Written by Ashlea Archer
Carrie started combing Orie’s hair back with her fingers and shoving her phone back in her pocket after getting the doctor’s voicemail for the third time.
‘Mommy, mommy, stop—’ Orie tried to yell, but Carrie was now smothering him with antibacterial baby wipes and he could not speak over her fussing and wiping and mumbling about Orie being careful.
‘Mom I’m not gonna die from chocolate milk,’ Orie blurted out, slapping his mummy’s hand away as hard he could.
Carrie was beet red then pale as paper as the sound of the word “die” reverberated around the kitchen. His hit barely made her hand redden, but the d-word stung her. Orie glared at his mother, his bottom lip quivered and his bony chest was rising and falling.
Carrie turned to Bee with a pleading look. Bee put her arm around Carrie’s waist and Carrie leaned into her. Carrie forced a smile, but her voice was raspy as she tried to speak and Bee tightened her arms around Carrie as if to steady her.
‘Of course not, baby,’ Carrie said, forcing a smile, ‘I just don’t want you to choke or get hurt that’s all. No one thinks you’re going to—I’m sorry honey. I just got excited that’s all.’
Carrie knotted the baby wipes in her hand as her fake smile widened.
‘He’s fine, babe. Come here. Come to me,’ Bee whispered, holding Carrie’s hand and kissing her forehead, ‘Let’s put away the groceries. Come on.’
Bee led her shaking wife to the pile of grocery bags now smattered on the floor.
Orie dug the heels of his hands into his eyes as if to push the tears back. He took a deep breath and leaned back on the old lift. After a slight groan, the lift glided to a stop near Wheelie #2 at the top of the stairs. The wallpaper had faded from the pale blue to the dingy mustard and a shadow seemed to fill the hallway. He closed his eyes and braced himself to lift his body into the second wheelchair. He froze on the lift, his ears twitchy to the sound of raised voices.
The lift beeped to let Orie know his ascent had ended and on cue Carrie appeared at the bottom of the stairs with a wild look in her eyes and a plastered-on smile.
‘Honey, you want me to hook up the monitors? You remember salt, pepper, ketchup? That’s how the doctor said to remember the colour of the leads for your heart. And the pulse ox. You know the clip for your finger?’ Carrie called from downstairs, knotting her fingers.
Orie sighed loudly and shifted his weight from the chair lift to Wheelie #2.
'Honey, did you hear me?’ Carrie called out, the bottom stair creaked as she inched closer.
‘I’m fine, mom,’ Orie said, manually wheeling Wheelie #2 to his room, ‘you should be at work.’
Orie wheeled away before his mummy could answer and sighed with relief as he reached out and pushed his bedroom door open. His mother had removed the knobs so that she could get to him case of an emergency and so that Orie didn’t have to struggle with it. His joints ached so much lately. The further he got into the room, the louder the hum got. His room was so noisy: every machine screamed at him. They moaned under the effort of keeping him alive.
‘Be quiet. Be quiet. No, no,’ Orie said, wheeling his chair around in wild circles.
The heart monitor wires became tangled in the tires and, as if in slow motion, the beeping heart monitor came crashing to the ground and shattered. The machine wailed a high pitch whir as if it was in pain, the lights flickered and then everything was still except the ramming inside of Orie’s chest.
Orie turned his head wildly from the sounds of the crashing and bending and breaking, but he couldn’t see anything except the broken blue heart monitor. Then he heard something that made his throat dry, the pounding familiar footsteps of his mother.
‘Honey? Baby? Orion?’ Carrie’s voice shrilled from the stairs.
Orie was too stunned to speak. He stared at the door, heart pounding, and beads of sweat trickled down his face and arm.
‘No, no, no,’ Orie whispered, covering his sweating face with his hands.
The door flew open and Carrie ran in almost stepping on the broken metal and glass.
‘Jesus, kiddo, what the heck happened?’ Bee asked, running in behind Carrie.
‘Honey are you hurt?’ Carrie asked, tiptoeing around the debris and kneeling in front of Orie’s wheelchair.
