Summer of '98 III: Our Mutual Friend
Written by Valeria
AUTHOR'S NOTE: A Summer of '98 story, the followup to "Two Partners" and "Long Hot Summer Night" and a prequel of sorts to the former. The time is three days after the events of "Fallen Heroes."
Readers of "Two Partners" remember my alluding to a long conversation between Chris Rawls and the visiting Kay over Tim's hospital bed. No sooner was it posted than Rachel, the wretch, began nagging me actually to write up their conversation and share it with the class.
So here it is, and if you don't like it, it's all her fault.
Speaking of the wretch...for whatever reason, writing this story was like hacking my way through a particularly dense jungle with a particularly dull machete. So special thanks to Rachel, for employing the whole range of pleading, prodding, begging, goading, taunting, guilt-tripping, head games and thinly veiled death threats to get me to finish it. Oh, what the hell—I'll just cut to the chase and dedicate it to her. Thanks as well to Marti for beta reading, and to Brenda for her continued encouragement.
Feedback is very welcome, of course.
He was getting to know the nurses now. Jenny Simmons, three p.m. to eleven p.m., was his favorite—a large, solid woman with a rumbling laugh and a propensity for frosted pink nail polish. The color made him think of bubble gum, the strawberry kind he would hoard his allowance for as a child, then chew through two packs of in an afternoon.
Icy-sweet pink, and the robin's-egg blue of her uniform trousers. Two small, bright splashes in a room of clinical white, dingy white, sterile white, grayish-white, yellow-white...a whole spectrum of non-colors. Shades of blank.
Nurse Simmons tended to her tasks with a contentedly distant air, barely seeming to notice him at all. It was Tim she talked to, a quiet, steady run of words as she checked tubes and IV lines, turned him from side to side and back every two hours, covered chart pages in spidery, angular writing. Chris had looked through them endless times, studying the nearly illegible scrawls—medical hieroglyphics, senseless in the clearest hand—looking for something, anything about Tim that he could decipher. Not a word.
She talked to Tim with the ease of someone who had known him for years, sharing bits of hospital gossip, letting him know who had come to visit him. She never inserted an IV or changed a dressing without warning him first. Chris would sit watching in a corner of the room, silently grateful for her casual assumption that Tim was, in fact, still alive. That he might be lying trapped, and aware, in his own body, and depending on her to keep from sliding off a knife-edge of terror. Still here...
His "brother." She had called Tim that, one of the few times she actually spoke directly to Chris: *Your brother's looking much better today.* Her tone was friendly, nothing smirking or hostile lurking in its depths. Was that just her euphemism of choice, or had she honestly concluded they were, in fact, related? Chris had puzzled over it, and couldn't tell. He gave a polite nod in reply and watched her hands continue their work, candied nails sheathed in thin latex gloves. Through it all Tim lay so perfectly, profoundly still.
He could almost taste the bubble gum, its cutting and cloying sweetness against his strawberry-dyed tongue. His mother hadn't liked him to chew it—a vulgar habit, she said. She had had notions, his mother; pretensions to burn. Delusions of grande dame, he thought of them. Most things, and most people, were irretrievably vulgar in her eyes. Nearly everything he, Chris, happened to like was unacceptable for some reason or other. Candy. St. Joseph's baby aspirin, which he would eat like candy if he weren't forcibly stopped. Comic books.
Matchbox cars, the kind whose small doors opened and closed. Not that she ever denied him anything he set his heart on—save the aspirin--but she had a lot to say about his wanting it.
The fried-fish sandwiches at a local greasy spoon, whose name escaped him. The few friends he had managed to make in high school. Jimi Hendrix. Jean Genet. Other boys.
A whole lot to say.
He sighed and pulled his chair a little closer to the bed. He could do that, now that he was finally alone with Tim; sit close to the bed, hold the other man's hand, touch him. Three days of dealing with cop after cop after cop, standing aside as they crowded round, carefully controlling his words and touches and very expression to try and keep Tim safe. Safe from his friends. Tim had so many fucking friends, now that he was lying in a hospital bed unable to see or move or throw them all the hell out. The same man who had cried once, in bed with him, whispering against his shoulder: *I've been so lonely.* Such good, caring, crazy-making goddamned friends...
He glanced at his watch; six-thirty. He should get some dinner. Not that he'd actually eat it. It was something to do, though; pushing the tasteless, congealing mounds of hospital cafeteria food around and around the plate, killing thirty or forty minutes. Then on to the gift shop to stare for a while at the flower baskets, teddy bears, greeting cards with gauzy paintings and nebulous, interchangeable verses.
