Twenty four hours had passed since they arrived at a hospital on a military base in El Paso, Texas. Twenty four hours had passed since Nick was admitted. Twenty four hours had passed since tests were conducted to confirm Jennifer’s diagnosis. Twenty four hours had passed since Nick’s doctor, Dr. Mills, had informed them that Nick’s chances weren’t good because of how late they’d caught the disease. Twenty four hours had passed since the last time Dal responded to anyone or anything. Twenty four hours had passed since Megan and Ellis had spoken last.
Twelve bags of IV antibiotics had been pumped into Nick’s bloodstream. Two nurses had been coming in every hour to check Nick’s state of health.
Nick’s blood pressure had stubbornly stabilized at ninety over sixty-eight. His pulse wouldn’t come down from a hundred and twelve. His temperature had skyrocketed from ninety-three point four to a hundred and five point three over the past six hours.
The blood pressure and pulse were not good news, as it meant some of the medications Nick was on weren’t working correctly and so he needed a higher dose. The temperature was better news, as it meant Nick’s body was finally able to put up a fight.
Ellis had listened, and he was sure Megan and Dal had listened too, but he wasn’t sure what kind of emotional response he was supposed to have. So he’d settled for moderate anxiety and occasional bouts of severe depression.
Twenty four had passed since their arrival. Twelve hours had passed since Nick’s temperature had started going up. Six hours had passed since the last time they’d seen Dr. Mills. An hour and a half had passed since the last time a nurse came in to change Nick’s antibiotics bag.
Time seemed meaningless. Ellis stared at the clock on the wall, keeping track of the hours, the minutes, the seconds. It wasn’t time consuming. It wasn’t interesting. It didn’t keep his mind or his emotions from going off in every and any direction. It wouldn’t speed things up. It wouldn’t make Nick get better. It couldn’t possibly keep him distracted from the conman’s pale face for very long, but he tried.
Ellis didn’t want to look at him for very long. He didn’t want to catch himself staring helplessly at Nick, willing him to wake up and get better. He didn’t want to find himself eying the strange, dark marks on his jaw and imagining everything that could possibly go wrong.
He didn’t want to try thinking of what might go right, either. He didn’t want to give himself any more hope than he already had. He didn’t want to be horribly shocked if (when) Nick died. He wouldn’t mind being pleasantly surprised when (if) Nick survived. He just couldn’t bring himself to put too much stock in a twenty percent chance of survival. Jennifer had said fifty if the disease wasn’t a resistant strain, but Dr. Mills had said twenty because of how late they’d caught it.
Dr. Mills didn’t really expect Nick to survive. He hadn’t come out and said it, but it was evident in the way he didn’t seem to worry that much. It was evident in the way he explained Nick’s condition. It was evident in the way he didn’t check up on Nick frequently.
He was a doctor who would be committed to trying, but wasn’t expecting his patient to survive. Perhaps if he had to worry about malpractice lawsuits, he would be significantly more invested. Perhaps if Nick’s chances were better, he would try harder. Or perhaps he was trying as hard as he could, but there just wasn’t anything he could do but wait like Ellis, Megan, and Dal.
Ellis stared at the clock. Time was meaningless, but he kept track of it anyway.
He looked to the door when he heard someone knock on their way into the room. Two nurses stood there, both with sympathetic looks in their eyes, only one of them familiar to Ellis. He straightened up, staring at them questioningly as they walked up to the side of the bed closest to the door, opposite from their patient’s live-in visitors.
Justin, the nurse Ellis already knew, smiled at him with tired eyes, “We’re taking him down for a CT scan.” He explained, and when Ellis furrowed his brow in confusion, he continued, “It’s to check the state of his internal organs. Dr. Mills is concerned about his kidneys, among other things.”
Ellis felt the color drain from his face, but he nodded stiffly in understanding. Justin smiled slightly at him before they took the brakes off the wheels of the bed and rolled Nick out of the room. “Shouldn’t be too long. If something’s wrong, someone will come up to let you know.”
