He heard a crack, and the next thing he knew he was being loaded into the back of an ambulance. “You’re going to be okay,” the paramedic said. It was a lie if he ever heard one. That was the last thing Domingo Reyes heard before his world went dark. He tried to keep his eyes open. He wondered, if he closed his eyes, would he ever open them again? That day should’ve been like any other: hop in the truck, head to the jobsite, and get home in time for watch some T.V. before bed.
What were the odds someone would hit the utility pole he was repairing at 2:00 o’clock in the afternoon? Sure, it could happen. He had heard stories of guys getting knocked off poles, but those usually came from night crews doing emergency repairs. He never thought it would be him. There were plenty of injuries he could get on the job. Some of those injuries he expected as an inevitability of a life as a utility worker – maybe a mild electrocution or terrible sunburn. A driver hitting the pole and knocking him thirty feet to the ground had never crossed his mind as a possibility, let alone as his reality.
His vision went from pitch black to blinding light when he finally came to. He had no idea where he was or how exactly he got there. The brightness was like the light of a cinematic alien abduction – scorching white and artificial. Was that what this was? An abduction?
“Mr. Reyes?” The voice was soft with a sort-of forced compassion. It was almost, but not quite, condescending. “You’re in the hospital. You had quite a fall. How are you feeling?”
Domingo’s vision came back all at once. Without the overhead light in his eyes, he could see his legs strung up and elevated in a series of ropes and pulleys. His legs were wrapped in bandaged speckled red in some spots and soaked in others. Blood. His blood.
Then came the sound. There were chattering people all around, the beeping of monitors, and even someone crying in the distance. He tried to remember how he got there. Last he knew he was climbing the utility pole like any other day. Then, it all came back to him. He remembered the crash and the concern in the medics’ voices as Domingo looked up at them. He remembered his vision going black, and then, this.
The doctor leaned over him and listened to Domingo’s heart for a moment. His pure white lab coat brushed the side of Domingo’s hospital bed.
“Did you hear me, Mr. Reyes?”
Domingo struggled to make words leave his lips. “What happened to my legs? What happened to me?”
“You landed on the hood of the car that hit the utility pole. I’m Dr. Andrews.” He took a small flashlight out of his coat pocket and checked Domingo’s pupils. “Doesn’t look like you sustained a closed head injury from the fall. Your legs took the brunt of the impact. Multiple compound fractures. Other than that, just bumps and bruises. You got lucky.”
“I can’t wiggle my toes.”
Dr. Andrews glanced down at Domingo’s feet and back up to him. “That’s to be expected. Between the damage to your legs and the medications we have you on for pain, you won’t be able to feel much for a while. We checked your reflexes when you got here. No sign of paralysis.”
It was at that moment that Domingo noticed just how many people were in the room. The doctor talking to him was at least in his sixties. Maybe older. His hair was salt and pepper, and his eyes bore the crows’ feet of countless nights on-call. Behind him were three young doctors: two young women and a young man. Their lab coats still had creases from the packaging they arrived in. It was July, so it was likely that they had just a few months of experience combined. A female nurse in her twenties checked his blood pressure while a male nurse, biceps comically bulging from his too-tight scrubs, awkwardly fidgeted with Domingo’s I.V. bag. The room reeked of iron and antiseptic, so much so that Domingo started to feel nauseous. He tried to warn them, but he knew a single word would purge his stomach.
The male nurse, recognizing the signs before his colleague, put a large plastic basin in Domingo’s lap. One of the young, female doctors stepped up and stroked Domingo’s back as he retched.
“Easy,” she said. “Just breathe through it. This is common with opiates.” She smiled. “We’ll get you something for that, and you’ll feel a lot better.”
“What’s going to happen to me.” Domingo looked up at the medical staff, his attention finally falling on the most experienced person in the room.
Dr. Andrews sat at his bedside and gestured for the rest of the medical team to leave the room. He waited for the door to close before he turned back to Domingo. “Your legs are in bad shape. You have multiple bone fragments protruding through the skin on both legs. It looks like the pieces that didn’t break the skin are mostly shattered, based on the x-rays we got while you were unconscious.”
“What’s going to happen to me.” Domingo felt the need to reiterate his question. He was not looking for the gritty details of what was wrong. He wanted to know what the future held. He had never experienced anything like this – anything so surreal. It was apparent from the look of his legs that he was in trouble. He did not need a medical degree to know that. What he did not know was what would happen next, and that scared him more than the view below his waist.
