This story is by K.C. Otenti and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
Katelin walked into the room to see her brother, Brett, sitting up and looking out the window.
“Hi, Brett,” she cooed, unsure of how he’d respond.
Ridiculous, Brett thought. She knows how much I love visiting with her. He turned to greet her.
“Katelin! I’m so glad to see you.”
Katelin went to him, kneeled next to his chair, and squeezed his hand.
“I wish you would talk to me. I just want to know that you’re okay.”
“What are you talking about?” Brett was confused. He had just opened his mouth and spoken to her, hadn’t he? “I’m fine. It’s a beautiful day. I just spent a lovely weekend away with Sarah. I told you about our trip to the Vineyard, didn’t I?”
“We drove down to Woods Hole midday Friday and took the ferry to the island.” Brett smiled as he reminisced. “Sarah loved walking through Oak Bluffs, seeing the Victorian houses. We went to the carousel, but Sarah didn’t want to have a ride. She thought the glassy stares of some of the horses were creepy.”
“You must have been so scared,” Katelin murmured.
Brett furrowed his brow at her.
“Why would I be scared of some wooden horses with glass eyes? They’re eerie, perhaps, but not scary.” Katelin’s remarks seemed a little strange to Brett. Was she feeling okay?
“We took a bus to Edgartown, where we stopped in at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. Remember how Mom and Dad would always get just the museum admission, then end up paying again at the lighthouse and all those preserved landmarks? They complained about it every year. So we got the pass that admits you to all of them.
“We explored the museum some, then had dinner at a pub, where I got four wooden nickels. I guess if I collect 500 of them, I get to drink from a special mug. I don’t think I’ll ever drink enough to collect that many,” he laughed. “But maybe Sarah and I will make the Vineyard our anniversary celebration every year.
“Anyway, I told you about the gazebo where I proposed to Sarah two years ago, right? We watched the sunset from there. It was breathtaking. After that, we continued to South Beach to check in at the hotel.”
“What a way to spend your first anniversary.”
Was that sadness he heard in his sister’s voice? Why would she be sad?
“It was beautiful,” Brett replied. “On Saturday, we drove along the south coast. We walked the trail at Long Point, spent some time at Aquinnah, and enjoyed the view from the Gay Head lighthouse. I bought a wampum necklace for Sarah. The Wampanoag use quahog shells. They’re beautiful. Then we headed back to the hotel and had dinner there, overlooking the beach and the ocean.”
“I can’t imagine what it felt like, everything coming to such a sudden end.”
“I’m not finished yet.” There was something wrong. Katelin’s odd responses made Brett’s stomach lurch. Something was going on that Brett couldn’t see. His heart started to beat quicker and he felt beads of sweat forming on his forehead. He felt as though he was about to receive very bad news. Did something happen to their parents? Of course not. Katelin would have said that first. Brett shook his head. I’m overreacting, he thought.
“On Sunday, we made our way back to Edgartown. We walked through the Japanese garden and went to the Bad Martha Brewery. That was fun. You should stop in if you’re ever on the Vineyard. Or at least try the Island IPA. You’d love it.
“We caught the 6:15 ferry back to Wood’s Hole. We had such a wonderful time; it was hard for us to leave. The whole thing was flawless—couldn’t have asked for a better mini-vacation—well, except for on the ride to the ferry.”
“It could have been a perfect anniversary weekend if not for that incident,” Katelin whispered to her brother.
“There was a bit of a close call on the highway. A drunk driver, probably. Swerving all over the road. Almost ran us right off the highway into a ditch. Luckily, we weren’t hurt. Sarah was a little shaken up, but once we were on the ferry on our way to the island, we managed to relax and forget all about it.”
Katelin ran her hand over Brett’s hair. She turned to see Marie, the nurse, standing in the doorway of the hospital room. Katelin stood and approached the nurse.
“Has he even said a word since the accident?”
Marie shook her head.
“The doctor says there’s some brain damage, which could have affected his speech.”
“Brain damage? I’m fine, see?” Brett stood and spread his arms. “Sarah will tell you. Sarah!” He called.
“But I’ve seen this happen before,” Marie continued. “When a person loses a spouse so suddenly, it hits them hard. He’s probably in shock over it, still.”
“She was so young, too. And they were so happy.” Katelin turned back to her brother. “And the life they had together vanished in an instant, thanks to a bad decision of a complete stranger.”
“What are you talking about? We’re still happy. We’re still …”
Brett grunted and bowed his head.
He looked down.
Brett’s legs were bent up under him as he sat in a chair with his feet propped up on attached footrests. His arms were arranged in his lap, and the armrests of the chair were flanked by wheels.
“Why am I in a wheelchair? And a hospital johnny? What’s going on? Sarah and I were just on the Vineyard …”
“It doesn’t seem fair that the drunk walks away without a scratch, after causing all of this pain,” Marie watched Brett, motionless in his wheelchair.
“Doesn’t seem fair?” Katelin raised her voice. “My sister-in-law was only 27! My brother may never walk or speak again! Our family has been torn apart! Of course, it’s not fair! It’s bullshit!”
“Please, calm down. You’ll disturb the patients,” Marie tried to calm Katelin. It only angered her more.
“Sure, I’ll calm down. Some asshole ran my brother off the highway and killed his wife, but I’ll just sit here quietly because it’s just business as usual for you, isn’t it?”
As if triggered by Katelin’s outburst, the memory of the close call flashed in Brett’s head. Only in this vision—this memory—he saw the ditch rush toward him. The world turned upside down. He remembered looking beside him, at his wife.
“She went quickly, at least,” Marie said tenderly, as though afraid to set Katelin off again. “From what the doctor mentioned about her injuries, she wouldn’t have suffered.”
“No, Sarah!” Her eyes stared past him without emotion, dead. There was still blood seeping from a head wound. The side of the car was crushed in, crowding her. He tried to reach out to her but his arm wouldn’t move. He could feel a tear tracing a line down his cheek, but couldn’t move to wipe it away.
Brett snapped out of the memory and back into his current nightmare. He emitted a short, barking sob.
“Perhaps she didn’t. But what about the rest of us?” Katelin snapped at the nurse and hurried back to her brother’s side to hold his hand.
“It’s okay, Brett. I’m here. Talk to me.”
Brett looked out the window, staring past his sister. He appeared without emotion, but he felt as though his soul had been ravaged.
He turned his head back toward his sister.
“I remember everything Sarah and I did on Martha’s Vineyard. I remember her irritation of the wind on the ferry over, blowing her hair into a tangled mess. I remember the awed look on her face as we watched the sunset together. I remember feeling her body next to mine under the silk sheets of the king bed at the hotel. No, she can’t be gone.”
His mind raced. He remembers the trip, but he also remembers the accident. The feeling of having lost control as the car spun off the road. The seatbelt choking him as the car overturned. The crunch of metal at every impact. He clenched his hands as he thought of what that drunk driver had stolen from him.
“Why wasn’t it me? He hit us from my side. Why couldn’t I have been the one killed? Sarah should have lived.”
“Come back to us, Brett. This world isn’t ready to lose you, too.” Katelin brushed away a tear as she squeezed her brother’s hand.
Brett tried to squeeze back but couldn’t move his hand. He could feel a tear tracing a line down his cheek, but couldn’t move to wipe it away.