Chapter Twenty Three
Beth had given Colin as much sedative and painkiller as she dared. She had shaved a small area of his scalp and had used a sharp craft knife, the closest thing to a scalpel that they’d found, to separate a five inch flap of his scalp. She’d staunched the blood flow by cauterising the capillaries in the open flaps of skin and applying a sterile gel to the wound to keep the area clean. As she turned the handle, the drill bit ground ineffectually on Colin’s skull for the first couple of turns.
She had no idea how much he’d bleed and of course they had no transfuasable blood to hand to give him should he need it. The job was made harder by the fact that the drill she was using was an old fashioned hand drill. They didn’t have an electric one because Jennifer hadn’t been able to find the key to Marc’s locked tool cupboard and they’d had to make do with what they could find in the cellar. Beth tried not to think too hard about the implications of infection if their less than adequate sterilising procedure proved futile. The drill finally bit on the third turn of the handle and she was able to go faster in an attempt to get the job done quickly before either she fainted, or Colin died. Getting through the dense bone of the skull was harder and took more muscle than she’d expected and at the back of her mind was the continual thought that she’d have to abort her efforts and give up, leaving him with a Chinese-chequers dimple in his skull. ‘Maggie called him a thick-headed bugger,’ she said with a mirthless laugh. She picked up more speed and was alarmed to see smoke coming off the bone – or was it bone dust? She couldn’t be sure.
‘Fuck me, he’s setting on fire,’ Jennifer said. It seemed she was intent on Colin either exploding from the head or going up in a blaze of flames.
‘No, he’s not, it’s only bone dust,’ Beth placated her, though she wasn’t entirely sure herself. Colin moaned and his legs stiffened, testament to the fact that even when unconscious people can suffer extremes of pain. Beth hated what she was doing to him, and hated even more what she’d already done. When the bone finally gave way to the soft membranes beneath, it went suddenly. The drill lurched forward inside Colin’s head and Beth panicked that she’d drilled right into his brain. She tried to pull the drill backwards but it wouldn’t come.
‘Shit. Shit, it’s stuck,’ she screamed. ‘I can’t get it out.’ This came out in a high pitched screech as fear overtook her.
‘What?’ In her terror she wondered if Jennifer meant that she should turn around.
‘Drill backwards. I think you have to turn the handle the other way to release it.’
Beth did as Jennifer suggested and finally the drill came away from Colin’s head. She had used an eight millimetre drill bit but there was surprisingly little blood. A thick, clear serum leaked from the hole when the drill was removed. ‘Swab it,’ she ordered. And Jennifer cleaned the area around the hole with some Medi-Wipes doused in iodine. Then she leaned forward and peered into the hole.
‘Ugh, is that his brain?’ she asked.
‘No, it’s the protective membranes that stop the brain from rattling around in his head.’ Before Beth could stop her, she took her index finger and poked it inside the hole.
‘What the hell are you doing? You’re going to kill him.’ Beth screamed. She pulled Jennifer’s arm away, swung her round and hit her hard across the face with a back-handed blow that split Jennifer’s lip. Beth was incensed and screamed in Jennifer’s face as Jennifer backed away from her. ‘You’ve contaminated my gloves now. What are you playing at? Is this just a game to you?’ Beth peeled off the latex gloves and put on another pair while trying her best not to contaminate the outside of them from the touch of her skin, before turning back to Colin. She was so enraged that she picked up one of the two bottles of iodine and threw it at Jennifer. It hit her on the side of her arm and she cried out in pain and fear. Beth was still ranting, she’d moved onto the subject of Colin’s dignity and the liberties that Jennifer took with it.
Jennifer crouched against the door. She had her hand up rubbing the side of her face that was red and already coming up in welts from the force of the back of Beth’s fist. Her tongue licked tentatively at the rivulet of blood trickling from her split-lip. Her eyes brimmed with tears. ‘I only wanted to know what a brain feels like,’ she whimpered. ‘You said he’s probably going to die anyway, so what does it matter?’
