You can get lost in any emotion. I’d never felt the ecstasy of relief before – the profound sense of being released, freed from the chains that bound me. Sure, it was only the physical chains, and the mind holds psychological horrors powerful enough to blot the world, but the idea that you were no longer there left me gasping with shock. It was like imagining a life without oxygen, without skin or hands – inconceivable. Every day that I could remember I’d lived in a trap: dependent on you, thriving on your praise and wisdom, and yet prey to every flash of anger, every twisted desire. Your touch lay on a spectrum of violation, from a pat on the shoulder to a hand tracing up my thigh, to–. A life spent rigid in fear of my best friend and my worst enemy. What could I do if I weren’t striving not to flinch away, pretending everything was OK and screaming into a pillow at night? I never got to find out.
I sat there till my arse was numb from being pressed into my heels – we never choose sensible positions to feel in. My knees had gone to sleep before my tears stopped falling. It was the sheer discomfort that finally dried my eyes, and forced my hands from my face, wiping away the charmless tangle of snot, blinking off the crusting tears. Perhaps it was my choking cough as I shifted myself out of the cramped squat I’d ended up in, or the scratch of my foot dragging fragments of glass across the floor, but I saw your hand twitch. That same hand that had been dripping redly into the growing pool a few inches below your feet. Threads of blood wrapped around too familiar fingers, flexing and doodling new shapes on the ground.
I lurched to my feet, half falling sideways through the open door – a vertiginous combination of concussion, horror and compressed joints. I skittered back on my hands and heels, scraping against the junk strewn across the medical bay. All the thoughts of freedom snuffed out. It was like a portcullis descending over the brilliant blue sky I’d imagined. Hope wrenched away, and I felt it as a physical blow, like someone had tried to rip my spine out through my stomach. Maybe, maybe you would just die. And I wouldn’t have to do anything. I could just wait. With my hand crammed into my mouth I waited.
Dim sounds of clattering and banging from far away intruded on the fainter sounds of the air circulation systems, still miraculously functional. It hadn’t previously occurred to me to use the intercom, but now that I’d thought of it, I wondered why there hadn’t been a general announcement, or at least an alarm, given our apparent status. Without wanting to move, lest I impel you into further life, I strained to detect it in the general wreckage. It’s hard to separate one piece of wrecked junk from another. I could see it was one of the casualties of the crash. Something heavy had torn it off the table, along with everything else once there, and it now lived in a jumble of smashed screens and cables in the opposite corner.
I hold my breath when I’m anxious, till the blood pounding in my temples and the grasping sense of my lungs trying to turn themselves inside out searching for air grows too great. I’m not sure if you can really hold your breath long enough to black out – I’ve never been able to, and I’m pretty sure I’d have managed it by now. You’d think not breathing would make it quieter, but with my pulse hammering in my ears I was deafer than before. It was only when I began to take slow breaths again through my fingers that I could detach sounds from each other. The creaking as vast metal structures settled, grumbling into their new postures. The soft hiss of the air circulator. The faint drip and minute spatter of droplets landing in a growing puddle. And then, at the very edge of my hearing, as I strained to hear, while fervently praying to not hear, a whisper, barely the ghost of a voice.
My own name. Scratched and hollowed out – a dry invocation, repeating over and over, summoning me. Those puppet strings were plucked hard, and I felt them deep in my belly, a hideous conglomeration of guilt, fear, desire and more, all tugging my body into involuntary motion. Refusing it just means those tugs become tearing fists, ripping holes in my stomach, filling with bloody horror as my brain turns liquid, incapable of holding shape, reason or autonomy. A loathsome sensation. Tears pricked at my eyes once more as I began to heave myself back up, as quietly as I could. Perhaps in the dragged out moments it would take for me to reluctantly pass through that warped door again a solution would present itself.
Maybe you’d just die. Maybe I would – the ceiling might come crashing down and annihilate me, return to me a state of ultimate freedom, perfect nothing. No hopes, no fears, just cool unknowing oblivion. I couldn’t tell which I craved more. They all seemed to contain equal freedoms, even though a more rational slice of my mind knew the only real difference was whether you were in it. But people don’t leave us when they die, they linger, coiled in our minds and hearts, still yanking those agonizing cords, still watching over our shoulders, still waiting for us when we close our eyes or relax, dropping those shields which protect and contain our inner selves. Even if you just fucking died I wouldn’t be free. Your whispered use of my name held all that and more. Perhaps the tone was all in my head, but I heard the cajoling, the unspoken threats, the murmured admixture of praise, longing and contempt.
