A plump little man in hospital scrubs shuffled his way into the door, pulling a tray with a platter. He looked at Matt, showing an odd lack of surprise at seeing Matt awake.
“Wakey, wakey, eh?” the man said with a gruff scratchy voice, his face leaning in toward Matt’s. “Why it’s about time. You must be right famished. What’s it been, a day?”
“A day? How long have I been here?”
“Pshhht.” The sound was like the mix between a sneeze and huff, “that’s a doctor question, ‘fraid. I’m just a low nurse I am. Be needing your breakfast you will, I am sure.”
“Uh,” Matt said, looking up at the single muffin on the platter. It looked fairly appetizing, but Matt didn’t feel like eating at the moment, “I don’t think I’m hungry, really.”
The man eyed Matt wearily, and Matt could see a rather hastily shaven five o’clock shadow on the nurse’s face.
“My boy, you don’t know the half of your needs. I be the nurse here, and I says you need strength. Now eat up before the doctor gets here. He’ll chide you somethin’ fierce you don’t obey doctor’s orders… or nurse’s… or whatever. You’re goin’ to need the strength, I say, so eat up.”
The man plopped the plate on Matt’s lap and hastily pushed his tray out of the room. It was certainly one of the oddest hospital encounters he’d ever had – aside from the fact that he had only moments before been talking to a ghost.
He set the plate on the table nest to his bed using his free arm. Had it really been a day since he had been at his house? He had no memory of the details that had led to his hospitalization.
Then another thought hit him. If he was attacked by Ion marauders, what had happened to Alice? Was she okay? What if she was also attacked, or even taken by them? He looked around for some kind of telephone, and found a button used to call the reception desk. He pushed it, and a woman’s voice said, “Mr. Robinson, is that you?”
He suddenly couldn’t think of how to ask his question, especially since he had no idea why he was even there, so he said, “Uh, yes, is there someone who can, uh, tell me about my condition.”
“The doctor will be right in, Mr. Robinson.”
He had barely thanked the voice when the doctor stepped in the room.
“Matthew, it’s good to see you awake! How are you feeling?” His demeaner was gentle, and his voice won Matthew’s trust immediately.
“Not so great – I don’t remember anything about why I’m here.”
“That’s because of the concussion,” the doctor said while poking around and checking pulse and heart rate. We were beginning to worry that you were lapsing into a coma, but it looks like you pulled out before you went too deep into hibernation.”
“Well what happened? Was anyone else hurt? I was with a friend – Alice. Is she alright?”
“Yes, your friend is fine. She saw you get hit.”
“Hit? Hit by what?”
“By a truck. You were crossing the street when a pickup truck struck you on the shoulder. It appears that the concussion came when your head struck the ground. You’re quite lucky that the truck was slowed enough to keep from killing you.”
Matt thought hard, trying to remember anything about the events described. He had no memory of crossing the street. Why would he have left Alice to cross the street?
“And Alice saw me get hit?”
“That’s right. In fact she will be receiving a call from our staff right away. She made us promise to contact her the moment you woke.”
It was a little nerve-wracking to hear of an act that may have been an attempt to take his life without having any memory of the actual event. If he was hit by a truck, it must have been driven by marauders. If they stuck around, then surely Alice would have got a description. But maybe they didn’t stay.
“Who was driving the truck.”
The doctor looked at him a little sadly, and Matt expected him to say it was a hit and run, so he was totally unprepared for the doctor’s reply.
“It was an innocent mistake. The truck was being driven by your other friend, Larson.”
Within a half an hour, both Alice and Larson were at his bedside, both with sleepless faces.
“Man, I can’t tell you how sorry I am,” Larson said, his head down. Matt knew that when Larson was worried or very serious, he would lose some of his accent, and this was no exception. “I don’t think I’ll be able to bring myself to drive again anytime soon. I mean look at you, all wrapped up and hurting like this. I ought to be the one lyin there. It’s horrid, simply horrid.”
“Larson, I don’t blame you! I’m the one who was stupid enough to walk out into the street like that.” Matt wanted more than anything to remember the incident so he could come up with a better excuse to blame himself.
“Oh, Larson,” Alice broke in, “tell him what you told me. Tell him about the boy. It wasn’t like you were being an irresponsible driver!”
“I can’t make any excuse for doing this! It hardly makes a difference.” Larson’s hands came to his face, but Alice spoke for him.
“There was a boy on the side of the road. He had been trying to avoid a boy on the side of the road. That was the only reason he took his eyes from where you were standing. You both came suddenly, but he was swerving to avoid the boy.”
