Samantha raced to the hospital and through the parking lot. Her hands were shaking; her thoughts were spiraling. She needed to calm herself. She needed a minute to stop hearing the officer’s voice in her mind uttering the ugly truth. “There are witnesses… saw him texting… your husband hit a women… fled the scene.” She wasn’t ready. So instead of rushing to Jacob’s room, she found herself in the cafe. Breath, she told herself, get yourself together.
She found a quiet corner, sat, and allowed thoughts of their last family outing to flicker through her mind until the memory took over, a memory that held more significance than she ever dreamed would be possible.
It was just the weekend before, yet a whole life-time ago, that the family was driving down to hike around the James River. Samantha had packed a lunch, blanket, and towels to lay out on the rocks. She had a perfect picture in her mind of the afternoon.
“I’m hungry, Mom,” Ryan whined in that voice that cut to her bones.
“We’re almost there, Ryan, honey. You can make it, I’m sure,” encouraged Samantha in her best mommy voice.
“No, I can’t. I’m really hungry.”
“Deep breath,” Samantha told herself. “How about we listen to three songs and if we’re not there by the time we hear three songs then you can have some crackers.”
“Okay,” Ryan responded in his defeated voice.
Problem solved. Samantha was feeling pretty good about her parenting and then Jacob spoke.
“You know I’m pretty hungry too.”
Samantha saw Ryan sit up straighter in the backseat ready to resume battle. Samantha glared at Jacob with fire, hoping he would sense his mistake, but then he continued. “Could I have one of those yogurts?”
“Are you kidding me?” Samantha replied.
Jacob looked at her like he was completely unaware of her frustration or rather her reason for it.
“What’s the problem with having a little snack?” Jacob asked.
“Yay, Dad. I want some crackers, please,” Ryan exclaimed.
“I give up.” Samantha dug into her neatly packed picnic bag and retrieved the wanted items. Even Sydney, who held out a bit just to do the opposite of Ryan, ended up reaching her hand in the box of crackers. Traitor.
“Can you hand me a spoon?” Jacob asked. Without thinking, Samantha handed over the spoon, and then watched as Jacob proceeded to open his yogurt and eat while driving with his knee.
“Are you kidding me!” Samantha stared in disbelief as Jacob took down the yogurt in about four bites and handed her back the container.
“No worries. I’m a pro at hands-free driving,” Jacob replied with a smile.
Less than charmed, Samantha turned toward the window. If she said anything it would be louder and uglier than she would want it to be on a day she had reserved for special memory making. After all, it was a battle she had given up on, knowing she would lose. Instead, she let her anger simmer inside of her as she privately recalled Jacob’s other reckless habits.
Too many times, Jacob would glance at the phone, always for a good reason he would say, never letting her just read the text for him or help copilot by reading the directions. She would jokingly say, “What are you hiding on that thing? What are you so afraid I’ll see?” fully trusting there was nothing.
His confidence was part of what drew her to him from the beginning, not to mention his strong jaw-line, full head of wavy, brown hair and hazel eyes that could make her forget the words she was trying to speak, even when she was angry. Sometimes, while he was driving, she would watch how his hands gripped the wheel and his forearm muscles moved under his toned skin, and she would picture how later that night they would be wrapped around her.
But at that moment, all that could not outweigh how annoyed she was at how his confidence and strength made her feel little. And even though it was such a small part of him, a minor character flaw that only occasionally made her forget all the things she adored about him, it became at times all that she could see.
With great effort, she allowed the moment to pass hoping to regain the image of what their day was intended to be, not knowing that the memory of his cocky smile would soon try to destroy more than a weekend outing.
When the officer first spoke that morning, Samantha was sure she had lost Jacob. He had been her world for the last fifteen years, through the sparks and butterflies, the morning sickness and sleepless nights, and finally the partnership of raising two children. She thought of Sydney and Ryan, and their tired faces as they had dragged themselves to the breakfast table. Both of them had inherited their father’s brown hair and similar eye color. They made beautiful babies together. It was undeniable.
As with other couples fortunate enough to see it through, truly dependable love became the concrete that bonded the forming memories together. After all the years together she still found herself crazy in love with him between the moments of comfortable companionship. Isn’t that all anyone could hope for in a relationship meant for a lifetime, moments of brilliance against an otherwise quiet backdrop? They would have their fights, but they were brief, and they both fought harder for a solution than to be right. Being at odds meant feeling unsettled. Unsettled was the first step to crashing. Crashing was not an option. She had worked too hard to allow anything to come between them.
