Years ago, when I was a younger, when I still believed in fairy tale endings and Prince Charmings, I cast a mold in my head. The perfect man would fit it neatly, no chinks or cracks on his surface. He would swoop down from the heavens on a snow white horse and pull me onto his lap. Together, we would ride off into the sunset. I never actually got beyond the sunset. I couldn’t imagine what a perfect life would be like, even at six.
It’s odd, I know to trust the words and not the actions of people. Odder still when it comes from someone with my background. When I was a little girl, I needed to believe my father’s weepy apologies and drunken ‘love yous.’ They helped make sense of something that would never really make sense. I read once, years ago, in an introduction to psychology course, that children in abusive homes tend to try and side with the abuser. That came out wrong. What I mean is that they try to keep the peace with the abusive parent in order to protect themselves. It’s amazing how parents can screw their children up.
I’m no longer a child. And, as much as I would love to be able to do it, I can no longer blame my actions on my parents. No one has ever loved me the most. It hurts to say it as much as it does to realize it. It’s a hard lesson to learn. Harder to learn that it’s partially my fault. People have tried and I stopped them. He tried and I stopped him. I don’t know why I do it.
I never thanked him. Again, I don’t know why. That same intro to psych textbook would probably say that I was pushing my boundaries. Trying to see how far I could push before he pushed back. I wish someone could tell me why I do it. Why I feel the need to test people’s limits.
I am Eve and Delilah, luring men to their downfalls. I am the Sirens, inviting sailors to crash and drown at my feet. I am Cleopatra; I am Jezebel; I am all the women that the world and literature love to hate. And I will never get to be the woman that someone loves best.
I am tired. I am tired of being and more tired of being me. Chaos and pathos have swirled around me my whole life. I have lived in their vortices for so long that I don’t know if I would ever be capable of living another way. Every once in a while, through my friends, I’ve gotten glimpses, peeks, at another life. I want the picket fences and two car garages. I want them badly, but I know now that I was not made for them.
The little white pills before me are so seductive. They promise me what people cannot. An end to it all. One swallow and the chaos will stop. The winds will die down and the tornadoes will cease to swirl. I will stop hurting people if I just quietly disappear. I don’t know if anyone will miss me. Actually, that’s not true. I know they will. I’m not doing this to make people sorry. I don’t want them to miss me. I want them to be happy. They could lead full lives once they realize how much better they are if I’m not sucking them down into an abyss.
I’m not leaving a note. Just one call, hopefully to his answering machine. The recorded voice instructs me to leave a message. “I never thanked you,” I say to the machine, “and I’m sorry for that. I’m sorry you lost your job for me. So – thank you…. I love you.”
I can only hope God is more forgiving than I have been in my life.
The telephone stopped ringing the exact second Harm found his keys. It figured. The whole day had been a wash. Literally. Apparently, whoever coined the expression “stick it where the sun don’t shine” meant the East Coast and not some crude anatomical part. Dropping his umbrella in a wet heap on the floor, he headed into his kitchen for a much needed beer. His test flight had been cancelled due to the weather. After hours of pre-flight de-briefings, the good people of the Company had decided that they didn’t want to risk a multi-million dollar aircraft and had sent him home.
He was mildly disgusted with everything. The weather, the day, the fact that he was working for the CIA, and the state of his life. This was not how he pictured his return from Paraguay. He, at least, thought he was finally going to get the girl. Rolling his shoulders, he glanced at the answering machine. The little red light blinked ominously. More than anything, he didn’t want to push the play button and he was half-tempted to ignore the message altogether in favor of his quiet apartment and his guitar. But a little nagging voice kept whispering quietly in his ear. It wanted to know how much worse the day could get and, before he knew it, he was pushing play.
He nearly dropped his beer when Sarah Mackenzie’s voice floated across his apartment. Even without the introduction and the sniffly quality of the voice, he knew it was her. The nagging voice exalted in its triumph.
They had not parted on good terms. After days of stewing, he began to realize that maybe she had been right. Maybe not so much in her words, but in her actions, certainly. They probably wouldn’t have worked out. Not in the long run. He would have been willing to try, but maybe she had saved them the inevitable heartbreaks. By being a complete bitch. Thousands of miles. He flew thousands of miles and didn’t even get a fucking thank you for his efforts.
He sighed as he realized that he had missed the whole message. Hitting rewind, he chastised himself to pay attention to it this time. “I never thanked you and I’m sorry for that. I’m sorry you lost your job for me. So – thank you.”
“Well there you go. A few weeks too late to count,” he told the answering machine. He heard the carefully measured pause and smirked. Sarah Mackenzie had a flair for the dramatic.
“I love you.”
The bottle slid from his loose grasp and landed on the floor in a loud crash. For a full minute, he did nothing but stare at the answering machine as the glass filled puddle at his feet soaked his shoes. His hand was shaky as it hit rewind again.
Had she just told him that she loved him over an answering machine? What kind of chicken shit stunt was that? Had she realized that he had almost freed himself from her sticky web and wanted to suck him back in?
