On the Outside Looking in
Summary: I thought I had seen everything there was to see in my job. And then I met those two men, and learned that there was a whole world of things I had never seen or known.
Disclaimer: I don't own anything Supernatural. All characters belong to Kripke, The CW, and many other people who all aren't me. No copyright infringement is intended and no money is being made with this story.
Author's Note: I know that this perspective has been done before. But it's the kind of perspective that I always particularly loved, and one that I think is particularly interesting concerning the boys and their relationship. It's one of the reason why I love the episode "Roadkill" so much.
Rating as usual due to some language. I think, at least. Later on, probably :D
The story is set somewhere in season 2, I think, if only for the reason that it's supposed to happen before any deals were made, but definitely after season 1. But I don't think the timeline needs to be any more specific to be understood.
No spoilers that I could think of right now.
Nothing I hadn't seen before
After twenty years in the job, I was fairly confident that I had seen everything there was to see. There were always variations, subtle differences, but I was sure that nothing could really surprise me anymore. I had worked in a Los Angeles hospital for nearly fifteen years, ten of those in the ER. I had seen it all – the shootings, the stabbings, the family dramas, the car accidents, the drug addicts. That, and much more.
And I enjoyed my job, even though some might think that impossible. I still do. I like working in the ER. It's the place where the help I can provide, meager as it might seem at times, is the most immediate. I can see the effects of what I do, on the patients and also on the family members who need whatever little thing they can find to hold on to in those dark hours. And selfishly, I admit that a big part of working in the ER is that there's not enough time form attachments. Patients come, they are taken care of, and somebody else shoulders the responsibility of the aftercare. It's not part of my job to connect to the patients other than what is needed for the short time that they are in my care.
It makes it easier when death makes one of his frequent rounds through the hospital.
I've seen other nurses get attached to patients over the time, seen them form bonds where there should have been a professional distance. It's a dangerous thing. And it becomes a blow to the guts when death strikes. No, I have always been most content working in the ER. I could never work pediatrics, either. Seeing children dead on arrival in the ER, or being there when they die before we can do anything to save them is bad enough. Seeing them suffer would have driven me out of this job a long time ago.
In fact, the children were the main reason why I eventually quit my job in LA. I loved the big city, but my wife didn't want the children to grow up there. So we moved, and I got a new job. Still in the ER, but this ER is like a different world when compared to LA. It's a county hospital, about twenty miles from the town where we live in now. And of course it's all still there – the car crashes, the family tragedies, the domestic disturbances, even the occasional shooting or stabbing. And in the ER, it doesn't matter if it's a hunting accident of a gang confrontation. A bullet is a bullet. Lead and high velocity don't care about the intent, and neither do I.
But here, everything is happening on a much smaller scale, and in a much slower pace. And over the past five years, I've gotten used to that. After all, with so many years of experience in the job, I had seen everything there was to see. Or so I thought.
Until the day that I met the two men who taught me that maybe I hadn't seen it all just yet, and that I had been missing out on something important without even knowing it.
It was one of those ordinary nights at work. Not a slow night by any means, those were rare and far in between. But it was one of those nights when the most urgent emergency was a minor car accident that forced a concussed middle-aged housewife to spend the night for observation and her husband to get treated for a minor cut on his arm. It wasn't one of my cases, though. I was assisting one of the attendants with various cases of the sniffles and indulged a hypochondriac regular of ours by taking his blood pressure and a blood sample.
My shift was nearing its end when a yell from the main entrance to the ER drew everybody's attention.
"I need help here!"
It were the magic words in any ER worldwide, and like a siren call they made me look up from the paperwork I was filling out. And what I saw belied my firm belief that I had seen everything before. People coming into the emergency room yelling for help I had seen plenty in my life. And I had seen parents carry in their children when they had rushed to the hospital themselves instead of waiting for an ambulance.
But I had never before seen a picture quite like this.
There were two men standing just inside the sliding glass doors. Or rather, one of them was standing inside the doors. The other was a limp weight in the first man's arms. That was the first thing that burned itself into my mind. That, and the blood. There was a lot of blood, spread liberally on both of them, though most of it seemed to cling to the unconscious man. That amount of blood was not good, and it didn't take a medical degree, or nearly twenty years of experience as a nurse to know that.
