After strapping Steve onto his stretcher, the masked ambulance crew headed towards Los Caballos Hospital.
“Dammit”, said the driver as he ran over a squirrel on the way. Steve was still unconscious, so he didn’t even hear the curse to wonder what was going wrong on the ride.
One hospital employee tapped Steve on his left shoulder to see if he was conscious – only to learn he was not. He then listened for a heartbeat, and discovered Steve was still breathing and his heart still beating. He placed a sphygmomanometer around Steve’s right wrist.
As the sphygmomanometer formed pressure around Steve’s wrist, he came to. Muscae volantes floated before his eyes and Steve began to see giant bubbles as if someone who had had too much beer was belching. He saw hair in front of his face and looked around. “Huh?”, he asked.
“He’s regained consciousness”, said the employee.
“Thank the Lord”, said the driver.
“What’s your name?” the hospital employee asked.
“I’m Steve”, said the brown-haired, blue-eyed, freckled boy of 16 lying prostrate on the stretcher.
“Do you know where you are, Steve?”
“Am I in the hospital?”
“Not yet. Just the ambulance.”
“So what happened?”
Steve brushed his hair out of his face, and tried to remember what had happened, but his brain started hurting from thinking about it. He passed out again.
Another person in the ambulance made a call to the GAP. She asked what was going on, and learned that Steve was an employee there who had fainted and had a nosebleed. They learned he had been working there since his sixteenth birthday.
Twenty seconds later, the ambulance pulled up at the hospital. The hospital was a building with a cream stucco exterior and a fuzzy yellow interior that cheered the patients up when they viewed the colors. The occasional ding was heard. Men and women with face masks took the stretcher to the ER.
Steve was lifted off his stretcher, still unconscious, and placed gingerly onto a hospital bed. One hospital employee received an IV, while another located his AALL card in the pocket of his T-shirt and began examining it. As he was passed out, Steve’s blood pressure rose, which induced him to come to again.
“Congratulations!”, said the hospital employee administering the IV. She was a petite woman with a nametag that read Gita Dhaliwal, RN, BSN.
Steve looked around, confused. “I’m better again?”, he asked.
“No, I mean you regained consciousness.”
Steve held his hand up to his right temple. He was still confused.
“See you’ve got a pretty bad nosebleed”, Gita said.
“Yeah, I, I . . .” Steve tried to recall what had gone on at work, but all attempts were futile.
“My name’s Gita”, said the nurse.
“Hi, I’m Steve.”
The ambulance driver was soon busy communicating with Gita about what had gone on at the GAP. Steve, in a daze, watched Gita nodding as she listened. What was she nodding about? Steve’s thoughts turned to the worst. Did this mean he was going to die?
Steve was finally able to make out some words amidst the conversation in the ER. “Fainted twice” . . . “for a long time” . . . “splattered” . . . “we don’t know if” . . . “good”.
“Wait just there, another nurse will see you”, said Gita.
Steve sat blankly, wondering whether he’d pass out again before this second nurse made it into his room.
A female nurse came in to give Steve a blood test. As the syringe approached his arm, Steve closed his eyes and tried to imagine he was a heroin addict like Kevin Flax. The syringe therefore felt tolerable. It stayed in his left arm for about a minute. After a lot of blood was drawn, the nurse gave Steve some oxygen. “This looks pretty bad”, she said.
Finally, an emaciated sixtyish man with salt-and-pepper dreadlocks, grey eyes, a circle beard and glasses walked into the room. Andrew Jacoby, RN, BSN, his nametag read. The person from the ambulance gave Andrew Steve’s AALL card.
“Hey there, I’m Andrew”, he said. “I’ll be your nurse today. Heard you had a rather nasty nosebleed.”
“Yeeeeeeah”, Steve said, drawing out the short E sound.
“Do you know where you are?”, Andrew asked.
“I’m in a hospital, right?”
“Right. And do you know today’s date?”
“Uh . . . April 20 . . . no, 21 . . . 2028.”
“Good. And your full name?”
“Stephan Genkins Bruise”, Steve said.
“Stephan Genkins?”, Andrew asked incredulously as he inspected the full name printed on Steve’s AALL card. “Really?”
“My parents were Third Eye Blind fans”, Steve explained.
