The noon rush had long since quieted, yet a silent residue of previous tensions lingered. Tensions are curious creatures. No one can see them, but their presence is rarely missed. They have no physical mass, yet they can fill an entire room suffocating those inside. The excited-anxious sort, the fear-based breed, the angry-blaming kind, and many others stay long after the immediate crisis has passed.
The tensions at New York City’s Bellevue Hospital’s maternity ward on one Monday afternoon were no exception. From 12:05 pm to 2:03 pm, they had sixteen women on the brink of motherhood.
The halls cluttered with doctors and nurses hustling to attend to each patient. The maternity waiting room filled with tense, anxious fathers, grandparents, aunts, and uncles-to-be. The pacers walked their respective courses across the marble floor. The talkers traded stories, discussing and sometimes debating the pros and cons of various baby names. The watchers, their focus on the door, stayed perched to jump up at its slightest movement, eager to hear sweet declarations such as “It’s a boy!” /“It’s a girl!” /“You’ve got twins!” With each swing of the door, the crowd grew thinner, the room quieter until only two people remained. Not the typical maternity ward waiters, they were two young men, ages eighteen and twenty-six. The elder stood six-foot-one with a medium build, his amber eyes dark with worry because the younger, slightly more chiseled and a half-inch shorter, tottered on the verge of a breakdown.
It had been over two hours since the other people had left, and still, there was no word from the doctors. Stephen “Steph” Campbell sat on the edge of his waiting room chair, leaning forward with his hands propping up his head. His eyes moved faithfully around the room as he watched his best friend, Center Perkins, traipse.
They had not spoken ten sentences to each other since Stephen met Center in the lobby of the ER. Center’s frustration mounted over the admittance forms, so his immediate need had been Stephen’s clear head. They completed the forms in time for the doctor’s announcement that they were taking Nicole to the maternity operating room. In the waiting room, there were too many people around to discuss what happened, so both young men just waited. It was not until the room cleared that Center decided he had to move around and even longer before he spoke.
“She’s got to be okay, Steph,” he mumbled. “I don’t know what I am going to…I should have seen her…All of a sudden…” On he went, starting one thought before finishing the other until Stephen could take it no more.
“Center, it was an accident. Replaying the scene won’t help now. Please try and calm down,” he offered. Center stopped walking. He started to respond when the doctor came into the waiting room. Both men turned their questioning faces toward him.
“How is she?” asked Center
Dr. Sanders, the six-foot-two middle-aged physician, pursed his lips as if his news would be hard to report and even harder to hear. His next movement, slight and quick, did not escape Stephen. The man uttered something that resembled a prayer under his breath. “Well,” he began, “She’s stabilized; however, we were unable to save the child. I’m sorry.” When the doctor finished his initial report, he waited for a response from Center before he continued.
Center stood still as reality registered. He opened and closed his mouth several times as if some word, phrase, or sentence needed to be released. Stephen could almost sense the guilt that wove its way around the young man’s heart. Not only had Center backed his SUV into his sister, but he had killed her child in the process. By the despair in Center’s eyes, Stephen could tell when it clicked. He spoke for him.
“How soon can we see her?” he asked.
“As soon as she wakes up, Mr. Perkins may visit her.”
“How about her recovery? Will there be any long-term effects?” Thinking about the obvious emotional scars, he added, “Physically, I mean.”
A young doctor fresh from intern-land might have used terms that sailed over the heads of the young men, but Stephen was grateful that Dr. Sanders remained precise and to the point. “Mrs. Arrows’ main injuries were to her ribs and hip. She fractured two of her ribs and severely bruised her hip on the left side. Fortunately, these injuries will heal. She is, however, going to need weeks of rest followed by extensive physical therapy.”
The entire time the doctor spoke, he glanced periodically in Center’s direction as if trying to discern his grasp beyond his shocked expression. “We had to remove the baby. Mrs. Arrows remained asleep throughout the entire process. I’ll have more information after she awakes.” Neither Center nor Stephen responded. “Your sister’s fortunate,” the doctor said to Center. “She could have easily lost her life today. No, I just misspoke. Your sister’s blessed.”
