Eileen arrived at the only medical center in McCloskey, sixty-seven hours after her daughter’s accident. Clearing the automatic doors, Eileen saw the waiting room with its stacks of months-old gossip magazines, the walls slathered in a glossy shade of pastel. She felt a quiet and implied lack of urgency, as if nothing here had happened, nor was anything expected. The hum of her suitcase wheels against the tile was the first thing she’d liked about Kansas since landing at the single strip airfield five miles outside of town. Like a claim of her intentions, she thought, a voice in a place where no one ever spoke. “I would have been here sooner,” she called out into the quiet of reception. “But no one called.”
Nearly half a day had passed in between the accident and the AmeriCorps supervisor calling Eileen’s office in Boston. Eileen had been briefed since then, in a single phone call from an otherwise unreachable medical social worker and in a series of calls from Anna’s roommate. So she had a sense of what to expect as the nurse led her to post-op. She knew the number of stitches in Anna’s forehead and the proper names of the nerves damaged in her leg, where the vehicle had struck her as she rode her bicycle. She knew the chances of amputation and the odds of the bleed in Anna’s brain either expanding or contracting, and the possibility of that having been Anna’s final bike ride. She was preparing to process these details, so specific and graspable, when the nurse retracted the curtain. Up close, pink swelling lay beneath the stitches like a pursed and skeptical mouth. The smell of leftover Thai food rose from Anna’s wounded leg. The earlobe on her impacted side had so cleanly detached that it barely looked like an injury at all. Remembering the advice of her therapist, Eileen allowed herself a single moment of emotional recognition, for all the melted brass to fill her lungs. But then Anna’s eyes began to open, and Eileen reminded herself of the work to be done, and the difference between what was true and what was needed.
Eileen had booked a fourteen-night stay at the only hotel in town, a Best Western two blocks from the medical center. Alone in her room, Eileen told everything that she allowed herself to feel to Don, in her first phone call home to Brookline. He laughed and said he hoped Anna was home in time for everyone to go to Pride together. He’d had so much fun with them the year before. Maybe she would recover by June. Maybe the local AmeriCorps chapter would have a float and she could ride on it. It was still only early April. Just warm enough in the middle of Kansas, apparently, for bike rides down long roads with perfect visibility for miles.
In a voicemail to Anna’s father, Eileen said that their daughter was stable, but did not elaborate.
Eileen shared the most details in her email to the lawyer. Lightning Litigation (“Adebo and Adebo: We argue for YOU”) was the only personal injury law firm in McCloskey. The only clerk and paralegal in McCloskey were also named Adebo, though Eileen couldn’t determine, if any, the relation. She emailed everything she had gotten from the hospital and Anna’s friends. The predictions of the neuro specialist in Kansas City, the text chain from the girl who had seen the accident from the bike behind Anna, the police report with the make and model of the car (a 1991 Honda Civic, traveling in a south easterly direction at roughly thirty miles per hour). She headlined everything “for discovery” just in case that would help down the line. She omitted, for the moment, Anna’s words to her in the hospital, in the clipped cadence of labored breaths that may have been physical or may have been neurological, it was too early to say. “Even after. What he did. He didn’t do it. On purpose. He’s just some kid. Who made a mistake. Me ruining his life wouldn’t make. Me heal any faster.”
Eileen simply communicated to the lawyer her confidence in Anna agreeing to civil charges and basic damages. I bet he was texting and driving, she thought. I bet he was drunk.
This was McCloskey, she thought to herself as she tried to sleep. A town best defined by the fact that everything it held, be it a hospital, a hotel, a law firm, or a resigned woman, was the only example for miles in all directions. The population was 2,000. This didn’t seem so few, really. 2,000 people was enough to fill the lower level of a stadium or populate a jazz festival. She knew it was close-minded to wonder why people lived in towns where the only landmarks were water towers and church spires. They probably wondered about people like her, and why they lived on the quiet edges of major cities. Those 2,000 people could not all be, like her daughter, adventurous spirits who left the cities of their birth for low paying AmeriCorps contracts in states whose borders were determined by the intersection of meridians.
