Northside Hospital on Johnson Ferry Road grew five floors from the ground—an expansive, yet modern building at the northern arc of the Atlanta perimeter. It was the first time Luke had ever been there, though he had often noticed it on journeys to and from the city.
Having got Simon into the ER, they had been met by an unknown doctor in a white coat. Simon had been bundled onto a trolley and the orderlies whisked him away. After filling out far too many papers, he and his mum and dad were given instructions to make for the first-floor family room, where they were told the doctors would come to speak to them.
The three of them made their way to the waiting area, which was filled with numerous people clumped in small discrete groups. None seemed happy to be there, and Luke and his parents were no different. A nurse came across shortly to say little more than that Simon was in the best of hands, and not to worry.
Not worry? Were they kidding?
After all the emotion and energy they'd expended in the rush to find help, there was a sense of let down as they sat and tried to be patient now that it was out of their hands. Time dragged painfully. Doctors and nurses came and went, and each time they stirred hopefully, though it always turned out to be news for someone else. Thirty minutes passed, and they had still heard nothing, and his mum made a second trip to the receptionist to ask for news. As before, she was told to be patient, and that one of the staff was bound to come with an update shortly. This time it was true, as a nurse came to talk with them soon after.
The news was sparse, but better. Simon was at least out of any immediate danger, the nurse explained. They were told that they were assessing him—whatever that meant—but she was unable to offer more details.
Bloody hospitals! Luke slumped back on an uncomfortable chair.
"Why don't you two go for a drink or something?" Lucy sat down heavily on a chair, once the nurse had left. "Who knows, it might be some time before we hear anything more?"
"I'm fine." Geoff shook his head, and picked up a magazine.
Luke glanced across to where the pair were sitting and studied their restless faces. His mum still looked pretty worried, and his dad soon dumped the magazine and leaned in close to murmur something. Luke didn't need a drink particularly, but he got the feeling that they needed to talk. Perhaps it would be better if he did his own thing for a bit—and he could sure do with anything ratherthan just sitting feeling useless!
He climbed to his feet and stretched. "I wouldn't mind getting a coke or something."
"Sure," Geoff said. Luke could sense how distracted his dad was as he rustled a twenty out of his wallet.
Luke took the bill, and stuffed it into his pocket. "Can I bring you anything?"
Both shook their heads.
"I'll bring you the change," he offered. His dad just nodded, and Luke could tell he wasn’t really listening. He didn't blame him—both of them had more important things to worry about right then. He tried to be upbeat for them. "He'll be alright you know. If Dr. Tiberius said come here, then they’ll be good. He knows what he's talking about."
"Of course they will, sweetheart." His mum rallied briefly, forcing a tight smile. "It's just a matter of waiting. They're bound to let us know soon."
Luke waved his phone, which had been in his pocket when they left the house. "You've got yours," he said to his mum. "Call me if they come out. I'll just go down to the cafeteria for a few minutes."
She tried to smile again as he turned to leave, but it was from a face that leaked worry.
Padding out of the Family Room, Luke felt completely tapped out. His mum and dad must have felt even worse, yet there was nothing any of them could do. So, after finding out from the staff at the desk that there was a cafeteria on the ground floor, he meandered slowly down the long corridor toward the lifts and stairs. If there was ever a time he felt like praying, it was then, and he sent one up with the hope that somebody was listening.
He'd planned to take the stairs, as they were only one floor up from where the cafeteria was located, but a lift was open and he stepped into it without really thinking. Thumbing the ground floor, the doors gave a mysterious rattle as he watched them close. His brain was heading downwards, so he grunted in displeasure as the lift took on a mind of its own and started to ascend.
Way to go. Next time check the fucking arrows, why don't you!
The lift was large enough to carry one of the hospital beds and, floor by floor—and apparently determined to stop at each of them to let on hordes of invisible passengers—it began to make its way to the top. He sighed and leaned back against the metal rear wall to wait out the detour. At this rate, once they started heading down, he might as well get out at his floor and go straight back!
At the fifth floor, he decided to would get off and walk down the stairs at a slow pace to rejoin his mum and dad, and he stepped forward to get ready to alight. With their distinctive rattle, the doors slid opened again, and this time he got the surprise of his life.
He blinked and did a double take.
Of all the most unexpected people to step into a lift, this particular one was the very last he expected to see! Luke just couldn’t help it as his eyes scanned the baggy shorts and white tee of their owner, who had paused feet from him. At the speed of thought, a collage of images cascaded across Luke’s memory, some real and some imagined.
Across from him, and alone in the top floor foyer as he waited for the lift, the look on the guy's face was quizzical. He seemed surprised too, and remained motionless for long moments.
"Going down?" the quasi-stranger asked at last, and then pulled a face, chuckled and added, "Duh...stupid question!" He seemed amused at himself and appeared at ease again as he stepped into the lift and pointed to the lighted panel. "Top floor!"
"Oh…right." Luke shrugged, out of sorts and at a complete loss for what else to say. He’d left it too long to get out, so he edged to the side and waited. The guy thumbed the ground floor button, though it was already lit. As he did so, Luke spotted that uncomplicated henna-colored wristband that he already knew would be there.
There was an awkward silence as doors came together, and he studied them as they began to descend. They weren't the only things that were rattled as he found himself trapped, or was it secluded—he couldn't decide which—with this person that he felt he knew…yet didn’t. He decided he should say something.
"So how's your sister?" he asked, squirming at an awkward attempt at small talk.
The guy studied him, and the quizzical look returned. “My sister?"