Again, Ellis nodded, watching them go. It was even quieter in the room without the frantic beeping of the heart monitor, without the sound of Nick’s rapid breathing. He turned his tired gaze back to the clock, trying to remember how many seconds he had left off on, and then trying to figure out how many seconds he had missed.
It was impossible. His brain was fried.
Oh well. He thought, feeling hollowed out and exhausted, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven…
He had counted seventy-three minutes and forty-eight seconds before Dr. Mills appeared in the doorway of the room, Nick nowhere in sight. He looked grim, and Ellis’ heart dropped into his stomach. He swallowed hard, waiting for whatever bad news he was about to receive.
“His left kidney has shut down,” Dr. Mills explained, and Ellis felt Megan and Dal look up beside him. Ellis clenched his fists on his knees, his blue eyes widening a little. The doctor continued, “He’s in surgery having it removed right now. The right kidney is still functioning fine, so at least for now we don’t need a donor. But I wanted to ask you three for you blood type in case we do at any point.”
“AB positive,” Ellis answered immediately, glancing over at Megan and Dal.
Megan looked at him briefly before turning back to the doctor she didn’t seem to like. He saw her jaw working, saw the way she swallowed. She looked like she felt nauseous. “A positive.”
Finally, Dal held up his right with his fingertips to his thumb in a sign for “O,” and put his left index finger up next to it.
“Dal’s O negative.” Megan clarified before Ellis could when they noticed the moderate confusion in the doctor’s eyes.
Dr. Mills let out a sigh that sounded both tired and relieved. “Nick’s O negative as well.” Dr. Mills said, and Ellis glanced over at the youngest of their little group. “So if his other kidney shuts down, we’re going to be calling on you, Dal.”
The kid nodded, looking completely unfazed. It was odd, considering the circumstances, that Dal could look as calm as he did. Ellis couldn’t tell if it was a front or if that was how he truly felt. Megan didn’t look as calm as Dal did, but rather she looked hollowed out and exhausted.
He had thought for a while that they were going to arrive at the hospital and spend as much time crying as it took for Nick to wake up (assuming he woke up at all). Instead, they had arrived at their destination, sat down, and hadn’t really moved since. They hadn’t spoken to each other at all. They had yet to start crying. Even now, while receiving bad news, they all just stared at the doctor with dull, shadowed eyes.
“It’ll be a couple of hours before he’s back in here,” Dr. Mills told them, “I’ll have rooms prepared for you here in the hospital. You should all at least try to get a nap in while you can’t see him anyway. I can have a nurse let you know when he’s back.”
Ellis forced a smile at the offer, “Thanks, doc.”
The doctor nodded curtly before he left, leaving them in silence once again. Slowly, Ellis’ eyes drifted back to the clock. It was meaningless to count the seconds, but it kept his head clear. It kept him from thinking about things he didn’t want to think about. It kept his emotions from running rampant and out of control.
Time was meaningless now, but he counted the seconds anyway.
One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight…
It had been six days and about fourteen hours since they had arrived in the hospital in El Paso. Nick hadn’t woken up yet, though Megan hadn’t really been expecting him to. At this point, she wasn’t sure whether hoping for his recovery made sense. Dr. Mills had been looking rather pleased on the occasions when he came through, but she didn’t know if that was because Nick wasn’t dead yet or because he was actually slowly getting better. The man never stuck around long and none of the team ever wanted to ask questions, a collective fear of bad news keeping their mouths shut for them.
Ellis was having trouble sleeping. Megan was having trouble sleeping. Dal wasn’t sleeping unless he passed out, and he also wasn’t eating. The boy hadn’t left Nick’s room in the six days that they’d been there. Megan had gone to Ellis about it, wondering if there was something they could do, but he had told her rather sternly to leave the boy alone about it. Dal would either cave in and go to sleep at some point or he would continue to occasionally pass out in his chair.
“Ya’ worry too much about what other people’re doin’, Meg. Ya’ oughta try thinkin’ more about yourself n’ what you can do, instead of what ya’ think other people should be doin’.”
