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Defenseless – A Short Story

January 19th, 2019 by Michael Dyet

AUTHOR’S NOTE

I have chosen to offer this story as a sample of my work as an author. If you enjoy it, I invite you to consider purchasing a copy of “Hunting Muskie: Rites of Passage” on Amazon or Chapters Indigo. If you’re an acquaintance of mind, you can purchase a copy directly from me at a discounted rate.

I am donating a percentage of my royalties from this book to North Bramalea United Church’s social enterprise initiative “The Soul Café” to assist in raising the funds to establish a permanent location for The Soul Café. https://tinyurl.com/y9cpocwf 

DEFENSELESS

A Short Story

The laser glare of January sun, mirrored off newly minted, powder snow, was blinding even through her ski goggles. She squinted and hunched forward on her Ski-doo as she skimmed along the shoulder of Concession Road 2/-3 outside Grand Valley. The unforgiving light threw sharp-edged shadows on the humps of the landscape ahead of her and hinted at what might lie beneath the white shawl. She opened up to full throttle hoping that she could outrun the twin sisters of resentment and regret.

Distance, in all its incarnations, was what she was seeking. From the house that stubbornly resisted becoming a home even after three years. From the ghosts of Geoff that she tried but failed to leave behind. And more immediately, between the here and now and last night’s bitter argument with Nathan that scraped bare old wounds. She was still far too angry to forgive him, or herself for that matter.

Another squall kicked up, tight swirls and backspins of wind-teased snow, further impairing visibility. She kept herself centered between the road and the ditch, with the throttle still wide open, trusting that she would come out safely on the other side.

She was fifty feet away when she deciphered the car in the ditch and the tow truck on the side of the road. Twenty-five feet away when she caught sight of the tow truck driver waving his arms. A stone’s throw away when the dark, horizontal line materialized in her field of vision and her brain registered that it was the winch cable already connected to the car.

There was just enough time for her to consider, but not act on, throwing herself off the Ski-doo, before she was clotheslined by the cable. It tore off her helmet and slingshot her backwards through the air for what seemed like minutes, but could only have been seconds. Time enough for her to feel utterly defenseless, before she landed with bone-crunching impact and bounced. The world went black before she touched down again.

***

“Heads up, Nathan! Coming through!”

The lift-truck driver honked the horn as an added warning. Nathan stopped abruptly as the lift-truck rumbled past in front of him. He realized he had stepped outside the yellow lines on the floor that marked the safe path for walking through the plant. Pay attention, he told himself, as he stifled a yawn and continued on his way to the Packaging Room.

The late night argument had robbed him of sleep. Pair that with the two hour plus drive to work in Vaughan from Grand Valley, traffic reduced to a maddening crawl at times by the petulant snow squalls, and he was the definition of a dead man walking.

He had slipped away to the storeroom for a half hour for a nap, albeit an uncomfortable one, on cases of toilet paper. It was an illicit practice kept secret by veterans in the plant. They covered for one another regularly. Today, he conceded, it was more of a necessity than an indulgence.

His mind hit replay on the argument. It was the recurring one about the wisdom, or lack thereof, of their move from Brampton to Grand Valley three years ago. He had camouflaged it as an early start on the retirement they were already planning. The high stakes gamble was his ability to handle the commute for eight years until he could retire.

He was losing that gamble, Jackie insisted, lobbying for them to sell and move back to Brampton. He dug in his heels as deeply as hers, arguing financial considerations and sagging real estate values. But the practical considerations were no more than a smokescreen. The real obstacle to licking his wounds and returning to the city was the unspoken debt he was trying to repay that kept accumulating emotional interest year after year.

Nathan’s company cell phone buzzed in his pocket. He reached in to pull it out. But a piercing scream interrupted him and sent a chill down his spine. He broke into a run, or what passed for running at his age. His fears were confirmed when he reached the Packaging Room. Rick’s hand was caught in the Bailer which clamped wire handles onto paint cans. Jake was beside him trying to extract the trapped hand.

Nathan pounded the emergency stop with his fist. Rick was able to pull his hand free.

“Goddamn it, Rick! You know better! How many times have I told you to lockout the power before clearing a jam?”

“My hand, Nathan! My fucking hand!”

