Despite the fact that the air conditioners were turned up to the maximum, Athens City Memorial Hospital was sweltering from the humid weather outside. Everyone inside the building was slowly growing hotter, being boiled in their own sweat.
Or at least, that's how I felt.
I'd given up long ago on folding linens and carrying boxes of files around to read to the patients in the Children's Ward. It was easier and also closer to an actual air conditioner. Amy, the little girl in need of a kidney transplant, had dozed off a little while ago, her blankets kicked to the end of the bed. I glanced around the room and noticed all the children were fast asleep, so I gently closed the book and left the room, making sure to ease the door shut behind me. It was hard to sleep in hospitals due to the constant beeping of machines and commotions so I didn't want them to be disturbed any further. I rubbed my own eyes tiredly and glanced at the clock. I had been here all day helping out. I suppose I could go home now that the children were all asleep.
"It's so nice of you to read to them." Ashleigh said from behind the desk. She was the receptionist and a nurse. She introduced me to the volunteer program here. "Especially since it's out of your own time."
"I like helping out. Lord knows you lot are all busy around here and I love seeing their little faces light up." I put the book down on the desk and leaned against it. "Besides, it looks good on a college application."
"Shouldn't you be heading home?" she asked, typing quickly and without looking up at me. "You've been here since eleven this morning and it's past midnight. Aren't you tired?"
"Yeah a little bit, but it feels good to be doing something productive on my holidays." I reached under the desk and got my bag, checking that I had everything.
"You don't want to go to the beach?"
I snorted and swung my back over my shoulder. "You're kidding right? I'd burn to a crisp."
Ashleigh smirked, "I suppose that is true. You are very fair."
I smiled and flipped my hair over my backpack so it wouldn't pull and get caught when I walked. With a little laugh I waved to her and began walking out, "See you Ashleigh. Don't work too hard tonight."
"I never do!" she called after me, a little laughter in her own voice.
Shaking my head, I turned towards the elevator and waited. It was taking an awfully long time and I was about to press the button again when it opened with a soft ding. I got in and pressed down. I noticed that the music wasn't on and that just made the whole experience eerie. I reached the bottom floor and the doors opened to chaos.
Nurses, paramedics and doctors were running through the Emergency Room. A crowd of police officers stood at the entrance, looking ruffled and impatient. Blood splattered the usually pristine floor and the collective voices of dozens of people rose up in a desperate roar.
Immediately I ran to the front desk, leaning over to peer down at Lennie, a male nurse who was holding a phone in one hand and a clipboard in the other. I couldn't quite make out what he was saying over all the noise but I could tell he was angry. It was only when he finally hung up the phone by slamming it down onto the receiver that I finally got his attention.
"What are you doing down here? Shouldn't you have left hours ago?" he demanded, standing up and started ruffling through files.
"I was on my way out and I saw the commotion. Lennie what's going on? I've never seen the E.R like this." I had to shout to be heard.
"Car accident a few blocks over. A bunch of kids got drunk. It was nasty. Your dad's on call and is operating on one of the kids now. They're from your school apparently." He looked at me sadly, "That's all I know, I'm sorry. You're welcome to stay and help out. Lord knows that we're short staffed tonight. You got your basic first aid training here right?"
"Then get to work!"
I watched as he rushed off, scrubs swishing loudly as he went. I threw my bag under the counter and tried to make myself useful in helping the nurses. There were a lot of injuries. From what I gathered during talking to patients, three boys had been at a party, drinking, and lost control of the car. They swerved into other cars on the road, severely injuring three people while the rest had cuts and bruises. Apparently the passenger in the drunk car had the worst of the injuries, but that wasn't confirmed.
"Stay still!" I snapped at the man, who glared at me with beady eyes, his long beard tickling my forearms. I was trying to clean and patch up a small cut on his bald head but for a tough looking guy, he was a wuss. I tried again and before I even touched him he winced.
"I didn't even touch you!"
"Yes, you did!"
I rolled my eyes and continued my work, ignoring his overdramatic exclaims of pain as I put a small bandage over the cut. "There. All done."
He grumbled and crossed his arms, sitting back against the chair. He reminded me of a sulking child. I smirked at him but looked around when the curtain was pulled back. My dad stood there, looking a little frazzled but otherwise alright.
"Mind if I borrow her?" he asked the grouchy man.
I sighed and pulled my rubber gloves off, throwing them in the trash, yanking the curtains back into place again. I followed my dad through the emergency room, which seemed to have calmed down a little bit but was still busily buzzing like a beehive. He led me to the elevator, but he still hadn't said anything to me.
"What's wrong, dad?"
He shoved his hands in his pockets. "Doctor Alevin wants to speak with you up in the ICU. Something to do with one of the victims apparently."
I went pale, "Not Felicity?"
