Jim - March 13 - 6:43 PM
“I swear, Jim, if you don’t jump, I’ll push you myself. Trust me, you don’t wanna go down that way.”
The wind howling past my ears made it nearly impossible to hear Jaquin. “I don’t wanna go down any way at all.” Heat, radiating from the door, pushed against my back in waves. “We’re forty stories up. If we jump, we’re dead. If we wait, at least we have a chance for her to rescue us.”
Jaquin continued prodding. “If you don’t jump, you’re dead! At least if you jump, you won’t burn alive. Ask yourself, do you really wanna suffocate to death while your skin burns from your bones?”
“Shelly promised she’d be back in time with the helicopter to pick us…” Fifty feet behind me, the roof collapsed as flames erupted through the new hole.
Jaquin ran to the edge. “I’m not waiting to be burned alive.”
I called after him as he spiraled helplessly to the ground. “Noooo, Jaquin.”
The soles of my brown leather shoes were sticking to the burning roof below my feet. There was no Shelly, and there was no helicopter; there was only the promise of being consumed by fire.
I took a few steps back and rushed toward the ledge as flames gushed through the roof where I had just been. The hem of my grey tuxedo pants ignited at the same moment two arms wrapped around my waist and pulled me to Shelly’s bosom. The blades of the chopper swirled her long black locks around her smiling face. “You picked the right time to jump, James. Where’s Jaquin?”
I shook my head in sorrow.
The smile on her lips faded, and her face quivered in pain. Her flowing white dress fluttered from the wind of the helicopter as we were slowly hoisted. The circling of our bodies slammed my head hard into the metal skid.
Jaquin - March 13 - 4:12 PM
Shelly held the hem of her white dress as she ran alongside Jim and me toward the roof access door. My legs burned and ached from the strain of running up the stairs. I slammed my hip into the push bar, and the door swung outward. As it started back toward us, I shoved it back open with my shoulder. Our three sweaty, heaving, frantic bodies stumbled through the opening and out into the air, which was filled with thin tendrils of smoke.
The blades of a helicopter chopped at the air and blew hot air into our faces. The voice of a man was barely distinguishable over the whooshing of the blades. “I can only take one of you at a time. I can’t attempt to land it.”
Jim grabbed Shelly’s shoulders. “You are getting in to that chopper. We’re not even entertaining anything else. We’ll throw you in, if we have to.”
I vigorously bobbed my head in confirmation. “No doubt.”
Shelly grabbed my arm, pulled me close to her and Jim, and hugged us tightly. Her arms quivered as tears trickled down her cheeks. “I promise you, one way or another, I’m getting you both off this roof. You will not die today.”
From the helicopter, the man’s deep voice boomed. “I don’t care which one of you it is, but it either happens right now or we’ll find someone who actually wants to escape this inferno.”
Jim and I shoved Shelly toward the chopper, almost causing her to trip. After regaining her footing, she ran toward the man, who was suspended on a rope below the helicopter. He pulled her to him, and the helicopter flew away, leaving Jim and me on top of the blazing high rise.
I stood gazing into the horizon, hoping another helicopter was on its way to rescue us. Jim grabbed my arm and turned me toward him. “Now what?”
I shrugged. “Your guess is as good as mine. I guess we wait for her to send the helicopter back?”
His hand let go of me and fell to his side as his shoulders went limp. His voice quivered with fear, but you could tell he was trying to sound brave. “You think the building will last long enough? Do you think there’s another door with roof access on the other side?”
“I don’t know, Jim. I guess we can look while we wait for the chopper to come back, but if not, then you’ll have to be the one to get on that bird. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I survived and my sister lost you. Until you came along, she had the worst luck with guys. You’re literally the first guy she’s dated whose face I didn’t want to slice off with my Ka-Bar. You remember Jason, right?”
Jim rolled his eyes and let out an audible gasp. “Wasn’t that the guy who stole her Jaguar in the middle of the night and picked up the three girls who threw up in the backseat?”
I let out a long breath through puffed cheeks. “He went back to her house and passed out on the couch. If his dad wasn’t a senator, I would have killed him. Instead, I paid two guys my father had employed from a work release program to break his leg. They took it much further and put the guy in the hospital for six weeks. He was the worst one, but the competition was stiff. You’re next to get on that chopper. No argument.”
Jim drew in a deep breath while holding his hand over his mouth. “Then we have to find a way for both of us to get off this building.”
He ran to the other side of the roof. When he got there, he frantically waved his arms, but his voice drifted to me so faintly that I couldn’t hear what he was saying. The movement of his hands forward and backward made it clear that he thought he found a way down. I ran to him, desperately hoping he had. He repeatedly yanked on the unbudging door.
