Clinging to the Wheel
Summary: Warning: Death story . . . but as usual, nobody is actually dead at the end of it.
Disclaimer: Not my characters.
I'm in hell. I lie most of the time in a huge, barren cage. Not that the cage is keeping me in - - I couldn't get away anyway. I can't move, not even to lift my head or turn over. I can't speak. I think I might be very sick, because I sleep all the time and I'm always hungry. . . except nothing hurts.
I get moved around a lot. With no warning. And no real way to say, no, leave me alone! or please, come help me now, I've pissed myself again. The people around me--and I am sure they must be people, even though their size is wrong, their shape is wrong - - are talking gibberish. Oh, it's English they're speaking, but their references make no sense. The--woman?--is a nutcase who speaks of herself in the third person as 'momma.' She is not my mother. And everyone thinks my name is Stevie, and it's not. It's Blair.
I know that. I'm sure of that.
I'm in hell. Which makes sense, because although I can't remember it, I am pretty sure I have died.
It's the middle of the night, and I am hungry, and I've screamed, because that is the only way to get their attention, and while I'm waiting, I think about that. Having died. I don' t remember doing it. And I cry louder, because I don't remember what happened to Jim either. I don't know what happened to him, and I miss him, and I'm scared.
Which is pretty much why, in most cosmologies, people don't get to remember details of their past lives. So they don't realize what a bum rap it is, having to wear a goddamn diaper, and cry for food, and hope They realize it is food you want, and *not* a new diaper.
I realize I know a heck of a lot about reincarnation for someone who didn't really believe in it. Huh. Guess the joke' s on me.
The Mom comes in shushing, and when her face is close enough to focus on, I realize that she looks like hell. Her hair is a mess and she has huge circles under her eyes.
And she seems glad to see me.
It turns out I am sort of glad to see her, too.
She cradles me close and pops a bottle in. I think, unkindly, that Naomi breastfed. On the other hand, knowing what I do this time around about women's breasts, it is probably best I get the bottle. How could I live with myself, if I ogled my mother?
God, I can't wait for solid food.
Days go by. Maybe lots of them. I don't know; my time sense is shot to hell, just like my attention span, my language skills, and my memory of anthropological theory. Who was it who looked at food taboos regarding pigs and cows? Marvin Harris or Mary Douglass? Maybe both of them did pork, but I am sure only one did beef. It would hardly be worth worrying about, except I AM SO BORED.
The mobile my great uncle sent? That got old really fast. The Beethoven concertos The Dad likes to play for me? Nice, the first fifty times. The big, wide world? Not the parts I get to see (when they deign to take me anywhere) and independent travel is not happening in the near future: my motor skills are shot to hell too. I can grab things and kick. That's about it. I've been practicing trying to raise my head, but the progress that is *finally* coming seems unrelated to my attempted calisthenics. I can't make myself grow. Fuck.
I am so bored right now I might start to cry just for the fun of it, except The Mom has been harried and cleaning all day, and has just sat down to eat her lunch. I guess I'm pretty rough on her, which is petty and selfish of me, but hey, I'm a baby. The cleaning does suggest that someone is coming, which will at least be a diversion. Sure, they'll pass me around and make stupid baby noises at me. Sure, they'll smell funny and not include me in the conversation. . . .why was I looking forward to this again?
Embarrassingly, the discontented noise pops out of my mouth before I can stop it. I'm whining. I hate that. I don't have the fucking motor control to STOP that. Just as the doorbell rings, I escalate into a full blown fuss, wanting to go home, wanting to TALK, dammit, or read, or eat a steak. The Mom goes to the door, ushers in another boring, stupid, semi-familiar voice and hurries back to me. "Stevie, sweetheart, what is it? What do you want? Are you hungry again?"
"I'll hold him while you get the bottle, Cathy. If it's all right?" The voice is male, soft, shy.
"Yes. Thank you. Here. I'm sorry. He's just so fussy. . ." She shifts me, preparing to hand me over to yet another stinky adult who will expect me to do Stupid Baby Tricks. I take a deep breath to howl.
And freeze. Confused. And surprised. I know this face, I do, I do. But from this angle --
And then I realize it's Jim. Older. Much? No, not so much. His hair was white before. Jim. My Jim.
I could cry with relief, I would, I'd weep real tears, except I have no idea how. All I can do is stare at his face in stunned silence as he cradles me with huge, strong hands.
