1 Hour After

The worst part about the hospital so far is that you're never alone. Nurses coming in to check your blood pressure, doctors wandering by to look at you and go hmmm, Mom and Dad sacked out on the couch. Adam sat by you for a little while ("I believe that you believe it."), and Luke and Grace paced around for ten minutes before Grace's anti-hospital nerves kicked in or something, and they bailed.

You're glad they're gone, but you wish they'd stayed -- or that they'd wanted to. You're feeling abandoned, and people make that go away. Or, at least, make it harder to hear. ("Just because I speak doesn't mean anyone has to listen.")

It's not like anyone has to be home; it's not a school night. ("Please excuse Joan from first period. She was hallucinating.") Today was the last day of school and you were in the hospital, and maybe by fall everyone will have forgotten how you collapsed and dragged Mr. Price down to the ground with you. Although Grace was way gleeful about that, so probably they won't have forgotten.

You wish you could just forget. You clutch your hands into fists under the covers and will yourself to forget.

("I'm really committed to the free will thing.")

You want to scream at Him to go away, but He was never there, and Mom and Dad are asleep on the couch, and they've been through enough. ("You're their only hope for normal.") So you bite it back, shove it down ("What possible justification could you have for going berserk?"), and wait for the medication to kick in.

You'll feel better soon. Everyone says so. ("Omniscience. Look it up.")

Fever slips you gratefully back into dreams. ("Like catching passing moments in time, and freezing life.") You feel your father's hand lie gently on your forehead, and wonder how he moved so quietly, because you didn't hear him move at all.

2 Days After

The fever doesn't seem to want to go down, and the rash itches until you want to scream, and your stomach still rebels at the sight of food, but you don't particularly care about any of that. All you want to do is sleep (under the covers with your headphones on, trying not to hear).

It seems like you've got months of sleep to catch up on, to make up for the months of dreaming while you were still awake. Or was it all some long, disease-induced nightmare? ("I'd rather Adam's sculpture not be part of the show.")

Nightmare. Yeah, big time. But it's finally over -- or will be, once the antibiotics start doing their job.

Everyone says so.

You want to hate Him ("I've known you since before you were born."), but He was never real, so what's the point? What's the point of any of it? You turn off the TV and its stupid soap opera, and bury your face deeper in your pillow that Kevin brought from home; he knows it's easier to lose yourself in your own pillow than the sterile hospital kind. ("I understand a lot of things other people don't get.")

Hating Him isn't normal, and you want to be normal again; you've woken up each of the last two mornings anticipating normality, craving it like some drug, almost able to taste it with your orange juice. (ěYou hoped it was an isolated instance of mental breakdown and that your life would just return to normal.")

Then you catch yourself scrutinizing the nurse who brought the juice ("You want change? I'm your woman."), searching her face, waiting for the mysterious or the snarky or the mean ("You'd like to give me a slap, wouldn't you?"). And that's not normal, because it wasn't real, so today isn't the day you get to be cured.

Mom has taken up permanent residence on the couch, since your timing was (for once) good and she doesn't have to be at school. Dad spends the nights and Kevin comes by before and after work, bringing Teen Vogue, Krispy Kremes, DVDs, and endless silly ways to pass the time. Kevin completely understands about hospitals, even if he doesn't understand about anything else, and you love him more after these last two days than you ever did before, even after he was hurt and you made all those deals with Him if He'd just let Kevin live. ("I don't bargain. That would be cruel.")

A month ago, you would have thought this was all some great big Plan of His, a sneaky, traumatic, sideways attempt to make you appreciate your brother more. Now you know better, but you still love Kevin, all on your own.

Adam come and goes, hovering and trying to distract you, but talking has never been Adam's strong point. ("I talk to angels.") Grace's visitation limit seems to be 20 minutes at a time, so she ducks in and out constantly. And is never there at the same time Luke is, which probably means something, but you don't really care.

