Authors: HJ Bellus
“Yeah.” The tone of his voice is deflated and hopeless. “The law really doesn’t matter in this situation.”
The amount of pressure I apply to his wound would cause anyone to squirm in pain, yet he remains still as a statue. I choose to change the subject.
“So, your granddad is a fighter? Came in all but dead?” I have his arm all prepped for the doctor to come in and check it out. “He told us all he had a lot left to fight for.”
My last words cause a smirk to spread across his face. “Yeah, he is a stubborn old fart. How’s he doing?”
“Stable now after we got his heart going again.”
“Shit.” He uses one hand to scrub over his face. “I never knew growing up would be this difficult.”
“Yeah, it sucks.” I smirk back and remember all the damn reasons I left my hometown, and, hell, even state. “I’m going to go grab the doctor. Want me to send Ella in?”
“Sure.” He nods and then tosses his large black felt hat to the floor. “More than likely she’d just barge her way in otherwise.”
The warm tap water rushes onto my fingertips as I wash up before preparing to call the doctor in. “Yeah, she probably would.”
I might not know a lot or have seen many things in my life, but I know the look of determination, and his wife Ella had that stamped all over her face.
His single word takes me back. It’s something I wasn’t expecting from him.
“Um…you’re welcome.” I grip the handle to the door and look back at the poor man. He’s beat up physically and mentally. It’s a hard picture to grasp seeing a grown, strong adult belittled and sitting hopeless in front of you. “I’m sure they’ll find your brother.”
He looks up to me from his defeated state. I don’t wait for him to offer up an explanation or form words.
“What’s his name? I’ll pray for him tonight.” I know it’s against all codes and ethics, but it just feels like the right thing to do. Extend a helping hand by offering comfort to a soul who’s so deeply in need.
“Marvel. His name is Marvel Slatter.”
I’d do anything in this moment to bring his younger brother to him. The pain is palpable in the room, along with the bone deep sorrow bathing the man’s eyes. I’d do anything for him.
“You’ve got it.” I force myself to nod back to him. “I’ll be right back with the doctor.”
ready to go home. Let my ass go home now, and where in the hell are my damn boots?” He rises from the bed once again swinging over his fragile legs. “You never take a pair of boots away from a cowboy.”
“I know, but you need to lie back down.” I rush right back to his side and gently nudge him back into bed. “If you try another stunt like yesterday you’ll never escape this joint.”
“Any word?” The hope in his eyes is nearly devastating, but the lack of hope that appears each day destroys a part of me.
“No, sir, no news yet.”
“Jesus.” He tosses his mug in my direction. “Quit calling me that for Christ’s sake. You can call me Granddad.”
“Yes, I know. You tell me this every single day, but if you keep throwing stunts like this they’ll have you committed.”
Bending over, I gather his top sheet and blanket he tossed from the bed while trying my best to shoot him the meanest of stares.
“You know Merek would kick their ass.”
I can only shrug. “Point taken, but behave, Bucksnort.”
He grins back at me, warming my heart. It’s a smile I’ve only seen a few times over the last week. I’m not one who can throw out family terms like Mom, Dad, or Granddad without actually feeling a bond with the person. So, Bucksnort it is, and it seems every single time I call him that he lights up.
His heart is still weak and repairing itself. The cardiologists are closely monitoring him while having him rest in a stress-free environment. All the nurses know that he could easily be placed on the recovery floor, but his doctors insist that he still be in ICU. It’s like a playpen he can’t escape.
“I’m off to snag you your copy of the newspaper.” I tuck the fresh and very warm blankets under his legs. “And if you behave I may even return with a maple bar from the bakery on Third Avenue.”
My shift is over, but for the last few days I’ve been entertained by Bucksnort and the tales he tells. Also, whether I’m on shift or not, I’m always here for Maverik and Ella when they make their nightly visit. Watching her expanding belly grow is just a miracle in itself and their company is the cherry on top of my usually boring day.
