Lizea Welbourne lay crying at her brother’s side. The stool she had been sitting on for hours had been a numbing experience to endure, but it was no more than she deserved for being in such good health. Never a sick day in her life, not since she was a child. Whenever she finally did get sick, she was merely brushed by a meager cold that barely called for mask — if even a warm scarf.
She was the image of health, which only made it even more brutal that her brother never had anything near what she did. It tore at her, how she was living so well when her brother was chained to a hospital bed, and even more so when he had to risk his life in surgery for the mere chance of a somewhat normal life.
If it was guilt driving her to visit him everyday, even when she was hard pressed for time, it was her love for his dour and dark demeanor that made her stay and enjoy his humor and wits, which even to the end were as sharp as his mind.
He refused to admit it, but when it came to numbers and logic he was her superior in every sense of the word. She could remember the machine-like way he ate up maths tests, math books, even math teachers. His ability was so astonishing that adults were often frightened by the speed at which he computed advanced arguments for his age.
The only reason he was not on every university’s watch list was simply because he caught on early to the facial expressions indicating that an adult was dead scared of the child in front of them, but trying to hide it behind a veneer of aged wisdom. This made him hide his skill, trying to blend in with his surroundings as best he could, and never reveal how fast he truly was.
It’s just not fair..! You hear me, Sam?! It’s not fair!
She kept repeating that childish mantra, knowing full well how unfair the world was. Her brother was lost to her, whether she wanted it or not. She wanted to kick and scream, but did not dare to disturb the unmoving shape lying stretched out before her.
He was so terribly pale, pale enough that his skin was translucent, showing the blue veins beneath like dry rivers within a dying land. Skin and bones was all that remained of him, proof of how little sustenance he had been able to consume, and leaving no evidence of the hearty boy he had been once. In fact, his skin was drawn so taught over what little remained that his gaunt face was warped into rictus smile, even now when he was supposed to be in peace and away from the pain.
Desperately she felt for his bony arm, following the veins down to the hand, she cradled it in her own hands with the most delicate touch she could manage, as if she was holding onto a fragile dove. With tears welling up once more, she looked at her brother’s face, which was a mockery of his normal expression. She put her forehead to his cold fingers and prayed for a miracle, no matter which god would provide it.
I will do anything — anything! Just give me back my brother and see him well, and I will give anything in return!
Outside the room an alarm rang out, nurses rushed past the open door — a doctor trailing closely behind — all rushing for something that was probably a matter of life and death. A soft squeeze to her hands made her squeeze back in turn.
Loud voices made it clear that there was an emergency, and another couple of nurses came rushing past the door. Another person ran past the door in the opposite direction too fast for her to recognize whether they were hospital staff or not. Something croaked nearby, it sounded like a dry throat being cleared from a year’s worth of pus.
To Lizea’s amazement, she saw Doctor Rain fly towards the commotion in a run. The man never ran for anything, and yet he always appeared exactly on time; never before, never after, always exact. It was an old joke between herself and Sam that Rain knew the time of his own death, and would calmly sit down in a comfortable chair with a glass of pearly water — the man never drank stronger — to await the hour and have all the proper papers in front of him when he did so.
Something tickled the back of her mind, then suddenly dawned on her, and in an instant her attention was back on the most important matter — the most important person.
“L-Liz…?” It was barely a sound, hardly a voice, but it was a noise that warmed her heart and welled her up with happiness to bursting. Unable to constrain herself, she fell onto the skin and bones of her brother in a warm embrace. He was awake — awake and alive! His dark, steely blue eyes had met hers, and she had never felt anymore alive herself.
Completely ignoring the fact that he had just woken from a deep coma lasting for days — so deep that doctor Rain had barely been able to confirm his life signs — she held onto his fragile frame, as if she alone was keeping his heart beating.
A shaking pat on her head made her realize what she was doing, and how painful it must be for Sam, which made her withdraw in an instant. With a bony hand, Sam rubbed at his chest, right where she had pressed her face in so hard, one might think she wanted to go through him.
“Y-you certainly… seem well,” he stammered, barely forcing the words out with a whisper, then pointed towards the door, “Mind getting me some water?”
She could hardly contain herself to a light jog, as she padded out on the hallway to the sight of orderly chaos. A bed and a patient were hastily pulled out of a room nearby and with all haste rushed down the hall, towards what Lizea knew to be the direction of the surgery ward. She ignored the sad circumstances and made for the nearest water dispenser, filling a plastic cup to the brim before she realized her mistake and poured most of it out again.
Realizing how she now no longer had enough, she calmly took control of her urgency and attempted to reign it in for just long enough to fill the cup up with a moderate amount of water. Then she near-sprinted back down the hall and into the hospital room where she almost lost the cup on the floor.
Inside stood doctor Rain looming over Sam’s bedside, with the patient in question already answering questions and going through the motions of a checkup.
How did he…?
