I woke at 10:59 the next morning in a queen-sized bed at the Holiday Inn. Shielding my eyes from the blinding sunlight, I sat up and wondered what was real and if last night actually happened. The drowsiness evaporated too soon. My eyes twitched as they relived at lightning speed the bedlam of the night before. How did I even sleep, much less sleep until 11am? Where was the phone call from the police, or Detective Tolliver banging on my door? If they couldn’t drum up any witnesses or alternate theories, they had to come knocking.
The ringing phone almost sent me under the covers. I reached out, my arm shaking, and grabbed the receiver.
“Mr. Stevens?” asked a bored, careless voice.
“I’m your wake up call.”
I looked at my watch. “It’s eleven-o-two!” I screamed into the mouthpiece and ripped the cord from the mounted base. The cord whipped out and slapped against the wall.
I’d requested a 10:30 wake up call because my shift started at noon. How does a hotel get that wrong? I timed the call so I’d barely have enough time to take a shower and get out the door before my shift. I didn’t want to think about calling Michael, or Tonya’s parents. I didn’t want to have time to think about anything but work, and one last good shower where I could freely drop the soap without anxiety. But now I didn’t even have time for the shower. I’d trudge through my last day of life before I was arrested dirty and groggy. I’d probably never be clean again.
I tried to think of a way to tell Tonya’s parents. It didn’t matter. Elsie would fall to the ground and cry, and Howard might get his gun and try to kill me. This thought had not occurred to me before that moment. Howard, my father-in-law, was going to kill me. And then of course they’d tell Michael if I hadn’t already.
I dressed—black pants, crisp navy blue long-sleeve button down shirt—and left for work. In the lobby, the redheaded girl behind the front desk glared at me as I passed, as if I were to blame for her earlier incompetence.
I had every right to be angry, especially when you consider that this might be my last morning in the free world. As I thought about it, I wondered if it would look better for me if I arrived unkempt and late, a slob who’d been crying all night. Maybe she did me a favor.
I would never again see my lovely wife. In a rush, everything flooded back, and I remembered the Caller ID under the mower, as well as the phone and the credit cards. The weight of the previous night’s memories crashed into me, I staggered backwards onto a leather couch under a dim chandelier, out of breath, and balled for a good minute. The lobby was an under-lit room with chandeliers that looked as though they were ripped out of a mortuary. The leather of the sofa almost crackled under my weight. It was as if everything in the world was decaying since Tonya left. She’d taken with her the life of the world.
An inmate named George Coughlin (who’s since been removed from this world), used to say, “A minute ain’t nothin’ unless you’re cryin’ or dyin.” I took advantage of my last minute.
The worst part was crying my eyes out in front of that moron across the lobby. I’d come in the night before with two policemen on either side of me. What instructions had they given the hotel about me?
I dried my eyes and crossed the room. The girl sat on a high stool in a white blouse and black skirt two sizes too small, legs crossed, staring at her phone. When I knew she was watching, I motioned her over to the counter. She reluctantly hopped off the stool and approached. I leaned across the counter, and she mirrored me.
“You woke me up a half hour too late this morning,” I said in a dry monotone.
Her fingers stumbled over her keyboard to look up my wake up time. “Well, sir…” she stammered.
My voice trembled as I tried to stay a decibel lower than the thump of my heart. “I want you to know that your actions have consequences. Your inaction has consequences. Your mistake this morning could literally send me to death row. It’s your responsibility as a human being to pay attention. If you don’t, people get hurt.” I’d managed to keep my voice to a near whisper, but my rage bubbled through.
She quivered behind the counter.
“Wake up!” I screamed.
She jumped back, almost falling over the stool.
I walked away vindicated, ignoring the shrieks and curses that followed me through the door.
Losing your wife gives you perspective. Justice shouldn’t only be administered in a courthouse or a jail cell or on a padded restraining bed. It belongs everywhere. We all have a responsibility to make the world better. Tonya’s death deserved justice.