You don't really care about anything but your next dose of medication, your next step back to normal. Back to not wanting and wishing and hoping for something beyond you, larger than you. Normal people don't do that.

("I'm not appearing to you. You are seeing me.")

You close your eyes and see nothing.

3 Weeks After

Dad still has to carry you up the stairs a week after you finally get home, and Kevin makes jokes about letting you use his chair elevator. (You actually rode up once on his lap, which was fun, but you almost fell off at the top and Mom freaked. So, no more elevator.) The rash is finally going away, but you're still tired, and your head aches all the time. They've got you on a bunch of pills and medications, and you never want to see a bottle of Benedryl again, but you're getting better.

Everyone says so.

Luke keeps producing thick new printouts full of information from LymeNet.com or something like that; you sometimes think the doctors released you from the hospital not because you're recovering, but because they're tired of Luke quizzing them on symptoms and treatments every day. ("Sometimes one talent is all talents. Everything that rises must converge.") His vocabulary has expanded to geeky new polysyllables like "muscular fasciculations," "borrelia burgdorferi," and "ceftriaxone sodium."

He did the same thing when Kevin was in the hospital, but you don't remember it being this annoying; you're going to start shoving the printouts down Luke's throat, as soon as you feel strong enough to do it. Maybe you can talk Adam into doing it for you -- but probably not. ("Sometimes people need the choice taken out of their hands.")

Adam still comes over every day; he's working nights, full-time, and he usually falls asleep at the other end of the couch, your feet still in his lap. Which is good, because it limits the time that you have to spend talking to him. ("So I guess that makes us both crazy.") Mom wakes you both up around 5:00, and feeds Adam dinner before sending him off to work, like he's another one of her children. Which is good, because you still love Adam, and think you probably always will. ("So we got that going for us.")

Sometimes Grace comes when he's asleep; she rolls her eyes and makes pointed comments about the "nauseating teen cuteness" of it all, but not quite loudly enough to wake Adam up. When he is awake, the three of you trash afternoon TV, or make plans for later in the summer, when you're feeling better. Sometimes Luke joins you, and everyone pretends not to notice that Luke starts stuttering whenever Grace looks at him, and that Grace doesn't look at him much... when anyone's watching. ("It's a touch of truth, that lets you see the world in a new way.") Normally you and Adam would do some teasing of your own about that, except that Adam's not really like that, and you don't have the energy to be like that anymore.

Yet. You will soon, when you're normal again. Just not now, not when all of your energy is going to pretend that you're already there. ("It's a gift that can only be felt when you're open enough to accept it.")

Eventually, they all leave (except Luke, who lives here, but he really lives in his room with his science projects and his fantasies of Grace, and that's way more icky than you're willing to dwell on), and you're alone again. Sometimes you're grateful, curling up and letting your brain be numbed by bad sitcoms and worse reality TV. Just letting yourself swirl around in the sea of mediocre humanity, no more or less special than anyone else. ("Why does it have to be so hard?")

Other times, the bad times, you'd sell your soul (and He'd think that phrase was funny, but He isn't real, so who cares?) for someone to talk to, someone to tell it all to and get the horrible weight of it out of your head, from behind your eyes and off the muscles of your neck. But you tried that once, and even Adam didn't understand, and the pain of that is almost worse than losing Him. ("It just always seems that there's something that gets in the way of what you hope for.") If Adam, who loves you and believes in you, couldn't believe in this, then anyone else will up your medications, or just lock you away. ("We don't know how things are gonna turn out until *after* we choose and then it's too late!")

If Adam doesn't believe, you can't either.

Still, you almost tell Mom once, when she stops to check on you somewhere between her studio and the washing machine and the kitchen. She leans over and strokes your hair back from your face, with a mother's smile somewhere between worry and love and joy, and you look away from the Powerpuff Girls to try to smile back. Then she asks how you're feeling and your smiles fades, and you feel the truth start to crowd its way up your throat, elbowing aside anything 'normal' that gets in its way. ("How do you know she's not listening if you won't hear her answer?")

