The air around Sylvie began to shimmer. This was how it always began. The distortions were already becoming more pronounced, forming ripples, like sunlight glinting off the scales of a writhing serpent.
Next, she thought, I’ll find myself on a different planet.
And so she did, or at least somewhere very different from the shabby, cluttered dining room of Paula Stand’s house.
Now she was standing on a narrow stone path in a black-tree forest, just where she’d been less than a week ago.
It was night in this other world, the line of path and trees just barely illuminated by the ghostly light of a high full moon. If this was like all her other visits, it was the same hour, and perhaps the same minute and second, as when she’d left it.
The shadows and light made the scaly trunk bending in just ahead of her look like the slit eye of some monstrous reptilian beast. It was staring unblinkingly at her. This had been the eye that had regarded her the last time she was here. Then, she had been standing up with a small stone in the palm of her hand, and the eye had been the last thing she remembered when she returned back to Portland.
But now her hand was empty.
She reflexively drew her hand up to her neck and felt for the small nylon amulet pouch. It was still there, and so were the coin-sized moonstones inside it. She had nine, nine to mark all the nine previous times she had been in this dreamland.
On each visit, she’d spent her time walking, sometimes traveling for what felt like endless miles, until she found a moonstone – or it found her. When this happened, she returned back to reality – if reality was what her life in Portland was.
She’d never been sure if either of these worlds were real.
As she lowered her hand, the ring she wore on her first finger caught a stray beam of moonlight, the tiny bezel diamond briefly winking at her, as if sharing a joke, perhaps with the eye in the tree.
And the joke’s on me, she thought.
She took a step forward and the illusion of the bestial eye was lost as if it had never been. It became part of just one of the many tree trunks that stretched on around her and into more absolute night, continuing on far beyond the beams of moonlight that marked the path before and behind her.
She fiddled absently with the ring, a habit of hers, running another of her fingers over the band and diamond chip. The ring always reminded her a little of a snake, with a scale-like pattern embossed on the band and surrounding the diamond eye. It was a rather ugly, disturbing ring. She’d never really liked it, but it was the only thing she could call her own, so she had kept it.
The air was no longer moving about in an odd way, and now had a hushed quality about it, cool and heavy, as if anticipating something. It had the acrid scent of the odd black-colored trees, mixed in with the gritty earth. The smell of the earth reminded her of when she’d been buried alive.
From far above her, she heard the rustling of leaves and top branches against a restless wind. She could barely make out the shifting bonds against the swathe of inky black sky. The wind did not reach the space around her at all.
One of these days, she mused, I may end up trapped on this planet forever. Or remain trapped on Planet Earth.
Of her two options, she wasn’t sure which she preferred. Each had definite drawbacks.
She’d found the last moonstone here on the path; it had been lying amidst the thick, confused tangle of roots. A singularly sharp beam of light from the moon had somehow made its way through the thick layers of branches and spot-lit the small stone. The stone had revealed itself by a bluish iridescence. It had seemed quite poetic at the time that it should be moonlight that led her to it.
Moonlight and moonstones.
Either poetic or too much of a coincidence.
It was, she’d thought at the time, more evidence that this must surely be a dream or hallucination.
She’d managed to find the other moonstones without the moon, though, when she’d been underground, in the caves.
She knew that preferring a hallucination wasn’t the best choice, but she found she was leaning toward this place over her life at Paula’s house in Portland, Oregon, this solitude over feeling sick and having all the medical appointments, solitude instead of feeling other people’s suffering, for that was also par for the course.
Staying here, though, meant giving up Shakespeare and so many other things she had yet to read. She had just finished reading As You Like It.
There was so much more in the other world – which made it the likelier of the two to be “real”.
Still, life on Planet Earth was not without supernatural weirdness, either. Both these worlds could easily be part of a much more ambitious dream or delusion, especially since the moonstones appeared to follow her back to Portland. She’d gotten a small pouch at a dollar store for them several rounds ago. Since then, all nine stones had “magically” found their way into the small space that should only hold two or three at most.
And then there were the times she’d healed the babies, and how she could sense – or thought she sensed – some people’s illnesses, just by being near them. It was very upsetting to feel their illnesses, and she was only grateful she couldn’t see into everyone.
Reality, she supposed, might also lie somewhere beneath all of these things that shouldn’t be happening.
She’d had this useless internal dialog about what was real and wasn’t real before, many times, actually, and had even already concluded she was crazy.
Might as well make the most of it, she would also conclude.
Presently, she continued along the path, for that seemed the thing to do, just as, the last time she was here, it had seemed the thing to enter the forest when she had emerged from the caves.
