I rode with Luce in the back of the ambulance. The paramedic in charge of the ventilator, a dark-haired rockabilly type who kept thumbing her phone instead of watching the numbers, refused to acknowledge my questions no matter how nicely I asked if Luce was going to be okay and if she was in any real danger. Meanwhile Luce was winking and nodding at the oxygen tank that hummed alongside her as if they’d worked out their earlier disagreement and were now involved in some sort of private romance. When I tried to interrupt them, she cut her eyes at me in a way that suggested I ought to mind my own business. At last I gave up and focused my gaze on the back window. It being nighttime, you couldn’t see out of course, but I kept my face as still as possible and pretended otherwise.
We pulled into the hospital parking lot and they hurried Luce through a side entrance I’d never noticed in all the times I’d visited. The moon had vanished, leaving nothing but a powdery blue smear across the horizon and a few scraps of light way down in the valley. I hung back for a bit, saying I was going to make a few calls, get in touch with Luce’s family, but the truth was I needed to try and get my mind right. Already the snow was crusting up something fierce and once the paramedics left I crunched my way toward the rear of the hospital where I could think stuff through a little. I leaned on the guardrail and tried to pick out the house Luce and I shared down below. We’d been burglarized a year or so earlier and ever since she’d insisted we keep the porch lamp on all night to warn off intruders. But I must have gotten turned around on the ride up the mountain, what with all the curves and switchbacks, because I couldn’t find where we lived.
When the cold got too much I went inside to hit up the front desk for info. It took some doing, but at last I learned they planned to do a full workup and keep Luce till the end of the day, maybe longer.
“Really?” I did my best not to sound alarmed. “How bad off is she exactly?”
The receptionist and his big square head didn’t even bother to glance up from his paperwork. “Too early to say. Go home, get some sleep. Someone will call you.”
His dismissive tone made my bp spike even higher. You could tell he was hiding something. Something a best friend ought to know. As calm as I could, I leaned over the counter. “Hey buddy. I’m not leaving till you give me some actual answers.”
The receptionist looked up from his clipboard. “That right?” He picked up the phone, pushed a button.The paramedic in charge of the ventilator, a dark-haired rockabilly type who kept thumbing her phone instead of watching the numbers, refused to acknowledge my questions no matter how nicely I asked if Luce was going to be okay and if she was in any real danger.
When the buzz of the automatic door sounded behind me, I turned around expecting to see one of those juiced-up overnight techs striding over—the kind they hire for hospital security and unruly patients. You can almost hear the Vitamin S rattling around in their pockets.
“That was fast,” the receptionist said.
But it wasn’t a juicer—it was Nogales, still wearing his stupid police outfit. He wiped his boots on the mat and scanned the lobby. When he spotted me by the desk, he took a deep breath and motioned me over.
Reluctantly I made my way toward him. We were alone in the waiting area, but Nogales still went and sat on a row of molded plastic chairs way off in the corner like he thought the two of us were going to get cozy.
I took the chair on the far end.
“So,” he said. “How’s she doing.”
“Couldn’t be better. Bombed out of her mind, stuck in the hospital. Boyfriend’s in the morgue, toe-tagged and cooling.”
He held my gaze. “I’m sorry.”
We sat there not speaking for a good bit.
At last Nogales appeared to shake off some invisible burden pressing down on his shoulders. He straightened up, ran his fingers through his hair. “Listen, can I ask you a question?”
“As a cop?”
“As a friend. I’m off duty.”
“Then no,” I said. “We’re not friends. Never will be.”
He held up his hands. “Okay, so we’ll keep it official.”
“Great. You got a warrant?”
“Irene,” he said. “I came here to check on you and Luce, maybe learn a little something about Wilky’s family. We’ve got to notify them, you know. I’d be talking to Luce if she was up to it.”
An electronic honking started up at the far end of the hallway. It sounded urgent, like someone had gone into cardiac arrest or stopped breathing, and for one terrible moment I was convinced it was coming from Luce’s room. Then I remembered ICU was on the ground level, maternity was on second, so she’d be on the third floor most likely. Even so, when a nurse in blue scrubs strode out of a room and around a corner, it took a great deal of restraint to keep from hurrying after him. At last the honks stopped and all that was left was the evil buzz of fluorescent lighting. Like someone was drilling a hole through my skull and into the soft parts.
With effort, I turned to Nogales. “Fine. Ask away.”
But once I agreed to talk, he turned strangely quiet. There seemed to be some unpleasant question on his mind and he was trying to dig out the courage to ask it. Or no—it was more like he’d already asked the question and it was the answer itself that kept tripping him up.
Then he caught sight of the vending machine next to the restrooms, the one that sold little containers of sludge marketed as coffee. “I know. What do you say we perk ourselves up with a cup? My treat. We could use it.”
Sometimes he was so pathetic you almost had to feel sorry for him.When the buzz of the automatic door sounded behind me, I turned around expecting to see one of those juiced-up over-night techs striding over—the kind they hire for hospital security and unruly patients.
