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The World Changed

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He drifted slowly up from the silent depths, into the warmer waters where dreams swam, and at last to the surface. He hung suspended there for a time at the cusp, dimly aware of the world spinning by overhead and the long drop below.

And then he opened his eyes. In bed, alone – strange – with the disconnected, out-of-body awareness that there was a cushioning layer between him and pain.

Hospital.

Sarah?

His mouth was a desert – he croaked painfully, then thought about it and went looking for a call button. He discovered, in the act of reaching, that he could feel pain after all, and that his right leg was in plaster to the hip. He got the button, pushed, waited.

The steps came quickly, and the overhead lights clicked on. Johnny recoiled, throwing an uncoordinated arm over his eyes.

“Mr. Smith. You’re awake.” There came the sounds of busy hands around his bed, and then a cool touch on his arm.

He squinted hard. A nurse, blonde, young.

“Lie back,” she said, though he hadn’t tried to get up. “The doctor will be right down, and we’ll call your mother – she’s at the hotel across the street, so she’ll be right over.”

“Sarah?” he asked.

“I’ll get you some ice chips,” she said, and hurried out.

She was back in just a moment, the doctor on her heels, and his mother right after that. Johnny had a hard time keeping track of the three of them – ice chips, questions about his middle name and birthday, quiet tears.

“Sarah?” he said into the confusion, looking at each of them. His mother’s breath hitched in a small, well-bred sob, and Johnny thought he might be sick then and there.

“What’s the last thing you remember?” the doctor asked.

Johnny frowned. “Rain,” he said slowly. “It was raining – storming. I was . . . we were . . .”

It came back in disconnected pieces – Sarah just inside her front door in sweatpants and a t-shirt, still flushed from lovemaking. “Please not another high school movie,” she’d said, glaring at him. “I swear, you could do a one-man show of Ferris Buehler by now.”

“Greece it is,” he’d said, laughing.

And she’d snapped the keys out of his hand and plunged past him into the pouring rain. “Forget it, I’m coming with you,” she’d shouted. She was soaked instantly, hair streaming, pants dark to the knee, t-shirt going transparent. Johnny had followed her to the car, running after her until they realized together that there was no point, they were drenched anyway, and the rain transformed from annoyance to unexpected pleasure. They’d danced a little, instead of just hurrying, and Johnny could see Miss Bracknell washing away under the deluge, leaving his best friend, the long ago girl of pinky-swears and friendship bracelets. He’d laughed into the thundering sky, and brought buckets of water in with him to soak the upholstery. She’d sung along to the radio, like she always did, and they’d joked about Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and . . . and . . .

“Is she dead?” he asked, looking at the doctor.

“No.” His mother pressed his hand between hers. “She hung on. But she is in a coma, Johnny.”

“Coma,” he repeated. “Was I?”

She nodded mutely, and Johnny realized suddenly that she was wearing no make-up, something he’d seen maybe twice in his entire life. Her eyes were bruised, and there were many sleepless nights piled up behind them.

“How long?” he said slowly, feeling the world spin away beneath his feet as one of the poles of sanity – who, where, when – suddenly swung free like a broken compass needle.

“Three weeks,” said the doctor.

“Twenty-four days,” said his mother.

“I want to see her,” Johnny said.

That didn’t happen for another twelve hours, during which Johnny was scanned and exercised, kept on a semi-solid diet, and informed in graphic detail about the dent in his skull and the bones in his leg that weren’t so much broken as fragmented. His mother stayed throughout, except for when Johnny insisted she leave during the sponge bath, and it was she who pushed his wheelchair down the hall at last.

Half of Sarah’s hair was gone, and a curving line of neat, black stitches snaked over her skull. She was on a ventilator, and her eyelids were taped shut. They’d already told him at least twice each, his mother and the doctor, but it wasn’t until he saw her that the bottom dropped out of Johnny’s world. They’d expected him to come out of the coma in his own time, as soon as the cranial swelling eased. But Sarah wasn’t going to wake up.

His leg was sticking straight out in front of him on a long pole, and his mother maneuvered him carefully alongside the bed so he could reach Sarah’s hand.

