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“Okay, Thana, today’s the day!”
The nurse’s voice wakes Thana from a shallow rest, not quite sleep. She’s been less than awake since checking into the hospital, but she hasn’t gotten any real sleep either. Her brain feels foggy, her body indistinct. There are too many interruptions here, and it smells so strange. She can’t get used to the astringent odour or the murmuring and beeping that never stop. It’s a place in constant flux, and she wonders how anyone can relax here. Thana has described her hospital stays to her best friend, Wei, as visiting a place between worlds where life and death meet like an estuary, where miracles and tragedies are so profuse that they become ordinary. Wei isn’t sick. She only comes here to visit Thana, but both girls agree that this kind of energy is powerful and strange.
Today’s the day, Thana thinks, marvelling at the nurse’s words. Finally, her time is up again and she can go back to real life. The words are soothing even though she knows she’ll have to come back. She’ll get to sink into her own bed, snuggled up in her brightly coloured room with the TV on and no strangers coming in and out of the room. With the sunlight still streaming through her yellow curtains, she'll let herself drift into a deep sleep. In dreams, she can forget the tests and specialists and medications. Once she’s out of this hospital, with its flickering lights and endless sighs, it won’t seem as bad to be sick. Wei can come visit in Thana’s own room, and Thana won’t feel as delicate and awkward as she does when Wei visits at the hospital.
“Let’s get you cleaned up and ready to go home, huh?” the nurse says. She nods and sits up, and he brushes back the thin, coarse blanket to remove the electrodes from her chest. She studies him as he wipes away the sticky paste that had held them on. His big eyes are kind and gentle beneath two thick eyebrows, long and straight. Thana likes the way his eyes crinkle when he smiles. In those moments, he seems to see her, really see her, the person behind the electrodes and charts.
She’s gotten used to all the people here who view her not as a person but as a bag of blood. She’s just a case study to them, and even though they try to hide this weird relationship they have by asking her how she’s doing and what’s going on at school, she can always tell they’re eager to move on to the next body and just get through the workday. If they do take an interest, what they really care about is cracking the case, finding a diagnosis that sticks. They don’t want to know her. They want to find a word that explains what’s going on in her body, all the symptoms they’ve had a hard time pinning down. This nurse, Llewyn, is different. She can see it in his eyes and hear it in his voice. Thana has met plenty of nice enough nurses and specialists since she’s gotten sick, but there’s a difference between politeness and kindness.
Llewyn takes her arm and helps her step out of the bed. An ache of attraction for him startles her, and she reprimands her body for its betrayal. She feels self-conscious now standing beside him with his boy band hair and slender hips. Her mother said she’d grown “like a weed,” and it made Thana feel unnatural and ugly. She did feel like a weed, all unplanned and sprawling, standing out like some kind of mistake. She didn’t go with anything, or with anyone, and she’d been unable to shake that feeling. Getting sick had only made her self-esteem worse. More than anything, she wants to be smaller and healthy again. She doesn’t feel like herself, and no one seems to understand how she’s changed, not even Wei. She wants to tell Llewyn everything as he leans close to examine her eyes one last time, all about how she’s become just a shadow of herself. She thinks he would get it even though he probably isn’t sick himself. But looming over him, looking down to meet his eyes, she feels too huge. She’s acutely aware of every inch of space she takes up. She feels silly and ashamed for even feeling some kind of connection with him. He could never see anything like that in her.
“Alright,” Llewyn says, clapping his hands together in front of his chest. He passes her a bundle from the chrome and vinyl chair near the door, her regular clothes neatly folded and stacked along with the rest of her things. “Here you go.”
“Thanks,” she mutters, looking down at the slip-on shoes, cable-knit sweater, light blue jeans, and floral-print bag containing her socks, underwear, hair elastics, and toiletries. It’s easier to examine her things than to meet Llewyn’s eyes again. She wishes he would stop looking at her. He probably doesn’t mean anything by it, but she feels like an insect under a magnifying glass that just wants to crawl into some dark corner and be left alone. Fiddling with the zipper on her bag, she reminds herself that he’s just doing his job. She can already feel another headache coming on.
“You got it,” the nurse replies. He lingers a moment. Thana eyes his legs in their pale blue scrubs and wonders why he hasn’t gone. He might be deciding whether to say something else, or maybe there’s something wrong with her that’s distracted him. He could be judging her, she thinks, or just checking his phone and not even looking at her. She has no idea because her eyes are frozen in place, her tongue glued down behind her teeth. The usual ache in her abdomen pins her to this moment with relentless force. She wants to be alone. Finally, as though he’d been distracted by something, Llewyn adds, “I’ll leave you to it and I’ll go check if your parents are here yet.”
