A wild blue cloudless yonder graced the annual air show at Andrews Air Force Base. Throngs of spectators were filtering through the gates and flocking to the site. They crammed in on the grassland near the edge of the cordoned off tarmac. All were eager to steal the best view possible of the acrobatics. This year’s event was of great import to Steve for it featured his first student pilot ever to participate in an air show. For this special occasion the proud teacher had his parents flown in from Ojai to attend the performance. Oscar and Rudy were also in attendance.
Minutes before show time, Cassandra Miller drove to the main hangar where she accosted an airman to ask directions. “Excuse me, Sir. Do you know where I might find Colonel Austin?”
“Yes, Ma’am.” With a gentlemanly hand on her shoulder he pointed her in the right direction. “Down the corridor. Last door on your left. Room 18.”
“Thank you kindly.”
In the locker room, Steve was lavishing last-minute directives to Jason when Cassie casually walked in. “Am I interrupting anything?”
Steve’s eyes lit up with ecstasy at the sight of his Brown-Eyed Girl coming to wish him the best. “Cassie!” he gushed, falling into her arms. “You came.”
“I wouldn’t have missed this for the world. This is a big day for you.”
He reluctantly disengaged the embrace to gaze into her smiling brown eyes. “Thanks for being here. It means a lot,” he sighed, brushing a loose lock of her glistening brown hair behind her ear.
She reached out to touch his hand, giving it a light amicable squeeze. She glanced over his shoulder at the young pilot blushing slightly at the display of affection. “And I take it this is Jason?”
“Oh right!” Steve led her closer to the bashful young pilot. “Jason Archer, I’d like you to meet my best friend in the world, Cassandra Miller.”
“How do you do, Ma’am?” He extended his arm to shake her hand.
“Very well, thank you. How about you? Nervous?”
“A little,” he answered rather apathetically, an inflection that disturbed Cassie to some degree.
“I’ll go down to the plane and wait for you there,” Jason said.
“Okay. I’ll be right with you.”
Cassie’s eyes narrowed in suspicion at the downcast expression etched on Jason’s face as he left the room. “Something wrong with him?”
“Why do you ask?”
“He seems rather down in the mouth,” she observed warily.
“He gets that way when he’s anxious. Say 35, are we still on for tonight? My place?”
“You bet! Who does the cooking? You? Helen? Or me?” she asked with her infectious brand of humor.
“No one. I’m having the celebration supper all catered.”
“You big spender.”
“I have som…,” he gulped nervously, “I have something important to ask you.”
“No. Not now. Tonight after supper.”
She cocked her head and smiled whimsically. “ A surprise, heh?”
“Something like that.”
“All right. Tonight then.” She griped his shoulders and pushed with her toes to raise her lips to his cheek. “Break a leg, 34.” Their gazes met and instantly welded in a soul-stirring moment. Never before had she fallen hard under the spell of Steve’s bewitching baby blues. She welcomed the warm sensation of butterflies fluttering in her stomach and melted butter flowing through her vein. Her skin broke in gooseflesh as the stare lingered, halting the course of time. The feeling was pleasing and yet she shivered at the prospect of heading down that road with her longtime friend. In a long silent deep breath she quickly swept that emotion under the rug and broke into a beam. “You be careful out there, Steve.” Her voice cracked with emotion much to Steve’s delight. She clasped his left hand and giving it a firm squeeze, she finished on a hushed tone, “You come back in one piece, you hear?”
He flashed her a tender reassuring lopsided grin and pulled her into a heartfelt clench. “I will. Don’t worry. I’ve done this before you know.”
“I know.” With a sizeable intake of air she cleansed her mind of all lingering fear she considered foolish. She turned on her heels and crossed to the door, casting one last glance in Steve’s direction to wave goodbye. He replied with a wink.
Cassie rejoined the gang on the field teeming with people. It was an impressive crowd of enthusiastic fans ranging from all ages and ethnic groups. Although she was much aware of the extent of the veneration, it still overwhelmed her to hear the youngsters worship their hero, Steve Austin. She drew great comfort in knowing he would never commit any indiscretion to tarnish that shining reputation.
