Hospital. Smells like a hospital. Sounds like one. Feels like one. Don't want to open my eyes. I know it will hurt . . . be too bright. Waking up in a hospital again. So many times. Tired of it. Tired. Very tired. Maybe sleep some more. Yes, sleep just a little.
Nurse Hunt had spent many years working the Intensive Care Unit and had developed a feel for knowing when a patient was awakening and ready to talk. It was just a kind vibe they would give off. She couldn't put it into words but it worked for her. Mr. Fraser in bed number three, for example, was near to wakening, but still drifting. This was hard on his visitor, she could see. The tall man with the thinning black hair and interesting nose had arrived in the early evening - must have come from work - and had been sitting in the outer visitors' room, waiting for nearly twelve hours now. He'd have to leave and go back to work soon, she figured.
For short periods of time he dozed in a chair or made the minimum conversation with the visitors of other patients when they forced themselves on him. But mostly he just sat staring into space. Well, blank drained faces of friends and relatives exhausted with worry and waiting were no new things to her.
She'd ascertained his name - Ray.
Mr. Fraser shifted and muttered in his bed. But it didn't feel like he was quite ready to come all the way around. Hard as that was on this Ray person, Nurse Hunt was just as happy for Mr. Fraser. Once he became fully conscious he'd have some unpleasant things to face.
"He's waking up."
Ray jolted awake and took a moment to realize where he was. The ICU waiting room. His neck and back hurt from sleeping hunched in those stupid plastic chairs. Like I should worry about my own back and neck when there's Fraser all broke up because of me.
The voice was that of a nurse who had been giving him regular updates on Benny. Then, he focused on the words. He's waking up.
"When can I talk to him?"
"I'll give you a few minutes before the doctor comes, but please don't ask him anything or get him to talk about what feeling he has or doesn't have. If you do, I'll throw you out. Just reassure him."
"Yeah, I'm a great one to do that," murmured Ray. "I put him here. He's never going to want to talk to me again."
There wasn't much Nurse Hunt could offer by way of consolation. What she had heard confirmed what Ray was saying. A car accident caused by a drunken passenger forcing the vehicle to go out of control. Apparently this Ray must have been that passenger. If so, he had cause to feel bad.
"He won't understand much of what you say anyway. Just be there. Let him see you."
She led Ray into the inner sanctum and brought him to bed number three. Then she drew the curtains around them for privacy. Ray gave her an annoyed look when she stayed inside the curtains, standing just behind him.
"Don't you have something better to do," he snapped.
"He's opening his eyes," was all she said in answer.
That was enough to cause Ray to whirl around and peer down at his friend. "Benny?" He whispered. "Benny?"
Yes, a hospital. Again and again. How many times did a man have to wake up in a hospital before he'd had his fill? The familiar odour. The twinge of the IV needle in his hand. But . . . odd. He wasn't in pain. Surgery. People talking about getting him right into surgery. After surgery, he knew, came pain but there was none. Guess lack of pain can't be a bad thing. Too tired to worry about it.
Ray. He remembered Ray had been with him when they hit the van. And there must have been people in the van. Was Ray all right? The people in the van, were they hurt? Shame, Benton. Here you are thinking about yourself.
Where's Diefenbaker? You don't even know how long you've been here or if someone is looking after him?
Open your eyes. No, the light will hurt. Know that from opening my eyes in a hospital so many times. Doesn't matter. Duty to others. Open your eyes. Tell somebody you're awake. Find out how Ray is. Find out how Diefenbaker is. Find out about the others. But I'm so tired. Then Fraser heard the voice.
Ray was alive. And not in a hospital bed, but standing right here by me. Thank God.
"Ray?" It hurt to speak.
"I'm here, Benny. I'm fine. I'm not hurt at all. And Dief's at my house."
From behind him Nurse Hunt nodded involuntarily her approval at what Ray was saying. She wondered idly who Dief was.
"People in the van," Fraser forced out the words.
"Only one guy and he walked away."
"Good. Good." Fraser's eyes rolled briefly then came to rest again on his friend's face. He said nothing because he felt nothing. He wasn't in pain and he was too tired to think. Just looking at Ray and knowing everyone was all right was enough for now.
From behind Ray came a woman's voice saying. "The doctor's on his way, Mr. Fraser. Ray, you should leave now. You can come back in when the doctor is finished."
Without complaint, Ray turned, pushed aside the curtain and slipped out into the waiting area again. What was the point in arguing? He didn't know what else to say to Fraser. Sorry, Benny, for ruining your life. I shot you once and after weeks of recovery you walked again. That wasn't enough. I had to wreck your body a second time.
Ray was gone and there were two more people in front of him now. Both were too far away for him to read their name tags but he deduced they were a doctor and a nurse. Male doctor. Female nurse. Stereotypical. Pay attention to the man, he's asking you something. Big deal. Standard opening questions when you wake up in a hospital. Been there. Done that. Ought to buy a T-shirt. Focus. He's talking to you.
