In Their Shadow

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Chapter 4: The Hospital

She wakes, dull and heavy, from the death-sleep of general anesthesia, finding herself in a quiet and very beige room. Without any idea why its beigeness seems remarkable to her.

A nurse is at her side, smiling, and says something to the effect of “everything went well, we’ll be taking you to your room shortly”. Holly nods dumbly and wants to go back to sleep, so she does. When she wakes up again, she’s in much smaller quarters - less beige and more white.

“What’d they do?” she asks, trying to sit up, but her body would still much rather stay horizontal. A different nurse is there, and goes to wrap a blood pressure monitor around her arm. She hits a button and it inflates.

“They set the bones,” she explains. “And put a pin in your ankle. You shattered a couple things.” The young woman half-sitting, half-lying in the hospital bed winces at the harsh word. “But the doctor will be in shortly to explain everything.” The nurse introduces herself, explains how the bed and TV works, writes her name on a whiteboard on the wall and then leaves so that her patient can get some rest. Or, makes to leave, but pauses in the doorway. “Oh, and I think your parents called to say that they were going to drop by later?”

Holly Mendoza is suddenly very awake.

Fuck.

“OK, thanks,” she grumbles, and the nurse excuses herself, promising to return in a couple hours.

A not insignificant part of her surveys the hospital suite and wonders if she might make an escape before Ernest and Cecilia - and, god forbid, Heather - walk in. She could make a rope by tying the sheets together and…

Holly lets out a ragged sigh, forced like the air from a compressed bellows stoking a fire. She knew that Billings wasn’t far enough away. Where the hell else could she have afforded to live, though? Kansas? Texas? Fresno? More like hell-no.

The clock on the wall says that it’s a quarter past 7. With Salt Lake being a nine-hour drive, Holly gives the Mendozas T minus two hours before they pull into the parking structure outside of her window. She wonders if the hospital cafeteria serves liquor.

But with another sigh - this one’s longer, softer, like a balloon deflating - an eerie calm washes over her. Holly sets her jaw.

She grabs the edge of the rough, white, blanket and pulls it aside so she can see her leg. It’s hidden under thick layers of padded plaster, but she still wants to see it. Commit the sight to memory and hope that this’ll never happen again.
Because - and it’s like she told that suit operator - this isn’t going to be a story of survival, of the perseverance of the human spirit or any of that Oprah book club bullshit. This is just one more chapter in the story of Holly Mendoza, The Black Sheep Fuck-Up. Nobody that comes to visit will be able to help themselves from opening that book up again and quoting from it. Passages like:

“Remember those friends you had after high school? The ones who were always out getting drunk and fucked up at that club? Wasn’t one of them on coke?”

“Or what about that time you went mountain biking with those boys and dislocated your shoulder?”

And her favorite, the epilogue:

“Why can’t you just settle down like your sister? Come back home, Holly. You shouldn’t be living up here by yourself.”

She moves the blankets a bit more to reveal her left foot, which isn’t broken, but has been wrapped up tightly in a bandage. And it’s no wonder why: the thing is still swollen to the size of a grapefruit.

Holly moves up her body, surveying what else had happened when she fell. The fall itself was over before she knew it, but it was a few extra moments of tumbling and sliding before she came to a stop. There was dust and gravel in places that she didn’t even know she had, and when the shock of what had just happened wore off, she’d tried to stand up.

That was when she realized something was wrong.

She’d yelled herself hoarse after a few hours. Part of the reason she picked this hike - it didn’t see as much foot traffic as others - could have wound up being one of the things that did her in.

By nightfall, her endorphins had run dry, and the cold sweats settled in, and she knew that she was well and truly fucked.

And that was before the giant, hungry cat came a-stalking up the ravine after nightfall.

Holly’s spent countless nights under the stars, but after this… it’ll be a long time before she’ll willingly spend the night alone outside again.

The young woman is covered in scuffs and scratches: her hands and arms are a tight weave of deep red lines. Even with the narcotic painkiller in her system, she can tell that her arm smarts and that it will for another week or two.

Too bad they don’t prescribe demerol for home use.

Maybe she’ll be asleep, or pretend to be asleep, for as long as the Mendozas can stand to wait around, and they’ll leave before she comes-to.

Holly glances at the whiteboard, and sees that she scheduled for some kind of medication in another hour. If she’s lucky, it’ll inspire sleep. But for now, she’s awake.

She wonders what they’ve done with her things - her pack that was on the ground beside her when they put her in the basket, and she doesn’t remember someone grabbing it. But then again, she doesn’t remember much.

