He awoke completely this time, staring up at a nurse reaching for something above his head. The fuzziness that had plagued his previous lucid periods was gone, leaving only a pervading lassitude and an all-over muscle ache that extended into his throbbing, albeit finally clear, head. Detecting movement, the nurse glanced down and, seeing that his eyes were open, gave him a bright smile. "Good morning, Dr. MacKensie."
He mumbled his best attempt at a reply, but it disintegrated in a dry throat. Assessing the problem, the woman reached over to pour out a glass of water from a bedside pitcher. As she activated the control to raise up the head of the bed, she commented, "This and juice will be all I can give you for awhile; you won't be ready for solid food for another few days, I'm afraid. Take it slow." She guided the glass to his mouth, helping him a guarded sip. The water seared down his throat, causing him to gasp, but the nurse had obviously anticipated his reaction, holding the back of his neck with one hand while keeping the glass safely back with the other. "The larynx and esophagus are still irritated," she explained apologetically as he blinked back the stinging tears that had sprung to his eyes. "The first swallow is the worse; it gets easier, I promise."
Grimacing at the prospect of taking an hour to get down one simple glass of water, he waved it away, croaking his thanks. With another warm smile, and a quick assurance that he knew the location of the call button, she left the room.
Despite the fact that he didn't have enough strength to lift his own head from the pillow, he wasn't sleepy. Looking up, he saw the television on a shelf against the far wall, but realized he had very little interest in watching it. He contented himself with a survey of his surroundings, discovering in short order that he was still securely hooked up to an I.V., he was in the bed on the window side of a double room, and he had no neighbor in the other bed. The room was also filled with an assortment of potted plants and floral arrangements which, given the lack of another person residing in the room, meant that they were all for him, and the realization brought a smile to his face. Glancing over at the bedside cart, he found that someone had very sensibly culled the cards from each bouquet, making a small note on each card as to which arrangement each had come. The notes were neat, precise and the handwriting was unmistakably Dr. Moorhouse's. Typical. A staunch believer in practical solutions, his department chairperson would consider it a small matter indeed to allow him to identify his well-wishers without having to wait for someone to come along and read the cards out for him.
He had a vague memory of her face, enveloped by that annoying haze of half-consciousness, hovering near. Early this morning? Yes, his sketchy memory helped him out a little there. He'd been bumped and prodded out of his comfortable drowse, half-understanding and totally resenting the friendly voices telling him he was being moved to another room, and Dr. Moorhouse's voice had roused him from his hazy sulk. But he couldn't make out the words she was speaking, and the memory faded out on a simple image of her stern visage softened by deep concern.
Other faces, too, not quite so clear, darted in and out of his memory. Doctors and nurses, no doubt. And yet one fragment, strangely out of place, tugged insistently at the back of his mind. His attempts to snare the image failed, sending it flying into oblivion.
Moving the stack of cards revealed a small pile of newspaper clippings, and he took a moment to study them. His eyebrows arched to see that at least one was from the front page of the Washington Post, with pertinent paragraphs carefully highlighted in yellow, and a bright red flush of embarrassment crept into his face to read his own name concatenated with phrases like 'heroic rescue effort' and 'courageous actions'. A sigh of relief escaped him to discover that there had been no fatalities; two students and one firefighter had been treated and released. His was the only serious injury.
He lingered over a section from a suburban paper. The reporter had interviewed Randy on the scene, just before the paramedics whisked her off to the hospital. That she'd been distraught during the interview was evident, but she'd obviously deemed it important to stress that she felt she owed her life to the efforts of one Dr. Jonathan MacKensie, a Georgetown Institute professor of anthropology and related sciences and disciplines, who'd plunged into the burning chem lab when told that students were still trapped by an explosion and flash fire. Somehow, in the midst of the black, choking smoke, he'd found her and the student who'd been trying to help her; somehow, he'd steered the dazed young man in the direction of rescue workers, and managed to guide Randy's wheelchair, blind, to safety. And he would have been safe if someone hadn't mistakenly believed that another student was still trapped in the lab.
He fought back a flash of irritation at that revelation, concentrating instead on the genuine relief he felt to know that his black-out during the third rescue attempt hadn't cost the life of a student. With wry amusement, he read a next-day report that shed some light on his own confusion about his condition. Apparently he'd been dropped by smoke and chemical inhalation. It'd been difficult to tell what combination of chemicals had ignited in the lab, and therefore impossible to tell what he'd actually inhaled. His reported condition when, in successively smaller articles, from critical to dangerous to guarded and from there to good, and all the while doctors refused to comment on when, if ever, he'd emerge from his coma.
Which happened yesterday, if he'd gathered enough fragments of memory together to make a logical guess. And piecing the facts together from the dated clippings, he'd only been comatose for three days.
