The Mac

Fiction
Judy Salz


Photo Credit: Brandon Swanson/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Photo Credit: Brandon Swanson/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Jessie regained consciousness slowly, one sense at a time. The water flowing over her right hand burned with the cold. Her nostrils stung from the acrid smell of scorched pine trees, and, when a weak cough escaped her lips, she tasted blood. At first she heard no sounds other than the rushing water, then the distant wails of sirens became evident. She opened her eyes and found herself prone at the edge of the river, her twisted right hand dangling in the rapid current. Now fully awake, she evaluated her condition. Looking back, she saw the scorched leather of her boots. She could wiggle her toes. Breathing didn’t hurt. Slowly, she rolled onto her back. To her left was the old oak tree she knew so well.

The large pool of blood congealing on the ground startled her. Exploring her face, her left hand discovered a gash in her right cheek, extending from her ear to the corner of her mouth. Her tongue found that the cut extended all the way through. Why doesn’t it hurt?

In her fifty some years of hiking, Jessie McIntyre Dupree, widow, physician and mother of the only practicing McIntyre Township doctor, had only once before encountered a forest fire. She was seventeen when the 1974 Mule Ridge fire ravaged the mountain. Her daddy, then current owner and great-great grandson of the founder of the McIntyre Lumber Company, had sent out a rescue party and found her sheltered in a cave, unhurt. She shuddered. This time it almost killed me. Jessie lifted her right arm from the river by cradling it with her neckerchief. She splinted it with a small branch, secured it with the scarf, then struggled to her feet.

The devastated landscape of the once verdant mountainside took her breath away. Gray wisps of smoke hung over the denuded landscape. Thick black smoke almost hid the sun, a ghostly pale disc suspended near the horizon. Jessie tried reconstructing the day, but could only remember parking the jeep at the trailhead in the morning. Post-concussion amnesia, she told herself. What happened? She searched for clues, but saw only the blood-stained soil and a drop of fresh blood by her right foot. Damn. Can’t put pressure on a through and through laceration. Her fractured wrist throbbed. Time to call for help. Her cell phone had no bars and no signal. I can make it home if I can get to my jeep. She reached for her backpack, but it was gone. No! Without the flashlight, hiking in the dark would be chancy. She craved the water and power bar she always packed for emergencies. Hope turned to despair with the realization that her wallet and keys were also in her backpack. She eased herself back down onto the river bank. Supine, with her feet elevated on a nearby rock, she might stay conscious longer. The blood from her cheek slid past her ear, pooling in her silver hair. Her watch said five-forty-five. It was nearly dark, and even curled up, Jessie shivered under her thin jacket in the October twilight. I should have told Leo I was coming up. If nobody comes looking for me I’ll be dead by morning. She closed her eyes.

*

Leo paced at his front door, running a hand through his thinning brown hair. His mother had promised to babysit Joey tonight. Uncharacteristically, she was already a half-hour late, and he knew something wasn’t right. He texted her, but got no response. He tried her landline and was switched to voice mail. He called the members of her bridge club, but none of them had spoken with her today. He thought about driving to her house to check on her. She was no spring chicken any more and refused to wear a medic alert pendant after his father died. His palms were sweaty and his heart pounded. Where the hell is she?

Joey, four years old, pulled on his father’s pant leg. “Where’s Grandma?”

“I’m not sure, honey. She should be here by now.”

“Maybe she got lost in the woods.”

Leo wheeled around to look down at his towheaded little boy. “What did you say?”

“Maybe she got lost in the woods. She told me she was going hiking today.”

He picked Joey up and ran into the kitchen. “Kate, did Mother tell you she was going to the mountain?”

“No. Why?”

“Joey just told me that Grandma went hiking today.”

Kate took her son into her ample arms. “When did she tell you?”

“Yesterday on the phone. She said she’d bring me pinecones when she came over tonight.”

The evening news had been reporting nonstop about the forest fire and how it still wasn’t under control. They were looking for hikers, but hadn’t found any. The search would continue tomorrow morning after daybreak.

“Oh, God.” Leo called Fred Ames, the fire chief of their small town and his best friend since childhood.

Fred’s gravelly voice answered on the first ring.

