i. December, before
The two yellow stripes down the middle of Grandpa’s street looked like my clip-in extensions and Kylie’s honor cords.
It was our freshman year of college, each of us newly arrived back for Christmas. I convinced her to go stand on those bright gold ribbons at eleven at night, after the presents were left lying in their own wrapping on the carpet and our parents and grandpa had fallen asleep.
We went out into the silence, not wearing coats. The East Peoria city council had strung up Christmas lights between the telephone poles at waist-level, winter fireflies roping off the sidewalks. I hopped over, and Kylie tried to duck under. “Shit,” she said into the silent night.
I stopped but didn’t go back. “Come on.”
“I think I’m stuck.” She moved forward, but her hair stayed caught in the wires. The lights swayed back and forth. “Oh my God, Liz, this was such a shitty idea.”
When she was done detangling herself, she pushed her glasses up her nose and followed me into the street.
The lines were frosted with a sugarcoating of snow, the kind that we could melt just by stepping on it.
We were on our phones, taking small grainy pictures that would never look like the real thing, forgetting to look down the line of the street. Instead we looked up, Kylie’s neck arching gracefully and mine craning because I wasn’t built to look up like that.
There was silence again, after. The kind that happens during a power outage when you remember all the sound that’s missing.
I remember lying there, with Kylie between me and the car, my cheek pressed into the cold, gravelly crunch of those gold ribbons.
ii. January, after
Something good was supposed to come out of this at the very least. It was some sort of test that was supposed to bring out the best in us.
It’s day two now, and I don’t see any of that happening.
While I stare at the off-white plastic of the hospital bed guardrail in the dark, I make a list of things we were supposed to start doing.
One: Sleep in hospital chairs.
But Mom and Dad have decided to check into the Courtyard Marriott across the street so they can use the little bottles of shampoo and sleep in linens that get changed daily.
Two: Import old teddy bears from home that smell like the corners of my bedroom.
But there are no teddy bears, not even the gift shop kind, so I’m watching the bumpy seam that goes along the side rail.
I can hear the night nurse, Carla, opening the door. I close my eyes. When she reaches to adjust the IV lines that have tangled up, I can smell the Purell on her purple-gray hands. “How does your leg feel?” she says.
I close my eyes.
Yesterday my mom folded her hands, but then the doctor came in and she stretched her arms above her head and pretended to wake up from a nap.
When we were thirteen, Kylie said Mom was making our family look like “some kind of right-wing Christian crazy” by putting a bumper sticker on our Corolla. The bumper sticker said, “Protect Our Kids,” which was the name of the PTA movement against the expansion of sex ed. After that fight, Mom let her quit Sunday school, but not me.
I don’t have any time to pray now. Forgot, I guess.
And then there’s the final thing we’re supposed to do—Four: Comfort each other, cry together until the hospital room gets a little less scary.
I want to ask Carla for tissues, but before I even open my eyes, she says, “Do you want to see your sister?”
“I guess,” I say, pulling the scratchy blanket up to my chin.
“We can wheel your bed over to her room in the morning,” she says.
By seven, I’m already waiting. I can taste the sour remnants of yesterday’s dinner—applesauce and lime Jell-O.
I know what they’re going to say when we’re all in a room together.
Kylie: It was your idea, Liz, not mine.
Dad: Why’d you go in the street?
Mom: We raised you better, smarter.
A nurse—this one’s name is Monica—shows up at my door at 8:45, and she wheels me out of the room and down the hall. I feel dizzy, like I’m on a boat.
“Is the sister awake?” says another nurse in the hall.
“Go ahead and knock,” Monica says. “She was up ten minutes ago. We’re still waiting on the parents, though.”
They can’t turn the gurney very well, so it takes four tries to get through the door. The first thing I see is my little twin sister’s bandaged head sinking into the blue hospital pillow. The next thing is a tangled IV line that looks like my own.
Kylie’s turned herself away from me.
“Where are Mom and Dad?” I say.
Monica chimes in, her voice higher than normal, and tells us that they’ll be here after they get breakfast from the cafeteria.
“How are you doing?” I say.
“How do you think I’m doing?” Kylie’s voice sounds chapped, but it still cuts through the room as she turns her head to look at me. “You’re getting out next week, right?”
