A FAIR TO REMEMBER

An original fanfic
by Gidget 

 

TaleSpin and its characters are the property of Buena Vista Television/Walt Disney Co.  The other characters are created by me, and may not be used without permission.  My deepest gratitude to Allison, Bearcat, Staci “Cody” Faulkenberry, Beth “Starflash” Boemert, and Will for their fabulous AND honest feedback and support.
 (Rated PG for mild coarse language, suggestiveness, and occasional violence.)
 

 

Chapter 18

 

Saturday (three days later), Hospital
2:50 pm

Rebecca woke up with what felt like the worst headache of her life. She put her hands to her head and realized that her right hand was heavily bandaged. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust and for her to realize her strange surroundings.  Instead of her own brightly papered bedroom walls, these were completely white.  And her own soft bed, with its down pillows and fluffy pink quilt was replaced by a plain, almost spartan one with rails on either side.

I’ve been committed?

“Owwww… wh-where am I? What happened?” She saw Wildcat and Baloo dozing in chairs and the reaction was automatic. “Baloo, stop napping this instant… Get those boxes loaded…  We have to get that invisible ink to the Ghost Writers Guild… ow.” 

His eyes popped open and he leaped to his feet. “I’m awake! Wh-what…? Oh, thank… Becky!  Hey, Nurse, come ‘ere!  It’s a girl!  I mean, Nurse, she’s awake! Come see!”

“Keep your voice down, sir!  You don’t want to scare the poor thing.” A nurse, a matronly sheep, hurried into the room.

Rebecca groaned, “Don’t tell me I drank one of Louie’s ‘special’ concoctions again…”

“You’re in a hospital, ma’am…”

“Why? What’s wrong with me?” 

“The doctor will be here in a moment.” The nurse patted her good hand. “He’ll explain everything to you.”

“Where’s Molly?”

“Kit’s sittin’ with her, Beckers.  She’s fine,” Baloo replied. “She’s in the kiddie’s wing.  She’s got a broken…!”

“What!”

“Mr. Cunningham, if you don’t stop exciting the patient, I’ll have to ask you to leave.” The doctor, a young ram, entered the room. “Mrs. Cunningham, you’re in good hands. If you and your husband will just calm down, I’ll take you to your daughter.”

Baloo winced.

“Husband?” She looked at him, a line forming between her eyebrows. “What are you up to?”

His voice became a honeyed warning. “That’s right, Sugar Lumps. Remember, only family members are allowed ta stay here.”

Wildcat added, “I’m an uncle… I think.  Or was it a niece?”

“Oh.”  Rebecca couldn’t help smiling a little, although she didn’t know why. “Tell me what’s going on.  How did I get here?”

“Well, there was this cabbage patch and a mailman…”

Rebecca’s head felt as though it was splitting like a piece of fruit. “Baloo, you tell me.”

“The cliff guards called the coast guard an’ gave us a lift.  They dried us off an’ gave us blankets.  I got some hot cocoa with marshmallows in it.  Sorry you didn’t get any, but you were down for the count.”

Too tired to try to make sense of Baloo's confusing explanation, she held up her paw.  “What happened to my hand?”

The doctor said, “A second-degree burn.  I’ve been meaning to ask you about that.  The burn is most curious.  It almost looks like a key.  What on earth were you doing?”

Baloo looked uncomfortable.  That look was a dead giveaway. She made a mental note to interrogate him later.

“I… don’t remember.”  She squinted again, trying to think. “What day is it, anyway?”

“Saturday,” the doctor answered. “You’ve been in a coma for three days.”

“What about Higher for Hire?  There’s shipments to deliver, I have to make Molly’s avocado costume, Kit needs shoes for track practice…!”

“Aw, forget about all that, Becky,” Baloo assured her. “I ran an air service too, remember?  I made the deliveries and then put the ol’ sign up on the door. No problem.”

“What sign?”

He winked at her. “The one that says, ‘Gone fishin’.”

“Oooh!  I can’t believe…!”

The doctor hushed them both. “You might have a scar, and some difficulty using that hand for a few weeks, but you’ll be fine.  No tendons were damaged.”

“Yeah,” Baloo joked, “Your whipcrackin’ hand will be okay too.”

Rebecca said impatiently, “Can we see Molly, Doctor?”

"In a moment. I just want to talk to you before you go in."

"Why?  What's wrong with her?" she asked.  Panic welled up inside of her.

"Molly's elbow has a hairline fracture."  At her expression, he hastened to add, "Don't be alarmed.  A hairline fracture is just that-a small crack about the width of a hair, not even a real break."  He gave them a tired, warm smile. "Try not to worry.  She'll experience some discomfort for a few weeks, but should heal nicely.  Some shock and a few bruises, but she's young and resilient.  She'll be fine."

"Oh, thank goodness," she murmured. "So, when can I see her?"

"Just as soon as we get you in this wheelchair," the nurse said, rolling a wheelchair up to the bed.

"I don't need a wheelchair," Rebecca protested.  "I'm perfectly capable of walking."

"Sorry, ma'am,” the nurse said patiently, “hospital policy.”

"Oh, all right."  Rebecca pushed back the covers, then hastily pulled them back over her with a startled, "Eep!" when she noticed that she was wearing nothing but a skimpy hospital gown.

"Nice birthday suit, Miz Cunningham," Wildcat remarked.

"W-where are my clothes?" she demanded, blushing furiously.

