The Prodigal Hour, Chapter Three

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Chance awoke to bumps and shudders, a wailing, backward-rushing cacophony and the furtive rustle of crinkling plastic. Something clung over his nose and mouth, and pain throbbed in his head. His first thought was of his father and the gunman. His first emotion was panic. His first action was to sit up as he reached toward his face, where his fingertips brushed a mask.

Quick movement. A man to his left crouched over him. He wore a crisp, white shirt with a gold-and-black patch and put a latex-gloved hand on Chance’s chest. “Take it easy.”

“My dad.” Chance’s breath fogged the mask. His voice didn’t make it past the plastic.

“We’re taking you to County.”

Chance tried to rise, but the man pressed back against his chest, whispered something about sedation if necessary, and then, when Chance wouldn’t calm down, when Chance couldn’t calm down, made good on the warning. Chance felt a pinch near his elbow, looked down to see a clear plastic syringe with numbers on its side jammed to its hilt into his arm. He didn’t see the man depress the plunger, only felt calm, warm indifference spread like infection through his body before he sank slowly again into the darkness.

*

Chance woke on a thin sheet on an uncomfortable mattress: did it feel familiar because hospitals are all the same? Electronic beeps, metal clinking, the sharp scent of disinfectant over something biological. He tried to swallow but his tongue was too dry, and a dull ache throbbed through his tightening shoulder. He tried to move it to work out the kink, but pain sliced through his deltoid and made him groan. His blue eyes had always been sensitive to light, and he squeezed them shut to clear his vision.

Trish Lackesis appeared at his side. Her hair was swept back in a tight ponytail, and concern had drawn her lips thin, crinkled the corners of her green eyes.

“Aunt Trish,” Chance said. Trish wasn’t actually a relative, but her family—which included her husband Nick and their children, Cassie and Dan—had lived across the street from Chance all through his childhood.

“You’re awake,” Trish said.

Chance attempted to nod, but he felt like his brain had become a giant storm cloud; a few thoughts flashed across like lightning, but mostly there was just a lot of rumbling. He licked his lips. “My dad.”

“I haven’t heard. How do you feel?”

“Groggy.”

“They sedated you.”

Chance remembered the white-shirted man, the syringe, the panic. Chance hated hospitals. The last time he’d been in one, a few years before, his father had undergone an emergency bypass. The time before that he’d lost his mother to terminal cancer.

“They said you’ll be okay,” she told him.

Chance considered his shoulder, which throbbed like it didn’t plan to let him forget about it anytime soon, but said nothing.

A perfunctory knock on the curtain surrounding Chance’s bed, and a man in a suit stepped around it. He identified himself as Officer Burdick from the local police force and apologized for having to ask Chance a few questions. “If that’s okay.”

Chance nodded.

“First, there were shots fired but no one else seems to have heard anything—.”

“I think he had a silencer.”

Burdick took a note in a small notepad. “You get a look at him?”

“He had a ski mask on. But I did hear him tell my father to give him something. Sorry it’s not much to go on.”

“Any little bit can help,” Burdick said, then produced a plastic bag that clinked and jingled as he gave it to Chance. “Paramedics took these off you when you came in.”

Chance took the bag and opened it, letting its contents fall to the sheetfolds over his stomach: his wallet, his cell phone, his keys, and then a ring. When he picked it up, memory rushed back so hard he thought he heard his father call his name, heard himself whisper to his father not to talk.

“What?” Trish said.

Chance hadn’t realized he had spoken aloud, his attention caught by the ten glittering diamonds, the elaborate crucifix etched with a large sapphire set behind it. The rosary ring his mother had given Chance on the occasion of his confirmation into Catholicism, and the ring his father had pressed into his hand earlier. Each diamond marked a decade to designate ten “Hail Mary”s and an “Our Father,” prayers Chance had learned in a private elementary school and had continued to recite with some frequency until his mother had gotten sick—

The diagnoses and the white rooms. The doctors with hushed voices. The oxygen tank that had put his mother in perpetual danger of tipping over.

He had prayed until he could no longer find the words, until he had felt empty. He had turned his attention away from Heaven and to his mother, and he had given her his ring. He had told her he hoped she found comfort with it.

She had worn it around her neck until the end. His father had offered the ring back when she passed away, but Chance had told him to keep it. He wondered whether he had hoped his father would find comfort with it or he just hadn’t thought it could do any good any more.—

“Chance?” Burdick asked.

“It’s just an old ring my mom gave me once. My father gave it to me just before—,” Chance said, but his voice caught on him. He clenched his fist around the ring.

Burdick nodded. “I’m going to call this in. Excuse me,” he withdrew.

