Short Romance: Thiago goes into cardiac arrest on the operating room table. Clara has been in a catastrophic car accident. That’s only the beginning.
Code Blue is a 6,000 word short story originally published under the title “White” in Moonlight, Monsters & Magic: A Paranormal Sexy Shorts Collection (2018).
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Soul mates. Christmas story. Heat Level 1.
By Sera Taíno
My attending nurse pushed my hospital bed relentlessly toward the operating room. I was under the care of Dr. Avery Major, one of the youngest and most successful cardiologists in the country—or so my mother told anyone she met. His team was attempting an emergency open-heart surgery on my weak heart, though the incongruence of possessing a heart in need of repair at the age of twenty-eight still left me burning with the unfairness of it all.
When the gurney stopped, a group of masked faces loomed over me, while somewhere out of sight, I heard the clanging of instruments, most likely the ones that would be used to cut me open. I swallowed hard against the fear-induced nausea that rose in my throat.
“Here we are, Thiago,” Dr, Major said, patting my hand with a joviality bordering on the inappropriate given my precarious footing on the line between life and death. I was a young man confronting the specter of my demise, a prospect that didn’t invite humor. However, I passed on the opportunity to give voice to my annoyance and politely returned his greeting. We knew each other well enough after dealing with my heart condition for the last two years. If I died, I didn’t want to leave the mortal world in a fit of pique with someone who was so clearly happy. That’s no way to greet eternity, I thought as the mask descended over my face and I slipped into the dreamless darkness of a medically induced sleep.
When I woke, I expected disorientation—a feeling I knew well from my multiple surgeries. Instead, I was frightfully alert. I passed my hand over my chest in search of the tangle of IVs and heart monitor leads, but they were not attached. The staples in my sternum were in place, but the soft skin beneath was free of swelling and pain. To my surprise, I was able to sit up without the hint of dizziness.
I stared at an unfamiliar room. The walls and floors gleamed white, with surfaces as sleek as stainless steel, so bright, they shimmered as if they could take form or dissolve at a moment’s notice. The long, wide room contained straight lines of hospital beds, some empty, some occupied with other patients like me, in varying stages of sleep, wakefulness, or confusion. I wore my hospital gown and a remarkably fashionable pair of house slippers in a classic Burberry design. A mystery, as I had not worn slippers going into the surgery and could only assume my mother had put them on at some point.
My weak heart, long-protected from surges of strong emotion, pounded wildly in my chest. My breath came short and shallow. I wasn’t where I was supposed to be. One of the orderlies, a gruff man of about fifty with dark, silver-streaked hair and sharp gray eyes passed at the foot of my bed. He wore a white tunic with a peculiar feathery cape dragging behind him. I waved to capture his attention.
“Excuse me? Where am I?”
He halted, peering down at me, then at a chart in front of him. “You haven’t been checked in yet, have you?”
I spread my hands in confusion. “Checked in for what? Is this post-op?”
The man’s eyes widened before he burst into guffaws of laughter. “No, no, no,” he drawled. “You aren’t in the OR, or anywhere near where you’ve been before. You’re in The Waiting Room until we figure out where you need to go.”
“The Waiting Room? Am I in another ward of the hospital?”
“Hospital? No! Now pay attention. You’re in The Waiting Room. The. Waiting. Room.” He repeated each word as if I were hard of hearing. “Your kind have many names for this place but you might recognize it as Purgatory.”
My confusion must have been broadcast across my face because he added, “Not particularly religious, are you, boy?”
Disbelief, then terror settled in my heart. Maybe I was dead, and I would finally get the reckoning I deserved after years of agnosticism or occasional, outright atheism. “Not very.”
“It’s where mortals who aren’t quite dead or alive come to wait until their souls figure it out. Now let me get Ms. Betty. She’ll be able to check you in properly.” He searched the room and called out, “Betty! Here’s another one.”
A blonde woman in similar attire sashayed her way towards my bed, gesticulating at her clipboard as she spoke. “Viktor, I didn’t see this one come in.” She flicked her hand with a limp wrist that she insisted on flinging about as she flipped through her chart.
