Note to readers: This is not exactly a death fic, but if you don't like them, you may not like this one.
Ray recognized the story from the morning’s newspaper, as it was read aloud by the voice behind the privacy curtain. “Police say they have three men in custody. They aren’t calling the men suspects yet, but state they are ‘persons of interest’.”
The voice wasn’t so annoying that he felt compelled to silence it. In fact, it was kind of soothing. Kind of… well… kind.
“Meanwhile, police are seeking a fourth man they say may have left the scene in a dress and women’s shoes, in an attempt to evade pursuit.” A snort of laughter. “You wonder if he was wearing a purse and hose to match, huh Starsk?”
For a moment, it was like the voice expected a reply. Ray almost supplied one himself, with an instinctual need to fill the silence behind the curtain. But then the voice continued, wistful.
“It reminds me of that guy we busted that one time at Freddie’s, remember?”
Again, no reply. The voice continued.
“Anyway, it says here that…..”
The sound of another person entering the room.
“Hey Mom,” the voice said. “Looks like you found us OK.”
“Sure is harder without the officers at the door.” A soft chuckle from the voice as the other person, a woman, continued. “How is he tonight, Ken?”
Unlike the voice (who now had a name, “Ken”), the woman who responded sounded older, tired, definitely not soothing -- although Ray could hear a warm smile behind her words.
“The good news is, he started to wake up. The bad news is, he fought the vent. Tried to pull the tube out. So they had to drug him again.”
“So it’s worse than last time, then?” she asked.
A whoosh of exhaled air. Or maybe it was a sigh.
“It’s probably nothing. No one likes having a tube down their throat.”
“Ken?” He wasn’t surprised at her questioning tone. He didn’t believe the voice either.
“The doctor says… he says… well, you remember when Starsky first had the pneumonia? When he wasn’t really acting like himself for a while? Because his oxygen levels were too low?”
Silence. Probably a nod from the woman, he guessed.
“The doctor says it’s possible there was some minor brain damage.” The voice said the words all in a rush, endings indistinct from beginnings. But Ray could understand it, even from the next room over. And so could the woman, he was sure.
“Brain damage?” Panic in her tone.
“From lack of oxygen. His lungs can’t inflate well, because they were damaged so bad. And because of the ruptured diaphragm. That means less oxygen to his brain.”
Sounds of soft sobbing. Ray was glad his mother was long dead. He wouldn’t want to explain Dad’s heart attack to her.
“Mom,” the man’s voice said, around noises that sounded like movement, perhaps toward the upset woman. “It’s only a possibility. We’ll know for sure in the next day or two.” The voice had softened to the point where he could barely hear it. He strained to catch the next words.
But suddenly, the next words didn’t matter anymore. The man laying in the bed next to him, his father, whose hand he had held for hours now, started to stir. “Dad!” he gasped, frantically pushing the nurse button. “You had a heart attack Dad, but you’ll be just fine now. Just fine.” Ray's grip on his father’s hand tightened, the drama next door forgotten.
Later that night he was standing by the nurses’ station, waiting for his father to be moved to another unit. He saw movement out of the corner of his eye. He turned and saw a woman -- 60-ish, gray streaks in her black curly hair, short but sturdy build, gray gabardine trousers and red sweater -- stepping out of the cubicle next to Dad’s. Grief in her movements, stiffness in her step.
He edged closer to the curtain separating the stranger’s cube from the hall. He remembered a nurse bragging about how the ICU had recently been remodeled, from larger sterile glass rooms, to smaller rooms with curtained dividers and moveable walls. More beds, more money, easier for patient care.
He didn’t care, except that the curtains made sound travel better. He could hear the voice clearly: “She’ll be back later, Starsk. It’s too much for her sometimes, you know? You being… asleep… again…..”
Someone called his name. He turned back to the nursing station. He caught a little more of the voice: “Anyway, I’ve got the crossword here. One-down, five letters, the blank-lama……” before his father’s nurse led him away.
It was times like this she wished she worked 8-hour day shifts at a doctor’s office instead of 12-hour night shifts at the ICU. Now, on top of everything else, David Starsky in 4202 was shaking like a leaf and long overdue for a dressing change.
“It’s the albuterol,” she explained to the patient’s partner as she readied her tray. “It does that sometimes. An unfortunate side-effect.”
“Well, it’s making his mom a nervous wreck. And I can’t say it’s doing much for me either,” the man said, as he held David’s arms gently in a futile attempt to stop the tremors. “At least he doesn’t notice,” he added wryly.
“Small miracles,” she agreed. She liked David’s partner, although she could never remember his name. Too many families in and out of the ICU to remember names, except for the patients.