“It’s Leo. I think my mother is up there on the mountain somewhere. She’s overdue here and Joey just told us she went hiking today.”

“Damn. Jessie ought to know she’s too old to hike alone. I’ll notify search and rescue. We’ll find her.”

Leo was already loading his emergency medical equipment into his truck. “She may need my help, the stubborn old fool.”

“Meet me at the station. We’ll take the ambulance.”

*

Daddy held her right hand so tightly that it hurt. He pulled her along, racing to catch the bus. Snowflakes were coming down thick and fast and her hands and feet were freezing. The faster they ran, the further away the bus stop seemed to be. They wouldn’t make it. She started crying. Joey gave her bubble gum, but the bubble she made came out of a hole in her cheek and was streaked with blood. Jessie woke with a start. The sky was black, but there were no stars, and the pale moon hid behind the dense curtain of smoke. She felt her fast and thready pulse. I’m bleeding out. Her watch read seven-fifteen. It was quiet except for the crickets and the rushing water next to her. No one knows where I am. No one will come for me. She forced herself to stay awake, fearful that the next time she drifted off would be her last.

*

“Jessie!” Leo’s bullhorn broke the silence every few seconds. Fred wrestled the wheel, keeping the ambulance in a more or less straight line along the dirt road, avoiding the few hot spots smoldering here and there. The lingering haze diminished visibility to only a few yards ahead.

“Car says the temperature outside is forty five.” Leo rubbed his eyes. They stung from the smoke filtering in. “Mother, where the hell are you?”

“We’re almost to the rendezvous, Leo.” Fred shot a sideways glance at his friend. “It gets easier with more searchlights and more personnel. “If she’s out there, we’ll find her.”

“If? Where else would she be? My mother’s loved these mountains since she was old enough to walk! She knows every inch of the terrain. It would be almost impossible for her to get lost here. She must be injured or sick.” Or dead, he thought, but quickly squelched that idea. Two police vans appeared out of the gloom and the ambulance rumbled to a stop.

Fred was out of the ambulance before Leo could open his door. “What have we got?”

“Nothing yet, chief.” The deputy’s flashlight illuminated the creased and soiled map spread out on the hood of his van. Heavily gloved fingers stabbed at areas already searched. “We’ve been here and here and here, but no luck.”

Leo wasn’t trained to read terrain maps. The only thing he recognized was the river, snaking its way across the page. The river his parents visited every weekend. The river he fished in with Grandpa McIntyre. Mother loved that river. Hell, it was even named after her family—the McIntyre, but everyone called it the Mac.

“I know where she is.” The sound of his own voice startled him. “She’s down by the river. If she’s anywhere, she’s there.”

“The Mac flows for miles through the back country, Leo.” Fred’s hand swept across the map. “Does she have a favorite spot?”

*

Daddy’s chisel notched another line in the big old oak tree by the river. “That’s three trout you caught today, Jessie. Good job!” The tree trunk had become a chronicle of the McIntyre saga. The heart with Grandma and Grandpa’s initials, the date they married, the date her parents got married, the date she was born. A new date had been chiseled under her birthdate, one she’d never seen before. 10-10-14. Jessie jerked awake. No, no, no. I can’t die today. I need to watch Joey grow up. Tears poured down her cheeks and she tasted the saltiness that seeped through her open wound. She wondered again why her cheek didn’t hurt. Stupid old woman. Why did I come up here alone? Because this mountain and this river and this tree are part of my life and I can’t stay away just because my husband is gone. That’s why. The cold water running past her head was so close and her mouth was so dry, but she knew if she stood she’d pass out. Her left hand found a twig long enough to reach the river. She immersed it, brought it back to her mouth and licked the water off. It reminded her of pictures she’d seen of chimpanzees finding termites in trees. At least my sense of humor is intact.

*

“Stop! There’s Mother’s backpack!” Leo leaped from the ambulance to retrieve it.

“She probably dropped it.” Fred restarted the engine, and the ambulance, followed by the two police vans, continued toward the river.

“No. You don’t just drop a backpack. It has survival gear in it. Mother is a seasoned hiker, Fred. She’d never abandon it.” He rummaged through it, finding her car keys. “Damn.”

They continued along, calling her name with the bullhorn. As the searchlight pierced the darkness, something metallic glinted off to the side of the path.