Baloo tried not to snicker as he gathered up the stack of her neatly-folded clothes from the top of the dresser.  "The hospital staff washed 'em for ya. They were filthy…. even by my standards."

Rebecca snatched them from him. With the nurse's assistance, she rose from bed and shuffled to the bathroom. In one hand were her clothes.  The other hand was busy keeping the back of her gown closed.

“I’ll be outside if you need me,” the nurse said, closing the bathroom door.  She stepped into the hall.

A few minutes later, Rebecca emerged from the bathroom, fully clothed.  She gratefully sank into the wheelchair. Getting dressed had taken all the energy out of her.

Baloo wheeled Rebecca out of the room and into the hall.

“I’m going to the place where they keep the babies,” Wildcat told them.  “The poor things must get awfully lonesome behind those bars.”

"Okay," Baloo said over his shoulder. “See ya later.”

They walked down the hall to an elevator and went down one floor. When the elevator door opened, they saw a set of double doors at the far end of the hall. Above the doorframe was a placard that read: Pediatrics.

From just behind that set of doors came a loud shouting as well as a clattering as of silverware and broken dishes being scattered across the floor.  A little yellow streak banged through the doors. Her right arm was in a cast.

Right behind the little girl was a nurse, a young gazelle. A few paces behind the gazelle was Kit. “Molly, come back!” he cried.

The gazelle nurse easily caught up with Molly, scooped her up in her long arms, and carried her kicking and screaming back to the ward.

"No!  I wanna see Mommy!  Why won't you let me see Mommy?"

"Do something, Baloo, before she hurts my baby!" 

They hurried to the children's ward.

"Rebecca, you're awake!" Kit said happily.  He rushed over to give her a one-armed hug.

Baloo asked, "What's goin' on , Li'l Britches?"

"Molly tried to escape - again.  This was her fifth attempt today."

Rebecca immediately went into 'mother-mode' when she noticed that Kit's arm was in a sling.  "What's wrong with you, Kit? Should you be walking around? Are you in pain?  Do you need a doctor?"  She put a hand to his forehead.  "No fever. Stick out your tongue. How's your pulse?"

He squirmed. “My pulse is fine!”

Despite being extremely embarrassed, Kit found that he enjoyed her mothering; it was nice to know that she cared about him. He just wished they weren't near the nurse's station with a cute blonde nurse watching. "It's nothing. Just a sprain, not like Molly's arm."

“Molly!  Wheel me in there this instant, Baloo!"

In the children's ward, there were six beds with five fitfully sleeping children of different species.  The room was dim, lit by the soft hall lights outside. Molly's bed was near the window.  When they entered, the nurse was trying to put Molly, who was now in hysterics, to bed.  "I wanna see Mommy!  I wanna see Mommy!" she repeated over and over.

"You can see your mommy later.  She's resting right now, just like you should be," the nurse said as the she attempted to pull the covers over her.

"I'm right here, sweetie," Rebecca said, smiling.  She rose from the wheelchair. "We're all here."

"Mommy!" the little girl sobbed joyfully. She slid off of the bed, pushed past the nurse, ran across the room, and threw herself into her mother's arms.

With difficulty, Rebecca picked her daughter up.  She kissed a tear from Molly's cheek.  "How are you, baby?"

The little girl glared accusingly at the nurse. Between hiccuping sobs, she said, "They...wouldn't...let me...see...you."

"I'm here now. I'm here now," Rebecca cooed softly, carrying her towards the bed.

"My arm hurts."

Rebecca planted a kiss on the cast.  "All better?"

"A little," Molly sniffled as Rebecca lowered her onto the bed.

The nurse paused, then, satisfied that the child was in good hands, took her leave. "I'll get some aspirin.”  She paused. “You want anything?" 

"No, thank you, miss.  Lie back, baby.  Here, let me fix those covers.  There." Rebecca adjusted the blankets, careful not to bump Molly's cast.  She then sat on the edge of the bed.

"Where were you?” Molly demanded. “Nobody could find you, and I was so scared you weren't coming back.  And when they did find you, they said I couldn't see you, because you were taking a long, long nap." 

"Shh," Baloo consoled her.  He plumped down into one of the bedside chairs. Kit sat in the other chair. "We're here now, an' we ain't leavin' 'til they kick us out."

Molly sniffed.  "You p-promise?"

“Yep." Baloo solemnly held up a paw. "Bear scout's honor."

"But you'll stay with me now, right?  You won't go anywhere?  Don't leave me
alone!"

Rebecca's eyes pricked with tears she didn't allow to fall.  Molly was...so subdued, so frightened.  There would be nightmares and sleepless nights ahead, but she would be there, even if she had to take time off work to make Molly whole and happy again.  Baloo was gazing down at the little girl with such fierce love that she very nearly wept.

"We'll stay until you fall asleep, Pumpkin."

"Okay."  Molly closed her eyes. A moment later, they fluttered open. "I want to go home now.  It's boring here.  There's nothing to do."

"Besides tormenting the nurses," Kit muttered under his breath.

Rebecca recognized the ploy for what it was, but decided to humor her. "Okay.  What would you like?"

Molly's eyes took on a faint roguish gleam. "A pony!"

Her mother chuckled. "Young lady, your arm is fractured, not broken."

"Hey, Papa Bear, I've got an idea."  Kit whispered into Baloo's ear.

He nodded.  "Yeah...yeah… we could do that...if we scrape together enough dough."

