My third attempt for The First Line. February 2013, 2449 words
On a perfect spring morning with flat seas and clear blue skies, Captain Eli P. Cooke made a terrible mistake.
Eli had gotten up at four am for his usual five-mile run on the beach. Typically, he would finish his run, take a quick shower and then grab coffee and a breakfast sandwich at his favorite cafe. Today was not a normal morning. The fight with his wife the night before had kept him from sleeping last night. He needed some peace and quiet, so he sat on the beach after his run, enjoying the sunrise and the calm waters.
The gist of the argument was that his wife wanted him to step back from his responsibilities at the precinct. She’d been nagging him for years to cut back, but last night she’d put her foot down. Their children were in college now and she wanted to spend time with him. Travel the world, enjoy their lives before they got too old to do more than sit in a nursing home.
The funny thing was she was right. These were their golden years and they should be enjoying it. Sitting here enjoying the sunrise and the peace and quiet of the morning only made her argument more valid. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d just sat down and relaxed, appreciated the beauty of the day, or the things he had.
All that being said, he loved his job. He couldn’t imagine a day when he wouldn’t walk into the “box” and see his hardworking, loyal detectives. He couldn’t imagine not sharing a joke with Michaels about the cost of college tuition, or fawning over pictures of Brady’s new baby, or sending Saunders off on wild goose chases for coffee and lunch. Couldn’t imagine trying to sneak past them with a surprise box of doughnuts. Couldn’t imagine not being in the middle of all the investigations, or being a part of bringing the baddies in off the street – even indirectly. He sat behind a desk now, part of the climb up the ladder. Nevertheless, he mentored these men and women, shared their frustrations, their joy, their anger. It was a part of him, it was what made him tick.
Vera had never understood that. She viewed it as just a job, not understanding being a cop ran through his veins. She lived in fear for most of their married life of him dying in the line of duty. They’d been past that fear for about five years now, but she wouldn’t be happy with anything less than retirement. “You’ve done your duty,” she’d said last night. “It’s our time now.”
Thrusting his fingers through his hair in frustration, he stood up and walked down to the water. Quickly taking off his running shoes and socks, he threw them far up the sand to keep them from the waves. Diving under the waves, the icy chill of the water cleared his mind. Rolling onto his back, he linked his arms behind his head and floated on top of the water.
He really should give Vera what she wanted. She’d stood by his side all these years. Now the kids were out of the house, and she was wandering the rooms like a woman without a country. She’d worked hard all these years to keep him and the kids organized, and on target with everything they had to do. He’d had a really great career, and she was a big part of why it had been great. It was as good a time as any to retire. They had the best closure percentage in the state, and with that also came the best prosecuting percentage. Michaels was more than ready to step into Eli’s position, and Eli wouldn’t feel the least bit worried about Michaels taking over. He was a good cop, he had great instincts and Eli knew Michaels was ready to get out of the field.
Mind made up, he swam to shore. Stooping to pick up his shoes and socks, he strode up the beach and entered the house. He stepped into the shower in the basement, washing off the sweat, salt and sand. Towel slung around his hips, he walked up the stairs to the kitchen. Vera had left the coffee pot on for him and a note telling him she’d gone to her mother’s for the weekend to calm down. Cursing, he poured himself a cup and went into the bedroom to get dressed.
Just like her to take off before they’d settled things, or he’d had a chance to work it out in his mind. She couldn’t even stick around to see what he had to say after a sleepless night. Vera knew he did his best thinking while running, she knew he’d have an answer when he got back this morning. Probably thought she’d lost this one, he thought to himself. She couldn’t have been more wrong.
Thirty minutes later he was dressed, eating a plate of eggs and bacon and on his third cup of coffee. When he finished, he was heading to her mother’s to set things straight. No way was he waiting out the weekend for her to return. They were going to settle this now and then he was going in on Monday and giving his notice. She wanted time together, well, she was going to get it. And it started today!
Sitting at the counter in the kitchen, he was reading the paper, catching up on the sporting news. The Dodgers were having a good season so far, but Eli wasn’t naïve enough to think it would last. They always blew it mid-season and ended up so far behind that the playoffs were a distant dream. The ringing of his cell phone broke the silence. Eli felt a moment of regret, he’d been enjoying it.
“Cooke,” he answered.
“Captain, we got a call.” Michaels said.
“Where?” Eli grabbed his pen out of his pocket and took notes while Michaels explained.
“Corner of Oxford and Main, four-car pileup. I’m headed there now.”
“What the hell happened?”
“Not sure, Captain.”
“Alright, I’m on my way.” Shaking his head, Eli rinsed his plate and coffee cup and placed them in the sink. Grabbing his jacket and keys, he ran out the door.
Ten minutes later, he arrived at the scene and was relieved to see the ambulance was already there. Eli went in search of Michaels for the report. Just as he was passing under the police line, he got his first good look at the cars. A silver hatchback, a black Suburban, a red Jetta and an electric blue beetle. Eli strode closer to the cars. Vera had a beetle, an electric blue one with a dark blue dahlia magnet on the back. The kids had gotten it for her for Mother’s day last year and she’d gone right outside to clean a space on the car for it. Vera loved that sticker and that car. After the kids had all gotten their licenses and their own cars, Vera hadn’t wasted any time in trading in her beat-up minivan for something fun and sporty. Eli didn’t blame her, she’d had to make do and shuffle them around for twenty years.
The closer he got to the wreckage, the faster his heart beat. His palms grew damp and sweat broke out on his forehead. The magnet, it was there. “Vera!” he gasped.
