Chapter Four
 
The bullet emerged from the gun, but it was not aimed at Doctor Cantaro; it shot up and hit the canopy of a tree standing next to the carpark. Leaves were violently disturbed. That disturbance was enough to put the fear back into the doctor and make him realise once again that his life was in danger. I had felt a moment of intense pleasure as the bullet was ejaculated, but it was short lived and not as strong as I had been led to expect. That bullet had been a part of me, inside my hand – now it was out there somewhere in the wasteland. Even if I'd had the time to go search for it, there was probably no way of inserting it back into myself. For a moment there was an empty hole inside me where the bullet had been, but it was quickly replaced by another one. The second bullet felt identical to the first – just as eager to get out.
    "Real gun, real bullets, see?", I said.
    "O.K.", said Doctor Cantaro, glancing from the gun to the tree in fearful confusion. "What do you want?"
    "I want you to promise that you'll load the wheelchair into the car after I get in."
    "O.K., I promise. Now please put the gun away."
    The doctor's words sounded sincere enough; I lowered the gun and turned the wheelchair around, keeping an eye on Brian and Cantaro all the while. Then I lifted myself out of the wheelchair and into the car seat, with the hunk of gun-metal bearing much of my weight. The doctor took the wheelchair and pushed it slowly around to the rear of the vehicle where my mother was waiting.
    "Mrs Clark, the keys please?", he asked.
    My mother seemed to come out of a trance. She started fumbling around in her handbag for the keys to the car boot, but her eyes looked glazed and unfocussed; the task of finding the keys took far too long. She shut her eyes tightly for a couple of seconds, and then opened them; I could see that they were moist with tears. As she found the keys and handed them over, I heard her say a few words to the doctor in a confused, garbled voice.
    "But Doctor – what do I – how'm I s'posed to – what am I –"
    The doctor hushed her and put the keys back in her hand, indicating that she had to open the boot herself. As she did so, I thought I heard him murmuring to her softly, though I couldn't hear what he was saying. He then made a gesture to Brian indicating that he should take care of the wheelchair loading. I saw my mother and Cantaro retreat to a short distance away – they were talking to eachother under their breaths. She was wringing her hands anxiously, he was making a few gesticulations as if explaining something carefully. I didn't really care what they were saying; all I cared about was Brian loading the folded wheelchair into the boot. After his task was finished, I turned my gun back into a hand a flexed my fingers with relief.
    Mum nodded at Doctor Cantaro and he came over to talk to me. "Stephen", he said. "Ah, no gun, excellent! Stephen, your mother and I want to have a little talk up at Burchill Ward – she's in a very emotional state. We'll only be a few minutes – do you mind waiting?"
    I shook my head. The doctor thanked me and headed back towards the hospital building, accompanied by Mum and Brian. Finally I was left alone. I couldn't remember the last time I had been completely alone, this far away from other human beings – the hospital life was a communal life. That was one of the drawbacks of it, as far as I was concerned. My personal space was constantly being invaded.
    "But sometimes it's good to be sharing a room with someone, isn't it? I mean, it would get so lonely at night otherwise."
    I could think of plenty of arguments against that. But the communal lifestyle was pretty much the only drawback. No – perhaps the food was another.
    "The food is really bad at this place. I mean, yesterday's sausages were O.K., but…"
    "What? You thought the sausages were O.K., Angie? I couldn't eat mine – they weren't cooked."
    We could do with a bit more choice –
    "I was really complaining about the potato salad", said Angie.
    "Look guys, we've already addressed the problem of the food", said Connie the nurse. "Let's move on. Are there any other complaints?"
    "Yes", shouted Fred. "The showers aren't hot enough!"
    "Keep it down, Fred. I told you there's nothing we can do about the showers."
    "Well something should be done about it!"
    "I have a complaint", said Tora. "We should be able to stay up until one in the morning. All those in favour?"
    Some patients raised their hands half heartedly and smiled in sympathy with Tora's comment.
    "If no one has any more serious complaints, said Connie, "then let's move on to the next item on the agenda. Lloyd?"
    A bearded man sat up suddenly and said "What? Oh –", as if he'd just woken up. He stared at the laminated agenda for a few seconds and murmured, "Does anyone have a thought for the day?"
    "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you", suggested Margaret the dumb old lady.
    "Oh come on Margaret, you say that at every meeting!", cried Daisy, the smart old lady.
    "Well it's such a good thought for the day, it should be said at every meeting."
    "Can't we have something original?"
    "Too late", said Frank, the minutes-taker. "I've already written it down."
    "Lloyd, close the meeting", called Connie.
    "Meeting closed", mumbled Lloyd.
    "Well done Lloyd!"
    "You did well Lloyd!"
    "Come on Angie, let's go get a coffee."
    "Have you got a cigarette, Fred?"
