“I can’t sleep,” she whispered as she crawled into bed and spooned against my back.
“Jesus, you’re cold,” I murmured.
She only snuggled closer, throwing her leg over mine. I lay there for a few beats, caught between my alcohol-induced sleep and wakefulness, until I realized whatever this cold thing pressed against my back was, it was not Danae. She’d been in the grave three months now.
My eyes flew open, but I couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe. Adrenaline surged through me, but I lay paralyzed except for my eyes and my thundering heart. The icy thing holding me never moved. Instead of it taking on my heat, I took on its chill.
I fought against it, and somehow managed to wiggle my toes. Then my whole body spasmed, pitching me out of bed and onto the floor.
The crack of my face against the hardwood dazzled me and the coppery taste of blood filled my mouth, but at least I could move. I struggled onto all fours, afraid to lift my head, terrified I’d find some dead, exsanguinated version of Danae peering over the mattress at me.
A glance at the clock on my nightstand dispelled some of my night terror. Shit! I should’ve left ten minutes ago. I couldn’t be late again. Even though I half-expected an icy hand to cover mine, I grabbed the mattress and pulled myself to my feet.
The empty bed held a tangle of sheets and pillows, but no dead, accusing wife. I didn’t dare take time to shower, or even brush my teeth. I threw on my uniform and ran out the door. This job was all I had now, and I sure as hell wasn’t in any shape to find a new one.
At the hospital, I swung my truck into the Emergency parking area, grabbed my cigarettes from the seat and ran inside. I clocked in with twenty-eight seconds to spare.
Tony, my nightshift partner, frowned when I burst into the Security office. “Dude, you look like shit,” he said.
I glanced down at my half-tucked shirt and my rumpled pants. I hadn’t even brushed my hair.
“I’m sorry, man. I haven’t been able to sleep, and when I finally did, I crashed.”
“Come on,” he said, and motioned me to follow him. Like a chastened toddler, I did. We ended up in the family restroom on the first floor. Tony ducked out while I washed my face with pink liquid soap and dried it with paper towels. He reappeared in a moment with a plastic tub that contained a patient welcome kit– toothbrush, toothpaste, comb and deodorant.
“I’m worried about you,” he said.
Join the club, I thought.
My mother, my brothers, and Abi all worried. Looking at my red eyes and drawn face in the mirror — hell, even I worried about me.
“I can’t sleep. And when I do, it’s these fucking nightmares.”
“Do you take anything to help you sleep? Melatonin, Ambien?” he asked.
“Does Jack Daniels count?”
He didn’t smile. Instead, he put his hand on my shoulder. “Jake, we’re all real sorry about Danae. We loved her. We love you. But you gotta pull it together, man. You did all you could do.”
I nodded, and he clapped his hand on my shoulder. Then he left me alone to make myself presentable. When I came out a few minutes later, Tony had already left to make his checks. I grabbed my clipboard to make mine.
Hospital security wasn’t a bad gig. On the weekend, a lot of the areas–like surgery–were empty. Of course, tonight’s full moon would probably have the psych ward hopping.
By the time I’d done my first walkthrough, I felt better. At least I’d slept some, before the incident this morning. I wandered down to the Emergency waiting. Twice a day, local churches brought in free meals for the families camped out in these waiting areas. I nodded at the volunteers I knew, fixed a styrofoam to-go plate and stepped outside.
Mack grinned when he saw me and stubbed out his cigarette. He carefully placed the half-smoked cigarette in a tin, tucked it in his pocket and reached for the plate I offered. “It’s the Baptists tonight, ain’t it?” he asked. “Those little women are the best cooks.”
I laughed. “Yeah, you’re gonna like it. Fried chicken. Want me to ask any of those little women if they’re single?”
“Shoot, no, son,” he replied. “Papa is a rolling stone.”
We shot the breeze for a few minutes, then I told him I needed to head back in. As always, he thanked me, and as always, I told him no need. Technically, we weren’t supposed to feed the homeless, but we all loved Mack. I wasn’t about to let a decorated war veteran sit out here hungry when a table creaked with food inside. I knew Abi took him breakfast before she left, and I suspected others looked out for him, too.
Walking back through Emergency, I caught a flash of Abi turning the corner and hurried to catch up. I tugged her blond ponytail and she turned to smile at me.“Hey, Favorite,” she said. “What’s up?”
