They were all supposed to stay together for the night but they didn’t.
Berger wasn’t surprised. Bad trips had a way of doing that and, besides, it was getting colder. Crissy left, shivering, even after John lent her his coat and a couple of the other girls went with her. Suzanne left with Walter. Jeanie wanted to stay, wanted to be with Claude, but she left with Hud and Dionne, looking alone and a little sad, when Shelia tugged Claude away from the rest of the Tribe and kissed him herself, without Berger having to push them together.
Watching her hands cup Claude’s face, Berger thought she might finally understand that something was wrong. Berger had been feeling it for days – Jeanie too, he knew – but he hadn’t been able to convince Shelia, not really, not until tonight. She had to come to it on her own. She always did, and he loved that about her, but it was too late to let her in on Berger’s plans. She hadn’t listened when he had tried to tell her. Now, he could just follow them back to her apartment and hope he was wrong.
He waited outside the building after Shelia and Claude disappeared inside. It was cold but not so bad really. He could wait. As it got lighter, he started asking the people leaving for work for change as they came and went. He had some money, all the Tribe could spare, but figured the extra couldn’t hurt.
He waited. Paced with his hands in his pockets to keep them warm. Hoped he was wrong and hoped he was right. He wondered if he should make some attempt to get Shelia in on it too or, just go, drag Claude away as soon as he came out. Shelia would be fine without them, of course she would, nothing could stop Shelia but Berger wasn’t sure about Claude, if Claude would leave with just him or if he needed her too.
Berger just knew he wouldn’t be fine without Claude. He had to save him. Somehow. Like this.
It was still too early when Berger spotted Claude coming out of the building. He walked down Shelia’s steps and stood staring down the street for a second. The coat he was wearing was too thin. He shivered, blew on his hands and rubbed them together. He looked lost. Shelia was nowhere to be seen. Berger knew Claude had snuck out. He wouldn’t have snuck out unless he had already decided, already planned to leave them. It hurt but, then, Berger had already made his mind up too. He wasn’t going to let Claude go.
Berger grabbed the bag he had packed for them surged forward. “Claude!”
Claude jerked and stared at him. He looked horrified. “Berger? What…What are you doing here, man?”
“Came to get you,” Berger said. He wrapped his fingers around Claude’s wrist deliberately. “Time to go, Claudio, man. We’ll be late. I got us a ride.”
“You…what?” Claude asked. His cheeks were already flushing. He had never done well in the cold, Berger remembered. He didn’t pull away though. Berger took that as a good sign.
“I got us a ride,” Berger repeated. He tugged Claude’s wrist gently. “Got us a ride. Got us packed. But we have to go now, man. It’s time to go.”
“I can’t,” Claude said. He looked miserable. Like it had all gone wrong. Berger knew he wasn’t supposed to be there. He knew what Claude would have done if he hadn’t been there. That’s why he had come to stand in his way.
“Yeah, you can,” Berger said. “It’s easy. We just have…”
“It’s not easy!” Claude said sharply. But he still didn’t pull away. Berger was waiting for him to pull away and he didn’t, hadn’t yet. “None of this is easy! I can’t go with you. I have to go…I have to…”
Claude stopped. There was no way in hell Berger was letting Claude go off to Vietnam to get himself shot and killed if he couldn’t even say it.
“You should, though,” Claude said. “You should go. You should get the hell out of here. Go to Canada or India or South America. Stay high, right?”
He smiled, sickly and sad. Berger wanted to hug him and he wanted to shake him. He tightened his grip on Claude’s wrist instead. He had never felt so sober in his life.
“I’m not going without you,” Berger said. Claude looked surprised so he added: “And if you’re going to get yourself ab-duct-ted I’ll just have to come along. I heard the weed’s pretty good in ‘Nam.”
Claude looked thunderstruck, then horrified. Berger decided to push his luck. He tugged Claude’s wrist, turned, and pulled him along by it.
“Come on,” he said over his shoulder. “I got us a ride, man, and we’re late.”
Claude said nothing but he didn’t pull away for Berger kept going. They got on the subway. It wasn’t busy yet but they stood close together in the doorway as if it was. Claude’s hands were shaking and when the subway shuddered to a halt at the stop closest to the abduction centre he jerked forward a little as if he wanted to get off. Berger’s fingers tightened around his wrist and pulled him back.
The doors closed. The subway sped on.
“I can’t,” Claude said. He turned to look at Berger. “I can’t just...I have to go.”
“You don’t,” Berger said. He let his fingers slid from Claude’s wrist. It was all or nothing, now. This was it. Otherwise he’d lose him just the same. “Please, Claude.”
Claude stared. He swallowed and swallowed again. He looked away and Berger felt like someone had just knocked the wind out of him. But then Claude grabbed his hand, looked him in the eye and nodded.
Berger beamed. Claude grinned back at him. The train skidded to a stop between stations and threw them into one another. Claude’s hand gripped Berger’s shoulder and Berger’s hand clamped down on Claude’s waist. Claude stared at Berger for a moment but then he started to laugh hard, like he meant it. He lost his balance when the train jerked to a start. Berger caught him but Claude didn’t let go even after he had righted himself and Berger held on to him.
