One unnumbered night in the K wing, Aiden woke up with a full bladder. His bedmate seemed to gain weight when she slept. Sliding out from under her always took time that tested his bladder’s patience.
She was awake when he came back to bed. She was on her side, facing him, her stare as icy as ever.
He returned to his place, the two of them in a full square spotlight of moon.
Where her eyes were motionless, his eyes roamed her face from the scalp where the smallest hairs began to part, to her wisps of eyebrows, down to her dark lips with their suggestion of dimples in the corners.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
Before he woke up, he was dreaming that they were in school together. Same class. The teacher introduced her to the classroom, but drew a blank when it came to announcing her name. Her class assignments were turned in without a name. Others asked Aiden who she was. A void in his brain blocked off anything he could say. But now, awake and staring at her, names rose and fell in his thoughts. One just felt right.
“Can I call you Lauren?”
The eyelids twitched.
Lauren Keller. He liked the sound of it.
After roughly 90 days of observation, Aiden found himself in a small office space full of books. A young black woman in a lab coat sat behind a wooden desk that would surely fascinate Aiden’s mom. If it were a little older and more worn. The woman looked up and smiled, her eyes distorted by lenses as thick as coke bottles.
“Good morning, Mr. Keller! I’m Doctor Westing! How are you?”
She must do this a hundred times a day. The smile was bright and the tone lively, but it all had a rehearsed, prepackaged feel to it.
“Well, that’s good. Have a seat, please. The nurses tell me you’ve been doing very well here lately.”
He nodded again.
“You ok? Would you like some water?”
She produced a bottle of water that trembled as soon as was in Aiden’s hands. The tremors made it difficult for him to remove the cap and he had to drink from it while holding it with both hands.
“Are you alright?”
“I can’t s-s-s-stop s-s-shaking.”
“You didn’t talk like this before?”
She studied him for a moment and made a few notes on a clipboard.
“Are you still experiencing disturbed sleep?”
“The nurses say you’ve been sleeping very well, very consistently. That’s very good!” she made some more notes.
“How have you been feeling overall? Do you feel good here? Do you get scared?”
“I’ve been f-fine.”
“I talked with your parents. They say you don’t have much to say when they visit.”
He furrowed his brow and shook his head.
“I can’t t-t-talk r-right. Muh-my mouth w-won’t work with m-my thoughts.”
She made some more notes.
“You have some symptoms that you didn’t have when you first came to stay with us, Mr. Keller. But we’re very proud of how much better you’ve gotten. Keep up the good work and you’ll be going home soon.”
The doctor bit her lip, thinking about it. Eh. Why not.
“If you look good after one more preliminary evaluation, we could be sending you home in 21 days. Just keep doing what you’re doing.”
When you’re nine years old, 21 days sounded as long as 21 years. But it was a timestamp. Aiden finally had a point of reference. And an actual piece of news for Lauren, who faithfully showed up every single night.
“Th-they say it’s… tuh…twenty-one days n-now. Til I c-can go home,” he told her as she stared at him like a gravestone.
“G-g-g-guess I shouldn’t t-tell anyone about y-you… unless… I wuh-want to stay l-l-l-l-longer.”
With that, he looked at her for a long moment. The constellation of gray freckles on the bridge of her nose. Lifeless as the eyes were, they were pretty to him.
“I l-l-love you, L-Lauren.”
Her eyelids twitched. And that would be the only reply.
DR. CARLEEN WESTING
WREN HEATH HOSPITAL, WEST BUILDING
1218 STEVENSON RD.
GREENDALE, IL 62726
RE: PATIENT AIDEN MARK KELLER K7266
In the honest estimations of myself and my colleagues, the patient is fit for release from our program of psychiatric treatment effective upon this date.
The initial symptoms the patient displayed upon arrival have been ruled out as seizures. Said symptoms seem to have completely submerged, so I am not authorizing any medication at this time.
There are some new symptoms, such as stuttering and a feeling that there is a mechanical discrepancy between what the patient thinks and what the patient is able to say with his mouth, but these symptoms do not pose a risk to the patient’s person or anyone else’s.
I advise family visits to the Silverkey Crossing medical facility every six months to forward reports to us to monitor progress of his symptoms and his overall well-being. Several of the nurses have grown very fond of the patient and have persistently expressed how much they will miss him. I expect a very solid and progressive recovery.