She’d called me that as long as I could remember. We’d grown up next door to each other. My three brothers, at some point or another, had all competed for her attention. I was the Favorite, however, or as she liked to tease them– #1 Fults. The others would alternate being #2 and #3, except for Joe, who annoyed her so much he was always #4, or she’d tell him he was her least favorite Fults. Even as adults, Abi and I still lived next door to each other. She’d helped me get this job, and also tipped me off to the house I lived in now. Days like this made me thankful I lived only five minutes from the hospital.
“Not much,” I said. “Seems quiet so far.”
“Shh!” she admonished. “They’ll hear you.”
I’d probably opened the gates of Hell just by uttering that. To say a night was easy always seemed to curse it. We walked to the elevator and the doors opened before I could even press the button. We looked at each other. “Abracadabra!” I said, and motioned her inside.
“So, how are you?” she asked.
She frowned. “Liar.”
“Good enough, then,” I said.
I could tell by her face that she knew that, too, was a lie. “You did all you could do,” she said.
“I wish people would stop saying that!” I snapped, before I could stop myself.
She said nothing, just punched the fourth-floor button. I sighed.
“I’m sorry. It’s … I failed her, Abs. We were fighting and I just drove off.”
“There’s no way you could’ve known,” she insisted.
I wiped a hand down my face. “I told her I wanted a divorce.”
Abi’s eyes widened. “You never told me that. How come you never told me that?”
The elevator doors dinged open. I followed Abi out and she motioned for me to wait. After a brief, muffled conversation with another nurse, Abi returned and dragged me to the staff break room. She pushed me into a chair and said, “Talk.” When I didn’t speak, she said, “Halverson?”
The whole hospital had buzzed with rumors of an affair. I hadn’t told Abi when Danae finally confessed, because that would’ve destroyed any fragment of friendship they had left. I didn’t suppose it mattered now.
“Halverson was part of it. She admitted it.”
Abi shook her head, her green eyes narrowed. “Again? She cheated on you again? With Halverson?”
The ‘again’ threw me for a moment, and I wondered if there had been others. But no, Abi would’ve told me. We were too close to shield each other from bitter truths. She meant the time three years ago, before Danae and I married.
Abi’s disgust at Halverson’s name stung a little, because she didn’t know the worst of it. Not only had Danae slept with the old, gruff doctor, but she had also done it for a price.
“She confessed, said it was a mistake and begged me to forgive her. That wasn’t even our real issue. She was back on the pills again. Oxys and Somas. Halverson wrote her the script.”
Abi gasped. “You should turn him in! He knew her history. He should lose his license.”
“I can’t prove he knew. I’d just look like the bitter, cuckold husband.”
“I never really believed the rumors about them. I even asked her point-blank one day. She denied it, and I believed her. I’m so sorry, Jake.”
Abi didn’t get that it wasn’t the affair that bothered me most. Danae said that it was just sex, and I believed her. She could shut herself off in ways that I didn’t understand. She said it was because of childhood abuse, a coping mechanism. At times, I was closer to her than anyone, but there were places in her heart where even I was a stranger.
Abi and Danae had gotten along well enough, I suppose, but I never doubted where Abi’s loyalty lay. Danae had always been a little jealous of her, and she absolutely hated that Abi called me Favorite, but I’d made it clear when we started dating that my friendship with Abi was non-negotiable. I’d never been unfaithful, never given Danae a reason to doubt me. She couldn’t say the same.
“We fought again that day. I’d already thrown away all the pills I’d found, but I guess she had a stash. She kept falling asleep in her food. I fucking hated that. Still, she denied it. I told her I wouldn’t live with someone I couldn’t trust. So, I got in my truck and I left.”
I closed my eyes, remembering that awful day. Danae had chased me into the yard, crying and begging me to stay, but I’d jumped in my truck and roared off. She tried to call me a dozen times, but I kept hitting Ignore on my phone. Then I got that text. By the time I made it back home, it was almost too late. Hell, I guess it had been too late, because even though she’d lived for three days, she’d never regained consciousness. I got lost in that memory, of busting down the bathroom door. Of her pale face sinking in that swirling red water.
Abi squeezed my hand. “Stop,” she said. “It wasn’t your fault. Danae had a history of depression. She tried to kill herself the first time long before she started working here. Long before she ever met you.”