It was two weeks before Anna was stable enough to be moved from the hospital and into the hotel room. By then, the stitches in her face had been removed and the swelling was barely noticeable. Her leg had accepted the skin grafts and the hospital gowns had been replaced by real clothes, which Eileen had recovered from the house Anna rented with her coworkers. The hotel even allowed Anna’s cat to move in, its main preoccupation now being navigating for space inside her wheelchair and sniffing at the tube of the colostomy bag. Eileen quietly renewed her stay. Maybe it would benefit her credit, she thought, to have some debt.
Eileen and Anna transitioned together, week by week, from the routine of daily terrors in the hospital, to the less fatal but more painful routine of rehabilitation. This process had no immediate discharge date, only a long stretch of unmarked time through which lay, apparently, multiple root canals and daily visits by a physical therapist with whom the cat was, for some reason, instantly and deeply in love. Eileen shopped for groceries. She watched Anna sleep. Back east, there would have been dinners with Don, walks, craft fairs. She had already missed the opener to the spring concert series at the Boston Pops. She was going to miss cheering on the runners in the marathon. There passed a bundle of warm nights. Then six feet of snow trapped Eileen and Anna in the hotel room for two days, before it all melted in two hours and people went around in shorts and ankle socks. That day, Don’s care package arrived at the hotel, filled with soft candy, a case of Tastykakes and nine seasons of Frasier on DVD. Eileen put Don on video chat that night and they all watched the show together and ate candy. Everyone knew all the lines, but Anna couldn’t quite repeat them fast enough to keep up.
“But you remember the jokes,” Don encouraged from the computer. “It must not be neurological after all.”
On her third Sunday in McCloskey, and fully clear of Easter, Eileen went to mass. She was drawn there partly by piety, partly by boredom, and partly by the twin spires of the Basilica of St. John of Hesychast. These were the highest points in town and visible from everywhere. St. John’s sat at the center of town, gothic and of stone, as if declaring itself the only thing worthy of permanence in a place punctuated by tornados. It shared a single wall with a squat but sturdy friary, itself of white limestone and the ordered dimensions of something a little bit old but very German. There, Eileen saw the highest concentration of people in once place since leaving the east. The priest made a joke about the boarded-up megachurch down the highway. Everyone laughed with a kind of familial self-satisfaction. The lawyer was there, and his brother and their family, a row of Nigerians in tailored suits in the middle of a church full of white people in t-shirts. There was a man named Burt who handed out programs at the door. He wore a button-up shirt tucked into crisp blue jeans and Eileen decided she would have a crush on him. The excitement of accepting a program from him once a week became one of the more thrilling aspects of Eileen’s routine. She knew from the police report that the driver of the vehicle lived in town, though she had never seen him, so far as she knew. Her Sundays became then a chance for speculation, her mind wandering during the homily as she looked across the faces of the young men, wondering how McCloskey raised its boys.
Eileen accepted the reduced cadence of Anna’s speech, like a record played at the wrong RPMs. She accepted every fact as it was, as if laid out in the type of featureless grid that defined the blocks of McCloskey. Eileen admitted to Anna that she had hired a lawyer, her frequent emails impossible to hide. She omitted the recommendation of a civil suit. Forms arrived from the driver’s insurance company. “See, mom,” Anna said. “You were wrong. He is insured.” Out of the days, a hearing date emerged, at the municipal courthouse one town over, in a week on the other side of spring.
At May’s’ end, Eileen learned about the pedophile priest hidden in the friary. That Sunday, mass was stern and silent in a way that Eileen couldn’t interpret, with a noticeably higher quotient of aggressive arm folding and potent nodding. Burt still handed out the programs and the priest carried on as usual with a sermon about forgiveness, though Eileen only later realized why. Afterwards, everyone headed for the school cafeteria across the street. Eileen followed to find it crowded with young parents and school aged kids, the parents all recording everything on their phones and drinking lemonade and seething. The priest took up a microphone and reminded everyone that McCloskey was founded on mercy. Eileen listened, and learned of Father O’Leary, who had, like her, come from the east. He had been smuggled into town one night and installed inside the friary. At one point, Mr. Adebo actually took the microphone to explain how the statutes of limitations to molestation allegations could expire, and how this left things out of the court’s hands. But the church had deemed O’Leary unfit for service. He was still granted the title of ‘father’, though the excommunication was coming. The Capuchin monks who staffed the friary adhered to the discipline of pure forgiveness. And so they alone had accepted Father O’Leary when no one else in the country would.
