The Truth About Amber
'Trust is like a vase ... once it's broken, though you can fix it, the vase will never be the same again.' Unknown.
My heart rate surged and I was on my feet instantly, raising my hand because I was shaking so much I didn’t think I could speak.
In my peripheral vision I noticed the way some of my fellow 'inmates' perked up. In the hours since I'd arrived I'd discovered that the emergency department was an up and down flow of boredom and activity. The place was too quiet most of the time, with nothing to occupy you unless you enjoyed subtitled soap operas. The only points of interest came when each new arrival registered and then sat down to wait their turn, or as in my case, when doctors came to update waiting family members on the status of their loved ones.
Now it was my turn. The doctor approached. He looked young and far too stern and serious for my liking.
‘I’m Doctor Ramjhi. Your husband is out of surgery and holding his own.’
He said that Ben had broken a few bones, some badly enough to require pins. They were also concerned about head injuries and had Ben in the ICU until further tests could be done.
‘Ben’s going to be okay?’ I asked.
‘The next 24 hours will be crucial, but early signs are optimistic, yes. You can see him for a few minutes now, if you like.’
At the ICU I hovered for a moment, standing on the outside, closed off from a world I didn’t want to enter. It was cold and I didn’t have a jacket. Maybe I should go back to the car and get one. No, time to be brave, I told myself firmly.
I stepped inside, catching the eye of the nurse. ‘Doctor Ramjhi said I could see my husband ... Ben Warner?’
‘He’s here,’ she gestured to one of the alcoves.
My legs shook as I walked closer, the full span of my vision taken up with the bed and its occupant. He looked so still. That’s what struck me first. Ben was an energetic guy, the type who found it difficult to just sit. In the clinical space of the ICU with it's strange sounds and smells, the white sheets making his dark hair look black, Ben was different. He was my husband but somehow a stranger too, one who belonged in this place.
I trembled as I reached out to touch him. Words failed me but it didn’t matter. It was strangely peaceful to sit there, holding Ben’s hand, while machines beeped around us and people bustled back and forth.
‘Ma’am,’ a nurse touched my arm to get my attention.
‘We need to run those tests now,’ she said kindly. ‘You’ll be able to return a bit later.’ She was so gentle with me and I should have appreciated it but I couldn’t. The fact that this woman thought I was in need of a gentle hand filled me with dread. I had to dig deep to be brave and her sympathy sabotaged my efforts - I could only hold in my tears as long as no one reminded me I had a reason to cry.
I couldn’t just leave my husband's bedside without having said a single word though, could I?
‘I’m here,’ I whispered, leaning down close to his ear. ‘You have to be okay. No option Ben. I need you.’
His lids fluttered, once and then again, before he opened his eyes. He blinked, focussed on me for a moment. ‘Amber,’ he muttered. ‘Amber.’ He blinked again before returning to unconsciousness.
I let the nurse guide me back the waiting room and I sat down but I wasn’t really there. An invisible barrier had fallen down around me, placing me on one side and the real world on the other. Behind it I was screaming, one question pounding in time with my heart.
My name was Lola, so who the hell was Amber?
'How is he?’
Ben’s mother arrived in a swirl of perfume and expensive fabric, made up to perfection as usual. How someone so tidy could have produced a man like Ben was beyond me.
‘I don’t know.’
‘He’s tough,’ she said and I fought the urge to shout that I didn’t need reminding about any of Ben’s attributes. He was my husband.
‘He’s been out of surgery for a couple of hours,’ I explained, ‘but they kicked me out of the ICU so they could run some tests. I genuinely don’t know where he’s at right now.’
‘I’ll go and ask the nurse dear.’
That might have sounded arrogant, like Ben’s mother could get answers when I couldn’t, but it wasn’t. Vivian Warner had a presence that inspired people to respond. In all likelihood she would come back better informed than me.
Her arrival represented an opportunity, so I couldn’t mind. My world was shaking on its foundations and I desperately wanted to do something to make it stop, but Ben was my husband, my other half. I couldn’t bring myself to leave him unattended, with no one there to stand vigilant, no matter what I suspected he’d done. With Vivian there, I could pass that torch to her with a clear conscience.
