I’m getting real sick of the sight of hospitals. The memories associated with them are never good. Yet once again, I wake up in one. Everyone is asleep, either perched on a chair or crouched on the floor, apart from Joel. He shaved his beard, and looks about ten years younger.
I manage a lopsided grin. “I can’t believe you shaved your beard. It was your signature look.”
He obviously didn’t know I was awake, and when he saw me he looked like he’d seen a ghost. “You’re awake. You startled me. Should I wake everyone up?”
“No, they probably need the rest. I hope I didn’t scare everyone too much.” I look down, sheepishly.
“Are you kidding me?! You scared the hell out of all of us. Nobody got a wink of sleep while you were gone, you massive idiot. Why’d you run off like that?” He whispers harshly, not wanting to wake the others.
I knew I was going to have to tell them eventually, but I don’t know if Joel could take the news alone. Sighing, I whisper “You better wake the others up. I don’t want to tell everyone twice.”
We were sat in deathly silence. Nobody said a word, eagerly waiting on what I was going to say next. Darcy, bleary eyed from her sleep, stares into my eyes like she’ll read my mind. Pemma stares at something in the corner of the room, blankly. Colin and Eden stare furiously at me.
“The night I left, I lost my sense of touch.” It receives a few gasps of shock and horror, Colin puts his face in his hands, his shoulders shaking. Joel looks knowingly; Darcy and Eden grip each other’s hands, knuckles white. Pemma continues to stare into space, absently.
Darcy pipes up, “How are you still alive? Do you know how lucky you are to have made it to a hospital? You’re lucky to be alive, Glenn.”
But not for long, I say in my head, not daring to speak the words out loud.
It’s nice to be back at the apartment and the blissful chaos of the zoo. Caring for all of the animals takes my mind off things. However, I’ve been banned from handling Gravy the hamster for fears I could accidentally squish him. So now, I’m resting on the sofa, absentmindedly stroking Snarf while the rabbits hop beside me, licking each other. Joel is banging pots and pans in the kitchen, making what I think is fudge brownies, not that I can smell them anyway. Pemma went to see her parents again, which I’m glad of, and it’s really relieving to know that she’s welcome in her own home again. When she comes back, I might ask her if I could meet her mother next time she goes.
“GLENN! Where do you keep the baking parchment in this damn kitchen?” He yells, not bothering to leave the kitchen.
“You don’t have to shout, mate. I’m not deaf yet.” I joke, which receives a snort from Joel. “Parchment’s in the cupboard under the sink.”
Being back to normality is nice, but the fact that it won’t last does taint the atmosphere with a melancholy tinge. I try to shake the thought from my head.
A rush of cold air interrupts my depressing reverie, as Pemma comes through the door, windswept hair and another bag of what I assume is more of her own clothes from her house.
“Day six-hundred and seventy-two.” She announces, breath hoarse from the cold. It’s been almost a week since I was discharged from the hospital, and nobody has really commented on my deteriorating state since. While I appreciate the gesture, I’d much rather just joke about it and face the problem head-on, instead of tiptoeing round it like a ticking time bomb.
There’s another thunderstorm tonight. I lie under the covers in the spare room, which I’ve stayed in for so long it feels like it’s my own room, and try to shut out the noise. But no matter how hard I try, it doesn’t go away. I don’t want to bother Glenn again. The fierce lighting shoots past the windowpanes at intervals, reminding me that no matter how hard I try, I can’t ignore the storm.
I gather my duvet around my shoulders, pull on some fluffy socks and creep downstairs, mindful of the creaky step three stairs up from the bottom. I decide that I will sit at the kitchen table with headphones in, and drink a cup of tea to soothe my nerves. However, as I sneak to the kitchen, the sight of Glenn sitting at the table makes my stomach turn.
His angular face momentarily illuminated by the lighting outside, reflecting on his tear-stained cheeks. He frantically pulls at the skin on his hands, his feet bobbing up and down unnervingly. His shoulders are still shaking, though no more tears come. When the thunder strikes and makes me jump, Glenn doesn’t move an inch.
I pad across the tiled floor and he doesn’t realise I’m there until I’m practically facing him from across the table. His lips are cracked and dry, the bags under his eyes are evident. His usual fluffy hair is flat and tired.
“Are you okay?” I croak. I’m too afraid to know the answer.
He acts like he didn’t hear me, just looking at me with round, brown pitying eyes. I’m confused. Why won’t he answer?
