By midmorning on Monday, nearly eighteen hours after his ill-fated barroom episode, Gary Harris was showing the initial, halting signs of a return to consciousness. The first hints were little more than a vague awareness of people coming and going around him. Still more asleep than awake, he soon realized that the slightest movement of his head was enough to trigger extreme pain.
Finally, when his eyes flickered open for the first time, he recognized the truth of his surroundings. About then a nurse noticed his eyes following her as she went about her tasks and summoned the doctor to his bedside.
Placing his hand lightly on Gary’s chest the physician bent low over him. “Mr. Harris, I’m Dr. Adams. I don’t want you to talk or move your head. I’d like you to blink your eyes if you can hear me. Do you understand?”
The strongest of Gary’s understandings was the overpowering urge to close his eyes and drift back into sleep. Yet the doctor’s instructions could not be ignored. He blinked once, then again.
“Good,” came the doctor’s response. Having established that minimal level of communications it took only a few minutes for Dr. Adams to glean what information he could from Gary’s blinking replies. The still-groggy patient was told he would receive new pain relief, beyond what could be administered while he was unconscious. The guidelines for his immediate care were spelled out---he must lay still and use the call buzzer, placed next to his hand, to summon help.
Alone again, though still adrift in a dulling fog of trauma and medication, Gary’s muddled thoughts stumbled off in search of new answers. Why was he in a hospital? And why did his head hurt like that? In the course of the next hour disjointed hints bubbled to the surface---of ice cubes floating in his scotch glass and blurry images of a wild-eyed, hairy-faced young man,
Vaguely at first, he remembered the man’s painful hold on a woman’s arm. Echoes of her distressed screams filtered through his thoughts, continuing his reconstruction of those brief seconds. Things were slowly coming into focus. He had tried to help her. Instead, that scruffy young pup had punched him out. He recalled the blow coming at him, but not the impact.
There had been a fight. To help a lady. He had to replay that notion a few more times before it sunk in. Who would believe that? He was certainly old enough to know better. His first reaction was to laugh, but the first slight movement of his head put an end to that possibility. It must have been some kind of punch to hurt like that.
Shortly before noon Clint returned to Gary’s room. “Good to see that you’re up for the day,” he said, leaning over the bed so Gary would not have to move his head to see him. “You gave us quite a scare.”
Clearly the patient was not up to extended socializing. Yet if Clint was reading Gary’s still-dilated eyes correctly, he was ready to fight his way back. “No need to talk,” Clint explained. “I’ll grab a nap here in the chair. You try to do the same.”
For the next several hours Gary drifted in and out of sleep. After each catnap his eyes would blink open for a moment as he struggled to reorient himself. If Clint was on hand he would offer a few words of encouragement before his brother’s eyes again closed, allowing the pain to be swallowed by welcome sleep. As the hours passed the knife-sharp headaches eased a bit. By late afternoon he had managed a few words with the nurse who stopped to read his computer printout.
Then, some time after four o’clock, Gary’s already surreal day turned even more confusing. He was roused by the sound of ice cubes tumbling into his drinking glass. Opening his eyes he found himself staring into a vaguely familiar face.
She wore the brightly colored blouse of the hospital’s Candy Stripers---volunteers who performed non-medical tasks, providing comfort and encouragement to patients. Most of the Tanner Hospital's Candy Stripers were high school-age girls, often those considering a nursing or other medical career. Gary’s new visitor did not fit that description. Her well-lined face was framed in short, gray hair, but it was her toothy smile that triggered his recognition.
“You’re Cousin Sarah,” he whispered, relieved to find that the sound of his own voice was no longer as painful as before. “What are you doing here?”
“I come by a few times a week, to help out where I can.” She took a ‘sponge-on-a-stick’ from the tray beside his bed. Dipping it in the water glass she placed it on his lips. “The question is, what are you doing here?”
Gary savored the cool dampness of the sponge, then mumbled, “Long story.”
“Does Claudia know yet?”
His reaction was enough to startle her. His eyes narrowed and his mouth tightened. He said nothing, but his glaring frown was speaking volumes.
“She doesn’t know?” she asked tentatively.
“No,” he mouthed.
“You don’t want her to know?”
“And you don’t want to talk about her.” It was not a question, simply the recognition of his intent. Though she did not understand his reluctance, her patient was in no condition to debate the issue.
