Kent Institution, located on Cemetery Road, inspired the prison newsletter’s name, ‘The Cemetery Road News.’ Ian, the newsletter’s editor, occupied the cell next to mine. Upon occasion, I had submitted articles. That was how we began talking to each other. When our families visited the same afternoon one weekend, Ian introduced me to Sarah, his older sister. When Ian overdosed on heroin, I wrote Sarah a letter of condolence. She replied. We had kept in touch ever since: I enjoyed writing and receiving letters and she took pleasure from my skewed prison observations. We had slowly built a friendship that endured almost a decade. Knocking at her front door at this time of night, bloody and wanted by the law, would test our friendship’s resilience.
The porch light snapped on glaringly bright. Every insomniac on the block just noted my appearance, I told myself. Tremors of discord faded. I felt too weary, too sore, too bloody and too damned injured to care. Weariness cured paranoia. Light grey eyes studied me through the glass. I waved small and nodded large. The door opened. Sarah’s wide-eyed look erased her earlier sleepy expression. After quickly recovering her wits, she pulled me inside.
“You’d better feel a whole kit-n’-caboodle better than you look. From my perspective, Halloween has a new mascot.”
“Thanks. Glad to be an inspiration.”
“Black hair doesn’t suit you. Too Goth. Ever think about becoming a redhead?”
Whenever doctors felt the need for banter, I become nervous.
“I need a drink. Make it a double. Hold the ice and the glass.”
The hallway mirror we passed reflected a corpse collected from the battlefield waiting to be toe-tagged and body bagged. My knees weakened. Sarah grabbed my elbow. Unchanneled fury shepherded the grief that came with the news of Odera’s abduction to release adrenaline into my system and to firm up my legs.
“No booze,” said Sarah steering me into her treatment room, to the adjustable bone-cracking table. “Slows the body’s ability to heal,” she said twisting and tying her long brown hair into a ponytail using a stretchy scrunchy pulled from her wrist.
“So, this is your chamber of horrors. Where do you keep the whips?”
“In the closet. Now strip or I’ll have to cut off your clothes. And hurry, you’re dripping blood on my new floor.”
Sarah retrieved a stainless-steel pan: a pair of forceps, gauze, and alcohol disinfectant from the shelves.
“What, no foreplay?”
My turtleneck sweater, now a fishnet top, fell to the floor in a wet and bloody heap.
“That’s coming,” returned Sarah, opening and closing the forceps’ silver metal tongues so they clicked.
“Anybody ever tell you that your bedside manner needs work?”
A fresh wave of dizzy shock assaulted my knees. Sarah Steadied me by the elbow as I kicked off my boots, and then fumbled at my belt.
“Lean on the table and try not to fall down.”
It was difficult to stand when the room went round faster than a Ferris wheel. Sarah’s hands were quick and helped me to step out of bloody and torn pants. She reached for my boxers.
“I got that. Go do whatever it is doctors do.”
“Honey, the only difference between men is the angle of the dangle. Wrong time for modesty.” I nodded weakly, knees wobbling. “Up on the table. I’ll cut them off. TLC time.”
“You won’t mind if I reserve judgement until you’re done.”
Having thrown a towel across my middle, she began with a thorough examination, pushing here and there with her fingers. Sarah segregated my right deltoid to access a piece of metal embedded in flesh. Sweat popped out on my brow as I tried not to withdraw in pain.
“Lie still,” she commanded when I flinched. My teeth clenched and my eyes watered. Sarah’s extraction of the steel object brought immediate relief, rescuing me from the throbbing that had replaced my shoulder. “I’m concerned you didn’t feel it before now. It should have hurt like hell.”
She pre-threaded a horseshoe-shaped needle.
“So much of me hurt, it wouldn’t have been fair to single out one body part.”
“You must be in a lot of pain,” Sarah remarked wiping my shoulder with an antibacterial solution before using forceps to remove glass shards, wood splinters, and bits and pieces of smaller, unnameable material before irrigating each laceration.
“Your wit is very nearly amusing. Hold still, you’re going to feel a teeny-tiny little sting.”
Surgical steel burrowed into my back forcing me to clench my teeth to avoid crying out. Despite not wishing to vocalize pain, the depth of her forceps elicited a grunt and a groan. It felt as though Sarah operated on my liver.
“Lose a screw?” she asked turning a blood-coated wood screw held between the forceps’ metal fingers back and forth.
“You’ve no idea.” Beads of cold sweat dotted my brow. “I think I’m going to pass out.” The room was growing darker and darker. Sarah’s voice came from farther and farther away. The light irised shut. So easy to sleep. “Ouch! What was that? Ow. Fuck!”
“I thought soldiers were tough? Try squeezing an eight-pound-six-ounce baby through a ten-centimetre opening. Now, that smarts. Ahh, here we go. Another shiny something or other for your collection.” The metal pan tinged when Sarah added her prize. “You’re going to feel a teeny-weenie little pinch, not much more than a mosquito bite.”
Not again, I thought and braced myself. The sound of a door opening across the room distracted me from the syringe with a very long needle. By the time I recognized Barbara, Sarah’s twenty-two-year-old daughter, Sarah stabbed me near an open cut with the freezing needle. Jesus, Joseph and Mary that’ll get you moving in the morning. Seconds later, I felt only pressure.
