Having something to focus my energy on has really helped to improve my memory. It’s either that, or all the steroids they’ve given me.
Over the last twenty-four hours I’ve called my dad nearly every half hour. The ladies at the switch-board think I’m crazy. They’ve started cutting in after five rings. I would stop calling if he’d answer, but he doesn’t. No one does.
I’m starting to get really worried. It’s not like him. Dad has always leaned closer to anal when it comes to keeping in contact with me. He must not know what’s going on, another reason why I’m worried. The fact that he wasn’t here when I woke this morning is unsettling enough, but not being able to reach him at all is completely uncharacteristic. Typical behavior would be me having to tell him to leave. He’s one of those parents that will call to give a report about the quality and color of the morning’s bowel movement.
But the dementia . . . could he have forgotten me already?
Anxiety seems to be working wonders on my faculties. I feel stronger this morning. I have been out of bed several times, taking myself to the toilet and brushing my teeth. I even took a shower against the doctor’s orders. Fine motor skills, like dialing and writing, are giving me the most trouble. Since I got out of the shower, I’ve been in bed practicing tying and untying the laces in my shoes. ‘Repetition makes perfect’, or so says the physical therapy pamphlet.
I’m determined to get out of here as soon as possible. The food is bad, the air is stuffy, the staff never knows what’s going on, but mostly it’s the bills I hate.
The shoe flies to the floor. Flustered and aggravated with the knots in my laces and fingers.
Why hasn’t he called?
Chelsea appears from behind the door; opening it just enough to stick her head through. “Everything alright in here?”
“I dropped something. Has my dad called?” I ask, making sure to sound totally relaxed. When I express emotion they want to put me to sleep.
“Let me check,” she says and disappears.
It’s been ten days since they carted me in here and not one word from my father. He better have a really great reason for taking so long. Like locked in a catatonic state or dead, because those are the only reasons to excuse this unusual absentia. I don’t understand why they didn’t call him immediately after I was admitted. They could’ve had him come to verify who I was.
She appears in the doorway again, her demeanor no longer bearing the customary smirk. She leans into the room, holding the long door handle tight with one hand. “No calls for you yet, but I’m keeping my ears open.” She spits the information and disappears.
“Thanks a lot.” I mumble bitterly in the empty space.
Alone again, there is nothing to do but stare at the ceiling. I’m sick of trying to listen to TV. The cable is on the fritz and I can’t get any real channels. There’s no radio, either. I lean back, covering my bare feet with the thin hospital quilt and start to count the oblong tiles overhead. A quick glance at the clock—it’s been twenty minutes since I called, ten more before I call back—and begin counting.
On my thirty-seventh tile, there’s a dull rustling outside my closed door. In the small crack beneath it, the light moves as if someone is standing there. Expectation overflows as I hop out of bed. When I open the door, though, there’s only the empty hall. I shove it closed and hear the crinkling noise again, coming from somewhere on the other side.
Opening the door once more, I step out, straining my stiff neck to look around. The noise of rustling paper sounds, again. This time it’s coming from over my head. I turn back to face my room. Just above the doorway hangs a piece of paper. A small breeze from the AC jostles one corner of the page that reads: Critical-No news.
A wave of dizziness swallows me and I have to find my way back to bed on my hands and knees. In the interest of absolute secrecy, I remember to close the door behind me.
I’ve been too outgoing today, pushed myself too hard. As I lay back and wait for the vertigo to pass, I can’t help but wonder what news it is that I’m not supposed to be told and just how critical it could be. Maybe, it’s that I’m in critical condition and should not be told any news, whether good or bad. That would make sense considering they haven’t answered a single question about anything going on outside this room and the reason why the police have yet to ask about the shooting. Maybe they think I’m in too delicate a state to be bothered. I’m going to let them think what they want. Or, maybe I am not as well as I want to think I am.
I choose to fall asleep to avoid further speculation.
I find myself awake in the dark just before dawn, wondering how I missed the moment I woke.
Nothing makes sense, I think, he was on the bus with me. I wasn’t the only one who saw him. After, I woke in a place where no one knew about the accident. Here, they act like they know but won’t talk to me about it.
I was shot. I remember it very clearly.
