“I found out what happened to Wendell.”
I sat up from the bed and felt my still-healing body protest the sudden movement, but didn’t care. “He’s still alive? Where is he, what—?”
“He’s in a coma, on life-support.”
My heart dropped and I felt the walls closing in. “Where is he? I have to see him, I have to be there in case….” I started to cry and Andrew was immediately by my side with a tissue clutched awkwardly in his hand. I took it from him and pressed it against my face. I almost expected it to smell like Irish Spring soap and Vick’s VapoRub like all of the tissues that Wendell had ever given me, but it smelled dry and sterile.
I choked back a sob. “This is all my fault.”
His voice was soft and sympathetic. “You can’t blame yourself over what happened. If what you told me is true then those things have been tracking you for a while now and they hardly needed an excuse to come after you directly.”
“No, but they struck when they knew that they could hurt me the most.”
“Which is why we can’t let them get away with it.” He walked over to the chair and began to paw through the contents of the gym bag that he had brought the previous day. He tossed a pair of shorts and another of his marathon t-shirts towards me and I caught them one-handed.
“I went over to your apartment today to see if I could bring back some stuff for you, but the whole place was cordoned off with police tape. I happened to run into one of the other tenants on your floor and they told me that Wendell had been air-lifted to St. Joseph’s. Last they heard you were still wanted for questioning and that he hadn’t regained consciousness.”
I yanked the t-shirt on over my head and stood up to put on the shorts, but nearly fell over. I was still dizzy and weak from my ordeal, but Wendell needed me.
Andrew was immediately by my side and he reached to steady me as I slowly scuffed on my shoes. A wave of dizziness rolled over me and I gritted my teeth, determined that no matter how difficult this ordeal would be that I would not let Wendell down. “I have to see him no matter what, even if the police are still looking for me. Will you go with me?”
His eyes were full of sadness and understanding. “Of course.”
St. Joseph’s was one of the largest trauma centers in the city, a pink sandstone monstrosity with neatly-manicured lawns, tastefully appointed benches for visitors to lounge in or take in the warm afternoon sun, and a popular coffee chain stationed inside.
None of these things mattered to me as Andrew and I slipped inside and made our way towards the Intensive Care Unit. A bored looking receptionist informed us that Wendell was located in the room down at the end of the hall on the left, and that the rest of the family was already gathered there.
Andrew thanked her and she went back to texting on her phone. I stared down the corridor and it seemed to yawn before me, impossibly long and full of nameless horrors.
I felt Andrew’s hand slip into mine. “I’m here for you.”
I nodded silently and concentrated on placing one foot before the other as we made our way down the hallway. All around me the air was filled with the sharp, acrid smells of disinfectant and wilting flowers from the many arrangements set around in the patients’ rooms. I let out a shaky breath and steeled myself for what lay thirty feet away.
When we entered the room hand in hand, two sets of eyes immediately fell on us. Mine automatically shot to the bed in the middle where Wendell lay amid a tangle of tubes, wires, and other medical apparatus. Most of his face was obscured by white bandages and what little I could see was bruised and splotchy in appearance.
I let out a small gasp and began to approach the bed. One of the people in the room—a short, slim woman with salt and pepper hair—immediately rose from her chair near the far wall.
“Now wait just a minute! Who are you two?”
Andrew quickly moved to intervene. “We’re very sorry to barge in like this, but Katrina and I were—”
The woman paused, eyes flashing. “Katrina? Daddy’s neighbor?”
Andrew nodded, relieved. “Yes, she’s uh….”
“Wanted by the police, for starters.” A tall gentleman who favored Wendell in appearance had moved from the center of the room towards the open doorway. “I’m calling them right now.”
Mild chaos erupted as Andrew—unsure how to handle this new set of complications—and the woman moved towards the man in an attempt to block the exit.
“Just sit down and shut up, Robert.”
Flustered, he tried to protest, but at a hard glance from her he acquiesced with a small huff.
She turned to us and crossed her arms. “You have two minutes to explain yourself; after that I will have my brother call the police to help sort all this mess out.”
By this point I had sunk down to the floor and had taken Wendell’s limp hand in my own. The heart monitor and the other equipment that he was hooked up to registered no change and kept beeping steadily. My thumb absently traced the contours of his gnarled, arthritic fingers as I gathered my thoughts. “Wendell has been my friend and neighbor for over eight years. In that time I’ve come to think of him like a father and he’s always treated me like a daughter despite knowing about my…questionable past.” I paused as the woman and her brother shifted, clearly nervous and not at all sure of what to think of my narrative. I turned back and continued to stroke his hand lovingly. “What happened at my apartment two days ago was entirely my fault—I won’t deny that—but if you glean nothing else from what I have to say, understand this: If I ran from the police as your brother believes, it was only to confront those who had hurt your father and exact revenge.”
