With each successive beat of my heart, my head was trying to tear itself apart. Or at least it felt that way. My temples seemed to be stretching as the vessels in my head gained and lost pressure. The beating of my heart- or at least the coursing of the blood through arteries in my head- sloshed. My ears rang, and the world felt as if it were spinning on a top that was perilously close to tipping over. Voices echoed through my ears- distant yet familiar- they had a hint of fear mixed with hope.
“….. ok? I…. see….we’ll….alone.”
My eyes started to hurt, and with their pain a new kind of intense pain centered around the muscles of the eyes became evident. It was enough to make a guy wince and pull back reflexively. I don’t know it I did or not- but I do know that when I thought of it, the voices seemed to pick up.
What? The last voice seemed insistent. I tried to respond, but all that came out seemed to be a moan. Pain can do that. But it seemed to make the voices happy.
The pain subsided, and I found myself in a field. Warm sunshine burst through white clouds drifting lazily on a pristine blue sky. Birds chirped. Sandra, Megan, Kyle, and Linda were all laughing and enjoying a picturesque picnic. Sandwiches and watermelon coupled with an apple pie sat on a red and white blanket spread across the greenest field I had ever seen. The strange voices seemed to echo through the field as Sandra waved to me.
“Daniel, come back to us. We can’t do this without you,” she said.
I smiled and waved back- and was struck by lightning.
The field disappeared, replaced by the strange hews of gray and tan. Tiles filled my vision for a split second, their features illuminated by an orange light seemingly from the side. A familiar face came into view, her hair falling in my face as she placed her ear near my mouth and looked towards my feet. That scene faded to black, the field again returning.
This time Sandra was beside me, her hand in mine. The warmth of her presence reassuring. I looked toward her, and she looked toward me.
“You can’t do this, Dan,” she said.
I was confused- what was she talking about?
“You can’t leave them- they need you. Izzy, Tammy, Maybel, the baby.”
Maybel, I thought. I looked back toward the picnic, where my children sat eating and talking. Another bolt of lightning slammed through my body, putting me in that same reddish gray and tan room.
“Dan! Don’t die on us! Please!”
The field returned, this time more fuzzy- less defined. The blue wasn’t as blue. The clouds were gray. My children lay on the ground in my wife’s arms- husks of their former selves. Maggots wiggled across their flesh and the remains of the food. A hand was still in mine, and I turned to see who it was. Maybel looked back at me, and beside her was Tammy holding the baby, and Izzy looking up at me with pleading eyes.
“Don’t go, Dan. We need you.”
I looked down at them, powerless and without an answer- what was going on?
Another bolt of lightning coursed through my body. The energy it imparted radiated from my chest to all corners of my body. The field faded, and again I felt hair on my face. My eye’s saw nothing but strands of course hair from point blank range framing an ear with a simple stud in it. I felt I should say something to let the ear know that I saw it. All I ground out was an inarticulate slur that sounded more like a belch than any true language. But it was enough. The ear flipped from view to be replaced by Maybel’s terrified blood spattered face. Fresh tears welled in her eyes, and she broke into what seemed a mixture of heart wrenchingly happy sobs.
“He’s alive,” she cried.
Tammy came into view along with Izzy. A child was crying in the background. Suddenly my mind cleared, and adrenaline coursed through my veins.
“Danger,” I coughed, “we’re in danger- the old man…”
“It’s ok,” said Tammy.
“We’re safe for now,” finished Maybel. “You need to hold still. You’re hurt really bad, but we’re here, and we’re taking care of you.”
“The baby,” I ground out.
“Is fine,” Tammy said, her eyes filling with tears.
I closed my eyes, my failure evident. I had let my new family down, and as the adrenaline rush died, guilt swam up into my chest and coursed through my body- I felt sick to my stomach, and in my weakness I began to cry myself.
“I’m sorry,” I said through the building sobs, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. “I’m sorry.”
I kept going, even when Maybel put her fingers over my mouth to quiet me. When Tammy told me it wasn’t my fault- that I had done really good. I had failed them. Somehow, they had rescued me. This continued for what seemed an eternity until once again I fell into blissless sleep.
I wasn’t much more active for a while after that. I’d come to occasionally, a hospital room lit by camping lanterns or the sun depending on the time of day. There were no beeps or whirring of machines. The air was musty, and the electric cot was obviously not running, but that didn’t matter. All I had was my failure- how I had let the girls down. Failing my wife and children and then this new family that had started to form around me was more than I could take. I wanted my Glock. I needed a bullet. But I couldn’t move- I was too weak or too injured or both. I was at the mercy of those I had failed, and with every day that passed they allowed me to lay in my torment built on failure. I hadn’t cried as much in my life- I hadn’t felt so useless in my life as I did then. Either they had left me to rot, or my fleeting moments of consciousness for the first week or so corresponded to their absence. It wasn’t until some time later that one was there when I did come to.
And it had to be Maybel.
I came to, the tile the first thing I saw, and I turned my head what little I could toward the chair that so many times had been empty. Maybel was in it staring out the window, a concerned or contemplative look on her face. At first, I wanted to play that I was still asleep, but before I could look away, she looked at me. A smile crossed her lips- one that I knew I didn’t deserve- and she nearly leapt from the chair to come to my bedside. She grasped my hand, and I looked away in shame. I would have pulled my hand away- tried even- except she had a grip on it that would stop a mountain from sliding off the earth. And we stayed that way for what seemed an eternity. There were tears in her eyes that I couldn't explain, and the look bordered on something I hadn't seen in years- it was a look I didn't deserve and it pushed me further still into my own self loathing. I broke the gaze and looked at the dead instruments in the room.
