STICKS AND STONES
If Miriam held very still, so that her breaths came and went without lifting her chest, she could pretend that her arm didn’t hurt. If she didn’t think about the sound it had made when she pitched over the handlebars of her bicycle and down to the asphalt, if she didn’t think about the way it looked, limp and crooked, and if she didn’t think about the way it felt, to know that your fingers were there but refusing to cooperate, she could pretend that her arm wasn’t… Broken, she thought, and swallowed against the urge to vomit. That jostled her arm, which jogged her memories, which stirred her nausea, and she gagged.
Her father’s eyes widened and he groped for a nearby garbage can, the metal screeching against the floor as he dragged it toward them.
“Dad,” she hissed, embarrassed, and managed to shake her head. She closed her eyes and pretended her arm wasn’t broken, that she wasn’t scared, and when she opened them again, her father was at the desk.
“Do you know how much longer it’s going to be?”
“Should be just a few minutes,” said the nurse. She wore blue, though Miriam could have sworn that nurses wore white. “They’re just changing—” She was interrupted by the bang of the outside doors against the wall.
Miriam looked up with a start that made her eyes water with pain. A group of adults had crashed through, each yelling over the other so that she couldn’t make out more than a disjointed handful of words. Help. Doctor. Need.
One of them, a man, carried another in his arms like an oversized baby and Miriam wanted to laugh, but she knew it wasn’t funny. Her hands trembled and she felt nauseous again.
Another said, “We need a doctor. A house, we were in an old house and it collapsed, and there was—”
“Rebar,” said the one who held another man in his arms. “Punched through his shoulder. He lost, fuck”—Miriam gasped at that—“so much blood.”
Other nurses had run into the room, there was a bed on wheels and it squeaked the way a grocery cart did, and they set the man down—he was covered in dirt, but perhaps it was blood, but what did blood like look when it was that much?—and wheeled him away. The one that had carried him tried to follow, but the blue nurse barred his way. “You can’t,” she said. “You can’t.” Miriam couldn’t help staring as the others circled him the way you did at soccer practice if one of the other girls needed to fix her underwear. For protection. Like a shield.
The blue nurse uncapped a water bottle and took a long drink. “I’m sorry,” she said, turning to Miriam. “Looks like you’ll be waiting a while.”
Her father said there was no point in going home. “You can sit at home with a broken arm,” he said. “Or you can sit here. Besides, your mother will kill me if I let you ride in the front seat without a seatbelt again.”
“But it hurt my arm.”
“Important.” Miriam sighed. “I know.”
The group that had come in with the bleeding man had collapsed in a heap across the waiting room, occasionally murmuring to each other but largely sitting in silence. Miriam, hurting and bored, since she couldn’t read or use a phone with her arm the way it was and her father had switched the television to a baseball game, was fascinated. They were filthy and bruised and scratched—had a house really fallen on them? How did that happen?—but they were beautiful, too. There was a redheaded woman who looked like she’d stepped out of a magazine, and the one that had carried the bleeding man sat on the floor with his head in her lap and let her stroke his hair. A bearded man sat beside her, with his arm around her shoulders, and beside him, three other men held hands.
“How’re you doing, Miriam?”
She tore her gaze away from the strange group and looked to her father. “I’m okay.”
“Your arm hurt?”
She shrugged, playing it cool, but with the sharp pain that brought, she regretted it, blushing when she saw him try to hide a smile. “No,” she said, sullenly. “Not at all.”
“That was pretty scary, hey, when that guy came in?”
Miriam shook her head. She hadn’t been scared. She had wanted to see more, to see the doctors, maybe the surgery. She was sure they would have to do surgery. “What’s rebar?” She wasn’t scared—not of anything, not a damn (she thought the word fiercely) thing.
“Rebar is metal used in building, for supporting concrete,” said her father. “It’s like a skeleton for your house.”
Miriam thought of the way her arm had bent when she hit the asphalt and imagined a house bending that way, twisting to expose its bones. Weirdly, her mind supplied the image of her own house.
“I mean, I was a little bit scared,” said her father.
“You were not,” said Miriam, and rolled her eyes.
“Was too. You weren’t scared when they banged in here?”
“Humph,” said Miriam. She had jumped in her seat, which had hurt, but startled was hardly the same as scared.
He sighed. “Oh, Miriam. What a day. You know you weren’t supposed to go out alone this summer.”
But Miriam only nodded, preoccupied with the strangers.
The blue nurse checked them one by one and handed out wipes and bandages. Another woman joined them from outside, saying she’d brought clean clothes and finally found parking. “Stannie, come with me,” she said, “and we’ll get everyone some water and some coffee?”
Stannie untangled himself from his friends and joined her, taking her hand, and the redhead followed behind them. The bearded man had stood as well.
“Ben?” The man on the floor looked up. “Where are you going?”
“To set up payment.”
“I don’t want to hear it,” said Ben. “Let me do this. We can sort out the details later.”
That left the man on the floor and two of his friends. Miriam realized they had fallen asleep, leaning on each other.
She turned back to her father.
“I’m going to go the bathroom. Don’t go anywhere until I get back, okay? Not even with the nurses.”
But when he’d gone, Miriam stood up, wincing, cradling her elbow to limit the movement of her arm, and crossed the waiting room to sit on the floor. The man watched her, but didn’t say anything. She wanted to know if it really was blood on his shirt. “Hello,” she said.
“Hi,” he said.
“I’m Richie. Is your dad going to kick my ass if I talk to you? Derry’s not a place to talk to strangers.”
“Oh my god,” said Miriam, rolling her eyes. “My dad says that all the time.”
“He’s not wrong. What happened to your arm, kid?”
“I fell off my bike.”
“Yowch!” said Richie, and screwed up his face, and Miriam laughed. “You look pretty tough, though. Were you scared?”
“I was,” said Miriam, shocking herself. She didn’t know why she had told the truth, when she’d promised herself, sitting on the curb, choking back tears, that she would never, ever, ever tell anyone that she had heard a terrible noise down the storm drain—she’d seen a cat hit by a car once, when she was seven, and it had screamed and all the cats in the neighbourhood had come running, and it had sounded like that—and that was when she had crashed her bike.
“I don’t blame you,” said Richie. “I’m an old man and I’m fucking scared all the time. Oops. Pardon my French.” That last he said with an accent, pardoone my Franch, and Miriam laughed in spite of herself.
“When I was a kid, my best friend broke his arm just like that. Well, he wasn’t on a bicycle, but it looked the same. Spaghetti.” He made another silly face and Miriam laughed again. Then just as quickly, his face sort of… crumpled. He said, “Eddie-spaghetti,” and then he was crying, and Miriam was confused, and her father had come back and hissed, “Miriam!” To Richie, he said, “I’m sorry, man.”
Richie wiped his face with the back of his hand. “It’s okay. It’s been a long fucking day. God. Sorry.”
One of his friends stirred and sat up, blinking and rubbing his eyes. “Richie? What’s going on? Is it Eddie? Why are you freaking out?”
“I’m not freaking out, Mike. I am incredibly fucking—Oh shit.” He looked guiltily at Miriam, who could not supress a giggle.
“Miriam,” said her father. “Let’s leave these guys alone, okay?”
The blue nurse called her name from the desk.
“I have to go,” said Miriam, gingerly rising to her feet.
“Make sure you get lots of signatures,” said Richie. “On your cast. The most signatures wins.”
“I hope your friend is okay.”
“Miriam,” said her father, warning in his voice, so Miriam put the hustle on.
“It’s okay,” she heard Richie say quietly behind her. “I’m glad she came over to say hi. This town’s a hard place to be a kid.”
“Ain’t that the truth,” said Miriam’s father, and then he was behind her again, safe and constant, and the noise she’d heard down the storm drain no longer echoed in her ears.
Trevor was in the ICU recovering from a heart-attack and he wasn’t happy about it. First of all, the bills. God. He didn’t know what insurance would cover and he wasn’t sure he wanted to. Add to that the admonitions from the doctor about diet and exercise, the enforced boredom of a hospital stay, and his inability to get a good night’s sleep—he’d been in hospital once before, his heart again, and been kept awake all night with the goings-on of his roommates, the man next to him whispering about his cancer diagnosis and the teenage boy next to him softly crying in pain—and he was miserable. The enforced powerlessness was terrible to him, both in himself and in others. The hospital was smothering him and he was paying for the privilege. He hated it.
Not that he’d prefer to be comatose. At least awake was an option for him, while his current roommate was in a bad way. When the nurses had briefly shoved aside the curtain separating their beds, Trevor had seen the man, bruises horribly bright against his pale skin, feeding tube threaded through his nose, breathing tube connected to the steadily whirring ventilator, heartrate monitor clipped to his finger, IV running from his arm. By accident—he would have looked away if he’d known, but he hadn’t—he even saw one of the nurses adjust the man’s catheter, the barest glimpse (too bare, he thought) before the curtain was drawn again. Said it was rebar, he heard them whisper. But a wound like that? Really? He gathered from the nurse’s chatter and from the rotating crew of visitors that the man was recovering from surgery after being injured when some old house collapsed, that he was in a medically induced coma, and that his recovery from said condition was by no means assured.
Trevor hated hospitals.
Two days into the man’s stay, three days into his own, he lay awake in the mid-afternoon, stiff and fidgety, with a sharp pain in his hamstrings that came of bedrest and would not be relieved. Just when he thought he couldn’t take it any longer, that he really would crack up and at least then they’d move him to a different part of this godforsaken hospital, a man with dark curly hair came in, greeted him politely, then went to sit next to Trevor’s roommate on the other side of the curtain. Trevor had seen him visit a couple times before, though never alone.
“Hey, Eddie,” he said. “It’s Stan, in case you couldn’t tell. We finally got Richie to get some rest. Mike and Bill were a hair’s breadth from sedating him, but Bev talked them out of it, then talked Richie into lying down at least, and of course, he was out like a light as soon as she got him into bed. I don’t think he’s slept more than 20 minutes at a time since we got out of that house. He was… Eddie, it was like those car crashes you hear about, where someone lifts a car to free their kid or whatever. He got you out of that house… I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Intrigued, Trevor absolved himself of any guilt over eavesdropping and strained to hear the man’s quiet, steady voice.
“The nurse said we should we talk to you, because you can hear us. What I really want is to ask you about that. I know you’d have an opinion.” He laughed. Then, more somberly: “Patty said she talked to me when I was… You know. But I couldn’t hear her. At least, I don’t remember anything, not after I… did it. I remember being scared, but I don’t know if that was me or… I think it was It. I thought I should take myself off the board, but I think that was It, trying to keep me away from you.” He laughed again, softly. “Ben tried to get you your own room, but it’s a full house here at Derry Home Hospital. But maybe it’s better not to be alone.”
Trevor frowned—he was alone—and tried to make sense of Stan’s strange words, the odd emphasis he put on “it.” He made it sound like he’d done himself harm. Was that what he was talking about?
“When I woke up, I had to beg Patty to sign me out of the hospital. I knew I had to be here with you guys, that I’d gotten some sort of, I don’t know, second chance. I know that sounds stupid. Crazy. It’s all crazy. But as much as I’d felt I had to get in that tub, I knew I had to get to Derry. I still can’t believe I told Patty everything. And she believed me. Did I tell you what she said? I don’t think I did. She said, ‘Honestly, Stannie, I can’t think of anything else that even approaches a reasonable explanation. Do you swear to me that you’re telling me the truth?’ I said I did, and she said, ‘We can go to Derry, then, but I’m not letting you out of my sight.’ It’s such a cliché, but no one wants to be alone. Not that I’d have ever wanted to prove it to her. I was supposed to take her to Argentina.”