Luke fought hard not to swallow and look even more of an asshole than he felt. "The glasses," he muttered. "At the opticians. You were getting her new glasses..." He flushed. Christ, of all the things to say! Now he felt like some perv, asking after some guy's younger sister!
"Oh..." Light seemed to dawn on the face across from him. "Natty, you mean? That's right, you were in the opticians that day!" The face grinned and white teeth glinted cheekily. Apparently the guy either didn't see, or chose to ignore, Luke's discomfort.
Across from Luke, he folded his arms and leaned back against the side of the lift. "Weren't you at the medical center, too?" he asked, though it was more of a statement than a question. Simple though that inquiry was, Luke felt like he’d been caught with his pants down, and cringed at the thought of what might come next. The ‘and why were you there?'.
Thankfully, the guy didn't seem to feel the need to pry. "Small world, hey!" he said. Unexpectedly, he leaned forward and stuck out his hand. "I'm Elliott." Again, the cheeky grin, formal, but still friendly—and an accent that Luke couldn't quite place.
"Luke." Luke reached forward, too, and cautiously took the proffered hand, as if the contact would reveal too many of his secrets. "Luke Summers," he added. It all felt rather formal, and he tried to think of something more natural and friendly say, but nothing came to mind.
Thankfully, it wasn’t long before they made the ground floor, and the lift jerked to a halt saving him from looking like a total jerk. The doors opened, and politely, Elliott allowed Luke to pass first—and Luke got a wiff of cologne that smelt a hell of a lot better than hospitals.
Oh, for fuck's sake! Now he was sniffing him!
To cover his awkwardness once they were outside the lift, he asked, "Any idea which way to the cafeteria?" He couldn't see any signs, and with Elliott watching, he couldn’t exactly head for the stairs and go straight back up!
"The cafeteria?" Elliott's eyes seemed to glint. "Sure. I was just going there myself. Follow me."
Feeling just a little fluttery, Luke turned with him, and the pair tracked up the corridor together. Maybe it wouldn’t do any harm, just for a few minutes, he decided.His mum had his mobile number and she would call as soon as there was news.
"First time?" Elliott asked.
First time? If only you knew! Luke kept his face straight. "Actually, to be honest, I've never been to Northside before today." He looked back the way they had come, familiarizing himself for when he would be shortly heading back upstairs. He felt more sure of himself now as they entered a section that contained a small shop selling mostly magazines, cards, chocolates and flowers and, just a bit further down, a cafeteria. A quick drink and he would go back up.
While it wasn’t Starbucks, the cafeteria looked comfortable enough, with a mixture of tables and a couple of sofas, and with the decor shifting away from the demoralizing hospital green. There were plenty already there, sitting and either eating or drinking, though there were only a few people in the line and they got served quickly enough.
"What are you having?" Luke asked. "It's on me."
Why he said that, he didn’t know, but he waved the twenty adamantly as Elliott frowned. "My dad gave me cash. Might as well use it." At least they would then sit together, and he might be able to find out a bit more abut the guy.
"Fair enough." Elliott relented gracefully. "Then just a hot tea for me."
Luke was surprised, and chuckled. "Tea? That's very British of you!"
Elliott returned a knowing smile. "I should damn well think so. We lived there long enough!" If the revelation was meant to add to the conundrum of the guy, it worked.
"What'll it be, folks?" A friendly-sounding middle-aged voice interrupted them from behind the worktop. “Something to drink?”
"Please. Two hot teas," Luke replied, making the order. Tea…who would have figured? “Sure...a pot will be fine," he added as the friendly face proffered one.
That done, he turned back to Elliott and backtracked. "You're kidding me. You lived in the UK?"
"Sure did." Elliott looked smug. "Not far from London."
"London?" Hell, the guy was full of surprises! “That’s where we used to be!”
“Anything to eat?” the man whom the voice belonged to asked, interrupting them again.
Luke flicked his eyes across to what was on display on the counter top, but none of it appealed. “No, thanks. I’m good.” He raised an eyebrow towards Elliott, who shook his head, too.
"So what's with the accent?" Luke asked, beginning to load a tray with cups and saucers. He'd always been pretty good at accents, but this one was completely messed up. Like almost everything about this guy, it intrigued him.
“Accent? What accent?" Elliott's mouth took on a pretend pout as they waited for the pot to be filled. Soon the tray was ready and Elliott picked it up off the counter for them, smirking as he continued, "Well, it's a long story, but Dad works for DHL."
"The delivery guys?" Luke said as they moved to the checkout
"That’s them. He used to be a kind of company trainer and troubleshooter around the world. I grew up living in a different country almost every year."
"Every year?” Luke's eyes bugged as he passed over the twenty to pay. "You're kidding! What was that like?" He took his change and they moved away from the counter, scanning the room trying to spot an empty table. It was surprising how many people ended up in a hospital cafeteria at seven thirty on a Sunday night!
Carrying the tray, Elliott led the way. He glanced back as they tracked across the cafeteria. "Honestly? If you want to know, pretty crap really."
Luke grimaced with him. Leaving the UK once was bad enough—to leave somewhere every year…?
With a chance to study Elliott as they passed between the tables, Luke saw he looked about an inch taller than he was himself, but not much more than that. The ash-blond hair hadn’t changed, though it looked like the guy had recently had it cut. He’d even pass muster at the Academy at that length! He was lean with broad shoulders, and on a scale of one to ten, his cute backside probably rated a good eight!
They found a table, and Elliott scraped in a chair as he sat.
"So what about you?” Surrounded by the quiet buzz of ordinary conversation and the clink of cutlery as people ate, Elliott continued. “What’s an English guy doing here? In Atlanta, I mean."
