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       Pluto, p.4

           R. J. Palacio
 
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  5:48 p.m.

  Just as I was about to call, my dad knocked on the band room door. I was totally surprised. He’s never picked me up from school on a Monday before.

  “Dad!” I said.

  He smiled and walked in. “Sorry I’m late,” he said, shaking out his umbrella.

  “This is Mr. Bowles,” I said to him.

  “Nice to meet you!” said Mr. B quickly, but he’d already started out the door. “Sorry, I can’t stay and chat. You’ve got a nice kid there!” Then he left.

  “Don’t forget to lock the door behind you, Chris!” he yelled out a second later from down the hallway.

  “I will!” I said, loud enough for him to hear me.

  I turned to Dad. “What are you doing here?”

  “Mom asked me to get you,” he answered, picking up my backpack.

  “Let me guess,” I said sarcastically, putting on my jacket. “She went to Auggie’s house today, right?”

  Dad looked surprised. “No,” he said. “Everything is fine, Chris. Pull your hood up—it’s raining hard.” We started walking out the door.

  “Then where is she? Why didn’t she bring me my stuff?” I said angrily.

  He put his hand on my shoulder as we kept walking. “I don’t want you to worry at all, but…Mommy got in a little car accident today.”

  I stopped walking. “What?”

  “She’s totally fine,” he said, squeezing my shoulder. “Nothing to worry about. Promise.” He motioned for me to keep walking.

  “So, where is she?” I asked.

  “She’s still in the hospital.”

  “Hospital?” I yelled. Once again, I stopped walking.

  “Chris, she’s fine, I promise,” he answered, pulling me by the elbow. “She broke her leg, though. She has a huge cast.”

  “Seriously?”

  “Yes.” He held the exit door open for me while opening his umbrella. “Pull your hood up, Chris.”

  I pulled my hood over my head as we hurried across the parking lot. It was really pouring. “Was she hit by a car?”

  “No, she was driving,” he answered. “Apparently, the rain caused some flooding on the parkway, and a construction truck hit a ditch, and Mom swerved to avoid hitting it but then got sideswiped by the car in the left lane. The woman in the other car was fine, too. Mommy’s fine. Her leg will be fine. Everyone is fine, thank God.”

  He stopped at a red hatchback I had never seen before.

  “Is this new?” I said, confused.

  “It’s a rental,” he answered quickly. “Mom’s car got totaled. Come on, get in.”

  I got into the backseat. By now my sneakers were soaking wet. “Where’s your car?”

  “I went to the hospital straight from the train station,” he answered.

  “We should sue whoever was driving that construction truck,” I said, putting my seat belt on.

  “It was a freak accident,” he muttered. He started driving out of the parking lot.

  “When did it happen?” I asked.

  “This morning.”

  “What time this morning?”

  “I don’t know. About nine? I had just gotten to work when they called me from the hospital.”

  “Wait, did the person who called you know that you and Mom are getting a divorce?”

  He looked at me in the rearview mirror. “Chris,” he said. “Your mom and I will always be there for one another. You know that.”

  “Right,” I said, shrugging.

  I looked out the window. It was that time of day when the sun’s gone down but the streetlights haven’t come on yet. The streets were black and shiny because of the rain. You could see the reflections of all the red and white lights of the cars in the puddles along the highway.

  I pictured Mom driving in the rain this morning. Did it happen right after she dropped me off, or when she was driving back to school with my stuff?

  “Why did you think she was on her way to Auggie’s house?” Dad asked.

  “I don’t know,” I answered, still looking out the window. “Because Daisy died. I thought maybe—”

  “Daisy died?” he said. “Oh no, I didn’t know that. When did that happen?”

  “They put her to sleep last night.”

  “Had she been sick?”

  “Dad, I don’t know any details!”

  “Okay, don’t bite my head off.”

  “It’s just…I wish you had told me about the accident earlier in the day! Someone should have told me.”

  Dad looked at me in the rearview mirror again. “There was no need to alarm you, Chris. Everything was under control. There was nothing you could have done anyway.”