"I think I have enough to get the one that I saw," Kit said mysteriously.

"What? What?" Molly asked.

"I'll make a deal with ya, Pigtails.  You be good for the nurses, an' I'll get that pony."

"For really?" she squealed excitedly.

"For really."

"Kit… Baloo..." Rebecca said warningly.

The pilot grinned. "Don't worry, Beckers.  I've got it all under control.  You just leave everything to ol' Baloo." 

"Why?" she said suspiciously. “What are you going to do?”

Baloo winked at her.  "Tell ya on the way back to your room."

Just then, they heard Wildcat’s near-hysterical voice floating down the hall. “Run, babies!  Run!”

Then two burly nurses frog-marched a struggling Wildcat past them.  “Stay out of the maternity ward!”

“But I was just setting them freeeeee!”

“And give me that screwdriver!”

“No!  Don’t take Horace!”

Baloo groaned.  “Just let me take care of this first.”



* * *

 

Wednesday morning
Men’s Ward, Room 207
10:35 am

Joanna reclined in a chair, her feet propped up on the bed where Big Al lay, asleep. 

She turned a page in the movie magazine that the night nurse had loaned her.  She sighed.  The actresses in it all were so beautiful, rich, confident, and happy.  It wasn’t fair.

Snore.

Joanna considered herself a fairly tolerant person, but she hated people who snored.  She resisted the urge to roll up the magazine and smack Big Al across the snout. Instead she prodded him with her foot.  "Hey, keep it down, you big doofus!"

In response, she got another snore.

“Same to you, buddy.”  Joanna once again turned to her reading. “I suppose I should be grateful you're giving me free room and board… even if you don't know it.  So… thanks.”

Snore.

She quickly removed her feet from the bed when the day nurse, a sweet-looking poodle, walked in with a cheerful smile and a tray full of bandages. “Good morning, Mrs. McGuire.”  She glanced at the rollaway cot that Joanna had been using for the past few days. “Sleep well?”

“Like a baby…” Instead of wincing at her 'married name', Joanna plastered a smile on her face.  Swiftly, she scanned the nurse's nametag, “…Charlene”. 

"Beautiful day, isn't it?" Charlene said cheerfully as she began to unwrap the bandage from around Big Al's head.

“Yeah, I guess so,” she murmured.  She cringed a little when Big Al's wound came into view - a nasty purple goose egg near his temple ringed with a bruise of yellow. It was no wonder that the guy was still in a coma.

The nurse dabbed some ointment on his wound.  "Your husband's still not awake yet?" 

“No, not yet.” Lucky for me.  And then, because she thought it was expected of her, she asked, “Is something wrong?  Should we call someone?”

“The doctor will be in to check on him in a little while.”  Charlene wrapped fresh gauze around his head and fastened it with medical tape.  “Don't worry, Mrs. McGuire.  He should wake up within a few days.”

“Oh. Okay.”

At the nurse's slightly startled expression, Joanna flashed her a smile and said with forced perkiness, "I mean, hurray!  I can't wait until Poopsie is all better." She threw her arms around his neck and kissed him on the cheek, trying hard not to gag at his putrid breath. Get this man a breath mint! Stat!

"I'll be right outside if you need anything," Charlene said before leaving.

When the door closed behind her, Joanna put her feet back on the bed.  She opened her magazine again.

Snore.

She sighed, leaned over, and pulled the sheet up over his face, muffling the sound.  Somewhat satisfied, she settled back into her chair to read.

 

* * *

Wednesday afternoon  

That afternoon, Rebecca remembered that she should seek out Helen and thank her.  Baloo pushed her wheelchair to the nurse’s station, where she was told that Helen was in the women's ward, Room 304. 

It took a while to find her; she’d been visiting her son Strummer in the men’s ward on the second floor that morning.  They roamed around the halls for a while, then returned to the third floor, where Thursday was talking to the nurses.

He held up his badge, though it was hardly necessary.  By now, he was a regular fixture at the hospital.  “…is she awake yet?  I really need to talk to her.”

“I’ll go see, Detective.  Wait here.”

“Hiya, Thursday.  How ya been?”

“Working.” He nodded to Rebecca.  “I hope you’re feeling better these days. Less, ah, high-strung?”

Before she could reply, the elevator doors opened and Helen emerged.  She saw them and gave a distracted nod in their direction.

Rebecca said softly, “Mrs. Haley, I want to thank you for staying with Molly.  I wish I’d been there.  And I’m so sorry about… about what happened.”

“Molly’s a darlin’.  And after all we’ve been through, it’s ‘Elen, please.”  

“Ellen?” Baloo echoed.

“No, ‘Elen.  H-E-L-E-N.”

“Helen, then.  And I’m Rebecca and this is Baloo.” 

“Aye.” The elderly koala smiled absently up at him.  “We’ve met.”

“How is your son?” Rebecca asked.

“Nicky’s arm’s broke but ‘e’ll mend, thank ‘ee.”

The words, ‘because Joanna landed on him’ went unspoken.

“And Pearl? What will happen to her?”

Thursday said frankly, “She’ll be charged as an accessory to kidnapping and illegal possession of a deadly weapon when she recovers.”

“That poor gel. She was foolish, but I don’t think she’s bad,” Helen looked at Thursday anxiously.  “She won’t survive jail.” 

“I agree.  Don’t worry, she’s on suicide watch.”

“Might I see ‘er?”

