I Am Titanium (Pax Black) (Volume 1) by John Patrick Kennedy
Book PrefaceI Am Titanium (Pax Black) (Volume 1) by John Patrick Kennedy
Pax blinked and the world changed.
The delicate scents from the forest were gone, replaced by the stink of hospital cleaner. The thick mossy maples and cypress trees, dappled by the sunlight of the forest, were transformed into the harsh glare of fluorescent lights. His breath, so easy a moment before, labored against his ribcage. He sneezed, and the tubes of the O2 machine scraped against the mucous membranes in his nose.
He was back at Columbia University Medical Center, dying from acute diffuse scleroderma while his mom studied the progress of his disease. His immune system was bravely fighting a nonexistent infection, triggering his cells to turn to plaster collagen and calcium all over his internal organs like overeager wallpaper hangers.
Oh joy. Back to the world of bedrails and call buttons and sheets and rough new hospital gowns that felt like they were grating his skin like cheese. Back to the world of not being able to sit up by himself, of having to call for help to take a piss. Back to the world of coughing up blood. He could taste the iron of it in his mouth already. Blood, infection, and Jell-O, that’s what the world tasted like.
He wished he’d stayed on the astral plane and never come back.
The O2 machine wheezed, pushing oxygen into his lungs. Pax’s skull throbbed. His fingers twitched and he felt a hand in his. His fingers tightened on the hand, skidding over the surface of a latex glove.
He’d met Scarlett a year ago, when she’d started volunteering at the hospital. She’d believed him about the astral plane. More than that, she could see him.
Pax didn’t know how, but she could. One time, he said he was going to take a nap and left his body. Scarlett had freaked out so badly he had to come back before actually reaching the astral plane. The nurses had scolded the hell out of her because nothing appeared on the monitors. He’d told the nurses it was all right and convinced them to leave. Then Scarlett had babbled about watching him leave his body, seeing his “ghost” become more and more faint.
That’s when he’d told her what was really going on.
His hands were probably the strongest part of him, from typing on his laptop so much. But her hands were stronger, full of actual life.
“Pax? Are you back? What did he say?”
He opened his eyes. Scarlett’s hair dangled in a smooth brown curtain in front of his face. She’d forgotten her surgical cap again.
He wheezed, trying to gather enough air to talk. “Gimme a minute.”
She leaned back a little and tucked her hair behind her ears. Scarlett wasn’t the most beautiful girl in the world. She was seventeen like him. And too pale, like him. Her face was as washed out as an old T-shirt. Her nose was long and thin and regrettably rat-like. She had dark circles under her eyes and a zit about to explode over the left one. But at least she was alive and she liked him.
A cough was still trying to bubble up. He looked around the room and breathed shallowly and slowly. Almost positively pneumonia. His breath popped, like far-away bubble wrap, as his lungs struggled past the mucus. He could hear the O2 machine whirring. He focused on inhaling the oxygen. If he let his levels go down, an alarm would go off and alert his mother. Not desirable.
His laptop was open on the swing-table, but the screen had gone dark. Another world he could access: the Internet. If he could lose himself in sorting through forum posts, he’d be able to breathe better. But not with Scarlett here. She’d be hurt if he ignored her.
So instead he stared at the salmon-colored wall, at a picture of himself with his mother and his dead father that hung next to the whiteboard listing his nursing staff for the day. The picture showed the three of them in Central Park. He was three or four, riding a bicycle and wearing a red helmet that made his head look deformed. One of the bike’s training wheels was off the ground, tilted at a crazy angle. His parents smiled at whoever was holding the camera. In retrospect, it was obvious an accident was about to happen.
A year later, his father was dead. Two years after that, Pax’s body started killing itself in a pointless battle against a nonexistent foe. For three years, it had declined to the point where his mother didn’t think he’d live past ten.
Then he’d stabilized, and for five years he’d lain in hospital beds, too sick to go home, too healthy to die and get it over with. Two years ago, his body started working on the second option.
It was nearly the end, and he couldn’t do a damn thing about it.
“Open the curtains,” Pax said.
Scarlett got up and pulled the cord. The heavy beige curtains were pulled back; the inner blinds zipped upward. He blinked at the sudden light.
It was spring. The sky was a deep blue, the elms and oaks covered with bright green leaves. The pears and dogwoods were finished blossoming; the yellow daffodils were winding down, and the crabapples had just started. He knew their names but it had been so long since he’d been outside he couldn’t remember what any of them smelled like.
