I guess we’re all just supposed to fit into some sort of mold, aren’t we. But my brother and me, we’re not designed like that. Shiny new and perfect. Not really our style.
The thing is just that he doesn’t feel anything. My brother, that is. I mean, he’s just there. Standing at my bed like a guardian angel, if guardian angels had faces like stone. Every day, I’m told that I should be grateful for him. Every day, I am also told that I am one step closer to death, and every day he does nothing but stare. So that’s how things are going at the moment.
I feel too much. That’s my problem. My face is like a clear screen, with no border between myself and anyone who’s watching.
And then there’s him. Never knowing what’s going on in that head. Actually, probably the only time I ever saw him truly happy was the night I was brought here. He had just come home from a date, with someone he really liked, a pretty girl, a funny girl. He had come barrelling through the door, cheeks flushed, eyes shining and crinkled at the edges with the newness of the feeling. It was so new. So new for him to be running and excited and joyful and ready to talk for the first time, and it had to be the night he had come home to find me like how I was. With a nosebleed soaking through all of our paper towels. With bones so sore they felt like they might pop at any moment, chills so severe I was wracking on the kitchen floor. Then he drove me to the hospital with the smell of the girl’s perfume still clinging to the seats, and he wasn’t smiling anymore. Now the car smells of sickness, and the bitter clench of hospital scrubs, and the coffee that comes in Dixie cups and tastes the same whether you’re drinking the coffee or just licking the cup.
“Thank you. For driving me.”
I know I’m ugly. It’s not so hard to imagine, especially when I know my hair has all fallen out and a tube has been jammed in my throat to suck out all the spit and all the blood. Not that beauty matters here. But still, it’s sad to see my ribs sticking out so clear on my skin, my skin with the red dots on it that looks like it’s been spattered with bloody ink, beneath my gown with the stains from the nosebleeds that they can’t ever seem to be able to scrub out, hard as they try.
The metaphor is not lost on me.
My family winces every time they see the crusty splotches. “Can’t we change it out?” they ask.
No, no. I’ve ruined all my gowns. I know that the nurses know this too. (They check anyway.)
“Miss? I’m so sorry. We’re all out.”
“Well, thank you, for trying.”
The only one that doesn’t wince is my brother, the brother that everyone tells me cares, but I can’t be so sure.
I’m just sick. There’s no plot to this story.
There is no plot - only the theme of my mother crying in the hallway when she thinks I can’t hear, my father always talking in whispers around me because he thinks I won’t hear.
Funny how that works. My hearing is just fine. Better than just fine. No hair blocking my earways. My hearing is excellent.
And I can hear what I don’t want to, you know. Like that small voice that reminds me of why I hate it - the small voice, the small part of me that still idolizes my brother. Still tries to be just like him. I hear things; I feel angry, feel frustrated. I rip the blanket with my fingers and the nurses sigh at me because I make their lives harder.
Meanwhile he sits and writes essays and conjugates verbs and memorizes equations and is good. Meanwhile he doesn’t make anyone’s life harder, but sure doesn’t make anyone’s life more interesting, either.
I think I used to glory in my gaping lack of perfection. But sometimes he just looks at me. Just this look. And it’s like a universe of disappointment lives in his eyes. And it makes my heart want to cry, my eyes too, another relentless wave of feeling - but I don’t cry, because I don’t need more people fussing and crying and worrying in the hallways. I am just as strong as he is. I don’t need anybody at all.
Needless to say, later, when the world is dark and the brunette nurse (the pretty one) comes with my meds, it pisses me the hell off. It seems I will never not be a burden.
I take the pills.
“Well, that was painless,” she remarks. “What’s with the change of heart?”
“I don’t have to be a headache, you know,” I remind her. “I’m working on self-improvement.”
“That’s nice to see.” She happily rearranges the multitudes of tubes protruding from my orifices. “You trying, I mean. I guess you really do take after your brother, huh?”
Her eyes are so moony, you could jump ten feet.
Then she smiles prettily, and winks prettily, and walks down the hall, leaving behind only the echo of clattering cart wheels and me, forcing a smile and looking vaguely like Cheshire Cat. Her, off to the land of pretty people and leaving us - the ugly, the broken, the sick - here. Out of sight and out of mind. Yeah. That’s how it is.
My brother is beautiful. This is a known fact.
People used to be able to tell that we were siblings. I bet you didn’t know that.
Smooth skin, full lashes, pink lips. Long, lean, with glossy dark eyes - mine always sparkling, his lit just barely, always heavy, always steady. Healthy and strong. That’s what we were.
Now my eyes have lost their shine and my skin is an endless map of bruises, like squashed plums under glass, and every trace of color has been sucked out of my body, yet he has never once changed. It’s like I am the bare skeleton of what we could be, a lifeless dummy, and my brother is the model, all dressed up and everybody knowing he’s gorgeous because it’s out there, plain to see. Plain as day.
It’s hard. It’s sad. This much is obvious, though you wouldn’t know from the way he acts. For instance. Today I try to read a book. It’s weighty - A Prayer for Owen Meany. My hands shake, unused to holding something so heavy up for so long, and it tumbles down the bed, far from my reach, almost to touch my feet. Because he sits there eternally, my brother sets down his pen and gets it for me.
