Slipping in and out of consciousness, Mac wasn't sure when he had been hoisted up onto a flat surface or when he first noticed the ring of unfamiliar, tired faces looking down on him, each absorbed in concentration. Masks and gowns and gloves.
He shifted restlessly, his eyes lolling around the room.
where was Doc- -?
The glare from the light fixture above pierced his eyes, burning spotty patterns into his retinas, and the harsh brightness of it only seemed to intensify with every throb of his nerves. A moan escaped him – a low, miserable sound – between gulps for air, the right side of his chest heaving fitfully. It took all he had just to fight another dizzying surge of panic as he lay there, shaking and shaking, with his heart thundering hard and the pain thrumming through him in counter-rhythm.
His eyes pinched shut. It felt like his left side had just caved in entirely and he was just barely surviving, fiercely sucking in air through a straw. At his sides, his fingers felt cold and thick, tinglingly numb. They clawed restlessly for something – anything to hold - and closed around nothing, nails slicing into his palms.
Was he dying…? Was this what it was like before people died?
Someone was cutting open his tank top, pulling it away, and a plastic mask cupped his nose and open mouth, his head gently lifted as someone adjusted the strap around it.
Pure oxygen. The mask fogged, the bag on the end of it puffing up.
In and out; in and out.
That was better.
His tension gave, inch by inch – and cracking open bleary eyes after a while, he gazed up at the faces around him with an open, trusting, dully pleading look, wanting to be seen as more than just a body with a problem to solve, as more than just some case study. Needing a personable little smile or a touch on the arm, a small, gentle reminder that he wasn't alone in a room full of people. But even in his anxious daze he had enough presence of mind to know he was just one of hundreds of people they had seen and would be seeing tonight. He had made it past the waiting room.
Gloved hands palpated his throat, the latex feeling smooth and alien against his skin as they slid downwards, pushing and probing. He jerked viciously and his arm shot up when fingers dug into his injured ribs, a strained, angry noise half-muffled by his mask.
"Keep his arm down." An authoritative voice ordered, clipped with urgency.
It was pressed down to the table.
"We need you to relax."
Swallowing dryly and feeling sweat forming in little pin-pricks at his hairline, Mac's eyes blinked open again, stinging. He bristled when he felt pressure at his side – a little more careful this time, but no less decisive and purposeful – shallows breaths jerking in and out of him as his body instinctively tried to tilt itself away.
And then, at last, the fingers lifted away, replaced by a stethoscope. It burned like dry ice as it pressed into his left side, then the right; and again, lower, left and right, left and right.
The doctor lifted it from around her neck, glancing aside. "Confirming a tension pneumo with thoracentesis; need a 14 gauge angio-cath, please."
There was motion in the room, the delicate rattling of implements and the crinkling of a plastic pouch being torn open. Mac's skin was briskly cleaned with a cool antiseptic wipe. He caught a whiff of wintergreen.
Within seconds the doctor was pressing deep under his left collarbone with her thumb before angling a needle just over the third rib. It resembled the ink tube inside a pen, but metal and cut off at an angle.
Mac didn't have the chance to brace himself. Nearly as soon as he saw it the point was already piercing his skin, stopping the breath in his throat as it sank through muscle and the stinging pinch deepened. Doubling his hands into white-knuckled fists, he groaned, too tense to think, to move - -
Until there was a pop, a rush of air, as if from a punctured tire. And then an incredible, almost instantaneous relief. The needle slid out and the catheter remained in place, looking like the plastic end of a thumbtack.
For a good half-minute, Mac's entire existence was devoted to appreciating the sudden release of crushing pressure. He stole deep, greedily hungry breaths, deeper than his wounded body would much allow. It was good. His muscles ached with strain and exhaustion and it hurt, an angry, thrumming kind of hurt. But the air was raw and good, unbelievably good.
In and out; in and out.
He offered the medics a look of weary, profound gratitude. It was the most he could do.
It was abubble of air, a nurse had explained in simpler terms to Doc, outside, while Mac was being cut open.
One wouldn't think much of something like that. But, here was a bubble of trapped air that had been growing and growing, slowly albeit steadily killing the kid with the building pressure it placed on his heart and lungs.
Doc hadn't even guessed.
The Killer Air Bubble, he thought grimly. It almost sounded like some sort of cheeseball black and white sci-fi films. He made a mental note to share this joke with Mac when he came to.
"Try to get some rest," The nurse suggested. "You should be able to see him in the morning."
This proved to be more difficult than Doc had expected. He caught sleep in half-hour snatches until six in the morning when, at last, his body surrendered to the exhaustion washing over him in waves and he went out like a light.
