By Charles Martin
Center Street Copyright © 2014 Charles Martin
All rights reserved.
Christmas Eve, eighteen hours earlier
I rubbed my eyes, blew the steam off my Waffle House coffee, and steered with my knees. I was neither passing nor being passed. Just fitting in. Drawing no attention. Something I was good at. My speedometer was hovering around seventy-seven miles an hour as was the rest of the northbound herd of nighttime travelers. Hypnotized by the dotted line, I counted back through the days. Nine years? Or, was it ten? At first, they moved slowly. Each minute a day. Each day a year. But, sitting here, the days lined up like dominoes outside the windshield. Time had been both a blink and a long sleep.
In a little over seven hours, I had crossed from the southwestern-most tip of Florida to the northeast corner. I changed lanes, wound through the spaghetti junction where I-10 intersects I-95 on the north bank of the St. Johns River, drove south across the Fuller Warren Bridge, and exited beneath the shadow of River City Hospital—a collection of a half-dozen or so buildings that rose up and sprawled along the Southbank. Jacksonville may not be as well known as Chicago or Dallas or New York but its nighttime skyline is one of the more beautiful I've seen, and the hospital features in that sight.
I spiraled up the parking deck to the sixth floor just prior to the nine p.m. shift change. Twice the people moving to and fro made it easier to blend in. I checked my watch. I had plenty of time.
In the cab of my truck, shrouded in the darkness of the parking deck, I changed into my dark blue maintenance uniform and slid on one of several pairs of thick-framed prescriptionless glasses. I twisted my sun-bleached hair into a tight ponytail and tucked it up under a matching ball cap. I pulled a white breathing mask over my mouth, dug my hands into elbow-deep yellow rubber gloves, and clipped Edmund's credentials over the flap of my chest pocket. At first glance, the credentials looked professional but anybody with a computer could determine rather quickly that Edmund Dantes was not and never had been employed with River City Hospital. 'Course, my plan was to not be around when whoever that was figured out that Edmund Dantes was really the Count of Monte Cristo and not a man working the trash detail. I fed earplugs up under my shirt and let them dangle over my collar while the unplugged end snaked around inside my shirt. With increased security concerns over the last decade, the hospital had been outfitted with dozens of live-feed, twenty-four-hour HD cameras and a host of rent-a-cops. The trick was knowing where they were, when to turn your back, lower your hat, or hug an exterior wall. Truth is, none of that explains my disguise but it had worked for years and would continue to do so as long as I did not draw attention to myself or stand out from the hospital's more than one thousand employees. The trick was simple: Be vanilla, not Neapolitan.
For the most part, people are not observant. Experts have conducted studies on bank robberies from actual eyewitnesses. Seldom can two or more agree on who actually robbed the bank, what they were wearing, what they took, and whether it was man or woman. Point being, being invisible isn't all that tough. In the last ten years, I've learned a good bit about being visible yet unseen. It's possible. Just takes a little work.
On the ground floor, I grabbed a yellow trash cart stowed outside the loading dock. About the size of a Mini Cooper, it looked like the bed of a V-shaped dump truck on wheels. I leaned into it and followed it onto the service elevator, where I turned my back to the first camera. The cart served several functions: It gave me a reason—most folks don't argue with a man who will take out the trash; it gave me a place to stow my duffel until I needed it; and it gave me something to hide behind. It also gave me something to shove between me and anyone after me, but I'd never needed it for that.
The children's wing was located on the fourth floor. The bell chimed with each floor as the camera above me filmed the top of my hat. The doors opened and the smells flooded me. I filled up, welcomed the memories, emptied myself, and filled up again.
River City Children's Hospital is considered one of the finest in the country—as are those who work here. What they do isn't easily measured as kids aren't easy patients. Most walk through the front door with two ailments—the one you can diagnose, and the one you can't. Knowing this, the doctors attack the first, then slowly work their way deeper. To the real wound. Doing so gives the kids reason to smile when reasons are tough to come by. It's slow work. Painstaking. And the endings aren't always happy. Despite their pedigrees, technology, and best of intentions, there are some hurts that medicine simply can't fix.
That's where I come in.
I'd wrapped each gift in brown paper, tied it with a red ribbon, and attached a simple card—a squared, preprinted white sheet of paper. Each read, "Merry Christmas. Found this on my ship and thought you'd enjoy. Get well soon. I'm always in need of new mates. You're welcome on my ship any time. Pirate Pete." I added a gift card to the TCBY yogurt store on the first floor of the hospital. Fifty dollars would buy them yogurt for months on end and since most of the kids could stand to gain a few pounds, it was a good fit. The guy that ran the yogurt place, Tommy, was a big, Santa-looking softy with two chins, hands the size of grizzly paws, a smile that could light up most any room, and the wingspan of a zeppelin. And since he was a hugger, he hugged everybody that stepped foot through his door. Figured if the kids didn't like his yogurt, they could at least get a hug. Most got both—along with a double scoop of gummy bears or crushed Oreos.