He was shaking and muttering about voices. Carrie’s eyes were the size of golf balls and she had her thin hands on Orie’s cheeks.
‘Baby, mommy is here. Just tell me what happened. Are you bleeding?’
‘I’ll clean this up, babe,’ Bee said, squeezing Carrie’s shoulder.
Carrie ignored her and kissed Orie’s sweaty forehead. She fumbled with her pocket and before Orie could speak she was dialing the familiar number of the insurance company. Bee took Carrie’s place besides Orie and Carrie rose and cleared her throat as representative replaced the robotic voice on the phone.
Bee squeezed Orie’s hand as Carrie recounted what happened into the phone.
‘No, it was an accident. Can’t you just replace it?’ Carrie sounded exasperated. She was pacing outside of Orie’s room with a finger in one ear and her cellphone pinned to the other, ‘No, I know that—I’m not raising my voice—I know what the deductible is—well, I can’t pay that much, can I? We can’t pay that much. I’m a preschool teacher. I can’t—The plan is under my wife—Yes, my wife. Elizabeth Stevenson is my wife and his home health nurse. I’m authorized on the account. Look, my son needs the heart monitor. I don’t know how it broke. I know about the warranty. He’s had this one since he was four so it’s not under—Jesus, he’s a little boy.’
Carrie for the briefest moments made eye contact with Orie and realizing he could hear her she descended the stairs, whispering into the phone.
‘Stop wearing the long face. I’ll just get one from the hospice,’ Bee said, squeezing Orie’s hand and sitting on the edge of the hospital bed.
‘Isn’t that stealing?’ Orie said, not making eye contact with his stepmother.
‘The world—’ Bee paused and looked around the room as if searching for her words in the air, “The world is grey, buddy. And my love for you is all colours. Meaning I would do anything for you.’
‘Don’t steal for me,’ Orie said, turning away from her.
Bee opened her mouth, but then chewed on her lip and rubbed Orie’s back.
‘It’s not your job to worry about what grown folks are doing, okay? Your job is to fight this. I know it’s hard. You’re our miracle.’
‘I don’t want to be a miracle.’
‘I love you. Always and forever,’ Bee said, kissing Orie’s forehead.
Orie said nothing. Bee looked expectantly and tapped her wristwatch in mock exasperation. She sat on the bed, pulling off her nitrile gloves and waiting for Orie’s reply.
‘And I love you. Forever and always,’ Orie said, sighing deeply.
‘We are okay.’
‘That’s a fib.’
‘It’s a fib that I like so I’m gonna keep saying it.’
‘I want to be alone please. I don’t feel so good.’
Bee held up her hands in surrender and rose from the bed.
I’ll try to calm mom down. Wish me luck?’
‘Give her a strawberry cupcake and she will be fine,’ Orie said, glancing at the door.
‘Not chocolate?’ Bee said, covering her mouth in mock horror.
‘No, she only likes chocolate sometimes. Mummy always eats strawberry cupcakes when she’s sad.’
‘Then you and I will make cupcakes right now. I’ll come get you when they’re ready. You can put on the icing.’
Orie nodded and lifted his arm so Bee could tuck him in. With a peck on his cheek, Bee left the room.
Orie stared at the spot where the now broken heart monitor had beeped and clicked earlier. The space was empty, except for the square outline of dust. Orie looked away from the spot, to the peeling yellow wallpaper. He could see shapes if he stared hard enough. Jagged water spots looked like the zigzag lines of his heart monitor. The peeling curls of paper reminded him of dead yellow rose petals. Yellow roses were at his mothers’ wedding last year. He stared at the peeling curls of oily paper and let his eyes fall shut. He could still see the shapes behind his eyes. He could see people in the patterns. Children like him, except they got better. These children played and ran. These children got dirty and tracked mud into the house and got in trouble for leaving toys on the stairs. These children got older and went to high school and university. These children grew up. Orie watched the children behind his eyelids, behind the wallpaper, and he played with them. He ran with them. He grew up with them. He never heard Bee come back in the room. It was so quiet now.