Refuge

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CHAPTER 32 – Dagger of Glass

PETALUMA

SATURDAY

The sun-scorched concrete steps Erin sat on were uncomfortably warm, but she resisted moving. The grassy slope where Jason reclined was within a couple of feet, but it would demand a fare of energy she just couldn’t dig up. She peered into Emmie’s face and met a gaze that pleaded for reassurance that her father was not dying. Erin tried to squeeze out a smile for the scared girl. She could feel the corners of her mouth crinkling, but she doubted if it were all that convincing.

“Erin!”

She jerked upright, not certain she had heard her name called, but almost as certain that it must have been Vince who had called.

“Erin! Jason! Back here, quick!” It was barely more than a hoarse whisper, but now she recognized the voice, and it was coming from behind her.

Turning, she watched a narrow opening between huge double doors at the front of the museum expand to a broad, dark stripe in which Nate’s shadowy face appeared. “No noise! Quick!” he again urged along with rapid come-motions with his hand.

The three started up the steps from the sidewalk, thrilled to see their friend alive. Jason misjudged the strength of his un-injured leg, though, and fell upon the injured one on the middle step. Only reflex prevented him from slamming the hard surface with the end of the glass protruding from his leg as he rolled to the side. Even so, the pain that lanced through his entire body spun him away from dimming consciousness.

“Oh! Daddy!” Emmie sobbed as she and Erin helped him back to his feet above a heavy, crimson smear on the concrete.

Supporting Jason between them, they lurched along the short walkway to the half dozen steps below where Nate waited. Panting for breath through throats parched dry, they climbed to the heavy, oak door held ajar just enough for them to slip in. The door eased closed again.

The museum had been built a century earlier as a library with solid, reinforced concrete walls faced with granite. The entrance was a portico of colossal proportions, braced outside the massive front doors by four huge concrete columns. The ponderous oak doors swung on huge bronze hinges. Inside, marble tiles covered the floor of the entryway and display area of the first floor. Twin, enclosed stairwells to the second-floor mezzanine flanked the entrance.

“Upstairs,” Nate whispered. “This way.”

He slipped a shoulder under Jason’s other arm then he and Erin carried the larger man up the stairs to the left of the entrance and onto the mezzanine. At the top, he eased Jason onto one of a pair of straight-backed chairs set against the ornate, wood and brass railing.

Ornately carved marble pillars supported the mezzanine above the main floor and the ceiling above the mezzanine. Except for a couple of windows with glass shattered by explosive blasts in nearby buildings, the grand structure appeared undamaged.

Jason grimaced and teetered on his chair as tearing pain shot through his leg and seeping blood ran down his leg.

Nate stepped around to the back of the chair and said, “Hang on.”

He hooked his hands under the top bar of the chair back as he leaned it backwards, taking the strain on his wrists rather than his hands that, Erin noticed, were both covered with loose bandages.

She pointed to his hands. “What happened?”

“Rope burns. Tell you later.” He dragged the chair and Jason backward across the floor to a patchwork quilt-covered, pioneer-bed display next to the railing and half way to the rear wall. Then, with all three assisting, Jason pulled himself up and onto the high mattress.

Jason braced himself with his hands gripping the low top of the rough headboard, his breathing rapid and shallow. While Emmie ran caressing fingertips of one hand about his pallid and sweat beaded face, with the other she mopped a cloth across his brow and around his tearing eyes.

Nate handed Erin a jug of water which she gratefully accepted, but she insisted first Jason, then Emmie take a drink before slaking her own killing thirst. While they drank, she glanced about at the cavernous interior of the place. The mezzanine circled around both sides of the open second floor and across the rear. The rear and side they were on was filled with historical displays. The other side was blocked off and enclosed from near the rear wall to just a few feet from the stairwell entrance over there.

Nate went to the window overlooking 4th Street out front and discovered two aliens he had been watching down where “B” street intersected Main were now standing in the street right outside the museum.

After getting Jason to swallow the last two codeine tablets from a bottle that Nate had found in one of the museum office desks, Erin and Nate hovered over the ugly wound like a couple of consulting surgeons, softly whispering and nodding and pointing without touching. The tourniquet was still in place with its knot pressing down on the artery, and the bleeding was still only seepage around the puffy flesh where the glass stuck out at an angle like a brittle, flattened bone.

They decided it couldn’t wait. With Jason’s condition deteriorating as they spoke, they had to get the damned thing out of his leg. But, with Nate’s hands in pain from much of the hide having been abraded from both palms, he doubted he could maintain the steady hold and control that was needed. He’d never be able to feel the slight changes in side pressure on the shard as it was withdrawn. So, they decided, Erin would withdraw the glass blade. All it required of her was a steady hand sensitive enough to feel the glass with its knife-like edges sliding back out along its original path without slicing through more tissue on its way. Plus, she would need the fortitude to ignore the obvious agony such an operation was certain to cause the patient who would have to endure it without benefit of anesthesia.