“That’s why I should’ve been more careful. I saw one attempt, remember? I knew how fragile she was.”
“You were not responsible for her happiness.You didn’t know she’d do that. You are not God.”
My pager buzzed and for once, I was grateful. I looked down at the screen and said, “I gotta go. I have a transport.”
“Okay,” she said. “But swing back around “ later.” When we stood, she hugged me. “I love you, Favorite. We’re gonna get you through this.”
“Love you, too, Abs.”
The worst part of my job was definitely the transports. Carla, the nursing supervisor, waited for me in the ER.
“Hey, good lookin’,” she said. “Ready to take a ride?”
I liked Carla. She was good at her job and strong as an ox. If I had to do a transport with anyone, I’d just as soon it be her. But I grimaced when she led me to exam room #3–the same room they’d wheeled Danae to when we first arrived.
Thankfully, a sheet already covered the body on the bed. “Is it a child?” I asked.
“Naw, she’s in her twenties, but she’s a little thing. You could probably just throw her over your shoulder.”
She didn’t mean any disrespect. That’s the way things were in hospitals. Gallows humor to deal with all the horror.
We transferred the body from the bed to the gurney, then took the staff elevators to the basement. Carla and I made small talk, then she asked how I was holding up. Sometimes it was nice to work with people who knew what I was going through, and who treated me and supported me like family, but sometimes I wished I was just another guy in another place, where no one knew anything about me.
Carla left, her job completed. I pulled up the computer screen, opened the morgue book, and moved the sheet to look at the dead girl’s toe tag. The tattoo on her foot stopped me cold.
Danae had one in the same spot. She’d gotten it on our first date. I’d taken her to a little hole-in-the-wall bar in Nashville to see one of my favorite bands, Goodbye June. She’d fallen in love with their song “Daisy” and I’d fallen in love with her. She’d gotten the tattoo that night, on 10th Avenue. I’d taken to singing “You drive me crazy, Daisy,” to her, and it evolved into my pet name for her.
Though I knew the girl on the slab wasn’t her, that the tattoo wasn’t even the same, it spooked me. Tendrils of this afternoon’s nightmare brushed me, threatened to wrap around me again. I could almost hear her say, “I can’t sleep.”
I forced it from my mind and hurried to get the girl’s information down so I could get out of there. I completed the computer work, then looked back at the tag to double-check the spelling of her last name.
Her cell phone blared to life with Evanescence’s “Bring Me to Life,” and I jumped backwards, banging my head on a shelf. It would’ve been gruesomely funny if Carla had still been in here with me, but in my current state, it scared the shit out of me. The song blasted on and on as I scribbled my entry in the morgue notebook. I didn’t know how her phone even had a signal down here. I had to carry a pager. With the thick concrete walls of this place, I was lucky to get a signal even outside the basement.
Only when the morgue door closed behind me did I feel like I could breathe again. But my relief was short-lived. When I approached the elevators, the doors opened without me getting anywhere near the button. I knew it was nothing to freak out about, probably some kid messing with buttons, but I was extra jumpy today. I almost didn’t have the nerve to get in it. Things had been happening around me for a while now. Creepy things. Objects moved around the house, phone calls with no caller information, her songs on the radio–even the old, obscure ones. I didn’t know whether to attribute it to too much alcohol, too little sleep or losing my damn mind. But any of those things were better than the alternative that maybe Danae was haunting me.
Thankfully, the next few hours passed uneventfully. I went to find Abi again around midnight for lunch. She looked up when the elevator doors opened. I waved and headed down the hall toward her. As I walked past one of the rooms, a sound from inside distracted me. Beep, beep, beep in a frantic rhythm, like someone’s heart thumping about 170 beats per minute. It sounded so odd that I stopped to listen. It slowed until it was more like beep… beep… beep. Then it stopped altogether.
“Hey!” I yelled. “Someone’s coding.”
Abi gave me a confused look, but didn’t move.
“Hurry!” I shouted, and threw open the door.
An old man sitting up in his hospital bed glowered at me, then turned his attention back to The Price is Right. The noise–the beeps–someone had just spun the fucking wheel.
Abi appeared at my shoulder. She snickered in my ear, then she burst out laughing. She laughed until her eyes shone bright with tears.
Feeling really stupid and trying not to smile, I shut the door and muttered, “Asshole.”
