She was suffering from chills, too, and she'd never heard that Hades had a heating problem, so perhaps she hadn't been condemned to damnation, after all. That would be nice.
Sometimes she saw people hovering over her, but they were just shapes, their faces without detail, as her vision was blurred. They might have been angels or demons, but she was pretty sure they were ordinary people, because one of them cursed, which an angel would never do, and they were trying to make her more comfortable, whereas any self respecting demon would be thrusting lit matches up her nose or jabbing needles in her tongue or tormenting her in some hideous fashion that it had learned in whatever trade school demons attended before certification.
They also used words that didn't fit the tongues of angels or demons: hypodermoclysis ... intravenous oxytocin ... maintain perfect asepsis, and I mean perfect, at all times ... a few oral preparations of ergot as soon as it's safe to give her anything by mouth More than not, she floated in darkness or in dreams.
For a while, she was in The Searchers She and Joey were riding with a deeply troubled John Wayne while the delightful David Niven floated along overhead in a basket suspended from a huge, colorful hot-air balloon.
Waking from a starry night in the Old West into electric light, gazing up into a blur of faces sans cowboy hats, Agnes felt someone moving a piece of ice in slow circles over her bare abdomen. Shivering as the cold water trickled down her sides, she tried to ask them why they were applying ice when she was already chilled to the bone, but she couldn't find her voice.
Suddenly she realized-Good Lord! — that someone else had a had inside her, up the very center of her, massaging her uterus in the same lazy pattern as that made by the piece of melting ice on her belly.
“She'll need another transfusion."
This voice she recognized. Dr. Joshua Nunn. Her physician.
She'd heard him earlier but hadn't identified him then.
Something was very wrong with her, and she tried to speak, but again her voice failed her.
Embarrassed, cold, abruptly frightened, she returned to the Old West, where night on the low desert was warm. The campfire flickereded welcomingly. John Wayne put an arm around her and said, “There are no dead husbands or dead babies here,” and though he intended only to reassure her, she was overcome by misery until Shirley MacLaine took her aside for some heart-to-heart girl talk. Agnes woke again and was no longer chilled, but feverish. Her lips were cracked, her tongue rough and dry.
The hospital room was softly lighted, and shadows roosted on all sides like a flock of slumbering birds.
When Agnes groaned, one of the shadows spread its wings, moved closer, to the right side of the bed, and resolved into a nurse. Agnes's vision had cleared. The nurse was a pretty young woman with black hair and indigo eyes.
“Thirsty,” Agnes rasped. Her voice was Sahara sand abrading anienct stone, the dry whisper of a pharaoh's mummy talking to itself in a vaulted sealed for three thousand years.
“You can't take much of anything by mouth for a few hours yet,” said the nurse. “Nausea is too great a risk. Retching might start you hemorrhaging again."
“Ice,” said someone on the left side of the bed.
The nurse raised her eyes from Agnes to this other person. “Yes a chip of ice would be all right."
When Agnes turned her head and saw Maria Elena Gonzalez, she thought she must be dreaming again.
On the nightstand stood a stainless-steel carafe beaded with condensation. Maria took the cap off the water carafe, and with a longhandled spoon, she scooped out a chip of ice. Cupping her left hand under the spoon to catch drips, she conveyed the shimmering sliver to Agnes's mouth.
The ice was not merely cold and wet; it was delicious, and it seemed strangely sweet, as though it were a morsel of dark chocolate.
When Agnes crunched the ice, the nurse said, “No, no. Don't swallow it all at once. Let it melt."
This admonition, made in all seriousness, left Agnes shaken. If such If such a small quantity of crushed ice, taken in a single swallow, might cause nausea and renewed hemorrhaging, she must be extremely fragile. One of the roosting shadows might still be Death, holding a stubborn vigil.
She was so hot that the ice melted quickly. A thin trickle slid down her throat, but not enough to take the Sahara out of her voice when she said, “More."
“Just one,” the nurse allowed.
Maria fished another chip from the sweating carafe, rejected it, and scooped out a larger piece. She hesitated, staring at it for a moment, and then spooned it between Agnes's lips. “Water can to be broken if it will be first made into ice."
This seemed to be a statement of great mystery and beauty, and Agnes was still contemplating it when the last of the ice melted on her tongue. Instead of more ice, sleep was spooned into her, as dark and rich as baker's chocolate.