Jim! Where have you been? Are you all right? Did you miss me?
He swallows, staring back. "He's so beautiful, Cathy. Your dad -- he should have been here to see this. He's perfect."
Jim? It's me. Don't you know me?
The Mom sniffs. "Yeah. Yeah he should have. This would just... He always wanted a son, you know?"
"You were a great kid, Cathy. He was always very proud of you."
"Yeah, but, but I wish he could have seen this, too..."
She goes off to get the bottle, and Jim sits down, still holding me close enough to clearly see his face. He is zoned on me, checking me with his senses. He may have heard that I'm a cranky baby, be worried something is really wrong. Chill, man. I'm fine. The body is pissy right now, but it'll grow. You're here, and everything will be fine, now.
The Mom comes back and tries to take me for the bottle. I scream. She can't take me away from Jim, not so soon! Please, God, not now! She sighs and lets go, holding out the bottle. "Would you, Uncle Jim?"
He smiles. He was always good with kids, great with kids. Tolerant and gentle, he offers the nipple, and although I am not hungry, I take it to please him.
"Tom and I were talking. . .we were going to bring this up tonight - -Tom's parents are gone too, and Stevie really should have a grandparent figure in his life. We were hoping - - we were hoping you would. . .?"
He swallows twice before answering. "Sure. I can do grandparent things. Make cookies. Take him to Wonderburger." I feel his quiet laugh with my whole body. "I'd consider it a great honor. Thank you, Cathy."
The rest of the day goes by in a glorious haze. The Dad comes home, and they talk about politics in Cascade (we are, apparently, in Tacoma), sports, whether or not the parents want to go to the trouble of going on vacation this year. My diaper gets changed- - - because Jim smells it, not because I complain. I refuse to be taken away from him. I cry when he tries to hand me off or put me down. A finger passes in my limited and pitiful range, and I clamp down my tiny fist. "Quite a grip," Jim says, thinking it's a reflex. And it is. . . . But I only let go when he explains that he needs to eat, and while he can do that with me in his lap, he does need at least one hand.
It's wonderful. It's beautiful. It's a miracle.
And he doesn't know me.
I have to think of a way to tell him. There must be something. There must be.
At some point I must fall asleep, because I wake up in the cage, in the dark, wearing a bunny suit with feet. Shit. I used to be able to pull all-nighters, and here I can't even stay awake to stay with Jim.
He's leaving tomorrow. I heard them talking. He'll be back, but not soon, surely not soon for me, for whom the days crawl by like years. I catch myself, barely, before I cry. That would just bring The Mom.
This is the most depressing moment of my life. Well, this life. Even worse than discovering that I couldn't talk.
Jim doesn't remember. And I might forget. Naomi and most of her crowd were always very casual and definite about reincarnation. It got talked about a lot. I know that people who believe in it don't expect to have vivid memories of past lives. It hardly ever happens at all, and after early childhood, 'hardly ever' shrinks to 'almost never.' So I'll forget. Not that I have any idea why I remember it *now* or what the heck I am doing in Jim's family.
Some Northwest Coast Indians believe that people reincarnate into their own families, sometimes even picking their own parents. But a Buddhist might come back halfway across the world. How did I wind up here?
If I am here, and this is real, not some kind of weird delusion I can't escape....
A whimper then, which I do not want The Mom to hear.
Bet Jim heard it, though. If I could make those little "bah bah" noises that go over so well when adults want stupid baby tricks, I bet he would hear it. I can't tell him anything with that, though, can I? Even if he listens, even if he is not sick to death with the clingy brat who wouldn't even let him eat, I can't call him.
What would make him come in here, but not The Mom? Something she couldn't hear, but Jim would not ignore.
I hold my breath.
It doesn't work well. I don't have the motor control to do more than skip a breath or two. I try again, though. Maybe - -
Jim is in the room, snatching me out of the crib before I finish the fifth try. "Hey, Chief, you OK?" His voice is gentle, but he holds me very still, scanning me, sniffing me. Satisfied, he holds me to his shoulder, and I feel that his heart is still pounding. It occurs to me that threatening him with my imminent crib death was a little unkind. "Oh God, Chief, what was that?" It feels wonderful to be with him, to hear him call me Chief-- even though it's because I was very mean to him, even though he still doesn't know me.
