Thanks to my extremely patient beta readers--peregrin anna, and inkling, for their time and patience and most of all for their thoughtful insight. Thanks fellow GTA members. :)
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Sand and Water
Gary blearily opened his eyes. He groaned as he looked at the clock. How could it possibly be six-thirty already, he wondered in a sleepy fog. He closed his eyes again...just for a few seconds, he pleaded to the newspaper god. He started to drift back to sleep.
"I'm coming, I'm coming...hold your horses, would ya?" Gary muttered as he flung back the covers and stumbled out of bed towards the door. He cursed mightily as he stubbed his toe on a corner of the coffee table. What a perfect way to start the day, he thought wearily as he opened the door and retrieved the paper.
He hobbled to the sofa, and plopped down, flipping through the pages.
"Woman mugged on EL platform...." Gary turned to the next page after noting
the time and station where the woman had been mugged, "Three injured
in road construction accident..." Gary sighed; he was only a few pages into
the paper, and already his morning was fully accounted for. He turned
to the Metro section. "Child killed in fall from fifth floor...." He
read the details, and then yawning and rubbing the back of his neck, he tossed
the paper on to the coffee table and headed for the shower.
"Hey Marissa," Gary said around a mouthful of bagel. He quickly poured a cup of coffee, and took another bite of the bagel.
"Morning, Gary." Marissa greeted as she made her way towards Gary, and sat at the counter.
"Want some coffee?" Gary offered.
"Yes, thank-you." Marissa answered. She opened her mouth to say something, but hesitated, then cocking her head to the side, she asked, "How busy are you with the paper today?"
Gary swallowed the last bite of his breakfast. "It looks pretty hectic. Why? What's up?"
Marissa shook her head, "Don't worry, it's nothing."
Gary glanced at his watch, and took a final sip of coffee as he stood up. "Gotta go. Talk to you later, Marissa." He snatched up the paper and was out the door in the blink of an eye.
"Bye, Gary." Marissa said to the now empty kitchen, her chin resting in
Gary rubbed his hands up and down his arms, and tried to keep his teeth from chattering. He had neglected to read the weather report in yesterday's paper, and was now paying the price as he shook the rain from his hair. A cool front had moved through, dumping an inch of rain on the city, and dropping the temperature down to a very chilly fifty-five degrees. His lightweight tan jacket did little to repel the cold rain.
He blew in his hands, and tried to ignore the icy stares from the Cabrini Green residents. It was definitely not the best area of town. Cabrini Green was comprised of several highrise apartment buildings run by the Chicago Housing Authority for low-income families. Most of the people who lived there went about their business of trying to survive, but it wasn't easy as the area was mainly controlled by gangs.
He had been waiting on the ground next to the building from where the child was going to fall, for about ten minutes now. At least he thought it was about ten minutes, he wasn't sure, as his watch had stopped working when it became too wet in the rain. He had tried going in the building in an attempt to prevent the kid from falling, but his path had been blocked by a group of young men. He gulped, and wondered if they were part of a gang. He hoped not, and grinned weakly at one of them.
He looked up at the windows, trying to guess from the paper's description of the incident, which one the toddler was going to fall from. Too late, he spotted a small head framed in a window about forty feet to the left of where he stood. He dashed as fast as he could to a spot beneath it, his progress slowed by the thick mud clinging to the soles of his shoes. A sudden wail of terror gave Gary another spurt of energy as he watched in horror as the child toppled from the window.
Arms outstretched, Gary made a final lunge when the boy was only about ten feet from the ground.
"Ooomph!" The impact of the kid landing in his arms knocked him to the ground as one little shoe caught him across the bridge of the nose. Stars burst in his vision, but he clung protectively to the child in his arms.
Gary sat up, blinking mud and tears from his eyes. He inspected the child, determining that he was unharmed when suddenly the screaming toddler was pulled from his arms.
"Oh my poor baby!"
Gary was cupping his bloody nose with both hands, and glanced up to see a young woman hugging the child. "Is he awight?" Gary asked, his nose already beginning to swell.
The woman was crying, but nodded, "Yeah, he seems fine."
By now a crowd had gathered, and someone reached down and grabbed Gary's arm and hauled him to his feet.
"Thaks", Gary said, his voice still muffled from holding his nose. He heard sirens in the background, and tried to make his way through the crowd. He would have made it just fine, as the crowd hurriedly backed out of his way to avoid coming in contact with his mud covered body, but suddenly his knees started shaking.
"Hey man! Take it easy." A young man reached out to steady Gary. "You alright?"
"Uh, yeah. I thik so." Gary mumbled. He felt dizzy, but was too embarrassed to admit it. He shook his head in an effort to clear the fog. A towel was thrust towards him, which Gary accepted gratefully. He tried his best to wipe the blood and mud off his face, wondering if his nose was broken. He winced as he fingered it.
Suddenly, he was swept up into a bear hug, as a woman, crying hysterically, repeatedly thanked him for saving her baby.
Gary tried to extricate himself from the hug. "It was no problem. I was just....well...I just happened to look up--" Gary yelped as her head inadvertently connected lightly with his already battered nose. "....I guess I just got lucky. I gotta...I gotta go." Gary practically shoved the woman away, and beat a hasty retreat.
A few blocks from Cabrini Green, Gary ducked into a McDonalds, drawing disgusted stares from patrons. He hurried to the bathroom and stopped and shook his head as he caught sight of himself in the mirror. No wonder people had wrinkled their noses in disgust, he thought. He was covered head to toe in mud, and his earlier attempts to clean up with the towel had only succeeded in smearing the bloody mess around his face. He wearily turned on the water, and splashed his face.
Ten minutes later, Gary studied his reflection. He shrugged, satisfied. He looked slightly better. His clothes were still a mess, but at least his face and hands were clean. He leaned towards the mirror, examining his nose. It had swollen considerably, but it didn't appear broken. His stomach growled, interrupting his inspection. He wondered if he had time to grab a burger.
A quick glance at the clock behind the counter made Gary swear.
Another day with no lunch. He would be lucky to make it to the platform
in time to prevent the mugging. He couldn't help thinking that if Chuck
had still been here, he would have been able to help out. At least,
he could have driven Gary where he needed to go. Sometimes, now that
Chuck was gone, Gary would use the McGinty's van, but he usually didn't have
time to find parking places. After the third time that it was ticketed
and towed, he had abandon using it unless absolutely necessary. With
a groan, he hurried from the restaurant, and raced to the EL platform.
Gary rubbed his eyes and tried to stifle a yawn. He put his pencil down on the bar, and closed the accounts payable book in front of him.
"Hey, Hobson, you look beat. Why don't you go on; I'll finish up here." Crumb said, wiping off the top of the bar.
Gary glanced at his watch, then remembered that it wasn't working, and looked to the clock above the bar instead. One-fifteen A.M. Crumb was right, he was beat. Literally. He had finished every thing he had to do in the paper, and had come back to McGinty's around six P.M.; just in time to say good-bye to Marissa as she left for the day. Often she stayed later to help out, but tonight, she had seemed in a hurry to leave. Gary couldn't blame her. God knows, he was lousy company.
"Yo! Hobson! You still awake down there?" Crumb called from the other end of the bar.
Gary started. "Yeah, I'm awake," he mumbled, as he pushed away from the bar, gathering the books to return them to the office. He had taken to doing the books out at the bar late in the evening. With Chuck gone, the office was just too quiet. Suddenly he was overtaken by a yawn he just couldn't stifle.
