Unplugged

Submitted into Contest #149 in response to: Start your story with the flickering of a light.... view prompt

10 comments

Coming of Age Drama Sad

This story contains sensitive content

Content warning: contains references to death.



Sister,

My life is a flickering light, only a day from going out. They’re unplugging me tomorrow. You’ll find that phrasing crude, but life is—now more than ever—too short to mince words. I heard the doctor this morning. It’s been months, and I haven’t made any progress. Survival is unlikely. No one’s advocating for a boy with no parents to stay alive on the government’s dime.


It doesn’t matter that I’m here, imprisoned in my mind, hearing everything you’re saying. It doesn’t matter that I sense when you are and are not next to me, or that I feel your fingers when they intertwine with mine. You’ve tried to convince them to wait. You’ve tried to convince me, begging me to be with you, begging me to open my eyes.


I’m here. I’m trying.


I thought I would meet Mom and Dad here in this chasm between life and death. I wondered if they would provide wisdom or tell me what I should do. Instead, all I’ve found is the smell of sterile air and burnt coffee, and the sound of a dozen machines keeping me alive.


The truth is, our parents never understood me. I never cared, though, because I had you. Do you remember the game we played when we were young? Mom and Dad thought it was silly—to announce that our dreams the night before had matched. ‘Twin Telepathy’ you called it, and to us, it was real.


“I dreamed of a scary monster last night,” I would say.


“So did I! Did your monster only have one eye?” you would ask.


“Yes! Did yours have purple hair?”


“Purple hair and a green hat!”


I can’t remember if I actually had these dreams or if I only told the stories to make you smile—to make the two of us feel closer. I certainly had other dreams that you did not, like the recurring nightmare of running down our street, chased by a bad guy in the dark. I never mentioned it to you.


One night, we both dreamed about soccer tryouts.


“It is Twin Telepathy, Mom,” I said the next morning.


“You don’t think it has anything to do with the fact that you both have soccer tryouts today and you might be nervous?” she asked.


“No.”


To call us best friends would have been like calling the Grand Canyon a hole in the ground. Nearly every second of our nine years had been at each other’s sides, taking on life as a team.


The doctor is back in my room now. Her voice is my least favorite sound.


“The chances are less than one percent,” she says for the tenth time today.


“What about a second opinion?” you ask.


The doctor doesn’t answer.


At soccer try-outs, I sat on the sidelines, watching your eyes as you focused on the ball between your feet. I could never forget what my own face looked like, because it was yours exactly, and you were always nearby.


When it was my turn to show my skills, I wondered how you made it look so easy. I did my best, but the only way I could maintain control over the ball was to move at a pace much too slow. Once during my tryout, I looked up, my eyes automatically finding yours. You were there, watching me intently, fingers crossed at your sides. But I couldn’t miss the fear in your eyes. I felt it as if it were my own. You always seemed to notice things a moment before I did, and it turned out you were right to fear. You made the team. I did not.


“It will be peaceful,” the doctor is saying.


“I still don’t know about this,” you reply.


That evening, our parents were unsure how to behave. On one hand, they were delighted by your success at that morning’s tryouts. Conversely, they didn’t want to embarrass me for my failure. So I exaggerated my indifference, insisting I never liked soccer anyway and it was good for you to have your own hobby. After a while, I realized it would be better for everyone if I left you all alone to celebrate, so no one would feel awkward. I feigned a headache and went to bed early.


The next morning, I found a half-eaten congratulatory cake in the refrigerator. I pushed it aside and reached for the orange juice, pretending the ache in my belly was only hunger. Hours later, I saw you shoving the cake into the trash.


That same year, Mom and Dad were gone.


“Tomorrow,” the doctor says. “We have to let him go tomorrow.”


What if I’m not ready?


“Please,” you beg me.


We moved to Brooklyn to live with Grandma after that. You walked me home from school every day. You were the only one who could make me smile. Some days we pretended we were grown-ups walking home from our jobs. Sometimes we were bankers. On other days we were doctors, telling stories about the patients we encountered. We let our imaginations run wild, sharing any thought that came into our minds. One day, you were a ballerina, and you twirled down the sidewalk until you knocked into another pedestrian. We laughed the whole way home. Sometimes those afternoons were the only thing that eased the sting in my chest at night when I missed Mom.


