After multiple degrees in computer science and a successful career in the health care industry, Jeff Jaskot choose to return to one of his first loves—writing fiction. A lifelong resident of the Detroit area, he lives with his wife (also a first love), boomeranging children and their associated pets.
by Jeff Jaskot
“And how’s my sweet Jesus doing today?”
It was Daffodil again. Come to empty me out and fill me up. Another day must have spun around, maybe a whole weekend gone. I was past trying to scream, past trying to cuss her out, because the truth was, even though I was in a coma, things were looking up. Believe it or not, Daffy, this ain’t the worst trip I’ve been on. All of which came out as “Ahhhhhh, um.”
I could hear her breathing over me, listening intently, waiting for more. “Nothing else, baby? No? OK, verbal about the same as yesterday.” There was scribbling on a clipboard, the puckering of rubber-soled shoes around the solid floor, and then the faintest squeak of plastic tubes twisting together. Always one of my better senses, now that I couldn’t see, couldn’t talk, I had grown the ears of an elephant.
She smashed my fingertip between clipboard and pen and I flinched. “Good, good. Now that’s real progress. You’re getting close to double digits, baby.” I sniffed a laugh—which she didn’t notice—at the thought that feeling pain was a good thing.
It had started innocent enough, horseplay and a fall out of tall maple at thirteen that broke my arm in three places. The surgery went smoothly, a Vicodin recovery was heavenly, followed by the craving. There were leftovers in my parent’s medicine cabinet from some dental work and a vasectomy (as an only child that hurt in other ways). And then I found friends to share my escapes.
Beads entered as Daffy was flipping me about. “Do you need any help?” she asked in her husky tone.
“I’ve got it, Sister. JD here is quite cooperative as always.”
There was an uncomfortable silence, the only sound being Beads’s annoying habit of scrunching her rosary in her hand. It had been early on, maybe the second or third day, that I figured out that I was in a Catholic hospital. There were an awful lot of prayers being said for me. And, of course, I never had a sister. Not even a father or mother anymore.
“Has anyone asked about him, finally? Anything from the police?”
“No, sister,” Daffy answered. “But he’s made some progress. Hopefully, he’ll be able to tell us all about himself soon.”
Sister Beads’s voice went higher. “So, he’s becoming more aware then?”
I snuffled loudly and heard them both turn my way. What was hilarious was that Beads should be worried about me coming to (turns out even Sisters have their secrets). Quite a few others too. Just after my arrival here, after they had cleaned the grime and streets off me, I had been given a new persona. Ten years of painkillers had already left me slight of frame and gaunt of face. I couldn’t remember the last time I had cut my thin, brown hair. I’m guessing some jokester had left my long hair but trimmed my whiskers into a short beard. Laying me back down onto bleached white sheets, they all commented on the coma-induced serenity that radiated from my face. Almost immediately, John Doe became Jesus Doe. JD for those who didn’t wish to be publicly blasphemous. Having never been religious, it sort of pissed me off a first. But it turned truly entertaining the next night.
Nighttime was easy to sense. I knew I was on the south side of the hospital because the winter sun would fall across my bed. Like a sundial, I probably could predict the time within an hour or two. When the chill of darkness took over, that’s when Vegas would visit. I knew he was in housekeeping because he smelled of disinfectant and cigarettes. It became a nightly ritual (at least every night he worked). Vegas would come to my bedside, lean over and confess his day’s sins. I didn’t get it at first. I honestly thought he was bragging until he asked for my forgiveness. While fascinating, often shocking, even depraved, what I hated was how he would always kiss my hand in repentance as he finished. Knowing all the things he had done and all the places that mouth had been, I’d be scrubbing that hand raw as soon as I could drag myself to a sink.