The man had stopped just inside the doors after his call for help, his unconscious counterpart held tightly in his arms.
Again something I had not seen before.
It was relatively easy to carry a child like that, held against your chest, but being the father of exuberating ten year old twins, I know from experience that it's much harder than it should be, smaller weight notwithstanding. Carrying an adult…well, let's say that I know it's far more difficult than TV wants to make you believe. It's not like the carrying the bride over the threshold, not even remotely. A limp body is hard to maneuver, let alone carry. There's a reason the phrase dead weight came into being.
The man was holding the unconscious man firmly, though the other guy by no means looked to be small or a lightweight. But he was holding him tightly with one hand under his knees, the other around his back, the blood-covered face nestled carefully in the crook of his neck. He didn't waver, didn't show the strain that carrying a fully grown man had to have on him. Instead, he seemed attentive, yet at the same time jumpy and defensive. It didn't make immediate sense to me, but I had learned to trust my instincts over the years. Right now I was simply taking things in, there would be a time to think about what it all meant, later.
It was maybe a second that I stared at the two men and took it all in. A second, two at the most, trying to understand what I was seeing and failing to come up with an appropriate category from previous experience. That was all I allowed myself before professionalism kicked in. The attending doctor was already moving over towards the two men, someone brought a gurney, and we started doing our job.
The man had come into the ER yelling for help, yet when we approached him with the gurney and another nurse and I tried to help him put his unconscious friend down on it, he seemed strangely hesitant. It was completely irrational, not to mention that in my experience people were mostly glad to surrender bleeding and unconscious people into the care of those who carry a medical degree. But not so this guy. He did put his friend – at least that's what I thought them to be back then – down on the gurney at last, but the small movement seemed like a huge step for him, one that he had to force himself to take.
The man was barely lying on the gurney when we started rolling him away from the doors, towards the closest treatment room. The usual assertion of vitals and barrage of questions followed. Name, age, what had happened, all that. But my mind was on the job, and while I listened, only the things that pertained my immediate tasks really registered. No allergies – good. High blood loss – not so good. Blood pressure too low, respiration shallow, unconscious, not good at all. This was not going to be easy. This was on the road to going really bad, really quick.
I heard a startled shout of protest behind me when the gurney was finally wheeled into position in the treatment room, and looking up for a brief second I saw how the doors were shut close in front of the guy who had carried our patient into the ER. I normally don't allow myself to think about friends and family during emergency treatment, but when I saw him stare through the small glass panes in the door to the treatment room with wide eyes, I couldn't help but wonder what he was seeing now. To me, the procedures were well-known. Emotionally detached, all I saw was a patient, his condition, and how we were trying to save his life.
But he had to be seeing something else. A friend, or maybe a family member or someone else entirely, covered in blood, with doctors and nurses bustling about him in a seemingly random cadence. Blood everywhere. Too much blood.
But then the doors closed, blocking out the man and the outside world, and in fact everything that didn't have to do with the patient and the attempt to save his life. Everything, but the memory of the expression in the man's eyes. That gaze had touched something inside me, though at that point of time I was unable to name it, or even say what it was. Later. That had to wait till later.
Now all that counted was the patient.
It wasn't a bullet wound as I had initially suspected. Not a knife wound, either. In fact, it were three long, crooked gashes running over the man's stomach and side. They were deep, and the bleeding was so bad that I simply knew we weren't going to be able to treat him here. No, our job was to stabilize him while the operating room was prepared for emergency surgery.
He nearly didn't make it.
His blood pressure was already critically low from the blood loss, his pulse too fast and racing as his heart tried to compensate. It wasn't surprising at all that he crashed just a few moments after the gurney had come to a stand in the treatment room.
Two bags of O negative by IV, as fast as possible.
Paddles always at hand, should he go into arrhythmia. If his pulse came back, that is.
And for a few moments, I was convinced that it wasn't. I really thought that we were going to lose him right there and then, before he even saw the inside of the operating room.
Again, I was surprised.
"We got a pulse!"
Whoever the guy was, he definitely was a fighter.
Stabilized as far as he was ever going to be with the treatment we could provide, he was finally wheeled out of the treatment room, and up for surgery. I always tend to lose every feeling for time during emergency treatments. It doesn't matter how long it takes, just as long as they make it. To me, it seemed like mere minutes since the first call for help outside in the front room, but I knew it could easily have been half an hour or more. An endless stretch of time for the other man outside, waiting for news.
