow motion, the way your legs simply gave out from underneath you, so that you sat down hard on your bottom. You looked up at us, and the whites of your eyes flashed blue, the way they always do when you break.

It was almost like the people at Disney World had been expecting this to happen. No sooner had Mom told the man scooping ice cream that you’d broken your leg than two men from their medical facility came with a stretcher. With Mom giving orders, the way she always does around doctors, they managed to get you onto it. You weren’t crying, but then, you hardly ever did when you broke something. Once, I had fractured my pinkie playing tetherball at school and I couldn’t stop freaking out when it turned bright red and blew up like a balloon, but you didn’t even cry the time you broke your arm right through the skin.

“Doesn’t it hurt?” I whispered, as they lifted up the stretcher so that it suddenly grew wheels.

You were biting your lower lip, and you nodded.

There was an ambulance waiting for us when we got to the Disney World gate. I took one last look at Main Street, U.S.A., at the top of the metal cone that housed Space Mountain, at the kids who were running in instead of going out, and then I crawled into the car that someone had arranged so Dad and I could follow you and Mom to the hospital.

It was weird, going to an emergency room that wasn’t our usual one. Everyone at our local hospital knew you, and the doctors all listened to what Mom told them. Here, though, nobody was paying any attention to her. They said this could be not one but two femur fractures, and that might mean internal bleeding. Mom went into the examination room with you for the X-ray, which left Dad and me sitting on green plastic chairs in a waiting room. “I’m sorry, Meel,” he said, and I just shrugged. “Maybe it’ll be an easy one, and we can go back to the park tomorrow.” There had been a man in a black suit at Disney World who told my father that we would be comped, whatever that meant, if we wanted to return another day.

It was Saturday night, and the people coming into the emergency room were much more interesting than the TV program that was playing. There were two kids who looked like they were old enough to be in college, both bleeding from the same spot on their foreheads and laughing every time they looked at each other. There was an old man wearing sequined pants and holding the right side of his stomach, and a girl who spoke only Spanish and was carrying screaming twin babies.

Suddenly, Mom burst out of the double doors to the right, with a nurse running after her and another woman in a skinny pin-striped skirt and red high heels. “The letter,” she cried. “Sean, what did you do with it?”

“What letter?” Dad asked, but I already knew what she was talking about, and just like that, I thought I might throw up.

“Mrs. O’Keefe,” the woman said, “please. Let’s do this somewhere more private.”

She touched Mom’s arm, and—well, the only way I can really describe it is that Mom just folded in half. We were led to a room with a tattered red couch and a little oval table and fake flowers in a vase. There was a picture on the wall of two pandas, and I stared at it while the woman in the skinny skirt—she said her name was Donna Roman, and she was from the Department of Children and Families—talked to our parents. “Dr. Rice contacted us because he has some concerns about the injuries to Willow,” she said. “Bowing in her arm and X-rays indicate that this wasn’t her first break?”

“Willow’s got osteogenesis imperfecta,” Dad said.

“I already told her,” Mom said. “She didn’t listen.”

“Without a physician’s statement, we have to look into this further. It’s just protocol, to protect children—”

“I’d like to protect my child,” Mom said, her voice sharp as a razor. “I’d like you to let me get back in there so I can do just that.”

“Dr. Rice is an expert—”

“If he was an expert, then he’d know I was telling the truth,” Mom shot back.

“From what I understand, Dr. Rice is trying to reach your daughter’s physician,” Donna Roman said. “But since it’s Saturday night, he’s having trouble making contact. So in the meantime, I’d like to get you to sign releases that will allow us to do a full examination on Willow—a full bone scan and neurological exam—and in the meantime, we can talk a little bit.”

“The last thing Willow needs is more testing—“Mom said.

“Look, Ms. Roman,” Dad interrupted. “I’m a police officer. You can’t really believe I’d lie to you?”

“I’ve already spoken to your wife, Mr. O’Keefe, and I’m going to want to speak to you, too . . . but first I’d like to talk to Willow’s sister.”

My mouth opened and closed, but nothing came out of it. Mom was staring at me as if she were trying to do ESP, and I looked down at the floor until I saw those red high heels stop in front of me. “You must be Amelia,” she said, and I nodded. “Why don’t we take a walk?”

As we left, a police officer who looked like Dad did when he went to work stepped into the doorway. “Split them up,” Donna Roman said, and he nodded. Then she took me to the candy machine at the far end of the hallway. “What would you like? Me, I’m a chocolate fiend, but maybe you’re more of a potato chip girl?”

She was so much nicer to me when my parents weren’t sitting there—I immediately pointed to a Snickers bar, figuring that I’d better take advantage of this while I could. “I guess this isn’t quite what you’d hoped your vacation would be?” she said, and I shook my head. “Has this happened to Willow before?”

“Yeah. She breaks bones a lot.”

“How?”

For someone who was supposed to be smart, this woman sure didn’t seem it. How do anyone’s bones break? “She falls down, I guess. Or gets hit by something.”

“She gets hit by something?” Donna Roman repeated. “Or do you mean someone?”

There had been one time in nursery school when a kid had run into you on the playground. You were pretty gifted at ducking and weaving, but that day, you hadn’t been fast enough. “Well,” I said, “sometimes that happens, too.”

“Who was with Willow when she got hurt this time, Amelia?”

I thought back to the ice-cream counter, to Dad, holding your hand. “My father.”

Her mouth flattened. She fed coins into another machine, and out poppe...

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