The kid’s face is good and smashed up, his nose most certainly broken. Eddy has transferred enough prisoners to know these things. On the grand scale, these injuries don’t look too bad and the easy banter between the paramedics speaks to the lack of urgency.
“Nearly there, warden,” the medic closest to Eddy says. “We should get through quick. Mondays are usually quiet. You’ll be back in no time.”
“It’s all good.” Eddy relaxes into the bucket seat and adjusts his seatbelt. “I’m happy to have a field trip.”
“I hear ya. A busy shift’s always better.” The medic leans into the patient’s face, adjusting an ice pack slung over a blood-soaked towel. “Okay, kid, this ride’s about up. We’ll see what the docs can do to stem the tide.”
Eddy hopes they’re right. The poor kid has had a nosebleed since the fight, now hours ago. It’s too bad because the nineteen-year-old has nearly squeaked through his sentence — a slap on the wrist for shooting off a gun and then wrestling with the cops — nearly made it through thirteen of fourteen days without incident.
At the last set of lights, Eddy fishes his personal cell phone out of his trouser pocket and scrolls through Facebook. He searches for a hint of Jill’s plans for the weekend. Mostly, he wonders if she’ll stay in the city with him or be going home to her family’s ranch. He can’t help thinking about how long it’s been since they were together. A week, maybe two? Not that he’s in it for the sex, but if he’s being honest, it’s how he gets a read on Jill’s interest in their relationship.
The ambulance rides over the final speed bump, jolting Eddy to pull the work phone from his breast pocket. The medics laugh kindly as he juggles with both devices. At least once a day, some piece of technology reminds him he’s of a different generation.
There’s an email from admin: We notified the family. Eddy fires a message back: Tell them to stay by the phone. No point coming here. We’ll be back soon.
The fight happened in the change room. It’s a common enough thing. Witnesses said they were just horsing around. But then the redhead with the intense green eyes, and a history as long as his rangy forearms, the one the guys called Roji, knocked Bam Bam out cold. Roji has been boxing since he was ten years old and, at six foot five, he towers over the kid who can’t weigh over 130 pounds — hasn’t filled out yet. They said the kid never even landed a punch, had hit the tile floor hard.
The emergency department is busier than expected, but triage happens quickly. A nurse grabs the kid’s vitals behind a curtain cubicle, moving with bored efficiency. She nods towards a plastic chair. Eddy pulls up to the end of the bed. Then, like a puppet yanked offstage, the nurse removes herself from the makeshift room without warning or any murmurs of a plan.
In her absence, the kid stretches out on the paper sheet. He groans and crosses his feet near Eddy’s head, crinkling that paper into a pale blue ball. Eddy can’t help but lift the white sneakers and straighten out the mess.
Recognizing the intimacy of the moment might be awkward for the kid and he might also be nervous, Eddy does his best to strike up a conversation, relieve tension.
“Hey, what ya gonna do when you get home tomorrow, Bam Bam?” The kid’s nickname flows easily from Eddy, as if he’d come up with it himself. It’s unusual to get a handle so early on — a sign of the kid’s popularity and a testament to his size, spunk and age. Eddy knows how nicknames can stick, making or breaking prisoners. Whether Bam Bam recognizes it, he got a good one.
The kid props himself up on an elbow. “I’m getting the fuck out of here. See my girl. She’s having my baby, you know? Any day now.”
Eddy lets out half a smile. “Strange time to get yourself arrested shooting off a gun in town, no?”
“That’s a goddamn joke.” Bam Bam lies back down. “Like you’ve never gotten blasted and shot off a gun.”
This time, Eddy laughs. “Actually, Bam Bam, I try real hard not to shoot guns into the sides of buildings in the middle of town. This ain’t Texas.”
The curtain flaps back open, and a bald head emerges. In response to the white coat, the kid forces himself upright and swings his legs over the side of the bed.
“I’m Dr. Bauer. Let’s have a look and chat, shall we?”
The kid sweeps his bangs out of his eyes and stretches out a hand.
Eddy puffs with pride at the kid’s sense of manners and then pushes himself up out of the chair as they carry on with their introductions. “Alright then, I’m going to get myself a coffee.” He knows the routine. Even prisoners have the right to confidentiality.
“Hey, Screw, grab me one too, will ya?” the kid asks.
“Not a chance. And don’t call me that. Makes you sound like a lifer.”
In the atrium, Eddy bypasses the hospital cafeteria. It reeks of old soup and dirty pennies, so he heads straight to the independent coffee stall. He treats himself to a cafe latte and parks himself on a bench under a tree, taking a minute to admire how it’s eking out an existence inside the hospital. The branches reach for the glass ceiling, three stories away.