The packet of 4x4’s was nearby, swabs ready, saline open, McGill forceps poised, new dressing and tape neatly arranged. “As long as you have his arms anyway…” she started.
“We’ll roll on three,” he agreed.
“One, two, three.” She got her hands under the patient and shoved, while David’s partner pulled. David had been extubated that morning, so there was a little less need for caution and extra hands.
His back now faced her. Two of the bullet holes were healing as ordered. The third, the lowest, was not. Between infection and pressure from the bed-ridden patient’s own body weight, it now qualified as a decubitous ulcer – one that would have put to shame most of the bedsore pictures in her nursing manual when she was still at school.
“Ooof,” she said as she pulled off the old dressing. “You’ve done a number on yourself David.”
David was still coming down off the sedatives, so neither of them expected a reply.
Which is why she was so shocked when there was one.
“Ooob,” said the patient, in a voice both scratchy and shaky.
“What?” they said to each other, in a verbal double take worthy of Laurel and Hardy.
“Ooob,” the patient repeated.
David’s partner dropped his head down to the patient’s eye level. “You in there Starsk?” he asked tentatively, prompting a wry smile from the nurse.
A small nod from the patient. “Ow. Ooob?” he rasped.
She hadn’t the slightest idea, but the man’s partner did. “Yeah, they tubed you again. That’s why your throat hurts so much. Three days this time. Pneumonia,” the blond man added for clarification. One hand continued to hold David’s tremoring arm, while the other looped over the top of the patient’s head, lightly resting on sweaty, matted hair.
“David, can you stay awake for me for a minute?” she asked. He needed some neuro checks done; the doc was considering possible brain damage.
“Too late,” his partner said with a wan smile. “He’s out again.”
“Well, let’s get this done,” she said, resigned, “and you can call me later if he wakes up.”
David’s partner sat back down and started working the crossword. He usually said nothing in the way of idle chitchat, offered no opinions or histrionics, and she appreciated that. Often visitors got in the way with their panic and speculation and unreasonable expectations. But -- as noted by the grateful nursing staff -- this was a man who understood why a few raspy words were not the equivalent of a full recovery.
She began her nasty, but necessary task – scraping away at dead skin and pus, rinsing, dressing, taping, ignoring the odor that she no longer smelled, except in her worst nightmares.
“As long as his oxygen sats are good, I’m going to leave him on his side,” she said. David’s partner nodded at her. “Takes a little pressure off that wound. I’ve got to pass meds and do a bit of charting now. I’ll be back in a few hours.”
“Thank you,” he said, picking up his newspaper.
“You are welcome,” she responded. She checked David’s central line, noted it was still where it was supposed to be, and walked out of the room. She looked at her watch then, realizing the time, realizing that she should have reminded David’s partner that visiting hours would soon be over. She stepped back over to the curtained area and stuck her head inside.
David’s partner sat with head in hands, body shaking, grief, relief, and confusion palpable even in his silent sobs.
She was an efficient woman, not given to flights of fancy. But suddenly there was no reason in the world why she couldn’t go pass those meds first, before telling David’s partner it was time to go.
Sam was bored, more bored than if he’d been forced to watch paint dry, grass grow, flies fuck… he was bored. He needed to get going. Unfortunately, the patient he was supposed to transport had croaked before Sam’s arrival, leaving the transport driver with nothing to do. Sure, he could call dispatch and get another assignment. But that might be even more boring than sitting here in the med/surg unit, being bored. He sidled his way up to the nurses’ station, looking for treats. The nurses here always had food; it was like a golden rule or something.
“Waiting for my partner,” he replied when a nurse gave him a questioning look. It was partly true. His partner was downstairs, checking out bargains in the gift shop. Sam was supposed to meet her a half-hour ago in the rig. Well, someone’s waiting for someone, anyway, he rationalized.
Sam heard the raised voice from a room down the hall. Curiosity getting the better of him, he edged away from the desk area, and inched toward the source of the sound.
“Dave,” a male voice said. “I’m not saying it absolutely has to be done. I’m just saying it’s something we may face in the next day or two. I wouldn’t be doing my job as your doctor if I didn’t warn you of all possibilities.”
Cough. Wheeze. “There is no fucking way I’m getting tubed again.” Another series of coughs. Jeez, this guy sounded like crap.
“Doc, we just got out of ICU. There have got to be other options.” This was a different voice. Sam moved closer, curiosity driving him forward, figuring out ways to peek into the room without looking like he was peeking into the room.
“Unfortunately, the only option is for David to stop getting sick until his lungs and diaphragm heal, which isn’t realistic at the moment,” the doctor said.
Dude, that was cold, Sam noted with some admiration.