So many people bustled around the cafe, some with walkers, some in scrubs, some with portable oxygen tanks. They all had their own worries, their own agenda, their own reasons for being right there in that cafe breathing the same air as she was. Were any of them sitting there, the way she was, avoiding the person they were supposed to be consoling?
Samantha’s mind raced between the past and the future. For some reason, watching her spouse turn into a criminal never even entered her mind as something she needed to fear. Job losses, heart attacks, affairs; everything had crossed her mind at least once. Even when they fought over not texting and driving or eating yogurt while driving with his knee, it was for their own safety. Why had this never been a fear? Could there not have been a sign, a crazy nightmare she described over breakfast, something that would have made her stand her ground when he waved a hand at her paranoid passenger seat comments?
Upstairs in some hospital room, probably alone, he was still here with her. He was still of this world, in regular human form, yet she was scared to see him, scared to see the new him, the destroyed person left behind. Over and over in her mind she told herself he would just need time to heal. This day would torture him for the rest of his life, but they would survive. She would be there for him.
Samantha knew she needed to face the man who would now somehow feel like a stranger. She feared she wouldn’t know how to communicate with him or worse, the anger she was feeling would be the only emotion she could express.
After ordering a coffee that would be left untouched, Samantha went back to her quiet spot in the corner, just a moment more was all she needed. Breathe, she told herself, but the air came out in stuttered desperation. The dam was breaking, but she wasn’t sure what emotion would come spilling out through the cracks.
The image of him cockily holding his phone as he stole glances at the road in front of him was too fresh to see beyond. Comforting him when she felt so angry would be impossible. His bullheaded nature had destroyed everything. She wanted to crawl back into her mundane life, to curl up in the dirty laundry that littered the laundry room floor. She wanted to cherish it for what it truly was, life being lived. A life she had taken for granted and now they could lose it all.
The line between criminal and civilian, good and evil, love and hate had become irreversibly blurred, leaving her stranded in the hazy state of human imperfection. He would need to know she loved him, that she forgave him, that it would be all right. She couldn’t lie yet.
A large flat screen hovered above her, only capturing her attention when a picture of a beautiful blond woman appeared smiling down on her. Samantha couldn’t take her eyes off of her. Barely audible over the din of bustling people, she heard the words, “…killed this morning in a hit-and-run accident. Ava Johnson was the mother of two children, ages one and three. The driver, Jacob Truax, was believed to be texting.”
The coffee slid from her hands and splashed across the floor. All she could do was run. The exit lingered in front of her, as it does in nightmares, seemingly at a fixed distance. The letters blurred behind her tears as she fumbled with the door, pushed it open, and was struck with an uncommonly hot spring day. A heat that the morning rain had not chased away.
Samantha found a bench away from everything and stared over the water. The hospital shadowed the pond where two ducks swam innocently. She stared out at the willows that grew on the banks and watched the branches sway in the slight breeze. She curled her legs up to her chest and hugged her small frame, a frame not sturdy enough to tackle the world alone.
Surely, the many passersby would think she had lost a loved one, being that she sat outside the hospital. Instead, she had become the wife of a careless murderer. Jacob and her were one, if he was a criminal then she too would be perceived as a criminal. And what of Sydney and Ryan? How would people treat them? Not her babies. Why, Jacob? She asked him silently until she knew no answer was coming.
In and out of reality, her mind drifted until the sun cast a new shadow across her face, making her aware of the passage of time. Samantha unsuccessfully attempted to hide the puffiness of her eyes by reapplying her make-up with a flip-up mirror. On shaky legs, she began making a steady but slow progression toward the hospital entrance leading her to her husband. She was about to audition for a part that was way out of her league.
The door to his room was like a boulder, and she pushed it open with a feeble arm. Jacob lay with his face toward the window. He did not turn to see who had entered. For the first time, she realized she felt an incredible sadness for her husband and not just for herself. She walked slowly to the side of his bed and slipped her hands around his. She had always loved his hands, so masculine, so safe. Her hand used to look small and feminine next to his, which was something she had loved. Now they just appeared incapable.
