Written by Ashlea Archer
Orie was barely eight years old. Specifically, he was eight years old and one day. His was hardly a long enough life to be a bad or good little boy. Sure, he did bad things, or so he thought, but he was not all bad. He simply was. Today he was hungry, sore, and in trouble. His mother, Carrie Lynn, had confiscated the package of Double Stuffed Oreo biscuits from under his pillow, a late night birthday present from his other mum, Bee.
“You know what the doctor said…”
“You have to be a big boy…”
“Mummy is not mad she is just disappointed.”
“You’ll never get better unless you…”
Orie buried his forehead into his hypoallergenic pillows, and cupped his slight brown hands over his ears to block out his mum’s voice: It wasn’t just his mummy’s voice. He heard so many things lately. It was like a hundred people were screaming into his head.
Orie’s face, usually plastered with a weak smile to hide any pain, fell into a frown. His green eyes burned with unshed tears and he ground the last remnants of his back baby teeth until he tasted powder on his tongue. His mouth was sour with old vomit and he wanted to get up and gargle with the organic Fluoride-free mouth wash, but he was too weak to climb into Wheelie #2.
His room was small, with a medical bed in the center and one window with metal bars on it. The room buzzed and whirred with the sounds of heart monitors, and, sat to the side, a mini refrigerator filled with temperature regulated vials of medical potions. Hearing creaking footsteps on the stairs, Orie lifted his head. The door creaked and a familiar curvy frame filled the doorway.
‘Hey love,’ a low, melodious voice wafted into the room, bringing with it the scent of pancakes, eggs, veggie bacon.
Orie leapt up in his bed, leaned on the railing and vomited all over the floor. Hot tears fell from his eyes and he choked, coughing and sobbing as Bee ran towards him. A cold towel pressed against the back of his head and Bee held him like he was crystal, gently gripping his too-thin arms and too-sweaty back, combing overgrown chunks of curly hair out of his face.
‘I’m sorry, mummy. I’m sorry,’ Orie choked out the words, as saliva dripped onto Bee’s hospital shoes.
‘Stop apologizing. It’s this stuffy room. We need to put a bigger window in. It’s not you, love. The room just needs to be aired out, okay? It’s an old house and it still smells like dust.’
Bee did not miss a beat. Orie was cleaned up and the floor mopped in ten minutes. Orie was grateful that Bee never made him feel bad. He did not mean to throw up. It just happened. It was smells that did it now. Before, it was the taste of certain foods. Now even the smell was nauseating.
‘Downstairs?’ Bee said, a broad smile sweeping across her face as she tossed a mop and bucket aside.
She always made “downstairs” sound like they were going to Disney World. Downstairs was the brightest part of the house, with floor-to-ceiling windows and sky blue wallpaper. It was open and fresh. These windows had bars too, but their size made the bars shrink, especially when the sun was beaming like today.
The upstairs rooms had stunted windows that appeared to place a moratorium on sunlight. The upstairs walls were wrapped in mustard yellow wallpaper with a swirling ornate pattern that, if you stared too long, made you lose your footing. It was dizzying and dusty. Too thick and too old. Too hard to pull off, except for at the edges, where it curled into taunting sneers. The wall paper had the house hostage.
Downstairs was brighter. Orie felt it instantly as warm sunlight lit up his wheelchair. Bee, on cue, attached his breakfast tray, which already had a warm bowl of the blandest oatmeal in the world waiting. Orie thought of complaining, but it would only prolong the inevitable. He grabbed a spoon and stirred the sludge, sending an earthy, nutty smell into his nostrils. It smelled like grass. Grass, like in Michigan at his old playground.
‘I dreamt last night that we went back to Michigan. You and mommy had your old jobs,’ Orie said, looking at Bee over his cereal bowl.
Bee was now on the other side of the kitchen washing pots and pans and humming to the Chi-Lights, who were crooning about a long lost love on the radio.
‘Hmm?’ Bee asked, turning to him covered with foamy soap bubbles up to her elbows.
Orie’s mind had wandered back to sandboxes and playgrounds, his old friends and teachers and running around with his toys. Running. That was before.
Orie slammed his spoon on the tray of his wheelchair, crossed his arms over his tray and buried his head in the sleeves of his other Spiderman pajamas. They were blue like the walls downstairs. Pajamas that now hung loosely on him.
‘Hey. Hey. What is all this about? I threw up all the time in college and I became a nurse. See? Throwing up is not that big of a deal.’
Orie felt Bee’s damp hands rub his back.
‘Hey, look at me, my love. According to your mother I needed to mop more anyway.’
Orie scoffed, lifting his head and a playing with a spoonful of soggy oatmeal. He brought the spoon to his mouth and changed his mind, dumping it back in the bowl before it touched his chaffed lips. His stomach was an inferno right under his heart. His insides swirled like a rollercoaster ride that never ended. Up and down. Side to side. Big drop down. Then upside down.
‘Try to eat some of that, kiddo,’ Bee said, kissing his cheeks, then his forehead.
‘No. I don’t want to. I don’t want to,’ Orie protested, pressing his lips together.
