“You won't live much longer. A few days, tops. Then your two or three still-living family members will have to fly out to watch your funeral. And of course your friends – well, they would. If you had any.”
“What a cruel thing to say.”
“I'm a cruel person.”
“I know,” she said, her fingers tracing an inchlong spot on her thigh where a wound long since healed had once been hewed by reckless, drunken hands. She always did whenever Matthew was around. The night she'd formally decided things wouldn't work out between them. This was the first time she'd seen him since then.
He sat in the chair off to her right, his back to the window into the hospital hallway. On the phone sitting in his lap he tapped away, eyes unfocused, awareness dulled by drink even now. His hair was greasy and matted. “When was the last time you bathed?” she asked.
“What does it matter?”
She shrugged. It didn't matter to either of them.
A nurse, stocky, aged perhaps forty, dressed in a shade of blue-green that reminded Laila of the pills they'd given her early in her illness, the ones that had made her head spin so much during dance practice that she would collapse after any prolonged action. Upon her return trip to the emergency room she learned she was allergic to the medication – which was, incidentally, the only kind of medication available for a condition as rare as hers.
The nurse eyed Matthew. “Visiting hours have been over since eight, sir...”
“Fuck off.” He didn't look up.
The nurse's eyes flashed, but only for a moment. Then her eyes shut tight as she rubbed her temples and made a mental note to steal a few extra painkillers from one of the pharmacy medical cabinets later.
She checked a band around Laila's right wrist and left the room as quickly as she could.
After a few moments, Matthew turned his phone off and looked at Laila. “Something to say about that?”
Laila just shrugged. “Why are you here, Matthew?”
“Pete mentioned you were in the hospital, so I decided to see if you were still alive. I guess Pete was too busy to come see you himself.”
“Oh.” She was silent a moment. She considered telling him not to call Pierre Pete, that he despised that nickname, but she decided against it. “Did he find a new partner yet?”
“Of course. Some French chick. Dances like a drunken elephant, but something tells me he didn't exactly pick her for her dancing skill – especially if he's trying to pick someone like you. Got all the equipment except the feet, if you know what I'm saying.”
“Huh.” It was all she could think to say. Pained tears burned at the corners of her vision, and she felt one shimmer its way down her face. She turned on her side, brushing it away into the pressed white fabric of her bed.
“I suppose I should have expected that.”
“Yes. You should have.”
“Is there something you get out of knocking people down?”
“I just cement peoples' hypotheses.”
There was a sound from outside. A man sharing stature and complexion with a brick wall entered the room. He pointed at Matthew. “You. Outta here. Now.”
He looked at the large man for a moment. “Alright.”
“Was this guy giving you trouble, lady?” the big man asked.
“Yes. But at least he came to visit.”
The man's brow furrowed, but he spoke no more as he pushed Matthew out of the room.
The light flicked off, bathing her and everything else in semi-darkness. Monitors and electric readouts continued their displays, tracing patterns of light on the ceiling, on the walls, timers awaiting the inevitable.
They reminded Laila of the metronome her first instructor had owned, beating out a constant tick-tick-ticking, counting the moments she could spend enveloped within herself, when she could let her body work and her twisting, spiraling adolescent mind have a few-minute rest between lessons in this or lessons in that. Both parents had grown up in poverty, both united and enriched by dance, both wanted to spare their only daughter from a similar fate, both agreed on what to force her to do or learn, and soon they could agree on little else. Both had married countless times since then though never for long, both plastered walls with pictures of their own faces, sculptures of themselves. They'd last seen Laila at her final ballet dance a month ago, where she'd fallen to her knees in the midst of the performance and vomited in spastic retches, spattering her white dress with splotches of orange red, turning Pierre's meticulously cleaned spats, the ones he cared for so, the ones he'd bought when he was twenty off his first paycheck at some dive on the outskirts of Madrid, into a matching pair of ruined dreams. The entire room, the four-thousand rich spectators, the two-hundred peering at them from backstage watched, aghast, amazed, disgusted at how quickly something so beautiful could devolve into something so hideous.
They reacted eventually, but no one moved to help. The spectators gravitated away – some in disgust, some in contempt, some in pity. No one backstage told any of them to leave, no one called for the show to end, no one so much as turned off the burning spotlight fixated on Laila and Pierre as she knelt and he rubbed a hand across the ruffled fabric that made up the back of her dress.