Jill doesn’t see the point in indoor plants, and especially anything tropical. She’d scoffed at the one he’d struggled to keep alive for a decade but never had the heart to get rid of because it filled an awkward space in his living room. “There are plenty of plants outside,” Jill said when she got bored one weekend and sold it online. “It wants to live closer to the equator, Eddy. And besides,” she’d added, dragging it onto the sidewalk, “aren’t you tired of cleaning up all the leaves it keeps shedding?”
Keeping half an eye on the doors to emergency, Eddy pries the lid from the coffee cup. Jill introduced him to these fancy coffees when they spent the weekend in Seattle last fall. The trip had gone okay, but he'd fretted about stupid shit. Should he leave his wash bag by the sink? Should he make small talk in the mornings? Should he order more wine? He’d even obsessed about owning the right jeans. At one point he’d imagined a pack of young guys, hyenas, in their skinny ripped messes encircling him. For the whole holiday, he’d felt even older and dumpier than usual.
He knows his insecurities are silly. Jill’s practical, more interested in grubbing around at her parents’ place, training in their arena, or organizing the tack room than fretting about superficial things. In fact, a little vanity or a shopping habit might be easier to handle — easier than fighting for Jill’s attention, or competing with that horse of hers.
They’ve talked about moving in together since they both work in the city. One mortgage makes more sense than two. But they never forge ahead with a plan. Maybe it’s too big a leap for fifty-year-olds, but he suspects Jill would prefer to move back home. Be closer to the horse and her sister, Mel.
Having almost forgotten his coffee, Eddy finally sips from the paper cup, not worrying if the double shot will keep him awake in a few hours. From the bench, the ambulance bay appears otherworldly under the glare of overhead lights. Medics lean up against their vehicle, as if holding it upright.
His own waiting game seems wanting, so Eddy decides he better go back to Emergency. He can imagine the kid charming the doctor to release him. In twenty-five years, Eddy only remembers a few prisoners who’ve had the same effect on other inmates. In hindsight, he wishes he’d warned the kid about rising too fast. Well, too late now. Eddy pushes his regret to the side, caps the coffee with the plastic lid and leaves the atrium to its wandering inhabitants.
Back at the cubicle, Eddy feigns a knock on the curtain. “You decent? I’m coming through.”
There’s no answer. Eddy pulls at the edge of the striped fabric and peeks into the space. Ah, shit. Where the hell is he?
A nurse carves a line toward Eddy as though picking up on his concern through a sixth or seventh sense. Her short, sharp steps, weaving between machines and people, tell Eddy he better adjust his expectations for the night.
“Where’s the kid?”
“Mr. Tremblay started seizing.” She steers him by the shoulder, out of the cubicle. “There’s evidence he might have a significant bleed. Brain injury. They’re checking him out right now.”
Eddy does a double take on the name. Mr. Tremblay. Bam Bam. Kai Tremblay. Rumors he’d heard about the kid’s history rushes through Eddy’s mind. Shooting the gun was his first offence as an adult and his escapades as a minor were laughable: a recent possession charge, an impaired shortly after he turned sixteen, and a petty theft from even longer ago.
“Well, hell. He’s gonna be okay, right?” Eddy fidgets with the cardboard safety jacket wrapped around his coffee. He swivels, searches the sea of white linen and stainless steel for a garbage can.
Without a word, the nurse whips his cup away and plunks it into a paper recycling bin under a nearby desk. “Oh sure. They’re just being cautious. They’ll know more after some imaging.”
In an instant, Eddy remembers what Roji had said before getting sent to isolation. “I know I fucked the kid up bad, but he had it coming.” Roji had assured them he’d held back, only given the kid fifty percent of what he’d been due.
With the distraction of the coffee removed, Eddy finds his focus. “Listen, I gotta call the kid’s family. They should come in.”
Back on the bench, Eddy flips through the fawn-colored folder the prison sent along. For a split second, he imagines sitting under a similar tree, maybe on the beach. That would be okay with Jill. He finds the primary contact: Roberta Tremblay, Pincher Creek. He inhales from the surprise. Such a small town. Roberta and Jill probably know each other.
Suddenly, Eddy worries he hasn’t paid enough attention to Jill’s stories about her relatives, and the relatives of relatives. And he won’t be able to bring it up because of confidentiality bullshit. Well, soon enough she’ll find out from Mel, anyway. She hears everything at the gas station. Christ, what if he’s a distant cousin or something? He can’t work out if his assumptions make sense, or even matter. Finally, he locks onto Roberta’s number. The mom.