“It’s rude not to answer, you know.” I try to joke, but it comes out harshly. Again, he stares at me blankly, until it clicks. He speaks, voice shaky and uncertain, but unnecessarily loud.
“I’m deaf Pemma. I’ve got one sense left. My time is running out and you know it.”
My breath catches in my throat, and I rush to leave the room to throw up. The shock hits me and I can’t stop from heaving. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, but it does. I didn’t want to accept the harsh reality of it but now it hits me square in the face. I’m being selfish, this is Glenn’s illness not mine, and I should be there for him. But I can’t. I’ve been bearing the same burden as him up until now, but this is the first time I’ve truly seen what it could do to him. He’ll never hear my voice again.
The others come over as soon as I call, even in the dead of night. They all fuss over him like he’s a cracked piece of china that could fall apart at any moment. I lean back in the corner of the kitchen, out of sight, out of the commotion. I’ve seen enough for tonight. As selfish as it is, I sneak off to bed, alone. Nobody notices me leave, but I’m too tired and too afraid to help them now, so I’m not much use. I didn’t realise how exhausted I was until I basically collapsed onto the bed.
I wake up to a terrifying sensation. The house is dead silent, bar Eden’s snoring, which means all the others have slept here for the night. It sounds like they’re downstairs. However, someone is stroking my head. I’m paralysed with fear- who would do this? Why would they do it? Has someone broken in? I thought in this situation, I’d jump to my rescue and beat up the burglar, but in reality I’m terrified. But then, I hear a familiar sigh, coupled with the pitter patter of tears falling onto the pillow beside me. Glenn. Glenn is stroking my hair. Glenn is crying. Now I turn to him, no longer afraid, and stare into his pain-etched face. I don’t say anything, because it would be wasted anyway. I’ve never seen him so distraught, but I’ve been so caught up in making his final days seem like a paradise, I didn’t know what it was doing to him. He’s falling apart. I thought getting him all those animals, giving him lots of puzzles and things to do, teaching him how to cook, would take his mind off things. But all it really did was take my mind off things, I was being selfish again. I didn’t accept the cruel reality of the situation and instead ignored it, leaving Glenn to deal with it alone. I know him well enough that he would sit with his problems on his own, if something was bugging him he wouldn’t tell me anyway. It was my job to find out, and I failed.
Despite me staring at him, in the darkness, his sorrowful face only illuminated by the amber streetlamps outside, he continues stroking my hair. His chestnut eyes shine in the dark. He must know I’m awake and looking at him, it’s light enough for him to realise. But his expression doesn’t falter, and his hand doesn’t stop moving. As soothing as it is, the circumstances that it is under makes me feel sick again.
As much as I don’t want the moment to end, I shift slightly to get more comfortable. He stops stroking my hair, his face a mask of shock. I don’t think he realised I was awake at all.
It’s like being stuck underwater all the time, detached from everyone else. It’s like I’m on a different plane of existence, they can understand me, but I can’t understand them. After everyone has finished fussing over me, they get tired and go to bed. Eden makes sure I get upstairs to bed safely. However, I don’t sleep. It all feels like a dream, I don’t think I’ll ever get used to this.
I sneak to Pemma’s room- or at least I think I’m being quiet; and sit beside her bed. Just like that morning on the school trip, her sleeping in my bed, her face has softened to cherub-like features and her fiery hair frames her face like a masterpiece. Without thinking about it, I reach for the mass of fluff on her head. I imagine it’s soft like the rabbits’ fur, but I can’t feel it. I take extra care to make sure I don’t wake her up, and I start crying. My illness has been dragged out for so long I didn’t think it affected me anymore, but it does. It hurts. I’ll never be like this with Pemma again. I lose track of time, aimlessly stroking her head over and over, until she shifts and stares right into my face. Judging by her expression, she’s been awake for a while, but I’m shocked as to why she hasn’t stopped me yet. The real Pemma wouldn’t allow this; she would’ve snapped my arm by now. But she lies there, placid, letting it happen. Out of pity? Maybe.
I sneak back to my room, to cry in the deafening silence that is my head.
