I’m awake and I’m alive.
And I need to get to work. I planned to spend most of the day doing what I could to track down Melinda and so was determined to knock out as much work as possible this morning. After showering, starting coffee and wolfing down a Pop-Tart I opened my computer and started with two solid hours of obit writing, managing to keep my attention away from searching Melinda’s name and focusing on what I actually needed to be doing. After that the next two hours were spent finishing and shipping off two freelance projects, a process that always came with some level of satisfaction and accomplishment. I made a not to invoice them tomorrow and stretched in my chair, returning circulation to my hands. My eyes were blurry and my mind was fuzzy but I’d been responsible this morning, leaving the afternoon for a more personal project.
I was determined to approach this just like any other research assignment: Assemble facts, establish a timeline, follow the narrative. Opening a new document in the same app I used for freelance note taking, I started brain-dumping anything I knew about Melinda without stopping to research or verify. 27 years old, about 5’10”, lived in Lincoln Park, was last seen the day before yesterday. Various other tidbits and random thoughts were added, some surprising me as I recalled them. All told, the sum of my knowledge of Melinda totaled a bit over two dozen bullet points, hardly representative of a full and complete life. That’s the baseline I was starting with.
Usually I would put up a note on social media asking if anyone had experience or expertise in a field or subject matter I was researching. In this case I was hesitant to do so since not everyone was likely to know she’d gone missing. I would be doing more harm than good, I realized, and would be a terrible way to share the news.
Instead I turned to her social profiles, using the information and updates shared there to fill in at least some of the gaps in my portrait of her. I’d forgotten she was from Normal, a college town downstate. She probably once but it didn’t stick. A list of the people she was friends with was added to my notes for possible follow-up later. Her lists of interests and activities fascinated me, not only because I didn’t know half of them and because it was incredible how much information people voluntarily share. You can gain more than a few insights into someone’s life and personality based just on those lists. All of this, with some searching to fill in a few gaps, was helping to amass a much more complete profile of Melinda, forcing me to realize I’d never made much of an effort to find out these things in real life.
There had been plenty of opportunities for me to do so and chances for me to get to know her better. I could have just invited her over for pizza and a movie. Guilt clawed at me for not taking those chances. I’d used none of the moments afforded to me in the past and the future would offer no more.
My stomach turned and I realized I’d missed lunch, only now realizing it was almost 6:00 pm. Before I could place an order for a pizza, my phone buzzed with a message.
ANNA: u around?
ME: Yeah, was going to order a pizza.
ANNA: be there in 5. sausage
ME: And if I refuse?
ANNA: then i wont come
ME: Failing to see downside
So Anna was coming over. Fine. Maybe getting out of my own head for a bit and having someone to talk to was a good thing right now, before I fell too deeply into the rabbit hole. I placed the order and resolved to avoid discussing Melinda, respond to all questions about last night with “It was fine” and otherwise hold my cards close to my chest. Some quick organization of my notes put everything in a more logical order and I closed my computer, ready to pick it back up tomorrow.
Between this morning’s work and this afternoon’s research I’d been in front of my computer for almost 12 hours. Usually I avoided prolonged stretches like that, breaking up the day with walks or at least time to stretch on the couch. My back ached as I stood up to flex my joints. Suddenly the last thing I wanted to do was stay in. Instead I wanted to rent a bike and ride toward the lake, escaping the confines of my apartment and all the thoughts swirling around it. Anna was on her way, as well as a pizza, so there was nowhere to go but here. My phone buzzed again and I let Anna up for the second time in two days.
She blew in the door like a force of nature, immediately launching into updates about her upcoming gallery show. Arrangements were coming along well and all seemed to be on track for a successful evening. What few problems and inconveniences had arisen were blown into world-shattering issues in her retelling. She was anxious and nervous and excited and annoyed, all in the span of 60 seconds. Her narrative continued until the pizza arrived. When I returned from getting it, Anna had already opened two beers and was browsing through a selection of new movies on my TV.
“I haven’t seen that one yet,” I offered as she hovered over one title.
“How was your thing last night?” she asked in response.
“It was fine.” I hoped she took the hint not to press the matter.
“Everyone there you expected to be?”
I sighed. “More or less.” I reached for the beer sitting on the counter and tried to change the subject. “What do you want to watch?”
Without looking at me she said flatly, “I’d like you to tell me about last night.”
“Anna, I really don’t want to relive it.”
“Because it was awkward and uncomfortable and I’m still processing it myself. It’s been a long month and I could really just use a night to turn my brain off and not analyze every damn thing that’s happened.” I took a long pull from my beer and instantly regretted lashing out even a little bit. Anna didn’t deserve to catch flack because I was wound so tightly.
“Listen, bitch,” her tone was sweeter than her words, “you need to talk to someone about what’s going on. You know you bottle everything up in that stupid-looking head of yours, so find a way to deal with it now before you snap at someone who won’t take it as pleasantly as I will. You want to get drunk and watch a movie, great, but we’re going to have this conversation in the very near future.”
