Everything around him was blindingly bright- his head hurt from the force of it and he could see the stark whiteness without even opening his eyes. He heard voices, it seemed like thousands of voices babbling at once, and then one voice louder than the others.
"His vitals are strong- respiration good. Take the others in the chopper, this one can go by land." And then he knew nothing again.
When he next came to himself the blinding light was gone, and the chaotic noise. He could feel cool fabric under and over him and hear a soft beeping sound, and then when he listened closely hushed voices just out of his range of perception.
I must be in the hospital, he thought. Jesus, what the hell happened?
He tried to remember anything about how he had gotten here, and was disturbed to find that the last clear memory he had was of being at a baseball game.
Did I get beaned or something? He felt a throbbing in his temples start and reached up to massage his head. Tried to at any rate, but he couldn't seem to get his arm to cooperate. Then, worried , he tried to sit up and found to his horror that he couldn't seem to move anything at all. Couldn't even open his eyes. And when he tried to scream nothing happened either. At that point real panic set in, and he thought he might just go mad with terror.
Hours later, maybe days- it was hard to tell time like this- he heard a quick efficient step and knew the nurse was here again to poke and prod, drain fluid from some bags and refill others. All the fluids that were keeping him alive, although God only knew why they bothered. This time she had a helper with her.
"Oh crap- look at that, he's so young. These are the ones that can really bother you if you let them," the new voice said. He felt himself being lifted onto his side. They must be here to change the sheets.
"And he has an unfeeling bitch for a mother- she won't even come back from Europe to see him. Just told the doctors to do whatever it took to make him comfortable and she'll be here in a couple of months to check on him."
"He doesn't have a wife then?"
"No, and his Barbie Doll of a girlfriend came in, took one look at him and ran for the hills."
Ah, he had wondered why Lyss hadn't been to see him.
"Well, that's what men like him get for being so shallow about those trophy women, I guess. If they ever looked past the tits they might get someone with some character."
More time passed- he had no idea how much. He came to look forward to the nurses' attentions like they were a drug and he was an addict. No one else came to see him. His mother was too busy spending his dead father's money to care what happened to him. His only sibling was living in a commune somewhere in Asia the last he knew (her own response to the privileged and Republican lifestyle the family had espoused), the only friends he had out here were really just business acquaintances. He was a thousand miles from where he had grown up. He began to pray with all his heart that he would die soon.
But then his Guardian Angel sent her.
He heard another step on the cold tile floor- not a nurse this time because it was the tap-tap of a hard heel and not the muffled squelch of the rubber soles they wore.
"There you are," said a soft voice, something almost familiar in its musical tones. "You don't really look too bad, we need to get that hair brushed though and give you a bit of a wash." He felt her place something on the table beside the bed, and then heard her shoes go tapping away.
"Nurse," her voice called from the doorway, then there was a muffled conference before she tapped back to him.
"Now," she announced briskly, "we'll be in business in a few minutes. You're much too proud of yourself to be looking such a mess."
He felt gentle soft hands remove the light bedclothes and then start to strip off his hospital gown. She kept a conversation going the whole time.
"Most would say people like you go away somewhere and have no idea what's happening around you, but I think some people in comas are right here with us every minute," she explained to him. "It must be very frightening, not to mention lonely as hell, to just be left on your own with no company."
You don't know the half of it, lady, he thought.
"So I'm going to come and visit with you a bit every day, to try and keep your spirits up, if you can hear me. And if you can't- well, no harm done. If I wasn't here with you God knows what trouble I'd be up to, eh?" He heard the sound of a nurse's step and a more familiar voice-
"Here you go, you can get the hot water in the bathroom."
"Thanks so much, I'll just give him a quick wash."
"Do you need any help?"
"No no- we'll be fine, you've got loads to do."
When she had filled the pan from the sink in the bathroom she came back and started to wash him gently with the warm water and slippery soap. It felt like heaven, not just the feeling of the cloth but also the feeling of being touched as if he was a human being and not just a duty. The nurses were compassionate and efficient, but much too busy to linger over a patient like this. She even washed his feet, and then smoothed some cool lotion all over him. She chatted to him the whole time about things that had been happening in the news.
