“Are hangover headaches supposed to last for a week? I still feel like my brain’s gonna explode,” Melanie said, flopping down on the bed next to Marion.
Marion groaned and opened one eye. The only light on in the apartment was a lamp, but it was enough for her to see that her sister had an ice pack on her forehead. “Maybe you caught something,” she grumbled, closing her eyes again and rolling over.
Melanie didn’t take the hint. “I don’t know. My neck’s been killing me, too. Maybe it’s from sleeping on the futon last night.”
“You know the secret cure for a hangover?” Marion asked.
“Going back to sleep.”
“We’ve got a bunch of stuff to do today. We still have to unpack from our trip, catch up on laundry, make sure we’ve opened all the mail…”
“Mel, do you hear that soothing sound coming from outside? That’s rain. We’re supposed to relax when it’s raining.”
“Or it’s a sign that we should stay home today and get all this housework done. Classes start next week, you know. Speaking of which, I’ll check the mail.” Melanie scampered away and started sorting through the stack of envelopes on the kitchen island.
Marion couldn’t help but smile. It was going to be Melanie’s first year at Boltaine University, and she was ecstatic. Marion was excited, too—although she’d gotten an undergraduate degree from Boltaine, she was going back for her master’s degree. She was looking forward to going back her alma mater and showing Melanie the best study spots.
“Nothing for you from school. Maybe you should check your e-mail,” Melanie called out.
Marion reluctantly rolled over and grabbed her laptop. If Melanie had a migraine and could still be productive, Marion could at least pretend to be. She opened the lid and saw that she’d left her Facebook page up, so she decided to scroll through the pictures she’d posted from her and Melanie’s vacation. They’d taken a trip to the South to celebrate their last month of freedom before they were stuck studying every night.
Twenty-three notifications. “Beautiful ladies <3,” her friend Jennifer wrote under a picture of her and Melanie standing on the beach.
“Looks like you had a blast!” their Uncle Vilho added. Marion decided to make that one her profile picture.
“Did you see the pics I put up?” Marion called out.
“Hold on!” Melanie yelled. Marion heard rustling in the kitchen. “I’m in the hall now. I got us both some juice. I did see the pictures. Aren’t they wonderful? Jenn sa-” Melanie stopped mid-sentence.
“Melanie? Jenn what?” No answer. A few seconds passed before Marion heard a thud.
“Mel? You okay?” She jumped up and ran toward the hall. Melanie had fallen down, the glasses of orange juice seeping into the carpet. “Melanie, what’s wrong?”
Melanie couldn’t answer. Her arms started jerking, and Marion was at a loss. Was this a seizure? She’d heard of seizures but had no idea how to help someone having one. Panicked, she fumbled for her phone and called 911.
“911, what’s your emergency?”
“It’s my sister. I think she’s having a seizure!” Marion screamed.
Marion had always hated hospitals. They reminded her of all the ways someone could vanish in an instant, and she didn’t want to be reminded of how vulnerable people really were. What she hated most was that her sister was who-knows-where, and she was stuck in the waiting room. She sat in one of the corner chairs, her knees pulled to her chest. Normally, her mom would tell her to sit properly, but that day, she didn’t say a word; instead, she sat next to Marion and held her hand. Marion’s dad paced in front of them.
“I don’t understand what would cause her to have a seizure,” he said. “We don’t have any history of epilepsy in the family.”
“It could be anything, Jim. That’s why they asked us if they could run those tests. Let’s not panic yet.” Marion’s mom, Natalia, closed her eyes and took a deep breath. It was about an hour before a doctor walked into the waiting room and asked for the Henry family. Marion and Natalia stood up.
“My name is Dr. Adams, and I’m on the team taking care of your daughter.”
“What’s wrong with her? Can we see her?” Jim asked.
“She’s unconscious, but please, come with me,” the doctor said, leading them down so many hallways that Marion began to wonder if they were lost. Finally, they entered a small white room, number 1409. Marion stared at her sister. She never saw anyone hooked up to so many IVs before.
“Mr. and Mrs. Henry, we’ve done extensive testing on Melanie.” Dr. Adams typed quickly on the room’s computer and copies of MRI scans. “There’s a lesion in her brain here,” he moved the cursor, “as well as significant swelling. We performed a spinal tap to rule out bacterial meningitis. Although the labs were consistent with meningitis, we do not believe that is what caused your daughter’s seizure.”
“That’s good, right?” Natalia asked, clutching Jim’s arm.
“Unfortunately, no. After doing further testing with the spinal tap sample, we suspect that your daughter is suffering from something called primary amebic meningoencephalitis. Has Melanie been in any warm freshwater lately?”
“We just got back from a trip to the lake,” Marion whispered. This isn’t happening, she thought.
“It’s very rare, but occasionally, microorganisms found in water can travel through the nose into the brain and cause an infection.”
“Marion was in the same water,” Natalia cried. “I can’t lose my babies. Please don’t let me lose my babies.”
“As I said, it’s extraordinarily rare to develop amebic meningoencephalitis, even when exposed to the microorganisms, but we can monitor—”
“What about Melanie? Will she be okay?” Marion demanded.
“We’re doing everything we can. We’re giving her medication and are in contact with the CDC about more recommendations for her treatment.” Dr. Adams paused and logged off the computer. He stood and looked at the family.
“I do want you all to be prepared. There is no standard treatment for amebic meningoencephalitis. It has over a 90 percent mortality rate, and only five cases of recovery have been documented in the entire continent. It is likely that Melanie will die within the week. I’m very sorry. I’ll leave you to process for a moment.”
The family sat quietly for what felt like hours. Marion was in shock; how could she not have taken Melanie’s headaches more seriously? she wondered. She stared at the blonde girl in front of her, wondering how someone with so much radiance could suddenly seem to near to death. She realized that Melanie might not wake up again at all to say goodbye to, all because they had to take that stupid trip.
Natalia gently nudged Marion and handed her a tissue. She didn’t even realize she’d been crying, but as soon as she looked at her parents, she started wailing. The Henry family cried in each other’s arms, unable to speak of what would happen next.
Dr. Adams came back in later to discuss life support with Jim and Natalia, but Marion couldn’t bear to listen. She walked out into the corridor to the nearest window, gripping the window sill for support. The rain was coming down harder now, and it suited Marion. She didn't want to see blue skies and sunshine mocking her angst. Sniffing, she pulled out her phone and started flipping through pictures again. Only one week ago, they had both been so happy. She clicked on her profile picture and read the comments again.
“Beautiful ladies <3”
“Looks like you had a blast!”
“Jealous. Take me with you next time.”
“Where is this?”
And then she noticed a new comment from hours ago. It must’ve been posted right before Melanie had her seizure.
“Didn’t we have the best time? I love you, sis. Thanks for being my travel buddy. Can’t wait for even more adventures this year at BU!”
It was the closest thing Marion would get to a goodbye, and she knew it was true. She started sobbing again, shoulders heaving, nose running, mourning the loss of her dearest friend and only sister.