“IT’S NOT f**king them!” I punch the dashboard and scream at my partner, Brett, as he weaves through traffic.
Just moments ago, we received a page that will destroy one of us forever. It said a bunch of words, but the only four I can remember are “one fatality, one injury.” I reject the very possibility that this has anything to do with my Manda, but the vise currently holding my heart still twists even tighter. I drop my head to my hands as I wage war with reality. If that message is accurate, I have a fifty-fifty chance that my life is over. Done. Finished. I’ll never survive losing Manda. Never.
It can’t be her. We haven’t even gotten married yet. We are supposed to get married and have a life together. We have a plan. A knife lands hard in my stomach as I try to reason my way out of this mess. It can’t be her. Manda is strong and healthy. No accident in the world could steal her from me. Yeah, she’s tough. She’s got to be the one who’s injured. Something simple, maybe a broken arm. We can fix that. I just need her to be alive—anything else, we can deal with together.
The car barely slows before I’m out and sprinting toward the twisted metal on the side of the highway. Every hope I have of this being a big misunderstanding vanishes into the night when I recognize Sarah’s car. Reality slices me open, but the promise of only an injury keeps my legs moving forward.
“Detective Jones!” I hear shouted, but I continue to run. I slow only when I get to a group of officers.
“Where is she?” I demand, but deep down, I’m terrified to hear the answer.
“Caleb, take a second and catch your breath.”
“Where the f**k is she!” My eyes scan the faces lining the road, desperately searching for Manda’s fiery red hair and green eyes.
But instead, they land on a white sheet covering what I know is a body. My heart begins to race as I once again try to fight all rational thinking that tells me that it’s her.
“That’s not her,” I say, desperately trying to catch my breath, but the panic that has lodged itself in my system prevents it. “Oh God, someone please tell me that’s not her.” Tears well in my eyes as I glance up to see my good friends, Stephens and Perez, step up beside me. From the look on Stephens’s face, I know I don’t want to hear whatever he has to say.
“She didn’t make it, Jones.” With one sentence, the little breath I have left is stolen. My legs buckle, forcing me helplessly to my knees.
“No.” I refuse to accept that my Manda no longer exists.
The earth starts to tremble as my world begins to crumble around me. It only takes a minute to realize that my body is violently shaking as the physical pain of reality courses through my veins. This is not happening.
“That’s not her,” I begin to repeat.
She can’t be gone. My eyes never leave the body that used to house my soul mate. This isn’t real, and any minute I’m going to wake from this horrible nightmare. I’ll roll over in bed and pull Manda hard against my chest. I close my eyes, willing myself to wake up, but it never comes.
I rise to my feet and take a step towards her. “Manda!” I yell. I need to see her. To touch her. It’s f**king cold tonight and she’s just lying there under a sheet. Oh, f**k. That’s not her.
Perez grabs my arm, effectively halting me. “Don’t do this to yourself. You don’t need to see her like that.”
“Get your f**king hands off me. If that’s Manda, I need to see her.”
“Not now you don’t. Let them get her to the hospital and clean her up a bit.”
The pain in my chest is quickly being replaced with anger.
“Get off me, Perez,” I say calmly while leveling him with a menacing glare.
“Not happening. I won’t let you do this to yourself.” He pulls me back a step, and that is all it takes for me to lose it. My rage needs somewhere to go, and it just so happens that it chooses Perez’s face. My hands fly, landing directly on his jaw.
“I need to see her!” I scream, landing punch after punch. Stephens jumps in, tackling me from behind. He uses his weight to pin me to the ground.
“Goddamn it, Jones. Stop fighting. We’re trying to help you.”
“She’s not f**king gone!”
“She is, and you don’t need to see her.”
An image of her laughing at dinner flashes behind my eyes as once again reality takes hold. This is not happening. The temporary shield of anger fades away as devastation settles in. As I’m lying facedown on the side of a highway, gut-wrenching sobs spring from my chest.
“Oh, God. Please, not Manda.”
“PERFECT. OH that’s great. A little to the left. Little more. Tiny bit more. Yes, yes! Now hold it!” I yell at the dumbass blonde I’m photographing.
I know I probably shouldn’t think like that about my clients. After all, they are paying me. But this woman really is frustrating. She is paying me to take pictures of her stupid historic house for a dumb, ridiculously popular home magazine. I have no idea why she needs to be in every shot. They are just going to crop her out to focus on the house, but regardless how many times I tell her that, she still squeezes into every shot. I just took a picture of her ugly King Charles spaniel sitting in a rocking chair on her front porch. Fuck my life.
My phone rings with a Chicago area code. I don’t recognize the number, and my heart begins to race at the very idea of what this phone call could be about. Just another update from Brett? Or maybe it’s the call I’ve been dreading since the night that changed everything.
My sister, Sarah, was involved in a car accident five years ago. It completely f**ked her up, and then it f**ked me up. About six weeks after Sarah’s accident, our father died. He wasn’t exactly young, but that didn’t make his stroke any less unexpected. It was the worst day of my life. When it came time for his funeral, on a day when I needed her more than ever, Sarah wasn’t there. I would have been a heartless bitch if I’d said that I didn’t understand her reasons. She had just lost her best friend and was suffering from a pretty serious head injury herself. But I can’t say that it didn’t hurt like hell when she told me that she couldn’t make Daddy’s funeral.
A few weeks after the wreck, Sarah tried to kill herself. I’ve never been able to wrap my mind around why she would cross that line, even with as many times as I have tried to put myself in her shoes. When I got the phone call about her first suicide attempt, I was pissed. I knew she had been dealing with guilt, but she and I were always close. And after the accident, I really tried to be there for her. If she had emotional stuff going on, she could have reached out to me. Hell, she should have reached out to me. One phone call—that’s all it would have taken. I would have been on a plane the same night. I could have helped. But she never once picked up the phone. It was bad enough that she'd moved almost a thousand miles away, but she could have f**king called.