He hesitated. “I don’t know…the doc said she’s very sore from the surgery…”

“A little while,” Helen begged. “That’s all I’m askin’.”

“I’ll go too,” added Rebecca.

He thought about it. “All right.  You have fifteen minutes.  Remember, no excitement.”

When they got there, Pearl was lying on her side, facing the wall, hooked to an IV machine.

“’Allo, Pearl ,” Helen said quietly.

No response.

“Pearl?” 

“What are you doing here?” she said flatly.

“Just visitin’.  ‘Ow ye feelin’?”

“I want to die,” she said simply. She was past the point of tears.

Helen was shocked, but kept her voice low.  “No, dear.  You don’t.”

“How would you know?” she asked bitterly. “Did anyone ever call you names and shoot you in front of everyone?”

She was right.  It was the ultimate rejection.

Rebecca looked at the miserable figure, still facing the wall in shame.  “Pearl, don’t be too hard on yourself. Covington could be very charming when it suited him.”  She let that sink in.

“Oh.”  A pause. “I see.”

“It was a hard lesson,” Rebecca said shortly. “At least we came out of it in one piece.”

“I’m so sorry… I don’t expect you to forgive me, but…”

“I will.  Maybe not now.  But someday.”

“I-I guess I deserve that.”

More gently, Rebecca added, “You aren’t the only one he fooled.  Covington always preyed on… lonely women.”

Helen looked at the floor.  “Aye.  That he did.”

Thursday cleared his throat. “Ladies, I’d like to talk to her alone.  Would you excuse us?”

Helen nodded.  “I’ll come back te see ‘ow yer doin’.”

Pearl mumbled, “If you want.”

“I’ll come, dear.  I promise.”

Rebecca and Helen left the room.

The detective addressed her back. “I have to tell you some things that won’t be easy for you to hear…” 

Pearl ’s eyes were fixed on the wall. “Wh-what will happen to me?”

“That’s for the courts to decide, Miss Clambake,” Thursday explained.  She looked so miserable that he felt sorry for her.  “You were an accomplice and you endangered lives.  But I don’t believe that you would have done any of it on your own.  I’ve been told that Covington had an almost mesmerizing effect on the unfortunate women who trusted him. Lucky for you Mrs. Cunningham can vouch for that. You’ll probably have to do a couple of years in jail, or else community service.”

Still not looking at him, a small sob caught her throat as she blurted, “I’m really sorry!”

“I know,” he said kindly. “I can put in a good word for you if you like.  The man was a bad influence and did take advantage of you.”

“Was?” Careful of her wound, Pearl rolled over and looked at him sharply.  “What do you mean, ‘was’?”

“He’s dead, miss.”

“Dead!”  Pearl ’s mouth fell open. “How?”

“Fell off a cliff.  A bad apple like him, it was bound to happen.”

He heard a sharp intake of breath, then cursed himself for breaking the ‘no excitement’ rule. Awkwardly, he said, “Sorry.  I shouldn’t have put it like that.” 

There were a few moments of silence as the news sank in.  Fearing that he’d done something irreparable, he murmured, “I’ll get the doctor.” 

He was almost to the door when he heard her ask tentatively, “Detective?”

“Yes?”

“Did… did he suffer?”

He hesitated. “It couldn’t have been an easy way to die.”

“Good.” There was a new edge to her voice, making it hard. She paused. “You know what? I just realized something. He never kissed me, not even once.  I had to do all the work.”  She opened the top drawer of the night stand, took out the cheap ring, and handed it to him.  “Here. Take this away.  I don’t need it anymore.”

Thursday smiled sadly, yet sardonically. “Atta girl.”

In the hall, he thought, Poor kid.  She’ll never trust anyone again.

 

* * *

 

Friday morning, Big Al’s room
11:45 am

Joanna had fallen asleep in her chair.  Upon waking, she found a plain white envelope in her lap.  Blinking sleepily, she opened it.  Inside was a note; she slid it out and unfolded it – and several fifties and hundreds fell out onto the floor.

With a squeak of surprise, she quickly scooped up the money from the floor and started to count it --- she guessed it to be nearly a million dollars.  Her hands shook as she read the note; it was written in a neat, precise hand:

I told you I had an off-shore account.  Here’s your share. After all those years of working for that creep, I figure you’ve earned it.

 

Take care.

 

-V

For a few moments, she stared at the note and absorbed all that it implied.  Some people would call it blood money.  Still, she had earned it.  What was she supposed to do, give it away?  To whom?  She needed it, and that was that.

She quickly gathered up some possessions, given to her by the nurses, and tied them up in a clean white towel:  A toothbrush, and a comb.  She needed to buy a few things.  Maybe someone in the women’s ward had something in her size.  If not, a million dollars should more than cover her expenses.

It crossed her mind that it would be a noble gesture to give some to Helen… anonymously.  Leave some at the nurses’ station, trusting that they do the right thing?

I don’t ever want te see you again.

Her expression darkened and she tucked the envelope under the waistband of the skirt she borrowed from the laundry. 

Sorry, Helen.  You should’ve been nicer to me.

 

* * *

 

Friday afternoon, Big Al’s room
1:30 pm

Big Al had woken up a few minutes after noon.  After a check-up, he was proclaimed fit to receive his first visitor. 

“Hallo,” Helen said, “They told me I could see ye for a short spell.” She was comfortably seated in one of the chairs, knitting what seemed to be a tiny pink bootie.  “For the nursery,” she explained.  “They lent me a pair o’ needles and told me to go te town.  ‘Ospitals are frightfully dull.  Are yer feet cold?  I could make ye some.”