It would be okay. They would ride the train to the end of the line, out of the city, into the suburbs. They would meet this guy who knew a guy that Berger knew and get into the back of a truck, huddle together behind some boxes. Claude wouldn’t go to Vietnam and if there was still doubt in his eyes, well, it wouldn’t matter as much once they crossed the border and he was safe. They would get the fuck out and go to Canada and everything would be okay.
Toronto was colder than New York. They walked up and down the snowy streets together trying to stay warm. Berger had only planned to get them across the border. He had not planned for what happened when they were dropped off at the nearest border town and had to fork over more than half their money for the ride.
They had splurged the first night, paid for their dinner at one of the town’s two restaurants. It was more than they could afford but Berger didn’t care. They had done it. Claude was safe and even Claude was giddy with it. It was too cold to sleep outside, and they didn’t have a park here, just unfriendly looking woods and farmers’ fields. They snuck into somebody’s barn and slept in the loft, curled up shivering together, pressed close under both their coats to try to keep warm. It was drafty though and Claude had always been thinner than Berger. His skin had been like ice all night.
They stayed a week, eating from garbage cans behind the market and sleeping in the barn. Claude started coughing, deep shuddering ones that got so bad at night the barn’s owner heard them and came poking around. He didn’t catch them but the natives weren’t friendly. They all looked like Claude’s parents to Berger, only younger and meaner. The good old boys didn’t think much of draft dodgers even here, though Berger noticed they weren’t hopping the border to fight themselves.
Berger decided the problem was the size of the town. They weren’t meant for small towns, he and Claude. They needed a big city. The highway out of town was cold and windswept. It took a couple hours but eventually a priest stopped. He was heading to another small town but it would put them in striking distance of Toronto. Berger would have preferred Montreal – he thought he would like the French – but Claude’s lips were blue and his eyes were glassy.
Toronto would do.
Berger put Claude in the front seat, closer to the heaters, and fended off the priest’s attempts to convert them – to Anglicanism, whatever that was – while Claude slept. The priest offered them a bed for the night but it was only early afternoon and Berger wanted to get them the hell out of small town Canada. The priest reluctantly dropped them off at the side of the highway and Berger stuck his thumb out again.
They reached the outskirts of Toronto just after dark. The city buses were cheap and eventually ended up at a trolley system and then a subway. They rode it until the system closed down for the night, stranding them on the border between the city and the suburbs. They broke into a school and got chased out by a custodian in the morning. They went back downtown and tried to find somewhere like the park, some people like the Tribe, but it was too cold. No one was out and the freezing air was making Claude cough until he couldn’t breathe.
They got back on the subway to get warm again but Claude couldn’t stop shivering. He huddled against Berger and just shook. Berger wrapped his arms around him, trying to warm him up, but two cops boarded the train and started looking at them too intently. They got off the train and started walking, looking for somewhere to spend the night.
They found a church. A big one. Big enough that no one would notice them but Berger couldn’t find a way in. All the windows seemed to be boarded up and the doors were locked tight. Berger made them circle it a few times. There had to be somewhere they could get in, he just didn’t know the tricks of this place yet.
Claude stumbled and fell. He didn’t get up again. He stayed on his knees, coughing. Berger pulled him up by his waist. His hands felt numb but he rubbed Claude’s chest and arms, trying to help him get warm.
“We gotta keep going, man,” Berger told him. Claude wasn’t standing on his own, not really. Berger held him up with one arm and curled over his hunched back. “S’too cold.”
“Cold,” Claude gasped when the coughing let up. His voice was hoarse and he was already folding over. Berger didn’t think he could keep them both standing for long. Claude turned, trying to burrow into him, pressed his nose against Berger’s neck. “Berger…”
“Okay,” Berger said. He was too tired to argue and Claude was just getting heavier. “Okay. Just for a minute. Just for a minute.”
One of the doorways was clear of snow. They huddled there together. Berger pulled Claude close, let him lie across his lap, covered his white face with his coat, tried to keep him off the icy pavement. He rubbed at Claude’s arms and chest with awkward clumsy hands and rested his head against the brick wall. They needed to get up again, find a place to stay and some food. Claude had stopped shaking. He should be okay to walk again.
They would get up in a minute. In just a minute.
A rough hand shook his shoulder, jerking back quickly when Berger jolted awake. He looked around blearily. A man in a thick dark coat was standing in front of them. He looked pissed.
“You’re on my doorstep,” he said. Berger stared at him, trying to make sense of the words, trying to make sense of the man. He didn’t look like a priest. The man made an impatient gesture. “Come on. Move along. This isn’t a soup kitchen.”
“Okay, okay,” Berger said. Everything felt sluggish and cold and his limbs didn’t want to work properly. “Chill out, man.”
The man made a disgusted noise and glared at them.
