She gives me a patient smile and then turns to Jane. “You’re awake. Good. How do you feel?”
“Tired,” Jane says, offering a wan smile. God, she’s strong. And brave. I want to shield her from the world, which is cruel and dangerous. I want to shield her from me.
“Of course you are,” Dr. Gupta says, lifting a chart to make some notes. “Fatigue will last for a couple weeks. Your body needs time to heal. And how about the pain?”
Jane’s gaze darts to me, and my throat tightens. I’m causing her pain. “I’m fine,” she says in that deceptively real way. It sounds true, but it isn’t. “Though I haven’t gotten out of bed yet. I’m a little worried about how that’s going to go.”
Dr. Gupta frowns. “You won’t be getting out of bed unassisted for a few days.”
“We’re leaving this afternoon.”
The doctor glances at the window where dawn has crept through the cheap plastic blinds. “Leaving to go where? Scuba diving? Rock climbing? I don’t think so.”
My chest squeezes. The pediatrician already told me he’s ready to release Paige. What will happen if Paige leaves? I’ll go with her. Of course I will. I’ve never thought about death. Never worried about it. Never feared it. Not because I believed I was invincible. The water taught us early that we didn’t control our fate. I didn’t fear it because part of me would welcome the quiet deep. Not anymore. Not now that Paige depends on me. If I had died in that fire, I couldn’t protect Paige. Even Jane couldn’t have gotten custody of her. No, I know my responsibility lies with that child.
But that will leave Jane alone in the hospital.
I already see the panic in her dark eyes, though she tries to hide it. I’m a bastard in ten different ways, but I refuse to leave her in this cold, sterile room. “You have a few hours, Doctor. Use them however you want. Treat her. Drug her. Operate on her, if you want, but this afternoon, we’re getting the hell out of here.”
It’s only after Beau has left, after the doctor has done a thorough examination, that I’m completely alone. That’s when it hits me—the gravity of my situation. For years I dragged around my belongings in a trash bag. Everything I wore was threadbare and too small. I thought that was the low point in my life. Rock bottom.
I was wrong. Rock bottom? It’s right now.
The family I thought I’d found, the love I held in my hand for a matter of seconds… Gone.
My love is dangerous. I’m alone, which has always been my deepest, darkest fear.
I’m in a generic hospital room. There is no phone on the bedside table, no jacket slung over a chair. No Get Well Soon balloon beating against the ceiling tiles. Nothing to show that anyone stays here. It could be unoccupied if it weren’t for me. It almost feels like I’m not really here. As if I could disappear. The world wouldn’t notice.
The carry-on luggage I found at Goodwill was threadbare, but it was mine. It contained everything I own. And now it’s gone. Burned up in a fire.
My breath comes faster. And then not at all. I’m gasping, clenching my fingers in the coarse white sheets, pressing my face to the pillow.
Panic. The word shoots through my mind like a comet, bright and hot.
It feels like there’s a vise around my throat, but I force myself to breathe in air. It’s made of knives, the air. I drag them into my lungs. Tears burn my eyes.
I remember a coping technique one of the therapists taught us in group sessions.
Five things I can see. My hospital gown, white with light blue dots. Black scuff marks on a white rubber floor. Beige plastic trim around the base of the room, cracked at the edges. My nails, dark with soot beneath them. Scrapes on the palms of my hands.
Four things I can touch. My hospital gown, thin and abrasive. The blanket that covers me. Plastic railings that keep me in bed. Tape holding an IV to my hand, the edges curling off my skin.
Three things I can hear. A steady beep beep beep from the machines. The murmur of the nurses in their station outside my room. Far away, laughter from a daytime TV show.
Two things I can smell. Antiseptic. And brown sugar.
One thing I can taste—oatmeal.
There’s a tray of cooling hospital food on the tray beside me. The doctor left me with strict orders to eat something. I force myself to take a bite of the thick brown sugar oatmeal and swallow, though it barely registers as flavor. I don’t know whether that’s a commentary on the cafeteria or on my emotional state. Probably both.
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