“Can I get you anything?”
It was the third time he’d asked, straining his voice over the music.
“No, I’m great. Thank you, though!” Pai chirped at the host, certain her false cheer was showing cracks. Aaron turned back to continue a conversation, but still hovered nearby.
Pai started to roll her eyes, just as someone tripped over the footplate of her wheelchair, nearly tipping into her lap.
“Oh my God, I’m so sorry!” shrieked the streaky blonde with ‘PINK’ printed across the ass of her joggers. She didn’t spill a drop of beer from the red Solo cup though. Small mercies.
“That’s fine. Just...It’s okay.” Gripping the push rims in her strong hands, she wheeled back a bit, closer to the wall. Apparently not hearing her excuse the mishap, Aaron had the blonde by the elbow and was making a spectacle out of himself on her behalf.
“C’mon, she’s right there. Watch where you’re going!”
“I’m so sorry. I didn’t see her. I’m so, so sorry! Wait, issit yer party? Yer the brith--birthday boy--”
“Yeah, it’s my birthday, so do me a favor and be more careful!”
“Aaron, it’s okay. She’s had a few too many. People trip.”
He let the tipsy girl stumble off, and turned to her with a flushed face.
“This was a bad idea.”
“It was an awesome idea. Parties are great! You don’t have to babysit me. I’ve got my beer,” she raised her plastic cup at him, “and you have to host your birthday party.”
His green eyes looked much darker inside away from the sunlight, and she could see the wavering doubt. She met his gaze with her dark brown eyes wrapped in winged eyeliner sharp enough to cut a man. Her mixed Southeast Asian and Middle Eastern features and dark golden brown skin were a compelling contrast to most of the university partygoers.
“I’m serious, Aaron. I’m going home if you’re going to try to babysit me. I’ve been to parties before, you know.” Her voice was a lot more Jersey than most people expected.
“Okay, okay. But find me if you need anything.”
“I will. But seriously, get out of my face, m’kay? Happy birthday.”
He chuckled, and gave her a casual half wave as he started to weave his way back through the crowd. A group of frat boys grabbed him, lifting him onto their shoulders.
“Hail the conquering hero,” she muttered before taking another gulp of heady lager.
Stashing the cup between her thighs, she swiveled her chair and pushed forward. The balcony looked fairly abandoned due to the slight chill. The occasional smoker wafting second hand over her body would be a benediction compared to the stifling attentions of a newly minted friend. Aaron was a pretty good study buddy, but he didn’t have it through his head that her wheels didn’t mean she needed to be treated like an invalid.
The crowd parted ways as she headed toward the double doors. Before anyone could offer to help open the door, she gained momentum and pushed open the door, palm slapping hard into the metal push bar. As the door swung open, she wheeled through the opening smoothly, and breathed in the smell of damp Autumn leaves and nighttime. The door swung shut behind her, muffling the loud hip hop music.
Just across the street from main campus, this three story building had been entrusted to the fraternity in the seventies, with concrete geometric shapes in Mid Century Modern style. The interior was an immature and half-conceived allusion to Mad Men, with shag rugs, a baby blue sofa and love seat, a Sinatra poster, and a lonely lava lamp on a two-tiered side table. What an eyesore. At this point, Pai was just glad the building had balconies. She wheeled until the metal frames of her legrests pushed against the cold concrete barrier and stared out over the campus.
The lights dimmed for a moment. She glanced behind her at the people within. No one was reacting to the brown out, which meant...
“Are you going to drink that?”
She tried her best to ignore the voice. Whatever small amount of peace she’d found dissipated. Resisting the urge to run her fingers through her short black hair, she picked up her Solo cup and took a determined gulp.
“Ah, the silent treatment. What did I do this time, sister?”
The shadows cast by the eave of the overhang started to change shape in her peripheral vision. On the edge of the concrete railing, the familiar form coalesced. She turned her head sharply the other direction. When the shape flashed over to shadows on the other side of the balcony, she shut her eyes and took a deep breath.
