I woke up to the feeling of Justin’s fingers in my hair; I’d fallen asleep in the recliner, draped over his bed just to get that much closer to him. It wasn’t the best position for my back, but it was worth it to be close to him. I nuzzled into his palm and gazed into his eyes.
“Have you been awake for long?” I asked.
Outside, the sun was rising, though it was dimmed by the clouds and a misty rain.
“Just a few minutes,” he murmured. His fingers slid to the back of my head and he scooted closer to me.
I returned the gesture as I looked over his face. “You look a little better,” I told him. “Not quite as exhausted.” His eyes had seemed sunken and dark before; thank goodness he was somewhere that he’d be encouraged to sleep more.
Justin nodded. “Yeah…” He didn’t say more, and instead gazed at me with a weak smile.
“How do you feel?” I asked him after a while. “Any nausea?”
He shook his head.
“Have you eaten yet? Can you eat?” I sat up a little. “What sounds good to you?”
“Umm…” Justin clung to my hand. His grip was weak, but I knew he was trying.
“What is it, Little Moon?”
“Okay.” But I couldn’t help but grin. “Let me sit you up a little first.”
I fidgeted with the bed controls until he was more upright, and also adjusted his pillows. In his weakened state, it would be hard for him to sit up on his own, and I intended to help as much as I could.
“All right, tell me what sounds good. If they don’t have it here, I’ll go out and get it.”
“Umm… well, maybe some toast.” then he averted his gaze shyly. “…and maybe a little avocado.”
“Oh, you want avocado toast!”
“Not the fancy kind,” he insisted. “And maybe a blueberry waffle…”
“That sounds perfect for you, Little Moon,” I told him, giving him a gentle hug before calling for the nurse.
Jasmine had already gone home, but the morning nurse was just as nice, and twice as bubbly. She was clearly far more used to younger children, because she came in with two plushies to offer Justin. He declined the bears, and after much insistence agreed that he would accept a wolf or a vampire– a bit of a stretch, but it got her to change the subject to food.
“I remember your chart,” she said. “You need foods dense with nutrients and calories. Doctor wants to get your weight up, but not your LDL cholesterol.”
“Okay… that’s the kind in greasy meats, right?” She nodded, and Justin went on. “I don’t think I could stomach those anyway. I threw up the sausage I had yesterday.”
“No bacon or sausage for now then,” the nurse replied. “We don’t want you losing what you eat. Happy bellies make strong, happy boys. So, what do you like?”
I think he was a little overwhelmed by her energy, so I let her know what we’d already discussed, and gave her a couple other ideas of what he enjoyed just in case the hospital kitchen didn’t have avocados. She said she’d order some food for me, too, then disappeared to put everything into the cafeteria program at the nurse’s station. She came back after a while with a narrow cart containing all the tools needed for taking vitals.
“Okay… uhh… Well, I can’t call you kiddo, can I?” She saw Justin grimace and added, “Buddy won’t work for you either, will it? I guess I’ll just have to call you young man– you know, since you’re almost a man, but you’re still a little young.”
Justin smirked, we shared incredulous looks.
“She is trying,” I pointed out.
“More than trying,” she said. “I found something I think you’ll like, and something else you might not like. I have to do the thing you don’t like, but you can have the other thing if you’re brave about it, okay?”
Justin eyed the vitals cart warily. She brought it closer and showed him the pulse-oximeter. “I know you’ve seen this thing before. Just stick your finger in it and I won’t have to get the kind we tape onto your toe.”
“Yeah… the less wires, the better,” he said, and offered his finger.
“You’re lucky,” she said as she wiped her temporal thermometer with an alcohol pad. “Nurses used to have to take kids’ temperatures in their bottom. Now I don’t even have to poke the underside of your tongue; I just have to wave this magic wand and I know you don’t have a fever.”
She put the thermometer down, scribbled down some numbers, and picked up the blood pressure cuff. “Yeah, now for the hard part,” she said when she saw his expression. “We have to watch your blood pressure carefully, though, so we can give you the right treatments. But lucky you, I found this!”
