Salt of the Earth
When the aero landed on the roof of the hospital, her dad was waiting for her by the lift, hunched over. He looked old.
Melia flung herself out of the aero and ran to him. He wrapped his arms around her, holding her close. She buried her face in his shoulder, as if he could still fix everything.
He stroked her hair. “I’m so sorry.”
Melia trembled, rejecting the reasons for his apology. There were other things he could be sorry about. He was sorry she had to come back for a false alarm. He was sorry she was upset. He was–
“Dora didn’t make it.”
He was wrong.
She had heard Dora laughing on the aero. How could a little girl who laughed like that be gone? It wasn’t possible.
He said other things to her as they rode the lift down. Melia nodded whenever he paused; his words were almost meaningless. “Salt overdose…Theo thinks the kids might have thought the supplements were Salties…Dora’s so much smaller. Her size… It would only take a spoonful.”
A long tunnel seemed to be between her and the outside. Was that what it was like for Nikolas?
“How is Nikolas?”
Her dad stopped with his mouth open. He had been speaking, but she had no memory of what he had just said. He cleared his throat. “The doctors say he’ll be fine. They were worried about brain damage, but think he’s out of the woods.”
Brain damage. As if her sweet boy didn’t have enough to cope with.
The lift opened on a lobby filled with people. It seemed as if her entire extended family was there. Theo’s grandmother sat in a corner next to Melia’s aunt. They were holding hands, with their heads bent together. Theo’s grandmother held a tearsheet under her eyes, delicately catching each tear that streamed down her face. Was she going to make a huge show of how much salt she collected for the memorial service?
The conversations stopped as people saw her. A cousin took a step forward, but Melia’s dad shook his head, waving him off. She wanted to thank him for that, but her tongue had frozen in her mouth.
He led her down the hall to a private room. Thank God her children had a room of their own.
The room was dimly lit. Her mom turned as they entered. The lines in her face seemed deeper than Melia remembered. At her side, the hospital bed seemed to swallow Nikolas.
Melia’s heart twisted. His face was puffy and slick with sweat. The sheets under him were damp. His eyes were closed. His right hand fluttered against the sheet in the pattern he made for distress.
What had happened to her son?
Theo stepped between her and Nikolas.
The tunnel protecting her shattered. All of the anger she had swallowed boiled up and over. Theo had killed her child.
She launched herself at Theo, swinging her fists wildly, beyond words. He had taken her children from her. Dora was dead. It was his fault. His fault. “What did you do to them?”
Theo tried to catch her hands. “I didn’t do anything!”
Over his shoulder she saw Nikolas. His eyes were open and he was watching them.
Melia dropped her hands.
She pushed past Theo. Nikolas looked at the ceiling when she got to the side of his bed. He hummed through his nose and his right hand beat against the bed.
She wanted to hold his hand, to brush the hair back from his forehead, but she clutched the rail on the edge of the bed so hard that her fingers ached.