“He can probably see my kids from the windows,” a young woman said, referring to the nearby Catholic elementary.
“My boys play in that park,” another said.
Eileen didn’t feel it was right to ask any questions. But she wanted to know where that energy came from, that resource of allowance? How could the priest look the congregants in the eyes, ensure them of the safety of their children, and so casually ask that they join him in forgiving the unforgivable? She was suddenly aware of a door of dark wood at the head of the church, just behind the vestibule. The friary must have been through there. And on the other side, some additional species of everyday monster. A man of impact who passed for one of grace.
On sunny days, St. John’s steeples cast twin shadows over the park, and on one of these days Eileen saw a group of girls in cut-off shorts and bikini tops sunbathing on beach towels in the grass.
“Hey,” she yelled at them, deciding she had been here long enough to start butting into other people’s business. “That priest lives up there. He can see you.”
One of the girls looked up at her from behind a pair of sunglasses and then put her head down again and rolled over.
Eileen celebrated the return of feeling to Anna’s right ankle and the removal of her colostomy bag, even as she accepted the immobility in her leg and the visible pain of daily joint exercises. Eileen used Skype to talk with Don, email to update Anna’s father, and her phone to strategize with the lawyer. The first of the medical bills arrived in Boston, Don holding it up in front of the webcam. Eileen came to know the business of the men who stood outside the grocery store all day long, and briefly calculated the profit she could make from her daughter’s pain killers. One bottle alone could probably wipe out a week of PT.
The weekend of Pride, Don video-called from the streets of Boston. They watched together from the backyard of Anna’s old apartment. Anna’s mouth was free of enough pain to eat potato chips, and she ate half a bag of them while watching Don run up and down the parade route a thousand miles away. “It’s Dykes on Bikes, Anna,” he shouted as motorcycle engines revved in the background, seemingly unaware of the irony.
Eileen filled the fridge with groceries from the IGA, which Anna never ate. They ate Subway sandwiches for dinner at first twice a week, then three times, then not at all because they were so sick of them, then twice a week again because they missed them. Eileen struggled to find time to masturbate. Unless Anna was visiting her many doctors with her mom, she was always in. This left the shower as Eileen’s only real option. Twice she summoned up interactions with Burt. Her room had no balcony, and the hotel had no pool. But she imagined herself in a white hotel bathrobe, getting her bare knee stuck in between the metal rails of a poolside balcony, and Burt being the only one who could free her.
It was not helpful, Eileen learned, to think in terms of what may have been. But she couldn’t help but speculate as to how this all could have been avoided had she and Don or even Anna’s father been connected enough to secure some sort of internship program closer to home, closer to an international airport. Anna could have arrived somewhere else, anywhere else, miles away from those long roads with zero traffic and limitless visibility. “Checking his maps,” Eileen said to herself as she read the latest court filing. The driver had initially admitted to texting while driving, though the lawyer now insisted he had been looking at directions on his phone. The cat purred and Anna watched Frasier from the opposite bed.
“Don’t hate him, Mom,” Anna said, looking away from the television. Anna had by then already reminded her mother about the year and model of the car. He drove a 1991 Honda Civic. What else could he possibly have to lose?
The wound care prognosis improved every day, despite the gruesome color persisting in Anna’s leg. Paperwork arrived from AmeriCorps for her to officially annul her service contract. Eileen began looking up flights back east. She would take Anna home with her. This would all be behind them. As the court date neared, Eileen sat further and further toward the back of the mass. She looked less and less at the priest, more and more at the door to the friary. She imagined Father O’Leary on the other side, mouthing along to the gospels. In the weeks since his arrival, no one had laid eyes on him. His name had passed out of public concern. But Eileen had taken to stopping at the edge of the park on her way home from church, to look up at the windows with their burgundy curtains, ever drawn and never moving. One of the housekeepers at the Best Western claimed to have served him a hot breakfast one morning. He had asked for an extra ladle of gravy. Eileen looked up and stared for a few moments every Sunday, practicing the look she would give the driver when she met him, finally, in court. The look that said forgiveness has no home behind these eyes.
