[To celebrate the paperback release of THE UNBOUND–out today!!!–I wrote a short story. It takes place about four hours after the end of THE UNBOUND, and it’s told from Wesley’s POV. Enjoy!]
Hospitals make horrible music.
I don’t mean the literal kind they pipe into elevators or play at background levels in waiting rooms (with the TVs and the magazines and all the other stimuli because apparently if you give people any actual quiet they’ll think about the fact they’re in a hospital). No, I mean the hum and buzz and beep, the ringing phones and squeaking stretcher wheels and distant coughs that layer together to make up a hospital’s soundtrack, the way slivers of thought and memory make up a person’s noise. It sets my teeth on edge, which sends a dull pain through my head, which reminds me of the pain flickering in my shoulder and ribs, and it’s a slippery slope from calm to pain to panic so I stop myself right there.
I hate hospitals.
I don’t even have a good reason, like I spent too much time in them as a kid because my grandma was sick (she was already dead) or my dad worked on the ER—if anyone needed medical attention it was me, and nobody noticed. I just hate the way they sound. They’re everything the Archive isn’t. Well, everything it wasn’t, when I still thought it was everything.
But I’m here, and I’m staring at the x-rays the doctor’s left tacked up on the light board. The screen’s dark now but the image is still ghosted behind my eyes. Strange thing, to see your body from the inside out. People are made of so many fragile pieces.
I tick past the trouble in my mind. A few broken ribs. A cracked shoulder. A little internal bleeding (nothing serious). And behind those things, the older scars. Hairline fractures and fused bones. Only so much you can blame on a collapsing tent in a festival fire. And yet, no burns. Because I wasn’t really trapped beneath a tent in a festival fire. I was fighting for my life. For Mackenzie’s.
But I can’t say that, of course, just like I can’t say that those old wounds came from fighting Histories—an old man with a hunting knife, a kid with sharp teeth, Owen Chris Clarke—so they bring in a social worker, to make sure I’m not being hurt at home. And for a moment I’m pretty tempted to say yeah, yeah I am being hurt, because my father’s a prick and my stepmother—shudder—is an evil money-grubbing bitch, but in the end I just shrug and say it must have been soccer because dad may be a horrible person but the marks he’s left are more absences than injuries, and Izzy is only an evil money-grubbing bitch in context. I probably wouldn’t hate her if she was gold-digging someone else’s family.
I don’t think the doctors really believed me in the end, but then Dallas showed up and said something and they let the matter drop, which I owe her for, but lying here surrounding by hospital music I’m almost wishing I’d drawn it out, let them take the fall so someone else could suffer. Maybe I’m just mad because I told them to go home and they listened. Didn’t even put up a fight. They were dressed like I’d pulled them away from some important function—that’s what they call it when you’re too rich and important for words like dinner or party. Everything becomes a function, an event, a gala.
So here I am. Alone. Which is fine, it’s fine, it’s fine, but it’s not.
An IV drips cloudy fluid into a tube running into a needle running into the back of my hand. I hate needles, almost as much as hospitals. Mac would probably make fun of me if she knew, which means I’ll probably end up telling her. That’s a form of masochism, I’m sure, but if it will make her smile, she’s worth the bruised ego. She’s worth the real bruises, too. She’s even worth the needles.
I picture telling her, and in my mind I’m still on my back but I’m no longer in this hospital bed. No, I’m lying with my head in her lap, looking up through her waves of auburn hair. It’s just getting dark, and we’re stretched on the worn stone steps of the Court at Hyde. No fire. No explosions. No Owen. Just us.
Just Mackenzie, really, and that small, hard-won smile.
“Honestly, Wes?” she’ll tease, brushing her fingers across my forehead so she can see my eyes. “Not monsters or serial killers or the dark?”
I reach up and tuck a strand of copper behind her ears. No IV. No bruises. Just my hand on her skin.
“Hey look,” I’ll say. “There are rational and irrational fears in this world, and last time I checked, it’s not irrational to be afraid of sharp, pointy things.” Especially not after being stabbed, I’ll think, but I won’t say that, because I’m not supposed to remember that day. It would be easier not to remember that day.
Mac will give me that skeptical look. “You sure have a lot of piercings for a guy with a needle phobia.”
“I am the master of my fears,” I’ll say. Even though the truth is I made Cash go with me every time, and you know he’s a good friend because he never gave me hell, never did anything but turn through the tattoo catalogs along the wall and wonder which design would piss his father off the most.
Fake/future/alternate world Mackenzie bends down and kisses my forehead. My head spins.
They’ve got me pumped full of god-knows-what, and it’s dulling the world in all the wrong places. It’s like standing at the very edge of a dream and you can’t seem to wake up but you can’t forget you’re dreaming either.
And then, just as panic starts to really dig its fingers in, my cell starts buzzing on the side table. When I reach for it, pain blossoms across my stomach, but it’s worth the trek. It’s Mac.
I left the window open, she says.
And just like that, the world pulls back into focus. I stop spinning and something in me cracks—not something literal like bones, thank god, but something just as deep—and I’m so ready for this damn night to end, but I don’t want it to end here.
I take a bracing breath, knowing this is going to hurt, then sit up, and sure enough the pain makes light dance behind my eyes. I didn’t feel it during the fight–I didn’t feel anything. I didn’t even feel it after, when Mac and I were back on campus. It wasn’t until the EMTs pulled us apart that the pain hit me in a wave.