“Well, you’ll know where my ass will be. Won’t be going anywhere soon.”
“You’re a damn old stubborn cowboy. You know it?”
There’s something about his mischievous little smile and the wink that follows shortly after that gets me every single time. The old Bucksnort doesn’t believe in technology and rarely turns on the television but always insists on a daily paper. It’s been something I’ve been able to give him over the past few days. It’s Marvel, his grandson, he really wants but settles for the paper, analyzing every single part of it.
He’ll even go into full detail about each article the next day. I know it’s his coping mechanism dealing with the loss of his grandson and not knowing the future. He missed Weston’s funeral yesterday and it’s been by far the hardest day he’s had here. Marve Slatter even lapsed back into a seizure with his blood pressure all over the damn place and scared the shit out of all the doctors and his family.
“I know. I’ll be back in a bit.”
“Bucksnort.” I turn back to him before leaving the room.
“You’re a beautiful soul.”
“Glad someone sees it.”
It’s the same words we’ve exchanged over the week. I’ve tried to conjure up a deeper meaning to his words but can never find the energy to do so. I’ve been crashing in the on-call room every night after delivering his paper, doughnut, and visiting with Ella.
It’s semi-ridiculous they’re my only means of entertainment and joy in my life, but I love the time spent with them. In a twisted way it’s like my social life on replay.
and despair lingering in the air as I re-enter the ICU floor is never welcoming, nor something I ever want to get used to. I swear it’s the Slatter stare or the fact Marvel is still missing that makes each step even more painful than the next.
I’ve never met the man but have quickly been introduced to him. The loss is not only evident within the Slatters but the entire community. I tend to stay at the hospital to occupy most of my time, but when I do leave, Marvel’s face is plastered everywhere. Community searches and constant updates on the local news all focus around Marvel.
Nothing around the circumstances of him going missing has been linked. We only know the dead men in the ER were last seen with him. I haven’t been brave enough to ask Maverik what in the hell happened to his little brother, or at least who is responsible for all of this. I can see it in his eyes every single time I look at him. He knows the whole story. It’s evident from the guilt that pours from him. The only time he smiles or lights up is when Ella or lil’ Mav walk in for the evening.
It’s the sorrow in his granddad’s eyes that haunts me at night. It’s a pain I’ve experienced and have been running from. This loving and feisty old man has been the most trying patient or human being I’ve ever encountered, but also one who inspires me with his love, determination, and passion.
“Paper and doughnuts.” I wave the white bag up in the air as I re-enter the ICU waiting room. The two Slatter brothers remain on the couch with Ella by their side. The wives have taken shifts standing by their sides as the days crawl along. It’s almost like watching a caterpillar morph into an inspiring butterfly, yet the opposite as the elder gets stronger and the younger diminishes into thin air.
Merek, whom I once thought was Satan’s spawn, stands to snatch the bag of doughnuts and paper from me.
Coming from him, those two words mean the world to me. I nearly quit nursing after encountering Merek Slatter in the ER and then riding with him in the elevator up to his wife Challis and Granddad, who is a walking medical miracle. He was pronounced dead, but then his heart began beating again. I know as a professional in the medical field you’re not supposed to believe in magic, but I know that’s what happened that night. Nothing else besides Granddad Slatter’s stubborn attitude can explain what in the hell happened that night.
“How’s he doing?” Maverik rises to his feet rubbing his hands over his exhausted face.
“Sounds like he’ll be transferred to the recovery floor soon. At least that was the last word before I got off my shift.” I toss my purse back over my shoulder, stretching out my aching back, knowing my own personal bed would feel much better than the nurses’ station makeshift cot. “Where’s lil’ Mav? I bought him his favorite lemon jelly filled doughnut.”
“Challis took him to a jackpot roping tonight.” Ella rubs her tired hands over her swollen belly. “Hell, I think the two even entered in team roping.”
“How are you feeling?” I sit down on the edge of the coffee table, drawn to her belly and the two babies growing inside of her.
