Before I Wake

A Novel

Robert J. Wiersema

St. Martin's Press

Chapter One

“Jubilee, this is A32. We have two, repeat two, en route. Hit and run. ETA four minutes. Clear.”

“Copy A32. Please advise condition. Clear.”

“Copy Jubilee. Advise one adult female. Some bleeding. Shock. Holding stable. Clear.”

“Copy A32. Advise.”

“Copy Jubilee. Advise one female child, three years. Severe head trauma with decreased level of consciousness and spontaneous respirations. Severe bleeding from cranium. Clear.”

“Copy A32. Trauma One will meet you at the gate. Clear.”

Karen Barrett

Sherry and I were walking to the mall, holding hands.

Hillside Shopping Centre is only a few blocks from the house, and every Wednesday morning in the food court they have clowns and jugglers and musicians for the kids. I had dressed her in her little blue dress, the one with Winnie the Pooh on the front. She had chosen it herself: “My sky blue dress, because it matches the sky.” I zipped up the back carefully, so as not to catch any of her wispy hair between the metal teeth. I tickled her gently under the arms as I finished.

Was that the last time I heard her laugh?

Sherry loved the clowns, and the noise of all the other children packed into the food court was like a wall of pure joy. We usually had a snack—a muffin or some french fries—before we walked home, and by the time we got back, it would be nap time for both of us.

It was a beautiful spring day. The sky was a clear, cold blue, but there was no chill to the air. In fact, the air was heavy with warmth and growth and green and flowers as we walked through our neighborhood. We stopped to pet familiar cats, to smell the lilacs just in flower, to pick up stones that weighed down my pockets.

I checked both ways before we stepped into the crosswalk on Hillside. I always do. The street is too wide to take any risks: three lanes in each direction with a concrete median, and the cars and buses just roar through. There’s no light at the crosswalk, so I’m always careful to check. Better that we wait a few seconds than take any chances.

We waited for a station wagon to pass from the left, and I saw a truck a good distance away on the right, but it was perfectly safe. I took her small hand in mine.

Perfectly safe.

We walked quickly. Six lanes is pretty far for a three-and-a-half-year-old, but we’d done it plenty of times.

We should have waited at the median.

The next time I looked up, the truck was right there, maybe a hundred meters away. It was old and beat up, red with white fenders. And it was roaring toward us.

I felt her fingers slip from mine. Felt her moving.

“Sherry,” I called as she skipped away.

We were in the same lane as the truck, so all we had to do was get to the next lane. It wasn’t far. A meter. A meter and a half at most.

I should have picked her up. I don’t know why I didn’t pick her up.

She turned to look at me.

“Sherry!”

I watched her pudgy white legs scamper across the pavement, her little white shoes, her little blue dress.

Her sky blue dress.

When I looked up, I could almost see the face of the driver in the truck. He had shifted lanes to go wide around us, weaving into the next lane, the lane in front of us, the lane that Sherry had just quick-stepped into. The roar of his engine blocked out all other noise.

I reached for her, my fingers just brushing her blond hair before the truck pulled her away from me.

I could hear, over the roar of the engine, the sound of her body hitting the bumper, as the truck took her beyond my reach.

I could feel the wake of the truck as it sped past me, as I threw myself toward her. Tried to reach her.

There was a squealing of tires. A scream.

And the next thing I saw was the ceiling of a hospital emergency room.

“Nine-one-one Operator. How should I direct your call?”

“I just killed a little girl. . . .”

“Sir—”

“I swerved . . . I swerved around her—”

“Sir, where are you?”

“I’m at the Hillside Mall. . . .”

“Where are you at Hillside Mall, sir?”

“I only looked away for a minute. I checked my mirror. I changed lanes. I swerved, but she—”

“Sir, where are you calling from?”

“I just killed a little girl. . . .”

“Sir . . .

“Sir?

“Sir?”

Simon Barrett

10:53.

I checked the clock on my desk as the two City of Victoria police officers opened the door to my office. Sheila followed them closely, her face tight.

“Mr. Barrett?” asked one of the officers.

A lawyer doesn’t usually get unannounced visits from uniformed police, but it does happen, especially when you’re handling accidents and personal-injury cases. I would have been more concerned had I been a stockbroker.

I rose from my chair. “How can I help you gentlemen?”

“I wanted to buzz you,” Sheila started.

