“Right now, I’m not going anywhere that isn’t in this hospital, and neither is Beverly,” I said, and straightened.
Any protest Nathan might have been considering died when he saw the way I was holding the leash. He nodded. “Okay. I’ll be right there. I love you.” He kissed my cheek, and he was gone, speed walking toward the nearest set of doors.
The nearest security guard frowned in my direction as soon as Nathan was out of sight. I was disheveled, and I was with a dog who didn’t have a service jacket on. I offered the woman a wavering smile and turned to walk quickly toward the nearest bank of elevators, hoping that she’d let me go off and become someone else’s problem.
Luck, or maybe laziness, was with me; the guard kept glaring until I was safely in the elevator and bound for Nathan’s floor. Beverly walked easily on her leash, with none of the pulling or foot-dragging that I’d witnessed when she was being walked by her owner; she even heeled naturally, settling against my leg like she’d been born there.
“You’re a good dog, aren’t you, Beverly?” I asked her. “You’re a good, good dog. A good dog like you shouldn’t be treated like that. I’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again. You have my word on that.”
Beverly turned her big brown eyes on me and believed every word I said. I could see it in her face, and belief is in the nature of dogs.
The elevator let us out on Nathan’s floor, where everyone was much more familiar with me, and hence more inclined to be forgiving. Nathan’s research assistant, Devi, still raised an eyebrow at the sight of my new black shadow. “Sal, I don’t mean to sound like I’m prying here, but… is that a dog?”
“She’s a dog,” I confirmed needlessly. “Beverly, I want you to meet Devi. Devi, this is Beverly. She joined us in the park.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Beverly,” said Devi to the dog, as politely as if she were addressing a human. Her eyes flicked back to me. “Still not trying to pry, but you look a little flushed. Can I get you a glass of water or something?”
The unspoken Are you okay? in her words was loud enough that she might as well have said it. I mustered a smile and said, “A glass of water would be good.” A fainting couch would be better, but if I asked for that, I was going to find myself getting more medical attention than I wanted—and there was no telling what would happen to Beverly, who really wasn’t supposed to be in the hospital.
“Uh-huh.” Devi rose, still watching me. “Are you going to tell me why you look so tired, or are you going to let me spin wild stories to amuse myself? You’re secretly an international spy who’s been faking amnesia while you waited for your contact to meet you with the goods.”
“ ‘The goods’?” I echoed.
“You know. Information that can be used to prevent the next World War.” Devi walked into the small nurse’s closet behind the desk as she spoke, and called back, “It’s probably on a thumb drive hidden inside the dog. That’s why you have her, right?”
I’d seen enough bad spy movies to know where Devi was going with this, and decided to play along. It would make us both feel better. “Yes, but I’ve decided to abandon my mission,” I deadpanned. “I just can’t bring myself to cut open a dog to get to the secret plans.”
“That’s what makes you a better person than your government masters.” Devi emerged with a bottle of red Gatorade. I wasn’t sure whether it was the red kind that supposedly tasted like fruit punch or the red kind that supposedly tasted like cherry. I also wasn’t sure it mattered. I was thirsty enough that the first half of the bottle didn’t taste like anything but sweetness. By the time the first traces of artificial fruit came creeping in, the dryness in my throat was mostly gone, and Devi was no longer watching me like she was afraid I’d keel over at any moment.
“Thank you,” I half-said, half-gasped, and replaced the lid on the bottle. “I think I needed that pretty bad. We saw—”
The image of the man in the park—Beverly’s real master, even if she had abandoned him for me—as the animation drained from his face rose behind my eyes. My stomach gave a lurch, objecting to the memory more than to the Gatorade. The result was the same. I clapped a hand over my mouth, thrusting Beverly’s leash into Devi’s hands. Devi looked unsurprised. She took the leash and stepped aside, clearing the way for me to race to the bathroom.
Red Gatorade looks a lot like blood when it’s filling a toilet basin. I stayed on my knees in front of the bowl, bracing my hands against the floor while I waited for my head to stop spinning. My stomach gave another lurch. I managed to flush away the mess before I threw up again, but barely.
At least this time, there was less artificial red in the bowl. I leaned to the side and pressed my forehead against the tile wall, waiting for the urge to vomit a third time to pass. It went slowly, but it went, and I stood on legs that felt like they were made of rubber. Once I was sure they’d hold me, I staggered to the sink and washed my face with icy water. I only wished there were a way for me to wash away the memory of what I’d seen. That poor man…
I shuddered. Then I straightened, dried my face with a paper towel, and walked back out of the bathroom to rescue Devi from Beverly.
Devi turned out not to need much rescuing. She was back behind her desk, and Beverly was sprawled at her feet, looking like she belonged exactly where she was. I laughed a little, despite the ongoing lightness in my head.