Teasers & Deleted Scenes
Baltimore, MD, June 2008
It's a hospital, and it smells like hospitals everywhere. It's not the smells of antiseptic that get to Natasha McAndrews at times like this; it's the smell of laundry detergent. Tide. It reminds her of home, which reminds her of Mom, which reminds her of hospitals, which reminds her of laundry detergent--
It could be something of a death spiral if she let it.
But she's not here for her drama. She's here for Chaz, and for him she endures the (lackadaisical) search, and the list of forbidden objects (Flowers, candy, food. My God, what happened to him?), and the lecture from the charge nurse about not tiring the patient. Tasha assures him she'll be in and out in no time, she's just coming to drop off some clothes and computer games.
"He has a lot of friends," the nurse says, handing Tasha her lightly-inspected handbag and the plastic sack of sweaters and sweat-pants back.
Tasha, who just had this fight with Michael, thank you, is at first inclined to prickle at the comment, but she backs the response down and manages a smile. It could be approval. Actually, judging by the nurse's faint, hopeful smile, it is approval. "He earns them," she says, and nods pleasantly as she walks down the hall to the indicated door and taps lightly on the frame.
"Come in," he says, a voice so normal that for a moment she lets herself believe that everything is all right. Until she pushes the door open and enters.
Propped up, Chaz huddles under the sheets and the off-white hospital bedspread, wrapped up in a fuzzy cardigan that can't do anything to hide the way the bones of his shoulders want to poke through the skin. He's unrecognizable, except the cheekbones and the eyes, the skin of his face stretched across the bone as if laminated. A tube runs from a whirring machine beside the bed; it's taped beneath his nose. The other end disappears up his nostril. The tendons in his cheeks flex when he opens his mouth. "Hi, Tasha."
"Jesus," she says, feeling the way her face fails to respond with anything but horror and denial, and she instantly regrets it.
But somehow, it's the right thing to do. His ravaged mask pulls itself into a smile, and she recognizes the smile, too, the crooked teeth and the way it tugs his chin pointier. "Thank you," he says.
"No, really." He holds up a hand. "Come over here, please? I would get up, but they have me on this stupid feeding machine." He gestures to the whirring thing beside the bed.
She comes, a little unwillingly, until she is close enough to touch, close enough that the smell of how ill he's been fills up her nostrils and she can't smell the detergent anymore. She drops the bag beside the bed and makes herself reach out and take his hand, like a bunch of sticks wrapped up in a worn paper bag. "You look awful," she says, and tries to make it cheerful, teasing.
The smile does not fail. If anything it broadens. "You come by any time," he says. "Everybody else tries to lie to me. But I know how bad this looks."
She squeezes his hand, which is so cold she has a hard time believing he's alive. But he squeezes back, and reaches up and touches her face before he lets the limb fall back to the bed, palm-up, as if the gesture exhausted it. The fingers curl like a dying spider's legs.
"What happened?" she asks, finally. "Nobody will say."
He coughs, or maybe it's a laugh. "I got stuck someplace bad," he says. "And I couldn't get food for a week or so, and my metabolism nearly killed me."
"Hiking?" she asks. "Climbing?"
He shakes his head and looks away, and she closes her mouth over the next words. It's Chaz: sometimes he wants to be wheedled. But not this time, she thinks. "I brought you some computer games. And a bunch of really stupid comedy DVDs. Worthie said you had your laptop."
A flash of gratitude, and the smile has returned when he turns back. "Hey," he says, reaching out to grab her hand once more. "Don't cry."
"I'm not crying," she lies. "The gang says Hi. Steve says you only did this because you knew you were going to lose that bet, and you didn't want to be his belay slave for the next two months."
"Steve." He rolls his eyes, and that looks like Chaz too, not this dying stranger with Chaz's voice and eyes. No. Dammit. Not dying, though, no matter how much he looks like Mom near the end, skinny and tired. "How's Michael?"
That makes her grin, which makes her sniffle, which makes Chaz laugh. And that makes it okay. "Michael," she says, echoing the tone of his flat Steve. "He's jealous as hell that I'm here with you. Even though I told him that you and me was just a thing, you know. And that I was coming to see you as a friend."
"It's a hospital," he says. "What does he think is going to happen?" But he's pleased. Guys are nearly always pleased when other men see them as a threat.
"He's afraid you were better in bed than he is," she says, to get a laugh.
It's a little laugh, and it sounds like it's uncomfortable laughing around the feeding tube, but it's still a laugh. "And?"
"Oh, no," she says. "I'm not answering that question. I never bring bad news to a convalescent."
There, that gets the laugh, full-throated and deep enough that he looks noticeably tired afterwards, as if it took all his energy to move that air in and out. He gestures weakly with his free hand, the one in the cast. "Ow," he says. "Ow, ow, ow--" And then his face brightens, and he says, breathlessly, "You ever need a threat to keep him in line, you just let him know I'm out here lurking hungrily, like a particularly funny-looking shark." He leans back against the pillows, chest heaving.
She grins. She stands up again, and leans over, and kisses him on the forehead. Under the sickness, he still smells like Chaz. "Get some rest," she says. "We'll all still be here when you're up to climbing again."
He squeezes her hand, but his eyes are already closing. As she disentangles her fingers and picks up her handbag, she breathes a little sigh of relief, hoping he can't hear her. Hospital braved. Duty discharged, friend seen to. And she thinks she can tell the gang honestly that he's going to be okay.