Monday, June 17, 2013

1st 5 Pages June Workshop - Staple Rev 2

Name: Elizabeth Staple
Genre: YA Fantasy/Fairytale
Title: Journey to Slanavalia

I’ve known for a while now that I‘ll be dead by my eighteenth birthday.

But there was no way to anticipate the hollowness in my chest when the clock struck midnight on the first day of my last year of being alive. I was awake to see it, of course, because it’s impossible to sleep in here. Shapeless figures are always coming in and out to monitor or refill or adjust. At times they just hover at the end of my bed, watching me. Screens and gauges beep and tick, a polite reminder that very few of my organs are self-sufficient. A tangle of wires and cords – pressurized cuffs that massage my underused legs, various monitors clipped to my fingers or stuck to my chest, and one big, fat PICC line that goes straight into a vein in my neck – imprison me in bed, even if I did have the strength to stand up -- which I usually don’t.

I ignored the control for my adjustable bed and gingerly propped myself up on my elbows. It was dark, but I could make out the aggressively cheerful banner that stretched across the far wall. I’m in Pediatrics, and my (private, not bad really, long-term care) room is bordered in a clown pattern. I don’t know if this is why I’m terrified of circus performers or just an unhappy coincidence, but my little sister has made it her job to keep the border covered with artwork, streamers and cards. Tonight, it was a long thread of cobbled together construction paper that pronounced boldly, “HAPPY BIRTHDAY EMMALINE.”

I thought I sensed movement at my door and stiffened, waiting for someone to walk in wielding a syringe. Why is it that needles hurt so much more in the middle of the night? But my mind must have been playing tricks on me again, because although the shadow remained, it didn’t move, but stayed sentry-like in the doorway until I finally dozed off.
I woke to find my room bathed in dusty violet light – the kind of reverse twilight that comes just before sunrise. As always, a team of mysterious men and women in white coats were gathered at the foot of my bed. Sometimes they’re med students, sometimes they’re residents, but they always make me feel like a zoo animal, if zoo animals had less privacy. They change rotations a lot, and I gave up trying to learn their names a long time ago. Now I just hope I’m not sleeping with my mouth open when they come in.

“Good morning, Miss Baska!” The groups always feature a Lead Coat with an unnaturally loud voice. It’s ironic, really, because my hearing is one of the few things about my health that’s spot on. “How are we feeling today?” She removed my chart from the end of the bed without looking at me and started flipping through its pages.

“We’re fine,” I mumbled sleepily, bulging my eyes to try and wake myself up. This time I spared my elbows and electronically adjusted the bed. Once I had straightened myself to a sitting position and made an attempt to flatten my hair, I took stock of today’s group: eight coats, all peering excitedly at me over their clipboards like this was a field trip we were rewarded with for being very, very good. I guessed they were in their late twenties – some conservative piercings, a tattoo peeking out here or there, a few scattered wedding rings.

The Lead Coat launched into a dispassionate recitation of my medical problems, which was too jargony for even a lifer like me to follow along with. If anyone had asked, I could have given a much more succinct briefing: Patient suffers from multiple organ deterioration, particularly the gastrointestinal tract, kidneys and lungs. Patient is in constant pain, inadequately managed through the use of narcotic drugs. Patient has been in this hospital for eight months, two weeks and five days. Patient’s doctors say that at the current rate of deterioration, she will almost certainly not survive another year. Patient is terrified.

“Patient is…” Lead Coat was winding up, flipping back to the front page of the chart. I could see her eyes register the date, and for the first time that morning she seemed to realize that this was, in fact, a hospital for human beings. “Seventeen years old,” she finished softly. She finally met my eye. “Happy birthday, Miss Baska.”

I passed most of the morning by watching an old movie. It was a classic with lots of familiar lines, which made it easy to follow along while I battled my constant fatigue. My heavy eyelids were threatening victory when a tall, thin orderly named Jerry pushed through my door with a gurney.

“Time to roll, Princess,” he said, lining it up with my bed and lowering the guardrails. “I brought a deluxe today.” Jerry knows I prefer gurneys to wheelchairs. They’re much more comfortable because I don’t have to sit up through what can sometimes be a long wait before my daily testing.

“Ah, Jer. You always have my back – and support for my back.” I clicked the TV off. “Do I need to bring anything?”

“Just your smiling face. Ready? One, two, three.” I lifted with my hands and scooched my bottom while Jerry guided my feet onto the gurney. He covered me with a scratchy hospital blanket and spent several minutes adjusting my tubes and wires. With separate poles for my IV and PICC, a morphine pump, and oxygen tubes that snake over my ears and into my nostrils, I don’t travel light. When I was finally settled, we pushed off into the hallway.

The long-term care pediatric ward is, unsurprisingly, depressing, although the people who work here try hard to make the experience of dying a pleasant one. There’s artwork and posters on the walls, which are painted in bright, optimistic colors. We have a playroom, a library, and a parlor, where patients who are well enough can host their guests in a more normal setting. I’ve made the mistake of dying in Upstate New York, as opposed to a large city where I might get an occasional visit from an athlete or pop star or something, but that’s OK. We do get some magicians and puppeteers. Come to think of it, maybe that’s why I hate clowns.

