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Victims
By Peter Larmey


Somewhere in the deep subconscious of his dream state, there came a knocking at the door. In that netherworld that existed between sleeping and awakening, the knocking seemed almost imaginary-- but, unfortunately, it was there nonetheless, like a threat in the night. Childishly, he put the pillow over his head, trying to bury himself back into sleep.

RAT-TAT-TAT-TAT! Louder now. Forceful.

A soft groan escaped his mouth. He lifted and flung his pillow to the side of the bed. He glanced at the digital clock on the nightstand, the numbers glowing through the darkness: 3:32 A.M.

These next few minutes were like work: swinging the legs out of the bed, putting the hands over the eyes for a moment, trying to regain equilibrium as he rose to put on a shirt and pants and fumble through the darkness to the door of his apartment. His leg hit the side of the antique dining room chair that rested just outside the bedroom door, the one he and his wife had bought as a sort of reward for him getting his first teaching position at Newland. Over ten years ago, had to be, and throughout those years the chair had served as something special to him, gaining more importance since Kathy had died. Now it was almost as if the thing had reached out to bite him as he blindly searched for the door. He cursed it silently.

RAT-TAT-TA--

Coming, he thought to say, but could not get the words out. He had a vague sensation it might be Jennifer on the side of that door, wanting back in, and the thought filled him with hope and dread. He had never believed that such a combination of emotions was possible, but these past few months had proven that it was.

It was not Jennifer. Instead, it was a young man, probably about nineteen years old, if the professor had to guess. Even in his groggy state he could tell he was not one of his students. The kid wore a dark sweatshirt and was wringing his hands, perspiring and out of breadth, clearly agitated. His eyes seemed to move quickly up and down the professor's body, then, full of nothing short of fear, pointed at him. "Help," he puffed. "Help. He's out in the street." Hands, moving over one another, hard enough to rub the skin off. "Says he knows you. This is 203, right?" His body arched backward with a sudden jerk as he searched the side of the doorway for the apartment number. Then it moved forward, leaning in closer to the professor, and he said: "Bleeding. I hit him. Oh shit."

Confused, but now coming fully awake, the professor ushered the kid into the doorway, mumbling, "Wait here 'til I get on some shoes." He flipped on the bedroom light and rummaged in the closet until he found a pair of tennis shoes. He slid them onto his bare feet, all the while his mind working frantically, only knowing that for some reason he was going outside with this strange person who had, in the middle of the night, come to his door. When he finally thought to ask, he called out from the bedroom, "What's the matter?"

"You gotta hurry, man!" yelled the kid.

"Okay, okay." He tied the shoes feverishly and walked into the living room.

The boy was out the door like a shot, then running down the second floor stairs. He was almost to the driveway by the time the professor hit the cold air head-on. A brisk wind blew lightly and he squinted as he made his way down the stairs, two-by-two, gingerly holding onto the handrail, as if the worst that could happen this night was for him to lose his balance and fall to the hard sidewalk. He could make out three images below-- a car, the boy, and the man he was now kneeling over.

The car was big, maybe a Lincoln, a real boat. Its headlights cut across the kid's body and created a stark, menacing shadow. The boy began pointing at the sprawled figure; his finger looked like a gun.

The professor saw the man lying on his back, legs apart, his head laying to one side. The professor could not see the face, but he could tell that the man was still alive. The fingers of one hand were scratching at the gravel beneath them, as if trying to find something solid to hold onto.

As he came closer, the professor witnessed an ugly sight: the man's legs were obviously broken, one of them actually twisted at the knee in an absurd, almost comical way. The man's shocked eyes stared at the gutter that lay only a few feet away; it had rained earlier that evening, and the professor could hear a trickle of water running through the grate. Puddles lay around the man, and the professor could not tell if the on near his head was the remains of the rainstorm or blood from the man's mouth.

"I hit him," the kid said stupidly. "I'm sorry." "I ... sorry."

The professor stood there, staring downward. The man's chest moved up and down in quick, short bursts; his hair was matted to his scalp. This last, weird sound of incomprehension seemed to slowly fade in the breeze. As it did, the professor came out of his haze and looked at the kid. His feet were moving back and forth, splashing water into the fallen man's face.

"Stop it!" snapped the professor. "Go. Into my apartment. Call 9-1-1. Phone's in the kitchen."

The kid just stood there. "I'm sorry, sorry --"

"Okay, yeah, go!" With that, the boy's hands flew out of his pockets. He turned and launched into an ungainly run.

The professor kneeled beside the man, who had turned his head and was staring directly up at him.

"Benson," the man whispered; little bubbles of blood ringed the corners of his lips.

"Who --" the professor began, then, knowing that the man should not speak, shook his head. He had not intended to ask who Benson was, because he knew full well. He was Benson, Robert Benson, 35-years-old, teacher of Creative Writing to groups of Newland College students who looked very much like the boy who had started this evening's festivities.