Sarah watched silently as Gary’s eyes closed and he drifted off to sleep. She was gathering her things, preparing to leave, when Clint returned from the coffee shop to continue his vigil. “I’m glad I caught you,” she said, extending her hand. “It sounds like Gary will be here at least until Wednesday.”
Clint did a double take, unsure what to make of the apparent volunteer who was dispensing medical information. “How do you know that?” he asked.
“I don’t know for sure. That’s just what the nurses are saying.”
About then she picked up on his unspoken questions. “I’m sorry. I’m Sarah Cummins. I was an LPN here for years and years. I do volunteer work now, but I still know most of the girls. They tell me what’s going on.”
She stepped back as Clint nodded his understanding. “I also do home-care follow up,” she added. “Chances are I’ll be coming by to see your brother when he goes home. You two still live together, don’t you?”
“Yes, Ma’am. I’m glad to hear about the home care help. I’ve been wondering how I’d deal with that. I would appreciate all the help I can get.” Then, as he started past her, Sarah reached for his arm.
“Gary got upset when I asked about Claudia,” she said in a low voice. “Is there something wrong there? It seemed they were getting along so well.”
Clint’s puzzled frown had returned, prompting her to explain. “I’m Claudia’s cousin. She stayed with me the night you folks went to Portland a few weeks ago.”
“Oh yeah, I remember. You must be Cousin Sarah.” Though he understood Sarah’s casual connection to Gary’s plight, it was not his place to be explaining Gary’s newest dilemma. “I’m not sure what happened. But it sounds like the two of them have gone their separate ways.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. They seemed like such a nice couple.”
“Well, those things happen.” Clint walked back to his bedside chair, reminding himself that indeed ‘Those things do happen.’ Lots of crazy things happen. Why else would the old man laying before him, so hurt by a broken love dream, be in such a fix?
It had been a hectic but uneventful Monday, like so many days in Elly Warren’s still-evolving Tanner life---filled with enough busyness to make the hours pass, without the emotional investment of an actual commitment.
After a bit of late morning shopping at the mall she had joined Esther Hammond and other members of the country club Social Committee for a luncheon meeting. Twice during the afternoon she tried to call Clint. Having only his home number, the best she could do was to leave an answering machine message.
She was filling the dishwasher after a light dinner, thinking it was time to try again, when she was startled by the ringing of the phone. “Well, hello there. I was just thinking about you,” she said in response to Clint’s greeting.
“Don’t stop now.”
“I tried to call you. All I got was your answering machine. Are you home now?”
“I’m still at the hospital, helping Gary with his dinner. It looks pretty good---if you’re into yucky green stuff.”
“He must be doing better.”
“Can’t say he looks any better,” Clint answered, loud enough for Gary to hear. “But the tubes are out. Most of the machines are gone. About the only thing left is the TV screen that proves he’s still alive.”
“Could I come see him?”
“He’s really not up to company quite yet.” Was that too blunt? Perhaps so. But the patient was, in fact, not ready for social calls. “I’ll tell you what would be nice though. It looks like I’ll be bringing him home on Wednesday. I know for sure he’d appreciate some better looking company once he gets there.”
“I hope it’s Wednesday. Because I’m leaving Thursday for a few days in Los Angeles. I’d like to see him before I go.”
“Apparently Wednesday is the day. Some insurance company wants him gone. It costs too much to keep him here.” He winked at Gary, who was trying to eavesdrop on their conversation. “Besides, there’s talk about a cute young nurse who comes by the house every few days to check up on him. He’s looking forward to that.”
Elly’s voice lowered as she asked, “What about Claudia? Has she heard about this yet? She really ought to know.”
Turning away, Clint stepped toward the door, half whispering as he replied, “I told you before, he doesn’t want that. Besides, she doesn’t seem to care any more.”
During the course of their conversation Elly had paced from the kitchen, through the dining room, to the sliding glass door that opened to the back patio. There, looking out into the fading daylight, she was again unwilling to accept his understanding of Claudia’s motives.
“I don’t believe that for a minute,” she said. “I don’t know what’s happened. But she didn’t just erase her feelings for him.”
“Well, we’re not going there now. It would only get him upset. The doctor’s already said he needs to avoid stress and agitation.”
