C2 Chapter 2 THE HOSPITAL
"Sometimes wolves come in sheep's clothing."
The medics found a pulse when they arrived, and we made fast time to the hospital in the ambulance. Now I sit, waiting. They've taken her to a private room, hooked her to machines, stuck needles in her to take her blood. They asked me to leave, to wait in the lobby and someone would come with an update soon. They threw words around like stroke, heart attack, brain aneurysm, but no one seems to know anything. Their words are like bubbles popping in the air. No substance, just ideas.
Shoulders slumped, head pounding, I followed their orders, too tired to argue. Too heartbroken to fight anyone.
That was an hour ago. I'm still waiting. Exhausted. Terrified. The fear burns in my blood like a fever, infecting every part of me with this deepening dread of what is to come.
My phone buzzes and I look down at it. I'd forgotten I was still holding it. It's Es, texting me.
I know ur prob exhausted but want to party for ur bday?
My finger hovers over the letters trying to think of how to respond. I decide with the truth.
Mom in hospital. It's bad. Can't leave.
Her reply is instant.
Pete & I will be right there. Xo
I don't really want company, but it's also a relief to know I won't be alone for this. I wander the hospital halls looking for a coffee machine. When I find it, I realize I have no money on me. I left the house with nothing. I lean my head against the machine, an overwhelming sense of hopelessness crashing into me. It is the final straw that breaks the composure I've been clinging to this whole time. My breath hitches, the tears are threatening my eyes, but if I start crying right now, I might not stop. I try to hold it in, but a sob escapes my body, like a punch to my gut has forced it out. My fingers grip the cold metal of the coffee machine as I fight to control my emotions.
"The coffee here really isn't that good. You can do better."
The voice behind me is male, deep and gravelly and British, and I turn, embarrassed that I've been caught in such a public display of grief. I swipe at my eyes with the cuff of my sweatshirt and suck in my pain, trying to mask it in the presence of this stranger.
The man before me is tall, with lean muscles that bulge through the black jeans and black cotton shirt he wears under his long black trench coat. His hair is slightly too long and disheveled, brown with copper highlights that accent his blue eyes. His face looks carved from rock, and even as he smiles, there's a hardness to him that makes me take a step back. He could be a Greek god, and he pulses with some kind of feral energy, like a wild animal. He looks out of place in this sterile hospital environment. Like a wolf prowling amongst the sheep.
"I apologize," he says, taking a step back. "I didn't mean to frighten you."
I try to smile, but I think it comes out as more of a grimace. "You didn't. I'm just... my mom is here and... I haven't slept in a long time. I guess I needed the coffee more than I realized." I'm babbling, and I bite my tongue to shut myself up. I move away from the machine when I realize he's probably waiting on his turn to get a cup.
He puts a paper cup into the tray, sticks some change into the money slot, then presses a button. Black java pours out. He hands the cup to me when it's full. "You need this more than I do, I think."
"Oh, I can't take your coffee."
He sticks another dollar in. "I've got change for two."
He holds out his hand. It's large and callused with a few scars. "I'm Fen," he says, waiting.
"Ari." I extend my hand and when our skin touches a shiver runs up my spine.
"What happened to your mom?"
I give him a quick version of my morning, wondering why I'm telling this stranger anything.
His face is stoic, serious, when I finish. "I'm sorry about your mother. I... " He looks hesitant to speak. "I lost my father recently. It's never easy."
While I empathize with his grief, his words prick me. "My mother isn't dead. She'll get through this. But..." I pause, realizing I sound like a jerk. "I'm sorry about your father. That's awful. Is that why you're here?"
"No. I'm here on other business."
Something about his tone makes me think there's more to his story. "Do you work here?"
"I'm an independent contractor," he says. "Personal security." He looks like he wants to say more, like he has something terrible and dark he needs to share, but he shakes his head and holds up his coffee. "Take care of yourself, Ari. And be careful. Sometimes wolves come in sheep's clothing."
He turns to walk away, and I watch until he disappears around a corner, puzzling at his odd warning. What does that even mean? And how uncanny that he brought up wolves and sheep when that's exactly what I was thinking about him. I can still feel the heat of his hand against mine, the strength that pulsed through him. I'm lost in thoughts as I zombie-walk back into the waiting room and sink into a chair in the corner to continue my purgatory of waiting. The coffee is awful, but I drink it anyway, hoping it gives my muddled mind some clarity. When Es and Pete walk in carrying a bag from Painted Lady Coffee House, I stand to hug them both. "Thank you for coming."