But you remember how she looked in the hospital, and all the days before when you'd done something she couldn't explain, couldn't understand ("I had a failure of imagination."), and you can't do that to her again. Can't do it to yourself ever again. So you smile wider, and come up with some stupid comment about that day's "Maury", and she rolls her eyes and finds a 'good' book for you to read instead.

It lies on your lap, unopened, because reading is thinking, pictures in your head, and the pictures on the screen are so much easier to deal with. ("I take this form because you're comfortable with it. It makes sense to you.") You don't like the inside of your head anymore. Don't like that He just won't get out, leave you alone to be normal again.

Because you still think about Him, in spite of yourself and all of the drugs they're still giving you. In spite of the doctors (and Luke) who say it was all just the bacteria talking, confusing your brain. Because as much as you want to be normal again, you can't help remembering how amazing it was to be special. ("Good is relative. Beauty's relative. Everything's relative. Except for me. I'm absolute.")

In the deepest part of your mind, you know that 'normal' is just a consolation prize, the one everyone settles for, but that's the part of your mind that thought He was real. The part you can't trust, ever again. ("There's nothing I could say about that that would make sense to you.")

He hasn't been there for three weeks, so He can't ever have been there, so the only special thing about you is your amazing ability to get bitten by a tick and not notice for eight months.

("Me, I try to send this note / Float it like a paper boat")

And you miss Him with the same intensity that you want Him gone, and the two emotions race each other around inside your head until you finally flop over and scream into the cushions of the couch too loudly to hear anybody -- Him, them or yourself.

("But paper sinks and words are weak / I try, but I don't speak")

Nobody ever hears you, not even Him. You know that, make yourself believe it even in your sleep, throwing off His hand when you feel His touch, as soft as Mom's, on your forehead in your dreams.

4 Months After

You don't think you'll ever take walking for granted again (which you thought after Kevin was hurt, but you really mean it this time). You can make it up the stairs by yourself now, can walk the mall for 20 whole minutes before you have to stop to rest. Which is about Grace's limit on shopping anyway, so it all works out.

Adam still carries your books whenever he can, even though you've told him you can handle them yourself. It's kind of sweet, so you don't fight him as hard as Grace would like you to, mumbling under her breath about not giving strength to traditional stereotypes. She and Luke are snarkily joined at the hip, anyway, which takes some of the 'girl power' power out of her sulking.

You got teased about the whole 'falling for Mr. Price' thing for a while, but everyone thought it was funny, so that's cool. After the first week of class, Mom even stopped intercepting you in the hall every hour to check your temperature and make sure you're not overdoing. Everything is back to normal now, including you.

Everyone says so. Even you.

But you caught yourself at your window this morning, looking at the tree in the back yard. Looking under the tree. Waiting. You'd been there for a while, you think, when Dad's impatient voice called you downstairs for breakfast. He's been cooking breakfast a lot, and he and Mom are making with the united front when it comes to everyone eating it. So you went downstairs, and had pancakes, and went to school.

And realized halfway through English, writing the date at the top of your quiz, what you were waiting for, looking out the window. And you almost fell out of your seat in surprise that you hadn't realized it right away.

It's been one year since it all started, one year since you got sick. One year since a cute boy told you he was God, and everything about your life changed. You honestly hadn't thought about Him in a whole week, maybe two, proof of how back to normal you really are.

You should be happy. Deliriously. It's what you've wanted for months, for a year -- to be a normal teenage girl again.

But you doodle on your quiz paper instead of answering true/false questions about Edgar Allen Poe, and drift away from conversations all through lunch. You catch Adam looking at you sideways, worry in his eyes -- he's always known you better than anyone when he's paying attention, and he pays a lot more attention these days.

You want to be normal again, for him as much as for yourself. But he loved you when you were crazy, didn't he? And being crazy helped him as much as it hurt him, didn't it? You remember his mother's letter even now: "And we laugh and the boat rocks and the ripples spread from boat to pond to sea to sky, and nothing can stop them." And he started being so much better after that....

