02: Mortal Soul

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Elizabeth opened her eyes and saw the familiar white ceiling she had grown tired of hating. She was propped up on the hospital bed with three pillows against her back, her head weighing down on top of the highest pillow as if she had been sleeping on a seat with no headrest.

She slowly turned her head and saw Kyle sitting next to the bed. He held his tablet in his hands with his eyes closed. His head was tilted to the right, nearly resting on his shoulder. She tried to smile but winced instead at the pain from her neck.

"Hey, sleepyhead," she said. Her voice was raspy and quiet. Clearing her throat, she tried again, "It's time to wake up now."

Aside from his chest expanding and contracting, Kyle did not move.

"You're going to drop your tablet," she said.

Kyle took a deep breath as he raised his head. Stretching out his arms, he faced Elizabeth and grinned. "Hey you," he said.

She fought the urge to roll her eyes. "Can you prop my head up?"

He got up from his seat and placed his tablet on the table next to her bed.

"Yeah, sorry," he said, fixing the pillows. "It must have fallen. Sorry, I didn't notice."

He carefully placed her head back onto the pillow and slid his hand from the back of her head to the side of her face. He caressed her cheek with his thumb and smiled weakly.

"How do you feel?" he asked.

She felt pain coursing through her chest and collarbone. Her legs felt as if she had just run a marathon, even though she hadn't been out of bed in almost a week. Her fingers and knuckles desperately cried out to be cracked. To top it all off, she had a stinging headache starting from behind her eyes straight through to the center of her brain.

"Tired," she said.

She diverted her eyes to the various machines in the room. The steady beep and low hum were all that was left of the wonderful—sometimes cacophonous—symphony known as life. Dripping from the IV bag, silent and constant, gravity helped the saline enter through the dorsal side of her left hand. Closing her eyes, she pictured herself as a robot being scanned for errors to fix.

"Do you want to sleep some more?" Kyle asked, letting go of her cheek.

She met his eyes and shook her head, causing her headache to intensify and her brain to start throbbing against her skull. Her eyes instinctively closed tightly in response to the pain. When she opened them again, she exhaled through her nose in a weak attempt at a laugh, but Kyle was no longer smiling.

He wore the face he always made whenever they had a disagreement, when he chose to say nothing instead of having a confrontation; the face of a dreamer being faced with reality. He furrowed his brow and pressed his lips together. Although he looked directly at her, it was obvious his mind was elsewhere.

"Do you want me to read you a story?" he asked, hoping to distract his mind just as much as hers.

She softly nodded her head, careful to avoid the pain this time.

Kyle pulled the chair closer to the bed and sat down. He grabbed a book from the bedside table and flipped through the pages to find the spot they had left off from before. The cover showed a closeup of a young girl's face with one blue eye and one green eye, a dragon breathing fire in the background, and the title The Chronicles of Analaïs. Elizabeth was a sucker for young adult fantasy novels.

As Kyle read from the part where the young girl discovers she has magic powers, she looked up again at the ceiling. The perfect whiteness reminded her of the old belief that life fades to white when you die. Of course, everyone knew now that the whole "follow the light" cliché came from the nerve signals in your eyes failing to capture and transmit the different frequencies from the light spectrum to your brain, so that everything seemed to be blown out, and therefore white. It wasn't heaven or the afterlife. It was just science.

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