Kansas City, MO
Sarah sat in bed reviewing a paper that her research center would be publishing in the coming days and presenting soon after to the World Federation of Neurology. She was working by a small bedside table lamp that she had bought specifically to not keep Mark up, but he still stirred restlessly beside her in the low light as rain pounded against the window.
“You know,” said Mark, his voice muffled by the rain, “the point of going to bed early is to actually sleep.”
Sarah considered the stack of papers in her lap. She had always been good research, but never sleep. She gathered her papers and her phone, rand her hand through Mark’s hair, then turned the light out.
“This has to be done by the morning, and the thunder will keep me up anyway,” she said. “I’ll be back when I finish and the storm lets up. Goodnight.”
Mark replied with a sigh and then groggy goodnight as she got out of bed. Before she had even reached her office her phone vibrated. It was Steve, the night nurse unit manager of the center’s small patient ward.
“I’m sorry to bother you at home, Dr. Dillinger, but I think you should come in as soon as possible.”
Sarah was fairly certain as to the why, and had been fearing this call for months now. In what was easily the strangest and most concerning development surrounding her patient Mordecai Rocca — and given his case that was saying a lot — four patients in the ward had all been stricken by an acute, sudden-onset stupor and rapidly deteriorating neurological state that closely mimicked the symptoms for which Rocca had brought to the center for displaying. They didn’t, however, exhibit Rocca’s extraordinary, and still unexplained, physiological resilience, and so had each begun dying in turn.
It had been a real nightmare, as she had been forced to declare the entire ward a quarantine zone to protect against the possibility that Rocca’s condition was an infectious pathogen. Just as it had been several times prior, pathogens were ruled out, but she had still decided it was best to move Rocca to a room by himself and put in place extra precautions while overseeing him to prevent the spread of any potential yet unknown contaminants.
“It’s Rocca, isn’t it,” she asked, “He’s died, hasn’t he?”
“Yes, I mean, no. Dr. Dillinger, it is about Rocca, but he hasn’t died, he’s woken up.”
Sarah stopped. She set down everything and focused.
“Be absolutely clear with what you’ve observed.”
“Nurse Shultz was doing patient rounds when the last tornado siren went off. When she went to move Rocca to a secure location he struck up a conversation with her. He’s fully conscious, alert, responsive, and talking clearly.”
“I’m coming right now.”
Sarah hung up and raced back into the bedroom, hastily tossing off her sweatpants and shirt and pulling on slacks and a button-up as an endless torrent of questions assaulted her as this miraculous news set in. There was no telling how soon Rocca might relapse, and he alone had answers to questions about the origins of his bizarre pathology. Questions who’s answers might fill in the gaps in the research her and the entire the center had been working on since Rocca’s arrival. Research they were certain would, upon completion, change life and medicine as we know it forever.
Rocca, still floating in the euphoric afterglow of finally returning from his odyssey, had been trying unsuccessfully to use his will to tip over a plastic cup on the counter across the room when a woman wearing a white doctor’s coat with a stethoscope around her neck entered followed by a male nurse wheeling in a small cart full of medical instruments and devices. Her tired eyes lit up as soon as she saw him, and her mouth hung slightly open in a gaping grin. Apparently his presence was unexpected but very welcomed. They had at least that much in common.
“I was beginning to think no one was going to come back in,” he said. “And given how many machines I’m hooked up to I should feel pretty bad, right? But, I feel fine. Am I…fine?”
Rocca didn’t understand why she smiled even more at that, but after she seemed to shake off the reverie and then exude a strong authoritative presence.
“The fact that you’re conscious and talking without any apparent signs of any cognitive impairment is extremely promising, Mr. Rocca.” She set her bag down, pulled out a tablet from it, and quickly collected an array of medical electronics from a nearby countertop before moving up beside him. “I’d like to get some quick diagnostics…”
“The fact that you’re conscious and talking are both very promising signs, Mr. Rocca.”
