A sweet aroma filters through the confused pulsing in my brain. The blend of flavours is unfamiliar, but the warmth it brings is more than enough to motivate me to wake.
The room is empty; a tray on the bedside table holds a bowl of steaming soup and a small plate of homemade bread. The mattress is heavenly, surrounding me in comfort I have never known. The curtains are wide open, letting in the glare of winter’s morning sun. I can hear a faint whispering on the other side of the white door. Who are they? Ellie? Perhaps, but wouldn’t her boyfriend have objected? And that still doesn’t explain the second voice, though I suppose it could be her parents.
The door opens slowly, revealing the blue eyes and hair of Abi. She shuffles into the room, biting her lip, eyes down. Ellie walks in after her, smiling apologetically and kneeling by the bed.
“Are you alright?” she asks. Her question forces me to remember the dull pain in the back of my head and the side of my eye. The embrace of the duvet allowed me to forget until now, but now reminded, I realise the answer to her question is that I’m definitely not alright. My groan as I shift my head is enough answer for her.
“Listen, I’m sorry, I didn’t want any of that to happen. I just needed you to know about…” Ellie looks around at Abi, who is still stood by the door. I try to nod to tell her I know what she means, but the motion sends a fresh wave of pain down my spine. I think she gets the message though, as she widens her smile slightly, before standing. She walks over to Abi, gesturing to me.
“She’s all yours,” she says to her. I’m not sure if she actually winked or not, but her tone implied it.
Abi closes the door and walks cautiously over to me, kneeling where Ellie had been a few moments ago. I manage a weak smile, trying to dispel the worry in her eyes. She returns the smile, a little brighter than mine, but still tinged with concern.
“I’m f-fine Abi,” I breathe. She opens her mouth to protest, but I finish before she can utter a word. I smile again, this time more sincere, knowing that at least someone is genuinely worried about me raises my spirits a little. She can’t help but release a laugh at her excessive concern, brushing a strand of hair from in front of her face.
“Where am I?” I ask, unable to hide my confusion anymore. She is surprised by my question; I suppose she assumed someone had told me already.
“Oh, yeah, this is my house. Ellie brought you here after whatever happened last night.”
“Why did sh-she bring me here? Why n-n-not her own-n house?”
“Well,” she stops to find a more comfortable position, leaning with her back against the bed, turning her head to look at me. “Ellie’s boyfriend, Finn, is my step-brother, so when they found you, it was quicker to bring you here than to Ellie’s.”
“What did they say happened?” I ask, realising that they must have come up with some cover-up.
“They didn’t see what actually happened; they found you unconscious on the side of the road and brought you here. Do you remember anything before you woke up here?”
I figure Abi doesn’t know about Finn’s aggressive nature, so I cover for him, like Ellie did.
“I was walking home, th-then someon-ne hit me from behin-nd,” I lie.
She seems to buy it, but I can see something more. Perhaps anger? At what though? Maybe she knows more than I thought; maybe she knows I’m lying. She seems restless, adjusting her position, then looking back at me. I don’t think it is anger, regret fits her expression better. I suppose she wishes she could have done something, though I’ve only known her a few days, I know she cares about my wellbeing.
“Um…” she starts to speak but trails off, suddenly making things seem very awkward.
After another moment of her frantically searching for some way to break the silence, I remember the soup and bread next to me. Damn. It’s probably cold by now, but I shouldn’t waste it. I surprise Abi by sitting up slowly, still in my school uniform.
“What are you doing? You need to rest, don’t get up, relax, V,” she says, rushing her words in such a way that it feels like I’m doing the worst thing possible. I’m not, but she seems to think so.
“Can-n you pass me th-th–ʺ I give up, instead pointing lazily at the tray next to me. Abi practically leaps to my aid, handing me the tray before I even realised she had stood up.
The soup is still fairly warm and much more filling than I had expected, I don’t think I can remember the last time I had a meal this good. No, I can, but it was a long time ago, before…everything. I eventually identify the flavour as carrot, though I really can’t remember the last time I had carrot. It’s delicious, not that I care how good things taste anymore, if it’s food, it’s good.
