Thursday, August 2, 2007

Nightmare

The faces crowded around Ryan Pierce, so close that they threatened to smother. An old woman turned her sunken, feverish eyes toward him. A mother raised her stony eyes from the face of her child as the blanket fell away, revealing blood and lung fluids drying on his mottled, lifeless face. A young woman sat up behind the wheel of her wrecked sports car, eyes glittering with hate. A black man stared sullenly and opened his mouth as if to speak, but the hole in his chest only made an ugly gurgling sound. A thin old man, filthy and covered in scabs, spat at Ryan.

His sister Renee was there, looking nothing like the twin from his childhood. The fair skin and light brown hair they shared had been replaced by the haggard face of an addict with missing teeth and limp, greasy locks. She extended both hands toward him, empty syringe still hanging from her left arm. Ryan’s parents hovered nearby, disappointment manifest on their faces.

Ryan struggled, arms and legs flailing desperately, but they felt like they had been wrapped in wet cotton. Every movement was sluggish, like a slow motion replay of swimming. Here, everything felt reversed; he was the one moving in slow motion, while the accusing faces crowding in on him were frighteningly fast, terrifying real. His heart hammered in his chest as he struggled for air. The faces pressed in all around him, hovering so close that he couldn't see, couldn't move, couldn't breathe...

His screams drove the faces back momentarily, and he gasped, trying to struggle free of the formless restraints binding him. The faces parted, turning to look at the figure approaching from the darkness. A woman in a wheelchair rolled ever closer, propelled by the soft hum of an electric motor. Cold dread descended over him and he stopped struggling, breath sounding harsh and wheezing in the stillness.

The woman's limbs were twisted and atrophied, frail little sticks bent in a painful approximation of a sitting position. Her back was arched in permanent spasm, her head forever cocked to one side. Both arms were contracted, bent at the elbows and wrists at odd angles, her left hand wedged uncomfortably under her chin. The light fell on her face, and he saw that the woman's face was twisted in a rictus of spasm, a horrible parody of a grin with drool trickling down her chin. He screamed as he recognized, once again, the face of his daughter.

******

Ryan awoke from the nightmare, flailing at the sheets tangled around his legs. Lying quietly for a moment, he tried to catch his breath and still the pounding of his heart. His eyes strained in the darkness, searching for any source of light. He rolled over to face the other side of the bed, arm searching for his wife, forgetting as he always did that there is no longer anyone there.

He rolled over onto his back and stared into the darkness, finally realizing that there was no light - not even from the utility pole outside. The power was out. He kicked away the sweat-soaked sheets, taking deep, slow breaths, trying to calm himself, seeking the quiet place within him.

There was a time when that stillness was easy to find, a sense of calmness that gave him control over things uncontrollable. Not any more. The sense of quiet mastery that had always protected and cocooned him was slow in coming now, nebulous and hard to find, like grasping at mist. Once, he had possessed a unique gift; a laser-sharp clarity of focus that allowed him to function when others could not, a quality that had always allowed him to master the moment, but there in the darkness of his empty bedroom in the wee hours of the morning, he knew Fear.

Not real, he whispered silently to himself. None of you are real. I did everything I could for every last one of you. Just go away and leave me alone. And Caitlin will not wind up like that. I won't let it happen.

He turned onto his side and looked for the photo of his daughter on the nightstand. Despite the darkness, he saw her in his mind’s eye - smiling, standing next to the swings at the park, the braces on her legs barely visible above her shoes. Caitlin had cerebral palsy, the result of a severe intracranial hemorrhage while she was in the womb.

Outside, after much cursing and sweating, and a painful slip on the wet deck, the generator purred to life and the lights came on. He ducked back inside, massaging his wet, bruised ass as he limped down the hallway. The harsh glare of the bathroom light revealed a few flecks of gray in his light-brown hair, and there were dark circles under his eyes. Blearily, he stared into the mirror, rubbing the stubble on his chin.

You look like shit, Hotshot. You're thirty-six years old, and you look forty. Shape up. It's been eight months, and Dawn ain't coming back. She doesn't love you any more, and you might as well accept it.