Even as he did so, two other people entered: the first a man in green scrubs, a surgical mask loose around his neck. His glasses had no rims, but the lines in his face made up for it.

An older black woman followed him. She wore a lavender suit over a white blouse with a collar so high it nearly reached her chin, and a pair of gold-rimmed glasses hung on a pearl necklace down to her bosom. She held a metal clipboard in the crook of her arm.

“Chance Sowin?” the man asked.

Chance nodded, but he was only barely listening. His attention was caught by the clipboard, which looked like bad news.

“Are you Mrs. Sowin?” he asked Trish.

“No. A friend of the family.”

“I need to speak to Chance alone.”

Chance shook his head. “She stays. She was the only one here when I woke up, and she’ll be the only one here after you tell me whatever you have to say.”

The man nodded. “I’m Doctor Beldowicz,” he said, hesitated, and in that hesitation Chance lost the world. It slowed, and when the doctor spoke again, Chance found he couldn’t quite grasp the words.

“Multiple gunshot wounds.”

another shot, and searing pain

“Best attempts to resuscitate him.”

an antiseptic emergency room where a heart monitor tweeped like a metronome, and a cluster of men and women stared somberly down

“Failed.”

the beat became a steady tone that went on and on and on

“Sorry.”

Those other words had felt dense, but that last one was a black hole, so strong and explosive it pulled everything Chance knew into it before bursting it out the other side. Up until then, time had played tricks on him, two-step shimmying helter-skelter forward when he’d first gotten home until sedation and shock had slowed it to an oooozing near-stop, but finally it snapped.

Trish gasped, but suddenly she seemed a long way away. The world seemed bigger than it had a moment before, and more empty; his body didn’t feel heavy so much as suddenly and excruciatingly hollowed: this is what it feels like to become an orphan.

This is what it feels like to know you’re alone in the world. This is what it feels like to realize that the people you always counted on to be there for you, to help you and keep you safe, no longer can because they are gone.

Chance hadn’t expected that. After his mother had succumbed to cancer, he realized, he had expected his father to always pull through, because surely if you lose one parent, the other one has to stay. Surely the only parent you’ve got left can’t abandon you.

No tears came. It might have surprised him, but he remembered running from the crumbling-down World Trade Center just weeks before; he hadn’t cried then, either. Some pain is just too big right away. Sometimes there are too many emotions, and sometimes the sadness is just too dense, like the dust that clouds the streets and avenues you were only just learning by heart. Sometimes you just want the world to be normal again, secure again. Sometimes you just want to go home.

But what if going home doesn’t bring the comfort, the safety, the normalcy you thought it might? What if you go home and find busted doors and bullets? What then?

The woman who had come in with the doctor spoke. Chance attempted to follow her words as best he could: “Talk to someone.” Something about funeral homes and considerations, and then she inquired after his father’s organs. His father had not made arrangements, and so Chance signed a form the doctor hurried away with, and the woman asked in a slow, soothing voice if Chance wanted to see his father, or if Chance needed anything.

He sensed he did, though not what, and he wasn’t ready to see his father, not when some part of him still hoped it wasn’t true. He shook his head.

The woman nodded and stepped from the room as another doctor entered. This one—bald like he chose it, built like he worked at it—introduced himself though Chance missed his name, checked Chance’s chart and the dressing on Chance’s shoulder. “It’s a nice graze,” he said, with a vaguely British accent, “But I don’t think you need a sling. Just some rest. You were sedated, so I think I’d like to keep you overnight—.”

“No. I don’t want to stay here. I just want to go home,” Chance said. He didn’t want to be there anymore. He wanted a shower, and a real mattress on a real bed.

“The police were still there when I left,” Trish said. “But you can stay with us. And we’ll keep a good close eye on him,” she told the doctor.

*

Down the highway home, past familiar houses on familiar corners, mom-and-pop convenience stores and banks with brick facades. The sun was setting, but a storm cloud like a bruise approached from the east, its dark body blazed brilliant orange on its edge.

Trish followed a winding road through their development to park in her driveway. Across the street, two boxy, white Crown Victorias clogged Chance’s driveway. He assumed they were unmarked police cruisers by the antennae both had behind their rear windows.

He wondered if the police had any leads. He worried he hadn’t been helpful enough.

Chance had already shouldered his door open with his good arm by the time Trish got around the hood to offer her hand. She led him up the walk to the large, white, Tudor house whose siding gleamed like eggshells in the fading daylight. Up the steps, and she opened the big, wooden front door with its etched glass windows to let Chance into her house, where he paused in the foyer. His body didn’t ache so much as it felt slow, like he was hungover.

“Why don’t you have a seat in the living room? I’ll bring you a cup of my special coffee,” Trish offered.

