This brings us to the last of the short stories before the novella that brings everything together and to a close. Our narrator this time is Matt Clement, husband of Rebekah Clement, who we met back in chapter 6. Here, we essentially see his story of Rebekah and her assistant Tycho coming to find Matt post-quake in a hospital in Riverside, only this time from his point of view. If you want to catch up from the beginning before we dive into the finale next week, you can do so here, or you can read the previous chapter here.
It took forever after the fact to remember all the details of that day. It was like a chunk of time went missing What I did remember was our morning meeting, and that I’d forgotten to tell my wife that we were coptering out to Riverside for a day of meetings with our counterparts in that county. I contemplated texting her a reminder, but then figured that we’d all be home long before the end of the work day, so maybe at lunch I could send a “Guess where I am” photo.
I remember heading up to the helipad and the chopper, which the county had borrowed from the California Air National Guard, and it was a nice one — big enough to seat all 24 of us. “Just like the governor rides around in,” the pilot announced as we came up the stairs. It was one of those two rotor jobs, and the inside looked more like a private jet.
Oh, wait. Come to think of it, this helicopter did have a turbo jet in the back, so once we’d lifted into the air, we took off fast, and some of the younger folk on the team whooped and hollered at the acceleration. I know we had some meetings in the morning, although I have no idea what they were about, and then we wound up at a really nice restaurant where I think I ordered… no, I don’t remember anything still except the Thai iced tea, and then everything started to shift, there was shouting, people running and ducking, then I was flat on my back, staring at bright lights and screaming in pain for a moment before I felt someone grab my arm — which hurt — and look into my eyes. They were just eyes, between a paper mask and a cap over their hair and I remember the maroon of their scrubs, and then just drifting.
Drifting in and out, feeling like I’m floating all over the place, sometimes seeing disjointed things, hearing words that don’t register as any language, and then I hear my name whispered and I open my eyes. I’m kind of surprised to see the face of my wife’s assistant, Tycho, looking at me hopefully, and I can’t help but break out in the biggest grin. She’s sent him to help, and I can’t even begin to describe how happy that makes me.
And then I feel pressure on my chest and it’s like someone has planted an axe in me, but I’m too drugged out to make much noise. It’s Rebekah, my wife. I know she’s not trying to hurt me as she kneels to put her arm around me, but it fucking does. Pardon my French.
I try to move my arms to push her away, but they barely budge. That’s when one of my nurses, Herrick, comes over and saves the day, escorting her away. He was one of the first people I remember meeting here, and at least his name and face have stuck in my Swiss cheese mind for now.
As Herrick is talking to Rebekah, Tycho looks down at me, and it’s obvious that he’s been crying his eyes out. The look he gives me in that moment makes it more than obvious that he’s been crying for me, not her, We make eye contact and I sort of give a half-hearted attempt at a nod, which is more like turning my head slightly to him, which sends blazing razor of pain down my neck and into my upper back. All I can do is grunt.
I really am still drugged out of my mind, so all I can manage is to raise an index finger to point at Tycho, but I don’t think he notices.
Then Herrick is escorting them both out of the room before returning with an orderly. He had explained earlier that I wasn’t in an actual hospital bed yet. I was in a transport bed. That’s because transferring me from one to the other to move me around was too risky. “You have too many broken bones,” he explained. “Well… broken is an understatement, I suppose. But picking you up and sliding you over is absolutely out of the question.”
“Great,” I thought. But it was fun being rolled down hospital hallways under the overhead OLED panels, which swept by. It really felt like the VIP treatment, although this trip was a particularly long one, down several hallways in different wings, then to a large, staff only elevator, and down, down, down. It felt like we were in a sub-basement.
A thought came to mind during all this that hadn’t hit me before. How was this hospital still intact and functioning after such a huge earthquake? I hadn’t heard anything about the magnitude or epicenter, but it must have been a monster.
They eventually rolled me into a cool, dim room and a white-coated tech leaned over me and smiled. “Mr. Clement,” she said. “We’re just going to do a scan and figure out our priorities on fixing things up for you.”
In my mind, I thought that this meant MRI, and became suddenly terrified at the realization that I was pretty sure there was metal in this bed. I’d heard stories about bad things happening when metal got too close to one of these machines. I’d also never had an MRI, I’d only ever seen them on old doctor shows on TV from the ‘00s and ‘10s. To me, it looked like being shoved into a giant pencil sharpener.