But however much time had passed, my shift was over. After cleanup in the treatment room, I stepped outside, tired, exhausted and in a strange state of upheaval that I hadn't experienced in a while. I only wanted to change into normal clothes and drive home, back to my family. But my way to the locker rooms led me past the waiting room, and that's where I saw him again.
Doctor Taylor walked past me in the other direction, and I knew that he had just delivered the news about the results of the emergency treatment.
Emergency surgery, unknown prognosis, more waiting. Not the kind of results anyone was ever hoping for.
I just wanted to walk past, to get home and forget about this day, but something about the man made me slow my steps. He was sitting in one of the plastic chairs in the waiting room, his frame folded into it in a way that had to be uncomfortable, staring ahead without seeing anything. There was still blood all over him, and I didn't know if it was his or the other guy's. In any case, he didn't seem quite there, at least not enough to decide to get himself checked out if he was hurt, too.
Maybe it would be better to take a look after him before I left.
As I got closer, I was surprised at how young he seemed. I hadn't noticed before, but then again things had been busy. I would put him somewhere in his mid-twenties, thought it was hard to tell. His face seemed mid-twenties, but his eyes were older. Much older, as if he had seen enough pain to last for two lifetimes or more. And despite all that, the way he was sitting in that uncomfortable chair, he seemed like a little boy who had gotten lost. Not like a grown man who had just carried a bleeding and unconscious person into an ER in search for help. No, he seemed every bit like the child that had gotten lost in the mall, and was now waiting for his parents to pick him up, worried and secretly scared that they would never come.
Approaching him I had the impression that he was somewhere else entirely, lost in his thoughts and the memories of what he had seen, but as I got within a few feet of him he suddenly looked up, and I realized that he had been aware of my presence the whole time. From one moment to the next, that lost boy expression vanished from his face. It was as if he put a well-practiced mask in place, one that was impenetrable. Had it not been for the blood all over him and the knowledge about what happened, I wouldn't have known what could possibly be going on inside his head.
He regarded me warily, and for some reason I felt compelled to make my appearance the least threatening as I crossed the final few steps over and sat down in a chair so that I was facing him, clearly out of his personal space. His eyes followed my every move, but he didn't say a word even as I sat down and leaned my elbows on my thighs.
"Did you get yourself checked out?"
The blank expression on his face changed into momentary confusion. "What?"
His voice was rough, though it probably didn't always sound like that. I gestured at the blood on his shirt, face and arms.
"You look as if maybe you should get yourself checked out, too."
He looked down at his hands, startled as if he noticed the blood for the first time. Long slender fingers started rubbing at the blood on his left hand, but the blood was dried and wouldn't come off that way. He stared at his hands for a moment, then he shook his head.
"No, I'm…it's okay. It's…not mine."
Not his meant all of the blood was the other man's, and that realization made the words die in his throat. I was still undecided whether or not he wasn't in shock, and people in shock normally weren't the best judges as to their own health, but for him the topic seemed to be closed after that self-assessment.
"I guess Doctor Taylor talked to you about the surgery?"
He nodded, wordlessly, and I fumbled to get to the point I was trying to make.
"Then I guess he told you that it's going to take a while. You should probably go get cleaned up, look after yourself…"
He shook his head even before I had finished speaking. "No, I'll wait."
"Listen…" I vaguely waved a hand in the air, and he caught my drift.
I nodded. "Okay Sam, I'm Ben. I'm a nurse here, and I can tell you from over twenty years of experience that there won't be any news in the next hour, probably for even longer than that. You have plenty of time to get cleaned up, change your clothes and come back here."
Another headshake, still as determined. "I can't…I have to stay here."
I was about to say something else, but suddenly his eyes turned away from me to look at something else. I followed his gaze and found Herb, our security guard, standing at the front desk, talking to the nurse on duty. They exchanged a few words, then the nurse pointed over into their direction. I felt Sam tense beside me without even having to look.
There was a story to the fact that he was so wired and tense in a situation like this, but I was distracted from thinking about it any further when Herb called out to me.
"Hey Ben! Tell him to put his car out of the tow-away zone, will ya?"