She reach down to the lower basket on the cart and picked up a round, squat plushie. Well, it looked more like a gumdrop-shaped pillow. The top part of it looked like a gray tabby cat, and the rest was a cartoonish vampire, much like the stereotypical costumes seen at Halloween.
“This little guy was way in the back of the toy closet,” she told him. “He’s leftover from last fall. I don’t know if it’s your style, but the closest thing we have to a wolf is a husky.”
Justin eyed the plush for a long moment before his face broke out into a grin. “It’s a Squishmallow!”
“It sure is,” the nurse agreed, seeming relieved that he liked it. “It’s all yours if I get to take your blood pressure.”
He knew he had no choice but to give in. She was making it seem like it was his choice, but she really did need to get his vitals, and he knew as well as I did that she would get his mother involved if she had to. He’d never liked the way the cuff squeezed his arm, and it probably didn’t help that his readings weren’t all that accurate if he was always tense for them.
With a little comforting from me and the plushie to squeeze, Justin was able to submit to the blood pressure check. As I’d predicted, it was a little low. Once he got back into eating and stopped everything that was upsetting his stomach, I was sure his blood supply would improve, and so would his blood pressure.
Breakfast arrived not long after that. Justin got everything he wanted, and the nurse reminded him not to overeat; it was okay not to clear his plate, because the most important thing was that he ate good food and kept it down. The doctors wanted to remove stress factors and comfort him so that he could get better. I had to remind Justin to slow down a couple times as he devoured the avocado toast and started in on the waffle.
“Take it easy with the syrup, Little Moon. All that sugar is going to make your heart race.”
“I’m hungry,” he insisted.
“You were starving,” I corrected him, “so don’t overdo it. Refeeding takes time, remember?”
Justin grumbled, but conceded and paid better attention to how his body reacted. Once he was full, the nurse had him relax a while so that he could digest and avoid anything that could make him throw up.
“How are you feeling?” I asked as he watched me eat my scrambled eggs. After getting sick on them the day before, he wasn’t ready to try them again, even if they were better prepared.
“Umm… a little better. Kinda warm instead of achy.”
“That’s a good sign.” I gave him a warm smile. “If you keep doing well, they’ll let you go home in no time.”
“Maybe,” Justin said with a shrug. “But yesterday, while you weren’t here, they said a bunch of different doctors were going to see me today.”
“That makes sense, Little Moon. You were unconscious for hours, and you didn’t even realize you’d been throwing up at night. They probably have a lot that they want to check on.”
Once Justin felt a little less stuffed from eating, the nurse came in to see how well he could sit up on his own– and if he was strong enough to stand. He barely managed to push himself up, and standing worked out for maybe five seconds before I had to catch him and lay him back down.
“I don’t know how you managed to push yourself to do as much as you did before you fainted,” I told him.
“Well… I guess Ihad to,” Justin replied a little sheepishly.
“You are completely drained from it, too, young man,” the nurse said as she moved on to checking his IV bags. “The good news is that now you don’t have to force yourself to do anything that’s beyond your limits. We’re going to help you learn when to wind down so you don’t overextend yourself, and the doctors are going to make sure your family is on board with respecting your limits and needs.”
Justin nodded. He seemed a little uncertain about having his mother and aunt being told what to do, especially when it meant listening to him more, but in my view, it was vital that they did exactly that. I had little doubt that things would work in Justin’s favor; his mother was incredibly worried about him and willing to do whatever he needed, and she’d said that his aunt was sorry for pushing him so hard and not realizing that he wasn’t well.
Ms. Anderson got to the hospital later in the morning. She’d been able to work out her schedule with her manager to where she’d start work earlier and finish at a time that wouldn’t cause her to lose too many hours. After that, I could go to work and return in the evening. I had no problem being the one to keep Justin company overnight; his mother seemed very relieved to hear that.
We met another of the hospital’s pediatricians that morning. Dr. Hiro was cheerful and knowledgeable, and he seemed ready to tackle everything Justin had going on.
“All right, Justin, I’ve got good news and bad news,” he said with a grin, “and then more good news.”
Justin looked up at him with wide eyes.