The man—Robert—stood up from his chair so suddenly that it nearly tipped over. “You mean you know who these people are? Why the hell haven’t you gone to the police yet?!”
“Robert, please let her finish. Daddy trusted her and I think that we should too.”
He scoffed and shook his head ruefully. “You better be right about this.”
I nodded gratefully in her direction and continued. “The people that hurt your father and tried to kill me…let’s just say that the authorities won’t be able to help. They may be long gone by now, but I swear to you and your father that I will never stop looking for them. I promise you that I will make this right, but in my own way.”
“But why were they after you? Why attack our father in the first place?”
My voice had gone hard and cold. “He was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. He had come over to visit as he usually did most mornings when they broke down the door and accosted us. They intentionally made the attack personal and let me live so that I could witness your father’s death as payback for what I had done to them.”
“You’re nothing but a damned criminal, that’s what you are! And our father—who could never see the wrong in anyone—was fool enough to be taken in by your cons. What was the play? Were you going to extort money from him, make him sign over all his worldly possessions to you? Is that what you were planning on doing?” Robert strode quickly to the door. “I’m calling the police right now.”
Andrew easily moved in front of him and blocked his path, shocking him with his speed and determined glare. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you. Katrina did nothing other than love your father as her own and you have no right to accuse her of such things.”
“And who the hell are you exactly? So far you’ve been awful quiet about all this.” The man seemed nervous, and rightfully so. Andrew continued to stand firmly between him and the doorway and his posture radiated a tense energy.
I stood up as well. “He’s with me. Like your father, he was also a victim of these people but I managed to save him.”
Robert was shaking his head, clearly confused. “None of this is making any sense; what do you mean that you ‘saved’ him?”
Andrew’s voice was level. “I’m like her now.”
The once-steady beeping from the bank of medical equipment began to alarm as Wendell’s body began to seize violently and all of us immediately rushed to his bedside. I had only a rudimentary knowledge of medicine, but the fact that all of the screens and monitors were lighting up and beeping rapidly was an indicator that something was seriously wrong.
Shouts and running feet from the corridor outside signaled the arrival of a small team of people who immediately rushed to the bedside to begin checking his vitals. One of the people—a male nurse with large brown eyes—gently tried to move me aside as he and the rest of the nurses attempted to stabilize Wendell, and I offered no resistance. Andrew was immediately by my side and put his arm around me, trying to comfort me. The whole room erupted in a sort of balletic chaos as the nursing staff shouted orders and worked frantically to restore balance, but I knew in my heart that it was ultimately hopeless. Throughout the whole ordeal Wendell remained unconscious and unresponsive, and even before the doctor turned towards his children to deliver the verdict, I knew what was coming.
I saw the woman’s face fall—whom I later learned was called Judy—as her brother stood stoically by her side, a silent sentinel of grief and anger. His eyes were hard as glass chips as they shifted between her face and mine, as if he were warring with himself as to what course of action to pursue. I remained standing by the doorway with Andrew still hovering protectively beside me, the doctor’s words little more than a mindless humming in the background as I felt my own rage and grief threaten to spill over. My instincts screamed at me to run, to track those monsters down and render each one limb from limb, but another part of me—the part that Wendell had believed would always remain human—demanded that I stay and offer what comfort I could to him and his family.
The doctor left with a sad backwards glance and a reassuring arm squeeze and the silence descended on the room like a scythe. Robert moved away from his sister and approached the bed, his face unreadable. She began to cry, a small girlish sound that tugged at my own heartstrings, and without thinking I put my arms around her and hugged her tightly. She yielded completely and I felt the frailness of her birdlike frame, felt her wracking sobs as she cried over the loss of her father and any sense of peace or security in her short lifetime.
“The doctors say that Dad won’t ever regain consciousness. His brain was deprived of oxygen for too long after the attack and his constant seizing isn’t allowing it time to heal.”
I remained silent, recalling the doctor’s words. Wendell’s head injury had led to swelling of the brain and the resulting fluid buildup had caused pressure on his brain stem, which in turn damaged the Reticular Activating System. In other words, he had suffered from an anoxic brain injury and his brain tissue had deteriorated beyond repair from the lack of oxygen. His age, coupled with his terminal cancer, did not make for a promising prognosis.
Robert’s back was a rigid line as he spoke. He placed his hands on the foot of the bed and bowed his head and I could hear the resiliency in his voice. “You say that you know who did this and that you’re going after them, that you will make this right.”
