Vicious Deep, Page 2Zoraida Cordova
“Look, I’m sorry. I didn’t know it was you,” I lie. “I thought it was some hot EMT coming to my rescue.”
Orange guy chuckles and talks into his radio some more. “The actual EMTs are on their way if you want to play dead some more.”
“Don’t mind if I do.” I avoid looking at her. I have to. I prop myself up on my elbows, though my muscles contract in protest. I don’t need this guy telling other lifeguards that I’m a wimp. Though I guess I have that almost-being-mangled-by-the-ocean thing as an excuse. “Good to see you, though. That was some sick wave. Wish I’d had a surfboard. Oh, yeah, thanks for finding me.”
“I’m calling your mother.”
“Aw, come on, Layla. I was just playing.”
She stomps up the sandy hill until the only thing I can see is her ponytail swinging in place, taunting me and moving steadily out of my reach.
My favorite memory of Layla is when she told off a cop.
She was nine and change, because I was already ten and she still had some weeks to go. She hated that I was born on June 24, right smack in the best part of our Coney Island summers, and her birthday was all the way in August, when the water started getting cold and the trash piled up as tall as we were.
The cop, three times our heights and with a gleaming gun at his side, stepped right in front of me. I was pulling our raft toward the water by some moldy rope I’d found under the pier. We’d just read Huckleberry Finn and wanted to sail off onto the Mississippi, but all we had was the Coney Island Beach. The raft was my greatest accomplishment, wood planks supported by our boogie boards held together with Krazy Glue taken from the baby-sitter’s desk drawer. The tips of my fingers were raw from having stuck them to each other and then pulling them apart.
“What do you think you’re doing?” the cop said. He was too tall for me to read his badge, but I remember his face, fat and red with caterpillar eyebrows.
“Why?” Layla asked.
“Answer the question.”
“We’re not supposed to talk to strangers,” she said, her hands on her hips, the same way she did when her dad told her she wasn’t allowed to play with me so often. That she also needed friends who were girls.
The cop pulled out his badge. “See this? I’m not a stranger.” And then the cop reached for me. Just to grab my shoulder, just to take us back to the boardwalk. But I struggled and Layla kicked him on his shin, and we left the raft that we’d worked on for a whole week.
Sure, another cop found us on the boardwalk and called our parents. I lied and said I was the one who had kicked the cop, and he didn’t say different. Layla was pissed at me for trying to cover for her, but I always have and I always will. Just like I know she’d do the same for me. She’s my best friend. She’s my Layla. She’s my girl.
In the ambulance they give me extra-strength, hospital-approved painkillers that numb my muscles until they feel like putty and the stretcher feels like down feathers.
For a moment, I’m falling. It’s one of those dreams where your mind zooms out and you’re falling, falling, until you think it’s actually happening, so you jump in real life, and that jolts you out of the dream.
But the nervous jolt lingers throughout my body like the world just dropped from under my feet and I still haven’t hit the ground. I can barely keep my eyes open. What if I don’t wake up? Why can’t I remember anything? But my body is numb and sleepy and warm, and when I do push myself to open my eyes, I’m in the hospital. I’m hooked up to a bunch of beeping machines with screens that look like last week’s algebra test I got a C on.
A nurse comes in. She’s tiny, with a round face and eyes like the anime posters in the boys locker room. Except those anime girls are blowup dolls in Catholic school uniforms, and this nurse is just sweet. She comes up close, and I can see she doesn’t have any makeup on, except for the pink on her cheeks. No one’s cheeks can be that pink.
“Hello, nurse.” When I hear my voice, it sounds raspy, the voice I always think Rip Van Winkle would’ve had after he woke up in the wrong century. That’s how I feel—like I’ve slept for too long. I look around the white room, but there isn’t even a clock.
She fumbles with her clipboard, flips through some pages. Her lips open, but it’s like she doesn’t know what to say, because she just stands like that.
