I spent the rest of the day and night in the hospital, staring at the clock, willing it to move faster. Tick, tick, tick...could the stupid thing move any slower? I was beginning to feel a little stir crazy lying on this bed all the time. I couldn't get up and move around unless I called in a nurse to make sure everything was ok, but I didn't really want to talk to anyone. I savored the taste of the Coke that Meric had left for me, rolling the caramel colored liquid around in my mouth several times before swallowing. He had left it for me. How did he know that that kind was my favorite? Was it just a coincidence? Probably, but maybe...maybe it wasn't. Maybe this was how things were supposed to go. Maybe this really was going to be something good. Maybe...an awful lot of maybes. Oh well, a little hope never hurt anyone. Well...
Sometime in the evening after I had given up trying to get the second hand to move faster, having tried everything from pleading to Jedi mind tricks, the door to my room opened and a nurse walked in. I was in the process of taking a sip from the can. Her eyes narrowed and she glared at me. Oops, I probably wasn't supposed to be drinking this while I was here. Maybe she didn't notice. I slowly moved the Coke can to the side of the bed that she couldn't see, switching it to my other hand and then lowering it out of sight. She followed it like a hawk, probably wondering what the hell I was doing. Oh well, it was getting warm and flat anyways, and there is nothing worse than a warm and flat Coke. I sighed a bit and brought the can back up and held it out to her. She took it immediately, still with a very disapproving look on her face, and tossed it into the trashcan. She checked a few things on the machines next to the bed and then turned to walk out without a word. I think I had finally found the one person in the field of medicine who had an unpleasant personality. They all couldn't be as nice as Dr. Carter, I guess.
I drifted off to sleep, still feeling a little bit of pain in my chest. My sleep, as it had been since that day less than a week ago, was filled with dreams. Horrible dreams, ranging from what had actually happened to things much worse. At one point I must have been screaming in my sleep because I was shaken awake by a nurse who was able to calm me down. She left and came back a few moments later with a pill and some water, saying that it would help me sleep. It did.
When I woke up the next morning, I felt refreshed for the first time in a while. I had managed several hours of deep, dreamless sleep and today was the day that I was getting out. I felt like an inmate in a prison, finally being released after years of confinement. A nurse came in after a little while and helped me get out of bed and dressed for my big day on the town with the Kinneys. It finally occurred to me that the clothes I was putting on weren't mine. I didn't exactly bring an overnight bag with me to the hospital, so where did these come from?
"Umm, nurse...where are these clothes from?" I asked.
"Oh, Mr. Kinney was by this morning, saying he thought you might like a fresh set of clothes. I think they are his son's." I froze, my right arm through the sleeve in the shirt and the other starting on its way.
"Meric's?" I asked, my voice muffled a little bit because the shirt was stretched out in front of my face. I must have looked really awkward standing there with this blue shirt tangled above my head, seemingly frozen in position.
"Yes, I think that was his name," she replied. "Now, hurry up and finish getting dressed, he said that they would be by around 10." I glanced at the clock. 9:50! I pulled the shirt the rest of the way on, and reached down to take off the boxers that I had been wearing beneath the hospital gown. I froze once again, and looked up at the nurse, feeling a little embarrassed. She smiled a little and stepped out of the room. I finished dressing, putting on a pair of tan cargo pants. I went into the bathroom and saw that there was a small thing of deodorant, a toothbrush and some toothpaste. These people really did think of everything.
I stepped out of the bathroom just in time to hear a knock on the door to the room. I walked over, glancing in the mirror quickly to make sure that I looked presentable, and opened the door. Mr. Kinney was standing there, a pair of sunglasses hanging from the neck of his shirt.
"Ready to go, Brandon?" he asked.
"Sir?" He laughed. "Brandon, this isn't the military and I'm certainly not your commanding officer, so there's no need to call me sir. Besides, it makes me feel older than I already do, and lord knows I don't need any help in that department. Just call me Jack or Mr. K, whichever you feel more comfortable with."
