He could hear the swishing of the ventilator as it moved up and down, providing air to a body that wasn’t his.
It seemed like it had been months since that terrible day that had started out like any other. He had gotten up, made himself a pot of coffee, and watched the morning news. Afterwards he had put on his uniform and kissed his sleeping wife goodbye. They hadn’t seen each other in days except in sleep. They had made a pact that their children would always be taken care of by their parents and no one else. Since then, he had worked the early shift as a police officer and she had taken the afternoon shift as a nurse. Their pathways never crossed, as their times overlapped when she began to work at three, and returned from work at four. On ‘lucky’ days, they would get to see each other in the ER, when he was investigating a stabbing, homicide or something else along those lines. But of course it wasn’t really lucky for them to both be involved in jobs in which people died at the hands of others. And while they did get to see each other once in a while at work, it certainly wasn’t quality time. That came on weekends. Weekends that were filled with baseball games, church, and catching up on the housework. At least on weekends they were breathing the same air. It’s funny how we made a pact to protect our children, but we never thought about the fact that never seeing them together wasn’t good for their children either.
On his way to work, Jeb listened to the 80s on his satellite radio. It always seemed to put him in a good mood. When he arrived at work he was greeted by his sergeant who clearly wasn’t feeling the same way.
“Eaton, you are way behind on your paperwork. You won’t be working in the field today until you get it finished.”
So that was his morning. His favorite part about police work was being able to help people and to make sure that the world around his family stayed safe. The part about his job that he disliked most wasn’t the names he got or the death that he saw nearly every day though it was heartbreaking, it was the paperwork that kept him from being out in the field. As he filed his last report a little before three o’ clock he heard a call come out over his radio.
“Suspicious activity reported on Miller Drive. White male, early sixties, around two hundred pounds, wearing a navy-blue stocking cap seen handing off parcels to patrons.”
It sounded it like Percy. Jeb thought Percy was clean. It had been a while. Jeb pushed the bottom on the radio affixed to his shoulder. “This is lieutenant Eaton. I’m in the area. I’ve got this one.”
Lieutenant Ballou, Jeb’s partner, looked up from the game of solitaire he had been playing while Jeb did his paperwork. “Jeb, Sarg said to stay put.”
“He said I needed to get my paperwork done and it is. Time to stop wastin’ the taxpayers’ money. Let’s go. Sounds like Percy.”
The two men headed to Miller Drive with their blue lights flashing. When they arrived they saw Percy, standing on the sidewalk nearest the laundromat with his hands in his pockets. Jeb exited the car in a relaxed manner and Lieutenant Ballou took his place leaning against the front hood of the cruiser with his arms crossed over his chest. There was no need to be on the defensive with Percy. He was harmless. He had come across some hard times in the past, okay, maybe several hard times, and they had brought him in for solicitation and possession of various drugs with an intent to sell.
As Jeb neared the sidewalk he noticed that Percy was jiggling something in the packet of his baggy sweatshirt. “Percy, man. What’s up?”
“Lieutenant Eaton. What are you doing in my neck of the woods?” As Percy spoke, the two officers could see that he was struggling to make eye contact, a sure sign that he was up to no good.
“Well Percy, we just got a call that there was some suspicious activity happening over here with a man that matches your description. Want to tell me what you’re doing?”
As soon as Jeb got within a couple of feet of Percy, Percy took a step back.
“Percy, I’m gonna have to ask you to empty your pockets for me.”
At that point Percy seemed flustered as he looked left and right as if waiting for something. Then, in a flash, he took off down the alleyway behind him past the laundromat that led into the street behind them.
“Call for backup” Jeb yelled to Ballou over his shoulder as he ran off behind Percy. He had no doubt it would be an easy race. Percy was old and used up. In fact, after just a few seconds Jeb was right on his heels. He gave a final push, lowered his body, and took Percy out at the knees. He didn’t put up a fuss. Jeb had him face down as he reached for his cuffs. What he didn’t expect was the man that came out from behind the staircase that led to the upstairs apartment.
Jeb recognized the man’s frame before he even saw his face. It was Clarence Byard, the drug lord that Jeb had helped to put behind bars a couple of years back. In the process of Byard’s capture, Byard’s younger brother had also been apprehended, but not before a brutal gunfight with police that took young Will Byard’s life. All of a sudden Jeb could picture that cold November morning sitting in the courtroom when Clarence Byard had been pronounced guilty.