Did *anyone* actually eat that stuff? The doctors and nurses he always saw standing in line had to be too exhausted to care what they shoveled into their mouths, or too demoralized...Tim teased him about it constantly, his restauranteur's hauteur. Mocked the expression of pure horror on Chris's face, the day Tim came back from the grocery store with a bag of frozen dinners and a giant can of mashed potato flakes. Well, it *was* horrifying, those boxes of Swanson's slop, and the damn reconstituted potatoes were...
Vulgar. The word had flashed instantly into his brain as he looked at the brown metal can, its surface photograph displaying mashed potatoes drenched in butter too yellow to be real. A word his brain quickly stomped on before it could come crawling out of his mouth.
The memory made him smile in spite of himself. Like mother, like son.
More's the pity.
Tim had just laughed and, squinting earnestly at the "recipe" on the can's side, got out the margarine and milk...
He was not going to do it. Not going to sit here and cry over instant mashed potatoes.
He turned abruptly from the bed, dragging the chair legs along with a metallic squeak. Craning his head, he stared out the small, square window, its concrete sill crowded with cards and bouquets. Past the white nylon curtain—dingy white, against the yellow-white walls—he could see the same courtyard, same spindly collection of trees, the same facing windows of another ward; nothing, and nothing. Sighing, he turned back again.
The restraints, those still bothered him; the ties securing Tim's wrists to the metal side rails. Even though Nurse Simmons had assured him they didn't hurt. Even though Maria Coughlin, seven a.m. to three p.m., had explained they were there to protect the patient, to keep a half-conscious man from instinctively trying to yank tubes from his throat, esophagus...
"You had to do it," he heard himself say, the sound cutting sharply into the sterile air. "You *had* to push him out of the way."
Immediately, he felt guilty. Detective Pembleton had haunted the hospital corridors, a red-eyed wraith, using every cop's trick he had to get a straight story from Tim's doctors. And his wife had been so kind, effortlessly kind; none of her husband's carefully masked, yet obvious discomfort. He wouldn't have wanted her where he was now, sitting in a straight-backed chair with sticky stains on its torn vinyl cushion, waiting for her world to slip from her grasp.
Of course Tim would push him out of the way. The man had no idea how else to behave.
Chris snaked a hand through the railings, clutching at Tim's fingers.
They sat in his palm like sticks of pink wax. Althea Robinson, eleven p.m. to seven a.m., had told him that as paradoxical as it sounded, a patient whose fingers reflexively gripped back was actually in worse shape. He should be glad. According to her.
He realized he was squeezing the other man's fingers, hard. He forced himself to loosen his grip, fingertips lightly stroking the palm.
Tim was starting to smell like this damn place. He had to get him out of here, before...
Chris leaned in closer. No, there was the man himself; a sweet, living smell, beneath the disinfectant stench hovering over him like a haze. He kissed Tim's forehead, lips lingering against its warmth.
The skin was smooth, clean-scrubbed; nastily clean. He rested his cheek against it anyway.
Tears were prickling behind his tightly closed eyes. He blinked ferociously for a moment, then kissed Tim on the cheek.
*You had to push him out of the way, you had to...*
The soft sound of footsteps made him look up.
"Excuse me," she said. She stood where she was, taking in the stranger by Tim's bed.
He stared up at her, not letting go of Tim's hand. A small, thin woman, with a lot of red hair gathered into a loose braid; a real redhead, judging from her pale freckled skin. Faint shadows beneath her eyes, reaching down to the cheekbones. Sharp features and sensible clothes.
He could feel his features setting in a defiant mold. Some long-ago girlfriend? He hoped not. *Lot of water under the bridge, Red...*
She didn't rise to the silent bait, or even seem to notice it. "Hi, I'm Kay—don't get up," she said as he began rising automatically from his chair. "Kay Howard. Used to work in homicide with Tim." She walked over and briskly shook his free hand.
Another cop. Should have expected as much. "Chris Rawls. I..." He hesitated, and felt angry at himself for it. *Hi there. Bet you never knew Tim had a brother, huh?* "Good to meet you."
She nodded, her eyes moving swiftly from him to Tim, and then around the small room. "There another chair around here?"
Without waiting for an answer, she turned and strode back out the door, reappearing momentarily with her arms wrapped around a large, battered chair of mustard-colored vinyl. He rose again to help her with it, and sat down again as she maneuvered it swiftly to the opposite side of the bed.
