“Good morning Miss Cameron,” the man said with a smile. He had a strange accent, African perhaps. She couldn’t make out the features of his face, but the way he carried himself boasted an aura of confidence. His hair, dark as a moonless night, was pulled back into a ponytail that just touched the collar of a shirt made of a silk that was just as black. A scent preceded him into the room, a mixture of aromas that blurred the line between deliciously sweet and an uncomfortable burn.
For the first time in a month she felt her heart flutter. The rhythmic beeping of the machine next to her stuttered in response.
“Please,” she managed a smile. The effort it took pained her mind more than her body. “Call me Aisling. And you are?”
“You may call me Attar,” the stranger smiled. “I am here at the request of your mother.”
The man took a few cautious steps into the room. Aisling tried to beckon to the chair beside her, but lacked the strength to do so.
“Of course you are,” she muttered to herself as much as to the stranger. “God forbid she come herself.”
The corner of Attar’s lip twitched. “You would be surprised how much He forbids.”
Aisling let her head fall to the side so she could raise an eyebrow at him. “Are you trying to make jokes with a dying girl? I don’t think I’ve heard one of those in a while.” She finally managed to beckon with a single finger. “Please, come closer. I wouldn’t mind the company.”
The man smiled again as he stepped towards the bed. Aisling couldn’t see his feet, but each footfall made a clack that echoed against the hardwood floor.
“So aside from your charm, what makes you so special? Why did mother dearest send you?”
“Rather forward for someone who is what? Eighteen years of age?” The clacking was drowned out as Attar dragged an armchair next to the bed. The cracked leather was in dire need of reupholstering.
Aisling went to answer but was overcome by a coughing fit. Each bark was wet, as ugly-sounding to the ears as it was painful for her. Before Aisling could put a hand or sheet over her mouth, blood sprayed in thick globs in front of her. Her white bedding was suddenly decorated with a crimson Rorschach pattern. Attar reached out to put a comforting hand on her shoulder, but he hesitated before touching her cold skin. The fit soon passed.
“Seventeen. Almost made it, I would have been eighteen next month.”
“A big milestone,” the man said, flipping through some of the files in Aisling’s medical dossier.
“Thanks for the reminder,” the girl mocked. Her trembling smile wiped clear any remnants of venom.
Attar’s piercing grey eyes filled with genuine sorrow.
“It’s in the marrow, isn’t it?” Attar’s tone had grown sombre. Aisling nodded.
“So aggressive they couldn’t do anything but give me an expiration date.” Aisling’s words softened, weighed down by veiled pain and exhaustion. “I”m sorry, Attar. Perhaps we can pick this up again tomorrow.”
The man nodded and stood up, briefly stopping to tuck the sheets and blankets around Aisling’s tiny frame. He made sure that the wires connecting her to the monitoring machine were secure before turning and walking away. Aisling heard that clack of his footsteps against the wood, rhythmically fading away.
Those names footfalls filled her with elation when she heard them the next day.
“Good morning, Attar,” her voice actually sounded excited in her own ears, for a change. Two visits in two days, a new record.
“Your mother insisted,” the man said, palms open in front of him as if showing he was harmless.
Branches scratched against her bedroom window, little claws trying to open the glass. The house groaned under the strain of the wind. The sound of Attar’s footsteps and the dragging of the armchair only added to the sudden symphony of clamour.
“So what is on the agenda today, doc?” No matter how weakened she was, it seemed the girl could always muster some humour.
“I thought maybe I could get to know you a little better. Tell me about your dreams.” Attar couldn’t tell if the sound the sick girl made was a laugh or a cough.
“Dreams are for those who don’t wake up in agony every half hour,” she replied with a snort. That sound was definitive enough. The sharp inhalation racked her body with pain, causing a whimper to follow. “I don’t have those anymore.”
A deep rumble erupted from deep inside of Attar.
“No, not nighttime hallucinations. Your dreams, my dear Aisling. Your hopes, your wishes.”
“Oh, so you’re from that kind of med school?”
“If you want this to work, you’re going to have to trust me, Aisling.” The dark-haired man’s voice was serious. It shocked Aisling how quickly he had sobered.
The girl craned her neck so she could take in the man. His features were sharp, but his eyes were so gentle. For all the seriousness in his voice, those eyes were wells of empathy and understanding.
“You won’t laugh?” Aisling could feel the blood rushing to her cheeks. Not because of what her dreams were, but because of how comfortable this stranger made her. How happy he made her.
“I would never. You have my word.”
Aisling spoke with an energy she hadn’t felt in weeks. The words, her hopes and dreams, flowed out like a river breaking through a dam.
“I want to go to Japan. I want to go when the cherry blossoms are blooming and I want to sit under a pink cloud of petals. I want to kiss a boy there. I’ve only kissed a few boys, and I haven’t even thought about kissing a girl until now. I’ve never had sex, but I’ve heard good things.” Aisling sucked back a breath. She didn’t even register the pain it caused her tumour-filled bones. “A new book in my favourite series is coming out next year, and I won’t even be around to read it. But it is the last book, Attar! The last one! I want to turn eighteen, to be able to say that I outgrew this shitty childhood and I want to leave this terrible sickness behind with it.
“I want,” another breath, this one more pained than the last, “to see my mother again. I want to tell her how much I miss her and that I forgive her for being gone for so long, but she is the only thing I have left. I know I am the only thing she has left, too, and now she won’t even come to see me. Her daughter! Her dying kid.”
The man grinned through sad eyes.
“I can understand that,” he said under his breath. Aisling barely heard it over the sound of her blood pounding in her ears.
“I just want to live,” Aisling finally said. Sobs shook her body.
A thick silence hung in the air between them. Aisling did her best to stifle her crying, as if she couldn’t show Attar or the disease any weakness. After a moment, the man spoke.
“What if I can give you all of that?” he asked. His eyes were sad, grey spheres of pain.
“Don’t. Please don’t make jokes like that,” Aisling whispered between deep breaths.
Another bloody coughing fit shook her oxygen-starved body. Attar clicked open a briefcase and removed a sheet of paper.
“If you sign this, I can promise you ten years to live those dreams. But I must warn you, dear Aisling, that you will be repaying this debt forever. Please, read it over, every word, before taking action.”
Aisling snatched the paper in a blur. Blood on her hand smeared along the bottom of the thick sheet of vellum.
“I don’t care what it says,” she could feel her heart racing. Some kind of drug? Some treatment? It would be worth it. “Do you have a pen?”
Attar regarded her with those soft eyes. Aisling barely noticed an unexpected tear run down his face as the man reached for the paper. The signature line was red with her blood.
“Do not worry, my dear Aisling,” he said, gently setting the paper back in the case. He got up and clacked over to the door. The dying girl swore she saw a tail flicking behind him, but was distracted as every semblance of pain faded from her body. She turned and set her feet on the cold floor, standing on her legs on her own for the first time in months. Aisling felt her lungs fill painlessly. She felt like she could scream and cry and laugh all at once.
Attar turned his head to regard her one last time when he reached the doorway. There was no joy in his eyes.
“Do not waste the next ten years, Aisling. Chase those dreams. I will see you then.”