A LIFE WORTH LIVING
Matthew Huntz awoke with a groggy sensation of a mid-day nap. Teetering on the edge of asleep and awake, he longed to give in to sleep. A sense of wrongness pulled him in the other direction.
His tongue felt thick, like it’d been sprayed with drywall paste. An overly clean scent of Lysol stung his nose – too clean for his house. The pillow beneath his head was too crisp.
Giving up on sleep, he opened his eyes. A hospital bed guardrail stretched out just inches from his face. His heart did a weird thump flutter that would have been okay had he been looking at a pretty girl and not the pebbly texture of the plastic rail.
Damn. His attention shifted to the IV needle piercing his hand. His skin puckered beneath the tape pulled too tight.
How the hell had he ended up in the hospital? Accident? No. He distinctly remembered getting home. Actually, what he remembered was breaking into his house – again. One of these days he’d learn to keep track of his keys. The point was, he’d gotten home.
Footsteps pattered outside his door. “Hello,” he called out. His voice was gravely, barely carrying past the bed. The footsteps moved into his room, anyhow. He relaxed at the sight of his father. Which was silly. At twenty-six, Matt knew his father wasn’t some mystical being who could make the world perfect just by his mere presence. Still, he felt better.
His mother followed closely behind his father. She looked tired and her clothes were rumpled. She was still beautiful, regal, with her back straight and her head held high, as though balancing a book on her head.
His father sank into a chair while his mother stepped up to the bed. Lying on his side, Matt tried to look up at her, but his head wouldn’t move. All reason fled as a panicky sensation deep in his stomach took over. He almost whimpered, a wimpy-girl noise, but the sound got stuck somewhere between his brain and his too-dry tongue. Thank heavens, it had. Bad enough he was stuck in a hospital bed without knowing why without adding insult to injury by crying out in front of his father. Besides, as quickly as the cry had formulated in his brain, he’d noticed the rigid edge of the plastic collar pressing into his chin, holding his head in place.
“Matthew,” his mother said, her voice raised. Her eyes remained riveted on her son as she reached behind her, patting the air until she found his dad. “Look, Carl. Matthew’s awake.”
Matthew. His given name. The one they used whenever he’d gotten into trouble as a kid. Or when they were worried. Either way, trouble or worry, nothing good ever came with that extra syllable.
He looked past his parents to where he figured his fiancée should be. He saw nothing but a patch of light blue wall. His parents were here. Shouldn’t Crystal be here as well?
“You gave us a scare,” his father said. “How do you feel?”
Where are you, babe?
His father put a hand on Matt’s arm.
Matt stared at the wall another second and then turned his attention to his father. “Like I fell off a roof.” The words squeezed out slowly. Had he fallen at one of the houses they were working on? No. He’d gotten home.
“I’ll bet you do. You’ve got one heck of a goose egg where you hit the side window.”
Side window? “Can’t remember.”
“The doctor said you probably wouldn’t. He called it protective amnesia, or some nonsense like that. He said it was a good thing, that it would keep you from reliving the accident.”
“On Highway A, near the gravel pit. You hit a tree.”
He tried to force a memory but none came. The Hideout was on Highway A. Wednesday wasn’t pool night, though. Had he made plans to meet Crystal there after work? An uneasy feeling pestered him. He wouldn’t have gone out there on a whim. Not with fifteen miles of ice-glazed, backwoods Wisconsin roads leading the way. The roads had been icy. That much he did remember.
His thoughts went back to Crystal. His father hadn’t said he’d been alone. He stared at the robin egg blue patch of wall where he’d earlier expected to find his fiancée standing. “Where’s Crystal?” He pictured her comatose in a bed like his own. The panicky feeling hit full force. He reached out and grabbed the guardrail. “Was she with me? Tell me she’s okay.”
“She wasn’t with you. She’s fine.”
He searched his father’s eyes. If his fiancée was okay, wouldn’t she be at his side? “Where is she? I want to see her.”
His father looked up at Matt’s mom. An entire conversation passed between them in an instant without spoken words. The same connection of thoughts he and Crystal had yet to achieve.
“She had to go back to work,” his father said. “She’s already missed two days.”
Two days? Matt worked through a mental calendar. The accident must have happened Wednesday night. Thursday. Friday. Crystal didn’t work on Saturday. “What day is it?”
Five days gone. His dad wouldn’t abandon their jobsites that long unless there was good reason. That same good reason would have Crystal at his side. She had to be in the hospital somewhere, confined to a bed.
“I have to find her.” He pushed back the covers to get up. His legs wouldn’t move. Another wave of panic built. It’s okay. Nothing’s wrong. It’ll be just like when I tried to move my head.
His mother pressed her hand to her mouth. Her other arm wrapped around her waist. Her, trying not to cry, something she didn’t do easily.
Matt tried to ignore the way his heart slammed against his ribcage. He touched his thigh. His fingers dug into muscle. The only sensation he felt was the gown’s soft cotton weave against his fingertips. He moved his hand to his hip, to his stomach. Nothing.
His father stood and captured his wrist. “Son.”
“What’s going on?” Matt asked.
“We should let the doctor explain.”
“Will it sound better from him?”
His mother lowered her hand. She stood straight. “Honey, you broke a bone in your back.” Her voice was soft as if hoping to lessen the impact of her words.
A broken bone. Broken bones could be fixed.
With a pat on Matt’s arm, his father said, “I’ll go find Dr. Meyer.”
Matt looked up at his mother, wanting her assurance that everything was going to be okay. Everything was rather broad. So he narrowed it down. “Crystal’s really okay?”
“Yes, honey. She’s just fine.” She smoothed her fingers over his hair, her touch light.