He lowers me and studies me again. "What the hell WAS that, Chief! Don't you dare do that again." This last sounds angry, and I'm puzzled. I wish I could see him better in the dark. "I mean it, Blair. Don't do that again. You're not developed enough to screw around with your breathing."
Every muscle in my body twists up and goes still, a trick I could not pull off if I tried. I am stunned. I would have given anything to tell him - - and I cannot figure out how I did.
He is shaking and water spatters my face. Crying, he's crying, trying not to cry. The only comfort I can manage is to grab a fist full of his hair as he pulls me close again. He whispers to me, but it is forever before I understand what he is saying. "You're ok, you're ok, oh, god, I've missed you. Oh, Blair, I thought it was a dream - - "
At last he sits down on the floor with his back against the wall and me propped against his knees. "But you're not ok, are you Stevie? Your mom says you cry all the time, that you're almost angry. . . you must be so confused."
Confused? Well, no. I'm a bored invalid who has to eat similac and who everyone treats like a moron. Nothing really confusing about that. It's actually pretty clear.
"You've just gotta hang in there, Chief." He strokes my cheek. "I know it's hard. But in a couple of years you'll be back in the saddle again. You'll be ok. You just have to be patient. And, maybe cut your mom a break, ok? It isn't her fault, you know. She loves you. Your dad, too. Do you remember Tom from before? You liked him then. We all went up to Silver Lake that last summer, you, me, Brenda, Stephen, Cathy, and Tom? We had a cabin, but it was small, so you and I stayed in the tent. There was a giant spider in the shower and you pitched a huge fit and Cathy - - "
He stops, and is very quiet for a moment. "Where the hell were you, Chief? You promised you wouldn't leave me. You promised. I've spent the last two years sitting in the dark, waiting for you to haunt the loft."
Aw, Jim, I'm so sorry.
"God, I can't believe it's you."
Breathe, Jim. We're ok now. That's it. I'm right here.
I try to stay awake, but this body relaxes and betrays me again. When I wake up, I am in the cage again, but I can hear Jim snoring on the floor beside it.
When Jim leaves the next evening, I cry and cling to The Mom. I am trying NOT to cry, not just because it's mean to her, but so that Jim won't feel bad, like he's abandoning me. He will come back, he will come back, I tell myself, Blair-memories fighting with baby-cognition. I know he exists, even though I don't see him at this moment.
But it may be the Blair-memories that are throwing me, after all. I keep thinking of him out in the world, without me to protect him. I am thinking ahead to how I will miss him.
Mom holds me until I cry myself to sleep.
It seems like forever before he comes back. I try to be good. Sometimes I am. It's easier now, because I'm not afraid. And then, after I have stared at the door for an eternity, he does come back. I would run to him, if I could move. If I were not in the portable jail.
But Mom and Dad have closed around him, going on and on about how long it has been since they've seen him. Apparently it wasn't just a perceptual eternity.
When he comes over to pick me up, I don't smile. He's brought me a teddy bear. I can't walk away from him, so I turn my head. He scoops me up anyway and holds me in his lap. I glare at him - - cutely, I'm sure--until Mom and Dad go into the kitchen.
"Ok, Chief. I get it. I'm sorry," he whispers. I stick my tongue out at him. The drool makes the gesture slightly less contemptuous than I would have liked. "I just -- afterwards, I didn't see how it could be real, ok? And I couldn't, I couldn' t bear to come back and find out it's not -- not you."
I continue to sulk. It is not as satisfying as cursing him out, but it makes a pretty good second.
"Blair, throw me a bone here!"
The parents are coming, so this conversation is ending anyway. I let myself slop over against his stomach. "It won't happen again, I promise."
And it doesn't. We see him every month, and in between he sends me music chips. When mom opens the mail, she makes this chirping noise when there's a little package for me. It's world music, usually. African. Russian disco. Calypso. The music reminds me that I didn't dream being me, and that I didn' t invent Jim, and that he remembers me.
It reminds me that there is a whole world out there, that all that music comes from real places. And some day it will be my world again.
As I get bigger, Jim plays with me. He turns me upside down, which makes all the blood rush to my head. For a while he would spin me, but then I threw up on his shoes that time, so he doesn't anymore.
I am starting to talk. The words in my mind are clear, but my mouth is so hard to control! I thought talking would be such a huge relief, I've been waiting and waiting. But it is such work to get the words out, and when they come they sound all wrong. I've been totally quiet for a week when Jim drives up. I hear him say polite things to Mom and Dad, and then hurry to my room. I am stacking blocks. Always working on that motor control.