“Oh, yes. Thiago Limeira, aged twenty-eight, came in during an open-heart surgery.” She wrinkled her nose and tutted. “Surgery. Ugh.” Her agitation caused her “cape” to undulate of its own accord and before I knew it, a pair of giant wings unfurled behind her—broad, white, feathery wings that shivered the way a bird’s did when it ruffled its feathers before settling into place again. I stared, dumbfounded, as she waved her hand over my chart.
“I’ll have to ask you to follow me, Mr. Limeira,” she said as she floated away. I scrambled behind her into another room, just as white as the one I’d left. My brain had given up processing this reality, leaving me to lurch from place to place as I took in the state of my environment. Vaulted ceilings stretched high above our heads, buttresses soaring like enormous winged birds frozen in mid-flight. Gigantic windows stretched from floor to ceiling, outside of which was visible an endless panorama of blue skies and bulbous white clouds in every direction, as far as the eye could see.
Plush chairs and sofas formed a sitting area around small tables piled high with books and magazines. The most extraordinary feature, though, was a labyrinth of mammoth bookcases that towered up to the vaulted ceiling, stopping at the buttresses above, filled with every kind of book imaginable. The contrast in color of the various book-bindings and spines against the whiteness was shockingly vivid, mitigated only by the natural light streaming in from the large windows and the warm glow of strategically placed lamps.
“You’ll wait here until you are told which door you may pass through,” she said before turning to walk away.
“Wait!” I said, recovering my wits. “I have no idea what’s going on. Doors and rooms and angel wings?” The panic in my voice echoed in the lofty space, while fear cascaded through me, constricting my lungs.
“Purgatory? I need to know where I am and when I can get discharged from here.”
Betty sat on a divan and pulled me down next to her. She flopped her wrist, patting my hand delicately. “At this very moment, you are experiencing a complication from your surgery, resulting in a Code Blue. You’ve entered into a semi-comatose state in which your soul has left your body but isn’t quite severed from the realm of the living.” She smiled, attempting to reassure me. “Your doctors are working very hard to revive you, and your body is not so far gone that it has given up on you. If they are successful, you will leave The Waiting Room and return home through that door there.” She indicated with a tilt of her head toward an ornate white door on the opposite wall. “Otherwise, you will leave through the blue door and go on your way.”
I stared at the blue door, a large brass handle reflecting the perpetual whiteness of the place, and shivering at the idea of what lay beyond. The concepts of heaven and hell played no role in my day-to-day existence, nor did the general uncertainty of all things metaphysical interfere with the enjoyment of my life. However, this experience called into question everything I believed. I considered the possibility that I might be having an elaborate hallucination, experiencing some alternate state of consciousness in high resolution.
Ms. Betty stood, gathering her clipboard. “Now, you wait here. We’ll keep you posted on your progress. Feel free to relax or read a book from the library. Every piece of writing that has been written or will be written is on those shelves. Just think about what you would like to read, and it will appear.” She closed her eyes as if demonstrating the technique before her eyes flew open and she clapped in excitement. “It’s the neatest thing!” She floated back to the anteroom to attend to other patients.
I swallowed my panic, attempting to admire the books and dredge up some modicum of the joy I once took in their company. Under normal circumstances, finding myself before a collection of every book ever conceived or to be written would have been a temptation without limits, but my agitation prevented me from settling down enough to read. My mind struggled to comprehend this new reality and failed. I paced, pausing every so often to ponder the two closed doors and what lay beyond.
As I continued my pacing, convinced that my eternal punishment had begun through forced confinement in this infernal white room, I heard unsure footsteps behind me. I turned to see a young woman of about my age standing in the doorway. Rather than my hospital gown, she wore a pair of tight jeans, medium length boots, and a green cotton sweater that hung off her shoulder. She scanned the room. When her eyes fell on me, she approached and I nearly forgot where I was.