I exited the service elevator, routed around the nurses' station, hugged an exterior wall, and emptied the first of several trashcans. I took my time—hunched, slow, a slight limp—looking at no one and inviting no one to look at or speak to me. Circling the fourth floor gave me eight cans to empty and a constant view of the nurses' station. After the third can, the nurses vacated their desk, and I turned ninety degrees toward the library.
Around here, hats are a big deal. It's not required but the walls are lined with hat hooks and most everybody wears one that can change daily. Literally, there are hundreds. All shapes, sizes, personalities, and attitudes. From umpteen styles of cowboy hats to ball caps to feathered things to visors to painter's hats to stockings to berets to watchman's beanies, to you name it, this place is spilling with hats. It began years back, when one of the patients—a young girl—started wearing a large, flamboyant purple hat with an even larger peacock feather spiraling out the top. Didn't take long for the trend to catch on. Whenever she was asked why she wore it—which was often and usually on television—she'd flip the feather and say with a mile-wide smile, "Because what I can imagine is bigger than what I see."
There were fourteen new kids plus the twelve who had been there long enough to hang artwork on the wall. That's twenty-six. Including staff and nurses, I had counted on forty-seven. Some, like the staff, had been there a long time so I knew their names. Others, like the new kids, I still knew very little about. It'd taken me months and several trips up here just to get them all straight.
When I walked in, Grant, Randy, and Scott were gathered around a game console playing a Kung Fu Panda game. Reading the body language, I could tell Randy was winning. Raymond and Grace Ann were lying on the floor—reading. Lewis and Michelle were sitting at a table playing checkers. Andrew sat staring out the window overlooking the river, talking to himself. Others sprawled on beanbags, recliners, and sofas around the room. Most wore hats and their choices were as different as they were.
I scanned the room, noting each face, and double-checked my mental list.
Grant was eight, often wore camouflage pajamas, liked macaroni and cheese with chicken nuggets from McDonald's, and wanted to live in a house on stilts with a swing in each room. I got him a couple of Paulsen books. Hatchet and Brian's Hunt.
Teresa was twelve, liked fried okra and fried chicken, wanted to live in Italy, did not like needles, had a lot of artwork hanging in her room, and especially liked to draw castles. Each with a prince in shining armor. The Once and Future King and Princess Academy for her.
Randy was turning ten, liked cheeseburgers, Nike shoes, the music of Justin Bieber, and had a stuffed lion on his bed. A box set of The Chronicles of Narnia.
Raymond was soon to be fourteen, wanted to live in a submarine or on a farm with dirt bikes, and would like to be able to talk one day and work as a news anchor. He has a rather vivid imagination. Voracious reader. The Lord of the Rings for him. Another box set and I threw in an older copy of both The Hobbit and The Silmarillion.
Grace Ann was thirteen. She wanted contacts and then Lasik, followed by plastic surgery to shorten her nose because she wanted to be an actress. She loved Oprah, and more than anything, wanted out of her wheelchair. I got her The Color Purple and Jewel.
I'm not sure how old Steve was. Thirteen, maybe, based on the zits on his cheek. He was studious, wore glasses, carried a briefcase—though I'm not sure it contained anything—and he talked of going to law school like his father, who I suspect was a figment of his imagination. I got him a couple of Grisham's thrillers, including A Time to Kill and The Pelican Brief.
Scott had to be close to ten and wore a two-holster belt every day to chemotherapy so I got him eight Louis L'Amour books, starting with The Sacketts.
Isabella was just five, so I got her two pop-up picture books: Beauty and the Beast and Finding Nemo.
Knowing these details isn't all that tough. Each wrote their hopes, dreams, likes, and wants in an essay that one of the staff had taped next to the photo on their door.
I pushed the cart between the Christmas tree and the camera on the wall and made a fair showing of emptying the adjacent can. Having replaced the dirty can liner with a clean one, and using the cart to hide my movements, I placed the gifts at the foot of the tree, turned my back, and began my slow retreat. My rule was simple and I'd never broken it—get in, do what I came to do, and get out. Never dally. Frankenstein was safe behind the woodpile as long as he did not venture out. But staying behind the trash cart was all the more difficult on Christmas Eve.
I pushed, one wheel squeaking. The noise drew Andrew's attention. He turned, looked at me, half smiled, and said, "Merry Christmas." His knees tucked up into his chest. He'd gained a few pounds. Looked better. His hair was growing out. I could see the bulge of the PICC line beneath his shirt just below his left collarbone. I nodded and said nothing.
