Everything they do here is only temporary. I heard them saying that as they stitched me up. One doctor talking to another most likely, as it's too dispassionate a thing to say to my mum or dad. It's true though, you can't save a life forever, just until the next fast car or tumor or set of stairs comes bowling along.
I open up to a world of pain and no-air and plaster-cast whiteness. People come and go. I am just relieved and grateful and desperately sorry for touching off this whole sick mess. I tell everyone who comes near me that I'm sorry, because it seems such an important thing to say--important that it's out there. People are checking my pulse or sticking tubes into me. There is pain, an ache as bad as if my head had been smacked against a brick wall until it cracked like an egg. Exactly as bad as that. The way my scalp feels to touch is like an ancient map, written on sheepskin.
At night someone--I see their hands, a man's hands with tiny nails--someone is sleeping in the same bed as me. They are hugging me like a child with a doll. It is heavy and dark and the pain makes everything else irrelevant. I wake up and my best friend is there, her arm in a cast. I remember the fight: how she tried to stop him and he hit her and she fell down and didn't move. This . . . this tiny little spiral fracture is a relief. I cannot, however, remember her name. She has pink hair. We have been drunk together on more than one Christmas Day. That is all. She says, "He's dead. They just told me. He died on the table." She shuts her eyes, "you shouldn't have got involved." Then I fall asleep or she wanders away. It doesn't make much difference.
I wake up and my new head feels bigger than it is. It's daytime. I am conscious. My ward buddy is a girl with long brown hair and bandaged forearms. The light makes my head spin. My huge, unbalanced head.
"Back in the land of the living?" she says. Almost at once I lean to the side and am sick, and then the dark seems to reach up and grab me. I hear the girl say, "oh," and "not quite then," and when I open my eyes again it is night and I am lying in the embrace of that same stranger, like a doll, like a teddy bear. If I roll over to see who it is, I'll lose it again. I am more tired that I ever have been in my life. Every second I am glad that the fight is not still happening.
The girl, the ward-buddy, I hear her feet on the linoleum and then I see her sideways face, smiling gently. "You better now?" she says, then adds quickly, "don't nod." I can't talk. I try to express this in gestures, but I can't move my limbs either. The girl looks and raises her eyebrows at the arm lying sleepily across my chest.
"That's Wolf," she says. "He's a nurse here. He does this sometimes, to help him sleep, you know?" She grins. "He used to do it to me, when I was new here. It's cool. He's harmless." She looks at me with absolute curiosity. She waits for me to do something, anything, but I can't.
"My name's Lila," she says at last, and then she goes away.
Time passes for me here the same way it must do for a cat. Sleep and tests and checks and stitches and re-stitches. They're taking skin from my foot to put on my head. I shall have a foot-head. It amuses me, vaguely, and I laugh and even this is painful. Lila is there or not there and for the most part she is calm and smiling. Her face is waxy, pale as a newborn and her body is stick-slim under the gown.
A nurse comes to check my stitches, the whole cartographic mess of them. I wonder, is this Wolf? But the fingers are too thin, the nails overgrown and capped with black crescents. He whistles as though I am a particularly fine sports car and says, "he really did a number on you, didn't he?"
At nights I surface from nightmares where the fight is still going on. Specifically the moment right after he grabbed me in the sweat-warmed crook of his arm and started to kill me as calmly as if he'd been making an omelet. I come back from there, screaming down into the arms of Wolf, whoever he is, and he is hugging me tighter, whispering, it's all right, you're safe now. I'll look after you. You're safe, you're safe.
Only a nightmare.
You're with me.
Day comes. Whether it is tomorrow or the day after I can't be sure. I am able to sit up in bed and all day Lila and me are friends by eyesight, by a complex dance of looks and smiles and lowered eyes. In the lull after rounds, she says, "I heard you got into a fight."
I almost laugh at that, because what happened had not resembled a fight in any sense of the word. Laughing hurts though, so I nod, ever so gently. Lila's eyebrows shoot up, "pretty serious fight."
Nod. Ever after now I'll be holding people up at airport security while I explain that the problem's inside of me. I wonder if I'll have to tell them about the fight. I wonder if there will be a morning of my life when I wake up not remembering, not being forced to remember by the pain.
It's about a week. I have to learn how to walk again, even though my legs are fine. I feel like I'm carrying around a whole world in place of my head. The continents keep shifting, and there are gaps and voids and earthquakes and oceans. With all that on your shoulders, walking seems like a pretty huge thing to be trying to do. They set up with a nurse on either side of me and I wander slowly around the ward. I try to look at their hands, in case one of them is Wolf, but no. Maybe he works in a different department. He is back again that night, and I would be strong enough to roll over and try and get a look at him now, but this particular night I can hear him crying into my back. It's terrifying, and I lie there and pretend to be asleep until he's gone.
