CHAPTER 4
 

"The IV fluids aren't enough. They're losing weight fast," I comment to
Deborah as we inventory. "I wish they'd drink more water."

"I know. I've been trying to avoid NG tube feeding, but I think we're
going to have to go that way." She groans. "We're going to be real
popular girls."

"Just thank God we haven't had to catheterize them yet." I wince at the
very thought. I've catheterized many patients, but it's certainly not
something I relish doing.

"So far, they're okay there, but I am getting worried about renal
failure. It's going to be a real possibility if Anndie and Jimmy don't
hightail it to Georgia." I share her concern. They aren't showing any
real signs of improvement. Ringo's the only one who's escaped cardiac
arrest, but we keep having to up the doses of his meds. He's on both
albuterol and theophylline now. Needless to say, he can't sleep, and
when Ringo can't sleep, he makes sure no else can, either.

"Ms. Runtz said she would get them a scrambled cell phone and they would
be in contact as soon as they got underway."

Deborah turns to stare at me, hard.

"And you believe her? This is all her fault! I don't trust her as far as
I can throw her, the little bitch."

"Deborah. She's a victim as we all are." I sincerely believe that. I
don't care much for the girl, but nothing about her suggests that she's
a villain here. "We need her on our side."

"And when this is over, I never want to see her fucking face again." Her
voice is more weary than angry.

"We'll probably get our wish."

"Speaking of wishes, do we have our wish list together?"

"I think so."

"Let's see if we can bribe Ed and Fred."

**************************************************************************************

When we do reach Ed and Fred, and ask them to fill our order, they call
back with a price that makes Deborah nearly faint.

"I hope Devi is good for her word," Deborah whispers.

"What's the bad news?" Sari asks.

"Uh...we're up to $13,588.74. That's with a discount for cash."

"I think Devi can handle that."

"Tell her we'll pay her back when we can," I say, although as of now, I
don't think I'll be returning to my old job. How I'm going to pay for
anything is still a mystery, but right now, my focus is on getting Mel
and his friends well. Other matters can wait.

I'm not so sure about hitting up Devi for that kind of money, but when
we read off the total, she acted as if it was no problem. "I have
shopping sprees that cost more than that," she admits. Her sister rolls
her eyes.

"Her husband's family is the wealthiest family in Sri Lanka. Which is a
good thing," Sari says. "Devi might be easy, but she's not cheap."

"Better than cheap and not easy, which is what you are," her sister
sticks her tongue out at Sari. I chuckle. They're obviously very close,
and sometimes they act like 13-year-olds to prove it. Sari returns the
gesture. Sari's normally very staid, and I'm amused that she can loosen
up sometimes in this fashion.

"Okay, Ed and Fred are going to make the delivery once they're off shift
at midnight," Deborah assures us after she negotiates the deal with
them. "I offered them each a thousand to shut up about it."

"You should have offered them more," Devi admonishes. "As I said, you
can't put a price on love."

She's right. And love in our case is likely to prove to be very, very
expensive. In more ways than one.
 

The guys are restless, except for Mel, who is finally sound asleep.
Nothing like heart failure to really wear you out. We call for a vote on
TV. To my surprise, both John and Ringo request CSI. I love the show and
almost never miss it, and I understand they're fans, but I'm a bit
surprised that they would want to watch such a thing in the shape
they're in.

We're barely into the opening strains of the theme song by the Who when
the phone rings again. Sari, the one least disposed towards CSI (I learn
that Deborah is also addicted to the show and has Ringo tape it for when
she's on shift), answers it. I hear some relief in her voice and notice
everyone else relax a little when she puts the speaker on. "Turn the TV
down!" She hisses to us.

"Guys...is this for real?" A male voice comes on. "I mean, I'm not
dreaming this, you're really alive?" He sounds as if his voice is going
thin, the way it does when one is about to start crying.

"Jimmy, man!" Ringo rasps, followed by a bout of coughing.

"Jimmy. Good to hear from you," John smiles a bit. "We're okay."

"That's not what Ms. Miller tells me," the watery voice on the other end
of the line says. "My God, I was sure..."

"They're alive and kicking and bitching," Deborah assures Jimmy.

I stroke Mel's thinning hair. He's so pale. He needs sleep, but I wish
he would wake up, just to reassure Jimmy.

"What about Frohike?" Jimmy asks.

"Crashed out at the moment," Deborah tells him. "Jimmy, can you save the
happy hellos for later? We need you to drive. Like real fast."