I try to protest, indicating the bed I’m on as best I can, but Herrick is there, and he shushes me. “It’s okay, Matt,” he says. “First of all, every bit of metal on this thing is titanium, which wouldn’t react to a magnet anyway. Second, this isn’t an MRI. It’s HPMRV.”
“Hyperpolarized Magnetic Resonance Visualization.”
“It still has ‘magnet’ in it.”
“Yes,” Herrick smiled. “And that magnet is the Earth.”
As we spoke, the tech was preparing to attach an IV bag to the line that was in my left arm when I’d woken up. The other one was on the back of my right hand. I was very surprised to realize that they didn’t bother me like I’d always thought an IV would. Then again — heavy painkillers, apparently.
She checks my chart on her tablet then checks the bag, does a calculation, and nods.
“No worries,” she tells me. “This is just a solution that will hyperpolarize any hydrogen atoms in your body that it gets to, and that’s what allows us to ‘see’ the images when we pulse radio waves through you. The technology has gotten a lot smaller, cheaper, and better in the last few years.”
“Where’s the machine?” I ask.
“We’re standing in it,” she replies. The detectors are in the walls, floor, and ceiling, so we’re going to get a real-time, 3D view of you once we start the process.”
She looks at her tablet, then steps aside with Herrick, although I can still hear them. “That drip will take about thirty minutes to finish, and then we give it another twenty to completely perfuse. You know the rest from there.”
“Thanks,” Herrick replies, and I hear the tech leave the room.
“Is this thing really safe?” I ask him.
“Oh, yeah,” he explains. “A lot safer than the old ones, but same idea. Basically, we get nearly all of the hydrogen atoms in your body to all start spinning the same way, and then pop that radio wave through them and they plop back to however they were before. That’s how we get the picture. Apparently, the old machines only saw like one out of 200,000 water molecules. This one can see something like 75% of the hydrogen atoms. It’s like going from a silent movie in black and white to 16K.”
Herrick pulled a stool over to sit where I could see him, sat, and smiled. “It’ll take about fifty minutes for the drip to do its thing, and I’m monitoring to make sure you don’t have any adverse reactions. So you’re stuck with me.”
“Okay. Hey — how come this place is in such great shape right after that earthquake?”
“Right after?” he looks at me. “The quake was almost a week ago. Last Tuesday. This is Monday, the 23rd.”
“Damn. Still… I don’t see any major damage.”
“We kind of learned about the importance of hospitals during that little adventure about a decade ago, remember?” he sighed. “By the way, I know we’ve got some work to do on your face, but from the outside, the damage doesn’t look that bad. I mean, you can talk, right?”
“My face is my second prettiest feature,” I joke with him. “But we’re really safe from big aftershocks here?”
“It was designed by a Japanese company, and they know their quakes,” Herrick explains. “Plus everything in it and around it was designed to be pretty immune to the shaking up to an 8. We’re also completely self-sustaining if we get knocked off of the grid in all areas — power, water, sewage, heating, cooling, communications — and we have enough of everything on hand to support a full staff and every bed occupied for three weeks, with a possible supply chain from the Nevada National Guard via convoy or helicopter if necessary.”
“Wow,” I mutter. “Can’t wait to see this bill.”
“Lucky thing we all have MediCal now, isn’t it?” he laughs. Then, “Now it’s your turn. Since we’ve got almost an hour, I like to get to know my patients better. Especially the ones who might be around for a while. So… tell me your story.”
“What’s to tell? I was born in 1990, so I’m a total Millennial, fourth of six kids, three older sisters, two younger brothers. We all grew up in Scranton, which got really interesting when I was 15, since that old TV show The Office made us all famous. Remember it?”
“Oh yeah,” Herrick says. “I’m only seven years younger than you, and we had all the American TV when I was growing up in Cebu.” I think he notices my look and adds, “That’s in the Philippines. About a million people. I jumped a couple of grades, finished nursing school ten years ago, and came here in ’21 after… well, you know. Things settled down. But enough about me. Go on.”
“Yeah, so, I finished high school. Go Scranton Knights! Swim team, Poli Sci club, and band geek. AP in U.S. History, Government and Politics, and Environmental Science. I came out here to go to college at UCLA for a lot of reasons, but a big one was that my grandma — my mom’s mom — lived in Santa Monica and had a guest house. My mom had moved back east after she got her Masters because she couldn’t afford L.A. Oh. That’s why I was born there. She wound up with a nice teaching gig, although she taught at West Scranton High, our rivals. Their mascot was The Invader.”