“Captain! Captain!” Eli swung his body around and stared at Michaels. “Sir! She’s over here.”
Eli rushed over to the stretcher. There she lay, pale as the sheet that covered her. Her eyes were closed and she was still as death. Snatching up her hand, he brushed her hair back from her forehead. “Vera,” he whispered.
“Sir, she’s alive, but not responding. I’ll get the EMT to come over and brief you.”
Michaels hurried off, but Eli barely noticed. He was focused intently on his wife. “Vera, can you hear me? Wake up!”
She didn’t even flinch. Panic was setting in, and he searched all around for the promised EMT. He didn’t want to leave her side, but his need for answers was quickly overtaking his patience. Seconds later, Michaels rushed over with an EMT.
“This is her husband, Captain Cooke,” Michaels explained.
“Sir,” the EMT acknowledged. “I’m Brendan. She’s stable, sir, but not responding. She has a gash on the side of her head, so we think she’s unconscious right now. We’re loading up another patient momentarily and we’ll take them both to the hospital.”
Eli nodded. “I’m going with you.”
“Sir, with two patients and myself, there isn’t any extra room in the back. You’ll have to follow us in your personal vehicle.”
The EMT hurried off to help his partner load the other patient. Eli pierced Michaels with a glare. “What happened here?”
“Best we can tell right now, the Suburban ran the light. Looks like he rammed the hatchback head-on. The Jetta swerved to avoid them and slammed into the beetle.”
“Son of a bitch!” Eli swore. He continued to hold her hand until the EMTs loaded her into the ambulance. “Michaels, you’re in charge!” he yelled as he raced to his car. Turning on the sirens, he peeled away from the curb and rushed to the hospital. He beat the ambulance by two minutes, enough time for him to park and meet them at the Emergency entrance.
The doors of the ambulance burst open. The EMTs brought her stretcher out first and Brendan jumped back on the stretcher and started CPR.
“What’s happening?” Eli asked.
“She crashed on the way here. Move aside.”
Shocked at the turn of events, Eli rushed behind them. They moved her into a trauma room and Eli naturally followed. “Sir, you can’t be in here!” a nurse told him sternly.
“She’s my wife!” Eli insisted. “I have to be with her. I’m retiring, I have to tell her that!”
The nurse pursed her lips and regarded Eli. Finally deciding she’d have better luck at getting him out if she allowed him his way for a minute, she relented and let him pass.
The alarms and buzzers were earsplitting, the doctors and nurses moving in orderly chaos. Eli blocked them all out and focused solely on his wife. Eli grabbed Vera’s hand and leaned down to her ear. “Vera, it’s me, Eli. Vera, you have to fight. I’m giving my notice and I’m retiring and I’ll take you wherever you want to go. Fight, please, please, please! You were right, Vera. These are our golden years and we deserve to live them up right. You deserve to be shown the world, you’ve done all the hard work. Fight and come back to me!”
“Sir, you have to leave now,” the nurse told him as she pulled on his arm.
“What’s going on?” Eli asked.
“They’re going to try to fix her, sir, but you have to leave. You’re in the way.”
Eli nodded and slowly let go of her hand. He felt as if he was ripping his heart out as he walked away. He wandered out into the hall, looking for the waiting room. Sitting down on a chair, he stared off into space. He shouldn’t have taken the swim, or sat on the beach to watch the sun come up. He should have just gone straight inside after his run and talked to her. If he’d caught her before she left, this never would have happened.
He should call his children, let them know what was going on, but all he could do was sit and stare at the wall.
An hour later a doctor came into the waiting room. “Mr. Cooke?”
“Yeah,” he said as he stood up and shook the doctor’s hand. “How’s she doing?”
“She’s stable. We stopped the bleeding in her brain and stitched up the cut on her head. We’ll be watching her for any swelling, and we’ll take it hour by hour. Once we move her to a room, you can go sit with her.”
Eli let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. “She’s going to be alright?” He was almost afraid to ask.
“She’s stable. If she continues as she is, she should make a full recovery.”
Eli nodded. “Thank you!”
“Sure, I’ll send a nurse out to get you once they’ve gotten her moved.”
Eli nodded again. He turned to the window and pulled out his cell phone. Time to make the phone calls and bring in the troops. He called his children and told them what had happened. They promised they’d come as soon as they could.
The nurse came out to escort him to her room a couple minutes after he’d gotten off the phone.
Eli pulled the chair closer to the bed and sat down. He gingerly picked up her hand and linked his fingers with hers. “I’m so proud of you, Vera. You fought. I love you so much, and I’m so sorry we fought last night.”
His heart clenched when he felt her squeeze his hand. “Vera? Can you hear me?”
He felt her squeeze his hand again, and felt a smile break out across his face. His heart soared and he knew everything was going to be alright. He let out another breath and started talking to her.
“We’ll go back to Cancun. We’ll stay at the Hilton and drink mai tais, we’ll eat whatever you want and we’ll play in the ocean all day. We’ll go out to fancy dinners and laze the day away. We’ll celebrate our thirty years of marriage by going back to where it all began,” he said.
Her eyes fluttered open and she smiled at him. “I always knew you were a romantic at heart, Eli.”
“Vera, I’ll be whatever you want me to be. Just please don’t ever leave me again!”
Vera smiled and squeezed his hand. “Deal. I love you, Eli.”
“I love you more,” he said.
Vera tsked. “How do you know?” Eli smiled. His heart rate was slowing down to normal, and the panicked adrenaline rush he’d been riding for hours was starting to recede. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I just do.”