“There she is.”
“No, that’s not her.”
“It says ‘Stacey McGill’ by her door, you dweeb.”
“Oh, my Lord, you guys are totally useless.”
I stirred in my bed, glancing over my shoulder at the door to my room. You’d think they’d know who I am by now, I thought, annoyed. I’ve only been here for a month.
I absolutely hate hospitals, and one of the worst things about them is how impersonal they are. Doctors, nurses, orderlies, aides – there’s a constant stream of people walking in and out the door, at all hours of the day and night, no less, but none of them can be bothered to learn your name.
Still, there usually wasn’t a group of them all at once – and, if there was, they weren’t fighting over my identity. I listened to the muffled whispers for a moment longer, curiosity claiming me as the door eased open. I turned gingerly in my bed, reaching for the bedside lamp.
“Stacey?” called an uncertain voice. “Are you in here?”
A moment later, my best friend’s head appeared around the corner.
“Claudia!” I cried, surprise and happiness flooding through me. “What are you doing here?”
Claud’s expression melted into a grin. “Oh, Stacey!” she replied, throwing her arms out as she approached my bed. “It’s so good to see you!”
I sat up against the pillows, eager for a bit of instrument-less human contact. She leaned over my bed, hugging me as best she could around all of the machines that were hooked up to me. It felt so nice to have someone’s arms around me who gave a damn, for a change.
“Stacey?” came another, tentative voice.
I glanced up as Claudia let me go, another, rather more unpleasant bolt of surprise jolting through me as Mary Anne Spier walked into my line of vision. “Mary Anne?” I asked uncertainly.
Her brown eyes were wide and rapidly filling with tears as she walked to the opposite side of my bed from where Claudia stood, taking in the sight of me and all the surrounding equipment. “Oh, Stacey,” she blubbered, gathering me in her arms. “What happened to you?”
Just as I opened my mouth to respond, I became aware of another presence in the room. Claudia shifted away as I glanced over, and nothing less than total astonishment coursed over me. No less than Kristy freakin’ Thomas herself stood there, shifting her weight from one leg to the other, looking just as uncomfortable as I felt.
Kristy, I thought, unable to tear my gaze away. Wow, talk about the last person I ever expected to see…
Mary Anne finally let me go, and I fell back against my pillows, trying to reconcile the sight before me. It had been years since the four of us had voluntarily been in the same room, and I couldn’t imagine what had brought them all here now. In fact, I was a little embarrassed that they were seeing me like this. Here we were, sixteen-year-old juniors in high school, and they were crowding into a room on the children’s ward. My room had walls that were too white, and was decorated with childish murals of smiling suns and happy-face flowers. Mercifully, I was dressed in my normal pajamas, and had the ability now to get up, shower, and change on a daily basis, but I knew I looked scary, lying in bed and hooked up to an arsenal of medical monitoring equipment.
I’d thought of the day when I’d talk to my ex-BSC friends again, with increasingly regularity over the last few weeks, in fact, but needless to say, it wasn’t supposed to happen like this.
“Stacey,” Mary Anne said quietly, breaking the tension that had risen in the room. “What happened?”
I looked over at her. High school hadn’t changed her much; she was still short and tiny and delicate, appearing almost overwhelmed by the bouquet of flowers she cradled in her arms. Tears streamed unabated down her cheeks, her expression a strange mixture of fear, curiosity, and compassion. Good old reliable Mary Anne, I thought, my eyes falling away from her. Why did we ever drift apart?
I felt Claudia’s hand slip supportively into mine, and I bit my lip to keep my own tears at bay. “It’s my diabetes,” I explained, forcing my voice into some semblance of calm. “It’s gotten worse.”
“We figured that much,” Kristy cut in, stepping forward and looping her hands over the footboard of my hospital bed. Her voice was devoid of its usual arrogance. “We saw you collapse at school.”