She turned to the nurse. “Thank you, Steve, I’ll take it from here.” Steve nodded, stared pointedly at Rocca, then stepped out of the room. She wheeled the cart up beside his bed and pulled out a needle attached to a rubber tube and several blood vials.
“We’ll start with blood samples so we can get them off to the lab and back as soon as possible.”
Rocca held up his hands to stop her. “Maybe before you put holes in me you can tell me who you are and why I’m here?”
She paused, then laughed, more amused than embarrassed. “I’m sorry, Mr. Rocca, I’m not normally so aloof, nor do I oversee patient care directly anymore, so my bedside manor may have suffered in the intervening years. I just never imagined either one of us would be fortunate enough to talk to each other. I’m Dr. Sarah Dillinger, MD and PhD, and I’m the director here at the Center for Advanced Neurological Studies of Kansas City. It’s nice to finally meet you.” She held her hand out to him.
He was at a neurological center in Kansas City? Neither of those facts were expected or comforting. Why hadn’t they brought him home to Seattle? The last place he remembered being on this plane was on a beach in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico with Her, right before She had torn his soul from his body. Still, he was back, and where in Cabo or Kansas City it didn’t really matter. All that mattered was that he had finally escaped her and made it back. He took the doctor-doctor’s hand and shook it.
“Likewise,” he said. Something about that had her smiling again.
“You have a firm handshake.”
“You’ve been in what might be best understood in very simplistic terms as a coma, and for a considerable amount of time. Normally, someone in your situation would experience severe muscle atrophy, which is when unused muscles waste way. It should have left you weak enough that you’d barely be able to move. But you, Mr. Rocca, incredibly, haven’t only not atrophied, your muscle mass and density have increased since you arrived.”
Rocca looked down at his arms and really noticed them for the first time. He wasn’t exactly what he would have called “ripped”, but his arms looked and felt strong, athletic even, something he had never remotely been. Peering down his shirt through the mess of wires and connection pads he found the same was true of his chest and stomach, both solidly toned and larger than he’d ever remembered being.
“How is that possible?”
“We don’t know yet, but it’s exciting, isn’t it? It’s just one of many questions my team and I have been working on, and we’re making steady progress.”
Exciting? Rocca found the doctor-doctor’s enthusiasm off-putting, a had the feeling of being a prized specimen. Rocca shifted uncomfortably, the motion tugging at the array of wires attached to him from both sides. Seeing them started him wondering what had happened to his body while he had been gone. He had always known it had been left behind, but he hadn’t ever given much thought to that fact or its ramifications. Realizing now that his body had been helpless all this time was unsettling.
“I can’t say I share your enthusiasm,” he said flatly.
She considered him for a moment, and either he was more transparent than he thought or she was just that observant, but she understood what had happened.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Rocca, I didn’t mean to be callous or make light of your situation. My bedside manner is clearly rustier than I thought. Let me try to rephrase. Though my interest in your incredible muscle growth is in discovering how it functions and can be applied to other patients, for you it means that you won’t have to endure months of arduous physical therapy that’s usually required to rehabilitate a coma patient from severe muscle atrophy.
“So I was in a coma?”
“Not exactly. And I hate to rush this, but we should proceed with the blood and other tests. I don’t intend this to worry you, but because so many of the specifics of your condition and recovery is still unknown, we know whether or not you might suddenly relapse, and should that happen, the more we know the better chance we have of bringing you back and preventing it from happening again.”
“I won’t relapse.”
The doctor-doctor considered him. No, her name was Sarah. Rocca had used nick-names to distance himself from the suffering and death he couldn’t stop in the Final Moments, but that wasn’t necessary anymore because…what? People here couldn’t die? They never suffered? In response he could hear in Kwame’s voice the saying he had often told Rocca when he would confided his fears.
We’re as scared to live as we are to die, my friend. Love while you live, and let the rest be blown to the winds.
Rocca had done what he had to to survive and return, but it wasn’t necessary anymore. Sarah. Using the name caused anxiety to swell in him, but he fought it back down. Sarah.
