From the Nekobe Series
© 1999 Rogue (email@example.com)
March comes in like a lion. That's what they tell me. It's a damned stupid expression. March had always been the cruelest month for my own lion, its lengthening days tantalizing him with the promise of warmth while its bitter winds blew and chilled him to the marrow. Nekobe hated March more than any other time of the year. "I just want to live until April," he would often moan when he came home, teeth chattering, into my arms.
This particular March was the cruelest of all. From the first few days of the month I felt a change coming over Nekobe. He grew listless and quiet. Sometimes when we went to bed he would fall asleep right away, which was a sure sign to me that something was wrong. As the days passed I noticed an alarming rattle in his chest when I hugged him. He stopped eating and, slowly, his immense strength began to falter. "Just a cold, like last year," he would wheeze as he drained yet another box of tissues.
With the arrival of the third week of that ruthless month Nekobe began to improve. He picked at his dinner now and grew gradually stronger. Then on the twenty-ninth he was late coming home for work. After a half an hour the telephone rang. "Shawn?" a female voice said. It was a coworker of Nekobe's that I had met at the Christmas party a few months before. "Can you come and get Nekobe? He's really sick, and we don't think he should drive."
I was off the phone and in my car before she could say another word. Nekobe's workplace was four miles away. I made it there in less than three minutes. When I arrived, I found the young lady sitting beside a slumped and pitiful-looking lion. She herself looked quite worried. "He can't even talk," she said. "I thought we should take him to the hospital, but I don't know...you know, do we go to the normal one, or to..." She bit her lip, fumbling, hesitant to say the word "veterinarian."
I crouched down and took Nekobe's hand in mine. "What's wrong?" I said anxiously. That something was indeed wrong was obvious. He was hot; his mouth was open, panting, and his tongue and gums were alarmingly pale.
"I don't feel well," was all he could manage to say.
"Can you walk?"
He sat still for a moment, then slowly shook his head.
I stood up and motioned to his officemate. "Help me." Between the two of us we dragged him in his wheeled desk chair toward the door. I pulled the car as close as I could, and somehow the two of us managed to bundle him into the back seat. His breathing grew more labored as I bolted to the hospital with him.
I should have known that there would be trouble at the door. I had left his coworker to call ahead and let them know we were coming. She must have told them what to expect, because a stone-faced nurse was waiting with two security guards in front of the entrance.
"You can't bring him in here," the nurse announced.
I yanked open the back door. "Ma'am, look at him," I pleaded. "He's sick. He needs help."
"Well, you can't get it here." She put her hands on her hips, infuriatingly officious. "This is a hospital."
"I know that," I screamed, gesturing helplessly to the stricken lion. "That's why I'm here. Can't you understand that?"
She shook her head. "I sympathize with you." Bull- fucking-shit. "We have health regulations that we have to obey. They won't allow us to have an animal in here."
I lost it. "He's not an animal!" I hollered, stalking toward her. The security guards quickly intervened. "He's just not human! He's a resident alien. He has rights. You can't deny him treatment!"
"I'm sorry." She just kept repeating her same old mantra as the guards urged me back away from her.
Sometime during the fray a smallish man in green surgical scrubs had wandered out to see what was going on. I saw him stroll past the nurse and lean over to peer curiously inside the car. "So is this the patient?"
"No," the nurse snorted.
"Please," I whimpered to the man. "I'll do anything, just help him."
He pursed his lips thoughtfully and leaned closer, looking Nekobe over. "Hmmm. He doesn't look too good, does he? I suppose we ought to get him inside."
The nurse stared at him in astonishment. "Paul, you can't possibly..."
"It's all right, Sarah." He turned to her with a warm smile and nodded. "He's my responsibility now. Can you get him checked in?"
He turned away from the sputtering nurse and addressed the two security men. "Fellows, would you please fetch a wheelchair? I'll need help lifting him."
They looked at one another for a brief second and then trotted off to comply. The nurse still stood where she was, protesting weakly. I ran past her and almost hugged the man. "Thank you," I said, starting to sob in relief.