Her eyes were a deep violet I’d never seen before, her irises rimmed with a solid dark outline that made the color pop out. They contrasted with her olive-colored skin. Waves of tousled brown hair tumbled over her exposed shoulder.
She tilted her head and we each stared at the other. I stared because she was striking, and she stared because there could be nothing more arresting than a man in an open-backed hospital nightgown and plaid house slippers. I resisted the urge to dive behind the settee. To her credit, she managed to keep a straight face.
“Excuse me, but is this The Waiting Room?” she asked, and I felt a furious blush creep over my skin at the shallowness of my previous thoughts. We both had more serious problems than my attire. I remained rigid, several seconds ticking by before I finally convinced my mouth to work.
“It is. I guess … you’re waiting too?”
She relaxed, exhaling. “That’s what that Viktor guy …” she jabbed towards the door behind her with her thumb. “That’s what he said.” I observed how the realization of this new state burdened her in much the same way it did me and, while I pitied her, I was also relieved that I was no longer alone.
“I’m Thiago,” I said, extending a hand.
“Clara. Pleasure to meet you.” Her hand rested, warm and silky, in my palm. What were the social conventions between two wayward souls in a place like this? Her touch aroused images of physical pleasure, the joy of skin against skin, reminding me that I was still alive. The thoughts also mortified me with their inappropriateness and I pulled my hand away before she could read them on my face.
“It would probably be a greater one if it weren’t for the circumstances,” I said, making every effort to not sound like the bodiless pervert I was.
She lapsed into silence, lost in her own thoughts. Many minutes passed, though time was fluid and difficult to determine here. I was at a loss for how to proceed under such extraordinary circumstances and nearly gave up any hopes of conversation when she spoke again.
“You know,” she said as she straightened her sweater, the smooth glow of her skin distracting me. “It’s kind of, I don’t know … anticlimactic, don’t you think?”
I smiled. “You mean the fact that there are no singing angels flying around with harpsichords, greeting us at the pearly white gates?” I chuckled and watched in amazement as her frown softened, altering the lineaments of her small face.
“Well, they got the white part down, I’ll give them that,” Clara answered. Her eyes fell on the towers of books lining the wall of the room. “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library,” she said, almost to herself.
“You like Borges,” I said. She was beautiful—breathtaking, even—and she could quote Borges. If I’d ever come close to falling madly in love with a stranger, it would have been for these reasons alone.
She turned toward me, smiling as she nodded, and my weak heart lunged. I didn’t half mind being in this place if I could keep company with someone like her.
“How did you get here?” she asked, interrupting my thoughts.
I indicated with my hand towards two plush chairs and invited her to sit. “I’m being operated on as we speak. I guess the procedure … didn’t agree with me.” I smirked. “They’re trying to revive me. You?”
She sighed. “I was driving home from work. Running late, as usual, because I had to pick up cat food for Maria’s cat. Maria is my cousin, and I’m supposed to be housesitting. The last thing I remember is a truck and bright lights—”
“Car accident,” I interjected.
“A bad one, from what I gathered. At Christmas time, no less. I came to a few times, but then they put me under and I woke up here.”
I remembered the mask descending over my face, the slide into unconsciousness, the jarring confusion upon waking to the wonders of a working body, and an existential mystery. We were nothing but souls in transit, stuck at a waystation, moving neither forward nor backward. My fate, I had always believed, was mine to make. However, when it mattered most, such a consequential transition from life and death ultimately had nothing to do with me.
“I hope I don’t die,” she blurted.
“I know. I kind of enjoy living too.”
She chuckled, then grew sober. “It’s more than that. My parents don’t have anyone else besides me.” She rubbed her palms along the length of her thighs and my eyes followed the trajectory made by them. “If it was me alone, I could even resign myself to it. But children … they should never leave before their parents.”
Seized with an unexpected boldness, I took her hand. She didn’t protest, but instead, gripped mine in turn. “If we’re still here, that means there’s still some hope of going home, right?”