“What makes you say that?” Sarah asked.
Because he had finally escaped Her and returned.
“I’m just sure. Trust me.”
She seemed to mull this over for a long moment, then started typing something on a small keyboard attached to her tablet. She looked up and gave him a comforting smile. “There’s no need to worry about it until we’re given a reason to. Right, Mr. Rocca?”
“Right, and it’s just Rocca.”
“You go by your last name?”
“I never cared for Mordecai. It’s a family name.”
“Well, Rocca, if you don’t have any further objections, I think it would be good to get these test out of the way.”
He nodded and held his arm out to her. After some quick prep Sarah carefully slid the needled end of the tubing into his vein and began taking several vials of blood. After calling Steve back in and handing off the crimson vials for testing, she adjusted the bed so that Rocca could sit upright, which helped him feel less like a specimen. She ran a device across his forehead, noting the results on tablet, then moved to the array of elaborate machines, peering from one to the next, entering values as she went. She pulled a pen from her pocket and held it out to him.
Rocca took the pen.
“Hold it up like this.” She held her arm outstretched high over her head. Rocca quickly followed suit and continued to mimic a series of motions she led him trough, including tossing the pen from one hand to the other. On the last toss he dropped the pen over the side of the bed.
“Is dropping the pen bad?”
“No,” she said with a chuckle, “it’s fine.”
That laugh put him more at ease.
“Can you move your toes for me?” asked Sarah.
He did, and she noted it on her tablet.
“Now your legs.”
The process repeated.
“Do you have any pain?”
Rocca considered for a moment, moving around a bit, then said no.
“Are you hungry or thirsty?”
Neither had been necessary in the Final Moments. He couldn’t even remember anymore what the last thing he had eaten had been. He and the others had on occasion tried to eat, but without the need the experience somehow alway fell flat. The same had been true for sleep, should a Final Moment afford them enough time for it.
At first he had thought that not needing either would be like a new found form of freedom, but instead had found the loss to be very disquieting, leaving him constantly agitated and feeling as though some fundamental part of himself was missing.
“I want to be hungry, and feel like I should be, but I’m not.”
Sarah noted that too.
“What’s the last thing you remember?”
Rocca thought back to his life before. He had been falling through Final Moments for so long that his life before almost didn’t feel real anymore. His past had become little more than a reminder of what he had been fighting for.
“I was in Cabo for Spring Break. I was there with this woman.”
What had She called herself?
“Erin. We were on a beach at night, Playa del Amor, I remember because she wouldn’t shut up about we had to go there and walk through The Arch together.” Hatred bubbled up inside him, but was sickeningly cut with sorrow.
“What is The Arch?”
“It’s this large, natural rock archway. It’s the last bit of land at the very end of the Baja peninsula in Mexico. After that it’s all ocean.”
“Anyway, it was a perfectly clear night, and the moon was so bright it was like being in blue daylight. She said she wanted to show me the stars on the edge the world, and what lied beyond them.”
The words were so bitter they made him want to spit, and yet it was all still so frustratingly mingled with feelings of a happiness beyond anything he had felt his entire life.
“It was so beautiful, and I was so happy,” he trailed off, tears welling up in his eyes.
“Help me understand something,” asked Sarah. “Your parents told us during their interview that you had called them prior to eloping to tell them how much you loved this woman, Erin.”
“Did I?” he interrupted. “I believe it, but I don’t remember doing that.”
“But your distain for her now is quite clear. Why is that?”
“Well, maybe it’s because when we walked through The Arch she tried to kill me.”
Sarah stopped, though her expression never changed. The only sound the rain at the window.
“How did she try to kill you, Rocca?”
Rocca stopped himself from saying that killing is what Death does.
“I don’t know. One minute I was fine; the next I was crumpled in the sand, somehow looking down at myself, and then…” Sarah couldn’t understand what he had actually experienced any more than she would believe him, so there was no point in trying to explain what happened next. “…Nothing.”
