This is the third in a series of stories about a group of friends taking on a neighborhood drug cartel. Read the first part here.
Jared Novak’s first thought was pain. Dear sweet baby Jesus, kill me now-type pain. He opened his eyes to a world that was upside down. An upside-down face leaned over him, mouthing something that didn’t seem to reach his ears. He shook his head, then closed his eyes to a blissful darkness.
When he opened his eyes again, the scenery had changed. White walls, beeping, and disinfectant greeted him. He tried to get up but pain arced through his back and legs, forcing tears to his eyes. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, which he promptly let go of because shit, that hurt too.
He tried to piece together what could’ve brought him to a hospital. He’d followed Nadine to her place the night before, declining her invitation to come in for a cup of coffee and sex-but-not-sex because he had to be at a job site at 5:30 the next morning. And because she couldn’t be offering him more, could she? Nadine was a sweetheart towards him in the diner, towards all her customers. If it was more with him, was it more with everyone else too? He’d lain awake until nearly two, because every time he closed his eyes her jackass fool of an ex danced in front of him, daring to be punched in the face again, but mostly because he couldn’t stop thinking about what could’ve happened if he actually had gone in. Not that he’d ever have the chance to find out, not after making a fool of himself with his stupid reply.
He’d woken up at five, and a quick cold shower wasn’t enough to revive him. To make matters worse his wrist was slightly swollen and definitely painful, probably sprained clocking Steve. Couldn’t be helped, though. He wasn’t about to call off; he couldn’t afford to miss a paying job.
He’d made it to the job site with time to spare. He and a couple guys from the garage were roofing a house, an under-the-table cash job that helped stretch his meager paycheck. Something he could do in his sleep. He’d climbed up the ladder, leaned back to grab his hammer from Dent — and then nothing.
A nurse came into the room, nearly as wide as she was tall. Jared grimaced. How could someone working in healthcare be so unhealthy?
She nodded at him as she fiddled with his IV. “How you feeling?”
“I’m okay.” He shrugged, then winced.
“Really.” She cocked an eyebrow at him. “You fell off a roof. You’re not in any pain?”
“A little.” So that was what had happened. “Do you know when I can leave and get back to work?”
“Sir, you fell. Off a roof. You’re not going anywhere for awhile. But I’ll let the doctor know you’re awake and she can tell you more.” She left Jared’s room, shaking her head and mumbling under her breath, “Off a damn roof.”
Jared studied the room. A half-open curtain partially obscured an empty bed and half a window looking out at overcast skies. A TV hung on the wall, the remote resting on a shelf beneath it. Dammit. His cell phone was just next to it. Shit. Even thinking about moving hurt, so he closed his eyes and tried to think about nothing.
“Good morning, Mr. Novak.”
Jared opened his eyes. A smiling woman in scrubs stood next to his bed, the nurse who’d been in his room earlier next to her.
“I’m Dr. Lindberg.” She consulted the clipboard in her hands. “Looks like we had a nasty fall. Tell me what happened.”
“Apparently I fell off a damn roof.” He stared at the nurse, who defiantly stared back at him.
“Well, the good news is that your X-rays show no broken bones.”
He didn’t remember getting X-rayed, but no matter. He’d take her word for it, if it would get him out of here and back to work. “So, I’m good to go?”
The nurse rolled her eyes and shook her head.
“I’ve scheduled you for a CT scan and MRI this afternoon, plus we want to keep you here for at least 24 hours to monitor for any signs of a concussion. Nurse Tina here will be checking your vitals every hour, as well as taking a complete medical history in just a moment. Any questions?”
“So I’ll be out tomorrow? When can I get back to work?”
Dr. Lindberg raised her eyebrows. “Mr. Novak, you’ve just suffered a major trauma that will probably take months of physical therapy to recover from. I suggest you focus more on your immediate recovery and not on getting back on a roof.”
“Fell off the damn roof,” Nurse Tina muttered, “and wants right back up there.”
Dr. Lindberg shot her a look. “If you have any other questions, just push the call button. I’ll be back to check on you after your tests.” She flashed him a smile and left the room.
“Looks like you’re here for the long haul, Jared.” Tina pulled a chair up next to him. “Let’s see what we’re working with.”
After what seemed like days but was only really hours, Jared was finally back in his room, alone. He couldn’t remember a time he’d had so many people fussing over him: orderlies wheeling him around, nurses asking him the same questions over and over while poking him with needles, Dr. Lindberg flitting in and out. Shortly after she’d left the first time, they’d upped his meds dosage. He couldn’t move all too well, but he found he didn’t really care.
