You Should Be Alive

Caroline flinched as the needle went into her arm.

“You’re fine,” the nurse assured her. “Stop flinching.”

Caroline doubted that. She had doubted everything since she had woken up in a hospital gown with an IV in one arm and a handcuff around her other wrist keeping her in the bed. She wondered what had happened and wanted to ask, but no one seemed to understand her when she spoke. Instead, people in white gowns bustled in and out of the room with clipboards and tablets, every so often looking at the machines around her before exiting again.

A little while later, she had woken up again to see a doctor leaning over her, his face covered by a hospital mask—except his eyes which scanned back and forth across her forehead and hairline. She tried to speak. He ignored her and looked instead at the screen over her shoulder. His eyelashes were darker than any she had ever seen, long black lines clumped into groups around dark eyes, like short legs of spiders splaying out around a thick black body. He tapped the machine behind her with one finger, gloved blue.

“Hm, not working right,” he murmured. “I’ll check on you later.” Caroline had the uncanny feeling that he was talking to the machine and not her. She tried to say something else, but instead coughed over her words, crunching up to try to loosen them from her throat. The doctor patted the machine next to her and walked out of the room.

She was there—lying in bed between sleeping and waking—for three days. On the fourth, the handcuff was gone, and she heard music pumping down the hallway. She saw a girl about her age going past the door in a wheelchair, holding the strings to a cluster of red balloons that bobbed above her head as she rolled.

Caroline forgot about her IV and the machines clicking around her. She wanted to be at the party too, just like she had wanted so much to be at her parents’ parties when she was a little kid. Instead, she would be put to bed upstairs early in the evening. She would slip out of her room ten minutes later to sit at the top of the stairs and listen to the clinking of knives on plates. She would lean on the bannister until her head began nodding off in sleep. Usually she fell asleep there on the cream-colored carpet at the top of the stairs, waking up in her bed the next morning after her parents’ party was long over.

Now, she lay on her hospital bed wondering when she would be wheeled to the party. Her eyes flickered around the room when she spotted a black fleck on her pillow. Was it a spider, a bug? Was it moving toward her? Her vision focused on it but she still couldn’t tell what it was. She moved her hand over, the IV cord dragging across her sheets.

Her fingers found it—a fuzz. A black fuzz, probably from her fleece jacket, not a bug. But her fleece jacket seemed a million miles from here. She remembered it now, remembered tugging it on before school one day, grabbing her backpack behind her, and letting the weight of her sixth grade textbooks pull her down toward the ground. She had gone to school and learned about the periodic table. She saw it rippling past her now. Na Cl P Au. It flickered and was gone. She didn’t want that world now—math and science and machines and beeping. She wanted her fleece and the backpack and the start of sixth grade in the fall. Or at least she wanted to be at the red balloon party down the hall.

Feeling her feet at the end of her legs, she wiggled her ankles. Her hands were already this far over. Why couldn’t she just get up? She did, sitting up with a sharp cough. Her feet dangled over the edge of the bed, no longer warmed under the blanket.

Looking at the IV machine, she thought about dragging it behind her down the hall as she had seen other people do. Instead, she reached for the bandage on her hand and pulled the needle out. A splotch of blue formed around the needle prick and red dots gathered where the tape had held the needle in her skin. She touched it with her other hand, and shivered. It felt like someone else’s hand now, another person who laid in bed and was ignored by everyone else, not her with her backpack and fleece and math class in seventh period.

When Caroline was born, it was with a big wail. She had the biggest yawns, her mom always told her. Big yawns, big cries, big voice, little girl. That was the rhythm, a defining cadence that her parents had set for her that she lived in rhythm with all her life. Caroline had a big voice and a lot to say. She was a ballerina and she was great at math. These were the first things she really knew about herself. Now that she was in sixth grade, she was beginning to add new facts. She was skinny, but maybe too skinny, looking straight up and down in every mirror, like the sticker of a baby giraffe that was on the wall of her doctor’s office where she went when she had strep throat.

Caroline coughed again. Strep throat? No, her throat didn’t sting with every swallow the way it used to. This was different. Her throat didn’t hurt. Her toes and legs and arms and fingers felt fine, other than her IV dot. Her head even felt fine, not like the times she fell off the monkey bars doing tricks in elementary school, getting dirt and blood in her teeth from the fall into the woodchips. Her face was fine, her eyes felt fine, and her ears didn’t hurt.

She stepped onto the cold floor and lifted herself out of the bed. It felt wonderful to be up again, to let the air move around her. She turned in a full circle like the globe in her fourth grade classroom. She turned once and again. She was a globe again and not a map, lying flat on a bed all day. Walking to the door of the room, she saw the hallway completely white with one blue stripe down the middle. At the end, red balloons bobbed by a table of gifts.

