Here’s Chapter 2.
A dormmate of mine was kind enough to drive me home after I dropped out of the university. I was lucky that she lived nearby. I pulled my luggage into the house one piece at a time. I heard the answering machine beeping as I came through the door, and I knew that Mom was working. I hit the play button and heard my own message, telling her I was coming home.
There was the expected melange of voicemails after that. Uncle Jordan asking for money, a lady from Cedar Jones Collections asking for money, aspiring artists asking for advice, and money. For some reason Mom didn’t mind giving her home number to any schmo at a gallery who asked for it. This was the result.
I tuned out the voices and let the machine play out its queue of recordings. I rolled my luggage into my old bedroom, which was still as bare as when I left it. There was my old twin bed, and a big oak desk where I once did my homework and drawing, but nothing else. The familiarity should have been comforting, but instead it made my insides crumple. I focused on the task of unpacking, and planned my story for when Mom got home. I didn’t expect that she’d be back anytime soon, of course.
I was numbly refilling my old closet when I heard the flat, serious voice of Nurse Nguyen of Doctors Hospital. Turned out my brother Mark had been in the ICU for the past six days, thanks to a serious bacterial infection. Incredulous, I replayed the message several times. Then I ran to the garage.
Mom taught me to drive when I was eight years old. She even gave me a spare key to the family sedan. She took me out to my grade school parking lot and let me practice when no one was around. I was very tall for my age, so reaching the pedals wasn’t an issue. “As long as you only go out when it’s dark,” she told me. “So the cops can’t get a good look at you.” My grocery runs were always made at midnight.
When I pulled open the garage door, though, I couldn’t even see the car. In fact, I couldn’t see the floor or most of the walls, either. The place was packed tight with junk. I honestly couldn’t believe how much crap was in there. There were the usual cardboard boxes, each one bulging at its top, along with the detritus you might expect to see cast away in a garage: ladders, light bulbs, bottles, towels, rope, tape, cables, oil, hand tools, cleansers. But we’re also talking art scrap: dirty easels, shattered sculptures, arms and legs from fallen figures, scrapped paintings smeared with black, wrinkled tubes of oil paint, forgotten paintbrushes in coffee cans, and who knows how many rolled-up sketches and drawings.
In the weak, dusty light, I could only recognize the car as the largest mound in this peculiar graveyard. The junk had piled around it, and I’d have to dig the thing out in order to drive it anywhere. Once I completed that excavation, I knew I wouldn’t be able to stop there. Messes like this always called out to me. They would cry out for my attention, and I would not be able to rest until they were completely cleared away. I sighed as I imagined the work involved in this project, and decided it would have to wait until another day.
I considered walking to the hospital for a moment, but then I saw my old bicycle hanging up on hooks near the garage door. I hit the garage door opener, and chewed on my lower lip. I expected the items by the door to tumble into the driveway like water from a busted dam, but nothing like that happened. I walked back through the house and went out the front door. From the outside, I saw the junk by the garage door had been compacted against it, and wasn’t going anywhere on its own. I had to squeeze over and around a couple of heavy boxes and broken clay torsos, but I was able to get my bike down without too much trouble.
It was a surprisingly warm day, and I would have enjoyed the ride if I hadn’t been so worried about Mark. It didn’t help that the city was in the middle of constructing an overpass on Clemens Road, and I had to follow a series of confusing detours. When I arrived at the hospital, I was sweating like mad.
I came to the heavy double doors of the intensive care unit and read the sign mounted on them. I picked up a beige phone on the wall and told the nurse on the other end whom I was there to see.
“Um, yes, you can come in and see him,” she told me. “I believe he’s free now.”
The unit was a large rectangular room, with the nurse’s station against the entrance wall, and the patients’ rooms extending from the other three. As I peeked in one door after another, I became increasingly fearful. What nightmare had befallen my brother to land him in here?
