Larry was surrounded by flames. Air burned his lungs when he tried to breathe. A heavy wooden beam lay across his legs, pinning him to the floor. He managed to lift the beam just enough to pull his legs out, but all he could see around him was fire and smoke. He couldn’t tell where the windows were, or the door. He wasn’t sure if Gwen was trapped with him, or if she had escaped. He woke sweating and panting, sitting up in the hospital bed.
A nurse came and increased the IV drip, sending additional morphine into his system to relieve the pain and calm him down. He relaxed back onto the pillows, awake and remembering. Gwen appeared by his side and led him out of the house.
He wondered where she was, why she wasn’t in his room, visiting, waiting for him to be awake and lucid. But he didn’t wonder for long. He could feel the right side of his face under the bandages wrapped around his head. Melted, scarred flesh. An eyeless socket. Half a nose.
With only one eye and half a face, he could never look at her the same way again. She would never be able to look at him the same way again, either. Looks were far less important than character, and he knew she knew that. But this went beyond just looks. She would see a monster. A wuss. Someone she needed to pull from the burning house. Not her hale, hearty, hero. He was still breathing, but his life was over. At least his life with Gwen. The only life he wanted to live. His eye closed and he went limp, drifting back into sleep. And nightmares.
This time he tried to wave her off when she came to his rescue. But when he opened his mouth, flames shot out. Flames erupted from his right eye as well. That did the trick. She screamed and ran through the fire, just to get away from Larry, the Monster. He laughed a bitter laugh and tried to hug the flames. But they laughed back and danced out of his reach. And just like that he was outside the house, being extinguished, rolled in a blanket, and put on a gurney. Too drugged to wake up, the nightmare repeated.
This time he felt his face melting, his eyeball dripping down his cheek. So he pulled the beam down onto his legs and lay down to die in the fire. But the fire ate the beam, wrapped around him, and carried him to the ambulance.
He couldn’t wake up, but he thrashed and tried to scream. Only a strange guttural sound emitted from the mummy in the hospital bed. The nurse must have given him more of the drug; he felt like his sleep was the still, dark water of a lake, and he was drowning in it.
When his body landed at the bottom of the lake of sleep, sending gouts of mud towards the surface, turning them into bursts of flame, he slid through the lake bottom and into his house again. The beam collapsed, pinning him down. Then it flew back up, and dropped again and again. The flames caressed his body, slid him out from under the beam each time it fell. His face melted, sliding down the flames to form skates on his feet. On those skates of fire, he rolled out of the house and into the ambulance, setting it on fire. He rode the smoke of the burning ambulance to the hospital, landing right back here in this cloistered room.
Morphine kept him asleep, unaware of his actual pain and resting. Or at least resting as much as the feverish nightmares allowed. A second IV provided nutrition and fluids to keep him hydrated. The nurse could have told him he slept (and dreamed) five days in a row, but he didn’t ask. When he did wake up, at last, he asked for ice chips to wet his lips and his throat before he could talk. The nurse was happy to provide them and encouraged Larry. She told him he was on the road to recovery. When he asked when the bandages might be removed, she brought the doctor in to talk to him.
“Hello, Mr. Lancome. I’m Doctor Vasquez. I know you might not feel like it yet, but you are lucky to be alive.”
Most of his head was still wrapped in bandages, but there was an opening for his remaining eye. He stared at the doctor. She wore a white lab coat over purple scrubs. A nurse’s cap, or at least that’s what Larry assumed it was, kept her abundant auburn curls under control. He looked away from her brilliantly-colored hair immediately. Those auburn curls reminded him too much of fire. Sparkling green eyes above a pert little nose echoed the generous smile her wide mouth, sans lipstick, offered. Nothing about her reminded him of Gwen, except that infectious smile. He felt better because of it, somehow brighter and with more hope.
“Where’s Gwen?” he croaked.
“What’s that?” the doctor asked, stepping closer in order to hear his weakened voice.
“She’s here,” the doctor nodded. “She’s …”
“Don’t let her see me like this. Please.”
The doctor gave him a funny look. “Do you want to wait? Until the bandages come off? She’s been asking about you.”
“No, Doctor …” Larry couldn’t quite read her nametag.
“Doctor Vasquez,” she offered, nodding. “Gwen has been asking about you, too.”
“I don’t want to let her see me like this. And I definitely don’t want her to see me after the bandages are off.” Larry shook his head. “I don’t think she’d want to see me, or at least see my melted, one-eyed face.”
“Let’s give it some time,” Doctor Wilson suggested. “And once the burns are healed, you might want to think about plastic surgery. I’m afraid we can’t yet give you a second real eye, but an artificial one or a dashing eye patch can do wonders for your look. Trust me, Mr. Lancome, we’ve dealt with far worse. You are very fortunate to be alive, and to have escaped that fire with all four limbs burned, but still functioning.”
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
“This is a tough one, doctor. I can see why you wanted a consult.” Dr. Branson sat across the conference table from Dr. Vasquez. Both were well aware of the physical condition of each other’s patients.
“I’m glad you see my dilemma, James. Do you have any advice to offer, in addition to commiserating with me? What do you think of her mental state?”