Little kids in matching red or green uniforms ran back and forth across the park like ants, playing some kind of game while their parents cheered.
Scarlett sat beside him and squeezed his hand again. “Pax? What did he say? Will it work?”
“No,” Pax said. I wish I could go outside one more time. “It’s not going to work.”
Scarlett’s face pulled in on itself, like she was trying to keep from crying. Pax looked back out the window, not wanting to see, not wanting to start crying himself.
“Terry says it won’t work to channel energy from the astral plane to power my body. Physical flesh is too fragile to contain the amount of energy I’d need to heal myself and our current state of understanding of how the body works would almost guarantee that if I could hold that much energy, I’d almost certainly use it incorrectly and short out my nervous system, stopping my heart permanently.”
The O2 machine purred and then wheezed again.
“Oh, Pax,” she said. She crushed his hand painfully. “I’m so sorry.”
Pax looked back at the kids playing T-ball.
Scarlett wrote poetry about the astral plane, about Pax’s journeys. But what she couldn’t understand was that, from the perspective of the astral plane, they were all dying far too soon. In the other worlds Terry had shown Pax, the native life forms lived for thousands of years and in far greater harmony than the chaos he saw everywhere on Earth. Looking at Earth from the astral plane was like watching a race addicted to dying young.
Central Park was filled with hundreds of dying flames. Every single one of them were burning their life’s fuel faster than they should, burning up their bodies, getting old, and dying too soon.
Scarlett was a flame, a roaring flame. She was going to die far too young, just like everyone else.
Pax was just dying faster.
On the way up to Pax’s room, Scarlett stormed into the musty, tiled elevator and kicked the steel panel that ran along the bottom. Luckily, nobody was in the elevator with her. Her Chucks left a ghostlike shoe print on the metal. She wanted to leave a dent. She felt like smashing things. Throwing things. Hitting things. Punching certain people in the face.
It had been a shit day.
Pax had helped her study for her midterms, and she thought she’d done okay in calculus and physics. Pax was brilliant. A genuine genius. He could take things like relativity and four-dimensional shapes and, if not exactly make her understand, then at least help her get the idea, better than most people did. He’d also taught her there were things nobody really understood. It had been kind of an eye opener, knowing that some things confused even the most intelligent scientists, things like gravity and time. It made the whole universe seem bigger and, somehow, grander.
Bigger than just worrying about her physics test, anyway.
No. It was fucking English, the one subject she was actually good at, that was the problem.
On Friday she’d turned in a story for her midterms. She’d worked on it for weeks, tearing up draft after draft until it wasn’t just perfect, it had made her cry. She had said something that really mattered and said it with imagery, characters—a story.
And she’d gotten a D+ on it.
Because it wasn’t grammatically correct. Punctuation problems. Incomplete sentences. “Awkward” transitions.
Mr. Larkin had marked every stinking one of them. She’d gone to his class with a sticky-noted copy of Stephen King’s Dreamcatcher and showed him where Stephen King had made exactly the same “mistakes” and had been published anyway. Incomplete sentences could be found in just about any contemporary novel; it was a style. It was how people thought. Mr. Larkin sneered at her and told her King was just a hack.
She had stared at him for half a minute, imagining his hair on fire, imagining vampires at his window and his dead dog crawling out of its grave, and had run out of the class crying. Stories made her feel alive, made her feel and see so much more than school ever could: how could they be the work of a hack? It was as if Mr. Larkin had been saying her imagination was rotten.
The rest of the day—mockery from the popular girls during lunch, a fight with one of them during history, detention, and a lecture from her parents—who also told her one of the bestselling writers on the planet couldn’t write and they certainly hoped she wasn’t taking inspiration from him. As if, what, her other choice was to be the next Shakespeare? All this had left her raw, angry, burningly pissed. King knew about loneliness, terror, the need to have one person to trust, and what happened when you didn’t.
“Life isn’t as melodramatic as a Stephen King novel,” they’d said. Yeah, you wish.
She’d shoved the clean outfit on over her clothes, pulled a copy of the story out of her backpack, and stomped into Pax’s room.
He’d looked dead, even though the heart monitor said otherwise.
She’d forgotten today was the day.
Pax was traveling to the astral plane to ask his friend, Terkun’shuks’pai, a.k.a. “Terry,” if Pax could save himself from dying. His idea was to heal himself with astral energy. She’d been scared to have too much hope, but she did anyway. Miracles could happen, right? Though she knew Pax would object to the word “miracle.” How about magic? Physics—astral travel—magic. It was all good.