Rick held up his bloodied hand. Nathan saw that half of the thumb and index finger were missing. Rick’s face was ghostly pale as he staggered on unsteady feet.

“Jake, call 911! Do it now! Rick, give me your hand.”

Rick seemed incapable of complying. Nathan grabbed the first aid kit and pulled out a roll of gauze. He stepped forward, got a firm grip on Rick’s arm and wrapped gauze tightly around the mangled hand. Blood splattered onto his shirt sleeves as he worked.

“You’re gonna be okay, Rick. Calm down, you’re gonna be okay.”

“Fuck I am! Jesus! Jesus! Jesus!”

Nathan kept pressure on Rick’s hand to staunch the flow of blood as a crowd began to gather around them.

“I got you. Try to calm down. It’s not as bad as it looks.”

Norris Burns, the plant manager, arrived on the scene. It occurred to Nathan what could happen if Burns found out where he was when Rick was injured. Burns pushed his way to the front of the small crowd.

“What the hell happened?”

“He was trying to clear a jam in the Bailer. Got his hand caught. I’ve gotta keep pressure on it.”

“You.” Burns pointed at the nearest of the onlookers. “Make the rounds. Tell every department to shut down. Nothing starts up again until I say so. And nobody leaves.”

Burns turned his attention back to the scene and assumed control. “Don’t move. We’ve got EMS on the way. Breathe slowly – deep breaths. You need to stay calm.”

“Jesus, fuck!” Rick sniped. “Don’t tell me to breath. I’m not having a goddamned baby!”

Burns threw a look at Nathan that intimated there would be hell to pay later. At the same moment, his phone buzzed again in his pocket. He silently cursed the intrusion.

“You need to get that?” Burns asked.

“No. Probably just my wife. I’ll check it later.”

***

a muffled sound like hollow chopping. voices that sounded far away. she tried to open her eyes. but they would not answer to her will. somehow she was still flying. held aloft by a benevolent force. but hadn’t she already landed? maybe this was still the bounce. she was safe inside the bounce.

 but no, not safe. she felt pain spread through her bones and radiate outward. her body began to convulse. she willed it to stop. how callously it betrayed her trust.

 hands on her body holding her down. more muffled voices. a pin prick in her arm. something spreading through her arteries. racing to her brain. images flashed in her mind. nathan. amy, geoff. reaching out to her. but the world receded to darkness again.

***

Nathan watched the ambulance turn onto the street and speed away with lights flashing like an accusation. Fatigue hit him now that the adrenalin rush had passed. He massaged his forehead with the heel of his hands and wished that he could clock out and go home. But he would have to write up an incident report and wait for the Ministry of Labour inspector to arrive.

A new concern surfaced. How was he going to write a report on something he had not witnessed?

Jake met him at the plant door. “Burns said to tell you to haul ass to his office.”

“Yeah, I know, Jake. Headed there now. Make sure no one leaves until the MOL guy gets here. He’s going to want to speak to everybody.”

Nathan’s cell phone buzzed a third time as he headed toward the Administration offices. Reluctantly, he pulled it out and answered.

“Is this Nathan Forester?”

“Yeah, but if you’re trying to sell me something, I’m really not in the mood.”

“This is Doctor Phillips from Headwaters Health Care Centre in Orangeville. We’ve been trying to reach you for almost an hour. It’s about your wife.”

“What about my wife?” Nathan stopped in his tracks.

“She was involved in an accident on a Ski-doo and brought in by ambulance. Her injuries are serious.”

A new wave of panic twisted Nathan’s stomach.

“I can be there in an hour.”

“No, wait. We called an air ambulance to take her to Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto.”

“Why?”

“We’re not equipped here for this kind of case. She needs a Neurologist. Sunnybrook has a brain injury trauma center.”

Nathan pictured a helicopter churning through the sky with Jackie inside clinging to life. It might very well have passed right over the plant.

“Where did you say? Which hospital?”

“Sunnybrook. It’s on Bayview Avenue in Toronto. I can give you—”

Nathan disconnected before the doctor could finish. He froze for a moment as conflicting obligations wrestled for his attention. Burns was expecting him for a debrief before the MOL inspector arrived. But the image of Jackie in the air ambulance realigned his priorities. He turned and ran for the door.

