The events that had so drastically changed Seth’s life were hidden deep within his subconscious. Fragments of that tragic day came to him in his sleep like dreams. One moment, he was beginning his last day at his grandparents’ home, taking a deep breath of the winter air as he stepped out on the wooden porch of the ranch house. The slim, ruddy boy of fifteen with dark brown hair that nearly covered his green eyes sat in the hand-made rocker next to the door and looked out on the snow covered pasture as he sipped his coffee. He took defense against the cold with a thick, wool-lined, denim coat, (a gift from his grandpa), broken-in jeans and cowboy boots. His cheeks reddened in response to the icy morning breeze. A truck was passing on the highway a few miles up, but all was quiet except the two horses that came prancing out of the open barn.
The next moment, he’s driving back home, with his mother. The sunlight flickered like a flame through the tall trees that lined the road. The well worn van swayed a little as he maneuvered a curve on the slushy hillside pass. He instantly tensed up and looked nervously at his mother, sleeping in the passenger seat; she didn’t stir. The morning sun lit her face up like an angel and turned her blonde hair to gold. Her peaceful expression calmed him and he took a breath and looked back on the road ahead.
All else was darkness.
Seth’s eyes seemed to fight him as he tried to open them. They hurt at the slightest bit of light and snapped shut against his will. He knew he wasn’t home. The room seemed very bright and big; there was white everywhere. He rubbed his eyes and suddenly became aware of the plastic bracelet on his wrist and realized that he was in a hospital. It was so bright, he couldn’t focus or keep his eyes open for long. Blinking and squinting, he looked and groped for the call button to get a nurse.
Suddenly, there was a voice at the door:
“Well, look who decided to finally wake up.”
Startled, Seth turned quickly to see a short, chubby, Mexican lady, wearing brightly colored scrubs, walk into the room.
“Who are you?” he asked, hoarsely.
“I’m Blanca. What’s your name, honey?” she asked him as she picked up his chart from the end of the bed.
“Seth.” he replied meekly as he cleared his throat.
“That’s what it says here, so your memory seems to be okay.”
She had the same tone in her voice his mom would get whenever he was sick or scared as a boy. Blanca continued reading, glancing over a few pages.
“It says here that Dr. Wagner wants to be notified of any changes in your condition. I’d say this is a pretty big change and he would want to know right away.”
Seth sat up straight and leaned toward her.
“Why? How long have I been here? What’s going on? Where’s my mom?” His fear was now quite audible in his voice.
Blanca returned the chart and smiled tenderly at him as she walked round the side of the bed.
“I don’t know where your mom is, sweetheart, but I’ll try to reach her. You had a bad car accident and you’ve been here for about three weeks. Dr. Wagner should be here by now and he can tell you more about that.”
She gently urged him to lay down with a hand on his shoulder. Seth reluctantly complied.
“What’s the last thing you remember?” she asked.
Seth struggled for a moment as he tried to reach back. It was like trying to recall a fading dream upon waking. Finally:
“I remember sitting outside my grandparents’ house; and driving home with mom.” However, he wasn’t sure if they were real memories.
“Well, you keep working on that because Dr. Wagner will want to know what you can remember. I want you to relax now. I’ll go and get you some breakfast and try to get in touch with your family.”
Blanca started out the door and Seth couldn’t suppress the fear welling up inside him.
“Is my mom okay?” he asked as he began to cry.
Blanca turned back and tried to comfort him with a smile;
“I’m sure she’s fine. Do you prefer bacon or sausage?”
Seth just stared at the food on the tray in front of him. It was a good breakfast of two pancakes, maple syrup, scrambled eggs, four strips of bacon and a cold, plastic cup of orange juice.
“Aren’t you hungry?” Blanca asked.
“I don’t know.” he replied as he poked at the eggs with a plastic fork.
With a deep sigh, he dropped the fork and laid back in his bed and turned his attention out the window. The morning sun was now hidden behind a thick blanket of dark clouds. Blanca laughed and took the tray,
“I don’t eat the food here, either. Is there something else you would like?”
“You probably shouldn’t be drinking coffee until you talk to your doctor.”
“I know, but I was drinking coffee at grandma and grandpa’s.”
Blanca thought for a moment.
“You know, we could say that it was to help jog your memory; cream and sugar?”
She grinned and Seth smiled.
“Two and two, please.”
Seth was anxiously waiting when Blanca returned with the coffee.
“Be careful.” she said, as the handed him the small, white, Styrofoam cup.
