Excerpt

Miracle Creek

Angie Kim

The following is an exclusive excerpt from Miracle Creek, a debut thriller by Angie Kim about an experimental medical treatment chamber called the Miracle Submarine, which is believed to cure a broad range of issues, mental and physical. When the tank explodes one night and two people are killed, a murder trial grips the residents of the rural Virginian town.

He would’ve given anything not to be here today. Maybe not his entire right arm, but certainly one of its three remaining fingers. He was already a freak with missing fingers—what was one more? He did not want to see reporters, cameras flashing when he made the mistake of covering his face with his hands—he cringed, picturing how the flash would reflect off the glossy scar tissue covering the doughy clump that remained of his right hand. He did not want to hear whispers of “Look, the infertile doctor,” or face Abe, the prosecutor, who’d once looked at him, head tilted as if studying a puzzle, and asked, “Have you and Janine considered adoption? I hear Korea has lots of half-white babies.” He did not want to chat with his in-laws, the Chos, who tsked and lowered their eyes in unison at the sight of his injuries, or hear Janine rail at them for their shame over any perceived defect, which she’d diagnose as yet another of their “typically Korean” prejudices and intolerances. Most of all, he did not want to see anyone from Miracle Submarine, not the other patients, not Elizabeth, and definitely, most certainly, not Mary Yoo.

Abe stood and, walking by, put his hand on Young’s, draped across the railing. He patted gently, and she smiled. Pak clenched his teeth, and when Abe smiled at him, Pak stretched his lips as if trying to smile but not quite managing it. Matt guessed that Pak, like his own Korean father-in-law, did not approve of African-Americans and thought it one of America’s great flaws that it had an African-American president.

He’d been surprised when he met Abe. Miracle Creek and Pineburg seemed so provincial and white. The jury was all white. The judge was white. Police, firemen—white. This wasn’t the kind of place he’d expect to have a black prosecutor. Then again, it wasn’t the kind of place anyone would expect to have a Korean immigrant running a mini-submarine as a so-called medical device, but there it was.

“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, my name is Abraham Patterley. I am the prosecutor. I represent the Commonwealth of Virginia against the defendant, Elizabeth Ward.” Abe pointed his right index finger at Elizabeth, and she startled, as if she hadn’t known that she was the accused. Matt stared at Abe’s index finger, wondered what Abe would do if he, like Matt, lost it. Right before the amputation, the surgeon had said, “Thank God your career’s not too affected by it. Imagine being a pianist or surgeon.” Matt had thought about that a lot. What job could one have and not be too affected by amputation of the right index and middle fingers? He would’ve put lawyers in the category of “not too affected,” but now, looking at Elizabeth withering under Abe’s simple gesture of pointing at her, the power that finger gave Abe, he wasn’t sure.

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“Why is Elizabeth Ward here today? You’ve already heard the charges. Arson, battery, attempted murder.” Abe stared at Elizabeth before turning his body square to the jury box. “Murder.”

“The victims sit here, ready and eager to tell you what happened to them”—Abe motioned to the front row—“and to the defendant’s two ultimate victims: Kitt Kozlowski, the defendant’s longtime friend, and Henry Ward, the defendant’s own eight-year-old son, who can’t tell you themselves, because they are dead.

What job could one have and not be too affected by amputation of the right index and middle fingers?

“Miracle Submarine’s oxygen tank exploded at about 8:25 p.m. on August 26, 2008, starting an uncontrollable fire. Six people were inside, three in the immediate area. Two died. Four, severely injured—hospitalized for months, paralyzed, limbs amputated.

“The defendant was supposed to be inside with her son. But she wasn’t. She told everyone she was sick. Headache, congestion, the works. She asked Kitt, the mother of another patient, to watch Henry while she rested. She took wine she’d packed to the creek nearby. She smoked a cigarette of the same type and brand that started the fire, using the same type and brand of matches that started the fire.”

Abe looked at the jurors. “All of what I just told you is undisputed.”

