Read The Banks of Certain Rivers Online

Authors: Jon Harrison

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Drama & Plays, #United States, #Nonfiction

The Banks of Certain Rivers (27 page)

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“No, I’m sorry. I want you to get your CPA. If you want
to do it, I want to help.”

“Thank you. It’s just—” Wendy sighed and
closed her eyes. “God, that cat.”

We said nothing more, and slept soundly for what felt like the first
time in days. Dreamless sleep while the snowstorm built outside. But
at four in the morning—precisely four-zero-zero, I looked at
the clock—I was awakened by a thud and a cry from Christopher’s
room across the hall. The moonlight, diffused by the heavily falling
snow, seeped into our room with a soft blue glow.

“What is it?” Wendy mumbled.

“I’ll check on him.”

A steady whimper came from Christopher’s room. It must have
been a bad dream, I thought, a monster not tucked in with the night.
Entering his room I was confused by the fact that his crying came
from the floor and not from high in his bunk, and by a strange rich
smell filling the air. I knelt down and reached through the darkness,
and my fingers touched the bumpy curve of his spine.

“Chris, kiddo, are you okay?” I rubbed his back and
turned him toward me, and the whimpering didn’t stop. A warmth
flowed onto my bare chest as I held him to me, and my skin prickled
in the instant I realized the warmth and the cuprous smell in the
room were from my son’s blood.

“Chris, what happened?”

Wendy came to the doorway. “What’s going on?” she
asked sleepily.

“Don’t turn on the light,” I said. Thinking about
it, I’m not sure why I told her that. I must have been I was
afraid of what I’d see. I helped Chris, still softly
blubbering, up to his feet, and guided him out of the room. “Come
on, kiddo. Let’s go to the bathroom.”

“What is going on?” Wendy asked again, her voice a little
higher now. “Neil?”

“We’re going into the bathroom,” I said. Chris and
I went in first, and through the flicker of the hallway nightlight
and my sleep-clouded vision I saw a darkness over my chest and
underwear as well as down Christopher’s pajama shirt.

“Chris,” Wendy said, a flicker of anxiety in her voice.
“Are you—”

“Don’t turn on the light, yet, don’t turn on—”

The bathroom filled with harsh brightness, and Wendy gasped while I
nearly swooned: blood ran from Christopher’s mouth in a
continual flow, and his lower lip hung slack from his face like a
donkey’s.

“Oh my God, what happened?” Wendy cried, rushing forward,
putting her hand to her baby’s chin. My knees went weak and I
eased myself to the edge of the tub. I’d seen people bleed
before, profusely, even, but seeing my own son hemorrhaging like this
was too much. It was like he was vomiting blood, non-stop, and I
looked at my feet and took some deep breaths.

“I feel…a flap in my mouth,” Chris managed to say.

“You’re okay, honey,” Wendy said. She pulled a hand
towel from the bar on the wall and pressed it to his face. “You’re
okay you’re okay you’re okay. Come on, let’s go to
mommy and daddy’s room….” She took him out of the
bathroom, and I stayed behind to regain my composure. As I focused on
breathing, I heard Wendy go on: “You’re okay you’re
okay you’re okay…oh, honey, what happened?”

“I think…I hit my face on the floor. But I was asleep.”

I went to Chris’s room and flipped on the light, what I saw
nearly made me feel faint all over again. The carpet was patterned
with pools and footprints and handprints of blood, and a sheet hung
crazily from the edge of the top bunk. He’d fallen out of bed
and hit his face, but it looked like a murder scene. I joined them in
our room, and willed myself to keep calm.

“Oh, Chris, you’re okay,” Wendy whispered, while
flashing me a look showing she didn’t think he was okay at all.
She held the towel to his face with her left hand, and stroked his
hair with her right. Otto, the prodigal cat, jumped up to our bed and
sniffed at the blood on Christopher’s face.

“Get Otto away,” Chris said, muffled by the towel. I
grabbed the cat and put him on the floor.

“I think we need to get him to the hospital,” I said.

“Ambulance?” Wendy asked. “Do we even try to drive
in this?”

