«So here I am. And it's been a long three months, I can tell you that.»
«That's a shame, Kirk. It must have really hurt,» Brent said.
«Oh, it hurt all right. The whole thing was a mess. But that's the story of my life. How about you, Brent? What do you do with yourself when you're not falling through trapdoors?»
«It sounds like I've got an easier time of things than you do, I guess. My parents are nice. I like them. I like to read and I paint a lot.»
«Sounds exciting. As long as you don't watch soap operas, we'll get along just fine.»
Jewel appeared at the doorway. «You want a Coke, Kirk?» she asked.
«Yeah. Unless you want to make it a gin and tonic.»
«No deal, Kirk. You know the rules. No gin and tonics in the youth ward before noon. Brent, when that I.V. comes out, you can have something, too.»
«Right. One Coke coming up.»
She turned and left.
«I'll tell you something, Brent. The hospital's no worse that Gable Prep and it's a hell of a lot better than home.»
I like him, Brent thought. I feel sorry for him, in a way. It would be a shame to have parents you didn't like. But I like him, and I envy him. He's so honest and casual. He must make friends easily. I envy that. I hope we get along all right.
Brent closed his eyes and tried to shut out the growing pain again. They waited in silence for Jewel to return with the Coke.
Amy had left the sun-room too. She watched Kirk's back as he walked into his room down the hallway. She turned left outside the sun-room door and wandered down the hallway. The pediatrics ward was in that direction.
Amy felt strange as she walked through Pediatrics. She had always liked little kids. They were honest and open. She had enjoyed the baby-sitting jobs she had had. But she hated to see children in the hospital. They missed their parents and cried a lot; and some of them were really sick, and that always depressed her too. She liked to see them anyway, and sometimes she would stop in and talk to any little kid who was lying in bed looking lonely.
Amy went into room 284. She often stopped there to say hello to a little guy, about six she guessed, who seemed really sick and didn't have many people visiting him. She had met him the week before on a stroll through the pediatrics ward.
The room was empty and the bed stripped. All the cards and books and crayons had been removed from the room. All the things which made the room his were gone.
He had left without saying good-bye to her.
Amy continued down the hall toward the pediatrics playroom. It was filled with blocks and dolls and trucks and had bright animal posters on all the walls. There were never too many children there, though, since most of them couldn't leave their beds for roughhouse or play. Usually by the time they were well enough to go to the playroom, they were well enough to go home.
The walk down the hallway had made Amy tired, and when she reached the playroom, she sat down in an easy chair. The room was empty. The sun streamed through the windows and the bright posters made the room look cheerful. It was better than the other sun-room. It shouldn't be so quiet, though. It looked like a place that needed noise.
Amy looked up when she heard the soft slow sound of rubber wheels and saw a small child sitting in a wheelchair in the doorway. The boy looked to be about seven. Amy smiled at him but he didn't smile back.
«Why don't you come on over here by me and talk,» Amy offered.
He didn't move from the doorway.
«Come on. I won't bite. I'll play a game with you.»
The boy rotated the wheels of the chair and maneuvered the chair until he stopped next to where Amy was sitting.
«That's better,» she said. «I'm Amy. What do folks call you?»
«That's an interesting name. Why does everybody call you Zero?»
«I don't know. It's my name.»
«Do you like it here?»
«Why are you here?»
«Are you going to be in the hospital for a very long time?»
«No. I'm going home soon, my mother says.»
«That's nice. I bet you miss your home.»
«Yeah. I do.»
«Would you like to play a game?»
«No. I don't know any games.»
«I can teach you one.»
«No. I don't want to learn any games.»
«Would you like me to tell you a story?»
«If you want.»
«Good. I like to tell little boys stories. What kind of a story would you like to hear?»
«I don't know. A scary one.»
«Okay. I'll just make one up for you. Let's see. It should begin like this, since all stories begin like this: Once upon a time, there was a little girl. She lived in a pretty house with her mother and her father. She was very happy there.»
So Amy told Zero a story that she made up as she went along. She told how the little girl found a door to a strange white room hidden behind the attic stairs and how she went into the room, but couldn't get out no matter how hard she tried.
When Amy had finished, Zero said, «That's a sad story. Will you tell me another story sometime? I like stories about animals too.»
«Sure, when I see you again, I'll tell you another story.»