He wasn’t entirely prepared for what would come next. He took the coffee and deeply inhaled the aroma of the freshly brewed cup. Suddenly, he was back at his grandparents’ house, brewing a pot of coffee. He looked to the hills and trees behind the house, through the window. The sky was changing color as the sun was preparing to make it’s appearance. The last few drops of coffee trickled out and the green light below the fresh pot went off. He took a cup from the cupboard and filled it, then added two generous spoonfuls of sugar and some fresh cream from the fridge. He took a sip and left the kitchen passing through the dark dining room, then the living room. He opened the door, revealing the white world outside. The crisp smell of the winter air filled his nose as he closed the door behind him.
Seth was recounting his flashback to Blanca when he noticed someone standing at the door. It was a man with long, neatly combed, dark brown hair and green eyes. He was wearing a blue, button-down shirt; red tie and black slacks and shoes. The man, who appeared to be in his forties, just stood there for a moment, expressionless. He snapped out of his dazed state and finally spoke.
“Hi, Seth. I’m Dr. Wagner.”
Dr. Wagner stepped inside the room and walked up to the bed, looking at Seth in a strange way. He seemed almost hesitant to speak.
“How are you feeling this morning?” he asked, taking on a professional demeanor.
“Okay, I guess. I’m a little achy.”
“Well, you have been in that bed for quite a while. Any headaches or dizziness?”
“I do have a bit of a headache.”
“We were expecting that. You know already that you had a pretty bad wreck, right?”
“Yeah, what happened?”
“What’s the last thing you remember?’
“Driving home from my grandparents’. The road was icy.”
"Well, you banged your head pretty good that day. The injury caused swelling in your brain which wasn't bad enough for any kind of emergency procedure but led to your coma which lasted nineteen days."
Just then, the sound of big boots came in the room from the hall and Seth’s grandparent’s entered. All communication with the doctor ceased.
Seth's grandparents, Sam and Susan, own and operate the Lewis Family Ranch where they raise horses and provide riding lessons for children; an enterprise that brought them more joy and income than they had ever known in their nearly forty-year marriage. Samuel Lewis was a tall and stocky man that filled his cowboy boots, pearl-snap shirt and insulated Carhartt vest with a masculine presence that commanded the attention of all those occupying any room he entered, the sound of his heavy footsteps always preceding him. His stubbly face always had a wry expression that disguised his young and playful spirit except when he laughed, which was quite often. Susan Lewis was a silver haired lady that in no way looked her age at nearly sixty years. The very air around her seemed to carry a soothing feeling of care and comfort. She was just tall enough to be considered average, but short enough that her formidable-looking husband had to bend down just a little to kiss her usually pursed lips. They were a sweet sight to behold, always beside one another in everything and always walking as if they were strolling along on their first date.
Grandma immediately sat on the edge of the bed and took Seth in her arms.
"We've been waiting for you to wake up, sugar." she said as she squeezed him gently.
Grandpa walked around to the other side of the bed to be closer to his grandson. He gave Dr. Wagner an inquisitive look as he passed him. Dr. Wagner shook his head.
"Well, we'll talk more about all this later." Said Dr. Wagner as he politely ushered Blanca out the door. "I'll come back after a while." The doctor closed the door gently as Blanca continued down the hall to attend to other patients. He stood there for a moment, listening as if he were expecting something to happen.
Inside, Seth's grandparents were getting ready to break the news to him.
"Well, you doin' alright Seth?" Grandpa asked, maintaining his composure, but just barely.
"Yeah, I'm fine. I'm glad y'all are finally here." sounding somewhat detached. "Will somebody please tell me where mom is?"
Grandma and Grandpa looked at each other, neither of them wanted to say it, but they both knew it had to be done.
"Your mama didn't make it." Grandpa finally uttered followed by a grave silence.
"I know." said Seth with almost no emotion. "I knew it when I woke up and she wasn't here." A moment passed and Grandma started to cry.
Dr. Wagner stood outside the door like a man on a ledge, trying to hear and imagine what was going on inside when an approaching nurse broke his attention.
"Excuse me, Dr. Wagner?" she called to him.
"Yes?" he answered with surprise and finally stepped away to follow her.
John Wagner took his usual route from the hospital to his home.
