He couldn’t stop looking at her. Her blonde curls tossed across the pillow. Her eyelids flickering. Her chest rising and falling. Her hand lying over the side of the bed. The tube up her nose to stop her from going hungry. She had been lying like this for two days in room 1136 and Michael could see that she was still beautiful. Even with needles stuck in her veins and traces of dried blood underneath her fingernails. He took her hand.
“Fight it, Lyds. Fight it with everything you got.”
Whilst Lydia had been in her initial surgery, Michael had waited outside of the operating theatre. He hadn’t been able to keep still. He had fidgeted on his chair, tapped his fingers, jumped at every loud noise, mindlessly fondled a little black box. He had been briefly questioned by two police officers who had asked him to explain his relationship to Lydia and to give the full details of the incident. They had promised they would do everything they could to help.
The door closing had broken Michael’s dreams of blood splattering and glaring lights. For a third night in a row, he had slept with his head on Lydia’s chest. Listening to her heartbeat. At least her heart hadn’t been affected. A middle-aged woman with bags under her eyes, a silver watch and a look of permanent scorn on her face approached him.
“Are you Mr. Reilly?”
Michael, taken aback by her accusing tone, stood up defensively. “Who are you?”
The woman picked up the clipboard at the end of Lydia’s bed and took a cursory glance of it. She had already been briefed about the serious details of her patient’s case.
“I’m Tabitha and I’m to assist Doctor Lightfoot and Nurse Wilson in Miss Fletcher’s treatment. I’m the day nurse and Nurse Wilson will help in the nights. And yourself?”
“Yeah, I’m Mr. Reilly. I’m Lydia’s fi…boyfriend! Doctor Lightfoot said it was fine if I stay with Lydia.”
“Very well. But, I need to change her IV drips and I would appreciate it, if you didn’t get in my way.” Tabitha had the sort of voice, where everything she said had a hint of cynical sarcasm.
“I’m Lydia’s fi…boyfriend! I will help her in any damn way I can!” In Michael’s hand, he felt a slight shiver and realised that he had scared his girlfriend, with his sudden outburst. Forgetting about the scorn-faced nurse for a second, he knelt by Lydia’s side and was about to breathe out an apology, before realising how hollow it would sound, in light of the reason why Lydia was really here.
Tabitha realised that she had been overly harsh with Michael. “I’m sorry, Mr Reilly. You’re perfectly entitled to stay with Miss Fletcher, but I am afraid I will have to ask you to leave, whilst I change Miss Fletcher’s IV drip. You can come straight back in, when I’m finished.”
Michael stood up and looked into the full-length mirror besides Lydia’s bed. He saw his brown eyes that were discoloured with too many tinges of red. His dirty blond curly hair was decorated with what looked like freshly-fallen snow and his facial hair had grown rough and bushy.
Tabitha walked to the sink and picked up a disinfectant wipe. “You should go to one of our waiting rooms and get some sleep.”
Michael could see that Lydia was now awake and he wondered how much she had just witnessed. He sighed and left room 1136.
Doctor Lightfoot saw Michael standing outside of room 1136. “Mr Reilly, can I talk to you?”
“Oh, Doctor Lightfoot, I didn’t hear you coming.”
“Can we speak in my office?”
Michael followed the balding senior doctor with a million wrinkles on his forehead, along the corridors lit with flickering halogen lights. Doctor Lightfoot’s office was nothing spectacular. Two plastic chairs sat in front of a cold, steel desk, with pens and pencils that were all perfectly in line. There was a grey filing cabinet looming ominously in one corner of the room and on one wall was a gargantuan poster showing a pretty landscape with an “inspirational” quotation that had absolutely nothing to do with the picture. The doctor walked over to the filing cabinet and pulled out a ring-binder, from the F-J section. He sat down at his desk and opened the file, whilst Michael sat down opposite him.
“As you’re fully aware Miss Fletcher’s whiplash was extremely severe and it is highly possible that she will remain paralysed below the neck for the rest of her life,” Michael didn’t react. He already knew this from Doctor Lightfoot’s initial prognosis,
“however, this is not what I wanted to speak to you about. Our latest X-ray scans have shown that Miss Fletcher has Traumatic Aortic Disruption. This means that an area of her heart, the area which pumps blood into the arteries has been partially torn away. Our TEE and CAT scans have confirmed this for us. We have to perform surgery on Miss Fletcher within the next few days. We’ve already told her about this. Mr Reilly? Mr Reilly?”