Pete kisses my cheek. "We didn't just come. We brought provisions." He looks around the hospital, his nose crinkling with distaste. "I hope you haven't touched anything or anyone here."
I chuckle. "Of course not. I've been floating around to avoid the germs."
Es hands me a bag and a steaming cup of coffee. "Eat. Drink. You'll need your strength."
They each flank me as we sit. I sip at the coffee and sigh. "Best in Portland."
"Any news?" Pete asks. He's a short man with curly red hair and glasses. He looks as if he could have been cast as one of the Weasleys in the Harry Potter movies. There are a lot of raised eyebrows when he and Es are together in public, but they don't seem to care. Pete told me he was once beat up for being gay. "I'm not gay," he said. "Es isn't a man, she's a woman. But it really doesn't matter. I love her as she is, whatever that body is. People can be so restrictive when it comes to love, but where's the sense in that?"
I think I fell in love with Pete a little bit that day. After some time, he joined the ranks of people I love the most in the world. I tell them I know nothing, that I'm still waiting for the doctor to come update me.
"I texted The Roxy," Es says. "You're off the hook for work for as long as you need."
I half smile at her, my heart sinking further as the full ramifications of today hit me. My mother won't be able to work. I'll need to take care of her. We're barely surviving as it is. How am I going to get through this? But I can't worry about that now. First, I just need to make sure my mom is okay. We'll deal with the rest later.
Pete takes the bag from my hands and pulls out a sandwich. "Your favorite. Grilled cheese with bacon. Eat some."
He waves the sandwich around like I'm a toddler he has to coerce to eat, so I take a bite. It looks amazing, but today it tastes like ash in my mouth, and I feel like vomiting. I force the food down my throat and take another drink of the coffee. "I appreciate it, but I can't eat right now. Not until I know she's all right."
He nods and puts the remains of the sandwich back in his bag. And we wait. In silence. A television stuck on daytime talk shows plays in the background as my friends offer their support.
Finally a doctor comes out and calls my name. I leap up, making myself dizzy, and speed walk toward her. She's an older woman with long graying hair pulled back into a bun.
"Hello, Miss Spero, I'm Dr. Cameron. I'm sorry you've had to wait so long."
"How is my mother?" I ask.
"It's a complicated situation," she says, looking down at a file in her hands. "Your mother has a history of using pain medication? She was injured in a car accident years ago, yes?"
My body breaks out in a cold sweat at memories that can't possibly be mine, but feel viscerally mine none-the-less. I smell the burning flesh. Hear the crash of metal on metal. Taste the smoke and blood in my mouth. "Yes, she was injured badly."
The doctor nods. "Her blood tests revealed high levels of narcotics in her system. Was she abusing her pain medication?"
"She was in a lot of pain. It was getting worse. But she wasn't abusing anything, and I don't see what this has to do with her current condition."
"Maybe it doesn't," the doctor says. "I'm just trying to understand her medical history."
"And I'm trying to understand what's wrong with her. How does a relatively healthy woman collapse like this with no provocation? What happened?"
"Your mother is in a coma," Dr. Cameron says. "Beyond that, she's essentially brain dead. Her body is functioning, but barely. Without life support she wouldn't be alive right now. And with it... I'm afraid she's only here in body. You'll have to make a difficult choice."
My knees buckle and Es and Pete catch me before I fall. I'm shaking, my muscles wobbling under the pressure of the air around me. "Are you saying I have to decide whether to pull the plug on my own mother?"
She hands me a stack of papers. "These forms explain your options, and someone from billing will come by to help you with the insurance and expenses of your choices. I'm so sorry for your loss, Miss Spero."
"I want to see her. I want to see my mother."
The doctor nods. "I'll have a nurse escort you to her room." She leaves me there alone, presumably to find a nurse, and Pete puts an arm around my shoulder. "Doctors don't know everything," he says.
"What do you mean?"
He looks at me, an unreadable expression on his face. "There are a lot of studies of people in comas. A lot of evidence to suggest they are aware and hear us. Some even have memories of conversations when they finally wake up."
"She said my mother is brain dead." The words sink like rocks in my throat, choking me.
"There's a lot science can't explain. Don't give up hope."
"Hope. Did you know that's what my last name means? Spero is hope in Latin. My mom always says it's a reminder to never lose hope, no matter how bleak the situation. Dum spiro spero."
