Fiction – “Life Line” by Sandra M. Odell

“Wha’d'ya need, babe?” Ryan squeezed Patti’s hand, doing his best not to disturb the cocoon of seemingly endless tubes.

Patti smiled up at him through the bruises and bandages. “Help me sit up,” she said, the words a whisper above the ticks and beeps keeping time in the hospital room.

“You got it.” He raised the head of the bed, put down the side rail when she indicated she wanted to swing her legs over the edge. “Do you think you should be doing this?”

“I’m fine, Smoots. I–”

“I talked to Deputy Delmore yesterday.” Ryan fussed with her hair, her hospital gown, seeking the reassurance of touch. “He said the guy has lawyered up even though he popped twice the legal limit on the Breathalyzer.”

Patti shifted and winced. “Later, Smoots. Listen–”

“Later, hell. I hope they–”

“Ryan, hon, I need you to listen to me for a moment, ‘kay? I need you to book me on the next flight to Chicago.” Patti scooted forward until her feet touched the floor. “I don’t care what airline.”

Ryan had his cell phone in hand before he made sense of the request. “Wait. Chicago? What’s in Chicago?”

“Are my pants still here?”

“Babe, you’re not goin’ anywhere. You lost a lotta blood when they put you back together. You got all these IV and transfusion tubes.” Ryan’s gut clenched around a momentary panic. “You do remember you’re in the hospital, right?”

“Of course I remember.” She pulled off the nasal cannulae, draped it over the pillow. “Use the VISA. The Master Card is tapped out.”

“Screw the VISA. I’m not calling–”

“Yes you are, Smoots.”

***

“Are you crazy?” Erica said in a low panic, easing the front door shut behind her. Cool night air chased anxiety in a rush of sudden goose bumps. She rubbed her arms, the porch creaking beneath her as she shifted her weight from foot to foot. “You can’t just walk out of the hospital. What about your treatments?”

“So I miss a couple of days. Big deal. It’s not like I’ll bleed to death.”

“But your folks–”

Quinn swallowed her words and thoughts with a kiss. He tasted of mocha and cigarettes.

“I really need your help, babe,” he said when he pulled away.

Erica blinked, savoring the memory as she tried to make sense of it all. “You’re serious about this.”

Quinn nodded. “Charlie Davis is dying, and I need to get to Chicago. Now.”

***

“Who’s Charlie Davis?” Marcus “Frito” Fernandez said, setting his traveling mug back in its holder on the dash.

The young woman who’d introduced herself as Becky at the Gas’n'Go an hour back shrugged like only a teenager could as she watched the world rumble by. “A friend.”

“Ah.” He cut a look at her huddled against the passenger door of the cab. Not so thin as to be stylish, not so heavy she had to rely on a nice personality. The tips of her spiky hair were a neon green, her jewelry roses and fairies. Tinker Bell fluttered across the front of her hooded sweatshirt. “He a good friend?”

“Yeah, I guess.” Something haunted about her expression, a look both determined and vulnerable at once.

Frito checked his mirrors and eased off the gas to let a gutsy blue Corolla pass the rig on the left, then it was back up to speed, making time, making miles. I-70 rolled along in a wash of asphalt and Wyoming heat, greens and browns vying for dominance along the shoulder. With Stockton long gone and Denver still to come, it had the makings of a good run, the Lord and Jesus willing.

He noticed the way she eyed the half sandwich on the seat between them. “You hungry? You can have the rest of it.”

She reached for the sandwich despite her blasé expression. “Thanks,” she said, unwrapping it.

“It’s grilled chicken. My wife gets on me about my cholesterol.”

She picked off the banana peppers and had most of the sandwich gone before Frito thought to say, “There’s water bottles in the back on the right.”

She kept to her seat as she reached around the curtain. Good. She had some sense at least. Thoughts like that led to others he washed down with a few more gulps of lukewarm coffee. “Mind if I ask you a question, Becky?”

The girl watched him from the corner of her eye as she picked pieces of lettuce off the paper. “Like what?”

“How old are you, really?”

“I’m nineteen,” she said a little too quickly.

“Ah.” Frito scratched the gray stubble under his chin. “You wanna reach in the glove compartment for me?” The girl’s eyes widened as he knew they would. Frito kept his hands on the wheel. “Go on. It’s nothin’ bad.”

Becky balled up the sandwich wrap and tucked it into the crack of the seat beside her. She leaned forward and popped the glove compartment latch.

“What’s in there?” Frito said.

“A bunch of papers. A big tire gauge. A bible.”