I nodded. “On my life, I swear to you that I will track them down and make them pay. Your father didn’t deserve this.”
He scoffed and then turned to face me. “So get after it, then.”
Three days later Wendell was taken off of life support.
The four of us were present as the machinery was disconnected and the rhythmic beeping and hissing of the ventilator shut off. It wasn’t like it was in the movies where the person passes within moments, the family grieves, and then the scene cuts. To be standing there in the room staring at the hollow shell of the man that I had come to trust and love over the past eight years as his lungs slowly ceased to function was agony, but a necessary one. I forced myself to endure the seemingly endless passage of time as the seconds stretched into minutes, then hours, forced myself to cling to his hand as I felt the life slipping away from him with each shallow breath.
I knew that when I did finally confront the creatures who had done this that I would draw on these painful memories for the strength necessary to complete the task, and that as long as I recalled the look of pure anguish on the face of Wendell’s children that I would not falter.
I felt his passing like a shifting breeze as his essence rose silently up into the air where it lingered briefly before dissipating in a whisper of sound. To my left Judy—who had been holding her father’s other hand—began to wail and her brother knelt beside her and gently eased her away. I remained where I was as I stared at his face, serene and at peace.
It wasn’t long before the others came—the nurses, the doctors and other personnel—and they set about comforting the family while systematically yet discreetly processing the body and the room in order to clean and prep it for another patient. In olden days, life had been cheap and death was ever-present, but even in this modern facility dedicated to preserving life there was an undeniable sense of cold, methodical efficiency.
Andrew and I remained afterwards for a while with Wendell’s children as they finalized the last-minute details of his funeral, which would be held in two days. Upon learning of his initial diagnosis, Wendell had already attended to most of the finer details and Andrew and his family’s company had already begun the paperwork process of liquidating his estate days before.
Andrew pulled me aside when there was a quiet moment amid all the rush of activity. “Are you alright?”
I nodded sluggishly and accepted the cup of coffee that he held out to me. “No, but given enough time I will be.”
He sat down beside me and leaned forward, his eyes on the floor. “I know how much Wendell meant to you, and I also know that you won’t stop until his death has been avenged. I can’t imagine what his family is going through right now, what you must be going through….” He paused and sighed heavily. “No matter what you decide to do or where this search of yours takes you, I’m going with you. I’ve been meaning to take some time off from the job and now that all this has happened, I think it would be good for me.” He ran his hands up through his hair and his eyes looked world-weary and sad. “The whole time that we were in there I kept thinking that one day that might be my parents in there, or my sister—Natalie even—and I kept wondering: how will I ever be able to face that reality? To think that one day everyone I know and love will be dead and all that will be left are their memories.” He scoffed and shook his head. “I understand why you never allowed anyone to get close to you for all those years. To experience that pain and heartache over and over again would be unbearable.”
I reached across the space between us and took his hand in mine. “Time eventually heals all wounds, but the heart…even eternity is not long enough sometimes.”
He squeezed my fingers in his. “We really are immortal, aren’t we? You and I with the whole world before us and nothing but the years stretching endlessly ahead of us. It frightens me to consider that length of time and the possibilities of what I might do with it. Sometimes I find myself waking up and wondering if this is all some sort of dream, but then I look over and see you and I realize that this is who I am now, that this is my life.”
“Andrew,” I shifted so that we were facing one another. “Take it from someone with experience: enjoy the time that you have with your family and loved ones. Don’t let something like this poison those moments to the point where you find yourself wondering what might have been, could have been or—God forbid—what should have been. I’ve seen too many of us succumb to that inner darkness when it was within their power to make the most of eternity.” I leaned forward and kissed him softly. “With you I believe that it is within my power to make the most of eternity.”
He smiled at me and I once again saw his old human-self peeking through. “I believe that it’s possible too, which is why I think that now is the right time to ask you something important.”
“Okay.” I honestly didn’t know what else to say and the ordeals that I’d faced during the past week had left me emotionally wrung out and exhausted.
He spoke slowly, choosing his words carefully. “I don’t think that it’s safe for you to go back to your apartment seeing that the cops are still looking for you, so I was wondering if…ah….” He ran his hands up through his hair again and I couldn’t help but think how adorable he looked. Time would see him steadily strengthen his confidence, but for now I found it incredibly endearing. “The fact is, seeing as how we’re, um….”
“Together?” I offered.
“Yes, together. I think that it would be best if you moved in with me. That is, if you don’t mind.”
I thought back to the night that I had stayed over at his place and the line from the fortune cookie came back to me: Stop searching forever. Happiness is right beside you.
I gazed up into his face. “I don’t mind.”