Chapter Eight

Posted: October 20, 2013 in Chapters, Love in the ZA
Tags: , ,

Day Six

     “God I hate hospitals.”

     The older woman beside her gave her an odd look, and Maddie realized she’d spoken aloud.

     “Nobody enjoys them, dear,” the woman said, reaching across to punch the number for her floor. As the elevator lurched beneath their feet Maddie felt her stomach roll and reached out a hand to steady herself. “Are you all right?”

     Maddie smiled tightly. “I hate elevators too.” They never failed to make her sick, and that was the last thing she needed right now. Should have taken the stairs.

     She almost hadn’t come, despite her promise to her mother, but Grace had called bright and early to tell her that Holly was working and wouldn’t be in to visit Jack until the evening. “Marion wants to see you,” she’d assured Maddie. “She wants you there. Please don’t disappoint her, Madelyn. Not today.”

     The elevator came to a stop and more people piled in. One of them was coughing vigorously into a handkerchief; Maddie grimaced and moved closer to the wall. She’d spent half the night listening to her neighbor hack away through the bedroom wall, hoping like hell that their air systems weren’t connected. She couldn’t afford to get sick; she was due back at work in a few days, after her “honeymoon”, and she had no more time banked. She could have canceled her vacation time and gone back early – probably should have, given how she’d chosen to spend her week – but who wanted to deal with explaining that?

     Oh no, I didn’t get married; the groom decided to fuck the maid of honor and the photographer tried to eat half the wedding party. How was your weekend?

     Another stop; Maddie stepped out gratefully. Taking a deep breath, she headed for what she assumed was the visitor’s desk, positioned as it was beside the glass door that led to ICU.

     The man behind the desk was reading; he barely glanced up as she approached. “Name?” he asked before she could open her mouth.

     “Um. My name?”

     He rolled his eyes. “The patient’s.”

     “Oh. Jack.” He waited, and she blushed. “Jack Cooper.”

     “And your name?”

     “Madelyn Striker.”

     He flipped some pages in a binder, made a note and handed her a badge. “2 hours and then you have to leave. Wash your hands at the sink outside the room first.”

     “Thanks.” Clipping the badge to her purse, she turned to go, then turned back. “Uh, which room?”

     “526.” He pointed off to her left. “Go all the way down and turn, rooms are on the left.”

     She glanced through the glass walls behind him. “I thought he was in intensive care.”

     “He was; now he’s not.” He shrugged and picked up his book. “Don’t forget to wash your hands.”

     Dismissed, Maddie set off down the hall, chewing her lip. Jack was out of ICU; did that mean he was doing better? Or worse? Her mother hadn’t mentioned the move. She’d braced herself to see him with tubes and wires, but now she didn’t know what to expect.

     526. She hesitated at the door, which was partially open; she could hear someone talking, a low murmur that would pause, as if waiting for a response, then continue. She only heard the one voice; whatever state he was in, Jack evidently wasn’t talking back.

     Just what you always wanted, Marion – the chance to talk and talk and talk, and no one to argue back.

     Maddie flinched at the uncharitable thought. Now is not the time to be a bitch, she told herself. Steeling her nerves, she knocked softly and stepped in.

     “Marion?” she called softly. The woman sitting beside the bed turned to face her. As she took in the sight of her once-future-mother-in-law and her former fiancé, Maddie reeled back in shock.

     Jack looked terrible, which was unsurprising. His white face seemed to blend right into the white bedding and white gown; there was no color anywhere, not even in his hair – the formerly shiny blonde curls were now a dull, ashy gray. A multitude of wires led to machines that appeared to be tracking his heart rate, breathing and other vitals she couldn’t identify. She’d anticipated worse, a breathing tube or something, so his appearance wasn’t too shocking.

     But his mother…Oh Marion.

     Maddie couldn’t recall ever seeing Jack’s mother with anything other than carefully styled hair, a full face of make-up and impeccable clothes. This was a woman who advised getting out of bed an hour before one’s husband, brushing one’s teeth, curling one’s hair and putting on foundation and lip gloss, then getting back in. “A man should always wake up to the best version of his wife,” she’d told Maddie. In the years before he died, John Cooper had never seen his wife’s real face.

     That woman was nowhere near this room; the haggard creature clutching Jack’s hand looked like she should be in a hospital herself. Maddie wasn’t sure how much weight Marion had lost in the week since she’d seen her, but it was surely in the double digits. The curls her son had inherited hung limp and greasy; the bags under her eyes were so dark she looked as though she’d been punched. And her clothes.