And yet apparently I could not just let you die. That carefully knotted bundle of obligation, debt and loyalty you’d groomed in to me over the years ran deep. I found myself creeping around the doorway once more to meet your half-raised face and bloodied eyes. It’s hard to explain how you can continue to act with affection towards someone who abuses you, even while you know it. To me, our friendship and the emotional support you’d given me predated your later predations, confusing my sense of what I deserved and what I should be able to reject. Even now I find it difficult to articulate how I could willingly return to someone who hurt me, over and over again, who I feared. I returned to someone who had convinced me that they were my only friend, and was the only person who would ever understand me, and worse, that no one else would understand the friendship we shared. That’s who I saw when I looked into your eyes: all of those things, all at the same time. Somehow, compassion and duty kept on winning out. Your right eye fully red with burst blood vessels, the other glued closed by the blood that ran from your scalp, you could barely hold my gaze.
“I’m here,” I whispered, “I’m here… Elilyod.”
“I’m going to,” I said. This close, I could see how the ragged spar of window frame had ripped its way through your ribs. I imagined I could see skeins of lung down its length, but there was so much blood I couldn’t tell the difference. “You need to wait – just hold on. You’ll– I can’t just get you down without–” tearing you in half and you bleeding out on the floor, “–I need to find some help. I’ll be back, I promise.”
Your head drooped back onto your chest, in either resignation or acceptance I couldn’t say. I backed away from you, and toward the intensive care unit. Still sealed shut, I kicked aside the drift of junk at its feet and jabbed at the open button. Nothing. I tried again. A faint sound of grinding gears somewhere inside the wall. It just needed some encouragement so I stabbed at the button over and over, using the tried and tested methods familiar to elevator users everywhere of pressing with varied force and repeated blows. They were exactly as effective as in speeding the arrival of a lift, except that the doors stubbornly rejected my efforts. I wove back across the room toward my closet and its ranks of drawers with assorted tools.
I selected a long-handled instrument with a viciously sharp tip and jammed it into the narrow gap between the intensive care unit’s doors. With all of my waning, dizzied strength I worked it deeper into the gap and leant all of my weight on it while stabbing again at the button. A disheartening squeal of mechanical elements suddenly gave way and I was falling again, narrowly catching myself on the doorway before I impaled myself on the makeshift pry bar. Lights flickered on all around me. The ICU looked practically untouched by our crash, save for a distinct rumple in one wall with matching flattened corners above – the same end as the similarly compressed corridor. But all the equipment looked fine, to my untrained eye at least. All the units were recessed into the walls, the coffin-like slab beds flat to the floor. The walls contained neat summaries of basic operations in tidy square panels above or next to each mystifying unit. I took hold of a handle and drew out a stretcher which smoothly extended and unfolded itself from the wall. My hope was that I could push it underneath Elilyod, and ease him off the frame and onto it. I cleared a path through the littered floor for the stretcher’s castor wheels and pushed it into the abrogated corridor. Then I returned to the ICU and activated one of the slab beds. It rose fluidly to the same height as the stretcher and splayed itself open, revealing the gleaming heads of instruments all around its opened shell. Pressing another button set it to a gentle hum and glowing.
I knew there would be more bleeding, so I brought an armful of cotton wadding and two towels from the closet’s supplies. I couldn’t think of much else I could do to prepare. With a deep sigh I readied myself.
“Elilyod,” I whispered, “um, I’m going to try and move you. This might hurt a bit.”
I got no more than a deep groan in response. I bit my lip and maneuvered the stretcher till it bumped up against the back of Elilyod’s legs. As gently as I could, I eased his legs up till they were taking most of his weight, instead of it all being borne by his ribcage. That’s when he started screaming and the blood started pumping everywhere. In shifting the balance of weight, the spar seemed to have pulled back upwards, tearing deeper into his chest and the soft tissues inside. Frantically I pressed the wadding and towels to his chest. I tried to press one of his hands against the swiftly saturating mass, but the screams cut off abruptly and I realized he’d taken refuge in unconsciousness. That sort of helped. With Elilyod seated on the stretcher, he slumped forward and I could push the door back to the wall, half-pulling the twisted metal bar out of his chest. A further jolt of the stretcher forward pulled it free entirely and it spattered the wall and me with blood as it sought to return to its natural position. Elilyod flopped backwards and I barely caught him and awkwardly levered his body back onto the stretcher. There was almost no point in my trying to plug the gushing wounds. I made do with a towel on either side and relied on his weight to press down on the entry wound while I tried to keep pressure on the front and push the stretcher. It immediately slewed out of the path I’d carefully cleared, crap jamming under the castors, resisting my every effort to go in a straight line. With increasing panic I rammed it forward, freaking out about the blood now liberally raining from the stretcher. Finally I pushed it through the ICU doorway, its wheels discarding the mangled plastic casing caught around its front wheel, and almost flying across the smooth floor to the slab I’d activated. Spread open like a carnivorous flower, its instruments awaited prey. I rolled Elilyod off the stretcher, forcing him onto his back and into the slab’s grasp. I stood, hands splayed and ready for – something – the machine whirred into life. Lights flowed over him and, with an eager buzz, needles, manipulator arms and suction tubes lashed out, puncturing, probing, penetrating.