“Did she give you anything before or during the trip? A drink, drugs, or any food that tasted, smelled, or even felt strange?”
“Nothing comes to mind. All we had the week before the end was fruit, water, sleep, and, uh, sex.”
“We had already ruled out physical trauma as you weren’t found with any injuries and your MRIs were clean, but the blood panel they performed when you were discovered only covered your standard street drugs, and by the time we were able to send blood and tissue samples to a mass spectrometer for analysis, we didn’t find anything unusual. Many toxins could have been processed out by that point, so one of our working theories had been that you might have exposed to a rare or even unknown toxin, poison, or drug. ”
Rocca was certain it was within Her power to tear his soul from his body, without any additional help, but merely shrugged in reply.
“I don’t remember feeling anything strange until that moment.”
“What did it feel like?”
Rocca thought for a moment. “Nothing. It didn’t hurt, it didn’t feel strange, it didn’t feel like anything. One moment I was walking; the next I was walking away from my own body.”
“I doesn’t sound like you have any theories on how this woman tried to kill you, yet you still maintain that she did try. Why is that?”
It was Rocca’s turn to consider Sarah. He still didn’t feel he could tell her the truth, yet something in her face told him he didn’t have to.
“I just know, and I think you agree.”
Sarah gave a small, non-committal shrug. “As a researcher I do my best not to dismiss any possibilities, but that always has to be balanced against not letting gut feelings and speculation take the place of evidence, and in your case there is very little evidence that points to a definitive cause for your condition. However, this woman, Erin you called her, is certainly a person of interest.
“You were found on the beach without a phone or any identification, so it took some time to get a proper investigation under way, especially as you were seen as just a tourist who overdosed, which made local law enforcement feel apathetic towards you while also wanting to keep it quiet as deaths are bad for tourism. Once they were able to identify you, which took some time as it involved making calls to all the resorts in the area looking for a match, the woman you were with was nowhere to be found, and that’s where your story took a very strange turn. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I said you were found on the beach, but what I haven’t told you is that you were found dead.”
Rocca stared at her.
“Dead? Dead how?”
“When the paramedics arrived you were unresponsive. You weren’t breathing and you had no heartbeat. After several attempts to resuscitate you failed to produced any signs of life, you were unofficially declared dead at the scene.”
“But I wasn’t dead.”
“Yes and no. From a medical perspective you were dead. You displayed no spontaneous respiratory or cardiac functions. You were rushed to the nearest hospital, but the doctors there made the final determination, declaring you officially dead. You were moved to the morgue where your autopsy was to take place as no natural cause of death could be found. The resident pathologist was about to begin her initial incision when he noticed you were missing key attributes of a corpse. You had no change in coloration, no sign of hypostasis, your body temperature had remained normal instead of falling, along with several other irregularities which convinced him to pull you off the table and have you rushed into the emergency room.”
Rocca imagined the knife hovering above his helpless body, poised to seek out and remove his organs one by one. Terrifying. “So if I wasn’t dead, what was I?”
“You were still missing a heartbeat, weren’t breathing, and not showing any brain activity. They tried again to resuscitate you, but without success. No one knew what to make of it. They put you on life-support and notified local law enforcement. They notified the US embassy while opening an investigation as your state was considered highly suspicious by all the doctors, which brings us back to the woman you were traveling with.
“Law enforcement in both countries eventually gathered video evidence from the airports you departed from and arrived in which showed her face, but that ended up being the only identifying information they were able to find — at least publicly. Her credit card had been opened with the same information used to forge her passport, and once you were discovered she was never found. At that point news reports went quiet, and I heard that for a time it was being treated as a possible assassination attempt, and that you were under suspicion of being an agent of a foreign government.”
That made Rocca laugh. “I wish my life had been that cool. I was just a boring college student, nothing special.”