He kept his back to me, his attention on Nekobe. He took out a little flashlight and leaned down to peer into the lion's frightful jaws. "That's all right," he said calmly. "Now please don't bother me. I'm terribly busy."
His voice was gentle and professional, no hint of annoyance or urgency anywhere. I simply stood, sniffling, and watched as the security men pulled Nekobe out and draped him awkwardly in the chair. The doctor followed close behind as Nekobe was wheeled inside.
I was left alone with the nurse. Finally she turned to me and scowled at me as though I were covered in shit. "I'll need to get his personal information," she growled, and stalked off. I followed her, still wanting to kiss the kindhearted doctor.
I gave them Nekobe's insurance card. They called the authorization number on the back three times before finally accepting the fact that the furry creature was an honestly insured, working professional. I stumbled over his medical history, which to me was fairly nonexistent. Finally they asked, "Next of kin?"
"Sister," I blurted. "Lyell N!Godatu."
I wanted to smack myself as soon as I said the name. I was not Nekobe's family, and I knew enough about hospitals to know that they would not even give me the time of day in regards to Nekobe if I was not a blood relative. "Just put my name down."
The nurse glanced skeptically up at me. "We can't do that," she said with a touch of scorn in her voice.
"Put me down anyway. I don't even know how to contact his sister."
"That's all right. We just need to know her name."
"Put his name down." The voice came from behind me, and I turned to find the same doctor standing casually behind me. He was still wearing that bemused smile, which along with the careless stubble on his face made him look more like an artist than a physician. His nametag sat askew on his rumpled scrubs, and read simply "Simon."
The receptionist sat puzzled. "That's...irregular."
"It's not a regular patient." Dr. Simon turned to me. "Come along, please." Of course I followed him eagerly. "So who are you really," he asked.
"I'm his roommate."
"Ah. And that's all?"
There was an awkward pause. "Well, yes, of course."
"I see." I felt that somehow he knew already what the real answer was, but he did not press the issue. "Well, Roommate, the patient is pretty badly dehydrated, he's got some fluid in his lungs, and I suspect his temperature is elevated. Of course, I can't say for certain, not knowing what his normal temperature should be. I was hoping you could fill me in a little on what happened."
I explained that Nekobe had been ill, how he had begun to get better and then taken a sudden turn for the worse. The doctor listened, his serene expression never wavering. "I see. OK. We'll set him up for some tests."
"What's wrong with him?"
"Well, he's sick. Didn't you notice?" He pondered a moment. "It's a good question, though. It might be a bug that will pass, or it might be something that requires my intervention. Considering that I'm dealing with a patient of a sort I've never seen before, I suspect he'll have a condition I've never seen before either. I thought you might be able to help out there."
I finally realized what he was asking and put my hand over my eyes, a little embarrassed. "Oh. Sorry! Oh, jeez. Let me think." I mulled it over, then snapped my fingers. "M'gando. He's at the Kenyan Consulate. Same species. I can get his number."
"Please do, and soon." Even though his voice was calm, the last two words had a certain emphasis that filled me with worry. He said nothing more before he turned away and strolled back to the nurse's station.
"Dr. Simon," I called after him.
He turned in mid-step. "Hm?"
I moved my mouth a bit, looking a bit like a fool and not knowing quite how to ask what I wanted to. His smile widened as he anticipated the question. "I like cats," he said simply, and then turned again and made his way down the hall and out of sight.
Thankfully, Mr. M'gando was in his office when I called. He quickly arranged to have dozens of pages of information faxed directly to Dr. Simon at the hospital. Knowing that the doctor would at least have access to more information on Nekobe's species was some small comfort, but did not stop me from spending a long, worry-filled night alone at home.
I begged off work the following day and headed for the hospital after breakfast. It took a long time for the nurses to track Dr. Simon down for me. It annoyed me and I did very little to hide my impatience. It was a hospital, for goodness' sake, not a shopping mall.
He seemed cheerful enough when he was finally rounded up. "Ah, hello," he said warmly. "Just the man I wanted to see. Come along, please."
