"The Small Dark Movie of Your Life" - by Leah Bobet
"Half Angel Half Eagle" © Jane Siberry & Sheeba Records, used with permission.
"Just don't leave me alone." --John Belushi, last words
The sirens came fast.
Chaz rode along, pressed into the corner of the bucking vehicle as if he would fold himself away and disappear if at all necessary. Stephen Reyes just stared after him, after the screeching ambulances with his mouth a little open. "We miscalculated," he whispered.
No, we hadn't. We hadn't miscalculated at all, but in the haze of heat and bustle and debris and shock, I couldn't tell myself how.
"We need to secure the scene," Esther Falkner told us. There were sirens in the distance. Sirens in real life are rarely your sirens. They were headed this way. I stood up from where I was kneeling--I was kneeling--and rubbed my eyes. There was blood on my hand. I wiped it absently on my pant leg. Airway, breathing, circulation. We all had our ingrained habits. "Sol, we need to move."
"Right," I said, and backed away from the shattered benches, the snapped young trees. The stains. I backed away and the emergency services personnel swarmed over the wreck, pulling and prodding and heaving. Looking for the ones who hadn't been knocked clear.
"Do you need anything?" she asked sharply. Looked me full in the face, one hand on each shoulder. "You're shocky."
I shook my head. She was shocky too. Her pupils were not even close to the right size. She just handled it differently. Combat training did that.
"I'll pull it together," I said, and went to gather up those of us who didn't have any combat training.
We blew into the emergency room at New York Downtown Hospital at 12:20, and Chaz Villette was standing in the corner, pacing a trapped little circle under the television set.
"Where is she?" Falkner asked.
"Surgery," Chaz said. He was pale around the lips; stricken. "Her legs are crushed, and her side, and there's a head injury--"
"Chaz," Falkner said, and then, "Agent Villette," which straightened him up like a poker. "They'll take care of her, okay?"
His lips thinned. He said nothing.
"We need to make police statements," she said. "I need you to go with the officer. And then I need you to eat."
He took his time coming back. He came back almost an hour later, smelling of fear-sweat and the kind of sourness that came off him when he'd been pushing himself way too hard."
"I called Tricia," Chaz said, and buried himself in the waiting room chair. "She's coming."
"One last drink, please." --Jack Daniel, last words
She was in surgery all day. We waited.
Lau ducked out sometime inside the first few hours. I didn't know she had gone until someone had mysteriously cleaned out that boardroom, every trace of our lingering presence in the NYPD, and Nicolette Lau was beside me, passing me the handle of my rolling suitcase. "The motorcycle's still parked at your hotel," she said. "But they'll leave it there as long as you need."
I nodded at her, dry-throated. She took a seat, picked up a magazine. Put it down. Waited.
John Worth arrived at five, hands in his pockets and jaw locked tight, with Tricia behind him in a whirlwind of terror: constricted throat and big eyes and every police wife's worst nightmare come alive. Chaz and Falkner intercepted them smoothly, took her by each arm, sat her down.
"Where is she?" she said, already shaking to pieces, breaking.
"In surgery," Falkner said. "They're working hard. We'll find out what's happening soon."
"Tell me what happened," Tricia said. "Tell me every single thing."
The doctor came out at nine. He looked exhausted, strained. He sat down in the chair next to our little cluster, and tried not to look like something set upon by a circle of wolves.
"She's pulling through," he said, and the air went out of every set of lungs in the place. "We'll be transferring her to critical care and life support is fully engaged. And the bleeding has slowed or stopped. That's the good news," he said.
"What's the other news?" her father said. He couldn't bring himself to say bad.
"Sir," he said, and that's when I knew it was bad news, because no doctor needed that kind of pause if it was not truly bad. "Ms. Worth's head injuries were severe. There was bruising and bleeding in the brain. We've removed a piece of her skull to limit damage due to the swelling, but there's no telling yet how it will react."
"Aneurysm?" Reyes said, unwilling, and the doctor shook his head no.
"Not an aneurysm. Just impact trauma," he said, and the weight on all our chests shifted. "I have to explain to you: She may wake up different. Her motor functions may be low. She may not be able to do things she could before."
"She may not wake up," Tricia added dully.
The doctor didn't say no.
"I need to see her," Tricia said, and Chaz stood almost with her, a second behind, and then pulled back as if knowing somehow that it was a presumption.
"Soon," the doctor said. "Just wait a little longer."
"Please don't leave me. Please don't leave me." --Chris Farley, last words
"We didn't miscalculate," I told Reyes.
"What?" he said.
"We didn't miscalculate. The profile was right."
He wouldn't ask the question: So what went wrong? So I answered it for him anyway. "The problem was that he was always the target. He wanted very badly to die. And we finally gave him the necessary precondition to pull the plug."
He shifted in his seat. "Sol?"
"I don't know if I want to hug you or punch you right now," he said tiredly.
"You think about that," I told him, and picked up another magazine I wasn't going to read.
They let the family into the ward a little past midnight. John Worth stepped out of the elevator at one, beckoned Charles Villette up. He was there for four hours.
I saw the look on his face, on Tricia's, when they came down.
People are not starfish. She was not going to grow back.
She was not stable enough to transfer home. She was nonresponsive. "She--" Tricia said, and glanced at Chaz, and then we all knew, we all knew how they knew "--she isn't there."
It didn't matter. We could do it. It didn't matter that long-term-care beds in the District of Columbia were rare as true love; Nicolette Lau would find one if it was the last thing she did. We would go in every day, regular as dish duty in the army, and sit by her side, hold her hand, wait. We would devote our lives to the waiting.