‘He’s doing well,’ Vivian announced on her return. ‘Still unconscious and they’re still waiting for test results.’
‘What about his head? Did she say anything about that?’
‘They’re monitoring him.’
‘I need to make a few calls,’ I said, standing up. ‘Could you stay for a while?’
‘Make your calls dear,’ Vivian took my hand and squeezed, giving my arm a shake to bolster me. ‘I’ll get someone to find you if anything happens while you’re gone.’
I waited until I was outside the main entrance before pulling out my phone and scrolling through my contacts list. When I found the name I was looking for I dialled, shifting from foot to foot as I waited.
‘Dan, it’s Lola,’ I said.
‘How’s Ben?’ Dan asked immediately.
Ben and Daniel worked for the same commercial construction firm and had been friends for years. Aside from me, Dan was Ben's closest friend. Since he hadn't come to the hospital with Ben I had to assume he'd been asked to stay back, to begin investigation into the accident. The firm took workplace safety very seriously.
‘In the ICU,’ I replied. ‘We’re still waiting for test results.’
‘I’m sorry Lola,’ Dan burst out. ‘I don’t know what happened. One minute Ben’s up on the top level, wiring the down lights, and the next he’s on the ground. Damn atriums. I don’t know why they’re so popular. It must have been an equipment failure because I know Ben had his tether secured …’
‘I’m sure it wasn’t your fault,’ I broke in. ‘Listen, I was wondering … do you know who Amber is?’
Dan was silent. Oh God, it was true. Ben was cheating on me with someone called Amber.
‘He was conscious for a second and he mentioned her,’ I added. ‘If you know something, please tell me Dan.’
‘I don’t know,’ Dan replied. ‘Honestly Lola, I’ve never heard Ben mention anyone named Amber. No one real.’
‘What does that mean?’
Had Ben developed some kind of relationship online? If he had, did that make it cheating? He spent a fair bit of time playing RPG games with Dan and a few others. I knew there was a community and people talked to each other through their avatars, but that’s all. It wasn’t an interest we shared and I’d never taken the time to find out why Ben liked it so much. Dan was in Ben’s clan though, so he’d know.
‘The only Amber I know about is a character from Warcraft,’ Dan explained. ‘She’s an NPC – ah, a non-played character. Ben’s always been pretty taken with her.’
‘That can’t be it.’ I couldn’t believe Ben would be lying there, unconscious, wake up and see me and be thinking about a stupid game.
‘Look, do you want us to come to the hospital?’
‘It might be a while before anyone else gets to see Ben,’ I warned.
‘I know, but he should have people there, don’t you think?’
Tears welled and I had to swallow, my voice lost again in the horror of the situation.
‘Yeah,’ I whispered. ‘He should have the people who care about him waiting for when he wakes up.’
‘You hang in there. I’ll rally the troops. We’ll be there soon.’
I hung up and stared down at my phone screen, trying to be logical. I’d always loved Ben more than he loved me. It wasn’t a complaint or a criticism; it was just the way things were.
The first time I met some of Ben’s work friends we went to dinner at a local restaurant. The wife of one of the older colleagues told me how obvious it was that I loved Ben and how he wasn’t quite there yet. She warned me not to cling or make my love a burden to Ben – I guess she thought I’d scare him away if I came on too strong. She'd taken a liking to Ben and wanted him to be happy. I didn’t know her but I took those words to heart. Years later I still found it hard to tell Ben I loved him, with the words plain and simple like that, because a part of me feared that if I laid it on too thick Ben would decide it was too much and leave me.
Knowing that our love wasn’t exactly balanced, it wasn’t inconceivable that Ben could find someone he loved more. What I struggled with was the dishonesty. How bizarre it was to realise that I might bring myself to believe my husband would cheat on me but not that he would lie about it!
There had to be someone else who knew something. Could a guy like Ben, who seemed to know someone everywhere we went, have an affair without anyone finding out?
Shifting a few steps away from the entrance I leaned against the wall, hunching over my phone like I was at an exam and I didn't want anyone to see my answers.
After more scrolling through my contacts I found someone from his cycling club. We exchanged the usual pleasantries and I revealed that Ben was in the hospital before bringing the conversation around to where I wanted it.