And it wasn’t just him. Others were soon visiting me. Not always to confess—one nurse simply poked her head in often, saying for all to hear, “Give me strength, Jesus!” before trudging off to her next task. Just one time, a doctor came in, sneaky as the proverbial church mouse. He sounded really young. “I’m not Catholic but please forgive me for cheating on my exams. I’ll try to do no harm.” At least, he wasn’t one of my docs.
“Did you hear there was another one overnight?” asked Daffy, my main source of gossip.
“Dear Lord, no!”
“Up on the 3rd floor, a dementia patient recovering from pneumonia somehow got down the back stairwell and out into that freezing cold courtyard with only his gown on. They found him in the morning curled up behind the shrubs.”
“But don’t they keep–”
“Yep, they keep all those doors locked tight over in that wing, just for that possibility. These ain’t no accidents. Such a shame, too. From what I heard he’d almost recovered.”
That was a shame. Swinging between survival and self-destruction for the last couple of years, I hadn’t had much time for other people’s problems. But I could sympathize with the guy—having been out in the cold, half out of your mind. Funny how laying practically dead for a couple of weeks had raised my body and my mind back up to human level.
By my count, this was the third “accident”. The first one seemed natural enough. Over in the hospice unit on another floor, a 93-year-old woman passing away. To be expected, right? But it turned out to be a morphine overdose. I figuratively perked up on hearing that, as I was riding out my own coma from a bad cocktail of Oxy, Percs and morph. Mine was self-inflicted, hers sounded like a mistake or maybe a mercy killing. Then a second event just a few days later. Down in the emergency department, right below me. By then, my elephonic ears were dialed in. A homeless guy had come in that night, a regular wanting to warm up. Loud and drunk, they got him a gurney and tucked him off in a side hallway. They found him a couple hours later, dead from suffocation. Choked on his own vomit… except it wasn’t his. Turned out the vomit had globs of caviar in it, an unlikely course for a bridge camper. And just an hour earlier they had pumped the stomach of some high-priced call girl. I had to agree with Daffy. These were more than accidents. These were murders.
A few days later, I scored a perfect 10. Well, not perfect on their coma scale—that would be 15. But I was up to double digits. It happened as Daffodil was squeezing my shoulder blade. Something they did every day like some form of invalid torture. Today, I finally fought back and retaliated. It wasn’t anything more than a swat across her forearm, but she backed off.
“Hallelujah, Jesus! You are on the mend, baby. I think we’ve turned the corner.”
I felt like I was smiling. Daffy began humming a gospel groove, not stopping until three others entered my sanctuary. One was Sergeant Totter. Even though he was only hospital security, he stopped in every couple of days like a cop walking a beat. He worked the evenings, pacing the hallways with his distinctive click-clunk slow stride. I’m pretty sure one leg was a good couple inches shorter than the other.
“How’s he doing today?”
“Getting better every day, Sarge. I think he’s gonna make it.”
“So, this is the one?” asked an unfamiliar phantom.
“Yeah. Came in 15 days ago as a John Doe. Someone found him in the 5th Street library, slumped over in a bathroom stall. Opioid overdose.”
“Nope. Nothing at all on him and no one has come to claim him.”
“And he’s out of it most of the time?”
“This is about all he ever does.” I tried to lift my middle finger.
“Great,” said the other phantom. “He’ll do.” With that the two detectives left. At least “detectives” was my educated guess. One, they were with hospital security; two, I could smell gun oil; and three, R&I was cop jargon for “records and identification.”
“Hey, Sarge. Is it true about Nick U?” Daffy asked, just between the three of us.
“‘Fraid so. Someone sabotaged a ventilator.”
Though she was silent for a long moment, I could feel Daffy’s fury fill the room. I’d find out later that “Nick U” was really N-I-C-U for Neonatal ICU. “What kind of monster kills a 4-month-old preemie? The poor thing was barely hanging on to life to begin with.” Maybe there was a shrug of shoulders, but I didn’t catch it. Just like changing channels, I had tuned out my room and tuned into the conversation happening out in the hallway between the two detectives.
