The line was an undulating ocean of hills and valleys the sight of which was a poignant relief to Nancy, locked as her recollection was on that awful flat blue line. It had indelibly burnt a horizon across her memory; innocence before the line, a grasp of what tragedy really meant beyond it, a bitter emotion that she knew would extend to the end of her days.
The respirator’s piston hissed and sighed, Catherine’s chest tracing its movement with a rise and fall.
“How much longer can this go on?” Jacky asked the attending doctor, frustration in her voice.
She had not experienced the flat-line and could not know how infinitely more beautiful this dreadful scene was.
“She could wake up any moment or it could take her weeks,” the doctor omitted to mention the alternative.
The atmosphere of the ICU was thick with tragedy and hope far beyond any experience Jacky had ever imagined. It held emotions more intense than she could contemplate.
“So many times you hear of this sort of thing, Nance. So many times you see it on the movies... but when it lies before you, when you must confront it stretched lifelessly without an end date and time to peg your emotions to...” her voice abandoned her.
She didn’t need to finish, the silence of feeling it was stronger.
The long and awkward silence rolled, the sigh and surge of the machine reminding them of their lost friend. Tears dammed behind swimming lids peaked out over the scene and escaped one at a time to freedom.
Nancy broke the somber gloom with the first constructive suggestion they’d had.
“I’ve heard that patients respond to familiar sounds. Let’s try... Didn’t she love classical music?”
“Doesn’t she...” Jacky corrected,
“Yes... Mozart... and Wagner when she’s feeling crazy.”
“Let’s try it... this is just too depressing,” she indicated the uninviting pneumatic accompaniment of the life support. “I have a tiny Bluetooth speaker in my car.”
“If it doesn’t interfere with these electronics.”
“Anything’s worth a try,” Jacky agreed.
A second major concussion inside of a week had caused a thrombosis to break loose from Catherine’s left ventricle and lodge itself within her brain.
An emergency trepanning had successfully removed the embolus, but on one of the angiographs an aneurysm in the central artery had then been observed.
On two occasions during the procedure they had lost Catherine’s vital signs. She had been clinically dead for long seconds, but with determined persistence they’d managed to jump-start her heart.
Desperate to move the topic away from morbid speculations of Catherine’s chances, Nancy struck up a conversation on their way out to the car to collect the speaker.
“David seemed very interested in the paranormal possibilities of what went on.”
“Unfortunately the swine can’t be convicted on the wanderings of his evil soul,” Jacky went straight back to the old issue. “I really want to nail him so badly, Nance. I know it’s wrong, but I’d like to have him...”
“Don’t say it... me too.”
“Really, I would!”
Back upstairs and with permission, they plugged in and paired Nancy’s phone. Moments later the mood in the room lightened as Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 in C filled the chamber with its elegant bumping rhythmic love dance.
“I’ll bring back my iPod when I go home,” Jacky promised, “it’s got all her favorites.”
They each silently studied their friend, willing any hint of revival to reveal itself. As they silently studied her, they each independently managed to see what they were looking for, but these illusionary movements were only a phantom of hope so they remained silent.
There was nothing more to do but wait, wait and endure the torture of thought, of rewinding time, of hope.
Nancy thought about the medic’s words, he was wrong; the desperation of fighting to get her back wasn’t the worst over... this waiting was, and this waiting had only just started.
“What the hell do you mean I can’t see her? Who is your superior? I don’t think you know who I am!”
Ken was confused, distraught and very, very upset. He was a desperate man, determined to see Catherine.
During the preceding months a seed had been planted within him and it had germinated, growing until its roots reached to every fiber of his being.
At first he’d put the feeling down to raw lust and expected it would evaporate as these things generally did; once Catherine had lived out his fantasy for him, he’d be able to put her aside and move on to his next obsession. But, instead of it becoming a fond memory, her jilting of his advances had supercharged his emotions until they’d catastrophically consumed his every moment.
And so, to cope, had decided to hate this woman; he’d decided that he would hate her because she was the only human to have ever had the gumption to stand up to his demands.
The phase made him determined to ruin her in any way that he could, the same way that he had trampled others who had confronted him with much less opposition.
