Aveny awoke to the sound of her children’s hushed voices. She cracked her eyelids just enough to see them through her lashes. They stood at the edge of the bed staring at her with wide eyes. Brecken shifted nervously from one foot to the other and Luca furrowed his brow analytically as he studied her. Tali squinted her eyes and frowned as if she was trying to place a poorly molded wax figure.
Aveny opened her eyes, smiled and whispered. “Hey guys.”
All three jumped back in alarm, then froze like they’d just been caught pilfering sweets – by a T-Rex.
Brand stepped into the room, followed by the blonde nurse.
“Hey,” Aveny said, flushing at the sight of him.
“Hey,” he replied, an anxious look in his eye. “How are you feeling?”
“Better, I think.”
Silence fell while the nurse checked Aveny’s vitals. “I think we can take this out and get you ready to go home,” she said cheerily. “You’ll need to take it easy for a few days and follow up with your regular doc to check those stitches. And we have a couple prescriptions to keep it from getting infected – you need to follow the directions on those exactly and call your doctor immediately if you start seeing signs of infection.”
Aveny nodded, despite the thousand questions spinning in her mind.
The nurse carefully extracted the IV. She held a cotton ball over the puncture and taped it in place with a white strip. Then she turned to Brand, “Can you drive her home? You can come back to get her car tomorrow, or whenever she’s feeling better. We moved it into a parking spot in the third row. Here’s the keys.”
Aveny’s heart raced. Someone had been inside her car. Where was the skin? Had they seen it? Had they taken it? She fought the urge to leap from the bed, wrench the keys from the woman’s hand and rush for the parking lot.
Instead, she watched as the nurse dropped the keys into Brand’s outstretched palm.
“Of course,” he said.
As soon as the nurse’s black scrubs disappeared through the doorway, Brand sat down next to the bed and whispered, “What were you doing swimming – in the sound – in the middle of the day?!”
The question broke into fragments, each emphasizing the individual questions buried within. What was she doing swimming, when she never went swimming (that he knew of)? What was she doing in the sound – which is cold and gross – when they had a perfectly good community pool just up the street? And what was she doing out there in the middle of the day when she was supposed to be home working?
Aveny attempted to assemble a response with some semblance of confidence. “I came to Olympia to interview someone for an article and I had some time to kill afterward so I decided to go for a walk on the beach by Burfoot Park. I was looking for seashells (that seemed like the kind of thing she might do, right?) and I found a nice area full of them. Then I saw a huge shell rolling around in the water. I waded out to get it, slipped on some seaweed and fell. I think I gashed my arm on some old rebar or something in the water.”
“The nurse told me you said you were swimming,” Brand responded with a steady gaze.
“Did I?” Aveny asked. “I was pretty out of it when I got here.”
“Yeah,” he relented, adding, “she also said you lost a ton of blood – like it took you a while to get here and you didn’t even try to bandage it or anything.”
Aveny shrugged. “It’s all kind of a blur. I remember seeing the blood and getting dizzy. Then I remember waking up on the shore and then I guess I drove here – which is scary because I don’t remember that part at all.”
Brand searched her eyes. She tried to keep her gaze honest and clear, even with the guilt roiling behind it. She longed to share the whole truth with him, but she’d sound like a lunatic. He’d be forced to have her committed.
“Why didn’t you find someone and get help?” he pressed. “There are usually people around there.”
Not where I go, Aveny thought ruefully.
“I don’t know,” she said aloud, furrowing her brow and trying to look confused. “I don’t remember seeing anybody and I don’t think I was thinking clearly. It was kinda a fight or flight thing. There wasn’t much logic involved.” That part was certainly true.
Brand gave a curt nod and didn’t question her again, but Aveny thought she detected a hint of mistrust in his eyes. She quivered involuntarily in response.
What have I done?
They stopped at the car so Aveny could grab her phone. It sat on the passenger seat, just above the skin and her blood-stained t-shirt on the floor. She quickly pulled the shirt over the skin, concealing it from view, before straightening with her phone in hand.
She longed to take the skin with her, but she couldn’t conceal it, nor explain its presence. Slamming the door felt like abandoning her own child. Her soul ached longingly as she turned and walked away.
A shudder ran up her spine as she thought how close she’d come to abandoning her actual children – and how near she’d come to dying alone in a watery grave. Tears welled in her eyes at the thought. She wiped them hastily away with her uninjured hand.
She’d thought it was worth it – worth the lying and the risk. She was wrong.
Brand caught the gesture and pulled her in close. “Are you ok?” he asked. “Are the painkillers wearing off?”
She nodded. “I’m ok. It was just really scary. I could’ve died.” Her voice broke on the last word and the tears came in earnest.
Brand wrapped his strong arms around her and held her tight. She attempted to return the gesture but flinched as her wound grazed his side. He moved to withdraw but she only held him tighter with her good arm and let the tears flow.
Luca stepped closer and wrapped his long, thin arms around her waist. Brecken and Tali followed. Soon they were tangled in a massive five-person group hug and laughing at the corniness of it all.
“Alright, that’s enough,” barked Brand roughly. “Enough of this touchy-feely stuff.”
The kids giggled.
“Thank goodness your tetanus shot was current,” he added with a laugh.
Aveny chuckled and wiped her eyes. She wondered if tetanus shots still work if one gets it as a human, but is wounded as a seal and then switches back to being human again.
Yeah, she thought, I’m probably nuts.