‘Get out,’ Beth said in a quiet voice, barely containing her rage. ‘I can do this better on my own. You’re a liability.’ Her voice was ice-cold and brooked no argument. She heard the door close as Jennifer left.
Before doing anything else, Beth closed her eyes and took several deep breaths to steady herself. She hoped that the build up of fluid that was causing the pressure was in one of the three layers of membranes on the outside of the brain and not in the actual brain itself. She was working blind and had no clue as to the true diagnosis. She took a fine reed catheter tube from the tray beside her and focussed to quell her shaking. This was the moment of truth. She didn’t know if the chiselled reed on the end of the tube would be strong enough to slice through the membranes or if it would buckle and bend. The tubing was so fine, as thin as a piece of cotton. She took hold of the tube and fed it through the hole, adding more pressure when she came up against the resistance of the tissue underneath. She inserted the tube to a depth of about two inches then took the other end, lowered it so that the fluid would flow downwards and put the end in a measuring jug. She could have cried with joy when she saw fluid rising up the tubing and emptying out of the end in an almost clear, slightly thicker than water, trickle. There wasn’t much, less than three ounces but she hoped that it was the cause of the most recent problems and that it was one more hurdle in Colin’s recovery that they’d overcome. She took a moment to compose herself and checked his stats. His pulse was feeble but that would be partly due to the levels of sedative keeping his bodily functions slow. His pupils were reacting to the light and that was the vital she was most interested in.
At least, on first impressions it didn’t look as though she’d caused any further brain damage. He’d need a bone graft to fill the hole in his head with fresh bone shards that would eventually knit together to make a new piece of skull. For now all she could do was use the pieces of bone dust that had come away as she worked and the bone shards from the initial wound. She fixed them to a thin piece of dissolvable gauze to keep them in place and packed it around the hole in Colin’s head. Then she sutured the flaps of his scalp with tiny stitches that would dissolve within six weeks. She left the drainage tube in between two stitches so that it would continue to drain any further fluid from around his brain. Finally she washed the area of his scalp in iodine and dressed the wound. She could do no more. It was up to Colin now.
After clearing up, she poured herself a cup of coffee from the flask that Jennifer had replenished and sat back in the uncomfortable chair to continue her vigil. She was wired, her body surging with adrenaline and she became her alter-ego, the superhero, it was the same surge of power that she’d had when she had hit Colin over the head with the rock. She liked it.
After taking a few precious moments to revel in what she’d just achieved she went in search of Jennifer. She hadn’t been in Jennifer’s room before. She’d had no reason to. She knocked on several doors before she found the right one.
‘Go to hell,’ a morose voice answered her knock. Jennifer was sulking and Beth couldn’t help but smile. She turned the handle on the door. It wasn’t locked so she pushed it open and went inside. The room was absolutely beautiful. There was no hint of Goth and it was a surprisingly grown-up and sophisticated bedroom for a teenager, complete with a four-poster bed and an open door in the far corner of the room that Beth could see led to en-suite facilities. She guessed that the room had been designed to Marc’s specifications and taste. Jennifer sprawled on the big bed and was dwarfed by frills and encased goose-feathers. Beth didn’t know what to say. She looked down at her hands the fingers twisting and entwining nervously, hardly the actions of a superhero. Her hands were streaked with blood and she felt that neither she nor they belonged in this opulent room. ‘He seems to be okay, he’s hanging in there’ she ventured, ‘well, as well as can be expected, as they say,’ she ended with a chuckle.
‘Stupid bastard, it would be better if he’d died.’
Beth sat down on the edge of Jennifer’s bed, ‘Better for whom,’ she asked.
‘Did I say you could sit down,’ she growled.
‘Did I say I wouldn’t hit you again if you don’t snap out of it?’ Beth shot back.
‘Why are you being so nasty to me?’
