There’s no way to mask the fact that people die in hospitals. They do it every day, and no amount of disinfectant can wash away the overbearing sense of loss that permeate them. Souls enter and leave the world in hospitals every day with such regularity that it’s nothing more than another day at work for those employed in these places.
It’s different when it’s someone you know. It’s not just another death. This time, it’s Uncle Carson.
Kalea blew out a long sigh as she fanned herself in the stifling room. “Why is it so hot in here?”
No reply. Just the shallow hiss of the air conditioner and Uncle Carson’s rattled breathing. The same as the last two hours. A useless air conditioner that wouldn’t go below eighty degrees, and that awful death rattle. The nurse called her Aunt Molly and cousin, Brandon, out of the room for a “conversation” five minutes ago, leaving her alone to watch Uncle Carson just in case – of what? Maybe he could still hear, but if his demise was inevitable to everybody else, then surely it was inevitable to him. He was the one stuck in the bed. He was the one hooked to machines. He was the one rattling. She heard a muffled sob escape her aunt in the hallway.
“Geeze!” she hissed, dropping her shoes on the floor and pulling the splint off her left leg. “It’s a hundred degrees outside, and this sprained ankle is so swollen that it’s almost the size of the pumpkins you used to grow. Remember the pumpkins?”
No response. So much for reminiscing over the good times.
Kalea leaned back in the chair, propping her foot on the edge of the bed. “I’m sorry, Uncle Carson. I’m sorry the cure came too late.” She raised her water bottle in a mock salute. “Here’s to the world’s worst timing.”
Rattling – from the air conditioner and from Uncle Carson.
Kalea sat the bottle on the table and leaned back in the chair. “This is crap,” she pressed her hand over her head where she felt a migraine coming on. Great, one more problem. Her uncle was dying because the nanotech that could have reconnected his neural pathways was put on the medical market too late to help him. She was hobbling around on a sprained ankle because she couldn’t afford the same tech that could have healed this running injury in a matter of hours. And now her head hurt, and her medication was in her office, forgotten in the “your only uncle is dying” haste of picking up Brandon at the airport and rushing here, just to sit and wait. She pressed harder, trying to press out pain, the rattle, her aunt’s sobs in the hallway; the murmur of Brandon’s voice; all of it.
Kalea groaned as she squinted at the late afternoon summer sunshine streaming through the window. She reminded herself that whatever chaos reigned in here, the world was going on as normal out there, and she’d be part of it again as soon as they got through this. Whatever happened to Uncle Carson, tomorrow would come and they would make it through that day, and the next, and everyday after that, until they faced this moment themselves.
That was the chaplin’s logic an hour ago.
“Uncle Carson,” she said, studying his thin frame, “Mom and Dad are on the way. Remember that I told you Mom has a job teaching the advanced physics class at the University of Tennessee for the fall semester? They’re living in the mountain cabin until the semester is over. She’ll sing in the church choir at Christmas, just like you always like to hear.”
More rattling. Kalea fanned her shirt, pulling it away from the sweat. “You always loved hearing her sing The Canticle of the Turning. She’ll do it again this year. She’s probably singing it already for Dad all the time. He laughs about how she sings a Christmas song year round.”
Kalea thought she heard him stir, but couldn’t perceive movement. She looked away toward the evening sun shifting through the window. “I can’t sing as like she can, but I remember it. I remember you favorite verse, too. It’s the third one, isn’t it?” She closed her eyes and sang.
“From the halls of power to the fortress tower,
Not a stone will be left on stone.
Let the king beware, for your justice tears
Every tyrant from his throne.
The hungry, poor shall weep no more,
For the food they can never earn;
There are tables spread, every mouth be fed,
For the world is about to turn.”
Kalea relaxed, sinking in the chair. Peace seeped into her; a quietness that told her that everything would be alright. Tomorrow may not come for Uncle Carson, but it would for everybody else, and they would go on.
A hand grabbed Kalea’s ankle. She jumped, her brown eyes widening to see Uncle Carson sitting up in the bed, his hand holding her sprained ankle.
Kalea tried to pull back her foot, but his grip tightened. She whined.
“Kalea, it’s going to be alright.”
Uncle Carson smiled, his own brown eyes glinting in the late afternoon sunlight. “We’ve been chosen.”
Kalea stopped fighting his iron grip on her ankle for a moment. “For what?”
Uncle Carson’s stared at her with a strange glimmer in his eyes. “You’re right. The world is about to turn.”
