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The Taking of Sonny Boy

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  • #46

    Chapter 43 repeated in error.
    If it ain't funny, it ain't much.


    • #47
      Chapter 44

      Ross was out of touch for a day and a half. He was still alive because he had picked a good place to get shot, if there is such a thing, - only a few blocks from a hospital. A rescue unit was on the scene in ten minutes, and in another ten he was in the emergency room, already suffering from blood loss. He bled internally, through the many wounds made there by Gus Mendoza's bullet. He was filling up inside, and his blood pressure was falling. From the emergency room he went to the OR, and remained there for most of the evening.

      He lay on the operating table, limp and gray, with his belly laid open to accommodate the hands and implements that came and went. For a time, the bleeding kept pace with the transfusion, and even got ahead of it sometimes. They put the blood into him through a little tube, and it ran out through all those big holes. As the doctors patched the holes, the bleeding slowed, became intermittent, and finally stopped.

      A bit of color returned to his skin, and his blood pressure began to rise. A nurse with a vacuum hose had been busy for some time, collecting the blood and contaminants that tried to fill the abdominal cavity. When a man is gut-shot, he poisons himself with a lot of filth that he would normally process through his sewage system. If it isn't cleaned out, it can kill him. Somewhere along the way, a doctor had cleaned and treated the hole through his arm, and taken a second bullet out of his shoulder. These wounds would heal long before the damage in his belly, and no bones had been hit.

      One by one, the crew completed their work and backed away from the table, removed gloves and masks, and stretched aching muscles. Their bloody clothes would go into laundry carts, to be replaced with fresh outfits before moving along to other customers. By the time an intern had finished sewing up the long incision, only a few of the original work force remained.

      In his room in intensive care, Ross made the transition from anesthesia to exhausted sleep. He lay spread-eagled with tubes in his nostrils and needles in the backs of his hands, connected to bottles and bags suspended from chrome stands next to the bed. Sensors taped to his body made patterns and numbers on a console at the nurses station, proving that he was still alive. A catheter tube emerged from under the sheet and ran to a container on the floor. Plastic tubes into his nostrils supplied the oxygen that he took in shallow irregular breaths. With a little imagination, one could have argued that the man on the bed was the power source, and that all the equipment was plugged into him for the energy to keep it running.

      He didn't carry a wallet, but he had a card case with the bare necessities in it. His driver's license was there, and some credit cards and a few of his own business cards. It was turned over to a volunteer, who called the business number in Baton Rouge, but all she got was Ross' own voice, granting her permission to leave a message if she wanted. From Information she got his home listing, and nobody answered at that number, either, so she called the shop again and left a message, unaware that it would be a long time before anybody heard it. On Tuesday morning a doctor came to his room and forced him to wake up for a few seconds. He opened his eyes briefly, then closed them again without seeing anything. He had no idea where he was, and didn't care. In reply to the doctor's questions, he said he felt okay and there was nobody they should call. That made him think of Sandra for an instant, but then he forgot why. The doctor told him to lie still and rest for a few days, but Ross didn't hear him. He was gone again.

      An awareness of pain came to him in the small hours of Wednesday morning. There was a dull ache in the middle of his body and he had a raging thirst. He was in the depths of a dark well; dark and dry. The walls were rough and abrasive to the touch, and he could see a light at the top, a long way above him. He considered trying to make the climb, but then the pain and thirst subsided and he slept again. Twenty minutes later they came back with a bit of a jolt, and he peered upward toward the light and began to search for handholds and toeholds in the darkness, but a brief effort drained all his strength and he fell back into sleep.

      On the third attack he opened his eyes and blinked rapidly for a focus. He wasn't in a well. He was in a laboratory, with strange equipment standing around him. He was unable to move and his belly was burning, but he didn't know why. Somebody should be there to help him, but nobody was. He struggled to raise his head, but it was too heavy and the motion made his stomach feel worse. He tried to think what to do, but his brain was still asleep, and it seemed to be wrapped in something fuzzy and soft.

