“Well, you’ve used a lot less morphine today,” the nurse said, tapping the feed with his thumbnail. “Keep this up, Charlie, and we’ll have you out of here by the weekend.”
“Go dancing,” Charlie joked.
“That’s the spirit, my man.”
The nurse adjusted something in the suite of machines beside the bed, and the low, chiming alert stopped for the first time in an hour. The sounds of the hospital came in to fill the void: the television in the next room, the murmur and laughter of nursing station shop talk, monitor alarms from all along the ward, someone crying.
“I’ll get you some more ice,” the nurse said, taking the styrofoam cup from the little rolling bed table. “Be right back.”
Charlie tried to say thank you, but it was hard to focus. His mind didn’t feel right, and his body was a catalog of pains that he didn’t want to associate with. They’d saved his toes, but in five days, he’d only glimpsed the complication of red flesh and black stitching that was his leg. The muscles of his abdomen were compromised. That was the word the surgeon had used, compromised. As if there had been some sort of agreement, some give-and-take. The fluid draining from his gut had moved down, feeding deep, bloody bruises down both his thighs and filling his scrotum until it swelled up to the size of a grapefruit, the skin tight, hot, painful and discolored. Strangely, the punctures on his neck where the dog’s teeth had held him were the least of his injuries, and the quickest to heal.
The nurse stepped back in, put the cup where it had been. Firm white foam holding crushed white ice.
“Up and around in no time,” the nurse said.
“You bet,” Charlie said and lifted the cup to his lips. The cold comforted him. It was like a water-flavored sno-cone: a kid’s treat with all the sweetness gone. He remembered something about the ancient Greeks thinking the afterlife was like that, just the same as life, but with all the sensation and color turned to gray. That’s how he knew he wasn’t dead. The pleasures might all be gone, but the pain was exquisite.
The nurse left again, and Charlie thumbed the morphine drip. A few seconds later, the pain lost its edge, and the tightness in his throat went a little softer around the edges. He closed his eyes and let the nightmares come play for a while — dreams of formless dread and shame, more like an emotional cold sore than a real dream — and when he woke, Adam was there. Sandy, thinning hair. Sun-scarred face. He was wearing a lumpy flight jacket that made him look like he had a massive pot belly.
“Hey,” Charlie said.
“Hey, bro. You’re looking better.”
“This is better?”
“There was some room for improvement,” Adam said. This was what they did. Joked, like if they laughed about it, nothing would have happened. It felt dishonest, but Charlie didn’t have words for the things that wanted to be said. Even if he did, he didn’t want to put it on Adam. No one else from the office had even visited. “I got your mail in. Pretty much just bills, ads, and credit card applications. Figure it’s all stuff that can wait.”
“Thanks for that,” Charlie said, pulling himself slowly up to sitting. His crotch shrieked in pain, and for a moment he thought the skin around his scrotum had popped open like an overcooked hot dog. It only felt that way. “How’re the salt mines?”
“Everyone’s looking forward to getting you back in,” Adam said. “There’s a collection to get you a welcome back present, but don’t tell ‘em I spilled the beans.”
“Just glad they remember who I am.”
On the intercom, a professionally calm voice announced code seven in the pediatrics lobby. Code seven meant someone was dying. Someone was doing worse than he was. He felt a pang of guilt for taking the bed space, the doctors’ attention. It wasn’t like he was dying.
“Brought a surprise for you,” Adam said with a grin, and unzipped the flight jacket. “Had to smuggle him in, right?”
Dickens head popped out, nose black and wet and sniffing wildly. His expressive eyebrows shifted anxiously back and forth, but he didn’t bark or growl. When he saw Charlie, he tried to scramble out of the half-zipped jacket, his legs and paws flailing wildly. Adam grunted as he lifted the dog up and set him gently on the bed.
“Hey boy. Did you miss me?” Charlie said, trying to keep the tone of his voice gentle and happy, they way he would have with a child. Dickens looked up at him, eyebrows bunched in worry, then at Adam, then back again. The sniffing sounded like hyperventilating. “It’s all right, boy. It’s okay.”
But the dog, hind legs shaking, only looked around the room, distress in his eyes. Distress, and a question he couldn’t ask and Charlie couldn’t answer.
All right. Daniel here now.
The thing about first drafts is they’re first drafts. Not everything about them is what you intended, and not everything about them is what’s going to wind up in the final piece. That’s what work-in-progress means.
The point of this scene going in was to give a sense of how busted up Charlie is, get enough curiosity about what happened to pull folks through to the next scene, where I’m going to tell them. That’s actually kind of important to make clear: There’s always a temptation to withhold what’s really going on in the mistaken belief that builds tension. It doesn’t. It builds confusion and impatience. It’s much more suspenseful for the reader to know as much — and sometimes more — than the characters and then be worried about what’s coming next than to have them doing things the reader doesn’t have enough information to put in context.
Reading it over right now, fresh off the skillet, I’m starting to question whether Adam should be a guy. My impulse going in was to have no women at all in the story, with the idea being that men would take the metaphorical role of women and dogs the metaphorical role of men. A story about rape without women or sex. The problem I hadn’t seen is that Adam is an essentially friendly, supportive, nurturing character, and when you have two men being supportive and gentle, all of a sudden there’s a question about their sexuality. (This feeds into a long an angry rant I have about the men’s movement, which I may go into another time, but I’m trying to stay focused here.)
I’m okay in general terms with Charlie and Adam reading as queer, except that I want my straight male brethren to really identify with Charlie. I don’t want to give anyone the easy out of thinking that the kind of victimization, loss, and fear we’re playing with here is the province of queer men and women. Ideally, queer men and women reading this story will find it a source of comfort (the way it is when people acknowledge and talk about painful but taboo subjects), but the audience I’d most like to reach are straight guys who hadn’t thought about this before. Which is to say, people like me.
I don’t know what happens is Adam becomes Audrina, and I’m not going to do anything with it yet, but that’s what I’m thinking about.
Also, I wonder what happens if I leave Charlie nameless. That would be hard to do, especially if there aren’t any women so that all the pronouns are stuck at “he”, but it might make the character a little more universal and easy to identify with. Or it might not, and I might be getting to clever for my own good and just making it harder for myself.
Also, I’m writing this on Scrivener for Mac, then cutting and pasting it into WordPress, if anyone wondered.
Dickens is named Dickens because it turns out I’m writing this scene on Charles Dickens’ 200th birthday.