Okay, here goes nothing. Thanks to ashamel for “sweetness and light”, ariaflame for “unicorn”, kezkex for “weeds” and Kelly for “Rumpumkinumptious”. And I know this took WAY longer than ten minutes, but hey, at least it’s actually Tuesday!
“The Darkest Hour”
(c) Martin Livings 5-10-2010
Hospitals aren’t fun places, that’s for sure, especially late at night. Erin sat upright in the uncomfortable skinny white bed and looked around the room, lit only by a faint light from the corridor outside and the various green and red lights from way too many machines around her. She could see mummy’s face as she slept at last, chin propped up by her hand, eyes moving underneath her lids. Erin hoped she was having a nice dream. She’d sat by her for over twenty four hours straight, while invisible fingers snatched the air from her lungs and tickled her insides, making her cough and splutter and choke. It was really scary, but scarier was her mummy’s stricken face all throughout, the teary eyes, the quivering bottom lip. That was worse than any coughing fit, to know how scared her mummy was, how scared she was making her. It felt like it was her fault. She knew it wasn’t, knew how silly it was to think that. But sometimes she couldn’t help it.
Now she was much better, though, breathing regularly with the help of a smelly rubber mask over her nose. She was still dizzy, of course, and not quite right. “Not out of the woods yet,” the doctor, who looked like the man off the Channel 7 news but with white hair and a beard, kept saying. She didn’t know what that meant, really. She liked the woods. The woods were cool, lots of things to play with, trees to climb, wet grass to skid along, sticks to swing about. The woods were fun.
This wasn’t fun. This sucked.
She closed her eyes, and thought about things she liked. She knew she wasn’t going to be able to sleep, no way. So she thought about stuff like ice cream, the cold sweetness of it in her mouth. She knew she’d get plenty of it later, a reward for being so brave, but she didn’t feel brave, not a bit. It’s like when you have a test at school, and you don’t want to do it, but you put your head down and do your best. There’s no other choice, really. So she thought of ice cream, and lollies, and new episodes of Doctor Who. Mummy promised there’d be a new one at Christmas. Somehow that was more exciting than the idea of Santa visiting.
A soft creak distracted her in the almost-silence of the hospital room. She opened her eyes, and looked towards the sound. The door to the hospital room had opened, just a crack. There was no light from outside it, though; the corridor lights had been turned off. Erin frowned; she thought they always left them on. Then something caught her eye, low down on the door.
There was a tiny hand there, like a baby’s hand, but with dark, skinny fingers. It made her shiver, just looking at it. She wondered for a moment if someone was playing a trick on her, maybe using a doll, but then the fingers moved, curled, and the door opened a little more. Erin’s breath caught in her throat; from fear this time, not pneumonia. She just sat there and stared, fresh oxygen flowing unused across her nose as the door slowly opened. The hand disappeared, then a tiny shadow inched out from behind the door.
It looked about as tall as a Barbie doll, but more squat, more like one of those troll dolls daddy had stuffed in one of the cupboards. It was dark, even in the gloom of the hospital room, and bald, and its eyes were bright, like a cat’s. Weirdest of all, it had a spike growing out of the top of its head.
“Hello,” it said in a crackly little voice.
“H… hello,” Erin replied. She was breathing again now, but still unable to move.
“What’s your name?” it asked.
“Erin,” she automatically responded, then flinched. She knew she wasn’t supposed to talk to strangers, and they don’t get much stranger than this little creature. “What are you?”
“That’s not very polite, Erin,” the thing scolded her. “I could ask the same of you. All big and pale and yucky. Like a maggot.”
“I’m not a maggot!” Erin yelled. “I’m a girl!”
“A gerrrrrrrrrrrrrrl?” the thing asked, then laughed. “What a stupid thing.”
“Well, what are you then?” she asked it.
It waved at the spike on its head. “What do you think? I’m a unicorn!”
“You’re not a unicorn!” Erin declared, outraged. “Unicorns are horses!”
“And gerrrrrrrrrrrrrrls are weeds,” the creature laughed. “Grow like ’em, spread like ’em. Smell like ’em.”
“You’re so rude!”