“I failed you, just like I failed Sandra and the kids,” I finally said fighting the inclination to start bawling like a kid. “I’m so sorry, I-“
“Shut up,” said Maybel.
The tone wasn’t harsh, but her command held all the authority of any God that could have existed up to that point. I turned to look at her expecting to see pity or anger in her eyes, but the look on her face was nothing like what I expected. Joy would be the best way to describe it. Happiness could also be an apt descriptor of the way she looked at me. Maybe even befuddled amusement.
“You didn’t fail us- you saved us.”
She was lying- I knew it. A man doesn’t get rescued by those he is saving if he’s succeeded. That’s what happens when he fails in his duty. What I thought was plain on my face, and I could tell that Maybel knew. But all she did was furrow her brow in confusion.
“You don’t remember, do you?”
“I don’t need to,” I said. "You saved me, which means I failed you."
She laughed. I knew it- I was a failure!
“I’m sorry,” she said, putting her hand to her lips when he saw my face change in response to her laugh. “I wasn’t laughing at you- I was laughing at what’s happening.”
“What do you mean?”
I was starting to get confused- did I miss something?
She looked at me, her hand over her mouth, and seemed to think for a moment. She got the chair, pulled it closer to the cot, and sat down. She grabbed my hand, and looked me in the eyes.
“I’ll be honest,” she said, “you got pretty mangled. You were hit in the head- I thought…” She trailed off, and closed her eyes. She breathed deeply to steady herself before continuing. “I thought you were dead. Well...”
The last came out as a whisper choking back sobs of her own.
“The rest of them had found us. You and Izzy came out of the tall grass screaming to get in the RV. That’s when we heard the cracks of their guns. Bullets were zipping past us from the grass and you sent Izzy to me. I picked her up and you… You started doing what you’ve been doing this whole time.”
She wiped some tears from her eyes, seemingly syking herself up, and then continued.
“We barely had time to leave. You were firing out of the side windows as we drove out of the parking lot. Tammy was holding Danny Jr., Izzy was screaming, lying on the floor as holes just started appearing everywhere. They came from the grass like you had- three cars in all shooting with wild abandon. The windshield shattered making it hard to see. Water bottles started popping, food boxes were getting blown apart. Two cans of formula burst over Tammy and Danny Jr. and Izzy was covered in ketchup- I thought she had been killed. The RV was a mess- and you seemingly stood above it, shooting at them as much as they were shooting at us. You hit the driver of one and it slammed into a dumpster.
“They got a tire, then two. I lost control of the RV and hit a telephone pole, the closest car came barreling into the back end of us. Lifted the back right off the ground and into their front windshield. You were thrown into the front partition hard- it’s a wonder you weren’t killed but the injuries you suffered were pretty bad. Two broken fingers on your left hand, a couple broken ribs, a cut to your forehead. Probably a concussion.
“I saw the last car in the side mirror pull to a stop next to us, and the last two of them jumped out. They pointed their guns at the RV, and were getting ready to start shooting us up. Somehow you kept going.”
She paused again, taking a moment to compose herself before continuing.
“I watched you get hit I don’t know how many times and then your head snapped to the side, and you fell to the ground. But when you fell… When you fell the shooting stopped. I thought that they were going to come inside and take us- come inside and do so much worse than they ever had before. I grabbed my gun. I had to protect Tammy and Izzy. But when I got to the door... Both of them were on the ground. One was writhing around like a dying snake. The other was dead- half his head was just gone.
“Then I looked at you. There was so much blood…”
She looked at the cot’s mattress, her eye welling with tears.
“We stripped your stuff off, stopped the bleeding, but nothing was working. You were dying before our eyes. The RV was shot, it wouldn’t start, so we grabbed their last car, stuffed you in the back. Tammy drove. Izzy held Danny Jr., and I tried to keep you alive. We drove through town hoping to find a doctor’s office or something. I know enough around surgical equipment to be dangerous- but I… But I… I was so scared. We had gone through most of the town before we stumbled across this hospital.
“You died twice on me you bastard,” she said through a gut wrenching smile. “It took three shocks to get your heart started again, and I had to do minor surgery to repair a ruptured artery in your shoulder, and it took almost four hours to stitch the skin back on your head. I've never been so glad for suturing classes in my life. I don’t know what your mother fed you as a child- but your skull wasn’t even cracked.”
“Rocks mostly,” I blurted without thinking.
She smiled and squeezed my hand a little tighter.
“That I believe,” she replied.
I looked at her, and digested what she said, and more importantly how she had said it. She seemed to believe it at least- but did I?
“We’ve been holed up here almost a week. Every day, Tammy sits in the reception area standing guard while I take Izzy back to the RV to collect anything that we can salvage. We got most of it, but it’s not a lot. I even ventured back to the Wally World to get some additional stuff- formula mostly, and more water. Lots of soda. Anything that won’t waste real quick.”
“Tammy’s been standing guard?”
“She has Danny Jr.. I don’t want him at risk if we can help it. And it turns out Tammy is pretty handy with a gun herself. Knew more about them than I ever did. She's taught me a lot."
"And you stitched me back together?"
"Well... You know how I said I knew enough to be dangerous? The surgery was, well, successful, but it looks on the outside more like I started butchering you. There will be a ton of scar tissue, and you may lose some use of the arm. And your head- your not winning any beauty pageants anytime soon."
"Well..." I trailed off. Broken but alive was good right now, and if what she said was true, then I could at least hold my head up high-ish. "I wouldn't have won any in the first place. Which arm?"
"Good thing I'm right handed. And Hungry- you wouldn't by chance happen to have a Snickers, would you?"
She smiled, and pulled the desired treat from her pocket. "Hungry, why wait?"