“Did they not let you go to the school where she taught?” he asked.
“Actually, we lived in the zone for that, but she got a waiver from the district and explained to me, ‘Dear, Scranton High is the much better school. Trust me.’” He laughed and I started to, but then it felt like my ribs were doing arpeggios on my lungs so I stopped myself.
“Anyway, because of all the AP credit, I actually started college two quarters ahead, so I majored in Urban Planning, minored in Poli Sci, and graduated at the end of 2011 instead of spring of 2012. Well, got my degree. I still walked with everyone else the next year. And then I applied to work for the City and the County of Los Angeles.”
“And you’ve been there ever since?”
“Actually, not quite. See, they both work on an exam system. You pick a job you’re interested in and then take a test for it, which they only give every couple of months. The tests are scored, and then you don’t hear anything else until you come up for an open position that you qualified for by taking that test. And, to keep it fair, the only criteria they use are the test scores, ranked from highest to “no thanks,” and nothing else. Well, that, and which positions that test qualifies for.”
“Yeah, not really. I guess it’s fair. I mean, come on. It’s Civil Service. It’s the one job it’s virtually impossible to get fired from outside of doing something criminal. No, strike that. Something criminal that actually costs your employer real money in a lawsuit. Otherwise, you pretty much just get transferred elsewhere to bury the scandal. You know. Like the Catholic Church used to do until they had to sell off so much shit to finally pay up about five years ago.”
“Ooh. Cynical much?” he asks, but with a joking tone.
“Totally,” I reply. “Hey, you can’t get within a hundred yards of a government job without becoming completely jaded.”
“Ah. So, how long did it take you to finally get the job that ruined you?”
“Three and a half years, but it only took three weeks to find out that I sucked as a waiter. Luckily, a friend of mine hooked me up with… well, I don’t even want to mention it, but it more than paid the bills in the gap.”
“OMG,” Herrick said. “You did porn?”
“Not quite,” I replied, laughing. “Okay, I did do some nude modeling and a couple of solo wank videos, but I actually wound up working as a dancer and stripper in a club in WeHo. One of my college buds hooked me up with all of the above.”
“Really?” Herrick replied.
“Really,” I went on. “Apparently, ‘hot nerd’ is a very popular type, so I’d take the stage with the glasses on and the hair slicked back, pocket protector and white dress shirt, sometimes a bowtie, and always the flood pants and white socks with dress shoes, and the audience would go nuts once the shirt came off. Once I got down to the G-string, the last thing to go would be the glasses, and I swear that was when the place really started to rumble. And I made so damn much in tips doing it that it was ridiculous. I mean, on a good night, I’d earn enough to cover utilities, internet, groceries for a month, and two trips to the movies a week for Granny Sims and I. And even though I insisted, she never let me pay rent. ‘Honey, I own this place free and clear, so paying the bills is more than enough. But you just being here with me is enough without you paying the bills.’”
“That’s so sweet,” Herrick gushed.
“Yeah, although the best part was when she’d add, ‘And you really don’t need to pay a damn cent, because I go down to Morongo once a month and clean up at Black Jack.’”
“Damn. Your granny is a playa. Literally!”
“Yeah, but at least she never loses when she goes to the casinos… shit. Never lost.”
“I’m sorry,” he says.
“Don’t be, she lived a long time. But, seriously. I remember many a Friday night when I’d be coming home at about 2:30 and would run into her pulling into the driveway, and she would pull a huge wad of cash out of her purse, wave it at me, and say, ‘You are grilling us some damn fine steaks tomorrow, Mattie!’”
“Wow. Now you’re making me wonder why you ever accepted the county job in the first place.”
“Well, it was twofold. First, a lot less strenuous, and a guaranteed income with benefits. Stripping had no benefits because we never worked anywhere near 40 hours a week. Second, by the time the county finally called me in, I was 24, and in the world of gay strip clubs, that’s just past the sell-by date.”
“Really?” Herrick asked, incredulous.
“Well, yes and no. I mean, I know guys who are close to my age now who still pass off being a twink, but I had the disadvantage of having jet-black hair.”
“How is that a bad thing?”
