My life has become a series of people asking me if I’m better.
Except I’m sitting in a hospital bed with a massive bandage around my head like a turban. So no, I’m not better.
But people keep asking anyway because it’s how you show concern for someone you care about, I guess, but frankly a giant box of chocolate truffles and reign over a small kingdom would be acceptable stand-ins.
No school. No home. All I do is sit in bed all day and watch crappy soap operas in which people faint dramatically all the time. Like, damn. That shit’s an epidemic. I get so bored I try to mimic their faints except the nurses catch me and say stuff like ‘you have a head injury’ and ‘contrary to popular belief, the floor is hard’, or some nonsense, so nobody can blame me when I steal the nearest wheelchair and bolt down the hall at top speeds. NASCAR ain’t got nothing on me. Except the backing of huge corporations who give them money to go fast. But still. I’m twice as cool and my ride is pimped as hell – a worn-out shitstain on the seat from somebody’s dead someone and the stuffing pulled slightly out of the armrest.
“Good evening, chaps!” I nod at two interns. They shoot each other looks but before they can call security, I’m blazing around the corner at warp speed.
“Bloody good weather we’re having!” I smile at a man sitting in his bed as I pass his open room. He cheerily returns my greeting with a resounding “Go to hell!”.
I round the next corner and come face-to-face with Naomi, my nurse. Her hair’s back in a strict bun, her face angry and worried and tired all at the same time.
“’Ello, love. Fancy a cuppa?”
“You’re not British, Isis,” Naomi says.
“I can be things,” I insist.
“Yes, well, unless those things include a person who is lying in bed recuperating, I don’t want to see them. And I especially don’t want to see them wheeling around the hospital like a madman.”
“The madman is back that way,” I jerk my thumb behind me. As if to prove it, a loud “FUCK!”reverberates. Naomi narrows her eyes and points at my room.
“Back in bed. Now.”
“Why you gotta be like that?” I sigh. “We can work this out. There can be bribes. Of the monetary kind. Or maybe not monetary. Do you like adventures? I’m full of those. I can give you at least nine adventures.”
“You’ve already given me one for the day. If you don’t get back in bed, I won’t let Sophia in after her check-up.”
I gasp. “You wouldn’t!”
I start to faint dramatically, but she catches me with her meaty arms and plops me in the wheelchair, pushing me back to my room. I grumble the entire way. In the doorway, I crawl out on my hands and knees and fake-sob, collapsing into bed.
“Oh, quiet, you drama queen.” Naomi chides, and closes the door behind her.
“Drama empress!” I yell. “I prefer the title empress!”
My room’s quiet. Too quiet. I huff and cross my arms and blow bangs out of my face. I need a haircut. And an escape plan. But looking fabulous while escaping is somewhat required, so I’m putting one before the other.
I grab my phone and text Sophia.
DEAD PROTEIN IS TRYING TO EAT MY EYES. BRING THE SHARP POINTY THING.
Her text comes seconds later;
You mean the thing you threatened that male nurse’s balls with?
I sigh contentedly at the reminder of my own past brilliance. I’m so lucky to be me.
She sends one smiley face; 😀
Sophia and I are the youngest people in this hospital, discounting the kid’s ward, and they don’t let you in there unless you’re a doctor or a parent or you have permission, which is really hard to get. Which is why I use the windows. I hate jello and it’s all they give you at meals so I hoard the jewel-like cups and give them to the kids like a gelatin-laden Santa and it’s a big hit. Not so much with the nurses. And security officers. Regardless, Sophia and I make sense. Since the day we met at lunch a few weeks ago and I gave her my apple, I’ve felt like I’ve known her forever. Being with her is like a massive, run-on déjà vu. When she first told me her name, I blurted; “Oh! You’re Sophia!” like it was a huge revelation. She asked me what I meant by that, and I searched long and hard in my own sizeable brain and couldn’t find a reason. I’d just said it, without thinking, and I didn’t really know why. I still don’t know why.
Besides that tiny bump in the road, she and I have been getting along famously. You can tell because A. she hasn’t run away crying yet and B. she always ends her texts to me with a smiley. Only people who like you do that. Or people who want to secretly murder you. But really, I don’t think someone as delicate and beautiful as Sophia would want to murder someone, unless she wanted to be like, beautiful and delicate and bloodthirsty, which, I’m not gonna lie, would add to her considerable mystique –
“Isis,” Sophia says from the doorway. “You’re thinking out loud again.”
I whirl to face her. She’s in a floral sundress, with a thick, cozy-looking sweater. Her platinum, white-blonde hair is kept thin and long, like strands of silver. Her milk-white skin practically glows. To offset all her paleness, her eyes are ocean-deep and navy-dark. In one hand she carries a book, and in the other –
“Scissors!” I crow. “Okay, okay, deep breaths everyone. Because I’m about to say something mildly life-changing.”