"'While I breathe, I hope,'" he says, surprising me with the English translation of the Latin.
I nod. "That's what she'd tell me."
"It's good to have hope," he says.
A nurse arrives to take me back.
Es and Pete follow at my heels but the nurse shakes his head. "I'm sorry, only family is permitted beyond this point."
Es squeezes my hand. "We'll be here waiting for you, honey. Take as long as you need."
I nod and follow the nurse through the halls and around a corner. He stops in front of a door and pauses, his hand on the latch. "We've made her as comfortable as possible."
He opens the door, and I walk in with determination. I won't give up. I won't stop believing she is in there somewhere. She's still breathing. There's still hope.
My mom is lying in the bed, hooked up to machines and monitors, when we walk in. Her skin is pale, her face blank, expressionless, her red, wild hair spread over her pillow. I walk over and reach for her hand, holding it, praying for some sign that she can hear me. "Hi, Mom. It's Ari. I'm here now, and everything is going to be okay."
The nurse checks my mother's chart then walks to the door. "I'll leave you alone with her. Ring the buzzer if you need anything."
"What's your name?" I ask, as he's about to leave.
"I'm Tom, and I'll be on shift the rest of the day. I'll take good care of your mother."
"Thank you, Tom."
I look back at my mom and smooth the hair out of her eyes. "I need you. You can't leave me yet. I may be an adult, but I still need you." I squeeze her hand, turning it over in mine, and I notice something on the inside of her wrist. A design I've never seen before. A sort of stylized number seven with two lines parallel to the top. It's not a tattoo, or a burn. It almost looks... like a scar, but not really. It's raised and pale, almost glowing. Just like the symbol on the stranger at The Roxy last night. Well, the actual design is different, but the style, the strangeness of it is the same. I take my phone out and snap a picture, then text it to Es and Pete.
Either of you seen something like this?
Pete texts back first.
Need to talk ASAP!
I frown at his response.
Do you know something about this symbol?
He doesn't respond. I tap on the screen of my phone, as if that will make him respond faster. When it doesn't, I sigh and look at my mom. She's so still. I want to believe. To have hope.
I'm about to leave, to seek out Pete and find out what he knows, when a petite woman in a business suit walks in with a clipboard. "Miss Spero, I need to get some information about your mother's insurance."
I can't believe I have to deal with the banality of money and insurance when my mother is fighting for her life, and thirty minutes later I want to scream. Her insurance won't cover even a fraction of what it would take to keep her on life support long term. And the cost. All those zeros. I can't even begin to fathom how I'll come up with the money.
All on the hope that she might someday wake up.
I take the papers the woman hands me and stand. "I'll have to think about this," I say, skirting out the door.
I find Es and Pete snuggling in the waiting room watching cat videos on Pete's phone. When they see me they both stand. "We need to talk," Pete says.
Pete looks around like someone might be watching. Like anyone cares at all about our conversation. "But not here."
I roll my eyes and follow him out of the hospital. He's parked out front.
I freeze. "Why don't we just walk?"
Es reaches for my hand. "It's time, darlin'. You have to get over this."
Today? Do I really have to do this today? But as I'm standing there, a torrent of rain falls from the sky, soaking us all. To their credit, my friends stand there in the rain, soaking wet, cold, shivering, waiting for me. I nod and climb into the back of the car. "Where are we going?"
"Your house should be safe enough. If that's okay? Our roommate is home and not to be trusted with this conversation," Pete says, pulling out onto the street.
"How are things going with the roommate?" I ask, bracing my hands against the back of Pete's seat, my knuckles turning white.
Es looks over her shoulder at me, rolling her eyes. "It's a nightmare. I swear to god, once I have the money for my surgery, we are out of there." She reaches for Pete's free hand. "It's time we had our own place."
The roads are slick with ice and Pete drives like an old woman, for which I'm grateful. My nails leave imprints in the faux-leather fabric, and I don't stop shaking until we pull up in front of my apartment. When I slide out of the car, I'm dizzy with the jagged memories that cut at me like broken glass.
Es and Pete wait patiently as I take several deep breaths. When I feel like I can walk without falling, I nod and lead them to the door, which is still unlocked; no one would want to steal anything we have. Still, I lock it behind me as we all enter.
Es heads straight to the heater, to turn it on.
"Sorry, it's busted," I tell her. "We'll have to stay bundled."