Trever, to his mortification, felt hot horrible shameful tears in the corners of his eyes and running down his cheeks, and when he moved to angrily brush them away, his body ached. His sister had left Derry years before and they didn’t talk, his parents were gone, and he’d never married. Instinct wanted him to mock Stan’s emotion, to dismiss it with a snide remark, especially since whatever Stan had been in the hospital for sounded dodgy—hey, buddy, psych ward’s on the next floor up—but the words bled out of him like something poisonous inside him had been lanced. In its place, there was…nothing. Emptiness. Loneliness. After his admission to the hospital, he had briefly wondered if the guys from the garage might stop by to see him, but they hadn’t, and he’d felt stupid for hoping.
“When I was, well, in the tub, I had only felt that… Awful doesn’t describe it,” said Stan. “Empty, maybe. But that isn’t it, either. I don’t know. I’d only felt it once before, when It had me, when we were kids. You all left me and I was so scared, Eddie. I know we were kids. I know that. But I was so fucking scared.” His voice wavered, but he cleared his throat and went on. “But that’s not what I meant to say. What I meant to say is… I remember being so scared and so alone, and then you said you’d never let anything happen to me, that you were sorry, that you loved me. So don’t tell Bill, but I always thought you were the bravest of us, Eddie. And when you wake up, I’ll tell you again, okay? It’s summer. You can’t spend it in bed.”
Trevor looked up with a start, furiously rubbing his eyes and wincing when the movement pulled at his chest. His vision was blurred and he couldn’t see the face of the person in the doorway, massaging sanitizer gel into their hands. “What?” he said, gruffly.
Trevor blinked, his vision cleared, and he saw his older sister, her hair greying, lines in her face that hadn’t been there the last time they’d spoken face to face, but there all the same. It wasn’t that they’d fallen out, but that they’d stopped talking, fading bit by bit until there was nothing left, the closeness of their childhood overcome in the face of Sara’s aspirations toward places bigger and better than Derry, and Trevor’s stubborn insistence on solitude.
“I got this feeling that I should call you, and I tried, and I couldn’t reach you, and then I tried the garage, because I thought maybe your number had changed, and they said you were here.”
“I really missed you, sis,” said Trevor, before he could think better of it. He couldn’t hear Stan’s voice. Perhaps the man was eavesdropping in his turn. Well, turnabout was fair play.
Sara stared at him in stunned silence a moment, then came forward and bent to kiss his cheek. “I really missed you, too.”
“Could you—” Trevor swallowed, painfully. “I mean, do you think you could stay a while, maybe?”
“A week, I think,” said Sara, as awkward as he was. “I mean, if that’s okay with you. I got some holidays.”
He nodded. “Did you get a hotel yet? Because you could stay at my place. If you want.
She pulled up a chair.
Leonard had spent 15 years as a police officer for Derry Township. He’d come on board, green as could be, in January 1989, and hadn’t that year been quite the inauguration. Still, when he’d started, he’d been… There was no other word for it but keen. Coming off a series of dead-end, make-ends-meet jobs, he’d had his fantasies— foil a bank robbery, crack a case long cold, or bring home one, just one, of Derry’s missing kids. The posters, stapled one on top of the other, had boggled him, and he’d spent his first days on the force wondering if his new colleagues were playing some sort of gag on him, if their apparent indifference was a front. Business as usual, another missing kid, fire up the mimeograph machine. But after his first summer and all that happened, he understood: it ate away at you. You had to forget, at least a little bit, or you’d go under.
Fifteen years was enough to claim a partial pension. He took it, along with a left turn into private security, testing the water at the bank (boring as hell) and a few local bars (repetitive and the night shift kept him away from Liz) until he landed at the hospital, which suited him fine. Indoor, temperature-controlled environment? Check. Unlikely to get held up? Check. The occasional bit of excitement to keep things interesting? Check. Not that Leonard enjoyed breaking up fights. He found far greater satisfaction in preventing them, in talking two drunk knuckleheads out of bruising each other up or distracting some prick while his wife and kids got out of the house. He considered conflict a puzzle to solve, not a game to win.
It was late summer, early evening, a Tuesday, and security-wise, the hospital was quiet. He made his rounds, checked on Susie and the ICU nurses, Amanda and Lillian in maternity, Andrew on the emergency desk, and Cathy and the girls over in the cafeteria, where he picked up a coffee. He was on his way back to the security station near the front entrance when Susie sprinted around the corner ahead of him, her rubber-soled shoes squeaking on the floor.
“I tried to call you,” she said.
“I was on rounds.” He patted his pocket. “Oh, shit, the cell’s at the desk. What’s wrong?” It was a rookie mistake, forgetting the on-call cell, but he’d never gotten used to them. Radios he could handle; cellular phones made him feel trapped. Still, he wasn’t getting paid to ignore the thing. “Something security can handle, or do you want to call the cops?” Some of his colleagues got their backs up when nurses wanted to call the police; hell, some of the hospital bosses got their backs up. Why pay you if you’re just going to outsource it? But Leonard had been around the block and knew the boundaries of his own expertise: he was there to keep people from getting hurt and to distinguish between situations that needed cops and situations that needed cops to keep their distance. He could talk a drunk into sitting quietly, cajole new fathers into treating the maternity nurses with respect, and keep strung-out teens from punching their doctors, but he wasn’t police. Not anymore.
“They haven’t come to blows yet,” said Susie. “But I’d appreciate a little muscle on standby until cooler heads prevail.”
By then they were walking swiftly toward the elevators. “Stairs are faster, if it’s ICU?”
Susie nodded. “Faster is good: I left them unattended.”
“What’s the situation?”
“We’ve got a patient who was in for major surgery last week. That old place on Neibolt collapsed on him.”
Leonard whistled. “Jesus.” He drove past the old wreck on his way to work, had seen the heap of rubble that remained. “Someone went into that place on purpose?”
Susie shrugged, and held the stairwell door for him.
“He’s still unconscious. Friends of his brought him in and they’ve been taking turns sitting with him, but now his wife has shown up from New York and she’s screaming bloody blue murder. No one told her that her husband was in the hospital, so when admin finally tracked her down…”
“Jesus,” said Leonard again. “How many?”
“The wife, Mrs. Kaspbrak, I don’t know her first name; and only one of the friends is in. Richard, I think.”
They emerged from the stairwell to find raised voices reverberating across the ward.
A woman’s voice, elevated and panicky. “I don’t know you. Eddie has never mentioned any of you. He never talked about Derry, even when his mother—”
A man’s voice, then, also shaking with panic. Leonard narrowed his eyes, listening. Not panic: anger. “His mother was insane, and so are you, if you think this goddamn tantrum is going to keep me away from him. Maybe the waterworks thing works with Eddie, but he’s a nicer fucking person than I’ll ever be.”
“You’re horrible. My Eddie would never be friends with someone like you.”
By then Leonard had got close enough to see the two combatants, though in their fury, neither noticed him. Richard was tall and lanky, standing his ground in wrinkled, visibly dirty clothes with his fists clenched against his legs. Mrs. Kaspbrak was short, her face blotched red with anger and run with tears that had smeared her makeup.
“Hey, Richard,” said Leonard, casually. No response. “Richard,” he said again. “Rick?”
Rick turned then, staring at Leonard in confusion.
“Like Casablanca, I see. I’m Lenny.” Leonard held out his hand and Rick shook it, still confused. Leonard looked at the woman, who was sniffling. “Mrs. Kaspbrak?” She nodded. “I’m Leonard. Call me Lenny, though. Susie, can you get Mrs. Kaspbrak some Kleenex?” Susie nodded and disappeared. “I’m security,” said Lenny, gesturing to the flash on his shoulder. “Can you tell me what’s going on here?” He held up his hand when they both drew breath. “Mrs. Kaspbrak, you first.”
Rick kept wincing, as though it hurt him to hear the woman’s name.
“This lunatic won’t leave my husband alone. My husband, who’s in a coma and might never wake up, might die in this bed, and I would never have known if he”—she threw out her hand toward Rick—“had his way, because he and his disgusting friends refused to tell me about this accident”—she flexed her fingers around the word—“until Eddie was already through major surgery.”
“Pardon me for not finding you on Facebook while he was fucking bleeding out, Mrs. K. It’s not like we had your fucking phone number. It’s not like your intensely risk-averse hus-husband would have a listed number so any asshole could find him in the Yellow Pages.”
“I don’t know what you did, but I’m going to find out. It’s your fault he’s in here. It’s your fault.
Rick burst into tears, a terrible great wail that seemed to split him, shatter him, and it was awful to hear, and he fell back against the wall. Liz had made a sound like that years before when the search and rescue team that volunteered on the weekends had brought them Annie’s backpack and one of her tennis shoes, found downstream of the Kissing Bridge. Leonard, who had with great and painful intention not thought directly of that day in many years shuddered and brought his hand to his chest, suddenly aching. Annie had just had her champagne birthday, her seventh, and Liz had served sparkling apple juice in flutes she’d got at the Sally Ann.
Susie came back with Kleenex—two boxes, god bless the girl.
Leonard figured that Mrs. Kaspbrak would respond better to attention from an authority figure, and hoped that Rick, though distraught, would not lose his temper with a nurse. While listening to Mrs. Kaspbrak’s explanation, he had watched both of them carefully, seen the sheen of sweat on Rick’s skin, the tremor in his hands. Every cell of that man’s body was telling him to bolt, but there was something—or someone—that held him fast. Not that he could blame Mrs. Kaspbrak for her distress: whether Rick had harboured malicious intent or not, the woman had been kept from her husband’s side for what could be some of the last days of his life. “Susie,” said Leonard, calmly, evenly, “pass one of those to me and give the other to Rick, there. Now, Mrs. Kaspbrak, why don’t we go sit down?” He had been this way when Annie disappeared, finding it easier to be calm for others’ sake, to suppress his own roiling emotions for a greater purpose outside himself.
“I’m not leaving Eddie,” she said.
“There’s a nurse with him now,” said Susie, at Leonard's elbow. “And she’s got to deal with his dressings.”
“You can’t do that right now,” said Leonard, soothingly. “But no one else can either. Okay?”
“Don’t patronize me!” She snatched the Kleenex box, then threw it at him—it bounced off his chest, more a surprise than anything else—and clutched her own chest. “Oh my god, I can’t breathe. Please help me.” She had gone very pale. “Please.”
“Give me your arm, Mrs. Kaspbrak,” said Leonard.
“I want a medical professional, not a rent-a-cop,” she snapped. Then, whimpering, “My chest. Oh my god.”
Susie appeared at his elbow, sweating herself, frazzled. “Why don’t you come to an examination room, Mrs. Kaspbrak? Leonard will make sure your husband isn’t disturbed.” To Leonard, she mouthed, “Thank you.”
Leonard nodded. Mrs. Kaspbrak had stopped shouting and throwing things, and allowed herself to be quietly led away. As far as de-escalation went, he’d call that a success.
He straightened his jacket and turned to find Rick slumped against the wall, pale and trembling, Kleenex box warped in his grip, body convulsing in sorrow. Lots of the guys on the force had hated tears, even from beautiful women, much less from fully grown men, but Leonard had never minded. You came into the world crying, was his personal belief. You cried because you were alive. Had he ever cried for Annie? He could not remember and the question gnawed at him. He knew Liz was safe at home, yet wanted very badly to check. “Son,” he said, “you’re going to have to leave the ward now, okay?” He guessed the man was near enough to Annie’s age. The age Annie should have been.
“I can’t,” said Rick, wiping his face on his sleeve. His eyes were swollen, his voice thick. “I can’t leave him.”
Rick nodded jerkily.
“If he’s your friend—”
“He’s my best friend.”
