May 2000

When Stacy arrived at Greg's room, carrying a pitcher of water and cup of ice, she checked her appearance, studying her reflected image in the fingerprinted, spotted glass surface of the door. She had washed away mascara-streaks at a first-floor restroom sink, applied fresh make-up to disguise the red, swollen skin that lined her eyes and smooth the chaffed patch around her nose. During the last hour, Stacy had stepped out of Greg's room as he slept, her unread paperback closed and abandoned on the chair beside his bed. She'd carried herself on unsteady legs to a willow tree near the hospital's parking lot. Tears had already spilled onto her cheeks and more had blurred her vision as she crouched at the base of the tree, shielding her face from passers-by and the low, gold light of the late-evening sun. The stress and pain of the last several days, Greg's pending surgery, the uncertainty of his future-their future-had weighed on her, overwhelmed her, and had forced a flow of tears and hitched, noisy breaths out of her body. Now, most of the tear-tracks that had darkened the front of her shirt had faded, and, as she quietly opened the door to enter, Greg saved her the trouble of covering any leftovers.

Greg's voice physically jolted her, causing water to slosh out of the pitcher and onto her button-down as he declared, "I need a marker."

She squinted at him, dropping her chin, and remained quiet as she stepped over the splatters of water on the floor and approached Greg's bed. The florescent light above his bed cast a green, sickly glow on his skin. His brow and cheekbones shone with oil. His eyes, still swollen with exhaustion, tracked her until she reached his bedside, his attention shifting from her face to her hands as she poured a cupful of water. Stacy set the pitcher on Greg's tray-table, cleared her throat, and mustered a half-smile. "You're awake," she said, extending the cup toward him. "I brought you some water. I thought you might want-"

"I want a marker," Greg sniped, ignoring the cup. He turned his head sharply and glared at her as if she'd left her brain in the corridor. "Not water. A marker. You know, those writing instruments with felt tips that leave permanent marks."

Stacy bristled, her smile vanishing. She jerked the cup away from him and set it on the tray-table, disregarding the water that spilled over the lip. "Yes, thank you, Greg, I-"

"Water. Marker. Water," he said with a sing-song rhythm, peering at a point in the room beyond her. "Sounds different to me. Maybe stupidity is contagious around here."

"Oh, and you've been a real genius," she hissed, locking her elbows and curling her hands into fists to keep from delivering a slap across his arm. "You've barely made an effort to take care of yourself. You haven't eaten anything they've given you. I haven't seen you touch a drop of water since yesterday. You've made rash de-"

"And, what, you want a reward for 'taking care' of me?" he asked, mockery loading his voice. "I said I don't want it. I'm not thirsty. What's so hard to understand about that?"

For a moment, Stacy stared hard at him, her lips pressed together and her jaw set. Greg never blinked, and, after several tense, silent seconds, Stacy's mouth opened with a sigh. She rested a hand on her hip as she fought to recover her patience, privately batting away Greg's thinly veiled insults. Lacrosse injuries, mix-ups with bar patrons, and violent encounters with patients had taught her that Greg reacted strongly when he was in pain; usually, he lashed out, blurted words designed to hurt, words he rarely meant. Stacy curved her hand over his shoulder and stroked the tight knots of muscle in an effort to soothe him, to drain the pain and tension from his body. "Greg, honey. Please, you really should-"

Greg shrugged her off, and, blinking against the burn of threatening tears, Stacy let her hand fall to her side. "Listen," he said, "I don't need you to baby me. I don't need you to track every little thing that I eat, or drink, or fluff my pillows, or tuck me in, all right? I don't-" His mouth suddenly snapped closed. He lowered his chin to his chest and released a heavy, loud breath. His fingers picked tiny tufts of fuzz from his blanket. When he spoke again, his tone softened, but Stacy still heard the frustration edging his words. "I don't want that. Just-" He paused, pressing his head against his pillow and raising his eyes to glance at her face. "Can I have my marker now?"