Luke unloaded the tray and then pulled out one of the empty chairs across the other side of the table and considered the question. It was one he'd answered a gazillion times before—from the process of getting to know new school friends, to explaining away his 'cute' accent at the barbers! At the same time, the 'here' reminded him that there might well come a moment when he had to explain why he was here at the hospital.
Probably best have some answer for that.
"Me?" He shrugged as he sat. There wasn’t a lot to say when it came down to it. "Same, really. Dad took a job here with the bank he works for. We've been living in Atlanta since I was eleven. It's all right I guess," he added in response to the unspoken question in the face opposite.
"And you’re at the Academy?" Elliott's question abruptly tracked in another direction, and it took Luke an unbalanced moment or two to put two and two together. He came up with the solution quickly enough: he'd been in uniform that day at the clinic.
"Yep." He usually felt a little uncomfortable admitting to strangers at being in what many called the ‘rich kids’ school, and this was no exception. Perhaps it came from being a Brit, but he'd never got on with being pretentious. With a twitch of his shoulders, he shrugged it off. "And you?"
Creek? That had to mean that Elliott lived not that far away from them.
"What's it like there?"
Elliott shrugged. "It’s alright, though I’ve only been there a couple of years. It’s hard to compare, as it’s actually the only school I’ve ever attended. Weird, I know, but I’ve been home schooled most of my life. You know...with traveling all the time.” Again, the disarming smile and the accent that rolled infuriatingly around in Luke’s head. “Anyway, enough about that—so what brings you to Northside?"
Luke poured the tea, glad he'd given himself the heads up on that question. It still took a moment to get the right words in the right order. "My brother...Simon. He had a bit of an accident today. He's just in surgery up on the first floor." He held up a small jug. "Milk?"
"Oh my God! Wow! I'm really sorry.” Elliott's eyes widened and he sounded honestly taken aback. "Is he going to be alright?"
"We think so. We're just waiting for him to come out. He should be fine though." God, he hoped that was true. "Mum and Dad are up there now. I was just giving them a bit of space." Elliott seemed easy to talk to, but he still wondered how much he should say, and finally admitted, "It's a guy thing...you know...down there..."
Elliott nodded—knowingly it seemed—and grimaced. "Enough said. Sam's had the same kind of thing."
"Sam?" Luke dug around in his head and pulled out the name from what he’d overheard at the opticians. "He's your brother, isn't he?”
“Is he here, too?" Luke asked carefully. Hospitals had to be the worst places for these kinds of questions! "Is he alright?"
"Oh, the little goon is fine. He’s got a ‘down there’ thing, too." Elliott actually sounded breezy, and grinned, leaning forward. "Amongst other things, he's having a sandblasting!" He held up his hands to Luke's puzzled demeanor. "It's complicated. I'll tell you about it another time."
Another time? The idea took Luke by completely by surprise, yet Elliott had made it sound so natural, almost inevitable. Luke opened his mouth, feeling he should say something, but before he could speak, a young girl came into his line of sight.
"Luke? What the heck are you doing here?” she asked. The girl was dressed in jeans cut off at the knees and a high-cut pink tee that showed off a generous portion of her midriff.
Luke frowned. "Becks?" What the hell was Becky Kear doing at Northside Hospital?
He tried to think of any scenario that would lead his mum and dad into calling the Kears either before they left the house or after they’d got here, asking them to come to the hospital for Simon's sake. Nothing seemed even remotely plausible.
"Really?" Elliott seemed bemused by the interruption and sat up. He looked from one to the other in surprise. "You’re kidding! You two know each other?"
"Of course we do!" Becky crossed her arms and sounded so waspish, that Luke couldn't help but smirk as she offered Elliott one of her classic withering looks. He'd been on the end of those many a time himself!
"This is Luke!" she said, staring hard at both of them as though challenging them to doubt her.
"Yes, I also know who he is, Becks." Elliott remained unflustered. Luke wondered if he would also know Becky’s brother, Owen, but he didn’t interrupt.
Her testy reply was short and to the point. "How?" she demanded, as if friendship with Luke Summers was a commodity only she dealt in. However, true to her nature, she didn't seem interested in hanging around for an answer, and rounded on Luke again.
"So, what are you doing here?" she said. "Are you here to see Sam, too?" Her tone remained insistent, and Luke knew he couldn't get away without at least some kind of answer.
"Simon hurt himself,” he started. “He's—"
"Simon's here?" Her eyes flicked around the cafeteria as though expecting to spot him in the cafeteria. "Where?"
"Becks, I was just saying," he replied as patiently as he could. "Simon's hurt himself. They're just looking after him now. He—"
"The doctors..." For God’s sake, what did she expect? The cafeteria staff?
"How what?" Luke replied carefully. His eyes flicked towards Elliott, hoping for support.
"He just hurt himself, Becks." Elliott chimed in, apparently willing to try to head her off at the pass for Luke’s sake. He made an attempt to divert her. "How's Sam?"
"Sam's fine. He wants a drink." The withering look returned and her voice became whiney. “So, what’s wrong with Simon?”
“Something a bit like Sam, that’s all.” Elliott’s tone was guarded.
“You mean his willy? He’s hurt his willy?” Becky’s eyes widened, unable to drop it. She was of an age and personality where there was only one volume, and Luke was sure the whole cafeteria was listening in. He squirmed as she seemed quite at ease to just throw it out there, and noticed a number of badly hidden grins around about them.
She wasn't done. "So is he having the same thing done as Sam?"
Elliott's voice hardened enough to get her attention. "Come on. Do you think Luke really wants you telling everyone?" He tried to sound reasonable. "If it were Sam, would he?"