Michael was staring at the fuzzy carpet beneath him. When he did look up, his vision glazed past the doctor’s head and through the window, into the overcast London evening that lay beyond. “What do you want me to do?”
“I want you to go home and get some sleep. Miss Fletcher has listed her sister, Jennifer Fletcher, as her second emergency contact, after you of course. She will be brought in to discuss the technicalities of the surgery.”
Michael ran a hand through his hair causing it to snow onto the carpet. “Can I leave now?”
Without another word, Michael left Doctor Lightfoot’s office and walked back down the corridor to room 1136.
Tabitha was waiting outside of Lydia’s room.
“Ah, Mr Reilly, Miss Fletcher’s IV drip has been changed and I was hoping that I could teach you how to communicate with her.”
“Communicate?” He repeated.
“As you know, during the accident, Miss Fletcher suffered smoke inhalation, which damaged her lungs. However, we have an alphabet chart that we can use to help her talk to us.” Tabitha led Michael into the room and directed him to a chair. Tabitha was now standing to Michael’s side, holding a pen, a pad of paper and an alphabet chart.
“This alphabet chart is very simple to use,” Tabitha said, holding up a transparent 6×6 board, “as you can see on this chart, there are six rows and six columns. The first column consists entirely of vowels, whereas all of the rows contain consonants and numbers. I shall start by reading the first column aloud and if Miss Fletcher wishes to use a consonant on a particular row, she needs to blink, when I read out the corresponding vowel. I’ll begin reading the vowels now. A, E, I-“
“She blinked!” Michael exclaimed.
“Row I. Now I’ll read out the letters on row I. I-”
“She blinked again.”
“First letter I. I’ll just jot this down, so I won’t forget. Time to start again. A, E, I, O-row O. P, Q, R, S, T. Second letter T. And back to the beginning.”
Slowly, Michael began to understand what Lydia was trying to say and he stopped Tabitha, as she was halfway through the message. “Can we have some privacy please? I understand how to do this now.”
“I’ll be right outside if you need me.” The nurse handed the board, the pen and the paper to Michael, before leaving the room.
“We don’t need to continue, Lyds. I know what you’re going to say, but don’t bother. It was my fault.”
Lydia rolled her eyes. It was just typical of Michael to blame himself for everything, but she decided to change the subject. She nodded her head ever so slightly towards the board to signal she had something else to say. Michael picked up the board and began reading out the first column. As Lydia blinked accordingly, her boyfriend started writing down her message. Once she had finished, he read her words aloud.
“Tabitha said you’ve barely left my side,” Michael looked between the message and Lydia, “I can’t just leave you like this!” He protested, but quickly took up the alphabet chart as his girlfriend began blinking again. Again, Michael read out her words, as she finished blinking.
“How much sleep have you gotten,” he asked the question aloud and then answered it, as if he were having a conversation with himself, “I’ve gotten enough.” He turned back to the board, as Lydia started blinking again. Michael smiled as he read the words on the paper aloud:
“Get some sleep. Jenny will be here. I don’t want to see you before my surgery. If I do, I’m going to knock you out.”
He knew it wasn’t a threat, but a promise. Lydia had started blinking again, but this time it was out of pain. She could feel her face contorting, her eyelids flickering, a fire lighting itself in her nose. A Mexican standoff in her brain with all guns blazing. Lydia inwardly groaned, as her cheeks became moist. She swore she’d never cry at this again, like she did every single time. Lydia screwed her eyes shut, as if that would block out the pain. It felt like a million wasps had flown up her nose and had impaled their stingers on the most sensitive areas of her brain. She forced herself to open her eyes and saw that Michael was standing over her with Tabitha. The pain had been so intense that she hadn’t heard the nurse re-enter the room. As Lydia looked upwards, she could see Michael and Tabitha were talking about her.
“Miss Fletcher has started eating,” the nurse explained, “that tube up her nose goes down her throat and into her stomach.”
“She was in a lot of pain.” Michael commented. Lydia blinked and could feel two tear drops running down her cheeks that were quickly dried by her boyfriend.