At first, Megan had been utterly unsatisfied with Ellis’ response. She’d been insulted for a moment, choosing to abandon their conversation in favor of sleep. She hadn’t gotten much, of course, but she’d succeeded in persuading Ellis to leave her to her thoughts. Megan now wondered if the young man had figured out that she’d been angry with him at the time.
Now, she was anything but angry. She’d given Ellis’ words a lot of thought, going so far as to recall what Nick had said days ago, when she’d infuriated Dal to the point of throwing his speech board into the wall. Megan knew that she was a control freak. She’d never really been proud of the fact, but it’d been there for a long time, and she’d sort of gotten used to it. Now she understood that she should never have let herself get used to a personality flaw. She should’ve tried to fix it as soon as it appeared, much like the way she tried to “fix” everything and everyone around her.
Ellis had told her during the duration of their conversation that he had been worried that Megan would try and turn her “fix-it” attitude on Nick, as the conman would surely have grown to hate her, and eventually started trying to chase her out of their lives. His revelation made her glad that she hadn’t gotten a chance to talk to Nick yet, because at this point she was sure she would’ve done just that. She distinctly remembered thinking about it, after all.
“People ain’t things ya’ can fix. Ya’ can’t make anyone do anythin’ they don’ wanna do. That’s what my mom always used t’ say.”
“Excuse me,” Megan greeted, walking up to the nurse’s station on the ICU floor. The familiar nurse Justin walked up to the counter, smiling his fake, friendly smile that read mostly as “I hate my job.”
“Need something?” He asked expectantly.
“Yea,” Megan replied, leaning on the counter. “Dal, as I’m sure you know, can’t talk and doesn’t know sign language. So, I was wondering if you guys had or if you could find a speech board for him. They’re just these text-to-speech keyboards. I had one at my speech therapy office in Brookhaven but … well, he broke it.”
Justin was making a note of it on a piece of paper, and she watched him write messily on his pad of paper before he straightened up. “I’ll see what I can do.” He promised, smiling again. Megan returned the gesture, turned away from the nurse’s station and headed back down the hall. She hadn’t specified to Dal or Ellis where she was going or what she was doing. They hadn’t asked, though, so she didn’t feel at all obligated to feel bad for briefly disappearing.
Her stomach rumbled agitatedly, and she slammed a fist into it to try and silence it. She was starving. It was two o’ clock and she had yet to eat. She paused in the doorway to Nick’s room, noting that Ellis had left.
“Dal,” she called uncertainly. The kid slowly lifted his head to look at her. “I’m running down to the cafeteria. Do you want anything?”
He shook his head in reply, and turned his attention back to the unconscious person on the bed in front of him. Megan tried not to frown, forced herself not to look disappointed, prevented herself from trying to persuade him.
“Okay. I’ll be back in a bit.” She promised, and when he nodded without looking up, she turned back to the hall and headed for the stairs. It both astounded and disgusted her how difficult it had been to keep her mouth shut and not try to force the boy to bend to her will. He might not have put up much of a fight, simply because he was completely exhausted, but it would’ve further damaged their relationship.
Or lack thereof. She thought bitterly. Nick had been right. She should never have tried to force Dal to talk to her. She should have just left him alone when he’d first asked her to. She didn’t know if he was holding a grudge, or if it just didn’t matter to him anymore in light of what had happened with Nick. She clearly remembered how startled she’d been when it had been Dal standing at her door. She had thought he would hate her because it was her fault he had broken his speech board. She had thought he would want nothing more to do with her.
But then, with Nick’s condition being what it was, he might’ve gone to her even if he did hate her. She just didn’t know.
Megan walked into the cafeteria, peering around in search of Ellis. She spotted him right away, sitting at a table in the middle of the large room. He looked even more tired than he’d looked last night. She wondered if he’d gotten any sleep. He’d already been up when she’d woke up around six in the morning after falling asleep around three, and she hadn’t bothered to ask him if he’d slept.
Forgetting that she was hungry, Megan started towards him. Ellis, as young and naive as he often was, had a streak of wisdom that he probably didn’t know existed. It usually showed in his relationship advice and the way he was able to understand things that had never happened to him.
