Tera was fourteen years old and she knew that she was going to die. In light of this knowledge, she saw no point in taking part in the make-believe prom that was being held in the hospital cafeteria. It was only a few days before the Christmas break and the hospital staff had decided to celebrate it with a bang by holding a full-fledged prom for the younger patients. A medical student volunteer had made Tera a ring of white paper flowers for her red hair and dressed her in her best hospital gown before wheeling her down to join the other patients. Tera saw her reflection in the windowpane, a ghostly girl hunched over in a white dress and whose face featured prominent cheek bones and sad, weary eyes.
In her lap, she balanced a crinkled paper cup filled with lukewarm punch—the extent of her involvement in the prom. The medical students and volunteers were stretched thin as they fussed over the kids afflicted with muscular diseases. The other patients, even those in wheelchairs, were actually trying to have fun, but Tera had come only because her grandmother had insisted she leave her hospital room occasionally, especially during the holidays. Sitting there, Tera noticed her feet were still in the blue medical booties. What was a prom without real shoes?
From where she sat by the window, she saw clouds that the weatherman had predicted would turn into three inches of snow that night. Peabody High School was just a few blocks away, and Tera would be attending it this fall if she got better.
She tried to imagine what one of those spiky-haired, tattooed, baggy-pants- wearing punks would see in a little pipsqueak like her. Maybe if she flipped her hair and smiled cutely, some gang leader would take her on as his sidekick and she could become his lookout when he and his friends went spraying graffiti on a train-station platform. Her parents would hate him and then one day, they would break up tearfully so that she could live the uptown life with a straight but boring boy.
Yeah, right, Tera thought, only in her dreams would a boy want to be with her.
“Hey there, you have a date yet?”
Tera snapped out of her daydreaming by a doctor who was trying to balance a cup of punch and a stethoscope in the same hand.
“I’m fine,” she told him. “I’m drinking my punch and having a good time.”
“I’m Dr. Davis. May I have this dance?” He began pushing her wheelchair to the center of the dance floor.
“Stop it!” Tera exclaimed. “I was happy by the window.”
“Come on! Sam is working hard at his djthing. We can at least go for a few rounds on the dance floor.”
“Sam is a medical student,” Tera snapped back. “This isn’t a real prom.”
“It’s nicer than the real one I went to in high school,” Dr. Davis said. “So much nicer without the streakers and the awful gym-teacher chaperones.”
Tera decided there was no reasoning with this guy so she let her feet fall to the ground and dragged them while Dr. Davis pushed. When that didn’t work, she tossed her punch over the side of her wheelchair, and it landed with a loud splat on the cafeteria floor.
“Tina!” Dr. Davis exclaimed, misreading her nametag. “Oh well, my dates usually throw their drinks at me, so I guess this is an improvement.”
Tera couldn’t help but laugh. She hated doctors, especially overly enthusiastic ones, but she did like to laugh. “It’s Tera, not Tina,” she corrected. “Like Terror. My grandparents always call me a little terror.”
“Sorry,” he said. “I’ll try to remember that, even though I have a lot of patients, and I’ll make a mental note of it—Tera, the red headed terror.”
“I don’t want to dance. Can you please wheel me back by the window?”
“Fine,” he told her as he turned her around. “What’s so great about the window anyway? You can look out the window all the time, but your prom comes only once in a lifetime.”
“I’m not wearing the right shoes for dancing,” Tera said as she wiggled her toes inside her hospital booties. “Why don’t you go ask someone else? I’m scheduled for surgery soon. .”
Dr. Davis checked his beeper before pulling up a chair and sitting down beside her. He poured her a fresh cup of punch and placed it on her lap to replace the one she had thrown. Tera wished she could find a polite way to tell him she hadn’t even wanted the last one.
“You go to high school?” he asked.
“No, but I will soon. That one over there.” she added, pointing at a steeple of Peabody that jutted out over the houses. “Actually, Dr. Davis, my aunt teaches English there. I really don’t like her, so I don’t know what’s worse: being here or being with her all the time.”
“So why are you sitting here staring at it instead of joining in on the party?”