Sophia inhales and holds it. I point at her.
“You’re going to cut my bangs!”
She exhales and fist-pumps. “I’ll chop them all off.”
“Soph, soapy Soph soapbutt, we have only been together three weeks and I love you dearly, like a sister, like we are deer-sisters frolicking in the woods, but this is extremely vital to my well-being and I am trusting you with my life.”
“Ah, I see,” Sophia sits on my bed, giving me an understanding nod. “You keep all your vital organs in your bangs.”
“As well as all my future prospects with Johnny Depp. So you realize how important this is to me.”
“I am quite serious.”
“It’s not like you can make me look any less hot, since that is impossible, but generally speaking don’t fuck up.”
She runs her fingers through my wild bangs. “Straight across?”
“Uh, you’re the fashionable expert here. I just sort of throw on things that don’t have holes in them and hope for the best. I read a Cosmo once on the toilet. Does that count?”
“Depends on how long you were on the toilet.” Sophia brushes my bangs with her fingers experimentally.
“Years. They talked about face shapes. Like, do I have a square face? A heart-shaped face?”
“Really? Because I was thinking more that-one-unfortunately-misshapen-Skittle-in-the-bottom-of-the-box shape.”
Sophia laughs. “Just hold still, and close your eyes. I promise I won’t disfigure you for life.”
There are the soft sounds of snipping and Sophia’s gentle fingers, and then she tells me to open my eyes. I leap out of bed and dash into the bathroom. The age-stained hospital mirror reflects a short-banged girl, her slightly-faded purple streaks gracing her forehead. A single bandage wraps entirely around the base of her skull. She looks tired, old. Her face contains two volcanic eruptions on her chin, one on her nose, and bags under her eyes that’d make Coach jealous. And something’s wrong. Something deep inside the girl is wrong.
“What’s the matter? Don’t like it?” Sophia comes up behind me. In the mirror, she practically radiates pale, waifish beauty, and I’m…
“No, I love it. You did great. Fab. Baf. Nothing’s wrong! Absolutely zero. Absolute zero. It’s kind of chilly in here, isn’t it?”
I run back to the bed and burrito myself in the blankets. Sophia follows, sighing.
“If you don’t like it, you don’t have to lie.”
“No, I do! Shit, I really do. Sorry. It’s not that, it’s – other stuff. Stuff from before I came here.”
“Ah.” She settles on the foot of my bed. “The hard stuff. The stuff the hospitals can’t heal.”
I nod. Sophia’s gaze isn’t piercing, but something about it has weight, gravity, like she’s decades older than she seems. I haven’t told her about Nameless, mostly because she doesn’t need to know when she already looks so sad all the time. She hasn’t told me anything about her past, either, and it’s better that way. I can tell she’s had it worse than me.
“Was it a boy?” She asks, finally.
She folds her hands over each other, like a dainty lady. The nurses gossip about her; the way she’s been in the hospital for five years, the way she has no family – her mother and father died in a car accident, and her grandmother raised her, but she passed a few years ago, leaving Sophia all alone in the world. Mostly they gossip about the boy who comes to visit her – Jack, the same guy who happened to see our house door open and saved me and Mom from Leo. Infuriatingly good-looking, and an infuriatingly good Samaritan, he apparently visited her a lot. But since I came, he hasn’t come at all. He’s sent letters to Sophia (letters! In this day and age!), but he hasn’t come personally. The nurses love to gossip about that, too. I
scream politely from across the room correct them whenever I can; I don’t know him! He barely knows me! I’m indebted to him, sure, but there’s nothing going on and there never will be because duh – all boys who aren’t Hollywood actors with prestigious pirate acting careers are gross!
“I’m sorry,” I blurt.
“For your boyfriend. He’s…he’s stopped coming around since I came, and if it’s because of me, I’m sorry, and I know that’s arrogant to think, but the nurses blab and I can’t help but think –”
She pats my hand and smiles. “Shhh. It’s okay. They don’t know anything. He’s just busy is all. He works a lot, and he has school.”
“I have school,” I grumble.
She plops the book she brought down on my lap. “And you have seven chapters of The Crucible to read if you wanna catch up before you go back next week!”
I contemplate seppuku, but after remembering how big the medical bill for a cracked head is, I refrain. Mom’s having a hard enough time paying without me adding spilled organs and general death to the list. Besides, I can’t die yet. I still gotta thank Jack properly. Dying before you pay someone back is just plain rude.
“I don’t wanna go back to school,” I say.
“Yes you do.”
“I totally do. It’s a snoozefest in this place.”