"Hey, Chief, how's it hangin'?"
I give him a small smile and go back to the blocks. They are bright colors, with some kind of pattern. Or possibly the Cyrillic alphabet.
"Whatsa matter? Your mom says you're not feeling too good? Does your tummy hurt?"
"Stop treating me like a baby!" Or that's what I mean to say. And he must understand, because he just opens his arms.
He's a bastard at dinner, though. I've been stubborn with Mom, pointing at what I want or making faces. Jim makes me ask. Out loud. In sentences. I remember, while picking up my peas and popping them in one at a time, a nasty Quechua profanity. Well, not a profanity, exactly. But close enough that when I shout it, Jim shoots iced tea out his nose. Mom and Dad think it's baby talk, and they're glad I'm making noise again.
After my bath, I grab a book and hold it out in front of Jim. I know how to play the crowd, and the parents agree to one story. Jim solemnly tucks me in, and sits down on the edge of the bed. When he opens the book, though, I take it away from him and ask, "how's your senses?" Or that's what I mean to ask. It comes out kind of mushy.
For a second Jim looks like he doesn't want to answer. He's dodged this question before, mostly because I couldn't ask it with words, so he could pretend not to understand. This time he sighs and takes two tiny white noise generators out of his ears.
"Everyday?" I ask.
"Two or three times a week. It just, you know, gets to be too much sometimes."
I nod. "What else?"
"Not much. I'm ok, really. Oh - - I'm going to have to get reading glasses soon, I think. I just can't manage the close focus--stop that! It's not funny!"
But it is funny. Turns out Jim is human after all.
"Fine, you wanna laugh?" And he tickles me. I put both hands over my mouth to stifle the shrieks. Mom has left her uncle in here with me because she thinks he will be soothing. Ha.
When I am a puddle of giggling goo, he straightens out the sheets and tucks me back in. I pant happily. Childhood suddenly no longer seems like a never-ending purgatory. Oh. "Hey. Naomi?"
"Running for senate."
I stick my tongue out at him to show I don't believe it.
"Yes. Really. On the Anarchist ticket. She doesn't think she' ll win, of course. That isn't the point. She's bringing attention to The Issues."
I try to digest this. I'm a bit fuzzy on time, but Naomi must be pushing 80 by now. Jim laughs at my expression and ruffles my hair. For form's sake, he picks up the book and reads. I fall asleep before he is finished.
Life goes on, and I grow. Not nearly fast enough, if you ask me, but no one does. I understand why little kids count half years; every second is a second less of this state of ignorant helplessness, this ignoble exile where even when you can *say* ' no,' you can refuse practically nothing.
But - - and it does kill me to admit it--there are some benefits. Preschool, for one. You get to play all day, cool games and a swing set outside. Sure, the tv programming is highly repetitive and - -I'll say it -- downright vapid. But there are girls.
Girls are riveting. Amazing. Glorious.
They say your sexual orientation is set in early childhood. I guess we know how mine's coming together.
Jim comes up for my fourth birthday. It is just family, but there is my favorite food (cheese sandwiches) and cake and ice cream. The package from Jim is fairly large, and I am excited. For Christmas he gave me a complete set of Ancient World coloring books and a computer program that teaches kiddie astronomy. Both of them were a couple years ahead of me, which means mom has to help me with the program and several pages of Viking Europe are colored entirely blue. But I know what the presents mean; that I will have the world back someday, any part of it I want, all of it even. I just have to wait.
This year--it's books. Big ones with more than 30 pages, and print halfway up the page. Books on art and animals and airplanes--and other things, I can't figure them all out. I look at them, and look at Jim sitting all expectant on the couch. I look at Mom and Dad, who, as always, are a bit puzzled by Jim's gifts me.
I get up and very quietly go to my room. I can't talk to them, any of them. Not even if I could control all the words. I kneel on my bed staring out the window, wishing I were grown up, wishing I were someone else, wishing I were still Blair Sandburg and not Stephen Todd Campbell.
It's Jim who comes after me, stands quietly behind me. "What's the matter, Chief?"
I shake my head.
"Look, I know they're a little simple. But you have to give it time - - "
I don't mean to respond, but he's a sentinel after all. He sees somehow that that isn't the problem this time.
"What? Tell me, and I'll fix it. Anything. You know that."
"I can't read them."
