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I don’t have on a coat as my mother flies out of the house. I’m not convinced that she told me to get in the car or that she even remembers I am here. I just chase after her and manage to jump into the backseat before she races out of the driveway.
As we near the hospital, she throws her purse into my lap and demands that I locate her lipstick, so at some point, she has presumably decided that I exist enough to dig through her makeup bag.
“It’s important to look your best, no matter what the occasion,” she practically shrieks. “What? No, not that one! No one wears bright pink to a hospital. Good Lord, Stella. Find me something more neutral. The brown. And put some on yourself. But don’t use mine. You look as white as a sheet. Did you bring blush? You didn’t? What on earth is wrong with you? Pinch your cheeks at least.”
I shift my focus from worry about my father and sister and the car accident they were in and lift my fingers to my face. My cheeks soon burn with pain, but I’m reassured that I am, in fact, still here.
The car peels out during a turn, and my head cracks against the window. It feels good, and I wish my mother would take all turns with as much vigor. But given my mother’s inattention to the road, I’m still a bit surprised that my body is not in bits all over the asphalt between home and the hospital.
So, happy birthday to me.
I am alive.
My mother abandons me as soon as we enter the emergency room, and I overhear enough to know that my eighteen-year-old sister, Amy, is being examined and that my father is with her.
On my sixteenth birthday, I sit alone in the waiting area of the hospital.
I smell antiseptic cleaners and burned coffee. I smell chaos and misery. The truth is that I could very well be experiencing some similar crap even if there wasn’t a car accident because that is about how life in my house goes.
But I’d rather be at home where at least there is familiarity. I’m uncomfortable in new situations.
A few hours later, a nurse finds me. My father and sister are fine. The accident could have been much worse. Black ice totaled my father’s Lexus, but he and Amy walked away from the accident.
The orange fabric on the chair that I am now sitting on is making me feel ill.
t’s hideous. The lighting in this claustrophobic room is hideous. The pile of wrinkled magazines with their airbrushed movie stars and neon lettering and overabundance of exclamation points is hideous. I want to put them all through a shredder and toss celebrity confetti. I would dance and spin under a cascade of shiny paper and forget where I am.
It’s dark outside at only four thirty, but the streetlights shine enough that I can see that snow continues to fall. Chicago winters are not exactly peaceful, but I might prefer to be out in the cold rather than in here.
It is hours later when my mother saunters into the room, moving past me without stopping, and assesses the coffee situation. She frowns at various single-serve flavors, eventually settling on one that passes inspection.
As the coffee maker revs to life and begins brewing her cup, she turns and leans against the counter. She looks startled. “Oh, I didn’t see you there.”
One would never guess that my mother, Lucinda Ford, was in grave concern for her husband and daughter. There is not a wrinkle in her pantsuit, nor a hair not perfectly styled. She wears a matching jewelry set, and I glare at the green stones hanging from her earrings. I immensely dislike them, but my mother infuriatingly makes them look glamorous. Then, I notice her lipstick.
“You’re wearing pink lipstick,” I say. “You said not to wear pink. You put on the brown lip gloss that I gave you.”
She sighs with exaggerated exasperation. “I did no such thing. And why you are concerned with my lipstick at this moment is beyond me. It’s your fault that we’re here in the first place.” She whips around and simultaneously tears open three sugar packets before shaking them into the paper cup. With her back to me, she takes a wooden stick from a container and begins stirring her coffee. She stirs and stirs and stirs.
I drop my head and look at my feet. My boots are too small. They barely fit when I got them two years ago, and this year, I have squished toes and blisters.
“You do know that, don’t you?” Lucinda asks. She is calm, eerily calm, and matter-of-fact in her speech. “That this accident is your fault?”
I can’t begin to know how to respond.
My mother continues, “They were on their way to buy you a birthday present. My husband and my daughter. Do you get that? And they could have been killed while trying to get you”—she waves a hand in the air—“some sort of trinket to commemorate your birth.” Suddenly, she begins to cry, and she clutches her hands to her chest. “Oh, if anything had happened to them, I don’t know what I would have done. They are everything. You understand? They are my world. My family is my world. Stella, come here.”
She opens her arms to me, and I quickly cross the floor and let her wrap my body against hers. Tentatively, I hug her back.