“Mom? I heard you go downstairs to answer the door, but you didn’t come back up. What’s wrong? Who’s that? Bruce? Is that you? Are you alright?”
“He’s fine dear. Just a little punctured, cut, bruised and slightly bloodied, otherwise he’s right as rain,” Sarah said irrigating a cut.
If there’s anyone else home, feel free to invite them down.”
“Can I help?”
“Seen one, seen them all.”
“You’ve just made your mother proud.”
“I’m engaged,” Barbara said, holding up her ringed finger.
“Congratulations. Now pick a trail.”
Sarah said, “There’s a set of tweezers on the tray. Dig in but leave the deeper lacerations for me. Stick to the epidermal cuts. If anything snags, stop and notify me at once. Do not try to work anything loose that won’t immediately pull free.”
At my incredulous expression, Sarah said, “Your back and legs are a peg-board of cuts and punctures. Thirty or forty epidermal lacerations. Most contain foreign matter. You’ve managed to embed asphalt and thorns as well. My biggest worry is an infection, so I’m going to irrigate each site with sterile saline and then tap water when I run out of saline. This will take a while. You require a tetanus shot, which I don’t stock. I’ll pick a supply up from a twenty-four-hour pharmacy when I’m done.” After a pause, she added, “Don’t worry, there aren’t but a few subdural lacerations that made it to muscle. Nothing bone-deep I can see, yet. There’s a whole lot more blood than serious harm. By the looks of things, maybe two or three sites need stitches. No pumpers.”
“Bruce,” Barbara uttered in a low and careful voice, “did you commit the crimes the TV and newspapers accused you of?”
“What do you think?” I asked, looking at horror and confusion in her expression.
“If you didn’t, then why are the police looking for you?”
“Quiet dear. Of course, he didn’t.”
“It’s alright. She asked a fair question.”
The least I could do was to start at the beginning. Reciting my tale would help to put things into perspective and it would take my mind off the pain being inflicted on my body in the name of friendship. Both women listened with only the occasional question for the sake of clarity. The sound of foreign-something-or-others hitting metal accompanied my words. When I finished with events leading up to my arrival, they applied the last of the bandages. I accepted an unbloodied bath towel from Sarah and sat up. And though I winced to sit straight, the pain was many times less than when I had arrived.
“Do you think Odera’s alive?” Barbara asked at last.
“Yes, I do. Whatever they think I found on the optical drive made them wait for me at her place. They knew I was the last person to access the work computer. In case they missed me, Odera’s a bargaining chip and a source of information. She’s too valuable to kill. Whoever this crew is, I’ve fucked up their plans royally. They need her alive to have any hope of finding me, and to predict my actions.”
“What do you have? What plans did you interrupt? And who are they?”
Sarah pressed a glass of cold water, accompanied by three extra-strength Tylenol into my hand.
“I wish I knew.” I yawned deep and long. The clock showed nearly 4:00 a.m.: I had been going non-stop for nearly thirty hours. “Whatever I found is somehow connected to the file Odera emailed work. The variable set is the sole link, but it makes no sense how it ties in. I’ve missed something. I need to start over at the beginning.”
“You need sleep, mister. You’re done for today.”
“Almost. An older blue Chev needs a wash, inside and out. It’s parked several doors down and on the other side of the street. I borrowed it without permission.”
Reaching for my pants caused me to wince and overbalance.
“You’re not going anywhere until you’ve rested.”
Sarah grabbed my right arm; Barbara latched onto my left.
“I’ll do it, Mom.”
“No!” we exclaimed in unison.
“It’s my responsibility, but thanks anyway.”
“Show Bruce to the guest bedroom and then tidy up. Stuff everything, including his clothes and boots, into a plastic garbage bag. If I haven’t returned in thirty minutes, drop the bag in a dumpster at the mall and come straight back.”
“I can’t let you do this, Sarah.”
“You should have thought of that before you knocked. Don’t even think about leaving until you’ve eaten and slept.” Turning to Barbara, she instructed, “Make sure he drinks plenty of orange juice and eats something light. Toast or bagels.”
“Thanks, Doc, you’re a life-saver. There’s a pair of needle-nose pliers on the seat. Stick them in the ignition cavity and twist.”
“Make sure you don’t squander our efforts. I’m looking forward to meeting this woman. Never took you for the lovey-dovey relationship kind.”
“Me neither,” I grinned ruefully.
Further words were unnecessary. Nine years of letters had allowed each of us to take the measure of the other. I had been a different person back then, or maybe I had not known myself very well. It was too damn late and I was too damn exhausted to consider metaphysics and the nature of reality, especially my own.The trip up to the guest bedroom was slow going. No less taxing than ascending a mountain. Barbara disappeared after she dropped me off and returned shortly with a tray holding juice and toast. She stood over me spouting a stream of small talk while I drank OJ and ate the four pieces of lightly buttered toast. I laid back and closed my eyes, instantly falling asleep somewhere between when I swallowed the last bite and when Barbara killed the light. Not one fibre suspected treachery. I must be going soft.