The weird part—the part that keeps eating away at me when I try not to think about it—is . . . if I see it, taste it and feel it, isn’t that what makes something valid? If he was real enough to shoot me, then where the hell did I go? I mean, if it was all just a dream like I want to believe, then wouldn’t he have to disappear with it? If Daemon wasn’t there with me, then the whole incident played out in my head while I slept through surgery. If he was here to do what he did, then that means he was there, too.
It means that everything was real, because he was real.
That doesn’t answer how I was missing for three weeks here or why he was there to help me when I needed it—and why go through so much trouble to wake me up or bring me back, only to leave me on the roadside to die? Help me so he could kill me? Only lunatics do things like that.
There’s no shortage of evidence in that department. I guess my first impression was accurate. Not that I can tell anyone. I’m playing this hand close to the vest, not risking another trip to the loony bin. Anyways, none of it explains why they haven’t let me speak to my dad.
Something has happened to him.
I’m upright in half a heartbeat. Maybe he’s been kicked out of the facility because I wasn’t there to pay his bill. And now no one can find him and they don’t want to tell me so they post a sign over my door as soon as they hear about it, so everyone who comes in and out will know not to mention the news to me. There’s a sickening feeling in my stomach telling me I’m right.
They wouldn’t throw an old guy out on his ear with no place to go, would they?
Slinking from the bed to the closet, I find my unwashed clothes folded inside a bag. A wide piece of paper tape marks where it has been sealed. Not that I want to open it, but if I did, there would be no way to do it without someone being able to tell. I don’t like the feeling I get looking at them. I dig into the swiped knapsack I took from my old bedroom (another piece of evidence that speaks to the impossible reality) where I should still have one change of usable clothes and sit at the edge of the bed to slowly work on getting dressed. The outside of the backpack is dirty, splattered with small bits of blood and filth. Sometime after I fell into the floor of the speeding diesel truck that disappeared, I must have put it back on.
I feel okay for the moment but don’t want to push my luck. I move slowly inside the sanctuary of my private room. It’s a long way to my dad’s and I’m going to need all my strength.
Trying my best to be stealth, I wrap the hospital gown around one of the pillows and set it under the covers. I don’t really care if they notice I’m gone, but after finding my dad safe and sound I may need to come back without having to answer a bunch of questions.
The sun is rising behind the skyscrapers to the east when I step off the bus in front of the retirement home. The street is quiet and it is deathly hot already. I take off the flannel shirt that kept me warm in the icy bus and wrap it around my waist.
Walking through the large set of glass doors in front, I hope against hope that my dad is here. If he’s not, then Jeanine should know where to find him. The muscles in my neck and back are rigid with stress. I tell myself it’s nothing, that after what I’ve been through, I am only being paranoid and leave it at that.
A whirring comes from the main dining hall and I can tell by the smell that the carpet is being shampooed just like it always is on Saturday mornings. I take great comfort in this one, normal detail. The clock at the front desk reads thirteen minutes after seven and I’m pleased because it means Jeanine should be on the clock right now. The nurses here work twelve hour shifts, from seven to seven. Easy enough to remember. I head around the corner and down the long hallway towards my dad’s room. A cleaning lady pushing a linen cart nearly hits me as she speeds out of the personnel closet. Thankfully, she sees me before I end up flattened on the shiny floor.
“Sorry,” she says and turns the other way with bulging eyes.
Heading down to the last corridor, I pass the nurses’ station. I don’t see who I’m looking for anywhere, though, so I keep going. At the end of the passage is his doorway. I walk inside as fast as my tired legs can carry me.
It takes a moment for my eyes to adjust to the dim. When they do, I find the bed neatly made even though my dad should be just waking up.
“Gerry?” Jeanine stands in the doorway to his restroom.
“Where is he?” I ask while staring at her arms filled with new toiletries.
“What happened to you?” she gasps.
“I got a haircut.”
Her eyes well up. My throat tightens.
“I was so worried. What happened? Where have you been?”
Both valid questions. Neither one will answer mine though, which at this point in time is paramount. “Where is he?”
She just stands there, staring at me like . . . like she’s seen a ghost or something. When she drops the cargo between her feet I notice the walls of his room are terrifyingly bare of personal pictures. The afghan that used to stretch over the foot of his bed is missing. The shaving kit he kept on the dresser is gone and the floor beneath the raised bed is empty.