She nodded briskly, taking a deep breath to steady herself. I pulled my hand away, just in time to feel a tear land on the back of one. She swiped at her cheek and I pretended to ignore it. “Do you have any family?” she asked.
I rubbed at the tear as if I could massage its essence into my skin. “My parents and my brother.” I imagined the implacable way my mother was probably demanding that I live, my father’s tenderness, and my brother hovering close, all clueless as to what would happen next. “But I have my writing, too.”
“A writer? Any famous books I should know about?” she asked with real curiosity.
“No, not at all. But I’d hoped, one day … In the meantime, I work as a freelance journalist to make a living. I like it. I’m doing what I love, which is more than most people can say.” How to explain the acute awareness of my mortality that my writing provoked: the growing understanding that now I might never have enough time to develop into the type of writer I wanted to be.
Clara stretched out her hand and showed me her calloused fingertips. “I teach, but I’m also a rock climber. I’m pretty good at it.” Despite their bumps and bruises, I admired their elegant strength. “I actually won a few competitions.”
“Impressive,” she repeated, glancing at me with eyes gone hard as flint. “And ironic that I hang off the sides of rocks but I’d meet my end on the I-75. I don’t want to be selfish. I mean, I’ve been lucky in a lot of things. But … I’m not done with life.”
I offered her my hand again, which she took, unfurling her fingers and capturing mine in turn with a grip that spoke of both her determination and desperation. I understood because I felt this fear too, a paralysis that threatened to strangle me. I glanced at the blue door, which drew her eyes also.
I wasn’t ready either. I think no one is ever really ready and it’s this fact that renders life precious beyond measure, with all its fragility and finiteness. We clutch at life as if clinging to fog, grasping at what we could never truly hold. I didn’t want to give up, but neither did I want to drown in fear, something which I was very much in danger of doing.
I glanced around me, remembering the stacks that towered over us. “Books,” I said, pointing to the first giant bookcase with one hand, while grasping the opening at the back of my gown with the other as I stood. “I know we’ve only just met, but I feel I should confess that I had no say in the dress code.”
“Oh!” Clara noticed, perhaps for the first time, the predicament of my dressing gown. She dissolved into giggles which began low and husky until they grew so loud, they bounced off the walls and ricocheted against the buttresses, filling the empty, hollow space. A discharge of tension more than true mirth, the sound was lovely all the same. “That’s no way to meet St. Peter!” She laughed again; it was no longer laughter but music, like the call of angels. I couldn’t help but laugh along with her.
“I bet you could change into whatever you want to,” she added, openly admiring my legs beneath the gown.
I looked down at myself also, instantly regretting the reminder of my slippers.“It never occurred to me.”
She stood winking at me. “Let me try it.” She closed her eyes and, without warning, she shimmered before me, her jeans and sweater melting, replaced by a green and white polka dot summer dress, her slender arms revealed by spaghetti straps. The hem stopped just above her knee; long, shapely legs ended in simple white sandals.
“You’re beautiful,” I murmured, unable to take my eyes off her. She looked down at herself and smiled in satisfaction.
“Now, you,” she said.
I shook my head. “I’m a putz at dressing myself.”
“Then let me.” She stepped forward. “I’m new at this, so if you end up in a potato sack, you’ll have to forgive me in advance.”
I shivered at her touch. “Anything is better than this getup.”
Clara closed her eyes again and my gown shimmered into non-existence, replaced by a light blue, striped dress shirt and jeans. She opened her eyes and stepped closer to undo the top button of my shirt. Her forehead was just at my chin, and when she lifted her eyes to look into mine, our noses were close enough to touch. I swallowed hard, and her eyes followed the movement of my bobbing Adam’s apple.
“Do you want to see yourself?” she rasped, her voice unsteady.
I shook my head. “I trust you.”
Her lips parted, her breath fanning out over my skin. With a boldness I did not normally possess, I lowered my lips to hers, brushing over her tender skin. Her breath hitched but she pressed her lips against mine in one of those passes that was more a touch than a kiss before pulling away. In another context, my lack of restraint would have horrified me. But we were trapped between life and the afterlife, and so far, we’d discovered no impediments except perhaps death, which had, in both of our cases, decided not to come yet.