My cheeks burned at the memory. It was a moment straight out of my worst nightmare – I had been in the middle of the cafeteria, arguing with Rick, my boyfriend, when I stood up too fast and collapsed to the ground, immediately falling unconscious. Claudia told me later that there had been a big brouhaha as I was taken out, on a stretcher by paramedics and everything, and that the rumors had started almost immediately.
Just like sixth grade. Just like Parker Academy in New York.
And, just like had happened back then, none of my so-called friends had come to visit me in the hospital.
“We were just worried, when you didn’t come back to school,” Mary Anne added, bringing me back to the present. “You’d never been gone this long before.”
I shrugged. “My diabetes has never been this out of control before,” I replied tonelessly.
Claudia patted my hand. “She was in a diabetic coma when they brought her in,” she told the others. “She’s been on a constant IV drip ever since.”
I nodded. “A couple of days ago, they implanted an insulin pump in my abdomen, and the doctors are still trying to figure out how much, of what kind, of insulin I need to take.”
Kristy’s eyes fell to the bottom of the bed. “That sucks,” she murmured sympathetically.
“Yeah,” I sighed. “It does.”
Mary Anne’s brow furrowed slightly. “So the daily injections – ?”
“Haven’t worked for awhile,” I finished, a strange sense of déjà vu curling through me. How weird to think that so much time had passed since we’d really been friends – I’d been struggling with my daily injection schedule for years. I’m a brittle diabetic, which means my diabetes is harder to control than most, and the raging hormones of puberty had wreaked havoc on my system.
Mary Anne simply nodded, even though I could tell she didn’t completely understand. Her expression brightened a little when she realized she was still carrying the flowers, and she stepped forward, laying them across my lap. “These are for you,” she said, trying to smile through her obvious upset. “I wasn’t sure what else you’d like…”
That did it. I picked up one of the blossoms, fingering its petals as the tears crept from the corners of my eyes. “Thank you,” I choked out. “I appreciate it.”
They didn’t know how much I appreciated their presence at that moment. Outside of my own family, I hadn’t seen any familiar faces in the last few weeks. I’d missed my friends from school terribly, but any time I’d call them, they would be out, or they’d have a convenient excuse not to come. Claudia had snuck in a couple of times, after visiting hours, and had been keeping me informed of all the gossip at school.
That was how I’d learned Rick had dumped me, and the cheerleaders had filled my place on the squad.
I never let on how much those things hurt me, but they did. Ever since I started SHS, I’d been working hard on my social life. My goals were silly, in retrospect, but I really wanted a different image than the one I carried with me into Stoneybrook Middle School. I wanted to be a cheerleader. I wanted to be on the homecoming court. I wanted to be prom queen.
For all that, I’d given up a life I was comfortable with. I’d quit the Baby-sitters Club at the beginning of ninth grade, incurring Kristy’s wrath for what I thought was forever. I purposefully let my BSC friends go, determined to find a way into the ‘in’ crowd with the popular kids. And, for a time, it had worked. At the beginning of my junior year, it seemed like all of my goals were finally in reach. I was still pulling As and Bs in my classes, too, so I’d even been inducted into the academic honor society.
Then, it seemed like life had happened all at once. My dad remarried, and his new wife had another baby. My mom got serious about her career, striking out on her own to start a junior boutique in Stoneybrook. So many changes all at once just added to the stress I was already feeling – at school, at home – and my diabetes went totally out of whack. No matter what I did, no matter how much I adjusted my injection schedule or my diet, I still lost control.
And ended up flat on my face in the cafeteria, something that hadn’t happened to me in almost five years.
“So,” Kristy piped up, clearing her throat, “has anyone else been by to see you? Rick, or Dori, or Corinne – ?”
I shook my head slowly, a flush of heat rising up the back of my neck. I continued to play with the flowers, fingering the outlines of each one as if it was the most fascinating thing in the world. If I bit my lip any harder, I was going to draw blood.
