Montecito — Chapter 39 & 40: Hospital Stay and Visits
Take a sneak peek of Montecito by Michael Cox in this ongoing serialization of his yet-to-be-published book. This fictional story is inspired by “tales of true crime THAT HAPPENED HERE.” After arriving at Cottage Hospital, the Crawfords get an update on Trip’s status. Chapters 37 and 38 are available online at montecitojournal.net. –MJ Staff
After an awkward kiss-and-make-up, the Wimbys moved to depart the ICU waiting room. At the door, Priscilla broke from her mom’s grasp and ran back to Isabel for another hug. This time, Priscilla sobbed. Genevieve returned to retrieve her. “Now, now, Priscilla,” she said. “Let’s leave Isabel and her parents alone for a little while.”
With the Wimbys gone, we Crawfords reconvened our silence. I had no idea what Isabel was thinking, but – judging by the vice grip hold Cricket had on my knee – I suspected Cricket might want to unpack that conversation and its revelations further. I looked at her and she looked back. I opened my mouth to speak, but she cut her eyes at Isabel and shook her head, no. Eager to prove that I was not completely incapable of following instructions, I gave a quick acknowledging nod.
As we waited for news from Trip’s doctors, I ruminated on Priscilla’s man in the woods. Was he fact or fantasy? Reasonable people would no doubt draw varying conclusions, but I was feeling unreasonable.
The ICU reception desk roused us from our thoughts with a call for Cricket. All three of us approached the desk; no one willing to be left out of whatever update we were to hear. Trip was in recovery, we were told. He would be transitioned to the ICU in another couple of hours. I inquired about an update from Dr. Johnson and was assured we would get one when he was free. Ah, the infinite waiting.
We settled back in our seats, and Isabel fell asleep. I could only imagine how taxing all this drama must be to a twelve-year-old mind. Again, I turned to Cricket, inviting further conversation; she shook her head, no. She was right, this was not a bomb to diffuse in public.
Finally, Dr. Johnson poked his head into the waiting room and invited us to follow him to the room within the ICU that would be Trip’s home for who knew how long.
The room was empty. “Where is Trip?” I asked, feeling fooled. Was this the waiting room within the waiting room? The room was painted in soothing tones of dark gray. A few machines waited to work their magic, but more would arrive, I was sure. It felt spacious for the moment, but that moment was soon to pass. I wondered of the fate of the room’s previous inhabitant. Had they graduated to life beyond the hospital or to the great beyond?
“He’s on his way,” Dr. Johnson said. “I wanted a chance to brief you before he arrived.”
I instinctively crossed my arms over my chest, squeezing tight, preparing to be punched.
“So, we spent a lot of time with your young man in surgery today,” Dr. Johnson began. “I know you have lots of questions. Many of the answers will come in time. But here’s what we know as of now …”
I raised my hand like a student to his teacher; Cricket pulled my arm back to my side.
“Of greatest concern was the injury to his head. On that front, I have good news. Trip suffered a depressed skull fracture, just above his left ear. This is a dangerous type of fracture because the skull presses down into the brain cavity at the risk of causing an intercranial hematoma, intercranial swelling, and potentially brain damage.”
Isabel gasped; Cricket pulled her tight to her hip.
“During surgery, we were able to lift the depression, relieving the associated pressure on the brain. There was a slight hematoma which we reduced by drawing blood. We are monitoring the intercranial pressure within his skull and, so far, we are encouraged.”
“Will there be …,” I cleared my throat to force out the next words, “brain damage?”
Dr. Johnson nodded. “Certainly, that is an important question. Unfortunately, we won’t know for sure until the intercranial pressure is normalized and he is resuscitated from the coma.”
“He’s in a coma!” Isabel blurted.
“Yes,” Dr. Johnson acknowledged, his hands raised, “but it is for his own good. A medically induced coma is how the body focuses all its energies on the most essential tasks. It’s a good thing, I promise.”