Not convinced that his nocturnal wanderings could have a physical dimension, all that had mattered to him was that the voodoo seemed to work, and seeing his vindictive efforts having some strange effect, he’d been happy and prepared to keep on using them until it brought this subordinate to heel.
But this morning, after hearing that she could die, the agonizing realization of loosing her had dawned on him, the epiphany potently confronting him: He didn’t hate this woman, he loved her; he’d love her even if she hated and rejected him. And in this realization he had determined to make good for all the bad that he had caused.
Now at the hospital, the denial of access was a vicious affront. Petty officials stood between him and realizing the inevitable consumation of his revelation, heads would have to roll.
“Would you come this way, please Sir,” the Head Sister led him into the administration block of the hospital.
She knocked on a door marked Administrator. “Doctor Maxwell, this is Mr. Kenneth Torrington, he’d like to speak to you about visiting Miss Kaplan in Intensive Care.”
“Thank you Sister, I’ll take care of it.”
The Sister left, closing the door behind her and the elderly gentleman indicated for Ken to take a seat and then sat down himself.
“Mr. Torrington, I don’t know how much you know about this case?”
“Virtually nothing, all I’ve been told is that Catherine is at deaths doorstep.”
“You are aware of the court’s interdict against you approaching within two hundred yards of Miss Kaplan?”
“No! When the fuck was that concocted?” Ken flew into a tantrum.
“I’m really not sure Sir, I was simply told to enforce it. Have the police not contacted you regarding the matter?”
“I’ve been travelling… My house keeper mentioned that they wanted to speak to me, but I came directly here from the airport.”
Ken was genuinely in the dark regarding the run of events, the only thing that his housekeeper could tell him had been that the police had called wanting to speak to him.
She had conveyed the message that Catherine had been involved in a “very serious accident,” and they needed to know if he would have any further information for them.
Having little idea of what help he could offer, Ken had systematically called the bigger hospitals in the approximate vicinity of where he suspected that Catherine lived. He’d found her on his third attempt.
The nurse that he had spoken to had informed him that his sister’s condition was critical as she clung to life by a thread. Ken had pressed her for information but she had no idea what had happened to Catherine.
It had been at that precise instant that Ken experienced his renaissance in spirit. There had been nothing left in his mind except the desire to somehow repair the relationship he had exploded.
Somehow he had the impression that Catherine had been involved in a car accident. It may have been the nurse on the phone that had given him the notion, but he couldn’t place it.
The nagging memory of his nightmare, chasing her naked through her bedroom, seeing her cartwheel to the floor, seeing Nancy and the muzzle flashes seemed impossibly long ago and absurdly unrelated.
The more he thought about the voodoo nonsense, the more he realized that it was all ridiculous coincidence, not worth thinking about.
“Probably that’s how I manufactured the idea that it was another tragic car crash,” he decided.
And here he was, confronting the impossible paranormal outcome that the other Ken, the hate-filled one, had somehow perpetrated.
He finished explaining what he knew to the administrator, that he’d thought it a car crash—he’d told his guests that, his pilot and flight crew had heard it to, so he was committed to that course and had to stand by the story.
“I’m afraid it wasn’t a car accident, Sir.”
Ken’s color drained from his face as the man went on, revealing his most sickening suspicions.
“She had a near fatal fall down a flight of stairs in her house.”
Ken suddenly looked cadaverous and woozy.
“Are you all right, Sir?” The doctor stood anxiously, “Do you want to lie down? Some water?”
“No... no, I.. I’m fine, I... I just had a dream... a premonition of this happening.”
The doctor was used to distraught relatives claiming premonition. Working in a hospital had acquainted him with endless grief and disbelief.
“Is there anybody you’d like to talk to about this? A psychiatrist? A priest?”
Suddenly Ken was overcome by an overwhelming desire to talk to someone frankly. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d done so, but this force was urgent… irresistible.
Ken nodded, his throat clammed tight, surprised at the urge driving him, “A priest.”
“What denomination, sir?”
“I... I don’t... well… Catholic... I grew up Catholic,” saying it aloud felt alien, but the need to talk had escalated and morphed into an overwhelming need to be confessed as he had been as a child.