No, what Benson wanted to ask was "Who are you?" He felt sure he had never seen him before in his life.

"Lie still," was all he said, because was that not what you were supposed to say to those who were seriously injured? "Ambulance is coming. Lie still."

The man on the ground coughed then; another spurt of blood came out of his mouth. This was followed by a long, agonizing groan that seemed to grow deep from within the man's throat. His hand --the one that had just tried to touch Benson's face-- slowly moved up again, then rested lightly on shattered ribs.

Benson did the only thing he knew how to do in a situation like this. He put his hand over the stranger's. This was how he was, holding the man's hand, when the kid came bounding back down the stairs, yelling that he did it, he called them. And this is how he was when the ambulance pulled into his apartment complex, stopping just short of the accident scene, so that the EMT's could wheel out a stretcher and perform their duty. In the time it took for them to get there, the man had not said another word, had not so much as moved.

After what Benson thought was a very long time of preparing the man to be moved into the ambulance, the EMT's finally placed him on the stretcher. The commotion had drawn some of Benson's neighbors out of their slumber. He looked over the crowd, but recognized no one. This was not a place where anyone really knew each other. No one had any idea about the comings-and-goings of the person who lived next door, and if they did, they generally did not know that person enough to ask them about anything. Benson felt that, in his case, this was a blessing. He was a man who liked his privacy, and besides, if any of them had come up to him tonight to ask who the man was, was it a family member, a friend, a lover, he would not have the slightest inkling of what to tell them.

So when he found out from the ambulance driver what hospital they were taking him to, he turned quickly away, before the ambulance even had a chance to pull out, and began to walk to the stairs leading up to his apartment. He did not look at faces, although he was sure they most certainly stared directly at him. The only face that he did catch, as he turned to look back once more at the departing ambulance, was the face of the boy. He was now sitting on the curb, surrounded by adults, who towered over him. There were four in all, two police officers and a man and woman. Benson guessed that these two would be his parents. The kid sat there, both wrists perched on either knee, so that his hands hung loosely in front of them. To Benson, he looked like he had been the one who had been hit by the car.

Shutting and locking the door quietly behind him, Benson found his way into the kitchen. He did not bother turning on the light; the one from the bedroom did the job as he reached into the refrigerator, and, hoping to relieve the dryness in his throat, pulled out the jug of spring water, and poured himself a glass. After the first sip he merely sat there, still, as if waiting for something. He felt sure that the police would be knocking on his door any minute, and now that he had a chance to reflect, he was surprised that he had gotten away so easily.

Gotten away? he thought, musing over the choice of words. You didn't do anything.

Then he thought of the man, and once again tried to search his memory for any recollection. He could not find one. But he had automatically asked the ambulance driver where they would be taking him. "St. Ignatius," he said. "The one on Dreyfus."

The fact that he had asked meant that he did know one thing: he would pay a visit to the man tomorrow. He would return to the last hospital that he had ever been in.

He had not been there in nearly three years.

Benson finished the water and, as he put the glass in the sink, it struck something, making him jump. When he looked down he saw the two wine glasses he had put in there earlier that evening. After staring at them for a moment, he grabbed them by the stems, opened the dishwasher, and threw them in. Then he went into the living room, sat down on the couch, and in the silence, waited for the police to arrive.
***

After a sleepless night which did, in fact, consist of a number of innocuous questions by two bored officers who looked like they would rather be anywhere but in his apartment, Benson drove to St. Ignatius with every intention of finding out who the accident victim was. As he did, he could not help but feel a sense of apprehension. The last time he had been there his life had changed. It was the place he had last taken Kathy.

The trip was short; it was a Saturday, so traffic was light, and Dreyfus Street was not too far from where he lived. It was the same route the ambulance had taken when it had transported Kathy to the hospital for the last time. Benson could see the IV, each drip signifying another piece of cancer eating a his wife's life, slowly and agonizingly ebbing away.

Benson had taken the time to pour himself a large cup of coffee, an energy booster that helped shake-off the preceding evening. He wanted to be as alert as possible when listening to the man's story. If the man was awake, that was. Or alive. When he arrived at the hospital, he left the mug inside the car, still half full. Some strange sort of respect prevented him from taking it inside --I can drink coffee and you can't-- although he doubted that the man would care. As he began walking toward doors over which a sign said ADMITTING and, under that, OUTPATIENT WARD, a thought alighted in the synapses of his brain: that hospitals, contrary to the marketing, were not places where people went to get well. In fact, for Benson, a hospital would always be the place where people died. A gray and metal building where even the healthy were afflicted. Without even realizing, he put his hand on the wallet in his back pocket. It was one of the places where he kept many old photographs of Kathy.

Walking into the hospital, it suddenly struck him how utterly bizarre the whole situation was, as if the fluorescent lights overhead immediately cut through the fog that had been his life since 3:30 AM. He did not know this man, and yet here he was, marching down an eerily sterile hallway, everything short of flowers-in-hand. Perhaps he was someone his colleagues had introduced him to at one time or another. Maybe he was one of the neighbors in the apartment complex, the ones who wander around like ghosts, absently saying hi to passerby.

