“I’m sorry,” I say quietly as Chelsea and I sit in her idling car, the heater struggling to warm it up.
Chelsea allows a cautious smile. “We gave her a chance. That’s all that matters.”
“It seemed like things were going so well at first.”
“Perhaps there’s still time for her to change. Keep her in your prayers.”
“Do you think anyone is responding positively to the message?” I ask.
“I have no idea, hon, but I like to hope. Maybe inactive ones will see it and have second thoughts. Maybe new ones will be motivated, too. It’s hard to say.”
“The end feels so close, Chelsea,” I say.
“It is. But until the organization tells us to stop with the preaching, we’ve got to keep positive.”
I think over Chelsea’s words as she eases her station wagon from the lot and stops at a red light. Rain from the previous night has frozen with the sudden cold, and the road is covered in frosty patches of ice. Chelsea cranks the heat to full blast and I feel my feet slowly thaw in their boots.
“So, what’s the plan for the rest of the day?” I ask, fingers hovering over the vents. The hot air streaming between them feels marvelous.
“Let’s head back to my place. I noticed this morning there were a bunch of updates to the news section on the app. I’m curious to see what’s happening with our brothers in Hong Kong.”
I nod thoughtfully, looking forward to getting out of the cold. The latest broadcast emphasized the need to pray specifically about our brothers undergoing various trials around the world. Chelsea and I have gotten into the habit of checking the site weekly, making notes of all the events, and then praying about them together after our study.
The light turns green and Chelsea presses gently on the gas, letting the wheels find traction as we coast into the intersection. We hear the spin of rubber on ice as the vehicle behind us tries to accelerate too quickly. Chelsea throws a quick glance at her rearview mirror.
“These roads are pretty sketchy today,” she says anxiously. “I hope Melissa takes it slow on her way home.”
I nod in agreement and glance out my passenger window. There’s a green pickup truck speeding in our direction. Through its windshield, I see the driver, a man in a white beard, raise his eyes from the cell phone in his hand and panic. He drops the phone and grips the wheel tightly in both hands as all four tires lock. The bed of the truck fishtails left and right, but the vehicle continues to move our way, skidding across the slick ice.
Chelsea turns to look and the two of us scream. There is no time to react, no time to move out of the way. A powerful explosion of glass erupts from the side of the vehicle as the pickup slams into us and everything goes black.
I sit awhile alone in my car wondering what comes next. The homeless man has found some scraps of cardboard and has made a sort of sleeping bag from them. The temperature is far below anything bearable and I pity him. I remember a fleece blanket in my trunk and drive over. His hands shoot into the air as soon as he spots my car. He’s trembling when I open my door, and I can’t tell if it’s from fear or cold. I grab the blanket and hand it to him.
His face explodes in a web of wrinkles, deep grooves cut into the skin and accentuated by a buildup of dirt and sweat. He thanks me softly with a mouth devoid of teeth. He throws the blanket over his head and burrows beneath the boxes as I drive away.
It’s nearing lunch time but I’m not hungry. My mind keeps going back to Meade’s threats. I’ve never felt so helpless. He’s got enough leverage against me to completely derail my life. My marriage, my career, my future. It’s all in his hands. I have no choice but to comply. I need to get whatever information I can about the Witnesses and extract my wife and I from this situation as soon as possible. There’s simply no other way. I don’t like the implications this has for Walter and his wife, but I simply have no choice.
I feel my foot go heavy on the pedal and scold myself, forcing myself to slow down. I pull to a stop at a red light and notice a couple of cars skidding a few feet into the crosswalk. The roads blister with black ice; there will be plenty of accidents today. I flip on my console, eager for a distraction. Sure enough, there’s been a collision on Raymond Avenue and Vonn Parkway, less than two miles from me. I inform dispatch that I’m on my way and hit the sirens and flashers.
The cars ahead of me wiggle their way onto the shoulder lanes as I slip past, careful not to cause an accident of my own as I risk the intersection against the light. I keep my speed well below the limit and approach the scene.
A green pickup truck spews a charcoal column of smoke from beneath its crumpled hood. The other vehicle, a maroon station wagon, has fared much worse. The right side is smashed and tattered beyond repair, a sea of glass shards splattered about the wreck. The driver of the pickup is on his cellphone babbling incoherently. A thin line of crimson runs down the side of his head but he’s oblivious to the injury.
I approach the other vehicle carefully, looking through the shattered window to see if anyone’s inside. When I see them, my heart stops.
Monday, January 11
I try to ignore the plastic tubing coming from my wife’s head and the patch of hair they had to shave away to insert it. A neck brace keeps her locked in place. Her right leg, which was shattered on the truck’s impact, is elevated and cocooned in a cast. A web of pipes and wires stream from her nose, mouth, and hands. It’s as if Amy is so frail that she would simply fall apart if it weren’t for these machines. My hands ache to reach out and touch her, to somehow pull her back to consciousness, but I’m too afraid of hurting her. I grip the edge of her mattress and lower my head in defeat.