Leo pointed. “Look!” They veered to the left, following it until they found the source.

“Don’t touch it.” Fred restrained Leo’s arm when he bent down to retrieve the bloody knife lying half hidden in the dirt. “It’s evidence.” The policemen took photos from every angle, then placed a plastic bag around it and lifted it off the ground.

Leo stared at the butcher knife. “You think that’s human blood?”

“Won’t know until we take it to the lab, so we need to treat it as if it were, until we can prove otherwise.”

One of the officers called for backup. “Possible crime scene here,” he reported. “Secured for now.” They drove on.

Leo’s hands shook when he retrieved his mother’s wallet from the backpack. As he’d feared, the credit cards and cash were gone. Bile backed up into his throat and, unable to speak, he handed it to Fred.

“Dear God,” Fred whispered.

*

Jessie knew her hold on consciousness was slipping away. The ringing in her ears drowned out even the sound of the river and her eyes were losing focus. Now I know how it feels to die. Her mind reviewed the bright and sad moments of her life. Wearing the green academic robe when she graduated from medical school. Her wedding day. Leo’s birth. Her parent’s deaths. Leo and Kate’s wedding. Joey’s birth. Her husband’s agonizingly slow battle with cancer, and the day she buried him. It was a good life, all things considered. She so wanted Joey to remember her, but, being only four years old, it was doubtful. A tear leaked from the corner of her eye. The quiet was suddenly shattered by the sound of her name. “Jessie! Jessie!” I’m coming, Daddy.

*

“There she is!” Leo jumped from the still-moving ambulance with his gear, hurtling over rocks and logs to get to her. She lay on her back, feet up on a rock with her eyes closed. “Mother!” he yelled. No response. “Jessie!” He shook her gently.

Fred knelt next to him holding his flashlight on her. Her skin was deathly pale, her breathing shallow and her pulse, when Leo finally found it, was barely perceptible.

He turned her weathered face toward him and saw the oozing gash on her cheek. “Oh, God. Keep breathing, Momma. I’m here now.”

The two policemen brought the gurney and helped Leo and Fred lifted her off the ground. Leo gasped when he saw the amount of blood pooled next to her.

“She’s in shock. Needs fluids. Start IV, give oxygen.” He babbled his orders out loud while his shaking hands tried frantically and inefficiently to do everything at once. Her veins were collapsed, so he inserted a needle under her skin and infused fluids that way. Unaware of anything other than his mother, he looked up only when the medevac helicopter whipped up the dust around them as it landed. Two paramedics sprinted toward them and Leo burst into tears. He had help, and equipment and rapid transportation. Most of all he had others to share the responsibility with him. Terrified of losing her, he knew his clinical judgment had vanished.

“Doc, let us get to her.” The first paramedic put a blood pressure cuff around Jessie’s arm, pumped it up and left it inflated. A vein bulged slightly in the inner crook of her left elbow and he inserted a needle, deflated the cuff and hooked her up to a bag of saline, running it in wide open. He moved the cuff to her other arm and repeated the procedure, working around the twig splint. The other paramedic hooked her up to the portable AED. Her rhythm was rapid, but regular. He administered oxygen and covered the gash on her cheek with a large gauze pad. Leo sat to the side on a rock watching all the activity, too emotionally spent to utter a sound or offer to help. Leo followed the gurney to the helicopter and was helped on board. When the helicopter rose into the air, he remembered that he hadn’t thanked Fred. Too late now. He’d thank him later.

*

The sound of sneakers thudding in the clothes dryer was louder than normal and Jessie wondered if Leo had put in too many pairs. She opened her eyes to ask him and three men immediately leaned over her. Frightened, she snapped her eyes shut again. Who are they? Where am I? She had a fleeting memory of a man with a knife and struggled to escape. Firm hands pressed her shoulders back down and a familiar voice said, “Easy, Mother. Relax. You’re safe now.”

Leo? She opened her eyes again. “Leo,” she whispered. “What happened?”

“Welcome back.” He squeezed her hand. ”Too much to tell you now. We’re in a helicopter on our way to the medical center. You’ve lost a lot of blood. Your blood pressure’s come up a bit with two bags of saline running wide open, but I’m sure you’ll need to be transfused. At least you’re more stable than you were when we found you.”