It was an odd thing for a man to say, so fierce and certain, like a child with a friendship bracelet. “Okay,” said Leonard. “Then when he wakes up, he’ll set the record straight. But until then, the missus is the boss.”
Rick shook his head, but he was deflating, collapsing in on himself.
“You gotta fight the things you can fight, son,” said Leonard. “And you can’t fight the next of kin in a hospital, okay?”
“Okay,” Rick mumbled.
“Can I call you a taxi? Get you a coffee?”
“Can I—Do you have a phone I can use?”
“For sure, son. You come with me.”
He led Rick downstairs to the security station. “Dial 9 for an outside line,” he said, gesturing toward the phone.
Rick picked up the handset, looked at his palm, and dialled. “Hey. No, Eddie’s okay. Well, he’s the same.” The man’s voice wavered. “Myra showed up. Yeah, it went as well as you’d expect. No. No. Bev, can you”—his voice got very small—“come pick me up? Okay.” He looked at Leonard. “Is 15 minutes okay?”
“Fifteen’s fine. Lenny. The security guard. God, I’ll give you one guess. Starts with an “M,” ends with—Okay. Okay. I’ll see you soon.”
By nature, Leonard was neither chatty nor inquisitive, and yet he wanted very badly to ask Rick what his friend had been doing in the house on Neibolt. Demolition gone wrong, maybe. Or that urban exploration thing he’d heard about on Sixty Minutes. But Rick sat in a plastic chair, hunched into himself, looking like death warmed over, and Leonard would never kick a man when he was down. After twenty minutes or so, a red-haired woman pushed through the doors of the main entrance.
“There’s my ride,” said Rick. “Hope I didn’t fuck up your day too bad, Lenny.”
“Keeps things interesting,” said Leonard.
Rick walked into the redhead’s arms like a child looking for his mother.
After they’d gone, Leonard picked up the phone and dialled Liz at home.
“No, nothing’s wrong,” he said.
“I’m in the middle of a cake right now, Lenny.”
“I love you, Liz.”
“Oh. Oh my,” she said, flustered, and in his mind’s eye Leonard could see her blushing like the first time, 35 years before. “What brought that on?”
“Just thought of it,” he said. “I’ll see you in a bit.”
Dr. Prendergast was in a mood, and no mistake. Jennifer wondered, as she made her way through the hospital toward the back door and the Pen of Shame where management made staff take their smoke breaks, if it wasn’t a full moon. Twenty years as a nurse and she’d seen too many full moons to doubt their effect on human behaviour. Maybe that was it. In any case, Prendergast had no right to go off on her as he had. She’d taken a lot from doctors over the years, let most of it roll off her back, but damn, if she hadn’t wanted to slap that disdainful look right off the man’s face.
The thing was, he’d meant to be cruel. He’d approached her casually, while she was on rounds. She’d finished checking on Mrs. Hale, recovering from a hip replacement, and was outside Mr. Kaspbrak’s room, about to pop in and check his vitals, thinking about how she’d known a Kaspbrak in school, though he’d left Derry years before, the lucky bastard, and Prendergast had come up behind her and asked, “Are the candy stripers coming in tomorrow?”
She’d taken his question at face value, putting aside the fact that no one called them candy stripers anymore, and told him that the new batch of volunteers, teens from the high school racking up community service hours over the summer, were due to start at ten o’clock.
“Good,” said Prendergast, then dropped the punchline. “Having someone competent on the floor will make a pleasant change.”
She’d been slow to catch on. Said stupidly, “Pardon?”
“Competency, Jennifer. You’ve heard of it?”
“None of my paperwork where it’s meant to be, the coffee’s ice cold—”
“It’s not my—”
“And Mr. Lewis seems to think he’s being discharged.”
“He is being dis—”
“Are you a doctor, now?”
Jennifer stared at him, heart racing, unable to think of a single thing to say. She felt paralyzed, but managed to grind out, “No.” Then, “But Dr. Sutton said—”
“We don’t discharge patients at risk of distorting this hospital’s annual stats. Do we?”
She stood there a moment longer, willing herself to find the courage to tell Prendergast where to get off. Over his shoulder, she saw Nick poke his head out of a patient’s room, his eyes wide.
Nick tilted his head. You need me?
Embarrassed, Jennifer gave a minute shake of her own. “No,” she told Prendergast.
“You have work to do, I assume, however badly,” he said. Then he turned on his heel and was gone.
Jennifer waited until she had finished her rounds—she was a good nurse—before she walked off the floor.
“Asshole,” she muttered to herself, stalking down the hallway, cigarette pack jammed in her pocket. “I’m so sorry you can’t manage your own paperwork since you never got a handle on the alphabet, you absolute prick. And make your own damn coffee.” She slammed through a set of swinging double doors.
And hit something.
Correction: hit someone. Specifically, a tall, dark-haired man in ratty clothes and oversized glasses sitting on the floor behind the door. “Oh my god,” said Jennifer. “Are you alright? That’s a terrible place to sit. Are you a patient? Where are you supposed to be, sir?”
The man rubbed his elbow, frowning. “Cool it with the inquisition, jeez. Do you work here? I could sue, you know.”
Something about his demeanour told Jennifer that he wasn’t serious, or at least, that he was fronting, covering something else, rather than making an actual threat. “How about I give you a once-over and see if there’s anything actually wrong with you first?”
He snorted and started laughing, giggling in near-hysteria. “Anything actually wrong with me. Jesus H. Baldheaded Christ on horseback, have you got a year?”
Jennifer peered at him, the glasses, hair in dark, messy waves, and felt a discomfiting swoop in her stomach. “Richie Tozier?”
The man—Richie?—stared at her with wide eyes. “No,” he said.
But Jennifer was fairly certain that it was. “I know you,” she said.
“I get that all the time,” said Richie/Not-Richie, stumbling to his feet. His pants were too short for him, exposing his ankles, and he wore a garish button-up that left Jennifer unable to discern pattern from stain without closer observation. “That I look like whathisname, that shitty comedian from Chicago.” He swallowed. “Get that all the time.”
“Comedian,” said Jennifer, testing the concept. She was sure she would have heard somewhere that Richie Tozier had made it big, even if only big enough to be widely considered “shitty.” “I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, but I didn’t know that.” She was sure it was him and embarrassed not to be recognized herself. Had she changed so much, or was she not important enough to stick in his memory. She’d thought he was pretty cute, back in the day. “It’s Jennifer. Jennifer Pierce.”
Richie/Not-Richie stared at her.
“We graduated together. Dissected a frog in biology, once.”
His eyes widened. “Hawkeye! Did you actually become a doctor?”
After Prendergast, that stung, but there was no way Richie could have known. “Nurse,” she said, and shrugged. “Derry never was Crabapple Cove.”
“Houlihan, then, instead of Hawkeye.”
She looked him over. Where he wasn’t bruised, he was scratched, and where he wasn’t scratched he was smudged with odd patches of dirt, as though he’d tried to wash but hadn’t paid close attention. “You look like shit. You want a cigarette?”
“Aren’t you a medical professional?”
She took the pack from her pocket and waved it at him. “Was that a no?”
“It is so immensely, incredibly, entirely, 100 per cent not a no.”
She led him to the Pen of Shame, a small fenced-off enclave behind the hospital, next to the trailer used to store medical waste.
“Classy,” said Richie.
Jennifer shrugged, lit herself a cigarette, then passed pack and lighter to Richie, who followed suit.
“Thought you were going to do the Bogart thing, there.”
“Why were you sitting behind a door?”
“Hiding from security.”
Jennifer laughed, then realized that he wasn’t joking. Sobering herself, she said, “What happened to you, Richie?”
He exhaled a cloud of smoke. “Tell me about you. I’m sorry I didn’t remember you at first. Traumatic brain injury. Knocked Derry right out of my head.”
Again, Jennifer was ready to laugh, but again, she realized Richie wasn’t joking. “Nursing school. Got married. Had a kid. Kicked my husband out.”
“Good for you,” said Richie. Another puff of smoke. “Can I ask you something?”
Jennifer was embarrassed by the thrill Richie’s question elicited. It felt private, special. “Sure.”
“You have a kid, you said?”
“Daughter. She’s 12.”
“And she’s happy in Derry? You’re happy? You never wanted to leave?”
Jennifer took a slow drag. “It’s weird, but… I didn’t, really. First, I’d got married and we had no money; and then I was pregnant; and then Lauren had started school and I didn’t want to disrupt her; then I was divorced and had no money.” She laughed, more out of nervousness than anything else. “It’s weird,” she said again. “If you’d asked me a week ago, I would have said everything was fine, but I’ve been thinking…” She thought of Prendergast, of Lauren. “That maybe it is time to make a change.”
“A week ago,” said Richie, slowly, like he was doing some complex mathematical operation in his head.
“Although it is a full moon tonight,” said Jennifer. “Makes people squirrelly.” She attempted a winning smile. Then, with confidence that was almost entirely feigned, she said, “You know, I had a wicked crush on you in high school.”
“I’m gay,” Richie blurted, and coloured such a wretched shade of purple that Jennifer briefly thought he was having a seizure.
“I don’t still,” she said. “Who holds onto crushes that long?”
“Ye-eah,” said Richie, and coughed, still flushed. “Shit, I never said that before. Fuck.”
“I’m not going to blab your private business,” she said, trying to put him at ease. “We’re two old friends having a smoke.”
“Yeah,” said Richie. “Thanks.” He sighed, then took a drag. “I hate this place.”
“You don’t need to tell me,” said Jennifer, and it came out far more bitter than she’d intended. “I live here.”
“You don’t have to, though,” said Richie. He was looking at her, holding her gaze, serious as a heart-attack. “I had to come back. For… reasons. But as soon as E—I can, I’m out of here, and I’m not ever coming back.”
“Why were you hiding from security?”
“They’d have to remove me from the building.”
“Why would they have to remove you from the building?”
“Never you mind, Houlihan. But don’t believe the police reports, if it comes to that.”
“Yeah, sure.” She sighed. Richie had always preferred exaggeration to accuracy. “I’ve got to get back upstairs. There’s only two nurses on ICU and—”
Richie choked and dropped his cigarette. Coughing, he crushed it with the toe of his shoe. “Is Eddie okay? How is he? Has he woken up?”
“Eddie Kaspbrak; you remember him. If you remember me, you remember him.” Richie was frantic, the exhaustion that had subdued him suddenly replaced with the manic energy that Jennifer remembered in her old lab partner. “Houlihan, please.”
That’s little Eddie Kaspbrak upstairs, thought Jennifer. He’s here for him. That tracks. “He’s in rough shape,” she said. “But I guess you know that. Rough shape and still under, but he’s stable. He needs to heal smoothly and steer clear of infection.” On impulse, she reached out to take hold of Richie’s shoulder. “I can’t promise he’ll be okay, Richie, but he’s going to get the best care in the world from me and my pal Nick and all the rest of us, okay?”
He nodded, slowly, like he was practicing a reaction he didn’t know.
Suddenly, the neurons fired. “Oh, Richie. You’re the Rick I’ve been told to keep off the ward.”
Richie blanched. “It’s his wife,” he said. “She’s… controlling.”
Jennifer watched him wrestle down his emotion. “Richie, do you mean… You and Eddie?”
As quickly as he’d paled, his wretched flush rose again. “No. Fuck. No. No. Not Eddie. He’s not…” He coughed, then added, with a forced grin that didn’t reach his eyes, “The missus simply appears to be immune to my masculine charms, because she fucking hates me. I’m just worried about him, Houlihan. That’s all. I swear.”
“Is there anyone I can call for you?”
He shook his head. “They don’t know I’m here. They think I’m in bed.”
