Chapter 8 – Too Late
The sound of the television bounced off of the walls in a steady, bleary whine. It was the siren call of boredom. Sprawled out on a chair in the lobby of the cheap hotel where he rented a room, Tommy rolled to his right to steal a glance at the clock. The hands of this analog relic indicated that eight-thirty had passed by without announcing itself.
Sunday evenings without something to read were the worst. It was his night off because the bar was closed, but so was the public library. In what had become a repetitious exercise without benefit, he chided himself for not thinking ahead. He was finished with the last couple of books he had checked out, and they were due to be returned the following day.
It was too early to go to bed. This was compounded by the fact that he was hungry, and hunger made it more difficult to sleep. The gnawing in his stomach was typical for the end of a pay period. For reasons unknown to any but his employer, he was paid every other Monday. Rent and the maintenance of his considerable bulk sometimes exhausted his resources before the two weeks were up, a bad situation indeed for one unaccustomed to exercising foresight. He was not above visiting the dumpsters of grocery stores and fast food establishments, and such foraging had accounted for a late lunch on this particular day.
Looking listlessly at his jacket on the floor next to his chair, he decided against taking another walk. That had been his main activity for the afternoon, and the thought of adding to the considerable mileage he had already covered was entirely unappealing. He had succumbed to the restlessness before, sometimes making it as far as downtown. When the mood was right, he liked roaming the nearly deserted streets when businesses and office buildings were closed, when rectangular obelisks of steel and glass contrasted with the limestone of older edifices in the night sky. The interior lights of these structures glowed through their windows. The dull radiance was an oddly comforting reminder of what was not his – relationships, careers, material stability. Each distant window concealed a story he could not read. No, he would not go walking tonight.
Nobody else in the sparsely populated lobby was stirring. They were generally unwilling to talk to him, anyway. A dull voice narrated the program that was running on the television. The attendant working this shift had a liking for nature programs which could all be given the summary of a grim tale of survival in one habitat or another. This one was a grim tale of survival on the African savannah.
Tommy had not seen or spoken to Angel in over two months, yet the strangeness and pleasure of their last conversation lingered in his memory. Though he did not know what to call it, he was in a mild state of mourning. He missed her. Often – when at work, while reading, or idling aimlessly – he conjured up the coloration of her eyes, the sound of her voice, the ways in which she moved. The dignity of her posture represented a goal to which he could aspire, and he wished, though not to the point of decisive action, to be a better version of himself.
Something on the screen caught his attention. Four spotted hyenas were hunting in a pack. From the high grass, they surveyed a herd of grazing antelope, looking for a suitable victim – one that would not require them to expend too much energy in pursuit. A fawn had strayed from the edge of the herd, and they carefully encircled and crept up on it. When they broke from their cover, it was taken by surprise and could not escape. The rest of the herd scattered, and the chase was brief.
He had viewed this type of programming before, but what stood out this time was the ferocity and quickness with which the pack dispatched its prey. Almost simultaneously grabbing different legs in mid flight, three of the hyenas lifted it while the fourth tore open its throat. The young impala, graceful and sleek, was literally in pieces before it hit the ground. By comparison, the predators that had killed it were oddly proportioned and ugly. A sentence from the recent past emerged in his consciousness. I might still be able to fix this. Alarmed, he started from his chair.
“Oh, no. Angel, you didn’t.”
He grabbed his jacket and headed out of the building. An autumn chill was in the air, and he donned his outer garment. Of all the places she might be in the greater metropolitan area, he knew where to look first. The walk to the alley behind his place of employment wasn’t a long one, and he covered the distance at a good pace. When he arrived at the location, she was not there. This in itself did not perplex him, but he was indecisive as to where he should search next.
He felt an unseen string twitch and pull from deep within his chest. Intuitively, he followed it. There was no need to consult street signs, for the internal pressure guided him down sidewalks and around corners. It relaxed at the mouth of another alley. Here, the lifeless form of a man stared wide-eyed with open mouth at the partially clouded, starlit sky. Even in poor lighting, Tommy recognized the ghastly face. It was one of the four men he had knocked out to save Angel. His stomach began turning as he walked deeper into the recess of the alley. The other three perpetrators were strewn along the length of this passage. It was as if they had been trying to get away from something.
Farther on, there she was, the most beautiful creature he had ever seen, despitefully used and thrown away like refuse. She was unconscious. Her tights and shoes had been ripped off and tossed on the rough pavement nearby. Bruises and cuts covered the exposed areas of her skin, including her face, which was swollen almost beyond recognition. A dry trickle of blood extended from one nostril. Her jaw line looked asymmetrical.