"Room next door was empty," she explained, sinking into the chair, then quickly bracing her feet against the floor as she slid on the slick seat cushion. Chris let go of Tim's hand, settling uncomfortably back in his own chair. The silence was palpable now, thanks to her presence; he felt a flash of annoyance at her, at his new duty to make small talk.
"I didn't see you here, before," he finally said. "I mean, the other night. Afterwards. After he was brought here, I mean." He laughed a little at his own awkward phrasing.
She nodded, a smile he couldn't quite categorize playing across her features. "I figured the place'd be crawling with guys from homicide, right? That's--" She broke off for a second, one hand unconsciously pulling at the elastic on her braid, then shrugged. "There's just some people there I'd rather not run into again."
Chris reached his hand out again, absently stroking the thin orange blanket draped over Tim's legs. The shinbone beneath was jutting, sharp. "Having met all of them at this point, I must say I don't blame you--"
That made her laugh, a triangular, white-toothed grin transforming her features. "Yeah—pretty much stayed in the lobby downstairs, to tell you the truth." Her eyes traveled over the unconscious man; she seemed to speak more to herself than Chris. "Last thing he needs, a fight breaking out right over his bed..."
Chris looked up at her, startled; she turned away a little, effectively cutting off any inquiries. He pressed his fingers against the rough orange cloth. "No fights," he offered. "That might have broken the tedium, at least...lots of stoic, manly, suffering faces, though. Very impressive for a mere civilian like me."
Kay glanced at him again, her lips twitching. "Sorry I missed it."
"Oh, yeah. Everybody very strong and silent." He smoothed the blanket one last time and leaned back, an elbow on the bed railing.
"Well, except for that Detective Munch...those people you always get stuck sitting next to on the subway? The ones with ATF-controlled computer chips in their heads, who want to tell you all about how they just received the final Fatima Prophecy over shortwave radio?" Chris shook his head. "Worse."
He was surprised when her expression softened.
"He's all right," she said, and gave a one-shouldered shrug.
She pulled her chair a little closer to Tim, studying him. Chris saw her eyes linger on the restraints.
"I hate those things," he blurted out. The sound of his own voice dismayed him, but he couldn't seem to stop it. "They keep saying they're there to protect him, but—"
Kay gave him a rueful nod. "I know what you mean," she replied, sliding one finger between a restraint and the railing; a tight fit.
She pulled away the pinched fingertip. "Scary feeling, waking up and not being able to move your hands, then seeing those things...start to wonder just what kind of hospital you're in, you know?"
He looked at her with newfound interest. "You were..."
"Shot." Kay reached a hand behind her, rubbing her neck. The braid seemed to have given up on itself, tendrils of hair escaping left and right. "Couple of years ago."
"On duty, or..." *God, what a stupid question. No, she was cleaning her gun and--* He ran a nervous hand through his own hair.
"Yeah--on duty." She smiled, almost reminiscently. "We were goin' after this guy, career child molester who killed a kid...a real piece of work. Anyway, we—-me and my partner, and Detective Munch and his partner—-we ended up at the wrong apartment door. Somebody got the address number mixed up or something. Probably would've gotten the department sued, if we'd made it in...but that was the least of our problems."
Chris rested both elbows on the railing. "The guy in the apartment shot you? I mean, the guy at the wrong door—"
Kay nodded. "Gun nut type with an outstanding assault charge--guess he thought we were after him. Or maybe he just woke up that day and felt like shooting something. Saw us coming a block away, probably...hid upstairs, came out on the landing with a high-powered rifle and picked us off." She leaned back a little in her chair, hands resting behind her head; at this sudden new pressure, tufts of cotton bulged from holes in the cushions. "I got shot in the chest, in the heart. Beau—-my partner, Beau—-he was shot too, and John's, Detective Munch's, partner Stan. Stan got it the worst...bullet in the head."
Chris's eyes darted to Tim's face, to the deceptively serene features.
He reached over and smoothed the other man's hair. The hospital soap, shampoo, whatever they used, gave it the consistency of straw. Greasy straw.
"One in the heart sounds bad enough," he finally said.
"I don't remember it at all. Just getting to the door, and hearing this creaking sound from upstairs—the guy's door, or a floorboard or something—then nothing." She drew her arms backward, wrapping them around the top of the chair; her voice again seemed farther away.