Stephen nodded his thanks, ignored the platitude, and focused on his friend. Center Perkins never acknowledged the doctor’s exit. As if he heard nothing of the conversation between Stephen and the doctor, he stood blank-faced as tears began to fill his eyes. Stephen tried to coax him out of his trance. “Hey, Center, why don’t you sit down now, okay?” he said, standing up to help him.
Center visibly quaked. Stephen stepped beside him and helped him to a chair. Upon sitting, Center lowered his head into his lap, covered it with shaking hands, and cried bitterly. Stephen, uncomfortable and unsure of what was needed, placed his hand on Center’s back as a way of letting him know he was there.
As he sat there, waiting for Center to resume control, his mind wandered. He thought of Ebony, his former fiancée. Stephen envied her at that moment as he wished he too knew how to pray. If there is a God, surely he knows how to fix this, he thought to himself.
Center cried for a good twenty minutes. First violently, then softly, then soundlessly until he was dry. Still, Stephen said nothing. He wanted to let Center speak first. “How can she ever forgive me for this? Nicole and Robert were so excited about the baby. I actually hoped that…that I hit her softer than it seemed. You know maybe just knocked the wind out of her and that she could walk out of this hospital still carrying Robert’s baby. Rob, oh my goodness, Rob.”
“Oh man! You’ve gotta call him,” Stephen said.
“I don’t know.
“You don’t know what?”
“He’s in Paris. I don’t know if I should bother him.”
“Oh, dude! What am I saying? Man, I’d do anything to avoid calling Rob right now. But you’re right.”
Stephen could hear him wavering on the edge of another breakdown. “If you aren’t up to making the call, I’ll do it for you,” he offered, his face the essence of compassion.
“I’ll do it. This is my mess, and I have to handle it myself. Thanks for being here.”
Stephen shrugged. “Where else would I be?”
Center let out a long sigh. No one was more important to his brother-in-law than his sister. To report that Nicole was hurt would be hard enough. To add that she lost the baby and he was to blame was almost more than Center could handle.
Robert Arrows was the senior international relations director of Prestige Modeling Inc., one of the most distinguished modeling agencies in the world. His job was to ensure all the foreign offices ran smoothly and congruently with the guidelines and policies of Prestige’s US headquarters.
The company, founded by Edward Kelly Simmons in 1958, had offices in Switzerland, England, Egypt, Hong Kong, and now, two in France. Simmons started out a young entrepreneur with a love for beautiful women. He launched the company with three models and a photographer.
From the start, Prestige provided personal photographers. Each model had one that traveled with her to photo shoots. Simmons reasoned that using Prestige photographers would cut down on his girls being violated. For this reason, in 1976, Simmons founded Prestige Photography College. The sister company turned out some of the best photographers in the world, including, as of the year 2012, five Pulitzer-prize winners.
Prestige’s unique corporate structure and extravagant photographer policy made it a stand out in the model world. Some companies found the policy an annoyance, but most were unable to resist the coveted women and men of Prestige. They ranked among the best in the world. They guaranteed revenue, and revenue was all that really mattered.
Although Robert was ultimately responsible for Prestige’s international media image, because of the structure of the company, he rarely involved himself with the media. Each office had a senior relations executive and an assistant senior relations executive. These two headed the office’s public relations team. The team consisted of twenty to forty senior and junior public relation representatives, depending on the office and local market. The PR reps dealt directly with the press. Their direct subordinates were the agents and the scouts. The senior reps handled the agents, and the junior reps were responsible for the scouts.
Robert had been in Paris for six weeks and was scheduled to stay for another two. He was there to set up the company’s new French headquarters. His days consisted of alternating meetings, classes, and seminars that ranged from company policy to runway etiquette and covered all aspects of the modeling business.
The work was tiring, but Robert loved every minute of it. He gleaned great pleasure from taking greenhorns and showing them how things should be done. Another factor that eased the weight of his toil was the comfortable environment. All of the meetings, classes, and seminars took place in a pristine 1,375-square- foot conference room on the ninth floor of the new Prestige Tower, a forty-story building with a beautiful steel and black glass frame. The room boasted a sleek ebony conference table that seated up to forty-five people. The chairs were top quality black leather with built in massage mechanisms. Other amenities included a sixty-inch flat-screen, tablets at each seat, and remote-sensitive environmental controls for the lighting, heating, and cooling levels.