Abi laughed even harder, until she was hugging herself and leaning against the wall. Tasha, another nurse, came out of one of the rooms and said, “What’s so funny?”
“Code Bob!” Abi squeaked, and I couldn’t help it. I laughed too.
“It’s Code Drew now,” I said. “Come on, jerk, and I’ll buy you lunch.”
“Give me, like, two minutes.” She swiped at her eyes. “God, I needed that.”
It took her more like five, but then she grabbed her purse and we headed to the cafeteria. I remembered what she’d said about needing the laugh and asked, “Rough night?”
‘No,” she said. “Not bad. You?”
I told her about the girl in the morgue, thinking I’d get another laugh but she squeezed my forearm and said, “I’m sorry.”
I didn’t want to talk about bad things with her. She had heard enough, been there for me enough. She’d been working Emergency the night I’d carried Danae’s dripping, almost lifeless body through the double doors, screaming for someone to help me. I’d driven Danae to the hospital myself. After trying to tourniquet the mangled wrist she’d slashed so deep and vertically, I’d panicked and thrown her in my truck. We lived so close to the hospital I thought it would be faster than waiting for an ambulance. Abi told me that had been the right reaction, although it hadn’t made much difference.
The cafeteria, as usual, didn’t have much selection. I grabbed a pre-wrapped cheeseburger and Abi got a plastic-wrapped salad. When she reached for it, her sleeve pulled up and I noticed the ugly purple bruises on her wrist.
“Hey!” I said. “What the hell?” I grabbed her arm before she could stop me, and turned her wrist to inspect it. Those were definitely fingerprints. “Did Connor–”
“What? No!” She looked around. “No,” she said again. “It was a patient. One of the psych admits.”
She answered quickly enough, and her answer made sense, but something flashed in her eyes before she pulled away to grab a juice from the cooler. I waited until I’d paid for our stuff and sat to say, “Look, if Connor hurt you–”
“Shh, no. I told you what happened, so drop it. Please.”
No chance of that. Abi meant way too much to me. The thought of someone hurting her made my gut clench. And it felt good, to feel something besides pain and grief. I wasn’t going to drop it, but next time I mentioned it, I’d be taking it up with him. I’d despised Connor since the day I met him. The arrogant, overbearing doctor was totally wrong for her. She’d told me the same about Danae–the totally wrong for me part–but maybe she should’ve warned Danae instead.
“Hey,” Abi said. “Beep beep.”
“I’m never going to live that down, am I?”
“Oh, God, no!” she said, and I flipped my Coke lid at her. She grinned at me, then said, “So, your Mom called me today. She wanted to know what I thought about having a surprise birthday party for you next week.”
“What? Please tell me you shut that down.”
She rolled her eyes. “Of course I did. I got your back, loser.”
I thanked her and toyed with the salt shaker. “My mom calls you more than she calls me. I don’t think she’s ever given up on the idea of us together.”
Abi made a face. “Uh, excuse me. You should be so lucky.”
“There’s a problem with my eyes,” I said. “I can’t get them off you!”
She grinned, then made an ‘ohhhh’ sound. “I’m having a problem with mine, too, because I can’t see you getting anywhere with me.”
We laughed at our inside joke. I’d had the distinct pleasure of sitting beside her at a bar one night when some guy tried that on her, and been shot down in flames.
It felt good to laugh again, and to hang out with Abi. But it also made me feel guilty. How could I laugh about anything, when my wife was dead?
After lunch, I did my next round of walkthroughs, then went back to the security office to watch the waiting room monitors for the homeless who sometimes slipped in, or for gang activity.
Everything seemed calm. I scanned all ten waiting areas. Most everyone seemed to have bedded down for the night, though a few cell phones glowed in the dim light. The TV still played on the third floor, but the people inside didn’t seem to mind. Three of them slept while a fourth scrolled on his phone. As I watched, he laid his cell down and pulled the blanket over his head.
I don’t know why it caught my eye. I almost missed it. Opposite the recliners, in one of the chairs, something white and smoky rose. For a moment, I panicked, thinking ‘fire.’ But it didn’t look like a fire. It looked like … someone standing. I gaped at the screen, and the thing seemed to take on a shape. It almost had a face, which it turned toward the guy with the cell. The TV winked off, pitching the room in darkness. The televisions here were old. No remotes, no timers. To shut it off, a person had to physically touch it.
