I’ll never forget the afternoon Hank’s wife, Jess, gave us all such a scare.
As soon as Betsy turned her cell phone on after church, she knew she wouldn’t be seeing Hank and the kids. The beep of the voicemail was all she needed. The message they left was hardly necessary. It seemed like the only time the kids called these day was to cancel plans. She listened anyway to her daughter-in-law, Jess,’ chirpy voicemail. “Sorry Mom! We won’t be able to make it up today. Mia has a cheer competition.”
It was always something. Betsy tried not to be too disappointed anymore. Heaven’s sake! Since when did kids start playing sports on Sundays? Just didn’t seem right. They were always running here and there and every which way. Seems like they could take one day off to just be a family!
Betsy sat in the driveway for a moment more, reluctant to spend another cold, lonely afternoon in the farmhouse. Was it just her, or were winters getting colder? Some nights it seemed near impossible to get warm. She remembered that she’d set the stove to cut on while she was at church. Oh well, she’d be eating an awful lot of chicken casserole this week. She slowly opened the door of her towncar and made her way to the house.
Jess was alone. She looked at her reflection in the bathroom mirror. Yesterday’s hairstyle drooped in greasy tangles. Her eyes were blood shot, and she had a toxic feeling in her stomach that matched the pounding in her head. She shouldn’t have had so much wine last night.
She dug through the medicine cabinet for a bottle of sleeping pills. Hank got a call in the early hours of the morning to work the aftermath of a driveby shooting, and she’d let Mia and Max spend the day with friend.
Her week had been hell. The lowlight was a disrupted placement, one of the worse things about being a social worker. It meant angry accusations from foster parents that felt like they hadn’t been well enough prepared for a child’s behaviors. It was heartbreak and tears from a child who couldn’t understand why nobody loved him enough to keep trying. For Jess, it was also the stress of trying to find yet another home for a child who had been disrupted so many times. No wonder she hardly slept.
Her hand found the medicine bottle. How many could she take? One? Two? She tried to shake from her mind the memory of the night before. It had been innocent, really. Just a couple of drinks after work with a co-worker. She and Hank hardly saw each other anymore; she just wanted to unwind. She shouldn’t have had so much wine, things wouldn’t have gotten so flirty.
Could she take three pills? How long would she sleep then? Jess couldn’t remember the last time she and Hank had really connected. Ever since the move to the city, it was like they were so caught up in their work, they had little time for anything else. She wondered if the kid’s coaches saw more of them then she did. Yet another thing to feel guilty about. Screw it. She didn’t feel bad about spending time with Brian last night. How was she supposed to do it all? Didn’t anyone realize it was too much?
Would four pills still the voices in her head? The accusing voices that said she was a lousy mother who hardly saw her kids? The condemning voice that said the was a horrible, unfaithful wife? The feelings of failure in the face of needs were so much greater than she could fix. She’d been so naive once. She was the blushing bride, the helicopter mom, the newly minted caseworker who really believed the best about people and just wanted to make a difference. Now she just wanted to sleep. To go somewhere far, far away from all the ways in which she wasn’t enough.
Five pills would take her to a dark, quiet place with no more voices, no more expectations. Five pills would take her away from looks of accusation. Five would take her away from failure and Sisyphean tasks. Five would be enough…
Betsy sat up in her bed with a start. She rubbed the sleep of a drowsy afternoon nap from her eyes. Her heart was racing and tears stung her eyes. Was she having a heart attack? She slowly started reciting the words of the 23rd Psalm. She soon found herself on her knees beside the bed, drawn to pray. She worked her way down the list of folks she normally prayed for, and idly wondered if her prayers really mattered? As always, she made especially sure to pray for Hank and his family.
If ever a saint has cried from beneath the throne, it was me on the afternoon Hank’s Jess was so overwhelmed by darkness! I saw that dark cloud overshadow her. Oh, but where was Hank? I prayed the Lord would send him home in time!
The pretty red head stood in front of the camera, finishing an update about a tragic shooting in eastern Henrico County. Hank just tried to stay out of the camera as he worked, discreetly noticing the reporters shapely legs, and wondering if she were chilly. Sleet pinged against the lampposts and skittered across plowed piles of snow from earlier in the week.
Hank’s boots sank into nearly a foot of icy sludge. He tried not to think about the girl- nearly the same age as Mia- that he zipped into the black bag. It was the third drive-by this month. He picked a blood spattered purple mitten out of the gray slush and laid it on top. In the hours he spent interviewing witnesses , he tried not to let it get to him.