“I’ll call 911.” Still in just my bloodied
underwear, I went to the kitchen for the phone. Through the window I
could barely see the utility light on the Olssons’ pole barn,
so I knew it had to be snowing very hard. I watched the snow, and
marveled at how calm the emergency dispatcher seemed when she
answered my call.

“My son…” I stammered. “He…he fell
out of his bed…he has an injury to his face. And a lot of
blood loss, I think.”

“Do you need an ambulance?”

“I think so, yes.”

There was a pause. “With this weather it will be at least an
hour to your location. Do you have a four-wheel drive vehicle?”

“Uh, let me, let me call you back.” I ran back to the
bedroom. “I think we need to drive him in,” I said.

“Okay, Chris, sweetie, we’re going to drive you to the
hospital. Neil, why don’t you get dressed.”

I pulled on some clothes and traded places with Wendy while she
dressed herself. I tried to not press Chris’s face too firmly,
and the cat jumped back onto the bed and nosed at the towel.

“Otto…stop,” Chris said.

“It’s just Doctor Otto,” I said. “He’s
giving you an exam. He thinks you need to go to the hospital.”

“Go away, Otto.”

“I have the keys,” Wendy said. I threw our comforter
around Chris and lifted him up.

“You’re pretty heavy, kiddo. Keep the towel on your face,
okay?”

“Don’t let Otto get out,” Chris mumbled.

Wendy led us through the house, opening the garage door and the
backseat door to her old Chevy Blazer for me. It was too awkward to
simply deposit Chris in the car, so I eased myself in backwards with
him on my lap.

“Can you drive?” I asked Wendy as she got in the front
seat.

“Yes, I can drive.” She backed the car into a world of
swirling snow, and crept down the drive to the highway. The road had
been plowed at least once already, but about three new inches of snow
had accumulated since, and it continued to fall steadily.

“Not too fast,” I said.

“I know what I’m doing.” The car fishtailed in a
turn, and Wendy gasped. “Someone’s going to think I’m
driving drunk!”

“No one’s out here. Just keep going.”

“The people at the hospital are going to think we did this to
Chris.”

“They won’t. They can tell those things. They’ll
ask him to make sure.”

At the main highway, Wendy worked up to almost forty miles per hour,
and the snow made a curtain of white in our headlights.

“Turn your brights off,” I said. “It will be easier
to see.”

“I want them on.”

“But you’ll be—”

“I’m the one driving!”

Chris let out a little moan. “It’s hurts,” he said
from my lap. “I can feel a flap with my tongue. In front of my
teeth.”

“Leave it, Chris,” I said. “Don’t mess with
it.” I pressed on the towel, and Chris whimpered.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “Hang in there.”

We made it to the hospital at twenty ‘til six; the emergency
staff rushed us in, got Chris in a bed and hooked up to an IV drip.
We were lucky in that the plastic surgeon on call was already there
for a car accident a couple hours before; he looked Chris over and
pulled at his lip. I saw bone glisten white through bloody flesh as
the doctor probed with his gloved fingers and I had to look away.
Chris didn’t make a sound.

“You’re pretty tough,” the doctor said, and he told
the nurses to get Chris ready for surgery. Wendy visibly trembled
when she heard him say it, but she kept herself together. The doctor
motioned us out of the emergency bay.

“He pulled his gum away from his lower jaw,” he explained
to us, tugging his own lip down with his fingers to demonstrate. “You
said he fell out of a bed? I’ve seen this before in car
accidents. Not quite so substantial, though. Not so wide a
separation. And it’s usually associated with more facial
trauma. I’ll anchor the gum to his teeth with sutures, and
within a year the tissue will recontour itself in there so you won’t
even be able to tell anything happened.”

The doctor left us to get ready, and we watched the nurses prepare
our son. They joked with him, and told him how brave he was. When the
anesthetist came to put him under, they told him he’d start to
feel sleepy.

“To be honest, Chris,” one of the nurses said with a wink
as she leaned over him, “it feels pretty nice.”

We walked with him as far as we could to the doors of the operating
room. Wendy said bye and covered her mouth with her hand, and I told
him we’d see him in a little bit. He was already out of it.
Once they pushed him through and the doors swung shut, Wendy fell
apart sobbing. The nurses swarmed around her, embracing her, and I
stepped back.

“You did a good job, mom….”

