|More Litter than Literature
The letter arrived the day of the accident.
Karen had just gotten in the front door and thrown her coat over the back of the sofa. Mom would pester her later to put it away. She would say that it didn't take any more effort to put it away as soon as she came through the door than it did later, adding that it would save someone else the effort of reminding her. Then she'd smile and give Karen a little hug.
It was Mom who had insisted Karen take the jacket to school in the first place. Karen had insisted back that it wasn't cold, and she'd been right. That day in late March had been the warmest day of the year yet, a glimpse of the summer break that was just around the corner.
Karen bent to pick up the mail in front of the slot on the door. Junk mail, bill, bill, junk mail, coupon book, junk . . . no, it was a letter addressed to her. The return address was "Summer Daze Youth Camps" in some town in Maryland that she had never heard of. Probably junk mail after all, but she'd take a look at it over a piece of toast and a glass of milk before she threw it away.
Karen put the rest of the mail on the small table by the front door and headed off to the kitchen.
The doorbell rang.
Karen glanced out the window. If there was a car there it was blocked by the front entry way. What did it matter? She'd find out who it was when she opened the door. Karen had a fleeting memory of the excitement the doorbell had carried since she could remember, her and her siblings rushing on their tiny legs to be the first one to open the door.
For some reason, Karen didn't want to open the door.
The first thing she saw was the police car. Even before she focused on the officer in the doorway she looked over his shoulder and saw it parked at the curb. She felt a chill. "Miss Scanlon? Karen Scanlon?" Karen nodded. "I need you to come with me."
Karen couldn't speak. Why did she feel afraid? No, she wouldn't. She didn't know this man. He wants to do something to me, he's not a cop, he's a . . . he's a bad man. Karen turned away, feeling frantic, like she needed to run into the house, get away somehow. Just then the front door of the police car opened and Mrs. Daniels, her mom's best friend from up the street stepped out and rushed up the sidewalk.
"Karen, Karen honey, it's okay. It's okay. We just need you to come with us. It's okay."
Karen didn't believe her. It wasn't okay. Police cars don't come to pick you up when it's okay, but she didn't say anything. She just nodded and started out the door.
Then she stopped. "I . . . I need to get my jacket."
As Karen walked through the sliding doors into the Emergency Room the first person she saw was her dad. He was standing in the center of the waiting room looking toward the doors as though he was expecting her, but his eyes looked right through her without any sign of recognition.
In the car Elaine Daniels had explained that there had been an accident. Her mom had been taken to the hospital, but that was all she would say. In response to Karen's question about how her mother was doing Elaine replied that she wasn't sure. Karen didn't ask again, afraid to hear the answer.
As Karen crossed the room she searched her father's face for some assurance that her worst fears were just her imagination. "How . . ." she started to say, but her voice caught. She had to inhale deeply and try again. "How is Mom doing?"
Karen saw her father's eye's twitch slightly. "Karen . . . "
"No." Karen said. "No, Dad, please, no." Her dad never called her Karen. She had been K-pup to him as long as she could remember.
"You're mother is . . . she's been . . . " he made a sound like a feeble growl. "Mom didn't make it."
The tears that had been fighting the lump in Karen's throat finally erupted. "No! No! That's not right! No! I just saw her this morning. She was fine. There's some mistake."
Karen's father caught her in his arms as her legs collapsed. He supported her weight for a minute as she sobbed, then guided her to the plastic chairs that lined the walls of the waiting room. The two of them sat with faces buried in each other's shoulders. After a time Karen tried to pull away to wipe her eyes, but her dad pulled her back.
Karen felt him shudder as he inhaled deeply then he nuzzled his eyes into the fabric of her jacket before he let her pull away. As she wiped her eyes her father looked away.
Karen felt like she was in a dream. Time and space had no meaning. All sensation was gone. She heard herself asking "Are you sure?" Her dad didn't answer.
Karen wiped her eyes. She began to breathe again. Gradually she regained her composure. She was aware of Elaine Daniels sitting next to her and the cop talking to the lady at the reception desk. Suddenly she started sobbing again and buried her face in her knees.
Her dad held his hand on her back and stared up into the corner.
Sequoia Valley Regional Medical Center was the august name the city fathers had attached to the new hospital when it had opened five years earlier. The townsfolk joked that the sign took up more space than the building. Not that anyone was complaining about having a new hospital. The one it had replaced was built in the early 1900s and had seen little improvement since then.
