A River of Silenceby Susan Clayton-Goldner
Date Published: January 24, 2018
Publisher: Tirgearr Publishing
When Detective Winston Radhauser is awakened by a call from dispatch at 12:45a.m., it can mean only one thing—something terrible awaits him. He races to the Pine Street address. In the kitchen, Caleb Bryce, nearly deaf from a childhood accident, is frantically giving CPR to 19-month-old Skyler Sterling. Less than an hour later, Skyler is dead.
The ME calls it a murder and the entire town of Ashland, Oregon is outraged. Someone must be held accountable. The police captain is under a lot of pressure and anxious to make an arrest. Despite Radhauser’s doubts about Bryce’s guilt, he is arrested and charged with first degree murder. Neither Radhauser nor Bryce’s young public defender believe he is guilty. Winston Radhauser will fight for justice, even if it means losing his job.
In only eleven minutes, Detective Winston Radhauser’s world would flip on its axis and a permanent line would be drawn—forever dividing his life into before and after. He drove toward the Pima County Sheriff’s office in Catalina, a small town in the Sonoran Desert just twelve miles north of Tucson. Through the CD speakers, Alabama sang You’ve Got the Touch. He hummed along.
He was working a domestic violence case with Officer Alison Finney, his partner for nearly seven years. They’d made the arrest—their collar was sleeping off a binge in the back of the squad car. It was just after 10 p.m. As always, Finney wore spider earrings—tonight’s selection was a pair of black widows he hadn’t seen before.
“You know, Finn, you’d have better luck with men if you wore sunflowers in your earlobes.”
She laughed. “Any guy intimidated by a couple 14-carat web spinners isn’t man enough for me.”
He never missed an opportunity to tease her. “Good thing you like being single.”
The radio released some static.
Radhauser turned off the CD.
Dispatch announced an automobile accident on Interstate 10 near the Orange Grove Road exit. Radhauser and Finney were too far east to respond.
Her mobile phone rang. She answered, listened for a few seconds. “Copy that. I’ll get him there.” Finney hung up, then placed the phone back into the charger mounted beneath the dashboard.
“Copy what?” he said. “Get who where?”
She eyed him. “Pull over. I need to drive now.”
His grip on the steering wheel tightened. “What the hell for?”
Finney turned on the flashing lights. “Trust me and do what I ask.”
The unusual snap in her voice raised a bubble of anxiety in his chest. He pulled over and parked the patrol car on the shoulder of Sunrise Road.
She slipped out of the passenger seat and stood by the door waiting for him.
He jogged around the back of the cruiser.
Finney pushed him into the passenger seat. As if he were a child, she ordered him to fasten his seatbelt, then closed the car door and headed around the vehicle to get behind the wheel.
“Are you planning to tell me what’s going on?” he asked once she’d settled into the driver’s seat.
She opened her mouth, then closed it. Her unblinking eyes never wavered from his. “Your wife and son have been taken by ambulance to Tucson Medical Center.”
The bubble of anxiety inside him burst. “What happened? Are they all right?”
Finney turned on the siren, flipped a U-turn, then raced toward the hospital on the corner of Craycroft and Grant. “I don’t know any details.”
TMC was a designated Trauma 1 Center and most serious accident victims were taken there. That realization both comforted and terrified him. “Didn’t they say the accident happened near the Orange Grove exit?”
“I know what you’re thinking. It must be bad or they’d be taken to the closest hospital and that would be Northwest.” She stared at him with the look of a woman who knew him almost as well as Laura did. “Don’t imagine the worst. They may not have been in a car accident. Didn’t you tell me Lucas had an equestrian meet?”
Laura had driven their son to a competition in south Tucson. Maybe Lucas got thrown. He imagined the horse rearing, his son’s lanky body sliding off the saddle and landing with a thump on the arena floor. Thank God for sawdust. Laura must have ridden in the ambulance with him.
But Orange Grove was the exit Laura would have taken on her drive home. The meet ended at 9:00 p.m. Lucas always stayed to unsaddle the horse, wipe the gelding down, and help Coach Thomas load him into his trailer. About a half hour job. That would put his family near the Orange Grove exit around ten.
The moon slipped behind a cloud and the sudden darkness seemed alive and a little menacing as it pressed against the car windows.
Less than ten minutes later, Finney pulled into the ER entrance and parked in the lot. “I’m coming with you,” she said.
