Claire stretches out at the end of the bed in a pair of borrowed leggings, her arm under her head, and reads her French textbook. Mia sits cross-legged at the other end, hunched over her notepad. Blue is prone on his side, snoring quietly on the rug between the bed and the door.
It’s cosy in Mia’s room with the lamps on and the heat set low as the sun makes way for the night-time chill. For the first time in a long time, infected by Mia’s ferocious studiousness, Claire is able to concentrate. Every time she glances over at Mia, she’s greeted with the same sight, Mia’s gaze glued to what she’s reading as one hand scribbles notes. Her glasses repeatedly make the slow, intrepid journey down her nose until she pushes them back with a finger and flicks over a page. It makes Claire smile. Mia’s so cute and nerdy and utterly focused. How is it the two of them have managed to become friends?
They eat soup and toast that Mia makes for them and return to their work. Then they study in complete, unbroken silence until Claire’s phone rings.
“Sorry,” she mutters, grabbing for it.
Mia looks up from her book. “Don’t be sorry.”
Claire answers, “Hello?”
“It’s Lorraine, hon.”
It takes Claire a second to work out who Lorraine is. Then it hits her. Lorraine, the nurse. Her heart starts to beat a little faster. “Is everything okay?”
“Of course it is. I just rang because I tried your mother, but I couldn’t get through. This is a sneaky call to tell you that they have decided to send Cam to the wards in the morning.”
“Really?” Claire leans forward.
“Yes. Good news, isn’t it?”
“It is.” Claire sits back as she feels the rush of relief. The worst part is over. Now Cam is just a patient in a hospital, a patient with parole instead of a sentence.
“Tomorrow morning when you get in, come and see us and we’ll tell you where they’ve put him, okay? And you know what? It’s just my guess, but I think he’ll be out of here in a week or two.”
“Really. He’ll have physio, of course, and need lots of rest when he gets home, but I can’t see it taking much longer. The doctors might see it differently, but I doubt it. Don’t tell anyone I told you that, okay?”
“I won’t, I promise. Thank you, Lorraine,” Claire says breathlessly. She has no idea how better to express her gratitude to this warm, generous woman.
“And then I don’t want to see you two ever again, okay? In the nicest possible way.”
Claire laughs. “Okay.”
“Good night. And thank you so—” Claire starts to say, but Lorraine has already hung up. Claire smiles and stares at the phone in her hand.
“News?” Mia asks.
Claire nods. “Cam is definitely going to a regular ward tomorrow.”
Mia leans against the wall. “That’s great.”
“It is.” Claire sighs, feeling almost gleeful. “I better call Mum and Dad.”
She sits on the edge of the bed and dials her mother’s number. It goes straight to the clipped, officious cheeriness of her mother’s voice mail. Claire sighs and tries her father’s number. This time she gets his short, polite message.
She checks her watch. They should be well and truly done with work for the day. Where are they?
She feels the glee dissipate as she tries her mother’s number again with the same result. Frustrated, she tries her father one more time. No answer. Claire clicks her tongue. She feels as if she’s heard the sound of her parents’ recorded voices more in her life than she’s actually heard them in person. Why does her mother always veer between being irritatingly in her face or entirely, depressingly absent?
She lets out an annoyed breath. She just wants to be able to tell them the good news. Why can they never, ever just pick up their freaking phones when she calls?
“Hey, what’s up?”
Claire sighs. “You know, Mia, I can’t even remember the last time I called my parents when I really needed to talk to one of them and they actually answered the phone.” She tosses her phone onto the bed in front of her. “Why are they never there?” Against her better judgement, she picks up her phone and tries again. Voice mail again.
She throws her phone onto her bag on the floor. She’s done. As she sits there and stares at the deep blue of Mia’s quilt, the anger she has kept locked down bubbles to the surface. It makes her throat ache. Why do they get to just leave all this? To leave Cam? To leave her?
Until this moment, she hasn’t had room to dwell on her anger at their departure. Her need to focus on Cam has taken up all her emotional real estate. She used to be grateful for her parents’ perennial absence. But she never thought it would happen at a time like this. She takes a deep breath and tries to stem the tears she can feel coming. But it’s too late. She erupts in a frustrated sob.
Mia slides down the bed until she’s seated next to her. She doesn’t say anything, though.
