“Is this the Allan room?”
“Yeah. Jen, is’at you?”
Smiling into the receiver, she leaned up against the information booth and adjusted her purse strap on her shoulder. “Yeah, it’s me. How’re ya doin’?”
She hadn’t recognized his voice on the phone - it sounded...different.
“Ah, I’m doin’ okay,” he said tiredly, his voice lower than it normally was. “Sorry uh...sorry I missed ya last night, Jenny. Dad just...”
“It’s okay,” she answered truthfully, although at the time it had hurt a little, wishing there was something she could do to help ease the burden he was shouldering, but so far, he’d been intent on keeping everything to himself. “Uh, listen, I hope I didn’t come at a bad time, but I’m down in the lobby.”
She thought she heard a sigh over the phone, but couldn’t be sure from all the hustle and bustle from the main entrance of the hospital going on behind her.
“In the lobby?” he asked after remaining silent for several moments.
She frowned, thinking that he sounded a little less than happy that she’d stopped by to see him. It had been several days since his father had been admitted to the hospital and she’d heard little or nothing from Wace so far. She’d wanted to stop by sooner, but he said that he’d meet up with her the night before - then he’d backed out at the last minute.
“Yeah,” she said, suddenly unsure of whether she’d made the right decision or not. He hadn’t exactly sounded like he was excited to see her. “Unless, I mean - if you don’t want me ta come up, I’ll -”
“No, no,” he said quickly. “It’s just that...well, I mean, Dad’s asleep right now, so I guess...yeah, I guess it’ll be all right if ya come up. Maybe we can go sit out in the lounge or somethin’.”
“Well, if you’re busy, Wace...” she offered, uncertain of whether he really wanted her up there at all and a little disquieted by his reluctance.
“No, Jen,” he said with an apologetic sigh, and she instantly regretted any ill feelings toward him. “Just come on up, okay? I really wanna see ya. I’ll be waitin’ by the lift.”
After a quick good-bye, she asked the woman manning the information booth which direction she needed to go for the elevators. By the time she’d wound her way through the hallways and around the corners to find the blasted alcove, she thought it might’ve been quicker just to use the stairwell by the main door and walk the four flights up. Once she was inside the carriage, her nerves set in as she realized exactly what she was about to do.
She was about to meet Wace’s father.
Well, maybe not in so many words - Wace had said he was asleep, but the fact that he was there made her slightly edgy. She’d never so much as seen the man before, even though she and Wace had dated for almost four years. She had the feeling that Wace liked it that way.
She could sympathize.
The ‘ping’ of the lift, letting her know that she’d arrived at her intended floor, startled her back into the present, and she held her breath as the door slid slowly open. She didn’t bother trying to hide the smile that broke free when her eyes fell on him. True to his word, he’d been waiting by the door, leaning slightly against a spare gurney that was being stored in the hallway. He tried to smile back, but the attempt fell flat before it even reached his lips.
She felt her heart clench when she noticed how ragged he looked. “Hey, baby,” she said softly, walking over to him to wrap her arms around his exhausted body.
He fell bonelessly into her embrace. “Hey,” he muttered against her neck.
She placed a kiss on his throat when his arms came up around her back. “How ya holdin’ up?” she asked, not bothering to pull away from him. It felt too damn good to be back in his arms again.
“Been better,” he answered truthfully, seemingly content to stay wrapped up in her as well. He was too worn out to put on his brave face at the moment.
For a few moments they stood there, in the middle of the hallway foyer, not caring if they were in the way of anyone.
Jen finally leaned back, taking a moment to look up at his haggard face before she spoke. “How is ‘e?”
Shrugging, he disentangled himself from her arms, promptly stuffing his hands into his back pockets - a nervous gesture of his that she’d picked up on over the years. “The same, really, I guess,” he answered lamely, looking anywhere but her eyes. “They don’t know that there’s much they can do for ‘im ‘cept keep ‘im on all that bloody medication they’re pumpin’ ‘im full of. Doctors said ‘is liver’s practically gone.”