"Wake up in this narrow little bed, hard mattress, sheets that smell funny...I'm thinking, my bed, what the hell happened to my bed? And I can't—it's like this *fire* in my chest, huh? Like someone split me open and stuck me back together again--which is exactly what they did—and I can't breathe. And there's something hard shoved up my nose, and it *hurts,* and in my arms, and they tied my hands down, and these lights...and I'm thinking, Jesus, I'm about to be tortured or—"
Kay broke off, regarding him with embarrassed alarm. "Christ, I'm sorry, I—listen to me here." She pulled at the braid again, nearly tugging it loose. "You--he's lyin' there, and I'm jabbering about myself—"
Chris shook his head. "No, it's fine. Really." He pictured it in his mind: Tim propped up in bed, eating--green Jello, ice shavings, whatever they fed people in ICU-—and complaining about the smell of his sheets. "I want to...I don't mind hearing it."
She nodded, not looking entirely convinced. "Anyway, that's—what it was like. Waking up."
"But you were all right." *No, she's not all right, she's dead.
You're talking to a ghost. Now that you're on a roll here, how about another stupid question?*
A wry shrug. "In theory, I guess...yeah. I was all right."
"Did you ever get the guy?"
"The child molester?" Her heels rubbed against the floor, one shoe coming half off. "Yeah, a few days later—"
"No, the shooter. Did you get him?"
No answer, for a moment.
"Sort of," she finally said.
Silence, punctuated by the steady background hum of life support equipment. Chris stared up at the colorless spiderweb of tubes, and saw them waver and jump; he squeezed his eyes shut for a second. When he opened them again, the tubes were still. He was more tired than he'd thought.
One of the tubes began filling, slowly, going from clear to yellow.
He started studying the opposite wall, vaguely wishing she'd leave the room; feeling like he should too. Not even the pretext of privacy, dignity...you had to have a real sick streak to be a doctor, to want to keep nice neat little records of when people pissed and shat and sniveled and bled and what color it was and how much of it there was.
Maybe they kept it and played with it afterwards. *Just tell 'em we need it for the lab, they'll believe anything...*
From the corner of his eye, he saw Kay shoot him a puzzled glance; only then did he realize he was laughing to himself. He looked down at his hands, his face reddening.
"I hate hospitals too," he heard her say softly. "I *hate* them."
Chris raised his head slowly.
"And doctors," he replied.
She nodded. "Gods on earth, right? Should have their own special set of chaplains—"
"Med students. They're even better. The kind that bang you in the face with their clipboards—-they're too important to watch where they're going." He rubbed at the side of his jaw, at a small sharp-edged bruise. "Those people who leave little born-again Christian pamphlets in the waiting rooms. This is your *last* chance to convert, sinners..."
"Admitting clerks. It's like they're running a nightclub or something, keep you standin' there forever and-—"
She considered that one. "I shouldn't...they get stuck with as much shit work as the orderlies. More."
A pause, and a little nod. "Still."
They exchanged swift, understanding looks, schoolchildren who'd just discovered they both despised the new teacher.
From down the hall, there came a sudden flurry of activity: shouting voices, running feet, the clatter of moving equipment. Kay craned her neck toward the door, getting a hurried glimpse of the entourage as it passed them by.
"Someone's coding," she murmured.
Chris didn't turn his head. He listened, and nodded, and reached for Tim's hand again.
"Did you work a lot together?" Chris asked. He kept his hold on Tim's fingers now, stroking them, rubbing a thumb along the other man's wrist.
"Me and Tim?" Kay rose from her chair, stretching, and paced a few brief steps before sitting down again. "Not really. Catch a case together here and there, work with the rest of the squad on a redball—-high-priority case, a redball. But not a whole lot, no.
You'd wanna talk to Tim's partner—"
He nodded. "I've met Detective Pembleton." His foot was falling asleep, twisted at an odd angle against the chair; he winced as he shifted it, the toes curling involuntarily. "Actually, I met him a while ago. I—-a friend of mine was murdered. He and Tim handled the investigation."
Kay pressed her fingertips against the chair's padded arms, digging small concavities into the vinyl. "Sorry to hear that."
"Mm...I was sorry too, believe me." Chris kept his eyes on Tim's face as he spoke. "I shouldn't admit this, but I was especially sorry that his body was dumped right behind my restaurant." No movement, save the steady rise and fall of Tim's chest. The hospital gown looked like a bib tied beneath his chin. "In the dumpster, dressed in women's lingerie. With makeup. Not what you'd call subtle, or—"
"Peter Fields," Kay said suddenly. Loose strands of hair now brushed her cheeks, framing her face in a bedraggled cloud. "Right?"
