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faces of david
His only child was sick again, maybe with just a urinary tract infection, but sick nonetheless. Andrew Marx just didn't feel like wearing his beeper when he went to the hospital. It wasn't like he expected to get any pages. He never did. He only ever wore the thing anymore as a reminder that Deputy Director Phelps still owned him, and his leave of absence wasn't going to last forever.
Lauren was crying. Sitting in the waiting room with a family who had a parent who'd just had a heart attack and was still calm and collected, she was crying about a little infection. Of course, Andrew knew it was much more than that making his wife cry. Even a little infection seemed like such a big thing lately. He'd thought they'd get used to it, used to checking Penny for bedsores, used to washing her, used to cleaning up after her, used to the regular visits to doctor after doctor, for checkups, or therapy, or little things like urinary tract infections. He'd thought that after a while each little thing would be less significant, but it just hadn't worked out that way, not for him, and not for Lauren.
He sat down next to her and took her hand in his. She'd had her head down, trying to hide her tears. Now, she looked up at him. He smiled for her. Everything's gonna be ok, that smile said. Penny's gonna be fine. Lauren smiled back, but her smile didn't last long and looked strained while it lasted. He put an arm around her, and she leaned her head on his shoulder, and they waited. Even this part, the waiting, they hadn't gotten used to.
It was just a few minutes before the doctor came to talk to them that Andrew sensed something was wrong, and immediately glanced at the spot on his belt where the beeper usually was. He'd taken the thing off before, but mostly only when he was asleep or showering or doing anything where it just wasn't very practical to have it attached to him. He'd never felt too guilty about it. He really didn't think Phelps would need him. He hoped Phelps wouldn't need him. But, suddenly, he felt guilty about leaving it at home. He felt a little naked without it. Without really thinking about what he was doing, he stood up.
"Where are you going," Lauren asked him, a little bit of panic in her voice.
Where was he going? He took a moment to remember where he was and what he was doing there, then nearly just sat back down. But, then he'd have to try to explain to Lauren that he was starting to feel like he shouldn't have left the beeper behind. And, she hated that thing, hated any mention of it. He didn't want to talk with her about it. So, he said the first thing that came to his mind. "I need something to drink, my throat's really dry."
Lauren, feeling rather weary from everything else barely registered his words except to notice he'd said them, he'd said something. As Andrew left the waiting room to go find something to drink, she started crying again.
In the hall, standing by the soda machine, Andrew felt that sense of nakedness again, and glanced at where his beeper should have been. Something was wrong. More than his leaving the beeper at home. Something else was wrong. Immediately, his mind jumped to Penny. Was it more than just a little infection this time? Was it something else? Something . . . fatal? She'd been through too much. They'd been through too much, for her to die now. Ever since the accident, he'd been sure he wouldn't have to worry about Penny anymore. He still worried, worried constantly in fact, but underneath his worries there was always this idea that nothing worse could ever happen to her now. They'd moved to Columbia to be closer to the Missouri Model Spinal Cord Injury Program, and he thought it would take time, but she would recover, she would recover completely. She'd be walking again in no time. "You'll see," he'd told Lauren, "Penny'll be walking by Christmas."
But now, he couldn't help but think it was something else wrong with her. His beeper missing just couldn't be that big a deal. He couldn't let it be that big a deal.
But, what if it wasn't Penny? What if he was sensing something was wrong not because she was sicker than he'd thought, but because Phelps wanted him to come back to work? It would be hard to explain to anyone, but Andrew knew that second one could be worse than the first.
He wanted to hurry home, get his beeper, and get back to the hospital as fast as he could. But, he saw the doctor coming down the hall. He grabbed his soda from the tray at the bottom of the machine and headed back to the waiting room, neglecting to open the can or drink any of its contents.
Dr Cohn was already talking to Lauren when Andrew got there. They'd already heard him explain the options they had for Penny, so it wasn't that big a deal, Andrew missing anything now. But, one glance at his wife, and he feared the worst, thought she'd just been told Penny was dead while he was walking down the hall. But, he knew Lauren. He knew how she panicked. And, he knew how to keep calm in stressful situations.