Here was a colony of pale, shriveled beings, each one swaddled in blue blankets and white sheets. They grasped at their blankets with bony, veiny hands. They sucked on respirators and winced with the very effort of breathing. Their fluids shot through long plastic tubes and disappeared into towers of machinery that hummed, beeped, and hissed beside them. The ones that weren’t scrawny looked bloated instead. One man had covered his face with an orange pillow, as though he couldn’t bear to look at the place anymore.
A cold, bleeding sensation fell over me. I don’t really know what it was. I don’t think it was sadness, or pity. I couldn’t pity these people because I didn’t know them. If I had to guess, I’d say it was fear. I didn’t like that human beings could be allowed to exist in such agony.
As I completed my circuit, another fear bubbled up in me: I hadn’t seen my brother. I wondered if the message I’d heard was a cruel prank intended for my mom, or if I’d gotten mixed up and had arrived at the wrong hospital. The nearest nurse at the station must have noticed my anxiety, because she said, “Who you looking for, hun?”
“Mark Levins,” I said. “The nurse I talked to on the phone said he was here. Was that you?”
“Oh, Mark. Yes, he’s here all right. Room 137.”
It was the room with the man that was covering his face. For some reason it didn’t occur to me that he might have been Mark. Covering up like that just didn’t seem like the sort of thing Mark would do, no matter how sad he was. I saw it posted on the door’s side, though, very plain: LEVINS, MARCUS.
I stepped in. Mark was half-covered in blankets. IV tubes sprouted from his left hand and right inner elbow. He looked skinnier than I remembered him, even though I hadn’t been gone from home long. I saw his bare chest rising and falling under his unbuttoned gown, and it looked deathly white.
I stood there hesitating. The TV was off, and the only light in the room was a desk lamp in a corner. Aside from the steady beeping of his vital signs monitor, it was quiet. I couldn’t tell if he was asleep, and I didn’t know how to announce myself. Then I heard a low, reedy whistle. I frowned, and squinted at him, trying to see where the odd sound had come from. Then the whistle came again. A few seconds later, again. It was rhythmic, and I realized it must have been Mark’s breathing. It was far too clear, though; the pillow should have muffled it.
I decided to lift the pillow and confirm whether he was asleep or not. If he was, no big deal; at least I knew where he was, and I could come back later.
My hand was two inches from the pillow when it jolted upward and sputtered, “What? Who is it?”
I gasped and drew back. I slapped my hand over my mouth. My eyes popped and tears rushed to them, for in that instant they saw that the bulbous mass I thought was a puffy cushion was in fact my brother’s face.
It didn’t look swollen. It looked engorged. It looked like someone had injected his head with fluid until every last pocket in it was filled, and his skin could stretch no further. I would have thought that he had gigantism, or that he’d been exposed to radiation that had gravely deformed him. His face bulged and sagged in great, rolling masses. His eyes were lightless caverns, his lips were fat like sausages, and his big nose, which I used to tease him about, now looked diminutive. In the low light of the room, I perceived the color of his skin as orange, but now I saw that it was a ferocious, burning red.
He kept asking who it was, and I realized that his eyes were smashed shut. “It’s me, Mark,” I said. “It’s Tara.”
“What?” he said. I could see that it was nearly impossible for him to emote, swallow, or move his jaw. “Tara?”
“Yeah, it’s me.” Hearing his voice relaxed me a bit, and I took a couple of steps toward him.
His body relaxed too, and then his bloated lips curled. I could see his tiny teeth peering out from between the mounds of flesh. It was a smile, but a sad, grotesque one. “What the hell are you doing here?” he said. “Why aren’t you in Sac?”
“I came back,” I told him. “It wasn’t for me.”
“You dropped out,” he said, and the smile faltered.
“Now what did you go and do that for?” he mumbled. A line of drool leaked down his chin.
“I think we should be discussing your situation right now,” I said. I grabbed a chair by the wall and took a seat.
