A television played quietly in the corner. Spanish soap opera; I didn’t recognize which one this was, but I think I’d watched it a few months ago. I still had no idea what was going on. Something about super heroes and evil twins?
I tapped my fingers along the arm of the chair, blowing the mop of my hair out of my face. A child cried in the corner, his mother’s face buried in a magazine that’d been old last year. It was still advertising for the olympics. It all swam slowly into focus.
The caped figure on the television bowed, shouted about the goodness and integrity of the universe, and flew off in a cheap display of special effects, and I looked around a bit more.
Hospital waiting room. Half crowded, half empty, most of the people were firmly in the sick waiting area, while only a handful of us were waiting in the non sick. My left hand twinged awkwardly.
Sadly, that wasn’t something a round of antibiotics would cure. After the accident… well, the only thing that would touch that was time and responsible stretching. I gave the latter a try and hissed when it twinged uncomfortably up and down my arm.
“You a vet?” the man next to me asked. I looked over at him. A scar ran, half visible, up across his shoulder. He was still mostly intact.
“Failed out of basic,” I said, matter of fact. No need to pretend otherwise. “You know how training accidents go.”
He laughed. “You know I do,” He leaned back into the chair. The sun played across the blinds, shooting light across the children paintings scattered across the sick room. Bright flashes of color spread a scene of playful plants. Chrysanthemums and brilliant blooming vines.
I couldn’t tell if he was judging me. After the draft had come up… well. Having a bad hand had kept me from being deployed in the meat of the combat over on the northern border. Hard to carry a rifle, and while I’d passed everything else with flying colors, I’d flunked out of anything they could use me for.
His eyes twinkled. “Not judging. Jealous.”
I closed mine. Breathed in. Tried to ignore the play of the battles behind my eyes, the statistics I’d half memorized, the war I’d never been in. When they flickered open, his smile had faded a bit.
They’d settled on the tv screen. “Oh, they’re reshowing this one.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I knew this wasn’t going to be a happy ending, you know?”
“It never is.” The man agreed. “They’d have to end it then.”
“Gale,” I introduced. “Yeah, like Hurricane’s kid.”
“I wasn’t going to ask.” The man lied. “Daniel. Daniel Patrickson.”
I blinked. “Aren’t you some military guy?” A flash of rage so bright I thought the sun might devour my liver, sinking teeth of pure plasma into my gut to wrench out my soul like an eagle plucking out the secrets of the universe, and then it stilled, hot enough my heart beat like a race car
And then it was gone, snuffed out like an ember. Where’d that come from?
“Well,” the man said. “I’m making sure all the vets here are getting proper care.”
“Oh,” I said. I squinted at him. Where did I know him from again? “I think… I was supposed to serve under you.”
“Small world,” he said. His grin barely touched his eyes. I settled in to watch the recap episode. Amnesia, small town superheroes, the oncoming end of the world, prophesized births. The show was really going downhill, but it was going downhill in the glorious way, rather than the lame one. “Shame you didn’t make it.”
“Trust me,” I said. I barely remembered the accident, but… “Someone had to pull the bad grenade eventually. I’m just glad it didn’t kill anyone.”
“You’re not having trouble paying for physical therapy…?” He asked.
“Hurricane keeps the bank filled,” I said. “He’s busy with storm efforts, I know; the perils of having rockstar scientists for parents,” I explained. “But he’s good about that.”
He laughed. “Good luck.”
The secretary called my name, and I stood up and walked to the other side. It was finally time to see them.
The halls were filled with people like me. Visiting hours had to be cleared now, given how many people were streaming in to see the victims of war. I heard parents sobbing quietly in rooms, watching the wounded try and recuperate. Doctors drank extra strength coffee through cracked doors, their jackets stained with sweat.
I swallowed. Was I really going to do this? Was this something I could do?
Fuck it. If Colton could go and get into the military when I couldn’t, the least I could do was visit him. I soldiered on.
Colton wasn’t in internal care. He had that going for him, at least, he was being held in the ward of least concern. The surgeries had gone well, from what the letters had said, and now there was only physical therapy, weeks if not months or years of it, to keep it all together.
I poked my head inside the door. He was watching the same stupid soap opera. Based on an American disaster during the war, a fishing village slaughtered to keep the flu from spreading too much further; the spiral of decisions made under duress that eventually lead to the mexican intervention.
Powerful, and then they added in super heroes. “Hey,” I said.
His head swung to meet me. His dark hair framed his tired face like curtains frame a cinema screen. Confusion. He didn’t recognize me.
It’d been years since we’d been face to face. Even longer since we’d been friends. Maybe this was a mistake after all.
Dark eyes brightened, then flicked wide open.
“I figured you could use the company,” I said, and stepped inside. One of his legs was still immobilized, lifted up into the air, but it wasn’t worth worrying over. “Anyone else visit?”