"Go to bed, kid."
Gary grinned tiredly, "I'm going. You'll lock up?"
Crumb nodded and waved him away, "Don't worry. I'll take care of it."
Gary thanked him and wearily trudged towards the stairs leading to his apartment. Already, he was dreading the next morning's wake up call.
Crumb finished cleaning the bar, his mind wandering to his peculiar employer. He had noticed Hobson sporting a swollen nose, but hadn't commented on it, neither had Hobson. Crumb had also heard on the news earlier in the evening, about a child who had fallen out a window being saved by a guy with brown hair. A guy who had fled before being identified. A guy who, according to witnesses, had suffered a bloody nose in the incident.
Crumb shook his head with a wry smile. He'd bet his retirement check that Hobson was the mystery hero.
Sometimes he wondered how the kid knew what he knew. More than once he had come upon the three musketeers, as he privately called the trio of Gary, Chuck and Marissa, huddled together at a table discussing something in hushed whispers, and all three would get quiet when he approached.
He once was tempted to ask Hobson to solve the mystery for him.
It was after Hobson and the district attorney had been kidnapped, but when
he saw the haunted expression on the kid's face that night, and for several
days afterwards, he decided that he didn't want to know. He wanted to keep
his life uncomplicated, thank you very much. He was content to just
help out in whatever way he could.
"Morning, Marissa." Gary said, as he pushed through the doors to the kitchen.
Marissa turned a concerned expression towards him, "Do you have a cold, Gary? Your voice sounds funny."
Gary pulled a bowl and a box of cereal out of a cabinet, and set them on the counter before retrieving the milk from the fridge. "No, I don't have a cold. I got whacked in the nose when I caught a little kid who was falling out of a window."
"Oh, I figured that was you. I heard about it on the radio last night. Did you have a doctor check it out?"
"Nah, it's fine. Just a little sore." Gary said, as he dug into his bowl of Cheerios. The paper was spread open before him; once again full of accidents and mishaps that needed his attention.
"Hmm?" Gary looked up from the paper; something about her tone of voice alerting him that she had something important to say.
Marissa looked uncharacteristically nervous, "I need to ask a favor, Gary."
"Sure. What do you need?"
"I hate to do this to you, but I need to take a few weeks and go see my mother. She's having surgery in two days, and she'll need someone there to help her."
"I hope it isn't anything serious. Will she be okay?"
Marissa swallowed, and said quietly, "She's having a mastectomy. They found a cancerous tumor."
"I'm sorry, Marissa." Gary reached across the table and gave Marissa's hand a squeeze. He felt terrible. How ironic, he thought, that he could go out and save perfect strangers, but when someone close to him was hurting, he was powerless do anything about it.
Marissa nodded, "I know, Gary, but don't worry; my mom's a fighter. She's going to beat this. I just hate to go and leave you short of help, but I think my mom really needs me there."
"Well, yeah, of course you have to go. Don't worry about McGinty's. Crumb and I will do just fine."
"Well, it's not only McGinty's I worry about, Gary."
"What do you mean?" Gary quickly took another bite of cereal, not liking where this conversation was heading.
"You, Gary. You run around like the world will collapse if you don't get to everything in the paper. On top of that, you've taken on most of Chuck's old responsibilities."
"For some people, their world *will* collapse if I don't do what...what I do." Gary said defensively.
Marissa sighed, "I know, Gary, but you can't keep going on like this alone."
"I'll be fine. Don't worry. Just go take care of your mother,
and tell her I wish her a fast recovery." Gary said, hoping to end
the conversation. He quickly finished his cereal and left to do what
it was he did.
"Ow! Dammit!" Gary swore as he cradled his hand protectively. He aimed a kick at the retreating taxi, "You're welcome!" he called sarcastically, garnering strange glances from passersby. Gary examined the hand that the little old lady had slammed in the door, gingerly flexing his fingers. He turned and walked back onto the sidewalk, cursing the paper, taxis, little old ladies and life in general.
He pulled out the first object of his wrath, and with mixed feelings, noted that the article about the eighty-year old woman who had fallen while getting into a taxi, and then being accidentally dragged along the pavement for thirty feet, had disappeared. In its place was an article about the city flushing the fire hydrants.
Gary folded the paper and put it in his back pocket. He had about an hour until he had to be at the next event that needed to be prevented. He ducked into a little hotdog spot on the corner of Hubbard and State Street, and ordered the Chicago dog and a large soft drink.
Finding an empty booth, he ate, staring absently out the window. He watched the people hurrying by. It was near the lunch hour, and the streets were filled with office workers on their breaks. Most people were in pairs or small groups, chatting and laughing as they strolled by the window. Gary took a sip of his drink, trying to recall the last time he had had an actual conversation with someone. Marissa had been at her mother's over a week now. She had phoned a few times, and said everything was going well and that it looked like the doctors had gotten all of the cancer. Gary was relieved. At least something was going right. With Marissa gone, the days had passed in a blur. The paper taking up his day, and working at McGinty's filling the rest of his waking hours. Of course, Crumb talked to Gary, but both of them had been so busy lately, that their conversations usually went along the lines of:
"You order the ten cases of Guinness?"
"Yeah. How is the new waitress working out?"
Gary still brought the books out to the bar every evening, but with Crumb so busy bartending, they didn't get much opportunity to talk. Gary had to admit that he was usually too beat to make conversation anyway, what with the paper and the added responsibilities of running McGinty's.
He thought about hiring another manager, but couldn't bring himself to replace Chuck. If he did decide to hire someone in that capacity, he would have offered the position to Crumb--except Crumb wasn't interested.
Crumb had told Gary flat out, when Gary had hinted at the possibility, that he was happy coming in, tending bar and shooting the breeze with the patrons. Anything more than that would be too much like a real job. Something he wanted to avoid, he told Gary, especially after serving over thirty years on the CPD, he just wanted to do something fun. Gary couldn't blame him.
He sighed as he crumpled the hotdog wrapper into a ball, and tossed into
the wastebasket. Standing, he stretched then headed out the door.
He had places to go; people to save.
Gary lay in bed that night tossing and turning. Though his body was exhausted, he felt restless. He rolled over and saw the time. One A.M. He groaned, dreading another day on only five hours of sleep. He couldn't remember the last time he had gotten to bed at a decent hour. Probably sometime before Chuck had left, he mused.
He wondered how Chuck was doing. When his friend had first gone out to California, he had called frequently, his voice excited as he relayed some of the exciting things that had been going on with his fledgling production company. Gary chuckled as he replayed the conversations in his mind.
"Hey Gar! How are ya doin, buddy?"
"Oh man, Gar, you have *got* to see the women out here. They walk around in bathing suits all day long."
"You're right, Gary, my idea about the guy who gets tomorrow's paper today didn't fly with studio execs, but on the drive out here, I started remembering a dream I had last winter. Remember I told you about that weird dream where I had gone into the future, and someone jumped into me, sort of trading place with me? Well, I proposed a show like that to them. Okay, I didn't actually do the proposing. I approached Bellisarius Productions, and talked it over with them, and we got the okay from NBC to go ahead and start pre-production. We're going to call it "Making a Quantum Leap." Isn't that great?"
Gary had almost dropped the phone at the mention of the title. If only Chuck knew.
Gary reached up and turned on the light. He wondered if it would be too late to call Chuck. It would be a little after eleven P.M. on the coast. Gary decided to chance it.
"Hey, Chuck!" Gary said, a smile spreading across his face as he heard the familiar voice.
