Again… not edited. Sigh.
The child-like ghost watched him shuffle around the waiting room, head cocking side to side like a dog trying to understand its master’s voice. The push on the scarred-face-kind-smile woman had been a move born of animal frustration. The child hadn’t meant to do it, much as it never meant to be drawn back time and time again to this weird couple. It had been simply too hungry to ignore the gnawing in its soul for much longer, and had pushed the woman towards an emotional brink to try to draw out the craggy-face-broken-nose man’s anger. It hadn’t worked, and the child receded back into itself. Soon, it would stalk Prince George for another snack, but it sensed the cracks in this man and it wanted its entrée right now.
* * *
The doctor, a delicately-boned attractive woman somewhere in her thirties, came out of the ER, spotted him, and the two met halfway. As Garrett drew a breath, the nurse held up her hands. “Your wife’s stabilizing. We’ve got her on intravenous fluids, and her temperature’s slowly dropping back down to normal.”
“It looks like heat exhaustion. You said you’ve both been experiencing symptoms for a week?”
Garrett nodded. “Yeah, a week or two.”
“And you’ve been on a long trip?” When he nodded again, she continued. “Given the high temperatures this summer, and all the traveling you’ve been doing, it’s not entirely unheard of that you might be experiencing these symptoms.”
“But we both know to hydrate.”
“You’re hiking, walking outdoors, taking in the sights?”
“I see traces of sunburns on both of you. It’s not a condemnation, I’m not trying to imply anything. But if you miss even a few hours like this without sunblock, your body’s going to run the risk of overheating. Keep stacking that up over a few weeks, and…” She shrugged. “We’d like to keep her here for observation. At least a day, probably two.”
“However long it takes for her to get healthy. Can I go back?”
The doctor nodded. “We’re moving her to a private room. Follow me.”
She led him back into the ER, weaving through a thin stream of nurses and patients. Brianna, dressed in a pale blue hospital gown, was being helped to a gurney and didn’t see him at first. Her head was down, her long dark hair clinging to her face and neck in sweat-crusted waves. IVs ran from her arm to a plastic bag full of clear liquid. His heart simultaneously leapt knowing she was okay and cracked. He’d finally broken her, and in a way, she’d broken him.
Gingerly, Brianna helped herself up on the gurney, taking the hand of one of the orderlies beside her, and finally brushed the hair out of her eyes as she glanced up. Her hand went to her mouth. “Garrett.”
“I’m glad you’re okay,” he said, stiffer than he’d intended. To the orderly, he asked, “Can I help?”
Brianna reached for him. He took her hand for a moment, but didn’t squeeze back. Her fingers fell away, tapping softly on the side of the gurney. The orderly passed on his offer cheerfully, and as a nurse followed pushing the IV rack, Garrett fell into an uneasy step beside them, looking away from his crying wife.
They were led out of a set of heavy doors to a long corridor. More than a few friendly staff gave them a cheery hello or a smile and a nod of the head, but Garrett said little in return. How do we come back from this? he thought.
The stream of truths – and he didn’t dare let himself believe Brianna had been saying anything other than that – had been so sudden. Had all that been bubbling below her surface? Why hadn’t she told him any of it? And… Doug? His hands tightened into fists. There was no way he could compete with Brianna’s best physical trainer there at the gym. The guy was ridiculously handsome, and didn’t exactly make much of an attempt to hide what he was packing in the locker room either.
And her comments about Stephanie. Where the holy fuck had those come from? His mild headache was threatening to turn into a wall-banger. That shit had been sick, and he didn’t want to believe it had been Brianna talking, but there was still some stiffness between her and Steph that had never been really resolved.
And hatred. She’d said the words “I hate you.” There had been context to it, but… “I hate you.”
His anger left him, and a great, exhausting grief threatened to overwhelm his mind.
“I hate you sometimes. I hate you sometimes. I hate you sometimes.” Her voice rang out in his ears over and over and over again as the orderly and the nurse pushed Brianna into her room. They helped her to bed, pulled a sheet up around her, and she reached out for him again, whispering his name, but all he heard was those words.
“I hate you.”
* * *
Listlessly, he trained his eyes on the television. It was tuned to some crazy science fiction movie Brianna and Murphy both liked, about a man on a train trying to fight his way up to the front. Garrett had never understood it, but then, he’d never really understood half of the things either of them liked. He tried to pay attention now. Anything to take his mind off the morning.
“Do you want some of my Jello?” Brianna asked, her cracked voice mellow.
“I’m good. Thanks.”
Something about bugs and the people on the train making candy bars out of them, or something. Fuck, he thought, this is nonsense.
“Could you get me some more water?”