I followed him to a tiny office where he began to ask me a long list of questions about my own health. Any odd symptoms, fevers, signs of a cold, anything? "No," I said. "What's it got to do with me?"
Dr. Simon sat on his desk in a classic doctor-pose. "I believe that Nekobe has a viral infection. The question is, what sort of virus are we dealing with, and more troubling, is it something that you or any of us can catch?" He let that settle in for a moment. "You see, a virus is specific to a single species or species group in general. We don't know if we are dealing with a feline virus, a human virus, or something that is unique to someone of Nekobe's background. Since we don't know what kind of virus it is, we don't know how to combat it; there's no 'magic pill.' The best we can do right now is treat the worst of the symptoms and see if we can't help his own immune system flush the infection out.
"Now, of no small concern is the question of whether this bug is going to jump ship and set up shop in people. If so, we're going to have a big can of worms to close. Because of this I've had him moved to isolation. For the time being I'm not going to put you in a plastic bubble, but since you have had the most contact with him I want to know right away about any symptoms you might develop, anything from a sniffle to dandruff. OK?"
I nodded slowly. "Can I see him?"
"You can. No big hugs, though. It's a precaution we have to take for everyone's safety."
Anxious, I followed him into an elevator and to the intensive care unit. The doors opened onto a waiting area, beyond which was the nurse's station, and then a long, long corridor with doors on either side. Each one bore a blue light over its frame. Our footsteps echoed on the tiled floor as Dr. Simon led me past one door after another. One of the blue lights lit up as we passed, accompanied by an oddly cheerful doorbell-sound. A soft voice drifted over the public address system. "Code blue, ICU fifteen," it sang. Dr. Simon snagged my sleeve and tugged me against the wall as a cart careened around the far corner and rushed past us. Hot on its trail were six scrub-clad figures who disappeared all at once into the room where the blue light was flashing.
"Nothing to be concerned about," Dr. Simon said casually. "Semper paratus. It's this one over here."
I followed him into a bare room dominated by a large plastic tent erected over a single bed. Through the crinkles I could see Nekobe stretched out, his head propped up on pillows, his eyes closed. Electrodes taped to his chest fed into a monitor beside the bed. Nekobe's heartbeat showed as a little series of spikes marching across an oscilloscope screen. I knew the proper tempo from countless nights spent pressed to Nekobe's chest, listening to it. "It's too fast," I whispered.
Dr. Simon nodded. "His body is working hard to get rid of the infection. All we can do right now is help it along."
I tiptoed as close to the bed as the plastic drape would allow and leaned over. "Nekobe?"
His eyes opened slowly. "Hi, Shawn," he whispered. I felt a rush of dismay at the sound of his voice. Gone was the throttling rumble that I knew so well. His voice was feeble, barely audible, almost a squeak. "I'm feeling a little better today."
I made myself smile. "That's good. Are they feeding you?"
His head moved slightly side to side. "Haven't been hungry." He coughed, the whole bed shaking violently, making the I.V. bag swing to and fro on its stand. "They say I might be here a while. You'll let Work know, won't you?"
"Just as long as you get better, it doesn't matter how long it takes. They can do without you for a bit."
He smiled and closed his eyes. "I miss you," he wheezed.
Glancing back briefly toward Dr. Simon, I leaned down closer to him. "Me too. I love you, Nekobe. Get better soon, OK?"
I did not get my wish. When I arrived at the hospital the next day the nurse paged Dr. Simon as soon as she saw me coming. He arrived within moments, his features strained. "Come," he said simply, and ushered me into his office. There he went straight to the point. "His fever took off during the night. He had a seizure."
"What?" I jumped to my feet, knocking over the chair behind me.
Dr. Simon quickly held up his hand. "He's still with us," he said in a firm voice. "I need you to understand some things, though."
"What things?" I felt my gut tying up in knots.