Simply dropping something that important, without knowing more about the ‘why’ of it, was not Elly’s natural reaction. Not when a phone call or two might provide an answer. Still it was not her dilemma and not her place to stir things up. “Okay. We can talk about that when I get back.”
“Elly. Are you still there?” Clint was about to end their call when the all-too-obvious possibility came to mind. “Are you there?”
“I’m here. Was there something else?”
“Yeah, I just had an idea.” He paused, hoping it would not sound too silly. “I don’t like to miss your phone calls. If you want to talk to me, I want to be there. If you have something to write with I’ll give you my cell phone number.”
“That would be nice. That way I can track you down when you’re not home.”
Their transaction took just a few seconds, yet it had the feel of being special---as though there was something more caring and intimate about a cell-phone number. Only after she hung up did Elly pause to wonder why she had not thought to give him her cell number.
She carried the phone back to the kitchen counter and placed it in its charging station, before starting toward the den. Seconds later it was ringing again. Picking it up, her expectant smile faded when she heard his voice.
“Tom. This is a surprise,” she said, asking herself why he was calling.
“I wanted to apologize.” His tone was low keyed, apparently sincere. “I was way off base the other night at the club. I hope I didn’t ruin your evening.”
“Not at all. I had a wonderful time.” She was not about to give him the satisfaction of “ruining” anything. “Everyone had a good time.”
“You mean Clint Harris enjoyed himself?”
“I’m sure he did,” she answered, hoping to deflect his ‘Clint’ questions. “He had a chance to visit with old friends. If you had stayed I’m sure you’d have had a good time too.”
“Perhaps I was a bit impulsive. That’s one reason why I called. I was wondering if we could get together for lunch on Wednesday. It would give us a chance to talk about things.”
“Tom, what do we have to talk about?” How could she make him understand there was no reason for his silly persistence?
“Elly. I’m going on the assumption that two old friends can have a quiet lunch at Ryan’s, in downtown Tanner, in the middle of the day. Is that too much to ask?” It was as close to begging as his ego would allow. “You could come in your car. I’ll come in mine. There’ll be no unannounced side trips. Nothing like that. What do you say?”
With the phone to her ear she walked back to the kitchen and filled a glass with ice cubes and cold water from the appliance on the refrigerator door. What could it hurt, she asked herself. She wanted them to be friends, if only he would forget his insistent notions of a relationship. Finally she asked, “Just lunch. That’s all?”
“Okay. Let’s do lunch,” Elly said. They needed to break their stressful standoff. Hopefully lunch with Tom was a way to begin that process. “Wednesday at twelve, at Ryan’s.”
“That’s great. See you there.”
Elly had been running behind schedule all morning, completing several errands before her Thursday morning flight to Los Angeles. Having called to confirm that Gary was home from the hospital, she made plans to see the Harris brothers later that afternoon. As a result it was nearly twelve-fifteen when she hurried into Ryan’s to meet Tom.
Whatever her reasons, Elly’s tardiness had created instant anxiety for Tom Berry. He was waiting impatiently…..wondering if he had been stood up. In the face of those doubts, relaxation was impossible.…until he saw her round the front counter, approaching his table.
“There you are,” he said, with a not-so-subtle touch of relief. Holding the chair for her, he noted, “I was hoping I wouldn’t be eating alone.”
“I’m so sorry.” She felt no need to explain, beyond, “It’s been a crazy morning.”
For the next fifteen minutes they nursed their cocktails and nibbled on appetizers, steering their timid conversational dance toward safe and superficial topics. It seemed that neither of them was willing to trigger the edginess that had plagued their time together.
Only when their sandwiches arrived was Tom prepared to turn the conversation to his topic de jour. “Elly,” he said between bites. “I don’t want to make you mad, or cause a scene.”
She looked up from her salad, wondering what prompted his strange disclaimer. “I’m glad to hear that,” she smiled. “I’d rather you didn’t make me mad. And I certainly don’t want a scene.”
“So here’s the deal. It’s just one simple question.” He set his fork down. “What do I have to do to be the man in your life? That’s all I want to know.”
“Tom, please. Not again.” Elly was fighting to maintain her composure, scolding herself for having been drawn into a replay of his uncomfortable appeals.
Tom pushed his chair back and laced his hands across his ample belly. An apparently lighthearted grin was spread over his round face. “It’s okay,” he assured her. “I’ve been thinking about this a lot the last few days. Looking back, I can see exactly what happened. And it was definitely my fault.”
He raised his hand to cut off her objection. “I realize now that when I first heard you’d come back, I took way too much for granted.”
“Tom. Stop! Now!” Her icy stare bored in on him. “It’s just more of the same. I’ve had enough of it. I don’t want to hear any more.”
“That’s exactly what I’m saying, Elly. I’m just like you. I don’t want any more of that either. I want to go back to the beginning, to where we can start over again. We could take it from there and get it right this time. Just tell me what I have to do.”
Their conversation had ended, though Tom did not yet understand that. Before he realized what was happening the explosion had begun. Elly slammed her open palm on the table top. A half-full water glass skidded across the table and crashed to the floor. Gathering the purse from her lap she pushed her chair backward, bumping into the man seated behind her.
While surprised diners craned to see what the racket was about, Elly stood, turning away from their curious stares. Without looking back, she walked briskly past the front counter and out the door, leaving Tom to wonder what had happened. Dodging the bemused frowns of surrounding customers he finally walked to the counter to pay his bill.
Not since her stressful days of marital combat with Mike Warren had Elly taken to the highway to calm herself. Leaving the restaurant, she promised herself she would not call on Clint and Gary until the toxic indignation had passed and her trembling limbs were stilled.
Years before, in the midst of contentious divorce negotiations, she had sometimes cruised the Los Angeles freeways for hours---damning Mike’s deceit and letting her anger subside. Her Tanner alternative was a twenty minute drive up the interstate to the Reynolds City exit, then back to town. Finally, an hour later, she scolded herself one last time and started across town to the Harris home
In the kitchen Clint took Elly’s jacket, then led her down the hallway to Gary’s room. Peeking through the half-open door they found him asleep in his recliner, a plaid blanket spread across his lap. Clint rapped softly on the door jamb, rousing his brother. “You’ve got company,” he announced.
Gary’s head rose from his chest. His eyes blinked open to find Elly smiling at him. “Hello there,” she said. “How are you doing?”
Instinctively Gary tried for a quick, confident grin, which only aggravated the dull pain that codeine-laced Tylenol had not fully subdued. “I’ve felt better,” he was forced to admit.
“He’s a lot better than yesterday,” Clint said. “He just needs to take it easy for a few days. With a big-time nurse like me it won’t take long.”
Gary managed a weak smile in Elly’s direction. “What are the chances you could find me a better-looking nurse? Those gals in the hospital were a lot easier on the eyes.”
“Hey. You get what you pay for. Remember?” Clint paused, watching for Elly’s reaction to their banter. “Gary got a pretty good rap on the head. But from what I’m told, it was the other fellow who was the most frightened.”
“Why was that?” she asked, following Clint’s lead.
By then Gary was prepared to provide his own explanation. “The ambulance guy told one of the nurses that the kid ran like hell. Scared out of his wits.” He paused, eyes closed and breathing deeply. “I guess he was afraid he’d killed me. That’s a pretty sad way to scare someone, isn’t it?”
“Is there anything I can do to help?” Elly asked, unsure how else to join their conversation.
Clint glanced at Gary, shaking his head. “I believe we’ve got everything covered for now. The home-care nurse is supposed to be here tomorrow afternoon.”
“Just a damn minute,” Gary countered. He straightened up a bit to growl at Clint, “I think she was asking me. Seems like I should be the one to answer. And I can think of lots of things she could do.”
“Like what?” Elly asked.
“Well, here’s one.” A long-absent glint was flashing in his eyes. “Tucking me into bed. You can’t imagine how insensitive and clumsy my brother is. I know you could do better.”
“Hold on a second,” Clint protested, picking up on the fun. “This is my lady you’re talking to. You’ll have to get your own.”
He stopped short, wondering what had possessed him to go that far. Glancing sheepishly at Elly, then Gary, it appeared that neither had taken offense. It was probably best to let the matter drop.
“I’m afraid you two will have to muddle through without me for a few days,” Elly said. “I need to get home and pack.” Turning to Clint, she said, “I’ll be back from Los Angeles on Tuesday. I’ll call when I get in.”
Clint escorted Elly to her car, then returned to the house and Gary’s room. Gary eyes opened at the sound of his return. “She’s a keeper, brother,” he said. “Don’t you let her get away.”