The guy’s cell phone lit up. He held it over his head like a flashlight and scanned the room. Then he lay back down.
At that moment, Tony walked in, giving me my next jump of the night.
“Dude, you have to see this,” I said. “Tell me what this is.”
I replayed the video for him. He frowned, then watched it again. “That’s just some distortion in the tape.”
“And the TV?”
He shrugged. “Maybe the power blinked.”
Tony was one of the most practical people I’d ever known. If a leprechaun came through the door riding a unicorn, I’m sure he’d logic the hell out of it until he had a reasonable explanation. But he wasn’t the one I really wanted to show this to. I wanted to show Abi.
“I’m going to walk around,” I said.
When I stood, he grabbed my arm. “Hey, I have something for you.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small square of wrapped up paper towel. “Ambien. It helps me sleep. I thought you might want to try a couple of mine and if you like it, get someone to write you a script.”
“Uh, thanks,” I said, and took it from him. I’d actually been thinking about it. Anything to chase away the nightmares.
I got in the elevator, and after some hesitation, I hit the button to the third floor. I had to check that waiting room.
The people inside slept–all four of them–and the TV remained off. I moved over to the chair, expecting something white and spectral rise from it at any moment, but nothing did. No ghostie. But the chair was not empty. A single daisy lay on the seat.
Unnerved, I stalked back to the elevator and went to Abi’s floor. On my way to the nurses’ desk, someone called to me from one of the rooms. I peeked inside and the elderly woman on the bed motioned me closer.
“Ma’am? Can I help you with something?”
“I’m cold,” she said. “Can you get me an extra blanket?”
I got her one out of the closet and covered her.
“Thank you, dear. But what about her?”
“Who?” I asked, looking at the unoccupied bed on the other side.
She pointed behind me, at an empty corner.
“The girl in the pink gown says she’s cold, too.”
I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t. Turning on my heel, I ran from the room. I forgot about Abi, forgot everything except what it felt like to drag a beautiful, pale girl from a tub filled with hot water and blood, and how it had stained her white gown pink.
Somehow, I made it through the rest of the shift. I didn’t care about the ghost in the waiting room, or the ghost in the old woman’s room. I only worried about the ghost waiting for me at home. That’s one reason I stopped by the gas station near home and picked up a six-pack of Bud Lite.
My house didn’t feel like a ghost lived here. It didn’t feel like anyone did, myself included. I still didn’t have a door on the bathroom, though I’d thrown the splintered one in back of my truck and hauled it to the dump. I took the Ambien, drained three of the beers and climbed in the shower.
I ran the water hot–as hot as Danae had in this same tub. I closed my eyes under the spray but I had to open them again because all I saw was her face. The pink, steaming water. Her gored wrist, and the one that wasn’t, because she’d done such a great job on the first one she hadn’t been able to finish the other.
Shit, I did not need to be thinking of this before I tried to sleep. I considered trying to stay up, but there had been too much of that lately. I desperately craved sleep. Yawning, I cut off the shower and grabbed a towel. After drying my face, I glanced at the mirror.
The words LET ME GO stood out on the mirror, scrawled on steamed glass.
It hit me like a punch. I didn’t know what to think. I didn’t know how long it had been there, or if it was even real. I wandered to the kitchen in my boxers and peered out the window at Abi’s house. Connor’s Mustang sat in her drive. Glancing at my bedroom door, I couldn’t go in there. Instead, I sat on the couch, finished the six-pack and passed out.
* * * * * *
I woke in my own bed after more dreams of my dead wife snuggling next to me, trying to escape the chill of her grave. Thankfully, the bedroom light was on. The clock on the nightstand read 9:43. Panic froze me before I realized this was Monday, my day off. I took a deep breath and rolled onto my back. The space beside me was empty.
When I threw back the blanket, my heart stalled. Mud stained the bottom of my white sheets, and my feet. Grimy footprints covered my bedroom floor. My heart thumped painfully when I realized there were two sets. Mine leading into the room, and a smaller set going in both directions.
I used to dream sometimes of chasing a poisonous snake through my house. I was scared to go after it, but even more terrified to let it get away, because then I wouldn’t know where it was. That was how I felt looking at those footprints. I didn’t want to follow them because of what they might lead to, but I couldn’t stand not knowing either. I tracked them through the living room into the kitchen.
