His body aching and stiff as if he’d just gone ten rounds with a prize fighter, not wanting to take any of the supply of oral narcotics he’d been handed by the medic after his latest treatment session since he would be behind the wheel for the next hour, Preston reached his car in the parking lot, fumbling for the keys in his pocket. Opening the back door, he moved his small duffle bag from his left shoulder into the back seat. Thankfully it was not all that heavy as there was little he needed to bring with him.
Sliding himself slowly and carefully into the driver’s seat and adjusting the seat to a comfortable, or at least more comfortable position after putting the key into the ignition and starting the car, he drove towards the gates. The soldier manning them, though out of uniform, dressed in dark trousers and a light blue shirt with the logo of the non-existent chemical plant which acted as a front for the military’s operations, activated them as he saw Preston coming, the large, heavy chain link gate topped with razor wire sliding aside, allowing Preston’s car to exit.
Preston gave the soldier a wave as he drove by. He wondered how much the man knew about what was going on inside. He had seen the man many times but never once anywhere past the lobby at the entrance. He realized after a year he still didn’t know the man’s name or the name of the other soldier that performed the same task. He had little interaction with them aside from quick pleasantries upon his arrival.
He wanted nothing more at the moment than to already be home, pulling into the garage, Anne waiting to greet him as he walked in the door and to make his way to their bed, swallow one of the pills that would relieve him of a modicum of his pain before lying back and watching the television, allowing his brain to vegetate before the effects fully kicked in. The narcotic along with the fatigue from his treatment would likely knock him out again for hours. It felt as if all he had managed to do the last three days was sleep, yet he knew that was exactly what his body needed, most healing taking place while in that state. He had a little less than two weeks left before he would be expected to be fully back on his feet to once again willingly enter into the waking nightmare.
However, there was one detour he felt obligated to make. Crewson had knocked on his door the previous evening, opening the door quickly afterwards to save Preston from having to rise, to check on the lone member of the Alpha Team remaining in the facility. Preston queried whether Wells was still among the living, Crewson telling him that he’d received no notification from the hospital of his passing, though he could hardly believe it. He had not thought Wells would make it through the night when he’d been to see him a few days previously.
Pulling into Samaritan hospital’s parking lot, Preston attempted to find a spot as close to the entrance as possible. It was a small town and thus a small community hospital. More complicated cases were transferred out to larger and better equipped facilities. The saying in the area was that you went to Samaritan for one of two reasons...to be born or to die. Hopeless cases, like Wells, were made comfortable as they awaited their end.
Stopping at the information desk, he learned that Wells was indeed still hanging in there. It didn’t surprise him as much as it had Crewson. Wells had been a more than able soldier and strong willed with a take no shit attitude, having put Branson in his place on many occasions, able to completely silence the man with a terse, “If you know what’s good for you, you’ll shut the fuck up, Branson,” It didn’t take long for Wells to need only say, “Shut the fuck up, Branson,” dropping the “if you know what’s good for you,” being implied.
Preston had just reached the open door to room 103, knocking on it as he stepped inside, a nurse checking a monitor looking over at him. Preston noticed how devoid the room was of the usual flowers and cards. There was one lone vase with a small bouquet on a stand along the wall across from the bed, Preston presuming they were likely brought by Crewson when he’d made his visit. He thought to himself that he should have made a stop at the gift shop. But then looking at the leads of wires running from Wells’ body to monitors along with the IV, the man himself lying there, his skin a pale greyish hue, his eyes appearing sunken, his whole body looking as if it had withered in the time since Preston had last seen him only three weeks prior, he was unsure if Wells would be capable of realizing he’d made the gesture or appreciating it.
“Come in.” the nurse said, welcoming him to enter. She turned her attention back to her patient. “Mr. Wells. You have a visitor.”
Wells languidly opened his eyes halfway, looking past the foot of the bed towards the door where Preston stood. The nurse made her way from the bed to Preston near the door, standing with her back to Wells, as she spoke in a hushed voice.
“He’s nearing the end. It could be anytime now. It would be nice for someone other than me to be with him, a friend, someone he knows, but if you’re not comfortable with that, you should say what you have to say to him and go. I’ll be at the nurse’s station. Let me know you’re leaving and I’ll come back. No one should die alone.” she told him. Preston nodded, the nurse moving past him and out the door. Preston moved from the door to a chair along the wall, sliding it over beside the bed and slowly lowering himself into it.
