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Authors: Eli Easton

Before I Wake

BOOK: Before I Wake
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Before I Wake

by Eli Easton

Thanks to my beta reader, Kate Rothwell, for her help and encouragement, and to my husband for his constant support.



They wheeled Michael into Ward C at midnight on November first. I started my shift at eleven and I looked forward to midnight. That’s when night really began at St. Mercy Hospital. By then the previous shift had cleared out, and things got nice and quiet. I liked it like that, going from room to room to check on the patients, make sure they were sleeping. I answered requests for pain meds or trips to the bathroom. It was real peaceful most nights.

From the moment I laid eyes on Michael, I knew he was no ordinary patient. His hair was a shock of black against skin so pale it looked like he had no blood at all, or it would have if not for the bruising. His lips and nose were swollen double, and blood was crusted around his nostrils. His eyes were closed.

They put him in room C14 with old Mr. Howser. I followed the gurney and watched two orderlies lift Michael and put him in the bed.

The ward nurse, Sharon, took his vitals and wrote on his chart. She adjusted the ventilator that helped him breathe. Michael looked small lying in that bed. His eyes were shut with such weight, almost gummy or something, like they weren’t designed to open. There was a bandage around his head and more under his gown. Sharon flipped through the report and shook her head in disgust.

We didn’t talk in front of patients, not even sleeping ones, so I waited until we left the room.

“What happened to him?” I asked.

“Hate crime.” Sharon shook her head more furiously now. “Why can’t we just box all those Nazi mother-fuckers up and send ‘em to Mars?”

Sharon said things like that. I was used to it.

“Is he going to wake up?”

“Well, I guess that’s up to him and God. Poor boy’s got three broken ribs, a ruptured spleen, a punctured lung, two sprained fingers, and bleeding on the brain. He was in surgery for six hours. They don’t know if there’s brain damage or not.”

“Why do you suppose someone hated him that much?”

Sharon gave me a funny look. “Some people just can’t stand anyone being different, Jonesy.”

“I’m different.”

“I know, Jonesy. I know.”

That night I peeked in on Michael a lot, but he never woke up. I tried to imagine what his face was like under all the swelling. For some reason, maybe it was how shapely his arms were; I thought he would look real handsome. I hoped he would heal quickly and I told him so.


My shift was eleven to seven. Michael’s parents came just as I was about to leave. When I saw them walk into Michael’s room, I guess I was curious. I took some fresh ice and a towel to Mr. Howser.

Michael parents were small and they looked old, too old to have a son like Michael. They were pinched up like they were chewing lemons. His father held a Bible and his mother a handkerchief and they prayed over his bed.

It was not a nice prayer. It was all about how Michael had sinned and the Lord had seen fit to punish him. I hoped that Michael was so deep asleep he didn’t hear any of it, it made me so mad.

I don’t care what someone has done, you don’t say things like that to them when they’re broken in pieces and fighting to live, especially not if they’re your son.

My Aunt Dee would never have done something like that, no matter how bad I’d been, and I wasn’t even her own child.

They left and I went over to Michael. I leaned over and whispered in his ear.

“A truckload of bullshit,” I said. “Pardon my French. Don’t you listen to them, Michael. All you need to do is get well, okay? My name’s Jonesy and I’ll be right here, so don’t you worry about anything.”

I never said stuff like that to patients, but it wasn’t right when he couldn’t even defend himself.


It was getting cold out, so I spent the morning wrapping the rose bushes in chicken wire and stuffing them with straw to keep them from freezing over winter. There were thirty rose bushes around the house and in the garden. They were Aunt Dee’s favorites and I took extra special care of them. I filled all the bird houses with sunflower seeds and put out kibble for the neighborhood cats. This time of year there wasn’t much to do in the garden, so after I petted the cats, I went inside and got down my books from nursing school. One said you should talk to coma patients and touch them, let them know you’re there.

I had a cat once. Her named was Bethany. She died when I was thirteen and I cried for so long, my Aunt Dee swore she’d never let me get a pet again cause she couldn’t stand to see me unhappy. Now I just feed the neighborhood cats and that’s okay because I can pet them, but I know they’re not mine. So I don’t think I’d be too sad if they didn’t show up one day.