Only? He almost laughed, but his throat threatened to close up on him if he tried. Folding the clippings up neatly, he went to the next pile. He sorted through each card, finding that most were from students, a few from fellow professors, and the large philodendron was from Dr. Moorhouse herself. Beneath the floral cards was another stack, this time of get-well cards; each was carefully removed from their envelopes, with the envelopes themselves tucked inside for ready identification. A careful study revealed a similar ratio of students and colleagues; a few gushing ones brought an embarrassed flush to his face, and the rest ranged from clever to suggestively lewd. He lingered a moment on a smallish card near the bottom of the stack; the snappy verse was less inspired than most of the other cards, and there was no handwritten message appended, only a carelessly scrawled signature inside.
Exactly the sort of get-well card he would have expected Edgar Benedek to send—no more, no less; cocky, but glaringly impersonal.
It took him a moment to realize that he was frowning; another moment to realize that he wasn't sure of the reason why. But the smile that had been brought to his face by the funnier cards was gone. He flipped through the remainder of the stack, uninterested, and ended by tossing the cards back onto the cart. His frown deepened, and this time he identified the problem — irritation. Benny's little card annoyed him for a reason which still eluded him. He tried to dismiss it, assuring himself that was getting upset over nothing, that he was being petty. But it didn't take long for him to realize that he was tired and in pain, and therefore entitled to feel bothered that Edgar Benedek had brushed off his three-day coma in the hospital with a fifty-cent get-well card.
But what did he really expect, after all? They'd only been working together for a few months, and even then, the term 'working together', in their particular case, seemed to be a glaring contradiction in terms. The price of the little greeting card just about summed up the true worth of their relationship, he mused bitterly. After all, not once during any of their investigations into reported paranormal occurrences did Edgar Benedek ever give him an indication that he thought of his 'partner' as anything more than a convenience—a tool, just a simple means to an end. Jonathan shifted uncomfortably, flashing back to the time, the day he and Benedek first met, when he'd begged Dr. Moorhouse to let him bring Benny in on the case, intending to use the flamboyant writer/paranormal investigator as just that — a means to an end. But his attitude towards Edgar Benedek and his personality, lifestyle, outspoken opinions and alarming clothes-sense had undergone drastic changes over the course of time. While the man could still drive him up a wall with his bizarre theories and even weirder friends, Jonathan realized that he'd come to respect the man for his courage and determination, if not for his tact and diplomacy, which still needed major revisions. Apparently Benny's attitude towards Jonathan MacKensie had not changed at all. 'Dr. Jon' remained, as he always had been, the G.I. expense account and all-around decoy—nothing more.
If Benny thought of him at all, it was undoubtedly to grouse to his cronies about how his G.I. connection had been stupid enough to get himself 'all chocked up' in a chemistry lab blow-up, depriving the great Edgar Benedek of access to the G.I. Paranormal Investigation Unit case files as well as the bottomless G.I. P.I.U. expense account. His lurid bylined articles for that sleaze-rag, The National Register would have to wait until the unfortunate prof rose from him comfy sickbed. How unthinking; how unfeeling; didn't 'Jack’ realize he had deadlines?
The pressure in his chest grew, making it hard to breathe. He considered the call button for a moment before realizing that the nurse wouldn't be able to provide a balm for the bruised feelings. Settling back with a sigh, he resolutely studied the ceiling, repeating an insistent chorus over and over in his mind that it really didn't matter. He gave up when he realized that he'd never been very good at lying to himself.
He was still in the midst of his silent grouse when the nurse returned to take his vital signs. She gave him a strange look when he didn't respond to her cheery greeting, but smiled as she remarked on the number of arrangements and cards that had been waiting for him when he had been brought down from ICU the night before. Then, as she inserted the thermometer into his mouth, she said, "Oh, I hear your friend was a big hit with the ICU staff. I think he's got a date with a different nurse for the next week and a half."
Jonathan frowned around the thermometer. That particular description only fit one of his friends. "Benedek?" he mumbled around the object tin his mouth.
"The author, right?" she nodded. "The nurses on the morning shift were talking about some of the stories he was telling them." Her laugh had that same indulgent quality that he had often heard from other women who had fallen under Edgar Benedek's mysterious charm. "I can't wait to meet him."
Removing the thermometer, she noted the puzzled frown on her patient's face with a curious look of her own. "Something wrong?"
"When was he here?" Jonathan demanded, eyes narrowing.
"Oh—well..." She paused, thinking. "I think I heard that he was up on the ICU floor at least a half-dozen times. He came by this morning, but you were sound asleep, so he took off again. I'm sure he'll be back soon for afternoon visiting hours. Could you introduce us?"
Jonathan roused long enough to give her a smile. "If he sees you first, I won't have to bother."
She gave him a knowing wink. "Yeah, that's what I heard."
After the nurse had excused herself to answer a page with the promise to return to finish taking his vital signs, Jonathan retrieved Benedek's little card from the stack, inspecting it carefully. This time he also looked at the envelope, finally noticing what he had missed the first time—the fact that the envelope bore no postmark or stamp and only a partial address.
"Dr. MacKensie?" The nurse leaned in, a twinkle in her eye. "Looks like I was right—you have a visitor."