Well, except for the relief of being found, the exhaustion, the pain… and the suit.

The young woman has never personally encountered a drone suit before, never even seen one in person. In fact, the idea had always terrified her on some level: more sophisticated drone technology to go and, well, kill on behalf of the military. On her behalf. Drones like white, avian weathervanes, faceless and humming through the skies were eerie enough; but drones with hands? Legs? Heads and shoulders? Holly is one of the few people she knows that allows herself to feel uneasy at the idea; everyone else is either enamored or apathetic.

One of her old friends, one of those guys on the mountain bikes, had once wanted to know where to sign up to pilot one. He’d cited his xBox use as relevant experience.

It didn’t take much research to find out that there is no application, no training program. That they, supposedly, come to you.

So when she heard its footsteps rounding the corner behind her, there had been a moment of sheer terror. It’s well known that one operates out of Yellowstone and the surrounding eastern counties as part of its testing regime. But… who the hell ever anticipates running into one themselves?

Not this Mendoza.

Holly wants to turn onto her side, but she’s still too heavy, and she’s nauseous from the anesthesia.

Where’s that demerol?

Another 45 minutes.

“Fuck,” she breathes, resigned to spending the rest of the time between now and then on her back.She does fall into an uneasy sleep, though, before the doctor returns to explain everything. And everything he does explain - he shows her x-rays, discusses the cast, recovery times, how much pain she might expect to be in. And, of course, is sure to mention physical therapy.Piss off. PT’s for rich people.

A nurse that’s with him administers the blessed drug through the IV, and sweet, sweet nothingness follows for a while.

Unfortunately, this means that the Mendozas are there to greet her when she wakes up.

In fact, the first thing Holly becomes aware of is the distinct sound of someone crying.It doesn’t take long to find out that the sound is coming from her mother - Cecilia. A proud but sensitive woman in her early fifties and second-generation immigrant from Aguascalientes. Her thick mane of black-brown hair frames her face like pine boughs frame a bird’s nest, and the colors she wears reminds Holly of abuela’s house in Arizona - colors bright and vital.

Standing in the corner behind her is a figure less warm and volumnuous: her father, Ernest. A slight man of short stature by American standards - the son of a horse jockey - the patriarch of the Mendoza family is severe enough to darken a room simply by walking in. And his corner behind Cecilia’s chair is practically storming.

Cecilia's face lights up at seeing her daughter stir in the bed, and the quiet weeping explodes into full-blown waterworks. She reaches out for Holly’s hand and grabs it hard.

“God is good,” are the first whispering words out of her smiling mouth. The woman believes it, heart and soul; Holly does not. Then something the youngest Mendoza can relate to: “Everything’s going to be alright. Just rest, alright?”

Ernest, despite still being of the school of that famed Mexican stoicism, is easy to read. The way his brows and lips are pressed together, the way his cheeks stiffly buttress the muscles underneath his graying mustache… he’s worried. But perhaps more importantly, he’s disappointed.

But what else is new?

“Is Heather here?” Holly’s voice comes out sounding worse than she anticipated, but she clears her throat in anticipation of more talking.

She’s surprised to hear her father answer, though. “She didn’t want to leave Noah with Scott,” he explains, meeting her gaze for the first time. There’s something in his eye, and it’s not dust. Holly thinks she recognizes that look.

“Yeah, I’m sure she’s busy.”

She was aiming for sarcasm, but the hurt has a way of oozing out like the whites of a boiling egg with even the thinnest crack. Heather’s never there when Holly needs her, and hasn’t made herself available since Scott came along. In fact, Holly has long gotten sick of being disappointed in her sister.

“She wanted to come,” Cecilia reassures. “She really did. But Scott’s been working overtime lately, and…”

“I get it.”

The silence in the room is palpable.

“The doctor says you’ll be here for another night or two,” Cecilia says, though it’s more like a suggestion rather than a recollection of something that actually happened.

“Yup.”

Another silence.

“You should come home.” Ernest says from his grim corner, though it’s more like a declaration of something that is bound to happen than a suggestion.

Holly runs her tongue over her teeth, though her mouth suddenly feels a little dry. Nurse, can I get some water?

“I’m staying,” is all she has to say in return. She’s said it a dozen times already, and she’ll say it another dozen if she has to.

Ernest breaks form. His arms unfold and his hands, thick and worn from years of hard, manual work, look like they’re trying to hold up the air in front of him. “Why do you do this to yourself?” he bursts. She can see the glint of the gold fillings in his molars. “Why do you do this to us? Your family?