I nodded and with a smile at the nurse, Herb shuffled off to his small cubicle near the entrance. I turned back towards the guy beside me.
"You heard him. You parked in the tow-away zone. The space in front of the hospital is for ambulances only, they're going to tow you if you don't put away the car."
He nodded, but his eyes went over towards the elevator bank from which the surgeon would come with news about his brother. It was a layout familiar to many hospitals, with the operating rooms on a different floor than the ER, and I wondered how many hospitals the guy knew to be so familiar with that layout.
It was obvious that he was hesitant to leave, despite all reassurances that no news were going to be forthcoming anytime soon.
"I could drive the car into the parking lot for you…"
"No!" His answer was immediate and emphatic in its indignation, even though he seemed to sink in on himself immediately afterwards. "No, I'll do it myself. It's…the car isn't mine. My brother barely lets me drive it as it is."
So they were brothers.
I'm an only child myself, so I didn't understand it back then. I'm not sure I fully understand it now. I see it in my own children every day, but for some reason I'm not sure whether it's the same as between Sam and his brother. Somehow, after everything I've seen, I doubt that. But back then, I couldn't have known. Back then, the word 'brother' was a small piece of information, and I didn't think much of it.
"Parking lot is just around the south corner, you'll be back in less than five minutes. I'll let you know if there's any news."
There was still a hesitancy in him as he got up from the plastic chair, but the threat of the car being towed seemed to worry him genuinely.
"If…if anybody comes with news…"
I nodded. "I'll stick around here, tell them to wait if anybody shows up."
Though I knew nobody would. Not ten minutes after the begin of emergency surgery. Not even if Sam's brother hadn't survived his way up into the operating room. Things never moved that quickly here. But he finally straightened up and turned towards the front doors.
And that boy was tall. Sitting slumped in the chair as he had been earlier, I hadn't even noticed. I'm not small myself, but Sam easily towered at least half a head above me. Even with his hands stuffed into his pockets as he quickly hurried out of the hospital he looked like someone who would stand out in most crowds.
I got up from my chair and took a few steps after him as he left the hospital and headed straight towards a big black car that was parked there. In the earlier commotion, I hadn't even noticed it, but now it stood out so that I wondered how I could have missed it. I don't know much about cars, but my uncle had a thing for classic cars, restoring and driving them for a while before he sold them and took on the next project. For a year or two, he had been driving a moss green Chevy Impala, one that had looked nearly identical to the one parked outside the hospital. I didn't remember the year, some sixties model, but it was similar enough.
It was a beautiful car, the engine roaring as it came to life and Sam pulled it out of sight. But it was also a very unusual car for a young man to drive these days, in the age of SUVs and small sports cars. It wasn't the kind of car that was merely a vehicle. It was the kind of car owners got passionate about. No small wonder Sam had said his brother was reluctant to let anybody else drive it. My uncle's Chevy hadn't been a mode of transportation, it had been a temporary member of the family.
Sam wasn't gone for five minutes. It was closer to three, maybe even less, when he came back into the hospital, a small backpack clutched in his hand. Wide-eyed he came over towards me, but I shook my head at him before he even got into hearing distance. No news. Sam's shoulders sagged a little at that, but whether from relief or worry I couldn't tell.
As he stepped closer, he insecurely lifted the backpack.
"Is there a restroom around?"
I had to stop the smile from creeping onto my face. Probably Sam had gotten a good look at himself in the rear-view mirror as he had moved the car, and had seen the blood.
"Restrooms are over there." I nodded my head into the direction of the restroom doors. When he leveled another insecure gaze at me, I gave him a small smile. "I'll stick around until you're done."
It was just a small word, one syllable really, and one that I heard often enough from distraught family members. Mostly in passing, when they were already on their way to their loved one's room and their mind was on other matters entirely. But there was a sincerity in the way Sam said it that I hadn't heard often before. The sincerity of someone who wasn't used to saying it, wasn't used to saying it because people didn't often give him reason to say it. The sincere thanks of someone who wasn't used to other people doing something for him.
Backpack clutched in his hand, Sam hurried into the restroom and out of sight. I turned towards the nurse's station at the front desk. Maybe there was some new information on Sam's brother that Lucy, the desk nurse this shift, would be able to share.
