April—24 Months After
Alice wakes up with a terrible headache. They’ve been normal since the concussion. She’d lied a bit to Patti during her interrogation back in October, but that really didn't matter now. The concussion was more serious than the doctors initially thought. She’d had memory issues, pain, confusion, exhaustion. They prescribed her medicine. It barely made a dent. She couldn’t shake the knowledge that severe depression, when left untreated, had strikingly similar symptoms.
She snoozes her alarm four times before she finally sits up and runs her hands through her long dark hair. It’s 10am, but she wants to roll over and dive deeper under the covers and sleep for the rest of the day. It wasn’t unusual for her to do since she lost her job back in February. She’d been tutoring Spanish to kids in her building to make up some of the lost wages, but it was barely enough to cover her rent. She is flat out broke, even with the money she’d had to borrow from her parents. She closes her eyes for a long minute and takes a deep breath.
But today is his birthday, and today she’s going to get out of bed, take a shower, get dressed, and put a fucking smile and some makeup on her face because today isn’t about her—it’s about the man who ripped her heart out who she happens to still be married to.
On the way over to see Jack, Alice’s phone rings. It’s Paula, and Alice knows that she shouldn’t pick it up, but her concern over Jack wins out and she answers.
“Alice,” Paula’s voice is wounded. Alice swallows hard and presses the gas through the yellow light in front of her. Jack is fine. A complete jackass, but fine.
“Paula, I’m almost there.” Her voice is hard.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea.”
“I don’t care, Paula, I’m coming,” Alice snaps sharply, struck quite suddenly with the realization that when she married Jack she’d never envisioned speaking to his mother this way. It’s so upsetting—what they’ve become—that she loses her breath for a second.
“He’s in a bad way.”
“Well then that makes two of us,” Alice hisses as she presses END and throws her phone onto the passenger seat. The radio is playing an old Fleetwood Mac song and Alice heaves a sob so astounding that she almost has to pull over. It comes out of her as she listens to the words, wondering, desperate and feral, why they couldn’t both have simply died when the car flipped over the embankment.
“You can go your own way
Go your own way
You can call it
Another lonely day
Another lonely day
You can go your own way
Go your own way
You can call it
Another lonely day”
Even though Paula warned her, Alice knows she’s made a mistake the second she walks through the door. She has a cake in one hand and a wrapped gift tucked under her arm. Paula’s gaze is cold as she steps aside to let her in. She doesn’t say anything. She feels as if she’s said all there is to say. She’s sick of it all, too. Jack’s stupidity. Alice’s persistence.
“Where is he?” Alice asks coldly. Paula closes her eyes and takes a deep breath. She’s aged years in the last month and Alice wonders if she would look like that had Jack not left her. The thought sends a shiver down her back. Paula nods toward the back porch, and Alice turns her head, as if expecting to see him lounging in the hammock with a cold beer in hand. All she can see is the back of his manual chair—the smaller, less bulky one without the headrest. It makes her happy, for a flicker so small she almost misses it, that he doesn't need it all the time now. They didn't know if he'd ever be able to support his own head.
“Great,” she mutters, shoving the cake at Paula. “It’s ice cream, mint chocolate chip, his favorite. Either put it in the freezer or dump it down the garbage disposal. I don’t give a fuck.” Paula flinches at the word fuck—she never cursed—but Alice is so sick of what her life has become that she feels nothing but more venom pooling in the back of her mouth.
“I’m trying to keep him off sugar, he gets—” Paula begins but Alice holds up a hand and closes her eyes.
“Garbage disposal it is then.”
And with that she crosses the living room and kitchen and throws open the sliding glass door with as much force as she can muster. It doesn’t slam and that pisses her the fuck off. Paula stands frozen with the cake watching the two of them face off on the deck, the words muffled by the glass.
“You didn’t want me to come today?” Alice barks, stepping out into the chilly heat of the early spring day. It’s cold and clear, and the wheelchair—still so foreign and unwelcome is framed against the clear sky. Jack can’t turn his neck much, but he does slightly, taking her in from top to bottom. He swallows hard and exhales. His tracheotomy scar at the base of his neck shimmers slightly in the sunlight.
“Of course, I didn’t,” he replies, turning back to face the yard.