Byard had turned right around and looked Jeb straight in the eye. “Don’t think this is over” he said in a hissing voice that was barely audible. “I will get out and when I do I will come after your family the way that you came after mine.”
The memory of that day sent a shiver rush down Jeb’s spine and he knew he was in trouble. “Byard” he yelled across the alleyway as he struggled to hold Percy in place “You don’t want to do this. Stay where you are and we can work this out.”
The smirk that made its way across Byard’s white wrinkly face was the last real memory Jeb had of that day. The next second he heard the loud snap of a gun that had just been fired and felt the roar of pain that followed it as the bullet entered his chest. He felt himself falling backwards and he looked down to see a red stain spreading out over the front of his dress blues. Then there was a distinct feeling like he couldn’t feel his limbs and he was extremely tired. And soon, there was nothing.
What happened after that Jeb can’t recall. All he knows is what he’s heard the nurses say. That the “new nurse” was the wife of the cop who was killed in the line of duty. That this nurse, his wife, had performed CPR on him until the on-call physician had pulled her off his body.
“He left behind a wife, two kids, and no life insurance. Such a shame.”
Apparently the administration felt that after everything that had happened, the ER wasn’t the best place for Elizabeth. She would be starting her first shift in intensive care this morning.
But Jeb knew there was more to it than that. He knew from the moment that he had woken up in another man’s body and, tried to run his hands through his once curly, unruly hair and found hair that was thin and straight. Lieutenant Jeb Eaton was dead, but his spirit had stayed so that he could warn his wife about the promise that Byard had made to him on the day he was incarcerated. That had to be the reason he was still here. The safety of his family was all he was able to think about. And in this body, he had a lot of time to think.
Maybe he would even be able to tell Elizabeth how truly sorry he was that he ran into the alley that day all by himself. He should’ve know better. He wished he had it all to do over again. He’d always been around for his kids when they’d needed him but he certainly hadn’t been father of the year. And while he and Elizabeth, “Bethie,” hadn’t been unhappy, they hadn’t been very involved in each other’s lives over the past couple of years. Some days it had felt more like they were roommates than a married couple. They had always assumed they’d have time for the romantic stuff again once the kids grew up. Little did they know they’d never get that chance.
As he lay there thinking he heard the door to his room open and the familiar sound of her breathing. It pained him to do so, but at that moment he opened his eyes and scanned the room for her. She was at the bottom of the bed checking his chart but at first sight he wasn’t entirely sure it was her. She was still blond and beautiful with legs up to her chin, but she had clearly lost a significant amount of weight, her green eyes had visible bags underneath them, and her once-perfect hair was plopped in a messy bun on top of her head.
She must have felt him looking at her because she lifted her eyes and returned his stare. “Hello Mr. Peterson. I’m glad to see that you’re awake. My name is Elizabeth Eaton and I will be your nurse for the next twelve hours. I see that you’ve already had a bath this morning but we still need to do your range-of-motion exercises. Is that okay with you?”
Of course she didn’t really expect him to answer. He had a ventilator shoved down his throat. Plus, he couldn’t have answered her if her were the healthiest man on earth. Though Jeb was uncertain of the time frame, it felt like it had been an eternity since he’d laid eyes on his wife. It paralyzed him to see her, knowing that he couldn’t touch her and knowing that she didn’t recognize him as who he was on the inside, but as a patient she was here to care for.
A moment later she pushed back the thin, white sheets that had been covering him and lifted up his left leg gently, supporting his knee with one hand and holding his ankle with the other. He felt a jolt of electricity go through him at the feel of her touch. She’d always been able to do that to him. He guessed it would always happen, even in death. He closed his eyes to try to numb the pain that was creeping into his chest. It wasn’t the pain of a dying man, but the pain of a man who knew that he would never truly hold his wife again. He didn’t realize, however, that he was clutching his chest.
“Mr. Peterson, are you experiencing some discomfort in your chest?”
He shook his head ‘yes.’ Maybe she could give him something to help the pain so he wouldn’t have to think about the life he had left behind because of his own ignorance.
“I’m going to check your vital signs, okay?”