‘Before they took him for tests, Ben mentioned someone named Amber,’ I said. ‘I think he wanted me to get in touch with her but I don’t know who he was referring to.’ I gave a fake chuckle. ‘He was pretty out of it at the time.’
‘Amber?’ Ben’s cycling friend repeated. He paused for a few moments. ‘Can’t help you there, sorry. There’s no one at the cycling club by that name.’
‘Oh, okay. Thanks,’ I said, hanging up.
So it wasn’t work, his game, or cycling. There were still other people I could try, so I kept scrolling and ringing people, refusing to give up until I discovered who the mysterious Amber was.
All the while, time was ticking away and Ben’s mother was alone in the waiting room, probably wondering what was so important it kept me away from pacing the floor waiting for news.
Each call I made revealed nothing, but I wasn’t reassured. Affairs were usually secret – the fact that no one obvious in Ben’s life knew about Amber made me feel the opposite of reassured. Amber wasn’t just an innocent friendship Ben happened to be thinking about. She was a tightly held secret kept close and at the forefront of his mind when he was in need.
Eventually I ran out of people to call and had to make my way back inside the hospital.
‘Mrs Warner,’ the desk attendant called out to me. ‘They just brought up your husband’s things from Emergency.’
I stopped. ‘Did he have his phone on him?’
‘I’m not sure,’ she said, offering me a sealed opaque plastic bag.
‘Thanks.’ I took the bag and instead of going to the waiting room, made my way outside again.
There was a big shady tree just past the car park and a convenient chair underneath. It was pleasant in a way, to be silent while the world went about its business around me. Cars passed regularly back and forth. Pedestrians crossed at the nearby crossing at each change of the lights. People made their way into the hospital – people like me, with loved ones inside whose fate was still unknown. Some looked worried, some calm. A few carried the evidence of tears, a grim reminder of how much I had to lose.
I sat there for a while, holding that bag in my hands, observing the world while I considered what I was about to do.
Ben and I were husband and wife. Our phones were private, sure, but they weren’t a secret we kept from each other. He’d handed me his many times in the past and asked me to send someone a message for him. Would it be wrong for me to look through his contacts now?
My motive wasn’t innocent though. I was looking to see if I could catch him out in an affair – if I found nothing in his contacts, could I stop myself from moving on to call history and past messages?
If I didn’t look though, the question of Amber would be hanging over me. It would distract me from giving Ben the full benefit of my attention. It was a weak argument, trying to convince myself that it was for Ben that I was invading his phone privacy, but I’d come too far with all those phone calls. I couldn’t stop there. I had to know, even if the answer was one I couldn’t live with.
My hand shook as I scrolled through Ben’s contact list. Most of the names on it were the same as mine, with a few additions. I made a couple of calls, knowing it was a long shot, and wasn’t surprised when Amber remained a mystery. I had no choice then – I was into Ben’s call history, searching for any numbers I didn’t recognise, moving on to his messages when I found nothing.
‘Lola? What are you doing?’
I looked up to see Daniel Tucker and promptly burst into tears. ‘Take it,’ I begged, holding out Ben’s phone.
Dan took it and sat down beside me. He put an arm around me and waited for me to calm down a bit before speaking. ‘Do you want to tell me what this is all about?’
‘Come on Lola. You’ve called everyone we know asking about Amber. That’s not nothing.’
‘He’s having an affair,’ I started crying again as soon as the words were out of my mouth. Saying it made it real in a way that stabbed at my heart. What was going to happen now? There was so much at stake, things Ben didn’t know yet, things I’d have to deal with on my own.
‘Ben would never cheat on you.’
I felt guilt when I looked at Dan – he was so disappointed in me.
‘How do you know?’
‘I know because I know Ben!’ Dan replied. ‘If you stop for a minute and think, you’ll remember that you know him too. He’d never do that to you Lola.’
‘Maybe it hasn’t got that far yet,’ I persisted.
‘It hasn’t gone anywhere because he doesn’t love Amber, whoever the hell she is. He loves you Lola. How could you ever doubt that?’
‘He loves me … but he could love someone else more. Why would he call for Amber if she wasn’t important to him? He was two seconds away from unconscious, for God’s sake, and he didn’t call for me.’
