Facing the consequences of death, life and romance
|NOTE: sections in red may be changed to match other parts of the story
With a practiced ease he never expected (or wanted) to have, David slid into his wheelchair from the back seat of the funeral limo. Jim Hollis held the chair steady as David rotated his body, half-lifting, half-dragging his legs clear of the car. David muttered under his breath as he adjusted his feet in the footrests.
“What was that?”
“Just grumbling about this chair, Jim.”
“Is it giving you trouble?”
“Just the opposite. It’s getting comfortable… too comfortable for my liking.” David tried to reach for the car door, but almost fell out of the wheelchair. “Then again…”
“Think of it this way, David. When you start to get really proficient with this hunk of metal and plastic, you’ll be quite literally stepping out of it. Also, you’ve got the chance to do that. Not everyone who uses a wheelchair does.”
“True, Jim. Let’s hope you’re right about that timetable.” Jim closed the car door, then walked behind David as they went to the grave site. Looking around as he walked, Jim almost plowed into his partner as David stopped several yards away from graveside chairs.
“Why are you stopping here, David?” Annabelle Hollis knelt beside him. “Are you afraid to get closer?”
“That’s part of it.”
“Okay, my future cowboy, what’s going on?”
“It’s not my place up there, Annabelle. I’m only an ‘adopted’ family member. The graveside seats, those are for Christi’s family… her REAL family. No matter how much Roger and the kids involve me in everything, my place is out here.”
“David, promise me something.” Annabelle reached up and turned David’s face to look at hers. “When my time comes, and I pray to God that I go before you do, David… when my time comes, promise me you’ll be up there with the family.”
“Please, Annabelle, this isn’t the time or place to discuss this.”
“We’re going to make the time, right now. Don’t look away from me, David Longfellow. You better than most people know that everyone has to die at some point. The chances are that Jim and I will go before you do. When that happens, I want you up there, under that awning, with the family.”
“Annabelle, I’m grateful you think of me that way, more than you can imagine. But I simply can’t do that. That’s for you or Jim and your children –”
“Which includes you, David.” Seeing the tears welling up in David’s eyes, Annabelle pulled his face to her shoulder. “You may not have come from my womb, honey. But you’re as much my child as Michelle, Alicia and Jim Jr. Do you understand me?”
“I think I do, Annabelle, but I’m not sure.”
“I think… no, I KNOW you understand, David. You’re just not ready to accept that fact yet. Now, let’s go a little closer. Because you DO belong up there, whether you admit it or not.” With Jim’s help, David began wheeling his way across the uneven ground. When he tried to stop, however, Jim kept pushing. Annabelle put a hand on David’s shoulder to keep him quiet.
When Jim stopped pushing, David was in the front row of family seats, next to Roger Pendwalton.
“David…. thank you for coming up here.” Before David could make any comments, Roger had lifted his four year old son into David’s lap.
“Heya, Tobster.” Toby Pendwalton was crying softly, clutching a toy giraffe to his chest. “Don’t be afraid to cry, Toby. It’s good to cry, to let your feelings out.”
“Unca David?” The voice was a choked whisper. “Is it true that mommy’s gone away forever?”
“Yes it is, Tobster,” David said in a loud sigh. He looked down to see Toby’s face locked on his. “I’m afraid that's what dying means. When people die, they leave us and we never get to see them here again.”
“Did… did mommy g-go away… because… I was bad?”
“No, Toby…. good heavens, no…” David choked up as tears poured from his eyes. “It’s… it’s nothing any of us have done, Tobster. It’s just… just that… it was time for your mommy to join God up in Heaven. Why He decided that… none of us will ever know. But she’s safe up there, Toby. She’s safe, and looking down and watching all of us. And even though she’s not here anymore, Toby, she still loves you.
“It wasn’t her choice to go Heaven, bud. God said she had to go.” David brushed some loose strands of hair out of Toby’s eyes, then wiped the tears from his cheeks. “God did that because He loves your mommy. And even though it doesn’t seem like it, He loves you too.
“I know it’s not easy to understand, Toby. I don’t completely understand it myself. But I do know it’s true. Okay, we need to be quiet now, the minister is going to speak.”
“Ladies and gentlemen… I had prepared a very nice sermon and set of scripture readings for today’s service.” Looking almost regal in a dark suit and tie, the minister held up his note cards, then tucked them in his bible. “However, I’m not going to use them.” He placed the bible on the wine-colored casket.
