Pain. Hot. Blinding. Horrid pain. There was heat and wetness. But all I knew was pain. Over and over the waves of agony swelled inside me. I opened my eyes but could barely see the twisted mound of metal that was once my car. Panic rose inside me. I looked as far as my head would pivot, but I saw little but blurriness. Sharp needles screamed inside my head when I moved. I knew to try and stay awake. But I lost the battle. I looked up at the moon, wondering if I would ever see it again as the world faded to black.
I work in a hospital. More to the point, I volunteer at a hospital. I found that volunteering in the neo-natal ICU allows me to help without causing any harm. Premature babies need so much attention. Sometimes just being held, rocked gently in the warm, caring arms of someone is all that they need to help get them through the days. So I volunteer my time with those babies that were born without parents who cared, addicted to some substance from the mother, or so sick, that they just needed that extra help. I come to the hospital at night where only the hospital staff could see me. I stay from shortly after visiting hours end until the wee hours of the morning when those who do have families, are allowed to come into the ICU.
It is better this way, that I do this at night. I walk along the corridors of the hospital, ever weary of coming across some grieving family or some innocent who may be lost. On those times, I hide myself from view quickly, not wanting to add to the stress of their days. When the night is over, I return to my home, to read, listen to music, teach myself to cook, or any of the other activities I have taught myself in the past few years. And when I am exhausted, tired beyond my strength, I collapse against my bed and pray that sleep will visit without being riddled with images from the past.
It had been a long day at the hospital. I was exhausted. More so from lack of sleep than anything I had done in the previous twelve hours. I spent the night holding a little girl, born so early and so addicted to whatever drug its mother had been using. All I could do was hold the baby close, absorbing its cries into my flesh, rubbing gently the aches and screaming pain of withdrawal. When 5:00AM arrived, before the next shift came on, I bid goodnight to Ruth, the night charge nurse, and started making my journey through the corridors, heading out into the night sky. But as I was heading towards the East entrance, there was a grieving family huddled around a room that looked as if there had been a code blue, the universal words signaling heart attack or cardiac arrest. I backed away from that hall, turning down a deserted corridor, silently adding my prayers to those of the grieving family's. As I moved down my new path, just before I turned a corner that would lead me to the parking lot, I passed a room in which the occupant made me pause. I knew roughly what types of patient's were kept in each area of the hospital. The area I had just passed was for trauma patients. This area was for patients in comas. I stepped inside the room, drawn by some force I still cannot recognize. I stood by the bed in the cold, sterile room. I looked down at its occupant and felt my heart quicken.
He was a big man. His head reached the edge of the slightly inclined bed. His feet brushed just past the far end of the bed. Which would make him roughly my height. He was strong, built sturdy and muscular, also not unlike myself. He hadn't been there too long. His beard stubble, which was thick and dark, was maybe two days old. For some reason they had shaved his chest and it also was stubbly. His face was wrapped in bandages, from the bridge of his nose to the crown of his head. His ears were free, but his eyes covered with thick pads. His chin, lips, and jaw were badly bruised, disfigured and discolored. His chest had a large bandage covering most of his left pectoral muscle and the sheets covered him from about mid stomach down, but I could still see the bandages. His leg was in a pressure cast. His hands and forearms were covered in bandages as well.
A respirator was breathing for him and there were tubes coming out of almost everywhere. Just looking at him made me tear up. It was probably best that he was unconscious; unable to feel the agony his body must be in. His thick chest moved rhythmically with the respirator and a heart monitor kept up its steady vigilance. My breathing quickened as I crept forward. I didn't know who this man was or what had happened to him, but I was drawn to him. I stood by his side, looking down at his chest, powerful and strong. I placed my hand on his arm, unable to do otherwise. I was assailed by his heat, the man was an inferno, but not feverish. He was alive, bristling with it, defying death.