"That fella who was in all those cop movies, oh hell, I can't remember his name- I've a desperate memory sometimes. Anyway, he's married some girl about 30 years younger than himself, can you believe it? If a woman married a man that much younger they'd have her tarred and feathered for sure."
When she had finished his toilet she then began to move his legs, one by one, and then his arms, just as the nurses had done only more slowly and carefully.
"We have to keep moving you around, or when you wake up you'll have a hell of a time walking again. And we don't want to see you all sad and curled up like some of the poor devils. I think when that happens they just look as if they've given up."
When she was satisfied that he had been moved enough she put his gown back on him and replaced the covers, then brushed his hair.
"There, you look well again, and I have to be honest and tell you that you smell a bit better too, just between ourselves. Now, I have to go to work but I'll be back tomorrow for a chat and maybe I'll read to you a bit, in the meantime I've brought you a radio to listen to, and I'll just put it on for you really quiet." A second later he heard a tinny voice telling him that he really should move to Seaview Estates, for better living.
"This station will have a lot of different stuff, and the DJs aren't too obnoxious. I'll see you tomorrow, Michael." He liked the way she said his name, she made it sound like a line from a song.
He dozed off listening to a call-in show, grateful for the distraction, and when he woke he could tell it was night from the relative silence outside his room. Someone had turned off the radio, presumably- or the station had gone off the air for the night. Were there any stations that signed off anymore? He hadn't listened to the radio at night for so long that he didn't know. He found himself thinking of his unknown visitor and hoping she would come back tomorrow, as she had said. In a while he slept again.
She did return the next day. He heard her cheerful footsteps, so different to those of the hospital staff, and she called out to him, "Good morning Michael, I hope you had a nice sleep. As soon as I've washed your face and brushed that lovely hair we'll read a bit, how's that sound to you?" He thought it sounded wonderful, even if she chose to read the back of a cereal box. Just to have another human being sit beside him, to hear a friendly voice, it was all that was keeping him from going insane.
While she was washing his face with a warm cloth one of the nurses came in.
"How is he doing, nurse?" his visitor asked her.
"His vitals are all great, he's breathing well on his own, good kidney function, we just have to see if he'll wake up. His head took quite a rolling around in the accident, the poor brain isn't meant for that kind of abuse." Michael felt a tug on his IV lines as the nurse switched bags. So that was what had put him in here- a car accident. He still hadn't been able to remember a thing after that ball game.
"He'll wake up, I can feel it."
"He's lucky he has you to come and talk to him, he sure hasn't had any other visitors."
"It's sad the way young people live their lives in this country nowadays, just all go go go, rush rush rush, no time to make friends or stay close to family."
"It's not like that in Ireland then?" Ah, Michael thought, that's the accent he couldn't place. Just a touch of a brogue.
"Not quite so bad yet, but heading that way for sure. I came over here with my husband almost twenty years ago now, and every time I visit home it's changed a bit more than the last time."
"Will you ever go back for good?"
"I might do at that- since he died last year I can't seem to feel a part of this place any more. It's getting hard for me to work here to be honest with you."
"I loved your last book though, Ms. O'Connor. In fact, I'm very embarrassed to ask you this, but I've brought it in with me today, would you autograph it for me?"
She laughed, a melodic pleasant sound. "Course I will- don't be embarrassed, it's always lovely to meet a fan."
Now Michael was really puzzled, he had assumed the mysterious visitor had worked for the hospital, but apparently she was a writer. He couldn't figure out why a famous, or at least semi-famous, writer would be spending her time giving him sponge baths. Was she a friend of his mother's? Somehow he couldn't picture his mother knowing someone as homey and down to earth as this woman, but if she was rich enough it was possible. The nurse finished up her errands and left.
"Don't you worry, I won't be reading you one of my books- they aren't very popular with lads. Or at least not that they'll admit." She chuckled. "Since you're a lawyer I thought you might like a nice trial story, this one is doing quite well right now so we'll see what we think of it."
