Knaves over queens, p.50
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       Knaves Over Queens, p.50
 

         Part #26 of Wild Cards series by George R. R. Martin

  ‘Let me have a look at you!’ Betty scraped her chair closer. ‘The doctors didn’t know what you had, dear. A virus they thought. But with someone so complicated … Well. They sent you back to us.’ Betty reached out to take Angela’s hand.

  The touch of flesh on flesh … there had always been a comfort in it. But this time it was electric. It was a sensation that rooted itself in Angela’s bones. She felt a lurch. A physical yank. And a moment later she was looking at herself lying in the bed, blank-eyed and drooling from a wet mouth. It was as if someone had moved a mirror into the space where Betty had been sitting and instead of seeing the old woman she was seeing herself, red hair spread across the pillow, freckles stark across a skin so pale that it was hard to believe it full of blood.

  In the next moment everything was moving. She was falling again. A chair clattered down beside her. She was on the floor between two of the three hospice beds. Angela tried to call to Betty for help. The sounds from her mouth were incoherent but they weren’t all vowels and they didn’t sound like her. She couldn’t see Betty, not even her feet. She tried to roll and suddenly the room rotated around her. The heavy medical beds skittered away on their castered feet though the little wheels should have had their brakes locked. Angela found herself face down now, the cold linoleum beneath her cheek.

  She lay motionless, shocked. Everything felt different. Everything. Even though she was scared Angela felt marvellous, as if liquid happiness had been poured into every limb, as if it had filled the marrow of her bones and suffused her skin. She tried to think, tried to understand what had happened. And then she knew. No part of her hurt any more. There was nothing, just tiny aches and niggles that were less than nothing. The structural agony that she had built her existence around, the pain that codeine and morphine nibbled at the edges … the great hurt that was deeper in her than her bones. It had gone.

  Angela’s eyes blurred with tears but she could still see better than on her best day. Slowly and with great care she moved her head, craning her neck. Betty’s arm lay stretched out close by, the old woman’s blouse, her wrinkled hand emerging from the cuff, the wedding ring worn for a husband twenty years in the grave. It was as if Betty were lying beneath Angela and her arm emerging from under her. Suddenly Angela was terrified that she had fallen on her friend somehow and was even now crushing her. She tried to turn and again the room spun. She glimpsed the chair Betty had brought over, this time flying through the air as though someone had thrown it.

  When the rotation stopped, and Angela’s head also stopped spinning, she found herself staring at the doorway. Sarah hurried into view and stopped, filling the entrance, her red face slack with astonishment. ‘Dear Lord!’ She turned back and shouted down the corridor. ‘Rose! Rose! Jordi! I see you there! Tell Mrs Mason to call an ambulance.’

  Sarah hurried in and knelt beside Angela. Nervously she reached out and took hold of Angela’s arm. As her fingers touched Angela’s skin that strange sensation struck again. A pull as if Sarah were a magnet and Angela the iron filings that followed its invisible lines of force. She sensed the point of contact, but more than that, for an instant she was aware of the whole of Sarah, blood to bone, as though she had soaked into the woman, ink on blotting paper. The sensation was gone as swiftly as it came. And Angela had no time to ponder it. A larger question drove it from her mind. The arm Sarah lifted into Angela’s view was Betty’s, the skin on the hand wrinkled and stained, the knuckles large, veins prominent. But Angela could feel Sarah’s fingers on her wrist.

  ‘Lie still! You’ll be fine.’

  Angela tried to answer and again the wrong voice came, sounding out words that while nonsense were ones that Angela could never form. She looked at the hand in Sarah’s grip and as she thought about the fingers they writhed before her.

  ‘What’s hap— Fuck me! What a mess!’ Rose stopped short in the doorway, staring around the room.

  ‘I think she’s had a stroke,’ Sarah said. ‘I can’t find a pulse. We need an ambulance.’

  ‘She’s got a pulse. She’s grinning at you, for God’s sake!’ Rose came into the room. ‘What happened to the beds? Betty couldn’t move them by herself even with the brakes off. And they ain’t off! Skid marks all across the floor!’

  ‘That doesn’t matter! Help me get her up!’ Sarah reached for a better grip on Angela.

