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Agnes’s blank eyes were fixed on her mother as she went in and out of consciousness. Her body was unloaded from the back of the ambulance like a raw meat delivery to the local butcher. She was unable to muster the energy to raise her head or her voice in response. Blood soaked through to the pleather pad beneath her, collecting and then streaming toward her dark teal ballet flats before finally trickling down the stainless steel leg of the gurney.
“Agnes, answer me!” Martha demanded, anger more than empathy coloring her tone as an EMT applied pressure to her daughter’s wounds.
Her shrill cry cut through the grating static of police radios and EMT dispatch scanners. The emergency doors flew open. The hard rubber gurney wheels clacked metronomically as they rolled over the aged linoleum floor of Perpetual Help Hospital in Brooklyn, keeping time with the blips coming from the heart monitor attached to the patient on board. The distraught woman was running, but still could not catch up to her daughter. She could only watch while the plasma—or liquid stubbornness and idealism, as she saw it—drained from her only child.
“Sixteen-year-old female. B.P. one hundred over fifty-eight and dropping. Ten fifty-six A.”
The police code for a suicide attempt was all too familiar to the ER team.
“She’s hypovolemic,” the nurse observed, grasping the young patient’s cold and clammy forearm. “Bleeding out.”
The nurse reached for a pair of shears and carefully but quickly cut through the side seam of Agnes’s T-shirt and removed it, revealing a bloodstained tank beneath.
“Look what he did to you! Look at you!” Martha scolded as she stroked Agnes’s long, wavy auburn hair. She studied the girl’s glamorous, old-Hollywood looks in wonder, her perfect skin and the brassy hair that fell in finger waves around her face, even more perplexed that she could do something so drastic over a guy. That guy.
“And where is he now? Not here! I told you over and over again. And, now, this, THIS, is what it got you!”
“We’re going to need you to calm down, ma’am,” the EMT advised, holding Agnes’s mother back at arm’s length as the stretcher made a sharp turn toward the curtained triage area. “Now is not the time.”
“Is she going to be okay?” Martha pleaded. “If something happens to her, I don’t know what I’ll do.”
“Something has already happened to her,” the nurse said.
“I’m just so . . . disappointed,” Martha confided, drying her eyes. “I didn’t raise her to behave so thoughtlessly.”
The nurse just raised her eyebrows at the unexpected lack of compassion.
Agnes heard clearly enough but said nothing, unsurprised that her mother needed comforting, validation that she was indeed a good parent, even under these circumstances.
“You’re not allowed back in the trauma rooms,” the nurse said to Martha, thinking it might be a good idea for her to cool off. “There’s nothing you can do right now, so why don’t you go home and get some fresh clothes for her?”
Martha, a rail-thin woman with short black hair, nodded, eyes glazed over, as she watched her daughter disappear down the harshly bright hallway. The nurse stayed behind and handed Martha Agnes’s drenched teal T-shirt. Some of it was still wet with bright red ooze, and part was already dried black and cracking as Martha folded it and crunched it in her arms.
There were no tears shed.
“She’s not going to die, is she?” Martha asked.
“Not today,” the nurse responded.
Agnes couldn’t speak. She was dazed, still more in shock than in pain. White cotton bandages were fastened around her wrists, tight enough to both staunch the bleeding and absorb it. Staring up at the rectangular fluorescent ceiling lights that passed one after another, Agnes felt as if she were speeding down a runway, about to take off—for where exactly was anybody’s guess.
Once she arrived in the trauma area, the scene grew even more frantic, as the ER doctors and nurses fussed over her, lifting her onto a bed, attaching the various monitors, inserting an IV, checking her vitals. She had the sensation of walking into a surprise birthday party—everything seemed to be going on for her, but without her.
Dr. Moss grabbed her right wrist, unwrapped the bandages, and turned it firmly into the light above his head to peer at the bloody crevice. He did the same with her left wrist and recited his observations to the nurse at his side for the record. Agnes, now slightly more responsive, managed to look away.
“Two-inch vertical wounds on each wrist,” he dictated. “Laceration of skin, vein, subcutaneous vessels, and ligament tissue. More than a cry for help going on here,” he said, noting the severity and location of the gashes and looking her directly in the eyes. “Opening your veins in the bathtub—old-school.”