“Now, Stephan, do you go by Steve?”
“How old are you, Steve?”
Andrew scrutinized that AALL card. “Do you know your date of birth?”
“I was born January 23, 2012.”
“Good.” Andrew glanced back and forth between the picture on the AALL card and his living, breathing patient, and soon he was sure they were the same guy. “Do you know your height?”
This matched Steve’s AALL card. “And your weight?”
“I’m 150 pounds.”
The AALL card said 144 pounds. “Been gainin’ some weight, huh?”, Andrew asked. “Sneakin’ any cheeseburgers?”
“Well, actually . . .”, said Steve, then he trailed off. He tried to remember whether he had eaten a cheeseburger lately, then it hit him: Steve didn’t even like cheeseburgers.
“Now Steve, what brings you in here?”
“I fainted twice at my job site. And I’ve got all this nasty blood on me. And then I have on this yellow pocket tee that I don’t know where I got it from.”
“Are you in pain?”
“Not right now . . . uh . . .”
“So Steve, how long has this been goin’ on?”
“The pain started on Saturday morning. My friend Peter and I had to do all this running from these thieves in an AALL card theft ring, you know? When I got home, my legs hurt, there was stomach acid. It felt like I was exploding inside. And then I’ve been forgetting, like I forgot where I got this yellow pocket tee from. Or like I even forgot that I don’t like yellow.” Just then Steve thought – he could not remember whether he had already mentioned that the yellow T-shirt was a mystery to him.
“So where’ve you been feelin’ the pain?”
Steve pointed to somewhere around his pancreas.
“Tell me more about the history of this . . . when did you start to notice somethin’ was wrong?”
“Well . .. I was at a party Wednesday and I felt these pains sneaking up on me again. Then when I was at work today, my leg was going limp and I was fainting, so I became, well, determined to see a doctor. But I passed out before the working day was done.”
“What else have you been experiencin’?”
“I forgot a lot of things, like when the thieves were chasing us –“
“When was this again?”
“Sunday, no, Saturday.”
“When they were chasing us, I hopped into a taxi and forgot Peter was with me. And then I’ve been dizzy. Maybe I just stayed out for too long in the cold that night. I don’t know.”
“Aww, that sounds bad. So tell me, Steve, have you ever had a similar condition before?”
“Never anything like this. The only thing like this was the first time I fainted.”
“And how old were you?”
“I was in the third grade. There was this kid in my class named Josh Benson, and while we were playing a game of dodgeball, Aidan O’Neill kicked him in the right eye. It instantly put Josh’s eye out. When I watched Josh going blind in one eye, I tried so hard to keep standing up . . . but I couldn’t. Before I knew it, I was on the ground. I didn’t know where I was. Then I didn’t feel anything. Then when I woke up again – all these people standing around me. I wanted to throw up.”
“Josh wear a prosthetic eye now?”, Andrew asked, grinning.
“Yep. And you know, I was actually thinking about that incident as I started to faint at the job site yesterday.”
“No, wait, it was today.”
“Good”, said Andrew, “Because I was goin’ to take a time machine to yesterday to watch what happened.” He smiled.
Steve did not smile.
“Now Steve, you got a family doctor?”, asked Andrew.
“Yes”, replied Steve. “His name is Dr. Jacob Cho. C-H-O.”
“Got Cho! Where’s he practice?”
Steve’s eyes turned to the right at the joke, and he frowned. “In Santa Anita.”
“Now, we’re going to need your consent to obtain those medical records. Can we have your permission?”
“So how intense is your pain?”
“It’s on-again, off-again. It feels like I’m crackling like a microwaved burnt marshmallow inside! It’s not really intense, but it still feels so weird I’m really uncomfortable.”
“Wow, sounds pretty nasty. When was the last time you ate?”
Steve tried to remember, but his memory went on the blink again. His face looked so blank. After being unable to answer the next few questions as well, Steve closed his eyes and fell back on his hospital bed.
“We’ll finish some other time”, Andrew said, walking off. “It’s been nice meetin’ you, Steve.”
“You too, Dr. Cho, I mean Andrew”, Steve replied.
Steve glared at Andrew as the latter walked off to speak with other medical personnel. He soon drifted off to a nice little nap.
