Billy didn’t answer the first call, but the second time his cell phone vibrated on the night stand, he reached for it, pushed himself into a sitting position and answered. The room was dark except for a slat of gray light where the curtain fell open slightly, like a loosened bathrobe. Deborah leaned across and kissed his chest, resting her hand on his thigh. He caught her by the wrist.
“Where are you? Okay. I’m leaving.” He switched the phone off.
“What?” Deborah asked.
He looked at her. “An accident. My older boy’s in the hospital.” He flung the sheets aside and stood. For a moment he remained frozen, then exhaled loudly and started to pull on his clothes. Deborah slipped out of bed and dressed quietly.
“Sorry,” Billy said.
She nodded, touched his arm. “Go. I’ll let myself out.”
The evening air was chilly, almost cold, as Billy climbed into the cab of his truck. A moment later Deborah emerged, pulled the door shut and walked over to her sister’s house. She glanced at him as she crossed the driveway, lifting her hand in a quick wave.
Earlier that afternoon, she had sauntered across the backyard and introduced herself as Peggy’s younger sister. Billy had been grilling burgers. When she asked him if he always grilled on Thanksgiving he shrugged and took a long pull from his bottle of beer.
“My ex-wife took my boys to her parents, where I am not exactly welcome,” he said.
Deborah had a round face like her sister, the same blue eyes. She wasn’t as pretty, but there was something else, Billy thought, something just as good. He fetched two more beers and she sat opposite him while he ate at the faded red picnic table he had not yet stored for winter.
He told her about his boys, ages five and three, said the worst part of being divorced was not seeing them every day. He hated the idea of custody, the word itself, like his boys were under arrest or something.
He didn’t tell her about Stacy or how he’d felt a year earlier when she took the boys and moved into an end unit, three-bedroom townhouse her father helped her purchase, leaving Billy to buy her out of the small ranch house they’d lived in during the seven years of their marriage.
Billy had tried to be a good husband. He had his nights out, but he was a good provider and a good father and kept in shape.
Stacy had let herself go after the boys were born, gaining weight. A little bit after Jimmy, a little more after Stevie. He wanted to say something to her, but wasn’t sure what or how. Didn’t she know she should take care of herself? Wasn’t that part of the deal? As their marriage came undone, Stacy hurled names at him: drunk, cheater. He didn’t say what he thought about her weight, didn’t call her fat because she wasn’t really, just heavier. He didn’t tell her that it felt like she had turned her back on him after she had what she wanted from their marriage—-the boys—-his services no longer needed, thank you. He didn’t try to defend himself, but he did imagine her dying or being killed in a car accident.
When the late afternoon light started to fade, Peggy had come out of her house. Deborah waved at her. “I’ll be in later. I’m just talking to Billy.” Peggy crossed her arms over her chest, clutching her elbows, and looked at them a moment longer before going back inside.
Stacy was seated in the waiting area outside the emergency room, hands folded and pressed against her forehead, elbows on her knees. She didn’t see him enter.
She looked up. In the florescent light her face was pale, washed out, eyes watery and red, blonde hair that fell even with her jawline unkempt, as if she had been running her hands through it, which she did when she was upset. She stood and hugged him, leaning in, allowing him to hold her. She felt thinner and her hair had a faint lemony scent.
“I’m glad you’re here.”
“What happened?” he asked.
She sat and he took the seat next to her.
“They were going outside to play…”
“Dad and the boys. Mom and I were washing the dishes, the boys were restless, you know how they get. Anyway, Dad was going to take them out in the backyard, let them run around.” She gave him a bewildered look as if trying to recall what came next. “Jimmy went ahead of Dad and Stevie. Dad was helping Stevie with his sweatshirt and his shoes had come untied, so Dad was helping him tie them in double knots. Stupid stuff. Jimmy goes out the back door. Dad calls to him to wait, he and Stevie would just be a minute. But you know Jimmy.” She shook her head, pushed her hands through her hair. “I don’t know what happened, Billy. He must have tried to climb on the porch rail.”