“I think she’s in a good place, Shirley. But we can never be sure of that, can we?”
“Not absolutely sure, doctors, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have a pretty good idea of how things will go.” Drs. Vasquez and Branson had invited Dr. Harrison, one of the staff psychologists, to join them. She was very experienced with burn victims, and also well aware of the two patients being discussed. “I concur with you, Dr. Branson, about your patient and her mental state. How do you feel about your patient, Dr. Vasquez?”
“He insists that he doesn’t want her to see him. But I think it would be good for him.”
“Does he know she’s a patient? And her condition?”
“Not yet. That’s part of the reason I think it would be good for him to see her.”
“What are the chances he’ll sue the hospital if we do this and he doesn’t see it as the best thing for his recovery?”
“He’s more likely to blame himself than us,” Dr. Harrison posited. “I don’t think he would sue, but I can’t guarantee that.”
“If it comes to a lawsuit,” Dr. Vasquez added, “I’m pretty certain I could argue that it was my medical decision that it would be good for him.”
“That wouldn’t help with the publicity,” Dr. Branson shook his head. “I’m afraid I think it’s a bad idea overall. But if you want to do it, I think my patient will handle it well.”
“So it’s all up to me, after all? Some consult this is turning out to be.”
“It is up to you Dr. Vasquez. But the consult shows you are considering options, and seeking other opinions. You aren’t saying you disagree with the idea are you, Dr. Branson?”
“I am not disagreeing with the idea. If Dr. Vasquez wants to pursue it, I’m in.”
Dr. Harrison flipped through the charts in front of her. The other two waited patiently. Finally, she closed the files and looked up.
“As you are Mr. Lancome’s attending, and since Dr. Branson has no objection, I leave it to you, Dr. Vasquez. I’ll support your decision, no matter which way you go.”
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The bandages were off. Larry relished the feel of fresh air on his face, but the right side felt weird. He held the mirror in his left hand, looking at his face. It wasn’t as bad as he thought it would be, but he wasn’t going to win any beauty contests. The doctor was right about one thing - the eye patch looked more dashing than frightening.
“There’s someone here to see you, Mr. Lancome. If you’re done admiring your rugged new look.” Dr. Vasquez smiled at Larry. Drs. Branson and Harrison stood at the side of his room, looking at him with curiosity. “Gwen?” Dr. Vasquez called over her shoulder.
“No! I don’t want her to see me like this. I told you that.” Larry bowed his head and covered it with his hands, dropping the mirror into his lap, face up.
“I was afraid of this,” Gwen said in a quavering voice, crying as she stopped just inside the room. Dr. Branson took her elbow, placed a comforting hand on her shoulder, and helped steer her closer to Larry’s bed.
“I’m ugly. He doesn’t want to see me. Nobody wants to see me.” Gwen bowed her own head, now that she stood at Larry’s bedside. Larry gasped, and Gwen turned away, giving Dr. Branson a pleading look.
“Take me back to my room, please. I need to be alone.”
“Gwen?” Larry looked up. “Please don’t leave. I’ve been waiting for weeks to see you. To thank you for saving me from that fire. For loving me; at least until now. Nobody can love me now.”
“You’re so wrong, Larr Bear. I can never not love you.”
“I think you’ll change your mind when you look at me,” Larry argued.”
“It’s not your looks I love, silly. It’s your heart and your mind and your soul. Your very character.” Gwen sobbed once. “But when you see me like this, you’ll run. You won’t want to; you’re better than that. But you’ll recoil from what you see.”
“But I’ve seen you, Gwen, and I don’t want to run. I do want to turn my back, so you won’t see me. But I don’t want to run. You’re my soulmate, my heart, my mind, my everything. Until you see me.” Larry paused. “But I want you to see me. You need to know, so you can move on.”
Larry lifted his head and lowered his hands. “Look at me, Gwen.”
Dr. Branson lifted Gwen’s chin with his hand and gave her a questioning look. She gave him a haunted look of her own, then nodded, and turned.
Larry looked at her marred face and her flowered eye patch. His one good eye teared up, and he opened his arms, motioning her to come in for a hug.
Gwen looked from his open arms and beckoning hands to his melted face and the black eye patch. Her own good eye teared up, and she fell into his arms.
“You’re the most beautiful woman this eye has ever seen,” Larry hugged her.
“And you’re the most beautiful liar, Larr Bear. But I love you. I love you so much.”
“You saved me,” was Larry’s answer. “You saved me when I met you, you saved me when you said yes to my proposal and you saved me from the fire.”
“We saved each other,” Gwen responded. “You saved me when we met, when you asked me to marry you, and when you came out of that fire alive, with your arms around me to keep most of the flames away.”
The doctors smiled and nodded. Gwen broke from the hug and stood back up.
“Rumor has it I could have some plastic surgery to make things look a little better,” Larry offered, still tentative.
“I will if you will,” Gwen agreed with a smile. Then she laid down on his hospital bed carefully, and they embraced again. The doctor’s left the room, agreeing this had been the right thing to do, and praising Dr. Vasquez for her courage.