Stacy's shoulders slumped. Her purse only contained blue ink pens, and she left the purse untouched on the floor. "I don't have one."

"Well, find one. Check the nurse's station." He jerked his head in the direction of the corridor.

She glanced over her shoulder and through the open blinds of the glass window, spying a singly-manned nurse's station. An assortment of pens, pencils, and-sure enough-Sharpie markers blossomed like an office-supply bouquet in a wire-mesh cup. She twisted to face Greg, raising an eyebrow inquisitively. "Why? So you can deface hospital property? Give your doctors a real reason to dislike you?"

Greg immediately glared from beneath furrowed eyebrows. "I thought drawing might be therapeutic."

"Oh, well, in that case, let me get you some construction paper and crayons, too."

Outstretching his hand, he snapped, "Just give me one. It's only a damn marker."

Stacy's energy to fight this particular battle faded quickly-this wasn't a matter of potential life or death; it wasn't important-and she shook her head, spun on her heel, and stalked out of the room. Greg had the decency to hide a smug reaction when she returned and thrust the marker in front of his nose. Greg's gaze flickered from her face to the Sharpie in her hand. Without a word, he took the marker with one hand and threw the bedcovers to the foot of the mattress with the other.

When he hitched up his hospital gown, and neatly printed NOT high on his left thigh, Stacy blinked at him. "Greg?" She leaned closer despite herself, watching as he finished THIS, drawing two lines beneath it for special emphasis. NOT THIS. "Greg, what are you doing? Writing. What are you writing?"

Greg grunted quietly as he reached across his body and below his bent knee to write LEG!. A soft, frustrated laugh escaped past Stacy's lips as Greg shifted his weight, relaxed, and touched marker to skin on his right leg. He had already written NOT THIS L, all in thick black letters, when he replied, "These people are idiots. They'll need all the coaching they can get once I'm unconscious." He stretched to finish LEG. His face scrunched and his jaw clenched with the strain, but Greg managed a hushed mumble, just loud enough for Stacy to hear: "Fucking morons."

She frowned, folding her arms loosely across her chest. "They're not all idiots, Greg," she said, meeting his eyes as he threw himself against his pillows. "Even if they were, these are different doctors this time."

"Different idiots."

Stacy stepped closer to the bed, swallowing against the urge to point out his share of poor judgment calls-that would only force them backwards, when, for the first time all day, she finally had a chance to reason with him. "Greg, these idiots will be operating on you. Overseeing your treatment," she said, gesturing toward his leg. "You must have some confidence in their abilities if you're willing to agree to this."

His gaze drifted to settle on his legs, the left still bent at the knee, the right straight and stretched out in front of him. He tightened his fist around the Sharpie, shaking his head. "They've screwed up every diagnosis. Every-"

"How can you not-"

"Would you?" Greg pushed himself to sit up straighter. His breaths suddenly burst out of his mouth. His eyes focused squarely on hers, holding steady. "Would you? You didn't trust them three days ago. I don't know why you'd trust them today. There's sure as hell no reason for me to trust them today."

Stacy bowed her head. When she closed her eyes, a three-day-old image rose behind her eyelids: Greg half-curled on an exam table, neck arched, eyes blinking slowly, face twisted with pain. His fingers had clutched fistfuls of his hospital gown as his chest heaved with frantic labored breaths. Stacy had followed the tube that had snaked out from beneath his gown and spied the collection bag already filling with urine.

"Another couple minutes," she'd said, sliding her fingers under his gown's overlapped fabric to rub his skin. She'd wished, at that moment, that she could relax him with her touch. "Another couple minutes and they'll test your urine, right?"

Greg had closed his eyes, set his jaw, and replied through clenched teeth. "They're not testing my urine. They're testing to see how much pain and humiliation I can stand before I either give up and leave, or break down and beg for narcotics."

"They-" She'd stammered, her hand stilling against his chest. "They still think you're faking? They gave you nothing for the pain?"