He snorted. “Nah, that’s okay.  My feet are huge. You wouldn’t have enough yarn.”

“I was just seein’ after my Nicky.  His arm’s mendin’ nicely.”

“That’s good.”

She glanced at the empty cot, which had been rolled to the other side of the room.  “Who’s sleepin’ here?”

He peered over the guardrails. “Huh?  I dunno. They tell me I’ve been out of it for days.”

“The night nurse, p’haps?”

“I dunno.  All I know is, that my head feels like a balloon.  I dunno when I’ll be able to come back to work.  You’d better start looking for another barker.  The way my head hurts, I don’t think I could take the sound of my own voice on that megaphone.”

Helen hesitated. “We lost the carnival, Al.  It’s gone.”

“What?  How?”

“It burned down.  Insurance covered some of it, but…” She shook her head, almost disbelievingly. “It’s gone.”

“Guess I’m out of a job.” He grimaced.  “Uh, sorry about that.  It ain’t your fault, Miz Haley.”

“It was.  I was stupid enough te hire that rotten con artist.”

He thought of Covington and Joanna and wondered, which one?

“…I’m just sorry you and the others got mixed up in this mess. 

He saw by her expression that she meant it.  “Don’t worry.  I’ll pay for my hospital stay. Maybe I’ll wash dishes or something.”

She gave a mirthless chuckle. “Never you mind.  I’ve taken care of the bills.  You’ll all be taken care of.”

His mouth fell open. “How?  We lost everything, didn’t we?”

“I sold the ponies to a nice breeder.  Bonnie will be working for him when she gets over her cold.”

He nodded. “She’ll like that. What about the others?”

She told him about Pearl . Handy needed dental surgery… even afterward, he’d never be able to eat solid food.  Both Violet and Joanna had disappeared after that night.  Everyone else had scattered.

“What about you?”

“Me?  I’m fine.  Don’t have time to be lyin’ around.  After Nick gets back ‘is feet, we’ll have te find work, find a flat.”  She sighed. “Poor Nicky… I have te take care of him.  People can be so cruel.”

Before he could reply, the nurse poked her head in the doorway, bearing a tray of food.  “My, you’re certainly popular today, Mr. McGuire. You have more visitors.  Isn’t that nice?”

“I’ll see ye later, ya big layabout.” Helen gave him an affectionate peck on the cheek. “Be good.”

He grinned at her. “I ain’t making any promises.”

He brightened somewhat when he saw a big fruit basket rolling on a wheelchair towards him.  He then noticed that it was resting on a woman’s lap.  “Wow.  For me?”

“Yes.”  Rebecca paused, and set it on the night table.  “I, uh, want to thank you, Mr. McGuire.”

“Just Al.  Or Big Al,” he corrected her.  “An’ for what?  I didn’t do anything, um…”

“Rebecca.  My daughter told me what you did when she was tied up and gagged.”

“Huh?  Sorry, my memory ain’t so good right now… they’ve been keeping me sedated. What’d I…?  Oh.  Yeah.” Big Al winced. “Look, I’m sorry I scared her.   I was just…”

“Pretending to go along with that horrible man so you could get her out of there?”

“You know?”

“Of course I do.”  Rebecca smiled at him.  “She told me how you tried to protect her and then Pearl knocked you out.”

“Yeah.  Boy, did I have her pegged wrong.”  He rubbed his head, remembering. “How is she?”

“Who?  Pearl?”

“No, the kid.  Millie or Muffy or whatever she’s called.”

“Molly.”

He blushed.  “Oh, yeah. Her.”

“She’s fine.  The doctor says that she’s a little shaken up and bruised, but fine.”  She didn’t mention the broken arm or the nightmares.

He nodded.  “Good to hear.  No hard feelings about me scaring her… or anything?”

“No.  What else?”

“Well, it’s kind of hazy but I’m remembering stuff now.  I said some things to you.  About not watching your kid.”

“Oh.” Her smile faded.  “That.”

“I shouldn’t have said that,” he said awkwardly.

“Hey, Al, while we’re apologizin’,” Baloo broke in, “I’m real sorry about knockin’ your roof in before.”

Big Al shrugged and they shook hands. “I had it comin’.”

Rebecca said, “Well --- never mind all that.  I just wanted to thank you.”

“No problem.  You’re all right.”

Impulsively, she leaned over and kissed him on the cheek, startling him. “You’re a good man, Big Al McGuire.”

The nurse, Charlene, poked her head in again.  “Excuse me, folks, you’ll have to leave now.  Mr. McGuire should rest.”

“Come on, Becky,” Baloo said gruffly. “Let’s go get some chow.”

Absently touching his cheek, Big Al watched as Baloo pushed Rebecca’s chair out of the room.

“Here, let me get you comfy.”  Charlene started to crank the adjustable bed to a horizontal position when something on the floor caught her eye.  She reached down and picked it up, frowning. It was long and black --- a hair ribbon.  She held it out to him. “What’s this?  I guess one of the nurses…”

Big Al’s eyes widened and he snatched it from her fingers.  “Um, that’s mine!”

“Oh yes.  Your wife was wearing one, wasn’t she?”

He choked, “My what?”

 

* * *

 

Friday afternoon, Cafeteria
2:50 pm

Both Kit and Molly were still asleep in the children’s ward; Rebecca didn’t want to go to bed yet, so she and Baloo went to the hospital cafeteria for a late lunch.