Isabel hung her head, unconvinced.
“His leg?” Cricket blurted, unable to formulate a complete question, only its essence.
“Yes, his leg.” Dr. Johnson continued. “Trip’s left leg, as you know, was broken during his fall. We placed three pins in his femur and two each in his tibia and fibula. It is simply too early to prognosticate the degree of his recovery or its timeline. At this point, the most important thing is to keep his body infection free so that his bones will accept the foreign objects.”
“But he will recover, right Dr. Johnson?” I asked.
Dr. Johnson turned his earnest eyes to me. “If we can keep infection at bay, there is every reason to believe that he can recover use of the leg.”
Recover use of the leg? That was not clear enough. I wanted my specifics. Would he be lucky to walk or able to run? Would he have a permanent limp? Would his legs grow at the same speed? I shook my head, trying to empty my brain of the endless string of questions.
“It’s the least of our worries,” Cricket interjected, “but what about his ear?”
Dr. Johnson shook his head side to side as if amazed. “I’m no accident scene expert,” he began, “but given the size and shape of the wound’s laceration, it is likely that what separated your son’s ear from his head was a horse hoof. The injury could have been so much worse. A moving horse hoof is a deadly weapon and – in this case – that weapon was centimeters from your son’s brain and spinal column. A few shades closer, and we would be having a vastly different conversation. He almost certainly would have lost an eye, the fracture would have been deeper, the hematoma would have hemorrhaged. Brain damage would have been certain. There is no guarantee he would have survived. So, as hard as it is to imagine in this moment, the partial loss of your son’s ear is a sign of a great blessing.”
Cricket put a hand over her mouth and closed her eyes.
“We were able to reattach the back of his left ear without complication,” Dr. Johnson continued. “The upper third of the ear – the Helix and Fossa…,” he paused, seeing our confused faces. “This part,” he said, wagging the cartilage-filled upper lobe of his own ear, “was, unfortunately, severely compromised. We removed it, creating a clean suture above the Antihelical fold. Down the road, you and Trip may choose to pursue plastic surgery options. But for now, the remaining tissue should heal without infection.”
Cricket nodded. I pulled her close, connecting the three of us in embrace.
From down the hall, the rumble of a gurney announced Trip’s arrival. Isabel, Cricket, and I stood back, giving the nurses a wide berth as they back-and-forthed his bed into position among the awaiting monitors and machines. With expert deftness, plugs, and cords were attached, lighting previously dormant electronics; the whir and bleats began.
Trip’s head was mummified by gauze, leaving a single closed eye uncovered and a glimpse of his lips visible around the ventilator tube. His left leg was cast from hip to toe and held aloft by traction ropes. The cast, the tubes, the gauze, the machines: all surrounding our tiny eight-year-old boy who already looked shrunken by the trauma.
The nurses departed, but Dr. Johnson remained. “Here’s the plan,” he said. “We need to keep Trip here in the ICU until we see signs of the intercranial pressure decreasing into the desired range. Once that happens – and assuming his vital signs remain normal and there are no signs of infection – he will be transferred from the ICU to a regular hospital room. Unfortunately, here in the ICU, you will be limited to visiting hours. But once he is transferred to his own room, you can be with him as much as you want.”
Alone? I have to leave him here alone? I thought. My tears began to stream yet again.
“I’ll leave you with Trip for now,” Dr. Johnson said. “There’s one more visiting hour this evening and then you can come back tomorrow morning and see him again. If there are any developments, you’ll be the first to know.”
We nodded, still huddled together.
Once Dr. Johnson left, we each grabbed one of Trip’s appendages – Cricket held his right hand, Isabel his left, me his right foot – and we sat. For the first time that day, I prayed that time would move more slowly.
The evening’s final visiting hour was identical, save the visit from Dr. Johnson. Trip’s nurses were all kind and encouraging with absolutely nothing new to share. That was fine if unsatisfying; we were in the epitome of a no news is good news situation.
