Chapter One: Dean
Recovery Journal: Day
I’ve been in this
hospital bed about a week now.
Or at least, I think
it’s been a week. Hard to say with how much pain meds they’ve been giving me.
The shrink who keeps
visiting, the one they send in to help me handle my transition or whatever,
says this journaling thing will help me heal.
Like that’s even
possible. Like the guy has a single clue about what I’ve been going through.
Does he know that
every single letter I scribble down in this so-called recovery journal is a
It looks like damn
chicken scratch. No, it was worse actually. Chicken scratch is what my mom used
to call my handwriting.
Before all of this.
“Dean, I better not
see that horrible chicken scratch again, or I’ll bust your hide.”
She’d probably give
anything to go back in time to those simple moments when horrible penmanship
was at the forefront of our problems.
I know I would.
I didn’t just lose an
arm or a hand, my five working fingers, in that accident.
It was part of me.
It was freedom and
And it was mine.
But, now, it’s all
So, here I am,
learning how to write again like a damn kindergartner, while nurses and doctors
tell me everything is going to be fine.
“Just keep writing,”
the shrink says.
Well, fuck that.
Fuck this whole thing.
“Are you ready?”
The question startled me a bit as I stared out onto the
water I’d once loved so much. It had been the place I’d go to when I was angry
with my overbearing mother or pissed at my annoying little brother. The waves would
calm my nerves and soothe my soul…
Or at least, they used to.
But now, when I looked out at that deep blue water, churning
and moving about with uncertainty—knowing it’d been there with me that night, right
alongside me, offering no hope, no sense of peace in those moments before the
world went black—I felt nothing.
I swallowed deeply, looking up at my oldest friend, Jake. “Yeah,
With a solid pat on my back, he stepped up onto the
makeshift podium, and I followed. The whole town, as well as the tourists who
happened to be nearby, had turned up for today’s ceremony.
It was a massive crowd before us.
With one last loving glance in his fiancée’s direction, Jake
took to the microphone and addressed the audience before him, “Good morning.
Most of you know me, but for those of you who don’t, my name is Jake Jameson,
and I’m the resident doctor here on Ocracoke Island. But, on the day of the
ferryboat explosion, I was just a passenger, like everyone else. Just trying to
get from one side to the other.
“For some of us, this one-hour trip from one shore to the
other is a part of life. For others, it’s a fleeting experience, a day spent
with family or friends during vacation, but nothing more. However, for the
sixty-two passengers who boarded the last ferry on that fateful spring night
three years ago, the memories of that day will live with us. Forever.”
I took a deep breath, Jake’s words soaking up the air around
me, seeping into my skin like a dark, penetrating fog.
Like most survivors of a life-altering event, most days, I
tried not to think about it. When I looked down at my mangled arm, currently
masked by the prosthesis I wore in public, I tried not to remember the way the
smoke had clung to the air—so thick, I could barely breathe—or how, to this
day, I could still hear the high-pitched sobs of a mother holding her young
child next to me, unsure if he was dead or alive.
Like I said, I tried.
But, like most survivors, it was an uphill battle, and most
of the time, I felt like I was being dragged backward.
Back into the past.
Back to the night with its fire and ash. Its chaos and—
“Pardon?” I answered, blinking several times before coming
back to the present. My eyes focused, and I came face-to-face with Jake
crouched in front of me, the crowd silently watching us.
“You okay?” he asked, his gaze scanning me for signs of
No matter how hard he tried, Jake could never stop being a
doctor. Part of me couldn’t wait to see him with a child of his own. He’d be a
“Yeah,” I replied, wondering how long he’d been trying to
get my attention. “Yeah,” I repeated. “I’m good. I can do this.”
Jake didn’t look completely convinced, but he rose, stepping
aside to allow me room to step up to the podium. It was a short walk, maybe
three or four strides at most.
But it felt like so much more.
Time seemed to slow as I concentrated on what I was about to
do. When the town officials had come to me and asked if I would be willing to
unveil the memorial they’d commissioned for the ferryboat victims, I should
have felt honored.
Instead, I’d felt nothing but dread.
What could I say? How could I look into the eyes of the
families who’d lost people that night and tell them this statue was somehow
going to make it better? It wasn’t going to bring them back, no matter how
breathtaking it was. It wasn’t going to take away the pain, no matter how long
it stood here. It wasn’t going to make the frustration of a three-year-old cold
case the officials now deemed a fluke accident suddenly vanish, because, now,
there was a place they could go to mourn.
