This story is by J. H. O’Rourke and was part of our 2020 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Lara Whitley slipped into the spacious, crowded room. Her eyes were drawn to a tall, oak table featuring a photo of six-year-old Tammy Lynn Driscoll.
The child’s impish grin reached her wide, blue eyes; her untamed, blonde hair hung in ringlets around her freckled face.
Next to the picture sat a silver, heart-shaped urn engraved with a pink teddy bear.
Lara swallowed painfully around a lump in her throat.
Snippets of whispered conversations reached her ears.
“…such a tragedy…”
“…thought she was improving…”
Lara’s head pounded to the beat of her racing heart as guilt ate away at her soul.
The experiment had failed.
It was her fault the little girl was dead.
Detective Fred Quincy stood in the shadows. His gut insisted there was more to the child’s death than natural causes. She was the third pediatric cancer patient who had died unexpectedly in the past few weeks.
And Quincy didn’t believe in coincidences.
He watched as Pastor John Smythe approached the podium, his hands clasped together as if in prayer.
“It is with heavy hearts that we gather here today to remember Tammy Lynn Driscoll…”
The detective’s cell phone vibrated in his pocket. He discreetly made his way outside to take the call.
“Quincy,” he muttered.
“Fred, it’s Melanie at the coroner’s office. You were right. Something’s off. An unknown substance was detected in the Driscoll girl’s toxicology report. The lab’s running it now.
“You think this was the cause of death?”
“I wouldn’t be surprised. Her doctor indicated she was stable. I’ll call you back once the lab report is available.”
Lara’s personal hell had begun a year earlier when her husband, Tony, had been a victim of a drive-by shooting. He had emerged from a week-long coma a changed man, and not for the better.
Lara’s loving, intelligent, hard-working husband and father to their five-year-old son, Christopher, no longer existed. In his place was someone prone to erratic thinking and behavior, someone suffering from insomnia and nightmares, someone she feared but didn’t understand why.
Someone she no longer loved.
She could only hope that time would heal her husband’s physical and psychological wounds.
Lara left her job as a receptionist at the animal hospital where Tony worked as a veterinarian and opened a dog grooming business out of their home.
The flexible hours enabled her to take care of both Tony and Christopher. And her pre-existing relationships with dog owners ensured she had an endless supply of toenails to clip and fur to trim and style.
Just as Lara became used to her new day-to-day routine, the unthinkable happened and her world fell apart.
Lara forced herself back to the present and concentrated on Pastor Smythe’s soothing words.
“…let us bow our heads and pray. For the soul of little Tammy Lynn, that she may be welcomed into God’s eternal light. For her parents, Jim and Andrea Driscoll, that they may find comfort in the love they have for one another and in their faith in God. May they find peace and reassurance in the knowledge that they will reunite with their beloved daughter when the time comes to embark on their own journeys into heaven and life everlasting. Amen.”
“Amen,” whispered Lara along with dozens of others.
God, please forgive me for what I have done… what I will do…
Family members and friends of the Driscoll’s took turns stepping up to the podium to say a few comforting words to Tammy Lynn’s grieving parents. Quincy recognized most of them. In a town as small as Maple Springs, everyone knew everyone.
Quincy began making his way across the room to offer a word of condolence to Mr. and Mrs. Driscoll when his phone vibrated in his pocket.
He swore under his breath and headed outside.
“Fred, it’s Melanie again. The lab results indicate most of the chemicals are individual derivatives found in chemotherapy drugs, but not in this combination or amount.”
Quincy let that sink in.
“Do me a favor, Mel. You still have blood samples from the other two cancer patients who had autopsies performed recently?”
“Sure. You want me to check them for this chemical structure?”
“Consider it done.”
As she drove home from the service, Lara recalled that fateful phone call from Christopher’s teacher.
“He’s been experiencing unusual and unprovoked emotional outbursts, such as anger and sadness. Even fear. Or he’ll just stare into space and I’ll need to physically touch him to get his attention.”