Her system flooded with adrenaline. She knew what was coming, and so she refused to open her eyes. It always went better if she refused to look at him.
“Such a spoiled bitch, Asima Paiyel Patel. You have the whole world, and I didn’t even get a taste. You ate me whole, in the womb. Was I delicious? Did you suck the marrow from my bones? I don’t recall.”
She could hear the twist in his lip as he emphasized his last word as if straining. Pai dropped the solo cup, and sound of the plastic hitting concrete and the beer splashing was lost in the sound of blood rushing to her ears.
The ache in her joints flared, from her spine radiating out to her ribs, shoulders, hips, elbows, knees, wrists, ankles, fingers and toes. It was so sharp a pain, she felt like she were being stabbed at every spot cartilage met degenerating bone. An animal sound of distress squeezed out from between her clenched teeth as she arched back in her seat. Her legs rattled against her foot rests. The sound of the pushbar of the door depressing behind her didn’t make much of an impact.
“Oh my god, Pai!” Aaron rushed onto the balcony. He was predictable in his inability to see her as an autonomous entity, but it worked in her favor this time. She vaguely heard him push the door open again.
“Someone call 911! Tell them she’s having a seizure! NOW!”
Warm hands on her face, neck.
“Pai, can you tell me what’s wrong?”
“Is this your new lover, bitch? Does he keep you warm at night? No. I don’t think so. You’re alone. You’ll always be alone.”
The shade was close, following Aaron’s questing hands with his own, ice-cold searing trace, making all her nerves misfire, muscles spasming with new pain.
“Pai, an ambulance is on the way. Shit, shit, shit. What do I do?”
“Some words are more filling, more delicious than others, aren’t they, sister? Like ‘chronic’ and ‘debilitating’ and ‘degenerative’...ooh, those just give me the shivers.” Cold, dead fingers wrapped around her neck, not squeezing, but the contact made her arms fly out wildly, her back and neck arching to near-impossible contortions.
“I’m googling seizures on my pho--” said a young man, absolutely terrified.
“I’m a nursing student. Get that long couch cushion. She’s hurting herself on that chair, and she might choke on vomit. I need you and you to help me. Don’t put your fingers in her mouth or anything. We just need to get her to where she won’t hurt herself.” Some girl took charge, and Pai felt herself lifted, placed onto a cushion. The pain kept going and going though, like being engulfed in flames. Maybe this time the shade would finish her off.
“They’re on their way. They said just prevent her from injuring herself and ride it out. They said it will probably end soon. They’re asking when it started.”
“Shit, I dunno--I found her out here alone like this,” said Aaron.
“Someone go hold the doors open for the paramedics, and show them where we are.”
“Beg me, and I’ll end it. You don’t need to nod or speak. I’ll know. I can hear all of your pathetic thoughts. You don’t have to live in this Hell any more. You don’t need this broken little shell.” She felt as if someone made of ice straddled her legs and pressed hands against her shoulders. Her full body spasms amped up. The gathered crowd made noises of fear.
“If she vomits, we need to get her onto her side!”
“We used to play so nice, Pai. We used to be so close. Things were so good. They can be good again. Just let me climb in and take a ride. It’s as easy as that. I can make us whole again. I can end the pain.”
It was when his voice gentled, pleading that she knew.
He only has a little bit left before he has to stop.
Rage and fear whirled together like a vortex in her chest. She wasn’t going to let him in. Not today.
Go fuck yourself, she thought at him, her body bowing off the couch cushion, a dozen warm hands on her every limb like a faith healing.
“You used to let me in. I’m disappointed with you, sister. We’ll talk again. Soon.”
Quick as a breeze blowing past, he was gone. As soon as her jaw unclenched, she was sobbing, chest heaving. Everything hurt. She felt like she’d been beaten with bats, head to toe. Her vision blurred, and focus came back slowly as she gasped and cried. Someone lifted her small body, cradling her like a child, and instead of pulling back, she just let it happen.