Fiction from James Braun

Photo: Daan Stevens

Wither

The other boy, the boy before Jonathan, was a child of twelve years who came into Mercy with a nail in his head. He had had to get it surgically removed––the nail, not his head––and left with only a few stitches covered by a Band-Aid. Before him was a girl who remained on suicide watch for the entirety of her stay. She was sixteen, and my first roommate. After the suicidal girl and after the boy with the nail, there was the anorexic boy, Jonathan.

In the afternoon the day nurse wheeled him in my room and helped him into bed, where she hooked three leads into his body. Two ran from his heart and upper chest, and one ran from his stomach. When the machine beside him sensed his heart, it ticked off the twenty times it beat each minute. She set up an IV drip, sliding a needle through the top of his hand. As the needle went in, Jonathan exhaled, and the striations in his neck went taut.

“It’s over,” the nurse said, “it’s over.” Although it wasn’t.

We were on the third floor of pediatrics. I was there for treatment of chronic bronchitis, a condition known to be inflicted by smoking, though a cigarette had never passed my lips. The bronchitis was something given to me by smoke, my mother’s smoke, and chemicals, my town’s chemicals. Three months I would end up staying in Mercy. Only a week for Jonathan.

The day nurse walked out into the hospital corridor. I spit into the pan next to me, yellow-gray mucus joining the rest of the phlegm. Jonathan said, “You’re not going to get me sick, are you?” I told him I wasn’t contagious. “Me too brother, me too,” he said.

Two women walked in, one in pink scrubs, the other wearing a fuzzy yellow sweater and skinny jeans. The woman in scrubs held a clipboard in one hand and a pen in the other, said she was the dietician. The other woman didn’t need to introduce herself. She and Jonathan had the same blonde hair, only his was shorter and thinner, less full and more like pine needles, and they both shared each other’s features––large ears, widow’s peak, straight lines for eyebrows.

“I have some paperwork for you to sign,” the dietician said. “Your mother’s looked it over and said it’s a good idea.” She handed the papers to Jonathan, which he read, then pitched them to the floor.

“I’ve never been a hundred fifty-five pounds in my life,” he said, “and that’s supposed to be my ‘goal weight?’”

“It’s a healthy weight,” his mother said, picking up the papers and setting them on his sheets. “If you’re going to get any better, you need to do what the dietician says.”

“Do you have any other problems with the agreement?” the dietician said.

“Yeah,” he said. “What’s this about me not being allowed to exercise until I reach this ‘goal weight’ of ours?” He pointed at me. “What about him? Does he get to exercise?”

I said, “You do realize this is a hospital, right?”

The dietician pulled the string on her ID badge and let it slap back into itself. She did this as she said, “It’d be pointless for you to exercise right now. According to the blood tests they took back at the clinic, your testosterone levels are comparable to that of an eighty year old man. Once your body starts functioning like it should, then we’ll talk exercise.”

Jonathan stared into his bedsheets. The dietician set the clipboard next to him, a pen on top. The dietician told him, “You don’t have to sign. You can leave if you really want to. But within a month, you’ll probably be dead.”

He signed the agreement.

—§—

The next day, at five-thirty in the morning, a male nurse walked into our room and shook Jonathan awake. He was quiet about the whole thing, trying not to disturb me, but I was already up, was up for most of the night. “I need to take your weight,” the man told him, wheeling a portable scale next to the bed. “Just two seconds and I’ll let you get back to sleep.”

When Jonathan stood on the scale, the male nurse had him face the wall. “No peeking,” he said. The “no peeking” rule was enforced by a sticky note taped over the scale’s digital reading, one that said “No peeking!” in purple Sharpie. The scale beeped and the male nurse flipped up the paper, reading the weight and writing it down. Even in the dim hospital lighting, I could see Jonathan’s eyes pull to their corners, trying to get a look.

For the next hour and a half, Jonathan slept. Most of the time he had trouble sleeping such as I did, but he slept then. In sleep, his heart rate fell even lower than twenty beats per minute. I watched the number subtract from itself on the monitor next to him. At the lowest point it reached thirteen, and it occurred to me that this boy’s heart beat as many times per minute as years I had spent on this earth.

At seven in the morning a nurse wheeled a breakfast cart into our room. Our room smelled of scrambled eggs, generic brand toast, overcooked bacon, all of which were for Jonathan, and more. I reached down the side of my bed and held a button that made my mattress incline. Sitting upright, I pulled the table tray in front of me, which the nurse set my breakfast on; a platter of orange juice, Cheerios, 2% milk, and an overripe banana. The nurse set Jonathan’s meal on his tray and swiveled it over his body, but he made no attempt to sit up. His legs tightened under his sheets, the striations in his neck flaring into lines. But still he smiled when he sat upright and looked at me and said, “Watch this.”

