Editor’s note: you can read Part 4 here.
He knew as he walked to the waiting room with Melly that he couldn’t leave. He texted Ray that he was tied up, then slumped into a chair like a man knocked down by a haymaker punch he never saw coming.
His mind played back Linus’s request like an audio loop. The image of a baby formed before his eyes against the blank waiting room wall, its innocence and potential as pure as sunlight. His genes, and those of his father and mother (now gone), living on through this sparkling baby. And what an offer — to procreate without responsibility, a donor of life who gives and then departs, his duty done in minutes rather than over decades.
And of course there was the karmic payback, the chance to give life where once he had taken it. Now in his mind’s movie theatre he saw himself in another waiting room, his girlfriend Kimmie’s red eyes and smeared mascara, the signs on the wall about sexually-transmitted diseases and something called the morning after pill that he had never known existed.
Someone said “father” and he looked up to see Melly staring at him, holding a pot of thick black coffee in one hand and a styrofoam cup in another.
“What did you say?”
“Coffee. I asked if you wanted coffee,” she said.
Neil shook his head, and watched her turn from him, her hands moving over packets of sugar and artificial sweetener and dried creamer.
“You and Linus have been looking into the artificial insemination thing for a while?” he said.
She turned to him, her face wrinkling in confusion, teeth chewing her bottom lip. “We can’t afford that kind of thing,” she said, and he understood with great clarity that he was expected to have sex with her. He found himself appraising her with different eyes, noticing the way her button-down shirt gaped slightly between her breasts, and the soft roundness of her rear end.
After a time, sitting in silence next to Melly, the thought occurred to him: What if Linus died on the operating table? Did he mean for Neil to take Melly as his wife? Panic stirred in him, and he sat up straight in the chair, his legs ready to run. He willfully slowed his breathing. Certainly that wasn’t Linus’s expectation. He just wanted to come clean with Neil about his reasons for dragging him to the Green Man bar. A deathbed declaration of truth was all it was.
His mind took on the prayerful mantra, “let him be okay, let him be okay,” and Neil realized this was the closest he had come to praying since his mother’s death. But because he didn’t believe in God, he threw the words out into the universe like pennies into a wishing well, rather than addressing them to some supreme being with the power to grant him this request.
Melly turned on the television, standing on her tiptoes to reach the buttons that changed the channels. A remote control was nowhere to be found. She settled on a cooking show, and they both stared at the female chef at her stove, talking directly into the camera. And so the hours passed.
The surgeon strode in on lime-green running shoes, his head covered in a blue bandanna that matched his eyes.
“Mrs. Deguerra?” he said, and Melly glanced at Neil shyly before taking the more expedient choice of letting him identify her this way, instead of going through the “we’re not married” speech.
“The surgery went well. The bullet missed his heart by an inch. It sliced through his shoulder and went out the other side, so we had nothing to remove. We’ll know later if he’s lost any motor function or has nerve damage; in which case he may need more surgery. But he’s recovering nicely.”
Melly seemed to melt with relief, and Neil felt a weight lifted. No need to worry about interpreting Linus’s intent in making his odd request and wondering if it included becoming Melly’s guardian, protector and baby daddy.
After another cooking show had begun and ended, Neil heard the soft squeak of sneakers on the tile floor. A nurse in pink scrubs holding a clipboard motioned for them both to follow her. Neil followed the two women, feeling tethered to Melly and unwilling to let her out of his sight until he had delivered her back safely to Linus.
They came to brightly lit single room, where Linus lay looking out the dark window.
Neil heard Melly gasp back a sob, then watched her as she flung her brown purse on the ground and slid into the chair next to the bed. Linus turned to her and they pressed their heads together, hands clasping. She kissed him several times, her lips making soft smacks on his skin. Linus winced in pain but still smiled. Their love electrified the air, and Neil felt the tiny hairs on the back of his arms and neck begin to stand up in response. Here was certain love.
“I’ll do it,” he blurted out, and they both turned their eyes to him, first in surprise, then joy.