I woke up staring at light directly above me. Even with my eyes barely open to slits, I could tell that it was brighter, sharper than natural light. Inside light. Why was I inside? There was an acrid smell in my nose that made it burn and seared directly into my brain. I tried to brush the source of it away and was shocked to feel how weak and watery my arm was.
"Welcome back Mr. Eliot."
I opened my eyes wider, trying to understand. My mind felt completely wrung out, lax and with no ability to comprehend what was happening. I saw my arm still in the air, noticed that my sleeve was pulled back and that my new tattoo was partially exposed. Of course. I closed my eyes and indulged in a brief desire to pass out again. Eliot: the name I'd given to that poor, overworked teacher when a first name wouldn't suffice and Eli's was the only other name that I could think of. That had been in the classroom, after I'd subjected myself to high school and that other stuffy indoor space. Mostly I was using this moment to wish more than anything that these memories weren't coming back so easily. I would do anything to eradicate the humiliation I'd just suffered, not the least of it the fainting. Fainting. Like some old-fashioned weak-kneed woman.
Then I remembered that it had all happened in front of Alli and I shot upright.
It was a totally disorienting experience. The world spun in an array of white shapes dotted by points of color. The surface underneath me crackled horribly, setting my ears on fire along with my nose.
"Whoa," said the voice again, a maternal female voice. "Take it easy."
Cool hands pushed down firmly on my chest, leaving me no option but to lie back down. This time though, I turned my head away from the light. The surreal sensation I'd had since opening my eyes abated some.
I was in a small office, even tinier than the classroom. Across the room from me, at my eye level, was a porcelain counter with a sink in the middle. Judging from the paperwork joining the jars of cotton balls, Band-Aids, and tongue depressors on top of it, it was also doubling as a desk. The walls were a bright white, as if to counter the general dinginess of everything else. Posters broke up the monotony, but they were the kind with overly cheerful children advertising outdoor play and food pyramids. They belonged in an elementary school, not a high school, but this was still unmistakably a nurse's office. As if my day couldn't have gotten any worse.
The woman who had pushed me down was still hovering over me. She looked more severe than her voice, with a pinched mouth and gray-streaked black hair that was pulled back into a tight bun. Her clothes and eyes told the rest of the story though. Her green eyes were soft and sympathetic and the nurse's scrubs she wore had colorful kittens on them. Usually sympathy made me automatically cringe away; I did not need sympathy from anyone. On her though, it wasn't bothering me. Either I instinctively knew that her look wasn't directed totally at me, or I was just too out of it to care.
"The girl," I began, then stopped. That gnawing pain ripped through my stomach again, the same feeling that had had me gagging once or twice in class. At the time I'd figured my nerves had caused it by morphing into claustrophobia, but now I knew that was unlikely. The nurse held a curved bowl to my face when she noticed, but I pushed it aside so hard that it fell out of her hand and clattered to the floor. I wasn't going to deal with my weakness until I absolutely had to. First I had to find out about Alli. The girl. Only how could I call her that anymore? It was no longer just a tool to use to get her on my side; with the whole of her vivid in my mind, her name suddenly had meaning. "Was there a girl with me?"
Nice as she seemed, the nurse gave me a withering look for flinging her property. It lasted just until she knew I understood her displeasure and then disappeared. "I sent her back to class," she said, like mine was a common question.
"So she followed me?" I eagerly clarified. I'd made first contact with Alli, but if I'd also managed to scare her away, I was back to square one. I knew my attitude hadn't exactly been the best. I desperately needed to work on my acting skills.
The nurse looked me over, no doubt noticing that I only felt better than I had before because I was lying down. The talking was only because I had to know and I was barely forcing out words. "Mr. Silvey carried you in. The girl looked worried. She wanted to stay, but I wouldn't let her."
Alli was worried about me? Good. I'd accomplished more than I'd hoped even if it was by accident.
Still watching me carefully, the nurse put her hand on my forehead as if checking for a fever. I hissed at the direct contact of skin on skin. The pliant texture of her smooth palm, the difference in temperature between her skin and mine, it was all so indescribably different from shaking Eli's hand that I could barely process it. I put a hand on my stomach and tried to control another dry heave.
"When was the last time you ate?" the nurse asked knowingly.
It was almost enough to make me laugh. How long since I'd last been alive to bother with eating? I'd lost count. "I have no idea," I said whimsically.
The nurse put her hands on her hips and huffed dramatically. She didn't say "Well then, that's what you get," but her expression implied it clearly.
I understood the problem then, the real reason I'd been dealing with so many aches. It had seemed so absurd when she'd first asked; what a silly question to ask a dead person. But I wasn't dead anymore. Hadn't I already acknowledged the downfalls of this body? Didn't I recognize that it ran much differently and was much more temperamental? It had forced me to sleep and yet I'd neglected to feed it, hadn't even recognized the signs of hunger. I felt so stupid that the emotion hit me like a wave of self-loathing. It wasn't all my fault, I knew--I couldn't be expected to remember everything, or even to understand it anymore--but I could have done myself real harm as payment for my mistake. Here I was, trying my utmost to accomplish my task and all I'd managed to do was make things harder for myself at every turn.