“That’s fine, Sheila. Mary . . .”

She was sitting at my work table with the Anderson file.

“We’ll finish this up later.”

Mary rose to her feet, her eyes darting between the officers and myself. I shook my head slightly. She followed Sheila out the door.

10:54.

I came around from behind my desk and offered my hand to the officer nearest me. I have learned, from observation and experience, that one person’s body position in relation to another is the key to determining seniority. The senior or more significant partner will usually stand just slightly forward from the other or the group. Perhaps just a half step, but enough to be noticeable. Enough to be significant.

The officer whose badge read clement took my hand and shook it. Not much of a grip. His hand was cool and soft in mine.

“What can I help you with?” I asked again.

The officer glanced at his partner, whose badge I couldn’t read. That glance unsettled me.

“Mr. Simon Barrett? Of 2718 Shakespeare?” the second officer asked.

“Yes. What is it?”

“I’m sorry to tell you—”

“Yes?”

“Sir, there’s been an accident. . . .”

“Sherry? Is it Sherry?” I felt for the desk behind me, and leaned my weight against it.

“Your wife and daughter were involved in an accident this morning near the Hillside Shopping Centre,” Officer Clement continued. “If you’d like to gather your things, we’ll take you down to the hospital. We can explain in the car.”

“Is there—?” I fumbled for the words, but I pulled myself together. “I’ll have Sheila cancel my appointments.”

As I pressed the intercom button and instructed Sheila, the clock read 10:56. Grabbing only my jacket, I followed the officers through the reception area.

Mary was waiting just outside my office door. I didn’t make eye contact with her as we passed.

In the shadow of a fast food sign, the man in the black coat watched as the truck struck the child, as the mother fell away from the wheels. He watched, without moving, as cars squealed to a halt, as people rushed from buildings to crowd around the two fallen bodies. He didn’t move when the mother screamed, as the sirens built in intensity, as the crowd parted to allow the white-suited medics through to the victims. When they stood up from their kneeling beside the girl, their knees were wet with her blood.

He clenched his Bible in one hand and worried a silver coin with the other. As the ambulance screamed away, lights flashing, the stranger turned and began walking toward the hospital.

Karen

At first, I had no idea where I was.

Everything was white, too bright and out of focus. All I could hear was confusion, a blur of voices and echoes. When I tried to rub my eyes clear, my hand tugged and flashed with a sharp pain. An IV line disappeared into my wrist, held with clear tape that pinched my skin.

The emergency room. Sherry.

I was covered with a green sheet but still dressed. There was a tightness around my head that, when I touched it, felt like bandages. My eyes were slow coming into focus.

Green curtains matching the sheet enclosed the bed. Simon was standing just across the steel rail.

“Simon?”

“The police came for me. At work.”

“Sherry?”

I tried to struggle to a sitting position, but found myself swooning, tangled in the IV tubing, in the green sheet.

“Don’t sit up yet. Lie back.” His voice was calm and deliberate, the way it gets when he’s upset and trying not to show it.

“Where’s Sherry?”

“The doctors just want to be sure . . . Are you okay? They said you struck your head when you fell.”

His use of the word struck—so clinical, so precise. Distancing himself, trying not to worry me with whatever is worrying him.

“No. Not me. Sherry. There was a truck. . . .”

He shook his head, and I realized distantly that no part of him was touching me. I wanted him to reach out, to touch my hand, my face.

“There was a second car. . . . The driver saw everything. . . . She called the ambulance from her cell phone.”

“Where’s Sherry?”

He took a deep breath, and in the pause between my question and his answer I could feel tears forming in my eyes, burning.

Simon

Our miracle . . .

That’s what Karen has always called Sherry.

Our miracle.

Karen and I spent the first years of our life together struggling not to have children. It was a game for me to remind her to take her pill every evening as we went to bed, as if our continued happiness depended upon us remaining childless. I suppose it did.

We lived through some close calls. Missed pills, missed periods. Midnight talks about what we do if . . . The month in Thailand when we forgot the pills altogether.

Only after I was established with Bradford & Howe did we begin trying to have a child.

I guess we’d always wanted a family—children. It was just a matter of when. We both wanted to be ready, for everything to be perfect. Not when we were both students. Not when her job with the paper was barely putting me through law school and keeping us in tiny apartments.