“This guy fits the profile perfectly. Completely helpless, near death but making a comeback.”
“Think hospital security can handle it?”
“Not sure, but if we get uniforms or even an unmarked in here whoever it is is going to notice them and back off.”
“Yeah, you’re right.” I heard a step back towards my door. “What do you think of him?”
“What? The John Doe?”
“Didn’t he remind you of anyone?” This time I did hear the shrug of suited shoulders. “Aw, forget it. Let’s go talk with the security exec.”
As their footsteps faded, everything suddenly became more real now. This whole comatosed-time I’d felt like I was watching a movie playing all around me. Suddenly I was in it. No lines or motive, more of a prop. JD as The Bait.
Trouble was there wasn’t much I could do about it. Every muscle in my body had gone involuntary; I couldn’t even defend myself. That poor preemie had top-notch security around it. The old hospice lady had a loving family to watch over her. I wasn’t going to get any of that. My one hope—figure out this whodunit before it came to whodidme.
Let’s see … opportunity. I could rule myself out. Making progress already. Done against well-chosen, hapless patients meant it had to be someone who had access to just about anywhere in this hospital, even into heavily secured and monitored areas. Hospice was easily infiltrated, but the psych ward had locked doors requiring keys and badges. That ruled out other patients and volunteers who wouldn’t be able to get into restricted areas. And there would be cameras and monitors keeping an eye on all the precious premature babies. I wondered how anyone could get by all that. But there was housekeeping who had wide access, maintenance people too, and security, of course. As far as recordings, well those could be altered or deleted after the fact—if you had the right access and knowledge.
Then there’s motive. Some abused altar boy now grown up and going after helpless Catholic patients? An underpaid nurse trying to lighten the load? Ghoulish mortuary assistants crawling up from the basement seeking their quota? Maybe a merciful priest or nun releasing trapped souls from failing bodies.
And, of course, means. The hospice lady had been injected with a lethal dose of morphine. Any qualified medical personnel, unqualified medical drama junkie, or real junkie like myself could pull that off. The drunk, probably choked and then stuffed with someone else’s puke, required someone with strong hands and a stronger stomach. The dementia patient willingly led down multiple flights and out into the cold must have trusted his angel of death. Finally, the knowledge to tamper with a preemie’s ventilator without setting off its alarm. All this added up to someone with some medical knowledge, someone seasoned and someone who choose their targets and times with great thought.
Wow, I’d surprised myself. Not so much on putting my mind to a task but that I even cared enough to save my own butt. Prior to my OD, I would have welcomed a merciful end. Now with Death lurking nearby, I suddenly found the determination to fight. But how? Paralyzed and babbling at best, how could I fight back?
“You okay, JD?” asked Daffodil, patting all around my face. “You got a fever?”
“Justell ah ache.” No, just one hell of a headache.
Days passed into nights. To anyone outside my skull I was helpless, immobile, little more than a vegetable with a pulse. Inside, my remaining senses had gone superhuman. Able to hear through concrete and steel, I could easily pick out conversations in the emergency department below. Just by smell, I knew what every one of my lucky, chew-capable fellow patients had eaten for dinner. I knew it was nighttime as vibrations of Vegas—doing it to some nurse in the upstairs maintenance closet—throbbed down through the walls. Things had just settled in when the posse of voices and footsteps started thundering down my hallway.
There were a lot of them, making it hard to count them and pick out individuals. I made out Sister Beads and her husky voice. Also Sergeant Totter’s click-clunking, though at a much faster pace than usual. And there was the shrill nurse manager I only knew from her distant yapping of orders. There were a few others, too. I’m guessing my protectors, based on the abnormal amount of man scent: musky sweat, spicy deodorant, and nasty cologne. Multiple conversations made it hard to figure out what exactly was going on.
“You saw what?”
“—cover the back stairs.”
“We got the sonovabitch!”