But I didn't get lucky. No news from the operating room, but the brother's admittance forms were still lying on Lucy's desk. While Sam was busy cleaning up in the bathroom, I chanced a look at them.
Dean Burkovitz. So the elusive brother finally had a name. 29 years old. Judged by my earlier assessment of Sam's age, I guessed that Dean was the older brother then. I hadn't really been able to get a good look at him earlier, there had been more important things to focus on than his face. The rest of the information that Sam had filled out was generic. According to this, the brothers, or at least Dean, originated from Maryland. Previous medical history listed an appendix surgery fifteen years back, another abdominal surgery that wasn't closer defined, five years back, and nothing else. I put the admittance form back down and asked Lucy to keep me updated should she hear anything from the operating rooms upstairs.
Then I got two cups of coffee from the nurse's private stash and carried them over into the waiting room. I had barely sat down and put the cups down on an empty chair when Sam came hurrying back into the waiting room. He was wearing a different pair of jeans, and a clean flannel shirt, and his face and hands were scrubbed clean of the blood. I knew that there was only cold water in the ER restrooms, but Sam didn't look as if he had noticed, or as if it had bothered him. He sank down in his previously vacated chair and eyed me with a mixture of gratitude and mistrust.
"Thanks. Thanks for staying around."
Sam placed the backpack under his chair, and judged by its filled looks he had stuffed his bloody clothes back into it. For a moment I wondered about it, wondered why he was keeping clothes that were saturated with his brother's blood when most others would have gladly thrown them away, never to look at them again. It was another mystery to add to the list.
"I got you a coffee." I said lamely, and gestured towards the cup on the seat beside him. He looked at it as if I was offering him a poisoned apple, then frowned at me.
"Why? I mean…thanks. I just don't…you needn't have done that."
I shrugged. "There was a fresh pot in the nurse's room, and you looked as if you needed one. I wouldn't advise drinking the sludge from the machine down the hall, not unless you want to book into a room here yourself."
I winced as the words had left my mouth, but Sam took them in stride, without flinching or any other reaction that would have led me to believe he had taken my words the wrong way. He reached for one of the mugs and wrapped his hands around it.
"You're welcome. And I checked with the front desk, there's no news on Dean yet. As I said, it might take a while."
Sam's head snapped up at the mention of his brother's name, and suddenly there was something different in his eyes, something fierce, and threatening. "How do you know his name?"
His tone was sharp, instantly suspicious, and he was clutching the mug in his hands as if ready to throw it at me, or scald me with the hot liquid should I give the wrong answer. It was astonishing how quickly the young man's demeanor had changed within the fragment of a moment, and more than just a little disconcerting. He might be extremely tall, but up until that moment Sam had looked lost above anything else. Definitely not threatening, but that had changed within a heartbeat. Sine I had mentioned his brother's name, he was suddenly radiating an underlying danger, and his posture promised that the feeling of threat that Sam was emanating wasn't empty. I raised my free hand, the one not holding my own mug, in a placating manner.
"I took a look at his admittance form while you were in the bathroom. I'm sorry, but I have to admit that I was curious."
Sam's posture relaxed a little at that, and he took a small sip of the coffee. We both drank in silence for a few minutes, a silence that was hanging heavily and in no way relaxed. Whatever friendliness I might have bought myself by sticking around while he parked the car, I seemed to have lost by my uninvited prying. I know a defensive position when I see one, and the way Sam was sitting in his chair, drawn up and turned slightly away from me, this was defensive if I had ever seen it.
Sam kept on throwing glances at the elevator doors, and I found myself watching him whenever I was sure he wasn't looking my way. If Dean was 29, Sam definitely was the younger brother. Mid-twenties probably, maybe two or three years younger than his brother. And for as long as there was no conversation, no words that he had to react to, his face was an impenetrable mask. There was worry there, obviously, and anxiety. But it wasn't overwhelming, it was lurking in the background as he struggled to keep his face blank. However, his eyes were telling a different story entirely. The expression in his eyes was anything but blank, or neutral. It were raw emotions reflecting in them, and no amount of struggling was going to make him able to hide those. The worry and fear in those eyes made me look away from the sheer intensity of it.
"So, what happened?"
