Authors: Kate Messner
“Up to the roof,” Dr. Ames said. “Killer view. You can go up anytime you'd like and check it out.”
“They're allowed on the
?” Mom tipped her head like she'd heard wrong.
“It's more of an upstairs deck,” Dr. Ames said. “Totally safe, completely fenced in.” He held his hand up to his waist to show Mom how safe we'd be. “You want to see it?”
Mom looked at me.
“Not now,” I said. What I really wanted was to finish this tour so I could lie down. I think Dr. Ames could tell I was
starting to fade because he put an arm around Mom and led her back to the hallway.
“Our MRI and electroencephalography labs are down this way,” Dr. Ames said, gesturing to his right.
“Electro-huh?” I looked down the hallway.
Dr. Ames laughed. “It's a mouthfulâjust a fancy name for another kind of brain scan. I'd show you, but those rooms are in use right now and I don't want to interrupt.” He continued down the hallway. “Here's my office.” He unlocked a door and led us into a bright, open room with a big wooden desk.
“What a lovely view,” Mom said, stepping up to one of the windows that looked out over the swimming pool and, beyond that, the docks. I leaned against the desk, and my hand brushed a manila folder; there were a bunch of them, fanned out next to a laptop computer. The folders were labeled ENRIQUEZ, HAYES, JACOBS, MCCAIN, PERKINS, and mine, GRAYSON. Probably full of our medical files from home. A green Post-it note on the ENRIQUEZ folder read “Procedure Discontinued 4/18.” I was wondering if that patient had already gone home, when Dr. Ames swept up all the files and dropped them into a drawer below his desk.
“Sorry about the mess. I meant to tidy up, but time gets away from me. Shall we continue?” He waited for us to leave, then pulled the door closed and locked it behind him.
“This is Dr. Gunther's office.” Dr. Ames opened the next door.
This office had a smaller desk with an open laptop. Behind it, a wiry man looked up from the papers he was holding. “Oh! Hello there. I'm Dr. Gunther.” He closed the laptop and pushed himself
to stand. His white hair was long on the sides, combed over a bald spot on top. His face was pale and yellowy, and so were his office walls, empty except for a glass shadow box full of pinned-and-preserved butterfly specimensâone red and black, one brilliant yellow, and one glowing blue.
“Dr. Gunther is the real brains of this operation. He oversees all the treatment details,” Dr. Ames said as Dr. Gunther shook our hands. His hand was papery and cold, even though the window was open, the room full of warm Florida air.
“Nice dead butterflies,” Ben said. His aunt glared at him.
“Ah . . . thank you. It's a hobby of mine.” Dr. Gunther hurried back to his chair and reached for his papers. His hands were all shaky.
“You're reviewing the updated files, I gather?” Dr. Ames raised his eyebrows.
“I am.” Dr. Gunther sighed. “I'd like to talk with you beforeâ”
“Later.” Dr. Ames cut him off sharply, but then his voice softened. “We've got a grand tour to finish before Molly takes these folks back to the mainland.” He nodded toward Ben's aunt and my mom, and I felt a twist in my stomach. I kept forgetting Mom had to leave.
“You'll want to see the guest rooms, I'm sure,” Dr. Ames said, leading us back to the hallway. He paused at some big glass doors on our right. Behind them were a bunch of empty treadmills and exercise bikes. “This is the exercise therapy center,” he said. “We'll have you down here in a few days, once you're ready for Phase Two of treatment.”
“So soon?” Mom asked. “Cat still gets dizzy going up stairs sometimes.”
Dr. Ames nodded. “Totally expected,” he said, tapping the glass door with his long fingers. “But here, we introduce a very gradual exercise program, and we'll have her monitored.”
“It's tough at first,” Quentin said, “but it gets easier every time, and they don't push us too hard. Nothing like my football practices back home. Just enough to make you sweat a little.”
“It's better than sitting around all day,” Sarah added. That was easy for her to say, I thought. She hadn't stopped moving since Ben and I arrived; if she wasn't walking, she was jumping or bouncing on her toes or stretching.
“It's an important part of therapy,” Dr. Ames said. “This carefully regulated return to activity helps to restore the brain's auto-regulation mechanism, if that makes sense.”
