Jess was a tiny mound in the huge bed, covered by a thin white blanket. A transparent hose ran across her chest and up into her nose. Tubes were taped to her arms and another to the back of her hand. She looked like she was asleep. Her mother was nearly asleep in a recliner pulled up next to the bed.
“Hey, Mom,” Cory whispered.
Roni struggled to stand up. Without a word, she draped her arms around Cory like a dangling rock climber who’d finally found contact with the solid mountainside. Cory staggered back a step, then stood firmly on the spot, breathing in the familiar scent of her mom’s herbal shampoo. Cory hugged her mother until a rush of breath escaped her body.
“What’s going on, Mom?”
Roni turned away toward Jessica, then looked back at Cory with an intense gaze. “I’m so glad you’re here. It was awful.”
Words tumbled out of her so fast, Cory struggled to put together the pieces of what happened. After Jess collapsed and they couldn’t revive her, Roni rode with her in the ambulance to the hospital. Her mom had been waiting for hours to hear what the doctors had found. The medical team—the doctors and ER nurse—talked about heart damage and had asked some questions that sounded like accusations about Jess’s weight and other things.
“I don’t know why they’re asking me about whether I see her eat three times a day—of course I don’t! She’s a teenager, not a toddler.” She started back toward the chair to sit down but eased herself down on the edge of the bed instead. She rubbed Jess’s leg through the thin blanket. “Wake up, honey.”
Cory walked up behind her and reached out her hand to touch her mother’s shoulder but let it drop. “Jess will be fine. Don’t worry.” But it didn’t look like she was going to be fine. Jess hadn’t moved since she’d arrived.
The teddy bear nurse with the stealthy shoes poked her head in. “Mrs. Iverson, some people here to see you in the waiting area. Your sister, maybe?”
Roni looked around as if she’d forgotten where she was for an instant.
“Go on, Mom. I’ll wait here. Get some coffee or something.”
Roni followed the nurse. Cory left the curtain partially open, taking her mother’s place in the recliner. The hiss of air and a soft bleep from a monitor were the only signs that Jess was still alive. Her face was pale and gray. Signs of life beyond the curtain floated in—voices with urgent instructions, the squeaky wheel of a gurney, a slam of a cabinet door. Cory looked down at her useless hands—dirt under her nails, a split cuticle—and wondered if things would have been different if she’d said something months ago.
The drone of the monitor changed. Faster. Cory glanced up and saw that Jess’s eyes were open. She looked at Cory, then lifted her hands to examine the tubes running from them. The monitor sped up again. Cory stood and leaned over Jess. She gently pushed her hands down on the bed.
“Jess, it’s okay.” She spoke soothingly, she hoped. It sounded shaky. “You’re in the hospital, but you’re going to be okay.”
Jess’s eyes scanned the room. Her mouth opened and closed like a fish gasping for air. Cory peered out the gap in the curtain. Was there a nurse nearby?
Jess reached up again and tried to pull the tubes out of her nose.
“No, don’t do that!” She grabbed both of Jess’s hands.
Jess moved her head back and forth on the pillow and pushed Cory away. The monitor squealed a high-pitched tone.
Her head lifted slightly off the pillow. “Don’t tell them!” Her voice was brittle and dry. “Don’t say anything!”
Before Cory could reply, a medical team rushed into the small room, pushed her out, and slid the curtain shut behind them.
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