Sam seemed to have been content in the silence. Probably he was wondering what I was even doing there, much less why I was talking to him. But despite his earlier defensiveness at my reading Dean's admission forms, my gift of freshly brewed coffee seemed to have bought me one question at least. He took another sip and leaned back slightly in his chair.
"We were hunting. I don't really know what happened. Something attacked him. A bear, or probably a wild dog. We had split up. I only heard him scream, and when I found him whatever attacked him was gone."
I nodded, even though I didn't believe a word he was saying. The story had more holes in it than a Swiss cheese.
It was early hunting season for deer in these parts, that was about the only thing that really worked out.
Sam had been wearing jeans and a flannel shirt earlier, and we had cut similar clothing off of Dean in the treatment room. That wasn't the kind of clothes you wore for hunting. And that aside, despite it being the season, deer hunting had been discouraged over the past weeks. There had been one too many inexplicable deaths and disappearances that led the local sheriffs believe that there was some predator in these woods that wasn't normally found in the area. Now that Sam mentioned bears, that might be an explanation. Though I had never heard of a bear attacking a number of people in such a short span of time before.
So whatever Sam and his brother had been doing in the woods, I was sure it hadn't been hunting. Not that it mattered right now. Especially not to Sam. Whatever was going on in his head, right now it was focused only on this hospital, and on what was happening with his brother two floors above our heads.
"So you carried him out of the woods to your car? Your brother doesn't look particularly light to me."
Sam only shrugged. "I guess so. I…I had to get him to the hospital, didn't I? The car wasn't too far."
He drained the last of his coffee and put the cup down on the empty seat beside him. Worrying his lower lip with his teeth for a moment, he finally looked up at me.
"Why are you doing this? I mean, I already told the doctor everything that happened earlier. Since when do hospitals give the personal treatment?"
There was much more meaning in that question. It spoke of an intimate knowledge of hospitals that I had already deducted from Sam's glances at the elevator, guessing correctly where the doctor would appear with the verdict about his brother's condition. Somehow I got the feeling that he was no stranger at all to hospital waiting rooms, waiting for news on his brother. Only that he seemed to be used to waiting alone, and to the anonymity of ER waiting rooms where nobody ever attempted to establish personal contact.
I knew the kind of people who ended up in the ER regularly, the drunks, the addicts, the gang members, and all the others. But somehow, I had difficulties fitting Sam in any of the categories my brain could come up with. It made me even more curious about the story of these two young men. It seemed with everything Sam said, new questions started to form in my mind.
But Sam only cared about one question, and that was the one he had just asked me. And as he looked at me over the rim of his coffee cup, I felt compelled to answer. I couldn't explain why, but there was something in that gaze that Sam leveled at me. Something similar to what I had felt before at his heartfelt thank you. There was a genuine curiosity in both, the question and his expression. Curiosity and the inability to comprehend why somebody would offer to help him, unasked. That, and a certain degree of wariness as to what would be asked in return for the courtesy.
Probably it was the latter that made me search frantically for a good explanation, because I didn't want to give him the feeling that the little support I had provided, or rather forced upon him, was going to come at a price.
"I don't know." I shrugged. "I saw Doctor Taylor come from delivering the news, and I know how confusing and upsetting all that medical babble can be." I shrugged again, unable to put my reasons into words, even in my head. "You looked kinda lost, and with all that blood over you I thought I'd make sure that you weren't hurt, too."
Sam nodded, accepting my stumbling explanation for the moment. "So now that you know I'm not hurt, aren't you going to be missed somewhere?"
It wasn't said in a way that delivered the message for me to leave. It was a neutral inquiry, the question whether I shouldn't have anything better to do than sit here with him and wait for news on his brother. I smiled. "My shift ended a few minutes after you and your brother arrived here."
Much to my surprise, a small smile spread on his face at that. "Well, I guess Dean's lucky then that you didn't insist on clocking out on time."
I didn't know if I had heard right at first, but then allowed myself to chuckle. People had a lot of different coping mechanisms. Humor wasn't unheard of, even if it was rare.
"Oh, I'll write down every minute of overtime, rest assured. Maybe we can talk a little about the deeper meaning of things, then I can apply for a bonus for psychological consult."
Sam smiled for a little longer, but then his thoughts seemed to drift down a darker road again and the outward sign of momentary reprieve vanished.
