The Stetson home was a classic example of ante-bellum architecture that had somehow survived the fall of Richmond. Jefferson Davis himself was once a neighbor. Man Bear helped the lady out of the vehicle, sparing a moment to send a sneer Arthur’s way. For some reason, Mrs. Stetson’s mood had changed somewhere along the way. She practically skipped over to Arthur, taking his arm in hers to walk him up the porch.
“Robbie is going to be so excited to have a visitor,” she said. “Ah’m afraid it’s just me and the doctors and the therapists who spend the most time with him.”
The two walked through the front doors into a marbled entryway. Portraits of past generations lined the walls. A sweeping blue carpeted staircase lay ahead.
“I would offer to take your coat, Mr. Arthur, but I daresay you’re going to want to keep it on. Is that all right?”
Arthur turned and saw her sweet smile. He nodded.
“The doctors need to keep his room cool for medical reasons, I’m told, and also bear in mind that Robbie is not . . . looking his best since the accident. But Bill has assured us we have the finest doctors in the land tending to his care.”
Arthur thought a moment. Bill? Ah, yes. The new DCI.
“How did you come to know Bill?” he asked as they walked up the stairs. She giggled and playfully slapped his arm.
“Mah husband was the state coordinator for the president’s campaign, silly. Didn’t you know? Why the president himself has been in this very house. Course, he wasn’t president yet. But we shared a lovely afternoon, just the two of us, drinking tea beneath the cool shade of the magnolia tree beside the house. And what a charmin’ man he is! I tell you, we laughed and laughed. He even told some old Hollywood stories.”
The two turned left at the top of the stairs and walked down a hallway, where Arthur began to notice an odor of some sort hung in the air, a medicinal smell. Underneath that was a musty aroma that reminded him of socks worn too long. He began to hear the rumbling of large machines then felt their vibrations beneath his feet.
Halfway down the hall, Mrs. Stetson stopped in front of a closed door and turned to him.
“Now please, Mr. Arthur, remember he has been awfully sick. But he so likes to have visitors.” She turned the handle and ushered him in. “You may want to button that top button!” she laughed as a blast of frigid air greeted them. “Quickly now,” she said.
Arthur stepped into the room. It took his eyes a moment to adjust to the darkness. He knew he would never adjust to the cold. Looking around for the source of the noise, he saw two industrial air conditioning units had been installed along the back wall. He turned his head to the right and saw a hospital issue bed jutting out from the wall.
Machines large and small lined both sides of the bed, blinking and beeping away. The two large canisters tucked into a far corner he assumed were filled with oxygen. Arthur walked slowly toward the foot of the bed and saw the boy for the first time. He watched the mother move beside him and take her son’s hand in hers.
“Robbie? I’d like you to meet Mr. Arthur.” She turned to look at Arthur and smiled. “Mr. Arthur? This is our son, Robert.”
Despite the frigid cold, beads of sweat broke out upon Arthur’s brow. He felt his knees begin to buckle. While reaching for the side of the bed for support, Arthur realized that the roommate had been right.
They’d shaved his head and attached electrodes to the shorn skull. Arthur couldn’t help but notice the machine they were attached to wasn’t turned on anymore. Why bother?
The greenish blue skin of the boy’s face had already begun to buckle into the hollows of his cheeks. Capillaries beneath his eyes had exploded, leaving the skin beneath black. Looking lower, he noted with horror that the boy’s mouth had fallen open, revealing his blackened tongue. His mother saw it too, because a moment later he watched her reach over and push it closed.
“He does that,” she said with embarrassment.
It was an abomination. Arthur was no doctor, but the boy was clearly dead. Yet machines on either side kept the blood pumping. An IV inserted into his arm pumped fresh blood in. Another machine seemed to take the blood out via a tube coming from his leg. A plastic tube inserted into his trachea kept the air flowing noisily in and out, in and out. At the foot of the bed was a plastic bag filled with a brackish fluid that Arthur didn’t even want to think about.