This changed nothing.
When we all left this place, the only thing that would be
different was the pier. And perhaps a clearer conscience for the powers that be
because they had been unable to do their job at the end of the day. My eyes
darted to where Macon Green—our resident cop, a native of the town—stood, and I
wondered if this did just that.
Eased his conscience.
His eyes met mine and darted quickly away.
I took the last step, a thousand words swimming around in my
head but none of them good. I took one last breath and squeezed my eyes shut as
I asked God for some sort of miracle. When they opened, I found a piece of
paper waiting for me on the podium. But not just any piece of paper. A speech.
I turned to Jake, and he gave me a brief nod.
He’d known I’d struggle, so he’d taken care of me, just as
he’d taken care of me out there, in the water, on that night, saving my life
when a piece of debris had severed my arm clean, causing me to nearly bleed out
right there, in the middle of the ocean.
I cleared my throat and began to read the words he’d
prepared, “The artist, Aiden Fisher, who was commissioned to create this
memorial was selected from an incredible list of talent. After interviewing
him, many of the families involved in this endeavor said he had a certain
quality that made you feel as if he were walking this journey with you rather
than behind you. His understanding of grief and remembrance goes far beyond his
years, and I am so honored to share his monument, memorializing the thirteen
locals and tourists lost to the sea. We will never forget. Their memories will
live on forever.”
There was no applause, but I hadn’t expected any. This was
not the occasion for such. The crowd stood silent as I walked toward the
covered statue, waiting for my signal to remove its covering. Several local
newspaper and television crews took their places, wanting to get the perfect
angle for the unveiling.
And, of course, they all wanted an interview with the
amputee survivor afterward where they’d all expect me to rehash my harrowing
tale of survival.
Yeah, that wasn’t going to happen.
I was given a thumbs-up by a county official, my go-ahead to
step forward. With my good arm, I pulled the drape off. Not too quick and not
too slow. When the statue was uncovered, even my breath was taken away a
Two people, hand in hand, faced the waterfront, as if
waiting for something.
The artist had left their faces and features neutral,
leaving your imagination to fill in the blanks. It could be a husband and wife,
a mother and daughter, or two friends.
But what lingered in my mind far after the ceremony was the
subtle way their bodies leaned forward.
It was all there.
I hadn’t expected a stupid statue to affect me as much as it
did, but I found myself lurking about long after most had gone home. I stood
next to the statue, staring out onto the water as the faceless figures did,
wondering what they were waiting for.
A family member? A second chance?
It was something I’d been grappling with for nearly three
What did I do now? Now that life had moved on, seemingly
without me, who was I?
After all this time, I still didn’t know the answer.
Maybe like this bronze statue forever cemented into the
ground, I never would.
“It was a lovely ceremony, wasn’t it?” my mother said as I
stared out at the subtle waves lapping in the bay outside her kitchen window.
“Sorry. What?” I replied, turning my head in her direction.
She was fluttering around the kitchen, cooking a dinner big
enough for an army even though it was just the two of us. Taylor, my younger
brother, had once again gotten out of Sunday dinner, stating he had important
business to attend to. A twinge of guilt gnawed at my gut.
“The dedication, it was lovely. Very well done.”
I nodded my head, the haunting memory of it all still
clinging to me like a second skin.
“It was nice,” I agreed, swallowing deeply, trying to avoid
my mother’s sharp gaze.
“But?” she said, leaving the stove to plop down beside me at
the small table where, every morning of my childhood, my brother and I had
gathered around, fighting over cereal and action figures.
“There is no but,”
I insisted. “The county and town did a good job. It is a fine tribute to the
families and loved ones.”
“You know better than to lie to your mama, young man. You might
have grown up and no longer live under this roof, but I can still tell when you’re
“Okay,” I replied, holding up my hands in surrender.
And that was when it happened. She didn’t mean to. No one
did, but it never failed. The involuntary eye jerk whenever attention was
brought to my right side.
The startling fact that it did not match the left.
Even though my family had been living with it for three
years now and had grown used to the loss of my dominant arm, nearly all the way
up to my shoulder, it still didn’t keep the mind from noticing it each and
every time I moved. None of them meant anything by it; I knew that. But,
whenever it happened, I could see a quick moment of grief sweep across their
features where it was almost like they were reliving those horrific events all
in the span of a few seconds.