Food wrappers littered the counter, like a starving person had raided the cabinets. A half-empty peach Nehi sat on the marbled surface. Danae’s favorite drink. I hated those things. After she’d died, I hadn’t been able to throw them out.
The footsteps led out the door. I hesitated, my hand on the knob, childishly afraid to step outside into the darkness.
I glanced out the window at Abi’s house. Connor’s Mustang still sat in the drive, parked next to her Camaro. But as I turned away, something caught my eye. A cigarette glowing in the darkness. A flash of blond hair in the driver’s seat of her car. I watched for a moment, but she simply sat there. I’d never known Abi to smoke. My curiosity and need to talk to her superseded my fear of the dark. I walked outside in my bare feet.
I rapped on the window and she jumped. Then she looked back at the house and rolled the window down. She’d been crying, though she ducked her head and tried to hide her swollen eyes from me. All the crazy thoughts in my head dissipated like the smoke from her cigarette, replaced by concern for her.
“Abi, what’s wrong?”
She opened her mouth, then she began to cry again. I jerked open the door and took her in my arms. She clung to me for a moment, then we heard Connor yell from inside.
“Go!” she said. “Go, please. I’ll–I’ll be over in a little bit. I’ve got to end this my own way. If you’re here, it’ll be worse.”
“What? You’re breaking up with him?”
“Abigail!” Connor yelled.
I hated how he called her that, Abigail, like Abi wasn’t good enough for him. Abi was too good for all of us. She shut the car door, dropped her cigarette in the drive and ground it with her heel.
Then she did something that stunned me. She grabbed me and kissed me.
When she broke away, I stood there, paralyzed. She started walking toward her house. Then, over her shoulder, she shot me a tremulous smile and said, “I have wanted to do that my entire life. I’ll talk to you later, Favorite.”
I didn’t know what to do. I listened for a moment, but didn’t hear yelling, so I walked back to my house to wait.
I stopped in the middle of my yard, staring at Danae’s flower bed. All of the daisies had been dug up. Daisies and clumps of mud covered my lawn.
Had I done that?
Periodically, I stole glances at Abi’s house through the kitchen window as I cleaned up the mess, then showered. I didn’t know what to think. Abi and I had never been like that, though. Not that I hadn’t thought about it over the years. I mean, who wouldn’t? Even though it felt like a betrayal, that kiss had felt right.
“Let me go.”
Danae’s voice startled me, clear as a bell in that empty living room. I jumped, then turned around, half-expecting to see her behind me. Nothing.
I grabbed an 8×10 wedding photo off the wall and slammed it on the floor. Glass flew everywhere.
“You let me go!” I shouted. “You left me. You left me, Danae.”
My cell rang. I grabbed it up, expecting Abi, but it was the hospital. Lanny, one of the night shift nurses, said, “Man, I hate to bother you on your night off, but it’s Mack. I think it’s a stroke. He’s pretty bad. And he’s asking for you.”
I didn’t know what to do about Abi, so I sent her a text that read, “Mack’s in intensive care. I’m headed to the hospital.”
I guess I was a mile down the road when I realized my CD was playing the same song, over and over. “Let Me Go,” by 3 Doors Down.
At the hospital, Lanny met me at the desk. “Glad you made it. I don’t think he has long. He keeps saying your name. I thought–”
“Thank you,” I interrupted. “Where is he?”
Of course. Exam room #3.
Mack’s eyes were closed when I stepped around the curtain and I thought he was already gone, but then he opened them and beckoned me.
I think I read his lips more than anything, but he said, “Danae.”
He said something else, but I couldn’t hear, so I leaned down. He said, “Contract.”
Then he died.
The word mystified me. What contract?
“Goodbye, Mack,” I said, and walked outside.
Numb. I felt so numb, and I couldn’t understand what was happening. I didn’t know what Danae wanted from me, and I sure as hell didn’t know about any contract. If only I could talk to her … then I realized maybe I could.
I caught the elevator to the fourth floor and found myself standing outside the old lady’s door, the one who’d mentioned the girl in the pink gown. If she’d talked to Danae once, maybe she could talk to her again. I knocked.
“Come in,” she called.
Thankfully, she still didn’t have a roommate.
