THIRTY-TWO

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I averted my eyes as the nurse at the hospital connected the bag of IV fluids to the intravenous catheter taped to the back of my left hand. Fortunately, the school nurse had taken the initiative to place the iv catheter while still at school, which meant that Max had been there, holding my hand, during the procedure.

I remember looking at Max in surprise as I had felt a comforting warmth spread through my body, just seconds before the nurse had punctured my skin. I had felt like laughing at the innocent expression on his face while he was pretending that he was doing nothing more than holding my hand.

When in fact, he had been soothing the pain of that small puncture of my skin, even though it would only sting for a second. My heart had trembled at the gesture, making me study his face more closely. He hadn't met my pensive gaze, his attention focused on the nurse as she was taping the iv catheter to my skin, which had given me ample opportunity to make an attempt at cracking his appeared expression of indifference.

"There. All done."

The memory of Max's face disintegrated in front of me and I turned to look at the smiling nurse, before glancing down at the thin plastic tube attached to my hand.

"Thanks," I mumbled distractedly. My head was still hurting, but at least my energy wasn't so low since Max had 'refueled me'. A fresh blush crept up my cheeks at the thought of that refill.

"The doctor will be with you soon," the nurse said, her smile softening. "You just sit tight."

Fortunately, Max's magic trick had probably saved me from the rather uncomfortable procedure of getting my stomach pumped. Which in all likelihood would've happened had I been just as semi-comatose when arriving at the hospital as I had been in that locker room.

I looked up as the nurse turned to leave the room, drawn by the commotion coming from the corridor outside of the open door.

"Oh, this is it. This must be it. Come along, Mr. P."

Maria.

A relieved smile broke out across my face as she tumbled around the doorway. But that smile quickly disintegrated as I saw the thin shape of my dad being pulled by Maria.

Daddy.

Maria was on the taller side for a girl; slender with long legs that sometimes seemed to go on for miles. With her blonde hair in a wavy halo around her head and a breathless agitated expression on her face, she looked very much like your everyday Maria DeLuca.

What struck me was my dad. I hadn't seen him out in public for so long; only holed up on the couch at home. But now, seeing him next to Maria's slight frame (which he normally would've appeared broad-chested and masculine next to), it hit me just how small my dad had become. He was now not much wider than Maria, the clothes hanging off his body like off a scarecrow and the arms - sticking out of his T-shirt - looked thin, veiny and sinewy. Nothing like the muscled arms of the father that, usually, could lift me off the ground and spin me around - even after I had reached full Elizabeth Parker size.

"Oh, Lizzie," Maria breathed in excited relief as she let go of my dad and quickly moved up to my bed.

"Hi, Maria," I said and glanced - feeling nervous, vulnerable and exposed in the eyes of my father - briefly in dad's direction, "Hi, Daddy."

Maria reached out and wrapped her long fingers around my catheter-free hand in a comforting squeeze, before letting go to - in a whirlwind of energy that was only Maria - spin around and start pulling chairs up next to the bed.

"Here, Mr. P," she said, pointing towards the chair closest to the head of the bed. "Take a seat."

"You really didn't have to come," I said, observing how Maria discreetly held her hands in the air behind my dad's emaciated shape as he moved, as if she was prepared to catch his body if he were to fall.

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