Isabel, Cricket, and I moved from room to room to room and ultimately to the car and home without much conversation. Exhaustion had overtaken us all and there seemed to be nothing worth words. We silently ate our to-go burgers from Santa Barbara’s own The Habit, bussed our plates, and readied for bed. Priscilla’s man in the woods certainly loomed large in my head, but I was too tired to consider my next moves that night.
By the time I joined Cricket in bed, my mind had executed its own version of a coma; I was not thinking, only following the rote, pre-sleep checklist. I climbed under the covers and turned off my light, joining Cricket in darkness. It was then that she finally spoke.
“Hollis,” she said. “The story Priscilla told? About the man who tried to grab her?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Do you believe she was telling the truth?”
I pride myself on applying a scientific approach to complex questions. As intuitive as an answer might appear, it was important to consider alternatives before reaching conclusions. In that vein, Genevieve and Cyrus had plenty of common sense on their side when they dismissed the idea that there would be a man on those trails under any normal circumstances. These were narrow, mountain trails cut for horses, and there were no nearby roads or houses. And even if a man had scrambled trailside, it would take a lunatic to attack a girl on a one-thousand-pound horse.
A black bear was certainly a possibility. Though rare – especially in broad daylight – black bears are known to roam those hills. Maybe Priscilla’s horse had gotten between a momma bear and her cub. And maybe the sight of a bear spooked Flip-Flop. It was a plausible tale.
Even more likely, whatever scared Priscilla was something small: a darting deer, a snake, an innocuous rustle in the underbrush. Perhaps Priscilla got scared, screamed, and inadvertently caused Flip-Flop to freak out. And now, with all the damage done, Priscilla would like to have a better justification for her calamity-inducing scream. A mysterious man in the woods would certainly suffice.
So, yes, there were many rational reasons to dismiss Priscilla’s story as fantasy or confusion or both. But I knew too much. I had seen the falsified financial records. I had uncovered the zero-balance bank accounts and all their syphoning corporations. I had found the Zurich bank account – the place where the buck literally stopped – all told, a blueprint for money laundering and thievery. And perhaps most important, I had met Vlad, a man whose air of malice still haunted me.
“I do, Cricket. I think she is telling the truth.”
“Do you think this is tied to Cyrus Wimby?” Cricket asked.
“You’ve been carrying this around for some time now, haven’t you?” she asked. “And you’ve been keeping it from me.”
I cleared my throat. “I’m … I’m sorry,” I said. “I’ve been trying to protect you from–”
“That is not the way marriage works, Hollis!” she interrupted. “We are partners. I do not need you protecting me from anything!”
“I … I know,” I mumbled.
“I mean – let’s be honest here – if either of us need to be shielded from information so as to avoid overreactions, it is you!”
I nodded; there was no arguing that point.
“But I don’t do that to you, do I?” she continued. “I treat you with respect. I treat you as an equal. I don’t pretend that you’re too fragile to process potentially disturbing information!”
Again, I nodded, this time with my head bowed like the scolded child I was.
“And now here we are. My boy…,” her voice cracked, “my boy is in the hospital. And you: look at you. You’re wasting away, Hollis. What have you lost now, like twenty pounds? And your hair; it’s starting to fall out.”
Indeed, I was one extended bout of erectile dysfunction away from full emasculation. “I know,” I repeated.
“So, what happens next?” she finally asked. “What are we going to do?”
“I have to prove what I suspect,” I replied.
Cricket flipped on her bedside lamp, and I saw that she had been crying this whole time. “Tell me everything,” she said.
After ten days of successfully battling swelling and infection in the ICU, Trip was resuscitated from the medically induced coma and removed from the ventilator. Medical philistine that I was, I assumed this status change would result in Trip sitting up in his bed and asking for ice cream. But no. He was no longer in a coma, but he was still unconscious, exhibiting occasional reflexive eye flutters, groans, and grimaces but nothing purposeful.
