Alone | Chapter 18 of 36

Author: E.J. Noyes | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 1397 Views | Add a Review

Please hit next button if you encounter an empty page

Chapter Eight

When I wake with a runny nose and a raw throat, I know I won’t be telling the Controllers about Olivia today. I’ve got a goddamned cold—the first one I’ve had since I got here. “Ungh,” I say to nobody, rolling over and nearly falling off the couch.

The barely-there headache I was ignoring when I went to bed—or to couch, rather—has intensified into a deep pounding through my temples, and I feel so shitty that for a moment I think I might cry. I shuffle to the bathroom to wash my sticky face, scrub at my eyes and supplement my morning vitamin tablets with two Tylenol before I stuff a handful of tissues into the pocket of my sweats and go to check on Olivia. She’s sleeping, uncovered to the waist, lying on her left side with an arm under the pillow and the other slung off the bed.

It’s light enough to see her face and check the rhythmic rise and fall of her breathing. I watch her for a few moments then close the door as quietly as I can and go back to the lounge. She’ll call me when she wakes and needs my assistance getting up.

My nose and eyes water furiously but a hand to forehead check confirms that I don’t have a fever. Then again, I’m not a doctor so who knows, and hands on skin aren’t exactly accurate science. I make tea with honey, and lemon juice from a squeeze bottle, then wander down to the basement to search my supplies for some decongestant. There’s nothing. Of course not. Viruses are spread by people, and there should have been nobody to make me sick so why would I need that?

I trudge back upstairs, collapse on the couch again and cover myself with the blanket. Huddling under it makes me feel marginally better. Not going outside. Not running. Not doing anything except feeling sorry for myself. How am I going to explain this when the Controllers see me on the camera at check-in time? Hangover? Emotional? I guess I could fake crying. At least it’d be an excuse for constant eye wiping and nose blowing. Sniffing hard, I fumble in my pocket for a tissue.

Joanne, my adoptive mom, reminds me, “Don’t sniff, Celeste. Blow your nose like a grown-up. That’s a good girl.”

This is the first time Joanne’s visited me here, and for a moment I wish she was really here to fuss over me and make my favorite pumpkin soup and tuck me in just right. My eyes drift closed again. So tired. Just going to nap for a few minutes until it’s time to check in or Olivia needs help.

I have no idea how long I’ve been asleep for when I wake to Olivia’s call of, “Celeste?”

“Yeah?” I rasp.

Her words echo down the hallway. “Can I get a little help please?”

“I’m coming.” The words stick in my throat, hoarse and barely audible. I swallow and try again. “Coming.”

I trudge into my room. She’s already got the covers off and when she sees me, her morning smile dies on her lips. “Is everything okay? Are you ill?” That’s the second time she’s asked me that question.

I shake my head. No not okay, not no I’m not sick. “I think I’ve got a cold.”

Olivia looks horrified. “Oh shit. That might be my fault. I’m really sorry, I’ve been half-ignoring a mild one for a week or so.” The look of horror turns to one of interest. “I’d have thought I wouldn’t be contagious. Maybe your immune system isn’t as strong as it should be. Or I was asymptomatic for a while.”

Here I was thinking the slight stuffiness in her voice was from secretly crying or something. “Fascinating,” I murmur, offering her a weak hand. “You wouldn’t happen to have any leftover decongestant or something I could use, please?”

She takes my hand and pulls herself up. “Sure. In my pack, front pocket. Why don’t you grab them while I’m in the bathroom?” Her hands are on my shoulders. I’m sick, gross and I don’t want her to touch me. Olivia either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care that I’m clammy and snotty.

While she’s in the bathroom, I grab the pills from her pack. Here I am in her things again, trying hard not to look. But I want to. I want to paw through her bag and stare at what she thought important enough to bring on her hiking trip. Sometime last week, she stopped at a Walgreens and bought something for her cold. Walgreens. The corner of happy and healthy. What a weird slogan for someone who’s sick. With a handful of water from the kitchen sink I swallow pills and make my way back to the bathroom.

“Did you find them?”

