Authors: Andrew Vachss
The guy near the money started shooting at me. It felt like a sledgehammer to my kidneys. He ran past where I was lying in the dirt, yelling something. I was fading, going dim.
Two more men piled out of the Lincoln. They both shot at Pansy. She dropped. But she struggled back to her feet, still locked on to her enemy. Pansy reared up high, threw her head back, and shook it violently until a chunk of the kid’s throat came loose in her jaws.
It all slowed down then. Pansy looked at me. I saw it in her eyes. She spat out what was left of the kid and started for the shooter nearest me. I couldn’t speak. I tried to hold her eyes. To say goodbye. They cut her to pieces with bullets. The pieces of her tried to get up. They kept shooting.
Then more shots came from another direction. The bass-voiced boom of a shotgun and the
of high-speed ammo.
“We’re taking fire!” one of them screamed. Another voice, calmer and harder: “It’s been 911’ed. Finish it!” A man rushed over to where I was on the ground. I saw him raise his hand. A sunburst went off inside my skull. I rode the sound of the gunshot all the way into the black.
felt it. Close now. That dull-gray, anonymous violence-shark that cruises every prison, slashing out at random, triggered by something too primitive to reason with. All you could ever hope for was to stay out of its way.
But I wasn’t back in prison. I was underwater. And the shark wasn’t some metaphor. The water wasn’t deep—I could see the surface a few feet above me. I was crouched behind a girder of some kind, waiting. Doing the death math: I was going to run out of oxygen soon. But the shark was hovering, gliding back and forth, waiting for me to show myself.
It wasn’t that far to go, but once I made my move, I was committed. My hands felt along the girder, looking for a weapon, knowing it was useless—this was a shark, not another convict. But I was helpless against my conditioning.
I found something … something sharp. I let myself float toward the surface, trying to keep my back against the girder. The shark whirled and came at me. I raised my hand to stab, but I was moving in slow motion and …
he shark was gone. I was in a tunnel. Like a subway tunnel, but clean. And no tracks. I wasn’t walking, but I was moving. Like on a conveyor belt. It felt peaceful and safe.
Then I saw the light up ahead. A beautiful circle of soft, gentle, pure white light. It was very bright, but not blazing—it didn’t hurt my eyes to look at it. The circle was surrounded by pink and gold ribbons, soft and gauzy, woven-together tendrils of light, framing the entrance. A sweet, safe place. No sharks there. I heard sounds. Not … music, I don’t know what to call them. All I knew was that they were calling me.
I opened my arms to pull the sweet light toward me. Then the pink and gold ribbons turned into blinking red-and-blue neon tubing, and I knew what had been calling to me. I was raised on whore’s promises—I’d know them anywhere.
The circle of white light was small now. I braced my legs on either side of it, my hands scrambling, looking for something to fight back with. I touched a thick cord of some kind. Metal, hard plastic. I ripped it free from whatever was holding it. A whip to drive back whatever wanted me. I couldn’t see a face, but I lashed at where one should be, my legs rigid against the sides of the circle.
I hit whatever it was. Felt it connect.
The light went out.
mask on my face. As tight as my skin. Huge flat disks over my eyes. My hands … strapped down. Some bad S&M dream? No. I knew what it was. A dream, sure. But from when I was a kid and they …
But I wasn’t a kid anymore. I could hurt people now. I reached for them, clawing.
“Pavulon!” someone yelled.
was in a bed. In a room filled with mist. Machines ticked and beeped and purred. I tried to move my hands. No good. Nothing worked. Captured.
I willed myself to stay calm. They’d have to get close sooner or later.
ou were almost gone.” A woman’s voice. A beautiful woman, I could tell from the sound. Her voice was a polished river stone, burnished by her life.
“There are people who want to talk to you. Can you talk?”
“Just to me. Try and talk. To me only. I will not ask you questions. You ask
“Yes. You’re in the ICU. My name is Rose; I’m the supervisor here.”
“What time is it?”
“About eleven. Eleven at night.”
The next day?
I remembered the meeting, the …
Pansy! What happened to my …?