The nurse heaved a giant sigh, not aggravation so much as resignation. I got the feeling that she saw this almost as much as she heard my question about girls. She turned away and found a cabinet to rummage in. With her back to me she asked, "What's your phone number?"
"What?" was my choked reply.
She looked at me over one shoulder. "Your number. I need to call your parents."
"Parents?" Paperwork I could fake. I'd never dreamed of being in a position where someone would ask for something like this. I considered using the fact that I didn't have any as my excuse, but that would only lead to questions about guardianship. What had I been thinking coming to the school? Of course they would assume that I belonged to someone.
"Yes, parents," the nurse said in a no-nonsense tone that left me wondering how I was ever going to get out of this. "You took a pretty bad spill and I'm sure they'll want to know. I would have called them already except the office couldn't find your file."
"I'm new," I offered, stealing Alli's words. She'd had no idea just how well the term applied when she'd used it so blithely.
The nurse continued to stare at me, unrelenting. I wanted badly to sit up; this prostrate, powerless position was beginning to fray my nerves.
"What I mean," I blundered, searching. It wasn't easy. My brain wasn't working well enough to handle this. Thankfully, my talk with Alli provided the answer again. She'd left me quite a few gems of knowledge regarding what people were willing to accept if you acted innocently enough. "I can't remember the number."
"And it's not programmed into your cell phone?" she countered suspiciously.
I patted my pockets dramatically as if just realizing my non-existent phone was gone. "I must have lost it." I sighed quietly and let out the only truth that mattered to me just then. "It's been a very long day."
My sincerity softened her. She turned back to the cabinet, found what she was looking for, and stood in front of me again. "Can you sit up?"
"Yes," I agreed without really taking stock of myself. Could I sit up? Last time hadn't been very successful.
The nurse seemed to agree with me. "Slowly this time," she emphasized.
For once I listened rather than trying it my own way. I raised my head, then used my elbows to raise my back. Even at that speed, the room did a funny dance. By the time I was straight up and had swung my legs over the side of the table, I was gripping the edge to keep steady. The nurse put her hands on my shoulders to help.
"Okay?" she asked after a minute.
Not really. "Yeah."
She let me go and handed me what looked like a cardboard milk carton except that when I took it, it was light and shook like a rattle. I considered it, wondering if I was supposed to tear off the top or the bottom. I'd seen these things in countless lunch rooms, but I had no idea how to work them. I went for the obvious and tore at the top strip. I ended up tearing off a layer of paper, but that was it. I noticed a smiling fish on the box that seemed to be mocking me.
The nurse gave me a strange look, as if she was just figuring out how odd I was. Mercifully, she took the box out of my hand and turned part of the top into a spout. She poured some obnoxiously orange fish shapes into my palm.
"Thank you, Miss…?" I was surprised at myself for caring to know her name. Usually I avoided names like a plague because that helped to keep my job less personal. I felt like this woman deserved something a little personal after dealing with me for so long.
"Mary. Now eat."
"Thank you, Mary," I said, then popped the fish in my mouth before I could give myself a real chance to think about it. They crunched dryly between my teeth, coating my tongue as I swallowed. If anything, they hurt my abused stomach more.
Mary poured more into my hand despite what must have been a sour expression on my face. She watched me sternly until I gave in and threw those in my mouth too, grimacing as I did so. I'd forgotten how slow and mechanical the act of eating actually was.
"Finish," Mary commanded, handing me the carton. She filled a paper cup from the sink and gave me that too.
The water I downed in one gulp. Anything to get that powder off of my tongue. After that, things got easier. I started to feel marginally better and my brain unlocked.
Mary gave me more water and watched me in silence for a few minutes. I didn't like the feel of her eyes on me, so I decided to return the favor. I stared at her, wondering what it would take to find out about her death like I had Chris'. I needed to know so I could control it. It didn't take much. Just thinking about it triggered that strange double vision. I saw a very old woman in a bed, surrounded by other people. I looked away from her quickly. I didn't need to know that. The one good thing about this trip was that her death was none of my business.
I shoved the rest of the fish into my mouth greedily. I was ready to get out of here and put this humiliating episode behind me.
"It's nothing to be embarrassed about, you know," Mary said, reading my mind.
I laughed, a short barking sound of derision. Falling on my face might have helped my chances with Alli, but I knew enough about teenagers to know that I'd just made myself a target. I'd set myself up for dealing with so many more people than I might have had to that it wasn't even funny. "I'm not going to live this down," I said bitterly.
"That isn't what I meant," Mary said gently.
I arched an eyebrow in genuine confusion. "Then what are you talking about?"
She put a hand on my shoulder and left it there, even when I tried to pull away. "It's okay to admit it. Eating disorders aren't only for girls."
"Eating disorders." The words came out with absolutely no inflection because I was so baffled.