“As expected.” Ella smiles warmly back to me before Maverik tries stuffing the edge of a sprinkled maple bar into her mouth.
“You know it’s good for my Challis to take lil’ Mav to rodeos.” Merek isn’t shy about inhaling the doughnuts while talking. “I think it will eventually help her get on the back of her future barrel horse.”
“Has Sterling checked in tonight?” Maverik looks up to join the conversation, stuffing the rest of the doughnut in his mouth that he was trying to coax Ella to eat.
“Yeah, every thirty minutes and responds when I text him as well,” Merek replies without hesitation.
And like always, I want to ask so many questions, like who is Sterling and why the hell does he have to report in? I can only assume it has to do with Marvel’s disappearance. His senior photo his granddad has on his nightstand flashes through my memory. He’s a young, carefree, and very happy young man with light brown hair and a smile that makes women’s dreams come true.
“Good, I have all faith in Sterling Latchett.” Maverik pulls Ella into his lap.
“I know, me too, Maverik. We’ve known him since you shit your pants in the third grade, but I don’t trust anyone these days.”
Ella is the only one who chuckles and I instantly feel uncomfortable with the last few words of Merek’s. I know the family is going through hell right now with their worlds being tipped upside down. The Slatters have a strange pull that’s all encompassing and intriguing at the same time. It feels like home to me, even when I know that I have no right to feel that way.
“Clover.” I look up to Ella. “Thank you for always taking the time to help us.”
“No problem.” I shrug. “Not like my social life is banging right now.”
It’s actually the one thing that forced me to run from home and everything I knew. I want to scream my problems out loud to Ella, who is so kind and caring, but know it would be crossing professional lines.
“Well, I’m going to head to bed for the night. Y’all better stay in touch when the ornery cuss gets transferred to a new floor.”
“Listen to you and that damn Texas drawl coming through.” Merek is the first to his feet wrapping me up in a hug. I’m so shocked from the action that I remain frozen in his arms.
“I did it just for you,” I barely choke out.
“You’ve been great, kid.” Maverik slaps me on the shoulder. “Make sure to come visit him if he gets transferred.”
“Oh, you know I will.” I turn to walk away again. “Your granddad is a special guy.”
I watch as all three of them nod in agreement before I offer them a weak wave.
The on-call room is dark as usual. I swear I’m the only one that ever uses it, as most of the other nurses stampede out the door when their shift is over. The doctors tend to stay in the one on the first floor. It’s the perfect place that makes me feel safe and welcomed.
The constant sounds of the hospital seep through the walls and generally lull me to sleep night after night. I check my phone before crawling into bed and notice that my uncle has texted me a few times saying he’s worried about me. I type out a quick text letting him know I’m staying at the hospital yet again and promise him I’ll come home tomorrow.
My mom is from a very large family, which growing up I was always shuffled around from family member to family member as her career soared in the law field. She didn’t get the nickname “Iron Ball Buster” for raising her only child, that’s for sure. She’s sought after statewide back home in California.
Must be the thoughts of my mother and her cold heart swirling around in my mind that make the sounds of the floor buzzing and dinging to keep me wide awake. I can’t complain, though. I mean, what other twenty-two-year-old fresh graduate from college doesn’t have a single school loan bogging down their finances? My mother happily paid my way through nursing school, and deep down I know she was just relieved I was out of the house so she could focus completely on her career and her law firm.
She loves me the only way she knows how and I’m good with that. I know it’s why the hospital feels so much like home for me. It’s cold and sterile like my very own childhood home, but here I get the opportunity to care for others and spread my compassion.
It’s as if in a sick and twisted way the rhythmic noise of the monitors finally do their trick, causing my eyelids to become heavy. And like every single other night right before sleep takes over, I pray to God that my nightmares stay away.
, I’m off for the night.” I tuck in the top of the pale blue blanket around the patient. “You behave for the night nurses. You hear me?”
“I was supposed to be moved to a different floor. I need out of here.”