"Sure was nice of the doc to let ya eat in the cafeteria."

"I was getting tired of eating all my meals lying in bed."

"What's wrong with that?" Baloo sounded genuinely astonished.

There was a hint of a mischievous twinkle in Rebecca's eyes when she retorted, "If you had your druthers, I bet you'd have all your meals in bed, lazy bear."

“You better believe it!  You know what they say, Becky,” he said, wagging a finger for emphasis. “An appetizer a day keeps the doctor away.”

“That’s ‘apple’,” she corrected absently. 

He noticed that her face was pale and pushed her wheelchair to a nearby table. “Here, Becky, just sit a spell. I’ll get your grub for ya.”

“Would you?” she asked gratefully.

“Sure.  What do you want?”

“Tomato soup, some saltines, and a bowl of jello.  Oh, and some coffee.  Can you remember that?”

“Sure.”

A few minutes later, Baloo returned with a tray of food.  He arranged Rebecca's food in front of her, then put his heavily-laden plate in front of him, pulled up a plastic chair, and sat down. 

“I wanted tomato, not potato soup,” she said crankily.

He shrugged and sang, “Tomatoe, potah-to, let’s call the whole thing off!”

She looked at a plate of tiny oily fish.  “And I said saltines, not sardines.”

“What’re you complainin’ about?  I got your jello, didn’t I?”

“Yes.  Thank you, Baloo.”

"Mm-mmm!  It ain't your cookin', but it ain't bad."  Baloo noisily slurped his boiled egg from his spoon. 

“Baloo, must you do that?” Rebecca tried to pick up the spoon using her right hand, but couldn't.  She couldn't even bend her fingers around the bandages.  They were too thick. Fed up, she switched the spoon to her left hand. 

“What’s the big deal? It’s much easier to eat this way.”

Rebecca gave him a funny look. “Need a straw?”

“Dunno.  Think they’d give me one?”

“If you slurp one more time, you’ll be sipping all your meals through a straw.”

“Hey, you’re threatening me again!  You must be feelin’ better.”

“A little,” she admitted.

Rebecca awkwardly scooped up a spoonful of soup and gingerly tasted it; however, she managed to get more on her chin than in her mouth.  Dabbing it with a napkin, she said,   "Okay, Baloo, no more stalling. What exactly did happen that night?  And why do I have this?" She held up her bandaged paw.

"Well...I, uh, don't know if you're up to hearin' all that yet." He rubbed the back of his neck.

"Spit it out, flyboy, or I'll put you in this hospital!"

"Okay, okay."  Baloo briefly filled her in.

"I did all that?" she whispered incredulously, staring at her bandaged hand. That was the most outrageous story Baloo had ever told her, but there was the evidence. After a moment of dazed silence, she murmured, "So Covington's death is my fault."

"Not your fault, prezactly.  But you could say you pushed him over the edge."

"It's still my fault, Baloo," Rebecca snapped.  She felt horribly guilty.  “I picked up the Key, I chased him to that cliff." With a weary sigh, she said, "I guess I should turn myself in."

She was startled when Baloo took her by the shoulders.  Looking her directly in the eyes, he said indignantly, "Now, see here, Rebecca!  You ain't doin' nuthin' of the sort.  Covington 's death was an acc-y-dent.  You were out colder'n a mackerel when he was killed, an' beatin' yerself up ain't gonna bring him back."

They stared at each other.  The silence was punctuated by Rebecca's sniffles.

His eyes shining, Baloo pressed a napkin into her hand.

Overcome by emotion, Rebecca hugged him.  "Thank you, Baloo," she whispered.

"For what?" Baloo murmured, hugging her back.

"Saving my life."  

"Aw, you'd do the same for me, right?"

"Right." Resting her head on his chest, Rebecca felt all of the tension and nagging guilt drain from her. Her mind wandered back to that night, and the standoff.


“You’re a germ-carrier with a pilot’s license.”

“Oh, yeah?  Well, you’re so cotton-pickin’ fussy that I wonder that ya don’t frisk me for fleas in the mornin’”

“I’m surprised you remember to flush,” she retorted.

“So ya do check… little Miss Tidy!”

“I do not… slob!”

“Meddlin’, plane-stealin’ female!”

“Big hairy…walking carpet!” Rebecca started to stand.  “Get out of my way.”

Wild-eyed, they squared off against each other, panting.  For a brief moment they forgot that they were held at gunpoint.

Ol’ Beckers is so ornery she makes a gorilla bird look cuddly… nobody would stick with ya ’cept by force… ya got the charm of a rattler when ya got yer dander up.


Rebecca said hesitantly, "Baloo, you didn't really mean all that stuff, did you?"

"All what stuff?"

"You know… that st-stuff you said on the roller coaster.  When we were distracting Covington ."

“Jeez, Louise, with everything that went on, you’re thinkin’ about that?”

“Humor me.”

He thought for a moment.  "Nah, I just knew it would keep ol' Covie’s attention."

You’re a germ-carrier with a pilot’s license… I’m surprised you remember to flush… big hairy…walking carpet!

“Uh, Becky?”

“Yes?”

“Ya don’t really think I’m a germ-carrier with a pilot’s license, do ya?”

She smiled.  “No, I just think you’re a slob.”

She felt him sigh with relief.  “Oh.  Okay, then.  Just checkin’.”

