The Witness

(I wrote this short story and presented it to a critique group in Lawrence. This is a revised version based on the feedback I got.)

Jeremy arrived at the hospital at 6:15. When he told the woman at the front desk he was going to see his wife, she insisted that he sign the visitor’s log.

“It won’t take very long,” he said, and walked in anyway. “I’ll be right back, I promise.”

After the door swung shut behind him, the ward stayed completely silent. The patients never made much noise, but the on-call nurse was gone. He looked in a couple of rooms, and all he heard was the sound of the life-support machines.

Abby’s room was the farthest from the desk. Now that she had spent 3 weeks in the coma ward, Jeremy had settled into a routine of making short visits in the morning. Abby would never have wanted him to spend days on end watching her sleep, and the longer he watched, the more it hurt. It was much easier to look at her surroundings instead.

When he entered the room, he noticed all of the familiar faces: the IV drip, the uncomfortable chair, the heart monitor, and the miscolored floor tile that ruined the pattern. He looked at Abby’s face last.

She looked young, and not just because she had lost so much weight. Her mouth was holding back a smile like she was trying to keep a secret. When her eyes weren’t taped shut, she seemed paralyzed with naive wonder. Right now, her secret was whether or not she would ever wake up.

Instead of starting his usual cleaning routine, he stared at her. He wanted to refill the already-full jug of water, open the blinds, and throw away the wilted flowers. For some reason, he just continued to stare.

“This isn’t right,” he said to himself.

He thought about the time they had visited her mother in a similar hospital room. She had always been a quiet woman, but her brain tumor made her talk constantly. She mostly talked about her dreams. When she was asleep, she got to be a normal person in a bizarre world, instead of being an insane person in a perfectly ordinary world. As soon as she started rambling, Abby would get flustered and start to cry. Jeremy really listened. Whenever he wanted to know how the story ended, Abby’s mother would inevitably get confused and stop.

So he had to end the stories himself. It was never quite as satisfying.

The best dream was about her marriage to Satan. She spent most of the time explaining the black roses, the blood-red cake, and the snake-shaped wedding ring. She wondered why the father of the groom had even shown up, because he clearly didn’t fit in with Satan’s other guests. Eventually, she talked about her vows, which she had written herself. They mostly involved forgiveness and understanding, but she could not think of a single reason to say “I do.”

Abby interrupted. “Are you saying Dad is like Satan? You are so happy together. You love each other!” She ran from the room, and her distracted mother started talking about the difference between drupes and berries. Abby’s father went after her. Jeremy was lost in his own thoughts.

He finally realized what had happened when he heard them arguing from the hallway.

“Daddy, I don’t want to see this anymore. Why can’t it just be over?”

“I never wanted to put you through this, Abigail. Your mother is already gone. The woman in there is all that’s left. Even though she looks and sounds the same, there’s nobody home. ”

She sighed. “It just gets harder and harder. I want to keep the good memories without adding all of these terrible ones.”

Before Jeremy could hear anything else, his mother-in-law shouted what she thought was his name. “Jeffrey! Come here!” He walked to the side of bed. She leaned over to him, and with a puzzled look, she said, “which one of them caught the bouquet?”

Before they left, he told Abby that he thought her mother might have stayed married to Satan. She refused to speak to him for the rest of the day. Her version must have ended differently.

His mother-in-law died the next day. Abby and her father were very relieved, but Jeremy thought that interacting with a crazy person hurt less than losing one. On the other hand, Abby finally started talking to him again.

Now she might be silent forever. Visiting Abby was more difficult than visiting her mother, and the silence was so much worse. Abby had always known how much he loved to talk with her. Whenever she was angry, she would sit silently as his pressured speech got more and more desperate for a response. Eventually, he would storm out of the room. He could always hear her sigh when he finally walked away.

She was much more beautiful when she spoke. She could be silly or sexy, angry or comforting, passionate or perfectly reasonable. She only had one kind of silence.

He took out a vial from his jacket pocket. He couldn’t remember where it had come from. He looked at the label, which read “potassium chloride for injection.” He got the syringe from his other pocket and watched as he started to draw the poison from the vial. “This shouldn’t be happening,” he said.

He walked toward the side of the bed and traced the IV line from the pole to her wrist. “I would never do this,” he told himself. His hand seemed to move on its own as he slid the needle into the hose and pushed the plunger.

After he watched the poison go in, he tried to think of a way to save her, but he remained immobile as the cardiac monitor slowed and ultimately flatlined. She didn’t move once.

He wanted to cry, but he couldn’t. He wanted to touch her, but all he could do was watch. His body mechanically turned away to go get help.

In the doorway, he saw the stoic face of his father-in-law.

“Just look what you did to my Abigail,” he said. He calmly walked toward her body. “You killed her.” He sighed.

“No.” Jeremy mumbled. “I didn’t do this. You were the one who poisoned her. I saw you do it.”

As he tried to move toward the bed, his heart began to race. He thought about holding his wife, and started seeing bursts of light. Just before he could finally move, he was overwhelmed with light, and in a flash, the world vanished around him.

Jeremy was left standing in an empty white room, completely paralyzed. His father-in-law was pacing nearby. “I was afraid of this,” he said. “You’re still attached to the idea that I killed my own daughter.”

“Because it’s the truth.”

“No. It’s a memory. Whether or not it’s true is beside the point. Now you have a new memory. It’s perfectly reasonable, and eventually, you’ll see for yourself that it’s better for everyone.”

“How did you get me to do this?”

“I’m running an important investigation. It’s my job to make sure we get extremely accurate testimony from murderers like you. Every time you relive this memory, we can extract more and more detail.”

“I know this isn’t what really happened. I’m absolutely sure of it.”

“Are you? Well, next time you’ll be a little less sure. After you kill her a few hundred times more, you’ll doubt the veracity of that one little old memory. Maybe you’ll even start to feel some guilt.”

“Why did they let you do this to me?”

“I insisted! No one knows this technology as well as I do, and I owe it to Abigail to determine the truth. When I found her, I was devastated. Naturally there was some confusion about which of us arrived first. However, my version of events was much more realistic. Once you see that, you’ll be able to corroborate my story in court.”

“I’ll never do that. I loved her. Don’t you understand? She would have gotten better eventually. She was improving!”

“She was breathing. Now she isn’t.”

Before Jeremy could respond, his body finally unfroze. His muscles relaxed and he fell to the ground. Before he slipped unconscious, he saw a faint smile on his father-in-law’s face.

Jeremy arrived at the hospital at 6:16. When he told the woman at the front desk he was going to see his wife, she insisted that he sign the visitor’s log.

“It won’t take very long,” he said, and walked in anyway. “I’ll be right back, I promise.”

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