“Found me? Where was I?”

“At the Mac, near Grandpa’s tree.”

She opened her mouth to ask another question, but Leo kissed her on the forehead. “Rest and conserve your strength. We’ll talk more later.”

*

When Jessie awoke, the morning sun was glinting off the IV pole next to her bed. Familiar ICU equipment beeped and flashed. She’d actually managed to sneak in a few hours of sleep between the nurses’ vital signs checks and the lab tech’s blood draws. Her tongue found the sutures closing her inner cheek laceration, and her hand found the bandage outside. Blood dripped from IV tubing, and a clean white cast encased her right arm, from her knuckles to below her elbow. When did all that happen? So much of yesterday is gone.

Leo walked in to her room, his face all smiles. “Good morning, Mother!” He bent down to kiss her forehead. “Any pain?”

“Not as much as I expected. My wrist is sore, but my cheek isn’t. It hasn’t hurt since I woke up at the Mac.” She shrugged. “I thought it was odd then, and I still do.”

Leo winked. “Okay. Neuroanatomy 101. What gives feeling and movement to the cheek?”

“The seventh cranial nerve. The facial nerve.” Jessie’s eyebrows rose as she said it, then knitted together. “Of course! It was severed. One mystery solved. I must have fallen and cut it on a rock.”

“How much do you remember about yesterday?” He sat on the edge of her bed, his face suddenly serious.

“Not much. I remember parking the jeep and waking up on my belly with my hand in the river.”

“Nothing in between? Think hard. It’s important.”

“What are you trying to tell me?” Jessie’s hand trembled as it touched her bandaged cheek. “It wasn’t an accident?”

Leo answered the knock on his mother’s door. “Detective Mumford from the police department is here to interview you. I’m not allowed to stay for it.” He ushered in a middle-aged, portly man. “Mother, Detective Mumford. Detective Mumford, my mother.” She nodded to him and he nodded back. Leo headed for the door. “See you later,” he said over his shoulder.

The detective settled himself into a visitor’s chair and opened his laptop. “Dr. Dupree, I’m sorry you were injured and glad you were rescued in time to save your life. This interview will be recorded, with your permission.”

“Okay and thanks. Call me Jessie.”

“Jessie it is. I’m Frank. Jessie, did you have your backpack with you yesterday morning?”

“Of course!” she snapped. “You don’t hike without water and supplies.”

“Was it with you when you woke up?”

“No.” She rubbed her brow, remembering her surprise when she couldn’t find it. “No, and I thought it odd. You don’t just misplace your gear.”

Frank’s direct gaze locked on her. “I know after head trauma, a victim often has memory gaps surrounding the event.”

Her eyes widened. “Victim? Event?” She couldn’t get out more than a whisper.

“Dr. Dupree. Jessie. Sorry.” He cleared his throat. “Your backpack was found about a half-mile from you. Do you remember dropping it?”

Jessie closed her eyes. A rough hand grabbed her from behind. She kicked and screamed. Her body jerked.

“Jessie? What are you remembering?”

Her eyes opened. “A man. Strong. Rough hands.”

“Good. It’s coming back to you.” His tone was calm and reassuring. “What else?”

“Can you describe him?”

“He was behind me. I heard his voice.”

“What did he say?”

“He yelled ‘Bitch!’ when I kicked his leg.”

“Then what happened?”

She closed her eyes again, trying to conjure up more, but nothing came. “Sorry, I’m drawing a blank.”

“It’s okay.” Frank reached out to pat her, caught himself, and returned his hand to his lap. “What he was wearing? Did you see his face?”

“An Australian-style bush hat. He had stringy long grey hair.” Jessie shook her head. “I didn’t see his face.”

“Anything else?” Frank settled back in his chair, like he had all the time in the world.

The monitor behind Jessie’s head chimed and she twisted around to scan the display. Her blood pressure was up, and a nurse appeared at her bedside, thumbing off the alarm.

“Sorry, sir. Can you step outside for a moment?”

When he was gone she leaned over to straighten Jessie’s pillow. “Have you had enough for today? I can ask him to leave, if you like.”

“Thanks. Would you ask him to come back later?”