"Oh. But, look, Chief. That'll come back to you. You just have to give it time. I - - I know how much you hate being little - - "
"Dyslexic." I speak so softly that anyone else would not have heard it.
"Are you - - How do you know?"
I shrug. "Got me tested last week. At school. Standard, now, you know." I am trying to sound casual. I don't fool him.
He comes up behind me, lays his huge hands on my head. "But they - - they have treatments for that, don't they? Programs or something?"
"The letters move, Jim. They move around. And they're not even letters any more, I swear they're not!"
Gently, he turns me around. "So it's going to be hard. Ok, really hard. You've done hard before."
"I want it now!" I am close to a tantrum, something I have never done in front of Jim. And I don't want to, I don't want him to see that, so I clamp my teeth together.
Jim is not impressed, just quiet and persistent. "Oh? Really? Impatient are you? How long did it take me to learn to control my hearing? How many years--years - - Blair, did it take for me to stop zoning unless I wanted to?"
"Ok." He hugs me, and since I'm standing up on my bed, I have a really good grip. For a moment, something seems wrong, his size or his shape - - like he's lost weight, but not. Before I can figure it out, he's moving away.
"Ok. Now collect yourself. I'm going to talk to your mom and dad."
The next visit Jim cancelled at the last minute. Dad said Jim was sorry, but he wouldn't tell me why Jim couldn't come. Not long after that, Mom and Dad went up to Cascade for Jim's retirement party. They didn't take me. I threw a tantrum - - not that I was hoping to change their minds. I knew I couldn't. But I wanted to punish them.
Then, today, Dad picks me up from preschool.
This does not sound so bad, except we have a system, and - - mom being an Ellison - - we keep to it pretty consistently. Dad drops me off in the morning, Mom picks me up in the afternoon.
I pick up my jacket and go to him where he is waiting over by the door. "Where's Mom?'
"She had to go to Cascade for a couple of days. We're on our own for a bit."
He takes my hand and leads me out the door. I don't like how quiet he's being. As it turns out, I'm right: "Your Uncle Jim is sick."
It is very important here that I do NOT get upset. Mildly upset on a 4 year old looks like willfulness or hysterics, and if Dad thinks I'm out of control he won't tell me anything. "Why?"
"It happens sometimes, son. People just get sick."
"No. Sick how?"
He opens my door, helps me into my booster restraint. "He's had a heart attack, Stevie."
I am very quiet for a long time. As he drives, Dad keeps checking me out in the rearview mirror. At last I say, "People don't get that anymore. There's medicine."
He looks startled, and then tries to pretend he's not. I come out with things like that sometimes - - because it's important or because I forget I'm supposed to be a little kid. They are hoping I am some kind of prodigy, I think. Or some kind of nut. I really do try not to weird them out too much. "Uncle Jim can't take the medicine. He has an allergy. Do you know what that is?"
I nod. "I need to see him."
"I'm sorry, honey. He's in Cascade."
"I wanna see him. Mom gets to see him." I sound sullen, but I am nearly desperate. I want to cry, but I have to convince him. I have to be reasonable.
"Stevie, he's in the hospital. They don't let little kids into hospitals."
"Oh." I'd forgotten.
Dad is quiet the rest of the way home, and I think. I think about Jim being sick and alone. I don't worry about him dying. Jim has never been afraid of that, and from my own experience it is such a little deal that I don't remember it. But Jim has always really hated being sick.
Mom is gone for a week. She calls every night and tells me a little story and says that Jim sends his love. I try to be good for Dad. I try to act normal at school - - there is no way to predict how adults will react to a change in behavior. They already think I'm strange and if I'm not careful, I'll wind up in therapy before I'm six. Which, unless it's past life regression therapy, doesn't have a prayer of helping me work out my issues.
I do make drawings for Jim, which we transmit to Mom in Cascade. I remind him that I'm here, the only way I can: I draw pictures of things only we will know. I draw Simon and Joel. I draw us fishing. I draw me in a tree fetching a bird's nest. I draw all of his cars. The art is pretty bad, but Dad helps me label key parts.
Eventually Mom comes home. I talk to Jim sometimes on the phone. He says he's fine and makes me talk about school.
He finally comes to visit. It takes six weeks. I know because I have taken to marking off days on the calendar by the fridge. I have gotten sick of days that run together in a slow, endless haze interrupted by Santa and the Easter Bunny and my birthday. So it has been six weeks and I wait by the front window with my nose making prints on the glass.
