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A million thoughts were racing through his mind at the same time, leaving him confused and empty inside. He knew what he wanted to say but had the terrifying impression that once it was said it couldn't be taken back. In reality he knew this wasn't true . . . yet he was so uncertain.
"Would you like to go over it again?" Dr. Bradman asked in an understanding tone.
"No," Larry answered quickly, then became silent again. For a long moment he sat, staring at the edge of the table in front of him, then sighed.
"Okay. I think you should go ahead with it." It was like getting a huge burden off his chest.
"Fine," Dr. Bradman replied matter-of-factly. "Now is the best time if we're going to do it at all." Larry nodded but said nothing and the doctor could sense his concern. "I know it's not an easy decision, but I do believe it is the way to go now."
"Yeah," Larry exhaled, looking up at the man. "When will you operate?"
"I'll try to schedule it for tomorrow morning. The longer we wait . . . . "
Larry nodded again as the man stood up. They'd been over the proposed procedure so many times there was no reason to explain further. "Tell me . . . in all honesty . . . do you think there's a chance? I mean . . . if he regains consciousness . . . can he fully recover?"
"I wish I could answer that honestly, but I can't. Not right now. One step at a time, okay?" He finished by patting Larry's shoulder and walking from the room.
Jennifer leaned over and placed a hand on his knee. "You did the right thing, Larry."
Larry moaned, tossing his head back slightly. "I just wish they hadn't left the final decision up to me!"
"But, Larry! Bartok said they didn't know enough about the modern medicine available in America. And you are related." A confused look crossed her face. "Aren't you?"
Jennifer looked up at her sharply. "Of course they're related! They're cousins!" After a moment, she also gave Larry an uncertain look.
"Don't look at me. That's what Balki told me when he showed up on my doorstep. God . . . it seems so long ago."
"I'm sorry, Larry," Jennifer began. "It's just that you and Balki are so different. But I've never seen two people who were closer . . . except maybe Mary Anne and I."
"I don't think so, Jennifer," Mary Anne corrected seriously. "We've never been zipped together in a sleeping bag."
Larry shot Jennifer a look. "You told her about that?"
Jennifer shrugged with an embarrassed smile.
"Oh . . . I just wish I knew I was doing the right thing!" Larry announced to no one in particular.
"You're doing what you think is right," Jennifer assured him. "At this point no one knows what the right thing is for sure. You can only go by what you feel."
"I'm so scared," Larry confided softly. "I don't want to lose him. But . . . I can't let my fear stand in the way of Balki's chance to recover. He deserves more than that."
Mary Anne glanced at the clock on the wall and sighed. "Visiting hours are almost over. We'd better go say goodnight to Balki and wish him luck for tomorrow."
It didn't take long for them to reach the room. After they entered, Mary Anne crossed to the bedside and leaned over to kiss Balki's forehead. "Hi, Balki," she cooed, although she could never get her voice to sound quite normal when speaking directly to him in this condition. "You'd better rest up tonight because you're going to have a big morning! Larry told the doctor to go ahead with the operation!"
"That's right," Jennifer confirmed, patting his hand. "They're going to help you get better. Then you can go home! We can all go home together!"
Larry stood back, watching the girls with deep love and appreciation. He knew he wouldn't have been able to get through the last ten days without them. In a large part it was their support that had kept him going.
A small tone sounded and a soft nurse's voice followed, announcing that visiting hours were ending.
"We have to go now, Balki," Jennifer said softly. "We'll be back tomorrow."
"We'll be waiting for you when you come back from the operating room," Mary Anne added emphatically. "Everything's going to be all right." She kissed him again, then once more before stepping away from the bed.
Jennifer turned to Larry. "Do you want us to wait for you?"
"No, I'm going to spend a little more time with him. You girls go ahead."
Jennifer kissed Larry gently on the cheek, more supportive than romantic. "We'll be here first thing in the morning."
"Goodnight, Larry," Mary Anne said, hugging him briefly. "See you tomorrow."
