Evie tapped her foot against the cold, white tile floor of the hospital’s infusion room. “The Chemo Room,” as she called it, was filled with the bitter scent of something poisonous wrapped up in an antibacterial wash. It was on the surfaces, in the air, in the water, and worst of all in her sinuses. She could go home after everyone of Trist’s treatments and still smell the scent that spoiled her appetite, sending her stomach in riots.
She sighed and let her head fall to the side. Was her brother ever going to get over Leukemia?
The doc had done everything in his power to keep the appointments from destroying what was left of their lives. Honestly, it was an impossible task from the beginning. Trist had been under doc’s care for two years now, and they’d somehow both moved up a grade when that first awful year ended, but when year two ended and they were facing down the endless gauntlet of many more years to come . . . let’s just say nothing kept the emotional damage at bay.
Evie’s knees both bounced sending a driving beat from her heels rattling around the large treatment area.
An icy prick along her cheek brought Evie’s attention to Nurse Broomhilda who was glaring daggers at her.
That wasn’t the nurse’s real name. No, That’s what Evie silently called her when she turned her stout backside to inject another victim with a constant drip of poison.
Evie shrugged, popped some mint gum in her mouth to combat the metallic taste that always filled the back of her throat during these visits, and threw her legs over the arm of the chair—another of the nurse’s despised behaviors. Evie smirked at the memory of Broomhilda’s chastisement, as she swatted at a curl that fell over her eye.
Tristen’s head hung at an odd angle. His naked eyebrows, eyelashes, and smooth scalp made him look like an alien science experiment instead of her kid brother. How he did it, survived the poison at every visit, was beyond her. But she was thankful this time he fell asleep about an hour ago.
Still nothing seemed to quiet the creepy crawlies sending jitters through her limbs. Something out of her nightmares seemed to creep in the shadows as the nurse passed closer to Evie, dimming the lights in the room, hissing, “patients need their rest.”
The words meant as a barb didn’t have any impact on Evie because there was no way that woman was going to get under her skin today. No. The shadow creature last night who’d resisted defeat, the first to do so in a long while, was already there making her skin itch. She scratched at her bare arms and frowned. Why hadn’t her battle plan worked? It had worked for two years. What was off last night? Was it her? Was it a new shadow demon?
That’s what she called the terrors that visited her every so often all throughout Tristen’s illness. And even though she didn’t want to acknowledge any of it out loud, her palms still grew slick and her heart rate kicked up.
It wasn’t a good sign.
Something had changed. Something new was in town, reinforcing the shadow demons she’d fought ever since the “night terrors” began. Ever since her brother grew sick. That’s what her counselor said they were, night terrors. But she knew better.
They were demons.
She cast her gaze around the room to take in the same kids that always filled the seats around Tristen. Well, not exactly the same. Two passed away within Trist’s first year of treatment. But three were the same, and the two new ones weren’t settled in yet.
Evie cracked her neck. A remnant of last night clung to her. The icy sensation of the shadow’s touch still lingering on her skin hours after the sun vanquished the being back to wherever it hid in the daylight. Stupid creatures. Why couldn’t they blast to pieces when the sun rose?
Nurse Broomhilda waddled behind the Nurse’s station and settled with a creak on her stool. Her eyes sweeping the room a final time, catching on Evie with a prickly icy burn. Evie turned to stare her down and Broomhilda narrowed her eyes.
Come on. Evie twisted her lips in a sneer. What was this woman’s problem! Evie made it a point to turn away from her gaze as if it didn’t matter what the nurse thought, because in fact, it didn’t matter one iota. They were all in this room for better or worse and no one, not any single one of them, had a say in the matter.
Sliding her cell phone out, Evie tapped a message to Callie, her best friend. “Broomhilda is at it again!”
“Not again! Why can’t that woman let misery lie!” Callie sent three angry face emojis.
Evie shivered in the suddenly colder room. Glanced at Broomhilda who was still staring at her, and something dark and twisted writhed in Evie’s gut. “I don’t know, but I wish she would just drop dead.”
“Whoa. That’s harsh!” Callie replied quickly.
Evie blew out a breath. No one understood what she was going through. Living but not living. Hoping but scared to hope. Tired but never getting enough rest. It was hard to think, let alone think stable, kind thoughts. So what if she wanted to rip the woman’s head off? Maybe she just needed to vent. Blow off some steam. Why couldn’t Callie understand?
A shiver rattled through her.
Callie’s judgy attitude was uncalled for. Paired with Broomhilda, exacerbated by the freezing room and the lack of sleep, it was enough to set off any bomb. It wasn’t fair to have all of this pressure to be something so . . . Evie cracked her knuckles. It wasn’t like she wasn’t trying. It wasn’t like Callie could do better if she were in Evie’s shoes. Couldn’t Callie just try and be there for her whenever it all got to be too much?