I joined him in futilely pulling on the handle, as if the two of us together could dislodge the locks. Our desperation was palpable. Jim loosed a guttural howl as he punched and kicked at the blockade.
I grabbed his arms and restrained his bloody fists from continuing to assault the metal door. “Jim, it’s not working. We don’t have a choice, we have to wait for the helicopter. But if it doesn’t come back in time, we’re not sticking around to be suffocated and burned alive. It’d be better to die from jumping off this building. I’ve heard that burning alive is the worst way to die, and I’m not going to find out. When it becomes apparent that we’re not going to make it, we have to jump.”
An explosion from the other side of the building, where we had been just minutes before, threw us both down. It was clear that we would have to jump soon or be barbecued. “Jim. It’s time to go. We can’t wait for Shelly anymore. It sucks, but there’s no escape.”
I ran to the edge. Jim followed me, but the look on his face made it clear that he had no intention of jumping. “I swear, Jim, if you don’t jump, I’ll push you myself. Trust me, you don’t wanna go down that way.”
Jim’s face screwed up with raw emotion. “I don’t wanna go down any way at all.” Heat radiated from the door behind him. He threw his arms wide. “We’re forty stories up," he said, gesturing toward the ground. “If we jump, we’re dead. If we wait, at least we have a chance for her to rescue us.”
My face flushed with anger, and I could feel heat from within burn hotter than the flames around us. “If you don’t jump, you’re dead! At least if you jump, you won’t burn alive. Ask yourself, do you really wanna suffocate to death while your skin burns from your bones?”
“Shelly promised she’d be back in time with the helicopter to pick us…” Jim’s words were interrupted by the crashing of the roof only fifty feet behind him.
As I ran toward the edge I screamed over my shoulder, “I’m not waiting to be burned alive.”
Shelly - March 13 - 8:51 PM
Jim’s strong, square jaw and thick neck were a stark contrast to his gentle spirit and compassionate heart. Smudges of black soot and streaks of blood from the wound on his head marred his grey tuxedo. My heart had skipped a beat when I first saw him standing at the aisle. It skipped again after the pastor said, “You may kiss the bride.” That was just before the room exploded in flames. The imperceptible rising and falling of his chest now threatened to stop my heart all together.
“Miss?” A tender, disembodied voice jolted me, and I turned to face a doctor’s friendly but stern jasper face. Large doe eyes looked over wire-rimmed glasses which rested on a large, hooked nose. “We have to get him checked in.”
I tried to speak, but only a whisper escaped my lips. “Is he going to be okay?”
He placed his index fingers on either side of his glasses to return them to the bridge of his nose. “Judging by the large bump on his head, he may have sustained a serious brain injury.” His face softened and a slight grin crept in. “However, it might just be a big bump. But we cannot determine that until we get him cleaned up and checked in. Okay? You’re gonna have to let us do our job so that we can get the answers you’re looking for.” His small grin turned into a large smile. He shrugged his shoulders and turned his palms up. “Most large bumps usually turn out to be just that.”
I stepped aside as Jim was wheeled past me and down the hall. Despite the doctor’s paltry attempt to reassure me, my stomach refused to release my heart back into my chest.
Across the room, a shrill female voice barked at a short, slender nurse who looked as if it was his first day on the job. “You people are responsible for Jason’s brain damage. I’ve been trying to get your incompetent staff to fix him before he does something stupid. Do you have any idea who his father is?”
The small redheaded nurse looked like he was going to pass out. “Miss. I. Um. I don’t…”
A tall, black-haired woman wearing a red pantsuit and matching six-inch stilettos stepped between the nurse and the belligerent grey-haired lady. “Ms. Jones, I will need you to leave my hospital before I have to call security.”
The veins on Ms. Jones’ neck bulged twice as large and twice as red as they had been a minute before. “Your threats do not intimidate me. Do you have any idea who I am?”
The tall lady wore a contentious smirk. “Considering that you’re constantly on the news holding your husband’s elbow, and considering that you come in here at least once a day to demand that we readmit your son, and considering that you tell me several times during each of your esteemed visits exactly who it is you are, how could I possibly not know?”
“Dr. Berkenstien, I don’t think you appreciate the gravity of the situation in which you’ve put your hospital in. I will have you know that my son disappeared twenty hours ago, and the police are looking for him as we speak. I swear that if he's injured because of this hospital’s unwillingness to take care of him, I will own you.” The last two words seethed from her tongue like the fire that was responsible for my brother’s death.