At home, Berger would have pushed the issue but here…he didn’t know what would happen if they got arrested, if it might mean Claude would be sent back to the States… He shook Claude gently, instead. It was easier to just move on, wait for the man to leave before trying to find a way in.
Claude didn’t budge.
“Claude, c’mon, man, we’ve got to go,” Berger shook him again, a little harder. “Time to get up.”
Claude didn’t move. Berger lifted his arm to get a better look at him. Claude’s lips… around his lips were blue. The rest of his face was dead white. Berger shook him again. “Claude.”
Claude’s eyelids fluttered but didn’t open. Berger froze, terrified, then grabbed two fistfuls of Claude’s shirt and shook him hard. His body was limp. “We gotta move, Claude. This isn’t funny.”
Claude’s body convulsed with coughing. His eyelids fluttered again but he didn’t wake. He couldn’t wake. Berger went to shake him again but a strong pair of hands made him stop. He jerked away.
“Woah,” the man said, holding his hands up. “It’s okay. Calm down. What’s he on?”
“He’s not – we’re not – ” Berger stammered, he clutched Claude close, and stared at the man warily. The man stared back.
“Look, I don’t care. I don’t give a shit. But I need to know what he’s on or I can’t help him. What is he on? What did you take?”
“I don’t even know where to get anything and we don’t have any money,” Berger spat out. “Spent all our money getting to this f-fucking frozen pit.”
The man’s eyes narrowed. “You’re American?”
Berger didn’t say anything. He was rocking now, rocking Claude. He had saved him from Vietnam. They were going to die here in the cold instead.
“You’re draft dodgers,” the man said flatly.
Berger didn’t look up. He smoothed Claude’s hair back, caressed his cheek. “Come on, Claude. Please. Wake up. Please, Claudio.”
The man inhaled sharply. Claude didn’t move. Berger closed his eyes. He’d die right here then, right here with Claude. It didn’t matter anymore.
“Give him to me.”
Berger looked up, surprised, and clutched Claude tighter to him. The man made a disgusted noise from the back of his throat and continued barking: “Give him to me, goddamnit. I’ll drive you to the hospital.”
“I can – ”
“You can’t. You’re too stiff. How long have you been out here? You’re hardly going to be able to walk. Give him to me. Now. Let’s go.”
“We don’t – ”
“I don’t give a fuck. He is going to freeze to death. Move!”
He took advantage of Berger’s momentary surprise to snatch Claude away and throw him over his shoulder. Berger shot up after them and nearly fell. His legs felt like they were on fire. He staggered after them anyway. He couldn’t let them take Claude.
The man was already at his car. He shifted Claude on his back, got his keys out and opened the door. Berger tried to hurry. The man put Claude in the back seat and shut the door. Berger tried to run. He only managed a few steps before his legs gave out and he fell into the slush and snow.
No. No, Claude…
Arms went around his waist, hauled him up. Berger twisted and the man ducked his flailing arms. “Hey. Hey! You’re fine! I was coming back for you! Jesus!” The man started moving before Berger found his feet, half dragging him. “Christ. ‘Chill, man.’ Fuck. Jesus fucking Christ. I’m never going to hear the end of this one. Here,” he pushed Berger against the car. “Get yourself in. I’ve got some blankets.”
Berger threw open the door as the man rummaged through his trunk. Claude was sprawled in the back seat, unmoving. Berger crawled in after him. He could pull him out. They could…they could…
“Prop his head and shoulders up. It will make it easier for him to breath,” the man ordered. Berger carefully pulled Claude against him. His head lolled against Berger’s shoulder. His breathing was shallow and sounded…wet. He felt so cold.
“That’s it. Here.” He handed Berger two thick blankets. “Wrap him up. Wrap yourself up too.”
He closed the door and got in the car. Berger pressed his hand against Claude’s chest. If they could just get him warm…
“They’ll get him warm at the hospital,” the man said. Berger looked up and saw him watching them in the rear view mirror. “It’ll take more than that though. He’s sick. How long have you been here?”
Berger cradled Claude against him, rubbed his chest. Claude coughed weakly. The coughing hurt, Berger could tell. “About a week.”
“When did he start coughing?”
“I dunno. Day after we got here,” Berger said. He glared back at the man. “We slept in a barn the first couple nights and it’s fucking cold here, okay?”
The man huffed a little laugh. Berger stared at him, surprised. “Yeah, it is. No draft though.”
There was a knowing look in his eyes, almost a smile. Berger didn’t say anything. He looked away, back at Claude’s still face.
The man cleared his throat. “So you slept in a barn. In the hay? Where else have you been sleeping? And how did you get up here?”
Berger looked at the man in the mirror again. He was watching them. Berger dug his fingers into Claude’s arm. He wouldn’t let them take Claude back. He wouldn’t. Might as well die here together instead of in Vietnam alone.