"I'm--I need to give it a week. I'm waiting a week," Tricia said. Her face crumpled. She tried to bring it under control three times, failed.
Lau looked at me, sharply. I swallowed.
"I have to wait," Tricia said weakly, and slumped down in the chair.
"We won't leave you," Esther Falkner replied, and covered that shaking hand with her own.
"Not like this. Don't leave me like this." --Layne Staley, last words
We waited, in shifts, in New York City.
Deathbed vigils are exhausting. I don't have any stories to tell you about this. I don't have any citations. I have sat by the sides of too many damned people as they lay dying, and I do not need to prove that this is damn well true. They drain the soul out of you. It drained the soul out of me.
Some people went home for a while. They had to.
Falkner spent two nights at home. She hugged her children. She closed the door of her bedroom and said private words to her husband, and maybe cried where it was safe and secure to do so. She changed out the clothes in her go bag to jeans and packed a trio of novels. She came back.
Brady flew out for a night and a day on the third day. He said nothing about it before going, and nothing before coming back; just I need to head home for a bit before I do something rash.
Reyes went back almost right away, carrying our reports and case notes on his back like Atlas. He took a meeting with Celentano immediately upon arrival. The proper paperwork was filed. The reservations at the Marriott, not as nice as the W, were extended indefinitely. When he came back, a card appeared on the side table in Daphne's hospital room: Get well soon. I caught a glimpse of it, propped up vertical. It contained familiar signatures.
Lau went back when Reyes returned and stayed three full days. Someone needed to hold down the fort at the office. We couldn't have the whole team out. She was the first point of contact, the first line of defense. There might be other cases coming in. We couldn't leave people alone who needed us. She called Brady at mealtimes. He picked up the phone regularly, at eight, noon, and five, and said into it, "Sorry. No change."
She came back on the sixth day. She came back drawn and pale, and said, "Pauley's manning the phones. He'll stay there as long as we need."
"You got a secondment out of Celentano?" Falkner said.
She shook her head. "It's a favor," she said, and shut her mouth tight.
Chaz stayed. He stayed around the clock.
On the sixth night, he drew Reyes aside and they had a sparking, heated argument, all gestures and sharpness behind glass. He stalked outside afterward; pulled out his cell phone as he rounded the corner to the elevator bank.
I raised an eyebrow. Reyes said, in a neutral, flat voice, "He's calling Idlewood."
Chaz didn't come back for an hour, even less than an hour, and when he came back he had a store-new iPad tucked under his arm. He strode through the ward, around the corner, and into Daphne's hospital room.
I followed him after a minute; peered in the door. There was wrapping on the floor, cardboard and thin Styrofoam. He was fumbling with the plugs. He kept missing the outlets. He hadn't slept enough.
"Hey," I said, and his head whipped up like a prey animal's. "You need a hand?"
His face went through fifteen kinds of no, of go away. "I'm not leaving," I said mildly.
His breath hissed out between his teeth. "That was cruel," he said.
I nodded and took the iPad out of his hands.
The wires went in the holes. The power flowed through the wires like a saline drip. The display blinked to life like a heart monitor. I hooked everything up and set everything up, and handed it to him, and stood outside so they wouldn't be interrupted.
"Hey," Chaz's voice said after a few minutes. "I'm here. You're on."
"Goddamn you," Hafidha Gates's voice said through the speakers, before he hastily, carefully turned them down. "Goddamn you how could you let this happen--"
There is no way for a grown man to cover his ears in a hospital hallway without having it noticed. I stood blank as a statue. I looked everywhere else.
"I'm turning it now," Chaz said finally. A rustle of blankets and mattress. "I'm turning it. I'm holding her hand for you, Wabbit love."
"Harpy?" she said, and her voice was breaking. The breathing tube hissed. There was no response. "Oh, no, Harpy. Harpy, baby, I love you, I'll always--" she said, and then there was a rattle, and a thick silence, and I dared to peer inside.
"Turn it off," I heard her say, as Chaz pulled the iPad away and held it to his chest, shielding one from the other and there was no telling which; shielding both. "Turn the fucking thing off."
"Don't leave me." --Alexander Graham Bell, on his deathbed
"No." --his wife Mabel Hubbard, in reply
A week passed. There was no change. I didn't leave.
There was no noble reason for this. I am a journalist and I stay where the story is no matter what.
Because a story you don't tell doesn't exist, and because eventually our own stories turn and stab us in the backs: that doctors don't fail. That our plans will make us safe. That an old, broken man won't outlive a young woman. Eventually our heraldry and shorthands eat us all, and we have to just tell the truth like we saw it with our own two eyes.
And so I stood outside like a sentry, and listened to the heart monitor be disassembled, and the IV pole wheeled outside of the room, and her father wrap big arms around his own body to try to hold his heartbeat in. Her wife shift in the creaking hospital chair and count dragging, irregular breaths. To her stutter, and shiver, and flatline wail.
The wail twinned in the chairs down the hall, in the thin tenor of Charles Villette, and broke into a dry, choking sob, and Esther Falkner wrapped her arms around his big shoulders and pulled him down onto her own as he struggled and fought to shake her off like a dog in the rain.
The floor was hard. My feet ached. The hospital smelled like bleach and brick and afternoon leftovers. I pressed my hands against the white-painted hallway wall, and it was cool and hard and stood indifferent to the tiny disaster behind it.
And there I was.
"I have tried so hard to do right." --Grover Cleveland, last words