On the phone, she took the news in stride. He’d said little, told her about the fight and the bleeding. But after he hangs up, he realizes he said nothing about the seizures. He hadn’t seen it himself. Forgot to mention it. Well, shit, Eddy thinks, it doesn’t matter. They’ll be here right away.
Either the rationalizing isn’t working, or Eddy feels the coffee kick in. His legs jackhammer up and down. Jill says he’s a worrier, that he’s going to give himself an ulcer or worse, cancer. He can admit he worries. But what he can’t explain to Jill is why he’s attracted to the outgoing ones, the ones who pirate through life with their unapologetic, wayward enthusiasm.
Unable to sit still, Eddy buzzes the ambulance bay.
“It’s gonna be longer than we thought, boys. Kid seized.”
“Ah shit.” He catches the medics exchange a knowing look. “Better call the family. He musta got a good knock on the coconut when he hit the floor.”
“Already did. On their way. You guys should grab a coffee.”
The automatic doors are sluggish to open and through the glass he sees the kid’s nurse beaming around the atrium like a searchlight. He eases into a light jog.
“Oh, there you are. Listen, it’s not great. Mr. Tremblay is having trouble. The facial fracture explains the nose. But there’s also one to the skull, so the intracranial bleeding has been significant. He’s incoherent and seizing. Quite unstable.”
Like a sheriff in a bad western, Eddy draws both phones from his pockets and consults the time. The family is at least half an hour away. He’s done the drive many times. Sometimes, if Jill’s gone home and he’s working, he’ll head out there to see her for a few hours after a shift, forcing his eyes open for the dark return home through the stretch of one-lane highway.
Eddy shoves the devices back into their respective pockets. “Can I see him?”
“No. He’s in the trauma room.” The nurse’s voice trails off as she steams away. Eddy assumes she’s going back to Bam Bam. “They’ve called Neurology. Wait here. I’ll keep you posted.”
The bench under the tree is only a step away and Eddy lowers himself as his self-control slips away. He wants to call Jill, find out more about Bam Bam, maybe even sidestep Jill and call her sister directly. Like a kid himself, Eddy sits on his hands, away from the temptation in his pocket. It’s not working, so he trolls the ambulance bay, circles the atrium a few times, stops at the gift store and rifles through the magazines. A young woman tugs at floor to ceiling shutters, edging him out as she closes for the night. He apologizes and skulks back to the tree. Lying on his back, he stares up at the ceiling through the branches. The night presses on the glass and he hopes it won’t shatter from the weight.
It’s something Eddy thinks about a lot, the heaviness of the sky. He knows most people think sky represents openness, possibilities. Jill is like that. He guesses that’s the difference. Why she keeps pushing him to go fishing with friends or buy a motorcycle? When they were in Seattle, eating at the expensive restaurant on their last night, she’d even said, “You gotta start doing stuff, Eddy. It’s like you’re sleepwalking through life.”
A hand on Eddy’s foot wriggles him awake. He’d fallen asleep. Eddy shakes his head at the other end of the bench, embarrassed by his habit of crashing when stressed.
“Listen,” she squeezes his ankle in preparation. “Mr. Tremblay’s heart stopped. They couldn’t control the bleeding. He went into cardiac arrest. They brought in a crash cart, tried to resuscitate him. But he didn’t make it.”
“I don’t understand.” Eddy looks off into the night, terrified the kid has made his way to the other side of the glass ceiling.
Eddy stays flat on his back.
The nurse extends a hand, an offer to help him up. “I’m sorry,” she says as Eddy accepts her offer.
He finds his feet and composure at the same time. “Thank you for telling me. Yes. I understand.” He understood. People’s lives are shitty, he thought bitterly. And they usually have shitty endings.
The walk back to the emergency department makes Eddy feel as though the nurse is leading him down a mine shaft or tunnel. But somehow, they stay above ground and circle back to the cubicle where the kid was alive and chirping just an hour ago. Eddy falls into the chair as if it were an anchor, tethering him securely in place. He barely registers movement as the nurse disappears again.
Alone, Eddy’s fuzzy gaze lands on the empty gurney — a scuff mark, made by the kid’s prison sneakers, stares up at him from the paper sheet. Any urge he had earlier to learn more about the kid breaks apart. He knows too much already: the charm, the baby, the mother’s voice.
He scoots the chair closer to the bed and rolls his forehead against its metal footrail. The back-and-forth transports Eddy on a wild ride: a beer with Jill, an empty beach — a bird banging against glass. He bears down, presses bone on metal so stars squeeze out from behind his eyes. He lifts his head. Dizzy.