"Ok, Mr. K. Oh, thanks a lot for the clothes."
"No problem. Meric mentioned last night that you probably would need something to wear and picked that outfit out for you. Seems to fit you well. You two look a lot alike, you know. Well, except for the brown hair and blue eyes...but other than that, you've got a very similar build."
I nodded and followed him out towards the nurse's station for the floor. Mr. Chase was standing there waiting for us. He smiled at me.
"Morning! How are you feeling? Ready for your big day?" He asked.
"I'm ready to get the hell out of this hospital, that's for sure," I said, grinning. I cringed, then, realizing where I was standing. I looked over at the nurse on duty. "Sorry," I said, once again feeling a little embarrassed. And it was the same nurse I had almost undressed in front of earlier. Great.
"It's okay, I understand," she replied, smiling. I turned to Mr. Kinney and pointed towards the elevators.
"Let's get out of here before I say something else stupid, please." I waved to Mr. Chase and told him that I would call him later in the day.
We got in the elevator and Mr. Kinney pushed the button marked 1. It gave a little shudder and then started moving downward slowly, beeping as we passed each floor. 6...5...4...
"So, Brandon, where are we going to go today?"
"I thought we could head over to the zoo for a little while, and then to the park next to it. There's this great waterfall over some rocks behind the performing arts center. It's a really nice place." 2...1.
"Sounds like a plan. We've already got a place for dinner picked out near the hotel where we are staying that looks really good." We stepped out of the elevator into the lobby just as he was finishing. I saw Mrs. Kinney and Meric standing around waiting for us. They spotted us almost immediately. Meric jogged over with his mother following behind at a slower pace. He looked me over appraisingly, nodding a couple times to himself.
"Looks like I was right," he said.
"Huh?" I asked.
"Well, I figured you needed clothes to wear. Can't go wandering around in a hospital gown."
"That's for sure. Don't want everyone to see my bum," I said. He nodded in agreement.
"Come on, let's get going, it's already after 10:30 and we got lots to do today," said Mr. Kinney.
We stepped out of the hospital into the bright morning sun. I immediately covered my eyes, not used to such brightness after having spent nearly a week in the hospital. I staggered after the Kinneys, trying to squint enough to keep sight of them in the parking lot. They walked out to a dark blue Toyota 4Runner that glinted in the sunlight.
"Wow, cool car!" I remarked.
"Yeah, it's nice...but we're actually thinking of selling it," said Mrs. Kinney.
"Well, with the way the world is these days and the price of gas because of it, it's not really smart to be driving an SUV."
"Oh, I guess that makes sense. What were you thinking of getting instead?"
"Most companies these days are coming out with hybrid cars - they run on battery power most of the time, but still use gasoline when necessary. They get really great mileage."
"Yeah, except they all look retarded," said Meric. Mr. Kinney smiled a little and nodded. I got the impression that that sort of thing wasn't nearly as important to him as it was to Meric.
We all piled into the car. Mr. Kinney started it up and headed out of the hospital parking lot. I watched the hospital go by through my window, feeling very relieved to actually be getting out. I didn't want to actually believe it until it happened. I may have been there for less than a week, but it sure felt like forever.
"What are you thinking about?" I turned to face Meric, who was sitting across from me in the back seat of the vehicle. He had spoken low enough that I was fairly sure that Mr. and Mrs. Kinney hadn't heard what he had said.
"Oh, just glad to be free of the prison finally," I whispered back. "I don't want to seem like a wuss or anything, but I really hate hospitals." He leaned in a little closer to me and after a moment, I did the same. Our faces were now only inches apart, hovering over the armrest dividing our two seats.
"When I was 6 my dad hurt himself working outside in the yard. Slipped and fell off a wooden beam. Hurt his back really bad. He won't admit it to anyone, but he cried like a baby when it happened. Had to go to the hospital. After the way he acted about all of it, you're like...a superhero or something. You got nothing to worry about." He winked at me and straightened back up in his chair, turning to look out the window.