“Did you have any dreams last night?” you asked me one evening.


“No,” I answered, stabbing at my dinner, attempting to get one pea on each prong of my fork.


“Well, I did,” you said. “I dreamed someone was trying to hurt you, and I stopped them.”


I knew we wouldn’t always be so close that we could finish each other’s sentences. I knew our faces wouldn’t always be exactly the same. I knew it was possible Twin Telepathy wasn’t real. But after the night you dreamed of protecting me, the bad guy never chased me in my sleep again.


The doctor is still talking about tomorrow.


You place your hand over mine.


I’m here. I’m right here.


We don’t have medical insurance. After we lost Mom and Dad in the accident, we wondered if they left us anything. It turned out there was nothing to leave. You convinced me we didn’t need money. You showed me we didn’t need to travel because we could see the world every day without ever leaving the borough. All we had to do was open the window and we’d hear a chorus of Russian, Italian, Yiddish, Arabic, and Korean.


Privacy was never something we were familiar with. We heard our neighbors’ alarm clocks and domestic disputes. There was not a single place we could go where we could scream and no one would hear us. You never cared.


Do you remember my high school pen pal who lived in Iowa? Isn’t that a bad neighborhood? the letter said one day. I had given Brooklyn many names in my head—Bad Neighborhood had never been one of them.


“Is Iowa a Good Neighborhood?” I asked you.


“No,” you said and I envied the confidence in your voice. “How boring, how sad it must be to live in a place with no color, where all your neighbors speak and dress and cook exactly like you do.”


But it wasn’t long before I learned the fireworks we heard at night weren’t really fireworks. And when we watched the news with Grandma, she was always angry. They’re killing people just for fun, she would say. Isn’t that a bad neighborhood? I seemed to notice the ugliness of the brown bricks and gray concrete for the first time. And trees may grow in Brooklyn, but not on our street. For a while, nothing you said could make me feel better. But you still tried to help, and I knew the yellow daffodils I found were from you.


“Don’t worry,” you say when the doctors leave. “I’ll be right here.”


You were always braver than me. Remember our sixteenth birthday? You convinced me to skip school and take the train to the city. We did all the touristy things we had never done even though we’d lived in New York all our lives. We went to the top of the Empire State Building, and for the first time, I felt invincible. Our birthday was always our special day. I only ever wanted to spend it with you.


Nurses come in and out all night. You stay next to me, and you can’t be comfortable. At least after they unplug me, you can go back to college.


It was strange how quickly things changed when you left for school. You went, and in an instant, I was not—would not ever be—the same. Sure, Grandma still fed me and housed me, but it wasn’t home without you. It didn’t feel right. It wasn’t natural, like trying to separate a child from its favorite blanket, its comfort since birth. Whether I always liked it or not, you were my partner in everything. And no one thought of me without also thinking of you. Can you, after all, look at a bluebird and not think of spring?


“It’s time you learn some independence,” Grandma said. I tried.


And then I got hurt and landed here, and you came right away. You’ve been by my side day and night. That first day, I tried to speak, to let you know I was here, but my lips couldn’t move. My eyes wouldn’t open. Hours passed. I heard the doctors say there was nothing to do except wait. Now it’s been months, and it’s time to let go.


I hear you whisper in the darkness. “It’s going to be okay.”


-


It is morning—I can tell by the sound of the birds.


It is the last day of my life. I feel your tears dropping onto my skin. All I want is to see your face. I try everything, begging my body for one flicker of movement to get your attention, to show you.


I’m here.


I hear footsteps, and I know the doctors are coming to let me go. I am suspended, caught between the bridge and the water. Time stands still. As the water rises to meet me, I wonder if I’m ready. If this is it, what was the purpose of my life?


“Come on,” you plead. “Stay with me.” You squeeze my hand with urgency. “I need you.”