As Steve napped, he dreamt that the AALL card thieves had found their way into the hospital. Switcher had a hired goon who clubbed doctors and nurses over the head to make his way to Steve. Steve tried to run, but he was paralyzed. Steve could not leave his hospital bed. Every move Steve tried to make, he thought that move would be the one that got him up, but he kept missing the shots. Then he saw Switcher and Frank in retrograde motion. A news channel in the room showed that Lee had been arrested. Steve thought that was great news – one down, three to go, right? But then Switcher and Frank were telling Steve that they were there to avenge Lee’s arrest. They started moving forward, striking like a cobra. The room spun . . . and Steve woke up in a cold sweat.
Another nurse, this one a Filipino woman, was by Steve’s bedside. She was checking to see if everything was all right.
Steve looked around, still shaken by his dream. “Bad dream”, Steve explained.
The nurse told him to just breathe in and out to keep him calm.
Steve looked around the ER. He thought about what he had planned for the week. His first date with Rochelle was tomorrow. Oh, no! Would he get better in time to be with his new girlfriend again by Saturday?
Steve thought of all of his friends. Then he looked at that yellow pocket tee he still had on. It was splattered with the odd blood stain. Steve was soon back to wondering. Was this contagious? Was he going to die?
Several more nurses came in, making small talk and keeping Steve alive.
One nurse gave Steve an IV.
Another came to wipe up blood.
Andrew walked back into the room. “Hey”, he said with a friendly smile. “Heard you’re feelin’ syncked again.”
“Well, I’ll tell you what I’m goin’ to do. I’ll finish askin’ you the questions, and you just answer them, to the best of your recollection.”
“Steve, when was the last time you ate?”
“It was breakfast at 8:00.”
“Good! You remember now. What did you eat?”
“I had Tropo-bran.”
“The orangutan cereal. Delicious! You on any prescription medications?”
“You take any non-prescription drugs in the last week?”
“How often you drink alcohol?”
“Just at parties. I go to maybe a party every week?”
“How about tobacco? You smoke or chew?”
“Never. Never tried it.”
“You smoke weed?” And with that, Andrew began pantomiming the act of smoking on a bong.
“No”, said Steve. His mind turned to Jocasta at the last party.
“Oh, I drink a lot of coffee. And sometimes a Fanta.”
“How often would you say . . . ?
“OK. You use any hallucinogens, LSD, peyote, ‘shrooms, ayahuasca?”
“Any other recreational drugs? Heroin, Ecstasy, meth, salvia, romine?”
“I don’t do anything else.”
“Are you allergic to any foods or medications?”
“None. I’ve never had allergies.”
“Now, I’m goin’ to ask you about your medical history. Have you had any major illnesses in the past?”
It took Steve ten seconds to think of his answer. “Never.”
“Any surgery or operations before?”
“You have any current health conditions? Diabetes, asthma, somethin’ of that nature?”
“All right. Nothin’. How about any diseases and disorders, physical or mental, that you have in your family?”
It took Steve twenty seconds to answer. “My uncle on my mother’s side had fibromyalgia, and I have a grandfather with Alzheimer’s.”
“How about high blood pressure? Strokes? Any heart problems.”
“Well . . . my great-grandmother died of a stroke when she was 93.”
Andrew jotted that all down. “Any childhood diseases? You got chicken-pox or anythin’?”
“I was vaccinated for chicken-pox.”
“All right. Now we’re going to ask you about your livin’ arrangement. Do you live alone, with your parents, with a boyfriend or girlfriend?”
“I live with my parents. I’m going to move out when I have more money. I’ve started dating this girl named Rochelle, but we don’t live together.” Steve thought for a second. “Actually, we haven’t set our first date yet. Maybe one day she and I could live together. I’m a single boy. Not married.”
“What do you do for a livin’, Steve?”
“I work at the GAP.”
“Do you have any children?”
“Oh, no, God no.” Steve’s face turned to horror. “I never want to have children.”
“Have you been to any foreign countries recently?”
“Well, I was in Canada when I was 14 years old. Nothing real exotic – I haven’t been to Laos or anywhere.”
“Now, d’you have any hobbies or activities that will expose you to disease, or any germs?”
“I ride my skateboard a lot of places. Sometimes I bruise my knees skateboarding. But I always put bandages on my knees. Once I bruised an elbow.”
