Continued from chapter 20 of the Devastation Series.
“Calm down sir, what’s your emergency?” The AI operator said over the phone. I tried to explain the best that I could. The phone beeped in my ear reminding me of the low battery. The AI operator’s instructions cut out with the beeps. Before I could get out all of the details, two drones were hovering over me. They had used the 911 beacon to provide a location and FPV for the dispatch operator which had switched to a human. The AI can screen calls and provide basic instructions, when the situation is more complicated the AI summarizes and transfers to a real person which then navigates the drone cameras for eyes on the scene. AI, while effective, picks up on keywords and phrases – so being distraught can make calls much more difficult. Drones had replaced the need for traffic and body cams long ago and were by far superior on-the-scene.
“Sir, please put your mask on,” the voice on the phone stated in the middle of silence. My mask, I thought, really? Suddenly, we were humanized again. It wasn’t long before the first responders arrived. Since the privatization of societal departments, only the best of the best were kept. Accidents and incidents were monitored much more closely and urgency had changed since mother passed. I found out later if Mom would have been attended to a few minutes earlier, the likelihood of survival would have quadrupled. It was a nice feeling to know that we were taken seriously and the care was not tied to social status. The help was prompt, and our care was the priority of the first responders at that moment. The operator finished with informational questions and I was handed off to the on-scene responders.
I explained what happened – but the focus was more on the stabilization of Bert. They cut his shirt and hooked him up to several devices. They injected his arm with several concoctions and strapped a scanner to his forehead to monitor brain activity and activity location. The whole thing took a matter of minutes, by then they had him in the back of the ambulance, I was sitting on a bench on the side and they were slamming the doors shut while taking off. It reminded me of an old-time pit-stop at a car race; I was anxious and trying to observe what was going on. I recognized the heart monitor and felt slightly relieved when it beeped in a normal rhythm. For a man that I just met, I was significantly attached.
Sirens blared and we would slow down nearing traffic stops. Horns would sound and the speed would pick up again. Even though everything in the back was secured, the jarring movements made me imagine items falling out of their places. Bert gasped for air and started mumbling. The responders shushed him and continued their AI diagnostics. I had been around that tech recently more than I ever cared to. I felt my phone buzz in my pocket where I placed it from habit. I pulled it out and hundreds of text messages came through, most were Valerie. I did not see all of them with the current situation going on, but the messages ranged from angry to worried and hopeful. I was not ready to talk to her yet. It was a mixture of fear, for myself, and shame for my actions. I was not ready to face the legal system and even more so: myself.
We arrived at the main hospital and the pit crew jumped back into action. Everything slammed and banged and moved in a calculated fashion. The experience of the crew showed. After Bert was out of the back of the ambulance, I was ushered inside to the waiting area. The admissions nurse had a few questions for me before I was able to go back. Although I was not able to give much history, I was able to describe the last 48 hours as well as the symptoms that led to the hospital visit. I was not sure if the details were more useful than the AI-Diagnosis, but I did my best. The same questions were asked in multiple ways but finished fairly quickly and then I was shown to a waiting area outside of series of emergency exam rooms.
I waited for quite a long time before I was let back to see him. A nurse came out, called my name, and then we trailed through a maze of rooms to get to Bert. He had been moved at one point from the admitting room to a personal room. I imagined that he felt like a king in a castle with regular meals and servants. We knew that was not the way it was but it was an enjoyable fable, for a moment at least. The lights were dimmed and the shades were drawn nearly shut. Over Bert’s forehead was a tiny series of lights illuminating the room but not interfering with his rest. The room has a small bay-like window with a large TV, closet, and sleeper couch. The environmental conditioning had the room cool and a faint lavender smell that masked the hospital cleaners. Everything in the hospital was very nice quality but not modern or high definition tech. After I was in and settled the nurse left, and I approached my friend.
He laid peacefully under blankets and sunk deep into the pillows. His lap tray had an untouched glass of water and a wet washcloth folded on the corner. His eyes were closed and the layered blankets raised and lowered with his deep breaths. I placed my hand on his shoulder and stood beside his bed. His mask was sitting beside him on the bed and small tubes were in his nose giving him a small amount of oxygen. “I am sorry Bert,” I muttered quietly. In between the beeps and oxygen pumps, Bert cleared his throat and mumbled back at me. “What Bert?” I questioned.
“…Mermermeyphhh…” I followed up with another inquiry. “Merrmerrmerrmumpffff.” He insisted. I leaned into him and inquired again. My ear was next to his mouth so that I could decipher what he was trying to say. Then as clear as ever he whispered. “I can talk – goof. Thank you for being here.” He chuckled a little with a cough and I smirked.