It was almost a checklist: house bought, car paid for, trips to Europe and Southeast Asia and the Caribbean behind us.

Perfect conditions.

When we started trying, we thought it would just happen, that there would be no complications. Instead, we tried without success for three years.

Thirty-nine periods we didn’t want.

Thirty-nine cycles of rising hopes and sudden disappointments, her blood haunting us, black in the blue toilet water.

We both went to the doctor. We were worried that we were getting too old, that our years of putting it off had cost us our only chance to be parents. He examined us, performed a battery of tests.

Nothing seemed to be physically wrong with either of us.

Karen took up yoga. We changed our diets. I gave up coffee and saturated fat. I started running again. We both took up swimming.

And after three years of trying, it worked.

Karen collapsed midway through the seventh month, while covering a story for the paper. Ironically, the story was about a nursery school. The doctor ordered her to bed: high blood pressure and anemia. Continued activity posed a substantial risk to the growing fetus. Child.

Sherilyn was born thirty-three days premature, tiny enough to cup in my hands.

She spent the first seventy-two hours of her life in an incubator. Our only contact was feedings, or momentary caresses of her tiny, soft belly, her silky legs, through the access holes of the Plexiglas box.

Our miracle.

I pushed the memories away.

“She’s in surgery. The doctor said that there was severe trauma to her head. There was internal bleeding—” I stopped talking.

Karen seemed smaller than I had ever seen her, face blanched white, almost the same color as the gauze wound around her head. Her blond curls were matted with blood.

“Is she going to be okay?”

I leaned forward, wanting to touch and reassure her, but unsure of where it would be safe to do so.

“They don’t know. They’ll tell us as soon as they know anything. As soon as she’s out of surgery.”

Twin tears fell from her eyes, trickled into the green pillow on either side of her face. Her pupils were wide and black, leaving only a sliver of green around the rim.

My cell phone vibrated gently against my ribs. I knew that I wasn’t supposed to use the phone in the hospital, but I couldn’t turn it off. I couldn’t be cut off. I stepped away from Karen’s bed to answer it, checking my watch. 11:42.

“Barrett.”

“Simon, it’s me.”

I held my hand up to Karen, turned through the green curtains and into the chaos and noise of the emergency room itself.

“Mary, why are you—?”

“Is everything okay?”

I tucked myself into a pay phone cubicle on the wall, my back to the noise and the bustle, my voice dropping. “There’s been an accident. Sherry got hit by a car.”

“Oh, God, Simon. Is she all right?”

“They don’t know yet. She’s still in surgery. Karen—Karen’s hurt, too. She’s okay. She fell. Hit her head. She’s okay.”

“How are you holding up?”

I shrugged, then realized she couldn’t see me. “I’m fine.”

“I was worried.”

For some reason, the idea surprised me. “Why?”

“It’s not every day you get taken away by the police before lunch.” She laughed a little, awkwardly. “When will you know more?”

I could feel my shoulders tighten as I realized that I had no idea, that things were completely out of my control. “I don’t know. Sherry’s still in surgery. We won’t hear anything until after that. Even then it will probably be too early to tell.”

“But she’ll be all right, right?”

“I don’t know.”

“Are you okay?” Her voice was nearly a whisper.

“I’m okay.”

“Let me know if I can do anything? I’ll be here, or on my cell.”

“I know. Listen, work up Berkman and . . . check the records on Radinger, then call it a day. I’ll call you later.”

“You can—”

A hand fell onto my shoulder, gripping it tightly. I jumped and turned in a single motion.

Karen had climbed out of bed, wheeled her IV stand into the emergency lobby, and found me. She was still pale, but her cheeks were red from the exertion. Her pale lips mouthed, “Who?”

“The office,” I mouthed back. Then, into the phone, “No, nothing that won’t keep.”

“Is Karen there?” Mary asked.

“I’ll be in later to check on things. I left my briefcase—”

“Will I see you? Will you call me?”

“Right. Later, then. Thanks.”

Karen was shaking her head. “Not a moment’s peace. Not even now.”

“They’re all just worried. They saw me leaving with the police. Should you be up?”

“I’m fine,” she said. “Who was it?”

“Sheila,” I lied, taking her shoulder and guiding her to one of the orange plastic chairs.

Copyright © 2007 by Robert J. Wiersema. All rights reserved.