Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Who is My Shelter - Prologue

Who is My Shelter
Thomas Nelson (March 1, 2011)
Neta Jackson


The face in the mirror was barely recognizable. Philip Fairbanks winced at the black-and-blue mask that spread like a handprint over his broken nose and encompassed both eyes like tattooed sunglasses. Most of the swelling had gone down—it’d been almost a week since those thugs had attacked him—but he still looked like the poster boy for a horror flick. The forty stitches that started on his forehead and ran in a jagged path along the right side of his head didn’t help, especially since they’d shaved his entire scalp to avoid leaving him with a bald spot on only one side.

“Don’t you worry, honey,” the plump nurse’s aide—they called them “Patient Care Technicians” now—had chirped cheerfully as she’d shaved away his fifty-dollar haircut. “Hair always grows back. And bald heads are rad now, verrry sexy.

Yeah, right.

“I can’t go to the office looking like this!” he growled to his reflection. He was on enough shaky ground with his business partner at Fairbanks and Fenchel without also freaking out their clients. What in the world was he going to do?

He had to do something. Before Henry made good on his threat to sue him for the money missing from their account.

Tentatively opening his mouth—Uhnn, that hurt—Philip inserted the hospital-issue toothbrush and carefully waggled it around his teeth. If he was going to be discharged today, he had to clean up. But brushing hurt. Chewing hurt. Talking hurt. Blowing his nose hurt. And that was only his head! His broken right arm and the three broken ribs where he’d been kicked repeatedly meant that almost every movement hurt, even breathing. Especially breathing. The sharp pains in his gut still made him grit his teeth when he took the required daily walks around the nursing floor, even though none of the x-rays or blood tests had turned up any definitive internal injuries.

Probably just bruising on his organs, the internist had said. But they’d kept doing tests since he still had pain. Seemed like something would’ve shown up by now.

Coming out of the bathroom of the private hospital room, Philip saw that his breakfast tray had been taken away, and someone—probably one of those “senior volunteers” who roamed the place—had laid today’s Tribune on his bed. He was tempted to settle into the recliner and read the paper until housekeeping had changed the bed and cleaned the bathroom, but it was such an ordeal to get comfortable and then struggle to get up again, he might as well get the morning walk out of the way since he was already upright. At least they’d unhooked him from the IV pole and let him eat real food—if you could call Jell-O and Cream of Wheat and lukewarm chicken broth “real food.”

Reaching for the brown terry bathrobe Gabby had brought him, he pulled it over his shoulders with his one good hand and started for the hall. He couldn’t remember who’d loaned it to him, maybe that tall Baxter kid, the young one who’d moved into Gabby’s building to be the property manager or something. He didn’t like wearing someone else’s robe, but at least it covered the yawning gaps in the back of the faded hospital gown.

Walking was tedious. Past the room with the old man who always seemed to be asleep with his mouth hanging open . . . past the room that always had at least three or more visitors yakking it up . . . past the room full of flowers and balloons, and the room that had none . . . thirty-seven steps to the nurses’ station, situated so the staff could keep an eye on the comings and goings of visitors and patients and the call lights outside each room. Philip stopped. “Excuse me, nurse? When is Dr. Yin coming around? He said I might be discharged today, and I’d like to get out of here sooner rather than—”

“He’ll be here, Mr. Fairbanks.” The closest nurse didn’t even look up from the computer where she was typing in notes. “Just be patient. Glad to see you walking . . . that’s good. You got somebody to pick you up?”

Philip didn’t answer. No, he didn’t have anybody coming to pick him up—though he supposed Gabby would if he called her and let her know what time he was getting released. Today was Saturday—she’d said something about P.J.’s cross country meet in the morning and a dedication thing at that shelter where she worked, then she’d bring the boys to see him.

The boys. Philip grimaced as he turned into the next hall. He wished she wouldn’t bring P.J. and Paul. He hated having his sons see him like this. They were both good sports but—wait. He sniffed. Smelled like fresh coffee. Oh! What he wouldn’t give for a good cup of hot coffee. But where . . . ?

Philip glanced down the hallway. It was deserted except for a young man, maybe college age, leaning against the wall outside one of the patient rooms holding two tall Starbucks cups with molded plastic lids, sipping from one of them. Drawn by the fragrant aroma, he approached the young man who was wearing faded jeans, gym shoes, and a thin jacket over a white T-shirt. He had longish, sandy hair escaping from beneath a baseball cap and a backpack slung over one shoulder.

“Uh, say, sorry to bother you, but where’d you get the Starbucks? Do they have a cafĂ© here in the hospital?” Philip winced, hearing his words mushing together.

The kid looked up, his eyebrows shooting skyward as he took in Philip’s arm cast and battered face. “Whoa, dude! What’s the other guy look like?”

Great. A smart aleck. “Never mind.” Philip started to walk away.

“Hey, wait! Didn’t mean to be rude—you just took me by surprise. Uh, yeah, sure, there’s a nice place on the first floor. They sell Starbucks. You want somethin’?”

Philip hesitated. “Well, yeah. Could use a cup of good coffee. But . . .” He held out both hands as far as his sling would allow to indicate his stocking feet and hospital gown. “Not exactly dressed for public viewing.”