“It doesn't,” Ben said, leaning against the wall.
“Sorry. Here's the regular-guy version . . . When you do a cardio workoutâeven a mild oneâit kind of resets your body's systems. That's why exercise is good for people who have been traveling and have jet lagâit helps reset the body's internal clock. And in your case . . .” He stepped right up to Ben and put a hand on his shoulder. Ben tensed but didn't pull away. “. . . that exercise will help reset your brain so it can control blood pressure and the blood supply to your brain. That can help repair the concussion damage. Now does it make more sense?”
Ben nodded. “When do we get in there?”
“Probably early next week, but you seem like a pretty fit guy. If you're feeling up to it, I'll see if we can get you started sooner. Fair enough?”
All this was cool, if it would really work the way he said. I was almost afraid to hope, but when I looked at Mom, she was smiling. I could tell she was imagining me running on that treadmill, maybe running along the dock at home, kayaking again.
“The other therapy room, where we do light and oxygen treatments, is just past the exercise area,” Dr. Ames said, looking at his watch, “but I'd like to get you to the guest rooms so we don't run out of time. Molly has to leave soon, and she won't be making another run with the airboat tonight.”
My gut twisted again. Soon, that airboat fan would roar to life and take Mom flying away over the swamp, back to Everglades City and then to the airport and Dad and homeâwithout me. I was staying here.
“Let's see,” Dr. Ames said as we followed him down another bright white hallway. “We've already got Quentin in room 104 and Sarah in 100. Cat, you'll be in 108. And my buddy Ben's in room 111. Three ones for good luck.”
We got to my room first. “Welcome home, Cat.” Dr. Ames opened the door to a bedroom with calm blue walls and a queen-size bed. It was cold in thereâthe air conditioner must have been crankedâand bright, with a window looking out at the pool and the pond.
“You've got your own bathroom here,” Dr. Ames said, opening a door to reveal a sparkling clean shower, sink, and toilet. “If there's anything you needâshampoo, toothpasteâlet me know and I'll send one of the orderlies.” He looked at me, waiting.
“It's lovely,” Mom jumped in. “Not at all like a hospital room, huh?”
“Thanks,” I managed, walking to the dresser. My suitcase and backpack were already here, like Dr. Ames promised. “I guess I'll get settled.”
“Absolutely,” Dr. Ames said. “Let me take Ben to his room, and I'll be back in a few minutes to walk your mom back to the dock.”
He pulled the door closed with a quiet click, and then it was only Mom and me. I didn't know what to say, so I started unpacking my suitcase. I put my clothes in the dresser, unwrapped the clay cardinal I brought from home, and perched her on the windowsill. I pulled out my pencil bag full of sculpting tools and the big hunk of clay I brought, all wrapped up in plastic so it wouldn't dry out. It was only enough to make three or four birds, but Mom thought it would help me pass the time, make me feel more at home. I set those on top of my dresser. Maybe I'd start a new bird later. An osprey like that one we saw.
The only thing left in my suitcase was the picture of Mom and Dad and Aunt Beth and Kathleen with Lucy and me. I pulled it out and set it up on the dresser. It was from our camping trip in the Redwoods last summer, before Lucy went to her sleepaway camp and met Mae Kim and Corinne. Before she decided she liked soccer and them better than hiking and me.
My eyes started burning, so I picked up my binoculars and went to the window. Half a dozen white birds milled around in the shallow-water weeds.
“What do you see?” Mom asked.
“Ibises, I think. They're smaller than the egrets in my bird book, and their beaks are curved.”
I glanced at my watchâfour thirty in Florida was one thirty at home. In an hour, Lucy would be getting out of classes, probably going for cupcakes with Corinne and Mae Kim. I wondered if she ever missed coming over after school, if she ever thought about weekends like that camping trip. We'd stayed up so late around the campfire, and Aunt Beth played her guitar, and we all sang with her. Lucy and I made up silly new lyrics for her seventies songs, and we laughed and laughed.
When I turned back to Mom, I couldn't hide the tears in my eyes.
“Oh, Cat.” Mom wrapped her arms around me.
I pulled away and wiped my cheeks. “It's just . . . you know the concussion makes me all moody. I'll be fine.” I said it again. “I'll be
This is where I need to be to get better.”