He looked at his shoes for a moment, and then locked his gaze on my own, unblinking. His voice became soft and level. "The infection is getting worse. His body is fighting it as hard as it can but it's starting to wear out. We can only give it so much help." I wanted to scream, but his eyes held me, his voice almost hypnotic. "We have to control his fever carefully. Too low, and the bugs are going to go wild inside him. Too high, and his system won't be able to take it. He'll burn up.
"He's reached a critical point. If he makes it through the night, then his prognosis is good. We're going to do everything in our power to make that happen. Even so, you need to prepare yourself for the very real possibility that he may not survive."
I barely heard what he was saying. The words made no sense. Not survive? Nekobe? How could he even imagine such a thing? "He's...he's strong. He won't die."
"He may. I would be lying if I told you anything else. As hard as it is, you have to be prepared for that possibility."
I backed up against the office door. "No. It's not going to happen."
Dr. Simon looked down again, breaking the eye contact at last. "If I have anything to say about it, it won't. But we can only do so much for him. He'll have to do the rest. Like I said, tonight's going to be the crucial trial."
He said nothing more. A few moments later he eased his way past me and left me alone in the office. Despairing, I sank down onto the floor and stared into space.
He may not survive. I heard it over and over, a dreadful broken record in my head. I had faced losing Nekobe before, but we had always managed to work things out. I had begun to think that we were invincible. We were meant to be together. To lose him now with no hope of ever getting him back was simply inconceivable.
No. I wouldn't let myself think it. I jumped up and stalked out of the office and headed straight for Nekobe's room.
I marched purposefully through the door, and the reality of the situation slapped me hard and suddenly in the face. Nekobe's heart monitor was working overtime, the spikes much smaller now and racing wildly across the screen. An oxygen mask now sat across his muzzle. Each breath was a harsh gurgle followed by a pitiful whimper. His eyes were tightly closed, as if he were in great pain.
He did not answer. The room was quiet, save for the slow drip of his I.V. and the soft hiss of the oxygen. From somewhere deep in my consciousness, from a place where I desperately wanted to keep it hidden away came the awareness that I may never hear his voice again.
He may not survive. The words haunted me. I could not even conceive of life without Nekobe. He could not die without taking a part of me away forever. There could never be life again for me, or love.
For hours I stayed by his bedside and stared at him as he struggled to breathe. He looked frail to me, his mane unkempt, dried tears caked around his eyes. The image was almost surreal. The feeble, fading form on the bed could not possibly be Nekobe, my powerful and indomitable lion. How could something always so strong be lying there so weak and helpless now? I wanted it to be a bad dream. I wanted to wake up and find myself in those mighty arms again.
I tried several times to whisper his name, and received no response. Once a fit of coughing racked him, his limbs jerking, the oxygen mask spattering with fluid which drained down onto his muzzle. I agonized at the scene, wishing it was me in the bed instead of him. Don't die, I wanted to say, but I couldn't, afraid that simply uttering the words might curse them to come true. "I'm here, Nekobe," I said, not even knowing if he could hear me. "You need to get better soon. It's almost April." My voice started to break. "You know how much April means to you."
It was the last day of the month. He hated March. Please, God, don't let March take him. If nothing else, at least let him make it to April. Let him make it just one more day.
It was dark outside. I had been watching Nekobe's labored breathing for hours. I was standing in the doorway of the room and gazing at him from afar when a nurse stepped up beside me. I recognized her, the bitchy one that had first tried to bar me from bringing Nekobe into the hospital. I wanted to slap her, and waited for her to bark out something like, "Visiting hours are over." Instead, she gave me a small nod and whispered, "You'll be more comfortable in the waiting room. I'll call you right away if there's any change."
I stared at her, surprised, and then lowered my gaze. "Thank you," I muttered.
Please, God, let him at least see one more April.
An electronic chiming woke me from a fitful sleep on a padded vinyl chair. I sat bolt upright and peered apprehensively down the hall. I counted doors, and my blood turned to ice when I saw a blue light flashing over the door to Nekobe's room.
"Oh, God," I choked. "No..."