I perch on the edge of the hospital bed, waiting for the room to stop spinning. It hurts to breathe, but I have this trick, where I try and focus on the good, so I remind myself that things only hurt because I’m still alive to feel them. Silver linings, kids. I’m full of them.
Getting dressed takes a painful—and painfully long—time and I alternate between cursing and holding my breath in case a nurse chooses this moment—trying to balance with one leg in my pants—to come in.
But no one does.
I find a mirror in the cubicle of a bathroom, and my reflection stares back. I’ve looked better. My face has found a way to look pale and bruised at the same time, my eyeliner smudged into a messy shadow; my father assured the doctors it must be smoke, or face paint from the festival. Because the idea of me wearing makeup bothered him more than seeing me in a hospital bed.
I run a hand through my hair, trying to smooth away the hospital bed head, which is even worse than normal bedhead, but I give up. There’s a cut above my eyebrow held closed by two strips of white tape, and I wonder if it will leave a scar, because scars are rather dashing, and then I hear Mac in my head again.
“Get over yourself, Wes,” she says and I smile and it hurts.
It’s late, and hospital wings really do get quiet at night, so it’s easy enough to slip out. I find my key in the front pocket of my jeans, but I don’t know where the nearest Narrows door is, and the grim fact is I’m in no shape for handling Histories, so I take a cab across town.
I’ve never been so glad to see the Coronado’s creepy face, the gargoyles perched like ravens on the roof. I never told Mac but I have names for them all. Governor. Socrates. Headless. Malcolm…
I stand on the curb, staring up at the three floors that stand between me and Mac’s room. Or more accurately, I stare at the fourth floor window above Mac’s room, the one I used to climb down through her window, and realize there’s no way I can make that descent tonight.
And then, the universe takes pity on my predicament. My phone buzzes again. Another note from Mac.
I left the door open, too.
My heart skips a little as I head into the lobby, and think about taking the stairs but decide it won’t be very charming if I pass out halfway up and someone finds my body in the morning, so I take the death trap of an elevator to the third floor.
3F is waiting at the end. I could kiss it.
I press my ear to the wood, and then turn the handle as softly as I can manage and step inside. The apartment’s dark and I find my way by feel and memory through the living room and down the hall to Mackenzie’s bedroom.
Inside, it’s cloaked in moonlight and shadow. At first I think she’s asleep, but as I slide the door shut behind me, she rolls over.
“You came,” she whispers, her voice as tight as my chest.
“No place I’d rather be,” I say softly. “I wish the entrance had been grander. The door doesn’t have nearly as much style as the window and—” but I don’t get any farther because she’s on her feet, crossing the space between us, and then her mouth on mine, her noise thundering through my head where she grips me.
I gasp under her touch, and she pulls back, but that’s the last thing I want, so I pull her close again and let my body scream. She tangles her fingers with mine and leads me to the bed, and when we get there she climbs onto the covers and makes a Wesley-size space for me beside her, and suddenly the pain means nothing because this moment it perfect.
We lie there for a few minutes, staring up at the ceiling instead of each other, only our hands tangled together. And then I her turn toward me, her storm eyes narrowed on my wrist.
“What’s this?” she asks, fingering the hospital bracelet. I’d forgotten all about it, and now she’s looking at it way too hard, as if it’s the most fascinating thing in the world and not an infernal piece of plastic. And then I see what she sees, and I can feel the blood drain out of my face. Can feel my stomach sink through my feet.
She squints at the writing on the bracelet, at my legal name printed on the label, and I cover it with my fingers but it’s too late. I can tell she’s read the name. My first name.
Templeton Wesley Ayers the II, also known as reason #45 why I hate my father. Because what kind of sadistic asshole passes on a name like that?
“Mac,” I start, but it’s too late. She doesn’t just smile, she starts laughing, and I want to be angry but god, it’s the most beautiful sound in the world, even better than that storm going inside her head. I would slay monsters and run through fire and jump off cliffs just to hear that sound. Which is why it takes all my strength to stifle it, and press my hand over her mouth. The laugh becomes a muffled chuckle in her chest. And then her fingers drift up to mine, and pry them gently free.
“Don’t say it,” I hiss, as her lips form the word. “Don’t mouth it. Don’t even think about it.”
“Okay,” she whispers. “…Templeton.”
I groan, but she cuts off the sound with a kiss. We’re gentler now, moving carefully over each other’s bruised and broken bodies, the crackle of pain swallowed up by the fact that Mackenzie Bishop is letting me kiss her. Mackenzie Bishop is kissing me.
“I’m glad you told me,” she says, breathlessly.
“I didn’t tell you,” I point out.
“Well I’m glad I found out.”
“Because now I won’t laugh when we become Crew.”
I go still. Not because I don’t want to hear those words. But because I do. I want them to be true.
“Do you mean it?” I ask, rolling gingerly to face her.
She mirrors me, rolling onto her side so I’m looking straight into her eyes. “Yes,” she says.
I can tell I’m smiling like an idiot. I don’t care. “I don’t suppose you have any hidden and mortifying names? Habits? Secrets?”
“And what’s that?”
“I’m in love with a boy named Templeton.”