3

Thurston Marshall was tired—exhausted, more like it—but happier than he had been in years. It was undoubtedly perverse; he was a tenured professor, a published poet, the editor of a prestigious literary magazine. He had a gorgeous young woman to share his bed, one who was smart and thought he was wonderful. That giving pills, slapping on salve, and emptying bedpans (not to mention wiping up the Bushey kid’s beshitted bottom an hour ago) would make him happier than those things almost had to be perverse, and yet there it was. The hospital corridors with their smells of disinfectant and floorpolish connected him with his youth. The memories had been very clear tonight, from the pervasive aroma of patchouli oil in David Perna’s apartment to the paisley headband Thurse had worn to the candlelight memorial service for Bobby Kennedy. He went his rounds humming “Big Leg Woman” very softly under his breath.

He peeped in the lounge and saw the nurse with the busted schnozz and the pretty little nurse’s aide—Harriet, her name was—asleep on the cots that had been dragged in there. The couch was vacant, and soon he’d either catch a few hours’ racktime on it or go back to the house on Highland Avenue that was now home. Probably back there.

Strange developments.

Strange world.

First, though, one more check of what he was already thinking of as his patients. It wouldn’t take long in this postage stamp of a hospital. Most of the rooms were empty, anyway. Bill Allnut, who’d been forced to stay awake until nine because of the injury he’d suffered in the Food City melee, was now fast asleep and snoring, turned on his side to take the pressure off the long laceration at the back of his head.

Wanda Crumley was two doors down. The heart monitor was beeping and her BP was a little better, but she was on five liters of oxygen and Thurse feared she was a lost cause. Too much weight; too many cigarettes. Her husband and youngest daughter were sitting with her. Thurse gave Wendell Crumley a V-for-victory (which had been the peace sign in his salad days), and Wendell, smiling gamely, gave it back.

Tansy Freeman, the appendectomy, was reading a magazine. “What’s the fire whistle blowing for?” she asked him.

“Don’t know, hon. How’s your pain?”

“A three,” she said matter-of-factly. “Maybe a two. Can I still go home tomorrow?”

“It’s up to Dr. Rusty, but my crystal ball says yes.” And the way her face lit up at that made him feel, for no reason he could understand, like crying.

“That baby’s mom is back,” Tansy said. “I saw her go by.”

“Good,” Thurse said. Although the baby hadn’t been much of a problem. He had cried once or twice, but mostly he slept, ate, or lay in his crib, staring apathetically up at the ceiling. His name was Walter (Thurse had no idea the Little preceding it on the door card was an actual name), but Thurston Marshall thought of him as The Thorazine Kid.

Now he opened the door of room 23, the one with the yellow BABY ON BOARD sign attached to it with a plastic sucker, and saw that the young woman—a rape victim, Gina had whispered to him—was sitting in the chair beside the bed. She had the baby in her lap and was feeding him a bottle.

“Are you all right”—Thurse glanced at the other name on the doorcard—“Ms. Bushey?”

He pronounced it Bouchez, but Sammy didn’t bother to correct him, or to tell him that boys called her Bushey the Tushie. “Yes, Doctor,” she said.

Nor did Thurse bother to correct her misapprehension. That undefined joy—the kind that comes with tears hidden in it—swelled a little more. When he thought of how close he’d come to not volunteering… if Caro hadn’t encouraged him… he would have missed this.

“Dr. Rusty will be glad you’re back. And so is Walter. Do you need any pain medication?”

“No.” This was true. Her privates still ached and throbbed, but that was far away. She felt as if she were floating above herself, tethered to earth by the thinnest of strings.

“Good. That means you’re getting better.”

“Yes,” Sammy said. “Soon I’ll be well.”

“When you’ve finished feeding him, climb on into bed, why don’t you? Dr. Rusty will be in to check on you in the morning.”

“All right.”

“Good night, Ms. Bouchez.”

“Good night, Doctor.”

Thurse closed the door softly and continued down the hall. At the end of the corridor was the Roux girl’s room. One peek in there and then he’d call it a night.

She was glassy but awake. The young man who’d been visiting her was not. He sat in the corner, snoozing in the room’s only chair with a sports magazine on his lap and his long legs sprawled out in front of him.

Georgia beckoned Thurse, and when he bent over her, she whispered something. Because of the low voice and her broken, mostly toothless mouth, he only got a word or two. He leaned closer.

“Doh wake im.” To Thurse, she sounded like Homer Simpson. “He’th the oney one who cay to visih me.”

Thurse nodded. Visiting hours were long over, of course, and given his blue shirt and his sidearm, the young man would probably be gigged for not responding to the fire whistle, but still—what harm? One firefighter more or less probably wouldn’t make any difference, and if the guy was too far under for the sound of the whistle to wake him, he probably wouldn’t be much help, anyway. Thurse put a finger to his lips and blew the young woman a shhh to show they were conspirators. She tried to smile, then winced.

Thurston didn’t offer her pain medication in spite of that; according to the chart at the end of the bed, she was maxed until two AM. Instead he just went out, closed the door softly behind him, and walked back down the sleeping hallway. He didn’t notice that the door to the BABY ON BOARD room was once more ajar.

The couch in the lounge called to him seductively as he went by, but Thurston had decided to go back to Highland Avenue after all.

And check the kids.

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