I press the bright, round button for Floor 5.
Just before the doors open, I press my fingers through my hair, then look at my hands. I haven’t seen Sophie since yesterday, and I’m filthy. What would Mercy say?
She’d simply tell me to wash up. Except this filth is carrying around whatever was on the floor of the car. And at the crime scene. And on Noah.
The restroom is to the right of the elevators, and I duck in to lather my hands, arms, and face with that harsh hospital soap. I scrub under my fingers, and can’t get enough of the grub off of me. It’s too much of a risk. She might get sick, and from me being here.
I brace myself on the side of the sink and stare into the mirror. Brown eyes that carry too much sorrow and borrow more as part of the job. Dark eyebrows that Mercy says give away all my secrets — I brush those, trying to tame the loose hairs. Short crewcut, because it’s easier to deal with than a comb in my curly mop. And a perpetual frown. That’s new. Two months new.
I try to pull the frown up at the corners, but my eyes tattle on me. I’m in pain, Lord. How can I be strong for Sophie?
The door opens, and a doctor walks in.
Sorry, buddy, I say to myself in the mirror. You don’t have time for this. I turn away from the mirror and my memory brings me Mercy’s smiling face, holding up Sophie for the first time.
And that is my freeze-frame of joy. Her smiling at me about our child.
For Mercy’s sake, I can be strong.
I straighten my coat and collar, then open the door and step to the nurses’ station.
“Mr. Reynolds!” One nurse, Wanda, recognizes me. I study her face for bad news, but she doesn’t seem to have any. She comes around the counter and picks up a clipboard. I know the routine.
She walks me through the latest tests and how much Sophie’s been eating, and funny things she said today.
At least she had someone to talk to.
“Have you been to see your wife yet?” she asks.
I shake my head, no.
Wanda restrains herself from contributing her ideas and instead sighs empathetically.
She hands me plastic to cover my shoes and opens the door for me.
There Sophie is, on the bed. My red-headed bundle of energy. But she doesn’t see me, because she’s asleep.
Pulling a chair up next to her, I take her small hand into mine. “Oh, baby,” I whisper, pushing away a thinned strand of hair from her face.
The nurse closes the door behind me, and it’s me and Sophie and the truth, waiting to be said.
I hear a beep on my phone and silence it, tossing it onto the bedside table. This is time for me and Sophie, and as luck would have it, she’s asleep. She won’t even know I was here.
Her hand is so pale, I can see two colors of veins popping through. I press my forehead against it and pray for her. For me. For Mercy.
And my prayer arrives at Mrs. Black. At least my child is alive. Brooke Black would have had a day when she, in radiant joy, held her Noah up to her husband. Today, she’ll soon learn of his terrifying death.
“Father God,” I mumble into the blanket below my face. “What is it you want from me?” I’m a bit startled by that prayer. I was thinking to pray for the woman’s comfort, for wisdom of her pastors, for people from her church. But my prayer comes back to me. I want to pray for Sophie’s healing, and for Mercy. But my thoughts rest now on the red bath tie.
I pull my thoughts back to my sick girl and look up to study her face. She’s a miniature of her mother. Lord, I can’t lose them both.
I see that strange device falling toward the floor and Black’s super-alert speed to rescue it. If only my girl needed that kind of rescue. If only healing could come from mere reaction to her need. Instead, it comes from you, Lord. I put my lips on her hand. It comes from you.
My hair starts to wiggle, and a warmth comes over my scalp. “Heya Daddy.”
Relief and joy wash over me from Sophie’s touch. “Sweetheart!” I pull my chair up closer and lean over her with as much of an embrace as the tubes will let me. “I came. I did.”
“Why isn’t Mommy coming anymore?”
I brush away a stray tear. “You want to see Mommy, don’t you?”
Oh, Lord, how am I going to do this?
My other eye drips a tear, and I rub it on my shoulder. I can. I can say it.
“Sophie, honey, Mommy would want to come. But…” I wipe my eyes again. “She’s also in a hospital bed. She can’t get up. And she can’t talk. And she’s… she’s asleep.”
Her widened eyes pooling with tears are exactly what I’ve been trying to prevent. They stare into mine, as if I can give relief to the fear and terror pulsing over her.
“Is she going to be okay?”
“I hope so. I’m praying so. But her car got hit, and she got hurt really bad.”
The relief at telling her the truth makes me wonder why I’d held it back, until she rolls over, away from me, and her crying starts in earnest. I don’t know how to fix it. Her world is fractured, and I broke it with the truth.
Can my crooked embrace undo anything? I’m not sure, but I hold on and try.
Finally, she turns to me. Her lips purse, her upper lip fights its trembling. But her eyes close, and she says, “Jesus, please help my mommy.”
The phone beeps again. No! Not right now. I thought I’d muted it.