  Together the two women lifted Angela between them. ‘Can you stand? Betty? Can you stand?’

  Angela didn’t understand why Sarah was speaking to Betty but lifting her. But as they raised her level with the beds she saw that lying in the closest one, staring blankly at the ceiling … was her, Angela.

  It was too much. Angela screamed. Terror ran through her and her panic animated her as was never possible before. Sarah went staggering across the room, Rose fell back clutching her nose, blood flooding between her fingers.

  ‘Bitch broke by dose!’

  Angela fell again, hit the floor again, and again barely felt it.

  ‘She’s in there! She’s having a stroke or a fit or something!’

  Sarah led the paramedics in.

  ‘Oh Jesus! Help me with Angela first. She’s nearly out of her bed.’

  The two men followed Sarah not to where Angela lay sprawled on the ground but to one of the beds. ‘All together … There, she’s safe now.’

  ‘Now, this is Betty.’ They came to where Angela had fallen. She had her right arm in front of her and one by one she moved the wrinkled old fingers. In the back of her mind a small, confused voice seemed to be trying to talk to her but the fingers held all her attention. She had never in all her life seen something so wonderful, so complex, so beautiful, doing what she wanted it to do. Her own hands had balled into fists before she even knew she owned them. She could no more move her own fingers than she could tie a knot with her earlobe. But somehow in this dream she had hands that did what they were told and she was learning how to talk to them.

  ‘Careful. She’s stronger than she looks,’ Sarah cautioned. She held her shoulder as if something might be broken inside.

  ‘No worries, love.’ The larger of the two paramedics gave a snort. He looked like the rugby players Mr Jenkins liked to watch on TV every Sunday. A huge man almost too bulky for his uniform, hands like bunches of bananas. ‘We’ll be careful with her.’

  The other man shone a light in Angela’s eyes and pressed two fingers to her neck. He tried to ask her questions but Angela ignored those just as she ignored the woman’s voice at the back of her mind. She only wanted to look at her fingers move, one then the next then the next, each jumping to obey her will. It was the most marvellous and beautiful thing she had ever seen. She began to cry and found that she couldn’t stop weeping any more than she could stop flexing and moving her fingers.

  ‘Could be a stroke.’ The smaller paramedic sounded doubtful. ‘Or someone’s slipped her some acid … I’ve seen them like this at Glastonbury. Either way, we need to get her in.’

  The two paramedics put their stretcher down beside Angela and moved her gently onto it. They lifted her and carried her past Sarah, frowning and clutching her arm, past Mrs Mason fussing over Rose. Past Jordi and Renée and Shirley, their faces grave and full of worry. Past Jenny and a stocky young man she didn’t know, a man with short dark hair and the line of a scar catching the corner of his mouth into a sneer. Doors opened and closed and suddenly there was daylight, a cold wind, the sounds of traffic.

  Angela whipped her head around. They were loading her into an ambulance. Taking her away. She didn’t want to go.

  ‘Nnnnnnn’ she drew a breath ‘ooooooooo’

  ‘It’s OK, Bessy,’ the big man said.

  ‘Betty,’ the other one said, climbing in beside her.

  ‘Betty, sorry. We think you’ve had a stroke. It often affects people’s language. You should remember how to speak as you recover. Just stay calm, love.’

  They had her in the ambulance now on some kind of trolley. The big man banged on the b
ack panel and the sirens started up, the vehicle lurching into motion.

  ‘Nnnnooooo.’ Angela’s arms and legs began to flail.

  ‘She’s fitting again.’

  ‘We have to hold you, Betty, so you don’t hurt y—’

  A wild swing of Angela’s arm … Betty’s old, stick-thin arm … sent the rugby player slamming into the side of the ambulance. The whole vehicle rocked to the side.

  ‘Jeeeesus.’ He levered himself up, wheezing. ‘I think she broke my ribs.’

  Angela.

  A small, familiar voice.

  Angela.

  Angela went still, listening. The second paramedic began to strap her to the trolley, frightened fingers fumbling at the catches. ‘You all right, Dave?’ He tightened a strap and reached feverishly for the next. ‘She threw you in the fucking air. She’s just a little old lady and she—’

  ‘I’m okay …’

  Angela shifted and the first of the straps tore free with a loud retort.