“Next Wednesday.” I push a clump of hair out of my face. “When are you getting out? Mom and Dad said yesterday that you were getting better.”
“Just stop, okay? You wouldn’t even understand what’s going on.” She says it in a way that makes me pull my shoulders together, wrap myself inwards.
“Okay,” I say.
There’s the sound of high heels in the hallway. “Good morning, girls,” Mom says, her voice artificially bright, just like mine. She maneuvers awkwardly between our two beds and tries to straighten out my hair.
“Stop,” I say, and she retreats.
“All done for now,” Dr. McFadden says. She has just finished peeling the bandages off my leg, ripping the skin underneath it, scouring it with disinfectant. “We’re just going to let that sit for a few seconds, okay?”
“I know,” I say. It’s stinging.
“So,” she says. She still has the bouncy smile of someone in training. She’s only in her first year of residency, which—as I’ve learned over the past week—means she’s slower and sloppier. “Are you looking forward to going home?”
“Oh.” The smile flops. “I meant, um, you know. I think you’re going home in three days.”
“No,” I say. “I’m going to the Marriott.”
“Oh, right,” she says. “Your sister’s still here, right?”
“Yeah,” I say.
“At least it’ll be nice to get out of the hospital.” She picks up a roll of gauze. “All right, you ready?”
The lobby of the Courtyard Marriott is full of people who want to look judgmentally at someone who looks more tired than they do. My wheelchair is large, but they don’t move their suitcases out of the way until Dad asks them to, um, excuse me, could you maybe please let us through.
In Room 104, Mom gets me set up with the TV and the remote and some hospital applesauce that I don’t want. I remember how, whenever we used to go on vacation, Kylie would be the one who wanted to stay in the room and I would be the one who wanted to go out. I guess I don’t have a choice now.
“All right, honey?” Mom says, readjusting the blankets.
I feel approximately two years old. “Yeah.”
“I’m going to head back. Kylie has to get brain scans in an hour.”
“Get some sleep,” she says.
Dad wanders out of the bathroom. “I have to call the insurance company,” he says.
“Whatever,” I say.
“Sorry, kid.” He goes to sit down on the edge of the bed but then changes his mind and sits down at the desk, swiveling the chair to face me. “Want to watch something afterwards?”
“I think I’ll just go to sleep,” I say.
“Okay,” he says, turning his chair back to the desk. “Sleep tight.”
“Today’s the twentieth, right? Isn’t Kylie’s flight supposed to be today?”
I see his toes clench inside his black socks. He had wanted both of us to go to Minnesota, just like him and Mom. But I’d wanted Illinois State, and Kylie headed halfway across the country to Stanford. “I got it refunded. You girls are going to have to wait until next year,” he says.
I decide that Kylie and I have one thing in common—even though we’ve never eaten together at school, never been to the same sleepovers, never spent our Friday nights in the same place—neither of us has ever been an optimist. Kylie never pretended to be one, although I did. I used to raise the pitch of my voice until it sounded perky, plaster my face with makeup. But I always washed it off at the end of the day.
Mom’s been saying a lot of things the past three days, ever since Kylie got out and we all came home. Like: there’s a home security video of gold ribbons lit up by winter firefly lights and several people trying to help. Because Pastor Tim had said at last year’s Christmas Eve service, love is the searchlight that goes straight through mirrors. Or something.
“Stupid Pastor Tim,” I hear Kylie saying in her room, just down the hall, where Mom is changing her bandages. “That’s bullshit.”
I have to agree.
“Kylie!” Mom says, all sharp.
“Totally,” I yell down the hall, there to back up my sister. “Complete bullshit.”
Kylie doesn’t answer. She’s only done one thing all her life—flaking on me.
“Oh, Liz,” Mom says. She’s flat now.
“Would you shut up?” Kylie yells back at me. “And you,” she adds, more quietly. “Stop treating her better. I get it, she’s your favorite, she’s God’s favorite, I get it, okay? But she hasn’t even lost anything. She didn’t even really want to be at college anyway.”
She cries. Ugly cries. I can hear snot.
“I love you, Ky,” Mom says, eventually. “God loves you.”
“Would you drop the God shit?” Kylie’s voice has rips and holes in it. “If he loved us so goddamn much then why the hell would he let this happen?”
We only cry together because we make each other cry.