The scent of a freshly cut lawn lingered softly in the air, floating upward with the light haze formed by the morning dew warmed by a rising sun. The sound of a riding mower gently buzzed in the distance as the grounds keeper, an elderly black man dressed in clean, well-worn coveralls, and sporting a frayed, too-large straw hat, slowly wound his way around the expertly and lovingly maintained grounds. Occasionally, he stopped the old mower to uproot an intruding weed that caught his eye. As the man stopped momentarily to retrieve a small fallen apple tree branch, a tiny wren sang tentatively a short distance away. The grounds keeper looked up, wiping his glistening brow with a large, soft cotton handkerchief, smiled, and whistled a short melody in the bird’s direction; it was answered almost immediately by a long, undulating song. The man again replied in kind while continuing his work, and gained an even louder retort from the bird, which might be answering the call or simply trying to attract a mate. After a short while of point and counter point between the two, the man resumed his work as several new voices joined in from various places in the grounds, their songs and calls resulting in a chorus of somewhat dissonant sounds, as other birds joined the impromptu chorus undaunted by the mower’s discordant hum.
In the center of the grounds stood a large, square building, its walls a composite of reddish brown brick and weathered, gray flat stones rising to the height of three stories, with its small, dark-tinted windows and sharp edges striking an incongruous, dissonant note amidst the otherwise pastoral setting. Inside the structure, in a small, private corner room on the uppermost floor, sat an obviously tired yet alert woman in her early thirties. Next to her, in a bed with raised, gleaming steel railings that seemed too large for its current occupant, lay a man who appeared to be several years her senior. The walls were clean, brightly white and spotless, although the paint was somewhat faded in a few places, and hairline cracks and small areas of chipped paint were discernible upon close inspection, particularly on the ceiling. The floor, though freshly polished, showed numerous old scars over its black and white checkerboard pattern tiles in places over which heavy equipment had been moved for many years. A hint of ammonia and alcohol hung in the air, along with more diffuse and less familiar scents which, while not of themselves unpleasant, were somewhat disquieting in their lingering, unnatural presence.
The woman was lean, neither beautiful nor plain, with soft, light-brown hair which fell haphazardly about her shoulders in contrast to her spotless, if somewhat wrinkled, tan silk suit. She sat erect, despite being in obvious need of rest, both feet on the ground, palms resting on her knees. Her hazel eyes, bright and alert if somewhat reddened from lack of sleep, were fixed unblinking upon the man in bed whose eyes were open but unseeing, as he lay connected to a respirator, with wires slithering outwards from his chest, arms, legs and forehead. A number of clear plastic tubes carried fluids to and from his body.
The woman looked up, startled, as the door to the room abruptly opened; she had been too deep in thought to hear a set of approaching footsteps hastily clattering over the marble floor. A man, perhaps two or three years her junior, stood in the doorway. He was dressed in faded blue jeans and sported a pale-blue, sleeveless cotton shirt. He was rather handsome, if a bit portly, with a slightly receding blondish hair and large, clear brown eyes.
“Phil,” she exclaimed upon seeing the man walk in while rising to meet him. She greeted him with a warm embrace. “I’m so very glad you’re here. I was afraid you wouldn’t get my message.”
“I came as soon as I heard. What happened, Chrissie? You said Tom was in a coma. What are they . . .”
“Nobody knows yet, Phil,” she interrupted, gently pulling away from her friend and slowly turning towards the man in bed. Phil followed her glance, taking in the frail figure for the first time. He winced visibly, and barely heard Christine’s voice over the raw wave of emotions that washed over him.
“At first the doctors thought it was a drug overdose. They asked me all kinds of questions about what medication he might be taking. They seemed not to believe that he didn’t even drink or smoke‑‑that ingesting any chemicals that might affect his mental processes would be unthinkable to him. The toxicology results verified that fairly quickly, though.”
“Of course not,” Phil interjected impatiently, turning his attention back to Christine. “What else did they find?”
[**** END OF PREVIEW ****]