  “I was waiting for Mom to come back with my stuff all morning!” I said, crossing my arms.

  “It was a crazy day for all of us, Chris,” he answered. “I spent the day dealing with accident reports and insurance forms, rental cars, going back and forth to the hospital….”

  “I could have gone to the hospital with you,” I said.

  “Well, you’re in luck,” he said, drumming the steering wheel. “Because that’s where we’re going right now.”

  “Wait, we’re going to the hospital?” I said.

  “Mom just got discharged, so we’re picking her up.” He looked at me in the mirror again, but I looked away. “Isn’t that great?”

  “Yeah.”

  We drove quietly for a few seconds. The rain was coming down in sheets. Dad made the windshield wipers go faster. I leaned my head against the window.

  “This day sucked,” I said quietly. I blew some hot air on the window and drew a sad face with my finger.

  “You okay, Chris?”

  “Yes,” I mumbled. “I hate hospitals, that’s all.”

  The Hospital Visit

  The first and only time I’d ever been to a hospital before was to visit Auggie. This was when we were about six years old. Auggie had had like a million surgeries before then, but this was the first time my mom thought I was old enough to go and visit him.

  The surgery had been to remove the “buttonhole” on his neck. This is what he used to call his trach tube, a little plastic thingy that was literally inserted into his neck below his Adam’s apple. The “buttonhole” is what the doctors put inside Auggie when he was born to allow him to breathe. The doctors were removing it now, because they were pretty sure Auggie could breathe on his own.

  Auggie was really excited about this surgery. He hated his buttonhole. And when I say he hated it, I mean he haaaated it. He hated that it was so noticeable, since he wasn’t allowed to cover it up. He hated that he couldn’t go swimming in a pool because of it. Most of all, he hated how sometimes it would get blocked up, for no reason, and he would start to cough like he was choking, like he couldn’t breathe. Then Isabel or Nate would have to jab a tube into the hole, to suction it, so that he could breathe again. I watched this happen a couple of times, and it was pretty scary.

  I remember I was really happy about visiting Auggie after his surgery. The hospital was downtown, and Mom surprised me by stopping off at FAO Schwarz so I could pick out a nice big present to bring to Auggie (a Star Wars Lego set) and a small present for me (an Ewok plushie). After we bought the toys, Mom and I got lunch at my favorite restaurant, which makes the best foot-long hot dogs and iced hot chocolate milk shakes on the planet.

  And then, after lunch, we went to the hospital.

  “Chris, there are going to be other kids who are having facial surgeries,” Mom told me quietly as we walked through the hospital doors. “Like Auggie’s friend Hudson, okay? Remember not to stare.”

  “I would never stare!” I answered. “I hate when kids stare at Auggie, Mommy.”

  As we walked down the hall to Auggie’s room, I remember seeing lots of balloons everywhere, and posters of Disney princesses and superheroes taped to the hallway walls. I thought it was cool. It felt like a giant birthday party.

  I peeked into some of the hospital rooms as we passed, an
d that’s when I realized what my mom meant. These were kids like Auggie. Not that they looked like him, though a couple of them did, but they had other facial differences. Some of them had bandages on their faces. One girl, I saw quickly, had a huge lump on her cheek that was the size of a lemon.

  I squeezed my mom’s hand and remembered not to stare, so I looked down at my feet as we walked and held on tight to my Ewok plushie.

  When we reached Auggie’s room, I was glad to see that Isabel and Via were already there. They both came over to the door when they saw us and kissed us hello happily.

  They walked us over to Auggie, who was in the bed by the window. As we passed the bed closest to the door, I got the impression that Isabel was trying to block me from looking at the kid lying in that bed. So I took a quick peek behind me after we had passed. The boy in the bed, who was probably only about four, was watching me. Under his nose, where the top of his mouth was supposed to be, was an enormous red hole, and inside the hole was what looked like a piece of raw meat. There seemed to be teeth stuck into the meat, and pieces of jagged skin hanging over the hole. I looked away as quickly as I could.

