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two deer stand in the fog in a grassy field

Fiction: Robert and Phil

This is an excerpt of a novel in progress.

After the meeting, Robert drove to the hospital again. The fury he’d felt two days before was gone. Remembering that day 20 years ago with Jessica and Maylin, and hearing that young man talk about forgiveness had shaken him. Phil was somehow connected to his guilt and Robert longed for a confrontation.

Visiting hours ended at 9 p.m., so he didn’t have a lot of time to do whatever he was doing. He parked and sat in the truck with the window down, and this time he noticed the dusk, the daytime birds going to roost in the trees and the night insects winding up. After a moment he raised the window and climbed down from the cab, forcing the key into the right front pocket of his jeans. It struck him how easy it was to open the door, step onto the pavement, and to walk wherever he wanted to when Maylin did not get out. But he pushed that thought away. He was going to see her murderer.

The hospital’s wide automatic doors whooshed open for him, and he stepped into the quiet, tastefully lit lobby. The woman behind the curved prow of the information desk did not look up as he approached, but a uniformed security guard standing against the wall gazed at him. Robert leaned one arm on the tall counter. The woman glanced up. “Can I help you?” He took a breath and asked for Phil’s room number. She looked it up and told him, reminding him that visiting hours ended at 9. Walking down the corridor, he felt naked, empty-handed, and chilled by the air conditioning in his stained T-shirt, work boots, and ill-fitting jeans. He was conscious of how his belt cut into his belly and the click of arthritis in his left knee. Maybe he thought of these things because of how young Phil really was, because Maylin and Phil were young, together.

The elevator took him up to a smaller lobby with a few chairs and artificial plants where a sign pointed to the hallway with Phil’s room number. An elderly couple passed him, then he passed a group of works stations corralled behind a waist-high wall where doctors and nurses talked and typed, their faces lit by blue screens. Then Robert was at the door. He hung back and listened for voices, but it was quiet. He bobbed around the door casing to take a look, then stepped in, ducking slightly like a servant or a soldier. Phil lay with his eyes closed under a light blanket in the high hospital bed, wearing a pale blue hospital gown. He had a black eye, his beard had grown out, and his hair was unwashed. One arm was wrapped in a bulky bandage from fingers to elbow. His other arm was bare, scratched, and bruised, and an IV tube was taped to the back of his hand. He looked thin and pale, and the fluorescent light behind his head threw shadows on his face. Robert knocked lightly on the doorframe.

Phil wondered if he was dreaming when he saw Robert standing there. A little bubble of fear expanded in his chest, but nothing came of it. When he’d thought about it, Phil had anxiously imagined Robert would come at him. But now he wasn’t afraid. Surprisingly, he did not feel much at all. It was just poor old Robert, looking at him the way he always did.

“Can I come in?” Robert asked.

Phil blinked. “Yeah, come in,” he said, almost lifting his good hand.

Robert slowly walked the three or four steps to the bedside. He was nervous and did not want to stand too close or move too quickly. “I came to see if you’re OK.”

A buzzing sound startled him until he realized that it came from the hospital bed. Phil’s upper body rose with the bed, and he looked at Robert with glassy eyes and the slack expression of narcotics. Robert turned to sit in the reclining chair just behind him. Phil remained quiet and motionless, but Robert’s breathing was quick, his heart was thumping, and his hands were icy cold on the arms of the chair.

He forced himself to talk, to keep it simple. “I’m sorry this happened,” Robert said. “Just — sorry.” It was so hard to say only the words he should say and not the other things — his questions, his anger, his grief. They looked at each other in silence.

Phil blinked, licked his lips and said, “I’m sorry, too.” It sounded lame, but he meant it. His mind was empty, but in a way that made it easier to focus on just this moment and not try to guess what Robert was thinking. The nightmare scenes of the accident that sometimes overcame him stayed hidden. This was good in case his thoughts traveled through the air like a virus and became visible to Robert — because who knew? Maybe they could. Robert looked old and exhausted with deep creases in his face. His shoulders were low and rounded, and he leaned forward in the chair with hands clasped in a surrendering way, like he was praying.

“Are you OK?” Phil asked him, surprising himself.

Something broke inside Robert in a way that he did not know he could break. His breath caught as he swallowed a sob, then he gave up and wept silently, shoulders shaking. He hid his face in his arms, bent over his knees. In a moment, he had it under control. He inhaled deeply and let it out in a long, ragged sigh. Then he looked up.

Phil looked stricken and afraid. He returned Robert’s wide-eyed look. All at once, Robert wanted to laugh. He smiled crookedly and said to Phil, “You look terrible, man.” And Phil laughed, too. Neither of them spoke for a few moments. Then Robert stood up, nodded, and left.

Driving home, he leaned into the wind and listened to the truck’s low-pitched hum, a Tuvan throat song that harmonized with the rise and fall of insects in the ditches and hovering woods. The night air was warm and humid. This time, when he got home, he would tell Cynthia about his visit with Phil, and he would tell about her the feelings he’d had during the meeting. He wanted to be let back into her heart.

Suddenly a deer flashed at the side of the road ahead and leaped in front of the truck. Robert slammed on the brakes and missed it by inches. The truck idled at an angle in the middle of the dark road, headlights staring. Robert’s hands shook. He rested his forehead on the steering wheel and wept again, surprised that there was more inside him. Crying was painful — it was a terrible pressure in his head and a sensation of nakedness that made his skin itch with fear. Now that he had let it out, he was afraid it would never stop, and it would carry him to the end of the world. One part of his mind thought this is defeat. This is a surrender I never knew I could feel. But after a few minutes, it passed. He pulled up the hem of his T-shirt to wipe his face.