I was twenty-three when Amy and I met. I’d just finished my degree and marriage was the farthest thing from my mind. I was perfectly content with the idea of eternal bachelorhood. But Amy changed all that. We first met at a dinner party of a mutual friend, Hector. Amy was friends with Hector’s sister and he was interested in her. Hector had thought the feelings might be mutual, but after just a few minutes of observing the two of them, it was clear that the romance was one-sided. Amy was too sophisticated for him. While the other partygoers discussed the latest trends and music and movies, Amy’s mind was elsewhere, and eventually she disappeared completely.
I found her lying on the back deck staring up at the stars. She said she’d always wanted to study astronomy but didn’t have a knack for the science behind it. She hoped to visit space someday and see if Earth was really as beautiful as the pictures made it seem. She had so much on her mind. She worried about the GMOs in her food and the way cotton was harvested by children in Bangladesh. She complained about the corruption of megacorporations and the greed of politicians.
I’d never met anyone who cared so much about so much. She had the motivations of an activist but couldn’t decide what to do about it. She liked that I wanted to be a cop and said she’d probably be doing the same thing if it weren’t for her aversion to guns. We gazed at the stars and chatted for almost three hours. When we finally went back inside, nearly everyone had left or passed out. Hector was milling around picking up trash with a plastic bag in his hand. He gave me a defeated smile when he saw Amy and I together, as if he’d known all along it would come to this. Amy and I helped him clean up and left at two thirty in the morning. We exchanged numbers and were engaged within six months. We were married a year later.
It was never a fairy tale marriage, but it’s been close. Amy’s always stood by me, supported me, and respected me. I can’t hold back the tears as I clench my hands together and press my forehead into them at the side of her bed. I can’t bear the thought of life without her. Walter knew what he was talking about. Amy was my star. My one in a million.
A plastic printout of Amy’s MRI hangs from a railing above the foot of her bed. Some nurse has stuck a few sticky arrows to the film strip indicating where the brain swelling is worst. The surgeons put a tube in my wife’s head to help drain the fluid and reduce the inflammation. No one seems to know when she’ll wake up. Comas are unpredictable, they say. It could last hours, it could last days.
It could last the rest of her life.
I retreat downstairs to the cafeteria as night settles in. I have no appetite, but I force myself to eat anyway. I grab a small plastic dish of tossed salad covered in cling wrap and a baked potato. I dine by myself at a round table beneath a television set spewing an update on the North Korean missile crisis. ‘On the Brink?’ teases a headline at the bottom of the screen. For some reason it makes me angry, but I continue to watch.
I shovel the tasteless food into my mouth as I stare numbly into the screen. They briefly mention Zeke Brady, the anarchist ex-cop Gabe mentioned a few weeks ago. He’s in police custody after being charged with plotting the assassination of a Senator. His supporters, who call themselves ‘zekes’, are up in arms over what they believe is a federal conspiracy to frame their leader. I watch, detached, as they wave a giant black flag with a painted red ‘Z’ at one of their rallies.
I’m suddenly too tired to care anymore. I throw the half-eaten tray of food into the garbage and wander the corridors. I find myself in the underground parking garage, where a uniformed guard smoking a cigarette nods in my direction. There’s a firearm strapped to his side and I wonder when they started arming these people. Maybe after that shooting in Miami? I can’t remember and don’t bother to try. It’s all bad news, everywhere I look, everything I think and feel.
I meander back through the corridors to the wing where Amy sleeps. There’s a voice I recognize down the hall and I track it down. I peek into one of the rooms and glimpse the back of a grey haired man hunched over a hospital bed. It’s Walter.
I stand there quietly for a few moments, watching him as he strokes his wife’s head. She’s unconscious, though she seems to be breathing on her own. There are bandages on her face and arms, but the rest of her body is shielded from my view. She doesn’t look as bad as Amy, though. Walter seems to sense my presence. He turns to look at me. Dark skin circles his eyes and his smile is a thin wire.
“Hi, Luke,” he says softly. I nod. Walter glances back to his wife before grabbing his coat and motioning for us to leave the room. He shuts the door as we exit.
“How is she?” I ask.
“Hit her head pretty bad on impact, but the doctors seem to think she’s through the worst of it. How’s Amy?”
“Still unconscious,” I say, unwilling to call it a coma.
“They’ll need lots of rest,” Walter says with a tired look. “We’ve both got a long road ahead of us.”
“Yeah,” I say, sinking heavily into a bench in the hallway. I suddenly feel frail and exhausted, as if the blood’s been drained from my body. I rub my face in my hands, working the circulation back into my brain. Walter sits next to me and says nothing as the hospital sounds wash over us. A doctor mutters something quietly to a nurse behind the counter. Someone fills a plastic pill bottle. A stack of blood packets are loaded onto a cart and wheeled through a set of swinging doors.
“We’ll get through this, Luke,” Walter says with a hand on my shoulder. I nod slowly, appreciating the support more than I’m willing to admit.