Tera shrugged. “Maybe things will be different in high school,” she said as she stroked the stuffed caterpillar lying on her lap. “Everyone in my school makes fun of me for the way I look. Maybe when I go to high school, it will be different. Perhaps when I get well, I’ll meet a boy, a prince on a white horse, and he’ll take me away from here. I’ll be his little princess and he’ll take care of me.”
Dr. Davis’ beeper went off then, and he sighed wearily. Tera stared out the window and twirled a strand of hair in her fingers. There he went, too busy to listen to her again. She hated doctors. They didn’t understand anything.
“So tell me about this place where Princess Tera reigns,” Dr. Davis finally said after his beeper went silent. “What’s it like?”
“I haven’t thought about it,” Tera replied testily. “I’m still trying to decide what color the handsome prince’s eyes are.”
“Oh, that is easy; they’re pale blue.”
Tera rolled her eyes. She hadn’t failed to notice that Dr. Davis had pale blue eyes.
“Leave me alone,” Tera said. “I’m tired.”
“What if I told you there’s a place where Princess Tera belongs? It’s a palace on an island far away. You can’t see it from here, not like this Peabody place where your aunt teaches.”
Tera smiled at his patronizing mention of Peabody. All her life, her aunt had made sure that when anyone mentioned Peabody or English class, it had to be in fearful and respectful tones..
“What color is the palace?” she asked him.
“I hate that color,” Tera said. “Everything here is white. I would rather have a black palace, a place with no doctors and no sickness where everyone will be as strange and unwanted as me.”
Dr. Davis chuckled and waved his beeper at her. “I’ve got to go. I’ll see you later, Tera. You’re in Room 102, right? I’ll drop by and see you.”
“You won’t,” Tera replied.. “Tomorrow is Christmas Eve and you’re probably off.”
He winked at her. “You’re pretty sharp. I’ll come see you after New Year’s.”
“I wrote it down on my schedule. See Tera and talk to her about the island palace. I’d tell you to sleep early tomorrow and that Santa Claus is coming, but I have a feeling you don’t believe in him.”
“I’m trying not to sleep at all actually,” Tera said. “The nightmares always come. I’ve been having them since my parents died. I hope you don’t give me nightmares. Then I won’t want to hear about Dr. Davis’ palace anymore.”
Dr. Davis laughed. “Don’t call it Dr. Davis’ palace. That will give anyone nightmares.”
“What should we call it then?” Tera asked.
Dr. Davis thought about it for a second then he smiled fondly.
“I know. Just for Tera who doesn’t like things that are only make-believe, let’s call it Jubeni.”
That night it began to snow. Tera felt so alone that she couldn’t help herself. She told the nurse she had an emergency and needed to talk to Dr. Davis. When they put an anxious voice on the phone, Tera suddenly felt very silly.
“What’s up, Tera?” Dr. Davis asked. “Are you okay? Any trouble breathing?”
“No,” Tera replied. “No, I feel the same as always. I was just watching it snow and I wondered if Jubeni really does has white walls. Maybe it’s under the snow and it’s hiding from me until the right time.”
Dr. Davis sighed, half in relief and half in exasperation.
“Tera,” he said. “You scared me.”
“The doctors here told me that I might not live through the operation,” Tera said. “I have too much bad stuff everywhere in my body. My grandparents even signed a form that says if I stop breathing they should let me go. I’m just wondering, Dr. Davis, do you have a picture of Jubeni?”
“I’ll look but I don’t think I’ll be able to find one,” Dr. Davis replied. “It’s been so long since I thought about that place. And Tera, do you want to know a secret?”
“Yeah, sure, who am I going to tell?” Tera asked and laughed to herself. Laughing hurt so she stopped.
“I think Jubeni is different for everyone.”
“What is it like for me?”
“Why don’t you tell me?” Dr. Davis asked. Then Tera heard him say in a muffled voice saying “It’s a patient, this may take a while. No, it’s nothing serious.” When Dr. Davis returned he said “Go on, tell me.”
“I don’t want to be any trouble,” Tera said. “Who are you with?”
“Just the family; my parents, my sister and my nephews.”
“Sounds like heaven,” Tera replied and stared back into the empty dark room. Suddenly it seemed colder. That afternoon they had moved an old woman into the spot next to her. The elderly woman was coughing madly with every few breathes. “I wish I could be there with you instead of here.”