“Sir,” he said, looking David in the face. “May I borrow the words you used a few minutes ago?” Unable to speak, David nodded his head in the affirmative. “Thank you. Dearly beloved, we are here today to say good-bye to Christi Pendwalton. We all know her as a loving wife, mother and relative. We know her as a healer who cared for others. We know her as a friend.
“What we don’t know… what we may never understand… is why she had to die now. A few moments ago, her son Toby asked just that question. And this gentleman here, frankly, has a better answer than I do. He said, ‘God decided it was time for Christi to join Him in Heaven’. Why He decided that, we’ll never fully understand. God’s plans are a mystery we mere mortals will never completely comprehend. But we can rest easy knowing that, as we commit Christi’s body to the earth, her soul is already looking down on us from above.”
Roger Pendwalton looked over to see his son sleeping in David’s lap. Reaching over to touch Toby, he caught David’s attention and mouthed the words “thank you”. David replied by squeezing Roger’s hand.
“We pray that God will cherish Christi, and grant her a special place in Heaven. We pray that He will watch over her family and friends, especially her husband, Roger, and her children, Kayla and Toby. May God grant them and all her family and friends peace and strength in the days and weeks to come.”
The minister picked up his bible and walked towards the family. Placing one hand on the still-sleeping Toby, he rested the one carrying his bible on David’s shoulder.
“Sir, may I ask your name?”
“David, Reverend… David Longfellow. I’m actually a … friend of the family.”
“David, thank you for letting me use your words. They were much better than what I had prepared, and sent all of us a better message. God has definitely blessed you, young man.” David squirmed and blushed at this. “May I ask, this wheelchair… is it a permanent condition?”
“Not if I can help it, Reverend.”
“Then may God bless you again, this time with a full and speedy recovery.”
“Thank… thank you, reverend.” The minister then proceeded down the row of family members, giving each a kind word and blessing. Other mourners followed him. They soon became a blur to David. Despite the assurances of others, he still felt like an interloper sitting with the family.
“Hey, man, how are you doing?” The voice brought David out of his stupor. Recognizing a Knightsbridge flight suit, he looked up to see Jim “Sulu” Hiroshi talking to him.
“Sulu, thanks for coming, bro. I’m doing, that’s about all I can say. Did you fly Christi out?”
“Emily, André and me,” he replied, gesturing to the two people standing next to him. “Being here was the least we could do. I take it you’re related to her?”
“I’m a close friend, kind of an adopted family member. You might say this little fellow sleeping here is my nephew. Hey, seriously, Jim, thanks for coming.” After shaking Jim’s hand, David accepted hugs from both Emily Hargraves and André Thibideaux, promising to speak with them a little later.
Connie McKenzie and Joel Palco were the last folks to walk up to David. Connie stood by as Joel knelt down.
“Damn, Joel, aren’t you guys on duty? What are you doing here?”
“We treated her at the crash site. We wanted to pay our respects, so Dispatch gave us permission to attend the services. Luckily, it’s been a non-busy day, so they didn’t put up too much of a fight.” Joel looked over as Toby Pendwalton started stirring in David’s lap.
“Hello, there…. how are you doing, little fellow?” Toby yawned as he looked at Joel, then shrunk away in shyness.
“It’s okay, Tobster,” David cooed softly. “This is my friend Joel. Don’t be afraid, he’s a good guy. Joel, this is Toby Pendwalton. Be careful; when he’s not shy, he can get real curious. He may just grab your stethoscope when you aren’t looking.”
“Hi there, Toby. Who’s your little friend there?”
“Is he a good giraffe?”
“Yes, he’s very good.” Toby hugged the toy giraffe tighter, as though Joel might try to take it away from him. A gift from his uncle Jim the day after the crash, Toby had instantly latched onto it as a security blanket.
“Toby, would Jimmy like to look inside an ambulance?” Toby squirmed away at that point, trying to dig his way deeper into David’s lap.
“It’s a nice thought, Joel, thanks. But let’s save that for another time. Okay with you, Tobster?” Toby slowly nodded yes, then rested his head against David’s shoulder.