Sarah nodded. “I’ve been lucky enough to have some additional visibility into the investigation above and beyond the public’s, and my understanding is that after a thorough investigation into the matter no evidence ever surfaced to corroborate the theory. But is there anything more you can tell me about this woman? It seems likely that anything she told you was a lie, but it’s possible the information could still be useful, or give us some insight into her motivations.”
Rocca wasn’t the least bit surprised that she had vanished, and hadn’t really existed to begin with, and was certain no amount of searching would lead them to Her. She was gone and wasn’t coming back in any arrest able form.
As for how and when they had met, he couldn’t remember exactly when She came into the campus coffee shop where he always studied. All he could remember was what it was like to see her for the first time, her red and gold hair flowing around her like a sunburst. It was like a car crash, time stopped and everything burned so bright in his memory that it burned away much of what had come before. Usually that feeling passed quickly, leaving you shaken but back on your own unsteady feet, but it hadn’t ended quickly. It was like a single moment had been drawn out across weeks.
He told Sarah this, who noted it all.
“Can you think of any reason she would want to kill you?” asked Sarah.
Rocca thought it over, but couldn’t see any harm in telling her. “When I was floating, after she had done whatever it was she did to me, I asked her why. She said I couldn’t control the power that was growing in me, that I was dangerous. She blamed me for a bridge that collapsed in Mississippi when I was a kid visiting my grandparents with my parents. A lot of people died, and whole lot more were seriously injured, but it’s not like I had anything to do with it.”
Rocca knew this for another of Her lies, and his inability to even tip over a cup with his will had finally fully confirmed it for him, but it had haunted him for a long time in the Final Moments. He had been powerful there, and had been getting more so, but that was there, not here. She had called him ‘Touched by the Divine’, alluding to the source of his powers, but whatever that had meant, he had left it and everything else to do with Her behind him.
The excitement of hearing this revelation was plain on Sarah’s face.
“And no,” he went on, “she’s still not anyone I remember ever meeting before.”
He had been right that that was going to be her next question. He knew how it sounded, that she was a killer motivated by a delusional vendetta, and that was a convenient cover, but it was also ultimately all a dead end, and he wasn’t interested in dwelling on any of it any longer than he had to. He wanted to put Her and everything else that had happened behind him for good.
He went back and forth with Sarah for a few pointless questions, but she picked up on his distaste for the subject and conceded that it was best left as information for law enforcement to consider and let him change the subject.
“So what happened me after they put me on life support in Mexico?”
“As soon as the state department was able to arrange it, your parents had you air-lifted back to Seattle for treatment. When none of the specialist there could offer any explanation or successful treatment and the bills started to pile up, your parents gave their permission to have you transferred here in the hopes that we might find a way to help you.”
“Why here? Why not the Mayo Clinic or some place like that?”
“Well, first of all we were able to fully cover the expense of your treatment and cover the unpaid portion of you existing bills. And now this may sound like hubris, but even though we’re a new research facility we’re considered the leading neurological research center in the world for rare and poorly-understood conditions. I was extremely fortunate in that I was able to secure an immense amount of funding, and that my own accomplishments and skills were enough to entice some of the top doctors and scientists in this field to join me here.”
A wave of worry and guilt struck Rocca. “Are my parents alright? How much debt are they in?”
“Your parent are financially quite stable, and honestly, once they learn they have you back it will be the furthest thing from their minds. They had already paid several tens of thousands for treatments before we moved you here and paid off their remaining debt, but I they’ve told me that they raised back several times what they paid out through several well publicized crowd funding campaigns, so much so that they started a charity aimed at furthering research on traumatic brain injuries and other neurological ailments. They received a massive grant from the NFL.”
“Wow,” Rocca was legitimately shocked,”I can’t believe they were able to do all that, and for me.”
“You contributed more than you think.”
Rocca was puzzled. “How do you mean?”
“Your case is so singular and remarkable that it has become known world-wide, and not just in medical circles, it found it’s way into the main stream. You’ve been a very popular topic of speculation on longevity and health in general. You were even on the cover of Time.”