“Hey. Hey!” the man said sharply. Berger blinked. He looked pissed again. “I’m not going to rat you out. I don’t care . Your friend is sick. He can’t breathe properly. The doctors will have to know where he’s fucking been, what he’s fucking been up to, and what he’s fucking been on. The faster they know, the better and you’re not a great fucking conversationalist.” The car swerved sharply. It made Berger feel sick. “Tell me so I can tell them.”
“I won’t…I won’t tell you where we crossed,” Berger said. “Who brought us.”
The man made another annoyed sound. “No one’s going to bust you. They can’t and I. Don’t. Give. A. Shit. How did you get here? Where did you stay? What were you last on? When did you last eat?” Berger stared at him. The man barked: “Speak!”
“I…uh,” Berger fumbled. “We came up in someone’s truck. In the back.”
“What was in there with you?”
“Uh. Some boxes.”
The man snorted. “Fine. You slept in a barn. For how long?”
“About a week. I think.”
“A…a school. There was a stage in the gym. Some mats.”
“A church. No. We couldn’t find a way in tonight.”
“It’s not a church,” the man said. Berger blinked. The man waved it away. “Never mind. What did you last take and when did you take it?”
“Before we left. Weed. LSD. There could have been other stuff in there,” Berger rubbed a hand over his eyes. “I dunno for sure.”
“When did you last eat?” Berger wasn’t sure, but he thought the man’s voice wasn’t so harsh now.
“Okay. What else do you think you might have taken last?”
“Fuck, man. It could have been anything,” Berger said but he tried to answer because the man wouldn’t let him not answer. He asked questions and then demanded, short and sharp, until he had an answer. Berger’s mind was so numb, he answered just so the man would stop asking. It wasn’t until they hit the too bright lights of the hospital that he started thawing out enough to think. The heat was blasted so high that the man was sweating in his thick winter coat and Berger could feel his face again.
“Hey, man, we’re kinda broke,” Berger stammered. “Are they gonna…”
The man stopped the car abruptly. He looked angry again, maybe even angrier. “Out. Let’s go.”
Berger stared. He looked at Claude. He still felt cold and he hadn’t woken. “I didn’t mean – ”
The man made his impatient sound again, flung open his door, slammed it and flung open their door. “We’re here, you idiot. Let’s go. Let’s go! Give him to me!”
He had Claude out of the car and over his shoulder before Berger could react. Berger scrambled to keep up with him as he sprinted – flat out ran – to the emergency entrance. By the time Berger got inside everything had devolved into chaos. Two big men were putting Claude on a gurney and a woman in a white coat was hovering over him, using a stethoscope to listen to his chest. The man was talking rapidly to her from beside the stretcher even as more people in white coats descended.
Berger tried to go to Claude but the man grabbed his arm and redirected his motion, pulling him along as they started to wheel Claude away. Berger wanted to grab Claude’s hand, it was just lying there, but he couldn’t quite escape the man’s grasp and catch up with the stretcher. His hands caught Berger’s shoulders as Claude passed through a set of doors and held him back.
“What? No, let me go! Claude! Claude!” Berger struggled but it didn’t do him any good. The man’s grip was strong enough to leave bruises.
“You can’t go in there,” Berger tried to wiggle away and then…then he tried to hit the man. “Hey! Listen. Listen! Listen to me!”
Berger’s back hit a wall. He snarled, bared his teeth. The man shook him hard. “Your friend is sick. They’re trying to help him…Weren’t you listening?”
“Claude!” Berger yelled again.
The man slapped a hand over Berger’s mouth and pressed him into the wall so he couldn’t move. His face stung and the man’s furious eyes bore into him. “He can’t hear you. You little – Listen to me, okay? Your friend is very sick. He can’t breathe properly. The doctors are trying to help him. You need to let them help him. Do you understand me?”
Berger tried to speak. The man lifted his hand away warily. “I can’t leave him. Can’t let him out of my sight. He might…”
Berger felt like his throat was closing. He couldn’t speak. The man eased back and his feet touched the ground again. “He’s got hypothermia and a collapsed lung, probably from pneumonia. You can’t be in there with him. You need to let them take care of him.”
“He might disappear again,” Berger finished.
The man’s hands fell away entirely. Berger looked up. His expression was strange. He put a hand back on Berger’s shoulder, squeezed and almost smiled. “They’re sedating him and taking him to surgery to put a chest tube in. He’s not going anywhere for a while.”
Berger’s brain went blank with panic and he tried to rush the doors again. The man pulled him back before he could take more than a step. “No! I need to – ”
“You need to calm down,” the man said firmly. He turned his head, his arm still restraining Berger and said: “Is Franka in, Rick?”
Berger realized, suddenly, that they weren’t alone. The two orderlies were standing back and watching him warily. The man hadn’t let go of him. Panic wasn’t working, wasn’t getting him to Claude. He needed to get to Claude.
“And an exam room?”
Rick rolled his eyes. “Okay. Fine. But you owe me. 3C is open.”
“Thanks,” the man said, smiling. He looked at Berger and squeezed his shoulder again. His eyes weren’t angry anymore. “I think maybe you should get checked out too.”
