Charlie Hudson is not dead, but he wishes he were.
Metal squeals around Charlie Hudson reminding him of a field trip he took in the third grade to a pig farm. He remembers their pink skin and flat noses and all the blood. No, that’s his blood. Nothing is where it’s supposed to be. The steering wheel is crushing his ribcage into his spine, he can’t feel his left leg, and there’s a tree where the hood ought to be, which strikes him as odd.
Charlie thinks he can push the wreckage out of the way, but when he moves, breathes, even an little, the pain is unbearable. Charlie blacks out and only returns to consciousness when he hears people screaming. No, he’s the one screaming. Crying. Begging someone to take the pain away. Pleading with them to let him die.
Death sits on Charlie Hudson’s chest and holds its hand over his mouth. Death’s skin is rough and cracked and tastes like ashy stone. Charlie flails in the ambulance as it bounces down the road. Two Blackpool EMTs float over top of Charlie, tearing open his shirt and slapping something cold and sticky onto his chest.
A determined woman holds her hands out and shouts, “Clear!”
“Maybe another time,” says Death. He releases his hold over Charlie’s mouth and holds up his arms, grabbing hold of something invisible that lifts him up and out of the ambulance, taking him far away from Blackpool.
A pretty doctor without a smile cuts through Charlie’s tux, tossing the filthy scraps to the floor. Charlie begs her to stop but other hands hold him down. It took him months to save up enough money to rent the tux and they’re tearing it apart and throwing it away like it’s nothing. Charlie’s momma cried when she saw him wearing it the first time. He’d tied the bow tie crooked, but he’d gotten his blond hair cut short and cleaned up nicely. She said he looked like his brother Seth when he went to his own junior prom, but Charlie remembers putting on the monkey suit and feeling like a kid playing dress up. He remembers feeling happy.
Now, he doesn’t feel anything except the moment his heart stops beating. It’s like he’s suspended in the vacuum of space. No sound reaches him. No air, no light, no warmth. There is only darkness that closes in until it is all that remains.
“Don’t you die on me, Charlie Hudson!”
Charlie Hudson chokes. He’s drowning in bile and mud and brackish water that someone is forcing into his mouth and down his throat, displacing the air in his lungs with toxic sewage. Charlie flails and tries to open his eyes but the sun blinds him and unforgiving hands hold him down.
“Restrain him before I nick a fudging artery!” yells a taut voice in the beyond.
Gravity is soupy but someone rescues him from the water and feeds him stale air. Charlie Hudson floats on his back with the sun on his face.
Charlie is aware. Not exactly awake, but he hears people talking about a movie he saw and hated. He tries to tell them that the movie had a crap ending but when he opens his mouth the entire world tilts to the side and he vomits.
“Shit,” says a voice.
Charlie tries to focus on the gray blobs rushing toward him but his eyes roll to white. He thinks he hears his mother crying. It is a beautiful sound.
Charlie Hudson drinks his morphine through a straw and decides that the next person who tells him how lucky he is to be alive is going to get a rectal thermometer shoved up their nose.
His mother sleeps in the corner with one leg stretched out in front of her and the other turned at an uncomfortable angle. Charlie hasn’t seen her sleep so soundly in years. He tries to sit up and nearly blacks out from the pain. Never in his life did Charlie think a three inch incision in his belly could hurt so damn much. Even with a gratuitous helping of pain killers coursing through his body, Charlie still feels everything. The stitches tugging at his skin, the throbbing hole where his spleen once took up space doing whatever it was spleens do, the ends of his broken tibia rubbing together minutely every time he moves. No one has signed his cast yet. It is moon white and itches, though not enough for Charlie to do anything about it and risk waking his mother.
Good Samaritan Hospital is quiet now. The last time he awoke, people ran in and out, immediately poking him and shining lights in his eyes and asking him questions he didn’t know the answers to. Dr. Echols told him he’d rattled his brain pretty good and didn’t seem surprised that he had trouble remembering what had happened the night of the accident. Charlie doesn’t know what time it is. He looks down at the pale outline his watch left behind and wonders where it is. Not that it has any sentimental value, he just feels naked without it. Maybe the paramedics cut it off when they zapped him. He doesn’t remember that either, but he remembers Death sitting on his chest.
Charlie Hudson flinches at the scraps of memories that float at the surface like chum and retreats into the narcotic haze. It’s a little like trying to recapture a dream when you’ve just woken up. Part of your brain remembers the world you left behind while the other part is happy to remind you that daylight is just on the other side of your eyelids. Most times, dreams slip away, but for now Charlie lets go of the real world and drifts for a little while longer.
Charlie Hudson doesn’t hide his hatred for the Deputy standing in his doorway. He knows it’s not her fault–that she had to arrest his brother Seth–but that doesn’t make it any easier to look at her. To her credit, Deputy Dinah Northrop does her damnedest to steer clear of talking about Seth.
