I don't know how I wanted to spend my first period of rec time in this hellhole, but it certainly didn't involve a game of one-on-one basketball versus myself. But because no one wants to play with a freaky gay kid (and would you look at that—I just so happen to be gay and a freak), I have to resort to a riveting game with the one-and-only yours truly.
"I don't suppose you have the power to magically manifest so I can have an opponent," I mutter to Bryce.
No, I don't believe I gained any awesome power in death, Bryce laughs. There are plenty of people out here, though. Couldn't you just ask one of them?
I go in for a lay-up. "I'd rather lick the side of a dumpster."
"That's repulsive," a soft voice chimes in from beside the goal post.
When I glance over and see Annaleigh, the slight smirk disappears from her face and she flushes as red as a tomato. "Trust me, there's worse. Want to play?"
She shakes her head. "I don't do contact sports."
"Oh, yeah. The whole 'contact' part is a real game changer, isn't it? How about a non-aggressive, no-touching game?"
"Isn't that kind of impossible?"
I shrug. "Comfort modification for you, challenge for me. Come on, what do you say? You've got to get that blood pumping somehow. Before you say anything, no, blushing does not count."
She looks down. "At this point, it might. Anyways, I can't."
She mumbles something unintelligible.
"Sorry, but I don't speak 'bashful'."
She looks up and genuinely smiles. "Oh, shut up. I said, 'Because I don't know how to play."
"I can fix that," I tell her as I walk closer.
"I'm getting out here one way or another, even if it means I have to tickle you. Which, if you didn't know, involves touching."
"Then why don't you try me?"
She sighs, but follows me out onto the court. "Just one game?"
"Oh, naïve little Annaleigh. Once I teach you how to play the amazing art of basketball, you won't want to stop at just one game."
"We'll see about that."
Once I teach her the rules and technique, we start our half-court game of one-on-one. Even taking it easy on her, I swiftly pull into the lead. I can tell she's getting frustrated by the fourth point, and what kind of man would I be if I didn't give her a little help?
"Are you getting a little tired?" I ask, walking over to where she's taking a break.
"I can't do this," she admits. "I'm just not athletic enough to stand a chance against anyone, let alone you."
"Flattery won't get you very far, but nice try," I smirk. "It's not that you're bad, Annaleigh—you're a beginner. You just learned how to play five minutes ago. It takes practice to get better, though I think it would help if you relaxed a little. You're so afraid of me touching you that it's getting in the way of how you play the game."
"How would you know that?"
"I have eyes, you know. It's written all over your face. That aside, though, I think you're getting worked up over a 'what-if' that isn't going to happen. Have I touched you at all today?"
"Just answer the question."
"It isn't going to happen now, then."
"Trent, it's been five minutes."
"Five minutes of mindless playing. Keyword, 'mindless'. If I can remember while I'm not thinking, I'm pretty sure it won't happen. Just relax."
"Relax!" I shout over my shoulder as I run back onto the court.
I hear her sigh, but nevertheless sprints onto the court to join me. Though I still score for the fifth time, it's more of a challenge to gain control. I can tell she becomes more relaxed, lighter somehow. And what do you know—the next point is hers.
"I did it!" she squeals happily after making the basket.
"See? I told you it wasn't that hard." I put a hand on her shoulder in congratulations like I would if she was one of the guys. It isn't until her face turns white that I realize the huge mistake I've made.
My hand snaps back, but the damage has already been done. "Annaleigh, I'm so sorry. Seriously. I don't know what came over me."
"N-no, it's fine," she insists, but her face tells a different story. She backs away a little and bumps into an orderly.
"It's time for your visitation," the orderly says to Annaleigh.
"Okay." She trails behind her escort, and I can see my chances to make this better are rapidly decreasing.
"Annaleigh, wait!" I call. "I truly am sorry. I don't know what to say. I just feel really . . . shit. I swear I didn't mean to do that."
She shakes her head and waves it off. Even though she accepts my apology, I still feel terrible, and that confuses me. This isn't normal guilt; it kind of feels like I've been kicked in the gut. I've experienced this before—it's the same thing I feel whenever I'd do something that accidentally hurt Bryce.
It's because you like her, the man in question comments.
Nice try, but no way. This won't happen again, not with anyone else. I promised myself that, and I don't plan to break that promise any time soon.
As I watch her walk away, though, a small part of me wonders if it would be nice to kiss a girl.
Before coming here, I was what you would label a "jock". Football in the fall, basketball in the winter, track and baseball in the spring—typical teenage boy stuff. I loved using my legs, too. That was my favorite part. I never thought I'd be even slightly out of shape or lose my six pack. And I never, ever thought I'd have to turn down any kind of sport.