“That’s where you should be. It’s three in the morning.” Jennifer heaved a sigh and did something stupid. “Richie, this is so incredibly not allowed, but give me your phone number.” She opened her contacts, handed Richie her phone.
“Give your number,” she said again. “If you need to be here, I’ll text you. If you don’t hear from me, you need to be sleeping.”
Richie took the phone, looked at his palm, punched in his number, then handed it back. “Thank you,” he said, without looking at her. “My phone is kaput, so call the Town Home, if you don’t mind? Room 210?”
“You’re welcome,” she said. “Don’t tell anyone, or you’ll condemn my daughter to poverty.”
Eddie was still stable—not out of the woods, but stably so—when Jennifer punched out nine hours later. She told Richie so, as she walked to the bus-stop. “No change,” she said. “But that’s good news.” Usually, she went home and straight to bed—after checking on Lauren, of course—but she thought that today would be different. Maybe she’d scan some job ads first, see what she might sell her house for and what the market was like in Portland. Or maybe, she thought, out west.
Serena worked her way down the hall with practiced efficiency. She disinfected door handles and automatic door openers and the arm rests of chairs, the countertops and other hard surfaces. She made sure the sanitizer gel pumps were stocked and the tissue boxes out. She emptied the wastebaskets, cleaned her hands, and tackled the floors.
And all this with the clock bearing down on her: more than six hours and the contracted wage wasn’t worth it. Not that she had much of a choice: if a management spot-check brought her standards into question, she’s lose the contract and no matter how badly it paid, she couldn’t do that.
That day, though, she was on fire, ahead of schedule for the first time since she’d started the month before. All there was left to do was put away her cart and supplies, and she’d roll out right on time, able to pick up Mattie from her mother’s with time to spare.
Usually she cleaned around anyone in her way, but the woman hunched on a bench at the end of the hall, all alone, caught her attention. No one else, staff or otherwise, was around. The woman didn’t look up, even at the noisy clatter and squeak of Serena’s cart, and as Serena drew closer, she realized that the woman, who was trying and failing to be neat ,was crying. Not noisily, but not trying to hide it either, with her hands folded in her lap, tears streaming down her face. More like she was crying and she didn’t care who knew it.
On impulse, Serena took a box of tissue from her cart and set it gently on the bench.
The woman jerked her head up, her eyes swollen with crying. “Thank you,” she said, thickly.
“You’re welcome,” said Serena, not sure how to extricate herself, now that the woman had acknowledged her presence.
“My husband’s going to die,” said the woman. “He’s dying, I know he is, and these doctors don’t know anything, but he needs me.” She sniffled. “He’s like a kid, a little boy. He can’t get on without me.”
“I’m sorry,” said Serena, gently, helplessly. “Can I get you anything?” The woman said, “No, thank you,” and not knowing what else to do, Serena sat down beside her. “My little boy was in the hospital for two weeks when he was born. NICU. I wouldn’t wish that on anybody, not ever.”
“Eddie and I never had kids,” said the woman. “God knows, he’s enough work for me, but I…” She trailed off.
Serena was uncomfortable with the way the woman discussed her husband, like he really was her child. When she caught shifts at the supermarket, men sometimes joked that they didn’t need a bag, they had one at home—it reminded her of that. But grief took people in strange ways, she reminded herself. She’d try not to hold the woman’s oddities against her, not in a hospital, where people’s greatest vulnerabilities were laid bare, where they came into the world and where they left it. She’d brought Mattie into the world three floors up. Two years later and she and Tom were still paying off the bills, but she wouldn’t change a thing, and all for the moment that she’d held him in her arms and carried him out, Tom behind them with the carrier. She remembered looking at him through the glass walls of the incubator, thinking, He’s mine, he’s mine, I need to take care of him. You could have the greatest doctors in the world, but when your family was hurting and you couldn’t help them, that was hell. She patted the woman’s shoulder. “I’ve got to get back to work, but I’ll pray for your husband, if you want.” She waited a moment for an answer, but didn’t get one, so she rose and was pushing her cart down the hall when she heard the woman say again, “He needs me.” Then, “He’s going to leave me.”
Distracted by the encounter, she bumped through a set of swinging double doors, walking backwards to limit the spread of germs from the cart, and tripped. Damn, she’d collided with a client. Serena looked around, hoping no one from management was nearby.
“That was my fault, I’m sorry,” said the man, a white guy with a slight stutter. A tall black man stood beside him, anxiously checking his watch around the large bouquet in his arms.
“It’s alright,” she said, and sanitized her hands with a pump of gel on instinct.
“Bill, chop-chop,” said the other man. “Let’s go. Leave flowers for Richie’s friend at security—anonymously—and then we’re out of here, before we run into Myra.”
“You really think flowers are going to get us back on the ward?”
“No, I don’t. This woman is already risking her job to tell us how he’s doing: we can’t ask her for more than that.”
“I know, I know,” said Bill, grudgingly. “I just… We’re not… complete? Without him. Did you feel like this all these years, Mikey? It’s unbearable. My god, I’m so sorry.” He put his hand on Mikey’s arm, holding him a moment, comforting, and then followed him across the floor.
Neither gave Serena a second glance, which was par for the course, though the apology had been nice. She put her cart away, sanitized her hands a final time, and checked her watch. Her encounter with that woman had slowed her down, but she had just enough time to actually make it to her mother’s when she’d said she would. Not that she’d speed on the way there, not when she had somebody counting on her. She knew what it was to be needed. She knew what real service was.
“Just talk to him, Nicky,” Jennifer said. “I’d do it myself, but he’d see his wife picking at him. Besides he likes you. It’s obvious he’s more comfortable with you.”
“I’m not a psychologist or a social worker. It’s not appropriate.” Nick was a nurse. He worked at Derry Home Hospital, usually ICU, and he was not in the habit of interfering in his patients’ private lives. “And him being comfortable with me, that’s all the more reason not to drop a bomb on him.” It was becoming increasingly apparent that Mr. Kaspbrak was cowed by his wife, who bullied the floor staff, overruled the hospital nutritionist on his meals, and micromanaged the man’s medications. Nick had been in the room when Mr. Kaspbrak had at last woken up, had taken the man’s vitals and familiarized him with the indignities of hospitalization, the wound in his chest, the IV, the catheter, the roommate behind the thin curtain, and he’d also been in the room later, after the man had gotten his bearings. Mrs. Kaspbrak had sat at his bedside, clutching his hand in hers. He had coughed when he tried to speak and his wife fed him ice chips until he licked his lips and said, “Where—”
She’d interrupted him. “I’m right here, baby.”
Nick was adjusting the IV rack, setting up a bag of saline to get the man some much-needed fluids.
“No, Myra, where’s Richie? Where are my friends?”
“Your friends? Baby, those people aren’t your friends.”
“Myra, I need to see them. Why aren’t they here?”
“Eddie, I told you. They’re not your friends. Those people left. They don’t care about you, not like I do. You never mentioned them before, Eddie.”
Nick had cringed. He didn’t like being in the room when patients got into private conversations, but he didn’t think he could walk out either.
“They wouldn’t leave me,” said Mr. Kaspbrak, but he sounded confused, still groggy. “They wouldn’t.” He began to cry.
“They did,” said Mrs. Kaspbrak, blotting his cheeks with a tissue. “They said they had to go home and they’re gone, but it’s okay, because I’m here now.”
“I know the Kaspbraks are kind of weird,” said Nick, shrugging at Jennifer. In truth, they were more than weird. His father would have said the man was henpecked, would have spat the word with derision. His dad had hated men like that, weak men, men like… But that wasn’t it either. “You said you knew him in high school, that you know his friends, and Jen, I’m sorry, but that’s bias. We don’t know who’s telling the truth, or which parts of it.”
“I do know them, or I used to, at least,” said Jennifer. “We haven’t spoken in 20 years, and come on, this is a small town.” She was pulling her big sister trip on him. “If we had a woman in there, and her husband was telling her what she could eat and who she could talk to and who her friends were, do you think you and I would be debating what was going on?”
“I’m still not a social worker,” said Nick, irritated by Jennifer’s moral certainty. You couldn’t just meddle in people’s lives, especially when you didn’t know what kind of dynamic you were messing with. You could put people in danger that way. A well-meaning teacher had congratulated Nick’s father on Nick’s acceptance to the School of Nursing at the University of Maine, a few short weeks before he’d have finally been able to get the hell out of dodge, and he’d crossed the stage for his diploma with a black eye and a wrist brace. “Jesus. One seminar and suddenly you’re an expert.”
“She threw his friends out, you know.”
“You didn’t see them when they came in, because you were off that week. All covered in mud and blood and god knows what else, Susie said, but she also said that she knew that there was nothing they wouldn’t have done for him.”
Nick tried to imagine friends like that; he couldn’t.
“They didn’t ‘leave town,’ said Jennifer. “You know the ward restricted list?”
Nick nodded, though no one on the list had caused trouble for him.
“She showed up about a week after they brought him in and she and the friends got into it, and Susie had to have security step in. I’ve seen them since then, around town, but I can’t let them on the ward, because he doesn’t know they still want to see him.”
Jennifer rubbed the bridge of her nose. “Yes, Nicholas. She lied. And I could tell him, but I’m telling you, he hears it from a woman that reminds him of her, it’ll do more harm than good.”
“I’ll think about it,” said Nick, mostly to get her off his back. “But jeez, Jen, what would I say?”
“Don’t make fun of me, but I got this model protocol—I’m serious, Nick.
“I know you are,” he said, unhappily.
“He deserves to choose,” said Jennifer. “Not me, not you, and not her. Him.”
He did look at the model protocol, and talked to Susie, his manager, who at least made it very clear that he wasn’t under any obligation, but that she would support him if he wanted to, or even do it herself, but in the end, the next time Nick saw Mr. Kaspbrak made up his mind for him. The man’s wife was in the room, like always, and Mr. Kaspbrak was cringing away from her, like he saw no other escape than to fade into the hospital linens. His palms sweating with nervousness, Nick wished Mr. Kaspbrak a good morning and told Mrs. Kaspbrak that Susie wanted to speak with her, if she wouldn’t mind, and she could say that Nick sent her along. It was a spur of the moment decision, but he trusted Susie to keep the woman busy.
“Good,” she said. “I have some questions about Eddie’s medication schedule.”
Mr. Kaspbrak perked up. “Maybe I should—”
“No, Eddie, don’t worry about a thing.”
“Myra, I don’t—”
But she was already gone.
Nick waited until she was out of sight, then sat in the chair beside the bed.
“I do tie my own shoes,” said Mr. Kaspbrak, and laughed, weakly, then winced.
“Mr. Kaspbrak,” said Nick. “It is your right and yours alone to make decisions about your medical care.”
“I know that,” said Mr. Kaspbrak. “God, do you have any idea how much time I spent here as a kid? I just—” He didn’t complete his thought.
“If anyone, anyone at all,” said Nick, slowly, “is infringing on that right, the hospital can intervene. Now, while we’re alone here, is there anything else we haven’t talked about that might be contributing to your health concerns?” The model protocol was running through his mind at double-speed.
Mr. Kaspbrak was silent.
Nick forged ahead. “This would only be shared with your care team, and not even that, if you don’t want, okay? You seem very anxious, which is perfectly normal after a major injury, and I’d like to help to alleviate that, if I can.”
“While you were unconscious, your wife took responsibility for your care as your next of kin.”
“But you’re the one in charge now.”
Mr. Kaspbrak’s eyes shuttered and he looked away.
“If I’m out of line, tell me to go, just say the word, ‘go,’ and I will, but is there anyone, anyone else, we can contact for you?”
He shook his head, once, briskly, like he was banishing a horsefly or a vicious thought.