“I’m fine,” Berger said. “Claude – ”
“Claude is being looked after. You can’t do anything more for Claude. You’re still shivering. Do you even realize that?”
“It’s fine, man. It’s cool,” Berger said. The man ignored him and pulled him along, unyielding. He was shaking, he realized. And freezing. “I just want to stay here. Stay close, you know?”
“Uh huh,” the man said, “Too late for that. They’ll be taking him upstairs soon, if they haven’t already. I’ll take you up once he’s settled…” The man pushed him into a curtained off area and looked him over critically. “‘It’s cool.’ Jesus. You must be freezing. You need to get out of those.”
“What?” Berger asked but the man was already pushing him onto the exam table and taking off his coat for him. Berger laughed. Okay. At least that made sense. “Hey, man, I’m happy to do whatever but – ”
“Oh fuck off,” the man said, annoyed. He stripped Berger of his shirt and then wrapped his own coat around him. “You’re probably hypothermic yourself.”
The curtain was pulled back. A short, severe looking blonde woman looked at them and said: “For goodness sake, Joshua!”
The man put his hands up and backed away. “It’s not my fault this time.”
“It is never your fault, if I am to listen to you. Now, what have you brought me this time?” she said before turning on Berger. “You. Out of those wet clothes at once. What do you think you are doing? Ten minutes in this wind chill and you have frostbite.”
He ended up in pale hospital clothing, dry and wrapped in a blanket. The man had disappeared when the doctor started shining a light in his eyes and asking him questions instead of the man. He returned with food. Donuts and buttery buns with sausage and cheese in them and too-sugary, lukewarm fruit juice.
Berger took a bite of a donut and then ate everything in front of him. He hadn’t realized how hungry he was until he started and only thought he should probably save some for Claude when it was gone. He wondered if he could convince the man to get some more.
“So?” the man was saying.
“He is remarkably well, given the condition you say his friend is in,” the doctor, Franka? said. “Borderline hypothermic. He is very lucky his hands and face are not frostbitten. Do you have a place to stay tonight?”
Berger blinked. “Uh…”
“He needs to stay warm for at least tonight, preferably longer. He is run down. He will be more susceptible to the cold and tonight will be worse than freezing. I can admit him,” she said. But she wasn’t talking to him anymore. Berger decided he didn’t like her much.
“I already called Danny,” the man said. It made the woman smile. The man cleared his throat. “Think we can go on up now that that’s done?”
“What was the child’s name again?”
“Bukowski, Claude,” the man said.
“Stay here. I will see if they have him stabilized,” she said and stalked off.
The man watched her go. Berger just stared at him, trying to figure out how to turn this to his advantage. He had to be careful, at least until Claude was okay.
The man turned back to him before Berger had figured out a plan. He looked at Berger and smiled as he plucked his chart from the tray and started to read it. Berger figured he’d better just wing it. He stretched and waggled his toes at the man. “So what’s it say? Are they planning to give me any of the good stuff, man?”
The man didn’t even look at him. “It says your name is George.”
“Aw, man, I don’t dig George,” Berger said, he hopped off the exam table. “You can call me Berger. Or Banana-Berger. Or Karma-Berger. Or…”
“I thought you said you weren’t on anything, ‘man’ because Franka can come back and take blood samples,” the man interrupted. He filled the chart shut and dropped it back onto the tray. He stuck out his hand. “Josh Keller.”
Berger looked at the hand and grinned dopily. “Really?”
The man just rolled his eyes and put his hand back in his pocket. “Yeah, yeah. Anti-establishment blah blah blah. If we could please move on. I’m Josh. You’re staying with me tonight.”
That would not do. No, no. “I’m not leaving Claude.”
“Claude, I suspect, is, or will soon be, in the ICU. We might get to see him for a minute but it’s late. Unless he’s dying, they’re going to kick us out and if you try to fight them, or sneak back in, they will call the cops and lock you up for the night.” Josh paused. “That is, if I don’t ask Franka to drug you and get Rick to help me haul you back to my car.”
“I’m not leaving Claude,” Berger repeated.
Josh made his irritated sound again. “Look, you little…”
The curtain snapped back again. The woman – Franka – glared at them. “They have him stabilized. He is in ICU. I will take you up.”
Berger went for the door. Josh grabbed him by his shirt and held him back. “We’re not keeping you from anything, are we?”
Franka smiled at him. “No. My shift is over. Rick caught me on the way out.”
“You don’t have to –”
“Oh no, the nurses are all sweet on you,” Franka said. “It does no good for you to stay here all night. We had enough of that with Danny. Come now.”
“I wasn’t – ” Josh started, letting go of Berger’s shirt. But Franka was already steaming down the hall and Berger stuck to her heels. She knew the way to Claude and that was the important thing. He knew Josh was following them because he was cursing but that didn’t matter. Maybe they could squabble about what to do with him. Maybe they would, all night if they wanted. It didn’t matter. He wasn’t going to leave Claude.
