Snow is swirling past the window, static is interrupting every television channel, and Janine's breakfast is cold.
She pulls the crusts off her toast slowly, pointlessly destructing the meal she certainly can't eat, when the phone beside her hospital bed rings. She reaches for it gingerly.
"It's me." The voice is a whisper. "Janine?"
She smiles. "Hello, Claudia. Yes, it's me."
"How's your appendix?"
"I haven't a clue," Janine says. "Incinerated, I suspect."
"Ew," Claudia says. "Right."
"You're up early," Janine says suddenly.
"I know, I wanted to do something nice for you." Claudia already sounds defensive. "Hospital food is really bad."
"It's funny you mention that, actually," Janine says, looking down at the tray in front of her. "Your timing is impeccable. I'm reviewing my breakfast now and it's quite inedible."
"You're reviewing it?" Claudia asks. "What, like, one star?"
"I meant I was looking at it," Janine says patiently. "It wouldn't rate one star."
"Do you want some donuts?" Claudia asks in a hushed whisper. "The Rosebud has started making them and they're amazing, Janine. They have powdered sugar and cinnamon all over them and if you get there early enough they're still warm."
Janine's mouth starts to water and she sits up a little. "Claudia…"
"I know!" she squeaks. "I'm on my way. Mom and Dad said they'll come by the hospital in a couple of hours, so we have time. I'll see you soon."
"All right," Janine says with a smile. She feels breathless at the thought of such a treat. "I'll see you soon." She leans over to replace the telephone receiver and she spots a figure standing in the door to her room. Her stomach gives a momentary lurch and she feels a horrible shiver of guilt, assuming her conversation was somehow overheard by one of her parents — but it's Charlie Thomas standing in her doorway, striped pajamas under a loose blue robe and a shy smile on his face.
"Charlie," she says, surprise and relief tainting her voice. "Hello."
He gives her a small wave and then motions to his throat apologetically, his face a sudden grimace.
"Oh," she says, catching on. "Tonsillitis?"
"Appendicitis," she says, motioning at herself. She's aware she's only wearing a paper hospital gown, but the blankets are pulled up quite high — and anyway, Charlie's in his pajamas. They're almost on equal ground.
He wrinkles his nose at her.
"It isn't too bad," she says. "I had an appendectomy yesterday and I'm expecting to go home this afternoon. To bed rest, I suppose, but at least I'll have my books to keep me entertained."
He raises his eyebrows and nods in agreement, and she can tell he's bored too. He sits in the chair beside her bed. He mouths one word at her, questioning and silent. Hurt?
"No, it isn't too painful," she says. "It was, of course. Before they diagnosed it as appendicitis and took the appropriate action. But now it's — well, I can feel it, but it's quite tolerable. And you? How are you feeling?"
He shrugs, but he gives her the thumbs up. She smiles at him, and he smiles back.
"Was your breakfast as inedible as mine is?" she asks suddenly. She motions towards her tray of rubbery eggs and cold toast.
He smiles again, and tilts his head back to expose his throat.
"Oh," Janine says, feeling flustered, noticing in fine detail the dip between his collarbones and the shape of his Adam's apple. "You can't… You didn't have eggs on toast for breakfast."
He shakes his head and grins at her.
She smiles back, but her face feels red. "Lots of ice-cream and jello?" she guesses. "The worst choices for anyone ill, really, as neither of them holds any nutritional value…"
Charlie rolls his shoulders in a shrug and leans back in his chair, still grinning at her.
"They do taste good," she admits. "I'm a sweet tooth too."
He raises his eyebrows at her, but she's not sure how to read this expression. Is it one of disbelief?
"I am!" she says, smiling mostly because she's nervous and also because she's a little embarrassed. (And it's hard not to smile at Charlie.)
He raises his eyebrows and motions towards her untouched breakfast.
"Oh, this is terrible," she says. "It was cold before it arrived…" She pokes at the yellow eggs again.
Charlie frowns and lifts his arm as though to bulge his muscles (invisible beneath the layers of pajamas and his robe). The message comes through: You need your strength.
She fiddles with her fork and glances at the door to ensure they're still alone. "Claudia's bringing me donuts," she whispers.
She still can't hear anything, but he laughs, his eyes shining and his shoulders shaking.
"I'd offer to share them," she says, "although…" She trails off.
He thrusts his lower lip out in a mock pout and she laughs, which does send an unfortunate spike of pain across her abdomen.
Charlie sees her grimace, and he leans forward in concern.
"No, I'm all right," she says, waving him back a little. His hand lingers near hers for a moment, on top of the white hospital blanket, but he leans back in his seat again once she relaxes back against her pillows.
"Will you be going home soon?" she asks.
He nods again, and pulls his sleeve back to look at the watch on his wrist. He tilts it towards her briefly before he pushes himself to his feet.
"Oh, so soon?" she asks in surprise.
He grins at her and shrugs. Then he points at her congealing breakfast.
"Oh, yes," she says. "Claudia's on her way with something better…" She childishly considers asking him to keep the donuts a secret, but she doesn't think he'll mention it to anyone. "Though I really do hope you had something more substantial than ice-cream and jello for breakfast."
He raises his eyebrows and shakes his head, pointing at his throat again.
"Well, yes," she says, quite confident in reading his pantomime. "I suppose you don't get many chances in life to legitimately claim ice-cream and jello as a meal. Although, again, there are no nutritional or medicinal benefits to it at all, it's merely a placebo or, at best, the ice-cream temporarily soothes an irritated throat because it's so cold."
He gives her a lopsided grin and a shrug.
"Quite," she agrees. "I would, too."
His shoulders shake with that little laugh again, and she smiles.
"Thank you for visiting," she says shyly, hoping her face isn't as red as it feels.
He smiles at her, and reaches out to brush his fingertips against her shoulder in a small gesture of comfort. He barely grazes her, but his touch is hot through the thin paper of her gown, and it sends a pulse through all of her nerves.
He waves at her. Bye.
"It was nice to see you, Charlie," she says, and her voice is husky.
He smiles, and quietly mouths three clear words back at her: You too, Janine. He raises his hand and gives her another little wave, and she waves back at him, smiling long after he's left the room.