He didn’t look at her, but she saw his body begin to shake quietly. “I’m here, Jacob. It’s going to be all right.” A tear rolled down her cheek, chased by another. “I promise you we will get through this.”
“I’m so sorry, Samantha. I’m so sorry.” Samantha awkwardly curled up next to him, restricted by IV lines and the narrowness of the bed.
She heard herself repeating the words, “I’m here, Jacob, I’m here,” until she let the sound of the staggered breathing and muffled whimpers say what words could not express. She stayed beside him until she sensed he had fallen into a sleep that could momentarily rescue him from the nightmare of being awake and knowing, knowing that he had changed everything. She felt the rise and fall of his chest and the warmth of his body. A fractured rib, a small concussion, how did it make him feel so broken?
Carefully, she slid off the bed, reached for her purse, and watched him as he slept. How could she stop his pain? An ache rose like a tidal wave, making her head spin. She would do anything. Suddenly, she thought of the one person who always had the impossible answers. She needed to call her sister.
Samantha dialed Haley’s number, not wanting to share her tragic story with her, but somehow she knew it was Haley’s as well. The phone felt like a brick in her hand as she counted down the moments with each ring, moments that seemed to hold far too much significance.
“Good morning, Bradley’s Bouquets. How can I help you?”
Samantha pictured her sister behind a vase of cascading flowers, tweaking each placement to perfection. Unsurprisingly, Haley made her life beautiful even when Samantha stole the color out of it.
“Haley,” Samantha uttered. “It’s Jacob.” She fought desperately to hold back tears, letting the silence do what silence does best sometimes, speak.
“Oh my God, Samantha, what happened?”
“Did you watch the news this morning?” Samantha asked.
“No, I rushed out the door to get here. For God’s sake, Samantha, tell me! Is he all right?” A possessive feeling crept in but was quickly pushed aside. Now was not the time for that.
“He hit someone with his car. He killed her.” The tears came again in choking sobs.
“Where are you? I’ll come right now,” Haley’s voice cracked with emotions.
“I’m in the hospital parking lot. He was sleeping and I just needed some air. I can’t be alone right now.”
“I know. I know.”
“I’ll wait in my car until you get here.”
“Fifteen minutes. I’m closing the shop.”
The phone went dead. Samantha held onto to the steering wheel, losing all control again. When would it stop? She had only a few hours until her children would be home. It was too little time for the many tears waiting to fall.
She thought of Jacob up in his hospital bed in and out of sleep. She thought of his tired, desperate eyes and hoped he wasn’t searching the room for her and finding it empty. Samantha wanted to go to him, but much like a blind man cannot force himself to see, she could not deny her inability to fix the unfixable.
When Haley arrived at the hospital, an unnerving wave of relief washed over Samantha. Haley took Samantha in her arms, forcing her to feel like the child she had never matured from, and she unwillingly cried on her shoulder.
“You need to be strong for Jacob and the kids, Samantha. Do you hear me? Cry now and then you need to be strong. I called Dad on the way here, and he’s calling his lawyer. He’ll be talking to you as soon as he gets some things sorted out. Your job is to be strong for them.”
Samantha was being scolded, scolded for being incapable of anything of use. Why had she called Haley? She knew the answer. She was incapable. Samantha let her take her hand and walk her back to the hospital room like a child that had avoided her punishment. She stood watching as Haley went to Jacob’s bedside and quietly spoke of the discussion with their father. Samantha could sense the emotions of her husband as thick as mud in the air, shame and relief—a relief that they didn’t need to shoulder the nightmare alone.
When they were finished speaking, Samantha heard Jacob whisper a heart-wrenching thank you, and Haley left his side, leaving room for her to approach. Together they sat in the sterile room as nurses came and went and Jacob went in and out of sleep.
After some time, Samantha took his hand and apologized that she couldn’t stay any longer because of the kids. She kissed him on his cheek and headed for the door expecting Haley to follow. Instead, she held her ground and let Samantha know she would be calling her later.
“Aren’t you walking out with me?” Samantha asked.
“Bradley can cover the shop. I think I’ll stay for a bit or at least until Dad gets here,” Haley replied.
Samantha looked down at her watch one more time. There wasn’t a choice. After one last glance at the two of them together, she walked out feeling as though she was leaving something vital behind.