44 • Runaway
Cameron pulled her laptop from a sleek black leather bag lying on the seat between her and Will. She waved the cord playfully in the air. “Surely a claims guy has a truck equipped with AC power?”
“Yep. But I’m old school. There’s a power inverter in the glove box.”
“Pretty sure I don’t even know what that is, ” Cameron said, dropping open the lid. The Barbie head rolled onto its side. “Oh, look who’s still here.”
Will reached in past Cameron’s hand and pulled a small yellow and black box with two power outlets from under the manual. “Here you go. Just plug it into the lighter.”
“Well, isn’t that a fun little gadget. I’ll bet you could power a small refrigerator off that.”
“Probably true. But I can’t fit one in the glove box.”
“Sorry about working. But I’ve got reports due to Corporate by the end of the week and I’m backed up.”
“Not a problem. I’ll try not to prove too big a distraction.”
Cameron shifted in her seat, arranging the computer comfortably on her lap and tapped at the keys as they pulled onto the interstate. Will drove the now-familiar route to Colbyville in silence, only occasionally turning to the right for a glance at his companion, regretting his promise to let her work in peace.
It could be argued that Will didn’t need anyone to accompany him to the hospital to retrieving Joe. More likely than not, Joe would tell a story or two about one of the nurses he took a shining to and then nod off to sleep the rest of the trip. But considering that no part of his relationship with Joe to date had gone according to expectations, he had no reason to think this part would either. Joe would have him following some billboard advertising the historic straw bale museum or some such thing as they traveled home. And Joe’s vast and eclectic interests and knowledge of things most people didn’t realize even existed made the idea of transporting even an infirm and mildly sedated Joe, without incident, seem somehow out of reach. It wasn’t all Joe’s fault, of course. Will seemed to lose his footing in the ordinary world of ordinary things and ordinary obligations in the face of Joe’s extraordinary interests and, Will would admit, his charm.
But at the moment, Will also faced the extraordinary obligation of collecting and caring for Joe, and wisely sensed the need for fortification against the old man’s otherwise easy disarmament. Cameron Julian could be just the sort of reinforcement—
“Hey, is that Joe?” Cameron jabbed Will’s arm and pointed out her side of the windshield.
Will leaned over as though it would help him see more clearly through an already unobstructed, wide open sheet of glass, or maybe he meant to erase from view the image of a man, about Joe’s age and size, stepping off the curb from the hospital parking lot into the street about a half block ahead.
“What the hell—”
“Pull up there, Will. And be careful.”
“What the hell—”
“You already said that.”
“What the hell—”
The man looked both ways before walking across the street, pulling along a tall silver wheeled pole with a bag of clear fluid hanging from it. When he reached the other side, he pivoted and began walking in the same direction as Will and Cameron were traveling.
“What the hell—” Cameron shielded her eyes as Joe turned his back to them, the sides of his hospital gown flowing widely and freely in the brisk South Dakota breeze.
“You see?” Will asked, pulling up to the curb opposite Joe and hastily putting the truck into park. “The right words for this are few.”
He yanked off his seatbelt and threw open his door. “Hey, Joe, ” he called, as he jumped out of the truck. Cameron hurried out and met him coming around the front of the truck.
Joe turned around.
“Will! Look at you. And Cameron! Well.” Joe smiled and clapped his hands together. “Imagine seeing the two of you here.” He looked around, his eyes first sparking then graying over. “Of course, by ‘here’ I mean, umm, where exactly are we?”
The two moved gently, one to each side and guided Joe across the street toward the truck.
“Colbyville, Joe, ” said Will. “We’re right here in Colbyville. You’ve had a little stay in the hospital.”
Joe snapped his fingers. “Of course. That explains a lot. He shuffled along, his untied laces wrapping around each other between his feet.
“You left in a bit of a hurry, eh Joe?” Will asked, opening the passenger door.
“Funny, about that, ” Joe said, resting a hand on the side of the cab. “They said I could go home. So I started getting dressed. Couldn’t get my shirt on over this contraption.” He shook the IV line hanging out of his forearm. “And I never did find my pants. I don’t know what they were thinking, but if I learned anything while I was in there, it’s that you don’t argue with the nurses. So when they said I was supposed to go home, I did my best. I got my shoes and socks on and off I went. Midge said if you don’t show you can handle yourself independently, then they don’t let you go home. They just trick you into sitting in a wheelchair like they’re going to let us race in the hall and then they wheel you across the street.” He pointed over his shoulder toward the old brick care center behind the hospital with his thumb. “Nobody gets out of there.”
“You did great, Joe, ” Cameron said, holding the door.
“Yeah, you did, ” added Will. “But maybe we should go back and find your pants. I know from experience the lack of them is hard to explain to some people.” He started to help Joe into the cab when the breeze caught the gown again, laying a fold across Will’s arm and giving him another fresh and unwelcome view of the old man’s backside. He pushed the fabric off his arm and glanced at his leather seat. “Hold on a sec there, buddy.” He put a hand on Joe’s arm. “Cameron, there’s a blanket behind my seat. Can you grab it?”
Cameron jogged around the front of the truck and came back with it, then turned to look away from the men toward the street. Will spread it open on the seat, then helped Joe step up, folding the blanket over his lap. He patted him on the leg. “There you go. All snug.”