She is right about the lipstick. She must have asked for pink. She’s always right.
“I’m so sorry about today. I don’t need anything for my birthday. They shouldn’t have gone out in this weather.” Now, I shut my eyes and hold on to her more tightly. I want her to stroke my hair, to tell me everything will be all right.
She quickly pats my back. “This could have been much worse.” Then, my mother pushes me from her hold, and her tone grows harsh. “Stop being so clingy. I need to get back to Amy. They’re discharging your father but keeping Amy overnight just as a precaution. She’s a bit batty and combative right now, but it’s probably a concussion of sorts, nothing permanent. Considering what the car looks like, everyone is surprised that she’s as perfect as she is. You’re lucky they are both unharmed, don’t you agree?” She smiles as she turns to pick up her coffee.
I drop back into the orange chair as she walks out the door. I sit, unmoving, for three hours. Maybe I fall asleep. I’m not sure. But I don’t budge.
When enough time has passed, I leave the room and wander the hospital until I find a restroom. It smells worse in here than the rest of the place. My reflection in the mirror is alarming. I gather that I have been crying because my eyes are puffy and red. Or perhaps it’s because I’ve just woken up—that is, if I did indeed fall asleep. The porcelain sink is cold against my hands as I grip it and stare at myself. My heavily streaked hair has lost its bounce from my early-morning round with the curling iron, and the blonde highlights have a green tint in this light. Sixteen is not looking very attractive.
I don’t have my purse with me, so I can’t touch up my smeared mascara or tear-streaked complexion. I just hope that my mother doesn’t see me like this. It would only embarrass her. Running wet fingers under my eyes and over my cheeks helps a bit, so I rally as I take a deep breath and force a perfect smile.
There. Everything is fine.
But I lean forward and rest my head against the mirror as I think about my sister, Amy, and my father. What if I’d lost them? What if I were left alone with my mother? I squeeze my eyes tight and shake the thoughts. What horrible, selfish, ungrateful things to think.
It’s not her fault that I am inadequate on every level. If I only listened to her and followed her lead with more skill, then perhaps I wouldn’t be such a nightmare. Sure, she has her quirks, but Amy has her affection just fine, so I am clearly doing something wrong.
It’s true that Amy is certainly worthy of adoration though. I cannot imagine having a better sister. She’s an honors student, the vice president of her senior class, and a star lacrosse player. She dates any boy she wants, spends weekends with her girlfriends, and still makes time for me, the younger sister with little to offer.
I smile, for real this time, as I remember how she used to sneak into my bedroom when I was little. When the lights were out and I was supposed to be sleeping, Amy would silently open the door and glide noiselessly across the floor and into my bed. There, she would tent up the covers, turn on a flashlight, and read me books until I fell asleep. After three or four stories, when my eyes would finally get heavy, she would tell me good night.
And I always said, “I love you so mush.”
And she always giggled and said, “Much, silly. Much. But I love you so mush, too.”
Then, she would be gone, and I would sleep peacefully.
I bump my head against the mirror and stand back up to look at myself. “I do not love me so mush,” I say out loud.
The hospital hallways are a confusing maze, and I can’t find my way back to the waiting room, so I just keep going. I ride the elevator up a few floors and then more. Then, I take the stairs and walk a flight, counting the steps that take me higher. I walk another flight and then another. I continue until I reach the highest floor that I’m allowed on.
My feet throb, and I’m winded, so I plop down on the top step to catch my breath and remove my boots. I’m bleeding through my socks. It’s disgusting. The idea of putting my boots back on is inconceivable right now, but I don’t know what to do. I am, of course, in a hospital where I’m pretty sure there might be a bandage or two to help me out, but I’m too humiliated to go marching through the hospital, leaving bloody footprints behind me. There would be no good way to explain why my winter boots were too small for me, not to mention why I was compulsively running up flights of stairs. It would not reflect well on my mother, and no one would understand that she paid for these expensive boots, and that should be enough. It was my fault for not choosing a size that would last me until my feet stopped growing.
I will just sit here and wait for the blood to dry.
I want to find my sister and my father, but that would mean finding my mother, and I seem to be of little comfort to her today. What upsets me more though is that my father has not sought me out today. I know he was not hurt in the accident, and I know that he’s probably been hovering over Amy…but I’m here, too.