Edgar Benedek slid past her, giving her an appreciative and openly appraising look that lingered even after she'd disappeared from the doorway. "Hey, Jonny!" he greeted MacKensie expansively. "How's this for a switch? I'm usually the one flat on my back with a thermometer hanging out of my mouth."
"Hello, Benedek," he rasped, wincing.
"Oh." His expression went mock solemn. "That's right. They said something about getting your throat burned out, didn't they? No prob, I learned lip reading as a journeyman reporter for the Times—the only way to get those confidential quotes from halfway across a crowded party, y'know. So just take it slow and easy, okay?
Nodding, Jonathan took a moment to consider his next move, eyeing the newspaper folding under Benedek's arm. "What are you doing in D.C.?"
"Oh." Benny shrugged elaborately. "Convention. Boring stuff, so I skipped out a little early, figured I'd do my Good Samaritan stint for the decade, y'know?"
"Convention." Jonathan nodded wisely.
"Yeah." Benny's eyes narrowed slightly. "Get my card?"
"Yes, thank you."
"Ah—almost forgot." Whipping open the paper, Benny presented an open page to Jonathan with a flourish. "Gotta hand it to you buds, you may blend in with the decor most of the time, but when you cut loose, you make great copy."
Jonathan recognized the trademark format of The National Register even before his eye caught the glaring heading "Hero Prof Saves The Day", and the smaller, but no less ostentatious byline "Edgar Benedek".
"Got the photo from personnel," Benny explained, gesturing towards the portrait occupying a good fourth of the page. "You camera-shy or what? That pic's gotta be at least five years old."
'That pic' had been taken the day he'd received official notification of his full professorship at G.I. As such, the photograph was one of his personal favorites, because it represented one of the most important as well as one of the proudest and happiest moments of his life. It was all there in the unfeigned smile and the photographically-augmented sparkle in the eyes. And personnel also know that it was his favorite, since year after year, he consistently chose if for the yearbook over more recent proofs. Those newer proofs were all still on file. Benny had obviously had more than a passing conversation with someone in the personnel office.
"Well?" Benny prompted anxiously when Jonathan lingered over the florid prose, too stunned to react. "Hey, I know it's not the Post, but..."
"I don't know what to say," he admitted, genuinely at a loss.
"I figured something about my squeezing a flashy byline out of your personal misfortune might be in character."
Jonathan shot a look at the man, alerted by the strained quality in the overtly facetious remark, which had sounded suspiciously like a modified quote from someone like Dr. Moorhouse. Benedek returned his look without a flinch, but Jonathan was left with the impression that his friend was ready to cut and run if MacKensie so much as said 'boo'.
"No," he said, surprised by how much he meant it. "It's actually more than I deserve."
Benny made a rude sound. "That's not the way I've been hearing it. You think I made up those quotes in there?"
"Look. What I did was just instinct; even stupid when you really think about it." He glanced at the page, shaking his head helplessly. "You make it sound like the greatest thing since Hillary's assault on Everest."
Benedek shrugged, holding back a pleased grin. "Literary license."
His laugh dissolved into a pained moan. When he opened his eyes again, it was to see Benny hovering next to him, holding out the water glass. "Did I tell you to take it easy?" he chided, pushing the glass into Jonathan's hand. "Did I?"
He managed a healthy sip before the effort drained him again. Keeping a worried eye on Jonathan's continuing grimace of pain, Benny replaced the glass, then removed the paper from MacKensie's unresisting hand and folded it on the bedside table. "A little light reading for later," he said, his manner suddenly nervous as though his show of overt concern had blown an important cover. "Me, I'd better get back to the hotel. There's a seminar called 'Yellow Journalism And You' that has my name on it. Maybe I'll get a chance to sneak out again before they spring you. Check you later, Jack."
The man paused in half turn. "Yeah? What?"
He owed the man a huge apology, yet he'd never be able to explain what he was apologizing for. Perhaps an argument could be made for Benny 'using' him again, as Dr. Moorhouse had obviously already accused to his face. But the facts refused to indict Edgar Benedek. He'd heard Benny grouse about deadlines, and he knew that the Register didn't lightly assign full pages and color photos to articles not involving royal weddings or celebrity scandals. How much did Benny have to push—or how much did he have to give—to persuade his editor to rush that article into print on less than one day's notice?
And if he could ever bring himself to ask, could Benny ever bring himself to answer? He studied the man's tense face and found the answer: probably not.
But it didn't matter whether Benny or even both of them chose to remain behind their chosen facades. It made the rare glimpses behind the masks that much more precious and warming to the heart.
Putting his hand on the folded newspaper, Jonathan waited until Benny finally met his gaze before saying, softly, "Thank you."
For a moment, he though his simple remark would push Benedek completely over the edge, driving him away in a hot flush of acute embarrassment. But then a smile broke through, lightening this face, bringing the cocky swagger back to his manner. "Don't mention it," he shrugged lightly. "It's what I do, y'know."
"I know," Jonathan said, his smile both agreement and a reflection of the warmth glowing inside him. "I know."
© M.D. Bloemker. The contents of this page may not be copied or reproduced without the author's express written permission.
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