With trembling hands, I pick up the phone the same as I always did. “Barbara-Ann Mercer for Master sergeant Kenneth Mercer.”
“Relation to the patient?”
“Wife,” I replied in my sweetest tone.
“I have to check with the doctor.”
‘Like hell you do!’ Little did they know. I transformed from being a twenty-four-year old former waitress to an Army wife, the moment I accepted a binder of paperwork that sealed my fate.
I walked to the ward door, waiting for someone to exit. Janitors always let me in without question and it was only a matter of moments before I encountered one. “Thank you, Tomas,” I blew the elderly janitor a kiss, “and Good morning Carol.”
Carol rolled her eyes. She was on her computer. I knew she hadn’t even gone to consult with a doctor.
I walked past the nurse’s station, straight to my husband’s room making sure to slam the door. “F*****g b*****s.”
That always made Kenneth laugh. “Good morning to you too, Barbie girl.”
On the flight over, I read the unclassified summary of the events.
Apparently, a bomb that went off next to where my husband’s squadron was camped. In an act of heroism, he took a majority of the blow. He now had a chunk of metal in his brain and will likely never walk again. That’s what it said anyway. I can’t even remember what the delivery officer told me other than ‘You can read the details at your leisure.’
From his classified place of injury, he’d been airlifted to the American Army base in Landstuhl. This was standard for all critically injured deployed personnel. Since there was little chance of survival, I was flown on the government’s dime to be by his side during his last moments. Little did they know. It’s now been over six months and he’s still alive.
“Barbie girl?” Catching sight of my face in the reflective glass. My green eyes looked a little less gray. As for my blonde hair; well, in an act of depression I pulled it into a ponytail and cut it off, and it showed. My naturally curly locks fell around my face in a funky bob. I looked like a toddler, but a happy toddler. My husband, he thought I looked beautiful, and that’s all that mattered.
My big strong Master Sergeant broke his neck just below the base of his skull. He lost all feeling below the clavicle, including the use of his chest muscles, making breathing difficult. He wasn’t even supposed to be able to speak. He turned his head, smiling with his dreamy blue eyes. “Earth to Miss Barbara-Ann? You zoned out again?”
“I’m just lost in thought.” There was also swelling in his brain, the actual source of the quadriplegic condition. If I had to guess, there was some kind of disconnect between the mind and the nervous system. What do I know? I’m just a civilian with an online degree. “How are you doing today?”
His hands trembled. Fingers that were supposed to be completely paralyzed, were reaching for me. Maybe that was the power of love; for better or for worse, in sickness and in health. “I could use some of your special attention.”
Kenneth had a feeding tube in his stomach but he insisted on not getting a catheter or a colostomy. If I was willing to take on the responsibility of cleaning him up (and sign an affidavit to that effect), the staff would allow him the freedom and mobility of p*****g and shitting in an adult diaper. “Do you need a shower?”
“I think I do.”
The first time I had to get him out of bed for a shower I was genuinely nervous. He had a wheelchair that could transition to a shower seat, I just needed to move his 5’10″ frame. I expected his body to behave like a limp sack of flour or perhaps clay. But that was not the case; his arms could hold his weight. There was no doubt his body was in horrific pain. But somehow, his muscles were strong.
I lowered the bed and then the railing. My husband placed his hand on the side of the bed as if he was already preparing to lower himself into his chair.
“I need to get you cleaned up first.”
He groaned, leaning his head back. “But I’ve been dreaming about you all day.”
“Babe, it’s only nine.” I leaned in and kissed his lips as he smiled.
In the n**e, he maneuvered himself off the bed, into his chair. His breathing was labored but as soon as I reconnected the oxygen to a mobile tank, he seemed stable enough. He couldn’t move the wheelchair on his own since it had no mechanical components.
I rolled him to the bathroom. I turned on the water, making sure it was a suitable temperature, before moving his chair into place. I took off my shirt, stripping down to my bra. I knew what wanted to do; what I had to do.
I had the blessing of his medical team to engage in s*x. It worked so well, in fact, I was currently three months pregnant with our first child. Avoiding the water proved futile, so I leaned back, letting the shower soak my hair.
“I love you so much, Barbie girl. You’re so good to me.”
I couldn’t help but laugh. They were wrong; the doctors, the medics, even his of chain-of-command, they were wrong about my husband and somehow, we’d prove it. I could feel the raw energy of his very soul. Kenny had lost weight and was often very sick, but he was still here and he was all mine.