He wanted to believe her. Really, really wanted to. But he had a hard time believing Crystal would be sitting at her desk at the office while he was unconscious in a hospital bed.
His father came back and stood behind Matt’s mother. His arms enveloped her in a way Matt prayed he and Crystal would be thirty-some years from now.
A man stepped into the room seconds later. He looked youthful, even with gray around his temples. His blue jeans and Hawaiian shirt contrasted the stethoscope draped around his neck. “I’m Dr. James Meyer. Do you know why you’re here?”
“Mix-up with a crappy travel agent?”
Instead of laughing, his father rolled his eyes and shook his head. Not even a hint of a smile. Matt looked back at Dr. Meyer who, unlike his father, was smiling.
“Dad said I had an accident. Broke something.”
“Yes, the T1 vertebra.” Dr. Meyer sat in the chair by the bed. He opened Matt’s chart and held up an illustration of the spine. Pointing to a bone high in the back, he said, “This one.”
“I can’t feel my legs.”
“Your chart says you’re in construction. I assume you understand how electrical wiring works?”
“Imagine your spinal cord is a main electric line and your nerves are wires branching off the main. Your vertebra is pressing against the main wire, preventing the electrical impulses from passing that point. The swelling should be down enough by tomorrow to allow us to operate.”
“Fixing the main line, right?”
“It will fix the fracture.”
“Which will fix everything else.”
“It’s not that simple. If there’s damage to your spine – ”
“No.” Blood pulsed behind Matt’s ears. “It’s going to fix everything.” He looked to his father. Tell him, Dad. Tell him it’s going to fix it.
His father stubbornly remained silent.
Dr. Meyer sat motionless for a moment and then nodded. “Do you have any questions?”
He did, but he doubted the doctor could answer why this happened to him. Or what he was supposed to do if he didn’t get better. No. Until he got better. Not if. Definitely not if. He tried to shake his head. The collar stopped him. “No.”
“If you think of anything, have the nurse call me. Otherwise, I’ll check in later.”
Within seconds after Dr. Meyer left, someone else entered the room. Soft-soled shoes whispered across the floor. Too soft to be Crystal’s dress shoes. A nurse came into view. Smiley faces covered her blue smock. Probably meant to cheer up the patients. Wasn’t working.
“Sorry to do this to you,” she said, “but I’ve got to kick you out.”
He wished the nurse had been referring to him. He’d love nothing more than to leave. Just get out of bed and walk out of here. Even if it meant having his naked ass hanging out the back of the faded gown.
“Can’t we stay just a bit longer?” his mother asked.
“I wish I could let you, but your son needs his rest. Two people can come back in forty-five minutes.”
“But he just woke up.”
Matt forced a smile to reassure his mother. “Don’t worry, Ma. I’m not going anywhere.” With or without the ugly gown. Not anytime soon, anyhow. He had to work hard to keep the smile in place.
His father squeezed Matt’s shoulder. “We’ll talk more later, okay? For now, do as the nurse says and get some rest.”
His mother leaned over to kiss his cheek. He couldn’t feel her hand even though he was certain she was touching his back.
“Ready for a change of scenery?” the nurse asked as another nurse joined her.
Matt watched his parents leave. “An ocean view would be nice.” Walking barefoot on a sandy beach with Crystal at his side, this mess behind them.
A sudden, sharp ache in his chest competed with the throbbing at his temples. Why was Crystal at work when she should be here with him?
“Somewhere warm,” the second nurse said. “Aruba, maybe.” They pulled the covers away and gathered up stacks of pillows he hadn’t been aware of.
“On three, we’re going to roll you,” the first nurse said. “One. Two. Three.” Pain rocketed through his neck when they moved him onto his back.
“Nice ceiling,” he said, riding out the wave of pain. “The ocean would be better.”
Both nurses grabbed the sheet and pulled him toward the left edge of the bed. As soon as he realized he was about to be rolled again, he reached for the guardrail. “Really.” His voice rose like a sissy’s. Thank heavens his father wasn’t here to hear him. “The ceiling is fine.”
The guardrail slipped from his fingers. He clenched his teeth and groaned as they rolled him onto his right side.
“Sorry.” The first nurse picked up a pillow and pressed it to his stomach while the other nurse left the room in a flurry of quiet footsteps. Probably rushing off to politely inflict pain on some other poor soul. “It’s best you lay on your side. That helps you breathe more deeply so you don’t get a buildup of fluid in your lungs.”
He willed himself to feel the next pillow. It may as well have been air.
She pulled the covers back into place and then grabbed a corded control, placing it in his hand. “You’ve got a steady dose of morphine through the IV. However, this button will give you an extra dose. Is there anything you need?”
Crystal. Here. With me. “No.”
“Okay. Push the call button if you need me.”
He closed his eyes and listened to the sound of the nurse’s footsteps as she left the room. Such a simple sound. One he wondered if he’d ever make again. No, damn it. When. When would he make that sound again?
What if it’s never?
Not wanting to go down that road, he shook his head the little bit the collar allowed. The throbbing at his temple screamed. He rubbed his thumb across the button on the morphine control. No. He couldn’t. He didn’t want to be asleep when Crystal came. Because, she would come. As soon as she knew he was awake, she’d come.
Hoping to ease the headache, he massaged his forehead. Fresh pain shot from the sutured wound he grazed. He didn’t want to think anymore. Not about Crystal. Not about his injuries. Not about anything. Besides, everything would be fine after the surgery. It had to be.
He gave in and pushed the button.
To win a free book - click here
To Order through Barnes & Noble - click here
To Order through Amazon - click here