  Auggie was asleep. He seemed so tiny in the big hospital bed! His neck was wrapped up in white gauze, and there was blood on the gauze. He had some tubes sticking out of his arm, and one sticking into his nose. His mouth was wide open, and his tongue was kind of hanging out of his mouth onto his chin. It looked a little yellow and was all dried up. I’ve seen Auggie asleep before, but I’d never seen him sleep like that before.

  I heard my mom and Isabel talking about the surgery in their quiet voices, which they used when they didn’t want me or Auggie to hear what they were saying. Something about “complications” and how it had been “touch and go” for a while. My mom hugged Isabel. I stopped listening.

  I stared at Auggie, wishing he would close his mouth in his sleep.

  Via came over and stood next to me. She was about ten years old then. “It was nice of you to come visit Auggie,” she said.

  I nodded. “Is he going to die?” I whispered.

  “No,” she whispered back.

  “Why is he bleeding?” I asked.

  “It’s where they operated on him,” she answered. “It’ll heal.”

  I nodded. “Why is his mouth open?”

  “He can’t help it.”

  “What’s wrong with the little boy in the other bed?”

  “He’s from Bangladesh. He has a cleft lip and palate. His parents sent him here to have surgery. He doesn’t speak any English.”

  I thought of the big empty red hole on the boy’s face. The jagged flap of skin.

  “Are you okay, Chris?” Via asked gently, nudging me. “Lisa? Lisa, I don’t think Chris is looking so good….”

  That’s when the foot-long hot dog and iced hot chocolate milk shake kind of just exploded out of me. I threw up all over myself, the giant Lego box I’d gotten for Auggie, and most of the floor in front of his bed.

  “Oh my goodness!” cried Mom as she looked around for paper towels. “Oh, sweetie!”

  Isabel found a towel and started cleaning me with it. My mom, meanwhile, was frantically wiping the floor with a newspaper.

  “No, Lisa! Don’t worry about that,” said Isabel. “Via, sweetie, go find a nurse and tell her we need a cleanup here.” She said this as she was picking hot dog chunks off my chin.

  Via, who looked like she might throw up herself, turned around calmly and headed out the door. Within a few minutes, some nurses had come into the room with mops and buckets.

  “Can we go home, Mommy?” I remember saying, the vomit taste still fresh in my mouth.

  “Yes, honey,” said Mom, taking over for Isabel and cleaning me off.

  “I’m so sorry, Lisa,” said Isabel, wetting another towel at the sink. She dabbed my face with it.

  By now, I was sweating profusely. I turned to leave even before Mom and Isabel had finished cleaning me off. But then I accidentally caught a glimpse of the little boy in the bed, who was still looking at me. I started to cry when I looked into the big empty red hole above his mouth.

  At that point, Mom kind of hugged me and glided me out the door at the same time. When we got outside the room, she half carried me to the lobby by the elevators. My face was buried in her coat, and I was crying hysterically.

  Isabel and Via followed us out.

  “I’m so sorry,” Isabel said to us.

  “I’m so sorry,” said Mom. They were both kind of mumbling sorries to each other at the same time. “Please tell Auggie we’re sorry we couldn’t stay.”

  “Of course,” said Isabel. She knelt down in front of me and started wiping my tears. “Are you okay, honey? I’m so sorry. I know it’s a lot to process.”

  I shook my head. “It’s not Auggie,” I tried to say.

  Her eyes got very wet suddenly. “I know,” she whispered. Then she put both her hands on my face, like she was cradling it. “Auggie’s lucky to have a friend like you.”

  The elevator came, Isabel hugged me and Mom, and then we got inside the elevator.

  I saw Via waving at me as the elevator doors closed. Even though I was only six at the time, I remember thinking I felt sorry for her that she couldn’t leave with us.

  As soon as we were outside, Mom sat me down on a bench and hugged me for a long time. She didn’t say anything. She just kissed the top of my head over and over again.

  When I finally calmed down, I handed her the Ewok.

  “Can you go back and give it to him?” I said.

  “Oh, honey,” she answered. “That’s so sweet of you. But Isabel can clean the Lego set. It’ll be good as new for Auggie, don’t worry.”