This, right here right now, it was life. Evie didn’t get a do-over just because her brother was sick. No. This was her life too. Yet, she spent most of it right here beside her brother hoping and praying he made a full recovery. And it was good, and worth it, and where she was supposed to be, but that didn’t make it easier. In fact, it made everything harder. Why should Evie have to constantly be catering to Callie’s needs?
Evie’s heart pounded. Two years! She’d been a shadow of her former self for two years. The ache inside grew unbearable. It had been twenty-four months of making special food for Tristen, rushing to the hospital at all hours, and giving up piano. She gritted her teeth. Piano was such a distant memory, she hardly missed it anymore. That’s what she had to give up. Callie should understand that! Instead, when she needed her the most, when everything compounded into this big explosive—Callie always pushed Evie back to towing the ever widening, always growing line of do’s and don’ts. Evie had to do something.
She pulled up James’s last text from a few months ago when he’d checked in to see how she was doing. She replied that everything was fine. It wasn’t true. It was just what was said to people who didn’t understand, who weren’t going through cancer or a family member.
What would it be like to talk to him? To really talk to him.
They’d fallen out of touch, but unlike Callie, he always seemed to accept whatever came. He’d completely understand what she was struggling with. And with that final thought, she typed out, “Hey. I know it’s been awhile, but Trist is out of it, and it would be great if you wanted to visit the hospital and help me blow off some steam for a bit.”
Read her message once, twice, on the third time she decided she was an idiot for sending it to him. He had a life. His polite texts, checking in on her, weren’t an invitation to tell him everything. No one wanted to visit the hospital. And everyone treated cancer like it was leprosy. A guy like James wasn’t waiting around for her to—
Three dots materialized, followed by, “At the hospital?”
Evie’s heart jumped. “Yeah.”
“Be there in fifteen minutes.” He sent a winking face as a separate text.
Evie’s heart did a double take and then crashed into her stomach. She wasn’t supposed to leave. But if he came here, if they just went to the cafeteria, technically that’s not leaving, and she could vent, and . . .
She closed her eyes and the icy blue of his eyes popped into the forefront of her mind. He had played a huge part in helping her figure things out in the beginning of Trist’s illness. She glanced at her brother and frowned. Maybe he could help now too.
She sat, just staring at the boy she’d given up everything for. He’d been through the wringer more so than she, and he deserved anything good that came to him. She shook her head. She should stay, but really, Trist didn’t need her right now. Her gaze turned to Broomhilda, and it was true, he was in capable hands. Though, Evie wondered if Broomhilda had a few shadow demons of her own.
She shook her head. She was being silly, and she’d feel better if she got this cruddy feeling off her chest. It wasn’t healthy to walk around angry and needing something so badly it was like a detonator inside of you waiting to go off.
James was someone who understood the hard things. His dad left him without saying goodbye. His mom worked all of the time, and he was alone. And, unlike everyone else in her life, he was about to be there for her.
It was the perfect solution, basically killing two birds with one stone without upsetting anyone. Evie nodded and grabbed her stuff, shoving the current book she was reading into her backpack and slinging it over her shoulder.
Broomhilda stared down at Evie from the steep slope of her large nose as Evie walked toward her. Even Broomhilda’s round cheeks came to a narrow point with her pursed lips where judgment sat in a bed of wrinkles. But, thankfully, she had no say in what Evie did.
“I’ll be back.” Evie threw at the miserable woman without missing a beat, and turned the corner before Broomhilda could respond, leaving the nurse’s station sitting there in the darkness.
Outside the air was humid and summer’s delightful smells were heavy and cloying. Evie glanced at her watch and growled to herself, “Why isn’t he here?”
“You waiting on an important date?” His warm voice appeared before he did, and Evie almost cursed as she jumped.
She chuckled nervously. “I don’t want to leave Trist waiting too long.”
“Okay. Well, how did you want to blow off that steam?” He arched a dark eyebrow above his piercing blue eyes. The sweep of his black bangs dropping low into one eye. He had one hand in his jean’s pocket and the other hung loosely at his side. The black t-shirt was simple but perfect on him.
Heat warmed Evie’s cheeks. It was as if he could see through her words, her actions, right into her soul. Thankfully, it was hot enough outside that he might blame the temperature for the rush of color on her cheeks. Her heart thrummed. Her skin tingled. It was amazing how just being near James made her feel so alive. “Can we just talk?”