She nodded, not sure of what she could say that would do anything for him. Instead, she reached for his hand, pulling gently on his arm to remove it from his pocket, then gave it a light squeeze as she entwined her fingers with his. He gave her a tight smile then turned to the side, pulling her hand with his arm behind his back, and leaving it to rest on his hip. He let go of her then, and draped his now-free arm across her shoulders, tucking her tiny frame against his body as he led them silently to the lounge area at the end of the hall.
They sat for what seemed like half an hour, side-by-side, arms still wrapped around one another, neither of them speaking a word until a nurse came and interrupted them.
“Mr. Allan?” she asked, making sure she had his attention. “Your father’s awake - ‘e’s askin’ for ya.”
She paused for another moment or two by the doorway, her face holding a look of sympathy while she waited to see if he was going to get up and follow her.
Jen watched him as well, taking note of the way he’d immediately stiffened in her arms.
“Wace?” she asked a few seconds later, when he’d yet to move.
He brought his head up slowly, not visually acknowledging either of the women in the room as he rose to his feet. With a blind hand, he reached back for Jen, pulling her to stand so she could walk with him. The nurse, a petite, young blonde decked out in her uniform whites, stepped back from her spot in the doorway and let the two of them pass. They walked down the hall silently. In the relatively noiseless atmosphere of the fourth floor, the unintelligible shouting could be heard before they even broached the room.
Jen couldn’t help but notice the way his hand began twitching in hers. It felt like she was following him to his execution, walking the last mile with him. She didn’t realize at the moment how true that analogy was.
“Where th’ fuck is ‘e?” came a loud bellow from inside.
Pulling his hand from hers, keeping his eyes trained on the open door, he held out one finger, motioning for her to stay out in the hall for a moment while he went in and tried to smooth things over. A nurse stepped out quickly a few seconds later, not even bothering to hide the relief on her face as she disappeared down the corridor.
Cringing, she jumped at the sudden sound of the harsh, gritty bark of his father’s voice. The absolute...power that it held sent shivers through her spine and she remembered the tremble of Wace’s hand in hers.
The slow, smooth drawl of his voice provided a sharp contrast to the roar of his father and she smiled at his attempt to calm the man. Sensing that the situation was pretty much under control, she took a tentative step around the edge of the doorframe, making her presence in the hallway known.
Her eyes fell directly on the man lying in the bed and she had to recover and hide the shock on her face at what she saw. She’d always pictured him as a large man, one that positively loomed over you, especially coupled with that voice. But no. He was small, almost frail-looking, lying there in that bed.
Then again, she supposed he was entitled to looking a little sickly.
“Ahh - so this is the one ya’ve been sneakin’ out ta see for all these years,” he said, his voice thick and gurgly from the fluid pooling at the back of his throat. “Finally brought ‘er in ta see the old man, did ya?”
Jen started to smile, taking what he’d said as a harmless joke from an old man, but then she saw his eyes and the dark look he gave as he made no attempts to hide his once-over of her. His leer felt like a physical touch and she fought to hide the automatic shudder that rippled through her. The corners of her mouth slowly slid down into an emotionless line and she took the seat Wace had offered her.
“This is uh...this is Jen, Dad,” he said, his voice uncharacteristically shaky as he fell into his own chair. “Jen Taylor.”
The old man just grunted, turning his head to face directly ahead, doing a fine job of ignoring them both.
Jen cast Wace a glace through her eyelashes, but he wasn’t looking anywhere near her. In fact, he seemed to be doing pretty much what his father was doing with his gaze averted to something under the bed.
Deciding not to play along with their stubbornness, she took a good look around the room, taking note of all the machinery and wiring that disappeared behind the bed, the paint and the plaster on the walls that had cracked from the shifting of the old building.