They went up in the elevator, eight floors, Berger noticed, so he could sneak back on his own. All the hallways looked the same but there were big, brightly coloured arrows on the walls spelling out where to go. That was helpful. Good. He wouldn’t have any trouble finding his way back. He just had to follow the purple arrows that said ICU in big white letters until they stopped, pointing to a set of silver doors.
Franka breezed through the doorway, waving her hand and telling them to stay there. Berger would have followed but Josh blocked his way. “Give her a minute. She’s got to talk the nurses into letting us in.”
Berger frowned. He could do that, he thought, but maybe it was better to let the doctor do it. There was no reason to piss these people off, not while they were still helping him. He might still need them to help him. But there was a large window beside the door Franka had just entered and Berger peered inside. If he could figure out the way around this place then maybe he wouldn’t need the help.
Franka stopped at the foot of a bed, exchanged a few words with the nurse and pulled a chart from the end. Berger looked up, looked at the man – boy – in the bed and the bottom fell out of the world. He jerked toward the door but hands grabbed him by the shoulders and stopped him.
“No,” Berger said, struggling. “No. Let me go. Let me go!”
“Woah! Easy,” Josh said. “Believe me, you don’t want to annoy the nurses. We’re on shaky ground here any way. They don’t have to let us in. We’re not family.”
“No. Claude is…Claude is…I’m – he’s part of my Tribe. He needs me. He…” Berger’s mouth struggled to catch up with his mind, with this body, which were insisting he move forward, get to Claude, help Claude…
Claude didn’t even look like himself. If Berger didn’t know him, every inch, every thought, every part of him, he wouldn’t have known it was Claude. He almost hadn’t.
Berger lurched forward again but Josh’s arm closed over his chest like a steel bar and kept him where he was.
“It’s okay,” Josh was saying. “It’s all right. I understand. Franka is here. She will find out how he is. She will tell you and, believe me, she won’t hide anything.”
Berger tried to break free again. “I need to – ”
“No. You need to let them help him. Listen,” Josh said. But Berger was done listening. Claude was right there. Claude needed him and he was right there. Claude…
“Stop. You need to listen to me,” Josh said and his grip on him tightened until Berger could hardly breathe. Josh waited until he stopped struggling. “Listen to me. You need to let the doctors help your friend. You can’t. You cannot help him. You need to let the people who can do what they need to. He is sick. He will die without their help. If Franka tells you that you can’t see him tonight then there is a reason for it and you will listen to her. Are we clear?”
Berger flailed mutinously. Josh’s grip got impossibly tighter and Berger felt light headed. “Do not think I won’t haul you out of here myself. Are we clear?”
Berger nodded. Josh relaxed his grip. Berger was breathing fast. He stepped away, turned to look at the man. Josh just looked back, wary. Berger wanted to push him away and run, grab Claude and take off. But they didn’t have anywhere to go – he wasn’t even wearing his own clothes – and Claude…Claude…
Hands closed on his shoulders and squeezed. Berger looked into the man’s – Josh’s – face. He didn’t look…Berger thought he didn’t look…
Berger thought he looked like he wished this wasn’t happening either.
“Look, I know you have no reason to believe me but I’m trying to help you,” Josh said. “But you’ve got to trust me. I know what I’m doing. I’ll take care of you.”
Berger shook his head. “Claude…”
“I’ll take care of Claude too,” Josh said. “Okay? But you’ve got to listen to me.”
The thing was Berger thought that the man might actually know what he was doing. He had charmed his way through things easily enough so far. And Berger hadn’t. Berger wasn’t. He wasn’t sure he could right now. He had never been so damn scared in his life. He had nearly lost his mind with terror when Claude’s still, white face was laying in lap, barely even breathing.
He hadn’t taken care of Claude. He’d let Claude nearly die.
He needed the help.
“Okay,” he heard himself say. His voice sounded hollow. “Okay.”
Josh nodded and patted Berger’s shoulder. Berger watched him carefully. His face was grim. He didn’t seem like he was taking any pleasure in this.
“Franka’s coming back,” Josh said, looking over Berger’s shoulder. Berger whipped his head around to try to see her. “There’s only one thing you need to do now: don’t freak out.”
Berger frowned at him and opened his mouth to say something but then Franka was there, looking at them critically. Josh smiled at her. Berger stood straighter, tried to make himself look taller. He wasn’t sure why. He just…He wanted to get to Claude.
“Are we ready?” Franka asked. She did not wait for them to answer. “Good. Follow me please.”
They walked through the door. Josh immediately veered away, jerking his thumb in the direction of the nurses’ station. “I’ll distract them. Take your time.”
Berger frowned. Franka put her hand on his arm. “No, this is good. They find him charming. For him, they will bend all the rules.”
Berger looked at her. “Aren’t you in charge?”
She snorted. “This is not my fiefdom. This is a favour.”
Berger didn’t know what that meant. He didn’t get these people and he didn’t like it here. He didn’t like the way everyone looked small and the same in their beds. He didn’t like that Claude was in one of them and it took him a moment to pick him out. He stopped, when he did, and stared. Franka had hooked her arm through his and pulled him along until they were at the foot of his bed. “There. Here is your friend.”