     “Are you wearing scrubs?!” Maddie immediately regretted the question and braced for impact, but Marion merely glanced down at her outfit with obvious disinterest and looked back up, her expression weary.

     “He threw up on me a few days ago and I didn’t want to go all the way home to change. A nurse gave me these. Is that what they are – scrubs?”

     Maddie crossed the room slowly, stopping at the foot of Jack’s bed. “A few days ago? Marion, have you been home at all? How long have you been here?”

     Marion shrugged. “I don’t know, four days? Five? I called your mother. She said you’d come.”

     Maddie thought back to all the missed calls on her cell and winced. She’d been wallowing, and Marion had been here.

     “Isn’t there anyone who can give you a break?” she asked gently.

     “Who? I’m all he has now.” Maddie started to speak, but the other woman cut her off. “Don’t even mention that girl’s name. She’s been here; I won’t leave her alone with him.” She looked at Maddie with steel in her eyes. “She’s an idiot.”

     Maddie considered, then nodded. She placed a hand on Jack’s foot and asked, “How is he?”

     “Better.” Marion smiled slightly. “They moved him out of ICU a little while ago. He’s stable, and he was talking a bit this morning.” The smile vanished. “Nothing that made much sense, but the doctors say it’s a start.”

     “Good. That’s good.” She gave the foot a squeeze before letting her hand fall away. “Listen, why don’t you go downstairs and get something to eat? I can sit with him.”

     “I’m not hungry,” the older woman said immediately.

     “When’s the last time you ate?” Maddie demanded.

     Marion bit her lip, clearly trying to remember, then gave Maddie a sheepish look. “It’s been…awhile.” She glanced back at her son. “He might wake up. If I’m not here-”

     “I will be,” Maddie cut in. “I’ll tell him.” She saw the uncertainty in Marion’s eyes. “I won’t upset him, Marion. I promise.”

     Slowly, Marion released her son’s hand and rose. She waited until Maddie was seated in the chair before she spoke again.

     “You know I’m not happy about what he did, don’t you?”

     Maddie looked at her for a long time before nodding. “Yeah. I do.”

     “Good.” She leaned down, her voice urgent. “He’s a good boy, Madelyn. We both know that. This – thing – whatever he was doing, it’s done now. You two will fix this. You’ll see.” Straightening, she reached out and tucked a strand of hair behind Maddie’s ear. “That girl is just some slut. You’re his wife.”

     Maddie resisted the instinctive urge to defend her former best friend. She reminded herself that she wasn’t expected to stick up for Holly, now or ever again. Instead she gave Marion a small smile and waved toward the door. “Go. We’ll be fine.”

     With one last uncertain look at Jack’s face, she went, and the two of them were alone.

     Sighing, Maddie sat back and turned her gaze out the window. She listened to the quiet, rhythmic beep of the heart monitor, coupled with Jack’s slow snoring, and thought about what Marion had said.

     Would they fix things? Did she even want to? She’d spent the last week alternating between never wanting to see Jack again and hoping she did so she could slap his face, scream at him, force him to see the pain he’d caused her. Forgiveness hadn’t entered her mind. He’d fucked her best friend, on their wedding day. She doubted that had been the first time. She hated him for what he’d done, for how he’d made her feel.

     Being here now, though…her anger was still there, but it has been pushed back, crowded out by concern and fear. He was doing better, but that didn’t mean he was fine. Things could change again. Bill. She shied away from the thought, but it persisted. He could die.

     She closed her eyes against the tears that were suddenly ready to spill. She’d been with this man for six years, had known him even longer. A week ago she’d been looking forward to their life together, to growing old at his side. If he died it was all gone, irrevocably. If he survived…well. Maybe Marion was right. Maybe-

     A sound from the bed interrupted her thoughts. Her eyes flew open; she saw that his were open as well, wide and full of fear.

     “Jack?” She leaned forward and tried to take his hand; he shook her off, agitated, fingers clutching convulsively at the sheets as he looked wildly around the room.

     “Where is she?” His voice sounded hoarse, a pitiful shadow of the one she knew so well.

     “It’s okay. She’ll be right back.”

     His eyes continued to scan, unfocused and frantic. His legs moved beneath the blankets, as though he meant to get up. “Where is she? Where is she?”

     The beep of the monitor became louder, faster. She tried again to touch him, and again he shrank away.

     “She went to get something to eat. She’ll be back in a minute, it’ll be okay.”

     “No.” He shook his head back and forth against the pillow, grimacing.

     “She had to, Jack, she’s been sitting here for days. She-”

     His hand whipped out and grasped her wrist, hard. He brought his gaze to her face, and she shuddered. He wasn’t looking at her; he was looking through her. He doesn’t recognize me.

