This vignette is an excerpt from a novella currently in the works. A fictional short story, it was developed through participation in Visible Ink, a writing program of Memorial Sloan Kettering.
Ava Russell and Sarah Lipmann had been best friends since fate paired them together in the ordered chaos of a hospital waiting room more than a decade earlier.
Sarah had endured an abusive childhood that had left her indelibly marked both physically and mentally. Street tough from years on the run, the willowy Sarah had grown into a young woman who chain smoked cigarettes and drank eight ounce mugs of Turkish coffee.
By contrast, Ava, dark-skinned with a slight frame and jet-black coiling hair, was an orphan out of circumstance. Born into wealth, her life changed when a conservator drained her trust fund after her mother became very ill.
The two were like oil and water, but they mixed.
Sarah's background was desperate. Raised in rural squalor, she was beaten regularly by her father. Her alcoholic mother would subject Sarah and her sister to long hours of work without food.
One day a representative from the state's child protective services showed up. Sarah welcomed in the nice lady with the pretty smile who smelled of lilacs and jasmine.
"Hello Sarah," the mysterious woman said from outside the screen door. "My name is Ann. I'm here to talk to your dad."
Sarah presumed Ms. Ann had come to attend to the business of grown-ups, so she let her in and went to find her father.
Ms. Ann spent more than an hour talking with him in the kitchen. After Ms. Ann left, Sarah heard her father's footsteps coming fast through the house.
"Sarah!" he called out. He spoke angrily gasping for air. "Where are you?"
Before she could respond, she felt her father's palm connecting with the right side of her face. He slapped her so hard that she fell off of her stool.
Yelling unintelligibly, he dragged her by her hair out the door and tied her to the railing on the deck. Blood spilled from her mouth where two front teeth had been loosened by his blow.
Her father was furious that Sarah had let Ms. Ann inside the house. He was angrier at the interrogation that had ensued. His brutal and unforgiving actions now were intended to make his point clear.
He left Sarah sitting on the back porch for two days without food and with a warning that “This spot is the closest you will ever let strangers into our home again."
The night he untied Sarah, she ran away and never looked back.
Sarah became a ward of the court after she was picked up by police. She had blacked out partying with new friends she'd meet on the streets. During her intake physical, she had shown signs of brain trauma and was sent to the hospital for testing.
The nurse performing the procedures cooed soothing comments. "You're doing great. We're almost done."
Sarah arched her back away from the prick of the final syringe. “Owe!” Sarah whined, squinting one eye and slouching toward her side.
More than three years as a runaway, Sarah had begun chronically cutting herself. She bore fresh and healed razor marks which encircled her wrists like cobweb bracelets. Sarah's scars were exposed as she lifted her blond hair up and out of the way of the nurse performing the spinal tap.
"Okay! We're all done," the nurse said cheerfully.
Sarah reached around her back to rub and sooth the tender spot.
"Who is we?" Sarah grumbled under her breath. "I'm the one getting poked, bitch.”
She cut her eyes and pursed her lips as she slid down from the examining table. Walking slowly as if bound by shackles, Sarah moved through the doorway of the hospital examination room. Her face was expressionless and her eyes glazed. She sat down next to another girl there, Ava.
"What happened to you?" Ava asked.
Sarah replied with silence.
"Hey!" Ava said again trying to get a response. "What's wrong with you?” Ava started to feel a growing discomfort being alone in the room with the despondent teen.
"Huh?" Sarah finally grumbled in reply.
"Are you all right," Ava said. "Should I call someone?"
"No." Sarah muttered. "I'm all right. What's wrong with you?"
“Me?" Ava said in disbelief.
"Yeah," Sarah said. "What's your problem? You ain't never seen nobody chill-axin' before?"
Ava was afraid, but more afraid to show her fear. Suddenly, her composure broke and she began to cry. "I hate hospitals. Everyone is sick and people are so fake. The nurses won't tell you anything and they act like they don't know you’re here."
"Why are you here?" Sarah asked.
"My mom," Ava whispered.
"Ya mom? What's wrong with your mama?"
"She has cancer," Ava answered.
Seeing her mother Camilla dying had been difficult for Ava. A woman of means, Camilla had undergone months of chemotherapy and appeared far from the woman she had once been.
Camilla’s cancer treatment had been aggressive, but radiology scans had shown that it had now spread throughout her body. She was in the end stage, and Camilla’s doctors were simply trying to keep her comfortable.
During Camilla’s battle, a deceitful, appointed conservator proceeded to drain Ava’s trust fund. The conservator and all Camilla’s money disappeared before anyone took notice. With no other family to support her, Ava was sent to a group home. Ms. Ann was the social worker charged with overseeing Ava.
During visits with Camilla, Ava didn't have the heart to tell her mother of her desperate situation. Instead, she quietly climbed into the hospital bed and rested her head on her mother's shoulder, until Ms. Ann came in to lead her away.
Seated side by side in the hospital waiting area, Sarah and Ava -- two girls whose worlds had seemed so drastically different -- were suddenly very similar.
From that day forward, Sarah and Ava would have each others' backs. They would become best friends and forge a friendship that would rival family ties. Beyond their circumstances, they would become sisters in spirit.
© 2012 Valerie Williams-Sanchez. All rights reserved.
This work also appears in Sloan Kettering's 2014 Visible Ink Anthology, http://ow.ly/MqDXp.