The doctor nodded. His face was tactful in a fabricated way – a practiced look developed over years of working in the medical field. “We have the best medical team in the area. We’re going to do everything in our power to save your legs.”
Save his legs? Just that afternoon he had been climbing utility poles. He thought of how sure footed he had been climbing that pole. It was just one of hundred’s he had scaled in his five years on the job. A few hours after that confident climb, a doctor was talking about amputating his legs.
Dr. Andrews maintained eye contact and that practiced look. “The damage is extensive. You’re at high risk for infection due to the nature of your injuries.”
“So, you’re just going to cut off my legs? Just like that? I scale utility poles for a living. How am I supposed to do that without legs?” Domingo’s eyes welled up. “What am I supposed to do?”
“We will do everything we can. I promise.” The doctor put a hand on Domingo’s shoulder. “Right now, all you can do is rest. Your first surgery will be tomorrow morning. This is going to be a long road, but you will get through this.”
Dr. Andrews left after that. What else was there to say? Domingo lay there with nothing but his thoughts. He went to bury his hands in his face and sob when a new voice came from the doorway.
“Don’t fall asleep. You’ll die if you do.” It was a mater-of-fact tone – not comforting, but not cruel either.
Domingo looked up to find a woman standing in the doorway of the hospital room. She was slim. Her jean shorts came up above her hips, and her crop top still showed a bit of midriff. She looked like she was heading to beach, not a hospital.
Domingo gathered himself enough to speak. “Who are you?”
“Just trust me,” she said. “Don’t fall asleep.”
She left before Domingo had a chance to respond.
So, he stayed awake. The notion that he might lose his legs in the morning was terrifying, but he had no intention of dying that day. Besides, it was not hard for him to stay awake. The pain trickled through the narcotics like a pinhole in a dam. First, it felt like the itch of a mosquito bite. For a moment, he wondered if that was what had happened. Then, the itch spread. It reminded him of the time he walked through poison ivy as a kid – an itch with such intensity that it felt like it might never go away. He tried to claw at his bandages, but he could not quite reach. He twisted and turned against the braces that kept his legs elevated, ripping at the itch as it transitioned from a tingle to hot embers. It was like he had jumped in a fire pit. The monitor to his right started beeping faster. It picked up its pace, and he felt the same fear he felt in the quick moment as he fell from the utility pole.
The pounding of his heart made him rip harder and faster at his legs. The young female nurse ran through the door and went straight to his monitor.
She glanced between it and the clipboard in her arms. “I need you to relax, Mr. Reyes. Take a few breaths.”
Domingo thrashed harder. The bed shook with bolt-loosening ferocity as he continued to tear at his shattered legs, ripping at any exposed skin he could reach. The I.V. tore from his arm, squirting blood down his side and onto the nurse’s scrubs.
The nurse ran to a panel on the wall and smashed a button with her palm. A loudspeaker blared an artificial voice overhead. “Code Blue in room 1031.”
Domingo’s heart picked up its pace as he listened to the emergency signal. His legs burned like they had been soaked in napalm and set ablaze. He felt himself lose his sense of time and space. The room faded to black around him like it had in the ambulance just a little while before, and he realized he did not know where he was anymore.
He heard a stampede of footsteps nearby, but his eyes were glued shut. For a moment, he wondered if this really was all a dream, and, when he opened his eyes again, he would be back at home with his alarm blaring in his ears and not this Code Blue.
But, the varying sounds continued. “He’s going into shock. Heart rate spiking. BP and O2 sat dropping,” one voice called. Hands pulled at Domingo from all angles. He felt like there was a monstrous weight on his chest. It restricted his breathing.
“He needs oxygen. Hook him up.” This was an older voice. It was familiar, but he was not quite sure where he had heard it before. “Nurse, get that line in. He needs epinephrine and dopamine.”
A hand pulled at Domingo’s cheeks. Another puled at his eyelids. For a moment, the darkness was seared away with a white light, returning to black a second later. He felt a breeze in his nose, which was accompanied with the smell of fresh plastic and blood.
Something pierced his hand. He wanted to pull away from the poke, but he could not seem to figure out how to tell his hand to do that anymore.
“Line’s in,” another voice said.
He felt something slither in his hand, traveling up his arm and into his heart. It wrapped itself around his heart and squeezed it tight until his eyes shot open. Light flooded his vision, and the world, once shrouded in darkness and chaos, screeched to a halt. He was back in his hospital bed. His legs were still hoisted above him. The nauseating aroma persisted, and he realized that the new smell added to the rankness of the room came from the oxygen mask over his face.