“I did. Thanks.” I gesture at the shower. “Did you want…?” Before I finish the question, my hand flops to my side. You’re pathetic, Celeste. It’s a cold, not Ebola.

“Please.”

She showers by herself and dresses with my help. It’s easier this time, not to look at her, to pretend that I’m fine with touching her. I make breakfast, though Olivia insists she’s perfectly capable of doing it herself. I’m not sure if it’s because I don’t want her in my kitchen, messing up my things or because I want to show her that I make really good scrambled eggs. Half my eggs are already gone. I can’t bring myself to care—there’re many boxes of powdered eggs and she’s worth it.

For breakfast I pick at cereal and take a shower while she’s eating. Last night, before I was sick, I thought I’d masturbate the first chance I got. This is my chance and I don’t even feel like it. Typical. I sneak into the computer room for morning check-in, still hiding my secret.

Cont C: Good morning. How are you?

SE9311: Good. It’s pretty cold outside. I just came in from a run.

Hopefully they’ll accept my preemptive explanation as the reason why my eyes and nose are red. Cold. As in temperature not virus.

Cont C: Do you have anything to report?

SE9311: Nope.

I’m desperate to blow my nose. Instead I sniff, trying to make it look like I’m just drawing a deep breath. Snot clogs the back of my throat, making me nauseated.

Cont C: When are you planning on video logging this week?

Shit. Shit.

SE9311: In a few days when I’ve got something to talk about other than Scrabble.

Cont C: I’ve always found your word choices enlightening, SE9311.

SE9311: I’m pleased I can teach you something.

Cont C: If there’s nothing else, I’ll leave you be.

Damn, I was so close to getting a response to my joke. I wonder if Controller C is smiling.

SE9311: There’s nothing else.

Cont C: Have a nice day.

The screen changes back to my regular logging program and I quickly write out a log.

Things I miss:

-Driving cars - speeding a little.

-Standing under streetlights.

-Being in a crowded place.

Last night I dreamed I was home. Not that shitty apartment on Henderson, but home. With Joanne. She kept trying to tell me something about Mother, but I couldn’t hear her, like my ears were blocked with cement. It was weird, I was my age now but she’d just adopted me. Haven’t dreamt about Joanne in years. Not sure why I would now. Maybe tied to the voices. Riley wasn’t there.

Even after all this time, typing my sister’s name sends a pang of anguish through my body like a shockwave. I log off and leave the room before the bile sitting at the back of my throat breaks free. Olivia glances up from the book she’s reading on the couch. “Everything okay?”

I nod, pour myself a glass of water, drink half of it and carry the rest over to the couch to sit beside her. Her fingers move to the corner of the page like she’s going to fold it down. Then she pauses and I can see the cogs turning. It’s not her book. It’s not really my book either and I don’t care if she dog-ears it because I do the same thing. But before I can tell her it’s okay, she sets the novel facedown without marking her spot. “Did you tell them about me?”

“No. I meant to, really, and I will in a day or two when I don’t feel so miserable.” I glance at her, knowing how pathetic I must look. “I’m sorry. I can if you want, I can go in there right now and tell them to come get you.”

“No, it’s fine, really. I get it. I’m still feeling kind of weak myself and a few more days won’t hurt.”

“Mmm, and I think I’d just like a little company while I’m sick.”

She smiles at that while Riley mutters unhappily in my ear, “You got soft, Cel. You didn’t want me around when Ma did those things to your jaw and your arm, but here you are begging for someone to stay when it’s just a stupid cold.”

Before I can stop myself, my face twists into an annoyed expression at my sister’s intrusion. I want to yell that she was so little and there was nothing she could do to help me on either of those occasions. But I don’t. I clench my teeth down on the words, rubbing absently at my right forearm which has predictably begun aching.

Olivia’s concern is clear. “Celeste? What’s going on?”

“What do you mean?” I force myself to stop rubbing my arm.

“You look like you’re…not here.”

I laugh, which sets off a coughing fit. Turned away from her, I cover my mouth and cough until my lungs hurt. Not here. Not here. I’m here all the time. I can’t get away from here.