I’m here. I hear you.


Adrenaline rushes through me, and I squeeze back. I sense your surprise and instant joy at the movement. With a monstrous effort I open my eyes, but all I see is darkness. Still, I feel your excitement. You know I’m here.


“Stay with me.” Your voice is clear, but I can’t tell where it’s coming from. Are you on the bridge, pulling me up?


The machines grow quiet. The force pushing air into my lungs slows. The water is closer than ever. The darkness around me is becoming light. The only thing I am sure of is your hand holding mine. Without moving my lips, I hear the sound of my own voice, asking, What was the purpose of my life?


Let me show you, you say from beneath the surface.


In an instant, I am underwater. You are there—have been there all along—pulling me down with all your strength.


Let me show you, you repeat, louder. Your voice is cold.


But I don’t want to go with you. The water is not warm. It is not calming. My lungs are squeezed tighter than your grip on my arm. I start to kick, focusing hard on getting back to the surface. I was always a good swimmer, remember?


The light shines through the water and I know I am getting closer. My mind clears and so much comes rushing in. I remember the time I fought the bad guy in my nightmare, how he never bothered me again. I remember how brave I had to be, walking home from school alone. I remember the birthday I spent by myself. I climbed to the top of the Empire State Building and looked across the bay to Brooklyn, where you never got to live. I remember leaving for college, and the guilt I felt leaving Grandma behind. I remember the yellow daffodils I placed on your grave after the accident.


What is the purpose of my life? I wondered so often. Is it to take care of others the way I took care of myself? I wanted it to be you who took care of me. I wanted to do it together.


No, I hear you whisper. I can show you.


You were gone before I found my purpose. Your story ended before mine truly began. I’ve been afraid to turn the page, knowing the next chapter will be without you. The pages are torn and the stories inside are hard and broken. The rest of the book is my future, but it won’t be yours.


My head breaks the surface, and the light is brighter than it ever was. I still feel you pulling, but I won’t go with you. I will find my purpose on my own, but I will remember you in the water. I will remember that you're waiting.


The sun warms me from the inside out, and the doctors are back. What is the purpose of my life? The desire to find out is stronger than any pull from beyond. I hear them gasp as my eyes flutter open.


"I'm here."

June 10, 2022 01:35

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.

10 comments

Graham Kinross
06:22 Jun 26, 2022

Epic. More please.

Reply

Ashley Paige
23:46 Jun 26, 2022

Thank you! Hoping to submit for this week's contest.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Thom Brodkin
18:04 Jun 16, 2022

Wow Ashley, this is quite an initial offering. I found that once I started to read I could not stop. There was so much heart and soul in this that it touched me. You have a gift and I'm glad I got to share it today. Really well done.

Reply

Ashley Paige
19:36 Jun 16, 2022

That is very kind, thank you!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Seán Mc Nicholl
23:02 Jun 15, 2022

Wow Ashley, this is a beautiful and emotional story, really powerful. Very engaging throughout with some beautiful lines in there! Loved it, well done!

Reply

Ashley Paige
23:39 Jun 15, 2022

Thank you for your kind words Seán and thanks for reading!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
23:46 Jun 11, 2022

Ashley, this is FABULOUS ! I loved it so much, you had me from start to finish. It’s so intense but so emotional at the same time. Gorgeous. ❤️

Reply

Ashley Paige
16:53 Jun 12, 2022

Thank you for your kind words Hannah! ❤

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Felice Noelle
14:52 Jun 11, 2022

Ashley: What a powerhouse of a story! I read it, rushing through the first reading to find out the ending, then a second time for details. I especially like the paragraph where you are becoming aware of life in Brooklynn. Your reference to one of my favorite books as a teen, "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," drew me in further. Twenty years ago I had a near-death experience, on the edge for three days before I started recovering. Believe me, some of the thoughts you recorded are exactly like I remembered. As this is your story here on Reed...

Reply

Ashley Paige
16:39 Jun 11, 2022

Thank you so much Maureen! I'm glad you liked the story. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is one of my favorites too :)

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply