The familiar smell of wax served only to underscore the injustice of the situation: However firmly the child attempted to clutch a crayon between her tiny thumb and the two fingers next to it, her painfully swollen metacarpals, their distal joints no longer even discernible through the swelling, protested loudly, and her elbow wailed in agony. The forearm between them was mottled and itchy now, with angry red patches where creamy, healthy flesh should have been. Her body ached and she longed to throw off the covers and swing her sinewy legs over the side of the bed, if only to go and use the toilet just once unassisted, but even this bit of routine maintenance required the help of a grownup, a person with strong arms who could carefully lower her bare bottom down onto the seat.
It was no use. She breathed a little sigh that conveyed the powerlessness she felt to nobody, except herself and the collection of childhood tomes on her bedroom bookcase, and to a cadre of lifeless and unsympathetic doll-babies on the shelf beneath them. At the foot of her bed stood the small television her father had hefted up a flight of steps and into her room the day before, just after she arrived home from the hospital. She’d watched him struggle to roll the little metal cart through her bedroom door, its unwilling casters becoming entrapped in the sculpted carpet valleys beneath them, and her father cursing sotto voce each time the wobbly contraption stopped and then lurched forward, threatening to upset the console. It was not the carpet the child had chosen the day she accompanied her mother to the store way across town from this sanitized suburb, but instead came from a steeply discounted roll in the back of a dusty warehouse; she was crestfallen to arrive home from school one afternoon to hideous golden swirls on her bedroom floor instead of the cheerful yellow pile carpeting she expected.
Now she abandoned any hope of coloring, or cutting out snowflakes, or affixing clothing to her paper dolls, and instead resigned herself to an afternoon of public television, on the only station the finicky little black-and-white TV carried with a strong signal. She would suffer through silly grownup shows (Lilias, Yoga and You, and then Jack LaLanne, whose beautiful white shepherd at least was worth a gander, but on this day she could never hope to follow along as she sometimes did), then some educational programming, shows with handwriting practice exercises or mathematics, a few juvenile shows she considered beneath her and whose cheap special effects fooled nobody, before finally settling joyously into stories more to her liking, whose settings and characters resonated with her. The actors in those shows spoke in thick English or Irish dialect, and made her think of her mother’s theatre friends, who felt like her own by association. But by the time these delicious little serial dramas finally aired later on in the day, her eyelids would have grown heavy, and she’d finally yield to a deep sleep, exhausted by the rigors of fighting a tenacious illness.
For the time being, there was nothing more on the little screen than her own reflection; she squeezed what effort she could from her small frame, filled her lungs with air, and hollered for her mother to come and switch on the set.
Lucy felt movement at the foot of the bed, and stirred, wiping her eyes to bring them into focus; Charley thumped her gorgeous sable tail gently on Lucy’s feet and soon scooted forward on her belly to inspect her up close. She dodged her beautiful shepherd’s generosity just enough to balance a genuine affection for the dog with an equally genuine disdain for slobber, catching a glimpse of this spectacle as reflected in Bran’s little television across the room. Grasping Charley gently by the muzzle, she massaged both her cheeks in tandem; the dog wagged her tail enthusiastically.
Strewn around the bed on the floor lay a laptop, a pair of legal pads—one full of scrawl and the other empty—a collection of junk mail and bills, a single pen, and a mechanical pencil missing its eraser. On top of the pile rested a new patient form from a medical practice; in the blank next to “List All Allergies,” Lucy had scrawled ‘maybe penicillin,’ and then scratched through it and scribbled ‘serum sickness’ instead, and finally had scratched through that and again settled on just ‘penicillin’ as the best answer, since serum sickness was not actually an allergy, she concluded. Just thinking about this made her knuckles ache, but on this morning she effortlessly swung her legs out of the bed and headed for the toilet, assisted only by an adoring canine.