When she finally finished, and was little more than a sobbing mess on the ground, Pierre placed a hand on her side and half-walked, half-carried her offstage. Not so much as a second passed before the owner of the theater, demanding to know what drugs she was on and shouting that she would never work in that town again. The woman was right. Laila never danced in that town – or anywhere else – ever again. And she never would.
Her parents disappeared without so much as calling to ask what had happened to her on that night. They could care less; as far as they were concerned, she was a a disappointment through and through.
Laila found small twinges of enjoyment as she envisioned the surprise, perhaps even the guilt they might feel when the truth of the matter came out, when they and the other rich bastards who had pinned her down as another basket case, another young Icarus flown too close to the allure of fame and fortune and all the vice that came alongside it. Little would they have guessed that it was actually a rare degenerative disease ravaging her body. She would die and they, the compassionless, might feel a pang of guilt for part of a second. An equal tradeoff.
They weren't all compassionless, she had to remind herself. Pierre, despite everything, had always been with her. She still found herself shivering as she thought about the night they'd spent together the day before that catastrophic evening. It had started out as a practice, a final rehearsal, but been beset by a case of nerves that she now knew ha d more to do with her illness than anything else. She'd never been nervous before; she'd done at least forty public performances with Pierre before this one, many in front of much larger crowds than that she was slated to tomorrow. But Pierre hadn't questioned it. He'd retrieved a bottle of wine that he'd intended to give a friend of his as a gift and the two of them passed it back and forth, taking turns. Eventually he placed a hand on her back, rubbing back and forth, while he spoke to her of his childhood in Madrid. At one point his hand had slipped, brushing past her right breast in an action that she still wasn't sure was an accident. A pink tint rose in his cheeks, and he stuttered an apology – something Laila had never before seen him do. He had a tendency to follow through with whatever he did, whether it was accidental or intentional in its initiation
Almost without input from her brain, she reached out, taking his hand in hers, and slipped it under the soft black fabric of the front of her blouse.
When she woke the next morning he was gone. I should have expected this, she thought to herself. But as her grogginess dissipated, she became aware of the wool blanket around her shoulders. It certainly hadn't been there last night, but then warmth hadn't been much of a problem. The floor had been cold, ice cold, but she hadn't noticed it for long.
The sound of paper crumpling alerted her as she shifted off her stomach. There was a note from Pierre taped to the blanket's price tag. In it Pierre apologized for leaving, saying that a relative had fallen ill and had needed him at the last minute. But Laila had talked to him at length about himself during their recital practice and recalled that at one point he had said that he hated his family and hoped to never see them again. It didn't surprise her. No one ever stayed for long.
Her head, the only part of her body tethered to a sensor with any kind of leeway, shifted toward the window outside. Night dwelled over the parking lot as if uncertain whether to stay or leave; the pinprick lights of headlights and street lamps shooed it, but it nevertheless remained, watching, waiting.
As she looked out the window, Laila caught sight of a young girl in night clothes walking hand-in-hand with a man in a suit. The girl looked about seven or eight, and her pajamas were imprinted with cartoon animal faces that triggered recognition in the back of Laila's mind. Her hand that wasn't holding the girl's hand was clasped around the wing of what looked like a stuffed white dove. The man wore a hat and suit – both gray – reminded her of those that someone from the government in a 40's movie might wear. In the glare of the streetlights she managed to make out that his face was sunken, skeleton-like, and that the skin under his eyes glistened with fresh tears.
The girl looked into Laila's room, or appeared to – the tint of the glass would make it impossible for her to see anything. For a moment, the weak light outside seemed to illuminate a patchwork of scars and sutures across the girl's face and bald scalp. Then the illumination waned as the man in gray gently placed a hand on her shoulder, and the two of them walked out of view.
Laila was able to contemplate the duo for only a moment before shrieking pain erupted all down her back. Her legs spasmed, her shoulders twitched, her teeth tore her lip open. Hardly had she cried out before one of the computers she was connected to chirped out a three-note warning and made a noise like a garbage disposal. The wall behind her vibrated, and the pain stopped. Morphine. She knew she was using too much, knew that soon the hospital would have no choice but to take her off the medication. Then she'd be able to feel her organs shutting down.
