Fall Line: The quickest route down a mountain; the direction you will slide if you fall.
Asher pulled his truck up to the lodge and put it in park. He jumped out of the cab and inspected the mount for his truck’s mobile two-way radio for the second time today. He was now paranoid about it. To say he was still upset, was putting it mildly. On the night of the accident, when he realized communications at the lodge were down, he had immediately set about troubleshooting. He had been at it for days. What he had found just didn’t make any sense.
That the scanner had failed and not picked up the initial emergency call from Rescue One was troublesome enough. Finding out that Kristy and Brent were involved had added to his concern. Learning that Derrick’s wife and son were the victims was downright disturbing. Even worse was the realization that had there been an emergency at the lodge, the delay in response could have proved disastrous. And when he discovered what happened to the tower he had alerted the county power cooperative. He had been at them for the longest time to upgrade both the security and technology there. He filed police report, too. He cringed to think what could have happened had Kristy and Brent not been in range of that second tower.
Asher entered his office and once again tested the scanner and fixed two-way. He now had a strict schedule for everyone to follow for testing communications. Not that he had previously been cavalier about safety but he had been caught completely unaware. How a person or people had climbed that 90-foot tower in bad weather to vandalize it was beyond him, but the power co-op had assured him that the damage was intentional. What no one could explain, though, was why. It seemed way beyond the scope of a teenage prank.
As he contemplated this for he umpteenth time, there was a knock at his door.
“Come in,” Asher called out. Derrick strode into the room in a rush.
“I’m just checking in before I head over to the hospital.”
“Anything to report?” Asher asked him, looking over the tablet Derrick handed him.
“Nothing out of the ordinary. I took one of the lifts out temporarily but it’s been repaired.”
“Ok, great. Thanks.” Asher gave the tablet back to Derrick and watched as he tapped his final notes into it. “Do you have a minute to talk, Derrick?”
Derrick turned and placed the tablet on the charging station, pulled out the chair from the other side of the desk and sat.
The two men looked at each other.
“Asher, I really have to go so why don’t you just say what you want to say.”
Asher leaned forward and rested his hands on the table, lacing his fingers together.
“She’s going to be okay. She’s not out of the woods yet and she’ll be out of commission for a while but she’s going to be okay. Anything else?”
“Damn-it Derrick, why are you acting like this?” Asher unlaced his fingers and placed his palms flat on the table, trying to keep his hands from becoming fists.
“Come on, Asher. I know what you think.”
“Oh, do you? You know what I think.”
“Yes. I know what everyone here thinks. They think I’m scum. They think I’m a liar. They think I’m the bad guy.”
“You haven’t said anything to prove them wrong.”
“That’s because it’s nobody’s business. I don’t owe anyone an explanation for anything.”
Asher gripped the edge of the desk.
“But you do owe someone an explanation, Derrick, and a debt of gratitude. You owe that to Kristy.”
Derrick stood up and pointed his finger at Asher.
“It’s not any of your business, either.”
“If she hadn’t come across those two, they might not be with us right now, and you know it.”
Derrick turned his back. “This conversation is over,” he said as he walked out of the room.
Asher ran his hands through his hair. That had gone about as well as expected. More than anyone, he wanted to understand the things that Derrick had done, the decisions he had made, the secrets he felt he had to keep from them all. But he could find no way to defend Derrick’s actions. His attitude and behavior were chillingly familiar. He could only hope that if Derrick needed help, he would come to him. It was a promise he had made to Derrick’s mother years ago and if at all possible, he would honor it. But you couldn’t help someone who didn’t want to be helped.
Kristy sat with Karen in front of the dingy little windows in the small hospital room where Jessica continued to go in and out of consciousness. The surgery had revealed and repaired the suspected abdominal tear, and her heart was still being monitored. Other than that, the rib and leg fractures would keep her off her feet for a while, once she woke up. Doug had the kids back at the house. Derrick had been in and out between jobs, completely ignoring Kristy and speaking to Karen, it seemed, only as necessary.
From what Kristy had gleaned, Doug and Karen were not thrilled with the relationship between their daughter and Derrick, what with two pregnancies and an abrupt wedding ceremony during the second. But it was obvious they loved the little ones like crazy. Kristy tried her best to reserve judgment about their whole family dynamic, and despite her recent discoveries about Derrick, had little to say in response. Derrick’s suspicious glances at her, Kristy had to admit to herself, were somewhat satisfying. But she had no intention of ratting him out. These people had been through enough.
Kristy stood up and stretched, offering Karen the Marie Claire she has just been reading. Karen took it, pulling out a pair of reading glasses from her bag.
“Coffee?” Kristy asked her.