A new weather rolled in. Eileen helped Anna shop for clothes for court, pushing her around the aisles of the nearest Target. “Buy me. This,” Anna said, holding up a ‘My Eyes are up Here’ t-shirt, then motioning to the place people stared at, the wound that lived across the lower half of her impacted leg.
On the final Sunday before the court date, a woman approached Eileen before mass, wearing a fanny pack around her waist and a perm the orange of a polluted sunset. “Are you the mother?” she said to Eileen, nothing in her voice indicating any kind of doubt.
She introduced herself as a friend of the mother of the driver. “She’s a mother, like you,” she said, as if this would make Eileen think of herself as just one of many mothers, like a star in some special constellation. As if their shared motherhood would signal some natural sorority. “He’ll be asking for contrition," she went on. “I just wanted you to know that before you see him. That he’s someone’s child too. Just like your Anna is.”
Eileen watched the woman go into the basilica, to her seat in the front, near the door to the friary. All mass long, Eileen could see the halo of the woman’s perm, proud and firm in a house where the worst of sins had already been absolved. What really was one more?
The hearing drew them to the county seat, Eileen and Anna and the physical therapist, there to move Anna from the wheelchair to the rental car. Then, following the two-hour drive north, from the car back into the wheelchair. Like some cruel party, everyone was there. The defense attorney emerged like a municipal frieze breathed to life in his undeserved elegance. Eileen saw at last the driver and his mother. He sat with his hands clasped, his mother’s palm resting soft atop them, the two of them arranged outside the court room like a Renaissance tableau. They looked up from beneath bent gazes as Eileen delivered Anna in her wheelchair, Anna saying, “Mom, I think. I can walk.”
Mr. Adebo shook his head and said, “Just take it easy, Anna. Take it easy.” He exchanged quick glances with Eileen. They had talked about this on the phone. That Anna would look more sympathetic in a wheelchair. Eileen searched for the eyes of the offender. But she only found the gaze of his mother, looking past Anna, past the transparent performance of the wheelchair and to her now, for the first time since her descent into McCloskey.
Eileen parked her daughter between a bench and a water fountain, and they waited there as the attorneys shook hands in the no-man’s land between the families. We should have met before, Eileen thought, suddenly longing for anything that felt personal. We should have had a picnic together.
The courtroom opened an hour after the appointed time, a clerk inviting them all in together, as if implying equal footing, and not the relationships so obvious to Eileen, of driver and victim. And though Eileen prepared to meet the offender’s eyes, when he rose his gaze was lowered to a pile of papers. From here, his attorney announced, he would like to provide his statement.
He read the statement at an awkward trot, as if unaccustomed to this level of formality. “I would like to present your family with this check for five thousand, two hundred and fourteen dollars. This is, in my understanding, the amount equaling that of the Americorps stipend that you were unable to receive because of the accident. My mother has also been kind enough to gather a small collection from St. John’s. They have come to enjoy seeing you every week.”
At this he paused, motioning to Eileen.
“And we wanted you to think of yourselves as part of our community. I know that money cannot take away the pain you have suffered. But I hope that you will accept these gestures of good will, no matter what happens in this court room today.”
The driver’s eyes rose to Eileen, then to Anna. Mr. Adebo had a habit of spinning a pen around in his fingers when he was deliberating. But he put his pen down on the table, turned to Eileen and shook his head. Anna, perhaps unaware of courtroom procedure, stood up from her wheelchair and said something that Eileen chose not to hear.
Kingdoms were populated by the high and low alike, Eileen thought. They needed subjects armed with swords just as much as subjects armed with lyres. She had somehow raised a daughter who was so forgiving that the need for resignation never even occurred to her. She barely needed to forgive him, because she had never held any blame in her heart in the first place. But the driver would find no solace from her, Eileen determined. Court isn’t church. If anybody needs it, the confession booth is down the street.
