I don't remember anything else about that day. I was ushered out of the hospital so quickly, it felt like a jailbreak, as if my parents worried the doctors might soon change their minds.
I spent that night at home for the first time since my heart attack. I thought my room would feel reassuringly familiar after so long in the hospital, but enough time had passed that the tables had turned. I'd spent a lot of time personalizing and beautifying my room, but now it seemed… uncanny. It wasn't how I remembered it. The atmosphere felt heavier, somehow. The air didn't smell right.
The flowers I'd placed in the windowsill in February had died from four months of negligence. Now, nothing remained but dried brown husks, jutting out morbidly from macabre pots of dirt. Besides that, nothing about my room had changed. My bed was still prepared the exact same way I'd left it four months ago, and an unfinished homework assignment was sitting on my desk, waiting, absurdly, to be completed. My desk calendar sat faithfully behind it, still displaying that date in February when my entire life fell to pieces. For some reason, I couldn't bring myself to correct it.
The recently-laundered school uniform I'd never wear again. The posters of musicians whose music I no longer had any desire to hear. The book on my nightstand I didn't remember starting and didn't think I'd ever finish. The photographs of vacations and class trips so nebulous in my memories, they felt like mythology. The stuffed animals whose friendly, earnest expressions made me want to weep.
My room was filled with my belongings. So why did it feel so much like I was invading a stranger's room? How come none of my possessions felt like my own? Why couldn't I overcome this chilling sensation that I was excavating the bedroom of a girl who'd recently passed away?
It felt so ghoulish just to lie in my own bed. I didn't think I'd ever get to sleep, but I underestimated the soporific potency of my nighttime medications. The enforced drowsiness ushered me into unconsciousness, ignorant of my waking anxieties.
My mother gently shakes me awake, and by the time my eyes open has already assembled my morning medications, next to a steaming cup of tea.
Right now, I'm too groggy to make out much of what she's saying. She's stroking my hair, though, and smiling warmly, so I can't help but smile back. It's too early for me to recall my feelings about anything.
I take a sip of tea. It's the good stuff, baihao yinzhen with rose pearls and a touch of lychee honey. Sweet enough that I'm able, however temporarily, to forget the bitterness of the endless pills and tablets she eases into my hand. The last time I remember my mother pampering me like this, I was just a little girl. I can't even remember the last time anybody's come into my room to wake me up. I've always been early riser.
Or, at least, I used to be. Now, it's anybody's guess.
It's an important day for me. Tomorrow, I'm starting school at Yamaku. This is the last day I'll be spending in this city, at least for a while. The first day since my heart attack that I'm free to walk around like a normal person.
It's the first day of the rest of my life. Since everything that's happened, what was once an insipid platitude now has a disturbing sort of resonance with me.
I think it's an important day for my mother, too, though she'll never say it aloud, not to me. It's the first day of her restitution towards me. She feels guilty for everything that's happened to me, like she's somehow directly responsible for my suffering. Of course she isn't; no one is, but could anyone convince their mother otherwise?
Truthfully, if anybody feels guilty, it's me. I've understood since long time ago I was not my parents' favorite child, but as long as they held any affection for me at all, I never felt any envy or resentment. Since yesterday, however, it's started to feel like I've dragged them into caring for my well-being, like I've manipulated them into treasuring the time they spend with me. It feels like acting out.
"Come on, honey, take a shower and get ready," she says. "We're going shopping today, remember?"
I nod. "Right."
I smile again and disembark from the bed, drifting towards the bathroom like a dislodged cobweb. I already know she's going to shower me with gifts today. With any luck, it'll make the two of us feel better, distract us from our problems, maybe make the pain go away a little. I can't say that the whole time I was lying on a hospital bed, I was dying to go to the mall, but as far as quick fixes go, this one definitely bears the most promise.
I need new clothes, anyway. I've lost too much weight. This negligee used to be flattering on me, but now it may as well have been the hospital gown.