Jessica stirred on the bed, and Karen rushed to her bedside, dropping the magazine and glasses to the floor. She rubbed the young woman’s arm and hand and spoke to her but Jessica stopped moving and there was no response. Karen looked back to Kristy as Kristy stooped to pick up the items off the floor.
“Coffee would be great,” she said and turned back to gently push the hair from her daughter’s forehead.
“Yes?” Karen continued to stroke her daughter’s hair, her eyes locked on the young woman’s pale face.
“It’s going to be okay.” Kristy walked over to Karen and put her arm around her.
Karen only nodded and Kristy could see she was swallowing back tears. Karen patted Kristy’s hand.
“I’ll be right back with the coffee.” Kristy closed the door gently behind her and walked down the hall to the small room that served as the hospital’s cafeteria. It was little more than a closet with a couple of shaky metal tables, six chairs, a sink and three vending machines. Kristy walked over to the coffee machine and began the process of smoothing out her bills so the temperamental mechanism would accept them. The coffee was actually not bad, all things considered, once you got it out of the machine. The bill was finally accepted and she pushed the button for creamer. As the paper cup fell into position she heard someone clear his throat. She looked over at the doorway. It was Derrick. She looked back at the machine as the tan liquid continued to fill the first cup.
“Do you mind if I come in?” he asked her.
Kristy looked around the empty room and shrugged. “It’s a free country.”
She removed the cup from the receptacle and placed it on the table beside her. She began the process of putting the next bill in, pushing it back as the machine continued to spit it out. Derrick reached over her shoulder and plunked in four quarters. Kristy glanced back at him and then punched in her choice. She turned and leaned against the machine as her cup filled. She placed her dollar bill on the table and nodded toward it.
“It’s okay,” Derrick said. “Don’t worry about it.”
Kristy picked the bill back up and stuffed it in her shirt pocket. She took her cup of coffee and picked up the other off the table, turning to leave.
“Kristy,” Derrick said, “I want to apologize.”
Kristy sighed, “Forget it, Derrick.”
“No, really, Kris. I was way out of line. I’m really stressed out. I don’t know why I did that. The things I said, though, they’re true. I just – “
Kristy turned back quickly, the coffee sloshing over the cups.
“No, Derrick. Forget it. I mean, really, really, forget it. I want you to forget about the other night, forget about me, forget about us, forget that we ever had anything between us.”
He had the nerve to look hurt. “Kristy, how can you say that?”
“Look, Derrick, you have a wife and family to worry about. You don’t need to be worrying about me. I’m fine.”
Derrick took a step toward her. “You can just forget about what we meant to each other?”
“I’m not the one who forgot that, Derrick. That was you. But I’m moving on.” She turned to walk away.
“Why are you here, anyway?” he asked.
She stopped again but did not turn to face him. “Doug called me today to ask if I could come sit with Karen. I wasn’t working today, so I agreed. Your in-laws have been through a lot.”
“I know that.”
“Well then you should know that I’m not looking to cause any trouble for you or anyone else.” She turned back to look at him.
He looked relieved. “Thanks. And Kristy, thank you - for everything.”
Kristy nodded, “Come on. Let’s get back to the room before Karen’s coffee gets cold.”
Derrick followed Kristy out of the room down the poorly lit hallway. It was a good thing that the physical condition of the hospital did not reflect the quality of care. It was actually a great facility with terrific doctors. They just didn’t have the money for all the bells and whistles you’d find in a bigger city. The equipment and patient care was state of the art but tight finances meant that niceties were forgone.
When they entered the room, Kristy was astonished. She had been gone less than ten minutes but now two doctors, a nurse, and Karen huddled around Jessica. She was sitting up a bit, her eyes open and alert, a tray of food at her side.
“Look who’s awake!” Karen announced. Derrick rushed to his wife’s side as Kristy walked over to set the coffees on a side table by the window. She stood back and took in the scene. The doctors spoke alternately to Karen and her daughter as the nurse continued to take vitals and check the machines whirring about the woman. Derrick had his face near Jessica’s shoulder and was speaking with her. They were talking softly together. He touched her face, her hair. Kristy felt a wave of relief and compassion. There was no bitterness, no anger left in her. She picked up her coat and bag to quietly make her exit when Derrick abruptly and loudly said, “What?”
Kristy looked over at the group. They were all staring at her. She froze, her arm halfway in her jacket sleeve.
“What’s wrong?” she asked. There was a look of concern and puzzlement on everyone’s face and Derrick’s was pale with disbelief. Only Jessica’s expression was serene.
Derrick stood upright and placed his hand on his wife’s shoulder. He looked directly at Kristy, “Tell us again, Jess, what happened on the road.”
Jessica took a deep breath and let it slowly out, “I had to swerve. I lost control,” she said softly. “As I came around the curve, there was a woman standing in the road.” Jessica lifted her slim hand in Kristy’s direction, “That woman.”