It seemed to Luke that the mention of Sam caught her attention more effectively than anything else up till then. She pulled up a chair and made a valiant attempt to lower her voice. "Sorry," she offered. She looked like she meant it, and Luke guessed it would be the best he would get.
Then, apparently she realized there were more important things to consider, and stood again. "Tell him I hope he gets better soon. I gotta go—Sam wanted a drink!" It seemed that was all they needed to know as they watched her get a bottle from the cold drinks cabinet, pay for it, wave, and leave.
Elliott rolled his eyes, and a grin crossed his mouth. "Do you ever get the feeling of being mauled with her?"
Luke burst out laughing. "I'm guessing they're an item then? Becks and your brother? Bet that's fun!" It wasn't hard to figure out, and at least it now made sense why she was present.
Elliott shook his head, burying it in his hands. "You have no idea," he grunted. "They're as bad as each other, and fight like cat and dog!"
Luke was intrigued. "How long have they been going out?" Becky had never mentioned it.
"Oh, a while now." Elliott looked thoughtful. "Actually, it was her that suggested to Sam that he needed his operation." He paused and grinned. "Scratch that. More like told him he needed it!"
“And that was today…his operation?”
“No, his most recent op was a few days ago," said Elliott. "But they’ve kept him in a couple of days, just to keep an eye on him. He’ll be coming home tomorrow, if all’s well.”
Luke wasn't going to ask what the 'operation' was. Perhaps it could have been a circumcision they were talking about, though he highly doubted it. Having seen them at the clinic as well as here, he took a stab that Sam was likely to be a patient of Dr. Tiberius. From personal experience, he knew Tiberius dealt with those kinds of things as outpatients at his clinic, not here in a hospital. So, either it was really complicated or something else altogether. Either way, none of it fitted with 'sandblasted'. Also it was none of his business.
Elliott, however, seemed to be considering Luke's' reluctance to be nosey. Whatever was going through his head, he appeared to come to a decision.
"I guess I'd better explain," he said. Forestalling Luke's response that there was no need, Elliott looked resigned. "You're probably going to get it from Becky now, anyway. Might as well get the story straight."
Glancing around to check they had no listeners, Elliott leaned in and lowered his voice. Luke leaned in, too, and the first thing he got was a waft of that cologne that made him want to ask, 'what IS that stuff? I'd love to try it!'. Clean would be a word he would give it. Like fresh linen: warm without being cloying, carrying a hint of something he couldn't put his finger on. He tried hard not sniff again!
"Sam's the middle one,” Elliott began. “But you knew that, of course. There’s me, Sam, and then our little sister, Natty. What you didn't know was that Sam was born in Oman.”
“Oman?” It was like every turn in the conversation came out of some Hollywood blockbuster!
“Yep.” Elliott smirked. “He’s Middle Eastern to the core! Dad was doing his thing there, so that's where we lived. I mean I don't actually remember anything about it myself. I was just a kid." He shrugged. "I found out most of it from Mom a lot later."
"Most of what?" Luke probed. It was beginning to feel like the script was turning out to be some murder-mystery flick!
"Patience!" Elliott paused, staring at the table as though collecting his thoughts. Then his face became a question. "You know what circumcision is, I guess?"
Oooohhh—tough question! Luke rolled his eyes, though the derisive tone of his reply came with a grin. "Of course I do. I might be British, and I know we're weird, but we’re not that stupid!"
"Right. Course you’re not, though you said weird, not me!" Elliott smirked. Both of them seemed to be enjoying the banter. He continued, "Well, to put it simply, Sam's being un-circumcised..."
Banter or not, Luke's face must have betrayed how much he didn’t get that, and he frowned. "Un-circumcised?"
Holy Cow! That was a new one...even for him!
"Can you do that?"
In his mind’s eye, he reviewed the critical moments in his own, fairly recent, circumcision. He remembered the moment a SmartKlamp was snapped into place. 'Point of no return' Tiberius had very definitely said as a collar of foreskin was cut away!
"I don't get it," he admitted at last. It went against everything he felt was right. "How the hell do you get un-circumcised? And why would your brother need to do that anyway? Because Becky told him he needed to be?" Such a thing had to be way past weird, and it had to be something other than that.
"No, it's nothing like that." Elliott laughed and shook his head, then his mouth twisted in thought and he seemed to drift. "Actually, it's a bit more complicated." He stopped, leaving Luke wondering what kind of complicated. Maybe that would be all he would get?
"So, you were born in Oman, too, then?" Luke asked, breaking the silence and digging a bit, even just to find out more about Elliott.
"Me?" Elliott's eyes danced again as he looked up. "No. Actually, I was born in Argentina!"
"And you call me weird?" Luke couldn't help his mouth falling open, and he shook his head. This was some movie! Having more than just a passing interest in the wider world, he made some quick, educated guesses. "So, are you Argentinian, or do you have an American passport, too?"
"Ooohh…not slow are you?" Elliott's eyebrows twitched, and he sat back again and grinned. "Both actually. But I mostly use the Argentine one for my CIA stuff! Stop interrupting…now where was I?"
"Beats me! Oman, I think.” Luke chuckled, delighted the tale was back on track. He sipped at his tea and waited.
"Oman...yes," Elliott leaned forward again and looked more serious. "Like I said, Mom and Dad were there with Dad's work for DHL. That's where Sam was born. I don't know all the details, only what came out when we were discussing it with Dr. Tiberius."
Luke remained passive, not giving any indication, either way, whether the physician’s name was familiar or not.