She read to him from the bestseller for quite a long time, her lilting voice expressive and engaging, obviously used to this from doing her own readings. Despite himself he got into the story, and was surprised when she suddenly stopped.
"Well Michael, I'm sorry to say I'm all done in for today, and I have to get home and do some of me own work or I'll have an angry editor knocking at my door soon. But I'll be back tomorrow and we'll see what our feisty hero can get up to next." He felt her cool soft hand smooth back his hair. "I pray with all my heart that you'll be able to read the end of this for yourself." And then he felt her lean over and plant a warm gentle kiss on his forehead. He would have given anything he had ever owned for her to stay.
She came again the next day, as promised, and the day after, and for many days after that- he had lost track of time altogether. She read to him, chatted to him about her life in Ireland, her odd fans, any little thing that she felt like talking about, just to keep talking. She washed him and massaged his limp body, exercised his legs and arms. She never forgot to leave the radio or television playing for him when she left, and she even brought some scented oils in and held them under his nose to smell.
"They say you have to stimulate all the senses, Michael. I tried to pick some nice manly scents, but I couldn't resist this orangy one, it was too gorgeous. It's not terribly girly, is it?" He chuckled to himself, and was surprised to feel a sudden rush of air out his nose as he did.
"Hey- did you just make a noise there Michael? I do believe you did, although I'm not sure if it meant you liked it or you didn't. Or maybe it's just a bit of wishful thinking on my part, eh?"
He wanted to scream- No! No, I DID make a sound! But he couldn't get anything to come out, not even another like the small puff of air that had been his laughter.
"Still, I just have the feeling you can hear me, really I do, and I know that you're going to wake up soon. Maybe you just need something to wake up for. Pity you haven't a woman to miss, that would make you want to open your eyes."
But he thought that the only woman who seemed to care about him in the world was her, and he wished with all his heart that he could sit up and tell her that.
After she had left for the day he was listening to an interview show on the telly when he heard another strange step come into his room, followed by a voice he knew all too well.
"Oh my GAWD! Look at him, look at my poor baby!" she shrieked. His mother. "He looks absolutely dreadful!"
Then he heard the nurse as well- "Please ma'am, you'll have to keep your voice down."
"Oh but how can I when my poor little boy is lying there in that state? God he's at death's door!" Hadn't changed a bit, good old mom- still as over dramatic and attention seeking as ever. He couldn't believe he had actually wanted to see her a few days ago.
"When will the ambulance be here to take him to the rest home?" his mother asked. Rest home? What was she talking about?
"They should be here to get him in about 40 minutes, as soon as all his discharge papers are filled out."
So he was being moved. Knowing his mother to somewhere more "suitable", somewhere the people at her club put their aged parents and drug overdosed children. Somewhere like the place where his grandfather had been exiled to when he got Alzheimer's and became an embarrassment. One of those expensive places where everything looks impressive to the visitors but little attention is paid to the patients once the families are gone.
"Well good, that will give me time for a coffee then, I'm in such a flurry after that long flight from Italy. I was in Milan, you know- I had to rush right home to see my poor little boy." He wondered what had really finally brought her home. Some kind of banking problem, no doubt.
She trotted off without even approaching the bed. He didn't hear the nurse follow, instead she came over and gave a quick check to his IV. "You poor bastard," she said, and then touched his cheek. "She's worse than no mother at all."
And then a thought came to him- if he was moved, would his friend be able to find him? If she did, would she be let in? He wouldn't put it past his mother to dump him in a place that would only allow family to visit and then run off back to Europe. He felt something akin to panic start to set in.
Some time later he was loaded onto the ambulance by two none-too-gentle fellas, he heard the doors slam and then felt movement as they drove away. His mother hadn't been back to see him, but two of the nurses had said good-bye before he was wheeled onto the elevator. He felt lower than he had in days.
He was bumped off the ambulance and wheeled for ages until he was finally bumped off of the gurney and onto a bed, his tubes and monitors hooked up again, never a word spoken to him by anyone. Then he was left alone, in silence. Trapped in his unmoving body, Michael began to cry.