“Forget it, Baloo.”

“Uh, Becky?”

“Yes?”

“I do flush.”

“Huh?  Oh, yes…I know you do.”

“Aha!  So you do check!”

She glared at him. “I do not!”

“Then how do ya know?”

“I listen for the flush.”

He chuckled and tightened his embrace.  “You’re somethin’ else, lady.”

“And don’t you forget it, buster.”

Rebecca heard him gasp. “Uh-oh!  Three o’clock!  Becky, three o’clock!  Hide me!”

“What? It’s only two-!”

Then Rebecca felt someone watching them and turned around to see that Joanna had just finished paying for her meal and was gathering utensils onto her tray, her expression pensive.  She was wearing a stained yellow cotton nightgown that was much too big, obviously “borrowed” from one of the patients.  It made her tawny coloring sallow.  The sleeves were folded back several times and she had a clumsily hemmed the bottom with a needle and thread borrowed from an understanding night nurse who passed the time quilting as she watched Big Al.  The neckline would have gaped open without the small safety pin holding it shut.  She looked like a little girl playing Dress-Up.

Despite how abominably Joanna had behaved that night, Rebecca couldn’t help but feel rather sorry for her.  She had lost everything.

Suddenly aware that she was in his arms, she quickly detached herself. “Baloo, maybe you should see if she’s all right?”

“Aw, Becky… I don’t wanna see her. That gal’s nothin’ but trouble.” 

“I know, but you have to. It’s the decent thing to do.”

“It’ll be awkward.”

“Get over there, mister.”  Rebecca was feeling generous. She would never admit it, but there was a certain satisfaction that when forced to choose who to save, he’d chosen her.  “Be a man.”

“Okay, okay,” he grumbled. “for you.”

He hurried over and tried to sound casual when he said, “Hey, Joey,”

She simply stared at him.

He shuffled his big feet and tried again. “Uh, how ya doin’?”

Her voice was remote, almost robotic. “Been better. You?”

“I’m okay.  Just visitin’.”

“Oh…” She jerked her head at Rebecca.  “She alright?”

“Yep.  She’s bein’ released tomorrow.  Molly too.”

“That’s good.” 

He winced at her chilly tone. “Listen, uh, I’m real sorry about what happened.”

“Yeah, me too.”

He gulped, “You know.  My hands were full, an’ you were actin’ crazy out there. We couldn’t help ya…”

A frown creased her brow. “What are you talking about?”

“Don’t you remember?  You went kinda looney-toons on the rolly-coaster.  I hadda choose… I mean, I couldn’t save ya both…”

“Save who? Who else?”  There was a long pause, then her eyes narrowed.  “I fell.  You let me fall.”

“No!  Becky was closer.  I couldn’t reach ya… you gotta believe me, Joey.”

“Forget it!” she snapped. “It doesn’t matter anyway.  I don’t need anyone’s pity, least of all, yours.  And I don’t need a mother, either!”

“What?” Baloo was completely baffled. “Who said anything about bein’ your mother?”

Flustered, she dropped a spoon on the floor and had to select another.  She slammed it down on the tray. “Never mind.  I’m getting on the first bus out of this place tomorrow.”

He eyed her hideous nightgown, held together with a pin and a prayer. “In that?”

Blushing, she lowered her gaze; suddenly her head shot up again, eyes glistening with tears and rage. “This from a guy who doesn’t wear pants.  Too bad our tents burned down --- we might have had something in your size!”

He looked as though she had slapped him.

Rebecca, deciding that it was time to rescue him, began to wheel herself over.  “That’s a cheap shot!  How dare you!”

“Stay there, Becky,” he commanded. “I’ll handle this, okay?”

“You’ll ‘handle this’, meaning me?” Joanna sneered.  “My, my, aren’t you the big hero! Are you sure you don’t need your little bodyguard to protect you?”

He gave her a hard look. “Ain’t it your pride that’s a-hurtin’ more than your feelin’s?”

To his surprise, she burst into tears, banging her tray down.

“You’ve got a lot of nerve!” she sobbed. “How’d you like to be the one your so-called date decided was expendable!”

He glanced around the cafeteria, at Rebecca, who was obviously trying not to look as if she was listening.  “Keep your voice down, would ya?”

“No! How could you not---!”  Just in time, she stopped herself from saying it aloud. 

…save me first?

“Look, Joey --- I didn’t want to be in that position in the first place!  Kit tried to save ya, but you just went loco and kept fightin’ him!  We had other people ta save, not ta mention our own necks!”  

Swallowing hard, trying to compose herself, she muttered, “I know… I’m sorry.”  

“If I had my way, we’d be eatin’ at Louie’s and ---!” He took off his hat and twisted it in agitation. “Wouldn’t you have done the same thing?”  

“Of course not!”  

“Marie, I'm slipping!”  Judy cried.

“Don’t move!”

Patty’s voice broke her concentration.  “Look out!  The branch is breaking!”

Her sister screamed. “Don’t let me fall!” 

“Hold on!” Marie yelled.  “Don’t look down.  I’m coming!  I’m coming!”

Clumsily, she made her way toward the other girl.  The rough bark of the branch bit into Marie’s palms as she struggled to hold on. She heard the brittle wood crack and watched in mute horror as the chasm rapidly widened towards them, until it was practically beneath her already bloodied knees. 

“Go back! Both of you --- go back inside!” Patty pleaded.  Sweat slicked her forehead and her eyes shone with horrified fascination at the scene above.