“Come on, Toby,” Roger Pendwalton said as he reached for his son. “Let’s go see Grandma Evie. She hasn’t met Jimmy yet, either.” As he was lifted up, Toby wrapped his father’s neck in a bear hug, one hand still tightly clutching the stuffed giraffe.
“Cute little fellow… God, this has to be hard on him.”
“It has been, Joel. His grandmother, Roger’s mom, told me this afternoon he’s barely slept in the last week. He keeps thinking his mom is going to walk through the door, or that he’s just in a bad dream.”
“Oh man. How old is he?”
“He turns five next month.”
“Big ouch. But today, he did the best thing he could do here at the funeral.”
“What was that?”
“Sitting here in my lap, after asking me why his mommy was never coming back… he cried himself to sleep. Hey, let’s roll outta here, give them some extra privacy.” Before Joel could reply, David had pivoted his chair and was slowly rolling across the uneven cemetery lawn.
“Okay, David, level with me.” Connie McKenzie had put her hand on his left shoulder as soon as David had stopped. “How are you getting through all of this?”
“Making it, Mac, and taking it one minute at a time. Hell, this feels like a nightmare within a bad dream. But I keep waking up in a bed at the rehab center, so the base dream must be real. Which means this whole mess is real as well.”
“But how are you facing it right now?”
“Well… I’ve cried myself to sleep a few times.” A sheepish grin came to David’s face. “And believe it or not, Mac, our little chat yesterday did help. Though I know it hurt you, and for that, I am sorry.”
“David… it’s okay. You said what you needed to say, and what I needed to hear. It’ll take me a little time, but I will move on. And like you, I’m a survivor. Yesterday’s chat was my wake-up call. And maybe in some odd way, this tragedy will be yours.” David mulled that over in his mind for several minutes, but didn’t respond.
Looking into the distance, David saw Jim and Annabelle Hollis walking through the cemetery with seven-year-old Kayla Pendwalton. Occasionally, the three would stop to look at a particular gravestone. More than once, one of David’s “adoptive parents” would give Kayla a hug. Seeing this helped David realize how important family really was, and how it wasn’t always limited by blood or genetic ties. Looking at how Kayla was clinging to the Hollis’s, David realized just how close he was to both families, and how they could possibly draw closer to each other over time.
“David? You okay?”
“Huh? Sorry, Connie. Got lost in my own thoughts there.”
“Must have been some major stuff going on in there; you were practically on another planet. What were you thinking about?”
“Family,” he replied, with a nod at the Hollis’s and young Kayla. “A little wondering about life in general, and where your family fits into all of that.” Further comments were cut off when a pair of arms wrapped around David, hugging him from behind.
“Hey, bud,” Emily Hargraves said in his ear. “Sorry about not getting up to visit you much. Everything going okay with rehab?”
“Some days are better than others. Hell, sometimes it’s damn frustrating. There are times I feel I’m making progress, and times it seems like I’m stuck in reverse gear. I can move myself in and out of a wheelchair without help, I’m tapping my feet to music, I’m even ‘walking,’ as it were, in a therapy pool.”
“David, that’s awesome! What do you mean you’re not making progress?”
“I’m not standing, Emily. I’m still a ways from that. Hell, I’m not even crawling yet. At least, not literally. I’ve got the feeling that my physical therapist will include that at some point. But we’re still doing range of motion exercises with the legs, and we’ve only been doing strength-building routines for a few weeks.”
“Everything in it’s own time,” André Thibideaux commented, thickening his Creole accent for emphasis. “David, if I may ask, how do you know the family?”
“Christi was a very special friend of mine.” David began to explain his ties to the family, and how Christi had been a pillar of support when his own family had died. Seeing Kayla and the Hollis’s heading towards the group, David pointedly left out his “amorous night” with Christi.
“Uncle David!” Kayla half-spoke, half-cried her greeting as she tried to hug him. David bent over the side of his wheelchair, then lifted her into his lap. Kayla immediately wrapped her arms around his neck.
“Hiya, honey! I see you already know Jim and Annabelle. Let me introduce you to my other friends.” As each person was introduced, they either squeezed Kayla's hand or gave her a little kiss. Ever the Creole gentleman, André Thibideaux kissed her on the hand as he squeezed it, actually making Kayla blush and giggle for a second.
“Uncle David… will my mommy always be here?”