"I asked: do you know why you're here?" the doctor repeated.
"Car . . . accident."
They always ask if you know why you're here and I always want to say: Why? Don't you know why I'm here? Never do say that. Not polite. Have to be polite. They're only doing their jobs. One of these days - the next time I wake up in hospital - I'm going to say that.
"Mr. Fraser, you've had damage to your spine. We've performed surgery and we've also seen that you've had previous spinal injury. We found a bullet in your back and got the records from St. John's."
Why are you telling me this? I know I have a bullet in my back. Ray's bullet. Did you take it out? What does it have to do with anything? You're not making sense, Doctor.
At least the tiredness was going away now. A little more alert. I can think. I think I can think.
"Mr. Fraser, I'm going to perform some very simple tests to help us determine the extent of the damage. I'm going to ask you to bear with us for just a few minutes and answer what I ask. It should be very simple. Can you do that for us?"
Patronizing me. I'm hurt in the back, you say, not the head, so don't talk to me like that. Had enough of hospitals. Don't want to stay here. I'm getting up.
Fraser pressed with his arms against the bed and craned his neck to force himself to a sitting position. But it didn't work. He wasn't sitting up. Something wrong. And here that fool of a doctor was still talking. Be quiet, I'm trying to sit up. Something is definitely wrong.
"I can't sit up." The words came out aloud.
"You've had damage to your spine. And the bullet shifted, making it worse," the doctor said, "Not to be too technical . . ."
"Be technical . . . I've . . . studied anatomy."
The doctor whose name Fraser couldn't make out turned to the nurse whose name Fraser also couldn't make out and the two exchanged a look.
"Don't patronize me. Tell me. I'm awake now." And he was. Fully awake and worried. This was different, it seemed, from the other times. He couldn't sit up. He couldn't even feel his lower body. Dear God, that's why he wasn't in pain. Tell me, damn you! Hurry.
The doctor shrugged first, then launched into an explanation of the injury that was technical enough to satisfy any of his colleagues. Fraser understood it all. He forced himself to stay calm and pay attention to the medical details, not to the implications for himself.
"And so, we'd like to test where you have sensation and where you don't. You had to be conscious for this, there's no other way we can tell except to ask you what you can feel and what you can't," the doctor concluded.
"Oh course," Fraser said. "Proceed."
Fraser expected some kind of equipment to be produced or perhaps an orderly to appear to wheel him to some laboratory. Instead, the doctor did was took a thin filament of plastic from his lab coat pocket. The nurse lowered the sheet that was covering Fraser up to the middle of his chest and lowered it so that his whole body was exposed except for the part that was wrapped in a hospital gown. With the deftness of experience the nurse quickly raised his gown and slipped another folded sheet just over his hips so that his privates were covered.
"This is pretty low tech," the doctor said, with the first bit of a smile that Fraser had seen from anyone since awakening. "She'll poke you somewhere and you just say 'yes' if you can feel the poke or 'no' if you can't. There will be more tests later but we'll start with this."
For many minutes, the nurse poked him all around. . The pokes started in the middle of torso worked downward. He said 'yes' to the tests - front, back and sides - until the filament moved to his belly just below his navel.
He saw the woman's poke but felt nothing.
"That's why I'm not in pain," he said, aloud, realizing.
There were many more minutes. It felt like hours, days that Fraser spent saying 'no' over and over again while the woman touched him all over.
When she had to ease his haunches over to get at his backside, the nurse was careful to keep the sheet strategically in place. The modest Mountie registered his relief and then realized how silly he was to care about such things when he was learning that he had lost all sensation. Who cared about such things now? I do, apparently.
When they had tested him down to the bottom of his feet, the nurse said, gently. "I'm sorry, but I have to move this for just a minute." She took away the cloth that covered his genitals and he bore the indignity of being poked and prodded in his private parts and the horror when he felt nothing as she did it.
Weeks later he would think back with bitter amusement at how embarrassed he was that day.
Father Behan hoped Raymond would come see him. The story of the accident was all around the neighbourhood and Father Behan knew Raymond would want to perform some act of contrition. Oh yes. he'd be suffering guilt. But Father Behan wanted to be sure Raymond felt guilty for the right reason.
It was the next day after learning the extent of Fraser's paralysis that Raymond came to confession. Father Behan didn't expect him so quickly, considering it was weeks after shooting his Mountie friend, years ago, before he had come to the priest. It was a good sign, Father Behan decided.
He let Ray pour out the whole story in his own way, remaining silent while Ray castigated himself thoroughly.
