There were two messages on the machine. His wife set down her bags and hit the flashing red button. The first was from his boss, asking why he hadn’t come to work. She shrugged. He must have gotten stuck in traffic that morning. The second message unnerved her. The boss again, sounding increasingly flustered.
His car was in the driveway, so she walked upstairs looking for him. She called his name, but there was no answer. She walked into their room and there he was. She was annoyed now. How could he not have heard her coming up the stairs and calling for him? Why wouldn’t he wake up? She told him she was tired of whatever game he was playing.
She heard something vibrate. It was his cell phone, trying to notify him that he had a voicemail. She didn’t know his password, but she looked at the call log. Sure enough, it was his office. She asked him what he was trying to pull. No response. She slapped his face gently, and then harder as she got more annoyed. She tickled his underarms. This always worked. No response.
Now she was growing frightened. She ran into the bathroom and filled a glass with water. There was no reaction when she threw it on his face. Her heart was pounding now, and she held back panicked sobs. She grabbed his cell phone off the floor.
After coming home from work, he reclined on the couch and grabbed a newspaper. There was an article about the city’s budget for the coming fiscal year. City officials had proposed an increase in funding for their community services department. The director of that department had spoken at a recent public hearing, excited that the additional money would pay for more food baskets and help needy residents deal with painful fuel costs.
There was another quote. An angry man claimed to be speaking for all of the city’s taxpayers. He asked how the city could be so irresponsible. Putting down the newspaper, he let out a heavy sigh. The reporter had tried to present a balanced view of the issue, but he had a sinking feeling.
He walked to his computer in the other room, jostling the mouse to turn off the screen saver. He pulled up the city’s website. Official Minutes. Click. Sure enough, there had been a whole stampede of angry speakers blasting the increase in funding. Pleas for altruism were drowned out by a parade of indignant city residents worried about their own individual tax bill.
His parents had joined his wife in the hospital. His brother was expected soon. The doctors were mystified. They said they had never seen anything like this. For days, they performed dozens of tests. Had he hit his head? Any injury severe enough to put someone in a coma would certainly stand out, but there was nothing. Every test came back negative. He was in remarkably good health. If only he were awake to enjoy it.
After three days of anxiety, his brother lost his temper. He grabbed a paper clip, bent it and stabbed his brother in the arm. Blood dripped down from the small hole left behind, but he didn’t react. His parents pulled his brother away. His wife fell to her knees. She didn’t understand why this had happened, or why it had to happen. He had made so much progress, gotten past so many obstacles. What cruel cosmic joke had been played on her husband?
Having exhausted all options, the doctors sheepishly asked the family to take him back home. There were a lot of patients with more familiar ailments who needed treatment. His parents protested, but were unable to make a real case for keeping him in the hospital. One doctor tried to console them, said they could check in with him regularly, assured them they would continue to look over the test results.
It was the weekend. He was not an early riser like his wife. When he finally lurched out of bed, she had been up for hours organizing various piles of clutter. She didn’t know the meaning of the word “relax.” He fired up the computer, and began his usual round of news websites. Here was a shocking item. Someone had unearthed records which revealed that several high-ranking government officials had signed off on torturing prisoners of war.
This was huge, he thought. He grabbed the remote and turned on the television, hoping to find out more. The first news channel he came across had nothing. A prominent politician had been seen in public without an American flag pin, and talking heads were reacting with outrage that he found rather disproportionate.
Maybe he would have better luck with another channel. Now a young television actress crashed her car into a fire hydrant. There were two correspondents on the scene. He squinted and watched the crawl of information at the bottom of the screen. No mention of the torture, but an Oscar-winning actor was apparently a “prankster” on the set of his last film.
He turned off the television and tossed the remote to the other end of the bed. After a few moments, he cursed and brought his fist down onto the mattress. His wife turned and asked what the problem was. He felt too frustrated to even speak, preferring to simply shake his head.
Friends and family were now a frequent sight at his home. The atmosphere was like that of a funeral, but all of the guests were careful not to let his wife hear that particular observation. Old friends who had not seen each other for years came together and discussed their astonishment at the circumstances which had brought them there.
The initial shock of his predicament had faded, and the guests now sought to lighten the mood by pointing out small details on their sleeping friend. An old college roommate noted that he seemed to have a lot more gray hairs these days. His wife was now reluctant to even set foot in the bedroom, and threw herself into making sure the guests were well-fed. His dog patiently waited beside the bed, leaving his post only to eat and go outside for brief periods of time.
At one point, his sister-in-law had to rush into the bedroom to gather her children, who were walking all over him and enjoying not getting scolded like they might with someone who was awake. His wife had to leave the house. She stood outside in the driveway, fighting back the tears again. She had cried so much in the last week. She wondered how one person even had so many tears. What would she do if he never woke up?
No. That was impossible. Even if he didn’t wake up, it was only a matter of time before some other cause of death claimed him. He had not eaten in six days, surely that would catch up to him. This realization made her feel worse. Were these the two possible ways her marriage would end? Death or eternal sleep?
As the family gathered for Easter Sunday, he walked around the suburban neighborhood where he grew up. He recalled a farm within walking distance from his home. The fields there seemed to stretch on forever. He remembered running wildly through them as a child, and occasionally hiding from the farmer when he spotted a tractor on the horizon.
As he grew older, he had begun to appreciate the place for more than just its recreational possibilities. It was beautiful. He thought of it as his own little slice of Europe, right on his street.
But now it was different. There were deep scars in its surface, treaded tracks carved deep into the landscape which once seemed impossibly flat. His father had quietly walked up behind him, and broke the news that the land was being developed into several retail stores. He clenched his teeth together, fighting an urge to cry that was so fierce it surprised him.
Most of the guests had left for the evening. His wife, exhausted, slumped onto the couch and fell asleep within minutes. One friend remained, and walked into the bedroom. This friend had known him perhaps the longest, and remembered the days when it seemed uncertain whether he would even make it through school.
He grabbed a chair and set it beside the bed. He paused for a few moments, and finally spoke.
“I don’t know how you’ve done this, but you’ve got to stop. People here need you.”
It was near the end of a long day. He called his wife to inform her he would be late for dinner. She seemed mildly irritated, but after a ten-hour day, he didn’t find anything about it mild. Little pet peeves became insurmountable odds. He lashed out at her, criticizing her for things that didn’t even bother him on a good day.
When he got home, she was standing alone on the porch. He couldn’t bear to make eye contact at first. She said nothing, and instead held out her arms. He was a child again, reduced to tears by a world that seemed constantly cruel and unforgiving. He wondered what was wrong with him. Everyone else seemed to know how to deal with it. Everyone but him. Except now it was different. He wasn’t alone.
It was hard to believe how often he forgot that.
The next morning, he woke up and began his usual routine. He fired up the computer, but decided to look someplace different today. He found a video of a dog growling at its own leg. Laughter rang through the house. His wife ran in, and cried for what seemed like hours. His growling stomach brought the emotion of the moment to a halt. She said he must be hungry. He nodded.
He was quiet during breakfast, but content. His wife sat across from him. The dog stared at him, hoping for scraps.
For now, this was all he needed.