I could sense that the others were exchanging a look between themselves.
Kristy let out a soft chuckle. “Do you remember last time?” she asked. “Those hard plastic chairs in the hospital in New York?”
I looked up, wiping the tears from my eyes as I focused on her. “Yeah,” I recalled, smiling at the memory. She, Claud, Mary Anne, and Dawn had come all the way into the city to visit me – not once, but twice – when I’d gotten sick during eighth grade. They’d piled me down with cards and presents and questions from the kids at school, our baby-sitting charges, and even a couple of teachers and parents.
“And poor Charlotte Johansson,” Mary Anne added. “She was so worried about you that she was half-convinced the only way she’d see you again was if she got sick enough to be in the hospital, too.”
I nodded. “I remember.”
Isn’t it funny? Three years ago, I had the world at my feet – tons of friends who cared about me, a huge network of support from teachers and parents and the families I baby-sat for – and now? Now, I was blubbering over a bouquet of flowers a former friend had picked up from the hospital gift shop.
I hadn’t talked to Mary Anne or Kristy more than in passing in nearly two years. I wouldn’t blame them if they hated me for the way I abandoned them at the start of our freshman year. Sometimes, I hated myself.
And yet, here they were, the first visitors I’d had outside of my family and Claud since the start of this whole ordeal. Maybe there was something left of our friendship just yet…
I glanced up at Claudia. Our friendship had endured, even as the others had waned. I still considered her my best friend, even though we mostly ran in different circles at school now. I went to her art showings, and she came to the football games to watch me cheerlead. She still dressed just as outrageously as before, and she still made me jewelry for my birthday. She’d even come with me on my last trip to the city to visit my dad, for moral support (okay, and to see the latest installation at MOMA).
Never before had I been so grateful for her.
Claudia smiled before glancing towards my door. “Maybe we should go,” she said, turning back to me. “It sounds like the nurses are up for the morning.”
I closed my eyes, concentrating on the noises in the hall. I knew the hospital schedule down to a science. “Is it 7:32?” I asked, looking up at my friends again.
Mary Anne looked at the clock above my head. “Yup,” she confirmed.
I wrinkled my nose. “Ugh,” I groaned, “almost time for vitals.”
Claudia patted my hand sympathetically. “And school,” she added, sounding none-too-thrilled by the prospect. “Hey, listen, we’ll come back by this afternoon, okay?”
I perked up at that. “You will?”
Claud nodded, but it was Kristy who spoke up. “Yeah,” she said, with a firm nod of her head. “We all will.” When I turned my attention to her, she gave a little half-shrug. “It’s not the same without you.”
I could feel tears welling up behind my eyes again. They still care about me, I thought. After all we’ve been through, they still give a damn about me.
Mary Anne reached down to hug me again. “Get well soon, Stace,” she said, squeezing me tight.
“Thanks,” I whispered in response.
Claudia and Kristy also gave me hugs before saying goodbye, trying to look cheerful as they filed out of my room. They almost made it, too, before Kristy opened her big mouth.
“Hey,” she said, suddenly sounding annoyed, “I thought we asked you to wait in the car!”
“You did,” came another voice, one that sounded easy and amused by Kristy’s impatience, “but you guys were taking so long that I got bored. Besides, you aren’t the only ones who wanted to see Stacey.”
I arched my brow when I heard my name. This new voice sounded familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it.
There was a small scuffle outside the door that sounded like pushing or shoving. “Geez, Kristy, give it up!” the boy laughed. “This’ll only take a second, okay?”
“Okay,” Kristy huffed. “But hurry. We don’t want to be late for school.”
“Or get caught by the nurses,” Claud added nervously.
“Since when you have ever cared about school?” the guy joked, his voice growing progressively louder as he walked into my room. When he turned to face me, I nearly fell off the bed.