Halfway across the parking lot, Nathan slipped on a patch of ice. His feet went out from under him. He was airborne for a second or two before landing hard on his back. Momentarily stunned, he lay still and realized he had no coat, hat or gloves on. But he was not about to go back for them. He scrambled to his feet and made it to his Ford Escape, making a quick call as he fumbled with his keys.

“Amy, its Dad. Your mother was in an accident. It’s serious. Call me.”

***

muffled voices again as she surfaced from the darkness. a steady rhythm of beeps and an antiseptic fragrance. she tried unsuccessfully to will her eyes to open. fragments of memory coalesced. flying down the side road on her Ski-doo. the squall. the cable. the two truck. no, the tow truck came first.

 she felt cold wrapping its fingers around her. seeping in through her pores. travelling through her body slowing everything down. her pulse grew faint. She willed it to speed up. but the cold would not let it.

 the cold was an oppressive presence. where was it coming from? where was it taking her? nathan. amy. geoff. their images materialized, then began to drift away. she willed them to come closer. they seemed to consent, then changed their minds. darkness descended again.

***

Nathan paced frantically in a small waiting room at Sunnybrook waiting to speak with a doctor. The near disastrous moment, in his breakneck drive through the city, replayed in his memory. He had been reckless and ran a red light. The garbage truck materialized in his peripheral vision just long enough for him to register the danger, but too late to react to it. How ironic would it have been to be taken out by a garbage truck?

Two calls had come in on his cell phone on the way. He checked the recent calls display and grimaced when he saw the plant’s number. Burns would be on the warpath thinking he was ducking his responsibility. The phone rang again before he could shove it back in his pocket. It was Amy this time.

“Dad, its Amy. Your message scared the hell out of me! What’s going on?”

“All I know is your mother was in an accident on her Ski-doo. They sent her by air ambulance to Sunnybrook.”

“Air ambulance? That’s bad. Did you say Sunnybrook?”

“Yes. I’m there now.”

“Okay, I’m on my way. I work pretty close by. I can there in 15 minutes.”

The rising emotion in Amy’s voice amplified his own fears.

“Please, drive carefully. Be safe, Amy.”

“I will, I promise. I’ll be there soon.”

Stay positive, he coached himself as he disconnected. Put a cap on the fear. But a question crowded in that undercut his efforts. What if he had been asleep in the storeroom when Jackie’s accident happened? He shouldered that thought aside as a doctor entered the room.

“Mr. Forester, I’m Doctor Haynes.” She paused as Nathan jumped to his feet. “I saw your wife in Emergency when she was brought in. How much do you know about what happened?”

“Hardly anything. Something about an accident on her Ski-doo.”

Doctor Haynes eyes narrowed as she noticed the blood splatter on Nathan’s shirt.

“What?” Nathan looked down at his shirt. “Oh, that. It’s not my blood. Tell me what happened to Jackie.”

“My understanding is that your wife tried to steer between a tow truck and a car in the ditch. Apparently, she didn’t see the cable connected to the car. The cable tore off her helmet and knocked her off the Ski-doo.”

“How bad is it?” Doctor Haynes paused which made Nathan fear it was already too late. “Please, don’t tell me she didn’t make it?”

“No, no. She’s alive. But she suffered a traumatic brain injury. She had several seizures on the flight here. There’s a buildup of cerebrospinal fluid that’s causing pressure and swelling in her brain. We have to get that under control. If cerebral edema occurs, it can cause irreversible damage.”

“Edema?”

“Edema is a restriction of blood flow to the brain. We can’t let that happen.”

“Can I see her?”

“Not right now, unfortunately. We induced a state of hypothermia to lower her body temperature. That can often help reduce swelling in the brain. In her case, it had some effect, but not enough. She’s going into surgery as we speak. We’re going to perform a procedure known as a Ventriculostomy which involves inserting a tube in her skull to drain excess fluid.”

“But she’s going to come through this, right? She’s going to survive.”

Doctor Haynes paused, clearly weighing her words.

“A lot depends on the surgery and what the surgeon finds during the procedure. I’ll be honest with you. Your wife is in critical condition.” Speech failed Nathan. He grasped for a handhold for hope. “Is there someone we can call for you? A family member? A friend?”