Destiny’s Child’s “Say My Name” started playing from Dr. Berkenstien’s pocket.
Ms. Jones’ eyes squinted. “Don’t you dar…”
The doctor’s voice took on an overly pleasant tone as she turned her back to the seething woman. “New Salem Memorial Hospital. Dean of Medicine speaking, how may I help you?”
Ms. Jones grabbed the phone out of the doctor’s hand and squealed into it like a pig. “Who, may I ask, is interrupting my conversation with Dr. Berken…” Her face turned red, and her mouth fell open. “Oh. I am sorry, Chief Justice. I didn’t realize… Yes. I am sorry.” She sheepishly handed the phone back to the doctor.
Dr. Berkenstien cocked her head sideways at Ms. Jones and pursed her lips. “Yes, your honor. I do believe they should.” She put the phone back into her pocket. “Ms. Jones, you might want to go home. There will likely be some people there looking for your son.”
The doctor turned in my direction and headed straight toward me. “Are you okay, miss?” Her eyes traveled up and down my ruined dress. “I’m sorry that your wedding didn’t go as planned. You must have had the worst day of your life. Is there anything we can help you with?”
My mind reeled with all of the confusion bombarding it, making me feel as though I was weaving back and forth. “I just need to know that my fia…I mean, husband, will be okay.”
Her eyes drooped sadly, and her head slowly shook back and forth. “I am so sorry. I will make sure they take extra care of Jim for you, but there’s nothing more you can do standing in this hallway. Can I buy you dinner in the cafe? You look like you could use some company and a good cup of coffee, no?”
“That would be nice.”
She gestured for me to follow her to the cafeteria.
My tongue instantly regretted the first sip of hospital coffee, and my face distorted in disgust. The doctor sipped from her cup and chuckled. “I’m sorry. I should have said that you looked like you needed a subpar cup of coffee. I forget that not everyone drinks this stuff every day.” She took another long sip of the swill and shrugged one shoulder. “You get used to it.”
I placed my cup back on the table and, not so inconspicuously, shoved it away from me. “Do you pay this much attention to all your patients’ families?”
“No, I just have a special interest in your situation. I’m not supposed to be telling you this, so I hope you can keep it a secret until everything is taken care of.”
I leaned forward in my chair and accidentally knocked over my discarded coffee. Dr. Berkenstien jumped out of the way just in time.
Jim - March 17 - 11:20 AM
My head still throbbed from where it had slammed into the helicopter skid, but I was happy to be holding my wife’s hand. The bright lights of the hospital gave the impression of a halo behind her head. My angel was here by my side, and the disaster of last week was behind us. “I love you, Shelly.”
Her smile was brighter than the lights of the hospital room. “I love you too, Jim.” She held my gaze for a minute before kissing me passionately. “There you go. Now it’s official.”
I smiled back at her. “Yeah, I guess we didn’t make it to that part, did we?”
She shook her head. “Well, we have now.” She wrapped her arms around me and kissed me again. After her lips released mine, she sat back and stared at me for what seemed like ten minutes. Her beautiful voice carried a heavy weight of sorrow. “I’m really sorry I brought this on you.”
I shoved myself straight up in bed. “Excuse me? You didn’t bring this on anyone. You didn’t plant the explosives. You’re not responsible for killing thirty people. You’re definitely not responsible for your brother’s death. None of this is your fault.”
She turned her face toward the ground. “Well, maybe. Maybe not. But I am the one who had the terrible judgment to go out with someone like Jason.”
I grabbed her clenched fist with one hand and pulled her chin up with the other. “You listen to me. There’s no way you could’ve known what kind of a monster he was.” I gave her the best smile I could, given the circumstances.
She looked me in the eyes and whispered half-heartedly, “Okay, I’m sorry.”
“You have no need to be sorry. I know it’s not much of a consolation, but with the amount of money Senator Jones is paying us to keep quiet, we’ll able to do a lot of good. It doesn’t bring back the loved ones we lost, but maybe we can set up some sort of help center or foundation.” My voice trailed off, as I was struggling to think of what type of foundation we might set up.
I breathed in long and deep and then exhaled. “I’m not positive, but we’ll figure it out.”
Late that afternoon, after discharge from the hospital, I stared out the window as Shelly drove us to our new home. We passed by Senator Jones’ mansion. Ms. Jones was sitting on the balcony, her hair disheveled and a drink in her hand.
Shelly looked over at me. “Jason’s revenge extended much further than his intended victims. That woman’s life will never be the same.”
I squeezed her hand. “Our lives were shattered by that family, yet you still have compassion on them. If everyone were as caring as you, the world would be a much better place.”