A transfusion was started and she began to come to, slowly. She watched wearily, transfixed, as some stranger’s blood dripped into her body, and she wondered if she’d be changed by it. This certainly wasn’t a heart transplant, but the blood inside her heart would not be entirely her own.
Agnes started to moan and then became somewhat combative.
“Not a cry for help,” she said, indicating she knew full well what she was doing. “Let me go.”
“You’re lucky your mom was around,” he advised.
Agnes mustered a slight eye-roll.
After a short while, she heard the snap of the doctor removing his latex glove.
“Stitch her up,” he ordered. “And send her up to Psych for an eval after she’s fully transfused and . . . stable.”
“To Dr. Frey?” the nurse asked.
“He’s still up there? At this hour?”
“It’s Halloween, isn’t it?” she groused. “Just him and a skeleton crew.”
“That’s dedication,” Moss observed.
“Maybe, but I think he likes it up there.”
“He’s got some of the worst of the worst in that ward. I’m not sure he has a choice.”
Agnes overheard and couldn’t get the image out of her head of a Mad Monster Party going on up there. And if they were waiting for her to “stabilize,” they would be waiting a hell of a lot longer than even the poor uninsured souls in the waiting room seeking treatment.
“Another body outlasting the mind,” Dr. Moss said under his breath as he stepped behind the next curtain to assist with a CPR case, already well underway. Agnes was feeling more herself and she selfishly welcomed the tumult, if only to distract her from her own problems for a minute. She offered her wrist to the physician’s assistant and tuned into the commotion next to her, like the unwelcome music blaring from a car stereo outside her apartment window on a hot summer night.
13 “Seventeen-year-old female,” the EMT shouted, as she continued compressions. “Suspected drowning.”
The bony, blue-lipped girl in front of the intern was lifeless and turning whiter shades of pale with each passing second. He tried to examine her nails, but they were already painted blue.
“In the river?” the intern asked.
“On the street,” the EMT offered, drawing raised eyebrows from everyone in the room. “Facedown in a pothole.”
“She’s in full arrest. Defib.”
After several rounds of computer-assisted shocks were applied to her chest and rib cage, the tattooed teen bounced, spasmed, and came to.
“Bag her!” a nurse ordered.
Before they could get the intubation tube down her throat, she started coughing and spewing dirty water on the surgical gowns of her caretakers until some spittle ran down her chin. She might even have vomited if she had eaten anything that day. Tinted by her smeared red lipstick, the gravelly discharge left her looking bloody and muddy. Some murky runoff dripped down her underfed abdomen and collected in her belly button, flooding the innie and causing her steel ball barbell piercing to look more like a diving board, one end bobbing slightly up and down.
An IV was started; labs were drawn and sent off for testing.
“What’s your name?” the nurse asked, checking her faculties.
“CeCe,” the girl said wearily. “Cecilia.”
“Do you know where you are?” the nurse pressed.
CeCe looked around her. She saw nurses and doctors scurrying around and heard relentless moans coming from some homeless people on gurneys parked in the hallway.
“Hell,” she answered.
Cecilia looked up at the crucifix posted above the doorway and rethought her response. “The hospital.” She looked at the mud on her secondhand faded Vivian Westwood bodice, double bird claw ring—gunmetal gold pheasant talons gripping her middle and ring finger—leather leggings, and black ankle boots. “What am I doing here?”
“Technically, you drowned,” the nurse said. “You were found facedown in about an inch of water.”
“Oh, my God,” Cecilia cried, shortly before busting out into hysterics.
The nurse held her hand and tried to calm her before discovering that Cecilia wasn’t crying, but instead, laughing uncontrollably. So much so that she couldn’t catch her precious breath, further depleting her of oxygen.
“There’s nothing funny going on here.” Dr. Moss eyed the dirty residue and acrylic tubes emanating from her. “You almost died.”
Of course he was right, but she wasn’t laughing at the staff, just at the pathetic train wreck she’d become. Inhaling a puddle full of street gravy. How low can you get? Literally. Her friend Jim, who killed himself by jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge and sucking down thick, murky East River “Chop Suey” water, sure would have gotten a kick out of this. The thought sobered her up enough to replay the evening, to visualize the guy she was making out with on the F train back to Brooklyn from the Bowery and whose name she couldn’t remember, and the gig she wasn’t paid for.
“Emergency contact?” the nurse asked.
Cecilia shook her head no. “Where’s my guitar?” She felt around the gurney like an amputee for a lost limb.