“Her body will, honey. Her soul… that’s up in Heaven now, honey. She’s one of God’s newest angels. And as an angel, she’ll come back to visit us at various times. But we won’t know she’s there; we’ll have to take it on faith that she’s watching us. And as long you remember her here,” David said, touching her forehead, “and in here”, as he put a hand over Kayla’s heart, “she’ll always be with you.”
“Because she loves you, Kayla. Not even death can stop that. And it’s going to hurt you for a while to remember mommy. The same will be true for Toby and your daddy. All of you need to do your best not to take your hurt out on each other.”
“Don’t get angry without reason, honey. And remember that you all love each other very much.”
“Even if Toby pulls on my hair?”
“Yes, honey,” David chuckled. He looked around and saw smiles on the faces of everyone around him. “Even if Toby pulls on your hair, it won’t mean he’s stopped loving you.” David hugged her, kissing her on the forehead. “Speaking of which, where is Toby?”
“I think he’s with Grandma Evie.”
“You better make sure he’s not tiring your grandma out, okay, honey?”
“Okay, Uncle David. Are you coming back to the house?”
“I will for a little while honey. Now, you go check on your grandma.”
“Okay, Uncle David.” Kayla squirmed her way off David’s lap, then ran over to where her father was standing with other relatives. “I pity the man that eventually marries her. He’s gonna have a fireball on his hands.”
“Hell, David,” Jim replied, “I feel sorry for her dad. When she gets to be a teenager, I may just loan him one of my shotguns, and tell him to keep it where all the lusty young studs can see it.” Everyone had a mild chuckle, and Annabelle gave Jim a light slap on his arm. “Now, David, a serious question for you. Are you going to the group memorial service?”
“Well, I want –” A series of alarm tones came from Connie and Joel’s radios.
“Knight 53, Knight five-three, respond… 6131 Cargill Ave, possible stroke. Cross street 61st Terrace. Time out, eleven-thirty-seven.”
“Knight 53,” Mac said into her radio, “Responding from Mount Holyoke Cemetery.” Before she could apologize, David had grasped her and Joel’s hands.
“Get going, you two. We’ll talk later. Your duty now is to the living. And keep it safe out there.” Without further words, Connie and Joel jogged to their ambulance. Driving away, they turned on the lights, but didn’t activate the siren until leaving the cemetery.
“David,” Roger Pendwalton said as he came up to the group. “We’re going back to the house in a few minutes.”
“Thanks, Roger. Stay here for a second, I want you to meet some folks and hear something I have to say.” David introduced him to Sulu, Emily and André, explaining they were the flight crew who had taken Christi to the trauma center.
“I’m so sorry, sir.” Emily half-gushed. “I wish we could –”
“I know you did your best, ma’am. I’m grateful that you were there to try. Would you three like to join us at our house in a little while?” André demurred, saying he had to work at St. Vincent’s ER that evening. Emily and Sulu both expressed doubts as to whether they should be there, which Roger dismissed. “Some of the people from StarMed will be there, and as far as I’m concerned you’re very welcome.” Roger gave them his address. “David, do you need a few more minutes here?”
“Yes. And I want you to hear this, Roger.” David took a deep breath, summoning up some courage. “I know there is a group memorial service next week. I don’t want to be at the service, though.” Everyone looked at David in mild shock. Annabelle audibly gasped, and Jim opened his mouth to make a few choice comments.
“Now wait, folks, hear me out. I don’t want to just be at the service, I want to be a part of it. But I don’t want to be in an auditorium, on stage, speaking, any of that. Sulu, is there going to be some sort of fly-by at the service?”
“Yes,” he replied, recovering from his earlier shock. “Sky One and Sky Two are going to be a part of it. Emily, André and I will be on Sky Two. Are you wanting in?”
“Yeah, man. I want in. That’s where Christi worked. And as long as it’s okay with you, Roger, that’s where I want to say good-bye to her.”
“David… are you kidding? I think it’s damned appropriate. I’ll make sure the kids understand, and they’ll probably love you even more.”
Sulu stepped closer to David. “One of the reasons I’m flying is because we transported Christi. I also knew the pilot who was killed, so I understand your desire. But we better be honest, David.” Kneeling down to look him in the eye, he continued, “Admin will pitch a bitch when they hear the idea. They’re going to look at your current condition and say you’re taking a big risk. After all, if something happens…”
“If something happens,” David replied, “I may not be able to get myself out of the wreckage. I fully understand that. But this is important enough to me that I’m willing to take the risk.”