Her first few nights in the hospital were spent about a week after her catastrophic final performance when severe pains all over her body but mostly down her spine. She'd driven to the hospital, swerving and almost crashing several times. When she finally did arrive she waited a half hour with an annoyed night nurse, her vision fading in and out, tendrils of pain like some sort of octopus from hell tearing through her back whenever she shifted more than a centimeter. When she finally was called she managed to stand, take two steps, and black out.
When she woke up cold hands were on her bare back. There was a prick, then a blinding flash of pain, then more blackness.
The second time she woke she found herself in a hospital room with a tall, gaunt doctor wearing spectacles and blue scrubs standing over her. He began speaking to her before she even became aware of her surroundings, dropping the bad news in her lap like a sack of dead animals. He said in his calm, deep voice that neither he nor any of the other four expert physicians brought in to see her in the past week had any idea why, but all of her vital organs save her brain were shutting down and slowly falling apart. They had perhaps two weeks to find a cure before her internal organs became unsustainable my machinery, and the chances of finding one for a condition so rare were slim at best. Then he left.
They'd pinned it down to something spinal, hence the source of the pain radiating from that area. Beyond that, nothing had been discovered.
Only Matthew came to visit in her first days of consciousness. On the first day he brought a hooker and left disappointed that the two of them weren't allowed to use one of the empty rooms. On the second he came to the hospital drunk and stole an entire bottle of painkillers slated to be given to a cancer patient.
Laila had grown up with Matthew, though “with” was probably too strong a word. The boy had never had much interest in dance (which boggled the minds of his parents) or anything else they forced him to do. Their two families had grown close only because of the two couples' similar interest in dance. Laila's family danced formally in front of crowds, whereas Matthew's family had won several gold medals in one Olympics – one by his mother, one by his father, and two by his older sister. All three were baffled by his disinterest in dance, not understanding that it was less specific to the activity and more specific to – well, everything. Romantics bored him too, though that hadn't stopped him from seeking out an incredibly ill-fated and embarrassing relationship with her that had lasted almost a year. And yet, still he stayed with her in her final days, if only to look over her shoulder at her past and tell her that both she and everything that she had ever done was stupid. He was the only other child she had interacted with during her entire childhood. In spite of himself and herself, she wished he hadn't been forced to leave.
The pain struck again, sharper than before, so sharp that Laila's vision swam and her lungs failed as she tried to gasp. Another garbage-disposal sound emanated from behind her, followed by a whirring noise. As suddenly as it had started, the pain stopped. Somewhere in her back they'd put a set of drains in for both lungs, the waste tubes snaking their way out of her body somewhere below her shoulder blades. It was tough to pinpoint anything more than that – couldn't move her hands any more than slightly to check, or she'd risk disconnecting the spiderweb of IVs that snaked their way out of arteries and veins and into the wall of electronics behind her. Morphine stopped the pain, sure, but it dulled the senses and the mind and probably had a score of other long-term side effects a well. It was almost a good thing she wouldn't have to worry about the long-term. Almost.
Laila spent the night awake, wracked by spasms of pain and spasms of reflection in alternating volleys. She drifted off to slumber as the sun began to peek over the horizon, but her mind still would not rest.
She was effortless, weightless, and at first she thought she had died. But then her awareness returned to her, and she found herself in a dance hall – a dance hall she recognized as the one her final performance had been at. But she didn't feel sick to her stomach nor sick of body at all. She felt like love, like a manifestation of grace, like there was no one watching her as she danced, alone, in the center of the room.
But there were. Thousands of adoring eyes, fixated on no one but her, no one but the girl from Norway who no one knew. She could see the grinning faces of her mother and father in the front row, sitting together, their hands clasped together. Even Matthew was there, looking at her with a half-smile that she had only seen him wear when news of someone else's death reached him. And then there was Pierre, her partner, dancing just as freely as she herself, so freely that she hardly noticed that he was separate from her, for he was just as graceful, more beautiful, more -
“Laila.” he said, his voice echoing. She tried to answer, but her throat tensed and choked and tears welled at the corners of her eyes instead.
“Laila. Wake up. Please.”
She found words. “What?”
The scene began to fade into pinpricks of white light, as if she were rubbing her eyes while they were still open. But Pierre's face stayed. Relief flooded it.