I was on my feet in an instant and tearing down the hallway with speed borne of desperation. The room seemed a mile away. I stumbled over my own feet, my heart crashing wildly against my ribs. "No, please..."
The green-clad figures emerged from around the corner and raced toward me with their clattering cart. Needles bounced on its upper tray along with instruments wrapped in blue sterile cloth, the cords of a defibrillator swinging.
We converged on the room, and suddenly the same nurse was in my face. "Stay out," she shouted. I tried to duck around her but she grabbed my shoulders and pushed me back. "Don't! Let them do their job. I'll call you as soon as they're done." With that she swept after the crash cart into Nekobe's room and threw the door closed. I was left alone in the hallway.
Tears streamed down my face. "Nekobe..."
Another nurse approached and touched my arm. "Come with me," she said gently. "There's nothing you can do here. They'll do everything they can."
I pulled away from her and stared sorrowfully at the door. The blue light kept up its merry flashing, almost obscenely festive. Moments passed, too many. Numb, I turned away and started down the hall. I had no destination in mind, but I knew I could not return to the waiting room to sit in that cozy stuffed chair and hope desperately for a miracle. I passed the corner from beyond which the crash cart and its frantic crew had emerged, and kept walking.
Finally, near the end of the corridor, I found a little alcove where the fire hose cabinet was housed. I sank slowly to the floor and slid back into the recess, as if I could hide there from the terrible news that was to come.
"Nekobe...I love you."
Back down the hall I saw the blue light go out. The hallway's silence was overwhelming. The door opened. The team emerged, unhurried, with their cart; with them also was the heart monitor and the oxygen tank, its mask dragging unnoticed behind them. The last to emerge from the room were Dr. Simon and the nurse. Simon closed the door and tugged the mask down from his face. "Go find the roommate and tell him," he said. The nurse nodded obediently and hurried down the corridor in the opposite direction, toward the waiting room.
Muttering softly to himself, Dr. Simon rounded the corner and disappeared from my view. He had not seen me, which was a relief. I could not bear to hear what he had to say. I wanted to believe that if I did not hear it, it would not be so.
March was over. April had come, mercifully, just in time.
Slowly I crawled from my hiding place and crept alone toward Nekobe's room. I paused a moment, gathering my strength, then opened the door. There I saw Nekobe lying motionless on the bed. The plastic tent still surrounded him, but the machinery, the monitors were all gone, no longer needed. The room was as silent as a grave.
I made my way forward, step after mournful step, and stared at the magnificent form, once so stalwart, now quiet and still. His face was relaxed and peaceful, almost contented, as though he were simply asleep and enjoying a happy dream, and that at any moment he might wake up again and smile at me.
Dream well, Nekobe, I said silently. I will always love you.
Unconcerned now, I slipped my arm beneath the plastic curtain and gathered Nekobe's hand gently in mine. It was still warm. Tears flowed freely down my cheeks, and I just held on, wanting never to have to let go. "I love you."
"I love you, too."
I jerked my hand back with a cry. Nekobe's yellow eyes opened halfway and focused worriedly on me. His voice, though still weak, brought the faintest quiver to my bones from the rich resonance that was beginning to return to it. "What's wrong?"
I broke down and sputtered tearfully, "I thought...the monitor...."
He knit his brow. "It's OK," he rasped. "The doctor didn't think we needed it any more. OH..." He turned his head and nodded toward a red button near his headboard. ""whatever you do, don't touch that button. I thought it was the nurse-call, but it got me into a lot of --"
His sentence was cut off as I ripped back the plastic tent and leaped on him. I seized him in my arms and buried my face in his mane. "You asshole!" I sobbed. "I thought you were dead!"
Nekobe lay there in shock, and then his arms slowly rose to embrace me and he shrugged helplessly. "I...um...well...April fool?"
This story is copyrighted. Links may be made to it freely, but it is under no circumstances to be downloaded, reproduced, or distributed without the express permission of the author. Address all inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org. This story was originally released on April 1, 1999, and the reader is kindly asked by the humble author to forgive his little April Fool's Day joke.