Rob awoke, slowly opening his eyes.
The fluorescent light above hummed dully as a nasal woman’s voice paged someone over the intercom. The astringent air was warm and forced the smell of latex gloves into his sinuses. He squinted, his eyes crusted with salt, & sleep.
He reached his fingers to his eyes. Roughly rubbing them. He opened them wider, the pale room slowly coming into focus. The white cotton blanket on the bed was empty. Joe wasn’t sitting there next to him.
It had all been real. The gunshots. The body. The ER. The police officers. He had thought that it was a dream… well, he had hoped, anyway.
He sat staring out of the window, seeing past the parking lot with trees sprouting from the concrete, past the horizon. Motionlessly he stared at nothing.
‘How’re you feeling?’, the nurse asked as she walked into his room. Her tone was positive. She cast a quick glance around the small room.
She checked his dressing, leaning in close to inspect his shoulder. Robs nostrils were filled with a mix of antiseptic & hyacinth.
‘You didn’t touch your food again’, she said benignly, checked his pulse, her eyes watching the hands on her watch ticking into the past. Time that would never come back.
She wrote on the chart quickly, the pen scratching the paper, and set it down. She paused, her face thoughtful, before walking around to the other side of his bed. She picked up the receiver of the phone on the small nightstand and pressed it to her ear.
She looked at rob. ‘your brother, Michael? Has been calling your room’, she wiggled the receiver a little before replacing it. ‘the phone works.’ Her voice chastised in sing song.
Rob closed his eyes. He wanted her to go away. He had his fill of people & talking, their demands of engaging. Yesterday, he had to answer badgering by the police with their constant reiteration of the same questions.
‘did you see anyone?’
‘anyone at all’?
‘How many shots did you hear?’
‘how many shots did you hear before you were hit?’
‘who was with you?’
‘what were you doing there?’
“what were you planning on using the bolt cutters for? the pry bar?’
Rob wasn’t completely clear on exactly how long he had been in the hospital. He was sure of yesterday, as 2 officers had come in both together and alone. Two days, probably. He hadn’t turned on the television, nor had he answered the phone. He felt the weight of guilt inside of him. He swallowed hard, his throat constricting. He had planned the fur farm raid. Joe was dead and it was Rob’s fault.
‘hello’? Her hot breath touched his face, smelling like nicotine, & cavities.
Rob popped his eyes open, brows furrowing as he realized the too close proximity of the nurse. She was bent at her hips, scrutinizing him, her expression conveying feigned concern. Rob blew out of his nostrils, she remained oblivious to his cue, as she continued to search his face. He stared directly at the center of her forehead, he had read that is a surefire way to make people uncomfortable. He hated her. She wasn’t a Master, but she worked for them…and if you put them into a bag, shook them up; wouldn’t matter which one you pulled out. They’re all the same.
Slowly, she finally stood and began to unnecessarily fiddle with the television remote cord. It wasn’t tangled, clearly, though she acted the part as her hands worked to furiously untangle the cord.
‘Dr. Grant will be in shortly. I am sure you will want to talk to him.’ She paused, clearing her throat, before continuing, ‘he works with a lot of patients recovering…physically and mentally…like, helps with coping.” She seemed to ask, rather than state.
Rob sat unresponsive to her, staring at the pale washed wall.
‘Well, okay. If you need anything, you let me know’. She hesitated at the end of his bed as if waiting for an acknowledgment that would never come. Finally, turning on her heel, ‘ok then’, and she walked out on her soft soled shoes.
Rob closed his eyes. Joe’s face, the hole in his head. Joe’s glassy eyes, frozen in time. The bullet had ripped through his brains. One shot into his forehead. Just like the countless farm animals that Rob had beared witness to. A singular hole in their forehead. Boom. Gone. Rob plead for the release on one…
Please, just one.
The final moment. Boom. One shot. Dead. Hole in the head. Glass eyes. All dead. he felt their blood covering him. Suffocating him with impunity.
Rob shook his head hard trying to rid it of the images of joe and dead animals.
He had spent over a decade fighting for the liberation of animals. Several people that knew about rob said that it was a great sacrifice. That wasn’t how he characterized it. He was dedicated because he felt obliged. He couldn’t live knowing that other beings were being enslaved, abused, raped, exploited, murdered. He knew societal changes took time. Hell, slavery took hundreds of years to be abolished. There are so many social programs, so many advocates for human rights. Robs voice was for non-humans. His hands weilded tools to break their chains. His body was a vehicle for their liberation…..