Ken had his face in his hands, seeming to be deep in prayer.
The administrator made a call.
“Father Rowles is attending in the hospital. He will be with us in a moment. Can I get you anything?”
“No,” Ken kept his face covered, “...may I sit here till he arrives?” Suddenly he didn’t want to be alone; he had never felt so alone… so isolated and watched.
“Certainly,” it was a common enough request for those bereaved.
Ken sat in silence, the din of new fears joining the armies of demons from his childhood, creeping out of forgotten corners in his mind. Something alarming had its hand on him; it governed his dreams and made them real. They taunted him with the consequences of what they knew and how they’d let his life unravel.
The fearful child within him came whimpering to the surface; the bulwark he’d built through a lifetime against the memories of abuse as a child, suddenly seemed like gossamer and in that instant his mind capitulated. In his terror, the woman who had rejected him became his mother, and he suddenly knew that he loved her; loved her urgently, loved her jealously, loved her insanely, loved her unhealthily… and he didn’t care. He needed to see her, needed to settle the score.
The heavy gravity of these matters dragged away his confidence and collapsed his will. Inwardly he began to crumble
A few minutes later, bespectacled Father Rowles stepped quietly into the hushed office jacketed with a black shirt and clerical collar. The instant Ken raised his head and saw the garb a tear broke from his eye, and then another.
The administrator stood and quietly left.
The Father approached in silence and placed his hand on the crown of Ken’s head, and the head bowed in abject submission, and crying gave way to sobbing and sobbing in turn to convulsions of tragedy. And when the tears ran out, the thing strangling him from within took his breath and slammed him into the purgatory of regret.
The Father embraced Ken for twenty more minutes before either of them spoke for the first time.
“I’m not falling for it, Father. The man’s a beast, and I mean that in the biblical sense. He’s an evil manipulative Beast, and I refuse to be in the same room as him ever again,”
The lengths to which Ken would go in order to manipulate, mortified Nancy. Not even a Man of the Cloth was spared his deceit.
Nancy was the closest to kin available; Jacky was on a day-flip in another city.
“Nancy, please don’t judge the man harshly, he is as much a victim as anyone else. He is as much a victim as our sister, Catherine, lying in her bed over there,” The Irish priest had a soft and gently lilting accent.
Nancy gagged; “Oh, puh-leeze!” the word popped inside her mouth, “...don’t make me laugh, Father. He’s no victim, that is an insult to the word. He’s a monster, a charlatan! I don’t know what story he’s spun you, but I am prepared to swear on a stack of bibles as high as you can pile them that he is directly... or in some way the cause of that poor woman on death’s doorstep.”
“Nancy, I know how you’re feeling. Ken has explained to me that you might take this attitude, but there is another side.... his side, which...”
Nancy’s eyes bulged with the pressure of a restrained heave of laughter;
“Let’s see...” she began, sarcastically, “He loves little sayings. Has he quoted you this one? ‘...There are always three sides to every story... your side, my side, and the truth’...? Did he spin that one on you?”
Her glare was a withering beam of accusation in which the Father could see the naked fear and hatred that she bore for the man he’d left half delirious from tears in the Administrator’s office.... and he could understand it;
Ken had delved into excruciating detail, revealing the most diabolical things that he’d done. The father had seen the spirit rising in Ken, deep within the man something screamed out for help and release, he had recognized it instantly.
This was not the sham act of a charlatan.
“No Nancy, he didn’t tell me that. If you would speak to him, I believe that you would see exactly what I have seen. He has explained your and Catherine’s relationships with him. He has confessed his worst side, his lying, his cheating... his...”
“Murder...? Did he confess to murdering people? Because that’s a fact, as I sit here before you Father and before God, that is a fact. I’d be very interested to know if he has confessed that.”
It was only an instinct that Nancy had... only circumstantial evidence she’d allowed her own mind to piece together during the period of her escalating disgust; what she was really doing was fishing for the truth—and the priest hadn’t flinched at her accusations of murder.
