The ugly wheeled contraption seemed to stare Skai down as she took small bites of her granny smith apple.
That is, the wheelchair.
Her apple was perfectly crisp, crunchy, and sour, and only ruined by the sickly setting.
That is, the hospital.
Skai didn’t bother to look up at the nurse as she nodded slightly.
“Would you like me to assist you in-”
“O-Oh but Miss Skai-”
“Do I look like some sort of middle-aged woman or something? Don’t call me miss and don’t even think about moving me to that wheelchair.”
The nurse tapped her pen against her clipboard, pursing her lips. She sighed.
“Alright Mi- Skai. Ring if you need me.”
Skai didn’t move until she heard the door slam shut and the nurse’s high-heeled shoes click far away. She set her half-eaten apple on her bedside table and stared down at her converse.
They were white. Or at least they used to be.
She gazed at the sharpie-drawn spirals and suns. Sighing, she picked up the apple, throwing it the full span of the room, and it landed right in the garbage can.
“Score,” she whispered to herself, falling back on the bed. The room clicked open again and Skai tensed, afraid it was another nurse. It clicked shut softly and Skai grit her teeth.
“Hey.” Nolan’s soft voice relaxed her.
She felt him sit beside her on the bed. She was tempted to sit up, but she was too tired to make the effort.
“Your homework.” He placed a folder neatly down between them.
“I thought I told you to take a break this week.”
Nolan’s breath hitched. He fiddled with something in his pockets.
“I thought I told you to stop acting like this is a chore for me. I enjoy it, okay? I come here because I want to. Because I care about you.”
Skai wanted to cry. She wanted to curl into a ball and drown in her own tears. Wanted all the people who cared about her to realize that’s what she wanted. But instead, she had to ‘live with it’.
If not for you, for them.
“Bring any markers?”
Nolan revealed what was in his pockets, smiling.
“Obviously.” He held a regular black sharpie and a teal one. “Need help?”
Skai hesitated before nodding.
She’d only allow him to help.
With a mutual effort, he pulled her into a regular sleeping position, with her head on the pillow and her shoes on the bed. He kicked off his own shoes and sat cross-legged on the bed, right next to Skai’s feet.
“What do you want today?”
Skai folded her hands beneath her head.
“Eyes. Make them pretty.”
Nolan stared at Skai’s grey eyes for a moment before he began, as if memorizing them. He held on her ankle with one hand as he drew smooth strokes with the other. The last blank spot of her left shoe was filled with a small drawing of an eye, the same shape as Skai’s.
“Done.” He carefully capped the marker and set it back in his pocket. “C’mon.” He held out his arm and Skai reluctantly grabbed it, letting him pull her back into a sitting position against the bed frame. Nolan crawled over so he was in front of her.
“You deserve so much better.” She whispered, leaning back. Nolan shut his eyes tight. He scooted in closer to Skai, tucking her hair behind her ear.
It’d been cut short jaggedly with school scissors and was awkwardly growing out.
“Stop what?” Skai smiled, but it was a sad smile.
The worst kind of smile.
“You know what.” Nolan pressed a small kiss at Skai’s cheek. He leaned back and crossed his arms.
“How are your legs?” Concern laced his voice like Skai’s perfectly tied shoelaces.
“Like they always are, how do you think?” She scoffed. “They want me to do a surgery.”
Nolan winced at the word.
Skai made eye contact with Nolan.
“There’s something that can, y’know, fix me…” A lone tear dripped down her cheek as she gestured to her legs, and she ignored it, letting Nolan pull her into a hug.
“You aren't broken,” he murmured, pulling her close. She lay her head against his chest.
“Yeah right.” Her words were muffled by the hug and Nolan pulled her in closer.
“What’s the surgery do?”
Skai hugged Nolan back, sighing.
“I don’t wanna talk about it.”
Nolan’s eyebrows creased in worry. He gently ended the hug and held Skai by the shoulders. He could see all the sadness in her eyes, and that was possibly the worst part of all. He did not want to push her, to hurt her even more. But he did not want to witness her crash and burn and push everything away.
Skai refused to look at Nolan, staring up at the hospital ceiling. At the ceiling she’d stare at to lull herself to sleep, to ignore her parents who pretended to care.
“It’s...a thing they want to implant. That’ll make me better.” Nolan’s eyes brightened and he squeezed Skai’s shoulders.
Skai scoffed, pushing Nolan’s hands away.
“I’m not doing it.”
Her voice wavered and Nolan’s eyes creased.