Steve headed out to the tarmac where he gave his student one last pep talk before boarding the aircraft. Sitting in the back he assigned full command of the instruments to Jason, unaware that he was entrusting his life to an emotionally unstable mind. Once given the authorization to take off Jason taxied down the runway and within minutes, they were airborne and readying themselves for the formation with the other jets.
Steve was basking in pride at his student’s exceptional skills. He handled the most complex maneuvers with fluid motions without breaking a sweat. Jason’s self-composure was almost frightening.
Jason closed his eyes, took a deep breath to garner up his courage to follow through on his fateful decision.
“Hey, what’s he doing up there?” Cassie pondered inwardly. “Pull up. Pull up!” her mind screamed.
“Jason, what are you doing?” Steve chided. “You’re flying to low. Pull up.” Jason remained silent and continued his descent. “Did you hear me? I said pull up!”
“Sorry Steve. Nothing personal.” Jason finally replied morbidly seconds before he sent the plane plummeting to the ground in a ball of fire.
Bloodcurdling screams and guttural cries mixed with choruses of ‘Oh my God!’ rent the air. Jim was quick to grab a hold of his shaken wife before she collapsed in shock. Oscar and Rudy thrust their way through the thick crowd of stunned spectators rooted to the spot with dropping jaws and terror-filled eyes. Wives clung to their husbands and children sought comfort from their equally distraught parents. Everyone was flabbergasted by the unforeseen tragedy.
Cassie followed Oscar and Rudy to their car. The driver opened throttle to the site of the crash. Already fire engines had converged to the runway to battle the raging fire eating away at what was left of the fuselage. Try as they did they were powerless at extinguishing the flames in the cockpit, thus leaving dim hope of ever retrieving the pilots’ bodies intact.
Our three friends’ hearts leapt to their throats as they drew closer to the blazing inferno laying the plane waste. The car had yet to come to a complete halt that Cassie bounced out of the back seat and hurried over to the chief fireman. He gripped her arm forcefully to prevent her from stepping any closer to the fire. “Careful, Ma’am. Don’t go any further. It could blow up at any time,” he shouted over the roaring flames.
“Steeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeve!” she wailed, a torrent of tears streaming down her face. Her knees buckled under the weight of the overwhelming shock. She was slowly sinking to the ground when she felt Oscar’s hand hook her arm. The flames mirrored in her bleary eyes, consuming the very core of her being. A vacant stare replaced the horrifying expression when she felt her soul shatter into smithereens.
“Hey boss! Over here!” One of the firemen beckoned from a few yards away.
The chief knelt onto the grass beside the mangled body and pressed his fingers against the carotid. “Lordy me! He’s alive!” he exclaimed with utter surprise. He staggered to his feet and rushed back to the runway to inform the paramedics of a survivor. “It’s Colonel Austin. He must have ejected before the plane hit the ground. He’s alive. Barely.”
Cassie, Oscar and Rudy followed the medical team out to the field where the macabre discovery was made. Cassie felt the bile rise to her throat with every step she took towards the bloody battered shell sprawled on the ground. It quickly reached a peak where she could no longer contain her retching and stepped aside to empty the content of her stomach.
“Oh God! What’s that?” exclaimed one of the paramedics. His jaw dropped in horror at the startling sight of Steve’s mutilated bionic limbs.
Rudy seized his arm to jar him out of his torpor. “Listen to me,” he glanced at the other shocked man, “both of you, listen. What you are seeing here is a matter of national defense. I’m having you both sworn to secrecy. You’re only seeing a grievously injured man, that’s all.” Both gawking men managed a small nod of the head.
“Okay. Now close your mouths and help me ready him for transport.”
As the two paramedics buckled down to their task, Rudy addressed the two visibly traumatized friends clinging to each other for physical and emotional support. “Oscar, Cassandra, go back to Jim and Helen. Tell them that we found Steve alive and that I’ll meet you at the hospital.”
