CLOSE CALL

They were just walking.

Students were everywhere, smiling and waving as they usually do when the President and his staff appear, and the limousines were standing just fifty feet away.

They were just walking to the car. They haven't done anything to anyone.

Then there was a shot fired, and another, and another. Josh, who stayed behind to sign a giggling blushing girl's textbook, ran to the gate and was shot flat in the stomach. He stayed behind and the time it took to find him lasted forever.

And there was nothing - absolutely nothing I could do to help.

I wasn't even there. I couldn't scream so he'd know danger was near, I couldn't warn him. I couldn't stand before him and let the bullet hit me.

I'd be ready to do it, though.

When I close my eyes at night, it's all I can see - screaming people, running for cover, panic and confusion everywhere and, as I fall deeper into sleep, I see everything as if I'd followed the President out of that lecture hall. Of course, I don't know exactly what happened, but I have imagination enough to visualize the terror that must have seized everyone.

He's walking closer to the gate. Suddenly, one of the windows in the tall building is darkened by a few figures that approach it. They have guns in their hands, and they fire.

Oh, dear god. Josh is hit.

"No! Josh, please, no! Somebody help him!"

And then - and not a moment before - I wake up.

***

"Donna? You going over to Josh's?"

"Yes, sir."

"I'd like to come along, if you don't mind."

Toby leans into the doorway as I collect mail and messages from my boss' desk.

"Why does this have to repeat every two days? You know perfectly well that I do mind and that you're not seeing him today. He needs his rest."

"And I need his help, so I'm coming along this time."

"Toby, he's just out of the hospital. Not even out of the hospital bed, mind you, which they had to move with him because he didn't want to stay there. But he is still sick, and if the nurses don't mind round-the-clock visitors to gun-shot victims still in recovery, I certainly do."

Toby makes an attempt to smile. At least he's prepared to deal with my authority, which is more than I can say for other people.

"Fine. I'll be calling him later in the day."

I storm past him and out the door.

"No you won't. And if do, I'll tell him you showed no remorse whatsoever about his current condition."

Toby snorts. I really like him at times, but not when he's detaining me from my direct responsibilities.

"What I'm doing here to help him nail the people who shot him, Donna, qualifies as remorse. Believe me."

"Whatever you say. Throw out the Bill of Rights if you can. It happened, and you can't make it UNhappen."

"Not actually a word there, Donna."

"Goodbye, Toby."

***

It's strange - having the keys to your boss' house. I walk up the stairs and come in, and it's quiet. The nurse that stays with Josh the rest of the time - the brief hours I need to pick up his mail and change my clothes - is glad to see me. She can have a break and leaves silently without delay.

Josh is asleep. He looks pale and his meal, untouched, emanates a smell of good food gone cold. I throw it out and sit on a stool near him. The IV drip is standing in the corner, tall and menacing.

Two months. Well, technically, fifty-four days since the shooting and fifty-three since the operation was over. He's been home for twelve days, and the stitches have come undone. Another month in the hospital. I'm so tired of worrying, and driving back and forth in midday traffic, and seeing blood. I'm tired of - every single day - waiting to walk into this room and find him dead.

Away, bad thoughts. This will never happen. In a month, we'll be back to work and put the shooting behind us. I hope.

What time is it? I've been here two hours, it's lunchtime. Also a good chance to wake Josh up and see if he's hungry. To talk to him.

"Josh? It's Donna. Do you want something to eat?"

No response. I would shake him was it not for those treacherous stitches - who knows what kind of damage I could bring forth. He isn't moving and has gotten paler.

Okay, I need help. This isn't happening to me and I don't know what to do. I can hear him breathe - slowly and with difficulty, but he's breathing all the same. I have no directions from the nurse and no phone number to reach her. What am I going to do?

I grab my cellular phone. Who can I call? It's so hard to think, but amidst my horror one name comes to mind. He's always calm and composed and I know exactly where to reach him.

"Donna?" Toby's voice on the other side of the line is nearly deafening.

"Toby! I think there's something wrong with Josh. He's not moving and I don't know what to do…" I'm about to cry.

"Hush. I'm on my way over anyway. Dial 911 now and wait for me. I'll be there in two minutes."

Dial 911? Is that what I should do? Never even thought about it. I dial the number, give them the address and return to the bedside. Josh isn't moving.

Toby pounds on the front door like he's about to break it down. I run to open it as the ambulance, its siren roaring, pulls over and people hurry out. They rush into the house past us.

"What's wrong?" Toby gives me a hug and, when he begins shaking I understand it's because I'm shaking, too.

"I don't know. I just came in and sat there, thinking, and he wasn't moving, and then I tried to wake him up and I couldn't and… and… oh god, what if he's dead? What am I going to do?"

"He'll be all right. Let's follow the ambulance to the hospital, okay? Get inside my car."

***

"I'm sorry."

"For what, dear?"

"Well, first of all, for causing you to change the way you usually are with me. You've never called me 'dear' before. Second, for worrying you."

"Worrying me? I nearly went out of my mind! If it wasn't for Toby, who, by the way, disobeyed my strictest directions… bless his soul…"

"That's me. Stubborn yet gloriously useful."

"Thanks again, Toby. I'm very glad you are such a difficult person."

"Don't mention it, Donna. I'll never let you down in that area."

We are sitting on the steps that lead up to Josh's house. C.J. and Sam are getting more beer from the kitchen, and Josh, who isn't even allowed to think about beer, is throwing hateful glances on a sparkling water bottle. This is the last time we'll talk about the incident. Just the three of us.

"Are we keeping this to ourselves?" just as I'm thinking the same thing, Josh says it into the night. "I mean, this info is of little use to anyone except those who want to read an article about my close encounter with the twilight zone."

"Or my severe inability to recall the 911 number," I add, to make him feel better.

"Or my… well, who wants to read anything about me, anyway," says Toby. "What's keeping those two? They'd better not be discussing Sam's speech for the Wildlife Preservation Organization meeting tomorrow. Writing about the northern prairie fauna is a torture for him and him alone. Excuse me."

He disappears into the house. Josh looks cold and I give him the extra coat I brought outside just in case.

"You're a good girl, Donna," he says, much in Leo's fashion. He's said it to me many times, but with Josh it's somehow not the same. I know I don't have to answer and we just stare into the starry sky.

"You are a good friend and a good person," he continues. "There's something to be said for that. In fact, there's something I'd like to say on that matter."

"Yeah, what's that?"

He smiles. It's the best smile ever, his smile. His face is entirely bursting with it.

"You are all those good things and I think I'm better for it. I think I'm better because of you. That is, I think I'm in love with you… because of you. Because of how you are."

"You mean, because of how I love you?"

He looks at me.

"Yes, possibly because of that."

Toby is screaming at Sam in the kitchen. I don't want Sam to get yelled at but I wish they would stay inside just a little longer.

But they come outside.

That's how - that is, if I fall asleep again after waking up screaming his name - that's how the dream always ends.

Thank god it's just a dream and I've got work tomorrow. Everything changes where I work.

 

The End

 

 

 

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