"Hi Gar. What are you doing up so late? It must be after one o'clock back there. Is something wrong?"
Gary's smile faded slightly, "Uh, no. Nothing's wrong. I was just awake, and got to wondering how you were doing."
"Oh, well, that's good. Hold on a sec-" Gary could hear Chuck yelling to someone in the background to keep it down a bit.
"Sorry, about that, buddy. I've got some people from the production company over here. We're brainstorming ideas for the show."
"No problem." Gary paused, the moment dragging on; becoming awkward. The pause lengthened, until suddenly, both men began speaking at once.
"How's the show coming along?"
"How's the cat?"
Gary's brow furrowed in puzzlement, "The cat?"
"Yeah, you know. The *cat*."
"Oooh! The *cat*. It's doing just fine. Keeping me busy, as usual."
"Oh." There was another pause, "So, what's Marissa up to?"
Gary told him about Marissa's mother, and how he and Crumb were managing to keep the bar going.
"Hmmm, well it sounds like everything is under control then." Chuck said, his voice light.
"Yeah, I guess so,"
"Something wrong, Gary?"
Gary started guiltily. He wanted to say, 'Yeah, you're damn right something's wrong. I need you back here helping me with this frickin' paper.' But he didn't want Chuck to feel guilty, so instead, he swallowed, and answered, "No, Chuck. Everything's great. Well," he admitted, "we are really busy, what with the bar and the paper to contend with, but we're managing pretty well."
"Um, well that's fantastic. Listen, I hate to cut you off, but I've got people-"
"Oh, hey, no problem, Chuck," Gary said quickly. He cleared his throat, "Well, I guess I'll talk to you later."
Chuck said his good-byes, and hung up. Gary lay back down after
turning off the light. For the next two hours he stared into the blackness,
a strange feeling of emptiness washing over him. He didn't know what
was wrong, but thought maybe he was hungry. He debated whether to get
something to eat, but in the end, was too tired to get up, and eventually
drifted off to sleep.
"Hey Hobson, you don't look so hot. You feeling okay?"
Gary shuffled into the bar and dragged himself onto a barstool. He rubbed the back of his neck, "You got any aspirin back there, Crumb?" It had been two days since Gary's late night phone call to Chuck. Two days of nearly non-stop rescues. He was beat.
"Yeah, here ya go." Crumb slid the bottle down the bar to Gary, and filled a glass of water from the spout and placed it in front him.
Gary shook out a couple and swallowed them down with a big gulp of water. "Thanks, Crumb."
Crumb watched, a frown on his face, as Gary tiredly rubbed his eyes. "Let me give you a piece of advice, kid."
"What?" Gary said quietly, too exhausted to even bother to look up. He just hung his head with both hands now clasped behind his neck; slightly massaging the tense muscles there.
"You're running yourself into an early grave. You gotta take it easy." Crumb advised, his brow furrowed in concern.
Gary shook his head, "I just have a headache. It's not that big a deal."
"Yeah, well you're probably right, but I've seen you practically kill yourself in the last few months since Fishman left. Now, I don't know where it is you go running off to everyday, and I don't want to know, but if you don't start slowing down, you're gonna make yourself sick."
"I wish I could slow down," Gary muttered under his breath as he slowly stood up. "Yeah, I'll try to take it easy the next few days," Gary said out loud, more to pacify Crumb than anything else. God knows, he wanted to, though. In a burst of inspiration-or was it exhaustion, Gary said, "You're right, Crumb. In fact, I'm going to start right now, and hit the sack."
Crumb's mouth rounded into an "O" in surprise. "Well...good. I'm glad to see that you're taking my advice."
Gary nodded, feeling half-asleep as he made his way up to his apartment.
The next morning, Gary awoke with wracking chills and a painful cough. He gathered his comforter around him as he unsteadily made his way to the door.
"Please let there be nothing in the paper." He mumbled as he bent to pick up the Sun-Times. He retreated back to his warm bed, hoping his prayer would come true. He was shaking so hard from chills that it was a few moments before he could hold the paper steady enough to read it. When he did, he swore softly.
"Woman Found Murdered in Parking Garage" read the headline. According to the article in the paper, the police were estimating from the time on the parking slip still on the dashboard, that the murder had happened around nine-thirty A.M. The woman's body had been found in an empty corner on the third level.
Gary pulled the comforter more tightly around him while he debated what
to do. It just figured he'd get sick when no one was around to cover
for him, he thought, rubbing the heel of his hand against his forehead in
a futile effort to alleviate his fierce headache. He checked the rest of the
paper, relieved to find nothing major that needed him. There were a
few minor incidents that under normal circumstances he would have prevented,
but Gary hoped that whoever or whatever sent him the paper would understand
if he let them slide today.
"Listen lady, I'm telling you that there's a woman up on the third floor that's gonna be in trouble unless you call the police right now!"
"Oh yeah? How do you know? You going to do something to her?" The cashier snapped her gum and rolled her eyes.
"No! No, I'm not gonna do-listen, would ya just make the call?" Gary leaned one shoulder against the booth for support as his stomach felt suddenly queasy.
The woman shook her head, "Sorry. Can't do that until security checks it out first." She seemed unconcerned as she made change for a car that was exiting.
"Fine! Call security, then get the cops on the phone, all right?" Gary sighed, and turned his back slightly away from the cashier as he checked the story in the paper.
"Dammit!" Nothing had changed except that the victim's body had been found a few minutes earlier. He turned back to the cashier, angry to find her chatting happily with a customer as she took the parking stub and rang up the man's total.
Gary rapped on the glass, "Hey!", he nodded towards the phone, "How about making that call to security?"
"I'll get to it just as soon as I ring these cars up."
Gary looked back at the line of cars waiting to exit, his eyes widened with incredulity, "But...but there are at least five cars in line!"
The cashier flashed him an annoyed look, and kept right on doing her job.
Not willing to waste any more time, Gary took off in a sprint for the nearest elevator. He waited, his breathing coming in rapid pants, for the elevator to come down to his floor. He thought about taking the steps, but sharp pains in his right side every time he took a breath short-circuited that idea.
Finally, it arrived, and Gary entered, punching the button for the third floor and leaning heavily back against the wall in an attempt to catch his breath.
The doors slid open, and Gary stepped out, his body tense, senses alert. He rounded the corner of the elevator bank, eyes scanning the dimly lit parking level.
About sixty feet away, he spotted a woman and man standing near a car. He almost dismissed them as possible victim and murderer because the woman wasn't screaming and the man appeared to be smiling, but something about the way the woman was standing made him take a second look, and he started walking in their direction.
The woman was clutching a briefcase and was shaking her head no as she glanced at her watch. The man said something to her, and he reached out and touched her hand, a wide smile on his face. The woman seemed to come to a decision, and hesitantly started to walk away from the elevators and Gary.
Maybe it was the man's too wide smile, or the woman's hesitation, whatever it was, suddenly Gary was certain that the man was the murderer, and the woman was the would-be victim.
"Hey, wait!" he called, his voice echoing in the cavernous garage.
The man ignored him, but the woman stopped and turned, her expression one of puzzlement. The man must have said something to her, because she turned back to him and took a few steps in his direction.
Gary began jogging, one hand clutching his side. "Hey lady!", he gasped out when he had crossed half the distance to her, "Don't go with that guy! He's gonna hurt you if you do!"