At some point, someone had given him the remote and his cell phone. He was dozing next to a tray with lime Jello and beef broth when his phone rang.
The phone kept ringing.
“Oh, yeah.” He hit talk. “Hello?”
“Jared! I thought you were dead.”
“Hey, Dom. I don’t think I’ll be in tomorrow.”
“Brother, you fell off a roof. You realize you’re set for life, right?”
Maybe it was the pain meds, but Jared had no idea what his friend was talking about. “Huh?”
“Disability, man! Back injuries are like hitting the jackpot for guys like us.”
“But I need to work. Rent’s due in a couple days, and…shit.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“I gotta pick up the boys tomorrow.” It had completely slipped Jared’s mind that it was his weekend with his kids. “Amanda’s gonna throw a fit if I ain’t there to pick them up.”
“Amanda needs to get over herself.”
Deep down, Jared agreed. To say his ex-wife was a selfish, high-maintenance drama queen was an understatement, especially because she’d made it clear that if he wanted to see their two young sons every other weekend, he needed to meet her every demand. But he made it a point to never badmouth her. “It ain’t her fault this happened and probably messed up her plans.”
“Hell, it ain’t your fault either!” Dom muttered something to someone on his end. “Bill said he talked to her and bought you some time. Oh, and he gave Houston your job.”
“What?” Holy hell, this was turning into a nightmare.
“Just kidding. He actually said I needed to get back to work or he’d give Houston my job.”
Jared laughed, then winced. That sounded more like their boss.
“Just focus on getting better, okay?”
“Sure will, Dom. Thanks.”
As the day turned into evening, then night, then early morning, Jared had a hard time focusing on anything at all. His daddy — and his daddy’s belt — had instilled in him a strong work ethic that didn’t leave much time for sitting around, and Amanda’s love of expensive stuff had honed that ethic into a life that didn’t leave time for leisure. He turned on the TV to the local evening news.
“Police today raided several houses in the 1700 block of Washington Street in connection with an uptick in crack cocaine deaths in the city. City records show that one of the houses is owned by Ivan ‘Fox’ Greening. Greening has been questioned in connection with multiple raids in the past, but never charged. Police — ”
He flipped through the channels. Maybe he could find some baseball or highlights or something. He grew bored with the television shortly before dinner, and again when he woke up from a short after dinner nap. Nurses coming in every hour to check his vitals kept him from sleeping too deeply, so he cycled from sleep to TV to his thoughts.
Amanda would find some way to use this against him, to keep him from seeing Connor and Liam more than his court-ordered every other weekend. It wasn’t fair. She was the one who’d wanted the divorce. Sure, he’d wanted her to stay home and raise the boys, but it’s not like he was the controlling monster, the absentee father she’d made him out to be. He could be a good father — hell, a good husband — if she’d just give him another chance.
He picked up his phone and checked for new messages. He’d shot her a text or two or five, explaining his situation, but she hadn’t gotten back to him yet.
Jared sighed, closed his eyes, and tried to sleep again.
“It’s been twenty-four hours,” he told Tina when she checked on him in the morning. “Can I leave yet?”
“Can you even lift that TV remote without hurting yourself again?”
Jared picked it up, then tried to hide a wince. “Yes.”
The nurse muttered something that sounded like, “Liar and a fool,” as she left the room.
He tried asking her again when she brought his lunch, but she only rolled her eyes at him.
Dr. Lindberg knocked on his door as Tina was elevating the bed so he could eat his broth and orange Jello. “Good morning, Mr. Novak! How are we feeling today?”
“Good as new.” He smiled at her. “It’s been twenty-four hours, and I don’t have a concussion. Can I leave?”
She consulted her chart. “Well, the good news is that other than your back, you seem to be fine. So if discharge was just contingent on that, then yes, we’d have you out of here shortly. But because of the nature of your injury, we’re going to send you over to physical therapy this afternoon. Based on what they say, we’ll reevaluate and see when you can leave. Sound okay?”
“Do I have a choice?”
“Not really. You could always refuse treatment, but I wouldn’t recommend it.”
“Then physical therapy I guess it is.”
At least it would be something different. Jared was sick of sleeping, sick of TV, sick of broth and Jello, sick of being stuck with his thoughts. After the doctor and nurse left, he pushed his lunch tray aside, leaned his head back and closed his eyes, and tried to simply focus on nothing at all.
