On the third morning, the perfunctory consultation with the doctors feels routine.
“We’re going to keep him sedated for another twenty-four hours, at least,” the latest doctor says. “Just to be safe.”
They tried to wake her brother again this morning. And again Cam struggled so violently that the doctors, fearful he’d do more damage to his compromised organs, quickly sedated him again.
Claire gives a small exhausted smile at the linoleum floor. How typical of Cam. He’s always been difficult to rouse from sleep, so of course he’d be worse during a good old-fashioned trauma and sedation.
Claire yawns into her palm. She wouldn’t mind a bit of sedation herself right now. She is so acutely exhausted she can’t even remember what it feels like not to be tired. For a place of rest, the hospital is anything but restful. People come and go all day from Cam’s room. There are the doctors, the nurses, and the aides—even physios. Then there are Cam’s friends, her aunt Lucy, and her mother’s and father’s superiors waiting just outside the door. Even Elana has appeared, a constant questioning presence, forming a Greek chorus of sorts with her mother and her aunt.
Jangled with fatigue, Claire spends all of her time with Cam in his room, where only immediate family is allowed. She can barely stand to be in the waiting room. She can’t handle the constant, repetitive enquiries, the efforts at comforting advice or sympathy, the need to talk when, really, there’s nothing to be said. She goes home to sleep for a few hours at a time, but it’s choppy and restless and cut up with dreams that wake her long before she’s ready.
She leaves her parents with the doctor and wanders through another set of doors to the covered section outside emergency. There is a small crowd of people smoking, looking skittish and anxious, the way people outside emergency centres do. Claire avoids them and stands against a wall by a sad garden bed with some scrubby natives. She checks the time on her phone. It’s nine fourteen in the morning. She has missed calls and messages from Mia, Robbie, and Nina. She knows she should call them, but she can’t just yet. Instead, she shuts her eyes to the stinging sunlight and tries to be somewhere else for a minute.
* * *
On the fourth day they manage to wake Cam.
He’s lucid straight away, but his voice is so raspy and quiet that Claire is the only person who understands what he says. The nurses tell her it’s the irritation from his oxygen. Temporary, they assure her.
Claire acts as his translator, making words from his slurring, barely there whisper.
It turns out she doesn’t only need to play translator to his words, though. More alarmingly, she also has to translate the world back to him, explaining and re-explaining why the hell he’s lying in a hospital bed. It’s the pain relief making him forget, his nurse explains, not his head injury. Claire answers the same questions over and over. He’s been in car crash. His shift partner, the driver, is fine. The kid is fine. Cam is fine. It’s like some horror version of Groundhog Day.
She tries not to lose patience. She can’t. Every time he rouses slightly and asks her again what’s going on, she sees the panic in his eyes. And she recognises that feeling of dread in Cam that she felt when Andrew passed her the phone four nights ago. Only this is way worse and on constant repeat for him.
So, every time he asks, she just takes a deep breath and tells him all over again.
* * *
On the fifth day, they take him to another ward.
Now he’s awake, mostly coherent, and breathing on his own, the doctors say he can move to a high-dependency ward. Her mother and father return to work, too, and Claire is left with him during the day. She sits in a corner under the windowsill and studies for exams as he slides in and out of sleep.
They give him his own little remote to administer pain relief.
“I feel like a cyborg, using a remote control to operate myself,” he jokes weakly.
“How bad does it hurt?” Claire asks.
Claire pulls her legs up onto the chair and frowns. She’s not sure she could cope. She has never hurt herself badly, just a couple of sprains and a broken toe when she was eleven.
“Remember when you broke your toe when we were kids?”
“I was just thinking about that.”
“I bet this hurts a lot more.”
Claire shoots him a look. “Yeah, you know, Cam, I think this is one time where we don’t need to be competitive, okay?”
He chuckles and then groans. “You still have to say I won, though.”
Before Claire can say anything, a nurse comes in. She goes over to the bed and checks on the different tubes and bandages. She barely responds to the smile of greeting on Cam’s face and leaves without saying a word.
“Geez,” he mutters. “What did Mum do? I’ve been in this ward one day, and I think they all hate me.”
Claire flicks her pen between her fingers. “She was…Mum. She treated them like they were guilty of a crime they hadn’t even committed.”
He lets out a choppy sigh. “I’ve got my work cut out for me charming these ones, then. Or no treats for me.”
“With your social skills that was always going to be an uphill battle anyway.” She waits for his comeback, but he doesn’t have one. He’s sliding suddenly, involuntarily back into sleep again, the way he does. Claire opens her book and smiles. She never thought she’d be so happy to bicker with her brother.
* * *
On the sixth day, she sits in the hallway and tries to figure out what day it is.
She’s just decided it’s a Tuesday when her parents arrive, fresh from a conference with the doctors. They sit on either side of her. She stiffens, immediately wary of this collective approach. This is never good.
“Sweetheart,” Christine says as her father takes hold of Claire’s forearm. “We have to leave town tomorrow.”
“Leave? Where are you going?” Claire frowns. She wasn’t expecting that.
“Canberra,” her father says.
“Remember that conference we told you about?”
Claire nods dully. Here we go, she thinks.
“It starts tomorrow, and your mother and I are running half of the sessions between us. We left it until the last minute to decide, but we think we need to go.”
Claire lets out a sigh, not sure what she’s supposed to say to this. They seem to have already made up their minds.
“If we don’t go, they’ll have to cancel our sessions,” Christine adds.
“Yeah, and God forbid the lawyers of Canberra don’t get the benefit of your wisdom.” Claire sighs and shakes off her father’s hand and crosses her arms over her chest.
Christine narrows her eyes as though she’s about to tell Claire off. Instead, she lets out a little sigh, rearranges her face, and leans in closer. “We thought about cancelling. But, sweetie, the doctor says Cam will be fine. It’s just a process of recovery now. And if we’re needed quickly, we’re only a couple of hours away.”
“Which, the doctors assure us, we won’t be,” her father adds.
“Besides,” Christine puts a hand on Claire’s arm, “you’re quite old enough to look after things here without us.”
Am I? Claire wonders. This is new information to her.
“And we’ll call you morning and night,” Christine continues. “Lucy will be here too. We’ve asked the doctors to check in with us daily, so you don’t have to worry about anything but being with your brother.”
Claire rests her head against the wall, eyes closed. There’s no point saying anything, obviously. This has clearly been decided, and their departure is now to be treated as fact. “When do you leave?”
“In the morning, first thing. We’ll come by here first and then go.”
A week. That’s all they could spare for Cam before going on with their lives? “What if something happens?”
“Nothing will happen,” Christine tells her firmly, her hand still on Claire’s arm. “And if by any small chance it does, I’m sure you can handle it until we get here. You’re an adult now,” she tells her as if she’s bestowing a treat on Claire, like an imminent trip to the zoo or a new car.
Claire sits up taller and inhales deeply. “Yeah, whatever. Go.” She yanks her arm out of her mother’s possession and stands. She wants them to shut up and go now if that’s what they’re going to do.