You kiss Adam goodbye after last period, promise to call Grace that night to study, and walk home with Luke, the late summer sunlight shining on your head and shoulders. Life is better now than it was a year ago, when Luke was just a little brother, not almost a friend, and Grace and Adam didn't exist for you. You were normal then, too... but all the good things came out of being a freak.

And lots of bad stuff, you remind yourself sternly. And maybe the good stuff would have happened anyway, even if He hadn't.... if you hadn't been sick. There's no such thing as God or Fate.

Everyone says so. Everyone.

("You're doing great work, Joan! Important work. Be thankful for what you can do. Don't just trade it away. And don't let anyone talk you out of it, no matter how reasonable they sound.")

The memory of His voice echoes in your ears as if it never left, and you shake it away hard enough that Luke looks at you sideways. You muster a smile and he studies you for a second ("'By your stumbling, the world is perfected.' Stop hiding who you are."), then goes back to dreaming about Grace or math. And you leave him at the front door of home, making your way around to the back instead.

He's not waiting under the tree this time either ("Let's see you make one."), but you didn't expect Him, did you? Honestly, you were scared that if you came, He would be there, and you don't want Him back. You don't.

("The thing about fear is, it doesn't leave room for anything else, like beauty or purpose.")

So you're surprised when you feel the tears trickling down your face, feel the emptiness you've been doing so good at ignoring, the hollow hole where He used to be. Where the world was scary and so hard, but you were special, and He had faith that you could handle it, could make good things happen anyway. ("You're the one who has faith, Joan.")

And you admit to yourself that you would give up a whole life of normal for another eight months of terrifying, chaotic, bewildering special.("One time, I said, 'Let there be light.' All hell broke loose. You know, figuratively speaking.")You didn't get a choice, a year ago -- He came to you, recruited you against your will, and you couldn't do anything but hang on to the roller coaster that your life became. If you could choose now....

("Faith is believing when there's no rational reason to believe.")

You sit carefully on the ground underneath the tree (because your jeans are new and grass stains are the suck) and turn your face up to the sky. The sun falls warm against your face, like a touch from a loving hand.

He won't come. The rational part of your mind says that He never did. That the quiet crunch of footsteps across the ground is Luke making sure you haven't flipped out again ("So, are you crazy?"), or Adam skipping work to see if you want to talk about something ("We'reÖ us."), or Dad home early, asking if you want to keep him and Kevin company while they work on the boat. ("Last time I asked someone to build a boat, it turned out to be something really big, like, you know, saving the world.")

Any of those are more likely. Any of them could be true.

("Do you know the meaning of 'grace'?")

But faith is believing. In Him. In them.

In yourself.

You smile. You believe. You open your eyes and you see.

"And the fire divine in all things burning
   Seeks the mystic heart anew,
From its wanderings far again returning,
   Child, to you."

      George William ("A. E.") Russell, "Benediction"



I struggled with this all summer, and finally managed to break through, which gives me quite the happy even after I was jossed n less than three weeks. The format is something of an experiment -- I wanted to show the inside of Joan's head, and bring in everything that she'd been through throughout the preious year; the quotes seemed the best way, and were kind of arty and fun. Everyone should experiment. For the record, I use He and Him to refer to God throughout because a) I needed something consistent and b) I believe that is how Joan thinks of God -- her image was formed early on by CuteBoy!God, IMO. Opinions on God expressed by this story may or may not reflect my own, so don't jump to any conclusions.

All my information on Lyme disease comes from www.lyme.org, www.lymenet.org, and the CDC (www.cdc.gov), with some opening fact-checking courtesy of Dr. Diane Levitan. Anything I got right is due to them; anything I got wrong is my own fault. Thanks to TWOP for reminding me of the stuff I'd forgotten, Dianne for the quick ego boo and for getting it, Kiki for the encouragement, Nomad for the formatting assist, and BK, Celli, Christine, Lizbet and cofax for the love.