Chagrined, I looked at the floor. “Sorry. That wasn’t fair to you. I really do just want to have a beer and zone out. I’m glad you came over and we will talk about all that at some point. Still love me?”
“What fucking choice do I have?” She clinked her bottle against mine.
“Fair enough.” We both sat down and she exercised her right to unilaterally decide on a movie by selecting an old Chevy Chase comedy she hadn’t seen.
I fell asleep quickly, my head resting on my hand. Dreams emerged, including memories of Melinda that mixed reality with fantasy. We were in her apartment, the morning after we’d first hooked up. Here it was all flirtatious laughter and soft, sensitive touches accompanied by warm, effortless conversation.
Reality had been much more awkward. When I finally awoke Melinda wasn’t annoyed as much as she appeared inconvenienced. She was already dressed and ready for work, standing next to me and looking down with bemused interest.
“I was about to slap you,” she said.
“Oh…hey,” was all I could manage in response.
“You need to get your ass out of my bed so I can finish getting ready for work.”
“Sorry…yeah…” I sat up and stretched.
As soon as I stood up she swooped in and started straightening sheets as I fumbled around picking up and putting on my clothes. When she finished she turned and assessed my continued presence.
“Last night was really nice,” she said, “and we should do it again soon. For right now, though, let’s keep things as-is. No kissy-faces at the diner or anything, understood? That’s that and this is this.”
I needed coffee. My head was still fuzzy but I managed an agreeable and enthusiastic “Yeah, agreed.”
“Great. Now get out.” She pulled me to her and planted a kiss on me, her body lingering for an extra beat. I wanted more but she pulled away and guided me to the door.
The dream version of that night, which involved promises of devotion and plans to go to stay in bed and watch bad TV for days, faded to black. My subconscious seemed to flicker and I felt a physical sense of being pulled away from something. The blackness subsumed me.
My next memory was fuzzy. I was barely coherent and not fully aware. I’d drift in and out of sleep, sure I’d only dozed off for only five minutes when in fact seven hours had gone by. I was vaguely aware I wasn’t home but never fully conscious enough to question where I was. Sharp pains radiated from both my crotch and my head and I struggled against something that wouldn’t allow me to move my legs or arms. Muffled voices occasionally were heard but I never identified the sources. They could have been 20 feet away or three inches from me.
Eventually the stretches of awareness lengthened, allowing my mind to orient itself. I was in a hospital room, my hands and feet restrained by my sides. I called out hoarsely and a concerned-looking nurse soon came in.
“You’re up! Thank goodness.”
“What’s happening?” The words veritably rattled out of my dry, scratchy throat. How long since I had last spoken?
“You’re at Northwestern Hospital. I’ve been asked to notify the doctor as soon as you woke up as well as your friend from Life Awareness. Pardon me.” She hurried out the door. I tried to call after her but a phlegmy cough was all that escaped. Eventually she returned with a cup of water and a straw, which I gladly accepted as she held them in place near my mouth. She pulled it away before I could finish it, saying I shouldn’t drink too much at one time right now.
Eventually I realized the “friend from Life Awareness” was Karen. I’d met her a few years ago, shortly after she started working at LA. She was launching a new public awareness campaign to encourage people to have more babies, including additional tax breaks and government-subsidized child care. I’d been assigned a story on the campaign and so met a few times in our official capacities. We became friends and went out to dinner or drinks from time to time but never dated or hooked up in any way. Our relationship remained one of flirty friendship and I often connected her with other writers in need of a quote from LA leadership.
Slowly, I connected the dots. If Karen had asked to be told when I was awake, then she knew I was here. What about Anna? She’d been with me when I fell asleep, hadn’t she? My memory was still patchy. As he came in and out I peppered the nurse with questions but was repeatedly told she didn’t know or couldn’t tell me the answers. I was beginning to become upset as well as exhausted, what little energy I had fading fast.
“Hey handsome.” Karen appeared at the door of the room about an hour after the nurse had first called her. Her tone was casual but even in my addled state I could tell it was affected, her attempt to appear unbothered by what was going on. She was wearing jeans and a t-shirt, with a Northwestern hoodie added mostly because the hospital was freezing cold. She came over and gave me a long kiss on the cheek, relief and worry playing out in her expression as she settled into a chair on the right side of the bed while the nurse was on the left inspecting monitors and charts.
“You look like crap, Daniel.” Never one to mince words.
“What happened? Even the doctor won’t tell me anything.”
Her eyes fell, obviously reluctant to go into whatever had transpired. She took a deep breath and finally started in.
“I spoke to Anna a few days ago. She told me you fell asleep watching a movie, as did she. When she woke up you were still sleeping so she let herself out. Before she left the building she realized she’d forgotten her phone and so turned around. Thankfully the door hadn’t closed all the way so she let herself back in. That’s when she saw you pounding your head against the kitchen counter so hard it had started to crack. You were bleeding and it took a while to pull you away, at which point you were unconscious. She called 911 and they brought you here. You needed several stitches and had a serious concussion but the doctor doesn’t think there’s any permanent damage. You’ve been asleep for four days.”