The fact that people turned a blind eye to the suffering of animals when they were directly a cause in it incensed Rob. How fucking dare they?
‘Hi there’, the saccharine voice filled the room, ‘I’m Dr. Grant.’ A Master had arrived.
His tone was like tree sap. Pure sugar. Robs teeth ached just hearing it crawl out of his mouth.
Rob blinked, opening his eyes in the direction of the voice.
Dr. grant smiled without showing his teeth. ‘hey there’, he cooed.
‘ants must fucking love you’, rob thought.
‘If you’d like’, he began to say as he pulled the chair to the side of the bed, ‘we could just’…he plopped his ass on the seat of the chair as he finished, ‘talk’.
Rob exhaled a long breath loudly through his nose.
The sugar man pulled his lips tightly together and raised his shoulders. ‘Do you want to talk about the night that you were shot?’ He seemed to inhale as he spoke.
Rob shook his head, slowly, back and forth.
He smiled, ‘Ok’…he sighed, trailing off for a moment, …’we could talk about something else.” He held his hands out, palms up, and continued, ‘Grief has five stages, and there is depression during recovery time. I’ve seen a lot of patients that were very down on themselves after a physical injury, or an accident like yours’, he nodded toward robs shoulder.
Rob didn’t flinch. ‘Accident’, he thought, ‘try fucking murder’.
Robs unresponsiveness was making the sugar man visibly frustrated. He tapped his fingers on his knee, trying desperately trying to read him. He cleared his throat and sat back into the chair, rubbing his chin. ‘the nurse mentioned to me that you haven’t eaten, could we talk about that, maybe?’
Rob inhaled deeply. ‘they got me on meds, messes with my stomach. Not hungry.” Rob looked at the sugar man. ‘Look, I’m tired. I just want to get some sleep.’ That was all he was going to give the master. It never failed to amaze how people in positions of power and authority never lived through what they we experts at. It was all talk, and talk was the cheapest you could get.
Dr. grant perked up noticeably when Rob spoke. He nodded emphatically. ‘Ok, yeah. I’ll let them know you need something to settle your stomach. Definitely.’ He affirmed in a casual take charge way.
Rob nodded toward the door.
The master blinked quickly several times, it hitting him that he had just been dismissed.
Rob closed his eyes, rolling his head to the side of the pillow. It sent a sharp pain through his shoulder, the burning travelling to his fingertips. He winced, quickly turning his head back and flexing his fingers in a slow groping motion. He was uncomfortable so he sat up further in the bed, looking at the Doctor.
The master gave a glacial smile, ‘I have to go now, other patients.’ He stood and quickly left the room, his head held high.
Rob sat glaring at the tray of untouched hospital food. The portioned vegetable medley of carrots, peas and corn placed in little square wells in the tray catapulted him back to his middle school days. Rob closed his eyes and allowed his mind to wander back to the day he had met Joe….
“Is there a problem, Robert?” Mr. Wilmet asked. He sounded bored. His shoes creaked as he approached the end of the long charcoal colored lab table where Rob was sitting. His tight curls, packed pocket protector, and hunter green thick cord pants screamed ‘science teacher’.
Rob stared at the latex glove in his hand. he pulled on it, watching as it clung to his fingertip and stretched until it snapped back. Mr. Wilmet knocked on top of the lab table impatiently.
“I’m not cutting this dead frog.” Rob stated.
“You want a failing grade?” Mr. Wilmet asked, crossing his arms and staring at him.
Rob shrugged, looking down at his hands, as he snapped the latex glove again.
Mr. Wilmet reached out to pick up the scalpel near the tray. He rested his elbow on the table and sighed. “It’s easy. You make a quick incision here,” he held the blade over the dead frogs stomach, making a slice motion, “and, after…”
“I’m not cutting the dead frog.” Rob felt his teeth bearing.
Mr. Wilmet stared at him blinking several times until finally looking over his shoulder at the other students. He set the scalpel down next to the frog corpse. “Does anyone else refuse to dissect today? Would anyone else like an F for this project?” He asked, pointedly looking at Rob.
