Authors: Sarah Wylie
I watch Jena as she disappears out the door behind Dad. She’s feeling better than she was this morning, still weak, but well enough to go home today. Does that mean it worked? Did
life make her better?
“We need to talk, Danielle.” Mom crosses her arms in front of her chest.
“I know.” I nod, then wince from the pain. “Let me guess, Brad and Jen are back together. Or Walmart is bankrupt.”
She stares at me, her face tight and pinched, wrinkles gathering on her forehead, the side of her eyes, and just above her upper lip.
“I’m serious, Danielle.” Two Danielles in a row.
I decide to play it safe and bite my tongue—she
look serious. I lean back against the pillow and wait for her to speak.
“I got in touch with Brody Richardson—my friend? He said he’d pull some strings to get you into another round of callbacks two weeks from today.”
I stare at her. That’s not what she wants to say and we both know it.
“So I guess I shouldn’t have tried to ride—” I start to say at the same time as she says, talking well above me, “From now on, some things are going to change around here.”
“It was an accident.”
Her eyes won’t meet mine, but I can tell by the crease between her eyebrows that she doesn’t believe me.
“You’re not invincible, Dani.” I hate it when her voice cracks.
I open my mouth to speak. How much does she know? How much is either of us willing to say?
I shut my mouth and stare at my hands in my lap.
She brushes some invisible lint off the edge of my bed. “You are going to start seeing Dr. Livingstone. She’s a well-respected therapist I—”
?” Despite the shooting pain up my neck, I sit up. “I told you it was an—”
“Sit down,” Mom orders. I lean back obediently. “And that’s just one of the changes.
“I don’t know what you could possibly be thinking, Danielle,” she is saying now, her eyes still trained on the bed. I’m surprised at how strong and determined her voice is. “With everything that is going on with Jena, do you really expect us to be chasing after you, too? You know that’s not fair.”
“I’m sorry,” I say, but she’s not done.
“This is hard on every single one of us. I don’t even … I don’t feel like a person most days. A shadow of a person, maybe, stumbling around and trying to make sense of everything.”
“I’ll be more careful.”
She doesn’t say anything for a second and all I hear is the sound of her plucking loose threads from the sheets. Maybe she thinks if she pulls hard enough it will all unravel and she can start again and make something better, something that doesn’t fall apart.
“You have no idea how angry I am with you right now. You could have … seriously injured yourself.”
You could have died.
Except I couldn’t. Not for real, not yet.
Is she keeping track?
I wonder. “I’m sorry.”
Again, she doesn’t seem to hear me. “This is the last thing we need right now, Danielle. The very last thing. Your sister needs us. She needs all of us to be here for her.”
Nobody ever talks about the other side, the part where we need
. Instead we get to stand up and grow up and stop putting on makeup and
for Jena, while she gets to lie there and become weakness, let it eat at her, nibble at her toenails and overpower her.
I don’t say anything. I’m biting the inside of my cheek and it’s starting to bleed.
“Do you understand what I’m saying?”
“Stop saying that,” she says finally. “Just show me. Show us.”
Dad pops his head in to say the two of them are going home. Jena Baby is sleepy. All she wants is to lie down and melt into her bed.
We’re waiting on an X-ray of my wrist, so I can’t leave yet.
“Go ahead without me,” Mom says. He leaves and it’s just the two of us again, plus an obnoxious Silence that takes up the whole room, forcing us to shut up just so he can hear himself talk.
“Are you in pain?” Mom asks after a minute, jolting me from my thoughts.
“No,” I lie, “why?”
She finds where it hurts anyway. My temples and the right side of my jaw. Her fingers draw little circles around them, trying to erase both the cuts she can see and the ones she can’t. It’s then it occurs to me to tell her. About the cats and catching lives. About the moment when I was drowning and everything started to make sense. About why and where and when it all started. It’s easiest to point to the accident, to the things my mother whispered, but I don’t know where to start. And I wouldn’t know where to end.
So I sit silently as she gently massages my head, no words passing between us.
Four lives down, five to go.