Kalea resumed her struggle, pulling harder on her ankle. A shock went through her as she jerked free from his grip, leaped out of the chair, and dashed out of the door. She ran down the hall to the nurses station where her aunt and Brandon retreated with the nurses, her left foot leaving bloody prints on the linolium. They stopped as they saw her approach, her long, brown hair flying behind her. Brandon hurried to meet her, catching her in his arms. “Kalea, what is it?”
Kalea gasped, staring at Brandon. “He’s awake.”
Aunt Molly turned from the nurse she was talking to, her eyes wide. “What did you say?”
“Uncle Carson is awake!”
“That’s impossible,” the nurse pushed past them. They followed her to Uncle Carson’s room, where they found him sitting up and calmly removing the morphine IV drip from his arm. He smiled at them.
“Hello everybody. Isn’t it a beautiful day?”
Aunt Molly and Brandon rushed to Uncle Carson, engulfing him in a hug.
The nurse pushed her hair out of her face, her shaky arm exposing a phoenix tattoo. “I don’t understand.”
Aunt Molly looked up from her embrace, tears dripping down her cheek. “It’s a miracle!”
Kalea sagged against the wall, smearing the blood trickling from her leg where Uncle Carson’s fingernails dug into her flesh to stain more of the wall and floor. “The world is about to turn.”
Kalea rushed in the restaurant, pushing down her hair in a futile attempt to smooth out the damage from the hard hat she had to wear on her last job inspection. There’s nothing like mid-August heat in Columbia, South Carolina, to undo hair and makeup. She pulled herself as straight as she could at five feet tall as she approached the greeter. “I’m here to meet Brandon Kerner.”
The greeter stared at Kalea with wide, green eyes. “You’re Kalea Kerner. You’re the ‘miracle girl!’”
Kalea took a deep breath, trying to keep her face from getting any redder than it already was from the heat. “I think you have me confused with my uncle, Carson. He’s the one that came back from the dead.”
“But he healed your sprained ankle, didn’t he?”
“Kalea!” Brandon swept past the greeter with his tall, lanky frame to hug her. “I’m glad you made it. Come on, our table is back here.”
Kalea followed Brandon to the back of the restaurant, where he led her to a table next to a window. “Thanks for the save.”
“Does that happen a lot?” he stared at her with concern in her brown eyes. Everybody swore the “Kerner kids,” as they had been called since they were babies, all looked alike. Kalea and Brandon’s fathers were brothers, and all of the children in the family had dark brown hair and eyes. Brandon was lucky to have some height to him, at a lanky six feet tall. Kalea and Annaliese, Brandon’s sister, were short. They were lucky to grow up together on the two hundred acre family estate that housed their families just outside of Columbia, but jobs had taken Brandon and his sister out of state.
“It’s better than the doomsday crowds. There was a group of them gathered outside the last school I inspected.” Kalea shrugged. “I guess it’s better to be the ‘miracle girl’ than the herald of the end times.” She sighed as she laid down her menu. “Actually, it’s irritating. I’m not the one that came back from the dead.”
“He wasn’t dead. And you were the one that walked in the room limping on a swollen ankle, and ran out healed two hours later.”
“I know. Leave it to me to make a bloody dash down the hall of a hospital in plain view of a security camera.” She had been heralded as one of the youngest business owners in the State of South Carolina at age thirty six, after taking over the Presidency of Kerner Electrical and Mechanical Engineering, just a month ago. Her father had started the firm when she was five years old, and she took over as President when he retired last spring. It had been her claim to fame, until that footage of her mad dash down a hospital hall trumped her professional integrity.
Brandon waved it off. “They’ll move on soon.”
“I don’t know. I hear there have been more cases like that in the past week. I was the only one stupid enough to get caught on video.”
“You’re also the only one not talking to the media. What gives?”
Kalea paused as the waiter appeared to take their orders. She smiled as he walked away with their menus, hoping the interruption was enough to change the subject. “So, when do you go back to Houston?”
Brandon stared at her. “Tomorrow, and you never answered my question. You haven’t been back around since Dad recovered, and you won’t talk about it. What’s going on with you?”
Kalea took a sip of her water. “Nothing, I’m just busy. I’ve missed a lot of work since Uncle Carson went in the home a couple of months ago after his fall. You and Annaliese aren’t here, and Mom and Dad have been at the mountain house in Gatlinburg since Mom agreed to teach summer and fall classes at the University of Tennessee. I’ve been the only one here to help out on a regular basis all summer.”
“I realize that, and I’m grateful. It’s not fair that you have to play the role of the daughter since Annaliese is too sucked in her own little world up there in D.C. She’s married to a Congressman, for goodness sakes. It seems she would be able to break away for her dying father.”