The path, though narrow and encroached upon by roots and branches, was even, paved with slabs of grey stone plainly illuminated by the moonlight. It all but proclaimed, “This way.” There seemed no point in turning back, her only other alternative.
After not very long, she saw a thinning of the trees and growing light in front of her. She left the shelter of the trees and found herself standing in a semicircular clearing. It was laid bare under the unfiltered light of the high, full moon and a wide black sky filled with countless glittering stars. There was a long, broad ribbon of cloudy luminescence that indicated she was still in the Milky Way Galaxy.
The clearing was paved with the same grey stone that formed the path in the woods, and was shaped like a Shakespearean stage. She thought of the line from As You Like It, “All the world’s a stage,” and recited aloud some of the other lines that followed, “And all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts, his acts begin seven ages.”
She continued on with the seven ages; she’d memorized the passage. She memorized anything that she found interesting.
The wind, unconstrained by the dense trees, swooped down and took her words from her, stirring up her hair and flopping a portion of it into her mouth. It seemed like the wind didn’t care much for her oratory skills.
As for those phases of life, she thought ruefully, pushing her raven-black hair out of her face, she wished, and most certainly not for the first time, that she could remember something from the first two stages – her infancy and childhood – remember anything from before the last three months.
No luck there. The majority of the seventeen years of her existence remained an utter blank. She had only second-hand knowledge and memories of before the last ninety-three days, and these were mere scraps that told her nothing that mattered.
Even having these three months struck her as a raw deal since a number of the days were spent in unconscious oblivion. And her waking hours appeared to be taken up by what were likely hallucinations – both her current situation, such as it was, and her absurdly nightmarish life as a “special needs” teenager in foster care.
As far as she could tell, time stopped in Portland when she wasn’t there. It waited for her to return. She didn’t have a watch but was curious to see what would happen to its settings when she jumped worlds. Would it reset once she crossed back again? Would it count time here? Or, if she stayed on for many years in one place or the other, would she be youthful again when she switched places?
And even if she had a watch to count the passage of time, could she trust what it counted?
She knew that the moon was not full back in Portland like it was here; it was a waning sliver of a crescent, and tonight would be moonless.
She turned her eyes up to the ink-black sky, to the moon, full and high above her, purportedly the same moon attached to Planet Earth. Then she scanned the field of glittering stars. She sought out familiar constellations; while in Portland, she’d made a brief internet search of the constellations recently just for this purpose.
She identified what she thought was Ursa Major, and followed the two stars that made up the outer part of Big Dipper’s bowl to Polaris, the North Star.
Yes, there it was.
Which meant nothing at all, she reminded herself, if none of this was real.
She walked to the edge of the stone-hewn stage and saw that it dropped off precipitously, falling into a cloud-enshrouded canyon of unknown depth. And before her, at some distance, emerging from those depths, was the silhouette of a castle, its edges defined by the moon and starlight.
Now that, she thought with appreciation, was just the sort of thing to come out of the pages of a fairytale. All it needed was a rainbow bridge. Not that that was possible at night.
On the other hand, why should the rules of the Universe apply here? Already there was evidence they didn’t.
Then she saw that there was a more conventional bridge, half obscured by the cloud layers, connecting the castle to somewhere left of her, beyond the shape of a high, rocky outcropping.
The wind rose up and swirled around her, fluttering her hair and clothes, making a shrill, impatient sound. It pushed her to the rock barrier she had been examining with some trepidation.
This way, it seemed to indicate, presumably in the direction of where the bridge connected to land.
She left the Shakespearian stage and climbed over a series of boulders, skirting the cliff, careful not to risk falling to her death. She reached the other side and descended. Here there was a much broader stone path than the one she’d come from, more a road than a path. It was wide enough to accommodate a small car, not that she had encountered any motorized vehicles here.
The bridge to the castle proved to be as wide as the road, constructed of the same grey stone that was everywhere. The bridge was in three parts, separated by two stone keeps rising out of the clouds along the way. The bridge looked very solid. It was without any artistic embellishments, just plain, massive slab.
Standing just before the bridge, she had the option of continuing on to the castle or taking the wide path leading the opposite way, back into the forest. It occurred to her that this was the first choice she faced in all her visits to this dreamland.
She decided she would try the bridge. She wanted to see the castle. The wind, twining itself around her, impelling her forward, seemed to approve.
She wondered if it would push her back if she attempted to go in the opposite direction.
She turned about-face and took some steps toward the trees.