The girls walked out the door together. Larry briefly caught sight of Jennifer putting an arm around Mary Anne's shoulder as Mary Anne began to cry on the other side of the closing door. Larry felt sorry for her, knowing how hard it was sometimes to keep control of those emotions while in Balki's presence but they'd sworn they wouldn't let Balki know how upset they were.
Larry walked to the bed and pulled the chair he'd become so accustomed to away from the wall, seating himself in the usual place alongside Balki. He leaned in, placing his elbows on the edge of the bed to take Balki's hand. He sat there for what felt like a long time, trying to get the nerve to speak.
"They're going to operate tomorrow, Balki . . . like the girls told you." His voice trailed off. "I made the decision for your Mama . . . and your family." He stared at Balki's unchanging face which somehow still managed to pull his true feelings to the surface. "Oh Balki, I can't lie to you. I never could lie to you. I'm scared. I'm really scared. But I didn't know what else to do."
Realizing his voice was getting too emotional, he stopped, dropping his head and swallowing to try to get a hold of himself. It wasn't much use, however, as he could feel the tears beginning to well. Slowly he looked up again, clutching Balki's hand tighter. "The operation is risky but the doctor says it's the only way. You have to come back to us, Balki. The girls need you." He felt his lower lip quivering as the tears rolled down his cheeks. "I need you. I can't stand being alone any more." He laughed slightly. "Funny . . . five years ago I didn't even know I had a distant cousin from Mypos . . . I'd never even heard of Mypos!" He paused, thinking back on everything they had been through in their friendship. "Balki, you're going to make it. You have to! You have to become an American citizen! You . . . you have to be my best man when I marry Jennifer. What am I going to do without you?"
He wanted to continue but there didn't seem to be any more words to express his feelings. He just sat there, letting the minutes slip into hours, unable to leave the bedside. He couldn't get over the reality that in a few short hours he could possibly lose the person he cared about more than anyone else in the world. He was grateful when a nurse who entered eyed him with some surprise but made no move to make him leave. She simply went about her business and left the room, not saying a word.
As the hours passed steadily, Larry found he had to fight the fatigue which came over him. Finally he set his head down on the covers to rest a moment. It became a concentrated effort to stay awake, as the steady hum and beeping of the machines tried to lull him into slumber. After another half hour he stopped fighting and allowed himself to slip into a strange stupor. He felt both physically and emotionally drained. Finally his eyes closed.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
"Poor Cousin Larry," Balki kept thinking. "Always trying so hard." He had heard everything Larry had said clearly, as if he were sitting right next to him. But no one was there. No one had been there for so long. He felt as if his heart had grown cold from being stranded. At times he wanted to give up trying. B ut Cousin Larry always urged him on just when things looked darkest.
He wanted more than anything to see his Cousin again . . . to reach out and touch him and let him know everything was going to be all right. P ainstakingly, he groped out into the emptiness around him. I f only he could find the way. If only he could break through the clouds.
With great effort he searched, gliding what he thought was his arm out in front of him in sweeping motions but coming in contact with nothing. It had always been this way before, but this time he concentrated as hard as he could, reaching further and further. The emptiness suddenly came to an end when he felt something at the edge of his fingertips. Slowly he pushed his hand forward, feeling this round, hairy object with some confusion. He let out a sigh when he realized what it was, and began patting carefully as one might do with a timid puppy. At last he was able to return some of the comfort his Cousin had so tirelessly offered him.
Larry stirred slightly, moaning in soft satisfaction at the way he felt. Slowly he became aware of the fingers running through his hair, and in the blurriness of an undefined dream he unquestioningly took pleasure in it, feeling warm and safe.
As he awoke further he became aware of the odd pain in his back from his strange position, then more became clear when he started to remember where he was. Slowly he pushed himself up and felt the hand which had been stroking his hair pull away. He turned, half expecting to see Jennifer there, or perhaps a nurse trying to stir him, but there was no one. It took him a moment to realize the hand was now holding onto his arm, and he looked down to see Balki's fingers closing gently around his wrist.