“Shit,” Billy said softly.
Stacy stared at him, not just her mouth but her whole face trembling, as if on the verge of bursting open. “He wasn’t moving.”
“Where is he?”
“Intensive care.” Her eyes started to tear. “He’s in a coma.”
Billy shot to his feet, felt dizzy, closed his eyes, breathed. This can’t be real, he thought. This isn’t supposed to happen. He started walking, turned and saw Stacy gathering her jacket and purse.
“Third floor,” she said.
Walt was seated in the corner along a row of chairs in the waiting area. He stood when he saw them, hugged Stacy, offered Billy a weak handshake. He was nearly as tall as Billy, but flabby, with thin, graying hair and thick brown horn-rimmed glasses. He was a retired insurance salesman. He and Billy tolerated each other, but during an argument just before she moved out, Stacy told Billy her father thought he was a bullshit artist. Billy thought Walt was soft.
“Any update?” Stacy asked.
Walt shook his head. “Not a word since they took him back there.” He nodded in the direction of a set of double doors on the other side of the nursing station.
Stacy squeezed her father’s arm and slumped into a chair along the wall. Billy and Walt sat on either side of her.
“Did you call mom?”
“Yes. Stevie is asleep.”
They sat without speaking for several minutes. Billy rubbed his eyes, pressed the heels of his hands against his temples. A nurse came from the other side of the station and they looked up, but she continued down the corridor.
“I don’t understand how it happened,” Billy said after a moment. He stared at the floor. Light green linoleum with flecks of white.
Walt shifted in his chair, crossed his legs. Stacy watched the nurses’ station, as if any news about Jimmy would initiate there.
“It was a freak accident,” Walt said. “Little boys do crazy things.”
“Yeah, they do.” Billy nodded, lips pressed tightly together.
“Say what you’re thinking.”
Billy looked at Walt. “Little boys do crazy things, especially if they’re left alone.”
“Billy, please.” Stacy said.
“It’s okay,” Walt told her. “He’s right. Maybe if Jimmy’s father had been there it wouldn’t have happened.”
“I don’t remember being invited.”
Stacy raised her hands. “Please just stop.”
Billy rested his head against the wall and closed his eyes. He couldn’t let his fat-ass father-in-law get to him. He heard Walt trying to reassure Stacy, his voice a gravelly whisper.
“It’s going to be okay. Jimmy will be fine, I know he will.”
Billy wanted to call bullshit on him, to ask how he knew Jimmy would be fine. He wasn’t a doctor. But when he opened his eyes he saw Walt hunched over in his chair, face buried in his hands. Stacy’s hand was on his back mixing small circular motions and gentle pats, like he had seen her do with the boys.
The double doors on the other side of the nurses’ station opened and a man in green scrubs emerged holding a metal clipboard. He paused at the station long enough to hand it to a nurse, then continued to where the three of them sat.
It still rankled Billy that Stacy had taken her maiden name back after the divorce. Not the change, but the anger with which she had made it. During one of their last arguments before the divorce was final she told him he could keep his fucking name, she was giving it back to him.
Stacy stood. “Yes.”
Billy rose quickly. “I’m the father,” he said. “Billy Pearson.”
“Dr. Chada.” He extended his hand to Billy.
Walt stood with some difficulty. Stacy put a hand under his elbow.
“Your son had a deep cut to his forehead which required a few stitches, and a fracture to his right wrist, which we’ve casted for now. The more serious concern is the blow to the head which resulted in a concussion and some swelling of the brain. That is why we induced the coma. It will help his brain to heal.”
Billy felt a rush of anger. He looked at Stacy who continued to face Dr. Chada. Next to her Walt was nodding his head gravely, like he was being consulted or something, as if he had any more of a clue what was happening than Billy did.
“Can we see him?” Stacy asked.
“Of course,” Dr. Chada replied, then lifted a long-fingered hand. “But I want you to be prepared. Your son is on a respirator to help him breathe. It is standard procedure, but it can look alarming, worse than it is.”