The woman stopped in her tracks and started to back away from the man. His formerly benign grin twisted into a snarl as he made a grab for the woman. She swung her briefcase at him, catching him in the shoulder and knocking him off balance. The woman then took off towards Gary, an expression of pure terror on her face.
The man started to follow, but apparently didn't like the odds of two against one, and ran in the other direction and jumped into a car.
Just as the woman reached Gary, the elevator doors opened and two security officers stepped out. It seemed the cashier had finally called them after all. The terrorized expression on the woman's face spurred the officers to action as they rushed up to Gary, knocking him to the ground.
"Hey! I didn't do anything!" Gary protested. He grunted as a knee ground into the middle of his back.
"Stop!" the woman shouted. "He's telling the truth."
"Are you sure, lady?" One of the officers asked, reluctant to release Gary.
"Yes, I'm sure." The woman stated, letting out a shaky breath. The sound of squealing tires made them look up as black sports car tore through the garage and raced down the ramp.
"That's him!" The woman shouted and pointed.
One of the security guards grabbed his radio speaking rapidly into it, while the other sprinted for the steps.
Gary gingerly sat up, rubbing the dirt and grease from the pavement off the side of his face.
Gary glanced up, "You're welcome."
The woman offered a hand, which Gary took gratefully as he pulled himself to his feet, swaying slightly.
"I feel so stupid," the woman said. She shook her head in disgust, "I should've known better. I knew something wasn't right about the situation, but he said that his car wouldn't start and his daughter was in it sleeping. He asked me to just keep an eye on her while he went to call a tow-truck."
She took a tissue out of her jacket and handed it to Gary, indicating a spot he had missed on his cheek. "It's just that he seemed so nice," she continued. "He told me how his daughter just loved going to pre-school, but that today she hadn't felt well and he was on his way to the pediatrician."
She paused for a moment, as though lost in thought. "He tried to make me feel guilty. When I told him that I was late for an appointment, he sort of rolled his eyes and said, 'Oh, a career woman. Sorry to bother you.' I should have trusted my instincts."
Gary was trying to listen to her, but it seemed like the room had begun to spin. He shook his head trying to clear it.
"Are you okay?"
Gary started to answer, but suddenly darkness closed over him.
Gary blinked slowly. Something was sticking in his nose, and he reached up to remove it.
"No, don't touch that, okay?"
Gary looked to his right trying to locate the voice. It belonged to a paramedic who was kneeling beside him. Gary put his hand back down, and tried to figure out why he was flat on his back in the middle of a parking garage surrounded by paramedics, police officers and a familiar-looking woman. He suddenly remembered why he had been in the garage in the first place, but that left him even more puzzled. If everything turned out okay, then why was he lying here?
"Hey?" he tugged on the paramedic's sleeve to get his attention. "What happened?"
"You passed out, buddy," came the reply, as the paramedic tightened a tourniquet around Gary's arm.
"I passed out?" Gary couldn't believe it. He had never fainted before, and felt silly lying there with a gathering crowd of people gawking at him. He glanced down at his arm, "Wha-what are you gonna do?" He didn't think he was going to like the paramedic's answer.
"I'm preparing to start an IV. Just hold still, now."
Gary grit his teeth as his skin was punctured by the sharp IV catheter. Nope, he didn't like this one little bit. "Look, I'm fine now. You can just take all this stuff off me, and I'll be on my way, okay?"
The paramedic paused in the process of taping the IV down, "I wouldn't advise that, sir. You've been out for almost ten minutes, and you're running a high temp." The man finished taping the line in, and sat back on his heels, giving Gary a level look. "Technically, you can refuse treatment, but I don't think it would be in your best interest. Why don't we take you to the hospital, let them discover *why* you passed out, and then you can decide what to do after that, okay?"
Gary sighed, and reluctantly nodded his head, "Okay, but do all these people..." Gary nodded towards the onlookers. Before Gary could finish the sentence, the paramedic took the clue, and asked the police to clear the crowd out.
A few moments later, Gary was loaded into an ambulance. He closed his
eyes and relaxed, relieved to be shielded from the curious spectators.
Gary must have fallen asleep, because the next thing he knew, he was in a small cubicle in an emergency room. His shirt and jeans had been removed and a hospital gown had taken their place. A nurse appeared and stuck a thermometer in his ear. In only a few seconds, the probe was removed, and the nurse's eyebrows went up, but she didn't say a word. A plastic clip was attached to Gary's finger, and a rapid, but steady beep-beep emitted from a monitor behind his head.
The nurse was intently watching the monitor, her brow furrowed. She turned back to Gary, and fiddled with the clip on his finger.
After a few moments, she shook her head, "Eighty-four? That can't be right." She adjusted the oxygen tubing in Gary's nose, sighed, and said, "I'll be right back, okay?"
*Sure. Whatever.* Gary nodded, and closed his eyes, more exhausted than he cared to admit.
The nurse returned shortly with the doctor in tow. The nurse hooked Gary up to a heart monitor while the doctor went to the sink and washed his hands.
"Hi, Gary. I'm Dr. Nielsen. Can you tell me what happened today?"
"Umm...well...I guess I just passed out." Gary squirmed, uncomfortable under the doctor's scrutiny.
"Were you sick? Did you have any symptoms?"
"Yeah, I guess. I woke up not feeling well."
"Did you have a fever? Chills?" The doctor took the stethoscope from around his neck, and motioned for Gary to sit forward.
"I had chills, but I don't know about a fever. I don't have a thermometer," Gary admitted.
Dr. Nielsen finished listening to Gary's breathing, and stepped back. "I'm going to order some lab tests and a chest x-ray. I think you could have a pneumonia, but I'll know more when I get the test results, okay?"
"Thanks, Doctor." Gary sighed, triggering a bout of coughing that left him breathless and clutching his right side.
The doctor cocked his head to the side. "Does it hurt to take a breath?"
Gary nodded, still too short of breath to do more.
Dr. Nielsen turned towards the nurse. "Order a chest x-ray and an ABG, stat. I don't like the looks of that pulse ox reading."
The nurse nodded, "Yes, I know. His sats were only eighty-four on two liters of oxygen when he came in, so I bumped him up to four liters, but he's still only at eighty-six."
Gary watched the exchange between them, wondering why they were talking as though he weren't in the room. "What's wrong?"
"I'm sorry, Mr.Hobson. I didn't mean to alarm you, it's just that your oxygen level seems a bit low. We'll get some blood and check it, but in the meantime, just try to rest, okay?"
A little over an hour later, most of the tests had been completed, and Gary was feeling thoroughly rung out. He had a fierce headache, his stomach was still churning, every muscle in his body ached and worst of all, every breath sent a stabbing pain shooting through the right side of his chest. The nurse had brought him a couple of acetaminophen tablets, but they hadn't seemed to have kicked in yet. All he wanted to do was to go home, climb into his own bed, pull his covers up and sleep for a week.
"Mr. Hobson? Gary?"
Gary's eyes snapped open. He must have dozed off, though he wasn't sure. He struggled to sit up, as the doctor approached. "Yes?"
Dr. Nielsen pulled a stool up to the side of the bed. "Well, Gary, I was right. You do have a pneumonia; a fairly extensive one in the right lung. You're being admitted to the telemetry unit because your heart rate is a bit fast also-probably from the fever, but I want to be on the safe side."
"Now, wait a minute," Gary protested. "I...I can't stay here. I've got things to do. I have to go home. Can't you just give me a prescription for antibiotics?"
The doctor shook his head. "I'm sorry, but you're going to have to receive intravenous antibiotics for this extensive of a pneumonia."