She exhaled from the emotional and physical effort of recounting all that. Eventually she continued.
“When your name came into LA as a potential Wave survivor, someone recognized you as a friend of mine and sent me the case. I was on a date, asshole.”
“Sorry,” was all I could manage. “How’s Anna?”
“Shaken up, obviously. You weren’t easy to stop, she said, and the way you passed out upset her quite a bit.”
“Where is she? Does she know I’m awake?”
“Not yet, but I’ll message her as soon as I leave here. I like her quite a lot, by the way.”
“Yeah, she’s great.”
“Daniel, I have some questions I need to ask you in an official capacity. Do you feel like you’re up for that?”
I wasn’t, but I knew the sooner we did this the more useful and insightful my answers might be. Wave survivors were an incredibly small group; Less than 2 percent of those who try to kill themselves are stopped or otherwise fail. LA had compiled answers from almost everyone in the immediate aftermath of their attempts. Wait too long and the human brain shuts out painful trauma, so the faster they can ask questions the more accurate the answers are going to be.
Karen shifted in her chair, adopting what I presumed to be an official pose and demeanor, the one she used while on agency business.
“What were you doing the day before you tried to kill yourself?”
I flinched at the term, only now fully realizing that’s what I’d done. She looked at me with a mix of aloofness and compassion I know was practiced and perfected over the course of other such interviews. I concentrated to sift through the haze of painkillers and mental roadblocks to try and form a picture of yesterday.
“I’d been working most of the day. Then Anna came over and we watched a movie.”
“What were you working on?”
The picture was slowly coming into focus but seemed as if it would fade away if I let my concentration slip for even a moment. “I was…” I fumbled as the thought evaded me like a plastic bag blowing in the breeze. “I was looking into Melinda.” The memory finally settled.
“Who’s Melinda?” she asked.
I wrapped my head as firmly around the thought as I could. “She was someone I’d been crushing on for a while. She worked at a diner near me and didn’t come into work a few days before I…” I paused, choking on the words. “…before my incident.”
“Was?” I knew what Karen was asking.
“No one had seen her at work the day before and I couldn’t get in touch with her. I kept searching the obits database but her name never turned up there, either. Her social profiles didn’t offer any clues and no one seems to have reported her missing, at least not when I last checked. I’d actually been considering reaching out to Life Awareness to see if you had anything on her.”
Karen asked for Melinda’s last name and promised to search the organization’s system, letting me know if anything appeared.
“Daniel, I have to ask: Do you remember anything from the time you fell asleep to when you woke up here? Any feelings or emotions, even?”
My forehead wrinkled as I tried to think of anything that filled in the gaps Karen was asking about. There was nothing, though not even the fleeting glimpses I’d latched onto earlier. It was as if the middle third of a bridge had been completely lifted out, leaving nothing connecting the two sides.
“No,” I finally admitted, “nothing. Sorry.”
“Don’t apologize,” she said. “Very few survivors report anything like that. I had to ask, though, and be sure to message me if anything comes back to you.” I’ll let Anna know you’re up. Take care of yourself, Daniel, and let me know if you need anything, alright?”
Karen started to straighten herself and her papers, obviously getting ready to leave. As tired as I was, I’d been grateful for the company and the information she’d brought with her. A small, sympathetic and obviously studied smile appeared on her face, an expression I assumed she’d perfected in her line of work. She stood up.
“Thanks for coming and seeing me, even if it was just in an official role,” I said.
“Well it wasn’t completely official.” Another kiss on my cheek. Another, more personal smile. “Bye.” As she left exhaustion finally overwhelmed me. That was the longest I’d been awake in days and the pain meds wanted to reclaim control. As I closed my eyes I began to wonder, perhaps for the first time: Why had I done it? What had seized control of my brain and pushed me to end my own life?
Over the years numerous studies had been conducted on the 2% of people who survive The Wave, with half again as many aggregated analyses of those studies. Most of the stories were similar to what I now realized was my own, involving someone being somewhere they weren’t supposed to be and stopping the victim from finishing the task. The commonalities between people were few and far between. Lifestyles, demographics and other factors frustratingly resisted matching up to provide any clarity or insight. Survival seemed to come down to plain stupid luck, which you can’t count on for long.
With no clear scientific rationale for The Wave I’d long believed it was the planet, God or some other cosmic force simply deciding it was done with humanity. We’d spread out to every corner of the world over the millennia but contributed little in the way of improvement. Asphalt, disease and climate change weren’t legacies to be proud of. We were a malignant force, throwing ecosystems out of balance and killing anything deemed inconvenient. Without any other more provable hypothesis to work from, it seemed some power had decided we were no longer useful, if we ever were, and begun turning the dimmer switch down on our existence.
