Where Everyone is Worried and Nobody is Talking
Clumps of hair dropped to the floor with every pass of the clippers, exposing the jagged hole three inches up from the patient's right ear. He was due in surgery in the next ten minutes.
His bare scalp was treated with antiseptic. While one attendant drew out lines where the incisions were to be placed, another prepped the second bullet hole in his upper left chest. Still another attendant checked the tubes feeding oxygen before moving on to the saline drip. Plasma flowed steadily down another tube fighting for space among the lines leading into both arms. The final step was to place a draping over the scalp – leaving plenty of room to slice into the tissue surrounding the wound. After that, he was ready for the surgery bay.
Once under the operative lights, the real work started.
Skin was cut back to expose the damaged bone beneath. Fissures and cracks led off from the point of penetration – some smaller fragments missing as they'd been pushed deeper into the skull from the force of impact. Debridment with saline solution followed – a long process of flushing contaminants from the traumatized pinkish-gray brain matter inside. Dirt, blood, and tiny fragments of bone were evacuated by the solution while larger pieces were painstakingly picked out with narrow forceps.
A sudden flood of thin red into the opening was accompanied by urgent beeping from one of the machines monitoring blood pressure. There was hemorrhaging somewhere out of sight. Suction kept the area clear while urgent searching tried to locate the source of the bleed. There! The vein was clamped, but now the heart monitor was going off. Pressure continued to drop, but it wasn't from the head wound.
Other hands busy at the shoulder were covered in blackish spatter from another hemorrhage. This one was much worse – involving an artery. An arc of blood spurted from the open wound as the surgeons fought to control it. Bags of plasma were replaced as so much was lost. Clamps pinched, saline rinsed, suction cleared, and pressure dropped further.
Seconds later, the rapid beeps became a single, long whine.
He hated waiting rooms. For a career that too often involved homicide, waiting rooms were forever linked together with the dead and dying. The last stop for too many family members desperate for news of their loved ones – only to be told they wouldn't be coming home again. It was where being a cop meant having to tell someone else he'd been too late – that the only thing he could do would be to find the killer – to solve the case. Any power he'd had as an officer was lost here. All faith he'd ever scrounged had been tested and lost on too many occasions to dredge any now. Sure, his son had been behind these walls in the past and had emerged whole if not completely hale. But never for something...
Henry stared at his hands rather than the wall – pale green and reminiscent of those horrid little mints they served at weddings. Like solidified toothpaste. Staring at his hands was better. They were mostly clean now, though with all the creases and valleys it had been taking longer than he'd had the patience for to scrub them back to pale tan. He'd wanted to know what was happening with Shawn. But there had been no news. So he'd waited. He was still waiting.
Movement beside him reminded him that he wasn't the only one waiting.
Henry glanced at the younger man at his side...
He actually didn't mind waiting rooms. Antiseptic bathed the air in a germ free no fly zone and everyone walked around him in pristine garments of white. Clipboards and computers kept regular tallies of what came in and out. It was ordered and routine and it settled Gus's nerves with the promise that someone was in control. Sure, he knew the action beyond these soothing tea green walls was far more dramatic than this sedate setting implied, but that was okay. As long as he didn't actually have to see the drama for himself, everything would be fine.
Gus kept his hands between his knees in a tight clasp. They weren't sticky anymore – not after the half hour he'd spent in the bathroom scrubbing at every crease in his skin. But he was afraid to look at them. He was afraid he might have missed a spot. And if he saw anything – even a flake – then his orderly little world was going to crumble. He'd notice things (the way the wallpaper peeled up on the corner near the nurse's station) and he'd start to worry about other things (four hours – it's been four hours) and pretty soon he'd start to panic (Shawn has a bullet in his head! How can he survive that? What if he dies? What if he's in a coma?). But his hands stayed in his lap and his eyes stayed on the nursing staff. When one of the residents came through the room and proceeded to flirt with one of the nurses, Gus smiled. Shawn would have done that; she was cute and curvy and had short, blonde hair that made her look like a pixie. He'd have hit that in a heartbeat (what if his heart stops beating? What if they can't get it going again? Shawn had heart problems before – long ago. What if that complicates things now? What if...)
Henry's large hand pressed down on his knee. Until that moment, Gus hadn't realized that his leg had been pistoning up and down in a frantic beat. The abrupt absence of his heel tap dancing on the linoleum let him know what sound it was that had been just on the peripheral of his attention.
It should have felt strange to be comforted by his best friend's father. Well, it was a little strange simply given that this was Henry Spencer and Henry Spencer didn't exactly hand out reassurance like Halloween candy. Wishing his mom was there so he could bury his face in the smell of coffee and fresh linen, Gus clung to the one parent figure he did have close by. Henry didn't throw him off when Gus wrapped his fingers around the hand on his leg. Instead, he turned his hand to clasp back. It occurred to Gus that maybe Henry wasn't so much giving comfort as looking for it himself.