“Just speaking personally, David, I’d be honored to have you along. I’ll see what I can do, but I can’t make any promises.”
“Fair enough, Sulu.” David raised his right hand, which Sulu grasped as though they were getting ready to arm wrestle. Then he pulled David into a hug. “Now, I get the feeling that you folks need to get going. Sir,” he said, looking up at Roger Pendwalton, “if I can make it to your house later, I will. How late is too late?”
“I’m sure we’ll be going well into the evening, especially the StarMed people that are coming over. And David will be there for a while, too. Won’t you, David?”
“Are you kidding? I’m not sure the kids would let me leave!”
“We’ll make sure,” Annabelle Hollis chimed in, “that you don’t stay too late, David. Besides, you’re only on temporary furlough from the rehab center.”
“Don’t remind me.”
“Folks, I hate to break this up, but we do have to get back to the house.”
“Thanks, Roger. We’ll be along in a minute. Sulu, Emily, André, thank you all for coming today. Hopefully we’ll see you up at the house. And let me know what you find out about the flight.”
“Like I said, David, I can’t promise anything.” Sulu put his hand on David’s shoulder. “But I’ll see what we can do.” David then pivoted to his left and began rolling towards the funeral limo, with Jim and Annabelle Hollis on either side of him.
“David,” Jim asked him, “What do you think your chances of flying really are?”
“Honestly, not a snowball’s chance in hell. But I won’t know until I try. And somehow, I don’t think Sulu was stringing me along.” They spent the rest of the trip to the Pendwalton household in silence.
When Emily Hargraves and Sulu Hiroshi arrived a short time later, they found a much more festive atmosphere than either of them expected. It seemed to them more like a unit wake than a gathering of stressed and grieving family. When they saw two StarMed crew members playing with young Toby Pendwalton, they realized where the atmosphere had come from.
“Hey, you guys made it!” They turned to see David wheeling towards them. “Come on, let’s get you two some food, then head out on the back porch.” Following David’s lead, they stopped at the buffet table near the back door. Once on the porch, they began talking.
“This isn’t what you two expected to find, is it? I was a bit surprised myself, but I’m glad of it.” David took a sip from his glass of Dr. Pepper. “The kids really need this; they’re getting a chance to be kids. And the StarMed folks… I know they’re hurting like hell, but the support they’ve given Roger and the kids is incredible. I’m actually a little embarrassed to say, I feel like I’m not doing enough compared to them.”
“David, cut that out.” The voice came from behind him, across the wooden porch railing. “At first, I wondered why you were so important to Roger and the kids,” Evelyn Pendwalton commented. “Once Roger explained it to me, and I saw how the kids treated you, I knew you had to be involved. Just your being here is more than enough, David.”
“Ma’am, everyone keeps telling me that. But I still feel like an outsider, an interloper.”
“David, if you were just an interloper, Toby wouldn’t have fallen asleep in your lap this morning. You gave him the chance to do that, the opening to cry. That tells me you ARE part of the family. Now, stop worrying about it. And remember… my name isn’t ‘ma’am’, it’s Evie.”
“Yes, ma’am… er, Evie. I’m sorry, I've been impolite. Let me introduce…” David introduced her to Emily and Sulu, explaining who they were and why they were there. Evie came up on the porch, and the four of them began discussing the accident, from what they knew. Evelyn Pendwalton expressed her admiration for all of them, and how they could still go back to their work despite the tragedy. She also asked if this increased their fears of the job.
“Frankly, ma’am,” Sulu replied, “it’s always in the back of your mind. You try your best not to dwell on it, and take steps to prevent it. You know your job as best you can, and do it better. Honestly, it comes down to risks and rewards, and chances. I know that may sound a bit blunt, but it’s true. I guess you learn to live with the fear.”
“Honestly, I think it’s harder on the families than on us.” Emily Hargraves took a quick sip of water, then continued. “My fiancé hasn’t really come to terms with it yet. It’s going to take him a little while. He was also asking why I was so upset at times, because it wasn’t one of our aircraft that crashed. He’s still finding out just how close-knit the EMS community is.”
“It’s not going to cause you problems, is it?”