But it didn’t work, because a knock on his door interrupted his nothingness. Damn nurses.
“My temperature’s probably still what it was an hour ago.”
“Jared?” a female voice asked tentatively.
His eyes flew open. “Nadine? What are you doing here?”
She stood in the doorway, dressed in a green polo and jeans and clutching her purse. “I was gonna thank you for the other night, but then Dom said you fell off a roof so I thought I’d come by and thank you here. I hope you don’t mind.”
“I’m so bored, I wouldn’t mind if Hitler showed up.”
Nadine’s eyebrows flew up. “You’re comparing me to Hitler?”
“Shit, no, that’s not what I meant.” Jared flushed. What the hell was wrong with him when he tried talking to Nadine? “I just meant, well — ”
“It’s not the first time and probably won’t be the last.” She laughed, leaving him feeling a little squishy inside.
“Do you wanna come in, maybe sit down?”
She shook her head. “I only have a few minutes. I just got off work and need to be at the diner in about 45 minutes.”
“You work somewhere besides Carl’s?” He realized he didn’t really know much about Nadine.
“Yeah, I do an early shift at AP Logistics, mostly packing stuff, and then head to the diner.”
“Well, I gotta support my kids somehow.” She looked down at her shoes, not meeting his gaze.
Jared’s thoughts went immediately to her worthless ex, trying to shake her down for money when he should be paying child support and alimony. Fighting to get out of his obligations. As far as Jared was concerned, those obligations didn’t end when the marriage did. “That must suck for your kids, probably not getting to see you much.”
“No, they love it. The last thing teenagers want is their old mom hanging around.”
“Well, they’re missing out.”
Nadine smiled and shrugged, but didn’t say anything. Jared tried to think of something to keep the conversation going, but kept coming up with topics and questions that were probably none of his business.
Nadine’s ringing phone broke the silence. She pulled it out of her purse, looked at the caller, and dropped it back where she’d found it.
“Not gonna answer?”
“I don’t recognize the number. They can leave a message.”
“About the other night — ”
Her phone rang again. She checked it and again ignored it.
“Probably just a persistent telemarketer.”
“No, I mean with — ” Jared was interrupted yet again by her phone.
“Same number. Maybe I should answer.” Nadine smiled as she rolled her eyes. “Hello?…Who is this?…Wow, it’s been forever…How are you?…Uh-huh….” Nadine frowned and ducked into the hallway.
Jared frowned too, mentally kicking himself. Nadine was no different than any other woman he knew. So maybe she’d come by to check up on him. That didn’t mean they had anything other than a customer-waitress relationship. Although, maybe they could? She’d left it open to more, the other night at her place. If he could just get over whatever was keeping him from acting like a normal guy, maybe once he was out they could go out for drinks or something. At least get to know each other better. He hadn’t seen anyone after Amanda split, holding on to a sliver of hope that they could reconcile, even though she’d already moved through a string of boyfriends. A different guy every time he picked up the boys, it seemed. How soon after her divorce had Nadine started dating? How long had she even been divorced? Damn, there was so much he didn’t know about her.
Nadine stepped back into his room.
“Everything okay?” Another mental kick. He’d just asked her that. Stop prying; it ain’t your business.
“I don’t know. If it ain’t one thing, it’s another.” She shook her head and laughed. “Anyway, I gotta head out to make it to the diner on time.”
“Thanks for stopping in. I really appreciate it, especially seeing as how busy you are.”
“I owe ya, after the other night. If you need anything, just let me know, okay?”
“I don’t have your number?”
She rummaged around in her purse for a piece of paper and pen, then jotted it down, crossed the room, and handed it to him. “Here ya go.”
“Yeah, no problem. Hope you feel better soon.”
After she left, he looked at the scrap of paper she’d handed him. Her name and number were scrawled on one side. He absently flipped the paper over to half a drawing of a fox, then laid his head back, closed his eyes, and tried to think of nothingness again.
It didn’t work. His thoughts kept coming back to Nadine, but he didn’t really mind this time.
Part 4 — coming soon
E.D. Martin is a writer with a knack for finding new jobs in new places. Born and raised in Illinois, her past incarnations have included bookstore barista in Indiana, college student in southern France, statistician in North Carolina, economic development analyst in North Dakota, and high school teacher in Iowa. She draws on her experiences to tell the stories of those around her, with a generous heaping of “what if” thrown in.
She currently lives in Illinois where she job hops while attending grad school and working on her novels. Read more of her stories at her website.