Authors: Sarah Wylie
My head snaps up. “Wait, what? What kind of stuff?”
“Um…” His face flushes. “I don’t know. Stupid stuff. Like, ‘How was your weekend’ or ‘I like your new haircut’ or ‘I…’” He appears to change his mind about the last sentence and his voice fades. “Just stuff like that.”
My teeth are gnawing on the inside of my cheek and Jack’s face looks like it’s burning, and probably we’re both in pain. I shouldn’t have asked, but I was curious, and now I’m supposed to say something.
“Hey, can I ask you something?” I say, which a) is a total placeholder and completely defeats the purpose, and b) I don’t wait for his reply, which also defeats the purpose. “Have you ever thought about Jena?”
“Like … what?” He looks confused. “How do you mean?”
I temporarily stop nibbling on my cheek so I can answer. “She’s really pretty.” And almost as soon as I’ve stopped, I want to go back to it, to digging my teeth into the inside of my face. “Especially when she’s not wearing sixteen jackets.”
Jack doesn’t say anything; he stares down at his hands. Maybe he’s trying to make his mouth bleed, too.
For some inexplicable reason, I get this urge to rewind and take it back, or say something nice, or maybe, maybe, even see if his lips remember mine. But my feet are already leading me away from him, and I don’t know what I’m bad at, but I know what I’m good at: stomping all over the hearts of nerdy boys.
be honest about it, Jack.
“See you on Monday,” I call over my shoulder, then hurry away before he has more to feel embarrassed about. I don’t know why I care. I guess because Jack Penner is actually sort of a nice guy. And nice guys deserve nice girls. And nice girls get cancer, and lose their chance at happiness.
The wannabe nice girl steps aside and waits for them to get better so they can live happily ever after with boys that are good for them.
She hurries to catch up with her family.
* * *
Thankfully, Jena does not ask about Jack again. She goes to bed early. She says she’s not unwell, just tired, so maybe I won’t need the pills tonight.
I slip into bed at eleven, after watching a late-night talk show with Dad, while Mom reads some booklet she apparently got at Jena’s last appointment.
The last thing I expect to hear is Jena’s voice, a soft whisper against the blanket of darkness. “Do people ever talk about me at school?”
I hear her breathing slowly, waiting for the answer.
In, out, in, out.
“I didn’t know you were awake.”
In out in out. In.
“They ask you?”
In. Out. In. Out.
It’s because of Jack. That’s why she’s asking all these questions, suddenly thinking about life outside of It, the life she had before and the one she’ll have if there’s an after.
“Do you remember Teddy’s funeral?” She doesn’t wait for me to answer, but I do remember. Teddy was this guy Jena befriended during chemo treatments. She begged me to go with her and Mom to his funeral in December. To support her and hold her hand, keep my shoulder squared so when she needed to sob into it, we wouldn’t collapse onto each other or the people on either side of us. It was the first funeral either of us had been to. There was no ghost sighting, no open casket or dead-person smell. It wasn’t a big deal.
“Everyone there was either related to him, treating him, or sick, too,” Jena says.
If I’m supposed to say anything now, I fail.
“That’s probably how my funeral will look.”
I fail with distinction.
“Mom would kill me if she heard me say that.”
“So why would you?” I hear myself asking, before I decide to.
“Because it’s true. I didn’t say I
die. I said my funeral would look like Teddy’s if I did.”
“Well, then don’t.” My voice muffles into my pillow and away from her, but I’m sure she hears it, too.
She doesn’t answer right away, silence settling in between us, loud and haunting. Maybe it’s too late. Maybe she has died already.
“If I die, you can have all my stuff.”
My lips are glued together.
“You know you’re the only person I’d ever trust with my things. My trophies, my clothes, my room. I know you hate when I talk like this but just in case … I think you should know.”
“It’s weird, but I don’t mind talking about it. It’s not that I’m not scared—I am—but I guess I’m kind of used to it now. When I have a fever or I throw up or have a bad day, Mom automatically thinks that’s it, that this is the end and I’m going to die right now. You can tell by her face.”
