The fire truck rumbled and swayed as it snaked through the frozen traffic on its way to the latest emergency. It lurched headlong into a swirling envelope of smoke and steam with its sirens and clanging bells suffocating all other sound. Strapped safely within the cocoon of the cab sat Ben Anstett, poised to leap into action the instant the massive machine came to a stop. The wailing siren, rising and falling through the octaves, beat on him incessantly as if someone had taken a jackhammer to his stomach. When the big truck finally squealed to a stop Ben found himself paralyzed with inaction—time seemed to unravel as his mind fought to cut through the haze; to make order out of chaos. Slowly, as if his body knew before he did, the realization that the siren was just his cell phone buzzing somewhere across the darkened room jolted Ben awake. The fire was a recurring dream since childhood—an example of where his mind could take him if he wasn’t vigilant.
The room was nearly pitch black and wholly unfamiliar. Even the fading sound of his cell phones ring felt disorienting and off-kilter. This was not his home. It was a spare bedroom in his sister’s house. Ben had been staying here for the past few weeks and had yet to feel at ease in this tiny room. He felt downright uncomfortable anywhere else in Christy’s house.
Sitting up in bed, Ben waited until he fully understood where he was and what had just happened. The dream had seemed so real he could almost taste the smoke and ash. In it he had naturally accepted that he was a fireman, when in reality he had never set foot in a fire station. The ringing cell phone invaded his REM sleep and became the catalyst for the dream. What was he dreaming before the fire? He thought for a moment but nothing came to mind. It was rare when Ben could remember his dreams and it usually took an abrupt awaking such as this to remember even the smallest fragment. A few minutes passed before he transitioned back to reality. In the faint light he saw the outline of the window and the perpetual halo from the street light peeking through the curtains. To his left, through the adjoining bathroom door, he could see the small green indicator light glowing full power on his electric toothbrush. There on his right, at the foot of the dresser, was his cell phone blinking innocently after it had vibrated itself off the dresser and onto the floor.
Ben was a cop, not a beat cop, but a detective and this was his cop phone. If it went off it meant that something serious had happened and worth the effort to climb out of bed to hear the message. “Ben, this is Robin, give me a call as soon as you get this message…it’s important.” The time stamp read 2:53 am. Robin was Ben’s partner and the two of them had just ended an 18-hour shift at midnight and parted company—he to his sister’s spare room and Robin to her apartment. Ben hit Robin’s speed dial. She picked up on the first ring and spoke before he could utter a sound. “Ben, Lisa was involved in a hit-and-run tonight. You better get over to Mother Teresa’s ASAP.”
Ben said nothing and hung up the phone. Robin had been his partner for only two months and he was just now beginning to interpret the nuances in her voice. She was holding something back despite the gravity of what she said. Ben put on the same rumpled suit he had climbed out of only a few hours ago and slipped out of the house. His only witness was Max the tabby who watched with disinterest from atop the dresser as Ben hurried out the door.
The eastern horizon had yet to hint of the hot steamy dawn that would arrive in a few hours time. Every sound he made echoed off the suburban stillness like a waiter dropping a dish in a quiet restaurant. Ben drove without the radio as he sped to the hospital, focusing on keeping his thoughts in order. Every stop light was an eternity; mostly he cautiously ignored them and zipped through knowing he could flash his badge if any rookie cop was foolish enough to stop him. He instinctively knew to park near the Emergency Room, in the spaces reserved for official police business. Robin was waiting for him on the curb.
Before Ben could ask any question, Robin raised her hand to stop him and said in a soft, low voice, “I got a call from the sheriff’s department around 2:30. At 11 o’clock last night some drunk hit a bunch of parked cars on Drury, 7 cars at least over a 3-block stretch. One of the cars he hit was Lisa’s SUV, apparently, just as she was getting in. The impact pinned her between a mailbox and her car. By the time the paramedics arrived, it was too late.” Robin dropped her eyes, “I’m sorry, Ben.”
“Where is she now?” He said in a deep authoritarian tenor. He didn’t realize it, but Ben used his “command voice”, the voice cops are trained to use when they mean business—when they’re in charge of a situation. Thinking through all the possible scenarios as he drove over, he had avoided the possibility of Lisa’s death as being too ghoulish to contemplate. This news collapsed any glimmer of hope he had as easily as if it were a house of cards.
The two of them walked through the fluorescent glare of the Emergency Room then deep into the quiet labyrinth of corridors, turning this way and that, approaching a goal neither one of them wanted to reach. The hallways lost the welcoming façade as they made their way into the staff-only section of the building. The overhead lights dimmed to a somber tone, which matched Ben’s spirits. Eventually they arrived at a non-descript door marked “Private, Morgue Viewing Room, No. 1.”