He grabbed the phone and dialed her number before he could rethink his actions. He had held his tongue in Paraguay, but he didn’t think he could do it anymore. She was a vampire that preyed upon his emotions and he needed her to stop. He had nothing left to give her.
Her machine answered. “Mac, I know you’re there. Pick up. Pick up the damn phone now.” He ground the words between his teeth and waited. When she didn’t get on the phone, he clicked his phone off and dialed JAG.
“Colonel Mackenzie’s office,” a chipper voice answered.
“Bud,” he said without preamble, “it’s Harm.”
“Sir! It’s good to hear from you. How are you?”
“For the last time, call me Harm. I’m not in the Navy anymore, remember?”
Bud answered in a more subdued voice. “Yes, sir. Harm. Yes, Harm. We sure miss you around here. Especially the Colonel. I don’t think she’s doing all that well.” Bud’s voice dropped to a near whisper as he relayed the last piece of information. The staff had been scurrying to cover for the Colonel, hiding her mistakes from the Admiral, but it was getting harder to do as time wore on and the list of problems grew.
A small, mean part of him smiled. Serves her right, it hissed in his ear. “Listen, Bud, she’s, ah, she’s actually why I’m calling. Is she there?”
“No, sir, she called out sick. Harriet went over to her apartment to bring her some soup this afternoon. She just got back; she said the Colonel didn’t look so good.” As an afterthought, he added, “And she was acting weird, too.”
“Acting weird?” Harm parroted. The small, mean part stopped smiling and vanished. “How weird?”
“Harriet didn’t say. She just said she was worried. I have to drop files off that need her signature on the way home. Do you want me to give her a message?”
“No,” he paused, “thanks, Bud. I’ll try her at home. Take care and give my best to Harriet and AJ.”
He hung up and lowered the phone. He told himself he was being paranoid. She wouldn’t do anything stupid. Cursing silently, he dialed her number again.
The machine answered again. Just as he was about to hang up and head over to her apartment, a tired voice mumbled, “’Lo?”
“Can’t talk now. Sleepy.”
“Mac?” he called out again.
“Go away. Just go away,” the voice was cranky now. He heard a loud crash and assumed the receiver had fallen on the floor.
Grabbing his cell phone, he dialed 911. As he head out of his apartment, he said words he never thought he’d say. “I think my friend tried to kill herself.”
It was, almost, like a scene from a Victorian novel. The handsome man waiting by the bedside of an obviously sick woman, his head bowed, hands clasped loosely between his knees. The woman lay still, pale even against the pale hospital sheets. In another time, another era, the scene might have been romantic. That is, until you looked closely at it. The hospital corridors were teeming with people. The human noise was minimal in comparison to the sounds of a functioning hospital. Machines beeped, doors buzzed open, nurses chatted, ambulances screamed in the distance. Patients were sitting on gurneys in the hallways.
Or until you looked at the people themselves. Charcoal stained the woman’s teeth and lips, turning them a dark unforgiving gray. It ringed her nostrils and smudged the corners of her mouth. An IV line formed a seam along the inside of her wrist and arm. Her lips, almost black, mumbled something incoherent, causing the man to jerk out of his stupor. He, too, did not fit the mold of a Victorian character. His jaw was set and his eyes, red from the fluorescent lighting, were hard. Emotions turned slow revolutions in his eyes. First anger, then guilt, then anger again, followed by concern. They were slowly blending, melding together, into misery, but the anger remained distinct.
A nurse had encouraged him to talk to her. But he couldn’t begin to know where to start. He hadn’t known what to do or say since the moment he’d arrived at her apartment and saw the paramedics lifting her body onto a stretcher. There had been nothing in the apartment to indicate why she had done this. The super had let them in; he had even volunteered to clean up the mess. He liked the lady. That’s what he told Harm and the paramedics. Always real nice, always kept to herself, but still nice, she didn’t deserve this. And now the apartment looked like it did when she left it for work. There wasn’t even a note.
His fingers curled into a fist and slowly unclenched. He wasn’t just angry with her. It bordered on furious. She was stronger than this.
Her eyes drifted open and she said, “There’s a present for Harriet on my dresser.” She sighed. “I forgot to give it to her.”
“I’ll get it for you.”
She blinked slowly and forced her eyes open. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. Just rest, Sarah.” His fingers stroked the back of her hand and he watched her eyes fight to stay open.
“Don’t tell Harm,” she mumbled.
His fingers stilled. “What?”
“Don’t tell Harm,” she pleaded. “Please?”
“Ssh, rest, Sarah.”
“It’s a heart,” she said on a long drawn out breath.
“A heart,” he repeated dumbly.
“On my ankle. I put cover up on it before work.” She lifted her right leg and gestured to her ankle.
Looking at her leg, she sighed. “Oh, you can’t see it.” She turned her head to study him. “Because of the sheets,” she explained.
She lowered her leg and turned around on the gurney to face him. “That dress was so uncomfortable.” Her voice had lowered a little, as if she was confiding something in him.
“What dress, Sarah?” His thumb brushed over her forehead, pushing the bangs back from her eyes.