Pigs must have learned to fly.
For the first time in a long time, I chose to stay inside instead of playing sports outdoors. Well, I didn't have much of a choice, but at least inside it's warm.
God, this is so boring. I figured free time would be fun; kids would be playing, and I could squeeze a little bit of "okay" out of this terrible situation. Instead, I got stuck with the group of depressed couch potatoes. There's so much to do here—foosball, ping-pong, pool, video games—and most of these people are just blowing it off in favor of sitting around. Some of them look pretty lost in their medication, though, so I can't blame them for not feeling like doing anything.
I wheel myself over to one of the pool tables, planning on starting a game with just me, when the fiery devil herself steals the pool table with the same intentions. My irritation kicks in, but I swallow it for once in favor of being civil.
"You mind having an opponent?" I ask Oakley. Wow, I'm nearly smiling. Mom would be so proud.
She looks up and scowls. "Yeah, I kind of do."
I take a deep breath. "Well, do you think you could not mind for an hour so I can do something besides sitting around?"
"Don't you already do that?"
"Only on days that end in 'y.'"
She shrugs. "Well played. I'll break."
I deftly grab the cue she tosses at me and watch her scatter the balls with ease, landing two striped ones in the pockets. She takes three more shots, resulting in two more hits before she misses the third.
"Catch me if you can," she smiles cockily.
"I hope you like the taste of grit, because you're about to eat my dust." I take aim and she immediately starts laughing.
"What now?" I put my cue down on the table.
"Your technique," she laughs. "It's so terrible."
"Really? Because I've been playing this way for years and have had no trouble kicking ass."
She rolls her eyes and stalks to my side of the table. Leaning over the back of my wheelchair, she puts her hands over mine and adjusts them to how she wants them. "This is how it's done. It puts more force behind your hit while still giving you more control. Plus, it's a wheelchair-accessible move."
"Why do you care?" I snap, though I'm a little distracted by her proximity.
"Because I feel guilty beating you by any more points than I am now."
I feign shock. "Whoa, whoa, whoa. Oakley actually has feelings?"
"Yeah. I prefer to hide the annoying little buggers."
I chuckle as she moves back to her side and take a shot, sinking a solid.
"The stupid ginger isn't so stupid anymore, is she?"
"Just because you can land a good shot doesn't make you intelligent."
"It sure makes you look like an idiot."
"Okay, you've wounded my pride, I'll admit it. How did you know how to make a nice hit from a wheelchair, though?"
"Devil's Pool is like regular pool, but before your turn your opponent will give you a challenge. If you decline, you lose a turn. At the beginning of a game, I was dared to play sitting down the entire time, so I had to tweak my strategy a little."
"Mind if we even the playing field again, then?"
"I'm almost afraid to ask what you're thinking."
"I challenge you to play the rest of the game sitting down."
She strides over to one of the video game systems and swipes a computer chair sitting there. "You say that like it's hard." She aims and makes another perfect shot.
"Hey, that was my round."
"And now it's not."
Embarrassingly enough, she sweeps the floor with me—even though she's on my level. Despite the lost (and the opponent), I still manage to have fun. In fact, I think Oakley enjoys herself as well. She doesn't chew my head off, at the very least. That counts for something.
I offer Oakley my hand to shake like I normally would after the end of the game. Maybe she's not as bad as I thought and is just overprotective of Annaleigh.
In a very Oakley-like nature, though, she swats my hand away and shakes her head. "Just because I played one game of pool with you doesn't mean we're friends now. I still think you're arrogant and unstable, I still don't like you, and I still want to beat you to a pulp. And you still can't talk to Annaleigh."
I follow the orderly away from the basketball court, heart suddenly pounding out of my chest. I'm nervous. It's been over a week since I last saw Molly, and that didn't go over so well. What will she think of me now? The most likely possibility is the one I want to happen the least—she'll be terrified of me. She doesn't even think I'm still Annaleigh, but instead a monster who has somehow take over her sister's body (which I think is completely outrageous, but she's three). The more I think, the more terrified I become, and soon all kinds of horrible thoughts fill my head. Molly won't want to speak to me, she won't cooperate, I'll lose my opportunity to fix what I've broken . . .
"Oh, God," I whisper, stopping in my tracks. I have to pull myself back together. If I lose it, my chances of seeing my sister anytime soon go out the window.
The orderly stops. "Is something wrong?"
"Can I stop by the bathroom before we go to visitation?" I ask.
"As long as you're quick, I don't see why not," he responds.