She shook the question off and took a better grip on the cup of water as she approached. She had not seen doctor Rain pass her by on the way, had he come from the other direction? The calm gaze of Doctor Thomas Rain met hers when he noticed her approach, and a slight smile grazed his lips.
Oh but he was handsome, that was for sure. She had never actually thought that she came here to look at his mild eyes or the soft curls falling from the crown of his head, but a little voice inside her could not quite deny that it was part of her daily ritual.
But she had seen him run down the hall in the direction of the emergency patient, had she not? The same direction she had gone to fetch water from the dispenser… So how…?
“Miss Welbourne, it is good to see the efforts you have put into watching over your brother bear fruit,” He said, his soft voice caressing every word as if he had put special thought into each of them.
“Y-yes!” She responded, a bit to eagerly. She was not some doe-eyed daydreamer, but Lizea Welbourne: representative of the first years at Mimir Wells Academy, and the only first-year to be elected to a student council seat.
She chided herself mentally as she approached, just as the examination came to a close. “And you brought water; how considerate of you. You will make some man very happy one day — if any can be found to match you. That is, if I may say so, Miss Welbourne.”
Those words shredded what little remained of her composure. She reddened until she was sure her face would burst, and she almost threw the water at Sam when he gave her one of those mortifying grins his gaunt skin contorted his face into. Instead she calmly, gently, let her brother sip the water in small swallows, then placed the water cup on his bedside table with austere elegance. She was not embarrassed!
“You are, incredibly enough, in better health than when you went into surgery,” said doctor Rain as he turned his attention back to Sam.
“Well enough that we might be able to discharge you if you improve at the same rate going forward. I still want you here for observation for at least two more weeks before I make a final determination, but if all goes well we should see vast improvements before the week is out. With rehabilitation you could be back on your feet within the month, perhaps two. I’m afraid that’s as precise as I can be at the moment. I’ll check in on you later, but for now, Sam, it’s good to see you. Well done.”
“Thank you,” Sam croaked and returned the smile. Doctor Rain gave each of them a nod, which was almost a bow, then turned and exited the room with no further comment.
“That’s amazing, Sam! It really worked! You’re going to be well now!” She clapped her hands in excitement, thinking about how she was going to show him off to their class and introduce him to all of her friends. She would find him a nice girl that could take care of him when she could not, even if she had to drag him kicking and screaming to their first date.
She looked down at his pale form, and had to admit to herself that the girlfriend could wait for a bit. Partly because he was hardly presentable as of yet, and partly because she was not sure she could give up the caring role she had undertaken since he first fell ill. Not yet.
As for Sam, he seemed lost in thought, holding out his hand in front his face and staring at the palm as if some great secret lay hidden there. The simple raise of a hand, or making of a fist had once been near-impossible for him, or so weak it hardly mattered, but now he made a strong fist that made his sickness seem a thing of the past.
For a moment, she thought she saw a faint green light shimmer around the closed fist, but when she blinked the color was gone, and she shrugged it off as a mere trick of the light.
“Yes…” He said, his voice hoarse and rough, “I’m free.”
Half an hour later, Lizea stood at the bus stop and waited. She was excited, not just for Sam, but for her parents as well. They would have stayed in the hospital if they could, but they were both forced to go to work today. They doted on Sam, and would have stayed by his side even with their responsibilities, but Lizea had convinced them to go. They could not pay the medical bills if they were out of a job, after all. That had convinced them good.
Humming to herself and smiling, Lizea hardly noticed her surroundings. Her soft slippers tapped the pavement, still warm from the late summer heat, even as the sun was disappearing beneath the horizon and darkness settled in.
The skirt of her blue summer dress brushed against her naked thighs, which made her sigh with delight at the softness of the fabric. It was a marvelous piece with slashes of white across the front, where buttons up one side curved down her midsection, ending at her hip, made room for a an embroidered pattern depicting a branch of a tree holding a single apple.
Two blue-and-white birds stood on either end of the branch, fashioned so that one stood above and looked down, while another stood below and looked up. She let her hands follow the lines that made up the simple picture and smiled at what a find the dress had been, when something soft and very cold touched her nose.
She immediately brushed it off, but she only came away with slight moisture on her fingers. She blinked at the water she could not see, but felt as she rubbed her thumb against the first two of her fingers. Was it beginning to rain?
The next instant, the cold sensation hit the hand she was holding out in front of her, and she realized what it was even as her mind refused to acknowledge that such a thing was possible. Only when a third appeared in the dimly lit evening, did she acknowledge that it was true: snowflakes were falling in midsummer – in this heat, no less! Astonished, and still half-disbelieving, she looked around for any other witnesses to this unbelievable event, and suddenly her eyes fell on a short girl only a few steps away.
She was dressed in a thick, yet subtle winter coat, reaching halfway down her thighs, where it suddenly turned into a silken skirt barely making it down to her knees, leaving her lower thighs bare. Her feet had slippers on them, like Lizea, but hers covered her entire foot and was lined with fur and the edges, while on her head she wore a classic, conical fur hat with what looked like the softest fur Lizea had ever seen.
