Strangers talk to me in loud, urgent voices. They move parts of my body that scream in protest. They cut away my clothes, chilling my battered body to the core. They ask questions that are impossible to answer. When I try to speak, they tell me to calm down.
Is this really emergency care? It feels so wrong. Violent. Invasive.
Finally, I’m deposited in a curtained cell somewhere in the bowels of the hospital. Here the lights are low. A male nurse covers my battered and bandaged body with a thin blanket and whispers that my mother will be here soon. I’m sure he thinks it’s a comfort.
“Daddy?” I croak with an aching throat.
He shakes his head, giving me a tragic look that makes my teeth ache. “I’m sorry. We were told he’s out of the country doing mission work and can’t be reached.”
The disappointment is like a bowling ball dropped on my chest.
“Tired,” I mumble. “Sleep.”
“I’ll be close by if you need anything.” He presses a call button into my hand. “If you push this, I’ll come running.”
As soon as he exits, another nurse whisks in. Wearing formal white nurse’s uniform common in the middle of the last century, she appears to be painted in shades of gray. Her starched cap is perched slightly askew on top of an impressive bouffant hairdo. The effect is a little off-kilter and endearing. I wonder if her cap was always crooked when she was alive.
“Oh, good grief. He shouldn’t be leaving her all alone,” she frets. Her voice is distant and slightly garbled, like a radio not quite tuned in to the station — exactly as I described to Zack. “She’s so young. Someone should be sitting with her.”
“I’m fine,” I tell her, hoping to calm her agitation. Instead, my words have the opposite effect. She zooms in close to the bedside and looks down at me with wide, horrified eyes.
“Can you hear me?” Her words sound crisp now and slightly hysterical.
“Oh, no! Push the button, push the button, push the button!” She streaks out of the room screaming. “You! Get back here!”
I close my eyes and wonder how many more visitors I’m going to endure before I’ll be able to sleep. I’m so tired, so desperately tired.
“You’re not coding.” The dead nurse is back at my bedside looking calmer but puzzled. “Usually the ones who see me are about to … go south.”
“I’m not dying tonight,” I reassure her.
My mother’s braying voice announces her arrival in the emergency room. My heart sinks.
“Who is that yelling like a lunatic?” The otherworldly nurse sounds stern. “This is a place of healing.”
“My mother,” I tell her. “Sometimes she hears spirits, too.”
Xia Celeste sweeps into the room minutes later making a great show of motherly concern for her injured daughter. She actually manages to produce tears when she sees me. It’s quite a performance. The dead nurse makes clucking noises and asks Xia to turn down the volume. My mother shows no signs of hearing her.
All I feel is shame.
One brave doctor, a sour-faced Pakistani man who is clearly not dazzled by the presence of Xia Celeste, enters the curtained cell and gives a dispassionate list of my injuries to my mother. Xia flutters and makes dramatic gestures, as though the mere mention of my injuries is causing her physical pain. It’s all an act. I know it’s an act. So does the doctor. The only one who doesn’t know is my mother, who manages to produce a fresh flood of tears when he asks if she has any questions.
Two orderlies dressed in matching maroon scrubs arrive and ask the doctor if I’m ready to be moved to my room. Directly behind them stands a tiny bird-like woman watching the scene unfurl. Although her hair is pure white, her face is smooth and unlined. A bright lavender streak accents a pronounced widow’s peak. Thick, hipster-framed glasses magnify her pale grey eyes to such a degree that she looks like a Manga character. It’s impossible to guess her age.
“Hello, Vera,” my mother says in a prim, respectful voice at the same time the doctor asks, “May we help you?”
The strange new arrival steps forward. “Xia? Do you have any questions for Doctor … ?” She leans in closer to look at the plastic badge pinned to the doctor’s front pocket until her nose is only inches from his chest. “Doctor Bahmani!” she exclaims, then flashes a warm smile up at him. The doctor no longer looks like he’s sucking on a lemon; he looks bemused. “Xia, do you have any questions for Doctor Bahmani regarding your daughter’s injuries? Or her treatment? Or prognosis?”
“No, Vera,” my mother answers timidly, dipping her head like a chastised school girl. “No questions.”
Wow. Who is this Vera woman? And what is her superpower?
As if she’s heard my thought, Vera focuses her large, luminous eyes on me.
“Hello, Asha,” she says in a voice that reminds me of a gentle sea breeze. “My name is Vera Birch. I’m your advocate. Do you know what that means?”
“Yes,” I croak, even though I don’t. I just want everyone to go away so I can sleep.
“Good.” Vera steps closer and touches my wrist. “I’m here to help you. You’re safe now. I’m here to make sure you stay safe and protected. This is an excellent hospital, and you’re going to receive the very best care. All you have to do right now is rest and recover. Do you understand?”
“Okay,” I barely breathe the word as my eyelids grow heavy.
“Oh, I like this Vera,” the dead nurse proclaims and fades away.
“Your mother and I are going to step out and speak to your doctor for a moment,” Vera continues. To emphasize her point, she steps back and places a firm hand on Xia’s elbow. “While we do that, these nice young men are going to take you to your room.” She points to the men in maroon scrubs with her free hand. “I know them. They are wonderful guys. They will take very good care of you. You are safe with them. I promise.”
One of the orderlies smiles at me while the other looks down and shuffles his feet, looking embarrassed.
“Come on, Xia,” Vera says, pulling on her elbow.
Xia starts to follow, then stops suddenly. My stomach clenches as my mother turns, rushes back to my side, and leans in to press her lips to my temple.
“Don’t say a word,” she whispers into my ear. “Keep your mouth shut.”
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