Robert’s main trainee was Trip Adderson, the newly appointed senior relations executive for Paris. Robert was impressed with the lightning-fast executive; so much, in fact, that he managed to ignore the man’s obvious, albeit kept in check, resentment. Adderson was twenty years Robert’s senior and had been with the company for twenty-six years longer. Robert understood the hostility. Through the right combination of who he knew and what he knew, he had skyrocketed to a position usually reserved for men much older than him.
Resented or not, Robert excelled at his job. He joined Prestige at the age of twenty-eight after five praiseworthy years as a PR executive for Key-Tel Communications. Wesley Simmons, Edward Simmons’s middle son, lured him with a twenty-thousand-dollar pay raise, a generous expense account, and a company car. Prestige’s offer was one of several due to a highly publicized PR nightmare that Arrows deflected and turned into cash.
At first, he ignored the offers. He had received a promotion and a ten-thousand-dollar bonus, and he liked his co-workers. Prestige, however, was a little hard to ignore. After two months of wooing, he took the job. Eight years later, he was in a top-level position, answering to no one except Wesley Simmons himself. Minutes before Center’s call, Robert was doing just that. He was in his office, having a video conference with his boss.
“The training is going as planned, sir. Honestly, we’re about a week ahead of schedule.”
“I’m ever amazed, Arrows,” quipped Mr. Simmons. “Your impression of Adderson?”
“I think he can handle it.”
“You trying to wrap it up early?”
Was he ever? Robert’s mind drifted for a second. He saw Nicole standing at their kitchen sink, the light from the window giving her chestnut curls soft golden edges. The image, his last of her before leaving for Paris, often lingered. He remembered walking up behind her and placing his hands on her small waist. She had giggled ever so softly, turned into his arms, and kissed him invitingly. His wife was always supportive of his work, but she hated to see him leave.
“Honey,” he said, “these two months are going to fly. I will be back here before you miss me.”
“I miss you already,” she said, looking up into his eyes. Robert towered his wife by a foot.
“I love you, Nic.”
“I love you too. Now, will you leave already?” He could tell she was on the verge of tears, so he smiled, gave her one more little peck, and turned for the door. Business trips at the Arrowses’ home were not usually so dramatic, but that time was different. Two weeks before, they discovered Nicole was pregnant. The timing was as unfortunate as trip was unavoidable.
Before walking out the door that day, he turned and saw that Nicole had resumed her chore. He let his eyes get their fill of her from her gold-edged curls to her tiny waist, from her curvy hips to her toned and shapely legs. It was the first image he thought of when he woke up in the morning and the last image he thought of when he went to bed at night. Nicole was about three months along now. The tiny waist he remembered was probably beginning to swell.
A smile formed on his lips as he contemplated the life growing inside of the woman he loved. “I hope so, Sir. My wife is about to enter her second trimester, and I’m anxious to get home to her.” Robert cringed at the words flying out of his mouth before he could stop them. His statement was honest, but he was embarrassed because he had shared his personal feelings with his boss. Robert, normally the prince of prudence, attributed the misspeak to Nicole and their child occupying his thoughts that day more than most.
“As soon as you think Adderson can stand on his own, you leave it to him. You should be able to handle any troubleshooting from here,” Mr. Simmons replied.
“Thank you, sir.”
“Good-bye, Mr. Simmons.”
Robert was ecstatic. He was sure he could have Adderson trained by the weekend. He could not wait to tell his pretty, young wife the good news. His mind drifted to her again when he heard the tune of “Yankee Doodle.” It was his cell phone. Speak of my angel, he thought; then he noticed Center was calling.
“Center? I wasn’t expecting to hear from you. An accident? Center, calm down and speak clearly. How did this happen? Well, how is she? And the baby? No, tell me now! Center, let me be the judge of what I need to know. I need to know if my baby is okay…Oh, I see. I’ll be there as soon as I can, probably tomorrow. If she wakes up before I get there, tell her I am on my way.”
Robert closed his phone. It dropped from his shaking hand and onto his smooth mahogany desk with a soft thud. He leaned back in his chair, then sat back up again. No time for contemplation, there were things to be done.
“I need Mr. Simmons. This is an emergency,” he said. It took less than a minute to connect his call, but he was annoyed by the wait. At his boss’s hello, he abruptly stated his plans. “Sir, my wife has been in an accident. I’m going to put together a manual for Adderson, and then I am heading home. I’m confident he’ll be fine. Thank you, sir.” Then he called the airport and made arrangements.
