Never Look Back

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Chapter 68

City buses, taxis and shuttle buses modified to carry wheelchairs and disabled people flowed nonstop to and from bus stops and taxi stands outside Mississauga Hospital. The main hospital entrance lacked the traffic I wanted to shield my entrance. Employees, day visitors, outpatients, volunteers, students and interns arrived and departed in droves between eight in the morning and five in the afternoon. Access to one hospital’s emergency entrance was essentially the same as any other in most Canadian cities. To ensure this truism, I seated myself inside a nearby bus shelter and sipped coffee while reconoitering the entrance. During the last hour ambulances, police cruisers and civilian traffic entered the ‘Emergency Vehicle Only’ circular driveway. All vehicles pulled up to a set of automatic glass doors located under a wide awning. Nurses and doctors rushed outside pushing wheelchairs or gurneys with which to transport patients inside. Coming and going ambulances, police, nurses and doctors resembled a choreographed stage production. Controlled chaos erupted each time a vehicle dislodged an injured person.

Having discharged their patients to waiting nurses and doctors, the drivers moved their vehicles. Police cruisers pulled fifty or sixty feet forward into an area designated for service vehicles and began the compulsory paperwork. Ambulance drivers logged their trip into an electronic tablet and then climbed inside the back organizing and restocking for the next call. Civilian vehicles departed in search of parking spaces before returning to complete admittance forms.

When a new arrival pulled up to the automatic doors and the well-rehearsed movement spun into action, I slipped through the side door and into the hospital. Goal-oriented workers rushed to-and-fro completing tasks. In this chaotic environment a stationary watcher would have stood out, would more than likely have found themselves in someone’s way. So that’s who I looked for. No such watchers jumped out at me as I passed beneath a drop-down ceiling sign indicating the direction of the hospital gift shop. The gift shop cashier was happy to look up Julia’s room number and supply me with directions. I set off down the hallway carrying the flowers in such a way as to partially obscure my face from hospital hallway cameras.

Rather than ride the elevator to the third floor, I used the stairs. Each landing door housed a narrow rectangular safety glass window. Viewed from the stairwell side of the third-floor door, I witnessed what appeared to be normal activity. No uniformed police occupied chairs outside hospital rooms. No reporters or cameras waited to interview anyone. Nobody lingered in the hallway, nor behind the nursing station’s low counter. Nurses carried stainless-steel trays containing tiny paper cups filled with water and medication in and out of rooms. Orderlies carted dirty linen away from rooms and returned with clean linen. Janitors swept and mopped tiled floors between yellow A-frame slippery when wet signs. Visitors walked down the hallway paying attention to room numbers and not to other people using the corridors. Everything felt normal. My back brain did not object to the legitimacy of what I viewed.

The door swished quietly shut behind me when I stepped into the hallway. Another overhead sign indicated the direction of Room 314, which the cashier said was a shared room. Not an ideal scenario to hold a private conversation. The first few words out of my mouth were going to be crucial. At the first sign of trouble, either Julia or her roommate could press the panic button to summon help from the nursing station. While Odera and I had had several conversations with Julia, I did not consider her more than an acquaintance. I hoped I was mistaken. I hoped Julia considered me a friend. All I had was hope.

Room 314’s door was wide enough to push a bed through and it contained a safety glass window. It was closed. Horseshoe-shaped stainless-steel ceiling rails mounted above each bed, held curtains and divided the room into halves. One bed per half room. The privacy curtain for the bed closest to the door was three-quarters closed but open sufficiently for me to discern its occupant. An array of red, blue and yellow lights shone from the electronic panel at the head of the first bed. Three long exterior windows allowed natural light into the room. Window blinds had been opened to their fullest. Hospital policy mandated open blinds. Additional levels of light, especially sunlight, battled depression, infused hope and happiness at an evolutionary level to speed recovery. Dangers faced in darkness caused death more often than the same danger battled in sunlight. Humankind gravitated toward the light. Quicker recoveries meant shorter hospital stays and lowered the hospital’s bottom line.

Flat-screen televisions hung in opposite corners of the room. Both units were turned off. A middle-aged man lay on his back with his eyes closed ― maybe he slept. Maybe not. His medical chart, dog-eared pages showing plainly at one corner, hung from the foot of his bed. Its presence allayed a level of worry. If they had put a cop in the bed next to her, I doubted he would have had an active chart. As soon as I cleared the main door, a unisex bathroom door came into view.

With the bouquet blocking my face from the first bed’s occupant, I entered the door and moved toward Julia’s bed. At this point, I hoped to find Julia, but the paranoid presence in my head warned the police might have put one of their own in her bed while the real Julia was located under an alias in another room. I hoped I was wrong.

One way to find out.