Crickets sang their stream of consciousness from every direction. An eggshell moon stood above the tree line on the eastern horizon. Out there in the dark along a hedgerow, the deer zig-zagged on its impossibly thin legs, its wide, liquid brown eyes alert for the kind of danger it could understand, with just two strategies to face it — run, or keep perfectly still.

© Patti Witten, all rights reserved

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Crow landing on a snow covered field

Fiction: Phil in the Hospital

This is an excerpt from a novel in progress.

He was climbing up the makeshift ladder to the stand when he fell. Until that moment everything was fine. He was still pissed at Robert but it didn’t matter because he was geared up, ready, his good mood restored by more beer and weed. The ladder was made of six-inch wide pieces of salvaged wood siding nailed to the trunk of a pine tree. The tree stand was also made of salvaged lumber and plywood. It was on land that his friend Mike’s family leased for hunting. Phil and Mike had helped Mike’s uncle build it, which had been harder and more work than he’d expected.

Hand over hand, one foot, next foot. But he missed a beat in the pattern and went backward into the snow, falling on the rifle slung across his back.

He lay there for awhile, catching his breath and looking straight up at the stupid tree. It was mostly dead, the dark broken branches sticking out like spears. The sky was a uniform white. He was still warm from walking in, but if he didn’t get up he would get cold pretty quick from the shock of the fall and from lying in the snow. He experimented, raised his arms. Muscles convulsed between his shoulder blades. Then he tried rolling onto his side, intending to free the rifle that was digging into his back. The pain flared. It hurt. A lot. Fuck. He could not even start to sit up, much less stand. He carefully removed a glove and fished his phone out of a pocket and thank god there was a signal. He called Mike.

“Mike, man.”

“You’re alive. What happened,” Mike said.

“You wouldn’t believe it. I fell. I was climbing and I think one of the slats broke. I fell like twenty feet.”

“What, did you break your leg?”

“My back hurts like a motherfucker. I can’t walk out. Can you come get me?” Mike sighed, agreed, and ended the call.

An hour later the doe appeared. Phil turned his head slowly when she stamped and snorted and watched her, his cheek freezing against the icy snow. The doe’s head was low and her breath smoked in the cold air. He could smell her. Then he heard the buzz of Mike’s ATV and she disappeared. He was really cold and it was getting dark. The only good thing about this — two good things — he would get time off from work and he would get Percocet. Already he looked forward to the warm nothingness he would be feeling in a few hours. It was such a relief that, unbelievably, he started to cry.

.  .  .  .

Phil was dreaming — speedometer, clock, RPM. His arms and legs would not move. Teeth scratched at his hand and he was filled with a wild fear, pushed against something dense and heavy that was dragging him down. Don’t look at the light, baby. Close your eyes hard, roll them all the way up. Count and sing. We are the sultans, the sultans of swing.

He opened his eyes, his heart thumping, and he knew instantly that he lay on his back in a hospital bed. Unlike the other times Phil had roused to find himself in the hospital, this time he was full of despair. The room had that slippery quality of nighttime. Bright light came from a hallway beyond an open door and a far-away voice buzzed quietly. A monitor beeped behind his head, out of sight. The scratchy pinch was an IV needle in the back of his right hand. The rest was a maze of dread.

A female nurse came through the door trailing a breeze that wafted over his face. She reached over his head. A fluorescent light came on and the beeping stopped. She turned his right wrist to time his pulse.

“Are you dreaming, honey? Are you awake now? How’s you pain? On a scale of one to ten, ten being the worst pain you’ve ever felt.”

Phil tried to answer but coughed instead. It hurt.

Here were his old familiar companions— pain and the hospital. He watched the nurse as she lowered his right hand and closed it around a thumb button attached to a cord. “Press this if you have too much pain. Can you do it? It’s a medication pump. You have a catheter so don’t try to get up. Do you understand?”

She held a plastic cup and a straw for him. There was something about the straw, he thought, and discovered that his bottom lip was swollen and would not obey him. He had a question and looked at her over the cup.

“You’re OK, you were in an accident. You have to stay in bed now.”

He dropped the straw from his lips. “I know,” he croaked. “What time is it?” Then, “What’s wrong with me?”

“Your left arm is fractured, and your pelvis. Your right knee is sprained and you have a lot of cuts and bruises. But you’re going to be OK. It’s very early now, go back to sleep if you can. The doctor will see you in the morning.” The nurse straightened and pointed at a whiteboard on the wall next to the bed. “That’s me, I’m Becky. Oh, let me change the date because it’s tomorrow.” With her back to Phil, she pulled the top off a marker with a pop, and the felt tip squeaked on the board. “I’ll be back,” Becky said over her shoulder and left the room in a puff of wind.

Sunday, August 19, 2018. Because it’s tomorrow. Phil tried to work it out. It meant almost nothing, or not quite something. He looked at his left arm wrapped in an ace bandage over thick padding. A light blanket covered his hips and legs. When he shifted experimentally the pain took his breath away. He found the pump in his right hand and pushed the button with his thumb. Then he pushed it again in case it didn’t work the first time. Pain and the hospital — old friends, old enemies. Pain was an expanding balloon that carried off his mind like a trailing string. There was no room in his body for questions.