This is a work I started but don’t plan to finish. Just for fun.
“I can’t wait until you’re not fat anymore.” Jack smiled, sliding his hand off the steering wheel to her very pregnant belly.
“Fat?” Paige laughed. “You did this to me.”
His palm rubbed her stomach, where she felt the child respond with a kick. To be honest, she couldn’t wait to not be pregnant either. Yes, she was looking forward to meeting the baby. But she was also very much looking forward to being able to put her own shoes on. Even getting out of the car once they got to her in-law’s would be a feat worthy of calling out the local news station.
Jack’s hand found hers, giving it a squeeze of affection. “As I recall, you enjoyed it.”
“Oh? Which time? Maybe I was faking it.”
She hadn’t – they both knew that – which was why she could tease him about it. Both had always been open and honest even analyzing it later. Her sister-in-law and best friend had scoffed when Paige told her, but that brutal honesty had elevated their marriage to heights of security and joy like Paige had never even imagined.
“Faking it?” Jack asked, turning the steering wheel with one hand in order to navigate the mountain road while still holding onto her. “Oh! Ah! Oh!” He mimicked her sounds of pleasure.
“Stop it!” Paige ordered with a laugh. She took a little too long reaching over herself to smack his shoulder with her free hand. “I do not sound like that.”
Jack took his eyes off the road to smile winningly at her. “You want me to prove it to you?”
God, yes. She missed sex. “Eyes on the road,” Paige demanded instead.
“Or what?” His eyes were still on her, but she knew he was watching the road with his excellent peripheral vision.
“Or I’ll hit you again.” If she could reach.
Jack acquiesced, navigating a wide turn by still using one hand.
On the other side, they were met with a flood of animals. It was like Noah’s Ark had opened up and released every native animal onto that very road, and they were all rushing to freedom.
Toward the car.
Before Paige had fully comprehended the amount of fur and feathers, Jack was yanking the steering wheel left and right. It was a good thing he was an adrenaline junkie, as a slow reflex would have driven them straight into the ravine.
A cougar jumped out in front of Paige’s side of the car the same moment a large buck rushed toward Jack’s. He had a split second to choose: hit the car and risk damaging the passenger side of the car, or yank the steering wheel left and damage the driver’s side instead.
With a deafening clash of metal, glass, and bone, all her world came to a screeching, terrible halt.
Paige had no idea how long it had been when she opened her eyes next, only that everything was utterly, uncomfortably still. She couldn’t tell if that metallic scent came from coins or blood. Maybe it was the ocean.
Paige’s own gasp as air returned to her lungs was proof enough to the logical portion of her brain that she hadn’t gone deaf. But she had been injured.
The same gesture sent a fresh pain through her side. A shard of the car’s metal frame had broken free and gouged into her core. Through the top of her belly and through her liver.
Paige screamed. It hurt.
The baby! Horror may have torn a hole through the child. No, maybe it had dodged the brunt of the damage, even if Paige didn’t. She wanted to believe it, but she had felt it kick that same part of her skin earlier that day. Jack had felt it.
Paige whipped her head left, hoping to see her husband safe and sound. She would have even accepted the seat being vacant, with Jack somehow having made it through.
But not this.
It wasn’t just Jack’s body, still and mangled almost beyond recognition. The deer he’d chosen to hit – instead of the cougar – hadn’t survived either. It was blocking most of the sunlight to Jack’s side of the car, dripping a splat of blood every ten seconds or so. It looked like hamburger meat.
She regretted looking at her husband. Half a second, not more, but what she saw would haunt her for the rest of her life.
He was facing her. Eyes and mouth open, not to be outdone by his chest, which had collapsed inward as if every rib had been made of Styrofoam.
Jack’s eyes had lost their playful sparkle. They were dry, and somehow softer than before.
Dead eyes. Paige knew her heart was pounding double time because the blood staining her shirt began flowing in force. She needed help.
Even under the best of circumstances, Paige would have had a hard time reaching the cell phone in her back pocket. Even thinking about it now reminded her of the car’s frame skewering through her, pinning her to the seat. She just had to make the call.
Paige screamed again as she adjusted in the seat. First through teeth, then in an open-mouthed yowl. She forced herself to twist enough to reach her phone. Her pants were getting soaked from both sides as her already-fickle bladder released its contents, meeting the blood in her lap.
She didn’t care. Breathing was more important now. And staying focused.
A bump jolted her heart back to some vestiges of consciousness. Paige was face up, on her back, with a light flashing above herself. Every sound seemed far away. Except the thundering of her heart beat. Something scraping, maybe someone talking.
That flashing light. She wanted it to stop.
“Pulse is spiking.”
They sounded like they were talking to her over a childhood cup-and-string phone, or a million miles away.
Turn off the damned light! She wanted to shout the command, but the only sound that managed to escape her was a weak moan.