"Oh, me and Anndie are driving, just fast enough we don't get caught.
Lois gave us three cell phones."

"How is she doing?" I ask him.

"She's pretty down, but she shouldn't be, I told her, this isn't your
fault, you're doing what you can to help."

"That's right," and I want Ms. Miller to hear that. She's as much a
victim in all this as any of us.

"Jimmy. Drive. Call us when you've got news," Deborah says. "Besides,
the commercials are over."

"Got it. Oh God, I'm so happy--"

"Night, Jimmy, and drive safely," Sari admonishes him before clicking
off the phone. She shakes her head as she takes her place next to John.
"He'd talk all night if we let him."

"Yeah, that's why we don't let him watch CSI with us," Ringo says. He
glances over at Mel. "He's gonna be okay, isn't he? He shouldn't have
taken up smoking again."

Hmm. I think Mel and I will be having a little chat later on.

For now, I'm just content to be close to him, and feel him breathing.
Keep breathing, dear heart, and don't stop.
 
 

Eight long hours later, we receive the phone call we've all been holding
our breath for. Jimmy and Anndie have met up with Maggie, and apparently
no one has followed them. Maggie sounds nervous when she calls but
promises to get to work right away. Fortunately, while we were holding
our breath, the guys were stable. Uncomfortable, but stable. Ringo and
John toss about restlessly. At one point Sari is trying to read some
Sanskrit poetry to John, and arouses Ringo's irritation. In a way I'm
grateful that Mel is sound asleep. Their bickering is likely to set him
off right now. I wearily tell all of them to play nice. I think Ringo
made a raspberry at me. If he wasn't so sick, and I wasn't so worn out,
I'd have given him a firm talking to. Not that it would have made any
difference. I think Ringo fits the definition of 'incorrigible' perfectly.

We doze intermittently. The phone rings frequently throughout the night.
Maggie has taken the sample to her lab and is beginning to do the
analysis. I take the call from her initial runthrough.

"I have no idea what this is. I just did a BLAST search, and I don't see
anything like it in the database," she says. My heart sinks.

"This means?" By now everyone is awake in the room, including Mel.

I put it on speaker. If everyone's awake, they might as well get the
update. "I'm going to have to sequence and run assays. And I'm sorry, I
know you said I need to not tell anyone about this, but I'm going to
need some help."

"Maggie, you can't do that," Deborah gasps in horror, trying to keep her
voice level.

"Well, it seems to me there are already two people besides myself here
in Hot'lanta that know about this. I teach a class every year at Emory.
Tomorrow, I'm going to get Anndie into one of the labs and have her do
some of the work."

"Is she going to be safe?" Sari is alarmed. "And what about you?"

Maggie chuckles. "I'm way over the line here. At least I don't have to
use the Level 4 facility. That'd run me into some real problems. But
Anndie's assured me the virus loses its potency in relatively short
order, at least in open air."

"How are you going to get her into one of the labs without arousing
suspicion?"

"Shouldn't be a problem. I bring people in all the time. Usually they're
postdocs, but I don't think this is going to be a real issue. I've got
plenty of friends over there, and if I say I need to use the labs, I
don't think they'll ask too many questions."

"What about Jimmy?" I inquire. He could be a real liability.

She chuckles. "Well, I suppose we can have him wash glassware and run
for coffee."

"Do you know where they're staying?" Sari asks her.

"No, and I don't want to. They gave me a cell number. They should be
calling you soon."

Let's hope so, I pray. Enough bad has happened. Let's not make it any
uglier.

"Maggie, we really appreciate this," Deborah says gently.

Maggie laughs that light, musical chuckle again. "I'm looking forward to
my trip to Bermuda, girl."

"Thank you," we all chorus as Maggie terminates the call.
 

"Jimmy better not do anything stupid," Ringo mutters.

"Wha--Jimmy what?" My heart leaps. Mel is awake. The lights are dim, so
I can't really see how his coloring is, but his vitals, while on the low
side, are stable. I cheer as I embrace him.

"Ow...sorry, dear heart. Everything hurts like a sonofabitch," he
groans. "What the hell happened? Last thing I remember was I couldn't
breathe."

"You went into cardiac failure," I tell him truthfully. "You seem to be
doing fine right now."

"I feel like hell."

"Join the club," Ringo moans, punctuating his statement with a loud, wet
cough.