“Do you want me to send them up to meet you?”
She shakes her head and presses her lips into a smile.
“Got it. No problem. You just come down when you’re ready.” At last he turns and she sees his blue legs walk away.
The door opens and closes, and she finally releases the breath she didn’t realize she’d been holding.
Dressed in her own clothes, she feels more like herself. Her hospital gown lies on the bed, and Thana takes some comfort in the sight of it without her in it. She feels a little fuller, a little stronger, and very much ready to get out. The hospital puts her in a weird mood, she knows, and this visit has been longer than most. She’ll probably snap out of it when she gets home, she reminds herself as she takes one last look around the room to make sure she’s not forgetting anything. She tries to set her anxiety aside and direct her thoughts again to her own bed, her own quiet room. Holding her bag between her upper arm and torso, Thana steps out of the room and down the hall to the elevator. The button lights up in red as she pushes it.
Waiting, she unzips her bag and pulls out her phone. The screen shows unread messages from her dad. He must already be here to take her home. There’s a text from Wei as well, a unicorn emoji and a purple heart. Thana leaves her dad’s messages unanswered but sends Wei a dragon emoji and her own purple heart as the bell dings and the elevator doors rumble open.
Thana pockets her phone as she steps inside. There’s never any signal in the elevators. The light doesn’t turn on when she presses the button for the main floor. Sighing, she pushes the second floor button to see if it lights up. It doesn’t, but the doors slide closed, and the elevator shivers into motion. She realizes the black screen above the doors, which usually shows the current floor, isn’t working either. It just flashes “77” in big square numbers. The flashing light makes her queasy, but she can’t look away. There’s something haunting about the display, like a weird old movie in black and white, the kind that play on TV late at night on weekdays.
The elevator’s still moving, or at least Thana thinks it is, but there’s no way of knowing if she’s going up or down. Maybe she’s not really moving at all, she thinks. It could just be the mind playing tricks, a kind of placebo effect. If Thana knows anything, it’s that the body is easily fooled.
With a series of muffled clicks, the elevator lurches to a stop and the doors slide open as smoothly and slowly as ever, revealing a white hallway with grey tiles and nobody in sight. Thana mutters a curse. This could be any floor in the hospital except the main floor. She hesitates, her heart thumping in her chest. Before the doors close again, she hurries out into the hall. She doesn’t care how high up she is or how many stairs she’ll have to take to get to the main floor. She’s had enough of elevators. Besides, she reasons, looking down the eerily empty hall in both directions, she did want to stretch her legs.
She doesn’t notice any placard listing names or departments, and the hallway stretches in both directions, lined on both sides with grey doors. There’s not a soul in sight, not a sound except her own breathing and the soft scuffing of her shoes. The elevator closes behind her and rumbles off to another floor. Arbitrarily, she heads to her left down the hall and gets her phone back out to tell her dad she’s on her way.
The phone doesn’t turn on. It must have died. “Ugh,” she groans. In the silence, her voice is loud and eerily drawn out, She blushes in case anyone heard. She squeezes down the power button, hoping for just enough battery left to send the text, but the screen stays black. Great. She stuffs the phone back into the bag with another groan, quieter this time.
She walks with shoulders hunched, feeling like a child who’s wandered out of bounds and who can expect a stern reprimand around every corner. But there’s no one to direct or admonish her.
She passes door after door, all of them closed and numbered with an engraved metal plate. It must be some kind of administrative floor, she thinks. Clearly it’s not meant for the public. She’s never seen anything like this throughout all her appointments and all the facilities. Her head is swimming as much from a growing migraine as from the eeriness of this place. She wonders if she’s trapped in a dream as she walks on and on in search of a stairwell or another human being.
The creepy elevator starts to seem like a better alternative after all, but she presses on and comes to the end of the hall, where she rounds the corner onto another long hallway. This second hallway looks the same as the first one, dizzying, monotonous, and eerily still. Again she wonders if she’s still in her room, tucked under that itchy blanket with the electrodes still stuck to her chest. Maybe, any minute now, Llewyn will wake her up and tell her it’s time to get up and go home.
Her shoulders drop a bit, and she continues with more confidence. If this is all a dream, she has nothing to worry about. She’s free to keep exploring until she wakes up.