Abe closed his mouth and paused for emphasis. “Un-dis-pu-ted,” he said, enunciating it like four separate words. “The defendant here”—he pointed that index finger again at her—“admits all this, that she intentionally stayed outside, faking an illness, and when her son and friend were being incinerated inside, she was sipping wine, smoking using the same match and cigarette used to set the blast, and listening to Beyoncé on her iPod.”

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***

Matt knew why he was the first witness. Abe had explained the need for an overview. “Hyperbarics, oxygen this and that, it’s complicated. You’re a doctor, you can help everyone understand. Plus, you were there. You’re perfect.” Perfect or not, Matt resented the hell out of having to speak first, to set the scene. He knew what Abe thought, that this submarine healing business was kooky and he wanted to say, Look, here’s a normal American, a real M.D. from a real medical school, and he did this, so it can’t be that crazy.

“Place your left hand on the Bible and raise your right hand,” the bailiff said. Matt placed his right hand on the Bible, raised his left hand, and looked square into the bailiff’s eyes. Let him think he was a dumbfuck who didn’t know right from left. Better that than showcasing his freaky hand, see everyone flinch and flit their eyes around like birds above a dump site, unsure where to land.

Abe started easy. Where Matt was from (Bethesda, Maryland), college (Tufts), medical school (Georgetown), residency (same), fellowships (same), board certification (radiology), hospital credentials (Fairfax). “Now, I have to ask the first question I had when I heard about the explosion. What is Miracle Submarine, and why do you need a submarine in the middle of Virginia, nowhere near the ocean?” Several jurors smiled, as if in relief that others also wondered this.

Matt stretched his lips into a smile. “It’s not a real submarine. Just designed like one, with portholes and a sealed hatch and steel walls. It’s actually a medical device, a chamber for hyperbaric oxygen therapy. H-B-O-T, pronounced ‘aitch- bot’ for short.”

“Tell us how it works, Dr. Thompson.”

“You’re sealed in, the air pressurizes 1.5 to 3 times normal atmospheric pressure, and you breathe in one hundred percent oxygen. The high pressure causes the oxygen to be dissolved at greater levels in your blood, fluids, and tissue. Damaged cells need oxygen to heal, so this deep penetration of extra oxygen can result in faster healing and regrowth. Many hospitals offer HBOT.”

“Miracle Submarine isn’t a hospital chamber. Is that different?”

Matt thought of sterile hospital chambers attended by technicians in scrubs, then the Yoos’ rusted chamber lying crooked in an old barn. “Not really. Hospitals usually use clear tubes for one person to lie in. Miracle Submarine is bigger, so four patients plus their caregivers can go in together, making it much less expensive. Also, private centers are open to treating off-label conditions that hospitals wouldn’t.”

“What kind of conditions?”

“A big variety. Autism, cerebral palsy, infertility, Crohn’s, neuropathies.” Matt thought he heard tittering from the back at the condition he’d tried to hide in the middle of the list—infertility. Or perhaps it was the memory of his own laughter the first time Janine suggested HBOT after the sperm analysis.

“Thank you, Dr. Thompson. Now, you became Miracle Submarine’s first patient. Can you tell us about that?”

Boy, could he. He could go on at length about it, how Janine staged it perfectly, inviting him to dinner at her parents’ house without one word about the Yoos or HBOT or, worst of all, Matt’s expected “contribution.” A fucking ambush.

“Now, I have to ask the first question I had when I heard about the explosion. What is Miracle Submarine, and why do you need a submarine in the middle of Virginia, nowhere near the ocean?”

“I met Pak at my in-laws’ house last year,” Matt said to Abe. “ They’re family friends; my father-in-law and Pak’s father are from the same Korean village. Anyway, I learned that Pak was starting an HBOT business, and my father-in-law was investing in that.” They’d all been sitting around the dinner table, and the Yoos had hurried to stand when Matt walked in, as if he were royalty. Pak looked ner vous, the sharp angles of his face accentuated by his tight smile, and when he gripped Matt’s hand for a handshake, his knuckles bulged into jagged peaks. Young, his wife, had bowed slightly, eyes downcast. Mary, their sixteen-year-old, was a copy of her mother, with eyes that looked too big for her delicate face, but she’d smiled easily, mischievously, as if she knew a secret and couldn’t wait to see his reaction when he found out, which, of course, was exactly what was about to happen.

