You now know what happened on the GS Pax all those years ago. I had to bully a great number of important earthlings in order to wrangle out permission to publish that, so try to be thankful.
Enough about the attack though. Let’s move on to the sappy good stuff.
I remember waking up in a room that smelled so much like the ship that at first, I thought I’d just had a nightmare. The hospital, like the ship, was scrubbed down with bleach and disinfectants, free of scents and excess noise. The mattress was covered in heavy vinyl, and when I shifted to pull my arms out from under the polyester blanket, the firm foam kept me from sinking.
I realize now that I should have heard the telltale swish of synthetic fabrics rubbing against each other, but I’m willing to bet I was too relieved to be alive to even think about things being wrong. I knew that in moments, my father would come drag me to breakfast, and I would say hello to my mother while she took a breather from discussing politics with Mr. Emil.
Closing my eyes, I settled back into the bed and pretended to be asleep.
Here is another thing I should have realized: the lighting was half natural. When I closed my eyes and saw red graze my retinas instead of the blue tint of LEDs, I should have guessed I was seeing sunlight. Even as a child, I knew the difference, though I think I felt it more than knew it.
Moments later, I felt the graze of someone about to shake me awake. I expected my father, and so I burst up, arms flailing.
That is when I knew something was wrong.
I laid eyes on a great, large, pale man who most certainly was not my father. The man wore dark blue scrubs and the funny nurse hat, and his arms bulged with more muscle and fat than I probably had in my entire body, especially considering the things I learned next.
I cowered into the mattress, feeling a sick roiling in my stomach. You must understand that to a six-year-old, anyone larger than an eight-year-old is terrifying. (Focci thinks I would be unlikely to find any earthling’s size intimidating now, but the captain of the Bellevue still makes me want to hide in a box and never come out.) The man smiled, probably trying to ease my fear, but I found him only scarier.
His mouth moved, and I strained to hear what he was saying, but all I caught was a soft, indistinct murmuring, like the hum of a struggling electric engine. He frowned when I kept cowering, and leaned over.
I panicked. I flailed my arms and tried to kick, but when I moved, my fingers tangled in a long, skinny tube, and the blanket hardly moved. I squeezed my eyes shut and tried to peddle the air, but all I felt was a tingling halfway up my thighs.
The waterworks came next, of course. When I think back to the scene, I am struck by a sense of guilt, because the poor nurse had to deal with my tantrum and my bawling and the unexpected dilemma of not being able to communicate with me. I evidently refused to open my eyes for several long, tortuous minutes, but even if I saw the nurse sign, I would not have understood.
When I at last tuckered myself out, too tired to be angry about the tingling in my legs and the vague whispers of sound that managed to reach my ears, I crossed my arms and huffed and glared at the nurse. I doubt he found me intimidating, but I used to imagine that he thought I was some kind of child demon.
He crossed to the door and leaned out. I presume he shouted something, because he raised a cupped hand to his mouth and took in a breath deep enough to move the broad mass of his chest. The nurse yelled several times, as far as I could tell, and then when he was satisfied, he let a small, hopeful grin dimple his chin. He turned back to me and picked a folder up off the stout, grey table by the door, and as he returned to my bedside, he leafed through the papers inside, tongue stuck out in thought.
He sat. A chair with an ugly blue cushion and grey paint the same shade as the table stood right next to a hunk of machinery on a cart, and the nurse placed himself so that he only barely rested his butt on the seat. He slid out a picture and held it up for me.
Crane and Shell, lounging in all their feline glory, stared back at me from the cardstock. They rested in a tangle of gato and earthling toddler, with snowy white Crane half on top of midnight blue Shell and me, tiny and chubby, sitting atop the pile. As a teen, I tried to pretend I didn’t smile when I saw that picture, but I know I did. Few people manage to not smile when they see a photo of a gato, and even fewer can claim they wouldn’t smile at the sight of a gato friend.
I spoke then, I think. I don’t know if the words came out clearly, but the vibration in my vocal chords told my brain that I had managed to at least get out some noise.
The nurse grinned and nodded. He pointed at the clock hanging over the door, and then held up two fingers.
I don’t honestly remember what he meant by that. Immediately after that brief moment of communication, a black lady with an afro stepped in and had a good long poke at me. Her time in my hospital room felt long and arduous, a never-ending series of uncomfortable tests and jabs. (Focci tells me that he finds earthling professionals profoundly boring, and that doctors on Sirena lug around gigantic orange bags that light up and play poetry out of speakers. I can’t tell if he’s pulling my stubs or not.)
The doctor left me alone for what felt like hours, and then suddenly the door to my room burst open, slamming against the wall with enough force that I could feel the smack. Crane and Shell bounded in, prehensile tails curling, and the pair wasted no time in perching their front paws on either side of my bed.
Mind you, I could not understand gato at the time. My mother and father had only just started me on Punjabi, and I think they intended for me to pick up Global Gliss before delving into the non-earthling languages. Nonetheless, when a pair of alien felines come and pat your cheeks with the sandpapery pads of their feet, it is hard not to sense the way affection oozes into the room. With the sunlight tinting everything a light, joyous yellow and a pair of loving adults to comfort me, it was like nothing had ever been wrong. I forgot, for a moment, my questions about my parents’ whereabouts, about Ambassador Emil and his baby daughter, about the place I had been before the hospital.
I understood later that Shell and Crane were being extra generous with their pats that day. They felt the urge to give extra attention, the reason for which I would not learn until a bald white man in glasses stuffed hearing aids into my ears, clapped my shoulders, and told me very seriously that Mr. and Mrs. Sethi’s bodies were never recovered from the wreckage of the Pax.
But in that moment on the day I awoke, when all I felt was sandpaper skin on my cheeks and warm fur hovering over my arms, I only knew that I loved my godparents.
-A Life Unfolded: the Story of Tejal Sethi