That acrid hospital smell that she can never get used to is gone. It always fills her nostrils and seeps into her clothes and hair so that she changes and washes her clothes as soon as she gets home. But there’s no trace of it here.
“This has to be a dream,” Thana murmurs, scrutinizing the painted brick walls and speckled floor as she walks. Giving up on Bosch-like dreamscapes, she hopes at least to find some sign of unreality beyond the creepy silence, but it’s all so monotonous. Just like the first hall, this one stretches straight forward a few hundred meters. Along the way, there are only more numbered grey doors—no recesses, no elevators, no intersections, and no stairs. Bright white light makes the surfaces impossibly sterile. There’s not a single window in sight.
Abruptly, Thana freezes. Her shoes squeak against the floor, and the sound echoes down the hall. She closes her eyes and breathes in deeply through her nose. Yes, it’s unmistakeable. Of all things, the distinct scent of roses wafts on the air. She takes another deep breath, her brows furrowed in confusion. Roses—like the fresh flowers her dad sometimes brings when he visits her in hospital. Maybe he’s with her now in her room, she speculates as she opens her eyes. He’s put the flowers on her bedside table, and she can smell them even though she’s asleep. That must be it.
If he’s here, she really should wake up so they can get going. She tries to open the nearest door, number 87, cautiously grasping the knob in case some nightmare is waiting to pop out at her. The handle doesn’t budge, so she tries three more doors. All are locked. She wills them to open, pictures them opening. Nothing. With a sigh, she presses on toward the end of the hall.
The hallway looks like it will turn to the right, just as before. The rooms on the right must be huge but narrow if these doors are the only entry. What on earth could they be for? Thana’s thoughts are slow like honey, and she wonders only distantly if she’s close to waking up. She feels drowsy and indifferent as the rosy perfume gets stronger. She clutches her bag from one corner, letting it hang low as she trudges along, certain now that she has a purpose of some kind. It’s good to rest, she thinks. It’s right to dream.
She rounds the corner again, but this time the hall ends abruptly. There’s no grey door on the far wall, just a single window looking into an ordinary inpatient room. There’s the gown lying on the unmade bed. There’s the heart monitor, its display all black without a patient attached. There’s the end table, and there’s the chrome and vinyl chair. It looks so peaceful in the room, so perfectly still. She wonders why she ever resented the place. Her own bedroom at home doesn’t compare, really, as overstuffed and claustrophobically colourful as it is. This is a much better choice. This is where she belongs. Hasn’t she always been safe here?
“No,” says a voice from behind her. It’s a little voice, high and soft, like something you’d hear in a children’s cartoon, but smooth as velvet. “No, Thana,” the voice repeats with strange authority. “This is not your place.”
Thana feels sad to hear this. Tearing her eyes from the window is like pulling an anchor from the sea, but she turns sorrowfully away to look at the speaker. She’s vaguely surprised not to see anyone there, blinking in confusion. But then she notices it sitting on the floor, a pure-white fox about a foot tall. Its bushy tail wraps around its haunches and its front paws with their small, curved toes. The animal is scarcely bigger than a house cat, yet the little fellow seems to loom over her. She feels small as it gazes at her with eyes like misty lakes at dawn, vivid pools of blue that smoulder with white smoke.
“Who are you?” Thana asks. Beneath her glacial calm, there’s a mental itch of some kind. She knows that something here is not quite right, but she’s too sedate to chase the thought. She can’t reach that deep inside her mind, and the idea sinks to the murky bottom.
“The humans who are chosen call me Siona,” the fox replies. Its voice is soothing, its eyes hypnotic. Its mouth doesn’t move, but it tilts its head to one side. Unblinking, the eyes regard her with a sinister intelligence.
“You know me,” Thana observes. Though it’s not really a question, she’d like an answer all the same. One ear twitches and swivels outward, but the fox’s head stays cocked. It makes no other reply, and Thana hesitates. “How do you know my name?” she asks.
The fox straightens its neck. Its pointed ears return to their neutral position. “I’ve known you a very long time,” it answers patiently. “I’m your partner,” says the musical voice.
Thana wants to tell the creature that she doesn’t need a partner, that there must be some mistake, but her tongue can’t form the words. It seems rude to protest. She presses a palm to one temple. It’s all so fuzzy. “I can’t…” she falters. “Why can’t I think?” she asks.
The fox bows and its ears splay out apologetically. “That’s my doing,” it says more softly than before. It sounds guilty, and it raises one front leg to reveal its belly.