He swung the door shut. The IV tubing, still running from Joe’s arm to the bag, was now neatly pinched in the door. Cameron laughed and pointed to the IV stand.
“Shit, ” Will said, an ran his hand through his hair. “What the hell—”
“Back to that are we, Mr. Man of Few Words?”
“It’s all I’ve got.”
He took the bag off the stand, opened the door, then threaded the bag and the tubing back out the open window towards the stand. Once the bag was safely hooked in place, he closed the door.
“Managed, ” he said, smiling. “Joe, think you can hold onto the pole out the window if I drive real slow?”
“I can sure try. Just don’t try any of those fancy 4-wheel stunts.
Cameron stared at the men with her arms crossed.
Will was certain she rolled her eyes under the soft curl of her honey bangs.
“What? I can drive slow. It’s just across the parking lot. It’s perfect.”
“Right, ” Cameron said, walking to the door. She nudged Will out of the way with the back of her hand and lifted the IV bag off the stand hook, handing it in the window to Joe.
“Can you hold on to this?” she asked.
“Well, I do believe I can, ” he answered, setting the bag on his lap.
She picked up the pole, turned it on its side and laid it in the pickup bed. “Now you’re free to do your 4-wheel stunts.” Cameron looked sharply at Will, walked around the truck, got in and slid across the seat next to Joe. Will stood on the curb with his hands in his pockets.
“Sure. That’s another way. It should work.”
He slapped his hand on the hood twice as if to prove the truck were solid enough. “Okay then, let’s go.” He got back behind the wheel and drove to the hospital entrance. Cameron snapped her gum. Joe hummed quietly. Will did not speak.
Will jumped out of the truck and jogged through the automatic double doors. Inside, he looked both directions down the wide hospital hallway. It was deserted. He spotted a wheelchair sitting idle outside a room and made a move for it. As the automatic doors dragged open again, he heard a voice behind him.
“Hey. You can’t take that. I’m going to use it for Mr. Wicks.”
He hesitated. His shoulders slacked and he turned, ready to bring back the wheelchair so nurse Myrna could take Elvin Wicks, a seeming full-time resident at the hospital, for better than a sponge bath.
Myrna stood in the hall scowling, hands on her hips and a large purple stain on the front of her floral scrubs that said she was in no mood for it today. In that moment Will decided he wasn’t either. He faced her, wheelchair between them, fingers wrapped firmly around the handles. His annoyance and exhaustion collided with her patronizing defiance and he gripped the handles tighter.
“You can have the wheelchair and take Elvin for the bath he doesn’t want any more than the one you gave him last week, or you can hold on a freaking minute and let me bring in the runaway patient none of you apparently even know is gone yet.”
Myrna’s hands fell, as did her face.
“That’s what I thought.” He spun on one foot and wheeled the chair out the door.
By the time he lined the chair up next to the cab, Cameron was already easing Joe out of his seat and Myrna was running down the walk.
“What in the world is going on here?”
“Oh, hello Myrna.” Joe smiled up from his chair. “Seems we had a little misunderstanding. The kids here don’t believe you sent me home.
Will draped the blanket across Joe’s lap and Myrna got behind the chair and started pushing. “They’re right, you old jackass.” She leaned hard into the chair as she pushed it up the sidewalk ramp. “A guy as well read as you surely ought to know the difference between ‘You get to go home today’ and ‘Get the hell out of here.’”
She stopped to wait for the door and Will started to feel sorry for her. He put a hand on her shoulder. “Don’t be too hard on him, Myrna. He’s fine. No harm done.”
Cameron was still standing at the curb. “What?” he asked. “I’m a little busy right now.”
“No, come here.”
The doors opened and Myrna pushed Joe inside.
“Right now?” He threw up his hands.
Will shoved his hands in his pockets and walked toward Cameron, hoping she would notice the extra emphasis he added to each footfall.
“What is so important.” He looked back at the doors as they closed behind Joe and his nurse. “I need to get inside.”
“No, you don’t.” Cameron slipped a hand under her hair at the back of her neck and pulled it out of her jacket collar. “Let Joe and Myrna take care of things. We’ll go in when they’ve settled down a little.”
“No, you’re not his son. You’re a name he wrote on a form. You’re not in charge of him.”
“But he—” It occurred to Will that since meeting Cameron it was possible he’d started far more sentences than he’d finished.
“He doesn’t need you right this second. He needs Myrna to get him back in his bed and for the doctor to make sure he’s really ready to go.”
Will’s eyes narrowed. Was this how it was for every man? Were other men surrounded by women who were right? The Barbaras, who made themselves right because that’s how they knew to get through the day. But the Pearls and Camerons too, who maybe didn’t need to be right but found themselves that way all the same. Or was this just the story of a man like him, a man who as much as he wanted to be right didn’t believe most days he actually was.
He started for the door. “I’m going in. You can stay out here and be all boundaried if you want.”
“At least move your truck first. You’re blocking the entrance.”
How did she do that? He dropped his head and walked back to the truck. As he turned the key in the ignition, he looked out the window at Cameron, who was standing quietly on the sidewalk.
“Riding or waiting?”
She smiled, her head tilted slightly. “Waiting, I think.”
He put the truck in drive and lurched forward, spraying a little gravel from behind the rear tires.
(to be continued)