Her mother is a deer in headlights - for all the courage she needed for raising two daughters, for her own years of hard work, she still diminishes herself in the face of her husband’s anger.

But Holly won’t. And it’s one of two reasons the Mendozas don’t know what to do with her.

“If you don’t lower your voice, they’re going to ask you to leave.”

The muscles in her father’s face clench. “Is that all you have to say to me?”

Holly looks around, almost like a rhetorical gesture. “Is that all you have to say to your daughter who almost died this weekend?” she hisses, flinging the blankets off her legs so they can see the extent of the damage with their own eyes. Cecilia’s tears return and Ernest looks away, scowling.

“Dammit, Holly, we care about you. We want you to come back home to heal.”

It’d take a lot more than that to get her old man to cry, though.

“No. I don’t know how many times I’ve told you, but I’m not going back to Salt Lake. I’ll sooner come back in a fucking pine box.” She shakes her head, realizing that they took out the band holding up her topknot. “You want to help me? You can stay here for six weeks while I recover. You can pay my bills. But I’m not going anywhere.”

“Don’t use that language around us,” Cecilia whispers.

“I can use whatever language I damn well please, mom.”

Cecilia shakes her head, wiping tears away and speaking slowly. “I pray for you every night, Holly. I do.”

“If God listened, I’d be praying every night for you too.”

A low blow.

Maybe too low.

Ernest mutters something in Spanish under his breath and leaves the room. Probably headed for the cafeteria; Holly knows they’re not leaving that soon. It’s still a 9-hour drive back home.

Her mother’s eyes are red and wild with emotion. “You don’t know how much you hurt your father. I know you don’t mean it.”

But Holly can’t keep from biting her tongue, now; not with the lump forming in her own throat. “No,” she all but barks. “He - no, all of you - don’t know how much you hurt me. How much you’ve hurt me for the past fifteen years, mom.”

Cecilia’s shoulders go rigid and she looks away - at a machine in the corner or something - and Holly isn’t sure if she’s even going to answer.
“We forgave you for that a long time ago,” the older woman whispers, almost ashamed at even having to reference it.

“Forgiveness in name only,” Holly retorts with a depreciating laugh, blinking back her own tears and trying to keep the lump from distorting her voice. It’s been a long time since she felt comfortable with being vulnerable around either of her parents and she’s not about to start now. “Why the hell do you think I left?”

Cecilia knows. And while proud, she’s not so proud as Ernest, who can’t even entertain the possibility that their daughter up and left because of something as immaterial as feelings.

Holly’s fundamental transgression isn’t forgivable - but with some effort, it is forgettable.

“Is this the way it’s going to be while we’re here? Because if it is, your father won’t tolerate it.”

“And that’s his problem.”

Cecilia’s eyes, hard and heavy, dart frantically from one thing to another in the room. It’s what they do when she’s thinking and emotional.

“Could you see if my phone’s in there?” Holly asks quietly, gesturing with her chin to the slim cabinet in the corner.

Her mother gets up and opens it, producing a plastic bag containing the clothes that Holly was wearing when they admitted her. The chances that they were at all laundered are slim, and this suspicion is confirmed when Cecilia makes a face when she opens it.

“My god,” she half-chokes, half-chuckles, sticking her hand into the bag with a grimace on her face and fishes around for something flat and hard.

And a little smile tugs at the corner of Holly’s mouth just then - even if all the world wanted her to burn in hell, her mom would still be there to stick her hand into a bag of her daughter’s dirtiest laundry without complaint.

“It smells like an open grave!”

Well, almost without complaint.

“Not far from it,” Holly says, deadpan.

A silence as thick as pea soup fills up the small room and Cecilia quickens her hand, which soon finds the device.

It’s handed to Holly, who groans at seeing the cracked screen - another expense she can’t afford to pay - and sets it aside to chew her lip in thought.

“Do you have a charger in the car?”

“It’s dead?”

“Yeah. I’m sure people are wondering about me.”

“I’ll be right back.”

There’s a feeling deep in her belly that is putting her on edge, though, even as her mother leaves to make the trek back out to the car. It’s subtle - hard to place, and harder to describe - and Holly knows that being doted on by her mother should feel good. But it doesn’t.

I think I feel used, she thinks. It close, but still not quite right. There's no rush, though. She's got about 6 weeks to home in on why her mom's kindness right now is off-putting.
Her father returns shortly after her mother does, and he’s got a book of crossword puzzles with him so that he has something to do while he’s not talking to his daughter. Cecilia is watching TV.

Holly glances at Ernest as he takes a look at his watch from under heavy brows, and he grunts. “It's getting late. I don't see a point in staying here much longer,” he mutters to his wife. “She’s not even talking to us.”