A few of the students giggled, but none of them answered him. A few seats up a tall, blonde haired boy whispered ‘pussy’. He looked down the length of table at Rob and made effeminate gestures with his hands. His limp wrist made the friends he was sitting with laugh.
“Quiet.” Mr. Wilmet ordered. “It appears that Mr. Heidrun is refusing to follow the class syllabus today, and therefore will be asked to leave.” He addressed the students with pious authority.
Rob grabbed his backpack, pausing to look at the lifeless body of the leopard frog. It’s once slick skin, now dried and rubbery. It’ tiny arms and legs stretched iron cross style exposing it’s tan neck and belly. This frog had no chance against a human.
“Fucking medieval.” Rob uttered, disgusted.
“What was that?” Mr. Wilmets voice raised. He took a few steps toward Rob and touched his ear as if to suggest he hadn’t heard correctly.
Rob stared at him unmoving.
“It’s fucking medieval.” A voice said from the middle lab table in the center of the room.
Rob looked and saw the ruddy haired boy wearing an anarchy T shirt. The frog corpse spread eagle on the lab table in front of him had also not been sliced into. Rob knew his name was Joe, he had one other class with him. Joe sat back on his stool defiantly as he smiled at the science teacher. There was a rush of giggles and whispers amongst the group of fourteen-year old’s. It’s not every day that you hear fuck twice during lab class.
“You have both just won yourselves a trip to the principal. Go!” Mr. Wilmet pointed toward the door. His cheeks had turned red. “Stop wasting my time.”
Several of the students made ooh sounds and a couple that were slightly bolder echoed the teacher shouting ‘Go.”
Joe sat heavily on the stool as he slowly pushed it back. The metal dragged on tiles and filled the class with an obnoxiously loud ringing sound. He walked toward the door and as he exited, he stopped to smile and wave enthusiastically at Mr. Wilmet before disappearing. Rob swung his backpack over his shoulder and walked past the middle and first tables filled with giggling students. He opened and closed the door behind him. The hallway was quiet and empty. As he walked he heard Joe yell “hey”, he turned to see him jogging to catch up with him.
“I thought we were taking a trip to the principal?” He asked, mocking Mr. Wilmet.
“Go where you want.”
“Where are you going?”
‘Cool.” Joe said nodding, “Hey, we should start a petition or something.”
“Yeah,” he quickly turned, walking backwards as he talked to Rob, “we can have all the students that won’t dissect sign it, and…”
Rob stopped abruptly as he watched joe trip, tumble backwards and land on his ass. Joe laid back, covering his face with both hands as he laughed loudly. Rob laughed as he offered him his hand. Joe reached up, grabbing his hand and jumped up quickly.
“Holy shit, I can’t believe I just did that.” He laughed.
“Quiet in the halls.” The art teacher poked her head out of the art room door. She held her index finger in front of her lips and exaggeratedly furrowed her brows.
“Look lady,” joe said laughing, “have some compassion. I just fell on my ass out here.”
Rob couldn’t help but laugh along with him. His laughter was guileless and infectious.
They continued walking down the hall toward the exit.
“Your parents’ home?” Joe asked, adjusting his bookbag.
Rob shook his head. “Why?”
“We can work on the petition.” Joe said, as he tapped back and forth from his chest to Robs arm feverously.
Rob walked silently as he thought it over. “Just my Ma.” He finally said.
“Cool.” Joe nudged him.
The double glass doors finally came into view as they rounded the last stretch of hallway. A custodian was pushing a cart of cleaning supplies. He saw them and slowed his cart. “What are you boys up to?” he asked.
“We won tickets!” Joe answered excitedly.
“Yeah,” Rob laughed, “We’re going on a trip.”
Joe burst out laughing as they pushed the doors open. They ran down the slope of lawn together toward the tree line and disappeared in the woods. The lingered on the path, talking for hours, before finally making their way to Robs house to write the outline of their petition opposing dissection. Rob quickly learned that Joe was a vegetarian and that his father often made fun of him for it. Joe said he didn’t really care, but Rob sensed that it bothered him. Joe explained how he loved martial arts and had read, when he was eleven, that ninjas ate vegetarian diets and that he’d been vegetarian for three years.
