I started to sweat even though it was freezing in the classroom, my eyes locked on the word 'malfeasance'. I bubbled the answer, so sure of my response, but that word stuck with me. That sentence. A doctor could be accused of malfeasance and 'settle'. The combination of the words, the phrasing, made my mind race.
And everything around me became suspended in time. The air. The sounds of pencils scratching and my classmates breathing. My own breath caught in my chest. Suddenly, I remembered why the phrase sounded so familiar.
The other time I'd heard it, I was six, and we were visiting my Aunt Flora in Florida. Even back then I was obsessed with language and with words. Mom said it was like I inhaled them.
Aunt Flora took us to see these wild parrots that had been released by their owners and had all found each other, forming a parrot community. There were some other little kids there, and we were all being so careful not to spook the beautiful birds. But then I moved and my crutch made a sound, and the birds flew away.
A sour-faced little kid said, "You chased them away with your silver thing."
"Crutch," I told him. "It's called a crutch."
The kid didn't seem impressed by the new word I just gave him. "How did you get like that? What's wrong with you?"
In my mind, it was a ridiculous question. I was born this way, just like he was born short and with weird spiky hair, and I told him as much. I saw my Aunt Flora and my mom exchange a look, and they took us back to Aunt Flora's.
That night, I had trouble sleeping. It's not like no one had ever asked me that question before. But this time it sort of got inside me. After tossing and turning for a while, I gave up on sleep, and I snuck into the hallway to listen to the adults.
They were sitting at the kitchen table, and Mom was drinking red wine. She looked really sad.
Aunt Flora was holding her hands and said, "You're doing fine. She's doing fine. Look at her, I mean&she's so smart and so pretty and so confident."
"I know. She is. I just can't help but think..."
"Look, Steve got enough money for her settlement. For the—what did the judge call it?"
"Medical malfeasance." Mom took a sip of wine. Put the glass back on the table. I could see from my perch that Mom was crying and Aunt Flora was rubbing her back.
Eric found me, put his finger over his lip, and walked me back to bed.
"Mom's crying," I told him.
"Yeah. She always does when Dad doesn't come with us for these vacations." It seemed like a big brother lie to make me feel better; I had a sense the entire thing was about me, even if I couldn't understand why. Medical malfeasance. I stored those toxic little words away for later, but forgot about them.
Back in the SAT classroom, I put those words together: malfeasance, settlement. As smart as I am, I'd never considered that when I was born, something maybe happened to make me like this.
I put my pencil down, got my crutches, and got out of there. The classroom doors slammed behind me like an audible exclamation point. Mom had been waiting outside for me. Ben followed. I told them I felt like I was going to have a seizure, even though usually those came without warning. We went home right away. Mom kept stealing looks at me in the mirror. I closed my eyes, trying not to think of those words, but they dive-bombed me like mosquitos in the summer. Medical. Malfeasance. Settlement.
Mom asked, "Are you okay, Jenna?"
I said, "No. I need to go home. I need to go home. I need to go home."
"We're going, baby. We'll be there soon."