“This is a nice room they’ve got you in,” she offered up, trying for anything that would ease the tension in the room.
From the corner of her eyes, she saw Wace close his eyes, a pained look crossing his face, and worry twisted in her stomach. Had she said something wrong?
A bitter laugh sounding from a few feet away brought her attention back to Wace’s father. “A nice room, huh?” he asked, the tone of his voice leaving no room to wonder where he was going with his comment. “It’s a fuckin’ shit hole, but I s’ppose you wouldn’t know what one o’ those is, now would ya?”
When he saw the confused look on her face, he elaborated freely, “No...I imagine you’ve never even been on the inside o’ this place. You’re prob’ly used ta those fancy places in the city, not a dump like this.”
A quiet sigh from beside her took her focus away from the father and returned it to the son, which she appreciated as she was becoming more distressed with every word the man spoke.
“Sorry,” the old man said sarcastically, stealing her concentration once more. “You’ll ‘afta forgive my brutish manner I ‘ave sometimes. It’s not quite as refined as you’re prob’ly used to.”
Silence once again pervaded the tiny room, and Jen found herself sitting, waiting for the next outburst to happen. Was this how it always was for Wace? She shuddered at the thought.
His gritty voice cut into the calmness of the room again and Jen winced, trying to brace herself for another snide remark, but was surprised when it didn’t go in that direction at all. “So...Miss Taylor - whaddya do for a livin’? Wace’s barely told me a thing about ya.”
She knew there’d be some little jab on the side, but she took it with the thought that it could’ve been much worse.
“I’m uh...” she started, clearing her throat before she tried again. “I’m a teacher - at Erko Public. First grade.”
Nodding, he made a face of mock impression and turned his head toward Jen. “Tha’s not too shabby. Ya must like school then, huh?”
Slightly worried at where the line of conversation was going to go - having learned to expect that much already in her short visit - she nodded. “I do. I like workin’ with the children.
“Wace didn’t even finish school,” he continued on with a laugh, as if his only goal of starting the conversation was to make that statement. “Never suited ‘im much. Nothin’ like that ever did. Too fancy an’ high-falutin’ for ‘im. Ain’t much to ‘im.”
“Dad, please...” Wace said softly, chancing a look up at his father.
Jen could tell that he was embarrassed, especially having the conversation taking the turn that it had and she positively ached for him, at a loss for what she could do. She wanted to reach over and take his hand, give him a supportive squeeze, but she dreaded the thought of what this antagonistic old man would have to say about that. Probably make some comment about how he had to have somebody hold his hand all the time...
“What year did you finish again?” his dad asked thoughtfully, completely ignoring anything Wace had said.
Looking at him, Jen thought that it was possible he hadn’t even heard the hushed plea to begin with. He was too wrapped up in the chance at making another cutting remark. Wace mumbled something that neither of them heard, so when his father turned and looked at him from his bed, it prompted him to repeat himself.
“Eighth, Dad. Eighth year,” he said quietly.
“Eighth - I think Barky made it farther than that,” he laughed, shaking his head. “And that boy quit everythin’ ‘is bloody ‘and touched!”
Feeling a knot of anxiety in her stomach, not knowing if it would make things better or worse but feeling compelled to let Wace know she was on his side, she spoke up gently. “Well, he’s done very well, regardless,” she demurred, soft pride in her tone.
The old man’s eyes turned toward her and she instinctively drew back from the dark fire she saw in them. “You ain’t that good of a teacher, Miss Taylor,” he said with deliberate venom. “The only thing you’ve taught my son is how ta lie to ‘is father an’ tiptoe aroun’ like a fuckin’ pansy-assed ballerina.”
“Dad --” Wace started again, and Jen could read the fear in his eyes. She didn’t know exactly what he was afraid of, but the emotion was as plain as day.
