Carl Austin was slumped in an armchair by Steve’s hospital bed, his hands neatly folded in a tightly clenched fist over his mouth, his pained eyes dwelling upon the sleeping patient, the son that Providence guided through the Himalayas and to his front step.
He sat with a heavy heart, his addled mind swaying between the horrific images of last night’s car crash that took the life of his wife, Marnu, and his attempt to paint a picture of the missing treasured moments of Steve’s first step, first word, first tooth, first day at school, first little league game, first scraped knee, first date…
Rudy’s diagnosis of Steve’s condition squeezed in his stream of consciousness, smudging the canvas of his hopes and dreams of starting anew with the son he hardly knew.
He managed to doze off during the night on a couch in Steve’s room. At first light, he scuffed over to the bed and sat to keep a vigil. His tousled hair, one-day beard stubbles and general disheveled appearance waned in comparison to his growing anguish for his son’s doubtful recovery.
Around noon, Rudy treaded silently into Steve’s room with the patient’s chart, laying one hand on the rueful father who flinched at the touch.
“Carl, why don’t you go stretch your legs down to the cafeteria and grab a bite to eat while I conduct a few tests on Steve.”
“All right, Rudy.” He heaved himself out of his chair. He took one last glimpse at Steve and gave his left hand a light tug. “Hold on, son. I won’t let you give up. We have too many memories to catch up on and new ones to create.” He turned to Rudy. “When is his mother supposed to arrive?”
“When I called Helen last night, she told me her and Jim would be on the first flight out. They should be here shortly.”
Carl nodded his acknowledgement with a yawn that he vainly tried to stifle. Rudy tapped him on the shoulder and gave him a light shove toward the door.
“Go on! Get some nourishment.”
With leaden steps, Carl scuffed out of the room. He buttoned up his rumpled shirt and raked his fingers through his matted hair. He stopped at the water fountain to take a few sip and splash water onto his haggard face that he dried on his sleeve.
As he turned the corner, he noticed a silver-haired woman frantically enquiring about Steve at the nurse’s station. Frowning at her figure that somehow seemed all too familiar, he attempted to make out her facial features as he drew near the counter. “Helen?” he ventured to ask.
As she turned to face him, her heart leapt down her throat, causing her to gasp in shock. She put a hand to her chest. “Carl? Is that really you?”
A smile tugged at his lips as he nodded his reply. They fell into each other’s arms, shudders coursing through their bodies as they held one another in a tight clench. Jim moved a step backward, feeling like an intruder on the soulful reunion.
With tear suffusing in her eyes, Helen unwillingly disengaged the warm embrace to gaze tenderly into her husband’s eyes, the father of her only child, the man she believed dead. She recovered her composure and introduced him to Jim.
“Carl, this is my husband, Jim. Jim, Carl Austin.”
A current of instant friendship traveled through both men as they joined hands in a hearty handclasp. No hint of a whiff of jealousy , rancor nor bitterness between the two who shared the woman’s life.
“Carl, how’s Steve?”
“Dr. Wells is with him right now. He bashed his head real hard against the steering wheel and as a result he wound up with a serious concussion. The doctor is worried about possible brain damage but can’t tell until he regains consciousness.”
“He’s still unconscious?”
“Yes.” Carl hawked and stared down at his feet when he felt a bit uneasy at the awkward silence that fell between them. “Well, I guess we have lots to talk about?”
“To say the least.”
“First of all, let me say how grateful I am to you, Jim, for being a wonderful father to Steve. He had nothing but high praises to sing about you. The hardest for me was thinking of that boy growing up without a father influence.”
“It wasn’t difficult to assume that role with a boy like Steve,” Jim confided. “ In fact when I started dating his mother, he’s the one who insisted I marry her,” he chuckled.
“That doesn’t surprise me,” Carl admitted with a smile. “I came to know him up on that mountain. He’s very special, in more ways that one,” he hinted to Helen.
“You know about the bion….”
“Yes I do.
“You both have so much catching up to do.”
“Yeah,” Carl sighed with a wistful smile. “That’s why I’ve decided to remain in Washington for awhile.”
“That’s wonderful!” Helen gushed. “Does Steve know?”
“He knows. But we may have a slight problem.”
“You see, the government believes I still have in my possession the top secret documents we were carrying on the plane. Steve didn’t exactly come right out and say it, but I suspect that’s why he broached the subject just before the accident occurred.”
“Do you have the documents?”
“Of course not, Helen. I was concerned with saving my own skin much less those papers. But I doubt the words of a coward carries much weight with the Feds.”
“Carl, you are not a coward!” Helen hissed.
Rudy hustled out of Steve’s room and shouted down the hall. “Carl, Steve’s awake.”
The threesome hurried down to Steve’s room to find Rudy checking the patient’s pupillary reflex.
“Can we talk to him?” Helen asked anxiously.
“Yes. In fact, I insist. We need to will him back to us completely or he’ll drift off again.”
Helen neared the bed and leaning over her groggy son, she softly brushed her fingers against his cheek. “Steve, it’s mom. Open your eyes for me. Please son, look at me,” she coaxed gently.
Steve blinked and opened his eyes a slit. As he tried widening them, they rolled back into his head.
“Steve!” Rudy snapped his fingers. “Steve! We have to keep you awake. Come on, open your eyes!”
Steve pried his heavy eyelids apart and strained to focus on the hazy figure hovering over him. “Mom?” he whispered faintly.
“That’s right, Steve. I’m here.”
He looked at Jim. “Dad?”
“Welcome back, son.”
Helen glanced up at Rudy who nodded his consent. “You were in a car accident. But you’re going to be just fine.”
“How do you feel?” Rudy asked.
“Like my head’s about to explode,” Steve mumbled in a sustained breath before closing his eyes and moistening his parched lips. He re-opened them to stare quizzically at the stranger standing to Helen’s right. “Who are you?”
All heads jerked towards Carl who stood, flabbergasted at Steve’s question. His bewildered expression slowly melted into a reassuring smile.
“I’m a friend of your parents.”
“Carl, you’re his fa…”
Carl interrupted Helen in mid sentence with a hand on her arm. “I’m Carl Bennett.”
“Nice to meet you, sir.”
Rudy nodded his gratitude at Carl’s prompt reply. He had the good sense to conceal a truth that could have had dire consequences on the patient’s fragile state of mind.
Carl slipped away quietly to give mother and father time with their son. Rudy followed him out of the room.
“Carl, I appreciate your quick thinking.”
“I saw no sense in upsetting the boy by stirring up memories that weren’t even there a mouth ago. Steve suffered enough and with me gone, things will get back on track.”
“What do you mean with you gone?”
“Rudy, would you tell Helen and Jim? It’s better this way.”
“Carl, don’t go. Steve might start remembering if he sees you on a regular basis.”
“All the more reasons for me to vanish from sight.” Carl shook Rudy’s hand and gave him a tap on the shoulder. “So long, Doctor. Take care of my boy.”
Rudy watched Carl walked away, his heart aching for Steve who had just found his father, only to lose him again. His tear-clouded eyes remained fastened on the tall unkempt man who stepped into the elevator. He watched the doors slide shut on an emotional chapter in their lives.