* * *
It’s six-thirty in the evening when we get home, but I might as well have stayed in the hospital given the reception I get at home. Jena is furious with me and communicates this by not communicating with me at all. After hours of silent treatment, though, she storms into my room in the middle of the night, blinding me by flooding the room with light. “I wouldn’t ever forgive you. You should know that.”
Naturally, the one time I actually fall asleep at a decent hour, I am rudely awakened. I grunt in response.
“You mysteriously fall into the pool, then you mysteriously wind up in a motorcycle accident. What are you
, Dani?” she asks, but I can hear from her voice that she has some ideas.
Jena is not magically well, but she was well enough not to have to stay overnight at the hospital; she’s better than she was this morning. Is this it? Does she get slightly better with each life I lose?
Or do I just need to lose the
one to make her completely well? I imagine one of my lives wriggling out from beneath my ribs, floating around until it settles somewhere safe and cancer-free inside her. Maybe it fills the hollow space inside her bones, where the marrow goes.
Jena sits at the foot of my bed. “Mom says she doesn’t believe in accidents.”
“Tell her congrats,” because what else am I supposed to say?
“She says there’s a reason for everything and I started thinking…” Her voice is soft, contemplative. “Why do you think there’s two of us? If there are no coincidences.”
When I don’t answer, she says, “What if we’re each other’s backups? I’m here in case something happens to you, and you’re here in case something happens to me. I mean, that makes sense, right? That we’re each other’s backups?”
I nod, but if it’s true, I’m a useless backup. I can’t help Jena because I’m not her match; I don’t know if I’m helping her now, if the lives I’ve lost have really paid off.
She leans back on the foot of my bed, and neither of us speaks.
How is it possible that I miss her when she’s right here?
She’s beside me, but I am hearing her move about in her room down the hall; she’s singing along to a rock song. Then we are on the couch downstairs, fighting over what to watch on TV or get for takeout, arguing about who finished the shampoo without telling Mom we were out. We are running in wild circles around the park near our house. We are seven again, blurry gray figures chasing after each other.
I will go on existing without her. Wear dresses she has never seen. One birthday cake instead of two.
The thought is so absurd that I almost burst out laughing.
I don’t remember falling asleep, but when I wake up about an hour later, she is curled up at the foot of my bed, breathing in and breathing out.
I know I should wake her, or move her to her room before Mom gets up, but I like having her here. I go back to sleep.
* * *
I miss the whole week of school against my will. Not so much because of my injuries; my parents are scared to let me out of their sight. They lock me up and chain me to my sister on her couch, in front of her game shows with the cheesy hosts and disturbingly overenthusiastic contestants, to ensure that both daughters live to greet tomorrow.
Today my mother pulls back her hair in a tight ponytail that looks like it has to hurt. She goes between the two of us making cups of hot chocolate and rewrapping wounds and fractured wrists, offering to move pillows and trying to make us talk, to each other, but mostly to her. When that doesn’t work, she mentions something about a new recipe she’s been wanting to try and retires to the kitchen, where she only has to remember she has one sick daughter and she can pretend the other one is at school.
An hour passes before Mom returns. She tells me she just got off the phone with Dr. Livingstone, her child psychologist friend. My mother knows important people, you see.
She takes Jena’s temperature and force-feeds her medicine and suddenly
The Price Is Right
is interesting. I can’t tear my eyes away from Bob Barker and the woman with the vertical eyebrows. (It’s not something I want to get into.) Then we have lunch and I heap praises upon Mom’s mushroom and tofu soup, even though I keep throwing up in my mouth. Mom beams, so I continue, “God, Mom, maybe you should go on one of those cooking shows on TV. I bet you could win.”
And Mom beams some more, and I keep massaging her cooking ego so she doesn’t notice that I’m not eating, but maybe I’ve gone too far, because Jena can’t stop laughing.
For a while, we just ignore her. Until she starts to snort-laugh and her shoulders are shaking, and me and Mom both notice because we’re afraid her head might fall off. Her head that is bigger than her shoulders.
