Bess sat in the lobby of a hospital ward, rubbing the shiny wood laminate of her chair’s armrest. They had told her to wait. They wouldn’t let her see her father, but they weren’t doing anything. She stared at a buzzing fluorescent light in the ceiling. There was nowhere else to look that didn’t make her want to run down the bleach-infested hallways of the hospital screaming at them all to do something.
The doctors floated in and out of the rooms, tucking pens and tiny flashlights into their pockets. Where were they going? Why weren’t they in her father’s room, doing everything they could to save him, just as they would tell her they had when he was gone? They would say that and she knew none of them would mean it because they weren’t in his room. They weren’t running to him with equipment and magic potions and decades of minutia pouring out of their brains as they tried every possible thing they could think of to save his life. They weren’t doing any of that. Instead, they were strolling across the glossy white tiled floor, as if her father was just another patient, no more important than the other bed-ridden victims in their care. Most of them probably didn’t even know his name.
Didn’t they know? The world was supposed to stop.
So Bess stared at the light. Staring into its cold white glow, she could imagine that everything around her was a maelstrom of heroics saving the world from the doom that would ensue if her father slipped from their grasp.
But the light offered no solace. Even as the world didn’t stop for him, she knew she had stopped his. From the moment she had said her first word to Tony Halk, an invisible clock had been set in motion, ticking away to the darkness waiting for her down the hall. That truth pushed down from the light, and she felt it crushing her into oblivion.
She looked away from the light and surveyed the lobby. An army of chairs were lined up neatly under the glowering light, all empty except for one. A man in a yellow windbreaker sat on the other side of the room perusing a magazine that was probably a year out of date just like the ones on the small table in front of her.
Restless, Bess stood up and ambled to a drinking fountain bolted to the wall. She turned the faucet and let the cool water run over her lips just so she would have something to do. When her lips started turning numb from the cold, she took a sip and stood up, wiping her mouth. Surveying the lobby, she saw the man was gone. The only people left were the nurses hovering at their station.
She stepped over to them, the click of her heels on the polished floor echoing against the walls. Leaning on the counter, she said, “Excuse me, but when can I see my father?”
One of the nurses glanced up and said, “It’ll be just a few more minutes.” Almost before she was done talking, the nurse looked away, consumed by the mundane chore of swiping through pages on her tablet.
Bess closed her eyes and shook her head, then ambled back to an empty chair and resumed her inspection of the light.
“Excuse me, miss?”
It wasn’t a doctor’s voice. It wasn’t a nurse’s voice, either. Bess blinked and looked away from the light. The first thing she really saw was the badge. The rest was just a blur of blue and white. She decided not to look at the rest and focused on the badge, reading the etched number to herself in an endless loop.
“I know this isn’t a good time,” he said. “I just need to ask you a few questions and then you can see your father.”
Bess looked up at the man’s face. He looked bored, as if he had something more important to do.
“Can you tell me about what time your father left the house?” he asked.
Bess’s eyes narrowed. The officer looked at her impassively. Bess wondered just how long he could stand there like that, waiting for her to answer a question that had no meaning.
“I don’t know.”
“Look, miss, it doesn’t have to be an exact time. Was it before or after dark?”
“After,” she said. He pulled a small notebook from his shirt pocket and scribbled something inside.
“Where is Tony Halk?” she asked.
“Why do you ask?”
She slowly turned her head to look him in the eye. She wrestled off her jacket and laid it on the arm of her chair. Tugging at the short sleeve of her cotton blouse, she showed him the bruise.
“Who did that?”
“Why didn’t you call us when that happened?” he asked.
“Oh, you know, one of those girls who gets herself into trouble and figures she can take care of it on her own.” Because I was stupid and had to hide it from my own father.
The officer glanced at her bruise and scribbled something in his notebook. “Did your father tell you where he was going?”
She leaned forward, brandishing her shoulder, but he didn’t look at it again. His eyes drooped with disinterest as he waited for her answer. She slowly pulled her sleeve down and leaned back in her chair. She studied his eyes. He wasn’t exactly staring at her. It was more like he was looking through her, to some place behind her. Wherever he was looking, the bruise was already forgotten – a minor detail in a bigger picture that had nothing to do with saving her father.
Bess knit her brow, squinting. “You know, I’m not sure I have to answer that.”
“It would make this go a lot faster if you did.” The officer jabbed his thumb over his shoulder. “And then you can go see your dad.”
“Pretty sure you can’t stop me from doing that, either.”
The officer let the hand holding his notebook drift down to rest by his side. He let out a slow sigh, narrowing his eyes. “Nobody’s trying to stop you, miss. This won’t take much longer.”
Bess looked up at the light and all she could hear was the ticking down the hall. Later wasn’t going to wait. She stood up.
Picking up her jacket, she said, “We can finish when I see Tony Halk in handcuffs.”
The officer pinched his nose. “We can’t wait that long.”