Berger stared. Claude didn’t look like himself. There was a tube in his throat and the sound of a machine. One in his chest and the sound of sucking. One taped to his hand that made no sound at all.
His eyes were taped shut and Berger didn’t understand why. He thought it was the worst thing he had ever seen. He couldn’t look away, couldn’t move. He didn’t know what to do. There was nothing to do. No words. No actions. Not when Claude was lying there, with a tube down his throat and his eyes taped shut and…and…
Berger wanted to run away.
There was a light touch on his arm. He tore his eyes away from Claude’s face and saw Franka looking at him. Her eyes didn’t seem so hard anymore. She squeezed his arm. “I will explain it all for you, yes?”
She did. Or tried to. Berger didn’t always understand what she was telling him. He kept looking at the tape on Claude’s eyes, waiting for her to say something about it, as she explained the tube in his chest – to drain the fluid from his lung – and the drugs and nutrients in the IVs, the catheter – which seemed worse than the chest tube somehow – the tube down his throat, the ventilator it was attached that was breathing for him.
“His condition is not so bad as they first thought,” she told him as he started to panic because Claude wasn’t breathing. He wasn’t breathing. There was something breathing for him. “I do not think he will be on it for long. We will keep him asleep while he is. That will be less frightening for him, I think. But there is no frostbite, this is good, and the hypothermia is only mild. The pneumonia, well, we will know soon how he will respond to the treatment.”
Berger stared. She hadn’t said anything about the tape. He wanted to ask but when he tried no words came out of his mouth. He tried again. This time he managed to clear his throat but there was still nothing. No words. And she was beginning to look at him strangely. He managed to raise a hand and gesture to Claude’s face.
Franka frowned. “I am sorry. I do not understand.”
Berger cleared his throat again. “He…His eyes. Why are they…?”
“Oh, that,” she shrugged. “It is to protect them and make sure they do not get too dry. It is not unusual but it is a bit old fashioned.” She looked at the chart again. “Ah, yes. It was Dr. Thorton. This makes sense then. It is nothing to worry about.”
Berger still stared. It wasn’t right. Claude didn’t look like Claude. He didn’t look alive. He looked like he was someone else. He could be someone else. Berger wanted him to be someone else.
“You can touch him,” Franka said. Berger stared at her. She looked back at him evenly. “People are afraid to. I do not understand this. It is what tells us we are not alone. So, it is fine for you to touch him.”
Berger stared at her, open mouthed. Finally, he spoke: “Will he…Can he feel it?”
“Perhaps. With the medication, it is unlikely. That is what is making him sleep. It is not naturBut I did not suggest it only for him,” she said.
Berger stared at her, then at Claude. Touching him would make it real. But it was already real. It was Claude, this was Claude, and looking at him, Berger felt like he couldn’t breathe either.
Berger took a step closer, and then another. His fingers skimmed the skin of Claude’s arm, then curled around it. He avoided his hand, with the tube sticking out of it. His skin didn’t feel so cold now but he looked worse up close. His skin wasn’t pale, it was grey. His eyelids were shiny, like there was gel on them, under the thin strips of tape, and it made the bruises under them look worse.
Berger lifted his hand, then stopped. He couldn’t hurt Claude anymore than he already had. He looked at Franka. “Can I…?”
This time, she understood. “Yes, but stay away from the tube, okay?”
Berger nodded. He hesitated but then his fingers caressed Claude’s forehead, drifted down the curve of his hairline. His skin was slightly damp. His hair didn’t feel the same. It was dull, lank.
He didn’t react to Berger’s touch. Not at all.
Berger raised his hand and stroked Claude’s hair again. And again. He thought he might be crying.
Josh appeared and, when Berger looked around, he realized Franka was gone. Josh looked grim.
“We have to go,” he said.
Berger shook his head. Josh put a hand on his arm. Berger tensed but he just left it there. He didn’t try to pull Berger away.
“We’ve been here an hour and a half,” Josh said and Berger stared at him. It could not have been that long. They just got here. “A doctor we don’t want to run into is coming to do his rounds in about 15 minutes.”
“I can’t leave him,” Berger said hoarsely. “I can’t.”
“If he catches us, he will kick us out and we won’t be able to get back in as easily tomorrow,” Josh told him. He put his arm out and a nurse stepped forward. She was middle-aged, with dark hair and laugh lines at the corner of her mouth and eyes. She smiled at Berger, just a little. “This is Celia. She’s a friend of mine. She’s going to take care of Claude tonight, while we’re not here. Angie is going to take over for her in the morning.”
“I want to stay,” Berger said. “Why can’t I just stay?”
Josh opened his mouth to speak but Celia beat him to it. “It’s a good thing you can’t stay. Dr. Woods is very strict. He only makes exceptions when he thinks a patient is going to die.” She smiled at Berger. “No one thinks Claude is going to die. But if Angie is going to convince the other nurses to let Josh sneak you in tomorrow, you can’t make a fuss tonight. They have to know you won’t get them in trouble.”