But the nurse wasn’t one of us. “What day?” I asked her.
“The twenty-first. Of September.”
What? The meet had been the last day of August
. “Who wants to talk to me?” is all I asked her. My voice sounded like someone else’s.
“The police,” she said, nothing in her voice.
“I’m … arrested? That’s why I can’t move?”
“No. You cannot move because you kept … fighting. There was a tube in your throat. You tore it out. And the IVs, too. That is why we had to use the restraints.”
you had some consciousness. Pavulon is a paralytic. You kept ripping loose of the restraints, attacking … something. It was a medical risk, but, if we had not done that, you would have died.”
“What happened?” I asked her, making her the trial horse for the lie I would have to tell the cops.
“You have no recollection?”
I recollected everything that counted: who I was, and what I had to do.
“I was driving in my car,” I said softly, testing the lie. “Then I … Was it an accident?”
“We don’t know,” she said. “You were dropped off in the ER by two men. They left before anyone could question them.”
“Yes. You sleep now.”
Two white men in cheap suits.
“I’m Detective Baird, and this is my partner, Detective Wheelwright. We need to ask you some questions.”
“Baird. And this is—”
“Burke. Who’s Burke? Where is—?”
“Burke. You. That’s your name, right?”
“I … don’t know.”
“Shit!” one of them said.
“They warned us he might not remember,” the other one responded. “Shot in the head, you got to expect some …”
“How are we supposed to—?”
“Tired …” I said, falling away.
t’s me, baby.” A whisper. Close to my ear.
“Michelle.” I knew her velvet-and-honey voice like I knew my own heartbeat.
“You’re going to be all right,” she promised.
“Ssshhh, honey. You’re in the Stepdown Unit now. But there’s cops all over the place. Be careful what you say.”
“I always thought I’d look great in one of these nurse’s uniforms,” she said. “Too bad you can’t see. I’m dazzling. Except for these tacky shoes.”
“I can’t …”
“… remember. That’s right. Yes, baby. Stay with that one until we can figure out how to get you discharged and disappeared. Just rest, okay?”
ou had a seizure,” the guy in the white coat said. “It’s not uncommon. Given enough shock to the overall system, the body goes on ‘stun.’ It just shuts down. It’s almost like being underwater for a half-hour and still surviving.”
, I thought. But I kept it to myself; didn’t say anything. Just let my eyes close and went back to waiting for one of my own to come for me.
“I know you must be frightened,” he said, in a voice like he was hoping for it, just a little bit. “When you’ve been in a coma, the brain short-circuits. It’s not unusual … to have a short-term-memory loss, I mean. It’ll come back. Don’t push it. Just relax and get better, okay?”
“Tired …” I mumbled, and fell away from him.
nurse poked at me. It was dark everyplace but right by my bed. “Time for your pills,” she said.
I just looked at her. She dropped one of the pills on the floor. Knelt quickly, picked it up, rubbed it on her smock, and dropped it back into the paper cup. “Here,” she said. “Make sure you swallow them all for me, okay?”
I took the pills. Then I closed my eyes.
y name is Rich. I’ll be caring for you.” He was all in white, like a doctor—but no doctor would have said that, so I figured him for a nurse.
I didn’t say anything.
“This is a morphine pump,” he told me, pointing at a blue box on a long stalk. Tubes ran out of it. Into me. “With this, you don’t have to ask anyone for a painkiller, you control it yourself. And it goes right into the bloodstream, so there’s no delay in absorption. Much better than needles, I promise you. Here, can you hold this …?” he asked, putting something that felt like a jumprope handle into my palm.
I nodded that I could.
“Good!” he said. “There’s a little button on the end—feel it? You push that, and the pump sends you a jolt. It’s limited to six an hour … about one every ten minutes. If it doesn’t feel like you’re getting enough, the dosage can be adjusted. Just let me know, understand?”
I held up the handle, so he could see it.
And pushed the button, so I could feel it.
hat happened to me?”
“You were beat up real bad, pal,” one of the cops said to me. Baird or Wheelwright, I couldn’t remember which one he was.