Once I make it to the bathroom, I splash water on my face and try to think calming thoughts. You're on a beach. You're in a meadow. You're . . . somewhere other than an Octavion Meadows restroom.
After I calm myself down, I begin to walk towards the door when I catch a glimpse of my back in the mirror. The spot where I was touched feels grimy and dirty, like there's a family of maggots crawling on my skin—and it's not because I don't like germs. I close my eyes and try to banish the feeling that's been lurking in the back of my mind since it happened. Bad idea. Memories I've tried so hard for years to bury flood to the surface before I can stop them.
"Stop! Please! Leave me alone!"
"It's going to take a lot more than tears to make me change my mind."
This definitely goes a little deeper than bacteria.
I shudder and begin scrubbing vigorously with the cheap hand soap on the spot Trent touched until I'm raw. I's hard, considering the spot and that I can't take my shirt off to get better access because this is a public bathroom. It takes a while, and yeah, it hurts, but finally the feelings and memories wash down the drain with the suds.
"Is everything alright?" my escort asks once I return.
"Yeah, everything's fine. Can we go now? Please?"
"Of course," he replies, eyeing me carefully before leading the way.
We stop at an unused room on the first floor, where Dr. Saint-Pace is already waiting for us. She gives me a warm hello, then dismisses the orderly.
Turning to the doorknob, she gives me one last glance. "It's time. Are you ready to see your family again?"
"Can I just have a minute?"
"Certainly," she encourages. "I understand it must be a little nerve-wracking, and naturally it's also a very emotional visit for most of our patients. Take all the time you need."
"Nerve-wracking" doesn't even begin to cover it. I'm nervous and excited, elated and depressed, ashamed and angry. I want to go in, but yet I don't I'm ready to see Molly again but yet not ready to face what I may see. But we're going to try, for Molly's sake, and, admittedly, also for mine.
Without thinking, I grab the door handle and twist.
The optimistic side of me dared to dream that when I opened the door, my little sister would come running at me with full force and tackle my legs in a hug. The realistic side of me knew she wouldn't, though that didn't stop the optimist from hoping. What I don't realize is how big that wishful part was until Molly takes one look at me and buries her face into Elaine's shirt, as if that will make her invisible. While I understood this would happen, the reality of it still hits me like a ton of bricks.
Elaine sits Molly in the chair next to hers and rushes to hug me before remembering my policy on touching. This is Elaine, though. Policies be damned—she's practically my mother, and I missed her.
I open my arms. "It's okay, Elaine."
She finishes her journey and wraps me in an embrace. "Oh, Annaleigh," she croaks, sounding on the verge of tears. Elaine isn't an emotional woman, so to hear her about to cry tells me this is a really big deal for her. A pang of guilt hits my stomach as I think of how rough this past week must have been.
"I'm sorry," she exclaims. Every emotion I watched her hold back in the hospital seems to come out, though she doesn't cry for long before trying to compose herself.
"Why are you sorry?" Now it's my turn to start crying. "None of this was because of you. You're great. Didn't you read the note?"
She starts stroking my hair. "I've read it a million times, just trying to make sense of how this could happen."
"It was never you. Ever. There's so many things, so many rising actions that led to this, but not one of them involved my family."
"Some of your classmates got into contact with me after they heard the news. They told me you were bullied in school but never thought much of it because Oakley was always there to stand up for you and you didn't seem much bothered by it to them. And yes, most of the apologized. Sweetie, why didn't you tell me you were being harassed? You could have switched schools, we could have told the principal—"
'What good would that do?" I interrupt. "It follows me. I've been bullied everywhere I've lived. Moving or alerting an authority wouldn't make anything change. In fact, the bullying might even intensify; it's happened before."
"Let's not forget about all the other issues, too," I add. "Those aren't things that will go away by running from them, reporting them, or even ignoring them. Believe me, I've tried."
"We would find a way to beat them all, Annaleigh. No doubt the road would be rough, but everything can be overcome. I promise."
This makes me cry harder. "I don't deserve you. I never did, from the day you took me in. I hope I can find someone as perfect as you in the afterlife, whatever or wherever that may be, because I can't imagine ever not needing you."
Elaine pulls away to look at me straight on. "'In the afterlife'? Are you thinking about trying this again?"
The one discussion I don't want to have with Elaine is now looming in front of us all because I couldn't bite my tongue. She doesn't need to know I'm planning on giving it a second go, but now that it's out there, I don't want to live anymore. Then again, the lie is better for her than the truth.
Still, she doesn't deserve the blatant lie, just like she doesn't deserve the blunt truth.
"Isn't that why we're here?" I reply sadly.
"Why?" she whispers.