Only the cotton walls shelter Eddy from the staccato of worries piercing the emergency room. He throws his head back, listening in the wash of voices for the ones that concern him. The effort is enormous.
Then, beyond the curtains, he hears a woman’s voice.
“Where is he?”
“Come on through, Roberta,” the nurse says. “The doctor will be here soon.”
The curtain peels away, and Eddy lifts his head. He glances over at Bam Bam’s mother, and then three other pairs of wild eyes meet his. He does the mental gymnastics as he guesses who everyone is. A very pregnant beauty. A floppy teenage boy — maybe the kid’s little brother. And commanding the small space, a fierce looking young woman.
It’s second nature for Eddy to spot the leader in a group, so he turns to the woman, recognizing a quieter version of the kid’s charm, like a sock turned inside out. Bam Bam’s sister. Maybe even his twin?
“Please wait here, everyone.” The nurse’s face flashes as hot embers do when given a blast of air. “I’ll grab the doctor.”
Eddy attempts introductions, but everyone turns to the girlfriend, whose solemn chant demands as much attention as a siren.
“Kai. Kai. Kai.”
The sister leads the girlfriend to sit on the edge of the bed. “Come on, Maddie. Kai’s good. The stupid fucker always pulls through. You know that. Remember when he got himself knifed?”
Eddy grabs the curtain to hold himself up, but even with the support, the doctor nearly knocks him over as he plows through.
“Hello. You must be Mr. Tremblay’s family. Thank you for getting here so quickly. I’m Dr. Bauer and I have been treating Mr. Tremblay. And I’m afraid I have hard news.”
Eddy hears the girlfriend release low, unnatural sounds. The doctor’s experience dictates that delivering the news swiftly is the kindest path forward.
“Kai had a massive brain bleed. We did everything we could to stabilize the situation, but the internal injuries were very serious.” The doctor pauses so the words sink in. “On behalf of the care team, I want to express how sorry we are for your family’s loss.”
Eddy squeezes the last ounce of color from the faded curtain as the horror unfolds. The mom and boy collapse on the bed, pinning the girlfriend. A tangle of arms rips at the paper sheet.
The doctor taps the nurse. “How close is she to delivering?”
“I think she’s due any day now.” Eddy hears himself speaking for the nurse as he tries to back out of the curtained cubicle. He bumps into something. “It’s Bam Bam’s kid.”
Frantic to escape, Eddy turns toward the gap but comes face to face with Bam Bam’s sister who appears to guard his way out. She didn’t join the chaos on the bed. Instead, she stands firm, a statue against the curtain, with a fissure breaking through her round face. Eddy’s never been to Italy, or even an art gallery, but he’s certain of what’s before him: a crack in a marble figurine.
The next moments collapse. Eddy can’t make out whose tears are whose, doesn’t know what’s happening in the small space. He concentrates on staying vertical and makes a wish for the future. One day, when it’s all over, he hopes to forget the sister’s wet face. And then, mercifully, as if Bam Bam’s sister had the power to release him from hell — she opens the curtain, and he steps into the busyness of the Emergency Room.
From the other side of the cubicle, Eddy stares at the fabric walls which hold this family together. But there is no escape from their sobbing. Eddy doubles over, gripping his knees. His elbows lock, and his chest expands. A little calmer, he peers into the gap between the floor and the bottom of the curtain. He watches the sister’s neatly tied Ropers move toward the bed.
Her voice is as steady as her feet. “Mom. Maddie. Nate. We’ll get through this. We will. For Kai.”
Bolstered by this young woman’s stony strength, Eddy straightens himself to standing. At first, he’s okay but as he pulls farther away from the kid’s family, into the atrium, his perspective shifts, turns liquid. He tries grounding himself in his phone. There’s a text from Jill:
I’m heading to the ranch early. Back on Monday. Come for a visit if you don’t have something of your own going on.
Feeling no taller than a child, Eddy points his tiny and unfamiliar feet toward the ambulance bay. But he doesn’t make it.
Instead, Eddy climbs onto the bench. He uncurls onto his back and pulls up his phone. Without bothering to read it again, Eddy deletes the message and lays the phone face down on his chest.
Eddy’s eyes struggle against the weight of all the space above him in the atrium, but just before they close, he notices the fluorescent green of fresh shoots in the tops of the branches. For a second, he wonders if this means the tree might reach the glass ceiling one day. He quickly accepts it won’t — whispers a quiet goodbye into the black night sky — and falls asleep.