Nick swallowed. His mouth had gone very dry. “The people that brought you to the hospital.” Just talk to him, Nicky. “Your wife had directed that the hospital keep them off the ward, but—”
Mr. Kaspbrak’s gaze snapped back. “She did what?”
“But as far as I know,” said Nick, “they’re still in Derry.”
“They’re here? They’re still here?”
The relief, the joy that washed over Mr. Kaspbrak’s features was painful to see, and Nick nodded, briefly unable to speak. He took a deep breath, then pushed on. “As long as you are a patient here, Mr. Kaspbrak, we will see that you get the care that you need, in keeping with your wishes and yours alone. Okay?”
“Can I—Do you have a phone I can use?
Mr. Kaspbrak had no bedside phone, as Mrs. Kaspbrak had ordered it removed. Nick unlocked his cell and handed it to his patient.
Mr. Kaspbrak hesitated a moment—Nick thought he heard him mutter, “goddamn cellular radiation”—then dialled, waited, listened, holding the phone a few inches from his head. “Room 210, please.” He waited. Whispered, “Please, please, please.” Waited. “Goddammit, Richie. Pick up.”
Nick wanted to give the man privacy, but he didn’t want to encourage Mrs. Kaspbrak’s return by leaving the room. He rose, then crossed the room to stand by the window with his hands in his pockets. At least the room’s other occupant was at physio.
“Richie? Richie, it’s me.”
Unintelligible yelling erupted from the handset, a cacophony audible even across the room.
“Jesus, Rich, settle down. I need to talk to you. I need to see you. I mean, all of you. You’re all still here?” His voice cracked. “Shut up, dickhead. I’m not crying; you’re crying. Myra, she… She said you left. I shouldn’t have believed her. I should have tried to call you. I got… scared.”
Embarrassed, Nick fussed with a loose thread at the hem of his scrubs.
Mr. Kaspbrak said very softly, “I'm done with the Pennywise mindfuck. I’m tired of believing things that aren’t true.” Then he laughed. “Did you put me on speaker? I can hear Stan. Tell him, yes, getting over here in the next 15 minutes would be very helpful in the way of empirical evidence. Do I want anything? Wait, do you have all my stuff? No, it’s fine. I’ll… I will deal with Myra.” He hung up.
Nick returned to the bedside. “You don’t have to see anyone you don’t want to see.”
“I need to,” said Mr. Kaspbrak, firmly. Then, less so: “Can you leave us alone?”
Nick pointed to the call button. “If you need anything, hit this.”
Mr. Kaspbrak flushed, but said, “Okay.”
Even so, Nick hovered outside the door. He was worried for Mr. Kaspbrak’s safety, not only because he himself would be held responsible for any mishaps but also because the man was his patient and deserved to be safe while he was in care. He could hear voices, but not enough to make out their words, at least at first. Their tones bled through the closed door: confused whispers, then confusion that forgot to whisper, then increasingly angry insistence at war with steady resignation.
“Myra, here’s the thing, I don’t want to be married anymore.”
“Eddie, you don’t know what you’re saying. You’ve been so sick.”
“I’m not sick. I’m injured. There is a difference; it’s important. And I don’t want to be married anymore. I—I haven’t for a long time. And you know that, I think."
“Why would you say that, when I’ve come all this way to be with you, take care of you, in sickness and in health—”
“I am not sick.”
That last was shouted and Nick tensed, fingers closed on the door handle.
Then, “Myra, I’m sorry.”
A pause. “It’s okay, baby. I understand. You should rest. I’ll get the nurse to—”
“No, you don’t understand. I know I hurt you, I know I’m hurting you, but I can’t take it back. I-I won’t. Why—why did you tell me the people who brought me in had left?”
A shuffling, a rustling, as though Mrs. Kaspbrak were gathering herself up. “Why won't you tell me who they are? You never talk about your childhood, baby, but now it’s old home week? I help you, Eddie. I protect you. You know how you get without someone looking after you. We need each other.”
“Sweetheart, do I make you happy? Really? Because I want you to be happy. I want to be happy, or try, at least.”
Nick hovered on the threshold, barely breathing.
“Don’t do this to me, Eddie.”
Nick sprinted out of view as Mrs. Kaspbrak slammed the door. She stood a moment, crying, softly. “I knew it,” she said. “I knew it.” Nick, for his sins, had ducked below the desk in time and could only listen to Mrs. Kaspbrak’s rebuff, defeated and tired, of Susie’s inquiry. She was gone when he dared stand up again.
Susie rubbed her jaw. “Well,” she said, “you better go check on your patient.”
Nick did, and found Mr. Kaspbrak pale and trembling.
“That was the worst experience of my life,” he said. “And you know the kind of month I’ve had.” He drew a deep breath, then winced, hissing with pain. “But, you know, nothing but the last month could have made me ready to do that. God, I’m a fucking idiot.”
“No, you aren’t,” said Nick. “I promise you, Mr. Kaspbrak, you aren’t.” He poured Mr. Kaspbrak a glass of water, then sat with him a few minutes, neither of them speaking. He could not put into words his certainty that sitting at the man’s side was exactly what he needed to do, that in such an act he could make safe the ragged space the man had carved for himself. All his life, Nick had hated the isolation that marked his father’s brand of manliness and hated himself twice over for trapping himself in it again and again, like an animal in a snare. When he’d left home, he’d thought that one act of defiance would set him free, and still the old man’s ghost had haunted him all his life. But he couldn’t muster the will to berate himself, not when he’d seen Mr. Kaspbrak’s courage on display. Nick’s father would never have seen courage in what Mr. Kaspbrak had done, but Nick could. Because Nick was his own man after all.
A knock sounded at the door. Nick, who was watching Mr. Kaspbrak’s face at the time, saw a spasm of fear run through him, replaced quickly with steely resolve. Then Susie was at the door, asking if Mr. Kaspbrak was up to visitors. “Two at a time,” she said, smiling. “Ward rules.” Then a tall man, all awkward limbs and unruly hair was squeezing past her, calling, “Eds, you mad bastard, you’ve finally done it, you’re in the hospital for legitimate reasons!”
Mr. Kaspbrak lit up like a candle, although what came out of his mouth was, “That’s what you say to me? I almost die in that goddamn cesspool and you want to give me shit about my health? I swear to god—”
Whatever he was about to swear, he didn’t, for his friend pulled the chair as close to the bed as it would go, then leaned forward, beaming, to kiss him noisily and extravagantly on the forehead.
“Gah, get off me! My immune system is compromised right now, superbugs are on the rise all over this country, and if I get MRSA…”
“They’re always like this,” said a redheaded woman who had joined Nick at the end of the bed. She smiled.
Nick smiled back. “Be forewarned, Susie will bring the hammer down if they get too noisy.”
Behind them, Mr. Kaspbrak said, shocked, “Did you just fucking lick me?” For all he seemed to be complaining, he sounded happier—more alive, Nick realized—than he had since he woke up.
“I’ll make sure they behave,” said the woman. “We’re so grateful to be able to see him.”
“Bev, look at him,” Mr. Kaspbrak’s friend said, joyously. “Look at him.” To Mr. Kaspbrak, he said, “Eds, you know I’ll always think you’re the cutest, but for real, you looked like shit on a stick last time I was here.”
Susie was pouring coffee into an assortment of cups poached from the break room, one each for the men waiting at the desk. Mr. Kaspbrak’s friends.
“I’m going to go talk to Lenny,” said Nick. “Make sure he’s updated.” He raised his eyebrows, hoping they carried the implication he hadn’t voiced: that Mr. Kaspbrak’s friends were welcome.
Susie nodded, smiling sweetly as he went by.
HAVING FUN ISN’T HARD
Bored behind the desk of the Derry Public Library and having already sorted the returns, labelled and organized the holds, filed the new registrations (all two of them), and sorted out the “DERRY’S OWN BILL DENBROUGH” display, Lucy was itching to get her phone out of her purse, just for something to do. At least the display was fixed. She’d come in that morning to find that someone, probably one of the weekend volunteers, had swept the whole kit and caboodle into a cardboard box, then stuffed the box in a corner behind the counter, and she certainly wasn’t going to take the rap for tearing down Mike’s prize display while he was on extended leave. She had printed fresh copies of Denbrough’s author photo and the scan of his old library registration (William Denbrough, 215 Marlowe Street, March 7, 1985) since the display copies were crumpled at the bottom of the box, and swapped out the library’s beat-up Black Rapids paperback for their new hardcover edition of The Glowing. (While Mike was partial to Black Rapids, Lucy couldn’t stand it, but she figured that since Mike liked all Denbrough’s books, he wouldn’t mind.) With all that done, though, she was out of tasks.
She looked up at the sound of the outer door. A small man entered, followed by a taller one, wearing crooked glasses with a damaged lens. Both were familiar, but Lucy, to her irritation, couldn’t place either. She’d worked at the library ten years, she and Mike the only permanent staff, and had thought herself familiar with all the regulars. At the start of the summer, she’d have killed for a bit of excitement, but then Mike had nearly been killed for real and since then, every face she didn’t recognize made her nervous. She’d even avoided the news coverage, trying to keep her anxiety under control. Good thing there’s no children’s storytime today, she thought, then chastised herself for being morbid.
“Hey there,” said the glasses guy. He smiled, shrugging, as though apologizing for being there, and Lucy relaxed fractionally. “I don’t live here, but could I get a visitor’s card or something? I tried to look it up online, but I couldn’t find a website.”
Lucy sighed and said, “It needs work.” She had wanted to start a Facebook page for ages, but Mike was firmly against it, insisting that a public service shouldn’t require people to give personal data to a corporate third party to access information. Which Lucy understood, but sometimes people just wanted to know when the library opened. “But I can certainly do that for you. I’ll need photo ID and there’s a deposit, but it’s refundable if you come back and cancel your card before you leave Derry.”
“No problem,” he said, digging in his pocket to pull out a battered wallet. He pushed a driver’s licence with a creased corner across the counter
“I’ll do up the form,” said Lucy, and snagged the licence. “If you want to look around, we can finish up when you’ve got a few books?”
“Thanks,” he said.
Lucy set to filling out the paper form, then entering the same data in the library’s computer system. The name on the licence was Richard Wentworth Tozier. She tapped her pen against her teeth, thinking, certain she knew the name from somewhere.
“So, Mr. Big Shot Writer,” said Tozier, elbowing his companion. “What shall we get our good friend Edward to brighten his days at Derry Home Hospital? I’ve got a few ideas, but—oh my god. This is great.”
“Oh my god,” echoed Tozier’s companion, though with none of his enthusiasm.
Lucy looked up to find Tozier towing the man toward her display.
“‘Derry’s own Bill Denbrough.’ This is amazing. Which one should we get?”
The other man frowned and crossed his arms over his chest. “Beep-beep, Richie.”
“I’m serious: no chucks. Eddie would love this.” He took the hardcover off the stand. “Hmm, I think he said he’d read them all except The Glowing.”
“Hold up, he read them?”
“Yeah. And watched all my shit, too. We owe him big-time, Big Bill.”
Big-shot writer? Big Bill? The man’s face crystallized in her memory and her heartrate jumped. “Are you Bill Denbrough?” she said, too loudly and without thinking.
The man jumped, startled, then turned to face her, face pinked and his hands in his pockets. “Er, yeah.”
But Lucy couldn’t be embarrassed because she was facing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. “I’m sorry if this is weird, but Mike, my boss, he is a huge fan of yours, and he’s had a terrible summer. He’s been off work, actually, but that’s his display. Would you, I mean, could you sign one of your books for him?”
“That’s Mike’s display?” said Tozier, eyes wide. “That is—”
Denbrough cut him off mid-sentence with another, “Beep-beep.”