    I watched the surplus mental patients get up and leave, one by one. I never quite understood why most of them had to leave as soon as the meeting was over – surely they had nothing better to do than sit around in the living-room, although some of them had to go outside straight away for a nicotine fix. The remaining patients were usually the ones who wanted to watch T.V. all day or go back to sleep on the lounge-suite. I was not one of these, yet I stayed in the living room a little while longer to observe the subtleties of human behaviour involved in the transition from meeting-mode to normal-living-room mode. It wasn't worth staying here for long periods, because all the interesting patients would generally go outside to sit around in their traditional coffee-drinking group. But this time, one interesting patient remained – it was Tora. She was sitting next to me.
    "The food isn't really that bad here, is it?", she asked.
    "No. I don't know."
    She looked around at the other patients with their blank, far-away expressions and turned back to me. "I've only been here for one day so I haven't tasted much of the food. How long have you been here?"
    "About a month."
    Tora nodded. "I haven't seen you around the ward much. Where do you hide out in the daytime?"
    "Well I generally hide out – er – hang out in the dining-room, in the daytime."
    "Why do you spend so much time there?"
    I shrugged. "It's a fine place to sit."
    "But it's so segregated from the rest of the ward! You say you like to observe people –"
    How did she know that?
    "—and yet you spend all your time down here in the dining-room, deliberately shutting yourself off from human contact! It doesn't make sense, Stephen!"
    This nurse was beginning to rile me up. What business was it of hers where I chose to hang out?
    "That's not true!", I said. "People come into the dining room often!"
    "How often?", asked Connie with a smirk. "Three times a day, for meals? That's about fifteen minutes per meal, what about the rest of the time?"
    "It's more than that", I replied. "They come in at afternoon tea and morning tea as well."
    "Yeah, well at least the cake is good", said Tora.
    "Mmm. Yeah", I mumbled, feeling rather confused. The cake is good? What sort of a comeback was that?
    "It must have been a real drag being in a wheelchair all the time", said Tora. "What's wrong with your legs?"
    "Oh, well I can't walk on 'em 'cause they're too weak."
    "Too weak? That's a joke. Me 'n all the other nurses know there's nothing wrong with your legs – you could walk on them if you wanted to. But you don't even try."
    Pointless. Everything she said was pointless.
    "That's my choice to make", I said. "It's no one's business but my own. They're MY legs – I'LL decide whether to walk or not."
    "Well you seem pretty cool although you have the attitude of a five year old", said Cora.
    This is all getting too confusing – maybe I should just leave. But in which direction? Should I go east to the living room to escape Connie, or west to the dining room to escape Tora? It depends on which person I'm speaking to, in the first place. When I look up into that hybrid face, it makes my heart melt and harden at the same time.
    "Why should we care for you when there's really sick people here to take care of? Don't you believe that you're a very special person?", asked Tonnie.
    Hearing these loaded questions from Tonnie made me want to kiss her and then smash her face in. My thoughts were becoming clouded with love and hate. How could I give a coherent answer when I was so overcome?
    "Look, why don't you just get out of here?", I demanded.
    YOU CAN'T SAY THAT TO TORA!
    "I'm sorry", said Tornie. "Are you trying to watch television?"
    Oh no! What have I done? She'll think I hate her now.
    "N-not you", I stammer, backpedaling. "You don't have to leave –"
    "I'll say! You're the one who's going to leave, freeloader! I'll make sure of it!", said TorraconitoniaconnatorcorncontorSTOP IT!!! SHE IS NEITHER CONNIE NOR TORA AND YOU'RE NOT IN THE PSYCH WARD! You're down here in the I.C.U.! Time is not passing so you don't need to answer! Get a grip on yourself, man.
    It's true – I am in the I.C.U., and I do keep drifting away. What is it with all these thoughts that crowd my head, pushing out reality and tricking me into believing I'm really out there doing stuff in my wheelchair? Are they dreams? They don't feel like dreams – I can remember them too well. And I get the feeling that they would actually make sense if only I could get them in the right order. Where does it all start? It starts with a suicide attempt, right? I think I remember how it happened, too – I jumped off a footbridge onto the freeway. But is that really the start? I don't know. It could be the end, for all I know. The start or the end.
    What I seem to remember best are the events that took place in the middle, in hospital. But which hospital? There seems to be more than one. I remember that I went from the Rehabilitation Centre to the Psychiatric Hospital, around April 20th; that was Doctor Cantaro's doing. But how did I come to be in the Rehabilitation Centre in the first place? I'm sure I didn't go there straight after my suicide attempt. Did I spend some time at home in between? I know I spent some time at home at some point, living with my parents – wasn't that when I locked myself in my room and taught myself to walk, slowly and painfully? No it can't have been. Maybe I should cast my mind back to the early days, at Marramlake Hospital, to look for a clue.
