Part 3: Increments
In video games we get an unlimited number of lives. If we happen to blow ourselves up or get shot one too many times, all we have to do is start over.
In movies and television the heroes eagerly fight against impossible odds. Putting everything on the line and enthusiastically run towards death, yet still manage to escape it. Watching feels exciting and climactic.
It’s a load of bull.
The reality is, most of us choose to live as if we’re unaffected by the certainty of death until the dark day dawns and we, utterly unprepared, take a final breath. And we are, all of us, absolutely and inconsolably terrified.
No more than the ending of a chapter. The closing of a book after the final words are read. The End. And to those of us who have yet to face it, endings are frightening.
Some say dying is like being reborn and others say it’s eternally peaceful if you know the right people. Maybe it’s all of the above. No one can know for sure because no one ever comes back with evidence. Well, one guy did and most people didn’t believe him.
I think the experience is different for everyone and not nearly as difficult as it looks from the outside. What comes after is up for debate. I venture nothing.
Ergo, death equals nothing.
I am nothing.
I am a pit. Empty and black. There is naught to hope for; nothing to fear, and the journey here was just as easy as falling asleep. A simple drift into a more relaxed state and then . . . zilch.
Knowing this first-hand makes it easier to think of her. Yes, in those final moments, she was scared and in pain but then the mantle of death came comforting with its’ warm blanket and rocked her to sleep. I wonder if she felt the same sweeping current. The heavy, floating sensation.
Without eyes, I search, wondering about the stories of loved ones on the other side.
Faint echoes and movement abound but I can’t place them. On the fringes, the very edges of my nonexistence, cold seeps in. It’s small and creeping.
A searing heat scorches like an iron brand and I’m pulled from the bliss of nothing into agony. I want to scream but can’t find my mouth. Obscurity lifts, but only for a second, and I have eyes, but they can’t focus. My fingers are back, but useless. I cringe and grasp, shattering inside.
And then . . . light, illuminating a thick fog I didn’t know was there. It wraps around me, sheltering and comforting all that I am. I sink into it, letting the pain disappear, knowing this is where I will stay: floating over the deep abyss, relishing the haze and consolation.
My throat is dry.
A weight settles on my chest with the realization that I still have a throat. So, I still have a body.
I need to swallow but something’s in the way. It won’t let me close my mouth. My throat screams for relief from the dry, raw itch. I cough, only to find that it’s the worst thing I could’ve done. An intense ripping barrels through my chest and up into my throat. The pain helps to find my eyes. They fly open, only to be assaulted by the light. I shut them tight, feeling instant hot tears.
I can’t breathe! Something is gagging me. My lungs want to explode like my burning chest. My head feels like it already has.
“Shh. Calm down. You’re hurting yourself.” Her soothing voice is followed by a cool touch to my shoulder. At once the blockage disappears and the pain dissipates.
I float away.
Over the next . . . I don’t know how long, I wake several times but not long enough to learn where I am. I assume it’s a hospital. They keep calling me ‘sir’ but I can’t stay awake long enough to correct them.
One day I just wake up. But nothing makes sense so I let myself fall back to sleep. This happens a few times actually. More and more frequently, until I finally feel coherent, like I can think and listen to the voices around me.
A strange sense of déjà vu comes over me as I wait for information to be passed between the voices. I hope it stays in my brain long enough for me to understand.
There isn’t much to learn. They talk to me in soothing tones, informing of what they’re doing, like cleaning my wounds, changing my sheets, and things like that. They use the same tones the nurses at the retirement home use with the patients who are completely immobilized. They speak soft and kindly without expecting an answer.
It’s when they talk amongst themselves, assuming I’m still a blank slate, that I learn the most. They use strange expressions I don’t know what to make of, like edema and intracranial. Electrical burns sound a little familiar, though. The only one I have no problem understanding is road rash. I can feel that. They also mention something about potential memory loss but I’m not sure what that has to do with anything. It’s irritating having people talk about me like I’m not here, expecting me to abide quietly with unanswered questions. I have heard them say, ‘he’s lucky to be alive’ several times to one another. I don’t know about the luck part, but I am alive.
Time stretches on as I go in and out of conscious contemplation.
Nothing changes, at least not anything that I can reckon. Laying here with my lead-like arms and worthless legs, there’s nothing to gauge the passage of time, no recurring noises to mark the minutes. No ticking or beeping, or music, or even television. Most of the time I hear voices and sense the touch as someone lifts my wrist or moves something that’s draped over me. When I can bear the pain enough to open my eyes all I see is the uniformly textured underside of gauze. My eyes have been taped over. Then, they put me back to sleep because I hurt everywhere.