"Are you sure? Can't I just-"
"Listen, Gary, you have a *very* serious bacterial pneumonia. Your oxygen level is less than half what it should be-and that's with supplemental O2. In fact, in just a few minutes, the nurse is going to be bringing in an oxygen mask that will allow us to give you higher concentrations of O2. In addition, did you know that you're temperature when you were brought in was one hundred and four degrees?"
Gary shook his head, and swallowed. "How did I get this? I didn't even have a cold."
"Well, the bug I think you've got comes on very suddenly and without warning. I won't know till lab tests come back, but it can hit anyone, though it's most common in people with compromised immune systems."
The doctor appeared slightly uncomfortable, "I have to ask you if you have ever been tested for HIV."
Gary felt himself blanch and turn cold. "N-no. Why?"
"With your permission, we'd like to draw some blood, and test it for that. However, don't be alarmed. HIV is only a very remote possibility. There are many other reasons why someone's immune system isn't up to par."
Gary tried to listen as the doctor continued to explain, but his mind was still stuck on three little letters. HIV. He couldn't have that...could he? He didn't do drugs and he wasn't exactly a ladies man, so how could he have possibly contracted something like that?
"...chemotherapy, people taking steroids or without spleens. Shoot, even undue stress can lower a person's resistance."
Gary looked up sharply. "I had my spleen out last year." Not to mention the loads of stress, Gary thought wryly.
The doctor stood up, "You did? How come?" He leaned over Gary, pulling the hospital gown up to see the scar from the incision for himself.
"I was caught in that bombing of the Sears Tower."
"Did you get a pneumonia vaccine?"
Gary thought for a minute. He seemed to remember the doctor mentioning something about that, but he couldn't recall if he had actually had one done. "I don't know. Maybe they gave me one in the hospital, but I'm not sure."
"Hmmm...well, that could explain it. Anyway, we'll get a hold of your medical records and find out for sure. You just rest, okay? Also, is there anyone you would like us to call? Family? Friends?"
Gary paused, then slowly shook his head. "No, there's no one."
Dr. Nielsen hesitated, then nodded. "Okay. You'll be going to your room soon anyway, so if you think of anyone, you can always call from there."
His parents had taken the Gray Ghost on a cross country jaunt, and there was no telling where they were right now. Besides, his mom and dad finally seemed to be enjoying themselves again. The last time they had called, from somewhere in Montana, they had sounded like a couple of newlyweds, and Gary didn't want to spoil it for them. By the time they got back, he'd be fine and they would have cut short their vacation for nothing.
Chuck? No, he couldn't call Chuck. Things were going too well for him now. He had escaped the clutches of the paper and sounded happy and relaxed when Gary talked to him on the phone. No way did Gary want to mess up Chuck's prospects in Los Angeles.
Marissa? Definitely not. She had enough to worry about with her mom's illness. It wouldn't be fair to burden her with worry over Gary and McGinty's.
Crumb? Well, Gary supposed he would have to call him. He cringed as he imagined Crumb's gruff voice asking him what kind of trouble he had gotten into now. He hoped Crumb could handle McGinty's by himself for a few days.
Gary lay back, closing his eyes, he wondered if Crumb would think to feed the cat.
What was he going to do about them? He couldn't stay here. There was no one to pinch hit for him anymore. Gary sat up and methodically began to disconnect the equipment attached to him. Off came the leads to the heart monitor. Next went the little clip on his finger, followed by the oxygen. He hesitated when he came to the IV, but biting his lip, he quickly pulled it out, stifling a gasp of pain.
Now, what the hell had they done with his clothes? Gary looked about the small room, and spied a plastic shopping-type bag on a chair in the corner. That must be them, he thought gratefully. He looked for the lever to lower the side rails of the gurney, though it took a few tries to figure out which way they went when he finally did locate them. He swung his legs over the side of the gurney and pushed himself into a standing position.
He swayed unsteadily, surprised at how dizzy and weak he felt. He started to take a few steps towards the corner, when the door burst open.
The nurse and doctor stood in the doorway, their mouths hanging open in surprise. The doctor was the first to speak.
"What the hell are you doing?"
Gary was beginning to wonder that himself, as his knees began to buckle but he willed them to remain locked. "Sorry, but I can't stay here," he apologized. "I have too much to do at work and home, and...and--"
His thoughts started to become muddled, and for a moment he forgot why he had to go home. He made it to the chair, but found that he would have to sit for a moment before he could get dressed.
Dr. Nielsen caught Gary by the elbow. "Listen, Gary. If you go home, you will die. Do you understand that?"
Gary looked at him in blank confusion. Die? No. He was just a little worn out, that's all. "Sorry, Doc, but I have to go. The paper, ya know," he mumbled. "It-it doesn't let me take sick time. I have ta go, 'cause I don't have anyone left to help me, 'kay?"
The doctor tightened his grip on Gary's elbow while the nurse grasped him around the waist.
"Come on, Gary," the nurse said, "Let's get you back to bed."
Gary attempted to shake them off, but almost lost his balance in the process. To his embarrassment, he felt hot tears well up in his eyes, "You don't understand. I have responsibilities!"
"Shhh, it's okay, Gary. Someone else can take over for now." The doctor soothed, as together with the nurse, they succeeded in getting Gary back on the gurney.
Gary sighed, "No, they're all gone. I'm the only one left."
Crumb whistled softly as he wiped down the bar. It was a slow night. Mid-week with no baseball games scheduled tended to do that to business.
He wondered where Hobson was. Even though the kid had a crazy schedule, he usually checked in at least once during the day to see how everything was going. Especially now with Marissa out of town. It just wasn't like him.
Crumb put the rag away, and checked the time. Eight o'clock. He had a funny feeling that something wasn't right. Aw, jeez, he told himself, now you're starting to sound as bad as Hobson. He shook his head and chuckled.
Still, when the phone rang a few minutes later, Crumb rushed to answer it.
Crumb smiled in relief. "Hey, Hobson. Ya know, it'd be kind of nice if ya let a person know where you're going and when you'll be back," he said gruffly.
"Sorry. I didn't get a chance to call until now."
Crumb's brow furrowed. The kid's voice sounded strange. Muffled almost. "What's going on? You in trouble again?"
"No, I-" Gary started coughing, and it was a minute or so before he was able to talk again. "Sorry about that."
"No problem. You all right? You sound kind of funny."
"Um, well, actually--I'm in the hospital."
Crumb sighed. Why wasn't he surprised? "What for this time? No--don't tell me. You were trying to stop a squirrel from getting hit by a bicycle and you were hit instead? Am I close?"
Gary chuckled. "No, it has nothing to do with the pa--, well, with what I do. I just have pneumonia."
"Pneumonia?" Crumb became serious, "Are you gonna be okay?"
"Yeah. I just have to stay in a few days to get some antibiotics."
"Well, that's good. You want me to call Chuck or Marissa?"
"No. There's no point in telling them. It's not that bad, and I'll be out of here in a few days anyway. Marissa has her mother to worry about, and Chuck's pretty busy out in LA, and I--I don't want to bother him."
"Bother him? Hobson, the guy's your best friend. I don't think you'd be *bothering* him." Crumb shook his head. Hobson sounded like he was holding back. "You sure you're gonna be okay?"
"Yeah, Crumb, I'm sure. Look, I have to go now. Someone's here to draw some more blood." Gary then told Crumb the name of the hospital, and his room number, and made him promise not to call either Chuck or Marissa.
