Authors: KM Rockwood
I knew I’d seen that trike before, in Kelly’s garage, where she kept it for her dad while he was in prison. I took another look at the rider as he took off his WWI-style helmet and glanced in my direction.
Old Buckles, Kelly’s dad. Wasn’t he going to go in to see her?
“Jesse?” he asked.
We didn’t really know each other, but we’d been locked up in the same prison for years, both in medium security cellblocks. He’d been in and out, doing life on the installment plan, while I’d been a more or less permanent resident. He’d spent a lot of time working as a prison commissary clerk. The temptations to someone working that job were everywhere, so any inmate who they kept working in that position had to have a certain amount of integrity. And I’d heard he wasn’t above sneaking something extra, like a few stamps or a bottle of aspirin, into somebody’s order if he knew they were having a hard time and needed it.
I stepped forward. “Yeah. You gonna go to see Kelly?”
He leaned back and pulled out a Roll-Rite, passing it under his nose. I couldn’t tell whether it was tobacco or weed. Or a mixture. “Maybe later. I hate hospitals. The ladies gonna check things out for us.” He belched and pulled out a lighter.
The other guy stepped up to me, his fists clenched. “You Jesse? Kelly supposed to be your old lady?” he asked between clenched teeth.
I looked him over. I couldn’t see the backs of their leather jackets from this angle, but I had no doubt both he and Old Buckles showed club colors, just like the women. A leering skull of a saber tooth tiger with “Predators” embroidered above and street names below.
Bikers had their own ideas about how a relationship was supposed to operate between a woman and her man. They weren’t exactly mainstream ideas, but they seemed to work all right for them.
They’d never work for me and Kelly, though.
“Kelly’s her own woman,” I said. “She don’t belong to me or nobody else.”
He ignored that. “A man’s supposed to take care of his woman. Not let her get beat up.”
Who was this guy?
I would have understood if Old Buckles was bent out of shape. Kelly was his kid. But this guy?
He wasn’t backing down. Looked like I’d have to handle this whether I wanted to or not. “What’s it to you?” I asked, locking my gaze on his.
Old Buckles took a pull on his smoke and said, “Hey, Funk…”
The guy raised his fist and took a swing at me.
Since I’d been looking toward Old Buckles, I didn’t dodge quite fast enough, and the punch caught me in the face. My already battered nose spurted blood. Again.
Reacting without thinking, I slammed my right fist into his gut, then caught him in the face with a left uppercut when he hunched over, and followed it up with a knee to the groin. He fell to the ground in a ball, moaning and clasping his privates with both hands.
I started to raise my boot above his head when my brain started working again. In prison, the penalty for fighting would be a month in disciplinary segregation. Here, if it came to the attention of the authorities, it would be street charges. A one-way ticket back to prison.
And if I seriously injured this guy, it would certainly come to the attention of the authorities. We were right outside a hospital, for the love of Hades. No better place for an injured person to come to the attention of the authorities.
Reluctantly, I lowered my foot and backed up a few steps.
Old Buckles hadn’t moved. He looked at the guy on the sidewalk and shook his head. “I was gonna tell Funky Joe to lay off and leave you alone, but looks like you took care of it, huh?”
“You gonna go see Kelly?” he asked.
“I was hoping to. Or at least find out how she’s doing.” I wiped my nose with the sleeve of my jacket. Not a smart move. How was I ever going to get all that blood out of the wool?
He gestured toward the door. “Go ahead. Joe here’ll be okay. I’ll keep an eye on him. We don’t want no trouble. Not with the cops or nobody else.”
“Thanks.” I rubbed my skinned knuckles.
“Don’t be thanking me too soon,” he warned me. “I haven’t figured out what happened to my little girl yet, so I don’t know whose fault this is. But somebody’s gonna pay. And you’re definitely not off the list of possibilities.”
I nodded. It was hard to think of the substantial Kelly as anybody’s little girl, but he
“And go clean yourself up before you go see her,” he said. “You’d scare the devil himself looking like that.” He took another drag. A faint sweet scent mingled with the tobacco.
I had to grin at the idea of me scaring the devil.
As soon as I got through the front door of the hospital, I looked around for a restroom. My face had been pretty battered in the last few days and was undoubtedly still bruising up. I could feel the sticky blood all over my mouth and chin, and dripping down my neck.
A gift shop was right near the entrance. Next to it was a big men’s room. I ducked in. In addition to the urinal, it had two stalls, one a large handicapped stall with a deep sink at wheelchair height. I went in that one and latched the door behind me.
Using paper towels and some liquid soap that stung the raw spots, I scrubbed my face. Not too bad, I thought as I peered into the mirror. I wadded up pieces of paper towel and stuffed them up my nostrils, hoping to stop the bleeding. My nose was a bit misshapen, but not too swollen. My jaw was bruised and dark, but I hadn’t shaved in a few days, and the five o’clock shadow helped hide it.
My hair, though, was a tangled, matted mess. Money was always tight ,and as long as I could keep my hair tucked out of the way under my hard hat at work, nobody cared how long it was, so I’d been postponing getting a haircut.
Sticky clumps of hair hung by either side of my face. I tried pulling them apart, but it was obvious I’d have to wash the blood out.
I took off my jacket and shirt, laying them over a grab bar. Then I lathered my hands with a lot of the soap and bent into the sink, rubbing the suds into my hair and rinsing. It was awkward, but it worked.
The door to the hallway opened. I froze. Water dripped from my hair onto my shoulders as I backed up so that if anyone looked under the door, my feet appeared to be near the toilet. I tried to convince myself that no one would bother to check. Why would they? But I held my breath as I heard the newcomer splash into the urinal, then the flush of water. He left.