I’m having trouble placing events and numbers. Here in my dark little world, when there’s no one to listen to, I play games to keep busy until the next medication dose sends me back to dream land. I don’t know when it started but it helps. The last time I played counting I lost track. It was weird, one minute I was going along nicely and without even the excuse of distraction, I simply lost count. On top of that I can’t remember where, either, maybe somewhere in the twenties.
The next time I wake up, my eyes are no longer covered. Finally. I can check out my surroundings. The room is poorly lit. There’s no window. The oversized hospital door is half open, just outside of it lays the empty hall. My eyes still hurt, but nothing compared to the way they did before. Either I’ve just been dosed with pain killers or I’m improving.
Checking myself out, I notice some pretty gnarly scabs on my arms and my hands look red and dry. The skin around my knuckles and wrists is shiny and cracked. Down below everything checks out, but my knee hurts. My feet are fine, except I feel my toenails are getting too long. Other than that, everything appears to be in working order.
In the back of my mind, pieces of memory try to surface, but I shove them down, willing myself to maintain the disconnection. Whatever brought me to this place, I have to get some distance before I go back and deal.
I set my mind on a search for the remote control. It takes some digging, but finally, I find it just above my elbow on the end of a hanging cord. With effort, I eventually punch the power button and the wall-mounted flat screen turns on. The technology is comforting.
The divine sound of a local news program fills my room. The volume is too high, distorting the sound that blares from the little speaker attached to the corded remote. The light from the screen hurts and I don’t want to lift my head to look, so I lower the volume and listen to the gossip show talk about the disappearance of an actor who was drinking on the beach and got swept out to sea. The Coast Guard already found him alive, earlier this morning. It’s not really interesting but at least I know its morning. The sounds of normalcy are soothing and soon I’m drifting off.
“You’re awake,” a soft voice observes.
I hunt for the source until my half-blind gaze falls upon a round-faced woman with a dark complexion and deep brown eyes.
“How are you feeling?”
My responding shrug hurts.
“Is your throat still hurting?”
I risk a slight nod to the affirmative. That hurts, too. A lot.
She nods. “It’s a small esophageal tear, but it’s already on the mend. You’ll be able to talk without pain, soon. Lunch is on the way up. The doctor has ordered a liquid diet—don’t look so sad! It’s only for today, if you keep it down. A cup of broth here and there. When your body can handle it, we move onto something more substantial.”
Broth? I’m starving!
Her eyes are wide with sympathy as she tries to give encouragement. “Before you know it, you’ll be putting down real, rib-sticking food. The hospital kitchen actually puts out a decent baked chicken.” She’s talking, looking at me and through my chart in intervals. “Your color looks good today. How are your eyes?”
“On a scale of one to five, one being no pain and five being excruciating, show me, on your hands, how they feel.”
I hold up three fingers and put down one, then set it back up, going back and forth between two and three, messing around.
“Two and a half.” She smirks, writing into my chart.
I wave and she looks up, “Yes?”
I point to that tag pinned to her lab coat.
She smiles. “My name is Chelsea. I’m the PA for this ward. Is there anything else you’d like to ask?”
I give a stiff nod, touch my throat, my head, my arms, and then throw up my hands, questioning, hoping she gets the gist. All the movement is exhausting.
“Are you asking for your prognosis—answer with one finger if that’s true—or are you asking me what happened?—show me two fingers if that’s true.”
I raise three fingers.
“Sir, can you tell me your name?”
The pain in my neck and head is sharp as I slightly nod. All the conversation is draining. She hands me a pen and a notepad. I set it across my stomach and scribble my name.
She looks sideways at the paper while I write, and makes notes of her own in my chart.
“What’s your date of birth?”
I write that down, too, then, with a giant question mark, I write, ‘WELL?’ next to it.
“Mr. Springer, I’ll tell the doctor you’re awake, inform him of what we have discussed and when he comes in, he can tell you everything you want to know.”
“WHEN,” I scribble.
“I know you are frustrated, this must all be very confusing, but you have to understand, we just want to give you the best possible care.”
“Why?” I write.
She sighs, growing weary-eyed. “The doctor wants to be the one to discuss your condition.”
I whimper, frustrated and tired. The small vibration of sound makes the deep ache in my throat spike.