I stepped around the corner of the semi-closed curtain and discovered a woman laying on her back swathed in a thick shoulder bandage. Julia rested quietly with her eyes closed. She breathed easy and shallow. Her face showed pale and her lips were a little bloodless. The silver candy cane IV stand next to her bed held two transparent plastic bags. The sticker on the closest bag read ‘saline solution’. The second bag read two percent morphine solution. A self-administering handheld unit rested next to Julia’s right hand. Saline was for fluid-loss, to help with blood manufacturing. All to be expected given the circumstances.

The red emergency button attached to a white cord lay not far from the morphine drip button. Both units had been placed within easy reach, which spoke well of hospital nursing staff. Staff who did not want to be bothered would have neglected the red call button and simply hoped the patient would self-medicate unto deep sleep. Placing the call button nearby meant a caring nursing staff existed to help patients. Rather than speak to Julia, I opted for a subtle approach. I was a big believer in freedom so I picked up the emergency button and held it out to her in my left hand while holding the bouquet out to her with my right hand and cleared my throat loudly. I waited. Hoping for the best.

Julia’s eyelids fluttered but did not open.

Her lips opened wide enough to allow her tongue to wet them.

Before she settled back into sleep, I cleared my throat again. It seemed to work, for her eyes opened slowly. I wished I had chosen to hold a glass of water out to her instead of a bundle of flora filling the air with perfume scents. Confusion slowly melted from her gaze as she became cognizant of her surroundings. Perfumed fauna made her nostrils twitch. Ever so slowly, she turned her head toward me. Confusion re-entered her gaze when her eyes found mine. She did not immediately recognize the man at her bedside. I smiled warmly.

“Hi Julia, its Bruce. This is a dumb question, but how are you feeling?”

“Like I was run over and the driver reversed for another pass.”

“As you may be aware, I refused police hospitality when they offered it Monday morning. It was a room service thing.”

“So I heard.”

“When you’re ready, you can choose either hand. Choose my left hand and you get flowers. The right hand includes flowers and a visit. I need to talk to you if you feel strong enough.”

“There’s a vase on the table,” Julia said weakly.

She winced when she raised her head to indicate where the vase rested. The pain relief button clicked twice. I laid the red emergency button beside her hand and turned my back on her to place the flowers in the shatterproof hospital vase. Any second now, I expected to hear another button press. Rather than turn back around quickly, I forced myself to show trust and took my time arranging flowers. Four or five seconds passed until we faced each other with one bed length between us. The emergency button lay untouched.

“Pull up a chair. I told the detectives the truth ― that you weren’t there, but they seemed pretty determined to form a link anyway.”

“Does it hurt much? Can I get you water or something?”

“It hurts like hell. The drip is filling me up. Feels like I must pee all the time. Takes me ten minutes to walk fifteen feet to the bathroom. When I sit down nothing comes out. And I must drag this IV holder around with me.” Tears gathered in her eyes. “I’m so sorry I didn’t call for help before going over. A phone call might have saved Odera.”

“I think you’re mistaken. Those guys were plugged into police scanners or had ears downtown. Maybe both. Count on it. And I don’t think it was their first time, either. You did everything humanly possible. You’re as brave as they come. Can you tell me what you saw, what you heard, any little detail you can remember no matter how insignificant you think it might be?”

“That’s what detective Sands asked, too. I don’t remember the other guy’s name. Something Irish, though.” Julia’s eyes closed. When twenty seconds passed, I did not know if she had fallen asleep or if she just rested. When I had decided to leave her be, she whispered, “Four men. Three had toffee coloured necks and noses. I couldn’t really see their hair, but I had the impression they were swarthy like. I remember black army boots and tacky green camouflage pants but not if they all wore them. They weren’t all dressed the same. I feel like they were foreign marines or something army like. Thick Spanish accents. But not the skinny white guy. Definitely American. New York City nasal accent. He ordered that I be stopped when I tried to go for help. That’s when the other guy shot me.”

Julia’s eyes opened. Anger and grief co-mingled. Her expression firmed up with resolve to prevent memories from overcoming tender emotions that felt new and raw. She probably relived Sunday in her mind all over again. I could see her fighting back dark memories like Odera had, as I had. Julia now belonged to an exclusive club.

“Take your time. Breathe deeply. It’ll pass in a second. Try to be a spectator and don’t lock on to any one memory.”

“One of the men was a giant. He was as big as a WWF wrestler. Bigger even. He’s the one who held Odera while two others searched the living room. The skinny guy was at the dining table working on a computer.”

“Any idea what they searched for?”

“Nope. Just as I arrived one guy was telling another guy to take thumb drives and software or something like that.”

“Can you remember the time?”

“After midnight, I think. But right around then.”

“Did you notice a vehicle?”