Carleen D. Westing
“Committed” isn’t the word Mary wanted to use for where her son had been, but it’s what he was. Friends, family, and even some clients called to ask about how Aiden was doing, and she’d do her best to mask the situation over, softening the details. She could only soften them so much the longer Aiden was in the facility in the next town over. Small town though it may be, Silverkey Crossing’s hospital wasn’t a nest of quacks. If you were farmed out of town, let alone out of town for a very, very long time, something was up.
Aiden first landed in the Greendale facility on November 30th. He was brought home April 2nd. All the burnishing and coats of wax over the details weren’t going to mask the truth to everyone interested. Mary’s hopes of being the successful and interesting antique expert and hobby historian that lived with her talented architect husband and handsome son were over. She was now the successful and interesting antique expert and hobby historian that lived with her talented architect husband and mentally imploded child.
She was crying when she scooped her son up into her arms for the first time in just shy of 6 months. Somehow, deep down, Aiden knew that most of the tears weren’t for him.
Which was okay. Because now there was Lauren.
His world was so much the same and yet so much not. It was like everything forgot about him and aged 20 years while he was kept in a box somewhere. His first day back at school, the faces were the same. Except maybe 2 or 3 new ones. The familiar ones were somehow older, and man, the eyes in those faces. You’d have thought they saw a ghost. Or an alien.
“Class,” Mrs. Adams began, “Hopefully you remember Aiden Keller who first joined us in early November. He’s been sick and been in the hospital a very long time, and he’s finally better. Now I want all of you to make him feel welcome and let him know how much we missed him.”
As if rehearsed a hundred times in advance, the entire classroom burst out in jeers of “Cuckoo, cuckoo!” Mrs. Adams turned as red as any teacher’s apple and fought to regain control of the class. Aiden just took his seat, resigned to the fact that his world and his body were both different places now. At least he had someone to talk to about it all. Every single night.
If someone picked on him, Lauren heard about it.
If he got good grades, Lauren heard about it.
Good, bad, or ugly, Lauren heard about it. And his parents heard less. But there was one thing they never heard about until it couldn’t be kept a secret anymore.
It would be nice to say it was love at first sight, but real life rarely goes that way. He was walking to school when the sounds of a struggle reached him. There she was. Curly golden hair. Thick, round glasses. Scrawny as a twig. A burly pig-nosed boy with freckles stuffing her hot pink sweatpants with leaves and Late Spring snow and laughing like a lunatic. If they hadn’t been third graders, it would have been every bit of sexual assault. Aiden was a head and a half shorter than her assailant. But he had seen how important it was to Alan Keller to treat a lady right.
Aiden found a nightstick-caliber branch and brought it down in a lightning strike on the bully’s head. The little brute crumpled to his knees with his vision clouded by stars and specks of blood before him in the patchy snow.
The little girl’s brain reeled.
Oh my god, the bully is leaving me alone.
Oh my god, someone saved me.
Oh my god, the boy that saved me is cute.
His hair straight and dark. His eyes large and sensitive. She just might marry him someday, if he was a good bodyguard and could give good answers to math homework. They left the dazed bully in the snow and walked to school together.
And so it began. She was Sally Baker. She hated homework. So she would hang back and wait for Aiden when he was walking to school. He would give her answers. She would give him a kiss on the cheek. There was never a bully attack after that first incident but if there was… Aiden was on patrol.
Lauren showed up when Aiden was nine. She herself looked to be nine. She looked nine when Aiden turned 11. His 12th birthday was very special. The entire family, most of whom he never saw, showed up. Cousins. Aunts and Uncles. He got the latest video game console and played online deathmatch until his thumbs were raw. He related all this to the face of a girl who was still nine years old.
He was growing up. She wasn’t.
He waited for her to show up with some slight sign of change. Ta-ta’s or something. But she was every bit a child as the first time he could look her in the face.
But he kept growing and changing, as did Sally. He was becoming a young man, Sally was becoming a young woman. She’d still hang back for him on the hike to school, and he would still “help” her with her homework on the way. Their lives went from overlapping to becoming interwoven.
Lauren heard about all of it.
Aiden turned 13 in June. There was just a short tail of school left to finish before summer vacation would begin.
It was then that Lauren finally — and suddenly — showed some signs of change.