"And they're telling him there's no chance he'll get any feeling back. And I did that to him. Because I was drunk. You know, I went all these years thinking I wasn't like my pop, God rest him. But when all's said and done I'm worse than him. He drank and stayed out late, wasted money. Sometimes he'd come home drunk and . . . well, you know what he did to Ma and us kids. But in all that he never anything as bad as I did. I wrecked my best friend's life. Fraser'll never walk again. He'll be an invalid. And I'm responsible. You know what my sin is, really, Father?"
"What?" the priest prompted.
"Pride. The first deadly sin. Pride. Thinking I was all that - good man, good cop, good friend, good son. Now Fraser's getting punished for my sin. How is that fair, Father? You want to tell me how that's fair?" Ray finished, his voice getting louder until he was shouting in anguish.
Father Behan still waited. He knew Raymond wasn't ready to listen quite yet. "You think you're a drunk like your father was?" he said.
"Worse, I'm worse. Oh yeah, I haven't had a drink in years but so what? How am I going to live with this? How's Fraser going to live with this?"
"Constable Fraser will deal with his adversity in his own way, Raymond. We're not talking about him. We're talking about you. You've done a terrible thing and you're going to have to atone for it."
"Oh yeah, sure. How many Hail Mary's are you going to give me?"
"None right now, until you're ready to understand what you did and what you are."
"Are you crazy?" Ray screamed and other parishioners in the cavernous church turned to look in the direction of the confessional. "What I did is ruin Fraser's life and what I am is a worthless drunk!"
Ray's anger broke and he burst into tears. Father Behan let him sob in the safety of the confessional. He probably hadn't dared to cry before now. After a time, Raymond had spent enough tears and wails to reach a point of exhaustion, which brought with its own kind of calm.
"Raymond, I'm going to tell you something very important now. I need you to remember it and think about it after you leave."
"Okay, sure," Raymond said dutifully, only able to be polite out of years of the habit of always speaking respectfully to the priest.
"Let's talk about what you did. You caused a terrible accident that changed your friend's life. How he lives with the change will be up to him. You'll help him as best you can but the responsibility is his now. He'll make of his life what he chooses, whether he can walk or not."
Ray sniffed and wiped his eyes. "I'm part of God's plan for Fraser. I'm not responsible. Is that what you're telling me?"
"Oh no, Raymond. You have free will. You are responsible. You got drunk and caused an accident . You'll atone for that lapse by helping Fraser in whatever way he asks you to. And you're going to do some volunteer work for Mothers Against Drunk Driving." Father Behan paused and added "and I'm going to throw in a few Hail Mary's for you to say, just to make sure we cover all the bases."
Ray wasn't amused. "That's for what I did. How about for what I am."
"Well that's the harder part. You're going to have to face what you are and I have a feeling you'll have trouble believing it at first"
"Oh, I can believe it. I'm a drunk from a line of drunks. Pop. Michael. Worthless, all of us. That's easy to believe. Just look at us."
"Raymond your father wasn't worthless. He was a troubled man with a terrible problem. The same for your brother. No one is worthless in the Lord's eyes."
Ray only grunted, too polite to contradict his priest.
"But you are not like them. There is a difference."
"Raymond, listen to me," the priest insisted, "You are not a drunk. You got drunk and it had painful consequences. But are not a problem drinker. You are not like your father and your brother. You ARE different."
Puzzled, Ray looked up in the direction of the priest's blurred image behind the grill that separated them.
"You've worked hard to stay sober and Angela has told me you never laid a hand on her while you were married. Any man can get drunk occasionally and do something stupid. That's what you did and the damage to your friend has been enormous. You'll work hard to mitigate that hurt. But that doesn't change what you are. A decent and sober man."
"No, no," Ray protested.
"A decent and sober man," Father Behan repeated. "I wouldn't say that of Arthur, God rest his soul, nor of your brother, but I can say it with all confidence about you. You may never fully forgive yourself for the accident. That might be part of the punishment God has in mind for you, I don't know. But you have to be assured that your hard work and good intentions of the past haven't been for nothing. This one incident doesn't change who you are. Repeat that after me, Raymond."
"Hunh, what do you mean?"
"Repeat these words: This one incident doesn't change what I am."
"Aw come on, that's silly."
"Raymond, do as I tell you."
"This one incident doesn't change what I am," Ray repeated without feeling.
"Again. Mean it this time."
Ray grumbled some incomprehensible then repeated the sentence again.
"Keep saying that to yourself. Say it out loud. And get the number of Mothers Against Drunk Driving and see what kind of volunteer work they need."
"And the Hail Mary's? How many?"
"I'll leave that to you." With that, the priest finished the formula of the confession and Ray left the confessional box with a lot to think about.
He went to the hospital after work, as he had been doing for the last two weeks, after first reporting home to pick up some his mother's cooking to take for Benny's dinner. Ma wouldn't hear of Benito's having to put up with hospital food. And that was the least of what Ray and his mother had in mind for the Mountie.