My hand gripped his arm more firmly, molding my fingers and palm to the thick muscles and warm, smooth skin of his bicep. I heard the heart monitor slow, not beep as erratically as it had been. The respirator became smooth, less jerky. I looked at the monitor; his pulse had slowed from 60 to 50 beats per minute. My anxiety rose a bit and I made a motion to leave, but then I saw his body relax. For that could be the only word for it. It was as if he was resting easier.
Sometime later, a nurse came into the room and flipped on the lights and I jumped. I dropped my hand from his arm and bolted. I rushed out of the hospital, amazed that the sun had already raised. When I looked at my dash clock, almost three hours had passed from when I normally leave the hospital. I drove home, my hands shaking from adrenaline and some unnamed factor that I didn't want to examine too closely. I got home and rushed inside, cursing myself for deviating from my schedule, upset that I had to cross the street so late when there were so many people about. I walked into my apartment and collapsed on my easy chair. I sat immobile for hours, just staring off into space, unable to get that man out of my mind. Somehow I fell asleep. I awoke to find my house dark. Tonight is a night I normally don't go to the hospital. I didn't plan on going at all. But I just couldn't get him out of my head. An hour later I was walking through the corridors of the hospital, finding his room. I walked into the darkness, hearing the machines make their noises. I walked right up to him and placed my hand on his arm. Warm, just like this morning. And then it happened again. His pulse slowed, his breathing evened, his body relaxed.
I stood by his side for hours. I never took my eyes away from his lips, his mouth, his rhythmically rising and falling chest. I just stood in place, watching him breathe, feeling the warmth of his arm. I was entranced. I was dazed. I felt my own body calm in a way it hadn't in many years. It was only the flickering change of his heart monitor, barely seen through my peripheral vision that had me look up. On the machine was the time, almost four in the morning. I had come to the hospital at a little after eight. I noticed that my feet hurt and my back was stiff and my arm trembled from staying in one place so long. But the most amazing thing was that his pulse had risen. I looked back down into his face, seeing if there was a change in the breathing in his chest. Then his arm flexed under my fingers and his body shook. He raised his hand to his mouth and I felt more than heard him scream.
I swam in blackness. My mind wanted concentration. But each time I came close, the pain was there, waiting, swatting at me like a caged animal. And each time it did, I retreated back, behind the wall of darkness where it couldn't get to me. All that existed was the endless night. And then I felt a presence. Someone was there, as if calling to me. I moved towards the presence, fighting my way through layers of black, being beaten by the pain. I worked so hard to get to the presence; that touch. There was compassion waiting for me; warmth and kindness. I tried so hard. But the pain won and I sank back into the dark night. I drifted back a couple of times; wanting to see if the warmth was there. But the pain beat me each time.
And then, some unknowable time later, it was back. I kept pushing forward, delving through the layers that were my prison. The pain was intense, almost more than I could deal with. But the presence never left. It was waiting for me, that warmth and compassion. I rose up; searching for the real world, where whoever it was was waiting for me. And then I was there. The presence was a hand, on my arm. It was a large hand, strong and warm. And then I became aware of the pain, which hit me full force. I tried to open my eyes, and when I did, there was only darkness. I tried to speak, but there was something in my mouth, down my throat. Panic hit me in waves. I started to move, but it hurt too much. I raised my hand to my mouth, needing to get whatever it was that was choking me out. I raised my hand and I felt gauze on my lips. My hands hurt. The pain was so much, so intense. Then I heard someone speak. The voice was male and deep and husky, either from disuse or emotion, I wasn't sure which. I was too panicked to understand the words; but the tone and the inclination were there. It was compassion that I heard and caring and kindness. It took much effort, but I nodded my head, letting him know I understood. His grip got tighter on my arm, and I started to calm. The man told me he was going to call for a nurse. But the pain was too much and I was tired from my journey out of the dark. I fell asleep.