“Why not,” I said.
I should have known better. Nogales was so careful about feeding coins into the slot and selecting the proper buttons you’d have thought he was trying to deactivate a bomb in the building. While we waited for the coffee to pour, he launched into this ridiculous lecture on the history of vending ma-chines. Something about them being invented by Egyptians back during the Jesus era and how if you put in a shekel and pulled a lever, you’d get a few ounces of holy water. When he handed me my drink, he acted like he was presenting me with a sacred treasure.
I glanced into the cup. “Yeah, I don’t like that much milk. Upsets my system.”
Nogales’s face went slack. “Really? You used to. Okay, hold on, let me get you another.”
But the thought of dragging things out with him any longer made my insides feel hot and stabby. I held the cup away so he couldn’t reach it. “Never mind, it’ll do.”
Manny Nogales and I had our own history. The short version is the two of us used to see each other sometimes, back before Luce and I quit using. I even liked him for a while there, which for me is kind of unusual. I don’t get along with just anyone. Then one night something happened and thanks to him, everything blew up in our faces. Basically he had a choice between acting like a friend or acting like law enforcement— and guess which one he chose.
And though Luce and I managed to squeak by without any jail time, not counting the overnight, we still got our licenses suspended, big fines, and a couple hundred hours picking up trash on the highway. Meanwhile Nogales had the nerve to try and apologize. Texts, calls, notes left in our mailbox. Even showed up at the restaurant one night during the rush, holding a cone of flowers wrapped in brown paper and wanting to know if he could pick me up after work so we could talk things over. Just seeing him there at the hostess stand, chatting up customers and waving roses around like a real prince charming, made me break out in angry welts. I turned my tables over to Luce and told our manager at the time, a pro-level fuckhead in his own right, that I had to clock out early due to a family emergency. In the moment he didn’t give me any hassle, but when the next schedule got posted he’d bumped me down to lunches, a move that pretty much halved my income. It took me over a month to get back on dinners, and only after I hooked him up with a half sheet of 10s.
I decided to get Nogales’s questions over with fast as possible. I told him Wilky was from High Point, or was it Greensboro maybe, and he’d earned a degree in business at UNCG before hooking up with the army. “Of course we all remember how that ended.”
“Which wasn’t my fault,” said Nogales. “You know that.”
“And afterward he decided it was time to get clean. Meetings every day. Twice even sometimes.” I hesitated. “Between us, I thought he’d be the last one of our group to slip.”
Nogales asked if I knew how to get in touch with Wilky’s family.I should have known better. Nogales was so careful about feeding coins into the slot and selecting the proper buttons you’d have thought he was trying to deactivate a bomb in the building.
“You’re going to have talk to Luce. I’m pretty sure his parents are still around, but beyond that who knows. They cut him off after his Big Chicken Dinner.”
“All right then, let’s check if she’s awake.” He stood and held his hand out.
“Yeah, I tried already. They’re not letting anyone see her.” “That right?” There was that smug little smile again.
I followed Nogales back to the front desk. He propped his elbows right on the counter and informed the square-headed receptionist we needed to talk to Luce. “Should we find her room ourselves or you want to escort us?”
Now the receptionist was all polite and attentive. “I’m sorry, officer, but my supervisor said no visitors. The patient is supposed to be resting.”
“If she’s asleep, we won’t wake her,” said Nogales. “But I know that supervisor of yours doesn’t want to mess around with law enforcement any more than she has to. If you want I could talk to her directly.”
The squarehead’s mouth formed a hard line of anger. “Third floor. First room on the left when you get off the elevator.”
Nogales looked at me as if to say, See that wasn’t so hard.
When we finally found Luce’s room—we should have turned right—she was so pale and quiet my first thought was to rush over and lay my head on her chest to make sure she was still ticking. There wasn’t any machine keeping track of her oxygen or even a nurse clogging around in the hallway. The air smelled faintly of potted lilies, which set off a bunch of unhappy memories from the Anklewood funeral home. I was this close to sticking my head out the door and yelling for a doctor when Luce rolled over. Her lungs made that faint scraping noise that always sounded so painful. For once, I was glad.
And yet as I watched her breathe, all nice and regular, I couldn’t shake the sense that she was still floating around in that dangerous realm between here and nowhere. The news about Wilky had sent her reeling in a way I hadn’t expected, as if some vital cord that kept her tied to earth had snapped. Once again I felt dizzy and soon little spots of light began swirling around me—like I too was drifting alone in the ether.
“I knew it,” Nogales said from somewhere behind me.
I turned back to face him. There had been a time when I thought maybe the two of us had a future, but now anyone could see that a million miles had sprung up between me and Nogales. No way we’d get past it, no matter what happened. Not even if we wanted to. There are some things from which you can’t ever recover.
Excerpted from Bewilderness: A Novel by Karen Tucker. Published with permission of Catapult. Copyright © 2021 by Karen Tucker.