I lean against the wall, shaky and nauseous, in the hallway outside the hospital room where I can hear Kate’s crying at Seth’s bedside. I wish I had a drink. I need a drink. The words - my son - are a prayer. Head bowed, I squeeze my eyes shut. Please. Please, God, if you’re there. Please don’t take my son. But praying to an omnipotent being is a fool’s errand. A waste of time. I stopped praying a long time ago.
A tiny voice speaks from somewhere inside me, but I can’t make out the words. It feels as if there’s a message I need but can’t grasp. Instead, I shake my head back and forth to clear it, swallow down the bile and pinch the bridge of my nose to keep the tears shut up, tight. I need a fucking drink. That is where I’ve put my faith because it numbs everything else.
I open my eyes and look up. The hallway of the hospital is full of sounds and movement. Nurses and orderlies, doctors and their stark white coats, and the sound of tears and machines. A place of healing that sounds like death. It makes me feel even sicker.
The last time I was here - like this - was when my mother died, a pulmonary embolism. She’d been 51. Seth had been about five. It was a small irony. I’d dropped out of college to take care of my mother when my dad died unexpectedly and got a job at the mill. It wasn’t long after that I learned Kate was pregnant. Said goodbye to a possible return to school and a career in baseball and hello to marriage, fatherhood and caregiver. Then Mom died. I was left with a life I’d never wanted and taunted by dreams of what could have been.
Only a few hours ago we’d been around the dinner table, the perfect picture of domestic family bliss. Except we’d fought. Seth’s goddamn disrespect a scratch on a record moving around the record player. The yelling. The anger. The mess. The tears. The stupid kid should have fucking listened to me.
But his eyes, that last moment before he’d bolted out the front door, the amber color flat, tortured and cold. Exactly how I felt. I shudder now thinking about it. His last words had been: Over my dead body. I won’t. Now, he’s lying comatose in a hospital bed.
The tears won’t stay back and drip from my eyes. It makes me mad because I can hear my father: Men don’t cry. Don’t be a baby. I can feel his fingers digging into the skin of my arm or the sting of his backhand.
I sniff and swipe the weakness from my eyes and replay the events if only to try and make sense of things.
Seth had run from the house and I chased him. I’d slipped down the stairs, maybe a little tipsy. He’d gotten in that truck. He’d driven away. When I returned to the house, Kate had looked up at me. “What have we done?” She’d said.
I’d yelled something at her. Something stupid. Something about how disrespectful the damn kid is. She’d stood and left me alone in the kitchen with the remnants of our war. An overturned dinner table, food littering the floor. A lamp on its side. A broken end table.
I righted one of the dining table chairs and sat down. I needed a beer- actually a whiskey sounded like the better option - but I didn’t get up to get one, not right away at least. Instead, I studied the mess, willing it to fix itself. With my elbows on my knees and my head in my hands, I fisted my fingers together in my hair and pulled. The pressure, the pain, relieved the ache inside of me. I wished with every uncomfortable and raw feeling swirling like a storm within my body that the mess littering the room like a debris field around me wasn’t an accurate picture of my family.
I’m incapable to fix it.
I’m a failure.
I’m no good, nothing and a sham of what a man should be.
Nothing is right.
I eventually got up, pulled a glass and the whiskey bottle from the cabinet and gave myself a health pour. I figured it would calm my nerves, cure the rolling stomach and shave off the edge of my headache. It did with the first sip, fixing the tremble and numbing what hurts. I left the mess and sat in the living room with my back to the chaos.
And then - sometime later - someone rang the doorbell.
My blood boiled at first, thinking it was Seth, but why would he ring the doorbell? I shuffled over to the door. “Coming,” I said to the insistent knock.
I heard Kate’s padded footsteps in the hallway behind me.
When I opened it, two police officers stood on the other side of the door.
I didn’t let them in, but one of them glanced at Kate and then around the house behind me.
“We’re looking for Jack and Kate Peters.” The taller one looked down at his notes.
“I’m Jack. Can I help you?” I asked. I hoped my voice didn’t give away my drinking because I could feel that perhaps I was tilting on my feet, but what could they say about what a man does in his own goddamn house.
Kate stepped up to my side. I glanced at her and then back at the officers. It felt like slow motion.
“Mr and Mrs Peters, do you own a red 1972 Chevrolet pickup?” He read from his notes and then looked up at us.
“Yes.” I nodded. My brain felt heavy and my heart became an anchor.
“We pulled your name from the registration in a car matching that make and model involved in a car accident earlier this evening.”
“Seth?” Kate asked. She reached for me, her hand curling around my arm and squeezing, even though I knew I was the last person she wanted to cling to for support.
“The driver was transported to Cantos Medical.”
“Oh my god,” Kate began chanting. “Oh my god.”
I put my arm around her to steady myself.
Now, I take a deep breath.
Swallow the nausea.
I need a drink. I can’t. I want it. I can’t.
Pushing away from the wall, I take a few steps down the hallway. When I make it to the doorway, I lean in, but I hesitate. Kate is sitting next to the hospital bed. She’s crying. Seth lays in the hospital bed, his prone body hooked up to machines and breathing. His face is bruised. Some from the accident, but those aren’t the ones that suddenly jump out at me. It’s the older ones I note. Shame slams against me like I’ve run headfirst into a wall.
I walk across the room and lay a hand on her shoulder. “Kate?”
She draws away from me, as if she’s been burned, and she says, “I won’t speak in anger in front of Seth. He can hear. The doctor thinks so.”
I misinterpret her anger. “I know. I’m angry too.”
She swings around to look at me. “You’re angry?” She’s seething. Her eyes are filled with emotions I recognize because I have felt them of myself: hate, loathing, sadness, regret. All of the blame.
Her look pushes me back as if she’s shoved me with both hands against my chest, and I step away from her. I take another step, backing out of the room unable to hold my head up.
I eventually find myself in the waiting room, the whisper of voices spinning a web around the space, intersecting, crossing. My son’s name on their tongues. Seth. Seth. My son. When my eyes focus on the faces I see the girl - Abby. The reason for Seth’s change. She stares unseeing at the floor. I can’t seem to help the anger that explodes inside me when I see her. Someone to blame for my hurt. “You,” I say. It’s more of a whisper. “You!” This time a shout, and I’m pointing. I stalk across the room toward her as she looks up at me. “This is all your fault. You changed him.”
A man blocks my path, and then a second one, he looks like a priest. “Hey now,” one says.
“Jack. You’re hurting,” the religious one says.
Yes, goddammit! I’m hurting. God! I’m hurting, but I don’t yell it like I want to. Instead, I crumple against them, unable to hold myself up and weep.
Like a baby.
I’m a baby.
I think of my son.
Oh, what have I done?