Chapter 24 (Revised)
by Chris Dec
Stacy turned her head to avoid the nurse’s hand.
“Dear, you’ll be okay on these. Your doctor would not give you anything that’s a narcotic or an opiate. This will help take the edge off…”
Even wrapped up in a tight fetal ball, her body’s language was adamant.
She had worked too hard and too long to get to her present physical state of clean, sober, well toned, and energized through solid nutrition. She would just have to get through this straight, without any help at all from her old friends, booze and pills. But so much of what she was living for was gone… so what the hell. There was no one left, no son, no grandchild… Except there was the ever faithful Henry, in the chair by the hospital window.
He turned to her, responding to a finely tuned instinct that let him hear her calling to him from inside her stunned and broken heart and he responded with his own.
“Stace…” and then he was encircling her with his whole self.
Life was senseless. Death… just as senseless. But if Hank and Stacy could help each other through this day, they just might make it through the devastation that was their lives right now.
A shadow filled the doorway; hat in hand, face red with scotch and wet with tears.
Hank got up to clasp Cav’s hand and they hugged as old friends. There was nothing either of them could say, so Cav pulled up the chair opposite Hank, and sat at other side of Stacy’s bed.
After the silent moments ticked together to fill an hour, Cav offered to get coffee and sandwiches for them all at the cafeteria downstairs. Neither Henry nor Stacy had eaten anything for several hours, and Hank realized he was weak, and that Stacy was most likely even worse. He was grateful for the suggestion, for Cav’s kindness, and for the opportunity to be alone with just her.
“Yeah, Cav, get fruit and some sparkling water, get turkey and cheese on light rye for us both… and whatever you want.” He pulled out a couple of twenties, but Cav turned the crisp corner out the door and mumbled, “I got this.”
The admitting desk had given Henry Stacy’s cell phone, keys, purse and a tiny Swiss army knife key ring that they separated from her keys, just in case. Stacy had had a record of suicide watches from years ago on file at the hospital, but he had to laugh to himself at that one. The longest blade on it was about an inch long. The toothpick was sharper than the blade. He had stuffed it into his roomy jacket pocket and zipped it all in, but he heard some kind of noise coming from the pocket and realized it was Stacy’s phone on vibrate.
She had a text. Someone probably texting their condolences. What a modern, cold, sterile world…
But he decided to look at it. It was a one-word message. It was from Mealon Usk’s phone. It shook him to his core.
M O M ?
Cav came back with his arms laden with trays and bags, bottles and napkins, and tucked under his chin were some plastic utensils sealed in cellophane. He stopped in the doorway and saw them both frantically clutching each other, mad with surprise and delight.
“It’s Finn! He was never on the flight! He’s alive! We have to go.”
They helped Stacy get dressed, made her take a bite of a sandwich, gathered their things to leave, and made it down to the admitting desk, where they instructed the attendant to tell the doctor they could not wait to get his signature on Stacy’s release. Huge family emergency. They ran out the door, giddy and fearless, with the admitting attendant stammering and running after them.
Finn heard three voices outside his door that he recognized as his parents and Cav, and verified that they were alone. He opened the door and let them slip in quietly before hugs and tears were all around. Finn gently peeled his parents’ hands off his face and head.
Then they started piecing things together.
“NASA called us with an update saying they found DNA that closely matched yours! We were sure you were gone, that you…”
The abrupt stop of their excitement and questions was sad and solemn as they realized in unison that the DNA they found was most likely from his unborn child.
Finn inhaled sharply and went on.
“Usk. He realized he wanted to be, HAD to be, on that flight. He wanted to and was told he didn’t pass the physical, that for the next flight he might try to get his blood pressure under control, but at the end, he was a wreck, convinced he’d never have the chance again, so he pulled me out of my seat, told me to take off my suit and promised me a hefty sum of money to let him go in my place, and that another mission would be leaving in 6 months, where I could join the first mission on Mars. He was crying, shaking… If you could have seen him, I couldn’t refuse… it all happened so fast. You cannot let them know… Mom… Dad. Please Cav, this would be a disaster for them to find out Usk is dead at this point. They can’t see me or know I am here, alive.”
“But how, where…?”