      The terrible pain settled into the bed with him and put a bear hug on him, and made him contort the muscles of his face. There was something else, too. There was a man sitting at the foot of the bed. Ross could just barely see him at the bottom of his range of vision, his head elevated a little by a small pillow. The man was grotesque and evil-looking, his skin pale and shiny and stretched tightly over the bones of his face. A tiny little man, less than two feet high. Ross struggled to see him better, but still couldn't raise his head. The man saw that he had been spotted, and he leaned forward and smiled, exposing yellowed teeth. It was an ugly smile, with no mirth in it.

      "Piper?" croaked Ross weakly. His mouth was incredibly dry. He lay for some minutes, moving his tongue around, searching for some moisture to wet his dusty lips. He tried for a deeper breath, and it was like turning the knife in his gut, and it made him light-headed. He rested for a minute and tried again. "Piper, is that you?" he whispered. The man smiled again, but did not answer him. No doubt about it, it was Piper, but how could that be? Piper was dead. It must mean that he was dead, too, but this didn't look like hell. It looked like a hospital, and Piper's tiny feet, propped up on the foot of the bed, had on hospital slippers. If this was a hospital, then why was he here, and what was that awful pain? He closed his eyes and tried to untangle some of these mysteries.

      "Mr. Ross?" That didn't sound like Piper, and it wasn't. It was a nurse in starched whites. "How are you feeling?"

      "I feel bad," he said in a faint voice. "My stomach hurts and I'm thirsty." His speaking was improving, but it used up all his breath, and he lay panting, staring at the ceiling.

      "You'll be fine," said the nurse. "You've had surgery, and you're doing just fine. I can give you something for the pain, but no drink today. Everything you need is coming through the IV's."

      Bullshit, thought Ross, but he didn't say it. "Piper is here," he said stupidly, instead.

      "Who's here?" The nurse was smiling faintly as she prepared a syringe.

      "Nothing. Why did I have an operation?" He could tell that he was mumbling, but he couldn't do anything about it.

      The nurse didn't answer his question. She made a cold spot on his arm with alcohol on a cotton ball, and stuck the needle into the spot. The medicine made a warm patch around the cold spot as she removed the needle. "Lie still. I'll be right back."

      "I'll wait here."

      "You don't sound very sick to me." She went into the little bathroom and returned with a wet washcloth and began to bathe his face. As she wiped his lips he tried to suck some water from the cloth, but it wasn't wet enough. As she continued to cool him slowly, the pain and the thirst began to slide away and he became drowsy and comfortable. The nurse stood back and watched the tension go out of him. He sighed and closed his eyes.

      "Piper's here," Ross said thickly. "That son of a bitch."
      If it ain't funny, it ain't much.


      • #48
        Chapter 45

        Ross spent most of Wednesday and Thursday at the bottom of the well. The darkness was total down there and it was nearly silent, with only the hum of his air conditioner and occasional soft sounds of rubber-tired vehicles passing in the hall making a reassuring level of noise. Very sick people depend on such things, so they can know that they are alive. When it's completely dark and completely quiet, it's hard to be certain. Only when the pain was fierce did he make the effort necessary to scale the walls of the well, and at those times one of the nurses would know, somehow, that he was climbing, and she would come to ask how he was feeling and to bathe his face and to give him what he needed to stay in the well. It was a refuge, and Ross would dig in and stay as long as he could each time. When he felt the need, he could look up and see the circle of light that marked the top of it, and it made him feel better. Trips to the top were always painful.

        Usually when the nurse was in the room, Piper would be there, too. He never spoke to Ross, but he always grinned at him with that ghastly stretching of skin over teeth and bones. If Ross had the burning thirst on him, Piper would be drinking something tall and cold, and he would raise it in a toast and his grin would become even wider. After the first day, it didn't even seem strange that Piper was so small. He had never been very big, and now that he was dead . .... sometimes he wasn't there at all.

        On Friday morning he woke up in much the same way that other people wake up in the morning. Not exactly the same, of course, but more like it than he had in a long time - he had no idea how long. He had not had a completely lucid five minutes since Gus Mendoza had knocked him down in the gravel, just blocks up the street. There was a nurse in the room, and she opened the blind a bit for him, and the sunlight made him squint. He was weak and in some pain, but he knew he was better, and he questioned the nurse about the days he had missed.