“No. My daughter is already on her way.”

“Okay. We’ll let you know as soon as the surgery is finished.” Doctor Haynes paused for a respectful moment before exiting the room.

Nathan slumped back into the chair. His mind hunkered down in fear and left the way clear for the damning question to bully its way forward. Was this retribution, divine or otherwise, for what he had done?

“Dad!” Amy ran into the room out of breath. “How is Mom? Is she okay? Have you seen her?”

“No, I haven’t seen her yet.”

“Why not?”

“They’ve taken her in for emergency surgery.”

“What kind of surgery? Is she conscious? Does she know what’s happening?”

“Amy, slow down. Let me finish. The doctor said there’s fluid causing pressure in her brain. Edema, he called it. No, wait. That’s wrong… Anyway, they have to bring the pressure down. There was something about hypothermia. Now they’re going to insert a tube in her skull to…”

His voice trailed off as control of his emotions faltered. Amy sat beside him and took his hands in hers.

“It’s okay, Dad. Mom’s strong. She’s going to get through this. Dad, is that blood on your shirt? What happened to you?”

Blood on my hands. Nathan lost focus as last night’s argument looped again in his memory.

 

“Nathan, do you really think you can push yourself like this for another eight years?”

“I’m fine. How many times do I have to tell you?”

“You’re not fine. Not even close. The commute is wearing you out. You’re not getting any younger, you know.”

“Thanks for the reminder. Here I was thinking I was Peter Pan.”

He was losing ground in the debate and resorting to sarcasm to try to end it.

“You’re tired all the time, Nathan. Every morning when you leave, I worry you’re going to fall asleep while you’re driving.”

“It hasn’t happened yet, has it?”

“Really? Last winter when you ended in the ditch that morning. Tell me you didn’t doze off.”

“I hit a patch of black ice. That can happen in the city just as easy.”

Jackie held her tongue. He sensed an opening to bring the debate to a close. Should he play that card? It was a dangerous maneuver. But sooner or later they had to square off and thrash it out.

“I had to get you out of that house and away from it all. I did what I had to do.”

“Now we’re getting down to it, aren’t we? Are you ever going to believe that I don’t blame you for what happened, Nathan? Maybe at first I did. I admit it. But I’m past that.”

“You bring it up an awful lot for something you’ve supposedly put behind you.”

What I had to do. The words circled back to accuse Nathan. Had it really been for her sake? Or was it more about his own need to be free of the burden?

“My brother is gone. I’m never going to stop feeling guilty about that. But it’s my guilt, Nathan, not yours. You can’t take that away no matter how hard you try.”

It never ceased to confound him how one moment in time, however tragic, could keep echoing forward. Hadn’t they done all that could be expected of them? Taking Geoff into their home when he bailed out of another rehab program. Believing in his promises to get himself straight and sober. It always played out the same way. Just when it appeared he had turned a corner, it all went to hell again.

“You couldn’t do it, Jackie, so I had to. I had to tell him to leave. Do you think it was easy for me?”

“Did you really think moving us up here was going to make it hurt less for me? Like I could pack it into boxes and be done with it? It hurts me that you think I could.”

“So I was supposed to watch you drowning in grief in that house and do nothing?” He realized his blunder a second too late. “Damn, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to use those words.”

Jackie’s eyes filled with tears. She wept openly as if it had happened only yesterday.

“We don’t even know for sure that he did drown, Nathan. He could still be—”

“Don’t. Just don’t. The police found his car by the river with the suicide note inside. What more proof do you need?”

“But they never recovered his body.”

The floodgates opened with the full force of emotions held in check too long.

“For God’s sake, Jackie, let it go! It’s been five years. If you need to blame me, fine. It’s my fault. His blood is on my hands. Is that what you need to hear?”

She looked thunderstruck – wounded to the core by his words and the vehemence with which he uttered them. She reached out, slapped his face and fled from the room.

 

“Dad?”

“It’s not my blood. There was an accident at the plant just before I got the call about your Mom. Nothing you need to worry about.” Nathan’s cell phone rang again. “Sorry, Amy. I really have to take this call.”