“Why? Who would—?”
“That’s what we’re trying to figure out. You got a few broken ribs, like someone worked you over with a piece of pipe. One of the ribs went into a lung. That’s why they had to open you up.”
“The nurse said I was … shot?”
“Right in the head,” the cop said.
“Maybe that’s why he can’t—” the other cop said. I could see the one talking to me give him a hard “Shut the fuck up!” look.
“Ah, Mr. Burke, he’s got a better memory than you think, partner. The bullet took out an eye, but it missed the brain. Just ‘scored’ it, whatever the hell
means. The docs say he’ll get his memory back … just a matter of time.”
“I’m … Burke?”
One of the cops laughed. The other just watched me. I could see his outline through the blur in my eye. My one eye. I moved my hand to find the other. It was all bandages there.
ich told me my lungs had puddled with fluid from being on my back so long. He gave me a tube with a mouthpiece and some beads at the top. I had to blow …
… until I could rattle the beads. A dozen times. Every couple of hours, he said.
I was in a room with three other beds. Curtains around the beds. The other patients got visitors. Nobody came for me except the cops.
I heard one of the cops arguing with a nurse. They wanted me in a private room. So they could talk to me. The nurse said there was nothing she could do about that—they’d have to talk to someone in Administration.
hey came and got me the next day. Just rolled me onto a gurney and wheeled me down the hall, into an elevator, through another hall, into a room. It was a private room. A dingy private room built into a corner.
I still didn’t get any visitors except the cops. But they came every day.
I knew what that meant. I worked the breathing tube until I got too exhausted to hold on to it. As soon as I got my hands to work again, I went back at it. Over and over. The pain burned my blood, it was so bad. But my lungs got emptier. I could see the results of that … all over my chest. When Rich was on duty, it got cleaned up fast. When he wasn’t, they just left me like that.
The IVs fed me. But it was hate that gave me strength.
ays passed. They finally took out the catheter. Then the needle that was taped into a vein above my collarbone. The metal stand that held the morphine pump also held some bags of clear stuff running into two different IVs, one to my elbow, the other into my wrist. When they were all done unhooking me, I was bound only to the morphine pump.
As soon as I was sure no one was around, I tried to stand up. The first few times I fell. But the morphine pump stayed attached to me. The stand was on little wheels. I waited until Rich was off-duty, made my way out of the room. It took a long time, maybe fifteen minutes, to travel the few feet.
When I got into the hall, I saw a handrail running the length of the corridor.
I tried to pull the morphine pump along with my right hand, using my left on the railing. I took one step and a wave of black washed over me. I knew I couldn’t fall. I held on. Nobody paid attention. When I felt stronger, I made my way back into the room. I sat on the bed. It took forever to get the lines adjusted. I rolled onto my back and went out.
Every day, I went a little farther down that hall.
t hurt to eat. The hospital food wasn’t as good as the stuff they served the last time I was Inside. I chewed it very slow. One mouthful, one minute. Getting it down right, so I could keep it there.
Rich brought me some cans of Ensure, and I drank them all.
hey took me for CAT scans. MRIs. Echocardiograms. They looked into my eye with lights.
Every day, sometimes twice a day, they drew tubes and tubes of blood. The veins on my arms finally collapsed and turned black, like I was a used-up junkie. They switched to tiny needles, took what they wanted from the webbing between my fingers. It went very slow when they did that. Hurt more, too.
psychiatrist came. She didn’t ask me much. Mostly tried to make me feel better about not remembering anything. She said it wasn’t unusual. Not to worry. They wouldn’t discharge me until I was all better.
woman with a face that meanness made ugly asked me about health insurance. I told her I had a real good plan. Full coverage. From my job. I was an … I couldn’t remember, but I knew I had coverage. Her lizard lips told me the police said I was a man with a long criminal record and no known employment. I told her that was silly. She said they took my fingerprints. I told her that was silly, too. She was angry at something. Later, she brought me a bunch of papers to sign. I signed them all. With an “X,” like she said to.