by Jane Lebak 9/99
Strapped to a steel table, Jason writhed in vain to avoid the doctor's approaching needle. Instantly after the injection pierced his birdstyle, it started: the dull roaring in his head that grew progressively sharper. Moment by moment it keyed higher, and Jason instinctively tensed against the pressure inside his skull. He trembled with the strain, panting and whimpering. The door opposite opened, and in walked Zoltar. Jason clenched his eyes. Zoltar said, "If you're ready to begin, Condor, we will take away the pain now. Start with your name."
"Jason Michael Anderson." Tears scored his cheeks in hot accusation. "Please make it stop."
Jason found himself awake at two in the morning with his heart thrumming and a nightmare ghosting his heart. It took a while to regain his bearings. The only invasion he'd really suffered had been the nurse's routine check of his room.
Hospital quiet permeated everything. People in various stages of sickness and recovery lay in uniform sleep, except for him and a few nurses down the hall in hushed conversation. The lights shone in the hallway, casting a bluish glow beneath his door.
He ought to sleep more. Ought to. Always the day after a treatment he spent asleep. For a reason he couldn't comprehend, the relatively simple procedure of inserting a coil into the aneurysm site drained all the energy from him. Maybe it was the drug cocktail he'd taken all these weeks to keep his blood pressure low while simultaneously dissolving the clot from the first bleed. Maybe it was just the repeated treatments. Whatever the reason, he couldn't seem to do anything any longer. His biggest accomplishments in the past few weeks were reading a stack of Calvin & Hobbes books and finishing two Terry Pratchett novels (Richard had sent them, then phoned and begged him to try them.) It always took nearly a week to get back his strength, and then he'd have another procedure. If he stayed awake at this time of night, that could only worsen the daytime fatigue.
Doctors tended to talk in circles. All he knew for sure was, five weeks after doctors had discovered the cerebral aneurysm, he was still enduring treatments. He was still off the team. He still didn't have his car, his trailer, or his job. He couldn't race, and he couldn't even work with Safe Rides on Friday nights to answer the phones, let alone drive anywhere. It was all the disadvantages of being dead with none of the perks.
While not in immediate danger, Jason still needed to have platinum coils inserted into the artery in order to obliterate the egg-shaped bulge and prevent a rupture. There had been one treatment every week, and Jason currently had six of the coils in his head. No one knew how many he'd need, but he'd talk to Dr. Chung tomorrow. The sixth had been inserted today in a procedure like all the follow-ups: early in the morning he'd traveled to Columbia hospital, been anesthetized, catheterized, and wired. After awakening from the procedure, he'd waited for the doctors to check him over, remove the IVs, and pronounce him ready to leave. Chief Anderson had accompanied Jason to all the other procedures. Yesterday, because the Chief had to be at Center Neptune for a conference, Mark had brought him instead.
Today's procedure had seemed to go normally, until Jason awakened with a bad reaction to the anesthesia. The aches, chills, and shortness of breath worried the doctors, who had decided that rather than sending him home at three, they'd admit him for an overnight stay. They'd changed his anesthesia, and the doctor had thanked him for noticing. ("I aim to please," Jason had murmured, shivering beneath an extra blanket.) But no one would tell him how dangerous the situation really was, and the only person Jason could have counted on to explain was locked in at a stupid meeting. Jason kept thinking he'd have an easier time shooting a lion in the New York subway system than getting a straight answer from a doctor.
At first, when he still didn't know what was wrong, in those frightening minutes between the nurse going pale while saying, "I'm sure everything will be all right, but I'll get the doctor anyhow," and the doctor's return...Jason had wondered if the coil had ruptured the bubble in his head, and if so, how badly it would hurt. He shouldn't be afraid of the pain. It wasn't as if he was being questioned. But--
Jason quickly cast his eyes around the room. There was a pink plastic mouse, clutching a huge piece of cheese and grinning delightedly, sitting on the tray alongside his bed. "Fritz," as Princess called it, was the sole remnant of the "Happy Meal" Susan had snuck into the hospital so he could have a quasi-decent dinner. It was a nice gesture, Jason supposed, although she hadn't helped by offering a silly smile and remarking on how neat it was that McDonald's sold meals that were happy. She always called him Coach now that he was officially training her: "They even gave you a friend, Coach!" Hopefully Mark or the Chief could make up a training assignment for her tomorrow, since Jason suspected he'd be in no condition to do so himself. Susan shouldn't have been in the hospital at all. When the nurses had come by to make sure there weren't too many people visiting, Susan had smiled and projected Don't Notice Me, and they'd left her alone.