The kid chuckled. “No problem. I’ll get it for you. What d’ya want? Oh, hey. Why don’t you just take this?” He thrust out the second cup of coffee he was holding. “Brought it up for my nana”—he tipped his head to indicate the patient room behind him—“but she zonked out. Snoring happily. It’ll be cold by the time she wakes up. Go ahead, take it.” He held it out farther. “Just black, nothin’ in it—but I got some creamers and sugar packets in my pocket somewhere.”

“Black’s fine. You sure? I’ll pay you for it. Wallet’s in my room.”

A shrug. “Whatever. I’ll carry it back for you. Where’s your room? Looks like you could use another hand anyway.”

Philip had meant he’d go back and get his wallet, but the kid was already starting to walk alongside as he headed back the way he’d come. It meant cutting his walk short, but . . . so what? The coffee wouldn’t stay hot indefinitely.

Back in his room, Philip opened the narrow closet storing the jogging clothes he’d been wearing when he’d been attacked and rummaged in the duffel bag Gabrielle had brought him that held a clean set of clothes, his keys, and wallet. Fishing a few bucks out with his good hand, he turned around to see that his benefactor had moved the rolling table next to the recliner, set the second paper cup on it, and settled into the other visitor chair.

Looked like he had company, whether he wanted it or not.

Philip handed the dollar bills to his visitor, then lowered himself gingerly into the recliner. Reaching for the coffee, he sipped carefully. Mmm. Still hot. Perfect. “Thanks. Appreciate the coffee.” He studied the young man slouched in the other chair, nursing his own cup. “I’m Philip Fairbanks. You are . . . ?”

“Oh yeah.” The kid laughed. “Forgot my manners. Nana would box my ears. I’m Will Nissan—yeah, like the car. What happened to you? Car accident?”

The kid sure was nosy! But for some reason, Philip found Will’s straightforward friendliness refreshing. Somebody who wasn’t ticked at him like his father was for messing up his life. Somebody who wasn’t being nice to him—like his wife—in spite of how he’d treated her, making him feel like a snake in the grass. Somebody who wasn’t out to get him, like those thugs, trying to squeeze him for the money he owed their boss.

Philip shrugged. “Actually, I got mugged.”

Will Nissan’s eyes widened with ill-concealed delight. “You gotta be kidding!”

“Nope. Truth.” But that’s all he was going to say. Philip didn’t want to think about those thugs who’d worked him over. Or the fact that they were still out there and knew where he lived. “What about your grandmother . . . she going to be all right?”

Will shrugged. “Probably. Nothing seems to keep her down long, though she gets this bronchitis stuff easily and her doc’s worried about pneumonia. But, nah, Nana ain’t gonna die until she finishes her mission in life.”

“Her . . . what?”

“Her mission in life!” Will chuckled and leaned forward. “See, Nana’s big sister ran away from home when she was sixteen—oh, it’s gotta be sixty-plus years ago now. Nana’s seventy-seven at last count and Cindy was a couple of years older. Anyway, last they heard from her, big sister was working in Chicago, but nobody’s seen her since. My Nana got married, raised a family in Detroit—I was born and raised there too—but she never gave up looking for her sister. When Gramps died a few years back, she moved here so she could keep looking for her.”

Philip shook his head. “It’s been over sixty years? She could be anywhere! People move all the time. Or she might be dead. Sixty years is a long time.”

“Try telling that to Nana! ‘I know she’s alive!’ she says. ‘Can feel it in my bones.’ ” Will shrugged and leaned back in the chair. “My folks think Nana’s crazy, but I don’t mind. I’m staying with her now while I’m going to UIC, and I’ve been helping her do all these Internet searches. Kind of like detective work.”

“Any luck?”

“Nah, not really. We did find somebody with a similar name who worked as a hotel maid way back when, but that was decades ago. Not much since then—oh.” Will jumped up as the door opened and a thirty-something Asian man strolled in wearing a tan corduroy sport coat and black slacks, an ID tag and a stethoscope sticking out of one coat pocket identifying him as medical personnel.

Philip nodded. “Dr. Yin.”

“Good morning.” The doctor glanced at Will, a pleasant smile creasing his smooth face. “I see you have company. Your son taking you home?”

“Nah. We just met actually.” Will grabbed his backpack. “Gotta go see if Nana’s awake.” He held out his hand to Philip. “Good luck, Mr. Fairbanks. Better stay away from the prize ring, though. Don’t think boxing’s your thing.” The young man’s hazel eyes crinkled merrily as they shook hands.

Philip smiled at the joke, sorry to see him go. “What’s the name of your missing relative? Never know who I might run into.”

Will grinned. “Yeah, you never know. Lucinda. ‘Great-Aunt Cindy,’ we always called her. The myth, the legend! We kids always imagined she became some famous movie star. If so, she’s probably sipping daiquiris in a swanky nursing home in Hollywood.” The young man sidled toward the door. “But, hey, if you do need a ride home, just let me know. I’ve got Nana’s car, I’d be happy to drop you off.”

With a cheerful wave Will Nissan was gone.

Dr. Yin pulled out his stethoscope. “So, Mr. Fairbanks. They tell me you want to go home.” He nodded thoughtfully. “Might let you do that. But I wouldn’t go back to work yet if I were you. A few more days rest—even a week—would be smart. You’ve still got some healing to do. Tell them ‘Doctor’s orders.’ ” He stuck the earpieces in his ears and placed the stethoscope on Philip’s back. “Deep breath now . . .”

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