Rocca had no idea what to make of this new information.
“I don’t understand. What’s so special about being in a coma?”
“It wasn’t a coma. I only used the term to try to help you understand what’s happened to you. The specifics of your condition are quite complicated. You displayed no physical deterioration, and now it seems safe to say that you haven’t experienced any mental deterioration either. The latter is rare but not unheard of, the former is without precedent, and neither were though possible for the duration of your state of stasis. Understand, Rocca, that muscle growth in place of atrophy would by itself have been a revolutionary discovery worth researching, but your state went way beyond that. Your metabolism, cellular functions, breathing, blood flow, and brain waves ceased entirely, yet you remained alive. As far as modern medicine’s understanding is concerned, each of those is impossible. The impossibilities continued to stack, as we learned that your body could heal itself and replenish blood despite no known way for those to occur, and you did so at a hyper accelerated rate, to the point where it was noticeable by the naked eye, and all of this without any sustenance.We named it, non-necrotic encephalopathic abeyance. Though once the news got ahold of it it became known as ‘Rocca’s Syndrome.’”
Rocca tried to process all of this. It was difficult, but in a way it seemed fitting. Much like his soul, his body had been caught between life and death. He hadn’t ever given much thought to the idea of being famous, but he was sure no one wanted to be famous on account of having a new illness named after them. Still, unlike Sarah, and the rest of the world it seemed, he knew the danger had passed. He put two fingers up to he neck.
“I have a pulse now though.”
“Yes, all of your normal bodily functions have resumed. I can happily declare you alive again. ”
Rocca chuckled. “Thanks. It’s good to be back. But I’m still not sure what you meant. I’ve just been lying in bed unconscious this whole time.”
“Despite your mind being absent, your body has shared many of its secrets with us. In you we discovered a form of energy transfer and communication between cells through a new variation of quantum tunneling, as well as a number of other cellular functions involved in healing never observed before. Much of the process, it’s origins, and its energy sources still remain hidden from us, we believe these processes are how your body has managed so many incredible feats. It’s not an exaggeration to say that this is the greatest discovery in both physics and medicine in decades.
“I said that you had appeared in Time, but it was actually both of us. You see, last year I was fortunate enough to be awarded the Nobel Prize in both medicine and physics for the research my team and I have done, and none of that would have been possible, or even conceivable, without you, Rooca. In the coming years we hope to convert these findings into an array of new beneficial treatments.”
“That’s…amazing,” said Rocca, staring down at himself, baffled that his body could have been so important. Was whatever was happening inside him what She had been talking about? It was frustrating to feel that other people seemed to understand more about him than he understood himself. A sudden thought shook him out of his brooding.
“Wait, you said you won the Nobel Prize last year? And you must have been working on it for quite awhile before you won it, right? How long have I been out?”
Sarah sighed, the concern clear on her face. “I’m afraid it’s been quite awhile. It’s been five years since they recovered you from the beach.”
The words repeated over and over again in his head. How many hundreds of Final Moments had he passed through? In a way five years was too short for the impossible number of lifetimes it felt like between the time before and now. Still, five years could have been fifty, or he could still be stuck there. He could have given up and never returned. After all he had endured and sacrificed to return, what was five years? He had made it back, he had escaped Her, and that’s what mattered.
“It’s a long time, I know, and it must be a real shock, and though it will be difficult to adjust and reintegrate into your life, know that we’ll do everything we can to help facilitate and make that process as smooth and painless as possible, as will your family. And given your physical state, there’s plenty to be thankful for.”
Rocca just nodded, staring at the wall, feeling too overwhelmed to reply.
“I hate to add to your troubles, Rocca, but I’ve been giving it some thought, and I’ve decided that it’s better for you to be aware of all our concerns.”
Rocca turned back to Sarah. Now what?
“A few months after you arrived five of our other patients began exhibiting the same extraordinary traits that you were.”
Five others? Could they be the same five?