They noticed. “Paige?” The woman’s voice was sounding a little closer. Maybe only a hundred miles away. “Paige? Can you hear me?”
“Increase the dosage,” came another order.
A gentle breeze picked up at his command, bothering her upper lip.
“Wait! We need to ask her.”
The other place was quieter. More comfortable. Paige wanted to return.
“If her pulse spikes any higher, we’ll lose them both.” Both?
Paige’s eyelids wouldn’t open again, even if she wanted to. The more she could have between her and that damned flashing light, the better.
A gentle, sturdy beeping lulled Paige to wakefulness. She let her eyes stay closed a little longer, trying to decide if she wanted to hit snooze on the alarm clock or get up. Boy, she’d be glad when she finally got on maternity leave.
She already was on leave.
Paige opened her eyes. She was in a bed with sheets only, room evenly lit by a window that also served as a full wall.
Not her room. Not her bed.
Not her alarm.
A heart monitor.
Paige blinked again. She was in a hospital bed?
Then the events of the road came crashing back to her. The trip to her brother-in-law’s house. The flood of animals. The accident.
Was it possible he’d survived?
Paige’s eyes flew open again, frantically searching the bright room for her husband. The accelerated beeping wasn’t adding to her calm.
There was another bed deeper in the room. Was it him? The occupant was obscured by a bluish shower curtain.
“Jack?” Paige’s desperate call to her husband was barely a whisper, airy and forced, as if she’d never had a drink of water in her life. The sob that followed was just as dry. Paige choked it down, forcing herself to swallow and try again. She knew it was impossible that her husband survived, but she had to try. “Jack?”
The face that turned the corner, in the door, wasn’t Jack’s. “Doctor?” the nurse called down the hall before rushing to Paige, palms up in an attempt to calm her. “Hey, hey. Relax. You’ve just had major surgery.”
His voice had a calming effect on her, and really, the pillow sounded nice anyway.
Then his words sank in. Surgery? Paige looked down, realizing for the first time that she was connected to the bed.
More than deflated. Hollowed out. She’d carried their child for eight months and now it was simply gone. She could see her feet again, miraculously unscathed and flesh-toned, unlike the rest of her skin. The sight seemed to echo in her emptied body.
Gone? Not just Jack, but every remnant of her husband from deep inside her. All she had left were her memories – far too few in the years she’d known him.
Paige had become a linguist to help people. That hole – that need to love – had been filled when she met Jack, then seemed to overflow to bursting when she found out she was pregnant.
Now it felt like every part of her had shattered at once, draining of all that joy. The bottom had dropped out of her well, and Paige wasn’t sure she’d ever be able to fill it again.
The nurse was still watching her, a piercing pity in his eyes. “I’m so sorry,” he said when he noticed her noticing him.
What did he have to be sorry about? Paige knew better than to voice her thoughts, much as she wanted to. “Where is Jack?” she managed instead.
“We –” the nurse found a folding chair, spun it around, and set in backward next to her hospital bed. “Jack is your husband, right?”
Paige nodded, not allowing hope to rise in her, much as she wanted to.
“We were hoping you could tell us where he is.”
What? Paige searched her memory of the last time she’d seen her husband. The moment the image surfaced, she nearly threw up. His imploded chest, his awkward bent posture. Those soft eyes.
“Was he wearing his seat belt at the time of the crash?”
The crash. “Yes.” Paige swallowed. “Yes, he was.” Wearing his seat belt and holding her hand. Without really thinking about it, Paige glanced down at her hand now. It was bound in medical bandages, with only her fingertips exposed to the recycled air. Curious, Paige tried to wriggle them.
Her ring and pinkie fingers didn’t move at all. The middle and first fingers didn’t nudge more than a centimeter combined, but that was enough to send agony up her arm. The pain reached so far, it encased her lung, catching her breath and refusing to release it for almost a full second.
The nurse clearly noticed Paige’s agony, but must’ve expected it, as he didn’t move from his backward seat. “First responders found his seat belt buckled, but his body wasn’t there. Medics couldn’t find it on the side of the road, either.”
They wouldn’t. Not only had she seen him after they’d stilled, but the deer had been covering his half of the windshield.
“Do you have any idea why he would walk away? To get help, maybe? But why buckle his seat belt after himself?”
It was that cursed animal that had sent the car’s frame through her gut. Through her child.
Paige pushed away the thoughts, at least until she was alone. “I don’t know what you want me to say,” she managed.
The nurse stood then, grabbing his chair with one hand and patting her unbroken hand with the other. “Just relax. You’re going to be here for a while, at least. We have plenty of time to answer each other’s questions.”
SIX MONTHS LATER
At first Paige was just plain angry. Angry at the fates for taking her family from her. Angry at the hospital for giving up on her child. For saving her life instead. Overwhelmed with fury, she broke more than one hospital instrument during her stay.