She was naturally beautiful, gifted with deep green almond eyes and sharp features from early childhood. Her dark hair was shoulder-length, carefully unkempt in an edgy style. Tall and lean, with long bones and muscles. She would’ve had an easier time becoming a model, she was often told, and not just the kind recruited at shopping mall kiosks by pretty part-time employees with tans and belly shirts—but the real deal. And fashion was important to her. But she just couldn’t stand the idea of becoming a billboard for someone else’s creativity. It was stressful enough hawking her own. If she was going to be a messenger for anyone, it might as well be herself. Besides, music and her look was what got her out of bed in the early afternoon. It was what she lived for.
“The admission desk will have a record of whatever you were brought in with,” Dr. Moss said. “I’ll check on your guitar when things settle down around here.”
“Do they ever?” she asked. The little smile she got out of him fueled her.
“Thanks,” Cecilia said sincerely, as the doctor left her to contemplate her situation. “You’re a goddamn angel.”
“No, I’m a doctor. I can only fix damaged bodies.”
7 “Doctor! Stat!” the charge nurse ordered, interrupting his attempt at a made-for-TV moralism. Without warning, madness burst through the ER entrance, signaling to Cecilia that it might be a while before she got the GPS on her instrument.
“Holy breast-fed Jesus,” CeCe said, trying to decipher what the bright flashes of light against the wall above her cloth divider could be. It was like nothing they’d ever seen, or heard, before. It was almost as if a lightning storm had made its way into triage. The yelling that accompanied the flashes sounded like a pack of famished beasts picking over bones. It was the blaze of camera flashes and the cursing of paparazzi, all jockeying for position. All trying to get a shot. THE shot.
“Lucy, over here!” one yelled.
“Lucy, one shot of you and your IV bag!” another demanded.
“I can’t see,” Lucy mumbled as she put her vintage blond mink jacket over her head to shield her eyes and shroud her face, before promptly passing out.
“Back the hell up,” a security guard at the visitor desk shouted repeatedly.
Neither Agnes nor Cecilia could make out much except what they could see beneath the hanging curtain and hearing the term “OD” thrown around. Articles of clothing began hitting the floor, first one spiked stiletto and then another, black leggings, a strapless push-up bra, Swarovski headband, vintage Chanel purse, and finally a silk dress that seemed to gently float down like a little black parachute.
“Looks like another recessionista’s charge account came due,” Cecilia said under her breath.
“What is this, teen night?” Dr. Moss asked rhetorically as he prepped the oral charcoal.
“No, just Saturday night in Brooklyn,” the nurse responded. “Mondays are heart attacks . . . ”
“Lucy!” another nurse shouted. “Lucy, can you hear me?” The nurse didn’t need to check the clipboard for her name. Anyone who read the blogs or local gossip pages knew who she was and why she was accosted by the screaming paps.
Agnes overheard the chatter between the doctor and the hospital public relations officer who were standing outside her curtain.
“Keep those vultures out of here,” he ordered, looking over at the salivating row of photographers perched restlessly in the waiting room. “No comment and no confirmations from anyone, got it?”
Dr. Moss walked in to examine Lucy. The oral-activated charcoal treatment had already been started. She was gagging on the tube, which he took as a good sign. She awoke abruptly, as if the starter rope was being pulled on a lawnmower. Fully aware and completely awake.
“Get me out of here,” Lucy screamed, wrenching the tube from her throat. She was fidgety, crazed, almost manic.
“Relax, honey,” a large-and-in-charge nurse said, pushing gently down on her shoulders. “You’re safe from all those reporters out there.”
“Safe?” Lucy scoffed, fussing blindly with her makeup, her voice raspy. “Are you kidding me? This shot is gonna put someone’s kid through college.”
The nurse was clearly taken aback not only by her comment but also by the fact that the girl lying on the gurney was in full media mode.
“What are you talking about?”
“An emergency room photo? Do you know what kind of placement those get?” Lucy gave the irascible health aide the once-over and realized that she probably didn’t. “Like you’d understand.” Lucy pulled the overhead examination lamp closer and checked out her reflection in the chrome tray positioned over her gurney.
“Well, then, maybe you can get that officer outside to understand a little better what someone your age was doing passed out in the bathroom of a club?”
Lucy refused to acknowledge the seriousness of her condition, medically or legally, and reached down for the pieces of her scattered outfit. A searing pain stopped her short, and she doubled over, clenching her stomach in agony.