Chris looked up in surprise. "Right. Last winter." His free hand wandered back to the orange blanket, smoothing, straightening. "Don't tell me Allan made it all the way up to redball status...his parents would be very proud."
Again, she wouldn't take the bait; just studied him with an expression of utter calm that made him vaguely nervous. He wondered if this was how she got suspects to confess, just sitting there patiently, expectantly, not saying a word...he gazed at the pitcher of water on the side table, the lone plastic glass beside it. He'd almost drunk from it several times, but something stopped him. Though surely it wasn't meant for Tim. The nurses? He thought back to earlier that afternoon, watching Nurse Coughlin carefully replacing the refilled pitcher. Her long strawberry hair was pulled back in a shining ponytail, her robin's-egg jacket sleeves pushed up to reveal a row of fading marks along one arm, purplish bruises going yellow. She had caught him looking and hastily pushed the sleeve down, almost upsetting the pitcher.
"It was—" He held Tim's hand tighter. "Allan was a very closed-off kind of person. Circumspect. I mean, even beyond his not being out.
He didn't like anyone knowing too much about him...even his friends.
But Tim and Detective Pembleton, they didn't—-that's what I noticed, see, that they didn't go digging into anything beyond what they absolutely had to, to find out who'd killed him. They didn't touch what wasn't theirs just for the fun of it."
His teeth seized hold of his upper lip for a moment, almost drawing blood, then let go. "I...I noticed Tim right off, too."
Kay nodded silently.
"He just..." Chris held his other palm steady against the blanket, spreading the fingers. "Look, don't take this the wrong way, but I've had some bad experiences with the police. One very bad one, as a matter of fact. So when I hear 'detective,' I'm expecting..." He faltered for a moment. "I don't know what I’m expecting. But not that. Something about his voice, his eyes...the way he acted. It just felt different, right off.
"I thought, you know, God, I am a truly rotten human being...a friend of mine was just murdered, and degraded, and they found him in a goddamned dumpster, and I've got to tell these two detectives *something* that will help catch whoever did it, and I can't think of anything—and what I *am* thinking is, that one on the left has such a sweet smile."
Chris could almost physically feel the words rushing into his mouth now, tumbling out of him; he couldn't look at Kay, but he couldn't stop either. "I told him I liked his tie. It was the first thing that popped into my head...pretty stupid. But he kind of, uh, did this pleased little double-take, you know, and said thank you, and I thought...well, maybe. And that smile again. And so I—I mean, what the hell, I own a restaurant, I can ask him if he'd like a meal on the house. He got the guy who killed Allan to confess, helped put him away, he can take it like a plain old thank-you, right? If I was reading him all wrong, then it'd just be—"
He broke off, the mental echo of himself almost making him cringe.
Why was he saying all this to a woman he'd known less than an hour?
He could hear his mother's voice in his head, her words twining around his own: *Some little person in this room is talking—too—much.*
"What did he say?" Kay asked softly.
Chris met her eyes again; large and dark, filled with something beyond curiosity, something at once kinder and more relentlessly probing.
You wanted to figure out what was going on behind those eyes. He could envision another man being intrigued, in other ways.
*This is the grownup's talk. Go and play outside. I don't know why you and that Fitzgerald boy can't be friends, he could teach you baseball...*
Matthew had taught him a lot of things. Years later.
"What did he say? He said yes. To my complete and utter surprise.
And he said, 'How about tonight?' *He* said that. Caught me off guard, you know...I'd given him this big buildup about the place, the menu, the wines, my own word-of-mouth. So he tells me he's partial to a nice red, and he gets there and it soon becomes apparent he doesn’t know an Amarone from a—what's so funny?"
Kay had a hand up to her mouth, half-hiding the smile. "I was just thinkin'—one New Year's Eve, he brings this champagne into the squadroom to celebrate, huh? *He* calls it champagne. Stuff tastes like carbonated cat spit, and he's standin' there, *savoring* it like—"
Unbelievable—he was actually laughing with her, enjoying a little fun at Tim's expense right in front of the man. Maybe Tim really could hear them both. Maybe he'd catch hell for it, once Tim woke up...the thought made him laugh harder. He reached up and touched Tim's own mouth, fingers skirting the breathing and GI tubes. A sliver of warm, unguarded skin.
Tim's expressionless face, a sleeping mask. *Such a sweet smile.*
"Do you like it?" he suddenly asked. "Being a detective."
She considered that one. "Can't imagine doing anything else."
"That doesn’t really answer the question, though..."
Another laugh. "You're right—it doesn’t."
