Two hundred and thirty four tiles. I’d counted them. I had little else to do but stare at the ceiling.
I could have just counted the vertical and horizontal and multiplied them but that would have been too easy.
Two hundred and thirty four and about a third. The diagonal wall had been a bother.
I lay there. Empty. Disconnected sounds met my ears. I didn’t have the will to interpret them. Talking, sounds of equipment, of beeping and the scratching of pens. Who cared? I felt like I was at the bottom of a well. Sounds bounced off so many surfaces they were gibberish and indecipherable. All I could see in a world of blackness was a tiny circle of… ceiling. Not even sky.
Might as well check again. One, two, three…
* * *
It was my fault of course.
I should have said something, I knew Mz Gregory was going the wrong way, why had I stayed quiet? Because I was embarrassed? I was too much of a coward to say anything.
What the hell was she thinking. She must have lived in this city long enough to know not to go through that part of town!
* * *
“I’d appreciate it if you could recount to me what happened.” What did this guy say his name was?
He wouldn’t stop bugging me. This was the fourth time he came and asked me stupid questions that didn’t fucking matter.
“I don’t know what happened. I don’t remember.” I said, because it was easy. Easy I hoped it would shut him up.
I remembered it all.
“Come on, that’s enough. She doesn’t have any memory of what happened. Leave her in peace.” Who was that man?
* * *
“That bitch did this to my daughter!” Shouting this time, not in the room but loud enough to travel through the flimsy door.
“According to their teacher she did a damn lot to try and protect our daughter, something you failed miserably at. What were you thinking?” The man from before.
“She was the reason Bethany was there, she was the reason she wasn’t at home.”
“And where the hell were you? Why hadn’t you taken them like they originally planned? Why the hell didn’t that happen? Because you were too damn stubborn. You tried so hard to protect her she ran away from home. Then you made sure she had no god damn money to keep her safe. What were you thinking?”
* * *
My back hurt. My hands hurt. The pain at least felt real. I could deal with pain, it helped even. It felt like I deserved it.
I had forgotten about my broken fingers again. Now they were worse, both bound in bandages. As I stared at the ceiling I gritted my teeth and flexed my hands into fists, savouring the sharp stabbing impulses of my screaming nerves.
* * *
“How’s she doing?” I recognised Mz Gregory’s voice. I couldn’t be bothered to turn my head and look at her.
“Well… Physically she’s doing well. Fractured fingers, but they are already setting remarkably. The stab wound missed any arteries and the lung.” Didn’t know who that was. Female, a nurse maybe. She had that air about her. You learn to recognise where people sit in the hierarchy of the hospital through the way they speak. “She’s just….”
Why were there three hundred and thirty five and a half tiles today?
“I think it’s psychological.” You can’t fake sympathy, I could tell she didn’t care.
“Maybe if we take her to see her Beth?” Mz Gregory said.
Beth? I turned my head for that.
“That’s the most she’s moved for ages. It’s worth a go.”
* * *
Beth lay, like a sacrafical lamb wrapped in neat little sheets. I’d seen Beth sleep, she didn’t look like that. She sprawled, limbs sticking out. Her elbows digging into your side. Face down, drooling into a pillow.
She wasn’t asleep. She looked like a corpse. Pale, deathly still. Just like when I’d left her. Except this time she was surrounded by a tomb of equipment. An altar to the gods of medical science, for what good it did. A plastic tube thrust down her throat attached to humming, whirred machinery as the mechanical lungs forced air into her chest.
She hadn’t improved since leaving surgery. I had only the rhythmic beeping of the machinery to let me know that she was alive.
There was nothing I could do to help her.
One thing tugged constantly at my mind: if she had never met me, if she had never taken the effort to talk to me she wouldn’t be here. She’d be happy, at home. Her mom would be with her, she’d get to see her dad. She mentioned he might not make it for her birthday but… Wait, when had she said it was? Next week sometime? Shit, for all I know it could be today.
I didn’t even know when her Birthday was.
How could she call me a friend?
The best thing I could do for her right now is to leave and never see her again. Stop cursing her life with my presence.
I reached out and placed my hand on hers. Her fingers, they were so small, cold to the touch.
I was too selfish to do that.
* * *
A week had passed and Beth was still unconscious. She’d had surgery, a ceramic alloy plate inserted into her skull. She should have woken up from the medically induced coma.
But she hadn’t. She just lay there.
The doctors had little reason to keep me in hospital. The knife had done little damage. Everything would just take time to heal. Beth’s dad paid for my treatment, and I would not put him through the stress of overstaying.
I kicked my legs over the side and untangled myself from the thin, clingy plastic like sheeting they covered the hospital beds.
I dressed in the clothes Mz Greggory had placed, neatly folded on the end of my bed. They were new, and they fit better than anything I’d owned before. Far too small for herself, she must have gone out and bought them for me.
The trip to Beth’s ward in intensive care was long, but felt like it passed in no time at all. Maybe because I really didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to see her like that again. But I couldn’t just leave.
I knocked on the door, her dad was still there. He looked like he hadn’t even gone home, stubble had grown into actual hair, the beginnings of a beard. The already dark rings under his eyes had deepened. He looked more weathered and old than when I’d first seen him.
Still, I was glad it was him and not his wife…
He looked up from her sleeping figure when I knocked and entered. I tore my eyes off Beth long enough to feel how awkward it was. Both of us were here to spend time with her, alone. But he wasn’t looking at me with anger, not like her mom. He only had pity in his eyes.
He stood, chair squealing on the smooth tiles. “I think I’ll go get a coffee. Would you like anything?”
“No, no thank you.” I said, was he leaving for my sake?
He passed me, but I could see the hint of a smile as he closed the door behind him. I had no idea why.
But it gave me some time with her.
I tried to warm her cold hands in my own.