The nurse placed sticky-back electrodes on Lucy’s chest and wired her to the cardiac monitor at her bedside. The switch was flipped and instead of the expected beep . . . beep of Lucy’s heart rate, the sound was one long extended tone, indicating a flat line.
Then . . . nothing.
Lucy’s eyebrows perked up nervously as the nurse fiddled with the machinery.
“Everyone says I’m heartless,” Lucy jibed.
“Stop moving around,” the nurse ordered. “You’re messing with the monitor.”
“Ugh, I think I’m getting my period.” Lucy dropped her head down on the tiny pillow beneath her head. “Get me some Vicodin.”
Dr. Moss shook his head and left the curtained cubicle. He noticed the photographers and bloggers uploading and posting from their mobiles, calling sources, vigorously updating editors on the second-rate “it” girl’s breaking news. Suddenly, as if the fire alarm had gone off, the crowd dispersed, off to chase the next ambulance.
The nurse poked her head into Lucy’s bay to let her know things had settled down.
“Shit!” Lucy spat, her chance for a little cheap ink thwarted by someone else’s personal tragedy.
Hours passed, lights dimmed, staff, shifts, and dressings changed, and fifteen-minute-interval checks on Agnes’s restraints took place—also mandatory procedure—but the sounds of the sick, the injured, and the dying persisted long past visiting hours, into the night. It was sobering and depressing. Patients came and went, some discharged, some admitted, others like Agnes, Cecilia, and Lucy left in limbo, waiting for a bed or further observation, forced to endure the suffering of others as well as their own.
Agnes’s cell went off and she knew immediately by the Dynasty TV-theme ringtone that it was her mother. She hit the mute button and tossed the phone, limp-wristed, onto the monitor stand next to her gurney, ignoring the caller just as she had the digital cascade of text messages that now clogged her mailbox. She sighed and drifted off to sleep, like Lucy, whose lost photo op, and a first round of questioning by the NYPD, proved totally exhausting.
It was practically silent. Still.
13 An ER tech ripped open the curtain all at once, as if he were ripping off a Band-Aid, and wheeled in a computer on a mobile stand. “I need to ask you a few questions Cecilia . . . Trent.”
Cecilia didn’t budge.
“Ah, okay.” He skimmed the screen for an easier question. “Religion?”
“Currently, I’m practicing the ancient art of”—she paused as he typed—“I don’t give a fuck-ism.”
He continued typing until the end and then pressed the delete button. “I can’t type that.”
“Sure you can.”
“No, I can’t.”
“And they say this is a free country,” Cecilia said. “Okay, I’m a practicing nihilist.”
“Why don’t I come back later.” He pushed his computer cart out of the room as he closed the curtain.
“Don’t be like that,” she called after him apologetically. “I’m just bored.”
“Get some rest.”
She should have been able to, with all that sedation flowing through her, but she couldn’t. She kept replaying the evening over and over in her head, the little she could remember of it. After a while, the ER went almost totally quiet except for the sound of hurried footsteps. They sounded heavy, not like the surgeons’ paper booties or the nurses’ rubber soles that had been scurrying through the ward until then. Cecilia, an experienced night owl by nature and profession, felt uneasy for the first time in a very long time.
Cecilia looked up and noticed the shadow of a male figure on her curtain, passing by her bay. “Coming back for more? They always do.”
She glanced down and saw the coolest pair of black biker boots she’d ever seen. Even in silhouette she could tell, whoever he was, he was hot. Definitely not the douche bag ER tech. She’d gotten really good at determining a guy’s “attributes” in the dark.
He stood still, as if he were intensely plotting, his back to her curtain divider, giving her time to wonder about him. Visiting hours were over, and from the almost chiaroscuro outline of his hair, jeans, and jacket, she wondered if this was the guy she’d hooked up with earlier. She could barely remember what he looked like, but maybe he’d snuck past the desk to see her. See if she was okay. Even if it was out of guilt.
“Are you decent?” he asked. “Can I come in?”
“No and yes. Two things about me—I never get on a plane with a country star and I tend to never say ‘no’ to a guy.”
She felt a tingle in her stomach as he slid aside the curtain. He looked anxious, almost like a chain smoker who had given up cigarettes earlier that day. Tense. He ducked quickly into the space. He was tall and lean, olive-skinned, with thick, styled hair, long, slightly muscled arms, and a barrel chest that was barely enclosed by his jacket and a T-shirt of The Kills.
