Jake hunched over a small dining room table, his head resting in his hands. His house was too quiet. He’d been sitting there for hours, oblivious to the sound of the incessant tapping of his foot against the hardwood floor. Not even his churning stomach distracted him from his festering thoughts, burdened with indecision and doubt.
Lifting his head, Jake scanned the front of the house, uncertain how it had come to this—him up in the middle of the night with a feeling of dread looming over him…dread that he would make the wrong decision…a decision he might regret for the rest of his life.
The house was dark and quiet, a combination Jake would have welcomed a few days ago but was now unsettling. The bluish haze of dawn filtered in through the barely cracked blinds, casting shadows through the small, conjoined kitchen to his right that was still in disarray from him rushing around over the last 48 hours. The adjacent living room to his left was stark, and with the exception of the twinkling, rainbow lights on the Christmas tree in the furthest corner, it looked like it had been forgotten. There was no noise save for the sound of his own breathing and the occasional creak of the house settling. For the first time, Jake felt utterly alone.
How many hours had he been sitting there, wasting time? According to the glowing, red numbers on the microwave above the old, tan stove, more than four hours had passed since he’d sat down to think. Four hours, and he still wasn’t sure what to do.
Jake shook his head, dispelling the urge to close his eyes and sleep. Why hadn’t the damn doctor returned his calls? Hadn’t he been clear with the receptionist? And he’d left several voicemails in the last 24 hours alone. It had been four days since Dr. Bishop told them Becca’s illness was a simple flu that needed to run its course, four days since he’d prescribed ample rest and copious amounts of fluids, and in those four days, Becca had only worsened. She’d become sleep deprived and delusional and had lost her appetite…she was completely convinced her vivid dreams of blood and death and torture were real.
It wasn’t the goddamn flu, or a simple fever…his sister was losing her mind.
The longer Jake sat there, the more exhausted he became, and he struggled to stay focused. Straightening, he scrubbed his hands over his face and stared at the cordless phone in its cradle on the tile counter beside the refrigerator. With the doctor nonresponsive and his sister’s hysterical pleas to avoid the hospital at all costs, Jake could only think of one other possibility:
Gabe, Jake’s best friend. He knew people, and if there was ever a time to call in a favor, now—when Jake felt more desperate than ever—was that time.
Jake rose from his chair, its legs scraping against the worn hardwood as he scooted it back. Muscles feeling leaden and sluggish, he took two steps toward the phone. He reached for the receiver, pressed TALK, brought the cool plastic to his ear, and paused. There was no dial tone.
Hanging up, he tried again. Still nothing.
Frustrated, Jake hung up the phone and took a few wavering steps into the living room toward the L-shaped sectional situated beneath the picture window. Becca’s purse was on the arm of the sofa, and he hoped her cell phone was inside.
He dumped the contents of his sister’s purse onto the couch cushion. A pink-cased cell phone, among an array of other items, landed on the worn leather with a soft plop. Jake paid little attention to the contents rolling in between the cushions, instead fumbling to turn on the phone.
Luckily, the cell illuminated to life, and a picture of Cooper, their Husky, lying on his back with his tongue hanging from his open mouth, filled the screen. Impatiently, Jake scanned through the icons, searching for the phone function. Finally finding it, he typed in Gabe’s cell number. There was a reason Jake didn’t have a cell phone—they were expensive, easy to break, and after shattering one and losing another, he’d decided they weren’t all that important.
With a deep, controlled inhale, Jake pressed CALL and waited with bated breath for his friend to answer.
Gabe had been distant since losing his little sister, Lizzy. Jake hadn’t spoken to him in months, not since Gabe had last come over for Becca’s birthday dinner. Jake had walked in the front door after a long day of wrenching on trucks over at the fire station to find Gabe sitting at the dining room table, drinking a beer and chopping tomatoes. As usual, Becca had been chatting his ear off and hounding him for whatever life updates he would surrender. Gabe had filled them in on his non-existent love life and the mysterious, female doctor friend he’d made at work.
She was the reason Jake was trying to reach Gabe—Jake just hoped she was still around.
