Only ten minutes had passed from when I’d plopped myself down in a plush cushioned chair inside the sunny waiting room until I saw scuffed white sneakers creep into the line of my vision. I’d been busy staring at the wood floors and thinking that private care facilities must bring in a lot of money to have such expensive-looking dark wood.
Then again, Charlie Clark’s parents had spared no expense when it came to their only son’s long-term care. Got him in the best facility in Philadelphia. The amount of money they spent yearly had to be astronomical—and definitely more than I made bartending at Mona’s and doing web design on the side.
I imagined they thought it made up for the fact they visited Charlie only once a year, for like twenty minutes. There were better, more forgiving people in the world than me, because the familiar burn of irritation I felt whenever I thought about his parents was hard to ignore as I dragged my gaze up to the welcoming smile plastered across the nurse’s face. I blinked once and then twice, not recognizing the copper hair or the fresher, younger hazel eyes.
This lady was new.
She glanced up at the top of my head and her stare lingered on my hair for a moment longer than normal, but her smile didn’t falter. It wasn’t like my hair was that crazy. I’d switched out the deep red streaks for chunky purple ones a few days ago, but it did look like a hot mess in the quick bun I’d twisted the long lengths into. I’d closed down the bar last night, which meant I hadn’t gotten home until after three in the morning, and getting up, brushing my teeth, and washing my face before I made the drive into the city was a hell of a feat.
“Roxanne Ark?” she said as she stopped in front of me, clasping her hands together.
My brain screeched to a halt at the sound of my full name. My parents were bizarre. Like there was a good chance they were cokeheads in the eighties or something. I was named after the song “Roxanne,” and my brothers were Gordon and Thomas, which mostly made up Sting’s real name.
“Yes,” I said, reaching for the tote bag I’d brought with me.
Her smile remained firmly in place as she motioned to the closed double doors. “Nurse Venter is out today, but she explained that you come every Friday afternoon at noon, so we have Charlie ready.”
“Oh no, is she okay?” Concern pinged around me. Nurse Venter had become a friend over the last six years I visited. So much so that I knew her youngest son was finally getting married in October, and her middle child had just had her first grandchild last month, in July.
“She’s come down with an end-of-summer cold,” she explained. “She actually wanted to come in today, but we all figured it would be better if she took the weekend to recover.” The new nurse stepped aside as I stood. “She did tell me that you like to read to Charlie?”
I nodded as I tightened my grip on my tote.
Stopping at the doors, she tugged off her clipped name badge and swiped it over a sensor on the wall. There was a popping sound and then she pushed the door open. “He’s had an okay couple of days. Not as great as we’d like,” she continued as we stepped in the wide, brightly lit hall. The walls were white and bare. No personality. Nothing. “But he was up early this morning.”
My neon-green flip-flops smacked off the tile floors but the nurse’s sneakers made no noise. We passed the hall I knew led to the community room. Charlie was never a fan of hanging out in there, which was so strange, because before . . . before he’d been hurt, he’d been such a social butterfly.
He’d been a lot of things.
Charlie’s room was down another hall, a wing specially designed to have views of the sprawling green landscape and the therapeutic pool that Charlie had never enjoyed. He hadn’t been much of a swimmer before, but every time I saw that damn pool outside, I wanted to punch something. I don’t know what it was about it, maybe because it was something the rest of us took for granted—the ability to swim on our own—or maybe it was the fact that water always seemed so limitless to me, but Charlie’s future was severely limited.
The nurse stopped outside of his closed door. “When you’re ready to leave, you know the drill.”
I did. When I left, I had to stop by the nurses’ station and check out. I guessed they wanted to make sure I wasn’t trying to steal Charlie away or something. With a happy little nod in my direction, the nurse spun in her sneakers and power walked back down the hall.
Staring at the door for a moment, I drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. I had to every time I saw Charlie. It was the only way to get the messy ball of emotion—all that disappointment, anger, and sadness—out of me before I walked into the room. I never wanted Charlie to see that. Sometimes I failed, but I always tried.
Only when I thought I could smile without looking slightly crazed, I opened the door, and like every Friday for the last six years, seeing Charlie was like taking a throat punch.
He was sitting in a chair in front of the large floor-to-ceiling window—in his chair. It was one of those papasan chairs with a vibrant blue cushion. He’d had it since he was sixteen, got it for his birthday just a few months before everything changed for him.
Charlie didn’t look up when I stepped into the room and closed the door behind me. He never did.
The room wasn’t bad at all, rather spacious with a full-sized bed neatly made by one of the nurses, a desk I knew he never used, and a TV that I’d never, in the six years, seen turned on.
Sitting in that chair, looking out the window, he was so thin, beyond willowy. Nurse Venter told me that they had trouble getting him to eat three square meals a day, and when they tried to change it to five smaller meals, that hadn’t worked either. A year ago, it had gotten so bad they had to do a feeding tube, and I could still taste that fear, because I thought I’d lose him then.
His blond hair had been washed this morning, but it wasn’t styled and was much shorter than how he used to wear it. Charlie had favored that artfully messy look and he had rocked it. Today, he was wearing a white shirt and gray sweat pants, not even the cool kind. No, these had those elastic bands at the ankle, and God, he would’ve thrown a fit if he knew he’d be wearing them now—rightfully so, because Charlie . . . well, he had style and taste and so much.
Walking toward the second papasan chair with a matching blue cushion I’d bought three years ago, I cleared my throat. “Hey, Charlie.”
He didn’t look.