Chapter Fifteen: Fix-It Girl Fucks It Up
A scream came from what had once been the hotel restaurant. Isabelle and Cedrick exchanged an exasperated look.
“Who’s on crèche duty today, then?” Isabelle asked.
Cedrick coughed. “Pretty sure it’s you.”
“What?” She leered at her friend. “I sorted it out yesterday when Rose smothered Tessa to unconsciousness for fun!”
“Well, I handled it the day before that when Marie set Parker on fire ‘for science’, if you recall, and I think that was a bit worse!” He crossed his arms and leant back a bit in his chair. “So it’s still your go! Go! Sort them!”
“Oh, I knew you were just going to throw that fire thing in my face!” She stood up, stomping her foot like a little kid. “You know what? Fine! I’ll take care of things today! You just sit here with your feet up and continue to do fuck all!”
She had perfect right to be angry. Screaming cases always sucked to deal with, not because the situation itself was exactly objectively more horrible, not necessarily, but when someone screamed, Rose (because who were they kidding, she was always the perpetrator) went on the defensive with her, “I’m not evil just because I bully the fuck out of everyone!” shit.
As she entered the restaurant area, she gave an apology to an imaginary maître d'hôtel before she started searching for the carnage. She hoped nobody was internally bleeding or anything. That would not be fun to deal with at all. With any luck it would just be an argument that went too far and-
Oh dear sweet Jesus, no.
That was Rose with a staple gun.
She picked up the pace, put her arms around Rose from behind and shook the instrument out of her hands. “Where the HELL did you get this?” she demanded, adrenaline almost drowning out the sound of crying nearby.
Rose shrugged. “One of the rooms! Chill, ‘Belle, it’s not like it’s a nuclear bomb or something.”
“You are not to be trusted with staple-related paraphernalia!” Isabelle proclaimed. “You plus staples is a recipe for disaster!”
“Aye, well!” Tessa was leaning against a wall to Isabelle’s left, eyebrows raised, eyes resentful. Her scowl didn’t loosen up when Isabelle turned to face her.
“Tessa! What happened?”
“I think you should see for your fucking self!” Tessa motioned for Isabelle to follow her and weaved through tables until she stopped at one and knelt down. As Isabelle followed on, she noticed the crying getting louder. She pretty much knew what to expect at the end of this trail, but her heart still wrenched every time she saw Parker cry and this was no exception.
The boy was clutching his right hand, which quite clearly had several staples fired into it. So that was the source of the screaming. They weren’t light staples, either, they were proper thick like the ones used on wood. She had a feeling he would have had a lot more staples embedded in his palm if it wasn’t for whatever intervention Tessa had apparently provided. So the Scottish kid was already paying her way, at least, but that was hardly at the forefront of her mind.
“Parker,” she said, no idea of anything else that could possibly suffice. “What happened to you?”
“Me and him were out here having a reasonable discussion about Robert the Bruce,” Tessa explained, “when that GOBSHITE came over and just started firing these little metal bastards into his hand!”
Isabelle shook her head. “Oh, God…look, okay, um, Tessa, can you make sure Rose doesn’t do anything more stupid and dangerous while I get him fixed up?”
Tessa nodded. “More than fucking happy to.” She stormed off in Rose’s direction, and within seconds Isabelle heard what sounded like fighting noises. She didn’t like that, but she also had priorities.
“Can I see your hand?” she asked in her gentlest tone.
Parker glanced at her warily and then, like an injured kitten baring its paw, slowly outstretched his arm until the back of his hand was in her palm.
She took a close look. There were eight of the wretched staples, fired into his flesh at horrid angles, some lying so they intersected each other and made little cross shapes. She gave him back his hand, which he hugged to himself in protection, and ran her fingers through her hair. “Okay,” she said coolly. “I think there are needle-nose pliers in Room 216. Follow me.”
He used his staple-free hand to hold Isabelle’s, and tried to stifle his sniffles as the two of them walked past Cedrick.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, standing up and approaching Isabelle. (Like Parker wasn’t even there. He just got ignored.)
She rolled her eyes. “Well, as you would know if you had sorted it, there was an incident involving staples!”
“Stapler incident?” He frowned. “The fuck is that?”