A shudder went through Tommy’s huge frame. Angel’s description of her calling had sounded self-sacrificing and noble, but the grotesque scene in front of him was what it actually looked like. Respectfully, he averted his eyes while removing his jacket. This he draped over the exposed lower half of her body. Recalling what she had said about the toxicity of her skin, he avoided touching her forearms. She was wearing her customary orange tee shirt with the three-quarter length sleeves. For fear of causing her any more pain, he barely nudged the covered portion of her upper arm with his foot. This cautious procedure was repeated until her eyes blinked open.
She moaned softly and then grimaced as she tried to sit up.
“Please say you didn’t touch me.”
“I didn’t. I was careful.”
“Don’t touch my pants, either. Where are they?”
He pointed solemnly.
“Over there. I’ll step away while you get dressed.”
“Thanks. You can’t wear your coat until it’s washed. Are you cold?”
After what had happened to her, he was amazed that she could think of whether or not he was comfortable. She seemed annoyed by his silence.
“I asked you if you’re cold.”
“Not very, but that’s not important.”
He noticed her speech was slurring.
“Tommy, I don’t think my jaw’s working right.”
He’d been watching the side of her face in the dim lighting as she said this.
“I think it’s broken, Angel.”
She sighed audibly.
“This was bad. They were cruel, but I got every last one of them before I passed out.”
He took another look down the alley.
“Yes, you did. They’re all dead. But Angel – on a Sunday?”
“Yeah,” she muttered. “I was scouting around and I happened to find them.”
“Well, you need to get to an emergency room as soon as possible before the swelling gets any worse. That jaw needs to be set right away, or you could be in surgery for hours. I heard that was what happened to a guy who got jumped outside the bar where I work.”
He turned his back and walked off an appropriate distance while she dressed.
“Yeah. Don’t help me up.”
Walking unsteadily, she joined him. His jacket was tied around her waist to cover the rips in her tights. They found her overcoat, its right sleeve nearly torn off, before they reached the first corpse. This she draped over her shoulders as she proceeded to where one of the other bodies was clutching her handbag. She retrieved it, placed the strap over her right shoulder, and resolutely staggered on, leaving Tommy to marvel at her resilience. Obviously in pain, she made a quiet announcement.
“I have to bathe first. I still have the filth of dead men inside of me.”
“Were you listening to what I said about getting your jaw set?”
She shot him a defiant glance and waved her hands by her ears as if to bat away his voice.
“I’m dangerous until the toxin’s rinsed off my skin. I don’t want to kill a doctor accidentally.”
They walked for a considerable distance. Finally, they arrived in a part of the city that was only slightly nicer than where he had found her. She went up the front steps of an old apartment building, removed a key on a chain from around her neck, and twisted it in the lock. Tommy anticipated her next request and pushed open the door so that she wouldn’t have to touch it. The elevator wasn’t working, so they had to climb five flights of stairs. Once they had reached her door, she unlocked it and motioned him inside.
“Don’t touch the doorknob. I’ll have to wipe it down before we go.”
There were only three rooms: a bedroom, a bathroom, and a small living and dining area. The latter contained a tattered couch and a rickety, wooden table next to a kitchenette. One metal folding chair was at the table. Waiting on the couch while Angel attended to her hygienic needs, Tommy considered their location. It was a section of town with which he was reasonably familiar due to his ambulatory wanderings. They were a short bus ride from the nearest hospital.
She took longer than he expected. It sounded like she was washing and rinsing the bathtub. He heard what sounded like her key hitting the tile floor. He knocked and called out.
“Are you okay?”
“Don’t come in. I need to clean everything I touched before I bathed.”
The distinct odor of bleach emanated from the bathroom door when it opened. Washed and changed, Angel emerged. Her guest observed with astonishment that her facial swelling and discoloration had already lessened.
“Sorry about the wait. I couldn’t leave any residue for the next tenant. I produced a lot tonight – more than usual. Wait a minute.”
She went into the bathroom and came back with a rag and a bottle of bleach. Carefully, she wiped the doorknob then returned her cleaning materials.
“That was quite an operation.”
“I’ve got it down. I always keep a change of clothes in the bathroom along with a plastic bag for the soiled clothing.”
Observing all she had done and said brought a question to mind.
“Do you always walk back after…”
“What else? I don’t dare sit on a bus seat or hand payment to the driver. Ready?”
Remembering the pavement where she had lain, Tommy wondered whether she was being careful to the point of superstition. He rose from the couch and followed her out the door.
“You’re right about getting it set,” she admitted as she turned the key in the lock. “I want my jaw properly aligned when it heals. Are you sure you’ll be warm enough?”
Her repetition of this concern made him wonder if she was concussed, but she showed no evidence of impairment.
“Don’t worry about me. Maybe you shouldn’t talk any more until we get to the hospital.”
