Comfort & Joy
“Dad, help her!”
“Joy?” Daniel whispers my name; at least I think he does. I can’t hear anything over the buzzing in my ears.
My chest hurts.
The carolers change songs again. I hear their voices: “It came up-on a Mid-night Clear . . .”
“. . . that glor-ious so-ng of old . . .”
Bobby is reaching for me, screaming. “Joy, you promised. You promised . . .”
Pain explodes in my chest, rattles my whole body, and the world goes black.
“You see things and you say, ‘Why?’
But I dream things that never were
And say, ‘Why not?’”
—GEORGE BERNARD SHAW
T he next time I open my eyes, all I see is light, bright white and buzzing.
I am in bed, but it’s not my bed in Room 1A. The ceiling overhead is made up of white acoustical tiles with long tubes of fluorescent lighting.
There are people all around me, too, dressed in orange, moving in and out and around me like dancers. I can see them talking to one another, but I can’t hear anything except that buzzing in my ears and the whoosh-thunk of a machine that sounds like waves breaking on the beach.
On either side of me are machines that make noises. I see a black television screen with a green graph that moves across it in waves.
I’m in a hospital.
I must have collapsed in the park. Had a heart attack or something. I try to move, to angle up to sit so that I can see more of the room around me, but my arms and legs feel useless, heavy.
“Bobby?” I whisper. My throat burns at the effort. I’m painfully thirsty. “Daniel?”
“Hello, there, Joy. It’s nice to see you.”
A man’s face swims in front of me. I struggle to focus. I can see him in pieces: snow white hair . . . tan skin . . . blue eyes . . . a diamond earring.
It’s the man from the gas station.
“Wh . . . t?” I want to ask “what are you doing here?” but my tongue isn’t working.
He gives me an ice chip to soothe my fiery throat. “Don’t try to talk, Joy. You’ve been intubated. The soreness in your throat is normal. I’m Dr. Saunders. You gave us all quite a scare.”
“Who? . . .” Are you? I don’t understand what’s happening and it scares me.
“You just rest now.”
The people in my room talk among themselves in whispered tones designed to keep me from hearing. Their faces are a sea of blurry circles; everyone is frowning at me and pointing. There is a lot of head-shaking going on. One by one, they leave.
I can hear their footsteps walking away, and the opening and closing of a door.
Then there are only the machines in here with me, making their noises—a click-buzz, a thunk-whoosh; a blip-blip-blip. And I am alone, unable to move, staring up at this unfamiliar ceiling.
Poor Bobby. He must be terrified.
I won’t leave you.
And here I am, in the hospital.
I want him here, beside my bed so that I can smile and tell him I’m fine.
Behind me, the door opens again. Footsteps move haltingly toward me.
It’s Bobby. Thank God.
I feel a rush of sweet relief. He’s knows I didn’t leave him. I’m fine. Fine. In my head, the protestation is vibrant and clear, but the sound that issues from my cracked, dry lips is barely a whisper and even that useless sound tires me. Instead, I try to lift my hand to show how fine I am.
It’s the wrong voice; not a boy’s. It takes forever for me to turn my head, and when I do, the pillow puffs up around my face, blocking the view from my left eye.
I can see well enough, though.
She looks smaller, somehow, like a pencil that’s been used down to the nub. Her eyes are swollen and red; there’s no mistaking the tear tracks on her cheeks.
I don’t understand. How is she here? How did she find me?
“Wha . . . here?”
She leans close, pushing the damp hair from my eyes. Her touch is quick, as if she’s not sure it will be welcomed. Almost before I feel it, she draws back. “I was so scared.”
“How” did you “fin . . .” me?
I can see her answering me, but there’s something wrong. I can’t hear over the buzzing in my ears. My head is pounding, too. I want to ask her where Bobby and Daniel are, but my voice is turning against me. All that comes out is, “Where?”
“They airlifted you to Bakersfield. You’re home.”
“Home?” The word comes out sounding cracked. I don’t understand. It’s Christmas “Eve?”
“No, I’m sorry. I know how much you love the holidays.”
“It’s the thirtieth. You’ve had a rough two weeks, but the doctors think you’re going to be okay now.”
Her words scatter like BBs on a kitchen table; it’s impossible to grasp them all at once.
Stacey frowns. “Do you understand me, Joy? You were in a plane crash, remember? The firemen rescued you moments before it exploded. The doctors said you might have trouble with your memory.”
Rescued you. Firemen.
But I walked away from the crash, left my tattered life behind in the wreckage and went on an adventure. If anyone rescued me, it was Bobby and Daniel. I want to shake my head in denial, but I can’t seem to move. “No.”
“You were in a medically induced coma for almost ten days. Because of a head injury.”
It steals over me like a cold shadow, the meaning of her words. She’s saying I’ve been here, in this hospital bed, since the crash.