And then, like a flip of a coin, they’d come back, just as
my mother was doing now, and it would be like nothing had happened. There was a
time when I would have brought it up and told her I was fine and that there was
nothing to fear anymore.
But, after a while, I’d learned to let it go.
Because she never would.
Just as the random stranger passing by couldn’t help but
look at my prosthetic hand, noticing the way the color and texture didn’t quite
match the other, my mother couldn’t look at me and not think about what could
What she’d almost lost.
“You and Jake did a fine job today. Made everyone proud.”
I gave her a warm smile. “Thank you, Mama,” I said, choosing
to leave out the part where Jake had basically spoon-fed me my part in the
“I imagine Jake and Molly will be getting married soon?” she
asked, clearly changing the subject. She knew exactly when the happy couple was
“In a month or so, Mama. Remember the invitation you got? It’s
right there, on the fridge.”
I knew she was playing some sort of game with me, acting dumb
just to keep me talking. But I allowed it. She was old, and I’d caused her, a
single parent, enough strife over the thirty-six years I’d been on this earth.
“And you’ll be attending?” she asked.
“Of course. I’m the best man. And, before you ask another
ridiculous question, no, I’m not upset over this. Hell, I think I deserve a
gift, considering the amount of pushing and prodding I did to get those two
“Watch your mouth, Dean. You might have skipped church this
morning, but it’s still a Sunday.”
“Hell isn’t a bad
word. It’s in the Bible,” I replied, grinning back at her. It was an argument I’d
been using to push her buttons since I was a kid.
She made an unpleasant face, shaking her head as she rose to
go back to her pork chops. “Why I didn’t make you move back in here, I just don’t
know,” she grumbled.
If she’d had her way, I would have. After my accident, she
had all but begged me to move back in, her nerves completely shot after
everything I went through to make it back home. Because of the remote location
of Ocracoke, my rehabilitation had meant I had to stay a couple of hours up the
coast for months. Once I’d finally returned home, the thought of me being even
a mile away was almost too much.
But I couldn’t do it.
I’d lost so much already. Anyone who’d ever spent any time
in a hospital knew how little dignity it left you with, and moving in with my
mother at the age of thirty-three? It would have been the final nail in the
“A fall wedding in Ocracoke,” my mom said, still carrying on
about Jake and Molly. “Weren’t you planning on the same?”
“Molly and I never really planned on anything wedding-related.
I think we were too scared to even take the first step.”
“Well, if that wasn’t a giant warning sign, I don’t know
what is.” She snorted.
“You didn’t seem all that upset by the idea,” I replied,
remembering how she’d cried tears of joy when I announced I was going to marry
A marriage of convenience really.
Jake had left over a decade earlier to follow his dreams of
becoming a world-class doctor, leaving Molly and me behind. After years of
loneliness, we both began to confuse our friendship for something more. It took
my accident and Jake’s return to set us all straight. I’d honestly never been
happier for two people in my life.
“Well, what mama wouldn’t want her in the family?” she
asked. “And, besides, I’ve been waiting my whole life for grandbabies. At this
point, who am I to argue as long as I get some?”
“Well, maybe Jake and Molly will let you snuggle theirs when
they get around to it.”
“They’d better. Those two have been just as much family as
anyone else to us. And, after everything Jake did for you…” Her voice trailed
off as the emotions took hold.
“I know, Mama. You tell him thank you every time you see him.”
I laughed, an attempt to break the tension.
“He saved my son!”
“He saved several other people on that ferry, too, but I doubt
they’ve sent him a gift basket every week for the last three years.”
She shook her head, adding some sliced apples to the pan. “Well,
they should have, and it’s not every week. At least, not anymore,” she said
with a sly grin.
I knew not to argue. My mama was as Southern as you could
get, right down to the famous cheese grits and buttered biscuits she made for
breakfast. The Sutherland family could be traced all the way back to one of the
founding families of Ocracoke Island. It was why, when Mama spoke, you could
still hear that distinctive brogue that was so unique to this place; tourists
would travel from all over the world just to hear it.
Watching my sixty-five-year-old mother bob around the
kitchen, dancing to a song she’d most likely heard that morning in church, I
couldn’t help but feel a sadness sweep over me.
Everyone had their place here. Jake and Molly had each
other. My mom had her group of friends from church. Taylor had the family
I used to know what that felt like. A sense of belonging.
But, now, I felt like driftwood lost to the sea. Just
coasting from one day to the next until I faded into oblivion.