"So, you were there when…before they brought Dean up to surgery?"
I nodded. "Yes, I was."
A slight hesitation, and he nervously played around with his nearly mug of coffee. His inner battle lasted only a few seconds, then he drew a breath of resolve and looked up again.
"The doctor who came by earlier, he said that Dean's heart stopped while you were treating him."
Sam might have put his mask back in place, but the lost little boy was still there, lurking underneath the surface and putting a slight quiver in his voice. It was astonishing how quickly Sam's appearance shifted. One moment he projected all the mysteries of a man hardened beyond his years, one who gave off the feeling that he had more than a few stories to tell. And within the fragment of a second he suddenly seemed like that lost little boy again who was desperately hoping for a loved one to pick him up.
And I could imagine that what had happened earlier hadn't made things easier. Doctor Taylor was a very talented ER doc, but he wasn't known for his bedside manner. His shift had ended at the same time that mine had, so he had probably given Sam the shortest possible rundown on his brother's injuries, just to get out of the hospital. I didn't really begrudge him, as an ER doctor he was running a lot of overtime hours as it was, but in my eyes that didn't justify giving family members the harsh treatment.
I leaned back in the uncomfortable plastic chair and looked at Sam, surprised to find that he was meeting my gaze straight on, not looking away in fear of what I was about to tell him. Definitely not the kind of reaction I often witnessed in family members who were searching for reassuring words, but who were secretly fearing bad news. I took a deep breath and chose my words very carefully.
"What happened is that your brother lost a lot of blood. His blood pressure went down, and as a result his heart started beating faster in order to compensate for the lack of blood. The problem is that if there isn't enough blood to keep the body working, the heart just keeps beating faster and faster. That's what happened to Dean, and after a while his heart gave out from the strain. I won't lie to you, he was lucky that he was in the ER when it happened, but we immediately gave him transfusions and saline solution to stabilize the blood pressure, and his heart started beating on its own again after just a short while of chest compressions. It's never a good thing if the heart stops beating, of course. But we've had him stabilized by the time he was taken up for surgery. He'll probably run through a few more units of blood, but if the surgeons manage to get the bleeding under control quickly, I think he can make it."
Sam looked at me for a long moment, then he shook his head. "You know, the doctor earlier sounded a lot less optimistic about things."
I smiled. "And after all he is the one with the MD after his name."
Sam's eyes widened a little. "I didn't mean to say that you have no clue. I know that most nurses know just as much as doctors do."
I didn't take offence. I was used to people thinking that the MD behind your name automatically meant that you had to know more about things than a simple nurse. I hadn't gone to university and med-school, but I had enough experience under my belt to make more than just educated guesses about a patient's condition.
But what surprised me was that Sam knew that, as well. Once more, it spoke of an experience with hospitals, doctors and nurses that went beyond what an ordinary person went through in their life, and it made me even more curious. I had never been this intrigued by a patient's history before, but the more I talked to Sam, the more interested I became in those two brothers.
But again, that would have to wait until later. For now, I had a young man sitting next to me who was obviously scared half to death, no matter how much he tried to hide it. And that was something I could maybe make at least a little better.
"As far as the medical assessment goes, Doctor Taylor might be able to give you the more detailed rundown of your brother's injuries, yeah. But nurses have one advantage over doctors, and that's that we don't only look at the injuries. We also look at the patients. I've seen a lot patients over the years, and I think I can tell very well when a patient is hanging on and when not. And I got the impression that your brother is a fighter."
Sam actually laughed at that. "Yeah, that he is. Dean doesn't know how to quit."
I didn't say it out loud, because it would have sounded like a platitude and Sam didn't strike me as the kind of guy to swallow those. But that was actually a very good thing. Medically, Dean was being taken care of. I didn't know who was on duty, but we have some very good surgeons on staff. And while that was important, it was only one part of it. Another part, a very important one, was that the patient was hanging on. It might not be much, but sometimes it was enough to tip the scales.
Silence settled over the waiting room after that. There wasn't much to say, nothing except more platitudes that I liked saying just as little as Sam would like hearing them. Now all that was left to do was wait, and that was something nobody could take away from Sam. He was the one who had to do that, and I had done all that I could.
