I sat beside the hospital bed, half asleep, tired in so many other ways, hungry, and wearing the same clothes I’d had on for three days. The closest thing I’d had to a bath was washing my hands after using the bathroom, and that was basically just going through the motions. But there was no way in hell I was going to leave Jack’s side.
The police had pretty much gotten all the information out of me that they could. And they’d hauled Stamos away under heavy guard. Not that he really needed it in his condition. He’d had so much voltage pumped into him that his hair nearly caught fire. He was safely away in Federal hands.
But that didn’t make things any better for Jack. The doctors weren’t entirely sure why he wasn’t awake. Physically, they said, he was fine. In fact, he was the perfect specimen of health, if a bit on the short side for his age.
All I knew was that I wanted my Jack to just wake up.
I’d talk to him, never knowing if he heard me. I wasn’t really up on conversations. Hell, half the time he talked to me sometimes I wasn’t entirely sure I was keeping up my end. I just wanted to hear him contradict me or use actual facts to back up his argument. I even started talking about doing massive short cuts on huge public projects in what he’d once called “plebian comic-book physics,” hoping to just get that exasperated sigh out of him.
Anything to hear his voice again.
Mom and Aunt Sarah seemed to understand. They let me stay those three days, rotating shifts on who got to make sure I was still breathing. Kenny & Robby’s gang stopped by a lot as well. They kept me fueled on snack machine stuff, made sure I went out into actual daylight once in a while, sat around with me and played cards. Definitely friend material. Weird how I’d find a bunch of supernatural dudes for friends and a boy with a microchip forest in his head for a…
I still wasn’t sure what we were to each other. I know what I wanted, scary as it seemed. I’m pretty sure Jack wanted it as well, but, well… no one had said it yet. You know, those words. Saying “love” was a huge step, I know, but there was something else we hadn’t said yet. Something, I dunno, deeper. Like somehow just saying something like “Jack, I love you, and I want to be your boyfriend,” something like that would magically change things.
Different rules for different words. Different obligations for different benefits. Just, idunno, different. Better. Fuller, I guess, like how mashed potatoes feel bigger and better and more tasty with gravy.
So, I sat beside the hospital bed, not really sleepy but wore out so many, many ways. And while in that sort of weird state, I kinda heard myself talking.
“You know, I’m kinda at a loss here, Jack. Haven’t been skating in days. I’m like losing my edge, ya know? Luckily it’s rained twice, or else your garden would be all parched. Mom says your corn is like amazing. State fair stuff. Even Aunty thinks you should do like a gardening show on the net or something. They don’t know how shy you are sometimes.
“They don’t know a lot about you. Like how you correct my English and then make the same mistakes as me later on. I think you do it on purpose, but I’m not sure why. Heheh, a lot of things you do I don’t always understand. So like, that’s why you gotta come back to me. Cuz otherwise I’ll be confused and stupid, and still never figure it out.”
For some reason, probably too many to list quickly, I leaned my elbow on the hospital bed, resting my head on the pillow beside him. The fingers of my right hand threaded through the small thicket of wires and tubes so that my hand brushed against his wrist and the thick part of his thumb. His hands still seemed really small to me, but I knew their strength well.
“When you wake up, man, we have a huge group of friends waiting to meet you. You’ll like them. They’re all into like sword fighting and stuff, so there’s lots of technical and physical stuff to learn. And they’re crazier than I am, so, you know, I’ll get a break from being the walking gag reel. They really, really stuck their necks out for us… for you.
“You gotta wake up. I really miss you, Jack,” I said, somehow not realizing where the wetness on my face was coming from until it rolled down my neck. “Heh, I wicked miss you, even. See, I used a Yankeeism. So like you gotta wake up. My education is not complete,” I joked. But the only response was the beeping of the heart monitor and the drip counter.
“I’ve never had a best friend. I’ve never had… whatever it is we are to each other. I never had to fight for anyone before, or had a scrawny guy save me from a gang of bullies, clean my wounds. I never had someone just…”
Words left me at that point and I just couldn’t figure what more to say. The tears took over more and I remember closing my eyes, like I’d done so many times and just leaned my face against his shoulder.
I thought I was imagining things. I mean, after like days of barely touching hospital food that people brought in to me and sleeping maybe three hours total in three days, who wouldn’t be set up for like hallucinations and hearing things and stuff like that. Just the kind of thing you’d expect, right?
But as I was laying there against his tiny frame, feeling how small his body was compared to mine, I noticed that he’d moved. I opened my eyes, gasping, as I felt his hand move over and cradle the back of my head.