“Close your eyes,” Dr. Davis said. “Go to Jubeni.”
“Dr. Davis, I’ve been wondering; if Jubeni is so great, why didn’t you go?”
“Oh, Tera, Jubeni doesn’t want me. They took one look at me and knew I didn’t want it badly enough.” Dr. Davis paused. “That’s why you must promise me you’ll tell me all about it all right?”
“I think Jubeni has gray walls,” Tera said. “Sometimes it looks white, sometime black.”
“I think I can see it already,” Dr. Davis said. “Tell me more.”
“I’ll tell you when you get back. Merry Christmas, Dr. Davis.” Tera said. “Enjoy your time with your family. Don’t worry about me.”
As Tera hung up the phone she wondered if Jubeni were a living room, filled with light and a Christmas tree. That wasn’t possible, Tera decided. One can’t wish the back the dead and the dying. Her parents were gone; she was quickly going to join them. Even if this operation went well, Tera would still be alone in an empty living room which not even the most festive of Christmas trees can brighten. In that case, Jubeni must be a golden palace across a sea where the trees bloomed with red and white flowers year round. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t smell those flowers. There was only the pervasive scent of rubbing alcohol and hospital cleaning detergent.
Dr. Davis didn’t get to come see her as he had promised. But he wasn’t the only one who failed to come see her, her grandparents and sister didn’t come either. Her only companion was her stuffed caterpillar who was more distressed at the lack of visitors than she was. On the morning of her surgery, Tera was alone with Dr. Wilson, her family doctor.
“Well, I’ll tell you this, Tera,” Dr. Wilson said. “You’re old enough to handle this. People get sick sometimes and they often don’t know what will happen or when.”
“You’re going to tell me I’m going to die right?” Tera asked.
“No,” Dr. Wilson said and winced. “No, not yet. I meant, I was out because I had a heart attack, Tera. I had to rest at home for a week. People don’t like to talk about it when their doctors get sick. They don’t like it either when children get sick, like yourself. The difference is that you’re going to be okay, Tera. Do you know why?”
“Why?” Tera asked, wearily.
“Because there are a lot of good things in store for you in the future, much more than there is for an old past retirement fellow like me.”
“You should retire,” Tera said, not completely sure what that meant except it looked good on magazine ads for medications.
“Not today, I’m not. Nope. Not on your big day.”
“My big day,” Tera repeated. “I hate that. When you people talk about it as though it’s something good. That’s not true is it? You only hope it will turn out good. You don’t know that.”
“Tera,” Dr. Wilson said gravely and placed his spotted wrinkly hand on top of her small frail one. “I think we’ve had this discussion before haven’t you? A person in your condition needs to stay positive. Can you do that? Are we going to fight this thing together?”
Tera nodded and began tearing up. She closed her eyes and turned away.
“Yeah, I remember.”
“Hey, kid,” Dr. Wilson said and patted her head. “It’s going to be okay.”
“I’m not so sure,” Tera said, weakly.
“You’re a very special kid, Tera,” Dr Wilson said. “Do you know why I think that?”
“I can tell you have a very wise heart, a very old soul. You’ve been through this before and you’re not going to give up now.”
“That’s what they tell all the kids who have lost their mothers right?” Tera asked.
“No, you’re more than what you lost.” Dr. Wilson said. “You’re you. Try to remember that.”
“Alright,” Tera said. “Make me feel better, Dr Wilson. Please.”
As Tera closed her eyes in the operating room she tried to imagine a life after her surgery. There were good things waiting for her, good things at Jubeni.
It was night when she woke. She heard the sounds of footsteps rushing through the halls and the bang of the food cart making its way toward her door. She was sure that she wasn’t dead but she suddenly wished that she was. There was a bad feeling in her stomach. The thought of food nauseated her. Yet as she laid there wait to die slowly she felt better. It must be the pain killers, she told herself. She laid in bed, staring at the wall. She tried not to look up; the fluorescent light bulbs hurt her eyes. Before long, a doctor entered her room. It was a female one that she had never seen before.
“Tera Vanderlyn?” the doctor asked in a snappy voice that Tera wasn’t at all accustomed to hearing. Most of the medical staff spoke to her in sad but gentle voices. “You’re going to be discharged first thing tomorrow. We tried to have you out today but no one could wake you.”
