Floating on the rolling waves, illuminated by the half moon high above, the wind blew, but the warmth of her thick fur coat kept her protected from the chill. She held the paw of another; each, a kind of anchor - drifting anywhere, but together.
From somewhere past the distant horizon, a strange sound rolled across the water, unbound, another type of wave crashing and rising alike. She felt the fur on the back of her neck stand even against the water, and turned to face her companion. They, in turn, had the same expression of high alert.
"I fear we are needed back at the town," her companion afforded, voice just louder than the sounds of the sea - wind, waves, birds.
"Let's go! They are counting on us to protect them." She was resolute, fearless. She leapt out of the water, a mirror of her companion, as they each opened their impossible, feathery, white wings, and lifted off into the air.
"Nerea!" a voice cut through the night sky, the water, the feathers, and the fur. She and her friend tumbled directly into their human bodies once again, to see the stars were rising and night was falling, in the woods where they had let their imaginations give them flight.
It was her mother, and that could only mean it was time to come home.
"Coming!" she shouted back. Her mother would worry if she didn't hear or see her quickly, and it would take a little time to get back through the brush.
"Your mother's voice sure does carry," her friend remarked dryly.
"She has a lot of practice, with my step-dad and my sister," Nerea quipped, and they both laughed.
"Are you coming over for dinner?"
"No, I better get home too. We can fight the bad guys next time!"
"Alright! Flying otter power!"
They high fived, and each ran off in the direction of their home. Nerea slipped under low branches, jumped easily over narrow streams, and climbed across some slippery rocks. She loved to imagine she was in the depths of the forest, and adventure along the most difficult parts, instead of in a woods just on the side of the road that divided her and her friend's house.
Over dinner, her mother reminded her of the plan for the next day. They would wake up early to head to the hospital, a seven hour drive, and she wouldn't be able to eat or drink anything after midnight.
"Are you nervous?" her mother asked her, later that night, as they were saying goodnight.
Nerea thought of her alterego, flying to fight off any villains without any hesitation. "Of course not." She didn't even know if she was lying or telling the truth. "It's not the first time, and won't be the last."
Whatever emotion was in her mother's gaze was lost on her. Pity for her suffering? Pride for her courage? She felt the pressure of being strong, the weight of the feelings of those around her, and didn't falter.
"See you in the morning, mom."
"Goodnight, sweetie. I love you."
The sun hadn't even considered rising yet, and Nerea was groggily awoken, stumbled down the steps and into the car. Maybe the oldies were playing on the radio, maybe it was Britney Spears. The time stretched and folded, each "Welcome to" state sign appearing and disappearing in turn. The sun was high overhead by the time they pulled into the parking lot, the familiar glass of the hospital towering overhead.
She was thinking of what kind of villain would be scariest for their characters to face, while she and her mom sat in the waiting room. It was quiet, or maybe it was loud; her thoughts were so focused, she heard nothing. There were plenty of other people, but she was shy, and she avoided speaking to or looking at anyone. She noticed some games were in a children's section, so she went to take one out.
While she was starting to open a box, a beautiful woman came over to her; like another sunrise, kindness radiated from her.
"Hi, honey. Are you Nerea?"
She was talking to her? Nerea's nervousness was abated by the softness in her eyes, and she managed a nod.
"I'm Amirah. I'm a child life specialist. Do you mind if we chat for a little? We can play a game together, if you like."
Nerea nodded again, too shy to speak.
The game turned out to be a curious version of Monopoly, with short questions instead of houses and hotels; something like this, more or less. Though Nerea quickly deduced that this was a ruse to have her talk about her feelings, she felt comforted by Amirah describing what to expect, and by hearing that she would keep visiting to play more games with her later on.
"Would you like that?" She didn't need to ask, though she did. Of course, she would. Nerea met her eyes and told her so. Amirah smiled back, and Nerea didn't need to borrow strength from the superhero otter in her imagination, in that moment.
She was embarrassed to have to undress and lie under a sheet, embarrassed to have different stickers placed all over her, embarrassing examinations done, and numbers collected. She sent herself far away in her mind's eye, flying through the air, strong wings carrying her through the brine-scented sea air. The illusion kept being broken by jolts and needles, stabs, wires tugging at her veins, and later on, the bright lights that she awoke to, in unbearable pain.
"I'm an otter, in the sea; I'm floating." She couldn't manage a coherent thought through the feeling, though she tried to. The pain rippled along her body; there was no safe place for her. Her entire torso burned, her chest hurt, her arms hurt, her head hurt. Words spoken to soothe her fell as if thought rather than uttered; she was there, and she wasn't there.
"Nerea, baby, Nerea", was that someone calling for her? Why would they bring her back to somewhere where it hurt so much?
She refused to leave that world in her heart where she was floating, unbothered, unafraid. Where there was no feeling, and no thoughts. Could she leave her body behind and join the clouds? Otters with wings didn't exist, but clouds did. Or, what about... below the low clouds, in the depths of the churning sea, something else existed - strong, sturdy, silent. Rocks, touching the earth, an elegy of stillness.
Maybe, she thought, maybe I could be a rock.
A week passed...and what's a week to a rock?
She heard Amirah's voice in the hallway, and her mother, who had been sitting in the chair besides her bed, went to greet her.
Sunshine entered the room, more and more with each step, as Amirah came over and hugged her.
She realized, she hadn't come up with a good villain, but she thought, maybe she had found something better.
When she was home again, she couldn't play with her friend, for a while, like they used to. So instead, they started writing stories together, each one more and more fantastical than the last. Every new villain was nefarious in it's own way, but good always triumphed - and how could it not? With an angel on her side, there was nothing they couldn't overcome.