“I didn’t think anyone was awake,” he said in a baritone whisper.
“Here to give me last rites?”
“You have a death wish?”
“After last night, possibly.”
“Do you always invite strangers into your room?”
“I prefer the company of people I don’t know very well.”
There was an awkward silence and Cecilia had to look away from him. The understanding and compassion in his voice was overwhelming. Her eyes welled unexpectedly with tears. “I’m not crying. I must still be high or something.”
“I understand.” He stepped forward. Closer to her. Shrinking the space between them. He smelled like incense. Cecilia began to question the wisdom of confiding in this guy. Hot guys cruising clubs was one thing, but hot guys creeping hospitals was quite another. She tensed up. “Do I know you?”
“Wouldn’t you know if you knew me?”
The truth was she hung out with a lot of guys, and it was difficult to keep them straight. So running into one turned into a game of Twenty Questions with her. Something she was good at. “Were you at my gig tonight? Did you bring me here?”
“No . . . ” he said slowly. “Cecilia.”
“You know my name? You better be psychic or I’m screaming,” she said, backing away suddenly.
He pointed to the foot of her bed. “Your name is on your clipboard.”
“What do you want from me?” Cecilia asked, holding her punctured arms up as far as the vinyl tubes would stretch, like a medicated marionette. “I can take care of myself. Despite what it looks like.”
“I can see that.” He nodded and tapped her hand gently.
“Who are you?” she asked, immediately pulling away.
“Sebastian,” he said, reaching for her again.
She relaxed into his touch.
He took notice of the hard-shell guitar case leaning upright against the wall beside her bed. It was stickered, stained, chipped, and battered. It had seen better days, but he had the sense it was protecting something precious. “You’re a musician?”
“That’s what I told my parents when I ran away.”
“Everyone’s either running from something or toward something.”
“Well, then,” she said, feeling some camaraderie. “Which way are you headed?”
“Both, I guess.”
“At least one thing we have in common.”
“Seriously, I just always felt like there was something deep inside of me I needed to say,” CeCe tried to explain. “Something . . . ”
“Trying to get out?” he asked.
She looked up at him in surprise. He understood.
“Another thing we have in common,” he said.
He moved in even closer. Into the light. Close enough for her to feel the warmth of his body and his breath. To see him. To smell him.
“So, Sebastian . . . ” Even his name appealed to her. It fit him. She knew his type. Devastatingly good-looking guy, nice moves, but probably cheating on his night nurse girlfriend right under her nose. “What are you doing here?”
“Well, you don’t look like a blood farmer, organ broker, or bone thief . . . ,” she said. “Are you one of those dudes who cruises the hospital for sick chicks?”
The loud clang of a tray dropping and some hallway chatter startled them. He’d looked edgy since he’d walked in, but she could sense he was ready to leave. Right then. “You looking for someone or is someone looking for you?”
“I found what I was looking for,” he said, reaching down into his jeans pocket.
“Whoa, what the hell are you doing?” Cecilia reached for the nurse call button. He beat her to it, snatching it away. She immediately extended her hand to grab it, then winced in pain, pulling back as the IV lines stretched to their limit and tugged at her veins. “Point blank, I will hurt you.”
He pulled out a gorgeous bracelet made from what looked to be the oldest, most extraordinary rough ivory beads, and dangling from it, an antique gold sword with a slender cello bow fastened from the handle to the tip.
“Holy shit.” Cecilia marveled at it and was both touched and spooked that a total stranger would give her such a stunning, obviously ridiculously expensive, personal, and unique gift. “Were you the one who brought me here?” she asked. “Were you the one who saved me?”
Sebastian placed the bracelet in her hand and clasped his around it, gently but firmly, and backed away toward the curtain. “Later.”
Something in his voice sounded to her like he meant it literally. She believed him. This was the most honest conversation she’d had with a guy maybe ever. And he was a total stranger. But an old soul. Like her.
“Listen. I have a few gigs this week. Cecilia Trent. Google me. Maybe you’ll find me and come down and check me out minus the IVs.”
“Maybe you’ll find me first,” he said.
“Wait,” Cecilia whispered hoarsely after him, holding up her wrist adorned with the bracelet. “What is this?”
“Something to hold on to.”