“So Steve Bruise has some bruises! It’s all in the name.”
Steve tried to laugh, but his sweaty, furrowed brow showed that he couldn’t laugh.
“Do you have any pets in the house?”
“Even a mouse or a hamster?”
“Not even a mouse or a hamster. Not even tropical fish.”
Andrew went on to question Steve about how various systems were doing, and Steve’s answers got more and more protracted.
“Now, Steve”, asked Andrew. “Are you sexually active?”
“I’m a virgin,” Steve replied.
“So you’ve never slept with a boy or a girl?”
“Neither. Although I like girls.”
“Now, Steve, there’s your AALL card, it says you have insurance, right?”
“Aqua Vita”, said Steve.
Andrew saw that that matched what was indicated on his AALL card. “Good.”
“Have you ever had a blood transfusion? Received red blood cells or platelets or plasma?”
“Never in my life.”
“Not even after one of your skateboardin’ bruises, right?”
“You have a headache?”
“No headache. But my stomach sure did feel awful not that long ago.”
“Nausea or vomitin’?”
“I had stomach acid, does that count?”
“Mmmm”, said Andrew in a concerned tone, and wrote that down.
“Confusion or dizziness, other than right before passin’ out?”
“Confusion? Oh, did I ever. And I’ve gotten dizzy a lot of times.”
“All right. Good. Now, if you can walk again, I’m goin’ to have you walk into this little restroom here and pee in a cup.”
Steve got up, a little tenuously, but was still able to walk fleetly over to the restroom. He unbuttoned his pants and emptied his bladder into a cup until there was an ullage of only two centimeters. He then released the rest of his urine into the toilet and flushed it. It felt good, as it had been a while since Steve had gone to the bathroom.
Steve buttoned and zipped his pants back up, washed his hands, then walked out of the room with his cup in his right hand and cheerfully handed the cup to Andrew.
“Just wait right there”, Andrew said. We’ll see if we can get you out of this ER and onto a regular floor.” Andrew waved good-bye to Steve and said, “And now we’ll play the waitin’ game.”
“The waiting game sucks”, Andrew’s colleague said. “Let’s play Hungry Hungry Hippos!”
The two of them laughed as Andrew walked on. Steve just stared. He didn’t laugh; he didn’t even recognize the Simpsons reference, never having watched Matt Groening’s cartoon.
Another nurse came up to Steve shortly. She asked if he’d like something to eat. Steve ordered a tahini from their menu.
A little later, Steve had apple juice.
As Steve lay there eagerly anticipating getting the hell out of this place, his cellphone rang.
“Hello?”, asked Steve.
“Hey, kid”, said the person on the other end. It was Ramón. “You think you could deliver a package of Lava Stix to my house at Chaligoj Ave?”
“Ramón, I’m in the hospital now. I can’t do this today?”
“The hos–?” Ramón’s voice dropped its usual stroppiness and was now squeaking upward so as to register concern. “Stephan, you OK?”
“No, I’m not OK, Ramón. I don’t know what’s wrong with me?”
Ramón decided not to bum candy off Steve today. “Hey listen, kid, I’m sorry I bothered you today, OK?”
“Uh . . .”
“You know what? I’ll send you a get-well card. Which hospital you at?”
Steve tried to recall, but it strained his brain. “Los Caballos.”
“See ya, Ramón.”
Meanwhile, Steve was still in the ER. As he watched the ceiling, Andrew came in. “Hey, Steve. We’re goin’ to admit you to the hospital now, put your name in the in-patient box and all that.”
A nurse and doctor came in and asked Steve some more questions. More of the same, basically. They had him fill out a form, which asked him his full name, medications, family history, parents’ names and numbers, allergies, diseases and disorders and even ethnicity. Steve looked at the ethnic background question. They had a long list of alphabetical codes for different ethnic backgrounds. HA was Argentine. HB was Bolivian. HC was Cuban. AC was Chinese. AJ was Japanese. AR was Cambodian. AH was Hmong. AX was other Asian. BA was African-American. He looked until he located the C’s, the Caucasian groups. CA was Arab. CB was Berber. CC was Cypriot. CD was Sardinian. CE was Egyptian, CG was Georgian. CI was Iranian/Persian. CJ was Jewish/Hebrew. CK was Kurdish. CL was Lebanese. CM was Maltese. CP was Afghan. CR was Armenian. CS was Syrian. CT was Tajik. CU was Turkish. Finally, he located CW – White, and checked that box off.