Nate motioned with the back edge of his hand along the inside of Jason’s thigh and said, “Artery runs about here, pretty much straight up and down. Now, unless that glass is curved like a damned scimitar, it should miss it. But, it could be curved, so we’ll have to work on the assumption that it is. Maybe you can move it up this way as it comes out—but not too much, and not if you can feel it resisting like it’s not curved.”

“Okay,” Erin said as she nodded her head, anxiety squeezing sweat from her pores. “Okay, straight back. Easy side pressure, but more to the outside away from the artery. Okay. I can do it.” She licked away the dryness of her lips and nodded again, more to herself, now, than to Nate. “I can do it.”

After Nate peeked out the window again and returned to Jason’s bedside, he picked up a thick strip of leather from a shoe and belt maker’s display and placed it between Jason’s teeth. “They’re not still out there, but I doubt if they’ve gone far. They don’t wander around at a very fast pace.”

Jason nodded as he clenched down and sucked in air through his flaring nostrils.

Nate lashed Jason’s left ankle to the footboard. When Emmie gasped at him, he explained, “It’s okay, hon. This is just so he doesn’t flinch in the wrong direction at the wrong time...” He positioned himself near Jason’s left hip, facing down the leg towards the foot, and gripped the tourniquet.

Erin tore strips from the linen sheet beneath the quilt and wrapped the exposed end of the shard to protect her hand from the sharp edges and to provide a better grip on the gore-slickened glass. Knowing that the pain she was about to cause Jason would be excruciating, she set her jaws as she set her grip, and then she prayed for the courage to see it through once she started and his agony began.

With a glance up at Nate’s lined face, which he met with a nod and a wink, Erin braced her feet against the floor and began a steady pull backwards. She concentrated on keeping her arms aligned with the shard to be sure it came it straight back…straight out—unless it was curved, in which case…

The pressure of the swollen tissue against the side of the glass was astonishing. She had hoped that it would slide back and out as smoothly and easily as a knife from its sheath. But as soon as she exerted pressure on it, she knew it was to be a battle, one she prayed she could win and that Jason could survive. Even that brief attempt had caused him to arch his back completely off the bed. Though silent, his heavy intake of air was as penetrating as a scream.

Erin assumed a new position, hunched over Jason’s leg with her hands gripping the glass near her own abdomen for, she hoped, better control. Another deep breath, another nod to Nate, and, again, she began pulling.

Again, Jason’s body arched upward as his sharp intake of breath whistled past the leather. His clenched hands, mostly white from the wrists down, threatened to rip the creaking headboard apart.

Tears streamed down Emmie’s face. As she continued to swab Jason’s face, she kept up a continuous stream of exhortations. “It’s okay Daddy I’m here It’ll be over soon oh Daddy I love you so much don’t let it hurt just say no it doesn’t hurt I love you—”

With determination gripped like a rag in her own teeth, Erin forced herself to ignore Jason’s reaction, to concentrate on her own task. She reviewed in her mind what she was attempting to accomplish, resetting her plan, a simple mechanical maneuver. A long, narrow shaft of glass had to be withdrawn from the flesh...no, the material in which it was embedded. It was tight, so she had to exert more force, force sufficient to overcome the friction caused by the razor edged, possibly jagged piece of glass as it slid through living, bleeding, quivering—stop it! Oh, dear God!

Another flashback had her back in the prison shed with Rachel, listening to Crissy’s screams as Vince did...what to her? Something like this? Is this something on the order of what Crissy was forced to endure until she died? This multiplied how many times? This and what other unspeakable tortures? She had not been subjected to just one, single application of pain, but one on top of another, each one more horrible, each one devised by a sadistic mind that had shed all vestiges of humanity. Pain that was not inflicted in pursuit of healing, out of love and a desire to make it less, but out of hate and spite, with a desire to make it worse, to inflict pain for the pure purpose of causing suffering. Pain for pain’s sake, because he liked it. Regardless of what Crissy wanted, he did it because he liked it; he enjoyed it; he thrilled in it.

Erin felt a new level of loathing for Vince, and she was mystified. How could a person, a human being, intentionally and maliciously inflict such torment upon another, or, for that matter, even upon the lowliest animal that scurries about on the forest floor? To deliberately inflict pain and suffering on a level merely hinted at by Jason’s agony, with full knowledge and understanding of what he was doing, was simply beyond Erin’s comprehension. Truly, the man was a monster.

“Erin?” Nate said softly. “Erin, honey, don’t go out on me. Come on, now. This is gonna take both of us.”

She opened her eyes and peered into Nate’s concerned face.

He must have thought she was about to pass out. Although he had seen the grizzly leavings of Crissy’s slaughter, he couldn’t know the demons that haunted Erin’s memories. Perhaps he had his own demons given birth that night, but he couldn’t know hers. “I’m okay,” she muttered.