  “No, for the other kid,” I answered.

  She looked at me a second, like she didn’t know what to say.

  “Via said he doesn’t speak any English,” I said. “It must be really scary for him, being in the hospital.”

  She nodded slowly. “Yeah,” she whispered. “It must be.”

  She closed her eyes and hugged me again. And then she took me over to the security desk, where I waited until she went back up the elevator and, after about five minutes, came back down again.

  “Did he like it?” I asked.

  “Honeyboy,” she said softly, brushing the hair out of my eyes. “You made his day.”

  7:04 p.m.

  When we got to Mom’s hospital room, we found her sitting up in a wheelchair watching TV. She had a huge cast that started from her thigh and went all the way down to her ankle.

  “There’s my guy!” she said happily as soon as she saw me. She held her arms out to me, and I went over and hugged her. I was relieved to see that Daddy had told the truth: except for the cast and a couple of scratches on her face, Mom looked totally fine. She was dressed and ready to go.

  “How are you feeling, Lisa?” said Dad, leaning over and kissing her cheek.

  “Much better,” she answered, clicking off the TV set. She smiled at us. “Totally ready to go home.”

  “We got you these,” I said, giving her the vase of flowers we had bought downstairs in the gift store.

  “Thank you, sweetie!” she said, kissing me. “They’re so pretty!”

  I looked down at her cast. “Does it hurt?” I asked her.

  “Not too much,” she answered quickly.

  “Mommy’s very brave,” said Dad.

  “What I am is very lucky,” Mom said, knocking the side of her head.

  “We’re all very lucky,” added Dad quietly. He reached over and squeezed Mom’s hand.

  For a few seconds, no one said anything.

  “So, do you need to sign any discharge papers or anything?” asked Dad.

  “All done,” she answered. “I’m ready to go home.”

  Dad got behind the wheelchair.

  “Wait, can I push her?” I said to Dad, grabbing one of the handles.

  “Let me just get her out the door here,” answered Dad. “It’s a little hard to
maneuver with her leg.”

  “How was your day, Chris?” asked Mom as we wheeled her into the hallway.

  I thought about what an awful day it had been. All of it, from beginning to end. Science, music, math, rock band. Worst day ever.

  “Fine,” I answered.

  “How was band practice? Is Elijah being any nicer these days?” she asked.

  “It was good. He’s fine.” I shrugged.

  “I’m sorry I didn’t bring your stuff,” she said, stroking my arm. “You must have been wondering what happened to me!”

  “I figured you were running errands,” I answered.

  “He thought you went to Isabel’s house,” laughed Dad.

  “I did not!” I said to him.

  We had reached the nurses’ station and Mom was saying goodbye to the nurses, who were waving back, so she didn’t really hear what Dad had said.

  “Didn’t you ask me if Mom had gone to—” Dad said to me, confused.

  “Anyway!” I interrupted, turning to Mom. “Band was fine. We’re playing ‘Seven Nation Army’ for the spring concert on Wednesday. Can you still come?”

  “Of course I can!” she answered. “I thought you were playing ‘The Final Countdown.’ ”

  “ ‘Seven Nation Army’ is a great song,” said Dad. He started humming the bass line and playing air guitar as we waited for the elevator.

  Mom smiled at him. “I remember you playing that at the Parlor.”

  “What’s the Parlor?” I asked.

  “The pub down the road from our dorm,” answered Mom.

  “Before you were born, buddy,” said Dad.

  The elevator doors opened, and we got in.

  “I’m starving,” I said.

  “You guys haven’t eaten dinner yet?” Mom asked, looking at Dad.

  “We came straight here from school,” he answered. “When were we going to stop for dinner?”

  “Can we stop for some McDonald’s on the way home?” I asked.

  “Sounds good to me,” answered Dad.

  We reached the lobby, and the elevator doors opened.

  “Now can I push the wheelchair?” I said.

  “Yep,” he answered. “You guys wait for me over there, okay?” He pointed to the farthest exit on the left. “I’ll pull the car around.”

 
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