I cleared my throat. “I bet I know what you like to read.” I turned toward the bookshelf. I closed my eyes, and as Betty had instructed, thought very hard of a book. When I opened them again, the spine stood before me. Soft, worn leather, laced in gold trim, the edges of the pages painted the color of tinsel. I pulled the supple volume from the shelf and experienced the pleasure of holding something hefty, solid yet so infinite, and I understood how men could go mad in a labyrinth of endless words.
I turned and handed the book to Clara. She took the tome carefully, her slender fingers gliding over the cover. She read the title and smiled, nodding in approval. I lifted the cover and flipped to one of the pages before reading aloud:
“The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me, he complains
of my gab and my loitering.
“I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
“I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.”
Clara set the book down and looked at me, the fear gone from her eyes. Her serenity filled me with inexplicable joy, and I wondered briefly how it would feel to be responsible for the happiness of someone like her.
“How did you guess I’d be a Whitman kind of girl?” she asked playfully, sitting down on a large white settee, making room for me also.
“I don’t know. There’s Borges, of course, who loved Whitman. The rock climbing. The unpretentious way you have about you.” I swallowed, and a tingle raced over my scalp, flooding the skin of my neck and back. “I imagine you hanging off the side of a mountain, as close to freedom as anyone can get.” I stopped myself, turning my gaze away from her. “I’m sorry. Under normal circumstances, I would never be so effusive, but given the limited nature of our time in this room, keeping my dignity is not enough to motivate me to shut up.”
Clara smiled, warm and humorous. “You’re a funny one, you know that? Here. Let me give it a try.” She closed her eyes and, another softly bound volume appeared on the shelf. She reached over to take it, balancing it in her open hand while she thumbed the pages until she found what she was looking for and read it to me.
“Hope is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all -”
“An optimist? Is that what you’re accusing me of?” I asked as she handed me the book. I left my thumb on the poem she’d read while flipping through the pages of Dickinson’s untitled works. I wondered briefly if there were poems here that no one had ever read before.
“Yes,” she said, gently. “You’ve been nothing but encouraging since I arrived. Thank you.”
I opened my mouth to speak, to tell her that she had added something immeasurable to my life, or post-life, or whatever this state was, but I experienced a powerful pull, like an invisible hand grasping the top of my head, tugging hard at it. It frightened me—as if I was being drawn away by a giant magnet. Clara caught my expression and grasped my hand.
“Are you okay?”
“I’m not sure,” I choked out. Viktor floated into the room.
“Okay, boy. They’ve sorted you out. It’s time to get you back home.”
Clara and I stiffened at the same time. I finally understood what was happening, and a wild thing unfurled inside of me. “They’ve revived me, haven’t they?”
“Yep, but you have to get going now. We can’t hold things up for you.”
The savage thing inside of me exploded. I needed more time to talk to Clara, to understand who she was and what other things could make her happy. I needed to know everything about her, but in a place where time was infinite, ours had quickly run out. I gripped her shoulders, not caring if I squeezed too hard.
“Hurry! What hospital are you in?” I asked, my heart pounding in a way that would have been dangerous if I were in my body.
“South … Southside General,” she exclaimed, her eyes wide with fear again.
Relief burst through me. “Me too. When I wake up, I’ll find you.”
“No you won’t,” growled Viktor. “Neither of you will remember what happened here.” He tugged impatiently at my arm with a vise-like grip that exceeded human strength.
“But I don’t want to forget.” I turned towards her, my voice breaking. “I need to remember you.”
“Rules are rules.” Viktor’s words bludgeoned my hope. “That’s just the way things are around here.”
Clara moved in a daze, following us as Viktor dragged me out of the room. When he opened the door, she came to life and blocked us from going further.