Kalea pointed at Brandon. “Ah, but as you just pointed out, he isn’t dying anymore. Don’t be so hard on her. I know she’s busy with her psychiatry practice, too.”
“But you’re a business owner now too, and you made time for Dad.”
“I’ve also known my partners most of my life. We have personal connections. Annaliese moved up there with no connections, and had to build everything up herself. I had it easy compared to her.” Kalea took another drink of water. She was shocked to find her glass empty already. “Good grief, doing those two school inspections this morning must have dehydrated me more than I realized.” She raised her hand to motion for the waiter, who nodded and brought a refill.
Brandon’s brow scrunched. “I thought you weren’t doing inspections until your ankle healed.”
She smiled. “It did, remember? Everybody that watches any national news stream knows that.”
Brandon shrugged. “I thought you might take some more time to make sure you’re really healed. Don’t sprains usually take six to eight weeks to heal?”
“When did you sprain it?”
“Two weeks ago.”
Brandon raised an eyebrow. “It’s already ok for you to do inspections?”
Kalea sighed. “Look, it hasn’t hurt since Uncle Carson grabbed it. I don’t know what happened. My doctor thought it might have been adrenaline. You weren’t in the room when he grabbed me. Nobody was, and there were no cameras in there. Nobody has any idea what it was like to have a dying person sit up and grab you.”
“I understand you’re traumatized, but don’t you care that Dad recovered?”
“Traumatized?” Kalea said, indignant. She crossed her arms. “I’ve never been so insulted in my life. Of course I care! I’m the one that’s had a front row seat to watching him slip away with Alzheimer’s for the past seven years while you were at you fancy job with the Space Exploration Society that your larger than life sister with the husband in Congress got for you.”
“Alright, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to imply that you don’t care.”
“I know you and Annaliese are busy with your jobs and families and lives, but I am too. We’re all busy professionals, but just because I’m not married doesn’t mean that I don’t have a life. I run a business, I run the property committee at church, and I run marathons. Well, when my ankle cooperates, that is.”
“It’s no secret that you’ve been avoiding us. You’ve been avoiding everybody.”
“That’s not true. I talk to Mom and Dad at least twice a week, and Annaliese called me last night.”
Brandon raised an eyebrow as the waiter brought their food. “Really? What did she say?”
“She’s the only person outside of the media and doomsday hounds that sincerely asked me how I’m doing. It was nice for somebody to care about me for a change, and not a disease or a story.” Kalea stared at Brandon. “You haven’t talked to her?”
“Only for five minutes when Dad woke up. Mom’s talked to her a couple of times since then, but never for long. All she says to us is that her schedule is full and she’s trying to clear it so she can come home.”
They sat in silence for a moment, Kalea munching on her salad and Brandon cutting his steak. Finally, Kalea spoke up. “I don’t mean to be dismissive, but this is overwhelming. It’s easier for me to dive into my work and daily routine than to bat off calls and emails looking for another sound bite. I’m embarrassed by that video. I hoped I could ignore it and it would go away, but now I’m not so sure. Have you seen these news stories breaking since they started running that video a couple of days ago?”
“I’ve been too busy getting Dad moved back home and settled in to watch the Internet streams.” Brandon paused. “He wants to see you. One of the national networks is sending a reporter to interview him for a special on Friday, and everybody is hoping that you will come.”
Kalea raised an eyebrow. “Come, as in to watch him do it?”
“No, come as in you’ll be interviewed with him.”
Kalea laid her fork down and leaned back in her chair, laughing. “So that’s why you wanted to take me out to lunch. You wanted something from me.”
“The family is asking, Kalea. It’s just one interview. Who knows, maybe talking to them will get everybody off your back. You’ll be able to go back to being a logical electrical engineer, running your business and complaining about deadlines and the jerks giving you headaches in no time. And Dad does want to see you. He’s asked about you every day since he woke up.”
“I know, and I meant to go by sooner, but you know how it is.” Kalea sighed. “What time on Friday?”
“They’ll be there at five o’clock to set up. Mom has a cleaning service coming to fix up the place. The interview starts at eight.”
Kalea raised an eyebrow. “It’s going to be a live stream?”
Kalea took another drink of water and wiped her mouth. “Fine, I’ll do it, if it’s the only way to put this to rest and let us go back to our boring lives.”
“Thank you, Kalea. And that’s not the reason I asked you to lunch. I wanted to see you. I’m concerned about you. You’re my cousin and like another sister to me.” He tilted his head. “You never did answer my first question. How are you?”
Kalea crumpled her napkin in her hand. “Frankly, Brandon, I’m scared.”
“I don’t know.”