I placed the flowers on her side table as quietly as I could, but her eyes opened.
“Hey!” I said quietly, “How are you feeling?”
She shrugged and smiled, “Better than the average bear.”
“Your folks asked me to drop by after class.”
“Yeah,” she nodded. “They asked about a thousand times if it was okay to go up to the cottage for a weekend. It’s been months since they went anywhere, but they wanted to be sure someone stopped by, so I told them to ask you.”
“You should be!” she smiled. “Do you know how many people beg to visit me in the hospital?”
“And you picked me?”
“Hey, I’ve seen you naked.”
I smiled, “Yeah, like 15 years ago in your inflatable pool.”
Then she coughed. And she coughed. And coughed. When she finally stopped coughing, sweat beaded her forehead. She lay on her side with her knees tucked up to her chest.
There was a sink in the room with plastic cups stacked beside it. I filled one of the cups and found a straw in one of the drawers. I brought her the water and a face cloth. Claire took a couple of sips through the straw then turned onto her side.
“Tell me a story?” she asked in a quiet voice.
She closed her eyes. What was left of her jet black hair was still damp from a bath. Damp marks stained her pillows. Two blankets covered her legs and torso.
“About the licorice farm?” I offered, sitting down in a chair under the television. I placed my school bag under the chair.
“Not again,” she said.
“How about the pharaoh’s curse and the lemonade?”
“No. A new one.”
“About what?” I asked.
“An adventure. You and me.”
Outside the window, a sprinkler arm shot intermittent jets of water into the air. A few clouds drifted by. I could hear some sort of commotion in the hallway.
“Well, there is the time we went fishing.”
She nodded, lying on her side.
“We were just kids then. I was eating breakfast — pancakes.”
“Of course. And maple syrup. I was listening to the radio when I heard a knock. I opened the front door and it was you.”
“At breakfast?” she asked.
“I know, strange. But there you were holding a fishing rod. You said, ‘Get your stuff!’ So I wolfed down my breakfast, ran to my room and grabbed my rod and tackle, and ran back through the house. I yelled that I was going fishing and didn’t wait for a response as I slipped on my shoes and slammed the door behind me. When we got to the forest path, you went left. ‘The pond is this way,’ I said, pointing to the right. You just said, ‘Follow me.’ ”
“I was being all secretive,” she said.
She turned onto her back and lowered the head of her bed with the control box.
“Yeah, it was annoying,” I continued. “I asked where we were going a couple of times along the way. You just grinned and kept going. So I changed the subject.”
“To what?” she asked.
“We followed the gravel path up the hill. When we got to the top, you climbed onto the lowest branch of the giant spruce tree.”
Her eyes opened.
“I asked, ‘What are you doing?’ But you ignored me and climbed up. I sighed and started up after you. What else could I do? At the top of the tree, you chose and sat down on a branch to wait for me.”
“I was a way faster climber than you,” she said.
“To be fair, I had to lug up the tackle box.”
“Excuses, excuses,” she sang.
Then she coughed a couple of times and closed her eyes. She folded her hands on her stomach. She was really skinny now, but I could still see the swell of her breasts at the edge of the covers. I tried not to look.
“When I finally got to the top of the tree, I sat on a branch across from you. ‘Okay,’ I said, ‘Now what?’ You smiled and pulled a little cloth bag from your vest.”
“I was wearing a vest?”
“Yeah. A fishing vest. You know, the kind with all the pockets?”
“Okay, that makes sense,” she nodded.
A nurse came into the room and walked over to the machines in the corner. The nurse wrote something down on a clipboard. Then the nurse went over to the bed and took Claire’s pulse. The nurse made another little note then left the room, giving us an institutional smile on her way out.
“You okay?” I asked.
She nodded, “Yeah. They come in every hour or so now.”
She took a sip from the glass of apple juice by her bed. It must have gone down the wrong pipe. After she finished coughing, she asked, “So what was in the bag?”
“The little cloth bag from my vest.”
“Oh…right. From the bag you pulled out two plastic rings — one blue and one red.”
“Rings?” she frowned. “How do you catch fish with rings?”
“That’s pretty much what I asked. You said, ‘Who said anything about fish?’ I was annoyed. I had carried the stupid tackle box through the forest, up the hill and then climbed a tree with it and now we weren’t catching fish?
“‘But I thought we needed our fishing rods?’ I said. ‘We do,’ you said and tied the blue ring to the end of your line. ‘Hand me a bobber?’ you said. So I took one from the tackle box and handed it to you. You tied it onto your line. Then you stood up on the branch.”
She sat up.
“On top of the tree?”
“I had no idea what you were doing. You shaded your eyes with your hand, primed your rod and cast out into the sky. Nothing happened, so you reeled in. You cast out and reeled in again. I was waiting for the punch line, but right after your third cast, the line went taut.”
Her hands went to her mouth and her eyes opened wide.
“I caught something?”
“Yep. Then you said, ‘Quick! Open the jar in my backpack.’ Not understanding, I didn’t move, so you shouted, ‘QUICK! GET THE JAR OUT OF MY BACKPACK!’ and reeled in.