“Rudy, will…will he…will he make it to the hospital?” Cassie stammered between sobs. Her answer came in the form of a mournful stare. “Oh god. I want to ride with him in the ambulance.”
“It’s going to be awfully crowded in there.”
“Please. I promise I won’t be in the way,” she insisted with an imploring stare that tore at Rudy’s heavy heart. He sighed in defeat and complied to her wish with a single nod of the head.
“You go wait in the ambulance while we finish prepping Steve for transport”
“I’ll go inform the Elgins and meet you all at the hospital,” Oscar gave Cassie’s hand an emboldening squeeze before they parted ways.
On the frantic ride to the hospital Cassie kept from under Rudy’s foot by kneeling at the head of the gurney. She gazed down at the partially exposed face and what little skin was not swathed in bandages, she stroked delicately, rubbing her thumbs against the flushed cheeks. She bent down to brush her lips ever so lightly against Steve’s forehead. As she closed her eyes an errant tear trickled down the corner of her eye and dripped onto the patient’s left eyelash. She stifled a laugh in a sniffle and proceeded to wipe off the drop with her index finger. A contrived smile flickered on her lips as her gaze dwelled on the face she remembered beaming with pride. In a blink of an eye fate had dealt her Blue Eyes a bad hand. Cassie knew everything in life happened for a reason; one’s destiny is outlined and the road all mapped out the moment you emerge from your mother’s womb. She strived to seize the meaning behind this senseless tragedy.
The chilling sound of a flat line yanked her out of her thoughts. “He’s gone into cardiac arrest.” Rudy ripped Steve’s shirt open and began chest compressions while waiting for the defibrillator to charge up. He instructed Cassie to remove the oxygen mask and start bagging him manually. She recalled the procedure from a few months ago during a daring mission with a fellow agent who unfortunately died in the line of duty. The paramedic applied a lubricant onto the paddles that Rudy rubbed together before readying himself to shock the patient. “Clear!”
Steve’s body bucked but the monitor still registered a flat line. Rudy increased the voltage and shocked him a second time. Relief ran through the emotionally fraught atmosphere at the resuming heartbeat, albeit arrhythmic. Cassie reapplied the oxygen mask over Steve’s nose and mouth, all the while drawing deep breaths to dispel the dizziness threatening to overcome her. She observed Rudy as he took a reading on Steve’s blood pressure. He looked up at her with a drawn expression and a woeful shake of the head that made her heart quail.
Once more she gingerly clasped Steve’s head with both hands and leaned closer to his bandaged left ear to whisper, “You hang on, 34,” she entreated, hoping to appeal to his inner soul she knew clung to her every word. “Hang on,” she breathed out in a shudder with a kiss on his forehead. “I’m here for you.” She evoked God’s help in a silent prayer while she continued to stroke her Blue Eyes’s cheeks.
At the hospital Cassie held Steve’s hand as he was being rushed to the trauma room. Rudy halted her step at the door. “I’m sorry. That’s as far as you can go. It’s likely to take a while so I suggest you join Oscar and the Elgins in the waiting room. I’ll let you know when we stabilize him.”
Cassie bit her trembling lower lip and closed her eyes at Rudy’s comforting hand on her shoulder. He waited until she complied with his request before rushing back inside the ER where a team of doctors was hustling at saving the dying man.
Cassie’s ponderous steps faltered as she neared the waiting room. She dreaded having to answer questions she could not provide answers to. She inhaled a cleansing breath to pluck up her courage to face Steve’s parents before dragging her emotionally drained shell onwards.
“Cassandra!” Helen sprung to her feet and hurried to meet her halfway. “How’s Steve?”
“He’s still with us, barely,” she said dejectedly. Her wobbly legs threatening to fail her she quickly took a seat on the sofa and buried her head in her hands. “He went into cardiac arrest twice in the ambulance,” she continued somberly.
Helen placed a hand over her mouth to stifle a gasp.