But she just keeps laughing and, all of a sudden, I’m laughing, too.
Mom doesn’t get it. She looks between the two of us, a mixture of hurt and confusion on her face. “What’s so funny, you two?”
And we laugh even harder because she doesn’t get it, so she just smiles and fake-laughs so she feels like she’s in on the joke. I feel bad for her and I want to explain, but when Jena laughs, everyone laughs. It’s a rule.
I don’t know who stops laughing first. We still have to eat. I wonder if the Mom and Jena days, the ones where I’m not home and they hang out together and are mother-and-daughter-best-friends—I wonder if they’re this good.
When my mother said change, she meant God. Or, at least, she meant church.
I’d hoped she would have forgotten after a week, but apparently not.
Jena’s on Mom’s left. Cushioned between Mom and my father—he’s even wearing a tie—I slump in my seat and people-watch.
There’s a preppy girl with long blond hair who has a tall, dark-haired guy draped around her for, I’m guessing, decorative purposes. There’s no way she’s as into him as he is into her, but maybe she is, and she just can’t show it because they’re in church. They’re sitting directly in front of me.
There’s also the pastor, who might be fairly fascinating if I wasn’t trying so hard to tune him out. I mean, I think that’s a tattoo on his wrist. But I have to stop looking at him.
There’s a group of old people sitting close to the front, with a tall woman in floral scrubs at the edge of one row, casting occasional glances at them. I think she’s a nurse, here to make sure if one of them falls, she can convince all the others to propagate the whole “your grandmother died peacefully in her sleep” lie.
My grandmother lived with us for the last six weeks of her life. The night she died, she didn’t mutter about bright lights or singing angels or anything like that. Probably she didn’t even go to heaven. Jena and I struggled to fall asleep as she hacked and groaned and yelped at my mother and her nurse and anyone that came within six feet of her. I don’t know what it is about parents, but they always think the worlds they build for you are soundproof. The next morning, they tearfully broke the news to us:
Grandma went to heaven early this morning. She went peacefully in her sleep
. We nodded and pretended we didn’t know the truth about old people and how they die. But we did.
“Stop that,” Mom whispers. For a second, I think she’s talking to me. Then I realize she’s actually scolding my dad, who keeps fidgeting with the bulletin they handed us when we came in, clamping and unclamping his sweaty hands.
At the end of the service, we’re bombarded by more people than I’d like. Apparently, Mom really has recruited a whole army of people to pray for Jena.
“I feel claustrophobic,” Jena whispers to me, after a woman releases her from a minute-long embrace. So I stay put on her right side and square my shoulders bodyguard-style, which makes Jena giggle. “God, you’re an embarrassment.”
But clearly something about me screams beefy martial arts specialist because, for the most part, the space invasions devolve into hearty shoulder squeezes and back pats.
“You must be Danielle!” a lady says suddenly, taking my hands in hers, even though it’s a little awkward since my left arm is in a cast. “You look just like your mother.”
I mumble a response even I’m not sure of, while behind me an elderly man speaks to Jena.
“I’ve been praying for you,” the lady says, still squeezing my hands.
Mom appears beside me then and thanks her, as I try to keep my expression even. Why is she praying for
, and not Jena? All I have are some measly bruises and a crack in my wrist. Maybe girls with nine lives have prebooked tickets to hell.
As soon as I get my hands back, I scoot to the edge of the group and stay off to the side so Mom can do all the talking. Dad seems to have taken over my duties as Jena’s buffer.
Thankfully, Jena is ready to go home and informs Mom, who begins to speed-talk.
Meanwhile, the three of us excuse ourselves and start toward the car. We’re barely in when Dad begins to loosen his tie.
“I need a smoke,” he mutters to himself. Then, hurriedly, he looks back at the two of us. “I didn’t mean…”
“It’s okay, Dad. We all need a smoke,” I reassure him.
Dad hasn’t smoked, as far as anyone knows, in about a year, and the way Mom sees it, that’s One Big Disease conquered this year.
A couple of seconds later, Mom climbs into the car and he goes back to being on good behavior.