Mom nodded, hugged me again, and didn't let go until Dr. Ames knocked on the door.
“I don't want to rush you, but Molly's down at the dock when you're ready.”
“I'm ready,” I said.
“Really?” Mom held me out and looked at me close, as if she could see for sure whether I was telling the truth.
I wasn't. “I'm ready,” I lied again. “You can go.”
She hugged me one more time. And then she left.
I didn't walk to the dock with her or even look out the window. I didn't want to go to the pool or see the roof or get to know anybody or eat dinner. All I wanted to do was sleep, so I dug through my suitcase to find my pajamas and put them on.
I flopped too hard on the bed, and my head thumped like
somebody had drumsticks whaling away inside my skull. I pressed my pillow over my ears, but it couldn't drown out the sound from the dock.
The roar of that airboat leaving with my mom on board. Leaving me here.
When I woke, the sun was shining through my window, reflecting off the pond outside, making sparkle waves all over my ceiling. I blinked at the clock by my bed. Eight o'clock. If I got up now, I'd have time for breakfast before the MRI on my schedule for nine.
I sat up and braced myself for the dizziness that always came when I went from horizontal to vertical, but it didn't come.
I stood up and waited. And felt . . . weirdly okay. I turned my head to the left and right. I could tell the headache was there somewhere, behind my eyes, waiting, but it wasn't coming after me yet.
Maybe it was the medicine Dr. Ames brought me last night. He came to my door around nine with a turkey wrap, water, and two pillsâmy usual medicine for the headaches and something else that was supposed to increase blood flow to my brain and help repair the concussion damage. Could it be working already?
I was hungry, too, so I took a quick shower, dressed, and headed for the cafeteria.
Quentin and Sarah were side by side at a table, eating eggs and fruit. Ben sat across from them, reading
Horse and Rider
magazine. He didn't have a plate of food, only an unpeeled orange that he rolled back and forth on the table while he read.
“Oh, hi!” Sarah waved me over as if I might have a hard time spotting her through the crowd. “Sit by me. Want me to take you up to get food?”
“She can probably handle that herself,” Quentin said, smiling. His smile was different from Sarah's, like he wanted to be friends but understood if I needed time to start liking him. It made me like him faster.
“Well.” Sarah sounded offended. “I was just going to warn her about Elena's toast.”
“Who's Elena?” I asked.
“One of the workers.” Sarah pointed toward the kitchen area, where a woman with short, spiky hair was scrambling eggs. “She always burns the toast. Always. Get a bagel instead, and don't let her put it in the toaster.”
That made me laugh. “Couldn't I ask her to toast it lightly?”
“She doesn't speak English. None of the helpers do.” Sarah ticked them off on her fingers. “Olga and Elena and Viktor and Sergei. They're part of some medical exchange program from Russia.”
“Got it,” I said. “Plain bagel.” I headed for the kitchen area, where a tiny buffet was set up. Elena-of-the-burned-toast was at the counter, cracking eggs into a mixing bowl.
I filled a plate with strawberries, melon, scrambled eggs with cheese, and my untoasted bagel and headed back to the table. Sarah scooted close to Ben to make room for me between her and Quentin. Ben turned away and pretended she wasn't even there.
Something about Sarahâher smile or that hey-be-my-friend look in her eyesâreminded me of Amberlee, the girl from my art class who'd tried to join our table at lunch the day I fell out of the tree stand. Lucy and Corinne had stared at her as if she'd burst into a private meeting. Amberlee stood there with her tray, swaying back and forth like a tree about to blow over in the wind. I could have moved over to make room for another chair, or I could have gone with her to a different tableâI've thought a million times since then about what I could have doneâbut I sat there like Ben. I stared at the little cup of applesauce on my tray, and when I finally looked up, she was gone.
“So what's the deal with you guys?” Sarah asked, bringing me back from that other cafeteria. I wasn't ready to talk, so I took a bite of my eggs, then held up a finger while I chewed. She got the hint and turned to Ben. “Like, I'm from upstate New York. Way, way upstate, by Canada. Where are you from?” She gave him a nudge, and finally, he looked up from his magazine.
“Washington.” He looked down and turned a page.