She’d been gone for hours.
Five hours and eighteen minutes.
I’d tried her cell repeatedly without luck. If I hadn’t been the only adult in the house I would’ve gone looking for her. But I was responsible for three sleeping children and couldn’t leave. I hovered by the window, vigilant for a flash of headlights or the crunch of gravel under tires.
I spent the night pacing, wondering what I would tell our kids when the sun woke them. My heart knew something was wrong. I cleaned myself up, and called a friend. She took the day off work and arrived before the kids woke. We worked out an explanation for them, and I went off in search of my wife. I directed the cab driver to the store Sherry had gone to, and watched familiar streets pass by the window. I never suspected for a second that she had left me. We’d been together four years, and I knew she was happy. She would come home from work and cuddle with our children before puttering around the house. We would have impromptu picnics on the living room floor and make love in front of the fireplace after the kids were asleep. We disagreed over some things, as did any couple. But our disagreements never got in the way of our relationship.
I spotted the van in a parking lot, pointed it out to the driver and asked him to pull alongside. I checked the exterior of the vehicle carefully. Nothing looked unusual. I paid the driver and he left. The inside looked exactly as it had the last time I’d seen it, with the addition of a takeout coffee cup. I had wanted to call the police the night before, but I knew they waited twenty-four hours to declare someone missing. I felt my impatience bubble like coffee on a campfire, and I pulled my cell from my pocket.
Some time later I found myself sitting on a curb smoking, while an officer questioned me.
Yes, I had tried her phone. Yes, she had been late before, but she always called. No, we were not in financial trouble. She had no enemies that I was aware of.
The questions went on and on.
I had no idea where she might have been. A young police officer had just handed me a cup of coffee when the radio at his hip squawked. I couldn’t make out the words because he turned away, but a minute later his partner came and sat on the curb beside me. She lit a cigarette of her own and sighed. I’ll never forget what she asked me while we sat and smoked.
“Have you considered the possibility that she may have met with an accident?”
I nodded, but I didn’t want to accept her implication. I wasn’t ready. When her partner turned around, he motioned to her. She went to confer with him.
I heard her say something about a hospital but the rest of it is a blur. I vaguely remember passing through silent hallways, seeing strange faces and hearing the officers whispering. I wasn’t sure what to expect. When I stepped into the room, I saw an indistinct shape under pale green sheets, but it was a shape unfamiliar to me. I stepped around the bed to get a glimpse of the face turned to the wall, and staggered to see the bruised features of my wife. My gaze traveled along the sheet, and I’m sure it was then that my brain went on strike. It took me a minute to comprehend what I was seeing. Or not seeing.
I expected to see my wife shape the sheet for approximately five feet; but after three, it was flat. I could hear my mental faculties screech to a halt.
Wait…where were her legs?
As if expecting an optical illusion, I reached out to touch the bed. It was flat and empty. I felt my knees buckle and someone caught me. I reached out to take Sherry’s hand. I wanted her to know I was there, and that I loved her. I couldn’t. One arm was gone and the other casted in plaster. I was unable to hold my wife’s hand, touch her hip or kiss her knuckles as I had when we courted.
I remember her doctor talking, but all I can recall clearly is the sorrow and pity on his face. I remember thinking he had given up hope.
I fell asleep in the chair beside her. I dreamed of the way her fingers felt against my skin, the way her legs felt wrapped around me and her hair laced through my fingers. I dreamed of the midnight swims we had shared, and the way she rose from the water with moonlight glistening on her skin.
The droning of an alarm interrupted my dreams. I woke up confused by doctors and nurses running to her bedside. One of them took me to the other side of the room and left me there. Alone.
They tried desperately to bring her back, but my wife was gone.
The officer I had sat with on the curb came to see me yesterday. She told me I’d be getting out of here today. She said that I’ve been declared safe to return to my family. So if you’ll remove this straight-jacket, I’ll go home now. I have to explain all this to the kids and find a way to get through the rest of my life without her.
Yes, I know how she came to be in the hospital. I hope the guy finds himself in with the general prison population. I want him to suffer as much as the kids and I will without her.
I want him to feel the same pain she did.
I want her to hold me again.
I want to rub her feet, hold her hand and laugh with her.
I want her back.