     “Not my mother,” he said, his tone urgent. “Not her. Holly. Where is she?”

     Despair washed over her in a wave. Please don’t do this to me. “Jack, I-”

     “Where is she?!” He was yelling now, or as close as he could come to it, and his grip on her wrist tightened.

     “Please, Jack, you’re hurting me.” He squeezed again, and she cried out.

     “I need Holly. Where is she? She should be here.” He resumed scanning the room. “Holly? Holly! HOLLY!”

     The pain in her arm was becoming unbearable. As the monitor beeped faster and faster, louder and louder, and Jack’s voice rose to a rasping unhinged scream, she started to sob.

     Blinded by tears, she reached out with her free hand and groped wildly at the blankets, searching. Jack began to let loose a wordless keening; thrashing, he yanked on her wrist and pulled her out of the chair. Dimly she realized she was screaming his name, but her focus remained on the bed. It has to be here.

     She felt something in her wrist snap. In the same moment, she found what she was looking for. She pressed the “call” button.

     The door flew open. A nurse entered, took one look at the scene before her and turned back. “Code Gray!” she yelled into the hallway. “Bring benzo! Code Gray!”

     The room flooded with people, among them two of the largest men Maddie had ever seen. They moved to either side of the bed and applied their weight to Jack’s shoulders; a third man worked to get him to release Maddie’s wrist. Someone fiddled with Jack’s IV and said, “He should calm down in a few seconds, honey, hold on.”

     But he didn’t. They fiddled again, and he continued to thrash; his screams died away but his mouth remained a frozen O as he struggled against the men holding him down. The one working to free Maddie muttered “Fuck this”, reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a needle. Thumbing off the protective tip, he brought it up and back down in a quick motion, sinking it deep into Jack’s forearm.

     Jack let go.

     Cradling her wrist, still sobbing, Maddie moved to the foot of the bed and back, until she felt the thump of the wall behind her. She watched as Jack reached over and snapped the needle off in his arm. He began to shake, so violently that the bed shook with him.

     “What did you give him?” the nurse demanded, reaching out to grip Jack’s feet before he could flop his legs, along with the rest of him, out and on to the floor.

     “Nothing! It was just a spare!” The man stood frozen. “There was nothing in it, I swear!”

     “What the hell is going on?!”

     They all turned. Marion stood in the doorway, a cup of cafeteria coffee clutched in her hand. She started in horror at her son, writhing on the bed where she’d left him sleeping peacefully, then looked at Maddie. “What did you do?”

     There’s the woman I know. “I didn’t-”

     “Get out!” The other woman’s face was twisted with fury. The cup dropped from her hand unnoticed, coffee splattering. She turned back toward her son, and her face crumpled. “Oh Jack!” she wailed.

     Maddie stood for a moment, watching the woman who was to be her mother-in-law weep helplessly before the man who would have been her husband, and felt that she was seeing her life go up in smoke. She knew, with a certainty she couldn’t explain, that she would never see either of them again.

     She was nearly to the door when a roar behind her stopped her in her tracks.


     Don’t turn around. Keep going. Don’t turn around!

     Her body disobeyed her mind. She turned.

     He was sitting up in the bed; the men to either side had fallen back, terror clear on their faces. His eyes were blue fires in his pale face, burning into hers. His lips peeled back into a ghastly grin, twisting his face until it was unrecognizable.

     That’s not Jack, she thought, and he seemed to hear it. The grin grew impossibly wider; she saw, with a sick roll of her stomach, as the corners of his mouth split under the pressure and blood began to trickle down his chin. Oh please, please God, that’s not Jack.

     He held her gaze for a long moment, smiling that grisly, bloody smile. Then he spoke, slowly, carefully, in a voice she’d never heard before and would remember all her life.

     “I. Never. Loved. You.”

     She stumbled back, and as she did he collapsed. His body shook, feet drumming the end of the bed so hard the whole thing lurched and rocked. There was a guttural scream; more blood began to pulse out of his mouth. He started to choke.

     His tongue. He just bit off his fucking tongue.

     Her last glimpse was of Marion, on her knees in a puddle of coffee, tearing her hair as she screamed.

     Maddie turned and ran.

  1. Nanette says:

    Wow, that left my head shaking to clear out the screaming. I felt like I was in that room!

  2. mxcoot says:

    Wow felt Maddie’s pain. My head is still spinning. Gave me real honest to goodness goosebumps.

  3. Thea says:

    Damn. As the cool kids say, shit just got real!

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