"Okay, take it easy, kid." Crumb hung up. He didn't like the sound of this. He looked up Chuck's phone number and lifted the receiver, but reluctantly replaced it, cursing Hobson for making him promise not to call Chuck.
Suddenly, Crumb smiled with inspiration. *Lois Hobson*. Crumb chuckled gleefully as he looked up Hobson's parents' phone number. He never promised not to tell them. He dialed the number, and waited, becoming impatient as the answering machine picked up. He swore softly as the damn machine gave short beeps, but never the long one signaling the caller to leave his message. The tape must be full. Crumb hung up, frustration making him slam the phone down with uncharacteristic vehemence.
He sighed. What else could he do? He was probably making too big
a deal about it, anyway. The kid said he was going to be fine.
No reason not to believe him. Crumb decided that first thing in the
morning, he'd swing by the hospital and find out for himself how Hobson
Crumb walked briskly down the corridor of the hospital. He found Hobson's room, and knocked on the door as he entered. "Hey Hobson! Thought you could take a vacation...." He stopped abruptly when he realized the bed was empty. Crumb took a quick peek into the other side of the room, but the patient in that bed was an old man. He turned and walked out to the nurses' station.
"Excuse me? Nurse?" Crumb called to the first nurse he spotted. "Can you tell me which room Gary Hobson is in?" Maybe the kid had already been discharged and had taken a cab home.
The nurse took a folder off a shelf and opened it, running her finger down the page, "Hobson? Oh, here it is," she paused, looking up at Crumb. "Are you family?"
Crumb went still. He knew he should have listened to his gut feeling last night. "Uh, no. I'm a friend. Why?"
"It seems he was transferred to intensive care last night."
"Why?" Crumb cursed inwardly. He should have known that Gary would play down how sick he was.
The nurse shook her head, "I'm sorry, I don't know. He was gone before I came into work today."
Crumb sighed, "Okay, thanks. Listen, how do I get to intensive care?"
The nurse gave him directions, and added quietly, "You might think about, um, becoming *related* to Mr. Hobson, otherwise they won't let you in to see him."
Crumb blinked, then nodded, "Gotch ya. Thanks again."
"Okay, now roll the other way."
Gary obeyed; clinging to the side rail of the bed as one nurse put a clean sheet on half the bed, and bunched the excess sheet in a roll behind Gary's back. A nurse's aid had one hand on Gary's shoulder, the other behind his knee, as she helped him to stay on his side. Gary was grateful that she was there, because just the act of rolling on his side left him breathless. His knuckles were turning white from his grip on the rails.
"Now, back towards me, Gary."
Gary relaxed his grip on the rail, and rolled over the sheet bunched in the middle of the bed. The aid grasped the roll, and pulled it out and tucked it under the mattress.
Totally exhausted, Gary lay flat on his back in the middle of the bed; eyes closed as he panted for air. Dimly, he heard the nurses chatting as they tidied up the room, but he was almost asleep. He didn't notice when one of them picked up a newspaper from the end of his bed.
"Ellen? Is this yours?" The aid held the Sun-Times up for Ellen to see.
Ellen shook her head. The aid shrugged, tossing the paper onto a chair
in a corner. "I doubt he'll much like reading the paper today." She
gathered the dirty linen into a ball, and deposited it into the hamper.
Crumb paced impatiently in the ICU waiting room. He had already been made to wait over an hour because the nurse had said that they were busy with Hobson. He was just about ready to go storming into the unit when the door opened and a nurse poked her head out. Before she had a chance to speak, Crumb hurried over. "I'm here to see Gary Hobson."
The nurse stood back, holding the door open, "I was just coming to get you. You can see him now, Mr. Hobson."
"How is he doing?" Crumb asked anxiously as he followed her through the unit.
"He's stable, for the moment."
The nurse stopped in front of a room, and Crumb hesitated, "What do you mean by 'stable'? I talked to him last night on the phone, and he sounded okay. How come he's down here?"
"His breathing was becoming more labored, and his oxygen level was dropping some more, so, as a precaution, he was transferred down here where we can keep a closer eye on him."
"But he's gonna be okay now, right?"
The nurse shrugged, "He's stable for now. That's all I can tell
Crumb walked into Hobson's room; he opened his mouth to ask how he was doing, but closed it wordlessly when he saw that the kid was sleeping.
A chair was placed near the bed, and Crumb quietly sat down. His eyes took in the multiple IV poles laden with bags dripping mysterious fluids into his friend's veins. Wires snaked under the covers, presumably attached somewhere on Hobson's person. An oxygen mask was resting over his nose and mouth; a small plastic bag attached to the bottom of the mask; moving slightly in and out in time to Hobson's rapid breathing.
Somehow, Crumb didn't think the kid would be going home in a few days. He looked too sick. Crumb was surprised at how young and vulnerable Hobson appeared while sleeping. Like a kid.
Crumb sighed, and thought about leaving. It was almost time to go
get McGinty's ready to open, but he hated to go without talking to Hobson;
making sure that he was okay. He'd give it a few more minutes.
Gary coughed, the pain in his chest waking him. He glanced around the room, sensing another's presence.
"Oh, hey Crumb." Gary pushed the button to elevate the head of the bed.
Crumb stood up and took a step to bring him next to the bed. "How are you feeling, Hobson?"
Gary shrugged. "Okay, I guess." He gave Crumb a tired smile and admitted, "I've felt better."
"So, when were you planning to tell me how sick you were? Or was I gonna have to wait until the funeral home called?" Crumb folded his arms in front of him, giving Gary a stern look.
"Uh, sorry. I didn't plan on--well, that is, I didn't know--I guess it just came on so suddenly that I didn't get a chance to tell anybody," Gary finished lamely. He was surprised. If he didn't know better, he would have thought that Crumb was worried about him. Usually Gary had the impression that while Crumb *liked* him, he also thought that Gary was a bit strange, and so kept his distance a little bit. After all, they had only known each other for about eighteen months, and for the first twelve, Gary had been nothing but a pain in the neck to Crumb.
Crumb's expression softened slightly. "Well, okay. Did you let your parents know, at least?"
Gary shook his head. "I couldn't. They're traveling around the country. I don't even know where they are right now. They call about once a week to check in, but they aren't due to call me for another four or five days."
"Humph." Crumb snorted. "What about Chuck and Marissa? I really think you ought to tell them."
Gary looked undecided. "What would be the point, Crumb? They have their own lives and problems. I don't need to burden them with mine. They've already done so much in the last couple of years it wouldn't be fair."
"Well, I don't know exactly what you're talking about, but if you mean helping with McGinty's, well, I'm sorry, but Fishman was your *partner*. He was *supposed* to help you. Now he's off chasing some pipe dream in California, while you're stuck with all the problems."
Gary glanced away, not wanting Crumb to see close to home he had hit. He felt guilty for feeling that Chuck had abandoned him. After all, Chuck was *entitled* to live his own life. Gary knew that, but then why did he feel resentful?
Gary sighed. "I know, Crumb, but I still wish you wouldn't call them. Please?" Gary closed his eyes, the conversation exhausting him.
Crumb put a hand on Gary's shoulder, "Okay, Hobson, but I don't like it."
He sat back in the chair.
Chuck opened the fridge and pulled out a bottle of beer. Taking a long, satisfying swig, he wandered over to his answering machine. The red light was blinking. Chuck hit the play button, and flopped down into an easy chair next to the machine. He took another sip from the bottle, ignoring the messages from hopeful actors, would-be writers, and second-rate directors. He didn't know how it happened, but somehow these people were able to ferret out every little project that might possibly need their 'talents'.