The face in the mirror stared back at him mockingly. Expressive blue eyes framed an aquiline nose, its symmetry marred by a noticeable hook across the bridge, courtesy of the boot of a combative drug addict four years ago. A wide, generous mouth dominated his lean face; a face that hinted at barely concealed mirth just below the surface. Altogether, it was a pleasant face, the kind that looks best when laughing, but lately the laughter stopped at his mouth. His eyes revealed nothing, least of all laughter.

He was thirty-six years old, six feet, two inches and 220 pounds, able to move with a sinewy grace that belied his size and hid controlled, carefully marshaled strength. People invariably described him as smaller than he actually was, a misconception that he did nothing to dispel. Ryan was content to be underestimated until he did something to warrant a reappraisal.

Though his physical prowess was often underestimated, his skill as a paramedic was legendary. One of those rare people with that certain intangible something, a scene presence that projected an aura of quiet calm, even grizzled, seasoned medics had been known to breathe a sigh of relief when he arrived on a bad scene. “Thank God,” they’d think. “Hawkeye Pierce is here.”

Whatever that certain something was, Ryan realized that he had a gift that most of his colleagues did not share. He had tried unsuccessfully to teach it to his students, finally realizing that he couldn’t teach a trait to others when he couldn’t fully explain it himself. Rather like the Supreme Court definition of pornography, it was impossible to define, but you knew it when you saw it.

What most people didn’t know was that it had been a long time since he himself had felt that sense of calm. More and more lately, he had felt like an actor playing a role. He still looked the part; steely-eyed, square jawed, heroic. He feared a time would come when he would flub his lines.

******

Sighing, he once again began his morning routine. First, he retrieved a uniform from the closet and hung it on the shower door, even though he wouldn't put it on for another four hours. Kevlar body armor was laid out with his uniform shirt. Boots, belt, pager and uniform cap were arranged with care on the vanity. His ID tag was clipped to the right epaulet, and a small Star of Life was pinned to the left collar point. The blue enamel was chipped and worn, and the white Caduceus once painted on it had long since worn away, but this one had sentimental value. It was the one award Ryan had received that meant something. Once his uniform was prepped, he shaved and brushed his teeth. Only then did he turn on the shower and step under the spray.

He had to be ready for a call at a moment's notice.

You laugh? Allow him his rituals, please. They are one of the few things he can still call his own. It didn't matter that he was in his own home, and not due to report for work for another five hours. When chaos threatened to overtake him, he focused on process. At work, it kept him calm. At home, it kept him sane.

The coffee maker was still sputtering as he poured his first cup. After a month of drinking bitter coffee, he finally learned to set the maker to brew at 3:00 am instead of 6:00. He donned a bathrobe and stepped out into the morning chill. There was water still puddled on the deck from last night's rain, and he dutifully mopped the deck dry before settling into a deck chair overlooking the river.

The water was high in mid-October, the surface deceptively still. Mist clung to the surface of the water, but experience had taught him that the mist hid a wicked current and floating logs. He checked the channel marker swaying in the current just aft of the boat. The stern of his aluminum runabout bumped gently against the pole as the river gurgled past.

Thirty-eight feet, he mused. Supposed to crest at forty feet next week. I'll have to get back and forth from the landing in the runabout. Fucking lovely. What a pain in the ass.

The dock was designed to accommodate water levels as high as forty feet, but some genius of an engineer had designated the parking area to be on a small peninsula of high ground surrounded by low-lying floodplain. Whenever the river got over thirty-eight feet, boat owners could walk from their boats to the landing without difficulty, but had to wade or take a small boat to the parking area.

Three years after its purchase, Ryan’s houseboat was still his pride and joy. At eighty-four feet, with three staterooms, an attached runabout and a pair of personal watercraft, it was a yacht by any standard but his own. Determinedly blue-collar, he steadfastly referred to it as “my houseboat.” Rich people had yachts. Ryan Pierce was not rich.

My father was rich, he told himself. I made it on my own, without his fucking help. I owe him nothing. Not love, not respect, not one Goddamned thing.

Sitting silently on the deck of his boat, sipping coffee as the river slipped slowly past, he mused on the strange turn of events that had brought him here.

