This story is one of the September Writing Challenge entries that was chosen to be a featured story.
“Do you know who I am?”
Something inside me snaps.
I force more words out. “I’m your sister. I’m—we’re—your family.”
“You’re not my family.”
And I am crying so hard, I can barely see him standing in front of me. His beard has come in fully and that, combined with the hollowness in his cheeks and the bags under his eyes, makes him look so much older than nineteen.
He’s so much older than nineteen, and I feel so much older than seventeen.
Mom’s voice comes in, even and calm. “I know you’re in there. I know you can come back to us.”
“I don’t even know who you are.” It’s like his every word is laced with knives, stabbing into me. I can barely stand, oh god, I can’t even stand. I’m falling apart.
The hospital’s chemical smell is making me dizzy, but I force myself to plant my feet on the ground. I will not fall. I clench my fists, tighten them against my sides.
“Please,” Mom says his name again, but he doesn’t respond. He just turns and goes to sit next to the people who his brain thinks are his parents, because his brain is broken, too many late nights and drugs and alcohol, a latent condition triggered like a ticking time bomb waiting to go off, and the most selfish thing I’m thinking, as we leave and go back to the car, and I sit with my head against the window and feel my world crumble around me, is that the genetic time bomb in his brain might be in mine too.
And how selfish is it, that in the worst moments of his life, I am still only thinking of that crippling moment where he didn’t recognize his little sister, where a cataclysm opened up between past and present, and I knew there was no going back.
And I know, as surely as the hot tears still spilling onto my face, that I can no longer be just a seventeen-year-old girl, worrying about cheerleading and college and homecoming and calculus class.
I had known, from the moment he had left, the moment he had started down the path that led him to those green scrubs and that cold hospital room, the weight that settled on my shoulders. I had known it was only a matter of time.
And it’s now. So I swallow my tears, bury my grief and anger and the guilt that threatens to destroy me. I pull out fire, and steel, and the fight that refuses to let me fall. I ignore the ticking time bomb that might be planted in my psyche, ignore every fear he awakened in me, every fear that room brought.
In that car, I straighten, stuff down the anxiety that is threatening to close my throat. In that car, I am not afraid. I am not broken. I am brave.
And I know what I have to do.