Perhaps it wasn’t wisdom at all. Perhaps it was just his amazing ability to empathize with other people.
She wanted to pick up their conversation where it had left off last night. She wanted to hear more about what he thought about her as a control freak. She wanted to know if he had any more interesting and very helpful pieces of advice to offer. Perhaps he could further help her out with the whole “control freak” thing.
At the very least, perhaps he could give her some advice on how to repair the damage she’d done to her already tepid relationship with Dal.
Out of the goodness of her heart (or perhaps because she had been trying to distract herself), Megan had given him a once-over and a new set of exercises to occupy himself with. It was something to do besides staring at Nick’s pallid face, and Dal was thankful for it. He didn’t know if he’d been able to convey his thanks properly, but he hoped she at least knew he appreciated it, even if it had been for her benefit instead of his.
And so, he hummed.
When the nurses came in, he would stop. He was a little abashed by how bad he was at humming. It was one of those things everyone could do easily, and so for him to be having as hard a time as he was… well, it was both frustrating and embarrassing. Mostly frustrating. It did give him something other than Nick to think about, though.
Of course, the distraction never lasted long. As soon as someone came in to check Nick’s vitals, he would be reminded of why he was in this hospital, why he was sitting at Nick’s bedside while the man slept away the days. He would be reminded of his anxiety. He would be reminded of everything, and because of it, he held a small grudge against the nurses for coming in. He knew they had to, but he wished they didn’t. The distraction of his exercises prevented him from caving in to the emotions that lay just beneath the surface – the ones he held back fiercely.
He knew if that if he let the levees fall and allowed the emotional tsunami to wash over the dry beaches of his mind, he wouldn’t be able to hold anything back. He’d likely just go to irrecoverable pieces until Nick got better (assuming he gets better).
Nick would get better. Dal was sure of it (or at least, you wish you were sure of it).
I’m hopeful too, but really, since when does anything ever go right in your life? I’m just being realistic.
He started humming again, having forgotten to restart the song when the nurse left ten minutes ago. It distracted him as much as it could, considering the fact that he was staring at the vitals monitors. Ellis always stared at the clock. Megan stared at the door. Dal stared at the monitors.
None of them had spoken a word to each other for the first two days. They hadn’t eaten or slept either. That had stopped (for the most part) on the second evening, when Megan was just too exhausted to go on, and Ellis was willing to follow her example. They had been completely worn out from the emotional roller coasters they’d all been on. On the third day, Megan and Ellis had gone downstairs to forage, offering to bring Dal something. He had declined then as well.
It’d been nine days. Dal had eaten two granola bars and a Dixie Cup in those nine days, entirely because Dr. Mills had been informed by one of his nurses that Dal was refusing sustenance and so he had taken it upon himself to force something down the teen’s throat. That had been a battle of wills, and Dal had lost because he really didn’t have the energy to fight with anyone.
Megan brought him water, juice, or soda whenever she went to the cafeteria. She’d been doing that since day four, when she’d made her second trip to the cafeteria with Ellis. Dal knew she brought him drinks out of worry that he’d expire from dehydration, and he didn’t blame her. If she hadn’t been bringing him beverages, he would be drinking as much as he was eating.
He felt a little bad for making everyone worry, but he couldn’t bring himself to leave the room, and he really just wasn’t hungry. Even when Dr. Mills had brought him that Dixie Cup, it had taken him forever to finish it. It’d been ice cream soup by the time he was done. He hadn’t been quite so uninterested in food since his fever had broken. For a short minute, he’d thought maybe his fever was finally coming back.
But no, he just hadn’t been hungry. He still wasn’t.
Dal shifted in his seat, clearing his throat and starting a new song as he finished the last. He glanced over at the mostly closed door to the room, wondering when Megan and Ellis were going to return. Sometimes, they hung out in the cafeteria and conversed for a while before returning to Nick’s room. Or at least, that was the conclusion Dal had drawn when they had, at one point, taken two hours to come back. He supposed it was possible that they were talking about him, or discussing something that they thought he might not want to listen in on. It didn’t really matter. He wasn’t an especially nosy person.