A few survivors reported the same kind of “white, warm light” experience that had become a staple of near-death experiences. A few mentioned a feeling of sinking into the abyss. Very few recounted being at least partly conscious of their actions, knowing what was happening but unable to stop it, similar to oxygen-deprived mountain hikers. None of these recollections were common or consistent enough to be of any quantitative use or offer new explanations for the root cause of The Wave. The key to unlocking a cure remained out of reach.
None of it helped me either. Was it my research into Melinda’s disappearance? Was it my feelings around Todd’s death and memorial gathering? Was it something about a conversation with Anna? Was it something I fucking ate? It could have been any of those, all of them or none of them. For all I or anyone else knew, it was because of a memory unlocked by the smell of toast, or the particular shade of orange in a sunset two weeks ago. In all likelihood I’d never know why I’d done it, nor why anyone else had.
The reality of not knowing pissed me off all over again. Karen would go back to her office and add my information to LA’s database, hoping it provided one more small piece of a puzzle the size of the world itself. The odds my answers to her questions would shed new light on anything were minuscule at best.
That left me aimless and drifting, a reality I did not appreciate.
Sleep pulled at me but I was afraid to stop resisting. Despite being in the hospital surrounded by machines and nurses, I worried I would try again and there would be no one to find me in time. Second attempts were exceedingly rare, I knew. The Wave seemed to pass you by completely if it couldn’t get you the first time. That didn’t mean they didn’t sometimes kill themselves, just that future attempts were intentional, planned out and explained in notes and messages. Depression was often the cause as people found themselves unable to continue to live in a spiraling world. Eventually sleep won and I drifted off.
I dreamed of nothing. My sleep was free of distraction or narrative. When I awoke several hours later it was if I’d spent that time in a sensory deprivation chamber, with no inputs or distractions. The painkillers being fed into my arm certainly helped with that. When the nurse came in a bit after I’d woken up it was in an unrushed and calm manner, asking a few perfunctory questions about how I felt followed by notes made on my chart.
She was still updating my information when Anna burst into the room like the compact, strong-willed force of nature she is. She stretched as she leaned over the side of my bed to give me as much of a hug as the angle would allow.
“You asshole, you freaked me the fuck out!” was practically screamed into my left ear as my peripheral vision caught a small smile on the nurse. Anna finally let go and straightened out. I was unused to seeing such open, vulnerable concern from her. This was a woman whose hard-assed exterior masked only a hard-assed interior.
“I’m so sorry, Anna. I can’t imagine how terrible that must have been.”
“Massive fucking understatement, Daniel. I didn’t know what was happening or what to do when I saw you…like that.”
She paused. I could tell she wanted to continue to lay into me, unloading the weight of her anger, stopping only because maybe a hospital room wasn’t the best place to do so. I appreciated the restraint on several levels.
“Karen said she came by to talk to you. Anything useful come from that?”
I shook my head. “I don’t think so. I can’t remember much and what I could isn’t exactly notable. Right now I’m just as much in the dark as about everyone else who gets caught in The Wave.”
Anna flinched at the naming of the thing in the same way I had. Only when she looked away from me did I see the tears welling up in her eyes. I wanted to say something but she spoke before I could.
“Daniel, I don’t want to put any pressure on you, but you need to remember something and tell Karen about it.”
“I know, but I…”
“Bullshit. Ever since I’ve known you you’ve had a memory for details. It’s part of why you make such a good writer. Now turn those skills on this. You owe it to me, not to mention all the people who haven’t been around to tell their side of things.”
She was right. I knew that. But I also resented her for lying all of this at my feet. I wasn’t the goddamn Messiah, meant to deliver his people from their suffering. I’m just one of a host of inconsequential people leading inconsequential lives, one that should have been brought to an inconsequential end. There’s no great redemption arc here, just a single cog falling out of the machine as countless others had before it.
Instead of yelling all this at Anna I said, “I will. I promise.” She obviously needed to cling to something. Who was I to take that from her?
The nurse returned, declaring I’d had enough visitors for one day and needed my rest. I was grateful for someone else coming to rescue me. Anna smiled and nodded, then stood and came back over to the side of the bed, embracing me in another awkward hug. “I’ll be back tomorrow.” She walked out the door.
I knew Anna’s heart was in the right place with her demands on me and my memory. Right now it wasn’t apparent I’d be able to do much of anything. It was too overwhelming a demand to try to dive into whatever from that night remained in my mind.
The framing of her point in the context of me being a writer intrigued me, though. Perhaps if I simply started writing my thought process would lead me somewhere useful. I certainly wasn’t up to it right now but resolved to engage in some free-writing first thing in the morning.
I woke to sunlight pouring in the window facing Lake Michigan, only barely defused by the light curtain in front of it. For the first time I took in my surroundings. The room was lavish by hospital standards, a decent couch in front of the window that pulled out into a bed for overnight guests. The TV hung on the wall so the patient in the bed got the best angle, with the bathroom door just to the right as you faced it. It would have passed for a decent hotel room were it not for the collection of monitors, buttons and connections for oxygen and other gases.