“It's...” another man, her doctor, interrupted him. “Your heart just stopped beating for almost a minute.”
He pressed a few buttons on one of the consoles behind her. “I managed to start it back up in the nick of time, but...” he stopped, rubbing his upper set of teeth against his bottom lip. “I'm afraid you... you may not have much time left. Your body's condition is degrading rapidly, and I fear that no matter how much we try we'll only be able to forestall the inevitable for so long, unless we discover a cure in the next few days.”
“We can talk to you later in private about what you think the best course of action will be – whether there are still any affairs you need to clear up just in case we can't cure you. It will be your own decision, of course, as we haven't... been able to reach your family.”
Laila nodded, her vision still clearing. “Can I make one request at the moment?”
“Can I ask you to leave, doctor?”
The doctor raised an eyebrow, and his eyes shifted from her to Pierre and back again. His expression softened ever so slightly. “That's fine.” He rubbed a hand across the nape of his neck and turned towards the door. Before he left, he turned toward Pierre. “I'd tell you to behave yourself and to not move her around too much,” he said, “but... well, she might as well have a bit of fun.” Then he left the room before Pierre could do anything more than blush.
“Does he know about our - “
“Doctor-patient confidentiality. But they may have asked about my sexual past. It is protocol, after all.”
At the expression on Pierre's face, Laila felt her lips twitch into a half-grin. It was the first time she had done anything close to smiling since she'd entered the hospital.
“Were you wondering where I was?”
Her eyes slid to the parking lot window. “Matthew came by earlier.” Her eyes shifted back to Pierre and she watched his brow furrow, his thin, Spanish nose twitch as if he'd been bitten by a gnat. “He said you were busy 'preparing' with a new partner.”
Pierre snorted. “Hardly. And Matthew's certainly known for his honesty. I mean, it isn't like he would say something to hurt you just because he thinks it's funny. Of course not.”
“At least he came.”
A motor revved outside as Pierre twitched. The man Laila had seen the night before, the man in gray, was just leaving the driver's seat of a black car parked in such a way that she could only see its rear from her position.
For a few moments he disappeared off to the left side of the window. When he returned he was pushing a small metal cart with a black bag of some sort on it. Then he lifted the bag, draping it over his shoulder. It seemed rather unwieldy, but didn't appear to be large – it looked to be about half his size. With some slight difficulty he managed to put the bag into the rear of the truck and shut the door. Then he faced Laila and looked her directly in the eyes, his skull-like face the epitome of sorrow. Laila, aware that the windows were tinted, still found herself nervous and broke eye contact, but not before noticing the small, stuffed dove he carried in the crook of his arm. Then he got back in the driver's seat and turned the car to leave – passing by just long enough for her to note that the vehicle he drove was a hearse.
Pierre followed her gaze and looked out the window, for a moment, but his glance soon returned to Laila. “I didn't come because I couldn't... I've been wrapped up in my own affairs. I... retired from dancing, you see.” He sat down on the one foot of the bed not covered by IVs, machinery, or Laila's body.
She turned toward him, causing one of the consoles behind her to bleep a warning. “You're serious?” He nodded, lips drawn tight.
“All because of me?”
It was his turn to twitch his lips into a half-grin, though there was nothing resembling joy in his eyes. “I couldn't go on. My thoughts were too focused on... well, you.”
Silence fell over the room. Pierre massaged his wrists, looking at the floor.
“I don't have long. You'd be better off just forgetting about me. It doesn't make sense for you to forfeit everything you've worked so hard for just because of me.”
“No. It doesn't. But I don't give a damn.”
“I don't want to be a burden on your conscience.”
For a moment, Pierre opened his mouth as if to argue. Then a flash of realization hit him, and he stood, striding across the floor and drawing the blinds to the hospital, then the blinds to the parking lot.
“What are you-”
“Take my hand.” It was thin, carefully manicured. She stared at it. “Do you not see the wires connected all over my body?”
“I see what needs to be done. And I think you do, too.”
She hesitated. Then, with a sigh, she reached out and took his hand. He pulled, and she matched his strength, feeling the tubes and wires tear away, some out of her body, some out of the wall. Several panels began to blip out warnings, warnings that rapidly began to grow in tone. Pierre released her hand, propping her up against a bedpost, and tapped several buttons behind her. The beeping stopped. Laila was already too overwhelmed by agony to question him. Pierre located the morphine IV as it lay on the bed and forced it back into one of the holes still in her arm. The dosage would increase automatically in response to stimulus, but there was only so much in the IV.