Caroline smiled and started toward the party. She wanted to be there too.

Halfway down the hallway, she felt a yank of her hair. A nurse shouted and grabbed her back. Suddenly the party released from around the corner, and the doctors and nurses who had been in her room all week rushed toward her at once. They grabbed her and pulled her onto a bed that someone had rolled into the hallway. She realized it was her own bed that she had just climbed out of, still warm from her body.

The nurses sat her up and the dark-eyed doctor came running down the hall. Without his mask on, his lips were even more prominent than his eyes, large round lips like the drawing of a child or a villainous cartoon. Caroline tried to talk again. “I just want to go to the party!”

At the end of the hall, the girl in the wheelchair wheeled into view, facing her as the doctor forced a mask over Caroline’s face. The girl had straight brown hair and she looked at Caroline with her head to one side. She still held onto a red balloon and when she saw Caroline looking at it, she pulled it closer in to her body and wheeled away around the corner.

Later, Caroline woke up again. The room was dark and she was back in her bed at home—no, the hospital bed. Not her real bed at all. These sheets were a perfect white and had a rough seam at the top that sat awkwardly along her chin when she slept. Her bed at home had purple flannel sheets on for the chilly weather, long striped sheets that her mom bought for winter and pulled out joyously each November. Caroline wouldn’t know they were on her bed until she went to go to sleep. Then she would pull down her covers and see them and her mom would drift toward her room to watch as she dove in for her first warm night of fall.

But now in the dark, the sheets looked a yellow gray, with one long stripe from the crack in the door where hallway light drifted in. As Caroline fell back asleep, she realized that the IV was back in her hand, taped in place again.

Not long after, Caroline jerked awake, her fingers coiling around the IV line as it crept across her covers. Her whole body woke up, and she felt her toes poking up from the sheet below her, her back sweating behind her, and her head pressing firmly into the pillow. A moment later, she realized why.

Next to her, the girl in the wheelchair sat, staring at her as she slept. Caroline jumped. “What are you doing here?” Caroline asked, and for once, someone answered.

The girl leaned in, looking at Caroline’s eyes directly. The girl had hazel eyes that sat on her face like round acorns dropped from a tree, perfect drops of intensity on her pale face. She reached a hand forward and prodded Caroline’s arm.

“You should be alive,” she said.

“What?” Caroline asked, hoping the girl could still understand her.

“It’s too bad. If you were alive, you could come to my party. But machines aren’t allowed,” the girl’s eyebrows stitched together and she seemed to be wheeling herself forward in her mind, trying to get as far down this hallway while the door was still open.

Caroline looked at her. “I am alive,” she said. “I’m right here.”

“That’s what they all say,” said the girl, leaning back in her chair. “But they never are.” She sighed. “It’s too bad. You seem fun.”

The girl started to wheel out of the room, but turned back to hand Caroline something. “Do you want this? We’re not supposed to give them to you guys but I don’t think you’ll get hurt. It’s from my party.”

The girl placed a chocolate chip cookie into Caroline’s hand. Caroline grabbed it and smiled. “I love chocolate!”

The girl laughed. “That’s just what you’re supposed to say.” She wheeled out of the room and the only light remaining was the same patch of hallway light slanting across the sheets.

“Stop flinching,” the nurse said, prodding again for a vein. Caroline watched the nurse lean in again. She wasn’t wearing a mask, and Caroline hadn’t seen anyone’s face this close in a long time without them wearing a mask. Little lines carved a deep crisscross pattern in her cheeks. The two lines between her eyebrows got deeper as she leaned in again to find a vein.

“It hurts,” Caroline said again. The nurse kept trying.

“I’m alive, you know,” Caroline said, watching her veins squirm away from the needle again.

The nurse looked up at her. “Who told you that?”

Caroline squirmed in the sheets, waving her toes back and forth under them, making mountains and valleys at the bottom of her bed. “No one needed to tell me that,” she said, “I just know.”

The nurse watched her for another second. “Well, I suppose you thinking that won’t change anything.” She finally found a vein and together they watched blood pump into the tube the nurse had attached.

A few minutes later the doctor came in. He leaned over to the machine on the other side of the bed. Clicking the button on top, he stepped back. Then, for the first time, he looked Caroline in the eyes. “Try not to turn on in the middle of the night anymore. It only makes the daytimes harder. Goodnight.”

Before he left the room, Caroline felt her eyes shut and she was asleep again.

Story by Natalie Mills

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