"Well," said Dr. Pent, and I knew that something was up. "Well, Simon," he said again, the stink of nerves rising whenever he shifted in his clothes. "How are we coming along?"
"Good," I said noncommittally, sitting up in bed and blinking against the orange morning sun. "Fine."
"Good," echoed Dr. Pent, nodding at nothing. He jammed his hands into the pockets of his labcoat and pretended to be inspecting some aspect of the wall above my head. "I'd like to talk to you about going home."
Bleary-eyed and dream-headed it took me a moment to recognize that by "home" Dr. Pent did not mean the ward.
"Perhaps they could come here to meet me, here on Samundra," I said hopefully.
Dr. Pent shook his head. "Just a delay," he said. "Sooner or later you're going to have to face the fact that this isn't your world. The sooner the better, in my view."
An edge had teetered in his voice at the end there, and it caused me to turn to look into his face. He flushed and adjusted the probe in his pocket. Curious.
Dr. Pent continued, "I'd like to see you in a taxicab to the spaceport tomorrow, Simon. I think it's time for you to take this step."
I sighed. "I'm being kicked out, aren't I?"
"No," he assured me with pursed lips and a furrowed brow. "You know you can stay here as long as you feel it is necessary." His pores glistened.
I'm going to miss this place.
Feeling very sorry for myself I took a slow, melancholy stroll through the ward. I chatted with the nurses and played a game of chess with Jessem in his semi-private room. Toward noon a storm rolled in, sealing away Samundra's keen blue sky behind a blanket of dark wool. A weak grey light glowed through the windows, swimming with rain. The ward dimmed. Lamps came on, gold amid the silver gloom.
The gong sounded for lunch, and the corridors filled with the sound of shuffling paper slippers as everyone roused to feed.
I came to the edge of the cafeteria but did not sit down. I felt no appetite. I crossed my arms and leaned against the wall, watching the infirm and aggressive and bemused take their rattling trays to table, eyes darting around in furtive paranoia as often as cast unfocused into space without a care in this tangible world. Cutlery clinked. Somebody broke a glass. Talk was minimal.
With an invisible, internal lurch I recognized that they were strangers.
The patients with whom I have spent the past few weeks -- the people with whom I grew up -- have nearly all been healed or transferred. I waved to Jessem as he wandered in and queued at the counter, and he nodded to me the civil way one acknowledges a friendly alien. He smiled uncertainly. "Am I cutting in?" he asked as the line advanced to where I stood.
"Not at all, my good man," I replied. "Please."
"Thanks. My name's Jessem. Jessem Poll."
"Hello, my name is Simon."
"It's a pleasure to make your acquaintance," he told me.
The tables in the corner by the tea service still bore scrapes and gashes in their surfaces from the time Jessem, Crushed Head Faeda and I had made a fort in the cafeteria, hiding behind walls of overturned furniture and crawling through corridors made of interlocked plastic chairs hung with bed-sheets. We defended our creation against the nurses for almost four hours before Faeda took things too far and bit someone in the leg. The security robots tranquilized her.
"Glorious victory..." she mumbled groggily as they lifted her. "You will pay for your crimes in precious meat," she added, a long string of drool pouring out of her mouth and reaching for the floor. "War!" she muttered, eyes rolling up into their sockets. "Babyrape," she added listlessly, going limp.
Jessem turned to me. "She seems awfully sleepy. Where are they taking her?"
"To her bed."
"Well, that makes sense," said Jessem. He looked around and blinked. "Hey -- a fort!" he discovered.
Of course I'm almost six weeks old now, and therefore comport myself with a certain amount of dignity. I rarely build forts any longer, and when I do I just go under my bed and hang the blankets over the edges -- it's less disruptive and therefore tends to escape the nurses' attention far longer. In the dim and the small I feel safe.
The rain started coming down harder. It splashed and played against the cafeteria windows in a sudden surge, causing a collective tilt of heads in the mawing herd. From my perch against the wall I alone saw the group of people in outlandish costumes arrive with Dr. Pent. Instead of white and simple, their pajamas were varicoloured and layered. Their faces were solemn. One of them had a lump of fabric on top of his head. All three newcomers had skin the same colour as Jessem's: dark coffee.
Dr. Pent took them to where Jessem sat, and Jessem turned away from the rain-washed windows. His face transformed. It folded and blossomed from a countenance of characteristic befuddlement to joy. "Mota! Tanis! Oh my god!" he laughed, overcome.
They embraced. There were tears. There was a sudden explosion of overlapping talking in gibberish. Shoulders were touched, smiles flashed, heads shook. Dr. Pent efficiently wrangled the cluster of burbling humanity along the row of tables and out of the cafeteria.
Jessem's family, obviously. He had been on his way to meet them after a long absence when he had his accident. His greatest single desire in the world was to be re-united with them.
He got his wish today. And, to the increasing horror of his kin, he will get his wish every day, for he is doomed to forget the wonderful reunion before the next meal is served. The delight in their eyes in the cafeteria moved me. But I wonder how delighted they will be the tenth time, the fiftieth time, the hundredth...
Unless they find some way to fix Jessem's brain. Which maybe they will. I'm no expert on the art of the probable. I don't even know how the toaster works.
The whole thing made me feel depressed and touched in sick, wheeling turns so I swung out of the cafeteria and followed the blue line to my bed. In my bed was a man with yellow skin and purple eyes. "I'm thorry?" he said when I asked him what his business was on my pillow.
Nurse Hiwai took my elbow. "Simon, your new bed is over here. We've re-arranged the ward -- new patients and all." She deposited me by a bed in the far corner. It was of a slightly different type than my old bed, and the night-stand was a different colour. I felt repulsed. "There you go," smiled Hiwai.
So now here I am, lying under my new bed. The sheets hang down over the sides, brushing the floor and serving as translucent walls. The polished floor is cool and soothing against my belly. I'm whispering into a blue plastic bauble, its single eye lit steadily in attention.
The wind has changed. This isn't my home anymore. I wanted to stay here forever but forever was a four-week spell I lived last month. I will always have a special place in my heart for my childhood memories, but I recognize now that I have no choice but to move on.
I am filled with dread percolating through with a fizz of building resolve.
Dr. Pent's feet stopped by around suppertime. He wanted to know how I was feeling. "Well, I'm ready to go," I told his shoes, hovering at the edge of my bed-sheet wall.
"Fine," came Dr. Pent's muffled voice. "Good."
"May I...may I take the diary with me?" I found myself asking.
"Sure," he said.
Dr. Pent's shoes walked away. Tomorrow, then. Tomorrow's the day.