His car hums up. I tense. I will wait behind the door, jump out and pretend to surprise him. And he will pretend he had no idea I was there and I will hug him and make him tell me everything.
At the top of the stairs he has to stop and rest.
We don't have that many stairs.
He's taking deep breaths, trying to center himself, trying to look ok for us, and he doesn't know there isn't any point because he hasn't noticed that I'm here, watching him.
I unlock the door, which I am not allowed to do, and open it. He sees from my face that he hasn't hidden anything, so he comes over and kneels down in front of me. I hold out my arms. This is the first time I have comforted him since that night he recognized me.
Mom finds us like that. She takes us into the kitchen for milk and cookies, asks Jim if he will watch me while she runs across town to talk to her editor. Jim suggests taking me to the park.
"No, I'm sorry, but we told Stevie no park today. He's being punished for biting a little girl in school."
He tisks ostentatiously and suggests we play with Legos instead. We go to my room, and he sits on the bed while I upend the box of Legos. We may or may not play with them, but my cover requires that I make a mess anyway.
"Hey! There was no trial. No evidence, no witnesses - - Cindy Ross says I bit her and Bang! I get grounded? That violates due process. I have no Civil Rights, Jim. At all. And it's double jeopardy--I got a time out at school, too. I've been nailed twice for the same crime."
He folds his arms. "Did you bite Cindy?"
"That is so not the point here, man."
For a moment he almost smiles, but then he gets very still. "You can't pull shit like this Chief. You can't play around. You *don't* have any civil rights. You don't have any freedom, you don't have any legal way to act in your own behalf, and you can't protect yourself. The only thing you've got is your mom and dad. They would do anything - - anything - - to protect you. They love you. And for the next 14 years, they're all you're going to have."
"I know that."
"These attitude trips don't help you."
"And biting people? That's not mature behavior."
"Mature behavior would have been to call her a bitch, but when I tried that I got my mouth washed out with soap."
He laughs at that, and for a moment I'm mad. Then I see how silly it all is and I start to laugh too.
I could manage this whole kid thing, if he were just with me all the time. I'm sure I could.
He doesn't come back for a couple of months, but I send him short hello videos over the computer and he sends me a chip of rock Winnebago chant/reggae fusion.
He goes into the hospital again. And again. Mom tells me his kidneys aren't working right. At night, after I have been tucked in, I creep out into the hall to listen in to the grown- up version: renal failure, which is the same thing.
When he is in the hospital he calls even more often; he must know I'm worrying. He sounds a little tired, but basically fine.... no. He sounds exhausted and pretending to be fine. I pretend not to be upset.
He tells me he's sorry. He had planned to move down here after he retired, but it looks like it will be a while before he can manage it. "I should have come years ago. To hell with the job, that wasn't what was keeping me. I thought your parents - - I didn't want to crowd them...No, I was just stupid and scared. I thought if I tried too hard to hold on, you'd disappear. I fucked up, wasted so much time," his voice is faint and oddly floaty. He's talking way too much. They have him on something. I tell him it's all right. Over and over.
He gets better. They send him home. I send him more pictures.
Then one night mom comes into my room and wakes me up. "Stevie? Come on, hon, we need to get dressed."
"Huh?" It's still dark out and I'm confused.
"I'm sorry, honey. Come on. Get up."
The floor is cold. Being awake with the crickets still calling and the bedside light reflecting off the dark windows is special and strange and I don't like it. "What's a matter?"
"Your Uncle Jim is sick, honey. We're going to Cascade."
I take the clothes she hands me and dress myself. I don't say anything else, not then, not in the car, not when we stop at Wonderburger for breakfast burritos. I am busy trying to figure out ways to sneak into the hospital when we get to Cascade, but they just take me up. I think this is a bad sign.
They stop in the hall outside his room to talk to the doctor. They think I don't understand, if they remember I am with them at all. But I do understand. Congestive heart failure. Pneumonia.
Dad holds me in a hall way while mom goes in and talks to Jim. It is early morning, and I can see the edge of the window in his room. Dad tries to talk to me, but if I start talking, I' ll get upset, and then they might take me away.
And Mom is upset enough for all of us. She is crying, and telling him he is going to be fine. He's a fighter and he can get through this.
It seems, somehow, that I've been here before, but I don't remember when.