After lunch, she settled down for a nap. Her breath came in shallow gasps. The thick black smoke stung her lungs, and the uphill terrain didn’t help make running any easier. She slowed to a walk when the flaming trees felt like a safe distance behind. Her backpack hung heavily on her shoulders, laden with the bottles of water she’d brought. She sat down on a rock and eased it off. Fishing a bottle out, she drained it in one long swig. The river was still a good half-hour away. She glanced at her watch. One-forty.

Jessie opened her eyes, rolled over, pulled the blanket up around her, and fell back asleep.

The fire had erupted suddenly and spread quickly, blocking her way back to the trailhead and her jeep. The Mac, she knew, led to safety. Rested, for the moment, she resumed her run for the river at a slower pace. Cleaner air made breathing easier, and she loped along for another fifteen or twenty minutes, concentrating on the ground ahead, to avoid stumbling. The arm suddenly thrust around her neck from behind had a big beefy hand holding a knife to her cheek. Her boot sought and found a shin, and she kicked hard. ‘Bitch!’ Her right hand closed over his, pulling the knife from her face, but he twisted his hand and hers. She heard the snap of bone accompanying the sharp pain in her wrist. The pain of the blade piercing her cheek was also sharp, but only momentary. She figured it was only a superficial scratch until the blood began dripping down her chin. The weight of her backpack suddenly lifted from her shoulders, and she turned to see the back of a tall brawny man wearing a tan Australian bush hat running with it at a pace she knew she couldn’t match. He had a slight limp, like a knee was stiff.

“Sorry to wake you.” A different nurse was at her bedside checking her vitals, so Jessie knew she’d slept through the shift change. It was three o’clock. “Your son called. He’s bringing his wife and your grandson to visit after his office hours are over. I thought I’d get you up a little early so you’d have time to pretty yourself up a bit.” She finished her chores and left.

Jessie sat up and pulled the bedside table to her. She knew the lid of the little drawer had a mirror inside. The face of an old woman looked back at her, and she automatically made a clinical assessment. Elderly woman. Hair—silver-gray, short, unkempt, bloodstained. Skin—weathered, lined, thickened. Large bandage covering right cheek. Swelling and mottling of skin over right side of face. Right eyelid swollen and discolored. Lips swollen. This old woman can’t be me. Jessie slammed the mirrored lid shut as tears began to flow. Joey can’t see me this way! Her left thumb found the nurse’s call button and she pressed it hard. “Tell them not to come.”

*

“When can I see Grandma?” Joey’s lower lip jutted out in a pout. His soup spoon made circles in his bowl, but didn’t gather any broth.

Kate sat with him at the kitchen table, not eating much either. “Soon. Daddy will tell us when she can have company.”

“We’re not company! She’s Grandma!”

“You’re wise beyond your years, little man.” Kate ruffled his hair. “We can visit when she’s ready or you’ll see her when she comes home. Your grandma had a hard day yesterday and she needs to feel better before you see her.”

“Can I at least talk to her on the phone now?”

“We’ll call her when Daddy comes home, okay?”

His chin sunk down to his chest. “Okay.” He climbed on to his mother’s lap. Arms around her neck, he clung to her silently for a moment. “Did I really save her life?”

“Yes, you did.” She kissed the top of his head. “If you hadn’t told us she went hiking we wouldn’t have known where to look for her. Daddy told you. Remember?”

*

Leo had suggested that his mother stay with him for a week or so after her discharge, and she’d gratefully accepted. Cooking for one was too much bother and eating alone was worse. At her insistence, Joey had been told in advance about her appearance, but Jessie realized it didn’t matter when he scrambled on to her lap and covered her with kisses. He made her promise never to get lost in the woods again. She promised, and they shook on it.

After dinner and Joey’s bedtime, Kate, Leo and Jessie lingered at the dining room table. “Detective Mumford called me today.” Leo took a sip of coffee. “What you told him plus the fingerprints found on the knife and your backpack should make finding him easy.”

“Easy if he hasn’t already left town. He could be anywhere by now.” Jessie sighed. “Was I a random victim, or did he bear a grudge against me?”

“Mother, no one we know would ever want you harmed. You’re highly respected around here.”