Chris waited. After a few moments, he took the hint.
"Tim never talks about what he does," he said. His fingers moved lightly over the other man's cheek, up to the temple. "I mean, every now and then he'll say we got so-and-so to give it up, whatever. But the day-to-day stuff, the crime scene stuff, interviewing witnesses—whatever detectives do, I really don't know what they do—"
"That about covers it. That and a boatload of paperwork, office politics, sitting around the coffee room waiting for something to happen—you're not missing anything exciting, trust me."
One finger traced the lines of Tim's forehead. "I'm still missing it, though..."
Kay reached her hands behind her again, attempting to tighten the half-undone braid. "Maybe you don't really wanna hear it, huh? As much as you think? I mean, standing over dead bodies and—"
Chris smiled. "That part I can take. Everyone dies...usually not painlessly. And not in their own bed." He stroked Tim's hair. "And I know what happens to bodies afterwards. I've read my Jessica Mitford. It's the other part I think I'd have a problem with..."
"What other part?"
"The part where you essentially trick people into giving up all their legal rights. Or just go to town with the fact that they never knew them to begin with." He looked up at her, shrugging. "Sorry, but it's what I think. No offense—"
She returned the shrug. "None taken. It's the truth."
"No, seriously, no offense. I just used to date this lawyer, see, a public defender, and he'd always get so worked up about—"
Kay grinned, folding her arms. "I just used to date this lawyer, too.
A state's attorney. Emphasis on the 'used to.' They're great, huh?
"Oh, they're just wonderful. Wonderful, warm, giving people, all of them...we're scarred survivors."
"Yeah, well...now apparently we're both tangled up with cops."
A sudden mental picture came to him, this fragile-looking woman coupled with some looming, beefy, red-faced creature. Linebacker's shoulders, cords of muscle going to fat, a beer-and-Dunkin'-Donuts paunch...maybe an ex-Marine, a Navy Seal wannabe. He stifled a laugh.
She leaned her head against the chair cushion. "Out of the frying pan, into the fire..." One hand rubbed her eyes, the shadows beneath them purplish, translucent against the pale skin. Onionskin shadows.
"Beats a fisherman, I guess. Maybe. Or maybe not."
"A fisherman?" He stretched his legs out, calves disappearing beneath the hospital bed. His pins-and-needles foot let out faint protests.
"Mm...I grew up around fishermen. Oystermen, actually. Ever hear of a place called Tilgham Island?" She smiled when he shook his head.
"Figured—nobody has. Little town called Rocky Point. Well, the island is the town, pretty much. Big marsh with a few houses on it.
Gets flooded over every year during hurricane season." She burrowed her hands into her pockets, her eyes half-closing. "I miss the smells the most. The air—it was so sweet, and clean. And the colors. The marshes...never seen green like that anywhere else. You'd be walkin' through there, wading through, and you'd feel like you were all alone in the whole world, the only living thing. And then you'd scare a group of wild ducks or something, see them flying over your head, right up through the sky..."
The love in her voice was palpable, an enviable thing. Chris had never felt that way about anywhere he'd lived. He heard some of that love in Tim's voice, sometimes, when he talked about Baltimore; Chris would listen and nod without really understanding. He'd come here because it was as far north as he could get without running headlong into winter.
"Why did you leave?" he asked.
Kay looked at her shoes for a moment. "Because there's nothing there but the sky and the marshes and the ducks. For me, anyway. If I were a guy, I might have ended up an oysterman...I used to go out on the boat with my dad, work with the rakes. Went out a lot after my mother died. But, you know, the oystermen are still *men,* period. Doesn't matter if you're good at it...things don't really change out there."
One stockinged foot rubbed against the other, keeping a steady rhythm.
"As opposed to police work, of course...but if I were a guy and I stayed out there, I'd be lookin' for work right now anyway. Nobody can make a living just going out on the water anymore. Most of the guys I grew up with are doing something on the mainland now."
Chris nodded. "It's the same where I grew up. Worse, actually...one of those places where everybody who could leave, left."
"Where are you from?"
"Mississippi. A little town called Prospect. It had none." The room felt chilly, closed-in; or maybe he was just getting more tired. He pulled the blanket higher up Tim's legs. "Built around a big paper mill...speaking of smells. Nothing like the odor of wet rotting slash pine to start off your morning. That's where everybody worked. Then the mill closed down, and everybody was out of work. Mostly for good, most of them."
She nodded sympathetically. "Yeah...my dad just gave up, sold his boat. Quit while you're ahead. Sort of."