She smiles. "Don't you worry a thing about it. How's about I make us all some hot coffee and we can sit down and figure this out together."
Es heads to my small kitchen, and I sink into the couch in the living room. Suddenly my whole body aches, and I feel the hours of sleepless exhaustion take its toll on me, but I'm too wired to actually sleep. The apartment is too still. Too quiet. Even the annoying hum of the refrigerator is missing, and I idly wonder if it stopped working as well. There are small signs of my mother everywhere. Her boots by the front door, one lying on its side. Her jacket draped over the back of one of the kitchen chairs. Her favorite magazines spread out on the table in front of the couch.
Pete sits in the love seat across from me, and Es brings us coffees and sits next to him.
Now that we are all settled, I lean in to Pete. "Okay, spill it."
Pete pulls out his phone to look at the picture I sent. "Whose wrist is this?"
He frowns. "How long has she had a mark like this?"
"It's new," I say. "I've never seen it until today."
"So it wasn't there before she fell into this coma?" he asks.
"This is bad, Ari. Very bad."
I blow on my coffee and sip it, trying to control my impatience. "Enough with the scary omens. Just tell me."
He opens up a browser on his phone and shows me image after image of the mark on my mom's wrist.
"This is the Mark of Cain. You know the story of Cain and Abel? From the Bible?"
I nod, recalling old Bible stories from my childhood. An old neighbor of ours used to babysit me when I was little and my mom was working. She'd drag me to church with her, and was devoted to the idea that my soul needed saving. It didn't stick, but I remember some of it. "They were both told by God to make sacrifices to him, or something. Abel's was accepted by God but Cain's was rejected. He and Abel fought and Cain killed his brother and was marked for it."
"That's the gist. But some believe there's more to the story. Some believe that mark did more than just serve as a sign to others that he deserved death. Some believe that mark turned him."
"Turned him into what?" I ask.
"Into a demon. One who feeds on the pain of others. That he was condemned to spend eternity torturing others or he would feel that torture himself, day in and day out for all time."
I shake my head. "This is why religion does not make sense to me. What kind of God asks for blood sacrifices, then punishes people who don't do it?"
"A vengeful God," Pete says.
"So what does this have to do with my mother?" I shudder, feeling an evil premonition descend upon me.
"If she bears the Mark of Cain, then she is his." Pete whispers this so quietly it takes my mind a moment to make sense of his words.
"You think my mom is being held prisoner by Cain—a demon?"
He doesn't answer, but I can see on his face that's exactly what he believes. I look to Es for help. Surely she can't believe this nonsense? But she averts her eyes, her shoulders slumped, her hand resting on Pete's knee. She believes him.
"Have you both lost your mind? These stories aren't real. It's all just a bunch of morality tales meant to scare kids—and adults—into behaving in the way whoever was in charge wanted them to."
Pete shakes his head. "I know you're a skeptic, and I've never tried to push my beliefs on you, but Ari... you have to open your eyes. There are things in this world that defy logic."
I want to argue, to tell him there's a very logical and rational explanation for what happened to my mother, to tell him I will find a way to save her with science. But I can't. My mind returns to the man at The Roxy. The man with the same kind of mark but in a different design. The man with the strange eyes and the accent I couldn't place. The man who knew my name, my full name, when no one at work calls me Arianna only Ari.
"I have to go!" I say, jumping up. "I need to see my mom again."
Pete drives me to the hospital, and in the urgency to see my mother again, I tolerate being in the car with less terror than normal. Yay for me. When we arrive, Pete tries to park, but I tell him and Es to go home and rest. "I need some time to process things, and you both need sleep. I'll call you later, okay?"
They relent and drive off, leaving me in drifts of newly fallen snow at the front door of the hospital. The sun has already set, marking the end of a day that has seemed an eternity. I run in and find my mother's room. She's still lying there, just as she was. I turn her wrist over and stare at the mark. Is this really the Mark of Cain? Could the story be true?
I pull out the strange man's business card and dial the number on it.
"I was expecting your call, though I admit, I thought it would arrive earlier," he says before I've even have a chance to speak.
"Who are you? What have you done to my mother?"
"I've done nothing to your mother. But without me, she will be lost for good. Without me, her soul will suffer for all eternity." His voice echoes around me, and I look up to see him standing at the door of my mother's room, holding his phone to his ear.
When he sees me notice him, he smiles and puts his phone away. "Hello Arianna Spero. It's time at last we talked. Tell me, do you want to save your mother?"