“Granddad, you’re not going anywhere this time.” Ella steps up to the other side of his bed, clutching his forearm. “This is where you need to be to fully recover.”
“God dammit.” He folds his arms across his chest, just like a pouting two-year-old would do.
“I’ll be back in the morning and will even try to sneak in some contraband for you.” I shoot him a quick wink.
“Have a good night, firecracker.” He nods to me as I walk out. It’s a nickname he’s called me since he entered the ICU and gained enough consciousness to talk.
I turn to see Ella, who’s raced out the room into the hall. “Would you like to go to dinner with Maverik and me? Challis will be here shortly to take over.”
“I’d love to, but I promised my aunt and uncle I’d come home tonight for dinner and enjoy some ‘quality family time’.” I use my fingers to air quote the last part to be a bit dramatic. My family gives new meaning to stone-cold, so family time is quite a joke.
“Okay, sweetie, another time then. I’m glad to hear you’re leaving this hospital.”
“Ha, real loser status here.”
“You know I didn’t mean that, Clover.” Ella places her hands on her belly. “No one ever deserves to be alone in this world, and I just want to make sure you know you’re welcome in our family anytime.”
“Well, thank you. That means a lot to me.” I toss the hoodie I snagged from the nurses station over my head and decide I better get the hell out of here before I do decide to go with Ella and Maverik. I walk quickly to the elevator and nearly jog down the hall and out to my car.
“Shit.” I throw my hands up in the air when I stop outside, realizing dusk is already settling in. I’m still not super familiar with the town and the road to my aunt and uncle’s place. There’s lots of turns, curves, and dirt roads. After being raised in California, all the dirt roads here look the same to me.
From an early age of remembering my daddy’s death, darkness has never been my friend, and then as I got older the real nightmares began. Hustling over to my bright yellow VW bug, I launch my duffle bag into the front seat, then slam the door right behind me and click lock on my remote keypad just knowing the invisible boogey man is hot on my heels.
The thundering of my heart is deafening when my fumbling fingers finally fire up the engine. Looking into the rearview mirror, I try to crack a smile at my wild ass imagination and fear of the dark. Moving away from my own hell, I thought I’d be able to at least live a half-normal life. I type out a quick text message to my aunt letting her know that I’m on my way.
I have the main road of the town down pat. I know exactly where the best coffee and doughnut shop is, the waffle house, bar, and grocery store. It’s everything a girl needs to survive. Deciding a glass or two of red wine would go perfectly with dinner tonight, I pull into a gas station.
While killing the engine, I mentally map out the route and feel pretty damn confident I know exactly how to get home. Two left turns, a country block, a right turn onto a dirt road, then two miles and one more left turn and the lane will be about a quarter mile down the road.
I pat myself on the back as I walk across the dimly lit parking lot of the gas station and then feel my cheeks heat up at my nerdy move. Something I can never deny, and that fact is I’m an extremely shy nerd.
“Who were you talking to?”
I look up to an older lady behind the cash register. Craters of flesh cover her face, leaving every part of her skin scarred. Her greasy long hair covers one of her eyes. I try not to stare but can’t help pick up on the haunted look in her eyes.
“Excuse me?” I ask.
“Who were you talking to?”
“Don’t be a wise ass.”
“I was.” I shrug, trying to brush off her odd behavior. My heart does a little happy dance internally when I spot a towering display of wine right by the register. I grab the first bottle of red wine I see and set it on the counter.
“So, you’re sure you weren’t talking to anyone?”
“No.” I can’t help the irritation that fills my voice. I’m not about to explain to her that I was mentally recounting how to get home and then gave myself praise. “I just want a bottle of wine please.”
She grabs the bottle from the counter and that’s when I notice her long filthy fingernails with dirt caked underneath them. I fight to focus on the numbers sprawled across my debit card and not how creepy the woman is.
“I’m sorry, my old man has been after me. Saw some shit go down that I wasn’t supposed to and now he wants me dead.”