Marie glanced over her shoulder --- backing up was no longer an option --- the thicker part of the branch was behind her and no longer stable --- it was already splitting like a dry wishbone. She looked ahead, meeting Judy’s terrified gaze.   She would have to crawl forward to the window and her sister. 

But as she did so, Judy came out of her stupor and foolishly crawled toward her.  

Marie swallowed. “No, don’t come this way! Go back!”   Her breathing quickened and her heart thudded painfully against her ribcage.  Her sheltered sibling had never learned to navigate trees --- therefore, could not crawl backwards.

Suddenly an ant crawled onto Judy’s hand, making her squeal in alarm.  Frantically shaking the offending insect off, she lost her grip and began to fall sideways.  All three girls screamed.

Marie’s hand shot out and caught her wrist, but it was too late.  The younger girl’s momentum was pulling them both down.  

“Hold me!”  Judy shrieked, snatching at the air.  In her panic, she clawed at Marie’s face and clothes, her nails tangling in the fabric. She managed to wrap her arms around the older girl’s neck, strangling her while Marie struggled to cling to the tree limb.

“Hold her, Marie!” their mother screamed.  She must’ve heard the commotion and come back running.

Marie gasped for air, fighting Judy’s grip.  Black dots danced in front of her eyes, making her vision swim.  Judy would not let go.  She wanted to scream.  They were sliding. Any minute both would fall.

Get her…off me… I’m going to die!  Get off!  Get off!  Let go!

She didn’t know that she shrieking the words. Without thought or warning, she struck out blindly with her fist, accidentally catching Judy across the face.  Blood jetted from her pert little nose like red ink from a fountain pen, but still she hung on, her nails digging hard into her neck.

Marie hit her again and made a wild grab for the curtains fluttering outside the window…caught them.  She dangled helplessly and shut her eyes as Judy let go.  

For hours afterward, over and over again, all she could hear the awful crack! of the branch as it snapped, and the sound of a melon hitting the pavement as her sister’s head split open.


“That’s not fair, Baloo.” Her voice trembled. “I don’t know... maybe.”

“It don’t make it right or fair.  But sometimes ya do the best you can with what you got.”  

Strangely enough, it was exactly what she needed to hear.  It wasn’t my fault.  I couldn’t save her.  I had to save myself.  I’m not a bad person for it.  

She wouldn’t admit it, but she did understand his dilemma, more than he would ever know.  There were no ethics breached, just rotten luck and a choice that was really no choice at all --- not that she’d ever cared that much about ethics.  Like most narcissists, she expected ethics from other people. 

“We did try ta save you, Joey.  Really, we did.”

“I know,” Joanna said sadly, staring at her tray. “I’m sorry… about that tent crack… about everything.  Guess I really screwed up, huh?”

“Aw, honey, it don’t matter," Baloo said, rubbing the back of his neck tiredly. “It’s all water under the wing.”

“Thank you.”  She blinked hard several times, then glanced at Rebecca, who was still seated at the table, eating her soup.

Baloo noticed.  “You wanna talk to her?”

“No… yes… yeah… I should talk to her.”

Joanna carried her tray to the table where Rebecca was slowly eating her soup.  "Is this seat taken?"

Rebecca looked up in surprise.  She flashed a questioning glance at Baloo, who was wringing his hat nervously. After a momentary pause, she said, "No."  She pulled her coffee closer to make room.

Joanna set her tray on the table and sat down in the plastic chair.  Baloo resumed his place.  For a few minutes, they sat in awkward silence, picking at their food.

Then, the silence was broken by a loud slurp!

"Baloo!" Rebecca scolded.  "For once, can't you try to remember your table manners?"

Awkwardly, Joanna asked, “Are you okay? How’s Molly?”

“She’ll be fine.”  Rebecca didn’t feel like rehashing the details, especially with someone who turned out to be a stranger. “And so am I.”

“That’s good.  I’m glad.”  

“Thank you.”  

Absently crumbling crackers into her soup bowl, Joanna said, “I’ll send those clothes to you as soon as I can. The nurse put them in the wash for me.  They’re pretty wrecked, though.”

“Oh… right.” Rebecca nodded, remembering. She didn’t want any souvenirs of that night. “Never mind, you can have those. Oh, dear. I still have your things in the dryer, don’t I?  Sorry, I’ll get Wildcat to pick them up from my apartment. Which room are you staying in?”

“Um… Room 207.” 

“Room 207?” It seemed familiar, though she couldn’t immediately remember why. “Wait… isn’t that in the men’s ward?”

Almost guiltily, Joanna looked around and whispered. “Free room and board.  Oh, if anyone asks, I’m ‘Mrs. McGuire’.”

At their perplexed expressions, she explained, “I’ve been staying in Alphonse’s room, playing the concerned wife.” She gave them a wry smile.  “Poor guy’s been unconscious all this time, never suspecting that I’ve been fluffing his pillows and eating his ice cream.”

Baloo grinned too. “Great minds think alike, huh, Becky?”

Joanna looked at them blankly. 

Rebecca said quickly, “We visited him this afternoon.  He’s awake now.”

“That’s nice.”  She bent her head over her soup and accidentally dipped her hair into the bowl.  Distracted, she grabbed a napkin and squeezed it over her soupy hair, draining it. “Shoot! I must’ve lost my…”  Then her eyes widened.  “Did you just say he was awake?”

 

End of Chapter 18

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