A hundred hearts. A hundred beats. Not a one matched the other, but together they thrummed like the hammered pipes that veined Dis.
Alvaro set his rhythm to the beat that was closest to him, loudest (deep-breath, bone-set, splint-press, cloth-wrap). Throughout the hours the doctors and nurses around him did too, eventually, and soon there weren’t as many words shouted across the halls, weren’t as many commands curtly given. And there was more breathing, too, calm, even breaths that soon enough found the wounded.
A hundred times he carefully untangled and weeded disrupted life—a hundred times he gently molded and coaxed and pruned the vines of vitality. It didn’t take much from him—at most it required a little bit of his blood—for it to begin shifting in the right direction. Just as surely as he could lose himself in Dis’s music, he could lose himself in this, watching the brilliance, the miracle that was the human body, right itself.
And from this he got to see a hundred blooms of relief on a hundred faces, flowering in different ways, with different colors and patterns: Jin-Ho’s crooked, white-toothed grin, Laura’s sobbing laughter and red cheeks, Francisca’s songlike, English-peppered Portuguese string of gratitude, Mano’s tight hug and vigorous, broad-handed pats.
Susan’s lone, rolling tear, and her unfolding smile.
“Okay, Hakim,” Alvaro said, wiping the boy’s face clean of blood with a damp towel. “How are you feeling?”
“I dunno,” the boy said. “Like nothing’s real still.”
Alvaro nodded. “That’s because the adrenaline hasn’t left your system yet. Do me a favor and try wiggling your fingers.”
He did. He brought his hand up, staring at it, and turning it about. Then he did the same with his other arm. “They’re moving, Alvaro.”
“Whadya know? They are!” Alvaro grinned. “Can you sit up?”
Hakim rose, slowly, almost disbelieving. Then he pushed his legs to dangle off the edge of his bed, and swung them. He looked at Alvaro then, a question written on his face.
Alvaro held out his hand. Hakim took it and pressed his feet onto the floor. He stood and, hanging tightly to Alvaro’s hand, walked around the room.
There was the unmistakable tap-tap-tap of a stone knuckle against the wood of the door.
“I’m gonna answer that. I want you to slowly walk around the room five times, okay? Carefully. If you can do that without getting too dizzy or losing your balance, you can go home.”
Hakim nodded. Alvaro gradually released his hand. Once the boy’s footing and balance looked sure, Alvaro opened the door.
Sofia was waiting on the other side, her stone hand closed over her flesh wrist, eyes on the ground. Her hair was still up in a ponytail, except for the stray locks that curled in front of her ears like the stems of a morning glory, lightly brushing her skin.
Alvaro smiled. “Hey,” he said.
She looked to him. There was a hard set to her eyes, a tension in her brow. Her shoulders were tense, too, squared to hold up too many things. Though she was making an effort to smile, it was a far cry from her usually bright, vibrant, full bloom.
“Hey.” Her eyes flicked over his shoulder briefly, to the room beyond. “You got a minute?”
“Oh, hi, Sofia!” Hakim grinned and continued his circuit. “I walked around the room three times already!”
“Three whole times!” she repeated, etching a stronger smile and sounding impressed.
“Yep! Alvaro fixed my spine and made it so I could move again!”
Alvaro let out a little, nervous laugh. He never could get used to the way people gave him credit for healing them. It was their bodies that knew how they were supposed to be—all he did was show them how to get that way again.
“Wow!” Her eyes lighted on him again and her smile slowly gave way to purpose. “Alvaro, I just—”
“Four!” Hakim chirped. “One more, Alvaro!”
She let the rest of her words out, unspoken, with her soft exhale. Then she squared up again, put on a grin, and said, “You can do it, Hakim!”
Her strength was cracking. This wasn’t the place she’d be able to let it.
Alvaro looked over his shoulder again. “Hakim, can you do me a favor and sit down for a minute? Sofia and I need to talk outside real quick. After that we’ll walk to your mom and grandma. That’ll be your fifth lap. Okay?”
Hakim slowed, his delight giving way to seriousness, and then nodded. He stepped over to the bed and lifted himself onto it, craning his neck to see what was going on as Alvaro closed the door.
Alvaro turned back to her, arms spreading to wrap her in a hug. “Sofia—”
Sofia put her palms on his shoulders, halting him. “I’m okay, Alvaro. Really.” She took a breath and let it out, her fingers wilting, and then smiled again. “Thanks for covering Susan on the whole medical miracle front, despite Derrick being… y’know, in a bad way. She really wanted to be there for Carmen, and you gave her a chance to.”
You tend to your family. I’ll tend to mine.
He’d known what she’d meant, but those words had made such a clean, hard-edged divide. It had stung, the way that it had barred him, so that he could only watch as pain wound its thorny brambles around everyone, as Carmen rose and quietly summoned her weary, battered courage. So that he couldn’t walk with Carmen and tell her, quietly, that she was one of the bravest people he knew.
And now… it cut a little deeper. No, Sofia was not okay, and all she was letting him do was watch.
But she wasn’t doing it on purpose. She was shoring herself up, to lend her strength to everyone else. So Alvaro staunched his wounded thoughts and tried to bolster her smile with his own. “Sofia.” He brought one of his hands up to one of hers. “Por supuesto.” Spanish, for emphasis.
It worked. Her smile sprouted, salving him.
“What’s Carmen’s status?” he asked. “La mamá yet?”
“Yeah.” A little light budded behind Sofia’s eyes. “La mamá de Summer.”
A name. “Summer.” Alvaro couldn’t help his grin. “How is she?”
“Perfect health. And… and so small.” Sofia’s eyes fixed on him then, her vibrancy beginning to grow once more. “She’s got these little fingers with these itty-bitty fingernails, and the biggest light blue eyes, like… like…” There was a silence like a crack shooting through a boulder. “And Carmen… she’s… I mean, she’s always been so pretty, but this is… I dunno, something _different_—and she’s even smiling a little, too, even though…” Another crack, halting her.
For a moment it looked like she would square herself again and push her cheer forth. But then, over the course of one aching moment, she wilted. Her hands slowly dropped from Alvaro’s shoulders. Her gaze followed her hands, and her mouth twisted. “No soy bien, Alvaro. No soy.”
Spanish. It hurt how much she meant it. Alvaro stepped forward and gently drew her to him, lending her his strength. Without further hesitation, she buried her face in his shoulder and wrapped her arms tightly around him.
“Gods, it’s not fair… it’s not fair.” Her voice, so small, broke. “He didn’t deserve to miss all that.” She dropped to almost a whisper. “Carmen didn’t deserve it either.” Her breath drew in shakily.
No. They didn’t. Derrick…
… wasn’t here right now. Right now it was him and Sofia. So he hugged her tighter.
Her shoulders shook as she let her strength crumble.