“He called in sick, but showed up at the very last moment and just managed to make it on the ship to wish us luck. We ducked into an engine room and switched clothes. I put on his coat, dark glasses, and his signature hat. He got himself suited and strapped in before anyone noticed any activity. We forgot to swap phones, so mine went up with him. I came out at the last moment, waving them goodbye, dressed like Usk and I just stood there and watched everything, everyone, explode, the noise, the smoke…and had to act like I was him through the whole thing, then I needed to get lost before someone ID’d me. I am telling you it all happened so fast! Mom… Fred, the baby… I… I… so fast, Mom…”
He collapsed in their arms. Then Stacy dialed her mother’s number to give her the same news that had turned their world around.
Before she could say a thing, her mother started sputtering and crying, babbling about the video… the video....!
“What? What is it, Mom?” Stacy asked.
“The video! It’s all over Facebook. Before takeoff, Finn made a short farewell video and sent his cell phone out on a selfie drone to the launch crew, who later brought it in to NASA directors. Except it wasn’t Finn! It was Usk! Stacy, it was Mealon Usk! Here, I’m sending it to you right now…”
There was someone in a spacesuit. Through the face shield of his suit, you could detect the fuzzy but unmistakable smile of Mealon Usk.
Hello all you on Earth! By now, you probably know I am here in space going to Mars, and Finn is in the men’s room there at HQ in a disguise to look like me, after he let me take his place. I am sorry if I messed things up, but… Thank you Finn. You can’t imagine what this means to me. I will see you in 6 months! Farewell from us here and from 256 PAL 9000s! What are we ever going to do with them?! Six months… God speed, my friend!
Cav was the first to speak. “Oh my fucking god. Oh. My. FUCKING. GOD!”
Hank fell into the couch and let out his breath, and sat with his head in one hand and his arm clutching Finn. They both just stared ahead without speaking.
Stacy stared out the window into the clouds, sipped sparkling water and waited for her heart to stop beating so fast.
by Chris Dec
Finn found that going to the club gave him the most comfort. Standing in the tee, with no opponent, he just centered himself, closed his eyes, and let the tears come and mix into his sweat. Then he hit the ball as hard as he could, abandoning all squash rules, and smashed the ball through his rage and grief. He didn’t even care if he hit the wall, and yet his inner trained talent emerged and he ultimately ended up drawing a crowd to the Plexiglas, in part to see the man who allowed Mealon Usk the thrill of his lifetime—the one that would quickly claim the visionary’s life, and then to see this same young star athlete put his entire soul into decimating whatever ball came his way.
Hank came into the cage every afternoon, and today, without saying a word, handed Finn a brand new Carboflex 125S, taking away the splintered Dunlop that had been the boy’s starter racquet. And wordlessly, they flowed into a controlled and graceful match that left them spent, sweaty and content. Today, Hank would take him to lunch and after a protein packed salad and green smoothie, he would tell him the news: he and Stacy were reconciling, actively working on a renewed marriage. His son gave him a weak but genuine smile.
* * *
Stacy still had court ordered community service from her initial sentencing. A woman in the dark blue uniform named Elaine stood at Stacy’s kitchen table as Stacy finished her coffee, grabbed her purse, and was escorted to the meetings where Stacy, herself, counseled women who had just completed rehab, giving back to the community in the best way she could. Stacy was amazed to learn how many women sought refuge in alcohol and prescription drugs. From the smallest irritations in life, to almost unfathomable conditions, women told their stories of self medication, and she listened, witnessed their pains and struggles and helped them with her own wisdom, such as it was, to stay sober and sane. Stacy had found much redemption in helping others, and had set up quite a program of trained recovering alcoholics who were doing what she was doing. She had taken the concept worldwide, and in a few months would be free to travel to international locations to speak and counsel.
The funeral services for Usk, the crewmembers and Reid were attended over the past few days. Today was their own private memorial for Fred and her baby. The minister at a nondenominational service was tender in his message to Finn; rather than feel survivor’s guilt, the minister suggested Finn find a purpose in what happened, and go forward from there. Hank watched his son’s face, and saw the comfort those words brought to him. The family then went to a quiet brunch, and Finn spoke about Red’s death for the first time.
“She was all about taking risks, about dreams. She was a squash pro who wanted to have a new life with me and our new baby on Mars. Everyone thought we were crazy for taking the risk, and she almost didn’t go, but…”
He waited until the lump in his throat settled down.