“The one I wore to the nightclub. In Paraguay.” Her voice was beginning to drowse and her eyes were losing the battle to stay open.
He kept rubbing his hand over the crown of her skull, unsure of whom he was soothing, but needing the contact it provided. His bad day had spun rapidly into nightmarish and he was still half-convinced that, if he shut his eyes, he would wake up in his apartment, far from the hospital and far from her. Her hand clawed at the bed sheet before turning over in his and gripping his hand. They had been at the hospital for a while; he wasn’t sure how long, but it looked like it was getting dark outside. The first part of the afternoon had been spent watching her throw up the charcoal the doctor’s had forced into her stomach. As her body spasms diminished, the long, convoluted thoughts began. Her ramblings were exhausting him and he’d long since given up on trying to follow them. The doctors had assured him, as best as they could, that the treatment was slowly working and that the hallucinations weren’t an indication of worsening conditions. They were simply a by-product of the drugs coursing through her system. As best as the doctors and paramedics could tell, she’d taken extremely strong over the counter painkillers and chased them with alcohol. He shuddered when he wondered how she knew that particular combination could produce these results. They’d known each other for years and still knew so little about each other.
She was quieting down again, but he couldn’t let himself relax. There were things he needed to do, he knew, but he couldn’t gather his thoughts long enough to remember what they were. The cell phone vibrating against his hip startled him. Casting a glance at her, he slipped quietly out of the emergency room and out of the hospital. The sun was setting and a waiting ambulance’s lights bounced off the hospital’s walls. And for the first that evening, he allowed himself to breathe deeply.
“Rabb,” he answered the phone.
“Comman – Harm. It’s Bud, Sir.”
He rubbed his forehead and cursed silently. This was one of the things he had forgotten. “Yes, Bud?”
“Sir, I’m at Colonel Mackenzie’s apartment and there’s no one here.” Bud’s voice sounded confused.
“I know that, Bud. I’m sorry, I forgot to call you.”
“She’s with you?” His question had a hopeful lilt.
“Well, I guess I’ll just give her these files tomorrow. I’m sorry to interrupt.”
“Bud,” he said quietly, “I’m at the hospital at Georgetown.”
There was a long silence. “Is everything okay?”
He sighed heavily. “No. Everything is most definitely not okay.”
He had drifted off. When he woke up, he saw the Admiral sitting in a chair across from him. Over her abdomen, their eyes met. He resisted the urge to snap to attention and reminded himself that he was no longer in the Navy. “Sir,” he acknowledged.
“Hell, Harm. Call me AJ.” The older man shifted forward in his seat and scrubbed his hands over his face.
“AJ.” He nodded. His eyes drifted up her torso to her face. She was still sleeping, her fingers were still curled in his.
“What the hell happened?” The Admiral’s tone was gruff.
He shrugged. The gesture wasn’t meant to be insolent, but the emotion was implied. “I don’t know. They couldn’t find a note.” He looked back at the other man. “How long have you been here?”
“About a half hour. She’s been asleep the whole time.” The Admiral leaned back against the chair and ran a hand across his mouth. He mumbled something like “What a mess.” That part was clear enough and Harm would never be sure whether it was his imagination or the admiral’s voice that added the “I made.”
He glanced up at Harm. “I never saw this coming.” He patted Mac’s other hand. “She didn’t seem depressed.
A doctor pulled back the curtain warding the trio from the rest of the ER. “We’re going to have to take her for some tests now,” she told the men.
“Tests?” They echoed the doctor in stereo.
“Just a precaution.” The corners of her mouth tilted up in a tired, sympathetic smile. She had been hoping that the woman had been alone so she could escape without answering questions. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to help. It was just that she’d been on duty for twenty hours and she desperately wanted to go to sleep. “Just to make sure that there isn’t any damage to any of her organs.”
“She’s going to be okay?” The younger man asked.
The doctor flipped through her medical charts. “We’re going to run some more blood tests too.” She told them. “But physically, without the results from the other tests, yes, it looks like she’s going to be okay.”
“I don’t understand.” The older man turned to his friend. “Was this just an attempt to get attention?” His question made the doctor pause. “Sir, I don’t know your friend. And I’m not a psychologist or a psychiatrist, but I will say this.” She drew a deep breath. “Just because it doesn’t kill you, a non-fatal heart attack is still a heart attack.”
“What do you mean?”
She could tell the older man’s temper was short and she weighed her next words carefully. “I mean, sir, just because she didn’t succeed doesn’t mean she didn’t mean it. Don’t blow this off as a bid for attention or a cry for help.” She gestured to the orderlies to wheel the woman off. “This is still serious.” She started to follow the gurney.
Pausing at the elevator doors, she turned around. “We’ll put her in a room after this. Someone will let you know where she is.” She smiled again, this time the edges of her mouth her a little tenser. She tried to make it a little more sympathetic. They couldn’t know, she reasoned with herself, that the roughest terrain was still ahead.
The men stood next to each other as the elevator’s doors slid shut. They waited for a minute and walked away. In separate directions.
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