He stirred with a slight jerk, unfolding his arms and casting a bleary-eyed glance at his watch for what felt like the tenth time in five minutes. Blinking, he brought the numbers into better focus.
The halls were brightly lit, and there was more activity now. The brisk, punctuating clackclackclack of heels on linoleum tiles, physicians in sterile white coats drifting in an out of rooms, flipping through papers on clipboards and engaging in idle chatter. The odd laugh of a nurse or an intern pierced the air, seeming misplaced.
Doc rubbed at his face.
A fog was wrapped around his brain, his bones aching and heavy from spending the night in a plastic chair. He rose with a groan, bracing his lower back with a hand. His eyes felt tired, his skin felt tired. Hell, the hairs on his head felt tired.
After wolfing down a sandwich and salad from the cafeteria and washing it down with coffee, he stumbled along hallways with still-rubbery legs to speak with the ICU receptionist, the contents of his stomach shifting uneasily with worry.
Doc provided Mac's name in full.
"I was hoping I could visit him." He explained to the woman at the desk. "I came in with him last night."
"Wait here, please; I will have a look and let you know if he would like to see you now."
Resigning himself to a nod, the man took a seat, increasingly aware of his racing pulse deep in his gut as he gazed unseeingly into space, his knee bouncing restlessly.
After what seemed like an hour, she returned. He glanced upwards, searching her face for any trace of bad news.
"He's awake and he would like to see you. Please keep this initial visit to ten minutes at the most."
The door of the room he was lead to was slightly ajar.
Smoothing out his wrinkled shirt, Doc gently knocked on the open door and poked his head in before stepping in.
While this wasn't the first time he had visited Mac in a hospital bed, this was different, the circumstances under which he had been hospitalized more severe than before. He didn't know how to expect to find the boy, really – and although the receptionist hadn't warned him of anything, Doc felt uneasy about what ugly details he might be forced to confront as he approached the bed.
Turning his head to look at him, a slow, tired grin played Mac's lips, his eyes dimly lighting up. He lazily lifted a hand in greeting. "Yo Doc." His voice was low and hoarse with disuse.
Doc pulled up a chair, offering a rueful smile. "How y'feelin'?" He asked, as he sank into the seat by the bed, scooting in closer. "How's the pain?"
To his relief, beyond a few bandage strips on his face, stitches on his lip, and some purplish swelling around his cheekbone, the kid was entirely recognizable. A rumpled blanket was drawn up to his waist, revealing a large area on his side wrapped with gauze and pressure bandages, and a tube disappearing underneath.
"Hurts." The kid answered, letting out his breath in a weak chuckle.
"Fair enough." Doc laughed. "That was a dumb question."
It seemed like it would be a long time until he'd hear it again, the sizzle-slap of the rope whistling through the air and snapping against the hardwood floor, the machine-gun thumpa-thumpa-thump of Mac working the speedbag with the ferocity of a grown man.
"Nah." Mac then paused briefly, pinching his eyes shut against a sudden surge of pain before pressing on. He spoke slowly when he was ready, his tongue feeling thick and clumsy. "Only takin' these tiny breaths, y'know? Everythin' y'do, you keep feelin' that tube jiggle in you. The whole time when they were puttin' it in, I was thinkin', maaan, I'm really gonna feel that t'morrow, ain't I? No kiddin'."
Sniffing a little, he broke into a thin smile, rubbing at his nose with the back of his hand. "Could be worse, though. The puddin' I been getting… that's the best. Nurses come 'round, an' they even replace the cup if it gets warm an' you ain't eaten it yet. …Want some a' mine?"
Closing his eyes, Doc shook his head in amusement. "You keep it."
The man often wondered if most trainers felt this way about their boxers. If they felt this close. But he wasn't sure how he felt whenever Mac looked at him searchingly, looked for a father in him. It wasn't his business, Doc had told himself back in the day. Mac wasn't his son and he wasn't his dad. But when Thanksgiving Day rolled around in '84 and the sense loneliness in his gut had only deepened, he had decided on a whim to extend an awkward invitation to Mac. Spending it together had since become something of a tradition for them, for neither had anywhere else to be, or anyone else to be with. Maybe he would give Jackson another try, when Mac was well. Call him and hope that they could just talk for a few minutes. Call him and hope his son wouldn't hang up at the sound of his voice. Maybe one day he would even introduce him to boxing, if the boy was interested.
"Hey..." Mac studied Doc's face a little more closely and saw the haggardness etched deep, the sagging skin around his eyes. "Y'look real tired. ...I'd move over if I could."