“Carver,” he whispered, his voice sounding weak and strained.
“Jack!” I whispered back, clutching his thumb. His hand, despite all the tubes and wires going into it, squeezed back against my hand. His chest felt solid against my face as he held onto my head, rolled up on his side.
“Jack, ohmigod. Jack, Jack, Jack!” I cried into his chest.
“When you get done with being dramatic, could you get me some water?” he asked, just holding me, comforting me, like he always does.
“Yeah, yeah, I… Lemme go get the nurse!” I said, untangling myself and leaning over him to plant a kiss on his forehead. Yeah, I know, totally not something I’d do normally. I just felt I needed to do or say something and that made the most sense. Then I turned and ran out into the hallway, nearly tripping as my knee clipped the door frame, and sputtered my way to the nurse’s station.
I don’t know exactly what I said, but the two nurses on duty got up and followed me as I scampered back to Jack’s room. I got in and pointed and they quickly went to Jack’s side. He was laying on his back again, the monitors just doing the same thing they’d done for the last three days. He was so still, his breathing so shallow, just like, controlled almost.
The nurses checked him over quickly and then one of them went about resetting the IV drip, putting a new bag up, while the other nurse smiled sadly and came my way.
“Honey, he’s still sleeping. I think maybe you dreamed it.”
“But… but… he wanted water and he called me Carver and…”
“And, you’ve been worried sick for him. You probably should go get some rest of your own. It wont do him any good to wake up and find you wasted away.”
“But!” I started to protest, reaching towards Jack’s bed. But the nurse was having none of it. She was a big, strong looking lady that reminded me of the Momma Bear from the Mother Goose stories. She reached out and put her big paw-hand on my arm and pushed it down, collecting me and leading me out into the hallway. Thinking back on it, it was weird that, like, I suddenly had inhuman strength but a middle aged lady in scrubs could push me around like a pre-schooler. Maybe nurses have super powers too?
“No butts, young man. You can stay here all you want, but you need to take care of yourself too. I have one sleeping prince charming in here, I don’t need two.”
“Uh uh! Nosir! You go get a shower and some new clothes on, some sleep, and eat something for a change. We’ll take really good care of him. You boys are heroes after all.”
“Heroes?” I asked, not sure what she meant.
“Paul, you two helped capture a very dangerous man. One that did a lot of damage to people in this town. You put a lot of ghosts to rest in helping the police arrest that horrible man. Your mom and aunt have been on TV with the police and federal agents involved in the case. And let me show you something.” She lead me to the nurse’s break room. Just past the ice maker and between the window and the counter top was a pile of teddy bears. On the countertop itself were over 40 flower arrangements, vases and single carnations with “get well” ribbons tied to them, all bunched together so that the medical staff could still access the coffee maker.
“They started coming in the day after Jack was brought in. These are just the ones that got up to this floor. The hospital has been stockpiling the newer ones down in the lobby. They pretty much cover the back wall and coffee tables around the main lobby. Almost spilling out the doors.”
“All of these are for Jack?”
“All of these, and more,” she smiled at me.
“But, nobody knew about Jack before?” I said, confused. “Nobody cared.”
“Perhaps they didn’t know him before. After taking down one of the most notorious criminals in New England history, Jack has become a local hero. You as well.”
I was speechless. So many people reaching out to Jack, wishing him well. And all because he was able to do what he wanted to do all along. Break free of his “father’s” grasp. I got, in that moment, a glimpse of the true level of hurt and evil Jack’s dad had done to this community. And how much putting Stamos in jail had helped heal that hurt.
The elevator doors near the nurse’s station opened and my mom stepped out. When she saw me, she moved to my side immediately and we hugged. I must have been crying again, because she just kept saying, “It’s okay, baby. Let it out.”
After a short while, she let me stand upright again, but kept her hand on my back. It’s weird how I just then realized that we were about the same height. I always remembered being shorter than her, and way shorter than dad.
“How is Jack?” Mom asked, putting on a smile.
“He’s still… sleeping,” I said, darting my eyes to the Momma Bear nurse. She nodded and gave my shoulder a fist bump as she returned to the nurse’s station. Mom steered me into the waiting room area and sat us both down together.
“Aunty and I are worried about you, mister.”
“I know. I just… I wanna be here when he wakes up, ya know?”
“I know. However, I must insist that you spend at least four hours in the house laying in your bed, whether you sleep or not. And, food, shower, soap,” she emphasized, pushing a thumb at my ribs to tickle me, “and if you don’t promise to do that, the nurses have my permission to hose you down and burn these clothes, even if you have to walk around in one of those open back hospital gowns with your cute butt hanging out.”