The judge concluded that Eileen and Anna had two options. Accept the money offered and settle, or stay and fight for damages, however long that took. They were free to leave the state and return, Mr. Adebo told them that night. But it could take months. He had invited them to his offices, which was really his family’s living room. The only clerk in town, his wife, served them lamb and fried plantains and flavorful rice out of a huge slow cooker. The only paralegal in town, Mr. Adebo’s grown son flirted with Anna, perhaps unaware of the nonexistence of his chances. Mr. Adebo’s teenaged daughter appeared at one point in a cheerleading uniform, which Mr. Adebo shook his head at and demanded she give back to the school in exchange for something less shameful, repeating over and over, “No daughter of mine,” while the girl stamped her feet and pointed at her hidden knees in a futile demonstration of her own modesty. The physical therapist sat chuckling at it all at the end of the table, eating massive amounts of plantains, the family’s dog asleep at his feet. Everyone laughed and shared stories and poked gentle fun at each other as if the nature of the night was celebratory. But Eileen stayed silent, confused as to where this came from, the sense that there was anything to celebrate.
“He is a good boy,” Mr. Adebo said at the end of the night as they drank coffee. Everyone else had gone to sleep. The physical therapist had gone home. It was just Anna and her mother and the lawyer now. “If you fight it, you might gain something legally. But you would never be welcome here.”
They have already forgiven Father O’Leary, Eileen thought. That’s what he means. That they would see me as the monster, as some resigned and immovable creature, better left to dwell within some sepulcher somewhere, or in a garden store, amongst the petrified gnomes.
“I’m taking his offer,” Anna said. She looked to her mother. “We’re taking his offer. Mom.”
Eileen sipped her coffee. “If that’s what you want, honey,” she said. “I’ll get the tickets home. She hadn’t told anyone, but that morning she had bought two tickets home to Boston. The flight left in three days.
Two days later, the physical therapist prepped Anna with distress tolerance techniques for enduring the flight to O’Hare and the connecting flight back to Boston. The doctor supplied her with a slightly higher than usual dose of pain medication and the vet supplied the cat with sedatives. The final bill arrived from the Best Western. The bells tolled the ten o'clock mass. Eileen walked to the IGA for snacks, refusing to pay airport prices, and returned across the park. She looked up at the windows of the friary. She reached into her bag, pulled out a packet of Peanut M&Ms and, taking the packet by the cellophane corner, hucked it toward the friary. It spun, end over end in a perfect arc, before colliding with one of the windows and falling into the bushes. Eileen smiled and ran away.
Back at the hotel, Eileen paid the bill. The man at the desk said goodbye to her by name. Eileen looked at his nametag and did the same. She carried the bags and put the cat in the carrier. Anna met her at the elevator. The taxi pulled up in front of the hotel. On the way to the airport, she thought about McCloskey. She smiled briefly at the thought of Burt, with whom she had still never spoken. She thought of Mr. O’Leary, circling the friary in endless, aging shuffles. She hoped he was happy with his extra gravy.
Anna had left her wheelchair with the PT clinic, and Eileen offered her one on the way out of the taxi, but she stood up on her own and said, “I walked here. I’ll walk out.” In the terminal, wall-mounted televisions looped videos about the airport, the local technical college, and the reasonable rates of the Best Western. They boarded the plane, which would take them first to Chicago, before the connecting flight to Boston. Don would be waiting there for them. Eileen took the aisle seat. She swallowed enough melatonin capsules to last her to Chicago. I will sleep through this, she thought, and when I awaken, everything will be as it was. The cat meowed from its carrier beneath the seat in front of Eileen. She had placed all the baggage around her legs, allowing Anna as much room to stretch out as she could.
“Mom,” Anna said. “Look.” But her mother had already locked her neck pillow into place and pulled a sleep mask over her eyes. So Anna looked out the window at the runway. She had recognized a trio of baggage handlers. They were uniformly young and handsome, in glaring disproportion to the vast uniformity of the land, which seemed so rugged and ancient, like a thing that predated the very idea of landmarks or people or the need to measure time. She wanted to tell her mother that she recognized them from her flight in. She wanted to tell her mother that she had also recognized a pair of TSA agents. They had been there when she arrived as well, a man and a woman, who yawned and sipped coffee from matching steel mugs and teased each other from opposite ends of the body scanner.
The cat meowed again. But it couldn’t be heard over the sound of the engines turning on.
Adam Hofbauer’s fiction has appeared most recently in Adelaide, Charge Magazine, and The Eastern Iowa Review. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. He lives in Philadelphia, where he is an active member of the Backyard Writers Workshop.