“You’re awake?” she says. It’s supposed to be a statement, but it sounds like a question. Or maybe the other way around. You never know with girls.
“Yeah. Couldn’t sleep with all this beeping.”
She gives me a look that certifies me as the biggest douche bag this side of Brooklyn, and that says a lot. “Oh, that’s a joke.” She looks down at the floor. She’s wearing white sneakers with pink socks.
“Not a very good one, I guess.”
“No, really. It’s funny!” She gives me a truly pretty smile. She walks up to my bed and fixes the pillow. She smells like chemicals trying to smell like apples and vanilla, but it’s still nice.
“What’s your name?” I ask.
She points at her name tag. “Christine. You sure are popular. We had to put some of the flowers out at the nurses’ station, because they don’t fit in here.”
For the first time, I look around the room. I’ve never been in a hospital before. I don’t even remember having to go to the doctor before. This hospital looks just like the ones in the soap operas Layla’s mom watches, all white with a TV running a basketball game in one corner and a little table full of yellow and white flowers. Except mine has bouquets on both windowsills, on the table beside my bed, and all along the wall on the floor. I can’t even imagine who they’d be from. My mom wouldn’t send flowers. She would be here. “I’m Tristan.”
She laughs and fiddles with the wires taped to my pulse. “I know.” She nods over to where my file is at the foot of the bed.
Duh, again. “So, Nurse Christine”—I take a deep breath and put on my best grave face—“am I terminal?”
It takes a second for her to register that I’m still just kidding. When she gets it, she looks at her white sneakers again, shaking her head. “You shouldn’t joke about those things.”
Stupid me. She sees death and sickness all day long.
“I’m sorry,” I go. “You don’t have any pills to cure me of being a jerk, do you? ’Cause that would help me out a lot. Maybe even some sedatives?”
This time she laughs for real. “I think the sedatives we already gave you give you nightmares. You were talking in your sleep.”
“You were watching me sleep?” I think I say it because I like the way her cheeks flood fuchsia when she looks away from me, all shy.
“I should j-just go get someone, I think.” She leaves the clipboard in the metal slot at the foot of my bed and is out the door. Man, as much as I can get girls to like me, I sure make them run away as fast as they came.
Two seconds later the door opens and in walks my mom. She takes three huge steps and pulls me into an iron grip.
“I think you just realigned my spine.”
“Oh, honey, I’m sorry.” She holds my face in her hands and says, “Let me look at you.” Her voice is smooth and deep, like she should be singing everything she says.
Her eyes—a turquoise so sharp I would say they were freakish if mine weren’t the same color—are all watery, and I can’t stop myself from burying my face in her embrace, because when I ran out into the storm, I remember her face flashing in my mind.
She wipes her eyes with her index fingers and tries to laugh it off. “I could kill you for worrying me like this.”
For the first time, I notice Layla and Maddy standing to the left of my bed like they’re afraid to come too close.
“Do you remember what happened?” Mom asks.
I shake my head and regret it, because the
room spins with it. I remember sand and a whole lot more pain than I’ll ever admit to willingly.
“It was so strange,” Layla says. “We were just talking—” She pauses, like she’s not sure if she’s remembering right either. She bites her lips before continuing, and I fidget because every part of me is happy to see her. Every part. I remember the CPR on the beach like a flash. Her angry face walking away from me. I rub the spot on my chest where she punched me.
Now, sitting in the visitor’s chair, she plucks a daisy from the bouquet on the table beside her. She twirls the yellow flower in her hand and squeezes a petal between her fingers, like she’s trying to get the sticky sweetness out of the flower before she plucks it. She loves me.
“We were talking,” Maddy interrupts. She takes a seat at the very corner of my bed. She stares at my feet sticking out from the blankets. “Then we saw those storm clouds, and people just started screaming and freaking out and running out of the water all at once. You were holding this little girl who wouldn’t stop crying. Then you gave her to me.” Her voice reaches a high pitch before she stops and takes a deep breath.