The word-vomit keeps coming, like something in her has come undone and now she just wants to tell me anything and everything and she can’t stop.
“The weird thing is that, to me, I never feel like it’s the end. I mean, obviously, that’s a good thing and I
feel that way. Maybe it’s because I’ve thought I was dead or nearly dead so many times—when everything hurts and I’m sure I have to die now, because how can there be something worse? But I’m still here. So I don’t know what it feels like to die.”
Silence. Beautiful silence.
My lips stay together.
Hers don’t. They quiver as words continue to fall from them, dribble that slides out and wets her pillow and mine and why can’t she please just stop?
“I’m scared for you, Dani,” she whispers. “And Mom and Dad. I think you guys worry too much and you take everything too seriously and you’ve given up too much.” She sniffs. “I hate myself for being sick. Almost as much as you hate me.”
My lips part so I can breathe.
In. Out. In. Out.
“I don’t hate you.”
“Yeah, right. You hate being around me.” She double sniffs, a wheeze from her chest up. “I’m gross and ugly and weak and I’m ruining your life.”
You’re not ruining my life. I am.
You’re not gross or ugly or weak. You are stronger than I am.
I love you.
Promise me you’ll wake up every day I wake up.
“Lives,” I say instead. “My
Wrong answer, Dani. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.
I know she’s not sleeping because I hear her softly breathing and trying to bat away the tears. As soon as the spaces between her breaths are regular, I climb out of bed and head to the bathroom.
There my lips part and they explode and they can’t stop.
I’ll die if you die.
That I did say. I said it when she had the chicken pox at age six, and I’d never had it, so we hadn’t been allowed to see each other for three days. A bright kid even then, I snuck out of Mom-sanctioned quarantine and up the stairs into her room, where since Jena’s unfortunate diagnosis Mom had ensured I didn’t set foot. She was itchy and cranky and I slid into her bed, offering to scratch her arm or read to her or make up a good Once Upon a Time. I was promptly discovered by Mom and had a red, splotchy chest area two days later,
Jena was beginning to feel better.
I said it again nine years later, sitting outside on the swings by our house, while Mom and our aunt Tish talked in quiet, serious voices and took great care to dab at their eyes only when a particularly strong wind blew.
She doesn’t know how much I meant it then. I tiptoe into our room and find the bag. Back in the bathroom, I dig around for the bottle. When I find it, I uncap it and begin to count.
One. Two. Three …
What do I need five lives for?
She doesn’t know how much I mean it now.
The good news is, nobody finds me facedown, heart-dead, drowning in a puddle of vomit, after I black out. The bad news is,
find me that way.
The bad news is, my stomach won’t stop trying to jump out of my throat and expelling its contents.
The bad news is, Mom doesn’t sleep and wanders to the bathroom when she hears all the flushing and hacking and so forth.
“Jena?” She knocks on the door. “Jena? Why the hell did you lock this? Open up! Let me in!”
She’s just about to bang down the door, when the real Jena stands up. “I’m in bed. What’s going on?”
“Oh my God. I thought I heard you in there throwing up. Are you okay? Are you sure?”
“I’m fine. Where’s Dani?”
There’s momentary silence as they both try to locate my whereabouts. Since I can’t hear him moving, I assume Dad isn’t about to break his record as the only one in our family who still sleeps.
“Dani?” Jena knocks on the door.
I’m still testing out my voice, so it takes me a moment to call back, “Yeah?”
“You okay, honey?” Mom asks.
“It must just be something I ate.”
The bad news is, it starts again.
“Want me to come in?” Mom asks.
“No. It’s … nasty.”
Mom sends Jena back to bed, then waits outside my door as I attempt to get myself together. Five minutes and no throwing up. I take this as a good sign, stash the rest of Mom’s pills in the cabinet so she will think Dad brought them and Dad will assume she did.
“You okay?” Mom presses the back of her hand to my forehead as soon as I open the door. “You don’t look so good.”
“I’m okay,” I answer. While Mom prepares me a salt-and-water mixture (supposedly to keep the food down), I can’t help thinking about the irony that is my life. The most fitting occupation for my mother is no longer a stage actress or momager or anything like that; she would make—she
—a fantastic nurse.
