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 cheekbones 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.”