Each time I woke up from a sleep I felt less groggy and fuzzy than I had the last time and this was no exception. I reported that to the nurse when she once more came in to check on me and I asked how much longer I’d have to stay. She deferred to the doctor, who would be in shortly to check on me. When she arrived she focused on my physical injuries, which she said were healing nicely, declaring it should be no more than two more days before I could go home, assuming I continued to both heal physically and feel up to it mentally. As she wrapped up I asked for my phone as well as pen and paper. A half hour later a nurse came in with both. I immediately texted both Anna and Karen that further visits were unnecessary because I’d be out of here in no time.
With the paper in front of me and pen in hand I wondered where to start. This was always the most difficult part for me, especially when the narrative presented no immediately attractive option. Finally, I committed to starting somewhere and just letting the words flow and knew just where that would be: Melinda.
For the next four hours I gave myself over to the flow of writing. I covered easily recalled facts and events and worked to keep from too much analysis in the moment when I started going into areas relating to my memories of the night I’d tried to kill myself. Still, that area of my mind remained frustratingly closed, hidden behind a wall of pain. A small strand of something occasionally broke through but only became more difficult to extract the harder I pulled at it. Finally I put my pen down and reviewed what I’d written.
If there were great insights hidden in here they weren’t apparent to me. Some things surprised me as I reread them, but not much. Still, I would show it to Karen and allow her to use it for whatever she could.
I figured I’d followed whatever muse had presented itself today and so turned on the TV to passively consume some entertainment in an effort to take my mind off things once more. Eschewing live broadcasts, I browsed the meager on-demand selection and found a movie to watch. An uneventful afternoon and evening passed, though my mind continued to spin on anything new I might add to the emerging story I was telling.
The next morning I was informed I’d be going home that afternoon, news I quickly conveyed to both Anna and Karen, getting celebratory responses in return. Anna promised to come and help me get home while Karen requested I keep a journal for the next month to capture anything I hadn’t already thought of. The doctor eventually came and confirmed that yes, I was going to be discharged, but that I should return immediately if I felt out of sorts at all. I was also required to consult with a psychiatrist and then come back here for a follow up in a week, after which I could begin seeing my regular doctor again. All these conditions were fine with me so long as it meant I was free to leave.
As I awaited the moment of freedom the beeps and other sounds native to the hospital faded into the background as I considered everyone here who wouldn’t be going home anytime soon. Statistically, no one else here was likely to be a survivor of The Wave. Instead they were all your garden variety sick people; Some prepping for or recovering from surgery, others fighting off an infection or other illness, others suffering from a physical injury requiring attention. All needed the attention of these medical professionals, the hospital acting the great society equalizer, bringing even the most privileged low.
The onset of The Wave had finally broken down the last of the formal resistance to nationalized healthcare. Enough people were dying because of that, the thinking went, so let’s not allow the fucking flu to kill anyone simply because they can’t afford insurance or don’t have a job that provides it to them. For over 70 years the nations of the world had competed to stockpile more and deadlier weapons. Now they all raced to provide more outstanding health services, more clean drinking water and other necessities to sustaining life. The world, with a few exceptions, turned left quickly.
What was the point, I wondered? Why work so hard to keep people alive when The Wave could claim them whenever it wanted? Why did we as humans always reach for survival even in the grimmest of moments?
Melinda came to mind once more and pushed out my existential ponderings. I had only allowed myself to check her social profiles once in the last couple days, afraid of becoming obsessed once more and taking myself down a destructive path. No updates or additional clues appeared. Her fate remained elusive and unknown.
Suddenly a knock came at the door. A young woman was there, smiling warmly with an electronic pad and a file folder of papers in her hands.
“Daniel, but yeah.”
“Sorry. I’m Rachel. I’m an administrator here and I need to ask you a few questions so we can finish up your paperwork and get you out of here.”
Like everyone else, her tone and expressions seemed practiced, as if this were a performance honed over countless interactions with people like me. She could probably do this in her sleep. I was asked about the quality of my care, whether I had any questions about follow-up instructions, who would be looking after me after I was discharged and more. My anxiety crept up as I worried one of my answers would trigger the instant revocation of my dismissal.
Another knock on the door announced Anna’s arrival.
“We’re almost done here,” Rachel said. She turned to Anna and eyed her in a way I couldn’t quite interpret. “You’ll be taking Daniel home?”
“That’s right,” Anna replied.
“Alright then. Daniel, I hope you continue to feel better. Here’s my card in case you have any questions or there are any problems. Otherwise I hope to never see you again.” The line, which I was sure was standard and meant to put the patient at ease, nonetheless brought a smile to her – and my – face. She handed me a stack of paperwork and left the room.
“You ready to get out of here?” Anna asked, anxious to leave.