He'd jerked with a harsh, humorless laugh and shook his head. "I didn't even get a damn anesthetic for this." He'd gestured to himself, his hand slicing through the air. "So now my leg hurts and my dick hurts."

Stacy had confronted Greg's doctor, fury flaring in every fiber of her body as she'd threatened legal action, and she'd returned to Greg's room with news that his doctor would administer pain medication and grant him a private room. Greg had thanked her, let her wipe sweat off his forehead with a dry towel, and squeezed her hand through spikes of pain. When Greg's doctor had returned, Greg's urine had looked as though it had been mixed with a cup of Earl Gray. This afternoon, three days later, Greg had finally figured out why; his doctors had already satisfied themselves with a minimal number of tests and a weak-wrong-diagnosis.

Stacy pushed the memory aside and raised her head, combing her hair away from her face. Greg eyed her, his head tilted and eyes narrowed. She forced herself to meet his eyes. Greg would interpret-accurately-a lack of eye contact as a sign of doubt and, in an instant, would read her thoughts, her emotions, as if they were bright scrolling headlines on a live marquee. "You have to trust them."

"No, I don't."

"Then why are you still here? Why not just go home and operate on yourself? I've already seen you realign a dislocated shoulder. I've seen you put stitches in your own forehead. If you don't trust anyone to get this right, then why don't you-"

"There's morphine here." He bent forward, Sharpie in hand, and grimaced as he stretched to his knee. "And a sterile operating environment. And-" He grunted, exhaling hard, and the strain in his body bled into his voice. "And fancy equipment to jump-start my heart if-fuck-it's too beaten up by all the-new bullies on the block." His shoulders slumped as he swung back to lie against the bed, unable to reach far enough past his knee to finish. "And I'll need someone to give me a jolt of the right stuff. Can't do that myself." Heaving a sigh, Greg waved the marker in her direction. "I can't reach. Write 'either' for me. Well, I'd prefer 'either, you idiots', but that won't fit. Too bad."

Stacy stared dumbly at Greg's hand, her body rigid and her stomach suddenly queasy with paralytic dread. Stacy hadn't processed Greg's words beyond 'jump-start my heart'; the others had degenerated into muddled noise, as though Greg had spoken underwater. In her head, the even, constant scream of a monitor-the flatline of Greg's heart-overpowered his voice, and she scrambled to kill her imagination before it evoked even more unwanted details. She drew a long, deliberate breath, blinked against the blurred images in her mind, and shook her head to clear it. As she focused on Greg's Sharpie, his words-his joke-finally registered. Anger swelled in her chest and mingled with the sharp fear that curled around her lungs, her heart; it buried her urge to launch herself at him, soak his shoulder with a flood of tears, and beg him to change his stupid, stubborn mind: For the love of God, please, Greg, I love you. Don't give up on yourself. You can live with one leg, or a half a leg, or no legs. Your leg doesn't define you. Don't let yourself die, please, Greg. Please, we're not done yet.

She steeled herself, squared her shoulders, and said, "You could be wrong. You know you could be wrong. Your body might be unable to handle this. You've never been in-"

Greg jerked his hand, extended the marker closer to her. "It will. I know how pain feels."

Stacy overlooked the marker, fixing her gaze on Greg's face. "Pain like this?" She ignored the waver in her voice. "Even with the morphine, it will be-"

"It'll be fine."

Greg's eyes blazed with a unspoken warning, but words leaped out of her mouth, driven by the desperate desire to stand her ground and determine with absolute certainty that Greg objectively weighed this decision, that he explored his options and examined the risks like a doctor, not a stubborn, tunnel-visioned patient. "It won't be fine. It will be bad. You don't know how long it'll last. And the toxins, Greg. Your organs could fail-"

"I can take it!" Greg curled his fingers around the marker and pounded the mattress with his fist.

"You can't will it to happen. You can't defy the limitations of your body no matter how much you wish you could. Greg, this could kill you."

"I'm not going to die."