I don’t understand. Why would she lie to me? Because I ran away, because I let her think I was dead?
“Joy? What do you remember?”
Daniel and Bobby . . .
Walking away . . .
Dancing by the fire at the beach . . .
My heart starts pounding so fast I can’t breathe. Beside me, a machine starts beeping. “Lying,” I accuse in a whisper. At the word, and the effort behind it, my throat seems to catch fire.
As if from a distance, I hear my sister calling for someone. Within moments there are people in my room.
I see a needle.
“Quit thrashing,” my sister says. “You’ll hurt yourself.”
Please be lying.
I feel myself fading to gray, closing my eyes. The terrible sound in my head goes still.
I’m flying above the rainforest, looking down at the brightly lit tiara of a town. From a great and yawning distance, I see the black ribbon of a road. Moonlight gilds the center line and I follow it.
This time, I know I’m dreaming. I can hear the buzz of the fluorescent lighting overhead and the thunk-whoosh sound of the stork-like machine beside my bed. There is also a kind of low-grade thrumming in my blood, a euphoria, that comes from an IV drip. I guess it’s camouflaging a serious pain, but it’s masking it so well I don’t care.
From my place amid the silvery clouds, I see the Comfort Fishing Lodge, tucked down along the glassy gray lake. Moonlight glitters on the water.
That’s where I want to be. I close my eyes and make it happen.
When I open my eyes, I’m in the lobby, pressed against the wall. The room is still decorated. The lights of the tree are on; the mantel holds several lit candles amid the snowy town. The stereo is playing Bruce Springsteen’s version of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.”
I hear footsteps upstairs. This old place rattles and groans as someone races down the hall overhead, then clatters down the stairs.
It is Bobby. He is at a full Christmas morning run.
At the bottom of the stairs, he pivots left and rushes past me to Room 1A.
He pulls the door open, yelling, “Joy!” and disappears inside.
I picture him skidding to a stop beside the empty bed. The sorrow I feel at that overwhelms me, making it difficult to breathe again.
Daniel comes down the stairs and stops beside me. I long to feel the warmth of him, but I can’t. I’m close enough to see the tiny sleep lines that mark his cheek, to hear the soft strains of his breath, and yet I feel as if I’m miles away. “Boyo? I thought you’d go straight to the tree.”
Bobby steps back into the hall. He looks smaller somehow, younger. His shoulders are slumped, his mouth is shaking. I can see how hard he is trying not to cry. “She’s gone.”
I try to go to him, but I can’t push away from the wall. My legs are like lead pipes.
Bobby shuffles toward his father in that hangdog way of disappointed children everywhere. “She promised. It’s just like Mommy.”
“I’m here,” I say, desperately trying to reach out for him. “Don’t say I’m not here.”
Daniel pulls Bobby into his arms. I can tell that Bobby is crying, but it’s nearly silent, the way of a boy who has learned too early to cry and is trying to hide it.
When Bobby draws back, his eyes are red and watery.
“Remember what the doctor said?” Daniel asks, wiping his son’s tears with a gentle hand. “When you didn’t need your imaginary friend anymore, she’d leave.”
“She wasn’t imaginary, Dad.” He shakes his head. “She wasn’t. You talked to her.”
“The doctors told me to pretend.”
I feel as if I’ve been struck.
I was Bobby’s imaginary friend.
Daniel never saw me.
I scream, “It isn’t true,” but even as I say the words, I remember things. The times Daniel didn’t look at me or speak to me. When he did talk to me it was a pretense, at doctor’s orders, to make Bobby feel loved. Like the time we danced. Now I recall that Bobby pointed to where I was. She’s right there, Daddy. Dance with her.
“I can be the one you talk to, Bobby,” Daniel says. His voice cracks. I can see in his eyes how confused he is by all of this, and how afraid.
“You don’t believe me,” Bobby says stubbornly. He spins on his heel and marches over to the Christmas tree, then squats in front of it.
At Bobby’s movement, I am released. I follow him, move when he does, where he does.
When he kneels at the tree, I sit on the hearth, as I have done so many times before. To my left, the card table is still set up with Candyland. There are three men on the board.
I’ll move for Joy, Dad.
At that, another piece clicks into place. Whenever Bobby and I played with action figures, he wanted me to be Frodo, wearing the ring.
The ring that made Frodo invisible.
Bobby reaches underneath the tree and pulls out a small package. It is a crudely wrapped cylinder with ribbons on each end.
We catch our breath at the same time, Bobby and I. It’s proof of my impossible journey, isn’t it?
“Look, Dad. This is from Joy.”
“Bobby . . .”
Daniel takes the cylinder in his hands; it looks tiny and frail against his long, tanned fingers. He unwraps it carefully, extracts the list. As he reads it, he frowns. Then he looks at Bobby. “How did you do this?”
“It’s Joy’s present to you. She told me what to write.”