Fraser was being calm and philosophical whenever Ray was with him. No word of complaint nor of blame. Ray expected that and wasn't taking his friend's serenity at face value. Fraser was depressed and moping, as he had after Victoria left. Ray mentioned it that evening.
"This is a physical injury pure and simple. I haven't been betrayed in love. I guess I should be more upset. I guess it hasn't fully hit home yet. I had a visit from Inspector Thatcher today."
Ray didn't want to change the subject but Fraser apparently.
"She's started the paperwork for my disability pension. It should go smoothly. So, I'll have a source of income for life as long as I'm frugal."
"Which you are," Ray added, not quite in the mood to let it come out as a joke.
"So the wolf won't be at my door, at least." Fraser paused then smiled. With a little laugh he said, "Oh dear. Don't tell Diefenbaker I said that."
Ray did smile back at this.
"I've been thinking about what I'm going to do now," Fraser went on, becoming serious. "It's kind of ironic but now that I'm disabled I actually have more career choices than I had before. Since I was very young I knew I'd be a Mountie like Dad. There never was any question. It was a given. And now I can't be in active service anymore . . . "
"Isn't there some administrative work you could or something?" Ray interrupted.
"Perhaps. The Inspector is looking into it for me. But it wouldn't be active police work. I might be a Mountie on paper but in my own mind I wouldn't be an officer of the law. The strange thing is, instead of being upset about it I feel liberated."
Ray wondered if Benny was saying this just to make him feel better but he didn't think so. Fraser really was perking up more and more as he talked about this.
"My choices are limited by my physical condition, sure. But they've also opened up. As long as I was able-bodied I'd always be a Mountie. Of that I'm sure. But now - I can go to school, maybe teach, maybe write. I can pursue my music. You don't need legs to sing and play the guitar. And with my pension I can live in wherever I want. Well, there are restrictions. I'll need wheelchair accessibility and . . ." Fraser paused and sighed, " . . . help with certain physical things."
"As long as we're talking about this Benny, I have an idea I want to put to you," Ray said, finally taking the plunge and bringing up the subject he'd been wanting to talk about for a few days now.
"Sure. I'm open to ideas. My God, Ray! Imagine me being open to ideas about where to live and what to do. It's almost exhilarating."
"Yeah, it's great," Ray said, not able to keep the sarcasm out of his voice, "I knew there was a good reason I kept trying to break your spine all this time."
"Ray, please. We're talking about my future. You said you had an idea to put to me."
"Yeah. About where you're going to live. Well, if you want to study or write or sing, you could do those things in Chicago, couldn't you?"
"You think I should stay here?"
"I think, Benny, you should come live in my house."
Fraser wasn't surprised. "I thought you might come up with that. It's not a good idea, Ray. I'm going to need care. You couldn't handle that and also earn a living. It wouldn't be fair to you."
"It's fair. It's more than fair."
"Because you want to punish yourself. No, Ray. It's not going to work like that."
"Not because of that. Me and Ma talked it over. She can be with you in the daytime. She wants to take care of you. She said so herself. She said her Benito wasn't going to go live with strangers. You said you could get your disability wherever you live. Why be alone when you can be with family? Everybody's willing to help. You belong with us, Benny."
Fraser didn't answer. He closed his eyes and seemed to go somewhere else momentarily. Then he opened his eyes again and locked them on his friend's eyes. "Ray, I'm wearing a diaper."
Ray shrank in his chair, involuntarily.
"Is that what you want to deal with? What you want your mother to deal with? Changing my diapers? No. I appreciate the offer but I couldn't face that. You'll have to find absolution some other way."
"I don't want to be your salvation, Ray. And you're not going to be mine. You'll have to find some other way to cope with the accident. And, so will I. My future's in my own hands, more so than it ever was. Ironic, isn't it."
"I have to help you, Benny. I have to make things right."
"Did you see Father Behan? Maybe he has some idea how to do that."
"He wants me to work with MADD," Ray said, knowing that Fraser was familiar with the acronym.
"That's very imaginative. Technically, you weren't driving but I think it is a great idea."
"And he said sort of the same thing you're saying. That your future is your own responsibility. And that's just silly, Benny."
"No, it's not, Ray. He's right. You will always be my best friend no matter where I end up. I may stay in Chicago. I may go home. I don't know. But, he's right. My life is my own to decide now. Before the accident you never could have persuaded me that I could be anything else than an officer of the law. Now, I can be anything. You gave me that. In a way, it's a gift."
"Not quite a blessing."
"No, not quite," Fraser said. He reached out and touched his friend's arm. "But it's not a curse either. You'll do great work for MADD. In fact, I just may do it with you. We'd be a great team."
Without a trace of embarrassment, Ray put his own hand over Fraser's. Tears welled up in both friends' eyes.
"We always have been," Ray said.