“He’s on the road to Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome,” the doctor continued, as if the patient wasn’t even there. “Once we head down that path, we’ve lost him.”
“I just put his mother on a plane. On the fucking plane! To New York!” the other voice said, the not-sick voice. Not loudly, but kind of intensely. Sam winced. Something about that voice made him very sad. He moved closer to the room, close enough to see the end of a bed, a doctor, and a tall blond man who was pacing back and forth.
“I’ll give you two some time to talk this over. It’s not a decision that needs to be made now. Maybe not at all, if these new antibiotics do their trick. I’m back on rounds tomorrow. We’ll talk then, and I’ll get an update from the nurse tonight.”
Sam sprang back from the door as the doctor strode out, heedless of the 22-year-old eves-dropper. The doctor safely gone, Sam reestablished his position at the door.
“Starsk…” the blond began.
“Save it,” the man in the bed responded. “We both know, the more I get tubed, the more I’ll get tubed. Eventually… “ then he coughed some more, and it seemed like he couldn’t stop this time. The blond man rushed from the end of the bed to the front, where Sam couldn’t see him anymore.
“Shh, shh,” the blond’s voice soothed. The coughing slowed. “You have to understand, buddy, you’re a walking target for every bug in this place. As long as that hole in your back refuses to heal, and as long as your lungs and diaphragm refuse to work like they should, we’re going to have to deal with this. Again and again. We can’t yell at the doctor every time it happens.”
Sam edged further into the room, lurking in the bathroom doorway in an attempt to stay hidden. A brunet man lay in the bed with, an oxygen cannula on his face and an IV in his arm. The blond sat on the edge of the bed. He was helping the other man sit upright, rubbing his back as the patient caught his breath.
“I guess we need a better plan, huh?” the darker man said, his coughs now fading into barely-there wheezes.
“How about you get well? That’s a plan.”
“I think banks in Bolivia may be a better bet,” the patient replied. The other man laughed, one of those laughs that someone gives when they don’t mean it. The brunet man noticed that right away.
“You’re worried I’ll never get better, aren’t you?”
The blond looked at the brunet sharply. Sam hoped his sudden intake of breath wouldn’t be heard. It wasn’t.
“Don’t say that.”
“I may never get better.”
“I may die.”
“Fuck you David Starsky. Fuck you.” The blond leapt up and stalked over to the window. Sam could tell the man wanted to yell or scream or punch the glass or something, but instead he started flipping through an old newspaper that was sitting on the windowsill.
“Say it. Say it. I may die.”
“Hutch, I’ve heard them talking. People have died from a lot less. I might die! I might get sick again, go to sleep and never wake up. Say it! Say it, damn it!” He started to cough again. Tears ran down his face.
“Say it,” the brunet gasped between gulping sobs and coughs. “Say it.”
The blond was crying too, even as he rubbed his friend’s back again to try and calm him down. “OK. OK. You… you might die.”
The man looked up at the ceiling, like he was asking God to tell him a different story. “You might die,” he said again, more like he meant it this time.
Then the blond man took a deep breath. “You might fall asleep and… and never wake up. And I can’t… I can’t…” The man’s voice broke up then, and he leaned into the other man’s shoulder, until it was hard to figure out who was trying to make who feel better.
Sam backed out of the room quickly before finding out what it was that the man couldn’t do. He felt all of a sudden kind of weird watching the whole thing, plus his transport partner was probably pretty pissed off by now anyway.
Maybe he’d steal some nurse goodies from the desk to bring to her, to make it all up.
Henry was lounging in the sunroom, reading the paper, when they brought the patient in. He watched curiously. Was this to be Allen’s new roommate? Grabbing his cane, he got up slowly from his chair; his knees creaked audibly. He shuffled his way down the hall after the cot, forming a strange caravan – first a nursing assistant, then the gurney and attendants, then a tall blond man, then a few feet behind, himself.
Sure enough, they found themselves in Allen’s room. He hovered near Allen while the CNA explained the lay of the land to the blond gentleman.
“This is his bed, his dresser, his wardrobe.” She pointed like she was one of those presenter ladies on the Price Is Right. “You saw the bathroom on our way in. He shares that with Allen. This is Allen,” she says, whipping away the privacy curtain with a flourish.
Allen was asleep, too exhausted and sore after a day of therapy to notice the activity around him. But Henry ventured a polite comment: “Hello, I’m Henry, Allen’s dad. You’ll see me around here a lot.”
“Nice to meet you. I’m Ken,” the blond man said, extending his hand. “This is Dave,” he said, indicating the patient. Like Allen, Dave was asleep. Ken blushed. “It was a long ride…” he started.
“No need. You can see my boy doesn’t put any store in waking up for company either.” Henry and Ken shared a soft chuckle. Shared misery.