The outer doors rattled again, then, and Lucy found Mike Hanlon himself coming in, looking like his old self—better than, come to that, with brighter eyes, straighter posture, and a healthier look than Lucy had ever seen on him. “Hey, Lucy,” he said. “Some friends of mine were coming here to get a visitor’s card. Are they still here?”
“Hey, Mikey,” said Denbrough, softly.
Mikey? thought Lucy.
Mike looked up, saw Denbrough and Tozier, saw the display and said, “Shit.” To Lucy he said, quietly. “I took that display down.”
“Your Denbrough display? But you love—”
“Never mind,” said Mike, rubbing his forehead. “Don’t worry about it.”
But Lucy did worry, because stressing Mike was the last thing she wanted. “I’m sorry,” she said, miserably. “I didn’t—I don’t.” She faltered. “I don’t understand.”
Tozier came to the counter, then, armed with The Glowing atop a stack that included a Patrick O’Brian novel, Jurassic Park, some Elmore Leonard mystery, and Guns, Germs, and Steel, all of which he seemed to have chosen at random from the shelving cart. He leaned close to Mike, but Lucy heard him whisper, “I know I’m the last asshole in the world you should take advice from for this sort of thing, but go talk to him, okay?” Then, keeping Lucy busy with a steady stream of chatter, he finished his registration.
“You really all know each other?” Lucy couldn’t resist the question as she passed Tozier his stack of demagnetized books.
“We grew up here,” he said, and heaved a sigh. “May God have mercy on our souls.”
“I can’t believe Mike never mentioned it.”
“You know Mike.” He sighed again. “He wouldn’t want to make a big deal of it.”
She didn’t see Mike and Denbrough leave, and once Tozier had gone as well, found herself no longer bored, but instead too agitated to work, embarrassed, confused, and worried. Another goof. Always another goof and never any closer to the intangible thing that could make her life different, better. She knew she had something to offer. She knew she could make Derry better. But how could she get her chance to prove herself?
A little before six o’clock, she ushered the last patrons out the door and moved to stand before the control panel for the security system installed after the attack in the summer. She was just about to set the alarm when Mike came in.
Relieved, Lucy abandoned the panel and said, “I’m so glad to see you, I’m so sorry, I—”
Mike held up his hand to stop her. “Nothing to apologize for, Luce.”
“No buts. Don’t worry, okay?” He ducked his head, shy. “I knew Bill when we were kids, but we, uh, fell out of touch until this summer, and I was a little embarrassed for him to see that display. Anyway. Never mind that. I actually wanted to talk to you.”
“What about?” Lucy’s heartrate jumped again. The day had not been good for her blood pressure.
“There’s no easy way to say this, but… I’m going to resign my position.”
“What?” The mere idea was shocking: Mike was the library.
“After this summer,” he said, “after all of that, well, it sounds trite, but I realized life is short.”
It was, too. And what the hell was Lucy doing with hers? Sticking her light under a bushel, was what. She struggled for something to say to Mike. “You going to travel? You always said you wanted to.”
He nodded, smiling shyly again. “I want to recommend you to take over—if that’s what you want, that is.”
“What?” Lucy was sure she’d heard wrong.
“To run the library—make the changes you want, drag Derry kicking and screaming into the 21st century.”
Lucy’s heart was pounding, now. “Do you mean it, Mike?”
He nodded. “Get your resume updated, okay? And we’ll talk and we’ll make sure you’re set to crush the job competition.”
A sudden sound made them jump. Tozier was outside, knocking on the window. He waved at Lucy, grinning, then tapped his watch and called, though his voice was muffled by the glass, “Yo! Our man Eds is waiting and you’re my ride.”
“He’s incorrigible,” said Mike. “I better go. We’ll talk, okay? So think of any questions you want to ask me.”
He meant about the job, of course, but Lucy couldn’t help thinking that there was a whole universe of things she didn’t know about the man she’d worked with for ten years. “Oh, Mike, I hate change,” she said, near tears, and threw her arms around him. Hugging was not exactly workplace appropriate, but neither was nearly losing your boss to a would-be murderer, and she’d rather err on telling the people she loved that she loved them. She sniffled. “But the minute you are out the door, I am eliminating paper registrations, redoing the website, and starting a Facebook page.”
Sandra had owned the Derry Town Home for almost a quarter-century, and worked there ten years before that, but all the years she’d spent problem-free—no wild parties, no girls turning tricks (or boys, for that matter), no drug deals, no bed bugs—had caught up with her in the last three months, and she was pretty near worn out.
In that time, the Derry Town Home had seen a violent assault (blood everywhere and a broken window), housed an actual killer (no matter it was all settled as self-defence on Mr. Tozier’s part), and seen a group of fully-grown adults who ought to have known better track water and mud and, by the stink of it, raw sewage—for heaven’s sake!—through her beautiful hotel. John had told her she ought to lean into it, meaning by that vulgar phrase that she should capitalize on the nastiness. (“Let me start you an Instagram, Ma,” he’d said. “Put a few ads on some true crime podcasts.”) She was not entirely certain that her son was not simply making up words to tease her, but even if he were telling the truth… No. She knocked that nonsense on the head straight away. The Derry Town Home was a decent place for decent people, for friends and relatives from away or businessmen, provided they didn’t bring girls around, or families passing through. She was not interested in cultivating a reputation as the violent crime hotspot of New England.
She was a firm woman—her son had privately, if affectionately, described her to his wife as “hard as nails enough to give you tetanus”—but she was not inflexible. Decency was of the upmost importance to her. And so when Mr. Denbrough paid her $5,000 flat (“to deal with things until we get a proper bill settled,” he said) and also permitted her to take an imprint of his Stratus Visa card, encouraging her to telephone the bank to verify its validity, she had booked an emergency visit by the local carpet cleaners and advised Mr. Denbrough that he and his friends were welcome to stay as long as they needed, given that their friend was in hospital, provided there was no more monkey business. (Going through the receipts at the end of the night and making his usual moan about the need to get “a real credit card machine, Ma, honestly,” John had held the merchant’s copy of the imprint in a shaking hand and said, “If this man is footing the bill, we need to keep him here as long as possible.”) Mr. Denbrough had sombrely pledged against monkey business of any kind, and as he had not been purchasing her silence, which would have placed him firmly in the category of “indecent,” but instead paying his dues, Sandra accepted his word.
Yes, Mr. Denbrough was decent, and thank goodness for that, because his travelling companions… Mr. Uris and his wife were very nice—they sometimes worked with John on the large puzzle set out in the common room—but she was fairly certain Mr. Hanscom in 201 was carrying on with Ms. Marsh, who ought to have been keeping to herself in 212. Sandra wasn’t a Puritan, and she knew people did things differently these days, but she’d two or three times opened her mouth to give them a piece of her mind and found she simply couldn’t. They looked so happy, gentled and nourished by one another, that though she had been startled by the discovery of a pair of men’s briefs on Ms. Marsh’s floor while she and Serena cleaned the room, and by a pair of gold hoop earrings in a coffee cup on Mr. Hanscom’s nightstand while she made up the bed, she felt only pleasure on their behalf.
And then there was Mr. Tozier. After Mr. Kaspbrak had been assaulted in 209, after all that great to-do, the blood and the mud and the water, Mr. Kaspbrak had gone to the hospital and Mr. Tozier had moved his belongings into 210, where they sat in a neat pile in the corner of the room, standing out all the more against Mr. Tozier’s chaos. Although the poor man made an effort, it never amounted to much. His shoes never made it onto the shoe rack, Sandra assumed, since the shoe rack remained collapsed inside the closet, and dirt and dust routinely gathered at the base of the mirror or under the coat rack near the door. His glasses were broken and his clothes bundled in a heap on the armchair under the lamp that had grown until Sandra took pity on him and advised him of a weekly laundry fee that had never been offered at the Derry Town Home until she spoke it into existence that moment. (He had accepted on the spot and routinely overpaid, the consequence of which was Sandra took as much care with his laundry as she did with her own. Namely, quite a bit.) The bed was always rumpled, sheets kicked to the bottom and pillows tossed to the floor, though she was certain he didn’t bring “guests” back, and he slept with the television on, for she could hear it as she did her last check of the hotel at night, testing the window locks, and as she swept through in the morning, pushing back the blinds on the windows at the end of each floor.
There had been a small hiccup, a week or so after Mr. Denbrough had written his cheque, when Ms. Marsh had thundered out of the lobby to beat the devil, returning about 45 minutes later with a near-hysterical Mr. Tozier.
“Richie, you’re working yourself up.”
“You’re damn straight. Why didn’t I tell Mommy Dearest where to stick it? I’m going back there and I’m going to—“
“Richie, no.” Ms. Marsh shoved him into one of the lobby chairs with more strength than Sandra would have given her credit for. “We are back in the real world now.”
Frowning, Sandra watched them and wondered where they thought they’d been. She rested her hand on the phone, ready to dial 911 if necessary.
“She doesn’t understand us. Richie, how could she? How could we expect her to?”
“You know that’s different, honey. Patty chose to come here. And she knows It, now, better than anyone but us. Look at Audra, for god’s sake, and how well that worked out: she and Myra didn’t come to Derry and they didn’t see. They can’t understand. And after Bowers, honey, the last thing you need is to get arrested busting up a hospital ward. Look at me, look at me. We are going to get back in there, okay? She can’t keep us out forever. Now please, go lie down.”
“What if he’s dying , Bev? I don’t… You don’t understand. He told me about his ma— The way he talked… Fuck, I don’t want him to be alone. I couldn’t do that to him.”
They were talking about poor Mr. Kaspbrak, Sandra realized.
Ms. Marsh sat on the arm of the chair—Sandra winced—and stroked his hair, letting him lean against her side. “Go lie down for half an hour, okay? And then we’re going to Mike’s to eat. You have to eat. He’s going to live, Richie. You have to live too.”
He’d gone, then, moving like an automaton, and half an hour later they were gone again, just as Ms. Marsh had said. The two couples, Mr. Denbrough, and Mr. Tozier, were as quiet and flat as paper dolls, and Sandra’s earlier irritation was dissolved by a combination of pity and Mr. Hanscom’s sweet, honest request that she have a good night.
The next day, when Sandra had gone to tidy Mr. Tozier’s room—it was Serena’s day off and she had his laundry, besides—she had been startled to find him still in bed. Every other day he’d been gone by the time she or Serena made their rounds. To the hospital, she had assumed.
“I’m sorry, I thought…” Sandra trailed off. With the curtains drawn, the room was dark, even at mid-day, lit only by the flickering glow of the murmuring television. Her guest lay on his side with the duvet drawn up, dressed (thank goodness) in what looked like an old t-shirt, but with his hair dishevelled and his glasses off, somehow managing to look both older and younger than he had the day before. “Mr. Tozier, are you alright?”
“No,” he said.
“Can I… get you anything?”
“No.” Then, in the same flat tone, “Sorry I’m in your way.”
“No need to apologize,” said Sandra. “You’re my guest. I’ve got your laundry?”
“Thanks,” he said, still immobile in the bed.
The phone rang, and he shot out his hand to answer it, knocking his abused glasses to the floor, lying awkwardly propped on his elbow. “Hello? Houli—Jennifer? How is he?” He listened a moment, rubbing his eyes with his free hand. “Okay. God. Okay. Thank you. I mean that, okay? Okay. Bye.”
“Richie, I brought—Oh, hello.”
Sandra turned as Richie returned the phone to its cradle. Mr. Hanscom stood in the doorway with a paper bag, his gaze moving from Sandra and the laundry basket on her hip to Mr. Tozier, still in bed. “I’ll come back later,” she said, and headed for the door.