“The first gray ones stick out like compound fractures,” I say.
“Ooh… I don’t know whether to applaud that reference or smack you and say ‘Too soon.’”
“But I don’t have any compounds, right?” I ask.
“You don’t now,” he says. “But you probably don’t want to know what it was like when they brought you in.”
“What was it like?” I ask.
“Um… let’s just say… you are one tough motherfucker.”
“Uh… thanks?” I reply.
“Okay, so… you start working for the county and, I assume, give up your stripping career, so… now what?”
“Now, I wind up working for the Inter County Development Planning Commission, or ICDPC as we call it, and it is all kinds of awesome. First of all, the offices are in Van Nuys, and so eventually, it’s a City Bike hop to the station and then a ride up the Q Line to get there from Santa Monica every day, so a short and easy commute. Next, I’m working with an amazing team, and our goal is to basically make sure that plans for developing and improving L.A. County mesh in the most optimal ways with our surrounding counties, as well as work with the incorporated cities within the county. You know — Malibu, Culver City, WeHo, Burbank, Glendale, NoHo, Westwood, and so on.”
“Of course, since we’re a planning commission, we are forward-looking, so although I start in 2014, I’m on Team 2034, so everything I’ve been working on isn’t even going to start happening for another five years from now.”
“What about five years from when you started?” he asks me.
“Essential employment, and trust me, we all worked from home for months. And people died or decided to return to medicine — we did have a lot of doctors — or get out of government work all together, so, I move up the hierarchy.
“Then, one day in late summer ‘22, after it’s finally calmed down, we’re at a week-long multi-department team-building sleep-away camp up in Angeles National Forest that’s being facilitated by some improv theater based in the soon-to-be incorporated city of NoHo of all things, and it’s just amazing. They keep the campers segregated by gender in two different buildings, except that they allow married couples to stay together in a third building, and while they seem to match co-workers as roommates, the working groups are, apparently, matched up the opposite. I don’t know anyone in my group and, as I ask around later, this seems to be the thing.
“Yeah, definitely planned. But not a bad thing. And in the group I’m in, I notice this woman. Probably a little younger than me, and shorter. Well, hell, okay, most everyone is shorter than me, although she’s tall for a woman. A blaze of long, curly red hair tumbles from her head, and she’s got that catnip combo of porcelain skin, triangular face, and jade green eyes, and I just stare. And when we get to our first split-off exercise, we wind up paired together, and it’s this weird thing where one person is an actor who is going to play the other person, so they are interviewing for information for the role, but they are asking as the other person in first person while that person is answering in third… shit. Does that make any sense?”
“No,” Herrick replies.
“Okay, cool. It didn’t to me when it was explained either, but when we did it, it worked. So, let’s say that I’m the actor who is playing you. I might say, ‘So, where was I born?’ and you would reply with factual information about yourself, but in second person. ‘You were born in Cebu in the Phillipines…’ and so on.”
“Damn!” Herrick exclaimed. “That is a total mindfuck.”
“Isn’t it?” I said. “But, at the same time, once you get the rhythm, it really gets you telling all the nasty truth about yourself to a stranger without any insecurity, and the second half had us reversing the roles, and by the end of it we had just bonded, and by the end of the first day, we started hanging out together all the time. And, I’m going to be totally honest here, even though it broke all the camp rules, on the fourth day, we snuck into the woods after ‘lights out,’ found a secluded spot, and… well, you fill in the blanks.”
“Oh, you naughty dog, you,” Herrick said, laughing and clapping.
“I mean, wouldn’t you?”
“Oh, been there, done that. Go on.”
“Okay, so… we definitely exchanged info, were relieved to find out that we worked for two different divisions, but within easy access, and started dating not long after.”
“And what were the divisions?”
“Told you mine,” I explained. “She’s with the Ecumenical Council, meaning coordinating all of the religious groups, especially during a crisis, like now.”
“Oh. So you’re both religious, then?”
I just laughed. “Oh, fuck no,” I said. “We are both total atheists. She’s only on that council because she majored in Religious Studies. But, beyond the government thing, we wound up having so damn much in common that we eventually married, and here we are.”
“And… anything else?” he asks.
“No,” I reply. “And you?”
“Well, I’m also married,” he says.
“No,” he answers. “You?”
“Necessity or need?”
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“Didn’t want or couldn’t have?”