“Then we better get reading.” Sophia smiles. I groan and roll over, and she starts reading aloud. She enjoys torturing me. Or she’s just happy to have someone here with her. I can’t decide which. We might get a long great, but she’s still a huge mystery to me. Me! The
queen empress of deducing what people are all about! I study her face, her hands, her dress as she reads. Everyone in the hospital knows Sophia, but no one knows what she has, exactly. The nurses don’t like to talk about it. I asked Naomi and she glared and told me it was under doctor-patient confidentiality. Sometimes Sophia stays in her room for ‘treatments’, and those last for days. She doesn’t limp or cough or vomit, and no bandages or stitches are on her. Except for the fact she’s so pale and thin and sometimes complains she has migraines, she’s perfectly healthy as far as I can see.
“Soph,” I interrupt. She looks up.
“I know this might be super invasive, and historically invading has been pretty bad overall, but I don’t think I can physically contain my curiosity any longer. Or, I could. But I’d like, implode the star system from the stress. Why are you in the hospital?”
Sophia slowly closes the book. “You really don’t remember, do you?”
Her eyes dampen with sorrow. She stares out the window for a long time before sighing.
“What?” I insist. “What is it?”
Sophia looks back at me. “Oh, nothing. It’s just sad, is all. I’m sad for him. He was so happy, for a while.”
I wrinkle my nose, and before I can explode with the demand for answers, Sophia starts talking again.
“I have the same thing you have.” She taps her head with one finger. My mouth makes a little ‘o’.
“You…split your head open like a melon, too?”
She laughs, the sound like bells made of crystal. “Something like that.”
I look over at the bag she brought. A bunch of romance books crowd it, various clones of Fabio flashing their brooding frowns on every cover as a scantily dressed female is in the inevitable process of fainting on a rock somewhere nearby, preferably directly beneath his crotch.
“Why do you even like those? Aren’t there just like, princesses and kissing and misogyny?” I wrinkle my nose. Sophia shrugs.
“I don’t know. I like the princesses.”
“They’ve got great dresses and fabulous hair and loads of money. Kind of hard not to.”
“I suppose I like the way the stories always end happily. Since…since I know my story won’t end as happily.”
My heart twists around in my chest. She sounds so sure of herself.
“H-Hey! Don’t talk like that. You…you’re the closest thing I’ve ever met to a princess. Like, a real life one. Minus the tuberculosis and intermarrying. And like, beheadings.”
Sophia laughs. “You’re a princess too, you know. Very brave. And noble.”
“Me? Pft.” I buzz my lips and a delightful spray of saliva mists the air. “I’m more like…more like…I guess if I was in one of those books I’d be like, a dragon.”
“It just makes more sense!” I smooth my hair. “Fabulous glowing scales. Beautiful jewel-like eyes.”
“Wings for arms?” Sophia smirks.
“That’s a wyvern! Dragons have wings independent of their limb system! But I forgive your transgressions. I’ve encountered a bit of heartburn today and am not in the mood to eat a maiden like you in the slightest.”
“What would you do as a dragon?”
I shrug. “You know. Fly around. Collect gold. Fart on some townspeople.”
Sophia is quiet for a moment.
“But I still don’t get it. Why does a dragon make sense for you?”
“Think about it. I’d just make a badass dragon. I mean…nobody really likes the dragon. You get to be alone, in a cool quiet place. As a princess everybody likes you and you gotta be in the middle of hot sweaty balls all the time.”
Sophia raises an eyebrow.
“Ballroom…balls. Dances. Uh.”
She laughs that chime-laugh, and I can’t help the laugh that bubbles up, too. I sound like a donkey.
“And I mean,” I add. “You know. Dragons never have to worry about. Um. What I mean is, princes don’t fall in love with dragons –”
“ – they fall in love with princesses –”
Did you think that’s what this was? Love? I don’t date fat girls.
“ – so it makes more sense, you know?”
“Isis?” Naomi pokes into the room. “Let’s go. It’s time for your session with Dr. Mernich. Hi Sophia.”
“Hello,” Sophia says, and smiles at me. “You should go.”
“Ugh, no thank you. Mernich’s going to ask about my feelings and frankly I’d rather swallow a centipede than talk about those things. Or become a centipede and crawl away. Can I become a centipede? Do they allow that in America -”
“Isis,” Naomi says sternly.
“- you can become a certified lightsaber maintenance engineer in America, so I really think you should be allowed to become a bug – ”
“Arthropod,” Sophia corrects.
“ – arthropod, and Naomi! My, what big hands you have. The better to grab me with, am I right? ACK, gently, woman! I’m damaged goods!”
Naomi steers me out of the room, Sophia cheerily waving after us.