“But I’m not going to tell you which is which; I know you’re smart enough to figure it out.”
Justin raised a brow and looked over at me. I smirked back and gave him a look that said, ‘just play along.’
“First, your blood test results,” Dr. Hiro began. “No infections of any kind; no parasites, no other indicators of disease. All of our concerns with your blood work– iron, vitamins, cell count– are rooted in your malnutrition, and we can treat that. We can get you meal plans and IV supplements.”
“That’s fantastic,” I said, giving Justin a comforting squeeze.
“As part of our plan, we need to place a central line,” the doctor went on. “It will get a lot of nutrients into you a lot faster. We’re developing the formula for your parenteral supplement.”
“What’s a central line?” Justin asked nervously. “I mean, what does it go through the center of?”
Dr. Hiro had come prepared with pictures and pamphlets to help explain that. It was basically a more intensive IV line, which would be placed in one of the major veins near his clavicle. Justin was clearly terrified by the thought of large needles and tubes, even with local anesthetic, but after some discussion, the doctor said that he could administer a sedative through the IV currently in place. Ms. Anderson signed the paperwork, and I agreed to stay until the vascular specialist came in.
“Once the central line is in place,” Dr. Hiro went on, “we can remove the IV from your arm. Now for some concerns that aren’t related to your blood work. There will be some specialists coming by throughout the day to check in on you.”
“What sort of specialists?” Ms. Anderson asked.
“Well, in order to understand how he got to this point– to where he’s more or less starving– we have to check a few things. A gastroenterologist will help make sure he’s able to digest food and absorb nutrients, and a psychiatrist will evaluate–“
“You mean for depression?” Justin asked. He’d tensed up at the mention of that.
“It’s a possibility,” the doctor admitted. “You’ve been through a lot these past couple months, so the safest route would be to make sure there are no lasting effects, and that you haven’t been living with something long-term that never got diagnosed or treated.”
Dr. Hiro read the worry and apprehension on his face and added. “This isn’t a guarantee that you will have to take medication, Justin. Malnutrition also causes symptoms related to depression– especially with a lack of vitamin D and iron. Our goal is to offer treatments that don’t rely on medication unless it’s the only recourse. That means if you can feel better with talk therapy and life counseling, that’s what we’ll go with.”
Justin nodded weakly, but still looked worried.
“We want you to be healthy in all ways when you go home,” the doctor assured him. “If we get you well-fed and your blood work improves, you don’t want to go home and go back to throwing up or anything else.”
After a little more discussion, Justin and his mother understood the plan of action, and Dr. Hiro left the room to update his chart. A little while later, a couple nurses and a doctor arrived to begin the procedure for the central line. As soon as he saw that they were dressed in surgical-type coverings he started to panic; he was breathing harder, and his grip on my hand tightened as she shook his head.
“You’re going to be okay, Little Moon,” I assured him. “I’m right here with you.”
Justin ended up hiding his face in my chest as I held him, and he held his right arm out for the nurse to push the sedative through his IV.
“I… it’s… nooo,” he groaned as the nurse had him lie back. “Big… machines…”
“That’s just the ultrasound, little man.” the nurse assured him. “It’s going to help the doctor find the vein and see what direction it goes. If you hold as still as possible, he’ll only need to do it once.”
One of the nurses had me put on a mask and surgical cap and gown; she’d wanted us to leave the room, but Justin nearly had a meltdown when she mentioned that. I was able to stay, but Ms. Anderson stepped out into the hall. Justin’s trembling eased a little as the sedative started to kick in.
“I know you’re scared,” I whispered, wiping the tears away from his cheeks, “but I’m here with you, Little Moon. You’re not alone in this.”
“Blackthorne…” he whispered. His body relaxed more, and his eyes drooped.
I glanced over at the nurses, who were preparing the sterile items in the central line kit, then back to Justin. “You’re such a brave little prince.”
“Averel,” he murmured, hardly audible.
“Oh, you remember the story I told you about the lonely vampire?” It had been ages since I’d last told him that story.
“Tell me…” he whispered.
