Prologue



A heart monitor's rhythmic beeping can get monotonous pretty quickly. True, it's an affirmation of life. But it also means you're confined and tethered ... and I needed to get out of there.

I hadn't been conscious long when several doctors on morning rounds trooped in. One of them read aloud my long list of injuries. I watched them glance up at me when each new entry was read, their eyes widening. I didn't understand half of it, but the reader's incredulous tone of voice made me feel lucky to be alive.

A nurse dressed in blue hospital scrubs trailed behind them, waiting for the doctors to clear the room before coming to stand next to my bed. She was blond and pretty, but she looked too young to be a nurse ... around my age, nineteen or so. Her name tag said "LPN - Debbie Connor."

"Good morning, Mark, it's nice to see you awake. How're you feeling?"

I tried to sit up, but stopped before my head left the pillow.

"Chest hurts," I replied with a wince. The rasp that came out of my mouth didn't sound like me.

She smiled sympathetically while carefully maneuvering the straw in a cup of ice water for me to suck on. A few of the metal filings I felt in my throat were washed away, but swallowing was still something to avoid.

"That's pretty typical with cracked ribs, I'm afraid." She rapped her knuckles on the cast encasing my left forearm. "They can't immobilize your lungs like the bones in a broken arm. Breathing isn't going to be painless anytime soon, I'm afraid."

I stared back at her, the lingering haze from painkillers effectively preventing any intelligent response.

"How long?" I croaked, trying not to panic.

"How long have you been in the hospital?" I gingerly tilted my head forward. "It's your first morning with me, your third day in the hospital. You were in surgery and intensive care the first two days. You'd taken quite a beating, Mark. It was touch and go when you were brought in."

Three days. Oh, God...

"Is my sister here?"

Nurse Connor's eyebrows rose momentarily before she shook her head.

"You haven't had any visitors on this floor yet. She may have come while you were in the intensive care unit. They let relatives in for a few minutes at a time. Hey, lie back!" she said sternly as I again tried to sit up.

"Can you find out if she's here?" I asked anxiously as she grasped my shoulders and gently but firmly pushed me back down. "Does she know I've been moved? Can you find out?"

"I'll call down there and see, okay? And don't go making any more sudden moves like that without my help. There's a lot of stuff knitting back together inside you that you don't want to mess up ... alright?"

I nodded weakly again as she stared down at me reproachfully. Eventually her expression softened just a little.

"Now, if you feel up to it, there's a policeman that wants to talk to you, to take your statement about what happened."

"Could he check on Sharon for me?"

"I don't know, Mark," she said patiently. "It can't hurt to ask him though."

I tried and mostly failed to smile. "It can't hurt any worse, that's for sure."

She smiled briefly. "All right; I'll see if he's still in the building. If I can catch him I'll let him know you're awake. You stay still now!" she said, shaking a finger at me for emphasis as she went out the door.

I lay there feeling helpless, trying not to panic.

This made it twice in a month that I'd been laid waste while trying to protect my sister. I hurt like hell ... but I'd still take an ass kicking any day over the emotional agony I'd suffered the time before.

I couldn't stop the damning thought from infiltrating my mind: 'You've failed her ... again.' Sometimes I wondered why Sharon's happiness was so important to me.

To distract myself I looked around, trying not to move my head too much. Standard hospital light green walls, an ancient television hanging from the ceiling, a tray on wheels to put meals on...

Outside my door a procession of damaged people was passing by. They looked to be patients circling the floor, rehabilitating from a variety of injuries. Some struggled by with crutches or walkers, determined to go it alone, while others were carefully shepherded by quietly encouraging hospital staff.

The room must have been high up; the view out the window was of an anonymous rumpled fabric of grey clouds, as if my bed was slung closely underneath the folds of a giant brain. I could have been in Tibet or on the moon for all that showed me.

Nurse Connor returned in only a few minutes, leading in a man wearing the blue uniform of the Syracuse Police Department. So much for Tibet...

I looked up at him in surprise; I'd met him before.

"Hi, Mark," he said softly.

"H ... hi, Officer McConnell," I managed to get out.

"Call me Kevin, Mark. You know, we've got to stop meeting in hospitals," he observed, smiling sympathetically.

I tried to keep his ruddy Irish face in focus. But seeing him was launching painful memories. They were erupting like rockets from the top of my spine, exploding just behind my forehead.

"Debbie tells me you were asking about your sister ... Sharon, right?"

I nodded as best I could. It was weird; my face seemed to be tingling.

"When was the last time you saw her?"

"Three days ago ... downtown." I was barely able to get out the word 'downtown;' it sounded oddly garbled, like I had a mouth full of marbles.

"Was that where you were assaulted?"

Before I could answer, Nurse Debbie drifted back into my field of vision, cutting off the cop by moving directly in front of him. Her hazel eyes were boring into mine. I was trying to stare back, but my eyes seemed to be blinking a lot.

"Mark, are you okay?" she demanded in a no nonsense tone. Her face appeared to be expanding and contracting, like an inflating balloon resisting the unsteady breath of an asthmatic old man.

She continued talking, but I was having trouble making out the words. I'm pretty sure she was saying my name over and over again. Some sort of harsh buzzer came on, and I was vaguely aware of a lot of activity surging around me.

The sound of her voice continued to fade as I fell away into a well of darkness, leaving her calling to me from the surface, until I fell out of sight.

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