“I’ll be outside.” Robin whispered, as she stepped aside and let Ben enter alone. Inside the room were a single chair and a gurney. Upon that gurney lay the still form of Lisa Anstett.
Ben had been around enough bodies not to be shocked by what he saw. After twenty years on the force he had seen every conceivable cause of death and before that he had been with the Marines in Beirut on that awful day suicide bombers attacked the barracks. He had learned the hard way that a night of drinking, trying to forget, actually brought back the memories of screams, colors and smells that could only be described as horrific. He learned to take his feelings, encase them in cement, and sink them deep into the pool of his soul. His instinctive reaction was to do that now. It was the only way he knew to survive this tragedy.
Above, he could hear the slight hum of the fluorescent lights and the whisper of the air system as it pumped cool air into the room. Lisa lay under a white sheet, her head and face exposed. Had this been anywhere else he would have thought she were sleeping. He had no desire to examine her body; there was a particular revulsion to that act. He sat down next to her and reached under the sheet to take her left hand. He pushed out of his mind the sensation that he was no longer holding anything living and willed himself to hold his wife’s hand. It was soft and cold and turned easily as he brought it up to his lips to kiss. Lisa’s nails were freshly done, as she usually had them, and on her third finger were her engagement and wedding rings.
“I don’t feel married anymore,” Lisa said over the silent breakfast table a month ago. “I mean Ben, what’s the point? What am I getting out of all this?”
Ben could feel the blood in his veins turn to ice at the tone of Lisa’s voice. They had been over this territory time and time before. Jaded, he knew that this morning was going to be lost in endless conversation, but he also knew at some level Lisa had a point.
“Honey, I know it’s been tough on you. I’m doing my best.” was all he could say knowing that he had said the same words a thousand times. The result would also be the same. Tears, hurt feelings, and eventually a silent understanding that, over time, a thaw would come and things would return to the truce each of them tolerated.
“We’ve been through this before Lisa. Being a cop…”
Lisa interrupted. “Spare me the speech, Ben. I know it isn’t easy, but it seems like you’ve quit trying. You’ve built up such a wall no one can get in and you can’t get out. When Larry retired you said it was no big deal—getting a new partner, it happens all the time.“ Lisa got up and mechanically went through the motion of cleaning the kitchen just to keep her hands busy. “I watched you. You were nervous as a kitten for a full week before you teamed up with Robin.“
“No I wasn’t.”
“That’s BS and you know it, Ben! You actually tossed and turned all week. I watched you tense up, just as much as you are now.” Lisa paused at the sink and sighed. “The worst part was you didn’t reach out to me. Here it is a month now with your new partner and you haven’t lightened up one iota.” Lisa looked at Ben, still sitting at the table with an all too familiar lost expression on his face.
“Megan needs you. She needs a father, not simply some guy living in the same house and I need you, Ben. I swear, if we had a dog, you’d show it more affection than you do Meg or me.” Ben was happy Megan wasn’t around to listen to this conversation—again. She was next door with the Franklin twins, having one of their frequent sleepovers.
Ben knew this was his cue to respond, to make things better with words or better still with actions, yet all he could do was fumble with both. “Lisa, I don’t know what to say other than I’m doing my best. I think you know that. I’m just not built that way; no cop is—to be the touchy-feely guy you want.“ His words were inadequate because he wasn’t able to access his feelings and articulate them. All he ended up doing was looking stunned in front of his plate of pancakes.
“Ben, I need a break. I don’t know if I want to be a cop’s wife anymore. I don’t know if I want to be your wife anymore. I just don’t feel I’m really living—too much is on hold for me.” Ben tried to answer her again. The words came out all jumbled and awkward so he began to repeat himself. “I’m doing my best Lisa.” was the only coherent sentence he could utter.
Lisa stopped his weak response with a sharp look and said “Stop! Stop it, Ben. I’m taking Megan and spending the week in Kansas City with my parents. I’d like it very much if you would find a place to live before we get back.” With that she slid her rings off, placed them on the table, and walked out the door.
That was a six weeks ago and in the interim they had had dinner several times. Ben had even spent a weekend with Lisa. Things were looking promising as they had talked of reconciling. Now, on the cusp of his life turning around for the better, this had to happen. The only bright spot, if there was one, was that in all the time they were separated Ben had never seen Lisa wear her wedding ring, and here it was. It was such a beautiful act of hope on her part that it made the reality of his loss feel like falling off a cliff. He kissed the palm of her hand, the way she liked it most and drank in the fading aroma of her perfume. Standing, he looked down upon her serene face and kissed her on her forehead, then her lips with a gentleness he wasn’t aware he possessed. He stood there adrift in a sea of loss, incapable of moving or thinking. Like a faucet with a drip filling a basin, his sadness grew deeper with each passing heartbeat.