I still miss Aunt Dee, and she died five years ago. She was old and she told me she was ready to go and that I shouldn’t be sad. It still hurts.

I usually sleep from three in the afternoon till ten. But that day it was hard to get to sleep because I was thinking about Michael. I decided to go in early see him. I got to work at ten o’clock.

Michael was sleeping. The sound of the machine that helped him breathe was very relaxing. There was still dried blood around his nose. It made him look dead so I carefully washed it off.

“How are you today, Michael?” I asked him as I worked. “Your nose is pretty swollen. I’ll try to be gentle.”

“He can’t hear you,” Mr. Howser said loudly. “He’s in a coma.”

Cats and birds and other animals couldn’t understand me either, but that didn’t mean they didn’t like hearing your voice. I didn’t tell that to Mr. Howser. Michael looked less scary once I’d gotten all the blood off.

Sharon pulled me aside when she came in. Her round, brown face was very serious.

“Jonesy, you know that patient in C14, Michael Havers?”


Her lips pinched together. “They’re taking him off the ventilator at six a.m. The chaplain’s coming. I thought you might not want to be here. You can go home early if you want.”

“What? Why would they do that? He’s going to get better!”

Sharon shook her head in that disgusted way of hers. “His parents signed some papers saying we couldn’t use life support. And he’s not on their insurance. He doesn’t appear to have any insurance at all.”

I pulled away from her and ran to the bathroom. I barely made it to the toilet before I threw up.

No insurance. No life support.

They were going to kill him. They were going to kill Michael.

I knew he could live if they just gave him time. But they weren’t going to do that, those parents of his that should be sent to Mars. And if the family said no, the hospital had to do it, I guess, had to take him off the ventilator.

I was so upset; I could hardly work that night. I made my usual rounds, but every chance I had I’d go sit with Michael. He didn’t have anyone else. I didn’t either, really, but at least I had my work and my body wasn’t broken. I could take care of myself. He couldn’t. I wished I knew a lot of fancy laws or had the right thing to say to stop this from happening. But if the hospital was behind it, what could I do?

“I want to be there,” I told Sharon, “when they turn off the machine.”

“Oh, Jonesy!” She hugged me. “I don’t think you should do that, honey. You’re already so upset. Maybe it’s his time. Maybe Jesus is waiting for him with open arms and he needs to go.”

“It’s not his time,” I said, in what Aunt Dee called my stubborn voice. “And there’s nobody else to hold his hand.”

Sharon’s face scrunched up then and she waved a hand in front of it as if trying to air it out. She just shook her head as if she couldn’t speak and walked away. But I figured it would be okay for me to be there, because Sharon was almost as sad as I was.

The chaplain was there at ten ‘til six that morning. He was out in the hall talking to the doctor so I went in and stood beside Michael’s bed and held his hand. I leaned down to whisper in his ear.

“You can do this, Michael. They’re going to turn off the machine. All you have to do is breathe. I’ll be right here with you, okay? When I squeeze your hand, you breathe in. And when I let it go, you breathe out. That’s all you need to do. I’m right here to help you.”

The doctor came in with a couple of people in suits. My face was scrunched up tight trying to keep everything inside. I wanted to stop them, yell at them, ask what the hell gave them the right. But I was only a nurse’s aide and they were doctors and lawyers and a chaplain and all that. I thought I might throw up again.

I started squeezing Michael’s hand --
squeeze, release, squeeze, release
-- in time to the sound of the ventilator, letting Michael feel the rhythm. The chaplain said a prayer, which I didn’t like either, because it was all about Michael going on to God. He shouldn’t make Michael think that’s what he was supposed to do. So I just kept squeezing, hoping Michael could tell that he didn’t have to go.

The doctor looked at his watch and then turned off the machine. I kept squeezing.

Sharon took the tube out of Michael’s throat. The doctor stared at his watch.

It seemed like a long time that Michael didn’t breathe. I was squeezing his hand so hard, squeezing and squeezing. And just when I thought he was gone, he took a soft breath.