Blue’s paws clack across the wooden floor as he comes to investigate this change in arrangement and mood. He sits down on the floor in front of them, his one good ear suddenly alert. He rests his snout on the edge of the mattress and stares dolefully at the two of them.
“I’m just so tired and so sick of it.” Claire swipes at the tears making a break for it and then strokes the comforting velvet of Blue’s smooth head. “And I wish they’d just be here and deal with all this. My mother thinks because she calls me a million times a day and calls the doctors and interrogates them and sends her police friends down to the hospital to check on me every five minutes that it’s okay that she’s not here.” She shakes her head angrily and wipes her nose on the back of her sleeve. “It’s not.”
Mia goes to her desk and brings a handful of tissues for Claire. She sits beside her again and presses a hand into the centre of Claire’s back. And Claire lets her tears fall, released by the permission of that touch. This touch tells her she has a right to feel bad, that she doesn’t need to just grow up and get over it.
“I’m so sorry,” Mia whispers.
“It’s okay.” Claire sniffs. Her embarrassment at these tears instantly renders her defensive. “I mean, I’m an adult. I should be able to do this. I am doing this.”
“Yeah, but,” Mia presses on Claire’s back for emphasis, “if anything like this happened to me, I’d totally want my parents to be there.”
“Yeah, well, most of the time I don’t want my mother there. But it would sure as hell help if she were now.”
Mia nods and rubs her hand in small soothing circles on Claire’s back. And she does it until Claire finds her breath again and the tears finally stop.
And when they do, Mia makes them tea. They drink it silently on the bed as Blue watches over them, a silent, vigilant sentry. Then Mia carries her books over to her desk and arranges them into a big pile.
“We can’t study anymore,” she declares wearily. “Want to watch a movie or something? Just chill?”
“Sure,” Claire says numbly. She couldn’t concentrate on study now anyway.
They lay Mia’s laptop on the bed between them and watch a film on it. Claire reclines against the pillows and tries to focus. At some point, her phone lights up, but knowing it’s probably her mother, she doles out her small punishment for her mother’s neglect and ignores it. She can find out the news from the hospital. Claire does not feel like talking to her now.
But she can’t concentrate, either. She stares past the screen and wonders how life is going to go back to normal after this. She can’t even imagine it, days where she doesn’t carry around this fear and this sadness, or now, this anger at her parents.
Mia turns to her, frowning. “You okay?”
Claire nods. “Sort of. I’m just…I don’t know.” And before she knows it, she is crying again. Small, manageable tears this time, shed without rage. Now they’re just tired and overwhelmed tears.
Mia stops the movie and puts her hand on Claire’s arm. “Let’s just go to sleep. Then, tomorrow when you see Cam in the regular ward, you’ll feel even better.”
Claire nods, obedient, glad Mia seems to know what to do because she doesn’t have a clue.
“Do you need anything? More tea? Something warmer to wear?”
Claire shakes her head and wipes her eyes. “No thanks, I’m fine.”
“Does it bother you if Blue sleeps on the floor? He usually does.” The dog raises his head at the sound of his name then drops it back on the floor.
Claire smiles down at him. “Of course not.”
Mia pulls off her jumper and climbs under the covers. Claire does the same. She turns over onto her side, and faces the window as the light flicks off behind her. “I’m sorry to be such a mess,” she whispers into the darkness. “It all just kind of hit me.”
“Shh.” Mia’s voice is soft as she settles onto a pillow behind her and presses her hand on Claire’s back. “You’ve been amazing at keeping it together. But you get to not be okay. God, Claire, it’s not like you’re being melodramatic. Cam was really badly hurt. You can be as much of a mess as you want.”
Claire doesn’t say anything. She can’t. She pulls the covers higher over her shoulders.
“And, you know, it will all be okay.”
“I hate it when people say that.” Claire smiles into the darkness.
“Why? It will be,” Mia insists as she shuffles closer to her and winds her arm around Claire’s waist. “I know it will. So put up with it.”
Claire doesn’t say anything. She just leans back a little and settles into the sympathetic circle of Mia’s embrace, grateful to be here in the shelter of this room right now. “Night, Mia,” she whispers eventually.
And all she feels is Mia’s arm tighten around her.