My heart started to slow once I realized he was asleep. I had already called for the nurse. When she arrived, I explained what had happened, how he had come awake and panicked. She called the on call doctor. I never left his side, holding on to his arm. A few minutes later, the doctor arrived. I recognized him from some of my wanderings in the halls. He nodded at me when he arrived and started to look his patient over. During the exam, he woke up and thrashed until I spoke to him. I told him everything was going to be fine and he calmed. The doctor looked up at me and I could tell he wanted to ask questions. After a couple more minutes, the doctor asked that I leave while they removed the respirator and changed some bandages. I stepped outside the room, with my back against the wall next to the door. The nurse came and went a couple of times, bringing supplies, some gauze and other medical supplies. Then I heard a loud grumbling moan. I knew then that they had removed the respirator tube. The doctor came out shortly and spoke with me. He told me about his injuries, how they were progressing and what his recovery would be like from there. He had been in a car accident. The respirator was due to his lung collapsing. He had some nasty abdominal internal injuries as well. But the worst was the fragments of glass and metal in his eyes. They had gotten all of it, but it would be a few weeks before the bandages came off and they could be sure he would be able to see. His jaw had been dislocated, explaining the bruising. His hands and forearms had minor second-degree burns on them. I nodded through his long explanation; inwardly cringing at the pain he must be going through. Then the doctor asked me how I knew the man. I told him the truth that I had simply seen him while walking out to my car after a night of volunteering. He told me that it was my presence that was helping keep him calm. The doctor smiled at me then left. I took a couple of deep breaths then went back inside the room.
They had increased the incline on the bed; he was sitting up now. His head swiveled towards me as I entered. His voice was deep and gravelly, probably raw due to the respirator tube.
"What is your name?"
"Will. Thank you. For being here." It was said with a shrug of his shoulders, almost an embarrassed gesture. I smiled at him, though he couldn't see it. I walked over to his side. I hesitated for a few seconds, but I ended up putting my hand on his arm again. He was still just as warm as before. His muscles tensed under my fingers for a second. I cleared my throat. "Is there someone I can call for you?"
He shook his head. "No. No family."
"Yes, many years ago."
We talked a bit more, mostly just inane questions about his injuries. He got tired quickly and fell asleep. I stayed though. I stayed until early morning. My hand never left his arm. He woke up before I left that morning. I promised him I would return later that evening. When I got home, I found myself smiling at odd times. We hardly spoke; he slept for so much of the evening. But it was camaraderie. For the first time in over seven years, I felt connected. I don't really know what it is we share exactly, but I like the feeling. I don't think I have ever felt this way. I found myself standing in the kitchen, chopping vegetables and simmering broth. Chicken soup. I was making the old-fashioned cure all for Will. Normally, I would have felt foolish, but instead, I just grinned and whistled a tune as I continued to cook.
Over the next couple of days, I found that the fog I was living in lessened each day. Both the pain and the painkillers became less of a focus. I found myself sleeping and deeply, but I was able to concentrate and be wakeful when I needed to be. Or when I wanted to be. Cory came to my room each night. If I were asleep, he would just stand by my side, silently, with his hand upon my arm. It was a reassuring gesture. It was a warm and friendly, caring act of kindness. I found myself anticipating his arrival and missing his presence when I was alone. Each night he would bring me some different tidbit that he cooked. First it was a rich and hearty chicken soup. Then another day he brought chocolate chip cookies. When I told him that I was dying for something spicy, he brought in an enchilada that brought tears to my eyes.
While I ate, Cory would talk to me, telling me sweet stories from his childhood. There was such love in his tales. His parents were obviously very close, warm, loving people who had adored their child. Even when he told me that his dad had died in a car accident, there was love and joy in his tale, simply because the man had loved his son so much, that the pain must have been great, but the sweet memories lived on. He even spoke with affection about his mother's second marriage and his stepbrother and sister. It took a few days, but I realized that his stories didn't seem to go beyond when Cory was seventeen. And when I pressed, he would change the subject, or try and take care of me. So I usually changed the subject, really just thrilled to have a companion to talk with.