“Look at her. Does she look like she’s in any shape to talk?”

He grunts again. Cecilia sighs, reaching for the remote.

“We’ll be back in the morning, mija.”

Holly bristles at the name. “Don’t forget my phone.”

“Oh, thanks for reminding me.”

Ernest stands up, rubbing at the faint stubble along his cheek,and stuffs the crosswords under his arm. “I’ll be waiting in the car,” he says as they both leave. “Goodnight, Holly.” It’s practically an afterthought.

Cecilia reappears a few minutes later, handing the device to her daughter. Holly groans, having forgotten about the screen already, and hopes desperately that she can still use it.

“Thanks, mom,” she says quietly, booting up the phone.

“That’s what moms are for, mija.”

“Stop calling me that.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s weird.”

“It’s not weird. My grandmother used to call me that all the time.”

Exactly.

“We’ll be back in the morning, alright?”

Her hand is in Holly’s hair - or at least, what hair she has that isn’t cropped close to the scalp - and it finds itself cupping her cheek.

“Hey,” Cecilia says. Her daughter looks up. “I love you.”

“Love you too, mom.”

“And your father loves you as much as I do.”

I’m sure he does.

“See you tomorrow.”

The phone didn’t get a chance to charge all the way, but it’ll be enough to last her until her next round of painkillers at around 11.

What she isn’t expecting, though, is to see dozens of text messages waiting to be read, and suddenly Holly isn’t sure what to do. Her fingers freeze and she swallows, neck and ears growing unbearably hot. Her phone lets her see previews of many of the messages, and what she finds there is not escape from the hospital room, but more like a punch to the gut.

Days-old notes from friends wondering where she is, if she’s OK.

A text explaining that someone called the police.

She recognizes one of them as the beginning to Ave Maria.

Holly’s hand begins to tremble and something in her chest trips over itself and she sets the phone down on the bed beside her and --

For a moment she listens to the silence of the dark room, lit only by the lighting from the nurse’s station outside; there’s the hum of machines, and faint, unintelligible voices from down the hall. If she closes her eyes, it’s almost quiet enough to imagine that she’s back in the Beartooths.

Yeah, don’t do that.

She lays there for a few more minutes, though, staring at the ceiling and picking her at her fingers. When the air starts getting thick, she reaches for the phone again.

It only takes a moment to delete every message that she has en masse.

Then, taking to Twitter, she posts a simple announcement:

out of surgery, everything’s fine now… i’ll catch up later xo

What else is there? Right, about 15 voicemails. Holly’s tempted to delete all of them too, but realizes that there’s probably important stuff in there. Like angry messages from her manager.

“That’s going to be the best phone call ever,” she mutters under her breath, scowling. Holly realizes that she has no idea what the labor laws in Montana are, and as a result, doesn’t actually have any idea of what to expect when she tries to go back to work. “Fuck.”

She hides the voicemail notification for now, and sees to the last thing on her list of shit to check: email. It should be pretty painless - it’s probably all mail from online stores she’s subscribed to. And if she’s lucky, it’ll be something exciting like a bank statement, reminding her how broke she is.
But the very top message is not something that she’s expecting.

Her brows press together when she glances at the sender:

0a912000x778gl3m4t@72nbbw938441m00104427hwtla9hs3

That’s... not even a domain name.


It’s the contents of the email, though, that really leave her with the distinct sensation of being in a dream.

Hi Holly,

It’s me - that drone operator. I want to start off by wishing you all the best, and that I hope you have a speedy recovery. I really do.

I’m writing to tell you that I’ve done you a favor, too. I wish I knew of a better way to draw out the suspense, but I’m not especially talented with words, especially in English, so straightforward will have to do:

I talked to some of my superiors and, well, your medical bills are all taken care of.
What you said this morning really stayed with me. And besides: it’s not my style to leave a job half-finished.

I just hope that… that I’m doing the right thing, I guess.

Best,

Galen


Holly swallows. Then swallows again, looking around the room as though this guy could be anywhere all of a sudden.

The fuck?” she whispers.

Then she reads the email a second time.

And a third.

A flurry of unanswered questions floods her brain; “Is this too good to be true?” being the chiefest among them. There is no way that this is happening. Even if he says it is.

Holly looks up at the clock on the wall, near the door to her tiny bathroom that she’ll be using when they take this damn catheter out of her. It’s 10:45, and that little vial of liquid bliss couldn’t possibly be taking longer to get here.

If she’s lucky, it’ll all make sense in the morning.
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