To her disappointment, the wind didn’t protest. It came and went again in haphazard gusts with the indifference of any natural phenomenon.
She glanced down at the diamond chip ring on her finger, moving her hand a bit to see if she could catch some of the light of the moon and stars, see if the diamond would either wink or stare reproachfully at her. But it only remained dark and dull.
She sighed and turned around, passing onto the bridge. The wind flopped hair into her face again.
She paused briefly to look over the wide railing. There was no glimpse of what lay beyond the dark cloud cover, but there was a sense of great space. The layers of clouds were at once ephemeral and impenetrable, hanging suspended around and below her, and smelling of rain and stone.
She started walking again.
As she did, she wondered when she would come across the next moonstone. She hoped not for a while yet. She wanted to reach the castle.
As she neared the first keep, she saw that the bridge passed through an arched tunnel at the base and into deep shadows, untouched by the light of the moon and stars. She crossed under the archway and entered the darkness.
Midway into the passage, out of the corner of her eye, she thought she saw the edges of a sizeable door. She paused before it and reached out a hand blindly. Her fingers found a thick, cold iron handle.
She gave it a brief but hard tug. It didn’t budge.
Running her fingers over iron plating, she felt more than saw a keyhole, one that would fit a large, antique-style key. One she didn’t have.
She hoped the doors in the castle wouldn’t be locked, too.
Only one way to find out.
She continued on, leaving the deeper black of the first keep behind her.
When she reached the second keep, she found an identical door. She tried it, too, with the same result.
She kept walking.
One thing she very much appreciated about this hallucinatory world over the other was the fact that here her energy level was always terrific. She never felt sick. She would walk for what seemed to be hours at a time. Really, it was only in the last trip that she had emerged from underground and could gauge how much time might be passing; before reaching the forest, she’d been wandering about in a series of underground tunnels and caves, finding the moonstones along the way. In there, she might have been wandering for minutes or days.
The caves had been spectacular, illuminated by enormous crystalline speleothems. On her eighth visit, she had come across a dark river running through the caverns, and she had followed it until it emptied into an equally dark and mysterious lake. No sea serpents had emerged from it, much to her relief and disappointment.
She had skirted the shore of the lake for a while and then had taken a path amidst a petrified forest of fantastical rock and mineral formations. This way had eventually led her to the entrance of the cave.
It had been there, in the ebbing light of dusk, that she had found the eighth moonstone.
On her ninth and most recent trip before this, she had continued aboveground, making her way through the black-tree forest. She had known that time was passing because the moon and stars had rotated over and across the sky as she walked on. She had found the ninth moonstone when the moon was at its zenith.
Now the moon was nearing the jagged mountain range at the horizon; it was well past the deepest part of the night, toward morning. She wondered if she’d still be around when dawn broke.
She never looked forward to the prospect of returning to Planet Earth. Once there, she always paid overtime for all the walking. The medications they kept prescribing and the food they forced on her only made matters worse.
As she neared the castle now, she saw how massive it was, rising up before her and blotting out the night sky, and with it the remaining light of the moon and the stars. It was in the style of what she understood to be medieval European castles, and hewn of the same grey stone as the surrounding cliffs. She had to climb a zigzagging path amidst steep, jutting boulders to get to its main entryway. She’d half-expected the gate to be closed and locked like the doors of the keeps, but the entrance stood wide open like a gaping dark mouth.
It didn’t look exactly welcoming.
She hesitated before she passed through the high vaulted entrance. The wind seemed to kick up again from everywhere and nowhere, brushing impatiently past her with a wail. Sylvie had the impression that it had been waiting for her all this time and was annoyed at her slowness. It tugged at her, hurrying her inside.
Once she made it into the arched entryway, she saw that it wasn’t dark, after all. Soft shadows danced on the stone walls amidst deeper shadows, and she heard the sound of water splashing, smelled mist in the air.
She saw the source of it as soon as she stepped into a courtyard: a large, crystalline fountain. It was hard to miss because it was glowing – a subtle and quite eerie glow, reminding her of the light from the speleothems in the cave, bright enough to define the space around her, which was an otherwise empty square flanked on all sides by arcaded walkways. The fountain was circular and simply designed. Water fell in a smooth sheet from the lip of bowl on a pedestal and into the wide basin below.
She walked up to the fountain and looked down at the basin. The water looked dark and depthless, reminding her of the underground lake.
The wind continued to stir about her in random whirlwind gusts, sending spray onto her face, almost as if it were teasing her.
When she turned away from the fountain, a spark caught the corner of her eye, light glinting off some object. It was about twenty feet away, near one of the arcaded walkways. It appeared to be a small crystal bowl or cup that just happened to be there.