I shuffle sideways until I’m what I deem a polite distance from her. It’s still close enough that I feel a connective arc between us. Probably my imagination. She touches my arm and I flinch, until I realize she’s checking how hot I am. Her grip is light, moving around my forearm, then her hand comes to my forehead. She smiles. “You’re warm. I think you should take that sweater off.”

I shake my head. The smile dims a little, and after a moment Olivia makes a concession. “Well, take some Tylenol and drink plenty of fluids.” As if I don’t know how to deal with a cold.

“I’m doing that.”

“Good.” She taps her fingers lightly on the back of the couch. “Do you mind if we talk some more?”

I run a fingertip around the rim of my water glass. “Sure, I’d like that.” Talking is amazing.

She shifts her injured leg to rest on the coffee table. “What did your family think of you doing this?” Her free arm sweeps, indicating the general space around us. “Can’t be easy for you to be away from them.”

“I don’t have family. My birth mother is a drug addict who I have to assume is still alive somewhere. My sister, or rather the only sibling I know of, is dead. I had various foster families but I’ve been out of contact with them for years. And my adoptive mom is also dead.” I don’t mean it to, but everything comes out as a dispassionate statement of facts.

Olivia doesn’t falter. “And your father?”

I keep my gaze steady. “Not sure. Mother didn’t know. Could be a junkie friend of hers, a dealer, or some guy she fucked in an alley for a couple of bucks to buy a hit of meth.” I’m suddenly aware of my words sounding self-pitying when they aren’t really. It’s just that I’ve told my story so many times over the years, it’s become nothing more than a tedious anecdote.

“Oh, Celeste. That must be hard for you.” Though it’s only the third day, I’ve learned the change in her tone when she’s upset about something on my behalf. I heard it a lot that first day in the small hours of the morning in my bedroom when I told her about my time here.

“It’s fine. Really. It was all so long ago.”

“I just, I still can’t wrap my head around it. How have you coped being in here by yourself all these years? How is it that you’re not totally batshit crazy by now?”

I tuck my legs underneath myself. “Maybe I am but I’m just really good at hiding it.” Ha. Ha. No, really.

The words seemed to catch Olivia off guard. I smile and slowly, she returns it.

“You’re teasing me,” she accuses, though the grin makes it clear she’s not bothered.

“Just a little. You’re too easy.” I let the innuendo stand between us. I’m surprised at how easily flirting has come back to me—natural as breathing. Natural as breathing was before my nose was clogged with mucus, that is.

“Maybe I am. It’s not the first time I’ve been told that.” And it’s easy for her too, it would seem.

I tap my fingernails against the glass, my thoughts suddenly turning somber. “You know, I think maybe I am a little bit crazy. These past few months, I’ve been…imagining things.” Even as I say it, I’m not sure why I’m telling her.

Realization dawns on her face that I’m not joking or teasing now. “What kind of things?” She leans forward, seemingly unperturbed by my revelation.

“People I know talking to me, touching me. Stuff like that.” I set the glass down, turn away from her and quickly blow my nose.

Olivia shifts on the couch. “Seems like a logical thing. In the absence of companionship, your brain makes it up for you. …where from afar all voices and scenes come back.”

I can do nothing but stare at her, dumbfounded. When I find my voice, I blurt, “That’s part of Childhood’s Retreat by Robert Duncan! You know it?”

“Yes. It’s one of my favorites.”

A smile tugs at the corner of my mouth. “Mine too.” I cough into the crook of my elbow.

Her smile is cautious. “You don’t strike me as a poetry lover.”

“Really? I love poetry. It’s fluid, engaging…easy. You don’t have to understand a poem to enjoy it.” My fingers trace a triangle on the arm of the couch. “You don’t think I’m crazy or anything do you? Because I’m interacting with stuff I know isn’t real?”

“No, I don’t. I think you’ve done what you needed to do in order to survive.”

In order to survive. I guess that’s the theme of my whole life. There’s a long pause where we’re just looking at each other until eventually, she asks, “Are you afraid?”

“Of what?”

“The voices.”

I answer without pause. “No.” It’s the truth. “I’m frustrated and upset. But not afraid.” I can’t be afraid of something that’s not real.

