Zoë gave the crowded, beautifully appointed emergency room a cursory glance, then hurried on without stopping to ask questions. They had probably admitted Axel already, so she took the staff elevator to the Oncology floor. The gray pinstriped power suit she chose that morning for a settlement conference provided an intimidating shield, repellant enough that the Cedars-Sinai staff steered clear. Though she was just shy of 35, the confidence that came with her promotion to partner served her well, even when she found herself in situations completely unrelated to litigation.
Zoë had already skipped the gym and shirked a client status meeting off onto the first associate she was able to reach on her BlackBerry, which was going to go over none too well with the senior partners. Being a statuesque, well-built platinum blonde also served her well, however; she was certain she could flirt her way out of any reprimand that might come her way, and it was very likely that any such admonishment wouldn‘t even bother to formulate itself into an email or phone call.
Dale was tapping away on his laptop in the sixth floor lobby when Zoë got there. The haunted appearance he sported those first few months after Tommy‘s death had recently given way to a more alarming look of vagrancy. Dale‘s shaggy, brown, unkempt hair had previously been close-cropped and presumably maintained by Tommy himself, or at the very least under his watchful eye. Tommy was probably the one who picked out his clothes too for that matter, and Dale‘s shoddy grooming and current lack of style was a fairly accurate gauge of exactly how long Tommy had been gone. Dale‘s cutoffs and ratty T-shirt from some long-forgotten Shack concert, although certainly not inappropriate for Southern California, needed a wash, and his hair obviously hadn‘t been styled since the funeral. It was probably a good thing that most of his investment clients hadn‘t seen Dale face-to-face in years.
“What was he doing in a plane, for God‘s sake?” she asked. “You were supposed to be looking after him.”
Dale grinned up at her – a flash of the old Dale, from before. She felt a tug deep in her chest. “He wasn‘t on a plane; he was in a tree.”
“What was he doing in a tree, for God‘s sake? You were supposed to be looking after him.” Zoë was pleased with herself for precisely nailing her previous tone.
“Beats the hell out of me,” Dale shrugged, executing the last few keystrokes, which would no doubt purchase shares of something expensive for somebody who was probably too rich already. He closed his laptop and shook his head. “I was upstairs when they called.”
“Great job, Dale. Way to go.” She had only recently learned that upstairs was a vague euphemism for sleeping off a hangover. She wasn‘t bothered by the drinking, necessarily. If anybody had a right to alcoholism, it was probably Dale, and Axel didn‘t need looking after as much as he required constant rescue.
“He fell out of a tree – the name of that particular species of tree is London Plane. The gardener who found him didn‘t speak much English if you don‘t count the obscure names of the indigenous flora and fauna of Beverly Hills.” Dale paused for effect, then continued dryly. “And oh, the laughter and merriment that surely must have ensued.”
Zoë smiled in spite of herself. She didn‘t care if Dale was a sad sloppy drunk, his dry wit and ivy league education never failed to shine through. “But how did he—?”
“Nobody knows. Even he doesn‘t know. I can‘t imagine how he got all the way to McCarty Drive on his own. I practically had to carry him up the hill on Saturday.”
The hill was another euphemism of sorts, pertaining to Dale‘s home in Silverlake. There were 93 stairsteps leading from Dale‘s parking slab up the hill to his house. On her best day, Zoë herself could barely take the hill without an oxygen tank; and if she brought wine, she‘d need a sherpa. “Your place has got to be 10 miles from Beverly Hills.”
“9.2 miles, door-to-tree. I Google mapped it.”
“Well, unless he‘s somehow mastered flight—”
“That‘s possible, I suppose,” Dale shrugged. “Tommy‘s the one who never really got the hang of flying.”
Zoë could have kicked herself for opening that particularly grim window. In the 20 odd months since Tommy‘s death, Dale had remained on the lookout to invoke his name at the slightest opportunity. To his credit, Dale didn‘t blame Axel for the death of his one and only love. Not out loud, anyway, or at least not to anybody they knew. And he easily could have, because Axel was an instigator, and Tommy was not a risk taker by nature – although accompanying Axel anyplace, even someplace as simple as a hike, always involved a certain amount of risk. And to Axel‘s credit, he didn‘t try to duck responsibility for the tragedy. Though he and Tommy were best friends, Axel had taken to referring to him as “Dale‘s dead boyfriend who I bullied into the open arms of the Grim Reaper.”
It wasn‘t as if they could tiptoe forever around issues like death, or Axel‘s puerile approach to the world, or even the late, great Tommy Grissom. Besides, it felt like a setup, and Dale knew it was a setup, so Zoë didn‘t bother to apologize.
“I can take him to my place if you think that might work better.” She sat next to Dale and wondered if he would let her trim those stray hairs in his ear.
“You‘ve got the cats.”
“They‘re your cats. I only took them because you‘ve got Axel, and he‘s allergic.”
“It‘s easier for me to get him to radiation,” Dale said with a sense of finality. “And I think taking care of him is what Tommy would want me to do.”
“Alrighty, then – as long as you‘re acting out of some displaced sense of responsibility, who am I to argue?”
“He‘ll be out of surgery in a few minutes. We can wait in his room if you want.”
“Surgery?” Zoë queried with unwarranted alarm, since Dale obviously would have said something if there had been anything to say.
“His PICC line pulled out of his arm when he fell out of the tree, so they have to reinstall it, then X-ray him to be sure it‘s in the right place, then reconnect his chemo.”
“Yuck,” she said with a slight shudder. Although the mechanics of major illness were certainly no surprise, Zoë had never witnessed such workings up close. If the past two months were any indication of what was to come, the harsh treatment for Axel‘s illness was going to provide a broad spectrum of new and nauseating experiences for anybody who chose to stick around – and she and Dale would both be sticking.
They waited together for a few minutes in the awkward silence they sometimes found in shared moments without Axel. They were a far more likely pairing of friends than either one of them was with Axel, but Axel was the glue that held them in place.
“What was he doing in Beverly Hills?” Zoë wondered out loud.
“Maybe he was going home?” Dale speculated, though it seemed unlikely that Axel would wander so far beyond his destination, or even that he could, necessarily, given his compromised condition. The studio apartment above a garage on La Peer was still technically Axel‘s, but only because his landlady was so dotty and addled that she hadn‘t realized he‘d stopped paying rent. “More to the point,” Dale offered, “What was he doing in a fucking tree?”