“Where’s the driver?” Ben mournfully asked as he entered the corridor.
“He’s being held by the sheriff’s department. They’re not going to let you near him, you know that.” Robin sounded as weary as she looked. For the first time since they partnered up, Ben could see the years on her face.
“I just want to see him, Blake. To see what kind of man could do this.” He always called Robin by her last name—it was one of the ways he kept her distant.
Robin sized him up for a few moments, as if reading his mind. Then with an understanding all her own, she gave Ben a nod and the two walked out into the pre-dawn air.
As a courtesy, the Sheriff’s police allowed neighboring police department officers into their holding area to observe interrogations. The interview room the driver was held in was as sterile as the one in which he’d left Lisa. At one end of an aluminum table sat a rumpled looking man in his late 30’s, thin, pale complexion, unusually well groomed despite recent events. “Some suburban golfer type.” Ben told himself. On the other side of the table were two empty chairs.
A moment later, a Sheriff’s deputy walked past them without acknowledgement and entered the room. He sat across from the driver and began talking as he flipped through a folder. Ben watched the driver intently as the deputy was undoubtedly telling him what damage he had done, leaving the scene of an accident and causing the death of an innocent bystander. At first, the expression on the drivers face was uninterested and blank. As the deputy continued building his case in an obvious effort to overwhelm him, the driver did something unexpected. He became indignant, gesturing as if he were the injured party. In fact, he appeared to be self-righteous and acting as if he were the victim. Ben just knew in the core of his being that the driver must have one hell of a lawyer and no matter what he had done earlier in the evening, there wasn’t one shred of guilt within him.
“Blake, do you see this guy?!” Ben asked.
“I see him, Ben.” she said flatly.
“This asshole believes he’s going to get away with this.” Ben’s voice was rising in intensity; in a way mimicking the driver’s own reaction behind the bulletproof glass.
The absurdity of this cosmic joke made Ben chuckle, “Some $700 an hour lawyer is going to waltz in here and snatch him away and the closest thing to justice he’s ever going to see is a TV show.” In the briefest of thoughts Ben regretted surrendering his pistol as protocol demanded. A snapshot image filled his mind of emptying a magazine into the chest of the driver. Even before this image could register as a thought, Ben snapped back to reality and sank lower into his grief.
Robin watched Ben deflate like a balloon in front of her. “Come on Ben, you need to head home. It’s almost 7 am and Megan is going to return from her sleep-over to an empty house.” With the thought of his daughter for the first time, Ben collapsed against the wall embarrassed by his selfishness in thinking Lisa’s death only affected him.
“Take me home, Robin.” Ben said almost inaudibly. They both were silent on the drive home. Ben staring out the passenger window, wondering how the world pretended to be the same with a veneer so thin that the slightest breeze would tear it apart to reveal the ugly truth and pain only he knew.
“I hate this guy, Blake. “ Ben said as he watched a toddler on a big wheel zip down the sidewalk followed by an attentive Mom.
“We were on our way to patching things up, Lisa and I. Did I tell you that?” Ben glanced over at Robin and she gave him a quick look as they negotiated a corner. “Now that’s all gone. Did you see how arrogant he was? He crushed her life as easily as stepping on an ant.” Ben took a deep breath, exhaling nothingness, breathing in a building rage within him. Again he imagined standing over the lifeless body of the driver—steaming bullet holes in his chest wafting retribution with satisfaction flooding Ben’s awakening mind as the only antidote to his grief.
“Turn around, Blake I’m going to kill that son of a bitch!” Ben tapped Robin on the arm to get her attention to follow his order.
“Sorry, Ben, that’s not going to happen,” she said casually, eyes fixed on the road. “It’s not about him anymore, don’t you understand that? His fate is out of your hands.”
“Bullshit!” he shouted back, startling her. “He took her away just as I was getting her back.”
Ben was all adrenalin now, just like his first on-foot pursuit as a rookie. He reached into his coat and pulled out his pistol and pointed it at his partner. “Robin.” he said in a low, mechanical voice as powerful as the bullet in the chamber. Blood was throbbing in his veins, his heart pounding in his chest.
The instant Robin realized what was happening she slammed on the brakes to a full stop. Ben’s gun never wavered from its target.
