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Some events leave scars. They mark time, changing life as you know it into something unrecognizable. Death split my life into two periods—before Charlie and after Charlie.
That morning I woke up crying without knowing why. Dread followed me through the day. It needled at my thoughts until I succumbed and acknowledged that someone I loved would die before the sun set.
“Tessa Marie, we need you to come to the hospital. It’s your uncle Charlie,” my great-grandmother Mae said over the phone.
“Is he all right?” I knew the answer.
“No, child. He had a heart attack and is on life support. The doctors are talking about turning off the machines. Please hurry. We’re at Florida Hospital on Rollins Street.” The call disconnected. My great-grandmother must have lost cell service. Her impeccable southern manners wouldn’t have allowed her to hang up without saying good-bye.
“I’ve got to go.” I sprang from the bed, searching for my discarded clothing. Sex had been my last-ditch effort to shake the feeling that someone would die. It hadn’t worked.
“I’ll wait here until you get back.”
“Ian, get up. You can’t stay here.” I pulled a T-shirt over my head.
Ian threw the blanket off and tugged on his jeans. “What’s going on?”
“My uncle is on life support. This can’t be happening. He can’t die. I need him too much. I just talked to him this morning. He sounded fine. There has to be a mistake.” I slipped on my flip-flops and headed for the door.
“Let me drive.” Ian jangled his keys.
I wanted to tell him to stay put, but I didn’t feel like driving.
We rode in silence for a while before Ian sighed and turned on the radio. A disembodied voice reported the murder of a young mother and the possible kidnapping of two small children. The victim’s mother had found her daughter’s body in the kitchen earlier that day. The children hadn’t been located, and the police had yet to release any names. I drew my knees to my chest and prayed for both my own family and that of the murdered woman.
“Want me to come in?” Ian eased the car to a stop.
I studied him for the first time since the call had ruined our alone time. Wide-eyed, he rubbed his palm on his thigh and shifted in his seat. His expression puzzled me. I couldn’t tell if he was worried about me or if he feared I would actually ask him to come inside. We’d dated about three weeks—if hanging out during happy hour and having sex at every opportunity counted as dating. Come to think of it, we’d never had a proper date.
“No, I’m fine. Thank you, though.”
Ian exhaled and grasped the steering wheel. He started to pull away before the car door even shut. Actions spoke louder than words, and his actions screamed.
I stood on the sidewalk and gathered the courage to walk into the hospital’s lobby. My skin prickled as I passed through the glass doors. I turned and found the woman behind the welcome desk glaring. Under the puff of cottony white hair, two dark, beady eyes fixed on me. The woman wore a blue vest with a colorful badge that proclaimed her status as a volunteer. Her lips twisted in disapproval. I wondered, What have I done to offend her? I resisted the urge to rush up the escalators in order to avoid the sour old woman.
Behind the welcome desk was the hospital gift shop, filled with flowers and balloons. The contrast between the not-so-welcome desk and the happy little gift shop made me grin. I squared my shoulders and walked to the desk.
“Can you tell me what room Charles Nokoseka is in?”
“Nokoseka? How do you spell that?” The old woman glared at me.
I spelled the last name for her, exaggerating the pronunciation of each letter. I knew the drill. It wasn’t my last name, but I’d spelled Nokoseka a million times. The woman typed in the name, looking between me and the screen.
“He is in ICU Step Down. Only immediate family members are allowed to visit.” For some unknown reason, the little old lady had an issue with me.
“I’m his niece, but he raised me . . .” What the hell? I didn’t have time to argue. I needed to find my uncle.
“You’ve missed visiting hours.”
“Considering they called me to pull the damned plug, I don’t think visiting hours are going to be an issue. Tell me where he is.” My outburst surprised us both. I didn’t care.
I hurried to the escalators, then took the metal steps two at a time. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. I needed to get to my family. Something was wrong—more wrong than the fact that the man who’d raised me was fighting for his life at this very moment. I rounded the corner to the Step Down unit and stopped.
Two large men stood in front of the elevators, blocking the hall. Their size didn’t strike me as much as their ponytails and sharp features did. They could’ve been members of Charlie’s tribe, coming to pay their last respects, had it not been for their tight expressions and stiff postures. They were angry, very angry.
I turned and went in the opposite direction until the elevator pinged. I counted to ten and doubled back toward Charlie’s room, pausing in the hallway. At least twenty family members had gathered in the waiting room, including my mother. At that moment, I would rather have gone up against the two big guys in the hall than face down my family. I should’ve guessed my mother would be there. Even still, it struck me like a punch to the gut.
All eyes turned to me when I stepped into the waiting room. I scanned the faces, searching for my great-grandmother or great-aunt, but found neither. The television in the corner caught my attention. The newscast reported on the story of the murdered mother. Pictures of the young woman with two small children flashed across the screen. The police urged the public to call with any information regarding the whereabouts of the kids.
Hearing the story on the radio had tugged at my heartstrings. Seeing the children’s faces yanked them out. “Shit.”
“Now, darlin’, that is something we do, not something we say.” The sweet southern drawl and gentle chiding made me feel like I was eight years old. Gram Mae had told me the same thing while standing in her vegetable garden. The second time I cursed in front of her earned me Ivory soap for mouthwash.
I bent down to hug Mae’s short, round body. Gram Mae had grown up in abject poverty but behaved like a southern lady. She grew her own tomatoes, drank her tea sweet as cane, and could drop a deer, or a whiskey, in one shot.
“How is he?” I cringed, wanting to believe Glinda the Good Witch would swoop down in her bubble and fix all the wrongs.
“Not good, darlin’.”
“Can I see him?”
“He’s waiting for you.” Mae took a firm grip on my hand and led me away from the wide-eyed family members. Gram Mae didn’t have that determined look in her eyes often. They all knew to get out of her way when she did—everyone, that is, except my mother.