As always, silence. Silence except for the noise of his pen scratching on the paper.
“I said something.”
“Why didn’t you say something back?”
A shrug. “Didn’t want to.”
I’m not angry at him. I’m not. I’m just angry, so angry, and it scares me sometimes, how angry I can get. Did you know that?
I’m not angry at him. I’m just angry and there’s no one to blame.
My teeth grit as fire burns up my chest like bile.
“If you don’t want anything to do with me, then why are you even here?”
“I’m your brother.”
“You don’t have to be a good one.”
He stares at me, dispassionate as ever.
“This is a really weird way to say thank you.”
“I’m not saying thank you. I’m saying that you spend every day sitting here and doing whatever, but you never talk. You never feel anything. How am I supposed to believe that you’re here because you care about me if you can’t even convince me that you can care about anyone at all?”
“I don’t need you, okay?” The paper rips, and a smear of black paints the textbook he’s using as a clipboard. His voice stays the same - same pitch, same volume, same level of disinterest. “I know you don’t want to believe it, but I would be just fine without you. You need me. That’s the way this works.” He spits on the page, rubs at it so hard, it rips even more instead of fusing like it should. “Got it?”
“Don’t play saint.”
The pen scribbles, scribbles away. Owen Meany’s weight on my legs makes me itch. I want to scream.
“You’re screwed up too, you know. Just like me.”
Finally, he looks up. “You think I don’t know that?”
The silence, full and dead, no pen in the way - is frightening.
“All I wanted to say was thanks.”
“Well, congrats. Do you want a medal?”
And thus goes the longest conversation with my brother in two years.
He and the brunette nurse are somewhat friendly. I notice that today. They talk for so long you’d think the world has gone away. Like there is no such thing as cancer or paperwork or calculus or annoying little sisters. Like there is no such thing as sadness or imperfection at all.
She makes him laugh. I didn’t know he could do that anymore.
Six months later and I need to get a life. But what else can I do? It passes the time. Especially when my brother’s away, getting more of that hospital coffee to stay awake during the night. He always watches me during the night. Who knows why.
Brunette nurse seems to be his better half - gregarious, outgoing, saying whatever’s on her mind, whenever it’s on her mind. Imagine that, won’t you? My brother isn’t the kind to admit he needs another half. Probably you’ve figured this out already. I didn’t think either of us were the kind to be able to change at all, but here he is.
When it’s just us, though, we are still stuck. So thank goodness for her.
“Hey,” she chirps, peeking her head into the room. The hallway is dark.
I wave from my bed. “Hi.”
“I’m definitely not allowed to do this but -”
“Anything. Tell me.”
She stops talking to smile her pretty smile. The smile that could land her a spot on TV if she wanted.
“I just...” She makes her way over to my bed. “How do you get him to talk?”
I stare at her, because clearly those hazel eyes of hers that my brother’s so far gone for can’t see a damn thing.
“No, I mean, that’s not - yes, of course, of course I know that. It’s just how he is. But -” she chews her lip. “He loves you. Like, so much. Like, I can see it in his eyes, how much he loves you. And I guess - how do you know?”
The new heart monitor in Room 4 beats steadily away.
It’s just the way he is.
I can see it in his eyes.
First of all, where?
And second, no one’s ever said that before. It’s just the way he is.
She knows him. I don’t even know him.
“I don’t know.”
“Oh, come on. It’s easy. You just got to see through his little act first. You know? The act? The one - it’s hard to explain. It’s like everything’s all measured out in a certain way. Like a little formula for not falling apart.” She smiles fondly, as if I have any idea what she’s talking about.
“You two are pretty similar, you know,” she continues, her eyes going all soft. “Always trying to be something you’re not.”
“That’s not so endearing.”
“It is when we can all see what’s hiding underneath.” She turns to me like I hold all the secrets in the world - like she didn’t just spell out a lifetime of confusion in two sentences. “So? What do you think?”
I swallow. It hurts, but then again, so does everything.
“You make him smile,” I say slowly. “You make him show the things he’s feeling.”
She twists her finger in the blanket.
“So obviously he loves you.”
There it is again. That blinding smile.
This nurse. Man.
I didn’t even know people like that existed.
He really doesn’t feel anything. Not my brother. Too scared to be anything but brave, too proud to do anything but to build walls around himself. Too stubborn to learn that the coward, the one who buckles and tells everything to everyone, might be the strongest one of all.
We’re not so different.
I fall asleep with this brother and his face of stone by my side, always by my side. Always just there. Both of our faces are still for once. Unchanging, constant, like the stars. You know. I guess it means something now.
The world is just beginning to blink its early-morning eyes when I see him, looking somewhere below my head. The light must be tricking me.
He wears a tiny smile - smirk, really. And his hands are clasping each other because they’re lonely. And the whole floor is asleep. So I take my tiny thin hand and lay it atop his warm, rough fingertips, jagged from the biting.
His palm turns into mine and we do not let go.
Yeah, that nurse. Always telling everything. Though I guess it’s what we needed.