"Hey, you ok?"
I nod and wave away the third person to ask me that question in as many minutes. If I'd been thinking straight, I would've gone anywhere but here. Usually, New Yorkers can be counted on to ignore the strangers around them, but try to have an emotional breakdown in front of a hospital.
"What's wrong?" he asks, walking to where I'm leaning against the building.
I shake my head and wave him off again, but this guy just isn't taking the hint. It's bad enough that I'm crying so hard that I can barely catch my breath. I don't want an audience.
"You're hyperventilating," he declares, putting both hands on my shoulders and, without warning, bending me over so that I'm staring at my knees. If I hadn't had the wall to lean against, I probably would've fallen.
"Ok, slow down," he instructs, keeping one hand on my arm to help me balance while the other gently pats my back. "Take slow, deep breaths."
Who is this guy and why won't he leave me alone? I try to pull away from him, stand up and leave him behind, but he holds me down effortlessly, his deep, gruff voice repeating the instructions. Soon, I give in and start trying to obey his commands. It's just not working very well. I want to take a long breath, but instead it turns into several quick, choking gasps.
"Just calm down. Don't think about anything but your breathing. In... and out."
His voice is so close, overshadowing my thoughts. For a moment, I forget about my guilt, my fears, and just concentrate on controlling my body.
In a few minutes, I'm finally doing ok, with just the occasional hitched breath. He releases his hold, helps me stand up, and I get my first look at my would-be savior.
He's younger than I thought, about my age, but standing over a head shorter than me and wearing a black leather coat and worn jeans. His face sports a thick beard and harsh features, but they're softened by his eyes. There's an almost gentle happiness there, tempered with concern.
"You wanna talk about it?"
To my surprise, for a second I'm tempted by his offer. Then, the weight of my guilt comes back, settling on my shoulders as a familiar pain returns to my chest, and I shake my head.
"Fair enough," he answers, surprising me by his quick acceptance. Looking me up and down critically, he says, "You look like you need a drink. C'mon, I'm buyin'."
He waves me towards a bar about a block away, and I know he's right. I really could use a drink. Who am I kidding? I could use a whole bottle, but I can't leave. No matter what Jane thinks about me now, I won't leave her here alone. She might not want me in the room anymore, but I have to stay close by.
"I can't leave," I answer, and then the hiccups start.
He just eyes me again, watching me hiccup like a kid after a temper tantrum. "Well, it looks like you need something. Let's go inside. I'll buy you a coffee."
He takes my hand and leads me back into the hospital and through the corridors to the cafeteria. Dumbly, I allow myself to be led along until we're standing in front of the coffee decanters.
Why is he doing this? Doesn't he have somewhere else to be? What's he doing at the hospital, anyway? Is he a doctor? Maybe he was just arriving for work and I caught his eye. Maybe I'm keeping him from real patients that need his help. No, I decide. He's no doctor. He must be visiting a patient here, and I'm using up his visiting time.
"Sugar? Cream?" He asks, but I don't answer. I'm too distracted by my inner musings. I hiccup again, and he says, "Ok, I'll take that to mean you want it black."
He gets us both black coffees, pays the bored cashier, and leads me over to one of the tables in the almost empty cafeteria. Setting my coffee in front of me, he sits down on the opposite side and starts drinking. I expect him to say something. I'm sure he's going to demand to know what's wrong with me, but he just sits there calmly and drinks.
"Why?" I ask in between hiccups.
"Why what?" he asks, looking up at me with those incongruously gentle eyes again.
"Why are you helping me? Why do you care?"
He shrugs, and says, "I dunno. Maybe you remind me of someone."
He takes another sip of his coffee and answers, "Me."
"Look, I don't know what's goin' on with you, and you don't have to tell me. I just... I remember what it's like, and I couldn't leave ya without tryin' to help. When I was like that, my Marie... That's my wife. She wasn't then. Didn't even know her then, but, anyway, she stopped and helped me out and I just... wanted to help you."
"Don't you have somewhere to be?" I ask, finally reaching for my coffee and taking a sip of the bitter concoction. "I mean, aren't you visiting someone?"
"I was. My wife kicked me out of the room. Sent me home to pick up a few of her things and to catch some shut-eye." At my confused look, he added, "She just had our first. A girl. Eight pounds three ounces."
As he told me about his daughter, his eyes practically shone. I could tell he was truly, deeply happy. This is what I wanted with Jane, what I thought we might start working toward before the assault. Now, I just don't know. Will she ever be able to forgive me for what I didn't do and accept me for what I did, what I've become?
My expression must've changed because the man's trying to comfort me again, repeating trite sayings that I've heard throughout my life. It's not helping. He's happy. It's not his fault that my life's fallen apart.
I wonder what'll happen when Jane's released. Where will she go? I want her with me, but that's not likely now. Besides, she'd have to return to the apartment. Just the thought of going back there makes me shiver. The blood's still there, blood and... other stuff. I can't bear the thought of having to clean that up myself. I don't even want to think about it.
The man's hand is resting on my arm now and he's stopped talking. He must've realized it wasn't helping and instead satisfied himself with sitting in quiet support.
"Eddie!" a voice shouts across the quiet cafeteria, and we both look up to see Liz running over to our table. "I've been looking for you everywhere."
"Why?" I ask, confused.
"Jane's asking for you."
"But her sister..."
"Forget about Alice. I don't know what's going on with her. Jane kicked her out. She knows that nothing that happened is your fault."
"Some of it is," I answer in a whisper.
"What?" Liz asks loudly.
"I... the guy that was trying to kill her... I... He's dead. I... I stopped... I..." I can't say it. I can't force out the words that I killed him.
"Good for you," the gruff-voiced man responds.
"What?" I ask in surprise.
"You killed him. Good for you."
"What?" I repeat, dumbstruck.
"You said he was tryin' to kill your girl."
"Well, then." he says, nodding at me. "You did the right thing."
"But... I'm a murderer," I answer, looking back and forth between him and a strangely quiet Liz.
"No, you're not. Would you have rather he killed her?"
He sits back, satisfied with his argument. "Go on. Go see her."
I get up and walk towards the exit with Liz silently following me. Right before I leave, though, I turn around. "Thanks," I say to the man still sitting with our coffees.
"Don't mention it," he answers.
When I walk into Jane's room, her face transforms into a relieved smile.
"Hey," I say, smiling back at her.
She simply reaches out her right hand towards me. When I walk over to the bed, sit down, and gently grasp her hand, she lets out a contented sigh and relaxes back into the pillows. Not five minutes pass before she's sound asleep.