“You drinking that night, Charlie?” Deputy Northrop has an edge to her voice, a motherly inflection that’s used to putting boys in their places. Charlie knows she’s got a kid a few years younger than him in middle school. Orson or Owen or something like that.
“No, ma’am,” says Charlie. His whole body aches, his head throbs. He wants to get rid of the officer but Ruth Hudson went to find something to eat when she thought he was sleeping and Charlie doesn’t have the strength to shoo the deputy out of the room on his own.
Deputy Northrop frowns down at him. Another motherly expression she wields expertly. “You sure about that? You wrecked your mother’s car pretty good.”
“Yes, ma’am,” says Charlie. “Principal Barrymore’s real strict about drinking at prom. He tossed Jed for showing up reeking.” Charlie was never a loud young man, but his voice is even thinner now, like speaking takes too much effort.
“You were at the prom?”
“Take a date?”
Deputy Northrop raises an eyebrow at that but she doesn’t say anything more about it. “How about after?”
Charlie shifts on the bed and grunts. Even with the morphine, his body feels like it’s held together with nothing more than staples and superglue. “Sorry, I’m real tired. You mind coming back?”
Deputy Northrop sighs but nods. Charlie doesn’t know whether she relents because she’s got a boy of her own and feels sympathy for him or because she realizes he’s not going to give her any more information. Either way, he’s grateful to get out from under her harsh gaze. The way she looks at him makes Charlie feel raw all over.
“We’ll talk about this when you’re well,” says Deputy Northrop. “Take care of yourself, Charlie.” She heads out the door but stops in the hallway and turns around. “One last thing.”
“Yes, ma’am?” Charlie freezes, not even daring to breathe.
“You see Theo Jackson at the prom?”
Charlie shakes his head and immediately wishes he hadn’t. His brain is floating in a sea of pain killers, and it sloshes around against the inside of his skull sending him waves of nausea. It is only by sheer will that he keeps from throwing up.
“A couple of people thought they saw him with you.” Deputy Northrop takes a half-step back toward the room but doesn’t enter it.
“Theo and I don’t really run in the same crowd,” says Charlie when he is sure he can open his mouth without anything else coming out with his words. “Is he missing or something?”
Deputy Northrop’s shoulders sag and she nods minutely. Charlie wouldn’t have seen it if he hadn’t been looking for it. “His parents haven’t seen him since the dance.” Deputy Dinah Northrop stands in the doorway a few seconds more. “Let me know if you remember anything, all right? We’ll talk more about the accident when you’re better.”
“Yes, ma’am. I will.” Charlie waits for the deputy to leave before finally breathing again.
Charlie stares at his mother, and Ruth Hudson sits on the edge of the hospital bed staring back. Neither has said a word since Molly came in to check on Charlie and woke them both up. Charlie recalls a discussion in Mr. Jamison’s history class about Mutually Assured Destruction. It’s the reason the US and Russians stockpiled so many nukes. Neither intended to use them. The threat of knowing that you couldn’t attack your enemy because it would also guarantee your own demise was enough to keep everyone on their best behavior. Charlie and his mother both carry enough radioactive memories to turn Room 83 of Good Sam’s Hospital into Chernobyl. Their Cold War has been going on since the day Charlie gave up his brother Seth to the cops and, despite the occasional suspension of hostilities, shows no signs of ending.
Outside the windows is summer, but inside Charlie’s hospital room it is Siberian winter.
“Did you take your pill?” asks Charlie. The question comes out automatically, like he has asked it a thousand times.
Ruth Hudson holds up her trembling left hand. Her fingers look thinner, the knuckles knobbier and more pronounced. “Haven’t had a pill since the hospital called. Still wearing the same clothes too.” Ruth picks at her gray shirt, pretending to catch a whiff of her own stink and wrinkle her nose. That night, she grabbed the first clothes she found that weren’t pajamas. Jeans so frayed at the bottom they hardly have cuffs at all, and a t-shirt Seth outgrew years ago. Ruth lets her tired hand fall back to her lap.
That night. The night the hospital called Charlie’s mom and told her he’d been in an accident. The accident that had nearly cost him his life. Dr. Echols told him he’d died more than once and that he was so lucky. Charlie doesn’t feel lucky. He feels stranded. He fights the memories that struggle to the surface. He closes his eyes and tries to sink back into the morphine, but this time he fails. Reality is too sharp here. It sinks its arrows into his arms and legs and chest, and the barbed tips burrow into his skin releasing their poison.
Oh, God, that night. Memories as broken as his bones spill out of the cracks in the wall he’d built to hold them back. They surge forward, gathering speed. The water and the moon and how good it felt to race down Deereborne with the headlights off, pushing the gas pedal of his mother’s tired Ford all the way to the floor. The way he became a human grenade. And later, the faces who refused to let him die.
