Growing up and other animals (chapter 1 fragment)


A fragment of the first chapter of my novel. Becca has just arrived at the hospital in her home town, Reno, after receiving some alarming news about her father.

I ran up the steps to the front desk, and then all the way to the hallway where my family was waiting for tidings from behind the red door of dad’s room. Sam and Veronica sat on plastic chairs attached to the wall, both of them looking gray and exhausted in the harsh neon light. Sam’s face was drawn, with unfamiliar lines crossing it, and I got a sneak peek, almost too intimate for comfort, of what she would look like thirty years from now.
I held back and waited for them to see me. After a while I clumsily approached. “Hey.”
For a few seconds they both stared at me, and I had the weirdest flash of anxiety that they’d send me away and say they’d rather be alone. Then Sam got up and pulled me into an embrace. “Becks,” she said. “I’m glad you’re here.”
Veronica got up, too. Her jaw-length, mouse brown hair seemed thinner than I remembered, and her polka-dotted bow hairband only accentuated its brittle state. The sharp face that Sam has inherited looked almost emaciated in this older version. The skin under Veronica’s left eye was a grainy purple; it might have been exhaustion or – as I later found out to be true – the remains of a black eye.
I took Veronica’s hands in mine. “I’m so sorry.”
She nodded. “Me too, Becca. For you, I mean.”
“Thanks.”
The circumstances made us transcend our issues, even if just for a moment. For once we respected each others’ roles. Worried daughter, loving stepmother.
“What did they say?”
“It was a heart attack. Oh my god, Becca.”Her hands shook so badly that I had to steady them between my own. I smelled a waft of liquor on her breath. Maybe a residue from the night before, or some self-prescribed emergency medicine from her hand bag.
“Here, sit down.” I helped her back into her chair. “So are they giving him meds?” I was hoping against hope, but if that had been the case he wouldn’t still be in critical care.
“No,” Sam shook her head. “They’re going to do this thing called PCI. Like, surgery. But he’s going to be fine. Right?”
“The doctor will be with us soon,” Veronica said mechanically.
“Okay,” I said, and sat down on a bolted chair next to them. “Then let’s wait together.”

In the end we had to wait another full day to see dad. I went into his room last. When I walked in the door, of the many things that struck me as strange – the fact that he looked so small and old outside the context of our home, the tubes that fed into his arm – the strangest was seeing his name on the chart at the foot of his bed. Gus Vanderburgh. He was always so overwhelmingly my father that it had been a long time since I had considered him as an independent human being. And yet here he was, Gus Vanderburgh. A man with his own opinions about life, and anecdotes with people I’d never know in them, and parameters for happiness I’d never understand. That was the moment it hit me. He would die, and no longer be my father. And there was nothing I could do, no ideal-daughter-goal I could fulfill, to keep him here. I started to cry.
“Becca.”
From up close his skin looked like crumpled rice paper. I sat down on a chair by the bed and stroked his hand. As if he’d read my thoughts, he said: “I never was much of a father to you, was I?”
“Don’t say that.”
“But it’s true.” He smiled laboriously. “There’s a couple of things I want to say, honey, in case I don’t get another chance.”
Trying to pull myself together, I took a tissue from the box on his night stand and wiped my face. I waited for him to speak. His breathing sounded like someone sanding wood in slow-motion.
“Dad?”
“Is she mad at me?”
“Who?”
“Your stepmother.”
I was taken aback. “Eh. No, of course not. I don’t think so.”
He looked me over with that unreadable expression on his face, as if he was tucking his impressions away for later use. He cleared his throat, and in spite of myself my heart leaped up.
“Your nose is red.”

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