He looked back over at Nick, noting with some concern that his face – which had already been extremely pale – looked somehow even paler. He blinked, slowly standing up. He didn’t know if that counted as “worrisome.” It was certainly making him worry.
He heard a high-pitched alarming sound that was probably much quieter to anyone else’s ears, and turned his attention to the vitals monitors. The first thing he noticed was that Nick’s temperature had dropped four degrees, and his pulse had shot up to a hundred and fifteen beats per minute from a hundred and three. Then, he spotted the numbers that had set off the alarm in the machinery, and his stomach twisted into a knot.
Nick’s blood pressure was dropping like a stone. It had been stable at ninety-four over seventy-two, but now it was down to seventy-five over fifty and it wasn’t done dropping. Dal panicked – obviously no one had heard the alarms going off because the door was mostly shut, and he couldn’t just call for help. The call button couldn’t possibly portray the emergency, and Ellis and Megan were nowhere to be found.
He sucked in a breath and turned to his only remaining option – the Code Blue button. He slammed his palm against it, and instantly the loudest, shrillest alarm he had ever heard went off. He clamped his hands over his extremely sensitive ears, stumbling back until he hit a wall. His vision was filling with spots and his head was already pounding and he was hit with vertigo all at once. That noise was so loud, he could hear it clear as day through his hands. He lowered one hand, regretting it immediately, and felt his way along the wall until he found a corner where he could safely sit down without having to worry about being in anyone’s way.
Dal sank to the floor between the wall against his back and the nightstand beside Nick’s bed. He felt sick, and he wasn’t sure if it was the noise or the whirlwind of panic that was slamming into him from all directions. He felt ill, and dizzy, and there was a terrible, stabbing pain piercing through his skull. That racket was too loud. He couldn’t hear anything over it, and he couldn’t block it out. Through the floor, Dal could feel people rushing into the room, and he wondered faintly if they were going to notice him sitting there or not.
He lowered his head, forehead eventually finding his knees. Then, he went completely still, trying to remember to breath and shaking all over. He hadn’t been at all prepared for that alarm. He hadn’t been at all prepared for Nick’s vitals to drop, and he most certainly hadn’t been ready to handle the panic that came as a result. Dal forced himself to take stabilizing breaths, trying to calm himself down, trying to keep the levees up. If they failed now, he was really going to end up becoming a perfect metaphor for post-Katrina New Orleans.
Dal felt his throat working before he realized that he was humming. It helped. It helped a lot more than he would’ve thought it would. It gave him something grounding to concentrate on, aside from that awful ringing in his ears. The gentle vibrating of his throat helped to somewhat soothe the pounding in his head, and once the headache was less, the dizziness started to go away as well. His ears were still ringing, but it wasn’t as bad as it had been a moment ago.
He felt someone touch his shoulder unexpectedly and jerked upright, startled. He had been expecting Megan or Ellis, but it was neither of them. Rochelle was crouched next to him instead, looking immensely worried. Just as before, Dal noticed the lack of fear in her eyes, and it was a welcome sight. Slowly, he lowered his hands, finding that the alarm had been shut off and letting out a sigh of relief. She moved backwards, standing up and offering him a hand to help him up, which he gratefully accepted.
Immediately, Dal turned his attention from Rochelle’s face to the spot where Nick had been a moment ago. His eyes widened when he saw that the conman was missing, and he turned back to Rochelle, hoping that she knew where he was.
“They took him to the OR to find out what was wrong,” Rochelle explained to him, sounding a little breathless. “I think another one of his organs failed or ruptured.”
Another one? So, Rochelle knew about his kidney, then. How long had she been in El Paso? Had she been avoiding them out of nerves? Or had she just interrogated Justin the Nurse?
He nodded jerkily, still shaken. Potential organ failure. Dal didn’t think a failing kidney would cause a sudden dip in his blood pressure. It had to be something more important than that. He didn’t know enough about sepsis or the human body to figure out exactly what had happened. He knew a lot about inner workings of the brain and concussions, but everything else in the medical field was beyond his expertise.