And beside it was a man.
He was sitting, head bent, on the ground, leaning against a column. He had dark hair and wore a white dress shirt and darker trousers. His feet were bare. As she gazed at him, he lifted his face to her.
He was ill. She could see that – and feel it – even from the distance, no need to touch him. In the dim, uncertain light, his skin appeared rather grey, and his eyes were hollowed and sunken. He looked gaunt and exhausted.
He was gazing back at her like he recognized her. His expression wasn’t at all friendly, so perhaps they were enemies. She couldn’t place him. He certainly wasn’t any part of her life in Portland. Could she have possibly known him from the past, sometime in the years beyond that concrete barrier blocking memories of whom and what she was?
“Hello,” she said tentatively, her voice carrying remarkably well. Great acoustics here, she thought.
He didn’t reply, just stared at her.
Then he lifted one of his hands up to her. His fingers were curled into his palm. The gold ring on his fifth finger caught a shaft of the moonlight.
He kept his hand raised, waiting. It seemed like an invitation or perhaps supplication.
Afterward, she decided it hadn’t been the best decision to walk up to him, but she did, anyway.
She bent down before him when she reached him. Despite the fact that he was sick, she thought he was the most beautiful man she’d ever seen. With his straight dark brows and aquiline features, he looked like either a demon or an angel, she wasn’t sure which. His eyes reminded her of the stars in the sky. They were very light in color and burned with a feverish heat.
In the next moment, before she could even protest, he opened his hand and placed a moonstone in hers.
And the air began shimmering, rippling about her, and, just like that, she was back in the dining room in Paula’s house.
When she had left it earlier, she had been sitting at the dining room table doing homework. She stood up clumsily now, already feeling queasy. It felt as if the weight of gravity had just doubled. She knocked the flimsy plastic and metal chair over as she started to move drunkenly out of the dining room and down the hall, heading for her bedroom. Her feet had turned to lead and were not exactly cooperating.
Her last conscious thought was that she really needed to make it to her bed this time.
Paula Stand turned her head briefly up to the low popcorn ceiling and thanked the Heavens far beyond that Sylvie wasn’t very big.
Still, the effort of getting her off the floor, into the bedroom, and onto the bed had put Paula out of breath, and she puffed and sweated. Her joints were all throbbing in protest from the exertion, and she was sure her blood pressure was too high.
“You need to make it to the bed next time,” she scolded the unconscious girl. “Like the doctor said, you need to pay attention to when you feel an episode coming on. You hear me? You have to pay more attention,” she repeated in a louder voice.
Sylvie slept on.
Paula gave an all-suffering, ragged sigh. Then she made one last heroic effort to heave Sylvie’s legs over so she was laying more-or-less on the bed, and pulled off her shoes.
As Paula put Sylvie’s shoes down on the carpet, she noticed that the soles were worn through. She gave another sigh. She cast a reproachful look at Sylvie’s face and her faded second-hand clothes.
“I suppose we’ll have to go shopping for shoes. Can’t see why they didn’t supply you with better shoes before you came. Just one more thing I have to do,” she told the unresponsive girl severely. “We’ll get shoes, but any new clothes will have to wait. I don’t have time for that, too.” She added reluctantly, “I suppose I should call Dr. Sharmuth to let her know you’ve had another of your sleeping attacks. I wouldn’t be surprised if that medication she prescribed triggered it, since it made you sick again yesterday. Another wasted prescription. I told her it was taking a risk, didn’t I? Yes, I did. This is just as bad as it was with the other specialist. Why can’t they just get it right? If only you could give some of your sleep to me.”
Sylvie had the courtesy to not look smug as she slept. She simply looked ill. She had only just been recovering from her latest bad reaction to a medication, and now her skin was again flushed with fever. Her eyes were sunken and there were dark smudges under them.
When she was awake, her eyes, with their enviably long, black lashes, were huge and haunted, even when she was feeling relatively well. She didn’t have much coloring to begin with and always looked like she should be in a teen vampire flick, and this without any theatrical makeup like the other foster child, Adele, piled on.
“Of course, with Willy up most of the night, crying, it’s not like I’m able to get any sleep, anyway,” Paula added with a martyred sigh, returning to the more important consideration of how much she endured, caring for these special needs children.
As if on cue, Willy, born drug-addicted and with an enlarged head from hydrocephalus, started wailing in the other room, a singularly high-pitched noise that pierced through all the thin walls of her house and through Paula’s eardrums.
