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Copyright © Lee Brazil 2014. All Rights Reserved, Total-E-Ntwined Limited, T/A Totally Bound Publishing.
“It’s my half day today.” As though having time off means you’ll be away from the hospital. Dr Oliver Gideon perched on the edge of the uncomfortable chair beside the bed in room 32B at Beachport Memorial Hospital and searched the pale face on the pillow for any sign that his words had been heard.
The night nurse had turned the patient’s face so he looked into the room. If he could see, that was. The comatose man’s eyelids remained obstinately closed after six months of long sleep. There wasn’t even a flicker of eye movement that Oliver could latch onto and pretend the patient dreamed, or merely slept. Those lids lay stubbornly still, immobile as the rest of the man.
Coma. It was supposed to have been a short-term state induced to enhance the body’s natural healing processes following Joseph Caldwell’s surgery. Instead, hours had stretched into days, and days into weeks, and still the man slumbered on, if sleep it could be called.
It didn’t matter that the patient’s eyes refused to open of their own accord. Oliver knew they were slate grey, almond-shaped and, when he was conscious, they telegraphed every emotion the man felt. Oliver knew that, because he’d stared down into those eyes on an operating table six months before, seen the interest in the grey depths turn to fear when he’d caught sight of the gas mask. Fear wasn’t unusual in his patients—he had a practised litany of words designed to ease the uncertainties of patients who were scared of losing consciousness.
Some people feared spiders, some feared the unknown. Joseph Caldwell, he sensed, feared losing control. He was a man who was accustomed to being careful. His whole being screamed caution and reserve, from the precisely trimmed hair to the neatly plucked eyebrows. If he peeked into the plastic carrier that held the man’s belongings he would surely find a pair of highly polished dress shoes, neat slacks, a button-down shirt and a tie. Even his build was a perfect balance of casual fitness, muscled but not buff, lean but not thin.
The patient had lost muscle and fat though over the ensuing weeks. Allowing his gaze to wander down the thin frame, skipping guiltily over the IV needles and catheter tubes, Oliver counted the man’s breaths for a minute. Each breath raised the thin sheet reassuringly, establishing Caldwell’s claim to life. Persistent, tenacious, clinging to life. He might look waxen and pale, but Joseph Caldwell lived, and that was something.
It wasn’t much consolation, and Oliver felt at times that if the man had died on the operating table he might have been better able to get over the whole mess. This lingering sleep-death tugged at his heart and head, made a mess of his entire reason for being. His mother clucked at him and told him he was obsessed. He might well be. He just couldn’t forget the way trust had replaced fear in that grey gaze, the way the man had held his gaze until sleep claimed him, had clutched Oliver’s hand until his body went limp.
“I could chuck it all,” he spoke. He sipped his coffee idly and grimaced at the bitter flavour. He’d forgotten the sugar again. “And go off to become a bohemian artist. Make splashes of colour on grey landscapes and tell the world I’m just misunderstood.” The idea had come to him more and more often of late. He had come to despise his job and the science behind it. Science he felt had betrayed him. All his life he’d loved the quantifiable, the predictable. When science screwed you over what else was there but art? Draining the cup to the dregs, he swallowed the strange lump in his throat that seemed to have been a near-constant problem for the last six months.