“What do you mean?”
“What do I mean. You’re in the hospital, Mark. What happened?”
Mark sat there and breathed. “I don’t really remember.”
“Did you fall unconscious? Did you have any surgery?”
“I must have. I was hanging out with Justin, and my face felt all hot. I kept feeling my cheeks and they felt all puffy. Justin said, ‘Bro, something’s wrong with your face. I think you’d better call a doctor.’ I looked in a mirror and saw how red and chubby my face was, and I called 911 right there. After that, though, I really don’t remember.”
“The nurse said it was an infection. Did you cut yourself somehow? Maybe a bug bit you?”
“No, no, nothing like that happened. I just felt my face getting really hot, and that’s how it started.”
“Are you sure nothing like that happened?”
“I’m sure I’d remember if a bug bit my face.”
“Well, still, these things don’t happen for no reason.”
“I don’t know.”
I took a deep breath and scratched my head. “Has anyone else been by to see you? I know Mom hasn’t; when I got home, the nurse’s voicemail hadn’t been played yet.”
“Nah, Mom’s not going to be here for a while. Justin and Alex came by, though. They brought me those balloons over there.” He gestured vaguely with his right arm. The mylar balloons that screamed “GET WELL SOON!” had been shuttled off to a corner where they wouldn’t get in anyone’s way.
“Well, well, I’m impressed. Usually those guys only show up when you have liquor for them.”
“Eh, they’re good guys.”
I drummed my fingers on my knees, trying to pick a thought from the brook of them that washed through my head. “So what’s the next step? What’s the plan for your treatment?”
“Uh, just antibiotics, as far as I know. Doctor Salvin said they caught the infection in time, so it didn’t spread anywhere important. They said I didn’t get sepsis, but they had to keep me sedated so they could check me out and be sure. I guess I’m out of the woods now.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “You’d better play it safe and do what the doctors tell you.”
“Why? Don’t you think I look good?”
I didn’t answer. Mark’s face turned to that warm but ugly grimace that posed as a smile, and laughed a wet, slobbery, hiss of a laugh. The lumps of his head jiggled. He looked like a rubbery jack o’ lantern. I feel guilty saying that, but it’s the first thing I thought of at that moment.
“So what are you going to tell Mom?” he said.
“About why you’re home. What are you going to tell her?”
I sighed. I didn’t really want to talk about this. “I just felt like getting out of there,” I said. “I thought I knew what I wanted, but I was wrong.”
Mark breathed for a few seconds. “Yeah, that should be a good-enough explanation for throwing your grants away.”
“I only got that grant because of Mom. Come on. You know that.”
“I never got any grants because of Mom.”
“You didn’t want to be an artist. Mom knows people in that circle. She can get things.”
“So your dream is to dig ditches now, or what?”
He was pissing me off. “You know, I dropped everything to see you when I heard you were in here. I don’t think you’re in any shape to be giving me lectures. I bet you don’t even have health insurance right now, do you?”
Mark just breathed.
“Thought not,” I said. “When did you quit the Albertson’s?”
“Two weeks ago.”
I leaned forward in my chair. “That’s why you were hanging out with Justin. Work was getting in the way of your benders. You probably passed out and hit your head, and that’s how you got infected.”
“That’s not true.”
“Yeah, right. Maybe you got in a fight instead. Busted your eye open like you did last time. That would explain it. I’m not sure Mom has the money to cover it this time, though.”
“I’ll be all right.”
“On whose dime, again? Whose?”
“I said I’ll be all right.”
I stopped and leaned back. I listened to my breath whistling in and out of my nose, and Mark’s whistling in and out of his mouth. A couple of minutes passed.
“You still there?” Mark said.
“Then I think you’d better get out.”
I stood up. “Love you, Mark,” I said, and took off.
Mark and I fought like that a lot after I graduated from high school. Infection or no, we met right at the point where we parted.