I pull it over my head and fold it up next to the bathroom sink. On the interior side of the bathroom door, I can see my whole body in the full-length mirror. Waifish. Emaciated. Even my face seems different, more angular and gaunt. There are dark circles under my eyes that I never had in February.
I never thought myself one of the great beauties of our school. I looked… nice, I think. I think I received a respectable amount of attention. I remember the compliments. This is the first time I've really looked at my body in natural light since being hospitalized, though, and… I don't think I'll get those compliments anymore. I look frightening, even without the angry scarlet line cascading down my sternum.
As the warm water from the shower caresses me, my mind begins to wander. I can't help but think about tomorrow. Yamaku Academy… It's a school for ruined and defective youths like me. But that's all I really know about it. That could mean anything.
I remember seeing something on television, some kind of educational show or news program or something. It was about a baby in America with some kind of rare genetic mutation. As a result, she was born without a face. Her entire head was some sort of misshapen, malformed monstrosity, barely recognizable as human. It suddenly occurs to me there could be kids at Yamaku with that problem. There could be several, even.
The girls could all look like that, I suppose. Compared to them, even now, I suppose I'd look like a goddess. So beautiful, I could have my pick of all the mangled boys in the school.
Ugh. I've never been so disgusted with myself in my life. What kind of person would think this way? When was I ever this deranged?
This is something I need to work on. I'm not worthy of anybody's affection with such horrible things in my head. And everybody's counting on me to force them out.
Horrible things in my mind or not, my mother still took me on a shopping spree. Karma, if it's even a real thing, doesn't seem to take me into consideration.
Going to the shopping center was… strange. I'm unused to being around so many people now. I have to admit, I expected to be stared at, even though my scar was well-hidden under my shirt. Even my tightest clothes felt loose on me, and I thought I looked ridiculous. Maybe I'm already beginning to regard myself as grotesque.
I managed to find clothes that managed to make me look like something other than a cadaver, though; mostly items with nonexistent necklines, to keep my scar concealed, and long skirts to downplay my bony legs. I'm leaving it up to faith that a situation won't come up where I'll be forced into a swimsuit. I suppose in that case, I could cover up the scar with some foundation.
There were moments I thought for sure a piece of clothing I liked was too expensive to purchase. My mother was adamant, though. We've always been fairly well-off, but this display of generosity made me squirm a little. The idea that she'd be so determined not to let anything obstruct my happiness makes me feel really sheepish. I've never been treated with such importance before.
She's doing a good job, though. I was skeptical that a shopping trip would have any ability to lighten my spirits, but with the bags in my hand, I'm starting to feel, well, renewed, in a way. It's like the opposite of that foreboding feeling I felt in my room last night. These are all new things. No baggage from the past. No regrets.
To cap off the day, my mother took me to get a haircut. It's been a while since the last time I've gotten one. This isn't the same salon I usually go to. This is the upscale one with the ridiculous prices. The waiting area is filled with posh, trendy-looking women wearing cutting-edge fashions. At least, I think they're cutting-edge. It's been four months since I've seen any clothes other than scrubs and lab coats.
I expect to be waiting a while, but not long after the clock hits what my mother informs me is my scheduled appointment time, a cheery and chic-looking stylist calls me over to her chair and wraps me in a cutting cape.
"So, what were you looking to do today?"
I freeze, as though struck with stage fright. As foolish as it sounds… I honestly don't know the answer. In the past, I've always worn my hair just to my shoulders, with a fringe. I don't think I've changed it from that simple formula since grade school. My hair grows relatively fast, though, and in its current, neglected state, it's the longest it's ever been. The fringe is gone completely, having settled into a simple rift straight down the middle, and I can feel my hair tickling the center of my back.
The elegant solution would be simply to go with the haircut I've always had, but… No. I can't bear to do it. It's just… obsolete. Obsolete like my room, my old clothes, that calendar on my desk. Outmoded, in a way I find more than a little jarring. It feels like denial. Like pretending I never collapsed in the snow back in February. Like pretending I don't have these dark circles under my eyes.