“Hey, Stace,” Sam Thomas greeted me, an easy smile playing on his lips. He strolled over to the side of my bed and sank into the mattress. “How are you feeling?”
How was I feeling?! How about absolutely and totally embarrassed, for starters? I knew I looked terrible – bed hair, splotchy skin, puffy eyes – not to mention I was in a room in the children’s wing of the hospital. That clock above my head? It was in the shape of a bright yellow sun, smiling down on me from its nest of blue-and-silver painted clouds.
And then, of course, there was the fact that I was lying there in my pajamas with nothing but a sheet and two thin blankets between me and him. The last time we’d been alone together in a room with a bed, we’d ended up naked and very much together.
Admittedly, that happened awhile ago, before the drama and ensuing sickness had taken hold. In fact, I hadn’t seen him since he’d started college last fall. Even so, I couldn’t stop the rush of crush-like feelings that usually overwhelmed me in his presence, especially when I was sick and tired and caught off-guard.
“I’m okay,” I managed to choke out, a thrill of heat winding through my body when he rested his hand casually on my knee.
He studied me for a moment, and I flushed under the intensity of his gaze. “When Kristy mentioned that you’d been in the hospital for a month…” His voice trailed off as he averted his eyes. “I didn’t know what to think.”
“You asked your sister about me?” I asked, unable to help but feel a little flattered. We’d dated a bit since eighth grade, enough for him to know that my friendship with Kristy was pretty much non-existent these days.
“And Claudia,” he admitted, a hint of color touching his cheeks. He squeezed my knee. “I still care, you know? I wish I had known sooner, so I could’ve visited.”
“All the way from Hawaii?” I teased, the corners of my lips pulling up into a smile.
His gaze swiveled towards me. “Yeah,” he replied, his tone completely serious. “I would’ve come in a heartbeat.”
For a long moment, all I could do was hold his gaze, my heart beating heavily in my chest. His expression was honest and open and intense, and I recognized a lot of the emotions there – it was the same way that I felt about him. Our friendship had run a long and complicated course, each of us wishing at different points that it could’ve been something more, if only we could ever get the timing right.
How desperately I wished for that very same thing right now.
“But,” he sighed, holding up the bag he’d been carrying, “I guess this will have to do in the meanwhile.”
I sat up in the bed, reaching for the bag, trepidation filling me as I peeked inside. Sam had a weird sense of humor sometimes, and I wasn’t sure I could handle a gag gift at the moment. Mercifully, it was nothing of the sort – although, I have to admit, I was a bit puzzled by it.
“A sweatshirt?” I queried, pulling out big, gray sweatshirt emblazoned with the SHS logo.
He nodded and smiled. “You’re always complaining of being cold, right? I think I lost count of the number of jackets you stole from me, back in the day. So here’s something to keep you warm…” He shrugged. “…and maybe remind you of being normal.”
“Oh, Sam, you big doofus,” I teased, wrapping my arms around his shoulders and hugging him as close as I dared. My torso ached in protest at the site of the implanted insulin pump, but I didn’t care. I breathed deeply, reveling in the way his arms closed around me. “Thank you.”
“Any time, Stace,” he murmured, pressing a soft, fleeting kiss to the base of my neck. “Any time.” He held me tight for another moment, until the untimely knock on my door by the orderly wheeling in the vital signs cart.
Sam let me go, pulling away with a regretful sigh. “I should probably go,” he said. “The peanut gallery doesn’t want to be late for school.”
I nodded, leaning back against my pillows. “I understand,” I said, yawning. “Call me sometime?”
He smiled. “Sure,” he agreed, standing up and quickly moving out of the way. The orderly busied himself with one of the machines, so I waved goodbye as Sam strolled out of the room.
“Having a good morning?” the orderly asked, lifting my wrist to take my pulse.
I brought the sweatshirt up to my nose and inhaled deeply, pleasantly surprised to find Sam’s scent lingering there.
“The best,” I answered with a smile.