Thursday night the hospital food got me thinking of Pru and the day we met in the college cafeteria. She never asked to share my table. She just crashed her way to me saying, “I hate this crap food. It’s burned and cold at the same time.”
We got together, Pru a sophomore, me a senior. She was always coming apart, and I couldn’t get enough of trying to hold her together. We were good for a couple of months, until the day she asked me to meet her in the parking lot of her dorm. When I tried to put my arms around her, she handed me a shopping bag full of things she had borrowed — a lamp, a beret, and a coffee mug. Her makeup was all down her cheeks as she howled, “I thought you were different, but you’re not. You got what you wanted, and you’ve ruined my life.”
Two weeks later her roommate told me Pru was getting married in a few weeks, and that I shouldn’t try to find her.
I never figured it out. I missed her, and would have done anything to get her back, but it never crossed my mind she might be pregnant.
* * * *
I’ve never seen a hospital from the inside. Never been sick. Never knew they would ask me whom to notify. It was being sick in the hospital that got me dreaming: A car pulls into my driveway, and the driver steps out and waves to me when I open my front door. I go to him and extend my hand and as we shake hands I’m sure I know him from somewhere. For a second we’re just standing there, and then I get it: our hands are identical, “My name’s Ben, Dad. Great to meet you. Jump in, we’ve got to go pick up Mom.”
I run back to the house, grab a few things, turn out the lights, and off we go — Ben driving, me next to him, him telling me his Mom is sorry for not telling anyone, not you, Dad, and not even me, “I would have come sooner if I’d known. Believe me, Dad.”
“No, Ben, It’s my fault,” I say.
“I should have known Kreb wasn’t my father, the way he beat me and threatened to feed me to the dragon on his back if I didn’t shape up.”
We drive west, past towns glowing like nests of light, past signs for motels, past exits that are not our exit, “We’re almost there,” he says. “I can feel it.”
We pull onto a steep snaking back road, the car smelling of hot oil as it side-slips on wet leaves. Around the next bend the road narrows and descends to a railroad crossing. The gate is down, and to our left there’s a tunnel. To our right are the remains of a hotel with its East end ripped away and its roof torn open. We turn right and pull into the parking lot on the West end, and Ben kills the engine. “This is where mom said she’d meet us,” he says.
We get out and stretch, Ben and me. His eyes my eyes. Me the father and Ben my son, and a second later a train whistle screams from down the track and the train pulls to a stop with steam blowing as its doors open. More than a hundred people hurry out of West end of the hotel and board the train.
Ben and me are left standing there, watching it disappear into tunnel, and that’s when the black sedan drives into the parking lot with a heavy-set man driving and Pru next to him. I’m sure it’s Pru, because she’s slamming her fists on the dash board. Ben and I run for the car, but the driver sees us and guns the engine and drives off the way he came.
After signing in we’re led upstairs and down a corridor with old people crouching along the walls, and one woman sleeping on her coat. They stare at us as we pass, Ben and me behind the bellhop opening a door to his right that leads to a dark room stuffed with women and kids, their blue-grey faces staring at the one television hung high on the wall. They close around me asking for money to eat, kids holding my legs, me pulling them off, trying to keep up with Ben and the bellhop as they disappear into a smaller room just as everything goes dark.
* * * *
I woke up with my nurse Bella standing over me, “Is Pru here?” I asked; “Pru said she would come.”
“Not yet, Mr. Nichols. I’ll check later, after your bath,” she said.
“Don’t bother,” I said; “Pru will bathe me when she gets here.” I waited until midnight then fell asleep.
* * * *
We skip breakfast, dress quickly, and go over Ben’s map. “We’ll leave the car here and hike the three miles to the sea to catch our boat,” Ben says, and I put on my boots and tell him I’m ready.
“Hey, Dad, nice boots,” Ben says, and I slap him on the back the way fathers do, and then we head off climbing through fog to the crest of a high hill where we can see the highway, the high-tension wires, and dark clouds hanging over the docks.
“Hey, Ben, have a look,” I say, pointing to the black sedan pulled over in the breakdown lane underneath the huge rack of wires.
“That bastard, Kreb, look at him with his shirt off swinging his coat and screaming at my mother,” Ben says, and when I put on my glasses it looks like Pru has locked him out of the car.
Together, without saying a word, we scramble half-way down the hill, and take a path to our left that takes us straight to the wires. We can see the highway a couple hundred yards from us, but there’s no sign of Kreb, Pru, or the car.
“I don’t like this. It’s too quiet,” I say just as the sky tears open and a screaming streak of red dragon scoops up Ben in its beak. I yell,” No, no, he’s my son. Don’t take him; take me.”
It hears me. It knows me. It drops Ben from its beak, dives in my direction, then changes its dragon mind, turns in a raging loop and goes off to retrieve Ben.
I follow the dragon, but the faster I run the slower I go, until my legs fail me and I slip down a ravine and end up under the wires. I struggle to my feet, still hurting, then the rotting smell takes over, the stink of bone and dragon skin, and I look up at the dragon dangling down, its neck slashed, its eye dull with death. I want to scream but can’t. I have to find Ben. I look in the trees, and the wires closest to the highway, all to no avail.
* * * *
I heard someone call my name. “Pru, is that you?” I shouted.
“No, it’s me, Bella,” she said, “They’re ready for you. But first you have to tell me who to notify. You can’t put ‘nobody’ on the form.”
“Put Pru and my son BenThey’ll be here this afternoon.”
“Okay, come with me,” she said, and I closed my eyes as she wheeled me to the elevator.
* * * *
I am standing on the dock, watching the daylight fail and the sea turn darker and deeper. There’s no Ben or Pru, or waiting boat. I’m losing the only girl I have ever loved, and my son, the son I should have gone looking for years ago and didn’t; and now here I am approaching the door Bella is holding open for me, and I can’t help myself; I peek in to see the nothing behind it.