When we were finished, I cleaned him up. “Good job, soldier.”
“I think I need to get back to bed,” he replied in an exhausted breath. “You’ll stay, right?”
“Yeah, baby, of course, I’ll stay.”
We shared meals: take out for me and liquid nutrients for Kenny. I worked on applying for freelance jobs; research, editing, whatever the market could get me.
At the end of the day, I went home to my base-hotel room. I would love to stay with Kenny, sleeping on a cot or even a chair. But I was always told no since he wasn’t a minor child; hospital policy or whatever. The hospital was a home away from home, as long as he held on.
The next day I awoke at my usual time and made my usual walk to the hospital. The moment I touched the doors my stomach sank. It was like my soul could feel the negative energy. I ran past the elevator, up the stairs to the ward.
I caught the door, shoving past a nurse who was trying to leave.
F**k you! I entered the room to an empty bed. My heart nearly stopped. I cupped my hands over my face as I fell to my knees.
I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was large, male and wore a rubber glove. “Tomas? No, Kyle, right?”
“You’ve been here way too long, Miss Barbie.” It was one of the many janitors. He took off his glove and gave me a hug.
I returned the hug even though I did not recognize the man. “Do you know my husband?”
“He got moved to the ICU last night. There was an incident but he’s alive.”
I nodded. “Thank you.”
“So, wipe those tears and put on your warrior face. You know how to get to the ICU?”
“Yeah, I do.” I turned away, to start walking towards the elevator. I quickly realized that the stairs would be faster.
When I reached the ICU, I was afraid of what I would find. Of course, there was an intercom system. I picked up the phone, fully expecting to have to explain who I was and who I was looking for.
“Hello, you must be Barbie Mercer,” said the female voice on the other end.
The door opened with a buzz. I looked around for cameras. There were a few round black cameras, like something out of a department store. There was a nursing station with a dry-erase board listing the patient rooms. Ken was in room 102.
I knocked on the door, but it opened as soon as I touched the faux wood.
Kenny appeared to be asleep, attached to several different IV drips. A young female nurse was by his side. “Hi, I’m Becca.”
“His wife,” she said with a kind, welcoming smile. “He told me so much about you.” The nurse sweetly caressed Kenny’s cheek, motioning at the massive bandage over the top half of his face. “The poor dear, he hit his head on the nightstand while attempting to get out of bed on his own.”
That reeked of b******t. “Really?”
“He’d gone into convulsions, prompting the move to the ICU and subsequent scans.”
“How do you know all that?”
Becca froze, her expression changed to one of panic. “I’ll get the on-call doctor.”
When she left, I rushed to my husband’s side. Touching his face, I could feel he was burning with fever.
I needed to see what exactly was under the bandages.
The door opened as if on cue. “Hello, Mrs. Mercer,” An older female doctor who I’d never met stood before me with a sense of superiority. “I’m Dr. Rylan.”
I wanted to scream, cry, curse but I kept my composure. “Um, Hello.”
“Last night, your husband attempted to get out of bed on his own, resulting in an unfortunate accident.”
“Yes, that’s what I’ve been told.”
The doctor continued without missing a beat. “He fell off the side, striking his head on the nightstand. When he was discovered moments later by the ward nurse, he was in the throes of a seizure. Upon stabilizing him, your husband was sent for a CT scan where they first documented the abnormalities, prompting a full MRI. The current results are inconclusive but we have reason to believe there are malignant growths throughout his body.”
“How was this not noticed when he first arrived?”
“At the time of your husband’s initial injury, his mind was in a state of delirium so the main goal was to keep him stabilized.”
“What about the months he had stayed in the inpatient ward?”
The doctor looked at her notes. “We have reason to believe the source of the infection is an overlooked medical abnormality. If that is the case, he would not be eligible for further treatment beyond hospice, palliative, care.”
What the f**k was happening? This could not get any worse.
“The lab tested tissue samples from his bladder, kidneys, and liver, but the assigned medical team did not feel that the presence of cancer was enough of an incentive to overwrite his current treatment.”
This felt like a scam, a ploy to destroy what little confidence he had left. “My husband has been in service for sixteen years.”
“He would be transferred to a veteran’s hospice clinic where he will receive end-of-life care at no cost to you or your family. Or are you concerned about whether or not you would be eligible for monetary compensation upon his passing, given that you’ve been married for less than ten years?”