I look at the blood congealing on my ankles. See? I really am here. There’s proof.
Dad is loving and funny. It’s easy with him, and he doesn’t seem to feel that I’m any sort of monumental disappointment. Or if he does, he hides it better.
I wrap my hand around my left wrist and feel the imprint of the word engraved on my bracelet.
My father bought this for me last year when we were at a state fair. It was the sort of thing that my mother would never attend as she deemed it low class and tacky, but Dad had taken me.
I know that she loathes the wide leather cuff and the engraved metal plate on the bracelet that I have on at all times, and more than once, I’ve caught her wrinkling her nose at the sight of it. How the white of the leather stays white is unexplainable, but it never gets dirty. It says Adored in beautiful lettering. This bracelet is the one defiance that I allow myself, and I do not take this off because of her. I’ve developed a habit of tracing across the letters with my fingers in a near compulsiveness that I find comforting.
A clomping sound echoes throughout the stairwell as someone walks through the lower levels. I wait for the sounds of a door opening and closing, but instead, the clomping just grows louder. I scoot over on my stair perch and lean against the wall, letting my hair fall over my eyes, while I wait for the person to pass by me. I’m good at being invisible.
Instead, the loud footsteps stop abruptly, and I can tell the person has come to rest on the landing just below me. Perhaps I’m about to be murdered. My bloody feet will likely cause confusion during the investigation into my demise. It will appear that my ankles were savagely attacked prior to my being beaten to death in an unattractive hospital stairwell, and investigators will launch a manhunt for the ankle fetishist.
When I lift my head to meet my fate, I see a boy about my age, or maybe he’s a bit older. I’m not good at guessing ages. His hands are tucked into the front pockets of his jeans, the hem of his white T-shirt bunching up near his wrists. A thin gold chain peeks out from under the collar, and I lift my eyes a bit more. The boy has twinkling eyes filled with mischief and happiness.
“Hi,” he says with a smile. “Whatcha doing?”
“Just…sitting here,” I answer dumbly.
He takes a small hop and lands with both feet on the first step. “Know what I’m doing?”
I shake my head.
His head falls to the side, and he lifts up and down on his toes. “I’m counting steps. Each flight has—”
“Eight steps,” I finish for him. “I counted, too.”
He hops to the next step. “Aha! But did you know that the two flights between the third and fourth level only—”
The boy grins and hops again. He is getting closer to me. “Exactly! What does that mean? The third floor is one step shorter than all the other floors?”
I stare at him for a moment. “Or those steps are each a bit higher, adding up to the same height as the other flights.”
He narrows his eyes and leans forward. “Very clever. You could be right. But then, why? Was there a secret purpose? Or was it a construction error and some step builder fouled things up? Other things might be fouled up in this godforsaken building, and we might be at risk. I mean, there could be a huge structural problem with this hospital.”
“You seem rather paranoid,” I mutter.
“Perhaps. Perhaps it’s realistic.” He jumps the rest of the steps until his feet are near mine. Then, he pivots and drops down, so he is sitting next to me.
“Hi,” he says again.
“I’m Sam. Sam Bishop.”
“I’m Stella Ford.”
“What brings you to the hospital today?”
I push my hair back. “My father and sister were in a car accident.”
“Shit. Are they okay?”
“Yeah, I think so, but I guess it was close. Black ice and stuff. I haven’t seen them, but my mother says they weren’t hurt. Airbags and stuff.”
We sit silently for a minute, and I’m growing more and more uncomfortable with every second. My experience with boys is pretty limited, and the fact that he is undeniably cute is not making me confident. He should probably go away and leave me alone, but it would be impolite not to ask him why he’s here today, so I do.
“Oh God, it’s ridiculous. I’m with a friend of mine. We’re in Chicago for a class trip, and he snuck off to see a girl that he’d met. Ran into some kind of trouble and got himself banged up a bit. I can’t see anything wrong with him, except that he’s being loud and annoying.”
His smile is endearing and mesmerizing, and I have to do what I can to avoid staring for too long.
“That’s nice of you to stay with him. Are his parents here?” I ask.
“Nah. We’re from Maine, so they’re far away, not that they’d bother coming anyway. Not really those kind of parents, if you know what I mean.”