“Take the bible out and open it to the very back. That’s a picture of my family – my wife, Carol; my girls, Andrea and Rosa; and the little guy with the finger up his nose is Patrick.”

Becky’s attention flickered between Frito and the picture. “They’re nice looking.”

At that he smiled. “Aren’t they? I’m really proud of my kids. Andrea’s eleven, and I figure Rosa’s about your age.”

Becky paled. “How old is she?”

He looked at her then, trying not to think about either girl holed up like a back row beauty at some state highway truck stop. “Sixteen.”

Becky’s shoulders slumped. Her hands trembled as she returned the picture and closed the bible.

“Do your folks know where you are?” Frito said when he figured she’d had enough silence.

“No.” She twisted her fairy necklace around one finger. “They said I couldn’t go.”

“Ah.”

“It’s not like that! This is important.”

He pretended not to notice Becky wipe the tears from her eyes. “It may be important to you, but I know I wouldn’t want my baby girl hitching her way across country.”

“What else could I do? They don’t let me do anything anymore ’cause I’m not in remission.”

The word brought Frito’s foot off the accelerator. He caught the reduction in speed, returned his foot to the pedal. “Remission?”

Becky lifted her quivering chin in defiance. “Yeah. I have leukemia.”

The father in Frito took a moment to cool down. “So, um, did you meet Charlie in the hospital?”

She smiled hesitantly, shyly. “Yeah.”

“That’s cool.” A half-dozen mile markers passed before Frito allowed himself to say anything more. “Listen, we’re gonna hit Denver by supper time. I can’t take you any farther, but I’d really appreciate it if you let me buy you a bus ticket to Chicago. It’s better than hitching.”

Becky looked at her hands and took her time answering. “What do I have to do?”

“Say yes, and give my regards to your friend. And no more hitchhiking, okay? Ever.” He probably had enough money in his checking account for a return ticket to wherever she called home. He’d text Carol to fill her in on the details when he had the chance.

This time Becky’s smile wasn’t as shy, although there were still tears. “Thanks.”

“Not a problem. You want me to call your folks once I get you on the bus? That way they can’t tell you to come home.” He wouldn’t tell Carol that last part.

“I’d like that.” Becky laughed as she cried. “I’m just worried I might not make it in time.”

***

“In time for what?” Ned Emmett said, setting his lunch sack on the kitchen table. He’d expected dinner and the evening news when he got home, not the twins and Agnes rattling on about their daughter flying to Chicago.

Agnes handed each boy an oatmeal cookie and sent them outside to play. “No idea, but Wendy had to get to Chicago lickety split.”

Ned went to the refrigerator. “Problem with a gallery opening, you think? Where’s my Diet Coke?”

“In the back, where it always is. Maybe she’s met someone special. I wonder what his name is.”

***

“And why can’t you tell your parents about me, but you can run off to Chicago to be with him?” Andy said as he walked Lyric to the car.

Lyric tossed his overnight bag into the backseat. “I’m working on it.” He opened the door and settled behind the wheel. The engine turned over with a rumble and cough. “Charlie’s important to me, okay? He helped me out years back.”

“Yeah. Fine.” Andy closed the door, wishing he wasn’t the jealous type. “I suppose you’ll be staying the night with him.”

Lyric backed out of the drive. “Yeah. He already has a room.”

***

“Room three-oh-three, bed two,” Helen said sotto voce, nudging Corona. “He comes in yesterday, no one calls or asks about him. Now he has three visitors in two hours.”

“Hmm?” The other nurse looked up from her suduko. “Maybe they just got word,” she said, and went back to her numbers.

“Yeah, but how? It took us forever to ID him. What’s up with that?”

“I dunno. I got no problems with ‘em.”

A fourth visitor ten minutes later proved to be the straw that brought her curiosity’s back. Helen stepped around the nurses’ station and went to the door, stopping at the threshold to the room, listening to snippets of conversation, platelets and clotting factor, not the typical bedside fare. She made out an older man in jeans and a plaid flannel shirt, and a woman in a peacock dress, standing on either side of the head of the bed.

Helen knocked lightly on the doorframe and stepped into the room. A young executive and an elderly woman with gray braids and caramel skin stood at the foot of the bed. The quartet paused in their conversation and looked at her expectantly. “Hi. I just wanted to check Mister Davis’s IV.”

“Charlie,” the man in the flannel shirt said. “He used to tell people Mister Davis was his father, and dead how ever many years.”

“Charlie it is, then.”

