I stared down at my corpse and it stared back at me, two cold and lifeless eyes that would have otherwise been fixed on the ceiling of the funeral home had I not intersected their gaze. Dead Stephanie Chalice was wearing a navy blue dress, one that was customarily trotted out of the closet for occasions like confirmations, christenings, and baptisms. I instantly recognized the silk charmeuse fabric and the ruffle that cascaded from the shoulder to the waist. Funny, I never thought I’d be buried in that one, I mused. My husband, Gus, was, or should I say had been, a big fan of frenzied undress, and I’d often found myself in states of being partially undone after recovering from bouts of spontaneous spirited sex. Ha! I think this may be the first time I’ve ever been horizontal in that one. Hey, I’m laughing about this, why?
There were no visible clues—the cause of death appeared to be outright unrecognizable. No bruises or contusions, puncture marks or … If I’d taken a beating, the mortician certainly did a great job of covering up any discoloration and marks. I guess I could’ve died of natural causes, but then again, when a thirty-year-old homicide detective takes a dirt nap …
So how did I end up dead?
In most cases a cop falls when he or she has lost their edge, they’ve underestimated the perp or the danger of the situation, or there was a distraction, or the cop was otherwise compromised. Most of us NYPD types are pretty savvy and don’t just walk toward the grim reaper with our arms spread open wide.
How’d you screw up, jackass? You left behind a son and a husband. Speaking of which, there’s was the handsome devil now, but … Christ, he looks like shit. Gus usually looked dapper, but today his suit hung uncharacteristically from his square broad shoulders. His eyes were bloodshot and glassy, and his face looked strained and tired.
“How’d I get here, Gus? How’d I end up in a box?”
He used to be my partner, but tying the knot put an end to that. My new partner was green, green as in wet behind the ears, and green as in by-the-book, but he was a good kid and didn’t mind taking direction. “Does Yana know what happened to me? Was he there when I bought the farm? Did you talk to him, babe? Did he tell you how it went down?”
Gus remained silent while he stared at me lying in the casket, looking despondent, his head bowed as if the weight of the world were pressing down upon it.
I suddenly felt hollowness in the pit of my stomach. An icy chill began in my arms and ran through me. Oh my God, this is for real. Dummy! Risk taker! What in God’s name did you do?
I tried in vain to search my mind for the details of my death, but my thinking was fuzzy and I was unable to string my thoughts together. Think, damn it. What is wrong with you? Are you on drugs? What is it? Why can’t you remember?
“Oh my God.”
Who said that? I felt someone take hold of my hand. My eyelids fluttered. Bright light caused my eyes to water. I heard someone gasp.
“Come on, babe. Come on back to us.”
That’s Gus. It has to be, but … come back from where? I was no longer looking down at my corpse. Instead, white billowy clouds surrounded me and I felt as if I were floating upon them.
He pleaded, “Wake up, babe. Wake up.”
Gus, where are you? I looked all around, but there was no one in view. It seemed that I was completely alone.
Someone stroked me lightly on the cheek. “Ms. Chalice, can you hear me? It’s Dr. Efram. Your husband is here with me. Can you open your eyes?”
My eyes are open, but there’s no one here. I began to feel anxious, but then a drop of water fell on my cheek and I gradually understood that I needed to transition out of a very deep and all-encompassing sleep. Gus was standing over me. He was crying. His eyes were red and his throat tightly clenched. I touched my cheek and realized that he had awoken me with a solitary tear, pulled me back from the abyss in which I’d been lost.
“Oh, thank God!” Gus put his hands on the sides of my face and kissed me long and hard. When he pulled away, I could see that he was panting and seemed on the verge of an emotional breakdown.
I was completely disoriented and wasn’t even sure of where we were. “What’s wrong with you, Gus?”
He smiled as tears continued to roll down his cheeks. Then he pressed his lips to mine and kissed me again. “Babe.” He sighed and looked toward heaven. “Thank you, God. Thank you.”
The doctor turned to Gus and politely stated, “I need a moment with the patient.”
Gus pointed at the doorway. “Do I have to…” he asked reluctantly.
“No. Just give me a little room,” the doctor replied. “You can stay here.”
Gus stepped back, giving the doctor access to me. “I’ll be right here, Stephanie,” he said in a reassuring voice. “I’ll be right here with you in the room.”
Gee, clingy much? Uneasy insecure Gus was causing me to worry.
The doctor held up a small illuminated flashlight and checked each of my eyes. “Good,” he exclaimed in a clinical tone.
“Fundus on both sides appear to be normal.”
What the hell is a fundus? It finally dawned on me that I was lying in a hospital bed, but so much unexplained activity was going on around me that I still felt confused. “What is going on here?”
“You were out for quite some time,” the doctor advised and held up his finger. “Please follow my finger.” He began moving it around without offering further explanation. I followed it with my eyes. Again he said, “Good.”
‘“Out for quite some time?’” I turned to Gus. “Babe, what am I missing?”
I saw his throat tighten, but he didn’t reply.
“You were unconscious,” the doctor said. “I’m glad you finally came back to us.”
‘Glad you finally came back to us?’ “Was that ever in doubt? Gus? For the love of God, what’s happened? What’s going on?”
“Just another moment,” Dr. Efram said, interrupting Gus before he could answer. “Stick out your tongue.”
If you insist.
The doctor barked instructions in rapid succession and I followed along. “Touch your nose. Touch my finger. Touch your nose …” and on and on. He felt my face and tested my hearing with a tuning fork. “You seem neurologically sound. I’ll call in a neurologist in for a consult and arrange for further testing but for the moment …”
“For the moment what?” Gus asked anxiously.
Efram smiled warmly. “For the moment feel free to kiss your wife again, and again and again if you wish.”
Gus willingly obliged.
It felt wonderful to feel his warm lips pressed against mine, but I just couldn’t stand not knowing what had happened. “When did I get here? Can someone please tell me what the hell happened?”
Efram glanced at me with expectation. “We were hoping you’d be able to tell us, Detective Chalice.”
My eyes opened wide. “Me?” I strained to remember what had happened that might have put me in the hospital, but there just weren’t any recent memories. I knew who I was and what I did, but the latest events … I shrugged and felt my facial muscles stiffen. I felt as if I was going to cry.
Dr. Efram must have sensed that I was emotional. “It’s all right,” he said. “Cry if you feel you need to. It’s not uncommon to feel sad or disoriented after awakening from a coma.”
“What? Did you say that I was in a coma?”
Gus sniffled. “You were out for five days, Stephanie. We were worried that—” Gus stopped in mid sentence and turned away. I saw his chest rise steeply and then fall before turning back to me, fighting back tears. “I’m just so happy you’re all right.”
“But why can’t I remember anything, and why won’t you tell me what’s happened?”
It looked as if Efram was about to speak, but he stopped when he saw me reach for the back of my head. I felt a sharp twinge where I touched it and felt that my head was heavily bandaged. I held out my hands imploringly. “Gus?” I could see that he was unable to speak, and in the next instant he covered his eyes and bawled like a child.
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