"Half my high school class ended up joining the army, just to get out.
Of course, that was out of the question for me..."
"Lousy shot, huh?"
"Mm-hmm...that was it, exactly. Broad side of a barn door."
He tucked the blanket in more closely around Tim, moving carefully to avoid dislodging the cardiac leads. One of them had fallen off of its own accord yesterday. The ominous beeping, Nurse Coughlin running into the room...slowing to a casual stroll when she saw the dangling lead. *Happens all the time,* she said briskly, replacing it and exiting again with barely a second glance. A doctor and a nurse's aide poked their heads half-heartedly through the doorway, then quickly disappeared again.
"You been here all day?" Kay asked.
His fingers worked methodically, evening out the blanket on all sides.
"It'd get bad at night," she said after a moment. "Everyone gone...I couldn't ever sleep. No matter how much stuff they pumped me full of.
Couldn't really get awake, either, too hurt for—" She waved a dismissive hand at her own words. "I'm starting again. Sorry."
He turned away from the blanket. "But I want to hear it."
An uncertain glance. "I...you know. Can't sleep, hurting—but also just feeling like you're never, ever gonna get out of there. Ever. I mean, it's dark and you're not really all there, so you just lose track of time and start thinking, I am going to be here *forever.* This is it now." She studied her hands, knotted in her lap, the words coming quicker. "I kind of freaked out one night. Just sort of decided that they were lyin' to me and I wasn't ever getting out.
Kind of lost it. I mean, quietly, because I was too high on painkillers to *really* lose it. But it was bad."
Chris stared at the floor for a moment. The smell of the place. The restraints. "What happened?"
She was silent for so long that he looked up. Her eyes were on the window, the small spider plant someone had decided would be more original than flowers.
"I'd—there was this lieutenant on the other homicide shift, and she and I were just a disaster together. I mean, we started off completely on the wrong foot and it was downhill from there. And I'm lyin' there in my bed, looking and feeling like shit—and *knowing* I look like shit, that's even better—wearing this nightgown one of my friends brought me. I hate the damn thing, it's got lace all over it...but it beats paper. Just barely. And the other lieutenant, she's in my room all of a sudden, making this friendly little visit.
Right? Her shift is on the investigation, too, so she's got a spare moment, she's getting her professional courtesy visit over with.
"So I'm lying there, and she's standing there, and she can't wait to get out and I can't wait for her to leave, and...I kept this oyster shell in my desk drawer, for good luck. I picked it up one day when my mom and I were out on the beach, before she got really sick...smelled like the ocean, still. And I hear myself like some little kid. Please bring me my shell. All the people I didn't wanna explain that thing to, she was at the top of the list."
Chris searched his brain for some talisman, some comfort object, and came up empty. Tim wasn't a hoarder or a saver; few mementos of any kind, that he could see. No good-luck charms. "Did she bring you the shell?" he asked.
"Yeah. She did. Which was nice, considering I did my best to kick her out of the room. Didn't really help, though..." Kay folded her arms again, tucking her hands away from view. "I held it for a while, and then I asked her to put it in the nightstand drawer. Kept thinking if I had it out, somebody'd take it away...and then a few nights later, that's when I decide I'm here forever, there's no way out. And I really, really want my shell—and I can't get to it. And I...like I said."
"Panicked," he offered.
Her chin rested against her collarbone, a swath of loose red hair veiling her face.
"What happened? Did a nurse come, or..."
A shake of the head. "Just dealt with it. It passed." She laughed, a little shakily. "This is just what you need to hear—"
"It's better knowing. It always is."
He shrugged. "*You* must think so. You're a detective, aren't you?"
"Yeah, well...we're all such healthy people. Right?"
Neither of them spoke for several minutes. Chris's eyes moved from Tim to Kay and back again. She looked as drained as he felt, her last reserves tapped; the phrase *played out* came to his mind. Tim lay there like some sort of exhibit. He suddenly remembered a vacation in Boston, with the public defender; the Peabody Museum. Exquisite, fragile models of living flowers; glass protected beneath glass. You wanted to lean forward and smell them.
Kay sat unmoving in her chair, arms still tightly folded. For a moment he thought she might have fallen asleep, until he saw her eyes beneath the curtain of loose curls; she was watching Tim fixedly.
"Could I ask you something?" he said.
"Shoot." She lifted her head up, untucking her hands and laying them flat against her knees.
"Your mother..." He hesitated.