He scrunched up his face, and she realized her mistake. He probably thought she had something fun in mind. “I’m sorry. I can’t go far, in case Trist needs me, and I don’t have a lot of time because my parents expect me to stay with Trist. I know it’s so uncool. I should have warned you.”
“It’s okay. I’m sure you were doing something fun. I shouldn’t be out here, anyway.” Spinning, Evie gave a small wave and beat a path toward the hospital door.
“But you need some time to vent in a safe space.” He caught her arm, stopping her and spinning her to face him. His words were understanding and filled with a kindness she needed so badly it brought tears pricking the backs of her eyes.
“Exactly.” She whispered, so caught up in the moment, she barely remembered to breathe. It was just like when they were younger and this whole mess with cancer started.
His hand slid down her arm until they were only linked together by their fingertips. There in that space, right where they touched, the coldness dissipated. He smiled. It caused his dimples to pop, and she moved with him when he gently dragged her by her fingertips to the bench. “Sit.”
“As if.” Still, the coldness that had been bothering her all day, the kind that came with wet weather and gets in your bones in the middle of a southern winter, the kind that doesn’t even exist in a southern summer especially not early August, the kind that had been haunting her for months, was banished just like that.
“I mean it. You need to take care of you.” He gestured to the bench and pushed the hand he’d touched her with inside his pocket again.
Evie sat, but angled herself so she could see the door like it would somehow tell her if something went wrong with her brother. Inside of her was a split world. One side wanted to live, be free, breathe, and exhale freely. The other side only prayed and hoped for Tristen’s recovery. That’s probably why his words took a minute to wind their way down through her, but when they did, a whole different kind of warmth filled her. The kind that said she was seen, cared about, and important.
James whispered, “He doesn’t need you to watch him sleep.”
“Nothing will happen.” James sat and bumped her shoulder. “No amount of worry or stress has ever cured cancer.”
She gave him a lopsided smile. “He could be the first case.”
His dimples both made a second appearance.
Evie’s stomach did a little flip.
“You needed to vent, blow off some steam, remember?” His eyes searched hers, and she felt the need to break the contact as if he could see through her. “I’m here to help. So, how do I help?”
“Yeah. Thanks for showing up, but now, I just feel stupid.” Every piece of her in equal parts wanted him to tell her it was fine and to go on and tell him everything even if it was stupid.
When had she become so mixed up?
When her whole existence turned into this shadow life.
“So then be stupid.”
“You have to let loose and just exist every once and awhile. You can’t have everything so buttoned up and perfect, or you’ll explode with the pressure.” Something in his tone changed at the end.
He was right, even though he sounded different than when he’d first arrived. Evie nodded. “I just hate how hard everything is and how long it’s been tough. I thought . . .”
She stood and huffed out walking a few paces, keeping her back to James, hiding her face.
“You thought it would be over by now.” He rose, and his warm hands rested gently on her shoulders. His gaze warm against the back of her head.
Unshed tears burned against her eyes. “Exactly. And now I’ve got Broomhilda busting my buns, and it’s literally more than anyone could take!”
He spun her to him and cocked an eyebrow. “Broomhilda?”
“That’s not her name.” Evie rolled her eyes, inhaling his warm leather scent. For a beat, her heart settled, but then an icy draft caught her hair and slipped down the back of her jacket. She let her hands move to rest on his forearms and any lingering chill warmed as they stood there connected. “But it should be. She’s got this nasty attitude she insists on smearing all over my face every time we are here. I swear she is single handedly trying to ruin the last of my summer break.”
James chuckled and his rough surprise sent little heated sparks across Evie’s skin.
“Oh, she does a great job taking care of Tristen, but she hates me. ‘Don’t touch that.’ ‘Stay with your brother.’ ‘Your parents will hear about this.’ ‘Have you done your homework.’ ‘Why don’t you leave well enough alone?’” With each quoted phrase, Evie set her tone a bit more on edge, really getting into the Broomhilda character. She was already feeling much better.
“How could anyone hate you?” James stared at her as if the question were as honest and sincere as a judge.
This time Evie was chuckling, and she was pulling away, pressing her shaking hands behind her back. “No, I mean it. She hates me, and you know what else?” She didn’t wait, spun on her heel and began storming between James and the bench. “I wish she were fired, or dead, or suddenly fell sick and had to endure this awful, horrible, ridiculous journey I’ve had to walk.”
Evie’s heart did a little extra thump as he moved to block her path, towering over her. This was it. This was when the truth of her hunch would come to bear. He’d either put her back on the straight and narrow like Callie, or get it. His frown brought out the bright of his blue eyes against the stark slashes of his black brows. “You are nice, and caring, and putting your sick brother first. What the heck could possibly have happened to make her think so–”
“Poorly of me. No idea. But she’s had a bee in her bonnet–”
“Bee in her bonnet!” James nearly choked on his laughter, clearly surprised by the turn of phrase. His cheeks now wore a flush of color.