The thing sneered at Erin, then made a gesture on one of its tiny hands, one that her daddy did sometimes when he was driving, and that her mummy always said never to do. Erin gasped as the thing turned and ran away, into the corridor.
She didn’t even think about what she was doing, she was so outraged. She pulled the mask off her face and climbed out of the bed. The floor was cold on her bare feet. She glanced across at mummy, but she was still sleeping soundly, despite the ruckus. Erin shrugged and headed out of the room, in pursuit of the creature that claimed to be a unicorn.
The corridor outside her room was empty and dark. She looked up and down it for some sign of the thing.
“Oi!” Its voice came from one direction, and she spun towards it. There it was, right down the end. It made the gesture again. “How many fingers?”
“Oooh!” Erin huffed, and chased after the creature. She was halfway down the corridor before she realised that it wasn’t running away. It just stood there, underneath a dark window, and waited patiently for her to arrive. She skidded to a halt just as she reached it, stood over it with her hands on her hips.
“Well?” she asked it, cheeks flushed with anger.
“Are you going to apologise?”
“For what?” Erin repeated, her voice high and loud now. “For doing that?”
“You know what.”
“This.” And she made the gesture, without thinking. Then looked down at her extended finger, and snatched it back, blushing.
“Oh, that.” The creature shrugged. “It’s a friendly welcome in my world. Why, what does it mean here?” But the grin on its tiny, shrivelled face made it clear that it knew exactly what it meant here.
“Who are you?” Erin asked it.
“Rumpumkinumptious,” the creature replied.
“And ‘Erin’ isn’t?”
Erin had had quite enough of this. “Look, you, Rum Bum Scrumptious…”
“Rumpumkinumptious,” it corrected her.
“Whatever!” she snapped. “What do you want with me?”
It smiled at her. “Exactly what I’ve already done.”
Erin frowned, confused. “What? What do you mean?”
Rumpumkinumptious sat down against the wall. “Well, you know that there’s a spirit for everything, right? The spirit of forgiveness, the spirit of good will? Even the spirit of Australia?”
“What, the flying kangaroo?” Erin snorted.
“Exactly. Well, I’m a spirit too. And I was sent here to help you.”
“Help me? How exactly is this helping me?” Erin waved her hands. “I shouldn’t even be out of bed, you little goblin.”
“Unicorn. Hello?” And it waved its hands at its spike again. “And don’t worry, you’re not out of bed.”
Erin stopped, eyes wide. “What?”
“You’re not out of bed. You’re still there. Don’t you think your mum would have noticed you getting out of bed?”
“I don’t understand.” Then Erin’s eyes drifted upwards, away from the creature, to the window above it. It wasn’t completely dark anymore. It was starting to become light, as the sun crept over the horizon. It made her face feel warm.
“You see, Erin,” Rumpumkinumptious explained, “sometimes there’s a need for little gerrrrrrrrrrrrrrrls to stop thinking about where they are and what’s going on. Sometimes they need to think about something else, just for a little while, until things don’t look quite so dark. And that’s where I come in.” It grinned at her. “I’m the spirit of distraction.”
Erin continued to look at the window, as it got lighter and lighter, warmer and warmer. Her whole body filled with the sun’s wonderful warmth, and she closed her eyes and smiled.
“Erin?” a far-away voice said, familiar yet strange. “Erin? Honey, are you awake?”
Erin opened her eyes, and found herself back in the hospital bed, the room filling with the same warm golden glow that she’d been looking at moments earlier. The scratchy white sheets were pulled up to her chest, and her toes stuck out the end. She wiggled them with a smile, then looked over at her mummy, who was looking at her sleepily, with some concern in her eyes.
“Yes, mummy,” she replied with a nod.
“How are you feeling?”
Erin took a few experimental breaths through the mask still on her nose. “Better,” she said, and smiled. “Much better.”
“Good,” her mummy sighed with relief. “I hope you got some sleep. The sun’s just come up.” She looked worried again. “That last hour is the darkest, you know. Darkest before the dawn.”
“It’s okay, mummy,” Erin assured her, and thought of Rumpumkinumptious with a wry smile. “I was distracted.”