“Preston…he told me you were coming.” Wells said in a hoarse voice barely above a whisper.
“It’s good to see you, Wells. Who told you I was coming? Kelly or Fielding? Branson?”
“No...not those guys. Haven’t seen hide nor hair of those sons of bitches. Someone else though...said he was a friend of yours. Said he’d be back.” Wells said, his voice weak. Preston had no idea who Wells could be referring to, chalking it up to the drugs.
“Did he say anything else?” Preston asked.
“Nothing much. Said your wife’s working on a masterpiece.”
“I imagine she is. She’s holding art classes for kids on Saturday mornings at her gallery. With schools cutting funding for that sort of thing, she thought it was a good idea and a way to connect with the community, get more people in. I imagine that’s where she is now.”
“How does she like that?” Wells asked.
“She was a bit nervous about it in the beginning. She’d never worked with young children before, only college age, but she seems to be enjoying it. From what I’ve seen, none of them are likely to be the next Picasso, but who knows. I’m glad she’s found something that may give her a sense of purpose after…” said Preston, trailing off, unable to finish verbalizing his thought.
“Yeah….easy to forget sometimes we’re all in the same damn boat and it’s taking on water.” Wells replied. “Thanks...for coming to see me...ain’t got no one else. Told Crewson to just dump my ashes down the john and flush ’em. Ain’t no one to come to a funeral so no reason to bother with one. Told him if he doesn’t do that though to give ’em to you and you can take ’em somewhere nice, just somewhere peaceful and let ’em go. Don’t have nowhere particular in mind.”
“I can do that.”
“Thanks for having my back in there, getting me out all those times in one piece. Prefer to go this way than being torn to pieces by those things in there.”
“Just doing what they pay me for. Doing it more for Anne really, to know she’ll be taken care of, in that way at least. Unlike some people, I’ve never cared all that much about money.” Preston said, Robert immediately coming to mind, “If I did I sure as hell wouldn’t have gone into teaching.”
“Wish I’d found me a good woman. You’re lucky. Doesn’t seem there’s too many people worth a fiddler’s fuck nowadays. Lots of shitty people in this world. Honestly in the state it’s in, I’m not all that broken up to be leavin’ it. Sometimes I thought we should just say fuck it, shut it all down and let those things out and let God sort ’em out.”
“I can’t say the same thought hasn’t crossed my mind. I almost said something to that effect to Crewson the other day.” Preston told Wells.
“I suppose as long as there’s people like you and your wife still out there though, and there’s gotta be, you gotta keep fighting the good fight.” Wells said before he paused, looking towards the door. “Your friend’s back. I think I’m supposed to go with him. It was nice seein’ you again, Preston.”
Preston turned his head to look towards the door. The doorway was empty. The beeping of the heart monitor attached to Wells became one long note. Quickly turning his head back to the bed, Wells looked to be peacefully sleeping, though Preston could sense that life had flown, what lay there now an empty shell. The same nurse he had met when he’d arrived entered the room. Preston reached out, putting a hand to Wells’ shoulder before standing and moving away from the bed.
Preston had returned to his car in the lot. Before turning the key in the ignition he had phoned Crewson to inform him of Wells’ passing, though he knew the hospital would also be doing so soon. Placing the phone into the cradle, he started the car and pulled out of the lot and back out onto the highway.
Despite his best efforts to think of other, happier things, to imagine Anne’s warm body and presence next to him later that night as he slept once again in his own bed, his thoughts turned back to Wells. Other than having no one but Preston to be there or that cared enough to be there at his side when he passed, it had been a seemingly easy and peaceful death for which Preston was thankful, for Wells’ sake. Wells had been right, it was a much better way to go than at the hands….limbs?...claws?...fangs?...jaws?...of one of the rift’s ravenous inhabitants. Preston realized yet again he was the last person the deceased had seen and/or spoken to before their demise. Whitby, Nan and now Wells.
He had not thought about it before he had begun to read his mother’s diary but he was also the last person she had seen and spoken to, at least to his knowledge, before her death as well. Had his father’s death come after one of his sporadic visits to him? He couldn’t recall. He had been far too young then and there was now no one left to ask that might know. He wouldn’t be surprised now to find out that it had. He was beginning to feel as if he should begin to dress in a dark robe and carry a scythe….Alan Preston, the angel of death. The verse of scripture from Revelations came to him, ‘and I looked and behold a pale horse and his name that sat on him was death.’ Well, he didn’t have a horse. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been riding, probably when he was still a university student.