I nod. “I do.” Sam doesn’t say anything else, so I add, “I’ve never been to Maine.”
“Really? It’s awesome. My parents run a big inn, The Coastal. It’s right on the ocean in Watermark. It’s a small town that’s dead in the winter and packed in the summer.”
“Lobsters,” is all I say, and inside, I cringe. If I could disappear right now, I would.
“What?” For some reason, he just looks curious, not judgmental over my complete lack of social skills.
“Sorry. It’s just, when you said you were from Maine, I immediately thought of lobsters. I’ve never had lobster, and I wouldn’t even know how to begin with the shell and stuff.”
“So, when you come to Maine, I will show you how to tackle lobsters, okay?” His arm brushes against my pants as he peers down and points to my feet. “Yeesh. What happened?”
Quickly, I try to tuck my feet into the corner of the step and yank up my socks. I wince audibly. “Nothing.” I reach for the railing to stand. “I should go..”
“How about I walk you downstairs, and we get someone to patch you up?”
“That’s okay.” I fiddle with my revolting socks. “I’m really okay.”
Sam sets a hand on my shoulder and sits me back down. “Don’t move. I’ll be right back.”
I watch with curiosity as he two-foot hops down to the landing. His hair is cut short, but it still bounces with each jump. The subtle auburn highlights are showing, even in this dark stairwell.
Sam stops and looks at me. “I’ll be right back. I promise. You’ll stay here?”
The way he smiles softly at me compels me to nod and to smile back only because it’s impossible not to.
I listen to the sound of his ridiculous hops and then hear him open the door on a landing a few floors below us. I notice the quiet that surrounds me now that he is gone. As I fiddle with the bracelet on my left hand, I notice that my hands are smeared with blood. Perfect. How incredibly appealing.
I grab my boots and start walking down the stairs. I’m halfway down the second landing when Sam rounds the corner.
“Well, that’s not staying.” He looks disappointed..
“Sorry. I just…I didn’t want you to…” I stammer. Finally, I hold up my free hand. “I’m kind of bloody. It’s really gross.”
“It’s just blood.” He pauses. “It’s nothing to be scared of.” Sam lifts up two paper bags. “I got you covered.”
He gestures for me to sit, so I do. He kneels in front of me, and ever so slowly, he takes my right foot and then gently peels down the sock. The bag reveals alcohol wipes, gauze pads, antibiotic cream, and first-aid tape. For the next few minutes, I stare in a near trance as this boy, whom I do not know, cleans up my blood and puts me back together. Soon, I have clean white bandages covering my wounds.
“There. That’s much better, huh?” He admires his handiwork and lifts his chin to me. “Hey? Did I hurt you? Why are you crying?”
“I’m not crying,” I whisper.
The back of his hand grazes my face, and I feel dampness on my skin. I cannot move. Sam turns his palm to my cheek, and I instinctively lean against it, closing my eyes. He waits until an eternity passes, and I open them again. His hand moves to mine, and he begins wiping the blood smears until all traces are gone.
I nod. “Better,” I manage.
He rolls up my socks and stuffs them into one of the bags. From the other, he pulls out a new pair of socks, and with the utmost care, he rolls them over my feet. There’s no reason that I can’t put them on myself, but I’m too busy looking at the shape of his lips. They are so smooth and full.
“I should go,” I blurt out. “To find my family.”
“Oh.” He adjusts my sock one more time. “Sure. Sorry about the socks. It’s what the gift shop had.”
For the first time, I notice that Sam has dressed me in Wonder Woman socks, complete with stars and capes hanging from the top hem.
“I know. You probably hate them. It was these or frogs. Or fuzzy purple ones, but they looked a bit eggplantish. Okay, fine, there might have been a white pair, but—”
“I love them.” I look up at him again. “I love Wonder Woman. And now…I…I have to go.” I press my feet into my boots and move past him to the landing before I turn back. “Thank you, Sam Bishop.”
He smiles. “Thank you, Stella Ford.”
I exit the stairwell from the level below and then take the elevator back down to the floor I originated from. I locate a nurse who tells me where my sister’s room is. Perhaps it’s the Wonder Woman socks, but I am feeling better and desperately want to see my father and sister. No more of this waiting-around nonsense.