"So, Brandon...how do we get to the zoo. I've got to say, I really don't know my way around this town." Mr. Kinney was looking at me through the rear view mirror.
"Oh, it's near downtown. Turn right up here."
I spent the rest of the trip just staring out the window watching trees, fences, people, other cars and everything else flying past. After everything that had happened to me over the past week, I was having a little trouble accepting these people. I've heard that if things seem too good to be true, they usually are. I gave Mr. Kinney further directions occasionally, but it wasn't a really big town and the signs for the zoo were pretty easy to follow.
We pulled into the mostly empty parking lot of the zoo a little after 11:00. I guess the zoo isn't really a popular place during the day in the middle of the school year. School! Oh no, I had completely forgotten. Everyone must be wondering what happened to me. I can only imagine the rumors that must be going around about where I am. Though, they will probably forget about me in a few days. It's not like anyone ever really took the time to notice me anyways. I wonder if they even noticed at all that I was gone, or did things go on just as normal, my name taken off the class role almost gratefully. Won't ever have to deal with him again, thank God.
"Brandon, let's go...don't want to sit here in the parking lot all day." Mr. Kinney was standing next to my open door, looking at me as if he'd been calling my name for a little while. "You all right? Seem a little spaced out today."
"He's fine, dad. He's just probably thinking how good the sun feels or something after being stuck in that room for forever." Meric grabbed me under the arm and pulled me out of the back seat. "Come on, let's go throw stuff at the monkeys."
We headed up to the main gate and I started to panic. I didn't have any money, how was I going to get into the zoo? Mr. Kinney walked up to the window without even looking at me and bought 4 passes. After handing them out to us, he started towards the entrance.
"Hey, Mr. K..." I called out. He paused and turned around.
"What is it Brandon? The monkeys are waiting you know," He said with a faint smile.
"Thanks for the ticket."
"Think nothing of it. Today is on us, just enjoy yourself." I nodded at him, feeling very surprised. My mind was really beginning to struggle with what was going on. I so wanted to believe that I had found the most perfect family on the planet and that I would, after 16 years, finally get to live a normal life. However, the side of my mind that had lived through those 16 years absolutely refused to open up and welcome these people in, having learned early on that doing so led only to pain and suffering.
For the next few hours, we just wandered around the zoo, stopping to watch the animals doing whatever it is that animals do when locked up in "authentic" habitats. We were planning on throwing some things at the monkeys, but there was someone out there with them cleaning up and we figured he wouldn't like it if we started throwing things at him. When we got to the bird pavilion, Meric stopped us.
"Hey, I'm starting to feel a little tired. I'm just going to wait out here on this bench for you, ok?" He asked, staring at me the entire time.
"Well, ok...are you sure you're all right, son?" asked Mrs. Kinney.
"Actually, I'm going to take a break as well. Still feeling a little weak, I guess. This seems like a good stopping point to me," I said. I walked over and sat down next to him on the bench.
"Go on...we'll be waiting here for you when you come out. Go enjoy the birds," urged Meric. Mr. and Mrs. Kinney nodded and turned to walk into the pavilion. We sat there for a few minutes, just enjoying the sounds around us. In the distance, I could hear birds squawking, monkeys howling and even the occasional lion roaring. I closed my eyes, ready to nod off for a few minutes, thinking a little nap would do me good. But, it wasn't meant to be.
"So, what's on your mind, Brandon? And don't give me that crap from earlier again," said Meric. I turned to look at him. He was staring at me, his green eyes boring into me, demanding a truthful answer to his question. I sighed and looked away, tears rimming my eyes. He was content to give me a little while to gather my thoughts, but I could sense that he wasn't going to wait long.