She speaks low. “Mr. Springer, you went missing three weeks ago and now that you’ve confirmed to me that you are who we thought you were, there’s a protocol to follow and no one wants to compromise your well-being. For now, you need to rest. You’re safe here.” She pats the back of my hand.
I hold her arm, drawing her attention to the next jotted question, suppressing a potentially painful yawn. “When?”
“When what?” she asks, staring at the paper.
I have to think for a moment and then quickly write. “How long here?”
“Amazingly, it’s only been eight days,” she says softly.
I keep scribbling. “Call my dad?”
“Of course,” she smirks, “but it might be better if I have someone do that for you.”
I jot the name of the retirement home, following with the street address because I can’t remember the phone number.
“Alright, Mr. Springer, try to get some rest. Lunch will be up shortly.” She walks out, closing the door behind her.
The only sound is the low mumbling from the television. I want to stretch but can tell by the stiffness in my muscles that I’ll be sorry if I try.
I’m restless, worried and wondering how Dad’s been doing and how so much unmarked time has passed me by. My mind wanders to places I’ve been and what I’ve been doing. I make the conscious effort to stop, choosing instead to focus on the here and now. The frustrating limitation with communication is a great place to start. I don’t understand why she won’t simply tell me what I want to know.
Though the interaction was brief, I have hit the proverbial brick wall. Sleep takes me before the commercial breaks over.
I’m in the middle of a vast field. It’s dark and lush, smelling of iodine. At the edge lies a tall line of trees. I watch, waiting. A boy in animal skin pants approaches. On top of his head, covering a curtain of crow black hair is an amazing head dress, colorful and large, adorned with long spiking feathers pointing in every direction like a crown. It reminds me of the Aztec murals painted around downtown. The boy is very young and looks pale in the bright moonlight. I watch as he walks closer and notice he is looking to my right. I risk turning away and see my dad. He’s close, but I can’t touch him. He’s motioning like he’s trying to tell me something.
“I don’t understand,” I say and start walking towards him for a closer look.
As I approach, the boy jumps between us, slashing the air with an ancient knife. I jump forward, hitting the ground where my dad was standing but now there’s only dirt and gravel. Where the boy stood, there’s now a daunting figure whose features are hidden by a long, mangled beard. He’s holding something in his hands. Though I cannot see what it is, I’m afraid of what he can do with it. He stares down at me with a sickening grin, speaking words that don’t make sense. His voice bleeds corruption. The tortured cries of thousands ring in unison from between his lips and the sound makes me sick to my stomach.
Starting awake, I am coated in sweat, clutching the railing of my hospital bed.
“Keep still, I’m almost done.” The voice comes from a man standing on the other side of the railing.
My hands feel stiff when I release the metal that’s been in my grasp long enough to be warmed by it. I watch the color slowly return to my scraped knuckles.
The man’s close proximity and the slight pressure on my head, tells me he’s checking out the wound there. A sudden pinch makes me flinch.
“Still tender,” he mumbles. I feel something cold and wet. “That should take care of it.”
“How’s it look, Doc?” My voice sounds strange and rough.
He nods appreciatively. “I’m Dr. Bailey. It’s nice to finally speak with you, Mr. Springer. The swelling is noticeably reduced. Your color is normal, and I just removed the last staple. No disco dancing for you yet, but you’re on your way.” He backs away and I start to roll to a sitting position. “No, use this,” he touches the controls on the side of the bed. “No unnecessary movement.” He has a full head of well-trimmed gray hair.
Coughing to clear my dry throat makes me wince. When the pain subsides, I ask, “Can I see it?”
“Yes, but I wouldn’t recommend it.” His forehead wrinkles.
“It’s bad?” The vibration of sound hurts.
He moves to the end of the bed and I notice he’s holding something: a small kidney shaped dish with scissors and strings piled on top of a mess of gauze. He sets it on a tall metal table with wheels and removes his white rubber gloves, snapping them onto the top of the pile. On the nearby tray table, he opens a bag and takes out a hand mirror.
Looking back to me, he taps the mirrors edge on his palm. “With any head injury there can be a considerable amount of swelling, but it has been nine days, and you do look much better. However.” He pauses, holding out the handle, mirror side down. “You will not look the way you expect.”
“Not on your face. Do you remember what happened to you?”
“A bullet.” I mumble, remembering the retreating footsteps mingled with the smells of iron and exhaust.
He nods. “It entered at the back, on the right side of the skull and exited just behind the ear on the opposite side. You’re very lucky, it barely missed the medulla.” He points to his own head, demonstrating the angle with a fountain pen. “Did you get a look at the weapon?”
