COPYRIGHT Paranoia by Joseph Finder. Copyright 2004 by Joseph Finder. All Rights Reserved. Sharing not permitted.
Our dinners were barely half eaten. I drove her home, apologizing profusely all the while. She could not have been more sympathetic. She even offered to come to the hospital with me, but I couldn't expose her to my father, not this early on: that would be too gruesome.
Once I'd dropped her off, I took the Porsche up to eighty miles an hour and made it to the hospital in fifteen minutes—luckily, without being pulled over. I raced into the emergency room in an altered state of consciousness: hyper-alert, scared, with tunnel vision. I just wanted to get to Dad and see him before he died. Every damned second I had to wait at the ER desk, I was convinced, might be the moment Dad died, and I'd never get a chance to say good-bye. I pretty much shouted out his name at the triage nurse, and when she told me where he was, I took off running. I remember thinking that if he was already dead she'd have said something to that effect, so he must still be alive.
I saw Antwoine first, standing outside the green curtains. His face was for some reason scratched and bloodied, and he looked scared.
"What's up?" I called out. "Where is he?"
Antwoine pointed to the green curtains, behind which I could hear voices. "All of a sudden his breathing got all labored. Then he started turning kind of dark in the face, kind of bluish. His fingers started getting blue. That's when I called the ambulance." He sounded defensive.
"Yeah, he's alive. Man, for an old cripple he's got a lot of fight left in him."
"He did that to you?" I asked, indicating his face.
Antwoine nodded, smiling sheepishly. "He refused to get into the ambulance. He said he was fine. I spent like half an hour fighting with him, when I should have just picked him up and threw him in the car. I hope I didn't wait too long to call the ambulance."
A small, dark-skinned young guy in green scrubs came up to me. "Are you his son?"
"Yeah?" I said.
"I'm Dr. Patel," the man said. He was maybe my age, a resident or an intern or whatever.
"Oh. Hi." I paused. "Um, is he going to make it?"
"Looks like it. Your father has a cold, that's all. But he doesn't have any respiratory reserve. So a minor cold, for him, is life-threatening."
"Can I see him?"
"Of course," he said, stepping to the curtain and pulling it back. A nurse was hooking up an IV bag to Dad's arm. He had a clear plastic mask on over his mouth and nose, and he stared at me. He looked basically the same, just smaller, his face paler than normal. He was connected to a bunch of monitors.
He reached down and pulled the mask off his face. "Look at all this fuss," he said. His voice was weak.
"How're you doing, Mr. Cassidy?" Dr. Patel said.
"Oh, great," Dad said, heavy on the sarcasm. "Can't you tell?"
"I think you're doing better than your caregiver."
Antwoine was sidling up to take a look. Dad looked suddenly guilty. "Oh, that. Sorry about your face, there, Antwoine."
Antwoine, who must have realized this was as elaborate an apology as he was ever going to get from my father, looked relieved. "I learned my lesson. Next time I fight back harder."
Dad smiled like a heavyweight champ.
"This gentleman saved your life," Dr. Patel said.
"Did he," Dad said.
"He sure did."
Dad shifted his head slightly to stare at Antwoine. "What'd you have to go and do that for?" he said.
"Didn't want to have to look for another job so quick," Antwoine said right back.
Dr. Patel spoke softly to me. "His chest X ray was normal, for him, and his white count is eight point five, which is also normal. His blood gasses came back indicating he was in impending respiratory failure, but he appears to be stable now. We've got him on a course of IV antibiotics, some oxygen, and IV steroids."
"What's the mask?" I said. "Oxygen?"
"It's a nebulizer. Albuterol and atrovent, which are bronchodilators." He leaned over my father and put the mask back in place. "You're a real fighter, Mr. Cassidy."
Dad just blinked.
"That's an understatement," Antwoine said, laughing huskily.
"Excuse us." Dr. Patel pulled back the curtain and took a few steps. I followed him, while Antwoine hung back with Dad.
"Does he still smoke?" Dr. Patel asked sharply.
"There are nicotine stains on his fingers. That's completely insane, you know."