Tears ran down my cheeks as the truth dawned. My husband, the love of my life, hadn’t called for me when everything in me said he should have. That was the real devastation, even more than thinking that maybe he’d found someone else. I needed him so much, in so many ways, but when it mattered he hadn’t needed me.
‘I don’t know what's going on here, but I’m sure there’s a logical explanation,’ Dan insisted. ‘What I do know is that sitting out here obsessing about it isn’t going to get you anywhere. Come inside Lola. Everyone’s there, waiting.’
‘Okay,’ I stood, frowning at the plastic bag with Ben’s wallet and keys I still held. ‘Can you take this?’
Dan nodded, dropping Ben’s phone in with everything else and stuffing the bag in his jacket.
My legs didn’t feel like they completely belonged to me as we walked back inside. There were so many people there, all of Ben’s friends, his sister and her husband too. His Mum was still there, holding court in the middle of the waiting room.
‘Are you okay?’ his sister asked.
‘I’m not the one in the ICU.’
I wasn’t okay but given the situation I shouldn’t be. What would she had thought of me if I said sure, I’m fine. My husband is injured but I’m just fine – thanks for asking!
‘Mrs Warner?’ a different nurse called out a short time later.
‘You can see your husband again, just for a few minutes.’
Back in the ICU, I took Ben’s hand again and held on, my heart racing. I felt like something was about to happen and I needed to be prepared to react.
‘Ben?’ I said softly, leaning close.
He slept on.
‘I’m sorry,’ I cried, trying to be as quiet as possible. ‘You said Amber and I thought she must be someone to you. I rang all our friends plus a whole bunch of people we hardly know asking who she was. I made you look guilty even though I know you would never cheat on me. I just … I can’t bear to see you here, like this. I’m such a horrible person Ben; thinking that you were cheating on me and trying to find out about Amber gave me something to do because I just can’t … I can’t be here, thinking I might l-lose you.’
I was crying quietly and so focused on myself and my own pain I didn’t realise at first that Ben had woken up. ‘Lol?’ he muttered.
‘You’re awake!’ I swiped at my face, removing the evidence of my tears as I tried to smile for him. ‘How do you feel?’
‘I’m floating,’ he grinned at me and I felt calmer. He had such a great smile – the kind you just had to return because it came from his soul and lit up his face and made his blue eyes glow.
‘Good drugs,’ I joked.
‘Yeah,’ his eyes were locked on mine so I had a front row seat as his expression went vacant an instance before the monitor attached to his finger started beeping. Things happened quickly then– nurses and doctors shoving me out of the way as they responded.
I stood frozen in a disaster zone, powerless and frightened that I’d just lost everything. Within seconds it was just me and one remaining nurse.
‘What happened?’ I asked. ‘Is Ben …?’ I couldn’t bring myself to finish.
‘Your husband’s been taken back to surgery,’ the nurse replied. ‘His doctors are doing their best to work out what happened and why.’
It sounded bad but at least he was alive. I kept repeating that to myself as I went back to the waiting room and broke it to everyone that Ben’s recovery was premature. They rallied around me and it made me feel so much guilt I could barely stand it. I had to say something.
‘I’m sorry,’ I began. ‘I called some of you today … it should have been about Ben but it wasn’t. It was about my fear when Ben’s done nothing wrong. Don’t blame him. Blame me … it was my fault.’
I wanted to get away then, so badly it was a real effort to stop myself. Instead I sat down, dropping my head into my hands. This time I would stay in the waiting room until they came and told me Ben was going to be okay.
Dan sat down beside me but he didn’t speak, for which I was supremely grateful. Low conversations took place around us but we sat there silently – Ben’s wife and his best friend.
It was hours before we heard anything. The bland décor in the waiting room became familiar, the sounds and smells of the hospital merging into an indistinct background I barely noticed. People brought me drinks and snacks I couldn’t eat. Some went home and were replaced by others.
When the doctor finally came I was so tired I knew I had no defences left. If the news was bad I would break, right there.
‘Mrs Warner,’ Doctor Ramjhi began. Dan helped me to my feet and kept an arm around me.