They found the nearest bus stop, and Tommy got them onto the correct line. Angel picked up his fare, and they tried to ignore the stares of the other passengers. In relatively short order, they were standing at the emergency room admissions counter. After hearing the battered woman’s explanation that someone had broken her jaw, the receptionist started through her standard list of questions while avoiding Tommy with her eyes.
“Does either of you have insurance?”
A wave of helplessness swept over him.
“Medicaid,” Angel broke in.
“Well, it doesn’t really matter,” the receptionist explained. “There’s an oral surgeon who works gratis for accident victims in your position. Let me call his emergency number.”
She entered the number and waited briefly while tapping her long fingernails on the counter. After speaking briefly with the party on the other end, she hung up.
“He says he’ll be at his office in about fifteen to thirty minutes. We’ll transport you at no charge.”
The humanitarian aspect of this concession was a by-product of legal necessity. The expense of an ambulance ride was preferable to a possible malpractice suit. One never knew when a patient might take offense and turn to litigation. Their conveyance dropped them off at the dentist’s door just as he drove into his office parking lot. As he approached, he eyed the pair suspiciously. Tommy’s size and appearance clearly unsettled him, and late night ruses to get at narcotics and other medications were an all-too-common professional hazard. Before unlocking his door, he made a request.
“Please slowly open and close your mouth, young lady.”
She complied, and he gently felt the sides of her face as she did so.
“Definitely broken,” he assented. “It’s good you arrived when you did. Tomorrow probably would have been too late for my services. You could have ended up in surgery. Depending on the extent of the damage, it still might be necessary.”
After waving the ambulance off, he showed them in, and Angel took a seat in the chair of one of his examination rooms.
“Let me get a quick X-ray. Can you bite down on this tab?”
She nodded and accepted the film into her mouth. Holding the plastic tab in place with her teeth, she could feel the vertical film casing against the inside of her upper and lower gums as she tried to ignore the discomfort. After the film was developed, the oral surgeon showed them the results on a computer monitor by the chair.
“I’d say you’ve been kicked by the toe of someone’s shoe. Your jaw is in three pieces: the left corner, a somewhat triangular portion at the point of impact, and the rest of the mandible.”
He paused and studied her intently.
“Can you tell me who did this to you?”
Angel hesitated, causing Tommy to look over at her.
“I don’t know their names,” she slurred with composure.
Her reaction and Tommy’s had not gone unnoticed by her examiner. With professional decorum, he resumed his diagnosis.
“Fortunately, your teeth are intact, and the breaks are in positions where I can set the bones by wiring your jaws shut. First, let me inject your gums on that side with a local anesthetic. I’m afraid it won’t eliminate all of the pain, but it should help.”
Angel didn’t flinch as she received the injection, and the good man went about his task as the anesthetic took effect. First, he wrapped wires around teeth at a number of corresponding positions on the upper and lower jaws. With fine-nosed pliers, he fashioned small hooks at the ends of the wires. A tiny but strong elastic band was hooked first to one wire hook and then stretched to its partner on the opposing jaw at each position. The tension of the bands held the broken lower jaw in a splint so that it could heal properly. When he had completed the procedure, he gave his patient her instructions.
“These wires won’t come off for another six to eight weeks, depending on how quickly you heal. Don’t try to eat any solid food while the wires are still on. You can drink whatever you want, but for something more substantial, I recommend baby food. Whether eating or drinking, you’ll need to use a straw. Do you have any questions?”
Closing her eyes, she shook her head.
“Let me warn you that your jaw could really be hurting by this time tomorrow. I’ll prescribe a mild analgesic in liquid form because you can’t open your mouth. The most serious discomfort should pass in a couple of days. After that, you just need to be patient. The wires and the immobilization can be a nuisance. I’ll be back in a few minutes after I’ve completed some preliminary paperwork. I do this kind of thing for no fee if necessary, but I do like to get paid. If you have it, please get your Medicaid information ready for when I return.”
He left the examination room, closed the door, and went into his office.
“That turned out better than I thought,” Tommy said in a poorly considered effort to keep her occupied. “When I first got a look at your face…”
“Be quiet,” she hissed through clenched teeth. “Listen.”
She squeezed a handful of his shirt in agitation.
“What’s going on? I don’t hear anything.”
“He’s calling the police. He thinks you did this.”
“A mandated reporter,” Tommy muttered, “and he thinks I’m the abusive boyfriend. What’s the problem? You can vouch for me.”
“I don’t want them to know who I am or what I look like. Please, let’s leave.”
Giving in to her panic, he followed her through the door and into the hallway which led to the waiting room. The office door, slightly ajar, was in the opposite direction. As quietly as possible, they left the building.
“How did you hear that?” he asked her.