His father instantly turned on him. “And I’m about sick and fuckin’ tired o’ you runnin’ your mouth back at me, boy,” he bit out harshly, jabbing a thick, calloused finger in Wace’s direction, looking as menacing as anything she’d ever seen before, even from the hospital bed. “‘Specially in front o’ your little goddamned whore. You’ll shut your yap if ya know what’s good for ya.”
Anger flared within her at his nerve, hot like liquid fire running through her veins. She’d already had about enough of everything that this vile man was dishing out and he’d just crossed the line. She turned her head sharply, fully expecting Wace to say something, anything in her defense if not in his own - half-surprised that he hadn’t already - but felt her line of emotions come to a screeching halt when she saw him.
The defeated slump to his shoulders, the way his fingers pulled nervously at his hair while his forehead rested within the cradle of his palm, the bright pink tint that coated his cheeks and the fiery redness that burned at the tops of his ears.
How he’d just...shut down.
Debra Grayce’s words from four years prior rang in her head and she knew immediately why she hadn’t met this man until several minutes ago.
Silence encompassed the room once more, seemingly just how the old man wanted it as he sighed and rolled back over in his bed, adjusting himself on the too-soft mattress until he was comfortable.
Fiddling nervously with the purse in her lap, Jen kept her eyes trained on the floor, suddenly realizing the benefit of trying to ignore the situation. Her heart ached for the man sitting beside her, though she knew there was nothing she could do. She knew him well enough to know that he wouldn’t accept any help, would rather shoulder it on his own than bring her into the mess, but that was the absolute last thing she wanted.
She stole a glance at his father, who was resting peacefully in his bed, looking as if he hadn’t a care in the world, having totally forgotten how he’d just humiliated his son. Feeling righteous indignation rising once more at just the sight of him, she looked away, letting her eyes fall back onto Wace.
He still hadn’t moved, hadn’t appeared to take a breath since his father had last spoken. She wanted to reach her hand out to him, to touch him, let him somehow know she was there, but didn’t think that he’d want that. The situation wasn’t the same as when she’d first seen him, when she could give him that and he could take it. Now, it would only cause him more trouble with his father, and her resentment ran deep into bitterness towards the old man for stealing away the one form of comfort she knew without a doubt how to give.
Her head turned suddenly as a nurse entered the room behind them, a syringe in her hand.
“Mr. Allan,” the nurse called warily, both men turning their heads.
She gave Wace a nervous smile and looked to his father. “We need to give you your afternoon medication.”
Not even having the good grace to mutter his curses under his breath, the old man thrust out his arm - the one with the IV attached - and shut his eyes.
Catching Wace’s attention for a moment, Jen tried to convey as much love, as much understanding as she could in those tiny seconds, but felt it was all for naught when the now-familiar grunt sounded from in front of them. He turned his head quickly, his eyes focusing on his father as the man started to quickly fade into oblivion once more.
Even before the plunger had been pressed all the way down, his eyes started fluttering; he was just that weak, probably having worn himself out from the fit he’d thrown minutes before.
When the nurse was finished and left, Wace stood, going to the end of the bed where a blanket was folded and started to pull it up around his father’s legs. A small groan was heard from the patient as he started to fidget, obviously trying to fight off the effects of the medication.
When Wace got the covers up around his waist and was about to step back, a hand shot out from under the blankets, clipping him in the forearm.
“Off,” came a slurred mumble, as his fingers gripped tightly around Wace’s wrist.
“Dad,” he started, grimacing at the tightness of the hold on his arm. “Le’ go, all right?”
“Fuckin’ off...offa me.”
Jen cast him a worried glance and moved to set her purse down, but Wace caught her action and held out his free hand to stop her.
“Just wait,” he barked impatiently, then softened with a visible effort when she flinched. “Just -- wait a second, okay? ‘e gets like this when ‘e’s tryin’ ta hold out against the stuff they give ‘im.”
Turning his attention back to his father once more, he started to peel the blanket back, letting it come to lay at his feet. “There, Dad - s’fine now, okay? Just go on...go ta sleep. Stop fightin’ it.”