"Well, being a Muslim country, the doctors at the hospital were keen that they should get Sam circumcised straight away," Elliott continued. "I think that's fairly normal in those kinds of places."
"But your folks are American, aren't they?" To Luke, it seemed to be quite normal here, too.
"Yes and no."
Luke pulled a face. "Good God! Do you actually enjoy not making it easy?"
Elliott laughed, the cheeky grin reappearing. "Dad's American. Mom's from Venezuela."
Luke groaned and held up his hands. "Okay, I give up…forget I asked!"
"They met at DHL."
"Not like Castaway then?" The Tom Hanks movie had come out a few years previously.
"Now that, Luke Summers, is a dirty word in DHL!" Elliott put his hands over his ears. "Go wash your mouth out!"
Sniggering, Luke’s eyes flicked to his watch. He knew he should really go back upstairs, but he also wanted to hear the rest of the story. Fortunately, Elliott obliged.
"So, in Oman, my folks didn't really speak the language back then,” he said. “The guy who was the local company rep was running shotgun with them at the hospital, and he seemed pretty good. He did all the translating, and everything went smoothly. A couple of days after Sam was born, the hospital suggested that Sam should be circumcised. The company guy seemed quite insistent, and persuaded them, telling them that getting Sam cut was some great honor or something, and that it would be extremely disrespectful to the culture if they refused.
"But like I said, Dad's American, and being cut runs in the family, if you get what I mean, so Mom and Dad weren't too worried about it." Elliott winked. "Being a Brit, you'll probably notice that more than most around here!"
"So they just went with the flow?"
Elliott nodded. "Pretty much. They were new in the country and didn't want to ruffle any feathers, even though they'd not been originally planning to have it done. At least not right then. What seemed a bit strange to my folks at the time was that, when the doctors brought Sam back after it was done, they also brought some kind of religious cleric with him."
Luke frowned. "You mean like an Imam or something?"
"I guess." Elliott shrugged. "Whoever he was, he seemed pretty important, and they were told again that it had been a great honor that had been bestowed on Sam."
"An honor?" Tiberius had said lots of things about being cut, but being an honor wasn't one of them! “What kind of honor?”
"Nobody really knew at the time," Elliott replied. "They just figured it was some cultural blessing or something. Either that or just a poor translation. The guy made a point of telling them that Sam would be a fine young Muslim now, whatever that meant."
"To be honest, nothing much. It was over and done with, and everyone moved on. Sam always seemed happy enough as we were growing up." Elliott pursed his lips in a deliberate way. "I guess you don't really know him, but he’s never been short when it comes to having a big personality!"
Luke smirked. "Chalk and cheese as brothers, then?"
Elliott remained smug at the teasing. "Maybe. Who knows...?" To Luke, it felt remarkably like an invitation to find out.
"Sam even used to boast that he was cut like Dad,” Elliott continued. “You know what kids are like."
Cut like Dad? It was a funny way of saying it, butLuke didn’t doubt that the older brother was, too. He had to be…didn’t he? What he was beginning to realize was that Elliott wasn't actually turning out to be anything like the person he had expected. In fact, his ridiculous little preconceptions seemed just that!
Get a grip, Summers!
“I mean I love him to bits,” Elliott added. “But younger brothers can be a pain in the ass sometimes!”
"Yeah—tell me about it." Luke was reminded again that his own brother was upstairs in surgery. He looked at his watch. He should go up soon.
Elliott seemed to sense his distraction. "Do you wanna go back up to check on your brother again?"
Luke nodded. It had been a pleasant few minutes, but the memories of Simon screaming in the back of the van simmered under the surface. He drank down the last of his cup and started to move. Between them, they cleared the empty cups onto the tray.
"What about Sam?" Despite being in a hurry to get back upstairs, Luke didn't feel like the tale had yet ended. His head flicked to encompass the hospital. "How did you end up here?"
As he slid the tray into one of the storage racks, Elliott grimaced, "Well, I figured something wasn't right when, a few months back, Sam starts getting real moody. Eventually he bursts into tears with me. We're pretty close, so he tells me most stuff. Middle school can be a bitch, and it came down to him being completely freaked because he was being tormented big time because of his dick."
"Why?" Luke frowned again as they navigated their way towards the exit. "I mean surely he's cut like all the rest of his friends?" It was the only possible reason he could think of for that kind of teasing as they made their way out of the cafeteria. Unless it wasn't about that, of course.
"Yes and no," Elliott replied. He paused, glancing around about them as they entered the main corridor. It was empty other than them. "The thing is, his dick was always a bit unusual, even as a kid."
Before Luke needed to ask ‘in what way weird’, Elliott explained. He also couldn't help smiling as he stuck out his finger provocatively. "I always used to tell him he had a stumpy little wiener!"
Luke couldn't help but smirk. It was a vivid description. "Ahhh… It didn't bother him?"
"Not until now, no." Elliott sighed. "You have to remember that we were all home schooled. He never saw many others to know any different. To him, it was some sign of manhood! It certainly didn't bother him that, either in his underwear or swim trunks, the poor kid's wanger tended to stick out horizontally. As a kid, it tended to look a little like he was permanently boned up!"
"Holy shit," Luke muttered. He could have laughed, but he didn't. It wasn't hard to imagine the implications of that in the school locker rooms at Sam’s age! He knew all too well how nasty kids could be. "No wonder middle school was a bitch. They must have ripped him to shreds!"
"You're not fucking wrong!" From accompanying the angry glint, it wasn't hard for Luke to guess that he was pretty spot on!