Taking the exit a few miles past Kirkstown, he merged onto the less traveled four lane in the direction of home. Still attempting to divert his mind he switched on the radio. It was set to one of the many classic rock stations that Anne listened to. The last few seconds of one song played before there was a short moment of silence, the next beginning with a well known guitar riff followed by the vocals.
All our times have come, here but now they’re gone, seasons don’t fear the reaper, nor do the wind, the sun or the rain…
“Blooming Christ…” Preston said under his breath, changing the radio to another station, Billy Joel’s vocals coming through the speakers.
They say there’s a heaven for those who will wait, some say it’s better but I say it ain’t, I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints, the sinners are much more fun, you know that only the good die young, I tell ya, only the good die young, only the good die young...
“Bloody hell!” Preston exclaimed, switching off the radio as he stared out of the windshield at the road ahead of him.
After a few more minutes of driving in silence, Preston noticed a sour taste in his mouth that began to intensify as a wave of nausea washed over him. Pulling over and throwing the car into park, unfastening his seat belt, he swung open the door of the car, leaning out, his rib cage on his right side sending a blast of pain through him as he did so and as his abdomen heaved as he wretched, ejecting the contents of his stomach onto the shoulder of the road, which Preston was thankful was not much, he having only been able to secure a prepackaged danish for his breakfast and had yet to eat lunch though it was past three in the afternoon, the treatment zapping his appetite for it.
Spitting the last remnants of vomit from his mouth, he straightened, painfully stepping out of the car and opening the back door. Unzipping his bag, he pulled from it a bottle of water, unscrewing the cap and lifting it to his lips, swishing it around his mouth before spitting again, then taking a long drink. Replacing the cap and zipping up his bag, he closed the back door of the car.
Hearing a metallic tinging sound near his feet, he looked down to see his wedding band on the concrete. Crouching down, the least painful method of retrieving it, he sat the water bottle down, picking the ring up and examining it before replacing it back on the ring finger of his left hand. He noticed as he did so that it seemed to fit more loosely than before.. It had been sized perfectly previously, not tight enough to be uncomfortable or too difficult to remove if necessary but snug enough that it would not easily slip off his finger.
Troubled, Preston took hold of the bottle of water and rose, holding his hand out and staring at the ring. He had noticed the last couple of times after missions upon waking that the pants that had been left for him were a touch looser than he remembered. Getting back into the driver’s seat, his right chest aching, he leaned the seat back, reclining for a few minutes, staring at the ceiling of the car, closing his eyes and taking long, slow breaths, visualizing the pain leaving his body as he exhaled. The mental exercise worked somewhat, at least enough for him to move the seat back upright. Feeling warm, he turned up the AC and adjusted the vent to blow directly into his face.
The sudden bout of nausea and sickness having abated, he once again feeling well aside from the pain from his ribs, he put the car in drive and pulled back out onto the road. Turning the radio on once again, he tuned it to a classical music station. At least Beethoven wouldn’t be reminding him he was a dead man walking.
After seeing the last young artist off with his mother, Anne had locked up the gallery for the day and drove to the grocery store. She had decided to make one of Preston’s favorite dishes, chicken creole, for dinner. He had developed a taste for the dish during their trip to New Orleans’ French Quarter on their week long honeymoon a year ago, their last chance to relax before packing for the move to Nevada. Finding a cookbook with the recipe for it along with other Cajun and creole dishes, he insisted on purchasing it. She had prepared it a handful of times for him previously and had no need to make a list, already knowing what ingredients she needed that they didn’t already have on hand.
She stood in the check out line behind a woman that appeared to be around ten years younger, her hair pulled up in a ponytail, a toddler in her arms accompanied by another child around the age of five. The woman obviously had her hands full, literally and figuratively and appeared frazzled. Her son tugged on the bottom of her shirt, a candy bar in his hand.
“Mommy, can I have it? You said I could have one next time.”
“I know I did. I’m sorry, baby but not today. I promise next time.”
“But you said….” the boy whined.
“I know what I said but I didn’t know Emma was going to get an ear infection and need medicine. Put it back, please.” she told him. The boy, with a long face, reluctantly put it back with the others.
