By: David P. Cantrell
Bette, a rehab nurse, wheeled me into a stainless steel shower room on a bathing table. The spinal cord injury and neck surgery had occurred weeks earlier and I hadn’t recovered much sensation, but I was thrilled to be showered rather than given another bed bath. A shower was so much more ordinary.
Bette chattered about her daughter’s upcoming high school Hawaiian Nights prom if I recall correctly. I clearly remember the dot pattern of black on silver perched above me.
A drop here, a drop there, and soon a spring rain fell. My lips tingled at its touch. Paralysis had made my body numb to the water’s caress, but not my face. Each drop was a precious reminder of a normal time, a time before the shooting.
Bette left the room and a blaring siren sounded shortly afterward.
The drops kept falling. I tried to call out, but my mouth filled with water and only a croak escaped. I turned my head to expel the water, but couldn’t breathe with my neck-brace on. The water gurgled, filling my sinuses.
I couldn’t stop it—I had to gasp for air. I’m going to die.
I don’t remember being saved, but I must have been because the next morning a cheery Filipino spoon fed me Cheerios while saying, “Hurry up. You go soon. I get you ready.”
“Where am I going?” She shrugged.
Tires screeched and the vehicle came to an angry stop. They, he, someone, shot the driver and the attendant.
A man with a strange accent said, “Quick. Push it down the gully.”
“Please. You don’t have to do this. I didn’t see anything.”
No one cared, or no one heard me, either way I was screwed.
Branches crunched under the weight of the ambulance before gravity took over and the world spun, end over end.
Not water, please not water.
Silence, followed by a squishy sucking sound, the top of the ambulance oozed into the river’s bottom. I hung upside down strapped to a gurney anchored to the vehicle’s floor. Blackish water inched towards me.
Water lapped at the ambulance walls ticking off the moments left in my life. I felt odd, actually calm. The smell of rotted vegetation gagged me and I laughed at myself for being disgusted by an odor but okay with my impending death.
Sunlight burst into the compartment. “Is anyone in there?”
“I’m on the gurney. I’m trapped.”
“Hang in there man. We’ll get you out. Stevenson, tell dispatch we’ve got a live one.”
I don’t remember much about the rescue, except falling into the muck when the straps were cut. My savior pulled me to the riverbank where others took charge and put me in another ambulance. It must have been a long drive because it was late afternoon when the ambulance stopped, and I heard the driver ask for the Quantico Navel Health Center. “Why are we here?” No one answered.
A Navy corpsman silently wheeled me through long corridors indistinguishable except by turns. The ceiling exposed stained tiles and cracked florescent lenses but little else until we passed through a jail style gate. Another corpsman helped my taciturn host transfer me to a bed and put a pillow under my head and collar. “What’s going on?” The door of the windowless room closed behind them.
My grandpa used to say, ‘Life’s a bitch—and then you die.’ It seemed truer now than when he’d said it.
Six weeks ago I stood at the railing of a hotel atrium, people-watching and enjoying the first day of my post-graduation vacation in our nation’s capital. Three loud bangs drew my attention to a set of double doors. Three weapon-bearing men burst through the doors running at me, and in an adrenalin craze I yelled stop and charged them. The lead weapon-bearer hit me with a forearm, like a guard clearing the way for his running back and I toppled over the railing. A palm tree and large philodendron saved my life, but not the fracture to my fourth vertebrae and a spinal cord contusion.
Now I lay here staring at ancient ceiling stains seeing patterns of bunnies and dragons. A squeak broke the reverie.
“My I come in?”
I couldn’t see the speaker, but it was a woman with a comforting voice. I gaped when a broad-shouldered six foot man came into view. He noticed.
“I know. My voice is unusual, and I’m not gay by the way, although that’s none of your business. Well, it might be, if you’re gay… Let me start again. I’m Special Agent Rolland Banks of the FBI. I’d like to talk to you.”
“Will you answer my questions?”
“If I can, I will.”
“Good. What in the hell is going on?”
“First, tell me your name, age and home address to confirm that I’m in the right room.”
“Doug Thorn, I’m twenty-five and my current address is 3421 Baker Street, San Luis Obispo, California.”
“Bingo. I’m in the correct room. You witnessed the assassination of the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of the Navy and a hotel manager in the Broadcort Hotel and miraculously survived. You had surgery to relieve pressure on your spinal cord and spent five and a half weeks in ICU before being transferred to a rehab facility.
Two days later, a woman calling herself Bette wheeled you into a shower room, jammed the door and triggered the fire alarm. You miraculously survived again, because a candy striper heard you choking.
This morning you were being taken to protective custody when your transport was attacked. You miraculously survived one more time when two off-duty firemen were fishing a tributary of the Anacostia River. That brings us to here. You are now in protective custody.”
“This is nuts. I didn’t see anything, just running men with giant guns. Why are they trying to kill me? Wait, why didn’t they kill me in the ambulance?”
“We don’t know. We think they got spooked and figured the river would do the job. Actually, the unofficial, official, word is that you died in the river.”
“Now I hypnotize you and find out what you really saw.”
“Come on, you’ve been at this for months. Don’t wimp out now. Do it for me and do it hard—prove you’re a man.” What a bitch—I love her dearly. Teri’s the best PT ever. I can stand and take six steps in the parallel bars without hanging on. It won’t be long before I’m walking out of this place.
I recognized Rolland’s voice immediately, but there was nothing effeminate this time. I struggled to salute him with my right hand, which he returned with a smile.
Teri seated me in a wheelchair and excused herself.
“It’s good to see you Rolland, but I’m surprised, it’s been six months.”
“I thought you’d like to know how much you helped us solve the murders.”
“Come on, I didn’t do anything.”
“Not true. You recalled the killer’s guns were revolvers and a teardrop tattoo under the left eye of your tackler. You saw the tartan linings of their white waiter jackets and that each wore Nike shoes. And, you remembered the Hawaiian Night’s theme for the prom. That turned out to be the lead that broke the case. The Secretaries of Defense and the Navy were collateral damage. The hotel manager, a Russian named Avilov, was the target. He had cheated his partners and all three paid the price.”
“I guess I should be happy, but to be honest, I don’t give a rat’s ass.”
“You should, because World War Three was as close as it had been during the Cuban missile crisis. The killers used Russian ammo and the possibility of political assassination had the hawks on the warpath.”
“I get it, but my life was destroyed by events completely beyond my control. It’s not fair.”
“So what. I was born with a falsetto voice that has brought me degradation you can’t imagine. I’ve survived and you will too.”
I looked at the big man with the little girl’s voice and thought how lucky I was to have met him. He was someone to respect, someone to emulate, not because he was better than others, but because he didn’t need to be.
Rolland had been right. I’ve not only survived, I’ve flourished. My life changing event had been a disguised blessing. Teri and I had our first child last spring, and I’m a newly assigned FBI special agent in the Indianapolis office, a good place to raise baby Rolland and find out what else life has instore for us.
David P. Cantrell © 2015, all rights reserved. David P. Cantrell is a contributing member of the EWI staff.
Photo attribution: Shower of Diamonds by Paul Sapiano.