That’s what my brother calls it. The quarantined room at the end of the hall. It has two sets of windows: one looking into an air lock, where two white bunny suits hang on the wall, then another looking into the room kept pristine for the most fragile.
What can I say? When he says zoo, I laugh and he snickers. We have to make ourselves feel better somehow. We haven’t been inside the Zoo but imagine it must be like that scene in E.T. that made my brother run crying out of the den when he was five.
Four weeks of this. Loafing at the NIH for our one-in-a-million immune deficiency, things dripping in, things dripping out. So much for near-bubble children riding ponies at a birthday party when their Ma’s away for a few hours. My brother dared me to kiss the pony on its snout, and I said I’d only do it if he did it with me. Which the fucker did. Or maybe it wasn’t the pony but the ferrets we wore around our necks or the pile of hay we gallivanted into or the toke of weed we snuck behind the barn when we knew, we knew, what we weren’t supposed to do. Lucky us, our lungs stayed clean. Gunk just kinda lingers at the bottom there sometimes and then it’s X-eyes for the kiddies.
Just a couple gnarly lymph nodes to cut out. No biggie. We already have a couple half-moon scars on our necks.
Anyway. Since we’ve been feeling better after the surgeries, we’ve been creeping around the NIH campus with our cameras, snap snapping away. It beats Scrabble in the patient lounge. We’ve gone down back stairwells, peeked into top secret laboratories, watched mice get injected with rare diseases and then injected again with experimental medicines. Poor mice. We spied blood whirring in centrifuges and tubes of greenish pee. But those white bunny suits in the Zoo beat all. It’s like that computer commercial with the disco dancing and the microchips, or like working in a nuclear power plant, or like that movie about Ebola, when all the chimps explode? Our English teacher, Mrs. S, had us read The Andromeda Strain and said Michael Crichton totally predicted the Ebola virus. I wonder if anyone predicted us.
Tonight, they bring a kid to the Zoo.
“What’s he got?” Ma asks a nurse.
“We can’t tell you that, ma’am.”
“Why’d you put plastic on the computer in the patient lounge, though.”
“Ma’am, it’s for his protection, it’s not for your protection.”
Ma’s annoyed. She hovers out in the hall, eyeing the nurse station with her don’t you understand I’m a mother glare. Don’t I have sick children too?
Don’t look at his chart, Ma, is all I can think to pray. Not that I really pray, just in cases when Ma could get an idea in her head. Or when I just wish my mouth and belly would stop aching so I could eat, or there’s a tube down my throat and the nurse has to remind me to breathe. Anyway. So I pray that Ma doesn’t try to peep at this poor kid’s chart, this poor kid stuck in the Zoo and probably some sort of bubble child, transported super-careful like a piece of uranium. And I can’t say anything, in case she hasn’t somehow already thought of this type of brazen snooping.
Ma paces up and down the hallway. I could distract her, ask if she wants to play Scrabble, warm the cockles of her heart. I could rope Garrett in on it, mother and sons playing a board game, what a nice little family in the hospital lounge. But then I just watch her, biting her nails and looking, well, gaunt.
Gaunt’s a word I don’t use every day, but I remember it from Mrs. S. We have this crazy complicated vocab diary, it’s so annoying. One time, back home, I was doing the vocab diary while sitting on the floor while my meds were dripping in, and I thought, damn Mrs. S, if this book didn’t have nasty-ass Martian viruses in it, and if you weren’t so pretty, I would not be doing this homework right now.
“Ma,” I say.
“What,” she says. She looks real tired, like she hasn’t slept in a month.
“Let’s go for a walk.”
“It’s 10 o’clock. We’re not going outside.”
“But it’d be cool out,” I say. “And you’re not sleeping anyway.”
Garrett’s on his Game Boy. He kind of waves at us without looking up. I think he’s sicker than me, and sometimes I get annoyed that the doctors pay more attention to him. He stays home from school more, gets away with more. We sit together in Mrs. S’ class, and I doodle on his desk when he’s not there. I’m getting really good at drawing AK-47s. Anyway. I’m hooked up to my meds, so we have to push the pole with the baggie around, which means we can’t really go out onto the grass, which is what I really want. Once outside, we really loaf it. I mean we’re barely walking.
“Ma,” I say. “Don’t ask any more about that poor kid in the Zoo.”
“I mean, that room at the end of the hall.”
“You call it the Zoo?”
“Me and Garrett call it the Zoo, yeah.” I look around. “But that’s just between us.”
Her brows crunch together and her mouth screws up like she’s going to be mad. But then she lets out a weird little laugh, like nothing I’ve heard come out of her. Then she says, “I just want to make you sure you guys are safe. You’re my own little guys. You’re all I’ve got.”
“I know. I just don’t trust them.”
She cocks her head toward the big white clinical center.
