A gentle persistent beeping slowly broke through her awareness, and puzzled, Meg opened her eyes; trying to make sense of her surroundings. She looked at the wallpaper, frowning at the wrongness of it after a moment. Oh, the pattern was pretty in a generic sort of way; pink and yellow flowers against a background that looked white until she lifted her gaze enough to see the contrast between it and the delicate layer of snow shining under a streetlight outside, but it clearly wasn’t the wallpaper in her own bedroom.
And she was lying in a bed, she realized dimly, feeling the narrow frame of it beneath her as she sucked in a sharply audible breath.
“Honey?” The endearment was soft, and came from her left side, from the same direction as the beeping sound that had woken her up.
At forty, Keegan Conroy was just as beautiful as she’d been at twenty and thirty. Her straight hair fell to just past her shoulders, shining that rich dark red in the glow of the bedside lamp that Megan had always envied, but had only inherited in the faint reddish highlights of her own, much darker hair. The green eyes she had passed on to her only child, though Megan’s were a few shades lighter, and those eyes were currently filled with worry as they shifted to regard the teenager next to her. “Oh, thank God you’re awake!”
“How long was I out?” Still feeling disoriented, Megan braced her hands against the bed and attempted to push herself upright.
“No honey, lie still; I’ll take care of that.” Her mother rose from the chair she’d pulled next to the hospital bed and leaned over her; searching until she found the small pad that controlled the elevation of the bed and pressing a button, “Let me know when you’re good.”
Meg nodded once she was comfortable, and accepted the control pad before the older woman reclaimed her seat, adding as she did so, “You’ve been asleep for a few hours. They thought you’d just fainted from the shock at first, but when you didn’t wake up they were worried you’d hit your head.” Her mother cast a brief glance over to the door, as if expecting someone, “If you hadn’t woken up in the next hour, the doctor was going to send you down for a CAT scan.”
“The shock...” the girl murmured, her eyes widening as the full impact of her mother’s words sank in and she remembered what had occurred before she’d opened her eyes, “Mrs. Shaw made me stay after class and some guy came speeding at me when I was crossing the road.” She gasped then, the memory of the man’s frantic face filling her thoughts, “Is he okay?”
“He’s fine...got ticketed for running the light at that intersection, and that’s not all he would’ve gotten if you hadn’t been okay.” Martin Conroy was four years older than his wife, and his tall frame filled the doorway, a cup of coffee clutched in each broad hand before he stepped fully into the room, “The doctor’s on his way.”
“I really don’t need a doctor, I’m okay.” Megan made the protest out of a long-standing habit, giving her body an experimental stretch to gauge the truth of her claim. Aside from a few scratches she could see marring the skin of her forearms and some bruises on her knuckles she seemed to be alright other than an understandable soreness. “I’m groggy and a little banged up, but I can go home. The car didn’t even hit me; Finn knocked me out of the way in time.”
Her father grinned and settled into an empty chair near the door, cutting off the question he knew was coming before she began to voice it, “He’s okay too, been here longer than me and your mom have.”
Mrs. Conroy nodded in agreement; “He’s checked on you every fifteen minutes or so, the nurses even had to run him off so they could do some tests.” The woman smiled and shook her head, “How long have you two been friends? You’ve never mentioned him before.”
She flushed at the query, “Not long. I mean, we’re in Mrs. Shaw’s class together, but today’s the first time we’ve ever talked.”
“Well, I’m just glad he was there.” concern had crept into Mr. Conroy’s pale blue eyes as he’d leaned over to hand the second cup of coffee to his wife, “He’s in the waiting room right now; they said he can come in once the doctor’s done checking you over.” The man’s worry morphed into an affectionate smile, “Gotta hand it to you Meg, you’re the only kid I know who’d resort to almost getting creamed by a car to get out of trouble for landing yourself in detention again.”
No concussion, broken bones, or even any stitches; all in all, considering the fact that she’d been sure she was going to die, Megan thought she’d gotten off extraordinarily lucky. Despite her clean bill of health, however, the doctor had decided to err on the side of caution and so Megan was going to stay the night in the hospital for observation...something she’d naturally railed against.
“It’s not that bad, kiddo.” her father had said in an effort to console her, reaching a hand out to gently ruffle her hair, “They just gotta make sure you’re okay before they can release you. If they let you go tonight and you dropped dead from a problem they hadn’t found yet they know they’d get the pants sued off them; so they’re covering their tails.” he’d relaxed at the sight of his daughter’s smile. For all that he was the older of her parents, Martin had always been the more playful, irreverent one of the pair; a good contrast to his quiet, serious wife. “Besides, this gives the salt crews plenty of time to coat the roads so we can take you home without wrecking in the morning.”