“In matters of confession I am bound by a vow, Nancy... What I can tell you is that during the four hours I spent with him, I believe in all faith that there was nothing he held back on... absolutely nothing…”
In his emphasis, he said it all.
“…Ken did not quote any banal cliché or platitude. He spoke directly, earnestly and in all humility. He accused nobody but himself... apportioned no blame beyond his own... his own greedy nature. I tell you in all faith Nancy, he did little but sob and beg forgiveness from the Almighty.”
Nancy’s heart was a brick of ice-cold indifference to the Father’s soothing assurances, a spiny armor erected against the seductive unmentioned treaties to forgiveness implied; her expression disdainful.
The Father’s eye’s were intelligent, his demeanor wise, his spirit worldly.
Nancy spoke at length with him, and slowly her defenses retracted.
“I can share with you something of Ken’s confession, something he has granted for me to voice... he will say it to you himself when you allow... You evidently know about a recent computer game... some sort of hallucination system... I believe? A sex act of some sort that he and Catherine... well... shared?”
Nancy was staggered that Ken had confessed to it; the topic difficult for the Father to repeat.
The Father averted his eyes as he spoke. If Nancy could read his body language correctly, then Ken had disclosed to him every sordid detail.
“Well, what you may not know, is that he made a video recording of it...”
As the confirmation of her suspicions was revealed, a shock of anger flared through Nancy but it was drowned by disbelief that Ken had actually confessed to it.
“…He’s terrified that he has manifested something... something dire... diabolical, uncontrollable.”
The deeply etched frown on Nancy’s forehead proclaimed a new emotion welling inside her; anger and distrust giving way to horror and amazement.
“Yes...?” She heard herself encouraging.
“He fears that every time he has reviewed this recording, it has triggered dreams... lucid dreams... dreams somehow animated into the corporeal—into the flesh, manifested somehow...”
She was listening, starting to nod in agreement.
“...With no contact with her... to Catherine, he hadn’t realized until today that her... that her difficulties, were some kind of manifestation of his own experience... This seems unprecedented,” he added an opinion.
Nancy was dismayed; if even Ken had come to this conclusion, to the point of admission of it, there must be something dreadful and sinister afoot.
“Were you at the house the other evening... when Catherine had her fall?”
“Did you see Ken at the house?”
“Yes Father, Catherine and I had been watching television downstairs and I drifted asleep. After he’d pushed her down the stairs he looked directly at me... I had a gun and fired at him.”
The Father hesitated, frowning lightly, “That is precisely how he remembered his dream, excepting... except he said nothing to me about pushing her... he said he’d chased her, and she had fallen...”
It was a test from Nancy, a test to see if there was room in Ken’s story to deviate and grab at a bogus detail. That the related dream was accurate and to the extent that the Father could correct the detail 3rd hand, confirmed the possibilities in her mind.
“You said, unprecedented, Father... have you never come across anything like this before?”
In her voice was a pleading for reassurance, an appeal for a pillar to lean on, a precedent or clear protocol to guarantee an outcome, a chart that they could sail by.
“I must be honest with you, Nancy... no, nothing like this that I’m aware of. Officially, the church now distances itself from such events. However, I... and, yes, many of my colleagues across the spectrum of all denominations privately do believe that the spiritual world contains many possibilities to explain this kind of phenomena.”
His words weren’t the instruction manual on coping with supernatural calamity she’d hoped for, but they were better than an outright denial.
“There were two other men, colleagues who have recently died?” The priest was asking.
Nancy nodded; not daring to imagine what may follow.
“The man who died last week?”
“Yes, that’s right, Leon. Ken said that there had been something about Leon’s death that had frightened him. He had only realized the significance when he awoke on Saturday morning, after his last nightmare... and of course this most recent unfortunate... incident.” The Father paused. “...Ken told me that this other late colleague of yours...?”
“Yes, Craig... Craig had come into Ken’s dream on Friday night. But Ken said that it had not really been Craig... not the Craig that he knew. Everything about the man seemed to be Craig, except for the eyes... they were like an animal.”
The priest nodded.
“…And the connection...?” She posed the scenario, “Leon hit a goat on the road last Thursday night, Ken would know that the blood and hair are confirmed by the lab.”