Rob didn’t understand how quickly or deep the bond between them was developing. He didn’t really care how, because he was profoundly drawn to Joe. He was rebellious, funny, quick witted and kind. The friendship that formed on the path in the woods that day led to an intense and fiercely loyal love for one another. From that afternoon forth, they were nearly inseparable. Rarely did you encounter one without the other. Their petition had been successful. 89% of the middle school student body signed it in opposition to dissection. Change happened. No longer would students receive a failing grade for their refusal. Alternatives were offered.
They quickly realized the power of their collaborative efforts. They both felt alive and fully aware. They continued direct action and activism in middle school. Joe became vegan and they liberated 2 guinea pigs from a math classroom and an English class. Their 10×10 wire cages were cramped and barren save for an exercise wheel, water bottle and a chewed on toilet paper roll. Joe helped Rob convert his entire bookshelf into a tri-level guinea pig paradise with ramps leading up to each level. They used plexiglass to make see thru barriers across the front of each level that were just high enough to ensure the Guinea pigs safety. Each morning Rob would wake to hear, his younger brother, Michael whispering to them and laughing as he played with them……
Rob squeezed his eyes shut as tightly as possible, his fists pressed into the hospital bed. His stomach felt like it was filled with wet gravel. He would never hear Joes laugh again. Not ever, and it was his own fault. He felt like someone hollowed him out and dumped his empty body in the middle of a wasteland. He was lost, alone, and his insides were gone.
It just couldn’t be real. He kept his eyes closed and listened for a change in the surrounding sounds. Maybe he was just waking up. Maybe he dreamt that he dreamt it was real and he was actually still dreaming. A voice sounded in the ceiling speakers paging someone to the 2nd floor lobby. He opened his eyes, once again, to the sterile and punitive truth. The off-white walls stared back at him.
There weren’t any dreams left for him.
He had killed Joe.
The phone on the stand rang, startling him. He could feel it was Michael. This time he answered.
‘Robbie. Someone killed Joe. Don’t trust the police, man. This isn’t the first time that they’ve set someone up, only to finish the job later. If they come in the night they’ll stick a needle in your arm, it’s to finish the job. They’re killers, Robbie. They’ll kill you.’ Mikes familiar rushed rant filled his ear. His pressure of speech was quick and sharp.
Rob could immediately tell that his brother was amidst a full-blown episode. “Slow down. No one is sneaking in to kill me with a needle.’ Rob assured.
‘Not what I heard’
‘What are you talking about?’
‘Get out now, they said…and its true. They’ll be in sure as soon. What I heard, man.’
Rob listened to stressed voice of his younger brother. He was obviously hearing voices again. Mike lied about taking his medication, even going so far as claiming to love his schizophrenia. Over the years, Rob had heard a lot of wild shit, so this paranoia was no shocker. It would take a lot to jar him when it came to his brother’s psychotic episodes. The voices, that he heard, he called them ‘the big 5’, or, the ‘tellers of all truths.’
‘When’d you last take your meds, Michael’?
The phone was silent.
‘You have to get out’, Michael whispered quickly.
Rob nodded. ‘Okay. I will get out, Mike. No one is going to kill me. I promise you.’
‘Not what I heard. Could be any second now and then. Who has joe?’
Rob stiffened. ‘..his body?’
‘They got him. They’re going to get you.’
Rob pressed his fingertips into his temple. ‘…no one is gonna get me…’
‘Robbie, you have to get out now! They’ll jab you, needle you, pump you full, too. What I heard.’
I gotta get the fuck out of here, Rob thought.
‘Michael, look,” Rob whispered. “I’m fine. I’m safe…I’ve hired armed guards. See?’ He lied.
“And, you trust these guards?’ Michael sounded skeptical.
Rob sighed, closing his eyes. ‘Yeah, completely trustworthy.”
‘Good to hear, man.”
‘I’ll be home soon, k?’
‘See ya soon, Mikey. Bye’
His brother hung up without saying anything more.
Rob sat for a moment, holding onto the phone. He leaned forward, face grimacing as pain radiated from his shoulder into his neck. He sat the phone down and pressed the call button to the nurses’ station. As he sat back, the nurse walked in.
She smiled at him, ‘What can I do for you? Would you like me to bring you something for an upset stomach?’
‘Where’s my shit?’
Her expression changed. She looked confused.
‘Oh’, her eyes widened, looking at the door, ‘mmmm, let me just get the doctor so’…
Rob interrupted, ‘I’ll sign myself out’
At the hospital
Rob awoke, slowly opening his eyes.