“Dear Lord, let this be—”
And they did just that—until I couldn’t track them anymore. But I did pick out one set of footfalls that just stopped dead, still as me, waiting… until turning back. Quick, soft steps that didn’t want to be heard. I mentally froze as a musky scent wafted in through my door. I guess I had played my role well. Death had taken the bait.
I felt him glide around to the far side of my bed and then slide in close. Death reeked of garlic and onion. My mind was racing but the heart monitor in the corner kept its steady beat. Fight or flight, neither option was available to me. “So, Jesus, we finally meet.” He was right beside me, speaking in a low voice. “The likeness is remarkable. Perhaps there is some truth to what they’ve been saying.” He went silent for several breaths and then in the softest of whispers spoke directly into my right ear. “Bless me, Jesus, for I have sinned. It has been too many years since my last confession. Since we haven’t much time, I’ll simply ask your forgiveness for all those who came before you. Eleven would be too many to name.” He sighed deeply. “It is getting harder, everyone watching all the time. Yours needs to be different, less obvious. A dose of methotrexate slipped into your IV. If you had cancer it might save you. But, being in a coma… well, a slow death from pneumonia seems much more likely. It’ll be days, maybe a week. Leaving us one less patient to treat.”
He had to be a doctor or a nurse. Silent again, the air stirred as he rose up. Was he dealing the lethal dose? The screams in my head had no voice; only his whispers could be heard. “I accept your silence as my absolution so… in the name of the Father, and of you, and of the Holy Spirit.” I felt something press against my forehead. In my terror-filled mind, it registered as searing pain. With Mayweather reflexes, my left arm shot across empty space and connected hard with something hard. Death was thrown backwards, pulling down and out my IV, crashing into monitors that began to squeal out alarms. They raged like a police siren in the quiet hospital wing. Death fled; and I did the only thing I could—nothing—my arm falling motionless onto my chest.
“Well, well, look who is up!” Having arrived for her shift, it was Daffy, hands on hips. I was up—at least propped up by a half dozen pillows. “Finally, we can meet for real.”
She told me her actual name. But I lifted a finger her way and said pretty darn clearly, “Da-fee”.
“Daf-feeee,” I repeated, something I would be doing a lot of for a while. She got it—didn’t really understand it—but in her always caring, easygoing way, accepted it. It would be several days before I could explain why I called her that, how she had the scent of daffodils.
Not long after my resurrection, someone asked me my name. I had had lots of time to think about how to hit the reset button if and when I woke up. Having liked being a John Doe, I went with “Louis (call me Lou) Buck.” I don’t think anyone believed me, but they played along. A few still called me JD out of habit or affection, but no one called me Jesus anymore.
I started my rehab right away. Despite the Hollywood cliché, one does not snap out of a coma and immediately tell all. It doesn’t work that way. My eyes had first opened that night I beat Death. One of the night nurses came rushing in and flipped on the lights. It was the most beautiful blinding light since birth. Yet my words still formed like my tongue and lips were paralyzed. I tried to tell them what happened but only baby babble came out. A team of them checked the equipment out, reset the alarms, and got me a fresh IV. They quickly assumed, even Sergeant Totter, that I had somehow managed to do the damage myself.
They did not realize that it had been the kiss of the killer that had shattered my coma. I was kind of glad I couldn’t talk well. The more I thought about it, the better it seemed to stay silent on my attack. Death was still out there. And I was still weak, an easy target.
During those first few days of wakefulness, nearly all my regulars stopped by to congratulate me. It was funny to put faces to my ghosts. Funnier still to see their reaction to my wide-eyed gaze and grin. Even before they spoke, I often knew by their expression if they had visited me. Vegas never came back and would remain forever faceless, though I could still hear him sinning about the hospital at night. The hallway buzz was that I had retained some of what I had heard during my coma, during their confessions. I never let on that I had. It seemed dangerous to reveal that fact, although I didn’t really suspect any of my caregivers. None of them fit the profile I had built in my head.