He shot her a you-know-better look, then glanced toward the back seat where their collar was snoring against the door, his mouth open and saliva dribbling down his chin. It was against policy to leave an unguarded suspect in the car.
“I don’t give a damn about policy,” she said.
“What if he wakes up, hitches a ride home and takes out his wife and kids? Put him in the drunk tank. I’ll call you as soon as I know anything.” He ran across the parking lot. The ER doors opened automatically and he didn’t stop running until he reached the desk. “I’m Winston Radhauser. My wife and son were brought in by ambulance.”
The young nurse’s face paled and her gaze moved from his eyes to somewhere over his head.
With the change in her expression, his hope dropped into his shoes. He looked behind her down a short corridor where a set of swinging doors blocked any further view. “Where are they?”
It was one of those moments he would remember for a lifetime, where everything happened in slow motion.
She told him to wait while she found a doctor to talk to him, and nodded toward one of the vinyl chairs that lined the waiting room walls.
He sat. Tried to give himself an attitude adjustment. Maybe it wasn’t as bad as he thought. Laura or Lucas could be in surgery and the nurse, obviously just out of nursing school, didn’t know how to tell him.
Sat again. The hospital might have a policy where only a physician could relate a patient’s condition to his family.
His heart worked overtime, pumping and pounding.
When he looked up, a young woman in a lab coat with a stethoscope around her neck stood in front of him. She had pale skin and was thin as a sapling, her light brown hair tied back with a yellow rubber band. Her eyes echoed the color of a Tucson sky with storm clouds brewing. “Are you Mr. Radhauser?”
“Please come with me.”
He expected to be taken to his wife and son, but instead she led him into a small room about eight feet square. It had a round table with a clear glass vase of red tulips in the center, and two chairs. Though she didn’t look old enough to have graduated from medical school, she introduced herself as Dr. Silvia Waterford, an ER physician.
“Tell me what happened to my wife and son.”
“I’m so sorry,” she said. “It was an automobile accident on Interstate 10.”
The thread of hope he held started to unravel. “Are Laura and Lucas all right? I want to see them.”
Her throat rippled as she swallowed. “There is no easy way to say this, Mr. Radhauser. I’m so sorry for your loss. But there was nothing we could do for them.”
All at once the scene bleached out. The tulips faded to gray as if a giant flashbulb had gone off in his face. The doctor was rimmed in white light. He stared at her in disbelief for a moment, praying for a mistake, a miracle, anything except what he just heard. “What do you mean there was nothing you could do? This is a Level 1 Trauma Center, isn’t it? One of the best in the state.”
“Yes. But unfortunately, medical science has its limits and we can’t save everyone. Your wife and son were both dead on arrival.”
His body crumpled in on itself, folding over like paper, all the air forced from his chest. This was his fault. Laura asked him to take the night off and go with them. Radhauser would have avoided the freeway and driven the back way home from the fairgrounds. And everything would have ended differently.
He looked up at Dr. Waterford. What was he demanding of her? Even the best trauma center in the world couldn’t bring back the dead.
There was sadness in her eyes. “I’m sure it’s not any comfort, but we think they died on impact.”
He hung his head. “Comfort,” he said. Even the word seemed horrific and out of place here. Your wife and son were both dead on arrival. Nine words that changed his life in the most drastic way he had ever imagined.
“May I call someone for you? We have clergy on staff if you’d like to talk with someone.”
A long moment passed before he raised his head and took in a series of deep breaths, trying to collect himself enough to speak. “No clergy, unless they can bring my family back. Just tell me where my wife and son are.” His voice sounded different, deeper—not the same man who went to work that evening.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “But when deaths occur in the ER, we have to move them down to the morgue.”
Radhauser stood. Beneath his anguish, a festering anger simmered. Laura was a good driver. He was willing to bet she wasn’t at fault. More than anything now, he needed someone aside from himself to blame.
Outside, a siren wailed, then came to an abrupt stop. The sound panicked Radhauser as he headed for the elevator, waited for the door to open, then got inside. He pushed the button to the basement floor. He’d visited this hospital morgue once before to identify a fellow police officer shot in a robbery arrest gone bad. The door opened and he lumbered down the empty hallway.
As he neared the stainless steel door to the morgue, a tall, dark-haired man in a suit exited. At first Radhauser thought he was a hospital administrator. The man cleared his throat, flipped open a leather case and showed his badge. “I’m Sergeant Dunlop with the Tucson Police Department. Are you Mr. Radhauser?”