“Not by everyone, Leo.” He opened his mouth to object, but she raised a hand to silence him. “I’ve been wracking my brain trying to think who could want to do this to me. I came up with one.”

Kate refilled Jessie’s cup. “Who on earth?”

“A couple of years before I retired from practice I had a sweet lady come in with a breast mass. She had forgotten to get her mammogram the year before, although I had scheduled it for her.”

“So it wasn’t your fault, Mother.”

Jessie again put up her hand and continued. “It was highly malignant and she died less than a year later with widespread metastases. Her husband accused me of missing the diagnosis because I hadn’t reminded her to keep her mammogram appointment. He threatened to sue, but his lawyer told him he didn’t have a case because I had scheduled her exam. Her husband appeared in my office shortly after her death, leaned over my desk and delivered a tirade, telling me that he would never forgive me, I was negligent, uncaring, and on and on. I remember listening without comment knowing that, in his frame of mind, he wouldn’t have paid attention to anything I had to say anyway. When he finished, he turned on his heel and walked out my door. He had the same limp I saw last week.”

“Do you remember his name?”

“I’ll never forget it. Willis. Charles Willis.”

*

Jessie sat at her kitchen table drinking tea and watching two robins squabble over a branch in her back yard oak tree. Her finger traced the healing scar on her cheek. The surgeon had done a neat job putting her back together and she knew the purple would fade with time. What wouldn’t fade was the nagging fear that her attacker wasn’t through yet. Ever since returning home last month, over Leo’s objection, she remained on guard for any unexpected sound. Leo had seen to it that she wore a medical alert pendant before living alone again and, although she wouldn’t admit it to him, it gave her some reassurance. Growing older had not been an issue for her until her encounter with her reflection in the hospital’s mirror. There was no more denying reality. Her cell phone’s ring interrupted her gloomy trend of thought. She reached for it with her right hand, now free of the cast.

“Hello?”

“Dr. Dupree. Jessie. This is Frank Mumford. I have some news you.”

Jessie didn’t care if he heard her sharp intake of breath. “Good news?”

“For you, yes. For Mr. Willis, no. His remains have been discovered in the Mac this afternoon, along with his Australian hat.”

She could hardly hear over the blood pounding in her ears. “Are you sure it’s him?”

“His DNA matches the blood we found on the knife. Apparently, he was nicked during your struggle. His body also has the scars of knee surgery on his left leg. Your recollection of his limp clinches it.”

“Cause of death?”

“We’ll know for sure after the autopsy, but it looks like suicide. He had a weight tied to his ankle. Best we can figure, he rowed to the middle of the river and jumped overboard. A dinghy found smashed along the rocks downstream is being hauled out for investigation.”

*

It was mid-December weather on the mountain and Joey giggled when he saw his breath. He cupped his mittened hands to his mouth, trying to catch it. Leo walked ahead, carrying him, and Jessie and Kate walked behind. Jessie had mixed emotions this first hike after her attack. Memories of joyous days spent here during her childhood and with her husband, and Leo as a little boy softened the flashbacks of the attack and waking wounded by the riverbank. The Mac’s swift current burbled over the rocks.

“Here’s our tree!” Jessie reached out to touch the bark.

Leo pointed to a crudely carved message under a cross. “C.W. 10-10-14 An Eye for an Eye.”

“His suicide note,” Jessie whispered. “He thought he killed me.”

Leo took his penknife from a back pocket.

“Don’t destroy it, Leo. It’s part of our family history now.”

With great care, he added a new message.

12-17-14 JESSIE LIVES.

pencilJudy Salz, a semi-retired physician, draws on her years of medical practice, patient encounters and life experiences for inspiration. Her short story “Mikey,” published in The Literary Nest, won the fiction contest. “Reunion” and “First” were published in Flash Fiction Magazine. “Disembodied” appears in A Story in 100 Words. “What Does Old Feel Like?” appears in MUSED BellaOnline Literary Review. “Diaspora,” will appear in Poetica magazine. “Passing Birds” will appear in Helen Literary Magazine. A native New Yorker, Judy now lives in Las Vegas enjoying the sunshine and lack of slush; the only thing missing is the beach. Website: judysalz.com. Email: drjls[at]cox.net

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