Berger stared at Claude’s face. Claude didn’t even know Berger was here but Berger would know that he hadn’t been.
“You’ll take good care of him?” Berger asked.
“Of course. I would even if Josh hadn’t asked me to,” she told him.
Berger nodded. He let his hand drift into Claude’s hair and then removed it. It felt cold and empty at his side. He shivered.
Josh tugged his sleeve gently. “C’mon.”
Berger let him pull him out of the room. He kept his eyes on Claude until the door swung shut behind him. As they did, Josh’s hand slid around his wrist and got a firmer hold of him, tugging Berger forward when he lurched back toward the doors. It was the only thing that stopped Berger from bolting back inside as soon as Claude was out of sight. Franka reappeared, walking to the elevator on his other side.
None of them spoke until the elevator doors closed. Berger pulled his wrist away from Josh’s grasp and backed into the corner. Josh watched him but didn’t say anything. As soon as he wasn’t looking anymore, Berger wiped at his eyes.
“Your parking,” Franka said as the numbers slid down. “Give it to me.”
Josh looked at her and shrugged. He smiled sheepishly. “Didn’t grab it.”
She snorted. “I will call them if they have not towed you away.”
The elevator doors opened. They looked at each other. Josh took a step forward.
“Danke,” he said.
Franka waved the thanks away but let him kiss her cheek. “Nichts zu danken. I am not in tomorrow.”
“Already arranged it with Celia,” Josh said. He put his hand on Berger’s arm again. Berger followed him, silent. They went one way and Franka went the other. Josh shook out his coat as they got close to the door. “Here.”
Berger shook his head.
Josh rolled his eyes. “Take it.”
“No, it’s not,” Josh said. He pushed it at Berger so he had to take it or let it fall. “I wasn’t borderline hypothermic earlier tonight. I’ll be fine. Put it on.”
Berger did. He clutched it tightly to him as the frigid air made his face and hands immediately start stinging but his feet dragged as he trudged toward the car. Leaving the hospital made him feel sick. Leaving Claude alone was wrong and he knew it and there was nothing he could do without making everything worse.
Berger didn’t say anything when he got in the car just hunkered down further in the coat, shaking. Josh looked at him for a moment but he didn’t say anything either, just turned the heat all the way up and pulled out of the parking lot. Berger leaned his head against the window and watched the hospital glide out of site. He tried to keep track of where they were going, tried to follow the street signs so he could find his way back but then Josh was shaking him awake and saying they were there.
Everything was blurry. Berger felt like he was drunk, except nothing was quite blurred enough, and everything was still too damn real, and he felt sick to his stomach because he didn’t even know where he was, he didn’t know how to get back to Claude.
He couldn’t believe he’d left Claude all alone.
The car door swung open and Berger shrank back from the cold. Josh stood there, highlighted from behind by the street lamp. It was snowing again, the street lamps gave everything a strange orange glow, even Josh’s face. Berger couldn’t make sense of his expression.
“Oh yeah. You’ve hit the wall,” Josh said. He pulled Berger out of the car and put his arm around his waist when he swayed. Berger panicked, for a moment, but it wasn’t enough to cut through his exhaustion. It just made him feel worse. “C’mon. We’re almost there.”
They shuffled toward the house. Josh moved fast and he dragged Berger along with him. His teeth started chattering as soon as the car door wasn’t there to block the wind anymore and the cold air hurt Berger’s hands and face. It made his eyes water.
The front door swung open as they hit the steps. Berger squinted at the sudden brightness. Another man stepped into the light and then rushed down to meet them. He grabbed Berger’s arm to steady him. Berger blinked at him. He had shaggy dark hair and very blue eyes. He smiled at Berger’s bemused stare, all too-white teeth and kindness, and ushered them both inside.
They talked around him, Josh and this new person, maybe even to him, but Berger was too tired to care. He just wanted to sleep. He just wanted to go back to Claude. He didn’t want to be here . He didn’t want either of them to be here. They should have never left New York.
But then Claude…Claude would have left them. Left him.
Berger blinked against sudden tears. He hadn’t done Claude any good after all, making Claude leave with him.
Josh eventually stopped talking and fended off the other man’s worried looks. He showed him to the guest room and where the washroom was. Then he left Berger alone.
There were clean pajamas laid out on the bed for him and a towel. The lamp on the bedside table had been left on. He could hear voices outside in the hallway, low and worried. He didn’t care. He wasn’t going to make sense of it, not tonight. For tonight, he’d stay here. Then tomorrow, he would get back to Claude. He shouldn’t have let himself get taken away in the first place. He wouldn’t again.
He climbed into bed and turned toward the window. It was still snowing and the wind seemed to toss the snowflakes in every direction at once. Berger closed his eyes against it, pulled a pillow over his head to block out the creaks of the house and worried murmurs of the people in it, and waited for dawn.