‘Ben is out of danger.’ The young doctor went on to explain that there’d been a missed bleed when they were pinning Ben’s right fibula that had caused his blood pressure to drop to dangerous levels. They’d fixed things and with no signs of head injury, they were optimistic for a full recovery.
‘He’s really going to be okay now?’ I asked.
‘We’re still monitoring, but it looks promising, yes.’
‘Can I see him? Is it safe for him?’ My voice shook. I’d been with him when he’d taken a turn for the worse. What if it happened again?
‘Of course,’ the doctor smiled. ‘We’ve transferred him to his own room, but let’s keep the visitors to two at a time for now. He should be coming around soon.’
Dan accompanied me on the long walk to Ben’s room and I was grateful for his support as my legs continued to feel shaky. Ben was still attached to monitors and looked even paler than last time, his bandaged right leg suspended above the covers.
‘He looks smaller,’ Dan commented.
‘This isn’t real,’ I murmured, watching Ben closely.
‘He’s going to be okay.’
I glanced up to see Dan giving me a confident smile. ‘He’s been down on the battlefield before and always come up fighting,’ Dan said. ‘Never gives anyone an opening to pinch his gear.’
‘You do realise World of Warcraft isn’t real, right?’
‘There’re all kinds of real,’ Dan tried to sound wise.
‘Ben!’ We both turned back to the bed.
‘Hey,’ Ben’s voice was quieter than usual and gravelly but it was him, awake and coherent.
‘I’ll let you talk to him privately,’ Dan said, putting a hand on my shoulder. ‘Good to see you awake mate,’ he said to Ben.
I waited for Dan to be out of earshot.
‘Who’s Amber?’ The words were unplanned and burst from me with too much force.
‘How’d you -?’
‘Find out about her?’ I finished. ‘You mentioned her when you first woke up.’
‘Wow,’ Ben murmured.
‘I know – not what a wife wants to hear,’ I tried for brisk but my voice wobbled at the end.
‘No – WOW – Warcraft,’ Ben said, his voice stronger. ‘She’s this character, in our game.’
Dan had been right? What the hell?
‘You were injured and in hospital and thinking about a fictional character in World of Warcraft?’
‘Not the way you mean,’ Ben chuckled. ‘Come on Lol, you didn’t really think she was anyone.’
‘I did actually,’ I admitted. My vision blurred and I cursed my damned hormones for making me weepy when I wanted to be strong. ‘I guess I was hoping you’d be thinking about me at a time like that.’
‘I was,’ Ben squeezed my hand, pulling me closer. ‘Amber is you, in the game,’ he explained, his expression so earnest it only made me cry harder. ‘She’s this tough, no nonsense woman who’s always got your back, but she’s caring too. She looks after everyone – just like you.’
‘I don’t get it,’ I admitted, trying to calm myself.
‘I thought Amber would make a great name for the baby, if it’s a girl.’
‘The baby?’ It was another one of those everything freezes moments, but a good one this time. ‘You know about the baby?’
‘You stopped drinking coffee and started getting out of bed before me,’ Ben said. ‘It wasn’t hard to work out. I was just waiting for you to be ready to tell me.’
‘I wanted to tell you. I was just … scared you wouldn’t be as excited as I am. We never planned to have a child.’
‘When I was lying on the atrium floor, before the ambulance came, it was the only thing I could think about. Our kid and what if I was injured too bad to be there.’
‘You scared me,’ I sniffed. ‘A lot.’
‘I know – I’m sorry.’
‘And I’m sorry for ringing everyone asking who Amber was,’ I replied.
‘Wait – what?’
‘I’ll tell you about it later.’ I ran a loving hand through his hair, smiling for the first time that day. The relief had me feeling light-headed. Ben knew the secret I'd been carrying around for weeks and instead of blaming me for an unplanned pregnancy he was happy enough to already be thinking about names. For the first time I understood what people meant when they said a great weight had been lifted from them.
'But,' Ben began.
‘I'm not going anywhere,' I promised. 'For now, you need to rest.’
‘Fine,’ Ben grimaced as he resettled himself. ‘So what did you think – about Amber for a name?’
‘We’ll talk about that later too. Maybe you can show me this character first.’
‘Sweet,’ Ben grinned, shifting again before settling into a natural sleep.