“Just need someone to push me out.”
A few moments passed before an orderly appeared with a wheelchair. He insisted it was necessary despite my insistence to the contrary. Finally I got in and was pushed through the hallways, past the rooms of people who were not going home like I was. The elevator took us down several floors and we eventually arrived at the end of the walkway connecting the main hospital building to the parking garage.
Anna suddenly realized where we were. “Umm…I didn’t drive here.” The orderly, obviously irritated, turned me around and back to the elevator, which we this time took to the ground floor. During the ride Anna hailed a taxi. “Stay safe,” the orderly offered and spun back around into the interior.
If there was a plan, neither of us knew what it was. If there wasn’t, neither of us were going to address it. So we stood on the curb as we waited for the taxi to arrive. When it did we got in and Anna gave the driver my address. At least we knew what the next step was.
“So what’s next?” she asked after we’d gone a few blocks.
“I’m going to track down Melinda.” I don’t know why I said that. I hadn’t been thinking it. There was no plan that had been thought through. And I knew that’s not what Anna was asking. But out it came and as soon as I said it I was convinced it was the right step, even if looking into her disappearance had been what pushed me into the path of The Wave several days ago.
Anna echoed my thoughts. “Don’t you think there’s the slightest fucking chance that’s what got you into this damn mess?” Despite Anna’s hedonistic, judgment-free approach to most everything in life she sounded disturbingly like a mother chastising her 15-year-old daughter who had just revealed she was pregnant.
“Maybe. But I need to do it.”
These were the last words spoken by either of us for the rest of the ride. As we pulled in front of my building Anna completed the transaction, including tip, and helped me up the stairs to the apartment, where I immediately collapsed on the bed. The short journey had involved more physical exertion than I’d experienced in a week, not to mention all the painkillers I’d been on.
“I’m going to sleep here tonight to keep an eye on you.” I looked over and saw a pillow and sheets were already placed at the end of the couch. She had obviously been here earlier with a plan in mind. It was barely mid-afternoon so I didn’t imagine she’d be turning in just yet. I was so exhausted, though, that I couldn’t manage more than an acknowledging grunt before I escaped into sleep myself.
I dreamt of peace. Sun-drenched beaches and gently-rolling ocean waves. Burnt-orange clouds moving swiftly through a brightening morning sky. Lush green trees, their leaves rustling loudly in the summer breeze. I’d never slept like that before and never would again.
It was after 9 am the next morning when I finally awoke, the smell of coffee stinging my nostrils. Anna was in the kitchen with her back to me. She turned and returned to the couch, picking up my tablet and browsing through it. I was grateful she had stayed but saddened by its necessity. I laid still for a few moments so she wouldn’t think she had woken me up with her movements.
Those moments gave me the first real opportunity I’d had to reflect on the events of the last few weeks. It all started with Melinda going off the grid and had ended, at least so far, with my unsuccessful suicide attempt. There was so much to unpack there. My writer’s mind activated and wondered if there were a narrative to be pitched somewhere in there. Other survivors of The Wave had become short-term celebrities, enjoying their unique stature, while others eschewed any and all attention bestowed because of their anomalous stature. Surely there was something here, right?
Staying in bed was no longer an option as, after 15 hours of sleep, my bladder had issues it would like addressed. Stretching muscles that were still feeling underutilized I sat up.
“Still here, Daniel?”
Still here, Anna.”
After relieving myself I walked into the kitchen and poured a cup of coffee before joining Anna on the couch. She moved her legs so I could sit.
“How you feeling?”
“I’ve been better.” I admitted. “Now that I’m awake I’m thinking more painkillers might be a good idea.”
She stood up and retrieved them from her bag, bringing a glass of water along with the bottle.
“I didn’t have a chance to go shopping so Pop-Tarts are your only option if you’re hungry. I can order a delivery later today.”
Shaking my head as if to say that was no big deal I said “Not a problem. How did you sleep?” She didn’t look well-rested, a state I attributed not only to the couch itself but also to the fact she likely got up several times during the night to check on me.
“Just fine and don’t ask again.”
“You don’t have to stay here, you know. I’m fine.”
“Wasn’t planning to,” she replied,” Just wanted to make sure someone was keeping an eye on you your first night home. I’m going to head home in a little while and shower. I have a date with that DJ I told you about tonight and want to feel sexy.” A forced twinkle appeared in her eye.
“Thanks, Anna.” She leaned over and hugged me and for a moment I felt her facade drop. It was quickly restored as she got up, put her phone in her jacket and walked toward the door. As she opened it she stopped.
“Are you really going to try and find Melinda for real?”
“For the record I think that’s a stupid idea that will bring you little but misery and heartache. There’s no way I see that turning out well. But if you’re going to be an idiot, please promise me you won’t be an idiot without involving me, alright?”
“Your objection has been noted. And I promise.”
She smiled, nodded and left.