After he filled the form out, he handed the long thing to the next nurse to see him.
A few minutes later, another nurse (a tiny Lebanese woman named Suzanne Ahmed) came up to Steve and took him to the bathroom so he could release all that apple juice from his bladder. Suzanne kept smiling and Steve and chatted with him as she helped him there and back.
As Steve sat on his back, he watched a doctor whose nametag read Dr. Ravi Thakkar chatting with some nurses. He tried to make out from afar what Dr. Thakkar was saying to those nurses.
“Good morning!”, the doctor said to Steve.
“Hi”, Steve replied flatly.
“I’m Dr. Thakkar. I understand you’ve been fainting with nosebleeds.”
“Sure have, Dr. Toctor, I mean Thakkar.”
Dr. Thakkar explained to Steve that they would like to give him an MRI test. Medical staff came in wearing yellow paper gowns and latex gloves (they had verified earlier that Steve was not allergic to latex), and even had surgical masks on. Steve stepped carefully while the staff were his safety net, a precaution necessary to take in case of fainting.
They had Steve walk into a closed magnetic field. It was black and strange-looking, like something out of a black-and-white Halloween movie.
“We’re going to hold this magnet up to your brain, so just lie on the table”, a nurse said.
Steve lay on the table.
“Now, we have some music that you can listen to while you’re in the MRI scanner”, said the nurse. “Would you like Beethoven, the Andrews Sisters, Enya, Xuxa, Genisa, Sulfur Pie, Thirst, Lady Gaga, Guillotinex, the Scroungers, the Beatles, Bleach, the Ugly Shits, Nirvana, Depeche Mode or Galaxia?”
“Thirst”, said Steve, without a moment’s hesitation.
Steve held a PMP as they handed him some headphones with Thirst’s music inside. Steve put the headphones on and closed his eyes.
The voice of singer Zach Stillwell played through the headphones as Steve listened to him singing “Stark Doorways” for a foreboding, black kuro song. Thirst and other kuro bands always did an artistic arabesque, so to speak, on Steve’s mind. But this time it was an especially intense sensation, playing on his magnetized brain. It felt as if Steve was passing down the river Styx with these sounds playing.
Finally, Steve could see things lighten up through his closed eyes. He opened his eyes and a nurse held his hand and led him out of the giant magnet.
Steve could make out the word “test” as staff were chatting with each other. After they did a spinal tap, Steve walked back into his bed and lay down.
More nurses and doctors came in until 9:20 p.m., a nurse said, “Steve?”
Steve looked up.
“We’re going to move you to our infectious disease floor now.”
“Um . . . all right”, Steve said.
Steve walked down, holding the nurse’s arm. The nurse was now wearing a yellow paper gown and gloves. He worried exactly what the ramifications of his “disease” being “infectious” were.
Steve tried to recall where his cellphone was, and finally reached into his pants pocket to retrieve it.
He went straight to the number menu and selected Richie’s number.
Richie’s cellphone rang. He had the song “Pheromone Girl” by Bleach as his ringtone.
“Hello?”, Richie said.
“Hi, Richie, it’s Steve”, his friend replied. “And I’m at the hospital right now.”
Richie gasped. “Oh man, are you all right?”
“Well, not really. There was this pain I got from escaping the thieves . . . and this pain at Sharon’s party . . . and a lot of forgetting things . . . and then I finally collapsed at my job earlier today.”
“Shock! You must be down with something serious!”
“Yeah, that’s what it feels like. I just wish I knew what was going on.”
“Ooooh, Steve. Be all right for me, buddy.”
Steve shivered in his hospital bed as he listened to Richie’s comforting voice.
“Hey, Richie?”, said Steve.
“Yeah?”, asked Richie.
“I’m prob’bly going to be in the hospital for a while, so could you go to my house – you still have the key, right?”
“And bring a black T-shirt, a striped T-shirt, a button-down shirt, my favorite shirt, a change of khakis and cargo pants, four pairs of underwear, and my boxer shorts?
“Oh, and I almost forgot. My brown suede jacket.”