“Ah,” I say. “Didn’t want.”
“Us, couldn’t have.”
“Oh, that is so sad. Why not?” I ask.
“Because I’m gay as hell and only married her for citizenship, since we still weren’t sure whether the H1-B visa thing would get restored, but we both knew that going in. And… you?”
And that’s when the tech returns and announces time, and I can’t tell you how goddamn relieved I am in that moment. Herrick smiles at me and exits, the tech places the transit bed precisely, then tells me, “Okay. I have to exit the room, but you’re going to hear some strange sounds for about the next twelve minutes. Relax. Those are just the radio signals being sent through you in various directions. And it’s just radio. Nothing radioactive or dangerous or anything else. Understand?”
“Yes,” I mumble, turning my hand to raise a thumb, but I don’t think she sees it.
“Great,” she says. “Then, away we go…”
She leaves the room and I’m left all alone to listen to nothing but the hissing silence in my ears (probably tinnitus) and the occasional “whump” that seems to come from my sides, above, or below. And then I realize I’m left alone with myself, and most thankful of all for the question Herrick never tried to make me answer. But before I can decide whether to complain about him over that, the whumping stops, the tech is back, all smiles, and the orderly is wheeling me out and back up to my room.
It seems like forever before I get back to 602, although almost immediately I feel the prick of another painkiller injection and don’t have the energy to slap the fucking nurse who did it without asking, and then a new doctor appears bedside, with his tablet.
“Mr. Clement?” he says.
“Call me Matt,” I insist.
“Okay, Matt. I’m Dr. Polvo, but you can call me Jaime. I’m here to show you what we saw in the latest scan.”
“My guts, I guess?”
“Yes, and those are fine, but… well, honestly… your legs took it really badly. I think they were hit full force when the roof of that restaurant fell. Six inches higher, and we would have lost you to a tamponade. Don’t ask. Anyway… there’s no easy way to say this, I’m sorry, but… every bone in your body below the middle of your femurs — er, thigh bones — is pretty much, well, shattered. We may not need to amputate, but it would take implantable prosthesis that aren’t quite developed yet. So a few years in a wheelchair, maybe. At the least.”
“But, hang on, because I do have good news. You don’t have any major organ damage, so from the colon up, you’re good. You did suffer some stress fractures in your spine and have eight broken ribs, there was a compound fracture to your left radius, and a minor dislocation in your C4 vertebrae. And we are going to have to fix your jaw and replace about six teeth on the left side of your face, although the bruising trauma to your left orbit should heal on its own.”
“Thanks, doc,” I reply, “But what do most of those words mean?”
“You’re going to live,” he says, and then he breezes out. And I wonder… Okay, what does living like this mean, really?
I’ve been pretty much told that, short of a medical miracle or major tech development, I’m probably not going to walk again. On the upside, I haven’t been told, “Your dick don’t work,” but, on the other hand, since that pile-driver needs some hips and legs behind it, I’m probably stuck with hand and blow-jobs from here on out. That, or just jerking off, because it sounds like my face is kind of fucked up, too, despite what Herrick said, and now I’m understanding the logic of there being no mirrors in this place.
But after Dr. Bad News, I can’t find Herrick because, apparently, his shift ended, and now I’m with Maryam who, while she’s nice, hasn’t heard any of the story of my life I’d told while waiting to be perfused enough to be scanned.
And then… Rebekah comes in, but she’s very careful not to touch me, since I guess she’s been warned: “Broken China.” Instead, she says, “Oh, babe, they just told me. And I am so going to be here for you for as long as you need.”
And god, I’m kicking myself now because I’m back to the big lonely room, and Herrick really revealed a lot of himself, and I had been about to, but… the trouble was that I couldn’t say anything now, because Rebekah had made it so goddamn clear. But, in my head, and as soon as Herrick came back and moved her out… I couldn’t scream it loudly enough, despite my shattered legs…
I only married Rebekah out of convenience, and because of what my parents would have thought. Yeah, I know that it was the 21st Century, but they had voted for He Who Shall Not Be Named, to their great detriment. And my ever-lasting shame. But I’d told her ages ago about the bisexual cover-up deal we’d agree to, and it was fine right up until the day I joined her in Grand Park for some Summer Fun festival and I met her assistant, Tycho. And I fell head over heels for that hot little fucker and, truth be told, I got the feeling that he was giving me the eye, too…