The visitors waited in companionable silence as Helen checked the IV connection and took her patient’s vitals, noting them in his chart. She hung the clipboard on the wall beside the head of the bed, and took a moment to brush a tuft of gray hair from Mr. Davis’s – Charlie’s – cheek. He remained unresponsive, withered and frail save for his distended abdomen. The aides had taken great care as they bathed and changed him into a hospital gown upon admission. The nurse looked up at the gathering. “Can I get you anything? Water? Soda?”

“A diet soda would be great,” said Miss Peacock.

“Coffee, if you have it,” said Wall Street Junior. “With Splenda.”

“Can do.” Helen hurried to fill the requests, handing them out upon her return. “It’s good to see so many people here. Most of our patients and long term residents don’t have as many visitors as they’d like.”

“Charlie’s a great guy,” said Miss Peacock, holding the old man’s hand as if it were spun sugar. “He saved my life. Did you know he landed with D-Day, and fought at the Battle of Hurtgen Forest?”

“Did he?” Helen smoothed the blankets. “A war hero and a life saver. Did he help you in an accident?”

Miss Peacock answered Helen’s question, but her eyes never left Charlie’s face. “Nothing so dramatic. My last pregnancy ended with an emergency C-section. I’m told I lost a fair bit of blood, not that I remember any of it. Charlie was one of the donors.”

Miss Caramel nodded from her place at the foot of the bed. “I was the one in an accident. Charlie was there for me when I needed blood.” She took a tissue out of her handbag and dabbed at moist eyes. “Charlie was a dog man. He used to volunteer at the veterinarian’s office when he was a boy because he wasn’t allowed to have a dog at home.”

“And birds. He loved birds, too,” said a voice from the door. Helen looked over her shoulder as a young man in baggy jeans and a stretched out Atlanta Falcons jersey strode into the room. His arms were a testament to the streets. “That bothered him when he lost his house, ’cause he didn’t have no birds no more.”

The others nodded as they made room around the bed for the newcomer. The older man in plaid held out his hand, the young man gripped it. “Stan Marks. Plasma after my liver transplant.”

“Nuevo Rikki. Blood after I got shivved in juvie.”

Helen looked from one to another. “You must all be local, then.”

They shook their heads amidst various declarations of “Atlanta,” “LA,” “Littleton,” “Decatur,” and “Clearwater.”

“Oh.” She frowned, turning the improbabilities over in her mind. “I didn’t realize there was a donor identification program available for transfusion recipients.”

Stan shrugged. “There isn’t. We know Charlie because he’s, well. . .” He looked to the others.

“Charlie,” Miss Peacock said for him.

Nuevo Rikki nodded, rubbing Charlie’s leg through the blankets and sheet. “He a part of us, right, man?”

They nodded. Miss Caramel brightened. “Do you remember that time when he was, what, six or seven, and he decided to run away from home because his dad. . .”

Helen allowed a nurse call signal to take her out of the room before the conversation became even more confusing.

Later, grabbing a last cup of coffee in the kitchenette at the end of her lunch break, Helen turned to find Stan standing in the doorway, two travel mugs and a Styrofoam cup in hand. “Some of the folks were wondering if they could get a refill.”

She stepped away from the coffeemaker. “Sure, go ahead.”

“Thanks.”

“Charlie’s a popular guy.” Helen leaned against the counter. “People were spilling into the hall before we told them they had to wait in the lobby.”

“Yeah,” Stan said as he pulled the lids off the mugs. “I’m expecting a lot more people to show up.” The corners of his mouth turned down in a distracted frown as he poured the coffee. “I hope they get here soon.”

“Just how many more are you expecting?” Helen said, raising a cautious brow.

At that Stan smiled. “Can’t say, really. Charlie had a twenty-five pheresis pin, and a fifty gallon donor pin.”

“You’re kidding, right?”

“Nope.”

“You realize how crazy that sounds?” Helen blanched at the thought of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of extras from The Twilight Zone filling the halls, streaming out the front door, getting in the way if there was an emergency, all because of one man.

“Yup.” Stan fit the lids back on the mugs. He stuffed his pockets with packets of sugar, sweetener, and non-dairy creamer. “When he came back stateside after the war, Charlie took to thinking of donating blood as another way to serve his country. So did Edith.”

“Edith?”

“His wife. She died just about a month before I received Charlie’s transfusion.”

Helen sipped her coffee as she tried to fit the pieces of a puzzle together in the dark without a picture for comparison. “Okay, so you did know Charlie before you had cancer.”

“Nope.” Stan’s voice was as easy and small town as his smile. “I didn’t know him from Adam before late this morning.”