Eventually, the rage shifted to guilt. Maybe, if she’d done anything differently, it would have spared them. If she had worked last full day before going on leave instead of taking off early, they wouldn’t have been on that part of the road in that exact moment. If she hadn’t held his hand, maybe Jack could have navigated the mess of animals. If she hadn’t blacked out – if she had just held on a little longer – then maybe she could have seen what happened to her husband’s body.
Paige kept waiting for the acceptance part of the process to come. Kept wanting to jump to the happy ending when she didn’t spend every day waking up screaming, or crying herself to sleep. She’d rather not feel anything than this. And this wasn’t going away.
The running started out as a way to punish herself for all her misdeeds. For surviving. For hating herself for surviving.
But soon it became an escape. A way to fall into the trance. The zen of pain, she’d heard it called. Even in Maine in January, when the fun of winter subsided and the chill settled and deepened, she was out there, running the length of the beach and back. Memories haunted her, but she could sometimes outrun them.
Hands clenched to fists as her arms pumped with the movement. Empty hands.
Heart racing. Heavy breathing. That stabbing pain in her side where the car frame had kabobbed her.
Waves crashed to her left as she ran south, shattering like glass as it struck the shore just inches from her. Smelling like salt and metal. Like blood.
When Paige got home, there were four messages on her phone. The third was her brother-in-law – or was it former brother-in-law? she didn’t know – inviting her to an event the family was putting together on what would have been her husband’s 33rd birthday. Pass.
The other three calls were all from her old job at the UN. She recognized the number.
That’s right – today was when her maternity leave should have been up. Her heart sank at the realization, and she didn’t listen to any of the messages. Instead she figured out what in the fridge was going to expire next, and put a meal together from it.
The one good thing from all this mess was that she could at least drink wine again. A single glass, maybe two, a night didn’t make her an alcoholic, right?
It was past 9 p.m. when the phone rang again. Not the UN, but her boss and friend from the field office.
Paige held the phone in her hand, staring at it until the voicemail took over. He must not have left a message, as she didn’t even have time to put the phone aside again before the buzzing returned.
“What.” It wasn’t a question, despite the word she chose. He should understand it was a reprimand by her tone alone.
“Hey, Paige. How’re you doing?”
“Did you move to the west coast?”
“What? No, I’m still in Jersey. Not far from you.” He was making an effort for small talk. Annoyingly so. “Why would you think that?”
“It’s 9:30 here. If you’d forgotten because of the time zone, I’d understand.” Not that she’d forgive.
“Since when have you cared about a late phone call?”
“I’m in the middle of something.” Her second glass of wine.
“I’m sorry, but this is important. We haven’t heard from you all day.”
“You haven’t heard from me since the funerals,” Paige corrected. She’d buried her child – a son, it turned out – next to her husband in the same ceremony.
“Well, you don’t need to be.” She was handling it.
“We need your help.”
“Find someone else.”
“This is something only you can do.”
“There’s nothing only I can do.” The UN had practically unlimited resources.
“You’re the only unoccupied –” the word felt like an accusation – “linguist we have that’s also fluent in ancient Sumerian.” A language she’d picked up on a whim a few years back.
“Just the cuneiform.” They could only guess at the pronunciation.
“That’s the part we need.”
That got her attention. “That doesn’t make sense.”
“Frankly, there’s very little in the last for months that makes sense to me.”
“I doubt that.” She was half-ready to hang up on him, but honestly she wanted to know more about the cuneiform. “Did they find something old?”
Paige waited, and when he didn’t continue, she prodded. “Care to explain?”
“This is something you need to see in person.”
In person? “Couldn’t you send a picture or something?” Then she wouldn’t need to leave the house.
Paige didn’t hide her frustration. “What do you want, Frank? Spill it, or I’m hanging up.”
“I want you to meet me at Loving International first thing tomorrow morning.” An airport?
His cryptic responses were annoying her more than her curiosity. “Good night, Frank.”
She thumbed the red and white spot on her phone and dropped it on the couch. Not five seconds later, she picked it up, turned on the Do Not Disturb option, then dropped it again.
No more interruptions tonight.
Despite the phone being dark, Paige’s thoughts kept wandering back to the call.
Paige woke up hours before dawn. It may have been six months since she worked, but that instinct that told her she had something to do was back. Within a minute, she remembered the phone call with Frank.
Stupid. Stupid to assume anyone needed her anymore. Frank would find someone else – someone better. Paige would be shocked if she’d even been the man’s first choice.
She should get back to sleep. She wanted to.
But she couldn’t, and it had nothing to do with the ceiling’s texture her eyes seemed so fixated on.
She could leave now. The airport was – what – three and a half hours out? This time of night, the roads would be clear. She’d make it by sunrise. First thing in the morning, Frank had said.
Maybe he was just taunting her. Trying to lure her out of her comfort zone by the sea.
That wasn’t Frank, though. She’d always admired his ability to make the tough choices well. For picking the right person for the job.
And he’d chosen her.