“You’re an ass,” I said but was glad to hear his voice. He was one of those people that you felt like you had known much longer than you had in actuality. Moments like those seemed to bring people together. Stress, seems to be a cement to friendships at times. With that, he dozed off again.
I sat with my eyes closed for a while. The nurse came back in after a while and checked in, “He was given some meds that may make his sleep a bit. Ummm… Will you be here at dinnertime?” She asked.
“I am pretty sure that I am not going to leave my friend, unless I need to… ” I said.
“No, no… stay… I will put an order for two dinners. It will be around 5 PM.” She stated.
“Thank you so much,” I replied. She exited and closed the door. I looked at the clock and was amazed at how long we had been in the hospital. The clock read 2 PM. I stirred in the chair and contemplated the next several hours. I thought about surfing the TV web or watching a show but decided to take advantage of the fresh air. The last few weeks had given me a desire to explore and to see the outside, the world around me. Even places that I had been, looked differently now. I found myself thinking about the stories of people or reasons things were the way that they were. How things came to be…
I found myself wandering the sidewalks and decided to catch the public transit system. Since I was not paying, I had to take the red bus and stand at the back in the general area. A few years ago, there was a movement to get people onto the bus line to encourage people to travel and eliminate some emissions. I spontaneously decided to head back to where I had been staying. Before… I hopped several of the busses throughout the afternoon to get back near Samuel’s. I didn’t have anything with me, since my bag was at the hospital. I didn’t anticipate the current travel I was doing. It was one of the free thoughts that led me around town. I got to the complex and it was an awakening reality. My memories flashed back and my escape came over me with some shame. I pulled at the door and realized it was open. I wondered why that was since I had kept it locked. I assumed that is was left during my episodes but that was shot down when I made it to the room.
The room had been processed. While I anticipated as much, the truth was still harsh and stung. I opened the door and it had been completely renovated. The journals were gone. The laptop… the photographs were all gone. My heart sunk and I was ashamed of my actions. I was upset with how I had gotten to that point. I wasn’t in the right, and I knew that, but placed multiple scenarios in my mind that ended differently. I imagined scenario after scenario but each one crashed with my current reality. I walked around the apartment one time, in hopes that a journal, a photo, a piece of Samuel’s story was left. Let down, and beaten, I walked out of the apartment and left it as I had found it: processed, empty, and storyless. The hallway seemed longer and the smells of the old building seemed heavier than I remembered while staying there. I hopped the red bus again and slowly made my way back to the hospital area. It was now 04:30 according to the sign I passed near the hospital.
I made it back into the building and found my way back to Bert’s room. He was still asleep when I arrived. I sat in the chair and pulled out my phone. I looked around the room and found a public wireless charger. I opened the texting app and typed one message. I felt responsible and decided to get all of my guilt and shame out at the same time. To Valerie, I wrote: ” Valerie. I am sorry. A friend of mine is in the hospital, I am with him for now. I am sorry that I disappeared. I will find you soon.” I sent the text and saw the read receipt. I turned the phone to do-not-disturb and placed it on the charger on the bedside table. It was an older – and slower one but beat my current options. I had the cables to charge my phone, but not the wall adaptor. Universal wireless would do the trick. I had just set my phone down and climbed into the chair when there was a knock.
Promptly near 5PM the hospital staff pushed in a cart with two cafeteria-style place settings. The lady smiled and pushed the cart to me and took one of the trays to Bert’s lap table. She seemed so kind and had such a delicate voice. “We had a dinner meal, but we also had some lunch leftovers. We thought you may be hungry.” She had a smile that could be seen regardless if she had a mask on or not. She was an elderly woman, sort of reminding me of the grandma I imagined living down the street that greeted everybody.
“You are so kind, ma’am… thank you… so-so much.” A bit of warmth started in my center and radiated back as a smile.
I pulled open the entree plate and saw a Salisbury steak. A heaping pile of potatoes was surrounded with mixed vegetables and a small side of ice cream. To the left was a gently wrapped club sandwich, which I presumed was lunch from today. I picked up my fork and cut off a corner of the steak. I did not taste the foodservice quality. Instead, I tasted the mushroom gravy. I pushed my tongue to the fork tines and sucked the bite off. The meal couldn’t have tasted better if it was prepared by some personal chef. In fact, to me, between their generosity and the fact this was a full hot meal, I felt as if it was from a fancy establishment. I sat the fork down and turned on the television. It has been so long since I watched regular satellite, I didn’t know where to begin. I was only aware of my world, right now, so I stopped at the local news broadcast. I cut more of the steak off and savored bite after bite. As I watched the news, the food must have enticed Bert. He awoke and sat up slowly in the bed.
