This story is by P. J. Hack and was part of our 2017 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The heart monitor showed 77 beats per minute. I wondered how many more he had allotted to him. I looked at his face, searching for the man in my memory. There wasn’t much of Don left. His angular, narrow nose still jutted forward pointing the way, but the rest of it, the hollowed out cheeks, those dry, cracked lips, that wasn’t him. None of this was: the raised bed with the chrome metal rails; the tube in his arm; the anonymous room; none of it fit the man I knew.
I glanced at the watch on my wrist. The nurse would be back for the hourly check in nine minutes. Christ, Don’s hair was long. I wondered if maybe I should get him a haircut. I could wait a day or two, then come back. I’d never seen him ragged like that. He kept himself looking sharp and squared off, always. The first day I met him, in August of ’72, he was one day out of the can and he showed up in a new suit. I remember that, one day out, and he looked sharp. I walked into that crappy diner and saw him right away, sitting in the last booth, back to the wall, watching the door.
“You’re Don?” I asked, standing next to the table.
“Sit down Robert,” he said, waiving the waitress over.
“Call me Bob.” The burger in front of him looked good. “One of those and a coke,” I told the waitress.
“Your job should be easy,” he said when she walked away.
“Why don’t you do it then?” I said, a little pissed off at being told any moron could drive a car.
He wiped the corners of his mouth with a napkin and took a drink. Then his chin came up and he stared right at me. Forty years later and I can still remember the clear confidence in his eyes. He knew he was in control and wanted it that way. “I didn’t say it was easy Robert. I said it should be easy. You know why? Because I own the details.” He took another drink of his ice water. “I do the work, but I need a lookout. A smart one who can drive. You still want to do those things for me Robert?”
“Yes, I do Donald.”
“Good then,” he said. “Stay sharp and we’ll be just fine.” And that was how we started out together.
Eight minutes. His heart rate had slowed to 74. I was putting it off, what he wanted me to do. The longer I sat there though the more I hated the place. The room smelled like bleach mostly. The floors gleamed under those white florescent lights and you might think, at first, it was clean, but those lights hid nothing. If you looked long enough, you started to see the cracks in the paint and the reddish brown stains speckling the floor. Then your nose got under that bleach and smelled something else. It might have been piss, it might have been death, but whatever it was, it wasn’t clean. Don was right; this place was a prison.
His pulse had fallen to 68 beats per minute. I needed to get that monitor off him. I dragged my chair close to the bed, unbuttoned my shirt, and leaned over him. That close, I could smell his skin and the sour spit in his mouth. One, two, three: I pulled the telemetry leads off his chest. The monitor chirped at me, but went quiet when I stuck the leads in place. Then I moved the oxygen monitor to my finger tip and eased back into the chair. The heart rate on the screen jumped to 79 and I worked on calming myself down. I sat closer to him now, right up against the bed. I couldn’t avoid touching the sheet tucked tight under his arm. It was crisp and white, but frayed along the edge.
Seven minutes. He didn’t lie about how he handled the details. He planned every job, studied and practiced every part. Don never once came running out of a robbery. He’d stroll out of the jewelry store and ease into the car like we were going for a Sunday drive. When I walked into the hospital I knew he’d planned this job like he had all the rest: the nurse was so caught up in looking at pictures of wedding dresses that she barely knew I was there; no cameras in the room, like they had at a lot of places these days; hardly any kind of security at all.
“But there’s something you forgot Don,” I said out loud to him. “I just drive the car. I don’t do the work.” I wanted something, some kind of sign from him, but I knew I wouldn’t get it. He wasn’t go to sit up and tell me to do it. My heart rate was holding steady at about 85. I wondered what his heart was doing. I put my fingers on his wrist and started counting out his pulse.
After about two years of working together, we were back in that diner when Don asked me why I drove.
“For money, why else?” I said.
He shook his head. “There’s better ways to make money.” He drank his coffee.
“Why’d you do it?” I asked him.
He kept watching the street and stayed quiet. I shrugged and took a bit of my burger. When he spoke his eyes were on the road, “Anything else, somebody tells you what you should do, what you have to be. This way I tell them.” I could still see him sitting there, telling the world how it was going to be.
Five minutes. My right hand shook just a little. The papery look of my skin surprised me. Putting my hand next to Don’s, I couldn’t tell which one of us belonged in a hospital bed. I knew something else though. I knew I’d trusted him with my freedom and likewise he’d trusted me from start to finish. If I walked out now, left him caught in this place, I broke that trust as sure as if it had never been. I put my hand on his chest, closed my eyes, and said, “Stay sharp Don.” Then I cupped my hand under his head, pulled the pillow out and eased him down to the mattress. Leaning down on top of him, I pressed the pillow over his face.
My heart jumped into a gallop and I saw the number on the monitor start to climb. Don shook a little and I hit 98. I took a breath, trying to stay calm. His right hand balled into a fist. My heart shot up to 120 and kept climbing. I pushed down harder and felt Don go still. A sharp stink hit me and he was gone. My heart ran wild; over 150 and still climbing. Any second now they were going to come rushing in. I pulled the pillow away. Don was blue. I stuffed the pillow under his head and yanked the contacts off of me. My heart thundered. The last reading was 183 before I got the contacts back on to Don’s chest. The machine burped and then the alarm hit. I pulled up his blanket and put the fingertip monitor back on him. I fell into the chair just as they burst into the room with some kind of cart. “What happened?” I shouted pulling my shirt together and standing up. “Don? Don? What’s wrong?” The nurse pushed me aside, “Sir, he needs our help.”
I stumbled out of the room buttoning my shirt and hurrying down the hall. Pain shot all down my arm and the hall felt like a tunnel. More people rushed by me heading to Don’s room. I shoved through the front door. The security guard stared at me. The pain was getting worse, but I made it to the car. My vision dimmed towards black so I hit the gas hard, burned the tires and sent the car engine screaming as I flew out of the lot.