“Mooom!” I groaned, feeling a blush hit my cheeks.
Momma Bear nurse looked at a younger nurse at the station and whispered, loudly, “He does have a cute butt.” They both nodded, sipping at their coffees.
“And, wash that face, sir. You may be sad, but you don’t need to show the world you’ve been crying.”
“I… I miss him so much. It’s only been three days, but it feels like years.” She nodded and hugged me loosely. “Mom?”
“Did… did that man really hurt Dad that bad? I mean, Stamos said he’d removed… uh, one of Dad’s, uhm, parts.”
Mom took a deep breath. The tension in her body shifted and I knew that this was a difficult thing for her to talk about. I could also tell that she knew she had to. She needed to.
“Yes. One of his, well, parts, was removed. And your father was very sick when the virus hit us. He took it harder than most. I learned later that he nearly died, on more than one occasion. We had such a hard time getting pregnant. Not just because of your father’s situation down there. That virus almost ruined all my chances to have babies. That’s why you don’t have any brothers or sisters.”
“He really ruined a lot of people, didn’t he?”
She nodded, and I could hear walls and tears in her starting to fall. “I lost three childhood friends in all of that. There were families that lost whole generations because of that man. Many of the girls who were raped, oh gosh, many of them died in childbirth. It was a very dark time.”
A long moment hung there between us while things scrambled and settled into place in my head. I felt there was something I needed to say, but the words wouldn’t come. On the one hand, I’d sorta avenged my father, my family, their whole home town and like, Idunno, generations of kids who never stood a chance because Jack’s “father” wanted to play god, and apparently had the skills to at least fake it well.
But on the other side, it was more like we’d escaped a mad man rather than put to right some old harm. Really, when you come down to it, I’d gotten rescued but then turned around and went back for my…
And there it was staring me in the face. That need for a label. I know, a lot of folks will get pissy about the labels idea, but I actually needed it. It wasn’t a matter of plugging people into boxes and forcing them to fit. I needed to put a name on what me and Jack were doing, wanted to do, were becoming for each other.
I needed it so I could sort myself out. Any labels others put on me are for their needs, but, for myself, I needed something to call this feeling, this situation. So that I could get a handle on it and move forwards. So before anyone thinks I’m being scared or feeding into stereotypes or shit like that, think about what you label yourself and those around you as, and how you deal with crazy things. I’m only fucking 15, so cut me some slack!
“You’ve got your father’s deep thoughts look, did you know that?”
“I do?” I replied, stupidly.
“Oh yes,” Mom smiled. “It’s very distinguished. Like you know all the answers in the world are in there somewhere,” she said, brushing fingers through my hair, “you just have to look deeper to find them.”
“I don’t even know the questions,” I said as the elevator opened. Aunty, Kenny, Kenny’s dad, Robby, and two other adults who I guessed were Robby’s parents came out. As the adults greeted, I got tackled in a two-sided hug by the guys.
“How are you?” Kenny asked, his voice full of concern.
“And Jack?” Robby asked, his tone soft and reverent. I guess he’s kinda like me in not liking hospitals. They have this smell, and like you feel all exposed, like anyone can see right through you. It’s kinda creepy. You learn to recognize the signs in others. I guess in a way you learn to recognize your own kind.
“No change. They don’t know why he’s not waking up.”
As we broke from the embrace, I saw a furtive look between the two changeling boys.
“What?” I asked, keeping my own tone low. This was conspiracy now and these two younger guys were experts at keeping secrets.
“Maybe we should,” Kenny said, matter of factly.
“Probably couldn’t hurt,” Robby agreed. “But hospitals are kinda fuzzy for that.”
“What are you two talking about?”
“Uh, Mom?” Robby said as Kenny grabbed the sleeve of what was left of my shirt. The two of them were like a force of nature when they got an idea into their collective skulls, perfect sync.
“Uh, we’re gonna take phony baloney boney Maloney here for some tonic and junk food downstairs,” Robby said, his hand already triggering the elevator. Oddly enough, he hit the “up” call button instead of the down.
“Okay, we’ll be here.”
And like, that was it. Permission granted while the big people all talked. Did I just witness him using some power over adults or was I just a bit too willing to give them credit for powers they didn’t have because of the powers they’d already displayed.
And for some reason, all this comic book kinda stuff happening around me seemed more normal than not. Things had certainly changed, and me with them. Guess that’s another label I need to figure out.
