In the beginning, a girl lay in a hospital bed in a room with white walls and a single window. Her name was Mallie Williams. She was twenty-one years old. She lay there for many months, months in which people came and went from the white room. Had she been conscious, she would have recognized some of them, the ones she had known most of her life. William T. Jones, her neighbor up the road. Crystal Zielinski, his girlfriend and the owner of Crystal’s Diner. Charlie, her younger brother. Lucia, her mother. And Zach, her boyfriend.
Others, Mallie would not have known. The doctors and nurses in their scrubs and white coats, stethoscopes slung around their necks, noiseless shoes on their feet. The lawyers. The guardian ad litem. The members of Lucia’s church, who gathered around her bedside to pray. The young orderly with the yellow cap, gold earring dangling from his ear, who once a day entered the white room and pushed his mop around the tile floor until it gleamed.
Months went by. Most things remained the same in the white room. The doctors and nurses settled into routine and resignation and finally into the kind of watchful resentment that sometimes happens in the face of hope turned hopeless. Until they were banned from the room, William T. and Crystal and Charlie gathered daily around Mallie’s bed. So did her boyfriend, Zach. They tried hard, but in the end even Zach’s face changed from worry to anger and finally to resignation.
Outside the hospital, others also kept watch, protesters carrying signs, trying to sway the decisions of the people within the hospital’s doors.
In the quiet white room with the double-glazed window, Mallie lay silent and asleep and unaware of the debate and protests and media coverage swirling around her. By all appearances, she was also unaware of the complicated emotions that anguished the people who loved her, the ones who came and went from her bedside. Her dark hair grew long and silky. Her skin softened, its freckles and few lines smoothing and disappearing over time. These changes were small and subtle, noticeable only to the people close to her.
It was Mallie’s stomach that everyone noticed. Flat and muscled on the night she was admitted, her belly over time mounded itself and became the first thing anyone looked at when they walked into the white room. Such a small thing in the great scheme of the world: new life. But this particular new life was complicated. For a while, it was all anyone who knew her talked about.
Sixteen months later
William T. Jones
That was the second thing Mallie said, when she began to talk again. Her eyes were open and looking toward the window of her room at St. John’s.
“Dark birds,” she whispered, and he quickly followed her gaze. Did her words mean her vision was unharmed, along with her ability to talk? Crows? Grackles? Starlings, maybe. But he saw nothing. Nothing but sky.
“I don’t see any birds, Mallie.”
Back and forth she turned her head on the pillow, trying to shake it, maybe. He was holding her hand. Her fingers were so smooth. She was young, only twenty-three, but still. This was what happened when you didn’t use your hands; all the roughness went away. Her hands were the hands of a baby, and he remembered her as a baby. He had been in his forties then, a neighbor helping out her widowed mother, Lucia. Over time, he had grown to be a father of sorts to Mallie and her younger brother, Charlie.
“Dark birds,” she whispered again.
Her soft fingers twitched in his. She was trying to tell him something, but what, he didn’t know. That was all right. She would find a way. All the long months of waiting, of watching, of hoping that her body would finally recover, had taught him something about time and the nature thereof.
What had she said first?
All his life he’d heard his name spoken, yelled, called out by familiar and unfamiliar voices, people who loved him and people who didn’t. But had he ever thought about his name until now? Had he ever felt his name as a physical thing, whispering into his body in the voice of someone he’d known since she was a child, someone he’d helped raise, someone he thought of as almost a daughter?
She knew who he was. She was saying his name. Welcome back to the world, Mallie.
When he got home that afternoon he waited on the porch for Crystal. It took her an hour after the diner closed to put it in order for the next day. When her headlights swept across the driveway he stood up.