“We thought you were dead. The police came and Abi—she said they found your wallet on the bus.”
“Jeanine. Where is he?”
The welled tears spill over, streaming down her auburn cheeks. “He’s gone.”
“Where did he go?” It’s very hot in here. I can feel myself swooning.
“Come, sit down.” Against my protests, she takes my arm and expertly guides me to the empty bed. “You look terrible. What is this on the back of your head?” I feel the pressure as she checks the bandage. “Oh that is ugly.” She tsks, “You don’t look in any condition for travel, what are you doing here?” She grabs my hand, reading the hospital ID band on my wrist and gasps my name. “Gerry!” And keeps talking.
Her concern is clear. I should be glad for it, but she won’t stop. She just goes on and on about me, my health, my worries, like I’m the one everyone should be concerned about. I can’t tell if it is because my dad is fine so there’s no cause for concern, or if she’s trying to get around telling me.
“STOP!” The volume is so loud I think I hear a pop. “I don’t care what I look like! Stop talking unless you’re going to tell me where my dad is!”
She sighs, patting my back. “I am sorry to have to tell you, Gerry, but your dad passed away in his sleep.”
There’s a piercing thump in the base of my skull—impulse reactions that catch me off guard. My throat throbs through my neck, up into my eyes and temples, carrying through every cell of my body. The air around me fills with the deafening gunshot.
“Shh,” she soothes, “Take a deep breath.” She stands, touching my head. “Oh, you’re stitches. Let me get a clean bandage.”
Through the pounding of the hammer against the anvil, I swear I can hear my father’s voice, scratchy and fierce as he spoke to me that last day. In this very room. “You know I am not going to be around forever, you should use this time wisely . . .”
It hurts. And that’s all there is. Like being torn in half would hurt or being shot does. Only this is worse because it pierces deeper than any bullet.
Jeanine says the funeral service was last weekend. He was laid to rest beside my sister.
I stood there in his bathroom completely oblivious and making promises I never meant to keep. I never listened. I didn’t appreciate him and I never made him proud. He was my best friend. My entire family.
I’ll never see him again.
I’m in the back seat of a stupid taxi trying to hold my skull together.
Jeanine held onto Dad’s things for me. Like me, he didn’t have much in the way of material possessions. Nearly all of it fits into the sealed box I now have on my lap. The rest is in my backpack on the seat next to me.
After I gathered myself and rested a little, she told me what I wanted to know. It turns out my dad was right. He died on a Thursday nearly two weeks ago. The home arranged to have him laid to rest, according to his wishes. Since no family members were present, Jeanine stood up for him at the empty funeral service. The only people in attendance, aside from her, were Abi and my dad’s one friend, Stuart. The fact that someone so large in presence and effect could disappear without leaving so much as a footprint is unbearable.
Jeanine said that my dad told her I was on vacation and nowhere near the bus accident. I nodded, saying I got off a few blocks before the wreck happened, but that was the extent of my details. I was there to listen, not to talk and she respected that. Dad told her I would come back and made her promise to give me my inheritance.
There’s an envelope taped on top of the sealed box in my lap. It’s addressed to me specifically but I can’t read it. Not yet. She also paid for a cab to take me back to the hospital. I asked her to wait until after I left to call Abi. My throat hurts so badly there’s no way I could tell her anything, but I need to see her.
The taxi driver drops me at the emergency room. I walk through without stopping. Every doorway I come to opens automatically. Inside my ward, the electronic doors swing open and staff rushes at me.
Once I’m back in bed, hooked up to another IV with a medicated drip, I let myself fall apart. Here, alone in my oblong room, I can grieve with the door closed.
When I wake, Abi’s tired eyes are locked on me. She’s sitting in a chair next to my bed. Her blond hair is pulled back into a messy knot. Her forehead creases with worry when I try to thank her and fail. It’s very good to see her. She brought my laptop and guitar and tells me not to worry about anything. And I won’t. There’s nothing left worth worrying about and she promises to take care of the rest.
Countless hours of silence pass on my hard bed inside my bland room. I stare at the wall while Abi continues to hold my hand. She knows I hate being bothered when I’m upset and that’s a big help when the Police finally decide to show up. She explains everything to them and I can tell she’s gotten the information from Jeanine. I watch the two officers’, a male and a female, nod and make notes in their little notebooks.