"I was thirteen," Kay said. "Almost fourteen." Her fingers curled around both knees. "There's cancer on both sides of the family, breast cancer...almost all the women in my family got diagnosed before they turned forty. My grandmother did. Three of my aunts. My younger sister."
"My mother never had it...maybe she was missing that gene, or whatever." Her hands gripped her knees tightly for a moment, then let go. "Anyway, what she ended up with instead was lupus. Which also runs in the family—her side of it. It attacked her kidneys."
One foot tapped on the floor, her heel hitting the edge of the vinyl chair with a muted thud. "Carrie—my sister, Carrie—she kept wanting to drag us all in for genetic testing. I wouldn't do it. Whatever's gonna happen...that's what's gonna happen. I mean, my great-aunt had lupus too, she lived to be eighty-seven...doesn't mean anything.
That's what I keep telling Carrie, but she doesn’t listen. She wants guarantees. Which I guess she *would* want—she's the lucky one who got sick. She's the one who wants children. Needs to hear that's gonna be the end of it."
She gave him a little smile. "So, maybe we *don't* all think it's best to know. Hmm?"
Chris rubbed at his neck, at a persistent little cramp. His sleeping foot still wasn't entirely awake. "I could still pick you out as a detective," he declared.
"What, then? Nihilistic?"
Her smile widened. "Realistic."
"Point taken. Again." He banged the offending foot against the floor for a moment, then gave up on it. The pins and needles had subsided to an occasional sharp jab. "Is your father still alive?"
She nodded. "Retired now. Watches talk shows all day—talk shows and fishing shows."
Chris turned to look outside again, at the windows of the ward across the courtyard. Their white curtains made them into a dirty row of teeth.
"My parents were in an accident a few years ago," he said. "On I-95.
Black ice." His hands reached out, grasping before them. Tim's forearm. The edge of the thin blanket. His voice was barely audible.
"I don't have anyone left."
Kay's hands went into her pockets again. She leaned forward, regarding him with tired but peaceful eyes. "Yes, you do," she said.
His hands held on tighter. "You're assuming a lot, aren't you?"
"That Tim's gonna be all right?" She settled back in the chair, shoulder blades rubbing against its slick back. "He will be. That's not a big assumption to make."
When he opened his mouth to protest, she cut him off. "Look at me.
Hmm? I got shot twice, right in the heart. Went into cardiac arrest in the ER. Ended up in surgery for about fourteen hours. If I can do that, and be sitting here talkin' to you now—" She shrugged. "And Stan. He got hit square in the brain. He got through it. Wasn't easy, but we're both here. Tim'll wake up in a few days. He'll have a rotten few months, maybe a rotten year. But he'll be fine."
Chris stared at her. No sugary reassurance in her voice, no taste of false promises; just a quiet, unshakable sincerity. It scared him, and he was drawn to it instantly.
*Absolute metaphysical certitude.* What talk show host loved to throw that phrase around? He couldn't remember. "You're sure of this."
"Yes. I am."
"He's not doing well—"
"He's alive. That's well enough. He's gonna be fine."
Chris held her gaze for a long moment. The dark eyes were unyielding.
Kay rose from her chair, sliding her feet back into her shoes. "It's getting late here...I'd better go."
Chris looked at his watch again, and was surprised to discover it was after eight. He stood up as well, coming around to Kay's side of the bed and shaking her hand.
"It was good to meet you," he said.
A smile—a real smile—and a nod. "Yeah. You too."
She reached out and took the fingers of Tim's hand into her own, briefly squeezing. Then she turned and left the room.
Chris watched the small, redhaired figure quickly disappear down the hallway and out of sight. After a moment he reached for his jacket, draped carelessly over the rickety wheeled table near the window.
Halfway to the door, he stopped, resting a hand against the side of Tim's face.
"I'm going to get something to eat," he whispered. "I'll be back soon."
He could be back before visiting hours ended, if he left now. There was a little diner half a block from the hospital that served good plain dishes; meatloaf, creamed spinach, real mashed potatoes.
Comfort food. For the first time in three days, he was hungry.
Chris stopped again in the doorway, looking back. Tim lay threaded with tubes and wires that seemed to have burrowed of their own accord into his skin; an unlucky insect trapped by an especially malevolent spider. Alive, as fragile as glass.
*He's alive. That's well enough. He's gonna be fine.*
He turned away and started walking; past the nurses' station and the drinking fountains, toward the long bend in the hallway that led to the elevators. He imagined himself being watched, a pinpoint vanishing into the distance.
*Don’t go anywhere without me...*