“You’re going to have to use that. I’m not taking you back.” Robin said in her command voice. “Do you think killing him or killing me to get to him is going to bring Lisa back? Do you think you can replace your sadness with this rage—that this will ever be enough, ever set things right?” Robin put the car in park letting the traffic behind them figure out for themselves how to deal with this crisis.
“Now put that gun away before you get into real trouble.”
“I can’t, Blake. I have nothing else, this is who I am, what I am.”
She barked back, “That’s bullshit, Ben, and you know it.” Then softened, “I never told you that Lisa and I talked a few times since you separated.” Robin never let her eyes lose contact with his, despite the perspiration that began to drip into her eyes, burning them—she never wavered.
“She was worried about you. She loved you but didn’t know how to reach you anymore. She said, ‘It’s like he’s on a boat drifting away from shore, only the current knows where he’s going,’ She loved you, Ben. She wouldn’t want you to be doing this now.”
They had caused a pretty good spectacle in the middle of the street with car horns bleating behind them. Both Robin and Ben could sense commotion outside of the car. The police had undoubtedly been called because sirens could now be heard off in the distance, reminding Ben of the urgency of his fire truck dream.
“Ben, this isn’t what Lisa would have wanted. Put the gun down, for her sake, for Megan’s sake. She needs you now, more than you can imagine.”
Ben’s eyebrows slowly softened and his steely glare faded. The pistol lowered to his lap just seconds before two patrolmen approached the car with their weapons drawn. Robin and Ben slowly fished out and flashed their badges before the patrolmen had a chance to ask what was going on. As the squad pulled away, Robin glanced at Ben, who nodded in reply and the two continued on home, to the waiting Megan.
Ben entered through the kitchen door and checked if Megan was home. Peeking into her room Ben saw that the bed hadn’t been slept in. “Good,” he thought, “Megan must still be next door.” He headed into the living room and crumpled onto the couch for an agonizing wait. Lisa’s presence was still alive in this house and the ache Ben felt knowing she would never return to the home she had made for Megan and him weighed down upon him and nearly crushed him. Just as fatigue got the better of him, Megan exploded into the room and jolted him to attention.
“Dad! I didn’t expect to see you here. Mom must still be asleep, ‘cause she’s not in the kitchen.”
“She’s not here, Meg.”
Megan gave her dad a quizzical look, not comprehending, but based on the pained expressing on his face, something had to be wrong—horribly wrong.
“Sit down, Meg. I’ve some bad news for you, for us all.” Megan sat down in the chair opposite her dad, her gaze fixed on him. Her body was tense waiting to receive the blow.
“Is it Mom?” Megan guessed. When his eyes welled up and tears appeared on his cheeks she had her answer.
“When? How?” she whispered.
“Last night. Your mom was climbing into her car when it was hit by a drunk driver. She got caught in the open driver door when the accident happened—broken back they tell me. She never knew what hit her.“ There, the worst of it was out. Ben slowly raised his eyes from the carpet to his daughter, afraid to make even the briefest of eye contact. Megan didn’t move for a minute. Her gaze fixed laser-like upon her father and Ben shrank back from his daughter’s gaze without moving a muscle.
“Dad?” she pleaded.
“Meg, that’s all I know.“
Ben leaned forward and reached out for her. Megan began to put the pieces together. Like a series of dominos, each event that led to this moment had a predecessor. In her mind’s eye, the very first domino, the catalyst, was her father and his inability to love her mom.
“No, Dad! This is all your fault. She wouldn’t have been out with her girl friends if you were home, if you were a better husband!” Megan shouted in a hysterical voice at the top of her lungs.
“Even when you were here, you were in your own little world, ‘decompressing’ you called it; Mom called it running away, being vacant.” Megan rose from her chair, her energy rising, swirling around her like a dust storm.
“Meg, it wasn’t like that.”
“No, Dad!” she said with conviction, “it was even worse. You’d have your head buried in the TV and I could hear Mom crying in the bedroom. You were too thick to see what you were doing to her. She was suffocating, that’s what she called it, and finally, finally, she threw you out of the house. These past couple of weeks were her happiest—and mine too!”
Driving in the last nail, Megan stepped closer and glowered over her father, “Mom hated you, and so do I. I hate you!” With that she ran down the hall, barricading herself in her bedroom.
Ben sat there wanting desperately to follow his daughter to exonerate himself, but no words came. The silence was thick and his thoughts collapsed inward upon themselves until neither his body nor his mind would function.