Cassie blinked heavily and she heaved a long drawn-out sigh. “Rudy is pessimistic. It’s obvious he’s not pinning too many hopes on Steve surviving the next twelve hours.”
Helen sank into her husband’s arms where she buried her head in his chest. He held her shuddering body as she dissolved into tears. “What happened to cause that crash?” he enquired to Oscar.
“I can’t answer that right now. The NTSB is combing every inch of the crash site as we speak. I promise I’ll share the results with you as soon as I have them on my desk,” Oscar assured.
Jim nodded in acknowledgement as he continued to rub his weeping wife’s back. “Helen, let’s go out for a walk.”
“No!” she cried, shaking her head frantically. “I can’t. I must stay here to wait for news on Steve’s condition.”
“Helen, I expect that might be a while.” Cassie reached for Helen’s arm and squeezed it lightly. “You go on. I’ll stay here.”
The two ladies fell into each other’s arms, cling to each other hoping to draw strength to face the dreaded outcome. “Have faith, Helen. I do. Steve is a tough cookie. He’s seen much worse.”
A flicker of a smile danced on Helen’s lips while she lovingly stroked Cassie’s bedewed cheek, her heart rejoicing at knowing her son had been blessed with his own guardian angel. “You’re a good friend, Cassandra. Steve is lucky to have you as a friend.”
“And I him.”
Helen’s hand slowly went to Cassie’s shoulder, traveling down to her arm and finally clasping her hand to give it a firm squeeze before she let her husband ushered her to the exit.
Four hours dragged on and still no news from the operating room. The tension was stretching to the limit of Cassie’s endurance. She drained her sixth cup of coffee and stood to go fix herself a seventh.
“Don’t you think you’ve had enough?” Oscar commented as he neared the coffee dispenser.
“Maybe you’re right,” Cassie sighed gloomily. “But I need it. I’m going stir crazy. They’ve been in there for four hours, Oscar,” she sniffled, biting her bottom lip to keep it from trembling. “That can’t be good news.” She shut her eyes to retain the tears threatening to gush out. “I don’t want him to die but…” her voice faltered at wave of emotions rushing to her throat.
“I know.” Oscar pulled her into a tight embrace. She buried her face in his chest where she dissolved into tears. “But we mustn’t despair.” Cassie pulled back to wipe her tears on the handkerchief Oscar had handed her. “You okay?”
“Yeah,” she breathed out. “A brief moment of weakness. Not a pretty sight, heh?”
“On the contrary. It shows how much you care for him.”
“I do,” she sighed loudly, putting emphasis on her sentiment.
“You want to go back?”
Cassie shook her head. “No. Not yet. I’m not ready to face them. Give me a few minutes to recover my composure first.”
“All right. And remember…Steve has seen worse before.”
“I’ll remember that. Thanks.” She kept her eyes fasten on her boss’s retreating back until it disappeared behind the corner. She inhaled a deep breath and looked down at her coffee disdainfully. “He’s right. I’ve had enough.” She tossed her cup in the trash and headed toward the second exit to take a cleansing walk outside.
She returned just as Rudy was shambling out of the operating room in his blood-soiled surgical gown. She hurried after him, trying to read his facial expression as he made his way to the waiting room. The grieving parents sprung to their feet and met the doctor halfway.
“Dr. Wells, is my son…”Helen broke in mid sentence, emotions choking her as she steeled herself for the dreaded answer.
Rudy lowered his head in prostration but not before Cassie caught the forlorn expression etched on his face. “It’s bad, isn’t it?” Cassie quivered at the prospect of having translated the doctor’s exact thought.
“Yes, it is. He’s brain-dead.”
Faces fell and hearts sank at the funereal prognostic. Helen’s hand flew to her mouth to stifle a gasp of horror. Tears rushed to her eyes as she slumped into her husband’s arms and buried her face in his chest.
Rudy’s words had yet to fully sink into Cassie’s dull mind as she stood rooted to the spot, numbed with grief.