As soon as Matt sat down, Pak said, “Do you know HBOT?” Those words were like the cue for a well-rehearsed performance. Everyone converged around Matt, leaning in conspiratorially, and spoke in turns without pause. Matt’s father-in-law said how popular this was with his Asian acupuncture clients; Japan and Korea had wellness centers with infrared saunas and HBOT. Matt’s mother-in-law said Pak had years of HBOT experience in Seoul. Janine said recent research showed HBOT to be a promising treatment for numerous chronic diseases, did he know?

“What was your reaction to this business?” Abe asked.

Matt saw Janine put her thumb in her mouth and gnash at the flesh around her nails. Something she did when she was nervous, the same thing she did at that dinner, no doubt because she knew exactly what he’d think. What all their hospital friends would think. Total crap. Another of her father’s alternative, holistic therapies that desperate, stupid, and crazy patients got duped into. Matt never said this, of course. Mr. Cho had disapproved of Matt enough, merely for not being Korean. If he found out that Matt regarded his whole profession—all of Eastern “medicine,” really—as bullshit? No. That would not be good. Which was why Janine had been brilliant to announce the whole thing in front of her parents and their friends.

“Everyone was excited,” Matt said to Abe. “My father-in-law, an acupuncturist for thirty years, was standing behind this, and my wife, who’s an internist, verified its potential. That was all I needed to know.” Janine stopped biting her cuticle. “You have to realize,” Matt added, “she got much better grades in med school than me.” Janine laughed along with the jurors.

“And you signed up for treatment. Tell us about that.”

Matt bit his lip and looked away. He’d known to expect the question, had practiced how he’d answer: matter-of-factly. The same way Pak had said that night that Matt’s father-in-law was investing, that Janine had been “appointed”—as if it were a presidential commission or something—a medical advisor, and they all agreed: “You, Dr. Thompson, must become our first patient.” Matt thought he’d misheard. Pak spoke English well, but he had an accent and syntax errors. Perhaps he’d mistranslated “director” or “chairman.” But then Pak added, “Most patients will be children, but it is good to have one adult patient.”

Matt sipped wine, not saying anything, wondering what in God’s name could’ve made Pak think that a healthy man like Matt might need HBOT, when a possibility occurred to him. Could Janine have said something about their— his—“issue”? He tried to ignore the thought, focus on dinner, but his hands shook, and he couldn’t pick up the galbi, the slippery morsels of marinated rib meat sliding through the thin silver chopsticks. Mary noticed and came to his rescue. “I can’t use steel chopsticks, either,” she said, and offered him wooden ones, the kind from Chinese takeouts. “This is easier. Try it. My mom says that’s why we had to leave Korea. No one will marry a girl who can’t use chopsticks. Right, Mom?” Everyone else seemed annoyed and remained silent, but Matt laughed. She joined him, the two of them laughing amid frowning faces like kids misbehaving in a room full of adults.

It had been at this moment, as Matt and Mary were laughing, that Pak said, “HBOT has high rate of curing infertility, especially for people like you—low sperm motility.” Right then, at this confirmation that his wife had shared details—medical details, personal details—not only with her parents but also with these people he’d never met before, Matt felt something hot in his chest, as if a balloon filled with lava had stretched and burst in his lungs, displacing the oxygen. Matt stared into Pak’s eyes and tried to breathe normally. Strangely, it wasn’t Janine’s gaze he needed to avoid, but Mary’s. He hadn’t wanted to know how those words—infertility, low sperm motility—would change the way she looked at him. If her previously curious (possibly interested?) look would now be tinged with disgust or, worse, pity.

He hadn’t wanted to know how those words—infertility, low sperm motility—would change the way she looked at him. If her previously curious (possibly interested?) look would now be tinged with disgust or, worse, pity.