Robert’s call interrupted a meeting between Wesley Simmons and his older brother Michael. Though there were two years between the siblings, many would argue that they could be twins. They both had the same sandy straight hair and piercing hazel eyes. While Wesley was on the phone, he observed Mike as he went around the five-hundred-square-foot office, making sure all the blinds were closed. After Mike finished his check, he made himself a drink then took a seat and noisily stirred his ice, letting Wesley know he did not appreciate the person on the other end of the line.
“I hope it turns out okay, Arrows. Good-bye,” Wesley said, hanging up the phone. “Mike, we’re on the thirty-second floor, for heaven’s sake.”
“The window washers will be working. No one can see what I am about to show you,” Mike said dryly.
“Did you see the e-mail we received today?”
“Yes. Have you told anyone about this? What about Madi?”
Wesley’s eyes narrowed. If he thought he could have gotten away with it, he would have slugged his older brother. To even suggest that he would sabotage his own creation by telling his wife its secrets was an insult beyond repentance.
“How dare you!” he said, rising from his chair. “I will remind you that I am still the head of this project, brother!”
Mike remained seated, his head tilted toward his younger sibling, his face as calm as water on a windless day. Wesley’s naturally pale skin had turned bright red, the veins in his temples pulsating with rage. “Little bro, when Dad chose you over me as the new CEO of this company, I immediately congratulated you. Would you have done the same if he chose me?” Wesley stared at him hard. “Don’t answer that. We both know that you are a high-strung, hot-tempered jerk and would have responded accordingly.” Wesley’s felt his heart rate increase as his fist grew tighter. In the same annoying play-it-cool-boy voice, his older brother continued. “Sit down, Wesley,” he said. “I wasn’t accusing you of anything. I’ve been thinking back trying to remember if I misspoke as well. It is obvious that somebody has said something to the wrong person.”
Fair enough. “What do you have?”
“I brought the tapes from the December party.”
“We need to look at them carefully and see if anybody looks suspicious. I also brought the tapes from the last meeting.”
“You think this’ll help?”
“We need to have some kind of explanation when we tell Fertelli.”
“We don’t have to tell Fertelli, Mike. We can handle this.”
“Let’s go with that for now, but if this thing isn’t resolved within a month’s time, he has to know about it.”
“Agreed.” Wesley motioned for Mike to start the tape.
Nicole Arrows’ eyes opened at 3:25 a.m. on Tuesday morning. Initially, her surroundings confused her, but remembrance came swiftly to slap her in the face. She was tending her garden when it happened. A butterfly fluttered across her path and landed on one of her pink tulips. The electric-blue winged insect on the soft pink flower enticed her. She had to have the butterfly for her collection.
Being the wife of a wealthy executive left her with a lot of free time on her hands. To fill it, she did her own housework, took karate classes, and maintained several collections. She was not the average high-society type. Nicole never felt like she fit in with the socially elite. To her advantage, Robert felt the same way.
Easing out of her crouched position, she went inside to get a net. The butterfly was still there when she returned. She did not notice that the garage door was up and never heard the engine. She focused intently on catching the reluctant bug. The butterfly, not excited about the net and determined to make her work for its capture, led her all over the yard. She got down on all fours, trying to sneak up on it. In her pursuit, she made her way out of the grass and onto the pavement.
The impact snatched the wind from her lungs and flipped her onto her back with such a thud she thought her heart would stop. Grabbing her stomach, she passed out. Now, she was lying in a hospital bed, her womb emptied. No one had told her, but hearing it was unnecessary. She could feel it. Just as she knew when life began inside her, she knew that it had ended. She wanted to scream but only had the strength to close her eyes, sending a single tear down her cheek as she slipped into a deep and merciful sleep.
Robert arrived at the hospital at three o’clock the next evening. When he reached Nicole’s room, Center was sitting beside her bed, watching her sleep. The boy looked significantly older than his eighteen years. His eyes were bloodshot, slightly puffy. Spiked hairs protruded from his normally smooth face. The curly mop on his head glistened with excess oil. Worry wrought his frame, pitiful and broken.