“I’m sorry,” he sympathized with the afflicted parents with a hand on both their shoulders. “It’s for the best. His injuries were too extensive. If it’s any comfort he’s not in any pain.”
“Rudy, are you absolutely certain there is no brain activity whatsoever?” Cassie asked once the initial shock had worn off.
“There’s a trace of activity, too thin to mention.”
“Then he’s still in there. There’s hope,” Cassie proclaimed confidently with her head held high in a defiant stance.
“Cassie. There’s none whatsoever. Steve will never be able to breathe on his own whether or not he regains consciousness, which is extremely unlikely.”
“Translate ‘extremely unlikely’ please.”
“Ninety-nine per cent.”
“There’s still the one percent.”
“Cassie!” Rudy scolded, annoyed by her refusal to face the bold facts.
“I’m sorry to be so adamant, Rudy. It’s just that I’ve known Steve for three years now. He’s been through the ringer before and always bounced back. His near-fatal plane crash is solid proof. I won’t give up on him,” she fumed through clenched teeth to curb the emotions simmering beneath the surface, the ones she could feel constricting her throat. “I’m clinging on to that one per cent chance that he makes it back.” Her bleary eyes darted between the four stunned expressions staring at her. “And no one is going to convince me otherwise.” She allowed a short beat in her vehement speech before asking Rudy to see Steve.
Rudy motioned to Oscar to take Cassie out for a cleansing walk while Helen and Jim visited with their son. Cassie complied with Rudy’s request to grant the parents first visiting rights; however she snubbed the suggestion of a walk outside, opting to go to that chapel instead.
“Try to talk some sense into her, will you?” Rudy suggested to Oscar. “I know she’s hurt but she must face the outcome. It won’t be her decision to make,” he hinted, referring to Steve’s living will.
Oscar gave an acknowledging nod before quickening the pace down the corridor to catch up with Cassie. She held up her hand in the air before he could utter a single word. “Don’t Oscar. Leave me be, please.”
“Cassandra, do you know about Steve’s living will?”
“Yes I do.”
“Then you know he doesn’t want to be kept alive artificially. His parents are executors of this will.”
“They make the decision to pull the plug…not you.”
Cassie shot Oscar a chilling glare, cautioning him not to press the issue. He heeded the silent warning and returned to the waiting room. She watched him, her cat-like eyes boring a hole in his retreating back. She drew in a deep breath to rid herself of her anger before stepping inside the peaceful dimlit chapel. She chose the front pew and knelt down on the hassock. She made the sign of the cross, closed her eyes and laced her fingers together underneath her chin. “Is it selfish of me of wanting to cling on to him when his life is hanging by a thread?” She gulped down the lump in her throat before continuing, “I love him dearly. He is my heart and soul. I never measured the extent of my love for him until recently.” She opened her eyes to let the stinging tears stream down her cheeks. She raised her head to look up at the cross in front of her. “I don’t want to believe his time as come. I don’t feel it has. But if you should claim his soul, I’ll understand that it’s for the best. I just don’t want us to be our decision.” She tightly shut her eyes to squeeze them dry of tears before she made another sign of the cross and left the chapel.
She walked past the waiting room, ignoring Oscar sitting on the sofa, to head to the coffee dispenser. After taking a sip she leaned against the wall, her mind struggling to ward off horrific images of the crash as it sought the quietude of a faraway land.
She drifted back to the present at the sound of muffled voices echoing from the waiting room. She tossed her cup in the trashcan and walked up to Rudy offering Steve’s parents his deepest sympathies. “Rudy, is he?”
“No. He’s still with us. Come with me.” Once Oscar had escorted the heavy-hearted Elgins out of the hospital, Rudy led Cassie into Steve’s room. Her stepped faltered as she took in the pitiful sight of her friend swathed in bandages. She could barely make out his battered face underneath the many tubes going in and out of his mouth and nose.
Rudy clasped her hand. “It’s okay if you don’t want to sit with him.”