He stood up, fast, and grabbed the little pitcher with the straw hanging out. “Yeah.”
She caught his wrist. “Garrett, I-”
“Be right back.” He pulled away from her. He thought about just filling it in the bathroom, but decided to get her some ice down the hallway instead. After asking a housekeeper where he could get more ice, he was led down the hallway and to an ice machine near a cafeteria. He filled the jug both with ice and water, thanked the housekeeper, and instead of heading right back, took a chair to lay his forehead on his hands for a while.
When he looked up, eyes red, a man was reading a newspaper at an adjoining table. The headline, in bold letters, said “ANOTHER DEAD OF MYSTERIOUS ILLNESS.”
A spiteful twig of jealousy of the dead threatened to bloom into a full tree. He stood up, knocking his chair over and excusing himself quietly, and returned to Brianna’s hospital room.
The television was off. She sat with the remote clutched between her hands, not quite meeting his quick look. When he settled the water back on the table and reached for it, she pulled it away from him. “I didn’t mean most of it,” she whispered.
“Which means you meant some of it,” he said.
She nodded just a hair. “Yes.”
“Fuck, Bri, the things you said about Stephanie-”
“That wasn’t me. Not all of it.” She shook her head. “I do sometimes feel like I want to yell at Stephanie. And I do think she’s got issues with you. But what I said, it’s like I couldn’t help trying to twist a knife. And I don’t… I don’t… I don’t know why,” she gasped, burying her head in her clawed hands.
“Yeah, well, it was a pretty shitty thing to say,” he muttered.
He was quiet for a long time. “Do you really hate me sometimes?”
“No. Never hate. I get pissed sometimes when you try too much-”
“I don’t even know what that means.”
“You get so obsessed with getting the relationship right, with making everything perfect, that you kinda build up these expectations and it’s really intimidating.”
“Okay.” He still didn’t get it. When it came to their relationship, he tried. So fucking what?
“Garrett, I don’t know why I said the things I did. Some of it… some of it’s true, yes. But I swear to you, it’s like something was twisting my thoughts, making me try to hurt you. I can’t explain it.”
“It was the fever,” he finally offered lamely.
“Yeah, maybe.” She turned on her side, careful not to disrupt her IVs. “I’m sorry. I’ve never been more sorry.”
She reached out for him, and reluctantly, he took her hand in his. “I don’t want you moping around here all day,” she said quietly.
“I want to be with you.”
“Garrett, please. Find a nice hotel room. Go do something you want to do. Find us something fun when you jailbreak me out of here tomorrow.”
“You’re staying as long as you need to.”
“The fever’s already broken. I’m feeling stronger.”
“Don’t change the subject. We’ve gotta learn to be comfortable with ourselves, not just with each other.”
“That’s not what I want right now, damn it,” he said, the annoyance not fooling either of them.
“Liar.” The word was gentle, teasing, but there was truth to it. “Stay with me until I fall asleep. And then go find something to do. Promise me, okay?”
“Promise,” he said sullenly, like a child being denied another hour with a favorite video game.
* * *
Prince George could’ve been the most beautiful city in the world and Garrett would’ve never noticed that afternoon.
He floated through the small city aimlessly, barely registering the thick greenery at the edges or the low mountain ranges nearby. His choice for a hotel had been made simply by checking online and finding the first available one. The name of it barely registered in his mind – he walked in, laid a credit card on the counter, got his keycards, and that was that. There was no thought of even unpacking or bringing in their luggage. He just didn’t care.
Brianna texted him and reminded him he’d wanted to see the Ancient Forest east of the city, a grove of cedars said to be a thousand years old, at least. He thought about hitting the road, and even pointed the Durango in that direction, but less than a mile out of town, he turned around and headed back for the hospital. Being a tourist at that moment sounded as appealing as an enema. Maybe he’d wanted to be alone in that room when he was talking to Brianna, but not now. Despite the barbs still ripping at his soul, he wanted to be near her.
He figured she would be pissed if she saw him, so he found a waiting room near her, nodded curtly at a young man flipping through a magazine, and crashed out in a stiff armchair. Five minutes later, he was drifting, not quite asleep, not quite awake.
I hate you. I hate you. I hate you.
His hip buzzed. Startled, he nearly jumped out of the chair, thinking it was someone trying to notify him about a change in Brianna’s health. But no, it was Rose. He thought about punching the ignore button, but decided against it. If they’d heard about Brianna – and by now, they probably had – they deserved to know she was okay.
He thumbed the green button, and said quietly, “Yeah.”
“You idiot, where are you?” Rose’s voice was shrill, and somewhere behind her, he could hear Ed try to say something placating.
“The hospital. I take it you heard about Brianna?”