“When he was younger, it was just how it was, and Sam didn’t even seem to notice, or care. But as he got older—he’s thirteen now—it’s got more pronounced. That’s when we went to see Dr. Tiberius." Elliott pressed the button to call the lift. "Actually, it was the day we saw you there."
Luke wondered if Elliott would ask why he was there that day, but his friend seemed to be brooding as they watched the strip that showed that the lifts apparently had no interest in descending.
"Come on, let's walk," Elliott murmured. "You're on the first floor, I think you said."
"So, what did Tiberius say?" Side by side they took to the stairs, and Luke phrased his question carefully. It wasn't really any of his business, but...
Elliott's face darkened. "It was the phrase 'a fine young Muslim' that he said caught his attention." He pulled a face. "Anyway, it turns out that not only was Sam cut really tight and every shred of his foreskin sliced away, but this special gift—" he enclosed the word in hand-drawn punctuation marks, "—that they gave him, included cutting into and damaging some of the muscles and tendons around the base of his dick."
Luke stopped in his tracks. "Fucking hell! Why the hell would they do that?" Unbelievable! It wasn't funny anymore and he regretted asking.
"Tiberius said he'd heard of it before, but never come across any cases himself. He said it was extremely rare, even in staunchly traditional Arab countries. They apparently choose babies that some religious guy declares God has somehow ordained for a higher purpose—all with some crap notion that it's God's will—and make him something special!"
Elliott’s eyes flared, the anger brimming just below the surface. He spoke through gritted teeth. "Kids done like that are not only permanently uncovered, but because of the tissue scarring where the cuts are made, they ensure they can never again hang down naturally, leaving them jutting out like a sore thumb."
"Shit...that's awful!" Why the fuck would they do that?
"Maybe sore thumb is a poor analogy." Elliott glowered, and his anger seemed to be growing by the moment. "Left uncovered like that, they grow up with it chaffing away in their underwear until the head is completely covered with a thick insensitive skin. You can guess what that does to a guy's ability to feel any pleasure, let alone fucking cum!"
Luke flinched. It was an indication of how pissed off Elliott had suddenly become that he spoke so overtly.
"And you want to know why?" Elliott's anger spilled over at last and his voice climbed. "All so that when the guy dies, he'll be in good shape to keep all those virgins satisfied without ever tiring! How FUCKED UP is that?"
They'd reached the top of the stairs and stopped. Elliott was breathing heavily, though it wasn't from the exertion. There were lots of things Luke might have said, but nothing seemed to be right.
"Sorry..." he finally murmured. "No wonder you're pissed off. I know I would be."
Elliott grunted, and looked away. Maybe he was disappointed with himself that he’d lost his rag. The first-floor doors leading to the surgical suites were close by, and Luke felt awkward. They couldn’t stand there all day, and it would probably be the last time he saw the guy. He was disappointed with himself, too.
You had to go and frigging ask didn't you! He berated himself for being far too nosey. It was a pity, but at least he knew the guy's name now...for all the good that was.
Ask for his number...?
There wasn’t much else to say, other than, “I'd better go see how things are with Simon. Thanks for keeping me company, and I hope things work out okay for Sam."
A wry expression crossed Elliott's face as the disappointment slipped into something else less easy to understand. Whatever it was, it was fleeting and he smiled and said, "See you then. Hope your brother gets better soon." With that he turned and bounded further up the stairs.
As soon as Elliott disappeared from sight, Luke turned and entered the corridor that led back to the surgical suites, where the general-purpose carpet suddenly gave way to a sterile, unforgiving glazed tiles. Despite being disappointed by the way it had ended, there were other things to worry about. Putting Elliott out of his mind, he focused on Simon and hurried back to where he had left his parents waiting. As he was passing the reception desk and heading back towards the relatives waiting room, a voice called his name.
He slowed, searching for the source. "Yes?"
The beady-eyed matron at the desk was studying some details on a patient card she was holding. "Luke Summers?" she repeated, searching him. Her tone was all business-like.
"Yes, that's me." His stomach wobbled, wondering why he was being called out like this.
"I've a message for you. Your brother, Simon, is out of surgery and is being transferred upstairs to ward fifty-two." She smiled and warmed up. "It's the children's ward on the fifth floor. West side. Your parents have already gone up."
He resisted the urge to go to the waiting room anyway, just to check that he wasn't somehow being sent on a wild goose chase, and was just beginning to fume, wondering what the hell had happened to the promised phone call, when his phone binged. A quick look, showed a missed call. His mum had called him after all, but he’d either been too engrossed in Elliott and hadn’t heard, or there’d been no signal.
Feeling a little more guilty, he hurried back out to where the lifts and stairs were located. Ignoring the former, which was a crock of shit, he bounded up the stairs two at a time for the first two flights, paused to get his breath, and then hurried up the last two.
At the top, he lost his bearings.
Which way was fucking west? He stabbed a guess and turned to the right.
"Ward fifty-two? West?" He aimed the question at a handy passing nurse who seemed busy enough already. She slowed long enough to point to an astoundingly clear sign above his head that pointed in the other direction. Feeling a bit of an asshole, he nodded his thanks and did an about turn.
Pushing through several sets of double doors, the ambience of the surroundings shifted rather quickly from relentless shades of hospital green to bright, cheerful tones, and to busy walls adorned with colorful cartoon characters. The flooring softened and warmed to a cheery pastel blue as he passed into the children's ward.
It turned out that ward fifty-two encompassed a big portion of the top floor. It was divided into multiple sections. He found himself in what immediately felt more like a spacious children's hotel than a hospital, and was confronted by spritely bedrooms, eating areas and soft-cushioned play zones. There seemed to be TVs, video game consoles, and Legos sprouting in every corner.