“Do you want to be alone?” she asked, and the doctor, who had followed them in to answer any questions or to tell him again if he needed another go, closed Sarah’s chart.

Johnny nodded. He looked down at Sarah, at the fading bruises on her forehead, the slackness of her mouth around the breathing tube. He didn’t think he could cry right now, but it seemed important to be alone for this anyway. His mother touched the crown of his head briefly, and he heard them leaving. Johnny picked up Sarah’s hand and –

Blond, with crooked front teeth. Muddy t-shirt. Big grin for the spider crawling over chubby, cupped hands.

“She’s pregnant,” he heard himself say.

“What?” his mother was suddenly back, the doctor at her shoulder. “Johnny?”

“It’s a boy.” Johnny’s mouth, Sarah’s cheekbones, his very own nose.

His mother’s fingers dug into his shoulder. “When did you find out?” she asked sharply. “How far along is she?”

“Twenty-four days,” said Johnny.

“Mr. Smith,” the doctor began, producing a penlight and approaching ominously. “Are you experiencing any dizziness or –“

His mother held him off with one extended hand. She stared down at Johnny, lips parted, face unreadable. “John,” she said calmly. “Are you sure?”

Johnny poked at it, testing the certainty which had dropped into his head from nowhere. It still smoldered in his thoughts like a meteor come to earth. And he had seen. “I’m sure,” he said.

“An infection can cause you to spike a fever and experience unusual –“ the doctor began.

“Please administer a pregnancy test to Miss Bracknell,” his mother said, voice perfectly modulated to cut across him without shouting. “And please call a nurse – Johnny needs to rest.”

She was the one who came to wake him with the news. She opened the curtains to let in the rising sun just like she’d used to do when he was a kid, and when she told him there was a baby, too soon to determine gender, and that it was fine, he was not surprised.

***

He was very busy. There was PT, even though his leg was still immobilized, and visits from his students (to whom he explained the chemical process of setting a cast), and the counselor his mother firmly insisted he see. Johnny spent a lot of time with Sarah, talking to her or narrating her favorite TV shows. His mother, the doctor, and the counselor were ruthless, searching down any tendril of errant hope and gently, calmly euthanizing it – “her brain activity is negligible, John. Even if she woke up, there wouldn’t be much left.” Johnny told them he knew, he understood, and he really did, better than they could ever guess.

Johnny touched things, and saw. The man who’d had his bed before him had died there, alone. His regular morning nurse had caught her husband with another man. People were giant roman candles of energy, and they shed sparks wherever they went – the clerk who’d rung up the new clothes his mother brought him was going to win a small lottery prize, and Johnny was very careful these days not to touch toilets if he could help it.

They worried about him, about his calm. Johnny didn’t know how to tell anyone that acceptance was really the only option left when everyone you touched lit up your brain with past and present and future, except for the one person you most wanted to open her eyes and smile at you. He saw things when he was with her, but it was always their son, rapidly experiencing cellular division and broadcasting life on a psychic loudspeaker. Of Sarah, there was only silence, and Johnny realized very soon that whatever it was he saw, whatever ethereal force it was they all scattered so blithely as they lived and worked and played, Sarah wasn’t making it anymore.

They let him go outside the day before his discharge. He was still in the wheelchair, and his mother displayed the sort of subdued, preparatory flurry she only let herself show before a big dinner party. Johnny let her pick just the right spot in the expansive gardens, place him just so in the sun, fetch a blanket and a little knit cap for his bare toes poking out of the cast.

“Sit down, Ma,” he said at last, and she laughed a little at herself before settling on a bench next to him.

“I don’t mean to hover,” she said, and then shut her lips, hands working in her lap.

“It’s okay,” Johnny said, sure he would regret this but unable to do nothing about that look on her face. “Hover all you want.” He paused. “Soon you’ll have two of us to fuss over.”

She nodded, face easing into something that wasn’t quite a smile. “God works in mysterious ways,” she said, “but I am no less grateful, for all that.” He made a noncommittal noise, and she straightened her spine. “And on that subject, Reverend Purdy would like to come see you, if that’s all right.

