The Uncle Who Wasn't
he sound of footsteps woke Jacob in his hospital bed. He was annoyed that the nurses kept waking him up. All he wanted to do was sleep, but as it turned out hospitals were not a good place to rest.
Without opening his eyes, he said, "I'm not hungry and I don’t need another pain pill."
A gruff voice answered him from the side of the bed. "That's good because I don't have either of those things."
Jacob's lids flipped open. A stranger sat in the uncomfortable looking chair next to his hospital bed, the pads of his fingers pressed together under his chin.
"Who are you?" Jacob asked.
"I'm your uncle John. John Laudner," the man said. He leaned forward and extended a calloused palm.
Jacob did not take the man's hand. "You've made a mistake. I don't have an uncle and my last name isn't Laudner. It's Lau."
The man pursed his lips, his green eyes shifting to the hospital floor. He sat back in his chair, opening his mouth as if to say something and then closing it again. At last he lowered his hands, linking them at his waist. "There's no easy way to tell you this, Jacob. I am your uncle. I am the brother of Charles Lau, formerly known as Charlie Laudner. Your father changed his name before you were born."
Jacob licked his parched lips and reached for the cup of water the nurse had left him. He sucked greedily on the straw before speaking. "I've never even heard of you."
"It's a long story. You lived far away. After your father died, well, it never seemed like the right time to introduce myself."
"So why are you here now?"
"Jacob, do you remember anything about the accident?"
Jacob closed his eyes. The truth was his brain did have an explanation for what had happened, but it was ludicrous. The memory was so far-fetched he could only believe his imagination had stitched it together to fill in the gaps. "No. I told the doctors, the last thing I remember was fighting with my mom that morning in our apartment. I don't even remember getting into the car with her."
"She's missing, Jacob."
"Missing?" he said, sitting up in bed despite the pain. "But she must've been in the car with me. How could they have rescued me and not her?"
"You were inside the car when they found it. She wasn't. "
"But that doesn't make any sense."
"Your blood was on the inside of the car, Jacob. Hers was on the outside."
She'd had a gun. She'd been standing next to the door. He shook his head, ignoring the thought. It was a false memory, brought on by emotional and physical trauma. What had the doctor called it? Auditory and visual hallucinations: the brain's way of making sense of the damage it incurred when his skull collided with the windshield.
"How is that possible?"
"They think, maybe, you were driving."
"I don't have a driver's license."
John stood up and approached the bed. He unsnapped the arm of the hospital gown Jacob was wearing, pulling it down slightly. Then, he tipped up the hideaway mirror on the overbed table. The bruise that arced across Jacob's chest looked like the top half of a large circle…or a steering wheel. He traced the edge with his finger, a rainbow of purple hued skin. A chill ran up his spine.
"Did I hit her?"
John returned the thin fabric to its place. "The police don't think so, Jacob. Her blood was on the passenger side door, not the hood of the car. You were found in a heavily wooded area of Manoa Falls. It's only a few miles from your apartment. They think, after the accident, your mom got out of the car to get help."
You'd followed her there. You'd had a fight and you wanted to apologize.
"I don't remember," Jacob said, but a more truthful answer would have been that the memory he had couldn't be real. It was nonsense.
"It's normal that you don't. The doc says people often block out extreme circumstances. It's your brain's way of protecting you from reliving the trauma."
"And then what? Where did she go?"
John's face contorted. His voice strained with emotion when he answered. "There have been abductions in the area. Nine women went missing in the last year, six were found dead. Murdered. There were signs of a struggle where they found you."
Jacob's blood froze in his veins. "Are you saying, my mom might have been abducted, or worse, killed?"
"They don't know for sure. I'm sorry, Jacob."
A tear slid down his cheek and he wiped it away with his bare hand. It had been a long time since he'd allowed himself to cry and he wasn't about to start now. He'd survived by following two very important rules: don't feel anything and don't expect anything from anyone. To distract himself, he concentrated on the specifics of what happened. Why in the world would he have driven his mother's car?
The creature was coming for you. Your mom tried to fight it. He ignored the rogue thought. "What did I hit anyway?"
John repositioned himself in his chair and folded his arms across his chest. "Nobody knows, Jacob. The front of the car is damaged like you hit a tree or something, but they found the Toyota in the middle of the road. There wasn't anything in front of the car. They were hoping you could remember because no one has any idea what could've happened. They thought maybe the damage occurred earlier and then you drove to the scene…but the car isn't operational and your wounds were fresh when they found you. "
"What happens now? Are they going to search for her?"
"Yes. There's already a group combing through Manoa Falls."
"I want to help." Only the irritating tug of Jacob's IV kept him from bounding out of bed.
"There's nothing you can do, Jacob. The doctor says you'll be in here for another week and then…"
"And then what?"
"The social worker says you need to come home with me."
"With you? I don't even know you."
"I am your nearest kin."
"Where do you even live?"
"No, a different Paris. Paris, Illinois. You have an Aunt Carolyn and a cousin, Katrina. They're waiting for us at home."
Home. The word annoyed Jacob. When he heard the word home, he thought of his apartment and the house he'd lived in before his dad died. He thought of how the smell of his favorite adobo chicken would fill the kitchen when his mom made it. He saw the faces of his mother and his father, bound to one another in some almost magical way. Home meant a sanctuary, as common and taken for granted as the sun rising in the morning. Wherever John was taking Jacob, it sure as hell wasn't home.
A wave of exhaustion overcame him. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Do I have a choice about this?" he croaked.
There was a long stretch of silence. "No," the man said. The word was a guillotine.
It's for the best. You're not safe here.
Jacob closed his eyes. If he squeezed them shut tight enough, maybe his supposed uncle and the rest of the world would go away. A numb calm crept over him as he gave himself over to the future, unable to fight what would be, unable to care anymore. It crossed his mind that another person might pray in a situation like this, but Jacob didn't. Who would he pray to? If there was one thing his fifteen years of life had taught him, it was that there was nothing above him but sky. To believe in God would mean believing that He had allowed the tragedy that was Jacob's life in the first place. He didn't want to know a God who made a war then killed off people's fathers in it. No, Jacob was sure he was alone in this. Alone with an uncle he'd never even met.