I took my time, glancing at each out of the corner of my eye. Noting changes. Progress. Setbacks. Growth. Weight loss. These were the long-timers. The might- not-make-its. The poster children. The I-wish-I-was-anywhere-but-heres.
One last can. I pushed the cart into the library, hovered above it, letting my eyes scan the shelves. My old friends whispered to me. Most people enter a library and don't hear a thing. Eerie silence. I stand between the shelves and hear ten thousand conversations occurring all at once. Each ushering an invitation. The noise is raucous.
Blue slippers appeared at my feet. It was Sandy. She was nine. Red haired, freckled, and allergic to most everything on planet Earth. Anaphylactic shock had twice put her in a coma in the ICU. For her I'd left a set of The Enchanted Forest Chronicles and Anne of Green Gables. She, too, wore a white mask over her mouth. She tugged on my pants leg and pointed. "Mister, please." The Wizard of Oz rested above my head. I reached up and pulled it down. The worn cover and familiar feel. I remember when I'd bought it. Where I was.
I handed it to her and winked. She giggled and disappeared back into the game room. I placed a new liner in the can, wondering how the Wizard would have responded had the Tin Man said he was allergic to the Emerald City.
I backed out, and about the time I reached the door, Michelle beat Lewis in checkers and walked to the tree. The ribbons caught her attention. She knelt, digging. She slid the pile out onto the floor before her. "Hey! Look!"
The kids rallied. Michelle played Santa, passing out gifts. I lingered, untying and retying a trash bag. Making a poor show of making myself look useful.
Life has not always been so distant. So set apart. There were times when I lived in the middle of it. When I knew great emotion. Drank straight from the fire hose. Sucked the marrow. Stuck my finger in the socket. This was not one of those. This was a cheap counterfeit but it was as close as I could get.
I wanted to peel off my hat and mask and the name that wasn't mine, and sit in the middle while the misfits fell and piled up like pick-up sticks around me. Then we'd crack open a worn cover and I'd read, and the words would do what medicine can't, won't, and never will.
Of the six million species on the planet, only man makes language. Words. What's more—in evidence of the Divine—we string these symbols together and then write them down, where they take on a life of their own and breathe outside of us. Story is the bandage of the broken. Sutures of the shattered. The tapestry upon which we write our lives. Upon which we lay the bodies of the dying and the about-to-come-to-life. And if it's honest, true, hiding nothing, revealing all, then it is a raging river and those who ride it find they have something to give—that they are not yet empty.
Critics cry foul, claiming the tongue is a bloody butcher that blasphemes, slices, slanders, and damns—leaving scars, carnage, the broken and the beaten. Admittedly, story is a double-edged scimitar, but the fault lies not in the word but in the hand that wields the pen. Not all stories spew, cower, and retreat. Some storm the castle. Rush in. Stand between. Wrap their arms around. Spill secrets. Share their shame. Return. Stories birth our dreams and feed the one thing that never dies.
This is true for all of us—even those who hide behind masks, carts, and names that do not belong to us.
Andrew spoke first. His voice rising. "Hey! Pete was here!" Around here, Pete is an iconic hero but his identity is a mystery. Some think he's a local tight-lipped charity. Others think a wealthy heiress in her late eighties who was never able to have kids. A well-respected business, or maybe a collection of businesses. A group of professional football players giving back. Over the years, several posers have stepped forward and claimed responsibility hoping to cash in on the notoriety, but nobody really knows. All anyone knows is that he shows up a couple times a year—specifically around birthdays and Christmas—unannounced and leaving no trace. Raymond held his package and smiled. Speaking almost to himself. "He came back. He came back."
The cart grew heavier. My feet dragged. Sweat beaded. I turned. Torn wrapping paper, and spent ribbons, piled at their feet. They turned the pages and smiles spread from ear to ear.
My window was closing.
But I was not finished. One gift remained. Liza wasn't in the library so I exited, turned right, and made my way toward the far end of the hall. Room 424. The door was cracked. Lights dim. I rested my hand on the frame. I knew this room. Spent many a night in here. Long ago, it'd been Jody's and had belonged to many children since.
I grabbed the present and pushed on the door. She was asleep. Her face pale. Hair stuck to a sweaty forehead. IV dripping. Her cheeks were pudgier—which was good in a ten-year-old survivor. Liza had been here longer than anyone. A house favorite. She could light up a room from down the hall. The artwork on her walls had been framed, evidence of her tenure. So had several pictures showing her with famous people who'd seen her on TV. A half- eaten, triple-layer birthday cake on the table next to her bed. Icing crusted in the corner of her mouth. Up here, you have two birthdays. The day you are born. And the day you are free. She'd been a Christmas Eve baby.
Excerpted from Unwritten by Charles Martin. Copyright © 2014 Charles Martin. Excerpted by permission of Center Street.
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