Despite the daily smiles he did his best to affect, everyone knew that Chuck hated working in the insurance business. The two people over at the regional office he met with once every quarter knew it, the fifty or so people below him at the Lake Valley office knew it, and his wife Janet had known it since the day she had met him.
“Sometimes I wonder if you got me pregnant just so you could have the weeks of paternity leave,” Janet said with a chuckle as Chuck buckled her seatbelt over her child-inflated belly before he carpool-laned her to the hospital on the day of inducement. “You’d start a new religion just to get a four-day weekend.” He smiled to himself underneath that big mustache as he threw her overnight hospital bag into the bag of the brand-new minivan his Christmas bonus had purchased not three weeks before in preparation for their son’s arrival.
Henry, Janet’s father, didn’t support the minivan purchase. “You should get a four-wheel-drive car,” he told Chuck. “Better to buy a big, safe something than a van.”
“Henry,” Chuck said, “the minivan gets about twice the gas mileage. It would be a waste of money. There’s no elevation here, and that big, supposed ‘snowstorm’”—Chuck did air quotes with his fingers—“is gonna blow over, anyway.”
“Better safe than sorry,” Henry said.
“Dad, the minivan will be great. It’s a great price, great reviews, lots of room, everything we need,” Janet said. “We’ll take you for a ride and then you’ll change your mind.”
“Then you should wait until you can afford a better one.”
“We’re getting the minivan, Hank.” Chuck reflexively puffed up his chest and brought it back down the second he realized what he was doing.
Henry grunted and went back to his newspaper. “You should get the four wheel drive,” he said to himself.
Even five hours before Janet was going to be induced, she and Chuck still hadn’t yet decided upon a name. Janet suggested that they name him after her father, Henry Thomas Anderson, the man who, before his daughter and son-in-law had even met, had given Chuck his first job in what was then the small insurance company he had started and what was now one of the only three companies that stuck around Lake Valley after the tragedy at the dam. But as grateful as Chuck was to his father-in-law, and as much as he respected the man, he didn’t want his son, his heir, the one that would take care of Janet in case he passed on before his time, to have any sort of connection to the insurance industry besides it being the source of the roof over his head.
“What, are you worried that’ll predestine him to become a company man?” Janet said. “Family name, family business?”
“No,” Chuck said, “I just think we should wait until he gets here to decide. We could decide on Henry now and he turns out to be a Stephen or a Christopher.”
“Henry James, Henry the Fifth, Henry Fonda.” Her smile went convex and disappeared into the straight line of neutral lips, her eyes drifting out the window onto the January tundra.
“Maybe he’ll be lucky and have eyes as green as his mother’s,” Chuck said.
“Don’t think that flattery will let you get away with changing the subject.”
“Worth a shot,” he said, peripherally catching her mouth upturn to a small grin.
“I just think Dad would be really honored by that. His first grandson, you know?”
“I’m sure he would be, sweetheart. And I’d be honored if we could hold our collective horses.” He ignored her slight sigh and took her hand, trying to focus on the absolutely terrifying, beautiful task awaiting them at the end of their drive.
The big winter storm that everyone had been foretelling like a doomsday prophecy had come and gone, and the city’s understaffed and underfunded maintenance department had done a surprisingly good job of getting any remaining snow off of the roads. But the overconfidence of a clear highway, the pressures of impending fatherhood, and the unfamiliarity of his new vehicle made Chuck’s mind go blank with panic when he hit a long patch of black ice, causing the minivan to fishtail, turn ninety degrees to the right, and flip six times, finally landing upside-down on the highway’s left shoulder. A passing car hit a similar strip of ice and, unable to stop their own vehicle in time, punched against the crumpled side of Chuck and Janet’s van, hitting the passenger’s side, the force knocking Chuck unconscious.
He awoke what he later learned to be nearly two days later. His eyes fluttered open and immediately squinted at the harsh fluorescent light of an antiseptic hospital room. The walls were white, the floor was white, the sheets draped over his body were white, and Henry, sitting ten feet away, dazing coldly in an uncomfortable-looking chair, was white.
Chuck ripped the small tubes from his nose and briefly went light-headed from the lack of oxygen before he could concentrate hard enough to regulate his breathing. It was difficult to inhale, and a brief downward glance at his chest revealed a massive bandage strewn across it like a blindfold. He drew stiff fingers to his wound’s dressing, the resulting contact stinging with needled tenderness.
Looking back to Henry, whose eyes were boring into his own, Chuck saw the elderly man’s head turn up, straightening his neck perpendicularly to his shoulders.
“Where’s Janet?” Chuck said.
“You should’ve gotten the four wheel drive,” Henry said.
“Where’s Janet?” he repeated.
Henry lowered milky eyes to the ground. “You should’ve listened to me. You should’ve gotten the bigger car.”
“Where is she? Where’s the baby?” Chuck said, the clarity of his words held muddied by his cottonmouth. “Where’s my son?”
Henry shook his head. “You should’ve gotten the four wheel drive.” He planted weary feat onto the sterile floor, and his frame, huddled compact from so many hours sleeping in a chair not meant for it, did its best to go upright. His weathered hand reached to his small-brimmed fedora and he struggled to lift it above his head, finally dropping it atop the remaining tuft of white hair that had stuck around. He walked to the door.
“You should’ve gotten the four wheel drive.” Henry stepped out of the room and, without closing the door, began to walk down the hallway toward the elevators. The only two things Chuck could hear in the otherwise silent hospital were the old man’s loafers squeaking against freshly-mopped linoleum and the steady metronome of his own pulse, beating through the heart rate monitor that was now his only company.