“I got you food… again.” He chuckled and so did I.
Bert stirred and pulled himself from his sunken bed position. I sat my plate down and moved over to him to help him get situated. He sniffed the aroma and pointed his nose towards the ceiling. He looked back towards the plate as I uncovered the steak swimming in a gravy pool. “Looks delicious…” He snickered with a cough and ended up wheezing instead. I sat the dish topper on the bed and he scooted the table closer to himself. He handled the silverware and made a large cut into the steam with his fork. With a dancing motion, he swirled the meat in the gravy and scooped a bite of the sides on the the meat. He made a humming sound as if announcing his like to the world.
“I assume you approve?” I baited him. With a mouthful, he sort of chipmunked his cheeks before replying.
“I am the one in the hospital bed – I think I can enjoy it.” He was right, of course, and I nodded with agreement. I sat back down in the chair and resumed my dish as well. After a long moment, we took turns hiccuping. The sides were dipped in our gravy and the plates were practically licked clean. The nurse checked back in and took our finished dishes away. Just like Bert, I saved my lunch sandwich and granola, out of habit. I had started his habits while living with him for the last couple of weeks.
Shortly after the nurse left, a doctor came in and greeted us. He checked the screens and scrolled through a tablet’s files. “How are you feeling?” The middle-aged man asked. His hair was thinning and his glasses rested upon his nose. His see-through mask showed his serious manner. Sometimes a mask left some friendly imagination, but it was clear this time that was not the case. His mannerisms were factual and on target with his job. There was not a lot of frills with him. He asked several analysis type questions and Bert answered, but then came back with the loaded question on both of our minds.
“So why did I go down like a dead body, eh – doc?” He looked directly into the doc’s face.
“The AI reports show some general malnutrition combined with some mild tachycardia. I will know more when some tests come back. I suspect that those are at play here – but it an acute heart attack spawned from…” he paused for a second, “a lifestyle now or some time ago.”
“Sounds great doc – can you tell me what that means in my language – not that jibber-jabber…” Bert, proud of himself, grinned ear to ear. The doctor smirked and looked over to me, then back at Bert.
“In short, you have some opportunities with your diet. A lifetime of hard treatment to your body has caught up with you a little bit… and your heart shows some irregularities.”
“Well, that’s all? Could’ve just said that.” Bert winked at me. At that moment, I realized that he was like a father/grandfather type mentor to me. I had grown close to my new friend.
“Let’s get you some rest, finish our diagnostics, and then get you on your feet again. Maybe a couple of days… what I am expecting, anyways.” The doctor stated. He finished entering his notes and bid us a good evening. Bert and I both showed a physical sigh and tried to relax as best we could.
“Bert…” I started and paused until he looked at me. “I am sorry that this has happened to you. I know… I just met you… and I have a shit-storm of my own things going on… but you have helped me see some things…” I humbled myself.
“Kid… You don’t have to be sorry. I have led a bumpy road to get here. God knows, I most likely have whatever, ” he shrugged, ” coming. And it is what it is. You seem like a bright young man. Notice I said seem…”
“Well, you seeeeeeeem to be an arse.” I mockingly snapped back.
“Since I am dying… apparently… humor me – why did you hit rock bottom?” He scooted up to listen in. My mind became a racetrack with each memory zooming by the finish line at a race.
“I just… just lost who I was. I was so wrapped up in a world I had created for myself – and saw life was in a different lens… Now it is like everything in the old life left or was left…” I trailed off.
“What does the future hold?” He fired back with genuine curiosity.
“I… I don’t know…” I stuttered. Bert nodded in a sort of passive manner.
“You need to be comfortable in whatever, Jacob. The thing about my life – and what I have chosen – is that I am used to being adaptive. Things happen… I react… I cannot lose myself for every hiccup….” He paused for effect, “I do plan when I can, but I have learned to appreciate some of the things the world passes by… I think that is one of my favorite things… I have learned to appreciate simplicity.” Bert told his story. I realized he was reaching inside of himself and was speaking from his heart. I sat for a moment taking it in. His words were sage and wise. I fought myself from selling him short since he was homeless. I believed that he was worth more than that – but the prejudices were woven deep in my fabric. If he would just… but I stopped myself. The same feelings that felt that way were also tied to my old way of living and the world of expectations.