Thana stuffs a finger into one ear, trying to relieve a dull pressure that’s built up inside her head. Her ears feel stuffed with cotton. She can’t make sense of any of this. If, she thinks, she can only get her head feeling normal, she could figure out what to do. Ignoring the fox, she pinches the back of her hand, letting her bag fall to the floor. The whole thing will stop when she wakes up.
But it’s no use. She can see perfectly clearly—the grey doors, the gleaming floor, and the pure white fox—but she’s dizzy, and her eyes won’t linger on anything too long. It’s all spinning. She needs the room to hold still so she can get her bearings back.
“I…” she falters again, now pressing her other temple.
“You understand, don’t you?” asks the fox. “I need you to listen. I need you to trust me.”
“But I can’t,” Thana protests. “I can’t understand you. This doesn’t make sense.”
The fox bows lower, and its ears flatten against its head. Thana can’t tell if the fox is quivering or if she herself is shaking. “I need to wake up,” she whispers. “I need to go back.”
“Don’t blame me, little priestess,” the fox says, cowering. The eyes are bold, though, and unafraid. “I’m only your guide,” it whines.
“My guide?” Thana asks. Now both elbows are above her head and her hands are on the back of her neck. “Why? Who sent you?” Her voice quavers and her eyelids are heavy. She wonders what happens if you fall asleep within a dream.
The fox rolls over, exposing its fluffy stomach. “I’ve said too much,” it says. “The magic is too strong.”
Thana swallows. This doesn’t feel like magic. It feels like drugs, the foggy combination of too many meds that don’t add up right. “I just…”
“Forgive me,” says the fox. The creature looks so small and helpless, but its eyes show age and power.
“I’m sorry. It’s just…” Thana struggles to get the words out. Her mouth is dry, so dry, and the smell of roses is overpowering. Sickeningly sweet, it seems to ooze into her pores and press into her pupils, blurring her vision. She takes a deep breath, but instead of calming her thoughts and slowing her pulse, it only seems to sweep more of the poison into her body. She has to wake up. “Just make it stop, please,” she finally manages, sinking down onto her knees. “Why are you doing this?”
“I need to make you understand,” says the fox, lying on its back. It arcs its body into a circle so its wet, black nose meets the tip of its tail. Its front paws fold over at its chest and its back legs splay out to either side of its body. “I am the messenger,” it says, eye smouldering. “Will you trust me?”
Thana nods weakly. Anything to get out of here.
“Good,” the fox says.
Thana trembles at the finality in the creature’s tone, but it looks as meek as ever, and what choice does Thana have? She needs this to stop, whatever it is. The little mouth opens, revealing a black tongue and gums. Its shining, white teeth are tiny and sharp, like jagged pearls, slick with saliva that shines in the fluorescent light.
“Take my tooth,” the fox says, blue eyes as fixed as ever on Thana’s brown eyes. The floral stench is almost unbearable. Billowing out from the fox’s maw, it completely fills the hallway.
Thana’s hand reaches slowly toward the open mouth and its row of gleaming teeth. The jaw is stretched open, waiting eagerly. It reminds her of a bear trap, the kind you see in cartoons—two semicircles of jagged metal ready to clamp down at the lightest touch. Yet her hand keeps creeping forward, slowly, slowly, until her knuckles brush the sharp fangs. The mouth stays wide open, taut. Delicately at first, and then firmly, Thana grips the closest canine tooth between her thumb and index finer. She holds her breath as she pulls the tooth free. She’s surprised how easily it releases from the jaw. As she draws it out, an impossibly long, narrow rod of pure white slides out from from the gums. The mouth closes, and Thana holds a sort of wand, about the length of her forearm, tipped with the small curved fang. She presses a palm to her mouth and, whimpering, sinks to her knees.
“Good,” says the fox. It’s sitting now and rubbing the side of its face with the back of one paw. It blinks once, slowly. “The bargain is struck.”
Thana, kneeling, inspects the white rod, turning it around in both hands before pressing one hand against her stomach. Her stomach roils and her mouth waters as though she might vomit. She often experiences nausea, but this seasick feeling is much worse. As she fights the sickness, she strokes the wand with her thumb. It’s dry, smooth, and perfectly straight, about the width of a pencil but much longer and heavier. She doesn’t know what the fox means about a bargain or what on earth the wand is for, but despite her doubts and confusion, she instinctively trusts the animal. Like a cat, it presses its forehead into Thana’s knee and swivels its head so that the soft fur brushes her bare skin. The nausea eases with the creature’s touch, and Thana strokes the top of its head with two fingers.