He hadn’t washed his hands. I hoped he wasn’t a hospital employee.
I took my jacket and rinsed the blood out of the sleeve as well as I could. It was an old hunter’s jacket I’d gotten at Goodwill, a black and red buffalo check, so at least the stain wasn’t all that noticeable. The jacket itself, however, stood out like a sore thumb. I folded it so the quilted black lining showed instead of the garish plaid.
Easing the wads of paper towel out of my nose, I didn’t breathe for a few seconds while I waited to see if blood would start dripping again.
I tried to breathe through my mouth.
Putting on my shirt and tucking my wet hair behind my ears, I studied my reflection in the mirror again. Not perfect, but I didn’t look like quite such a deranged madman as I had before.
Now to figure out how to get up to see Kelly. Without being noticed so that if—or more likely when—Montgomery started asking questions, people wouldn’t remember me. That eliminated going up to the front desk and asking for her room number.
The large waiting room was almost deserted except for a line of people waiting to talk to a single, harried lady who was manning the information desk.
Hallways led off in several directions and an alcove with a bank of elevators sat in one corner.
Partially shielded by a plant with big leaves, I sat down in a plastic chair by the elevator bank and watched people hurry by. Joining them and just wandering the hallways without having any idea of where Kelly was didn’t seem like such a good idea.
I was in luck. The two biker chicks came from a hallway carrying huge paper cups and a take-out bag. Their boot heels clicking on the tile floor, they strode purposefully toward the elevators.
People moved aside and let them by. Their boots, tight jeans, and leather vests were crisscrossed with chains. As I expected, they had embroidered patches on the back of their jackets with saber tooth tiger skulls, “Predators” above and the women’s names, Li’l Mama and Black Rose, below. Beneath that, Black Rose’s said, “Property of Razorback” and Li’l Mama’s said, “Property of Funky Joe.”
Funky Joe was the guy I’d left lying on the sidewalk outside.
I got to my feet and followed them, figuring they were on their way to Kelly’s room. When the next elevator came, they got in, and no one else got in with them, although several people had been waiting longer than they had. I watched the numbers over the elevator door. It stopped on the third floor.
The fewer people who noticed me, the better.
A whole bunch of people got onto the next elevator. I entered with them and got off with a small knot when we reached the third floor. I tried to step out quickly, hoping to catch a glimpse of Black Rose or Li’l Mama, but got caught behind a hefty woman with a big shopping bag, and by the time I got out in the hallway, they were nowhere in sight.
Most of the other people crowded around the nursing station, asking for room numbers and updates. I wasn’t about to go do that and give them a chance to remember me, so I glanced around.
The hallway ended abruptly a few hundred feet in one direction but stretched a long way in the other. Deciding to play the odds, I set off down the long portion, glancing in each room as I passed, looking to see if something would tell me which room was Kelly’s.
My luck held. I heard the clink of chains and sharp boot steps on the polished floor as I passed room 307. An elderly lady lay in the bed nearest the door, her eyes shut, but I could see Li’l Mama’s tight blue-jeaned derriere disappear behind the fabric curtain that separated the two beds.
The trick to sneaking in anywhere, I knew, was to act like being there was no big deal. Which in this case meant continuing confidently past the room while I considered what to do.
At the end of the hallway was a kind of lounge with a few people sitting there, some in wheelchairs. I turned around and headed back toward room 307. This time, I slipped into the room and pulled up a chair between the head of the old woman’s bed and the curtain, trusting the position and the subdued light to shield me from Kelly and her visitors.
The lights on this side of the room were dimmed. A gentle wheezing came from some kind of machine that had a tube leading to the patient’s nostrils. The person lying on the bed was an old, old woman, her head barely making a dent on the pillow, her eyes closed. Thank goodness she didn’t have any visitors. Until me.
I turned my head toward the woman in the bed so my face could not be seen from the doorway and listened to the conversation beyond the curtain.
One of the women was talking. That high pitched voice
to belong to Li’l Mama. “Your dad was thinking about coming up, but he decided to wait until you feel better. Or maybe get discharged. He hates hospitals. And he’s fit to be tied.”
Someone—Kelly?—murmured something, but I couldn’t make out the words. I leaned forward, straining to hear.
The old woman stirred. “Are you there?” she said in a voice that was barely a whisper. Her parchment hand moved on the sheet, reaching toward me but moving only an inch or so.
“Are you there?” she asked more urgently.
Feeling like a total fraud but not wanting her to make a fuss, I put my work-roughened hand over her fragile one. “I’m here,” I whispered.
Her clawlike hand grasped mine with surprising strength. “Otto!” she said. “You came at last. Just sit with me for a while. It’s been such a long time.”
I had no idea who Otto was, but I wasn’t about to correct her. I patted her hand with my other one and said, “I’m right here.”
“Thank God. I don’t want to die alone.”
I looked at her in alarm. She
look like she could die any minute. Where her wispy, white hair was brushed aside I could see the pink skin on her scalp. Her ears were sunk back against her head, and the earlobes were shriveled. Her eyelids looked translucent, but she didn’t open her eyes. Which was just as well, because if she looked, she might see I wasn’t Otto.
Please don’t die while I’m here, I thought. I wouldn’t have any idea what to do.
“I’m so tired,” she said.
“Rest,” I told her.
“Don’t leave me.”
I might not be Otto, but I could stay for a little while if it comforted her. “I’m right here.”
A slight smile played on her lips, and her grip on my hand relaxed, retaining only a slight hold. I sat there and listened to what I could catch of the conversation on the other side of the curtain.
“Your dad says he’s gonna get them taken care of,” Black Rose was saying in her deep voice. “If he catches up with them before the cops do, they’re gonna
they got locked up.”