We finished our meal and our chats died down. The sky faded from light to dark as the evening set in. Shows played in the background but neither of us paid much attention to them. You could catch us engaging for brief moments but gazing through the walls in the next moments. The nurses would come in and check on us when they made their rounds. I wondered what Bert was thinking. I reflected, “What am I thinking?” The reality of life seeped in and tore through me like a dam breaking. All of a sudden, I felt anxiety, sadness, anger swirling in confusion. For the first time in a couple of weeks, I did not have a plan. I had not needed one. I followed Bert around or studied interactions of people. I watched people wearing masks, hurriedly move from Point A to Point B. People would be engrossed in technology and wandered across the sidewalks and into the streets missing the crosswalks. People were so distracted that they could not be people. I was one of them.
What did I want life to look like? I was sure that my job was lost, although I was not upset by that idea. I had learned how to be reassured. Since I lived without money… without a home… no food regularly… I had grown comfortable with some new concepts. “Life will provide.” My Dad would say it in trying times, but it never resonated with me, until now. Sometimes, especially after Easter or regular church attendance, he would say “God,” instead. It would not have mattered until now, anyway, but I was glad that I had made that connection. I was glad to add meaning to a saying that reminded me of my father and brought me some comfort as I stared over. Bert was resting his eyes.
I started to develop a plan. It was a rough one, but a plan. I drafted it and refined it several times while I was sitting staring at the plain television with images that I had no context for. I needed to get a job… well, I backtracked, I need a house first. I thought about Maggie, but the streets seemed to be more appealing. Valerie crossed my mind but I firmly acknowledged that it was not her place. I had some money, in savings, so I was very blessed in that sense, but it felt awkward… like I had not earned it. I didn’t have to walk a mile for a meal or piece things together to make a safe space. It was ridiculous, I thought to myself, but still was a very real feeling for me now. I followed rabbit trails for some time until I started to feel heavy. I leaned back into the chair, reclined, and looked up at the ceiling until I didn’t see it any longer.
In the middle of the night, I awoke with a panic. Cold chills ran down my spine and nausea spilled into my gut. A sickness ran all throughout my body. A cold sweat beaded and the air circulating sent shivers through my body. The dam broke in that moment. It did not feel like it did earlier – it was real. I realized that the cops were looking for me – and that I wouldn’t have a chance to do or say anything. I convinced myself that I was going away for life. Albeit, not true, nor realistic, it was my current reality of feelings. What was I going to do – would I need to flee and be on the run for the rest of my life? No, I couldn’t do that – I made the mistake, I would live with it. Heck, I was determined to turn myself it. Get it out of the way. The thoughts went on for hours until my body gracefully shut down and I fell back asleep. The rest of the night was filled with bizarre dreams and non-related imaginary scenarios. I was convinced that my worry activated my imagination.
The morning sun shot through the window and cracked my determined eyelids open. Before long the morning was started and just like it was not that long ago watching a city – the hospital came alive. The nurses resumed frequent checks and parades of noise blared down the halls. Bert was lucky to have a reprieve from the sun but did wake to marching bands in the hallway. “I’m up… I am up… the docs could find another way…” He muttered obnoxiously. No sooner than he sat up in bed, a breakfast cart came in. We prepared and sat down to eat. The food tasted like it was from a hotel or buffet but we did not mind or notice too much. I was sure the sausages pinged as we inhaled them and the oatmeal was so thick it was almost chewy. The sweet apple-cinnamon filled our tummies and tasted like dessert. Shortly after breakfast we cleaned up then they took Bert for some tests.
“We are going to scan his heart and monitor his electrical activity. You are welcome to come back…” A young heavy-set nurse said to us. As I followed them back, I thought through the list of things I needed to do… I stayed back with him for an hour or so when I needed to use the restroom. I left the room and navigated the hallway mazes. I found the restroom and coffee pot and wandered the hallways passing the room we were being kept in. The room should have been empty but I saw an arm sitting in the chair by the door. My curiosity got the best of me. I rounded the corner to sneak a peak in…
“SH*T… YOU…VALERIE!” I couldn’t help but yell in excitement. I was elated, Valerie was there. She stood up and glared at me. An evil squint that cut through me. Tears filled in both our eyes and safety that I had forgotten engulfed the room and wrapped its arms around me. Valerie pulled me close and we embraced in a hug. She pulled back as Bert came around the corner in his bed. It did not matter, the next moves were choreographed without an audience to worry about. Her hand wide open struck my cheek and knocked my head sideways.
“Dickhead.” She said in an I told you so tone.
Read more of the Devastation Series.