“Ma’am, I don’t know if you remember me–”
“You brought me a blanket,” she said. “I’m not senile yet.” I gave her a polite laugh, but my smile faded when she added, “The girl in the pink gown talks about you. She says your name is Jake.”
“Yes,” I said. “My name is Jake. Did she say anything else?”
The old woman reached for my hand, and I gave it to her. She squeezed it with her frail fingers. “She said you have to let her go. She can’t move on until you let her go.”
“What does that mean?”
“She says there’s a contract she can’t break.”
I shook my head. “I don’t know anything about a contract. I don’t know what she means.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t know.”
I thanked her and left. Halfway to the parking lot, my cell phone rang. I fished it out of my pocket and froze when I saw the incoming caller ID.
Danae calling …
Her cell phone lay in a kitchen drawer, disconnected and dead for weeks now. I hit the Accept button and said, “Hello?”
The crackle of static filled my ear, but the pounding of my pulse nearly drowned it out. I tried to say hello again, but my mouth went dry.
A voice broke through, gritty and shrieking, but undeniably Danae.
“Hurry!” she screamed. “Hurry!”
Then she shouted something that knocked the breath from me.
I jumped in my truck and tore out of the parking lot.
Connor’s car still sat in her driveway, but I didn’t care. I took her front steps two at a time, then banged on her door. Something crashed. Fueled by adrenaline, I jerked the knob and barreled my way inside.
Connor straddled her on the living room floor, choking her. Abi’s small hands beat ineffectively at him, her face an ugly mottled red.
I grabbed him in a headlock and yanked him backwards. He let her go to defend himself, and Abi scuttled backwards like a crab, gasping for air.
We tumbled around her living room, trading blows and knocking over furniture. I finally found my feet and hauled him to his, jerking him out the front door. I tried to push him down the front steps, but he grabbed a fistful of my shirt and we both went.
Sirens screamed in the distance and soon strobing blue lights lit Abi’s yard. Rough hands jerked us apart and they hauled both of us to the station.
Nearly three hours later, I sat with Abi on her front steps, holding an ice bag to my eye and drinking a Jack and Coke.
“What happened?” I asked her.
She didn’t speak, and it took some prodding to get it out of her. They’d been fighting about me.
Abi had come home from the grocery store and found me passed out in Danae’s flower bed. She’d helped me inside, inciting Connor’s jealousy and rage. The second set of muddy footprints had belonged to her.
“I meant to come back over and help clean up,” she said. “But things got a little crazy.”
I didn’t know what to say, so I simply squeezed her hand.
“I’ve known he was wrong for me for a long time, but I didn’t want to admit it. I thought I could change him, but all I did was harm myself.”
Harm myself …
Suddenly, I realized what contract Danae meant. I jumped up and said, “Abi, I’ll explain everything in a little while, but I need to go find something.”
“Can I help?”she asked, as I started across the lawn to my place.
“I think I have to do this alone. Can I come over to talk later?”
“You better,” she said.
It took me nearly an hour, but I finally found it, tucked in a drawer of Danae’s jewelry box. I lay across our bed to read it.
Danae’s first suicide attempt had been in her teens, but her second had been about a year after we’d started dating. She’d told me about her battle with depression, but I’d never seen it coming, never had a clue how bad it was until I’d walked into that apartment that day and found her sprawled on the floor, empty prescription bottle in her hand. It’d been a close call that day, too.
A few days later, we’d been lying in her hospital bed together and I’d begged her to never do that again. She’d promised, then made a joke about shaking on it, or drawing up a contract.
“I like that,” I’d said, and she’d taken it more seriously than I’d thought. The next day, she’d presented me with this.
I, Danae Roberts, make a commitment to living. I will not harm myself or anyone else in any way. I will not attempt suicide, or any other self-injury. If I begin to have thoughts of harming myself:
1) I will try to identify specifically what is upsetting me.
2) I will review alternatives to self-harm, such as thinking about my friends, family and my hot, supportive boyfriend, Jake.
3) I will seek out a responsible, caring and supportive person if thoughts of self- harm continue.
4) If at this time I do not feel I can control my behavior, I will contact 911 or the nearest emergency room.
She’d signed it with a flourish, then made me witness and date it.
* * * * * *
“I’m sorry you couldn’t keep this promise,” I said. “But you are no longer bound by it. I hope you find peace, Daisy.”
I burned the contract over the bathroom sink and washed the ashes down the drain.
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