“We can talk some more at the hospital.”
“Until then. Hasta luego.”
After Steve heard the little ding, he called Rochelle up.
“Hello?”, Rochelle asked.
“Hi, Rochelle, it’s Steve”, Steve replied.
“Ooh, Steve, are you looking forward to our date tomorrow?”
“I, actually, I – ”
“I can feel it. You’re looking forward to it!”
How could Steve break this to her? “Um, Rochelle, you think you could come see me in Los Caballos Hospital tomorrow?”
Rochelle’s face flushed and her mouth opened with an elliptical gape. “The hospital?!”
“Yeah. I was working when I started passing out and getting nosebleeds and all that good stuff.”
‘Tell me you’ll be all right, Steve!”
“I dunno what’s going on with me, to tell you the truth. This doctor came in here and started asking me all these questions about have I ever fainted before and am I allergic to any medications and have I ever bruised my knees skateboarding.” Steve frowned and started to tear up. He just couldn’t stop thinking about his date with Rochelle that was supposed to be tomorrow. He could always reschedule, but when would he get better? Steve didn’t know.
“Steve, we can’t let this ruin our relationship. I’ll show up at the hospital tomorrow and bring you flowers and chocolate. And then we can talk.”
“Really.” Rochelle smiled warmly.
Steve’s heart flushed as he listened to Rochelle’s voice. “See you later, Rochelle.”
After the cellphone dinged, Steve stared at the wall. It was a solid sunglow yellow, with no flies or other disease-bearing vectors on the wall. The wall and its cleanliness calmed Steve’s nerves for just a little while. Soon, he fell asleep in his khakis.
It was the next morning, and Richie had just rung the bell at Steve’s house. “Oh, hello Richie”, said Steve’s mother, Alyssa Weber. Alyssa was a thin woman of 47, with flowing wavy blonde hair, blue eyes and glasses. She wore a peasant dress in earth tones and aqua sandals.
“Hi, Alyssa”, said Richie. “You heard about Steve, right?”
“I sure did! Isn’t that terrible that something like that could happen to my firstborn son?”
“Yeah. He’s the best bud I ever had.” Richie looked down. “I told Sharon about it.”
“Yeah. We two are seeing each other now.”
As Richie walked in, he explained that Steve had called him and asked him to bring clothes.
“Hi, Richie”, said Brad, and Brad and Richie displayed their palms to each other. Brad Hargreaves Bruise was Steve’s 14-year-old brother. He had wild brown hair, green eyes and freckles, and was a bit shorter than Steve. Brad was wearing a black hoodie, a striped polo, old jeans and red Angels, a popular brand of tennis shoe.
Richie could tell from the look on Brad’s face that Brad wasn’t taking his brother’s hospitalization too well. Richie approached Brad with his arms outstretched. Brad hugged Richie.
“Aw, Richie”, Brad said.
“Aw, Brad”, Richie said. “It’s gonna be all right.”
Richie continued into Steve’s room. He had been there many times before and knew instantly where the closet was. Richie walked past the Ethan Milian, Purple Kohlrabi and Thirst posters on the wall and walked by the skateboard at the foot of Steve’s bed. Steve’s closet was already open.
In the closet with the shirts, Steve had several white T-shirts and black T-shirts, some pocket tees of various colors, a red-and-white-striped T-shirt, a black concert T-shirt with Ethan Milian’s face on it, a Shrine Kneelers T-shirt, many striped polos, some button-down dress shirts and a brown suede jacket.
Richie pulled out a black T-shirt, Steve’s red-and-white-striped T-shirt, a white dress shirt and Steve’s brown suede jacket. Then he found Steve’s favorite shirt. It was a short-sleeved polo with green and blue stripes. Richie lifted all of these under his left arm.
Then he opened the bottom drawer of Steve’s dresser, and pulled out a pair of khakis and a pair of cargo shorts. Richie opened the underwear drawer to retrieve the underpants, and then found Steve’s boxer shorts on his bed.
“You look like you could use a box for all that”, Alyssa said as Richie came down the stairs with his hands full.
“Thanks”, said Richie as Alyssa handed him the cardboard box.
“See you later”, said Brad to Richie.
“See you!” As Richie walked out the door, he could see Brad smiling and waving at him from inside. Richie waved back.