It looks up at her again as her eyelids start to flutter. The creature raises one paw in a kind of salute with its head hanging low and its ears laid back. “I will come back for you, little priestess,” it says with a final caress. Its voice is like chimes in the wind. “I will be your guide.”
Before Thana can respond, a pink light flashes from the upraised paw. Enveloped in the glow and the rosy smell, she feels like a bee nestled inside a flower. In this warm cocoon, her pain and nausea melt away. She moans out loud, savouring the clarity of thought and the abrupt lack of pain. Her body feels not only whole but also part of something larger, something better. Careless, she floats along a river of power and warmth, and then the river’s gone.
Thana opens her eyes and looks up at the speckled drop ceiling of her hospital room. The scratchy blanket is draped over her, and the room is windowless but bright. She feels the pilled fabric in the blanket on top of her hands. She hears the soft crinkle of the hospital gown as she bunches it together in her fist. She smells the hospital, astringent and sterile. She’s only dimly aware of an ache in her side and the faintest pain in her temple. She feels almost normal. Her mind is completely clear for the first time in years. With the brain fog gone, her senses seem heightened.
She peels back the blanket. The electrodes are gone from her chest, and her cheeks get hot when she pictures herself snoring away as Llewyn took them off. She finds her things on the chair and dresses quickly. She grabs her bag and checks her phone, but it’s dead. “Dreams really do come true,” she mutters.
Stepping into the hall, she’s relieved to see the normal bustle of hospital workers and patients and hear the din of voices. She follows a tall woman in patterned scrubs into the elevator and watches the button light up in green as she selects the main floor. The woman hums softly as they descend, flipping through some pages on a clipboard. The digital display above the elevator doors count down the floors in thin red numerals.
In the lobby, Thana spots her dad with his face half-hidden behind a newspaper. He sets the paper aside when he notices her approaching.
“Hey, kiddo,” he says, standing. “Everything go okay?” His hug is gentle and warm. She habitually complains to Wei about these parental displays of affection, but the hug doesn’t embarrass her this time. It’s so much easier to be kind when she isn’t riddled with pain. She realizes her sickness hasn’t been easy on her father, who always makes her the priority and tells her it will be okay.
“I’m fine,” she says. It’s strange to really mean it. “I missed you,” she adds.
After a final squeeze, he releases her and she steps back. He taps his index finger on the tip of her nose. “If you’re up to it,” he says, eyes twinkling, “I know just the thing.”
“What?” she asks.
“Waffles!” he declares.
“Sure,” Thana answers. “Let’s do it.” Realizing she’s ravenously hungry, she doesn’t mind putting off the return to her own home.
She follows him outside, where the wind is thick and humid and puffy clouds fill the sky. The sunlight doesn’t hurt her eyes, and the humidity doesn’t give her a headache. She doesn’t want to jinx her good spell by telling anyone, so she keeps her elation to herself.
“Text your mother,” he says, squinting in the sunlight as they make their way to the street. “See if she wants anything.”
Thana grabs her phone from her bag before the blank screen reminds her that the battery is dead. “Can’t,” she says. “Battery’s dead. Guess you’ll have to do it yourself.”
Her father sighs theatrically. Thana giggles, but the laugh catches in her throat as her knuckles brush something smooth and hard inside her bag. She pulls out a white rod, perfectly straight and smooth, with a small, sharp fang on one end. Her feet freeze on the sidewalk, and for a moment she stands staring at the wand. Still dreaming? she wonders. No, I can’t be. All around her, city life goes on as usual, a steady din of people and voices and traffic, much more complex and random than any dream.
“What’s that?” her father asks. He reaches out to touch the rod but she pivots to keep him from it.
“It’s nothing,” she says coolly as she stuffs the thing back into her bag. “Wei gave it to me.” He raises an eyebrow. “You know, for good luck,” she adds.
As they wait for their streetcar, Thana feels exhilarated but not afraid. Whatever is happening, whatever she has to do, she knows she’s been chosen. Her disability has taken so much from her, but she’s sure now she’ll gain far more than she’s lost. She’ll do anything to feel that bright light again, that blushing beacon that washes pain away. Her mind and body burn to unravel the secrets of a priestess that the fox has promised. She wants to be more than she is, far more than her body allows her to be. As her father babbles on, Thana scans the streetscape for signs of the fox, certain it will come again.