By Matthew Johnson
18 December 2006
The nurse stopped her on her way into the room. "You need to sign this," she said.
The old woman peered at the page the nurse had handed her. She was unable to focus on the right part of her glasses, and the paper was a blur. "What is it?"
"Directions for his care. It says here he's Do Not Resuscitate, is that right?"
"Are things that serious?"
"It's just routine. The DNR form says you're his power of attorney, so you can change it if you want."
She shook her head; she knew what he wanted. Still unable to make out the letters, she followed the nurse's finger, checked and signed, handed the page back. "Thank you," she said, and went on into the room.
He was lying on the bed, his eyes closed, his form as muscular as ever but looking somehow deflated. The room was nearly empty, only a heart monitor beeping softly and rhythmically. There were no tubes of saline solution running to his arm, no beeping and whirring and probing machines. The skin that had turned away uncounted bullets wouldn't admit them.
His chest rose and fell, slowly, shallowly, and every few seconds he twitched with the dream-tremors that had consigned the two of them to separate beds all these years. It was strange to see him sleeping there alone, without her bed nearby; it was that, she realized, which made the room feel so empty. A pair of black-framed glasses sat on the end-table next to the bed; he still wore them most of the time, from habit, must have had them on when he fell.
She watched him breathe for a minute. It didn't look much different from regular sleep, except for his pale, dry skin and lips, and the crust that had formed over his eyelids, sealing them shut. This is the kind of care he gets, she thought, after everything. She went into the half-bathroom, picked up a rough beige washcloth and moistened it with warm water from the sink, then went back to the bedside and started dabbing at his eyes.
"I'm sorry," a voice said from behind her. Turning, she saw a dark-haired man in his thirties—or maybe his forties; the older she got, the more all people younger looked the same age—wearing a lab coat over brown slacks and a windowpane checked shirt. "The nurse should have told you. We think he might be having small seizures, and we're worried about what might happen if his eyes are open. Without his control, I mean."
She nodded, dabbed the cloth on his forehead instead. How long had his skin been this pale, the veins so visible? "I'm—"
"Yes, I know," the man said, holding out his hand. "I'm Doctor Weller. I'm glad we were able to reach you. Was your trip all right?"
"It was fine." In fact she had no memory of it: no memory of anything between being called away from the conference and seeing the nurse at the door. "How bad is he?"
Weller looked away slightly, scratched the side of his head, above his right ear. "Well, that's hard to say," he said. "We have only the simplest tools available. No X-ray, no CAT scan: none of it will penetrate his skin. So really I'm just left with an EKG and a stethoscope."
"And we don't know. Who knows what's normal for him? We've seen what look like little seizures, as I said. It might have been a stroke, but we've got no way to tell."
She looked over at him on the bed. He still looked strong; his hair, white as it was, still fell in that curl over his forehead. "So what are you doing?"
The doctor shook his head. "There's not much we can do. Even if we knew it was a stroke, it would be too late to give him a plasminogen activator—a clot dissolver—even if there were a way to get it in his bloodstream. Frankly, anything we could give him probably wouldn't be as effective as what his own body can do. He's shown an amazing ability to heal himself over the years."
"What are you doing to keep him hydrated?" she asked, annoyed. At what age, she thought, do you start being treated like a child? Or do doctors talk like that to everyone?
"Ice. I don't know if he can choke, but we don't want to take the risk. So we've been taking crushed ice—there's a machine down the hall, in the pantry—and letting it melt in his mouth."
She gently put a finger to her husband's lips. "I don't think he's gotten that in a while."
Doctor Weller had the grace to look embarrassed. "Labor's always at a premium in a hospital. Even for someone like him—if there's a good chance it's just the natural way of things, more urgent care takes priority."
The natural way of things. Who knew what that was, with him? "I'd like you to show me where the ice machine is, please," she said. "And I'd like a cot brought in, if you can spare one."
As it turned out, they couldn't. What they had instead was a padded chair, like a recliner; it wasn't terrifically comfortable, but it leaned back far enough to sleep in. Not that she was sleeping much. She was the only one to watch him: his parents were long dead, her sister half a continent away and too frail to travel besides. No children, of course. The risk was too great: if the child took after the father, one kick while in the womb. . . . She had thought about adopting, but ultimately had to agree when he'd said their lives were complicated enough already. So it was just the two of them.
And soon, just one.
Luckily their neighbor's son was out of school for Christmas; he could gather a bag full of clothes and books and bring them to the hospital. She had given up on her bifocals, wore her reading glasses most of the time and switched to the others when someone came in or she went to get water. She had started out by reading to him, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Dickens, his old favorites, kept it up for a day. Now she saved her voice, sat by the window and reread Scoop.