“Huh? No, ma’am, of course not.” Hearing the slight quiver in her voice, Emily decided to change the subject. “David, how is your rehab going?” David made the same comments he had made earlier, about seeming to go forward some times and backwards others. David also gave a full report on the actions of his physical therapist, describing how he had earned the nickname “Barry the Bastard”.
“If you’ll excuse me,” Evelyn said as she stood up, “I need to check on the kids. I’ll be back a little later. And if I don’t get the chance, it was nice meeting both of you.”
“I just wish,” Emily replied, “it had been under much better circumstances.”
“Thank you, dear.” As she left, Roger Pendwalton walked up to David.
“Excuse me, folks, but could I talk to David for a minute?” Emily and Sulu went to refill their plates. Roger sat himself next to David.
“David, I just want to thank you. You’ve been a Godsend for the kids. And for me. I think I’m just now realizing what Christi’s always seen in you. I want to tell you, again, that you’re always welcome in our house.”
“Roger, Thank you. But I have to ask… how can you not be angry at me?”
“Angry at you?”
“For that night…”
“David…” Roger wrung his hands together as he tried to find the words. “Christi explained to me what happened. She told me right away that you two had made love, and why. Yes, I was very bitter for a while. But I was willing to forgive, and I later realized that she never intended to leave me, for you or anyone else. She made love to you to help you heal your pain. She helped you to start living again. And now… now, you’ve given the kids their first small step in that direction. And that’s helping me, more than you’ll ever know.
“Also… what happened between you and Christi that night, that was seven years ago. I’ve had time to come to terms with it. I’ve also come to know you over that time, David. You’re a damn good man, and certainly not a home wrecker. You needed help back then, and Christi gave it to you. I think now, the way you’re helping me and the kids through all of this, you’re returning the favor.”
“So now you’re going to tell me I’m doing enough, and not to fly, right?”
“Wrong. We both loved Christi, and she loved each of us in different ways. I need to be with the kids and our families. You need to be where it’s best for you to say your good-byes. If that’s in a helicopter, then that’s where you should be. And I know that Christi would love for you to be flying as well. David, it’s your decision…. but you have my vote. And if you need it… which you really don’t… you have my blessing.”
Unseen by either man, Emily and Sulu had been standing nearby. Having overheard the whole conversation, they moved away before either of them could be noticed. Sulu put his plate on a deck chair and faced Emily.
“How much of a fight will admin give me for bringing David along?”
“Depends on who you talk to. Will you get any flack from your boss?”
“Steve Garoway? Our chief pilot is usually pretty accommodating, if you have a good reason. I think I do. Do you see any problems from the chief flight nurse?”
“Sadie? Nah, don’t think so. She’ll probably insist that David ride up front, in case we end up on a patient flight. That way, he’s out of the way.”
“Hell, Steve will probably insist that he not be on a patient flight, if he allows David to fly at all. There are huge safety concerns, especially since he can’t get himself out of the aircraft if something goes wrong. That alone might make Steve nix the whole thing.”
“So you’ll do it anyway, won’t you? I see that gleam in your eye, Sulu.”
“You heard him a few minutes ago, Emily. He needs to be on Sky Two, with us. If it means my job, I want him there.”
“Okay, Sulu, but I won’t allow you to risk your career. So let’s make this work.” The two of them sought out Jim and Annabelle Hollis for further scheming, including finding out what size flight suit David would wear.
“Melinda, you can be a task master. Have you been taking lessons from Barry?” David moved himself from the wheelchair into his bed. He and Melinda had just finished his Monday morning session in the therapy gym.
“I don’t need lessons from him, David. After all, I’m a nurse. Being a ‘taskmaster’ with patients is part of the job.”
“Oh, am I your patient now?”
“No, not my patient. You’re my friend…” And more, she said to herself, even though that’s not what I want right now. Melinda sat beside him on the edge of his bed. David draped his right arm around her shoulders in a light hug, then used his left hand to pull her head to his shoulder.
“Hiya, David! How… oh, sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt.” Wearing a floral-print shirt and blue jeans, Emily Hargraves had fairly bounded into the room. In her left hand was a shopping bag.
“Emily, please, come in. Melinda, this is Emily Hargraves, she’s a flight paramedic with Knightsbridge.”
“Oh sure, we’ve met before, I’ve taken report from you a few times. What brings you to this nutcase’s room on a day off?”