Charlie opens his eyes and he’s sobbing before he can stop himself.
“I’m sorry, Ma. I’m so fucking sorry.” Charlie can’t catch his breath. He inhales but his ribs ache and the air is too thin. The room shrinks down to nothing and Charlie throws his arms around his head to keep from being crushed. Everything is too much. Too bright, too loud, too painful. Too alive.
The moment Charlie Hudson wishes he had died, his mother is there. She hugs Charlie wordlessly and takes as much of his pain as he’ll give her. Even without her pain pills, she makes Charlie’s pain her own.
Ruth Hudson wraps her arms around her shaken son and squeezes him tighter than she should. She lets Charlie get it all out and doesn’t ask questions because better a broken son than a dead one.
Dr. Echols stands in the door of Charlie’s room and debates going in. She holds the results of Charlie’s blood work in her hands and it isn’t good. With a blood alcohol concentration of .14%, there’s no doubt in her mind that Charlie Hudson was drunk when he ran his mother’s blue Ford Taurus into the massive ash tree on the side of Deereborne Road at one in the morning.
Eventually, Dr. Echols is going to have to tell Charlie’s mother and report her findings to the Sheriff’s department, but she decides to wait. It’s just that…she’s never seen someone so alive cry like they were dead.
The sun scorches the back of Deputy Northrop’s neck and she wipes the sweat off her skin with a crisp handkerchief that had once belonged to her grandmother. It’s hot as Hades and horse flies menace her as she stands on the shore of Blackpool Lake, swearing her way through the alphabet.
Buck Gray shuffles down the dirt path leading from the road carrying a paper bag Dinah is sure contains one onion bagel and two crullers. She mutters under her breath and pulls her hat lower to block out the unyielding sun. The minute Buck gets within two feet of her, Deputy Northrop is overwhelmed by the stench of his body spray. It’s the sort of cloying scent boys in high school always wear too much of. Not that Buck is far removed from his high school days.
“Deputy Northrop,” says Buck. He’s one of those morning people, flashing his annoying smile before most folks have had the chance to shake off the hangover of sleep. Luckily for him, he still has a full head of brown hair and the kind of strong arms a girl could imagine herself wrapped in. “Bagel?”
Dinah points down the shore a ways where the coroner is crouching beside something mottled blue and plump. “Doc Richards is trying to determine cause of death.”
Buck pulls a cruller from the bag and bites off a chunk. The way he smacks his lips when he chews makes Dinah want to punch him in the throat. “If the body’s over there, what’re we doing here?”
The donut smells good and Dinah wishes she’d eaten before dropping Owen off at school. Only a couple weeks left and she still hasn’t sorted out what she’s going to do with him for the summer. All Owen can do is talk about visiting his father in Colorado, but as usual, John’s number has mysteriously stopped accepting calls. Dinah shakes her head. “There,” she says.
“Beer cans?” asks Buck. He shoves the last half of the donut into his mouth and kicks at the crumpled can of Miller Lite. There are a dozen more littering the area along with scraps of red plastic and cigarette butts. “The Scouts will be out here to clean this shit up. Do it every summer.”
Deputy Northrop glares at Buck but he doesn’t notice or care. She warned Sheriff Clark about hiring kids, but with Nicholls, Butte, and Serafin retiring, the force needed new blood. Buck was simply the best of the worst.
“Prom was Friday night,” is all Dinah says. She looks for a spark of understanding in his eyes but all he does is launch into a hyperbolic tale of his own prom night, which Dinah happens to recall because she put half the football team in lockup for harassing Missy at the Bag ‘n Carry for refusing to sell them beer.
While Buck stumbles down memory lane, Deputy Northrop paces the area, picking up details and storing them in her memory farm. The way logs surround the picked over bones of a fire, the overlapping footprints of countless teens, the location of the site in relation to the body. Dinah isn’t sure what’s relevant yet so she catalogs everything before it’s gone. There had to have been at least fifty kids down here on prom night, and one of them might have seen something.
“Come on,” says Dinah as Buck finishes telling his lewd story.
Buck grins. “Didn’t offend you, did I?”
“I’ve got a teenage boy at home, Deputy,” says Dinah. “I doubt you’ve done anything in your entire life that could shock me after the things I’ve found under Owen’s mattress.” Deputy Northrop shoos a horsefly out of her face and walks toward the shore.
Not even Buck Gray is green enough to disrespect a body, and he and Deputy Northrop approach Doc Richardson solemnly. The closer Dinah gets to the body on the shore the more she thinks of her boy. Every body she finds wears his face, and she never gets used to it. Back when she was a rookie, Sheriff Clark told her she couldn’t ever make it personal. It was always personal for someone, though. Deputy Northrop might be able to ignore the dead, but she couldn’t ignore the living.