He was there for years, or it seemed like years to him. The nurses only came in to change his bags and check his vitals, always quickly and efficiently, and in silence. He could hear the mournful sounds of other patients crying and wailing, occasionally screaming in apparent pain. With no one to exercise him, he began to have cramps in his legs, excruciating and horrible, and he didn't even have the release of vocalizing his anguish. He began to wish for death again. But his Guardian Angel had not yet abandoned him after all.
Finally, after several days of this depressing existence, he heard a commotion out in the hallway, and a familiar voice raised in anger.
"My arse I can't go in there- you can just call the police if you want to but I'm going to see him!" His heart began to pound with joy. It was her, sounding even more Irish in her fury.
"Jaysus Mary and Joseph, look at the poor thing! Can you not even brush his bloody hair for him?"
"Ma'am, I told you it's only family allowed in and then only on visiting days. I don't know how you got past the front desk as it is."
"Because the only feeling person working in this cold hearted hell hole is at the front desk, that's why. And if you even think about sacking him think again because if you do I'll have the media at your jugular so fast you'll spin. My name is Moira O'Connor, I have a few connections that I'm not afraid to use."
"I don't care if you're Queen Elizabeth" said the other voice, angry as well now, "if you don't get out of here I'll call security!"
Michael began to panic then, afraid that they really would make her leave and he would be left in this place alone until he died of sadness. He tried with everything in him to move, to yell, to fling himself off the bed, anything to let them know he was HERE. Nothing happened.
"Please, just let me talk to him, just for a bit," Moira changed her tact to begging.
"Talk to him? But he can't hear you- he's in a vegetative state, he hasn't moved since his accident according to his files."
"Just because he hasn't moved doesn't mean he doesn't know anything," Moira argued heroically. "He could be trying to talk to us right now."
"Well, until he does you'll still have to leave, because all I have to go by are his mother's instructions and she said family only."
"Well, can you give me a number where I can reach her then?"
"No I'm sorry, I can't give you than information."
Moira was silent, and he began to feel desperately afraid that the nurse had won, that his only friend would walk out the door and he would never hear her soothing voice again. So he made one last effort, concentrating his whole being on moving. And by some miracle his arm did move- he lifted it up and knocked the water pitcher on the bedside table to the floor, at the same time screaming Moira's name. But what came out was a pathetic croak. He heard both women gasp. Then quick footsteps rushed to his side, and there was a familiar touch on his forehead.
"Michael, can you hear me love?" she asked. He felt hot tears on his cheeks as he struggled to answer her. She took his hand, and he managed to squeeze it slightly.
"Oh God, he's squeezing my hand!" she exclaimed.
"I'll get the doctor," the nurse said and dashed off.
"Come on Michael, you can do it- open your eyes. Then we can get you out of this awful place."
And he did. It took a few seconds for his eyes to focus, everything looked unbearably bright and sharp at first, but then he slowly began to distinguish shapes. He looked up into the face that went with the soft voice and gentle touch he had grown to love, and thought it was the most beautiful face he had ever seen. She smiled at him.
"Hello neighbor," she said.
Three months later they stood together at the edge of a cliff overlooking the sea. The sun was shining, but with that soft diffused light of an Irish summer, and there was a gentle friendly breeze blowing through their clothes and hair. They listened for a moment to the sound of the waves and the children playing on the beach below them.
"So what do you think, Michael? Think you can spend some time here on the Emerald Isle without missing 24 hour supermarkets and 100 channels on the telly?"
It had been a long and painful trip to this place. He hadn't woken up with everything he'd had before the accident, memory-wise, and he had had to learn almost everything again. How to walk, talk, feed himself- it was a humiliating process. If she hadn't been there to help he would have given up. But the person he had become after was a much better and happier person than the shallow, career obsessed man he had been before. He put his arms around her and kissed her warmly on the lips, allowing his hands to wander over her bottom affectionately.
"It's a beautiful place," he told her when he finally released her, "but you know I don't care where I am, as long as I'm with you."
She grinned. "Well come on then, and I'll introduce you to an Irish man's favorite pastime- the pub."
And they turned and walked back toward the town, hand in hand.
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