“Yeah. You know.” Evie made a face like Broomhilda’s and a buzzing sound.
James shook his head, threw out an arm in Evie’s direction, and said, “Case in point. No one would think you’re a bad girl.”
Evie glared at the back of James as he sauntered over to a nearby pillar and leaned against it. He caught her eye, and gave her a curious look, but didn’t pursue the strange tension in the air.
Thank the stars. What was she thinking asking him out here? Things were the same. Nothing was that bad. She shouldn’t let Broomhilda get to her so badly.
In fact, the odd anger rolling around inside of her was new and frustrating and overwhelming. It wore a darkness that didn’t usually spend time in Evie’s thoughts and feelings, but Broomhilda did bring out the worst in Evie. However, James had quieted all of it.
She grinned and said, “Obviously, Broomhilda thinks I’m the devil, and therefore, you’re wrong.”
In a second, he was in front of her, and she was backing up until her legs brushed against the bench. “I’m not wrong.”
His breath puffed in her face as he over enunciated the t in not, and the leather with a hint of vetiver overwhelmed her senses, leaving her completely befuddled. But even in the haze of her own reaction, she could sense something was very different about James.
When he’d arrived, he was jovial, sweet even. His actions were warm and attentive. But now, something seemed intense, his reactions overwhelming and even a bit caustic. She narrowed her eyes on him.
Something shadowy and translucent hovered just out of her line of sight. She could only glimpse it from the corner of her eye. But that was crazy. Stupid even. “Fine. You’re not wrong. Maybe I’m reading into things too much. Maybe it’s just all taken its toll finally, and I’m about to lose it.”
She folded onto the bench, knees against her chest, but a sinking feeling in her gut told her she didn’t have long before she really needed to get back to Tristen.
“For what?” James sat beside her.
“It was really nice to hang out with someone who understands the hard things and doesn’t judge when I vent.”
“We all say things we don’t mean when we are hurting, scared, and frustrated.” James bumped her shoulder. “Besides, by now anyone would be missing those awesome skateboard and biking days at the park. Right?”
Evie couldn’t help but grin even as she sighed. “Heck yeah. Those were the good times.”
There on the bench, James was family and kindness and all the things her soul needed. She bumped him back. “You’re really awesome.”
“This was nothing.”
Evie flushed. For him it might have been nothing, easy, just a few minutes out of a boring old summer Saturday, but for her, “It was exactly what I needed.”
“Good.” He sat back and threw an arm across the back of the bench. “I can do this whenever you need me to.”
Evie ignored the little squeeze of her heart. “Yeah, well time flies when you’re having fun.” In fact it speeds away with hummingbird wings, and far too much of it already passed. “I better get back up there before Trist misses me.”
She stood and James followed her to the hospital doors. But just when she turned around to say goodbye, he caught her hand again and pulled her into him, wrapping strong arms around her. Evie waited for him to let her go. People always let go too quickly. But when he didn’t, she allowed herself to selfishly sink into him and absorb some of the much needed love she’d been missing through the chaos and heartache of the last year. Nothing was turning out the way it should.
“Hey. It’s going to be all right.” James rubbed circles into her back.
She hadn’t realized she’d started crying, but the tears soaked his shirt. “Sorry.”
“Nah. It’s nothing. If you need me, text, and don’t wait so long to reach out again. Maybe I need some skateboarding in my life again too.” He chuckled and loosened his grip.
Evie pulled away, wiping her tears away. “Yeah. Sure you do.”
Something flickered in his eyes, but it was gone before she could really be sure she saw it. And then it was goodbye, and they were going their separate ways. A few moments later, she was back in that stupid chair with the clock’s stupid loud tick.
But now, it didn’t bother her so much. If there was a next time . . . No! When there was a next time, she’d give James a call. That visit had really helped. It was like it lifted the darkness right out from within her.
Thankfully, this time she didn’t get in trouble or miss something important. She’d dodged a bullet, but if things were better . . . She would be able to spend more time and who knows, maybe things could go back to the way they used to be. A time when things were simpler, they were younger, and Tristen wasn’t sick with leukemia.
But until then, she shouldn’t do something like this again. She couldn’t risk getting caught or hurting someone in her family. She’d have to wait until Trist got his clean bill of health. For now, none of them could afford one more problem in their lives.
Hints of Darkness
Copyright © 2023 by J. L. Burrows
Published by Faith Filled Fiction
Cover and Layout copyright © 2023 by Faith Filled Fiction Publishing
Cover design by German Creative