“And that’s precisely what Ken said had terrified him when he startled out of his dream.”
“And Ken dreamt of being at Leon’s accident no doubt?” Nancy ventured.
“No. He said nothing of that.”
Nancy was in a state of shock, and it showed.
“It will all be all right, Nancy,” he reassured her. “If you remain strong, then nothing can harm you.”
The words were brave but Nancy needed only to think of the strongest character she’d ever met to see the folly in his words. That mighty character was lying in the next room, fighting for her life.
The discussions were a horrifying epiphany; one single terrifying truth that faced them all, including Ken; they were dealing with something sinister and of immense proportions, something far beyond a simple and established solution. Something that dwindled into insignificance all of those fears that had, up to this instant, seemed so dire. Instead, Ken now suddenly seemed less the villain and more a mere pawn.
Nancy gathered her wits; the sooner she and they all went on the offensive, the more chance they’d have of throwing back this yoke.
The Priest could see that Nancy was ready to hear more;
“Ken mentioned something else he experienced on Saturday night after he’d fallen asleep following his nightmare. He says that he’d lay in the dark, trying to forget the experience, that he’d tried to pretend that it was an ordinary bad dream. But he swears that somebody came to his bedside and offered to help him begin to make amends.”
Sensing that something eerie and macabre was about to be imparted, Nancy braced herself against the worst.
“Ken told me that only today, while I was speaking to him, did the memory become clear. He swears that the visitor was real, he swears that it was the other man... Leon.”
“If I say it myself, ‘if you want to complicate a matter, involve a lawyer’…” David Edelstein admitted.
Within the broader context of all the legal processes in motion, he’d been discussing relaxing of the protection order that Ken was subject to with Nancy. David had just had an hour’s discussion with the good Father.
“…Unfortunately that saying will be twice as true in this case, since the evidence is very weak. Them pushing this to trial will get nowhere.”
Although her emotions pulled in the opposite direction, she was being won over by David’s convincing arguments to persuade Jacky to let the matters lie.
“You’re their friend, David, and it’s their decision... but I can’t disagree with you any longer. It makes me sick in the pit of my stomach, but you are right.”
They were walking slowly down the corridor, on their way to Catherine’s ward. As painful as it was, Nancy drew the ultimate scenario.
“And if Catherine were to... you know...?” she couldn’t bring herself to say it.
“Then it would automatically become a Capital offense and the state would take on the case... at least an investigation. At that point you wouldn’t be in a position to choose to withdraw the charges. But as things stand my advice is to let it be, Catherine can decide what she wants to do when she wakes up.”
“I hope the ‘when’ is soon,” They reached the door, “Jacky’s just back... keeping vigil. She’s broken, go a little easy on her.”
David pushed the door open and let Nancy go first.
“Hello Jacks... How’re you doing?”
“I’m fine,” Jacky insisted, but the dark rings about her eyes contradicted that assertion.
David bent himself double to accommodate a hug; he held her a moment
“They say that reading to a patient helps,” he’d seen the Economic Review magazine Jacky was clutching.
She was a little embarrassed, “I thought I’d stick to the only thing she reads... I don’t actually have a clue what it is I’m reading to her.”
“Nobody does,” David assured her.
The music tinkled softly in the background as the three pulled chairs into a huddle around Catherine’s bed and began to discuss the situation, talking as if Catherine was just choosing to remain silent.
David set out cautiously to convince Jacky to adopt a course of conciliation. As with Nancy, his first attempts struck directly into a tungsten core of resistance and, even after minutes of his urging and Nancy’s agreement, Jacky remained steadfast, unwavering on the principle of the matter.
David forged ahead.
“I’m not suggesting we lift the injunction totally against Torrington. Limited, supervised, visitation is a choice that we can make among ourselves and the injunction can remain as a trump card,” David argued.
“If I were a man and Catherine were my wife, would this be a group decision...? Would this be a decision at all that anyone would entertain? The man is confessing love for my partner, it’s laughable,” and Jacky laughed to emphasize it.
“Oh Jacks, I get that...” David was apologetic, “…put that way, this request is indefensible. You know how I see you two? The decision is yours and totally yours... we’re only trying to give you another perspective.”