Unable to believe his eyes, Larry lunged forward, examining Balki's face, which was twisted in a way a person's while trying to block out too much sunlight.
In reaction to his name, Balki slowly opened his eyes. It took a few moments for him to focus on anything but pretty soon Larry could tell they were looking at him.
The sight of Cousin Larry's wide-eyed expression forced Balki to smile slightly. It was a look he knew all too well and a relieving and welcome thing to see after so much darkness.
"Balki!" Larry repeated, scarcely able to believe his eyes. "Balki! Can you hear me? Can you hear me?"
Balki gazed up at his bug-eyed, frazzled-looking and incredibly loud-volumed Cousin and sighed with some skepticism before answering softly. "Well, of course I can, Cousin. Don't be ridiculous."
Larry pushed himself up from the bed in a flurry and raced to the doorway, throwing it open as he halfway flung himself into the hall. "Doctor! Nurse! Somebody! He's awake! He's awake!"
Without waiting for a response, Larry raced back to the bedside. "Balki!"
"Cousin, I think you need some coffee."
Larry laughed hysterically, motioning to Balki as the nurse entered. "He's awake! Look! He's awake!"
As if wanting to see for herself, the nurse approached the bed and checked Balki's eyes and monitors before looking down at him with a smile. "Well hello, Balki!"
"Hi!" Balki answered quietly with a half smile.
"We've been hoping you'd wake up soon." She turned back to Larry. "I'll call Dr. Bradman."
Within a few moments, a rumpled Dr. Bradman, who'd been awakened from the doctor's lounge downstairs, entered the room. He stepped to the bedside and looked at Balki carefully.
"How are you feeling, Balki?" he asked, using his small flashlight to check Balki's pupils.
"Not too bad," Balki answered, studying the doctor in return when he finished. "How are you?"
"Fine." Dr. Bradman turned to Larry. "It's hard to believe, but then again, miracles do happen!" He looked back down at Balki. "I'd like to do a catscan just to check, though."
Balki gazed up at Larry with an extremely worried face, motioning for his Cousin to lean closer. Confused, Larry bent down, turning an ear so Balki could whisper to him.
Dr. Bradman watched with surprise as Larry pulled away, half laughing and half crying, tears visible in his eyes. "What is it?"
Larry sobbed a few times, smiling broadly. "He's worried because we don't own a cat."
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
As Larry raced out of his bedroom he fumbled with one shoe, trying desperately to slip into it as he walked. His tie was thrown clumsily, undone, around his neck. After failing once again with the shoe he pushed his foot down hard, flattening the back of it under his heel as he unsuccessfully tried to knot the tie.
It wasn't until a few moments later that Larry realized Balki was sitting at the counter watching him from behind a mug of what he assumed was hot chocolate. He stopped struggling long enough to give his cousin a tired expression of defeat.
"Cousin, I've said it before and I know I'm gonna say it again, but you should have some coffee."
"I don't have time, Balki," Larry said hurriedly, hopping on one foot to try to pull his shoe on properly. "I have to get down to the office to dig up more research material for that article."
"You shouldn't run off without having breakfast," Balki scolded gently.
"I'll get some coffee down at the office." He snatched up his briefcase and crossed to the door. "See you later!"
Larry threw open the door and spun around to close it behind him, glancing back as he did so. He stopped suddenly as he saw Balki sitting at the counter, drinking his hot chocolate. It didn't hit him until then how strange such a normal scene was to him. Only five months before he had been terrified of losing Balki forever . . . the long hours sitting with him while he was in a coma, the months of therapy and physical training that had ensued when he finally awoke . . . now he was rushing off to work as if nothing had ever happened.
Balki smiled at him with a somewhat quizzical expression, as if wondering why Larry was standing there.
Larry stepped back inside, setting his briefcase aside before walking to the counter. Balki had already set Larry's mug out and had retrieved the coffee pot to pour his cousin a cup. Larry sat down across from Balki and pulled the now-full cup closer to him as Balki sat back down, smiling broadly.
"I guess I have little more time," Larry smiled warmly.