On any other day he'd be listening to NPR and calling his wife to check on the day's agenda, but not today. Today his radio was off and his phone remained in the cup holder in the center console of his Ford Explorer. The only sounds in the car were the sounds of the road under the tires, the coins vibrating in the ashtray and the wind that buffeted the SUV as it rolled down the open road. Passing motorists might have mistaken John's blank expression for boredom but he was, in fact, lost in thought. His mind was wrestling with some unspoken concern while his body was on auto-pilot; mechanically operating the vehicle as it had done hundreds of times before to get him home.
He let out a quiet sigh as he reached for the overhead button that commanded the garage door to open. His right foot moved from the the accelerator to the brake. With a clockwise turn of the steering wheel, his Explorer left the street and entered the driveway of his two-story, Tudor inspired house. Additional pressure on the brake brought him to a full stop as he waited for the door to reach a safe height before pulling in. He hit the overhead button again before shifting into park and turning off the ignition. He took the keys in hand, grabbed his phone from the console and opened the door, stepping out onto the solid concrete of his garage.
He opened the door and was greeted by the sound of his daughter's laughter. He passed through the dim hallway which contained the washer and dryer on the right and a small bathroom on the left, coming to the main living area. He hung his keys on a hook labeled "Daddy" and called out to his family.
"Good evening ladies!!!! How is everything in the Wagner house tonight?"
"Daddy!!!!!!" little Lizzie squealed with delight from the dining room. Her braided pigtails bounced and swayed as she jumped from her seat, ran through the house and slammed into her father, wrapping her arms around him.
A loud "Oof!!!" involuntarily escaped his mouth when Lizzie's little head impacted his stomach.
"Have you started practicing for football or what?" he teased as he leaned down to kiss her.
"No, she's supposed to be finishing her art project for school tomorrow." Ellen answered from the dining room.
John looked down at Lizzie with one raised eyebrow and grabbed the ends of her long braids with a precocious grin.
"You better get back in there." he said, pulling the braids straight out and waving them in the air as if he were conducting a symphony.
Lizzie giggled and spun, twisting her braids together in her daddy's hands and the two of them headed to the dining room.
Ellen sat at the dining table, which was covered with art supplies, with an empty chair on her right and Lizzie's friend, Emma . Colored paper, pencils, crayons and stickers were strewn about. Some had been used, others discarded for a more preferable selection. Lizzie returned to her seat, which was the center of the chaos on the table top and John approached his wife, kissing her tenderly. He then turned his attention to the mess.
"Wow! It looks like a tornado hit an arts and crafts store and dumped the remains in our house!" he cried, winking at Lizzie. She giggled and went to work.
"How are you, Mrs. Wagner?" he asked as he pulled off his tie.
"I'm doing well, Dr. Wagner. Thank you for asking." She said playfully. "We've only been home for an hour or so. Ballet ran a little late and Emma's mom did, too. We waited for a while and then Lizzie asked if she could come over for a bit. I ordered a pizza since I didn't have time for dinner."
"Pizza is perfect! Especially today." he said with a smile as he rubbed his belly. "He's awake."
The two girls gave each other wide-eyed, slack-jawed looks and Ellen raised her eyebrows.
"He's awake or he opened his eyes again?" Ellen asked, not wanting to get too excited.
"He's awake and speaking. Susan and Sam are with him now."
"Did you get to see him? Did you talk to him?" The girls sat quietly in anticipation.
"Only for a few minutes. He remembers a couple of things from before the accident. His grandma and grandpa came in and I left them to talk about family things."
"Does he know?" She asked seriously and the girls sat up straight in their chairs.
"I imagine he knows about his mom by now. He's got a lot to deal with as it is. No need to rush things."
"Of course." Ellen replied. "What now?"
"Well, we need to do some testing to see how he's healing and then likely some physical and psychological therapy. But right now, let's have a pizza party!"
"Yaaaaaaaaay!" exclaimed the girls.
"I'm gonna meet my big brother!" Lizzie added. "Daddy, can we make cards for him?" She asked eagerly.
"Can we?" Emma asked, joining her friend's excitement.
"You betcha!" John complied.
"Finish your homework first Elizabeth Ann." Ellen chided.
Father and son laid awake in their respective bed that night. John, staring at the ceiling, in his king-sized pillow top. His wife sleeping on his chest in their 400 thread-count ivory sheets and over stuffed comforter. Seth in his restricted hospital bed with raised rails, cold, white sheets and thin blankets that barely covered his feet. He looked to his grandma, sleeping on the small couch in one corner and his grandpa, snoring in a chair in the other corner.
Father and son closed their eyes, trying to rest in preparation for the days that lay ahead.