Zero turned his wheelchair around and moved toward the door.
«Thanks for the story,» he said and left the playroom.
Amy sat for a while longer and let her eyes roam along the walls of the room, looking at the animal posters again, the streaks of sunlight coming through the flowered curtains against the stark white walls.
Soon she gathered her strength and began to walk back to her room in the youth wing. She felt aches and small pains inside her and was weaker than she had been for days. She planned on lying down, maybe taking a nap before lunch. Maybe it would help.
Outside her room she ran into the blood lady wheeling her cart. The blood samples were lined up in labeled test tubes.
«Well, there you are, Amy. Just the person I was looking for. I'm afraid I've got to steal a little more blood from you today.»
«Okay, Lady Vampire,» Amy said with a smile. «You're welcome to any you can find, but there couldn't be more than a couple of tablespoons left, with you at me every day.»
«Let's go into your room so you can lie down while I take my sample. We wouldn't want you crashing down in the hallway.»
«What's it for this time?» Amy asked.
«Just to keep tabs on various levels of things. Your doctors can explain it to you if you want. I'm just the plumber around here.»
Amy walked through the doorway into her room. The blood cart rumbled in behind her, the glass test tubes clinking against each other.
Amy's room was filled with plants. They hung in pots by the window. They stood on stands by the sink. The room was a jungle. Asparagas ferns festooned, begonias tumbled, philodendrons sprouted everywhere.
«I always love coming to your room, Amy,» the blood lady remarked. «It's like a florist's shop. You certainly have a green thumb. Every single one seems to have grown since you've been here.»
«I love plants,» Amy said. «I've got a greenhouse at home. You have to talk sweetly to them. Taking care of them here gives me something to do.»
«Well, they certainly are beautiful. It brightens up these blank white walls so. Anything green I touch dies immediately. I envy you.»
«That's because you have a red thumb,» Amy said with a laugh.
Amy lay down on her bed. The nurse took her left arm and wrapped the rubber tube around it, just above the elbow. Amy clenched her fist and saw the veins tracing like rivers down her arm.
The nurse swabbed Amy's forearm with alcohol and sank the needle into the skin. Amy always watched. Each day her eyes would be drawn to look and see the dark red fluid slowly fill the cavity of the syringe.
The nurse removed the hypodermic, capped it, placed a cotton ball on the small hole in Amy's arm and unwrapped the rubber hose.
«Thanks a lot,» the nurse said. «I'll be by again tomorrow.»
«Thanks. I'll mark it on my calendar. I wouldn't miss your visits for the world. See you later.»
«'Bye now. Take care.»
The nurse wheeled her cart out of the door and disappeared down the hall in a soft tinkling sound of clinking test tubes. It sounded like wind chimes.
Amy climbed out of bed and crossed the hall to Brent and Kirk's room. They were in their beds, Kirk drinking the Coke that Jewel had delivered.
«Hi,» Amy said. «I thought I'd check in before my morning nap to see how you were coming along, Brent.»
«Pretty good, thanks,» Brent said. «I finally got another pain shot from Nurse Rush a few minutes ago and I feel a lot better.»
Amy smiled at him and he tried to smile back. Brent liked her smile. It was so open and friendly.
Amy patted his leg beneath the white sheet. «Good, I'm glad you're feeling better. Kirk treating you all right? He's kind of a bear, you know. You just can't take him seriously is all.»
«A bear, huh?» Kirk said. «I'd love to catch you bare.»
Amy laughed and her brown hair swung around her head. «You just try,» she said. «I'm still faster than you are on crutches, you dirty old man. See what I mean, Brent? He's all talk and no action. Underneath that tough shell, there beats the heart of a lamb. Or a black sheep, anyway.»
It sounds so easy, Brent thought. You just say funny things and you're friends and they make it look so easy.
As if she understood, Amy said, «Soon as that pain gets better, Brent, we'll have you joking away with the best of us. Just remember, none of us is going anywhere for a while. We're all good friends here.»
«Except Nurse Rush,» Kirk said.
«Except Nurse Rush,» Amy said. «Hey, good news, you guys. Speaking of nurses, the blood lady was just by for the day, and despite rumors to the contrary, I do have a little blood still left in me. My heart still beats. What do you think of that?»
«Congratulations,» Kirk said. «You're still among the living. I wish I qualified.»
