"Okay, honey. I've got to go. Can I get you anything to drink before I leave for the day?" asked my dad even though he knew the answer all too well.
Granted, my throat was dry, and it was practically begging for a nice, cold glass of ice water, but I really only wanted one thing from my father. Like him, I knew the answer all too well before I even asked the question -- one that was borderline begging. "Do you have to go? Can't you just stay a little longer?"
His warm expression paled and became a pained frown as he said, "I'm sorry, Cassie. You know I'd stay if I could, but visiting hours are over, and they'll basically throw me out if I stay any longer. Besides, you know I have work tomorrow. You know I love you, right?"
Then he did what he always did, leaning in to push my bangs up and kiss me sweetly on the top of my forehead. It was the last bit of warmth I would feel for the day. I smiled weakly and said with as much emotion as I could muster, "Yeah...I love you too."
With that, my dad would leave me in this cold room and uncomfortable bed with painfully white sheets that I had no escape from. The room was also unbearably white and untarnished, without a speck of dust littered throughout. Even if a dust bunny did happen to appear suddenly, the fluorescent lighting would make it impossible for the poor guy to hide, and the staff would soon whisk it away.
My only company was the solemn chiming of the machines tethered to the beating of my heart. The chime that alerted the world that I was still alive and that I was still imprisoned in this cage they called a bed. Otherwise, the hospital staff could have cared less about me. The only thing they cared about was this blasted machine that told them I was still okay -- that they could ignore me and busy themselves with other people in the hospital.
I hated the blasted thing.
Sure, the machine had its uses, but on the bad days when my heart felt like it would burst, it would speed up and go at such a pace that it felt like it was racing toward my death. It was only on these days that anyone would pay me any attention -- that anyone besides my father knew that I was alive in this room.
I told my father my feelings about the machine. It was around that time that he began to bring more music into my life. He would sing, hum, and finally, he would whistle.
I loved to hear him whistle.
Don't get me wrong, the singing and humming were nice also, but they were all songs I'd heard a million times before. The whistling, though, was whimsical and playful -- it was like the manifestation of his soul. I would always try to guess where the tune would go, only for it to dodge my expectations and bring me somewhere completely new. These moments with my father were the only times when I didn't feel caged or that my legs no longer worked. Fleeting instances when my mind could escape that infernal beeping and I could almost feel the cold wind against my skin as I walked by the lakeside.
Speaking of the lakeside, it was another painful reminder that I was now imprisoned in this room without escape. My hospital room had a large window where I could stare out into the world that I once knew. On some days, I saw children playing outside, chasing each other, enjoying their freedom, blind to the girl who had once been counted among them. My heart ached every time I saw them. I would lean up from my pillow and stare at my legs. I hoped that if I could just stare at them -- that if I could just concentrate hard enough -- they would respond to my deepest desires and move.
Those were my worst days.
Those were the days when I started dreaming again.
And those were the days that I fell into my deepest despair.
A young girl locked away in her ivory tower, only known and loved by her father.
"Cassie, honey, it's time for bedtime," the nurse said with a blank expression. She didn't even wait for me to answer before she turned off the lights to my room, closed the door, and darkness consumed me, leaving me with only the beeping of my heart.
I felt my chest tighten. Tears welled up slightly, and I hurried to wipe them away. It happened on some nights when I thought about these things. Luckily, I managed to stop them before I drowned in them. Admittedly, sometimes, I didn't want them to stop.
My hospital room was so dark during the night. At home, my father would place nightlights throughout the entire house so I wouldn't be afraid.
There were no such things here.
The only things that kept me company in this darkness were the busy feet from the hallway, the moans of people in more pain than me, and, of course, the slow, steady beeping of my heart.
I only had one way to escape this cage during these nights. It was something that my dad had taught me during my imprisonment here. Even though I wasn't as good at it as my dad, it was such a simple thing to do. I puckered my lips, lifted my tongue slightly, and started to whistle.
The sound came out weak as if it were going to die out before it could even begin, but regardless, with some trying on my part, a tune unfolded, and the grim noises that surrounded me dimmed -- leaving only myself and my song.
Normally, this would have been the end of it, but something unexpected happened this night. It was at this moment of perpetual darkness that I saw a spark of light, bordering on flame, erupt into my room. I thought it was a nurse flicking the light back on, but I was wrong. The light flowed -- no, it danced into my room from my window -- and as my eyes followed the beams of light, I looked outside to see the sky on fire.
However, it didn't stay that way for long.
The flames faded, transitioning into a green that reminded me of the emerald hue of grass that you only see on a pleasant spring day. The grass waved at me as if a gust of wind had told it to do so, and for one foolish moment, I felt that it had done this when the tune of my song had changed ever so slightly.
As the wind moved across the field of grass, it dispersed and faded into a sapphire blue. The stars sparkled magnificently against it, as if I were now staring into the deepest ocean.
The brilliance of it all took the air from my lungs, and my lips sealed themselves. I struggled to take in the beauty of the moment, and then my song ceased. My heart sank as the miracle that I was witnessing faded away, leaving me with the darkness. The light that had once illuminated my world faded.
My body had done it instinctively.
Maybe it was one last, desperate act to save the moment of peace I had felt, or maybe it was nothing but a childish fantasy, but I flowed back into the tune that reflected my soul, and once again, I called the aurora.
The lights streamed from the heavens and returned to my room, erasing the darkness. They swam into my room, surrounding me with a warmth that I had long forgotten. The lights' transitioning from one color to the next reminding me of the brilliance of the outside world that I could only hope to remember -- all the while, I continued my song, not wanting it to stop.