Nathan left the waiting room as he answered.

“Jesus Christ, Nathan!” Burns exploded on the phone. “What the hell is going on with you? The MOL guy is here and reaming me out for letting you leave. Get your ass back her.”

“I can’t.”

“Don’t tell me you can’t! It’s your team. You’re responsible.”

“My wife was in an accident. I got the call just after the ambulance pulled away with Rick. That’s why I left.”

“Without saying a goddamned word to me! Do you have any idea how much shit we’re in here? Somebody took the guard off the Bailer. You can bet your ass the MOL is going to lay charges!”

Nathan shifted from the defensive to righteous anger.

“They just took my wife in for brain surgery. So I don’t really give a rat’s ass about what’s going on there. If you need to fire me, go ahead!”

There was a pause at the other end of the line.

“You’re not bullshitting me, are you? Tell me you’re not sitting in a bar somewhere getting hammered.”

“I’m at Sunnybrook Hospital. You don’t believe me? Call them and ask.” He paused to gather himself. “Look, I’m freaked out about Rick too. But I’ve got to be here for my wife. If the MOL guy has a problem with that, send him here.”

Nathan disconnected without waiting for a response. He slumped against the wall and closed his eyes to fend off the pulsing headache that was gathering strength.

***

a steady rhythm now. regulating her breathing, the beat of her heart, the firing of neurons in her brain. strange to be conscious of such a thing. but the rhythm seemed external to her. comforting and unsettling at the same time.  

strange sensations inside her head. as if someone was poking around in there. she summoned her will to stop the intrusion. but she had no control. as if she was flying again. but through time rather than space. and still so cold.

 without warning, a sudden release. a dam breaking. pandemonium erupting in her head. everything moving too fast and then too slow. nathan. amy. geoff. they were together waving at her. throttle wide open to reach them. but they were fading. waving goodbye? no, no. i’m coming back. i’m coming—

***

An hour had passed since Jackie went into surgery. They had been told not to expect any word for at least another hour. The wait was slow torture for Nathan as he paced end to end in the small waiting room.

“I can’t take this, Amy. I’ve got to get out of here for a few minutes.”

“To go where, Dad?”

“Just to walk. Try to clear my head. I won’t be long. I promise.”

His plan was to get outside for a few minutes. Let the cold shock him back to his senses. But he could not find his way to an exit and ended up wandering the halls aimlessly trying to corral his thoughts.

How bad were Rick’s injuries? Would he lose the hand? If he had been there like he was supposed to be, maybe it would not have happened. Did Burns say the guard was removed from the Bailer? A new concern forced its way in. What if Jake caved and told the inspector where Nathan was when the accident happened? He could lose his job, or worse. That should not matter under the circumstances, but it did.

His thoughts reversed their course and went back to Amy. What was he thinking, leaving her alone in the waiting room? Another failure of absence. He turned quickly to start back and bumped into an Orderly carrying bed linens.

“Shit, sorry. Excuse me.”

“No problem.” The Orderly turned away too quickly.

“Wait a minute. Do I know you?”

“No, must be mistaking me for someone else.”

Nathan grabbed the man’s shoulder and spun him around. He could not believe what his eyes told him.

“Geoff? My God, is it really you? We thought you were—”

“Dead. Right about now, I really wish I was.”

“But your car and the note?”

“You thought I drowned myself in the river. That was the plan. But I lost my nerve and couldn’t go through with it. Typical for me, right? Can’t even off myself properly.”

“Why did you let us think you did?”

Geoff looked away and weighed his response. A few tortured moments ticked past.

“It occurred to me that everyone would be better off if they thought I really was dead. So I decided to let you all believe I was. It wasn’t easy, but I finally found something I’m good at – erasing my existence. It helps when no one is looking for you. Eventually, I found out that you can buy a new identity, if you know the right people.”

After the initial shock subsided, Nathan found a new foothold. Surely this could not be coincidence. The hand of fate had to be at play. Stumbling across Geoff here, at the hospital where Jackie was in surgery, had to be an omen. It meant Jackie was going to survive.

“Look, Nathan. Is there any way you can pretend this didn’t happen? Let everyone go on thinking I’m gone. You have to know that’s for the best.”