Dr. Saint-Pace puts a hand on each of our shoulders. "Perhaps we should sit down and discuss this."
Elaine reclaims her old place and Molly crawls onto her lap. I sit down beside her, in Molly's old chair, which causes her to scamper to Elaine's other side.
"Molly, it's just me," I try to soothe.
All I get is a fearful shake of her head.
"Molly," Elaine addresses her softly, "it's alright. It's Annaleigh, your big sister. She wants to talk to you."
"No," Molly mumbles.
She points at me. "You're not 'Leigh!"
"Mol, it couldn't be anyone else. Do you know how you can be sure?"
For the first time since she found me in the bathroom, she looks interested in what I have to say. "How?"
"It's simple. It makes since that since your big sister has been with you since you were born that she would know everything about you, right? Well, I do."
She believes in monster possessions, but needs evidence that I'm her sister. Of course.
"I know your favorite colors are blue and green. I know you're friends with nearly everyone in your daycare class, except for one boy you don't get along with. I know the funniest thing in the world to you is the neighbor's crazy dog. And I know that there is nothing in the world you hate more than naps. There's no way a monster, or anybody else in the world, for that matter, would know that besides your big sister."
"But why did you give yourself a boo-boo?"
"Sometimes people do things that they don't know are bad while they're trying to do something right," Dr. Saint-Pace cuts in. "Annaleigh thought that what she was doing was right, but 'giving yourself a boo-boo' is never the right answer."
I don't have to look over to know she isn't looking at Molly anymore.
"Do you believe me now?" Please, I add silently.
She giggles and hugs me. "You're back!"
Okay, so she still believes I was overtaken by a monster. Not the outcome I had been hoping for, but I'll take it.
Even though it's supposed to be a therapy session, Dr. Saint-Pace lets me read to Molly and make up for time we lost while we were apart. After two books, the clock chimes 3:30, and right on cue Molly falls asleep for her afternoon nap.
I hand the book we had finished reading back to Elaine. "I really missed you guys."
"We missed you, too. Of course, Molly still thought your body was housing a monster, but I heard her crying in her sleep for you. She'd wake up and not remember it, the poor thing."
A lump forms in my throat, and I have to look down at my baby sister sleeping in my lap to keep from crying. "I wish she didn't have to see that."
"I wish you hadn't felt like you had to."
"If she hadn't found me, things would be so much better right now."
"Annaleigh, if she hadn't found you, you would be dead."
"Exactly. I would be dead, you would have a normal happy child, and Molly would grow up unhindered by me."
"If you think everything would be better with you gone, you don't know us as well as you think you do. You would miss out on living a long, productive life, I would miss you dearly for the rest of my days, and yes, Molly would be severely hindered by your death. Do you think she wouldn't remember tis just because she's three? You're wrong—she would never forget you. Believe it or not, you've already made a huge impact on her life. Every day I hear about how Annaleigh did his or said that."
Dr. Saint-Pace's watch beeps to signal the end of the session, which Elaine takes as her cue to finish up. "I'm not saying you have to have a complete change of heart right this second, but at least think about whether or not that decision is truly what you want."
We walk to the door, and she hugs me on the shoulders and holds her arms out to take Molly. As much as I don't want either of them to go, I know they can't stay forever, so I kiss Molly's forehead and slowly turn her over to Elaine.
"Next week?" I ask a little too hopefully.
She smiles. "We wouldn't miss it."
All too soon, they leave, taking my brief happiness with them. I sigh in their absence. How is it possible to miss them already?
"You did wonderfully," Dr. Saint-Pace smiles. 'This must have been a very stressful visit for you, but yet you stood up to the challenges and mended the broken ties between you and your family. I'm proud of you."
"Yeah, thanks. Can I got to my room now and be alone for a while?"
"Go ahead. You've earned it."
I see Mick in the hallway as I'm going back to my room. He smiles in my direction, so I smile and wave back, though after the visitation that's still weighing heavily on my brain to care that I barely know the guy. However, he wheels closer, and I awkwardly realize his smile isn't for me.
"Mom?" he questions in disbelief, stopping and still grinning like he just won a lottery prize. "What are you doing here?"
Duh, I'm such an idiot, I think. His mom is behind me. Of course he's not smiling at me; I met him once.
I look over my shoulder to get a glimpse of his mom and freeze when my curiosity is met with a pair striking hazel eyes.
My striking hazel eyes.
A/N: Sorry for not updating on time. It's been a pretty hectic week for me, and the weekends are usually worse. I've had this chapter done for a while, but the one Friday I finally have free, my computer decides to act up. However, I finally got to a computer to update everything! Sorry so much for the lateness! (And the cliffhanger. :P)