She saw a fuzzy gray-and-white centaur shape moving past the door, heard the breakfast cart rolling by. Switching to her distance glasses, she patted her husband on the arm, dog-eared her book and headed for the pantry. After a few days she knew the rhythms of the hospital: the big water cups, the ones that held a liter, were put on the pantry shelf right after breakfast and disappeared by noon. Every morning she grabbed two, filled one with water for herself and one with ice for him. Like being back at the paper, she thought, timing your break to a fresh pot of coffee, knowing the times when there wouldn't be a line at the Xerox machine. She took a long while filling the mugs, to give the nurses ample time to change him before she returned.
He was stirring when she got back to the room. She knew, now, which tremors could be soothed with a gentle hand or moist washcloth and which would lift him inches off the bed, set him thrashing hard enough to bend the bed frame. This was a small one, and she took his hand as she sat down. "It's okay," she said.
His mouth opened. "Luh—" he croaked.
Her hand twitched in surprise, jerked back in case his should close out of reflex. She reached into the mug of ice, slid a small handful into his mouth. "Just let this melt."
Nodding, he moved his jaw around then swallowed. "Cold," he said in a rasp.
She reached over for the washcloth that sat on the table, dabbed at his eyes. "Do you need anything?"
"You're in the hospital."
His eyelids were clear of the crust now, and he opened them a bit; the eyes behind looked pale, unfocused. He blinked at the light from the window, and her heart ached to see him hurt by something that had always been a friend. "What happened?"
"You fell," she said, fighting to control her voice.
She smiled. He had always hated the fighting, using his fists to solve problems: it wasn't the way he was brought up, he'd say, and besides, if someone like him had to resort to violence, it meant he must be pretty dumb. "No."
He nodded. "Good," he said, then took a deep breath. She reached into the mug, her hand numb with cold, fed him another handful of ice. He sucked at the ice for a moment then swallowed. "Tired."
"Okay," she said. "You go to sleep."
"Yeah." For a moment that old twinkle she remembered was there, and the corners of his mouth curled into a smile. "You take care, now."
She woke with a start. Her chair had been pushed away from the bed, and people bustled all around, reaching over her husband. The room was oddly quiet, and for a moment she wondered if she were still sleeping, dreaming. Then she realized just what sound was missing. The heart monitor was silent.
"What's happening?" she said, rising unsteadily. She didn't know which of these people was the doctor, who was in charge. Nobody seemed to be doing anything.
"He's coding," said one of them, a young red-haired woman in green scrubs. "I mean, his heart's stopped."
"Can't you do something?"
Still fighting to awaken fully, she tried to pull those letters out of the alphabet soup in her memory. Then she remembered . . . it was what he had wanted. She had thought it was what she had wanted. "I don't care. I'm the one who signed it. Do something!"
The nurses, or whatever they all were, looked around at one another uncomfortably. Even as she spoke, she knew why: order or no order, there was nothing they could do. Paddles would hardly shock a heart that had withstood lightning bolts, and as for chest compressions—who was strong enough for that? One of his own people, if there were any left in the universe.
"It's all right," she said, calling up the voice she'd used all those years ago to convince her editor—and convince him—that she wasn't afraid to cover the hurricane, or get the interview with the terrorist leader. That she wasn't afraid. "You've done all you—"
Before she could finish, the heart monitor started beeping again, haltingly at first and then with a regular rhythm. Even under the fluorescent lights she could see the color returning to his cheeks.
"I'll call Doctor Weller," the red-haired nurse said, then turned to her. "It could be pretty noisy around here for awhile. Would you like to sleep in the lounge?"
She shook her head, realized with a start she was still wearing her reading glasses. "I'll wait here," she said, fumbling to find the other pair in her purse.
It happened once more before the doctor came, his heart stopping and restarting itself. A motherly nurse in pink scrubs trailed Doctor Weller as he came into the room—sleepy-eyed himself—filling him in on what had happened.
"Are the results from the stool and urine samples back yet?" Weller asked.
"I'll go see, Doctor," the nurse said, and went back out into the dimly lit hallway.
Finally, the doctor seemed to notice his patient's visitor. "You should sleep," he told her.
"What's wrong with him? Why is this happening?"
He shrugged wearily. "We still don't know. It could be—" The nurse reappeared at the door, handed him a clipboard; he looked it over, nodded to himself. "Well. Liver, kidneys. . . . It looks like, basically, his organs are shutting down."
"So he's dying," she said. She bit the tip of her tongue. "How many more times will this happen? Before he—"
"I don't know," the doctor said. "The thing is, the organs—we think they're healing themselves. I've been tracking what functions we can, and it looks like whatever organ fails one day has healed itself by the next one."