But there were a lot of new faces now that I was in recovery. I smiled at everyone, while in the back of mind I sized them up as potential serial killers. I had only a few things to go on. I was positive it was a man—fond of garlic and onion. From the rhythm and fall of his steps, he was shorter and probably slight of frame. Probably an older but wavering Catholic given his familiarity with the confessional and his disdain for it. Of course, there was some medical knowledge but this was a hospital so that didn’t rule out many. One phrase he had said stuck with me: one less patient to treat. Given his victims, it made a lot of sense. An old woman slowing dying in hospice, overdue for death. A homeless regular who treated the ER like a free hotel room. The dementia patient who was physically strong but needed to be cared for like a toddler. The preemie in neonatal ICU whose every day must cost thousands of dollars and whose care may last a lifetime. And me, the comatose addict who took up a valuable bed and probably didn’t deserve to live in the first place. Someone had taken it upon themselves to play the Grim Reaper. Not based on mercy but practicality.
Sister Beads popped in often, always with others, saying next to nothing. She was much larger than I had imagined, very much fitting her baritone voice. I could tell that she came to listen, checking out my recall, seeing if her secret confession was still safe. As always, I never let on. Still, late one night, she came to visit me all by herself. I tensed a bit. There was no reason to believe she was involved (and certainly not a killer). But I couldn’t be sure.
“Good evening, Louis. How are you doing?”
“Jit fine, sis’er.”
Sitting on the edge of my bed, she continued. “I was hoping to chat with you. I’ve always been fascinated by near-death experiences,” she lied. “Can you tell me what it was like? What you saw, what you heard?”
There it was. I could see a flicker of anxious terror in her eyes. Yes, I know your secret. You had to settle for being a nun. Trapped in a woman’s body, it was the next best thing to becoming your secret desire—a priest. But it isn’t enough. So much so, now you’re considering an operation. What would your Lord think? Would he accept you?
Having played the part, I gave her my answer. “It was grrreat. Take way sight… sound… what left… is you. Jit what real. I learn… what in here”—I pointed to my heart—“is what is real. What up here”—I pointed to my head—“not so much. Jit confusion. Learn that it much better to feel than tink.”
She sat unblinking for a long moment and then leaned back, a relieved smile slowly brightening her face. I’m not sure how she read my revelation, but she thanked me, blessed me, and asked me if I needed anything.
“Maybe ches burger. Wit fries.” Might as well get something out of this.
“Well, it’s time, Louis.” It had been the nicest farewell party I’d ever had. Parting for most of my adult life usually meant being put out, dragged out, or tossed out. Pretty much all my regulars had come, including the rehab folks. Sacks of cheeseburgers and fries passed all around though they still made me drink my fortified milkshake.
“Thank you all… for everything,” I said slowly but clearly. Several weeks of physical and speech therapy needed just for that simple goodbye. My case manager and social worker had found me a spot in a recovery shelter to continue building my strength and keep me clean. Swimming in my new clothes (purposely baggy, my nutritionist certain I’d fill it out), I picked up my new duffel bag, stuffed with enough toiletries and extra clothes to get me off to a respectable start. First time in forever, I felt good, I was thinking straight. But different is always scary.
As I made my way to the elevator, people all along the route shook my hand, slapped me on the back, hugged me. Daffy tagged along, proud as a doctor’s mother. As we descended, she told me all the things I should do at the recovery center. I nodded but deeply doubted I’d be doing any of it. She made me show her that I still had the card with the rehab center’s address on it.
“Now, most important,” she said, as the elevator dinged, “don’t let us down, JD. Nothing tears us apart more than to see all our work for nothing. Stay clean and learn to sparkle.” She gave me a big hug just as the doors opened.