* * *

Olivia is right-handed, like me. She’s a research scientist, working on cutting-edge chemistry stuff for drug companies. Her last name is Soldano. Her favorite color is purple. She likes to be the thimble in Monopoly, which suits me because Celestes One/Two/Three don’t like that piece. There’s so much we can talk about, even though we barely know each other. But I have to ration it out or I’m going to get overwhelmed by all this knowing.

I’ve learned what I’m calling her guilty-grateful look, a sheepish kind of smile whenever she takes the antibiotics or pills for pain. She also gets that look whenever she asks me for help moving to and from the bathroom, and when she agrees if I ask her if she wants something to eat. It’s as though she feels she’s a burden, when the reality is that she’s anything but.

I haven’t asked if she’s married, attached or has kids. I don’t know if she’s a dog or cat person. I do know that she seems to really like coffee—so far I’ve counted an average of four mugs per day. No tea, thank you, she said when I offered, following up by telling me she’s never drunk a cup of tea in her life. She mock-shuddered and I thought about teasing her by tossing a teabag at her. But I didn’t because we’re not that kind of friends. We’ve reached polite acquaintance stage, like where you can be left alone with the friend of a friend at a party and no longer feel uncomfortable about it. About the talking that is. I’m still twitchy about touching her, partly because I want to so badly that trying to keep myself from going further has my nerves firing.

After lunch, I help her back into the bedroom to rest more comfortably than on the couch. I can tell her leg is bothering her, though Olivia assures me there’s no heat in it to indicate an infection and aside from the stiffness and dull pain she feels good. I know now to leave her with a glass of water. “Call out when you need me. I’m going to nap on the couch until dinner.”

She fidgets with the pillows. “Why not sleep in here? I’m sure you’ve got a fever and sleeping on the couch isn’t going to do you any good.”

“I…can’t.” A sneeze can travel six feet, landing on anyone in—stop.

“Why not?”

Please don’t make me explain it to you. Don’t make me tell you I can’t stand to be so close to you. It’s uncomfortable. I don’t trust myself. But Olivia is already shuffling closer to the edge of the bed, pulling the other side of the duvet down for me. That side is my side where I always start my night of sleep before I end up sprawled in the middle of the mattress. She looks expectantly at me, her hand smoothing the sheets.

I cover my mouth and cough, then delicately climb into the bed beside her. I’m a plank of wood. Sleeping on the couch where at least I could stretch and relax would actually be more comfortable. So why did I give in so easily? Olivia reaches over to rest the back of her hand against my forehead. I watch it coming toward me. I’m the earth and she is a meteor about to crash into me. At the last moment I scrunch my eyes closed.

“You do have a fever,” she says with what sounds almost like a touch of triumph. Whenever she touches me, her voice gets low and calm, and I can’t help but be soothed by both touch and words. I nod, because what can I say to a fact like that, then roll onto my side facing away from her and pull the covers up to my ears. I wonder if she can hear my heart pounding.

I wake from what feels like a too-short nap, startled by the warmth beside me. While I slept, I rolled over and moved to nestle against her with my arm wedged between us and my face pressed to her shoulder. She’s awake, reading a book and she smiles indulgently down at me. I shuffle back to put distance between us again and sit up. Worse sore throat. Blocked instead of dripping nose. Headache but no other ache. Brilliant.

“You talk in your sleep,” Olivia tells me, smiling like she’s discovered a secret.

Nobody’s ever told me this before. “I do?”

“Mhmm.”

“What did I say?” The words crack and break around the grossness in my throat.

“Nothing that made much sense.” Her hand makes another trip to my forehead and cheeks. “A little warm but not so bad. I don’t suppose you have a thermometer around here?”

The flush I feel isn’t from the virus partying in my body. I lean back slightly to disengage from her hand. “Maybe. Probably. I’ve never looked.”

“Why don’t you see if you can find one? I’d like to know your exact temperature.”

I swallow, gritting my teeth against the razors in my throat, and I can easily picture Riley’s eye roll at my babyish behavior. “Do you need to get up?” I do a side roll off the bed to get away from Olivia.