“No, no. Geoff, listen to me. Jackie’s here.”

“You did the right thing asking me to leave. Don’t go soft now. You need to protect your family from me.”

“No. I mean Jackie is here as a patient. She was in an accident. She’s in surgery.”

“Are you serious? What kind of surgery?”

“Brain surgery. But it’s going to be alright. It has to be. I mean, Christ, what are the odds? This can’t be just coincidence.”

“If you think I’m a good luck charm, Nathan, think again. All I’ve ever caused is misery.”

“That doesn’t matter anymore. Just come with me. Amy’s here too. Come on, let’s go.”

He took Geoff by the arm, but Geoff resisted.

“Nathan, if I could trade places with Jackie, I would. I’d trade my life for hers. I swear to God I would. But nothing good can come of me coming back into her life.”

“You already have come back. Do you think I could lie to her about something like this? Come on, I’m not taking no for an answer.”

Geoff hesitated, weighing his options, and finally relented.

“Alright. It’s against my better judgment. But I’ll come.”

Nathan tried to retrace his steps but was hopelessly disoriented. Geoff took over and navigated their course back to the surgery ward. Amy looked up as they entered the waiting room. Her expression registered disbelief.

“Uncle Geoff?… This can’t be happening. It’s not possible.”

“I know, Amy. I know,” Nathan interjected. “But the thing is, he works here in the hospital. I bumped into him, literally, right in the hall.”

“This is unbelievable,” Amy proclaimed. “How could you let us believe you were dead?”

“It was better than the alternative. Keep fucking up and wreck all your lives in the process. It’s the only selfless thing I’ve ever done. You can’t imagine how much I wanted to just show up one day. But the decent thing to do was stay away.”

“Don’t you see, Amy?” Nathan cut in again. “It’s a sign. This means your Mom is going to make it.”

“Dad, get a grip. He let us believe for five years that he was dead. You know what Mom’s gone through because of it. He doesn’t deserve a second chance.”

“Amy, it’s not about that anymore. He’s here and that can’t be just coincidence. Stop and think what it means.”

Amy was not about to be convinced. She pointed her finger at Geoff.

“Get him out of here. I’m serious, Dad. He has no right to be here.”

“Nathan, she’s right. I shouldn’t be here.”

Geoff turned to leave. But the door of the waiting room opened and a doctor in surgical scrubs entered.

“Are you Jackie Forester’s family?”

“Two of us are,” Amy answered, with an icy stare at Geoff.

The doctor paused a moment, taking the pulse of the room, before continuing.

“I’m Dr. Normand. I performed the surgery. Before we could finish the procedure, a blood vessel in her brain ruptured. I promise you we did everything we possibly could. But the damage was just too extensive. I’m very, very sorry. We couldn’t save her.”

Geoff’s shoulders slumped and his eyes dropped to the floor. Amy gazed vacantly at the doctor unable to process what he was telling them. Nathan stood frozen in stunned silence.

“Again, I am so very sorry for your loss,” Doctor Normand repeated to fill the void.

“Dad?… Oh God, Dad. Oh God.” Tears streamed down Amy’s face. She sank into a chair and buried her face in her hands.

Nathan felt a cold current spreading through him – the manifestation of this final, cruel twist of fate. Geoff coming back from the dead. Jackie taken in his place. He was defenseless against the rip tide of guilt that pulled him under.

His cell phone buzzed again in his pocket like the knell of death incarnate. He yanked it out and hurled it against the wall. It bounced off and landed back at his feet. In the thundering silence that settled on the room, with grim persistence, it kept on ringing.

Now Available Online from Amazon, Chapters Indigo or Barnes & Noble: Hunting Muskie, Rites of Passage – Stories by Michael Robert Dyet. View the book trailer https://tinyurl.com/yczf6wrp

 ~ Michael Robert Dyet is the author of Until the Deep Water Stills – An Internet-enhanced Novel which was a double winner in the Reader Views Literary Awards 2009. Visit Michael’s website at www.mdyetmetaphor.com or the novel online companion at www.mdyetmetaphor.com/blog.

~ Subscribe to Michael’s Metaphors of Life Journal aka That Make Me Go Hmmm at its’ internet home www.mdyetmetaphor.com/blog2.

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