Rose sighed heavily. “She called. And by the way, she thinks you’re out seeing the sights, or getting drunk.”
“No. She wanted me to. Hell, I wanted to, but… I just couldn’t. Figured she’d be upset if I came back to the room so I’m sacked out in the waiting room.” The guy across from him stood up and tossed his magazine on the chair beside him. Garrett watched him walk out the door before speaking again. “She’s all right, Rose.”
“Like fucking hell she is.” The swearing out of her mouth was surprising, but not nearly so much as if it had come from Ed, who disliked swearing himself but didn’t give a damn if anyone else did it. Still, Rose very only very infrequently dropped fuck bombs. “You know she thinks you hate her right now? I mean, really hate her? She thinks you’re ready for a divorce and it’s tearing her up.”
“Rose… I…” He sighed. “Of course I don’t want a divorce. There’s nothing she could say that’s going to make me stop loving her.”
Something banged on Rose’s end, once, twice, three times, and then his friend was shouting in the phone. “Then tell her that! She needs you, damn it!”
“What she said to me-”
“If you think she meant any of that, really meant it, then you haven’t been paying attention. That woman loves you utterly and completely. Whatever she said wasn’t her. You hear me? It wasn’t her.” Rose stopped, and a harsh sob broke from her throat. “It wasn’t, damn it.”
Then she was gone, replaced by Ed. “What do you need, man? What can we do?”
Garrett cleared his throat. “I don’t know. I really don’t. I don’t know how hospital bills work up here, if we pay now or get billed later, or any of that.”
“I’ll talk to their accounting people.”
“But what about Brianna?”
“I don’t know,” he repeated dully
“Are you two…?”
“We’ll be okay.” Garrett hung up before Ed could say anything else. He tapped the phone against his forehead. Without another word, he stood up, and returned to Brianna’s room, but didn’t dare enter. Instead, he just leaned against the wall outside her door, staring upwards, praying without knowing exactly what he was praying for.
* * *
Brianna stared up at the ceiling, the arm not hooked up to IVs curled underneath her head. Her eyes were dry, finally, but her throat kept working. She too was praying, trying to convince God to take back the last few hours, to make everything okay again. It was not a prayer she expected to be answered and she was not surprised when it wasn’t.
A nurse knocked and let herself in. “Time to change out your bags,” she said cheerfully. “Need a bathroom break?”
“Please,” Brianna said, and let herself be helped to the small bathroom. When she’d finished, the nurse guided her and the IV cart back to bed.
“You know, your husband could probably help you with that,” the nurse said as she swapped out the bags. “Doesn’t take much to push the cart around and he looks pretty capable.”
“I think he’s off seeing some of the forests east of here,” Brianna said, trying to inject her voice with a note of cheerfulness. “Didn’t want him hanging around here on my account, not when we’re on our hon…” She cleared her throat, and tried to widen her smile. “Honeymoon.”
The nurse snickered and shook her head. “Honey, he’s been outside your room for the last two hours. Not even sitting. Just standing there.”
Brianna jerked her head towards the door. “He… what?”
The nurse’s smile disappeared. “How bad did you two fight, hon? Do we need to maybe call someone? There are people who can help, you know?”
“I don’t…” It dawned on her that the nurse thought Garrett had been cruel to her. “Oh God, I gave you the wrong idea. I hurt him. It wasn’t the other way around.”
“You sure? Around here, we got the cops on speed dial.”
“Absolutely, yes.” Brianna dazedly sat up. “He’s really outside?”
“Could you send him in? And… um… does the door lock?”
It didn’t, but the nurse promised her that she could get a little privacy for half an hour or so. It would have to do. In a minute, Garrett shuffled in, looking at his feet.
“I thought you were sightseeing,” Brianna whispered.
“Didn’t want you to think I was being clingy again,” he muttered.
“Baby,” she chided him gently.
“I’m sorry. I’ll go.”
“Stay.” He turned away, and a note of panic entered her voice. “Garrett, please, stay.”
He stopped with his hand on the doorknob, and glanced over his shoulder. “I won’t try to fix things, if you don’t want me to. If you’re not happy…”
“Oh God, Garrett, I love you,” she gasped, and yanked the IVs out of her arm. He turned, slow and unsure, but she was already sitting up, and despite his protests, she was taking off her gown. She knew she looked a mess, clammy and godawfully unsexy, but he crossed the room to her anyways, took her face in his hands, and kissed her so hard their noses banged off one another.
“Never leave me if you don’t want to,” she gasped as he pushed her back up on the bed. “Don’t tell me that, because I never will,” he said, hands finding the button of his shorts, his lips moving across her flesh.