WHEN DR. JIM PARKHURST made his evening rounds, Junior didn't continue to feign sleep but asked earnest questions to which he knew most of the answers, having eavesdropped on the conversation between the physician and Detective Vanadium.
His throat was still so raw from the explosive vomiting, seared by stomach acid, that he sounded like a character from a puppet show for children on Saturday-morning television, hoarse and squeaky at the same time. If not for the pain, he would have felt ridiculous, but the hot and jagged scrape of each word through his throat left him unable to feel any emotion except self-pity.
Though he had now twice heard the doctor explain acute nervous emesis, Junior still didn't understand how the shock of losing his wife could have led to such a violent and disgusting seizure.
“You haven't had previous episodes like this?” Parkhurst asked, standing at the bedside with a file folder in his hands, half-lens reading glasses pulled down to the tip of his nose.
“Periodic violent emesis without an apparent cause can be one indication of locomotor ataxia, but you've no other symptoms of it. I wouldn't worry about that unless this happens again."
Junior grimaced at the prospect of another puke storm.
Parkhurst said, “We've eliminated most other possible causes. You don't have acute myelitis or meningitis. Or anemia of the brain. No concussion. You don't have other symptoms of Meniere's disease. Tomorrow, we'll conduct some tests for possible brain tumor or lesion, but I'm confident that's not the explanation, either."
“Acute nervous emesis,” Junior croaked. “I've never thought of myself as a nervous person."
“Oh, it doesn't mean you're nervous in that sense. Nervous in this case means psychologically induced. Grief, Enoch. brief and shock and horror-they can have profound physical effects."
Pity warmed the physician's ascetic face. “You loved your wife very much, didn't you?"
Cherished her, Junior tried to say, but emotion me, clotted like a great gob of mucus in his throat. His face contorted with a misery that he did not have to fake, and he was astonished to feel tears spring to his eyes.
Alarmed, concerned that his patient's emotional reaction would lead to racking sobs, which in turn might stimulate abdominal spasms and renewed vomiting, Parkhurst called for a nurse and prescribed the immediate administration of diazepam.
As the nurse gave Junior the injection, Parkhurst said, “You're an exceptionally sensitive man, Enoch. That's a quality to be much admired in an often unfeeling world. But in your current condition, your sensitivity is your worst enemy."
While the doctor proceeded with his evening rounds, the nurse remained with Junior until it was clear that the tranquilizer had calmed him and that he was no longer in danger of succumbing to another bout of hemorrhagic vomiting.
Her name was Victoria Bressler, and she was an attractive blonde. She would never have been serious competition For Naomi, because Naomi had been singularly stunning, but Naomi, after all, was gone.
When Junior complained of severe thirst, Victoria explained that he was to have nothing by mouth until morning. He would be put on a liquid diet for breakfast and lunch. Soft foods might be allowable by dinnertime tomorrow.
Meanwhile, she could offer him only a few pieces of ice, which he was forbidden to chew. “Let them melt in your mouth."
Victoria scooped the small clear ovals-not cubes, but discs-one at a time, from the carafe on the nightstand. She spooned the ice into Junior's mouth not with the businesslike efficiency of a nurse, but as a courtesan might perform the task: smiling enticingly, a flirtatious glimmer in her blue eyes, slowly easing the spoon between his lips with such sensuous deliberation that he was reminded of the eating scene in Tom Jones.
Junior was accustomed to having women seduce him. His good looks were a blessing of nature. His commitment to improving his mind made him interesting. Most important, from the books of Caesar Zedd, he had learned how to be irresistibly charming.
And although he was not a braggart in these matters, never one to participate in locker-room boasting, he was confident that he always gave the ladies more satisfactory service than they had ever receive from other men. Perhaps word of his physical gifts and his prowess had reached Victoria; women talked about such things among themselves, perhaps even more than men did.
Considering his various pains and his exhaustion, Junior was some what surprised that this lovely nurse, with her seductive spoon tech nique, was able to arouse him. Though currently in no condition for romance, he was definitely interested in a future liaison.
Ile wondered about the etiquette of just a little reciprocal flirtation when his dead wife was not yet even in the ground. He didn't wish to appear to be a lout. He wanted Victoria to think well of him. There must be a charming and civilized approach that would be proper, even elegant, but would leave no doubt in her mind that she made him hot.