“Can you tell me how far away you were when you were shot?
“Maybe, point blank?”
“It appears to have been a small caliber. Again, very lucky for you. In answering your question, yes, you will probably always have the scars on each side. The entry and exit wounds are small and will be concealed when your hair grows back. What I meant to explain was that your body’s response to the foreign object was significant edema, or swelling.”
“I don’t look the same?” I need a direct answer.
“Yes and no. Though we have done all we can, you still have a ways to go before you look and feel normal again. You may experience trouble with depth perception, spatial relations, hearing loss, confusion, blurred vision, migraines, apnea, tinnitus; these are all possible side effects, but overall your prognosis is excellent.” He smiles.
“So, I will get better?”
“Completely, barring any unforeseen complications.”
“What about . . . time confusion? Is that a side effect?”
“What do you mean?” He rests his hip against my bed, folding his hands together to listen.
“What if—I mean, can it make time feel . . . different?” I whisper to curb the pain.
“Do you mean, affecting perception? Yes, it’s possible. The brain is the body’s clock and yours has undergone significant trauma. I want you to be as informed as possible before you look into that mirror. Finding ones appearance contrary to expectation is upsetting for most people and any undue stress can affect your rate of recovery. There’s some literature on the bedside table for you to look through when you’re ready. Do you wear glasses?”
I hand the mirror back to him. “No. And I’ll wait.”
He nods, taking the blue plastic handle and sets it on my tray table. “If you’re feeling up to it, I have a few questions for you.”
It’s probably better to get this over with. “What’s up, Doc?”
He takes out my chart and flips through several pages. “Have you ever been treated with radiation therapy drugs?”
“What would I need those for?”
“Have you ever been diagnosed with cancer or any cancer related illnesses?”
He takes off his thin, black framed glasses and rubs the red spots on the bridge of his nose. “Mr. Springer, when you came to us, we drew your blood to run some routine tests. We found a very low presence of white cells which can suggest radiation therapy. Further testing showed that you had higher than normal levels of radiation in your system.”
“In fact, if you would indulge me,” he takes my hand. Pointing at the red blotches with his pen, he continues. “These spots; you had them all over when you were brought in. They were bright red with no traces of being caused by abrasion—like the ones on your knees and elbows and the side of your face—these appear to be electrical burns. The remains are still evident on the tops of your ears, the end of your nose, your cheeks, and digits.” He sets my hand down beside me. “Aside from the signs of being beaten and thrown from a moving vehicle or dragged, I was hoping, since we couldn’t find any traces of cancer, that you could tell me how you were exposed.”
My heart is beating so fast, I’m tempted to check the monitor beside my bed for warning lights. “Exposed to what?”
“Radiation,” he repeats that same damned word.
“I don’t know.”
“Can you tell me where you were before you came here?”
“I—I was downtown . . . on the city bus. I had a job interview.”
He gives one, troubled sigh. “Thank you, Mr. Springer. Get some rest.”
He sets my chart under his arm and starts for the door. I don’t like the way his long lab coat swings out when he turns.
“Has anyone contacted my dad?” The racketing sounds pulsate, sending stabbing pains through my head and down to my chest.
“I’m not the one who makes the calls, but I’ll look into it.” He tips an invisible hat and walks out, closing the door behind him.
I turn the TV on and try to change the channel, but the button is broken. I’m stuck with a reality show with privileged people who complain about their pampered existence. During an Olive Garden commercial, my stomach growls, intensifying the hollow feeling inside.
On my tray table, next to the mirror is a brown plastic mug with a lid. I pull at the edge to roll it towards me and move the head of my bed all the way up, being careful not to make any unnecessary movement. I can see through the semi-transparent plastic lid enough to tell the inside is covered in condensation. By the feel of the cup, whatever was hot is now cold and it doesn’t bother me at all. I’m disappointed it’s not coffee, but a bland, brown broth. Still, the beef water is gone in two gulps. Frustrated with the paltry amount, I hit the lever on the edge of the table, lowering it to see what else might be laid out for me.
Jackpot! There’s a cup of Tapioca pudding and a thick slice of soft, brown bread wrapped in cellophane. Eating hurts my throat but I don’t care. Both are gone before I taste them.
A few minutes later, my stomach feels like a ball of lead. I ease the bed down to relieve the pressure and fall into dead sleep.
It doesn’t last long.