He trotted down the wide hallway, passing bedded private rooms along both sides, until he came to the reception desk. He was waiting to catch the attention of one of the staff when he spotted his mum and dad further down. They were standing in closeted conversation with two men, one of whom was Dr. Tiberius. The other, an Indian doctor, was still wearing surgical greens.
All the wrong things sprung to mind—many coming from episodes of Casualty and movies where the haggard doctor comes over to inform loved ones that their beloved never made it; their not-yet-cold, lifeless body laying in the operating room for the family to come bid their final farewells!
His pulse started to race!
"Yes, can I help you?" Nearby at the desk, a staff member tried to get his attention, but he ignored her, and bolted in the direction of his worst fears.
"Ah, hello Luke." As Luke arrived at the group, Tiberius greeted him in a voice that didn't sound anything like as haggard as the guy’s on Casualty. Neither did the look on his parents' faces give the appearance of recent or even imminent morbidity, and Luke felt a bit of a moron. Tiberius didn’t look quite as formal as he had in his office, but still appeared neatly turned out for his day off.
“Jonathan managed to pop in to see Simon,” Lucy said. There was a great deal more relief in her face now than there had been the last time Luke had seen her.
"So, how is he?" Luke asked. “Sorry I didn’t get your call—I don’t think there’s any signal down there.”
“He seems to be out of the woods," Geoff answered for her, adding, “Jonathan, we really do appreciate you coming all the way up here.”
“It was the least I could do,” Tiberius returned. “He’s my patient, though it was my colleague Dr. Chowdry who operated today.”
Luke frowned as he studied the man next to Tiberius. What kind of operated?
Chowdry was a slight man, who looked to be in his fifty’s. He had straight black hair, a moustache and a medium brown complexion. He didn’t seem the smiling type as he took over. Luke guessed he hadn’t missed much as the surgeon said, “As I was just saying, Mr. Summers, the operation went to plan as we discussed, and your son is in recovery. I expect he'll be transferred up here in the next forty-five minutes or so, though that will depend on how quickly he comes out of the anesthetic."
Luke frowned in the direction of his mum and dad. Discussed? When did that happen? When they were downstairs?
Next to him, Tiberius looked thoughtful, and answered for them. "I appreciate that this wasn't the end result Simon was hoping for, but Pranav is right. In the circumstances, it couldn't be helped and is the most sensible approach at this point. The good news is that the end result should still be clean and neat."
Luke was still none the wiser, and knew he was missing something. What couldn’t be helped?
"So, you think Simon should be fine now?" Geoff asked.
"Of course, Mr. Summers." Chowdry’s tone suggested he was rather affronted by the question, even though it wasn’t addressed to him. "A standard circumcision is a very normal procedure. Your son will heal quickly enough, and should recover completely.”
“Simon had to be circumcised?” Luke said at once. He could tell them right off the bat that his brother wasn't going to be happy with that.
Chowdry glanced at him through dark eyes, and Luke got the impression the surgeon didn’t like being interrupted as he continued as though Luke hadn’t said anything at all. "Given the general anesthetic, I'd like him to stay in just for the night so that we can keep an eye on him." He sounded firm and Luke could see the taint of disappointment in his mum's face. She wanted to take her baby home!
"Just to be on the safe side," Chowdry said. "And to make sure we stay on top of the pain meds if he needs them."
That was a surprise, too. From Luke’s own op, even with the Smartklamp, there had been scalpels and cutting, yet he’d gone home immediately. Perhaps the damage to Simon was worse than he’d thought? It seemed that his mum was getting ready to put forward a robust case for the defense, when his dad's presence slid into the gap between them. Geoff’s tone was tactfully firm. "We can do that, doctor."
Luke watched her eyes narrow, and could almost see her brain ticking as she processed it.
"Now, if you will excuse me—" Chowdry said. He paused to see if there were any more questions, but it was apparent he felt there were more important places for him to be.
"Thank you, Doctor," Lucy said, and Luke could tell his mum was making a real effort to smother her disappointment. "We appreciate all you’ve done."
Chowdry appeared he feel his task was done, and nodded briskly to Tiberius before walking off, leaving just the four of them—clearly a man of few words!
Tiberius was a little more considerate now that Chowdry had gone. "I think it's probably for the best for Simon to stay the night, too, Lucy—and he’s in good hands here."
"Was there much damage, Jonathan?"
"I understand that Simon was quite swollen and in some pain,” replied Tiberius. “Paraphimosis is an extremely unpleasant condition. But with the appropriate use of ice packs, they were able to make the reduction. But, as Pranav will have explained earlier when he discussed this with you, a full circumcision is always indicated in these circumstances."
“It was when you were at the cafeteria,” Lucy explained, seeing Luke’s frown. “He came across after you’d left, to give us an update.”
"Did Simon say what happened?" Tiberius asked, changing the subject a little.
Luke’s mum and dad exchanged glances. That was the big question.
"Nothing," Lucy replied at last. There was a tightness in her tone as she grimaced at the memories. "He could hardly talk, he was in so much pain! If only we'd have come home sooner, rather than..."
Rather than buying a car, you mean? Luke tried to keep it from his face, but that was hardly fair to blame him!
“Maybe we shouldn’t worry about that just now,” Geoff suggested. “The good news is that it’s been dealt with and he’s going to be okay. It seems that there aren’t going to be any long-term consequences.” His eyes flicked to the Doctor. “That’s right isn’t it, Jonathan?”
There was nothing in Tiberius’ demeanor that disagreed. "There’ll be the normal short-term discomfort that comes from any operation of that nature, but other than that, I'm absolutely confidant Simon is going to be fine. It may take him a little while to get used to it, but that’s not abnormal for the procedure.”
