He stays up nights not seeing anything, not being anything, keeping himself together. The nurses used to scold him for keeping the light on so now he just stares into the blackness. After the heart-monitor was gone, he missed the regularity of the beeping, and would sometimes make an imitation noise to himself. Usually he is lucky enough to be asleep by the time the sun came up.
A nurse wakes him and the other patient in the room, and brings them breakfast. It's always mushy, whatever it is. Oatmeal. He eats mechanically.
He often dozes after breakfast. Sometimes he reads – the only thing the hospital has is a long backlog of Chatelaine and McLean's, romance novels, how-to books, and a random smattering of 'great books', consisting mostly of Bronte sister productions.
After lunch – similar to breakfast in texture – he gets wheeled out to see a therapist. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, that's his time to talk about himself and try to recover. The hospital has him listed as "At risk of depression."
Every week day, whether he's been to his therapist or not, he has physical therapy. He does basic exercises. He moves his ankles, holds himself up by a metal bar and tries to see how much weight he can put on his feet. He's still a long way away from recovery. This is his second week.
After dinner, he is encouraged to socialize. Nurses are there to wheel him into the common area. He refuses every time. Every time.
Then the evenings draw out into the night time. And he stays up the nights not seeing anything, not being anything, keeping himself together.
The night was dark, the road was slippery. He was tired; so tired. He wanted to be home. He wanted to be in bed. He wanted to hold Janey and kiss her and settle away comfortably into sleep.
A sudden thunder and screaming sound of metal twisting in on itself. His body thrown up and down as the car tumbled down the edge. Blackness.
His physical therapist's name is Jared. Jared is often very happy to see him – or acts that way. He smiles and gets up from his chair, says encouraging things.
"Look at those guns! You're beefing up," he says. "Gonna enter yourself in a body-building contest this year, Dale?" He's joking, but it's too friendly. It's too nice.
"No," he says. "No." Dale holds himself up by the arms – they flex and the muscles become visible – but his legs still fall limply under him. He doesn't look Jared in the eyes, usually.
"I'm going to move your legs for you. Tell me if you feel any pain or – or anything."
Movement back and forth. Dale lies back.
"What do you get up to, Dale? Made any friends here yet?" Jared asks. He has to keep his concentration on the legs, but he spares a glance upward. With no reply, he continues, "One of my old patients met a guy here – she married him after they were both out. People make all kinds of great friends in the hospital, you know."
He glances up again. Dale appears to have not heard him, an impossibility. "It's okay if you haven't made any yet, though. It takes time. And you're still in recovery."
Her eyes. Brown. Her hair. Brown. The way she'd look at him when he woke up in the morning. The way she'd listen to him. Cuddle with him. She was always so warm.
The way she was when he made her something to eat.
The way she whined and moaned when she was sick and hurting.
The way she was always there for him, even at his worst points.
The way she loved him – he knew she loved him.
Even on the day he had to take her to the vet who put needles in her and had to bind her down, and afterwards they were playing fetch in the park, and the look in her eyes, it said to him, I understand what went on. I'm not happy it happened. But I love you.
And the empty, empty, cold, cold, brutal house that would no longer hold her.
He stares glassy eyed at every day. Every day is the same.
Except Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Then he is asked to feel things and say things.
He says as little as possible, but he can't stop the feelings. They squirm in his grip and find a way out, no matter what he does. His therapist asks questions like, "What kind of home life are you going back to?"
That's a loaded question. Or:
"Who cares about you?"
"What are you going to do with yourself when you're out of the hospital?"
"What's your relationship with your parents like?"
And he says nothing and quivers with his burgeoning heart. He ducks his head. Sometimes he cries – he regrets those sessions. He feels hung-over after. Dehydrated.
Jared is better, because he never asks questions. Or, not questions that cause trouble, and not questions he expects answers to. On days after seeing the therapist, it's very difficult for Dale to deal with Jared.
He can't smile (not that he wants to). He can't laugh (not that he wants to). He can't respond to Jared's joking or his chatter (not that he ever wanted to).
He sits and takes it. Does what he's told.
On days when he spent an hour quivering and possibly crying, he is exhausted. He wants to tell Jared so, wants him to go easy. But he never gets to the part where his lips start moving, so he does what he's told anyway.