They sat there like that, both desperate for someone absent. They were incomplete puzzle pieces that didn't quite fit together, but they made do with what they had.
Because, right then, it was all they had.
They got his rhythm back, but the risk for complete failure remained strong as the surgery progressed.
In the next few hours the team went through two more bags of plasma while they struggled to repair the terrible injuries. It was decided that the bullet was in a position that made the risk of removal too great. Worse, even, than simply leaving it in place. What couldn't be predicted were the side effects from having the bullet spiral through brain matter on the way to its final resting place.
Forty minutes later and the surgeons had done all they could. The wounds were closed as best as possible with a tube left behind to monitor and control any fluid build up.
Leaving the rest of his staff to clean up, the head surgeon stripped his gloves and mask before heading out the double doors. He knew it was a cliche', but never the less, the next part of his job was, in many ways, harder than the surgery he'd just performed. Though many in his field preferred to fob off the task of updating family members on an underling, whenever possible, he took on that task himself. Changing into a clean pair of scrubs, no need to cause additional alarm by showing up spattered in blood, he took a final moment to wipe his glasses before proceeding to the waiting room.
They'd only been allowed to see Shawn for a few minutes before the nursing staff had hustled them out of the room again. Though he'd made it through surgery, his condition was still critical and they weren't taking any chances – not even with the people that loved him the most.
Afterward, Henry accepted the ride home from Gus. He'd been a little bit startled to see his truck in the driveway – though obviously it had been delivered there by officers sometime while he was waiting on news about his son. The light on his house phone was flashing when he entered his kitchen. Lifting the unit, he thumbed the code for his voicemail while continuing to the refrigerator and lifting out a beer.
“Mr. Spencer, it's Juliet – Officer O'Hara.”
Henry smiled for a brief second at the self correction before his mood slipped away again. It was the memory of the doctor's voice. 'There may be some complications...'
He leaned against the counter while the message continued, his beer settling beside him, unopened.
“I tried calling you on your cell phone but couldn't get through.”
His battery had died at around six thirty, a consequence of neglect he normally associated with his son. But he'd had good reason to forget the charger.
“Anyway, I thought you should know, we found the men that did this. They're in custody right now, and they aren't going anywhere.”
The casing of the phone creaked in his fingers.
“If Shawn... if you – when you hear how Shawn is doing, could you...? Or, I can call you in the morning. I just don't want to bother you, I know you're probably tired and...”
Detective Lassiter could just be heard in the background – his voice strong in spite of the hour that the message had been left. Catching a criminal had a way of infusing a jolt of adrenaline through the system like no cup of coffee ever could. He remembered when that used to work for him too.
Cutting off her nervous babble, Detective O'Hara ended the call with a promise to talk soon.
There was another message after hers; Karen expressing her concerns as well as the assurance that the case against the men was solid. Two more messages were from a couple of guys Henry had known on the force during his time as an officer.
When he finally hung up and returned the phone to the charger, he no longer wanted his beer. Water was beaded on the glass as he grabbed the neck to return it to the refrigerator. He'd hoped to have heard from Madeline again, but he hadn't expected to. He'd spoken to her via Gus's cell phone, once, shortly after arriving at the hospital and again after finding out about Shawn's condition. She was currently in the middle of a tour through the East coast states that would end up in New York. That, however, had now changed.
The walk through his kitchen had no direction to guide it. He touched the dials on the stove as he passed the appliance – the knob for the far right burner jiggling loosely after Shawn had cracked it when he was ten. He'd always meant to replace that; had intended to buy a new knob every time he'd gone to the hardware store; but somehow it always slipped his mind.
His circuit brought him past the table and the jar of cooking implements. He pulled out the whisk that had tied his son in knots the first time he'd spotted it. Shawn had taken to hiding it every time he'd visited since then – always trying to outwit his old man. Neither one ever mentioned the game. Like a lot of things between them, they just never talked about it.
Henry sat in one of the chairs, still holding the whisk. He was finding it hard to breathe. Gasping brought oxygen but couldn't take away the pressure squeezing through his abdomen. It was like he'd become suddenly, violently, sick. He clamped his fists around the metal handle in his hands and twisted until the friction burned against his palms.
He should have insisted on staying with his son. The doctors and nurses didn't know Shawn as anything other than a number on a clipboard. In the ICU he was even less than that. “Head Trauma” – name and diagnosis one and the same. He was one of many; not a young man finding his footing after so many years flying above the ground, but just another patient to complicate their routine.
Henry came back to himself with his eyes pressed against the heels of his palms. His breathing had steadied but it still ached. His nose felt swollen and he sniffed as he dug a handkerchief from his pocket. After blowing his nose, he rested his forehead back in his hand. Age had never been so relevant to him as it was now – his fifty-five years felt through each joint and every heart beat. He felt as though he'd lost whatever vitality had carried him through the day in search of his son. The moment he'd seen his child crumpled at the bottom of that hill like a discarded piece of rubbish, the strength that had powered him forward had vanished. Whatever he may have been was gone.
He felt old.