Still, Robert was angry with Center and had no measure of sympathy for him. On the plane, he had been forced to think. He had yet to hear Nicole’s version of the story and had no idea how his brother-in-law accidentally ran into his wife.
“How long has she been asleep?” asked Robert.
“About two hours now,” Center said, checking his watch. “I am so sorry—” One look into Robert’s eyes silenced his rambling before it began. “I’ll be in the hall if you need anything,” he stated apprehensively, as if he thought Robert might slam him against a wall and demand an explanation.
Robert watched him as he left, suppressing that exact urge. When Center was gone, he took a deep breath. He reasoned that maybe the oxygen increase would push the anger down enough that he could wake up his wife. It would not help any for him to take it out on Nicole. When he felt calm, he moved from his position near the door to Nicole’s bedside.
She looked so fragile. Her chestnut curls flowed from under a crown of bandages as if someone had spilled a bowl of noodles on her head. He looked her over, flushed face, steady breathing, pale hands folded over bandaged abdomen. His eyes stopped at her hands. He stared intensely. His child was once in the womb they covered. Robert leaned forward and kissed Nicole’s cheek.
She opened her eyes. “Honey, you’re here,” she whispered.
“How are you?” he asked.
“Guess,” she said, trying a smile that became a pain-revealing wince. When he didn’t reply, she said, “Sorry.” He watched her face contort as emotion prevented her from saying more, then enfolded her and liberated his own tears.
Robert Arrows sat next to his wife on her hospital bed, looking at the wall, his feet, his wife, her bandages—head first then stomach—then at the wall again. The one place he refused to look was into her eyes. He could feel them x-raying him whenever he was not looking at her. He was raging inside, and he knew she knew it.
“It’s okay to be mad,” Nicole said to her husband as they waited for the doctor to return. It was her release day. After one week, she could finally go home.
“Do you think I’m angry? How can I be angry when my girl is coming home?” Robert said, forcing a smile.
“Not angry, Liar. You are mad. You, Mr. Arrows, are mad at me, mad at Center, mad at the doctor, and everyone else in a five-mile radius.”
Robert, when she confronted him, turned his head toward her, his eyes landing in the one place he had tried the entire morning to avoid. He looked into her eyes and found them solemnly curious, ready to see what she would find in his, to behold the fury he was trying so hard to hide.
“Now is not the time,” he said sharply, his eyes retreating to the wall in front of him.
“Well, maybe not right now, but we’re going to talk about this today. I won’t let you fester. I am strong now, and I can handle whatever you have to say to me.” Her matter-of-fact tone told him she was not put off, and she simply wanted to deal with it.
The drive home was silent torture. Robert fixated on watching the road while Nicole held her stomach, trying to move as little as possible. Despite her painkillers, she was still tender. Ever so often she glanced over at her husband and wondered if her mistake would ever be fully forgiven. Robert had never been able to stay angry with her for long, but she had never been careless with his child before either. Her husband was not the only one whose forgiveness she needed. Nicole had only been pregnant for a few months, but she had grown to love the child. She also wondered if she would ever forgive herself.
In anticipation of their arrival, Center had cleaned the house immaculately and prepared dinner. He left a short note stating he would be spending a few days at Stephen’s house. Nicole sighed. Even though she had explained to Center that the accident was not his fault, her brother was still nervous about facing her husband. As she studied Robert’s countenance, she understood Center’s concern. Her husband’s jaw was tight as if he was biting down on something. His green eyes showed a mixture of worry and incensed frustration. Robert, only a pinch short of six-foot-four with a muscular build, was scary when he was upset. She said nothing; the subject could wait.
The dinner Center left was good but wasted on two wounded souls. Both ate only out of necessity, neither really tasting the food. When they were finished, out of habit, Nicole tried to rise to clear the table.
“Sit down,” Robert ordered gruffly. “I’ll take care of this.” He rose, gathered the dishes, and proceeded into the kitchen. When he returned, he continued to be all business. “Okay, Nic, here’s the plan. We have approximately ninety minutes before your medicine kicks in. I am going to go upstairs and prepare your bath. Then I’ll come back and help you upstairs. After you’re settled, we can talk.” He waited for her consent. A smile formed on her lips.
“What? Did I miss something?” he asked, eyebrows raised.