It was only after that, when her parents had gone to get something to eat in the hospital cafeteria that they’d allowed her fellow student to come into the room to visit her.
“Don’t stay too long, and don’t overexcite her; she needs to rest after the scare she’s had.” the nurse had cautioned, hesitating just outside the door as she’d eyed the other teenager, “I’ll be just down the hall at the nurse’s station if you need anything, and I’ll check on you in a bit to make sure everything’s okay.” the words had been meant for Megan, but the portly, middle-aged woman’s eyes had been fixed firmly on Finn in a clearly warning glare before she’d finally left them alone.
Other than a small bruise on his own arm, Finn looked none the worse for wear from their tumble away from the car. He was dressed in the same jeans and sweater he’d worn to school that day, lending credence to her mother’s claim that he’d been at the hospital since her admittance. In his hands he held a small paper bag, which he shifted his grip on even as he slid into the same chair that Mr. Conroy had occupied before. “How you feeling?” he asked quietly, his tone sounded sincere enough, but Megan couldn’t help but notice that he was avoiding meeting her gaze; that same inexplicable apprehension lurking on his face that she’d seen just before she’d blacked out, and she wondered at the cause. He’d been relaxed and friendly enough during their brief talk at the lockers.
“I’ve definitely had better days.” she said mildly, before her own expression sobered, “But, it would’ve been a heck of a lot worse if you hadn’t come along.” a faint blush darkened her skin before she continued, “It’s just a little weird, you know? I mean, we’ve been in the same class for months, but this afternoon was the first time we’ve ever talked, and then less than ten minutes later you probably saved my life. Thank you.”
Finn smiled, but she could still see the signs of tension in his lanky frame. “Don’t mention it. All life is sacred after all.”
She raised an eyebrow at his choice of words, “That’s a bit on the philosophical side for a small town Pennsylvania boy, isn’t it? Unless you moved here from a big city?” to her surprise, a visible shudder passed through him at her question, making her blink, “Did I say something wrong?”
“No, it’s fine. And no; no big cities in my past or my future.” a trace of humor entered his tone at that, “Big cities, machines,” imperceptibly he inclined his blonde head towards the constantly beeping heart monitor standing near her bed, “they just make me nervous, and I was already nervous before I even came in here.”
She frowned at him, concern mingling with her initial curiosity, “Why on Earth would you be nervous just visiting someone in the hospital?” Megan asked, watching as his grip tightened on the little bag in his hands, “I know we’re not best buds or anything, but we see each other in class almost every day.” she offered him a smile then, wanting to help put him at ease, “I promise I don’t bite.”
“It’s not you I’m nervous about, not really.” Finn’s chuckle was soft, before he lifted one hand from the bag to rake his fingers absently through his hair; sighing and then rising to his feet, “Here, before we do anything else, my mom got this for you; call it a get well present.”
She sat up a little straighter, accepting the paper bundle from her classmate before he moved to the chair closest to the bed, “She didn’t have to get me anything, I wasn’t even really hurt; just bruised and shaken up a little.”
Amusement filled his hazel eyes at her remark, “Oh, believe me, once you meet my mom you’ll know she did have to- it’s just her nature. And it gave me an excuse to stick around here until I could talk to you while your parents were gone.”
She slipped her hand into the bag and drew out a plain white box, quirking an eyebrow at him even as she opened it to reveal a copper bracelet that had been engraved with flowers and delicate vines, “Do we need to talk about something my mom and dad can’t hear about?” she teased, turning the bracelet over in her hands and taking a moment to admire the way the lamplight almost seemed to make the metal glow, “And this is gorgeous, thank your mom for me.” finishing her brief examination of the pretty piece of jewelry, she slid it over her fingers until it slid easily in place on her wrist. A jolt, almost electric in nature, shot through her as soon as the bracelet came to rest against her skin; making her gasp even though it hadn’t been painful. “Whoa, talk about static.”
Like an unseen switch had been thrown, Finn lost most of the tension his body had been holding, and he relaxed into the chair he was sitting in, “I’ll tell her you liked it, and yeah, we really do need to talk, and for now it’s better if your parents are kept in the dark.” he paused for a moment, taking a slow, measured breath and then casting a cautious glance over his shoulder as if making sure no one else was around to hear what he was about to say. “Okay,” he said finally, “I guess the best way to start is to ask you this; how open-minded are you?”