They question me about the radiation, but I have no idea where it came from. Any other answers that cannot be given in earnest aren’t. There’s no way to tell the truth without sounding crazy. I don’t know why I still care, but there is something in the way they keep bringing up the name of the driver, Paula, that makes me think they already know the answer to their questions and are simply looking for verification.
I change the subject, trying to describe Daemon to the female, who mentioned she’s also a sketch artist. But no matter how well I explain, she can’t get the eyes right.
After a few days, their visits begin to taper and I can recover in peace. The doctor tells me I’m getting better and they move me into another room. The television in this one doesn’t work at all. I lose the celebrity gossip channel but gain freedom. They let me walk around the ward and roll around outside for brief instances; always with a wheelchair, always accompanied by a nurse.
I am getting better. I can stand up without getting dizzy as long as I take my time. Everything is going the way it should and I need my dad more than ever. I need to see his face and talk to him, tell him what happened. He’s the only person I could ever trust with the information. The only one who’d believe me.
On one particularly quiet morning, when the pain is too much to bear and Abi has gone home to change, I open the closet and take out the sealed box. My ‘inheritance’ he’d called it. The tape that closed the flaps has given up. It lies across the top, still closed but offering no resistance when I pull. Each flap of raised cardboard reveals a portion of a drawing that looks familiar. I take it out, briefly eyeing the other items on top. From what I can tell, most of the contents are not of any value to anyone but him. Mostly drawings and notebooks.
My room-phone rings several times but I won’t answer. There are some things a man has to do alone.
The topmost page bears a penciled sketch that shows an empty parking lot. Well, nearly empty. There’s only the back half of one car. The rest of the picture looks pretty bleak. Random and out of place, it seems—and an odd subject for an artist to choose. There’s nothing in the portrait to signify meaning or show off skill. No colors, no landscape. It’s mostly shaded, as if it’s nighttime. Other than that, it doesn’t look like anything special. Until I look into the bleak background. There is a large wall, cinderblock or brick it looks like, near the side of the car. I think I can make out the smeared word, ‘Cherokee’ on the corner above the cars bumper. On the back window, there is a subtle series of smudges. As I examine, I can see a great amount of detail in the shadows and the more I stare, the more confident I become that I’ve seen it before. Smudges in the penciled back window form a picture that almost look like a man’s face and hands smeared against cracked glass.
The next thing I find are papers that have, what appears to be, math problems—page after stapled page of formulas and scribbled symbols. Still, others bear crude drawings of circles with lines drawn through them, almost like diagrams without a key to interpret. I set them aside and start to look for something more specific. Then I remember the letter still taped to the outside of the box.
Dads’ script stares back at me and I have to set it down. It’s not the same as the other papers. This one was intended and specifically written for me. A number one is drawn on the envelope beneath my name, which I hadn’t noticed before. He wanted me to read this first. Taking a deep breath, I draw courage.
The letter is bulky, composed of several pages like he took a lot of time to write it. Unfolding the papers, I wipe my eyes clear to start reading his oversized script:
I want you to know I’m not mad at you. I never was. There’s a lot more to the situation than you’d believe which is why I never told you. Suffice it to say, everything you’ve been through to get to this place—to read this letter—it is all real and generations in the making.
I’ve often wished for the courage to prepare you for what you are about to face but never could bring myself to take hope from someone who naturally bears so little. I also want to tell you that I love you and being your father has been one of the greatest privileges afforded to me in this short life. You have never disappointed me and you never could, so long as you keep your final promise. I have paid the price for breaking mine and because of that, you must also. I was selfish and stupid, and I’m sorry for everything.
Inside this box, you will find my notes and drawings. Some may even look familiar to you. If I know you, it took about six months to open this envelope which means there’s a lot you need to know and very little time to explain. Over the years, I’ve written down everything that’s important. Make sure to read through every page and memorize each detail carefully because it’s the only explanation you’re going to get. If I tried to tell you outright what’s going to happen it would defeat the purpose. So to avoid the time consuming questions, making you think I am crazier than you already think I am, I offer this metaphor to better explain your situation:
Pretend you have inherited a house. It’s already furnished with every piece in place, but you have to change it completely without compromising the integrity of the structure. I’ve tried getting new furnishings, rearranged the existing, and repainted, so to speak, and it wasn’t enough.