“Why?” said Johnny, frowning.

“He may be able to offer some comfort to you,” she said.

Johnny shook his head. “Ma, you know I don’t –“

“I know,” she cut in firmly. “But there was a time when I didn’t believe, either. Reverend Purdy opened my eyes to a great many things, after your father died. I think he could help you.”

“I don’t need that kind of help,” Johnny said firmly. The last time they’d had this conversation, he’d been twenty, neck-deep in his degree, and he’d told her that he wasn’t about to go believing in something that he couldn’t see, that she couldn’t even prove to him. She’d retorted that she also couldn’t prove how he always knew where her keys were, no matter how long he’d been away from the house and no matter where she’d left them, and what did his science books say about that? It was the only time they’d ever discussed it, however obliquely, and they’d quickly dropped the conversation.

“You need something,” she said,. Her eyes were steady on his. “When your father died, it destroyed me. He was there – he was everything – and then he was gone. We had it all mapped out, the life we would have together, and then the world changed.” Johnny shivered, because they’d never really talked about that, either. He’d known that she grieved, of course, and differently than his child’s mourning, but she’d glided through disaster and funeral and the years after with such outward serenity that it was hard to imagine. “All I had left was you,” she said, “and I’m so glad because I don’t know what I would have done if you weren’t there. But it wasn’t until I started listening to Reverend Purdy, and trying to listen to God, that I realized I could really make another life for myself. I didn’t have to just put it all into you, and stop there.”

“Ma—“

“Sarah is gone,” she said implacably.

“But my son isn’t,” he snapped.

“No,” she agreed. “And neither are you.”

“I’m fine,” he said, because it seemed the only answer.

She smiled sadly. “You’re not. But you can be. And I’ve never been prouder of you than I am right now, seeing you devoting yourself to your son. But I just want you to know that eventually, someday, you’re going to need something more. Something to believe in. Your father was the love of my life, and he’s gone. God fills in the void, a little bit.”

“Sarah was—“ Johnny said, and then his throat locked up and he couldn’t speak. His mother just waited, eyes politely on her lap. Johnny took several long, ragged breaths. Sarah had been the love of his life. Still was. He knew what she was trying to tell him, what the counselor kept saying, about how when one door slams another opens. He didn’t know how to tell them that the only thing that could ever fill that void for him was growing in the husk that used to be Sarah, that whenever he couldn’t sleep, whenever he thought he might start to cry and never stop, he’d just go to her room and lay his hand on her belly and watch his son grow up. It was all there was, so it would have to be enough.

“You will need something,” his mother repeated, looking at him again. “You may find someone else, though I know you don’t think so. You’ll need something to believe in. For me, it was God, and I just want you to know that that road is always waiting for you.”

Johnny swiped a hand across his eyes. He wanted to go see Sarah again, to grab on tight to the only thing left of his future and let it haul him a few more steps down the road into this new, bleak life. “I believe in what I can see,” he said.

***

He took a suite at the hotel across the street. He still wasn’t very mobile, and it made getting to PT and to Sarah much easier. He talked his mother into going home, though she was up to see him every other day, at least.

Johnny began to plan. He resigned from his job, made vague promises of subbing part-time. He and his mother went looking for a new apartment with more space, and she signed over one of the trusts she’d been holding for him. Johnny went to see Sarah’s father in the nursing home, made all the promises he could – “we’ll keep her in the best hospital, I’ll bring our son to see you” – though the old guy wouldn’t remember any of it within the hour. He thought about names, bought furniture, and worked on walking again.

Sarah was beginning to show. Johnny didn’t realize for at least a week what the nurses were whispering about. He saw her every day, and so the minute changes weren’t immediately visible. Until one winter day when he came in and something had clearly shifted overnight because there it was – there he was, a gentle swell beneath the sheet. Johnny spent the morning with them, as usual, reading bits of the paper out loud and balancing his mother’s checkbook. She was perfectly capable of doing it herself, but he didn’t mind; he’d been a teacher, he knew busywork when he saw it.