It’s daylight. Pemma hasn’t mentioned last night to me, probably out of shame or kindness. However, she showed me on her whiteboard that it was day six-hundred and seventy-three. Eden went to get a whiteboard for each of us, so they can tell me things without having to learn sign language. When I asked why, they wrote that it was just easier for everyone, but I know the real reason. There’s no point learning sign language for me, because I won’t be here by the time they’ve mastered it. Nothing is long term for me anymore. It’s weird. If I’m bored, I can’t listen to music. I can’t really enjoy television like I used to, as most programs don’t have subtitles. I can’t even have a conversation anymore. I can’t tell if Snarf is hungry, I can’t tell if he’s meowing, I can’t tell if something in the house falls and breaks. After everyone reluctantly leaves to return to their families, Pemma remained.
I ask, “Why don’t you go home too? Don’t your family miss you?”
She writes on the whiteboard for a while. Our conversations are very disjointed. Her pointed handwriting shows, “No, I’m not leaving you alone. My family know how important this is, so they don’t mind as long as I check in sometimes.”
She doesn’t elaborate any further, as with everyone else, our conversations are very limited. There’s only so much you can put on a whiteboard. Another problem is that Pemma is a very sarcastic person, but that can’t be conveyed in writing. It leads to lots of misunderstandings, and lots of laughs. God, do I miss her laugh.
Today’s the day I meet Pemma’s family. After lots of persuasion and some bribery (in the form of trifles), I get to see them. We’re walking down the bland housing estate, and although I’ve been to her house once before I couldn’t possibly find it again without her. She’s holding my hand to make sure my feet don’t wander off or that I don’t fall, and her whiteboard is in the other hand.
A young girl answers the door, with a nest of mousy brown hair and a chubby face, this must be Leah. Her eyes light up when she sees Pemma, showing she obviously loves and respects her sister. Then she looks at me, and seems to know who I am immediately. I shoot a look at Pemma as if to say, “They know who I am?” And she just smiles. Leah wraps me in a tiny hug, and Pemma allows herself in. The house is exactly the same as the day I came in the pouring rain to win her back. Before my health took a turn for the worst. Pemma’s mother looks at me, and her face softens. She looks like a beautiful, kind woman, just like her daughter I guess. Her hair is a bob of dirty blonde hair, her blue eyes framed by thin glasses. Behind her, a small skinny blonde boy emerges- the spitting image of his mother, so it must be Nathan.
I smile and reach to shake Pemma’s mother’s hand, but she pulls me into a hug. She then says something, and Pemma shakes her head and passes her the whiteboard. She writes, “My name is Carla. It’s nice to finally meet you.”
We have lunch, with Leah and Nathan poking and prodding my arms to see if I notice, and we communicate through Pemma’s keyboard. I tell her how wonderful her daughter is, how well she’s cared for me, and she just laughs. Carla writes, “My daughter? Caring? I wouldn’t have thought so!” I don’t understand a lot of sarcasm but that one was clear. I laugh. We don’t mention Pemma’s father at all, but I tell her about my parents, and how it’s a shame she never met them- and probably never will. Once I’m satisfied I’ve made a good impression on her, I suggest we take our leave. As much as I love it, it’s exhausting. If I died now, I wouldn’t mind. I feel like I’m on cloud nine- Pemma holding my hand, Carla and the kids love me, my friends accept my fate. This is perfect.
The next morning, I wake up- or at least I think I wake up. I try to, but everything is still black. I shout, scream for Pemma, but I don’t know if she’s there. I scream into the void for what seems like hours, until somehow my vision starts to clear, like images in the fog. Pemma is there. I am on the sofa, she’s crying. She shakily writes something on the whiteboard, noticing my eyes have focused.
“The ambulance is on its way, as are Colin and Eden. Darcy and Joel will meet us at the hospital. I’m sorry.”
This is it. I thought I’d have longer, the doctors said maybe years, maybe not. I thought I’d be lucky. I take another glimpse at Pemma’s board, as it says “Day six-hundred and seventy-five.” Then, I sleep.
Once again, I wake up in a hospital bed. I’ve been in here so many times; it’s like my second home. I try to move, but I can’t. I’m surrounded by my friends, and somehow, my parents. How did they get here?
Pemma looks at me with pitying eyes as if she knows something I don’t. My vision is blurring at the edges- the details of her worry-etched face are fading. My final sense will go soon. Her whiteboard reads, ‘I love you, Glenn.’ I frown.
The real Pemma would never say that.
She holds up her whiteboard, for the last time. It reads, ‘She wouldn’t. The human imagination is a great thing.’ After a brief moment of confusion, I realise. Then, everything turns black.
Did I ever leave my coma?