The attendants left with their gurney, and the CNA busied herself with making the new patient comfortable. Henry noted with interest the supplemental oxygen, the inhalers, the plastic bin filled with various do-dads obviously meant for Dave’s care.
“I’ll leave you, then. The nurse should stop by shortly. The doctors make rounds in the morning. My name is up there,” she said, pointing with a dramatic sweep at the dry-erase board on the wall, “along with the number for the nursing home front desk. There’s space for you to add special instructions, if you want.”
“Thank you…” Ken paused, looking at her nametag. “… Sandra. Thank you, Sandra.”
“No problem. Henry here can answer questions for you, too. Allen has been our guest for some time, hasn’t he?”
Henry nodded, not sure how else to respond to such an obviously stupid question. Sandra left, and Henry moved to the other side of Allen’s bed, the better to get a look at Dave.
The man was thin, his face lined, his short, wavy, black hair shot with gray streaks. The oxygen bottle connected to a cannula that rested under his nose. Dave’s skin was pale. His lips were blue. Henry was no doctor, but it seemed to him that Dave didn’t look good. Being an open, honest kind of guy, he said so.
“Your friend doesn’t look good.”
Hands full with Dave’s belongings and a stuck dresser drawer, Ken responded with his own question. “What’s his story?” he asked shortly, indicating Allen with a tilt of his head.
“Muscular dystrophy,” Henry answered. “They give him a year. He’ll need a respirator soon. Like your friend did, I guess.” He pointed at the still-healing scar on Dave’s neck, the hallmark of a recent tracheotomy.
Ken appeared not to hear, his mind on the losing battle with the drawer. “Fucking piece of shit,” he muttered. Henry wanted to tell him it was OK to curse louder, it was only a room full of men, but he kept silent.
The tall man dumped a pile of clothing in the bottom of the closet. “He hates having his things in a mess,” he said apologetically. “Hopefully I’ll get it fixed up before he wakes up again.”
He looked at Henry. For a moment, Henry could see the panic, the grief in Ken’s eyes. In those blue windows was reflected the sorrow of a lost soul, a mother torn from a child, a lover taken from a beloved.
Henry had his own problems, his own grief. He wasn’t sure he could handle things if Ken lost it, right here in front of him. He cast about for something to say, anything, to head off the billowing cloud.
“Want a cup of coffee? They make a mean cup in the rec room.”
It was the right thing to say. The words, ridiculous for their normalcy even in his own ears, appeared to allow Ken to reset himself, rebury the grief, tamp down the panic.
“Yes,” Ken said, in puzzled relief. “Yes. I could use a cup of coffee. Thank you, Henry.”
With his eyes closed, he could hear Henry and Hutch doing the crossword. “Hey, Hank,” the familiar voice said, “15-across, six letters. Fish skin.”
His eyes felt heavy, and for a moment he contemplated not opening them. But that would make Hutch upset. He couldn’t upset Hutch.
He struggled through the seaweed of his thoughts, upward like a dolphin through the ocean’s surface, springing out on top. His eyes were open now. But time played tricks on him these days. Henry and Hutch were gone. The lights were low. It was night now. He could hear Allen’s ventilator. He turned to look at Allen and felt a tug at his throat. His trach tube. His ventilator. Not Allen’s. Allen was gone. Starsky felt renewed grief. How long had his roommate been gone? He couldn’t remember. Hutch would tell him.
He closed his eyes again, letting the vent lull him to sleep. In his fevered, oxygen-deprived dreams, he saw himself, healthy and whole, running after Nicky. Reading with Mom. Where was Dad? Dad was gone, dummy. Can’t remember your own Dad is dead and gone? Where was Nicky? Shouldn’t Nick be here, when his big-shot cop brother is dying, slowly drowning in the fluids his own damaged, scarred lungs were producing?
With that rare flash of rational thought, he opened his eyes again. Time had once again passed, with or without his knowledge or approval. Hutch stood over him now, the worry and fear flowing from him like a dry ice cloud. Like those fake fog swirls in haunted houses. Starsky tried to wave away the swirls, but couldn’t find the strength to lift his hand.
“You wanna talk, buddy?”
He nodded. Hutch put a finger over the trach tube to allow speech.
He wanted to ask about Allen. About Henry’s answer to 15-across. About his mother and Nick. About why his Dad wasn’t in his dreams. Hutch would know the answer to all of these things.
But he found himself without the strength to ask. The haunted house swirls swallowed him back into sleep, but not before hearing Hutch stumble to the phone, pick it up, and dial a number long-ago memorized.
“Mom, you need to come now,” the voice said, surprisingly steady. “It’s time.”