I gave him a fond smile. “Okay, sweet prince, I’ll tell you it again.” It was sure to distract him from what the nurses were doing, but I knew better than to mention that to him. “This is the story as my grand father told me. Long ago, on a mountain in a land far away, there stood a castle. It rose up over all the mountain peaks. It could be seen from the forests where the ravens lived, the caves where the bats roosted, and the fields where the roses grew. The man who lived in the castle had many servants and attendants, and even guards who protected him, but he still felt very alone. He never got any visitors from the villages at the base of the mountain, for they slept when he was awake, and he slept while they went about their days. He didn’t know why, but he’d been born in the shadows, and he couldn’t venture into the daylight.
“This lonely man was Averel, one of only four vampires in the realm. The others rarely visited him, and when they did, they often argued. As the years went on, his heart grew heavy, and he rarely left his room. Sometimes he didn’t even light a candle to read by. One night, he noticed a shadow darker than any he’d ever seen before, and he walked into it to see why it was so different. Imagine his surprise when he came out the other side into an entirely different world!
“Averel wandered around this new world during the night, and found safe places to sleep during the day. Eventually, he met a woman, and they visited one another every night until they fell in love. He found work that he could do at night, and he kept secret what he really was. They started a family together, and his surname was passed down through the generations. He would travel back to his castle sometimes, journeying through the shadows, and when his first wife passed on, he mourned her for a long time before finding another part of the world to visit, and new people who didn’t know him.
“For centuries, Averel kept his secrets and passed his name on to more and more children. He loved each and every one of them, and even as the generations passed, he looked after his descendants and made sure they lived in safety and with honor.”
“Is he… still… lonely…?” Justin murmured. He was half asleep, and had hardly reacted to the doctor beginning the procedure.
“Hardly at all,” I told him, caressing his arm as we talked. “He has a vast family now, and even a few friends. Some days it feels lonely to keep the secret that he’s a vampire, but he knows there are people who love him. Sometimes, if things go just right, one of his descendants will have special abilities, and might even embrace the idea of vampires.”
“And then…” he paused to yawn a little, “they can go to his world.”
I smiled and kissed his fingers. “Yes, Little Moon, sometimes they do. But Averel never forgets how special it is to be loved, and how important it is to let people know you love them.”
Justin smiled contentedly and let his eyes close. I let him rest and watched the nurse work, passing the tube down the guide wire and into his vein, glad that he wasn’t watching. After a few more minutes, they had everything in place and bandaged, and Justin went on dozing even while they switched his saline and other nutrients to the central line and removed the IV.
Once they left, I watched him sleeping quietly. “My sweet, precious Little Moon…” I whispered, caressing his cheek. “How could anyone not love you?”
Ms. Anderson came back in after several more minutes, looking frustrated. She gave me a somewhat-forced smile. “Thank you, Emory,” she said as she went to his side. She sounded relieved. “Look at him, sleeping like an angel. He really doesn’t deserve to suffer like this.”
“Nobody does,” I agreed as I got up from the chair. “But he has us to help him get through it.”
I rubbed Justin’s cheeks and ran my fingers through his hair until he roused a little. “Hey, I have to go to work for a little while,” I told him. “Your mom is right here with you, okay?”
He nodded and took my hands, locking his eyes with mine. “I love you, Blackthorne,” he murmured.
His words made me smile, and I bent down to kiss his forehead. “Have sweeter words ever been said? I’ll be back in the evening, Little Moon, and you can tell me about all the doctors you’ve met.”
“Okay,” he whispered.
I could feel his hesitation in letting me go. Truth be told, he could have begged me to stay, and I would have had a hard time not giving in to him. Thankfully, it didn’t come to that, and I was soon out of his room and the hospital.
It took me a few minutes of sitting alone in my car before I could regain my composure. Even though I knew he could recover from this– from the depression and malnutrition and bullying– I couldn’t help but weep for him. The truth of the matter was, he wouldn’t recover if I told him we couldn’t be more than friends, let alone if I abandoned him in Cody and went on to Sacramento alone. And neither would I. The deeper truth was that I was falling in love with him in a way that I’d never loved anyone else before.