"You mean he'll get better? Will he—"
He shook his head. "No. He's too far gone. He can't heal fully, and it—it looks like he can't fully die, either."
She looked down at her husband. He was resting, now, the heart monitor beeping a reassuring rhythm. Pale as he was, it was hard to believe he would never rise from this bed. Even in the darkest times, she had never really feared for him; he had always been strong, so strong. "So. There's nothing—nothing you can do for him."
"No. We'll keep him comfortable, keep monitoring him. I could still be wrong. But . . ." He scratched at the side of his head. "In light of this development, I think you need to consider your own health now. Being here is a lot of stress on you, at your age . . ."
"Yes," she said. "I'll think about it. Thank you, doctor."
"Can I get the nurses to bring you anything?"
"No. Thank you. Switch the light out when you go."
She sat for a while, in the dark, not moving: watching him, watching his chest rise and fall, listening to the monitor's soft song. "What am I going to do with you?" she asked.
To her surprise he stirred, his body stiffening like a still photo of a seizure. "I could see them," he murmured.
His eyes were closed; she couldn't tell if he knew where he was. "Who?"
"Like in the dream." He had told her, a few nights before she left for the conference, about a dream he'd had: finally seeing the place he had come from, all its lost people. "They . . . they're waiting for me." His breathing quickened, then returned to its sleeping rhythm, and his muscles relaxed.
There was no use trying to sleep. She turned the light on, tilting the shade away so he was left in darkness, and picked up her book.
Doctor Weller was pleased when, the next day, she decided to take his advice. "No sense making yourself sick," he had said. "Keep your cell phone on you. We'll let you know if—if anything changes."
In fact it had made her sick to leave her husband there, alone, but what she needed lay outside the hospital's walls. It would not be easy to find, but she was unworried. She had always had a nose for trouble.
The house looked like any other in the suburban Minneapolis neighborhood: a half-bungalow with aluminum siding in a tasteful shade of gray. A haphazardly shoveled trail led through the snow to the door, and a soggy newspaper sat rolled up on the porch. Smacking her lips—chapstick, not lipstick; her days of vanity were gone, and besides, it was so dry here—she rang the doorbell, heard slippered feet shuffling within.
She had to stop herself from laughing when she saw him. It was still the face she knew from a dozen kidnappings, a hundred hostage-takings: the owlish eyebrows, the fiercely intelligent eyes were still there—but he was wearing a crocheted cap in a rainbow of yarn. "I'm sorry," she said, when his eyes flashed with anger. "You never seemed to care about being bald before."
"It's for warmth, not vanity," he said, scowling. "What do you want?"
"Can I come in?"
He stared at her for a long moment, shrugged, turned to go inside. "I had hair," he said. "You know that stuff the yuppies use to fill in their bald spots? I invented it."
She closed the door behind her, tapping the toes of her boots against the floor to knock the snow off. "So what happened?"
"Well, I used the good stuff; what the doctors can prescribe is just a taste, to hook people on the real thing. That's where the money is. Anyway, I had the healthiest head of red hair you've ever seen."
He tapped the crocheted cap. "Cancer. Chemo."
"I'm sorry." She summoned an expression of concern. "How's it going?"
"Ehh." He went on into the kitchen, poured himself a cup of coffee. "I'm alive. You want?"
She shook her head. "No, thanks. Is that why they let you out of jail, the cancer?"
"Nah, I'm a parolee. It was always attempted whatever, thanks to him, and they couldn't charge me with trying to kill him without admitting the existence of you-know-what on public record." The bald man took a sip of his coffee, frowned, put down the cup. "So, you've tracked me down, and it wasn't just to catch up on old times. What do you want?"
"You know what."
He tilted his head curiously. "I don't, really."
She took a breath. "What you called it. You-know-what."
"Ah," he said, understanding dawning on his face. "Trouble in paradise?"
Her face felt hot. "None of your business," she said.
His eyebrows rose in amusement. "Too bad. You know I'm always at your service . . . all you have to do is ask."
"He's—he's very sick," she said, swallowing bile. "And his body, it—he's too strong. It won't let him die."
He gave a barking laugh, which broke into a cough. "Why . . . even if I had some—which I don't—why should I give it to you?" He picked up his coffee, took a long sip and swallowed. "I spent half my life trying to make him miserable. Why should I put him out of his misery now?"
"I can pay you," she said, her knuckles whitening as she gripped her purse strap. She took a step closer to him, made a motion toward her wallet.
"Pay me? Anyway, I told you, I don't have any."
She smiled inwardly. An old interviewing trick, move the conversation along the path of least resistance: not whether he would but whether he could. "I don't believe it. You'd never go without at least one piece, just in case."