They did good work here.
“Just a couple from my squad,” Colton said. “I wasn’t expecting any civilians.”
An awkward silence. My heart thumped in my chest. “Did you know Patrickson’s here?”
“Really?” His voice warbled in his throat like a grasshopper howling in defiance as the train approached it. “I hadn’t.”
“Well,” I said. “He’s here. Visiting the wounded. So look forward to that.”
“Have a seat,” Colton said. “Not that I can stop you or anything.”
“You could flag the nurses,” I joked.
“Not yet,” he said.
I took a seat. “So…”
“Just ask already,” Colton said, rolling his eyes.
“If you’re not comfortable…”
“A few months,” Colton said. “Until the leg’s back together, and then we get to do physio for a while. The military’s planning on covering the entirety of it.”
I whistled. “Wow.”
“After what we did…” Colton said. “It’s only right.” His voice was stiff, stern.
“What you did,” I corrected.
“Sure,” Colton said. “So what are you going to do?”
“Me?” I asked. “Why’s this about me now?”
“Come on. World famous Gale, you can do anything you want.”
I laughed at him. “I came to talk about you.”
“Well, I want to talk about you instead,” Colton returned.
“Fine,” I rolled my eyes and looked out the window. The city sprawled underneath of it, a cesspool of mixed traffic and tarnished buildings. There was a hope to it, now that the intervention was over. “Maybe university.”
“You’d do good there,” Colton said. “You were always pretty bright.”
I clenched my left fist. Tried to ignore the drawing pain. We were all carrying injuries.
I was hyper aware that mine were slightly different than the bullets that’d shattered his leg. “You?”
He shrugged. “Maybe try and get a desk job in the military.”
“You staying in after…” I gestured.
“I don’t really know,” He laughed. “You know, I don’t really have that much to look forward to outside of the military.”
I bit my lip. Family wasn’t really a thing for him to rely on.
He laughed. “You look like you bit into a lemon.”
“Sorry,” I said, finally.
He shook his head. “You came,” he said. “And that’s more than I can say about our other classmates.”
I relaxed and leaned back against the wall. “So… do you still have a place to go?”
The bed bound man shrugged. “I think my house was on the border, so probably not.”
“You can stay with us. The mansion’s still intact.”
He snorted. “The mansion.”
“Grant money goes pretty far,” I said. “You’d be surprised what having two all stars scientists gets you!”
“A mansion though?” he asked.
“Shush you,” I said. “Do you want to go or not?”
“Fine, you’ve twisted my arm enough,” Colton said. “I’ll go to your mansion.”
“It’d be our mansion for a bit.”
“That’s a bit forward.”
I stared at him.
He stared back.
He cracked the grin first. “You look like I pointed a gun at you.”
“Nothing, this just…” I trailed off. “Well, it seemed a bit familiar, you know?”
Colton frowned. “Not sure what you mean.” A pause. The soap opera turned violent. Bullets. Indestructible capes. A man with a sword howling for freedom against the forces of the void.
“Any idea what’s happening?”
“No idea,” Colton said. “He looks pretty pissed. I hate being out of the country for too long, I can’t follow these things at all.”
But I wasn’t in the hospital to just see Colton. There were many different people wounded and injured to look upon. I slipped my fingers together into a fist in front of the next door and knocked. The nurses were watching me out of the corner of my eyes, their faces twisted like wolves, sniffing the air to see if I was who I was supposed to be.
Hyper vigilant. It wasn’t that long since- well, it wasn’t that long-
“Come in,” an aged voice said. I took a few deep breaths, held it until my heart ached, and then stepped inside. Gunze sat on the bed. Liver spots dappled his skin.
The old man at the cloth shop had seen better days. His eyes weren’t dim yet, though.
“Sorry for the mess,” Gunze laughed, gesturing at the hospital room. The place smelled like old food and air freshener. The tv was still playing in the background, I put myself between it and him. “I wasn’t exactly expecting guests.”
“Well,” I said. “I heard you were in the hospital.” I stole a seat and sat down on it.
“Nice of you,” Gunze said. “Didn’t think you’d swing by, Gale. Not after what happened.”
I swallowed and looked at the window. Damn him for being straight to the point. “I wanted to make sure you were okay, too.”
“It won’t make him any better,” Gunze said, knowingly.
“He’s stable,” I said. “This… Look, it won’t be like Faraday. He’s still here.”
Gunze hummed in the bed, tossing his leg over top of the other. “Still… don’t waste your time on me. Not if you don’t have to.”
I glared at him.
“What?” Gunze said, raising an eyebrow. “I’m used to it.”
“Don’t say that about yourself,” I scolded.
“I can say what I want about myself,” Gunze defended, shaking his head. “I’m old, and it’s the responsibility of the old to be as bitter as they want.”
“What are you bitter about?” I asked.