“He’ll be fine, Doctor Fenton is the best….”

“When my son cut his forehead I was the same way….”

I stepped away while the nurses comforted my wife. I felt, in a way,
inadequate. More than inadequate. I found a waiting area to sit and
think, and enumerate my inadequacies:

I’d nearly fainted when I saw how Chris was hurt.

I’d bickered with my wife on the drive.

I couldn’t support her when they took our son away.

I sat with my eyes closed, and some time later I felt someone sit
down next to me. It was Wendy, and she took my hand. Her eyes were
red and she put her head on my shoulder.

“Thank you,” she told me.

“For what?”

“For being here. For being so brave. I couldn’t have
handled this by myself.”

“I wasn’t so brave,” I said. “Chris is braver
than both of us.”

We waited. The surgery wasn’t long, only an hour or so, and
Christopher came out with strips of tape up under his chin to support
the sutures inside his mouth. They made sure he was alert and okay,
and let us go home that afternoon. The roads were plowed when we
drove back.

Chris stayed in our bed for the first few days after the fall. We fed
him chicken broth from an eyedropper, and later, mashed potatoes when
he was ready to chew. We read him books and he played with his new
Christmas toys. Otto stayed at his side. After a week, if it weren’t
for the tape, you wouldn’t have known anything had happened to
him.

I remember at the time thinking: wow, that’s it, that was
it
,
that was our big parental test. Everybody gets one. That was really
something. I’m glad we made it through with a passing grade.

Now of course, in hindsight, I know it was hardly anything at all.

From: [email protected]

To: [email protected]

Sent: September 12, 8:50 am

Subject: otto the cat

_____________________________

Wen-

It broke my heart when we lost that
cat. A couple years ago I was coming back from a run and I found him
on the side of the road, right there before the bridge over Little
Jib. I saw him from a distance, not moving, and I knew it was him and
that he was gone even when I was a long way away. He wasn’t
that far from our house either. I don’t know if he was coming
or going when he got hit.

I picked him up and carried him home,
and Chris and I buried him near the firepit, right by that big rock
he liked to sit on in the sun. The next summer, Chris chiseled OTTO
in the rock, and I added A GOOD CAT under that. The chiseling jobs we
did were sort of crude, but you get the idea.

Fifteen years, though, that’s a
pretty good run for a cat. Especially one that was outdoors so much.
He was so big and tough I didn’t think anything would ever get
him.

I’m sort of glad you never had
to know that it happened.

-N

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

The first call I receive about
the article
in the Friday paper does not come from Alan or
Peggy Mackie, but from Lauren. I’m standing by the big living
room window, watching the rain, when I answer her call.

“Hey, busy night?”

“Um, Neil?” she says. “Were you not planning to
tell me about this? What the hell is going on?”

“Are you talking about—”

“The paper? The front page? Possible assault charges?”

My stomach seems to fall away, like I’ve just gone over the big
drop of an amusement park ride. I brace myself with a hand to the
window frame.

“Charges?”

“Do I even know you? Hello? You’re going around beating
up kids?”

“Have you seen the video?” I ask.

“I don’t want to see the video! What is going on?”

“Lauren, calm down.”

“Don’t talk to me like that! I’m not one of your
students. Or I should say, ex-students, by the look of—”

“Lauren!” I snap, and she goes silent. “Will you
let me talk?”

“How long have you…when did this happen?”

“You’re not letting me talk.”

“Neil, I’m really, really, really stressed, I’m
freaking out about
everything
, then I see this—”

“Calm down, okay?”

“Why didn’t you tell me, though?”

“I wanted to tell you when I could actually talk to you. Not in
a message. I tried to tell you last night, but you had to go and you
never called back. I don’t even know what’s going on
myself. Alan thinks someone put a lot of effort into that video to
make me look bad.”

“Apparently it’s working,” Lauren says with a
sniffle.

“Are you calmed down?”

“A little.”

“Can you come over?”

“No, I can’t. Work. You didn’t do this, did you?”

“Did you honestly think I did?”

“God, Neil.” She takes a long breath. “Stressing,
okay?”

“I know.”

“I don’t know if you do. What is going to happen? The
family says you were in a rage. The boy is too traumatized to talk
about it. You’ve been targeting him at school—”

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