«I'm Brent McAllister,» Brent said.
«Yeah. I know. I read your clipboard last night after you got here. You've got a broken back, you know.»
«Well, that's tough. My name's Benjamin Kirkus Hughes. Call me Kirk. All my friends do, but I haven't seen him for awhile.» His laughter matched his mocking smile.
«They treat you all right here as long as you don't give the day nurse any crap. Mrs.Pegeen Rush is her name. Get on her wrong side and she'll sneak in while you're asleep, unplug your arm and let you starve to death. She's a mean old bitch. I just thought I'd fill you in on the good news.»
«Yeah? Thanks for the tip.»
«No sweat. We can handle her. You look a little white around the edges. You got much pain?»
«Some.» Brent wasn't feeling much like long answers. The pain was worse and he tried not to show it.
«Look, I won't bother you any more now. We've got all the time in the world, it looks like. Push that button there and get something from the nurse.»
Brent reached for the push button dangling from the cord over his head. The intravenous tube pulled taut and his forearm hurt. He could see the hole where the plastic needle went into the vein. Down the hall came the sound of a hoarse buzzing. He felt funny about asking for pain relievers with Kirk there. He didn't want to seem weak or anything. Maybe he should just lie there and try to stand the pain.
«Don't hold your breath, though,» Kirk said. «You could be beating off an attack of huge hairy spiders and they wouldn't hurry. There was a guy here last month that rang for the nurse and she had to scrape the cobwebs off him when she finally arrived. Just hang on.»
The pain was sure getting worse. You got to hang on, he told himself. You can't yell or cry or anything. Brent clenched his fist under the covers.
After a few minutes, he heard the sound of sharp hard heels against the tile floor in the hallway. A nurse swung into the room. She was short and her white nurse's cap was perched on tightly curled dark hair.
«Who rang?» she asked.
«He did,» Kirk said. «He wants a little juice for the pain.»
The nurse came over to the side of Brent's bed. He could read her name tag. She was Nurse Rush, all right.
«Is that what you want?»
«Yes, please,» Brent said. «The pain's pretty bad.»
«Well,» she said, looking at the clipboard at the end of his bed. «It says here that the night nurse administered a pain reliever through your I.V. tubing at five this morning.»
«Oh, yeah?» Brent said. He figured that he must sound pretty dumb. «Could I have something anyway now? It really hurts pretty bad.»
«Well,» she said, «I don't think you should hurry your pain relievers too much. Suppose I check back later and see how you're feeling.»
«What's the matter?» Kirk asked. «You afraid you're going to turn him into a junkie? I wouldn't worry about it. And I wouldn't sweat spoiling his breakfast seeing as how his three square meals all seem to be dripping into his arm.»
«Now you keep out of this, young Doctor Hughes. This is a matter between this young patient and myself.»
«I really would like something now, please,» Brent said. He hoped that his voice didn't sound too desperate. He shifted his legs, but the pain was still there. «Dr.Matthias said all I had to do was ask.»
«All right. Although there are certain minimum times between dosages of any pain reliever that Dr.Matthias should make you aware of. I'll be right back.»
She left the room in a cascade of heel clicking.
«She'll probably take an hour to bring it back anyway,» Kirk said. «And I'll bet she gives Dr.Matthias an earful when he gets here today. Her philosophy of life seems to be dedicated to increasing the suffering of the youth of America. She probably thinks it makes you a stronger person. There's a rumor that the sadistic old bitch steals babies from the pediatrics ward and uses them as dart boards for hypodermics. It's just a rumor though. I started it.»
Brent laughed and it hurt. He winced with the pain.
«Sorry about that. No more funnies until you feel a little better. But anyway, you can see how well I get along with her. You couldn't find a greater example of mutual devotion. Just be polite and friendly like I am and she'll walk all over your body if you die. Maybe she'll walk all over it if you don't.»
«Thanks for the help,» Brent said.
«That's all right. It's what roommates are for.»
Brent closed his eyes. He remembered the doctor saying that he couldn't sit up. How am I going to stand lying here for a month without even sitting up? he thought. I'll just have to. What a way to spend the summer! He guessed the family trip to Maine would be off. One day out of school and he had to go and fall through a stupid trapdoor. How dumb can you get.
Brent was conscious of a rustling at his bedside and he thought that maybe Nurse Rush might be back with the pain-killer. He hadn't heard her footsteps. He could sure use something for the pain. He was having trouble lying still.
