|Sarah No-Tears as drawn by Gene Ha.|
Brink of Dreams-First Night
A room with windows to the east—sunrise after darkness... It was certainly not that she was thinking poetically when she'd asked for that room. Instead, she'd just wanted to be sure she'd wake up when the day started. There would not be the sirens here to announce the next wave of injured nor that half-intelligible PA with every squawked out name followed by "STAT!".
The sky was already lightening. She hadn't slept yet and she felt the exhaustion bone-deep. Her mental lists were almost done—the things she'd need, they'd need, ways to get them. She'd arranged the dolls that she'd pulled from the shrinking Hollow on the top of her empty chest of drawers, and covered the mirror with an extra sheet. The room still felt too big and too empty. She had long ago become accustomed to sleeping among the supplies in the ubiquitous storage closets, wary of the rows of bunks where the unkindest or most broken of the Stolen preyed in too many ways. But now she had a key to a lock that worked, and even if it wouldn't keep anything truly determined from reaching her, it prevented at least the casual cruelties and abuses.
Finally, Sarah let herself lay down. The smell though, clean bleached cotton case over a pillow that had been in storage, jerked her up and back up out of the bed. It was familiar, but not in a bad way. Mind reeling as she tried to place the scent, she automatically took up pacing and then, finally decided to remove her Coat so that the smell of it would not interfere so badly. She was uncertain in that--the Coat had been protection for so long, the sign of station and what small amount of freedom was accorded those useful to The Hospital. She folded it carefully and placed it next to the little crowd of dolls, and then, rethinking the choice, moved the Coat to a desk chair that she placed near the bed--in case she needed it.
Stripped down to the pale seafoam scrubs, oversized and loosely tied (so that they could be easily removed while still wearing the Coat, lest she need the full protections of that Token), she felt more vulnerable than made sense--and in a fit of annoyance at her foolish reaction, she kicked off the canvas moccasins that she wore too. Still, she stood trembling at the side of the bed. Now...now or never, Sarah.
She flung herself at the bed and hastily scrabbled the blankets close to her so that it would be more work to jump up again than to remain. It had been a clumsy bellyflop, and the scant moment's work of clutching the blankets to her chin and wrapping them around her legs left her breathless and perhaps a little nonsensically exultant.
Then she remembered. Summer camp. Before she got sick, between second and third grade. That's what the pillow smelled like--the mattresses on the cabin bunks. And her dive into bed this night had been just as graceless as her first attempt to dive from the pier into that cold cold lake. It was like finding a treasure, this memory before illness, before pain. She concentrated, starting with the lake itself.
Mornings, the mist rose off of the water. She'd been signed up for the first week of the summer camp, and it was just barely past spring. She remembered quickly learning to dread the morning swim lessons, the climb down the many flights of stairs built into the hillside to the smooth green-brown lake. If you had morning lessons, you had to wear your bathing suit under your shorts to breakfast and then take off trudging right after flag-raising to get to the piers before the counsellors starting blowing their whistles.
She remembered her towel, which had a smiling yellow and orange sun emblazoned over blue stripes...and her swimming cap that was stinky yellow and stupid-looking. Everyone had to wear them. Her swimming buddy was Meggy Dobchek, and she had a light blue cap that matched her bathing suit. Meggy's bathing suit...it was light blue and navy blue stripes--horizontal..an unfortunate choice for a girl who might have been described as 'still having her baby fat'. It made her look like a smiley blue bee, especially when she wore her goggles...and she usually did when she was in the water because she was afraid to open her eyes underwater otherwise.
Swimming buddies had to hold hands. Sarah couldn't remember why just then. Probably to keep someone from getting forgotten and then drowned. Meggy always insisted they be the first two in the water and that they had to put their faces underwater or it didn't count. She claimed it made it easier to bear the cold water. Once in, they had to wait for all the others to join in and there was always lots of protests and squeaks. Meggy liked to drag her over by the piers to ask the swim instructor where the classes would be swimming and then, to whisper gossipy things into Sarah's ear about the lifeguards and the counsellors who were down by the lake. Meggy was an old-hand at camp--she'd been there the year before and stayed for all the sessions--and she was going to stay that summer for them all again. She knew who had boyfriends and who did scandalous things like smoking or talking mean about other counsellors. Sarah couldn't remember much of it now, but she remembered staring at the older girls and feeling like they were altogether different creatures than herself--they had long legs and tans and got to wear jackets over their bathing suits and they had whistles. Somehow, this had seemed at the time to be a prerequisite for having a boyfriend or smoking...
For all the swimming lessons Meggy must have had to go through, she was still in Beginner class. If you'd known Meggy though, it wouldn't surprise you. She was a collection of odd desperate fears and, paradoxically, a strange zen-like acceptance of the things she was very very bad at. And if there was one thing Meggy was very bad at, it was the backfloat. She simply couldn't do it...didn't trust the water to hold her up and could not relax enough to find out that it would do most of the work. She just sort of flailed about at the surface until her struggles drug her below the surface, no matter how Sarah tried to convince her she just had to lay back and swish about once in awhile.
So long as Meggy had her goggles on and her swimming cap covering her ears, she didn't seem to mind sinking over and over again. It was just an excuse for more giggles and dramatic re-enactments of her near-peril. Meggy's eccentricities had caused Sarah a great deal of consternation at first, but by the the sixth day, she had filed most of them under the "that's just Meggy" category of explanations where she no longer felt obligated to look on in concern and struggle to help Meggy, but understood that she was more than welcome to giggle with Meggy.