Things continue. It's been – a week, say. Dale doesn't keep track.
Jared sees the streaks where tears had fallen down Dale's cheeks, which were flushed and red. Dale hung his head low, and never met Jared's eyes – the usual.
"Hey bud, you okay?" Jared says. He moves closer to Dale's wheelchair.
Dale has just had a 'breakthrough'. He spoke to the therapist. He said exactly what was on his mind – that she should stop talking to him, stop bothering him, get away. He talked until he was shouting. Then he cried, helplessly.
After all that, the therapist said, "We've made a breakthrough. Thanks for telling me what you think, Dale. I hope you'll tell me more next week."
And that had been that.
So, when Jared asks Dale his question, he is just too worn out. He shakes his head. He means, no, don't ask. Don't start this too. Don't make me do make exercises, either. It hurts. I'm so, so tired. No.
But what Jared sees is, no, I'm not okay. And that isn't a lie, either.
"I know it's hard," Jared says. He crouches down to Dale's level. "I had the same thing happen to me, and look at me now! I teach people how to move their legs. I thought I'd be in a wheelchair the rest of my life, man, that's a lie. I believe you'll make it. I really believe you can do it, Dale."
Dale just sighs.
"Well, we won't get there by sitting around! C'mon, let me help you to the bars."
When Jared pulls Dale up, the man collapses into his arms. "Woah!"
But Dale goes limp.
"C'mon, man, don't do this to me," Jared says. He gently drops Dale to the floor. "What's up."
"Don't even," Dale says. He pushes his hand through his hair, and keeps it there, defensively. "I'm just so sick of it."
"Sick of it."
"I don't want to talk anymore. I don't want to talk about it. I don't want to be here."
Jared stares at his patient. Anguish is written all over the man's face. He looks like he might cry again if he weren't beyond tears.
"Man, don't worry," Jared says, rubbing Dale's shoulder. But he knows he is out of his depth. This isn't anything like when he had lost the feeling in his legs. Where is the real therapist?
"Do you want me to call the nurse? Get her to take you to your room?" he asks. Dale nods silently, looking like a study in agony.
Jared gets up, buzzes a nurse. Helps Dale to his wheelchair. Dale, eyes shut and head bowed again, doesn't see Jared's wide-eyed stare.
He clutched the door's handle as he slammed it shut behind him. He slumped against the door-jamb, slid down to the floor. He was crying, blinded by tears.
So it was true. He wasn't wanted. He never wanted Dale. There had never been anything. He sobbed his little heart out.
And then warmth, little warmths, like kisses, lapping up his tears.
"Janey," he laughed, hiccupping through his tears. "Janey, don't." But she kept licking.
"Aw, Janey, that's my eye!" he said. He held his hand over it, to keep it safe. She looked at him, so happy to see him home. And worried. He could tell. She was so worried to see him like this.
She started to lick up and down his neck, which made him laugh a little more. "Janey, quit it. I'm getting up. You'd like to eat, right? Time to eat?"
She followed him, her nails making clacking noises on the linoleum.
Later, he sat with a cup of hot mint tea in his hand, curled up on the couch, Janey snuggled up at his side.
"I really love you, Janey. I really do." A Walk to Remember kept playing in the background.
The next day, Jared is feeling anxious about his appointment with Dale. He feels stupid for having joked with the man so long about nothing. He really didn't know the whole of it.
He barely knows the part of it, now. It isn't his job to deal with emotional problems.
"Dale," he says cheerily when the nurse wheels him in. "My favourite guy."
But it sounds brittle and false to himself.
"Let's get you started with some core exercises."
Dale is as unresponsive as usual, but back to normal. He does what he is told, and nothing else.
Jared feels a hole. He doesn't want things to be this way. To know that this man is in pain, and not doing anything about it – but it isn't his job.
"Dale, hey." Jared puts him back in his wheelchair. "You know… I know you've got a real therapist." His hands are kind of jittery, so he holds on to the wheels of the chair. "But if you ever want to say anything to me, want to talk or whatever, I'm here. We're gonna spend forty minutes together every day no matter what…"
He cracks a smile and tries to laugh, but it sounds brittle and phony again. Oh dear.