“You mind if I wait on the couch, or am I restricted to sitting here at the table?” she asked coyly.
He shook his head, smiling in spite of himself.
“I’ll take you there right now,” he replied. He carefully lifted her and carried her to the sofa. After making sure she was comfortable as possible, he turned for the stairs.
Bathed and relaxed, Nicole was ready for the talk they both needed. She had propped herself up with three pillows on her side of the bed. “Okay, Rob. I’m settled,” she prompted.
He was standing in a corner of their bedroom staring at her. His look was no longer hard, just despairing. “I love you,” he began, “and I don’t know what I would ever do without you. I’m aware that you could have easily lost your life. I look at you, my delicate little angel, all bandaged up and I—” Emotion swelled like a cresting wave; he paused until it subsided. “I wish I could take all your pain away.” Nicole didn’t say anything. “At the same time, as you said, I’m angry. This whole accident was so senseless, Nic. One minute, you’re chasing a butterfly. The next, you’ve lost our child.” He began to walk toward her, his voice rising in volume and intensity. “How many times have I told Center to slow down when backing out of the driveway? Why didn’t you hear his engine? How could you possibly be that interested in a freaking butterfly? Why did this happen? I just want to know why.” He broke down beside her.
Nicole put her arms around him and buried her lips in his hair as he wept. She could sense anger flowing out with his tears. They were honest tears, the kind that purge the soul. When he raised his head and looked at her, there was a mere trace of the age she saw earlier. She spoke softly, “I wish I had the answers, Sweetheart. I could make excuses like Center’s engine is quiet, or I was oblivious to my surroundings. Both statements are true, neither one gives us a legitimate answer as to why this happened. I wish I could go back and change it, but that’s not possible. My baby’s gone. My brother’s a ball of raw nerves. My husband is crushed, and I’m well aware that my carelessness has caused it all.”
Nicole spoke evenly, without shedding so much as a tear. She had not cried outwardly since she woke up to see Robert at her bedside. She reserved her tears for her pillowcase in the silence of the night, where only she and darkness could see them.
Robert looked into his wife’s eyes. Pain and emptiness stared back at him. She was the one who had felt the joy of life growing inside of her and then the despair of having that life ripped away.
“Honey,” he began, placing his hand firmly on her shoulders, “this was an accident. Center did not mean to hit you, and you did not mean to get hit. I am going to have a talk with him. He needs to know I won’t blame him anymore. As for you, please do not blame yourself. This was an accident. It wounded us all, but we’re all going to recover, Honey. Trust me.” He leaned forward and kissed her forehead.
Her muscles relaxed, and her eyes began to close. “I believe you,” she said right before sleep took over. Robert eased her onto her back and pulled the cover up to her neck. Then he rose and left the room quietly. He needed to make a phone call.
“Hi, Steph. Is Center there?”
“Yes, but he’s in the bathroom. Listen, Rob, I’m really sorry about Nicole.”
“Center’s a mess, man.”
“That’s why I called. I haven’t exactly been civil to him.”
“I understand why you’re upset.”
“We’re all upset, but it’s unfair to blame Center. He had no idea she was there. She didn’t notice the car. It was an accident.”
“Yeah, I’ve been trying to offer that same speech to Center all week.
“I think he needs to hear it from me.”
“I think you’re right. Hold on, here he is.”
“Hello?” Center’s voice was shaky.
“Hey, Center. Thanks for the meal and for cleaning the house. It looks great.”
“You’re welcome,” Center managed, his voice still plagued with guilt.
After Nicole explained what happened, Robert knew the accident was not completely Center’s fault, but in his anger, he had never let Center in on the fact.
“It was the least I could do, Rob.”
“I called to apologize for the way I’ve been treating you. This was not your fault.” The soft tone and kind words proved just powerful enough to release Center from a lot of the anxiety he had stored over the previous week. Robert heard nothing but sobs. He continued, “You hear me? This was an accident. I want you to come back home. We need you here, okay?”
“Are you sure?” Center asked, reclaiming control of his voice.
“Yes. I’m going into the office tomorrow, and I need you to stay at home with Nicole.”
“I know, but I haven’t been in the office much this week, and I need to take care of a few things. I’ve decided to work from my study until Nic is better. I need to bring some things home.”
