Back in the waiting room, she witnessed eight middle-aged men in flannel standing in a ring, their slow eyes scanning the floor. A murmur issued from them, wind teasing the lonely screens of a farmhouse. The sound rose and fell in waves. It took her a moment to realize: a prayer circle, for another victim whod come in just after Mark. A makeshift Pentecostal service, covering anything that scalpels, drugs, and lasers couldnt. The gift of tongues descended on the circle of men, like small talk at a family reunion. Home was the place you never escape, even in nightmare.
Stable. Lucky. The words got Karin through to midday. But when the trauma doctor next talked to her, the words had become cerebral edema. Something had spiked the pressure inside her brothers skull. Nurses tried cooling his body. The doctor mentioned a ventilator and ventricular drain. Luck and stability were gone.
When they let her see Mark again, she no longer knew him. The person they took her to the second time lay comatose, his face collapsed into some strangers. His eyes wouldnt open when she called his name. His arms hung still, even when she squeezed them.
Hospital personnel came to talk to her. They spoke to her as if she were brain-damaged. She pumped them for information. Marks blood alcohol content had been just under the Nebraska limitthree or four beers in the hours before rolling his truck. Nothing else noticeable in his system. His truck was destroyed.
Two policemen took her aside in the corridor and asked her questions. She answered what she knew, which was nothing. An hour later, she wondered if shed imagined the conversation. Late that afternoon, a man of fifty in a blue work shirt sat down next to her where she waited. She managed to turn and blink. Not possible, not even in this town: hit on, in the trauma-unit waiting room.
You should get a lawyer, the man said.
She blinked again and shook her head. Sleep deprivation.
Youre with the fellow who rolled his truck? Read about him in the Telegraph. You should definitely get a lawyer.
Her head would not stop shaking. Are you one?
The man jerked back. Good God, no. Just neighborly advice.
She hunted down the newspaper and read the flimsy accident account until it crumbled. She sat in the glass terrarium as long as she could, then circled the ward, then sat again. Every hour, she begged to see him. Each time, they denied her. She dozed for five minutes at a shot, propped in the sculpted apricot chair. Mark rose up in her dreams, like buffalo grass after a prairie fire. A child who, out of pity, always picked the worst players for his team. An adult who called only when weepy drunk. Her eyes stung and her mouth thickened with scum. She checked the mirror in the floors bathroom: blotchy and teetering, her fall of red hair a tangled bead-curtain. But still presentable, given everything.
There has been some reversal, the doctor explained. He spoke in B waves and millimeters of mercury, lobes and ventricles and hematomas. Karin finally understood. Mark would need surgery.
They slit his throat and put a bolt into his skull. The nurses stopped answering Karins questions. Hours later, in her best consumer-relations voice, she asked again to see him. They said he was too weakened by the procedures. The nurses offered to get something for her, and Karin only slowly realized they meant medication.
Oh, no thanks, she said. Im good.
Go home for a while, the trauma doctor advised. Doctors orders. You need some rest.
Other people are sleeping on the floor of the waiting room. I can get a sleeping bag and be right back.
Excerpted from The Echo Maker by Richard Powers. Copyright © 2006 by Richard Powers. Published in October 2006 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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