    I'm lying in a hospital bed, with clean sheets, with a colour T.V., with my chest of metal drawers, with my books and my tapes and my electronic games. I'm lying there –
    And lying there –
    And lying there –
    And nothing happens.
    But something's got to happen! Someone comes in.
    Who?
    My Dad. He comes to visit.
    He is carrying his small grey bag and greets me in a friendly manner. I knew he wanted to make me feel like everything was O.K., like he was giving me moral support in that difficult time. It's ironic really, 'cause I know it was more difficult for him than it was for me.
    "Hi Steve", he said, smiling. "How's it going?"
    "Fine", I answered. This was one of his first visits after I had got out of the Intensive Care Unit, when my physical health was still a major concern.
    "No oxygen mask today?", he asked, sitting down at the bedside.
    "No. I don't need that anymore", I replied.
    "Any other news?"
    "They say I'm going to have an operation on my foot in a couple of days", I said.
    "Yeah? I was talking to Doctor Quackinski about that. I hear they're going to put some metal stuff in your foot to hold it together. Are you nervous about it?"
    I shrugged and said nothing.
    "I'm sure it's nothing to worry about. Here I've got something to show you."
    He reached into his bag and took out a little cut-out newspaper article. I took it and started to read. "I thought you might like to see this", he said in a soft voice.
    The article was about a young man in Watsonia who had stolen a car, gone for a joyride, knocked down a couple of pedestrians and crashed into a shop. Apparently he had been very drunk at the time. And I thought to myself, so what?
    "I was reading this article yesterday", murmured Dad, "and I couldn't help thinking of you and making the comparison. This guy was nineteen – the same age as you."
    I nodded and kept my eye on the jagged edge of paper which had been scissored roughly. Dad continued talking in his soft and friendly voice.
    "It just goes to show you what some nineteen-year-olds get up to, while you've never done anything like that in your life. If you had to divide the human race into good people and bad people, then he would probably be one of the bad people, while you would certainly be one of the good people. The world needs more people like you. That's why we can't afford to lose you. If you had died, there would have been one less good person in the world. It doesn't make sense to have you die, while people like this guy are still alive."
    I just said, "Mmmm." I didn't care. My father's words didn't impress me much at all – he was obviously oversimplifying the issue. He must have thought about it a lot, though – I could just picture him reading the article in the kitchen at home, tapping it with his finger and thinking If I show Stephen this, maybe it will put him off suicide for life! He must have had a list, if only a mental one, headed "Ways to make Stephen Less Suicidal." And under the heading, No.1: Show him the article. No. 2: Give him some dried apricots.
    "Oh, before I forget", said Dad. "I brought you some more dried apricots to replenish your supply."
    He took the plastic bag of apricots out of his bag and extended his arm towards me. As the bag was suspended over my chest, my father's arm suddenly disappeared, as did the rest of him. The plastic bag is now hanging motionless over me, with no visible support. Nothing above it, nothing below. I have a feeling that this strange phenomenon is somehow linked with the group of doctors who are now standing around my feet. The white-coated men and women are little more than two inches tall, standing on the sheet, looking up at my bandaged ankles. One of them seems to be pointing up at the left one, as if to say "This area has been severely traumatised." Another one is taking notes. The rest of them are nodding and passing comments to eachother about my foot. What are they going to do to it? I don't want them changing anything. I feel like I want to kick them away, stop them from making plans about me without my permission. But I can't.
    Maybe the foot doctors are not so important. Their intentions are probably honorable anyway. My real concern is the group around my head. They, too, are pointing and discussing, although I can't make out any words. All I can see are the moving lips and the gestures. I feel like a beached whale surrounded by whale-oil traders. If I tilt my head to the right slightly I can see a man with glasses who seems to be the leader. He is carrying a long pointer. He points at a white board behind my head, with tiny blue words written at the top: "Ways to make Stephen happier." This whiteboard seems to be the focus of attention, with my head as a practical teaching aid. Underneath the main heading, the board is divided into two section: "Things to expose him to", and "Things to shield him from."
    Who are these people? They aren't wearing white coats like the foot doctors, but they all have some sort of i.d. badges. Try as I might, I can't read the badges, nor the tiny writing that fills up the main part of the whiteboard. All I can read are the headings, "Things to tell him", and "Things to hide from him."
    They said something different before, didn't they? The headings have changed. I turn my head to the side and scan the faces of the miniature people. One of them is crouched down on the pillow and another one is standing beside him, resting her hand on his shoulder. Both of them are watching and listening attentively. I didn't realise it at first, but these are my parents – they are part of the crowd. What are they up to?
    He leader smiles as he points to the next item on the list. The whiteboard is very hard to read from this angle, but I strain to read the headings again.