Morning comes. Perhaps a few mornings. It's sunny even in winter, and I want to be outside. You can't smell anything in this place, and you don't realize how much you miss that sense until you're deprived.
A pigeon, or some other bird that's all loud and dark and gritty flutter smacks into the far window. By coincidence I look up just in time to see the impact, the crunch and smush. The first noise I make in weeks is a mute little sympathy-groan, a plea. Lila hears. She was asleep, the corner of her mouth glued to the pillow by a thin, glassy string. She blinks awake and says, "what?" I point at the window and slowly, slowly, she gets up and goes over. Looking out and down she puts a hand to her mouth and says, "oh Christ. Oh, I'm sorry."
She goes back to her bed and climbs in and turns on her side. After that we both go to sleep.
Another time, maybe a week or a day later I wake up and Lila is crying. She is sitting up in bed and hugging her stomach. I get up and the floor is cold, the walls are distant, are whirling away and then snapping back into place. I have to balance along the linoleum, as though walking a tightrope. When I'm close enough I grab out at the metal rail of her bed. A lifeline. Lila gazes up at me. There is blood on her gown, on her arms. There is blood everywhere.
"It's OK," she says. Cradling nothing and biting back tears, she weighs me. She is in pain, I can tell. In the end she holds out her hands and says, "so, yeah . . ." Her voice is raw and teary. "Stigmata". Blood drips down and flattens itself against the floor. There are holes. There are very definite holes.
I don't want to think too hard in case my skull can't take it. Instead, I stand at the bed beside her and she leans into me. Our hands fit together, mine encasing hers, wrapping through her fingers. I put my chin on the crown of her head. It's like hugging a child. We stay like that for a while and then, mutually, break apart. My hands are sticky, the blood drawn in a miniature range of peaks.
"I'll be okay," says Lila. She wraps her bed sheet around her hands and curls up fetus-like on the bed. Nothing else happens and then I come awake and it's breakfast time. Getting back to my own bed, scrubbing the blood off my hands, I don't remember any of it. Lila's hands are white-wrapped, freshly bandaged. Once she's eaten they come in and start to rebandage them, only there aren't any wounds there. Maybe there never were. Maybe I imagined the whole thing.
When they've left Lila says, "in case you were wondering, last night was real."
I make a question with my eyes.
"It's been happening since I was twelve," says Lila. She smiles, grim-reaper. "It started on my twelfth birthday, and I've been here ever since." She knots up a corner of the bed sheet in her hands and says, "they're probably going to move me soon. They usually do, right after."
I shake my head. Lila shrugs, and an hour later they come in and wheel her away. As she's going she catches my eye through a forest of arms, rails and bodies, and smiles an I-told-you-so smile. For a while in the empty ward my head pounds. I turn over and shut my eyes.
That night Wolf is there again, sleeping with an arm hooked over my shoulder. I could just turn my head now, probably, and see who he is, but I don't. Slowly, moving in inches, I get up, swing my legs out of the bed. Sit on the edge and make the infinite jump to the floor. The world swims, tips, but stays present. I don't have any shoes. My feet are bare and freezing on the linoleum. I start walking and I make it the few meters to the door. It is locked. The bolts are a world out of my reach. I don't try for long before I'm tired, and I stumble back and slot myself into the warm hollow of Wolf's body.
Tentatively I put a hand to the back of my head. The stitches are gone now, dissolved in time, hidden under raised tracks of flesh. It is tender but not painful. New hair sprouts through here and there. I've been here for a long time, so it feels like. I think of my best friend with the pink hair and the plaster-cast arm. Her name . . . still I can't remember.
I dig my elbow back. "Wolf," I say. Then louder, "Wolf," the word croaking out like blood from a stone. It echoes inside my head. Behind me, Wolf stirs, and his arm moves, grips me tighter as though he's frightened I might disappear.
"Wolf," I say in my dry, terrible voice, "let me tell you something about this world."
About the author:
Krishan Coupland is a student from Southampton. He writes things down and occasionally takes pictures. His work has appeared in 3AM magazine, Verbsap, Gold Dust and Forgotten Worlds. He is the editor of Neon Literary Journal. Nothing interesting ever happens to him. His website is: http://www.freewebs.com/krishanc/.