“Detective Radhauser. Pima County Sheriff’s Department.”
Dunlop had a handshake Radhauser felt in every bone in his right hand. “I’m so sorry for your loss, Detective.”
“Are you investigating the accident involving my wife and son?” Radhauser looked him over. Dunlop wore a pin-striped brown suit with a yellow shirt and a solid brown tie—the conservative uniform of a newly-promoted sergeant. The air around them smelled like antiseptic and the industrial solvent used to wash floors. “Have you determined who was at fault?”
Dunlop hesitated for an instant. “Yes, I’m the investigating officer. From the eyewitness reports, your wife was not to blame. A Dodge pickup was headed south in the northbound lane of Interstate 10 near the Orange Grove exit. No lights. He hit her head-on.”
Radhauser cringed. The image cut deep. “Was he drunk?”
“I need to wait for the blood alcohol test results to come back.”
The anger building inside Radhauser got closer to the surface every second. Silence hung between them like glass. He shattered it. “Don’t give me that bullshit. You were on the scene. What did you see? What did the breathalyzer read?”
Dunlop’s silence told Radhauser everything he needed to know. “Did the bastard die at least?”
“He was miraculously uninjured. But his twin boys weren’t so lucky.” Dunlop’s voice turned flat. “They didn’t make it.” He winced, and a tide of something bitter and hopeless washed over his face. “The idiot let them ride in the pickup bed. Five fucking years old.”
“What’s the idiot’s name?”
“You don’t need to know that right now.”
Biting his lip, Radhauser fought against the surge of rage threatening to flood over him. “Who are you to tell me what I need to know? It’s not your wife and kid in there. Besides, I can easily access the information.”
Dunlop handed him a card. “I know you can. But you have something more important to do right now. We can talk tomorrow.” He draped his arm over Radhauser’s shoulder the way a brother or a friend might do.
The touch opened a hole in Radhauser’s chest.
“Say goodbye to your wife and son,” Dunlop said, then turned and walked away.
In the morgue, after Radhauser introduced himself, a male attendant pulled back the sheet covering their faces. There was no mistake.
“Do you mind if I sit here for a while?” Radhauser asked.
“No problem,” the attendant said. “Stay as long as you want.” He went back to a small alcove where he entered data into a computer. The morgue smelled like the hallway had, disinfectant and cleaning solution, with an added hint of formaldehyde.
Radhauser sat between the stainless steel gurneys that held Laura and Lucas. Of all the possible scenarios Radhauser imagined, none ended like this.
Across the room, two small body bags lay, side by side, on a wider gurney. The twin sons of the man who killed his family.
The clock on the morgue wall kept ticking and when Radhauser finally looked up at it, four hours had passed. He tried, but couldn’t understand how Laura and Lucas could be in the world one minute and gone the next. How could he give them up? It was as if a big piece of him had been cut out. And he didn’t know how to go on living without his heart.
For an entire year afterwards, Radhauser operated in a daze. He spent the late evening hours playing For the Good Times on Laura’s old upright piano. It was the first song they ever slow danced to and over their fourteen years together, it became their own.
He played it again and again. The neighbors complained, but he couldn’t stop. It was the only way he could remember the apricot scent of her skin and how it felt to hold her in his arms on the dance floor.
Night after night, he played until he finally collapsed into a fitful sleep, his head resting on the keyboard. The simple acts of waking up, showering, making coffee, and heading to work became a cruel pretense acted out in the cavernous absence of his wife and son.
About the Author
Susan Clayton-Goldner was born in New Castle, Delaware and grew up with four brothers along the banks of the Delaware River. She has been writing poems and short stories since she could hold a pencil and was so in love with writing that she was a creative writing major in college.
Prior to an early retirement which enabled her to write full time, Susan worked as the Director of Corporate Relations for University Medical Center in Tucson, Arizona. It was there she met her husband, Andreas, one of the deans in the University of Arizona's Medical School. About five years after their marriage, they left Tucson to pursue their dreams in 1991--purchasing a 35-acres horse ranch in the Williams Valley in Oregon. They spent a decade there. Andy road, trained and bred Arabian horses and coached a high school equestrian team, while Susan got serious about her writing career.
Through the writing process, Susan has learned that she must be obsessed with the reinvention of self, of finding a way back to something lost, and the process of forgiveness and redemption. These are the recurrent themes in her work.
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