He moved his fingers over the meal like an orchestrator. “Thirty-two grams of fat, most of it saturated and coming from the bacon, eggs, and milk, Jesus the American diet is fatty, and fifty-four grams of carbs for the toast and some from the milk, those lactose sugars, and maybe, I’m guessing here, thirty-eight grams of protein from the bacon, eggs, milk, and a little wheat protein from the toast, not bad, but with thirty-two grams of fat?” He slid the plate away from him with a bony finger. “No thanks.”

The nurse didn’t look very impressed, but I was about to ask him what was in my own meal. She shook her head and said, “Whatever you don’t eat, we have to give you in a shake. We’ll give you fifteen minutes until the dietician comes in.” Before she left, she scribbled some notes on his whiteboard hospital chart.

I turned to my meal. How were you supposed to eat in front of an anorexic? But Jonathan didn’t seem to mind. As I poured milk into my cereal, he turned to me and asked, “Where are your parents?”

“I’m going to be here for a while, so they don’t come every day,” I said. “Where’d your mom run off to?”

“Probably fetching my dad. That,” he said, tapping his fingers on the tray in front of him, “isn’t going to go well.”

“How come?”

He poked at his water cup. “You know what that agreement said? Six cups of water a day. Apparently flushed out all the important shit in my kidneys by drinking so much. Oh, and you know what else? No caffeine. No caffeine. I guess I really am dying.” He turned to me, looking for someone to understand his predicament, then drew his eyes below his plate. “Sorry,” he said. “Divorce. Parents are getting a divorce. Shit’s been going on for months now, like it never ends. Always something to argue about, to fight over. Like me. Dad wants me, Mom wants me. Like I’m a thing to be had.”

The dietician walked in. In one hand she held a clear plastic cup with a little white pill in it, and in the other she held a large styrofoam cup filled to the brim with a brown liquid. She stood in the space between the bathroom door and his bed and said, “I figured you wouldn’t eat much. What seems to be the problem?”

“The problem is,” he said, “all this food is going to make me gain weight.”

“Jonathan, that’s the point, that’s why you’re here.”

“It doesn’t matter. I’m not eating this crap.”

“You signed an agreement.”

“That I did,” Jonathan sighed. “But if we’re going to do this, I want to do it my way.”

The dietician lowered both cups to her waist and looked at him. “Yeah?” she said. “Look where ‘your way’ got you.”

Without much in the way of a response from Jonathan, the dietician continued. “I have two things here for you, one of which is a meal replacement shake to make up for what you didn’t eat. The other is a pill to boost your testosterone and to get some electrolytes inside you.”

Later that week, another doctor would come into our room and ask Jonathan how the pill was working for him, was it making him hungry like it was supposed to?

But Jonathan knew what the pill did before that man told him about it, because after he put it in his mouth and after the dietician left, he said, “An appetite pill. Pathetic. Don’t they understand? They can make me as hungry as they want. Won’t make a damn difference.” I expected him to turn to me and stick out his tongue, and on his tongue would be the pill, sitting there in a bed of saliva. But he didn’t. He washed it down with the shake. “They think hunger is the issue. What a fucking joke.”

—§—

That night, Jonathan reached over and pressed the call button for a night nurse to come down and unhook his leads so he could go to the bathroom. I wasn’t sleeping. Chronic bronchitis does that to you, a constant onset of coughing that won’t let you sleep. I worried I’d keep my new roommate awake, but he hardly slept any more than I did. Both of us were awake. And so I lay there, watching.

All of the night nurses’ footsteps could be heard passing our room. The sound of gurneys, wheelchairs being pushed across the linoleum. This was pediatrics, so some nights you could hear a G-rated movie playing somewhere in one of the nearby rooms. That night, Pooh Bear was singing the honey song. When a night nurse came in and removed Jonathan’s leads, she told him to press the call button again when he was ready to be hooked back up, and she left to attend to other children awake in the night.

Jonathan walked to the bathroom with one hand wrapped around his IV pole, wheeling it with him. The faint glow of my monitor casted his shadow on the wall as he passed my bed. He walked like no one I’d ever seen before, every movement a sudden movement, anxious for his arms and legs to take action. And the way he looked. A white pallor, skin dry, all the features of a corpse, only with life inside it. He shut the bathroom door behind him.

I’m not sure he cared if anybody heard him. He took his time in there. Heavy breathing came from the crack under the door, and inside the bathroom he was likely exerting himself in some way, doing pushups, sit-ups, all to burn off whatever he’d put inside him that day or what he might during the next. Minutes passed and he didn’t come out. The toilet never flushed. After a while, the door shook as though he’d thrown himself against it, followed by the unmistakable sound of weeping.