Bess’s lips parted and she stared into the man’s eyes. It hit her like a swell surging up from the darkness, knocking her off the boat and into the cold deep of the lake before she could even see it. Tony Halk had not been arrested. He wasn’t going to be arrested.
Her gaze settled on the officer’s sidearm, neatly snapped into a glossy leather holster. Her chest heaved as her breathing deepened and the ember lit deep inside. The anger seemed to be something apart from her, a parasite latching on to her insides and burning away her own will. She was losing control as a vision coalesced in her mind like a photograph. In it, she held the barrel of the weapon against Tony Halk’s forehead. And then she pulled the trigger. She wanted to ask him why Tony Halk wasn’t sitting in jail, but her hand started to tremble and she knew she had to get away from the weapon and the thoughts rampaging through her mind like a wildfire.
“I want to see my father,” she yelled. Now!”
The nurses bustling behind the counter stopped shuffling papers, held phones to their shoulders and turned to stare at them.
A tired look washed over the officer’s face. He tucked his notebook in his shirt pocket, clicked his pen and slid it in neatly next to the notebook, hooking the clasp on the flap.
The officer nodded, his expression never deviating from the official indifference that he put between himself and the rest of the world. But his eyes were now locked on her trembling hand. “Okay. I’ll wait here,” he said.
She stretched her legs and tugged at the hem of her blouse. Her lip quivered for just a moment, like a petal caught in a passing breeze. She slowly drew in her breath, waiting for the quivering to stop.
She took a step towards her father’s room and the hallway seemed to fade back. She took another and it seemed to move again, matching her movements so that her father’s room would be just down the hall but she would never get there. She desperately wanted to see him. But, just as desperately, she didn’t want to know what was happening to him. The truth loomed inside that room, waiting to engulf her, suffocate her and squeeze the life out of her. After was still not something she was ready to face. But it was the only way to see him one last time. It was the only way she would be allowed to say goodbye. So, she focused on putting one foot in front of the other, self-conscious of the clicking of her heels echoing through the lobby and drifting away behind her into silence.
She stopped in front of the open door to her father’s room. Her mother sat in a chair on the far side of the room, her face half hidden in shadow. The only light came from a lamp on the table next to her mother, smearing a dull haze on the floor, as if it were trying not to disturb anything. The ripples in the blanket covering her father cast shadows that chased each other up to his face.
The lines and numbers flickering on a a small monitor next to his bed screamed at her in their silence, reminding her that she had brought him to this place and that he would never come home.
She sidled up to his bed and laid her hand next to his. The blanket rustled as he wrapped his hand around hers and she knew he would hold it there for the rest of his life.
“How are you doing dad?” she whispered. He turned his head to the light so she could see his smile. He looked at her as if they were still in the cockpit of the boat, racing towards the next buoy on a spring day that now seemed a lifetime ago. It was his cat smile, still protecting her from the truth that could wait a while longer.
“Damn doctors,” he said. “What do they know?”
“Right,” she said. She laid her other hand on top of his as he gripped her with what she knew was the last of his strength.
“You have so much to show me still,” she said. She fought back her tears, letting just one trickle down her cheek, knowing that he needed to see it – that he deserved it. There was nothing else she could give him now.
He tried to speak softly, so that only she could hear, lowering his voice to a haggard croak. “Listen,” he said. “You have to be strong for your mother now.” He glanced at her mother and then looked into Bess’s eyes. “She’s having a real hard time with this.” He arched his brow. “And you know what that means.”
“I know,” Bess whispered, letting another tear streak down her face.
“You need to make sure that doesn’t happen,” he said.
Bess nodded, caressing the back of his hand. “I know.”
The cat smile slipped away and his eyes sagged. “I know you think this is your fault.”
“You have to let that go. I know you can’t right now.” A soft cough rattled his throat. “You can feel that way for a little while. But you have to leave it here with me. Understand?”
Bess hung her head and nodded, letting her hair fall over the front of her shoulder and brush against his hand.
He lifted her chin and said, “Look at me.” As an ache starting to swell in her chest, Bess focused on his eyes and tried to keep her face peaceful for him.
“This is what people like you and I do.”
“You and me?”
“That’s right.” He brushed a tear away from her cheek. “Remember when you cut that downhaul?”
“Why did you do that?”
Bess thought about the moment when she had swung out and sliced through the guyline to let the spinnaker flap in the wind. She sucked in a quivering gasp.
“You were in trouble.”
He smiled and nodded. It wasn’t the cat smile this time. It was the smile of comrades recognizing each other when no one around them knew who they really were.
“People like you and me,” he said, “that’s what we do.”
He laid his hand back on the bed and she felt his grip starting to weaken.
He closed his eyes and his breathing came in slow shallow gasps. “You and me,” he whispered.
His fingers uncurled from around hers and his face retreated into a waxy stillness. Bess laid her head on his chest, listening to his breathing as it slowed. Somewhere on a distant shore, she felt his heartbeat and she imagined a lighthouse turning its beam to the slowing cadence. When the light stopped turning, she shuddered as the tears broke through and soaked into his hospital gown.