How you proceed from this moment on is very important. I believe the key lies in changing one decision within the others. I have made what adjustments I could, hoping to manipulate other events in the right way and because of that, I couldn’t tell you anything.
What you choose next is entirely up to you but please—for all of our sakes—make the right choice. For the right reasons.
Remember, if you want to be a better person, you start by acting like one.
The moment I reach the end, I’m confused and have to go back to the first page. It makes no more sense the second time than it did the first, but I read it over and over again, in case I missed something.
Nope. Still confusing. Except for the last line about being a better person. My mother used to say that all the time. Every time my dad got down on himself for something he thought he did wrong, she’d tell him, “If you want to be a better person, you should start with acting like one.” What a hypocrite.
Setting the letter aside, I opt to check the box for anything else that might clarify my fathers’ final, uninformative, and perplexing farewell that is so very like my father. Any answers he’s seen fit to give me have always left me with more questions.
There’s a large envelope folded in half and marked with a big, black number two. I take that out and tip the manila casement. Out spills several unlabelled compact discs. One is zipped inside a clear sandwich bag along with a piece of paper folded into quarters. Both disc and paper are marked with a number three.
Cautiously, I get out of bed and slowly walk to the alcove near the sink to retrieve my laptop from where Abi left it yesterday. The obsolete piece of junk takes at least ten minutes to boot up. When it’s finally ready, I insert the disc and wait. No music applications open. But the black screen blurs for a second and then, a shape pulls away from the camera.
It’s a hand, then an arm, and then . . . there he is! It’s his face! My shocked choke echoes in the room. “I can’t believe it,” I whisper in fascination.
“Well believe it!” Dad responds as if he’s heard me. I watch as he clears his throat and begins with his usual, stone visage. “I’m using Jeanine’s computer to make this recording. Remember that—you’ll need to get one more disc from her when this one’s over.”
He is sitting in his wheelchair, staring down. He lifts his hands to show them, palms out as he speaks. “I always thought I had strong hands. It used to be I could hold on to nearly anything. Keep it in my grasp as long as I wanted. But time, with its’ many cruelties, has taught me that grasping is not enough. That these hands are useless when set beside themselves. You need more to hold onto,” he folds them across his lap. “So to correct this vital error in judgment, I’ve sent a copy of my research including the maps you will need to an old friend that is well equipped to help you along on your journey.”
He leans into a close up, wearing a smirk. “I know you think I’ve lost my marbles, but you’re going to have to trust me on this, kid. Adding another variable into the equation can only work in your favor. So listen close: you remember your old friend from High School, Elijah . . . Crap, I forget the last name.” He shakes his head. “I wrote it down somewhere. Anyways, it turns out he works at a University not far from where you are right now. You’ll find him at the Cal-Tech campus in the Astrophysics Department.
“He’s a brain, that one. I’ve read some of his work. Fascinating stuff. Not only has he got some really radical ideas, but he’s in prime position to give you what you need as well as incentive to put some of his theories to the test. So, you go see him.”
He starts to get up, then pauses as if he’s having second thoughts, and settles back into his wheelchair. He takes a deep breath looking directly into the camera, somber once more.
“It feels wrong to do things this way. I know, you’re upset and you don’t understand any of this, but I have to warn you, it’s got to get worse before it can get better.
“When you left here that last day without the box, I knew it would be the last time you—that we saw each other. And . . . the reason I knew was because—” he cuts off, shakes his head.
“No,” I complain, “say it!”
He fidgets. “Just know that I’m trying to do the right thing by us both.” His voice rises as he speaks. “So when I tell you to go see Jeanine and ask her for the disc in her computer, I’m only telling you to go because I know that once you learn how this all ends, it’ll motivate you to do what needs to be done. I know it!” He pulls back from the rant to clear his throat.
After a moment, he continues, now subdued. “I was hard on you growing up, I know that. There were times where I shoved when I should have hugged. I know that what I’m asking of you now means exchanging everything you want for something no man should have to take on alone. I’ve been through it. I know better than anyone how brutal it must seem. I hate that I’m doing this to you.” He sighs and closes his eyes.