Finally, finally, she rushes out and Dad takes me in. He sets me on the floor beside a big hospital bed. "Can I come up?" I whisper. Jim nods, and I climb up beside him. There are tubes and machines and he is pale and puffy. "Does it hurt?"
"S'good." I say. Both of his arms have weird IVs so I put my hand on his stomach.
"Glad they brought you, Blair." I am aware that we have an audience. Mom is back and she and Dad are watching. They'll think he's wandered off, talking to people who aren't there. They might take me away.
"I'm tired, Chief."
And I don't care, suddenly, who is watching or what they will think of it. "It's ok. I promise."
"I don't know what to do. This isn't like... anything else. I mean... I'm good at...."
"Yeah. I know."
"I'm a little scared."
"There's nothing to be scared of."
"You never talk about it."
It will not be encouraging, at this juncture, to mention that I don't remember dying. "That's not the important part." I reach out and pet the fringe of white hair. "It might be a little hard. But you can do hard. You can do this."
"All the time, man."
There is a long quiet. Jim looks out the window. I just look at him. Finally, he says, "You're so little! You can't look out for yourself. And you get so impatient- - - you're going to get in such trouble!"
"Mom and Dad will take care of me," I whisper. "It's ok." I take a deep breath. This next part - - but I have to say it. "It' s ok. Whatever you have to do. Even if it isn't what you think I want, it's ok."
They let me sit there until he falls asleep. They don't understand what we've said, but they never understood us, and they leave it alone. Mom stays with Jim, and Dad takes me to - - Well, as it turns out, to the loft. Weird. It's the same, but not. Bigger. Neater, mostly, except for a stack ok dirty dishes in the sink and a towel on the bathroom floor. It can't have been more than six or seven years since I was here. I wander around for a few minutes while Dad does the dishes. I settle at last in my old room. It is pretty much the same. Less cluttered. The futon is new and pretending to be a couch. I lie down, and when I start to cry I can't stop.
Wet. Miserable. Empty. My whole body hurts with crying, but somehow it doesn't hurt enough.
I told him to do what he needs to do. And that was right. But what if what he needs to do isn't to come back to me?
Eventually, Dad comes in and says he's opened a can of ravioli. Do I want to come eat? I shake my head: I am still crying a little and my voice is gone.
"Stevie, I know you're upset, but you're not a little baby any more. Big boys have to be strong, son. They don't - - "
"That is such bullshit!" It turns out I have a voice left after all.
I get a heavy sigh and a desultory swat on the bottom. I eat the damn ravioli. I fall asleep on the couch.
I am in heaven. I must be. It is the lack of discomfort I notice first, nothing too loud or too cold or too pungent. Not a silent world, not barren. Just calm, the center of a perfect sea that is just warm enough.
I have no need to be anywhere. No hurry. There is no one to defend here, and no one to protect myself from.
It is almost a surprise, that nothing is unpleasant. In the whole universe, in fact, there is only this pleasantness and my own surprise. Comfortable.
Hmmm. Not strictly true. One of my feet is stuck under my chin. I am not sure I like that, but I can move it later. No rush.
No rush. I could laugh; the idea of rushing seems like a strange myth invented by drunk Martians. A joke that makes no sense, here in forever. It must be heaven - - I'm not afraid.
I move my foot. Heaven is wonderful.
When the urgency comes, I remember what urgency is. It is a terrible thing, this need, this fear.... The world pushes in on me, a pressure too great to bear. I need to flee, to escape, to - - something. Something.
I scream. For Blair. I scream, but there is only the sea in my ears. The pressure crushes me, from the inside as well as the outside. For a moment it tears me from myself and I am lost, spinning free, screaming for Blair.
And then my sanity is back and my body is free. The urgency is gone, and the world that replaces it is worse.
It is searingly cold, horribly dry. The light is blinding, not just bright, but painful. The first breath is an icy knife, and if I could stop myself, I would not breathe again. I have no choice. They come again and again, painful, foul. For a moment a horrible howl resounds in my ears, and then I am deaf even to that.
Then there is movement. Cold things, sharp things, hard things - - touch me.
When I can't bear it any more- - - there is a moment of peace. Something soft and warm. Quiet, rhythmic sounds, sounds that I heard in heaven. In that tiny gap of sanity, I remember that I am hoping for something.
It is over too quickly, but I remember it. Remember it for a second forever of bright, itchy loneliness. Remember it when they feed me--over and over - - thin, chemical tasting food. I spit it out, and remember that moment of peace, and try to remember that I am hoping for something.