“Each of these patients was in an advanced state of deterioration from different neurological disorders and rarely if ever exhibited anything resembling consciousness. Initially this was cause for great concern as it suggested that you condition might be contagious. The entire center was quarantined by the CDC for a month. Living in the hospital apart from our families for that long, all the while worried we might find ourselves in a similar state, was incredibly stressful, but after a truly dizzying number of tests were unable to show any signs of infection or symptoms in any of the staff the quarantine was conditionally lifted and we were able to leave, and soon after return to our work.
“As time went on, the beneficial aspects of your condition dramatically healed each of these patients, though still none of them regained consciousness. Incidentally, we believe that there some aspect of your condition’s communication mechanism that can identify and speak with other people suffering from similar neurodegenerative conditions. We have a whole other team studying this mechanism.
“The reason I’m telling you all this, and the reason that despite your recovery we want to very closely monitor your state, is that in the past six months each of these patients experienced rapid unexplained deterioration, which ultimately resulted in their deaths. Whatever aspect of your condition that had been sustaining them appeared to have disappeared as mysteriously as it had appeared.”
“Kwame was the last one,” said Rocca, eyes wide, still reeling from the revelation.
Sarah looked as shocked as he felt. “How do you know that?”
Rocca sat upright, turning away from her and towards the window. Someone was here, someone he could feel.
“Were you ever conscious, Rocca?”
But he wasn’t listening anymore. He hadn’t ever sensed someone like this person before, and he didn’t know what to make of it. It wasn’t Her, but it felt like Her. He needed to know more. He pulled off sensors and wires, anything that was keeping him from moving to the window.
“Rocca, what’s wrong?”
His heart rate registered a flat line on the monitor. The long, high-pitched whine of the machine and flashing blue light overhead filled the room as an alarm sounded. As the last wires came off he stood and moved to the window. Sarah moved quickly around the bed and to his side.
“Someone’s here.” He pointed through the rain down to the parking lot below, then turned as a team of nurses wheeled in a crash cart. The team came to a stop as they took in the scene, eyes shifting quickly between him and Sarah. He turned back to her and saw her appraising him. It was intimidating. She turned those worried eyes from him to her staff, instructed them to turn off the alarm as she shut off the heart monitor, then turned them back on him, really mulling something over.
“I would say Mr. Rocca feels he’s spent more than enough time in bed.” She looked to the Nurses. “Brenda, can you find a pair of scrubs the would fit him. Steve, please stay here with Mr. Rocca until I return.”
She strode past the the nurses out into the hall and disappeared. Rocca guessed he wasn’t the only one who wanted to know who the man in the trench coat and suit was and why he was here, now.
Rocca turned. “What?”
“Are you medium?” asked Brenda.
She nodded then made her way out with the crash cart, leaving just him and Steve. The two stared at each other for a moment, and Steve was on the verge of asking him something, but a sudden thought had occurred to him, and Rocca beat him to it.
“How do I dial on that phone?”
Steve told him, and Rocca, gathering his hospital gown around him so as not to overly expose himself in the process, took a seat next to the phone and picked up the receiver. He held it there for a moment, heart racing as he listened to the dial-tone. This close to the end of his five year fight waged across a weaving path littered with so many dead and lost friends, he was shaking he was so nervous, worried even now that somehow dialing might upset some unseen balance and send him toppling back into that endless maze of Final Moments. And in there too was a deep guilt. Kwame would have told Rocca that he and their other four friends had all chosen to let go, but he doubt he would ever not feel responsible for them making it back.
“I’m sorry, guys,” he whispered under his breath, “I wish I had been strong enough to get you all home, but I have keep moving forward.”
He signed, eyes squeezed shut as a tear broke free, then blinked several times and dialed. The phone rang seven times before someone picked up and a groggy voice answered.
“Dr. Dillinger? What’s wrong? Has something happened to Rocca?”
“No, Mom,” he said, voice shaking, tears coming steadily now, “it’s me.”