Both her hands were held in front of her, within a fur hand warmer in the same conical shape and color as the hat on her head. Except for the girl’s bare legs, Lizea could imagine her in a snowstorm and would not have found the sight odd. It therefore seemed natural that the odd snowflakes appeared and fell down around her, only to vanish the instant they touched the summer-heated surfaces all around.
“Um excuse me…?” She said, hesitantly, seeing as the girl looked into the distance like something very important was happening out there. For a time there was no reaction, then Lizea took a step towards her, and all of the girls attention suddenly swung around and locked onto her. It was as if winter itself had seen fit to zone in around her, and her alone, leaving all else — everybody else — as irrelevant pieces to be cast aside.
She was stunningly beautiful in a precarious way; an ice sculpture in the middle of a frozen lake was the image that Lizea conjured. Those crystal clear blue eyes could have been forged out of winter’s frost for all she knew.
She had a delicate nose turned slightly upwards at the end; long blond lashes that flickered with the sharpness of a snowstorm whenever she blinked — although it was a seldom occurrence. Only her mouth was not the picture of perfection, instead it was a thin line barely containing any red color, and yet it also belonged in that face as if ordained by higher powers.
Shaking herself out of the reverie, Lizea tried again, “Hi, I’m Liz-Lizea! I’m Lizea. Can I ask your name?” Confused by her own reaction to this girl, who seemed about her own age, Lizea somehow got the impression that she should be very courteous and polite to her.
It was not like her to be this way; she preferred for anyone she met to get on familiar terms instantly, and usually asked to be called the shorter nickname of ‘Liz’ rather than her full name.
“I am Caressa,” said the girl in response, her tone precise as she gave the ‘r’ in her name gentle roll, “How do you do, Lizea Welbourne?” Her speech rolled as well, ebbing and flowing from slow to rapid, then back to slow intonations again.
“I… I am well…?” Lizea answered, unable to avoid her response turning halfway into a question, then soldiered on, “And you, Caressa was it? How do you do?”
A blink, a snowstorm of blond lashes, and then attention was back on Lizea. “I am also well. In fact I believe I am more than well. Yes. I am in good humor today. You too, it seems?”
“Ye-yes,” Lizea stammered, not quite able to keep up the formal tone of the conversation, “My brother just woke up from coma. The doctor says he is going to be alright now.”
“Ahh… That is good news. It gladdens me that you have received such a blessing.”
“Thank you very much. How about you, Miss Caressa? What has you in such a good h-humor?” She should stop stammering like a little girl an act like she was at least halfway adult! Lizea gave herself the mental admonishment when a brief pause in the conversation opened, as Caressa turned her attention away from Lizea and looked out into the distance.
Before the silence grew too deadening, Caressa finally said, “I am in a good humor on this day because something astonishing has happened, and twice over at that. In fact, I believe it is no exaggeration when I say that today has set us on a path that may very well lead to future salvation.”
Astonished by the seriousness of her tone and words, Lizea was too dumbstruck to speak any kind of response. When Caressa’s attention once again returned on her, all of Lizea’s world became this fragile beauty in front of her, and the words she spoke, “Rejoice, Lizea Welbourne; the gods walk among us once more.”
Before she could mentally make sense of that statement, a black car arrived beside Caressa and man in a black coat stepped out to open the door for her. Without another word, Caressa disappeared into the vehicle. Standing at the ready, the man nodded, as if he had received a command, then shut the door to the vehicle with subdued emphasis.
He then turned towards Lizea, who almost jumped out of her skin when he began purposefully striding towards her. Unlike Caressa, he had dark skin and dark, nearly black eyes, framed by a pair of rectangular glasses set with a thick frames. On top of short-cropped, bronze hair, he wore a black hat arranged with level precision.
As he came closer, he quickly began to loom above her, his height forcing Lizea crane her neck upwards. Without a word, the man handed her rectangular piece of paper, which she received with trepidation. Then he turned on his heels, and in three quick strides he was back beside the car, and into it with another.
The metal door slammed shut only half a second before the engine started up, and the vehicle drove off with stoic restraint. Lizea was left, mouth halfway open to make some response she had already forgotten. When she looked down at the paper in her hands, it was a black rectangle with only a single line of digits spelling out a phone number in white. No name, no address, nothing.
Stunned by events; the joy of Sam’s return to the living, her meeting with Caressa — and the abrupt end to it — Lizea barely noticed when the bus arrived, or how she paid the fare and got in.
She was so caught up in the many shocks of the day that she even failed to take note of when the snowflakes stopped falling. With all that had happened, it seemed strange that it was an innocuous and minor event which kept reasserting itself again and again in her mind while she looked out the window at the floating city passing by.
How did he get into Sam’s room?