The lump in my throat disappeared when my dad shook his head. "No. I thought she went away for the summer?" The doors opened up and we stepped in. Dad pressed the fourth button and the elevator slid shut.
"She was leaving today." I told him and he nodded. We stood in silence for a little while as the elevator rose up through the building. "Crazy night tonight, right?"
"Not really. I've had crazier." He grinned, looking at me. We shared the same pale blue eyes and the same dimpled smile, but otherwise I looked nothing like my father. "Have I ever told you about the time Uncle Ash and I went on a road trip to Miami?"
"Yes. Multiple times."
He shook his head, still grinning. "Those were the days."
The doors slid open and we stepped out. I felt a little nervous because dad only said Doctor Alevin wanted to talk to me. He didn't hint whether or not I was in trouble or if I'd done something wrong. I started to get a sick feeling in my stomach and I tried to stop my breath from hitching. We rounded the corner and I saw Doctor Alevin there, looking through the glass at a patient. He turned when he heard us coming and smiled at me. It immediately put me at ease. He was an older man, in his late fifties, but he wasn't grouchy or mean. He was really lovely and treated me like the granddaughter he never had. He only had grandsons.
"Hello there Rhea. Thanks for bringing her Steve."
My dad nodded and leaned down to kiss my cheek. "I'll see you at home. Love you."
"Love you too." It was an automatic reply and I smiled at him as he left.
Doctor Alevin looked down at me with a smile. Everyone looked down at me. I was shorter than everyone around me it seemed. "You must be wondering why I asked you up here."
"You could say that." I replied, "Did I do something wrong sir?"
He laughed at me, "You? Do something wrong? You're kidding me. And how many times have I told you to just call me George?" I smiled sheepishly. He jerked his head towards the glass room and turned the handle on the door. "Have a look at this."
He held the door open for me as I went into the room, confusion being overtaken by curiosity. Lying in the hospital bed, surrounded by machines and IV-drips, his arms, chest and head wrapped in bandages, was Phillip Kingston.
I recognised him immediately. He was well known around school for being attractive, although he didn't look so hot right now. His brown hair was barely visible under the bandage that wrapped around his head and his eyes were closed. His broad shoulders were slumped and around his wrist hung the typical hospital admissions band, but also a leather bracelet, the dragon charm winking under the harsh hospital lights.
"You know him, don't you?" George asked. "He goes to your school?"
"Yes. His name is Phillip." I replied, wrinkling my nose. "He's not very nice."
"He's also in a coma." George replied, walking around the bed to stand beside my classmate, staring at his face. "And he may not wake up."
I felt a wave of sadness for Phillip. I didn't think he was a very nice person, but nobody deserved this. I couldn't imagine what his family was going through. I felt sorry for him very suddenly.
"But maybe you could do something to change that." George said, looking around at me, a devious glint in his eyes.
I blinked. "Excuse me?"
"I have a proposition for you, Rhea." He said. "Comas are like people. They're unpredictable and unique. Every single one is different. The patient may wake up, but they might not and that all has to do with the case. Now Mr Kingston here suffered a bad blow to the head. We put him in a coma to reduce the swelling in his brain, but we can't tell when he'll wake up or if he even will wake up. But there is a way that perhaps waking up may be a possibility."
I crossed my arms, narrowing my eyes in suspicion. "I'm listening.
"In some cases, some coma patients can hear what is going on around them. There have been cases where family members or friends come in and talk to coma patients, reading to them even, and sometimes, when that coma patient has woken up, they remember everything that their loved ones have told them."
"What are you asking me, George?"
George clasped his hands together like he was praying. "Would you be willing to perhaps come in and read to Phillip? His parents are both very busy and can't take the time and I doubt his friends would be open to this. And since you already read to the kids I thought it would be a good fit. The nurses can't spare the time but you could."
I bit my lip. "I don't know, George. The kids keep me busy enough as it is and all the other volunteers have quit because of senior year. If somebody could take my place there I'd consider it but...it seems a little creepy too. Talking to someone who looks...well...dead."
George nodded, puckering his lips in thought. After a moment he licked them and took a deep breath. "How about I make you a deal?" I lifted my chin in interest. "If you do this, I will write you a letter of recommendation for college."
I gaped at him. "Are you serious?"
George nodded. "You do this for me until the end of the summer. If he doesn't wake up by then you don't have to keep doing it. I'll still write the letter for you." I bit my lip and George held his hand out for me to grasp and shake. "What do you say? Do we have a deal?"
A recommendation letter from George would almost guarantee an acceptance to whatever university I applied to, if I could back it up with my grades. It seemed like a fair deal. I glanced at Phillip, the only sign of life in him shown on a monitor and the slow rise and fall of his chest. I turned, looked right into George's eyes and shook his hand.