    A second later the whiteboard blurs out of existence and the people go with it. Dad appears above me with his hand around the dried apricot bag. I only caught a glimpse of the headings before they disappeared, but I think they said, "Lies to tell him" and "Truths to hide from him." I get the feeling that I just slipped into a place where I wasn't meant to go.
    "I'll just put them in your drawer here", said Dad, reaching over me. He hadn't been aware of the time delay. The apricots were still the focus of his attention – they had never disappeared from view, and I took this as an indication that they had remained the focus of my attention too. I don't know if my memory can be trusted on this one.
    Dad leaned back and said "Have you given any thought to what you want to do for the rest of the year?"
    I shook my head.
    "Well", he added, "you know you can do whatever you want to do. It's your choice."
    I nodded. Dad reached into his bag and brought out another piece of paper.
    "I discovered this a few days ago. It's just an idea. Have a read."
    The piece of paper was actually a colourful advertising brochure for something called The Great Queensland Bike Ride. I read the sales pitch – apparently a whole big bunch of cyclists get together and ride cross-country for about a week, and every night they congregate in a designated camping area and set up their tents. Food is provided, along with entertainment and a range of other facilities. The cycle route was described in detail, with poetically worded descriptions of the natural scenery. It all sounded like a nice holiday to be had near the end of the year, something different.
    "What do you think?", asked Dad after a long period of time. "Does that sound like something you'd like to go on?"
    It did sound like a desirable trip, something that would offer a challenge, a sense of belonging, an escape, and I would probably come out of it with a few decent happy memories. I was no stranger to cycling – for years I had been riding to school on my bike. It was a good bike, too, fairly new with eighteen gears. Riding it across the countryside could be fun – it might be fun – it would be –
    "This would be good", I said.
    Of course Dad would be going with me – that went without saying. I could never get out to Queensland by myself. It would not be the first time Dad had taken me out on holiday, just me and him; before my suicide attempt we had gone camping, bushwalking, skiing, and it looked like cycling was his next plan. He wanted to involve me in active, healthy pursuits, especially now that my mental health was in need of a boost. No doubt he had been instructed to seek out activities such as this by the authorities.
    "Yes, I think it sounds like fun", said Dad. "I'm going to arrange to have my work-leave around that time, and we could go up there by train. If you like."
The authorities – they had taught him what to say as he had sat around absorbing information from the whiteboard with the other students. The Great Queensland Bike Ride must have been one of the items on the first list. But what of the second list – the list of things to hide from me? It had been just as long.
    For every beautiful thing that they show you, I told myself, there is something ugly that they're hiding from you.
    Suddenly I became convinced that Dad was hiding something from me, something important. I even suspected this whole Bike Ride thing was a lie, a standard item that he'd lifted straight from the "Lies to tell Stephen" column. Who had produced this glossy brochure? The authorities! They were trying to bend my mind around by deceiving me, and when the time comes for the Bike Ride they would find some loop-hole and re-write what they had said. Bike Ride? It would be cancelled or overshadowed by some terrible darkness that they were hiding from me. The darkness is the truth, the light is a fabrication, and they would twist their words to convince me that they had never been lying.
    "Do you want to go on the Bike Ride?", asked Dad.
    The room was getting hazy around me now – I could almost feel the authorities watching me like they'd watch one of their lab-rats. Everything in the room – the beds, the cupboards, the other two patients, even the nurses passing in the corridor, became parts of a single continuous surface. I saw a glint of reflected light off the scene and realised that none of it was real – it was two-dimensional, like my T.V. screen. Even my feet down the end of the bed had become flat. Then I could see faces of the authorities coming through the glass, distorting it into their own shapes. Their eyes were staring into me. Carol the physiotherapist was there, as was nurse René, Doctor Cantaro and two other quacks. It was time to meet them face to face. They had been behind the scenes all the time; now they had become the scene.
    Once their faces were through the glass, their arms followed suit and advanced even further forward. Then their legs and bodies pushed through, advancing so fast, I flinched back in fear that they were going to kick me. But they were all at a safe distance. Their chairs were arranged in a circle around the room. My chair was a part of that circle, although mine was the only one on wheels. The authorities' eyes were cold and clinical, with that superior glint as if they all knew best.
    "Stephen, what do you want to do with your life?", asked Carol. "What's your plan?"
    I looked out the window. "No plan. I – I don't want to do anything right now, just relax and do nothing. In the future, maybe a bit of painting, a bit of computing, a bit of music, nothing that involves – going out."
    There was a pause, in which Doctor Cantaro gave a derisive sniff and the walls of the interview-room snapped into focus.
    "It's just that if you refuse to walk then you'll be cutting yourself off from so many opportunities. I mean, walking, it's so important to life in general. Your options will be narrowed. Severely."