“Actually, Melinda, I’ve got a special package for David here. David, I also have a confession to make.” Emily sat down in a nearby chair, the shopping bag in her lap. “At the Pendwalton’s house the other day, after the funeral, Sulu and I overheard you talking with Roger Pendwalton.”
“Sulu?” Melinda asked.
“I’m sorry, Melinda. His real name is James Hiroshi. He’s one of our pilots, and because of his Japanese ancestry, his nickname is ‘Sulu’, as in the old ‘Star Trek’ character. He even looks a little like the guy on TV.”
“Okay, Emily, you overheard me and Roger talking…”
“Yes, we both did. We didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but that’s beside the point. Because of what we heard, we know how important this Friday is to you. It took some doing, but it’s all arranged.”
“What’s all arranged?” Melinda asked. Emily reached into her shopping bag, pulled out a folded bundle, then handed it across to David.
“Wait, what the… Oh my God…” David had unfolded the bundle to find it was a brand-new Knightsbridge flight suit. “But… how?”
“If you’re going to fly with us at the memorial service, David, you have to be in the proper outfit. Not for looks, but for safety. And there’s a pair of flight boots in the bag, too. Jim Hollis said he’d come up here and help you get ready on Friday morning. David… I heard how much you loved her, and what she did for you.” David’s cheeks took on a cherry hue as Melinda looked askance at him. “Sulu and I figured out how important this is, so we made sure you would be flying with us. Now, I get the feeling you two need to do some talking, so I’ll be on my way.” Emily stood up and gave David a light kiss on the cheek as he wrapped her in a one-armed hug.
“Okay, Mister.” Melinda’s face was a mixture of anger and fear, both of which crept into her voice. “Talk. And don’t leave anything out.” David did just that, spending the better part of an hour explaining what had happened between him and Christi Pendwalton over seven years ago, and why it happened. “And making love to her once… that gives you the right to go on this flight?”
“That in itself, no. But she’s one of the main reasons I’m mostly sane after I lost my family. She helped me start my career, pushed me when I needed to be pushed, gave me guidance and help. And she made me a part of her family.”
“And how does her husband feel about you doing this?”
“Roger wants me in that helicopter. He agrees that it’s how and where I need to say good-bye. And somehow, he’s forgiven me my transgression from seven years ago. He says he understands why it happened.”
“Well, I don’t understand! How she can cheat on her fiancé and not have a guilty conscience! How you can go to bed with someone else’s fiancée and not have any qualms –”
“I’ve had qualms for years, Melinda! I’ve always felt I did something wrong, that I should have stopped things before they went too far. Hand me that notepad, please.” Melinda picked the legal pad up from the bedside table and dropped it in his lap. David leafed through the pages until he found one particular piece of paper. “The night of the crash, while I was talking with my priest, Roger came by and gave me this note. I want you to read it… now.” Melinda half-grabbed the paper out of David’s hand and started pacing as she read. After the first paragraph, she had to sit down to read the rest.
“Dear God… has her husband read this?”
“Roger told me he was there when she wrote it.”
“And what did your priest make of this?”
“That it was further proof of what he was already telling me. That Christi and I hadn’t had sex, we had made love. And done so with God’s blessing. That God had brought Christi and I together that night to help me to start healing, start living again. You’ve wondered why I was taking Christi’s death so hard. Now you know.”
Melinda handed the letter back to David, dabbing at a small tear in her left eye. “David, I can tell that she meant a lot to you. Did you love her?”
“Yes, as a close and very special friend. And it’s taken this tragedy to help me realize I was feeling guilt that I didn’t need to. What she said in that note is right, what happened between her and me was an act of love. That love will never change.”
“And what does that mean for us? Will that keep you from loving me? Will I have to fight her ghost?” The questions had tumbled out of her mouth before she realized what she was saying. Yet Melinda made no effort to take them back.
“What? My God, Melinda, no. Christi’s gone. She was a special part of my life, and her family will always be close to me. But I won’t let my past block off my future. If I did, Christi would find a way to come back and kick my ass. So no, you won’t have to fight her ghost. The only things that will keep you from loving me are you… and Jeremy.”
“Jeremy? What does he have to do with this?”
David slid himself from the bed into the wheelchair, then rolled next to where Melinda was sitting. “You asked me if you were going to have to fight Christi’s ghost,” he said, taking her hand in his. “Now, I need to know just how you feel about me.”