“No rest for the weary,” Paula said with another sigh, passing her hand over her sweat-beaded upper lip. “Alright, alright, Willy, I’m coming!” she called to that ever-demanding infant.
She still half-expected that Willy would be miraculously cured like two other recent children she’d fostered (“God’s work, not mine,” she had humbly told the children’s case workers). Willy had been here a week now and was still as bad as ever. And now she suspected his shunt site had gotten infected. She would have to take him to the doctor again.
There had been no other miracle cures, no works of God, for children in Paula’s care before Jonathan and Esme, so it was still too early to expect that God would be continuing this course of Divine action with Willy. Both miracles had happened in the last couple of months, since Sylvie had arrived.
Sylvie and the other teenager, Adele, who’d been with Paula even longer, were also holdouts to any miracle cures. If anything, Sylvie was getting worse.
With one last rueful glance at the sleeping girl and her burning cheeks, Paula left the room.
Adele, who had returned from school within the next hour, went into the room she and Sylvie shared. She looked down upon Sylvie with undisguised dislike and, though Adele didn’t want to admit it, fear. Sylvie appeared to be out cold – the rosy flush in her cheeks replaced by a ghostly pallor. This was just like the last couple of times Adele had been witness to her “spells.” She was completely still, almost as if she were dead. If her hands were crossed over her chest rather than at her sides, Adele could imagine her in a tomb, just like a character in a graphic novel or movie.
The thought of this caused a pang of jealousy to flare over Adele’s moon-shaped, heavily made-up face. Even if her body wasn’t puffed up from the medications she took, Adele could never pull off Sylvie’s wraithlike look. Makeup, hair dye, and clothes only did so much, especially when, just to buy them, she had to fight for (and steal) any spare money she could get her hands on.
As she gazed upon Sylvie with her naturally jet black hair and milk-white skin, Adele hated Sylvie with renewed zeal. She couldn’t prove it, but she was certain Sylvie was only pretending to be sick, pretending to have amnesia, and even pretending to be a teenager. Sylvie was supposed to be almost eighteen, which was old enough, but she acted like she was thirty. She had no passion. She wasn’t deep at all. It wasn’t fair that she looked like she did.
Adele considered dumping a bag of crushed chips or maybe ketchup on her, but then she’d have to explain what had happened to the jailor, Paula.
She decided to carry through on something she’d been planning for a while. She’d seen a video online about it. She snuck a plastic bowl from the kitchen, filled it with water, and, furtively returning to the bedroom – Paula was busy with Willy – she very slowly and carefully placed it on the bed. She intended to lift Sylvie’s hand and set it in the bowl. It was supposed to make you wet yourself. Somehow, though, the very thought of touching Sylvie was too much. Adele stared at the offending hand for a long, intense moment. The silver ring on Sylvie’s first finger with the tiny diamond in it seemed to stare at Adele like a watchful eye. It reminded Adele of a venomous snake. She had to look away.
She returned the bowl to the kitchen, dumping the water out and replacing it in the cupboard before Paula noticed.
Day gave way to night, and Sylvie dreamt off and on, fragmented dreams that involved a desperate but futile search for something – someone. These dreams became tangled in snatches of memory that stubbornly only went back to a few months ago, when she’d woken up surrounded by darkness, cool earth, and charred wood.
She finally came to the following afternoon, twenty-four hours later. She opened her eyes, blinking, breathing in the still, dusty air. There was a faint smell of cigarettes and marijuana from discarded clothes on Adele’s side of the room. Sunlight was coming in through the window, capturing the floating dust motes.
She sat up and waited for her head to settle back on her neck; it always seemed like it wanted to float away when she first woke from one of her sleep attacks. Then she looked around the cramped room with dazed eyes, taking in Adele’s hastily made bed and the walls, painted a dreadful yellow color and covered at intervals with motivational posters. She noticed she was still wearing the clothes she’d worn when she’d passed out.
She supposed it had been Paula who’d gotten her on the bed, which meant Sylvie would be in for another lecture.
Sylvie remembered, with a wince, everything that had happened leading up to her latest sleeping episode. She remembered the hallucination or whatever it had been, that had preceded it.
The castle. The man. The moonstone.
She felt for the nylon bag hanging from her neck. It was there, as usual. With annoyingly weak, shaking hands she removed it, pulled open the strings, and emptied the moonstones onto the bedcover before her. Stones tumbled out from the tiny pouch. Like magic, almost like a magician’s trick of pulling a rabbit from a hat. The stones caught the daylight coming in from the window, all with their own unique patterns of luminescent blues, greens, and purples, mixed with white. The tenth stone was among them. Her last memory was taking it from the man.