An irrepressible bark of a laugh burst from Doc, louder than intended. "...What are they puttin' in that IV, son?"
"Iunno. Whatever it is, it runs out real quick."
The man searched Mac's expression, sensing restlessness and honesty behind a faint smile and a mask of tiredness. Sobering, he pushed down on the armrests of his chair, starting as if to get up. "D'you want me to get you somebody?"
Letting his eyes fall shut, the kid gave a barely perceptible shake of his head as the other looked on in an uncomprehending silence. For a moment, there was only the rhythmic bleeping of machinery.
"They can't give me no more right now. They don' want me takin' too much. They been saying too much ain't good for my breathin' neither."
Louis surrendered to his helplessness and sank back into his seat with heavy reluctance. "I'm gonna have a chat with one of those nurses and see."
As their conversation hit a speedbump, a grim, uncomfortable awareness of Mac's mortality thickened in the air between them. Doc suddenly willed a joke. "You keep windin' up here, son, and we'll be broke even with all that prize money you got. Heh, I bet Macho will be seein' stars for weeks after what you did to him."
Instead of grinning, Mac narrowed his eyes in a strained attempt to think. "Macho?" He echoed, as if the name were foreign to him.
"Nah… Nah, Doc. I fight 'im tonight, remember?"
Doc reared back as if he had been struck and he stared dumbly for a moment, frowning, before shaking his head. "No, son… you already did, last night. That's what got you here, right? Y'got hurt in the ring."
A beat passed; then another. Blinking, the boy's eyebrows pinched together, his troubled, clouded gaze turning inwards.
"We were in the taxi last night…" Doc insisted before pausing to focus on the other's gaze, seeking that flicker of recognition that would set him at ease. "You were breathin' like y'had asthma."
Mac looked back at him in a slow, considering way. "…Yeah."
The bottom of Doc's stomach dropped out. "You don't remember, do you?" It came out more a heavy statement than a question.
Apologetic, the kid lowered his eyes.
Doc left the room distractedly - his hand sliding off the knob behind him – only to snap his head up as a nurse approached the door. He stopped her with a look.
"Is he gonna be okay?" He asked. His voice was low, his gaze searching her face.
"Typically, we keep thoracotomy patients in for three to five days; it depends on how long it takes to suction out air and fluid from the chest." She inclined her head sympathetically. "But it will take about six weeks or so for him to make a full recovery from the surgery."
"No… that ain't what I mean." Faltering, Doc pulled in a breath. "Is he gonna be okay- - "
The nurse knit her brows, but didn't interrupt.
"...Is he gonna be okay, up here?" He gestured upwards, at his head, in a brisk motion. He didn't want to have to say a head injury, a brain injury; he didn't want to have to imagine a seventeen year old with his life swirling down the drain.
Patients react differently to morphine, she had explained, once she had understood. Confusion is not an uncommon symptom. Give him a few days. He will be weaned off soon.
Good, he mused.
It was deeply exhausting, waiting and waiting and waiting in restless suspense for the moment when he could finally heave a sigh in relief. There was a constant dull ache in his chest and time couldn't pass quickly enough. He lost count of the candy bars he devoured despite a lack of appetite.
After heading home for a real nap (and dropping into bed like a sack of bricks,) he returned in the evening to the ICU receptionist's desk for another visit.
The kid's attention was fixed on some arbitrary point at the side of the room, his half-lidded stare unblinking, almost lobotomic. "Didjya talk to her?" Mac asked softly, but with a thread of urgency running through his voice.
Doc paused, cautious. "The nurse?"
"Ma. My ma. She came. She really- -" Breaking off, the trembling corners of his lips pressed into a fragile smile that was fading as soon as it had appeared. "She came by t'visit, but she jus' left a little while ago." Swallowing rawly, he looked to Doc. "But she didn' wanna talk. ...Iunno. Maybe she was angry or somethin'." He chewed on his lip, his throat moving. After a moment he attempted an uncomfortable one-shouldered shrug.
"I don't think she was angry, son."
"...You saw 'er?"
Stuffing his hands into his pockets, the man glanced off towards the window. It was a while before he could bring himself to respond. "Yeah. Yeah, I did."
The pauses between their exchanges lengthened and deepened. The kid lay there, his chest rising and falling shallowly, his face absorbed in dully anxious thought.
"Did she say anythin'?" He asked in a murmur after half a minute, his voice thick with longing.
Doc shut his eyes, his face softening with more than weariness. "… She said she's proud of you."
Mac nodded dimly after a moment and lay back to rest with a ruffle of sheets, seeming to breathe a little easier.