An hour passed. Outside the world continued taking no notice of the emptiness and sorrow under this roof. Sounds of life crept into the silent house; birds chirped, dogs barked, children laughed and cried and in spite of the undeniable presence of life outside, Ben had ceased to live. He sat there, as if cast in bronze, without a thought in his head, only the image of Megan sprawled across her bed sobbing for her loss or snarling in her anger toward him reached his consciousness. Not knowing what he would do when he got there, Ben dragged himself down the hall to Megan’s bedroom. In front of her room he slid to the floor, resting against the door jam with his feet sprawled into the open door of the master bedroom. Megan’s sobs could be heard through the heavy bedroom door.
”Megan? I don’t know if you can hear me or even want to listen to me.“ ‘Where to go from here?’ Ben thought. He was fighting a weariness that smothered his feelings, yet alone his ability to articulate them. He was tumbling again, into the chasm that lay between he and Lisa, and now, he and Megan.
“I don’t blame you for hating me. I know that it must look like I drove your mom away, as if I put her into that car last night or pointed that drunk driver at her.” Ben paused and took a pained breath. “I was angry at myself for pushing your mom away. I dug myself into a hole and I didn’t know how to get out. I was paralyzed in…” Ben searched for the feeling. What was the emotion? How to put a label on something that Ben didn’t fully comprehend? How to communicate any of this to Megan?
“I guess it was fear, Megan. I didn’t know it at the time, perhaps I don’t even know today what it really was, but I was paralyzed whenever I got away from what I knew best. I loved your mom every day, ever since the day we met; only I didn’t know how to build a bridge to her. I felt awkward and shy and at times stupid whenever we got close to talking about the things that mattered to her. It was so far removed from what I knew that it was tough for me to switch…worlds.“
Ben was talking to the ghost of Lisa as much as he was talking to Megan. “Ever since high school I had to forge my own way, to develop a thick hide that protected me. When grandpa died, Grandma and I never talked about how we felt. We, I, didn’t know how. I guess we were both hurt, and sad and lonely, but neither one of us knew how to break out of the silent way we dealt with each other. That’s the pattern I got into with your mom. I wanted to change, I just didn’t know how.”
Ben listened for any sign of life coming from Megan’s room. There was no sound in the house other than the sound of his breathing.
“I’m more scared now than I was yesterday, Megs, I don’t know what to do. I’ve lost your mom and I don’t know what I’d do if I lost you too.” Ben choked on that thought. Perhaps he had already lost his daughter’s love by being a distant, cold-hearted father and the thought that he had hurt her the same way he had hurt Lisa was unbearable.
The wall, that barbed-wire fence that had been constructed over a lifetime and separated him from the rest of humanity was somewhere else for the moment. Ben began to feel the true depth of his sorrow for the first time. He closed his eyes and fell over into the fetal position. Uncontrollable whimpers attacked his body. He was defenseless against them and almost welcomed them as Job had welcomed all that God had delivered upon him.
“I’m sorry, Lisa” he whispered, “I’m sorry, Megan.” He said a bit louder, and then began to softly sob again.
What seemed like an hour later the bedroom door slowly opened and Megan crawled out of her room and into the arms of her father. They both laid there in the fetal position for minutes without talking. Ben enveloped her as if to shield her from the ills of the world. He kissed the back of her head, wrapping her tightly in his arms. Here was his life now, this 14-year-old angel.
“Oh, Megs! I’m so ashamed. I wanted to kill that drunk driver this morning. I was so angry I drew my pistol on my partner. I wanted someone else to pay for what happened and that person was almost you.” Sobbing, he spurted out “I don’t want you to pay for my mistakes. I want to be a real dad to you, not what I have been.”
“I don’t hate you, Dad, not really.” Megan whispered. ”I hate that drunk driver and I wish you had…”
“Hush, Megs, Robin was right, that wouldn’t change what happened, it’d only make it worse, especially for you.”
“It hurts so much, Dad, I can hardly breathe.”
“I feel that too, Megs. I don’t know if I have the strength to get up from here, there’s so much that has to be done, but all I want to do is hold you, protect you from the world.” A pang of doubt hit Ben and he became self conscious of where he was and he started to feel foolish about getting emotional and saying too much. He could feel Megan crying in front of him and he was reminded of how much she sounded like Lisa when he hurt her with his indifference.
“Megs, I know I have flaws, some of them big ones, some of them get in my way of being a good parent. God knows, they got in the way of me being a good husband.” Ben’s fear had returned but this time it was a different shade. He was no longer afraid of being seen for what he was. He was afraid his heart would burst from the love for his daughter that was cascading within—that was a fear he could embrace.
“Dad? Can we just lay here a while?”
The afternoon came. The afternoon went. Father and daughter held each other in silence.