"Shit. You need more albuterol," Deborah reaches for his inhaler.

"I'm getting real tired of that shit," Langly croaks between coughs and
wheezes, but sighs and accepts the noxious spray.

"Please, I'm trying to sleep." John shoots this at Ringo, possibly for
payback for his earlier protests over Sari reading to him. "Is Jimmy all
right? Can we try to call him?"

"I don't know. Maybe we should wait for them to call us," Mel croaks to
him. He leans in towards me a little, and within moments, he's back in a
restless sleep. I stroke his face tenderly. I'm very, very worried. He's
survived round 1. God help us if Maggie can't get results fast enough. I
really could live without a round 2.

"I suppose we can try him, but if he's smart, he'll leave the phone off
as much as possible," Sari says. "I think he'll call."

"I think we should make sure," John protests.

"Okay, I'll call him," Deborah says. "Someone gimme the number again?"

"They have three." I hand her the slip of paper--actually today's date
from a Dilbert calendar--that contains the numbers.

On the second number, there's a response. I hope it's Jimmy or Anndie.

"Jimmy, is that you?" Deborah asks. I signal her to lower her voice; no
need to shout. I'm sure they have PCS. "Where are you?"

"Don't ask them that. We don't want to know," Sari reminds her.

The rest of the conversation is brief, mostly Deborah going 'uh-huh'.
Finally she says, "You guys be careful." She ends the call.

"They're staying somewhere, they won't say where, which, like Sari says,
is probably a good idea, for everyone. They're meeting with Maggie for
breakfast at 7. They're going to try and get some sleep in the meantime."

"They sharing a room?" Ringo rasps, but with his usual mischief in his
voice.

"I didn't ask, but he did say Anndie was asleep."

"How long you give him before she's boffing him?" Ringo's sunken eyes
glitter a bit in the dark, some of his impishness returning.

"Ringo, go to sleep." Deborah strokes his hair gently. "It'd probably be
a good idea if we all tried to do the same."
 

Everyone does finally doze off, myself including, but I'm awakened a
short time later by not an alarm from the monitors or harsh coughing
from one of the guys, but from a soft sobbing sound. I blink and
scramble for my glasses, trying to see what's going on.

Deborah is curled up in Ringo's bed. The beds are narrow enough that
she's barely on it, but she's got her arm draped over him. He's
whispering something to her. I listen as unobtrusively as possible.

"I don't know what I'm doing. I'm a terrible doctor," I can make out
from Deborah, although she's keeping her voice low.

"No, babe, no. You're doing the best you can. Don't cry." Ringo is
trying to comfort her. I know he's scared, as we all are--what if Maggie
discovers this virus is ultimately fatal? I'm sure that thought only
crosses his mind once a day, and that's constantly.

"I did all the wrong things." She continues to sob.

"Hey, you just go with what you know, so what? Your bud's gonna help us.
We're gonna get out of here. We're gonna be alive. Get a better life."

"How?" The sound from Deborah is strangled. "I can't go back to GWU. I'm
probably looking at criminal charges already for all the stuff I took.
And who'd ever believe me about what all happened?"

"Doesn't matter, babe. You're doing good." He coughs again. "You're a
good doc. Don't lose your cool on that one, okay? Like we need you to
get better." He chuckles a bit. "I need you. For other stuff."

I look down at Mel. That 'other stuff.' Will that ever happen? Right
now, I wish I had Ringo's faith. For all these guys have been through, I
marvel, they never lose faith. Ringo's faith is in Deborah right now. I
can tell she feels it's misplaced. All her confidence in her ability to
do medicine has been shattered by this course of events. That's a
dangerous thing.

"I don't know what I'm gonna do," Deborah sobs. "All I know how to do is
medicine."

"Hey, it's not all you know how to do," Ringo tells her gently.
"Besides, everyone needs good docs, everywhere. You'll see."

"You really think so?" Her voice is pleading.

"Know so. Go to sleep, babe. I love you."

I shake my head gently. Whatever hits these men, they do not back down.
And if they're not going to let go of belief and hope, neither will I.
And I'm touched by Ringo's tenderness. It's not something many people
get to witness between those two. I've always been certain it exists,
but to have confirmation of it is heartening. I feel my eyes tear as I
gaze down at my own beloved.

I kiss Mel gently on the forehead. "We'll make it happen, my love."

He doesn't respond verbally, but nestles down slightly to get
comfortable. At some level, he heard me.