“Come on,” he mouthed, tapping his index finger against the back of the phone. He hoped to God that Gabe was still a morning person, though it was early, even for him. Jake wondered if the guy ever regretted working for the military; the confidentiality around his contracted research projects at Peterson Air Force Base made him seem illusive, even to Jake, who was more like family than just a friend.
Jake was about to hang up when Gabe finally answered. “Becca?” His friend’s voice rang with surprise and more than a hint of worry. “Is everything okay?”
Hesitating, Jake steeled himself before answering. Articulating the severity of the situation proved more difficult than he’d thought it would be. “It’s me.”
There was a heavy silence before Gabe said, “What’s wrong?”
A mixture of relief and fear made it difficult for Jake to speak, and he had to clear his throat in order to get the words out. “She’s really sick.”
“What do you mean, sick? Sick how?”
Pushing Becca’s purse clutter to one side of the couch, Jake sat down, some of the items sliding into the impression around him. He took a deep, shaking breath and scrubbed his three-day-old beard, fighting to stay awake. “The doctor said it was just the flu, but it’s—it’s different. She’s seeing things…she swears they’re real.” Jake paused, not wanting to scare Gabe, but his own fear outweighed his concern. “I can’t get ahold of the doctor, and Becca freaks out when I try to take her to the hospital.” Jake cleared his throat again, wishing he could crawl out of the dark hole he felt himself falling into. Gabe might be his only hope. “Would that doctor friend of yours be able to see her? Or, do you know anyone else who might be able to help—”
A loud crash and angry growl rumbled through the phone.
“Gabe?” Jake asked carefully. “Everything okay?”
“No, it’s not,” he breathed. Rustling preceded the sound of Gabe’s ragged breathing.
Jake frowned. Was Gabe running? “I didn’t mean to scare you, man. I just…I didn’t know who else—”
“This wasn’t supposed to—I’ll be there as soon as I can.” Without another word, Gabe disconnected the call, leaving Jake to stare at the screen until it dimmed.
He wasn’t sure what had just happened. He’d expected Gabe to be worried about Becca—she was like a sister to him—but there’d been something off in his voice.
Leaning back against the couch, Jake cringed. The growing soreness in his neck and shoulders was making it increasingly difficult to move. He wanted to stretch out on the longer portion of the sectional that backed up to the entry, pull the folded blanket hanging on the back over himself, and fall asleep. But that would require him to move. Postponing any movement, Jake remained where he was, staring into the shadows around the living room.
After experiencing a childhood he would rather forget and spending his young adulthood getting into trouble, Jake had finally manned up, started taking proper care of his sister, and bought them a place to call home. It was small and a fixer-upper, but it was theirs all the same. In the year and a half that they’d lived there, he’d felt more content than ever before, happy even. Taking a job as a mechanic at the Colorado Springs Fire Department provided him a steady income and routine, something he hadn’t realized he’d really wanted until recently.
Jake eyed the antique desk pushed up against the opposite wall. It was cluttered with loose papers and notepads, and Becca’s medical textbooks were stacked to one side. She was happier, too—she could work on her sculptures and go to nursing school. They didn’t have to depend on other people anymore.
Jake looked down the hallway. The light beneath her door had been on all night, but not even the slightest noise had come from her room for hours. Cooper’s belly rose and fell with each breath as he slept soundly outside her door. Jake hoped Becca was finally asleep too.
Exhaling, he leaned back and stared up at the popcorn ceiling. His heart constricted as he grappled with the possibility that his sister might never be the same carefree, whirlwind of a woman he’d been devoted to his entire life. He couldn’t help but wonder if what was happening to her was some suppressed reaction to Lizzy’s death a few years back. Lizzy and Becca had been best friends from the moment they’d met—the very day Jake and Becca had moved in with Gabe and Lizzy’s family, the McLaughlins—until the day Lizzy lost her battle with leukemia. Jake also considered that what was happening to Becca might have something to do with their mom. Jake hated that Becca had been the one to find her dead of a drug overdose. He should’ve forced her to talk to someone about it, but then again, he should’ve done a lot of things differently.
As Jake’s eyelids grew heavier and exhaustion made his mind even more useless, he let his thoughts drift into oblivion. Despite it all, at least he felt a little better knowing that Gabe was on his way. He would be able to help.