She wipes her eyes on her pajamas and lifts up my chin. “Daddy, it’s going to be okay.”
Oh, for the faith of childhood. Back when we didn’t know how wicked the world is, back when we hoped in mankind’s goodness and God’s miracles. “Let’s pray so, honey.”
“Besides, Mommy just has to wake up. That’s not hard, right, Daddy?”
“We can pray for it.”
When she sees my expression, her smile drops away and her eyes widen again. I try to cheer her, but my eyebrows have given me away.
“You have to work.” She looks over at my phone. “You gotta find all the bad guys.” Sophie takes an exaggerated half-breath, half-sigh.
“I’ll be back tomorrow,” I promise.
“Tomorrow’s a long time away.”
And tomorrow’s never promised, I think.
“I love you, sweetheart.” I kiss her on her eyelids and on the tip of her nose.
“Me, too, Daddy.”
The brightness is gone from her face as much as from her sickly red hair.
I wave at her one last time, memorizing all the precious features of my daughter, then I back out the door.
Maura is right there.
“Everyone was asking where you were. I figured you’d be here. Well done. Did you tell her?”
“Mostly. She knows her mom’s in the hospital. She prayed for her right away.”
“That’s good. God hears those prayers.”
“I guess he does.”
Maura rustles the top of my head. “Oh, are we feeling sorry for ourselves now?” She’s not making fun of me. She’s prodding me.
“I know. It’s just hard to keep it all suppressed.”
“Why don’t you just take some time off?”
“I will have to. But when? When or if Mercy dies? When or if Sophie dies? If I take time off now…”
“You talk about it as if your chief won’t give you time off, even if you’re out of vacation. You know what I think, Tim? I think you work to escape this.”
I pull up a smile. “You’re probably right. So, why are you up here? Besides to rag on me about my self-pity?”
“Oh!” We turn toward the elevator. “You know, when I went into medicine, I believed we had arrived. Mankind had science in the palm of their hand. I could determine cause of death, find clues to point fingers at criminals, all that. But this case is something altogether un-natural. Tim, they couldn’t wait any longer. So they tagged the crime scene and brought the girl… what’s her name…?”
“Yes. Oh my goodness, Tim!” She whistles. “We thought the wounds on Noah were inexplicable. This girl…”
We step into the elevator and I press the first floor. When the doors shut we are alone and she continues. “Jamie Lewis’s entire skeleton—every single bone in that poor girl’s body—was pulverized, just like Noah’s arm and skull.”
I can say nothing. It makes no sense. Not just the wounds. She was at the Black Mansion just before Noah died. How’d she get home?
“She died of asphyxiation, it seems.”
“What!” We’ve arrived, but I hold the door button shut so no one can hear this. “First of all, when have you ever doubted your conclusion? Secondly, how could she have been asphyxiated?”
“That’s up to you to figure out. I’ve done my job, little brother.” She lifts my hand off the button and the door slides open. I squeeze out between those waiting to enter and Maura waves goodbye.
The elevator is as stuffed full as my brain. What I probably should do is assess the current situation at the crime lab. They can tell me anything I need to know about the Lewis crime scene and maybe explain a direction to take this investigation. We need to know the source of the burn. A burn that asphyxiates as well as gives a heart attack and stroke and shatters bones. Maura didn’t think this was a CDC issue, but I wonder if some strange disease has come upon our world.
In a flash, a million alien movie scenarios fill my mind. Mercy loved those alien flicks. Consequently, a million other-worldly contagion possibilities are filed away in my brain. And there is the sulfur smell. But I shove away the idea. We all know there are no aliens. I need an earth-bound solution here.
Nick might have some answers. He said he knew who killed his brother. And as he hadn’t hinted at alien invasion, he’s my best bet. I enter the E.R. only to learn he is still unconscious.
I re-emphasize to the police the importance of diligence, telling them about Nick’s fear then the shooting out of my windows. As I leave the officers, I hear one of them calling for more backup. Good idea.
Now I’m at the doorway to the hospital. And I realize I have no car.
The station is a ten-minute walk away. If I go there, I can check if they ID’d the shooters on traffic cams. I can also get an update from the CSI lab. By now they might have identified what burned the carpet and piano. And if the agent still active, they need to wear protective gear. Do they even know that?
On the other hand, I can tell them that by phone. I might rather check in on Mr. Briggston. I’ll bring along backup, in case he gets the idea to head me off with his rifle buddies.
I pause. Maybe someone else should interview Briggston. Is this a conflict of interest? I assure myself there is none. There’s nothing connecting Briggston to the shooters except Nick’s suspicion. If I keep an open mind, I can determine if Briggston knows anything about Noah’s death. Besides, in this country at least we are innocent until proven guilty.
Copyright 2021, Darlene N. Böcek