Whatever Megan had expected him to say, that hadn’t been it, and her puzzlement showed on her face, “I’m Episcopalian?”
Finn laughed suddenly, the open, unexpected expression of honest mirth taking both of them by surprise, “Not quite the answer I was going for, but I can work with it I guess. Alright, let me try this again. What if I told you I’m different from most people around here; beyond just the home-schooling and nature club?” he added, the corner of his mouth lifting into a half-smile.
She eyed him for a few minutes, thinking about what he’d just said and hesitating before responding, “Okay...so you’re trying to tell me you’re...gay?” given their age and the small town they lived in, it was really the only reasonable explanation she could think of that would make him ‘different’ from most people in their area, and it would fit in with his question about how open-minded she was too. Maybe that was why he didn’t seem to have any friends, and since she’d talked to him and he’d saved her, now he felt comfortable enough to reveal such a sensitive subject?
Momentarily distracted by her musings, when she looked up at him the expression of shock on his face was almost comical. “No, I’m not gay.” Finn released his breath in an exasperated hiss, “You know, this is why I tried to tell mom that she really needed to be the one to talk to you. Because I’m just screwing it up left and right.”
Meg’s brow furrowed, “What does your mom have to do with this?”
The boy took another breath, “Because...she’s different too. I’m different, she’s different,” Finn hesitated himself then, before shaking his head, “And now, because of your accident today, so are you.”
At his pronouncement, a wave of trepidation filled her, and distantly, she heard the beeping of her electric monitor speed up. “What are you talking about?”
“Before I knocked you away from that car,” Finn pressed, his voice soft, but oddly intense, “when you thought it was going to hit you, you felt something happening inside of you, didn’t you?”
Ignoring the faint tremor that had begun in her fingers, Megan shook her own head in an instinctive, mute denial, “The only thing I felt inside me was the fear I was about to get flattened by a car.” the beeping was even louder now, and the metal of the bracelet Finn had given her was oddly warm against her skin.
“Okay, I think that’s enough excitement for one evening.” the same nurse who’d let the other teenager into the room was suddenly there again; glaring at the boy as she bustled over to Meg’s bedside, “Visiting hours are almost over, and I don’t think her parents would appreciate you getting her upset when she had such a close call today as it was.”
Finn stood, opening his mouth to protest his impending expulsion only to have the nurse intensify her glare, “I mean it young man; scoot!” Megan watched, heartbeat still racing, as the woman imperiously all-but herded her strange classmate out of the hospital room; the youth shooting her a frustrated, worried look before he was no longer in sight.
By the time her parents had returned from the cafeteria, she’d calmed down enough for them not to suspect that anything out of the ordinary had happened during Finn’s visit. She’d assured them that she’d be fine for the night, and had accepted the sedative the nurse had offered her to ensure that she’d get a good night’s sleep.
They’d kissed her goodbye, and promised to be back first thing in the morning to bring her home, and then Megan had lain back in the hospital bed; trying to make sense of the things Finn had told her but not having much luck in doing so.
It was crazy of course, completely crazy. A person didn’t become different from other people just by almost getting hit by a car. And yet...she remembered that odd sensation that had come over her in response to her fear; that feeling of strange energy that had filled her before she’d blacked out. Could that have been what he’d been talking about?
Confused, frustrated, and feeling the influence of the sedative finally kicking in, Meg reached over and switched off the bedside lamp; closing her eyes and surrendering to sleep before more than a few minutes had passed.
And she dreamed...
For as long as she could remember, Megan had never been very good at recalling her dreams. As a rule they tended to be a chaotic jumble of images that would’ve been more at home in a drug-induced hallucination than a normal dream. But on this particular night, it was different.
She stood among a mixed stand of trees, in a clearing ringed by a thick swath of billowing white mist. It was so real that she could feel the cool dampness of the air against her skin, could smell the fresh, green scent of wet earth and evergreens and hear the snap of twigs beneath her feet. And directly in front of her was a tall slab of stone that had been edged with moss and inscribed with a series of ornate symbols; giving it an ancient, almost otherworldly appearance.
The image of that odd, carved rock was so real and so vivid in fact, that it remained in her head long after she’d awakened the next morning; and continued to haunt her thoughts for even longer after that.