Excerpt from Rosebush

Rosebush by Michele Jaffe is in USA/Canada stores on December 5, 2010.
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“Please, Jane,” Annie said, standing at the side of the bed, her voice so soft and small sounding. “You have to get all better. You have to come home.”

She smelled like Bonne Bell lip gloss and raspberry fruit leather. Behind her red-framed glasses her eyes were huge. She looked wise beyond her years and like a very scared little girl all at the same time. Fear and love and hope stared out at me. My poor little sister. I had trouble swallowing. “Promise?” she squeaked.

I blinked once. Yes.

The bathroom door opened and my mother and Joe emerged. Her eyes were pink, but she’d washed her face and, of course, reapplied her lipstick.

“I’m so sorry, sweetheart,” she said, coming to take my hand for the second time. How ironic that this was more than she’d touched me in months and because I was paralyzed I couldn’t even feel it. Her voice trembled. “I don’t know what came over me. I—we—have been so terrified. So afraid you wouldn’t wake up or when you did—” She broke off. “I couldn’t imagine losing you. And when the doctor said you would be okay, when you woke up, I guess I just—” She swallowed, dried her eyes on her sleeve. Her sleeve! “The pressure just exploded. I didn’t mean what I said. I know this was just an accident, that you didn’t—didn’t want this to happen. But the way things have been between us…And you sneaking off to a party…I—I didn’t behave well. I’m so very sorry. You understand, don’t you?”

She began to sob again and Joe ducked into the bathroom, reappearing with a Kleenex. She took it with the hand she’d been using to hold mine and put the other one on his arm.

I blinked once. A nice thing about not being able to talk, I was learning, was that it spared you having to say anything you didn’t mean.

I was spared even more by Loretta, the ICU nurse, knocking and coming back in. She smiled at everyone, oblivious to the tension that hung like humidity in the air, and said, “It’s nearly visiting hours and I think someone here could use a sponge bath. If the rest of you will excuse us?”

Everyone filed out obediently, even Joe. Loretta, I decided, was a woman to learn from.

She wasn’t big, but she was strong and managed to get me out of bed and into a wheelchair. I couldn’t feel the floor, the chair, her hands. But it wasn’t like floating. It was terrifying, like being completely out of control. I started to breathe fast again and she stopped what she was doing.

“Look at me, sweetheart,” she ordered.

I did.

“You’re going to be fine .This is all temporary. You’ve got to calm yourself down.”

Temporary, I told myself. Calm down. I nodded.

“You’ll see. Before you know it, you’ll be singing and dancing.”

My breathing started to return to normal.

“Good girl,” she said, and moved around to the side of the chair. She unhooked monitors from my fingers. “Won’t need most of this much longer,” she said cheerily. The IVs stayed with me, now hanging from a hook on my right. More tubes were gathered on the left. I was like a traveling medical exhibit.

This is all temporary, I repeated to myself.

She pushed me into the bathroom and said, “Feast your eyes on this five-star accommodation.”

It wasn’t bad, actually. The entire room was covered in white tile. On one side were a toilet and a sink with a mirror above it. On the other, separated only by a curtain but on the same level so that you could easily move between them in a wheelchair, was a big showerhead.

Loretta talked as she carefully undressed me. “It’s nice to finally meet the famous Jane. You know your mother hasn’t left your bedside since you were brought in.” She tugged the hospital gown off my arm. “Your mother kept telling everyone, wanted everyone to know how important it was that you could see, get all better. ‘She just has to be able to hold a camera,’ she said. ‘You should see her pictures. She’s a brilliant photographer.’”

I wondered how many blinks it took to say “Stop lying.”

Loretta moved me onto a bench on the shower side of the room. She turned on the hot water, then looked around.

“Someone took my bucket!” she said in mock horror. “You sit tight where you are and I’ll be right back.”

I sat there, listening to the sound of the shower and feeling the steam begin to rise against my cheek. It smelled like Coco Chanel in here, my mother’s perfume, and peering around the half-open curtain I saw that she’d left her makeup bag on the sink. Of course, Rosalind Freeman would never for even a moment look anything less than perfect even where her daughter was nearly dead.

I took a deep breath, closed my eyes as the small room filled with steam. The warm, moist air felt wonderful, almost like normal. Maybe I was going to be okay. Maybe—

I must have dozed off. A noise roused me and I peered past the curtain to see if it was Loretta coming back, but no one was there, just the toilet and the mirror.

The mirror on which was written in all-capital letters, faint but unmistakable:

YOU SHOULD HAVE DIED, BITCH

That’s when my voice came back in a long, gurgling scream.