Isabelle grabbed Parker’s right wrist (like he was an object instead of a person) and waved his hand in Cedrick’s face. “This,” she said.
Cedrick winced just looking at it. “Jesus Christ,” he mumbled, taking Parker’s hand lightly in his own to examine it more closely. He held it like it was delicate, staring in disbelief at all those fucking staples. “What the everloving shit…?”
It was silly, really, because in the context it meant absolutely nothing. Cedrick was gazing with such interest at his hand which was, like, an actual part of him that Cedrick was actually, legitimately interested. His hand, while in phenomenal pain, felt all tingly because Cedrick kept handling his hand like it was something precious. Or was that blood loss?
After a moment, Isabelle took Parker’s hand back. “Yeah, well. Make yourself useful and get rid of this.” She shoved the staple gun at Cedrick, who took it clumsily, but his eyes kept darting back and forth between Parker’s hand and, well, everything else. Every few seconds, he seemed to imagine the sensation of staples in his own skin and shudder.
Isabelle’s demeanour became kind and soft again as they left Cedrick behind them. “Your hand okay, sweetheart?” she asked, murmuring. Every muscle in her body tensed. She’d only ever called someone ‘sweetheart’ once before, when Tamu fell out of a tree and broke his arm at the age of seven.
Parker didn’t seem to notice anything off. He just shrugged.
They reached 216 and, sure enough, on the floor in the middle of the bathroom the last inhabitant had, inexplicably, left a pair of needle-nose pliers lying.
“I’m not going to lie to you,” she said, trying to get him to look her in the eyes. “This is probably going to hurt you a bit, and I’m really sorry, but that’s the only way we can fix this.”
He nodded miserably.
“Right,” Isabelle said, stroking his hair tenderly. “You go sit on the bed and get ready, alright?”
“Alright,” he half-whispered. With that, he scurried off.
Isabelle picked up the pliers and flexed her fingers. They were of decent quality, considering how long they’d been lying around. She looked in the mirror and gulped. It would be a lie to say she wasn’t projecting somewhat of a false confidence around Parker this time. While she didn’t doubt that she was the best candidate to remove the staples from his hand, that honestly wasn’t saying all that much. She was pretty shit with pliers and the thought of her hands slipping and doing something horrible to his hand made her feel sick with anxiety.
It was time to face the music. She practiced a calm smile a few times, and once she got a decent one she painted it across her face. She slung the towels on the rack over her shoulder and hurried back out into the main room. “Alright, Parker, give me your hand,” she said. Obediently, he stuck out his hand, which she took carefully as soon as she was in range.
Pliers pointed like a blood-seeking missile to his red-stained hand, she decided she’d better bite the bullet- if she was going to rip his hand apart, she may as well get it over with quickly, and besides, the longer there were little pieces of metal in his hand, the worse things were probably getting.
It seemed someone was listening to her prayers because the first staple came out almost flawlessly. No skin was ripped to shreds. However, Parker’s reaction was a whole other story. At first he only yelped a little bit, but then the blood began to flow more freely now that its passage was unblocked and he was transfixed. After a few seconds of watching it, he was crying again.
Isabelle knew that reasoning with him about it would do absolutely nothing so instead she elected just to get on with it. The second staple was a little bit trickier. It was lodged in firmly, almost like his body was trying to absorb it into its system. It came out with a little wriggling, making for a slightly more messy wound left behind.
Staple number three was a disaster. She tried to grasp it with the pliers but it was pressed so firmly to Parker’s skin that she also pinched his skin with them tightly enough that she somehow disrupted something inside. He was rendered unable to move his fingers to the extent that he usually could. The staple, at least, came out, but it came at the price of his total misery, which was more obvious than anything else from his bawling.
The fourth staple had quite clearly bent itself massively under his skin and there was no apparent way to remove it without doing something pretty painful. It was in a tender spot, too- just where his ring finger joined his palm. She wanted to apologise in advance, but then he might twig what was going to happen and draw his hand back.
She ripped the metal out of his skin. He yelled out, caught off guard, and clutched his hand like it burned. There was just too much blood, more than felt natural for such a small wound. She pressed the towel firmly to his hand in an attempt to stop the bleeding and held his hand above his heart. Whether that actually worked or not she wasn’t quite sure, but she had to try anyway. Her stomach twisted with guilt.