“Whatcha got?” asks Buck respectfully.
Doc Richardson is a flour sack with legs who wheezes when he talks and never looks anyone in the eyes. Dinah suspects he has a touch of that Asperger’s she’s read about.
“Suicide.” Doc Richardson doesn’t even look in their direction. He’s still examining the body. The smell is so bad that Buck puts his hand to his nose. If the coroner notices the stink, he doesn’t show it. He works carefully and methodically, using his gloved hand to examine the corpse, which is cold and gray and barely human.
“Time of death?” asks Dinah. She avoids looking the body the way Doc Richardson avoids her eyes.
“Hard to tell. He’s been in the water a spell.” Doc Richardson glances at his digital watch and looks surprised like he didn’t know it was Monday. “I’d put it between Friday and Sunday. Have to run more test to be sure.” The doc resumes his examination.
Deputy Northrop nods at Buck and begins to walk toward the road. There’s still so much to do. Got to cordon off the scene and scour the sand for evidence. This is the kind of job that’s going to eat up her day. Not to mention the paperwork. Dinah begins organizing a mental checklist. Not too many dead bodies surface in Blackpool and this one’s got to be by the book.
“What makes you think it’s suicide?” asks Deputy Northrop. She forgets her list, forgets that Buck is beside her, antsy to get away.
For the first time since the officers approached him, Doc Richardson looks up, and he looks Dinah square in the eyes. She prefers when he avoids her. “Hunch,” says the doc. “Scars on his wrists. And his pockets are loaded with rocks.”
Dinah Northrop nods curtly. “Come on,” she says to Buck. “Let’s call the boss and let him know we found Theo Jackson. Then you can come with me to tell his folks.”
Charlie waits until his mother leaves the room. He can still hear her as she moves further from him, her voice a hammer she uses to beat the poor soul on the other end of her ancient cell phone. Her insurance coverage lapsed, which means that Charlie’s insurance coverage lapsed. In a way, Charlie is grateful for this because it gives his mother an outlet for her anger.
Mostly, it’s Charlie’s fault and he knows it. The nice doctor with the smooth legs tried her best to downplay the results of his blood work, but at the end of the day, Charlie had been drunk when he plowed into the tree, and he hadn’t bothered to make any excuses for it.
The worst part wasn’t his mother’s anger, it was that look of disappointment in her eyes. Charlie had seen her look at Seth that way plenty, but never at him. Anything inside him that wasn’t already broken, shattered when Dr. Echols told his mother that he had been driving drunk. Whatever comes after–court, community service, losing his license–won’t ever compare to that look.
Charlie gasps when he leans to the side to grab the thin neck of his acoustic guitar. Pain comes at him from every direction at once sort of like being thrown naked into an ice storm. The doctor tells him he’s healing nicely, but Charlie wishes she hadn’t cut back his meds. It was probably the right thing to do and he knows it, but he’d give up anything for a Vicodin or Percocet. Almost anything.
The guitar isn’t much but Charlie lays it across his stomach and touches the strings as it if were made of gold. He doesn’t see the nicks on the body or care that D always goes a little sharp because the bridge pin is loose. When Charlie holds the guitar, the walls disappear, the light fades, the clocks stop moving, and every inch of wood and steel and plastic becomes every inch of him. Strings for tendons, frets for bones. And he plays like breathing. Sings like a beating heart.
Today, Charlie is leaving Room 83. He is going home. And he is scared shitless.
He plays a song he once heard.
Everyone asks him about that night. They are desperate to know what happened. Dr. Echols, his mother, his brother, the Deputy with the unnerving stare. They ask questions one way, then another, twisting their words and trying to confuse him. But Charlie hasn’t got the answers they’re looking for.
He plays a song he once loved.
In this hospital, this room, this bed, Charlie knows he is safe, that he can dodge their questions, dodge the truth, and forget that night and all the nights that came before it.
He plays a song he once wrote.
When Charlie leaves, he knows that he will have to admit the truth: he meant to die on Deereborne Road. He means to die still.
He plays a song he once wrote for someone.
Charlie wields his guitar with a broken heart. It broke on prom night along with his entire world and he would rather die than try to repair it. Charlie plays with abandon, he touches the strings and sings a song that no one will ever hear. He cries out with grief and his tears drip onto the neck of his guitar. His fingers slip.
He plays a song for one who was once living.
Charlie Hudson opens his eyes and sees a young man standing at the foot of his bed. He is wet and shivering and Charlie can see the outline of the television through his torso. His black bowtie hangs limply on one side and he opens his mouth to speak, but there are no words, only water.
Charlie feels hope for the first time since he returned to the land of the living. Fear too, but hope most of all. His fingers trip. He stops playing and says, “Theo?”
But the moment the music fades away, so does Theo Jackson.