*This is the first of a series. If you think that any of the characters are based on you or people you know, you’re having a medical emergency and should call 911.
I couldn’t figure out why my aunt and uncle who always treated me like a housefly were bringing me presents too. In the box was a green cowboy shirt with pearly snap buttons. I’d never wear it. I was no cowboy. I thanked them and they left, and I shoved the box under my bed. There was almost no more room there, I had so many presents. The only present I kept out was the bow my dad gave me, a real one made of polished hickory. It’s what I wanted for Christmas and got a pair of shoes instead, too big and probably from the thrift store. Church shoes.
The bow came with arrows my dad made from new, green growth of the plum tree. They were crooked and didn’t have pointed tips. The pheasant feathers he glued on almost made them look real. The real arrows, he said, waited for me at home.
My dad came to the hospital almost every lunch break. We sat around and watched the noon weather and the soap opera, the one my mother watched , because neither of us got up to change the channel. I had the feeling he was expecting something to happen. Or getting up the nerve to say something. Once he brought another really excellent present, five books in a series on native peoples. The Iroquois, the Comanches, the Arapahoes, the Apaches, and the only dud, the Hawaiians. I read each twice before the day was over.
My mom came when she had nights off from the bar. Once when she was obviously tired she started bawling like crazy. She claimed she had gotten some bad news about her feet. A bone spur. I pictured the flank of a horse, and a bone sticking from the heel of a leather boot. I looked at her feet. She was in flipflops. They looked no different except browner than usual but it was summer. I wondered if talking about her bone spur was a way of telling me she had an awful disease, one that could kill her.
Every time the doctors asked how I was doing I said better, everything was better. It was partly true, I could swallow better but otherwise I couldn’t tell any difference. They took blood twice a day. Wherever they stuck a needle blood rolled out like a fire truck out of the station.
I hated the hospital, especially how it smelled. Nights were the worst with all kinds of horrible noises. I made up my mind to run away. I would take my bow, a knife, my moccasins and some matches and go live in the woods, if I had to. It wouldn’t be that hard.
“A few more days,” my mother said, “they’ll know something definite. Eat a cookie.” She had brought a box of chocolate chip cookies. I wouldn’t touch them. “What do you want,” she asked as if she didn’t know.
I asked her to tell my cousin Robbie to come see me. He hadn’t showed up yet and that wasn’t a surprise or a disappointment. If Robbie was in the hospital, I wouldn’t have visited him, especially after having been stuck in one.
Aunt Grace and Robbie came to the hospital. I showed him my bow and he was totally jealous. Aunt Grace fussed and sipped from the supersized Pepsi in her lap. When she asked to use the restroom I said it was against the rules to use the patient’s, but there was one down the hall. “Be right back,” Aunt Grace said and went out.
“Come here,” I said to Robbie. “Hurry.”
Robbie seemed stuck to the wall. Finally he shuffled over.
“What’s the big secret?” I whispered. “Why am I in the hospital?”
“I’m not supposed to tell,” he said.
“I won’t let you use my bow.”
Robbie checked to see if his mother was on her way back. “You’re going to die.”
“Pretty soon.” I thought he was going to ask if he could have my bow when I died.
When Aunt Grace came back Robbie was in the chair against the wall, just where she’d left him.
“Why don’t you boys talk?” she asked.
“We already did,” Robbie said.
I knew I was supposed to be sad. After Robbie and Aunt Grace left I got out of bed and took the elevator to the second floor cafeteria. When no one was looking I swiped a metal knife from one of the trays. The knife was dull but I got a decent point on the arrows. The wood was harder dried out some. When I finished the arrows were almost like real arrows. I sat up in my bed, the bow across my thighs, the arrow on the bowstring ready to sail into the heart of the next doctor who walked into my room.
If it had been anybody but my dad, I might have killed that person. He said, “Son, you’re doing better. They’re letting you out tomorrow.”
Once I got home, I erased from memory everything about the hospital. Summer wasn’t over. I hunted the woods behind the house. I shot at anything that moved. I used the bow so much the wood cracked. My dad helped me glue it good as new. I lost the arrows that came with the bow but I got good at making better ones that went farther and deeper into the trunks of trees. I was always on the lookout for feathers.
I was still waiting to die on my birthday in September. My mother had a cake baking in the oven. She was barefoot in the kitchen. Her feet still looked normal. “We got the best news today,” she said. “The doctors say it definitely wasn’t leukemia.” She was lying, or else the doctors were lying, like I had lied to get out of the hospital.
I only got one present, I can’t even remember what it was.
The first snow fell, a heavy one, and I put my moccasins away in the closet. I needed a new pair. There was a hole in the heel of one.
The church shoes fit me now. They are the only shoes I have that do. If I die they will bury me in those shoes. It’s a good reason not to die, if I can help it.