To read the previous chapters, you can find them here.
The drive to the hospital flew by and took forever at the same time. Lucas watched the laundry line of cars pass on the other side of the freeway, the heat warping them into exhaust-induced hallucinations. Ms. Malum drove in silence, her hands at 10-and-2 on the wheel and the music turned off.
The car smelled new and the air conditioning blasted through the cabin. Lucas chewed on his lip and let his bangs slip in front of his eyes.
The hospital was across the river, a white building with windows that reflected the sun in waves. Squinting, Lucas crossed the parking lot behind Ms. Malum, her boot heels hitting the asphalt in a steady, determined rhythm. Lucas scurried to keep up, anxious to see Pa.
Inside the front lobby, white lab coats and scrubs weaved by as his caseworker stepped up to the front desk and inquired about Pa’s room number. The woman behind the counter gave Lucas a long, pitying look before typing into her computer and handing Ms. Malum a pair of hospital passes. Lucas clipped ‘Visitor’ onto his t-shirt collar and followed the gray pantsuit up to the third floor.
He left his stomach behind him as he stepped out of the elevator and onto veined white linoleum. Compared to the lobby downstairs, this floor was deserted. A nurse rolled a cart into a room and another fussed with files at a reception desk.
Ms. Malum cleared her throat as she stepped up to the counter.
“Excuse me. We’re here to see Mr. Desmondo in Room 316.” She stretched her visitor badge out from her jacket pocket.
“Okay,” the nurse peered at it over her reading glasses. She reminded Lucas of Mrs. Farnes, with salon-set curls and an inflated round face. “Mr. Desmondo…he is allowed to have visitors, but only immediate family members.”
“I’m Vanessa Malum, Grimm County Social Services. This is Lucas, Mr. Desmondo’s son.” She slipped a card out of her pocket and handed it across the counter. The nurse stared at it for a moment.
“A social worker? So, Mr. Desmondo is a widower?”
Lucas traced a line in the linoleum with his shoe. He had a small shadow from the overhead fluorescent lights that gathered like a puddle at his feet.
“That’s correct,” Ms. Malum’s voice echoed confidently off of the sterile white walls. It was obvious she had done this sort of thing before. “Lucas has no other immediate family in the area. I’ve been assigned as his acting legal guardian until his father is able to resume those duties.”
The nurse nodded, let her reading glasses fall to the end of their chain, and came out from behind the desk. She even waddled like Mrs. Farnes.
“Room 316 is about halfway down the hall,” she explained while Ms. Malum and Lucas followed her. “There’s the waiting room,” she pointed to a collection of worn couches, magazines, and a vending machine tucked into an alcove across from the reception desk and elevators. “The cafeteria is on the ground floor. They have great mashed potatoes, but I’d steer clear of the meatloaf.”
Meatloaf? Lucas watched several identical doorways measure the hallway. I feel like throwing up.
“Here you go,” the nurse slid the manila folder into a clear plastic sleeve on the door.
“Thank you,” Ms. Malum’s dark hair bobbed. She turned the knob as soon as the nurse headed back down the hall, then pushed the door open slowly, tiptoeing to keep her boots quiet as she squeezed past the bed and set her briefcase on the floor.
Lucas took two steps into the room and stopped, the door closing quietly on a tension hinge behind him. He swallowed and brushed his hair out of his eyes.
Thin sunlight filtered in through the turned up slats of a set of blinds, lighting a spider’s web of translucent bags and tubes with a sterile white glow. Pa lay in the middle of it on a raised bed with steel rails and layers of white sheets. He was asleep, or at least he had his eyes closed and didn’t open them when the door clicked closed.
Ms. Malum watched Lucas from the corner of the room, her briefcase on a chair beside her.
“Well,” she tightened her pony tail, “I’ll go see if I can find the doctor. Will you be okay here by yourself?”
Lucas looked at her, not much happier to see the caseworker than the rails and tubes. “Yeah, uh, thank you Ms. Malum.”
“Call me Vanessa. I’ll be your primary guardian until your father is able to care for you again. We might as well switch to first-names.” She squeezed back out past the bed and put her hand on Lucas’s shoulder. “I know this is hard, Lucas.”
He pushed her hand away and his bangs fell down over his eyes. Lucas looked at her through the black streaks of hair. Inside the whites of her eyes it was solid black, no distinction between where her irises should be and her pupils. Everything about her was starting to rub him the wrong way.