“No. I want to. It’s just I wasn’t completely prepared for the shock, that’s all.” She inhaled a shuddering breath to summon her courage to move the rest of the way.
Rudy shifted a chair close to the bed for her to sit in. “I’ll be back in while to check on him.”
“Okay,” she nodded in acknowledgment without averting her gaze from the mummified patient lying in front of her. She could barely hear herself think with the cacophony of sounds coming from the various machines keeping her friend alive. She gently laid her right hand on top of his left and brushed her thumb lightly against his knuckles. I know you’re in there, Blue Eyes. I can understand your hiding from the pain but you must give them a sign that you’re still with us. I’m prepared to wait for you until you feel it’s time to swim back to the surface, though I’m not so certain about the others. It’s up to you and God if you want to stay; not us.” She leaned closer to his face and whispered in his ears, “I love you, Steve. I always have and always will.” As she gazed at his livid face, a tear escaped her eye and dripped onto his forehead. She brushed her finger delicately against the skin before kissing it dry. “I’m here for you. I won’t go anywhere. You hang on for me. I don’t want to lose you yet. Hopefully we’ll have a lifetime of memories to tell our grandchildren.”
A week later the decision was made to honor Steve’s last wish. Despite Cassie’s plea to allow Steve’s body more time to heal itself, Helen and Jim had no intention of prolonging the agony. Rudy and two nurses were present in the room to bear witness to the patient’s death once the respirator would be turned off. Helen sat by her son’s bed, holding his hand, while Jim stood behind her with comforting hands on her shoulders. Oscar was standing stoically by the window, staring out into nothingness.
Cassie loomed in the doorway, fighting off a mixture of fear and anger brewing within her. She shivered uncontrollably, unable to regulate her breathing as her heart pounded against her ribcage. She felt an overwhelming pressure in her chest that threatened to choke her. Minutes before Rudy was to pull the plug, she asked to bid a last farewell to her dear friend.
The assembled company allowed her some breathing space as she gingerly cradled Steve’s limp hand in hers. She bend forward to rub her cheek against his and whispered in his ear,” I won’t say goodbye. I know you can fight this. You come back to me, Steve. I beg of you, don’t let go,” she sobbed, biting her upper lip to prevent her tears from gushing out of her eyes. She laid a feathery kiss on his forehead and seated herself by the bed across from Helen.
Jim nodded to Rudy who stepped up to the respirator. He gave everyone one last glance before his finger hit the switch. A deafening silence filled the room as pained eyes dwelled on the dying man leaving for a better place. Rudy beckoned the nurse to turn off the heart monitor to spare the bereaved friends and family the harrowing sound. As Rudy proceeded to establish the time of death, Steve gasped in a small breath.
“My God,” Rudy exclaimed in shock. “He’s trying to breathe on his own.” He turned the heart monitor back on and surely enough an arrhythmic heartbeat registered on the screen.
Helen was beside herself while Cassie rejoiced at Steve’s prowess. ‘I knew it,’ she mused to herself. “Come on, Blue Eyes. That’s it. Breathe. Breathe,” she egged on with a glowing smile, her body shivering with anticipation. She enfolded his hand tightly in hers, her gaze dwelling on her friend struggling to keep afloat. “Stay with us, Steve. You can do it,” she beseeched with every nerve and quiver.
“Steve, it’s mom. Can you hear me?”
“I doubt he can hear you, Helen. His brain waves are still low. It’s no short of a miracle that he’s breathing on his own,” Rudy stated while studying his patient’s vital signs.
“I know he’s in there, Rudy. I can feel it,” Cassie said confidently, rubbing Steve’s hand between hers.
“All I can say is don’t pin too many hopes on his survival.”
“Sorry Rudy. I already have,” Cassie replied rather coldly.
“My God, Jim!” Helen turned to her husband and fell into his arms. As he rubbed his wife’s back to ease her mixture of fear and excitement, he glanced down at Cassie by the bed who gave him a heartening smile.