Stepping out, I turned around to wave goodbye to Daffy as she pushed the button to return to her angel duties. Her I would miss. As the doors closed, I turned and bumped into a suit. A smallish, wiry man who looked me in the eyes and instantly recognized me. “Mr. Buck! I’m Joseph Dunkel, the hospital administrator. I followed your case with great interest.” Shaking my hand, he pulled me in closer to speak more privately. “You certainly had a touch-and-go moment there. Good to see you made it through. I’m glad I had the chance to wish you well.”
I said nothing, only nodded and smiled. He released my hand and hurried off through the doors that led to the emergency department. The scent of garlic and onion still hung in the air. As I headed for the exit, I replayed the words he’d said. The tone and tempo of the voice was right. The words almost mocking. Outside, the fresh air stirred me as I twisted the address card in my pocket. Freed, I spotted a bar down the street where I knew the backroom dealers well. They would have anything I wanted. I took a couple deep breaths, cinched up my jacket and turned around.
Once back inside, I casually made my way through the emergency department door Dunkel had entered. It was chaotic so no one paid much attention to me except for some rambling bum who noted my resemblance. I had kept the long hair and well-trimmed beard. With a touch to his forehead, I moved on.
The ED was laid out much like I had built it in my mind. At this time of day, the toughest cases would be back under my old room at the far end. I made my way down the corridors, stopping briefly at an unattended computer monitor. While rehabbing, I had looked over shoulders for many weeks. With sober eyes, I could make out the tiny font. A hand injury in Blue 2 (no), an asthmatic in Blue 3 (nope), a possible poisoning (perhaps). Blue 9 (yes!), at the far end and with the perfect victim.
As I walked down the hallway, a security guard looked my way but became more interested in my adoring bum who was now chanting “Jesus done touched me. I am healed!” A nurse, outside of 5, was about to stop me, but a group of frantic relatives came at her. I reached the door to Blue 9, dropped my duffle bag to the floor and strode in. Dunkel was at her bedside. Behind the gauze and machinery was a girl no more than five years old, severe head trauma due to an unbuckled car accident.
“What? You! No, not again.”
With hands held out, I lunged toward him. Dunkel tried to slip away but his fancy shoes thwarted him. He tilted backwards against the shifting bed, his hands going up as if to block my blows. But I was still weak, only wanting to hold him. After all, I could scream now if needed. But I didn’t. We stood there, grunting, locked in place, my hands on his wrists. I was taller and had the high ground. He couldn’t push me off.
I noticed that he had a syringe in his right hand, his thumb on the plunger. I had no idea what it was, but he was trying to turn it my way. I’m not sure where I found the strength, but I managed to turn it away. Though my grip was strong, my gaze was even stronger. His eyeballs flickered between the needle and me, until finally his eyes locked onto mine. He began to tire. Something in his face softened. His left hand reached out to touch my face. But it was his right hand that did the damage. “Forgive me, Jesus.” With a snap of his wrist, a quick stab, the thumb plunged. We both gasped. We both went weak. He stiffened as paralysis began to set in. His eyes stayed wide open, his garlicky breaths grew short and sharp. In that moment, I suddenly pitied him as much as I did the old dying woman, the drunk, the dementia patient, the preemie, or the girl beneath us clinging to life.
I folded his stiff arms across his chest, leaving the syringe lodged in his neck. Planting a soft kiss on his forehead, I said, “I forgive you.” A half-dozen small gasps later, he was dead. I turned him so he laid across the girl’s legs. Sergeant Totter, liking the easy path, would deduce Dunkel as the killer who slipped and fell on his own weapon. An administrator driven by the bottom line and thrill of the kill.
I exited the ED even easier than I had entered. Outside, the world had changed. Having arrived nearly dead from opiates, I had risen, clean and sober. A hundred paths suddenly appeared to me. Among them, I could be a healer, a protector, a hunter, even a savior. It didn’t take long to decide.
Copyright 2020 by Jeff Jaskot