The mitten was breaking him, either that or the neon barrettes in the child’s carefully braided hair. So senseless, a brother and sister were walking home from Sunday School when some thugs decided to open fire on a rival. The only people hurt were those innocent kids. No one had gotten a license plate, or could even offer a corroborating description of the car. Hank swore in disgust.
“Coffee?” A gopher from the news crew was passing out coffee from a nearby Burger King, in hopes of a couple usable soundbites for the evening news.
“Yeah” Anything to be warm again. Hank stomped the ice off his boots.
“Any comment on the shooting?”
“The chief will give an official statement. There’s nothing I have to say that you could air”
The lanky police officer took his coffee and headed for the warmth of a patrol car. He fumbled the door open with barely felt fingers. Hank caught his reflection’ as he sat in the drivers seat. When had he gotten so old? The gray of the winter had leeched into his hair and beard. Even his eyes were cold. He turned the key in the ignition, even the cool air coming from the heater was better than what was outside
He was young once. He’d been happy. When had he last smiled? When had he last laughed? He couldn’t even remember the last time he and Jess had made love. It was easier just to avoid her lately.
Just when the car was getting warm and fingers had begun to thaw, he remembered that he still needed to check with Clive about the surveillance footage from the nearby gas station. With any luck, the car had come past it. He turned off the cruiser and braced himself.
The lot was slick. Sleet and snow were coming thicker. There were only a few vehicles left, a handful of officers in orange parkas, a couple of news crews, and a lone ambulance. Hank spotted Clive and started to jog towards him. He paid little attention to the semi coming down Nine Mile Rd. That is, until it hit a large, sloppy puddle of slush and showered him in the sludge.
“Did you see that”
“I can’t believe that guy just did that”
“That’s gotta be friggin cold”
By the time Hank cleared the sooty ice water from his eyes, Clive was doubled over laughing. The other officers were either joining in or shaking their heads in disbelief. Hank was soaked, dripping, and starting to shiver. A remaining EMT ran over with an itchy wool blanket.
“Better head home, we’ll finish up here “. Clive Staples face was still red, but he’d managed to stop laughing.
“I’m not going to argue with you. I could use a hot shower right about now”. Hank pulled his notes from his jacket. “I’ll be in tomorrow morning to finish my report. You can have my notes in case you need them sooner. I’ve got about 20 conflicting descriptions of the suspects and the car. Surveillance show anything?”
“Maybe. To early to tell if there’s anything helpful. It’ll have to wait till Monday morning. Go on home. There’s not much else to be done here”
Hank mused as he returned to his warm cruiser. Normally, Hank would have stuck around to the very end, then gone back to the station to file his report. Was he that fastidious, or was he just avoiding his family? He didn’t want to answer the questioning voices in his head. Word was hard, but he usually got a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day. Jess had become unfathomable to him anymore and the kids… they were busy. He guessed that he and Jess were doing well by them. They got good grades, played sports, and stayed out of trouble. He just saw so little of them that things had become…awkward….
As Hank drove, the neighborhoods gradually became nicer. He and Jess couldn’t afford anything really upscale, but the little community they lived in was nice enough. His salary at the Henrico County Sheriff’s Department seemed a lot compared to what he would have made in South Fork, but he hadn’t accounted for how much more expensive everything was in northern Virginia. Still, they did ok. Not well enough for Jess to go to part time like she wanted to, but the bills got paid and they had most of what they wanted. Was it worth moving so far from their family and friends? He didn’t know anymore. Especially after days like today.
“Jess! I’m home” He stomped his feet on the front rug, his voice echoed in the empty home.
“Jess, kids, anybody home?” Typical. Well, he’d get a shower, then get the tv to himself for a while. Maybe grab a beer. If Jess was home, she’d have made him a hot toddy. For a moment, he missed his wife. Then he shook himself and remembered, she wasn’t that girl anymore. Still, she should be home. She usually slept most of her days off.
“Jess?” He poked his head into the bedroom. There she was, asleep. He remembered when he used to sit up at night and watch her sleep, amazed that such a pretty girl had agreed to marry him. Should he wake her? She looked as if she could use a shower, too. And it HAD been a really long time.
“Jess?” He walked over to touch her shoulder. The hair rose on the back of his neck. Something was wrong. Her breathing was too shallow. Her lips had a bluish tinge. He snapped into police mode, noticing the overturned bottle of pills on the nightstand and the misshapen way she lay across the bed. He forced himself to call 9-1-1 before starting first aid.
“O God!” he groaned, waiting for the operator to pick up. It was the first prayer he’d sent up in a while.