On her way out, she heard Mr. Hanscom say gently, “I got cinnamon buns. Want one?”
That had been nearly three months before, but though Sandra was pretty near worn out, she had also found herself in the unusual position of caring for her guests. After Mr. Kaspbrak’s condition had stabilized, Mr. Hanscom, Ms. Marsh, Mr. Denbrough, and the Urises had left at various points, presumably to attend to business at home, but they’d all come back, while Mr. Tozier and Mr. Hanlon, who she recognized from the library, had never left at all, and Sandra had grown fond of them. Especially Mr. Tozier, though she wouldn’t have admitted that for love or money. She had been on the desk when he learned that Mr. Kaspbrak was awake and taking visitors, and in his joyful face she could see nothing of the dishevelled man who had lain alone in a hotel bed in the dark. (He had come down the stairs two at a time and bounced off a “pull” door before sprinting into the parking lot, followed by his friends moving at a good clip themselves, though Mrs. Uris had paused long enough to explain that they’d received good news and that she was taking the others to the hospital.) Mr. Tozier may have been untidy, but he was decent, caring so for his friend.
She figured they wouldn’t be around too much longer, and while it would be nice to get things back to normal, she would miss them. The thought left her in a melancholy mood, and that night, while John cashed out, she found herself leaning on the counter, watching him, rather than making her rounds about the hotel.
“Don’t worry, Ma,” he said. “My days of sneaking dollars are long past.”
You only thought you were sneaking, thought Sandra, because it was true. It was the sole indulgence of her life, letting 14-year-old John get away with stealing from the till. He never took much and she made it up by pinching pennies elsewhere, hiding it from him with concerted effort. The strange dance of parents and children. “Thank you, John. You’re a great help to me, you know.”
He looked up from the till, eyes narrowed. “You feeling alright?”
“Stop counting your inheritance,” said Sandra. “I’m fine.” She was embarrassed to realize that she could not remember the last time she had thanked him. She herself expected no thanks, and applied the same limitation to everyone around her. She had lived by the Golden Rule, but perhaps, she thought with a sudden pain, she had set the bar rather low. Running the hotel, raising him: those were her jobs. She had been glad to do it and set about it with intent, but to never thank her son, who might have left Derry long ago? He was surely smart enough. She loved him. When had she said so? Was it too late? “You’re a great help to me,” she said again. “You always have been.” She groped for something else to say. “Do you think it would make such a difference, a credit card machine? What about the fees?”
“Now I know you’re not feeling well,” he said, looking at her with amusement.
“I mean it,” Sandra said. “Can I leave that with you, Johnny?” The child’s name slipped out unbidden.
He softened at the sound of it. “Sure, Ma,” he said, smiling. “I’ll take care of it.”
SHIPS IN THE NIGHT
Louisa’s arms were full of flowers, eight or nine different bouquets, far more than she ought to have tried to carry on one trip, and if she dropped one—or god forbid, more than one—she would catch hell, but she could never resist. She liked the velvety feel of the petals, the scent of the blooms, and the fresh, green weight of them. Autumn was on its way, sure, but it was still warm enough to set the flowers on display outside. When she was weighted down with flowers, she didn’t feel like a florist’s assistant in New England, but something else… It was difficult to put the sensation into words: she felt like someone who received flowers, a woman in a flowing skirt on the edge of a lavender field in France, the heroine of a Hallmark movie.
Her imaginings were disrupted by an overheard snatch of conversation between two men as they walked past in the late summer sun, the oddness of their words catching her attention.
“As someone who almost died, I call dibs on breakfast selection and I want waffles.”
“Eds, you idiot, you got out of the hospital 45 minutes ago.”
“And I want waffles. With real maple syrup, not that corn syrup shit.”
“And I am already primed to get my favourite ex-patient anything his little heart desires. Got to get some weight on you. Don’t waste the “almost died” card on waffles, for fuck’s sake.”
Then they were gone. Louisa sighed, forgot them, then gingerly set the bouquets down on the empty rack outside the shop window before arranging them carefully. It wouldn’t do for the blossoms to be crushed or the stems twisted or broken. She settled a plush bunch of peach and pink ranunculus, the arrangement caressed with vibrant greenery and a few white accent blossoms, and realized they looked… different, brighter, more colourful than they had in the shop. She pressed her face to the flowers. No real scent, of course, not with buttercups, but they felt like the touch of someone loving, the promise of life for the simple pleasure of it.
She set the bouquet aside in the refrigerator with a “Reserved” tag and before she cashed out at 6:00, paid for them herself. She walked home with them in her arms, out of the downtown, heading for the Kissing Bridge and what residents jokingly called Derry suburbia, already delighted with how they would look in the window above the sink or perhaps at the centre of the kitchen table.
Jessie sat on the bank of the Kenduskeag below the Kissing Bridge, shivering with the chill of the autumn breeze rolling off the water, but stubbornly refusing to move until she managed a foundational sketch she could live with. Her art teacher wanted traditional pencil-sketch landscapes, literally the most boring thing in the world, except for maybe still life of a fruit bowl, and had flat-out rejected Jessie’s first submission, the one she’d slaved over for hours: a brightly coloured rendering of the park at the center of Derry with the downtown neatly aligned in the distance. And bleeding out of it in dark shadows, fierce smudges of charcoal, she'd set the creeps down alleyways and the monsters around corners. What Derry really was.
Ms. Caldwell had praised it at first. “This is an exceptional creative piece, Jessie,” she’d said, “and I want you to strongly consider saving it for your portfolio.”
Jessie had glowed.
“But it’s not what I assigned.”
“I’m not interested in, in”—she had struggled for an example—“sketching the Kissing Bridge for tourists.”
“That’s also not what I assigned.”
“Art is supposed to be honest.”
“I never said it wasn’t.”
It was maddening, talking to Ms. Caldwell, like running on a treadmill: you never got anywhere.
“I’m not saying you have to take your anger out of your art, Jessie. There’s a lot in Derry to be angry about, but I don’t want it to consume your art either. Strong emotion is… it’s like an earthquake. Sometimes it reveals things that have been buried, but sometimes it only obliterates. Maybe you’ll prove me wrong, and that’d be fine, but what happens when you try to see what’s underneath? We learn the rules so we can break them with intention.”
Jessie, by that point furious and embarrassed, said nothing.
“I’m not going to dock you points,” said Ms. Caldwell. “Just get the assignment in to me by Halloween, okay? That’s another two weeks for you.”
So here she was. Sketching. She’d chosen the Kissing Bridge to drive her point home to Ms. Caldwell: she’d do the stupid tourist art assignment and show how ridiculous the whole thing was. Someone had put up a hand-lettered sign in memory of Adrian Mellon, a bit faded but still legible, and someone else had left flowers—recently, too, because the peach and pink blossoms still had life to them. To her surprise, no one had vandalized the makeshift shrine. She picked her way gingerly down the bank, lined herself up to get a view of both the bridge and the stream beneath it, and set to work, motivated largely by spite, which she supposed was as good a driver as any. She worked for a while, she didn’t know how long, but looked up with a start at the sound of footsteps above her. Derry might have calmed down since the summer, but Jessie would still be grounded if her mother knew she was out alone. She heard the murmur of voices, the sound clarifying as they drew closer, two men, and from her vantage point on the bank, she could see the top of one man’s head over the side of the bridge. With the Kenduskeag to carry their voices, though, she heard their conversation clear as day. Crouching low and straining to listen, she fell into it headlong, fascinated, like Alice down the rabbit hole.
“Eds, hold up.”
“No, you hurry up. I want to get back to the hotel.”
“Fresh air and exercise are good for you, remember? Your physiotherapist said so.”
“I’m sorry, ‘fresh air?’ We’re in ragweed season, which isn’t good for me at all. You do remember that my lung was damaged, and scar tissue can by itself severely impact breathing capacity?”
“You took Claritin before we went out. You got it handled, dude. Besides this is important. Eddie, you have to promise not to laugh.”
“Easy: I’ve never laughed at a thing you’ve said in my life.” A pause. “Jesus, you called me Eddie: you’re serious. Drink some water.”
“You’d swap spit with me?”
“I’ll share my bottle with you, because you look like you’re about to pass out, but I’m not drinking out of it again until I wash it. Gross.”
“Now you really look shitty. I just got out of the hospital: I don’t want to visit you there. Come on.”
“No. Look at this, for fuck’s sake, because I’m never going to have the nerve again. Look, so I can throw myself off this bridge and have done with it.”
“Richie, you’re scaring me.”
“That ‘R and E?’” A noisy throat-clearing. “I did that. Twenty-seven years ago. Because I was monstrously in love with you. You know, the way a kid is. Never even thought of kissing you or anything, I mean, I thought about it a little, like, abstractly, but then I figured you’d hate it, on account of germs and also because I knew you were… too good… to be like me. I just wanted to, god, hold your hand and, like, be around you forever. Shit, this is terrible. I think a blood clot is forming in my brain. But then I saw you in the Jade and it hit me like a truck, I still wanted to be around you forever, and I wanted you to see me, to see me. God, that fortune cookie turned into a fucking eye. That’s what I was scared of, all along. Not werewolves or were-Pomeranians, or whatever the fuck. Not clowns. Of people knowing me for real, and realizing I wasn’t shit. That I was a fag. You know.” A scraping sound, someone scuffing the toe of their shoe. “Because I am.”
“Let’s get one thing straight—”
“I’m not! Ha ha, Edward Kaspbrak, master comedian.”
“Shut up. Don’t ever joke about killing yourself ever again.”
“When did I—”
“’So I can throw myself off this bridge?’ Which you said not five minutes ago? And in pretty poor fucking taste, too. Never, you asshole. Never, never, never. Do you understand?”
“Eddie, I promise. Jesus. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it. I was being a dumbass.”
“I just got you back. I can’t—Shit, I can’t lose you.”
“You like me.” A weepy falsetto. “You really like me.”
“Park the Voices for a sec, okay? As for… the other thing, I l-liked”—a cough—“I liked you when we were 13. If I lived through that, I can live through anything. Nothing’s going to change that now. You hear me? Nothing. We could live on separate coasts. We could live on separate planets. You’re my best friend.”
“And don’t forget, kid.” Gravel in the sound, deep and throaty. “We’ll always have Derry.”
Exasperated. “What did I just say?”
Another noisy throat-clearing, “Anyway, I… had to tell you. I, well, I promised I would. Before you woke up. If you woke up. And after all the shit we’ve been through, I wasn’t in the mood to test the universe. Please don’t hate me, ha ha. But really.”
“God, and you tell me I’m brave.” Wavering. ”Look, Rich…”
“What, is my shoelace untied? Your sense of humour is straight 50s, Eds.”
“It’s like I’m training a puppy. Look. That one was mine. Th-the RT.”
A silence, one that stretched and vibrated
“You had the hots for Rachel Tattersall?” A long, appreciative whistle. “Shit, Spaghetti, she was Boston money. She was so out of our league. I’m impressed.”
“It wasn’t easy”—words pushed through clenched teeth—“being in love with an idiot.”
“Didn’t she take valedictorian? Or at least sal—”
“R for Richie, for fuck’s sake! Richard Wentworth Tozier, because apparently I have no sense of self-preservation.”
“Are you—are you serious?”
“No, I’m fucking with you for chucks.”
“Eddie, don’t fuck with me. I’m fragile. I’m delicate. Sonia always said I was sens—Ow!”
“I’m serving Myra tomorrow.”
“You what? That hurt, by the way.”
“You’ll live. And despite the fact that you have no boundaries, you’ve very obviously not asked me about Myra, so I’m telling you. I mean, I’m not doing it, per se, but it’s happening tomorrow.”
