After a night of insurmountable drinking, I manage to drag myself to the hospital to visit Connie. I buy a bottle of water at the vending machines and it thuds its way down to the output tray. My head throbs as I bend over to pick it up.
I reach into my purse, my fingers feeling around for my almost-empty bottle of Advil.
"Ahah!" I mutter under my breath when my fingers clasp around the prospective bottle.
I pop a few Advil in my mouth and guzzle it down with water, hoping they will work their magic on my ugly hangover.
Connie is in the same room as she was before - tenth floor, past the elevators, third door on the right. I hesitantly tip-toe into her room and notice in an instant how frail she looks lying in her hospital bed. Tubes protrude from her nose and her skin is a sickly yellow. Judging by the bagginess of her hospital gown, it appears she's lost ten pounds after being here only a few short days.
I move the chair from the corner of the room and push it to the edge of Connie's bed. I take her cold hand as I sit down and do my best to warm it. Connie looks at me, her eyes glossed over. The corners of her lips twitch upward.
"Stella," she croaks.
Her voice is as dry as sand paper and I compulsively swallow down a mouthful of guilt. I pull the card I bought out of my purse and set it on her nightstand. My neat hand writing is scrawled across the front of it, but it looks so small sitting on the table.
I should have gotten her flowers or something. I sigh in frustration. I am soooo out of practice with interacting with humans.
"Uhm….I got you a card. Open it whenever you're feeling better. Ok?"
Connie nods and gives a small smile. I can't seem to stop staring at this woman in front of me. Only days ago she was full of life, practically bubbling over at the seams. Now she seems so….broken.
"Oh, Connie. I'm so sorry I let this happen," I say bowing my head in shame. "If I had been any kind of smart woman, I would have just sent the drink back."
I blink back the tears that are forming in my eyes. Connie gives my hand a reassuring squeeze, knowing the tears are for her. It seems I cry at the drop of the hat lately. Of course, it doesn't help that Jeremy has left me high and dry and I still haven't heard a single word from him.
I miss him so much.
But I was the one that told him to leave, wasn't I? I clutch at Connie's hand, craving her human touch as a means to console my sudden swell of loneliness. Her eyes study my face for a moment before her head lolls to the side. I wipe at the corners of my eyes with my spare hand, doing my best to put myself together.
Why did he leave without saying goodbye?
Perhaps my final night with him was my goodbye.
Images of our passionate night together swim through my mind. Jeremy's kiss, his touch, his body pressed seductively against mine, his manhood thrusting into me over and over and over…
"Go talk to Gavin, Stella," Connie says and her voice is so weak she sounds like a woman well over ninety. "He's in the waiting room."
"Oh….ok. Well Connie - I'm thinking about you all the time," I say, sliding her hand under the blankets and then tucking them in closer to her body. "I'll go drop by and talk to Gavin for a minute. And then I'll come back and visit you tomorrow, alright?"
Connie gives a small smile but doesn't say a word in return. It's so unsettling being the one who talks more than she does. I leave the room and scuttle down the hallway. Hospitals have never been my favorite places. The sooner I can get out of here the better.
The waiting room is surprisingly sparse for this time of day. Only a few middle-aged men and women scatter the room, most of them flipping through various magazines and newspapers. Pale sunlight bounces off the beige drapes, illuminating the room in a soft, natural way.
My eyes move to the corner of the room where I finally spot Gavin, sleeping soundly in one of the over-stuffed lounge chairs. Despite the extra room, his body is so contorted I wonder how on earth he fell asleep in a position like that. I approach him and my nose hairs tingle in protest. Gavin reeks.
He's wearing the same clothes as he was when he first arrived at the hospital, their appearance now crumpled and matted with dry sweat. Gavin's facial hair has grown, clusters of it sprouting out from under his lip and around his jaw line. If I didn't know the man so well, on a first glance I'd guess he was a hobo.
Connie said she wanted me to talk to him, but he looks so peaceful in his slumber that I don't think I should disturb him. I turn on my heels and start walking towards the exit.
I've only gone a few steps when I hear Gavin rustling behind me.
I turn and give a crooked smile, walking back and taking the seat next to him. He rubs his tired eyes and forces himself into a sitting position. His hands move up and down his face in a vigorous manner. When he seems to be satisfied with his wake-up ritual, his eyes turn on me and he gives me a kind smile.
"Thought you'd come through here without even saying hello to me?"
I try to sense any detection of anger or feelings of betrayal from Gavin. But there's none. His smile seems genuine and my shoulders sag with relief. I was so sure he'd be mad at me for this, for allowing Connie to have a drink that would end in a near-death experience for her.
I know if I was him, I'd blame me too.
I let a thankful smile spread across my lips and give Gavin a playful nudge.
"Well, in my defense you don't exactly look like you normally do. I almost didn't recognize you what with your grizzly beard and hobo-like appearance."
Gavin chuckles under his breath and scratches his newly-forming beard.
"I'm thinking of growing it out. Your thoughts?" he asks me.
Gavin's smile wanes and he lets out a heavy sigh. He glances around the waiting room and lowers his voice so just I can hear him.
"How's Connie doing?"
I shrug my shoulders and try to display the best poker face that I can muster.
"That bad, huh?"
I can feel my shoulders tensing again and another wave of guilt ripples through my mind. "I'm so sorry, Gavin. I -"
"Hey," Gavin says interrupting my apology. He slides his arm around my shoulders and gives me a side hug. "It wasn't your fault. If you'd known that drink had been tampered with I know you wouldn't have let her drink it. I may not have known you for very long, Stella, but I know you well enough. You've got a good heart. You care for your friends and you wouldn't do anything to hurt them. And that includes Connie."
I'm so touched by his words that even my demon seems to be appeased by the compliment. I try not to question it. Just the feeling of having respect, of having a friend, is more than I could have asked for….especially given the current circumstances.
"So where's your usual flock of men?" Gavin asks.
His voice has softened and I can tell he's trying to lighten the mood. In my experience though, unless if someone is having a baby, it's virtually impossible to keep a positive attitude in a place like this.
And have I mentioned how much I hate hospitals?
"Well, I'm still not talking to Evan really. And Jeremy….- "
"Gavin!" a man calls from the other end of the room.
Gavin's head snaps up and his features become clouded with confusion. He leans forward and gives me a reassuring squeeze on the shoulder. He tells me he'll just be a minute and walks towards the exit where the intruder man is standing.
I sit back in my chair, doing my best to inconspicuously look at the man who has diverted Gavin's attention. His back is turned toward me so I do all I can to focus on the sound of his voice. It's low and gravely, something I swear I've heard in a mystery-murder movie many years ago.
And then Gavin points a finger to me and the man turns around. His face is strained with a smile and when he sees me, his eyes light with an emotion I can't quite place. Whatever it is, it isn't good.
And then my stomach drops as I realize who he is.
He's the man that poisoned my drink.
He's the man with the gray pin-striped suit.