33 – Nothingness
Someone was holding her hand.
Stef stirred and tried to squeeze the hand back, but her fingers closed on empty air. Dream. She must have been dreaming about the accident again.
She shifted and tried to roll over, but her bed felt strange. And something was holding her arm back and-
Tangled in the sheets. She was-
She shifted back to the comfortable position, but something still tugged at her arm, something-
She braced herself, and brought her hand up to smack herself in the face – it hurt, but it got her brain engaged.
She opened her eyes – panic rose, but petered out like an impotent storm, she didn’t recognise where she was, but she recognised the type of where she was-
There was the familiar smell of a hospital. Wherever hospitals were, they always had that smell of too clean just holding back sickness. It was almost as if miasma theory was still in vouge and illness could be scared away with lemon and eucalyptus.
Hospital. She was in-
She looked across the room, hoping that Peter would be there, grinning back, telling her about their plans for Neverland. Maybe everything else had been a nightmare. Maybe he’d never run away and left her alone. Maybe-
But there was just an empty bed.
More parts of her brain engaged and memories clunked into place.
Nothing answered but the beep of the ECG. Familiar sound. Comforting sound. A sound that meant she was still alive.
She looked at the other pieces of equipment, at the various lines and cords leading to her bed and to her body, and she relaxed a little.
She let her eyes close halfway and just listened to the soft beeping for a moment, confirmation that she hadn’t–
Her eyes opened again.
‘He – hello?!’
She’d been hurt, but Ryan had been worse and-
The curtain at the side of her bed was pulled back, and a doctor – or at least someone in a lab coat, stared down at her.
The man stared at her for a moment, then grinned. He walked over, placed his hand on the edge of the bed, and leaned close, still grinning. ‘You just won me a blow job, Recruit.’
‘The fuck?’ She leaned away from him. ‘What-’
The curtain opened the rest of the way, and an identical man gave a placating smile. ‘Don’t mind him. He’s just excited about winning.’
‘Winning what?’ she asked, desperately hoping that she was suffering from some kind of strange aphasia and that the conversation was actually about something entirely- ‘Is Ryan okay?’ she demanded. ‘I need to know-’
‘Ryan was up and about hours ago,’ the second man said. ‘And we have a standing bet. I usually win.’
She looked from one to the other. ‘Are there actually two of you, or- I don’t think I hit my head, but-’
‘Oh,’ the first said, glee in his voice. ‘No one warned you about us?’
The second put his hand on the first’s shoulder. ‘Be nice, darling.’
‘We’re the Parkers,’ the aggressive one said. ‘I’m Two, he’s One.’ He flicked her IV bag. ‘You were smart, so I actually won our standing bet. Most recruits are influenced too much by the idiot box. They wake up, and the first thing they do is undo all of our hard work, rip out their lines, unstick the electrodes, and then try to get out of bed.’ He pointed an accusatory finger at her. ‘If you rip our stitches through idiocy, I have free rein to harvest your fucking organs.’
She shrank away from the finger. ‘I’m not sure that’s in the Hippocratic oath.’
‘Hippocrates can suck my dick.’
One put a hand on his twin’s chest, and they stared at each other for a moment. Two shifted away, and One pulled the clipboard from the end of the bed. ‘While you’re assigned to this Agency, I’ll be your primary care physician. Are you interested in your condition?’
‘Are you sure Ryan’s okay?’
‘Yes, Recruit, I am. Jones knows what he’s doing.’
She let out a long breath. Ryan was okay. He was okay, but she’d nearly gotten him killed.
He was definitely going to hate her now.
She looked down, hooked a finger on the collar of her scrubs and looked down at her chest, where two thick patches sat, taped to her skin – those had to be the two gunshots. Other smaller wound plasters covered what were probably the small cuts from the exploding window.
Knowing it was stupid, and expecting pain, she pressed a hand to one of the gunshots, but there was-
She pressed her fingers in deeper. It wasn’t the numbness of a painkiller – she knew they were in play, her brain was a familiar kind of slow that kept turning her thoughts back to the days and weeks after the accident.
But- This didn’t feel like local anesthetic, it didn’t feel like numbness hiding pain. It just…didn’t feel painful.
‘How long have I been here?’ she asked as she dropped her hand to the bed. The amount of healing to get to this point was-
‘A few hours,’ he said. ‘As I said, the Director has been up and about for a few hours. We generally like to let our recruit patients get some sleep after something as serious as your injuries. There’s some statutory aftercare that will ensure that-’
‘Not…now,’ she said, waving a vague hand. ‘Or, um, give me a printout or an email or something. I’m not taking in a lot of data right now.’
‘Of course. In short, you’re excused from duties tomorrow, and I’m recommending light duties for the rest of the week, but even that’s being overly cautious.’ He smiled. ‘Don’t exert yourself, take the painkillers we prescribe, and you won’t notice anything. Now, give me a minute here.’
He lifted her arm, removed her cannula, dressed the site, then removed the monitoring lines and patches.
‘Now, do you want to get some further rest here, or would you like me to shift you back to your room?’
She swung her legs over the side of the bed, then required a piece of paper with her address on it. ‘I um- I need to get a couple of things from home. Can you shift me here?’
‘Of course.’ He took the address slip from her hand, then the world went blurry as he waved a hand.
