Steve awoke to the sound of fading sirens.
“Okay Mr. Chambers—let’s get this tube out.” A female with a Mexican accent slipped a breathing tube from his throat.
Steve coughed—his throat was dry and painful. The woman—a nurse, he observed—moved away on silent heels. The room smelled of warm milk and disinfectant spray mixed with the scent of iodine solution. An intravenous line fed a solution into his arm. His vital signs appeared on a monitor beside his bed near a window overlooking the hazy, polluted landscape of Mexico City.
Momentarily perplexed by his new environment, he stared at the privacy curtain suspended around him until the sound of voices drew his attention to the small television mounted on metal brackets jutting out from the cracked plaster wall. The screen showed reruns of Knight Rider dubbed in Spanish.
He remembered the black Firebird and the premise behind the show. And though the lead actor’s name escaped him, he recognized the guy’s face from Baywatch. The same actor he used to joke about having to spend hours rehearsing scenes with busty swimsuit models in thong bikinis.
Feeling the urge to urinate, he checked under the covers, sighed at what he saw, then relieved himself via a catheter as he listened to tidbits of conversation from a woman whose voice closely mimicked Leslie’s. He noticed the empty chair positioned beside his bed with a pillow on the seat and a blanket draped over the back.
He thought hard about Leslie’s voice, and then as if she read his mind, she appeared from behind the curtain, an angel dressed in a flimsy paper gown with her hair pulled up in a bun. After several unsuccessful attempts to communicate verbally, he spoke to her with his eyes.
“I love you,” Leslie whispered. She drew the curtain closed. Then she covered Steve’s hand with both of hers and squeezed gently. “You’ve been asleep for ages since the surgery,” she said, kissing his forehead gently. “You had me worried.”
Steve tried to speak again. “G-ghhh.”
“Don’t try to talk yet. You’ve been on that tube for awhile.”
Steve tightened his grip on her hands.
Leslie lowered the guardrail to bring herself closer to the bed. “Sarah’s fine. The doctor has her under observation in the ward downstairs.”
Helpless to do nothing but imagine himself holding his Leslie, Steve yearned to speak to her, to engulf her and tell her how lucky he was to have her; how lucky he was to be alive.
“I thought he’d killed you,” Leslie started. “You saved our lives.”
Steve blinked. A tear seeped from the corner of one eye and rolled by his nose. The weight of Leslie’s head on his arm brought pain to his bandaged shoulder, but he didn’t care. He craved her touch; her warmth; her soothing nature.
A door opened, and Leslie turned to see the nurse approaching in her wrinkled uniform with a stethoscope draped across the back of her neck.
“Necesita descansar, senorita,” the nurse said to Leslie.
“A little more time. Por favor.”
“No. Tiene que irse ahora.“
Leslie let go of Steve’s hand. “Please. Un poco mas tiempo, por favor.“
The nurse checked her watch and examined Steve’s chart. “Manana,” she said, shaking her head at Leslie.
Leslie kissed Steve’s hand and got up from the chair beside his bed. She watched the nurse perform the usual routine before she exited the recovery room and moped along the empty corridor to the elevator. She pressed the “Down” button and waited while a doctor in green scrubs and paper facemask passed in front of her. She hated leaving Steve alone. Part of her wanted to sneak back and ignore the nurse’s orders. Steve needed more than medical attention. He needed personal attention. The kind of attention only a wife could give her husband.
When the elevator doors opened, she got on and checked her reflection in the polished steel panels behind her. She pressed the second floor button and waited for the doors to close.
When the doors opened again, she made her way to Sarah’s room. From what the doctor told her, Sarah suffered only minor bruises. With treatment for hypothermia, her daughter’s temperature had returned to normal, leaving only Sarah’s mental state in question.
Leslie put her hand on the window overlooking Sarah’s bed. With Sarah resting safely under round-the-clock care, Leslie let her emotional guard down and ignored her doctor’s orders to remain in her own room and rest. Exhausted, yet too wired to sleep, she craved a cigarette like a junkie craved a fix. She needed something to sooth her nerves and put her psyche on an even keel. She’d palmed the sleeping pills the doctor gave her and left her bed to check on Steve.
Meandering outside the nurses’ station and the public rest room facilities, she headed to the lounge outside the gift shop and the cafeteria on the basement level. Propelled by a burning desire for a nicotine hit, she ignored the voice in the back of her head prompting her to stop, turn around, and go back the way she came; to shun the temptation by avoiding the source for a potential cigarette purchase.