Everyone stood frozen and waited.
Squeeze, release, squeeze, release,

Michael was breathing on his own.


Aunt Dee always told me that I was like an Oreo cookie. I had my dad on the outside and my mom on the inside.

My dad was a famous boxer. He was a heavyweight, big and mean-looking, and he won a lot of fights. There’s a box in the attic with his trophies in it.

My mom was small, blonde, and real pretty. Aunt Dee said she had a tender heart. She fell in love with my dad and that was that.

My mom loved my dad so much that when he died in the ring, it broke her heart. She got cancer a few months later and passed real quick. Aunt Dee said sometimes cancer is the way a broken heart ‘manifests.’ It’s the body’s way of doing what the heart wants when the heart doesn’t want to keep living anymore.

I was five the year they died and I came to live with Aunt Dee. I remember them, but sometimes it’s hard to know what are real memories and what are things I made up from the photos in the photo album.

I look a lot like my dad’s pictures, except my nose was never broken. I’m as big as a house like he was and I scare people sometimes. Like if I’m walking in town at night, just thinking about things, and I get too close to someone, they look all nervous.

I could never box like Dad did. I don’t like the idea of hurting anyone. It would make me feel real bad because life is hard enough, you know?


I guess it was a problem for the hospital that Michael didn’t die, because there was no one to pay his bills. The director moved him to the smallest room on our floor, one we used for storage. There were no windows.

I found some nice posters of winter scenes at a Hallmark store and I put them on the wall.

“Look, you can pretend this is your view,” I told Michael. “It’s going to be Thanksgiving soon, and maybe we’ll get snow. I like snow.”

When I got off work at seven a.m., I went to Michael’s room and stayed with him until after lunch, when I had to go home and sleep. It was winter anyway, so there wasn’t any work to do in the garden. And it bothered me that no one came to see Michael. I read to him. I like things that make me laugh, and so I read him the funny pages and a couple of joke books I had. I held his hand because the nursing book told me to, and Sharon said it might be comforting to him.

I took my time washing Michael. There’s a way you roll an unconscious patient in bed so you can change their gown during the bed bath and not get everything too wet. First I would roll him onto his right side and undo the ties on the back of his gown and remove his adult diaper. I used a nice warm, soapy washcloth and washed his back in firm circles. That helps blood circulate under the skin and keeps him from getting bed sores. Plus, I thought it must feel nice. I washed all over his back, his behind, legs and arms, feet and hands. I checked his stomach tube.

I paid a lot of attention to his feet, massaging them. He wasn’t using them, and you don’t want them to get too tender. Plus I figured maybe his feet were ticklish and being touched there would make him laugh. But he never did.

When he was all clean and dry on that side, I put lotion on, massaging the skin and muscles. I pretended he liked the massage, even though he never moved or anything. I’d talk to him the whole while; tell him about the other patients on the floor, about the nurses and doctors and what it was like outside that day, stuff like that.

When I was done I turned him onto his back again and removed his gown. I covered him up with a sheet so he wasn’t just hanging out there. Then I washed and massaged his front side and put on a fresh diaper and gown.

I gave him a bed bath every day. Sometimes, if I got bored reading, I’d give him a light massage later on, on his hands and legs with lotion, or sometimes propping him up and doing his back. I knew when you were sick it felt nice, and I thought he appreciated it, even if he didn’t move.


One night close to Christmas, I came back from going home for a nap and shower, and I saw someone leaving Michael’s room. It was a young guy with red hair.

“Do you know Michael?” I asked him.

He nodded. His mouth was all twisted up like he might cry, but there was something hard about him too.

“I’m his roommate. The nurse said they don’t know if he’ll ever come out of the coma.”

I didn’t say anything about that.

“I take care of Michael. I’d like to know what he was like before he came here.”

The guy snuffled. Maybe he’d been crying in Michael’s room, because he seemed to have a lot of snot.

“Okay,” he said. “But I have to go right now. I’ll give you my number.”

BOOK: Before I Wake
4.22Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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