I’m not sure if it’s the sugar or nutrients, but my brain won’t shut down long enough to let me rest. Righting the bed back to a half-sitting position, I reach for the hand mirror to take in the sight of my distorted reflection.
Maybe distorted isn’t the right word because I do look like me, except my face is all bloated like my cheeks and eyes alone have gained five pounds. It might look exaggerated because my head has been shaved—poorly to boot! The bits of hair sticking out from under the edge of the bandages look much shorter than the rest—but I doubt it. I keep my hair short most of the time.
It’s the eyes that are shocking. Aside from my ashen, puffy lids, the whites are colored with blotches of red and I have small, nearly transparent scabs on one cheek, the other is mangled with patches of dark, thick scabs that must have come from the road. My gums look awful, too. They’re really red and tender.
The hamster wheel is turning. That feeling like this has happened before is back and I have to consider the possibility. There is only one way to know for sure. Very slowly, I lean down and to the side, reaching for the phonebook set on a small shelf under the bedside table. Immediate dizziness hits me and my head begins to throb.
I hit the call button. A second later a woman answers. I ask her to send in my nurse. My throat is feeling better, still scratchy, but a lot less pain. Instead of a nurse, I get Chelsea entering with a clip board in one hand and a banana in the other.
“How are we this lovely morning?”
“Yes, sleepy head. I see you found your dinner and breakfast.” She flips a lever near the foot of the tray table and slides it out if he way, making room for the conversation. “What do you need, dear?”
I look at her; so familiar and yet, not. “How long have you worked here?”
“I graduated College in ninety-two, came here for my internship and been here ever since.”
“You’re very good at your job.”
“That’s a sweet thing to say. Thank you.” She waits. “Did you need anything else?”
“Oh, yes.” I say, ineptly, “I wanted to know if you could dig out the phone book.” I point at the low shelf below the bedside table. “I need to call my girlfriend.”
“Don’t you know her number?” She gives a playful look.
“I lost my phone and her number was in the contact list.”
“Are you sure she’s listed?”
“I can call her for you.” She offers.
“Not a good idea. The last time we talked I was . . . sort of an asshole. She’d hang up if a woman called on my behalf. You know how that goes.”
“Alright, but make it fast. You need to rest.” She gingerly places the heavy book on my lap and the fruit on the table. “Would you like me to dial for you?”
“I can do it, but thank you and I promise not to take long.” I say, adding the most charming smile stiffness can afford.
Pointing to the banana on the table, she says, “That’s for you,” and walks out, leaving the door to my room wide open.
Hitting the right numbers proves difficult. Perhaps there was no ulterior motive in her offer to dial for me. I look at the page, recite the numbers to myself and still invert them. After the third try, frustration makes me grind my teeth together. The pressure hurts my jaw, head, and neck. After the next flubbed attempt, I take my temper out on the banana instead, smashing it to pudding in the peel. I take a deep breath, concentrating on each number, pressing one at a time. A few more tries and I finally get it right.
The line rings twice before a voice answers, “Golden Valley Retirement and Rehabilitation Center.”
“Room 137, please,” I speak low, noting the conveniently open door.
“Can you repeat that please, sir. I think there’s a bad connection.”
Clearing my throat, I say, “Is Jeanine available?”
“Who is calling?”
“One second, please, sir.” There’s an irritating hint of a chuckle before the click.
Top forty songs of Muzak from the eighties come on the line. I listen to the selections, inserting the lyrics I remember and wait.
It’s probably better to talk to Jeanine first. She’ll be able to tell me how the old man’s been doing since I saw him last. It feels like years, another life, since he sat in his convenient chair, whirling around his room, screaming accusations about his missing box. I bet he’s made himself sick with worry.
“No, sir, I am very sorry, she’s actually not here today. Can I take a message?”
“Yeah,” Crap. “Tell her Gerry’s son called and to please call me back at this number . . .” I recite the number listed on the sticker of the phones cradle and ask her to mark the message urgent.
“Is there anything else I can help you with?”
“Connect me to room 137.”
“Hold, please.” There is a series of clicks as she connects the call.
It starts ringing while I wait on pins and needles. I hope the shock of my voice isn’t too much for him.
Three, four, five, rings; I wait. Maybe he’s on the toilet.
Nine, ten, eleven; I’m still waiting. Maybe he’s sleeping. Maybe he’s in the shower.
I check the clock over the open door. Not at this hour. They keep the residents on a tight schedule. He should be in his room.
He’s got to be sleeping.