The Better to Hold You
wondered whether I should switch to yogurt, too. Not that it would really help; Lilli was the kind of woman who wore heels and matching French-bra-and-pan ties sets, and I was not. As much as I wanted to keep my husband, I knew I wasn’t capable of undergoing some dramatic transformation at this late date.
    “I guess we might as well join the boys,” said Lilliana, searching the crowded room for a free table.
    I looked around and spotted Sam, who waved us over, winding the spaghetti on his fork with sloppy enthusiasm. Ofer, who had brought his food from home, was using a toothpick to eat meatballs out of a little Tupper-ware container. Sitting a little apart from them, Malachy seemed to be lunching on tea and saltines while reading from a pile of files.
    “I’ve heard a rumor,” said Lilliana while we were still out of earshot, “that the board’s trying to remove him from the Institute completely.”
    I didn’t ask where she’d heard this; the unlikeliest people tended to confide in Lilliana. It was uncanny. If she’d been standing next to the chief of staff for two minutes at the cafeteria, she probably knew more about the man than his secretary did. Give her half an hour, and she’d know more than his wife. But Lilliana would never expose her sources.
    “Do they want Mad Mal out because of his health?” I wondered aloud. “Or is his health getting worse because he’s on the way out?”
    Lilliana shrugged. “I don’t know. Either way, he looks awful.” Lately, Malachy’s cheekbones were so prominent that he looked positively cadaverous.
    “Shoot,” said Lilliana as we reached the table, “I forgot something. You sit, Abra, and I’ll be right back.” I put my tray down as Lilliana returned to the food servers.
    “Ms. Barrow.” Malachy nodded at me. “Did you get the rads back on that golden retriever yet?”
    “No, but the bloods are in.” I took a sip of my milk. “I don’t know where to go from here, though. The owner’s pretty much tapped out.”
    Malachy tapped his chin thoughtfully. “So chemo’s not an option, regardless of the diagnosis?”
    “Not with us. Maybe the dog’s regular vet can work something out.”
    “You feel up to making the call?” His voice, I thought, was almost kind.
    “I can do it.”
    Malachy raised his eyebrows. “You do know it’s Mrs. Rosen? The lady who thinks we should give her a discount because we’re a teaching hospital?”
    “I’ll explain it to her.”
    “Well, then,” Malachy said, “I suppose that the only thing left for me to say is …”
    “Say happy birthday,” said Lilliana, reappearing with a tiny, perfect chocolate cake on her tray. There was just enough room for the big 3 and 0 candles.
    “Oh, Lilliana, thanks.” I blew out the candles, and Sam said, “What did you wish for?”
    “What all women wish for—true love, happiness, a pedicure.”
    “I can help you with part of that,” said Lilliana, handing me a beautiful print of an Impressionist garden, along with a gift certificate for a day spa.
    “Of course, I’m tagging along,” she said, peeling her apple in the European fashion.
    “With knife skills like that,” said Malachy, “you are truly wasted in social work.”
    I rolled my eyes. “Oh, just stab him, Lilli.”
    Ofer’s card featured a wolf wearing a woman’s dress, looking at Little Red Riding Hood with a kind of embarrassed smirk. The caption read, Really, Red, it’s not about the clothes.
    “I was a little worried you might be offended by this,” Sam admitted. His card displayed the waxed chest of a muscular young male model, and contained an unfunny joke about older women.
    “Very cute, Sam. Thanks.” I wondered why I had the reputation for being prim. For some reason, I thought of Red Mallin, Wildlife Removal Operator. He sure hadn’t thought of me as prudish.
    Lilliana took a look at Sam’s card. “I’m sorry, but this is not a ladies’ man, if you catch my drift.”
    “Yeah,” said Ofer.

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