“And what? You’re just going to watch the fucking squirrels all day?” Alice asks meanly. He snickers and rolls his eyes. He used to be such a hand talker, and it punches Alice in the gut that his arms lay still, strapped down into the molded armrests of his chair with so much to offer but no way to give it.
“No, Eli is going to take me out later. We’re going to get good and wasted at the Lion’s Den.” Jack is smug and bitter, his words acidic enough to burn holes.
“Oh, that sounds fucking fun,” Alice retorts, her whole-body trembling. Jack still won’t turn to look at her and it makes her want to shake him. He shrugs, the only slight movement he has below his neck. “Does your mom know?” Alice presses.
“Oh why do you have to bring my mom into it?” Jack’s cheeks go slightly red, and the vulnerability of it reminds her of the man she married. Biting her lip she shakes her head.
“That was your doing. You brought her into it, Jack.” He doesn’t reply right away and the tension between them feels tighter than ever.
"Can we not do this right now?” he asks. Instead of answering, she rounds on him and stops cold, realizing there’s no real fight in him. He looks tired and wrung out, like a used rag. And that makes the fight go out of her.
“You look terrible,” she whispers, hugging herself to fight the urge to hug him, pulling him into her arms and cradling him until she’d taken away every ounce of pain.
“I haven’t moved my body in more than two years,” Jack replies, voice giving way to his rawness.
“No, you haven’t shaved in weeks. You haven’t washed your hair. You haven’t gotten dressed, Jack.” Het tone is slow and sad at the end, and something snaps in Jack at her anguish.
“Do you know how hard it is for me to get dressed in the morning?” he asks, incredulous at her audacity when she’d spent weeks watching the parade of degradations that was people dressing him in the hospital. Screwing up, putting his pants on the wrong legs, tangling his arms, reattaching his ventilator all wrong. It had become, of all things, a tiny prick of humor in the continuous barrage of indignities and slugs of bad news.
“Do you know how hard it is for me to get dressed in the morning?” she counters, her voice climbing. He stares at her, seeing her—really seeing her—perhaps since he found out she was okay after the accident. She is heaving, her shoulders rising with each breath. There are dark circles under her usually vibrant eyes. They look duller somehow, the rich blue without sparkle, even in the brilliant light. She’s lost a ton of weight. He realizes the perfect breasts he used to ironically tease her about are almost entirely gone. So is her once perfectly round butt. Her cheekbones are sharper than he’s ever seen. Her normally fitting pale skin looks too pale—almost ashen. Swallowing hard, he checks himself for being so entirely selfish.
“Are you seeing someone?” he asks after a second.
“What the fuck kind of question is that? Of course, I’m not.” Alice takes a step back from him, her brow furrowed in anger.
“A therapist, Alice.” He continues, his voice calming.
“Oh,” she replies slightly surprised. “No.”
“You should.” She longs to reach of him, but keeps her arms around herself, squeezing tighter.
"Are you?” she asks with disbelief.
“Of course,” he says unflinchingly. “The hospital set me up with someone and I’ve kept at it. Otherwise I would have killed myself by now.”
“You have no way of doing that,” she reminds him, a bit playfully. Thinking back to the early days when they were just so happy to be alive, in any state.
“I could find a way,” he responds with a smirk, even though it isn’t funny. It is something Alice thinks about every day, and the only time she finds comfort in his inability to do anything for himself.
“He will be completely dependent for everything—dressing, walking, eating, bathing, toileting, most likely breathing.” The doctor’s words come back like she’s hearing them for the first time, crystal clear and as numbing as they were the first time she heard them.
If he can’t feed himself, he can’t kill himself.
“You’d be hard pressed to find a cliff around here to drive your chair off,” Alice jokes, "the city of Boston isn't exactly full of hills and sudden drop-offs." Jack just smiles sadly. They don’t say it, but abruptly they’re both thinking it—considering their car had rolled down an embankment right off the highway coming back from a weekend camping in New Hampshire—it wasn’t impossible.
“There’s no way you blame me more then I blame myself,” Alice offers lamely, cutting the silence, her throat tight. She has no idea what else to say.
“I don’t blame you,” he says flatly. He used to scratch his head when he lied but he’d lost his tell along with everything else. Alice feels suddenly more unmoored than she did when she first walked in.
“I call bullshit on that one, Peck.”