While this step in the recovery process did not register with Trip, it was monumental to me. Out of the coma and off the ventilator, Trip was relocated from the ICU to a hospital room: we could now be with him 24/7. Or, at least, one of us could. Cricket and I argued over who would stay at the hospital, but I prevailed and packed my bags for an indefinite sleepover. I won, not because of any merit, but because we both knew I would be far less present for Isabel at home. I was not capable of compartmentalizing. I was an obsessed Labrador Retriever: once the tennis ball appeared, I could think of nothing else until it disappeared. Cricket was once again punished for her more evolved status.
Like most other things in Paradise, Trip’s new digs were plush by hospital standards. I was prepared for a cot but instead got a small built-in sofa that folded out to a reasonably sized bed. Certainly, I had slept in far less comfortable spots. Also, thanks to a recent renovation, Cottage Hospital had a stronger wi-fi signal than my gar-office. As I packed my laptop and power cord, preparing to finish my excavation of Cyrus Wimby’s tunnels, it occurred to me that the most important decision of my life – or at least of the last year – had been electing to continue the CryptoWallet health insurance policy through COBRA. I am not sure what we would have done without it.
On our first morning as roomies, I watched the nurse change the bandages on Trip’s head. As much as I thought I hated the bandages, I hated what they covered more. As I should have expected, his head was clean shaven. The incisions over his left ear seemed to be healing well, but that did not distract from the reality of the wound site. His poor ear looked as if it had been caught in the maw of a turbine. The wounds were a healthy shade of pink, devoid of angry red streaks and other telltale signs of infection. The nurse carefully redressed each exposed area and re-cocooned his head in gauze. When done, she smiled at me and said, “Looking good.”
I smiled back, but there was no ointment, gauze, or bandage that could shelter the devastation in my soul. This was all my fault.
If I had not gotten fired three times in seven years.
If I were not so self-righteous.
If I had not drained our savings to the point of desperation.
If I had not courted Cyrus Wimby for a job.
If I had listened to my instincts which, for once, were correct.
If I had accepted that we were never going to compete with Montecito’s metaphorical Joneses. That we were renters – of a home, of a school, of a life – and chosen not to let my feelings of inadequacy and jealousy push me into chasing a too-good-to-be-true home run.
If I had recognized Vlad as the canary in the coal mine that he was.
And even if I went back in time and repeated every one of these other idiotic missteps, I still could have avoided this horrific accident if only I had exercised the common sense to not deposit my family at the doorstep of the man I suspected was perpetrating a global fraud. If I had only done just this one thing right, Trip would be fine. He would be sitting in his second-grade classroom trying to figure out how to get out of doing his reading or writing assignment instead of lying in a coma at Cottage Hospital with a shattered leg, a fractured skull, and a partially missing ear.
It was all my fault.
I would carry my responsibility for Trip’s injuries all my waking days and beyond; if there was such a thing as beyond and if it would host damaged goods like me. But as Trip lay comatose – and I pecked away at my computer, digging deeper into Cyrus’s web of lies – I made myself a promise: Cyrus would shoulder his share of the responsibility too.
Cricket and Isabel visited us daily. They brought sunshine to our quiet room and were able to recognize signs of progress that I missed.
“His color is better today,” Isabel would observe.
“His blood pressure is more normal today,” Cricket would remark.
I was thankful for these missed observations; changes I could not see for all my staring.
For many hours, I would just sit holding Trip’s hand, talking to him, and making plans for our future. I read to him from the first Percy Jackson novel that he was relishing and, when it was finished, moved on to the second and then the third, fourth, and fifth. I imagined Trip waking from his coma, retelling vivid dreams of his adventures with Percy, Annabeth, and Grover. At least this would signify that he had known I was there.