«Every day I'm surprised there's any blood left. And after that bleeding I had before I came in here, I figured I must be about empty.»
«What happened?» Brent asked.
«Oh, that's why I'm in the hospital, Brent. I had this sudden bleeding thing. So they brought me in here and gave me a transfusion a few weeks ago and I've felt much better since, most of the time anyway.
«I tell you, Brent, it was my own dumb fault. I got myself so tired out this spring it's no wonder I developed mono or whatever it is. I was playing the part of the daughter in The Glass Menagerie at school. It was rehearsals every night and then staying up even later to get my homework done. I was getting more and more wiped out by the whole grueling schedule, but I loved that part and wasn't about to give it up. I was too involved in the play to worry about how I felt. Now I spend my time trying not to worry.
«My mother was really on my back about taking it easy. I must have looked like I'd been dragged through the mud. I had circles under my eyes that reached all the way down to my chin.
«I promised my mother I'd take it easy after the show went on, and even agreed to go have a checkup, but I never quite made it that far.
«The play was great and then I went to the cast party, which was a stupid thing to do. I should have been home in bed, I guess, when you figure how tired I really was. So I had a couple of beers at the cast party and that made me even more exhausted.
«Well, I collapsed, I guess. Dropped right over. Everyone thought I was loaded of course, because a few others were. So may parents were called and they came to pick me up. I tried to tell them that I was just exhausted, but they thought I was loaded too, which is kind of funny now that I look back on it.
«My mother said that she couldn't believe her eyes. I'd promised not to go the party and I was just too tired to explain.
«I felt really lousy by the time we got home. Then the hemorrhaging started. So they rushed me over here. I've had tests and more tests, and a couple transfusions. That blood lady takes more samples of blood every day. But it's good to have the rest, and I'm feeling much better now, I guess. I'll never get myself hooked into a schedule like that again. I've just got to say no to some of the things I'd like to do. That's my problem. I end up involved in everything going except getting sleep. Anyway, it's fun while it's on. Well, I've talked your ears off long enough, Brent. It looks like we both can use some rest, and I'd hate to miss my regular daily-type nap before lunch. Doctor's orders, you know. I just wanted to see how you were feeling. You look better already.»
«Thanks, Amy. I really appreciate it. I'll see you later. If you want some extra blood, just let me know. I've got plenty.»
«How can one girl be so lucky?» she said. «Here I am confined with two such gorgeous men, and not a chance of escape. See you both later.»
She turned and left the room.
That wasn't so hard, Brent thought. Amy and Kirk make it so easy for me. He felt better than he had all day.
The three were playing poker again. Brent was feeling better. Most of the pain was gone and he was finally off the intravenous tube. It was the end of his first week in the hospital. He was lying on his side in bed holding his cards. Kirk was sitting in his wheelchair pulled up close. Amy was sitting cross-legged on the foot of Brent's bed.
Brent liked having them there. He felt close to both of them, closer maybe than to any of his friends at home.
He liked Amy and Kirk. They made him feel special. They were fun, and already he felt relaxed about joking and laughing with them. Maybe it's the closed world of the hospital, he thought, but it seems so natural now. I say something and they laugh. They say something and I laugh. What could be easier, or more special?
Amy laid her cards out flat on the bedside table.
«Two pair,» she said.
She pulled the Kleenexes from the center of the table into her growing pile. Each Kleenex was worth a hundred dollars.
«That makes fourteen thousand, three hundred dollars I've won this week. I like poker,» Amy said. She tossed her head and the long brown hair flipped over her shoulder. «I'm beginning to get the hang of it, I think.»
Kirk lit another cigarette. «It's just beginner's luck,» he said. «You must have pull with God.»
«I know just what I'm doing,» she said. «My deal. Let's play seven-card stud, all the spades are wild.»
«Good Lord,» Kirk said. «If you went to Las Vegas, they'd never recover.»
«I think she's a hustler, Kirk,» Brent said. «She probably could shuffle before she could walk. I bet she's just playing innocent so she can steal our money. If I weren't a millionaire, I'd start to worry.»
Amy laughed. It made Brent feel good to hear that sound.
«Yeah, well, I'm broke. As a matter of fact, I'm over nine thousand dollars in debt to this cardshark. I ran out of money after the first hand four days ago. I'll have to start selling my body on the streets to pay you off, Amy.»