It was early in the evening when Cassie returned to the hospital to sit with Steve after leaving Helen and Jim at her apartment to catch up on a few hours of sleep. The Elgins had expressed their wish to remain in Washington to follow their son’s progress but could no longer afford a hotel room. Therefore Cassie graciously offered the hospitality of her humble abode, inviting them to stay in the same guest bedroom that was often Steve’s home away from home.
Upon entering Steve’s ICU room with a tape recorder in her hand, Cassie was surprised to see Oscar standing by the bed. “Oscar? What are you doing here?” she asked in a hushed voice. “I thought you’d be halfway to Chicago by now?”
“They cancelled the meeting. Besides I didn’t feel right leaving right now.” He glanced down at Steve with a forlorn expression. “Rudy said not to expect much.”
“Yeah, that’s what he said about Steve not surviving the first twenty-four hours; then not being able to breathe on his own,” Cassie replied with crushing cynicism as she set the tape recorder on the night table. “I know Rudy’s being realistic, exposing his doctor’s point of view but if there’s one thing I’ve learned about Steve Austin in the three years I’ve known him is to expect the unexpected. He surprised me more than once.” She bent over to kiss Steve on the forehead. “Good evening, Blue Eyes. I brought you some soothing music to listen to.” She pressed the ‘play’ button on the recorder to fill the room with soft classical music.
“Cassie, can I talk to you for a minute? Outside?”
“Sure,” she answered with a quizzical frown as she followed her boss out to the hall. “What is it, Oscar?”
“I received the latest NTSB report on the plane crash.” He turned to her with a baleful expression. “It was a suicide.”
“Jason deliberately sent the plane crashing?”
Oscar nodded. “They questioned the airmen who were present in the tower at the moment of the crash. All three heard the boy tell Steve ‘I’m sorry’ seconds before the aircraft came plummeting to the ground. They initially didn’t think much of it until they searched Jason Archer’s apartment and found the suicide letter he’d casually left lying on his bed.
“I can’t believe it,” a dumfounded Cassie heaved out with a rueful shake of the head. “He seemed like a nice young man. Steve was so proud of him. Never let on that he could be….wait a second.”
“When Steve introduced me to him before the air show I thought he looked a trifle withdrawn and taciturn. Steve assured me that’s how Jason acted when he was nervous. But I read more than that in his expression. I just dismissed it.” Cassie clenched her fist and angrily thwacked herself on the head. “God! I could have prevented this!”
“How?” Tell me how you could have prevented this from happening? Are you a psychic?”
“I knew something was wrong with that kid.”
“I just told you, I did,” Cassie argued fiercely.
“You thought he acted peculiar but that didn’t mean anything. Steve himself told you that’s how Jason was when he’s edgy. How were you supposed to know he was going to commit suicide when even his parents and his friends we interrogated didn’t know?” he moved closer to her to wrap a comforting arm around her shoulders. “Stop torturing yourself, Cassandra. You can’t bear the burden for everything that happens to Steve.”
“I know,” she sighed heavily, running a hand down her face, her strained eyes bordering on tears.
“Go back to him. You seem to work magic whenever you’re around. He may come back after all.”
“I know he will.”
Cassie returned to Steve’s room and scooted a chair over to sit by the bed. She turned the music down low before cradling Steve’s hand in hers. She concentrated on his chest, rising with each intake of air he was taking on his own. She began exercising his fingers distractedly as she related to him the events of the last few hours, including his parents’ move from the hotel to her apartment.
Moments later, Rudy emerged in the room to check on the patient’s vitals.
“I won’t ask how’s he’s doing ‘cause I know what you’re going to say,” Cassie said rather scathingly, stating plainly her aversion for the doctor’s negativism.
“Will you allow me to share a tidbit of good news with you?”
“What good news?”
“His brain waves have increased. At this rate he might even regain consciousness.”
“That’s wonderful, Rudy!” Cassie gushed.