And because my baby will be born after he’s dead? “Money is not a concern,” I said with all the professionalism I could muster. “I’d like to speak to my husband. Alone.”
The doctor nodded. “Well, he should awaken shortly, as he was only given a mild sedative after last night’s events.
The doctor chuckled as if I’d made a joke. “Medically speaking.”
I knew I needed to play my next move carefully. “Please leave. If I need anything, I’ll notify the nurse.”
“The nurse?” the doctor seemed genuinely confused.
“Yes, the one who let me in.”
“Uh-huh,” she started to walk back out the door. “I’ll just step out for a moment, give you some time alone.”
Once she shut the door, I took a seat at my husband’s side. “Hey, Kenny?” My hands trembled, knowing this was my chance to see under the bandages.
He had a cut on his forehead that was so deep it’d required stitches. And there was already bruising beginning to form. This was consistent with falling out of bed. The surgical scars near his hairline were not.
Kenny’s eyes opened. His eyes seemed to sparkle win an inhuman glow, like cataracts made of metallic blue nail polish. “Barbie?” His voice was a whisper. He blinked a few times causing his left eye to bleed. There were surgical stitches above and below his eyeball, as well as a dark shape inserted into his cornea.
“Yeah, it’s me.” I waved a finger in front of his face, to see if I could garner any reaction. His eyes were moving. He could see me, at least a little bit. “So, how’d you hit your head?”
His lips opened as he struggled for breath. “I-I had a real bad seizure.”
“You had a seizure before you hit your head?”
He nodded slightly. “T-The pain. Oh god, the pain.”
“Where do you feel pain?” I could feel his heart beating slowly as I placed my hand upon his chest. Something was breathing for him, forcing air into his chest.
From behind the oxygen mask, he struggled to swallow the mouthful of saliva in his throat. “M-my head hurts, it hurts to open my eyes.”
When he closed his lids, I got a better look at his eyes. They seemed bloodshot, with thick veins and dark purple shadow.
“It was my fault,” his voice sounded suddenly clearer, like a recording. “I felt good, strong. I wanted to see what it’d be like to piss in a place other than my bed.” He blinked his eyes slower, each motion seemed to catch the light.
“You thought you could make it out of your bed, to the bathroom?”
“You have to admit I succeeded,” he said with a laugh. “Now I get the honor of p*****g in an ICU bed.”
I knew I needed to play along. “But I can’t make love to you in an ICU bed.”
“You can do whatever you put your mind to.”
This was the old Kenny. The boy who made me laugh, smile, before going in for our first kiss. This was the boy who felt like my truest friend. I bit my lip as my mouth formed an involuntary smile. And then I turned his hand over, revealing his palm. The veins were glowing; warm, electrical.
He folded his thumb over my fingers, rubbing my skin. “Do you remember what you said in the last letter you wrote?”
“I wrote you a letter?”
“Fine,” he said with a smirk. “Do you remember the last slutty t*****s pic you sent to my work email?”
“How could I forget. You allegedly passed it up to your chain of command.”
“No, I believe what I said was that I passed it around to raise the morale of my men.”
We were, of course, both joking. “You’re too much, baby.” As my finger pressed on his wrist, a spark started to form. The neon blue light was like a surge of power, looking for a proper outlet. I followed the light, tracing its path with my finger as he spoke.
“You said, if and when I came home to you,” he paused, struggling for air as the energy settled on his throat. “Y-You’d…”
I pressed my lips to his ear, speaking with a breathy whisper. “I said I would let you lay on the recliner while I brought you a beer. I’d sit between your legs and worship you like the s**y, heroic, kind, amazing man that you are.”
“You can do that in an ICU bed.” Kenny moved his hand to his leg. But just as quickly he flinched with pain, the muscles in his chest going into spasm. “Please kiss me.”
I wanted so badly to feel something, anything. But nothing about this felt real. It was like someone replaced my husband with a pre-programmed doll.
“Relax, just breathe.” I gripped his hand tight until I felt his body calm.
“I need you to kiss me.”
“You want me to remove the oxygen?”
“It’s just a mask,” he said with another forced laugh. “There’s no machine breathing for me.”
“I’m not so sure about that.” I moved the oxygen mask from his mouth to his neck trach so he could still breathe.
“Take the,” Kenny was struggling to move his arm, “– mask off!”