    "What about the Bike Ride?", interjected Dad, as if trying to get back to the subject. "Don't you want to go on the Bike Ride now?"
    I put my hand to my head and tried to remember whether we had been talking about the Bike Ride two minutes ago or two months ago. "No", I said wearily. "Forget the Bike Ride, I don't want to do that anymore."
    Dad leaned back in disappointment. His instructions, as he had seen them on the whiteboard, had failed to produce to desired effect.
    Doctor Cantaro turned to René, the short, middle-aged nurse. "René, would you say Stephen has been uncooperative with the help we've been giving him?"
    "Well, at first he was just spending too much time in bed", said René in her accented voice. "I encouraged him to get up and walk around when he wasn't doing the therapy program, but he wouldn't cooperate much at all. That was the first inkling I got that he didn't care about his recovery. Then I heard about this thing with him refusing to do his physiotherapy, and I realised that it was more than just apathy – he was against his recovery altogether. We've all tried to talk to him about it, but –" she shrugged.
    "What about hydrotherapy?", asked one of the other doctors. "Did you try taking him down to the pool?"
    "We encouraged him to go to the pool but he said he would refuse to do hydrotherapy, just as he had refused to do physiotherapy. We saw no point in forcing him."
    There was silence in the interview-room. I felt like everyone was giving me accusing stares, even though I wasn't looking at anyone's eyes. They were sending me the irritated vibe. My parents weren't irritated, I knew – they were just worried. But Doctor Cantaro's irritation was big enough to make up for my parents' lack thereof.
    "Stephen", he said at last. "You do realise that you won't be able to keep that wheelchair forever?"
    I just looked at him and frowned.
    "You WILL have to leave it behind when you're discharged. And if you continue with this uncooperative attitude of yours, then your discharge will be very soon. We can't keep you here for long without you making an effort."
    I shook my head, about to answer, but Mum spoke first. "I think the important thing", she said, is that Stephen receives appropriate psychiatric counseling. I mean obviously his main problem is in the mind, isn't it?"
    The doctor looked at her indifferently. "I believe you've already made an appointment with Dr. Watties?"
    "Yes. It's still a few days away."
    "O.K. Well the outcome of that will be uncertain, but there's no reason why Stephen should remain here any longer. Stephen, you'll be discharged tomorrow. Do you understand about the wheelchair?"
    This time I couldn't stay silent. He was waiting for me to answer. I tightened my grip on the armrest, tilted my head forward, and said softly, "I'm keeping the wheelchair."
    The Doctor gave a half-smile as if in amusement. "Stephen, that's not an option. A wheelchair is a rather expensive piece of equipment. We wouldn't mind lending it to you for a short period of time, but what you're asking is that we give it to you – forever – or for an undefined period of time. Unless your parents are willing to buy you a wheelchair in the near future –"
    Mum shook her head on cue. "We wouldn't", she said.
    "Then I'm afraid you're going to have to do without a wheelchair after you leave here."
    My grip on the armrest tightened and the veins stood out on the back of my right hand. My arm was shaking with the tension – the authorities might not have noticed, had the effect not been amplified by the vibrations of my shirt sleeve. The tightness spread to my shoulders and stomach. I spoke in that soft, low voice again: "I'm keeping the wheelchair. I'm holding onto it. You can't take it away from me."
    The authorities looked at me with their clinical detachment. I knew they thought I was crazy, that I was delusional, but I didn't care. They would learn in time of my true power. In a way I was tricking them into believing that I had no plan up my sleeve other than just "holding on." That was the genius of it – lulling them into a false sense of security. I just wished my parents didn't have to be there to see it. They were getting more worried by the second, and embarrassed besides.
    "I think I should be there tomorrow when you leave", said Doctor Cantaro thoughtfully. "Yes, I think that would be best." He uncrossed his legs. "Well, is the meeting finished?"
    The other authorities nodded agreement and they began to get up. No one looked at me. They just shuffled out the door, eager to get back to their various hospital duties. But they would remember this meeting, and someday they would be telling their friends, "I met Stephen Clark on the day before he went public with his powers." Or, "…on the day before he threatened to kill the doctor." Or, "…on the day before he started his homicidal rampage." Whatever. As Mum and Dad took me out into the corridor, I thought about Doctor Cantaro and how he had become a nemesis. When I first met him he wasn't important – I couldn't even remember the first time I had heard his name. It was just this meeting that had put him in the evil category. He obviously didn't give a toss about my mental or physical health – he just wanted me out. I was a malingerer to him. As far as he was concerned, I could spend the rest of my life dragging myself around by clawing at the earth with my hands, unable to walk, unable to roll. And why had he said he wanted to be there when I left? He was going to take time out of his busy schedule, just to personally witness my expulsion from this hospital and make sure the wheelchair was taken away from me. Why? Because he hated my especially, that was why.
