So I’m not dead. At least there’s that.
The doc and these nurses keep telling me I’m lucky to be alive. Well, considering my life so far, that’s like saying I just won the booby prize. The sun isn’t even up yet but I can’t seem to fall back to sleep no matter how I try. I close my eyes, mentally draw a melancholy clown with broken body parts. Because drawing’s kind of my thing. Or rather, it used to be.
I so want to spring from this bed and take off, but considering the machine I’m attached to, I imagine that ripping out all these plugs would create a whole lot of chaos. Besides, I’m just too tired, too sad, too angry, too hopeless, to make the effort. My eyes shift around the room searching for the angel who must have saved me. As if some swaying white vision will suddenly appear before me like some miraculous ghost, telling me I was meant to live.
Crazy thought, I know. But I’ve been having a lot of those.
When they told me I was thrown off a motorcycle and “life flighted” here, it took me awhile to process it all. It’s all kind of foggy. I know I’m in this hospital in Cleveland, far from where I used to call home, but it’s like I’m in an episode of “The Twilight Zone,” that ancient TV show Dad used to watch reruns of.
This is the last place I ever thought I’d end up. I’ve never been in a hospital before, but this is probably what I deserve. Though, to be honest, it’s not totally awful here. I mean, it’s not like I have any place else to be. I hurt—hell yeah, I hurt—but most of me doesn’t much care since they give me these chill pills on a regular basis. I just may plot to extend my stay at this place. That is, until I figure out what I’m going to do with my so-called life.
I must be needing another dose because everything is hurting again. Trying to move, even a twitch, about kills me. Lift my head from the pillow just a tad and my head pounds like my worst hangover. I tried talking yesterday and was horrified at what came out. Which were basically slurs. Like how Mom and Dad sounded when they were drunk. I shudder just thinking about that.
“Well, look at you! You’re awake early!” The nurse’s voice booms through the room like a blow horn. I try saying, “God, woman, you scared me.” But again, nothing comes out other than a couple of grunts. That right there frightens me a whole lot more than her high-pitched greeting.
I squint at the clock up there on the white wall and see that it’s not even five in the morning. I wonder why she’s here when we’re all supposed to be sleeping, but then I remember there’s this lady in the other bed behind the curtain who must have rung for the nurse, which she does a lot. I overhear the nurse tell her that she can leave today. I lean back on the pillow in silent gratitude. I want the room to myself.
They say I’ve been here for days, though the first two are blanks since I was unconscious. But little by little, things are coming back to me. Like how I ended up here.
I remember gathering up my things quick-like and stuffing them in my school backpack. I was planning to hitch to Cleveland, not wanting to spend the little money I had on a bus. I stopped at McDonald’s first for a Coke, because Lord knows how long it would take for someone to pick me up. I sucked down the drink and when I came out, I saw this kid standing next to this Jap bike and asked him for a ride. He said, “Hop on.” So I did. He was actually pretty cute. Tight, ripped jeans, black T-shirt, wind-blown hair. Yeah.
He wasn’t wearing a helmet, and, of course, neither was I. I mean, it’s not like I had planned on taking a ride with Evel Knievel when I decided to escape that morning. Soon as I hopped on, Cute Boy revved it up and off we went. When he got on the freeway, he started going real fast and at first it was thrilling, I have to admit. But then he kept going faster. I remember leaning forward to get a peek at the speedometer as it hit 90—and rising. I tried yelling at him to slow down, but with the wind whooshing against our ears, I’m sure he didn’t hear.
Then I saw the deer jump out of the woods right in front of us and the boy swung to avoid it. I can still hear the ear-piercing screech of his brakes. The doctor said I landed on a grassy hill and that’s what saved me but “my friend” didn’t make it, so I should be grateful. And actually, despite everything, I am. Though as Mom used to often say, Lord knows why.
Next thing I knew I woke up here, with tubes strapped to my arms, my head all fuzzy, my body all shattered. I feel awful about that boy. He wasn’t a friend. I never even asked him his name. One thing I’m fairly sure of, he probably had more to live for. I shut my eyes and pray for him, hoping there really is a God out there, somewhere. Thing is, I’ve never been too sure about that.
I must have fallen back to sleep because next thing I know, it’s light outside and the nice male nurse comes in. I’ve seen him every day since I’ve been conscious.
“Afternoon, Justyce.” He greets me with his typical I’m-here-to-help-you look. “How you feeling today?”
I can’t say all I want to because of my warped mouth, so I just shrug. The throbbing headache and full body aches are still the least of my problems.
“You’re looking better every day. Getting some color in those cheeks. Other than black and blue, that is.” He winks. The dude’s trying to be funny, but even if I want to laugh, I can’t. “Doctor Frazier’s coming to check on you in a bit. I think he wants to spring you from this place, maybe early as Tuesday. You’ll be out for the big holiday.”
“Haw… aday? Whah day isssit?” Damn, I sound like I lost part of my brain. And with every attempt, it’s like someone’s jabbing a fire poker in my ribs.
“Friday. Next Thursday’s the Fourth of July. Now let’s take your blood pressure.” He wraps my upper arm in the black cuff, starts pumping the little black ball. That hurts, too, but only for a second. I glance at the board that reads, “Your nurse today is Nick.” In my daydreams of yesteryear, that was what I’d name my little boy.