“Ok,” I said calmly, moving the mask to his chest.
It was only then he took a deep breath. “This was all a mistake.”
He started to laugh as tears flowed down his cheeks. “I signed over my life.”
“Y-You’re not sick, are you?”
“That’s a long, f****d up, story.”
Every brain cell and muscle in my body was telling me to run. But where would I even go? “Were you even actually deployed?”
My husband flinched in pain. “I would never leave you of my own free will.”
Tears filled my eyes. I knew he was telling the truth. “Then what the f**k happened?”
“They wanted physically fit men and women close to retirement.”
I cupped my hands over my mouth, as I choked back screams. Why would he do this? For money? That was the only possible reason I could come up with.
“All I asked was for the chance to make love to my wife one last time. I was supposed to be erased. I was supposed to just disappear leaving behind a carbon copy. They’d use my consciousness for research while keeping my body around for experimental augmentation. But your love, having you close, it changed something.”
The s*x saved your brain. Well, that’s just great. “But why? Why would you consent to being killed? Why would you abandon me?”
Kenny blinked tears from his eyes as he shook his head with disbelief. “About a year ago, I,” he struggled to speak over the blubbering of his sobs, “I was p*****g blood.”
Seeing him in such pain, I couldn’t help but hold him. “It’s okay. You didn’t want me to worry, right?”
“I have late stage bladder cancer. It started in my liver, spread to my kidneys, my blood, my brain. Ironically the only place it hadn’t spread to was my eyes.”
That explained… something. Did all the test subjects have metallic eyes?
“If I accepted a medical discharge, I’d forfeit my retirement pension.”
“The best I could hope for would be medical retirement.”
“That’s still something!” I took a breath to calm down. “I don’t care about money! I would live in a car with you.”
“For as long as I lasted? Even with chemo I would be lucky to have even a few years.”
“So, what do you want to do?”
“I want you in my arms.”
I slowly lifted his gown, kissing his stomach. His abs were hard, firm like someone who could still work out seven days a week.
He was reaching for my hair, all on his own. His finger stroked a blonde curl over my ear.
Air choked in my throat. I wanted to feel angry, scared. They did something to him. Was he ever injured? Was he even human? A deep wave of pleasure washed over me.
I don’t care. He’s mine. It was up to me to ignite his power.
I could feel the electric surge, cracking like a sparkler on the fourth of July. It wasn’t enough to burn, just enough to sizzle across his clean-shaven hips.
I looked at my hands. The blue energy was on my fingertips. it was neither liquid no solid. It was a connection. I rested my head on his chest, sobbing.
“Don’t cry, baby.”
“Why did they send for me? It would have been so much easier,” and so much cleaner, “to say you died overseas.”
“What can I say, I was insistent: I wanted the chance to say goodbye.”
“Do all the volunteers get a ‘one last wish’?”
“As far as I know most declined,” he said with a smirk. “I mean, most of the test subjects are NCOs in their forties who f****d their way through life. I met one guy who had six kids with five women. Given the choice, he was more than ready to die for his country and let his ex’s fight over his death benefits.”
“What was supposed to happen to you? I mean, if everything went according to plan?”
“I was supposed to let go. They were giving me drugs to start the process. If everything went according to plan, I would slip into a coma a week after you arrived, and within a few days, I would be legally dead: ready to live out the rest of my existence as a Ken doll.”
“A Ken doll?” I couldn’t help but chuckle at his choice of words.
“A glorified mannequin. But because of you. I can’t let go and somehow, I fathered a child,” his voice went soft. I could tell, that was the part he was truly terrified about. “You need to escape. or they will cut the baby from your corpse.”
I nodded silently. He wasn’t wrong. “Do you know the gender of the baby?”
Kenny went quiet, his chest heaved as he came close to tears.
“Sorry,” I muttered.
“I saw met her in a dream,” he said in a whisper. “She’s as beautiful as her mother.”
“Wow.” I sat up to look at my husband’s eyes. “Did she say anything?”
He started to close his eyes, drifting off to deep peaceful sleep. “She told me her name was Becca.”
“What?” Kenny was asleep, or more accurately unconscious. Even violently shaking his torso did nothing to bring him back. I got up to lock the door. Looking around I could see other cameras. I laid in my husband’s arms.
I had to type this up, in case I’m meant to die here.
I don’t know what to do. I think the reason I’m still alive is because I’m not trying to leave.
Not without him.