Chance had drunk her spiked, spiced coffee during many evenings when their families had dined together. “That’d be great.”

*

The first thing Chance noticed when he stepped into the living room was the collage of pictures and family portraits hanging above the hearth opposite the entryway: Dan in a singlet pinning another boy to the mat; Trish in a one-piece black swimsuit, her hair dark and sleek-back from a swim, a book open on her abdomen and her sunglasses hiding her smile; Nick in a fisherman’s hat, holding up a trophy-sized, green and grey trout and staring at it like he couldn’t decide whether to eat it or hang it above the mantle.

Chance found Cassie’s small senior college portrait, and he swallowed. Of course she had changed. Everyone does, and she was no exception, but instead of the usual swelling of curves or loss of hair . . . her glasses were gone, which meant they no longer hid her blue eyes, and her smile was free of her braces. Her porcelain skin and wavy black hair rendered him unable to think except in clichés.

Longing: noticing her, first, when he’d begun to notice girls in the ways that young men do. He had asked her if he could go out with her, once upon a time when he’d been a sophomore in high school, she a freshman, but she had only chuckled and said, of course you can, Chance, we always go out together. The tone of her voice, the way she had said it, had prevented him from correcting her, from telling her he meant it in a completely different way—

He had kissed her once. Just once, at the lake. He’d been twelve and she had been eleven, and they had found themselves beneath a maple tree behind the snack shack where they’d bought watermelon ropes and cherry Cokes. The memory of that day was so strong Chance felt again the sun on his back, tasted her cola lips and smelled the coconut oil-sheen on her skin. He remembered, all over again, the ignorant lust her lips had stirred in him when they’d met his own, the absolute knowledge that he wanted more of her and the complete absence of any idea what it might have been.—

Some things change so hard they shock you, but other things never do. Chance took a deep breath, and by the time he’d let it out, his lips had curled into a faint smile. Which surprised him, because he hadn’t thought he had a smile in him. Not then.

A knock behind him, and a voice: “Chance?”

He turned to see Nick in the doorway. Tall, with Kennedy-thick dark hair. He wore a green polo shirt and khakis, but looked like he should have been all in white and on a tennis court.

“Hey, Uncle Nick,” Chance said.

“How are you, Chance?”

He didn’t know what to say. He wasn’t sure yet.

Nick moved to put a hand on Chance’s shoulder, but Chance dodged sideways.

“Bad shoulder,” he explained. “Doctor said the bullet grazed me.”

Nick looked at his shoulder, nodded. “Sorry. And sorry about your dad.”

“Thanks.”

Nick stuck his hands in his pockets. “Jerry Nazor’s in the dining room,” he said. Nazor was a detective in the local police department; as a teenager, Chance had worked with Nazor’s son, Bram, at the local hardware store. “He’d like to talk to you, if you feel up to it.”

“Again? I just talked to one in the hospital.”

Nick shrugged. “Seems like Jerry’s in charge.”

Chance nodded. “Do they have any leads?” he asked even as he started to leave.

Pain jittered through his arm when his uncle grabbed his hand. “Wait.”

Chance yanked his hand away, gasping. He flexed his fingers, but the pain already felt distant, like it was in somebody else’s body. He wondered which was having greater effect, the painkillers or the sedatives.

“Sorry. It’s just—they might have a lead.”

“A suspect?” Chance asked.

“More like a motive. Few weeks ago, your father came over and asked if we could talk. I invited him in, but he said it wasn’t safe. So we went down to Main Street Bar, and he told me he’d built a hidden room in the basement after you left for school—.”

“What? Why wouldn’t he tell me?”

“He said he hadn’t wanted anyone to know. He seemed nervous.”

“So why’d he tell you?”

“He thought someone had found out about it, and he wanted me to destroy it if anything happened to him.”

“Destroy it?”

“He told me he built some security mechanisms into it—.”

“Did you tell the cops?”

“They found it themselves. But I didn’t tell them he wanted me to destroy it. I—I wanted you to hear it from me. Before I did.”

“What? You can’t. It’s evidence,” Chance said, trying to keep his voice low.

“Your father—.”

Chance cut him off. “My father’s dead, and I want to know why, and I’m not going to let you destroy the only clue we’ve got so far.”

“That’s not fair.”

Chance shrugged his good shoulder. “Sorry. I’ve seen a whole lot of not fair in the last few weeks. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’d like to talk to Jerry, so we can figure out who killed my father, and why.”

 

So what do you think is in that secret room? You could wait a couple of weeks to find out (the next chapter is going to flip back to Leonard Kensington. Or flip forward. Or sideways. It’s time travel), or you could click here to buy the novel for Kindle (or in paperback).


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