THE SOUND OF A ROLLING METAL DOOR slamming shut disrupts Gray into semi-consciousness. He hears the stripping and tearing of tape and feels his head being bound and someone working above him. They move from his head to his wrist and to the other and then to his feet. He finds some comfort in being stabilized for transport and tries to open his eyes to confirm that thought.
Swelling prohibits his eyes opening beyond slits, yet it’s enough to pull exposure and faint focus on a cinderblock wall ahead of him. He attempts to turn his head to draw in more information but it has been immobilized. Standard procedure in a motor vehicle accident, he thinks. His limbs have been secured as well, but they are not yet rolling and there is no prick of an IV and he feels as if he were drowning. And now the pain, his nose, his mouth. The cinderblock makes no sense.
Ian regards his hasty binding, Gray’s wrists and feet duct-taped to the arms and legs of a sea-foam green adirondack chair, his head to the center pair of slats that help make up the backrest. If Gray could see he’d realize he was in mortal circumstances more severe than being in the back of an ambulance. He wouldn’t see much, a folding chair against a cinderblock wall, a discarded roll of duct tape, an opened bag of shop towels and his good Samaritan, Ian McDaniel.
He can’t see, however, because the tender tissue below his eyes has swollen as fluid rapidly accumulates to assuage the trauma sustained to his face. His nose is akimbo with a moustache of coagulated blood and snot. No air can pass through there, instead Gray is currently a mouth-breather where there’s a vacancy of two important teeth, an upper left incisor and the tooth adjacent. His jaw is fractured beneath their sockets. Complicating this is the aspiration of blood and secretions now pooling in his upper airway.
Ian does not want to give away his proximity to this casualty and makes no noise whatsoever. He observes with the same disbelief that stunned him in the cab of his truck, this time to the swift chain of events that terminated here in this storage unit. He is terrified on one hand and exhilarated on the other.
A single twenty-five watt bulb is suspended above Gray and the adirondack, hardly enough light to make it to the floor, but enough to cast Ian’s shadow on the wall as he crosses around to look and listen more carefully. He decides if he does not intervene on some level, Doctor Reagan will aspirate further, develop a pneumonia, desaturate and become more of a liability.
“Who’s there,” Gray manages to say, the th digraph of there being nearly impossible for him to say without all his teeth. Instead his tongue bounces off the roof of his mouth making the sockets bleed a bit more. His tongue moves back to them instinctively to quell the bleeding, but it induces a cough and then choking as he aspirates more and that causes him to cough even more, a vicious cycle that produces bloody mucous that runs down his chin. Ian wipes Gray’s face clean, around his chin and underneath his neck with a blue shop towel.
“You should probably cough again to get it out.”
Gray is oblivious to being cleaned up but stuns to the sound of Ian’s voice. He tries to turn his head in Ian’s direction, but the restraint of the tape distorts his brow and prohibits his head from turning any farther than the connecting tissue of his forehead allows.
Ian is more insistent. “Cough it out,” he says a bit louder. The rasp is at that point where Ian knows if Gray inhales any deeper the aspiration will descend beyond the upper airway making this mess even more complicated. Gray’s noncompliance makes Ian whack him on his chest, Ian’s cupped hand landing on Gray’s sternum, again and again, the cupping creating more percussion in the impact and Ian gets the results, a hearty airway clearing cough that draws the flirting fluid back up the pipes into Gray’s mouth and out over his chin. His breath clears for a moment. Ian wipes Gray’s chin. He listens for a couple of breaths.
“That’s better,” says Ian.
Gray’s eyes search what they can up into their lids then semicircle around. His lucidity is demanding some sense.
“Was I in an accident? Where’s this? Where’s my wife?” he says.
Fluid continues down his throat. The rasp is coming back. Ian steps directly in front of Gray and leans down bringing his face to Gray’s face to get a better look in what little light is falling on it. He turns his head angling his ear closer to Gray’s mouth and nose and listens to him breathe. There are a number of troubling sounds, the accumulating fluid at the back of the throat, the rasp at the top of the airway, and deeper, the wheeze of the infiltration into his lower lungs with a subtle rumble that with a sigh or a yawn would become truly obstructive. Ian knows these sounds, what they mean, what needs to be done. It has become second nature to him.
He pulls his ear away and turns now his examining eyes on to Gray looking at his mouth and nose. The mouth isn’t open enough to see, so Ian inserts his right thumb over the bottom teeth, his forefinger down around the chin and opens the jaw. Gray roars in pain and in its exasperation he clears his airway, an aerosol of bloody mist evacuates his mouth over Ian’s thumb. Ian pulls his head away and turns his face, his nose, wipes it on the sleeve of his shirt and waits for the mist to dissipate before he goes back to the examination. Still not enough light. With his free left hand, Ian pushes the adirondack chair back on its rear legs, rotating Gray’s body back far enough for twenty-five watts of light to illuminate the cavity of his mouth. Ian looks closer. Gray aspirates again in the fear that he is falling over backwards.