“My thoughts are the only thing I have left, Alice, don’t you dare try to tell me what I’m thinking.” His voice isn’t mean, but it’s firm and Alice doesn’t try to fight him.
“Fine, think whatever you want. But I’m a person, too. And I also have thoughts.”
“Alice.” Jack whispers.
“I’m making a choice,” she continues with conviction.
“Please.” He begs.
“Jack, I’m choosing.”
“You don’t know what you’re choosing,” he warns.
“I’ve seen everything. This isn’t new. I was there, remember? I stuck around.”
“This is every day, every minute.” He hears his voice and it’s so thin and thready it makes him slightly uneasy. “You don’t know what you’re choosing.”
“Who, tell me, ever fucking knows what they’re choosing and what will happen when they marry someone?”
“I just know you don’t want this,” he says finally, his brows meeting in the middle as he looks down at his lap. His once hard stomach hangs heavily over the top of his pants. His old body as elusive as smoke.
“Neither of us wants this,” Alice volleys back, and it’s so bitter Jack’s face crumbles.
He doesn’t say anything and neither does Alice. After a few minutes pass Alice shivers in the breeze and the sliding door opens. Paula is standing there, her face creased and cold.
“I think it’s time to go, Alice.” She leaves no room for argument. Alice nods.
“Happy Birthday, Bud,” Alice suggests sadly, leaning in to give Jack a kiss on the cheek. His skin is soft under his beard, and warm and so familiar, but she pulls away and walks through the door without looking back.
“I’ll be back to get you in a minute,” Paula says, “it’s too cold out here.”
“Take your time,” he whispers, but no one hears him. No one ever hears him anymore.
Before she can get out the door Paula cuts her off, gesturing her back into the kitchen. Alice puts down the gift she meant to hand Jack on the hall table and crosses her arms over her chest. She’s wound up and jumpy, her legs twittering like she used to feel when she did a line of coke back in college. A hazy memory of her and Jack in the bathroom at a house party together, him all limbs and muscles, leaning on the sink nonchalantly as she used her credit card to make perfectly straight lines, barges in, unwelcome and so sweet at the same time.
“What is this? Architecture?” he’d asked, lips curling into a drunken smile that lit up his whole face. Her blue eyes start to cloud with tears, and she wipes them hastily away as Paula rummages around in her purse for something. Turning toward her, Alice knows what’s in Paula’s hands before the words even come out of her mouth.
“No,” Alice says flatly.
“Please, Alice, he asked me to ask you to sign these.”
“His mouth still works,” Alice hisses, “he can ask me himself.”
“Please, just take this.” She pushes an envelope into Alice’s hands. Reluctantly, she takes it, wondering how it came to this. As she looks down at the packet, her eyes narrowing, it begins to morph, taking on the dark form of failure in the only thing that ever really mattered.
It turns out that Eli saying “good and wasted” meant he and Jack had two beers each. And there’s just something about drinking a draft beer through a straw that your friend has to hold up to your mouth that makes it considerably less “good.” Which gets you considerably less “wasted.” The whole thing feels staged and wrong. Forget swigging. Jack could barely even sip.
He didn’t finish his second drink and it took Eli a full 20 minutes to ask what was wrong—and Jack had to instigate it. Jack knew he was being a stubborn dickhead by waiting for his mostly spacey friend to realize he wasn’t having a good time. But it pissed him off. But then again, was it really Eli’s fault? This is what they used to do together. They’d go to work, leave to play soccer in their co-ed league, then hit the bar for a few beers before either going back to the office or heading home to pass out. And most nights, that meant Jack would come home to Alice in one of her little silky PJ sets, curled up on the couch with a glass of pinot noir deep in a new novel. One thing would lead to another and he’d have her out of that PJ set faster than when they were in college. The few years after their wedding and before the accident were the best they’d had together.
She was his, and he was hers. He loved knowing every inch of her body and every ebb and flow of her thoughts. It was the kind of intimacy he didn’t know even existed. And sitting in the bar, slightly buzzed but unable to feel that welcome weakening of his knees, only that minor headache that creeps in with a few drinks, the sadness that washed over him at what he’d lost—not his body, his independence, nor his dignity, but her—is crushing.
“Man, can you take me home?” he asks suddenly.