    My parents were saying something to me; I wasn't listening. Nothing they said could have any relevance to the situation, because they didn't know what the situation was. They didn't know I had the ultimate weapon concealed in my hand. But they were waiting for me to answer.
    "You don't know what the situation is", I said simply.
    We were entering the patients' quarters now, the room which would be my home for one more night.
    "Then what IS the situation?", asked Mum as we pulled up alongside the bed.
    I put the brakes on and started the wheelchair-to-bed transferal procedure. I wanted to shake my parents off and be alone with my thoughts. "Look, why don't you just go home, relax, stop worrying, and have a sleep on it?"
    "Well that's all very well for you to say", said Dad, "but it's going to be very hard for us to stop worrying about what's going to happen to you. I'm especially worried about tomorrow."
    "I don't know what you're so worried about", said Mum, addressing Dad. "It'll be me who has to pick him up tomorrow. You'll be on a morning shift."
    I drew the blankets up over my pipe-cleaner legs. "Neither of you has to worry. This is my problem, my battle. I'm nineteen years old; I can take care of myself."
    "But you're not well, Stephen."
    My mother's words hung in the air for a second as I wondered whether or not I should contradict her. After all, my legs and feet weren't healthy, but that was not necessarily a bad thing. Before I could make up my mind, I was suddenly struck by the image of my mother and father towering over me, looking at me seriously and presenting a united front – for a moment I became convinced that I really was sick, not only in body but in mind as well. My parents looked like the smallest part of a giant institution which dictated what was normal and what was sick. How could I argue against a collective consciousness of such vast dimensions?
    The illusion breaks and I realise that what I'm looking at is not my parents at all; it's that nameless machine that sits beside my bed eternally. I'm back in the safety of the present.
    My parents seem to be popping up quite a lot in my thoughts lately, obscuring reality. I wonder what became of them. Surely they still exist on some level. I wonder if they know where I am. I had a good relationship with my parents – better than most people, anyway. Maybe I still do. My Dad is an air-traffic controller – he sits in the control tower at Tolhurst airport and tells the planes when to take off and land. I've been with him to the tower a few times, for various reasons – it seems like the sort of job which would be very easy to do, once you know how. Not too boring, either. Every time I think of it, it strikes me that he's found the perfect place to make his own contribution to society – he's found the job that suits him perfectly. My Mum, too, has found her niche in life – she's a secretary in an office job which she plans to stick with until her retirement. They've both found comfortable places for themselves, cooperating with the whole big system of humanity. And what am I doing? Resisting it, fighting to keep some wheelchair. At least I was. What am I doing now? Nothing – just lying here under the ceiling in this timeless place. But that's not my fault. Maybe I have found my niche in life, just like Ma and Pa. This is not so bad. Maybe this is what I was born to do.
    The ceiling above me ripples, as if seen through a layer of disturbed water. It tends to do that sometimes. It's almost as if the room itself is on the other side of an invisible barrier; I am truly alone down here, in a sunken crevice behind my watery shield.
    The T.V. is almost directly above me now. The screen cannot be tilted forward, but if I look up through the water at an angle I can see it. How many people can claim to have watched T.V. underwater? Not many.
    I took the clear plastic cup of water off my face and looked around. It was night time in the ward but everyone was still awake. Janet, the woman in the bed next to mine, was receiving visitors. George, the man in the bed diagonally across from mine, was watching his own T.V. As for the other bed, the one opposite mine, it was empty for the time being. I pushed the T.V. away on its creaky metal arm and raised myself up on my elbows slightly. My feet were peeking out from under the bedclothes at the other end. It had been a long time since they had worn any sort of shoes. Day after day they had lain on their foot pillow, pampered like a royal couple. All hail the feet. It would not be long now before their reign came to an end.
    I turned the television's volume down. The movie wasn't really holding my interest – what I wanted to hear was Janet's conversation with her visitors. Janet had told me earlier that she was going to have her appendix out tonight. Her family and friends had gathered around to support her and every now and then they would drop a mention of food, to tease her in the knowledge that she couldn't eat anything before the operation. She groaned in that hungry way and commented on how cruel they were being. The joke was just beginning to wear off when Anne walked in, accompanied by her father.
    "Hello", she said to everybody.
    I was half afraid she'd never come back.
    "Anne!", called Janet. "Where've you been?"
    "I've just been at home", replied Anne as everyone turned their heads to see her. "I was on weekend leave. How are you?"
    "Oh, I'm O.K., but I'm going to have an operation tonight."
    "What? No way! Really?"