So, that sixth day, when they were taking their competncy tests for the week's classes, Sarah had recognized the gravity of the situation when Meggy had flailed her way out of a passing score in the backfloat, but instead of popping right back up, Meggy had lurched off to the side and come out of the water with her eyes and mouth shut tightly. "I'll find them for you, Meggy! I'll find your goggles." Sarah had grabbed one of Meggy's hands to squeeze it, to reassure her--but Meggy was trembling so hard that Sarah was glad to let go and concentrate on something else. Finding Meggy's goggles--that would make her fear go away.
Sarah remembered, she herself hadn't been afraid to open her eyes underwater. She was much better at swimming underwater than trying to do those wierd swim strokes that they had been learning. So she dipped her head underwater, looking first around Meggy's feet--the water was not that murky as long as people didn't stir up the silty sand, but there were at least another dozen girls grouped right around them, so the water wasn't exactly clear. Not that easy--the goggles must have started to drift away. She spun around, looking for them--and caught sight of a glint a few feet away. She swam past some other girls, but the glint kept moving and then stopped glinting as the goggles passed under the pier and out of the dim morning light. Sarah shot forward to grab them before she lost track of their path, brushing past another few people. She caught onto them, her fingers closing around the strap and then almost losing them again because the strap had snapped and wasn't in the loop she had expected. Still, she managed to catch hold.
She'd surfaced under the dock, the world of sunlight squished into a strange horizontal mural of the lake's surface exploding with great splashes as people dove in and, a second later, the noise resolved to screams of her own name. She hadn't understood what was happening. She'd paddled along, under the dock, afraid of being jumped on by one of the counsellors as they dove in. It took her a bit to pick out Meggy, standing mostly still and sort of slowly revolving in place amid all the excitement, her eyes and mouth still clamped shut and her arms and hands held above the water as if it were somehow the most unbearable and frightening thing in the world.
She'd taken another deep breath and pushed herself out toward Meggy, kicking against one of the pier supports so that she would be moving too fast to get jumped on. It was only a few frog-like underwater strokes to Meggy's legs. She'd surfaced next to Meggy, coming up closer than she'd meant to--and there was a second in her arc, coming up through the water, that she had the impression that it was Meggy who was underwater and coming toward her.
With the blue swimming cap and her eyes and mouth shut so resolutely, Meggy looked so much like an infant--like a very cold, very oxygen-deprived infant. The recollection stuttered and Meggy's face remained underwater. The cold lake water receded and was replaced by chilled air as quickly as the light too changed, to the brilliant white overhead of...of the Surgery Theatre.
"Mammalian diving reflex. Fascinating." The Director's voice was precise and emotionless--the words made sense, but Sarah had never been sure that he understood them himself--she had the impression that he was somehow remotely pushing a button that said
"Ahhh." His pleasure at the lance of hate she could not hold back was at least his own utterance--the thing he most certainly understood. He had smiled and tipped her chin up so that she could not avoid his eyes, had made a show of his favoritism so that he could reap the jealousy, resentment and hatred from his other assistants--but she had then, and even now in the recalling, let herself detach from that. Instead, she waited patiently for him to finish and then turned back to the matter at hand.
It was the Theatre, a place where the carnage of the Real World was called on stage. This time, there was an impossible tank with it's opening on the side--a column of murky water that rose from floor to ceiling. Suspended in it, inches away from the opening, was a car. More correctly, the opening was inside the car somehow. The car seat that the infant was strapped into had started to tumble lazily back further into the car's interior. She reached in to pull it back, had to reach far enough that she was submerged from the waist up.
Meggy had been right--it was easier to do if you stuck your face underwater right away. She'd even thought that then, but hadn't been able to think why. The water was so cold--her hands numbed almost immediately.
The bodies of the baby's parents were still in the car--wan light from above gave her fuzzy silhouettes of a driver tangled in seat belts and the passenger half out the window. She'd reached, stretched, clumsily bapped at the car seat trying to get a grip on some part of it, but it was all round edged and the straps that were on it had snapped or were still tucked in close to the child. Desperation had made her jump up onto the frame of the tank--and she'd had a crazy thought of swimming out through the car window back to the world--but it was all certain death for her in that cold water--a chill she felt at every level. Somehow, she managed to wrangle the car seat back toward herself and into her wooden arms.
She'd slid back down to the Theatre floor, infant in car seat held close to her chest. Gasping for air, reeling from the cold and trying desperately to pull the energy together to Command the team that she would need to get this done--that was when he'd leaned in and whispered just to her, "It was her father's dying wish--that his little girl should live. I'm-counting-on-you-Sarah, we always honor the wishes of the dying here. Yes?"
The stab of hate and fury and desperation was just a new and keen as it had been that day. Trapped...
...and trapped again now by the wishes of a dying man.
Sarah tried to recollect what the baby had looked like, but all she could picture was Meggy, trembling, with her eyes and mouth clamped shut.
Her six-days best friend from so many years ago...
With a strange burning resentment kindled in her that even she, long inured to all the flavors of anger, recognized as something altogether new for her, she considered what was holding her here.
There was something. The pledges and bonds, probably. They just seemed a sort of resistance, something that made her mind skitter away when she thought of bolting, of leaving Wayward. Not like the premonition of death of that cold watery portal in the Theatre. Not like the thorns of the Hedge. More like an undefined fear, like Meggy perhaps felt in the water without her goggles--like something unknowable would stop her and it's unknowability was frightening.
Sarah gritted her teeth. Well, she would do this--but she'd not do it for a badly made wish. No, this time she'd do it for something real that perhaps she could touch again. For Meggy, maybe. For the Meggy-ness of life--of the tiny group of people who one could come to love in just a few days and still think of years later and smile to remember the shared warmth and still hope that they had their goggles or that they didn't need them quite so badly.
She didn't have to parse the wish then. She didn't have to see all the places where it could go awry or be turned back in some horrible irony.
She was done with wishes.