One aged hand rubs over his temple. “I am going against my better judgment and giving you the choice I never had. If you decide to watch the next disc—the one from Jeanines’ computer—you should know that what’s on it will change everything for you. If you don’t watch it, then your life can stay the way it is. You stay where you are. It’s up to you. Either way, you have to get the disc from her laptop, because it is imperative that no one else ever sees it. Ever. I mean that, Gerry. Nobody.”
After long minutes spent looking down at his hands, Dad looks back at the camera, the ghost of a smile haunting features. “You will succeed where I failed. I know you will. And you can look at the paper, now.” He reaches towards the camera and the screen goes back to the menu.
On the sheet beside me, I take up the quartered page and open it.
“The sooner the better!” It reads in sloppy letters written by his hand as one final command. Below in a slightly neater script is the information:
Elijah Thacker, Assistant Professor in Astrophysics— Cal-Tech University, Cahill building, California Street, Pasadena.
The paper folds back on its’ own when I release it.
Time seems to freeze while I search for meaning. It seems like whatever Dad’s alluding to is a big deal, but I don’t understand why he wouldn’t just tell me outright what he wants me to do. Why leave me a choice and not offer enough information to make it? I hate puzzles.
Going over everything again, comprehension proves impossible. The more I try to figure it out, the more confused I get by my father’s last wishes and his dubious send-off. Knowing there’s only one place where any understanding may begin to take shape, I have to consider getting there. It’s going to take some doing.
“Why didn’t you answer the phone?”
Abis’ voice pulls me back to my room. She’s holding a greasy bag from my favorite fast food restaurant. Sauntering towards me, her eyes sweep over the pile of papers and the box. “You finally opened it. That’s good, I’m glad.” She sets the bag on my tray table with an inappropriate grin.
“What?” I ask.
“Nothing,” she smiles, biting her lip.
I know the look. She gets it whenever she’s trying to keep from spilling what she considers a juicy secret or trying to surprise me. Since she knows I don’t care, nor want anything to do with any of her so-called friends, and taking into consideration my current circumstances, I can only assume her current appearance of concealed joy is from the latter.
“What is it?” I ask, indulging her. Though I really don’t feel like being surprised, I love her smile. I don’t get to see it often enough these days.
“Another time, maybe?” Her eyebrows rise sympathetically.
How is that I have lied to her so convincingly in the past, and yet right now when I really do want to do this small thing for her, that she can call me out so easily? “I know you’re trying to help and I appreciate it, I really do, but Ab, I don’t want to be cheered up right now.”
She presses a loose strand of hair behind her ear. “Are you sure? Because you have no idea what you’re asking me.”
“If you really want to help me feel better, you could find a way to get me out of here. I have to go somewhere.”
Her big blue eyes widen with mirth. “Are you allowed—because I will take you everywhere.” Her consent sounds like a warning.
“I can leave whenever I want. Besides, the doctor says I’ll be released in a few days.”
Abi giggles, excitedly bouncing on the end of my bed and clapping her hands like a preschooler about to wet herself. “This is awesome. Yes! Let’s go!”
Her grin is back, bigger and brighter than I’ve seen in a long time. It almost makes me smile. “What is going on with you?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know?” She walks to my closet.
I stuff my computer into my backpack, then stuff the pages back into the box and set them together on my bed.
Abi slaps a peck on my cheek before scooping everything into her arms. “Meet me downstairs in ten minutes at the main entrance.”
“You know it.” I lean down, placing a soft kiss at the corner of her mouth. She has a beautiful mouth.
There’s a mix of voices going back and forth once she passes into the corridor. The interfering nurses are wondering what she’s doing with my things. I hear her say she’s tired of seeing the clutter in my room.
After dressing, I sit back on my bed and press the call button.
“Yes?” A squeaky voice comes through the mounted speaker on the railing.
“I want to go for a walk. Can someone get my nurse, please?”
“I’ll pass it along.” The intercom static cuts off.
About five minutes later a nurse’s aide I’ve never seen before comes through the open door pushing an empty wheel chair. I know it is hospital policy, but it really gets on my nerves.
When I ask where my nurse is, she says, “I’m supposed to take you for a walk,” in a quiet voice.
With exaggerated slowness, I get in and slump low into the chair, hanging to one side. “I want to go out to the lobby and visit with my girlfriend. This room stinks.”
“Not feeling well today?”
“I’m fine; it’s just stuffy in here.”