He turned over the spoon and the brown cereal plopped into the bowl of milk. The soggy lump bubbled and sank to the bottom of his Spiderman bowl. Orie threw his head back on his wheelchair, feeling the cushion of the neck brace press into the back of his thinning hair. Tears pricked at his eyes and his stomach swam. Everything hurt and everything felt like it was his fault.
‘I love you, Orie. More than…’ Bee trailed off, waiting for him to finish her sentence.
He heaved a breath, letting his chest expand and collapse. His ribs popped and cracked under his clothes.
‘More than fresh, hot, peanut butter cookies—’ Orie repeated the mantra with as much conviction as he could while he was choking back tears.
‘And?’ Bee said, kneeling in front of him and kissing his fingers.
‘New episodes of Ellen—the c-commercial-free ones that m-mommy DVR’s for you.’
‘And?’ Bee stifled a chuckle and leaned forward, lifting Orie’s chin so he looked into her face.
Orie sniffled as Bee squeezed his hand, waiting expectantly for the familiar oath.
‘A whole pack of Oreos. And more than life. You love me more than life. Forever and always,’ Orie said, his voice cracking under the weight of causing his mommies to move so far away. The weight of all the hospital bills. The weight of the vomit and sweat and blood and IV bags and pills and surgeries and donors. Of everything.
‘Always and forever,’ Bee said, kissing his wrist, ‘this is home now. The best children’s hospital is here, in California. I know this house is smaller, but we will be okay. It’s just the three of us anyway so why do we even need more room?’
Orie looked away, watching a red bird peck the glass of the kitchen window and then fly away as if thought better of breaking into the house.
‘Hey now, look at me,’ Bee said, gently turning Orie’s face to look at her.
Her short, tightly curled afro, usually gelled behind a headband or headwrap, was growing out and coils jutted out in every direction. She smiled as wide as she could but all Orie saw were the dark circles under her red-rimmed eyes and the quiver of her lips.
‘Mommy’s gonna be mad cause you have shoes on in the house,’ Orie said, looking at Bee’s feet. He didn’t want to cry anymore.
‘That’s why we won’t tell her,’ Bee said, putting her index finger over her lips, ‘We also won’t tell you threw up because she will worry.’
Bee winked and Orie giggled and pinched his mouth closed and nodded.
‘She’ll smell the bleach,’ Orie said, sniffing audibly.
‘Ugh, you’re right she has a nose like a bloodhound,’ Bee said, tapping her chin with her index finger. She walked over to the sink opened the kitchen window.
‘Oh, speaking of mom. She said you didn’t get any down last night,’ Bee handed Orie the pillbox. Monday and Tuesday were empty and Wednesday overflowed with blue, pink, yellow and white pills, ‘Hopefully you have enough oatmeal and toast in there to keep these monsters down.’
‘Can you crush them up, please?’ Orie asked, sinking into his chair, and pushing out his bottom lip.
Bee nodded, grabbing a pill crusher and grinding the prescriptions into fine, colourful dust. She grabbed a bottle of chocolate milk from the fridge and started mixing everything together.
Bee handed him a red cup and started a familiar chant.
‘Chug. Chug. Chug. Chug!’ Bee whooped and hollered and did a mock touchdown dance as Orie smiled and tipped the cup back to his mouth.
‘Babe?’ Carrie called from the hallway. The front door slammed and the sound of shuffling feet as Carrie kicked off her shoes.
‘Uh oh,’ Orie said, using his sleeve to wipe droplets of the chocolate milk off his nose.
‘Jesus! Honey, what happened?’ Carrie’s voice was an octave higher as she bolted into the kitchen.
Carrie dropped a paper bag filled with groceries. Fruits, canned vegetables, crayons, markers spilled on the floor. Carrie ran over to Orie, her slim, olive-skinned face was flushed red. Her short, black hair looked wild and was standing on ends near her jaw line as she scrambled for the baby wipes in her purse.
‘Mommy, it’s okay. It’s—just—ow!’ Orie winced as his mother turned his chin left and right.
‘I smell bleach. What happened?’ Carrie asked, rounding on Bee.
‘Bee, what the heck? You’re supposed to call me when he vomits. We can’t let him get dehydrated again. Did you call Dr. Johnson?’ Carrie patted her pockets, likely looking for her cell phone.
‘Carrie, baby, breath. Look, he’s fine,’ Bee said, rubbing the back of her neck and sighing deeply.
‘Fine? Did you even read the note I left on the fridge?’
‘Yes, honey and the note you left on the nightstand. And the bathroom mirror. And the text messages.’
Carrie retrieved her phone from her purse and started stabbing feverishly at the screen.
‘Okay, so I guess we are going ahead with the panic option, right? Panicking is good, said no nurse ever,’ Bee scoffed, leaning on the kitchen counter and crossing her arms.
‘Mommy, I’m fine,’ Orie said, looking pleadingly at Bee to do something.
Bee shook her head with pursed lips.
‘Let me be the judge of that,’ Carrie said, snapping the breakfast tray back on to the wheel chair and wheeling back to glare at Bee.
To Be Continued…
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