She replaced them in the pouch, one by one, into the tiny interior space that should only fit two or three.
Then she returned the pouch to around her neck.
The chip diamond of the ring on her finger winked at her.
As if it’s laughing at an inside joke this time.
When she actually did hear it laugh, she supposed she would know she was officially insane.
She slid off the bed, pausing to wait as the throbbing in her head settled again. Her limbs were wobbly. All this, she knew, would pass, and soon she would be right as rain – until she was impelled to eat food or take medications, or until the next episode.
How miserably real this all felt.
She heard Willy make a high pitched noise. It was different from the outraged screams he usually made. She followed it to the living room, where Paula was in the midst of folding laundry. The television was on but muted, showing a talk show with a panel of people all gesticulating and mouthing earnest words.
Paula began shuffling over to Willy, who was hidden behind the high walls of his crib. She scolded him for making this new, particularly irksome noise, and then begrudgingly tried to soothe him. She reached in and picked him up, and turning, saw Sylvie.
Paula gave her a frown of disapproval before she returned her attentions to Willy. To him, she made more soothing noises, though these were mostly lost under Willy’s siren wail.
Sylvie started folding laundry. She snuck some covert glances at Willy, whose brown eyes were filled with pain and misery.
It was Paula’s strictly enforced rule that Sylvie wasn’t allowed near Willy; Paula was afraid Sylvie would have one of her spells and inadvertently hurt him, especially with his huge, vulnerable head. Paula had been more lax with Jonathan and Esme. But then, while Sylvie had been playing with them, she’d experienced some “mini-spells,” becoming unaccountably tired. Once Paula caught Sylvie in the act she banned her from touching any babies.
Willy’s noises faded, and he fell into a fitful sleep. Sylvie thought he was far from well.
She thought, uneasily, that he was dying.
“Thank Heaven you’re awake,” Paula said in a low voice after she put Willy back down in the crib. She eyed Sylvie critically. “Willy has a doctor’s appointment at four, downtown.”
“Does he? That’s good,” Sylvie said with relief.
“We’ll all head out after Adele gets back from school. You should get something to eat before we go.”
Sylvie didn’t immediately reply to this, and Paula shook her head disapprovingly.
“Let me guess. You’re not hungry.”
“No, I’m not,” Sylvie admitted.
“You’re never hungry. It’s just all your food allergies. You have allergies to everything,” Paula said as if Sylvie was having allergies intentionally to annoy Paula. “You’re too skinny as it is. I don’t want your case worker thinking I’m starving you.”
“My weight hasn’t changed,” Sylvie pointed out.
“Yes, thank the Lord for that. Well, you can eat later,” Paula said begrudgingly.
Sylvie finished folding the laundry, and then excused herself to take a shower and change.
“Be sure to keep the bathroom door open in case you have another spell!” Paula called after her, and checked on her a few minutes later to make sure she had.
Sylvie wondered if she could have possibly made this part of a hallucination up.
Too nightmarish to be made up, she thought with a sigh.
It was this world that she had first woken up to three months and four days ago, and it was in this world that she had been given to understand that her name was Sylvie Rae Baker, age seventeen, a senior in high school. Per records eventually pieced together by her case worker, she had lived with her mother, Candace Baker, who had been on disability, and – possibly – her mother’s boyfriend, who was said to have had difficulties renting on his own due to a criminal record.
She had been found buried under the rubble of an apartment complex which had burned down days before in what had been described by witnesses as a huge fireball. Her mother, mother’s boyfriend, and nineteen others had perished in the fire.
The cause of the fire had been unknown but arson was suspected. There had been no suspects.
An unofficial but popular theory propagated on social media was that it had been caused by aliens or demons. Some had claimed they saw some diabolical creature amidst the flames, dancing and laughing.
Sylvie had been apparently unharmed but completely disoriented. It was thought that she had suffered a severe concussion. But diagnosing her had been vexingly difficult for her doctors; all imaging studies and bloodwork, repeated a number of times, had come back uniformly nonsensical. Neuropsychological testing had indicated that she was, as the psychologist put it, “like an alien visiting Earth,” with superior reasoning ability but without knowledge of everyday facts. “No, she doesn’t think she’s an alien,” he had added when pressed. “And she’s not malingering or unconsciously simulating her amnesia or medical symptoms. Frankly, she’s a mystery. I’ve never met anyone with her profile before. She’s a nice young lady.”