The cashier had finished ringing up her groceries, Anne noticing that most of them were cheaper items like beans, rice and noodles that could be stretched farther. She remembered her own pantry as a child had held those sorts of things as well. Her mother had worked as a secretary making just above minimum wage and her stepfather, she had never met her biological father, he having absconded before her birth, worked as a janitor at a factory, he making a bit more, but not much. Together they just barely kept the mortgage and other bills paid and put food on the table. Most of her clothing had come from the local thrift store run by one of the nondenominational churches in town, which gave the other kids in her class even more reason to bully and ridicule her.
The mother of the young boy opened her purse, pulling out the wallet inside. A look of dismay crossed her face as she searched through it, then through her purse.
“I’m sorry, I know it was in here...it has to be here somewhere….” she said as the cashier waited, looking impatient.
“How much you want to bet she’s talking about a SNAP card?” a woman behind Anne also waiting in line said snarkily to the man beside her. Anne was sure the comment had been said loud enough for the woman to hear. “Why work when you can just schmooze off the people that do? I bet we’ll see her outside putting it all in a Cadillac. She probably plays this ‘I can’t find my card’ scam every time.”
Anne had heard similar comments from others when she was a child with her parents at the store all those years ago. She also recalled being told no whenever she had asked for anything, though her mother had not been nearly as kind about it. ‘No’ seemed to be all she had ever heard growing up. Anne moved up beside the woman who was almost in tears as she rifled through her purse as she attempted to balance the toddler in one arm.
“I’ve got it.” Anne said.
“I couldn’t let you do that.” the woman said.
“Of course you can. I won’t even miss it.” Anne looked down at the boy. “Pick out some candy and something for your little sister, too. Make sure it’s something she can eat.” Anne told the boy. With a wide grin, the boy turned, grabbing the candy bar he’d previously held and an orange package along with it, holding them out to Anne. “Ooohhh...peanut butter cups, my favorite. Good choice. She’ll love those. I think I’ll get some for myself. I don’t eat them too often but you have to treat yourself sometimes.”
“Thank you.” the mother said, sounding grateful but at the same time defeated as the cashier rang up the candy with the other groceries and Anne swiped her card.
The woman had waited by the door for Anne to finish purchasing the few items in her basket.
“What do you say?” she said to the boy who stood holding the candy bar at her side.
“Thank you.” the boy said to Anne.
“Thank you again. I don’t know what I would have done. I must have used it somewhere else recently and forgot to put it back in my wallet. It’s probably in the pocket of my jeans at home. If you give me your address, I can pay you back when we get our next paycheck.” the mother told Anne.
“Don’t worry about it. As I said, I won’t even miss it. My husband makes far more than we need for just the two of us. They even gave us a house and a car.” Anne told her as they exited the store.
“Everything was fine then my husband was in an accident at work...head injury. He hasn’t been able to work since. He’s going through rehab and doing better than he was but they said he may never work again. I used to work, but it would cost me almost as much to pay for child care as I’d make. We’re getting by on his disability and other help but barely.”
“I know what it’s like. My parents weren’t well off growing up. Does your son like to paint? I own the gallery downtown. I’m holding art classes for kids on Saturdays. There’s usually a small fee, it just covers materials really, but I’ve waived it for people in your situation.” Anne opened her purse, pulling out a small flyer and handing it to the boy’s mother.
“He’d like that. I’m afraid he doesn’t get to do too many things. Everything costs so much nowadays.”
“My number’s on the flier. If you decide to sign him up, just give me a call...I’m sorry, what was your name?”
“Amanda. Amanda Miller. My son’s name is Brandon and this is Emma.” Amanda said, noticing Anne’s attention being drawn to the clinic across the street at the far end of the parking lot. Once again, protestors were lined up along the sidewalk outside of it, fewer than half the number that had been there a few days before, but still enough to cause a scene. “Crazy people. Can’t they find anything better to do? If I’d known what was going to happen...I wouldn’t have put them through it.” Amanda stopped the cart she was pushing behind a silver car. It was in decent shape, but a few years old. It was definitely not a luxury car. “Well here’s the Cadillac.” she said sarcastically.
“So you heard that.”
“Of course I did. I hear it all the time. Almost every time I come here, even when I don’t forget my card and I’m not holding up the line. I bought a twelve dollar family steak for my husband’s birthday. I was just so happy to have him home again and that he was alive to have another birthday. You should have heard the comments from the peanut gallery. You’d think I was buying caviar or that I bought one every week instead of stretching one of those tubes of ground beef into three or four meals.” Amanda told Anne.