        She told him he'd been shot, but who didn't know that? He noted a sore arm and a sore shoulder for the first time, and she told him he'd been shot two or three times, and that was news. She said there was a policeman that had been wanting to see him about that, and if he called today she would tell him he could come in for a few minutes. Ross reminded himself to prepare some answers for the policeman's questions. He asked her who had shot him, and had the guy ever called to see about him or not, and she couldn't help him in that area. Nobody seemed to know, she said. A doctor came in shortly after she left and inspected the chart on the clipboard at the foot of the bed and asked him a few questions and peeked under all his bandages, and assured him he was doing just fine and then was gone. Ross had some questions of his own for the doctor, but never had a chance to ask. A doctor on rounds keeps his feet moving.

        A pair of matching orderlies showed up next and gave him a sort of half-assed bath and changed his bed, and that was a bad scene - painful as hell. When it was over he was more than ready to go back down his well. He cursed Piper, just to keep in practice, and that reminded him of something else, but he lost it before he recognized it. The nurse returned with his fix, and it was something different this time. It took longer to get a grip on him, and it didn't return him to the well. Instead, it seemed to tuck him into an oversized sleeping bag lined with black velvet, and he was able to sink down out of reach of the pain, and it wasn't such a bad thing at all.

        In the late afternoon he awoke with a burning fever, stinging eyes and heaving chest. There were already people in his room; people with a cart full of cold packs, and they iced him down like a mackerel and made him a frosty cocoon in a rubber sheet. The pain from that first day and night returned and crawled into the cocoon with him, and the people in the room were adding more bags and bottles of liquids to the standing rack. They must have decided that the needles in his hands couldn't handle it all at once, and they put in another one, inside his elbow. Piper danced on the foot of the bed, trying to stay out of their way, and a couple of times Ross saw him craning his skinny little neck for a better view of what was going on. There's death in here today, thought Ross, and when nobody was looking he plunged back down the well.

        He returned to surgery that evening, but wasn't aware of it, and two more days in the ICU passed without his knowledge. The office staff went back to calling the two Baton Rouge numbers without success, and finally got the information operator to give them the numbers for a couple of other sign shops, and the first guy they reached on Monday knew Ross, and promised to contact someone who would be in touch. Fifteen minutes later, Sandra called the Wheeling hospital to ask about him. She called twice that day and twice more on the following day, then once on Wednesday. The calls ceased when they were able to tell her he was doing nicely.

        The crisis passed for Ross and he began his recovery again, but he was weaker and more wasted than before, and he slept nearly all the time. The wounds in arm and shoulder were healing as they should, but the incision up his front had been reopened and equipped with new drains, and the pain seldom relaxed its grip on him, and he could call for medication when he wanted it. He saw Piper nearly every time he stirred, and he thought the little man wore a look of disappointment, as if something he wanted had been denied him.

        In time, Ross came to understand the thing with Piper, or at least he thought he had it figured. Piper was his pain. He had a pain that he could see. Who ever heard of such a thing? The little apparition was also his failure - his failure to complete the adventure that had brought him here. Unless he suddenly got worse and died, he knew that the pain would eventually leave him, but he feared that the failure was permanent. Was that little son of a bitch going to be a feature of his bad nights forever?

        A volunteer in a gray uniform visited him in his room and scolded him for not having a number in his wallet so that someone could be notified when he was sick.

        "Don't you have family, Mr. Ross?"

        He nodded gently without opening his eyes.

        "Is there anybody you'd like for me to call today, to tell them you're getting better?"

        "I'll tell them."

        "Surely someone would want to know." Gus Mendoza's name drifted into his foggy mind, and drifted away again before he could understand why. The volunteer in the gray dress sighed and smoothed his sheets and left the room, and Ross slipped back down the well.

        He awoke in pain during the evening, and the room was dark. He lay in silence for a few moments, trying to get his brain back on line, and began to search for the cord with the call-button on the end. Somebody was in the room. Screw you, Piper, he said to himself, then realized it was not Piper. He shifted his head a bit and peered into the shadows. It was his favorite nurse, a tall strong girl named Brandt.

