Five Stages of Andrew Brawley
The boy is on fire.
EMTs wheel him into Roanoke General’s sterile emergency room. He screams and writhes on the gurney as though the fire that burned his skin away burns still, flaring deep within his bones, where the paramedics and doctors and nurses crowding around him, working desperately, will never be able to extinguish it.
The boy looks my age, seventeen. His hair, where it isn’t singed, is the color of autumn leaves. The kind of leaves I used to rake into piles with my dad and take running jumps into.
I can’t see the boy’s eyes from where I’m hiding, but his voice is a chain. It grates as agony drags it out of his throat. The skin on his legs and part of his chest is charred black.
The scent of burning lingers in my nose, and even as bile rises into the back of my throat, I can’t help thinking of all the times I barbecued with my family during the summer. Mom would squirrel
away extra food in the back of the fridge because Dad always burned the chicken.
It’s late, and I should be gone, but I can’t take my eyes off the boy. I’m a prisoner of his animal howls. There is nowhere in this hospital that I could hide to escape his screams.
So I stay. And watch. And listen.
A girl runs in, arms windmilling about. Screaming words that I barely hear over the sound of my own heart thudding. “. . . in the pool . . . party . . . he was yelling . . .” The paramedics restrain the girl, and she shrinks. She’s a broken mirror. The pieces are just reflected bits of us: our anger, our horror, our fear, borrowed and returned. She can keep mine.
I focus on the boy.
The biggest concern is protecting his airway. I know that. It’s basic stuff. If the boy breathed the fire, it might not matter what his skin looks like. That his screams reach every corner of Roanoke’s claustrophobic emergency room is a good thing. When he stops screaming is when I’ll worry.
The doctors and nurses huddle, discussing their plan of attack, maybe; praying, maybe. Mourning, maybe. The boy needs miracles. The storybook-magic kind.
One of the doctors—an octopus of a woman working with all eight arms simultaneously—cuts away the ruined bits of clothing and peels them back like ragged strips of wallpaper. The boy moans.
I turn away. I’m not prepared for this. I only came to the ER to say hi to the nurses and see if anyone had blown off a finger while lighting fireworks. Today being the Fourth of July made my chances of seeing a grisly Roman candle accident pretty good.
But this is bad. This is so much like that night.
The small emergency room can hardly contain all the people crowded in it. The walls are white. The floors are white. The drapes that cordon off the exam rooms are eggshell, except for one space reserved for small children. That curtain is decorated with tiny faded yellow ducks. The nurse’s station is a stumbling block perched in the middle of the ER, and all the doctors and nurses are forced to dance around it. The nurses complain, but it’s a fixed point in space. Immovable.
My calves ache from crouching, and my shoulders are stiff. I fear that if I move, I’ll be seen, and tonight I want to remain invisible. The boy on fire needs me to stay. He needs me to be witness to his pain. It’s an odd thought to have, but I’m growing used to the odd thoughts that invade my brain these days. Every day.
Like how the ER smells remind me of an Italian grinder. The kind that’s smothered in vinegar and mayo and too much oregano. Usually the emergency room is a stew of bleach and blood and whatever rotten odors the patients carry in with them. But not tonight. The boy isn’t just burned. He’s cooked.
I turn back to the scene, hoping that they’ve finished peeling him. He moves less than before. He cries less. Maybe the doctors gave him something for the pain. Except he and I know that some pain burrows so deep, no narcotic can ever soothe it. It’s etched on your bones. It hides in your marrow, like cancer. If the boy survives, this pain is a memory he won’t want.
I’ll remember it for him.
Steven startles me from behind. “Drew? What’re you doing here?”
Steven is twiggy, with a bulbous nose and a hairline that he left in high school, along with the rest of his good looks.
“Hey, Steven,” I say, playing it nonchalant. I stand up slowly, not taking my eyes off the burning boy, and hide my anxiety behind a lopsided grin. “I was on my way home, and I thought I’d stop by and say hi.”
“Bad time, kiddo.” He’s cradling an armful of sterile gauze and looking where I’m looking. The boy screams. Steven flinches. Sometimes I think he’s too sensitive to be a nurse.
I nod my head absently, letting Steven’s words settle into my ears but not really hearing them. I try to reply, but the fire in the boy’s screams sucks all the oxygen from the room.
Steven glances at the bandages in his hands and says, “I should go.”
“Me too,” I say. “I’m working breakfast tomorrow. See you then?”
“Sure.” Steven’s blue eyes light up at the mention of food. “Tell Arnold not to undercook the eggs. Runny eggs are disgusting.”
The boy screeches, and Steven goes. He walks apologetically and disappears into the tumor of people surrounding the boy.
I stay. The doctors and nurses press bandages to seared skin. After his airway, fighting infection is their next priority. I can’t tell how much of the boy’s body is burned, but it’s enough. Soon they’ll wheel him to another part of the hospital. I might never see him again. I don’t even know his name.
But I have to go. Death will appear soon, as she always does. She might take the boy, she might not, but I can’t be around when she comes. She arrived late before and didn’t get me. But she won’t make the same mistake twice, and I’m not yet ready to leave.
No one sees me take off. I navigate the hospital on autopilot.
There are doors through which only hospital workers are allowed to pass, but I make my way invisibly. I imagine I can’t be seen, and I am not seen. The hospital walls have no memory. They would crumble under the weight of so much suffering. It’s better that they forget.
On the first floor, far past the surgical ward, is a section of the hospital abandoned in the middle of renovations, left to decay when the economy collapsed and the money ran out. Naked beams and partially erected drywall rot like forgotten bones. Dust and neglect fill the air. No one comes here except me. No one even remembers it exists.
I grab the flashlight that I leave by the door. It casts a shallow sphere of illumination. Enough to drive the shadows back, but not enough to banish them completely. Sometimes I try to trick myself, imagining that I’m at my old house in my old bed and that the others are asleep in their bedrooms, dreaming sweetly. But it’s an illusion that rarely lasts long.
This is home now.
I trudge to the farthest corner, to the only room that’s even remotely finished. It has four walls and a knobless door that I tape shut. Most nights it feels like a prison.
My bed against the far wall is a pile of lumpy, stained sheets that embraces me with all the comfort of a sack full of rocks. My pillow is a laundry bag stuffed with discarded scrubs.
I pop in my earbuds and play some music. It’s in Spanish, so I don’t understand the words, but the lazy, metallic twangs of the guitar are soothing. The sounds of the hospital can reach me even here, and I can’t sleep with the gasping and wheezing all around me, with
the wraiths that haunt the halls, chattering through the night like a million cicadas.
Today was long, and I’m tired. It’s barely eight in the evening, but I can’t keep my lids from sliding closed. More often it’s the reverse, and I stay awake all night, begging for sleep to take me.
Exhaustion is a relief.
Before I lie back and let reality slip away, I retrieve a small tin from beneath my pillow. It’s the color of sun-kissed skin and weighs less than it should. I dig my fingers around the edges and remove the lid.
The first thing that hits me is the rich scent of leather. Old leather. Leather that was loved. I open the faded brown wallet and linger over the picture in the plastic window. Then I fold it closed and put it beside me. Scattered at the bottom of the tin are two gold rings, one toy horse, and a gold cross. I don’t touch those.
I replace the lid and settle against my makeshift pillow, clutching the wallet and gazing at the picture until I fall asleep.
But my last thoughts aren’t of the smiling family in the photograph. They’re of the boy on fire.