Dale looks at him. Blank. So terribly blank. Then, the nurse arrives, and he's gone, and whatever is going on in Jared needs to be put aside for the sake of the next recovering patient.
Dale passes through the door to the therapist's office with trepidation. He doesn't want the crack that showed last time to become a gaping hole. He'll never get out in one piece if things go that way. The nurse stops walking, adjusts the angle of the chair, then walks away.
"And how are you today, Dale?"
When Dale shows up for his physical therapy appointment, his face is marked again. He looks exhausted again. His being is drained again.
Jared is sensitive.
"Hey, Dale," he says. "You look really tired, but we can't cancel every appointment that you have after your therapy, okay? So we'll just work through it, okay?"
"Okay," Dale says, shocking Jared.
"Okay." He pauses, then reaches for Dale. "Why don't we try the walking machine today?"
Dale holds onto the sides of the walking machine, and Jared holds onto Dale's waist to keep him safe. At the very slowest speed, with no pressure being put on the legs, Dale is managing a slight walk. It goes on for four minutes, and then Dale asks, "Can we stop now? I'm getting tired."
"Yes, of course." He moves Dale over to a chair. Jared smiles brilliantly – how can he not? Walking, real walking! It's a miracle every time he sees it. Static to ecstatic. Dead to alive. Miracle work.
"You did it Dale! You were walking! You were really walking!"
"Yeah, I guess I was." Dale looks at Jared, in the eyes. He looks… just a little happy. That makes Jared's heart burn up and flutter and flower all at the same time.
"Just rest for a second, then we'll work some more on your back. Yes. Yes. Just great." Jared grins and doesn't stop grinning.
Dale laughs – one short breathy exhalation.
"You'll be running marathons soon – I know. It'll help keep you in shape for those body-building shows you'll be winning."
Dale starts to feel okay. He wakes up with the sun. He goes to the common area and makes friends with an old lady who only ever wants to play bridge. He reads with delight now, and now with boredom. He talks to his therapist.
He can walk. He walks to his appointments, but stays in his bed or his wheelchair at other times. His body isn't in pain. He smiles, at least once a day.
Jared is, nevertheless, shocked when he receives notice that Dale will be discharged at the end of the week. Can it be so soon?
The day he gets the notice, he had already seen Dale. He has to wait for the next day to say anything.
"I heard you're gonna be out of here soon, huh?" he says. It's easy, casual. Deceptive.
"Yeah. I'm glad. I'll be able to really get around again. Do things… do whatever I want." Dale sits down gingerly, not to strain his legs.
"It's great. It'll be great. Here, let's see you try some stairs…"
But at the end of the session, Jared can't hold it in anymore. "Dale, I mean, I know I shouldn't pry, but…. You seemed so sad before. And now you're doing much better. Is it – I mean – do you feel comfortable telling me why?"
Dale looks down for a moment. He coughs. "Well."
Jared waits for him.
"I was sad." He shrugs. "My dog died."
"Yeah. I'll, uh, see you next week."
And all Jared could think was, that must be some dog.
It's their last session. Dale is doing very well. He needs to do the practices and exercises that Jared outlines for him, but if he does, he won't need to see a physical therapist anymore. He would be okay.
"Thanks," Dale says. He's standing, no supports. He looks strong and healthy. "I mean, I guess you're just doing your job, but you've really helped me."
"Yeah, I, I don't know, it's not just my job." Jared kind of looks around. "It means something to me to, to help you out."
"Great," Dale says with a smile. "It'll suck not seeing you again."
"Yeah," Jared says.
"Well, uh. Goodbye."
And Dale turns, and Dale begins to walk. Luckily, it's a slow walk, because Jared's heart bursts through the blocks of his mind, and his mouth starts moving.
"Hey, you know, since you're not my patient anymore, we can like… hang out."
"What?" Dale turns, and looks really surprised. And, in the corners of his eyes, a deep and old sadness can be seen.
"Yeah. We can… hang out. Be… friends. We can do it."
"What's your number? I'll call you." Jared begins to smile, really smile, and Dale does too. "We can train for that marathon together."
A/N: Written because someone on the slash fiction forum said they wanted a story like this. Also I was feeling emotions and wanted to do something with them. Thus: this story.
I can't tell if this is the most ridiculous thing ever, or not. Tell me if you like it.