He got up around ten, because his hip really hurt if he sat two long. He was doing all right on crutches now, and he took a lap around the floor to stretch his legs. On a whim, he stopped at the vending machine next to the nurse’s station, digging out a crumpled bill and punching up a diet coke.

The machine whirred uncooperatively, collecting his money but not producing the goods. Johnny muttered something uncomplimentary under his breath, jabbing at it with the end of a crutch.

“May I help you with that?”

The man was tall, broad-shouldered, in jeans and a PCPD sweatshirt. He was smiling, and he waited for permission, instead of just leaping right in to do it for Johnny like so many people seemed inclined to do these days.

“Be my guest,” said Johnny, doing the awkward shuffle that was reversing on crutches.

The man delivered a swift, booted kick to the side of the machine, then plucked the abused can from the tray. “Wow, that actually worked,” he said, grinning.

“Pretty impressive,” said Johnny.

“Well, sure.” The man raked a hand through unruly hair. “Because it worked. If it hadn’t, I’d just be the guy who took on the vending machine and lost.” He assessed Johnny’s balance on the crutches with a lightning appraisal, juggled the can, and extended his right hand. “Walt Bannerman,” he said.

”Hey, you’ve got your hands full – can I carry this anywhere for you?” said Walt.

“You don’t have to do that,” said Johnny.

“No trouble, I want to.”

*

”How come Nurse Ratchet is nice to you? With me, I always get the feeling she’s planning where to make the first incision.”

“I don’t know. I’m here a lot, I guess.”

“I know. I’ve seen you.”

*

The shot burned on its way down, and Johnny slammed the glass on the bar in line with the rest. The blaring country music made his head hurt, but the dizziness was all tequila.

“And you just barely agreed to a beer,” Walt said, bumping shoulders companionably. “Here I am thinking I’d never seen a man more in need of five or six stiff ones in my life. Was I right, or was I right?”

“I miss her,” Johnny said.

Walt’s hand was big and warm on the back of his neck. “I’m so sorry, man.”

“She was my first, you know?”

“Yeah? She’s real pretty.”

Johnny snorted salt and tequila fumes. “She looks like she’s been in a coma for six months.”

“Well yeah,” said Walt. “But I bet she was pretty. You can show me pictures sometime, yeah?”

*

”Didn’t anyone ever teach you the difference between rare and inferno?” Walt demanded, snatching the spatula. “Give me that.”

*

”I see things. Things that come true.”

“O-kay,” said Walt, in the voice he used for talking people off bridges.

*

He was tiny, red-faced, mostly bald. Really, incredibly loud.

“Look at that,” Walt breathed. “That’s amazing. Look at what she did for you, John.”

“Yeah,” Johnny said, dry-eyed.

*

The new couch cushions were rough against his cheek. The movie credits were rolling, and the sounds of peaceful sleep drifted from the baby monitor.

“Right,” Walt said, sitting up suddenly.

“What?” Johnny asked, lazily rolling his head to look.

“Right,” Walt repeated, clenching and relaxing his hands. “So I figure you’ve probably seen this coming, right, and if you had a problem you’d have punched me preemptively or something.”

“What?” said Johnny, and Walt kissed him.

“Nice to meet you.” Walt blinked, frowned. “Hey, are you okay?”

“Uh.” Johnny slowly retrieved his hand. “Yeah. Fine. Sorry. Um, I’m John Smith.”

“Really?” Walt tapped the logo on his chest. “Usually when I see a name like that, I’m about to bust someone for false papers.”

“Uh.” Johnny leaned into the crutches, trying to control his breathing. “My dad had a funny sense of humor.”

“You sure you’re all right?” Walt asked again, opening a broad hand, but not actually taking Johnny’s elbow.

“I . . .” Johnny stared up at him for several long seconds, heart pounding, brain reeling, the edges of the wound ripped wide open all over again. He couldn’t. He would never – never again. “I’m fine,” he said.

“Okay,” said Walt, unconvinced but unthreatening. He lifted the forgotten soda can. ”Hey, you’ve got your hands full – can I carry this anywhere for you?”