There were no messages from anyone that mattered. Chuck sighed and hit the erase button on the machine. He found the remote trapped between the cushion and the side of the chair, and turned on the television. He flipped through the channels, more to have something to do than because he was actually interested in watching anything.
"Oh, hey, the Cubbies!" Chuck exclaimed when he came across a Chicago game on cable. He got up to get another beer, and grabbed a bag of pretzels to munch on. He re-settled himself in the chair, happily singing along to a recording of Harry Carey singing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame".
The song took him back to the time he and Gary had gone to a double-header in Wrigley Field. They had sat in the right field bleachers, and, along with the rest of the crowd, had good-naturedly teased the opposing team's right fielder. Several beers into the game, neither of them had even felt the sunburn on their backs. Gary had caught a homerun ball, but since it was hit by the other team, he had heaved it back onto the field, a silly grin plastered on his face.
Chuck chuckled at the memory. He focused on the TV when Sammy Sosa came up to bat. The guy was red-hot. Wouldn't it be a kick in the butt to catch one of his homer's? Chuck wondered if Gary had gone to any games this year. He'd have to remember to ask him next time they talked on the phone. Chuck shifted guiltily as he remembered the last time Gary had called. It had been nagging at him ever since. He'd had those production bozos over, and had been unable to concentrate on what Gary was saying due to all the racket the guys had been making. He had meant to call Gary back the next day and apologize, but he had gotten busy and had never found the time. Well, Gary would understand. Gary was nothing if not understanding.
Chuck finished his first beer, and opened the second one that was waiting on the table. *Yep. That's Gary. Mr. Understanding*. Chuck took a long swallow, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. He wondered if Gary had been up to anything exciting as far as the paper was concerned. He hated to admit it, but he almost missed the thrill of helping to try to change the future.
Chuck set his beer down, and picked up the phone, dialing Gary's number. He frowned when the answering machine picked up. He left a brief message. Chuck glanced at his watch. It was eight o'clock his time, which meant it was ten o'clock Chicago time. He dialed the number to McGinty's.
"Hey Crumb! How are ya doin!" Chuck sat forward on the edge of the chair, grinning from ear to ear.
"Fishman? That you?"
"Yeah, it's me. How are things going?"
There was a pause, and Chuck's smile slowly faded. "What's wrong?"
"What's *wrong*, Fishman? What's wrong is that you're out in Tinsel Town when Hobson needs you here!"
Chuck held the phone away from his ear, wincing. "Hey, wait a minute, Crumb. I just talked to Gary a few days ago, and he said everything was fine."
"Yeah, well, it's not so fine anymore," Crumb said, accusingly. "He made me promise not to call you or Marissa, but since you called *me*, I guess I'm not technically going back on my word."
"He made you promise?" Chuck ran a hand through his hair. He didn't like the sound of this. "What the hell is going on?"
"What's going on is your ex-partner was running around here like a maniac trying to do everything. He ran his ass off so much that he made himself sick!" Crumb practically bellowed into the phone.
"Yeah. Sick. He's in the hospital right now."
Chuck felt a cold knot in the pit of his stomach. "Gar's in the hospital?"
"You sound like a damn parrot, Fishman. Yeah, he's in the ICU with pneumonia."
"Pneumonia? ICU?" Chuck repeated, then winced at his stupidity. "Is he gonna be all right?" He heard Crumb sigh.
"I don't know. I went to visit him this morning, and he didn't look so good. On the way out, I ran into his doc coming in, and asked him a few questions. He said that there can be complications of this type of pneumonia."
"What kind of complications?" Chuck stood up and turned off the television.
"I didn't understand all his medical mumbo-jumbo, but it sounded something like the possibility of the bacteria moving into the bloodstream or infecting the brain."
"Shit!" Chuck grabbed his empty beer bottle and flung it into the garbage. "Did you call his parents?"
"No. I tried. Hobson said that they're traveling around the country."
"Okay. I'm taking the first flight I can get. In the meantime, have Marissa keep trying to get in touch with his parents. I think Gary keeps-"
"Marissa's not here."
"What?" Chuck paused in the act of pulling the phone book out of a drawer. "Where is she?"
"She's at her mother's house. I guess her mom had some surgery and Marissa wanted to be there to help her afterwards."
"Oh man!" Guilt flooded through Chuck as he remembered Gary telling him about Marissa going to her mother's house. He had forgotten all about it; too caught up in his own life at the moment to spare a thought for Gary back in Chicago. He groaned, all hell was breaking loose. "How long has Marissa been at her mother's?" He couldn't recall the details that Gary had told him.
"About two weeks."
"Two weeks? Gar's had to do everything by himself for *two* weeks?" Chuck leaned over the kitchen counter, his head in his hands, the phone tucked between his shoulder and ear. Why hadn't Gary told him that he needed help? Chuck thought back to the phone call Gary had made a few nights ago. He remembered the awkwardness; the forced lightness of Gary's voice. Maybe Gary had tried to tell him. Maybe he hadn't listened. Chuck mentally castigated himself.
"Hey, I've been tending bar most nights." Crumb sounded slightly defensive.
"Yeah...yeah, I know, Crumb. It's just that Gary can get *really* busy doing...uh...doing other stuff."
"Yeah, well...whatever it is that he does is gonna have to wait, 'cause the kid sure ain't gonna be doing much of *anything* for awhile."
Chuck thought about Crumb's words, wondering where the paper was. "Have you seen Gary's cat around?"
"Huh? I'm telling you that Hobson is sicker than a dog, and you're worried about some cat!?"
Chuck bit his lip, "Well, Gar's very attached to that cat. He'd be pretty upset if something happened to it."
"Fine, Fishman. If I see it, I'll be sure to give it a bowl of milk, okay?" The sarcasm practically leapt out of the phone.
"Yeah. Um...Crumb? If you see Gary before I do...just tell
him...uh...tell him that I'm on my way and that I'll take care of *everything*,
okay?" Chuck closed his eyes, picturing Gary trying to drag an IV pole around
while out saving the world. The image almost made him smile. Almost.
Gary put the spoon down, giving up on his attempt to eat the evening snack of orange sherbet the nurse had brought him. He pulled the O2 mask, which had been temporarily resting on top of his head while he tried to eat, back down over his mouth. He glanced disinterestedly at the TV. The Cubs were playing. He wondered if they were winning.
His eyes burned from the fever, but he didn't really feel like sleeping. He ached all over, but his chest most of all. The very act of breathing seemed to sap all of his energy. He watched as Sammy Sosa came up to bat. Boy, what he wouldn't give to be at Wrigley Field with Chuck. A couple of hot dogs, and a few cold beers. Perfect. Gary pictured the scene--the sun shining, the wind blowing out, the ivy rippling in the breeze. He could almost hear the cries of the vendors as he attempted to take his mind off his misery.
His mental imagery worked. For about a minute. Then he groaned softly, as he tried to get comfortable. Gary knew he should try to sleep, but he was too anxious about the paper. He hadn't seen it all day. What if some kid was out there getting run over by a car this very minute? What if a woman was being mugged in Lincoln Park? Or someone had a gas leak and their house exploded? The possibilities for disaster were endless, and they all raced through Gary's fevered mind.