After a few more silent minutes, I picked up my empty coffee mug and got up from my chair. The muscles in my back protested against the movement, and I didn't want to imagine what somebody had to feel like after spending a couple of hours sitting in one of those. Sam looked up at me, but the mask was firmly back in place and I couldn't tell what he was thinking.
"I should be heading home. They will let you know about Dean as soon as the surgery is over."
Sam just nodded. "I know."
Another small sentence that gave away more than Sam had probably wanted to. I gave him a small smile and started walking away when his voice called me back.
I turned around and raised my eyebrows. Sam looked uncomfortable, and shifted around a little on his chair.
"Thanks. You know, for the coffee, and for sticking around."
The words tumbled out, unused and yet more sincere than I had heard them in a long time. I smiled again.
"You're welcome. It will be a while, maybe you should try to get some rest."
Sam only shook his head. "I couldn't sleep now. I'll just wait."
There was a huge difference between rest and sleep, but I bit my tongue and didn't even try to go into that discussion. Sam probably wasn't going to listen, anyway.
"I hope Dean comes out of this all right."
Sam nodded, eyes cast to the floor. "Yeah, me too. He has to."
I turned around and continued my way to the door, heart aching for the lost little boy that had emerged again in Sam during those last seconds. Had it not been the dead of the night and the waiting room empty except for Sam and me, I would have missed his last words. They weren't even directed at me, but in the stillness of the room there was no way for me not to hear them.
"He's all I have."
Definitely not directed at me, those words had sounded more like a prayer, something that had slipped out of Sam's mouth because he couldn't keep it inside and leave it unspoken for any longer. Sam certainly hadn't meant to bear his soul to me, but those few words had been more than enough to do the job. The shiver that ran through me at that moment had nothing to do with the draft of air coming in through the opening door.
On my way out of the hospital, I made another stop with Lucy, the nurse on desk duty for this night. I put my empty coffee mug in the sink in the small office behind her desk, grabbed my jacket and got ready to leave. Lucy looked up when I walked past her.
I nodded. "Been off for an hour already."
Lucy smiled a sympathetic smile. "Go home and get some sleep, Ben."
"I'm just about to. But can you do me a favor?"
Lucy raised her eyebrows. "Sure. What is it?"
I nodded towards the waiting room, where Sam had slumped in on himself again, staring at the elevator at the far end of the room as if he'd be able to make his brother's doctor emerge by sheer force of will.
"Could you keep an eye out on Sam there? He's waiting for news on his brother, and…well, you saw how they arrived earlier."
Lucy nodded, a smile playing around her lips. "And by keeping an eye out you mean making sure to give him some of the good coffee instead of the sludge from the machine?"
That brought a smile to my face. "The next package of coffee is on me. And yeah amongst other things I meant that. But seriously, I'm not entirely sure that the surgery is going to go well, and I get the feeling he won't react good to hearing bad news."
"Okay. I'll do what I can."
And we both knew that she would, but in all honesty there wasn't much a nurse, or anyone for that matter, could do if the news about the outcome of the surgery were bad news. Just like the wait, that would be something Sam had to go through on his own. And wasn't that exactly why I had chosen to work in the ER instead of some other part of the hospital? Because I didn't want to have to worry about that kind of thing, at least not beyond the treatment I was involved in, and definitely not beyond the end of my shift.
For now, I had a family of my own to return to.
I really thought I had seen it all after so many years on the job. And I told myself that it hadn't been any different tonight. Their arrival in the ER might have been unusual, but when it came down to it Dean was just another patient whom life had dealt some bad luck, and Sam was nothing but another family member lost between hope and fear as he waited for how his life was going to continue. Nothing I hadn't seen before, even if the intensity of Sam's reactions had struck a chord in me.
I drove home and did what I always did after work. I tried to shake off the day before I opened the door to my home. I kissed my wife, I looked in on my children in their beds, tucking in dislodged blankets and brushing a kiss on each sleep-tousled head, and went to bed, thoroughly exhausted from a long day at work.
And for the next two hours, I tossed and turned, chasing elusive sleep even though my body was more than ready for it. But my mind just couldn't let go of the question what it had to feel like to have nobody but one person left in the world, and what it had to feel like if that person was slipping away.
Thanks for reading. As always, please let me know what you think. Thanks a lot.