Brent opened his eyes. It wasn't Nurse Rush. A girl stood beside his bed gazing at him. She wore a blue bathrobe and he could see that her feet were bare.
«Who's your friend, Kirk? A new arrival?» she asked.
Brent liked the sound of her soft voice.
«Name's Brent McAllister. He came in last night with a broken back. He's very graceful. His mother said he fell through a trapdoor in a barn. Brent, meet Amy, the only bit of sunshine in this godforsaken place.»
«Hello,» Brent said.
«Hi,» Amy said. «It's nice to have you around. Whatever Kirk's been telling you, it's not that bad around here.»
«Bullshit,» Kirk said.
«And the nice thing about Kirk is his refinement. He reminds me of my grandmother, who was always such a gentle soul.» Amy gave Kirk a smile.
«Anyway,» she continued, «everybody's friends here. We have a good time. As good as we can, anyway. Except Kirk's last roommate. What was his name, Kirk?»
«I don't remember. Call him Toad.»
«Well, anyway, this kid did nothing for a week and a half but watch daytime television.»
«He was heavy on General Hospital,» Kirk said. «He said it was sorealistic. That shows you how far his head was wedged. He's the only person I've ever met around here who actually liked Nurse Rush. I
think he was suffering from terminal ingrown toe-nail.»
«So we're glad you're here,» Amy said. «Maybe when you feel a little better in a few days, we'll see more of each other.»
Brent decided that he would look forward to that. It would be nice to have a few friends here.
Amy reached down and grabbed Brent's big toe. She gave it a twist.
«Ow!» he yelled. «What are you doing?»
«Just checking. Glad you're still all there. You just can't tell about broken backs, you know.» She smiled at him and turned in a whirl of blue bathrobe, and left the room humming a nameless tune.
«You'll like her,» Kirk said. «She's all right.»
«What's the matter with her? I mean, why's she here?»
«I don't know for sure. I don't think she does either. Her parents told her that it's a bad case of mono, but I think she figures it's a little more complicated than that. Some days she seems better and other days worse. She doesn't look real good today, although she never tries to show it. This is her third week in.»
«I hope she gets better, whatever it is.»
«Yeah. Sure. But it's always the good guys that get kicked in the tail in this screwed-up world.»
A young woman in blue walked through the door.
«Morning, Kirk,» she said. «How're you feeling today? You look so well I guess I better stay clear of you. Who's your friend?»
«Hello, Brent. I'm Jewel, and that's no joke. I'll take care of you. You want anything, anything at all, you just ask old Jewel here and she'll get it for you. First thing I'm going to do for you is get you cleaned up a bit.»
She walked over to Brent's bed. Brent liked her face. She moved quickly and without any wasted effort.
«You going to hang around here and make things tough for me, Kirk? I'm sure not going to make that bed with you sitting in it when you can hike that body of yours out of here. Why don't you head on down to the washroom and take a shower. Lord knows, you probably need it. I'll have you all straightened out by the time you get back.»
«Okay, Jewel. I know when I'm not wanted. You watch her, Brent. First time I was left alone with that woman, she ripped the covers off and attacked me sexually.»
«Oh, go on, Kirk. You should be so lucky. Now scram.»
Brent looked across the room toward Kirk's bed and saw him shift himself uncomfortably until his legs were dangling over the side of the bed. He grabbed the pair of crutches that had been propped against the wall and used them to support himself while he stood up. Kirk walked slowly toward the door. He stopped and turned back.
«You be careful how you manhandle that character, Jewel. He's not feeling so hot.»
«Don't you worry now, Kirk. He's in good hands with Jewel.»
Kirk swung his body out into the hall and paused. In a loud voice, he yelled, «Nurse Rush, Brent here's dying from the pain. You better get that medicine down here fast before I report you to the SPCA.»
Brent heard Nurse Rush's voice grate down the corridor. «You keep your mouth shut, Kirk. There'll be no yelling in this hospital. I've got too much to do without trying to keep you in line. I'll be down there as soon as I can.»
Kirk turned and left, disappearing from Brent's view.
«Now let's see what we can do about a bath for you,» Jewel said.
Out of the cabinet next to Brent's bed, she took a large blue plastic basin and a washcloth. She crossed the room to the sink and filled the basin with warm water.