I kind of can’t believe she’s telling me this, I mean I’m just a kid, right? But then, she tells me stuff I’m probably too young for all the time. Like all about why she left our dad (sad) and why her new boyfriend kind of sucks too (gross). I’m her best listener.
“We’ll be fine, Ma,” I say, even though I have no idea if we’ll be fine, and every year one of the other patients goes and every year one of the other patients lives longer than they thought. “They’re doing their doctor thing. Look, they’re probably the smartest doctors for what we’ve got.” I can tell she can’t believe me, that something’s whispering to her in her gut. There’s no point arguing with Ma’s gut.
We dawdle on the lit up walkway. Ma crouches down in the grass and picks something up.
“Look,” she says. “A wild strawberry!” It’s a tiny little thing, but definitely red and strawberry-shaped. She pops it in her mouth, as if it’s the most natural thing to do, as if a wild strawberry has any place on this immaculate lawn.
“Ew, Ma. Way to set an example.”
“Let’s go inside,” she says. “That didn’t taste very good.”
“You should go to sleep.”
“I’ll walk you back first.”
After we get back, the nurse says it’s time to unhook me from the meds. After the unhooking, I walk Ma to the elevator so she can go to her room at the Children’s Inn. “Don’t worry, Ma,” I tell her, “just try to sleep.” She kisses my forehead.
“See you in the morning,” she says.
The doors slide closed, and I don’t feel like going to the room, so I go on my own little walk, poking around the building.
Sometimes, they bring in these puppies for us and the other patients to play with, these really cute, big-pawed, floppy-eared puppies, and I wonder how they made sure the puppies weren’t bringing anything gnarly into the hospital, like something really stellar and dangerous from just nosing around the shit-and-junk outside. I mean puppies are curious, right? And there’s all sorts of crazy contagious diseases around, right? And even if it’s some kind of dumb, lazy puppy that isn’t curious about anything, wouldn’t they have germs too? They run those animals through some kind of crazy microbe-stripping machine? They seem pretty frisky, all cute and yappy and their tails are all curled and bouncy, so I have to assume that whatever they do to clean ‘em off doesn’t like, drain away part of their souls.
Or maybe they’re specially engineered, like there’s a whole subspecies of cute and friendly infection-resistant dogs, like there’s a whole niche of dog breeding where the NIH and other research hospitals can test out their theories of genetics and like, how well kids respond to dog licks and whether the dogs can do that without giving so much as a rash.
On the top floor, there’s all the “fun” stuff for patients. A library, an arts and crafts room, a meditation room. That’s the floor where they bring the puppies, so if you can’t get up there, no puppies for you. Anyway, even though all that stuff shuts down by seven or so, I like to walk around and look out the windows or mess with the magnet letters on the door to the library.
It’s pretty dark out by now. I can barely see the twinkling lights beyond the trees of the campus. I’m sick of messing with the magnets, but I arrange the F and the U together like I usually do when I’m up here. I think the librarian changes it around every morning, but no one says anything about it. I keep shuffling along until I hear a little rustle, a few steps.
My heart jumps, and I step away from the magnet letters, ready to say something about spelling FUDGE. But I see no one coming toward me. Just a light in the little chapel across from the elevators, which stays open pretty late.
I go up to the crack in the door. The light’s different in there, warm and yellow. It’s lit up by real lamps, not that white flickering fluorescent crap. A pink-y beige-y carpet makes the room feel soft. There’s a couple inside. They’re kneeling on the carpet with their shoes off and their heads bowed and I think their hands are clasped in their laps. It’s so quiet. I can hear one of them sigh. A tired little sigh. The husband, I think. The wife puts her hand out in the little space between them and then he takes it and they keep sitting there on their knees, looking down, sitting quiet, and I can just tell their hands are probably all warm and soft. And I just watch them for a while, feeling sure they’d just sit there like that, feeling kind of good and then kind of sad.
I don’t know how long I’m standing there. Five minutes? I back away from the crack in the door and take the stairs down so the beep of the elevator won’t bother them. Sometimes, in a hospital, you think you’d get used to all the beeps, but I don’t think so.
Garrett’s watching something on the TV with the sound off. Cops, I think. He’s half-asleep. He’s got goose bumps on his arms, and I know where the nurses keep their cache of heated blankets, so I just go and get him one. I drape the blanket over him.
“I’m sorry I dared you to kiss a pony,” he mumbles.
“Hey,” I say. “I’d do it again. I’d kiss a pony with you any day.”
He smiles a little, and lets out a little laugh. “Zoo,” he says, in his sleep.
Growing up in Brooklyn, Anca L. Szilágyi spent a lot of time in the D.C. area. This year, she was awarded a Made at Hugo House fellowship to complete her short story collection More Like Home Than Home. She lives in Seattle.