Layla plucks another petal. It falls onto her lap. She’s wearing white shorts and a blue T-shirt that says “LOLA STAR” in big yellow letters. She loves me not.
“We were getting evacuated, and they couldn’t go after you, because they had to get everyone else off the beach. And then we made it to the boardwalk just as the wave crashed. It reached all the way up to the boardwalk.”
“Yeah, Ruby’s roof came down a bit, but nothing major.”
“I remember spinning,” I say, with sudden unease in my gut.
“They said there was a whirlpool a few miles out. Some schooners hit the bottom. They’ve been washing up for a few days.”
“Do you remember anything else?” my mom asks, brushing my hair back. The gray overcast light makes the red of her hair look so much brighter. Actually, everything looks brighter. The golden tan on Layla’s skin, even the dull blond of Maddy’s pigtail braids shines. My hearing isn’t as good as when I woke up on the shore, and I don’t know if I was just imagining that stuff, but I swear I can hear the way my mom’s heartbeat quickens and skips. “What’s wrong?”
She shakes her head. “I hate hospitals.” She hums something, which is what she does when she’s distracted.
“You’re such a fast swimmer,” Layla says. She loves me. “You got out so far before the first wave even hit. I’ve never seen you swim like that.” She says the last bit like she’s really trying to remember the last time she saw me swim, like she’s been missing something. I’m missing a lot of somethings, and it’s making the back of my head pulse. She loves me not.
“Th-then the next day there was no sign of a storm. I mean, it’s been overcast, but the water is super still. Beach patrol’s been searching the shore for days.”
“Whoa, wait. How many days has it been?” I ask.
“Three,” they say in unison.
Three days? I can’t even say it out loud.
“Alex and I found you this morning.” She loves me. She loves me not.
I sit up and feel stronger right away, like lying down is the problem.
They’re so quiet that I can’t stand it. “Guys, what? What’s wrong? I’m alive. Happy news. What’s with the morbid?”
“It’s just that…you’re the only one we’ve found,” Layla says. Then adds, “Alive.”
She loves me. She loves me not. She loves me.
I jump when Mom goes, “Madison Shea! What are you doing?”
Maddy lets drop the corner of the covers she’s holding up. “Sorry, I j-just…There’s stuff on your feet, Tristan.”
And there on the inside of my ankle is a thin residue of sand that looks like it’s been mixed with glitter. That’s Coney Island sand for you.
My mom forces a chuckle, the kind she reserves for PTA meetings and community brunches. “The sooner we’re home, the faster you can have a real good bath.”
“Mom, if I’m the only survivor so far, they’re not just going to let me walk out of here. That nurse just went to get the doctor.” Not that I want to stay here any longer. This is just like my mom, hating hospitals so much that even when she sprained her ankle last December, she just sat on the couch for two weeks rather than see a doctor. Two amazing weeks for her, since Dad and I were her menservants.
The cute Asian nurse comes back in. “Hey,” I say instantly.
She loves me not.
She gives me that shy smile, then looks directly at my mother. “Doctor Burke is taking off a cast, ma’am.”
“Maddy, will you tell my husband that we’ll only be a minute? Oh, and will you take one of these bouquets? They’re just lovely. Pity we can’t take them all.” She plucks a card off one and reads it out loud. “‘Get well soon, XOXO. Luv, Amanda.’ Who’s Amanda?”
“I don’t remember,” I say. Sometimes my mom acts like she’s not part of this universe, living always in her head. Maddy is still in the room, and even though she looks away quickly, I don’t miss the hurt on her face. She picks up the bouquet of daisies beside Layla and walks out of the room like she can’t put enough distance between me and her.
“What a strange girl,” Mom says before turning to me. “Your clothes are in the bathroom.”
I don’t know what to say. This is insane? Can you get arrested for leaving a hospital without a doctor’s approval? Is it like walking out on a restaurant check? I hold up my wrists with all the tabs hooked to them. “Um, hello?”