She blinked against fresh tears, refusing to let them spill onto her cheeks, and curled her hands into fists at her sides. "You don't know that. You can't know that. You can't." A single, rueful laugh blustered out of her. "God, Greg, listen to yourself. You're as bad as your patients. No wonder you never listen to them. You're not invincible, Greg. You're not immortal."

Greg's glare smoldered. His face twisted with an expression as dangerous and wild as she'd ever seen. "I'm not going to die."

"That's not a good argument. It's not even an argument at all. Give me one shred of evidence, Greg. One precedent. You live by numbers. Statistical data. Results, because they don't lie. They're sound pieces of evidence, and you haven't been able to-"

"Stop it."

"-give one real, logical reason for-"

"Shut up!"

Stacy spun on her heel-too fast, nearly toppling over-as Greg's voice exploded in her ears and cut a jagged path through her chest, her gut. She hugged her body and raised her face toward the ceiling. Her eyes widened, blinking rapidly to contain her tears. She held her breath, pressing her lips together and refusing to free the hiccup-bubble trapped in her throat. As the silence persisted, thick and heavy, Stacy's lungs burned, her feet ached, and she wondered if Greg would utter another word to her before his surgery.

Relief trickled through her when Greg drew a breath as if he were gathering the courage to speak, and whispered, "Stacy?"

She slowly turned to face him, her arms falling to her sides as her shoulders drooped. She finally released an unsteady breath and waited for Greg to continue.

He raised the Sharpie. "I can't do this myself."

For a moment, Stacy searched Greg's eyes, seeking and finding a meaning in his words beyond a request for temporary body art. Her anger melted, and, with a nod, she extended her hand. "Give me the marker."

As her fingers closed around the Sharpie, Greg's left hand caught her wrist. He pulled, drawing her closer to the bed and forcing her to bend over him. The marker fell to the mattress as they reached for each other, her hands spreading over the sides of his head, his sliding along the curve of her waist. Stacy felt as though her heart splintered as Greg shifted to sit straighter, taller, and closed the distance between them to kiss her. A high, broken sound slipped out of her mouth and past his parted lips-dry, sticky, but still familiar, still her Greg. Her fingertips slid into his hair, her palms avoiding the plastic tube that crossed his cheek, and she gently turned his head to fit their mouths together. She let herself release the range of emotion that tumbled through her-her fear, her sadness, her love-and let him feel what she'd desperately wanted to verbalize. Greg had always favored actions over words. He'd learned to interpret hers within a matter of months, and now he answered with his own pain, unspoken assurances, and private pieces of himself that she treasured, couldn't bear to lose.

The kiss ended slowly, and neither of them pulled away immediately; Stacy pressed her forehead to Greg's, lingering close enough to breathe his air, and Greg stroked his thumb over her hipbone. His hand gently squeezed her waist before it eventually fell away from her and dropped to the bed. Stacy straightened up, her eyes fluttering open to see Greg lean into his pillow. Drawing a tight, dry breath, she glanced to the sheets and curled her fingers around the Sharpie marker.

Ten minutes later, Greg's message finished and the Sharpie stowed in Stacy's pocket, a dark-haired nurse opened the door, stepped into the room, and, forcing a weak smile, asked, "Ready?"

Greg responded with a single, fast nod.

Stacy swallowed, unable to move. Unable to breathe. Ready? Ready to squeeze Greg's hand and watch him disappear into the hands of doctors that neither of them trusted? Ready to wait for potentially fatal toxins to course their way through his body? Ready to see Greg loaded up on morphine until he was barely coherent, and still in pain-in worse pain? Ready to consider the possibility that she would have to hear the screech of his heart monitor, his last word, his last breath?

No. As the nurse wheeled Greg through the corridor, exiling Stacy to the waiting area, no one heard the quiver in her breath, her quiet, whispered, "Never." She felt her heart lurch as Greg peered over his shoulder to meet her eyes before the nurse steered him around a corner and took him away from her.