He’d just have to wait and hope.
Rochelle stepped further back, indicating a chair, “I think you should sit down. You don’t look very steady.”
He took her advice, sitting down in the nearest chair. His knees had been shaking and he was sure he’d been swaying. His center of balance had been completely thrown off by the volume of that alarm. The vertigo was still present, though less than it had been when he’d first found himself in that corner. Dal took in a shaky breath, trying to settle himself and only partially succeeding.
Rochelle took a seat next to him, turning her chair towards him a bit and reaching for a backpack that sat on the floor by her feet. “I have something for you.” She said quietly, opening the backpack. Dal wondered if she was being quiet because she could tell that his ears were bothering him. He didn’t know how much she knew about the infection and its permanent effects.
His eyes widened some when she straightened up, pulling a new speech keyboard out of her bag. She handed it to him, and he took it from her gratefully. He had figured that Rochelle had gotten over her fear of him, that she had moved past it and grown into a better person, but he hadn’t imagined for a second that she would do something like this for him. He could’ve imagined an apology towards himself and Ellis, but he hadn’t thought that…
“I’m really sorry about… everything from before, Dal,” she said softly. He could hear the sincerity in her voice, and it made his heart ache. He’d been wanting to make amends with Rochelle and Coach since the moment he’d met them. He’d wanted their recognition. It had mattered to him so much because Rochelle and Coach hadn’t cared for him. Coach had despised him and Rochelle had feared him, and he’d craved their recognition because to him, it would’ve meant that maybe he could change his mom and dad’s minds, too.
It’s a bit late, now, but…
“I was really scared, but that isn’t an excuse.” Rochelle continued, looking up and making eye contact. Dal didn’t look away, but he could feel his eyes heating up. He tried his hardest to hold on to his self-control, but it was exceedingly difficult. “I didn’t think that you might be hurt by my fear. I didn’t think of how you felt at all, and that was really awful of me. I hope… I hope you’ll forgive me for being an idiot.”
He couldn’t find his words, even with the keyboard sitting in his lap. His eyes were starting to water, and he couldn’t find the words to express how happy he was that she was willing to apologize. He couldn’t find the words to tell her how long it had taken Nick, so she didn’t have to feel badly about the delay. He couldn’t figure out how to tell her that he understood, and he had done some pretty stupid things because of fear, too.
Rochelle watched him silently as he lowered his head, trying to contain himself. He couldn’t let the levees break. He couldn’t let the levees break. He couldn’t let the levees break. He had to hold on. He had to. If he lost it now, he’d probably never be able to get back in control of himself.
Rochelle reached a hand over and placed it gingerly on top of his own. She was obviously hesitant about offering him comfort, and he couldn’t really blame her. Rochelle and Coach had left because she’d been afraid of Nick and Dal, and she knew now how much that fear had wounded him. But he could tell that she was trying, that she was really putting forth an effort. She hadn’t had to follow them to El Paso. She could’ve gone on with her work in Brookhaven and wherever else she wound up and just decided to never see them again.
Instead, she had followed them so she could apologize. And it must’ve taken a lot of courage to do so. He could tell in the way she hesitated before touching him, the way she had purposefully avoided making eye contact with Ellis. He could tell in the shakiness of her voice as she apologized, in the spark of nervousness that shone in her eyes.
Mindful not to spill his new keyboard out of his lap, Dal leaned over and rested his head against her. He didn’t lean as heavily as he liked to with Nick, but with that, he knew that she would know he had forgiven her. He heard her take in a shaky breath, allowed her to free her arm so she could wrap it around his shoulders.
“Thank you,” she whispered thickly.
Dal wasn’t always good about refusing to forgive people who didn’t deserve it. He knew he was too willing to forgive people for wronging him. He forgave Nick, after all. He just didn’t see the point of holding on to painful emotions and anger. He didn’t like to feel things that hurt, so he almost pathologically avoided them.
Rochelle had done plenty of things that couldn’t have been easy to earn their forgiveness. If anyone deserved it, it was probably her.
Nick’s in surgery.
Would you shut up?!