“Discharged?” Tera asked. “You must have me mixed up with someone else. My condition is very serious.”
“Kids,” the doctor sighed. “It was only a touch of the flu and your temperature is normal now. I don’t know why they kept you here over night in the first place. You can go home. Your older brother will be in to pick you up in the morning.”
“I don’t have an older brother.”
The doctor looked confused. She was rechecking the chart now, searching for family information that Tera knew wasn’t there.
“Listen,” Tera said. “Can’t you just get Dr. Wilson? Or even Dr. Davis?”
The doctor blinked twice and then said very blankly “I’m Dr. Moss and I’m taking care of you now. Dr. Wilson passed away. His heart did him in.”
“No,” Tera said. “That’s . . . horrible. He was my doctor ever since I was a kid.”
“That’s the way it is,” the doctor said, sadly. “Don’t get too upset. Old people die, young people live. A little girl like you shouldn’t be thinking about death.”
“Lady,” Tera continued, exasperated. “Do you know what I have?” Ah, the age old question. She waited for the dismal answer but instead the doctor returned to her impatient and annoyed look.
“You had a fever. We gave you some antibiotics. You’re fine now. This is all in your chart. Your brother on the other hand, maybe we made a mistake there. Was it your father?”
“My father is dead.” Tera swallowed. She felt tears coming on. Was it really true? Was she fine now? She could go home? Maybe a miracle happened during the surgery. If only Dr. Wilson were here to tell her what had happened. “How about Dr. Davis? I would like to see him if that’s okay. I know he’s not my doctor but I like him.”
“Dr. Davis is missing. When he gets back I’ll let him know you asked for him but it may be for a while. You better pack up your things. You’re out of here first thing in the morning.”
“My things? What things?” Tera asked. She could hardly remember what she came here with, it had been so long ago.
“Well, your stuffed animal collection for one thing,” Dr. Moss said as she glanced at the riff ruff strewn all over her cabinet. “And the clothes you came here with. Oh yes, and before I forget. Your brot-your relative, he asked us to give you this so you can fill it out before he comes to get you in the morning. He said it’s from your school so it’s important it got to you as soon as you woke up.”
“From what?” Tera asked as she was handed an embroidered package with the words “For T.Vanderlyn” scribbled over a cheap paper label that had been hastily added.
“Let me tell you, we never had packages as fancy as this when we were in school. This is gorgeous, it looks like an antique. You must go to a very special school.”
“I don’t even know what this is.”
“Study hard. Looks like your parents paid a lot of money for such a great education,” Dr. Moss said as though she didn’t hear Tera at all. She turned and left.
Tera opened the seal holding the envelope closed. The red stamp was in the shape of a large J. Inside there was a letter addressed to her.
Dear Ms Vanderlyn,
We would like to extend the invitation of consideration for the Jubeni Collegiate of Ettwan.
Tera skimmed the formal letter and her eyes caught on the large sharp script above the blank that had been set aside for her. Renard Dulani, it said. She had never known any Renard Dulani. The ink was uneven, as though it had been applied with an old fashion pen.
Tera picked up a pen that had been conveniently left on her bed stand. Her hand lingered over the space for a second. Was she dreaming? It was hard to tell with all the drugs the hospital people pumped her full of. Maybe she was still sleeping through surgery and this was all a long dream.
She brought her hand down and signed the space left for the signature of the student. Her handwriting was awkward and scrawny compared to Renard’s. She put it aside as the dinner cart stopped outside her room.
The nurse came in and asked her if she wanted the chicken or the eggplant.
“I don’t care,” Tera said. The woman sighed and brought her the chicken.
“You look like you can use some meat on your bones,” she said.
As Tera opened the plastic wrap, she found herself suddenly nauseated. She didn’t know why she had bothered to sign that form. It was too good to be true. It had to be a joke that Dr. Davis was playing on her. How cruel. She was determined to throw that pretty envelope at his head if she ever saw him again.
Tera pushed the plate aside and laid back in bed, stroking the silken envelope. She fell asleep for a while and when she woke up the hospital lights had been dimmed and the food tray was gone. The envelope, however, was still there, beside her pillow. The unsealed J was still staring back at her.