“Jesus fucking Christ!”
Quick as a flash, Isabelle turned her head to the door and sure enough there Cedrick stood. He looked awkward, like it pained him to be in the vicinity, but he walked forward anyway. “What the Hell are you doing?!”
“What are you doing here?” Isabelle muttered.
“I followed the screams.” He sighed heavily. “That’s not how you do it! Believe me, Rose practically lived in my house, I’ve had staples in my skin before.” He grabbed the pliers from where Isabelle had left them on the bed. “And believe me, I remember that ‘art project’ when we were twelve.” He looked bored, but not really bored- like he was trying to look bored. “No offence and all, but you cannot handle wire-cutting tools.”
She couldn’t argue with that.
“Look, let me,” he grumbled, and when she didn’t protest he got to work. First, he took one of the ancient room-service menus from the bedside table and ripped a strip off it. Laying that strip on the bed, he gently took Parker’s hand into his own. He examined it for a moment. “They’re deep in, right next to his fucking skin. You can’t just rip them out like it’s nothing.” He took the strip of thin room-service card and slid it between the arc of a paper clip and Parker’s skin. He slowly moved it back and forth, loosening it up until it was less rigidly stuck. From there, he eased it out with the pliers, making Parker writhe a bit, but his crying had calmed significantly.
He repeated the process for the next staple. Parker gasped when it came out. Had Rose been there, jokes would certainly have been made about the nature of such noises, but Isabelle was more mature than that.
She was glad for Cedrick’s intervention, honestly. She honestly was shit at this, and she’d fully admit that, and he seemed to know what he was doing, but something bothered her about the whole thing anyway: he wasn’t the type to ‘follow the screams’ as he had demonstrated for her quite plainly just a short while ago. What was going on here?
Parker groaned with every staple that came out, and when it was over, Cedrick wrapped the towel around the boy’s hand tightly, tying a loose knot. “That won’t hold for long,” he told him, “so try to keep it in place. Pressure should help the bleeding.” He glanced at Isabelle, who raised a mildly suspicious eyebrow. Seeing this, he looked away.
Parker’s eyes were full of a strange, mystified light. Poor thing couldn’t wrap his head around the fact that Cedrick was helping him voluntarily and not shouting. He wasn’t smiling, because who would smile after having staples ripped out their hand, but he was radiating an odd quality that looked a lot like he was happy and excited but felt more like confusion and even nervous apprehension.
He stared at Cedrick like the guy was some kind of beautiful mythical creature standing in the light of God, watched with overwhelming adoration just bleeding from his eyes as Cedrick stood up and left the room, head down, fists clenched, muttering something inaudible. Whatever it was, Parker was in love. He might have considered it a little unfair that he considered a staple-pulling session the most romantic thing he’d ever experienced, but to be fair, that was exactly what he understood he deserved.
He was broken out of the stupor by the displacement of air as Isabelle sat down beside him. She hugged him with one arm and smoothed down his hair with the other. “You handled that really well,” she said. When he looked down, she curled a strand of his hair around her finger. “No, honestly. You were really brave.”
“Uh-huh,” he whispered with his voice and not his feelings.
“Hey, look at me.”
He forced himself to gather the energy required to do so. He fixed his eyes on her nose, the spot right between her eyes to be exact. He hoped that would be close enough for her, because he didn’t feel very up to anything more.
“You just let two different people pull pieces of metal from a very sensitive area on your body, one of those people being the boy who I know makes you uncomfortable. If that’s not bravery, then nothing is.”
Isabelle was right that Cedrick made him uncomfortable, but it was more than that. Along with that sense of discomfort, of incongruity, of something being horribly wrong, there was another feeling. It was a tingling sensation that made his chest feel all warm. Magical, or at least it should have been. Had it been someone else, he wouldn’t have felt scared of the feelings that welled up in his head, but falling for someone like Cedrick was dangerous.
He clutched at the towel wrapped around his hand, and Isabelle rubbed his back a few times. “Do you want me to stay with you or is it okay if I go and do something else?” she asked.
“You can go.”
“Okay. If you need me, I’ll be on the ground floor.” She patted his hand- the one that hadn’t been stapled at any point- and ran out the room. Parker flopped back on the bed, hand still clutched tight, and settled down to try and make sense of his thoughts.