“I heard it all growing up too. Once I worked some odd jobs for neighbors to save up money to buy some more in style clothes than the ones I got from the thrift store. I wore them to school thinking at least that day, that one day, none of the other kids would be able to make fun of my clothes. They said I must have gotten them off the clearance rack. Some people are just determined to be assholes. Just try not to let it get to you. I know, it’s hard. Anyway, I have to be going. It was nice to meet you. Give me a call if you decide to sign him up.”
“I will. Thank you again.” Amanda said, Anne carried her own groceries to her car a row over, looking once again towards the clinic before unlocking her car and stowing the bags in the back seat.
Anne stood at the counter, her back to the door that led into the kitchen from the garage, slicing bell peppers, tomatoes, and onions, having already minced the garlic as she listened to music, this time from her collection of 1950s era tunes, Fats Domino’s voice crooning from the portable speaker hooked up to her music player.
Whippoorwills call, evenin’ is nigh, Hurry to my Blue Heaven
Turn to the right, there’s a little white light, Will lead you to my Blue Heaven
Anne’s eyes appeared red and watery. Hearing the garage door open, she quickly wiped them with the back of her hand.
You’ll see a smilin’ face, a fireplace, a cozy room, Little nest that nestles where the roses bloom
Molly and me, and the baby makes three, We’re happy in my, in my Blue Heaven…
you’re gonna see a smilin’ face, fireplace, cozy room, And a little nest nestled where the roses bloom
Just Molly and me, and the baby is three, We’re so happy-
Anne reached over, shutting off the music player. Hearing the car door close and Preston’s footsteps approaching the door, she sat the knife down, turning as he walked in the door, his bag over his shoulder..
“Alan…” she said, relief in her voice, walking across the kitchen to him, her arms out to embrace him, though upon reaching him, she reconsidered. “I don’t want to hurt you.”
“It’s alright. Don’t worry about it. You won’t.” Preston said, dropping his bag to the floor and wrapping his arms around her. They stood for a few moments in silence embracing. Alan took her face in his hands to kiss her, noticing her red, puffy eyes.
“Is something wrong?” he asked.
“No….no... I was just cutting up an onion, got some in my eyes. I’m just happy you’re alright and you’re home.” Anne said. Preston kissed her then looked towards the countertop.
“It’s a little early for dinner, isn’t it?”
“I’m making chicken creole. It takes awhile to prep. I had nothing else to do so I thought I’d get started.” Anne said before walking back to the counter picking up the knife and beginning to chop another pepper. . Preston wished she had held off on the dish for another night or two. After being sick on the way home, though he felt fine after, and the treatment zapping his appetite, he wasn’t sure if the dish would set well or how much of it he’d feel like eating. “Why don’t you go lie down, I’m sure you’re sore after the drive. It’ll be a couple of hours until-” Anne broke off as the knife slipped, slicing into her finger. “Shit! Ahhh...ow..damn it!”
Blood flowed from the cut down her finger and in a line down the back of her hand. Preston, seeming to forget the discomfort of his broken ribs, rushed to her, leading her to the sink and turning on the cold water, moving her finger under it before opening another cabinet and pulling a first aid kit from the top shelf, setting it down by the sink and opening it. After the cold water had washed the blood from the cut and slowed the bleeding, Preston examined it.
“Not a blighty as they used to say.” Preston gently patted it dry with a towel he’d taken from a nearby drawer before grabbing a roll of gauze bandage from the first aid kit and wrapping it. Anne began to sob, much the way she did the day a year before when she had broken the glass.
“I’m sorry…..I’m sorry…”
“It was an accident. It’s not as if you did it on purpose. It’s alright.” Preston said, comforting her, taking her in his arms once again, ignoring the pain that shot through his rib cage as he did so.
“I’m sorry...I’m so sorry, Alan…” she repeated.
“What is it? Anne...what’s wrong?” Preston said. He was sure now there was something more upsetting her.
“I’m pregnant.” Anne said quietly, tears continuing to roll down her cheeks as she continued to weep.
Preston felt his insides go numb, feeling a strange buzzing in his head. He stood as if he’d turned to stone for a few moments before slowly lowering his arms from around Anne. Staring past her, unblinking, he stepped around her, wordlessly walking to the door to the garage and opened it, stepping through it, closing it behind him.