“Oh, okay. You know I could show you how to access your work computer from home?”
“I know how to do that, but I need some other things that aren’t on the computer. I’m bringing my paperwork and my videophone, things like that.”
“Okay, I’ll be there first thing in the morning. I’ll make breakfast.”
“Thanks, Son. I appreciate that.”
After hanging up, relief washed over Robert. Center was more like a son than a brother-in-law. He had lived with the Arrowses ever since his parents died in a house fire two days before his twelfth birthday.
It was hard at first. Center, having had a close relationship with his parents, barely spoke and often had to be force-fed. The Arrowses were at a loss. The day things changed was forever etched in their minds. After the first month, Robert decided to force Center back into the land of the living.
It was three o’clock one Saturday afternoon. He was sitting at the kitchen table reading the New York Times when Nicole came into the kitchen with a tray of food. He would not have looked up, except he thought he heard her sniffle. He was right. She was crying. “What’s wrong, Nic?” he asked.
Instead of answering, she just shook her head at the tray of uneaten food. It was the third time that week that Center barely touched his food. Up until that point, Nicole insisted that she care for Center herself. This was fine with Robert because he understood the bond that the grieving siblings shared, and he was working most of the week anyway. But seeing Nicole’s extra stress, he decided to intervene.
“I’m going to have a talk with Center. At this rate, he’s going to make himself sick.” He stood, prepared for any objections she might have, but she just nodded. Grateful for her cooperation, he exited the kitchen.
Center’s room, upstairs and two doors down from Robert and Nicole’s room, was the third largest bedroom in the nine-bedroom home. Robert knocked gently on the door. “Center, I want you to let me in.” He waited. When no reply came, he tried a different approach. “Center, if I don’t hear any objections, I’m walking through your door.” There was still no reply, so he let himself into the room.
Center’s room was the epitome of grief and loneliness. The walls were bare. The only colors in the room were gray and black. Gray clothed the bed, dressed the windows, covered the floor, and black painted all the furnishings. It was not designed to be depressing, only tranquil. Robert wondered why Nicole allowed Center to choose the room. There were plenty of other ones to choose from. Continuing to look around, he noticed a single island of gladness on the nightstand beside Center’s bed. It was a photo of five-year-old Center, his parents, and his two sisters, Amanda and Nicole.
As for Center himself, he looked like he would be joining his parents any day. His eyes were red, puffy, and under shadowed by dark circles. His long curly hair looked like it had not been washed in weeks. His skin was pale, and he shivered as he rocked back and forth like he was in the middle of a snowstorm. I should have done this weeks ago, Robert thought. He wanted to cry.
“You have got to come back to us, Center,” Robert began. “I know you miss your parents, but they would not want you to just give up like this.” No response. “You barely eat. You leave this room only to use the bathroom. You don’t talk. What is going on inside your head? We cannot help unless you talk to us.” No response. Robert walked over to the bed and sat down. Center turned his head in Robert’s direction but remained silent.“Your parents are gone. They died in a house fire, and they’re not coming back.” Seeking to force a response, he raised his voice. “No matter how much you want them to, they will never return. So what now? You want to die too? Because that’s exactly what you’re doing. You realize that, don’t you, son? You keep on at this rate, and you’ll be dead.” Robert placed his hand on Center’s leg. It was as if Center drew strength from the loving gesture, because at that point, he spoke. “I hear them,” came the raspy whisper from barely parted lips.
“The screams. Still hear the screams.”
“Mom said run. Run and don’t look back. So I did, but I thought. They were supposed to be behind me. Then that loud crash made me look back, but they were both yelling at me to run. Yelling, all angry like I was in trouble for turning around. I didn’t know. If I knew she couldn’t move the beam, I would have helped. Then when I was outside, I heard them screaming. I tried to go back, but the firemen wouldn’t let me. They should have let me help.”
“No, Center. You would have just died with them.”
“Leave me alone!” Center’s eyes glassed over, and he retreated into the comfort of his pit.
Witnessing the change, Robert realized that grief was not Center’s problem. It was depression. How did it get this far? he thought to himself. He looked around the room. It was depressing enough to bring anyone down. He would start with the room. “Okay, Center, I’m going to leave for now. But I’ll say this. You have a sister who loves you intensely. She happens to be my wife. She also happens to have recently lost her parents and does not want to lose her little brother too. You will snap out of this.” With that, he had left, closing the door behind him.