She placed the sheets back over his body and pulled the tall cart from behind the door. She placed something on his index finger to read his heart rate and a blood pressure cuff on his right arm. He could feel the pressure as it squeezed his upper arm. She ran a thermometer over his forehead like he’s seen her do dozens of times with the kids.
“Hmm. Looks like you’ve spiked a fever. I’m going to page your doctor.”
He shook his head as she stepped out and wondered if the pain in his chest was more than he had initially thought. The pain was getting more intense and going down his left arm. He started to panic and could feel himself gasping for air, even with the ventilator going. He knew what was happening. He knew if he was going to say anything it had to be now but he wasn’t going to be able to say anything with the stupid ventilator down his throat. He used every muscle in Mr. Peterson’s body to pull the ventilator out while the room was empty. It hurt like hell. Just as soon as he started to pull he could feel the pain like the tearing of flesh was happening in his throat but he had to rally.
As he was throwing it to the floor Bethie and another nurse entered the room, probably because the alarm was going off.
“Mr. Peterson, what are you doing?” Bethie rushed to his side scrambling to help him, hearing that his breathing was labored.
The other nurse, a redhead, came to her side and gently put her hand on top of Bethie’s. “Elizabeth, he’s DNR. There’s nothing we can do now but wait.”
Beeping started happening all over the room. The redheaded nurse pushed a few buttons and things quieted down. Then she stepped out of the room.
As she stared at him with that look that she gave the kids when their hamster died, Jeb tried his best to speak. “Bethie,” he said in a scratchy, breathless voice.
She knelt down closer and held his hand. Her familiar scent attacked his senses. “Wow Mr. Peterson, I haven’t been called that since my husband died.”
It hurt him to hear her say it, that he’d died. “No Bethie. It’s me.” He tried to take a deep breath but couldn’t quite fill his lungs. “I. mean. It’s. not. me. but. It’s me.”
“I’m sorry Mr. Peterson. I don’t understand. Please, call me Elizabeth.”
He sighed. This was hard. “Elizabeth. Marie. Eaton. I met you in homeroom in eleventh grade. I was the new kid. You were the brain.” His breath was coming stronger now. She was looking at him blankly. “I came into the restaurant every night where you worked and ordered a coffee milkshake, extra thick.”
She let go of his hand and stepped back. Her mouth formed into a straight line across her face.
“I’m gonna go get one of the other nurses okay? I don’t think I can do this.” She turned on her heel and headed for the door.
“Bethie no. Remember the night of our honeymoon? We didn’t want to go anywhere but home so we rode around for a couple of hours until we were sure nobody would see us. I know you Bethie. You gotta believe me.”
She stopped but didn’t turn.
Jeb coughed again for what seemed like an eternity. When he took his hand away from his mouth, it was covered in blood. He wiped it on the sheets and continued. “Honey, I know about the heart-shaped birthmark on your left outer thigh. I know that when Claire was born you were afraid to be left alone with her for days, so afraid that you would become the terrible mother you had.”
She turned around then and stared at him with tears in her eyes and flowing down her cheeks.
“I’m sorry Bethie. I’m sorry that I messed things up so badly. I love you and the kids with all my heart. I wish I had done things differently. I should never have gone after him that day. I knew better.” This time when he coughed it lasted for about five minutes, without him being able to catch a breath. Time was up. He could feel it. When he finally gained control and looked up his vision was blurred.
“Jeb?” At some point she had moved closer. Right down beside him, in fact. He could see her even though her features were fuzzy.
“Yes Beth. I don’t think I have much time. My breath. It’s harder.”
“No, don’t go.”
“Listen, the day I died I was shot by a man that I had seen before. Clarence. Byard. He warned me that he would hurt me and my family. You need to get away. Take the kids and get out of here. Call…”
More coughing. “Call. Ballou. He will know. He will know what to do.”
Bethie started to sob and then buried her face in the neck of Mr. Peterson’s body. He tried to hold her but his arms felt numb, like they did that day. And he could barely keep his eyes open. “I. love. You. Beth.”
“I love you Jeb.”
Then Jeb saw his mother. It had been nearly 15 years since he’d seen her face and here she was, younger and as beautiful as he’d ever seen her. “Hi Jeb” she said, “welcome home.”