More wires disconnected, but the morphine made the wrenching of the needles from within her feel as if someone were tugging on hairs.
And then she was sitting up, the hand clasped with Pierre's damp with sweat. His face seemed to radiate light.
“Are you ready?”
Her voice shook. She mouthed the word, but no sound came out. A gentle hand was placed between the tubes in her back, and she felt the air woosh by her.
“You're far lighter than you should be.” The words echoed.
“I haven't been eating.”
Pierre nodded. “Can you stand?”
“I don't know.”
Her legs met ground, though it felt cold and far away. She was aware of her legs buckling, but the hands caught her before the ground could rush up to meet her.
“I suppose I'll dance for both of us, then,” the man said, blazing in blooms of different color. The room spun and light flashed as the angel rocked her back and forth, side to side, carrying her, holding her, shouldering her pain, comforting her.
“It doesn't hurt any more,” she whispered to him as the corners of her vision flickered, colors blurring into monotone. The angel just smiled, saying nothing. She felt her head loll backwards, felt the hand disappear for her back, replaced by a warm, cushy sensation. Then she didn't feel anything at all.
The doctor removed his hands from the sheet, draping it back over the patient in the bed.
He turned to the young man he'd ushered in earlier. “How did you know to turn off the alarms?”
“I was in med school for a little while. It didn't work out.” He didn't look up from where the needle for the morphine IV lay on the ground.
The doctor nodded. “This wasn't quite what I meant when I told you she could have some fun, earlier.” The man stared at him, just long enough for the doctor to start feeling embarrassed, then his gaze returned to the floor.
“I won't contact the police. It was an accident, even if you did tamper with the machinery. If legal action's taken I'd be happy to shoulder the burden – it was my fault, after all. But the girl was suffering far too much. No one deserves to be kept alive when in such pain, even for the sake of science. “
The doctor nodded again, and left the room, closing the door behind him. He walked for a bit and approached the secretary next to the elevator. “Send a coroner to Room 1040, please.”
The secretary’s head snapped upright. “Room 1040, doctor?”
“Yes, Room 1040.”
“What happened? I thought-”
The doctor sighed and shook his head. “I don't know for certain. He... I think it was her boyfriend was with her when the monitors stopped responding. When I came to investigate, the patient had passed, all of the faculties keeping her alive and reading out her vital signs unhooked.”
Agape, she stared at him. “You know they'll suspect you. You were against keeping her for observation from square one.”
“Perhaps. But she served her use. I've agreed to shoulder whatever legal costs rise against the hospital, to take the blame, but I suspect there won't be any. Her family was long alienated, and her other contacts so few and far between that they didn't even know she was ill.”
“Hm.” The secretary looked displeased. “Did you at least tell him that we managed to develop a cure? That all of her suffering wasn't in vain?”
“Are you joking? That boy looked so heartbroken I didn't even have the heart to tell him about the research being done. And I certainly don't intend to now.”
“That's a real shame,” the secretary sighed. “A real shame.” The doctor just shrugged. “Nothing to do about it now,” he murmured. “You know as well as I do that the decision was the right one, no matter how cruel.”
The secretary said nothing more, and the doctor bid her farewell before turning down the hall to the elevators, already thinking about where he would go for his lunch break.
On his way out of the elevator, he bumped into a man, knocking over the thin metal trolley he was pushing.
Apologizing, the doctor knelt and stood the trolley up. But the man, who was garbed in a matching gray hat and coat, just looked at him.
“They are all flying away,” he said, his voice wavering. Then he turned to leave, pushing his cart before him. The doctor made out two odd-looking tattoos of what appeared to be hand scythes on either of his wrists. Then he disappeared behind the elevator doors.
For a moment the doctor watched, contemplating the coroner's strange words. Then he shrugged, and left the building. But the sight before him made him pause.
Thousands of small, white birds, perched on the cars and street lamps in the parking lot, stared at him. Then, almost as one, they took flight, a giant white cloud that dispersed and flew apart in a thousand different directions. And then they were gone. They were all gone.