“Dude you okay?” Eli asks quickly, his eyes lingering on the game a little too long, like the way that everyone’s eyes lingered on Jack nowadays.
“Nah, I need to go home, man.”
“What’s up?” he asks, suddenly worried, scanning Jack up and down, looking for anything kinked. “Do you need me to empty your leg bag?” he questions, slightly uncomfortable. Paula had reluctantly let Eli take him out on the condition that he didn’t have more than 3 beers and that Eli be fervent about making sure Jack’s leg bag didn’t get too full. But in that moment, Jack resents him so much—when he really should be resenting his fragile body—that he swears he sees red.
“No, I don’t need you to empty my fucking leg bag. Just take me home,” he scoffs. He’s sitting in his manual chair because he didn’t want to take the fucking wheelchair van that he had to use to go anywhere and his power chair didn’t fit in Eli’s car. So here he was, his hands resting useless in his lap, at the mercy of someone else. Like always.
“Dude the game is like…” he says, turning frantically to the screen for a second, “over in like seven minutes.”
“Please don’t make me ask again, Eli.” Eli turns and takes Jack’s face in, then nodding once signals the waitress for the check.
“She said she wouldn’t sign,” Paula argues.
“Mom,” he replies tiredly, “you were supposed to get her to sign.” The irritation in Jack’s voice is apparent, and Paula huffs in exasperation. Jack is propped up against a pile of pillows in his bed while Connor continues to rotate his now-bandaged left ankle in professional silence, as if he wasn’t privy to this particularly uncomfortable conversation.
Paula was already mad going into this after witnessing how Eli manhandled Jack to get him out of the car. Eli’s offenses mounted as he went from bumping Jack’s head on the ceiling of the car to twisting his arm to dragging his legs across the pavement to meet the chair that rolled down the slight angle of the driveway when Eli—to no one’s surprise—failed to engage the brakes. Jack was frustrated, but he swallowed it like a bad shot of whiskey. Paula had enough fire for both of them.
“What did you want me to do?” she practically spits at Jack, “force her hand? I’m not a miracle worker, Jack.” Jack wheezes loudly then, closing his eyes at the too-bright bedroom lights, takes the deepest breath he can manage.
“This is your mess,” she snaps before she can stop herself.
“I know,” he says again, this time more quietly, biting back the tightness in his throat. He tries to take another deep breath but can’t get it. He knows he’ll never get the same kind of deep breath—the kind he really needs—again.
“She’s going to keep at it,” Paula replies, half sadly half angrily.
“She’s going to stop eventually.” Jack is sure of it.
“It’s been almost 18 months!” Paula’s voice is incredulous. Jack hears a weird tremor in her tone. Could it be? Her own pain?
Jack, then, all at once, feels terrible. His dad left when Jack was ten, his brother Neil was twelve, and his little brother, Billy, was seven. He left the family for another woman, and according to Paula, he left without thinking twice. And now here was Alice, fighting tooth and nail to get her completely helpless, entirely ruined, totally stubborn, asshole of a husband back.
Was that just refusal to admit failure? Alice had always been quite stubborn in her own right. Or was that love?
He swallowed. Connor had moved on to sliding Jack’s sweats over his uncooperative legs.
“I know how long it’s been,” he says as he watches Connor work, filled with both resentment and gratitude.
“If you want a divorce, get a divorce. But it has to come from you. She made that clear.” And Jack knew she was right. It was downright embarrassing. More embarrassing than having to have you ass wiped by someone else. Having your mom ask your wife for a divorce was absolutely the most embarrassing thing he’d ever done, and he’d been so bitter and angry and hardened that he hadn’t even realized it.
Paula didn’t say anything for a long time, and Connor continue to get Jack ready for bed. Then she turned and left the room without saying anything. Jack sighed and closed his eyes.
"Do you want to talk about it?" came Connor's unfamiliar voice. He didn't talk much when he worked, a few questions here—always about Jack's care—or an offhand innocuous comment there. It was one of the things Jack really appreciated about Connor. His other main PCA, Anora, wouldn't shut up. But this concern from Connor? This was new.
"Nah man," Jack replied without opening his eyes. He had no idea what Connor was doing to his body and he preferred it that way. "Thanks though, but you do enough." Somewhere in the distance a siren wailed for someone else, but Jack felt it so acutely he could have sworn it was for him