Jason wound up the mouse and watched him flip until the spring-motor spun down.
Susan hadn't lived on Earth long enough, if she still thought it funny McDonald's sold meals that were happy. Fritz found the energy for one final jump, then once again stood dormant.
Something nagged at Jason's mind, but like an object in peripheral vision, he couldn't quite place it. He wound the mouse again. As it jumped, he remembered Susan saying, "I called ISO to see how you were doing, and Tiny said you'd be staying overnight."
But...wasn't Tiny supposed to be with the Chief at the conference?
Last Thursday, Mark had come to Jason in the TV room and said, "How about I take you next Wednesday? It'll be fun. We can make a day of it." When Jason had asked why Mark instead of the Chief, Mark had looked somewhat flustered, then said, "He'll be at a conference the whole day."
But then-- Jason hesitated. Why did Mark phone Princess rather than getting her on the bracelet?
He'd been so groggy and sick earlier in the day, he'd never noticed the incongruity or the inconsistencies. But now that he thought about it, first the Chief was supposed to be gone all morning; then it was all day. Then Mark obviously didn't want Jason hearing the other side of his conversation when he called home...or maybe either side, since he'd left the room to use the public phones. By late afternoon, Princess had joined them at the hospital, but she'd said the apartment was empty. Empty at the time Susan said Tiny had answered the phone.
Since Jason's removal from the team because of the aneurysm, he'd been forbidden the uniform or the wristband. The Chief didn't want him listening to the bird scrambles or the broad-band conversations. Jason stared at his empty wrist momentarily. If Susan had reached Tiny by phone, and she'd said she had, then obviously Tiny wasn't with the Chief. Or if he was, then the Chief wasn't where he'd said he'd be.
Jason had to rely on more prosaic forms of communication to call home. The phone rang four times before the answering machine picked up. Jason keyed the code to turn the unit off, then called back. After about eight rings, Mark answered.
Jason said to him, "What the hell is going on?"
Mark yawned. "What do you mean? Are you having any problems?"
"The Chief wasn't at a conference today!" Jason tried to keep the volume down, but the anger slipped out in his tone. "What was that crock of bull you were telling me?"
"Now isn't the time." Mark sounded defensive. "Get some sleep. I'll get you in the morning. We'll talk then."
"Don't even bother," Jason said. "If you can't answer now, I'm not going to--"
"Good night, Jason." Mark said it firmly. "I'm tuning off the ringer." The phone clicked.
Jason sat in bed seething. Shortly the nurse entered the room. "How are you feeling?"
Jason swallowed. "I'm just awake. That's all."
The nurse glanced over his chart, gave him his scheduled dose of codeine since he was awake anyhow, and then saw the mouse on the tray. "He's sweet!" She picked it up and looked it in the face. "Does he jump if you wind him up?"
"You can keep it." Jason lay back in bed and shut his eyes. "It doesn't mean anything to me."
At six-thirty in the morning, Jason asked for the discharge papers, then ate his breakfast standing up as he got dressed. By 7:15 he was ready to leave, only Dr. Chung reached the room first. No matter how Jason hurried the man, still he took his time reviewing the procedure and the results and his conclusions. "I think you're going to need one more," Dr. Chung said. "But that will be the last."
Jason sighed. "So, next Wednesday?" He looked ragged and tense, and definitely too tired. The treatments always left him with dark circles around his eyes, but these came from fatigue.
Abruptly Jason tensed. Mark had appeared in the doorway. The doctor said, "Unfortunately, Wednesday's full up. I've written you in for Thursday instead."
Jason shuddered. "I want to get it over with."
"I know." The doctor patted his shoulder. "You've been a very good patient. One day won't make a difference in the long run."