On the fifth day after Trip’s relocation, Cyrus dropped in for a visit. I was expecting this. Not, of course, because Cyrus wanted to check on Trip, but because he wanted to check on me. I had turned on my out of office email notification and was having all my messages forwarded directly to Cyrus. Kindhearted soul that he was, he was forwarding them right back to me. I did a version of the same on BatSignal, fixing my status indefinitely at Do Not Disturb.
“My friend,” Cyrus said, taking a guest chair, “how are you holding up?”
He had caught me in the middle of one of Percy’s epic battles with evil; there are plenty of them to choose from, so imagine whichever one you would like. I had recently completed a map of every entity associated with the second of Cyrus’s pass-through bank accounts and was about to begin the third but was relishing this break to commune with Trip. Thankfully, Cyrus caught me reading and not typing. I closed the book. “Doing ok.”
“So very glad to see you here, instead of that dreary waiting room. Progress!”
I nodded. “Yes.”
He smiled and returned my nod. His eyes shifted around the room; he tapped his heel. I sensed that he had come prepared with only a handful of icebreakers in his repertoire and was counting on me to add the commentary that would turn how are you holding up into a five-minute conversation. Then, once the niceties were exhausted, he could get down to the real reason he was here. Unfortunately for him, I was not playing my part.
“Have you gotten any recent updates from Trip’s doctor?” he asked.
“Slow but steady,” I said.
Again, he consulted the room for inspiration. “Flat-screen televisions,” he said, noting the dormant screen, “hospitals have come a long way.”
“It’s a nice room,” I said.
He cracked his neck and moved further down his pre-planned list of discussion topics. “So, with a little time to reflect, Priscilla says that she is now certain that it was a bear that caused her to scream.”
“Ok,” I said. There was absolutely no reason to argue this point, though I was sure he was either lying or Priscilla had been brainwashed into a revised telling of the story.
“I’ve alerted the County Sherriff’s office and the U.S. Forest Service of the incident,” he added. “They have a hotline. I’m not sure what they can do, but at least they are informed now.”
“Thank you,” I said.
I was not looking at him but at Trip, and from the corner of my eye, I saw Cyrus bow his head and massage his scalp. A devilish part of me enjoyed his discomfort.
“So,” he said, his warm-up topics exhausted, “I recognize that you are in the middle of hell here, and that timing could not be worse, but our second quarter financial results are ready for release.”
“Ok,” I said.
“It was a blowout quarter,” he added. “The market is going to flip.”
I smiled; I knew the truth. No matter what that press release and schedule of financial results said, not one dollar of revenue had been recorded in the quarter. It was a complete fabrication. “That’s great news,” I said flatly.
He nodded. “Yes, it is. But uh,” he cleared his throat, “as the company’s CEO and Chairman, the release needs your signature in order to be posted to the Securities and Exchange Commission.” He stood and handed me the release and a pen.
I flipped to the back page and signed without reading a word, then handed the papers and pen back. Are you thinking I should have refused? Perhaps, but as the saying goes, there is no such thing as half-pregnant; I was taking this baby to term.
Cyrus looked stunned at the ease with which I had signed but did his best to hide his surprise behind an appreciative nod. “We’re likely to be taking in some fresh investments over the next few weeks. Can I count on you to watch the Miramar bank account for me?”
“And you’ll transfer whatever comes in?”
He stood, the look on his face almost giddy. That is until his eyes refocused on Trip and his feigned solemnity returned.
“I think he’s looking much improved,” Cyrus said, though he had no basis of comparison from which to make such a judgment.
“Better,” I agreed.
Cyrus tapped the papers on his leg, counting – it seemed – the appropriate number of seconds before he could leave. “Well, I should get going,” he said after ten taps. “It was very good to see you, my friend.”
I nodded, my eyes never leaving Trip.
“Ok then. Until next time,” he said then departed.
I smiled at my boy. “That was an epic cold shoulder, Trip. Well done. You have the steely nerves of a hostage negotiator.” I patted his hand then opened our book and returned to Percy.