Lara had wondered at the time if her son had been reacting to the changes in his father’s demeanor, but she had to be sure.
After several medical consultations and numerous tests, she was told her son’s grim diagnosis.
“Christopher has a cancerous brain tumor, Mrs. Whitley,” the solemn, young oncologist had explained. Lara had stared at him, shocked into silence. “It’s inoperable. I’m so sorry.”
Reality slapped her in the face. “H-how long does he have?”
“Six months. Maybe a year.”
Lara’s heart had shattered. She had witnessed first-hand what dying of cancer looked like, had lost both her parents to the dreadful disease. And she’d seen numerous animals succumb to the illness while working at the veterinary hospital.
But Christopher? Her only child? Her reason for getting up each morning?
She would do anything to save her son.
“It’s me again,” said Melanie. “You’re definitely on to something. The lab detected the same chemicals in blood samples from the other two patients, though in varying amounts. They also found a drug known as fenbendazole, which is disturbing, to say the least.”
A chill slithered down Quincy’s spine. “Why? What is it?”
“An antiparasitic drug used in the treatment and prevention of intestinal worms. In animals.”
“What? Why in hell would someone be given medication intended for animals?”
“I wondered the same thing. So I did a little digging and discovered that some experts believe the drug could be helpful in treating cancer in humans down the road.”
Quincy’s head was spinning as he disconnected the call. He suspected it was just a matter of time until the killer injected another patient with the deadly cocktail.
Who could it be?
It didn’t make any sense.
Not taking any chances, Quincy contacted the director of the hospital and relayed his suspicions. They agreed that an officer would be dispatched to man the entrance of the cancer ward at all times in order to keep close track of visitors and staff entering and leaving the area.
“I’m home!” called Lara as she entered the house. She didn’t expect or receive a reply. Tony was most likely holed up in his basement lab, feverishly working on his new chemotherapy drug.
Lara believed Tony’s project to be a hopeless endeavor.
According to Christopher’s doctor, there was no treatment. But at least Tony had found something to keep himself busy. His dedication reminded Lara of the old Tony. She didn’t have the heart to tell him what he was doing wouldn’t work.
She’d been aware that Tony had been experimenting on lab rats, but when she discovered carcasses of dogs and cats behind the garage, she realized he’d expanded his efforts.
Still, she said nothing.
The premature deaths of two children with cancer at the hospital led her to suspect that Tony had begun experimenting on people.
When she confronted him, he didn’t deny it.
“I’m so close, Lara. I’m going to save our boy.”
The tiniest ray of hope hidden deep in the confines of her heart prevented her from insisting he stop, regardless of the deadly consequences.
Even now, after Tammy Lynn Driscoll’s untimely death, Lara did nothing.
Tony stepped off the elevator. His hand caressed the syringe in the pocket of his jacket and he smiled.
Christopher. Daddy’s here to save you.
As he turned the corner, Tony came face to face with a burly police officer seated at a makeshift workstation outside the cancer ward. The man looked up and squinted at Tony.
“Tony Whitley. I’m here to visit my son, Christopher. What’s going on?”
Ignoring Tony’s question, the man skimmed the list of names on the paper in front of him.
Tony pulled out his wallet and showed the man his drivers’ license.
“Okay, you can go in.”
Tony headed straight for Christopher’s room, went inside, and closed the door behind him.
Several weeks later, Tony wrapped his arm around Lara’s trembling shoulders and gently led her into the doctor’s office. He clasped her sweaty hand in his dry one as they sat facing the oncologist.
“Please… just tell us why you called us in.” Lara wiped at her eyes with a tissue.
“Frankly, it’s a miracle,” the doctor admitted. “Christopher’s tumor is gone. I can’t explain it.”
I can, thought Tony.
In his mind’s eye he pictured his new, secret lab. And felt excited about the experiments he’d be conducting.