“Dad, mom, grandma… I want to honor her spirit of adventure somehow, but I am not sure yet how.”
Take a few weeks, Finny. Don’t do anything right now.” Stacy understood his intention, but exercised her mother’s right to tuck him under her wing for a few more days.
* * *
The following week, Cavanaugh was drunk. In fact he had never been this drunk in his life. He had finally admitted to himself the deep love he felt for Stacy after all they had been through… just to find out she and Hank were getting back together and there was no room for him in her patched up life. He held her letter in his unsteady hand and crushed it into a ball, then flung it to the far side of the room.
“Fughin sheila… what the fug. They have it all. They have each other and what do I get out of all this?”
He almost fell into his suitcase, hit his face on the buckle and it stung almost to the point of sobering him. He staggered into the bathroom and splashed himself with cold water. Looking in the mirror, he saw the sorriest sucker in the northern AND southern hemisphere.
He continued to throw clothes into the suitcase and curse between more pulls on his near empty bottle of brandy. Then he passed out, into the suitcase, which crashed down onto the floor with his limp body a sodden symphony of snores.
Two hours later, he awoke with a start at the sound of his doorbell.
“…a second… hold on mate…”
He stood and made quite an impressive attempt to get to the door without stumbling. Opening the door to find Finn, he was overcome with emotion again and fell on the boy like a rag doll.
“Oh, for chrissake, Cav! Come on.”
Finn led the weeping slobbering wretch to the couch where he plopped down and sighed while Finn made coffee. For the next few hours they drank the hot and strong brown brew and talked, until Finn could see that Cav was coherent.
“Cav, maybe I should talk to you about this some other time.”
“No, no, no, no, c’m’ere and tell me all about it. I’m listening.”
“OK, Cav. What I got from the insurance policy on Freddy is staggering. I had no idea. I forgot we even filled those things out, and we made each other beneficiaries to each other’s policy. Anyway, what I want to do, what I want you to do for me, is help me invest this and set up a trust fund account in her name… I think for young women athletes who want to go to college and can’t afford it, or maybe young women who want to study to be astronauts.”
Cav perked up at the six-figure cashier’s check Finn shoved across the table at him. The wheels in his head were spinning fast now.
“You got it, champ. I’ll take care of it, mate. Let me have a day to figure out the best way to set up the investment. I will call you tomorrow night and we will go over the details.”
Finn hugged and thanked him, and left a very sober Cavanaugh, who watched the trusting young lad until the elevator with him in it was on its way down.
Then Cav began packing in earnest, taking everything he didn’t want to leave behind and filling three suitcases. He called the car service. The driver got there within 15 minutes, and put his bags neatly in the trunk of the van, then took off straight away to the airport. He mumbled in the shuttle about how he had been left with nothing, his body was too far gone to continue any career as a coach or instructor, Stacy was gone from his life, and so here it was, finally, his opportunity. On the next nonstop to Sydney would be a man who was going to start a new life for himself with three suitcases filled with sweaty shirts and socks and tangled ties, and a very fat check in his breast pocket. On the back of that check was a note stuck flat to it that Cav had not noticed in his haste.
* * *
Hank was shocked. “You did WHAT???”
“Dad, I didn’t need all that money. I still have most of the 40 mil. He thought that was the whole wad. I knew he would do something desperate like that, but I figured Mom shot him, then she shot him down, and he has nothing left. He’s kinda broken. Besides, I know him. He will be overcome with guilt and begin to come back and apologize, but then be on this self-destructive treadmill until he does something really stupid again. But he WON’T come back, dad… he’ll get my message to keep on going. He’s a good investment counselor, and I think this may be his chance to get his life together.”
* * *
Cav sat in the lounge and watched through the window as his plane took off without him. He couldn’t do this. What an ugly thing to do to the kid! He checked the time and figured if he left now he could be home by nine and get some sleep, see Finn the next day and return the money. He looked up at the departing flights, and saw another one leaving for Sydney in forty minutes. He took out the check and turned it over, feeling and discovering the post-it with Finn’s handwriting. He trembled as he read the instructions to him.
Cav. Call this number in Sydney: 6 12- 995-6588.
Someone Mom knows. Keep this for yourself.
It’s your share. I have mine. Go home. Start a new life.
Make yourself comfortable.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.