I glanced sideways at Anne as she found herself a vacant spot at Janet's bedside, and for the hundredth time I reminded myself how lucky I was to be in the same room as her. Anne was even younger than me – barely old enough to be in the adult ward. She was beautiful and vivacious. Everyone was friends with her. Apparently she had some sort of problem with her glands and that's why she was here, but you couldn't tell it by looking at her. Anne – and, to a lesser extent, Janet and George – were providing me with enough positive vibes to qualify this era as a golden age. These were the days I would look back to, whenever I needed a reminder of what was so great about being in Marramlake Hospital. I wouldn't remember Claudia with her annoying towel habits, nor the painful syringes, nor the frustrating delays that preceded my wheelchair. I would remember this – three friends in one room, Janet, Anne and George. And me. Even though I was just the observer, I still felt a sense of belonging.
    Anne finished her discussion with Janet and her visitors, and turned around. I was sure she would go straight to her own bed, but instead she came over to me.
    "So how are you, Stephen?", she said, perching herself on the edge of my mattress.
    She had never been this close to me before.
    "Fine", I replied. It was my automatic response – all I could manage under the circumstances. The girl was overpowering. She was like heat from a fire drifting over to me on a cold winter's day. I wanted that moment to last and last, just to have her sitting on the edge of my bed for hours.
    "Have you been walking at all?", she asked.
    "Oh, I've been putting my feet down a bit, taking a few steps." Anne nodded. I was too full of wonder and euphoria to even think of saying anything more – I knew she would leave soon if I didn't hold up my end of the conversation, but I didn't want to spoil the moment with the pain of communicating.
    "Well that's good", she said, and then she got up and left. The moment was ended. The fire was out, although the warmth still lingered for a few minutes afterward. Anne was across the room talking to George, and I could see already that George would be getting more of Anne's attention than I had. George was friendly. Friendliness was a gift. I wondered what I might have said to Anne to make her stay longer.
    Forget about it, Stephen, I thought. You wouldn't be able to handle Anne's attention for more than ten seconds. Just be content that you didn't say anything stupid while she was that close.
    I nodded and took a sip from my water tumbler. The liquid was cool and fresh. I laid my head down on the mattress and laid the base of the cup over my eyes once again. Then, I brought the T.V. into position.
    You could have mentioned that you're going to be transferred to the Rehabilitation Centre in a few days, I thought. That's one thing you could have said to prolong the encounter.
    
The ripples flow –
    Wait a minute, stop. Rewind.
    You're going to be transferred to the Rehabilitation Centre in a few days.
    That's it! That's a clue. I'm pretty sure these events took place on April third, the day I will always remember as being the best day of my life. If that was just a few days before I was transferred then my transferal must have been – when? April the sixth? The seventh? Whatever. The main thing is that I went straight from Marramlake Hospital to the Rehabilitation Centre without going home in between, and I didn't stay in the Centre for more than a week or two. If I can work that out, then I can work anything out.
    What am I going to work out next? I think I need to get back to Melissa. What was she planning? Did her plans ever come to fruition? What did she do? Melissa is my sister. She –
    She is in the skin-care products selling business.
    She invited me out to the restaurant.
    She bought me a milkshake.
    She asked me about my powers –
    "If you want to make the best of it, then you ought to be discrete about it."
    That's not right! She didn't ask me about my –
    "About what?"
    "About you powers."
    No! Fight it! We've got to take control! It's my own head!
    "Why?"
    "You know there are laws in this country about firearms."
    Nnnnnnnnggg – can't remember where I was going –
    "I don't think they apply to me."
    The Doctor raised an eyebrow. "Why not?"
    "'Cause my gun is different. It's magical."
    "But what if the police don't see it that way?", asked the Doctor. "You could well find yourself locked in a bullet-proof cell. For the rest of your life. Your powers won't do you any good there."
    I shook my head. "I don't think they have a cell strong enough to hold me. That gun I showed you yesterday – it was pretty small, but I can do bigger. I haven't fully tested my powers to the limit yet."
    Doctor Cantaro shrugged. "Big gun, small gun – whatever. If they don't have a cell strong enough, they can build one. They do have the resources. I mean, you can't claim that you're stronger than the whole system of law enforcement."
    Already I was glancing up at the office ceiling, trying to estimate how much firepower I could fit in here. "I don't know", I said. "I might be. It depends on where the limit is. I feel like I've only ever used a tiny fraction of my power. Let me form the gun again, and I'll show you."
    I held out my hand and tensed it up. Once again my will transformed the flesh and bone into metal – this time it was a much simpler gun, with no trigger. The whole thing ached with pleasure – I touched the barrel with my other hand and it felt warm. Deep inside, the living bullet rested firmly against a sensitive part of my hand, and I could sense its eagerness once again but this time I had to put aside any thoughts of shooting.