«Maybe later when you're feeling a little better, you'll be able to wash yourself up, but for right now, you just let Jewel treat you like a king. It won't last for long.»
She crossed back to the bed and pulled the curtain which blocked the bed from view from the hall. With gentle hands she soaked the washcloth in water, soaped it until it foamed, and began to wash Brent's face. The warmth and clean smell of the soap were good, and Brent began to relax a little despite the pain. He unclenched his fists. She rinsed the washcloth and wiped his face clean.
Jewel pulled the sheet down to Brent's waist and removed the hospital gown, exposing his chest. In a large circular motion she began at his neck and started to wash down his body.
Oh, Christ, Brent thought as Jewel's hand moved over his stomach. The moment of relaxation was gone.
«Now don't you fret none,» Jewel said. «You've got no surprises for Jewel that she hasn't seen a hundred times before.»
Her hands disappeared under the edge of the sheet and Jewel continued to wash matter-of-factly. Brent couldn't help clenching his fists again. Jewel switched to the foot of the bed and lifted the sheet up from the bottom to his knees. She lathered and rinsed his legs.
«Think you can roll to one side?» she asked. «It's all right with the Doc, so long as you keep your back stiff. It's called a log roll. You put your right arm out from your side and cross your left leg and arm over and you'll find you turn nice and stifflike right on over to your side. How about giving it a try?»
Brent kept his body rigid and rolled to his right side. He expected sharp needles of pain, but only the dull heavy aching continued.
Jewel began at his neck and washed his back, scrubbing surely and finely down his spine with a firm, tender hand.
«You're a good kid,» she said. «Now we got to get these sheets changed.»
Brent considered the practicalities for the first time. How do you change a sheet when someone's lying on it? He pictured Jewel whisking the sheet from under him as magicians do tablecloths from under full dinner settings.
As if she read his mind, Jewel said, «Now don't you worry about this either. You just follow my directions and we'll have you fixed up in no time flat. You stay lying on your right side just the way you are.»
She began on the left side of the bed, and Brent could hear the pulling and rumpling of cloth as Jewel stripped the sheet off the mattress. The bunching of the material created a light pressure against his back.
«Now roll on your other side,» she said, and Brent thrust against the lumped material ridging the middle of the bed and rolled over it onto his left side. He did it just as Jewel had told him to and his body stayed rigid. The motions continued on the side behind him. Brent was amazed to realize, when the fluttering and moving stopped, that the bed was tight and freshly made without his having left it.
Jewel bundled the dirty sheets into a ball and tossed them towards the door. Next she took a small basin and filled it with clear, cold water. From the bedside cabinet she took his tooth brush and toothpaste and handed them all to Brent.
«I figure you can handle this part yourself,» she said. As Brent rolled onto his back again and began brushing his teeth, enjoying the crisp peppermint taste that relieved the staleness of his mouth, Jewel attacked Kirk's bed and had it changed within a moment.
«When I get all the beds done that I got to do today, I'll be back to see if Kirk wants his usual Coke. Be good,» she said and left the room, her arms full of dirty sheets.
Brent looked up at the ceiling. There was nothing there to see, so he turned his eyes to the right and watched the slow rise of the bubbles into the bottle that fed his arm.
He closed his eyes and tried to wait for Nurse Rush to arrive with the pain-killer. It wasn't easy.
Kirk made his way painfully down the hall from his room. Every step sent a shooting pain through his left hip and thigh.
Ahead of him he saw the open space of the sunroom. It was always the same. It hadn't changed for the months that Kirk had been there. For some reason, Kirk expected that some morning he would walk into the sun-room and the furniture would be different, or the drapes, or maybe there would be another magazine or two at least. But it never happened. It was always the same.
He entered the room and struggled over to an easy chair. He sank into it. Across the room two kids from Pediatrics were playing a game of checkers.
«Beat it,» Kirk said to them. «Go on back to where you belong.»
«Make us,» one of them said.
«I'll make you all right,» Kirk said. He started to rise from the chair.
The two kids grabbed their checkerboard and hurried from the room.
Kirk looked out the windows that ran the length of the room. It was sunny out. He picked up a four-month-old copy of Sports Illustrated. He flipped through the pages quickly. He'd read it three or four times already.
He grinned when he saw Amy come into the sun-room. She moved across the room without a sound, her bare feet sinking into the dark blue carpeting. She sat down beside him and sighed.