“She would have been. People gauge the pain in different ways. Miss Fletcher compares it to an army of insects invading her brain, whilst others have said it feels like their whole head is on fire.”
“Surely those drugs must help?” Michael pointed towards the IV drip.
“They do, but they don’t get rid of the pain. I feel so sorry for the poor souls, but that’s the only way we can feed them.”
“I should go now. Lyds told me that I should get some sleep and if I don’t listen to her, she’ll tan my arse.” Michael leant over and kissed his girlfriend’s cheek.
The night was an empty black without a single star. Michael pushed open his front door and flicked the light switch. He had barely been at his apartment for the last few days and everything was much the same as how he left it. The same cereal bowls sitting in the sink, waiting to be washed up. The same photos of him and Lyds around their apartment. The same fridge that was virtually empty. The entire flat felt empty. Void of everything but possessions and memories and emotions. Michael walked into the kitchen and emptied his pockets onto the counter: his keys, his phone, a little black box. Then he walked into the bedroom. He smiled at how all of Lydia’s make-up had been left lying around, because she hadn’t had time to put them away. All over the floor were skirts and dresses, as Lydia had frantically tried to find something to wear for that night. Michael laid down on his side of the bed and grabbed onto Lydia’s pyjama shirt that had sneaked under his pillow. He pulled it to his face and took comfort in its familiar smell. Clutching onto Lydia’s shirt, Michael fell into a troubled sleep of blood, oil and a glittering topaz imprisoned in a little black box.
“Wake up, lazy bones.”
Michael rubbed his eyes and stared up at the face looking down at him.
“Lydia!” He cried out.
“Nope, I’m Jenny, remember?” The woman straightened up and let Michael clamber off of the bed.
“Sorry Jenny, I don’t know why I called you that.”
She chuckled affectionately. “Don’t worry about it. Have you done anything these past few days? You look like you haven’t left your bed.”
“I haven’t really. Lydia told me that I should just stay at home for a few days and get some rest.”
“She told me she’d knock you out if you didn’t.” Jenny laughed.
“You’ve been speaking to her?” Michael’s eyes lit up with excitement.
“Well, I’ve been using that alphabet chart thing, but she does appreciate what you’ve done for her. Do you want some breakfast? I’ve found some bacon and bread in your virtually empty fridge.”
Michael followed Jenny to the kitchen and he noticed that the little black box was still on the counter. As Jenny opened a pack of bacon and put it on to cook, Michael wondered how he could have confused her with Lydia. The two might have been sisters, but they didn’t look anything alike. Where Lydia had blonde curls, Jenny’s hair was straight and brunette, where Lydia’s eyes were sky blue, Jenny’s were chocolate brown.
“Why are you here?”
“To check how you are. If it was my girlfriend in hospital, then I think I would be pretty messed up.”
Michael decided to change the conversation by signalling to the cooker. “Looks like the bacon’s done.” He and Jenny worked together to turn the bacon rashers into bacon sandwiches.
“How have you been?” Michael asked, as he was squirting a generous helping of ketchup onto his bacon.
“You mean other than worrying about my baby sister? Yeah, I’ve been fine. Stop hogging the ketchup!”
Michael passed the bottle over and then the pair were surrounded by silence. Jenny looked downwards at the little black box on the counter.
“You were going to propose, weren’t you?”
Michael’s silence spoke for him.
“It’s a beautiful ring,” Jenny broke off suddenly, “are you still going to do it?”
“I can’t. I just can’t.” Michael pushed away his half-eaten sandwich.
“For one thing, Lydia may never leave that hospital bed. Doctor Lightfoot told me that even if the surgery is successful, Lydia may be paralysed below the neck indefinitely and it’s all my FAULT!” Michael slammed his fist onto the counter, making the plate tremble in terror.
“Don’t be silly. Of course it wasn’t your fault.”
“Yes, it was,” Michael snapped, “I was the one driving the car, I was the one who wasn’t looking, when that dickhead cut me off!”
“Have they caught him? She asked, after pausing a little at Michael’s sudden hostility.
“No. The police told me that the car was stolen, but they haven’t found who stole it.”
This left another silence, as Jenny embraced Michael.