“No.”

“Do you recall any conversation?”

“Um…something,” said Julia closing her eyes again. “Access number…sorry,” Julia looked at me. “I didn’t remember until just this second. The skinny guy, I think he was asking Odera about an access number. I’m not really sure. I can’t help remembering Odera’s face. Her anguish, and I don’t know. Everything happened so fast after that.”

“Can you describe the guns? Any other weapons perhaps? Maybe you’ve seen them on a certain TV show I can look at.”

“Black handguns. I think maybe I saw two. One up close,” she tried to joke but no smile formed. “Can’t get it out of my mind. I keep seeing that guy shoot me. Big orange flame and then pain like I never thought to feel. It plays over and over in my mind.”

“Welcome to the survivor’s club. Think about that instead. Focus on living. Don’t attach emotional significance to your memories. I know it’s hard.”

“Will that make the sounds and images and the smell go away?”

“Not at first. Eventually. But it will put your fear into a workable perspective. You’re alive. You’re a survivor. It’s going to take more than an asshole with a gun to stop you from doing the right thing. You’re a hero. You may have saved Odera’s life, Julia. Focus on that and the memories won’t hurt as much. Reframe everything.”

“Did you see things like that in the military?”

“Yes. And in prison as well.”

“I don’t have Google. Phones and laptops aren’t allowed in here. The media makes everything sound pretty bad about you. Can I ask why you went to prison?”

“I ran into a couple of assholes in an alley and forgot to treat them kindly.”

Julia accepted my answer at face value. Generally, there were follow up questions. Most people needed clarification. They wanted closure. Curiosity is completely normal and natural. I accepted the inherent truth found in that human prognosis and waited without prejudice, no longer feeling it was a case of people prying. Julia showed herself to have come from a different mould when she chose not to inquire after the nitty-gritty.

“Did I help?” she wanted to know.

“Sure did. I know more now than I did before. You should use the phone number those detectives left with you and tell them about the access number.”

“Did you burn down my condo?” she asked in a serious voice, except she flashed me a genuine smile.

“Not exactly. At the time of the explosion, I was on your roof. The people who took Odera and shot you don’t like me much either, but I’m hoping for another chance to introduce myself. If it’s any consolation, I’m pretty sure I crossed paths with the big guy you described. It’s unlikely he’ll walk again without a limp, and he’ll never chew food with all of his own teeth.”

“If you come across the skinny New Yorker who gave the order to shoot me, will you give him my regards?”

Rather than respond aloud, I nodded. No need for the dude in the other bed to hear me premeditate harm. Julia’s eyes fluttered closed. Before I squeezed her hand goodbye, she had fallen asleep. On my way past the foot of her neighbour’s bed, I glanced over. The male occupant laid awake holding the emergency button in his right hand. He must have heard everything. I tilted my head to him politely. He smiled knowingly and nodded back.

“You’re the boyfriend? Ex-armed forces? You beat a mugger to death and went to prison wearing a dishonourable?”

“Sounds about right,” I answered with one hand on the door handle.

“Tough break.”

“Especially for him.”

“My brother is in Afghanistan as we speak.”

“I hope he keeps his head down and his weapon up.”

“The Irish detective calls himself O’Reilly. Even though Julia told them you weren’t there, he thinks you’re dirty. I think you’re the guy the media won’t identify but reported saved the cop. It happened at the architectural firm, right? The place you worked at? If it was any normal kind of guy to save a cop, the media would have held him up as a hero for days on end. It would be the top story. A made for TV movie would be on the horizon. Julia and I are having trouble making sense of the news reports. They just don’t add up. I think O’Reilly has it all wrong about you.”

“It happens.”

“You only asked one question after Julia mentioned that access number thing. It seemed like an important piece of information.” When I remained silent, he said, “Would it help if Julia sat on that information for a few days?”

“Couldn’t hurt.”

“Good luck.”

“You too. And your brother as well.”

I exited the room shaking my head in amusement. Why do people consistently wish others good luck? Luck has nothing to do with anything. The odds of winning the Lotto 649 lottery are more than one in over fourteen million chances. Statistically speaking, there’s a higher likelihood of dying in a highway accident, getting hit by lightning, or run over by a bus crossing the street. People seldom cautioned each other to be careful of those very real dangers, yet they’ll wish each other good luck and buy 649 tickets with an eagerness that seemingly renders success a likelier outcome. Regardless of this social quirk, I accepted his send-off and departed the room thinking about the information. As I exited the hospital thinking the only access number I had knowledge of was the one Odera received from the convention, it dawned on me I was lucky Julia’s neighbour hadn’t pressed his red button. I was lucky Julia chose to let me speak to her. I was lucky she remembered the forgotten information. Perhaps I underrated the luck factor.
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