“Good bye, Thiago!” she said, hesitating before closing the space between us and pressing her lips hard against mine. Ignoring Viktor’s death grip on my arm, I wrapped the other around her and gave myself over to the abandon of kissing. My tongue grazed her soft lips, the electricity of sudden desire warring with terror when her lips parted, deepening our kiss. It was everything I imagined it would be. She smelled like summer and tasted of things that would never come to pass.
“Alright, now. Let him go. We’ve put the universe on hold here,” Viktor admonished, though somewhat more gently, while his wings ruffled restlessly. I had no choice but to release her and allow myself to be dragged toward the white door, the door that would take me home and away from Clara for all of eternity.
The light of the hospital room blinded me, and I thought how happy I would be if someone shut the curtains. Even with my eyes closed, the glare was strong, but I was too weak to turn my head away.
Time meandered aimlessly; the outside world entered my awareness in stages. I wasn’t always alone—I sensed another presence in the room. At length, I found the strength to turn my head and search for my mysterious companion, but I discovered an empty hospital room. It went on like this for an indefinite amount of time—the sun waxed and waned through the window, sometimes blotted by sheets of falling snow, until one day, everything took hold and I remembered where I was again.
During those lost nights, I dreamed of a beautiful dark-haired girl. Her tight blue jeans and long green sweater that slipped off her dark shoulders morphed into a summer dress of whispering softness. I watched her speak; I studied her smoky, purple-blue eyes; I listened to her laughter and the poetry of her soul. The dream recurred so many times that when I finally woke, I couldn’t be certain if she had simply been a figment of my imagination or a memory of a time lost to oblivion. Her name, when I struggled through parched lips to speak it, provoked a wave of loss for something I was certain I’d never had.
I had never known anyone by that name. Yet, it was as familiar to me as my own.
I feared I would never hear it again.
“And a lovely Christmas Eve to you, Thiago!” said Dr. Major as he came to check my chart. My family had left for the night, much to my relief. They had spent most of the evening with me, decorating my room, serving eggnog, and watching Ben-Hur on the hospital-issued television, but I was still tired from the surgery and wanted nothing more than to settle in with one of my new books and have a good read. When the doctor came in, I gave him a polite nod, too worn out to carry on another conversation, I returned to my reading. My eyes were drooping, and I knew my Christmas Eve would soon end.
He set the chart on the table. “Let’s see what’s going on with your sutures.”
As he examined the surgical entry point, my gaze wandered over to my miniature Christmas tree. It was a real evergreen, potted and heavily adorned. Underneath lay gifts left by everyone in my family and a handful of friends who’d come to visit. They had been generous; it paid to have surgery around Christmas.
“How are you feeling when you walk?” Dr. Major asked.
“A little dazed, still, but I can manage it. It’s a good thing I have my ride.” I pointed toward the wheelchair decorated with tinsel and small gold ornaments.
“Mom?” asked the doctor inquisitively.
I sighed sheepishly. “She loves doing things like that. She makes decorations, ceramics, pottery, and origami. You name it, she can craft it.”
Dr. Major laughed, making notes on his chart. “Well, I’ll be on duty tonight, so if you need anything at all, just give the nurse a call. You got that?”
“Got it, thanks,” I said as he left to complete his rounds.
I returned to my book. After two chapters, my eyes drifted shut. As usual, I fell asleep without knowing at what point I’d lost consciousness. I dreamed of the mysterious girl in a white room full of bookshelves that reached the ceiling. My head lay on her lap; one of her hands threaded through my hair, the other held the book she was reading to me, and even in the dream, conflicting feelings of contentment and desire wreaked havoc on me. I missed her, though I couldn’t place who she was. My confusion jarred me so much that I woke with a start, disconcerted from a melancholy that would not settle on any one thing. I was missing something integral to my well-being, but I didn’t know what it was.
The sense of not being alone struck me again. I searched the room. Assuming it was a nurse who’d come and gone, I almost missed the strange package that sat beneath my tree, one that had not been there before. Careful not to pull at my staples, I swung off the edge of the bed and slid on my slippers – fluffy things in a Burberry print that didn’t belong to me but were vaguely familiar. I crossed the space between my bed and the tree, panting as if I’d crossed the Death Zone on Mount Everest.