At the admitting station he asked the nurse about the man who was hit by a car last night. Apparently it had been a slow night for accident victims, because the nurse looked on her computer and, within seconds, said, "Yep, there he is. Room 315. Go straight down that hallway, take your first left, and you'll see it just a couple of doors down."

Benson thanked her and tentatively walked down the hall. He noticed the people around him: doctors and nurses making their rounds, of course, but there were also families, mothers with children going to visit their grandparents, uncles, aunts, what-have-you. There were couples visiting friends and relatives. What right did he have to be here? Who was he to this man? As absurd as it seemed, he had a great fear that the man wanted something from him. He realized that he had forgotten to ask the nurse the man's name, and she had not volunteered. He thought for a moment about going back to the admitting desk, but he was close to the room now, he could see the numbers getting higher the further he walked-- 310, 311, 312-- and he thought that if he turned back now, he might not return.

As he got closer to the room, his mind became a seesaw; he wanted to go in, he wanted to run for the exit as fast as possible. He wanted to know who he was dealing with; he was afraid to ask. Interestingly, the thought of whether or not the man was okay never even registered.

The name on the door was written in black magic marker, on a white card. MOBLEY, A. it said, and Benson's heart did a dance. He knew he had to go in.

He lay in bed, attached to an IV, oxygen plugs protruding from his nose.

His face was badly bruised, both his legs in traction and encased in casts. If Benson had not realized how dire the situation was, both for the patient and, he was beginning to think, himself, he may have let out a crude chuckle at the sight of both of the man's legs sticking straight up into the air. Mobley stared out the window. The sunlight shining on his face accentuated his cuts and bruises.

He slowly turned his head to Benson. As he did, the sunlight did not follow it, creating a shadow across his face, darkening the previously clearly visible feature.

After an icy silence, he said, "You know my wife."

"Yes," said Benson, and tried to devise ways in his mind to somehow shrink inside himself.

Sad as a willow, Mobley said again, "You know my wife. You slept with her."

Benson closed his eyes and nodded. "Yes."

Mobley tried to sit up, winced, and slumped back down into the bed. He coughed, as if that simple act would expel some of the pain that was in his bones. Benson could tell that it only made it worse.

"I found out last night," said Mobley. "She told me. She saw you last night, right? Book club my ass. Just because she's a professor doesn't mean that one's going to fly." Benson felt like an Easter Island statue, something carved from rock, his face like slate.

"So I took off. Went to a bar and got drunk. Found your name in a phone book. Found your address, too."

Mobley's hand was working the sheets against his leg, the fingers moving as they had the night before, still clawing, still trying to find something to hold.

"Got to your place. Didn't know if I was going to kill you, talk to you, or what. And then, wouldn't you know, just outside your place, some kid comes and knocks me on my ass."

A croak of a half-laugh emerged from his lacerated lips. "I told the kid to get you. I wanted to see you. Wanted to see your face. But by then I was too messed-up to say anything more. And you know what you did?" Benson knew. In the hospital room, he could feel the cold night air, the wet pavement. He could hear the kid's sneakers splashing through the puddles as he ran back to the apartment. He could feel the touch of Mobley's fingers.

"Held your hand," he said.

Now it was Mobley's turn to nod. "Yeah, held it. Think you'd a held it if you knew who I was?"

After what seemed like an hour: "I don't know."

As if on cue, Jennifer Mobley stepped into the room, carrying two cups of coffee. No sooner had she entered than she stopped, her outstretched arms drooping just the slightest, as if afflicted by some unseen pressure that pervaded the room.

Benson looked into her eyes, the deep blue irises that he had stared at many times over the last few months, now full of surprise and hurt. A strand of her long blonde hair fell across one of them, and he fixated on it.

"Robert?" Then, turning to the bed: "Aaron, what..."

Mobley simply turned his head to stare back out the window.

"What's happening?" she asked, turning back to Benson. "What are you doing here?"

Benson stared at the strand of hair and shook his head. He had to get out. He had to leave the room. The hospital, the room, Mobley. Jennifer.

"I'm sorry," was all he could mutter. Shame was not something that he wanted to share with these people.

As he brushed by her, he took one last look at Mobley, who continued to lay motionless, staring out the window. Even the hand lay motionless now, as if it had given up trying to hold onto anything anymore. When he went through the door, a bit of the coffee she was holding spilled on his hand; he did not feel it. He did not notice her face. If she called after him, Benson did not hear.

In the hallway, Benson heard the patter of nurses' sneakers. Somewhere, not too far down, a baby was crying. A patient was calling for her nurse. Voices talking. If he strained, he thought he might still be able to hear the steady drip of Mobley's IV, sounding in rhythm to the beating of his heart.

He felt again for his wallet, and for the photograph inside.





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