“She would say yes, you know.”
Jenny broke free of the hug and looked her sister’s boyfriend in the face. “If you asked her, she would say yes. You can still ask her.”
Michael looked downwards. “I can’t.”
Jenny breathed out heavily. “Why not?”
“I just can’t.”
“Go and ask her.”
“I told you. I can’t!
Jenny groaned and slapped Michael across the face. “Would you stop being such a bloody coward?! If Lydia was here, she’d’ve whacked you for being so soppy. Now, go back to the hospital and ask her! She’s going into surgery this evening and you had better ask her when she comes out of it!”
Mr Lightfoot, who was dressed in a surgical gown, approached his anaesthetised patient. He took a scalpel and drew a ruler-straight 3 inch line down Lydia’s chest.
“Make a note. Open heart surgery on Miss Lydia Fletcher has begun at 20:00 hours. Primary incision has just been made.”
Mr Lightfoot had been carefully working around the tubing of the Cardiac Bypass machine that had been plugged into Lydia’s heart to keep the blood flowing around the body. If it were not for the machine, it would have been almost impossible to have completed the surgery. Yet this didn’t stop, Lydia’s blood pressure from slowly rising and still continuing to rise now, threatening to fully tear away her ruptured aorta. Her conscious mind was not aware of this, but her body certainly was. Due to her blood pressure rising, her heart was pumping blood furiously. Mr Lightfoot knew that she was losing too much blood and if she survived the surgery, she would need a transfusion.
“Calm her down!” Mr Lightfoot ordered.
He was becoming nervous now and it was starting to show. One of the nurses had to keep dabbing at his forehead with a wet sponge. He continued with the surgery. Once he had found the aortal wall laceration beyond the blood, he asked the nurse for an interpositional graft.
“Wait! She’s haemorraging.”
Thinking quickly, he instead asked for a needle and thread and looked for the root of the haemorrhage.
“We need to stop the haemorrhage. We can’t let her blood clot!”
Mr Lightfoot kept a firm eye on the bypass machine. He couldn’t let any blood clots that did form travel to Lydia’s brain.
“160/110. 170/115. 180/120…”
Next to Lydia stood a heart monitor that was beeping rapidly.
“We’re losing her!”
“Her blood pressure is too high!”
“A clot has formed. It’s moving!”
“The bleeding won’t stop!”
And then the beeping lessened. There was one beep. Another beep. And then silence.
“Contact Mr. Reilly.”
For Jenny and Michael, the traffic was moving painfully slowly. They had left in good time to reach Lydia after her surgery, but they had been caught in a traffic jam, ironically caused by an accident on a major road. Michael was sitting in the passenger seat and he visibly jumped, when his phone went off. He took out of his pocket and held it to his ear. A guttural roar rose in his throat, which unleashed itself in the small confines of the car. The dashboard bore the impact of a furious set of punches. Jenny witnessed all of this in silence. She knew that only one thing could have caused this outburst. She wanted to apologise to Michael, but was trying to stop herself from screaming as well.
Michael and Jenny were staring through the glass at Lydia’s body who had been placed in the morgue after the failed surgery. For sanitary reasons, they couldn’t enter it. They had originally gone to the operating theatre, but Tabitha had directed them to here. The scorn-faced nurse had returned to room 1136 to pick up the alphabet chart upon Michael’s request. Jenny was sobbing into Michael’s shoulder, who was barely aware of this action. He couldn’t believe how pale Lydia’s skin was. He kept thinking her eyelids were flickering, that her chest was rising and falling, but everything about her was so still. His right hand was holding onto Jenny’s shoulder, whereas his left was fondling the little black box in his pocket. Would she have said yes? At this moment Tabitha rejoined the pair and handed the alphabet chart to Michael who tucked it underneath his left arm. Sighing he let his right arm drop and turned away from Jenny. Without looking back, he started to walk towards the hospital’s exit.
“Michael! Where are you going?” Jenny called out.
“For a drive.”
I wrote this for my creative writing module during my first year of university. I received a high 2:1 for this and I think it’s one of my best stories. It’s an idea which I’ve been wanting to write about for ages, which I have finally done. My dad gave me the idea when he told me about people he’s known who have become paralysed as a result of strokes and the resulting helpless that they feel.