One of the nurses quickly stripped the bloody sheet off him.
Dr. Andrews leaned over him. The first of his words came jumbled, and Domingo assumed it was some sort of explanation of what had just happened to him. Before he could ask Dr. Andrews to repeat himself, the old doctor continued. “Your body is processing out the pain medication faster than we anticipated, so I’m going to set you up with a morphine drip. Next time you feel that pain coming back, you just hit the button on your drip, and it’ll give you a dose to keep the pain at bay.”
Domingo felt a warm push through his I.V. line, and he exhaled the pain away. One of the nurses passed him the button that had just released his first dose. “Thank you,” Domingo said, settling back into the bed as the morphine enveloped him like a warm blanket.
The doctor gave him a light pat on the chest. “Just get some rest, okay. That’s all you can do right now. We’re still planning on having your first surgery in the morning. This won’t set you back.” The doctor tried to hide behind a smile. How could he smile at a time like this?
Domingo nodded. There was not much else to say, and the most recent push of morphine clouded his mind enough to repress the urge to panic. At that point, the mass exodus of the medical team began. Dr. Andrews flipped off the overhead light, looking back at Domingo once last time. “Close your eyes. If you need anything, you can hit the alarm on your bedside. A nurse will come right away. We’ll be monitoring you more closely now, but we’ll try not to disturb you in your sleep.” Then, he left Domingo alone in that dimly lit room.
Domingo was about to close his eyes when he noticed a blip of light in his peripheral vision. He looked over to find his phone in a sealed plastic bag on his hospital nightstand. He twisted, and he felt a throb in his legs until he returned to his original position.
He had forty-seven text messages and fourteen voicemails. One text message was from his supervisor – some iteration of, “Can’t wait ‘til you’re back to work. Get well soon.” He hardly bothered to take notice. Looking down at his legs, he wondered again if he would ever return to work. The rest of the texts and voicemails were from his mother. The hospital must have had her number down as his emergency contact from when he came in after stepping on a rusty nail a few months prior. Even though his mother had just recently moved the 1,400 miles down to Florida, she was still probably the best person to have as his emergency contact. She was his closest living relative, and he was never much of a social butterfly – not enough so that he could trust one of his fair-weather friends in an emergency. Those were friends he could have a beer with and watch the game. They rarely talked about anything “real.” Nothing like this.
He decided to text his mother instead of calling her, partly because he figured that would scare her less, and partly because he did not trust himself to carry a conversation with her without him slurring from the medication and giving away the extent of his injuries. She was too far away to do anything but have a heart attack from the stress of it all.
Don’t worry. I’ll be fine. He pressed send on the message and tried to make himself more comfortable in bed. He was just beginning to close his eyes when he felt his phone go off again.
Huh? she responded.
He paused for a moment and wondered what was so confusing about the message he had sent. Then, he glanced up at it in the message chain and realized the issue. He would have sworn on his own life that he had said, Don’t worry. I’ll be fine. Yet, that is not what the message said. He found a different message in its place.
Don’t fall asleep.
His phone had always been quick to auto correct his messages, and he had always made sure to tell people how much he “ducking” hated it.
Stupid auto correct, he said. Don’t worry, I’ll be fine.*
He put his phone down, closed his eyes, and pressed the button in his hand for a bit more morphine to ease him to sleep. He was just beginning to drift away when he got an incoming call. He prayed it was his work so he could just let it go to voicemail, but he knew better than that. He did not even need to check to see who it was.
“Hey, Mom,” he said. “I can’t really talk right now.”
“Domingo Rodrigo Reyes,” she said with the same harsh voice she used when he was in trouble as a child. “First, a doctor calls to say you’re in the hospital. Then, I don’t hear from you for hours. When I finally do, you say this nonsense?”
Before saying another word, Domingo pulled up their text messages. This time, he could not help but gasp. The messages he sent were not there, and two new messages were in their place.
Don’t fall asleep. You’ll die if you do.
He tried to keep a stiff upper lip. He wanted to tell her that everything was going to be fine. Instead, he started to sob. “Mom, it’s bad. They might have to amputate my legs. I really wish you were here right now.”
“Don’t worry, honey,” she said. “I’ve already booked the first flight back home. I’ll be there tomorrow morning, and we will get through this together.”
“Okay,” Domingo said as he gulped to get control of himself. He had not cried like this to her since his date ditched him the day before prom – back when he assumed that would forever be the most difficult event of his life. Every past event, every tear he shed prior, all seemed trivial in comparison to sitting in that hospital bed. How could this be his life? How could this be happening?