When he left, Jason grabbed his bag and walked past Mark without speaking. Although Jason didn't notice, Mark also had sleepless dark shadows beneath his eyes. His brother caught up to him in a couple of strides. "What were you planning to do, walk home?"
"Have you ever heard of the subway?"
"Have you ever heard of recovery periods?"
"When did you get concerned about my health?" Jason glared at him sidelong. "Or the Chief, for that matter?"
"That's not his fault. I can explain."
"I'm sure you can, and I'm sure I'd be delighted to hear it if I were some kind of idiot who had a chance of believing you." He folded his arms as they waited for the elevator. "Princess was in on it too. I'm so far from impressed right now that you could run a marathon between us."
It was a cold ride back to ISO, though July outside the car. Once upstairs, Jason went straight to his room and collapsed on his bed. Even the trip here had left him wiped out.
At eight o'clock, Chief Anderson came into the room. "How are you feeling?"
Jason lay on his side facing the wall. "Hurt." There was momentary silence. "I know the script says I'm supposed to pretend everything's fine and sulk for a few days, but I'm just too tired to do it."
"I can understand that." The Chief took a deep breath. "Do you mind if I turn on the light?"
Once the overhead went on, Anderson examined Jason, checking the incision, going over his blood pressure, pulse, temperature, and reactivity to light. "Everything physical checks out. Are you still dizzy? Chilled?" When Jason indicated he wasn't, the Chief said, "I didn't realize they were going to change the anesthesia. You were taking progressively longer to come out of the other, though, so I should have." Jason tried to steady himself. The Chief continued, "It's very difficult to watch you going through that, week after week. When you had such trouble rousing last time, it was almost painful. There's nothing I can do for you at those times. I needed a break from it."
Jason said, "But what about me? When do I get a break from being sick?" He swallowed convulsively. "But that's not fair of me. If one of us can get a break, you should take it. Why didn't you just say so straight out?"
"I wasn't sure how you'd react. I thought you'd feel stung."
Jason bit his lip. "I'm too immature to understand that other people have needs? So now everyone has to resort to lying to me to protect me from myself? Or are you afraid I'm about to divulge ISO secrets to everyone if you tell me the truth?"
The Chief looked pained. "I didn't know what Mark told you. I figured he simply suggested he go with you and didn't say anything more. In general, you do prefer his company to mine." Jason looked like he was struggling. Chief Anderson put his instruments back in the bag saying, "That was a bad judgment call on my part. I should have laid it out directly and let you deal with it. I put Mark in a bad position too."
"And you were--" Jason stopped whatever he was about to say. "You could have figured out what was going on yesterday."
"Mark didn't tell me until he returned that night without you, and at that point the nurses said you were sleeping." The Chief didn't reach out to touch Jason even though the latter was quivering from strain. "That was a bad call on his part. He thought when I said I needed a respite, that I wanted nothing to bother me whatsoever."
There was a minute when Jason said nothing at all. Finally he raised his eyes and was able to look a little more directly at Anderson. "I understand."
"I'm sorry you felt hurt. I should have just borne it a little longer. Mark said next Thursday would probably be the last treatment."
Jason shrugged. "You're entitled to a breather. It's okay."
The Chief put a hand on Jason's shoulder as he stood. "I'll be with you next week."
After Chief Anderson left the room, Jason shut the light, then settled back into bed. He cuddled up to his pillow and hugged it to his chest. Once again he could hear the silence like the breathing of a roommate, until suddenly the tension rose in his chest and overwhelmed all his defenses. It overtook him in a moment, barely enough time to get his face into the pillow, and in the next second he was sobbing like an abandoned child. He had enough presence of mind to pull the blankets up over his head, then struggled as hard as he could to get control. Stop! Stop! Stop! He sank his teeth into the pillow and held his breath, but nothing worked. All the frustration and fatigue of five weeks' convalescing poured into the privacy of his room with him helpless to stop the torrent.
Please, God, please, stop this! Jason gulped as he pressed his face harder into the pillow, then dug his fingernails into his arms. After a while, the tears stopped coming, his breathing eased, and he lessened his deathlike clutch. Despite everything, he hadn't made a sound. He tried to let his exhausted body relax, and before long, he lay there asleep.