Everyone loves vacation. And why wouldn’t they? When new places offer the thrill and excitement that everyone desires out of life? ‘Live life to the fullest.’ Dr. Jenny Peggers tells her to do so. But for her, life holds a different meaning because it’s not as colorful as others make it out to be. For her, it’s the white walls, the sterile stench of the disinfectant, and the ever-present beeping of heart monitors. It’s been almost nine months since her parents brought an eight-year-old Kalki Srivastava from their ancestral town of Pune to London.
“Why are we going here, Papa?” She asks her father as they enter some fancy oak-colored building, perched on his hip and fisting her tiny hands in his shirt. She doesn’t understand why Papa, her hero’s eyes are suspiciously wet.
“You’re a bit sick, beta.” He sniffs. “We’ll make you better.”
The sudden lurch of fear that grips the little girl’s heart like a vice makes her whimper. Latching onto her father, tucking her face in the crook of his neck, she feels safe. And slowly, the convoluted disagreements and background hustle swirl into a buzzing white noise in the back of her head, lulling her into the blissful slumber. Her father is there with her, and she can lean onto him when things get difficult. He is her wall.
The chilly winter morning does nothing to cool her as she looks at the snow, longingly, outside the glass window to her right. She wants to feel the snow on her face, she wants to go outside and play with her parents; not stay in this building. She feels trapped. As if the walls of Dr. Jenny’s cabin squash her. These walls are not her walls.
Kalki wrinkles her nose as the putrid smell of saline hits her. She is still staying in the Great Ormond Street Hospital – she has learned to pronounce the name correctly. Sitting on the small, neon-colored, plastic chair, she can’t help but feel utter disdain as the white walls stare down at her with invisible judgy eyes. She hates white walls. Dr. Jenny’s desk in front of her is like a humongous cliff, and she feels an odd nervousness crawling under her skin. But Dr. Jenny has always been so gentle with her, so loving.
Beside her, James sits hunched like a defeated soldier in pain. She supposes it’s a bad day for him. “Are you okay?” She asks, tentatively.
James Mcavoy is a little older than Kalki, currently, fifteen years and has been suffering from cancer. Last night has been catastrophic for him, evidently from a bad chemo session. He has been throwing up non-stop and it’s only a few hours ago that his nausea averted. “I am alright.” The lie rankles but he feels no need to traumatize Kalki more than necessary.
“Good morning, Kalki, James.” Dr. Jenny’s voice is soothing, almost a coo when she speaks, “Do you know why I called you here?”
Both James and Kalki shake their heads, not familiar with the answer. Dr. Jenny decides to address James first. “James, I am going to be a bit honest with you and I know you’re a strong lad. Your last session hit a bit of a snag.” The smile that blossoms on her face is sad. “We hit the wall with your last treatment. We are hoping that your next session will go better, okay? There’s no need to be afraid, child. But you are going to need some strong Tylenol for the next few days.” James’s answering nod is filled with bitter resignation and Kalki’s heart feels too big for her chest.
“Kalki, here is some sunshine news for you, love. Your dad is coming to take you home for the next few days. And I am here to gently order you to not forget the pills you are taking.” Kalki’s heart leaps to her throat. Her papa is visiting! Although, yes, pills are essential for her. Kalki has come to know that, eventually. She has a disease called ‘Cystic Fibrosis’, whatever that is. But everyone says pills keep her alive, and she definitely doesn’t want to die. She wants to visit grandma back in India!
Someone calls and Dr. Jenny promptly walks out of the room, leaving the kids with a short, “I will be right back, children.”
“Why don’t your parents visit you?” Kalki asks James, the question plaguing her mind forever. He has never talked about his family ever. James looks away.
“My family’s my elder sister and she lives overseas. Only sends money when required. I guess I don’t have a wall to lean into, eh?”
His words are like a punch to her gut. Her stomach roils. This is wrong.
“Papa wants to tell you a story.” Her father coos, while Kalki rests on his lap, thoroughly enjoying his fingers sliding through her hair, nimbly. “Back when I was a little boy like you, we used to live in Amboli. Our house wasn’t a pukka house and most of the time we used to paint the walls with self-made paints, design it, and make it very attractive.”
“Why, papa?” Kalki wonders. She has only seen a boring, beige color for the walls of her house.
“Because your grandma used to say that walls are what make a house beautiful. Walls are strong and you can depend on them. They will always protect you and they will make you feel safe.”
The epiphany is sudden, and Kalki jumps off her father’s lap with a wide grin on her face. “That means you and ma are my walls!”
Her father breaks into delighted laughter, whooping her into his arms and pressing kisses on her forehead, “Yes, Kalki. We will always be your walls.”
“That’s not good.” Kalki almost screams, angry and hurt tears clouding her vision. James is good, he should have a wall to make him feel better.
The boy startles, clearly not expecting her outburst, and holds out his hand by the side of his head in a pacifying gesture. “Hey, it’s okay. Am dandy with it.” But Kalki only shakes her head.
“My daddy is my wall. He loves me and I love him. He is always there for me. He can be your wall too, no wait. He will be your wall too.”
Hope burns raw and intense in James’s warm, Mahogany eyes as his lower lips quiver with the unspoken emotions brimming in his heart. “Really? He… he will do that? For me?”
“Pinky promise. He can be both of our walls!” And the first tear rolls down his rosy cheek but Kalki thinks it’s happy tears. Her heart flutters with joy. I am someone’s wall, too. She realizes.
Later in the day, when her Papa visits her, it doesn’t take much to persuade him to bring James along with them. “But papa, he needs us. We are his walls!” She says, and with a reluctant sigh, he agrees, much to her triumph. Dr. Jenny, with a smile, lets James come with them after some paperwork.
And when James, Kalki, and her father walk out of the hospital, the oak-colored walls watch them leave, happy for their brief reprieve while welcoming another upset child and his family with metaphorical spread-out arms.
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