“I’m processing a lot of information right now. The information superhighway is running straight through my skull.”
“Rachel Tattersall took salutatorian, because you took valedictorian, Richie, because you are smart, you are actually so goddamn smart, even if you don’t remember it or believe it. You’d declare Senior A Days and show up for class tripping on acid, and still kick ass, and Rachel Tattersall hated you for it, but I never did, because you were like some sort of superhero, Clark Kent if he did more drugs and read Psychonaut as obsessively as you did the summer after eleventh grade, and I am divorcing my wife, so that if you have as fucked up a sense of self-preservation as I do, and when that court shit is finished, if you want to try, you know, holding my hand and being around me forever, I can do it with a clean conscience.”
“Eddie, it wasn’t—I wasn’t trying to lure you out here and seduce you or anything. I just wanted to tell you the truth.”
“Well, guess what? The truth has consequences.”
“Would your conscience let me kiss you after Myra gets served, but before the divorce goes through? Because I can’t wait much longer. I was going to nut up and do it at Neibolt, but someone had to—Shit, no. Can’t joke about that. God, I think I’m going to yak.”
“Not in my fucking direction you aren’t. Here, have a ginger candy.”
“What haven’t you got in that backpack?”
“Yes, I want to kiss you after Myra gets served. God.”
“I’m going to say something fucking slushy. Just this once. So mark it down, okay?”
“I’m all ears.”
“You don’t have a fucked-up sense of self-preservation. You kept yourself alive the best way you knew how, you always knew what to do and I was always looking to you, and you can roast me until the cows come home, it’s music to my ears, but lay off yourself, okay?”
“Shit, Richie. That is slushy. But, okay. I’ll try. But don’t call yourself names.”
“When did I—”
“Would you call me a fag?”
“Jesus, no, I—Oh.”
“Yeah. Oh. Now can we please go back? I can feel the pollen in the air and I’m telling you it’s not good for me, and it’s not good for you, either.”
“Fine. I just had 20 years of emotions in 20 minutes: I need a nap. Did you really think I was like Superman?”
“Shut up. I said Clark Kent.”
“Ah, so it was the glasses.”
They walked on and Jessie came back to herself with a start, shivering violently, teeth chattering. She clambered up the bank, scrabbling at the weedy grass for balance, needing to see the two men, to know she hadn’t imagined them. She hadn’t, and stood at the end of the bridge, wiping her muddy, grass-stained, pencil-smudged hands on her jeans, and watched them go: a tall man with his arm slung around the shoulders of his companion. He paused to rifle through his friend’s backpack—his boyfriend’s? Would-be boyfriend’s?—and was swatted at for his trouble.
“What the fuck was that?” said Jessie, bewildered, and rubbed her forehead, realizing too late that she had smeared dirt there. She snapped a series of hurried photos with her phone, trying to capture proof of them, just for herself, and then took several more of the bridge itself. Then she collected her supplies from the bank and took herself to Starbucks, where she sat hunched in the corner until her back ached and the sun had gone down, and she had drawn the Kissing Bridge, the Kenduskeag, the flowers, and with two smudges set in the background, so that only she would ever know they were there, the lovers.
Stupid assignment. Just like her overachieving self to go and care about it.
Daniel liked libraries, snail mail, and face-to-face conversation—really, he was only comfortable texting with his sister and with Peter—and since that was hard to explain without sounding pretentious, he also liked keeping his thoughts to himself. It wasn’t that he begrudged other people their e-readers or Twitter accounts or Netflix binges (in fact, he secretly envied them their happiness and comfort, their ease, their sense of security), but that those sorts of things made him anxious. He liked his apartment. He liked his neighbourhood. Derry had its flaws, but at least it was familiar. He liked safe, reliable things and to be safe and reliable.
Except that he never felt safe, not really. He worked for a local taxi/delivery company, which was doing well, and he liked his boss and his boss liked him. He collected a regular wage, plus tips, and even had a bit of health insurance that they all paid into together. So when would he be able to relax? When could he feel safe? He didn’t bother anyone, and he didn’t want to be bothered either. Was that so much to ask?
Apparently it was, and so after what had happened to Adrian Mellon and Dan Hagarty, he’d broken it off with Peter. Peter had been upset, but more angry with Daniel than sad about it, if that made sense, and in some weird way, Daniel took comfort in that. Even if Peter never understood that Daniel had done it for him, to protect him, he could take comfort in the fact that Peter was angry, not heartbroken. Without him, Peter could leave Derry, go somewhere safer, better, and fall in love again.
Daniel was a little bit heartbroken. That morning, his phone had beeped and he had found one message. The sole text since he’d been the one to end it. <You are being an idiot. I love you. Call me.> Daniel had left the message unread, then left for work.
A little bit. Sitting alone in his car at a stoplight, he scoffed. He was a lot heartbroken and it was his own fault.
He picked up two guys at the Derry Town Home, frowning as he eyed up their luggage, skeptical as to whether those two massive rollers would fit in his trunk. He managed, but barely, leaning heavily on the rear door when the two guys weren’t looking, hoping he didn’t accidentally break the suitcases.
“Are you sure,” one of them, the taller one, was saying when Daniel hopped into the driver’s seat, “that you remembered everything?”
“Yes, I fucking remembered everything. I have a checklist. You only knew that Daylight Saving Time ended last weekend because your phone updated automatically. Did you get the shoes Bill forgot when he and Mike left? And your licence back from the rental place?”
“Yes, I did, thank you very much. And you’re the one that wanted to return the rental car yesterday, because you didn’t trust the key-drop.”
“Anything could happen between dropping it off and them checking it back in, and you’d be liable, so you’re welcome. It’s not my fault you left your licence in the cupholder.”
Daniel broke in. “Where to?” He adjusted his rear-view to maximize his view around the rollers.
“Airport, please,” said the tall one.
“Don’t take the highway.”
“Eddie-spaghetti, my main man, we will be on the road an extra forty minutes if we don’t take the highway.”
“It’s commuting hours on a Friday afternoon: literally one of the most dangerous times to be on the road. More delays, more aggressive drivers, increased accident risk—the numbers are clear on this.”
“Alright,” said the tall one, surrendering—easily, Daniel thought. “You convinced me. Slow way it is.”
Daniel pulled out, bypassed the turnoff for the highway, and headed for the scenic route. He certainly didn’t mind more time on the meter.
“I was thinking…” The short one, Eddie, was whispering.
Whispering always made Daniel’s ears prick up. He could ignore phone conversations, drunken shouting, even simple chitchat in the back, but whispering brought out the eavesdropper in him.
“I was thinking, you know how I said I wanted a couple weeks to sort out my shit in New York? Get things from the apartment and all.”
“Maybe I’ll skip it.”
“What, did I fucking stutter? Have you confused me with Bill?”
“Sweet thing, I would never confuse you with Bill. He’s far too well adjusted.”
Daniel caught sight of the tall one, Trashmouth, whatever that meant, miming a zipper across his lips. Were the two a couple? A sudden sweat dampened the underarms of his shirt. They were in a taxi with a stranger in Derry and they were being obvious—could they tell so easily that he was gay, and that’s why they were so open?
“There’s nothing there that I want,” said Eddie. “Nothing I need. It’s…”
He trailed off and Daniel couldn’t help a peek in the rear-view. He watched Eddie swallow, then got his eyes back on the road.
“After more than three months in Derry, in fucking Derry, I don’t want to waste any more time.”
Trashmouth was silent a moment. Then said, quietly, with great feeling, “I want to make out with you so hard for saying that, Eddie, but seriously? I mean, you don’t have to push yourself like that, not on my account. What about your clothes and your records and your books and your mortgage and your car registration and, fuck, I don’t fucking know, whatever the hell paperwork people who have their lives under control have. And your follow-up appointments, wound management and physio, and I know you have a doctor you like in—"
“He’ll refer me. And I don’t keep important documents at home. Do you? Oh my god, you probably keep your mortgage under your bed in a shoebox labelled ‘Important Shit.’ Certified true copies at home, Richie, in a fire-proof box, and originals in a safety deposit box at a reputable bank. My lawyer has the spare key. Hello! And Myra can sell anything she doesn’t want. She’ll get a good price for it, because she’ll be getting half.”
“You don’t owe her anything,” said Trashmouth, vehemently. “Um.” He dropped his voice again. “What I mean is: you don’t have to give her your stuff to try and, I don’t know, make it up to her. You gave each other 12 years. You’re both paid up, I think.”
“Thanks,” said Eddie, more softly than he'd spoken the rest of the trip.
Daniel felt his eyebrows go up. Watch the road, he thought. But for all Eddie’s initial nervousness, the back roads were quiet, smooth, and dry. Safe as houses.
“I want to do,” said Trashmouth, “whatever you want to do.”
“I don’t want to punish myself by going back there, doing what I’m ‘supposed to do.’ I want to go to Chicago.”
“Okay, second only to whatever you want to do, that’s actually what I want. Fuck New York forever.”
“You dumbass,” said Eddie, affectionately.
Daniel felt a terrible bolt of loneliness. You are being an idiot. I love you. Call me.
“But maybe it’ll be a disaster,” said Trashmouth, suddenly sombre. He sounded afraid. “Maybe you’ll hate it, maybe—”
“Maybe,” said Eddie. “I’m going to freak out a lot, like, multiple times per day, I’m telling you now.”
“I mean, same.”
“And we’re going to argue all the time and have sewer flashbacks and I know your cupboards will be a nightmare, but what’s new? The odds of it being better than the last 20 years without you… I’d have to sit down and do the math, but in my professional estimation—”
“As a risk analyst?”
“Yes, as a risk analyst. You are pretty much a sure thing.”
“Spaghetti, that was smooth as hell. Shit. You got tissue in that backpack?”
At the airport, Daniel hefted the rollers out of the trunk and Trashmouth batted Eddie away from handling the luggage. “You’re still recovering, dumbass. Hands off.”
On impulse, Daniel said, “Hey, good luck in Chicago,” and they both looked up at him like deer caught in headlights, as though it had never occurred to them that their driver might be listening in on their conversation.
“Uh, thanks,” said Eddie. “I’m going to see about my ticket, Rich.”
Trashmouth nodded, then turned to Daniel. “Card okay?”
“Thanks for the well-wishes,” he said.
“Oh,” said Daniel, blushing. “Well, I meant it.”
“I could tell.” He handed back the machine, slung his duffle bag over his shoulder, and walked away, though he looked back briefly at the door to call, “It’s not a mistake. Pay it forward, man.”
“What?” But he was gone. Daniel stared at the printout. The man had left him a $100 tip. I don’t want to waste any more time. Daniel took out his phone. He had no idea what to say, but started dialling anyway. Start with sorry, he thought. Tell him you love him. Go from there.
Derry was slipping into winter as into a much-needed sleep. The last rains of the autumn had cleared the streets of the dirt and dust of summer and the Kenduskeag was running clean. The days were shorter, but the darkness ran clean, too: clear nights that showed the stars and the first hints of early morning frost along the bare branches of the maples and the tamaracks. Children ran for the bus fearing nothing more than missing it. Parents let them run. And in spring it would be better still. In spring, after a winter’s rest, after healing. In spring, when green things grew and nothing hateful lay in wait underground.
A plane took off. It wasn’t a full flight and the passengers were quiet, a few chatting with each other and the rest reading, shielded by their headphones, or staring out the windows. In row 7, though, two men were fast asleep. In the aisle seat, one sat lolled to the side with his mouth hanging open, glasses balanced precariously on his knee, and the other had balled up his jacket and set it between him and the window he leaned on. Between them, each reaching beneath the armrest for the other, they held hands.
Derry let them go.