No matter what else fills the ward, though, there’s no counteracting the people in it. We’re a bunch of sick kids, frequently visited by family members in various stages of falling apart. It’s a tough place to be for any length of time, yet the very purpose of the ward is to settle in and hunker down. I prefer not to make eye contact with anyone. It’s too painful. I don’t want to recognize their faces. I don’t want to know their names. I don’t want them to mourn me when my turn comes.

Jerry wheeled me all the way to the end of the hallway and into the wide patient elevators. We rode to the bottom floor, where the Radiology Department is located. I should be one of the X-Men by now, based on all of the radiation I’ve been exposed to down here. Still, unless I have to drink something disgusting to show contrast, the tests rarely hurt anything but my dignity.

“OK, Princess,” said Jerry, wheeling me into an antiseptic X-Ray room and putting on my parking break. “I’ll be back for you in an hour. Don’t run off on me.”

“Would that I could.”

Shortly afterwards, a young technician entered the room. He didn’t look at me, but moved with business-like efficiency, checking my monitors and adjusting as he worked. “Miss Baska,” he said to my pole, “Dr. Hayvan wants to check your circulation today.” I’d never heard of a Dr. Hayvan, but that wasn’t unusual. I nodded. The room smelled like rubbing alcohol and cleaning supplies, a combination that always left me nauseous. I focused on slow, even breathing.

He held up a syringe. “It’s very important that you don’t move during the testing, so I’m going to inject this medication into your IV. It won’t hurt, but you’ll probably feel a little stiff as it takes effect. You’re not going to be able to move your arms and legs, but you can talk and rotate your eyes.” Well, as long as my eyeballs were free. “Ready?”

The medication crept into my arm, cold and acidic. I’ve learned in my eight months here that “this won’t hurt” is code for “this is definitely going to hurt,” but I was unprepared for how painful it was. I tried to cry out, but the air seemed trapped in my lungs. Instead, I bugged my eyes and blinked frantically, trying to get the technician’s attention. His gaze was locked on the monitor, disinterested in the specimen in the bed.

I forced my eyeballs as far as I could to the right, where a window led to the observation room. A stocky doctor with dark hair and an early 5:00 shadow was behind the glass, watching me intently. I silently pleaded with the stranger as a tear dripped down my frozen cheek.

The doctor trained his dark eyes on mine for a moment, and I could have sworn I saw his lip curl at one corner. He took his time leaning forward before finally hitting a button. “That will do,” his voice crackled over the intercom. The tech put a second injection into my IV and I slowly felt the burning flush out of my shoulders, arms and fingertips. I glared at him and hugged myself, ashamed that I’d cried but also furious that he didn’t care. Then I put my head back and stared at the ceiling, waiting for Jerry to come wheel me home.


  1. Ooh, this is my favorite version yet! I particularly liked that you added the little touches of description to hint at the element of fantasy, like the shapeless figures (that are most likely the doctors and interns, but it still gives a mysterious vibe) and the shadowy figure that keeps watch in the doorway. I also really like the interplay now between Emmaline and the doctor running the test. Really well done!

    I've been wondering if he has some connection to the fantasy element, and now I'm thinking even more strongly that he is. I'm also thinking that, with clowns being mentioned twice, there's some significant connection as well.

  2. This revision is fantastic! I found myself liking Emeline more than ever, and I thought the added details and touches about the fantasy element really played well. While I still think there's a little bit more description the necessary when Jerry is wheeling her to the tests, it still feels cohesive and compelling. I just think it would lend itself better towards building tension without quite as much description.

    The new scene with the doctor is intriguing and has totally solved the problem in my mind of this feeling too contemporary for fantasy. I think you should write out "five o'clock shadow." :)

    In all, I am quickly sucked in to the story and want to know more!

  3. I love how this has turned out. Emmaline was a compelling character right from the first version, but eliminating some of those superfluous scenes has really upped the tension. I agree that the new scene with the doctor really worked for me in terms of hinting at a fantasy (or perhaps sci-fi) element, plus I wanted to sock him!

  4. This is my favorite version so far! I really like that you clarified the doctor's reaction to her tears, in the earlier version I felt that he was sympathetic towards her. Him possibly being a bad guy really ups the tension and the fantasy element for me.

    I loved the sentence about the violet light, reverse twilight.

    Overall, great revision. Wish we could read more!

  5. I second what Lisa said. It's a great version! I would suggest smoothing out the tense shifts in the first few paragraphs when you're transitioning us out of and back into immediate action though. It's a little bit distracting as is. But overall, wonderful.

    Just for your own information, I actually got less of a sense of the fantasy element this time around. That's not a bad thing; the whole scene felt more grounded and real, but I could still see you going in a fantasy direction. And I would definitely follow you there!

    Really great job! Good luck with this.