My old man would have hated this boat. He’d have considered it a useless extravagance, and Robert Pierce wasn’t one for frivolity. Work hard, make money, be Somebody. What a fucking joke. People around here didn’t love him, they feared him. You were a bully and a tyrant, and I’m nothing like you. May you rot in Hell, Dad.

Besides the boat, he had touched none of the millions he had inherited from his father, and didn’t intend to. When he had gotten the news that his father’s light plane had augered into the ground eighty miles west of Eufala, Alabama, he had felt…nothing. No grief, no regret, nothing. A week later, after meeting with the estate lawyers, he had been shocked, then angry.

You think naming me your sole heir would ensure your legacy? Wrong again, Dad. You thought I’d just forgive you, return to the fold, become the dutiful son if you made me rich? I lived in a studio apartment for three years, eating Ramen noodles and drinking Kool-Aid while I worked through school, and I never once asked for your help.

The doctors around here treat me with respect, and not because I’m Robert Pierce’s kid. My reputation is my own, and I’m the best damned paramedic in this city. Me, Hawkeye Pierce, not “little Ryan,” son of the famous cardiologist. The last old doctor that called me a “chip off the old block” only did it once.

Your hold on me ended on my eighteenth birthday. We hadn’t spoken ten words to each other in the past eighteen years, unless you count the time I knocked you on your ass at Renee’s funeral.


In a sort of posthumous “fuck you” to his father, he bought his boat less than a month after his father’s death, a year before the birth of his daughter. Against the advice of the estate lawyer, he had sold his parents' home and everything in it to the city for pennies on the dollar. He had added the caveat that nothing the city planned to do with the property could bear the Pierce name, and used the proceeds to buy the boat. Ryan, Dawn and Caitlin had spent virtually every weekend there. In all likelihood, Caitlin had been conceived in the master stateroom.

Money well spent, if for no other reason than that. And that Victorian monstrosity of a house is now an art museum that doesn’t even bear your name. Fitting, I suppose. It was always more museum than home anyway.

In a fit of whimsy, he christened the boat Ecnalubma, painted in large, royal blue letters in mirror image on the stern. Only Dawn and his buddies from work had gotten the joke.

It's October twenty-sixth today. Our birthday. Today you would be thirty-six years old, maybe with kids of your own. I'd be Uncle Ryan. Your kids could be playing with Caitlin every weekend.

Triage. It was a triage decision. I hope you understand that. I couldn't save myself and save you. I'm sorry I left you with them, but I had to get away from there. If I had stayed, I'd have been lost, too.

The sky pinkened over his left shoulder, and the screech of a dawn flight of wood ducks announced that it was time to go to work. He sighed, went inside and donned the uniform still hanging from the hook on the bathroom door. He grabbed his gear bag and briefcase on the way out and trotted down the dock. The water was already inching its way up the floodplain surrounding the parking lot, forcing him to jump from one high spot to another to make it to his truck.

Just fucking lovely. I'll have to wade to the dock when I get home. Note to self: get gas for the runabout, or you'll be wading back and forth to your truck every morning.

******

Just as he did every morning, he bought two boxes of doughnuts and two large coffees from the Krispy Kreme just around the corner from the ambulance station. His partner, Steve Hatfield, was already checking out the rig as Ryan pulled into the parking lot.

"Morning," he grunted, handing Steve his cup of coffee.

"Mucho grassy-ass," his partner grinned, gratefully taking the cup. "Are we keeping banker's hours this morning?" Steve asked with exaggerated politeness.

"Yep. You can do that when you wear a white shirt," Ryan retorted with an even wider grin. "Besides, it's only seven-thirty, smartass. Truck need anything this morning?"

Steve shrugged his shoulders. "Some no-neck cervical collars, and a couple of twenty-gauge IV catheters and saline locks."

"I'll get 'em."

"Oh yeah, and check us out a radio and get my rain gear!" Steven called after him. Ryan saluted with his coffee cup as he walked inside.

"And how are you degenerates this fine morning?" he greeted everyone cheerfully. "I've got fresh doughnuts here, sustenance for us as we start yet another day of thwarting natural selection and picking up little old ladies who have fallen and can't get up."