Jennifer’s tone was whiny, ‘what have I ever done to you?’ Beth felt something roll and shift in her stomach, it rose, it was coming out and Beth had no idea until it left her mouth if it was going to be vomit, or a barrage of verbal rage and ranting that may never stop. It was neither. She began to laugh. She laughed until she was hysterical. She fell onto her back and brought her knees up onto her chest and she laughed until tears rolled down her cheeks and dropped onto the bed beside her. She laughed until she was separately aware of every rib in her rack, each one ached independently. Jennifer was laughing too, nervously at first, not sure what was happening but Beth’s cackle was infectious and soon Jennifer was laughing hard too. Beth sat up to speak to her, but she was laughing so hard that she could only spray spittle towards Jennifer. It was her third attempt at speech before she could half-coherently mutter, ‘What have you ever done to me? Oh Phantom, where do I ever begin to tell you.’
‘Freak,’ said Jennifer, grinning.
Nice room,’ Beth stated, trying to keep Jennifer from sinking back into her sulk. She looked around her taking in the chintz and knick-knacks. She looked at everything and stopped at the shrivelled up man’s finger sitting on the bedside table beside her. Jennifer kept the grizzly keepsake three inches from where her head lay when she slept. The finger was black, the nail the colour of aged parchment. Beth was amazed that she was neither surprised nor repulsed. She had seen so much, been through so much, that she was desensitized to this horror to the point of indifference.
‘You kept it then,’ she said, picking up the dry finger and turning it in her hand as though it was a tiny ornament that she was lifting from the girl’s bedside. ‘And you have the nerve to call me a freak. You said that you had a reason for hacking it off. Why’d you do it?’ Her tone was curious; there wasn’t even a hint of revulsion or disdain. She simply wanted to know why Jennifer had decided to hack off a dead man’s finger.
‘Ah see, I still have secrets. The question is, do I want to share them with you?’ her tone was teasing. She was playing in true Jennifer style. ‘Oh go on then, come with me and I’ll show you. Prepare to be amazed.’ She snatched the finger out of Beth’s hand, flung herself off the bed and left the room in a hurry, leaving Beth to follow in her wake. She went into the next bedroom and Beth knew on entering that it was Marc’s room. Although it had no smell at all other than that of a slightly musty room that hadn’t been used in awhile, it reeked of Marc. His personality and character was stamped into every inch of it.
‘Two bathrooms,’ remarked Jennifer pointing in turn to two doors leading off the bedroom. ‘That one’s his. His lair, full of man-stuff and shit. And that one, is… ours… the same one that’s in my room, interconnecting, easy access, I’ll let you work out why,’ she said bitterly, but like so often before her mood changed in an instant, ‘Come on, this is what I want to show you.’ She sounded excited. Beth wasn’t in the least surprised when she rolled part of the wall out of the way with a secret mechanism. She only wondered how many other secret rooms and compartments were hidden in this crazy house of secrets. The cavity exposed a wall safe. Jennifer opened the door simply by turning the handle. She stood back to allow Beth to stand in front of the safe. She had never seen so much money in her life. She gasped.
‘Touch it if you like, go on, pick it up and throw it over your head like they do on telly.’ Jennifer’s voice quivered with pride. ‘It’s mine now, mine. My inheritance if you like, and all thanks to you.’
‘I’ve never seen so much money.’ Beth reached in and picked up a wad the weight and thickness of a house brick. ‘How much is there?’
‘More than enough,’ said Beth in a reverent whisper. ‘If Colin gets better we can let him go and then leave. She continued. We can go…anywhere. This money can save us, maybe. There’s enough here to buy us passage to anywhere in the world. New identities. New lives. There may be a way out of this after all, Jennifer. We might be all right.’
‘Yeah yeah, God you’re boring me now. Have you any idea how predictable you are. You have no vision Beth. You go for the obvious, every fucking time.’
‘Well what are you going to do with it then, Miss Fucking Superior, give it to the starving children of Africa?’
‘I don’t know yet, but it’s going to be something spectacular.’
‘Beth’s voice was droll, ‘Somehow I don’t doubt that for a second. But I don’t get it. Where does Marc’s finger come into it?’ she asked as Jennifer took the wad of money from her hand and put it back in the safe closing the door after her and replacing the wall.