And sometimes - - too seldom - - She is there. Warm and sweet and solid. When She holds me I can see. Sort of. Almost. I can understand what they are saying. And I get it, finally. I'm not eating. They won't let me go home, until I eat.
I want to go home. I am hoping.
So I choke it down. Again and again. As much as I can.
Finally, I am carried to a place with sunlight. I tell myself things will get better now. The worst is over. And sure enough, we get into a car, so we're leaving that damn hospital. Perhaps at home, it will not be so bright, so loud. Perhaps, at home, the food will not be so bitter.
Maybe. But something in my clothing - - a tag? A pin? A loose thread? It's digging into my skin. It is pretty much all I can think about, the tiny pain and the whimpery noises I am making.
There is nothing else until a new sound pushes through. "I wanna see him! Let me see him!" The voice is high and loud. It ought to hurt, but it doesn't.
"Sweetheart, wait a minute. We're barely in the door - - "
"I wanna see him!"
"Stephen, that's enough. Sit down and wait."
I am jiggled clumsily. The world spins, and then - - at last- - - something close enough to focus on.
This is what I was hoping for. I know this face, this little boy. He's older, a little. Bigger - - God, so huge! His eyes are brown, like his mom's. My mom's.
He looks at me, desperately, eagerly. He is hoping, too. "Yes! " I want to say. "Here." But I can only stare at him in fascination. Stevie. Blair.
"Good Lord, he's quiet. Tom, have you ever seen him quiet?"
A sigh. "Not while he was awake."
"Can I hold him? Please, can I hold him?"
"Stevie, you're pretty small. Babies are pretty fragile."
"I am not small! I'm six!" A whine, quickly reigned in. "Look, I'll sit right here. I won't move. I'll be very careful."
And then I am in his arms, and the heartbeat I am hearing is his. For a long time, it seems his heart is all I hear, and then: "You want to do it? Ok, put his head like this, now in your hand - - "
And the most horrible object in the world passes my eyes, is put in his hand. I mew, the only sound I can make right now. "Now, hold it like this - - " Guiding his hand, my mother touches my cheek with the nipple, and my head turns itself, mouth opening. The plastic is strongly sour, the food, the same bitter metallic flood as before. I had thought at home things might be better, but it's not. I start to cry.
A whisper, close to my ear. "Will you eat for me? Please? The thing is, if you don't, they'll take you away and do it themselves."
I managed it in the hospital, I can surely manage it for him. I suck. I swallow. "Thought so." He sighs. "Still got 'em, huh?" I cannot say yes, I cannot even nod. "Well. You're related to you, after all. Sooner or later, I want a turn, though. In the mean time, do you have any control? Ok, let's start from the beginning. Listen to my voice."
I do, and it's not so bad. Not *so* bad. When I really cannot manage to force down any more, he takes the bottle away.
"Mom, what are we feeding him?"
"It's made of cultured yeast protein. They tried everything - - this is the only thing he would eat."
"The last thing they tried?"
"I suppose. It's very good food, honey. Nutritionally complete. "
"Um. Yeah. Mom, can we talk about breastfeeding?"
Two, sharp, surprised gasps, an aborted laugh.
"It's just - - you know Candice's baby sister? She had the same problem. And it turned out it was the shape of the bottle." Spinning lies. For me. And I had wept, when I left him, because I worried about who would protect him. Look at him protecting me. "Now I know these days it isn't popular to breastfeed, and women worry a lot about pollutants being passed on in breast milk, but PCBD's are environmental, not from what a person eats, and you and the baby are in the same environment. *If* PCBD's are dangerous, and they have been trying to prove they are for 25 years, he's going to get more of them from breathing then from you."
He does not push the argument this time, but I know the campaign is only starting. Mom takes me back to burp me. I cry until she gives me back to Stevie. I learned this trick from him.
He talks to me. About school - - the first grade and the special class he goes to afterwards. The trip to the zoo that Missy the babysitter took him to while mom was in the hospital having me. How pissed he is that they kept me at the hospital for three weeks. He's been staring at me through glass, waiting.
Sometime, I must fall asleep, because I wake up in a strange, bare cage with square bars. For a moment it is terrible, but then I hear a heartbeat. Close. I cannot turn my head, but I don't need to. He's here, sleeping on the floor beside me. It' s ok.