After saying my good-byes to my mom, I drove the short
distance home, thankful for the few minutes of quiet it offered. The island was
busy this time of year, the population soaring as high as the temperatures. But,
when the sun set, it remained fairly peaceful. The restaurants along the harbor
were still alive with activity, but thankfully, it didn’t spread too far.
Pulling into my small driveway, I killed the engine and headed
for the front door.
Stepping into my two-bedroom cottage, I wanted nothing else
but to walk into my bedroom, collapse on my bed, and fall asleep. It had been a
long day, and my prosthesis was aching something fierce. Even after nearly
three years, I hadn’t fully grown accustomed to it yet. It made me sweat, that
stupid, thick neoprene sleeve gripping what was left of my arm like a damn vise.
And the weight…
God, it was heavy.
But it eased people’s minds and brought the staring down to
a minimum. So, when I was out in public, I wore it, and I tried to blend in. I
tried to disappear.
The people of the town had gone out of their way to make
sure I got one in the first place, throwing several fundraisers for the victims
of the ferryboat tragedy. I’d tried to turn down their generosity, but when the
town put their minds to something, there was no backing down.
Honestly, I wasn’t sure our family would have survived
At least, not at first.
The Sutherlands were known as one of the wealthiest families
on the island, owning a fishing company that could date back several
generations. But the wealth was no match for the hospital bills my accident had
generated. So, I had taken what I could from the town while my brother rebuilt
the company in my absence, making it what it was today. And saving us from
financial ruin in the process.
We’d grown from a small commercial fishing company, catering
to local restaurants and markets, to a full-service tourist experience. In a
few short years, my brother did what no one before him had been able to do.
He’d made our business a true success. And he had done it
completely on his own.
Not even bothering to leave the living room, I disconnected
the first layer of my prosthesis, and it felt like heaven. With the weight
gone, I took a moment to roll my shoulder and stretch my neck. The movement in
the small mirror across the room caught my attention, and I couldn’t help but
stare briefly at my reflection.
Not much of me had changed in the past few years, physically-speaking.
My eyes still carried the same dark green hue my mother adored, and the sandy-brown
hair most of the Sutherlands were known for still hung from my head, albeit a
bit longer than usual. I’d maintained most of my muscle mass, turning to long-distance
jogs around the island to clear my head, something I’d learned from the shrink
back at the hospital.
The one who’d forced me to write.
Tossing the pieces of my prosthesis on the couch, I took a
seat at the small desk in the corner of the living room and booted up my
laptop. I briefly thought about playing a game of solitaire or watching
something on Netflix, but I knew none of that would do. Ever since I’d stood
next to that memorial, staring out onto the water, I had known I’d end up here.
I needed to write.
When the psychiatrist had first encouraged me to do this
exercise in the hospital, explaining it would be a good way to express my
feelings and thoughts in a way that felt safe, I’d thought he was a nutcase.
I still did honestly.
All I knew was, it helped, and if it kept me out of a
psychiatrist’s office, it was a win-win for me.
Opening the drawer of my desk, I leafed through several
black-and-white composition notebooks I’d already filled, looking for the one I
was currently scribbling in, but before I got to it, another caught my eye.
Pulling it out, my fingers traced over the date on the front, noticing how
shaky the handwriting was. I remembered how much every letter had hurt back
then. Thumbing through the tattered notebook, I found an entry that caught my
I met a woman today.
A nurse actually.
A gorgeous angel of a
nurse. God, I wish she weren’t my nurse.
She greeted me on her
first shift, a wide, happy smile spread across her face.
I smiled back and…nothing.
I said absolutely
nothing. I opened my mouth to spout out something witty and charming, a skill I’d
honed back in my early twenties when one-night stands with tourists was the
singular most important task of my life.
But, instead, I was
Like I’d lost my voice
instead of my arm on that ferryboat.
She smiled again, a
smaller one, as she ran through my chart, asking questions to which I could
God, I was a fucking
A loser with one arm.
That’s what they’ll
The loser with one
I thought I could go
Back to my life.
Back to normal.
But what is normal
I shook my head, remembering that moment like it was
yesterday. Cora, the gorgeous nurse who’d lit up my small little world for a
short while. I’d thought she might be the answer to everything.
I’d thought a lot of things back then.
And none of it had led to anything.
Three years later, I was still searching for that new normal
I’d written about in my journal.
It didn’t exist.
I was just a loser with one arm, trying to make it through
one day at a time.