His announcement was greeted with chuckles from the crews and a general rush for the doughnut boxes. A young man sitting at the table reading an EMT textbook reached for one a few seconds too late, and found only empty boxes.

"Gotta be quicker than that, kid," one of the EMTs pointed out around a mouthful of glazed doughnut.

The kid stood up nervously, extending a hand. "Mr. Pierce, I'm pleased to meet you. My name is Michael Granger, and I'm supposed to be riding - "

"You're out of uniform," Ryan interrupted sternly, to the kid's fear and consternation. He looked himself over from shined boots to duty belt adorned with an impressive collection of gadgets to his neatly pressed shirt.

"Uh, how?" the kid stammered. "My instructor says this is what we were supposed to - "

"Wristwatch and pen, Mr. Granger," he glowered. "I see that you have neither. Perchance is there some nifty gadget on your Batman utility belt that will allow you to count heart rate and respirations, much less write them down somewhere? How the hell is an EMT going to function without a watch and a pen?" The kid squirmed as the EMTs behind him struggled to maintain straight faces.

"Furthermore Mr. Granger," he continued unctuously, "when one is riding on the ambulance for the first time, it behooves one to get out in the rain and help the ambulance crew check out the rig at the beginning of the shift. That endears you to the preceptor and allows you to find things on the rig when you need them."

"I'm sorry...I didn't know...I mean, I - "

"You can salvage something from this less-than-impressive first meeting, Mr. Granger, by running this list to the supply room and seeing that it gets filled. Then, you will bring those items out to the rig, and help my partner finish inventorying and stocking it. Then, you may run to the nearest Wal Mart and purchase yourself a pen and a wristwatch. Perhaps, if you return quickly enough, you may be able to actually run an ambulance call today. Now run along, son." At that, the EMT student scampered from the room.

As soon as he was out of earshot, the crews collapsed into laughter. "Shit, Hawkeye! You think you could actually let the kid get on the rig before you scare the shit out of him?" Mark Perry chortled.

"I thought he was gonna cry," Mark's partner, Kenny Hadden, laughed. "He shows up this morning, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, just itching to go save some lives with the great Hawkeye Pierce, and what do you do? You crush his hopes in about ten seconds. You're like a mean kid torturing a little puppy, you know that?"

"Yes indeed," Ryan agreed with an evil grin. "Let that be a lesson for the rest of you. I am in no mood for bullshit today. Anybody steps out of line, and heads will roll. Got it?" They collectively roll their eyes and groan. This is his stock line, and they've heard it many times. Not that the threat means much. These guys are some of the best around.

"What's our company motto, men?" Ryan barked imperiously.

"Profit-Driven, Self-Centered and Uninspired, Sir!" they chorused.

"Very well. Let's go save some lives," he chuckled. They laughed dutifully and trickled out to their rigs, joking around and playing grab-ass as they walked out the door. Outside, Steve sat in the idling ambulance, sipping his coffee.

"What did you say to our rider?" he asked as Ryan climbed into the rig. "He lit out of here like his tail was on fire. Made me promise not to leave until he got back."

"He didn't have a watch or a pen. I chewed his ass out."

"In your own unique style, no doubt," Steve grinned. "Whatever you said, it worked. Here he comes, with three minutes to spare."

"We almost left you, Mr. Granger," Ryan said as the kid climbed breathlessly into the back of the rig. "I hope you managed to procure a suitable timepiece, hopefully one with a second hand?"

"Yes sir," the kid bobbed his head like a schoolboy. He extended an arm adorned with a black rubber-armored wristwatch with an impressive display of dials and buttons. "It has a fifteen second pulse timer, stopwatch and elapsed time, illuminated hands, a backlight - "

"Can you talk to headquarters on it too, Dick Tracy?" Steve asked, amused. The kid didn't get the joke.

"Come on man, let's go," Ryan laughed, buckling his seatbelt. "Be sure to buckle up back there, Mr. Granger," he called out as they pulled out of the parking lot. "Steve has been drinking cough syrup all morning, and I'm not really sure he can stay awake long enough to keep this rig on the road."

"Yeah kid," Steve grinned, jerking the wheel just enough to get his attention. "I get drowsy, but I drive pretty good by Braille."