Abi watches as I struggle to eat after only a few spoonfuls, intrigued by how quickly my appetite is filled. I take a few bites out of the bread, which is incredible, before giving in to my small stomach.
“Do you want some?” I offer, trying to give the tray to Abi. She shakes her head and pushes the tray back towards me.
“No, it’s yours; you need to get some strength back,” she argues.
“I can-n’t eat an-ny more,” I reply.
Eventually, she takes the tray, with a great deal of reluctance, and eats some of the bread. She seems embarrassed, but she has no need to be, I’m used to not eating, she isn’t. She keeps her eyes fixed on me; I suppose to make sure I don’t change my mind. I keep smiling, hoping that eventually she’ll stop worrying, though I’m grateful she hasn’t.
She stops looking at me, staring instead out of the window. After a moment she coughs and looks down at the floor, hiding her face with her hair. I can still see the faint blush on her cheeks, despite her efforts. Why is she so embarrassed all the time?
“Are you alright?” I ask, leaning over to try and see her face. She looks back at me, her eyes refilled with the brightness I have come to know.
“I’m fine, really, don’t worry about me,” she pauses, biting her lip. “Um…do you worry about me?”
I stare at her, seeing something behind her eyes. Some kind of sadness, but with a hint of hope, lies behind her iris. Do I worry about her? I suppose I do, in a way. I worry when she hides away, she must have a reason, which scares me sometimes.
“Yes, when-n you’re like this,” I say.
“Like what?” she asks, sitting up a little, seeming confused.
“Af-f-fraid,” I manage.
She laughs slightly, getting up onto her knees and shuffling a little closer. She smiles and brushes aside a stray strand of hair.
“I’m not afraid,” she says, “I just get embarrassed easily, unlike you.”
“What do you mean-n?” I ask.
“Well, you never seem to care what other people think; I wish I could be like that.”
“I’d rath-ther be like you,” I say, surprising myself with my honesty. Abi is just as surprised it seems, her eyes almost bursting from their sockets.
“What? Why?” she asks. The answer seems obvious to me, but she doesn’t know half of what my life is like. Equally, I don’t know half of what her life is like, but judging from this room it must be better than mine.
“You’re always so f-f-full of en-nergy, I can-n’t remember th-the last time I f-felt like th-that.” I reply, skipping over most of the real reasons for my statement.
“I’m not normally like that, it’s just…” she trails off, going red again. Feeling her cheeks grow hot she turns away again. “Sorry.”
“It’s f-fin-ne,” I say, leaning forward and putting my hand on hers in an effort to calm her down. The pulse in her thumb is racing, she turns back to face me. I smile gently, she freezes for a second, then a smile crosses her face as well. She slowly interweaves her fingers with mine, sending sparks of unfamiliar warmth down my arm.
It all makes sense, everything falls into place, the embarrassment, the energy, everything. She hid her affection as long as she could bear, but now, now I return her feelings. I realise why she seems to brighten the room, I realise why such a large smile, such a beaming smile is now on my face. I never understood why she cared so much, or why I tried to understand, but now it is all clear.
Her eyes positively glow, for a moment they outshine the sun, everything else is unimportant. For a moment, her hand is in mine, her pulse calming, falling in rhythm with mine. For a moment, we both know exactly how we feel; we both know why we feel like that. For a moment, no words are necessary.
The door swings open, the moment is passed, our hands separate. I lie back, my heart still beating a little faster, but I try to appear in pain. Of course, I am in pain, but I have learnt to block it out quite well, I’ve had years of ignoring my complaining stomach to practise. I let myself feel the pain for a second, I realise how badly my spine has been affected only when it causes me to cry out.
Both Abi and the newcomer, who I assume is Ellie, send me concerned looks. I try to breathe, but each breath pushes against my vertebrae, causing a renewed agony along my back. I can’t help but scream, but Abi’s terrified eyes force me to cling on, I won’t let myself slip away. The pain is too much, my vision is closing.