I stood motionless outside the room for a moment, curling and uncurling my fingers from my palm as I tried to decide what to do. I could run and hope never to see her again, but she would just turn up again eventually. What would I do if I did go in? Well, no knowing without trying.
I took a deep breath and tried to turn the handle of the door, but my hands were slick with sweat and kept slipping, so it took two minutes or so before I could finally enter the room.
Araera had been lying back listlessly against a great pile of pillows, flicking through a small paperback book without really looking at the words on the pages, staring out over the top of the cover through the window where she had caught sight of me. Now she used her elbows to lever herself up into a sitting position and was trying to smile at me with her old grin, but failing. Her skin was stretched too tightly over her face, as if there was barely enough to cover it and instead of the usual white, it was tinged with yellow, like the skin of an excessive smoker.
She had to be more sick than me, to have a private room. Ironically, I felt slightly jealous of her. The private room was quieter than mine and the walls were painted in a calming sky blue, a dash of colour amidst the hospital's whiteness. The bed had a sturdy wooden frame and a thicker mattress than mine and was covered not with thin blankets, but a proper, thick, down duvet. There was a large flat screen television on the wall which looked new and a shelf of books had been placed against one wall. She had entertainment, whereas I was likely to go out of my mind with boredom in the ward now that I was awake. My parents would come, I could get them to bring me a couple of books.
The thick tangle of tubes connecting her to a large IV stand by the bed reminded me I shouldn't get too carried away by envy. A heart monitor blipped quietly next to a screen displaying Araera's brainwaves and several other monitors with displays I did not understand. Multiple drips fed unidentifiable liquids into her where they were attached to her arm. Several half full pill bottles stood on the bedside table next to her and similar looking bottles, empty, had been discarded in the waste paper basket on the other side of the bed.
"I've lead them a merry dance." Araera croaked weakly through a dry throat. When was the last time she had had a drink of water? "They have absolutely no idea what's wrong with me and obviously there's no point in telling them. I'm on supplements for just about every nutrient there is, I've got too little energy to get out of bed and I just keep getting thinner everyday. First it was a bacteria, then it was a virus, we're back to bacteria now. They're making it up honestly. I think they just put all the different medications on slips of paper and put them in a hat, then every day they pick another one out and add it to the list of pills I take." She waved a hand vaguely in the direction of the half full pill boxes. I shuffled awkwardly from foot to foot, not really sure how to respond. Why was she so ill? Surely it was only me who should be suffering adverse effects. Then I realised something.
"The doctors are treating you? The doctors can see you to treat?" So everything was finished now. I'd survived, Araera had become real again; and now looked set to die, properly this time. I wasn't sure quite how to feel about that. A part of me thought it served her right. I was the one who was meant to have died for her. This was what she had got for being prepared to kill me. On the other hand, surely a lack of deaths was the most preferable consequence of her actions?
Araera smiled wryly. "Yes, they can see me. It didn't come about straight away though. You know I couldn't leave you, right? I spent nine days sitting on the floor next to your bed, because as no one could see me no one brought a chair.You screamed, shouted, kicked. Every minute people ran backwards and forwards with extra blankets to keep you warm, or ice to keep you cool. They knew you had a fever, nothing more. They were as clueless about what to do with you as they are about how to help me now. You just kept getting worse and worse, while I became stronger. I thought you were going to die then. Whatever you think of me, Olivia, what I was doing didn't sit well with me."
She stopped suddenly, clutched at her throat and grimaced, while her hand reached down under the bed and scrabbled for a little, until it grasped a plastic bowl which Araera threw hurriedly in front of her. The bottom of the container was already painted with a dark stain. Violent coughing wracked her body, enough to make the boy back in my ward look like he had just been clearing his throat. As she pitched forward I saw briefly how pitifully thin she was. Even through thick flannelette pyjamas her ribs were visible, sticking out at sharp angles. As she straightened again she passed a hand briefly over her mouth. When she drew it away, I saw it was stained with crimson.
Araera shrugged, feigning unconcern. "It happens occasionally." She admitted. "It hurts for a while, but it passes. Anyway," she continued, hurriedly leaving her discomfort behind as best she could. "You'd been here for ten days, when I realised I was hungry." She paused, as if this was somehow significant, but I couldn't understand what she wanted me to see. Araera sighed.
"I hadn't felt hungry for seven years, not since I half died. I hadn't felt thirsty either, or tired; but I was then. I knew I was back. So obviously the first thing I had to do was whoop and scream and get as many people to notice me as possible; which was a complete failure. They'd all learnt to ignore the racket you usually made. Then I noticed you weren't screaming. I thought I really had killed you. I actually cried. I didn't cry when I half died, I never cry." She looked like she was about to cry now. Her eyes shone without a light being directed at them.
I wasn't quite sure how to respond to that. "Am I supposed to be proud?"
She considered briefly. "Not that I'm condoning making people cry, but yes, in this case you could say you have reason to be. I mean, it shows you aren't completely dislikable, or I wouldn't care if you died. I wouldn't care if most people died, you can consider yourself almost unique." Thus marked with her seal of approval, I wasn't quite sure whether to feel gratified or accuse her of psychosis.
"I keep getting distracted." Araera sighed. "Anyway, I got up to get food and fainted. I woke up here. They keep asking me questions about who I am, soon I'm going to run out of ways to avoid answers. At this rate though, I won't be around to be asked." She tried once again to give me that bright smile and failed a second time. "Anyway, it's nice to see you again. I haven't had time to check if you actually were dead; but you're not. Well done."
"Thanks." I muttered. Death didn't seem to bother her at all. I supposed it was a case of "been there, done that. It was boring, I'd do something else if you have other options."
"You're not finishing my sentences anymore." I said.
She shook her head. "Becoming real took my abilities along with my health. I'm a normal teenager now, aside from the paranormally induced terminal illness." She splayed her hands and sighed in a way which said "what can you do?"
So that was it then. She was just going to accept what was coming. The girl who had fought so hard before that even death had shied away was now just going to let herself fade to nothing. It was a sad decline. I supposed using me had been one last act of desperation. Now that had failed, she didn't care anymore.
I wished I could help her. I had helped her. I'd let her be seen again, only so she could die in a tiny little room with only books, a television and a few irritable doctors unable to understand her condition for company. It was probably best if I stopped helping from now on.
For a couple of minutes which seemed like hours, neither of us said anything. All there was to be heard was the faint babble of the nurses' television and their occasional whoops and squeals in reaction to the programme. Araera looked at me with the pitying expression I had seen before. Always she pitied me, but it was her who I should have felt sorry for from the beginning. After everything she must have been through.
"Go." She whispered. "Go and don't come back, for your own sake."
I tried a joke. "It's not as if I could. I don't think there's a single sign in the whole building."
Araera laughed weakly. "You can't imagine how much that has yet to annoy you. I tell you what. When I'm gone, you can start a petition for me. Collect signatures and don't give up until everyone can easily find their way wherever they want to go in the hospitals of Britain." I started laughing, but it was muted to a choked sob when I saw a tear roll down Araera's cheek.
Gently, I reached down and squeezed her hand, but her palms must have somehow become charged with static electricity. The shock ran all the way arm and evidently she felt it too. We both jerked away awkwardly. I looked at her for a second more, then turned to leave.
Outside in the corridor, I realised I still didn't know the way back to my ward. For a second time I picked a corridor at random and hoped for the best.