Mary held on tighter. "I know the signs. I've worked at a high school long enough, I ought to know them. You don't remember when you last ate, you don't want me to call your parents, and you look at those crackers like they're poison."
"Not poison," I protested. "They're just nasty."
She ignored me. "You obviously don't have much practice at making up excuses, so you can't be too far gone. You can still get help."
My strength was slowly creeping back and with it came anger. How dare she? The one idea that had gotten me this far was relying on my own superiority. I may have been trapped in a human body, but I was not human. It wasn't her declaration of sickness that bothered me--I knew eating disorders, I'd been there to Mark more victims than I cared to count--it was her assumption that I was on par with every other person in this school, that I had a share in their problems. Bringing myself down by stealing had been bad enough, but I'd chosen that. I didn't need someone else rubbing my situation in my face.
"I am not sick," I said, trying to hold back a snarl.
"Please just talk to someone," Mary was insisting. "You're a strong, good-looking young man and you don't have to hurt yourself to prove it."
I finally managed to break free of her hold, but only by launching myself off of the counter. I landed on the cheap linoleum with twin slaps from my sandals. I put my arms out to steady myself, but I only wobbled a little bit. I was feeling better and I was not going to stay here and listen to this. I shot Mary a burning look and then went for the door.
"Wait," she said. "Please."
Something in her tone made me stop. Probably because all I heard was more resignation. This was a woman who was used to putting everything into her job and still being overlooked.
When she saw that I had paused, she went back to the cabinet. I heard the rummaging and turned as she pulled an apple out of a brown paper bag that was most likely her own lunch sack. Odds were good that's where the crackers came from too. She stepped between me and the door and pressed the apple into my hand.
"Take it with you, okay?"
Her eyes were so friendly that I knew she had honestly been trying to be nice. She didn't have to do it; I was sure she didn't get paid extra for it. I closed my fingers over the fruit and nodded. Despite my horrid time in this office, I regretted that my temper had flared here where it's only outlet was Mary. None of this was her fault. It was all me. I just didn't want to admit that I couldn't deal with this much longer--living was much too complicated.
"Thank you, Mary," I said again. I tried to make my voice as kind as possible, but I wasn't sure if I'd succeeded. My brain had gone from lax to on fire with a frustration that I could barely control.
She nodded and moved aside to let me through. I was glad that she moved easily because if she hadn't I would have bowled her over. I needed out now. That phrase too, could be taken in more than one way, but I would settle for out of that tiny office.
I burst out only to find myself in a narrow hallway lined with doors. More fake light, more stale air. I ran through, startling several adults until I found an exit. It led to the front of the school, to its outer borders and not back inside, which was fine with me. I sprinted through a faculty parking lot, out another set of gates and onto the sidewalk. Free. Then why did I still feel so trapped?
I sucked in air until my lungs hurt, gripping the apple so hard my fingernails broke its skin. The skin on my face prickled in the sudden cold, but I could barely feel it, I was too charged up. I gave myself thirty seconds and then started walking. I couldn't go half as fast as I wanted, I was still too weak. I squeezed the apple tighter and considered throwing it in the hope that it would relieve some of my aggravation. But I couldn't do that. I needed the thing. I should probably eat it now or I'd most likely fall again, with no one around to bother picking me back up. Yet if I did eat it, what then? Then I would have nothing to fall back on. What was I supposed to do, steal food every time I needed it? Not acceptable. It wasn't even practical.
I imagined going back to the school the next day, and the next, an endless string. How long could I stay before polite questions turned into demands? Maybe I could have faked my way for a while longer, but I'd drawn attention to myself now. Soon the nurse wouldn't be the only one asking about my parents, or where I lived, or why I conveniently couldn't remember. But what other choice did I have? Alli was in that school. Staying close to her was my best chance.
Forget frustration. This was desperation, strong and ugly. I dropped the professional mask I'd been holding on to, the one that kept me distant and safe, long enough to acknowledge that. There was no point to this, it was just a wild goose chase. The Elder must have been in the mood for a cruel joke when he sent me here. No one person could possibly be this important.
For some reason that made me think of Mary, making a small difference when she could. Thinking of Mary let me remember the one tool I had. I'd let emotion take over and I'd forgotten about it, but now I saw a way out and I gripped it hard. This didn't need to go on endlessly. I had a way to discover how much longer Alli had. It wouldn't change the days in between, but with a visible goal, I could force myself through them. It wasn't much comfort, but I would take anything I could get.
I put the mask back on and headed towards Alli's house.
I ended up sitting on that same brick planter, waiting again. I caught my breath slowly, composing myself. I was starting to feel light-headed again, so I ate the apple. When I knew how long I'd be here, I'd decide about more food. Maybe it would be tonight and I wouldn't even have to do that.
It took a few hours, but eventually she came around the corner. I wasted no time. I concentrated hard on her, willing the vision to come to me. It worked more easily than I had dared to hope. The time warp effect appeared, the vision stood out clearly next to Alli. But what I saw in that vision sent me into a panic so strong I could barely breathe.