The clean and attractive complex was adjacent to the Physicians' Plaza set at the end of the main street. At the time the hospital was built it had been on the outskirts of town. Since then housing developments had sprouted all along Lobo Canyon Road clear up to the mouth of the canyon. Beyond that were the mountains.
Halfway down Main Street between the hospital and the highway was the cutoff road. The winding road connected the original settlement which was now the business district to the housing up on the mesa.
"So up there is the old part of town?" Kyle asked as he ran the measuring wheel along the skid marks.
His partner sighed. "Okay, one more time, Newbie. That's the old part of town down there. Up this way is the new part of town." Steve suspected that in the two weeks Kyle had been on the force, he had figured out the local puzzle. But they both enjoyed playing the game. "Down there is where the original settlement was. After that people built houses up on the mesa. Thus, the 'new' in the new part of town."
Kyle copied the distance from the measuring wheel into the accident report. He looked from the sharp curve where was standing to where the road disappeared over the ridge before it emerged again just before the crest of the mesa. "Fair enough," he said, "But the newest house up there is an antique."
"Easy, Bozo. I grew up in Fruit Heights. Most of the old buildings in the business district were torn down when I was a kid. We did urban renewal before urban renewal was cool."
"All I'm saying is that every single building in the "new" part of town is newer than the newest building in . . . Hmm."
"What?" Steve asked.
"I dunno," said Kyle. "It's just that . . . Do these skid marks seem long to you?"
Steve looked at them. "How long are they?" Kyle showed him the report. Steve adjusted his leather utility belt then moved the cap back on his head. Kyle had already noticed that maneuver that meant Steve was thinking.
"Nah," Steve said. "That's about right."
"Okay. It just seemed odd since she was traveling uphill at the time."
Both police officers were quiet for a moment. "What a rotten deal. Did you know her?" Kyle asked.
"Not really. A little, you know. Town this size you kinda' know everybody. It's just too bad."
The phone rang three times before Daniel answered. Once because he was asleep and twice more because he was trying to get rid of the groggy you woke me up quality of his voice.
"Did you get the list?"
"I'm doing fine, thanks for asking." Daniel wouldn't have answered at all if he'd known Mr. Reynolds's sniveling aide had been assigned to make the call. Daniel knew that the next words he was going to hear were the Statement of Authority, the invoking of the name of Lou (everyone else had to call him Mr. Reynolds) which was supposed to result in his cowering in fear. As far as he could tell Lou's assistant John had one qualification—he wasn't female. While he did sound an awful lot like Richard Simmons, John met the threshold requirement of being technically a male. That requirement had been imposed by Lou's wife, who wore a completely different brand of bra than the one that had ended up in Lou's travel bag after the trip to Philadelphia.
"Lou wants everyone to . . ." Daniel didn't hear what John had to say next, as he was finishing the throat clearing he started when the phone rang.
"I'm sorry, what was that again?" Daniel could hear the sarcasm in the silence. He wasn't about to beg John to talk to him. Finally John resumed, sounding a little hurt in a Richard Simmons-like way.
"Lou is requiring everyone to submit their lists by no later than 2 pm today." Daniel glanced at the green numbers on the clock next to his bed. 10: 34 am. That meant he had been in bed a little more than five hours. "All information must be included and the form . . . "
"Got it," said Daniel, and hung up.
"I am so getting fired," he said to himself as he flopped back down onto the pillow.
Daniel tried every trick he knew to fall asleep. He rolled left. He tried to remember something really boring he could recite in his head. He counted backwards from 100. He rolled right. When he opened his eyes the clock was right in his face. It said 10:41.
With a sigh Daniel rolled out of bed and picked up the phone. He scrolled down his contacts list while
ambling down the hall to the bathroom.
Daniel quickly pulled on jeans and dove into the pile on his floor for a shirt. The first two didn't pass the sniff test, but the third seemed like it would do. By the time the doorbell rang the second time he had his laptop under his arm and a baseball cap on his head. It was great to be a guy.
"Hey, Michaela, thanks for coming over." He quickly slipped out the opening of the door before
Michaela could look into his apartment. "I thought we'd run down to The Creamery and grab some coffee
and sweet rolls. We can get an internet connection there."
As it turned out Daniel had most of the information he needed for his list, it just took some looking around the servers. Michaela was able to establish a VPN connection and pull it onto Daniel's computer for formatting. The only thing missing was a reply from one Karen Scanlon.
"Did you get her forms?"
And now, for something completely different