The voice in eight-year-old Thea Johnson’s head said no one would believe her, not even her father. She would have to show them, and even then, it would take a miracle to believe, which is why she had told no one about the voice. Her mom would believe. She always had the right words. Their arrival to the third floor of United Hospital was signaled by a mild ding and the calm, mechanical voice of a women: “Third Floor—Palliative Care.” The doors opened and Thea drew a forced breath. She could almost taste the bleach. Need to get to Mom.
Her father, Wayne, and her ten-year-old brother, Alex, stepped into the hallway. Thea planned to sprint straight to her mother’s room, but her body said otherwise. She touched the back of her wrists to the wall of the elevator, then her palms. The walls felt hot and uncomfortable. She pushed away. “Uh!” she said in disgust as she exited the elevator. Touching was supposed to make things better. Now she would need to touch more, and she didn’t have time. Plus, she hated people watching her touch walls. Her father glanced over his shoulder, and when he looked forward again, Thea touched the wall, first with the back of her left wrist, then the back of her right wrist, and, as always, she ended with the palms. The cool walls in the hallway soothed her hot hands. She knew touching the walls was slightly strange, but it was the fact she couldn’t control it that bothered her most. Get to Mom. Get to Mom.
Thea’s angst grew until her father checked over his shoulder and then faced forward again. Her hands moved toward the wall as if guided by someone else. To most people, there would be just a subtle difference in temperature between the palm and the back of the hand. To Thea, it was like holding ice cubes while running hot water over the top of her hands. Alex glanced over his shoulder as Thea pulled her hands back.
She heard Alex whisper to her father, “She’s touching the walls again.”
Her father replied, “She’s fine. Leave her be.”
The comment barely registered as Thea shot by Alex and her dad. It was ninety-three steps to her mom’s room. She had counted every day for the last two weeks. Thea used an odd running motion as if she were following someone’s footprints in the snow. She did that often in the Minnesota winter, though it was spring break now and only slush remained. Thea counted as quickly as she moved her feet and resorted to a trick her brother had taught her. Eight, nine, twenty, one, two. Seventy-one more steps.
They passed the nurse’s station.
Her father called after her. “Thea, wait! You have to watch for people.”
She hated this floor because this was where people came to die. Thea figured people died here instead of at home to keep Death in one place. She’d complained of the smell the first time they were here, and her father had said it was the disinfectants they used. She knew different. Eight, nine, forty, one, two.
Thea slowed. Go! Go! Her internal voice said as she came to a stop. She touched the back of her left wrist to the wall, then the back of her right wrist, and then her palms. Go! Three, four, five, six. Twice she had touched the walls of a room and her hands had tingled fiercely. The room would be empty the following day. The first time had happened on day three, and now she needed to stop at each room along the way. Even today. Even though she had touched the walls outside her mom’s room yesterday and her hands had buzzed like an electric shock. Thea ran. Stepping in the footprints. Eight, nine, seventy, one, two.
No! One more room stood between Thea and her mom. No one will believe you. Not even your father. She tried to keep going. Her pace slowed. Her feet stopped, and, like a nail pulled to a magnet, the back of her wrists snapped to the wall. No! She looked back at her dad and Alex, who walked briskly, trying to keep up. “Nooooo!” she cried as tears began to flow. She pulled with all her might, and just as she thought her hands were free, they turned over and her palms slapped the wall. She looked down the hall. “Mom! I’m coming!”
Thea’s hands popped off the wall and she broke into a full run. “Ninety-three! Ninety-three! Ninety-three!” she yelled, ignoring the path set for her feet. She approached the door to her mother’s room and felt the pull of the wall. Slowing just slightly, she slammed her palms into the wall, and said, “No more!” as she continued on straight into her mom’s room.
Thea took her place bedside. “Mom, I made it.” Her mom appeared to be sleeping. Thea took her mother’s hand.
Her father and Alex reached the bedside, and her father asked Thea, “What’s wrong, sweetie?”
Thea closed her eyes. “Mommy is dying.”
“I know. We talked about this, remember?”
Thea nodded her head and felt her father’s hand on her shoulder. He said, “Mom isn’t feeling any pain because of the medicine. And soon she will be free, right?”
Thea kept her eyes closed and nodded. She felt her father’s eye moisten. She felt his sadness. “It’s okay, Daddy,” she said calmly, “he said Mommy has to die.”
Thea had forgotten that no one would believe her, and the only person who would was about to die. Thea said, “What?” and she opened her eyes.
“Who said Mommy had to die?”
“Uh, one of the doctors, I guess.” Thea never lied. But that was a lie.
Her mother’s breathing paused. It started again briefly, then paused again before it stopped altogether. Her father had tears in his eyes as he grabbed the call button at the side of the bed. He pressed it once. Then again. He began pressing it rapidly as if he were waiting impatiently for the elevator.
Alex’s voice cracked as he spoke. “Did she die?”
Their father cleared his throat. “Maybe.”
Thea said, “Yes.”
Thea heard footsteps coming down the hall and was about to count them when a deep anger rose from the pit of her stomach. She was furious she hadn’t been able to tell her mother what the voice had said about the last day of school. She screamed in her head. No! If it hadn’t been for the damn wall touching (“No swearing”, her father would say) and the stupid counting, she would have made it. No more touching, she told herself. Ever! And no more counting. Well, one more thing to count, but then she would stop. Forever. Tomorrow she would start counting the days until the end of school. Seventy-three days, the voice had said. It was an eternity to the children at Valley Crossing Community School. To Thea Johnson, it was the blink of an eye.