I've got no interest in going down that road. I can't help but feel certain it would only harm me.
"I think I'm going to grow it out, so just a trim would be fine, please."
The stylist grins, and shoots me the thumbs-up. "You got it."
I feel a fluttering in my stomach, but it's a good sensation as the stylist's scissors begin to tap away at my hair. My eyes slowly begin to shut, my body beginning to enter a sublime state of contentment. Despite my very real apprehensions about going to Yamaku, it's liberating, knowing I won't have to undertake some effete struggle to restore the things I've already lost.
Everything right now is such a mess, but I'm being allowed to just leave that mess where it sits and move forward. Even if that just means something as simple as retiring a haircut that doesn't work anymore.
After a couple moments, the tapping of the scissors slows to a stop, and there's a brief silence before I look up to see the stylist contemplating me with a mildly chagrined expression.
"Um, miss? Would you like me to add color today as well? To darken it a little?"
I can't help but raise a baffled eyebrow at her. My hair is completely sable. It's not going to get any darker. "What for?"
She pauses, as if trying to come up with a diplomatic answer, before pulling a hand mirror off the table and holding it close to my face, gesturing to my temples with her thumb and forefinger.
"Well, you can see it's a little lighter here and here."
Not many. Just a couple of strands on both sides of my head, at the roots. I had never even noticed until this moment. But they're there, completely obvious if you're looking for them, grey as granite. I… this… I don't even know what to say. This is horrifying.
I'm not even eighteen yet. How could this possibly be happening to me? Those roots weren't grey four months ago. Was the stress and anxiety from the surgery enough to make me start going prematurely grey? Or is this just serendipitous misfortune? Why would my own body be so perfectly calibrated for crushing my spirit?
"Miss? Are you alright?"
I know she's waiting for an answer, but I need to take a moment to address the implications of this first.
"I… sorry. I need a moment to think."
I glance over to the waiting area. My mother's still sitting there, casually reading a book, oblivious to my state of disturbance. Mother is only forty years old. In spite of that fact, or perhaps because of it, she's still incredibly beautiful, almost absurdly so. My father's always made more than enough to provide us with an embarrassingly carefree lifestyle. I wonder if Mother was ever troubled by anything before my heart revealed itself to be so unserviceable.
She doesn't have any grey in her hair yet, not that I'm aware of. I can't help but realize that I'm not even going to live to be as old as she is at this moment. They say I'll be fortunate to live past thirty.
If I'm going to die at thirty, than aren't I already over the hill? I'm more than halfway through my life. Speaking in terms of our lifespans, aren't I actually older than Mother, now? Maybe it's only fair that I go grey before she does.
She finally notices me staring at her, and smiles, winking at me. Even now, she's so poised, so unflappable. Preposterously, I feel a pang of jealousy for mother's youthfulness.
I heave a sigh. This is stupid.
The moment I begin to turn my truncated lifespan into an identity, I may as well give up on self-improvement entirely. I didn't just buy a whole new wardrobe's worth of fashionable clothing and accessories just to go around feeling like an old woman. And I can think of nothing more characteristic of an old woman than going out of my way just to bring my hair back to its original color. Just to restore what's been lost.
Dying at thirty doesn't mean I'm an old woman. It means I'm never going to be an old woman. It means I'm going to die beautiful. Perhaps if my attitude was a little more like my mother's, these grey roots would never have appeared in the first place.
So let's do something crazy. Something youthful.
I make eye contact with the stylist, who has been waiting patiently for my wave of angst to disperse. "Um, I don't really feel like dyeing my hair just to cover up a few strands. Couldn't we do something in the opposite direction?"
She rubs her chin contemplatively. "What, like a blonde streak?"
I nod vigorously, running my fingers across the locks of hair at the front of my face. "Oh, blonde streaks, could you do that?"
She nods. "Sure, it's kind of eccentric, but under the circumstances… Yeah, I could definitely make it look cool for you. How about just lightening everything in front?"
I nod. "Please do what you think is best."