Within seconds the totality of being alone hit me. I was here with no one. Panic rushed in, encompassing my brain and shooting lightning bolts into my chest. My whole body seemed electrified and I could barely catch my breath. The small remaining rational part of my brain worried The Wave was coming back to reclaim a prize that had been stolen from it.
I curled into a ball, some part of me remembering reading shrinking yourself helps convince your body it’s safe, which in turn calms your mind. It was some remnant survival instinct from our distant past that helped us hide from bigger predators but then eventually get out before they returned. When I was able to process thoughts more clearly I looked at the clock and saw the whole episode had lasted less than three minutes. Finally I had to face the question: What was I going to do?
There was no plan.
There didn’t appear to be a way forward.
There were walls closing in around me on all sides.
I lurched from the couch and vomited on the floor. Searching for paper towels and cleaning the mess up actually forced my mind to concentrate on a concrete, measurable task in front of me. That burned off much of the remainder of the panic attack I’d just been through, still directionless but less flailing about. There were other concrete tasks I could accomplish that would help me focus. Most pressingly, food and shelter.
While I had decent savings – not buying anything unnecessary will help with that – I was loathe to tap into it until things were dire. Having not written anything for two weeks, I didn’t have any money coming in. Luckily there were programs the government, through Life Awareness, had established for suicide survivors and the families of those who took their own lives. They offered assistance with meals and housing costs for three months to help people through a time when they had more pressing issues on their minds and likely weren’t working. There were only small costs I’d have to pay for the time I was in the hospital, so I wasn’t in financial jeopardy thankfully.
Swallowing the small feelings of guilt I felt at the thought of appearing “weak” or unable to provide for myself by accepting government assistance, I opened my computer and began filling out the necessary forms. I also made a note to let Karen know I had done so on the off chance she could help paperwork move through the system a bit more quickly.
Good. I had a plan. That was progress.
My head ached and I took a couple painkillers to dull the pain, washing them down with water that finally removed the taste of vomit from my mouth. Before I succumbed to the welcome numbness soon to come I make a note to sketch out a pitch for my story. I resolved to aim high for this one, going for prestige placement, not just local magazine coverage. Hopefully that would lead to even more work for me down the road.
The medication kicked in and I turned on the TV and walked to my bed. The first thing I saw was a commercial for Life Awareness, this one touting the value of having children. There were no actors in the spot, just narration and shots of impeccably-designed nurseries filled with babies. Years ago I’d written about a previous campaign that had featured two young actors playing an adoring new mother and father doting over their newborn. The commercial was pulled shortly after the campaign began when the actor playing the father got caught in The Wave. His death gave the commercial, which you could still easily find online, a new context and message: Having kids is fine, but the odds are good you’ll soon leave them without one or both parents just days after they’re born. That wasn’t nearly as heartwarming.
Three days passed and I barely noticed. Anna messaged occasionally, as did other friends, all checking in on me and seeing how I was holding up. As much as I wanted to ignore most all of them I knew I couldn’t. Doing so would risk someone believing something had happened. So I sent small perfunctory responses assuring whomever it was that I was fine and getting along problem-free.
Whatever drive I’d had only a few days prior had vanished. There had been no more anxiety attacks but also no impetus to make the most of my day, much less embark on a quest to track down Melinda. I’d gotten back in the routine of writing obits but had begged extensions on freelance projects that were already well past due. Most editors agreed without argument, no doubt sensitive to my situation. One told me to send him what I had and he’d have someone else finish it up, still paying me my full fee for the piece. At least I had some money coming in once again.
The fourth day after returning home I sat in front of my computer. Big band jazz played in the background as I finished an obit, ready to pop a pill and call it a day. When I minimized the browser my note-taking app was still open. My eyes drifted down to the file named “Melinda Research” and I felt the inquisitive pull toward it. Weeks had gone by since I’d looked at it but I quickly remembered where I’d left off in my research. After scanning it for several minutes I decided to message Anna.
“Yeah, but am shocked you initiated a convo.”
“Couple blocks from you now. Just finishing up. 30?”
A little over a half hour later I was buzzing Anna into my building. When she came up she couldn’t mask a look of concern on her face. Perhaps she was more worried about me actually asking to see her than she’d been when I was happy being on my own. After assuring her I was still fine I cut to the chase.
As I told her my plan to find Melinda, or at least track down what happened to her, Anna’s face never stopped alternating between disgust and concern. For five minutes she listened as I recapped what I’d already pieced together from her public profiles and the few leads I had, including mention of her possibly going to Grand Rapids, where she apparently had family. When I finished there was a long pause.
“What’s the endgame here, Daniel?”
“What is it you think is going to happen at the end of all this?”
“Well…I’ll have figured out where Melinda is or what happened to her.” It seemed simple enough in my head.
“But to what end?” she insisted.