The elevator door opened and I was unceremoniously hauled inside. Those two are stronger than they look. Then again, so am I, apparently.
“Whadaya think?” Robby seemed to ask Kenny, his New England accent coming out a bit thicker than normal.
“Well, could be anything. But I do sense a trod near the top floor. We might could reach it.”
“Kenny, what are you guys talking about?”
“We’re talking about maybe entering Jack’s dreams to see if there’s a reason he can’t wake up,” Kenny said, as sober as a judge.
Robby exhaled, as if this was an explanation he had memorized. “Think of it this way. All human minds are linked to a, well, side dimension.”
“Called the Dreaming,” Kenny piped in.
“Shrinks call it the collective unconscious or something like that,” Robby replied as the elevator reached the top floor. Somehow they’d rigged it so we’d gone up to the maintenance level.
“Oh-kay?” I replied, not getting into the psychobabble.
“Long story short,” Kenny interjected, “changelings can actually travel in the Dreaming. To us it’s like using the subway.”
“Only you have to know where the stations are to get into the subway. Then it’s just a matter of feeling around to get where you need to go. Like riding the T in Boston,” Robby said with a hand gesture and a smile.
“So you want to jump into Jack’s head?”
“Exactly!” they said in unison, grinning.
“Uh, what good will that do. I mean, my own dreams are kinda weird places when I’m just sleeping. Jack’s got all kinda medicines pumped into him and we don’t even know if his computer brain will like, be normal. I mean, he remembers the ingredients lists off the back of cereal boxes and like whole cast lists off of movies.”
“Which is why Robby will stay on this side of the trod, to keep it open, while you and I jump into the Dreaming and go find what’s going on with Jack’s brain,” Kenny nodded. “Wont be easy, and we’re gonna have to jump about twenty feet out from the building and fall into the trod opening.”
“Oh, it’ll be easy. Like falling off a, well, off a building,” Robby said as we walked around on the maintenance level. Eventually we found the roof access, which of course was locked. But then Kenny simply slipped his fingers between the door and its frame, he peeled back the door like it was a curtain, letting us pass. I mean it moved like fabric, and just parted for us.
Don’t you wish your friends could do tricks like that?
Once through the door, it was just a single flight of steps up to the roof of the hospital. Now this building wasn’t really very tall, maybe only 5 or 6 stories tall. But saying that means very little until you’re standing on the edge, looking down, contemplating having to jump. I looked back at the short changeling boys and wondered if they had taken this exact moment to go crazy… well, crazier.
Once near the edge, Robby reached up and wrapped his fist around his pendant. The whole world glowed bluer for a moment and then Kenny looked over the edge and pointed.
“There! I see it!”
He pointed to a shimmery patch of open sky that suddenly didn’t clearly show the ground below, but a swirly mix of blues, ambers, crimsons and zippy dark and sparkly things passing around. It was a good thirty feet away from the building, and I guessed it was somewhere around the third floor.
“Uh guys, that’s like, a long way down. And like pretty far. Are you sure?”
“One way to find out,” Robby said, his extended hand seeming to form a link between him and the opening.
“I dunno if I can jump that far.”
“I’m going to need you as a guide to Jack once I get in there,” Kenny said, calm as if he’d done this for centuries. “As good as I am at finding the right paths, Jack wont open his dream sphere for me. He wants you. You’ll be drawn to him. I can’t do this alone.”
“Okay, okay-okay-okay!” I said, feeling frustrated. “Exactly what are we gonna do in there? I mean, what’s it like?”
“It’s the stuff dreams are made of,” Robby replied, his accent going all old timey movie on me.
“Last one in’s a rotten egg!” Kenny shouted, and with a three step run he launched himself out into open air, actually pulling a full gainer before dropping into the portal thingy like a stone falling in a pond.
“You need help?” Robby grunted. Apparently keeping the portal open was difficult work.
“This is fuckin’ crazy,” I mumbled, taking a few steps backwards. I barely knew that I had superhuman strength, now they wanted me to test it on a near lethal fall. I mean, strangely, the macho part of my personality was sure I could survive it, but like Genie said in the second movie, “you’d be amazed at what you can live through.”
But my Jack needed me. And if this was a way to bring him back… well, what would you do?
I took five long, charging steps, building speed and launched myself out into the air. And I almost jumped too far. Fortunately, the portal edges were solid for some reason and I managed to lean back enough on the drop to grab and pull myself up and into the gap.
And from that point, reality had a totally new set of rules, let me tell you.