Helen searched the craggy features for a hint of deception. “Things like that don’t happen. There is no mystical connection to blood donors.”

At that Stan laughed, a low, dry rasp. “If someone’d tried to tell me all that this morning, I would have said the same thing. Kooky, huh?” He took the cups and headed out, greeting a young woman with spiked green hair hurrying past, “Stan Marks. Plasma.”

“Becky Reilly. . .”

Helen could not hear the rest of the young woman’s answer. From the kitchenette door, she watched them turn into room three-oh-three.

Helen asked around towards the end of her shift, and the answer was always the same. Charlie Davis saved their lives one blood component at a time. A war hero who loved animals, and who once saved a child from being hit by a trolley car in San Francisco. He lived a widower’s life in his later years, lost his home and savings to a bad investment, and now drifted above the pain of tumors killing him one cell at a time. Not one of the growing crowd claimed to have known Charlie Davis before that morning, yet each knew when they took him into their lives through an IV needle.

Helen briefed the incredulous charge nurse at shift change, taking care to give updates on every patient and not Charlie Davis alone.

“I just don’t get it,” she told Corona, slipping on her sweater.

“Get what?” her shift mate said, rooting through her purse for keys.

“Them.” Helen waved an arm to take in the flow of people in and around room three-oh-three.

“What’s to get, girl? He has a lot of friends. That’s a blessing in this place.”

“Yeah.” Helen chewed on her bottom lip as she watched the crowd rub elbows with itself. “Listen, I’ll see you tomorrow, ‘kay? You have a good one.” She grabbed her purse and went off in search of Stan.

She found him talking to Wall Street Junior at the foot of Charlie’s bed. Helen had forgotten the young man’s name in the press of seemingly endless introductions. “Hey, Stan. Can I talk to you a minute?”

“Sure. ‘scuse me, Tim.” He followed Helen out of the room as people filed slowly by. “What’s up?”

Feeling decidedly silly, Helen forged ahead before common sense won out. “I wanted to let you know that I really appreciate all that you’re doing for Charlie. Not just you, but, y’know, all of you.”

“We should be thankin’ you,” Stan said, hooking his thumbs in his pockets. “You took Charlie in and made him comfortable so he could rest easy at last. We really appreciate that.”

Helen blushed at the compliment, wondering why it seemed more genuine than most. “Yeah, well, VA hospitals aren’t glamour houses, but our patients are people, too.”

Stan smiled like a child with a new toy. “Charlie would’ve liked you.”

“Yeah, about that. . .” She stepped into the door of a temporarily vacant room, suddenly self-conscious. “I don’t believe what you were telling me earlier about the, um, the whole blood donor thing. I mean, it just doesn’t make sense.”

The older man shrugged. “It doesn’t make sense to me, neither, but it’s true.”

“It can’t be, don’t you see? Even red blood cells only last four, maybe five, months. After that, they’re broken down by the spleen. There’s no way any of you could think Charlie is still a part of you, unless the treatment was very recent. That’s just crazy. Why not say you have some strange connection to all of the donors?”

“Maybe they weren’t afraid of dying alone and forgotten.”

Helen stopped, stung and ashamed by the gentleness of the words. “I didn’t mean for that to sound the way–”

“I understand, Miss. The way I figure it, no one wants to die like that. Maybe it scares Charlie more than most folks. He didn’t have anyone else, so he needed to remember himself. We’re all supposed to be the same under the skin, right?”

“Yeah.” Helen took a deep breath, let it out slowly. “Anyway, I wanted to say that I may not believe any of it, but I’m still glad you’re here.”

It took her a moment to realize that Stan no longer looked at her, his attention now focused over her right shoulder. In fact, the entire crowd had stopped what they were doing to look in the same direction. A near-by woman in a gray pinstripe suit reached for Stan. He took her hand, and, as Helen watched, one by one a chain of hands stretched from room three-oh-three, down the hall, and disappeared around the corner.

Maybe it was the extra hours, or the stress of handling the crowd, but Helen suddenly wished to be a part of such togetherness, to become a link in the silent chain, instead of the reasonable outsider looking in. How far, she wondered, did Charlie Davis reach?


.

About the Author

Sandra M. Odell is a happily married, 43-year old mother of two, an avid reader, compulsive writer, and rabid chocoholic. Her works have appeared in Jim Baen’s UNIVERSE, Ideomancer, Fear of the Dark edited by Maria Grazia Cavicchioli and Jason Rolfe, and in audio format at Pseudopod and The Drabblecast. She is a Clarion West 2010 graduate.

You can learn more about her works and her taste for the odd at http://sandramodell.com/.