He rips off the cuff. The Velcro’s unreasonably loud. Which takes me right back there to that awful sharp scraping sound of the crash. My body screams inside.
“Excellent, you’re doing great,” he says, and I can feel another question coming. This guy’s good at that. You know, like where I’m from, for starters. I spend every moment hoping, praying, no one gets too curious and tries to dig up info on me. Like, do they take fingerprints in hospitals? Will they find out Justyce isn’t my real name?
Nice Nick starts to leave and I think I’m in the clear, but then he turns and as if he can’t help himself asks, “So, you have family close by? I’m sure the doctor would like to speak to them.”
I cringe. Yesterday when he asked me where I live, I thought my “nowhere” answer would shut him down from further questioning. But no. Now it’s about my family. I shake my head ever so slightly to avoid more rattling from the pain gremlins. I get out the only word I need, “No.”
“Anywhere?” Now he looks all concerned. “I don’t think you understand. If you have no family or anyone, we need to get you a case manager.”
My heart starts pounding. “Whaaas a case maanger?”
“Someone who can help you out, get you back on your feet. Literally.” He gives me this little grin.
For a brief second I’m tempted to tell him about Shirley. My eyes well up unexpectedly when I think about her nice house, that pretty bedroom she let me stay in. Suddenly I’m aware of the antiseptic smell of this colorless room. I don’t want some stranger trying to invade my life. I know Shirley would come get me in a heartbeat. But no way. Not after what I did. I have no clue what to do next, but I know it can’t involve that sweet naïve woman. Or anyone else. That’s the one thing I promised Dad.
The last time I saw my father was two months ago. May 21—my long-anticipated eighteenth birthday. Which turned out to be a whole lot different than what I’d always dreamed about. Instead of getting ready to graduate high school and go off to an art college, I spent my big day in a “visiting room” talking to my dad on a wall phone, looking at him though a glass window. He made me promise never to come back and see him. Half of me was all too happy to oblige. That creepy jail wrapped my insides like a coiled rattlesnake. Still, making that promise made my heart hurt. We’d been through so much.
“Remember what I told you, baby girl.” He didn’t have to elaborate. We’d agreed that I was never to tell the real story about Mom’s death. Well, it’s one thing to avoid going on a prison visit, quite another not to leak out anything that really matters. Especially when you meet people like Shirley, who you just know would go out of her way to make things better.
Nothing can make things better, but I can never tell anyone that.
Oh, god, here it comes. I hate, hate to cry. Whoever said crying makes you feel better is full of it. I swipe my face quickly, hoping Nice Nick doesn’t notice.
But of course he does. He presses his lips together, like he feels my pain. Like he really cares about where I’m going once I get out of this place. I find having difficulty speaking can be a blessing. Maybe I’ll get lucky and never be able to speak clearly again.
Apparently Nick is still waiting for some response from me because he just stands there with this goofy awkward grin, as if to say, I’ve got all day, Missy. He grabs the water pitcher and pours into the plastic cup, even though it’s half full (or half empty like my life), a fake attempt to be doing something worthwhile.
“I . . . buh fine,” I manage, hoping he takes the hint.
He doesn’t. He sets the pitcher down, alongside my next round of meds and sighs. “I’m sorry if I appear nosy. It’s just that everyone needs a place to go when they get released. You’re going to need physical therapy. We don’t even know where you were when you got on that bike, or where you were going. We just wanna make sure you won’t be living under a bridge somewhere, ya know?”
“Immm eighteen, dunt ’orry butt it.” I don’t know what’s going to happen to me, and I don’t have the luxury of acting like I do.
He presses his lips again, says “okay,” and gives a little wave goodbye. The doc comes in as Nick goes out. The old man does his thing, nods, and says he’s happy with my progress. Oh, goody, I get to leave in a few days. With no place to go.
One thing for sure, I’m not going to let some “case manager” tell me what to do or where to go. I’ll leave before they even get a chance.
The doc has me take my pills, then leaves. I shut my eyes, force this nightmare to go away. I try and focus on Justyce. This brand new person I’ve made up to start life over. I imagine her to be pretty and smart and know how to handle things. The pill does its job and I fall asleep. But not for any long length of time. I’m rudely awakened throughout the day . . . When my loud-talking roomie leaves with her daughter. When the nurses do more checks on me. When they bring me two more mushy meals.
It’s getting dark when Nick returns. “Well, my job’s done for the day. The night nurse will be here soon.” He smiles like we’re friends. “See you tomorrow.”
I have to admit he’s an okay guy. Never once looked at me funny when he saw my blue hair. Which is the opposite reaction I get from the next nurse, who barges in as Nick walks out. This old lady looks like Mrs. Doubtfire but takes charge like Arnold Schwarzenegger. The woman doesn’t look me in the eye, but rather squints disapprovingly at my ratty cobalt hair. She treats me like I’m some alien parasite who might infect the whole hospital staff. She doesn’t do any of those “vital” things the others do. Just holds out her jiggly arm—at a safe distance—hands me the familiar white cup. “You need to take these,” she says, then stomps off.
I gulp down my night pills like a good girl. It’s finally quiet now. I lean back and shut my eyes as visions of my long-lost brother start dancing through my aching head.