Overcome by the shakes, she side-stepped a canvas bin full of dirty sheets and walked near a janitor pulling a mop bucket behind a cleaning cart. What started as a notion had elevated to a burning desire. She didn’t just want a cigarette. She needed one as though her life depended on it.
She stood outside the giftshop and cursed the “Closed” sign. A clock on the wall showed the time—3:15.
Cursing under her breath, she mulled outside the shop and debated about waiting another two hours for the cafeteria to reopen. Get a grip, she told herself, returning to the elevator.
She tightened the drawstring on her paper gown and returned to the third floor facility where a family of three waited outside the entrance to the nurses’ station. She hadn’t planned on sleeping, not with Sarah out of her sight and Steve having been uncomfortably close to death’s door. These things she thought of and more as she dipped in her shallow pocket to retrieve her two-day stash of sleeping pills. Better to fall asleep quickly, she convinced herself, than to spend all night worrying about circumstances beyond her control.
She put one pill in her mouth and tasted the saccharine flavor before she swallowed it. Her nicotine craving subsided to a dull throb, replaced instead by the onset of a migraine from the thought of visiting with the embassy representative in the morning. The same person who’d arranged for the hospital stay had also apologized for the unfortunate events necessitating the need for medical attention, as if fending off armed assailants and nearly drowning at sea were simply part of a vacation adventure gone awry. Grateful for the help, she could give a shit about the curt dialogue and the sugar-coated apologies. What she wanted was an explanation for what happened and legitimate reassurance it would never happen again, to anyone.
She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and returned to her room. Content to rest with her slippers on and wait for the nurse to make her rounds, she pushed a breakfast cart aside and pulled the blanket over her legs. The bed felt soft against her bandaged ribs. Aside from her roommate’s propensity to snore, she felt content in her surroundings, yet still at odds with her nicotine craving and the constant rocking motion she endured from her extended stay at sea.
She turned her head to face the window and heard a familiar cough—a deep, hacking cough that brought a shiver down her spine.
She sat up, telling herself to get a grip. She’d heard a patient with a bad chest cold. Nothing more.
Woozy but still alert, she yanked the reins on her runaway imagination, convincing herself the person she thought she heard was long gone. And though unfounded in its own right, her paranoia built upon her fear of the unknown—a fear rooted in her past, destined to torment her until she resolved the conflict within herself.
Crouching near the open end of the hall, she watched a short, stocky figure limp behind the nurses’ station and continue toward Sarah’s ward. She followed closely, her heart pounding in her throat as her worst fears came to fruition.
Ducking behind a janitor’s cart, she watched the man disappear around the corner. Convinced the man she saw was actually Damon and not a phantom dressed in hospital garb, she dug her nails inside her fists, paralyzed by the notion of a killer about to enter Sarah’s room.
“Disculpe, senorita,” a doctor spoke from behind her, his unexpected voice nearly catapulting Leslie from her gown.
“He’s here!” Leslie told him as if the doctor somehow knew of whom she spoke. “Call the police! You have to call the police! NOW!”
Concerned for Leslie’s mental state, the doctor motioned for the duty nurse to call security. “This way,” he said in a thick Spanish accent. “Let me help you.”
Leslie ran to Sarah’s room and found her daughter asleep where she’d left her. The open privacy curtain revealed no one in the room. Dizzy from the pills and a sudden head rush, Leslie watched the elusive figure enter the elevator. She darted for the stairwell exit before an armed security guard rounded the corner. She climbed the steps two at a time despite the lag in her reflexes from the sedatives in her system. If it isn’t Sarah he’s after, it’s Steve!
Winded from the stairs, she ignored the cramps in her side and pushed the exit door open to gain access to the hallway. Sucking air in shallow spurts, she staggered beyond the water fountain and the open janitor’s closet to find Steve alone in his room. Her pulse raced.
For a moment, she questioned the integrity of her own mental state. Right up until a rush of air ruffled her gown as the door to Steve’s room slammed shut and a figure emerged from behind her.
Poised with a scalpel in one hand, Damon stood barefoot in his hospital gown, his eyebrows singed beneath a swath of gauze bandage wrapped about his head. Blood oozed from a deep incision in his chest where sutures tore away from his skin. His face wrought with anger, he made short, stabbing motions toward Leslie.
Flailing her arms, Leslie lost her balance and tripped on a stepstool, smashing her elbow on the floor as she fell. She crossed her arms above her head and kicked wildly in the air.
She screamed when a single gunshot rang out. Damon collapsed on the floor beside her.
“Señora?” the security guard hollered across the room, his hands trembling around his duty pistol.
Leslie crawled away from Damon’s body and held her bruised elbow, Steve staring back at her from his bed. “I’m okay…”