The Seventh Stair

The nurse doesn't believe me when I tell her I tripped and fell down the stairs. Perhaps this is because it's not the first time I've been to the hospital this year, or perhaps it's because I'm sporting a vivid, lurid handprint across my face. Perhaps it's because his hand is clenched about my shoulder, there's an intense mixture of anger and guilt and protectiveness on his face. She looks between us and she knows, her lips press together into a tight line and her eyebrows bunch over sharp, hawk like eyes.

He has to let go of me when they take the x-rays. He pulls just outside of the room, and I can tell how anxious he is. One of his arms curls in about his chest, he chews uncomfortably at his thumbnail and his face is twisted with pain and fear. I can almost read his mind, his terror that this time I'll help him bundle up his things and point him out, or I'll do what angry exes always do in the movies and send clothing fluttering out the window onto his head as he protests and pleads for a second chance. I've never done it before, what makes him think this time will be any different?

The nervous smile on his face drags an echoing curl to my lips, I taste blood as something cracks and splits, some injury I'd missed or forgotten. Then the lights flicker, the machine buzzes, and the radiologist slips back in to reposition me, setting my swollen, aching hand onto the table and telling me to cradle the other arm against my side, not to move too much. I laugh, a raspy little noise that scratches at my aching throat, and shake my head at him.

"It hardly hurts. I've had worse."

Startled and uneasy, he nods in response and arranges the complicated machinery above my hand before ducking out and pushing the button. Again lights flash, there's a bone-shaking buzz from the x-ray machine, letting us know that it's finished. I can feel the weight of the led vest pushing down on broken or bruised ribs, I imagine them grinding together and crumbling like powder. Outside the doorway, he still watches nervously, his thumbnail chewed down to nothing more than a stub. He doesn't even relax when I smile reassuringly, hopefully, in his direction. He's still afraid that this is the final straw.

We're ushered away to a waiting room and I'm told not to go anywhere. The walls are a pale green, laced with dark cracks, and off to one side I see a cabinet. I want desperately to open up the doors and peer inside at the array of metal tools, some of them spindly and built like spiders, but I don't quite dare. Anything could be nesting their, waiting for some insignificant creature to unwittingly set it free. Dimly, I realize that when he said he was giving me aspirin, he was actually forcing something far stronger down my throat.

Now he paces, gnawing other nails down past the ends of his fingers, idly flipping the pages of magazines in an attempt to find something that will pass the time. When I tell him to stop, to sit down, a healthy flash of anger comes to his face. He deliberately remains standing, glaring indignantly over at me.

"I'm going to walk down to the cafeteria," he mutters, sweeping off his coat and leaving it draped over the back of a chair, proof that he will return. "Do you want something, Zeph? Coffee? Tea? Maybe they'll have some cake or some macaroni?"

"Root beer?" It's a struggle to hide my relief at the fact that he's leaving the room. He's edgy, and it makes me edgy. He hates hospitals, as he's told me every time we're inside of one, because they make him feel guilty. He had to pull the plug on his Aunt Margaret a couple years ago.

"Alright. I'll bring back something to surprise you with, too."

Once he's gone, I settle back against the bed and let my eyes fall closed. I can feel the drugs crawling through my blood, lulling me into a dazed kind of half-consciousness. I wish, for a moment, that I'd asked him to get my notebook out of his car, but realize seconds later that my hand is too broken to clutch around pen or pencil. I can't move my fingers.

Alone in the pale hospital room, it seems to take hours for each minute to pass. When he returns with root bear and a good-sized slice of questionable looking tiramisu, I groggily drag myself awake. Time moves no more quickly, I sit sucking Barq's through a straw and watching the scuttling of a solitary spider against the far wall while he sits and forces himself to read an article about a serial murderer. There are some brutal photographs.

We're both grateful when the doctor comes in and pins x-rays to the light board. Slim white lines, from prior fractures, trace along my left arm. The doctor points out a faintly brighter, wider stripe: it's only a hair line, nothing terrible.

He shifts the photographs around, pulling up the one of my hand - and this is a mess, a jumble of bones that don't seem to connect or make any sense to me. I have three broken fingers, and a small bone in my wrist has slipped off in the wrong direction. This will be more difficult to fix.

Finally, the stark black and white of my chest is brought to the front, solid collar bone and sternum settled over my heart, ribs stretching down like the legs of some gigantic, fantastic insect. Two of them are broken, a third badly bruised. He starts to say something, but I find my tongue and my voice have gotten away from me.

"I felt that happen. When I hit the seventh step. I was twisted sideways; it knocked the breath out of me. I knew they were bending, there was too much pressure, then they snapped. Like twigs."

Both he and the doctor stare and me wide-eyed and silent for a moment, waiting to see if I'll go on. I almost do, I almost tell them that I'm starting to like having my bones bend and snap, that it's familiar and comforting. It proves that I'm alive and human and fragile. It means that I feel, that I'm real, that I'm not a monster. But instead of voicing these morbid thoughts, I press my mouth closed and listen to the doctor's quiet instructions.

There is a whir of needles, strong hands cracking bones back into place. A half cast, a vibrant green, is wrapped about my right hand and arm. A splint and a sling are all that's needed on my left; the injury there isn't as severe. I'm told to take it easy on my ribs, not to move around too much or do anything too active or dangerous. They're hesitant to release me when I tell them he'll be taking me home. They want me to call my parents or a sibling, another friend, but I shake off all their concerns.

As he goes to get the car, one of the nurses [a sweet girl with a bright, cheerful face] comes up to me. Concern is etched onto her every feature, her voice is dripping with it, "Sir, if he hurt you, and?and, if he does it again, you really should tell someone. It's not helping any of us, if you lie about it."

I laugh quietly and stoop to kiss her briefly on the cheek. Then I see his car coming around the corner and pull back before he can make out how near I am to the girl, how close our faces are. I lower my voice, softer and softer, for only the ears of this concerned young nurse.

"I fell. I wanted to see if he'd catch me."

And now he's here; he opens the door for me and I slip carefully inside, trying not to rattle the loose fragments of broken bone that seem to float in my skin. The girl still looks puzzled as we drive away, toward home, in silence.