He shrugged, smiling broadly. "Sorry. It's a condition of my parole: no owning any radioactive materials of any kind."
"Uh huh." She took a step closer, nodded sadly, and reached for the lump in his right pocket. His hand shot out, quicker than she expected, seized her wrist; she grabbed his other arm and they froze, each unwilling to back down but neither able to risk a struggle and the fall that might follow. She locked eyes with him, felt a blast of pure hate. She fought to hold his gaze, forcing herself to remember everything he had ever done to her, to him.
After a long moment his eyes dimmed; deflated, he looked away, released her arm and reached into his right pocket. There it was, in a nest of tissues and rubber bands: a rough crystal, about an inch around.
"If you want this," he said, "You have to do something for me."
She nodded; there would be a price, of course. There had to be. "What do you want?"
His shoulders slumped, his body curling protectively around the glowing stone. "It should have been me," he said. "Not just . . . time. When it—happens—" She felt a moment's absurd pity for him: he had, she realized, been as bound to her husband as she was. "Tell them it was me."
He snuffled loudly, turned away, wiped his nose with his sleeve.
"Tell them I won . . ."
When she returned to the hospital she was told her husband had moved to a different room, in the isolation wing; the woman at the desk couldn't tell her why. An orderly stopped her as she got off the elevator, directed her to a room where white quarantine suits hung in a row from hooks on the wall. A sign opposite said SUIT UP BEFORE ENTERING! She looked around, went back out into the hall and to the nurse's station.
"What's going on?" she asked.
The nurse, a woman she hadn't seen before, shrugged. "Which patient are you here to see?" She told the nurse, who flipped through a pile of charts. "Your husband's in quarantine. You can visit, but you need to put on one of those suits and follow procedure."
"I know that," she said, her voice raspy from the cold dry air she'd been breathing. "Why is he in quarantine?"
"You'll have to ask Doctor Weller."
"Where is he?"
"I'll page him for you."
She pretended to read a magazine for twenty minutes before the doctor arrived. "What's the matter?" he asked the nurse.
"Your patient's wife is here," the nurse said.
"Ah. How are you?" Doctor Weller asked, stepping over to her.
"What's going on? Why is he isolated?"
"It's his immune system. We had some outbreaks on the floor he was on—we think bacteria in his system may have been mutating for a long time. Adapting to match him—they evolve so much more quickly than we do. So long as he was healthy, his immune system would have kept them from getting out into the population, but . . ."
"I thought you were going to call me if anything changed."
"Ah. Well." He looked away. "Nothing has changed. My prognosis is still the same."
"So he's still . . ."
She nodded to herself. "Can I see him?"
"Sure. Just put a suit on—there's instructions—"
"I saw them."
"Okay. You might need a little help getting into the suit."
She had thought, when she saw them hanging on the wall, that they looked like spacesuits, but they were actually very thin. She stepped into the legs, glad to be wearing pants rather than a skirt, and Doctor Weller helped her with the arms and hood. He led her to the room; the first door led into a little antechamber, with a garbage can and a sign over it saying DISPOSE OF SUITS HERE BEFORE LEAVING. The first door closed behind her and she shouldered the next open, went into the room.
The room was dark and nearly empty, with even the few comforts of a regular hospital room gone: no bedside table, no chairs. Just the bed where he lay, breathing shallowly, and the heart monitor. Round adhesive ghosts on his forehead showed he'd had an EEG put on and then removed. She could see why: he was twitching in his sleep, tiny seizures passing over him every few seconds. Loose restraints over his chest and legs kept him from floating more than a few inches from the bed.
"It's okay," she said, stroking his forehead with gloved fingers. "I'm here."
Another twitch went through him, then he seemed to calm. His eyelids fluttered.
She felt her resolve weakening. "I'm sorry I had to leave you. I won't go again."
His lips, dry and cracked, opened slightly; she held her breath. "Luh . . ." He spoke just over a whisper, so quiet she wondered if she had really heard him. His head pitched to the side, as though fighting a nightmare. "Let me go."
"I can't," she said, her voice breaking. "I still need you here."
Another tremor went through him, and his hands clawed convulsively.
"I'm sorry . . . I'm sorry . . ." she said. He said nothing.
This wasn't fair. Why should she be the one to have to do this?
Because she could. Because she would.
Opening her left hand, she took out the tissue she had palmed while putting on the suit, and unwrapped it. She looked quickly over her shoulder, through the windows of the two doors: no-one was paying attention, as usual. The rock in her hand felt heavier now that she could see it. She waited for one of his spasmed hands to open, fitted the rock into his palm. Its glow peered through his fingers, casting shadows across the room that quivered as the seizures took him.
She sat with him for a long time, until he was still.