two deer stand in the fog in a grassy field

Fiction: Robert and Phil

This is an excerpt of a novel in progress.

After the meeting, Robert drove to the hospital again. The fury he’d felt two days before was gone. Remembering that day 20 years ago with Jessica and Maylin, and hearing that young man talk about forgiveness had shaken him. Phil was somehow connected to his guilt and Robert longed for a confrontation.

Visiting hours ended at 9 p.m., so he didn’t have a lot of time to do whatever he was doing. He parked and sat in the truck with the window down, and this time he noticed the dusk, the daytime birds going to roost in the trees and the night insects winding up. After a moment he raised the window and climbed down from the cab, forcing the key into the right front pocket of his jeans. It struck him how easy it was to open the door, step onto the pavement, and to walk wherever he wanted to when Maylin did not get out. But he pushed that thought away. He was going to see her murderer.

The hospital’s wide automatic doors whooshed open for him, and he stepped into the quiet, tastefully lit lobby. The woman behind the curved prow of the information desk did not look up as he approached, but a uniformed security guard standing against the wall gazed at him. Robert leaned one arm on the tall counter. The woman glanced up. “Can I help you?” He took a breath and asked for Phil’s room number. She looked it up and told him, reminding him that visiting hours ended at 9. Walking down the corridor, he felt naked, empty-handed, and chilled by the air conditioning in his stained T-shirt, work boots, and ill-fitting jeans. He was conscious of how his belt cut into his belly and the click of arthritis in his left knee. Maybe he thought of these things because of how young Phil really was, because Maylin and Phil were young, together.

The elevator took him up to a smaller lobby with a few chairs and artificial plants where a sign pointed to the hallway with Phil’s room number. An elderly couple passed him, then he passed a group of works stations corralled behind a waist-high wall where doctors and nurses talked and typed, their faces lit by blue screens. Then Robert was at the door. He hung back and listened for voices, but it was quiet. He bobbed around the door casing to take a look, then stepped in, ducking slightly like a servant or a soldier. Phil lay with his eyes closed under a light blanket in the high hospital bed, wearing a pale blue hospital gown. He had a black eye, his beard had grown out, and his hair was unwashed. One arm was wrapped in a bulky bandage from fingers to elbow. His other arm was bare, scratched, and bruised, and an IV tube was taped to the back of his hand. He looked thin and pale, and the fluorescent light behind his head threw shadows on his face. Robert knocked lightly on the doorframe.

Phil wondered if he was dreaming when he saw Robert standing there. A little bubble of fear expanded in his chest, but nothing came of it. When he’d thought about it, Phil had anxiously imagined Robert would come at him. But now he wasn’t afraid. Surprisingly, he did not feel much at all. It was just poor old Robert, looking at him the way he always did.

“Can I come in?” Robert asked.

Phil blinked. “Yeah, come in,” he said, almost lifting his good hand.

Robert slowly walked the three or four steps to the bedside. He was nervous and did not want to stand too close or move too quickly. “I came to see if you’re OK.”

A buzzing sound startled him until he realized that it came from the hospital bed. Phil’s upper body rose with the bed, and he looked at Robert with glassy eyes and the slack expression of narcotics. Robert turned to sit in the reclining chair just behind him. Phil remained quiet and motionless, but Robert’s breathing was quick, his heart was thumping, and his hands were icy cold on the arms of the chair.

He forced himself to talk, to keep it simple. “I’m sorry this happened,” Robert said. “Just — sorry.” It was so hard to say only the words he should say and not the other things — his questions, his anger, his grief. They looked at each other in silence.

Phil blinked, licked his lips and said, “I’m sorry, too.” It sounded lame, but he meant it. His mind was empty, but in a way that made it easier to focus on just this moment and not try to guess what Robert was thinking. The nightmare scenes of the accident that sometimes overcame him stayed hidden. This was good in case his thoughts traveled through the air like a virus and became visible to Robert — because who knew? Maybe they could. Robert looked old and exhausted with deep creases in his face. His shoulders were low and rounded, and he leaned forward in the chair with hands clasped in a surrendering way, like he was praying.

“Are you OK?” Phil asked him, surprising himself.

Something broke inside Robert in a way that he did not know he could break. His breath caught as he swallowed a sob, then he gave up and wept silently, shoulders shaking. He hid his face in his arms, bent over his knees. In a moment, he had it under control. He inhaled deeply and let it out in a long, ragged sigh. Then he looked up.

Phil looked stricken and afraid. He returned Robert’s wide-eyed look. All at once, Robert wanted to laugh. He smiled crookedly and said to Phil, “You look terrible, man.” And Phil laughed, too. Neither of them spoke for a few moments. Then Robert stood up, nodded, and left.

Driving home, he leaned into the wind and listened to the truck’s low-pitched hum, a Tuvan throat song that harmonized with the rise and fall of insects in the ditches and hovering woods. The night air was warm and humid. This time, when he got home, he would tell Cynthia about his visit with Phil, and he would tell about her the feelings he’d had during the meeting. He wanted to be let back into her heart.

Suddenly a deer flashed at the side of the road ahead and leaped in front of the truck. Robert slammed on the brakes and missed it by inches. The truck idled at an angle in the middle of the dark road, headlights staring. Robert’s hands shook. He rested his forehead on the steering wheel and wept again, surprised that there was more inside him. Crying was painful — it was a terrible pressure in his head and a sensation of nakedness that made his skin itch with fear. Now that he had let it out, he was afraid it would never stop, and it would carry him to the end of the world. One part of his mind thought this is defeat. This is a surrender I never knew I could feel. But after a few minutes, it passed. He pulled up the hem of his T-shirt to wipe his face.

Crickets sang their stream of consciousness from every direction. An eggshell moon stood above the tree line on the eastern horizon. Out there in the dark along a hedgerow, the deer zig-zagged on its impossibly thin legs, its wide, liquid brown eyes alert for the kind of danger it could understand, with just two strategies to face it — run, or keep perfectly still.

© Patti Witten, all rights reserved

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