Her last words cause me to look up into her face and notice her rotten teeth. At first glance, I’d chalk it all up to a meth addict with her mannerisms and appearance, but when I study her a little longer as she bags the bottle, I see true fear.
“Eleven sixty-two.” She slaps her palm down on the counter, jolting me back to the task at hand.
“Sorry, it’s been a long day.” I swipe my card, forcing down all the questions I so desperately want to ask her and most importantly to get her help. My fingers rapidly punch in my debit card pin number as she pushes over the bag.
I search frantically for her name badge but come up short. “Why don’t you go to the police?”
“I’d be dead for sure then. Hell, they’d march me right over to his house, so he could slit my throat.”
The vision of the dead men in the ER attacks my memory, causing me to nearly gag and my knees to weaken.
“Just shut it, pretty girl. Go climb back in your fancy little car from California.” She leans toward me, assaulting me with her decayed breath. “You couldn’t even begin to understand my problems.”
My knuckles go white around the brown paper bag I’m clutching on to and just wait for her to demean me with one more spoiled brat term. And she does, but I don’t pay her any attention as I turn my back and walk away from her. It’s something I’ve grown accustomed to. I mean, if you live in the hills of LA and your mom is a high-profile attorney, and you attended private school your whole life, then you must be a spoiled-ass brat.
I was never like my peers or my mother’s friends’ children. We were all forced to smile and pretend to like each other at social gatherings and business functions, but that was the extent of it. My nose was always stuck deep in a book learning about something new and fascinating; even from a young age the human body intrigued me.
Now if I just had enough courage and could fight off my awkward shyness to live life as a functioning adult everything would be fine. I think that’s what bothered my mom most—my awkwardness. She’s a lioness, always on the prowl with finesse and determination. And no matter how hard she forced her ways on me, my knobby knees, freckles, and stutter never fit in.
I flip on my high beams as the night air is now completely dark and rehearse the turns in my head. My favorite Miranda Lambert song begins to play, and without thinking I crank the song, roll down the windows, and let the air rush over my face and through my hair.
I slip the hair tie from my messy bun, letting down my long board-straight auburn hair. It whips me in the face as I pick up speed and I can’t help but giggle at the moment. It’s like I can feel my shell being chipped away softly as I discover the real Clover. The fresh air tastes of freedom and courage mixed together. I just may make a good ol’ country girl one day.
I take the last turn and slow a bit as the road is peppered with ruts and potholes rattling the shit out of my tiny car. I don’t have much experience driving on these damn dirt roads. Actually, I have probably only driven on them a handful of times since being here. Reaching out, I turn down the music and realize the surroundings are way off. Where there should be a gleaming white fence there’s a shamble of a barn with a large wrecking yard behind it. Looking further down the road, I try to make out the large ranch sign at the entrance of what I believe is my uncle’s driveway but the darkness is relentless.
“Shit.” I slick my hair back from my face. “Dammit, will I ever get anything right?”
Sounds of the night become clear with crickets chirping, grass swaying, and crunching gravel. Just when I let go a tiny bit I’m immediately reminded of the dangers the darkness holds. Gravel grinds together in a rhythmic sound until a loud crash rings out. My mind runs rampant with horrible thoughts, and even worse, nasty memories. Quickly I press and hold down the button to roll up the windows and then crank the wheel to turn around and head back to town. I can remember the turns—I can do this.
Since the road is narrow, I’m forced to back up and go forward three different times. I try counting and singing like my therapist had taught me, but nothing works as I fight to get my little car turned all the way around. My ringtone startles the shit out of me causing me to scream and jump in my seat. I see my aunt’s name but ignore the call when I feel the panic begin to invade my breathing as my chest tightens.
Slamming down on the accelerator, gravel flies up into the air peppering my car. Crunching my foot down even harder, it all happens too fast. I scream, slam on the brakes, and feel my car spin sideways down the dirt road. I’m left staring out the passenger side of my window. My brain has to be playing tricks on me because I swear there’s a man in the road. I chalk it up to too many late nights working and a wild fucking imagination working overtime.