Vanadium would find out. Regardless of the subtlety and dignity with which Junior responded to Victoria, Thomas Vanadium would learn of his erotic interest. Somehow. Some way. Victoria would not wish to testify as to the immediate and electrifying erotic attraction be tween her and Junior, would not want to help the authorities put him in prison, where her passion for him would go unfulfilled, but Vanadium would smell out her secret and compel her to take the witness stand.
Junior must say nothing that could be quoted to a jury. He must not even allow himself as much as a lascivious wink or a quick caress of Victoria's hand.
The nurse gave him another loving spoonful.
Without a word, without daring to meet her eyes and exchange a meaningful look, Junior accepted the oval of ice in the same spirit with which this lovely woman offered it. He trapped the bowl of the spoon in his mouth for a long moment, so she could not easily remove it, and closing his eyes, he groaned with pleasure, as if the ice were a morsel of ambrosia, the food of the gods, as if it were a spoonful of the nurse her self that he was savoring. When at last he released the spoon, he did so with an encircling and suggestive lick, and then licked his lips, too, when the cold steel slipped free of them.
Opening his eyes, still not daring to meet Victoria's gaze, Junior knew she had registered and properly interpreted his response to her seductive spooning. She had frozen, the utensil in midair, and her breath had caught in her throat. She was thrilled.
Neither of them needed to confirm their mutual attraction with even so much as an additional nod or a smile. Victoria knew, as he did, that their time would come, when all this current unpleasantness was I behind them, when Vanadium had been thwarted, when all suspicion had been forever laid to rest.
They could be patient. Their self-denial and sweet anticipation ensured that their lovemaking, when at last they were able safely to indulge, would be shattering in its intensity, like the coupling of mortals raised to the status of demigods by virtue of their passion, its power and purity.
He had recently learned about the demigods of classic mythology in one of the selections from the Book-of-the-Month Club.
When Victoria finally calmed her racing heart, she returned the spoon to the tray on the nightstand, stoppered the carafe, and said, “That's enough for now, Mr. Cain. In your condition, even too much I melted ice might trigger renewed vomiting."
Junior was impressed and delighted by her clever assumption of it strictly professional voice and demeanor, which convincingly masked her intense desire. Sweet Victoria was a worthy coconspirator.
“Thank you, Nurse Bressler,” he said most solemnly, matching her tone, barely able to control the urge to glance at her, smile, and give her another preview of his quick, pink tongue.
“I'll have another nurse look in on you from time to time."
Now that neither of them had a doubt that the other shared the same need and that eventually they would satisfy each other, Victoria was opting for discretion. Wise woman.
“I understand, “he said.
“You need to rest,” she advised, turning away from the bed Yes, he suspected that he would require a great deal of rest to prepare himself for this vixen. Even in her loose white uniform and stodgy rubber-soled shoes, she was an incomparably erotic figure. She would be a lioness in bed.
After Victoria had departed, Junior lay smiling at the ceiling, floating on Valium and desire. And vanity.
In this case, he was sure that vanity was not a fault, not the result of a swollen ego, but merely healthy self-esteem. That he was irresistible to women wasn't simply his biased opinion, but an observable and undeniable fact, like gravity or the order in which the planets revolved t around the sun.
He was, admittedly, surprised that Nurse Bressler was strongly compelled to come on to him even though she had read his patient file and knew that he'd recently been a veritable geyser of noxious spew, that during the violent seizure in the ambulance, he had also lost control of bladder and bowels, and that he might at any moment suffer an explosive relapse. This was a remarkable testament to the animal lust he inspired even without trying, to the powerful male magnetism that was as much a part of him as his thick blond hair.
AGNES, FROM A DREAM of unbearable loss, woke with warm tears on her face.
The hospital was drowned in the bottomless silence that fills places of human habitation only in the few hours before dawn, when the needs and hungers' and fears of one day are forgotten and those of the next are not yet acknowledged, when our flailing species briefly floats insensate between one desperate swim and another.
The upper end of the bed was elevated. Otherwise, Agnes would not have been able to see the room, for she was too weak to raise her head from the pillows.
Shadows still perched throughout most of the room. They no longer reminded her of roosting birds, but of a featherless flock, leathery of wing and red of eye, with a taste for unspeakable feasts.
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