Matt said to Abe, “My wife and I had problems conceiving, and HBOT was an experimental treatment for men involved in these situations, so it made sense to take advantage of this new business.” He left out that he hadn’t agreed at first, had refused to even address it for the rest of dinner. Janine said what she’d clearly practiced, how Matt’s volunteering as a patient would help launch the business, how the presence of a “regular doctor” (Janine’s words) would reassure potential clients of HBOT’s safety and effectiveness. She didn’t seem to notice that he wasn’t answering, that he was keeping his eyes focused strictly on his plate. But Mary did. She noticed and came to his rescue again and again, laughing at his chopsticks technique and interjecting jokes about kimchi-garlic flavors mixing with wine.

For days afterward, Janine had been a pain in the ass, going on about HBOT’s safety, its many uses, blah blah. When he didn’t budge, she tried to guilt him, said his refusal would cement her father’s suspicion that Matt didn’t believe in his business. “I don’t believe in it. I don’t think what he does is medicine, and you’ve known that from day one,” he’d said, which led to her most hurtful comment. “The fact is, you’re against anything Asian. You dismiss it.”

Before he could rail against her for accusing him of racism, point out that he’d married her, for Christ’s sake (and besides, wasn’t she always going on about how racist old- time Koreans like her parents were?), Janine sighed and said in a pleading voice, “One month. If it works, no IVF. No jerking off into a cup. Isn’t that worth a try?”

He never said yes. She just pretended his silence was acquiescence, and he let her. What she said was right, or at least not wrong. Plus, maybe it would get his father- in- law to start forgiving him for not being Korean.

“When did you start HBOT?” Abe asked.

“The first day it opened, August fourth. I wanted to get the forty sessions done in August—better traffic—so I signed up for two dives each day, the first at 9:00 a.m. and the last at 6:45 p.m. There were six sessions each day, and those times were reserved for us ‘double-dive’ patients.”

“Who else was in the double-dive group?” Abe asked.

“Three other patients: Henry, TJ, and Rosa. Plus their mothers. Aside from a few times when someone was sick or stuck in traffic or whatnot, we were all there, every day, twice a day.”

“Tell us about them.”

“Sure. Rosa is the oldest. Sixteen, I believe. She has cerebral palsy. She has a wheelchair and feeding tube. Her mother is Teresa Santiago.” He pointed to her. “We call her Mother Teresa because she’s extremely kind and patient.” Teresa blushed, as always when called that.

“There’s TJ, who’s eight. He has autism. Nonverbal. And his mother, Kitt—”

“That’s Kitt Kozlowski, who was killed last summer?”

“Yes.”

“Do you recognize this picture?” Abe placed a portrait on an easel. A posed shot with Kitt’s face in the center, like one of those Geddes baby flowers, except framed by her family’s faces instead of petals. Kitt’s husband above (standing behind her), TJ below (on her lap), two girls on the right, two on the left, all five kids with the same frizzy red curls as hers. A tableau of happiness. And now the mom was gone, leaving a sunflower with no center disk to hold up the petals.

Matt swallowed and cleared his throat. “That’s Kitt, with her family, with TJ.”

Abe placed another picture next to Kitt’s. Henry. Not one of those fake studio shots, but a slightly blurred picture of him laughing on a sunny day, blue sky and green leaves behind him. His blond hair mussed up a little, his head back and his blue eyes almost slits from laughing so hard. A missing tooth smack in the middle, as if he’d been showing it off.

Matt swallowed again. “That’s Henry. Henry Ward. Elizabeth’s son.”

Abe said, “Did the defendant accompany Henry for the dives, like the other mothers?”

“Yes,” Matt said. “She always came in with Henry, except for the last dive.”

“Every single dive, and the only time she sat out just happened to be when everyone inside was hurt or killed?”

“Yes. The only time.”

__________________________________

From MIRACLE CREEK. Used with the permission of the publisher, Sarah Crichton Books. Copyright © 2019 by Angie Kim.




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