I unhooked my own leads, taking my IV pole with me. I stood outside the bathroom door and knocked once, twice. He went on crying, uncaring about my being there. I whispered so the night nurse wouldn’t hear. I whispered, “Stop.” I said, “It’s okay to stop.”

—§—

Jonathan’s heart rate almost reached thirty beats per minute when his mom and dad walked into our room the next day.

His father was a large man but not overweight by any means. Unshaven. He wore a Carhartt jacket that he left unzipped and loose jeans that wrinkled around his boots, boots with laces so big around they might as well have been considered rope. You could’ve hung yourself with those shoelaces. Bits of wood shavings and some other white material clung to his body, most of it residing where his skin was exposed, such as the hair on his neck and wrists. My guess, his occupation had something to do with building. Either that, or tearing something down.

Jonathan’s mother stayed near the doorway as his father stepped forward and gripped the end of his bed. He looked down at his son. Looked at the ankles you could wrap your whole hand around, discolored skin, hair falling out in strands onto his bedsheets. If Jonathan’s father ever recognized him before, it didn’t show.

Dad wants me, Mom wants me. Like I’m a thing to be had.

Without turning to her, Jonathan’s father said, “You can have him.”

—§—

Around two o’clock in the morning on our third night together, after watching Jonathan refuse meals and choke down shakes and pills, his monitor’s beeps coalesced into a single long one. He had flatlined in his sleep.

Several nurses came running into the room. One of them went for the defibrillator and another rolled Jonathan over on his back. A male nurse looked over and saw me watching. He put up a hand. “Go back to sleep,” he said, turning to attend to Jonathan. “We’ll take care of this.”

“There’s nothing to take care of,” said another nurse. She pulled up Jonathan’s leads in her hand, all three grouped together as if Jonathan had torn them away himself. “This one’s fine, he just needs to be hooked back up.”

Jonathan shifted, yawning. He blinked, stared at the nurses surrounding his bed, looked at the one with his leads in her hand. He touched his chest. “Ah, my bad,” he said. “They must’ve fallen off when I rolled over or something.”

They got to setting him back up, taping the leads to his body. The monitor started beeping again. The male nurse said, “Glad to see you’re still alive, buddy.”

“Yeah, that’s unfortunate,” Jonathan said.

—§—

While Jonathan had a meal plan that was increased daily, and while he often struggled to get his food in, there were days that didn’t seem all that bad. On the fourth day, therapy dogs made their rounds, and one of them, a Dalmatian named Lacey, jumped on Jonathan’s bed and lay with him for a good ten minutes. The dogs were by far the highlight of the week that we spent together.

But the first good moment had happened earlier on that fourth day. His mom walked in with a wheelchair. She wheeled it close to his bed, patted the seat, and said, “Get in.”

For fifteen minutes she wheeled Jonathan through the halls of pediatrics. The floor layout was that of a figure eight, and together they completed lap after lap. Each time the two of them passed our room, they waved to me. Jonathan waved how I imagined the dead might wave. He seemed upset that he still wasn’t allowed to walk, but once he returned to our room, he said, “Look at me. All mobile and stuff.”

As for myself, I was getting better with every passing day, though my parents didn’t visit anymore.

It was on Jonathan’s fifth day that they let him walk.

Under the supervision of the dietician, two nurses, and Jonathan’s mother, he rose from his bed, unsteady. The only steps he’d taken that week were the few to the bathroom, and so his steps came awkwardly at first until his legs remembered their purpose. As with the wheelchair ride he was allowed fifteen minutes, only this time he didn’t wave as he passed our room. He faced forward. Then came the Evolution of Man. He walked at a toddler’s pace as blood flowed back into his legs and feet, then he walked just like me and you, a speed such as one might use while grocery shopping, and on Jonathan went, the dietician telling him, “Slow down a little,” but then Jonathan was an athlete, a track runner in the hundred meter dash, sprinting through the hallways of the figure eight and zipping past our room until a guard was called in, who tackled Jonathan and pinned him to the ground.

On the sixth day, they prepared to let Jonathan go. The dietician wrote a personalized meal plan for him and another doctor signed off on a prescription list for pills Jonathan would have to take after his hospital graduation. Discharge papers were made, and they were signed.

Our last day together, Jonathan’s mother wheeled him out of our room, Jonathan leaving with the promise of following through with the agreement he had signed on day one, the one hundred and fifty-five pounds he would have to make of himself. We never exchanged names, though we knew each other’s by the information written on our whiteboard charts. As Jonathan and his mother left the room, I heard her say to him, “It’s over, son,” even though it wasn’t.
.

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James Braun’s work has appeared in Minnesota Review, SmokeLong Quarterly, the Main Street Rag,  and elsewhere. He lives in Rochester, Michigan.

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