Ian allows the chair to come back to rest on all four legs carefully to not induce a jar or bump that would ripple through Gray’s shattered face. He moves around behind the chair still holding Gray’s jaw open. Ian then inserts the index finger of his left hand in Gray’s mouth, palm facing Gray’s broken nose and probes the hard palate, the roof of Gray’s mouth, like a dentist installing an upper bridge. The gape of the mouth amplifies the gasping and wheezing and the rattling down low in his chest. The pain is incredible, but he dare not scream again as his mouth fills with more fluid. Ian feels with his finger, not so gently, his eyes visualizing what his touch discovers and then he withdraws his finger trailing a bloody, mucousy string of saliva, his finger itself covered in fresh, bright blood.
“Your palate is cracked from where your incisor was.”
He releases Gray’s jaw as well and wipes both hands on the blue towel he used to swab Gray’s face moments ago. Facing him again, Ian’s left index finger and thumb grace the bridge of Gray’s nose and he wiggles the solid cartledge. They descend the bridge until they reach the separation going into the septum. They move the nose to its symmetrical home but it refuses to stay. Tears stream from Gray’s eyes, blood and snot from his nose, his face is bulging, flush with burst capillaries and swelling, his eyes now pressing through the thick lids, his entire head shaking. Ian withdraws his examination.
Gray relinquishes to his hysterics, “Why are you doing this to me?!” The d phoneme is pretty sloppy without those teeth in place.
Ian picks the folding chair from the wall, opens it and places it in the tiny space in front of the adirondack, its back to Gray and straddles it, lighting in front of him, faces parallel each other, eyes on a level trajectory. They do have the same head shape. Ian stares at him, stoic, but inside the adrenalin is still coursing, every synapse firing, while Gray settles out of the hysteria.
“Who are you,” Gray rumbles.
Ian’s told him thrice and he still doesn’t know who he is. He exhales his exasperation. No clue. The second-guessing noise in his head about this whole mess gets louder, the doubt, the fear, the irreversible and mounting consequences of every moment that passes with this guy duct-taped to a chair in a storage unit.
Holy Christ, what have I done?
Lower and resigned, Gray’s voice slowly and over-articulating his new speech impediment asks, “What are you going to do with me?”
Silence. Neither is breathing at the end of the interrogative.
“I don’t know,” Ian finally says. His eyes leave Gray’s and go down to his Izod golf sweater. It was a lime green but now had a saturated bib with all that’s been escaping Gray’s face. “I’ve wondered what I’d do if I had the chance.” Ian diligently remains in control.
“Had the chance?” asks Gray.
Ian’s eyes are back on Gray’s. “To be face-to-face with you. I thought this would be different though, some kind of arbitration. You apologize.”
“For what?” whispers Gray.
“And that’s it. You don’t even know, you don’t remember.”
Gray’s breathing increases in its wheezing, fluid accumulating again. Ian pounds on his chest, cupped hand, less restraint, more resolve. He is figuring this all out.
“Cough it out. That settles in your chest, you desaturate, you can’t concentrate, I lose your attention.”
Gray coughs a gruff foaming bark that crescendos to a wheeze. He spits weakly and produces a flow that runs down his chin and strings to his chest. No clean up this time, the expectorate saturates the sweater turning it more of an avocado green.
“Are you a doctor?” Gray asks.
“What else have you forgotten?”
Gray locks on, a bit of his secondary nature is coming to the surface. A clot gives way and another rush of blood flows from a nostril.
“I imagined if I ever saw you again I’d punch you in the face. Then last week at the gas pump, there you were, and I didn’t do a goddamn thing. And then, today! Again!”
Ian rises. “In my truck! Threw an elbow instead.” And he reenacts the contact throwing his elbow like a hockey player. “A reflex. Didn’t even think about it. Boom! And you dropped. Shit! How was I going to explain this to your wife?”
Gray listens and watches, blank-faced, the tops of his eyes cut by his swollen lids, unable to tilt his head up to see Ian and the charade entirely, but the bottom halves of his dilated pupils have him in focus. Somewhere way back in the far reaches of Gray’s conscience is a fear of this very thing happening to him or something like it.
“So I brought you here,” says Ian.
It is beneath Gray to ask, but he does anyway, “Where is this?”
And it all now comes together for Ian. A purpose to this fate. A reason for the happenchance. The cogs of Ian’s recovering mind turn a plan and he picks up the duct tape from the floor and peels a strip.
“It’s a storage unit,” he says, tearing the piece off and with both hands placing it over Gray’s broken mouth. His nose sizzles with the attempt to breathe, a bubble of snot inflates and deflates. And then silence. Ian listens and Gray noisily inhales. It is difficult for him, but possible.
“And you’re going to know my little girl,” says Ian, calmer, resolved. Gray’s lung-rattle has worsened.
“You’re going to aspirate on that, unless you keep coughing. But you’ll have to swallow it now. Can’t have you screaming anymore.”