“The youth,” Gunze said. I stared at him until he started wheezing in laughter. “I’m bitter that this prison of flesh is finally giving in on me,” Gunze admitted.
“You don’t get it,” Gunze said.
My eyes flicked down to my hand, then back up to him.
“Maybe you get it a little,” Gunze said. “Maybe…” He breathed out. Sighed. “Goddammit I wanted to live to at least 90.”
“You still got years in you.”
“Do I want those years to be like this?” He gestured vaguely. “Ugh, who am I kidding myself.”
Another knock at the door. I tilted my head and looked that way.
“Come in,” Gunze said, trying not to sound defeated.
Mary stuck her head in. It’d been years since I’d seen my old spanish teacher, they were really coming out of the woodworks. She looked better after the physical therapy. “Am I interrupting?”
“Just bemoaning, Mary,” Gunze said. “You’re late for most of it.”
“Good, I’d hate to get a double dose,” Mary said, slipping inside. “Gale, good to see you. You making the rounds, I guess?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Anyone here I should catch up with?”
Mary looked over at Gunze, and the old man glared at her. She wasn’t exactly a spring chicken herself, but the tide of age hadn’t taken her out as dramatically. “One of my students is in. Maybe you should go visit her too?”
“Really?” I asked.
“Her name is Hands. She’s just a few doors down; maybe she shouldn’t be left alone too long.” Mary said. “I’ll handle this depressed old man.”
“No rest of the good of heart?” Gunze asked. “Not even now, Mary?”
“Never,” Mary replied.
I hadn’t seen a doctor in a moment, so it was a relief when one sidled out of the room. Her face was scrawled on like a marker, and she smiled at me as she passed. I smiled back, taking a step to the side to let her pass, and then I walked forward.
There were too many war vets to house in just one ward. So they had them spread around like spilled red wine. Here and there, I could see the flag hanging on their door that marked them appropriately, which was good, because I didn’t want to disturb any of them. After all…
Well, it wasn’t like my face wasn’t recognizable. I was still fielding accusations that I’d hurt myself on purpose to get out of the fight.
Luckily, Hands didn’t have a flag on her door. There was someone else in the room with her. Another doctor, head like a balloon and hair scrawled on like crayon perched across the back of the table, looking down at a clipboard. They looked up owlishly as I opened the door, the eyes having no more depth than the average glass of water, and then scurried out of my way.
The girl laying in the bed watched the doctor pass by. “Strange things, aren’t they?”
“Can’t imagine why anyone would want a medical doctorate,” I said, agreeing. “It just sounds like a lot of responsibility.”
The bedridden girl blinked at me, then flicked her gaze over to the television screen. News report given by a cardboard cut out of a women I’d met once. Her hands had been cold as ice as she gave the interview, microphone armed like a sword. The words were all in sliding Spanish, but I couldn’t make out more than a phrase here or there.
“So…” I said. “Hands, right?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Hands said. “You knew that already.”
“You got me,” I said. I took a seat, well away from the sink where the doctor had been. “Mary wanted me to check in on you.”
“She would,” Hands said. It was quiet. “So you’re still Gale, right?”
“Name hasn’t changed,” I said.
Hands bit her lip. I watched her.
There was faint music playing from the radio. I bumped my head to the beat after a moment.
“Just going to watch over me?” Hands asked.
“Mary thought I could help you out.”
“You can’t,” Hands said. “Not as you are.” She bit down harder. “Look… you can go.”
I blinked. “I can?”
“Go,” Hands said, shooing me away. “I don’t want to look at you like that.”
I gestured down at myself. “What’s wrong?”
“How can you just look like that?” Hands asked. “You’re wearing Gale’s face.”
I touched my face with a hand. Poked at it, then cocked my head to the side. “We haven’t met, Hands.”
“Not here, maybe,” Hands said. “Just… leave me alone.”
I stood up. “You sure? I can stay here.”
“I just…” Hands trailed off. “They had my mother, Gale. They paraded her in front of me like a puppet, but she’d never looked happy like that in years, not since my father passed, and I just remembered how it looked the last time she smiled, and I just couldn’t do it, Gale. I don’t know what we did, I don’t know who we are, but this isn’t right, alright? This isn’t what we were doing, we can keep going or we can stay here and I don’t know-”
The door opened, and the doctor bobbed inside, expression painted on with a brush.
“Oh,” I said, looking at him. “I’m bothering her, aren’t I?”
The head bobbed up and down.
Hands stared at the PHD and then looked back at me. “You don’t see this?”
I stood up. “Hey, I’ll be back later,” I said.
“Yeah,” Hands said, but she wasn’t looking at me, occupied with the doctor. “Looks like they’re going to give me another round of treatment for the thorns.”
“You got hospitalized from a briar patch?” I asked.
“Don’t worry about it,” she said. I pushed by the doctor, and heard them close the door. I bit my own lip. What had that been about?