“Oh.” Nurse Christine grabs my wrist with her gentle fingers and then pulls at the white tabs with one swift movement. It doesn’t exactly hurt, but it’s like peeling off tape all at once.
“Tristan,” Mom says in her Did-you-hear-me-or-what? tone. “Bathroom. Clothes. Now. Please.”
I stand too quickly before realizing there is no back to my hospital gown. Not that my mother didn’t give birth to me, and not that Layla hasn’t seen me in nothing but a banana hammock from the swim team’s uniform, and one time the team decided it’d be a good idea to skinny-dip for Valentine’s Day. But this is a tad invasive.
Layla and my mother giggle behind their hands while I try to hold the back of my gown together and walk backward into the bathroom.
“You wouldn’t think it’s so funny after you’ve just escaped the hands of death,” I shout at them once I’ve closed the door. I sit on the toilet to inspect my body for any more grime they missed. The sand is mostly gone, but I wish I had a life-sized scratch post to rub my entire body against until the itch goes away. I scratch at my chest and wince at the burn. In the mirror I notice thin red scratches that are still scabbing. What happened to me?
I put on my navy-blue canvas shorts and a white V-neck that’s almost worn thin from salt water and detergent. I run the faucet and splash cold water on my face. I could have died. I could have drowned. I’ve been missing for three days, and I don’t remember any of it. I want to throw up, but all I do is dry heave into the sink.
I rinse out my mouth, examine myself in the mirror. The skin on my cheekbones and over my nose is slightly red and peeling. My lips are dry and flaky. I have some bruises on my forearms and bumps on either side of my neck like a rash. But all in all, nothing that’ll scar my face and put me on active duty in the school’s bell tower.
When I walk back into the room, Nurse Christine stops at the door when she sees me. She smiles again, really smiles. Her teeth are a little big for her tiny round face, but it’s still a pretty effect. She ducks out of room without saying anything else but, “It was nice to meet you.”
Layla rolls her eyes and takes a manila folder my mom hands her. She’s stuck the mangled daisy behind her ear. She stuffs the folder in a canvas bag so old that one of the straps has ripped and been replaced with a r
ed leather belt I got as a white-elephant gift a few grades ago from a person who forgot to buy a unisex gift. I remember Layla’s gift being a Han Solo action figure, and we traded.
“Are those my records?”
Mom and Layla shrug.
I shake my head. “So you’re in on this too?”
Layla looks at me with her honey hazel eyes and nods. The flower is already drooping, missing its water bed. It isn’t staying in place, so she takes it and throws it in the wastebasket by the door. “The doctor was talking about keeping you here for ‘extended observation.’ There is no way you should’ve survived, but you did. So just shut up and listen.” She pokes her finger on my chest where the scratches are.
“Stop hitting me. Mom.”
“You two stop that,” Mom says, holding on to a huge bouquet of orchids and some strange wildflowers I’ve never seen before. She loves orchids. “How do you feel?”
I know when I’m being overruled. “I feel good. Sore, obviously. Nothing some Tylenol won’t fix.” Oh, and the giant black spot where a memory of the last three days ought to be, but surely nothing to worry about.
“Now, you listen to me. I don’t want you ending up in a government lab experiment, because that’s what’s going to happen.” She looks through the little glass window on the door and sticks her head out. I’m used to my mom being—eccentric is what the other mothers call her—but this is different. It’s like she’s actually scared for me. She has to stop watching those conspiracy shows.
Layla leans in close to whisper, “Your mom’s been acting a little crazy, but don’t argue. You don’t know what it’s been like for her.”
I pull a yellow petal from her hair. “Just for her?”
But she doesn’t answer me, because Mom goes, “Okay, just follow me.” And she’s out the door, leaving us to follow her trail of red hair.
The hospital is a mess of white and blue coats and stethoscopes.
Everyone walks like a windup toy, forward and side to side, but never backward. Nurses push trays; doctors walk in and out of rooms. I wonder if Nurse Christine will get in any trouble because of me.