- Exit Seekers
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[End Page 10]
Even before I open my eyes, I smell smoke. At first I think I'm still dreaming—too many memories of my time under the stars, when everyone smelled like smoke or sweat—but then I see Cecil's outline over by the open [End Page 11] window. He's sitting in his wheelchair with a blanket over his legs, and I can hear the oxygen machine chugging even as the haze from his cigarette settles around us.
"Cecil," I whisper. The digital clock on my nightstand reads 2:13, and the hallway outside is quiet.
His head is bowed, and he doesn't answer. While I watch, the orange tip of his cigarette falls into his lap.
"Cecil!" I hiss, and his head jerks. He mumbles, and I pull my chair over to the bed. When I'm fully awake, I can transfer without assistance, but even then I like to know there's someone within shouting distance, just in case. I set the brakes and hoist my ass into the seat. Then I settle my left stump onto the pad. It only takes five seconds, but it's too long. When I look back at Cecil, his nightshirt is already on fire.
Cecil screams, and I press the call button clipped to the bedrail and wheel over to the door in nothing but my undershorts. The corridor outside is empty.
I yell "Fire!" twice before rolling back into the room and grabbing a couple of hand towels at the sink. Cecil flails with his good hand while I soak the towels. I'm wrapping them around my fists when the bedspread catches, and I have just enough sense to switch off the oxygen before I grab the blanket from Cecil's lap and press my arms against him.
At some point there is noise behind me—people yelling over the fire alarm. The light comes on, and someone blasts us with a portable fire extinguisher. Cecil howls. I hold up my right hand and squint. My skin is splotchy, and pain moves like lightning across my synapses. "Don't let them take us to Grady," I say to the nurse closest to me, but she's not listening. She wraps a clean towel around my hand and wheels me out the door.
When the ambulance pulls up at Grady Hospital, all I can think is it's a good thing they've already shot me full of morphine. Before I moved into Cedar Grove, I spent my share of nights in the ER here. Winter nights, mostly. I lost my foot to frostbite, and they tried hard to talk me into going to a nursing home. But I knew I'd have to clean up, dry out. And I wasn't ready for that. Not then.
Once we get inside, I can hear the EMTs bringing the staff up to speed. Cecil's next door in room seven, and I know they'll work him up first 'cause he's bad off. I close my eyes and see the blue print of the dressing gown seared into his flesh. Then my brain misfires, and pain licks me in [End Page 12] places I no longer possess. I'm drifting when I hear the one voice I do not want to hear tonight.
"Ben Gibson. I thought you were done being a frequent flyer."
It's been almost four years since I broke Dr. Loflin's nose. I was high on a little bit of everything that night, and I had a seizure in the middle of Briarcliff Road. Apparently, when I woke up in the ER, I woke up swinging. I don't remember any of it, but I'm sure she does. "A little bird told me you'd been missing me," I say.
Dr. Loflin pulls up one of those rolling stools and takes a seat beside the gurney. "And a little bird told me you were smoking in bed."
I'd like to pinch her, grab the tender flesh on the back of her triceps...