“Sorry to be so hot-headed, David.”
“No need for apology... you’re right.”
“I’m getting sick and tired of pretending to be her sister and I hate not getting the respect of a spouse when for five years I’ve put in as much or more devotion and support than most spouses. Goddamn! How would you feel? How?” Jacky was near tears. “I don’t know whether she’ll live or die but still I must contend with this kind of bigotry…”
Understanding her anguish, both David and Nancy felt ashamed. Jacky slumped with her elbows on her knees, silently brooding on the words, before she continued.
“…It’s been what? Not a week since we became sworn enemies, three... no, four days since that... that... evil fucking TWAT caused Catherine to land here. No! What’s him seeing her going to change or help?”
David felt castigated; “I can’t disagree with that, Jacky…”
After the priest, David had met with Torrington; the man’s realization and capitulation seemed authentic. David appreciated that the power he’d displayed in quashing the investigation and crushing opposition was enough to suggest that, as a truly reformed ally, perhaps he could bring resources to bear that would aid Catherine.
“…Is there any improvement?” He asked Jacky gently.
“Some... They’ve picked up increased brain activity. It’s a positive, but they still can’t… or, I don’t know… they perhaps won’t, hazard a guess when she might surface.”
All the time that they had been speaking, Catherine’s hand had begun to twitch under the blanket, their drifting voices advancing and receding in her mind.
She could hear they were talking about her, about important details, and she wanted her say.
It sounded like a frog, like a meaningless embolism... a bubble lightly popping past a membrane, but to Jacky it was the distinct chord of Catherine trying to form a word. She stared at her lover’s mouth, at her throat and, YES…! it was trying to move; disbelieving, she reached for Catherine’s hand under the sheet and felt the minute twitches of muscles trying to re-animate;
At her name, Catherine’s eyes began to track lazily behind closed lids, and then the miracle unfolded rapidly before them as the trickle of life soaked through into her once more; she added swallowing to her repertoire, then whimpering grunts; each movement a cause for celebration.
The monitor tracking brain activity was transformed from a carpet of uniform hues of blue pile; where only the occasional inclusion of yellow or green lingered; to a suddenly-psychedelic sunscape, a carnival of movement, forests of activity with roiling and shifting hills and valleys of iridescence.
Nancy took off out of the ward and down the corridor, “Doctor...! Nurse...! Heeeellllp...!”
Within a minute the chamber was buzzing with activity, machines were switched off and wheeled aside, and specialists swarmed over Catherine.
The three visitors were an excited group, banished to one corner; “How’s she doing?!” They’d badger whoever came close enough to answer their hopes.
“She’s going to make it,” came the gloriously unanimous reply.
In the wake of the respirator’s pipe’s withdrawal, Catherine was moaning softly between spells of feeble coughing; and nobody noticed her beloved Wagner heralding the triumph with a rousing dampened symphony.
“Will it ever mend?” Catherine’s voice was slurred and slow, her pronunciation hindered by the muscle’s droop.
“These are early days, Catherine, it’s hard to predict,” the surgeon comforted her. “We’re going to have to be patient. I’ll run tests, but the healing process will take its own course. Don’t you worry, you’re remarkably strong; you’re healing magnificently.”
The minor stroke had affected her left side; it seemed superficial and likely to recover. That she was so demanding just eighteen hours after her first stirring, heartened her surgeon. She had fight, and fight was the best kind of medicine.
Handing her a mirror, he’d warned that the damage would appear a lot worse than it was, particularly because of the double bruising, two traumas a week apart. She’d surveyed her reflection, taking the shock surprisingly well, accepting it objectively.
“Such a positive attitude will go a long way to your recovery, Catherine,” he encouraged.
Half her face smiled her thanks.
Nancy and Father Rowles were beaming at the happy news.
“I can’t wait to tell Jacky,” Catherine thought to herself “Everything’s going to be fine.”
Jacky had left the hospital during the early hours of that morning to prepare for a scheduled flight.
The surgeon ran a few elementary procedures before moving onward with his rounds, very pleased indeed.