  ‘Jesus!’ Both men drew back.

  Angela, you don’t want to hurt them.

  It was true. She didn’t want to hurt anyone. Also, it was Betty. Betty’s voice. Angela wondered what she should do … what she was doing … she was in Betty’s body. The proper Angela was lying in a bed back in Carstons, in the hospice, waiting to die. What should she do?

  Let me back.

  How could she do that?

  Try.

  Angela closed her eyes – Betty’s eyes – and tried.

  When she opened her eyes again it was to a white ceiling, and as the light flooded in the weight of her old pain settled on her once more. And though she had borne the burden all her life her moments of respite made it bite all the harder and she cried out at the hurt and the shock of it.

  ‘Won’t the wonders cease?’ A bored voice close at hand. A face moved into Angela’s line of vision. The young man with the scar and the dark hair cut so short that his scalp gleamed beneath. ‘The cripple awakes!’ He moved in closer. ‘Does it speak?’

  Angela tried to answer but no sound would come from her open mouth. Had she been dreaming? Where was she?

  ‘You must be Veggie,’ the stranger said. ‘James told me about you. James? Our mutual friend, little Jimmy. And I’m Booksie.’ He leaned in closer, fixing her with an uncomfortable stare. ‘And look at you, Veggie. You got dealt a shitty hand, swear down.’

  Across the room a door banged open. ‘Aren’t you finished in here y— Oh, she’s awake?’ Sarah came across and Booksie relinquished his place with a last grin.

  Sarah stood over Angela’s bed, straightening the covers. ‘Don’t mind Booksie. I just asked him to get the beds back in line.’ She had a frown on, though whether it was at the thought of the young man with the scar or from wondering how the beds had been moved in the first place Angela didn’t know. ‘Them doctors at the hospital, eh? What do they know? Coma, they said! And all it took to wake you up was a bloody great racket!’

  With effort Angela turned her head to look across the room.

  ‘Want something?’ Sarah asked. ‘Oh …’ Her voice turned grave. ‘Looking for Betty?’

  Angela turned her head back, mouth open in a ‘yes’.

  ‘I’m so sorry, Angie. She was with you most days. As long as she could be. Mrs Mason had to shoo her out of here come evening. Betty was at your side just before you woke up. Like as not it was all her noise that brought you round!’

  Sarah paused again, as if wrestling with the words. ‘Betty took ill, very suddenly. I mean, she’s looked ill for ages, if I’m honest, but she had a nasty turn. A stroke, we think. My aunt had one a few years back. Had her falling over and talking gibberish. All she could say for a week after was, “I don’t know where my keys are.” Never got the use of her left arm back. Anyway, Betty’s been taken to hospital and that’s where she is. We’re all hoping she gets well soon. But I don’t expect we’ll be seeing her again for quite a while.’ She patted Angela on the shoulder. An uncharacteristically tender gesture for the woman. And again Angela felt that odd lurch as if even those gentle taps might somehow knock her out of herself.

  That night Angela’s dreams were very strange. She saw Betty sleeping in a hospital bed just like hers. She saw Sarah sleeping beside a fat man with curly grey hair, both of them snoring beneath a duvet covered in large flower prints. She saw the smaller paramedic in an armchair, his head back, eyes closed, mouth open, open drinks cans around his feet, like the ones from the staff Christmas party. She knew his name was Simon. She saw the large paramedic sleeping beside a tiny woman beneath a duvet with zigzag patterns. He rolled over and winced in his sleep. Angela worried the tiny woman would be crushed. She knew the big man was Dave. And all night, as she skipped between her dreams, Angela held that awareness of the four sleepers as if they were close about her and all she had to do if she wanted to touch them was to reach out.

  Betty came back the next day. Angela was still alone in the hospice, staring at the ceiling, very bored and with her mind full of questions. She heard Betty’s approach.

  ‘No, I’m all right!’ Her voice came closer. ‘No, I’m fine. The doctors said so.’ Closer still. ‘A funny turn, that’s all it was. I’m fine.’ The door opened. ‘Thank you, Mrs Mason. No, I don’t want to take any days off. I want to see Angela.’