“Nolan it’s tech. It’s not a guarantee and I’d rather not take the risk of dying and-”
“Skai, come on. That’s not the real reason, you and I both know that. Like you’re scared of death. What is it really?”
“It’s nothing, okay?” She hated how he could see right through her. No matter how thick of a wall she built, he always tore it down easily.
“You can try and tell yourself that lie, but it isn’t going to fool me. Skai I just want to help you, don’t you know that?”
Skai switched her staring from the blank ceiling to the blank wall and sighed. She took a pillow and threw it. It hit the wall with a muted thud.
“Hate that stupid blank wall.”
“Don’t change the subject.”
Skai tucked a jagged strand of hair behind her ear.
“Fine. I’m scared. I’m scared to be better. Is that good? You happy now?” her voice was weak and her resolve broken like glass, sharp pieces piercing Nolan’s heart.
“Wha-Scared to be better? You’ve been waiting to be better your whole life.”
“Nolan- I don’t know how to walk. I’m sixteen years old and I don’t know how to walk.”
“Skai your legs-”
“Exactly. My legs. My legs don’t work and I’ve lived with that my whole life. And I’ve gotten pity. And I’ve hated every second of it.”
“But it’s also all I’ve known. Can you imagine how much worse starting over would be? This- This is like the easy way to be sick. Just live with it. Isn’t that what everyone tells me? Live with it Skai! You can’t change it Skai! Love your imperfections Skai! Whoops, we can fix it now Skai! Won’t have to live with it anymore Skai!” Tears fell down her face in a waterfall, and she no longer held back. She let out a sob, covering her face with her hands.
Nolan’s soft hands covered Skai’s and she let him remove them from her face.
“It’s okay to be scared.” He said quietly, afraid to scare her. “When I’m painting-”
“Stop with the art analogies,” she smiled through the pain. Nolan wiped at a stray tear.
“Just listen. When I’m painting sometimes, I’ll come to a hard part. You know how much I hate trees. So many shapes. I’d rather just change my idea. But sometimes the painting will look better after. Even if I struggle while making it, the end is a more beautiful masterpiece.”
“Nolan, that’s literally-”
“You know I’m terrible at analogies. What I’m trying to say is- this could be something that helps you. You wouldn’t have to practically live at the hospital anymore. It’s going to be hard. It’s going to be really really hard. But if anyone can do it it’s you.”
“You’re the only one who can make this decision.” He let go of her hands and they fell limply to the bed. Nolan got up and shoved his shoes on his feet. “I gotta go.”
And go he did, leaving Skai with tears and heartache.
But give it two days and one hour later, and she’s sitting on that same bed, with another granny smith apple. That same nurse came in, the top of her pen chewed down so thin, it was paper.
“Skai? You ready?”
The wheeled contraption didn’t look so ugly anymore. Skai slam-dunked her apple into the trash on her way out and high-fived the nurse.
“Someone’s in a good mood today!”
“Sure,” Skai mumbled. She fiddled with her fingers in her lap and stared at her converse, right at the eye. “Huh, hey, does that look like my eye to you?”
The nurse smiled, her eyes crinkling.
“Sure does. Doctor’s ready for you. Good luck.”
She left the room and Skai counted the seconds in her head. The sick place didn’t look so sick anymore. Skai watched through the window as an old woman was hugged by little kids, no more than five or six.
Maybe you have to go to a sick place to feel better.
The thin hospital gown hugged Skai’s side and she shivered as the doctor came in.
“Skai? Are you prepared?”
“Can I see the...thing?”
The doctor nodded. Skai expected some big facade, a locked briefcase or safe. But he simply reached into his pocket and pulled out a small metal rectangle, no larger than the tip of his thumb.
“This is it. This’ll repair the nervous system damage. You’ll be good as new.”
She went under all too fast with fevered dreams of drowning and paper wads climbing out of trash cans.
When she came back to in a hospital bed, she felt the weirdest feeling ever.
She felt a slight tingle.
In her legs.
With a gasp, she ripped off the blanket, wincing at the pull of the IV bag. But slowly, surely, she wiggled a toe.
A tear dropped and she didn’t even know if it was sadness, relief, or happiness.
When Nolan came with flowers, his markers, and a smile, she thought it was maybe happiness.
“Hey.” This time he smiled with real joy and he set down flowers, not homework.
“Hey, Picasso. I lived.”
“Well, who’da thought. How are you feeling? How are your legs?”
“You know? They’re pretty good.”