Amy’s room is easy to find, but as I’m about to step in, my plans to run over and hug her and Dad are halted.
Amy is standing by the window, looking outside at the snowstorm that is now in full force. Her blonde curls tumble over her shoulders and down her back in a wild mess. Her face is extraordinarily pale, but what I notice more is her expression of fear.
My father, normally so happy and easygoing, is pacing the room. I don’t like seeing him this strung out because he’s the sane parent in the family and the one who balances out my mother.
“I’m so sorry, Amy. I’m so, so sorry. I didn’t know what to do.”
He steps into her to embrace her, and I am shocked to see her shove him away.
Dad freezes and then drops his head. “I would undo this if I could. Don’t you know that? But what was the alternative? To let you go?”
Amy turns to him, her eyes flashing anger—or panic maybe. “What have you done? God, what have you done? How could you?” she screams. “I am seventeen years old, and my life is over!”
Dad walks slowly to the edge of the bed and sinks down. Very softly, he says, “Except that it can’t be.”
She explodes. “And what about that other kid? I saw it.” She begins to sob and covers her face with her hands. “That poor kid. I wish we were all dead! What is this?”
“Amy, shh!” Dad pleads. “Stop. I didn’t mean for any of this to happen. Believe that.”
I have stopped breathing
.Nothing they are saying makes any sense. Silently, I back away from the door and edge down the hall to the elevator. I cannot think and cannot feel anything right now. All I can do is make my way back toward the waiting room.
As I near the entryway, my mother walks past me, brusquely bumping into my shoulder, as she moves down the hall.
“Mom?” I call.
But she continues without stopping or acknowledging me, and she makes her way into the front lobby and out the door, car keys jangling in her hand..
I have been forgotten. Again.
When I catch up to her outside, she simply says, “You look bizarre. Wait over there for me,” and she points to the far end of the parking lot. “I need to get some of Amy’s things for her because the doctor has insisted that she stay overnight.”
I have little reaction to what she just said, and I watch her march away through the downfall of wet snow. The snow, however real to anybody else, is basically nonexistent to me. The bitter cold should cause me to shiver, but I can’t get myself to even bother with tucking my hands into my pockets as I head in the direction of my assigned pickup spot. The roaring wind bellows my name, and it’s not until I’m halfway down the sidewalk when I realize it’s not the wind but an actual person calling me.
I turn and see Sam.
Lights from the emergency room entrance highlight one side of his tall, lean body. His already damp hair, the shape of his silhouette, the way his posture delivers an air of such confidence and competence—more than all that, I see familiarity and safety.
Everything about him beckons me.
Without thinking, I run to him. I don’t feel my throbbing feet anymore or the miserable Chicago winter or the way my heart is so full of pain tonight. All I feel is the desire to close the distance between us. Icy pellets hit my face and blind my vision, but I don’t care. As I run to him, Sam Bishop steps forward, hesitantly at first, but then he walks quickly and lets me crash with full force into his hold.
I wrap my arms around his chest and dig my fingers into his back. The warmth of his body passes to mine as he holds me, perhaps clinging to me as tightly as I cling to him. His arms are over my shoulders, crossing behind my neck, sheltering me from everything. If it were possible to stay in the dark and in the safety of his protection forever, I would.
I let every precious second here draw out. I drown in it, savor it, and commit it to memory.
The sound of a car horn makes me want to retch. I have to go. Reluctantly, I drop my hands and try to step away from him, but Sam only gives me a few inches.
With his arms still encircling my neck, he dips his head down, so we are nose-to-nose. “Everything will be okay. Good things last, and the bad things will fade away. So, go find your good.” His lips touch mine, barely brushing against me, before he presses his mouth harder and kisses me.
Only seconds probably pass, but they are seconds that will stay with me over the upcoming years when there is no Sam Bishop.
“Go find your good,” he says again.
But I can’t. I’m not strong enough.
Want to check out more and make sure it's still Jessica Park style? Download the first seven (YES, SEVEN!) chapters here! Mobi, .docx, or .pdf! The more obvious paranormal stuff kicks in after this, but you'll go back and reread these early chapters and see what I did... As I've said, this is a *very* atypical paranormal (if we can even call it that?) in terms of plot and development, but I kinda had fun with that. I hope you will, too!