They followed him to the room, Stacy and her father walking side by side, Billy trailing. Dr. Chada pushed open the door and held it for them. Billy met his eyes as he entered and nodded thanks.
Stacy stood over the bed, holding Jimmy’s small hand in both of hers. Walt was next to her. Billy stopped at the foot of the bed. Jimmy’s body was sunk into white sheets and pillows and surrounded by pale plastic tubing, as if caught in a medical spider web.
Billy stared at his son for a moment, then muttered “Excuse me,” and left.
Stacy found him sitting on a bench outside the emergency room entrance.
“Sorry for running out. I needed some air.”
Stacy nodded, took a seat next to him.
“Did the doctor say anything more?” Billy asked.
“Not really. Jimmy just needs to rest, give his brain time to heal.”
“Dr. Chada said a day, maybe two. They have to see how he does.”
“Your dad still up there?”
She shook her head. “No, he went home to be with mom and Stevie. He was pretty exhausted.”
“Are you going home?”
“Maybe you should. Get some sleep. There’s nothing you can do…”
“I’m not going home, Billy, okay?” Her exasperated tone had a tremulous edge. Billy could tell she was trying not to cry. When they used to argue, no matter how angry he was, hearing that quaver got to him, backed him down.
“Okay. I was just saying.”
“I just came down to make sure you were all right.”
He looked at her to see if she had really been worried about him or was just being nice. Her expression was blank, weary.
“I’m fine,” he said.
She nodded. “I’m going back up.”
“Did the doctor ask you before they induced the coma?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Been nice if you’d called me.”
“I did call.”
“To tell me he was in the hospital. Not to ask me about inducing a coma. Jimmy’s my son, too, you know.”
“I know he is,” she said. “I called twice, Billy. Not that I had to. I have custody and it was an emergency and it isn’t like either one of us was going to argue with the doctor. But I did call. Check your phone.”
He didn’t need to check. He’d ignored the first call, hadn’t even looked at his phone vibrating on the nightstand, keeping his eyes on Deborah who was already under the covers. “They’ll call back,” he’d said as he slipped in next to her.
Billy said nothing and after a moment, Stacy stood and went back inside.
He returned to the house at 6:00 in the morning to shower and shave. Jimmy’s condition hadn’t changed. From the front door he got as far as the sofa, where he sat, put his feet on the coffee table and dozed. The doorbell woke him. He checked his watch: 6:40.
“I’m sorry, I know it’s early, but I saw your truck.” Peggy, dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt, stood with her arms folded across her chest. She was shorter than Deborah, with flecks of gray in her hair and crinkles at the corners of her eyes.
She shook her head. “That’s okay. I just wanted to know how Jimmy is, and Stacy.”
Billy nodded. “Well, okay, I think. Jimmy had a fall, cracked his head pretty good. A concussion. He’s in a coma.”
“No, no, it’s not as bad as you think. They induced it, you know, to help with the swelling, help his brain heal.”
“How long will they keep him in the coma?”
“Another day or two. We’re talking to the doctor later this morning.”
“How’s Stacy doing?”
“Pretty good. She’s holding up.”
Peggy regarded him for a moment. “And you?”
Billy shrugged. “I’m fine. Tired.”
“Have you eaten anything?”
“Not yet. I dozed off.”
Peggy bobbed her head in slow, contemplative nods. “I can make you some breakfast.”
He sipped coffee at the kitchen table while Peggy stood at the stove with her back to him, frying bacon and eggs. They were silent, the only sound the sizzle of bacon grease. He watched the movement of her arms as she turned the bacon, the tilt of her hips when she shifted her weight. When she was finished, she switched off the burner, deftly transferred the eggs and bacon to a plate which she set before him.
“You’re welcome.” She took her coffee mug from the counter and sat.
Billy didn’t realize how hungry he was until he started to eat. He finished quickly, biting off half a strip of bacon at a time, scooping glops of egg by the forkful. When he glanced up, Peggy was staring at him.
“Sorry,” he said. “I was pretty hungry.”