“But,” he reined in her ebullience by raising a hand, “If he does rouse from his coma, he won’t be the same man you used to know. He’ll have the mind of a two-year-old child, possibly less. We cannot overlook the extensive brain damage that he sustained. ”
“I will take it one step at the time. I just need to know one thing.”
“When he does regain his senses and some of his strength, can we get him out of this hospital? I’m willing to take care of his every need.”
“Cassie, you don’t know what you’re asking.”
“Oh yes I do. I’ve done it plenty of time before with my folks.”
“Nursing someone with the flu is unlike anything you will experience taking care of a thirty-six-year-old child,” Rudy tried to reason with a stubborn Cassie.
“Then you’ll teach me all I need to know.” She turned to Rudy and stared at him imploringly. “I can do this. I want to do this.”
“I think you’re getting ahead of yourself here. Steve hasn’t regained consciousness yet.”
“When he does, I want to be the one to nurse him back to health. I owe him so much.”
“We’ll see,” Rudy signed resignedly. He laid a hand on her shoulder before he turned to cross to the door. He cast one last forlorn look at Cassie holding Steve’s hand before leaving.
“Blue Eyes, talk to me,” she pleaded with her hands wrapped tightly around his. “You know I won’t let you give up, don’t you? You don’t stand a chance with me. You can’t get away from me. I care about you too much to let you give up.”
One morning while the nurse was changing Steve’s IV bag she noticed his eyes were opened. “Well look who’s back?” she enthused with a smile that gradually melted into a worried frown at the impassive expression staring back at her. She hurried out of the room to notify Rudy.
“How long has he been like this?” Rudy questioned as he flashed a light into Steve’s eyes.
“I should say about ten minutes. That’s when I last checked on him.”
Rudy put the light stick back into his smock pocket and took Steve’s head in his hands to gently tilt it to the left. “Steve, can you hear me?” Steve remained apathetic, his vacant gaze fasten on the unfamiliar face leaning over him. Rudy took Steve’s left hand in his. “Steve, squeeze my hand.” Steve blinked heavily and continued to scrutinize the man’s features, not comprehending the meaning of his words. “Come on,” Rudy gave the patient’s hand a light squeeze to egg him on, “squeeze my hand.”
“Rudy, what is it?” Cassie asked with apprehension as she walked into the room moments later. “What’s wrong?” She gasped with amazement at the sight of Steve looking back at her. “Blue Eyes, you’re awake?” she exulted, her elation reaching a peak until she saw the impassiveness reflected in his eyes. “He doesn’t recognize me, does he?”
Rudy gave a forlorn shake of the head. “That was to be expected. It’s safe to assume he doesn’t understand what we’re saying either. He has the mind of a child.”
“Don’t you worry any. I’ll have him jabbering in no time,” Cassie said resolutely, leaving little room for argument and Rudy knew better than to contradict her.
“You might want to try asking him to squeeze your hand. That would be a sign that he has retained the ability to process words to some extent.”
“I’ll try.” She took a seat by the bed and popped the tape in the recorder. A soft melodious Tchakovsky concerto filled the room as she cradled Steve’s left hand in hers. “You and I have some serious talking to do.”
Rudy beckoned the nurse to follow him out of the room to leave Cassie work her magic. “I have to give Cassandra Miller credit for her determination,” Rudy mused. “If there’s ever a possibility we can get Steve to talk and walk again, however remotely it might be, she’ll find it for sure.”
“She’s a remarkable lady. She’s been here everyday for the past two weeks, engaging in one-way conversations while exercising his limbs. She’s been reading him his favorite books with soft background music. She’s even given him his sponge baths. I have yet to see her despair or even shed a tear. He wasn’t supposed to survive the first twenty-four and look at him now. I guess all her hard work paid off.”
“That was the easy part,” Rudy stated solemnly, his gaze still dwelling on Cassie in the room. “She’s a tough woman all right but we all have our breaking point and I have a feeling she’ll reach hers when I eventually release Steve in her care. That will be the ultimate test of mental endurance; watching your friend act like a two-year-old child.”