    "Careful with that thing, don't point it at me –"
    I sent a wave of psychological energy up my arm and the gun doubled in size. It felt no heavier than before. I repeated the process and the gun grew again. Then I realised I was doing this the hard way – it required no physical effort in the muscles of my arm, and I didn't need to do it in "waves" – all it took was the conscious will from my brain. With the gun pointed to an upper corner of the office, I looked at it and made it grow. It grew in width as well as length, and in just a few seconds it was a throbbing, shining tube of metal which took up nearly all of the air space in the doctor's office. The bullet was larger, too – I had a feeling that it could have demolished a large section of the wall, and it was longing to do just that. My head was flooded with the thrill of potential power within, but the thrill was somewhat incomplete as long as I had to restrain myself. The growth stopped.
    Doctor Cantaro was sitting there cowering with his mouth slightly ajar. I looked at him, then back up to the gun which was quivering slightly in its four walled prison. I could almost hear the weightless metal moaning to me, don't stop now! Make it bigger! You could make it as big as the whole hospital! Forget the walls!
    The gun put on another growth spurt and one of the sharp edges of the barrel scraped the wall, as I had become momentarily careless. It left a mark. Doctor Cantaro threw up his hands.
    "Wait – stop –"
    Time has come to a halt.
 
*    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    

 
"O.K., I'm still alive. It's been so long since I wrote in you, you probably thought I was dead, but I survived. Ten weeks in hospital and all that time I didn't ask anyone to bring in the diary. Why? Just lazy I guess. I'll probably regret it later. But you're here now and I'll try to get back into the diary writing routine. You've missed so much –"
    
Deeper still in the night and all the televisions were off. My pen scratched in my own personal pool of light; I had asked the nurse specially to let me leave the overhead lamp on while I wrote. Janet's lamp was on too – some of her visitors were still present.
    "This is a good day to resume", I wrote. "Because I think this was the best day of my life. This is the day when all the goodness came together. For a start, I got myself a new wheelchair. My old one was a lemon – it didn't have any hand-rails so I had to wheel it by the tyres, and that meant my fingers were constantly getting jammed in the brakes. The brakes themselves didn't work – one side was too soft, the other was too hard, and then of course the wheels were out of alignment. Today I finally complained about it and they got me a new one."
    
The sound of light sobbing drifted across from Janet's bed, and I realised that she was breaking down. I glanced over at her downcast face and quickly looked away. Her family had started with the encouraging comments, trying to placate her fears, but it was no use. She was scared terrified, of the coming operation. In just a few minutes the orderlies would be taking her down to the operating theatre, and there her appendix would be taken out. Even the knowledge that she would be asleep was no consolation. I picked up the pen and continued to write slowly.
    "Later the cool social worker Shelley took me out for a tour of the Geoffrey Furborugh Block and we hung out downstairs, in the lobby – I don't know why that gave me such a thrill, just a change of scene I guess. Later we went back to the ward and Shelley asked me if I'd play something on the synth for her, so I did. She liked it when I played "Music of the Night." I wish Anne had been there to hear it. But first I ought to explain who Anne is – she –"
    
I broke off the sentence to gaze across at Anne, who was looking rather worried. Janet was still crying. Her family's comforting words seemed to have no effect. I looked at my own feet and just listened to the gentle sounds of sorrow, let them wash over me. It seemed to me that there was something very beautiful about Janet's lament, just the sound of it – I wanted to listen to it more. Not that I wished Janet to be more sad, but it was a nice sound. Some distant voice reminded me that I wasn't supposed to be gaining enjoyment from someone else's pain.
    What am I supposed to do then?, I asked. Get worried about it, like Anne? I can't force myself to worry. I decided to pick up the diary where I left off.
    "– is the eighteen year old chick in the bed opposite mine. I am fortunate to be in her company. She was out on weekend leave until –"
    It was no use. I couldn't write when this was going on. It was much too interesting. I wondered what it would be like to be scared of an operation. To me it was unimaginable – I had had some surgery done on my left foot a couple of months ago, but it had never crossed my mind to be scared. It was a very peaceful experience. My parents had been somewhat worried, of course, but that was because they cared about me more than I cared about myself. Maybe that's why I hadn't been scared – because I just didn't care about whether they botched it or not.
    The orderlies were transferring Janet onto a trolley now, and she was crying as they did it. Her family members were showing their concern. Anne called out to her.
    "Janet, don't worry. Five seconds before you go under, you'll burst out laughing, I know – that's what happened to me."
    Janet's visitors stayed in orbit around her while the trolley started on its journey. Looking at the terrified woman being taken away, I couldn't picture her bursting out laughing any time in the near future.
    The sobs faded off into the distance. I started to get back to the best-day-of-my-life diary entry, but it wasn't long before the night nurse was calling for lights out. I put the diary in my bed-side drawer, adjusted the back of my bed so that it was no longer raised, and snuggled my head down into the soft yet waterproof pillow. Somewhere far below in the active hub of the institution, Janet was falling asleep too.
 
back    chapter 3    chapter 5