"It's just that this past week has been so hard for me," I began. I was still looking off into the distance, not really focusing on anything in particular. "One week ago I lost my parents and was hurt pretty bad. And now I meet you and your parents and even though my heart yearns for all of this to be real, to be true, my mind refuses to accept it. I know that at any moment it's all going to come crashing down around me, like everything always has and I just don't know if I can take it again." I was looking down between my legs at the ground by the time I was finished, tears rolling freely down my face. We must have sat there for a good minute before I felt the bench move a little and I saw Meric's legs scooting closer. I felt his arm go around me and he leaned into me, hugging me and laying his head on my shoulder.
"Brandon, I know I just met you yesterday, but for some reason I feel this...this connection with you," He whispered into my ear. "I don't know what it is...it's almost like I was meant to be with you, to be your brother. I know it sounds corny, but I've always wanted a brother, but my parents aren't able to have any more kids so I thought it would never happen. And now that it is about to, I want to start things off right. I promise you this - whatever was wrong in the past will be gone. You're with us now, and only the future is ahead of you. The past is just that...the past. When and if you want to face it, I'll be there for you and we'll work through it together, ok?" He pulled me a little closer to him. I knew that if I looked up, I would completely lose it. Here I was, sitting in the middle of the zoo crying my eyes out with another boy hugging me. What a sight I must have been. I nodded slightly and put my arm around him as well, completing the embrace.
"Brothers?" He asked.
"Brothers," I said, smiling a little through the tears. He pulled his arm out from around me and leaned back on the bench, crossing his arms behind his head. I wiped the tears from my eyes and sat up as well, leaning back to stare up into the blue sky, watching the clouds floating lazily by overhead. It felt right to be sitting here on this bench, at this moment, with Meric...sharing in the beautiful sky and the warm sunlight.
After about 20 minutes, I heard footsteps approaching from the direction of the pavilion and I turned to look in that direction. Mr. and Mrs. Kinney had finished the walk through there and were slowly making their way toward us, talking with each other.
"Have a good nap, boys?" asked Mr. Kinney when they got up to us.
"We sure did, dad. Can we go get something to eat now?" As Meric said that, I realized that I also was really hungry. I nodded my agreement to the request, realizing that it must be almost 4:00 by now and I hadn't eaten anything all day. Mr. Kinney looked down at his watch and seemed a little startled.
"Wow, I can't believe it's already 4:30. Time flies when you're having fun, eh? I'd like to go see this waterfall you mentioned, and then we can head to dinner at the place near the hotel. Sound good?" We both nodded and stood up from the bench. I stretched my legs a little and the four of us headed out of the zoo and back to the parking lot, climbing into the 4Runner. I once again gave directions to Mr. Kinney so that he could find the park where the waterfall was and we arrived there in short order.
"It's a little bit of a walk, but not too far," I said as we started down the path. To tell the truth, it wasn't really a waterfall in the normal sense. It didn't fall hundreds of feet to crash into a swirling, frothy pool. Instead, it seemed to cascade down at an angle over a bunch of huge rocks, the tops of which, having been smoothed over after years of being pounded by water, glinted in the afternoon sun. "I used to come here after school sometimes to do some homework. It can get pretty hot here in the afternoon, and the mist from the falls is very nice after a long day. Plus, it just feels...alive down here."
We stood there for a good 10 minutes, just enjoying the cool water spraying over us, each lost in our own thoughts. If Meric's stomach hadn't started grumbling, we probably would have stood there for quite a bit longer.
"All right, all right...off to dinner," said Mr. Kinney after Meric's interruption.
I wasn't really paying too much attention to where we were heading as Mr. Kinney left the park, but after we had been driving for a little while, I started recognizing certain things around me. No, they couldn't be heading there...no way. I dismissed the idea as silly. That wasn't a really well known restaurant and with all of the places to eat in town, it would have to be a massive coincidence for that to be the one they had chosen. But, as we continued to drive, continued to pass other restaurants, a feeling of dread settled into my stomach. I held out hope until we actually got to the parking lot and Mr. Kinney put on his signal to turn in there. I couldn't go in there...we had gone there at least once a week for the past 4 years. Everyone in there knew me on sight. There was no way I could go in there ever again. The idea of eating in a place I had frequented with my parents was too painful to even consider. Just thinking about it made me start crying again. I was staring down at my feet, sobbing softly as Mr. Kinney pulled the car into a spot in the parking lot.