“I guess I didn’t tell you everything about my nervous system,” she added. “It’s very sensitive in more ways than one.”
“Including you pain receptors, I’ll bet.”
“I’m used to it.”
She moved at an erratic but fast clip until they were around the corner.
“Do you know where we are?”
“I do,” he assured her. “We’re a few miles from where you live.”
“Which way? We need to hurry. We can’t risk waiting for a bus.”
She was stumbling again. He guided her by her shoulders in the right direction. Faltering, she clutched at his shirt.
“I’m getting light-headed, Tommy. I need to get off my…”
He caught her as she fainted. Though delayed and mild considering what she had been through, exhaustion and shock had set in. Thinking it over, he concurred with her advice. Waiting for a bus was out of the question. Now that they had fled, he would be suspected of battery, and his description to the police would be distinctive and unmistakable. Picking her up in both arms, he lifted her below her shoulders and knees. He had never born another person’s weight like this, and she seemed ridiculously light. She awakened shortly after her feet were elevated.
“You can put me down, now,” she protested.
“Not a chance. You might pass out again. Relax, and enjoy the ride.”
She faded in and out of consciousness while he carried her along. Wherever possible, he walked through alleyways to stay clear of the streets and any patrol cars that might be scanning the area. It was a long, nervous walk, and the peril brought with it a profound sense of loneliness. He could not be seen carrying a semi-conscious woman, and he ducked down behind parked cars to escape the attention of passing motorists when he was forced to resort to the sidewalks. If he felt overly exposed, he broke into a run until finding suitable cover. Due to frequently hiding and surveying his surroundings, he took over two hours to reach Angel’s apartment.
As he reached the door to her building, he peered anxiously into the lobby. It was empty. Fortunately, he had encountered not a soul during the entire, furtive journey. Gently lowering his burden to the floor of the entryway, he discretely pulled upward on the chain around her neck until the key emerged from behind her shirt collar. Once inside, he carried her up the stairs until he stood before her apartment. He inserted the key into the lock, gave it a turn, and heard the deadbolt slip out of the door frame. Twisting the knob, he pushed the door open and carefully entered with the precious package he had been cradling in his arms. A heretofore unknown surge of emotion coursed through him as he laid her on her own bed and retreated. She was unconscious when he did so.
He had intended to leave but thought better of it. She might need help during what remained of the night. Deciding to stay, he closed the door to the hallway. He had not bothered to turn on the lights, seeing instead by the faint illumination streaming in through the apartment’s lone window. A reluctant trespasser, he listened alertly as he sat down and stretched out on the couch. Sleep proved elusive, and he found himself making plans for sunrise. She would need something to eat, and he might be called upon in the morning to run an errand for the requisite baby food. Alternatively, he might receive a tongue lashing from this proud woman and be ordered out of her living quarters. These considerations aggravated his inability to doze off.
Tommy was uncertain as to how long he lay there in this unresolved state of mind, but he became aware of movement in Angel’s room. The door creaked open, and the sound of footsteps drew nearer. Was she heading to the bathroom? No, she was walking toward him. He opened his eyes to see her silhouette looming above him, and he hastily tried to arrive at a suitable explanation for why he was still there. Then he remembered that his jacket needed to be washed. Nothing else came to him, but it was just as well. He never had the chance to speak.
“Scoot over,” she instructed. “I want to know what it’s like to lie next to a man I can trust.”
He obeyed silently, and she settled into the space between his right arm and his body. Wincing from the effort, she carefully laid her head back on his shoulder. As old as it was, the couch was extraordinarily deep. Still it was barely wide enough, and Tommy had shifted to an uncomfortable position to make room for her. Angel was still dressed. The shirt she had changed into was long-sleeved.
“Don’t worry,” she reassured. “I’m not dangerous now. To make sure, I’ll be careful not to touch your skin.”
She was drifting.
“How often does this happen?”
“How often does what happen?” she whispered.
“You getting this roughed up.”
He groaned before he could prevent himself.
“Angel, we shouldn’t be here like this. You and I should be sitting in a coffeehouse and discussing great books.”
She absent-mindedly bent her right arm and touched his chest.
“That would be nice.”
Her hand fell away, and her breathing became more regular. Tommy exhaled a long, slow breath of his own. He was still wide awake, but his thoughts were undirected. Amid this confusion, they repeatedly flitted away but always returned to an inescapable certainty. The lithe but damaged woman asleep in the crook of his arm was lethal. Everything she had told him was true. After several minutes, his arm began to grow stiff and sore, then numb, but he dared not move it. She needed her rest. He could almost feel her regenerating as the hours passed, and an inexplicably comforting atmosphere permeated the stillness. Somehow, beyond all sensory verification, they were not alone.