Alternating Realities

Originally published on Short Fiction Break, December 2016.

Katelin walked into the room to see her brother, Brett, sitting up and looking out the window.

“Hi, Brett,” she cooed, unsure of how he’d respond.

“Katelin! I’m so glad to see you.”

Katelin went to him, kneeled next to his chair, and squeezed his hand.

“I wish you would talk to me. I just want to know that you’re okay.”

“What are you talking about?” Hadn’t he just opened his mouth and spoken to her? “I’m fine. It’s a beautiful day. I spent a lovely weekend away with Sarah. I told you about our trip to the Vineyard, didn’t I?”

“What happened?”

“We drove down to Woods Hole midday Friday and took the ferry to the island.” Brett smiled as he reminisced. “Sarah loved walking through Oak Bluffs, marveling at the Victorian houses. We went to the carousel, but Sarah thought the glassy stares of some of the horses were creepy.”

“You must have been so scared,” Katelin murmured.

Brett furrowed his brow.

Me scared of some wooden horses with glass eyes? They’re eerie, sure, but not scary.” Was Katelin feeling okay? “Remember how Mom and Dad would always get just the museum admission? They’d end up paying again when we begged them to take us to the lighthouse. And again at all those preserved landmarks. They complained about it every year. So Sarah and I got the pass that admits you to them all.

“We had dinner at a pub, where I got four wooden nickels. I guess if I collect 500 of them, I get to drink from a special mug. I don’t think I’ll ever drink enough to collect that many,” he laughed. “But maybe Sarah and I will make the Vineyard our anniversary celebration every year.

“Anyway, I told you about the gazebo where I proposed to Sarah two years ago, right? We watched the sunset from there. It was breathtaking.”

“What a way to spend your first anniversary.”

Was that sadness he heard in his sister’s voice?

“It was beautiful.” Brett replied. “On Saturday, we drove along the south coast. We walked the trail at Long Point, spent some time at Aquinnah, and enjoyed the view from the lighthouse. I bought a quahog-shell necklace for Sarah. They’re beautiful. Then we had dinner overlooking the beach and the ocean.”

“I can’t imagine what it felt like, everything coming to such a sudden end.”

“I’m not finished yet.”

There was something wrong. Katelin’s odd responses made Brett’s stomach lurch. His heart started to beat quicker and he felt beads of sweat forming on his forehead. He was about to receive very bad news. Did something happen to their parents? Of course not. Katelin would have said that first. Brett shook his head. I’m overreacting, he thought.

“We had such a wonderful time; it was hard for us to leave. Couldn’t have asked for a better mini-vacation—well, except for on the ride to the ferry.”

“It could have been a perfect anniversary weekend if not for that incident,” Katelin whispered to her brother.

“There was a bit of a close call on the highway. A drunk driver, probably. Swerving all over the road. Almost ran us right off the highway into a ditch. Luckily, we weren’t hurt. Sarah was a little shaken up, but once we were on the ferry on our way to the island, we managed to relax and forget all about it.”

Katelin ran her hand over Brett’s hair. She turned to see Marie, the nurse, standing in the doorway of the hospital room. Katelin stood and approached the nurse.

“Has he even said a word since the accident?”

Marie shook her head.

“The doctor says there’s some brain damage, which could have affected his speech.”

“Brain damage? I’m fine, see?” Brett stood and spread his arms. “Sarah will tell you. Sarah!” He called.

“But I’ve seen this happen before,” Marie continued. “When a person loses a spouse so suddenly, it hits them hard. He’s likely still in shock over it.”

“She was so young, too. And they were so happy.” Katelin turned back to her brother.

“What are you talking about? We’re still happy. We’re still …”

Brett grunted and bowed his head.

He looked down.

Brett’s legs bent as he sat in a chair with his feet propped up on attached footrests. His arms lay in his lap. Wheels flanked the chair’s armrests.

“Why am I in a wheelchair? And a hospital johnny? What’s going on? Sarah and I were on the Vineyard …”

“It doesn’t seem fair that the drunk walks away without a scratch, after causing all this pain.” Marie watched Brett, motionless in his wheelchair.

“Doesn’t seem fair?” Katelin raised her voice. “My sister-in-law was only 27! My brother may never walk or speak again! Our family has been torn apart! Of course it’s not fair! It’s bullshit!”

“Please, calm down. You’ll disturb the patients,” Marie tried to calm Katelin. It only angered her more.

“Sure, I’ll calm down. Some asshole ran my brother off the highway and killed his wife, but I’ll just sit here quietly, because it’s just business as usual for you, isn’t it?”

As if triggered by Katelin’s outburst, the memory of the close call flashed in Brett’s head. Only in this vision—this memory—he saw the ditch rush toward him. The world turned upside down. He remembered looking beside him, at his wife.

“She went quickly, at least,” Marie said, afraid to set Katelin off again. “From what the doctor mentioned about her injuries, she wouldn’t have suffered.”

“No, Sarah!” Her eyes stared past him without emotion, dead. Blood seeped from a head wound. The crushed door crowded her. He tried to reach out to her but his arm wouldn’t move. He could feel a tear tracing a line down his cheek, but couldn’t move to wipe it away.

Brett snapped out of the memory and back into his current nightmare. He emitted a short, barking sob.

“What about the rest of us?” Katelin snapped at the nurse and hurried back to her brother’s side to hold his hand.

“It’s okay, Brett. I’m here. Talk to me.”

Brett looked out the window, staring past his sister. He appeared without emotion, but he felt as though his soul had been ravaged.

He turned his head back toward his sister.

“I remember everything Sarah and I did on Martha’s Vineyard. I remember her irritation of the wind on the ferry over, blowing her hair into a tangled mess. I remember the awed look on her face as we watched the sunset together. I remember feeling her body next to mine under the silk sheets of the king bed at the hotel. She can’t be gone.”

His mind raced. He remembers the trip, but he also remembers the accident. The feeling of having lost control as the car spun off the road. The seat belt choking him as the car overturned. The crunch of metal at every impact. He clenched his hands as he thought of what that drunk driver had stolen from him.

“Why wasn’t it me? He hit us from my side. Sarah should have lived.”

“Come back to us, Brett. This world isn’t ready to lose you, too.” Katelin brushed away a tear as she squeezed her brother’s hand.

Brett tried to squeeze back but couldn’t move his hand. He could feel a tear tracing a line down his cheek, but couldn’t move to wipe it away.