"Let me tell you how this day is going to go, Mr. Granger," Ryan broke in. "Steve and I handle the calls. For the first few, you lug equipment and keep your eyes and ears open. Steve or I will take vital signs and do the BLS care, and you can monitor vital signs in the rig. Once I am sure that you can find your ass with both hands and a roadmap, you get to do your stuff. Steve or I will lug the equipment, and you get to do the BLS assessments and interventions. Clear?"

"Yes sir," the kid nodded nervously.

"One other thing, Mr. Granger. You will screw up. That is a given. I'll keep you from screwing up in any way that harms the patient. And when you do screw up, we will discuss it in private. I will not criticize your performance in public or around any of the other crews. Steve here doesn't count, being somewhat of a world-class fuckup himself. Any questions?"

"Uh, can you stop calling me Mr. Granger?" the kid blurted.

"What would you like me to call you?" Ryan asked, amused. "Michael? Rookie? FNG?"

"Mike is fine," the kid grinned. "Can I call you Hawkeye?"

"No you may not. You may call me Ryan, provided you stop bowing respectfully and genuflecting whenever in my presence."

"That's a deal, Hawk - er, I mean Ryan. Why do they call you that?" Mike asked curiously.

"Because he's screwed every nurse in Oneida Parish," Steve offered with a laugh.

"Actually Mike, aside from the obvious MASH reference to my last name, it's because I'm brilliant, unconventional, have a wicked sense of humor, and I have a healthy lack of respect for authority," Ryan clarified. "And of course, because I've nailed every nurse in the parish."

He turned in his seat to wink at the kid, who grinned back.

16 comments:

Bob@thenest said...

Geez, AD, it's a good thing he woke up when he did. I was getting short of breath!!!

Excellent read.

Old NFO said...

Okaaayyy... Now you've got me hooked AD, I want to see where this story arc goes. Excellent work again!

Brandon said...

I can't wait for the next story post!

Anonymous Therapist said...

Good stuff, AD. Can't wait for the next installment!

mrks said...

Well, c'mon!! Where's the rest?? When's the book coming out?? You mean I have to wait? Ah man......
Good writing, AD....excellent form!

Scott said...

Oh, you medics . . . Reminds me of my days riding. Fun.

Ambulance is okay, but if I ever get a boat, I'd name it the "Jenny" in honor of a movie I like.

I don't want to judge, but have a look at Mark 11:25.

knitalot3 said...

Very good! More please.

HollyB said...

Oh, You DASTARD! Now I'm hooked!

Fyremandoug said...

Wow good stuff....

more Please Sir

John said...

OK Man- Its's official. Do whatever you need to do to Teach and Lecture on the circuit and then write.

Also please consider a collaboration Like Seven King and Koontz did- With You, Matt and Babs writing every other chapter. That shit would sell sell sell- I'm very serious.

Great job my friend,

John

John said...

!!!!DOOG YREV

NHOJ

Ron said...

Well, I have mixed feelings when I saw the SoL channel bolded with a (1) next to it:
--yea!, another great piece to read!
--dang!, now I will have to wait another week for my next 'fix'

Keep up the great work!

Babs RN said...

Yeah. Update works better. ;)

Angela said...

Awesome~! Can't wait until the next installment.

SpeakerTweaker said...

Here I thought you were gonna go all Wes Craven on us...

This guy Ryan is a brilliant, talented, rampaging asshole. Who inspired you to create this character?

;)



tweaker

Countydog said...

Great stuff, AD. You should be getting paid for this. GET IT PUBLISHED! I had sweaty palms reading the first paragraphs. Your description of "work dreams" is so accurate that every paranursedoc who reads it will nod grimly with recognition

If you do publish this in print(and damn your eyes, sir, if you do not!), consider some transitional chapters between Prologue and Nightmare. The character is great, but needs development in order to be real to the reader. I expect that you plan to fill Hawkeye's character out as the story progresses, and that is a fine literary mechanism. However, we still need a bridge between that sweetly naive, attractive kid in the prologue and the haunted, tough man in chapter one.

I know you don't want this kind of critique, but I offer it with the best of intentions. Before nursing school, I earned a degree in; well, never mind. Just give it some thought.

You have the gift, bro. Run with it.