She checks on Jena once more, then has me come and sit on the couch with her as she channel surfs. Finally, she turns off the TV and we sit there in the silence, my body pressed against hers, stealing her warmth. As I lie there focusing on breathing and getting my stomach to stop swirling, it becomes overwhelmingly clear to me that she is stronger than I thought.
It’s not just a front; a front could not hold me up tonight, while I shiver inside as everything within me threatens to spill out onto the floor.
She buries her chin in my hair and I fall asleep, feeling less myself and more like Jena.
Five lives down, four to go.
* * *
In the morning, Dad finds me in Mom’s arms, huddled against her like she’s the highest part of a ship that’s going down.
He shakes her first and then me, telling us both to get up, get up, we need to see this.
we both think, but only Mom says it, brushing me off her lap.
“Where’s Jena?” Mom asks.
“Outside,” he answers.
“She’s not sick, is she?”
Want me to answer that?
“Dani had food poisoning last night. It’s strange we didn’t all get it.”
“Ah, I wondered about the setup,” Dad says as Mom pulls on her coat and makes her way out of the RV. “Feeling better, kiddo?” His hand ruffles my hair, then settles on my shoulder.
“Yeah. What’s outside?”
Dad grins. “You’ll see.” So I know it’s good. Or he thinks it’s good.
When I reach the last step of the RV, I freeze. Someone used a cotton wool machine to spray the world with fake snow. It silently falls from the gray sky above, dancing: twirly, cold balls of cotton that land strategically on the ground, filling all the spaces where patches of ground and dead yellow snow once lay. I wonder who else is seeing this.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” Jena calls from where she is, kneeling beside the RV and picking up handfuls of the stuff with her bare red hands. Mom notices and pulls out gloves from her coat pocket, handing them to my sister.
“Magical. This is the perfect way to end our vacation,” Dad answers.
Mom nods, looking up at the sky. “God knew we needed a little snow.”
There’s something so childlike, so naïve about the way my mother says it. It’s a sweet sentiment, that God saw us with our rotting snow, the fungus of our winter, and wanted to give us something new, beautiful, soft, and white. But there’s something so wrong about it, too. My sister is dying; snow is the last thing we need right now.
It seems suspiciously like a cop-out on His part that that’s what we get. And I can’t believe they’re all falling for it.
“Maybe,” Dad says, “we should stay for one more night. I mean, it might even be dangerous to try to go back tonight.”
“It’s hardly a snowstorm, honey,” Mom replies.
“I know.” His smile is sheepish, see-through. “But I don’t want to leave just yet.” He steals a glance at Jena, who is quietly still scooping up bits of snow and letting them soak into the woolen gloves Mom handed her. This moment is a little like stepping into a time warp, an alternate universe where we have the memories of scars and battles and bleeding bones, but somehow we’ve managed to leave them behind. In this world, we get a bite-size, if not full, serving of hope.
The Baileys are greedy and they want more.
Always want more. More time. More Jena. More smiles. More happiness.
Greedy, greedy pigs.
Dad has his arm around Mom now. She rests her head on his chest and says, “I know what you mean. But we have to go back. Dani has school and then there’s Jena’s appointment.”
Pause to insert Dad’s disappointment. He sighs. “You’re right. I guess we’ll just have to enjoy it while we can.”
Then all of a sudden, he kicks up a little snow that crashes into my knee. Most of it is the gross, harder stuff that was on the ground before.
Everyone laughs. I roll up some snow into my palm, while Mom does not yell at me for doing so gloveless, and aim it at Dad’s chest.
My father holds back in a lot of ways. He doesn’t always say what he’s thinking and when he does, he expects to get shot down. But snowball fights are his forte and “This means war,” he declares.
We pelt limp balls of snow at one another, laughing and making idle threats. Somehow Mom gets involved and aims a few well-placed shots at Dad’s head. It is two against one, and we are all too scared to involve Jena. We might if Mom weren’t here. To associate yourself with any one of Jena’s ailments—in this case, if she got hurt or ended up with a cold—is a bit of a suicide wish.