“Why not just go with ‘Mom’? It would save me a couple of syllables.”
Vanessa looked at the man on the hospital bed, then leveled her eyes at Lucas. “Let’s get something straight. I can do this the nice social worker way, or I can do this the ‘bitch in a suit’ way. You decide.”
She swung the door open and disappeared into the hallway.
Definitely a bitch in a suit. Lucas watched the handle twitch as the latch clicked, then turned back to the scene in the room. Pa’s chest rose and fell in a steady rhythm and he looked like he was sleeping, his face relaxed and peaceful.
If I don’t touch him, it ain’t real, Lucas prayed and closed his eyes, but the smell of gauze and latex kept its grip on the room. He opened his eyes and took a deep breath, fighting tears. A few steps brought him next to the bed.
The metal rails chilled his hand as he leaned over to take Pa’s.
“Hey, Pa,” Lucas whispered. It sounded loud and harsh. Lucas cleared his throat, “Hey, Pa.”
Pa’s breathing quickened slightly, and Lucas’s heart sped up.
He waited, but nothing else changed. The little lines and lights on the monitors stayed steady. Inside their snaking lines of tubes, clear liquid drops measured out heartbeats. Lucas squeezed Pa’s hand. Still nothing.
Something flickered in the corner. Lucas stood and dropped Pa’s hand, searching the shadows. Squinting, focused, he swore he saw a face in the shadows.
The door opened and Lucas turned. A man about Pa’s age marched in, his long white lab coat swishing against his legs. He looked very typically like a doctor, with a stethoscope hanging from his neck and a clipboard in his hand. Under his salt and pepper hair, he wore round glasses and a scowl. Vanessa Malum came in behind him and folded her arms.
“Mr. Lucas Desmondo?” He held out his hand for a shake. Lucas took it, the older man’s grip so hard it hurt his hand. “I’m Doctor Isom. I’ve been working with your father since EMS brought him in this afternoon.”
Lucas pulled his fingers free. He wanted to ask questions, but Dr. Isom launched into a lengthy explanation that involved multi-syllabic terms and math. Vanessa nodded as the doctor went on, as if she knew what he was saying. When he finished, Lucas felt dizzy.
“What does that mean?”
Dr. Isom glanced back at Vanessa. She stepped up and shouldered the doctor out of the way. “What Dr. Isom is saying is that he’s not entirely sure what is going on. He’s still running tests, and it could take a while.” She looked at Lucas with those dark eyes. “In the meantime, you will have to come with me. You can’t stay home alone.”
Lucas thought she looked smug. Dr. Isom just nodded.
“Why can’t I stay here with Pa?”
“In an event such as this, the state takes responsibility for minors. You’ll be staying in a group home.”
“Do I get a lawyer?”
“If you have the cash for one.”
Lucas gave up on her and looked at Dr. Isom. Through the glare on his glasses, Lucas made out the irises of the doctor’s eyes.
They were the same solid black as Vanessa’s.
A chill pricked Lucas’s spine and he lowered his eyes, studying the worn laces of his sneakers. “Okay,” he shrugged, “So what you’re saying is that I have no choice.”
“Pretty much,” Vanessa agreed. She had dropped the pretense of being a warm and fuzzy social worker. It was all business now.
“Can I say goodbye to Pa? Alone?” Lucas kept his eyes down. He watched the shiny leather toes of Vanessa’s boots tap the linoleum twice, then she shifted her weight to the other side. Dr. Isom stayed flat footed and silent, both of his arms holding his clipboard behind his back.
When the door closed, Lucas turned back to Pa and took his hand again. He spent most of his five minutes in silence, waiting for the monitors to go crazy and for Pa to wake up and tell him it was just a dream and he had to hurry or he’d be late for school.
With only about a minute left, Lucas brushed Pa’s forehead. “I’ll be back tomorrow, after school, even if I have to hitch a ride.”
The drips dripped and the monitors beeped, and Pa’s eyes stayed closed and still.
The door creaked open. “Time’s up.”
Lucas squeezed Pa’s hand, then pushed past Vanessa out into the hall. As he left the room, Pa’s voice echoed in his head, You’re my good boy.
Lucas wished he could leave the door open.