“Close your eyes now,” his mother said in a hushed, sweet tone. “I’ll be there when you wake up.”
“I love you mom.”
“I love you too, honey.”
The phone clicked off, and Domingo again settled himself in bed with nothing but the morphine button to comfort him. He felt sleep overcoming him when the overhead light switched on. He could see the red of his eyelids.
“What did I tell you?” a female voice asked.
Domingo opened his eyes and saw the same strange woman in the doorway who had warned him before.
She glided over to his bedside with a grace he had not seen before, and he noticed how pretty she was. She was only maybe a few years younger than him. Under different circumstances, he might have hit on her.
“Don’t fall asleep,” she whispered. “You’ll die if you do.”
“Who are you? Why do you keep saying that?”She reached out to touch him, but he pulled away. He was not sure why. There was something about the frankness and confidence in her voice that terrified him. How could she possibly know he would die? The doctors were the ones encouraging him to sleep. He pulled the blanket over his shoulders and up to his chin. He wanted to say he was cold, but, in all honesty, it was just as much about keeping her out as it was keeping heat in.
“My name is Cecilia,” she said. “I’m only trying to help you.”
“Are you a doctor?”
“Then what makes you so sure that you’re right? What makes you so sure I’m going to die if I fall asleep?”
A nurse moved a cart in the hallway, and its wheels squeaked to a halt a few rooms away.
Cecilia rubbed her hands together as her eyes glanced from Domingo to the door. “I can’t stay here much longer.”
“What makes you so sure I’m going to die? I need to know.” He was more forceful this time. She was not going to leave again without telling him. He could not let that happen.
“Look,” she said. “Just don’t fall asleep, okay? I’m trying to do the right thing.”
“Well, if you’re so concerned, why don’t you go and tell the medical team?” The monitor over his shoulder began to beep again. He did not have to look at it to know his heart rate and blood pressure were rising. The white knuckles on his clenched fists and the pulsing he felt in his head told him that much.
The nurses cart squeaked to a halt in front of the room next to Domingo’s.
“I have to go now,” Cecilia said. “I need you to trust me. Please.”
She left before Domingo could respond.
Less than a minute later, the male nurse from earlier walked in with his cart, barely looking away from the computer monitor on the cart to address Domingo.
“How are you feeling, Mr. Reyes.”
“Some woman keeps coming in here. She says I’m going to die if I fall asleep.” The words sounded crazy even as they left his lips. Maybe that was it. His injuries were making him go crazy.
The nurse stared at him from over the monitor. “A woman? I haven’t seen or heard about you having any visitors.”
“Yeah,” Domingo said, feeling more and more sure that he was losing his mind. “She’s been here twice, and she’s starting to freak me out.”
“We’re going to take good care of you,” the nurse said. It was as if his comments had gone completely unheard. “If you want, I can make sure you don’t have any more visitors until after your surgery tomorrow.”
“That would be great. I don’t want to see anybody but my mother.”
The nurse nodded and went to leave the room. “Will do, Mr. Reyes. Now get some sleep. We aren’t kidding. You’re going to need all the rest you can get over the next couple months. It’ll help you heal.”
Domingo thought about Dr. Andrews. He thought about what the doctor had said about the possible amputation. He thought about wheelchairs and prosthetics. He thought about how his life would never be the same, and all because of an accident. He was not reckless. He was not careless. All he did was get up in the morning and go to work. Nothing he could have done would have prevented it, and yet somehow that made it worse.
Then, he thought about Cecilia and what she had said. As petrified as he was of a future with no legs, dying sounded much worse.
“Nurse,” he said before he had totally left the room. “Are you sure I have nothing to worry about if I go to sleep.” He shuddered. “I don’t want to die. I don’t want any of this.”
The nurse sighed. “Your vitals look good considering your trauma, but I can always talk to the doctor.”
If Domingo was a betting man, he would have bet that was a lie. He nodded anyway. “Thank you.”
He tried to fall asleep after that. He did everything he could to put his mind at ease enough to drift off to sleep. He read a few boring articles on his phone. He meditated. He even said a few prayers. It had been years since he had done that. With his legs strung up and him strung out after ours in bed and only nurses and morphine to keep him company periodically, he thought falling asleep would be as easy as closing his eyes.
That was not the case. Every time he closed his eyes, he saw Cecilia’s face – her sad smile. Every time he tuned out the incessant beeping of the monitors and machines, he heard her voice.
Don’t fall asleep. You’ll die if you do.