I picked up the package, wrapped in heavy white paper and tied with a simple gold ribbon. The purity and unwrinkled quality of the wrapping defied description. Curiosity got the best of me, and I carefully undid it.
Beneath the wrapping was a book of bound, supple leather and gold trim entitled Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. As I returned to my bed, something tugged at the corner of my mind like a veil tightened by a rope whose knot was fast coming undone. I flipped through the smooth pages, the black letters flickering like a living flame beneath my fingers.
The veil lifted slightly, and the memory of a girl’s kiss assaulted me. As I searched the vastness of the words before me for something that would dispel the fog of forgetfulness and bring clarity, I pulled a small folded note which served as a makeshift bookmark. I read the verses before me:
“The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me, he complains
of my gab and my loitering.
“I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
“I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.”
My hands shook as images tumbled through me, images from my dreams that appeared so real. I knew with clarity that I’d experienced them in this life, this reality. Shaking my head to clear out the visions, I unfolded the note and read it.
“Merry Christmas. Make your life a good one, – V”
Like the breaking open of a sealed chest, my mind flew open. She came to me in a white room filled with books where, for the briefest moments, we had buffered each other against our most primitive terrors. The stopped heart, the winged orderlies, the windows that looked out onto eternity, and the preposterous events that I’d not only lived but also shared with another soul—a soul that had become so rooted within mine, even the spell of amnesia couldn’t keep her from appearing in my dreams.
I mashed down the call button that lay next to me on the bed, impatient to resolve everything. Dr. Major, who had not left the ward, came rushing in, expecting to find who knows what.
“Are you okay?” he asked, scanning my face, searching perhaps for signs that my frailty had caved under the pressures of my still-healing heart.
“It’s Christmas Eve, doctor. Would you like to grant a wish to a half-dead man?”
Thankfully, Dr. Major granted me a few minutes alone that I’d requested. Clara was nothing like I remembered her in The Waiting Room. She lay unconscious on a bed similar to mine, her arms and legs suspended in a prison of white plaster casts. Her head was bandaged, the luxurious brown hair a tangled disarray on the pillow. Dr. Major was right: she’d suffered nearly fatal wounds and it was a miracle she’d survived.
It both shocked and filled me with tenderness that the beautiful, witty girl I’d met in The Waiting Room was the same one who now lay broken before me, the stark white of the hospital linens highlighting each purple bruise and angry contusion. I desperately wanted to take care of her, tell her we’d miraculously delayed entry through the blue door for a little while longer; ask her if she wanted to spend that earned time with me.
Something captured my attention, drawing me closer to the bed. Next to her unbandaged arm rested a book like mine. My hands shook at the realization that her volume of Emily Dickinson’s poems had likely slipped onto the bed when she’d fallen asleep reading it, much as I had done. In her small hand she clutched the corner of a slip of paper. I knew, without her having to open it, who it was from and what it said. Even then, I had a moment of hesitation: it wasn’t every day that people met their soulmates in Purgatory.
As I absently stroked the pages of the book, her eyes fluttered open. The quick intelligence which had captivated me from the moment they’d settled on me in that strange, immortal room, lit up her face. My heart, which could not endure the force of so much expectation, sputtered painfully in my chest. She blinked several times to clear her vision, the dim light of the lamp perhaps too harsh for her. I stood from my wheelchair and carefully switched off the lamp over her bed, leaving us in the half-glow of a small fluorescent light above the sink behind us. This movement drew her eyes toward me. I was close to bursting with happiness, grateful to whomever had designed the universe for decreeing that I should belong to her. For at that moment, I understood why my life had been given back to me.
If only she would remember.
“Merry Christmas, Clara,” I said slowly, resting my fingers over hers.
She searched my face briefly. A flash of confusion erupted, then passed over her like a gentle wave. The recognition transformed her, and she gave me a tired smile. Her hand floundered weakly as she said through parched lips, “Merry … Christmas … Thiago …”