A boy on the side of the road. Something about that struck Matt, and he couldn’t figure out why.
“I should have kept straight, the boy moved away quickly on his own. But you stepped out the moment I veered to miss him, and… and… well, the whole thing is just awful.”
“I think it may have been the same boy that you saw, Matt,” Alice said. Then she blushed, “I thought you were teasing me.” She looked at Larson, “It’s as much my fault as Larson’s. I didn’t believe you.”
With their words, Matt felt the memory beginning to ease back into his mind, and he shut his eyes to concentrate. He remembered Mourg’s warning about the marauders, and his worry for his and
Alice’s safety. From the way Mourg had sounded, the marauders were behind the whole business. But Alice and Larson could hardly be part of that group. He had known and trusted Larson all his life. They had grown up together, played together, and even gotten beaten up by school bullies together. If Mourg knew the danger of the Ions, he certainly didn’t know Larson as well as Matt did.
He looked at Alice. He had only known her for a day, if that. But as she looked back at him, he felt as if he’d known her for longer. Her sincere, almost eager manner made him want to be stronger than he was, better, really. On both of his times meeting her previously, he had made a bit of a fool of himself, but looking at her now he realized that his need to improve was not based on some macho need to impress her, but on a sincere reflection of the personality that she radiated. Was she really so good a person as to make others want to be better just by being around her? What did he even know about her goodness?
He started to shrug this off as a demonstration of his boyish hormonal instincts – if a guy likes a girl, he automatically thinks she’s amazing, right? But did that mean he liked her? Did he? He turned his gaze away from hers, but not before concluding that feelings or none, she was trustworthy.
He sat a few moments in silence until the doctor sensed Matt’s hope for some time alone with his friends. He cleared his throat and said, “I’ll give you ten minutes, and then visiting hour will be done.” Then he smiled and walked out.
“We’ve were quite worried,” Alice said, “when you didn’t wake up that evening. I’m so glad the doctor says you’ll be fine within a day or two.”
“How long was I out?”
“The rest of the evening,” Larson said, “and all through yesterday.”
“Holy cow!” Matt said, trying again to prop himself up, but finding the motion awkward and virtually impossible with all the contraptions and IVs that went in and out of his body. “You mean it’s been like two days?”
“Almost,” Alice replied. “We sat with you for the first night.”
“We would have stayed longer,” Larson replied, “but the doctors wouldn’t let us. So we made them promise to contact us the moment anything changed. I still can’t believe I did this to you.”
Matt reached his hand up and patted Larson’s arm, since he couldn’t reach his shoulder. “It’s not your fault.” Then he made a quick decision. “Alice, remember how I told you I thought I saw someone across the street?” He felt silly for asking it, since she had already brought it up.
“Well, I didn’t tell you why it worried me.”
She waited, and Matt looked at Larson, who still looked at the floor.
“You guys are going to think I’m crazy. I’m not making this up. I would have told you, Larson, about it when you came back to my house and we looked at the books, but you didn’t have much time, and I… well, I was too embarrassed to tell you, Alice.”
Matt then told them the whole story about the ghost, starting with the encounter in his uncle’s study all the way up through Mourg’s walking off into the hospital wall. He told him all about Mourg’s warnings, as well, emphasizing the moment he saw the boy across the street.
“So when I saw someone watching us, I thought he must be one of these Ion marauders. It looks like we were both distracted by the same boy – though for very different reasons.
Larson gave a low whistle. He was no longer looking at the floor, and Matt was glad to hear the accent slipping back into his voice when he said, “Now if you were just waking up from a good knock on the head, I’d have trouble believin’ ya.”
Larson’s wry smile told Matt everything. Not only did Larson believe him, but he sensed that Larson knew he was forgiven.
“That makes me wonder,” Alice said, apparently oblivious to the exchange, “Nigel does have a lot of ghost stories, but there is a lot more stories of secret missions and travel. Could the Ions have something to do with that.”
“Travel – that reminds me,” Matt said, unintentionally changing the subject, “if I’ve been out for almost two days, then Uncle Eric must have arrived home yesterday.”
Alice and Larson looked at each other, and then back at Matt. Alice nearly spoke up, but Larson cut in, “He’s probably doin’ a touch of overtime.”
“You mean he’s not back?”
Alice now looked worried. “I didn’t know he was supposed to be back yesterday. We didn’t see him when we stopped by the house yesterday.”
Matt tried again to ignore the sense of panic that began to creep into his chest. Eric often had flight delays and layovers that kept him an extra day or two, but he always told Matt about them the moment he knew. Had he tried to call? Maybe there was a message on the answering machine.