Wiping exhaustion and confusion from my eyes I look a bit closer and the figure is definitely moving in its broken down state. A set of eyes peer up at me, causing me to gasp in horror.
“Marvel?” I whisper.
A filthy hand stretches out, clutching and clawing to the gravel, fighting to pull himself up. I grip the steering wheel until my knuckles turn a bright white, trying to steady my shaking hands as I process the scene ahead of me. He looks up at me one more time and those hazel eyes stop my heart. Without thinking, I fly out of the car.
“Marvel. Marvel,” I scream as I race over to him.
Disgusting growls and grunts come from him as he continues to fight to get up. He sounds like a rabid beast on the hunt instead of a human.
“Stop, Marvel, stop.” Dropping to my knees, I cradle his head with my arm, bringing him closer to me. All rules of the medical field fly out the fucking window as adrenaline takes over, diminishing all common sense and book smarts. Looking down into his face, I don’t recognize any of his features. His cheek is split wide open, dried blood covers his whole face while bruising and swelling is intense and masking his strong jawline.
The closer I look, I notice both of his eyes are swollen and shut.
“Marvel, open your eyes.”
He tries to speak, the skin on his shredded lips tears as he opens his mouth. The sound expelled from him is bone chilling.
“Marvel, I’m getting you help.”
One word finally comes out audible from him.
“He’ll kill you. Leave.”
“They’re hunting me.”
Marvel tenses in my arm as he pries open both eyes, grabs my hand, squeezing it so tight pain shoots up my arm.
Thoughts of his brothers pacing the waiting room, community members scouring town for him, and Granddad’s lost tears over losing Marvel finally cause all my medical training to kick in. I gently lay him back down in the middle of the road and then race back to my car to snag my cell phone. Several rings go by before the 911 operator picks up.
“911. What’s your emergency?
“I need medical attention. I found Marvel Slatter.”
“Where are you?”
“Near a junkyard on a dirt road. This is Clover Lee. I’m a RN and from the assessment we need medical attention now.”
“I need some more information on your location.”
“There’s an old barn near the road.” I squint and turn, looking for more landmarks. The full moon provides just enough light to make out a large pond. “There’s a large pond across from the junkyard. Looks like a wrecking yard with tons and tons of old cars.”
“Help is on the way.”
I look up to Marvel, who has inched himself all the way across the road and slowly creeping toward the ditch running parallel to the road.
“Marvel.” I drop my phone, racing over to him. “What in the hell are you doing?”
He’s easily a foot taller than me, but in his condition I can move him with ease as I tug him back up into the flood of lights streaming from the front of my car.
“Leave,” he growls. “They’ll kill you.”
“Marvel, help is on the way.”
He slowly rotates his head in my lap, looking up to me. “They killed Weston and Jose. They’re going to kill me. Leave.” Blood trickles out of his cracked lips.
“No, help will be here.”
Marvel tries to talk again, but before he can get a word out his body goes into a seizure, convulsing violently. I keep hold of him, positioning him in a safe cradle.
“Marvel, hang in there. I know your granddad and brothers. They’ve all been looking for you.”
I clutch him tighter and keep talking all the while praying to God for the broken man in my arms.
I decide to tell him all about his family, hoping like hell he’ll grab onto something that will help him hold on to hope. “Marvel, you should see Ella. Her belly is huge. Your brother Maverik is quite the proud poppa but sure misses you.”
I finally hear the sirens in the far off distance, easing all my worries.
“Hear that, Marvel?” I cover his cheek with the palm of my hand, holding him tight to me. “Help is almost here. No one can hurt you anymore.”
His condition is unexplainably tearing at my soul, and right now I just want to protect him from everything in this evil world.
His body finally stills and the dust begins to settle around us. Marvel opens his eyes looking up at me one more time. Tears stream down his face.