“I don’t mean to hurt you, Mel, but we need to talk about all of this. And I need to start off by finding out just how you feel about me.”
“David… you bastard… okay, here it is.” Melinda was beginning to cry. David tried to give her a Kleenex, but she pushed it away. “Not until I say this, buster. You’ve become more than a friend over the last few months. I think part of me is even starting to fall for you. I don’t love you, David, not yet, but I’m heading that way. But I can’t take a chance on you yet.”
“Why not? This hunk of metal and plastic I’m sitting in? Or that I won’t be in it forever? Melinda… are you afraid that when I start walking again, I’m going to walk away from you?”
“No… yes!! I don’t want my love used and discarded! If I’m going to love you, I want to be there after you recover!”
“What have I done to make you think I’d do that?”
“NOTHING! It’s my own irrational fear. And now, to find out you made love to your friend Christi in a trying time… part of me wonders how you can rationalize all of this! Part of me is afraid that you’ll turn out to be some usurious bastard and walk away when you’re healthy again.”
“And what does the rest of you say?”
“That you’ve got an incredibly large and loving heart… that you may be worth taking a chance on, dropping the shields, all of that.”
“And if you do drop the shields… if you do take a chance on me… how long will I have to fight Jeremy’s ghost? Before you get upset, realize it’s a fair question. After all, you asked me the same thing about Christi.”
“Yes. Yes, I did. To be honest, I don’t know.”
“And you won’t be able to answer that until you can take that necklace and ring off and leave them behind for good. Remember when you took me to see Jeremy’s grave? You asked me to take them off for you then.”
“And you refused. You said I had to do it myself.”
“That’s right. That’s why I’m flying in the formation on Friday. I’m saying good-bye, taking my biggest steps to move on. Since Christi worked in the air, that’s where I need to say good-bye to her.”
“Then why not fly with StarMed?”
“Because I’m not StarMed staff. If I flew with them, I would be an intruder. I’m Knightsbridge, and the crew I’m flying with are not only my friends and coworkers, but they also flew Christi from the crash site to the trauma center. All of that is why I should be on SkyKnight Two. I hope you can understand that, or at least respect it.
“Now, another hard question. If you and Jeremy had been where Christi and I were seven years ago, what would you have done?”
“I… I honestly don’t know. I would have tried to help him, sure. Would I have made love to him? I can’t say I would have, but I can’t say I wouldn’t, either.”
“And why is that?”
“Because I wasn’t there.” David held out the box of Kleenex. Melinda pulled out several sheets and wiped her face. After blowing her nose, she looked at David with a slight smile on her face. “And that was your whole point, wasn’t it?”
“Not totally, but it was one of them. And I needed you to understand why it happened.”
“David, I have to ask this. Are you going to suggest that we make love as a way for me to move on from Jeremy’s death?”
“No, Melinda. Believe it or not, I’m glad you asked the question.” Melinda’s face was painted with surprise, so much so she was unable to speak. “What happened between me and Christi was a very unique event, and certainly not something that everyone could do in that situation. That you’re able to ask me means you have some understanding of that. It also means you respect and trust me enough to be able to ask, instead of harboring suspicion. Thank you.” David pulled her closer, then gave her a gentle yet affectionate kiss on the cheek. “I’m feeling more than friendship for you, Melinda. A lot more. But this whole discussion has proven that it’s not time for us to make love. If and when it is time, we’ll both know it.”
“Thank… thank you, David. I’m not sure what I can say. My head is spinning with all of this. I feel you’re taking a big chance by flying on Friday. After all, it was a helicopter crash that killed your friend. Are you sure it’s a chance you want to take?”
“Yes it is, Mel. Like I said earlier, it’s where she worked, so it’s where I need to say good-bye to her. It’s something I need to do. All I can ask is that you try to understand that.”
“I’ll try. I can’t say I’ll succeed. Now, can you do me a favor?”
“Move back to your bed. You’ll see why in a minute.” David rolled back to his bed, then moved into it from the wheelchair. Before he could hoist his legs up, Melinda was sitting beside him. Wrapping her left arm behind his back, she leaned into David and rested her head on his shoulder. David draped his right arm across her shoulder and kissed the top of her head, then laid his right cheek on her scalp. They sat that way, communicating without a single word, for the rest of the afternoon. Neither of them noticed (or cared) that they had missed lunch.