Isabelle surveyed the corridor. As she had suspected, Cedrick was long gone, but she knew where to find him. He often defaulted to his room- Room 327, the one that had been the nearest to some dusty old meeting room that hadn’t been used in years even before the Illness. He insisted he ‘liked the aesthetic’.
She jogged up the stairs to his floor and down the maze of hallways to his door. His had to be the only one of their bedrooms that still had a plastic number-plate without a single nick or scratch on it. He still cared about making things look ordered. She knocked on the door just below the peephole, waited a second and pushed the door open.
It was evident from Ced’s room just how much he liked things neat. It was down to the whole rules thing, in the end, so that all his stuff was laid down in a way that conformed with a specific look. In this case, the look was ‘newly-made up hotel room fit for health inspection’. The only thing that looked out of place was the torch situated beside his bed (‘just in case’). Well, Cedrick himself also looked quite out of place, pacing up and down in front of the window.
“Can we talk?” Isabelle asked.
He stopped at that like he was surprised, which made no sense because, well, she had knocked pretty loudly. His head turned slowly to look at her, and when it reached its destination, he just sighed. “I thought this was coming. Go ahead. Ask it.”
“You were determined not to sort out the scream at first.”
“And then you heard the situation in 216, what, five or ten minutes later and came to help.”
“What was that about?”
He wrung his hands. “It’s about me feeling confused by emotions,” he huffed.
She folded her arms. “What kind of emotions?”
“Guilt!” he exclaimed. “Look, I see what I’m doing to that kid and it’s starting to get to me!” Cedrick slapped a hand to his forehead and grimaced. “And I can’t fucking do anything real about it so the least I could do was help him with some first aid!”
Isabelle, had she been crueller, might have made some quip about how she hadn’t previously believed her friend to be capable of complex, sympathetic emotions like guilt, but she saw what he was feeling and she knew he was hurting, whether he’d openly say it or not. “Okay.” She wasn’t going to attempt to tell him he had no reason to feel guilty, because she wasn’t that much of a liar. “What triggered you thinking this way?”
He exhaled. “Jesus Christ. I’ve just been thinking too much. That’s what it is. I’m over-analysing fucking snow banks.”
“…Okay, you lost me.”
“Do you remember a few months ago when you made me take him out on a raid?”
Isabelle remembered, all right, because the moment the boys had walked out the door she was left wondering if she’d made some kind of terrible mistake because Parker so clearly wasn’t ready and she was essentially sending him into a potentially life-threatening situation. Pushing back the memories, she nodded.
“He got nervous and tried to make this stupid fucking joke, ummm…where do snowmen keep their money or something?”
She made no move to speak.
“Anyway, the answer was snow banks, and I got kind of pissy at him, and then, uh, that other time in the hotel room? When Rose did…something or other and I had to watch him, he told it again and it was just so fucking awkward. I think it means something, ‘Belle. I think it’s his fallback for when he’s scared and I’m the one who always causes it.”
“No offence, but I think you’re the last one to figure that out.”
“I’m not just figuring it out! But these things build up, okay, and it’s just got too fucking obvious that I have a problem. I can’t do shit without getting…” He sat down despondently. “So fucking angry I just can’t take it, I just…I just-”
“Okay, you need to calm down.” She took a cautious step towards him. “Cedrick, breathe,” she instructed.
“I’M PERFECTLY CALM!” he yelled, tears welling up in his eyes. He drew his knees in with one arm and slung the other over the top of them. “I’m not. I can’t be calm. I don’t even know how to act calm. Fuck knows, this isn’t about Parker, it’s about me not following the rules of basic social functioning.”
She approached him and held out her hand to help him up, which he silently accepted. She pulled him to his feet whether he wanted to be up or not and pulled him to her in a hug. “Right,” she whispered, “this isn’t about your anger management. That’s not your fault. This is about you taking it out on others. This is about Parker more than anything else ever could be.”
He lightly pushed her off. “Go away,” he said, voice grumbly and low.
“You need to accept-”
He didn’t usually yell at her, so somehow she was both caught off guard and not all that surprised. She gave in, threw her hands in the air and go away she did.