“You and me,” she whispered. “You and me.”
Bess stood next to a hole in the ground. It was cut square and deep, as if somebody had dug it on purpose to actually bury her father, even though he didn’t seem to belong there. She stared at the polished coffin glistening in the sun while a priest droned on about ashes and futility. His words echoed through the centuries, spoken for people the world hadn’t even known well enough to forget. They were elegant words, but they weren’t good enough for her father.
They had wrestled him away from someplace sacred and dragged him into the light of day to smother him with their conventions and rituals, as if they had any business deciding how to send him from the world. Bess knew he would have liked being buried at sea, quietly slipping into its depths and embarking on a final voyage through its undulating vibrance. He would have preferred to sail from here to the other side of eternity, not just be plopped into the ground, covered over and forgotten. She could have imagined him travelling somewhere, somehow, still present in some ethereal dimension beyond her own awareness. Instead, there would be a stone marker pointing right at him, declaring that he was just dead. No, this wasn’t nearly good enough for her father.
As she hung her head and looked at the ground with everyone else, Bess glanced at her mother standing a full foot away from her. Her mother had wanted to bury him this way. Bess understood how she wanted the world to know that her own life was inside that coffin. Bess’s life was in there, too, but it seemed like her mother had forbidden that somehow. Everything the future was going to be would soon be buried, leaving nothing behind but the emptiness that Bess could already feel growing between them. Bess wasn’t ready to be alone with the darkness and silence of a life without her father. But the choice had already been made for her.
They would bury a part of themselves with him and Bess knew there was nothing they could do to change that. They would live a different life now and despite the emptiness of it, Bess knew that in time, she would find her way through it. If nothing else, she had to honor everything her father had done for her. There was something sinful about letting that all go to waste, so she would try. Her mother, on the other hand, was already descending into a void that Bess could see as clearly as if the earth had opened up beneath her mother’s feet and swallowed her up.
Bess sidestepped, trying to ease closer. Her mother quietly adjusted her stance, opening the space between them as she looked into the grave because it gave her an excuse not to look at Bess.
Bess kept her head bowed as she scanned the faces of the others gathered around the grave. They were all looking down at it the same way her mother did. Some would say they were bowing their heads in prayer. Bess knew better. It was the best way for them to look away without her knowing that’s what they were doing. It was more politeness so they wouldn’t have to say it. He is gone because of you.
Bess’s words floated out into the air, as if they had been spoken by somebody else. “You don’t want to be here,” she said.
The priest kept droning. A man standing next to her shifted his weight and coughed into his hand. Her mother’s chin twitched as she took another small step away from Bess.
Bess looked at the priest. She spoke up this time, so everyone could hear. “You don’t want to be here.”
The priest stopped talking and smiled sympathetically to let her know he understood while still making it clear her conduct was something that had to be forgiven. Then he resumed his committal, reciting words that did nothing to help her.
“Stop,” Bess said.
The priest raised his shoulders, took a deep breath and forced a smile.
“Why did he die?” she asked.
The priest half closed his eyes and let his face soften as he looked straight at her. Bess knew she was a distraught family member struggling to cope with a trauma that nobody was equipped to handle, which was why men like him were trained to surround her with the comfort of ancient rituals that were meant to tell her she wasn’t alone. Did he know that wasn’t enough? He blinked at her and raised his eyebrows. Bess waited for him to say something about God’s plan and then realized he was smart enough not to. Instead, he stayed quiet.
Some of the faces were looking at her now, waiting for her to say something. But that’s not what she needed. She needed an answer. She needed him to take the first brick out of the wall of resentment standing between her and her mother, while there was still time.
“Sorry,” Bess said.
The priest let more silence tick away as he smiled at her. For a moment, it was just him and Bess, staring at each other as they stood at opposite ends of a bridge that only they could see. He knew. Bess felt the comfort of his gaze reaching out to her, setting aside everyone else for her so that he could tell her the one thing she and her mother needed to hear – the one thing Bess knew her mother had to understand.
The priest spoke in a soft voice, just for them. “I think he died protecting those he loves.”
Bess looked at her mother. Did she hear that? The truth of why he was gone hung in the air between them. Bess raised her hand and reached out for her mother. She felt her cheeks burn as everyone looked at her. Bess stared at her own hand, waiting for her mother to take it.
Her mother didn’t lift a finger. Staring at the grave, she sidestepped again, opening up more space between them. Bess looked back at the priest. His smile faded and then he nodded almost invisibly before resuming his recital.
Bess pulled her hand back and forced herself to stare at the square walls of her father’s grave, imploring its emptiness to tell her how to keep her mother from falling into another one just like it.
The priest’s drone faded and all she could hear was her own heart beating and the wind ruffling through blades of grass at her feet, whispering to her with the only voice that truly understood what she had lost. But there was no answer. There was only the wall and the void on the other side that was waiting for her mother to walk into and never come back.