"Ready to go..." his voice trailed off as he turned to look at me. "Brandon...what's the matter?" I just continued crying, hardly hearing what he had said to me. I felt Meric's hand on my shoulder, squeezing it.
"Let's just head back to the hospital, dad...we can grab some food at the cafeteria there." Mr. Kinney must have agreed because I felt the car start up once again and pull out onto the street, heading in the direction of the hospital. I spent the ride still staring at my shoes, but crying for a different reason now. I had ruined whatever chance I had had to get into a normal life with the Kinneys. After seeing me start bawling like a little kid because we drove into a parking lot, there was no way they would want to take me all the way back to Arkansas. I had a chance, and I blew it. It always seemed to happen. No matter what I did, something always went wrong and it was all my fault. As soon as Mr. Kinney stopped the car in the parking lot of the hospital, I opened the door and took off running for the safety of my room. This morning, I had wanted nothing more than to get out of the place, and now, less than 12 hours later, the only thing on my mind was getting in there and into the bed. I heard Meric call out for me, but Mr. Kinney told him to let me go. Yeah, that's right...drive on back to Arkansas, forget you ever met me. There's no reason for you to stay, so don't bother. I almost ran into Mr. Chase as I came out of the elevator on my floor, but I brushed past him, ignoring his calls and rushed into my room.
I climbed into the bed and curled up into as tight a ball as I could, crying freely now. I lay there for a few minutes, until I heard voices out in the hallway. I rolled over and noticed that the door hadn't closed all the way behind me. I could see a crack of light through the opening. I got off the bed to go close the door, but when I got nearer I recognized the voices of the Kinneys and Mr. Chase. Probably here to tell him that I'm crazy and to yell at him for trying to give me to them. I couldn't help but overhear what they were saying. I paused at the door, listening to them.
"I couldn't believe it...we had just pulled into the parking lot and I turned around and he was just...crying. I didn't have any idea what was wrong. He seemed fine all day, even happy at some times," Mr. Kinney said.
"Well, I guess I'll get rid of this paperwork, then," said Mr. Chase.
"Hang on just a moment, Graham. No need to do anything hasty. Susan and I would like to talk this over ourselves for a little while and we'll let you know, ok? We'll call in the morning." My heart sank even lower. They were going to run for it. I reached up to push the door closed, when I heard Meric speak up.
"What was that, son?" said Mr. Kinney.
"I said no. We aren't leaving him here."
"We need to talk this over, Meric...we'll come back in the morning." I could tell Mr. Kinney was getting a little agitated.
"No way, he's coming with us tonight. I'm not going to let him stay in this place any more than he already has. Come on, dad...there's nothing to think about. Brandon is going to be my brother. Besides, he likes Vanilla Coke. That should be all the proof you need." After Meric finished talking, there was just silence from the hallway. I sighed, knowing it was foolish to think that he had talked them into letting me come with them. I turned to walk dejectedly back towards my bed. When I was about halfway there, I heard the door open behind me.
"Go away, Mr. Chase...I don't want to talk to anyone right now," I said, trying my best not to start crying again.
"I hear they're serving lasagna down in the cafeteria. Let's go get something to eat," came Meric's voice from the doorway. I spun around, hardly believing my ears. I had to see it with my eyes to believe it. Standing there in the doorway were all three of the Kinneys. Mr. and Mrs. Kinney were smiling, each with a hand on their son's shoulder. Meric was standing there with a look on his face that I knew meant he wasn't going to take no for an answer. I smiled a little and wiped the tears off my face. I looked around the room one last time, glad that I was leaving. Leaving to go home.