The shift processed and she found herself standing in front of her apartment’s door. She’d included her apartment number on the slip of paper, but she’d still expected to be outside the building.
You don’t have a key.
A tougher class of heroine would have sighed discontentedly, taken a swig of their cheap booze, and kicked the fucking door in. She just stared, defeated by a door, like-
When she’d been younger, when there had been reasons to cry, she had imagined a dam of ice behind her eyes. Something, anything to stop the tears from coming, a self-enforcing idea, each tear freezing as it came close to the dam, making her stronger and stronger.
Strong enough not to cry when her mother loved Stephanie, but not Stef. Strong enough to stand still while her father yelled for going after the good books in his library.
And now, a simple door was making the dam creak, melting the ice like the transit of Aslan.
You don’t need a key.
She rested her head against the door, her eyes aching from the effort of not crying. Her fingers twitched as she lifted her right hand and laid it on the lock. One simple requirement made it click, and she was able to open the door as if it had been no obstacle at all.
Which, to a normal person, it wouldn’t have been. But she wasn’t normal. And- She stepped inside, and closed the door behind her, careful not to slam it – there was no need to piss off her seldom-seen neighbours, just because she was dancing around the funnel of a breakdown spiral.
She moved through the apartment, navigating the familiar piles on the floor, and pushed open the doors of the small Juliet balcony, allowing some fresh air into the small space.
‘Coffee. Just- Coffee. I need coffee.’
The kitchen was generous, given the usual standards of apartments this size – and especially when compared to the other spaces she’d been when looking for somewhere to live.
She flicked the switch on the kettle, paused, then emptied and refilled the kettle before setting it to boil again. One clean coffee cup. Two jars opened with some difficulty.
The clean cups were a miracle. The rest of the kitchen was-
She hadn’t been back since Dorian had knocked, and she hadn’t cleaned before leaping into the adventure.
Trash had rotted in the bin – dirty, greasy bin juice had leaked through the cracks in the plastic bin and solidified into a dark, ugly patch on the beige tiles.
The smell was bad, but…nothing she hadn’t lived with. Nothing unusual. Nothing she wouldn’t get used to again once Ryan threw her to the curb.
Water poured onto instant coffee grounds. One spoon of sugar.
A few weeks before Dorian, she’d made what she thought was her last coffee in the kitchen. Had sat in front of her couch and taken pill after pill, hoping to slip away into nothingness.
She spooned more sugar into the coffee.
She’d chickened out. At the last moment. At what should have been after the last minute. Seen nothingness and railed against it, vomiting until her throat burned, staying awake for days just to be sure that she wouldn’t die when she closed her eyes.
She spooned more sugar into the coffee.
She’d been afraid to die, but she hadn’t been afraid of death. The nothingness that was the nothingness at the end of everything was…wasn’t something she wanted. But… if she had just randomly died; or if she’d crossed the street and been hit by an irresponsible driver, she wouldn’t have missed life.
She had nothing of value.
She was nothing of value.
There were good moments, but…there were a lot more bad moments and even more that were just nothing. The bland nothing that consumed your days, that meant you stared at the screen until you went AFK and the system logged you out. When you ate whatever was at your desk because you couldn’t give enough of a shit to get up and seek something approaching real food.
And those were the days when there wasn’t a screaming skull in the toilet, shadows dancing at the edges of her vision, or scrambled thoughts that not even the sensible voice in her head could break through.
Days that turned into weeks that were nothing.
Tonight had been different. Tonight, she’d been afraid to die.
Had felt the glass in her face and had been glad none of the shards had sliced her throat.
Had felt the full-body shock of being shot.
Had wished she’d had the energy to cry as she held Ryan’s hand and sank into darkness.
She was still a worthless piece of shit, but there were now more things she wanted to see. Magic. More magic that she hadn’t seen.
She’d been able to see the world, and for the first time ever, she hadn’t wanted to leave it.
She let the spoon clatter to the counter, and sank to her knees, crying with emotions she wasn’t even sure she knew how to use.
God. Poor Stef. This chapter hit me hard.
…and some. I’d forgotten just how poignant some of these earlier chapetrs are/were.
I think working on it for ten years helps a little bit, as I know when to let the emotions breathe, and not just rush through everything. 🙂
…even though I now use that power to make everyone cry more…
I promise the happy is coming, really soon…but a lot more tears next chapter first.
I mean, maybe its me, but, this IS the happy. She realized she wants to live. She wants to see more. She has a goal being just… being. Its a whiplash, but it IS happy.
It is, but it’s a sad happy, it’s where happiness begins, rather than being “real” happy.
Ah. I see that this is how we’ll see some Mary Poppins level of house cleaning magic. Through tears. Really making sure every simple joy brought to us/Stef by the Agency world comes with a bitter pill. I guess I should have seen this coming.
But hell with it. It continues to be awesome, and we’re all emotional masochists. Hurt us with more feelz, plz!
Yeah, I really didn’t want to lose the cleaning section – as it’s both a little bit of wish fulfilment for people who very much wish house cleaning magic was a thing (…I’m not ignoring my dishwasher to watch Worst Cooks in America. I’m not. I’m totally not).
And…practically and illustratively, some of the thoughts Stef has shows how bad she can get (bin juice and maggot-filled garbage bags), it’s not quite the exploding rotten milk mentioned in Raz’s book, but it’s in the same vein.