Once Adele returned home, Paula loaded them up in her car and they set off. Paula, not the most efficient of planners, didn’t recall the exact address or the best route to take. She’d never been to this doctor’s office before. She was surprised she hadn’t; with all the children she’d fostered and with their medical problems, she thought she’d been to every single medical office in town.
This part of downtown was changing rapidly, gentrifying, so she didn’t even recognize the buildings. At one point, she concluded that she’d taken a wrong turn and had to return the way she had come, only this was complicated by one-way streets. Willy started that high, piercing noise again.
Sylvie could feel his pain. His head was being pounded on all sides as if by wooden mallets.
Paula told Adele, who was sitting in the back with him, to try and get him to stop screaming.
“How?” Adele demanded. “Willy doesn’t like me.”
She had a fit of wheezing and coughing.
She wasn’t feeling well, either, Sylvie thought unhappily. She could sense that Adele’s lungs were tightening like strings being pulled on a straightjacket, and it was getting harder for Adele to catch her breath.
Sylvie fiddled with the ring on her finger, tracing the embossed sides. The hard diamond eye chip stared sightlessly and mercilessly up at her.
“You took your medications before we left?” Paula asked Adele. “I sure hope you did, Adele.”
“Yes,” Adele said in a wheezy, sullen voice.
They ended up in a rundown area with graffiti-covered warehouses and some homeless camps.
“Turn only?” Paula was saying with indignation over Willy’s noises.
They passed by some warehouses in better repair. One of them looked – not familiar to Sylvie – but as if it should. As if she needed to go there. The urge was so profound that she had to clench the sides of the car seat to prevent herself from doing something drastic, like jumping out of the car. She broke out into a cold sweat, her heart pounding in her chest cavity.
Paula, beside her, was too preoccupied with driving to notice, which was just as well.
They were soon past the building, turning onto another street and going further away. Sylvie was only able to push down her panic through sheer determination; it was slowly replaced by a heavy sense of loss that just kept getting worse.
Willy suddenly became silent.
He had, Sylvie knew, passed out from the pain.
“He’s sleeping again,” Adele informed Paula.
“Thank the Lord.” Then she said to Sylvie in a tight voice, “Are you having another spell?” looking over at her with alarm. “Just what I need.”
Sylvie turned troubled eyes toward Paula and shook her head.
“Well, you don’t look good,” Paula scolded and then concentrated on driving again.
From the back seat, Adele made a snorting noise, which she hoped conveyed her disgust and disdain for Sylvie.
“Drama queen,” she muttered between noisy breaths.
Sylvie heard the remark, though Paula didn’t. Sylvie had known from probably her first day at Paula’s that Adele had decided to hate her. Sylvie thought she understood why; it was a weird, misplaced jealousy. Sylvie also knew there really wasn’t anything she could do about it.
She’d tried her best to not worsen hostilities, but her calm politeness had only served to fuel Adele’s animosity toward her.
On the whole, though, Sylvie had been too busy being sick or unconscious to consider the situation more.
Sylvie was also aware that Adele’s asthma attack was getting worse and she was beginning to have difficulty breathing. Adele had very severe, very poorly controlled asthma, and had been hospitalized multiple times due to it, though lately she’d appeared to be better.
But she’d also been missing doses of her medications, and Paula had been too preoccupied with little Willy to pay much heed.
Adele had been playing a little “game” to see how long it took Paula to notice, that and how long she could go without. She was finding out now.
They ended up being fifteen minutes late for Willy’s appointment. When Paula, clutching the still-unconscious, drooping body of Willy in her arms, was told that she would have to reschedule, Paula loudly insisted that Willy be seen for the time remaining.
“Doctors run late, anyway,” was her reasoning, though this doctor appeared to be running on time.
In the next few minutes, the door to the exam rooms opened, and Paula led her small entourage through it. Paula explained in an unnecessarily loud voice to the nurse leading them that all her foster children were special needs and shouldn’t be left unchaperoned.
Beneath her white make-up, Adele flushed with humiliation and resentment.
They all crowded into one of the small exam rooms. Paula would have gone on to explain the medical problems of Sylvie and Adele, but the nurse deftly steered the questions toward Willy and got his vital signs.
Sylvie and Adele stood against a wall together, too close for Adele’s comfort. There wasn’t enough air in the room. This was mostly due to her asthma, though she didn’t want to admit that.
The nurse told them the doctor would be in shortly.
The doctor did come in quite quickly after that. She examined Willy and pronounced that he needed to be hospitalized.
“I thought so,” Paula said with a nod. “And them wanting to reschedule the appointment! I told them!”