The Dr looked to Andrew and opened his mouth to speak, but Lauren interrupted. "He wants to cut her open again, Drew. He wants to do that reservoir operation." Andrew knew what she meant, a urinary reservoir made from bowel tissue. And, with any surgery, there were risks, but he'd seen people with horrible injuries pull through, he'd seen people go through extensive surgeries and be fine, he'd seen Penny make it through operations after operation. He worried, yes, but he didn't panic. He reached out and put his hand on Lauren's arm. She settled down a little immediately. "Let the doctor explain it," he said. Lauren nodded.
Lauren wasn't as calm as he was, but she was calm enough. Penny's surgery was nearly over. Andrew had made up an excuse to go home, getting Penny's teddy bear, he said, "so Worthington will be here when they bring her out." He'd nearly forgotten Worthington, though, after he'd retrieved his pager, his real reason for going home. There was a message waiting. A phone number and a four digit code to connect him directly to Deputy Director Phelps' office.
He'd gone to the phone, without even thinking, and started dialing. He'd dreaded this day, dreamt of it, and hoped it would never come. As he dialed, he thought of the face on the last person he'd killed for Phelps, an old man who knew some State secret, or so the story was. He didn't want to see that look ever again. The accident, God forgive him for thinking it, ever, had been a blessing in a way, yanking him out of active duty. There were days he hoped Penny would never fully recover. But, then, he'd hate himself for that thought, and he'd be miserable for days, and he'd make sure to take extra special care of Penny, like a little extra attention or an extra treat with dinner made up for him hoping she'd be stuck in a wheelchair forever. Gradually, the guilt would wear off, and he'd stop with the special treatment, just caring for her like normal. Then, something would happen, a story on the news would remind him of his work for Phelps perhaps, and he'd start the cycle over again.
He got to the four digit code, and stopped himself, his head clearing a little, that guilt coming back, the cycle rearing its head. Penny. One word, one thought, and Phelps dropped to second on the list of important things in his life. Penny.
He hung up the phone, without dialing the code. He hooked the pager to his belt, and headed for the door, to return to the hospital. Upon reaching the door, he remembered Worthington, quickly went back to Penny's room, grabbed the bear, and then left.
Now, back in a hospital waiting room, sitting next to Lauren, Worthington laying over his knee, Andrew kept finding his thoughts focusing on his pager. Again and again, he'd look at it, though there was no beep, no vibration, no NEW message, and he was itching to just throw it away. He could wait for Penny to be ok, ok enough to leave, get Lauren to run home and pack them some bags, only the barest minimum of things, clothes and other essentials, and he could run, they could run. Phelps wouldn't expect it. Afterall, Phelps believed, like Andrew did most of the time, that he owned Andrew Marx, like he owned too many people to count. And, someone he owned just wouldn't have the guts to run. Right?
"His eye's going to come off," Lauren said.
"What?" Andrew looked at her, confused. His mind jumped to the image of a guy with a hole in his head from a gunshot, his eye gone. He shook that image away.
"Worthington's eye," Lauren said. "It's about to fall off."
Andrew looked at the bear. It was old, looking like it could turn to dust any day now. It had buttons for eyes, one old black one and a newer, shiny red one. The black one, he saw now, was hanging on just barely by one loop of thread. I've seen an eye hanging on less than that, he thought. That thought made him sick.
"I need some air," he said, and he dropped Worthington and left the room before Lauren could say anything.
Out in the hall, he passed a phone, and could feel it calling to him. He looked to the pager again. He resisted the urge to call and walked down the hall, to the bank of elevators, and hit the down button. But, the elevators just didn't come fast enough. A moment later, he found himself back at the payphone, dialing the number from earlier, then glancing up and down the hall before punching in the four digit code to connect directly to Phelps.
A minute later, vomiting in the nearest restroom, Andrew wondered just how far it was to Pauper, Kansas.