My leg wasn't broken in the crash, but the tendons were swollen because I hyper-extended my knee. The pressure cast was just to give them a chance to heal. As soon as I got the last tubes taken from me, I was given a walker. And with Cory's unflagging help, I took my first few steps along the hall. Even though I lived in blackness, my eyes still not healed, when I was with Cory, I wasn't afraid. It didn't scare me to walk, because I knew that he would catch me if I fell or at the very least, keep me from walking into the walls. I couldn't see him, but I knew so much about him. He is tall. Although when I stood, he was surprised because I was taller than his six-five. He has a very solid, sturdy, hulking build. I felt it when he wrapped his arm around me, helping me back into bed. His voice is deep and melodic, with a smooth timbre to it. His laugh isn't often, but it is true and joyous when it does occur. I find myself wondering what color his hair is or his eyes. I'm curious if his smile is as great as I think it is. I wonder if he is gay, like me. His touch is so gentle, so kind. It is unlike what a straight man would bestow upon another man. I feel like I get mixed signals from him. Then I pass it off as being unable to see his face and facial expressions. In another week or so, the bandages come off. And I can't wait to see Cory's smiling, kind, and compassionate face.
The past few weeks have been so different for me. I've never felt this way before. Or more to the point, I have never allowed myself to feel this way before. I think about Will constantly. And I smile. More so than I think I ever have. It is getting more difficult to hide how I feel. When I stand by his bedside, I find myself listening with half my mind. The other half is feasting on his body. I look down at his chest, the dark golden hair has grown back, and thick down the middle, fanning out to nothing by the time it reaches his collarbones. I find myself almost reaching out to touch it, wanting to run my fingers through the dense pelt. I wonder if it is soft or crinkly crisp or both. Regular hospital gowns don't exactly fit him. But he is so warm, that he mostly wears a kind of knit pants, but summer weight, like pajamas. They cling so well to his muscular legs. And when he sits, it cups him so temptingly. I find myself growing hard whenever he casually scratches or adjusts himself. Since he can't see, I shave him. When I am all done, and am wiping away the last of the shaving cream, I find myself wondering how his lips taste. My heart beats so fast in anticipation before I even see him. My blood flows slow and heavy in my veins. I feel achy and tingly all the time whenever I am near him.
I now know that he stands taller than I do. At 6' 7", Will towers over me. His body is strong, built heavily with cords and cords of muscle. His hair is a deep, deep gold, in such a contrast to my own dark brown. His voice is soft and gentle, deep and a little gravelly sometimes from the respirator. The truth is, over the past few weeks, I have fallen hopelessly in love with him. I never thought I would feel this way. It is like a curse. To be granted this wonderful feeling, when I know it is a future that is denied to me. I should spare myself the agony of being near him when I know that my feelings won't be returned. For a few days, I thought that perhaps, maybe, it could work. That perhaps it would be okay. But as I grew to know Will, it just wasn't meant to be.
And I did learn so much about Will. He is a firefighter, part of that noble, heroic group of men and women who save lives and prevent a tragedy from becoming catastrophic. He saves people's lives everyday. He is worried that his knee won't allow him to get back in shape soon enough. But he shouldn't. Even with the accident, he is still in amazing physical condition. When I found out what he did, it hurt so badly. When you lose someone close to you, the pain is crippling. But when hope dies, fragile, newborn hope, it is devastating. But I refuse to feel the pain just yet. There will be time later for that. So I still volunteer with the newborns. But now, I just spend more time away from home. And it is good. This is different.
I came to see Will one day, after I spent the night in the ICU. He was practically jumping up and down. I smiled real big, wondering what it was. I knew how scared he was about making it back on the force, I wondered if perhaps some of his crew had come by with good news. That is the best part about my schedule, Will's friends get him for the day, and I get him at night. But seeing him so giddy, I walked in and grinned and asked what was going on.
"Cory! The bandages come off tomorrow!"
My throat closed up. I breathed out really shaky. "That is wonderful Will." Each word was bitter coming out of my mouth. I felt the tears sting. It was over. Too soon was all I could think. There wasn't enough time. But I stomped it down and suggested that he get some sleep, to prepare for the big day.
"Oh Cory, I don't think I would have made it this far without you."
I swallowed around the lump in my throat. "I didn't do much Will. I was just your friend."