I watched as a new stream of light flowed from the sky and shot toward my window. I immediately knew that this light was different from the rest. It came with a motive, and as it fell, I witnessed as it compressed and molded itself into the shape of a young boy my age -- a boy made of pure, shifting, and unrelenting light.
He floated just outside my window, and even though the light made it hard to see his face, I could see the brilliant smile that he gave me. He raised his hand and, with one motion, opened the window to my room. With his other hand, he reached out to me, inviting me to grab it.
I can't, I thought. Don't you see where I am? Don't you see that no matter how much you ask, I'll never be able to move from this spot?
However, I couldn't say these words -- I was too afraid to stop my whistling. I didn't want this to stop. I wanted it to continue forever, so I could only continue my song while hoping that he could read the desperation in my eyes, that if he wanted me to go with him, he would have to come get me himself.
But the boy didn't move from the window. He only continued to smile at me with his hand outstretched, patiently waiting for me to make the next move.
How cruel are you? my mind snapped. Fine, then! I'll crawl to you if that's what you want!
With all the strength in my body, I used my hands to push myself from the bed. My muscles ached from the slight movement after being anchored for so long. Next, I lifted my dead legs one after the other over the edge of my bed so they dangled lifelessly. I gave the boy one last stare and saw that his smile had grown wider and the color of his light had turned a playful, eager yellow, but he still refused to move from his spot.
I shoved my body forward off my cage, and I felt the weight of the world vanish. My body floated toward the boy without crashing to the ground. I reached out my hand and felt the warmth of his own grip around mine. The playful yellow that he held surged into me, and my weak body now became enveloped with the same light.
Without warning, he tightened his grip and pulled me close. My light now reflected a bright pink as my body pressed against his own. He kicked us away from the window. The weightlessness of our bodies fell from the windowsill, and we plummeted to the earth. The boy's light changed to a brilliant flame of wildness, while mine became a pale yellow consumed by the fear of death, but it didn't take long for my fear to fade as my new companion swept us up inches from the ground -- just close enough for me to smell the sweetness of the hospital garden.
I didn't ask the boy where he was going to take us, nor did I think he had a particular place in mind, but our lights darted across the hospital grounds to the same lake that I could always see just outside my window. The boy took my hand and twirled mine away from him. I wasn't afraid as my toes neared the water, but when they finally did touch the surface, I landed gracefully on top and watched as a ripple shuddered across the entire lakeside. The ripple reflected the color of my soul as I stood against it -- the same fiery red that reflected on my partner. Water set aflame by our light.
The red was so bright that I could no longer see my expression in the water, but I didn't need to see it know that I had the same wild smile that shined so brilliantly on the boy.
I twisted my body away from the water and kicked up with all the force that I could muster. It swirled around me like a dress, following me as long as it could as I propelled into the sky, only for the water to rain to the earth like tiny embers.
I looked down to see the boy gleefully following me. We flew so high into the sky that I could hardly see the hospital beneath me. The cage that I'd once known was now even more painfully small.
To my left, across the lake, I saw a small town that I hadn't known existed. Its pale lights were hidden among the trees of the forest, begging me to explore them.
Next, I looked to my left to see the tail end of my city and the grand mountains that stood so proudly beyond. My heart yearned to see what was on the other side of them.
It was from beyond these mountains that I saw a pale light creep. The moon was setting, the sun was rising, and my one night of freedom was ending. I didn't know when, but I had long stopped whistling. I watched as the rest of the aurora began to flee from the sun, but the boy who had freed me from my bed still waited patiently beside me.
I watched him as he reached his hand out to me once more, beckoning me to follow him on his journey. At that moment, I wanted nothing more than to grant his wish, to see the world that had once been denied to me, but I couldn't. There was still a small tether wrapped tightly around my heart that tugged me back to the earth. I gazed down and saw that the tether led me back to the hospital.
The boy inched closer, and his hand even more so.
I waved my head, smiled painfully, and said, "I'm sorry, but I can't go with you. I can't leave him."
For the first time, the boy's smile left him, and his body changed to a pale blue. His hand dropped, and he looked at where he had found me. Without saying a word, he nodded at me as if he understood, and then he embraced me. The warmth of his light enveloped me one last time, but now I felt a slight sadness coming from it. As the sun continued to rise, the boy's body faded and returned to the aurora.
"Wait!" I yelled. "How do I get back home?"
I panicked as the sun continued to rise beyond the mountains, and with its magnificent light, my own began to fade. I begged my body to go back to the hospital, but it felt like all the power I'd once had was now gone.
The sounds of the world began to appear around me again. I heard the busy rustling of feet beneath me, the muttering voices of unknown strangers, and the infernal beeping of my heart monitor echoing all around me.
I clutched my hands tightly around my ears as the noise grew louder and louder.
Make it stop! I begged. Please, make it stop!
Much to my surprise, it did.
I felt a familiar warmth grip my hand tightly, and then it surged through my body. It was a comforting heat that I had felt so many times in my lifetime. Then I heard a faint whistling. The beautiful sound rested my unease, wrapped around my body, and cradled me like I was a baby. It rocked me ever so gently, telling me that everything would be okay. The beeping stopped, and I opened my eyes to see my father patiently waiting for me to wake up.
"Dad?" I asked. "I thought you had to go to work?"
He shrugged and gave me a playful wink. "I decided that I would rather spend the day with you. God knows I have enough vacation saved up."
He relaxed into his seat and looked like he was about to start singing when I stopped him. "Dad?"
"Yes?" he asked patiently.
"When I get out of here, do you think we could go on a trip?"
He smiled and nodded. "When you get out of here, I'll take you wherever your heart desires."
Without another word, he began to sing, and the size of my world grew a little larger.