Soon, they all piled out of the exam room and were back in the car, only Paula was recalled last minute by one of the staff. She hadn’t buckled Willy into his baby carrier yet, so she brought him with her. She was too distracted by Willy’s imminent hospitalization to think of Sylvie or Adele other than that they were safe in the car. She certainly didn’t see that Adele would be needing hospitalization, too.
For, suddenly, Adele couldn’t breathe at all.
She thought she was going to die this time.
Sylvie quickly reached back between the bucket seats and touched Adele very lightly on the back of her hand. Adele was too panicked to protest.
The touch was all that was needed.
There wasn’t much to see at first, other than that Adele began breathing again. She took in grateful gulps of air. Then, beneath her dramatic makeup and black clothes, her face and body slimmed down; the medications she’d taken all her life for her asthma had caused her to put on a lot of extra weight.
Now the asthma was completely gone.
She could no longer be angry at the world over it.
She abruptly pulled her hand away from Sylvie’s.
Sylvie eased back into her seat, resting her head against the back of it. She closed her eyes before a wave of dizziness and fatigue which came crashing onto her.
She was having what Paula would have called one of her “mini-spells.”
For Sylvie, it was another part of the dreamlike weirdness of her life in Portland. She could heal certain people – if they let her. Why some and not others, Sylvie had no idea, other than she first had to be able to see their illness, which was hit-and-miss, and she had to want to heal them, too.
It had been “easy” with the two young children, Esme and Jonathan; they had welcomed her affection and touch.
No matter that healing them had made her feel pretty awful. Each time, it had cost her twenty-four hours. But she’d been as drawn to them as they to her, and taking away their suffering seemed the only thing she could do.
But she hadn’t been able to do the same for poor Willy.
“I know what you just did,” Adele presently said from the back seat, her voice strained.
Sylvie was too exhausted to move or open her eyes.
“It doesn’t mean I like you,” Adele said. “I hate you.”
Sylvie couldn’t help but smile a little to herself. She was glad Adele couldn’t see it; she would have resented it if she had.
Paula came back with Willy, then, opening the back car door and letting in the outside air. It was a sunny afternoon in spring, and everything was in full bloom. They were parked partly under the shade of a pink-flowering tree. A shaft of sunlight fell on Sylvie’s face; she could feel its warmth across her already hot cheeks and brow.
“Another spell? A mini-spell!” Paula exclaimed when she saw that Sylvie was half-slumped in her seat. “Just what we need!”
“I’ll be alright,” Sylvie said.
“Humph. I suppose we’ll need to have you seen again by a doctor. Little good that will do, though. Adele, help me with Willy’s seatbelt.”
She didn’t notice anything different or amiss about Adele, other than that Adele was for once helping without some sullen remark or excuse under her breath. Paula did have the passing thought that her good influence over Adele was finally sinking in. But soon she was too distracted by the nerve-racking mixture of tedium and stress of admitting Willy to the hospital. She had to answer endless questions about things that “hadn’t been her fault.” The strung-out process swallowed up the rest of the afternoon and dragged into the evening.
Sylvie wasn’t allowed into the ward due to concerns that she might have the flu or some other illness, despite Paula’s repeated remonstrations that Sylvie wasn’t contagious. Even the volume of Paula’s voice couldn’t alter the hospital rules.
She had to have Sylvie return to the car, instructing her in frazzled tones not to go wandering off on her own. She had Adele come along with her back into the hospital.
She had never taken much stock of what Adele wore other than that it was all silly-looking, and didn’t notice that her skin-tight clothes were now hanging loose on her.
Paula also didn’t think for a moment that Sylvie would leave the car; she felt she’d done a good job setting limits with the girl, and, because of her efforts, Sylvie was well-behaved and compliant – except when it came to not eating and also getting sick all the time. But Paula wouldn’t give up on her, just like she wouldn’t give up on Adele. She already knew that miracles happened.
Sylvie wasn’t well enough to leave the car for the first hour, but, after that, she began feeling that she could sit up, a preamble to walking.
For, despite how lousy she felt, she was experiencing a mounting sense of urgency to get to the warehouse they’d passed on the way to the clinic. The necessity of going, now, somehow, needled her relentlessly, like pins pushing into her thoughts.
She had been on enough car rides with Paula to have an idea of where the warehouse was in relation to the hospital. It had always been rather a game of hers to map out the city mentally whenever they went to a new clinic.
The warehouse was, she judged, about two and a half miles south of the hospital, on the other side of the freeway. It would be absolutely crazy to set out in search of it.
She opened the car door and got out, pausing for a long moment to let the light-headedness pass.
Then she closed the door behind her and started walking.