The door opens just as I’m walking over to it.
“There you are,” she says, relief evident in her voice. “I got worried. You weren’t in your room.” She comes in further and her eyes widen as she takes in the chaos surrounding us. “Did we have an earthquake?” she asks. Eventually she realizes the mess is man-made. She turns on me, confused. “Sweetheart, what’s going on?”
“Am I sick?” I ask. My blood beats too loudly in my ears.
“What did you say?”
“Am I sick?” I say it louder this time.
Her burgeoning anger dissipates replaced by concern. “Do you feel sick?”
She reaches out a hand to touch me, but I push it away.
The hurt on her face makes me slightly ill, but I press. “No, that’s not what I mean. Do I have SCID?”
Her concern morphs into exasperation and a little pity. “Is this still about that letter?”
“Yes,” I say. “And Carla, too. She said that maybe you weren’t OK.”
What am I accusing her of exactly? “Where are all the papers?” I demand.
She takes a deep breath to steady herself. “Madeline Whittier, what are you talking about?”
“You have records for everything, but there’s nothing about SCID in here. Why can’t I find anything?” I grab the red folder from the ground and shove it at her. “You have everything else.”
“What are you talking about?” she asks. “Of course it’s in here.”
I’m not sure what I was expecting her to say, but that was not it. Does she really believe it’s all here?
She clutches the folder to her chest like she’s trying to make it a part of herself. “Did you look carefully? I keep everything.”
She walks over to her desk and clears a space. I watch her as she examines the files, rearranging them, smoothing her hands over pages that don’t need smoothing.
After a while she looks up at me. “Did you take them? I know they were in here.” Her voice is thick with confusion and, also, fear.
And that’s when I know for sure.
I am not sick and I never have been.
I run from the office. The hallway stretches out before me and it is endless. I’m in the air lock and it is windless. I’m outside and my breath is soundless.
My heart is beatless.
I vomit all the nothing in my stomach. Bile burns the back of my throat.
I’m crying and the cool morning air chills the tears on my face.
I’m laughing and the cold invades my lungs.
I’m not sick. I’ve never been sick.
All the emotions I’ve held in check over the past twenty-four hours crash over me. Hope and despair, anticipation and regret, joy and anger. How is it possible to have an emotion and its opposite at the same time? I’m struggling in a black ocean, a life jacket across my chest, an anchor on my leg.
My mom catches up to me. Her face is a ruin of fear. “What are you doing? What are you doing? You have to get inside.”
My vision tunnels and I hold her in my sights. “Why, Mom? Why do I have to go inside?”
“Because you’re sick. Bad things could happen to you out here.”
She reaches out to me to pull me toward her, but I jerk away from her.
“No. I’m not going back in.”
“Please,” she begs. “I can’t lose you, too. Not after everything.”
Her eyes are on me, but I know without a doubt that she’s not seeing me at all.
“I lost them. I lost your dad and I lost your brother. I couldn’t lose you, too. I just couldn’t.”
Her face crumbles, falls completely apart. Whatever structures were holding it up give way in a sudden and catastrophic failure.
She’s broken. She’s been broken for a long time. Carla was right. She never recovered from their deaths.
I say something. I don’t know what, but she keeps talking.
“Right after they died you got so, so sick. You wouldn’t breathe right and I drove you to the emergency room and we had to stay there for three days. And they didn’t know what was wrong. They said it was probably an allergy. They gave me a list of things to stay away from, but I knew it was more than that.”
She nods her head. “I knew it was more than that. I had to protect you. Anything can happen to you out here.”
She looks around. “Anything can happen to you out here. In the world.”
I should feel compassion. But that’s not what I feel. Anger rises in me and crowds everything else out.
“I’m not sick,” I scream. “I’ve never been sick. You’re the one.” I stab the air in front of her face. I watch as she shrinks into herself and disappears.
“Come inside,” she whispers. “I’ll protect you. Stay with me. You’re all I have.”
Her pain is endless. It falls off the ends of the world.
Her pain is a dead sea.
Her pain is for me, but I cannot bear it anymore.
Once upon a time there was a girl whose entire life was a lie.
A universe that can wink into existence can wink out again.
Beginnings and Ends
Four days pass. I eat. I do homework. I don’t read. My mom walks around in a fugue state. I don’t think she understands what’s happened. She seems to realize that she has something to atone for, but she’s not sure exactly what it is. Sometimes she tries to talk to me, but I ignore her. I barely even look at her.
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