He mumbled something again and this time neither of them could understand it. Gradually, his grip began to loosen and his hand eventually fell away with a tired breath escaping from his lips, signaling his surrender to sleep.
Wace fell back into his chair with an aggravated sigh then let his head roll around, the bones in his neck giving off a loud, hollow ‘pop.’
“You okay?” Jen asked quietly, turning her body to face him.
He shook his head in the negative, then tossed his chin toward his father without any further elaboration.
“Sorry ‘bout that back there - with ‘im,” he clarified needlessly, gesturing over his shoulder with a jab of his thumb. He still hadn’t managed to look her in the face.
“‘S’fine,” she excused, the honesty in her voice sounding as true as she felt it.
“Are you okay?” she finally asked.
He shrugged, but the motion was awkward. His hands were stuffed deep into his pockets again. “Doesn’t matter,” he said carelessly, speaking up again before she could argue with his last statement. “Listen, uh...Jen - I don’t...I dunno if you should come back ‘ere anymore.”
He paused for a moment, letting his words sink in before continuing. “When ‘e...when ‘e’s on that medication ‘e...well, ‘e’s not really ‘imself - don’ know what ‘e’s doin’.”
The way her head fell, he knew that he’d hurt her, and God - that was the last thing he wanted to do, but he figured that her being upset now would be a small price to pay compared to what she’d be feeling if she made it a habit of stopping by the hospital.
“It’s not that...I mean, it’s not that I don’ want ya ‘ere, Jenny -”
“It’s fine, Wace,” she said quickly, cutting him off with a forced smile. “I understand - I do.”
He sighed, taking one of his hands out from his pocket and reaching for her. She took it, grasping it tightly as she pulled herself into his arms.
“Thank you,” he said quietly, letting his chin rest on top of her head. “I know I don’t...Jenny, I’m sorry I can’t...”
From the way that she squeezed him tighter, he knew it was okay that he couldn’t find the words he needed and he felt his heart swell forcefully against its constraints as it tried to swallow the acceptance she’d given him.
“It’s fine,” she repeated, leaning back from their embrace and casting a warm smile up at him. “I’m just gonna head on,” she added softly, finally pulling away from his body, though she trailed her fingers down his arms and took both of his hands in hers.
Stretching up on her toes so she could place a light kiss on his cheek, she whispered in his ear that she loved him.
“Love you too,” answered back, trying - and failing - to keep his reply from sounding mechanical. His body had been on autopilot for the past four days - everything was mechanical.
“Well,” she said quickly, sucking in a breath as she pulled her hands up to his chest and pressed her palms flat against him, “I uh...you can call me - any time, okay? I don’ even care if it’s at four in the mornin’, Wace.”
He nodded stiffly, hoping she’d take just that as an agreement and not press for anything more. He couldn’t give it at the moment.
“And you can...if you ever get tired and just need ta rest, I want ya t’come over, all right?” she added, lifting her hands to the side of his face and holding him there for a short time. “I love you,” she said again, rising up once more to kiss him, this time on the lips.
“Bye, Jen,” he breathed quietly, his eyelids falling slightly from the warmth of her kiss.
She gave him one last smile and stepped back from him, holding onto his hand until they fell away from one another completely. “Bye, baby,” she said quickly and turned to leave before she had to kiss him again.
He stood there, under the awning of the main entrance and watched her car as she left. He saw her wave good-bye to him through the driver’s window and he dug up the strength from somewhere within his reserves to lift his hand as well.
His eyes followed her until the car disappeared around the corner, and even then, he watched the spot where he’d last seen her.
His mind trailed off, wandering around some solitary place that only it could go and he had to literally snap himself out of the daze.
With a sigh, he turned, hesitating for just the slightest of moments before he went back into the hospital. His eyes caught the clock at the reception desk as he walked by and he shook his head.
It was going to be another long night.
- Razor's Edge - 23