Steeled by her thoughts of Crissy and the unfathomable degree of her suffering, she had to stop herself from thinking that Jason was really being a baby about this. After all, just look at what Crissy... No, that’s not fair. Not to Jason, and not to Crissy. “Okay...again.”

This time she refused to allow her thoughts to drift. She concentrated fully on the wicked looking piece of glass as it protruded from Jason’s leg. She wouldn’t let herself think of the abrasion from the glass against the highly inflamed nerves laid bare when it had penetrated and sliced its way upward. She wouldn’t let herself think about how the blood would probably lubricate the blade, making it easier to draw it back.

Stop it! Stop it, now, dammit!

She forced herself to envision the position of the end of the shard if it was, indeed, straight. She prayed that it was either straight or curved away from the artery.

Close. So damned close. It could be nicked. Hell, it could be severed, and only the glass, itself, is plugging the hole, keeping it from spurting blood all over the place. As soon as it’s out, we could have a gusher. No! No, I won’t believe that! Not yet. If it happens, we’ll deal with it—but not yet.

She tried to prepare herself. She would have to force the thing out and hope—pray—that it wouldn’t kill him. She told herself that she was his best hope, and that she would have to dismiss his agony, his thrashing. But, if the tip is curved wrong…

She took a long, deep breath and held it, then let it out slowly. She gripped the end of the deadly shard and set her feet. She glanced up at Nate who simply nodded as he gripped the tourniquet. She glanced at Emmie. The girl returned her look with wide eyes behind fingers now splayed across her face. She looked into Jason’s eyes, clouded with pain and weakness, but they said, “Do it” as he nodded with clenched jaws and re-gripped the headboard. She hunched her shoulders and gradually increased her pull.

Suddenly, the glass gave a slight quiver, and she thought it must be transmitting a muscle spasm from his tortured leg. But, then, as though it had come alive, the thing made a minute clockwise rotation. Her hands jerked back from it as though it were the questing head of a snake, but her eyes remained focused on it. It began to inch its way out, and her eyes flicked up at Nate to see if he saw it. His eyes were as wide as Emmie’s still behind her fingers. Jason’s eyes were still clouded, although they now seemed to be more pain free than at any time since the fall and impalement, and his attention was solidly on the operation. The long spear of glass withdrew further, appearing as if by magic, growing out of the flesh of his leg like a sprouting twig. As it emerged, it curved gracefully to the left, just ever so slightly, toward the artery. But, as it continued coming out, it compensated by swinging in the opposite direction. She held her breath as the lethal length of glass slid smoothly into view. As the width of the shard lessened with each inch withdrawn, the size of the plug lessened, and the seepage of blood remained the same with no arterial pressure behind it.

“Yes! It…! Look! It’s almost...it is! It’s out!” She grabbed and held up the foot and a half-long shard of gore-smeared glass, slightly longer than they had judged and with a definite curve at the tip. The curve would have put its tip right at the artery, possibly even beyond it. If she had pulled it straight back, it almost certainly would have sliced through the vessel, and Jason could have bled to death within seconds. She gingerly set it on a small table beside the bed like a nightstand, still wrapped with the blood-drenched linen.

She looked up at Jason again, but he had laid his head back and was gazing up at the ceiling. The reduction of pain with the shard out was clear in the relaxed posture of his body.

Nate still stared with eyes wide, and his jaw sagged to his chest. His hands dropped their hold on the tourniquet like it was a snake.

Emmie still hid behind her fingers, but her gaze never left the wound site.

Erin looked back down at the wound, and gasped as she watched it pinch itself closed like a mouth with bloody lips. The flow of blood ebbed then stopped, and the puffy swelling began to go down like a deflating balloon. She peered closer and watched the open edges of the wound begin to bond together, to slowly seal into vivid scar tissue.

With her mouth hanging open to match her eyes, she looked up and whispered, “Did anyone else see what I just saw, or am I hallucinating?”

Nate shook his head. “I saw it, but I must be seeing things, too. Because, what I saw couldn’t—”

None of them heard the slight creak of the hinges as one half of the double, main door one floor below crept open. For a moment the door halted, and nothing moved or entered. It was almost as if a vagrant gust had pushed the heavy door open those few inches. Then, still as silently as the errant breeze that it could have been, a crouching form darkened the space momentarily as it slipped inside and crouched in the shadows near the door, waiting, listening.

“Could pressure from the swollen tissue have pushed it out?” Erin asked. “Maybe the blood finally lubricated it enough to let it slide out as—”

Nate shook his head. “And it just happened to twist around so the hooked tip missed the artery until it was far enough back?”

With a quick nod, Erin said, “Yeah, what about that? Twisting it like that should have put him three feet up. What about that, Jason? Could you feel—”

The sound of a chair skidding and bounding across the room over at the top of the stairwell echoed in the cavernous room like Big Ben sounding the hour.

Erin spun to face the people emerging from the stairwell towards her and the bed display, and it was all she could do to keep from screaming. She did manage to squeak out, “Vince!”

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