“I don’t understand.” I was becoming frustrated. “How do you not…”
“What do you think is going to happen?” She was demonstrably upset now. “Do you think you’ll find here and she’ll be grateful? That she’ll run into your arms declaring her love for you? I don’t think you’ve considered how if this girl vanished of her own volition she might have a reason for doing so. Maybe she doesn’t want to be found by you or anyone else. And if she’s dead, I’m not sure how knowing that is going to give you the closure you’re apparently desperately seeking.”
I shook my head. “I don’t have any expectations for what will happen after. I just know that I need to know.”
“Fucking why?” I knew she was goading me, trying to elicit the stronger reaction I could feel building up between ears.
“I just need to know, alright?”
“No, that’s not fucking alright, I want a real fucking answer, Daniel.”
“Fine, you want to know? It’s because all around us people are dying for no fucking reason. We’ve only got a few years left before we hit the tipping point and the whole damn race starts to circle the drain. We’re an endangered species and no one has any answers or explanations and that’s pissing me off. I’m tired of this bullshit. I just tried to kill myself and I don’t know why! I’ve seen 20 of my friends die in the last year, and that’s just from The Wave. It doesn’t fucking count Todd or anyone else who died of natural causes. We shrug our shoulders and move on, learning a bit more clearly every day to detach ourselves from any semblance of emotion or connection because five minutes from now it could vanish. Not this time. This time there’s going to be a goddamn reason and I’m going to know what it is.”
Anna looked disconcertingly as if she’d just won. “OK, so where do we start?”
My head was still buzzing with anger and the release of too many emotions and thoughts in a short span of time. “What?”
“Where do we start following the breadcrumbs that will lead us to Melinda?”
I took a deep breath. “It sounds simplistic but I was going to start at the diner, then work my way outward from there down whatever paths seem viable.”
“What can I do to help?” She was obviously sincere, though I suspected she was partly motivated simply by a desire to keep an eye on me.
“I could use a travel buddy when it’s time to visit Grand Rapids.”
“What’s in Grand Rapids?”
She considered that for a moment. “When are you going?”
I thought about that for a moment. “Three or four days from now, most likely.”
Anna pulled out her phone and scrolled through what I assumed was her calendar. “I can do that.”
Our relationship was not based on deep emotional bonding. Nevertheless I embraced Anna in a tight hug. “You keep me sane sometimes, you know that?”
“Get off me, creep.” She pushed me away with mock disgust.
We discussed a few preliminary logistics of the upcoming trip and 10 minutes later she left while I got to work.
Over the next three days I made the rounds of Melinda’s friends and coworkers. Some were more than happy to help me as they too were concerned about her silence, offering to keep me informed if they learned anything. Others were understandably skeptical, afraid I was an ex-boyfriend or other stalker, my name filed away mentally in case I needed to be reported to the police.
All the while I continued writing obits, as well as outlining and drafting my personal experience with The Wave. Anna and I coordinated the trip to Grand Rapids. I made arrangements at a nearby hotel, used public databases to locate a few of Melinda’s friends and family and reserved an electric car for the drive. I was feeling motivated and prepared, more positive than I’d been in a long time, confident there would be answers just over the horizon.
The day to leave finally came. Anna messaged me saying she’d be by in an hour with donuts and coffee to get us on our way. We would eat, walk to the lot where the car was waiting and set out for the three hour drive to southwest Michigan. I was filled with nervous energy and so decided to put it to productive use by pounding out a few more obits before we left.
It was the third name in my assignment queue, sitting there like a snake that had appeared suddenly in my kitchen sink. My body shook and my head spun. It was 20 minutes before I willed my fingers to click her name.
She’d died two days ago. A childhood friend, whose name hadn’t appeared in my research, had asked her to visit out in Wheaton for reasons described here as “personal and immediate in nature.” Melinda had stayed with her for weeks. Then two days ago Melinda killed herself by downing the sleeping pills she’d been hiding from her friend, who then took her own life. While Melinda’s death seemed almost certainly to be the result of The Wave, her friend’s was intentional. A note found nearby mentioned by name a man she had worked with until recently who had been harassing her until it became unbearable and she quit.
My mind reeled with questions, trying to organize this new information and put it in context. While I could understand why Melinda would go silent on public profiles as she helped a friend deal with this terrible situation, why hadn’t she returned anyone’s messages? Why didn’t she tell the diner she’d be out for a while?
That was it. That was the end of the search. That was the endpoint I’d been racing toward. There were no answers here, no sense of accomplishment. Melinda’s death would be as empty and meaningless as everyone else’s. I hadn’t saved her. I hadn’t saved Todd. I could barely save myself.
Anna buzzed and I absentmindedly opened the front door for her. A moment later she walked into my living room with the breakfast she’d promised.
“You ready to go?”
All I could do was turn the computer screen toward her and nod for her to read it. She raised an eyebrow and walked over. It took a couple seconds but finally she found what she was meant to be reading. A gasp came out, followed by her sitting over the couch, her hand over her mouth in shock. I rubbed my hands over my scalp, feeling the close-cropped hair I’d just had cut before the trip.