        "How're you doing?" she asked him.

        "Got a stomach ache, Dutch. You okay?" His voice was not too impressive tonight, and he spoke slowly.

        "Fine. Can I sit down?"

        "Sure. Not on the bed."

        "No, no, on the chair." She backed up a step and dropped out of his vision. "There's pain medication on your orders, and all you have to do is let the nurse know."

        "I've got a little thing with a button on the end," he said slowly, "but I can't find it."

        "A little thing with a button on the end?" said Brandt. Ross could tell she was grinning. "Maybe when you're feeling better, I'll help you look for it." She rose and came over to the bed and gave him the buzzer. He pressed the button with his thumb, and told the nurse what he needed when she answered on the intercom. They waited without speaking until she brought him the medicine. The two women greeted each other, and the one on duty left the room.

        "You working?" Ross asked her. His speech was slow and his voice was faint.

        "No, I'm on my way home. I just thought I'd check on you and maybe get off my feet a few minutes."


        "Can you talk okay?"

        "Yeah, for now, but I'll be leaving you pretty soon. That's good stuff they bring me." He kept his eyes closed when he was speaking, but opened them as he finished, as if that helped him hear her reply.

        "I know. Just go on when you get a chance. They'll downgrade your dose in a day or two, so enjoy while you can. Where will you go when you get out of here?"

        "Aaah . . Baton Rouge. I live in Baton Rouge."

        "I know you do, but it's going to be a while before you can drive that truck to Baton Rouge."

        It was the first time he'd thought of the truck, or his room at the Holiday Inn in Zanesville. "Damn! Where's my truck, Dutch?"

        "It's waiting at the motel in Zanesville. Somebody called and had them pack your stuff and check you out. They'll hold it all for you."

        "How did they know?"

        "You told them, I think. They said you talked a blue streak about your truck that second morning. Somebody took care of it."


        "They'll let you out of here before you're well enough to drive back to Louisiana, though, so you have to have a place to go for a few days."

        "I'm not ready to think about that, yet. I'll do it tomorrow, or the day after, for sure." He opened his eyes and stared at the ceiling, and told himself the medicine would kick in, any minute now.

        "Do you want to spend a week with my mom and me?"

        "I don't know, Dutch. You don't have to do that."

        "I know, but we'd like to, and it would solve a problem for you."

        "She doesn't know me."

        "She came by this morning and looked at you, and said she guessed you'd do. You'd like mom, too, she's good people. Mom's a bookkeeper."


        "Yeah, she works right where you got shot."

        "My stomach?" Ross asked stupidly, and he heard Brandt giggle audibly. It seemed to be getting darker in the room, and he had trouble seeing her, but suddenly he could see Piper, and Piper was pouting. Piper was jealous.

        "No, not your stomach, silly. She works down the street at the Penn-Dearie building."

        "I got shot at Penn-Dearie." He was telling it to himself.

        "Yep. She had only left the building five minutes before it happened. She almost got to see it."

        "The building wasn't even finished. I remember that." There was something here to discover, but his head was beginning to get fuzzy inside.

        "The building where she works is finished. She's worked there for more than ten years."

        He was trying to reason with Dutch, but she was slow, and he was having trouble making her see. "There's only one building, and it's not finished, yet." He frowned, and settled deeper into the bed. He had stopped opening his eyes, and he was on his way out.

        "There's a little building where my mom works and it's inside the big building. It's an office building. It used to be all that Penn-Dearie had here in Wheeling, that office. Now they're building that big warehouse and service center. The little one was all set up and running, so they kept it going, and just built around it. It's inside the big building, and that's where my mom works."

        This was important, no doubt about that, because it made the soles of his feet tingle again, as if he had just looked down from a great height, but he would have to think about it later. Right now he was out of here.

        "See you later," mumbled Ross softly.

        "Sleep tight," said Brandt.

        He began to slide down the well, then hesitated. He frowned and sighed, and struggled back up to the edge, and rested there a moment. Then he opened one eye a tiny crack and looked toward his feet. He was just in time to get a glimpse of Piper's scrawny ass as the little man tumbled backward off the end of the bed.

        The End
        If it ain't funny, it ain't much.