Luke kept his thoughts to himself. No kidding! But as Tiberius said, it was done now, and basically Simon was just going to have to get used to being unhooded, whether he liked it or not.
“Well, that’s a relief. Of course, I’d rather we could take him home, but—” Lucy took a deep breath and seemed to let it go. The tension was beginning to drop away, and she glanced around the ward, as if checking if it would do "—do you know how long it will be before he comes out of recovery? Will they bring him straight up here?"
“How about this…I just need to stop by another patient for a few minutes, while I’m here,” Tiberius said. “Then I’ll pop down there and check for you. I’ll find out what I can, and come straight back.”
“Thank you. We would appreciate it. And thank you again for coming here like this.”
Luke had to agree. You had to hand it to the guy, Tiberius had gone the extra mile for them and had been a tower of strength.
“It’s my pleasure,” Tiberius said. He beamed in his usual caring manner. “And a good night’s sleep under the care of the staff here will do him a world of good.”
"And then we can bring some fresh clothes for him in the morning, can't we, Hon?" Geoff said. "The poor lad has just gone through surgery and he’s probably far too bushed to travel tonight."
"Tomorrow then," Lucy agreed, voicing her commitment to stay on track. "We can stay for this evening though, can’t we?" She looked hopeful.
"Of course you can!" Tiberius beamed with increased enthusiasm. He waved his hand to encompass their environs. "This is probably the best children's ward in the whole of greater Atlanta, and by far the best place for Simon right now."
She visibly brightened at this, and Tiberius continued, indicating the soft seating and extensive spaces set aside for relaxation. "They keep a far less strict approach to visiting hours than in the rest of the hospital. Here, families are encouraged to be around as long as they wish. It's better for everyone. So why don’t you just get yourself registered at the desk and get some family badges, and then you can stay until you know Simon is settled for the night. In a few minutes, I’ll just go see how he’s doing.”
As Tiberius headed towards a nearby ward, the three of them made tracks to the desk. It took a while and involved more paperwork before they were granted their family passes. That done, they found some comfortable seats to wait. Around about them, children came and went. Many of the younger ones were in PJ’s and looked ready for bed. The conversation soon got back to why Simon hadn’t called for help sooner that afternoon.
“He could have contacted us anytime,” Geoff repeated. “We were only a phone call away, and we could have been back at the house in twenty minutes if needed. I think we all assumed he was up at Grace’s.”
“Yes…I guess.” Lucy looked downcast. “Maybe Grace knows more?”
“Maybe,” Geoff agreed. “But my guess is he was stretching with the Glansie tool and it went wrong. Who knows why he didn’t tell us?”
Luke didn't know what to say, so he kept quiet. His dad was probably right. Simon must have come home from the Skerrits and somehow messed up on his stretching. But then he hadn't done himself any favors by hiding the damage until it became too late.
Why the hell didn’t he say?
True to his word, it wasn’t long before Tiberius was back. Immediately, they all stood.
“How is he?” Lucy asked.
“Not to worry,” Tiberius said at once as they gathered around him. “He’s doing fine. As far as I can see, the outcome of the surgery is perfectly normal. They’re still keeping an eye on him; I would say he’ll be another thirty minutes at least.”
“Will you be here in the morning, Jonathan?” Lucy asked, looking hopeful.
“I’m afraid not.” Tiberius shook his head. “I have patients to see at the clinic tomorrow. But it should be fairly straightforward. First thing, Simon will just need to be seen by one of the nurses to have the catheter removed. A consultant will be around to check him over, and then I’m confidant they’ll be able to discharge him."
Catheter? Luke could see that this was new to his mum and dad, too, as they glanced at each other in surprise.
"And then he can come home?" Lucy said at last.
"I'm more than sure or it.” Tiberius became business-like. “Now, I'll want to take the stitches out in five to seven days. I’ll have my office send you an appointment for that. In the meantime, you can take off the outer dressings in three days. Just let him take a long soak in a warm bath, and the bandages should come away easily enough.”
Tiberius indicated in the direction of the reception. "The staff will give you all this in writing before you leave tomorrow, so don't worry about remembering it all now." Obviously feeling he’d done all he could, he stretched out his hand.
Geoff took it immediately. "Again, Jonathan, thanks for coming up here today. We really appreciate it."
Luke nodded in agreement as his mum shook the doctor's hand, too.
"Try not to worry,” Tiberius said. “He's in good hands here."
Try not to worry? There was more chance of it never raining in Manchester, than for his mum not to do THAT!
"Is it just me, hon?" Lucy muttered as she sank back down on the couch after they watched Tiberius go. "Or do you feel like you’ve just been dragged through a hedge backwards. I could really do with a strong cup of coffee! Do you think we've got time?"
Geoff checked his watch. "Well, from what Jonathan said, I reckon Simon won't be brought up to the ward for another half an hour. I think there’s time." He caught Luke's eye and Luke correctly read the signal. His dad was right...she looked bushed.
"You go." Luke smiled as he waved his mobile. They both knew she would want someone here just in case, and he’d already had his tea break. "I'm fine. I’ll give you a call you if he comes up sooner, and if I can’t get through, I’ll come and get you. The cafeteria is on the ground floor. Turn right when you come out of the lift."
With his mum apparently satisfied he would ride shotgun for them, they left the ward, and he sat back into one of the couches, resorting to watching a cartoon channel as he waited.
"Hey there! Long time, no see!"
The voice startled him. From where he was sitting, he twisted his head up and back to find Elliott grinning down at him.