My cousin grins as I walk into the room. He doesn’t look good. Whole leg in a cast, cuts all over the parts of him not covered by a flimsy hospital gown, and a huge bandage on his shoulder. Which is to say nothing of the burns.
Guess he’s on good painkillers, though. And the natural high of being a hero.
“Jack!” he says. Then he coughs, and coughs again. “I’m-” cough “-so glad-” cough--
“Easy, man,” I say. I sit in the chair next to the bed, which is warm. My cousin is surrounded by flowers, and letters pour over the room’s two desks. A nurse hovers outside the door for a moment, then goes about her business.
My cousin takes a huge gulp of water, clears his throat, and nods.
“So,” I say. “You’re a hero.”
He shakes his head, takes another gulp.
“Dude,” I say. “You rescued two children from a burning building.”
Another gulp. He raises a single finger, but he can’t get out a word yet.
“On the second floor,” I say.
He makes some kind of incomprehensible gesture, still gulping as much water as he can get into his frankly gigantic frame. Now I notice scrapes on his sides, too.
“You broke a window, lowered them out without letting them get cut on the glass, then jumped out and sprained your ankle on the lawn.”
“But--” cough. He rolls his eyes, evidently at his own body’s failure to downplay his achievement.
“And a beam fell on you, right? Like a crossbeam in the house, on your way up the stairs. On fire. But you kept going.”
“Followed the screams,” he says, then takes a sip. He says it the same way he used to describe moments from football games that I, the effete cousin, never attended. Like how he’d… dodged a ball, or something?
That can’t be right.
“Jack,” he says, and there’s that grin again. “I am so glad you’re here.”
“I’m glad! It’s an honor. I wanted to visit but I mean, I hadn’t seen you in a while, and everyone wants a piece of you right now obviously, so...”
He laughs, coughs, laughs. I remind myself never to inhale copious amounts of smoke.
“This is so funny, bro,” he says. “I had it all planned out. That you’d make fun of me, take me down a peg like you always do. I prepped comebacks. But you surprise me anyway!”
Oh no. That’s why he wanted me here. He did something amazing, and now everyone’s treating him differently, and he thought I could bring him down to earth. And I’m messing it up!
“You good?” he asks, the same second I say “I’m sorry.”
“You wanted me to treat you like normal, since everyone else is worshiping you. I can do that. I… um… you look, uh, like a whale that got struck by lightning?”
He erupts in a laughing/coughing fit, takes a sip of water, and shakes his head.
“I’ll forget that that’s the best you got,” he says. “But no, bro. I need your help. For real. Like-” cough, cough, “-with something real. You feel me?”
“Yeah. Anything, man.”
But now something happens. He makes eye contact, then breaks it off. His face clouds over, and he screws it up small.
“Really,” I say. “All ears.”
“Yeah,” he says. He sits up a little straighter, and puts his drained water cup down. I resist the urge to ask if he needs it refilled. “I’m just… I want to get this right.”
“Get what right?”
“Like. My pitch.”
He cracks his knuckles. Then winces. I guess some of the vertebrae involved are linked to the lacerated shoulder. I separated my left one once, and I remember the feeling.
“Okay,” he says. “I got it.”
“Great. Hit me.”
“So the morning it happened,” he says. “Like, two days ago, I mean. I was having a great day. I got an extra espresso shot. I was planning out like, an idea for my boss that I think could be outrageous for sales. I was feeling myself, you know?”
“Sure,” I say.
“That espresso shot,” he says. “I know that’s what did it. Like I smelled the smoke and I was interested. And then I saw that upstairs window and noticed something moving, and I just like… I know nine days out of ten I wouldn’t have seen it, or I would have seen it but told myself it was nothing, or called 911 just in case and kept walking, or opened the front door, got hit with that heat wave, and backed off. Like-” cough, cough.
“Dude,” I say. He holds up a finger and gives me a death glare.
“No,” he says. “For real! I just… everyone’s acting like I’m a special person. And yeah I guess I’m like, pretty jacked? Like I got up the staircase fast and I smashed that window good, but doing it, being brave or whatever? That was just, like, you know--”
I do not know. I would never, ever run into a burning building to save a hypothetical stranger. So I just look at my weak little hands.
“It’s like there’s another me out there,” he says. “Going to bed at my house tonight, in some other world. And he’s just like me. But he had a normal morning instead of a good morning, and he didn’t have the espresso shot. And in that world, those kids are dead.”
“That world isn’t real,” I say.
“No,” he says. “It’s not.”
We make eye contact for a solid five seconds. Then a nurse comes in, and offers to refill his water. He gratefully accepts.
I thought of that! Why didn’t I do it?
“So you’re having trouble processing this,” I say. “I feel you. And you wanted me to… help you through those feelings?”
He shakes his head.
“Nah, man, I’m good. I keep feeling like I’m supposed to be traumatized, like have flashbacks of the fire and stuff, but I’m like… good. I need you to--” he clears his throat, clearly nervous. “I just need you to check some websites for me, man.”
“That’s right. I have them written down here.”
He hands me a slip of paper. It’s a bunch of URLs and other rough notes, written out by hand, with the wwws and everything. They seem to feature various disease names.
“It’s charities,” he says.
I feel something hot in me. He’s coughing again, and drinking from his freshened water, and my chest is tight. Like he’s already better than me forever, already so far beyond who I could be, and now he’s trying to lap me or something. A prank to show me exactly how far down I am.
Then I see his eyes, and it all just melts. Because he’s scared. That I’ll use my clever brain, which he’s always been very accommodating towards at Thanksgiving, to mess this up somehow.
He needs me. Actually.
“It’s other kids,” he says. “Like people always say kids are dying all the time. Starving, getting sick. In… Africa? I don’t know if it’s racist to guess it’s Africa. Probably it’s a lot of places.”
I nod. As far as I know, yes, kids die in all sorts of places.
He gulps. And he’s so huge, and he’s actually tearing up a little bit, and I feel very small.
“That’s what I think about. Like, how it felt, getting those two out the window. Just, natural, man. Like that’s what you do. That’s what being a person’s about. Simple.”
There’s a long silence, then he speaks again.
“I shouldn’t need an espresso shot for that.”
I put the piece of paper in my pocket.
“So look it up, yeah?” he says. “Can you do that, Jack? Make sure I don’t get scammed.”
“Of course,” I say. Then the nurse is back, and they need to check on his oxygen and pain level, and before I know it I’m out in my parked car, squinting at my cousin’s notes again. He’s misspelled a few things: “Maleria – most kids (under5)???” But it’s enough to go on.
I roll the window down and breathe in the clear night air. The stars are out. The breeze is cool. You’d never guess there was a fire, or what it might have done.