At least when he had been stuck in that theater for those two days, the cat had delivered the paper to his dad. Of course, Gary hadn't known that at the time, but he had thought that maybe Chuck would find the paper. While Chuck might have placed a few bets, Gary was sure that he would've saved anyone that needed it. Pretty sure.
This time, there was no one the cat could go to. No one that Gary knew of anyway. Maybe the cat would find a new person.
At this point, Gary wasn't sure if he cared or not. He'd had a decent life before the paper--well, except for his divorce from Marcia. The paper had succeeded in isolating him from most of his friends. Chuck had hung around the longest, but even he, in the end, had left.
Marissa was still here, but Gary wondered how long she would stick around. He couldn't blame her if she left, or at least, distanced herself from him. What if someday she met someone and got married? How would she explain someone like Gary to her husband?
Who would help him then?
"Come on...come on, buddy." Chuck impatiently waved down a cab in front of the United Airlines terminal at O'Hare. His day had not started out at all well. He'd had to fly stand-by, so that had meant waiting around for several hours at LAX. Then, when he had arrived, there was a mix-up in the luggage area, and it took another thirty minutes to straighten that mess out. It was now three P.M. Chicago time, and Chuck hadn't had a chance to check in with Crumb concerning Gary's condition.
The cab swerved over to the curb, and Chuck quickly opened the back door, tossing his luggage in ahead of him. "I'm going to..." Chuck dug around in his pocket until he came up with the name and address of the hospital, giving them to the cabby. "And I'm in a hurry, buddy, so step on it."
Chuck sat back calculating that at this time of day, with this traffic, it would take at least forty minutes to get to the hospital. He sighed in frustration.
Life used to be so simple, he mused. Go to work, make a few well-placed buys on the stock market. Go out for a beer afterwards with Gary and maybe a few of the other traders. Simple. Uncomplicated. Predictable.
Boring. Chuck started when that thought jumped into his head. Boring can be good, he argued with himself. Boring doesn't get you knocked on the head by ex-cons. Boring doesn't have you traipsing around Chicago in the wee hours of the morning in sub-zero temperatures. Boring means not having to wonder if the next day's paper was going to be carrying your obituary...or your best friend's.
Chuck took a deep breath, his foot tapping restlessly on the floor, willing the cab to go faster; a sense of urgency permeating his being. He had to be there for Gary. Be there to...to...what? Chuck didn't know.
Could Crumb really be right? Chuck stared glumly out the window, his head
resting in his hand. Had Gary literally run himself into the ground?
Chuck wondered if it would have made any difference if he had been there
to take on some of the load. Chuck stared out the window at the approaching
Chicago skyline. He didn't know the answers to the questions, but
it really didn't matter. Deep down, *he* knew he should have been there.
Chuck hurried down the hospital corridor, spotting the sign pointing to the ICU waiting area. He turned into the room, almost running into a familiar figure.
"Hey, Fishman. Nice to see you could take time out of your busy schedule."
Chuck swallowed back a retort. There were more important matters to discuss. "How is he?"
Crumb glanced towards a door marked "ICU", and shook his head. "Not so good. They can't get his fever down, and he's been pretty out of it all day."
Chuck's stomach did a sickening flip. He had been hoping that the news would be good. "I need to see him. How do I get in there?"
Before Crumb could answer, a nurse approached them, "Mr. Hobson? You can go in now." She nodded, and smiled. "Keep your visit brief, though, okay?"
Chuck looked at Crumb, eyebrows raised in puzzlement. He mouthed, "Mr. Hobson?"
Crumb cleared his throat, attempting to ignore Chuck's look, "Uh, thank you. Can Gary's...uh...brother...go in too?"
The nurse looked from Crumb to Chuck, eyeing them up and down dubiously, "His brother?"
Chuck gave her what he felt was his most charming smile while throwing an arm around Crumb's shoulders. "Yes, and I must say that *Dad* has told me what marvelous care you have given my brother. Thank you so much."
The nurse smiled, tongue in cheek, "You're welcome." She nodded towards the ICU entrance, "Go on in."
Chuck grinned, and followed Crumb through the door. The old Fishman charm, he thought, it works every time.
His grin died as they entered Gary's room. Gary looked terrible. His face was gaunt, as though he had lost considerable weight, and what Chuck could see of it around the mask was stark white except for twin spots of color high on his cheekbones. Gary's eyes were closed and heavy dark smudges decorated the skin beneath them. The rasping sound of his struggle to breathe filled the room. The only other sound came from a monitor on a table near the head of the bed. It made a rapid beeping noise and the number eighty-eight flashed on and off.
Chuck slowly approached the bed, sidestepping IV poles and shooting a scared look towards Crumb. "Is he awake?"
Crumb shrugged, "Hobson?"
Gary's eyelids flickered slightly.
"Gar? It's me, Chuck."
Gary's head turned slightly and Chuck could see Gary fight to open his eyes, "Hey, Chuck."
Chuck smiled, lifting his gaze to Crumb's. "He's awake!" He looked back to Gary. "How're ya feeling, buddy?"
Gary coughed, scrunching up his face in pain, "I don't feel too good, Chuck."
Chuck eyes opened wide in alarm. It must be pretty bad if Gary admitted to feeling sick.
Gary lost the battle to keep his eyes open, apologizing, "Sorry, Chuck. So tired."
Chuck clapped him gently on the shoulder. "You just rest, Gar, okay? I'll take care of everything."
Gary nodded slightly, then fought to open his eyes again, reaching up and pulling the oxygen mask away from his face. "Chuck, I haven't seen the pa-"
Chuck quickly pulled the mask back down. "Gotta leave that in place, okay, Gar?" He leaned down in a pretense of trying to adjust the tightness of the mask and whispered, "Leave everything to me, buddy. Don't worry about it."
Gary sighed, falling instantly asleep.
Chuck remained standing by the bed for several minutes while Crumb stood in a corner, arms crossed, staring up at the heart monitor that was suspended from the ceiling. Chuck felt somehow comforted by Crumb's vigilance; as though the sheer force of Crumb's will and determination was responsible for keeping the peaks and valleys marching across the screen. As long as Crumb was there, Gary would be okay.
Chuck pulled a chair next to the bed, and sank onto it, wondering what had become of the paper. Pretending to tie his shoe, he leaned down and glanced under the bed. No cat. No paper. He sat up, mouth pursed to one side as he thought about where the paper would be. Probably back at Gary's apartment.
Truthfully, Chuck admitted that he wasn't all that disappointed that the paper was nowhere to be seen. If the paper did return, Chuck knew that Gary would expect Chuck to fill-in for him. Not a job Chuck relished. Of course, right now, Gary would likely never know the difference, but Chuck wasn't sure that he could handle the guilt he would feel if, when Gary was better, he asked Chuck details about the rescues and Chuck was forced to lie.
Chuck knew he just wasn't cut out to be a hero. Sure, he'd tag along when Gary did his good deeds, and had even saved the day a few times, he remembered, his chest puffing out slightly. But he knew the only reason he did it was for Gary--not for the unfortunate souls who needed the rescuing. Not that he ever *wanted* anyone to get hurt, he thought defensively, but some things are just meant to be. That's life. Karma. Shit happens.
Chuck stretched, his gaze dropping to Gary's hand lying on top of the
sheet. An IV was protruding from the back of it, dried blood crusting
around the puncture site just visible beneath the clear bandage holding everything
in place. He shuddered as the impact of Gary's illness slammed home.
Shit happens, all right, he thought, sinking slowly against the back of the
chair. And now it had happened to Gary.
Go on to Installment 2
Email the author: Maryilee