“I’m good for now, thanks.”

I pee, then brush my teeth and gargle with mouthwash a couple of times to get the taste of sickness out of my mouth. After ten minutes of half-asleep and sick-uncoordinated stumbling around the dwelling, I find a thermometer in the first aid kit—one of those weird sensor ones I can’t figure out. Whatever happened to good ol’ under the tongue? I present her with a coffee as well as the thermometer.

“Ohhh, coffee. You’re wonderful, thank you so much.” Olivia sets the mug down on the bedside table. “Lean close.” When I do, she presses the device to my forehead, sliding it to my temple. “Ninety-nine point seven. I don’t think it’s bad enough to be the flu, likely just my cold. Now your cold.”

“Mhmm.”

“You need to take some more Tylenol and rest. And you must take that sweater off.”

“I don’t want to,” I mutter like a petulant child.

“I know you feel chilled but that’s only the virus. I assure you that it’s not real.” As soon as those last three words are out, she clamps her mouth shut. After an apologetic and helpless smile, she adds, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean…”

I can’t help but smile back. “It’s fine. I’m going to get some water and clean up a little. Do you need anything?” Sniffing hard, I manage to stop the sneeze that’s threatening to escape. A sneeze can travel six—stop.

“Can you please find the chocolate in my pack?”

“I’ll see what I can do.” I have a bunch of chocolate in the pantry. I’ll give her some of that so I don’t have to dig through her things again. I need to sleep but I’m worried I might not wake in time if she needs the bathroom. She agrees to get up and I help her to the bathroom then deposit her back in the bed.

I leave a sandwich, snacks, and water for her along with some books. She fluffs pillows behind me and not so subtly takes the duvet off me every time I pull it up. “Wake me if you need me,” I slur. There’s a hand stroking my forehead, pushing damp strands of hair away from my eyes. The hand moves to my cheek.

Coughing and sweaty. Everything’s fuzzy. She’s reading a book, her injured leg propped up on cushions stolen from the couch. Her hand is almost to her mouth and is holding a square of dark chocolate that’s been bitten in half. “Are you okay?” Olivia asks.

I nod. My throat still feels raw, but is more gunky now than anything. To add to my misery, that awful viral weakness has settled in my body. I struggle to sit up. “What time is it?”

“A little after four.” She shifts the chocolate in her mouth so it’s nestled against her cheek like a squirrel.

“Morning or afternoon?”

“Afternoon.”

Pushing my hand through my hair, I gather it up and fix my ponytail. “Do you need anything? Bathroom?”

“If you don’t mind, yes please.”

We’ve got the coordination down and I hardly brush against her at all while she hops to the bathroom. I’m worried I might not wake up for her if she needs to move around, so I leave her on the couch and make my way to the entryway. “Just going to get something outside,” I mumble.

I throw my coat on over my inside clothes and scuff around until I spot a branch that looks right. The air hurts my lungs and makes me wheeze so much I have to keep stopping to cough.

“You sound like Mr. Hopper.” Riley giggles. “Remember how we had to sit there for ages while he talked about the adoption and he had that huge booger, and we thought it was going to shoot out and hit us?”

“Yeah it was disgusting,” I agree hoarsely.

I make a quick stop in the shed for tools and fashion a rough walking stick for Olivia. She’s about my height so I guess at the size, smoothing and paring it down until it feels right in my hand. I test it out, fake limping around for a few steps. Seems sturdy enough. It’d be better made if I wasn’t so weak and wobbly.

“Useless,” Mother reminds me.

I can’t even be bothered answering her.

Back inside, I present the stick to Olivia with a clumsy flourish. “A walking stick for you, ma’am.”

The stick is the perfect height. She smiles and gently touches my shoulder, then starts to hop around with the stick, making a circle around me. “Thank you. You’re incredible, Celeste.”

Tightness grabs my throat. I’m in danger of losing my voice. It’s the cold. It has to be the cold. I manage a whispered, “You’re welcome.”

Comments

user comment image
Alice
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

Share your Thoughts for Alone

500+ SHARES Facebook Twitter Reddit Google LinkedIn Email
Share Button
Share Button