  A moment later Betty entered Angela’s line of sight, all smiles. ‘And there she is! Awake at last! My angel Angela!’

  The door closed and Mrs Mason retreated. Betty pulled up the chair she had used the day before, testing it first and pursing her lips at how rickety it had become.

  ‘You and me, girl, we have to talk!’

  Angela made a ‘yes’ mouth.

  ‘That … thing … yesterday. That was like magic. That’s what it was!’ Betty always said she wasn’t one to beat around the bush. ‘I was in my head but you were there too, doing the driving. And not doing it very well it has to be said, dear.’ Betty frowned. ‘Is … is that something you could do again, do you think?’

  Angela wasn’t sure but she made her ‘yes’.

  ‘And this time would you not shout or throw yourself about? And leave when I ask you, and listen to me?’

  Again, yes.

  ‘Try then. Just for a little visit. And don’t make me fall over and thrash around or they won’t let me come back to work.’ Betty reached for Angela’s hand but before she could touch her it was Angela doing the reaching.

  She sat dead still, every muscle tense, her old hand trembling before her. Angela could see herself lying before her. It wasn’t like a mirror. Mirrors gave you one angle, the one she was used to. She didn’t like this angle, it didn’t look like her, not properly.

  Betty? Angela asked it in her mind and her lips hardly moved.

  A very faint reply came from somewhere far to the back of her. She couldn’t make out the words but she knew it was a yes and that it was Betty. Slowly and with great care Angela tried to move the fingers of the hand before her. They wriggled to her will. She gave a wet gasp of amazement and nearly slumped off the chair. She curled one finger then the next, then moved the whole arm up, then down.

  At the back of her mind Betty’s voice came again, the words still muffled. A reminder of something. Angela remembered. She was just to visit. With a sigh she pushed forward leaving the delicious lightness of Betty’s body and tumbling back into the pain-haunted prison of her own. She found herself looking up at Betty as the old woman straightened in the chair and patted herself with both hands.

  ‘Amazing! That was amazing!’ Betty shook her head. ‘You know what’s happened don’t you, dear?’

  Angela really didn’t. She had been too taken up with what had happened to her to wonder about the why or the how of it.

  ‘It’s the wild card virus, Angela, the XTA. You must have caught it. That’s what put you in the hospital. You got it the same as Renée and Shirley, only you’ve gone and … what do they call it? … turned an ace!’

  Ange
la blinked. It made sense. She opened her mouth for ‘yes’.

  ‘You’ve got powers, Angela! Powers!’ Betty glanced around the room as if someone might be listening. ‘I don’t think we should tell anyone about them. Not now at least. And you have to be careful, Angela. Very careful.’ She rubbed at her grey hair then folded her arms, looking pleased, excited, and twenty years younger. ‘Now, what we have to do is work out what you can do!’

  The next few weeks were filled with more fun and excitement than Angela had experienced in her whole life. She found that she could possess or ‘visit’ Betty whenever the old lady touched her. She felt sure that she could do the same with anyone else who touched her though she didn’t, partly because Betty had warned her about sharing her secret and partly because it seemed wrong to do a thing like that without asking and she had no way of asking.

  Over the weeks she and Betty practised and slowly Angela learned first to sit without falling, then to stand without support, and later to move around the room, though she had to hold on to the bed or the wall because all of a sudden Betty seemed terribly tall and the floor awfully far away. She learned faster than any baby and Betty said it was because her old muscles already knew what to do and were just waiting for permission.

  Learning to speak was an altogether more difficult process and one that had Betty’s dentures falling out of her mouth on more than one occasion. Angela’s main problem was that she wanted to say everything at once. All the words. All her thoughts. It took great resolve to slow down and practise ‘aaaaaah’ and ‘bbbbbbh’ and on through all the basic components. Slowly though, in the privacy of the hospice wing, Betty and Angela made progress.

  The doctor from the local surgery came round eventually at Mrs Mason’s request to remove the cannula from Angela’s arm. The woman looked too young to be a GP and had an awful struggle to get the needle out of Angela’s vein. She left red-faced and with a puzzled expression.

 
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