His laptop screen was still on, but he was out cold, completely limp. If he hadn’t been hooked up to a dozen machines with screens and beeps and clicks and hums telling her that no, really, he was alive, then she would have panicked, he was so motionless.
He must have waited for her as long as he could and then gone without saying good-bye.
Scarlett dropped the printout into the trash. It shushed against the metal as it fell. She pulled a stool next to his bed and sat on it, slipping her gloved hand into his. She felt a fierce resentment at being alone, followed immediately by intense shame. She was a horrible, selfish person. She didn’t know why he was even her friend. God, she was awful. He was dying, and all she could think about was her stupid day. The D+ she’d received on her story was nothing compared to the F she should get at being a human being today.
Fuck English. And fuck Mr. Larkin.
She leaned on the cool, plastic bedrail and watched Pax’s face.
He was so skinny and pale, and his eyes were always rimmed with red. He smelled like baby wipes, although she would never tell him that. Today he was wearing the Sean John hoodie she’d bought him over his hospital gown. She’d told him it made him look pretty hot, which wasn’t true, but at least it didn’t make him look worse. The hood was pulled up over his head, which did look kind of cute. With some tattoos and a headband, he would have looked like Eminem—if he could put some muscle on his body. She laughed, trying to imagine what Pax would rap about. The astral plane… it’s insane… it gets in my brain… washes over me like rain… can’t feel no pain…
Pax’s hand twitched in hers. He was awake but keeping his eyes closed.
Because he didn’t want to look at her.
That meant bad news. She knew it even before she made him tell her. She shouldn’t ask—she should just let him say nothing, be one of those kind, sensitive people…
But she asked. And he told her.
She couldn’t stand it. “Oh, Pax,” she said. “You haven’t even lived yet.”
You have to be with me. She didn’t say it out loud. She never did. He knew what she felt about him—he had to. She loved him. She loved him so much it was burning her up inside.
He blinked and stared out the window when she so desperately wanted him to look at her.
“Oh, Jesus, Scarlett,” he whispered, his eyes going wide.
The alarms went off on his heart monitor. His heartbeat was racing, spiking irregularly.
Footsteps pounded down the hallway.
The nurses rushed in. One of them grabbed Scarlett around her ribs, pulling her away from the bed so fast her feet swung through the air. The metal stool she’d been sitting on clanged to the floor, and one of the nurses kicked it out of the way.
Scarlett pushed her back against the wall. The rails on the bed dropped and the head of the bed went flat with a clatter. The nurses unzipped his hoodie, cut through the neck of his hospital gown, and tore it open.
A second later the paddles were on Pax’s skinny, white chest.
The heart monitor flat-lined. The steady shrieking made Scarlett want to puke.
She put her hands over her ears and sank down along the wall, sobbing, so she didn’t have to see Pax’s helpless body, shocked and made to jump like he was some kind of thing.
The bed shook.
The bed shook again.
Hands grabbed her arm, pulled her up, and led her out of the room. She shouldn’t be in there anyway; she was crying too hard. The lights in the hallway were too bright.
Someone else was standing in the hallway. Pax’s mom. She looked like someone had gouged her cheeks with a spoon: a skull with no facial expression, just eyes staring into the room. Her fists were clenched, and Scarlett imagined a kitten’s head crushed in each one.
“There’s nothing you can do,” Scarlett said.
Then Pax’s mom was shaking Scarlett by the shoulders, whipping her head back and forth. “Don’t say that! Don’t you ever say that to me again! How dare you!”
Scarlett knocked the hands away and ran down the hallway, stripping off her gown and gloves as she went. The floor was freshly waxed, and her feet kept screeching and skidding. She stopped long enough to strip the blue booties off her shoes. Then she ran to the elevator.
She had to wait for a few long seconds for the elevator to arrive. So, like a fool, she looked back.
Pax’s mom was still standing by his door, looking like a female Death in a doctor’s jacket—thin and knobby, her hair a faded gray-yellow like the sky before a storm. The elevator dinged, and Scarlett stepped backward into it without looking behind her (what if there’s no floor and I just fall down the shaft; what if there’s an enormous fire burning beneath me; what if I go to Hell) and let it close.
She was alone in the elevator. She turned around and viciously kicked the wall again. This time she left a dent.
“Pax is dying,” she told the elevator doors. “And, yeah, Mrs. Black, nobody wants him to die. But he’s gonna anyway.”
She hated herself even as she said it.
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