‘Haven’t you even worked that out? Beth for a bright woman you can be so thick, sometimes. It’s disappointing really, it doesn’t work anymore so I’ve had to deactivate the lock and I can only do that from the inside. It’s a good job I got to it same night he died. Bloody finger all shrivelled up on me in less than twenty-four hours. Fingerprint recognition,’ she explained to Beth’s blank expression and saw the penny drop. ‘I needed big bro’s fingerprint to open the safe. I didn’t know if it would even work without a life supply so to speak, but it worked a treat. Otherwise all this lovely lolly would have been lost forever.’
Finally Beth found something to be shocked by. Within and hour or so of his death, Jennifer had taken a knife and removed her dead brother’s finger with her mind only on one thing, the money locked away in the safe out of her reach. ‘You took his finger for money. That’s disgusting,’ said Beth, even to her own ears she sounded much like a disapproving schoolmarm.
Jennifer laughed, ‘Think yourself lucky the safe isn’t activated by retinal recognition or it would have been his eyes… both of them.’ Beth went back to check on Colin, struggling to get that image out of her mind.
For the next three days Colin remained unconscious. His temperature fluctuated between dangerous highs and acceptable levels. His blood pressure was low. His pulse was often erratic. They watched over him day and night. Jennifer did few of her shifts and bored easily, Beth took the brunt of the workload but she did get time to shower and enough sleep and food to sustain her.
On the third night after having his skull drilled, and five days after being kidnapped, Colin stirred. Beth was asleep and woke when Jennifer violently shook her, yelling at her to wake up. ‘Quick, quick, he’s waking up. He’s waking up.’ She shouted excitedly.
Beth was at his bedside in a second, Jennifer at the other side. Colin was moaning and twitching. His hand was moving on the quilt beside him. He brought it up to his face and swept his cheek. His eyes flickered open and then closed again. He mumbled something incoherent, possibly not even formulated words, just sounds borne either of pain or confusion, probably both. And then his body relaxed and he was unconscious again.
‘Is that it?’ Jennifer said, obviously unimpressed. ‘Is that all he’s going to do?’
‘Well what do you want him to do, three verses of the halleluiah chorus and the can-can? Yes, that’s probably your lot for now, but its great progress. It’s the first time that I’ve felt that he might just pull through, but we’ve still got a long way to go until he’s in the clear. And even if he does wake up properly, we don’t know what state he’s going to be in.’
‘But he didn’t say anything.’
Beth grinned, ‘I would say that’s a blessing, wouldn’t you? Do you think you’re going to like what he’s got to say when he does come round?’
‘You said “when,”’ said Jennifer. ‘Cool.’
‘Fingers crossed, eh?’
Colin didn’t move again for another fifteen hours. After the first time he’d shown signs of waking, Beth had begun to lower the dosage of his Morphine to allow him to wake naturally. Now he was only on a dose high enough to control his pain and keep him very lightly sedated. Nothing artificial was preventing him from waking now. The second time he stirred it was similar to the time before.
He woke four times over the next five hours, each time for less than a minute. He never said anything, only made noises. While he was unconscious he was moving now, thrashing sometimes. Beth would cool his forehead with a wet flannel and wet the inside of his mouth with lemon swabs. She talked to him constantly, soothingly, repeating his name and telling him it was going to be all right. He started to grab the swabs with his mouth and suck on them. She introduced ice cubes and then tiny sips of water. He was swallowing involuntarily – another huge step towards the possibility of normal brain function. She started spooning thin soup into his mouth and, though he gave no indication that he was awake, he’d take it.
The next time he woke up, he retched violently and brought back all the soup he’d taken. It was the medication, morphine. His fever was coming down and he seemed calmer in his sleep. He was moving less but more deliberately and his vital signs were stronger. With every passing hour Beth became more hopeful that he was going to make it. At the same time she grew more terrified of what the outcome would be if he did.