He wanted to toss and turn. He wanted to roll onto his face and wrap his pillow over his ears just to hide from her sad gaze and suppress her haunting words.
Don’t fall asleep. You’ll die if you do.
His current condition prevented such relief. He found it difficult to think of anything but those words, and the only moments of relief he did get came with a fresh push of his morphine button. It became his only true comfort throughout the day, and he pressed it whenever he could. When he was trying to fall asleep: morphine. When his head started to throb: morphine. When the muscles in his neck got stiff from the hospital’s cheap pillow: morphine. When he started to get nauseous again: morphine. It was not that he thought it would help any of these things. Rather, he just hoped it would distract his mind a little while longer until he was finally ready to sleep.
He felt like days had passed, but it had only been a few hours when Dr. Andrews came to see how Domingo was doing. “The nurses tell me you haven’t been sleeping.”
“It’s not from lack of trying,” Domingo said.
“Still, you’ve got to get some rest.”
Domingo’s eyes welled up. “I’m scared.”
“The nurses told me about your visitor. You are not going to die today, Mr. Reyes, but you have to listen to us if you want to get better soon. As it is, you have a long road ahead of you.” The doctor sat on the side of Domingo’s hospital bed and placed one hand on Domingo’s chest. Something in his other hand glistened in the dim light of the hospital monitors. “You don’t want to make your recover any more difficult than it’s already going to be.”
“What’s that,” Domingo asked.”
Dr. Andrews smiled. “Just something to help you sleep.”
“Doctor,” Domingo looked away to hide his tears. “I’m scared.”
The doctor patted him gently. “I need you to trust me. We’ve looked at all your tests a dozen times. You experienced serious trauma today, but none of it is life-threatening at the moment. If it was, you’d already be in surgery.”
“But, the woman. She seemed so sure that – ”
“I had our security team look into that. They checked the cameras and the front desk. The only visitors you’ve had since you got here were the medical team. I asked every one of them. No one on our team told you that you were going to die.”
How could that be true? Domingo had seen her with his own two eyes. Her voice – her damn smile – were burned into his memory. He gazed passed the doctor towards the spot where Cecilia stood in the doorway the first time she came to him.
Don’t fall asleep.
He could still hear her voice.
You’ll die if you do.
Before he had a chance to object, Domingo felt a cold push through his IV line. It rushed through his arm, to his chest, and then out through the rest of his body. It put a weight on his eyelids within seconds, and he would have sworn he could taste the sterile acridity of the medication on his tongue.
“Now sleep,” Dr. Andrews said, and he left the room without another word.
Sleep came fast to him. He tried to fight it, but it was an exercise in futility. As each blink lasted longer, he found himself staring at the door. His vision started to blur, and he felt the medication taking its final hold. Just before his final blink, he saw Cecilia standing in the doorway.
He wanted to scream or run over to her. He wanted to fight the urge to sleep, call the doctor, and prove she was there. None of that was possible. Even if his legs worked, he would have fallen under the weight of the sedatives. As he closed his eyes one final time, he heard her voice whisper in his ears.
It did not matter that it was a warm summer night. It was always cold in the morgue. The coroner slid his most recent patron into the last remaining cold locker in the building. Warm summer nights always brought the rival gangs out to play, which kept him more than busy, if not overwhelmed.
This most recent patient though was not one of those gang members. There were no gunshot or stab wounds present. The coroner grabbed the chart off his desk that came with the body and opened it up.
Domingo Rodrigo Reyes
Suspected cause of death: Trauma induced brain aneurysm
Tough break. The coroner flipped deeper into the chart, making notes as he went and marking the medications the patient had been given with asterisks so he could find them quickly later. Based on what the patient had been given, it was no wonder he died in his sleep rather than writhing in pain while his brain bled. The cocktail those doctors gave him would have masked the signs of distress until it was too late.
He kept reading until he found the source of the initial trauma. That is when he realized he had read this story before. He flipped through the files on his desk, passing drive-bys, stabbings, and O.Ds until he finally found the file he was looking for.
As he glanced at the file and looked at the wall of cold lockers, he noticed that the patient from this file was in the locker next to Mr. Reyes. The descriptions of the accidents were identical. Same time. Same place. Same officers on scene. This patient had been the driver that caused Mr. Reyes’ fall. That was for sure.
Cecilia Ann Molly
Suspected cause of death: Single vehicle collision.
As he read further into the statements made by eyewitnesses, it was clear the accident was likely caused by Ms. Molly falling asleep at the wheel. In a way, she died in her sleep too.
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