“I jumped across to your pack and opened it. There was a glass jar with a screw lid — the kind of jar you see on kitchen counters with flour or sugar or donuts in them. I was so distracted trying to get the lid off, that I wasn’t watching you. I heard you ask, ‘Ready?’ and turned to see you dragging in a big cloud on the end of your line.”
“I was fishing for clouds!”
She was sitting straight up, bouncing slightly and smiling. One of the machines started beeping. I tensed, but she waved it off and gave me the “get on with it” spin of her hands, so I continued.
“When you landed the cloud, we grabbed it, stuffed it into the jar and screwed the lid on tight. The jar looked like it was full of marshmallow spread.”
“Because we put a big cloud in it,” she smirked.
“Now I wanted to try. I tied a bobber and the red ring to the end of my line and cast out into the sky. It took me a little bit longer, and my cloud wasn’t quite as big, but I caught one. We shoved it in the jar too. We took turns catching clouds for the next few hours. When we had six or seven good-sized clouds in the jar, we called it quits. Funny thing was, the jar didn’t really feel any heavier with all those clouds in it.”
She asked, “What’d we do with the jar?”
“The jar went back in your pack. Then we climbed down the tree and hiked all the way home. Along the way, you told me about how you invented your cloud-hooks — although I forget exactly what you said right now — and how you wanted to keep it all a secret until we were sure the clouds weren’t getting hurt.
“When we got back to my house, I asked mom if I could sleep over at your house. She said it would be okay, after I had dinner.”
“I went home?”
“Yeah. You took the jar with you. I ate dinner, grabbed my sleeping bag and toothbrush, and ran over to your house.”
“Then we opened the jar?”
“No, we didn’t want to raise suspicion with your parents, so we played Lego in your basement. We built a big spruce tree with two kids fishing from it. Your dad came downstairs and laughed at the idea of fishing from a tree. Just as he started back upstairs, a whistling sound came from your pack on the couch. He stopped for a second and we held our breath. He must have decided he was hearing things because, after a few seconds, he left.
“I took out the jar. The clouds were swirling inside. I put it back in the pack and slung the pack over my shoulder. We headed upstairs to your room. As we went by the living room, where your parents were watching TV, I could feel the jar move inside the pack and could hear the wind picking up. You said, ‘Goodnight’ to your parents all casual-like, then we scampered upstairs before any conversation could begin. We shut the door of your room behind us.”
Beads of sweat had formed on her forehead. She coughed into a towel hanging over the rail of her bed. Red spots stained the towel. I needed to do something, so I got her a new towel and hung it over the old one. She lay back again with her eyes closed. Her fingers twitched on top of the blankets. She tried to catch her breath while I held mine.
“You sure you’re okay?” I asked.
“Yes,” she nodded and breathed through her nose. “What about the jar?”
There was nothing else for me to do, so I continued.
“In your room, we unrolled our sleeping bags next to each other on the floor. You took the jar out and placed it on your desk. The jar rattled a little on the hard surface. You unscrewed the lid.”
Her pallor had changed — she looked kind of grey. Her face glistened with perspiration, but she was still smiling and listening.
The nurse poked her head in and said, “Time for your nap. Your boyfriend needs to leave.”
She sat up and begged, “Just a few more minutes?”
“Okay, but I’ll be back after giving Mr. Lee his Tylenol.”
The door shut. She lay back and closed her eyes again. She hadn’t corrected the nurse. My heart pounded against my ribs. I wanted to ask, but it didn’t seem the right time. It was time to finish the story. My voice quivered a bit as I continued, but I got it under control.
“At first, even with the lid off, the clouds stayed in the jar, whirling around. I looked at you, to see if I was supposed to do anything, but you were looking at the jar, so I did the same. As we watched, the clouds slowed and then stopped. A small cloud slipped out of the jar and floated to the ceiling. We watched it bounce off the light fixture and one of your Justin Bieber posters –”
“I never had any Justin Bieber posters in my room!” she protested.
I ignored her, smiling.
“Then a bigger cloud came out, and then another and another, until the jar was empty. The clouds floated around silently, bumping into each other and off the walls. I closed the window so as not to lose any. Through the window, the stars were shining and the moon was huge in the night sky. Your room felt cool and smelled damp. We climbed into our sleeping bags. You said, ‘I hope it isn’t going to rain in my closet,’ but I think we both thought it’d be kind of cool if it did. We lay on our backs watching the clouds float by in your room.”
She was quiet and still. I thought she had fallen asleep. It was time for me to go. I could ask my questions later. I went over and kissed her warm forehead. She winced in surprise, but didn’t say anything. I crept to the door. Halfway out of the room, I heard a rustle and looked back. She was on her side, looking at me.
She whispered, “What happened to the jar?”
“I still have it. I keep it on the shelf above my desk at home. Every now and then I open it. It smells like rain.”
Her face softened and her lashless eyelids fluttered shut. I watched her for a while, she seemed to relax then the beeping started again. Then a buzzer went off. Two nurses charged into the room, including the one that had just left.
“Clear the room!” she ordered. When I didn’t move she added, “NOW!”
I grabbed my bag and left the room as quickly as I could, all the while watching Claire for any sign that she was waking up. As I walked down the hall, two guys in red scrubs with a cart full of equipment ran past me the way I had come. There was no one else in the waiting area when I got there. I sat down. I looked out the window into a clear blue sky.