“We’ll talk about this later. Go on.” Theresa turned back to Pilcher. “I’m sorry—”
The word stuck in her throat.
Pilcher held a clear oxygen mask to his face with a thin supply tube snaking down into his jacket. In his other hand, he held a small aerosol canister.
She said, “No, please—”
A blast of fine mist exploded out of the nozzle.
Theresa tried not to breathe, but already she could taste it on the tip of her tongue—liquid metal tinged with sweetness. The mist clung to her skin. She felt her pores ingesting it. It was in her mouth, far colder than room temperature, like a line of liquid nitrogen trailing down her throat.
She wrapped her arms around Ben and tried to stand, but she had no legs.
The dishwasher had stopped and the house stood absolutely silent save for the rain drumming on the roof.
Pilcher said, “You’re going to serve a more valuable purpose than you could ever conceive of.”
Theresa tried to ask him what he meant, but her mouth seemed to freeze.
All the color drained from the room—everything disintegrating into varying shades of gray—and she could feel an unstoppable heaviness tugging her eyelids down.
Already, Ben’s little body had gone slack, his torso fallen across her lap, and she stared up at Pilcher, who was now smiling down at her through the oxygen mask and fading toward darkness along with everything else.
Pilcher took a walkie-talkie out of his coat and spoke into the receiver.
“Arnold, Pam, I’m ready for you.”
“Ethan, I need you to relax. Do you hear me? Stop struggling.”
Through the fog, Ethan recognized the voice—the psychiatrist.
He fought to open his eyes, but the effort produced only slits of light.
Jenkins peered down at him through those wire-rimmed glasses, and Ethan tried to move his arms again, but they were either broken or locked down.
“Your wrists have been handcuffed to the railing on your bed,” Jenkins said. “Sheriff’s orders. Don’t be alarmed, but you’re having a severe dissociative episode.”
Ethan opened his mouth, instantly felt the dryness of his tongue and lips like they’d been scorched by a desert heat.
“What does that mean?” Ethan asked.
“It means you’re having a breakdown in memory, awareness, even identity. The real concern here is that the car accident triggered it and that you’re having these symptoms because your brain is bleeding. They’re getting ready to roll you into surgery. Do you understand what I’m telling you?”
“I don’t consent,” Ethan said.
“I don’t consent to surgery. I want to be transported to a hospital in Boise.”
“It’s too risky. You could die before you got there.”
“I want out of this town right now.”
A blinding light bore down on Ethan’s face from overhead.
He heard Jenkins’s voice. “Nurse, calm him down, please.”
“No, that one.”
“I’m not crazy,” Ethan said.
He felt Jenkins pat his hand.
“No one’s saying you are. It’s just that your mind is broken, and we need to fix it.”
Nurse Pam leaned over into Ethan’s field of vision.
Beautiful, smiling, something comforting about her presence, and maybe it was just rote familiarity, but Ethan clung to it nonetheless.
“My goodness, Mr. Burke, you look simply awful. Let’s see if we can’t make you just a pinch more comfortable, OK?”
The needle was goliath, the biggest Ethan had ever seen, its end dripping silver beads of whatever drug the syringe contained.
“What’s in there?” Ethan asked.
“Just a little something to steady those jangled nerves.”
“I don’t want it.”
“Hold still now.”
She tapped the antecubital vein on the underside of his right arm, Ethan straining so hard against the steel bracelets he could feel his fingers turning numb.
“I don’t want it.”
Nurse Pam looked up, and then leaned in so close to Ethan’s face he could feel her eyelashes splay across his when she blinked. He smelled her lipstick and, at close range, could see the pure emerald clarity of her eyes.
“You hold still, Mr. Burke”—she smiled—“or I’ll jam this motherfucker straight to the bone.”
The words chilled him, Ethan squirming even harder, the handcuff chains rattling against the railing.
“Don’t you touch me,” he seethed.
“Oh, so you want to play it this way?” the nurse asked. “OK.” Her smile never fading, she altered her grip on the syringe, now holding it like a knife, and before Ethan realized her intention, she stabbed the needle into the sidewall of his gluteus maximus, the needle buried to the syringe.
The spearing pain lingered as the nurse strolled back across the room to the psychiatrist.
“You didn’t hit a vein?” Jenkins asked.
“He was moving too much.”
“So how long before he’s under?”
“Fifteen tops. Are they ready for him in the OR?”
“Yeah, roll him out.” Jenkins directed his last comment to Ethan as he backpedaled toward the door: “I’ll be by to look in on you after they finish the cutting and pasting. Good luck, Ethan. We’re gonna get you all fixed up.”
“I don’t consent,” Ethan said with as much force as he could muster, but Jenkins was already out of the room.
Through his swollen eyes, Ethan tracked Nurse Pam’s movement around to the head of his gurney. She grasped the railing, and the gurney began to move, one of the front wheels squeaking as it wobbled across the linoleum.
“Why aren’t you respecting my wishes?” Ethan asked, struggling to control his voice, trying for a softer approach.
She made no response, just continued to roll him out of the room and into the corridor, which stood as empty and quiet as ever.
Ethan lifted his head, saw the nurses’ station approaching.
Every door they passed was closed, not a shred of light filtering out from under any of them.
“There’s no one else on this floor, is there?” Ethan asked.
The nurse whistled a tune to the rhythm of the squeaky wheel.