Over the next few days, he had Nicole go in and totally remodel the room. She chose a comforter set with wild horses running through a field because when Center lived in California, he loved to ride. For the windows, she chose meadow green curtains that matched the color of the field on his bedclothes. Landscape pictures adorned the walls. The bedroom windows were opened during the day to let in fresh air, and a CD player with only upbeat music played continuously.
They arranged visits with a few of his school friends. He would come downstairs in the afternoons to meet them and occasionally stayed long enough for dinner at the table. He still slept late into the day, and there were nights when Robert thought his wailing would drive them all insane. But even the crying was a good sign. The couple knew the worst was over when he showed up in the kitchen early one Saturday. Robert and Nicole tried to hide their surprise.
“Um, Center, glad you could join us. Nicole was just starting breakfast.”
“I’ll do it,” Center interjected.
“Cook breakfast. You two are always waiting on me. I feel good today, so I’ll cook.” He smiled shyly.
“You can cook?”
Center flashed a grin in his brother-in-law’s direction; then he turned to his sister and said, “Sit down, Tricky. I got this.” Tricky was Center’s nickname for Nicole. She teared up when he used it.
Over six years had passed since that breakthrough. Center had come a long way since then, and he and Robert had become close.
Saturday morning Center arrived at the Arrowses’ home. After talking to Robert the night before, he had his first full night of restful sleep since the accident. He was wide-awake and ready to start breakfast. Breakfast and dessert were Center Perkins favorite things to make, especially in the Arrowses’ kitchen. It was the biggest and the most spacious kitchen he had ever seen, and he loved the design. Most of the appliances—the microwave, refrigerator, can opener, oven, and dishwasher—were built into the walls to save space. In the middle of the kitchen was an island. The island housed Center’s favorite part of the kitchen. It was a five-by-three-foot pancake griddle great for pancakes, omelets, stir fry, and the like. On the other side of the island was the breakfast table. Located on next to the kitchen’s floor to ceiling bay windows, it was oval shaped and seated six. Center was preparing a serving tray for Nicole when Robert came downstairs. He was wearing a pair of black slacks and a short-sleeved gray polo shirt, Robert’s idea of casual.
“Good morning,” he said as he moved toward the cabinet to get a plate.
“You’re making that for Nicole, right?” Robert asked.
“Yeah, I wasn’t sure how hungry she would be.”
“What you have should be fine. Add a big white pill and two little gray ones, will you?”
“Sure. Write down her schedule for me, and I’ll make sure she gets all her medicine on time,” Center offered.
Robert took his plate to the breakfast table. He pulled some paper from his briefcase and began to write down Nicole’s medicine schedule and other things Center needed to know. When he finished his breakfast, he stood, handed the list to Center and left for work. Center grinned and shook his head at the detailed precision of his brother-in-law. Robert was never one to half do anything.
When Robert logged onto his computer, the number of emails he had amassed surprised him. He began going through them one by one. Most were routine, people from his various teams writing to keep him updated on their respective offices. There was one e-mail, in particular, that caught Robert’s attention. Entitled “I thought you should know,” it showed no sender’s address. At first, he dismissed it as junk mail, but that theory did not satisfy him after further consideration. Due to filters, he rarely received junk mail on his company account. Curiosity nibbled away his restraint and left him with no choice but to open it. The message that he found at first confused him, then alarmed him, then infuriated him within the first paragraph.
You don’t know me, and considering the things that are going on within your company of which you are unaware, not knowing me is the least of your problems. You’re all about image, Director, but what you don’t realize is that the Prestige “image” is just a pretty cover. Under that cover, lies despicable corruption. The way I see it, you’re one of two things. Either you’re the type who will look the other way because he likes the fringe benefits, or you are too naive to know about what is going on right under your nose.
Now that I have your attention, I have a message for you. Everything hidden will soon be unearthed. Ever heard of Phase 126? You will. Keep your eyes and ears open, my friend. And know when to abandon ship.
Robert hit the Print button before deleting the e-mail. It was probably just a prank, but he wanted a hard copy all the same. In his eight years of service to Prestige, he had seen nothing but uprightness. He could not imagine corruption, especially not in the upper levels
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