Peggy offered a slight shrug. “I guess I should be flattered.”
“It was really nice of you, I appreciate it.”
She nodded, sipped her coffee.
“I probably just would have had some cereal or a granola bar, something easy.”
She let out sudden, short laugh.
“Jesus, Billy, you fucked my sister.”
Billy wrapped his hands around his coffee mug, stared at the streaks of yellow on his plate, like the crayon drawings of the sunrays Jimmy used to make. He made dozens of them, for awhile it seemed like the only thing he would draw. Billy hunched over the table, raised his eyes to meet Peggy’s.
“More like we fucked each other, as in two adults doing what they want.”
“My sister, Billy, okay? Deborah is my sister.”
She stared at him, her head bobbing in the same slow nod as before. For a moment, Billy thought she was going to start crying and his stomach clenched.
“Look,” he said softly, “I’m sorry if it upset you. It just happened.”
She rose from her chair, placed her coffee mug in the sink and turned to him. “It always does, right, Billy?” And then she left by the back door.
He showered and shaved, put on fresh clothes and gathered his wallet and keys. He and Stacy were meeting Dr. Chada at 10:00. In the living-room he saw the rays of sun slicing through the window shades and thought of Jimmy sitting on the floor making his drawings.
“He only draws the rays,” Stacy had said to him once. They were curled next to each other in bed. She started to cry. He asked her what it was, but she shook her head and burrowed closer to him. Billy remembered how he had kissed the side of her neck and cupped a hand over her breast, and when she didn’t draw away, the rush of excitement and relief he had felt, thinking that whatever it was, it wasn’t his fault.
He met Stacy in the hospital cafeteria. Like Billy, she’d gone home long enough to shower and change. There were circles under her eyes as if she had applied eye shadow there instead of her eyelids, but even so, she looked good. She’d lost weight. Billy took a seat on the other side of the pale green Formica table where she sat with a Styrofoam cup of coffee.
“Did you eat?” he asked.
She shook her head.
“Can I get you something?”
“No thanks.” She offered him a wan smile, her expression softer, Billy thought, than it had been the night before. “You can get something,” she said. “There’s enough time before we meet Dr. Chada.”
“I’m okay.” Without thinking he almost added, “Peggy made me some eggs,” but caught himself. Mention of another woman was likely to set things off.
Stacy nodded, sipped her coffee.
She shrugged. “It’s caffeine.” She took out her phone and started to scroll through messages and email. He watched her long, delicate fingers slide the screen up and sideways, work the keyboard.
“Okay. Mom and dad are watching him.”
He nodded. “Your dad all right?”
She looked up from her phone.
“What? I can’t ask about my father-in-law?”
She regarded him a moment longer. “He’s fine.”
He asked if she wanted more coffee and she shook her head. When he returned from buying himself a cup, she set her phone down.
“Do you think it was my fault?”
“I should have helped Stevie so dad could go outside with Jimmy,” she said. “I shouldn’t have let Jimmy go out on that porch alone.” She started crying, hand over her mouth, shoulders lifting up and down in rhythm with the sobs that rose silently from her. Her face was deep red and Billy feared she wasn’t breathing. He reached across the table to hold her hand but she pulled it away, drew a sudden breath as if she had been underwater too long, then composed herself as quickly as she had broken down.
“Sorry,” she said, wiping her eyes with a tissue dug out of her purse. “Now I’ll look like shit just in time to meet with Dr. Chada.”
“You look fine. Better than fine.”
“Right.” She blew her nose, then took her coffee cup and tissue to the trash can in the center of the cafeteria.
“Stacy,” he said when she returned.
“Yes?” She gathered her purse, slipped the strap over her shoulder.
He smiled awkwardly. Once he had known just what to say to make things easy between them. Now he searched for words while she waited, staring at him with an expression that betrayed nothing.
“I think Jimmy will be okay,” he finally said. “That’s all. Everything will be fine.”
She nodded, and Billy felt the emptiness of his words hang between them. Then she turned and walked out of the cafeteria. After a moment, Billy followed.