* * *
Claire wakes to a world barely different than when she fell asleep. She’s still on her side, still encircled by Mia’s arm. The only difference is the early light leaking into the room and the fact that she feels almost normal. For the first time in a while, she feels as if she really, really slept. She opens her eyes a little and smiles to herself. And although she doesn’t move, her waking must send some current through to Mia because she begins to rouse. She rolls away from Claire, and her arm slides off her waist. Claire listens as Mia yawns quietly and sits up in bed. Blue’s claws clatter excitedly on the floorboards.
Claire takes a moment, though, and hides in the pretence of sleep. She wants to stay suspended in this place of comfort before she faces another day that is bound to be like all the recent others. Except now she will take this small respite with her.
She must slide backward into sleep again, because she wakes to a room that is lighter still and empty. She pulls on her jumper and socks and goes in search of Mia.
As she pads through the living room, Blue comes out to greet her. His thick tail wags wildly. She pats him and goes out into the kitchen, where she can hear voices.
Mia and her mother are at the kitchen table. Tasya looks as if she’s dressed for work, neat and formal in a skirt and stockings and a jacket. Mia sits in the corner chair, her feet on the seat, in leggings, sneakers, and a giant T-shirt that she’s pulled over her knees. Claire can tell from the silence that falls and the way they smile at her when she walks into the room, they have been talking about her.
“Good morning.” Tasya gets up. “Would you like some coffee?”
Mia pats the chair next to her. Feeling awkward that she has interrupted some sort of discussion about herself, Claire sits down and bites her lip.
“I hope Blue didn’t wake you. He kept going upstairs to check on you.” She takes one slice of toast from her plate and then pushes the rest toward Claire. “I’ll make some more in a sec. You eat that.”
“Yes, bossy.” Claire takes a bite, glad of something to do.
Mia smiles at her.
“So, Claire,” Tasya says as she puts a mug of coffee and a carton of milk in front of her, “when do your parents get back from their conference?”
“Uh, Wednesday night, I think.”
“Well,” Tasya picks up a pile of papers from the table and puts them in her case, “I think you should stay here with us until they get back.”
Claire stops the piece of toast halfway to her mouth. She frowns and starts to automatically refuse. “Oh no, that’s o—”
“I wish you would,” Tasya says. “It will make life a little easier for you. You’ll be nice and close to the hospital, and you won’t have to worry about anything else.” She closes her case and snaps the lock shut. “You could just come and go as you need, and you and Mia can study for your exams together.”
Claire opens and closes her mouth. This level of kindness, of generosity, is both lovely and daunting. “Oh no, that’s okay, really,” she stutters. “But thank you.”
“And to be honest, I really don’t like the thought of you staying by yourself right now.” Tasya takes her empty mug to the sink.
Mia leans forward. “You should, you know. We can study here, too, when you can’t be at the hospital.”
Before Claire can say anything, Tasya walks over and puts a hand on her shoulder. “You really are very welcome, Claire.”
Mia grins at her. “So, come on, just stop being polite and say yes.”
Claire feels as if she’s under siege. But in a good way. “Really?”
“Yes,” Mia insists. “And don’t feel like you’re putting anyone out or anything. Mum loves to take in strays. Look at Robbie, freeloading every Sunday.”
Tasya squeezes her shoulder. “And I insist, actually.”
“Um, okay, th…thank you,” Claire stutters, utterly bewildered by the constancy of kindness from these people but also frightened by the one-sidedness of it. She has nothing to give back.
“Good. I’ll see you both tonight.” Tasya gives Claire one more squeeze. “It will be late-ish. Have a good day. And I hope your brother does too.”
And she is gone.
Claire watches Mia untie the laces of her shoes. “Did you go for a run or something?” She says “run” as if it’s a dirty word. She hates running. Why do it unless someone is chasing you?
“Yep. With Blue. Helps wake me up.”
“That’s what coffee’s for, stupid.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Mia gets up. “I’m going to shower. Are you going to the hospital this morning?”
Claire nods. Where else would she go in visiting hours?
“I’ll walk with you. I’m meeting Pete at the library to go over biochem.”
“Sounds as thrilling as my day.”
Mia smiles and strides out of the room.
Alone in the kitchen, Claire rests her chin in her hand and shakes her head. She already feels better being here.